COLUMNS

  • Bob Dylan’s Tempest

    IN 1962, the year this magazine was first published, Columbia Records released Bob Dylan, the debut album of an all-but-unknown twenty-year-old. Now, fifty years later, Dylan gives us Tempest, his thirty-fifth studio release, unlike anything he has done before. By 1964, the artist was self-aware enough of his shifts of identity to title his fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan; every subsequent release could have been named the same. In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles, he wrote that he had wanted to be like Picasso, the greatest changer of persona of all—an ambition that would seem

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  • Neneh Cherry’s The Cherry Thing

    IN THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM’S recent blockbuster “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990,” there was a room where fragments of pop videos flashed on overhead screens and small eye-level monitors. The show’s effect was mostly deflationary—various poses of art-historical irony, a wan sifting through the ruins. In this room, though, there were sparks of the New, of what, temporality aside, was clearly modernism, in the sense of the London modernists (or mods) of the 1960s—a love for machine-made surface and technology-aided drama, with no hint of melancholia or antiutopian

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  • DOME and Groovy Records

    ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON in 1966, when Pink Floyd and the improvised-music group AMM were sharing a bill at the Marquee Club in London, AMM’s Keith Rowe laid his guitar flat on a table and dropped various objects onto it, eliciting an array of radically dissociated sounds. The Pollock-inspired technique fascinated Syd Barrett, Floyd’s guitarist. An early example of rock communing with true experimentalism, this episode may have just been a case of one former art student relating to another—even though at the time British art schools tended to attract aspiring rock musicians rather than

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  • “Home of Metal”

    RIDING THE IRON HORSE from London into Birmingham, I am always struck by how green and lush the outskirts still appear. Canals cut through the approaches, their crisp edges capitulating to the creeping undergrowth. You pass empty, smashed factories and brick warehouses to reach the city center, recently a riot battleground. Yet the green is a reminder that Birmingham and its satellite towns are inventions of the industrial revolution. This was a peaceful rural heartland until the eighteenth century, when the loom became the new plow and peasants were forced into the new city to work for the

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  • the Omar Souleyman Group

    YOU SWAY; a kaffiyeh-clad man wearing aviator sunglasses struts across the stage. This is no mere tableau of shades-and-scarf radical chic, however: There is a definite tension to the scene, a fervency. The singer, who is Syrian, is chanting lyrics in Arabic while a fellow band member, a poet, whispers intently into his ear. As he intones choppy refrains, the singer’s every phrase is answered by a wind or string instrument tuned to a Middle Eastern scale. You venture closer to scrutinize the musician behind him and discover he is playing a Korg synthesizer, dishing out lightning-fast licks on

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  • Van Dyke Parks

    “WE REMEMBER A TIME when historical continuity in music was still a viable thing,” Ry Cooder once told an interviewer researching his friend Van Dyke Parks, a patently idiosyncratic fixture of the LA music scene. “Yet both of us have always lived and played very much in the present. There’s no paradox in that!” Active since the 1960s as a composer, arranger, keyboardist, and producer, Parks tends to work within the mainstream and with rising young artists, but his sensibility—one that encompasses George Gershwin–inflected pop-classical pluralism as well as indigenous and global folk

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  • Euro-trance

    LISTENING TO BRITNEY SPEARS’s recent single “Hold It Against Me”—which launched this past January at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—one can’t help but think that aspects of its production and structural composition betray the year of its release. The song is essentially one long crescendo, overlaid on a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The chorus builds in each iteration until finally it re-appears, accompanied by a beat, with only about thirty seconds left in a song a little shy of four minutes. The entire song is constructed around this moment, and

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  • Alicia Hall Moran

    AS THE ARREST OF HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. on the steps of his own house made clear, the dynamics of racialized subjection are particularly vexed in ivory-tower towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the one hand, black bodies are continuously surveyed and assessed as either “hood,” “Harvard,” or “homeless”; on the other, the city and its environs play host to a range of the most visible African-diasporic cultural institutions and practitioners anywhere. Yet there are, of course, much-needed escapes from these specular extremes of life lived black.

    It was just this kind of phenomenal experience—of

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  • audiocassettes

    THERE IS NOTHING MAGIC about a cassette, nothing bewitching about an object that can be taken apart and reassembled or fixed with a pencil. A small rectangular box of plastic in which magnetized tape moves back and forth between miniature spools, it is, from today’s vantage, a hopelessly antiquated format. At a time when most of us listen to music that exists only as data, on soundless players that cannot be pried open, the cassette displays its modest mechanics all too transparently. Peer inside the deck as you slide in a tape in, and you see a tiny, busy factory world of belts, wires, and

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  • Robert Wyatt

    IN 2006, A NEW WORD, Wyatting, entered the lexicon. Referring to the prankish activity of sneaking an experimental music track onto an unsuspecting pub jukebox in order to vex other patrons, it got its name from an English teacher who suggested that Dondestan, a 1991 album by Robert Wyatt, epitomized the kind of music suitable for such a venture. While it’s hard to imagine one of Wyatt’s records actually clearing a room, he is the consummate cult figure with a taste for subversion—albeit one with a vulnerable, inimitable voice as cherished by his fans as Chet Baker’s or Chan Marshall’s by

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  • Indonesian pop

    THE DESIRE TO HOLD ONE’S HEAD HIGH, to determine one’s own future: This is the reason so many regimes throughout the twentieth century rose and fell. But to hold one’s head high while crisply dressed all in white and wearing a black velveteen pillbox hat? This was Indonesia’s fate alone. When Kusno Sosrodihardjo, known simply as Sukarno, became the first president of Indonesia in 1945, he wanted all to see that the legacy of Dutch colonization and a brief spell under Japanese rule had done little to dampen his—and, by extension, his freshly christened nation’s—sartorial flair. “I say,

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  • Michael Benson on Laibach

    LAIBACH USED TO BE A FORCE to reckon with. To begin with, the band—if you can call this ensemble of sophisticated politico-cultural provocateurs simply a “band”—were the only group from the socialist world ever to make it in the West, signing a long-term recording contract with London’s prestigious indie label Mute Records (home to Moby, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode), and they did it entirely on their own terms. “Art and ideology don’t exclude each other,” was one of their earliest slogans, but I prefer another: “All art is subject to political manipulation except that which speaks the language of

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