My Favorite Album of 2022 / Mi Disco Preferido de 2022

was ‘Cuatro Chavales’ by Carolina Durante. Feel free to listen to it here while reading along.

Spain is going to feature prominently within my first few publications of 2023. I will obviously post an update once it appears, but Riffs, an unconventional journal on music and material culture, has recently accepted an article I wrote about how Madrid’s early-2000’s bootleg CD market turned me into a Suede fan. Like all untidy music writing, it’s complicated, but hopefully you will like it.

Cuatro Chavales, the sophomore full-length from Madrid quartet Carolina Durante, is remarkable for many reasons, but for me, it boils down to two. First, on a personal level, it required me leaving North America and the physical act of “being there” to feel genuinely excited about indie rock again. Second, as much as Spanish culture feels off-center from even the rest of “Europe,” the record just hits the global popular music zeitgeist on the head (and then keeps on smashing). In October, America’s biggest pop-star (who adopted a polymorphous indie aesthetic to reinvent herself in her thirties) declared, “It’s me, Hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” Eight months earlier, Diego Ibañez sauntered across a bridge over the autovía at sunset, lighting a cigarette and loudly declared the same thing. Did the sheer joy of returning to gigs unmasked last year bring out a collective, subliminal acceptance of responsibility?

2022 was great by transitive property, as any year where I get back to Spain is great. My prior visits to Madrid and Segovia, in 2015, came on an extended weekender flying in from Paris. The following year, Carolina Durante formed in Madrid and began recording quintessentially Spanish rock n’ roll shout-along power-jams. Though I had been obsessively listening to the Estepona power-pop trio Airbag since 2008 and had taken notice of their new label Sonido Muchacho, I still managed to snooze on the emergent movemnet which newer groups like Carolina encapsulated. Or, maybe it never went away; I was just gone for too long.

When you’re cursed to be born in a country that celebrates ignorance, it’s easy to fall out of touch with an entire cultural spark that happens to be sung in another language (even if it happens to be your own homeland’s close-second language). Airbag helped confirm my long-standing suspicion that I had been born in the wrong country – namely, the first time I heard the live recording of their 15th anniversary gig and the beachball-bouncing crowd mouthed the synth solo to “Big Acuarium.” In a truly amazing twist, the pandemic drove Airbag into a phase of their greatest activity since the mid-2010’s. They released a great little EP called Discotecas, which included “Disco Azul” a heart-rendering ditty about falling in love with a coworker that sits high atop my favorite songs they’ve ever recorded.

As soon as it was legally possible for Americans to travel to the EU again, Airbag announced that they would play a special gig at Club Ochoymedia (the 8:30 Club, in other words) in Madrid in mid-May. As I did with Blur’s Hyde Park Reunion in 2009, I bought tickets for the gig and then made the necessary arrangements. My partner and I planned our Iberian journey (her first time overseas) around a pop-punk concert, which feels just as cool to write now as it did to plan a year ago.

Less than two weeks before the gig, Airbag announced that their opener would be someone called Temerario Mario, which means “Reckless Mario” (as everything sounds dumber in English). Possibly influenced by Mario’s detached, lo-fi aesthetic online, I let my excitement to see Airbag drown out any curiosity about who the opener was. My presumption was that it would be some Spanish analogue of Christopher Owens (not great) or Ariel Pink (much worse).

I will proudly say now that I was amazingly wrong.

Like a lot of aging punk fans, my early-’20s dalliance with (indie-)rockism had left me largely apathetic about the prior decade of chaff that labels like Sub Pop and Matador had been spitting out. This prevented me from falling in love with artists like Mac Demarco, the War on Drugs, and other references from 2016. Even in the minutes before Mario del Valle and drummer Juan Pedrayes (who constitute half of Caroline Durante and play in several other bands) walked onstage, I let myself chomp at the bit for Airbag to begin.

Mario began his set with a few solo songs – just him, his acoustic-electric, and (what appeared to be) everyone in the audience below the age of 35 screaming along to everything. “Oh, this dude’s a phenomenon here,” I told my partner, “Of course he is.” Within a couple songs of Pedrayes joining him on drums, I found myself yelling at her, “I kind of love this kid!” unable to wipe the smile off my face. He and Pedrayes covered “The KKK Took My Baby Away” during their set (a potent reminder of just how important the Ramones have always been), and they spent almost all of Airbag’s thrashing through the crowd, climbing onstage, and embracing in tandem stagedives. I had never seen anything like it before, particularly as such a flagrant fuck-you to Spanish laddish machismo (even more so considering how “chaval” closely translates to “lad”).

Carolina Durante: Juan Pedrayes, Diego Ibañez, Mario del Valle, Martín Vallhonrat (via Sonido Muchacho)

All four members of Carolina Durante present different visions of sexual ambiguity, too, which, coupled with their unconventionally photogenic looks, make them the perfect rock n’ roll band for the 2020’s. Even their respective ages are difficult to guess, since they’re tight as hell musicians who still carry themselves as if they looked and sounded like shit (recalling musical urbanitas like The Strokes in their rawest moments). Diego Ibañez delivers a glorious mix of David Yow’s madman energy and David Gedge’s purposefully unsophisticated vocals, beneath a unibrow-scowl that brings to mind a brash young Liam Gallagher. If they’d formed ten years earlier in the UK, they may have supplanted the Arctic Monkeys as “the century’s saviours of Rock music,” but they formed in 2017 in Madrid, so they’ve had to settle for being one of the most exciting rock bands on Earth, largely unknown to the 7.35 billion people who don’t speak Spanish. Their Iberian contemporaries who chose to sing in English such as Hinds and Mourn have earned a following in that world, but they haven’t exactly taken it over. Either way, cultural traits like “la retranca” (ambiguity of personality/intent) are impossible to translate lyrically, no matter what language. The more I understand what Ibañez is singing, the more confused and intrigued I get about where he stands. And that’s fine.

I’ve grown increasingly skeptical and/or distasteful of outsider, English-language analyses of Spain – as enjoyable as Gerald Brenan and that ilk can be to read – but if I could insert my two cents as an English-speaking outsider who’s developed my own complicated relationship with the country: visiting Spain as an American feels like you’re sitting in a stranger’s living room with your feet up on their coffee table. It finally hit me just how off-center Spain is from “Europe” in 2015, and this time last year, it felt even more like a peripheral bubble with its own universe of art, food, and quality bullshit (even their interpretations of stuff created in the English-speaking world) that anybody from anywhere could enjoy or appreciate, but never understand.

This is all strange to write, since Carolina Durante has myriad points of reference in English-speaking indie music. It reveals their Spain to be an (infinitely better) alternate universe in which Doolittle made the Pixies – perhaps Carolina Durante’s most obvious Anglophone influence – superstars in their prime. The whole first half of Cuatro goes straight for the throat in that loud-quiet-loud way, and if “Tu Nuevo Grupo Favorito” doesn’t come true by its first chorus, well you’re about to start yelling along whether you want to or not. By the fifth track, “Urbanitas” (perhaps my favorite track on this thing) the scream-along choruses pound into your skull and played at the right volume, feel like they could peel your wallpaper. Cuatro Chavales feels calculated to be the record that should make Carolina Durante the biggest band in the world, even if that “world” is the self-contained one south of the Pyrenees.

So, let me return to that first point about what makes Cuatro Chavales such a landmark album to me. Ageing American music writers (cough) love to offer opinions about why rock music has “declined so much in cultural prominence” without even thinking what a tiny slice of the world we are. It’s that imperialist mentality that’s so easy to fall into without seeing how and why things don’t have to be that way.

Venues wouldn’t be so stringent and overpriced if our government weren’t too chickenshit to dissolve Ticketmaster and Livenation. People would pursue their creative dreams and be happier if they weren’t tied to soul-crushing employment for health insurance, and more people would come out and stagedive if ambulance rides didn’t cost $1000. Most importantly, it would be easier for us to admit that, sometimes, we are the problem, if we lived in a country that didn’t make a vast majority of us feel that way from birth. I make no pretenses that Spain is bereft of its own problems, but for me, hearing Carolina Durante shines a bright light on just how much more fun we could all be having.

‘Postcards from Irving’ Volume 2 Out Today

After a slight delay, the second issue of Postcards from Irving is now ready for printing and headed this week to a mailbox near you (ideally yours).

The masthead and table of contents are above. Ignore that zip code typo; it should read 48804, which it will on the actual zines. This volume is introducing a new format: a proper booklet style that still fits snugly in letter-sized envelopes. I hope you enjoy it!

There are a few visual pieces that I may crack and wind up sharing digitally. I posted the Iron River postcard in question (as well as a repeat-photo I took there in August 2021) on the Instagram page, so I’ll post it here too for resolution’s sake.

Enjoy this free preview, and if you haven’t already subscribed or donated to the cause, DO SO RIGHT HERE.

Iron River, MI (1939 Postcard vs. August 7, 2021)

More Sounds of the Department Store

There’s a supermarket in the small city where I live that consistently plays (and I say this with no hyperbole) the most objectively bad music ever forced upon any public, anywhere. Every time I go there, I hear a new “worst” song I’ve ever heard, and I think there’s (at the very least) value in all popular music.

I shouldn’t be surprised, considering how much bad music/muzak is foisted upon people’s ears while they receive it passively in the process of getting in and getting out of a retail store. It’s cheaper than hiring musicians to play for your customers, and comes as no surprise in an era when even radio DJ’s are forced by station owners to play songs pre-selected for them and spend more time doing engagement on social media than actually being a DJ.

Fortunately, the internet has stepped in and provided a soothing analeptic that also suggests a happy medium once existed: original musak (splitting the difference between music and muzak) for shopping centers. Imagine Brian Eno’s Music for Airports if airports actually played the album*. YouTuber Fardemark (my new favorite account of the week) has been trafficking obscure recordings which were never meant for the commercial market yet did more to capture a “moment” in American consumer history than anything.

These tunes were recorded for the purpose of being ephemeral aural wallpaper, but they’re actually nicer than 98% of what you would hear on some store’s Spotify playlist in 2022. I would 100% recommend them over algorithmically curated pop music, but then again I would also recommend stores just hire musicians to play live if they want music so badly. But then again, I’m not the one paying to keep the store open.

*Maybe some do; I don’t know.

Minstrelsy/Pop Culture Lecture Postscript

Thank you to the Honors students who came tonight for my special PDP lecture on how Minstrelsy/Blackface are Baked into American Popular Culture, several of whom braving the poorly-numbered hallways of the Dow Scienceplex for the first time. A special thank you to my colleague Ben Heumann, too, who came to check it out because, as he put it, “this is why we have a University” – exposing our brains to a diversity of research topics. Also, our conversation with students afterward inspired me to record a few thoughts before they disappeared. I figured that I would share them as a companion piece to the lecture, in case anybody is interested. If you are reading this and would like to see the recording, please reach out.

First of all, I thanked my colleague Bryan Whitledge from the Clarke Archive, who contributed some references to Minstrel shows at CMU in the 1920s and 1950s(!) that added a crucial local connection to the lecture, such as this image from the 1924 Chippewa yearbook:

Second, I referenced the Australian comedian Aamer Rahman in passing, but I should have given him a more explicit tribute in influencing critical ideas about hip-hop and white privilege when these posts circulated nine years ago. One thing I mentioned when posting a slide featuring Vanilla Ice, Elvis Presley, Iggy Azalea, Eminem, and Yung Gravy was that I wished I could have split the lecture up into two class periods to invite a deeper discussion. Rahman was hardly as diplomatic with his words about Iggy Azalea at the height of her “Fancy” chart success, and I’m grateful his thoughts are still easily accessible.

Third, one student commented that she appreciated that someone who teaches classes in Geography and Environmental Studies would deliver a lecture on such a differing topic. I was grateful for her saying that, but the deeper I plunge, the more I find in common between Minstrelsy/Popular Culture, environmental justice, gender studies, and other topics. When racist caricatures get “baked in” to pop culture, we run the risk of forgetting their context just because the ingredients aren’t distinct anymore. We fail to address the racist origins of (way more) American Popular Culture (than we want to admit) for similar reasons that we fail to address racist/classist reasons of why and where toxic waste is buried. A refusal to openly address feelings is a hallmark of toxic masculinity. I wish I had thought of this for my concluding statement, but will definitely include it whenever I present on this subject again.

Fourth, I told those in attendance that it originated as a unit in my Popular Culture class at Tennessee and I was eager to dust it off, but I didn’t say how I wound up preoccupied with the Minstrel show as an academic focus.

The preamble is that when I was in undergrad, at least one “blackface incident” happened every year somewhere in the campus community. The public response was typically a tepid “well that guy was dumb, but he’ll get his what-for and let’s move past it.” This was a decade before Justin Simien satirized the phenomenon in Dear White People (2014), and so many of my cohort had no idea about the history behind blackface and what specifically made it offensive. There’s also a much larger conversation about segregation, and how the neoliberal University reinforces it, somewhere in there.

In the mid-2010’s, once I began doing archival research into old/extinct theaters Ben Irving played, I noticed an increasing prevalence of these collar-pulling photos. The more I learned about Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and George Burns (the latter of whom remained extremely relevant until his death in 1996 at age 100), the less I could avoid learning about minstrelsy. I would inevitably turn a page in some book about Eddie Cantor, and YIKES I DIDN’T NEED TO SEE THAT. Similarly, in a recent lecture about the film industry’s transition to sound, some students googled The Jazz Singer and recoiled at a variety of images of Jolson in blackface. To omit minstrelsy from the discussion about vaudeville, particularly from any focus on the rise of Jewish performers, would be irresponsible at best and ignorant at worst. To not confront that reality and ask difficult questions about how far we’ve come (or not) in discussing race would be similarly irresponsible of me as a teacher.

Finally, in updating my lecture for Thursday, I completely overlooked one highly contentious pop culture icon in embedded minstrelsy that landed in my lap courtesy of the riotous Nathan Rabin (who also happens to be Jewish) in his fantastic collection The Joy of Trash (self-published 2022):

As the millennium ended, [George] Lucas was still drawing inspirations from old movies, rather than an outside world that seemed to scare him. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his first film as a director in over two decades traffics extensively in antiquated racist stereotypes.

There is no such thing as benign racism. By its very nature, racism is malignant. But there are gradations of racism. There’s the harsh, brutal racism of Nazis, the KKK, and the Alt-Right. There’s also a softer version that angrily insists that a moderate amount of racism and bigotry is not only acceptable but necessary for society to function.

White people love soft racism because it replaces an honest, deeply challenging, and unflattering narrative of institutionalized anti-black racism with a dishonest, but more flattering, fantasy of endless Caucasian benevolence.

pp 166-167

To quote Trav S.D.’s blog disclaimer whenever his research unearths an image of a white actor in blackface: “Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.”

[To wit: someone, somewhere in the USA is probably lobbying some school board to prevent their kid from being taught about this because white people’s feelings or something.]

Upcoming Talk on How Minstrelsy/Blackface are Baked into American Pop Culture

For anybody in Central Michigan, I’ll be delivering a special lecture next week for the Honors Program Personal Development Project (PDP) series.

I’ll be bringing back one of my favorite lectures from my curriculum on the Geography of American Popular Culture. From the poster/site description:

Pop Culture in the United States, like American History at large, must address uncomfortable realities about its past (and present) to embrace what has made it remarkable. Early forms of American music, theater, and eventually film, radio, and television are inextricable from the minstrel show – generally speaking, mockery of African-Americans by white performers and audiences. However, as with anything in popular culture, the realities, appeals, and most influential performers exist within gray areas. As this lecture argues, much of the most persevering and influential American art – all the way from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) to Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) – has happened as a reaction to minstrelsy rather than embrace of it.

See you next Thursday, October 20th, at 6pm in DOW Science Complex Room 102 (not Pearce 127, the original location as posted on the Honors site).

Insane Video about the Verdun Landscape 105 Years On

Thanks to Dr. Hillary Shaw of De Montford University over in the UK for sharing this absolutely insane (and insanely well-produced) video about how post-shelling landscapes transform over a century. I’m still a Great War novice, and this genuinely makes me want to change that.

Subtitles are readily available in English for non-French speakers.

Derek Alderman added to Secretary Haaland’s Place Name Committee

In the swirl of information, news, and potential material to use in upcoming courses for the Fall semester, it’s easy for a couple of positive items to fall through the cracks. One recent announcement that made me excited to hear was that my doctoral adviser and friend, Derek Alderman, was selected by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to serve on a special committee on place naming. Derek taught me most everything I know about symbolic violence in place naming, which is still something I regularly teach about. Congrats to Derek and everyone else on the committee. I’ll post the DOI press release from August 9th below.

Derek Alderman delivers a guest lecture on Kudzu to my Cultural Geography class, Sept. 2018.

Secretary Haaland Announces Members of the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names

8/9/2022

Date: Tuesday, August 9, 2022
Contact: Interior_Press@ios.doi.gov

WASHINGTON — Today, on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the members of the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names, a federal advisory group to help identify and recommend changes to derogatory terms still in use for places throughout the country.

In November 2021, Secretary Haaland issued Secretary’s Order 3405, which proposed a new Federal Advisory Committee tasked to broadly solicit, review and recommend changes to derogatory geographic and federal land unit names. Committee tasks will include developing a process to solicit and assist with proposals to the Secretary to identify and change derogatory names and will engage with Tribes, the Native Hawaiian Community, state and local governments, and the public. A separate federal task force (the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force) was established by Secretary’s Order 3404 to focus exclusively on the sq-word, a derogatory term in use more than 650 instances within federal land units alone.

“Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage – not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression,” said Secretary Haaland. “The Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names will accelerate an important process to reconcile derogatory place names. I look forward to listening and learning from this esteemed group.”

As directed by the Secretary’s Order, the Committee is composed of individuals who represent Tribes and Tribal organizations, Native Hawaiian organizations, the general public, or have expertise in fields including civil rights, history, geography and anthropology. The Committee also includes four ex officio members representing the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Defense and Commerce. 

The Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names is composed of up to 17 members appointed by the Secretary who represent Tribes and Tribal organizations, Native Hawaiian organizations, the general public, or have expertise in fields including civil rights, history, geography, and anthropology:

  • Derek Alderman – Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee
  • Angelo Baca – Assistant Professor, Department of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences, Rhode Island School of Design (Diné/Hopi)
  • Kiana Carlson – J.D. candidate, Mitchell Hamline School of Law (Ahtna Kohtaene, Taltsiine; Native Village of Cantwell, Alaska)
  • Julie Dye – Board Member, Eliminating Racism & Creating/Celebrating Equity (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians)
  • Michael Catches Enemy – Tribal Archaeologist, Oglala Sioux Tribe Fifth Member’s Office (Oglala Sioux)
  • Donald Lee Fixico – Professor of History and Indian Studies, Arizona State University (Sac & Fox, Shawnee, Mvskoke, Seminole)
  • Christine Karpchuk-Johnson – Lecturer, Departments of Anthropology and Geography, University of Nevada Reno
  • Niniaukapealiʻi Kawaihae – Special Assistant, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands
  • Jason MacCannell – Special Assistant to the Director, California Department of Parks and Recreation
  • Kamanaʻolana Mills – Senior Supervising Project Manager, Sustainable Industry Development, Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiʻi
  • Lauren Monroe Jr. – Secretary, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council (Blackfeet Nation, Pikuni)
  • Federico Mosqueda – Coordinator of the Arapaho Language and Culture Program (Arapaho)
  • Rachel Pereira – Vice President of Equity and Inclusion at St. John’s University
  • Kimberly Probolus-Cedroni – Historian, Washington D.C
  • Howard Dale Valandra – Member, Tribal Land Enterprise Board of Directors (Rosebud Sioux Tribe)
  • Aimee Villarreal – Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Texas State University
  • Elva Yanez – Senior Advisor for Parks, Land Use, and the Built Environment at the Prevention Institute

The Committee also includes four ex officio members from the federal government. An all-of-government approach will be invaluable as this work is undertaken:

  • Charles Bowery, Executive Director, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Department of Defense
  • Meryl Harrell, Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Elizabeth (Liz) Klein, Senior Counselor to the Secretary, Department of the Interior
  • Letise LaFeir, Senior Advisor, Office of the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, Department of Commerce

Members will meet for the first time in the coming months, and approximately two to four times per year, to identify geographic names and federal land unit names that are considered derogatory and solicit proposals on replacement names. Committee meetings will be open to the public and announced in the Federal Register at least 15 days in advance. 

Arlen Gun Club – “1999”

For today’s #NotbytheClash challenge (A Song About Disliking One’s Boring Job) I chose “1999,” a song that Arlen Gun Club composed for the incredibly fun indie film Turbo Cola. In the process, I discovered that the band filmed a ’90s-style promotional tie-in music video for the track, complete on set at the mini-mart from the movie and the film’s star Nick Stoesser.

From what producer/actor Brandon Keeton told the audience at Mt. Pleasant International Film Festival screening earlier this year, the Arlen Gun Club’s involvement wound up being one of the film’s happy accidents. He and the director were in a bind, unable to afford royalties for the likes of Blink-182 or other top pop-punk acts who sound-tracked the millennial era. Fortunately, his nephew’s band from Cincinnati released some new recordings right around then, and he immediately reached out. The result breathed so much life into the film, especially “1999,” which became the movie’s opening anthem.

Either way, Arlen Gun Club are fantastic (for reasons other than their name) and have been on the road throughout the Midwest to promote their debut full-length album. Give it a listen here.