Shake the Baron is a band hailing from Brooklyn, New York, the borough that has brought us the neuroticism of Woody Allen to the brutal depression of The National. They play a brand of rock music that calls back to the English “pub rock” scene, sounding like a lighter, slowed-down version of Arctic Monkeys. Singer Andrew Oedel intones in a shrill timbre resembling David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. Drums often lead the pack in the music; Matt Addison’s thudding beat is the most visceral, enchanting part of the band’s music. A rhythm and lead guitar often intertwine to create a metallic spider web of riffage. The opening cut, “Jones,” on their second release Ghost Hits starts with a guitar line that seems to poke holes in your skin, sounding like the beep of a heartbeat monitor gone awry.
“Crazy Align,” the album’s first single, remains one of its standout tracks. Opening with pounding drum beat and chunky guitar riff that sounds like a herd of buffalo stampeding towards the edge of a cliff, the song is characteristic of the musical structures around which Shake the Baron create their tunes. Tempo and tonal changes are consistent throughout the record. The song reaches a peak during the chorus as Oedel’s voice soars with a fidgety power. As icing on the cake, the music video features a fictional ex-band member exploding the group apart Scanners-style with telekinetic powers so he can save his kidnapped girlfriend.
Like Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors, Shake the Baron’s guitar work is very angular, often expressing itself through riffs that seem incomplete but compliment their geometric rhythmic patterns. Ghost Hits’ title track stands as the archetypal culmination of the band’s sound. Addison click-clacks his way via an off-kilter pattern through a clean, tubular riff. It can be difficult to know when to stomp your feet and when to hold them still, but once you can land the beat and learn to move along with it, the song becomes that much more rewarding.
The difficulty with music like Shake the Baron’s (and even sometimes Dirty Projectors’) seems to be what I would call Joni Mitchell Syndrome. In the past week I’ve been listening to Mitchell’s highly lauded album Blue for the first time. What I’ve noticed on it—something which was especially evident on her debut album—is an overwhelming melodic complexity which I think works against the music. Mitchell’s voice is indeed very beautiful, but what she can afford with her incredible range cannot be purchased easily by the listener. I’ve probably listened to the album a dozen times and can only sing along (or at least mimic) to a few tunes. Her voice is all over the place, and ventures into unwarranted territory more than I’m comfortable with. After listening to Ghost Hits a number of times, I’m getting the same vibes. The band does lay out a relatively unique soundscape, but I’d be hard-pressed to sing along to many of the tracks. The vocals are everywhere, and I have trouble distinguishing between which movements are which. The music also seems schizophrenic, sometimes not knowing what to do with itself. Though these complexities are interesting and would be difficult to replicate, the music will never mean anything if it remains just as foreign with each listen; the best music will sink in eventually, no matter how difficult it is at first. Shake the Baron are at their best when their music is most straightforward, like on “Crazy Align,” which goes to show the truth that Keith Richards brought down upon us when he said that if you want to make great rock and roll all you need is “five strings, two notes, two fingers, and one asshole.”
The hardest part about a revival is getting people interested in what is being resurrected. You’ve got to convince the audiences that bringing something back to life is a good idea. It’s not enough to just start selling “birth control glasses” and will them into vogue – they’ve got to be worn by NBA stars and ironic indie heroes first. Nothing’s ever dead; It’s only gone until it’s wanted again. This cycle of demand is the same thing that gave us some of the decade’s greatest treasures – It’s the source of hope that created a trilogy of good to great Batman movies for comic fans who held onto the idea that eventually audiences would tire of camp, facilitated Arrested Development’s return as comedy fans reeled from the percussive hammering of laugh tracks and broad stereotypes, and supported the rise of vinyl, large hunks of black plastic encased in covers ripe for framing, in an age of digital musical ownership where Zappa’s discography can fit into a pocket. Unfortunately, this same rule created the unholy demand for a new Creed tour and album after Nickleback’s horrifyingly successful crusade to revive generic buttrock. Like Uncle Ben said,” with great power comes great responsibility.” The Delicious Pastries are doing their darnedest to return to the 60’s and, thankfully, they’re only concerned with bringing back music.
I’ll take a melody over a mod every time but I’m pretty partial to the taste of both of them together. Delicious Pastries Pretty Please serves up the style of the Who and the Kinks with dashes of retro American rocker flavor courtesy of the Beach Boys and even a dollop of The Beatles “mocker” melodies into a sweet tasting mix. They’re sugary sweet and appeal way more to those who cherish a truly massive a sing-along chorus than making sense of lyrics like “I’m bringing cakes / I heard him singing mistakes / everybody’s coming ‘cos it’s totally snakes!” But I guess never trust a skinny cook or humorless popstar. Their occasional nonsense doesn’t detract from some deliciously (ha!) catchy stuff and while their lyrics might not be exactly equivalent to working through a Sudoku or even a crossword, they’re in no way bad for you. In fact, when Jonathan Chamberlain measures out his words instead of adding a pinch of sorrow, sweetness, or silliness where needed, Delicious Pastries are capable of making songs that as sweet as they are satisfying.
The album’s single, “safe and sound,” carries Chamberlain away in a flume of buoyant harmony and slick guitar work and before dumping him in a pool of psychedelic fuzz near the end of the song. It’s like a water slide! But it feels more like a rollercoaster as Chamberlain slips and slides through his unrequited relationship before ending up alone and promising “this love is gonna grow now, darling / it takes some time / I’m gonna make her mine / and I will do all those things / that I would have done unto me.” Too bad she’s already “buried her feelings” and he’s hearing this call from “the not so distant past.” It’s a gloomy thought done so pleasantly that it only feels like an addition to the thrills of the music, a lyrical tunnel that the music rushes through to come out brighter and catchier when it pops out the other side.
There’s self-awareness to the band that makes their music and delivery less innocent than what they are imitating. They’re an ironic 90’s band imitating their 60’s heroes. If they don’t perform in matching flannels and converses they’re missing out on a great opportunity. The clomping “Dad” toys with dorky palindrome jokes and biblical menace over vocal trickery while “International Tanlines” rearranges a Brian Wilson-esque dirge with guitars seized from Weezer. Delicious Pastries is omnivorous in taste, alluding to MST3K, The Beatles, and the Bible, while musically quoting the power pop of Big Star, the majestic self-indulgency of ELO, and just about any other major and minor influence in pop of the last fifty years.
The band’s got a knack at making songs seem bigger than they are. Like the Fleet Foxes’s songs always sound like two or three songs welded together, it’s hard to believe their songs don’t burst from all the ideas running through them. “Something Else’s” slow plod towards destruction has the tang of Elephant 6’s lightheaded psychedlia before skidding around a blast of noise to dive right into a retro arcade ping that washes into a sea of vocal harmony. The upbeat “metaphors” barrels through three-chord punk, sock bop vocals, and a Beach Boys ballad all in the course of two and half minutes. Luckily, they’ve get their genre hopping habit to work to their advantage. The backflip from ballad into a punkish blitz in “metaphors” after “And we both pretend / that the ship’s not going down/ but it is” feels like a punch in the gut while the gentle Kinks segue in “Birthday Fever” feeds into the lyrics calm pleas for forgiveness. Delicious Pastries restlessness assures that if listeners stick around long enough, they’re going to hear something that they like.
“Marian,” unfortunately, stretches the listener’s forgiveness for Delicious Pastries’ hyperactivity to its breaking point. By the time the halting melody of the first third of the track has just about worn out its welcome, the band spins into a swinging pop beat but throws so many obstacles in the way of it that the whole melody gets confused. It feels like just as soon as the band had me hooked and ready to sing along, they’d throw in an a capella aside. Pop songs don’t have to be sing-alongs to be great but when they’ve got choruses as catchy as “Marian” and I can’t sing along, I’m a little disappointed. “Marian” has the unique problem of being a disappointing song because of what it does so well and stop instead of because of what it does. Still, it contains some of their cleverest lyrics (“You’ve made it pretty clear / that you’re no open book / and I don’t care / please let me dog-ear a couple of your pages”) and most dynamic songwriting. It just falls victim to its own ambition.
I don’t know if the “king of pop” is a hotly contested crown in Pittsburgh but Delicious Pastries have a pretty strong shot at taking the throne. Their concomitant ironic and sincere take on retro pop is bright and funny and their ambitious composition is unpredictable and catchy. Delicious Pastries makes a heck of a argument that there should be a greater demand for smart retro pop.
Congratulations, everyone. Ezra Koenig is now openly singing about death, for nearly an entire recording. And he’s not being too incredibly subtle about it. What has the world come to? What’s going on in the head of such a handsome, well-put-together young man to stoop down to such levels and reach for such a bleak topic this early in his career? What have we done to this poor little lad? It’s true that his bohemian bones are approaching 30, but does he believe that he’s truly staring into the void? Surely that can’t be the case. He’s smart enough to know that that isn’t anywhere near “old.” Maybe in rock and roll terms it is, but in this day and age we keep our rock stars held up by the bells and whistles known as the technology boom. If Ezra ever finds himself OD’ing on some fine old china white, he can just let Siri know and she’ll call the ambulance right away, keeping him fresh and sprout to flicker on in the spotlight for years to come. These days 30 is practically kindergarten. I don’t think Koenig plans on dying anytime soon, though. So what has inspired him to go full-on Dr. Doom? What’s the catalyst for this monstrously inevitable concept of a pop record? It’s you, the young, impressionable readers of this blog! The Millennials. The Internet Generation. You who desire nothing else but instant gratification and self-affirmation. What with our Facebooks and Twitters we can distract ourselves from reality so easily and wherever we want, whenever we get bored with it. We live in the moment while simultaneously completely avoiding it. You assholes are the reason why Mr. Koenig must plumb the very depths of his soul and elicit such gruesome realities upon the general public.
But don’t feel too bad about yourselves, or the band. Vampire Weekend’s third effort, Modern Vampires of the City, doesn’t have the group slunk down in a crippling depression. This is most definitely an album about death, but it is not the band’s attempt at reconciliation with it. These guys aren’t even close to smelling that big ol’ pie in the sky. This is no Time out of Mind or American IV. Koenig hasn’t looked at the Grim Reaper square in the eye and he isn’t coming back to report in on it. This record is all about how to and not to deal with the passage of time; it is partly introspective and partly accusatory. It’s not that we should be worried about them; it’s Ezra and company who are worried about us. You see that damp mist hovering over the city on the cover? If you look up and stare real hard you’ll find that it’s hovering right above you. You see, we are the Modern Vampires he’s talking about. Us young folks. It’s true that we really don’t know how to manage our time very well, and so Ezra and company would like to elaborate just why that can be a very bad habit to have. Modern Vampires is a work of libel, directed at the privileged post-Moderns birthed by the baby boomers.
Some listeners may be off-put with the new recording. “What’s with the sad bastard music all of a sudden, Mr. Koenig?” they might say. But this is a Vampire Weekend album just as much as Contra and their self-titled debut. The band’s status as classically-trained Columbia-educated Ivy Leaguers, a subject which has come into discussion just as much as their music itself, has given them a reputation as being snooty, upper-class types who can’t relate to the majority of its audience. We can’t really expect them to put out twelve songs about how all the world is blue and really take it seriously, can we? I think they can. If you thought F. Scott Fitzgerald succeeded with The Great Gatsby, let it be understood that this band is trying to do the same thing. Vampire Weekend’s music has always been tinged with a stain of disillusionment, it just happens to be upper-class, orchestrated, intelligent disillusionment. The peppy pop of the first two records did a surprisingly efficient job of masking the often depressive content of their lyrics. It features engagingly complex, African-inspired arrangements vis-à-vis Paul Simon’s Graceland, a musical venture that would be seemingly incompatible with such downtrodden feelings. But the man pulled it off. Koenig had a song called “Holiday” which was actually about the Middle East, and he introduced many to the almond-based beverage horchata (I still haven’t tried it yet) in a tune about a disintegrating relationship. Koenig writes songs in the grand tradition of the witty but eternally-morose statesman, looking at the world from the outside, seeing how truly terrible everything is, then turning it into a big joke.
Holy shit, look at that sweater placement.
And so on Modern Vampires Ezra and company execute this joke with the mastery of a Carlin or Pryor. Like Fitzgerald, Vampire Weekend uses the imagery of upper-class American life and subverts it. The feelings of complacency and ecstasy ingrained in the young and rich are shown to be a poison on both themselves and the people they come into contact with. In these songs we have visions of young people, gloriously entranced by a live-in-the-moment attitude and an acute awareness of the present. The idea of death evades them, and so it becomes all the more sinister in its presence. In the opening cut “Obvious Bicycle,” a young man gives up on himself because the world has given up on him, and so he turns to thoughts of suicide and he becomes paralyzed by indecision. He vies for death as liberation, but the minutiae of the life he wants to escape stops him from succeeding. Koenig schizophrenically cries out to the man: “So listen, oh/Don’t wait.” Does he fulfill his desires or listen to his friends’ pleas?
The ensuing tracks are also fights against time, asking whether the knowledge or ignorance of death can free us or imprison us. In “Diane Young” and “Hannah Hunt,” Ezra evokes the eternally youthful image of a beautiful woman and uses it to scorn their dalliance with the moment. Diane Young (a homophone for “dying young”) “torches Saabs” but has the “luck of a Kennedy,” and she cannot grasp the whole picture. Hannah Hunt and her lover become blinded by the alluring feeling of love, instantaneous and ever-present, unable to understand what’s ahead of them because they have their “own sense of time.” Robin Williams was very convincing in Dead Poets Society. It’s true that Carpe Diem is an honorable sentiment, but only when allied with a certain sense of caution and reverence.
Three tracks deal with God and religion, issues forever wed with death and dying. Ezra yells at God in “Ya Hey” (a.k.a. Yahweh), wondering why he never answers the cries of his children. In “Step,” the Big Mighty is pinpointed as the perpetrator in the dissolution of a relationship. Our narrator accepts the break-up and then rejects life. No one gets saved in “Unbelievers,” where the faithful and the heathens both end up floating in limbo. Unlike Ms. Young, these characters seemed focused on what will happen after we die; but like her, they also diminish themselves in the process.
Ezra’s characteristically esoteric knowledge of geography also comes into play. About 16 or so places are mentioned, a number of which I’ve never heard of (where the hell is Angkor Wat?), or are simply too far away for me to afford to visit. Like usual, he wisecracks. In “Finger Back” we listen to him simultaneously reject and accept the pains and pleasures of life: “Hit me like a Yankee/Like the South that never had a slave.” “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die,” he tells us later. It’ll make you chuckle, but it will also make you a little sad. And so Koenig maintains a comedic distance from the material he presents to us, allowing him to maintain his instructional verbiage.
There is a slight shift in musical tendencies on Modern Vampires, but song structures are intact and better than ever. Ghostly choruses permeate through many songs. On “Hudson,” one of two anti-war/imperialism songs, they are most distinct, and become amplified with the inclusion of a death march drum beat. The core of the band—their jumpy, tribal music—is still there, with great effectiveness, but it’s sometimes reprimanded for more personal dynamics. Rostam Batmanglij’s piano gives an air of reflective meditation. Koenig’s parrot-like squawk is in full form. Listen as he reaches an incredibly beautiful apex in the last minute of “Hannah Hunt,” an otherwise quite sparse ditty. Chris Tomson’s drumming, especially on the faster songs, never fails to get our feet moving, confusing as his rhythms can be.
By the closing cut, “Young Lion,” the band reaches an optimistic epiphany, chanting at the listener this line four times: “You take your time, Young Lion.” And so the band has captured some solace and ends the album on an uplifting note. They want us to take our time, not throw it away—wherever that may be.
BELT says they’re a jam band but if I didn’t know better I’d say they’re just an indie band that likes guitars. I mean, really likes guitars. Their stuff is clever, the lyrics display biting humor, wordplay, and weirdness that surprises and delights, they balance their love of clean guitar tone with a suitably booming bass, and the jammy outro doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you sliced off the last minute, they could easily sneak by Sublime and Bare Naked Ladies fans without them catching a whiff of Phish or Widespread Panic. BELT doesn’t need qualifications for their music – no defense of lyrical weakness with a glib “lyrics aren’t the important part of a jam band, man” or harass listeners with truisms from Uncle Jerry’s School of Guitar Heads and Chemical Enthusiasts. Their jamming and songwriting speaks for itself.
Their first single, “Lions and Whales,” from their upcoming debut All The Cool Kids Are Doing It is a failed love story told by National Geographic. Glossy guitars flow over a reggae beat and Dan Testa spins a story about the disastrous romance of a whale that is prone to “migration” and a lion that just can’t take it anymore. It’s a clever take on a doomed romance of two souls just not meant for each other. The band has a blast upending clichés, spinning sayings, and throwing out clever turns of phrase all with winking allusions to their zoological theme.
When the lyrics of a jam band are the highlight of a song, there’s either something really wrong or really special going on. Thankfully, it’s the latter. Testa spins the worn platitude of friends, “there’s other fish in the sea,” into the lion’s bitter declaration that “I tried to kill all your friends and they’d eat me” because “if I tried to follow you, I’d drown.” The cliché statement “not being able to hold you is getting pretty stale” is taken as literal statement that emphasizes its sting. The lion’s sad “You’ve got a life in the sea” (probably with all those other fish) and “I have to leave with my pride” is funny and painful because with a roar as loud as a lion, there’s little chance to attract another fish. It’s songwriting at its finest— catchy enough to keep you dancing and smart enough to keep you thinking. What initially appears as a novelty becomes poignant as each joke has an undercurrent of the lion’s desolation and each laugh hides a realization of the pain behind the song’s summery beat and lighthearted melody.
None of the cool kids dance at concerts (or at least that’s what I’ve heard), but maybe BELT can change that. As much as I admire their desire to breath some life into the motionless indie live scene, the jam near the end of the song is wholly unnecessary. Most jam bands hook their audience with jams, apologizing for trite songwriting with guitar wizardry, but BELT has no need to do so. “Lions and Whales” proves that BELT has as much right to be in the crowd of “cool kids” of the indie scene as anyone else. And without that outro jam, I know they’d slip in unnoticed. If they had cut it out, they’d have one more surprise for their audience; imagine the surprise (and, hopefully, delight) on the indie kids’ faces when BELT could pull out all the stops live and treat them to a five minute improvisational jam!
Belgium’s Kabul Golf Club first EP, Le Bal Du Rat Mort, isn’t especially palatable, but it’s approachable. That’s saying a lot for a band which is influenced by and aspires to post-hardcore or mathrock, genres which wear descriptors such as “impenetrable,” “abrasive,” and “challenging” like badges of pride. It’s confrontational, unpleasant, and bewildering music with a morbid sense of humor and mechanically precise coughing and sputtering. Kabul Golf Club’s music stutters, stops, and buries sophistication in dense noise — it’s intellectually challenging just as much as it is aesthetically nauseating. Only the best golfers (or the most mad) would think to play their archetypal aristocratic game in the middle of a warzone, and, likewise, only some truly gifted musicians can make music this hostile to listeners.
Kabul Golf Club’s album title, which takes it name from a Belgium comic where the protagonist struggles against man-sized vampire rats, suicide, and a battle for his soul during a worldwide crisis–in this case is the bubonic plague–is, stylistically and thematically, representative of the music within its cover: nightmarish, over-the-top, and a tad bit melodramatic. The first track “Bits of Freedom” is like a watch that ticks on an odd beat, something so melodically wrong that only experts could put it together. The vocals are nothing spectacular – typical hardcore howling about how there’s “nowhere to hide” and I should “close my eyes” – but they set up the album’s whole hellish atmosphere of claustrophobia and fear. And that’s about all they do, as the music is the real draw of the track. The bass’ torturous gallop is ripped out of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking but the rest of the music is much more ambitious than Albini’s single-minded assault. Guitars detonate over woozy synth and a brutal bass beat as the band does its best to give the listener whiplash. Time changes slam into new grooves without warning, guitars skewer whatever melody the song has, stabbing into the mix and leaving in tatters of dissonance, and the start-stop drumming may not be pleasant but it holds attention like a dentist’s drill.
In “Minus 45” herky-jerky rhythms slam against the walls of chords, careen into the back of the mix, and then emerge, spinning, to shake the song back into a “chorus” before being lost in the haze of sound again. It’s declamatory and woozy and sick and pretty fun. Kabul’s prog ambitions shine through their spluttering musical gymnastics while their hardcore tendencies burn any kind of melody to the ground. The vocals, though, still don’t do much more than embellish the movement of the music. No worries, as the monolithic bass and seasick guitar are a blast. The last minute in particular, where the guitar decays to white noise and the bass rumbles like an earthquake, is some of the most fun on the entire album as the band allows the song to unspool around them. It’s like looking behind the curtain, a way for the band to smirk, “That wasn’t noise. THIS is noise,” and show that, despite appearances, they know exactly what they are doing.
“Fast Moving Consumer Goods” title appears to be copy and pasted from a “How to Be Hardcore” manual and its music suffers from the same fate. Over wails of “Love has left,” the band milks the start-stop mathrock formula for all its worth as they juggle wiry guitar solos and layers of noise. It’s offensive, sure, but so are drawings of dicks and any yahoo with a sharpie and an urge to impress can draw those. “Fast Moving Consumer Goods” displays none of the skill or innovation that makes the band interesting. I wouldn’t be so cruel to call it racket but, other than the peculiar guitar tone during the solo, there’s nothing in this song that deserves much attention.
The wheedling guitar of “5 Minutes 2 Midnight” winds around headphones like a screw as the listener slowly descends into a tightly constricted hell of screaming and discord. The subtle time-changes of the track slowly bind the track in the spiky riff so that the whole track seems to slowly become only that riff and everything is swallowed up by its noise and hubris. The feeling of hearing the riff, which once sounded so open and free, suddenly become oppressive and all encompassing communicates the punk ideology of anti-establishment/anti-control sentiment clearer than any lyrics ever could. There’s no need for any stilted poetry or heavy-handed attempts at pathos because you can see the effects of control musically. You are witnesses to the outcome of a monopoly and its fear and comfortableness isn’t recreated in music – it’s lived. It’s a brilliant effect and pretty brilliant song. Even the singing, which consists mostly of screaming, is spot-on.
The last track, “Demon Days” is the highlight of Le Bal Du Rat Mort and a revelation for Kabul Golf Club. Not only is it the first song that has singing that functions as essential piece, rather than decoration, of the music, but it also features the first truly innovative ideas of the album. The track’s guitars have a dynamism and coherence that is perfectly matched by the track’s brutality. Each stanza has the guitar reinventing itself with a new texture before throwing away melody and structure and injecting a new tone and direction into the thrashing rhythm. It’d be disorienting to jump between so many styles and ideas if it wasn’t so well done and fascinating to listen to. The traditional mathrock stop-start structure is fleshed out to be more than just an intellectual exercise as the band actually has created a song I want to listen to rather than just one that I’d like to think about. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the most progressive song, the one they don’t try to disguise with noise or dissonance, is their most successful. “Demon Days” shows that Kabul Golf Club is finally confident enough to flex their abilities and push the boundaries of structure. We are rewarded for this boldness.
The time-changes, textural shifts, and ambition of “Demon Days” are like listening to multiple songs jockey for the spotlight inside of the same song. It’s practically bursting with ideas and energy. And, better yet, it shows Kabul Golf Club has a lot to draw from for their first full album. I just hope they remain bold enough to continue the explorations in “Demon Days” rather than retread the comfortable mathrock exercises of the rest of the album.
Order the EP here: http://www.kgc-band.com/
Kendrik Lamar’s alter ego K.Dot in Good Kid, M.A.A.d City is just a good kid in the midst of Compton, CA, the backdrop and birthplace of the rap albums whose gritty stories of the city’s temptation, violence, and tedium birthed the gangsta genre. The album’s narrative exposes the materialism, egocentrism, and ignorance at the heart of the genre through 25-year-old Kendrick’s retrospective narration of the sins of his 17-year-old self. The major myths of gangsta rap, such as the violent romanticism of N.W.A., the Shakespearean street tragedy of 2 Pac, and the stoned hedonism of Snoop Dogg, echo and inform the collage of musical styles and lyrical narrative of the album. Lamar combines myth and reality, fiction and anecdote in a seamless narrative that simultaneously celebrates and criticizes the foundations of gangsta rap. He reveals the paradoxes of a childhood of lust and love, a culture that celebrates intoxication as emancipation, and a city that is as oppressive as it is nurturing. Kendrick Lamar deconstructs West Coast hip-hop and gangsta culture throughout the album by subverting genre tropes, undermining traditional genre values, and transforming gangbangers into misguided soldiers of God.
Kendrick’s assertion of the essence of performance in his peers and the inherently blurred implication of the tropes they’ve modeled their lives after is an example of deconstruction. Deconstruction, as defined by Jacques Derrida, is a critical perspective that aims to break down all assumptions of singular meaning and expose the paradoxes inherent in all structures. By subverting the traditional assumption that a literary work is singular and complete, Deconstruction reveals the work as a plural “text“ that consists of “tissues of influence,” and thereby, deconstruction opens the work to a multiplicity of readings. Barthes views the work as a product of a conglomeration of forces outside of the work, such as gangsta rap classics, that all work to inform and create the work, and shatter all restrictions to meaning through an embrace of ambiguity, paradox, and a refusal to acknowledge authorship. Deconstruction attempts to remove all boundaries associated with an individual’s experience and understanding. A deconstructionist viewing of a work scrutinizes assumptions and undermines what is traditionally understood by reveling in indeterminacy. Kendrick’s retroactive narration picks apart the performativity of his peers and analyzes the varied implications pulling at K.Dot’s dream to “live like rappers do” (Kendrick Lamar, “Money Trees”). Lamar destabilizes the value of gangsta culture as the guiding influence on his life and musical success, exposing it as a detrimental influence that he had to rise above and get swallowed by to succeed, through his examination of K.Dot’s concepts of love and alcohol.
For K.Dot, alcohol is representative of all materialistic decadence; He pictures swimming pools full of liquor as the definitive facilitator to achieve 2Pac’s and, thus, his peers’ goal, of achieving the triumvirate of “pussy, power, and pistols” (2Pac, “If I Die 2Nite”). K.Dot’s peers see drinking as an anesthesia for daily life as well as a way to endeavor towards a better life. Their drinking, gangbanging, and violence imitate the stories of the streets in gangsta rap written by groups that the boys idolize who made it big and accordingly, they believe drinking is part of the answer to get out of Compton. They drink to be like those who escaped but, unknowingly, the boys perpetuate their own oppression. Ironically, the drinking in which K.Dot and his crew indulge to escape their life in Compton, only plunges them more deeply into the drive-bys, easy women, and truancy that typify that life. K.Dot’s observation that “usually I’m drug-free but, shit, I’m with my homies” as he listens to his friends brag about shootings and theft in the effectively named “The Art of Peer Pressure” suggests that much of the immorality of Compton is caused by a contradictory and self-perpetuated vicious cycle; The boys drink to forget, forget what they’re drinking to forget, and then cause the same suffering they tried to escape from originally. Their perceived salvation is also their greatest oppressor. Kendrick suggests that the only way to escape Compton is to embrace it but in embracing it, he risks never escaping it.
K.Dot’s embrace of gangsta attitudes lead to the death of Dave, a friend of K.Dot, during a shoot-out in an attempt to get revenge on another gang for ambushing K.Dot, K.Dot sees that his and his peers’ lifelong reenacting of the stories of classic gangsta records, and not the rival gang’s bullet, is what really killed his friend. Literally and metaphorically, K.Dot’s lifestyle killed Dave because it was K.Dot’s single-minded pursuit of sex that led him to the ambush and thus propelled Dave to enter the shootout. Angered by Dave’s death, the boys stalk up to the streets, guns drawn, to deal death in revenge for death dealt. Just before another cycle of destruction and death starts, an old woman spots and shames the boys, saying that they’re “dying from thirst and they need water, holy water, so they need to be baptized with the spirit of the Lord,” as she stops and forces them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer, which is reiterated in the start of the album (Kendrick Lamar, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”). The woman’s intervention pulls K.Dot out of drinking from Compton’s endlessly rejuvenating wells of violence and shocks him into revelation.
Suddenly, Kendrick realizes that injudicious ideals, not forces of external oppression, have kept him and the whole of Compton in a state of “mass hallucination and ill education” (Kendrick Lamar, “Good Kid”). He’s a “prisoner trapped inside his desire” that ensnares every aspect of his understanding. His obsession with lust, an imitation of the sexual objectification of his idols infects his understanding of love that reduces love to merely eloquent pillow talk. He wields kindness and thoughtfulness as a sexual crowbar. To convince women that he’s ‘not like the rest,’ K.dot conceals his lust and disrespect behind a mask of decency and attentiveness. Worse, once he has what he wants sexually and leaves, his “good guy” posing is reason for another girl to give up on finding a man who sees her more than an object. In a fit of deconstructionist genius, Kendrick’s insurrection manifesto is delivered, unwittingly, by Drake, the supreme smooth ladies’ man in R&B. Drake’s very claim against objectification, “They say communication saves relationships, I can tell” is revealed to be a veiled support for objectification as he precedes his statement with “when I see that [ass] move, I just wish we would fight less and we would talk more;” He doesn’t seek to communicate with the girl because he’s fixated on her body and his “I can tell” is not a sigh of relief after a fight but an escaped moan slipping from curved lips under greedy eyes (Kendrick Lamar, “Poetic Justice”). His careful performance to be “not like other guys” but still reap the lustful rewards that the “other guys are after,” destroys any hope for romance, any concept of true love, from any girl he seduces. Not only are the bad guys bad, but the good guys are bad, too.
Kendrick’s insight also undercuts the glamorous metaphors and club-ready beat of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and the culture of materialism that Kendrick has represented in alcohol. Once the listener understands the significance of the Sinner’s Prayer in the beginning of the album, Kendrick’s deconstructions of the thrill of drinking, and thus, all associated aspects of K.Dot’s dream of “living life like rappers do” appear in nearly every song (Kendrick Lamar, “Money Trees”): His, and by extension, gangsta rap’s, dreams about having a “big dick” in “Backstreet Freestyle” are revealed to be vain and puerile as he contrasts them with Martin Luther King’s dreams for a whole race. His claim that “granddaddy had the golden flask – back stroke every day in Chicago” in “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is not a proud declaration of opulence but instead, an image of death; and “headshot” flashes back to watching his Uncle Tony shot in the head; he sees blood pouring freely instead of a shot of liquor. Kendrick laments that “all I have in my life is my new appetite for failure and I got hunger pain that grows insane” before he confronts the listener, which we can imagine could include K.Dot, “making excuses that your relief is in the bottom of the bottle and the greenest indo leaf as I release everything that corrode inside of me and I see you joking. Why you laugh? Don’t you feel bad?” (Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)). Within lyrics that embody, applaud, and can even soundtrack a life “distracted by money, drugs, and four/(foe) fives,” Kendrick points out their senselessness (Lamar, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”). He embraces multiplicity, turning K.Dot into a model as well as a foil for the gangsta lifestyle and transforming a characteristic narrative into a denigration of its genre.
Even Kendrick’s conclusion that he must sing about his old life in order to stop it from repeating again is ambiguous and uncertain (Kendrick Lamar, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst). He knows that his subversion of present cycles by singing so the “next generation maybe can sleep with dreams of being a lawyer or doctor instead of a boy with a chopper that hold the cul de sac hostage” won’t redeem him or the past (Kendrick Lamar, “M.A.A.d City”). Even if he tells and retells his story, as suggested by the cyclical structure of the album, he may never drink past lifelong drought. His success and his message to “die the thirst” that’s “hereditary – in all my cousins” originates from “dying of thirst” in Compton but he may well be damned for what lead him to search for salvation in the first place. His damnation and salvation lies in his realization of his self-oppression and the power he must fight against rests not in an outside authority, but rather the internalization of gangsta rap’s rebellion against that authority.
Kendrick fights the powers that fight authority and decenters their concept of a “real” man. A real man isn’t one who’s responsible to his colors, desirous of women, and faithful to the power of his crew but one that is simply responsible, loving, and is faithful. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.d City substitutes the “pussy, power, and pistols” holy triad of gangsta rap by bringing the values of “responsibility, family, and God” that lie at the margins of rap’s misguided notions of loyalty and success to the center while his analysis of alcohol destabilizes traditional assumptions of the oppressiveness of Compton and thus, poverty, and substitutes traditional rap concepts of success and masculinity (Lamar, “Real”). Kendrick is real not because he has women or power or respect, but because he “rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person” and “because when he made it, he give back” but, mostly, because he goes with love (Lamar, “Real”).
2Pac. Me Against the World. Out Da Gutta, 1996. CD.
Barthes, Roland. From Work to Text (1929): 15-18. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences (1966): 5-14. Print.
Foucault, Michel. What Is an Author? (1969): 22-30. Print.
Kendrick Lamar. Good Kid M.A.A.d City. Top Dawg, 2012. CD.
Middle Distance Runner, made up of drummer Erik Dean, bassist Tony Acampora, guitarist and keyboardist, Jay Smith and lead singer Stephen Kilroy, are the first local band I ever discovered. Stephen Kilroy is a fellow Hayfield Hawk and was a frequent substitute teacher for various classes. Through my computer science teacher, I found out that “Mr. Kilroy” had a band and from then on, each class he taught was another opportunity to bug him about music. Because of me, he couldn’t give the class a worksheet, read his copy of Oil!, or chill in the back of the room in peace. But how couldn’t I bug him? He came to class dressed in a blazer over a retro Stones shirt! He was the epitome of cool and his band was fantastic! Plane in Flames and The Sun & Earth was high-quality pop that sounded like every band I was just discovering and going crazy over. To my fledgling music tastes, they were like prophets. I flipped out over “The Fury,” which lead me to stumble across Fleet Foxes, I practically memorized “Hooks” and started looking for music like it only to find and then obsess over this “Radiohead” band that papers claimed influenced Kilroy’s singing. Middle Distance Runner were clever, they could rock or whisper, and, most importantly, their music made me think. Their love songs were complex and subtle, their rock songs were funny and sad and angry (sometimes all at the same time) and it felt like every time I listened to them I found more to love and more to think about. They’re one of the first bands that made me want to explore, instead of just listen to, music and I was honored to talk to them about the status of their long-awaited third album, Firehouse, songwriting, and the right way to eat pie.
Sunken Treasures: Oh, man, this is a big interview for me! I get a redo from my very first interview ever and I promise that I won’t compare you guys to every buzz band on Pitchfork this time. But I can’t really blame my high school self – your two albums, Plane in Flames and The Sun & Earth, sound as good (and eclectic) now as they did to the kid who was just discovering the earsplitting joy of shoegaze and all the other treats indie had to offer. You’ve aged well, is what I’m trying to say. Speaking of that, how is the next album coming? Does it have a silly secret code name or singles? What’s been up with MDR since we last saw them?
Steve Kilroy: “Next album” is kind of a loose term at this point. We recorded a bunch of material a while ago (maybe over a year?) and just never released it. We couldn’t really decide how we wanted to release it, whether as singles or an entire album, online or physical discs. So we have those songs, which are very party-friendly (think Beck’s Midnite Vultures) and silly, but then we also moved our rehearsal space/studio to a new spot a little over a month ago and have been rehearsing some more guitar-based rock stuff. Long story short, who knows?!
ST: With the gap between albums, how have new responsibilities shaped the band or your music? New jobs, new families, new houses – how have they impacted what MDR is?
Steve: Well, for starters, I have a son now. That kind of made our little hiatus into a slightly bigger hiatus. I wouldn’t really say that it has affected the way we write, though, as we’ve always kind of found time to make music between life, if that makes sense. I think it’s a good way to write and play, personally, because it really makes you value your time doing it and it helps you have more to write about than drinking and being on the road. I will tell you it has changed the way I listen to some of our songs, particularly the ones I wrote about my dad. For instance, “The Madness” from Plane In Flames or “Round Here” from The Sun & Earth take on a whole new dimension now that I’m a father. I feel like fuckin’ Harry Chapin over here!
ST:What is your most enthralling musical experience? What makes you keep coming back to music even with other responsibilities presents?
Steve: All of my best musical experiences have been more about sharing good times with my best friends (the other guys in the band) than anything particularly musical. Thinking back on some of the tours, especially when we got to essentially take a cross-country road trip playing shows along the way, those were some of the best memories. We don’t get to tour as much anymore, but seeing any song come together the way you wanted it is the most rewarding work I can imagine.
ST: About the new album, where do you think the band is going to go? Where do you want it to go? What would you like to see with this new album that you guys haven’t done or had before?
Steve: Well, we have a bunch of songs that can be put into different categories (party, Americana, etc.) at this point, and we’re still not sure exactly how we’re going to release them. I think at this point we want to rehearse and play them live to get a sense of the most exciting way to present them, and then we’ll decide when to launch them out to the public.
ST: Are you ever going to stop recording music? When will you consider yourselves to have “made it?” When the skinny jeans don’t fit or when your kids think you’re lame?
Steve: We’re never going to stop recording music. I don’t think we’ll ever feel like we’ve “made it”, but that’s more of a zen comfort with where we are in our lives and musical careers than a disappointment. The skinny jeans stopped fitting a long time ago, my friend…
ST: One of the most fascinating things about you guys is how restless your music is – how each album is a collection of a hodgepodge of styles that all complement each other. No matter what genre you tackle, it’s excellent and unified with an “MDR sound.” It’s magic how Sun can go from the furious rock and ironic gospel of “The Unbeliever” to the bright, gorgeous acoustic sunshine of “The Fury” and then jump right into the strutting mental breakdown of “The Wrong Hole” without giving the listener whiplash. You guys are a dozen bands in one but they all sound like you, if that makes any sense. Where do you guys get this wandering muse from? Does it come from a kind of pop “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach or somewhere else?
Steve: Thank you! Some people see that as a disadvantage (read: labels don’t know how to sell you), but I think being able to stretch is a strength of ours. In my mind, an album is supposed to go somewhere, and take the listener on a journey of some sort. It has to have an arc, a beginning-middle-end structure. If every song sounds the same, it’ll cause a sort of stagnancy in the album. We’ve always though album structure is very important, so we spend a lot of time picking which songs go where in the tracklist (there’s a reason ”Palindrome” is #6 out of 11 songs on The Sun & Earth). I think having a lot of varied sounds has really helped us with the publishing side of things too (commercials, TV, movie placements, etc.) since we have a song for whatever people need to convey.
ST: Could you define the Middle Distance Runner sound? What makes “you” you? What sets you apart from the rest of the pack?
Steve: None of us are very good salesmen, so we’ve struggled with a way to define what we sound like in a few words. At one point, I think we said “Radiohead with a dick and balls”, but that doesn’t really apply anymore (if it ever did). We just sound like a pop band with multiple-personality disorder to me.
ST: You guys have had quite a bit of success with your music, providing music to TV shows from Teen Mom to stuff even more respectable. How have you been perceived? Are you seeing a boost in fans or fan letters? What do you expect of your shows and your audience?
Steve: It’s true, most of our financial stability comes from publishing. We started out with a small company that really blew up, so we couldn’t be happier with the attention they still give us. We’ve had a few people say they heard about us from a commercial or TV show, which is always nice, even if it is Teen Mom.
Tony: Are you trying to say that there are more respectable TV shows than Teen Mom?
ST: Even with all the new fame, would you pass the Lester Bangs pie test – if someone threw a pie at you in the middle of the show, would you storm off stage like Robert Plant or would you rub it on your genitals and face like Iggy Pop?
Tony: I’m currently rubbing pie on my genitals, actually, but would probably eat the pie you’re talking about.
Steve: I really have nothing to add to Tony’s answer.
ST: Irony seems to play a huge part in your music, both musically and lyrically.“Naturally” is about a person deliriously imprisoned in a love affair but is played in such an upbeat way that’s it’s easy to skim over the lyric “I, I hope she’s got a husband / I hope that he is coming / To find me out and tear out both my eyes” and skip right to that equally as disturbing but catchy as hell chorus. It’s a subtle and more complex “Girlfriend in a Coma,” basically. “He Take Ride” is bubblegum pop about a pedophile’s latest abduction, sung from the point of view of the dead victim. If the songs weren’t so cheery and poppy, they’d be outright disturbing. So, the question is, do you guys see yourself as a pop band? Because every “pop” song you have overturns pop notions – your love songs are sugary imprisonments and your bubblegum is gleefully gruesome.
Steve: I definitely see us as a pop band. I don’t see much of a point in making clever or cerebral music that nobody will enjoy, at least for myself. I think all of us are a bit too cynical to take ourselves too seriously, so maybe it’s some kind of defense mechanism to take something I want to seriously address lyrically and cover it with cheerful pop. Or maybe it’s just to make the medicine go down a little easier. If we made the lyrics serious and the music serious, it might come off as preachy or something.
ST: The presence of humor in your music is something that makes MDR stand out. Whether it’s dark humor or tongue-in-cheek skewing of punk like your new “Cherry Blossom Bop,” your stuff is fun even when its topic is not. You guys are a thoroughly post-modern band, showing reverence to pop as you blow it to smithereens, and I’m interested where that comes from. Could you tell me a little bit about your songwriting? Do you set out to make such complex and subversive pop songs or is it all a happy accident that happened on the way to making a hit?
Steve: Oh, I don’t know how much we blow pop to smithereens. I think we just add a little cynicism to color it. A lot of my favorite bands do the same thing (Magnetic Fields and Belle & Sebastian, for instance). I think maybe subconsciously I’m a bit of a fatalist, but I’m not saddened by that (or I don’t want listeners to be), so we deliver those kind of messages with a cheerful “fuck it” attitude. Also, Erik writes a lot of our melodies and is great at writing a cheerful pop melody, so if I have something miserable to say, it’s got to go through that filter. Really, it’s the four of us collaborating that contributes to any complexity that you might perceive.
ST: Are you afraid of pretentiousness? Is there a gap between being accessible and being meaningful? Can you be both?
Steve: Yeah, like I said, I think coming from the DC area makes people very self-conscious about being pretentious. We all make fun of each other mercilessly, for better or worse, so you can’t really get away with being too pretentious around here. I kinda like that about this area. There’s no gap between being accessible and profound if you do it right.
ST:What is your all-time favorite song? What are some songs you wish you wrote?
Steve: My all-time favorite song is “GinzaSamba” by Stan Getz & Cal Tjader. It is the embodiment of pure joy.
ST: Do you think it is more important to be a tight studio band or a kick-ass live band? Do you attempt to bring the energy of a live performance into the studio, or do these two stay separate?
Steve: In the past we’ve spent a lot of time trying to create great studio records, but lately we’ve been rehearsing and recording stuff live in the studio. I think for our next project, we’re going to combine the two approaches by starting with a live core sound and adding layers on top. There is something to be said for the spontaneity of recording live, but I think we have too many ideas to limit our recordings to 4 instruments.
ST: What other artists would you like to work or tour with, local or otherwise?
Steve: We’ve collaborated with Raw Poetic in the past on “Momma” and “Boxer”, the latter of which we released for Earth Day. We have at least one more song with him on there from the new batch of party songs, called “What A Woman Wants”. It’s a completely ridiculous song. He’s super fun to work with because he works so fast, and can write to your ideas perfectly.
ST: Finally, if you were a band what would you want the last question of this interview to be?
Steve: Everyone knows we’re a band, but what your question pre-supposes is . . . maybe we aren’t?
ST: Thanks, guys!
Check out Middle Distance Runner’s blogspot for their first two albums, joviality, and more: http://mdrrock.blogspot.com/