Leica M9, 50mm Summilux, pulled over on the side of the road as 80 MPH winds sweep from Idaho toward the Dakotas. Metaphor for the year?
Archive for December, 2011
Leica M9, 35mm Summilux, With Floating Element
It seems odd that so much of the music we listened to this year had one critical link in common: it made us think of Eno and Fripp. Not in any general way, but specifically, as so many of the year’s best songs could be linked to something Eno produced with his chum long, long ago.
The pattern started early. In January, when Wye Oak’s Civilian was released, the song we listened to the most was “The Altar” — which sounded like it was recorded about ten minutes after Fripp laid down his solo on Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” on Another Green World.
We have loved albums by A.A. Bondy, Kurt Vile, and The War On Drugs — all of which seemed like they’d been recorded under the influence of, in particular, Eno and Fripp’s Evening Star. It was as if the most familiar touchstone for ambient music was that one incredible moment when Eno and Fripp lulled away migraines with soft waves lapping from a placid sea.
Near the end of the year, we got into Atlas Sound, the highly interesting side-project by Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox. His song “Doldrums” sounds like he just added vocals to a track laid down by his forebears.
Weird. In a year notable for the originality of so many artists — White Denim, for example — all roads seem to lead back to Fripp and Eno. It was as if Evening Star was the point to which all compasses were raised.
Just asking. I mean if all the cross pollination between such bands as The Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel make for a rock’n’roll hydra, how are we to think of The War On Drugs and their City of Brotherly Love confrere Kurt Vile, both of which put out pretty interesting 2011 albums?
What got us to thinking about this was their inclusion in the upper reaches of Uncut Magazine’s 50 Best Albums of 2011 list (which eventually they’ll post to their website, which we’ve linked to). It was a good year for the Uncut list — no more declaring Joanna Newsom or Portishead the Artist of the Year; this time they went with the brave and quite exemplary choice of PJ Harvey. Too often around this time, Tulip Frenzy is forced to grapple with their championship of artists we’ve completely missed, or at least discovered too late to put on our Top 10 List, such as in 2009 when we only discovered Darker My Love through their high ranking. This year, there weren’t a lot of surprises, but their putting both The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile in the Top 20 made us give these acts, both of whom we already liked okay, a second look.
We can’ really remember the backstory, whether Adam Granduciel of TWOD played with Vile or the other way around. We do know that just as The War On Drug’s Slave Ambient is a stronger album than their last ‘un, WagonWheel Blues, Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo is stronger than his earlier, and presumably equally ironically titled Constant Hitmaker. Both albums could use someone springing Phil Spector from jail in order to give ’em an All Things Must Pass work over, as each make an attempt at a Wall of Sound, the problem being their walls are the stuff of the housing bubble, constructed of sheet rock, not granite. Each of these bands could use a little Apple Corps money thrust upon them, and are worthy of it, or at least a production budget equal to their ambition.
Granduciel and The War On Drugs prove they have more voices than Jimmy Fallon, sounding at times like the Dylan of The Basement Tapes, Arcade Fire, even U2. “Brothers” is one of the best songs of 2011, even if Slave Ambient, with its pockets of Fripp and Eno aether, ultimately feels a bit insubstantial. Vile’s entire album, even though it was ranked by Uncut a few notches lower than his pals, has the grit of a recurring dream, even shrouded in low-fi sound gauze. Yes, there are times you think you’ve listened to this movie soundtrack before — oh yeah, it was Elliott Smith adorning Good Will Hunting — but it’s better than that. I’ve been listening to both albums constantly for the past week, and conclude that, if there were a fire, and I only had time to download one on a thumb drive, I’d take along Kurt Vile. His album’s just that bit more haunting, magical. But then I’d probably sneak back into the inferno to download “Brothers.” Probably die trying. Worth it? Time will tell.
From an unusual source — Film and Digital Times, which calls itself The Journal of Art, Technique and Technology in Motion Picture Production Worldwide — comes an interview with Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, who since 2004 has been the principal owner of Leica Camera. The interview provides more information on Kaufmann and how he came to own Leica than has been available via any English-language article we’re aware of. It is slightly maddening — questions Leicaphiles would love to ask don’t get asked, and the translation is a little stilted. But still, for Leica enthusiasts — yeah, the gang at Tulip Frenzy actually stopped listening to the new Black Keys album long enough to read this — this stuff’s cool. Download the pdf and scroll to page 34. Or enjoy this summary:
Kaufmann comes from a wealthy Austrian family in the wood products business. After graduating from the University of Stuttgart, and forbidden from joining the family business (we don’t get told why) he spent 15 years (1983-1998) as a private school history teacher. In the early 2000s, he and his brothers became what in the US we would call private equity investors. Through other investments in Wetzlar, Kaufmann ended up investing in Leica in 2004, buying 27% of the equity, with a view to learning the business and assessing its prospects before making a decision on his next move. Only, just at that moment, the company went into its existential crisis. (We remember it well: three CEOs in rapid succession, tremendous confusion about the company’s strategy, hints of a digital future, but it all rather opaque to us outsiders who were hanging on every word about the company’s fate.) He basically either could have let his investment be lost, or he could double down and buy the whole thing, which he did, to the consternation of his brothers. It was Kaufmann who cut the emotional cord Leica had to film and forced the wholesale embrace of digital technologies. The M8 was released in 2006 (clearly in progress when Kaufmann made his investment, but his money helped bring it to market.) Three years later came the M9. Two years ago saw the release of the S2. Last year, Leica had a profit (EBITDA) of 42 million Euros on sales of approximately 250 million Euros — tiny by Nikanon standards, but a truly impressive achievement given how close to the brink Leica came just eight years ago.
Today, there’s a waiting list of a year to buy a Leica M-mount lens. No dealer can keep an M9 in stock. Even at $22,000 for the body alone, there’s a waiting list for Leica S2s. And the reason Andreas Kaufmann is featured in Film and Digital Times? Because Leica has released a full set of lenses for motion picture cameras. Thank you, Dr. K.