Calm before the storm

A few notes before I head out of town:

* Lots of people have been asking which band I have most been looking forward to seeing, and my first response is Sons & Daughters, but that’s only because I probably won’t be able to see my first choice: a teenage metal band called Black Tide – out of Miami, of all places – whose sole show conflicts with a few acts I really need to see to make sure I know what all the indie-nerd music sites will be talking about this year. I will probably regret it, but there you go. In any case, Sons & Daughters will probably be great, too.

* Speaking of metal, I already mentioned this in my Twitter stream but I wish Tragedy : A Metal Tribute to the Bee Gees had a show prior to my departure on Sunday. Because this just looks awesome.

* Last SXSW note: all my Twitter updates through Sunday will be here.

* The whole selling out thing has been on my mind again recently because of this article in AdAge and because a local musician I know on a personal and professional level is selling a song to a national chain for – one assumes – some big bucks. Much as think his music is fantastic, and deserving of a wider listenership, I haven’t changed my mind since I wrote about this originally or in one of the many follow-ups: licensing songs to commercials is good for a quick infusion of cash, not for gaining the kinds of fans that make for a long-term career. It certainly can be an indirect way of boosting one’s career (that commercial might mean more money to spend on the next album or a longer tour, to name two examples) but anyone who hears it for 30 seconds while they’re watching The Office isn’t going to be a person who sticks around for much longer than that.

Learning experiences

March is definitely coming in like a lion for me, mostly thanks to work. I’ve been in the middle of two major projects this month:

* The Date our friends feature
* The TOC site redesign

I mentioned the genesis of Date our friends here, and it’s finally wrapping up this week. In retrospect, we should have planned dates in places that would be easier to film. The final video was posted today, and it’s so dark, it’s damn near unwatchable. So much so that I briefly flirted with the idea of running it as an audio podcast. In any case, lessons learned. Overall, I thought the feature came together well and it was a big hit for us traffic-wise.

The site redesign is good news, bad news. Good news is the site looks much better than it used to. The bad news is that we’re still working out some bugs so the post-launch stress abatement has yet to occur.

Said stress is also due in part to me heading to Austin this week for the annual South By Southwest music conference. I’ve been so focused on the site relaunch that I haven’t had much time to research my SXSW plans, so I took today off to do so. Yes, I took a day off of work because I have so much work to do.

Speaking of SXSW, I’ll be taking a hiatus from the OMIC Twitter from Wednesday through Sunday so I can send updates from my phone to the Time Out Chicago Twitter stream. This will be my first time covering an event via Twitter – though I’ll also be blogging at the TOC blog– and I’m looking forward to utilizing it as a reporting tool. (I thought about creating a Tumblr blog for it but my jaw still hurts from biting off more than I could chew during Date our Friends).

25 in 12: You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

Writing about subcultures in a mainstream form is difficult. If you’re writing non-fiction, the difficulty comes from striking a balance between authoritative and accessible. Err too much on the side of the former, and your piece will sound too “inside.” Err on the latter and you’re likely to dumb down a subject so much that you fail to capture what makes it interesting in the first place. Either way, the end result is the same: the reader is left uninformed.

Setting a novel inside a subculture carries the same risks. I’ve been as bored as anybody when reading Tom Clancy’s interminable descriptions of the insides of naval warships in between Jack Ryan’s derring-do. On the other hand, when I reached the end of Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, I wondered why he bothered to make the L.A. arts and music scene the backdrop of his novel, if he had so little to say about it.

Love Me is the story of an L.A. band whose inter-romantic difficulties are matched only by its inert career, until its bassist Lucinda, holding down a side job answering phones on a complaint line, brings the group’s troubled genius songwriter some lyrics culled from the calls she receives from an anonymous loser she dubs The Complainer. His turns of phrase become the basis for both the band’s new direction, and Lucinda’s erotic obsession with her caller, whom she eventually meets and shares a torrid days-long, booze-soaked love affair in advance of the band’s first gig.

Lethem is aiming for a modern satire here, but it’s a jab that feels dated by about 20 years, as he neither understands the world he’s describing nor his characters. The band’s first show is initially to be a silent one, where the group will only mime a performance at a party that doubles as an art installation. The party guests rebel and the band gives a bravura performance, which leads to encounters with a legendary ex-hippie DJ, an would-be Svengali manager and Lucinda’s slothful, romantic partner, who’s expectedly talentless but still insists on joining the band, due to his lyrical contributions. Just what the world needs: Yoko jokes mixed with riffs on Andy Warhol’s Factory.

The story isn’t without interesting details, like the armpit-sniffing culture reporter, the zookeeper guitarist who kidnaps a kangaroo who’s in the midst of a depressive episode, or the drummer’s employment at a place called No Shame, which is described as a “masturbation boutique.” But Lethem never really explores the flair of these side stories. We never find out what differentiates No Shame from the average porn shop, for instance, thereby missing an opportunity for some genuine satire on the smarter set’s tendency to dress up low culture in high fashion before reveling in its enjoyment.

While understanding that art subcultures – particularly music – are both fluid and transient, Lethem doesn’t realize that the people within them are not. Rather than craft arcs for the band members, Lethem’s characterizations double back on themselves, contradicting everything we’ve been told about them. Too consumed with the questions of how art is created within a flurry of influences, the novel fails to give us a sense of the character’s own motivations, making them nothing more than sketch pads for Lethem’s ideas, full of scratch-outs and scribbled side notes. It’s also a bit disconcerting that even the best-written female characters in the book – particularly the hard-nosed zoo administrator Dr. Marian – are shown to be mere putty in hands of The Complainer, due to his seductive, but slovenly, gaze.

Lethem is a writer of impressive ideas and skill; my experience with Love Me won’t deter my desire to read his celebrated novels Motherless Brooklyn or Fortress of Solitude. But it’s worth nothing that his plan to give away the movie rights to Love Me says far more about the issues of copyright and ownership and art than the book does.

Preferred refers

Looking at keyword referrals for OMIC is pretty entertaining, as I imagine it is for most bloggers.

In addition to lots of people looking for MP3s of New Wave songs from the 80s, I also tend to get a lot of referrals from “chicago pimp cups.” Not just pimp cups, mind you, but Chicago-centric pimp cups which I imagine would have to feature a bejeweled rendering of Mayor Daley. Ironic though that it leads them to this post.

I’ve also been getting a lot of Google traffic lately for people looking for info on Journey’s new lead singer.

But today I was very pleased to discover that I am the #4 Google search result for “don henley blowhard.” It’s really comforting to know that I am not alone in this opinion.

The Sleepers revel in classic rock and roll hedonism

I was pretty sure I was going to like Comeback Special from Chicago band The Sleepers before I even cracked open the CD. *

The cover has a vaguely bootlegged look to it like The Who’s Live At Leeds. Prominently displayed on the cover is the band’s logo, faux-rubber-stamped over a phonograph. Not a distinguished old-timey one that might have a dog peering into it, but one of those 70s down-market deals that proves that albums only sound better than CDs when you have 10K worth of stereo equipment behind them.

The back of the CD insert apes the look of a taped-up set list next to a picture of the band. The bassist is the most flamboyantly dressed of the five, while the lead singer is outfitted in what appears to be a sweater vest, button-down and corduroys. This makes so little sense that it must be true.

The easiest, laziest criticism against what The Sleepers are doing is that there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking going on here, though you could level the same critique at The Detroit Cobras, The Bellrays or The Goldstars, three bands who – like The Sleepers – take all the pieces necessary for a rock-and-roll, barroom-stomp style and put it together in such a way that it doesn’t sound like a retread.

Comeback Special is the band’s 2nd full-length after Push It Nationwide. The songs are full of crunchy guitar riffs crackling over bottom-heavy grooves as the lyrics repeatedly invoke the Holy Troika of Rock Problems (women – of legal age and otherwise – booze, and cigarettes). 70s rock shibboleths are offered from the MC5-style guitar lines to the Freddie Mercury-esque shouts of “Yeah!” on “Loaded” and “Jailbait,” to the direct line that can be drawn from Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls” to The Sleepers’ “Filthy Ways.” These are bombastic, anthemic songs that revel in weekend-warrior vice.

The Sleepers manage to transcend their influences precisely because of all these winking nods at what came before. It’s the difference between a band that knows what it’s doing when it plays a certain way and a band that plays a certain way because it doesn’t know any better.

Comeback Special works because The Sleepers studied hard in rock school, then pissed off their professors because they turned out to be a little smarter.

The Sleepers’ Comeback Special is out now. Tracks from their album are available via its MySpace page. Their CD release party is March 8th at Double Door. Opening will be The Regrets, The Cocksmiths, and Whiskey Blonde, which sounds about right, actually.

* My own personal barometer for this decision-making – hinted at here – is worth expounding on, but not here. Buy me a beer in a bar sometime though…