Black lights traced the ceiling. A disco ball spun crazily, reflecting the glowing neon in the otherwise dark, cavernous bar. I could feel people’s eyes on us. A hulking, ornate hookah sat between us, we passed the pipe’s tentacles, exhaling sweet smoke. Smoke rings curled and seemed to dance in the black light.
It was getting increasingly difficult to use the pipe with the masks on. Mine was Crouching Tiger. Hers, Hidden Dragon. It was hot, furry and cumbersome. I lifted it up and rested it on my forehead, finally getting a clear view of our surroundings. A few tables over, a group of young men were staring at us. One of them walked over, reached out his hand and on his phone was a picture of a jack-o-lantern.
“Halloween?” He asked in broken English. We cracked up. Yes! Exactly! We all shared a chuckle—his mates at the table cheered. This was Halloween in Pingyao, a small walled-in city that time forgot a few hundred kilometers from Beijing.
As the night went on, we became acutely aware that not only were we the only people in costume, but there were no women in the bar. It was just young Chinese men, many of whom were drinking heavily. We had stumbled on the only gay bar in Pingyao, apparently. On Halloween. Dressed as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Last year, my prep cook was aghast when her daughter scolded her for dressing up as a Geisha for Halloween. She accused her of cultural appropriation. Looking back at our hookah smoking costume and considering our environment at the time, I must ask myself: were we guilty of the same? I really hope not.
This notion of exploiting someone’s culture for personal gain springs to mind when I listen to The Teskey Brothers. Half Mile Harvest could have been produced by Stax Records fifty years ago. It is proudly Motown, to the point where you could accuse Josh Teskey of wearing an Otis Redding costume. That Detroit sound was a beacon for civil right strife, so it begs the question: how could four privileged, twentysomething, white Australian dudes make music with this much soul? Can a musical style be culturally appropriated? It’s not up to me to identify where you draw the line between inspiration and appropriation. But I can ask the question. What I can tell you is this a great record. It sounds authentic and, to me, it comes from an honest place.
It’s rare and surprising to come across a record that can’t be pigeonholed. Richard Swift’s The Hex sounds as if David Lynch filmed a 50s sock hop in an opium den. Its dark, lush and really creepy. The closest contemporary would be Grizzly Bear, as Swift glosses songs like “Sister Song” and “Dirty Jim” in a chamber pop sheen.
I wish Kurt Vile would try harder. He’s clearly poured his soul into crafting a densely textured record, with guitar tones shifting out of focus in really interesting ways (the highlight being the nine-minute opus “Skinny Mini”), but after all that songcraft it sounds like he just showed up at the recording studio hungover as hell, made up the lyrics on the spot and recorded them in one take. I’m fully aware that this is his style and it’s worked in the past, but Bottle It In is unfortunately a little too loose this time.
Phosphorescent has recorded a deeply personal record. Themes of graceless aging (“Around the Horn”), overcoming addiction (“There From Here”) and fatherhood (“New Birth in New England”) come to life on C’est La Vie. The first four tracks comprise one the best Side As of the year.
I love it when an opening track announces the spirit of entire record. One note into “Dark Saturday” and you know Metric has plugged in for Art of Doubt. It’s heavy and anthemic. The synths still flesh out Metric’s sound, but Emily Haines and company have made the six string the star of the show. This is a record that’s meant to be cranked, it sounds better loud.
Matthew Dear’s secret weapon has always been his vocals. Over the years his voice has been heavily synthesized and buried beneath layers of reverb, often sounding like David Bowie, but on Bunny it’s driven to the forefront. Tracks like “What You Don’t Know” and “Modafinil Blues” put him firmly in Lead Singer territory. A master of creating unease in his brand of techno, on “Horses” he uses vocals from Tegan and Sarah to scrub clean a song that pops and fizzes like soda.
I will wrap things up with a sneaky picture from that fateful Halloween night.