Friday, September 30, 2011

Steve Albini talks Hipsters, Mephiskapheles

Steve Albini, the guy who produced In Utero (which I bought the week it was released back in 1993 and still think is one of rock & roll's greatest records), was recently interviewed by The Gothamist. Albini threw some warranted jabs at New Yorkers, setting their bloggers into a frenzy so intense that they've all overlooked the gem that is the conclusion of the interview:

"...What it boils down to is that I’ve maintained a scrupulous cultural ignorance since about 1985 when I realized that what’s going on out there in the regular world means nothing to me...there was a period there, in the ‘90s, when people who were my friends even, started trying to rationalize an appreciation of mainstream pop music. Bullshit like Madonna and that fuckin’ Cher single that was everywhere...

“Believe.” Right. Shit like that, people would pretend that it somehow lessened me as a person that I had no connection with this shit that I despised. Saying that this stuff is culturally significant, that it’s going to influence arts and letters for decades. Well I’m not going to read any of those letters then and I’m certainly not going to watch any of that art. I’m not going to give a shit about that. I don’t care. I don’t care what influence Fonzi has had on music, art, and sculpture. I’m not interested in that music, art, and sculpture. I mean, to use a dated metaphor there. Fonzi. The entertaining thing about that is that it was the beginning of the snake swallowing its tail of retrograde nostalgia that we’ve been wallowing in ever since.

I guess Fonzi has been very influential in a strange way. I think the way that it was influential is that it showed a lot of people that you could make a lot of money making people look and act the way that children think that they did twenty years ago. [Laughter] This is kind of weird. Did you ever see the Woodstock movie?

Do you mean the documentary? Yeah. Okay, well the band Sha Na Na appear in that film. As weird as that sounds. You know Sha Na Na...

The TV show. They had a TV show for children, yeah. That was probably the beginning of the retrograde snake consuming itself that I was discussing. Right?

Woodstock the movie and Sha Na Na being in it. But if you think about it let’s say the period that Sha Na Na were trying to evoke was 1959. When was Woodstock? ‘69 or ‘67. I’m going to Google it right now while I’m on the phone with you so that I can continue this conversation... Alright, 1969. So Sha Na Na seemed stupid and out of place in 1969 when they were evoking nostalgia for an era that was ten years earlier. Now, we’ve got so many layers of nostalgia that we’ve got a nostalgia for the second or third revival of something as nostalgia. I totally expect a fourth wave of ska to roll through at some point.

I think there may already be. My brother actually played in a pretty well known ska band and he claimed that ska is more popular now than it ever has been. Oh, which band was it?

They were called Mephiskapheles. I was going to say please let it be Mephiskapheles. Was he horn?

No, he was a guitar player. That’s a super easy gig. Guitar in a ska band? I mean half the time you can even just shut your amp off.

Please be seated.

The defenders of New York City transplants (all New York transplants themselves, of course) are in a huff looking to slight Albini on this point or that, but I haven't seen any of them target his misstep with the matter of defunct NYC satanic ska band Mephiskapheles. Now, around age 14-15, I had a blank tape ready to go in my radio at all times, ready for whatever might be broadcasted by WAIF. Late one night, this came on:

I caught the second half of The Bumble Bee Tuna Song on that tape, including its nutty a capella outro, then the WAIF hosts struggling to return to Planet Earth. It was nice knowing that I heard the song for the first time along with at least one of the hosts and maybe 500 people scattered around Cincinnati, and I was in love with all of them, and them with me. I ended up seeing Mephiskapheles live twice: at Bogart's in 1996 (opening for The Buzzcocks) and in 1998 headlining at Ripley's (it was an L-shaped bar with two entrances, now the McMillan St. Starbuck's and W. Clifton Chipotle).

Let's get to the point...this band was totally outrageous in a totally different, and much more intelligent way than, say, GWAR. Also, the ska scenesters didn't realize that the band was mocking 3rd wave ska (sort of like The Pietasters) while trouncing nearly all contemporaries in sheer creative and musical prowess. I mean, these guys were damn good musicians who were blowing their 20s playing in a faux-Satanic ska band that wasn't making them money or getting them girls. Then, after putting out two records of mock-Satanism, including a cover of an old canned tuna jingle that has now attracted 200,000 views on youtube, their third and final record, 1999's Might-ay White-ay, was actually satanic. They were a difficult listen to begin with, then they attacked their "real" fans with this:

Frank Zappa would have loved these dudes. I mean, just listen to those mischievous chromatic runs -- it's hard not to imagine a manic Zappa vibraphone in their place. In the hands of the right producer, the highlights from their catalog could have been crafted into neo-Muffin Man.

Speaking of which...the great bit of irony here is that Albini had little if any knowledge of this band (since a wise-ass loves a wise ass, I would have expected him to be an admirer of Mephiskapheles' wise-assery, but the text of the interview indicates that he steam rolled right over his knowledge gap) and insulted their guitar player sight unseen...without knowing that his snarky playing mocked the very sort of vacant playing that plagued the genre.

But honestly they could have used Albini or someone of his ilk in the studio... imagine the character of In Utero applied what you just heard. Might-ay White-ay as-is barely happened due to the preposterous circumstances of this band, but it needed to sound more like the band members themselves were only coaxed into the studio by the slimmest of margins.

That sense of exhaustion and the emotive effect of a drone without there being an identifiable drone is what makes In Utero so special. And chances are the average person complaining about Albini's jabs doesn't consciously recognize this, let alone know that it takes an awful lot of thinking about music, and what it can do in the mind of a receptive listener, to structure an album's worth of songs around that idea.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What rail transit reporting looks like in one of Cincinnati's peer cities

Nashville, TN is home to the worst-performing rail transit line in the United States, The Music City Star. This 32-mile commuter rail line began service in 2006 and attracts under 1,000 riders daily -- a fraction of the number who will ride Cincinnati's two-mile modern streetcar.

So five years into this failed experiment with commuter rail a hardened Cincinnatian would expect the who's-who of Nashville talk radio hosts, anti-tax groups, and the local newspaper to be calling for the service to be halted. Except in Nashville -- also a Republican hotbed -- the exact opposite is happening.

On Sunday, The Tennessean ran a front-page feature on The Music Star, which not only condoned its atrocious ridership, but called for similarly inauspicious lines to be built in every direction:



Zero negative voices appear in this article. Officials are happy, riders are happy, and more of the same is on the way. Meanwhile, up in Cincinnati, anti-intellectualism reigns:

Here is a video of one of the short Music City Star trains leaving downtown Nashville:

Why does The Music City Star perform so poorly? The primary reason isn't its used equipment (The Star uses retired Chicago commuter rail passenger cars), or its unimpressive average speed, or its threadbare stations. Rather, the main problem is that Downtown Nashville is simply not a major employment center -- it is home to perhaps half as many workers as Downtown Cincinnati. What's more, the line's terminal station is on the edge of downtown, a hilly walk away from most office and state government buildings.

Cincinnati's proposed Oasis Commuter Rail (read my August 2010 article) would attract more riders, but with its $400 million capital cost (10X more expensive despite being less than half as long as the Music City Star's line) and an annual operating subsidy of between $10 and $20 million, it should not be built according to current plans.

But the point of this post was not to get into the details of what exists in Nashville and what is proposed for Cincinnati. The point is that two nearby Republican-controlled metro areas have very different media coverage of this same issue. Nashville's business community has, since about 1990, copied the growth strategies of Atlanta and Charlotte. Meanwhile, Cincinnati's business community perpetuates the narrative of decline that it concocted soon after WWII so that a short list of companies and wealthy families can retain their positions of power, to the detriment of the City's overall development.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Over-the-Rhine Hipsters:be the first to see photos from Main St.'s meat market heyday

Hipsters have typically overrun neighborhoods that have been abandoned for decades, especially industrial areas. But somehow, the colony of hipsters who took root in Over-the-Rhine in the past two years think that they "discovered" it, when ten years ago all the Cadillac Ranch-type people flocked there by the thousands every Friday and Saturday night.

On Thursday I succumbed to peer pressure and went to one of those overhyped Vitamin Water music thingies at "1130 Main St.". As I stepped through the front door, my nose was tickled by the lingering stench of a bygone era, and it all came rushing back to me -- This Space Used to Be Bar Cincinnati. Or Maybe Have A Nice Day Cafe. Sure, there was fresh paint on the walls, and some funky (remember when every high camp piece of interior decoration was "funky"?) furniture on loan from Ikea, but more than anything it was the boomy acoustic characteristics of the space that triggered headaches of bar hops past.

Courtesy of Google, I'm able to confirm that the space was in fact Have A Nice Day Cafe. I don't have any photos from that place, but I do have a few pictures from a night at Bar Cincinnati, which was right next door, maybe in the same building. The following photo, from the evening of December 28th, 2002 (I know because it was the night before they blew up Riverfront Stadium, and there are photos of that on the same roll of film), tells you all you need to know about what Main St. used to be about:

Hipsters, I'm Talking to You
Which brings us to the matter of the peculiar strain of under-25 hipsters who can be seen regularly in the neighborhood these days. These people are completely oblivious to the fact that a half dozen meat market bars flourished on Main St. after all the Pete Rose Way bars were demolished in 1997.

A month or so ago, some bicycle hipster, aged about 22, asked me if I "live in the neighborhood". I said no, and he gave me a dismissive look, as if I had first set foot in Over-the-Rhine only in the past two months or so. Fact is, what he and his kind are doing is pretty much as ridiculous as pretending that they discovered Newport-on-the-Levee.

So these hipsters think they have discovered some untouched 19th century neighborhood, when in fact they have discovered the ruins of this:

They gave free drinks to the girls to dance on the bar, just like all the chain bars do:

Bar Cincinnati paid a few midgets to dance every weekend:

I posted this one as a warning to all with image files on backup hard drives...yes they do corrupt over time (look at the bottom strip if you didn't notice it already):

Upon closer inspection, I realized that this photo is not from Bar Cincinnati but rather the Covington Waffle House:

Last but not least, the exterior of Neon's in 1999 or 2000:

Also, somebody out there must have photos from The Warehouse...regrettably I never went there but know people who went there regularly for years. Now the hipsters and yuppies stroll by with no idea what used to occupy 1313 Vine St. (or Club Venus), or how intimidating that area used to be. But they sure have convinced themselves that they know more about OTR than people who were active there 10 and 20 years ago.

Monday, September 5, 2011

DSLR Video unintentionally enables annoying "Folk Band in Subway" Youtube genre

September 17, 2008: the day the world changed.

That day the $2,499 Canon 5D Mark II was released to the public, for the first time enabling cinema-quality video at extremely high ISO's. Suddenly high-quality hand-held video was possible on the New York City subway system (good grief, who remembers Pi?), and young folk bands far and wide descended its staircases to create Youtube promo videos. There is quite literally a Youtube channel dedicated entirely to these faux-impromptu videos at

They all look and sound the same:

They all look and sound the same:

They all look and sound the same:

What's particularly aggravating is that none of these folk hipsters in any way pay homage to the great innovator of subway station music videos:

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Guys Named Todd

It's tough to say who the best recurring Beavis & Butthead character was, because each of them was such a stick of dynamite. Today I looked up Todd on youtube and there he was, just how I remembered him:

When I was a kid, before Beavis & Butthead appeared, there was this teenager up the street named Todd. Todd was exactly like Todd. He was the sort of mulleted appalachian character who belonged in Ross but whose family had oddly migrated to the comparatively civilized Catholic neighborhoods. Todd was always working on or at least leaning against a non-functioning 1970's Nova in his driveway with his buddy Travis, who had one of those white trash wispy mustaches as early as 8th grade. Iron Maiden was usually blaring from an unseen boom box in the garage.

Amongst the neighborhood boys, the activities of Todd and Travis were the object of intense speculation. These guys were above the law, and we were all secretly rooting for them. We felt lucky just to know such towering badasses.

One summer bags of trash and/or house paint (like all good rumors, nobody actually saw the damage) were thrown into the neighborhood pool. The incident lifted their credibility to dizzying heights, even though we had no evidence that Todd and Travis had in fact perpetrated the crime. We just really wanted them to have done it.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Southeast Engine at MOTR 9-3-11

Skeletonwitch and Southeast Engine are the two bands still together and touring from my time at Ohio University. I saw each of these two bands 3 or 4 times in the early-mid 2000s, including Skeletonwitch's third show ever and the CD release party at The Union for Coming to Terms with Gravity (the photo at right and the one I put on the video below are from their performance at the infamous "Big One" music festival at the Athens County Fairgrounds on September 17, 2005).

I hadn't seen Southeast Engine since 2005 until they played at MOTR back in March or April 2011. The lineup changed yet again, but was probably better overall than what I remember from 2005. After the show I bought the band's new record, Canary, which has several nice moments but is built around a problematic idea.

The reason why the new record is disappointing is because back in 2003-04 the band appeared to be unstoppable. They were certainly much better than bands like The Black Keys who are now famous but had people walk out on them when they played The Union back in 2003. Coming to Terms with Gravity was a decent record and the title track was a terrific song -- one that I'd place along the dozen or so great Arcade Fire songs that appeared on that band's first albums. Listening to it again, I'm still in disbelief that this song was written by an unassuming OU undergrad and recorded in somebody's Athens, OH apartment:

This band needs to stop putzing around and get on a major label. That step would get a big-time producer in the studio with these guys, and would get them over the hump so far as having them better recognize their strengths and gut some of the so-so concepts and lyrics.

Black Gold, from 2007 or forward to 3:20:

This song is an example of what I'm talking about -- if you're compelled to write an attack on capitalists, and you want to argue that what you do (play music) is better than what they do, you can't screw anything up. There are some okay moments in this song's first half, but the bad outweighs the good. The bridge and especially the final 45 seconds are totally brilliant, but not enough for me to ignore what doesn't work earlier. It's so frustrating when a band is so close to really nailing it!

Anyway, Southeast Engine is a pretty good live band and you won't notice the sometimes clumsy lyrics, and of course MOTR is free. Also, seeing an Athens band is a firm rebuke to the various rankings-obsessed (I'm looking at you, DAAP and CCM) Ohio University haters in this city.