A weekly feature from Far Out Magazine see’s Timothy Mudd, our man in the States, give a monthly update from the West Coast.
Timothy’s feature will follow his move from place to place and spending his time in San Diego, LA and Seattle, he’ll stopping off at music venues along the way. Here, in his latest episode, we follow him up the coast:
NOTES FROM THE WEST DESK
Sometime in the early aughts, people who worked in record stores fell victim to somewhat of a societal smear campaign that fashioned them as high-minded, art elitists, who—rightly or wrongly—looked down their nose at the general record buying consumer. Books (’High Fidelity’) and movies (‘Empire Records’) didn’t help their cause. Before the dawn of widely available online music download websites, then streaming services, a visit to these brick and mortar institutions was considered a bittersweet experience where one could access a wonderland of artistic expression as long as the brave explorer could bare final judgement from the impatient troll at the cash register.
Advances in technology rendered record store workers impotent. Suddenly consumers could bypass the emotional torment, mainline entertainment at a fraction the cost, and—if they chose—lay comatose in a pool of their own artistic excess. Most wrote-off record stores: a cautionary tale to businesses who resisted ‘progress.’ The widely publicised shuttering of Tower Records and the like left the once-noble High Street art havens mostly dead in the minds of many. But something was lost. And I for one tend to view this bleak summary as revisionist history. When I first began experimenting with my musical taste in the eighties, there were no online resources to dissect artistic endeavours ad nauseam. There were magazines, but they could fall victim to the same grime that tarnished commercial radio: art prostituted for unrelated corporate ventures where entertainment was the gateway drug to Capitalism. Back in those days of the tech-Jurassic, your best bet for an honest critique of an album was the guy or gal who shuffled through the aisles straightening and reorienting product at the local record store. Listening was their job. You may not agree with every review, but as you understood their tastes and how closely it matched your own, you could discover an undisputed resource that was loyal to you, rather than advertisers.
Late-afternoon on most Sunday’s my wife drives me to the upper concourse at Seattle-Tacoma international airport. I trudge through the security check point with resignation and plot my course to the departure gate. Invariably, this route will take me past the Sub Pop Records store. Yes, that Sub Pop. As you may expect, it’s shelves, wall racks, and tables are filled with artefacts designed to lure the casually informed traveller with a faint nostalgic connection to Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, and their nineties ‘grunge’ brethren.
I’ll admit, there are moments I’m tempted. What I wouldn’t have done in 1992 as a fourteen-year old kid growing up in south-east England to have unbridled access—and the financial wherewithal—to procure Sub-Pop stickers, t-shirts, and hats that pledge my allegiance. Instead, I usually wind through the aisles, almost out of a duty to my former teenage self, and attempt to suppress cynicism as I peruse the slowly evolving array of merchandise. A couple of months ago, I finally broke. Walking by, I noticed Damien Jurado’s Rehearsals For Departure released for the first time on vinyl.
While I enjoy his more recent work, this album remains one of my all-time favorite records. I originally discovered it in a record store in 1999 and here I was, seventeen years later, with the opportunity to discover it once more. Late for my flight, I snatched a copy off the display and beelined to the counter. “I just put this out fifteen minutes ago,” said the clerk, “It was a surprise release today. Is it good?” Taken off-guard by the sudden role-reversal, rather than shunning him with narcissistic splendor, I casually responded, “This record means more to me than most. If you’re ever feeling lonely and reflective, I’d give it a listen.” “Cool,” he said.
I signed the receipt, carefully slipped the treasure into my bag and headed to the gate, silently aware that this exchange had probably meant much more to me than him. In the weeks since then, I’ve taken five minutes every Sunday to stop and talk with the good people who work the counter at the Sub Pop record store (shout-out to Emily and Brent). I’ve asked what they’re listening to, and why they like it. Then, out of blind trust, I buy a copy of one recommendation and listen to it during the week as I go about my business driving in Southern California. For this installment, I’m documenting a collection of their suggestions as a reminder that it’s easy to just breeze through music that holds no attachment, but personal connections can bring pause, and pause can give way to the ultimate discovery of something beautiful.
I arrived back at my car, cold and patient in that lonely long-term parking lot behind the runway of San Diego’s Lindberg Field Airport, ripped plastic from the miniature gatefold and slid the fresh compact disk into the player. During the short loading cycle of quiet, the words from the earnest clerk three hours prior rose in my recollection: “It’s like a cross between Neutral Milk Hotel and Built To Spill.” As the speakers burst to life with a wrenching immediacy, I could not disagree. The third album from New York indie veterans (their debut for Sub Pop Records), Return To Love is a screaming siren that worships the soaring melodic possibilities of guitars, bass, and drums.
A delightfully engaging collaboration between its three principle songwriters Dave Benton, Mike Caridi, and Nick Corbo; this 40-minute, 10-song workout is powerfully deep—a sonic ocean crashing on the barren rocks of a once crowded, now barely inhabited shoreline. Highlights include the foregone car accident of ‘Hidden Driver;’ the blithe bounce of ‘Blur;’ the nonchalant whimsy of ’She Sustains Us;’ the grinding destruction of ’The Closing Door;’ and the holy redemption of ’Naked In The River With The Creator.’ Reverent without cliché, uplifting in defeat, Return To Love is desperate and beautiful, cynical and sensitive, raw and soothing. A gem of a record from a band who just gained an eager new fan—please join me.
You’re a passenger in a car. It’s an American hotrod from the fifties; dirty red painted flames blaze across dented black panels, and its monstrous V-10 engine is roaring. The clutch burns. The gears grind. 3000RPM. 85MPH. A beastly black shadow careening through an icy mountain pass. Hot balding tires displace grit and small rocks that disappear into the 400-foot drop beside you. There is no guard rail. A full moon is rising. The one working headlight reveals a bear in the road ahead, raised on its hind legs, ready to attack. Your driver is insane. A leather-clad greaser who white knuckles the wheel while chugging from a chipped glass bottle of Kentucky bourbon. He’s been awake for three days snorting bleach in a burned out Reno motel. Maniacal growls and sickly belches punctuate his one unsettling question, “Are you feeling lucky?” That, my friend, is the vision that best describes Gift Of Life, the Suicide Squeeze label debut from Seattle’s Violent Human System. So, are you feeling lucky?
Following the demise of minimalist dark rock outfit Godheadssilo in 1999, bassist and lead singer Mike Kunka spent time touring with Aberdeen, Washington slowcore originators The Melvins. Ideas were shared, songs were written; and, following their live dates the friends entered the studio. But the album was never completed. Sixteen years later the collaborators reunited to finish the project. Finally released in 2016 under the moniker Mike + The Melvins the result is as uncompromising as it’s creators previous combined discography would suggest. Prolonged gestation aside, the arrival of Three Men And A Baby is remarkably timely. Deeply unsettling and as visceral as a horror novel, it’s tone speaks of a shaken world and an uncertain future. But don’t expect answers. Mike + The Melvins have created a black funhouse with enough sludge to anesthetize reality and rage with the madness of not knowing what tomorrow brings.
My relationship with Sia has been long and rewarding. Introduced to the Australian talent by her work with Zero 7, I hummed along as a casual fan of her solo material, and very much enjoyed the patchwork whimsy of her ‘pre-wig’ tours.
She was a girl who always grinned giddily with the engagement of someone who was genuinely happy to have the opportunity to earn from her craft. My love for her solidified when the longing of ‘Breathe Me’ set the tone for the final episode of Six Feet Under, arguably one of the greatest television series finales of all time. Then came the mildly publicised breakdown, rehabilitation, and her battle with Grave’s Disease. The creative output that followed has garnered a string of great millennium hits for David Guetta, Rhianna, and Flo Rida.
Sia was great before her rediscovery, and there are many points in her journey since that could have spelled mainstream overdose and staled the air of her high. I’ll admit I can be quite cynical about these things. I’ll also take accountability for my turn-coat self-righteousness when artists I once enjoyed willingly jump into pitfalls of success. For a moment Sia appeared to come dangerously close, but her true artistry shined when she began to release rejected songs written for her peers as her own once more. Reinvented, The wig and performance art of Maddie Ziegler either appeared as ploys or generally ‘weird’ depending on perspectives. I found them somewhat intriguing (and no more offensive than others who have attempted similar visual branding before her) and felt I shouldn’t indeed cast judgment until I had witnessed her evolved act in the flesh.
As far as large indoor venues go, Viejas Arena is usually a decent bet. Nestled into the sprawling canyon campus of San Diego State University, the steep grade bleacher seating affords a great view from any seat in the house, and the sound mix lands well. I’ve seen The Killers, M83, Joy Formidable, among others at this venue and each has been enjoyable in its right. Walking into the evening, I had few concerns—I just didn’t know what to expect. Sadly missing AlunaGeorge’s opening set, I joined the proceedings mid-way through Miguel’s performance (not bad, just nothing of substance to write about); the stage looked bare.
Suddenly I was nervous. Were we in for two hours of still life wig wailing? Or were we in for a suspenseful evening of expertly executed performance art? Thankfully, once the lights dropped for the main attraction, it took mere seconds to realize we were in for the latter. Yes, Sia stood bolt-upright on a small box riser behind a microphone that barely received the limelight as if the shadows would eat her at any moment. Yes, Maddie Ziegler was on-hand, with a small host of other dancers for a marathon display of performance art stamina. But Sia’s subdued gestures belied the swinging grace of her vocal acrobatics, and Maddie Ziegler was breathtaking. A video vignette accompanied each performed song that so closely matched the on-stage artists; it was nearly impossible to tell they had been pre-recorded. There were cameos from Tig Notaro, Paul Dano, Kristen Wiig, Gabby Hoffman, and Ben Mendelsohn that added a little extra star power to the experience, not that the art would have suffered at all without them. But overall the greatest thrill was watching the execution of Ryan Huffington’s choreography in its entirety. Never have I witnessed dancing that is so emotional, so chaotic, and so human—as if the inner-workings of our minds were outwardly expressed for the twisting kinesis of our limbs. Both magical and therapeutic—stage adjustments aside—there was not one dull moment throughout the entire revue. An artistic triumph, Sia is the new Arena Queen, and her misfit army is truly a force with which to be reckoned.
On a balmy night in October, my good friend Dave and I filtered into the Hollywood Palladium, ready and eager to witness James Blake and his special guest, Vince Staples. A 1920s Ballroom, perched aside Sunset Boulevard, in the famed Los Angeles neighbourhood, the Palladium is an institution. Figuratively, I’ve witnessed Arcade Fire burn this venue to its studs; Kim Gordon graffitied the walls with raw art; and, Sleater-Kinney sounded the alarm of their revolution. It’s a competitive track record to match but, nevertheless, hopes were high. When the lights dropped for the first time, Vince Staples took to the stage in a ground-shaking thump that sent vibrations through the near-century old wooden floors. A large projection screen retelling sequences from yesteryear movies silhouetted the scrawny contortions of his writhing figure. From stage left shadows rose a podium manned by the obligatory DJ guard, left hand cradling the left headphone can to his left ear—his focus split between future sound and the laptop before him. For a moment, the audience was rapt. An ocean of arms was rising and settling with the tide of rhymes. But as the seconds turned to minutes another realisation settled: the initial rush of stimulation was fleeting. Staples’ words were all but unintelligible and—while I don’t know for a fact—it certainly seemed as though he was lip syncing to a vocal track. To quote another friend, “Unless you’re dancing your ass off there’s no excuse for lip syncing,” and Staples wasn’t dancing his ass off. The songs heaved forward. Once in a while, the audience would rise in cheers for a familiar line or phrase, but for the most part, the real engagement was happening among the twinkling of selfies taken to remind the subjects later that this moment did, in fact, happen. The murmur of hashtag conversations continued to detract further from the stage show that to be honest was barely a show at all. Based on reviews from other trusted ears it’s possible I’d expected too much, and couldn’t tell if it was the disruptive audience or bad sound mixing. While I’m fairly prone to ignore attention starved attendees, and couldn’t fully discount the latter, Staples’ performance just wasn’t that great. The lights came up, Dave and I discussed our similar deductions, before being plunged into darkness a second time. As the stage illuminated, minimalist shapes rose to the background screens, floated, then morphed as though meant to represent evolving contemplations. Ground fog diffused lights of cyan and magenta, barely rising around three distinct square risers upon which (from left to right) a multi-instrumentalist, a drummer, then Blake surrounded by a stack of keyboards, gently padding the keys while hesitantly releasing vocal tones toward a solitary microphone.
All three musicians were quite still, as though they were giving the music freedom to rise and fall upon its own will. This alternate approach to the same audience did fall, but it also fell flat. The low murmur of conversation returned to the point that Blake paused his trio’s motions mid-song in an attempt to quiet the swell, but to no avail. The musicians continued, as did the crowd—joined in location, yet disconnected in tone. James Blake paints with sound. His records are deeply dimensional landscapes that stage his soulful falsetto, but the live retelling just doesn’t do his talent justice. A smaller venue maybe? A more reverent audience? Sure. But a little more life from the artist and his accomplices would also reap rewards.
SITTING IN THE INBOX
As we ready to close out another year, we’re making a list and checking it twice…
Stay thirsty y’all.
Lost in America, Englishman Tim Mudd is an artist, musician, and writer who splits his time between Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys romantic dinners, long walks on the beach, and brain-caving rock n’ roll.