Monday, October 8, 2007

Philly Music: Mystical Shaman Index (Another 2 Part Series)

Happy Monday,

This past weekend, the big 215 festival was going down in Philly. The Tweener is here to promise you 0% coverage of what happened. We didn't go to a single goddamned event. Not even the spelling bee. Not even 6 hours and 45 minutes of Questlove spinning obscure Terry Callier at Bubble House. We're not even sure the Questlove event was part of the 215 festival, that's how little we know/knew about it.

We at the Tweener are busy on the weekends with murderous grad school assignments until mid-November, when this shit will really start poppin'. I did take a two hour study break on Saturday, however, to walk 400 blocks from my apartment near 11th and fitzwater to AKA Records on N. 3rd and market. I went there to pick up a Kurt Vile EP.

Kurt Vile is one of those slightly crazy looking, multi-talented solo musicians who often get described as "mystical shamans", "shaman mystics", or less often, "like Mystikal". Often, the music media are quick to exalt to the talents of such artists based on what their image promises rather than the actual tunes they deliver. I can think of no better example of this than Anton Newcomb and the Brian Jonestown Massacre

A brief aside of what gets my blood boiling regarding the Jonestown Massacre. I got hip to them In 2003 in Norwich, England, before the good but embarrassingly fawning dig came out and gave them an undeserving legacy. I had read everything available on the internet about the band and their awesome self-appointed influences, from shoegaze to soul music to freak-folk to free-jazz to regular jazz to classic rock to Switzerlandian blues. When I finally got my hands some of their albums, however, all I heard was a bunch of junkie shitheads trying to imitate Spacemen 3's Playing with Fire over the course an entire career, only with no guitar pedals and even shittier vocals.

To make sure I am never cheated again, I've created the "mystical shaman" index for deciding the legitimacy of said artist's musical genius before I make an investment. If you read clippings about the solo artist, here are the red herrings:

Artist can play 100 instruments: Translation: Artist can play guitar at a competent level, can play bass at a barely competent level, can play three chords on a Keyboard, and can string together three notes with any other instrument that's lying around. In addition, all instruments besides guitar will be buried so low in the mix that they might as well not even be there.

Besides, when comes to songwriting, who cares if you can play 100 instruments!? You're not going to make a Greek folk album, so what does it matter that you can make a killer Bouzouki arrangement?

Artist/media cites many disparate influences: This is what ropes the average listener in. They think they're going to be sent on a non-stop thrill ride of musical styles. The problem with this is that every musician has a comfort zone skill level that usually doesn't extend beyond a few genres. You're better believing press clippings about an artist that is specifically good at some kind of playing/writing style, ie Howe Gelb and his approach to piano, than someone who supposedly can play any kind of song. Too often, their reach exceeds their grasp.

Artist is their "own worst enemy": Translation: Artist hasn't made a good album yet.

There you go. Three red herrings that should give you pause before you fall for a genius of the month. Kurt Vile passes these tests, but I'll talk about that tomorrow.

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