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Blackouts, Sellouts and Freakouts 

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007
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Britney Spears, “Gimme More,” Jive (Zomba): At press time, Blackout has not received a proper airing in its ideal environment (da club, natch). But we conjecture Spears is positioning her recent troubles as just another part of her world domination strategy, what with tracks like Get Naked (I Got a Plan). (Explains all those beaver shots by the paparazzi.) Regardless, there’s no denying “Gimme More,” which constructs a complex electronic space featuring lots of flair on both the high and low ends of the sonic spectrum; inserts 20 seconds of kooky vocal twitters at its midpoint; and — best of all — delivers the Most. Schizo. Britney. Ever! When she shouts out “It’s Britney, bitch” at the start of the track, chasing it with a childish giggle, she sounds like a 16-year old white teen doing her best Dave Chapelle impression. Yet when a hype man shows up at track’s end, he refers to her as “the legendary Miss Britney Spears,” spinning her as an elder stateswoman of the dance floor à la Madonna or some old-soul diva plotting her comeback. Unfortunately, this sounds less like Chaka Khan redux than another twist in Brit’s inexorable death spiral.

I want my VBS.tv! People over the age of 30 remember the magical moments that once dotted MTV’s schedule. Andy Warhol’s short-lived 15 Minutes, the surreal animation show Liquid Television or, say, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit vid. I’d venture that art stardom, anime and indie rock, respectively, would not have taken deep root if it weren’t for MTV broadcasting such moments to Middle America. The channel wasn’t an innovator, exactly, but it could turn cool memes into mainstream phenomena — the proverbial butterfly that triggers a hurricane.

Today, MTV devotes itself to trashy, youth-oriented shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen, which indicate nouveau riche lifestyles are the only thing young Americans dream about. Sure, déclassé wealth is a meme in its own right, but it’s a malignant one.

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But enough bellyaching. I don’t want to sound like a baby boomer bitching about how Rolling Stone became a circular for high-end luxury cars. Those nostalgic for edge should check out VBS.tv, the new online network from the Vice brand. In a video “mission statement,” co-founder Shane Smith walks the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, and admits: “Before, we were kind of consumed with cocaine and super models and being cool and denim and we went to Sudan and we’re like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s this whole war going on?’ And we went and checked it out and it turns out it’s about oil and America started it .?.?. What we want to show is the real deal on VBS .?.?. All the mainstream media is full of bullshit.”

That line is at least 50 percent bullshit due to the little-publicized fact that MTV’s corporate parent, Viacom, is a major investor in VBS.tv. But that’s a quibble. The Vice Broadcasting System is a treasure trove of oddities. Practice Space, which visits rehearsal rooms of artists like Regina Spektor, Fucked Up, Babyshambles, and El-P. Or the Vice Guide to Travel, which has made stops in Chernobyl, Kabul, Afghanistan, and L.A.’s own porn valley. Or, last but not least, Soft Focus, a talk show hosted by Ian Svenonius, the pompadoured founder of iconic ’90s bands Make-Up and Nation of Ulysses. Like an underground Dick Cavett, he deploys his wry, smarter-than-you manner in interviews with punk legends (Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye), indie rock enigmas (Will Oldham, Cat Power) and British inexplicables (Mark E. Smith, Genesis P. Orridge). Representative moment: Svenonius and Oldham discuss dolphin/human sex and how porn’s aesthetic of degradation builds upon the heroic archetypes pioneered by Jesus Christ and rock and roll (?!?). VBS’s aesthetic is proudly rambling, shabby and cinema verite. Think skate videos, the best of YouTube, underground heavy metal and Spike Jonze (who is the channel’s creative director). Basically, I want my VBS.tv on television as soon as possible.

Yeasayer’sAll Hour Cymbals (We Are Free) versus Animal Collective’sStrawberry Jam(Domino): Both bands have common geographical and aesthetic origins: They hail from Baltimore and understand how avant-garde sonic gestures can be mined for pop gold. (The commonality between pop and avant? Limitless confidence, and an obsession with repetition.)

So who made the better record? Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam (Domino) hones a vision that first glimmered on 2004’s Sung Tongs, which I called a “midcareer revelation” à la Radiohead’s O.K. Computer and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Like those bands, Animal Collective are having a hard time coming up with subsequent breakthroughs. Strawberry Jam is harder edged, more explicitly electronic and features increasingly prominent vocals from founders Avey Tare and Panda Bear. And, yes, it’s quite good. But the group is starting to remind me of a 21st-century Sonic Youth — a band whose incremental improvements eventually started to feel like diminishing returns.

Yeasayer don’t have all that discographical weight hanging over them since All Hour Cymbalsis their debut release, but oh what a release. Some ingredients are the same — extreme affection for audio trickery, a lysergic sensibility, an earnestness that boggles the mind and inspires the heart. (Sample lyric: “I’m so blessed to pass the good time/with my family and the friends I love/In my short life I have had so many people I deeply care for.”) Somehow, though, this band has tripped upon the insight that today’s components of “freak-folk” also can be used to fuel bombastic top 40; ’70s groups Queen, Genesis and (especially) Fleetwood Mac. Yeasayer confirmed this insight live, torpedoing any illusion of hipster cred with touches like an electronic drum set, four-part vocal harmonies, a bassist in pigtails and headband, a New Age–looking Indian guitarist complete with puffy jacket and a front man with a scraggly beard and Jesus-like conviction. Yeasayer are so out of step with what’s cool right now, it may take a few months for the world to catch up — but for me, All Hour Cymbals is an album-of-the-year contender. No questions asked, I say yes.

Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org

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