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Band/Artist Profile Miscellaneous

What Yoko Ono Can Tell Us About Indie Music

Yoko Ono posing for a publicity image in all black
Yoko at 88

I think most people are ready to admit that Yoko Ono is not the worst person to ever exist. There may be a few of us still clinging to the notion that she was a talentless harpy that broke up the best band ever, but this narrative is out of favor. Even the most traditionalist rock publications (Rolling Stone, Ultimate Classic Rock, etc.) have accepted her into music history, putting out lists of her top songs and best albums. To more liberal presses, she’s become something of an icon. In this narrative, she was an artistic genius victimized by a misogynistic hate mob who resented her avant-garde influence on John Lennon.

There has also been a growing interest in Ono’s music as influential. In 1970, avant-garde music was a strictly classical business. Experimentation was a right reserved to “serious music” and while Stockhausen, Schoenberg, and Cage were celebrities in a certain realm, they were not recording artists, and their influence did extend to pop. Ono was, for many people, their introduction to experimental music. A generation of musicians cited her as an inspiration, from pop music weirdos like the B-52s or Talking Heads to underground celebrities like William Bennet and Meredith Monk.

From indie blogs to the Grammy’s, the press is ready to admit that Ono is important, but they seem hesitant to discuss any of the actual music Ono released. Critics have either focused on her more typical rock releases or simply avoid discussing her music altogether. The New York Times ran a fawning piece defending the place of challenging music that made no reference to any of her actual songs or albums. When Pitchfork reviewed her back catalog, they concluded that her experimental albums were less ambitious and less than her experimental work. When critics dare write less favorable reviews, the assumptions about Ono come into much sharper focus. A Collegiate Times review of her music referred to her 2018 album Warzone as “a stupendously pretentious assemblage of avant-garde schlock,” that “Continues [a] career of meritless prominence.”

What confuses me most about the critical apathy (and occasional antipathy) towards Ono’s music is that it does not extend to music that is clearly influenced by her work. Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Bjork, even Fiona Apple- you don’t have to look far to find popular music that imitates Ono’s vocal style. On the instrumental side of things, it’s easy to imagine a track off of Yoko’s 1971 album “Fly” on a Throbbing Gristle or Captain Beefheart album. All of these musicians are critically adored, and their music is analyzed in great detail, especially their more experimental albums. So why do critics seem so eager to talk around the music of Yoko Ono?

To answer this question, I think it’s helpful to consider how Ono arrived in popular music. While Ono was a celebrated visual artist prior to meeting John Lennon, her marriage to the ex-Beatle meant that before she had even recorded an album, she was probably the fourth most famous artist alive (sorry Ringo), and was able to bypass a lot of music industry gatekeeping as a result. We expect avant-garde music to occur at the fringes, to always be underrated or someone obscure, and we expect prominent musicians to always make music accessible to a wide audience. The Collegiate Times review I quoted earlier makes this explicit, saying that, “‘Warzone’ is simply the latest piece in a long career of failing to reach the heights of an avant-garde frontier of music in hopes of reaching the hearts of people around the world.” The claim that Yoko is trying to reach a mass audience flies in the face of the music itself. Her first two albums are, to put it literally, 45 minutes of a woman wailing over elephant noises. Even her more accessible projects like “Warzone” are still leagues away from the mainstream. Her music clearly has no interest in appealing to a general audience, but because she is famous and on a major label, these expectations are put on her.

The frustrating thing about critical interpretations of Ono’s music, at least to me, isn’t that people don’t like her music- I’m only lukewarm on most of it myself- but that she would receive far different reception were she not a household name. Critical attitudes of popular music have warmed considerably in the last 20 years, but this reevaluation has only extended to the aesthetics of popular music, not to the underlying mechanics. Popular music may be acknowledged as good “in its own way” but it isn’t given equal billing with so-called “serious music.” Yoko Ono is just a little too famous to be taken seriously as an avant-garde artist. Instead, she must be analyzed only in terms of her effects, as the New York Times did, or, as in the case of the Pitchfork review, she must be spun as actually secretly having been a pop musician this whole time. We are still brought up with the deep-seated hipster belief that popular culture is inherently the lowest common denominator. Successful, famous artists like Ono that challenge this narrative are deeply threatening to magazines that make their name by denoting what gets to be taken seriously and what is pop culture trash. She proves that people have wider tastes than they are often given credit for, that fans of independent music are not quite as special as we think we are.

It’s impressive when you think about it, half a century later and Yoko Ono is still scary.

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Music News and Interviews

Black Dresses Are Back?

An album cover with a fiery peace sign over a green field

Canadian Noise Pop duo Black Dresses released the album Peaceful As Hell early last year, their most bold and entrancing album yet, and almost immediately thereafter broke up the band. Citing a wave of harassment and privacy violations occurring after one of their songs became a TikTok hit, they announced an end to the band for the sake of their mental health. It was sad, but not surprising. Fan’s demands upon creator’s personal lives are at a fever pitch, and it’s understandable that some artists wouldn’t want in. Two albums, that’s all we get and it’s more than we deserve.

Last Tuesday, the band put out the following statement on Twitter, “We’re no longer a band, unfortunately. Regardless we’ve decided to keep releasing music.” The surprise announcement was accompanied by a new album, titled Forever In Your Heart. They gave no follow-up explanation, but have spent the last couple of days aggressively retweeting fan art.

Well, that all seems clear enough, and I don’t think anyone is complaining about more Black Dresses. The album was also likely created in their post-breakup period, meaning there’s possibly more to come. There are multiple quasi-references to the invasive pressure of fan culture, and some songs that feel tailor-made to this, the eleventh month of quarantine, including one about living in a concrete bubble that feels especially prescient. The album is possibly their best yet, I’ll spare you a full review and just recommend you check it out for yourself on Bandcamp. It’s full of hyper-pop meets thrash ragers that are as infectious as they are miserable. Black Dresses are infectious misery, and I mean that in the best way possible.

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New Album Review

Album Review: I’ve Seen All I Need to See

An album cover featuring macabre imagery

New harsh noise music is hard to come by, and it’s even harder to find noise that’s worth your time, but praise be, The Body have come through. The Providence, Rhode Island duo have been minor celebrities in noise and metal communities for a while, and they have moved through numerous styles in the nearly 20 years since their debut. Their 2016 album No One Deserves Happiness, is a favorite of mine for its absolutely bonkers incorporation of dance and art-pop elements into their barren hellscape of a sound, and genre enthusiasts assure me that some of their metal-oriented stuff is good as well, though I personally don’t care for it.

This new album, however, is something altogether more primal and terrifying. Going back to power electronic basics is kind of the noise artist equivalent of an indie rock band putting out a folk album, or of Taylor Swift releasing an indie project, and accordingly, these albums usually get listened to by a handful of fans before moving on to the next major release. I’ve Seen All I Need to See breaks this mold, taking a cold, unpleasant sound palate and deepening it into a genuinely moving experience. There aren’t bombastic highs, like on some of their albums, and there aren’t really dredging lows either, instead, the album asks you to just sit with for an hour or so and take it in. Slowly, the rough grimy exterior slips into something melancholic and wistful. Distorted synth tones feel almost melodic and the distance scream becomes a gentle descant. For a genre with an all too limited range, this album is awfully subtle, and you could attach a host of different emotions to it. Anger, loneliness, even something more uplifting, the choice is yours.

This album won’t be for everyone, noise music is an acquired taste at the best of times, usually because of its abrasion, but in this case more because of the slow burn, instrumental feel. However, if you like noise, ambient, drone, or even more lowkey metal artists like Sun O))) I’d recommend this release, there’s a reward for your patience down in there somewhere.

ALBUM: “I’ve Seen All I Needed to See” by The Body

RELEASE YEAR: 2021

LABEL: Trill Jockey

RATING: 7/10

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Band/Artist Profile

Artist Profile: Grace Jones

A black woman poses holding a revolver
Grace Jones posing for the James Bond film A View to Kill

A few weeks ago, when I was doing my first DJ shift for the Spring semester, I got a call on the hotline requesting I play a song by Grace Jones. I didn’t recognize the name, but never one to turn down a request, I pulled up a song called “Pull up to the Bumper,” and hit play. What came out of the speakers stumped me for categorization. It was clearly dance music, but there was an edge to the guitars that reminded me more of punk, and it was capped off with just an instantly recognizable vocal performance. What I didn’t know then was that I was about to be pulled into a crazy world of one of the iconic divas of the era.

Grace Jones started out as a fashion model and got her break as a disco singer in the 70s. She only achieved minor success, and while dance music seemed like a safe investment in 1977, the anti-disco backlash would take out her hopes of being the next Donna Summers. She, and a whole lot of artists like her, needed to find a new career, and fast. Jones would find her route in one of the strangest career moves possible… she went punk. Now I don’t mean this to sound like Jones took a turn towards the Dead Kennedys, in fact, her music remained fairly danceable. The correct term for it sonically is probably New Wave, but her music adopted a rebellious and challenging air that sets her apart from the likes of Duran Duran or even Blondie. Always gender-bending in her fashion career, Jones became outright androgynous, trending towards masculine both in her appearance and her vocals. She also blended in more influence from her home country of Jamaica, working with the then-obscure Reggae duo Sly and Robbie.

Her 1980 album Warm Leatherette consists entirely of covers, but they’re drawn from such a variety of artists and so warped that despite knowing several of the songs, I initially assumed they were written for Jones. She covers Smokey Robinson, Tom Petty, and industrial synthpunk act The Normal, a collection of artists so unlike each other they might as well be drawn randomly out of a hat. Despite this eclectic taste, the album is extremely coherent, brought together by the sheer tour de force that is Jones’ vocal style. Later albums would see her move back into dance music and incorporate more elements from her home country of Jamaica. But she would never lose the weird edge that makes her such a unique musician.

What surprised me the most about Jones’ life, more than her music, her appearance, anything, was how successful she was at the time. While she wasn’t quite a household name, she had several hit songs, and such an alien woman would have certainly made an impression on the public. So why isn’t Jones a better-remembered singer? While she’s hardly obscure, there aren’t nearly as many articles about her as I expected, and I’ve never seen a music critic or magazine reference her in regard to the myriad artists that take inspiration, knowingly or otherwise, from her aesthetic.

Part of this is a general bias against artists who don’t fit a movement or genre well. While everyone knows artists like David Bowie or Blondie, genre-blurring artists without a massive catalog of hits can get short shrift in a music press obsessed with microgenres and local music scenes. Her race is probably also a factor. White America was extremely hostile to black music in the time between disco and Prince, and punk rock is one of the whitest genres around. But regardless of the reason her notoriety has faded, I hope you will take time out of your day to check out this early goddess of dance-punk.

Categories
Classic Album Review

Album Review: What The Heck Is This And Why Did I Download It Edition

If you are anything like me, the organization process on your music streaming app is a little chaotic. My YouTube music library is split into more tabs and sections than I know what to do with, and it’s not uncommon for me to completely forget what an album or video was supposed to be before I even listen to it. I always cherish these little mix-ups because they give me the opportunity to click play on something without the faintest preconception of what’s on the other side. Usually, I remember where I encountered an album after the first couple of songs, but this time… I’ve got to admit I’m stuck. This album has been on my phone for the better part of 8 months, and out of some masochistic exercise in music writing, I’ve decided to forgo any investigation as to what is or where it came from before writing this article.

So, what is “Suzanne Ciani – Buchla concerts 1975 (full album)?” Well, I’m not quite sure, but I know I like it.  The album is entirely electronic, and as such I assume it must have been at the very forefront of synthesizer technology, considering the sheer range of sound presented on it. It’s also clear that Ciani has a great deal of musical talent, in addition to her technological knowledge, because despite being almost entirely atonal, the songs have a clear progression and resonance that is rare even among the best avant-garde musicians. The songs have structure, they have an emotional impact, and judging by the recording, they were consistent and planned enough to be reproducible in concert. They aren’t mere technical demonstrations or conceptual pieces, they were crafted. This puts Ciani a flying leap ahead of her contemporaries, obvious comparison points like Steve Reich and Wendy Carlos were yet to really make the leap into fully electronically compositions. Reich was, at that time, just layering electronic sounds in procedural ways, while Carlos was playing Bach pieces on a synthesizer and calling it a day.

It would appear that Ciani was also had a great deal of influence on the course of electronic music. The more aggressive moments in this are reminiscent of the noise and power electronic bands that were to come. Had she come onto the scene a few years later, Ciani could have been a musical match for Merzbow or Prurient. She also has a great deal of classical appeal, which judging by the short audience interludes on this album, was her target demographic then. If you have any interest in these genres, or just want to take a blind leap into something altogether strange and exciting, I highly recommend this album. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to google this women’s name so I can find out the many dumb mistakes and obvious oversights I made in writing this article.

-Aidan Farmer