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We Find Ourselves at Our Most Distracted

That's from Drifts, Kate Zambreno's 2020 book that is marketed as a novel but isn't, feels like a memoir but isn't, and implies philosophical inquiry but isn't. Mostly it's a series of moods or textures, a mode of existing and processing experience. Nothing much happens in Drifts, and to spell out the book's events would be to undermine the whole point, which is simply creating and sustaining an atmosphere, then allowing it to interact with everyday life. Among other things. It's not abstract literature, but it functions a bit like abstract art.

I've read a decent amount of books that do more or less what Zambreno is both describing and doing in Drifts: Renata Adler's Speedboat, Olga Tokarczuk's Flights, Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, a few Rachel Cusk books, Deborah Levy, some of Robert Walser, most of W.G. Sebald. Some of these books are more voice-y than others (Walser, Tokarczuk, Adler), some are more interested in wandering the perimeter of a form of enlightenment or at least clarity that remains out of reach. For Sebald this wandering is tragic and universal and historical; for Cusk it's inevitable and, I think, practical and necessary, if inconvenient, like sitting on an airplane.

Zambreno, at least in Drifts, isn't trying to make you empathize with the struggles she catalogues. She's trying to express the way we can feel both static and under duress at the same time. Her narrator—it's Zambreno, we intuit somehow that the narrator is her as readers, but, still, her narrator—is frustrated by what she sees as her failed attempt to simply capture the experience of time in her writing. The experience of time is fundamental to how we experience our life, but most writers tend to fake it a little bit for the sake of keeping a narrative speedy.

Imagine you have a big and high-pressure project at work, and it's due in a month. That proj might hang over your head in a kind of general sense for a while. It might be big enough to affect the weather while it's up there. But you go about your daily business, doing the things you do, not doing the things you don't do. You don't constantly think about the project. You don't necessarily experience the weather system the project is creating, but in the same way that you stop thinking about the rain after a while but still get wet, the project is still doing its thing. Time moves at a normal pace, most of the time. Unless you're triaging a crisis, you don't really experience the kind of mental locomotion that conflict produces when it's narrativized. You don't verbalize your worries about the project to yourself. You don't stay in a bad mood for a month. So much of being alive is about simply surfing through moods.

This often makes writers uncomfortable. It kills narrative tension, and it suggests that revelation, and thus character development, is hard to come by. Think of a Raymond Carver story, the way it asks you to patiently examine a character as they move through the still emotional air of their life. Suddenly a gong resounds and the rose bush they've been trimming reveals itself to be A Source of Great Truth that unlocks whatever box the character's been trapped inside. Life is so rarely this way. Time is never this way.

For a while in my early 20s, I went to an evangelical church that emphasized having a personal relationship with God. That relationship was meant to be powered by rich, clear emotions—waves pounding onto rocks, sunset blooding the Grand Canyon, the sublime brimming beneath the surface of even the dullest of life pursuits. Stand in the freezer aisle and be in awe of your God, was the general vibe. Imagine what this must have been like, if you took this seriously, every moment potentially pregnant with meaning, and thus every moment ready to be read. How would you handle the mundane? Or the normal? The Bible was filled with people who hadn't paid attention to the ways God was obviously communicating with them. But it becomes exhausting moving through the world this way, wondering whether He would appear like a pop-up ad. Ignore and perish!

I'm wary of sentimentalism, because I am a very easy mark. If something makes me cry, I am convinced of its truth—theological, emotional, whatever. This is not a virtue. Though I sometimes would like it to be, because it does make things much easier. Because of that, and a million other small wounds besides, I bristle at any kind of fiction built around sudden epiphanies, or that's focused on the moral growth of the main character above all else. It always comes off as a call to self-improvement or self-help; I value both of those things, so I try to seek them out directly. In these books, the moral of the story is the point, the story itself nothing more than an argument.

Does this mean that most of the books I read are boring? Yes. It does.

There is something here that I'm having trouble getting at. The appeal of books where nothing really happens. I would like to think of this as ambient literature, because it serves a similar function as ambient music (and is vulnerable to the same downfalls). There is, however, already a project using this name that defines "ambient" in a way that suggests literature is and should be all around us. This is technically the correct definition of "ambient," but it has the opposite valence of the one I'm looking for. If I found myself surrounded by stories waiting to be read, if all the world is a series of interlocking or adjacent tales, then I'm back in the deeply enchanted world of evangelicalism.

Most manifestations of that idea died for me a long time ago. But I'm having trouble disposing of the corpses. I can't get over the wish that there would be something bigger and greater to seek out at all times. C.S. Lewis is licking his chops here: "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world," goes the quote college ministries use after one of their students reads Sartre. Lewis' explanation is not logical, but it's well stated, so it rings with a kind of aesthetic clarity that drowns out the dissonance of what it's actually saying. Strike a tuning fork, declare the whole world off key, and believe the fork is the one telling the truth.

I didn't sleep well last night. I read a bit of McKenzie Wark's Reverse Cowgirl, I read a bit of Mundial's special issue for the Euros. Then I tossed around the sheets for a few hours. Writing ideas were thrashing their way into my consciousness. "And the idea just came to me!" people sometimes say, "I don't know from where!" Delivered like a single macaron on a feather pillow. This wasn't like that; this felt like someone was spitting at me, over and over and over. These were things I'd already considered writing about being read back to me in a rapid cycle; the more and faster it spun, the more it pressed the substance out of my thoughts, the more it exposed the shallowness at the core of everything I'd wanted to spend my time thinking about. Or at least, that's what the image had me convinced of. Imagine becoming aware of your own desperation because you're being mocked for it.

Things don't simply come to me. Often. But there is always mood, and there is always texture. And I'm always alive.

Rachelle has been collecting rocks and crystals and gems for years. She keeps them in a flat file in our living room, and every couple of days, she'll ask me to pick one for her to hang out with while she works. I try not to think too hard about this and just pick whatever feels like it suits the emotional climate in our house at the time. She pulled out a blue and green kyanite the size of a grapefruit recently, and we both stared at it quietly, rotating it in the light from our living room window. Kyanite is flakey but highly structured—it shards the way celery or string cheese does, so there are usually long parallel lines that give it a pleasing ridged texture. This kyanite gleamed. One facet was the size of my palm, and held as many minor color variations. Prussian blues, yves klein blues, carolina blues, fading into a dollar greens, greenish gray, with ironized red veining through. I couldn't stop looking at it. I wanted, in a way I couldn't explain, for the stone to be part of me, or for me to be it. To just be there, undeniable, singular, without having to mean anything. Many people seek out great truths in stones, whether metaphysical truths or otherwise, which means that looking at them can be an exercise in narrativization. I've done this plenty of times. I'm trying not to. And the blue kyanite sat there, in Rachelle's hands, with nothing to say. It's not the most magnificent stone she owns. I've never enjoyed looking at one more.

Later in Drifts, Zambreno's narrator takes a train into New York City from her nameless suburb. She's reading Walser, with an intro by William Gass.

If I understand Zambreno correctly, the impulse to shrink as small as possible and write as small as possible is not the same impulse to keep oneself quiet, to pack oneself away, to resist filling the space in the world that one is afforded. It's more like letting things be. Resisting the urge to present—and thus understand—life as being primarily a journey between moments of great, or even mediocre, profundity. It's a way of keeping time, but not a way of waiting. It suggests to me that I should abolish the idea of waiting. Not because developing presence in the moment leads to greater pleasure or understanding, or has any kind of tangible benefit whatsoever, but because it is, quite simply, the present.

This sounds like a spiritual practice, or another way of saying that there is holy beauty to be found in the present. It's not. There is. But only sometimes. It's more like allowing life to be what it is, rather than trying to squeeze the sweet juice of revelation—or experience, or enjoyment, or engagement, or pleasure, or pain, or misery, or bleakness, or anything—out of every moment. This is not Bradford Cox singing "nothing ever happened to me" then punching out a three-guitar attack with his bandmates that makes you realize that nothingness is the raddest shit that can happen to a human being. Though it is true that nothingness gives us incredible opportunities to fill it with things we never knew we could create. What I mean is more like Nick Cave singing "Most of all nothing much ever really happens, and God rides high up in the ordinary sky" without even wondering whether the next line will provide a payoff.

Trans Black Metal, "Terrapin Station," Björk, and More Things That Make Me Cry

First Listens, May 2024

Hi, welcome back to Taxonomy. Thanks for opening this email. If you’re new to the newsletter, I regularly do a little post in which I reflect on records I heard for the first time in the previous month, paired with a little intro-ish essay. That’s this. It’s a longer one this month.

The Cindy Lee piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago seemed like it struck a chord with people. I came out in May 2023, and I’ve published plenty of work under this name, but this is the first thing I’ve published that directly addresses and is obviously informed by my experiences as a trans person and as a woman. It’s a nerve-wracking thing to put yourself out there in this way, for a number of reasons, so I’m very grateful for the response I got.

I started writing criticism in 2004, when I realized I could get into shows for free if I put together a review. The first show I reviewed for the now-404ed was Deftones at the House of Blues. The listing says that show was on October 10, 2004 (and that the set was heavy on Adrenaline and Around the Fur songs, which is weird considering Deftones was only a year-ish old at that point). At the time, I was deep into a burgeoning-hipster repudiation of anything I’d been attached to in my younger life (i.e., like 16 months earlier). Deftones had not yet been reinterpreted and properly presented by writers like Ian Cohen—you can go read Andrew Bryant’s 4.7 stunt review of Deftones on Pitchfork right now—but they’d managed to slip through the filters I was carefully attaching to my perception of music, bands, songs, scenes, vibes—all ways of keeping things out, rather than preserving the "purity" of what I'd let in. I remember being astounded that the crowd at HOB was mostly dudes who I understood to be frat bros, and who in retrospect were probably Madball-ish hardcore bros puffed into Affliction tees. I’d absorbed the idea that Deftones made soft, emotionally supple, breathless romantic music, and that the aggression was essentially a kind of mask, or maybe just an unsophisticated way of expressing their essential softness, a way of saying “we really meant it when we said ‘Hey you, big mood, guide me to shelter.’” Or maybe the heaviness was essentially amplification—a way of making the music swoon harder. Not for making the audience lose their collective shit or because heavy music is simply fun to listen to. In other words: It was music for people like me, not people like that. That’s how I felt about Deftones in October 2004.

Here’s how I felt about Deftones in October 2003. That month, they played Twiropa (RIP), and they were so loud they blew a cone in their massive speaker array during “Change (In the House of Flies).” The roof above the stage was low, and they had a wall of klieg lights behind them that kept the band silhouetted. I don’t remember my impressions of the crowd. Everything was a blur: the lines between people, the borders of the songs, the whole room seemed to churn in a gentle but persistent way, lurching like your shoulders at the end of a long cry. That night, Robbie and I let the crowd push us across the warehouse floor. We drifted with the flow of bodies. At the beginning of the night, we were stage right, halfway back. By the end, we were three rows from the front, extreme stage left. At some point between October 2003 and October 2004, I abandoned the ability to lose myself in a crowd, to give my body over to noise and sound, to sway and be moved. I started working the door at Twiropa shortly after, making me both an insider and a mere observer of the scene.

I wrote as a man for 19 or so years before publishing my Dead and Company odyssey with The Ringer, which was the first piece I put out as Sadie Sartini Garner. (Salute to Justin Sayles, my editor on the piece, who didn’t miss a beat on the name thing in our correspondence while I was putting it all together. One day he saw my coming-out post on twitter, the next he called me Sadie in an email without making it into a whole thing.) I’ve been thinking about Dead and Company a lot lately, in part because their run at Sphere has lit up what I thought was the dying flame of my affection for the music of the Grateful Dead. Rachelle and I had written off the idea of going to Sphere for multiple reasons, as had most of my deadhead friends, but by the end of the first set of the first night, I was texting people in two time zones to see if they wanted to put together a trip to Vegas.

I hinted at this in the Ringer piece, but in the five or so summers that I paid deep, deep attention to Dead and Company, they gave me a way back into a personalized, affect-driven relationship with music. That’s a depersonalized, affectless way of saying I cried at so many Dead shows between 2019 and 2023. In New York, in July 2022, while we were sitting behind home plate at Citi Field, the last night of a tour Rachelle and I had traveled up to the Bay and later across the country for, they played “Ramble On Rose,” I song I’ve loved for a long time, and I screamed and cried and wailed and got a rose tattooed on my leg the next day. Jonathan Williger was eight rows in front of me, I’m sure he could hear me.

I’m still not sure what moved me so profoundly in that moment—it wasn’t that good of a version—but we’d seen four shows on that tour, and listened to all the rest of it via bootlegs, and we were there thousands of miles from home for its finale, fully aware that in a few moments, we’d be nine months away from once again being in an environment capable of producing the kind of wail to which I’d given myself in that moment. The 2022 tour was the first time in ages that I’d found myself a part of a music scene that seemed to make space not only for artistry, but for a deep emotional response to that artistry and a physical expression of that response. In other words, going to Dead and Company shows made me feel the same way going to basically any kind of show made me feel in high school—the same spirit that made me skank across the House of Blues floor at an all-ages Less Than Jake show in 2002 is the same spirit that made me weep any time Dead and Company played “Terrapin Station.”

I spent a lot of time last summer and fall thinking about how my relationship with music and fandom and criticism would have been different if I’d been raised a girl. One of the things I keep coming back to is that girls are allowed to be fans—girls are expected to be fans, which is to say, merely fans. Historically, this has been one of the music press' most pernicious ways of not taking women's opinions seriously, as they’re presumed to have been derived from an emotional response to the music. It’s also meant that women’s reaction to music, the effect of pure witness, of standing in front of a band and allowing their music to do whatever it is their music is trying to do, is essentially void if you're someone who thinks they take music seriously; it is unmanly, which is to say, intellectually suspect. And if you’re a person of any gender with any self-awareness and a lack of self-definition or self-sufficiency, it's not hard to conclude that any kind of direct, immediate reaction to music shouldn’t be trusted.

There's an episode of The Adventures of Pete and Pete in which Little Pete becomes obsessed with a local quality control inspector, because the tidiness he brings to all interactions is everything his own father is not. The episode ends with the inspector eating an entire barbecue chicken, cleaning the bones perfectly, then reassembling it—which the Petes' dad knows is, simply, not the way you're supposed to eat barbecue. Cool-headed standoffishness is a reasonable modality sometimes. But sometimes you find yourself articulating a dead bird's skeleton when you should be enjoying yourself.

At some point between May 2023 and May 2024, I think something in my writing began to shift. Maybe it began a few years ago, when I stopped trying to justify or perpetuate hype as a way of inserting myself into the company of good taste. But whatever the case, I’m trying to kill the critic in my head and nurture the fan in my heart. It takes a lot longer than you’d think.

Here’s what I listened to for the first time in May 2024. If you can’t stomach more black metal, please be patient—it’s finally warm enough to wear short sleeves, which can only mean it’s nearly dub and tropicália season.

(Albums with asterisks are highly recommended.)

Hellish Form, Deathless (2023)

Willow Ryan screams and plays guitar, bass, and synth in the brutal, sludgy Body Void. Sometimes with certain kinds of slow and heavy music, the thickness and ugliness can transmute into a form of beauty. I love that kind of thing—it’s what keeps me attached to black metal and sludge and drone—and Body Void is absolutely not it. Their album Atrocity Machine was one of my faves last year, in part because it never threatens with the magisterial; you get the sense that if you closed your eyes to try and get lost in the sublimity of their music, they’d spit in your face. Hellish Form is a different project from Willow, still sludgy as hell but with a stronger goth/funeral doom vibe. What that means, functionally, is that the synths aren’t distorted, they’re kept high in the mix, there’s a clean guitar every now and then, and the music itself is very, very pretty. These are long, slow, theoretically heavy songs whose chords sustain long enough to melt into one another. It feels like the music that would play at the moment of death—it’s profoundly shaped by noise and dissonance but radiates light. At its best when it’s mixing the two, like most things.

Trhä, endlhëdëhaj qáshmëna ëlh vim innivte (2022) * (Pick of the month)

Any time you encounter a black metal artist whose name seems vaguely scandinavian, take pause. When I started listening to this music, I knew that two kinds of people played it: raging white supremacist neo-nazis and leftist trans girls. (Turns out other people play black metal, too.) Every band I got curious about, I’d nervously google “is [bandname] white supremacist” and inevitably end up on this very long, impossible-to-navigate series of posts on r/rabm (red-and-black metal) that painstakingly goes through metal band after metal band to determine whether or not they’re fascists. Some of this is helpful, some of it boils down to a kind of Six Degrees of Burzum game that can feel very tedious. Nevertheless: The name and album title here made me nervous, but turns out it’s some dude from Texas named Damien who sings in a made-up language and has been assessed as “fine” by r/rabm. If you read last month’s First Listens, you know I’m a sucker for black metal recorded at a low enough fidelity to turn the guitars into gray mush, and this album does precisely that. Damien’s got a great command of dynamics. Sometimes when atmospheric black metal bands play around with melody and tone, it all feels like textural churn, like they’re just trying to change things up. The second track here has a little jewel-box keyboard line that eventually starts to sound like a gamelan, which turns the song around and heightens the drama without resorting to vague Wagner-esque metal cliches. Damien seems genuinely melancholy, and he’s not a fascist.

Despiritualized / Toorvond, Despiritualized / Toorvond (2024)

I bought this split because I’ve never encountered a black metal album with ducks on its cover before, and to be honest with you, I wanted to encounter a black metal album with ducks on its cover.

Fuubutsushi, Meridians (2024) *

Sometimes I think Sage, Jussell, Prymek, and Shiroishi’s 2020 album Fuubutsushi is the last plainly beautiful album I’ll ever fall in love with. That record was made by remote in the middle of everything, and it felt like every Zoom birthday party I went to that year was trying (and failing) to capture the same feeling of warm joy radiating across distance. It pains me to say that I don’t listen to a ton of this kind of music anymore, but it makes me very happy to see them continue to push themselves and the idea of an avant-garde tenderness.

Björk, Drawing Restraint #9 (2005)

It is hard to listen to Björk. Not because the music is artistically challenging, though it often is, but because it demands that you get on her level. I’m not usually on Björk’s level. I’ve never heard an album of hers that I didn’t admire, but, with the exception of Vespertine, I’ve never fallen in love with one, either. I keep trying to find a way around saying something about how it reminds me of opera in that I know I will love it when I sit down with it but I also know that I’m never going to sit down with it. But I think what I really mean is that I have yet to hear a Björk record that simply makes me want to dance without making me feel a little bad about just wanting to dance. I know that’s not always her intention, but the rhythmic complexity of her music, and the way she rubs textures against one another to create a little locomotive friction, nevertheless makes me want to move my body first and my heart second, if at all. I will grant that there is likely the residue of misogyny gunking this up for me, but the obvious singles aside, this is where I always seem to find myself when I hear her. If you have a key for me, please share it.

Church Chords, elvis, he was Schlager (2024) *

You could break this album down into its component parts—and the massive guest list that includes Takako Minekawa, Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, Josh Johnson, Macie Stewart, Eric Slick, and a thousand others certainly encourages it—but, wonderfully, it doesn’t sound anything like anything those artists have done before, with the possible exception of Minekawa. The knocking drums of “Recent Mineral,” the way Genevieve Artadi’s vocal slithers over them, the shaker, the very distant ghost howls—if you approached trip-hop or Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water” the same way Stereolab approached exotica, you’d at least be in the neighborhood. I can’t believe Elvis turned out to have been schlager, though.

Alex Zhang Hungtai, Young Gods Run Free (2024) *

Ten years ago, Hungtai was a Montrealer doing David Lynch motorcycle grease post-sock-hop haunt-pop under the name Dirty Beaches ("The Lord Knows Best," absolutely, yes, what a song, now we're talking hauntological pop). Now he’s doing completely abstracted, virtually (though not literally) formless music that sometimes gets labeled jazz because there’s a sax every now and then but really feels more like a Fluxus project or, simply, minimalist noise. Young Gods Run Free is mixed extremely well; it’s technically busy music, but it sounds like it’s being staged in all four corners of an airplane hangar with the listener in the middle. There are moments of lamentation and a noir-ish vibe that does remind me of those Dirty Beaches records, and if you’re not someone who’s spent much time with abstract music it may feel a bit too chaotic for your taste. The best path in I can give you is to trust that there’s a logic to the music, follow the beat of the tambourine, and try to let it convince you that the rest of the sound is being drawn in huge arcs around its central beat. Then, once you believe that, forget it entirely.

Glitter, Pasteboard (2005)

Shoegaze-lookin-ass band name and album title.

Bratmobile, Pottymouth (1993)

One of the reasons why I stole this First Listens concept from Daniel Bromfield is because I like that it forces a kind of public honesty about where I’m coming from as a critic. It also means it can be uncomfortably humiliating when I wander into a blind spot. I have plenty of writerly understanding of riot grrrl as a scene, both politically and musically, but very little actual musical understanding—which is to say, I haven’t really put in the time with very many of those records. This isn’t the moment, but some day I’ll write about what it feels like to search for an unexperienced girlhood, and how being a 39-year-old music critic shapes who I “believe” the teenaged me would’ve been. Because it reasonably matches my values now and flatters my self image, I often think I’d’ve been deep into every one of these bands. Realistically, I would’ve probably been less uncomfortable with the artful artificiality of Garbage and would’ve listened to No Doubt even more than I already did.

The Julie Ruin, Hit Reset (2016) *

And that means that my feelings towards Kathleen Hanna, while strong, are based more in my perception of how she’s conducted herself as a public figure than in my love of her music. Years ago, Rachelle and I watched The Punk Singer, and while I was at the time more struck by the pure and deep admiration Adam Horovitz has for her, it also helped me to see that she was/is a much more interesting model of a kind of femininity than the mainstream press gave her credit for, at least at the time I was most ardently absorbing it.

Dr. John, In the Right Place (1973) *

For decades, I thought Dr. John represented every bad and half-informed New Orleans cliche at once: the yat-zat-zattin’, alligator poboy, down da bayou, strawberry daiquiri, above-ground grave, low-hanging moss, 100% authentic real deal the likes of which only Nawlins could make. And it’s true, that is the image that he projected into the world, or at least the image the rest of the world projected back to him when they heard the lil Toussaint swish and oooh! of this record’s title track. What I got wrong is that all of that stuff is great as long as you don’t believe it means anything. Spoiler alert: Authenticity is a performance, too.

Winter, ...and she’s still listening (EP) (2024) *

Out of the crop of New Wave of American Shoegaze musicians, Winter is the one I find myself returning to the most. I like a decent amount of these artists, but so much of the music they make seems to rely on gradual swells and melodic uplift that, yeah, definitely makes you feel things, which is why most of the praise and worship music they played at evangelical churches in the 00s used the same tactics. It can be easy to let the genre’s inherent characteristics—including the longing and nostalgia that was implied in the original shoegaze bands’ records, and the longing and nostalgia that invoking them now can provoke in people my age and older—do all the heavy lifting. Winter’s music is more artfully constructed and emotionally present, and probably closer to dream-pop than shoegaze anyway. Her 2022 album What Kind of Blue Are You? was stately and poised (listen to how elegantly she bounces the lead guitar line off of the beat in “wish I knew”), but on this new EP she’s taking a few more risks—there’s candy-colored trip-hop, a song that reminds me of ML Buch, Visions-era Grimes, and George Clanton in equal measure, and another that sounds like an acoustic bedroom-emo version of Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby” that explodes into breathy “Fire Eye’d Boy” love rock.

Crumb, Jinx (2019)

I like it when it reminds me of The Cardigans, get nervous when it plays with the backbeat/electric piano combo that now signifies low-stakes young-adult jazz, and try to justify the difference between those two things to myself for the rest of the album.

Hysterical Love Project, Lashes (2023) *

It’s fun, sometimes, to be forced to reckon with how much rock criticism shaped my understanding of what “good” and “bad” music was at a very young age. Why did I not like Portishead? It’s too late to be 14 and listening to “Sour Times,” but it’s actually a perfect time to be 39 and listening to Lashes, an album that sounds more like Garbage drained of their technicolor, really, but nevertheless makes me feel the way Portishead does: like heartbreak is a way of looking at the world that has little to do with your relationship status.

Cornelius, Ethereal Essence (2024) *

A decade or so ago, Keigo Oyamada played the Hollywood Bowl as part of Yellow Magic Orchestra's backing band. (The night also included Towa Tei, Buffalo Daughter, and a reunited Cibo Matto, plus an appearance from Yoko Ono.) If 1997's Fantasma brought the globetrotting polyglot vibes of YMO's Haruomi Hosono into The Beastie Boys' Nineties, Cornelius' last few records have felt far more influenced by YMO's Ryuichi Sakamoto. Like last year's Dream in Dream and much of 2017's magnificent Mellow Waves, Ethereal Essence bubbles along on layered modular synth tones that have been tuned toward a kind of sighing nostalgia—not bittersweet, just noting the effects of the passage of time. This one's almost entirely instrumental, and includes a cover of Sakamoto's "Thatness and Thereness"; listen to the Sakamoto original and you'll get a feel for how much of the Cornelius record sounds. I'm not sure what to make of the bullying allegations that got Oyamada fired from the Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony team, which is not an equivocation—I'm genuinely uncertain how to or what I think about the whole thing.

Lust Hag, Lust Hag (2024) *

Oftentimes, black metal artists are praised for the ways their music departs from the genre’s conventions, as if the best thing a black metal record can do is not be black metal. It’s easier to write about exceptions than it is to qualify norms, especially norms that are executed at a high level. This is probably why so many metal writers (including myself) resort to digging up the most fetid adjectives we can find in hopes of conveying why this particular brutality works for me. I can’t give you a why here, at least not an easily translatable one, other than: This is very, very, very well-executed blackened death metal. The songs are built patiently and destroyed quickly, rhythms are chopped into being then abandoned for the sake of sludge, and it's all exceptionally dynamic without steering too far away from black metal and death metal in a substantial way. The songs imply a largeness that never feels cosmic or spectral, just viciously human. None of this is revolutionary. People tend to privilege the creation of new forms over the perfection of existing ones, which is reasonable: Praising a post-punk album for its fidelity to Gang of Four can make you feel like a rockabilly babe doing up her Bettie Page cut before the Reverend Horton Heat show, i.e. hopelessly devoted to a scene that is functionally inanimate. But there’s something beautiful about being able to work within an inherited form and find new ways of expression within it. Most trans women who play black metal tend to approach it from a skewed angle. This makes sense to me—when a style of music is perceived to be as masculine as metal tends to be, and you’re trying to drain every drop of testosterone from your body, it’s counterproductive not to find ways around that masculinity. This is part of what made me fall in love with black metal years before I even began to wonder about my gender, and it’s what powers some of my favorite artists. Lust Hag’s Eleanor Harper will throw in a spare keyboard melody that might be read as girly in another context, and she’s not afraid to play around with a little cutesy imagery on her album covers, but it all stays subservient to the primary goal, which is making an album so good, so heavy, so powerful it’s completely undeniable. She’s playing by the rules that were set down decades ago by boys in Norway and Tampa, rules that have been tied up in and definitive of various forms of masculinity ever since, and she’s using them to hail “the beautiful pissed-off princess in us all.” What else can I say? It works for me.

Ace Frehley, Ace Frehley (1978)

Not much I can say here that hasn't been said already.


I decided it's in your best interest if you watch the 1993 version of "Institutionalized," which features Bobcat Goldthwait, Taylor Negron, Larry Miller, Barney, a fake Ray Charles, and so on.

Who's that lady?

Peering through Cindy Lee's "Diamond Jubilee"

A month or two ago, a reasonably underground artist by the name of Cindy Lee put out a new album called Diamond Jubilee. There was not necessarily a lot of hype ahead of this album’s release; I might have been vaguely aware of previous Cindy Lee records but was pretty sure it was the name of a half-polished up-and-coming singer-songwriter in the vein of, oh, Mitski, I suppose. Those records were actually released by Patrick Flegel, formerly of the Calgary punk band Women, who I remember mostly for their having broken up after an on-stage intra-band fist fight. What I didn’t know is that years later, Matt Flegel—Patrick’s brother and bandmate—told BBC 6 the fight had been between Patrick and the other men in Women. This is a deliriously loaded image, of course.

(Patrick) Flegel posted Diamond Jubilee as a free download on their bootleg Geocities page, with a pay-what-you-want suggested donation of $30 CAD, sent via Paypal to a Proton email address. They also listed the entire 32-song, two-hour album as one long, unbroken Youtube video. It’s not streaming anywhere else; technically speaking, it’s not for sale anywhere. It would be easy, I guess, to think of this as some canny attention-getting scheme, but, at least until April, Cindy Lee wasn’t well known enough for an apophatic marketing strategy to work. "I think everyone should take their music off streaming platforms," they said in an interview last year. "Not even strike, just take it off." Diamond Jubilee's unusual release doesn't scan as protest against abysmal streaming rates and the bloated mechanisms of even the indie music industry, if we still want to call it that. It seems more like a method of retaining control and ownership, and the product of an unwillingness to give oneself away—not a strike, just another way of doing things. 

It didn’t really work. Diamond Jubliee was released on March 29. Less than a week later, it was being passed around rapidly; two people whose taste and good sense I trust texted me the Youtube link within a day of one another. A week or so after that, Pitchfork ran Andy Cush’s glowing, deeply felt, and penetrating review of the album, which posted with a 9.1 score, the highest of any record since Fiona Apple’s 10 in 2020, and the highest by a non-major-label artist since Yves Tumor’s 9.1 in 2018 (don’t quote me on the latter). Coming as it did in the long wake of Pitchfork’s winter layoffs and absorption into GQ, Diamond Jubilee was received as a throwback to an era in which a Pitchfork review could break a band (something that never stopped being true but did stop being remarkable). Andy’s review led to a whole bunch of writing, some good, some boring, all of it as wrapped up in the narrative Flegel had tried very hard not to write. “Cindy Lee Might Be The Future of Music” (the future of music!) GQ butted in

It seemed to me like a very strange reaction for music that sounds the way Diamond Jubilee sounds, which is: like a lot of respectably (but not breathlessly) reviewed indie rock albums of the past few decades. For as long as I’ve been paying attention to underground music, there’s been a fetish for records that sound like they were made on mid-level gear in the mid-60s, sometime between Beatles for Sale and Help! If you grew up paying attention to indie rock, a lot of Diamond Jubilee sounds familiar: girly harmonies, a heavily atmospheric soundstage that seems to have been covered with a plastic bag, minimal drumming, McCartneyish bass kept high in the mix, crinkling guitars, reverb thick enough to inhale. Occasionally, Flegel sings like Marc Bolan stuck in the bottom of a well and plays like the rest of T. Rex feeding their fey glam through an Apple IIe. There are long tone exercises that slowly coalesce into softly twirling ballads. It sounds like it could have come out at any point in the 21st century, despite the ways it both invokes and evokes music that was made in the middle of the 20th. If you’ve read anything about this album, and I assume you have, you’ve heard it called “hypnagogic pop,” named for the liminal state between sleep and waking life that was most famously practiced by Tucker Carlson guest Ariel Pink. 

The other thing you’ve probably read is that Cindy Lee is Flegel’s “drag persona.” This appears to be language they’ve used to describe it, and while I support their right to self-identify, I have to confess that I don’t understand the use of the term here. On stage, Flegel is, respectfully, gorgeous. They know how to wear a shiny go-go dress, they can whisk a perfect cat-eye, they look at ease and peaceful in a fur coat. There is none of the exaggeration and bombast we associate with drag; Flegel presents Cindy Lee as a femme of high taste, which means their beauty is present and obvious and a shade past natural, the same way most beautiful women present themselves. The writer Stephanie Brown, taking a note from Judith Butler’s very famous argument that gender is a performance, suggests that women who enact femininity are actively producing their gender in a way that masculine men are not. Masculinity, she writes, is “coterminous with the male anatomical body,” meaning simply that a dude doesn’t really have to do anything to look like an acceptable dude. Conversely, you can’t simply be feminine. A man who lets himself go will naturally grow a beard; he’ll become more manly. A woman who lets herself go will grow hair on her legs and under her arms and maybe on her upper lip; she’ll become more manly. When women do the things that make them appear feminine, and thus "normal" for their gender—plucking eyebrows, carefully applying mascara, sticking with a skincare routine, pairing a necklace to a purse, wearing clothes that make you feel good but won’t get you sent home from work—they are producing femininity. Drag, Brown writes, is “overproduction," a surplus whose presence reminds us that being a woman means the face you present to the world is not your natural self. Which is really true of everyone, regardless of gender. This is why drag terrifies people. 

So what is Flegel overproducing? Cindy Lee, as a project, is inseparable from glamor. There is the glamor of Flegel’s stage clothing—the vintage dresses, the careful makeup, the beehive. And there is the glamor we project from the present onto the music of the past they're often working with—the way we tend to think of the world as it’s presented in the music of The Ronettes (as opposed to what we know about Ronnie Spector’s actual life). Thanks to the patina of its production, Diamond Jubilee sometimes sounds like it’s coming to us from down the hallway, like it's being played in an older sister’s bedroom. Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds wrote frequently about the idea of hauntological music, artists whose work was mired in a projected, non-existent past. Cindy Lee's music very much qualifies, but it's not only lost in time. It's lost in space, as well, stuck somewhere between indie rock's retro visions of mid-century pop and the genuine article. And it's lost in the gaps between an idealized version of femininity and the reality of being a woman or femme or in some way feminine.

Accordingly, Diamond Jubilee is an album of middle distances. Everything feels just out of reach—not just beauty or womanhood, but ordered time. Listen to the end of "Dreams of You," how the triumphant march of cello and guitar seems to lose track of the present and stray momentarily off course. Flegel never seems to be standing near the listener, and even when their voice is tracked a bit more cleanly, their steely delivery creates an emotional distance. When I listen to Diamond Jubilee, Flegel feels no nearer to me than Norma-Jean Wofford does when I watch her shimmy along to the Bo Diddley beat in 1965, chunking her rhythm guitar without missing a step. If the album is hauntological, we're only ever seeing Cindy Lee through a web of ghosts.

With distance comes ambiguity. Sometimes, when I listen to Diamond Jubilee, it sounds to me like James Brown has stepped aside to let Lyn Collins sing “The Boss.” At other times, the same moment sounds like Danger Mouse—inert, bland, retro to the point of cliché. Sometimes the same moment sounds like Clinic, a mash of time and space and reverb. Listening to music is about so many things—history, thought, novelty, literature—but it’s mostly about vibes. For me, the view changes, but the vibe through which I see it stays the same. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard music that makes me feel precisely the way Diamond Jubilee does. It reminds me of the memory of a thousand albums that were made to convince people to sashay, none of which I can identify for you. It’s an album that was made for women drifting in shimmering miniskirts and men who keep saying "I can't quite put my finger on it."

Most of the hypnagogic pop and vaporwave artists of the last decade were playing with the frissons of nostalgia, or were using the genre’s aesthetic structure to support an otherwise-cumbersome love of unfashionable styles. Their visions of the past were essentially innocent and welcoming, presented as a refuge from the modern day and an embrace of a kind of knowing naïveté that gave the listener permission to wander the ’80s mall of the soul. It felt good. And it was supposed to. The sinister undercurrent in that music was a projection back from the present, where we’re all too familiar with the rot on the other side of the zanily patterned wall. 

What Flegel is doing with Cindy Lee is more radical. They’re spinning up the vision of beauty and luxury and sophistication that every feminist since Betty Friedan and everyone else since Mad Men has known was built on bullshit, and they’re bringing it just close enough to show it off while keeping it completely out of reach. Diamond Jubilee knows that the past isn’t innocent, and it knows that the images that past shoots off still have the power to compel anyway. It presents a world that never existed but is undeniably alluring. It invokes an image of femininity that it knows it can’t reach, because nobody else has, either. If Flegel presented themself as simply a trans woman, the project would lose its dramatic tension. We would receive her as a retro-ish gal using the cold-soul smirk of Lana Del Rey’s 20th century to haunt the speed-vixen cheek of Amy Winehouse’s 20th century. By framing the project as drag, though, Flegel creates more distance, which in turn deepens the illusion. You know things aren’t what they seem. But you don’t care, do you? 

It's difficult to admit that you desire beauty. It's more difficult to imagine it for yourself. It's magical to have a vision in your head of what you might become if you were ever to get it. But it's impossible to forget the effects of your own history, even as you unlearn them.

I’ve kept my distance long enough. When I listen to Diamond Jubilee, I feel at ease with being a trans woman in a way that I usually don’t. Typically, I am haunted by the idea that, no matter how my transition develops, and no matter who I become, I will always have the 37 years I lived as a man somewhere within me. And I wonder if that means that I’ll never feel at home. A doctor told me that as I feminize my voice, it will never actually change and become fully natural. It will feel like speaking a second language fluently. I’m conscious of the fact that people who emigrate to a country and learn a new language sometimes forget how to speak the old one. But they’re still aware that they once spoke it, and that it came to them effortlessly. 

The scrim through which we see Diamond Jubilee, the deep distance that increases the displaced, haunted feeling of the album, is also simply what dysphoria feels like to me. Natural, fluent womanhood being spoken in an adjacent room with no door. I don’t know if Flegel experiences dysphoria—I don’t know if they even consider themself trans, and not all trans people go through dysphoria anyway—but when I sit with the album’s simultaneous existential heartbreak and willingness to sway pleasantly through that heartbreak, I feel not necessarily empowered or inspired or like I’ll make it through to the other side, but instead like the entire experience might be something more like a dream. I feel like I can lie down and let my breath slow in the space between the reality of myself today and the beautiful vision of who I might become.

Italo Calvino writes, “If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint light in the distance.” “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire,” Rebecca Solnit answers. Then she wonders “if you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed.” 

Being transgender means being in a between state whose borders you never really reach. I will always dance with a person whose face I can’t quite see. 

I didn't like Diamond Jubilee for a while. Over the last decade, I’ve become tired of the idealization of the 1960s, of girl groups, of Brian Wilson, of garage bands, of feedback, of little false starts, of glory days. I am tired of watching people hunt for the many little moments that are meant to signify a song or an artist’s authenticity, and thus their own. It’s never been clear to me how the belief in a moment in which music was purer, or realer, is any different from a belief in a time when American life was purer, or simpler. 

But chasing my own delusions has brought me closer to myself. They aren’t rooted in the same things, but they perform the same function. I am constantly in search of a lost record from the 1990s, something loud but melodic, edgy but playful, cute but serious, girlish and powerful. I tell myself that if I can find that record and play it enough, it will coax from within me a secret clove-smoking woman who went to Lollapalooza in 1994. I have played so many records that meet this description. It’s still 2024, and I still didn’t see Velocity Girl in high school. I usually don’t know that it’s unrealistic to expect myself to have had experiences it is impossible for me to have had.

It took me a long time to find a way in to Diamond Jubilee. It unnerved me. It still does. Flegel’s voice sometimes stretches into a Maybelle Carter hoot, and sometimes it coos. I hear some affectless male post-punk singing every now and then. Mostly it sits somewhere between male and female, which is where it sounds richest and most natural. Flegel’s voice is the clearest articulation we have of Cindy Lee, the closest we get to experiencing Cindy Lee as a real person. The portrait is still blurry. But what I could see was disconcerting—it is still disconcerting—it is becoming a pleasure to be disconcerted—by how poised Cindy Lee is in this transitional world. They seem perfectly composed.

Merci beaucoup to Jeremy for asking me to write abt this record and asking kind and thoughtful questions about my experience. Merci beaucoup to Nate for also sending me the album and listening to me talk about being a trans music critic.

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Unreal punch and power, Labelle stripping out the Toussaint tempo, leaving New Orleans behind and pushing into hard big-city funk.


I Am Doll Parts

April 2024 First Listens

Hiya, welcome back to Taxonomy. Thank you for your indulgence.

This weekend, Rachelle and I saw Mannequin Pussy and Soul Glo at the Fonda in Hollywood. Mannequin Pussy’s I Got Heaven is one of my favorite indie rock records in a long time; the last time I felt this energized by a band (both on record and on stage) was Parquet Courts ca. 2012-14, when Light Up Gold and Sunbathing Animal and a dozen Chicago shows made it feel like they were the only people in the scene who were even trying to take being alive and making music seriously. (This is the myopia of love, I know that, and it's mysterious.)

When I reviewed I Got Heaven a couple of months ago, I was thinking constantly about Hole’s Live Through This. Like that album, it’s stridently feminine music that snarls and defies without posturing; neither record feels like it could’ve been made by a man. Both almost feel as though they exist in a world where men don’t, where women are the ones who invented and own and maintain punk. Almost. Missy Dabice, prowling around on the stage in a gorgeous white dress with a flower trim on the neckline, screaming into her mic, breathily teasing the audience between songs—on I Got Heaven she’s always fully herself and fully conscious of what it means to be herself, to be a woman singing about being a woman, and on stage she plays up both parts, the immense self-belief and the immensity of the forces that dedicated to snuffing out that belief. She never flinches. I told some friends the day after the show that seeing Mannequin Pussy right now, on this tour, is what I imagine seeing Hole in 1994 must have felt like, only if Courtney had channeled her artistry into belief instead of grief. There’s plenty of power in both.

At the risk of reducing them to a parenthetical, Soul Glo is brilliant at a level that’s genuinely difficult to describe. I knew they were a great hardcore band, I’m not sure that I expected them to be so good as a noise band. They string together long, dissonant passages, then thread them through an incredibly thick set of hardcore songs; the noise never really abates, it just coheres with form for a minute or two at a time and becomes part of the order. Pierce Jordan always sings like he shouldn't have to say the things that he's saying—the speed of his vocals often obscures the words themselves but it also makes clear his own frustration at having to not only has to go through everything a Black man has to go through in the US, but that because of the music he likes and the general shape of power, he has to explain it all to (and for the entertainment of) the very same kinds of white people who keep him down. When he pounded out a beat on a drum pad and shook his ass at the front of the stage, to the delight of the entire house, it wasn't clear to me whether he was being bitterly ironic or just having a good time; I'm guessing part of being in Soul Glo is doing both at the same time.

It's hard to imagine a better pairing of bands right now. The Fonda was packed to its 1000-person cap, and Soul Glo used the crammed feeling to make it feel like they were playing to 100 or so people in a small room. Mannequin Pussy felt like they were playing to 5000. Truly, it was a great day for a concert.

Thanks for hanging with me. April's First Listens are below. Hope you like (reading about) black metal!

Sam Wilkes & Sam Gendel, The Doober (2024)

When The Two Sams put out their first joint record in 2018, Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar, the wispy, tentative way it welcomed you into a cozy form of DIY jazz was incredibly comforting to me. It’s no stretch to say that that album, and particularly Sam W’s first solo album WILKES, shifted my priorities as a listener at a time when I was very burnt out from relentlessly following the release schedule and frustrated by what I perceived as the narrowness of what I could spend my time listening to as a mag editor. Those two records gave me a place to catch my breath and helped me to find a path out of website-core and toward everything I’ve wandered through in the years since. I’ll always be grateful to both of them for that.

Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks (2013)*

If I’d been paying attention to NIN in 2013, the tiny Din EngSchrift type and the Russell Mills artwork would have instantly turned me off of this album. In 2024, though, it feels like you can read Hesitation Marks’ dubbing of the Downward Spiral cover (and the uneasy imagery of the title) as a commentary on the idea of a “return to form” record. Considering how good Hesitation Marks is, it seems like Trent must have known that would be how the album would be received and chose to fuck around with the whole concept. Which is a shame, because Hesitation Marks doesn’t really return to the muddy chaos of The Downward Spiral or the thin-production/thin-skin EBM of Pretty Hate Machine so much as it reflects on both from a place of artistic wisdom. The synths are grainy and minimal, the songs are tight and well-structured. It’s a great record that stands on its own and didn’t really need to play around with NIN history to prove it. Kinda feels like dad looking at his high-school class photos despite being in better shape now.

Nine Inch Nails, Add Violence (2017)

Our (parked) car was totaled this month, and I spent the week after it in a fog. I know I listened to this on the way to work like two days later. I have no memory of what it sounded like.

Nine Inch Nails, With Teeth (2005)

At the time it came out, I was so far past NIN as a concept and so deep into what I understood as the advanced refinement and heightened artistry (which is to say sublimated coolness) of indie rock that I couldn’t have let myself hear this properly even if I’d wanted to. I did see NIN at the miniature version of Voodoo Fest they put on at The Fly a couple of months after Katrina, and I remember thinking “The Hand That Feeds” sounded like Trent’s attempt to do something current and poppy and that it sounded like The Bravery (who also played that day, insultingly). I still think it sounds like his attempt to either get a radio hit or a spot playing McCarren Park Pool, but it sounds way more like TV on the Radio than I was aware of at the time. I could’ve liked it!!

Plastikman, Musik (1994)*

My encounter with Hesitation Marks sent me back to Liars’ Wixiw, an all-time favorite that came out in 2012 and in retrospect is obviously a massive influence on Hesitation Marks. There’s not a ton going on in that music most of the time: the synths make small statements, the buzzsaw teeth are tiny, there’s a lot of space left over for atmosphere. I interviewed Liars when that album came out, and in addition to them telling me how much they loved the Clippers, they made it super clear that they were embarrassed to have never made electronic music despite being signed to Mute Records. “Totally,” I probably said. Anyway, in a belated effort to understand the context of Wixiw, I read a ton of interviews with Liars conducted by people with more curious sensibilities than I had in 2012 and came across Musik that way. Guess what? It sounds like Wixiw. It’s great.

Oren Ambarchi/Johan Berthling/Andreas Werliin, Ghosted II (2024)*

Like shaking a velvet bag of emeralds.

Gast del Sol, We Have Dozens of Titles (2024)

A strong, surprisingly even collection of unreleased work from the experimental-ish Chicago supergroup. Look at that lineup: David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait), Bundy K. Brown (played in Tortoise, recorded Chicago Underground Trio and others), John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, recorded half of the great records released between 1994 and 2005), Jim O’Rourke (mixed the other half, played in Sonic Youth and Wilco and Stereolab, is Jim O’Rourke). (Let’s listen to the Jim O’Rourke version of “Fast Car” now.)

Genital Shame, Gathering My Wits EP (2023)*

I’m sure the logline for this EP was “black metal meets midwestern emo,” but in my day we simply called the latter indie rock and we moved on. There’s some lovely parking-lot chorale vocals here, as well as detuned and deflating avant-jazz guitar, but its core is terribly affecting black metal whose synths and perversely—almost showily—minimal drum programming defangs the tremolo picking and basically makes the scariness feel hollow and impotent. (That’s a compliment.)

Culturist, Overdose at a Dungeon Rave EP (2024)

Black metal and acid house are both bootleg-cassette genres. The warm scrim of tape, which in theory distances the listener from the music, serves to make it sound bigger, like you’re experiencing room ambience in a way that higher-fi recordings don’t give you. It’s like how you always look taller in a low-ceilinged room. I’m not sure that they fit together perfectly (I’m not even sure if this is acid house, properly considered, or black metal for that matter), but this is a fun idea and it’s always fun to fuck around with black metal conventions, and to listen to acid house in any context.

knights of rain, the witch’s garden stays hidden (2023)*

Faint antifascist black metal that’s mixed with the noise very low and a pretty, clean guitar as the prominent sound. Something closer to ambient music and more purely beautiful, with the blast beat drumming sounding closer to taps than actual drumming. Very beautiful.

Wolves of Desor, Lost Kingdom of the Giants EP (2023)

Intensely lo-fi black metal. It sound like a tape that was recorded on someone else’s boombox and left in a very cold compost pile until the spring thaw.

Within Thy Wounds, Into the Forest of Iniquity (2020)

Stirring and beautiful black metal/blackgaze from the Pac NW, feels as webby and foggy and verdant as the forests near the base of Mt. Hood. In case the name didn’t tip you off, they’re a Christian black metal band, and while I get that that is confusing and upsetting to some people, it strikes me as just as radical a mutation of the music as trans black metal; both are equally likely to upset Varg Vikernes, and to me, that’s just great.

Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile Deviations 1 (2017)

“1”? This is a 4xLP instrumental deconstruction of an album that was already like two hours long. They plan on putting out more of this? Even as a fan of The Fragile, I found it profoundly inessential, but it is intellectually interesting, I will grant, to try and turn a big-budget double album that was made for the radio into an art object. It’s too atmospheric to work as sweeping electronic post-rock, too structured to work as ambient music, and too familiar to stand on its own outside of the frame of the original album. I’m glad it exists, I just don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense.

Nine Inch Nails, “The Perfect Drug” Versions (1997)

The combination of genuinely original artistic vision and cultural ubiquity makes it easy to think you completely understand a band or an artist without having to investigate them any further; you get the general idea and, if it doesn’t seem like your thing, that’s probably enough. This is one of the effects of canonization, I think, and it’s part of why I ignored the Grateful Dead for so long. That reducibility means you’re dealing in stereotypes (of both the music and its fans), and the further from mainstream aesthetic values that music is, the more it feels like a gimmick; if it were truly that far a departure from radio rock, I guess, it wouldn’t have been nearly as popular. So it’s always thrilling to realize that a RNRHOF-level band you’d pigeonholed on cultural grounds (i.e., you know what type of person likes them, you know that person couldn’t ever be you, therefore you understand the music and know it’s not for you) is both way more complicated and way easier to love than you thought. And by the time you end up becoming the type of person who, actually, would love that band, you don’t really care about the cultural connotations. This is known as “liking things.”

Autechre, Incunabula (1993)

I think this was a further effect of Hesitation Marks/Wixiw. I’m not sure there’s a group I’ve spent more time listening to in the last five years that I have thought about less than Autechre, who I know are terribly important and whose music never seems to hold on to me. I could never be someone who likes Autechre!

Lycopolis, The Procession (2021)

Egyptian black metal is such a rich idea. Just as the Norwegians had their whole pre-Christian norse god thing to exploit, Egyptian musicians can pull from a very dense cultural cosmology—and not risk white supremacy in the process!

[Ahmed], Wood Blues (2024)

Free-jazz take on bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s “Oud Blues.” If you’d never heard jazz before, but had read about it, and then you imagined what it would be like if the jazz in your head was played on a loop until it began to lose its grip on itself like when you repeat a word too many times, and then you snipped out all the early loops so you were just stuck with that repetition-drunk take, it might sound like this.

ZZ Top, Eliminator (1983)

Not just the inspiration for “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”

Loveliescrushing, Xuvetyn (1996)*

There’s a song on here called “Staticburst” and another called “Milkysoft.” Play them at the same time, and that’s what the whole album sounds like.

Jesu, jesu (2004)

Ca. 2004 bands like Jesu and Mono were everywhere, the world was full of metal dudes trying to figure out how to make pretty music without sacrificing the edge; Jesu did it by distorting the bass, hammering the beat, and writing actual melodies. Deafheaven would flip the idea a decade or so later, rapid-etching howls and shrieks atop plainly beautiful guitar swells.

Curve, Doppelgänger (1992)*

As someone whose musical values were formed by American indie and alt rock of the 90s, I’m always taken aback by how profoundly dance music influenced British music of the same period. How different would things have been if Curve had been as big here as they were in the UK? Would our heads feel more connected to our bodies? Would Calvin Klein ads have been criticized for glamorizing ecstasy chic? Would the sarcasm of The Dismemberment Plan’s “Do the Standing Still” have been directed at the square listener instead of the stoic audience? And so on. RIYL the first Garbage album, which, come to think of it, was a massive smash and didn’t make any of the above happen.

Thou, Umbilical (2024)*

Twenty years ago, 225 Magazine said the three most interesting artists in Baton Rouge Louisiana were: Lil Boosie, Terror of the Sea, and Thou. Boosie went on to become one of LSU football’s unofficial hypemen and say horribly homophobic things, the latter leading Mike Tyson to suggest Boosie might be gay. Terror of the Sea made one phenomenal EP of noisy, bubbly indie rock before atomizing and if they ever came back would probably sound like the Grateful Dead with a punk drummer (i.e., the Minutemen). And Thou became one of the greatest sludge-metal bands in history. I really love the way Thou’s records sound—there’s a clarity to the recording that’s missing from e.g. Eyehategod, and, because they typically all pull in the same direction, it makes their pummeling feel professional and highly efficient. Imagine if the devil didn’t fuck about and really got on his game. Scary stuff.

Bowery Electric, Bowery Electric (1995)*

A giant glittering cave with mold growing on distant walls.

Cloakroom, Time Well (2017)

I recognize that a big part of the appeal of bands like Cloakroom and Greet Death is how they draw together and contrast heavy, thick, dissonant, beautiful music with sincere acoustic songwriting. I’m not sure if the idea is to show how beneath all the noise lives a brittle expression of individual frailty, or vice versa, but to me it always demonstrates the insufficiency of words and melody to convey ineffable sadness. I don’t know if I really believe that; I’ve been moved beyond language by language plenty of times. But when these two methods are placed side by side so conspicuously, the idea of bringing the music’s emotions down to a human level makes it feel too precious to me. I like Cloakroom—Dissolution Wave is a great record—and suspect most of Time Well will grow on me. But acoustic music played alongside or as if it is shoegaze (slowly, languidly, with so much left up to implication but without anything floating in the atmosphere onto which one might project those implications) sometimes feels hollow to me. Neil Young was able to make this kind of thing work on Live Rust in part by letting himself have a good time with his bros, but also by not letting the slow burn of the electric “Cortez the Killer” inform his approach to “I Am A Child.“ They’re both great songs, but the hot haze of “Cortez”’s long, sustained chords carries so much more tragedy than any acoustic version ever could. There’s a form of power inherent in heavy music that suggests the ability to feel or be full (in the emotional sense) despite feeling awful, as if the pain can’t diminish the person who’s experiencing it. I’m not totally sure what I mean by “the person” there—whether a person’s spirit or will or sense of self or the simple fact of their existence. Because certainly the world and the people in it have the ability to wear a person away until nothing is left, and music should be made from that pencil-light place, too. Still: Heavy, slow, beautiful music suggests self-containment in the face of greater powerlessness, or at least it does to me today. It feels like an expression of love, to carry oneself aloft despite one’s own fragility.

Medium Rare

On the bard of the Gulf Coast. Plus, Things I Would Have Tweeted.

Hey, welcome back to Taxonomy. We’re having fun. Today I’ve got a little scene report on Keep the Party Going, a truly star-studded tribute to Jimmy Buffett at the Bowl. Plus, the first installment of Things I Would Have Tweeted. ✌️🥥🌴🍹

Jimmy Buffett in the 70's

Jimmy Buffett invented a type of guy. You might know him as Matthew McConaughey. Blond, ruggedly handsome, chill nearly to the point of parody, strong opinions on weak beer. The Buffett look of the mid-1970s—bushy mustache, hair peaking in a few different directions, Hawaiian shirt, sailor cap—has never stopped being A Look, but what the bros who pack the Flora-Bama miss about his whole vibe is the essential kindness at the center of it. His desire to get out and have fun never seemed to mask aggression. He was always ready to turn the party up, but no matter how far out things got, he never seemed to have lost touch with the people who ventured with him. 

I took my mom to her first Hollywood Bowl concert last night, the extremely star-studded tribute to Buffett, who passed away last year from skin cancer. My parents took me to see Buffett a few times in the early ’90s—I want to say once at the rickety Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans’ City Park on a death-humid summer afternoon—and it felt like a nice full-circle, almost valedictory moment. Other than peacocking my love of “A Pirate Looks at Forty” in a kind of demonstration of how open-minded I am, I’ve not engaged with his music in a very long time. But as I watched a po-faced Zac Brown singerize his way through a new tribute song called “Pirates and Parrots,” and a sunglasses-wearing Eric Church pinch “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” I thought about how the thing that makes Buffett’s music work so well was his inherent trust in his songs. As is befitting of a man who made a billion dollars on margaritas and PTO, he didn’t feel the need to work the songs too hard. He assumed they were strong enough—and that you were aware enough—for their  power to come through on their own. That doesn’t mean you have to like them, but it does make them more emotionally available than their reputation probably suggests.

The Bowl has done these tributes before—Bob Weir sang a phenomenal “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” at last year’s Willie Nelson party—but this was my first one, and I think the first truly HOLLYWOOD event I’ve been to in seven years of living in L.A. County. I wasn’t surprised by the number of celebs who either performed, spoke, or appeared via video, but I was touched by how deeply and sincerely they seemed to have loved him. The more stories they told, the clearer it became to me that Buffett was simply a dude from the Gulf Coast who became extraordinarily rich and famous but never lost touch with his essential Gulf Coastiness. Growing up in Louisiana, I met dozens of men like Jimmy Buffett; it’s just that none of them could get Paul McCartney to play “Let It Be” at their deathbed. 

A few more thoughts/observations/reports about this very strange concert, as well as a list of people who popped up:

  • Kenny Chesney. Man still wears the heavily creased baseball cap. I’ve never seen this dude’s forehead.
  • Woody Harrelson. In a pair of coke-white bell-bottoms wide enough to carry a dolphin in each leg, the man from Midland drawled a bit about how great the Gulf Coast is (he’s right and he should say it). Claimed to have smoked a J with Buffett on the roof of the Vatican, which is, of course, a variation on the actually-true story of Willie Nelson having smoked a J on the roof of the White House while Carter was president. “Jimmy invented a genre,” he said, correctly. “And a chain restaurant. And a resort. And an old-folks home.”
  • Harrison Ford. Once got his ear pierced because he saw Jimmy had done his. He was 40! 
  • Angélique Kidjo. I screamed. A shocking one for me. She was predictably great, probably the best performance on the night. I’ve now seen her sing Philip Glass’ interpretation of David Bowie’s Lodger and her own version of Buffett’s “One Particular Harbor.” I love you, Angélique.
  • Zac Brown. Really, honestly, a great voice. I don’t nec love what he does with it, but I’m willing to hear him try.
  • Pat Riley. That’s right, former L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat coach Pat Riley. He told a story about Buffett getting kicked out of a Heat game for yelling at the ref. Riley says the ref told him Buffett had called him a parrothead (Riley: “That’s not an insult, that’s a compliment!”), which seems unlikely. Why would Jimmy Buffett tell a referee that he, the referee, was a fan of Buffett’s music? Anyway everyone in the crowd, every single person, in unison, said “Pat Riley??” when his name came on the big screen.
  • Timothy B. Schmit. Of the Eagles, Poco, and Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. He was apparently the first person ever to call Buffett’s fans “parrotheads.” Nice to see etymology done in real time. Sang “Volcano” and made a meal out of changing one line to “Don’t want to go to Mar-A-Lago.”
  • Jane Fonda, immediately next. Claimed she was actually the person to smoke a bowl with Jimmy at the Vatican. More believable imo.
  • Brandi Carlile. Jimmy Buffett loved that he had a friend who was a lesbian whose primary fanbase was lesbians. Apparently he would use their friendship to secure access to obscure fishing locations known only to crusty old lesbian sea captains. One of the lines in the song she sang went something like “Give me shrimp and beer every day for a year and I’ll be fine,” which I identify with.
  • James Taylor. Via video, but his appearance produced Beatlemania-like shrieks. Every time a graying legend appeared, a woman behind me would very loudly say, with happy surprise, “Oh, he looks good!”
  • Alan Jackson. Again, via video, from the back of a boat. Unrecognizable to me, I wish he’d been waterskiing in jeans like he does in the “Chattahoochee” video.
  • Will Arnett. Look, Will Arnett’s whole thing? It’s been a very long time since that worked for me. Performative baritone masculinity in the face of an emasculation you capitulate to still, at the end of the day, is just you talking in a real deep voice. I was genuinely surprised to hear that he and Buffett were close, though. He stayed with Buffett in the tropics while going through a hard time and was invited to sit in the cockpit while Buffett practiced his takeoffs and landings at the St. Bart’s airpot. He declined.
  • Snoop Dogg. Old white people love Snoop so much. And Snoop is so game to just smoke weed with whoever. He said if we have any sticky-icky, to roll it up for his main man Jimmy Buffett. At the end of a full, uncensored performance of “Gin and Juice,” he said, “I’m gonna smoke this to the very end, I love you my brother. I love you Jimmy B,” prompting my mom to go, “Aww, he’s sweet.” When he got to the “mackin to this bitch named Sadie” part, he pointed at the geriatric pianist and said “She used to be this man’s lady.” (My mom aww’d at “Sadie,” too.)
  • John McEnroe. Makes sense.
  • Pitbull. Also makes sense. Did “Don’t Stop the Party,” then brought out Bon Jovi, who rapped a guest verse on a new song called “Thank God and Jimmy Buffett.” Mmhm.
  • Judd Apatow. Performatively stoned. Claimed to have stayed with Buffett at St. Barts and was invited to takeoff and landing practice and went. “The moral of this story,” he said, very slowly, eyes blanked, “is that Will Arnett is a pussy.”
  • Sheryl Crow. Honestly wish she’d stayed out longer. She did “Fins,” and was so happy to do the hands-over-head-fins-to-the-left thing. Shamed the gathered elites (on stage and in the crowd) for not being willing to do the hands-over-head-fins-to-the-left thing. I really wanted her to stay and do “Every Day is a Winding Road.” 
  • Kelly Slater. Of course.
  • Jack Johnson. Did “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and did it justice.
  • Dave Grohl. Came out to drum on “Brown Eyed Girl,” which I’d forgotten Buffett had turned into a kind of calypso thing. By the time he did his big ole drum solo, the night was starting to feel a bit like a talent show—all these nerds showing up to do their one special skill. 
  • Dave Matthews. Via video, awkward in his lil speech delivery, but nice.
  • Don Johnson. This man said the first time he hung with Buffett was in Aspen, at a dinner party with Hunter S. Thompson and most of the Eagles. Buffett made a duck so good they were actually able to taste it through the ice wall of cocaine they’d all done. 
  • Eagles. Shame on all of us for thinking the Eagles would do a Jimmy Buffett song at a Jimmy Buffett tribute. We got “Boys of Summer” (Don Henley, I swear, looks like he’s trying to pinch the high notes out of himself when he sings; to his credit, he or his live tuner hit them), a surprisingly nice “Take It to the Limit” sung by Vince Gill, and, sure, Joe Walsh’s “In the City.” I’m not sure about Joe Walsh still trying to be A Rock Guy but his peers seem cool with it. 
  • Paul McCartney. Look, Sir Paul was wasted. Hair a little mussed, a light beard growth. Did a little shimmy as he walked to the piano, though that’s nothing new. He leaned in to the mic and, full Scouse, yelped “Hollywood—Fuckin—Bowl!” He pulled it together for a genuinely lovely “Let It Be,” but I’m glad he was having fun. He did a lot of what I guess you’d call Beatlesy gestures and little dances—things you’ve seen him do a million times on camera but that he didn’t do when I saw him at Dodger Stadium a few years ago. I suspect it was a bit of an Irish wake situation, too: McCartney’s love of Buffett seemed very genuine. He was there in Buffett’s last days, visiting him on Long Island, playing him songs. At one point, when everyone was on stage for “Margaritaville,” the camera caught him taking a big sip of his drink, pointing to the sky, then tapping his heart. McCartney gets so much credit for having expanded the minds of millions of people, but I know enough British men to know that him meeting someone like Buffett—relaxed, easy, open, unconflicted about having a good time, unconflicted about having emotions—must have been life-changing, too. It felt like one of the most intimate and heartfelt performances you’re likely to get from Paul, truly touching to watch him navigate it all. 


In an act of profound self-care, I logged out of Twitter a few weeks ago and have only logged back in to promote the existence of this newsletter. But I like my little jokes, so I've been saving them up for an occasion like this. Here are things I would have tweeted if I'd been tweeting (you can include basically every bullet point above).

Blue Öyster Cult invented shoegaze vocals.

Guys…when the New Radicals guy says “come around, we’ll kick your ass in!”…that’s very scary. He is prone to violence.

A generic complaint about how the bigger a record label is, the more you can bet their promo downloads won’t be properly tagged.

Tiny voices, distant squeaks, the strum of the guitar mixed so it’s essentially percussion… PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” is recorded like an ASMR track 

The Train to Mars Hotel. A Grateful Dead tribute in the style of Hum

Trent Reznor having five kids does not sit well with me. 

The numbering system for Super Soakers got out of hand. 

Anaïs Nine Inch Nails

That's it for Taxonomy for now. Thanks for reading. I love you.