Category Archives: Opinion

This is not the response you want when listeners hear the first song on your album.

Bands, your track listing is important

I know you’re expecting Trashy Tuesday. I also know that I don’t normally let anyting stand in the way of Trashy Tuesday. However, I have a couple deadline pieces due in a couple days, so I’ll just check in with this quick hitter.

I know that music has changed and people don’t always listen to songs in the order in which they appear on an album. That being said, even in a digital format, it’s important to have a real attention getter as your first track. I started listening to an album on Soundcloud last night, and was nearly ready to turn it off after about 20 seconds of the first song. Being the fair guy that I am, I decided to just skip the first song and move on to the second one. Ultimately, I found the album pretty good, but think about that previous sentence. I skipped the first song. Now maybe that’s just different strokes for different folks. Maybe lots of people really enjoy that first song. But here’s the thing. You don’t want to risk losing your audience with the first song on an album. There is an easy way to go about this. Lead with the one that gets the most consistently good response from people you play it for. If you need a good example of a great first song on an album, try this one on for size.

 

This guy also uses a pitchfork

On how not to write

I know what you may be thinking when you see the title of this post. You may be wondering who I am to tell people how not to write. I know I’m not perfect when it comes to writing, but I like to think that I know a thing or two, particularly when it comes to writing about music. After all, I have been doing this for a good long while now.

I received an email about Lyla Foy‘s new album and it included this blurb by Stephen M. Deusner from Pitchfork.

“The result might be best described as a digital pastoral: sequences and synthesizers blending with live instruments to create the kind of introverted, outdoorsy reverie most commonly associated with acoustic folk. Foy’s songs are both lush and low-key, intimate and surprisingly intricate. She layers beats generously but carefully, alternating between buoyant (“I Only”, with its percolating intro) and bittersweet (“Only Human”, with its insistent snare tap). Except on the relatively aerodynamic “Feather Tongue”, which could easily be remixed into a throbbing dance number suitable for a meadow rave, Foy’s concern isn’t rhythm but texture and tapestry. The tempos are generally slow and rigid, which  fits the general atmosphere of the record and gives you a better opportunity to admire her craft.”

Take a moment to digest that. Yes, it has a lot of flowery language, but what does it really mean? Let’s start with “digital pastoral.” Whatever preceded that phrase, I’m willing to bet he lost a lot of readers right there. After all, who has any idea what a digital pastoral is…without having to scurry to the dictionary?

If, for some reason, readers were not lost at digital pastoral, I have to think that the next tripping point came at “meadow rave.” A meadow rave? What is that exactly? Look, I have to give the writer some credit for coming up with an original metaphor, but with how many people does a meadow rave resonate?

Here’s my biggest issue with the blurb. It is creative. I will grant that. But as a music writer, your job is to explain an album in a way that your readers can understand it without having to consult a dictionary. More to the point, it’s to encourage readers to go out and explore whatever artist you’re reviewing based on other things they may like. I read this blurb and thought a couple things. First, this review does nothing to help me understand what Lyla Foy is all about. Second, the writer made the review more about his writing style than the music, and that does an injustice not only to the artist, but also to anyone who decided not to explore the artist simply because the writer was so pretentious in his review. However, I’m not just here to complain. I’m also here to offer a solution. If you want a more concise review of Lyla Foy, try this on for size: Lyla Foy’s music is what would happen if Kate Bush collaborated with Stereolab. Granted, if I were writing a full review, I would write more than that. However, I just said in one sentence – with no flowery language - what the writer couldn’t manage to say in an entire paragraph.

 

Mike Espinach discusses dubstep, Skrillex, and more

Misadventures with Mike: The Art of Art

In this edition of Misadventures with Mike, Mike Espinach discusses the growth of dubstep, the rise of Skrillex, and the value of art. Look for another new edition of his column in the summer issue of Incognito.

The Art of Art by Mike Espinach

It’s odd to think and know that things can be done without authenticity these days, particularly in the realms of art. Now with the advances of technology, it’s only natural for anyone to be a “bedroom producer” overnight, which is absolutely a positive. Giving people creative means is a beautiful thing, especially considering the fact that being a musician has its hefty expenses.

However, it is scary to know that whatever new and alien styles are forged, they will undoubtedly be copied, and to much lesser dynamic value. An example that comes to mind is the advent of dubstep into the mainstream. Dubstep started out in the UK, an expansion of Dub music from the likes of King Tubby, into something a bit more sinister – hitting harder, using new advances in digital bass technology, and a confident minimalism and precision. Now of course this saw an expansion in the sound palate, with producers like 16-bit, with chainsaw synths, horror-movie samples, and overdriven bass. Their remix of “The Blank” is the closest you’ll get to Kung-Fu in the form of sound, so quick and precise it begs relistening, and dancing.

skrillex-ultra-2014As dubstep grew in popularity, it was only a matter of time before it made its way Stateside. This both pushed it from anonymity to stardom, as well as exploiting its formula to sell you TVs and cars. A notable contributor to its popularity is the artist Skrillex, who makes dubstep tracks, but the bright-neon poppiness and American thick distortion to make it raveworthy. I enjoyed his first two EPs immensely. It hit hard, got me amped, and was catchy as hell in a glitched-out fashion. Usually I find out about new artists rather quickly, before they head out to big name festivals like Coachella, but I was late to the party on that guy. His rise was METEORIC. Before I knew it, he was touring with a stage setup akin to a spaceship, or syncing up with an on screen-robot on Titanic LED screens. Skrillex and dubstep had arrived.

With the accessibility of his music, it was only a matter of time before his style would be copped. To avoid bashing on certain producers, I won’t name names, but it’s safe to say they exploited the shit out this new formula for pop music. And that’s exactly it. It became pop music. What started off as a stony bounce from the UK – built out of minimalism and complete dousing of reverb -turned into something bright, shiny, and wrapped in a bow to show your grandma.

Before I knew it, an electronics mogul was using dubstep in their commercials to sell Go-Pro cameras.Car commercials, football commercials, you name it. The music has oversized bass synths, hard kicks, even harder snares, and yes, the DROP. The drop, if you have not been enlightened to it, is a staple of every recent dubstep song. After a euphoric build, it comes crashing down with massive bass lines and an attack of synths. If you are a molly-infused raver dancing in the desert, this is an ideal situation. Bass DOES feel good, but the art of it is what I am concerned about.

Dubstep now appeals to us like a Michael Bay movie does. “OOOOOOoooohhh…explosions!” exclaim the captivated masses.

Now, we live in a capitalist society, so it’s natural to assume that business owners and corporate heads are going to direct their marketing toward what the kids like. I can just visualize 12 dudes and ladies sitting in a boardroom, all dressed in suit and tie with a PowerPoint pitch going on. The enthusiastic brown-noser at the helm of the meeting has venn diagrams and bar charts showing the top 40 Billboard charts alongside a video of a dude kayaking.

Yes, you know its going to happen. Big bass drops and pencil-pushers awkwardly bop their heads, believing they’ve discovered the Rosetta Stone for making a few bucks, or more likely millions. Then they eat catering from PF Chang’s and listen to horrible Soundgarden-rip-off bands on the way home. I know, I seem bitter. I am in a sense, but this is completely expected of anything successful. It will spawn imitators.

As a musician, I must say that imitation can be an utmost form of flattery as there are so many artists out there who push the envelope or whose music is just classic on its own. It’s natural to have influences, for they are the ones who got you into creating in the first place. But there must be a point where you see them as teachers, and you must take their lessons to forge your own path.

Aphex Twin

Aphex Twin

I have heard that famed electronic surrealist, Aphex Twin, has a library of tunes that he will never release as he does not want them to be imitated. Creating something unique, of value, and intent IS art. Of course, value would be subjective to the listener or artist for that matter, but the authenticity is what hopefully shines through. You may not be a fan of jazz, but Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s works were pure art, with direct vision and precision. There was intention there, to create a musical world to dive into and be lost in, not just the fodder for a weekend bender.

monuments_menPerhaps my recent viewing of The Monuments Men inspired my thinking on this recently since the value of art was the whole premise of the movie. I enjoyed the movie not just for its entertainment and historical value, but the fact that it brought the essence of art into the fore-front. These guys are literally risking life and limb for statues and paintings, however these were beautiful pieces that were one of their kind, and true achievements in human skill. The time it must have taken to sculpt Michelangelo’s David boggles my mind, and is a true testament to human will to make something of that precision.

It makes me wonder how essential these pieces were to defining a period of time for history to look back on, and it honestly is very important. It worries me to think that the calling card thirty years from now for our recent era of music is a picture of four dudes wearing neon shorts and tanks, covered in raver bracelets and tattoos. You know that once a style has been dubbed “Brostep,” something has turned in a bad way. No matter how shiny and bright, I doubt my grandma would ever approve of that shit.

Psychostick: here to help you write that #1 song

Need help writing a #1 hit? Ask Psychostick.

Any musician wants to write a #1 hit, right? Well, it’s not as hard as you think. How do I know? How many #1 hit singles have I written? Well, let me answer the second question first. I haven’t written any #1 hit songs. How do I know it’s not that hard? Because Psychostick gives you the formula. Don’t believe me? Listen for yourself, smart guy.

http://psychostick.bandcamp.com/track/1-radio-ingle

Some (not so) bold predictions for 2014

Well, a new year is upon us and it’s time for me to gaze into my crystal ball for some musical predictions for the upcoming year. And yes, I will remind you of these predictions throughout the year.

  • Some one-named female pop singer will come out of nowhere and sell approximately 20 jillion albums. I will wonder what everyone else hears in the album that I don’t…just like with Adele and Lorde. OK, so I’ll grant that Adele has a good voice although her songs are about as uplifting as Morrissey’s. Lorde on the other hand…I just wish someone would explain to me what is so appealing about “Royals.” All I can say is that song bores the stuffing out of me.
What's so interesting?

What’s so interesting?

  • Along the same lines, a new media darling will come along. Seemingly every music writer in the world will tell you that you must listen to the record and the best reason those writers will give is that you have to listen to it because it’s the new album from (insert name here).
  • Someone will do something “outrageous” at the VMAs. It will have gossip sites buzzing for weeks…right until the time that the performer of the outrageous act releases a new single. (Just remember that I told you this on the second day of the year.) Oh, and after about one hour of the outrage that comes from every direction, you will hope that you never have to hear the name of the “shocking” artist again.

miley

 

Like I said, these aren’t exactly bold predictions. What’s more interesting to me is the things I can’t predict for this year in music. Namely, what bands will I encounter for the first time? What genre will really grab my attention? A couple years ago, I explored a lot of garage punk. Last year, I found myself searching for a lot of fuzz (or stoner in the parlance of our times) rock. And then of course is the question of what will end up in my list of favorite albums of the year. Stay tuned, loyal reader, and ride along as I explore new music and present it to you.

My kid must think this constantly

Feel-Good Friday: my kid is freakin’ cool

I don’t ask you to indulge me very often, loyal reader, but I’m going to do it today. It is Feel-Good Friday, and this story is bound to make me feel better than anyone that reads it, but hey, it’s a good story.

A friend of mine plays in a blues band, and I received a notice that the band was playing last night at a small restaurant not far from where I live. I asked my son if he wanted to go (even though it sort of conflicted with his bedtime) and he said he would.

We arrived shortly after the band started at 7:30 and my son was immediately into it, asking me about the instruments and the music. That’s where the coolness began. Instead of saying that it was too loud or complaining about something, he sat there and listened (and enjoyed the music) while he asked me questions like how many strings are on a bass.

Now, let me flash back. A couple days ago, I went to YouTube and found “Messin’ with the Kid” by Junior Wells. I played it for my son and he seemed to enjoy it. Then before we went to see Black Cat Bone, I told my son that the band does a version of that song I played for him. At some point during the band’s first set, I asked my son if he wanted to hear “Messin’ with the Kid.” He said yes. so I told him to request it of the band. My little man walked up near the stage and requested the song. The singer said, “When someone who’s four and three-quarters asks you to play ‘Messin’ with the Kid,’ you play it.”

Now, the story could end there, but it doesn’t. After the band’s first set, the guys came out to mingle with the crowd. At some point, my son climbed down from his stool, walked over to the harmonica player and said, “What’s your name?”

“Roger,” he answered.

“You play pretty good harmonica.”

In the words of Dave Barry, “I swear I am not making this up.” My son not only requested a Junior Wells song, he also gave the harmonica player props for his abilities. I realize that this story means more to me than to you, but for a Feel-Good Friday, it makes me feel pretty freakin’ good.

eye_roll

An open letter to publicists (and DIY bands)

I’m not going to sit here and criticize publicists. After all, a lot of them contact me regularly and send me lots of good music I may not hear otherwise. Ultimately, what that means is I see enough press releases to know a good one from a not so good one. With that in mind, here are some tips for publicists (and bands who do everything themselves) to make their press releases as good as possible.

  • Lay off the cliches – This is true regardless of what you’re writing. If you overload your writing with cliches, then whatever you write tends to lose its meaning. Why? Because the reader spends so much time sifting through the cliches, that he loses the sense of the message.
  • Have someone proofread your stuff – Again, this is true no matter what you write. No matter how good a writer you are, you might have some spelling or grammatical errors in it. The last thing you want to do is leave some doubt about your abilities with something as basic as spelling and grammar.
  • Have someone read your stuff (part 2) – Maybe you are a really good creative writer, and there is a place for creativity in press releases. It can be part of what catches the attention of whomever is reading it. But here’s the thing. A press release is not a novel. Whoever is in your audience is not expecting to read the next great American novelist. Your audience wants to learn about the music you’re promoting. So that’s what your press release should be: a straightforward description of the music you’re promoting. To quote Arthur Schopenhauer, “One should use common words to say uncommon things.” Yes, you can mix some humor in there, but have someone else read your press release to see if it makes sense to someone other than you. Your initial audience will help you know what is effective and what misses.

Oh, and if you need help writing in a clear and straightforward way, contact me. I can help you write a press release that will not have the reader rolling his or her eyes, and my rates are very reasonable.

 

David-Bowie-007

Sunday Confessional: Bowie? Boring!

Bless me, loyal reader (not that I’ve sinned). It’s been…well… far too long since my last confessional. In case you’re just joining us here, Sunday Confessional is a recurring post here at Incognito HQ in which I confess something about my musical tastes.

You see the title of this, and maybe you think to yourself, “He thinks David Bowie is boring? What is the matter with this dude?” Well, it’s true. I find David Bowie pretty boring. I realize that he has had a long career in the music business. Furthermore, I realize that he has built his career by being different than a lot of other artists. Frankly, Bowie’s music is downright weird compared to lots of his contemporaries.

I’m not saying that his career is undeserved or that he’s some talentless hack that ought to thank his lucky stars that he had any career in music. All I am saying is that he doesn’t reach me. An excellent example of this is “Let’s Dance.” Nothing about this song makes me want to dance…not even in that awkward 80s dance style. If you’re going to sing about dancing, then give us something to dance to.

homer_bored

That of course is just one very specific example. More generally, his music just escapes me. What I mean is that there is really nothing about his songs that draws me in. While I don’t find his voice offensive, there is really nothing about it that grabs my attention. I can say the same for his melodies. Perhaps the best argument I can think of is to say that I can’t imagine the setting where I would think to myself that David Bowie would be the perfect soundtrack. Seriously. I can’t do it. I can’t think of a situation in which David Bowie would be the perfect musical accompaniment.

I know there are people out there who could tell me all the reasons why I should like David Bowie And by all means, if you’d like to do so, leave a comment). The guy definitely should be commended for the length of his career if nothing else. It’s just that I guess I can’t find room for him in my collection.

You got that right, kid.

It’s not me, it’s you: bands I’ve burned out on

I know for a lot of people, music is a static thing. In fact, most people I encounter rarely go beyond the music they listened to in high school. To me, music is a very dynamic thing. And just music itself, but also music collections and musical tastes. Here are some bands that I enjoyed at one point but have grown stale for me.

  • The Black Keys – I still have Thickfreakness in my collection although at this point it is more because my son likes it. It didn’t help that The Black Keys sold out. (I got through about three and a half songs of Brothers, which sounded like some producer got a hold of the band.) But I don’t even like Thickfreakness anymore and I really enjoyed it for a while. Something in Dan Auerbach’s sort of droning delivery has worn me out.
  •  The Beatles – I loved The Beatles when I was in college. I remember finding the red and blue Greatest Hits records for $2 each. Somewhere along the way, I just lost my connection to the band.
  • Pavement - Remember when Pavement was the indie-darling band? I had Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain in my collection…until I realized I only liked about half the songs on the album. Listening to it now, Pavement sounds a lot like Weezer.
  • David Bowie – I can hear you gasp out there. A music writer that doesn’t like Bowie? It’s unthinkable! I know I’m supposed to like him, but I just don’t. I’m not crazy about his voice or his music. The Man Who Sold the World had a place – briefly – in my collection, but realized I would never listen to it enough to justify keeping it. So I didn’t.
  • U2 – This has nothing to do with Bono’s politics or grandstanding. It’s just that when I hear a new U2 song, it might be catchy the first couple times I hear it. Then I’m done with it. Just like that.
Quick! Someone tell her what that thing is in her right hand!

My response to Lady Gaga singing in space

The story came out earlier this week that Lady Gaga plans to sing in outer space in 2015. I could easily dismiss this by saying that this is a meaningless story by some pseudo-news outlet that was desperate for a story last week. I certainly wouldn’t be wrong to say that. Even for an entertainment “news” piece, this is fluff. I do, however, have a response to this. And it may surprise you.

My response is this: please let this story be true. No, not that it matters to me at all. I personally don’t care if any pop singer sings in space. No, I want this to be true because I want whoever is in charge to “forget” all about Lady Gaga. Oh, and Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and Lance Bass have all signed up for this too. Perfect. Let’s set up some sort of pop star colony in space where their only audience will be each other. I would propose some sort of contest to determine who gets to come back to earth, but I don’t feel the need to be that overzealous.

Oh, I realize this proposed pop star colony would be a crushing blow to gossip magazines and websites. After all, if Lady Gaga is stuck in space (obviously without her entire wardrobe), how will those outlets come up with articles like “Did you see what Lady Gaga was wearing?” Granted, that story has probably been done to death anyway. (It is a lot easier than having to listen to her music.) Plus, as long as Miley Cyrus is still on earth, those “journalists” are not going to run out of stories.

So yeah, I’m all in favor of Lady Gaga singing in space as long as there’s no promise she’ll come back. Although can you imagine if she figured out a racket to get people to fly to space to see her? It might start a rush of pop stars going to space so fans have to pay more to see them. Say, that’s not a bad idea. Any way we can get Lady Gaga into space sooner than 2015?