I was up all night with squares and pentagrams.
"Don't get too close to the artists" is probably the number one rule of being an occasionally professional music-criticky type person. That's always been a huge priority for me, too. In the early days, like 2003 and 2004, before lots of people had my e-mail address or would want to use it for anything even if they did, PopMatters would send me a batch of CDs I knew next to nothing about, or I would get ahold of albums for Pitchfork reviews based on them being assigned to me (not me asking for them). So it was easy to disconnect yourself from the people making the records. I was your stereotypical blogger in his bedroom, typing by night for an audience I didn't know, about bands I definitely didn't know, often not even via the weird proxy of e-mail conversations with publicists. Sure, there'd be the occasional hiccup, like when my lifelong buddy Matt Wright was an awesome music publicist or eventual manager for Blitzen Trapper (linked article predates Matt's manager-ship, thank goodness); I always feel like it's unfair for me to write about bands if I know there's no way I would feel comfortable saying anything really mean about them, when there are so many other bands who don't have any personal connection with me and wouldn't have that advantage (sometimes getting really mean things written about them). Even if I thought I would like the band's record no matter what, that I was totally uninfluenced by anything personal, man-- how can you be sure? What if bias is built in subconsciously, so you can be totally off-base and not even realize it, just as in so many other areas of life? Exactly what level of detachment is acceptable to ensure you're really giving readers as objective an evaluation as possible, and does it really make sense to demand objectivity when it comes to something as personal and subjective as pop music, underground music, whatever? Do I like How to Dress Well because I like How to Dress Well, or do I like How to Dress Well because we both like Shai?  I struggle with this still.

The more you get involved in writing about music, the more involved you get in the quote-unquote music industry-- which was the last thing I ever wanted (if there are two types of music writers-- those who get into music writing so they can be a part of the music industry, and those who get into music writing so they can be a part of writing-- I've always liked to think of myself as the latter). You wind up exchanging e-mails with small-scale artists who you really like and who really could benefit from your kind words. You talk with publicists, do-it-yourself record label owners. You see your reviews having real-life negative effects on people who don't seem like jerks. You don't want to be a jerk, either. You especially don't want to punish someone for the absolutely heinous artistic crime of being really, really nice and not annoying. But you still gotta try to stay detached, objective, because the people listening out there in internet land don't share even that modicum of industry baggage, and because you're a critic. Somehow, living in Brooklyn, I didn't really know many people in bands, at least not people that I didn't know first from work or school-- even though I did accidentally make Sufjan Stevens wait once to use the men's room, and I'm pretty sure that one guy on Avenue A in 2004 or 2005 was really Ryan Adams because isn't "no, but I get that all the time" just the sort of thing Ryan Adams would tell the stranger in front of you who also thought he looked like Ryan Adams, and I guess the National and members of the Hold Steady and Elephant 6 mainstay/Lil Wayne touring bassist Heather McIntosh from the Instruments (who I met because I heard her talking American-accented English in the crowd during Radiohead's main stage set in Roskilde, Denmark, where she was playing bass the next day in Gnarls Barkley's band) all also lived in my old neighborhood. Sorry if that  comes off name-droppy, because the point is just the opposite: I know I'm not potentially too close to the artists.

This is a great year for feeling potentially too close to the artists.

The Poison Control Center, a band I have blogged about nonstop since seeing them on one of my first nights in town, is about to put out its third album, tentatively titled (dig the pessimism-- so at odds with their high-energy pop songs and live show!) The Fruitless Feast  Stranger Ballet, which is just about the best distillation of the band's now-three-headed songwriting team you could hope for, all loose and confident after a year of constant touring. It starts with guitarist Devin Frank (the one with "a helluva hair 'do-- I'm looking at you" on re-recorded single "Porcelain Brain," that shifty song with its "jack of all trades" who's "the master of them all"; Devin is also the PCC member who's a philosophy grad student at the University of Missouri, and the one with whom I had a discussion where I kept talking about Frog Eyes when I really meant Blackout Beach) popping open a beer can and casually holding forth about his apocalyptic ballet as well as how "once a day, and twice a day, what's the difference? / You know, your day's just shit and piss-- it's shit and piss!" The album ends with gospel singer Mona Perkins bouncing from headphone to headphone, laughing, as synth strings and bristling guitar whorls crumble around her,  at the outro of a song where Patrick Tape Fleming (the one from tiny Sibley, Iowa, with the short, light hair, who used to be a Des Moines-area college baseball player, who in a solo show once reminded me of natural entertainers like Jens Lekman or Jonathan Richman or Gruff Rhys) proclaims a kind of love that shares (non-musical) organs, and where he also returns to the album's key line (first set out on Jonathan Livingston-inspired "Seagull," which itself is a harmony-decked, sugary pop highlight): "We are all stars stuck in our dreams."  As I've told a few people, I think "Dracula's Casket," another Devin song-- this time featuring his sister on cha-cha-chas-- is the kind of track that could be the Poison Control Center's "Song 2": a fluke hit largely uncharacteristic of the band's catalogue, with evocatively oblique lyrics and plenty of screaming you can try yourself at home. Joe Terry (the one who lives in North Carolina and is engaged to Kelly from the Besties [congrats, you two!], and who once went like months without speaking, just because, and who when he won Ladd's inaugural Asklandaganza Man of the Year award gave some kind of amazing impromptu speech involving a dream about Joe Carter Ken Griffey, Jr. hitting a World Series home run) probably peaks here with the slide-guitar-drenched "Church on Mars," a sort of cosmic country-rock daytrotter about, well, a church on Mars-- plus dancing to the jukebox, telling jokes past 2 a.m., and how the police are everywhere man but you never hear them play "Roxanne" on their radios. Joe also sings lead on "Some Ordinary Vision," which showcases some of the glammy 1970s licks you'd expect from guys who've recently been covering Thin Lizzy's "Running Back," and he sings on "Underground Bed," which is not to be confused with the previously mentioned "Dracula's Casket." And then I love how Pat takes things unplugged for a totally endearing indie-pop love song, "Terminal," where he lets his voice tremble naturally sort of like Conor Oberst because it would be weird if two guys from the same part of the country about the same age with similar musical tastes didn't have something a little bit in common (and besides, PCC's live show has a lot in common with current Bright Eyes tourmates Titus Andronicus)-- "Terminal" has a reference back to another of Pat's songs on the album, "Born on Date," and every moment radiates with absolute sincerity... this is a guy who goes on the road every night of the year singing songs for the amazing woman who is letting him and his friends drive around the country, all stars stuck in their dreams: "Will I ever break free?" Former drummer Donald Curtis's gorgeously melodic songwriting (he's the one who just got married to awesome wife Tara and wrapped up grad school in computer science in Iowa City; "Don writes the hits," Pat often says) is missed, but the other guys seem to be making an extra effort to make up for his efforts, and successor David Olson filling in for him on drums just sounds like he's so excited to be there, banging away and having the time of his life, like it's another night in Beloit, Wisc., or Toledo, Ohio, or Rochester, N.Y., or something and they're doing stage tricks in another smelly bar. Recorded in Chicago, mastered in Omaha by A.J. Mogis of Saddle Creek fame, this is the best advertisement PCC's crazy-good-times live show could want: 35 rough and party/headphone-ready minutes, a perfect contrast/complement to the double-LP sprawl of last year's almost-as-good predecessor,  Sad Sour Future (again, dig the unlikely pessimism!). I hope that was incoherent enough that nothing will come off sounding like a promotional sticker.

NEOLOGISM NOTE: My favorite Australian band, the Lucksmiths, have a song called "Successlessness." In their final show, recently recaptured on a new live DVD I heartily recommend, the band (whose Marty Donald I interviewed once for Pitchfork, and whose Mark Monnone I was thrilled to meet and chat with when he came to Des Moines with the band Still Flyin' a year or so ago, and whose pal Darren Hanlon I also happily saw here not long ago) said they'd been considering that song title sort of the theme to their careers. But this Aug. 29, 2009, farewell concert in Melbourne was sold out, apparently, and scalpers were selling tickets in front, so maybe now their theme could be (another favorite Australian band's) "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock'n'Roll)."

Then there's the new album by Mr. Dream, a trio out of Brooklyn. The singer/guitarist, Adam Moerder, used to write alongside me at Pitchfork. The drummer, Nick Sylvester, used to write alongside me at Pitchfork, and was one of the top couple or few writers there ever, and I've shared cabs with him at the CMJ Music Conference and debated him on internet message boards and been to parties at bars with him and ordered more than ample gin and tonics (sorry, William Safire) at a wedding in his presence, and I saw Mr. Dream play what I think was their first official gig, out in Bushwick, aka East Williamsburg, aka where Mrs. Des Noise used to teach so it's still weird to me that it's a place recent college graduates live and stuff now, and I don't mean to overstate how well I know Nick or anything, because it's also because we had a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances, but still, well, you know? The album is produced Some tracks on the album are mixed by Matt LeMay, who also has written alongside me at Pitchfork, and who I met up with a bunch of times in New York, and I mean my wife and I have had dinner with him and his girlfriend, and I'm always keeping track of what he's up to (check out the new album he produced by Kleenex Girl Wonder). Would I love this band if it were not these people? But then again, aren't these people really well situated to make great music? And hasn't Pitchfork previously had writers who made good music, if not music that instantly bowled me over quite this same, visceral way, among them LeMay's own Get Him Eat Him, Dominique Leone, Cadence Weapon, and others I'm probably gonna be embarrassed to read this later and see I forgot (Promqueen!)? Anyway, I've been listening to this band's demos and early releases like Mr. Dream Goes to Jail and No Girls Allowed for a while now, and even if it weren't already for the perfect "Punch-Out!"-referencing band name and the future-classic release titles, I definitely liked tracks like "Knuckle Sandwich" and "Knick Knack," which had a sort of adolescent male energy I don't usually go for but that you can find in bands like Jesus Lizard and Big Black (well, I go for it with those bands, so!), but mostly were just near-perfectly cut and universally idiosyncratic slabs of rock'n'roll awesome, something you'd hear on a short-lived but cult-beloved teen sitcom and 10 years later everyone would know and love because everyone would have watched the DVDs. Anyway the point is you can stream Mr. Dream's brand-new full-length debut, Trash Hit (see what I mean about the titles?!), and while I haven't spent as much time with this yet as the new PCC, I can already tell I love it, and I'd like to think I'll keep turning to these songs for wit and generally rocking out the way I might to Japandroids or Art Brut or McLusky or, like, a Steve Albini-produced guitar-rock version of LCD Soundsystem (imagine it! gah, I hope those guys don't mind these reference points-- one challenge of criticky-type-personing about criticky-type persons...). The dudes at Dusted already posted a review, and they did it more justice than I can right now.

Lamentable and it's not exactly my cup of tea but what the hey?
Maybe this feeling like the people you know are the ones who are making vital music right now is something that eventually happens to every occasionally professional music-criticky type person, and is a symptom of age or laziness or incipient corruption, or worse? I mean it's not even a conflict of interest I'm worried about, I know what I like, but more the appearance of a conflict, or the possibility of a conflict that I can't see because I'm blinded by the personal connection, the way our circumstances can blind us to a lot of unconscious prejudices. Look, I'm the kind of guy who feels weird even writing about artists I love who are playing at festivals sponsored by the publication paying for the review, an apparent potential conflict even my former journalism professor, dear Chicago friend Marcel Pacatte, has told me is nothing to worry about, because if they like it they like it and if I like it I like it, right? It's just, weirdly enough, in Des Moines it's easier and easier to know people who are in bands and to see them a lot because you all go to the same shows, and a lot of them are really good/promising-- too many to name for fear of forgetting someone, but if you check out the blog now and then you've probably seen their names. You can buy Bob from Pavement a beer here.

LET'S PRETEND WE'RE BUNNY RABBITS: The setting: Petco on Buffalo Rd., near Windsor Heights. Graduation for a beginners' puppy obedience class. A backroom of the store. The first classes, when the building was being remodeled, were held in a space right by the front door, so every time people came in the dogs would get distracted. Here the only distraction is you have to go through our class to get to the store's bathroom, so people are walking in all the time and kinda looking warily at these huge dogs. Chuck, our year-old labradoodle*, isn't even the biggest dog here. There are only like five or six dogs in all. Mrs. Des Noise's college friends came to town the night before, and it was a late night. One college friend is with us today in class, taking it all in. The dog owners stand up, one by one, giving specified commands; the dogs obey the commands, or don't. Mrs. Des Noise, her friend, and I all notice one person in particular walking through the class to get to the bathroom. This person is wearing a headband with rabbit ears. We exchange glances. Looking back, I'm not sure whether anybody else saw her. The dogs get diplomas and a class picture. Mrs. Des Noise's friend tries not to laugh too much. It's social promotion, people.

So class breaks up and we say thanks and goodbye to the trainers and Mrs. D.N., M.D.N.F., and I are all walking around the store with Chuck, buying a couple of things before we head back down to meet Mrs. D. N.'s other friend for a much-needed brunch. We pass this table where we see the bunny-eared person again. She is standing next to another person in full bunny regalia, with not only bunny ears but bunny teeth and a whole-body bunny costume, too. They ask us if we want to play "Stump the Bunny." They won't take no for an answer. They're offering candy. It turns out the second bunny, the one with the teeth and the full costume, who also happens to be wearing glasses, is a bunny "professor." We're told the full name and title, which instead of Ph.D. is some sort of acronym involving a rabbit/hare pun that I forget. We draw strips of paper from a basket filled with them, each containing a question about bunnies. It looks like the bunny people have really been rehearsing this, because they sort of dramatically act out very specific responses when we don't know the answers to the questions on our little strips of paper. The question I draw: What species are rabbits? I don't know. So Professor Bunny, almost impossible to understand behind her bunny teeth, and also she has a fake British accent because she's a bunny professor, see, hints, "What do you call the interlocking blocks that kids play with?" I answer, "Uh, Legos?" "Yes! And when transformers change from a car into a robot, what do they do?" Uh, transform?" "They m--. They m---." "Morph?" "YESSSSSSSS. Now put them together." "Lego-morphs?" "YESSSSSS. Lagomorphs!" And they want me to take an entire big thing of Valentine's Day chocolates, but all I really want is a fun-size Snickers or something, because I was out late last night and I haven't had brunch yet because I've been at Petco for obedience-class graduation all day with Chuck, MDN, and MDNF. The question MDNF gets is the worst, something about how many breeds of rabbits there are in the country, and Professor Bunny gives the hint that the number is either less or more (I forget) than good doc's own age, but you can't tell what age she might be at all because everything about Professor Bunny is hidden behind her amazing bunny costume. I'm still not sure why these bunny people were there. I sure hope we weren't the only customers who spotted them. We know they weren't really bunnies, because the dog didn't chase them.

Prince - "All the Critics Love U in New York"

* My relationship to the word "labradoodle" is similar to my relationship with music-genre terms like "chillwave," "Balearic," "blog-house," "twee," "emo," or "acoustic rock":  I may sometimes like what the word describes, and I may in an extreme case or two even form a really strong personal connection with it, but I still feel pretty silly saying it out loud.

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