Mexican Summer Celebrates 10 Years of Heady, Smart Sounds

The boutique Brooklyn label threw itself a multi-stage, day-long birthday party

Artwork adorning the entrance to “Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper”, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, 11/17/18 (Justin Joffe)

While Black Friday used to be ominous enough, Cyber Monday now lurks just beyond the leftovers-laden weekend. Adding insult to capitalist injury, a new commercial features Lin-Manuel Miranda walking around his neighborhood of Washington Heights, talking to barbers and hanging outside the United Palace Theatre while praising American Express for inventing Small Business Saturday .

The second Record Store Day each year falls on Black Friday, too, a semi-annual event intended to encourage shopping at independent record stores. Supporting these small businesses in an age of digital instant gratification may be a just fight, but Record Store Day exclusives are not all created equal—the limited vinyl ranges in relevance from substantive and long-coveted pressings of treasured albums to novelty gimmicks, colored vinyl or superfluous repressings of singles that no one ever wanted in the first place.

One question worth asking this week, and all the time, really—how much of the culture that I consume is actually sustaining or nourishing me? Do I think of the creative work that i enjoy as entertainment, art, or both? Is it ever just content?  Is it filling me up or simply helping me pass the time? Is it pushing me to create in kind, or just consume more?

Drugdealer at “Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper”, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, 11/17/18 (Justin Joffe)

The more I think about it, the harder it becomes to view our 21st century digital music consumption as something we can truly savor. More often, albums are now announced only after a string of singles are released to whet appetites and give fuel to the hype train, all but desecrating the wondrous joys of discovering an album all at once.

Streaming metrics, engagement numbers and the false prophets known as impressions similarly prop up what the late French Situationist Guy Debord called out in The Society of Spectacle—an epic deception of the popular fashion as substantive work of consequence, a fateful mistaking of quantity for quality that’s lowering our attention spans, damaging our capacity to sit with work of depth or nuance, and making us all a bit stupider to boot.

To that end, any cultural institution that helps us slow down, that invites us to savor its cultural marinades instead of always moving onto the next thing, must be treasured and held close.

This is why so many serious music fans celebrated boutique vinyl label Mexican Summer’s 10th year of existence last Saturday at a multi-stage day-long party, “Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper.” The bash featured sets from a wide swath of acts on the label’s heady, esteemed and eclectic roster at Brooklyn nonprofit cultural center Pioneer Works, which also hosted the label’s fifth anniversary bash in 2013.

The artists on Mexican Summer, which was founded as a subscription-only vinyl offshoot of Kemado Records in 2008 but has since become much more well-known in its own right, come through just about every niche genre and micro-scene under the hip sun. What’s more, all Mexican Summer releases share in common a willingness to fold big ideas into trippy,  but accessible, songs. .

This eclectic and adventurous vibe was established early on at Pioneer Works during an afternoon set in the venue’s north hall by Alexis Georgopoulos, whose group ARP played a lucid mix of ambience and meditative electronic sounds with live drumming, horn and warm Rhodes piano. Cosmic jazz and ‘80s Japanese electronica work in consort with a million other seemingly disparate, distinct sonic worlds on ARP’s fourth LP, Zebra, which has been described as a “post-everything” melange of “far-flung musical traditions.”

Arp at “Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper”, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, 11/17/18 (Justin Joffe)

Those descriptions accurately fit Mexican Summer, too, a label that understands how genre supremacy is immaterial when feeling and depth rein. The label still cares about history and the physical totems of music, though, as sister reissue label Anthology Recordings and its press, Anthology Editions, support a mindfully curated look back.

Maintaining this level of genre fluidity has worked for Mexican Summer despite the proliferation of hyper-segmented, insights-driven identity culture marketing in the music business. The label has earned its reputation as a stamp of quality for deep listening connoisseurs through limited pressings and exclusive releases, educating its community of loyal heads in a manner inviting, not condescending.

This is how the label came to work with F.J. McMahon, whose lone album, The Spirit of the Golden Juice, was a commercial failure upon its tiny West Coast release in 1969. The album was a coveted crate digger’s prize by the time Mexican Summer reissued it in 2009, noting in the album’s liner notes its meditations on “mystery, memory and the preservation of the two.”

F.J. McMahon backed by Quilt at “Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper”, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, 11/17/18 (Justin Joffe)

In June, 2017, McMahon played his first show ever backed by Mexican Summer’s beloved band Quilt. At Pioneer Works, they backed McMahon again on the main stage after ARP finished, celebrating McMahon’s first-ever trip to NYC with a rare performance of Golden Juice’s gorgeous, affecting folk numbers (“Early Blue” is a standout). The crowd ranged in age from seniors to little kids, all kept in rapt attention by McMahon’s voice—an intergenerational reverie.

Back on the north hall stage, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s droning guitar tones washed over his reel-to-reel tape beats as cresting waves of beautiful, pacifying ambience. Michael Collins’ band, Drugdealer, then picked things backed up on the main stage with a tight, polished set of psych-pop.

Drugdealer’s new songs realize the vein of lo-fi bedroom pop that runs through the work of labelmates like Pink (who co-writes a song, sings and plays bass on the first Drugdealer LP).  Sharpening the compositional daring characteristic of lo-fi pop into widescreen, anthemic psych opuses, it’s surprising that Drugdealer only joined the Mexican Summer family this year.

“It’s such a psychedelic place, the real world,” goes a lyric on Drugdealer’s “The Real World”. Mexican Summer is a label that fundamentally understands this philosophy, encouraging deep listening that both stirs the body and the mind without standing on aesthetic ceremony or rushing off to brand the artists they work with. That’s damn near unheard of in this business.

Michael Collins of Drugdealer at “Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper”, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, 11/17/18 (Justin Joffe)

NYC’s Pill took the stage next in the north hall, also leaning on a specific sound popularized during a specific era—no wave punk, in all its skronking, ripping filth. That Mexican Summer has a fanbase open enough to embrace such eclecticism again seems an anomaly in this day and age: less a testament to any market research or Facebook programmatic micro-targeting on the label’s part and more indicative of a healthy, grassroots relationship between a community of active listeners and a label that they trust to curate art that gives them pause.

My past writings on the trend of music festivals at reclaimed non-profit art spaces like Basilica Hudson and Mass MoCA brought several consistent  themes to the fore , including: the transformative power that these curated events have on hyperlocal, distressed economies; the narrative potential in presenting multiple sets in multiple rooms as a singular experience; and the dialogue created when a unique venue hosts site-specific programming.

“A Decade Deeper” presented what may be the most fluid arc between sets of any such mini-festival, likely because it was programmed from the rich well of the label’s already robust roster. Pill’s set brought a guttural palate cleanser that made the breezy jangle-pop of The Allah-Lahs all the more buoyant, while Part Time’s lo-fi, Cure-styled goth pop set a perfect tone for Ariel Pink to follow on the main stage.

Mexican Summer passed out cardboard masks of Ariel Pink’s face ahead of his set. Viewed from the balcony, the masks dotted the crowd like some freakshow mirror reality as Pink tore through hit after hit of beloved, fractured pop absurdity. He is often compared to the late Frank Zappa, as both have a knack for writing compositionally complex, brilliant songs that peel back the existential veil and ask big questions while remaining unapologetically vulgar, goofy and surreal.

Ariel Pink at “Mexican Summer: A Decade Deeper”, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, 11/17/18 (Justin Joffe)

To that end, Pink’s work presents another perfect soundtrack to the unique culture that Mexican Summer has created. Who’s to say music can’t be simultaneously sacred and profane, profound and absurd? By showcasing artist after artist who challenges these binaries, we’re finally getting somewhere.

A double-whammy of the ambient psych-rocking brother duo Tonstartssbandht and Sweden’s great psych-prog masters Dungen closed out the night in grand fashion, ramping up the noise but keeping a focus on songcraft and melody intact all the while. They’ve gotten sleepy, but the kids from earlier are still in the building, watching from the back in their parent’s arms. In a few years, they’ll know just what to look for on Record Store Day.

 

 

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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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