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The Noise Beneath The Apple

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The Latin root ‘busk’ can be traced back to ‘buskin, which was a dec­o­rated san­dal worn by Ro­man street per­form­ers. His­toric records from that time also in­di­cate the prac­tice of throw­ing coins to street per­form­ers; the first tips. From here, the trav­els and evo­lu­tion of the word busker are as var­ied and puz­zling as the pro­fes­sion itself.

In ob­so­lete French, ‘busque’r, was used to de­scribe an­other of the world’s old­est pro­fes­sions, a ser­vice ex­changed for alms; pros­ti­tu­tion. In Ital­ian, buskers were known as ‘bus­carsi’, stem­ming from the root “to pro­cure or gain.” In Spain, the root means “to seek”—as in seek­ing fame and for­tune. The most fa­mous early buskers are the gyp­sies, from Ro­ma­nia. The Ro­mani peo­ple are well known as for­tune tellers, dancers, mu­si­cians and wan­der­ing en­ter­tain­ers, and it is they who are cred­ited with bring­ing busking—the pro­fes­sion and the term—to England.

My fa­vorite as­so­ci­a­tion of the word ap­pears in 1851, in the writ­ings of Au­gus­tus Sep­ti­mus May­hew (an Eng­lish jour­nal­ist and au­thor), who used it in The Great­est Plague of Life while de­scrib­ing a lifestyle of shift­less, vagabond buskers—a lifestyle re­served for those lowly loot­ers and lib­ertines, the pirates.

Busk­ing his­tory is rich; filled with con­tro­versy, char­ac­ter and in­trigue. From med­i­cine shows in the early eigh­teen hundreds—complete with snake charm­ing, jug­gling and fire breathing—to one-man bands in the early nine­teen hun­dreds, busk­ing has been alive and well in the United States.

Buskers them­selves, fall into a myr­iad of cat­e­gories. There are those who cre­ate “cir­cle shows,” usu­ally draw­ing peo­ple into large crowds around them. These shows have a def­i­nite be­gin­ning and end; a skit, dance rou­tine, com­edy or ven­tril­o­quism. Then there’s café busk­ing, where per­for­mances are done in ex­change for tips—those tips of­ten col­lected via a “pass­ing of the hat” (Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Bob Dy­lan, started in this way and the 1973 hit, Pi­ano Man, by Billy Joel, was in­spired by his six months as a café busker in Los Angeles).

Still an­other type of busker is one who em­bod­ies a magic that is ex­clu­sively their own, yet ex­tra­or­di­nar­ily com­mu­nal. We walk by them, play­ing their gui­tars, singing their songs, per­form­ing their mu­sic. We may smile at them. We may not. We may hur­riedly drop a buck in their open gui­tar case. We may not. We may stop and watch. We may not.

In the world of this busker, none of these things mat­ter. They are there be­cause they be­long there. The streets have called them; the world un­der­foot has beck­oned them. Like The Vel­veteen Rab­bit, they be­come more real than the trains whizzing by, more con­crete than the sky­scrap­ers over­head. And they give the city a life and a breath, an un­der­cur­rent of alchemy that would not ex­ist if they were not there. They in­vite us to sing out of key, to dance out of step, not nec­es­sar­ily try­ing to dis­cern the mean­ing of life, but rather, to ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing truly alive.

These are their songs. These are their sto­ries. These are the com­mon threads that con­nect us all. And as we jour­ney into the heart of this breed of busker, we dis­cover, as Maya An­gelou says, “that we are more alike than unalike”.

It was Christ­mas 2009. I found my­self drink­ing rum, lis­ten­ing to rock & roll and re­flect­ing. Re­flect­ing is what we do at that time of year; the rum and rock & roll sim­ply make that re­flec­tion eas­ier to swallow.

I was liv­ing in Los An­ge­les. I had no boyfriend. I had no lover. I didn’t own a home or a dog; I didn’t even have an air fern. What the hell was I do­ing in Los Angeles?

Two weeks later, I was smack dab in the mid­dle of New York City. I found my­self in the midst of the mad, mad ones; those dar­ing souls who had taken their art to the streets and made the city their stage. They were with­out lim­its; bound­less; free from the shack­les of con­for­mity. I was mys­ti­fied and en­chanted, ex­actly like Mr. Ker­ouac had predicted.

I bought an un­lim­ited Metro Pass and be­gan ex­plor­ing the city’s nu­ances, her char­ac­ter, in the heart of win­ter. At the 59th/Columbus Cir­cle stop in the Up­per West Side, I came across Luke Ryan; a busker with soul, en­ter­tain­ing an in­vis­i­ble crowd, in the three-degree subway.

He sang Spring­steen tunes and swayed to the sound of his own voice. He ban­tered with the non-existent onlookers:

“Oh, there’s the Venti Star­bucks cup. It’s all down­hill from here. I’m gonna call it a day. Thanks so much for stop­ping by.”

I looked around and won­dered if he was aware that no one was there.

And then I saw his sign, hand­writ­ten, lean­ing against his worn gui­tar case. “I’m not here and nei­ther are you,” it said.

A nat­tily dressed man in an Ar­mani suit scur­ried by, in­tently fo­cused on the train track ahead.

Luke, whose beard is go­ing gray in two per­fectly ver­ti­cal lines straight down his chin, is an elf-like char­ac­ter with a mis­chie­vous twin­kle in his eye. Like a spark­plug, he is stout, square and full of charge. He looked at the man in the Ar­mani and shouted out, “Mad Dog!”

Ar­mani Man halted.

“You look great. You’re all cleaned up. You’re out of the joint. Good for you.”

Ar­mani Man ducked into the first open train door, with­out notic­ing that it was a Queens bound N. “We used to be cell mates,” Luke said to me. “I was the husband.”

That was worth a buck and I gladly dropped a dol­lar into Luke’s case.

Luke has played the sub­ways for over 30 years, for such spec­ta­tors as Ab­bie Hoff­man and Tom Waits. He played there back when the city danced to war and protest songs. He played there when that same city reeled from the shock of 9/11, then grieved and healed. He’s been chased, tick­eted and em­braced by the NYPD as busk­ing evolved from a ro­man­tic no­tion to a le­git­i­mate oc­cu­pa­tion to an il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity (which is where it stands to­day). From freez­ing to swel­ter­ing tem­per­a­tures, ha­rass­ment from the home­less to the NYPD, le­gal bat­tles, ar­rests, con­fine­ment, First Amend­ment Rights con­tro­ver­sies, in­car­cer­a­tion, tick­ets and fines, Luke con­tin­ues to play.

In fu­ture edi­tions of this col­umn, we’ll meet “The Saw Lady,” one Na­talia Paruz, who has played Madi­son Square Gar­den and Carnegie Hall. She still calls the New York Sub­way her mu­si­cal home. The ide­al­is­tic Theo Eastwind—baker turned busker—with his blond hair and sharp blue eyes, able to re­cite the First Amend­ment and all of its nu­ances in four lan­guages. We’ll meet the in­domitable Al­ice Ri­d­ley Tan, an 18-year vet­eran of the New York un­der­ground and mother to Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of the film Pre­cious.

We’ll meet these peo­ple and many more, hear their sto­ries, lis­ten to their songs and ex­plore the con­tro­versy that swirls around them in the New York un­der­ground. And no mat­ter what form of trans­porta­tion you use—a John Deere trac­tor, an Ital­ian Vespa, a magic car­pet or the city trains—may you be trans­ported to a dif­fer­ent place than you were when you started.

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Album Review: M.I.A. – Maya

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Abrasive, confrontational and idiosyncratic, M.I.A.’s third studio album can’t decide whether it’s a flame-throwing manifesto about “information politics” or an aggressive declaration of self.

Whatever its eventual goals, Maya is easily the artist’s most prickly offering to date—which, given M.I.A.’s track record, is saying something. And yet, it is also her most revealing.

The woman born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (this album is named for her, just as her two previous records, Arularand Kala, were named for her father and mother, respectively) seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis throughout. Since her last record, 2007’s Kala—which produced the gigantic smash single “Paper Planes”—M.I.A. has settled down somewhat, moving in with her boyfriend (music business heir Ben Bronfman) and having a child in Los Angeles.

But is she giving in to the bourgeois lifestyle?

Even if she hadn’t publicly battled a New York Times journalist about the veracity of an interview where she supposedly ordered the high-brow snack of truffle French fries, it’s clear M.I.A.’s success as a producer and performer now stands at odds with her desire to be seen as a street-level revolutionary with little to lose.

The punishing, front part of the album—power tools provide the beat for “Steppin Up”—stands in sharp contrast to the almost soothing, gentle back portion (“Tell Me Why” is probably the closest M.I.A. will ever come to recording a ballad). It’s a striking dichotomy, this tough and soft, but M.I.A. embraces the challenge of reconciling the two.

Working with a roster of forward-thinking producers (Blaqstarr, Diplo, Rusko, Switch and Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller), M.I.A. relies on startling samples, including snippets of Suicide and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. The dense sonic landscapes invite repeated listens, moving past M.I.A.’s occasionally detached, occasionally Auto-Tuned vocal performances and unpacking the stellar work of her production team.

Maya doesn’t suggest M.I.A. has lost the taste for experimentation or that her ambition has lessened; “Gravity’s my enemy,” she warbles on the album closer “Space.” If anything, this record feels like someone with creativity to burn wrestling with the need for external expression.

Although M.I.A. could once affect the pose of a musical guerrilla, the passage of time and events that mark most every life (the arrival of domestic tranquility, material success, etc.) have forced a new perspective upon her.

Whether or not she’s comfortable with that change is a question Maya can’t—or won’t—answer.

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2011′s Best Underground Music (So Far), Part II

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Last month, we told you about some of the best new releases from from the ambient/electronic underground. Here are a few more artists whose work has caught our attention as of late.

Waskerley Way makes beat-heavy electronic music in the UK. Also, he loves cats. (No, seriously, dude’s got a thing for cats; last year he dedicated an entire EP to them.) Waterfall doesn’t exactly break any new ground, but Michael Bridgewater nonetheless puts his own spin on the otherwise tired “chillwave” trope. In fact, it sounds like the sort of chillwave your future grandkids might discover on a dusty old hard drive in your attic. Meowgaze? Hear and download Waterfall on his Bandcamp.

Ra Cailum is Anthony Engelhardt from St. Louis, Missouri. Not all of the songs on latest EP, Passage, are new, but they’ve been lovingly collected and offered to curious listeners free of charge in the wake of the December 2010 release of his Walkabout LP, which he says marked the “end to the CHILLWAVE ERA sound of Ra Cailum.” He says that sound is “becoming a crutch,” but it’s a catchy crutch that resonates even more now that the weather’s finally warm.

Sean McCann is a cyborg. He has to be. Dude puts out like a bazillion full-lengths each year, and they’re all amazing. “Drone” doesn’t really do his music justice; McCann uses all sorts of instruments and sound effects–including banjos and warped violas–to evoke different emotional responses in the listener. His latest, entitled The Capital, explores the symbiotic relationship between chaos and beauty. Or, you know, not; sometimes it’s best to not sully music this good with academic conjecturing.

A tip of the hat to the ever-awesome ambient music blog Weedtemple for introducing the world to Rug. I know absolutely nothing about this project other than that it’s made by a guy named Zach Stenger. But such anonymity is fitting; Deep Sky Clusters sounds less like the work of a person and more like the spontaneous combustion of years’ worth of VHS memories and borrowed melodies. It’s all very strange, but if you give it a chance, you’ll be surprised as to how rewarding these songs can be.

Maria Minerva is 23-years-old and lives in Estonia, where she seems to spend most of her time holed up in her bedroom making ghostly electronica of the lo-lo-fi variety. Her latest cassette is called Tallinn at Dawn, and it’s infectious; disco and new wave tinged synth pop backs her ethereal vocals that consistently sound like you’re hearing them from another room. Sometimes, one can’t help but regret an artist’s studio limitations for obscuring a potentially revelatory sound; in Ms. Minerva’s case, however, the low fidelity only adds to the atmosphere. Her music sounds like it’s actually from 1983, and you’ve only recently discovered it after finding her cassettes in a shoebox buried behind your local public library.

Food Pyramid make Kosmiche Musik with a psychedelic twist. They’ve just released the third and final cassette in their krautrock-inspired trilogy. The cassettes are entitled I, II, and now III. Don’t worry, their song titles are a lot more creative; who wouldn’t want to hear songs with titles like “Lesbian Seagull” and “Speedboat Exit Miami Sunset” and “Last Shuttle To The Red Planet?” I mean, this type of music either is your thing or isn’t, but if you wish that Klaus Schulze were actually a trio from Minnesota, then you’ll like what Food Pyramid have to offer.

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Why I Love Rebecca Black’s “Friday”

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I first learned of 13-year-old Rebecca Black via a Facebook post that appeared on my news feed about two weeks ago, and my initial reaction to the now ubiquitous “Friday” was a mixture of disbelief and amusement—I couldn’t help but chuckle at the atrocious song as I thought about how something so bad could accrue so many views in such a short period of time. Still, I thought of it as something of a novelty—just an internet meme that, like so any others, would sputter and stall once its fuel was burned up.

As it turns out, “Friday” had a lot more gas in the tank than anyone expected.

The culmination of Rebecca Black’s phenomenal rise came on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last Friday, when the show’s host enlisted the services of comedian and fake news host Stephen Colbert (arguably one of the biggest stars in the world right now) for a bombastic live rendition of “Friday,” backed by none other than Grammy winning hip hop outfit The Roots. Halfway through the song, Colbert and Fallon (who contributed a verse of heavily auto-tuned guest vocals) were joined on stage by American Idol winner Taylor Hicks and the New York Knicks dance team. The performance climaxed in a huge crescendo of movement and color and may well be remembered as one of the most entertaining and culturally defining musical moments of the year.

That fact is sure to make blood boil among the legions of indie diehards still reveling in little-known rock band Arcade Fire’s monumental Grammy win for “Best Album,” but the truth is that Rebecca Black and her unbelievably bad song penetrated pop culture to a much greater extent than Arcade Fire’s unbelievably good album.

Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs has sold less than 1 million copies, even in spite of the band’s Grammy coup. In contrast, Black’s music video for “Friday” has been played on YouTube over 82 million times. Anecdotally, ask your friends or your co-workers what they know about Arcade Fire, and they’ll most likely stare back at you with blank faces. But ask them what they know about Rebecca Black, and you’re likely to see a considerably more animated response.

Perhaps that fact says something profoundly negative about our culture. Perhaps it’s a shame that we have collectively embraced something that is free, fast and intellectually easy as opposed to something that is textured, beautiful and more difficult to appreciate. Or perhaps that’s not the point at all. Perhaps the strength of music cannot be defined just by how textured, beautiful and intellectually rewarding it is. Perhaps, sometimes, music reaches the pinnacle of its potential when it becomes something that we share, not something that we experience and appreciate in relative isolation.

Conventional wisdom says that “Friday” is just an inside joke that we’re all in on. But Fallon and company performed it joyously, and the crowd’s enthusiasm for that performance was anything but a show for the cameras. Maybe people love to hate “Friday,” but they still love it—as evidenced by the fact that they continue to share it, propagate it and discuss it more than they have done with any song or artist in quite some time.

Over the past 15 years, our consumption of music has become tremendously idiosyncratic. Thanks to this infinite distribution stream called the internet, we can download or purchase any song or album made by any person anywhere in the world. And so our music collections reflect not simply our tastes, but our tastes and preferences with incredible specificity.

But while those collections satisfy our personal desires, they typically contain little collective energy. We listen to what we listen to because we like it, but there’s almost no synergy between what we like and what our neighbor likes. Even within genres and musical movements, there seems to be a limitless string of sub-genres and sub-movements, all of which serve to divide music fans into an increasing number of increasingly small groups. And so our music connects us tightly to a few people, but hardly at all to society at large.

“Friday,” in contrast, is a song that isn’t constrained by niche, genre, generational or racial considerations. It’s a song that we’re all experiencing together. And whether we engage with it in appreciation or ridicule, it’s encouraging us to talk to each about that shared experience.

That’s something that just doesn’t happen because of music very often these days.

Black made music that mattered socially, not just critically or commercially. And in doing so, she brought together a drastically disparate musical population–one that is more virtually connected, but more socially disconnected, than at any time in its history.

And if you ask me, that’s the mark of a very good song—regardless of how inane the lyrics may be.

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