Bjork; Stereolab.

Bjork; Stereolab. Two much-anticipated albums were released last week, and I promptly hopped over to Tower Records after my last class on Tuesday to get them.

Bjork‘s Vespertine is a fine, fine album, and it is growing on me with every listen. She has pretty much abandoned her dance diva days, but not necessarily the subject matter — this is still all about big-time sensuality. Each track is a finely-threaded, miniaturized, filigreed, ProTooled work; somehow wisps of jewelled lace come to mind. The album isn’t very melodic in the conventional sense and, as such, borrows more heavily from the theatrics of the Selmasongs album. The highlight comes at the end with “Unison,” the loveliest, most soaring song on Vespertine, but “Hyper-Ballad” it still isn’t. Along with Radiohead’s Amnesiac, this is the most experimental major-label release so far this year.

In contrast, Stereolab‘s Sound-Dust is a rather limp affair and, despite the presence of those fellers from Chicago (not the band Chicago, god no, but the folks from Tortoise / Chicago Underground Duo/Trio etc.), sounds like warmed-over Muzak. I saw them live a year or two ago, touring on the Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night album (or maybe it was Dots and Loops), and they rocked, coming across louder and harder in concert than in the studio. But this time the abrupt time changes, Laetitia Sadier’s run-on phrasing, the slightly off-kilter harmonizing — all quite endearing in previous albums — I find oddly cloying and grating somehow.


The Eraserheads, Part Three: The Circus Years

And here’s part three of the Eraserheads article. I wish I’d finished it — in particular, with a little analysis of my favorite Eraserheads song ever, “Alapaap.”

The Eraserheads, Part Three: The Circus Years

But for the second album, Circus, an album of the highest order, the Eraserheads made a stunning leap into the sphere of Pure Pop Perfection, already more than hinted at by ultraelectromagneticpop! From the sly, skewed and skewering humor of “Punk Zappa” to the irrepressible longing of “Sembreak,” the album probed, with sparkling insight, the vagaries of the everyday: insomnia, drinking, smoking pot, pornography, semester breaks, obsessive music fans, pining for the one you love. Never have the Eraserheads been so earthbound and yet so transcendent at the same time.

The torch song “Kailan,” for instance, is both an uncanny doo-wop imitation (albeit one filtered through an Apo Hiking Society sensibility) and an in-joke, with only the slightest hint of irony. The often-abused “unplugged” or acoustic version – usually meant to convey some sort of sincerity about the music – actually works here, in “Kailan Lounge.” Buendia’s vocals are incredibly expressive here – but then again, so is the rest of the band. Adoro’s guitars sound extremely assured on “Wishing Wells”; Zabala’s bass-playing is fuller and more complex on “Magasin“; Marasigan drums up a storm on rave-ups like “Insomya” and “Alkohol.”

The sheer unpretentiousness of the Eraserheads’ music can be seen in concert; obviously they aren’t “too cool” to not lead the crowd on a sing-along to the chorus, or to not play a crowd-pleasing medley. The wonderful shamelessness in incorporating harmonizing vocals or pa-pa-pa-pa bridges attests to a certain kind of musical sincerity. (Buendia actually gets away with singing “Let me hear you sing it” between the doo-doo-doo-doo refrain in “With a Smile.”)

Circus, as I had pointed out, represents an incredible stylistic jump from the first album, taking listeners along with them on their forays into different musical territory. But it is, at the same time, quite cognizant of their musical influences, from the Apo Hiking Society to the J. Geils Band.

Which brings me to the amazing “Magasin,” which at first listen sounds like a pale ripoff of the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold.” This is hardly the case: the Eraserheads make the latter sound completely leering and adolescent. (Okay, so there may be deeper philosophical implications found in “My blood runs cold / My memory has just been sold,” but I doubt it.) Their plots are similar: guy picks up a nudie magazine, and discovers (the former) girl of his dreams inside. Buendia’s protagonist is momentarily guilt-stricken (“Sana’y hindi nakita“), but in the act of looking his entire world has suddenly changed (“Iba na ang ‘yong tingin / Iba na ang ‘yong ngiti / Nagbago na’ng lahat sa ‘yo“). “Magasin” is more complex, more in tune with the turmoil and guilty pleasure of seeing one’s boyhood fantasy naked to the world. It shouldn’t be this way, he must say to himself. She is not the same anymore. But then he looks. And looks. By the time we get to the song’s punchline of sorts, he has succumbed to the temptation. Such drama in a pop song!


The Eraserheads, Part Two: The UltraElectro Years

The first album, ultraelectromagneticpop! rightly shook up the Philippine music scene, and with much good reason: only a precious handful of albums before 1993 (Gary Valenciano‘s Moving Thoughts, for one) arguably captured the intensity of OPM’s earlier mid-to-late-’70s Metropop heyday. (How thrilling it must have been to turn on the radio and hear Freddie Aguilar, VST and Co., Hotdog, early Apo Hiking Society, the Juan de la Cruz Band and Asin on one station!) The playing, as with Buendia’s vocals, was still pretty raw around the edges, but the album, with its complete lack of pretensions, would be a refreshing contrast to the Chicago / Toto / power-ballad template that underlay some of the more slickly-produced, histrionic OPM singles of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Indeed, the music scene during that period was, in my opinion, rather bleak. The lessons learned from new wave did not last very long; only The Dawn, with its tight trio playing (and only really on its first album), would follow through with their synth-laden hooks. One must also remember that there was also a mini-generation of listeners suddenly tuned in to Citylite 88.3, ultimately just a more “sophisticated” version of the Mellow Touch. (I have a long theory about Citylite, the marketing of the yuppie aesthetic, and the EDSA Uprising of 1986, but this is not the place nor the time.) The significance of the fact that the recalcitrant NU 107, devoted to college rock, was situated at the very opposite end of the radio dial should not be lost on the reader. Indeed, one can only gauge the stagnation when saxophonist Eddie Katindig (or Eddie K), in a misguided attempt to imitate the moniker of an American lite-“jazz” artist of the lowest species, was reduced to producing sad little covers of Top 40 hits. The social consciousness pervading mainstream music only a decade earlier would at least find its resurgence in Joey Ayala’s re-recordings of his older cassette-only albums, but lightweight pop singles and ballads were, unfortunately, the norm. Listen, for instance, to Martin Nievera‘s “You Are The One”; what actually passed for drama was the mere raising of an octave for every iteration of the chorus. Or the entire Constant Change album, by Jose Mari Chan, which threatened to engulf the whole of Philippine radio with its utter blandness.

However, ultraelectromagneticpop! is still, in my mind, an uneven debut, but for every iffy track like “Maling Akala,” “Shake Yer Head” (if I wrote “Well I ain’t no stupid fighter / I go for flower power,” I guess I’d be kind of embarrassed) or “Toyang” (just what is it with Pinoys and medleys?), there would be an absolute stunner of a song like “Ligaya,” or a flat-out work of irresistible genius like “Shirley.” (The squall of guitar noise at the beginning, anchored with that little throwaway piano riff, is alone worth the price of admission; it’s not very often you can pogo along to a song which so perceptively traces the fall and rise of a relationship.) The breathless, melodic complexity of “Tindahan ni Aling Nena” transcends its novelty-song origins. The humor of the album, as well as the goofy liner notes, was already a nod to the wacked-out anarchy that would pervade later albums.


Philippine News Day

Philippine News Day. [It’s hard typing this with one hand, as I’m cradling Izzy with my left arm.] Yesterday I went to the 40th anniversary party of Philippine News, held at the SF War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. Usually I consider this sort of thing as work (part of my research and all), but I was really looking forward to being there. Seeing old friends (Cherie, Salli, and so on — I must have lunch again with you folks one day), enjoying the beautiful weather (the balcony looked out over Van Ness and City Hall), and drinking the champagne (flowin’!) — this wasn’t work. =) Okay, I managed to sneak in a few discussions with academics as well (see, it was work-related after all).

The Pinoy glitterati was there in full force, along with the usual cast of characters at Bay Area events, with various dignitaries and indignitaries. Mayors of different cities proclaimed August 24, 2001 as “Philippine News Day” — something Willie Brown seems to do at the drop of a hat — and Speaker of the House Kevin Shelley gave a nice little talk about how PN had supported his dad Pete as mayor of SF back in ’63.

By far, one of the two highlights of the event was founder Alex Esclamado’s speech. (He was somewhat upstaged, though, when the keynote speaker — Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and animal-bite survivor — and his wife made their fashionably late entrance amidst snapping flashbulbs. I was standing a few feet away from her, and she looked pretty glam, but was paler than I expected.) In my writings, I’ve been a little critical of PN before, pointing out their gleeful celebration of various society events (balls, debuts, and whatnot) and how this inadvertently contributes to a vision of Asians as the model minority. But I do recognize, at the same time, that this is a “function” of the immigrant press, i.e., staking a claim regarding belonging in America, and this is, I think, a particular immigrant predicament in which the ethnic press in general finds itself. Still, there was a certain undeniable bravery when PN did what it did in the ’70s, and now, listening to Mr. E’s understated reminiscences, I had to agree. There was genuine emotion in his voice as he singled out the most loyal staffers. Even as he went into his usual spiel about how the newspaper began “in the garage of his small house in San Francisco’s Sunset District” — something I’d heard and read many times — my heart still went out to him a little. He was right to be proud.

The other highlight came not from any speech, but from a musical performance. I have been a fan of Joey Ayala for many years now, since my high school days, and when I met him about a month ago I was too tongue-tied to say anything (I even forgot to bring out the CD I wanted him to sign). So he comes up on stage with a guitar, and tells the audience that he’s a songwriter from the Philippines, and that he’s written 150 songs, but the song he was going to sing today was not he had written — in fact, he said, “I learned it from you.” This is your song, not my song, he said, introducing it as “an English folk song from the 1800s” which he just learned here in the U.S. And then he promptly launches into a stunning version of the Star-Spangled Banner — in Tagalog.

I wish I can remember the lyrics exactly. But I can’t. I suppose I can ask him for the lyrics later, but I think it would spoil it. It began with “Nakikita mo ba?” and then went on as a hymn dedicated to the immigrants of the United States. His lyrics had allusions to the Filipino American War and ended with something about “Hinirang na bagong lupa” (a clear reference to the Philippine national anthem) and “Kasaysaya’y pinapanday.” All in all it was too brief a moment, possibly two minutes: Ayala had the audience in the palm of his hand, and then it was gone.


Izzy Goes to the doctor

An old one, originally posted, I guess, in August 2001 or so.

Izzy Goes to the Doctor. Today we went to the hospital for Izzy’s first doctor’s appointment. We were all concerned about her weight loss — a little too much the first few days, so she had to be supplemented with formula for a couple of days — but she was right at 8 pounds, so we were all quite relieved. Otherwise Izzy’s all healthy and beautiful, except for a little bit of diaper rash.

As someone who still gets carded regularly at the ripe age of 30, I full well know how Asians can look awfullly young. (My dad is a prime example.) However, Izzy’s pediatrician looked all of 12! (Madeline said 13.) The funny part was when she called in another colleague (ostensibly someone slightly senior) to listen to Izzy’s heart — he comes in and he looked like he was 16! (Everyone must have tormented him mercilessly in med school by calling him “Doogie.”)

Izzy is growing more and more every day — 2 inches in 2 weeks! I’ve found it hard to work with Izzy in the room — not because she fusses, though she does that too — but because I and Madeline end up just staring at her. I’ve never particularly liked holding babies, much more changing their diapers, but Izzy is amazing. She’s so wonderful.

Clarissa’s uncle Noli tells me that I would not mind going to work with only 3-4 hours of sleep the night before, because “you’ll be so happy.” Well, we’ll see until the colic months hit. But right now I think Madeline and I are plainly euphoric. Last night we put her in bed between us and just played with her — opening her palms, kissing her on the forehead, rubbing her belly. Unbelievable.