3/21/2017

Portland Recap, Pt. 2 // John Porcellino's "Map of My Heart"

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On Friday, I posted an overview of my trip to the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Portland, Oregon, and then offered up a few reviews of the music I brought home. Before I return to my usual flow of Half-Gifts output, here's one last look at my souvenir haul and my first attempt at a proper book review:

FLOATING WORLD COMICS

John Porcellino - Map Of My Heart
(2009, Drawn and Quarterly)

Though best consumed issue by issue in their Xerox-copied form, John Porcellino's King Cat Comics translate as naturally to the form of a print anthology as the oversized collections of Doonesbury and For Better or for Worse that - as a child - I'd scan in my lap while waiting for a LaRosa's family-sized pizza to arrive at the table, or on short minivan rides to church. A single 32-page volume of King Cat snatched from a record store 'zine rack is a voyeuristic peek into the life of the hermetical romantic who inked it: a fragmented series of pen-doodled vignettes fished from scattered periods in his life. Like an existentialist's take on Archie's Double Digest, Porcellino's pages catalog neighborhood walks, Halloweens, and backyard wildlife with the defiant sentimentality of a desktop Ziggy calendar. In the context of a hefty "best-of" collection, they more resemble portions of a memoir, each mundane discovery or transient memory woven into King Cat's overarching profession of faith in silence and sincerity,

Compiling classic King Cat stories released from 1996 to 2009, Map of My Heart is a meditative read. Crisp narration and a sparse visual shorthand recount brushes with nature from a perspective decidedly less scenic than that of their biggest influencers: Thoreau and Hsueh-feng. Porcellino's Walden is the woodchuck in the tall grass behind the strip-mall parking lot; a stray cat cutting through the suburban landscape. He treads the strange overlaps between the natural and man-made worlds, finding beauty in their mismatching. 

"Camping in the [Catalina] state park," Porcellino recalls in an all-text interlude. "Winnebagos parked in makeshift cul-de-sacs, complete with Astroturf lawns, striped canopies and satellite TV".

"We tear down the places where birds live, and put up places where people live," he sighs in another. "To a bird there is no tearing down."

As effortlessly profound as Map of My Heart's prose can be, its primitive twee drawings are what prompt constant re-reading throughout the day. The figures that make up each panel are unabashedly amateur, their clean outlines forming expressions true-to-life in their extemporaneity. Charles Schulz-esque squiggles form hairlines. Flimsy bodies twist like Matisse prints. Geometric faces mold to the expressionist shape of their surroundings, a la Mob Psycho 100. Shakily scribbled shapes form desktops and Golden Arches - earthworms and desklamps.

These Rorschach lines are catalysts for imagination. Porcellino provides the context and sentiment: the reader colors them with their own textures and emotion. Though I don't plan on taking a crayon to its black-and-white pages, Map of My Heart is a capitalized Coloring Book in the Chance the Rapper sense. Keep your mental pallette of RoseArt watercolors at the ready.

3/17/2017

Portland Recap, Pt. 1


If any of my recent tweets have traversed your phone's screen over the course of this week, you'll know that I've spent the past few days steeped in the damp fog of the Pacific Northwest, attending the Conference on College Composition and Communication as an undergraduate representative of Northern Kentucky University. Held in Portland this year, the CCCC is an annual gathering of writing instructors from across the country: a forum to talk shop and present fresh ideas. Alongside a panel of faculty members and a high school teacher in NKU's Master's degree program, I participated in a discussion of digital writing's impact on the English classroom, suggesting that an extracurricular outlet for creativity (like this blog) can be as integral to building writing skills as sitting in on a lecture. There's a symbiotic relationship between writing on and off campus.

Between sessions at the Convention Center, I hopped on Portland's light rail system, threading lanes of traffic as the trolley cut through a soggy cityscape - navy blues and forest greens splattered ubiquitously across the urban canvas. This earthy aura seemed to bleed into the muted windbreakers and flannels of my fellow passengers. Bathing in the comfy gloom, I felt as if I were inhabiting an Alex G record as I paid quick visits to bookstores and record shops around the city. I knew I couldn't return home without unearthing a few subcultural gems to post about later, and so to better include you in my experience, I've brought back a few finds from each store I've visited. Here's a sampler of my most clutch purchases:

EVERYDAY MUSIC (BURNSIDE)


The Mountain Goats - Ghana
(1999 Three Beads of Sweat)

I spent the better part of my flight from LAX to PDX flipping my way through John Darnielle's sophomore novel, Universal Harvester. On the trip back home, I scanned the liner notes of his 1999 compilation of rarities, Ghana.

Bringing this disc to the register at Everyday's prompted a brief exchange of identical opinions on Darnielle's bibliography. The cashier - who wore a Bloom County t-shirt - and I had each completed Wolf in White Van, but had yet to make it far enough into his latest release to make a concrete judgement.

Squeezing 31 tracks into just over an hour, Ghana's cluttered tracklist and varying degrees of tape-degradation make each listen feel like stumbling into the sort of used bookstore that haphazardly jams its collection of yellowed paperbacks onto homemade shelves, forcing the customer to browse without a specific goal in mind.

Even on its own, opening cut "Golden Boy" is worth the price of admission. Written for a sampler EP curated by Paul Lukas, (former editor of food-packaging design zine Beer Frame and current editor of sports uniform blog Uni Watch), the tune strings a clumsy chord progression through a boombox-recorded call to follow in Christ's footsteps while buying tins of boiled peanuts along the way.

"If thine enemy oppresseth you
You must let him oppress you some more
So that when you go shopping in paradise
You'll find those magnificent peanuts from Singapore"


Ducktails - Ducktails
(2009 Not Not Fun)

As suited for the planetarium as it is the overcast shores of the Northeastern United States, Matt Mondanile's self-titled debut album as Ducktails bottles the sea-salted air of his native New Jersey and launches this atmospheric canister into the cosmos via space-rock riffage. Phase-shifted guitars lap at drum machine loops, leaving the impression of their ebb in the sand. It trickles through the gaps between your fingers: Ducktails pushes the meditative capacity of the early Chillwave scene to Zen-like levels. Ripples of washed-out synthesizer bob on a crest of reverb at mantric intervals as suited to their surroundings as the occasional rumble of a freezer's ice machine in the kitchen or a washer/dryer's distant tremor. When a CD's artwork boasts the allure of Jan Anderzen's post-NAFTA tapestry, it's hard to leave it on the display rack.

2nd Avenue Records

Hugh - Crush
(1994 Mafia Money)

Dollar bins have yet to steer me wrong.

Having a limited time to browse their selection of vinyl, I focused solely on 2nd Street Records' crates of long-forgotten singles, shuffling through columns of square artwork until a certain image would pique my curiosity. I'm not ashamed to say that I do judge albums by their cover art.

Few records have looked as promising at first glance as Hugh's Crush. It's so non-descript that it, oddly enough, begs to be noticed. Something about the way its royal blue title, (printed in the same font I use on the front page of my zines), sits uncomfortably atop its murky backdrop is intensified by the vague creepiness of a Felix the Cat doll. The graphic feels like a spiritual successor to @cursedimages on Twitter: it is unnerving in its lack of clarity and context.

Crush is one of the most immediately gripping noise-pop releases I've listened to in quite a while, imbuing Neil Young's penchant for blown-out Maj7 chords with the endearing whine of Sunny Day Real Estate. Dropped squarely in the heat of emo's heyday, Hugh's first 7" release is my closest link to the genre's source.

Gerty Farish - Deadly Attackers
(1999 Menlo Park)

A cute record with even cuter album artwork, Deadly Attackers is an exercise in twee-simplicity. Playskool keyboard blips, squawks of rhythm guitar, and drum machine blast beats race at sprinters' paces towards an imagined finish line that promises apple pies and ice-cream sundaes served in plastic baseball helmets at the other end of the triathlon tape. According to the single's back cover, Gerty Farish are a duo that hailed from Brooklyn in the late-90s, but a quick Google search turns up next to nothing related to this particular 7". Despite the lack of info I've found concerning Deadly Attackers, I've uncovered some Youtube footage of the band playing a DIY show in Massachussets a couple of years before this record dropped. As rad as the music pressed onto this release is, I'm even more excited by the peek into the DIY culture of 1997 that it has led me to.

3/11/2017

Review: This Is Lorelei - "Better To Be"

This Is Lorelei - Better To Be
(2017 Self-Released)

Its swells of autotune rippling in a tropical post-chillwave breeze, "You I Fall Into" billows above sonic territory bordering Autre Ne Veut's early discography and Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreaks. Leading off This Is Lorelei's third EP released in as many months, it foregoes the Chicago-based solo act's preferred pallette of jittery math-rock riffage for a foamy head of bossa-nova vapor that rests on a gentle groove. At scattered intervals, Lorelei hacks up throat-clearing synth distortion that makes room for more complex arrangements: the rhythm guitar's minimal, Dirty Beaches flow tightens into a crunchier twang as the song worms its way into a meditative furrow. 

Oddly enough, Better To Be relegates its title cut to its virtual B-Side - a smart move, considering its sparse arrangements and sweeping sentimentality, which lend themselves more to conclusion than their predecessor, bursting with jazzy kinetic energy. Bouncing atop a four-on-the-floor kick drum, a single keyboard phrase kneads the tune into the repetition it references. I can't help but be reminded of the futurist-folk ethose employed by author Nicholson Baker on the musical accompaniment to his novel, The Traveling Sprinkler.

"Are you ready to repeat?"

TIL's vocoder carries most of the emotional burden here, seasoning each loop with a new sense of automaton moodiness - sometimes quaint and hopeful, while at other times huskily content.

Somewhat of an outlier in This Is Lorelei's prolific discography, Better To Be is an ode to the daily grind: a call to appreciate the flares of variation that guide us from week to week. 

3/07/2017

Review: Gum Country - "Gum Country"

Gum Country - Gum Country
(2017 Lollipop Records)

Ever wonder why each stick of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum is imprinted with its signature tread? I'll let you in on a secret. Each morning, when the pavement swells with yesterday's rainfall, Courtney Garvin's guitar feedback flattens the sucralose highways of Gum Country, prepping product for harvest. Tire tracks dig crisscrossing patterns into the steamrolled road - Connor Mayer rides in tow, reaching out of his trailer to reap chewy rectangles and wrap them in bitcrushed drum loops.

Gum Country's self-titled LP is as pliant as you'd expect. Opener "Brain Song" stretches its lead keyboard melody about a rattling rhythm section like a maypole's ribbon - despite its trudging Sonic Youth dissonance, the track tinged with Y2K pop sensibility. It conjures visions of pale yellows and crayola purples forming abstract blobs in space as cartoon robots turn midair somersaults. Grinding like pebbles beneath a shoe, power chords form a progression as conversely iconic/formless as a Gamecube's controller: molding to the shape of your hands, or in this case, your ears. Fold it between your molars: "Brain Song" is meant to munch on aimlessly as its flavor coats your palate. 

At the heart of the record is Gum Country's most solid offering, "Pills". a twee deconstruction of Swervedriver's shoegazey psychedelia. Garvin's vocals are much more whispery and buried than those she contributes to her more well-known project, The Courtneys. The refracted outline of a coin at the bottom of a swimming pool, they are barely perceptible - a beautiful object just out of reach. Accumulated reverb ripples as distortion and snares land cannonball dives on the surface.

It's tough to tell whether Gum Country's instrumentation is coffee or chamomile. Are its bursts of distortion units of punk vigor or sluggish drones? Depending on the occasion, the brain may perceive them as either. "Woah Oh" can be a mosh-inducing anthem. "I Don't Stay Up" can encourage you to agree with its title. No matter which beverage you'd rather compare the duo to, though, you can be certain that their output is as trusty and warm as anything served in a mug.

3/02/2017

Single Reviews: Alex G - "Bobby" / The Drums - "Blood Under My Belt"

Alex G - "Bobby // The Drums - "Blood Under My Belt"
(2017 Domino / ANTI)

As the Midwestern climate re-arranges my layers of jackets and sweaters, so too do its fluctuations scramble my listening habits as I walk from the Student Union to the concrete campus' English Studies hall. Freezing winds, channeled through a tunnel of brutalist architecture, call for a futurist rotation of Soundcloud maufacture - steely slabs of grimy techno shuffled into a deck of dark trap-rap singles. The more assertive and new the input is, the more resistant to the cold I feel.

In this exchange of data, I am the singularity - the self-driven vehicle that senses the movements its fellow commuters make but ultimately fixes its gaze on the destination: in this case the warmth of Room 316 and its adjacent vending machine, which peddles my favorite flavor of Clif Bar. I let the Yeongrak playlist sizzle to a bitcrushed silence as I slide into my seat and unwrap my purchase.

 

Each brief hint at spring, though, is a chance for me to tuck myself back into a sense of familiarity, which makes now the perfect time for my high-school mainstays to return to top form. I was shocked last night to find - (amidst recent releases by Los Campesinos and Beach Fossils) - that new-wave revivalists The Drums had emerged from a three-year hibernation, following up an admittedly bland third LP with the band's most solid track since "Me and the Moon", which dropped in 2010.

"Blood Under My Belt", our first peek at The Drums' upcoming record titled Abysmal Thoughts, is as primal as their early demo material, holding firmly to spartan beach-pop arrangements. The track's bleating lead guitar and steady bassline prop up a skeletal drum loop - recurring swells of violin wink at offscreen opulence. In comparison to the messy, somewhat abstract synthscapes of 2014's Encyclopedia, frontman Jonny Pierce shears his composition down to the sort of wiry simplicity that was in vogue during the early 2010s. Veiled by the sweetness of his bubblegum-pop delivery is a profound sadness - a yearning for the relative innocence of life midway through the Obama administration filtered through an 80s post-punk lens. Is this meta-nostalgia?

"i see death coming too quickly / i don't want this to end"



Alex Giannascoli also chooses to approach our shifting cultural paradigm with wistful puerility. "Bobby", released this morning in anticipation of the Pennsylvanian singer-songwriter's eighth album, Rocket, recalls the pastoral twang of Uncle Tupelo. Fiddle riffs are scraped from a dreamy acoustic progression like dirt from untrimmed fingernails: bitterly earthen. Giannascoli and a yet-to-be-credited guest vocalist contribute surreal verses to their pastoral alt-country panorama, their wavering harmonies looming like overcast clouds.

While The Drums take a peek at the rearview glass, Alex G parks the car in a roadside field for a picnic.

"the colors blue and purple start / to bleed into the endless dark"