Some new(ish) music – Feersum Ennjin

I am admittedly behind the times in regards to music. I tend to gravitate towards bands who are still trying to advance the sounds they were working on in late nineties and early 00s. As such, I don’t get excited about music nearly as much as I used to. One such band that has recently popped back up on my radar is Feersum Ennjin.

You likely wont recognize this band’s name, but it starts with a band whose name you likely know. The album Undertow by Tool was something of a landmark; prog-rock for the grunge era. Paul D’Amour was the bass player for that record and left the band shortly thereafter. D’Amour moved on to start a band called Lusk with Brad Laner, Chris Pitman, now of Guns n Roses and Greg Edwards who was in Failure and is now in Autolux. Surprising to most who knew D’Amour from Tool, the result was an excellent, but very poppy record released in 1997 called Free Mars. (iTunes link) The album was nominated for a “best packaging” Grammy, and had a video for the song Backworlds that did well on MTVs shortlived show 12 Angry Viewers.

 

Lusk disappeared shortly thereafter. I remember reading on some long-gone band-related blog that one of the members had been in trouble with the law or something. Apparently their label was having some issues that also led to the project not going anywhere. It’s a shame, because Free Mars was really good. When recently played for one of my bandmates who hadn’t heard Lusk before, it was assumed to be more modern, and compared with Owl City.

Jumping from 1998 to 2005.. D’Amour released an eponymous EP for a new project called Feersum Ennjin. I think I found out about this around 2008. While only 5 songs, it was a great album. It had a striking similarity to Lusk, but was perhaps a little more focused, and heavy. Seeing as I was so late to the party on this one, and that there hadn’t been any new releases, I assumed that Feersum Ennjin had already come and gone.

 

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about Lusk, and I decided to go good Paul D’Amour and see if he had anything new going. To my surprise there was a Feersum Ennjin full length. I grabbed it off of iTunes. Somewhat disappointingly to me, the LP is comprised of the songs from the EP with some new songs. Still, it’s a good record. As Paul himself states in the interview below, it’s pretty easy to see where Feersum Ennjin goes from being Lusk part 2 to something slightly different.

Mike Doughty is bringing me down. (or, “The future reality of playing music for a living”)

I used to have an interest in the music industry. I think I actually believed that I could potentially, eventually get a job in that mucky muck. With the passing of such ideas, I still have a vague interest in the music industry. Mostly I’m appalled at the way businesses have failed to adapt to the advent of the Internet (suing your customer base for fun and profit) and simultaneously I’m curious to see how things will shake out once the sinking ships finally go down.

There has recently been an exchange in the media whose honesty is one of the more accurate reflections of the current situation of making money off of music. It all started with a blog post by Emily White, an NPR intern, titled “I never owned any CDs to begin with” in which the author brags about the amount of music she has acquired illegally, rationalizing her acquisitions by way of the venerable “artists don’t get any of the money from record sales” argument.

Emily’s blog moved a lot of people to write about it, including almost 1000 comments, a commentary from an NPR staff member, a post from a talent agency co-founder and most importantly for my little narrative, a reaction from David Lowery, the singer from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker who now teaches music business courses at the University of Georgia.

Lowery depicts the current music industry situation by tracking the flow of end user money; when users download illegally, their money goes to internet providers and manufacturers of computers and phones _instead of_ musicians. While I can see his point, it’s not waterproof, as downloading legally still requires that you buy a laptop and internet service. Regardless, his ultimate point stands – musicians don’t get any money. This is backed up by the fact that most musicians do not, as many lay people suspect, make all their money from touring. He goes further to insinuate that music stealing makes depressed musicians commit suicide; kind of a low blow.

The next step in this conversation of comments comes from Mike Doughty, who in a blog post agrees with Lowery’s description of the situation and takes it a step further in the form of the equation:

less money to record labels = less tour support for bands = fewer bands

Doughty drives this home by positing that a band like Radiohead wouldn’t have survived if they had to deal with this new industry economy. It’s a depressing picture. Not just because of Radiohead, but because there will be fewer creative bands.

I agree with many of his points, but I can’t help but think that his equation is only good at predicting the short term. We’ve already been seeing the fallout of diminished recording industry revenues. What it amounts to is the big labels not gambling as much on quirky acts, and instead banking on the sure bets. This manifests in an abundance of over-produced, good looking pop singers and little else. I feel like this is what Doughty is describing. We’re already there.. My feeling is though that this strategy wont sustain the music industry, or if it does, it’s neglect of all the other non-cookie cutter music will spawn new avenues for bands that don’t fit the mold. Sure, these bands wont be able to tour the way that they have in the past, but does that mean they can’t be successful? I feel like new avenues for music discovery will develop as people who like music other than whats on the radio grow discontent with the Katy Perry’s and Maroon 5’s of the world.

What will these new distribution avenues and taste makers be? I have no idea. That’s for someone else to think up. I think there is plenty of room for it though. Technology has not only given people the power to steal music, but it’s also given people the power to create web streaming and pirate broadcast stations with little financial cost. The web has given us a huge network of self guided discovery, and interactive discovery. You can’t shortchange that. At an even more basic level, will the death of the “getting signed” dream keep people from making music? Yeah, right. Less people will be able to make a living playing music, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Music is a big part of the human experience. I wouldn’t mind seeing it de-commercialized a bit. It doesn’t cost as much now to “be a musician” as it used to. You can buy instruments at Walmart. You can record your music on your laptop at home and distribute it on the internet. Yeah, you wont get Radiohead level famous doing this, but why do you need to be. If the “get rich” factor is removed from the equation, I can’t help but think that cooler, more interesting music would surface. 

 

Note: I’m not deriding any of the authors mentioned above, or trying to say that they are wrong. We’re all just trying to see the road map of the future of music.

 

Thoughts on car stereos

The time has come around again for me to think about a new stereo for my truck. My current head unit, a Kenwood mp2032, is still working fine, so I kind of hate to get rid of it.. The reason I’m entertaining the idea is because the drive on my phatnoise phatbox mp3 player finally died. For those unfamiliar, the phatbox is the OEM version of the Kenwood music keg a hard drive based mp3 storage solution from the late 90’s. It was a nice system for it’s time and integrated with Kenwood head units well. It’s inherent shortcoming was the use of mechanical hard drives as well as a proprietary file system that would only allow drives sold by phatnoise to work.

Now that my drive has died, I’m stuck listening to the radio and CDs. The MP2032 can play mp3 CDs, but I find the 10 or so album capacity of a CD really isn’t enough variety and I don’t like toting around and constantly switching a pile of CDs. After browsing Crutchfield for a while, I’m thinking there are two likely candidates for mass media storage – a head unit with either a usb port or iPod controls. I think the usb option is more my speed.. My iPhone doesn’t hold much music so I’d have to get a new pod if i went that route. A 32G flash drive costs about $50 at the moment and should hold most of my music collection. Still not sure if I’d want the usb port on the back or front of the receiver though. There are pluses and minuses to both. I think I’m going to stick with Kenwood. I’ve been using their stuff since Pioneer quit adding features to their 1.5 DIN GM fit head units. The KDC-X693 and KDC-MP438U are the two main units I’m considering at this point, although I’m still debating getting a similar unit with the bluetooth hands free calling system built in.

The state of music?

I fully admit that I am out of the loop with regards to current pop music. At some point things seemed to spin out of my realm of comprehension. This is really odd, because music hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, and neither has the media’s handling of music. (with a couple of exceptions)

I think the most significant change that has happened in my lifetime is the integration of so-called “urban” styles into the media-hyped mainstream. It’s cool because although a lot of the music is kind of copy-cat and repetitive, there seems to be a lot of freedom allowed in some of these styles. One of the most practical demonstrations of this in my opinion is the latest Beyonce Knowles record, I am… Sasha Fierce. Mind you, I’m not particularly a Beyonce fan, or even a fan of the style of music, but after catching her performance on SNL, I was intrigued. The first tracks of each disc in the set were really interesting. The first, If I were a boy, was interesting to me because of the live performance. It’s a slow, ballad-y type thing, and on recording, not terribly interesting. Live however, Beyonce is going with a “rock band” setup, with drums, guitar, bass and keys. More importantly, she seemed to perform (during this song) like she was fronting a rock band. She really seemed to be rocking out – It seemed somewhat cathartic and even at times kind of awkward, but my personal belief is that kind of awkwardness is a part of the ethos of rock music. It seems like this absorption of elements of rock might be a trend, especially with more hip hop artists like Kanye and T-pain using sung vocals a lot more often because of the popularity of vocoding/autotuning. (but that’s another post in itself)

The 1 track of the second disc is Single Ladies, which is a just plain weird song when you look at all of it’s individual parts. It’s pretty much just a rhythm with some samples over it and then the really repetitive vocals, but it works somehow. It’s got more emotional content than some of the other similar dance songs I’ve heard.

The rest of the album is more common fare, but I really got into those two tracks a lot.

On the other end of the spectrum, the bland, cookie cutter pop is still kicking. Brittney Spears has a new record, and I was really hopeful when I saw the video for the first single, Womanizer. I hoped that maybe the pop tart had returned from the brink of paparazzi fueled, post partum nut-bar status with a clear head with this (assumed) stab at an ex, but it panned out to be just another crappy song written by a random production team. Spears is such a train wreck. There is enough of her that’s small-town-girl to make you like her and hope she will become normal, but it seems like the child-star damage runs too deep. (by the same token, I have to give her former boyfriend Justin Timberlake a lot of respect for not only avoiding being a douche, but being so level headed and maintaining a really good sense of humor.. in the public’s view at least)

So here I’ve been rambling about pop-starlets.. Music that I’m fairly averse to. Why? These things seem kind of relevant to me as a study of media effects, and more specifically their role in the new pecking order of musical taste making and delivery, and a lesser extent, the evolution of music creation. We’re still speculating about the fall of the majors and the rise in importance of the “long tail“. I’m not going to speculate on the future of music, because it’s really too fluid right now to say. I have much more hope for the future of creative music now than I did years ago though. Technology has brought the ability to make and deliver music to people who don’t know/want to avoid the rules. I’m too set in my ways and shortsighted to be much a part of that new movement, but I’m glad to watch it happen.

I often feel that my time as a member of pop culture society is over. I heard about the launch of the mtvmusic.com site and was really excited. A collection of just music videos had a certain feel reminiscent of the days when Mtv only played music. I picked up right where I left off when the channel jumped the shark, looking up some of the ridiculous videos that amused me around that time – the jerseey rap-rock of progenitors of the genre, Brougham.. the failed frat rap of Bad Ronald, and then went after some of the vids that were introduced to the world by Beavis and Butthead. (sadly, I couldn’t find any Plantman) As cool as all this was to me, I don’t even think the site was a blip on the radar of today’s culture consumers.