Emilie Simon presents The Big Machine

I’ve never made any attempt to hide my admiration for Emilie Simon. Considering the lengths I’ve been willing to go through to acquire her albums—and in several cases, multiple copies—it’s no surprise that two of them made my list of the best albums of the last decade, one of them taking the top spot. If you look, you’ll find these pages are full of adulation. From start to finish, I’ve always been quite up front about my crazy crush on the music, not to mention the woman behind it.

And now, with the long-overdue American release of The Big Machine (her fourth studio album), it’s a pleasure for me to sit back and watch as other Stateside media get their first serious glimpse of an artist who’s had my ear for some five years now. But at the same time, The Big Machine is something of a rebirth for Emilie Simon as well. Call it the beginning of her “American” period [insert copious anecdotes about Antonín Dvořák and the “New World” Symphony]: the first album written (almost) entirely in English, and a whole new sound largely inspired by her adopted home of Brooklyn, NY.

From the opening moments of “Rainbow” (listen to the remix above), The Big Machine seems to bear next to no resemblance to Emilie’s earlier albums. The studied electro-acoustic chamber numbers of her first records are gone, replaced by a dozen pseudo-club anthems that appear (at first listen at least) to owe more to 1980s discotheques and cabaret than to IRCAM or Cyrille Brissot. Where albums like Végétal were often contained, deliberate, even pointillistic, The Big Machine is possessed by a sweeping brightness that inhabits every song—a quality hinted at in older songs like “Sweet Blossom” but only now being fully embraced.

At first I was somewhat disheartened to note the change in Emilie’s music. The sauntering dance hall rhythms of “Ballad of the Big Machine” and “Rocket to the Moon” for instance, though immediately appealing, felt out of place. (Fun fact: Dorothy Parker was once arrested and charged with “sauntering”. She plead guilty and was fined $5.) But when you’ve perfected a sound, as I believe she did with Végétal and March of the Penguins, there are really only three follow-up options: 1) record the same album over and over again; 2) retire; or 3) try something new. Thankfully for us, Emilie has chosen option three and there is a lot to love about the change.

Where Emilie’s previous albums have been decidedly solo efforts—intricately auteured constructions—The Big Machine opens up its doors ever so narrowly to select outside influences, be it fantasy/horror writer Graham Joyce (contributing lyricist on “Fools Like Us”, “Rainbow”, “The Way I See You”, “Nothing To Do With You”, “This Is Your World”), Kelly Pratt (Beirut; Arcade Fire), Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire), Jon Natchez (Beirut), or engineers Mark Plati (David Bowie) and François Chevallier. Even so, despite such varied contributions (not to mention the inevitable comparisons to Kate Bush), Emilie’s guiding hand is present throughout.

The markers are not always readily apparent, of course, but they are there. Tucked behind the brass and driving synths are the carefully manipulated electronics that characterized Vegétal. Other spots—the tag at the very end of “Rainbow”, for instance, or the found sounds that open and close “Ballad of the Big Machine”, or the entirety of “Fools Like Us”—are vintage Emilie. But the most thrilling moments on this album—the ones that most emphatically reaffirm my willingness to follow Emilie Simon anywhere and everywhere she wants to take me—were only ever hinted at in her earlier work.

A necessary consequence of the often subdued quality of her older electro-acoustic numbers, Emilie’s vocals, more often than not, have been pulled back and absorbed into the texture of the songs. That was the nature of the music. But it’s difficult to put into words (and, believe me, I’ve been trying to do just that for several days now) the shear joy of hearing those once restrained vocals brought to the front. I live for the slow-building bridges of tracks like “Rainbow” or “Dreamland”and to hear Emilie let loose on “Nothing To Do With You” injects the song with an added dimension of urgency.

To be honest, it has taken me nearly a year and half to really understand The Big Machine—and that’s what I’m going for, here: understanding. But I’ve said that sort of thing about Emilie before. If you think you finally understand what she’s up to, it’s only because you’re on the verge of uncovering something entirely new. But that’s what we want from an artist, isn’t it? It’s what I want—someone to grow old with, but who never grows boring. It’s why I still read Tender Is The Night, how I inadvertently memorized The Waste Land, and that’s why I’ll still be listening to Emilie Simon and The Big Machine decades from now.

Still interested? Read my interview with Emilie.

I’ve gone back and forth on the spelling of Emilie’s name. Wikipedia and most media outlets are spelling it ‘Émilie’. Her website, albums, Facebook and Twitter account spell it ‘Emilie’. So I’ve followed the ‘official’ example and opted to leave off the accent.

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The Indie Handbook: Best of the Decade (2000’s)

I don't know the dog's name...
Osvaldo Golijov with Dawn Upshaw, Photo (c) John Sann/DG

Now that you’ve perused our favorite albums and songs of the year, we hope you’ll enjoy our best of the decade lists.  Since both of us were incredibly uncool until about halfway through the decade, please forgive us any gaps, although I think we’ve done our research since then.  On this page, we’ll post our top 10, but don’t worry, we’ve linked to more extensive lists.

Kristin’s top 10 albums of the decade:

10. Jason Mraz, Live at Java Joe’s (self-released, 2001): I don’t care how “mainstream” Jason Mraz is, he is an incredibly talented guitarist and singer/songwriter.  This album is a lot different from “radio Jason” like “Wordplay” and “Geek in the Pink”–it’s poetry set to acoustic guitar.  “Unfold” is my favorite track, but I wouldn’t skip one.

9. Camera Obscura, Let’s Get Out of This Country (Merge, 2006): My favorite Camera Obscura album.  Lovely twee/pop to which you can dance and laugh and cook, apparently, because that’s what I do.  I discovered this band much too late.

8.  The Format, Dog Problems (The Vanity Label, 2006): Everyone knows I love the Format.  Dog  Problems is a work of angsty genius.  Incredible arrangements and Nate Ruess has the best voice ever.  I cried every night until he came back with fun., which is on my best of 2009 list.

7.  Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive, Zomba, 2006): I don’t want to say too much about this (because I’m saying so much about my other picks), and I realize it isn’t a very indie choice, but it is an amazing album, and I think its sound is pretty revolutionary.  So, thank you Justin, for bringing sexy back.

6. Belle & Sebastian, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (Matador, 2005): I decided that compilations are allowed, even if the songs didn’t come out this decade, since it is my list and everything.  Every single Belle & Sebastian album is worth having and listening to on repeat, but this compilation happens to house some of my favorites, like “The State I Am In” and “You Made Me Forget My Dreams”.  This storytelling twee makes me so happy I could die.

5. Stars, Set Yourself On Fire (Arts & Crafts, 2004): I think Stars may have changed my life a little bit.  This lovely, cathartic electropop is actually pretty epic, I think.  “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Ageless Beauty” are, in my opinion, the most notable tracks.

4. The New Pornographers, Challengers (Matador, 2007): Another epic album; every song is cathartic, with haunting layers and perfect movement.  “Unguided”–the climax of Challengers.

3.  White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry V2, 2001): I don’t think anyone can deny that the White Stripes have made their mark on the music industry over the past 10 years–but which album is their best?  I’ve seen other albums on other lists, but White Blood Cells is my favorite, especially for “Hotel Yorba,” “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and “We’re Going To Be Friends”.

2.  Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge, 2004): EPIC.  In my search for cool, I listened to Neon Bible before I ever heard Funeral, and while Neon Bible did indeed make my extended list, Funeral is groundbreaking.  What a sound!  What lyrics!  Thank you, Arcade Fire.  “Crown of Love” and “Wake Up” are my favorite tracks.

1.  Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum, 2007): There was no question here for me about the best album of the decade.  This album reflects the work of a phenomenal classically-trained multi-instrumentalist with a great comprehension of musical theory and folk tradition.  His lyrics fascinate, and his arrangements stagger.  Can I pick a favorite track?  “Scythian Empires,” “Fiery Crash,” and “Armchairs” have the most plays on my iTunes.  Andrew Bird, we love you.

[see Kristin’s other favorites]

Eric’s Top 10:

10. We Leave at Dawn, Envy & Other Sins (A&M/Polydor) – In my mind, Envy & Other Sins is the most significant casualty of the hipster delusion. I don’t care if they won their record deal on a TV show, We Leave at Dawn is still (and by a wide margin) the best album I heard in 2008. Their official break-up in July of this year will forever be a black mark on 2009, but then, even that gave us Malpas, so, you know, it’s not all bad…

9. Mary Ann Meets the Gravediggers and Other Short Stories, Regina Spektor (Sire) – Another collection of impossible to find independent releases, this is Regina Spektor at her best, back when the only people who listened to her actually knew what anti-folk means.

8. Bring Me the Workhorse, My Brightest Diamond (Asthmatic Kitty) – Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond is another one of those enigmatic figures cultivating the no man’s land between pop and classical music. And she packs a punch. Reared on a healthy diet of Pierre Boulez, Nina Simone, Radiohead, and a dash of PJ Harvey, Workhorse was unleashed and it knocked me clean into next week—which is not meant to take anything away from the follow-up A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, but I had to pick a favorite. [Read my interview with Shara.]

7. Want One, Rufus Wainwright (Dreamworks) – This is not Rufus’s harmonically adventurous album by any means (Release the Stars is), but in terms of campy grandeur, I challenge you to find any album that can reach this level without making a complete fool of everyone involved. With such sweeping epics as “Oh, What a World”, “Go or Go Ahead”, and “14th Street”, it’s a physically exhausting listening experience—and worth every minute.

6. Super Extra Gravity, The Cardigans (Stockholm) – It may come as a surprise, but The Cardigans probably have more to do with this the existence of this blog than any other band. Hearing this album on one of the British Airways in-flight music channels in January of 2006 opened the floodgates, if you will. It is, by far, the band’s most mature record to date and a major shift from the satirical bossa nova spirit they championed in the mid-90s. Pick up the UK bonus tracks edition if you can, because the final track, “Slow”, is the bleakest love song you will ever hear with a pretty slick symmetrical division of the octave (at the major third) to close it out.

5. Cuilidh, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine) – I took a few months off, then listened to this album again Christmas Eve and came to the following conclusion. This is the most beautiful album I have heard. Ever.

4. Why Should the Fire Die, Nickel Creek (Sugar Hill) – One word: “Eveline”. This is Nickel Creek at the pinnacle of their combined compositional ability. I’m still waiting for that “Hello Again” tour I hope you are planning.

3. Ayre, Osvaldo Golijov/Dawn Upshaw (Deutsche Grammophon) – Yes, if you insist on seeking your identity in the esoterism of the avant-garde, you may keep telling yourself that Osvaldo Golijov is too much of a populist to be taken seriously. All I know is that 4 June 2007, the night I heard Dawn Upshaw perform this song cycle as part of the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNow series, still ranks among the top five most glorious experiences of my life.

2. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, Belle & Sebastian (Rough Trade/Matador) – Even though these songs all came out in the 90s, this is the first time they have ever been collected in the one place and, as far as I know, the only remaining way to obtain most of these recordings, so it counts. Ever wonder why B&S have the devoted following they do (ourselves included)? The answer is buried among these 24 tracks.

1. Végétal, Emilie Simon (Barclay) – The most intricate, controlled, and breathtaking effort from the woman I consider the quintessential songwriter/composer of the last decade. After three years, I am still peeling back layers of sonic architecture in hopes of reaching the foundation of this subtly monumental achievement. Emilie Simon is creating the future of music, and I don’t think even she realizes it. This is, quite simply, the masterpiece of the decade.

[see Eric’s full list of 51 albums]

I (Eric) would like to introduce one last superlative before we bid adieu to the first decade of the 21st century. That is “Most Vexing Album of the Decade”. To me, the winner is clearly In Our Space Hero Suits, the debut from Sweden’s Those Dancing Days. I’ve been listening to it for about a year now, and I still can’t figure out if I actually like the music, or if I just think the singer, Linnea Jönsson, is really cute. Watch the video below, and help me figure this out.

The Indie Handbook: best of 2009

The best according to Kristin:

10. Our Temperance Movement, Cats on Fire (Matinee)
9. A Balloon Called Moaning, The Joy Formidable (self-released)
8. The Yearling, Piney Gir (Hotel)
7. The Life of the World to Come, The Mountain Goats (4AD)
6. Where the Wild Things Are [soundtrack], Karen O. and the Kids (Interscope)
5. Tarpits and Canyonlands, Bombadil (Ramseur Records)
4. God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade / Matador)
3. Aim and Ignite, fun. (Nettwerk)
2. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD)
1. Know Better Learn Faster, Thao w/ the Get Down Stay Down (Kill Rock Stars)

Honorable mentions: A Very Cherry Christmas 5, various artists (Cherryade); Reverence for Fallen Trees, The Black Atlantic (In a Cabin With / Beep! Beep! Back up the Truck)

The best according to Eric:

10. Rockwell, Anni Rossi (4AD) – If you caught Camera Obscura on their US tour this summer, you now have a better idea just what one girl and her viola are capable of, but I saw Anni twice this year, and I still can’t believe it.

9. Actor, St. Vincent (4AD) – Though my review of this album for a certain e-zine was “improved” by some hack of an editor who considered my avoidance of clichés downright unpalatable, Annie Clark remains one of the great musical geniuses at work these days.

8. The Big Machine, Emilie Simon (Barclay/Universal) – It’s a departure from her last (and my favorite) album, Végétal, but this, the first of what you might call Emilie’s “American” recordings, proves that a creative powerhouse starting anew is still better than any number of pop idols doing what they do best. [interview]

7. Uam, Julie Fowlis (Machair/Shoeshine/Cadiz) – I hesitated to include this since none of the songs on this album were even written in this century, but few (if any) have done more to make one of the world’s great musical traditions relevant again than Ms. Fowlis. That combined with impeccable musicianship and a killer set of tunes spanning several centuries are enough to obliterate my reticence.

6. Pays Sauvage, Emily Loizeau (Polydor) – On her sophomore release, Emily Loizeau copes with, among other things, the loss of her father. In the process, she will tear your heart to shreds – and you will never again be more happy to be heartbroken. If you had told me a year ago that a French woman would prove this year to have a better grasp of American roots music and slave songs than almost anyone I’ve heard in recent memory, I’d have written you off as a complete nutjob (no offense).

5. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura (4AD) – Apparently, it’s been a good year for 4AD. “French Navy” is probably the catchiest song by a band I like that your average Starbucks customer may have actually heard this year. Still, I think “Honey in the Sun” is my favorite from the second Scottish act on this list.

4. Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors (Domino) – The only album on this list that I do not actually own and I am ashamed. Even worse, I missed their Columbus show this year because I suck. I streamed this about 3,487 times when it was streaming on the NPR website. Holy crap, it’s brilliant.

3. Lungs, Florence + the Machine (Universal Republic/Island) – You Brits have been hearing about Florence Welch for ages now, but I guess Paste hasn’t given the American indie subculture permission to trade in their Grizzly Bear CDs for one of the most monumental voices of the decade yet, not to mention the super sexy percussion. But her time will come, kids. Now is your chance to get in on the ground floor. I suspect that, if I’d had more than two months with this album before writing this, Florence + the Machine would be finishing even higher on this list.

2. A Balloon Called Moaning/First You Have to Get Mad, The Joy Formidable (self-released) – If you have not heard of The Joy Formidable by now, you a) live outside of the UK and/or b) do not read this blog enough. Technically, these are two albums, one studio and one live and there is a lot of overlap between them. But together, they prove two things conclusively: The Joy Formidable are the best unsigned band in the world (yes, I said it); and they are the band to watch in 2010. If you don’t already own these albums, ask yourself why and the go out and buy them. Then, when they play their three shows in NYC with Passion Pit in January and all those cool Brooklyn kids think they’ve discovered something groundbreaking, you can (gently) remind them that you and some unenlightened hick from the Midwest got there a year before them.

1. The Love Language, The Love Language (Bladen County) – This album took 150% more turns in my car stereo than any other album released in 2009. That fact alone made my album of the year decision an easy one. (Not a bad accomplishment for one guy sitting alone in his bedroom.) Then there is the fact that the live incarnation of The Love Language, which is considerably larger, put on what is, at the very least, the second best show I saw this year (Los Campesinos are pretty phenomenal in their own right). I am speechless just thinking about it, so go back and read what I wrote after that show, if you’re interested. And, Stuart McLamb, if you’re reading this, let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for this record. I hope I won’t have to wait too long for a second one.

Honorable Mentions: Welcome to the Walk Alone, The Rumble Strips (Island); God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Rough Trade/Matador)

Emilie Simon in Chicago: the complete abridged interview transcript

Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com
Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com

Here it is. Finally. The (abridged) transcript of last month’s interview with Emilie Simon. Emilie is off touring Europe right now, so here in the States, we probably won’t be hearing anything from her for a while. In the meantime, you will just have to read this and get all excited for the eventual American release of her latest album: The Big Machine. If you live in Europe, you can already buy the album (or, at least you can in France). You can also catch Emilie on tour, which you ought to do, because it is a life-altering experience. You can read the complete (almost) interview here.

The Indie Handbook: First of all, let me say that it is such a pleasure to meet you. Have you ever been to Chicago before?

Emilie Simon: No, this is my first time to even leave the club, so I will discover it with you.

TIH: So you’ve been living in New York for a while, right?

ES: Yeah, it’s been almost two years now.

TIH: What made you pack up and come over here?

ES: At the beginning, I just came for vacation and I enjoyed it, so I decided to stay longer. And I ended up moving here. I think it was just the right timing for me. I was between two albums, so I finished my tour and came here.

TIH: How long do you think you’ll stay.

ES: I have no idea. I didn’t plan it, I don’t plan ahead. I plan what I have to plan, like if I have a tour. I know I am going to be touring pretty much all of 2010. But you never really know what’s going to be happening in your life.

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Emilie Simon gets the Big Machine up and running

Emilie Simon at BerlinI followed her for years – not in a creepy stalker way, but the way any true fan tracks the career of an artist he or she admires – spending countless hours in dusty independent and secondhand record shops near university campuses and enlisting the help of friends and family in Europe to track down a catalogue of records that you just can’t get here. It was all very calculated and deliberate. Meeting her, on the other hand, was (almost entirely) an accident.

It was on one of these prospecting expeditions (in search of a release date for her latest album, The Big Machine) that I caught a glimpse of Emilie Simon‘s tour schedule. Noticing almost immediately that the next show was scheduled to be in Chicago, I, without thinking, sent off a message to (literally) the only American contact I could find and several hours and half a dozen emails later, we had plans to sit down for a cup of tea after soundcheck.

As I approached Berlin Nightclub and heard the sound of “Opium” emanating from behind the swinging doors, I had no idea what to expect. I am not exactly a veteran of the club scene and I had never even heard most of the songs on the album she was touring, but walked in, trying as best I could to look like I knew what I was doing. What I found: half a dozen people prepping and decorating for the party that night, Elizabeth (my contact), and Emilie on a small stage in the middle of the room surrounded by machines and a keyboard. I stood and listened as she finished her soundcheck, attempting to recover the carefully planned talking points that had fled my memory the moment I came into the presence of my all-time musical idol. How do you cover such an impressive body of work in 20 minutes? You don’t, but the attempt became markedly easier when I discovered that we have a great deal more in common than I ever thought I would with anyone I consider a true genius.

Her first two albums (Emilie Simon and Végétal) and her soundtrack for the French version of March of the Penguins, included some of the most intricate textures I have ever encountered in the course of a four-minute “pop” song. The Big Machine is different, though. You could think of it as the first of her “American” works the way you might “Dvořák’s “New World” symphony. After all, she’s been living in New York for almost two years now.

“At the beginning, I just came for vacation and I enjoyed it, so I decided to stay longer. And I ended up moving here. I think it was just the right timing for me. I was between two albums, so I finished my tour and came here,” she says. And any such dramatic change is bound to make an impression: “I don’t know why, but there is something very intense and creative about New York with all of the artists…but something very noticeable to me when I was in New York was that it was full of a lot of energy…. I don’t want to say that it’s more energy or something, it’s just different and because you are not used to it, it is very noticeable, so it’s really inspiring.” It’s that spirit of change that was such a factor in the new sound heard on The Big Machine.

“I think I had a way of doing things from the first album….I was sort of building the basics. For the album after that, I feel like it was a little bit the same way of working: that I was experimenting and still building and I needed to change – to try something else…because…there is a point where you know that you are totally capable to do that again and again and there is no point in doing that again and again.” And so, the IRCAM alumna and winner of three Victoires de la Musique set out to reinvent herself. “I thought, I am going to stop writing on the computer first and see what instruments I need the most for writing songs and it’s been the keyboard, so…for a long time I was writing without a computer, without programming and everything, just working on the composition itself, the song and its structure.”

As a result, her vocals, once set back within the instrumental texture of her songs, have been moved into the foreground, featuring more prominently than ever before. “The other albums are more…like: I have my studio; I can spend a lot of time programming details and the vocals become a part of the instrumentation and are in balance with the other elements. This one was more about the energy and this kind of urgency of writing…. I was moving every week; I had a keyboard and that’s all…It was more of a raw energy, so the vocals took a lot of space because I needed to express myself and I didn’t have all the sounds.”

But such “urgency of writing” is the nature of an album conceived almost entirely in a live setting. After a short set at the Roxy in L.A. where she played several of the new songs for the first time, Emilie embarked on a five-week residency at The Cutting Room in New York. “At the Cutting Room… I was adding a new song every week. So every week I had to finish the programming of a new song and make it ready to be played.” That live atmosphere was maintained throughout the recording process as Emilie “decided to keep [the] energy of experimenting on stage and find [her] band and record”. And she seems happy with the results, assuring me that “everything was like it was meant to be like this”.

Still, someone so involved in the intricacies of composing, as Emilie is, does not relinquish control easily: “at the beginning, I thought maybe I’m going to find the right producer for this album and ask somebody else to produce it…but I didn’t find this perfect person that I can trust so much more than I can trust myself…. And because I produce all my own albums now, I really know what I like, what I don’t like, and trusting somebody else – it has to be amazing, and I trusted and I worked [on] this album with really amazing people and I opened a lot,..but I still kept being the producer of the album because I know where I want to go…I was more like the captain, but the crew was amazing”.

That amazing crew included Kelly Pratt and Jeremy Gara (both of Arcade Fire) and John Natchez (Beirut) as well as sound engineer Mark Plati (David Bowie, Alain Bashung) and Renaud Létang (Feist, Gonzalez…) who mixed the album. The result is an album that “is very different from the other ones: a lot of energy – a different type of energy – a lot of it because of New York and the kind of energy I’ve felt there. It’s the influence of New York on me”.

As we walked back to the club, part of me wished she had an extra day or two to experience Chicago’s own characteristically unique energy that slips so often and unfairly unnoticed beneath the glamorous cacophony of the coasts, rather than the 22-hour reality of airports, traffic, and Belmont Avenue (and you ever do have the time, I hope you will let me know). No offense to the neighborhood, but the one block stretch between Berlin and Starbucks at Clark and Belmont (much of which was under construction at the time) is not exactly the pinnacle of what my beloved Chicago has to offer. Still, for a few hours on October 15th and for reasons I cannot even begin to express, there could have been no more perfect place.

He took all of my sins and he wrote a pocket novel called “The State I Am In”.

Bear with me for a moment, because I’m not sure where I am going with this, though I promise it relates to music (or at least the way we experience it). If you are a frequent reader of The Indie Handbook, you may have noticed that I have been away for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t really an intentional hiatus, it just sort of happened, and while I love this blog, I am glad I’ve had these two weeks to myself. It has given me a chance to think about a lot of things: about this blog – where we started, how far we’ve come, where we’re going; – the paradoxical, amorphous, ridiculous “indie” universe we (all of us) are constantly creating and defining, even whilst it defines “us” and what the crap this all has to do with me.

And, in all of this, it’s that quest for self-definition – and the subsequent manufactured persona – which has stuck with me (while this is the ideal place for a Kierkegaard reference, I’ll give it a miss; go read The Sickness Unto Death). It’s time we faced the truth: we are a lost generation. Unfortunately, while we are tragically overrun with Hemingways, we haven’t produced an Eliot or Fitzgerald yet (though I suspect there is at least a Hart Crane in our midst, you’ve not yet met her; she lives in Chicago). Even though we claim to prize ambiguity above all other virtues and cherish what we like to call “nuance”, we all require some degree of definition.

And I am not immune to this. When we began this blog, we set out to be ourselves. We were going to ignore the rules and dress code and requisite iPod playlists that define indieness and be honest with you about who we are and what we like – and where the music is concerned, I think we’ve achieved that. But talking to Kristin this week, I came to the realization that I have done a fair bit of inventing over the last eight months. I’ve reinvented myself (or, more accurately, manufactured a second, internet exclusive, Self), and I’m not sure I like him.

Internet Eric is fascinated by celebrities, loves cute girls, and has a particular appreciation for cute celebrities with a celebrity crush list twelve miles long. He does nothing but listen to, think about, and write about music all day. But if you went to a show expecting to meet a trendy, girl chasing, indie music blogger with earphones permanently attached to his head, you’d never find him, because he doesn’t exist. The real me cannot be trendy because they don’t make “indie” clothes for fat people. I like cute girls, but I am drawn to brilliant, creative, irrepressible, strong women with wide-ranging interests who are as fascinated by numbers as they are storytelling. And, frankly, you are more likely to catch me reading Lolita or a fashion/design magazine or “The Waste Land” for the 384th time, than listening to my iPod (which is actually an Archos 605). It’s true, I am as cynical in real life as I come across online, but not so much about other people as my own inevitable failure as a human being.

I say this because I met a genius last week. She has created two of the most perfect albums I have ever heard. Her work is so intricate – so detailed – that I hesitate to even wish to understand her creative thought process because I’d probably break something. And, above all of this, she is one of the sweetest people I have ever met. In all, we sat for half an hour in a busy Starbucks and talked. As far as I know, no one recognized her, and all the while, in the back of my mind, was this little voice saying if you only knew who this woman is, what she can do, what she’s already done, you might stop and listen to what she has to say. I doubt she was thinking the same thing.

Later that night, she (Emilie Simon), made her Chicago debut at Berlin Nightclub, which (for those unfamiliar with the club) has a reputation as one of the premier gay discos in the city. I had never been to a specifically “gay” anything (well, a hotel, once, in Boston, but that’s a different story), nor have I ever felt so un-judged in any reputed “straight” club or bar that I’ve been to. I saw things that night that I’ve never experienced before. I saw people who were entirely uninhibited, dancing with abandon and wearing clothes I would never be caught dead in.

And I leaned over to my friend Lindsey and whispered, (read: shouted) in her ear, “I envy them.”

“So do I,” she said.

Turntables with Orchestra? Prokofiev Concerti: the Next Generation

When I woke up this morning I had no idea what I was going to post about. Not much new music has been in my head lately because, for the last ten days, I have been unable to tear myself away from The Love Language album I wrote about last week. Then, this afternoon, I unexpectedly lined up an interview with Emilie Simon, a veritable musical superhero, IRCAM alum, and goddess of electronic music, who will be making her Chicago debut 15 October (if you live in the city, you owe it to yourself to be there with me). Since then, I’ve had electronic music on the brain, which is more or less what Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntable and Orchestra is.

Earlier today, my friend Kathryn over at Pieces of Moments asked me what I thought of the piece. At the time, I’d only read about it over at the Naxos blog (a brilliant label in its own right). It was enough to pique my interest, and her question sent me scrambling for a stream somewhere online. I found one over at bandcamp.com. It appears that the last movement is not included in the stream, but what is there is more than enough to get a feel for the piece.

Those of you are so inclined may recognize the composer’s surname and you would be right, he is, in fact, the grandson of the inimitable Sergei Prokofiev (the subject of my senior thesis in college). Well, I say “inimitable”, but listening to the opening minutes of the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, it is clear that the inextinguishable SP spirit still burns a couple of generations down the bloodline. If you are at all familiar with the more irreverant side of Shostakovich, I dare say you will catch glimpses of that as well, especially in the introduction “Grime Eye” and the following movement, “Irreguluv”. None of that is to say that GP is a mimic and a borrower with no original ideas (I reserve that honor for John Williams alone). The voice throughout this recording is clearly his own, constructed from a palette of early Soviet textures, trip-hop and jungle bop textures, and clubnight beats. Check out this recording from Nonclassical Records featuring DJ Yoda and the Heritage Orchestra under Jules Buckley. It also features several remixes by the composer, as well as: David Schweitzer, Medasyn, Monster Bobby, Li’ll Bo Tweak, Kat!Heath!, and others.

And while you’re at it, check out Nonclassical Records, Gabriel Prokofiev’s label which just recently launched in the States (finally!). They are a label all about bridging gaps, breaking rules, and shattering expectations. Recently, I was watching an interview with Tyondai Braxton at NewMusicBox.org. He talked about the continued dismantling of the wall between “art music” and “pop music”. I’ve been talking about it here for months (and in other places for years). I discussed it with Shara Worden. I’m going to bring it up when I talk to Emilie Simon next week. The list goes on and on and on, etc. This is the future, folks. Embrace it.