You don’t realize how far you’ve come, how insignificant you are, until you look up and remember—oh yeah! There are things called stars! Two hundred stars are born every second, filling me with the sort of hope too big to be printed across a nation. Stars don’t rise and set—it’s us who blanks them out. And it’s us who links them with lines of light trillions of miles across, making constellations worshipping gods of old.
The Constellations are two bands, both of whom I discovered on the same day. Are they the same band? Oh Zeus! I wish. One featured on Said The Gramophone, and they have a song called “Oh Captive Princess.” It’s funky, with hundreds of bulbs flashing on intermittently, helping the plants grow as the gardeners drum their fingers on the watering can, wait to feed on the fruit, and begin the whole process again. Enjoying the band so much, I searched more and found another song by The Constellations called “Love Is A Murder” featured on Stereogum. (The song is in the comments.) The song features a cameo from Cee-Lo, one half of Gnarls Barkley. (I think he’s the Gnarls, and Dangermouse represents the Barkley.) It’s one of those songs I listen to 50 times in 24 hours. Instead of flourishing fruit think feasting on burgers grilled on hot-rod hoods before the big race.
Are they the same band? Could be. How will you tell them apart? How do you tell the stars apart? I don’t. I just listen, watch, and the read the sky, allowing other people’s lines to link everything up into a sometimes good, sometimes bad whole. What is art, except drawing a line somewhere? —Mike Smith, Mar. 6, 2009
Two musicians, elegant and focused modern powers, continue in guise, obscuring their true form, for their respective new releases. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bat For Lashes sooth us, flowing through our guts with a folk inspired hauntology and electric flourish.
Will Oldham, in character as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has kept the curtain down on March release Beware, only revealing a demo of “Beware Your Friend.” Scribbled on parchment, it’s a picture of a rural wanderer with straw for laces, standing triumphantly atop a far ridge. Oldham is uncomfortable with those rooting for a song’s meaning, so he created an alter-ego and defensive trance that he could look to and gradually understand. This trance is Bonnie “Prince” Billy, someone for whom the wick is long, a guide we can trust to steer us through a harsh country winter and keep us safe.
For Natasha Khan, this is not routine, not an encore. As Bat for Lashes, she lets loose, reaching deeper with second album Two Suns and introducing alter-ego Pearl. They swim through rivers of fantasy, dry off in the locks of golden boughs, warm up beside sparks of electronica and flames of dazed trip-hop. Debut Fur and Gold was all whistling winds, howls, circus tricks, mist and lake mirrors; Khan played a chanteuse of druid-rock in possession of a dark energy. Two Suns burns all that energy, alchemizing Björk, Kate Bush, and Tolkien. As Two Suns begins, with “Glass,” Khan marches armies to the beat of a Song of Solomon, across desert and heath, til the dawn. This is a different sort of defense mechanism to Oldham’s—it’s a power protecting the whole dimension.
It was sad to hear Silver Jews call it quits, but heartbreaking to hear founder David Berman reveal, a few hours later, that his father is the high-profile corporate lobbyist Richard Berman.
“Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret. Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father. You might be surprised to know he is famous, for terrible reasons… This winter I decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused.” — David Berman
Such comparisons bring souls crashing to earth. We must remember that music’s power is greater than being a force struggling to pull social change in one direction. It’s a release, an escape, an inspiration; it’s power is plural, and collective. It’s comforting that at Silver Jews’ end David Berman’s voice is so loud. It is in this final act that Berman comes out of his refuge of poetry, smashing through the glass. His determination to act is a reminder that whilst Silver Jews create beautiful alt-country constellations, we can navigate by those old and beautiful stars, not just appreciate them—acting on that which we treasure, not burying it and forgetting it.
David Berman’s music melts frozen minds, and lifts people up—even an inch is enough, no matter how deep lobbyist try to drag people down to drown. Like John Updike’s death a new note is sounded, a new resonance felt: an immortality unique to those who strive to create something beautiful. Those in the pay of narrow interests will die bitter, but Silver Jews live on, holding us up, held by us—better that than to be rich, cold, and alone at the end. Harm should be undone, but it’s equally important to appreciate what inspires us to strive for justice, the stuff that washes the dust of daily life from our souls, inspires us, renews us, and has us reborn. For that we must thank David Berman and Silver Jews. —Mike Smith, Feb. 18, 2009
Elizabeth Gilbert summons the spirit of the creativity genie, getting a rare standing ovation after her talk at the TED conference. Gilbert tries to bottle the essence of the creative process, being especially smart explaining the moments when we lose that bottle—the British idiom “losing your bottle” being useful here.
She explains that courage in creativity is something it’s best to assume we don’t have complete control over: something that runs away, and at a moment’s notice can wash over you as a great wave of momentary genius. The delusion she establishes is useful for anyone familiar with such mental brick walls. The talk is more refined than “blame spirits for your failures”; she is simply saying we must graft, work, sweat, and hope that muse/genius treats us fairly. Watch:
Documentarians Joao Amorim and Daniel Pinchbeck don’t think 2012 will be the end, preferring to tug at its symbolic potential, aligning their vision with a word that has had all life battered of it: Change. Their forthcoming documentary 2012: Time For Change uses the final days of the Mayan calendar as a rallying call; fauxpocalypse is suggested as a catalyst for a global consciousness shift, an opportunity for gurus and celebrities to tell us how stupid we’ve been:
The Mayan calendar runs out before days before Christmas 2012. Pro-tip: Forget the pre-apocalypse supper with the family. Thoreau in the towel and head to the French Southern and Antarctic Islands. These islands are about as far as you can get from Mexico—where the apocalypse will begin, we assume. Leave soon, and avoid years of talk about about global cultures, Gaia, and tipping points; it’s the rhetoric that frightens me much more than snowman, zombie, or monkey apocalyptic scenarios. Book now!
I’m blindly optimistic that something will be done to deal with Climate Change. Ze Frank and crew discover that the apocalypse isn’t so bad in the unaired pilot for their post-apocalypse show, The Remnants.
Rather than fight climate change apocalypse, I first pledge my money to help fund a full series of The Remnants. That’s hope we can believe in—something worthy of being broadcast into space—the final testament to a planet’s unstinting resolve to always see the funny side. —Mike Smith, Feb. 5, 2009
Werner Herzog continues his quest for ecstatic truth in Encounters at The End of the World. The Academy Award nominated documentary shares the lives of people shaken down to Antarctica, interviews matched with choral-led underwater photography. Herzog’s voice and narrative echoes through the film; colorful characters can’t match his God-like pronouncements. It’s an ideal introduction to his work: light-hearted, yet deep and occasionally surreal, revealing that his art, above all, is storytelling and discovering great epiphanies—even if you have to fill in some of the blanks. Whether it’s predominantly fact or fiction is beside the point. Herzog flies far above such archaic and unnecessary distinctions, pushing imagination and dreams so far that such questions fall flat. It’s balanced, stark and perfect for a winter when the last thing you want is a whimsical documentary about penguins. Instead, we have Herzog underwater magic. We for are better for it.
If you’ve misplaced the Knife in all the mist, turn back and find their best half in a new guise as Fever Ray. Karin Elisabeth Dreijer Andersson nurtures her solo beats and breaths with great care, giving cavern ghosts a black-hole heartbeat, a beat and pace that LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33 wields so well. Or, should Joanna Newsom’s folk harmonies find you mud-stuck, take Anni Rossi’s hand and venture elsewhere, with a fresh breeze behind you.
The signal that above comparisons emit is weak, but amongst Hope and downward slopes, they give our adventure a keener sense of direction, suggesting we make for the horizon, especially in the roughest seas. Animal Collective have lit clouds that will burn and color my year, so I ask a lot of the rest. But it’s folly to critically compare, or assign points. Sometimes we just need new faces to challenges us, move us, and make us move.
Weathering the storm in the harbor, keeping everyone safe? Then choose Emmy the Great’s sweet London folk music that isn’t really anti-anything. Or choose Morrissey. We love Morrissey. Neither are safe or middle of the road. They are uncomplicated, trusted, and utterly enjoyable; the sort of anchors we need from time to time. —Mike Smith, Jan. 26, 2009
Spending $3,000 on a Lego Star Wars diarama is considered obsession. Not having watched and understood the entire Star Wars series is heretical and exile-worthy. Hearing these Heretics recount the 380 minute trilogy, having watched parts of the story but never evangelicised its holiness, is much more entertaining than the The Phantom Menace.
Though it leads us no closer to an answer to one of the most important questions of our time: What order should they be shown in? And what is the optimal age to introduce your kids to Star Wars? If this kid is anything to go by: ASAP.
Who does a better job of retelling? Can either of them compete with this? (FUNNY STAR WARS SPOILERS EMBEDDED.)
Animal Collective have a new album and we have a new year. It’ll take a while to get to grips with both, so I’m jumping in, spread-eagle, and soaking it up; hesitation and caution are bad resolutions. “My Girls” is all purple lightening, Koyaaniqatsi scenery and soundtrack, magic carpets. It wipes memory of 2008 not with a blinding light, but a haze of glittery samples and drummed thunder. Bubbles of synth burst at the speed of two handclaps as the flesh drips and the metal body is revealed: pulsating, chanting, living. Just don’t call Merriweather Post Pavilion your album of 2009. Bide your time. Pounce in late spring. (Not in January when comparisons to Tropicalia seem alien and wrong.) —Mike Smith, Jan. 6, 2009
Diamonds From the Trough, Part 3; Diamonds From the Trough, Part 1; Blood Bank; They All Got It Wrong; Determining the Best Thing; Feeling for Iceland; Larkin Grimm; Cube! Defender of the Polyverse!; Beach House Take a Break
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