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Music Genres 101: Ambient, Chillwave, Witch House and Ambient Folk

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Modern music seems so complicated, doesn’t it? There’s a seemingly endless number of names for an endless number of subgenres, and keeping track of them is usually more tiresome than the act of actually listening to the music itself.

But never fear, American Noise readers, because that’s why I’m here. Each week, we’ll examine a different style of music and discuss some of the classifications associated with that style. The goal, of course, is not to memorize every music label ever, but rather to sort through the jargon and appreciate the qualities these genres share and build upon. Whether you’re at a party and need to impress someone with your knowledge of contemporary musical movements, or you’re simply trying to read a music review that seems to be written in its own language, we’ll make sure you’ve got your labeling bases covered.

This week, we’ll focus on ambient music. As a genre, it has the annoying tendency to produce fantastic music with terrible nomenclature. Everything is “post-” something else or has a “-house” or “-wave” tacked on the end. And what does something like “noise-pop” even mean, anyway? Isn’t all pop music a sort of noise?

Categorizing ambient music is like trying to write a novella using refrigerator magnet poetry; you’ve got a limited vocabulary and a never-ending barrage of genre-bending artists releasing new material each week on their Bandcamp pages. How do you categorize music that defies limitations and expectations?

You hyphenate it, that’s how. It’s a known fact that the more hyphens your chosen genre contains, the better your music will be. With that in mind, let’s begin!

Witch House is characterized by unintelligible lyrics, the lowest of lo-fi production values, and thick, plodding tempos that borrow hip-hop beats and slow them down to appropriately melancholy speed. And that’s the problem—there’s a lot of great witch house music being made right now, but it sounds absolutely terrible when you try to describe it. I guess it’s called “witch house” because the music sounds kind of spooky, and witches are spooky, and since the songs were probably recorded in someone’s bedroom, you can call it house.

Frankly, that name sounds more like a Super Mario Brothers level than a musical genre—it’s a-me, Mario, and I’ve got to a-borrow from a-Brian Eno!

Mr. Eno provides a good starting point for examining witch house music; like today’s witchiest house-dwellers, he sought to make music that was more about atmosphere than melody (as found on his seminal 1978 work Music For Airports).

Unfortunately, unlike Brian Eno, today’s witch house artists seem to enjoy being impossible to talk about. I mean that literally—how the heck do you pronounce “oOoOO,” which is the moniker of a popular witch house artist from San Francisco? And try Googling “†‡†,” who recently released a song titled “>>>>▲<<<<.”

Yes, that’s the name of the song. When I play it on iTunes, it looks my computer has been infected with a gibberish virus.

While not all witch house artists have indecipherable names—Zola Jesus, White Ring, and Terminal Twilight, for instance, are straightforwardly named—a good many do. Between the aforementioned artists and other acts like LEEP ∞ OVER and xix, it seems as though the unknowability of human emotion with which witch house music concerns itself translates over to the names these artists give themselves as well.

And this is totally harmless, of course, except for the fact that it runs the risk of coming across as a bit too silly for its own good, a plight that plagued…

Chillwave. Remember this? Last year saw a host of chillwave artists (Washed Out, Memoryhouse, Neon Indian, Memory Tapes) arrive on the scene, and guys like MillionYoung Toro Y Moi have taken up the genre’s mantle in 2010. Despite the fact that much of this music is very good, however, the term itself, chillwave, has acquired the same unfortunate cachet that now accompanies other genre signifiers like “blog house” and even more general terms like “hipster.” What gives?

Well, for one thing, it comes across as a bit disingenuous to deem yourself “chill.” It’s like bragging about modesty; there’s something a bit disingenuous and maybe even smug about identifying yourself as such. The popular hypothesis states that chillwave grew popular out of the apathy and introversion of the nation’s youth in the face of several wars, a seemingly disappointing Obama presidency, and the economic shitshow that’s marked the past couple of years. In the wake of the tea party’s proliferation and such attempts at counter-programming as Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, however, it’s not quite as “cool” to be “chill.”

Such resignation is now seen as passive. Indeed, the chillwave has crested—and thanks to market saturation, it’s no longer enough to drape one’s pop melodies in drowsy synths and down-by-the-shore sound effects. I’m not saying that chillwave as a genre is necessarily played out, but if you call yourself a “chillwave artist” now, in October of 2010, you’ll face as much derision as you will admiration. I’d like to think that in a way, witch house is a cynical response to chillwave, turning the latter’s quiet rhythmic nostalgia on its head and crucifying it on an upside-down cross.

Plus, you know, the neologism itself is kind of lame. “Chillwave” sounds like something your stoner older cousin might talk about as he pecks at his Casio keyboard and rips bong hits on yet another unemployed Tuesday afternoon. No matter; the music deserves better classification than the current designations can offer, and artists like Washed Out can only benefit from an abandonment of the nomenclature.

Ambient folk music is tricky to determine, because it seems to mean one thing in America and another in Europe. See, across the pond, Norse and/or Slavic mythology—the kind of stuff you’d expect heavy metal bands to scream about—has informed a quietly intense subgenre that’s been deemed “folk.”

Here in the States, however, “ambient folk” has a more countrified connotation. We Yankees consider Finnish artist Islaja, who specializes in folk music of the avant-garde variety, California’s Jesca Hoop and even Devendra Banhart to be the bearers of this particular cross. Think acoustic guitars and wandering, challenging melodies.

Many critics refer to this kind of music as “inaccessible,” but try listening to Islaja’s 2004 debut Meritie. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself immediately engrossed by her Bjork-y meditations and inviting voice. Also, her lyrics are in Finnish, so you may not know what the hell she’s talking about, but it sure is pretty. If you want something a little more English-speaking to enjoy from this genre, might I suggest Grizzly Bear’s 2006 album Yellow House, which is the musical equivalent of antique shopping in Hyrule.

I’ll end this installment of genre tourism with a quick visit to the unclassifiable appendages of this genre. Floridian duo Viernes, Animal Collective member Avey Tare (whose solo debut, Down There, comes out next week), San Diego native Gonjasufi, Flying Lotus, and Aphex Twin occupy different spaces underneath the ambient umbrella. They’re all experimental, to varying degrees—what makes something “ambient” as opposed to simply “electronic” is hard to pin down, but might include an absence of melody and lyrics, nonsensical song and album titles, heavy musical repetition, a near exclusive use of synth instrumentation, and an avoidance of the typical verse/chorus/verse pop song structure.

Basically, music that’s meant to be listened to—as opposed to, say, sung along to in your car or in the shower—may be “ambient.” The genre is more about enveloping the listener in a mood or atmosphere than producing music with memorable hooks and catchy lyrics (though someone like Avey Tare does all of these things).

I won’t pretend that this was anything more than a rudimentary introduction to an intimidatingly broad and ambiguous genre. My hope is to not to shoehorn artists into simple genre categories, but rather to highlight a few of the common ways in which ambient artists operate.

Of course, the best ambient music challenges the listener while at the same inviting him or her to a bizarre yet fulfilling musical landscape culled straight from the artist’s wacky imagination. In other words, your favorite ambient artist may break all these rules and defy categorization. That’s cool. There’s a certain visceral connection one has to ambient music; it’s stuff you feel as much as listen to.

As Zola Jesus assures us on “Night,” “In the end of the night I can feel you breathe. Don’t be afraid, don’t be alarmed; in the end of the night, you’re in my arms.”

Ambient artists won’t lead you too far astray, I promise.

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Popular Slam Poet Taylor Mali Plagiarized by Country Songwriters

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Editor’s Note: Following our reporting, Taylor Mali was credited as a co-writer on the song discussed in this story.


Poet, voiceover artist and school teacher Taylor Mali is no stranger to having his work used without permission. His most well-known poem, “What Teachers Make,” has been making the rounds as a chain email for the better part of a decade, almost always credited to “Anonymous.” The poem was transformed, without consent or compensation, into a children’s book. And it was cited, without attribution, by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman during a 2003 Yale commencement address.

Friedman eventually acknowledged his mistake, and the book’s author learned of the source material’s origin just in time to have a “based on the poem by…” message added prior to printing. But for Mali, it’s the emails — whose authors sometimes have the audacity to re-write poem — that bother him the most. Written in 1999, “What Teachers Make” has been credited to “Anonymous” despite the fact that there are many easily-accessible video of Mali performing it. There’s one from a 2003 appearance on the award-winning HBO special Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. There’s a YouTube clip with over a million views. There’s even a Ted Talk.

“Five minutes of searching for a phrase or two on Google would reveal I’m the author,” said Mali.

The plagiarism started when Mali published the poem on his website, TaylorMali.com, back in 1999. He said he didn’t include his name with the poem because he assumed the website address made it obvious.

Given how frequently he’s been plagiarized, Mali wasn’t shocked to receive our call about an unattributed use of his work. He was surprised, however, when he learned that the poem had been appropriated and transformed into a song currently being marketed to mainstream country radio — a process that requires the involvement and oversight of many people, from musicians and engineers to publishers and record label executives.

Brad Wold - I Make a Difference“I Make A Difference,” which is being offered to radio stations by an Atlanta-based company called Evergreen Records, can be streamed on the radio industry website AllAccess.com. A search of the database of Broadcast Music Inc. (a performance rights organization that tracks and collects royalties owed to songwriters and music publishers) lists the song’s writers as Brad Wolf (the artist) and Donald Goodman, who wrote hits such as Alabama’s “Angels Among Us” and Blake Shelton’s “Ol’ Red.”

In general, it’s a violation of U.S. copyright law to adapt an author’s work without their permission. While there are slight differences between the poem and the song, the chorus and second verse of “I Make a Difference” are almost identical to Mali’s “What Teachers Make.”

Wolf, Goodman and Evergreen Records did not respond to requests for comment. However, Robert “Buddy” Resnik, whose Resnik Music Group controls the publishing rights to “I Make A Difference,” said that he was unaware of any similarities between the song and poem.

“You kind of caught me off guard,” he said.

When asked what steps he planned to take since being made aware of the issue, Resnik said that his company is “very honest and open, and committed to doing the right thing.”

In addition to Wolf’s version of “I Make a Difference,” a streaming audio player on Resnik Music Group’s website features versions of the song performed by Linda Davis (known for “Does He Love You,” her Grammy-winning 1993 duet with Reba McEntire) and a duo named Burns & Poe. Neither Davis nor representatives from Burns & Poe responded to our requests to comment for this story.

Resnik said that he doesn’t believe the song has been recorded by any other artists.

While the song has failed to garner any significant radio airplay, it’s available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and elsewhere. Mali is likely entitled to some or all of the royalties generated when people listen to the song on those services.

Mali said that he’s surprised by the lack of research conducted by Wolf and Goodman, and that he will likely issue a “cease and desist” letter to the appropriate parties.

“A part of me is honored that my poem moved someone to set it to music,” he said. “But the rest of me is disappointed that someone claimed my words as their own. I mean, the poem is a tribute to teachers. But you can’t claim to stand for that if you are also plagiarizing the words of a teacher.”

Mali said that if Wolf and Goodman had asked him first, he would have given them permission to adapt the poem — presuming they gave him appropriate credit in return.

Now, he hopes that any attention generated by this story will help him reattach his name to a poem that many people assume was written by no one in particular.

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Retro Radio: Revisiting Guns n’ Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident?

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I’m an eighties kid. Not as in I was born in the eighties, but as in I was living in the eighties. Madonna was Queen. Michael was King. And the great controversy of our time? The mullet versus the mohawk.

I worked for the now defunct 97 KROY Radio. DJs spun discs, and the long haired rocker boys sold out stadiums. And then the CD came along and changed the world.

I belonged to the school of thought that prophesied the CD as a passing phase. Turns out that I was right—it took years, but Beck released an album on vinyl and the Renaissance began in earnest. Still, even now, nothing sounds better than records that were made to be records; that scratchy, raw quality that is somehow to the ear.

Enter 2010. A typical winter evening in New York City. I didn’t really know what ‘typical winter in New York’ meant, as I’d only been here for two months, but New York proved to be an orgiastic feast for the senses—all of the senses; even ones you didn’t know existed.

One of my first New York purchases was the unlimited Metro Pass. I’d catch random trains, and go to random parts of the city. On this particular evening, I found myself in The Village, a place I had an instant love affair with; a place where the ghosts of Bohemians past still wandered the cobblestone streets, where hand painted storefronts graced the walkways and where Mom & Pops shops still ruled.

It was here I discovered what I believe may be the best vintage vinyl shop in New York—Generation Records on Thompson Street. From the weird to the obscure, the bins runneth over.

And then I spied it—a forgotten treasure, buried deep in the used and abused bin. I fished it out, tattered corners, worn face and fading paint. The first time I bought this album, I paid nearly $15.00. A small fortune for me in 1993.

Seventeen years later, I paid $1.99 plus tax for the same record. I could smell the vintage-ness of the Frisbee-like disc. I handed over $2.08, and The Spaghetti Incident?, was mine again.

The mid-’80s Los Angeles rock scene that gave birth to Guns n’ Roses was a curious thing, neither quite punk scruffy nor given to glam excess and largely populated by hip kids who were too young to remember that Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith had long been completely passé. In retrospect, the original Guns n’ Roses formula seems obvious enough, but no one had ever before successfully crossed the grungy street attitude of the underground Hollywood bands with the polished, riffy sound of the pouf-haired Sunset Strip pop metal bands, and the result was a giant paradigm shift in rock and roll.

But although the tremendous success of G n’ R may have all but erased the few vestiges of the underground rock scene that still existed in Hollywood, a legacy of punk rock continued to thrive, at least as a hip influence: Punk rock codified the underground anti-establishment groove that was now mandatory for any artist harder-edged than Whitney Houston, and rock groups as mainstream as Skid Row and Mötley Crüe now considered it more or less obligatory to include Sex Pistols songs in their sets.

On The Spaghetti Incident?—an album of mostly punky cover versions of drunk rock classics—Guns n’ Roses reasserts its roots in hard-edged Rock & Roll—some punk rock, some not—the way that U2 tried to with Rattle and Hum when the band’s “authenticity” had become suspect.

But in recording half an album’s worth of punk songs, Guns n’ Roses revealed themselves as a glam-rock band, and a good one—as if T. Rex and the Dolls had come out of early punk rather than the other way around.

“Black Leather,” a post-mortem Sex Pistols song written by Steve Jones, sounds better than the original, thanks to more bounce and heartier groove. The tough swagger of Guns n’ Roses on this track may be what the original Pistols aspired to before Malcom McLaren pushed Johnny Rotten on them.

There are quick, goofy versions of the Damned’s “New Rose” and U.K. Subs’ “Down on the Farm,” which Axl delivers with an English accent as contrived as that of any Orange County hardcore singer; there is a loose, sloppy version of Iggy’s “Raw Power” that would be a hit at any Whisky Jam Night.

Punk rock is sometimes best read as a vigorous howl of complaint against one’s own powerlessness, but Axl doesn’t quite connect to the punk-rock material on Spaghetti as anything but a conduit for pure aggression. He can’t even seem to curse right. In his version of Fear’s punk rock chestnut “I Don’t Care About You,” his is not the “fuck you” of Fear’s Lee Ving (the epithet of the misfit yelling at the cop car after it has safely rounded the corner) but the “fuck you!” the tavern bully grunts as he shoves you hard in the chest.

When Chris Cornell sings, “I want to fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you,” in the Sound Garden anthem “Big Dumb Sex,” his voice is filled with longing and desire; Axl, reprising that Sound Garden chorus as a tag to the T. Rex song “Buick Makane,” sounds like a guy reading cue cards on the set of a porno movie.

But the Nazareth anthem “Hair of the Dog” is almost a primo Guns n’ Roses song to begin with, muscular riffing, forged-iron arpeggios, enraged lyrics just built for Axl’s manly scream, exactly the sort of thing Guns n’ Roses is best at—hip wiggle music, ’70s sounding without being explicitly retro—powered by the sort of glam-groove Slash guitar and oddly baroque Matt Sorum drumming that seem merely overwrought elsewhere on the album. “Buick Makane” works the complex riff until it screams.

Punk-rock virtues are most apparent in the Duff-sung version of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” which features irregular arrangements, wavery vocals, even a splash of vulnerability.

It’s also the one song on the album you will probably fast-forward through in the car or skip on the record.

Still, I love The Spaghetti Incident? It takes me back to a simpler time—when gas was still a buck, Beavis and Butthead were controversial and it was only the parking lot of the World Trade Center that got bombed.

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A Second Look: Peter Bjorn & John – Living Thing

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Swedish indie crooners Peter Bjorn and John are set to release Gimme Some, on March 29, and the album’s marriage of twee pop and garage rock is sure to please fans who were disappointed by 2009′s Living Thingand have been forced to wait almost five years for the next Writer’s Block. Most will consider Gimme Someto be an improvement over its predecessor; I think it’s a shame.

Not that Gimme Some is particularly bad–it’s not, at all–but Living Thing flopped because it wasn’t what most listeners wanted from a Peter Bjorn and John album. Its jingly first single “Nothing to Worry About” belied an album filled of terse, spare meditations that emphasized mood over melody. Never mind that it also contained some of the best hooks the band’s ever written; without a “Young Folks,” Living Thingwas doomed to fail.

A band’s decision to experiment usually runs the risk of alienating a good portion of its listeners, and that’s what happened to Peter Bjorn and John in 2009. But with their latest release just a week away, I think it’s time to reconsider Living Thing. In fact, let’s pretend it was the band’s first album; what would we say about it?

Immediately, we’d note the desperate, almost primal energy lurking beneath the cool surface sounds of the album. Opener “The Feeling” opens with forceful percussion, emphatic hand-claps, and the skimpiest of synth lines; it song gives off a very tribal vibe, like the band hired a group of musically-inclined cavemen to produce the track. “It Don’t Move Me” sounds just as sparse but veers more toward a bare-bones, bass-heavy beat and the murky sinisterness of a song by the Knife; indeed, lyrics like “Forget photos and letters/All the people that matter/They don’t move me no more” would have sounded right at home on Silent Shout.

Track three is where the sad beauty of Living Thing really begins to take shape. “Just the Past” moves at a slow, insistent gallop, much like the singer’s unrequited overtures toward a romantic, unnamed other. Lines like “You untie me as if I were a shoelace” sound trite on paper, but when they’re backed by ephemeral keyboards and sung to the tune of a heartbreaking melody, these lyrics achieve a poignance only hinted at on previous PB+J releases. Again, this is minimal pop music, but it’s to the band’s credit that they’re patient enough to let these tender songs unfold at their own pace, rather than trying to cram in another hook before embarking upon a forced chorus (a problem that plagues several songs on Gimme Some).

“Stay This Way” is the album’s apex, the moment at which the band’s newfound experimental itch activates a visceral sadness in the listener. It’s a song about growing out of the carefree selfishness of childhood while not wanting to ever grow up, about finding yourself adrift in time, years gone by that you haven’t thought to count: “Things ain’t working out like they’re supposed to, but at least they’re working out,” it begins. The chorus finds the singer pleading, “Why can’t we stay this way?” backed by, yes, whistling—the trademark sound of “Young Folks” turned on its head and given a black eye, lending itself to the sort of defeated pop someone like Trent Reznor would have a field day remixing. The last line, sung acapella, goes, “I just wanna have you here.” We the listeners know in our gut, however, that the object of the singer’s affection doesn’t want to “stay this way.” The singer has made a hopeless request.

All this melancholy would be a little too much for a pop album recorded by lesser talents, but Peter Bjorn and John seem to have Swedish twee pop ingrained into their DNA; even in the album’s bleakest moments, flashes of melody and even humor are to be found, like saplings peeking out through cracks in abandoned sidewalks. “Lay It Down” rides a rollicking piano with all the heroism the album’s dejected narrator can muster: “Hey, shut the fuck up boy/You are starting to piss me off/Take your hands off that girl/You have already had enough,” goes the chorus. But the narrator’s chivalry is ineffectual, and he concedes to his aggressor that “You’re just gonna let her down,” as though there were nothing he could do to change that.

“Blue Period Picasso,” meanwhile, is absolutely gorgeous acoustic pop-rock that arises from the ashes of a sparse, jarring intro; the lyrics’ central metaphor compares the singer’s ennui with the loneliness of a second-tier Picasso painting (“I’m a bit too early, I’m seen as development”) that’s “stuck on a wall in the middle of a hall in Barcelona. The analogy is more charming than labored, and when the singer encourages the object of his affection to “Hold me close unto your breast/Run down the stairs out in open air/Away from the ladies, the Japanese tourists,” the song shines with the promise of hope faintly shining through a dense fog of hopelessness.

“4 Out Of 5″ is lumbering, heavy, fitting the description that Michael Jackson gives to one of his backing band members in This Is It during rehearsals for “The Way You Make Me Feel”: “Like you’re dragging yourself out of bed.” And closer “Last Night” is a piano-driven ballad from space that burns slowly over the course of its four minute runtime, an fittingly echoing and haunted finale to an echoing and haunted album.

Shortly after Living Thing dropped, DJ/producer Mick Boogie put together a mixtape called Re-Living Thing that recast each of the original album’s tracks in a grittier hip-hop context. The results are sublime, not just because of the mixtape’s producers’ sampling prowess (though they definitely choose the best moments of each PB+J track to sample) but also because the mixtape makes more apparent the original album’s charms, hooks, and memorability that so many listeners seemed to found overlook. That a diverse group of rappers found rhythmic and conceptual inspiration in Living Thing, however, should come as no to surprise to those of us who appreciated Peter Bjorn and John’s attempts to play with the beats and instrumentation we often take for granted in Swedish pop. And therein lies the true magic of Living Thing; cut away the cobwebs and you’ll encounter a hushed musical ecosystem that sounds richer and fuller with each subsequent listen.

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