Friday, October 1, 2010

Alarm 38: What Eludes Attention: Book Review

Fifteen years after Chris Force started a truly indie magazine, Alarm continues its recent expansion from small-scale print to large-format volume. Issue #38, “Overlooked Albums and Unseen Artists”, covers 55 artists who create visuals and play music that may not earn the trendy indie tag or gain the critical—let alone popular—acclaim that such determined forces may deserve. Based in Chicago, Alarm seeks what eludes attention in plain sight.

Part one, “Invisible Impacts & Forgotten Histories”, features interviews by various journalists with socially committed artists. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s 2004 album Of Natural History, according to Jessica Steinhoff, acts as a debate between Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurists. The band’s classical-experimental-industrial assault characterizes the type of music that others in this collection may not echo exactly, but who repeat such thematic eclecticism.

Gord Hill, a First Nations Canadian artist, uses his confrontational graphics to protest the Vancouver Olympics and other corporate-sponsored, government-sanctioned power plays against native peoples. He also has written a textual history and illustrated a version for young people of anti-colonial North American indigenous struggle. He exemplifies the type of artist-activist that this volume allows to speak at greater volume—in images and in speech—than granted by any mainstream media broadcast.

Tim Barry, a country-punk Virginia musician, lives in a shed in Virginia with a compost bucket. Off the grid, he exemplifies the commitment to his art rather than conventional methods of success that resonate with many of those featured in Alarm. Mark Jenkins fills the streets with human figures that in a few minutes look as real as you or me—except that they have their heads stuck in a bank wall, upended onto a pedestal, or driven into a sidewalk of Our Nation’s Capital. You fill in the metaphor.

“Netflix vs. the Little Guy”, by Kim Velsey, balances the advantages of the algorithmic recommendation system (nearly?) perfected by Netflix with the human one championed by New York Video, the remnant of what was once a city chain, one of many small vendors nearly eliminated by the shift to online merchants and video downloads. It’s a pithy, thoughtful comparison that treats each side fairly. While Velsey may prefer the idiosyncratic yet sensible suggestions of real world video clerk, she also interviews a fan of horror flicks who frequents both the store and Netflix, for that customer relies upon both dealers to satisfy her own voracious, yet picky, cinematic appetite.

“Out of Sight” as part two looks at musicians and artists; a few of whom may be somewhat familiar, such as J. G. Thirlwell, Mike Patton, or The Tango Saloon. Part three continues this excursion into “Blurred Boundaries”. Those who cross the lines include the better-known duo Matmos, along with such as Cougar, with a complicated post-rock mix of disparate influences, or God of Shamisen, who adapt the three-string Japanese lute to heavy metal riffs.

“Behind the Mask” by Jamie Ludwig surveys seven musicians who wear masks. It’s a great idea for a longer (although no entry here is very lengthy) article. How disguises and perhaps uniforms inform performances allows the makers of music and their audiences to both lose themselves in the created sound, the immediate stage presence, the theatrical transformation of the event.

“Untold Stories” takes the reader into the histories of a couple of bands that I knew, such as Trans Am or Liars in my case, a singer that I had heard of, Scout Niblett, and most I had not, such as: Queens, New York, metal exponents Krallice; Pierced Arrows, Seattle’s successors of sorts to long-lived underground rockers Dead Moon; electro-rock duo Kap Bambino; nerdy hip-hopper Kenan Bell; guzheng zither player Wu Fei, or MC Rita J. Again, the wide range makes sure any reader will discover fresh faces.

Even if my tastes did not match as many of these musicians as I had hoped, the serious, respectful, but not fawning or self-consciously erudite presentation of their merits impressed me, and the Alarm website sustains this level. The journalists tend to let the artists do the talking, while they listen, record, and interpret for the rest of us.

Buck Austin’s truly underground encounter with country-punk busker Jesse Morris, that begins deep down in a pigeon-stained BART subway, captures the best quality of this handsome, well-written, and solidly edited publication. It enlivens these fringe figures and introduces us to their characters, their art, and their mission. It also sums up neatly their personalities. Austin notes how Morris used to weigh 380 pounds. “Now, a couple of years later, Morris is below 200 pounds, having dropped a couple of Iggy Pops through a regimen of gym workouts and riding around San Francisco on a ‘70s Huffy that he found abandoned in a park. ‘I’ve done enough self-destruction,’ Morris says of his new lifestyle.”

This ambitious but accessible collection listens to the voices that we do not otherwise do not hear, those beneath the A&R promotions, the blogosphere co-opted by the corporations, the galleries that court the newspaper’s art critic—-if your local paper still has one on staff. It covers dozens more graphic artists, performers, and musicians than I can even list in a short article. And, it does so without jargon. Contributors keep to a professional, smart, linear style free of either fanzine gush or monograph bore.

Alarm #38 ends with reviews of a baker’s dozen worthy but overlooked recordings, only one of which (The Magnetic Fields) I’d had the vaguest notion of having appeared. This type of diligent attention to what percolates beneath the usual “new releases” as worthwhile, challenging, and stubbornly independent art bodes well for the future of criticism. Photography demands, by the way, as much space as print, as the design of this publication attests to the quality control within its thoughtfully arranged contents. (Featured at PopMatters 9-29-10; also posted to

No comments: