Does the acquisition of Pitchfork change anything?

The big news today is that Pitchfork has been acquired by the owners of Vanity Fair, Vogue etc. I don’t think it changes anything, but it does highlight the economics of websites, or what I call cool laundering.

Stage 1. Exchange cool for attention (or money). Someone creates something fun or innovative. Pitchfork or someone covers it in order to appear cooler, and the artist gains exposure (ie. the attention of readers) in exchange. This is a type of mercantile exchange, in which cool is exchanged for attention.

Stage 2. Exchange attention for advertising. The second necessary exchange for cool laundering, the second economic exchange necessary for websites like Pitchfork to exist, is to trade attention of readers for money from advertisers. If I read everyday, Pitchfork has one more reader, and that’s what advertisers care about, how much attention people give to a website. This crowd attention is traded for advertising money. As Bazan would say, “you make a living, selling advertising”.

The complete trade is cool to attention to cash, with Pitchfork acting the part of the East India Company.
(When you are powerful enough, you can cut out the middleman, such as when acts like Daft Punk make money by soundtracking fashion shows, but that’s rare.)

There other forms of economic exchange too (e.g. product placement for Apple Music, Converse & Beats) but the main question is whether this trading view that I take is consistent with review anomalies on Pitchfork.

I want to suggest that bad reviews are routinely given for anything challenging this trading system. Example: the new album by Refused was given a lukewarm review (mind you, Pitchfork didn’t even seem to review The Shape Of Punk To Come when it came out). Why? It doesn’t stack up to the album, which was quite fun and fresh, and highly rated elsewhere. Nonetheless, the album could be offensive to the fashion industry in Paris (“Genocide was Paris’ will”, the reference to the corporate system in “nothing has changed”) and offensive to the advertising industry generally. Better pan it!

In the time of the zine, people made things out of love. Pitchfork makes things with money, and now someone has recognized the cash cow that is Pitchfork. Caveat emptor.


Jay Droz is the best

I have to put this post up because when I typed the search term into Google, nothing came up.

When students ask me whether I like hiphop I often say, “Sure, I love Jay Droz”. They look at me strangely, and then I suggest they go check him out. If you’ve never heard him, you’re in for a treat. Jay offers a truly personal vision of music, way beyond hipster (he won’t do interviews), and incredibly prolific.

My personal favorite is “Were You There?” (do NOT end it early) but there is a high level of consistency between songs, so don’t be afraid to dip into as much as you want (e.g. Creation Series).

This is just one logical step back on from The Shaggs. It has the same internal logic that seems to defy many conventional music logics. But, given that most people dislike Jay Droz, does this mean The Shaggs are actually bad? I doubt it. I believe in ideal forms in music, meaning that hearing pure versions makes the lesser forms more bearable (e.g. Rod Stewart is bearable once you’ve heard Sam Cooke). I think The Shaggs unlock a way of hearing Jay Droz that makes him incredible, rather than terrible. Sure, you’ll like The Shaggs more, but Jay Droz is fun too.


People with no taste still need music

Here’s what I worked out today, small though it may be…

If you typed “People with no taste still need music” into Google this morning, it returned 0 hits. How is that possible? You need this key.

I could give you a full explanation pointing to either the hipster stages of grief (e.g. denial that Avril Lavigne likes Sleater-Kinney & was/is romantically involved with the guy from Nickelback), or the necessity of reactionary attitudes in progressing art, or pointing out the role that popular music plays in allowing for personal attributions of music intent (check Kelley’s dimension of consensus), or the certain hope I have that the Lauper-Spears-Swift line will prosper for decades to come.

These are all true enough, but you can work that out for yourself, you just need the key:

people with no taste still need music.

If that doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will.


How to play guitar like Slint – Nosferatu Man


I recently had the pleasure of seeing Slint live in Boston and it cleared up some of my misconceptions about how they play guitar. Here’s how to really play the high guitar riff from “Nosferatu Man”.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 9.51.16 AM

Notes on the tab:

(A) The harmonics used here are not directly above the third and fourth frets, they are a little to the right of the third fret, and a little to the left of the fourth. They are also very quiet, so Pajo plays them with a lot of distortion to beef up the volume.

(B) In order to bend the note at the end of the phrase, Pajo moves his left hand over to the string behind the nut and pushes the string down (see here, Pajo is on the right side of the screen).

That is not the what the internet said (see here for the common tab) but, now, yet another problem with the internet is fixed.

And here are two reflections on their style:

1. Slint are more elegant than you think. Playing a melody line out of natural harmonics is quite wonderful; simple to play but difficult to conceive, which is almost the definition of elegance.

2. Slint do not use pinched harmonics, which is a minor point of disagreement with Scott Tennent’s otherwise wonderful 33 1/3 book on Spiderland. Instead, they use a lot of the natural harmonics (the 3rd and 4th fret harmonics are also used at the end of “Good Morning Captain”). In fact, whenever you hear the squealy sound of the Nosferatu Man lead (as in the B-section of “Breadcrumb Trail”) it seems that Pajo is simply playing natural harmonics with a Boss Heavy Metal pedal (at least, that’s what I recall from his pedal board).

(Image: Pitchfork Media)


How to play guitar like Fugazi – Waiting Room


It’s hard to find any good stuff on how to think like a Fugazi guitarist, so one Friday night I sat at home and worked out the “7 Songs” EP for myself. Here’s an analysis of the first song, “Waiting Room”.

There are only four parts to learn: the verse, the pre-chorus, the hook and turnaround, and the chorus. In itself, this simplicity should suggest Fugazi’s key trick: elegance.

The verse is a simple set of two notes being played at a time (F# chord to C# chord). But note that this is played in such a way as to avoid the power chords one might expect. It suggests to me that the actual guitar line came first, not a chord structure. (The intro is also the verse, and in the final line of the verse Ian holds down an E-shaped F# barre chord to drive into the chorus instead of returning to the C#.)


The pre-chorus is three chords (if we exclude the pre-hook and turnaround). The first C# is super-easy to play, just bar your index finger over the three strings on sixth fret, and perhaps put your ring finger on the eight fret. This chord is like an open G chord transposed up and I think it may be a favourite of Ian’s because it allows him to shift between playing the chord and then single muted notes on the E and A strings (check out his playing in Sieve-Fisted Find, for example).

Second chord is the G# octave, which makes it the third of the E chord. Playing it as a slide up gives it a little ‘pop’.

Third chord is the surprising choice of a common E-shaped B barre chord. Don’t be weird always.

Turnaround & hook
Open E chord slidingup by the F octave into F#. This use of an open chord is a common technique in Fugazi. We see a similar common D chord in “Bad Mouth” and “Bulldog Front”. Chords with more than two strings (and open chords in particular) are often used as accent chords. In this case, it first introduces the chorus and next time sits behind the “be-cause they can’t get up” hook.

Back to F# and C# but this time done with a standard E-shaped barre F# chord and then the same C# from the pre-chorus (I told you Ian loved that shape).

(Don’t forget to put the turnaround and hook at the end of the chorus)

There are four lessons to learn from this:

1. Play less. Across the course of the song, Fugazi builds this song by playing very few notes at the beginning (it is very hard to convince guitarists to play a two-note riff like the verse, trust me). They build from these double notes to full chords. Note how each section builds a bit bigger than the last, but often using the same underlying chords.
One reason for this is simply that Fugazi use a lot of distortion, and more notes can sound so messy that it would initially disorient the listener (a trick Fugazi later use to great effect on songs such as “Facet Squared”). Tim Gane made a similar point about this with the Farfisa organ, Stereolab would only play two notes on that organ because three or more sounded too out-of-tune.

2. Have some variety in ways to play chords. Ian has some go-to chord shapes that are ‘his’ that other people don’t usually use (e.g. the G-barre shape from the pre-chorus, the open chord for accent, and the unused octave shape which we can get to later). The Edge makes a similar point in “It Might Get Loud”, he has his own way to play E that sounds good to him.

3. You might not need to write as much as you think. In song-writing school they suggest you write a set of verse chords, then a chorus, then a bridge. This is not how to play like Fugazi. There are repeats all over the place, from the chords in the verse being the chorus chords, to the turn-around being used both out of the pre-chorus and into the chorus. Repetition is a friend.

4. From figure to straight. Note how this song goes from a unique guitar figure (in the verse) to outlining the underlying chordal basis for that figure (in the chorus). In other words, be weird, but then bring it back into focus. (Guitar manuals often say to get more rhythmically complex across a song, Fugazi actually tend to get simpler as you get to the chorus, not trickier)

Given these tips, you can probably work out some more Fugazi songs from live videos. You might even start to identify Fugazi songs from still photos, such as this one of “Waiting Room“.

(Image: Dischord Records)


Statistics in the BBC Sherlock’s “A Study In Pink”


In “A Study in Pink”, Episode One of the new Sherlock, the cab driver has been giving people a chance to pick one of two pills. The driver has been given the non-poisonous one four times in a row, and now it’s Sherlock’s chance.

The cabbie maintains “Four people in a row? It’s not just chance”

Sherlock says it’s “luck”.

The internet is full of people who are amazed at the cabbie getting it right four times in a row and Sherlock himself seems finally to be impressed by the cabbie’s skill. But should we be impressed?

If chance is really operating, the probability of getting one guess right is 1/2. If you have two events, this is 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/4. So, by the time you guess a 50:50 situation right four times, it drops to 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/16 (or .0625). Now, the conventional level where statisticians say that there’s more than chance operating is 1/20 (or 5%). In other words, the cabbie really hasn’t done anything significant so far; his luck (.0625) is not rarer than the conventional levels statisticians assume via chance (.05).

However, had the cabbie killed five people with the same method, his luck would have been rare enough (.03125) that we, like Sherlock and the internet, might be impressed and think the cabbie really did have a trick up his sleeve. Unfortunately, Watson shot him before we could find out.