Sunday, May 31, 2015

Q & A With Jin Zhu

Jin Zhu is an MFA Student ('16) at UC Berkeley.

BA: So, graduation was last Friday. And you're done with school now?

JZ: Not yet. The second years graduated and we had a party for them, but I've still got a year to go. One more year til I'm a Master of Fine Arts! Our program is fairly interdisciplinary so I'm not specializing in anything, though I’m working more with video now.

And then? Not to put pressure on your future plans. But what do you expect the MFA to prepare you for? What was your motivation to begin the program?

At the beginning I was intent on learning some skills since I wanted to branch out from photography. I think it's also just a practical career step since many teaching jobs require an MFA. Now, having completed a year, I think about it slightly differently. It's still practical, but I see that part of the benefit is learning to calibrate your thinking with the rest of the art world.

What does that mean?

Not that you necessarily should, but it's helpful to learn how the art world at large will perceive your work. What comes through and what doesn't. Sometimes you think you are communicating one thing and everyone sees something else. Once you know that you can do with it what you will.

That's the whole fun of it, right?

Fun or...confusing?!

The origin of "Killer Yellow", from Jin Zhu's website

If everyone saw the same thing in artworks, it would be pretty boring.

True, but I think the calibration is so you don't feel like you don't have any control at all over how people perceive materials or content. I have to say that my experience is only of the Berkeley program. There are other programs even in the Bay Area that are very different. Some of them do prepare you for working in a commercial field like editorial photography, for example. 

So the MFA program helps you fine tune the message of your art so that it's received properly? Would you say the primary audience is other MFAs or other artists?

For example, I tried something with lumber and was really excited because I've rarely worked with physical materials like that before, but to the faculty, wood read as a very commonplace thing.

What was it? A sculpture?

I suppose you could call it that. I had printed lyrics I'd written on them through an inkjet transfer.

I like the idea of using a "commonplace thing." That's what photography is, really. It's the most common mundane media imaginable. The most democratic and accessible. Why would any artist ever use that form? That's exactly why. Maybe it's why you should use wood too. 

I don’t mind it when things are mundane, but not necessarily because they’re accessible. I don’t think art or photography loses anything from being easily replicated. You wouldn’t think a book loses impact from being printed 3 million times. But the wood piece had other issues too that I’m glossing over.

So your faculty steered you away from using wood? Or did they see possibilities?

They read it in a very specific way that I had not anticipated. To me that's a lesson on what you think you are projecting and what people actually receive. You could say that it's all good, everyone can see what they'd like, but the truth is that it isn't all over the place. They tended to see similar things. It's not like looking at clouds or more abstract work, where everyone sees something different. It's more like if you painted a rabbit and everyone saw a predator. That could be cool, but that could also not be what you want in the end.

That goes back to the question of audience. If your art is geared toward an MFA audience or art professor, they might all be expected to react in a certain way. I guess it's the eternal question. Who are you creating for? What is the purpose? All that artsy mumbo jumbo with no answers. But it sounds like you're finding them anyway.

It’s foolish to generalize about MFA programs.  You wouldn’t necessarily think of a literature degree as having the power to propel you to success or job stability, but somehow the MFA gets all this attention, as if it’s either a kingmaker or a scam. It’s just a useful tool that can be helpful or not depending on the costs and benefits. Recently someone posted an article in which Robert Storr claims that Saltz and Hickey, who have been very vocal about the uselessness of art school, are using that issue to grab a bit of attention for themselves. I’d agree. For me, Saltz jumped the shark with all the Kardashian talk.

I didn't mean to come down on MFA programs. I'm just curious about the whole process. And in some ways it's a fat target.

from Endless Stream

But the interesting thing to me about that wood piece was that I'm still happy with it. Because it came out of figuring out a physical process, because I had a good time learning how to do the transfer, I have positive feelings toward it. There have been other works I've made that people have liked and to me, I'm on the fence because it feels like someone else's work. People will tell you to not think about other people at all while making work, but at the same time, the entire school structure is geared toward letting you know how other people will think of your work.

There's only one judge that matters. And that's Jesus Christ.

God will judge your art too! You end up in heaven, your art ends up in hell...

Yeah, I like the idea of being surrounded by other people constantly creating things. That's probably healthy on many levels.

I really like the group we got this year. Everyone had a good sense of humor and gelled very well. It's a small program that only takes 6-7/year so there's a sense of camaraderie. But because it's small there aren't necessarily people working in the same medium as you, so sometimes it's harder to talk shop. The nice thing is also that if someone is in an MFA program, there's a good chance they're a lifer. So we all have the same hopes of making art for the indefinite future.

You mentioned that you wanted to branch out from photography. Why?

I looked at the photos I was taking and they were not telling the story I wanted them to tell. They were about something else that was also interesting, but I really felt compelled to try writing and whatnot to flesh my ideas out.

What story did you want to tell?

I'm working on a project that deals with the history of Spanish Conquest and Manifest Destiny. A bit hard to flesh out in photos. I traveled to a lot of historical sites and retraced trails, but of course there are very few traces from hundreds of years ago. What I ended up photographing was a lot of the trappings of tourism and re-enactment, which is fascinating too, but didn't quite hit at the displacement and conquest themes.

Which project is that on your site? Ziff Ziff?

I haven't put it on the site in finished form yet since it's still in progress, but some of the Carrier photos are ones I've taken while working on it. If you look at those photos, you get a sense perhaps of landscape and the West, but they don't say much aside from that. Maybe that's a problem of working methods too though - it's not enough to just go to a place and expect to find something of the past.

I always associated Manifest Destiny with American expansion. Is there a Spanish idea of this too? With conquistadors, etc.?

from You're No Angel

Yes, I've been reading about Cortes' march to Tenochtitlan. There's one particular figure that I'm obsessed with - his native translator Malinche, who was highborn but given to him as part of a group of 20 slave women. She's depicted at his side in a lot of old post-conquest linen paintings and her function is speech but there is no record of anything she actually said aside from her translations.

I'm not sure how you'd translate that into photographs. I tend to be much more literal when interpreting photos. I look at what's in front of me and take it for what it is. I love it when that interpretation is wrong. Those give me a charge. But it's usually not tied to larger concepts or history. Just absurdity. Zen koans.

Yeah, the problem is that history is no longer right in front of us! I'm curious about how other photographers have dealt with that.

So you felt photography was lacking in expressing your ideas about Manifest Destiny. What form are you using instead? Why not just write an essay?

I have! I've written 2 or 3 longform essays and took a creative non-fiction class this last semester. This last semester was strange for me. I realized I'm writing a lot as a part of a VISUAL arts program.

Maybe you're in the wrong program. You should be pursuing a history degree?

Haha. That's certainly occurred to me, but I think I'm interested enough in other media that it works. Definitely not the history degree though! I'm not sure there's any other field of study that allows you to mix and match as much as an arts degree. You can mix American history with personal history with strange photos with writing... I'm not sure the history dept. would be so into that.

Art is a passport to multidisciplinary stuff. Or else time travel to 1977.

Or 1521!

1521 to study the Spanish Empire. I meant 1977 was when academic programs seemed more interdisciplinary. Not as easy pegged and specialized. Now art is the last hold out, and even it's getting specialized. The experts march on...

What happened in 1977?

I didn't mean to pick that year in particular. But just symbolic of an era, the late 1970s, when a lot of ideas were beginning to break loose and interact across cultural barriers. To me 2015 seems much more goal oriented. You find your area, then funnel all energy into it. But maybe I have it all backwards.

That's true though. So many articles about how parents are helicopter parents these days. Kids must get into the right school or their lives are ruined.

I think the main goal now is monetary. The need/drive to get rich seems dominant over all other motivations. Even in the art world. I know it's always been that way. But in 2015 the market is everything. Everything!

I saw your convo with Missy Prince where she mentioned yuppies coming into town. Is that something that's starting to be noticeable there? I ask out of curiosity since it is bad here. We were evicted, so my interest in gentrification and housing have become a bit personal. I'm curious about the life cycle of a city, if SF has metastasized and if it's going to happen to other places.

The yuppies have been settling in Portland for a while but I'd say the pace has picked up in recent years. The area where Missy lives is undergoing rapid shift with increased rents, etc. The usual urban pattern. It's actually the neighborhood I lived in before bailing to Eugene in 2006. I saw the yuppie wave on the horizon, and it's crested since then. But I still don't think the scene is anything like the Bay Area. I mean, didn't Marin County invent the word "Yuppie"? So it's all relative. 

So the yuppies are why you moved? 

Yuppies was only one of several reasons we moved. But the basic mechanism behind yuppies —people with more money than they know what to do with—is something that has been infecting Portland for a while and was definitely a motivator. But I think San Francisco is still ground zero for that.

from Carrier

Do you feel like it's inevitable? Since I've started looking into this issue it's become clear that it's in many ways a story about political process. When people say gentrification is inevitable or that there's nothing they can do, it usually actually indicates that there are just too many financial and political barriers to overcome, in terms of the developer money thrown around and the city governments being amenable to taking that money. Is there any sense at all of trying to resist by preemptively  strengthening tenant laws or of passing new protections? I don't know how politically inclined Portlanders are...

I'm not sure if that situation is inevitable but late capitalism tends to create it, especially in West Coast cities. And I don't think it is easily reversed. Because money tends to follow money. 

What do you mean by late capitalism? 

The past 20 years or so. Over that time society has become increasingly stratified and the pools of capital at the top are mind boggling. All that money concentrated in one place puts pressure on society in all sorts of ways. The arts is just one area. I think the West Coast is especially susceptible just because it's such a young culture without traditional anchors to sort of blunt the momentum. Silicon Valley is a fucking monster. The rest of the Bay Area is orbiting its gravitational pull. And all those computer geeks want art to fill their walls. I guess their patronage is a good thing in one sense because it funnels money to art makers. But I think the art equation is controlled more by powerful economic forces than true innovation. 

Have you heard of the concept of the great inversion? It's the trend since the ‘80s of young people preferring cities to the suburban American dream of the ‘50s. Makes me wonder if that's why companies are buying up property in Detroit, in anticipation of any future resurgence. Money follows money and booms but then it seems it also seems to slip in during busts to sweep up. Money just seems to go everywhere. It doesn't worry you that eventually it'd affect Eugene too?

It might. But Eugene is pretty far off the beaten path. 

From a recent New York Times article: 
"The American Freshman Survey, which has followed students since 1966, proves the point. One prompt in the questionnaire asks entering freshmen about 'objectives considered to be essential or very important.' In 1967, 86 percent of respondents checked 'developing a meaningful philosophy of life,' more than double the number who said 'being very well off financially.' "Since then, though, finding meaning and making money have traded places. The first has plummeted to 45 percent; the second has soared to 82 percent."
When your interest is developing a meaningful philosophy —whatever that means— you may be more likely to draw from interdisciplinary influences. Otherwise the evaluation becomes Kevin from Shark Tank. Great idea, but how much fucking money does it make? Sorry, I always seem to fall into old guy mode, complaining about the good old days. I love the present too.

But in this case the old guy is backed up by data from surveys! In my mind the drive to make money comes from how bad off a lot of people are. It appears like greed, but really a lot of it comes from the wealth gap widening and wages stagnating. People just want security.

Security is tough for someone pursuing art. You've posted several items on Killer Yellow about this, and also in this interview. Do you think it's possible or likely for artists to be financially secure in the US economy? Or is that just a pipe dream? 

That’s a tough question. Is security possible for the majority of people regardless of profession? Most artists have accepted the fact that they will either have to have a day job or at least do freelance or part time work aside from personal work. I wish it was different, but as long as the art market is about selling stuff instead of supporting future work, this is the way it goes. Grants are the closest thing to no-strings attached support of future work, but they’re hard to get and you have to be organized and motivated to put together many many applications. That’s something I don’t enjoy (perhaps because up to now I haven’t been very successful at it!). It’s also a problem for people like me who jump around in different media. You have to prove you can work in a certain media before anyone will give you money. That makes sense, but it can be frustrating if you’re trying to learn new skills and media. That’s what school is great for!

If you want to be a professional artist, there is as much resume-building and planning as in any other career. The problem with art is that you then are trying to juggle two careers - the day job and the personal passion. I’m coming around to the idea of embracing amateur status. Making a living and making art are two different objectives for me. It’d be nice if I could hit two birds, but in the end being a professional means thinking about a career in a way that always stresses me out. I’ve seen this same discussion in photo forums - should you keep what you love free of stress or should you professionalize in order to get it in front of a bigger audience or acquire more credibility, make a living, etc etc.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Chris Adrian. He’s an author I love, and he wrote while pursuing a medical degree. If you read Children’s Hospital or some of the stories in A Better Angel, it’s clear that his work with children affects his writing. In interviews he’s been adamant that he wants to do something in addition to writing. It’d be nice to find a full-time career that does some good in the world and gives to the art instead of detracting from your ability to make it.

Let me back up a sec. How did you get into photography to start with? Before you branched out away from it?

Flickr! I'm a product of Flickr and that first wave of sharing online. I was following Radiohead around for a month during their 2005 (?) tour and on their band blog they began posting pinhole photos. I think that's when I realized that if you were photographer with a visual signature, people could see your photos and instantly know that you took them.

You followed Radiohead. As a groupie?

If only! I was really struggling with school, had no idea what my motivations for doing anything were, and had started to lose interesting in everything. Radiohead was one of the few things I still could get excited about, so I decided, screw it, I'm just going to do it. It was a good excuse to travel, so I hopped on a Greyhound to Boston and then took an Amtrak back.

How old were you?

Hmmm, 22? I should've graduated by then, that was how much trouble I was having.

You were at Stanford?

Yup. Speaking of the right school.

Not clear. Was it actually the right school? Why or why not?

Yeah, I was being a little sarcastic there. It was the “best” school that I got into, but back then I really wanted to go to the University of Chicago since Carl Sagan had gone there, or Berkeley because they had a Zoology department. But I wasn’t a rebellious kid and just did what my parents thought was best. I remember the day I got my Stanford acceptance - I saw it in the mailbox and saw the writing on the wall. I shoved it at my family and they opened it. I went to my room and said goodbye to my UChicago acceptance. Looking back on it now, it makes so much sense that I had as much trouble as I did. Other students were stoked to be there and some of them had been dreaming about it since childhood. I just didn’t want to be there even though I quickly realized that it was a great place with great staff and opportunities. Heart wants what it wants.

Did the Radiohead tour pull you out of your funk?

Wellllll. It was the first step. It was the turning point. I got back and decided to go to sound school to get away from my academic baggage. I think that was when I realized that I just wasn't going to finish if I kept trying the same thing and failing over and over. So try something different and break the cycle. A clean slate and all that. More cliches.

Sound school? Wha? Was that your undergrad?

That was 9 months at a school in Emeryville that offered a sound mixing/engineering focus, a graphic design focus and an animation focus... It was during my undergrad, but I'm afraid my undergrad lasted 10 years though I wasn't enrolled the whole time. I was majoring in Biology at the time, and got a Bio minor in the end. I still love the subject, but narrow research just wasn’t for me.

You dropped out of Stanford?

No, I eventually graduated. After sound school and coming back for another unsuccessful try, something finally flipped in my head and I switched to art. Busted that out in a year and a half. That's where the Radiohead-photography link comes full circle.

So that's when you began making photos? And also the Killer Yellow blog?

By the end of 2007, I had gotten into film and had taken an intro to film class at Stanford and started thinking it was something I could do. It just felt so right to shoot a bunch, make prints and edit them.

Film as in still photos? Not cinema.

Right. Geez, I don't even know how old my blog is. Is that like not knowing how old your kids are? I think you're right though. It was around the time of that class that I started the blog, as a learning tool for myself.

Do you still shoot film, or have any sentimental feeling for it?

I've never been sentimental about it, but I still mostly shoot film. It was just something to try, and then for medium format it was simply the cheaper option.

I've heard a lot of reasons to shoot film. But cheap cost usually isn't one of them.

Well, compared to a $$$$$ medium format digital back. I used to get expired 220 on eBay for $4, so it wasn't so bad, but now those stocks are all depleted, so it's more like $8 for 120. Not looking so hot now. But I shoot a lot less. 

I used to shoot 220 also. Got very expensive. Gave it up.

Lately I've really been thinking about switching all the way to digital though. I think it's the scanning and spotting that really drags on and on. But the FOV and depth of field are just too different on 35mm digital. I can't quite let go. 

I know you're pursuing other forms besides photography, but I'm most curious about that. How do you think the MFA process has shifted your appreciation for it. Do you look at some photos and wonder why you ever liked them 5 years ago?

I think my taste would change regardless of any academic program. I have a classmate who cuts parts of the emulsion out of prints - that certainly made me wonder why more photographers don't try crazier things with their practice. It's telling that she also ended up in an interdisciplinary arts program instead of a purely photo MFA track. Maybe if you do it too much though, it starts being gimmicky.

I saw on your website the mention of DJing at a college station. It looks like you still do that occasionally? 

Only really once a year. 

Yeah, it started a few years ago. no one ever is around during/after Thanksgiving, so it's a nice long chunk. But it's a marathon. I get it all out in 6 hours. 

Is there an anti-shopping tie in?

There really isn't. That would be too expected, wouldn't it? Though if you're listening to KZSU during Thanksgiving weekend, you're probably not much of a shopper. Mostly I just hang around and take some photos. KZSU was actually my first "serious" attempt at a photo project.

from On the Air: 90.1FM KZSU

Did you grow up in the Bay Area?

No, but it's the place I've lived in the longest. I was born in Beijing, grew up in CO and SoCal. I'm more comfortable in the Bay Area than anywhere else I've lived.

You're first generation American?

I suppose I am. I got here at age 7 though, so it hardly feels like I'm anything other than American.

Do you have any connections to Beijing or China now?

My grandparents still live there and we visit once in a while.

from Better City, Better Life

Sorry, I'm digressing. Away from what though?

Sometimes I do forget that I'm an immigrant though. I guess because it wasn't really a choice I made.

I keep coming back to your earlier complaint (?) about photography. That it didn't tell the story you wanted to convey. I think photography is a very limited form in some ways. To try to tell a story as a photo essay is sort of ridiculous. Why not just write it down? And certainly to try to tell Manifest Destiny or Spanish history is very difficult. But that severe limitation is what I like most about it. A photograph restricts information. It tells you not much at all. A 6 second Vine gives a million times more info. Then you start cutting out emulsion from prints, and you tell even less...A piece of wood tells more than a photo.

A piece of wood has more of a backstory as an object than a photographic print does, in a way that almost becomes political. But maybe that's simplifying things. Over the last few years I've noticed that I'm more attracted to photos that are more about form and color. To me, in some ways, the content is secondary. Even though most of my previous projects have been about specific subjects, I could never really be a documentary photographer. I think about the visual form of things rather than the provenance of materials or what kind of cultural references are in the work.

I’m interested in picking the right media for the right story. I could imagine that sometimes a photo really does sum things up more than a blob of text would, but sometimes, with abstract concepts or psychological concepts, it’s easier to use language. It’s context-dependent.

Every photographer is a "documentary" photographer by nature. That's just a starting point. The interesting stuff comes after that fact is internalized. 

There’s a whole niche of photography that doesn’t look like photography. Or rather, the point isn’t the photography. Would Matt Lipps be considered a photographer? Or a sculptor or a still life artist? This is why people say “artist who works with photography.” What about Roger Ballen? Is that guy really a photographer? Surely the photo isn’t really the point, but the arrangements. But perhaps that’s trivial. I wouldn’t demand to see the original subject of a portrait any more than Ballen’s setups.

Which photographers excite you now with form and color?

by Charlie Engman via Killer Yellow

I've been into Charlie Engman, who shoots a lot of editorial and ad stuff. He breaks planes and uses a lot of color. I like his still lifes and when he uses his mom as a model. It's strange because I like looking at his work but I would never shoot what he shoots.  I tend to like really flatly lit stuff. My more recent stuff looks pretty flat too.

I'll look him up. Do you still listen to Radiohead?

Not as much. It still makes me very happy, but I've moved on a bit. I think I had to after about 3 years of listening to almost nothing else

Who do you listen to now? I noticed Nina Hagen's Smack Jack on your last Black Friday playlist. I had that queued up for my show tomorrow. Weird coincidence. It's a fairly obscure song.

My partner is the one that turned me onto it. Have you seen the video? It's pretty great. I'm not as into her other stuff, but something about that song really does it for me. Some combination of camp and a certain beat. That's right - you're a DJ too. When did you get into it?

3 years ago. Fun. It's a good motivator to explore new music. The station has several thousand CDs mostly college/indie stuff. I've been slowly working my way through burning the interesting ones.

I listen to a lot of PJ Harvey and Joanna Newsom's Ys now. But a lot of random songs too. It's rare for me to find someone that I can say I'm an actual fan of. I find that I'm like that when it comes to art and photography too. It's more single works that I like.

Music has adopted the scattered form of singles. Spotify, etc. It comes in little fragments just like photos. That's our world. MFA students might need to fit into that box.

I'm glad it's going that way though. Do you remember when you had to buy an album just to get one song?

Yeah. Most of my music still comes that way...Can't go wrong with PJ Harvey. But the appeal of Newsom is lost on me. I've tried so hard. But I don't really get her.

Is it her voice? Or the tweeness?

Maybe the overall tone and mood? The songs that last a long while without really developing? 

The funny thing is I hated it when I first heard it. Back in 2006 one of our DJs was really into her, but I thought it was crap. Then for some reason two years ago I revisited Ys and fell for it. There's this strain of grief and coping underneath all the twinkly harp sounds that I don't hear in either of the other albums. I think of her songs as just delivery mechanism for her words. Ys is really just a giant long poem. 

I love it when that reversal happens. I think much of what becomes favorite material is stuff you initially hate. Maybe that's true meeting people too?

Hmmm, people somehow don't get that second chance as much...I didn't like Radiohead when I first heard them either. I bought Kid A and stuffed it into a drawer. Then six months later I suddenly wanted to listen again. Then I was hooked.

I hated Daft Punk for a long time. Hated T. Rex initially. And Dylan. On the other hand I used to like James Taylor a lot. Don't really dig him now. Hated Mike Disfarmer's photo when I first saw them. No, not hated. But I didn't appreciate them like I do now. Atget too. Creative objects tend to spur big swings in appreciation, not small ones.

I think Zadie Smith recently wrote an essay about this exact thing - hating music and then having a conversion moment:  

Hate is a strong reaction. It's the opposite of unaffected. So maybe easier to translate into love later.

Yeah, I don't know that I've ever loved anything that I previously was just meh about

Speaking (a while back) of Nina Hagen, I played one of her tunes for a friend once. Handed him the earphones with a song going. Lucky Number, I think? Was that the song? He lasted about 5 seconds before taking the phones off. Hate. I think she provokes that reaction. A very specific feel about it. An acquired love. 

Maybe it's that we misinterpret our emotional reactions. Anything challenging or ambiguous is interpreted as dislike.

So what do photos/music you hate now? Watch out. You might love it later.

Grimes. Courtney Barnett. It will happen - I will like them later! In fact, it’s already happened. I was not into Lorde a year or so ago, and now I’m coming around. I’m not a fan but there are a couple of songs I like.

I don’t know that I have the same conversion moments with photography. I tend to just forget the stuff I don’t like. I don’t think I’ve ever hated any photos. I don’t get why some things are so lauded, but usually that’s just confusion, not hate. But when I think about it, I don’t love any photography either. There are projects I like and respect, but nothing is as visceral as music. Maybe that’s why I started to move away from it.

All images above by Jin Zhu unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Quiz #32: Album Covers

It's time for another round of The Album Cover Quiz.

Below are 14 noncommissioned photographs used as cover art on music albums. Score 1 point for identifying the photographer, 1 point for identifying the photograph's title/year, and 2 points for identifying the album. One photograph below is used on two separate album covers. Each identification scores 2 points. If you've never won a B quiz, give yourself 8 bonus points (Sorry, Alexandros).















There a total of 66 sinister points possible. The first person to email me the response with the highest point total before Sunday, June 7th, at 9 AM PDT wins a fiber print, a CD mix featuring music from the above albums, and everlasting glory. Good luck!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Starboard Twist

I'm tired of album reviews. From now on this blog is going to focus on old keys. Here's a few that turned up recently under a storage tub in the basement.

1. Can't remember what this key goes to but it looks like the old kitchen door key from my Taylor Street house in Portland. The gold patina and USA banner lend a patriotic flair, while the letters SCI seem to identify something which might have been important once but has been long since forgotten, raising questions about the essential unreality of the mind.

2. This looks very much like the front door key to my house but I tried it and nope, sorry. The paired triangular windows offsetting a central diamond explore the repetitive practice of seeing and comment on the Amity-like transparency of hyper-securitized culture. Or at least they used to when I knew what this key opened.

3. My best guest is that this is the entrance key to a kayak shop where I worked for a few years in the late 90s. On the river what starts out as contemplation soon becomes corroded into a hegemony of distress, which is fortunately the gateway to artistic creativity. Traces of corrosion on the reverse —unseen (unseeable?)— side of this key foreshadowed my later shift to photography, a transition which proved key for me.

4. Pretty sure this is an extra key to my old Suzuki Sidekick which I owned from roughly 1994-2008. Great car. I wound up driving it into the ground, then selling it on Craigslist for parts. The fact that this is a replica key made at a hardware store comments on traditional notions of originality, authenticity, and copying, while leaving behind a sense of discontinuity and the unlikelihood of a new beginning.

5. No clue what this key unlocked. The transcendent brassy texture hints at a life of performance, while the notched shaft creates an engaging visual environment of line, color, and groove, leaving only a sense of chaos and the chance of a new reality. If memories are carpet lint, the past is a Hoover vacuum on full power, ruthlessly internalizing. Could've been my old garage key maybe?

6. This was a key from an old bike lock long since discarded. I'm guessing it was replaced when I lost the key. Kryptonite has since turned to a more generic —and, it must be noted, phallic— form, the locks of which are harder to pick with bobby pins, and with no key forms available at the local True Value. Ties to consumerist fetishism and midlife subcultures thus stripped, this old key is free to resume a traditional identity.

7. This small wrench attached to my keys served as a physical memento rather than the useful tool its shape presupposes. The neighboring keys convey the diminutive scale, far too small to fit many nuts or screwheads. I found the wavering derivatives too distorted to allow much personal screwing or unscrewing, always a bad sign. Nowadays I keep a more utilitarian tool on my keyring: A bottle opener. It gets plenty of use.

8. Every year Blue Sky Gallery distributes monikered tchotchkes to its members as thank you gifts. The 2003 date on this keyring helps date the entire set of keys to the early millennial era. I probably lost them shortly after that year, and grew very irate as I realized they would all need replaced. I imagine I screamed at the walls as I looked a hundred times in the same drawer. Losing keys sucks. Finding them 12 years later doesn't help. The viewer is left, perhaps jarringly, with an epitaph for the limits of our future.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Nasal Retentive Calliope Music

I'm tired of photography. From now on this blog is going to focus on album reviews. Here's a few that have recently passed through my house:

Hadley Murrell Presents The Best Arizona Garage Bands 1967-1970

Uncovering old gems has always been fun, but the urge has been given a huge kickstart in recent years by the internet's amazing ability to collect, fragment, and deliver material in targeted micro-bursts. With this compilation Hadley Murrell takes a turn as archivist, showcasing some of the favorite bands he produced around Phoenix at the tail of the the sixties. It sounds specific, but forget the "Arizona Garage" label for a moment. This serves as broader snapshot of national musical strains during a rapidly evolving period. Tunes cover the gamut from surf to garage to psychedelia to blues to straight rock. Some bands —The Carnations or The Matadors, for example— are closer to mid-sixties R & B. Others set the stage for 1970s electric exploration. I'm thinking in particular of Bliss, who existed in a parallel desert universe alongside Deep Purple and Band of Gypsies, but in relative obscurity. Their 8 tracks are the highlight but the whole album worth exploring. It's a great find for those into 60s/70s rock and/or looking for historical underpinnings to the current psych-revival, the equivalent of finding a stash of old unheard records in a bin somewhere, fully annotated and ready to go. I love shit like this. Maybe you will too.

Chris Washburne and The Syotos Band — Low Ridin' 

According to the liner notes, these songs were the soundtrack of Chris Washburne's youth. He's not alone. Ohio, Feelin' Alright, Stairway, and other tired warhorses form the backbone of so-called classic rock, and will be very familiar to a certain musical demographic. But unlike earlier generational touchstones by Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin, few 70s FM staples have been yet tapped by the jazz world for interpretive potential. With Low Ridin' The S.Y.O.T.O.S. (See You On The Other Side) Band attempts to set things right while paying tribute to early musical heroes. I know you've heard these melodies a jillion times already but set your preconceptions aside a sec and give the album a listen. The latin jazz arrangements are unusual and exploratory, in some cases barely recognizable as their original content. You won't know whether to hum along or kick back and get lost. Instrumental solos have some room to stretch out, especially the sax and Hammond B-3, locking into pleasant grooves. In less skilled hands, an album of classic rock covers might've resulted in something far lamer than this. But Washburne and company have instead produced a fun little gem.

Swahili — Amovrevx

Swahili is a five piece band from Portland (via Reno in 2010). This is their second album. Based on the jacket design, song titles, and online interviews (Lead singer Van Pham describing the music: "A multidimensional sling-shot…It begins on a crossroads – then travels around this mysterious interior world, visiting many different sonic landscapes along the way.") I expected an exploratory, new age vibe. I suppose it does have that, but the album is mostly mired in a musical bardo of synth-loops, chants, and knob-play. The songs never quite arrive on the other side where something concrete can occur. Nice female lead vocal, soothing chants and ethereal rhythms. I think Swahili secretly wants to be Goat. They aim for international cross-pollination but the effort is thin, missing African chorus, rhythmic interplay, and about five liters of kava. The moniker Swahili is especially ironic considering this music seems aimed squarely at young white English speakers. RIYL Stereolab, Dee-Lite, Kraftwerk, the Kaleidoscope festival, or having your Tarot read in a headshop with Nag Champa assaulting the nostrils. Could be worth a road trip to see live. Bring No-Doz and glow sticks.

Eat The Sun — The Djerassi Sessions

Eat The Sun is a trio out of Oakland (not the Denver math rock group) featuring guitar, bass, and Japanese koto combined in "songs" that are largely improvisational with no obvious time signature, key, or melody. Add it all up and you get one hell of a spacey album. On the structure/cohesiveness scale this is on the far side of Grateful Dead drums/space jams. If you like Nels Cline, Bret Hart, Henry Cow, Alvarius B, or mid-career Fahey, or if you've just ingested psilocybin, you'll feel right at home here. It's entertaining for what it is but don't expect hooks or resolution. I'd recommend playing one of these tracks as a change of pace between pop/disco hits just to fuck with expectations. Don't let your ears off easy. Play this. Tell yourself it's the latest from Beyonce. Maybe in another universe it is.

D'Angelo and The Vanguard — Black Messiah

I'm not sure whether to consider Black Messiah an an homage to Sly And The Family Stone or outright identity theft. Either way I'll take it.  Black Messiah —D'Angelo's first album in 14 years—  brings the promise of salvation to those who've felt empty since wearing out Sly's Fresh back in 1973. Any of these songs could pass unnoticed on that album or 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On. Remove the slight nasal quality of Sly's voice from Fresh and you get D'Angelo's music: meandering/dominant bass, chill aural gumbos, and a motherfuckin ton of laid back groooooove. Oh yeah, did I mention he plays a mean guitar solo too…plus every other instrument on the album? Is he a control freak or just oozing talent? Who cares? If you like Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, early Prince, or especially Sly, you will like this. But that's a dumb condition because of course you like those acts. You dig soul/funk, right? So loosen up, shed a layer, and slither into one of the best albums of 2014. Play it loud and often. It may be a while till D'Angelo makes another.

The Von Trapps — Dancing In Gold

Mix four young voices, a ukulele, and the ancestral ghosts of a landmark Broadway musical, and you get the Von Trapp siblings: Sofia (26), Melanie (24), Amanda (23, and chief songwriter August (20). If they harmonize beautifully, it's because they've been singing together since they were wee tots. Plus they grew up carefree, roaming the-hills-are-alive-with-music in Montana, chasing butterflies and learning Austrian folks songs at the knee of Grandpa Trapp. Or so I imagine. The upbeat cheeriness of this album reminds me of Sound Of Music, but it ain't Broadway. Instead, it's neo-chamber-folk in the tradition of Blind Pilot or Fleet Foxes. Dancing In Gold is the first EP of a planned trilogy due out in the next few years. Hopefully the ones to follow will have the same awesome packaging. They've ditched the plastic case and created a novel sleeve straight out of the multiverse. I can't say the music has the same original vitality, but it's pleasant. This would make a good soundtrack to accompany your next warm stroll in flowing skirt through a Eugene meadow. Oh yeah, did I mention they're from Portland along with every other fucking band in the world?

She Keeps Bees - Eight Houses

This is the fourth album from the Brooklyn based duo of Jessica Larrabee (guitar/voice) and Andy LaPlant (drums), and it's the first one produced by Nicolas Verhes who I guess is some sort of bigshot. Meh. The mood is pretty solemn throughout. Sultry cocktail/folk/rock with a slight reverb, creating an overall vibe very close to Cat Power or maybe Neko Case on Quaaludes. It's kinda nice but kinda forgettable too. But maybe that's the goal, to play just a fleeting moment through recessed speakers at Starbucks or something. Is that what the young bucks and buckettes are shooting for now? Is that where the dough is? Cuz it sure ain't in Spotify or iTunes. Instead it's in the Latte! If you like Sharon Van Etten you'll probably like this. In fact she makes a guest appearance on the last track.

The Budos Band — Burnt Offering

“This isn’t just more of the same," says Budos drummer Brian Profilio about their new album Burnt Offering. But yeah, actually it is. Fans of March Fourth will dig this revved up marching band music that falls somewhere between New Orleans Brass and Triphop/Funk. It's ok for what it is but don't expect any grand revelations, at least not on a studio recording. I suspect the live experience may be more worthwhile. Some of these songs set the stage for potentially interesting improv. These guys have chops, but on a CD they're hemmed in. The songs just sit there, then wiggle back and forth before giving way to the next track. File under Instrumental-Background.

Tiny Moving Parts — Pleasant Living

These guys are young. They have a new album. They're touring the country. They've got their whole lives ahead of them. So why do they sound so angry? OK, sure, there's a history of youthful uprising and Fuck-You attitude in rock from Little Richard to Nirvana to Ty Seagall to ?? in the future. But the rebellious spirit only works when it's tied to real grievance, or at least when a band can project that illusion. Otherwise it comes off as whiny pouting. Which brings me to Tiny Moving Parts. The songs on Pleasant Living attempt to project vehemence but they don't come close to selling it. The effect is of a seven-year old screaming about his missing crayon. One wants to ask, what are you screaming about? Just settle down. Your crayon fell under the table. Not that these guys don't have skill. There's some nice guitar interplay and gradual build up in the songs. They've been playing together since Junior High and it shows. But every song winds up in the same place, with the lead singer screaming insufferably over power chords. When Iggy did it it felt real. This feels cheap. But who am I to judge? Is this what the young'uns want to hear? Fine, just shoot me now. God I sound like my dad. 

Crown Larks — Blood Dancer

Crown Larks are a six piece experimental/psych band out of Chicago, and they wear crazy masks and let their hair roam free range in the back forty, so you know they're the real deal. Check out the crazy cover art to confirm. The typical song pattern is a slow build up into a drone groove, setting the stage for the main event to take root: the inevitable jazzy experimental freakout featuring a kitchen sink of instruments, flute, sax, clarinet, flugelhorn, sleep machine, and whatever else was handy in the studio. They manage to get pretty far out there on most tracks, and it probably sounds just groovy blaring through the side door of a van in the parking lot. Whether the music ultimately arrives somewhere satisfying is up to the listener. Jazz and Prog fans will find some nuggets here. Those seeking sonic closure? Maybe not. RIYL Can, Irving Klaw Trio, Soft Machine, OOIOO, etc. 

Architecture in Helsinki — Now + 4eva

It's hard to imagine that Australian indie band Architecture in Helsinki were once critical darlings. I suppose even in the glory years they had a bubblegum pop side, but it was well balanced. The multitalented crew played a range of instruments and some songs were allowed to wander off course. It was pop, sure, but it was interesting. Since then like a rising politician they've gradually charted a course toward safer and safer territory. With Now + 4eva the transition is complete. They've crossed over finally to the dark side. I'm sorry to report there's just not much here. Most songs are mere filler. The nadir may be Dream a Little Crazy, whose blandness would possibly be less noticeable if they weren't trying so darn hard. The earnest crooning of insipid lyrics borders on self parody. If only they were just another over-the-hill band going through the motions, the descent of AIH might be easier to take. At least it could be dismissed as typical. The tragedy is that it sounds as if they still care and, worse, don't know any better. Two thumbs down.

Papadosio - Live

The central question of jam bands is, who exactly are they playing for? Do they aim to please themselves? Or is the music instead geared to an audience? Perhaps ideally there is some confluence of factors, so that when a band goes off on an exploratory tangent it can fuel a sense of personal revelation while also feeding off the crowd. Some of the finest jams by Beefheart, Miles Davis, or Zappa achieve this. There's a propulsive sense of mystery and interplay when not even the band knows where it's headed. When a musical group is really on its game, improvising in synch, it can create beautiful worlds. But Papadosio seems unsure which direction to go. They want to sing happy songs, then putter around a bit. But they never seem to fully get behind either enterprise. I think they want to please themselves but feel compelled to give the audience what they think it wants. The result is a live album of feel-good mush which never quite achieves liftoff. Most songs punch the timeclock at around 8 or 9 minutes. Organs, guitar and Barney Miller-toned bass dominate. Nice harmonies that Fleet Foxes might be proud of. The songs are probably groovy to listen to in the parking lot before the show. But in the time it takes to wallow through one you could pack in 4 strong classics by Ray Charles.

Dylan Shearer — Garagearray

If Ornette Coleman and Horse Feathers made an album together it might sound like this deceptively simple soft pop album where up is down, "wrong" turns abound, and seemingly no chord progression is untested. The arrangements are sparse, dissonant, and wonderful. It's mostly Shearer singing over guitar and simple backing band, the same basic formula as a thousand singer/songwriters, but here twisted beautifully into surprising pop gems. The chord charts to this album must look like a drunkard's walk, broken, haphazard, and weird. Who knows where he came up with it? The pace and vibe are mellow, in the realm of Nick Drake, early Eno, or Bon Iver, while the odd melodies take their cue from Syd Barrett. But really it's silly to compare. Dylan Shearer has his own unique sound.

Mark Ronson — Uptown Special

Hip-Hop / R & B Albom işbirlikçileri barcha-yulduz ro'yxat bilan Britaniyada joylashgan Mark Ronson jamoalar Oxir-oqibat gol urish yoki sog'indim Ba'zi yorqin marta xos ishlab chiqarish uchun. Ba'zi tunes - za'faron, Feel o'ng, Uptown Funk, Breaking yozgi - Buxgalteriya Jeyms Brown yoki shahzoda kanalize tomonidan ajratish erishish. Boshqalar -Heavy va Fire-tovush Yakka Pearl yilda Rolling Crack, ko'proq kabi Aja Don qolding. Har ikki holda ham diqqat markazida 70s uchun ochiq. Men u FM oziq tinglash bir oz vaqt tomosha Boulevards qilib yotipti taxmin qilyapman, va men u Nyu-York klublari DJED Keling, aslida, bilsangiz. Har ikki ta'sir bu erda aniq bo'ladi. Kameya san'atkor sifatida Stevie Wonder tanlash-bo'lishi mumkin shuningdek up tutmang (ikkalasi ham qo'shiq ustida) natijalari buyurtma, chizilgan bortida ilohiy ilhom Tuyulardi. Fojiali albom eng yaxshi qo'shiqlar (Feel o'ng) tufayli KWVA la'nat so'z (signal juda ko'p orospu bolalariga) uchun Qo`yib bo`lmaydigan hisoblanadi. Ha mayli. Za'faron yomon nedime emas.

Willis Earl Beal - Experiments In Time

After stints in Chicago, the U.S. Army, Albuquerque, and New York, self-made underground sensation Willis Earl Beal is now based in nearby Washington. For his third album Experiments In Time he's dropped the band, the label, the producer, the distribution, etc, and decided to do it all himself. An admirable move, though one fraught with pitfalls. If the result is an unmediated window into Beal's soul, what we see is one very Caaaaaaaalm dude. Give yourself plenty of space for these songs to unwind because this guy is in no hurry at all. He makes Nick Drake sound like Metallica. Sometimes the voice is falsetto, sometimes gospel, but always aimed heavenward, and skewed through his own spiritual/individualist prism. Most songs are awash in atmospheric effects, vibrating synths and ethereal hum, parking the tone in the realm of Cat Power, Arthur Russell, or a Neville Brothers ballad. But slooooower. It's not quite elevator music. No, it's got more bite than that. But the main experiment in time seems to be with meditatative stints of reverie. And those can sometimes last a while.

Prince Rupert's Drops — Climbing Light

The Brooklyn group's sophomore album covers a lot of musical territory. Bits of glam, psychedelia, acid rock, middle eastern modalities, and a few extended jams. It's got some of the open-road feel of Fleetwood Mac, the hard-edged weirdness of Thee Oh Sees, and the sunny spirit of B-52s. But PRD won't be mistaken for any of these groups. They're on their own trip. Male-female harmonies, a bit of reverb, and songs which wander here and there in the outer keys, some stretching out for several minutes. Great stuff. Not to mention I like all albums which use handwritten liner notes (written here by member Leslie Stein) rather than computer typeface. That's right. Every single one. Even some of PRD's concert fliers are done in original water color and that simply kicks ass, folks. Fact of the week: A Prince Rupert's Drop is a type of sculpture created by dipping hot molten glass in cold water. Well hot damn, dip me in the Pacific because my brain is melting just a bit after hearing this. 

J.E. Sunde - Shapes That Kiss The Lips of God

How can you go wrong with a cover photo like this? A nerdy-looking dude with a handful of roots? Beautiful. If it seems rather plain, the album cover gives an accurate taste of what's inside. Jonathan Edward Sunde's first solo outing falls into the mellow salt-of-the-earth singer/songer category. His voice has a bit of high warble like Neil Young or Justin Vernon, and his music the spiritualized choral sense of Sufjan Stevens. The songs aren't exactly dynamic but they're well paced (slow) with plenty of room to move, and the backup band is sometimes terrific. A very restrained album, about as action packed as a field in the mid-west holding vegetables.Yeah, radishes might be boring but they're packed with vitamins. With lyrical references to Jesus, Wisconsin, drugs, and other other-worldly distractions. Play Hickory Point In the Fall for a nice example of Sunde's sound. That's the standout track for me.

Girlpool - Girlpool

My faith in youth in restored. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad are not yet in their twenties but their music shows the simple sophistication of bands much older. The secret is to strip the sound down and focus on what counts. In this case that's guitar, bass, and two wonderfully dissonant, sassy voices singing about classic teen shit like nerds, boys, fights, and drugs. These things might not matter to me but they matter to them, and that's what counts. What do I care about high school? But they make me care about their music. So kudos. The sound is reminiscent of Moldy Peaches, Half Japanese, or a half dozen other off-beat duos, but they've got their own thing going, and this is only the start. Their next album should be worth keeping an eye on..

Imagene Peise - Atlas Eets Christmas

Yet another early 1970s album that was recorded, lost in the distribution shuffle, then rediscovered decades later. In this case it was by Flaming Lips, and they have connections. So here it is complete with Hebrew script. Wha? Atlas Eets Christmas sounds like the holiday album they'd play on the Starship Enterprise, if they orbited the sun and used calendars. Very spacey, ethereal, and loose.  It's mostly instrumental with one vocal track (Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas). The melodies are recognizable but not very obvious, so you might get away with playing this off-season. All the tracks are buried in a background of synth, piano, and effects. Apparently Peise committed suicide in 1978. But no one really knows. Oooh, freaky. Set music-bio phasers to Stun, then play this when you wanna come down off that hill. 

Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Education, Education, & War

I was about to write this album a nasty review but then I realized I'm probably not the right person for the job. This album isn't aimed at me and it's probably out of bounds for me to criticize it. Who is it aimed at? Young lovers of adequate check-the-box Indie pop. Damn, there I go. I promised I wouldn't do that. The music is fast, clean, perky, and empty. I could imagine Kaiser Chiefs headlining some summer festival with everyone lifting fingers in the air and so on, chanting the encore in unison, then completely forgetting the melody within ten minutes. Looking on the bright side, they've given themselves a vaguely historical moniker and included the word Education a bunch in the album title. So maybe their heart is in the right place. Unfortunately so too is every fucking note. You know what, forget everything I've written above. I'm the wrong reviewer for this.

Bob Dylan — The Basement Tapes, Bootleg Series Vol. 11

Bootleg Volume 11 compiles outtakes and B-Sides from the legendary collaboration of Dylan and The Band when they holed up in a pink house in 1967 and cranked shit out like crazy. Many of these tunes have circulated underground for years, and some were released on 1975's Basement Tapes. But this is the first official release of the entire splooge: 6 full albums. It fills in some of the backstory with an uneven mix of remakes, new tunes, covers, and studio snippets. As a snapshot of a dynamic and creative period it's a gem. Dylanphiles will love it. But it's mostly preaching to the choir. If you're not already a Dylan fan this is NOT the album to start with. It's basically the bard working through songs, puttering along and flexing his muscles while The Band stretches, tweaks, and explores. The basic folk structure is intact in almost every tune, simple verse with call and response chorus. Musically there are few grand revelations, and the mix is sludgy and dense as if recorded in a basement, just how a proper bootleg mix-tape should sound. If anyone else had released something like this it would seem willfully profligate and unresolved. But come on. This is Dylan. He is large. He contains multitudes. What's another six albums?