Weblog since 2004 on books, films, art and travel.
Subscribe to the RSS feed.

galaxie 500

Having recently rediscovered Galaxie 500, it's amazing to find how undated their music still sounds, and how little known they remain.

As has often been remarked before, Galaxie 500 were "criminally overlooked" during their brief lifetime in the late '80s. Influenced by The Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3, they created three albums of seminal dream pop, full of slow-motion guitars and morose, world-weary lyrics, which would in turn influence a whole generation of shoegazers. After that, singer Dean Wareham went on to form Luna and Galaxie 500 was all but forgotten until their albums were rereleased some years later.

It's hard to say which is their best, or most lasting, album. While 'This Is Our Music', more mellow and spacious, may be their strongest collection, both 'Today' and 'On Fire' contain more of their incredibly catchy songs. (Between those, Bagatellen makes an eloquent case for 'On Fire', calling Galaxie 500 the "non-Pixies".)

Picking a favorite song is even harder. 'Parking Lot', 'Tugboat', 'Blue Thunder', and 'Listen, The Snow Is Falling' (a Yoko Ono cover) all come to mind. But 'King of Spain', with its self-delusional lyrics (inspired by Gogol's short story 'Diary of a Madman'?) and sad-but-smiling tone, might best sum them up.

No I'm the King of Spain, I'm smiling to myself
I'm laughin out aloud, I'll never cry again
Yeah I'm the King of Spain, I'm smilin to myself
I'm laughin out aloud, cause I'm the King of Spain

Youthful despair never sounded so whimsical again until Belle & Sebastian.

Check Head Full of Wishes for some demo and live mp3's.

wheat field with crows

One of Akira Kurosawa's last films, 'Dreams' ('Yume') is made up of eight dreams from his own life. In the stunning segment called 'Crows', an art student steps into a painting by Vincent van Gogh and finds the artist (curiously played by Martin Scorsese) painting in a field.

From the moment 'Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing' comes to life, Kurosawa blends the 'real' and 'painted' world of Van Gogh in a beautiful exploration of the artist's imagination. The sequence ends on the three divergent roads of 'Wheat Field with Crows', where Van Gogh chose "the one less traveled by / and that has made all the difference."


the thousand yard stare

...crackle-drenched yearning and bustling syncopations haunted by the ghosts of rave...

...weird soul music, hypersoul, lovingly processing spectral female voices into vaporised R&B and smudged 2step garage. Voices are blurred, smeared, pitched up, pitched down and pitch bent until their content becomes irrelevant and they whisper their saccharin sweet nothings into the void.

Which goes to illustrate that reviewing music is an art in itself, with a highly specialized vocabulary often verging on lyrical poetry. The music described here is Burial's second album 'Untrue', reviewed by Kode9, who's been releasing Burial on his Hyperdub label.

Like 'Burial', his selftitled first album, 'Untrue' has been filed under dubstep, mostly because of the association with Kode9 (whose own album with the Spaceape, 'Memories of the Future', pretty much defined the genre). In fact, Burial is hard to label, ranging from ambient to drum 'n bass and everything in between, all awash with "crackle-drenched yearning". Or, again quoting Kode9:

Burial carves out a sound which sends the dormant slinky syncopations of uk garage, via radio interference, into a padded cell of cushioned, muffled bass, passing through the best of Pole's Berlin crackle dub.
Burial - Burial

Adding to the mystery and underground feel of these albums that came out of nowhere to become critics' darlings in 2006 and 2007 is the fact that the London-based musician behind Burial remains anonymous - insisting that his tunes speak for him, just as he insists on his own 'amateurish', outsider way of making music. In his own words, from an in-depth, fascinating 2006 interview:

There's no 'musicianship' in my sound, that's the enemy of my tunes. Fuck Rhodes chords, fuck that noodle stuff. There's been a lot of times when producers I’ve liked have gone all 'musician' on me and just produced shit, not underground.

'The Car Test' started with me boring the fuck out of my mates, trying to play tunes. The car test was 'do they sound good on the car stereo at night time, driving through London?' That’s 'The Car Test.' Some Detroit tunes have that too, that distance in the tune. The 'thousand yard stare' in the tune.

Needless to say, both albums contain plenty of that thousand yard stare.

digital forgetting

Harvard professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues for an expiration date on digital content. While in practice the idea (a metatag for all data saying "will self-destruct at such and such a date") might sound unfeasable, his analysis of what he calls our "temporal version of a panoptic society" is interesting:

As humans we have the capacity to remember - and to forget. For millennia remembering was hard, and forgetting easy. By default, we would forget. Digital technology has inverted this. Today, with affordable storage, effortless retrieval and global access remembering has become the default, for us individually and for society as a whole. We store our digital photos irrespective of whether they are good or not - because even choosing which to throw away is too time-consuming, and keep different versions of the documents we work on, just in case we ever need to go back to an earlier one. Google saves every search query, and millions of video surveillance cameras retain our movements.

Of course, many have written on this theme - for instance Lawrence Lessig, from the perspective of intellectual property laws. But whereas Lessig mostly discussed how to deal with all our digital information (and who owns it), Mayer-Schönberger's suggestion is more radical: we shouldn't want to keep everything. Forgetting needs to become the default again, so that we have to consciously decide what to remember and for how long.

Extrapolating a bit, his idea about digital forgetting really sounds like the psychological self-defence strategy of a society traumatized by information overload.

(Or, less pathological, it may just be a good incentive to clean up your hard disk.)

See Mayer-Schönberger's research paper 'Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing', as well as this interview (in German).

the encyclopedia of the dead

For fans of the vertiginous fictions of Borges, the short story collection 'The Encyclopedia of the Dead' by Serbian writer Danilo Kiš is worth checking out. Kiš, greatly influenced by Borges, uses the same dense intertextuality and metaphysical themes, though tinged with a typical Balkan-style magical realism that is also found in Pavić.

In the title story, 'The Encyclopedia of the Dead', a woman tells of her discovery, in a library in Stockholm, of a vast encyclopedia containing the complete biographies of every dead human of the past centuries. (A premise which reminds of Borges' 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' as well as 'The Library of Babel'.)

The woman discovers the entry for her recently died father, and she spends a whole night reading about his life, frantically taking notes in order to "make a kind of summary of my father's life". In the Encyclopedia, every life is recorded in overwhelming, Proustian detail, of which all she can do is copy a few phrases and words. As she describes it, reading about her father as a young boy:

Nothing, as I have said, is lacking, nothing omitted, neither the condition of the road nor the hues of the sky, and the list of paterfamilias Marko's worldly possessions is complete to the last detail. Nothing has been forgotten, not even the names of the authors of old textbooks and primers full of well-meaning advice, cautionary tales, and biblical parables. Every period of life, every experience is recorded: every fish caught, every page read, the name of every plant the boy ever picked.

The rest of the story is on the one hand a reflection on the Encyclopedia, which, as the female narrator surmises, must be the stupendous project of some religious sect "whose democratic program stresses an egalitarian vision of the world of the dead." On the other hand, the story is that "summary of my father's life", a nostalgic though troubled tale of post-WWII life in Yugoslavia. This is where Kiš differs from Borges, who never bothered with much actual 'flesh and blood' storytelling, instead crystalizing his stories into 'pure' metaphysical parables. In 'The Encyclopedia of the Dead', it is the biographical story, and particularly all its daily details, which gives the overarching theme its poignancy.

After all - and this is what I consider the compilers' central message - nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated, things that at first glance seem the same are scarcely even similar; each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never, all things repeat themselves ad infinitum yet are unique. (That is why the authors of the majestic monument to diversity that is The Encyclopedia of the Dead stress the particular; that is why every human being is sacred to them.)

Though the story's final, horrific twist (which doesn't need to be revealed here) reveals the existence of the Encyclopedia - along with its promise of total, factual remembrance - to be an illusion, it brings out the basic human yearning to remember the past all the more starkly. Instead of making memory into an abstract and endless labyrinth, as Borges does, Kiš is concerned with the emotional charge of history as "the totality of ephemeral happenings".

See also: Borges' influence on Kiš at The Modern Word.

bookmark & share

For those of you using one of the many social bookmark tools (like del.icio.us, digg, StumbleUpon and Technorati), this weblog now contains a convenient button at the bottom of every post to 'bookmark & share'.

Getting the Sharethis button to work in Pivot and to fit into the site design required some hacking 'n cursing - but I guess I've now built my-first-widget.

(Notice any bugs? Lemme know.)

geertgen tot sint jans

The 15th century in Dutch painting was that transition period when perspective was not quite understood yet (or maybe just not deemed relevant), painting styles were still iconic rather than realistic and subject matter was almost exclusively religious. What little survives of this 'church art' today - after the Reformation Iconoclasm - is brought together from museums around the world in the Dutch Primitives exhibition at Boijmans van Beuningen.

The interesting thing about this period is to see 'primitive' painters (in Dutch the exhibition is just named 'Early Dutchmen') on the brink of discovering new ways of painting. Perspective, for instance, is clearly better understood by some painters than others. Less than a century later, it would be a sine qua non of Renaissance art. Another example is portraits, which at that time are more like icons - idealized, expressionless, devotional - but which some painters start treating in a different way. They start adding expression to faces, painting real people instead of religious ideals.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans - Johannes de Doper in de Wildernis

One of the most sophisticated artists of the period is Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Not much is known about him, except that he worked in Haarlem, at the monastery of the Knights of Saint John (hence his name), in the second half of the 15th century. While in some respects his work is indeed primitive, especially in his oval, doll-like faces, it also shows a peculiar sensitivity. The forlorn figure of 'John the Baptist in the Wilderness' ('Johannes de Doper in de Wildernis'), for example - whose wilderness looks more like a romantic garden - has a kind of naive charm which would disappear in the self-consciousness of Renaissance art.

Worth a visit, if only for his masterful use of colors, so vivid they still dazzle five centuries later.