Things We Like: Xeno & Oaklander

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Deceptively simple, minimal, synthetic pop. Catchy melodies with dark undertones overlaid with dueling male/female vox. Distant, detached, haunting, enchanting, exotic, inviting, seductive – all of these things.

One thing that that keeps us coming back is the duality of moods that permeates nearly every track. Sweet and sour, dark and light, sleek and leaden sounds all add to the complexity and depth of the songs. They’re intoxicating, addictive, irresistible. It’s kind of like switching between sweet and savory treats – the contrasting flavors simply feed your appetite for more.

Fans of early electronic pop will find a lot to like. If you dig classics like Kraftwerk and Chris & Cosey or contemporaries like Solvent – or perhaps more accessible reference points like very early Depeche Mode, OMD, or Gary Numan – then this is your sweet spot.

Things We Like: Charles & Ray Eames’ “Solar Do-Nothing Machine”

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Modern furnishings, sure. Landmark exhibits, yep. Groundbreaking films, uh-huh. But what you might not be familiar with is the Eames’ Solar Do-Nothing Machine, a sculpture for Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America, created in 1957.

A kinetic sculpture that lures you in with wild colors and patterns that shimmy, shake, sparkle and spin, the Solar Do-Nothing Machine takes a potentially boring subject (solar energy) and dazzles with accessible, whimsical, high-modern style.

But the film—culled from footage unearthed in 1995 by Eames Demetrios—is where the magic really happens. Close-ups and panning shots bring you right into the piece backed by a jazzy soundtrack that pairs perfectly with classic aesthetics and bouncing, spinning parts. And just like a good sugar rush, the party ultimately comes crashing to a halt—in this case when a cloud passes overhead. Science. Bummer.

For me it’s all nearly too much, too perfect. The glimmering geometry, the pop colors, the choreography of moving shapes, and, of course, the soundtrack all make this thing utterly hypnotic. Pity the fool who puts the film on repeat. Sure, that’d probably be me. If that happens and you see me sitting there totally zoned out, just know I’m in a high-keyed happy place. And pick my jaw up off the table on your way out.

Things We Like: “Number 14-1953”

We happened upon a painting cryptically titled Number 14–1953 on our latest visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art—our first to their new Renzo Piano-designed outpost in New York’s Meatpacking District. We were there for the Frank Stella retrospective and, of course, to see the classics from the permanent collection. And, As always, the curators hung the textbook classics and familiar favorites along with a few little-seen pieces by “overlooked” artists. In their Abstract Expressionist survey that meant personal favorites like Franz Kline’s Mahoning, Willem De Kooning’s Door to the River, and Lee Krasner’s monumental The Seasons. Masters all, of course, but the collection’s rarely displayed moments are often the most satisfying. In this case the prize was Alfonso Ossorio.

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We didn’t know much about the work of Mr. Ossorio, but here he was given ample wall space right next to Mr. Pollock. Good company and an interesting juxtaposition. Number 14–1953 is a nice counterpoint to the allover, widescreen approach of Pollock.

Pollock’s work looks like it done swiftly, all spontaneous action, the evidence of sweeping thrusts of the arm throwing pigment down across the surface and letting gravity take control. The arcs and implied speed of the gestures show that Pollock stood at some distance from the canvas. Conversely, the Ossorio is smaller and looks to be done up close with great attention to detail. It feels like a true labor of love, one painstakingly built over time. Sure, there is an allover composition and there are spontaneous, chance moments throughout, but it’s a process-heavy piece with layer upon layer of material, pigment and process. It looks like a science experiment or an excavation.

There’s so much going on that it’s difficult to orient yourself, eyes darting all over the surface checking out the details that just keep on coming. And it’s difficult to figure out what exactly it’s composed of. Is it a photograph that’s been manipulated in the darkroom by burning and dodging? Is it a collage with bits of newspaper strewn about, all peeled back and pasted over again? Has the canvas been torched like a Albeto Burri piece? Or56 maybe it’s ink that’s soaked in and spread throughout the canvas? It’s really hard to tell, but in a word it’s gorgeous. And in reality it’s ink and wax on board.

At a glance it looks like a black and white piece, but upon closer inspection hints of color peer through like smoldering embers just below the surface. Red, violets, and deep cobalt blues dominate the palette, seething beneath a lava flow of gestures.

We spent nearly twenty minutes looking at this thing. Great art reveals new things over time and in just this short window of time we were transfixed and consumed, absorbing every detail.

Photographs don’t do Number 14–1953 justice, but since you can’t take it home with you, photos will have to do.

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Things We Like: Summer 2015

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Remember summer? Yeah, so do we. So while everyone else did their year-end, best-of lists (with the usual duplication of some of the very same things, just in a different order) and have started looking forward, we’re kicking off the new year by looking back. Here’s to warm weather and summer fun circa 2015.

Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936–1986 by Louise Sandhaus

It’s tempting to dive right into all the cliches about the “wild & wacky”, “outsider” design aesthetic associated with the west coast. But that’s so east coast, right? I mean, to go there right out of the gate—just because we east coasters cling to the mantle of clean, classic European modernist tradition so devoutly—is too easy and, frankly, lazy. Doing so basically perpetuates the premise that everyone else “out there” are mere barbarians in some sort of Lord of the Flies scenario. It’s like a snob reflex, automatically imposing some set of arbitrary rules because, supposedly, we know best. Really, though, it’s more of an inferiority complex stemming from the burden of European influences that we bear. Deep down, we’re just jealous of all that creative freedom and so we deny west coasters (Californians specifically) any sense of seriousness—because it’s play time out there, mere silliness. Or so it seems. But that’s not really fair and not very productive, so we’ll keep those cliches to a minimum.

So where to begin with this thing? Much like the sprawl of southern California, this book oozes and meanders all over the place. It’s a rejection and full-on embrace of all those cliches that are grafted onto the idea of California: image, facade, speed, cars, film, technology, day-glo colors, surfboards, pools, natural disasters, eco this, drug that all bound up in a heaping, heaving brick of a book that’s hurling your way whether you like it or not. To quote author Louise Sandhaus, “all you have to do is look.” And, really, that’s all you can do. Just give in, accept your fate and enjoy the ride because this book is packed with so many artifacts, essays, and graphic devices that you’re going to need your strength. Like walking against a landslide, it’s hard to keep your footing and feel like you’ve gained any ground. It’s total short attention span viewing designed for repeat visits.

And that’s okay. It’s not a cover-to-cover, once-and-done read. Just like California, Earthquakes forces you to spend some time with it and discover the nuances and differing voices baked in. You’ll certainly catch things you missed the first time and get more chances to let things soak in. But it’s totally worth it. Just seeing this big, bright book sitting on our shelf begging for another look fills us with joy.

Sandhaus doesn’t even bother trying to concoct some sort of “complete” history of California design. As she said at the AIGA National Convention in New Orleans last October, there’s not one story that can be told. Lorraine Wild echoes that same sentiment in her essay, “Forward Into the Past!”, noting that that task would be impossible because there is simply so much work, not to mention so many competing aesthetic agendas that would cancel each other out. It’s a story of parallel tracks. As such, the book develops four of these—of innumerable possible narratives—”Sunbaked Modernism”, “Industry and the Indies”, “Sixties alt Sixties”, and “California Girls”. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s room enough for a sequel.

Sandhaus’ book design, too, supports this premise of pluralism by going all out in production mode with joyous fluorescent colors, rainbow-metallic foil stamping, and mix of coated and uncoated papers. And the content is designed with a distinct push and pull between tight grid and loose flow, using contemporary fonts and colors within a nuanced framework when necessary—and abandoning it completely when the content demands. It’s overwhelming, really, so just close your eyes, pick a page and dive right in.

But the question remains: is yet another book on California visual culture necessary? Yes. This one. Not only does Earthquakes offer an overview of California graphic design specifically—an area severely lacking in the swollen visual survey market—it also digs deep into the archives. Sure, Earthquakes gives you some of the hits, hits, hits, but it also mines the flat files and unearths a mountain of forgotten, neglected, or flat out ignored pieces of graphic design (at least to these east coast eyes) and gives it all equal billing. It’s refreshing, too, to see modes of expression that have fallen out of fashion—like 1970’s color and typography, vintage video game graphics and archaic title sequences from the roughest edges of primordial tech—all proudly on display.

Earthquakes taps into our desire for escape and creative freedom, and serves as a reminder that the opportunity to stretch out and loosen up, to take advantage of the expressive release we long for is not unattainable and has really been here all along. One need only seek it out, feel the flow, embrace it and never let it go.

Miniature Golf at the Beach

We love miniature golf. Especially down the shore where aesthetics, like visitors, go on vacation. Goofy Golf in Ocean City, New Jersey is a classic course that’s been around as long as I’ve been alive. And while she’s gone through some rough years of neglect and sometimes non-goofy moments, she’s back in all her glory with retina-searing, snap-crackle-pop colors and totally restored goofiness.

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The Black Dog – Neither/Neither

The reanimated Black Dog project continues in its current incarnation with Neither/Neither. Long associated with Warp Records’ classic 90’s IDM stable (Aphex Twin, Autechre, LFO) Black Dog’s founder Ken Downie has been plugging away with Richard and Martin Dust since 2001.

At a certain point words cease to accurately describe what you hear and, frankly, it’s hard to come up with a string of sentences that aptly describe the sounds and the emotions they evoke. So basically, yes, this is electronic music. And, yes, we like it. Oh, and it’s all instrumental.

Snark aside, we’ll try again. The tracks are moody and atmospheric, sometimes grinding, sometimes sweet, sometimes delicate, sometimes menacing, sometimes throbbing, sometimes with a groove (and sometimes not). We also like to say that it’s something fans of industrial music might like without being, you know, “Industrial.” There are no combat boots here and it’s not Nitzer Ebb, but it has a certain energy about it that feels quite right in that arena.

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The break in the album’s eponymous track obliterates the building tension, “Control Needs Time” calls to mind a downtempo Front 242 with all the clicking, hi-hats and hand claps , “Them (Everyone is a Liar But)” for some reason reminds us of Tangerine Dream, and  “Hollow Stories, Hollow Head” could be a dance floor killer if not for the elastic breakbeat that snaps things out of whack the whole time.

There are so many interesting sounds, moments and moods on Neither/Neither that it’s hard to pick out favorite tracks. We recommend putting this one on, hitting the “play” button, letting it roll and zoning out. That is, of course, if you have the luxury of time. If you don’t, this one would work just as well on the treadmill at the gym, meandering the aisles of the grocery store, or scanning images on your computer.

Mr. Robot Title Cards

Short, sweet, bold, cut to the chase. These remind us of the no-nonsense title slides of Stanley Kubrick. They’re quick, superimposed directly over the action, and sometimes appear well into the episode–blink and you might miss ’em. There’s a blunt, bland, retro, sort of sci-fi, matter-of-factness that feels totally fresh.

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Things We Like: Best of Spring 2015

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Well, summer is finally here in all its hot, sticky, inescapable glory (i.e. summer, you win). Which means it’s time for a look back at spring 2015 and some of the great things we enjoyed. So grab an ice cold lemonade (preferably with some crushed ice), sit back and enjoy.

Museum Studies
In late winter, the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College presented a tightly curated exhibition on art about art called Museum Studies. If you want to sound in-the-know just call it “the art of institutional critique.” Basically, as artists continued to go down the post-conceptual rabbit hole of analysis and critique, they cast a critical eye on the machinations of the museum, gallery and auction house systems—the business and presentation of art. Rather than take the system for granted, artists came to use this as fodder for consideration, looking at things like art-as-commodity, museum politics and leadership, and who decides what artists are worthy of attention and why.

Highlights included Louise Lawler, a personal favorite. Lawler documents the presentation of art through photography, showing behind-the-scenes action like art in storage, in collectors’ homes, at auction and in transit. In the hands of a lesser talent these works might look like just a bunch of boring stuff. But Lawler brings the drama, creating beautifully composed photographs of an ambiguous, ambivalent art world purgatory.    

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Dan Celendar’s work was a pleasant surprise and seeing his attempts at getting photographic documentation of a museum’s loading dock from its Director was enlightening and amusing. Taking the form of written correspondence, the piece makes clear that certain things have value and others do not—in this case things of function rather than form—even to the typically thoughtful and strategic museum director.   

Vik Muniz’s recreations of famous paintings—or rather the backs of them—are interesting comments on authenticity.  Each work meticulously replicates a famous work of art like Van Gogh’s Starry Night (see above), including the identification labels, stickers, scratches and handwritten notes that adorn the back of each one. Placed on blocks and tipped forward facing the wall, the pieces are drained of their celebrity status while you’re forced to consider such things as value, authenticity, and celebrity. Yet you still can’t resist looking and thinking, “Is this real?” But at that point, what does “real” even mean? The Van Gogh? The Muniz? Both?

High Museum / Wilfredo Lam
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta had a suite of terrific shows that we caught over Memorial Day. The Wilfredo Lam retrospective, in particular was high—ahem—on our list. I always remember Lam as that guy from art history class that had that one painting that they always show when talking Surrealism. You know, that one painting that’s in MoMA wedged between all the Miro’s and Dali’s and Ernst’s. That one next to Matta. That guy. So it was a real treat to see an extensive selection of his work—from all periods.

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That said, it was slow going at first. Lam was an impressionable artist who clearly needed to try out all modes of representation before finding his voice. We slogged through his realist mode, his Cubist mode, his Matisse moment. Not to say it was all bad, just derivative. Either he was really unsure of himself or he was overly ambitious. Typically an artist’s voice is quickly established in a show like this, so we’re not sure of the curators’ motivation here.

But finally Lam comes into his own, and it makes the extensive overture worth the journey. At its best, his work confidently pairs lush, languid washes of color with bold, decisive line work. He had an affinity for print making, too, which really brought his strong use of line to the fore. As Liz noted, “he just couldn’t escape the line.” He was clearly playing to his strengths. He had finally hit his stride and there were many pieces later in the show that hit that sweet spot where color, composition and technique all click.

The Soft Moon – Deeper
On Deeper, The Soft Moon takes the post-punk revisionism of their earlier work and adds a polished production job. That’s the gist here, essentially. The tinny, hushed sound of earlier albums—while quaint in that proper post-punk way—is shattered on Deeper, making way for throbbing bass and all sorts of tricked-out electronics that squall just shy of annoying. It’s a loud, bleak, cathartic affair, but oh so rewarding. There’s more space to stretch and more room to breathe, resulting in a more comfortable and confident effort. “Far” and “Wasting”, in particular, are favorites.

Sleaford Mods
Do you like poetry slams? British accents? British references? Yelling? Then you might just be ready for Sleaford Mods. But hold on to your hat because the words (and the spittle) will fly right by your face. Essentially a dude spouting off loosely associated phrases over minimal compositions of looped bass and drums. Post-punk free verse? Sure, why not? It’s profound, ridiculous and hypnotic. It’s easy to get lost in the words, but totally worth the trip. Give it some time. Repeat listens are even more rewarding. You’ll hear things you didn’t catch the first time. It’s layered. It was made that way.

Metz – II
Our nostalgic hearts beat double-time for Metz’s Sub Pop debut with it’s cache of retro (read 1990’s), post-hardcore freak-outs. Their follow-up II is nearly as good: some great songs if not quite as many as last time. With a lumbering rhythm section worthy of all the Jesus Lizard comparisons and the added 90’s bonus of spazzed-out vocals in the Ian Svenonius/Nation of Ulysses tradition, you could be forgiven for thinking that the day the music died was in 1993. But that’s not all. For all the bombast hurled in your face, you also get some vaguely catchy moments buried beneath the grime; hooks like the ones Nirvana was capable of carving out every once in a while.

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David Salle – New Paintings
It’s been a while since we’ve thought much about Mr. Salle. His canvases of the 80’s were great—translations of a pasted-on collage effect in paint on canvas, appropriated imagery and texts cobbled together to create some sort of narrative.

But in the these new works there is an urgency that puts them in league above the cooler compositions of yore—slightly goofy, a little bit unhinged, kinda messy. They seethe like a ham-fisted hissy fit. The compositions are chaotic and claustrophobic, the scale of objects more overwhelming than in earlier works. It’s pure visual stimulation that feels timely in this wireless age of immediate information download and instant gratification. Has Salle been keeping tabs on Jeff Koons? These paintings sure seem to recall his work, but in a rougher, more crude attempt at representation than the gleaming canvases of Mr Koons. There appears to be a nod to the Pop movement of the 1960’s, too, with vaguely familiar pieces of Rosenquist and Rauschenberg, Wesselmann and Peter Saul thrown in for good measure.

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More Spring Favorites

Electric Youth – “Modern Fears”

Lakker – Tundra

Youth Code – “Keep Falling Apart”

Martin Gore – MG

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Skateboard Coffee Fail & Remix

Things We Like: Electronic Music

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Depeche Mode & Nitzer Ebb June 13, 1990 The Spectrum Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

25 years ago, my mom took my sister and me to see our synth-pop heroes Depeche Mode live on their World Violation tour.

Sure, the Mode was ascending toward its peak of success and played soon-to-be classics, tried-and-true hits and the requisite Martin Gore interlude. There were the Dave Gahan hip gyrations and the stark Anton Corbijn visuals. But it wasn’t Dave and Martin and Alan and Fletch—and their sweet, sultry electro tunes—that captured my imagination that night. No, that task was left to opener Nitzer Ebb.

Here were three guys filling up a massive arena stage with driving, monotonous beats and outsized attitude; no easy feat, especially for an opener before a typically indifferent arena crowd. Over a rhythmic din knocked out by two robotic drummers busting out their best Sprockets impressions stormed vocalist Douglas McCarthy.

Part rabid preacher, part motivational speaker, he seethed with visceral angst. Back and forth across the stage he went, chanting, grunting, and barking snippets of text. Mostly verbs. Some nouns. Muscle. Hate. That sort of thing. There was smoke, there was sweat, there were spandex shorts. But above all there was a sense of purpose. Pure emotion expressed via the most economical means: voice, beats, synth.

While DM dealt in smooth, catchy—albeit dark—electronics, this was something different. Mechanical, menacing and slightly sexy. They had a cool, German sounding name and dealt in hard-edged Soviet/Constructivist imagery. It was Depeche taken to the next level. Or maybe it was a portrait of Depeche further down on the evolutionary chart. Either way, my impressionable, seventh-grade mind was blown.

For me, this was a eureka moment, one where you realize that the gift offered up to you was exactly what you’d been looking for. Ebb was a gateway drug, setting me on a mission to explore the more aggressive side of dance music. Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and a cadre of German, Belgian, and North American bands were soon to follow.

I remember having to leave before the encore on that school night. No matter, the die was cast and the rest is history. It helped, too, that six years later I’d meet a girl who was into both bands just as much as me.

(Here’s a great example of what we saw, taken from a performance at Frankfurt’s legendary TechnoClub.)

Things We Like: Nite Fields

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Lately (pun intended?), we’ve been listening to Nite Fields’ debut album, Depersonalization. T. Cole Rachel wrote in a review on Pitchfork that the band had been absorbing and faithfully reinterpreting early 4AD, Clan of Xymox, Cure, and New Order (personally, I’d also throw in some Church and Death in June). And while it’s true to the source material—dreamy, echoey, lethargic, retro—listening makes me wonder if all of the revival/archival aesthetics going on out there generally is a good thing. Don’t misunderstand, as a nostalgic, approaching-middle-age music fan, I’m all about it, but I’m not sure it’s very productive in the grand scheme of things. You know, say, being a quasi early 80’s cover band versus pushing new boundaries. I suppose that’s a compliment that speaks to the band’s ability to recreate a certain sound, I’m just not sure how healthy the tendency of mere reproduction is. Going down that road tends to reduce the music (and ensuing discussion) down to nothing more than a laundry list of references and influences.

Then again, cribbing from previous styles is nothing new. Really, it’s been standard practice for ages. And amid all the retreads that such endeavors encourage, this is often where new ideas are hatched and permutated into something fresh. New life breathed into dead ends.

So there. I pretty much just turned my original commentary on its end. That, and we can’t seem to stop listening to this thing. When it’s good, it’s good. Embrace it. For now, let’s just zone out and enjoy the ride.