Friday, July 23, 2010

Filtering Pop Culture Overload

My 16-year-old just came back from four weeks at camp with a five-page, handwritten list from a friend naming bands she should listen to. His choices are all great -- ranging from the Velvet Underground to Broken Social Scene -- but they're just names on a page, and would take months to bone up on.

This got me thinking about how musical knowledge is acquired these days. My last post discussed how I became musically cognizant, to the point of obsession (knowing the names of B-sides, etc), helping qualify me to write for Rolling Stone. Part of it included reading Rolling Stone itself. But how does someone of my daughter's or my own advancing age find out about music these days?

Langhorne Slim [above] is a new favorite, and how I discovered him was a new twist on an old-fashioned idea. (More on that in a moment.)

One of the best perks of Rolling Stone was being invited to exclusive showcase concerts by people before their first albums hit: Crowded House played for about two dozen listeners in a bizarre Indian restaurant above Times Square; Tracy Chapman [right] and her guitar mesmerized about 100 people at the Bitter End. (Of course, for every one of those we had to sit through a dozen forgettable acts.)

But even by the late 80's, the magazine's anointing power was starting to be undercut by MTV (which RS publisher/editor Jann Wenner had famously been asked to invest in, and had dismissed). It makes sense: writing about music is hard to compete with actually playing it (with moving pictures). Yet nowadays, few people learn about new music from MTV either; it's become part of the echo chamber, and has mostly stayed afloat with reality programming.

You Tube and social media have helped spread today's pop culture phenomena like Lady Gaga. (I have two friends who solely use their Facebook pages to post videos of music they love.)  And there are a million music websites like all looking to crown somebody the next something of something. (Even the New York Times Magazine: remember its Arcade Fire piece? -- wait, there's a new one in Arts & Leisure! Or M.I.A.?)

The technology has also enabled people to get recommendations based on their pre-existing tastes - - if you follow a certain Satellite Radio station, for instance, or subscribe to a service like Rhapsody that lets you hear, but not own, music in your wheelhouse.

I'm not a technophobe, but so far I have resisted these innovations. When I rent a car with Sirius, I find I like soulful songwriters on "The CoffeeHouse" and "The Loft" but I also want to hear some rock and roll. I'd prefer a station that is like my own iPod on shuffle. But more than that, I want to have some kind of relationship with the artists I listen to beyond one song.

That kind of intense bonding has faded as albums have shrunk to CDs and then to MP3s. A friend of mine recently gave me 3 CDs loaded with about 800 MP3s. I was really grateful, but I will never fully absorb that music the way I do getting one new album at a time.

One of the last remaining places for exposure these days is on a TV show or movies, and the competition is fierce. Aimee Mann had her biggest breakthrough when the director PT Anderson based his movie Magnolia around her songs, and I was turned on to the wordsmith-tunesmith Sondre Lerche when Peter Hedges used his music throughout Dan in Real Life.  Bird York did a favor for a friend, recording a song for his low-budget movie; the movie was Crash, and she ended up with an Oscar nomination and performing on a worldwide stage. 

When I worked on One Tree Hill, the music supervisor, Lindsay Wolfington, brought several artists to the writers' offices to play private concerts just for the showrunner, Mark Schwahn, who is a total music-head. It worked: following a compelling set, Matthew Perryman-Jones got several songs on. (Schwahn also turned me on to some intense, amazing music, like The National,  Matthew Ryan, and Explosions in the Sky.)

In the old days, I'd be able to wander into my favorite CD store, NYCD. Nowadays I have to wander into the blog Burning Wood by its former owner, Sal Nunziato, whose knowledge and collection know no bounds. He assembles and uploads great playlists every week.  

When I think of other ways I've gotten exposed to music in the past decade, a few categories come to mind.

1) Personal Vouching. Between TV gigs,I temped at a magazine and a mid-twenties editorial assistant made me a CD of favorite songs. It included acts I knew about but hadn't really listened to (Neko Case), ones I liked instantly (The Decemberists, Camera Obscura) others that I warmed up to (Regina Spektor) and others I am still wrestling with (Bonnie Prince Billy). Without the sampler CD, I wouldn't have focused on them; now I try to see the theatrical, dextrous, literate Decemberists [left] whenever they're in my town.

2) Articulate Fanatacism. I met a woman who was mad about Wilco. Like, Grateful Dead-Phish-follow-them-from-city-to-city mad. I had been sent reviewer copies of their CDs over the years, but hadn't really distinguished them. I was skeptical. She told me I had to watch the documentary about them, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which, it turned out, featured my old Rolling Stone colleague, David Fricke. She was right: conceived as just the making-of-an-album promo, it unwittingly stumbled onto a fissure within the band that ended up with a firing, and then the label rejecting their record and dropping them.  Jeff Tweedy [right]'s anti-charisma charisma was mesmerizing, and the band's wall of noise was demystified. They are best appreciated live: and, they've never put on a bad show.

3) Emotional Rescue. After my father died, my college roommate, documentary filmmaker David Van Taylor gave me a CD called "Bring it On" with songs by Iron and Wine [left] which I'd never heard of. They're (really, one guy, so "he's") now one of my favorites.

4) Cronyism. I first heard Feist [below] because she opened for Jeff Tweedy. The bands My Brightest Diamond and Lavender Diamond earned my look-see after their lead singers played in the Decemberists. Etc.

5) Variety Shows. This is how I got to Langhorne Slim, and has proved to be the most active way for me to embrace new artists. It's not that different from the days when Alan Freed took a bunch of different musical acts on the road: a sampler where one act might draw you in, but another will surprise and captivate you.

Another former fellow Rolling Stoner, playwright Kara Manning, who used to produce and sometimes guest deejays the aforementioned Vin Scelsa's radio show on WFUV, also helps her friend Wesley Stace, a/k/a the singer John Wesley Harding, book a monthly series of shows in New York called Cabinet of Wonders. It's been at the bar Le Poisson Rouge -- formerly the jazz club Village Gate --- and deftly mixes music with written word, including poetry, fiction, memoir, and comedy. I have been turned on to the memoir of Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh, the sublimely intelligent/wacky comedy stylings of Eugene Mirman, and the music of Langhorne Slim, whose two songs grabbed me and had me out in the lobby buying two of his CDs from his girlfriend. (Ah, the musician's life!)

There are many similar mash-up shows in New York these days, and I find the pupu platter approach always sends me home with at least one new nugget. This spring, I went to a show at the Highline Ballroom sponsored by literary magazines The Rumpus and Tin House and the cultural listings site Flavorpill, and while I liked Colson Whitehead, I LOVED Jeffrey Lewis, a nerdy, word-tossing folkie who made his own comicbooks of his songs and played them back from his Macbook while he played. His obsessive, Dylan-dense song "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" about Bonnie Prince Billy (A/K/A Will Oldham) -- is one of the funniest, most honest and pornographic songs about musical creativity ever. The night I went to Amanda Stern's music-and-reading series Happy Ending at Joe's Pub, the raucous all-girl band The Walking Hellos was led by Bee Season author Myla Goldberg. I also hear great things about Elna Baker's The Talent Show at the Gershwin hotel.

Right now I'm in the mountains, and in a few days Langhorne is playing nearby. I'll be there.

How do you hear of new music?


jeff said...

Let me suggest two great blogs:
powerpopaholic ( and absolute powerpop ( I read their recommendations and then search for the band's album either on napster or on myspace. Through just those two blogs alone over the past year, I've had a fantastic time discovering amazing, indie music and would be most happy to make a top twenty list for anyone.

There are also blogs dedicated to posting old, out-of-print music, incredible, amazing stuff, but I'll leave it up to readers to find those. They're there though.

Sal Nunziato said...

First, thanks for the kind words.

I want to say I was at that Indian restaurant watching Crowded House, but I remember it as a Mexican restaurant called Jose Sent Me on West 55th street. Could it have been a restaurant tour?

Next, I fell in love with Sondre Lerche watching Dan In Real Life, the discovered I liked nothing of his unless I was watching that movie.

Another great piece, BTW.

Lglen said...

"The Art of the Mixtape" is a great source for music, both new and old:

Anonymous said...

I've gotten the news occasionally from NPR's "Song of the Day," which is e-mailed to subscribers. Got on to Hem, Beach House, and Connie Converse this way.

And, much as I dislike the way every TV drama seems to end every episode with an emo or anthemic-emo song, I've ended up buying a number of the songs I've heard this way.

And commercials! Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am" (the Gap) and Ben Folds's "Landed" (airline or hotel ad).

David said...

Thanks for the heads up on Matthew Ryan and Bird York.
I also love Explosions In The Sky. Took the soundscape a few steps beyond with Hammock thanks to Pandora iPhone app. Second the emo end song comment. I keep the Shazam app ready when watching the CW.

Anonymous said...

I hear about new music by (a) reading random blogs like this -- and thanks for the links, by the way, (b) Pandora, (c) the old-fashioned way of reading music mags like RS, Mojo, Uncut and also special issues of non-music publications (yay, Oxford American!), (d) checking out lineups of upcoming festivals where new groups appear with familiar favorites, and (e) getting email updates from NYC's Other Music, one of my favorite sound stores but, sadly for me, on the other side of the country.....

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