No Laptops, Some Exceptions

It’s a cool, crisp, early fall evening and I’m at Nathanja & Heinrich, an impossibly cozy café and bar in Neukölln. The walls are muted tones of red and brown resting between brick and a most agreeable form of ambient electronica plays as bartenders shake cocktails; it is just past 6:40, which, on this Saturday in Berlin, means it’s time to start warming up with something besides espresso. Beanie-adorned thirty-somethings dot the main room and, as I stroll toward the back corner carrying a backpack and a tall, golden beer, I see several small signs with kind cursive atop tables: “no laptops, please”.

This is normally a request which I not only honor but one that is met with a hearty nod of approval. Again, I really am into it. Some cafes (see: Astro Coffee in Detroit) have even gone as far as to deliberately withhold wifi information from patrons — I’m still into it.

But, at this moment, I find myself in a predicament in which, while not explicitly against the stated rules of the establishment, I must go against my own conventions. A few justifications:

The only book I have on hand is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I find Hunter S Thompson’s work far too manic to enjoy in this type of setting.

I’m all caught up on Fresh Air interviews and my phone will die soon.

I want to listen to this Khruangbin record.

I need to, every 35 minutes, google if an infected hangnail can kill you (don’t ask).

I think I forgot to unsubscribe from those emails inviting me to for-profit college honor societies and need to do so immediately.

Plus, I’m in the throes of a seemingly-impossible apartment hunt and I fear two hours spent away from wg-gesucht.com, sending 92 messages that say I’m “laid back, creative, but can also probably pay rent on time”, will put me out of contention for a room next month.

And I guess I’m writing this, too.

So here I sit, and, you know what? I feel bad. Do as I say, not as I do.

Notes from Hell

Hell is not fiery.  It is not divided into nine levels of concentric circles. Its inhabitants don’t appear especially sinister.  Hell is not a place for punishment, and it is neither desolate nor sprawling. Its weather, most often, is temperate.  As far as popular culture is concerned, it has gotten a bad rap.

Hell, in reality, lies roughly four miles southwest of Pinckney, Michigan.

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Day Trader: The Reluctant Investor's Foray into Cryptocurrency

I’m generally not a terribly pessimistic person.  With the right amount of coffee I can find the good in most anything (Ranch dressing exempt).  I trend away from blaming my problems on late stage capitalism, and I don’t judge people who smoke cigarettes.  I even made it through 45 minutes of Requiem for a Dream with my roommate last summer, an affable frat-boy with an affinity for mid-career David Foster Wallace, über depressing films, and the rapper A$AP Rocky.  

I have, however, long kept the world of cryptocurrency — Bitcoin and all other forms of internet money, so to speak — at arm’s length.

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Music for the Skateboard

It's uncharacteristically warm in Michigan, which means that I'm skateboarding! Here are a few fine minutes of music which soundtracked 2018's first lap around greater Burns Park.

                                                  Tempelhof push

                                                  Tempelhof push

1.) An excellent moment of French House comes from the 19 year old producer Lewis Ofman in 'Plein de Bisous' at 2:20. He makes some very fun electronic pop tracks that, more often than not, go right where I want them to.  His stuff is on the lighter side of what one finds from Parisian label Ed Banger. From Ofman I'd also recommend 'Flash'

2.) Nicolas Jaar released a surprise album last week (!) under the name 'Against All Logic'.  Among its highlights are a track called 'Now U Got Me Hooked', which I was excited to have recognized from his outstanding 2013 Boiler Room set. Here's a taste (1:54) of the new record.

3.) Moment of zen. Manuel Göttsching, the man behind E2-E4, brings us some addictive ambient offerings in addition to his more experimental, minimal work. The quintessential Berliner has a prolific catalog, but I think 'Oasis', released under the project Ashra, is a good place to start. This track is also my favorite way to finish off a morning cruise (wenn die Sonne scheint).  

What I'm Listening to in February

Here's what has been occupying the 'recently played' page of my Spotify app lately in the form of an eclectic (eccentric?) playlist.  New points of interest include Nick Hakim and the pianist and producer Kiefer.  And, as is expected, there's still some Scandinavian electronic disco from the likes of Lindstrøm and Todd Terje. 

Rare Groove

I recently had the pleasure of hanging out with and writing a profile of Marc Taras, the co-owner of PJ's Used Records on Packard Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  He has run the shop since 1981 with his brother, Jeff; it's a real treat to get lost in a space of physical music for a while. We discussed the ins and outs of owning a record shop in 2018, what it's like to see Ann Arbor change before your eyes, and some tips on steering clear of music snobbery.

Read more here 

 

Erlend in '03

There's a great record by the Norwegian singer-songwriter, bandleader, DJ, and definitive #MildBoy Erlend Øye called Unrest.  Of most interest to me from this 2003 release are the production credits: 10 tracks, 10 producers, 10 different cities.  From Bjørn Torske in Bergen to Morgan Geist in NYC, Mr. Øye croons over some very nice techno-influenced, tastefully-synchronized dance tunes (other cities include Barcelona, Rome, Berlin, and, strangely enough, Shelton, Connecticut). The song 'Ghost Trains' also features a closing riff that, I argue, should probably be made into a 10 hour loop.

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Although the year is 2018, I often find my own music to still be influenced by this record, especially numbers like 'Sympton of Disease' and 'Sudden Rush'.  So, in case he makes a follow-up that needs a track from a left-leaning, Midwestern college town, I offer this:

What I Talk About When I Talk About [electronic music], Volume 1

The umbrella term of 'EDM' is not a particularly helpful one when it comes to music description and categorization, yet it remains.  I used to try to parse it out in order to put a definition to the electronic music most dear to me, but that's a tiring exercise that didn't really lead anywhere.  While the beginnings of my relationship with electronic centered on obsessing over Nicolas Jaar, Todd Terje, and French House oddball Breakbot, it hasn't been one without turbulence and identity crises.  And, to clarify, there's nothing wrong with a little loud room here and there (I do, however, feel obligated to mention Ryan Dombal's delightful account of a Chainsmokers song featuring Coldplay's Chris Martin -- "clickbait collaboration... fair-weather drops built for Cancun's tourism association".  I digress).  My high horse having been abandoned for a Trabant, I'm going to try to just enjoy electronic music for what it is without going crazy.

If you really do want to get theoretical about it, though, you should start with Nick Paumgarten's stunning 2014 essay Berlin Nights.  While the piece deals mostly with techno, he offers a description that perfectly captures the complexity of trying to assign a single acronym to all these sounds.

Electronic music spans many genres, from the experimental bleeps and blurts that you might hear at the fringes of Berlin’s CTM Festival to the mega-popular sets performed by famous d.j.s like Skrillex and Avicii... The music isn’t pop, although many elements of it derive from and inform pop. It isn’t punk, although it owes something to punk, in spirit and scene. It isn’t high art, either. It is, fundamentally, Gebrauchsmusik—“utility music,” as Paul Nettl, the Bohemian musicologist, described dance music, in 1921. The utility, in this case, is mostly that of providing succor and pleasure, a sense of direction and purpose, to addled bodies and minds.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way I'd like to share some fine pieces of electronic music that provide succor and pleasure to my addled body.  For this installment I've selected a tune from Metro Area, the duo consisting of Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani, who offer a seminal record of ultra-smooth, blissed-out nu disc... scratch that - EDM.  Their self-titled album from 2002 saw a re-release last year.  Here's my favorite track from that, Soft Hoop:

Men Øf a Certain Age: Han Kjøbenhavn's Modeling Crusade

Like any great cultural discovery, this one begins on the Instagram explore page.  During the peak of a short-lived viral fashion phase, of which I'm not particularly proud, I came across a puzzling picture.  It was of an older gentleman wearing some cool sunglasses, staring me directly in the face.  Fascinated and unsettled, I poked my roommate and stuck my phone in his face.  He told me to please never show him that again.  I was hooked. 

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The über hip Danish menswear label Han Kjøbenhavn is, in many respects, adherent to the conventions of modern Northern European fashion.  They tend toward a minimal aesthetic, favoring neutral tones, apocalyptic bomber jackets, and so on.  There's just one striking peculiarity: their models.  Familiarly skinny, young, sleeve-tattooed men with undercuts and high cheekbones?  Not exactly.  The brand has taken things in a fascinating direction by featuring, for lack of a better term, old guys.  But the clothing is not attached to this fact, nor does the company make a particular point of saying, "hey, look what we're doing over here!".  It is, somehow, seemingly organic, but also kind of otherworldly, showcasing two perfectly cast characters from an apparent universe where elevated dress is state-coördinated and everyone is deceiving you with a smile.  Limited by a rudimentary understanding of the intricacies of menswear and a cone deficiency that renders me unable to differentiate between purple and blue, I'll simply say this: it's cool.  

We're not, however, left totally in the dark on Han Kjøbenhavn's vision as it relates to their models.  In a 2016 interview with the annoying-but-sometimes-helpful blog Hypebeast, co-founder Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen provides a brief explanation: 

It’s not about their age but about the life they have lived. It is important that we work with people who have stories to share, which also can be seen in their facial appearance as well... They are confident, they know what they are. That’s the most important thing. You can dress the biggest douche in the good stuff and it will still be wrong. 

The brand has clearly done something right; although I am likely never to buy anything from Han Kjøbenhavn, I'm nonetheless fascinated by their products and stylistic choices, perhaps as a result of a profound lack of context. Even if the details of the past lives of these models were available, I think I prefer the mystery.  

Diet Ideas 2018

It's not Keto, it's not Paleo, it's... Breatharianism!

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Actually, scratch that, I don't really care to dictate what you eat.  Breatharian, however, is the title of and concept behind one of my favorite beat tapes.  It comes to us from LA producer Mndsgn (pronounced mind design), and it's an expertly-sampled journey through the worst and most dangerous diet fad/religion in history.  Don't let that turn you away, though, as the producer surveys the wild world of Wiley Brooks, Breatharianism's eccentric, enterprising modern leader, in 15 simultaneously relaxing and stimulating tracks.  

First off, I should explain, Breatharianism is a school of thought that postulates humans can survive without food and water, taking our nutrients from air alone.  Just Air.  While Mndsgn, whose real name is Ringgo Anchetta, offers only a few moments of insight into the bizarre belief system through interviews and dated news clips that transition songs, it's all that is really necessary ("in other words, eating is an acquired habit. Just like drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes").  What follows is an array of urgent yet behind-the-beat offerings that may just offer some form of, despite the inherent absurdity of the subject matter, enlightenment.  An exercise in repetition and careful pairing of the hunger-hallucinatory with the quantized, Breatharian is as cohesive an album as it is experimental.  

What made this tape all the more interesting to me upon first listen was Mndsgn's own fabricated backstory.  As lore had it, Anchetta was raised on a commune without electricity or running water; this only added to the mystique of Breatharian.  In reality, he grew up in New Jersey (I'll refrain from comparing these conditions).  Regardless, I was hooked on his work as a producer.  As it happens, this was a meaningful discovery, as I've followed his music since with interest.  Subsequent releases, Yawn Zen and Body Wash, remain in heavy rotation.  

Dietary restrictions or not, this is a contemplative, worthwhile listen.

On Woozy Cape Cod

I was going through some old audio files and remembered that I once marveled at how hectic and unsettling (in a good way) the last 20 seconds of the song 'Run' by Vampire Weekend are.  Because I don't have the Soundcloud storage capacity to create a 10-hour loop, I've instead slowed it down and added a compressor.  Here's a minute of that:  

I hope Rostam is on their next release. 

Minimal Maximum: An Ode to Galcher Lustwerk

I've bought exactly one record in the past seven years.  It is called 'Dark Bliss' by Galcher Lustwerk, and it lives on Bandcamp.  Mr. Lustwerk, whose real name is unknown, is a minimal techno/deep house producer living in Brooklyn via RISD via Cleveland, Ohio.  He lays down dusty raps and spoken word verses over heavily textured synths, 808's, variant clicks and clacks, and impressively subtle drops, even in the context of the minimal continuum.  'Parlay', a joint with no bass line and that opens with a 45 second lay-down of a single note ("like a highway mirage", Philip Sherburne notes), perhaps best showcases his style.

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Minimal techno is a funny genre, in that its tendencies of shared enthusiasm are elusive.  It's easy to tell when people dig, but even easier to tell when they don't (a friend once asked why I was playing elevator music over the last beers of the night).  But Lustwerk's own brand of minimal, in combination with lines about cars, wax, and clubs, can make even a kid from Northern Michigan like me feel cool - the first time I heard his music, I'd never set foot in a club.  There's also something distinctly Midwestern about his music; it's industrial, it centers on driving, and it's deceptively simple (ridin' in a car//feelin like a star//ridin in a drop top// countin all my guap) .  Despite remaining underground -- his most recent and first full release, 'Dark Bliss', was largely unannounced -- he's got a surprisingly prolific catalog.  There's his own work under the Lustwerk moniker, then his collaboration with fellow White Material labelmate Alvin Aronson called Studio OST, and, last but not least, Road Hog, a project devoted to Turnpikes and roadside views.  

In the car, at the gym, home from class, it's often Lustwerk for me.  If there's a single redeeming quality of drab winters in Southeast Michigan, it's the facilitation of deep, dark, techno phases.  So, might I recommend beginning yours here:

Some Musical Moments (1/8)

I've recently read a column from Hua Hsu about his favorite musical moments of the past year, and it prompted me to consider a few minutes of music that have stuck out to me lately as well.  So, here is the first installment of a (hopefully) recurring series of these instances.

1.) I keep flip-flopping on whether to sell my car, an endlessly troublesome 1999 Volkswagen Jetta that I nevertheless love dearly.   Like a good hair day on the eve of a cut, it has caused me much strife.  But late the other night, I was driving and listening to this (2:40 - 3:12), an equally uplifting and silly riff from Erik Skantze's 'Stargaze', and decided I should keep the damn thing.  No, I wasn't soaring through the Nordic night, as the song might evoke, but rather cruising home on an eerily empty Washtenaw Avenue.  It's a ridiculous, over the top, spaced-out track (UFO noises and all), but I like it, kind of like this car (I should get those noises checked out).

2.) King Krule has, to me at least, long been filed in a hipper-than-thou category that can be sort of intimidating.  I like his records, but they're pretty dark; that being said, live cuts from Marshall and his surprisingly tight band are definitely worth checking out, even if you've never gotten into his stuff.  They're energetic, meld whirring electronic effects with jazz-influenced ballads, and feature a ghost-note prophet of a drummer named George.  Here's a cut (2:03 - 4:20) from their Tiny Desk set that I keep re watching.  

3.) A record that I was kind of late to the game on is called 'Jardîn' by Gabriel Garzón-Montano, but there are a lot of great moments throughout.  My favorite comes from a song called 'Fruitflies, where he finds a perfect synth bass tone (2:50 - 3:17) that I've since been trying to recreate.  

4.) Montreal based producer Kaytranada has an impressive catalog as both a backing producer and a solo artist, with one of my favorite records, 99.9%, to his name.  He also has a lot of otherwise-unreleased cuts on Soundcloud, which somehow still exists.  He's a sampling wiz, and there's a particularly smooth example in this (0:45 - end).

When Keeping It Real Goes Right

My brother will disown me if he sees this.  But there is a track by Aussie DJ and Producer Mall Grab that reworks Cheryl Lynn's 1978 disco hit 'Got To Be Real' into a modern dance floor, uh, banger.  And you know what? It's quite good.  Sure, this one's not too much of a stretch, nor is it so inventive. But simplicity, in this case, makes for a supremely good time.

This is fraught territory after Norwegian tropical house phenom Kygo's abomination of a remix of 'Sexual Healing', I realize*.  Since then, I've been wary of any and all subsequent interpretations of classic dance numbers.  But, after getting into some pretty good reworks from Late Nite Tuff Guy, I'm willing to give them another go.  

I came across Mall Grab after hearing Yaeji's fantastic cover of his track 'Guap', which features perhaps the best reverb'd out snare in fiscal year 17.  Here you go:

*editor's note: fraught territory does not include rekutts by Todd Terje, who can do no wrong.

Life is Seeing Me Now

Drumroll...... 

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Having surveyed the year-end lists of 'best albums' from Pitchfork and the like, I'd like to chime in with perhaps my favorite from 2017 (not that anyone asked).  'Life Will See You Now' by Jens Lekman, the amiable Swedish singer-songwriter, has become unexpectedly near and dear to me.  While it seems that many critics had no problems with the record, I was surprised to see it absent from many major recaps.  Nevertheless, it grew on me such that I'm willing to put it near the top of my list.  It's also probably one of the first records where lyrics have meant much, if anything, to me.

I've taken to describing this record as, in short, really good pop music.  And Lekman occupies a unique space within pop (in style, but neither necessarily nor likely in mainstream success).  His songs are, lyrically speaking, oftentimes absurd and, in some instances, utterly melancholic.  He favors sample-heavy backing tracks that balance equal parts cheese and whimsy paired with an ear for hit-making, not unlike that of fellow Swede and producer-to-the-stars Max Martin.  'Life Will See You Now' puts this combination on stark display, with tightly produced, feel-good instrumentals underscoring themes like aging, existential anxiety, and 3D-printed tumors. Hmm. 

In the liner notes, Lekman elaborates,

it’s really an album about that transition from what Kierkegaard called the aesthetic to the ethical. It’s an existentialist record, about seeing the consequences of your choices. From being a dandelion seed, blaming the wind for where it carries you, to saying the name of your fear three times in front of the mirror. Maybe this is an album about taking responsibility. How sexy isn’t that?

All this from a record that contains a hopelessly addictive, Ralph MacDonald-sampling nu-tropical epic like 'What's That Perfume That You Wear'? Indeed, it's inexplicably fun. Lekman's post-ironic tunes inhabit a middle ground of interpretation; the record is, on a base level, really catchy (and sometimes that's good enough), but it's also a maudlin, introspective endeavor.  In 'Evening Prayer', overtop an almost sarcastically bright track, Lekman wonders if he's actually close enough to a dying friend to pray for them.  Later, he reckons with an acquaintance pressuring him not to write a sad song about a reckless night on the town, as is apparently his tendency.  Finally, on 'How We Met, The Long Version', he offers a short history of the universe that results in a pretty normal romantic meeting (Hey, can I borrow your bass guitar?).  Fate is at once magical and mundane.  

I guess I'm aging too -- the ravages of time spare none! -- and, even though I hopefully have more to look ahead at than behind, Jens has me thinking (yeah, I'm 21 now, what a pity).  If nothing else, maybe what I take most from this effort is the value of attempting to pair optimism -- in this case, through Lekman's instrumentals -- alongside interpretations of the good, the bad, and the fucked-up.

 

Welcome!

My name is Sam, but close friends call me Sam Dart.  At present, I'm a 21 year old student at the University of Michigan who likes music, writing, sports with boards, politics, and some other things, too.  You can read my thoughts on these and other points of interest here.  Thanks.