Ghosts of a Different Dream

Bluebells sistersDiscogs Challenge #2

In my inaugural Discogs Challenge post I claimed that my musical wheelhouse has been, since about 1988, “fey honkies playing guitars that go jingle-jangle.”  Turns out Discogs has a sense of humor, because the album it pulled up for my second post doesn’t get much feyer or honkier than The Bluebells’ 1984 album Sisters.  Even that name – The Bluebells – conjures up images of Dutch schoolgirls frolicking in a meadow before settling down to a lunch of tea and cucumber sandwiches, sans crusts, and you just know at least one band member regularly wears a cardigan and/or horn-rimmed glasses.  The band isn’t completely dissimilar from fellow early-80s Scots Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, but the tunes just aren’t the same caliber.  It’s all pleasantly inoffensive – quite nice for cleaning the house or grading papers, but it’s not a band that will change your life.

Part of the problem, I think, is the band’s occasional willingness to dabble in instruments and styles that butt up against their otherwise genial indie rock.  Opener “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” comes sailing in, buoyed by a gently parping harmonica, and the very next song, “Young at Heart,” brings the fiddle in a virtual hoedown.  There’s absolutely overlap between Scottish folk music and American country or bluegrass, and while I can hear the lineage the band is following, the result – especially considering the album’s later songs – comes across more as a band that doesn’t quite know what it wants to sound like.  An album like The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues (a record I hope Discogs pulls up for me at some point) makes this instrumentation central to its effect; it isn’t just grafted onto the songs like a Frankenstein’s monster made out of an unholy marriage of mandolins and Marshall stacks.  Fisherman’s Blues weaves the instruments into a tapestry; Sisters proclaims, “Hey!  Here’s our fiddle song!”  We get a brief respite in the really quite nice double-feature of “I’m Falling” and “Will She Always Be Waiting,” but the harmonica makes its return at the end of Side 1 in minor radio hit “Cath.”   At least the instrument works better here, accenting the guitars and underpinning the ebullient “Whoa oh” chorus in what is probably the album’s best song.

(Re-reading those last few sentences, it strikes me that maybe I just have something against the harmonica.  But I don’t.  Promise.)

I don’t mean for this to sound as negative as it does.  While I’m not a stone cold fan of The Bluebells, the record fits nicely into my love of bookish indie, beginning with the previously mentioned Aztec Camera and continuing through The Smiths to modern-day nice guys Belle & Sebastian.  And, to be fair, Side 2 begins with a hell of a 1-2 punch in “Red Guitars” and “Syracuse University.”  On the latter, especially, the band nearly breaks a sweat, abandoning the folk pretensions and relying solely on a churning electric guitar line.  But then, as if to say, “Hey gang!  We’ve still got some unplayed instruments in the closet!,” “Learn to Love” opens with a brass fanfare and turns into a none-more-Motown stomper, complete with wailing female backing vocals on the chorus.  I take back what I said earlier; this is the album’s best song.

(Of course you don’t get the brass or the backing vocals in the above video, but such is the paucity of Bluebells material on YouTube.)

It initially seems as though the album is ending on a subdued note, transitioning to a cover of Dominic Behan’s “The Patriot’s Game” (a flute is present and accounted for, if you’re keeping score at home), but the Falklands-referencing “South Atlantic Way” is a stirring protest anthem complete with martial drums and the kind of ringing guitars we’d expect to find on a U2 album.  The song escalates into a dervish of an outro – drums, guitar, and pounding piano combining to almost make us forget the album’s timid openers.

The high points on Sisters are so good that it makes me wish the weak spots were better.  It’s obviously not a bad album, but it feels in places like the band needed a better editor, someone to rein in some of their less successful impulses.  This was their only album, alas, so if anyone told them, “More ‘Learn to Love,’ less hoedown, please,” we never got to see how it played out.

Next up: Built to Spill’s Untethered Moon (2015)

Read the rules of the Discogs Challenge here.

What More Can I Say

Jay blackAs ubiquitous as hip-hop has become, it can be difficult to remember just how far outside the mainstream it was in the 1980s.  Now it’s on the TV and in movies and soundtracking commercials and on the radio (people still listen to the radio, right?).  It’s a musical language most people are familiar with, if not entirely conversant in.  We’ve come a long way from “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby,” where even the most recalcitrant rap naysayer (i.e., my dad) at least knows who Kanye West is, even if he can’t hum the hook to “Gold Digger.”

But it wasn’t that way in the late 80s, when I was developing my musical identity.  In rural Ohio, hip-hop was still very much a dangerous prospect.  All the “Walk This Way”‘s and Beastie Boyses in the world couldn’t diminish the perspective that rappists and their fans were hooligans at best, criminals at worst.  And this was before N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and the kerfuffle a bunch of scared white people brought down on everyone.  But I loved it, almost from the get-go.  True, starting in 1988 (my 10th grade year), my musical bread and butter has always been fey honkies playing guitars that jingle-jangle, but Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back blew the top of my head off.  I couldn’t begin to relate to the rage Chuck D was expressing, but there’s always been an anti-authoritarian streak running right below the surface of my personality, and I could absolutely relate to Chuck’s “fuck the Man” sentiments.

I loved Public Enemy so much that I had to figure out what else I’d been missing.*  In a year or so I discovered Boogie Down Productions and Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr and De La Soul.  The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest were just around the corner, and of course so were N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and Ice-T and the continued fear that hip-hop was going to pollute the precious bodily fluids of a bunch of suburban white kids.  (Which it kind of did.  Which is good.)

All of which is to simply establish some street cred where hip-hop is concerned.  I’m not the most obvious hip-hop fan, but my love for the genre runs deep and is 100% genuine.  And all of that brings me to my inaugural entry in the Discogs Challenge, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003).

Like any good middle-aged hipster, I actually first encountered this album via Danger Mouse’s 2004 Beatles/Hova mash-up, The Grey Album.  I of course knew “99 Problems” (because I was a a breathing, carbon-based life form), but that’s about as far as it went.  Truth is, I had stopped listening to much hip-hop – where early rap spoke to me as modern-day protest anthems, the rise of gangsta rap just felt like sensationalist nihilism – so I really didn’t know anything at all about Jay-Z when I first gave The Grey Album a listen.

In some ways this now makes a kind of prophetic sense because huge swaths of The Black Album have now entered the pop culture canon to such a degree that they sound as familiar as anything by The Beatles.  The thing that strikes me now listening to The Black Album is that’s a near-perfect juxtaposition of braggadocio and vulnerability.  Nothing captures this more than “December 4th,” an origin story as compelling as anything in the Marvel Universe.  Backed by a melodramatic brass fanfare, Jay tells his story: from birth to early childhood, his later introduction to drug dealing and ultimate decision to leave that career behind to pursue music.   Running parallel to his own narrative we get spoken-word interludes from his mom that serve to fill in some gaps from her perspective.  But the really striking thing is how Jay (and his mom) includes details that run the risk of softening him in a genre that rarely values perceived weakness: “But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn’t matchin’ my gear”; “Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me”; “I pray I’m forgiven / For every bad decision i made.”  It’s a hell of a statement of purpose for the album, and it’s such a strong track that on many albums it would be the high point.

(skip to :40 if you want to avoid some early-video tomfoolery)

Unbelievably, The Black Album improves from there, running from strength to strength for nearly an hour in a melding of styles that ensures the album never gets old.  There’s the relentless momentum and breathless flow of “Encore,” the slinky grooves of “Change Clothes,” the film noir menace of “Moment of Clarity,” the sultry whispered hook of “Justify My Thug,” and the Latin spice of “Lucifer.”  And of course there’s the Twin Towers of the album, the angry and defiant “99 Problems” and the empowerment anthem “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”

For what it’s worth, while “99 Problems” is the song that gets all the press, I think “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the album’s true standout.  The hook is more indelible, the lyrics more nuanced, the production more subtle.

Whatever your own preference is, the important thing to remember is this: an album that could boast just one of these songs would be remarkable; that Jay-Z can bury both of them in the middle of The Black Album is the sign of a record making its case for immortality.

 

* Full disclosure: I make it sound as though It Takes a Nation . . . was my first exposure to hip-hop, which just isn’t true.  Like anyone who was watching MTV in the early 80s, I was a fan of the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith hybrid “Walk This Way,” and I recorded LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” off the radio a year or two before my Public Enemy epiphany and played it incessantly, fancying myself a loverman-in-training.

A Design for Life

IMG_0955A note from the management, primarily to establish the rules of a new game in its own post that I can link to later.

A couple days ago – here – I posted my musical canon, the records I own that have shaped the listener and, in many cases, the person I am today.  In that post I said I’d eventually be discussing these albums, one at a time.  That’s still true, but that discussion will now be subsumed under a larger project I’ve been kicking around for a while.

Here it is:

My record collection is inventoried in Discogs, a terrific site that music nerds like me can use to catalog our collections and buy and sell records from dealers and other collectors.  But it also has a nifty feature in the “Random Item” search button.  Click it, and Discogs pulls up a random album from your collection.  For instance, I just clicked it, and out of the 1,600 records in my collection, Discogs pulled up Jay-Z’s 1999 masterwork, The Black Album.

My plan is to use this feature to talk about music.  Rather than simply walk through my canon, where the narrative will probably get a little samey – “Gee whiz, this is an awesome album!” – using the “Random Item” feature will generate some different types of discussion and analysis.  Some records I own because I genuinely love them.  Some I own because I’m a completist, and while I feel warmly toward them, I own them mainly to fulfill a collector’s compulsion. And then there are also some that I know less well, impulse buys or records that I purchased after enjoying a cursory listen or two online.  The point being, my experience with The Black Album will be very different from my experience with U2’s The Joshua Tree or R.E.M.’s Greenand I think that difference will result in what I hope is an engaging snapshot of popular music post-1965 through the lens of my obsession.

So I’ll click the button, give the record my undivided attention, and then see what kind of writing it generates.  Look for this – thinking optimistically here – a few times a week, when I can find the time to put the effort into it.*

First up, to prove I’m not cheating and just clicking until I get one of the albums from my canon, I’ll tackle The Black Album, a record I admire more than love.

* but, true to form, I’ll probably do it a couple times, get bored, and quit.

Connected to Life

recordsPrompted by a friend, I’ve spent part of today thinking about a personal musical canon. We all presumably know about – for lack of a better term – public canons, those works that are largely (if sometimes erroneously, which is a conversation for another time) considered to be the best works in a particular medium or genre.
But what about a personal canon when it comes to music? What are the albums that best represent me as a music fan? This morning I tried to figure that out.
The rules:
 –
1) I had to own it on 12″ vinyl. That immediately rules out certain albums that are out of print on vinyl or are otherwise prohibitively expensive. Guerrilla by Super Furry Animals or The Last Broadcast by Doves would’ve made the list if I owned them. But I don’t. Alas.
2) Only one album per artist. This is the only way I could make sure half my list wouldn’t consist of albums by R.E.M. and The Wedding Present. Certain musicians can show up more than once if they’re recording under different names or with different bands. For example, Bob Mould shows up with both Hüsker Dü and Sugar, and Kim Deal makes it onto the list twice with Pixies and The Breeders.
3) There had to be at least some effort at curation. I couldn’t just list any album that seemed to apply (see #4 below), although that might be what the list initially looks like. I started at 151 albums, then made a second pass to eliminate anything that wasn’t essential. I ended up with 130 records, and any cuts beyond that would mean getting rid of records that I consider vital to who I am as a music fan. Still, it really hurt to eliminate Rainer Maria’s Look Now, Look Again.
4) In order to be considered for the list, the album had to be one that I consider in some way formative or truly representing a specific point in my life. It can’t just be a record I like a lot or that has one or two really cool songs. It has to be a record that resonates with me on a deeper level, and whose songs have in some way become part of my DNA. This goes beyond “favorite albums.” I love the debut album by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, but it isn’t transcendent in the way it would need to be to make this list.
5) I’m a nerd.
So here it is, my canon, as of August 8, 2016.
  1. Ryan Adams – Gold
  2. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen
  3. American Music Club – Mercury
  4. The Auteurs – Now I’m a Cowboy
  5. The B-52’s – Self-titled
  6. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  7. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head
  8. The Beatles – Abbey Road
  9. Beck – Odelay
  10. Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister
  11. The Beta Band – The Three E.P.s (Champion Version, Patty Patty Sound, Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos EPs)
  12. Big Audio Dynamite – Megatop Phoenix
  13. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
  14. The Blue Airplanes – Swagger
  15. The Blue Nile – Hats
  16. Blur – Parklife
  17. The Boo Radleys – Wake Up!
  18. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  19. Billy Bragg – Don’t Try This at Home
  20. The Breeders – Last Splash
  21. Built to Spill – Perfect from Now On
  22. Buzzcocks – A Different Kind of Tension
  23. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Henry’s Dream
  24. The Charlatans – Tellin’ Stories
  25. The Chills – Submarine Bells
  26. The Church – Gold Afternoon Fix
  27. The Clash – London Calling
  28. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
  29. Coldplay – Parachutes
  30. Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide
  31. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – This Year’s Model
  32. The Cure – Disintegration
  33. De la Soul – Three Feet High and Rising
  34. The Delgados – The Great Eastern
  35. Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
  36. Duran Duran – Rio
  37. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
  38. Echo & The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
  39. Eels – Electro-Shock Blues
  40. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
  41. Electronic – Self-titled
  42. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
  43. The Fall – Extricate
  44. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
  45. Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker
  46. Peter Gabriel – So
  47. Gang of Four – Entertainment!
  48. The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane
  49. Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump
  50. Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand
  51. Happy Mondays – Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches
  52. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Globe of Frogs
  53. The House of Love – Self-titled (1990)
  54. The Housemartins – London 0 Hull 4
  55. Husker Dü – Warehouse: Songs and Stories
  56. Idlewild – The Remote Part
  57. Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights
  58. INXS – Kick
  59. Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!
  60. The Jam – All Mod Cons
  61. James – Laid
  62. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
  63. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
  64. Kitchens of Distinction – Strange Free World
  65. The Long Winters – When I Pretend to Fall
  66. Love – Forever Changes
  67. Love and Rockets – Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven
  68. Lush – Gala
  69. Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go
  70. Marillion – Clutching at Straws
  71. Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs
  72. Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust
  73. Moby – Everything Is Wrong
  74. Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West
  75. Mogwai – Happy Songs for Happy People
  76. Morrissey – Vauxhall and I
  77. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed
  78. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
  79. The National – Alligator
  80. New Order – Power, Corruption and Lies
  81. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
  82. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
  83. The Ocean Blue – Cerulean
  84. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
  85. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
  86. Pixies – Doolittle
  87. The Pogues – Peace and Love
  88. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet
  89. Public Image Ltd. – Second Edition
  90. Pulp – Different Class
  91. Radiohead – The Bends
  92. Ramones – Self-titled
  93. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic
  94. R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant
  95. The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me
  96. Ride – Going Blank Again
  97. The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
  98. Sigur Ros – ( )
  99. Slowdive – Souvlaki
  100. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
  101. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead
  102. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
  103. Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
  104. Squeeze – Cool for Cats
  105. The Stone Roses – Self-titled
  106. The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come for Free
  107. The Strokes – Is This It
  108. Suede – Self-titled
  109. Sugar – Copper Blue
  110. The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
  111. Swans – White Light from the Mouth of Infinity
  112. Talking Heads – Fear of Music
  113. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque
  114. Television – Marquee Moon
  115. The The – Mind Bomb
  116. They Might Be Giants – Lincoln
  117. Tindersticks – Self-titled (1993)
  118. The Trash Can Sinatras – Cake
  119. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
  120. Tricky – Maxinquaye
  121. The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters
  122. U2 – Achtung Baby
  123. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
  124. The Verve – Urban Hymns
  125. Tom Waits – Bone Machine
  126. The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues
  127. The Wedding Present – Seamonsters
  128. Wilco – Being There
  129. XTC – Black Sea
  130. Yo la Tengo – Painful

Soon to come in this space I’m going to walk my readership (all two of you) through as many of these as we have patience for, sharing memories and songs, and trying to explain why each one had the impact on me that it did.  Stay tuned.

*****

Current listening:

Wells watch

Wells Fargo – Watch Out!

Listening Post (Lullaby for the Working Class Edition)

Lullaby i

I have distinct memories of autumn in Ohio. The smell of woodsmoke rising from chimneys. Desiccated cornstalks ground into the soil beneath tractor tires. Early-morning grass rimed with frost. Crows lining a telephone wire against a gunmetal sky. I haven’t lived there for years, but Lullaby for the Working Class’ second album, I Never Even Asked for Light, is the sound of that time. Even though I was 24 and living in California when it was released in 1997, my very first listen distinctly took me back to my youth, a 12-year-old kid waiting for the bus on a November morning, breath pluming from his mouth in the chill. It’s playing in the background as I write this, and it hasn’t lost any of its power.

The album also clearly induces pretentiousness in those susceptible to it.

LFTWC has a foot in a couple different camps. Band member Mike Mogis is a co-founder of Saddle Creek Records, so on the one hand they’re part of the Nebraska scene that also gave us (among others) Bright Eyes and Cursive. Musically, there are some superficial similarities with the mid-90’s alt-country movement (hey, guys! banjos!), so it’s reasonable to lump them in with bands like Uncle Tupelo (and Son Volt and early Wilco), the Jayhawks, and Sixteen Horsepower (although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to also compare them to chamber pop acts like Tindersticks and Lambchop). For whatever reason, I Never Even Asked for Light hit me harder than most anything recorded by any of those other bands. Even after Wilco started cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece, this album works for me on an emotional level that I can’t really explain.

It starts out with an inauspicious untitled track – just guitar, Ted Stevens’ tenor, and the sound of wind in the trees and chirping birds. As the song fades, the sound of birds suddenly gives way to the joyful mandolin of “Show Me How the Robots Dance.”

One lyric in this song stands out as a theme for the album: “I doubt there’s a body of water/Big enough to quench our thirst.” From the mourners “holding [their] drinks like wrecked statues” in the beautiful, brass-laced “Irish Wake” to the shipwrecked son in “Hypnotist” to the rafting narrator in the trilogy “The Man Vs. the Tide,” lyricist Stevens uses a recurring motif of water and thirst throughout many of the songs. It’s an album that seems to be about dissatisfaction, about wanting more than we can ever have, and as a result, it’s an album that’s decidedly mournful.

Mournful, but never bleak. The lush tapestry of instruments (banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, glockenspiel, organ, among others) makes even a song like “In Honor of My Stumbling” feel hopeful, despite its central metaphor: “Faith is a candle in direct sunlight.” And where this kind of Americana often begins to feel a little samey to me, LFTWC dodge that particular bullet by experimenting with different tempos, from the slow and stately “Bread Crumbs” to the pulsing, insistent “Hypnotist.” The centerpiece, though, is “The Man Vs. the Tide,” the three-part song that closes the album. Its sparse instrumentation – horns giving way to strings giving way to just Stevens’ voice and guitar – blends fluidly with the gentle crash of waves and the distant roar of an airplane as Stevens gently sings, “Will I ever attain/This blue sky?” The ambient sounds that bookend the album underscore its autumnal beauty and resonate even after the song ends.

Next steps: Three albums, and the band was done. I also really like their debut, Blanket Warm, but I never found their last release, Song, particularly compelling. Mogis of course went on to do all kinds of stuff with Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk, and singer Ted Stevens is still a member of Cursive.

Listening Post (Marillion Edition)

Marillion misplaced

I think any good music fan has one band that they love but that they’re vaguely embarrassed of. So it is with Marillion. They’re one of the most ridiculous bands ever, yet I have an enduring affection for them that’s lasted almost 25 years. I was given a cassette copy of their debut, Script for a Jester’s Tear, by an older friend when I was a freshman in high school. If I had been familiar with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, I would have immediately recognized whose style and sound the band was biting, but because the only Genesis I knew at the time was the one that sang “Invisible Touch,” Marillion seemed revolutionary. Those keyboards! Those guitar solos! That facepaint! Their music was all capes and 20-minute songs about Beowulf‘s Grendel, but to a 15-year-old kid in rural Ohio who hadn’t yet grown out of comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, it was a doorway to a strange new pretentious world. And the fact that I was sponging this up in 1988, at the exact same time I was discovering Hüsker Dü and the Pixies and the Replacements and R.E.M. via new albums is a testament to how weirdly exciting it was to be a fledgling music fan in the late 80’s.

Anyway.

What is there to say about this album, their third? I feel like if I write too much about it it’s going to topple under the weight of its own preposterousness. I mean, just look at that cover, for starters. I guess I’ll say this: it’s the best starting point to the band because it’s the one where singer and lyricist Fish (what seems like a dopey pseudonym until you realize his real name is Derek Dick) started to reign in some of his more over-the-top sensibilities. Their first two albums (the aforementioned Script… and 1984’s Fugazi) consist of seriously unhinged (and stupidly great) prog-rock goofiness. You know what I mean: songs that regularly clock in at the 7- and 8-minute mark, endless widdly guitar solos, KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS, and pretentious lyrics about garden parties and the Irish Republican Army.

But there’s something to it. Misplaced Childhood, released in 1985, is an impenetrable song cycle about – I think – delayed maturity, lost love, and regret. And child soldiers? Whatever the case, the album had their first proper hit, the lovely “Kayleigh” and the even lovelier piano-led “Lavender,” and there’s three or four other songs on the album that could have been hits, especially “Childhood’s End?,” which features guitarist Steve Rothery’s soaring, quasi-U2 lead. The band always had an unerring sense for melody (even when it was buried in a seemingly unending epic), and it was on this album that they simplified things enough so that those melodies could breathe. “Simplified” is a relative term in Marillion Land, of course, because the album itself, in true song cycle fashion, is one unbroken piece of music, with each song flowing seamlessly into the next. Even so, the individual tracks are some of the strongest, catchiest things in the band’s career.

Fish’s lyrics, too, are exceptionally vivid. I’ve poked fun at his more outré tendencies, but the guy has an undeniable gift for language. “Kayleigh” gives us lines like “chalk hearts melting on a playground wall,” and “Lavender” opens with the resonant image of sprinklers on summer lawns and children “running through the rainbows.” Then again, the album’s first song drifts in on a Spïnal Tap-worthy keyboard line and the first words we hear are, “Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono /Wearing bracelets of smoke, naked of understanding,” so what do I know?

But despite the inescapable silliness of some of this, Misplaced Childhood still stands up for me as a quality collection of songs. There’s the tribal drumming and spy-movie tendencies of “Waterhole,” the chiming shards of guitar (guitarist Rothery is sort of a marvel) that sparkle throughout closer “White Feather” (an ode to self-determination, with Fish singing, “I will swear I have no nation/But I’m proud to own my heart”), and even the 9-minute, multi-part “Blind Curve” doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to the hummable melodies that serve as its foundation. This clearly isn’t for everyone, and you have to enter into it with the understanding that it’s going to be a little … grandiose. But after all these years I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this is better than I think it is.

Next steps: I can’t in good conscience recommend their first two albums. I like them, but they’re definitely an acquired taste. If Misplaced Childhood turns out to be your thing, you’d do well to listen to its follow-up, 1987’s Clutching at Straws, which I almost selected for this edition of the Listening Post. It’s another confident set, with some of Fish’s best lyrics. He would leave after that album, though, embarking on a mildly successful (in Europe, at least) solo career. The band continued with new vocalist Steve Hogarth, and they’re still soldiering on to this day. I don’t like the Hogarth stuff nearly as well, but his first album with the band, 1989’s Season’s End, is quite good and worth your time (especially if you have a thing for beer commercial guitars).  1998’s Radiation is probably my favorite of this second iteration of the band, and it features “A Few Words for the Dead,” a song that builds to a euphoric chorus that never fails to raise the hairs on my arms and put a lump in my throat.  I think the video is worth a watch because I love the song so much, but if you click it you can either sit through the first two minutes of widdly-widdly noodling or else skip straight to 2:20 when the song actually begins.

Harmony Around My Table

Rollins

One of the weird things about being a music fan – not a casual fan, but a “this is how I make sense of my life” fan – is that certain artists will always be present across the years, even though you’re not necessarily a huge fan of their work.  They flit in and out, you occasionally listen to an album, it registers when they release something new (although you probably won’t buy it), and when their latest tour comes to town, you at least check ticket prices in case it’s happening on a night when nothing good is on TV.

Henry Rollins is that guy for me.

Rollins 2I definitely don’t dislike his work (and he’d probably punch me if I said I did), but it’s just never quite clicked with me.  At the dawn of my voracious music phase (a phase that’s now lasted 27 years), where I was crazily tracking down influences of influences of influences of that week’s new favorite band, I discovered Black Flag’s Damaged album.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  I was mopey, but not angry.  I appreciated humor, but couldn’t figure out how to interpret “TV Party” against the backdrop of Rollins’ supposed straightedge lifestyle.  I liked stuff with an edge, but didn’t exactly connect with the sludgy aggression of what I was told was a landmark album.

So I just sort of let it slide on past on my way to Echo & The Bunnymen or whatever.  I revisited his work a few years later when he had a minor college radio hit as frontman of The Rollins Band with “Low Self Opinion.”  I certainly connected with the song lyrically, and musically it was a little more melodic than Black Flag, but it was hard to escape the fact that it was unseemly for a grown man to be singing about such things – what I imagine David Cross would call “15-year-old white girl lyrics.”

For a while, Rollins and I didn’t see much of each other.  I read his work when it appeared in various publications, and I was intrigued by his transition away from music and into spoken-word performance, but even as my musical palate expanded, there was never a point where I thought, “It’s time to immerse myself once again in the Black Flag oeuvre.”

Rollins CoachellaBut I never wrote him off, even though his music never quite did it for me.  His spoken-word material was too smart, too funny, and too relatable for me to discount him.  This was reinforced by his 2009 performance at Coachella.  If I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of it except that it was sharp, clever, and much better than I was expecting.  What I do remember is that he made a point of emphasizing that all the people at Coachella, whether they were at his set or not, were part of the same tribe.  By virtue of traveling to the desert to immerse ourselves in good music, we had more in common with each other than we realized.  I don’t think that’s true of Coachella anymore – the target audience has sadly shifted away from the music fan to the L.A. teenybopper douchebag who wants only to be seen at the party – but Rollins’ sentiment resonated.  As one of only a handful of people at my high school seriously into independent music, I understood the value of finding like-minded friends.  And I especially appreciated Rollins’ Coachella set because it was at this point that I recognized him for what he really was: a fan.  No more, no less.

This was reinforced by an article he wrote last week for LA Weekly.  I encourage anyone who’s trying to understand the music obsessive in his or her life to read this article.  It’s a little rambling and discursive, but at one point Rollins articulates simply and truthfully why I think many of us listen to – and buy – as much music as we do.

I buy records because I medicate with music. It makes the day-to-day horror show of existence endurable . . . I am less an audiophile than I am a vinyl cat lady. You can never have too many records – aren’t they all just so wonderful?

I think I’m often viewed by friends and acquaintances as simply a collector, the Crazy Music Guy™ who has a lot of records.  But I can’t stress this enough: music saved my life.  I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school.  I was struggling to come to grips with who I was.  I felt unpopular and unattractive.  I know I’m not unique in these feelings – I probably just described everyone who’s ever been a teenager – but music is the way I survived.  I knew when I was feeling down I could listen to The Smiths and take solace in the fact that Morrissey felt the same way I did.  I could listen to R.E.M. and be comforted by the arty weirdos from exotic Athens, GA, or put on The Joshua Tree and think about how I could help U2 save the world.  Was I self-destructive?  I don’t know.  I’ve got almost 30 years in the rearview mirror, which makes it a little hard to say, but, yeah – my parents probably should have been concerned.  The point, though, just like Rollins says, is that music was my medication, my therapy.  I owe it a debt I can never repay.

And, while the circumstances are different, I still use it to medicate.  My feelings of inadequacy linger, they’re just different now: I’m crap at my job, I should be a kinder person, I need to write more, I’m not being all I should be for my students, and on and on.  At home, in my car, at the office, right now – music is playing nearly all the time, and it helps me get through the day.  I enjoy the music on an aesthetic level, of course – that is, after all, my primary concern – but there’s undoubtedly a therapeutic value to it, too.  It isn’t just a tune to whistle as I idle away the time.

Music matters.

At a time when vinyl records have become just another hipster affectation, it’s important for those of us who depend on music to make sense of the world to periodically remind people that, at its best, music transcends entertainment.  Henry Rollins, vinyl cat lady proclivities notwithstanding, makes a convincing case for that.  And in doing so, he reminds me that some musicians will always be there for us, whether we ask them to be or not.

*****

Current listening:

Fugazi end

Fugazi – End Hits (1998)

Listening Post (Kitchens of Distinction Edition)

Kitchens strange

Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s a dreadful name. Let’s acknowledge it and get past it so we can focus on the music, which is pretty remarkable.

When you think about great bands from the shoegaze era you understandably think about the big three: My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Maybe if you’re feeling generous you throw in Chapterhouse. Lush, too. But Kitchens of Distinction (hereafter referred to as “KOD”), despite a couple moderate-sized hits, flew under the radar and are generally unremembered and unmentioned from this time period. This makes some sense because the band were a little out of step with their contemporaries. Where MBV, Ride, and Slowdive are pretty affectless, burying their vocals under torrents of noise (which is great, don’t get me wrong) and eschewing anything resembling a personality, KOD were unabashedly optimistic and romantic, singer/bassist Patrick Fitzgerald’s vocals front and center. And where other musically like-minded bands boasted lyrics that were often little more than impressionistic fragments, Fitzgerald, as an openly gay man, often tackled tales of love and regret and didn’t make an effort to mask his own sexuality (Strange Free World‘s “Gorgeous Love” opens with the lines “I can feel the waves of your gorgeous love/And it hurts to think that this is seen as wrong,” and on their next album they would release “Breathing Fear,” a song about gay-bashing, as its first single).

It might be this markedly different approach to songwriting and performance that saw KOD kept at arm’s length from My Bloody Valentine and the rest of the shoegaze canon. This is a shame, because Strange Free World easily holds its own with the best albums from the era, and in Julian Swales the band had a guitarist that was – whisper it – every bit the equal of his more highly-esteemed peers, MBV’s Kevin Shields included. Swales, truthfully, is the band’s trump card, and the guitars onStrange Free World are nothing short of magical. At the time this album was released in 1991 I hadn’t yet heard of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive (Strange Free World actually predates both Loveless and Just for a Day), and while I owned (and loved) Ride’s Nowhere, Swales’ layered, echoing guitar seemed otherworldly.

Opener “Railwayed” was, to this kid growing up in Cowtown, Ohio, revelatory, and it still sounds fresh. We get five brief seconds of drums and bass before Swales’ shimmering guitar soars in over the top of it, floating above Fitzgerald’s plaintive vocal. The song’s chorus is both a euphoric cloudburst and a hell of a calling card for the rest of an album that doesn’t stint on ambition or beauty. In fact, I’m finding it’s hard to write about this album without resorting to all those hoary old clichés: chiming sonic cathedrals and all that. But holy cow – that guitar. It continues into the second track, “Quick as Rainbows,” which is buoyed along on layered acoustic and electric guitars before erupting in its final minute into a buzzing storm of effects. “Hypnogogic” ups the ante further, relying on Fitzgerald’s bass and vocal to carry the melody while Swales pulls double duty: he cushions the vocal with a droning curtain of guitar that lurks in the background while simultaneously etching abstract filigrees of sound over the top. I love this stuff.

My limited vocabulary shouldn’t be read to imply that this is all just abstract beauty. The melodies are strong, Fitzgerald’s voice is expressive and occasionally conversational, and there’s hidden muscle to a few of these songs. “Polaroids” is a lament for lost time and squandered opportunity that builds over its five minutes until dissolving in an angry flurry of distortion and pounding drums. “Aspray” works similarly, Fitzgerald relying on abstract aquatic imagery while Swales’ guitar mimics the angry surf in the lyrics. And if anyone knows their music, it’s probably for “Drive That Fast,” a song that got some play on MTV’s 120 Minutes. It’s not my favorite on the album (that would go to “Quick as Rainbows”), but it’s close. Fitzgerald’s high-pitched bass once again drives the song while Swales’ guitar is off doing typically astonishing stuff in the background. But again, it’s a forceful tune. Fitzgerald sings, “Take me away from these simple feelings/I know there’s places on the other sides of here,” and Swales helps the listener see just what he’s singing about.

“Under the Sky, Inside the Sea” is a stunning closer, a sun-dappled beauty that begins with a quietly loping bassline and builds to a crescendo of guitar, horns, and Fitzgerald’s vocal: “The sea eats the shore it’s always hungry/We fall from laughing at the size of it all/Drinking, wishing, smoking, hoping/He says, ‘Well, here we are at the edge of the world.'” Gorgeous.

I just can’t do the album justice. My love for it might have a lot to do with it hitting me at just the right time. For a kid just figuring out all that late-teenage identity stuff, Fitzgerald’s plainspoken romanticism got to me on some elemental level. And I’d just never heard anything like Swales’ guitar before. But I think it’s more than just “right place, right time.” Like yesterday’s pick, I still listen to this album regularly and continually find new things about it to love. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.

Next steps: If you like Strange Free World, their first and third albums (Love Is Hell and The Death of Cool) are the most worth seeking out. Their final release (Cowboys and Aliens) has a few good songs – opener “Sand on Fire” is a barn-burner – but is easily the weakest of the four.  The band reunited briefly in 2013 to release Folly, an album that doesn’t fully recapture the magic of their early days but is enough of a reminder to make it worth your time.

Listening Post (The Wedding Present Edition)

Wedding seamonsters

I stumbled across The Wedding Present in 1989, thanks to some music magazine I’ve long forgotten. I want to say it was an early iteration of Alternative Press, but that magazine’s been so bad for so long that I have a hard time believing they ever covered anyone good.  Anyway, their 1989 album Bizarro had just been released, and the magazine was touting them as “the next Smiths.” As a 16-year-old kid heavily into angst, and distraught that I had discovered Morrissey & Marr only after they had broken up, this sounded like it was right in my wheelhouse.

Turns out, the “next Smiths” label was a misnomer. The Wedding Present’s early records (pretty much everything up through Bizarro) were frenetic things – all hyperkinetic C-86 jangle courtesy of guitarist Peter Solowka and singer, guitarist, and sole band mainstay David Gedge. The only Smiths comparison I could hear was in Gedge’s lyrics. They broached the same lovelorn territory as The Smiths’ songs – infidelity is one of Gedge’s pet themes – only without all of Morrissey’s fey melodrama and literary pretensions. Instead, they were full of dry humor and easily recognizable relationship details sung in Gedge’s vaguely croaky vocals. I immediately fell in love with Bizarro and their 1987 debut George Best. The energy of those rapid-fire guitars was infectious, and the plainspoken, Everyman quality of Gedge’s lyrics was less depressing than the Morrissey and Ian Curtis quagmire I’d been marinating in for over a year.

1991’s majestic Seamonsters was released two years later, and nothing could have prepared me for it. The album starts quietly with “Dalliance,” Gedge singing over a simply strummed guitar: “You’ve told him lies now for so long/Yet still he’s ready to forgive/He’s got you back and that’s all he wants/It’s a lot more than I’m left with.” It continues in this vein for over two minutes, seemingly leaving behind the runalong rush of earlier albums for more sedate pastures. But then the 2:45 mark hits, Gedge snarls, “I still want to kiss you,” and the song erupts in the roiling, churning sea of Gedge and Solowka’s guitars. It’s a moment that still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

“Dalliance” immediately establishes Seamonsters as a wholly different beast than the previous two albums. Produced by Steve Albini, it’s a darker and slower collection of songs, the ramshackle riffing of earlier albums replaced by guitars that snarl and roar, in some cases darting in and out of the mix (such as “Carolyn,” built around an acoustic guitar for most of its running time until a buzzsaw hacks the song to glorious pieces in its final minute). They haven’t completely left behind their signature sound – “Dare” is a propulsive, crackling beast of a song and the outro of “Rotterdam” jangles merrily – butSeamonsters is the sound of a band stretching itself beyond what could have been a stylistic dead-end.

The biggest change is that Seamonsters is the first (and only, really) Wedding Present album to have an undeniable groove, all ten songs propelled by Simon Smith’s monstrous drums. “Lovenest” is Exhibit A, entering on slithering feedback before the drums push Gedge’s vocals (a simple, perfect lyric: “I heard another voice this morning on the ‘phone/But just the other day I thought you said you slept alone/And yes I knew that laughter, okay, now I see/You wouldn’t even know him if it hadn’t been for me”) to the chorus and a sudden torrent of feedback and percussion. “Lovenest” ends with a full 90 seconds of crackling feedback before plunging headlong into “Corduroy’s” tribal drumming and thunderclouds of distortion.

The album ends on a moment of quiet beauty. “Octopussy” slowly dissolves into gently strummed guitars as Gedge sings, “We don’t have to do anything/We don’t have to do anything except watch the leaves/Turning in the wind.” It’s a dark album whose brilliance the band never quite matched in subsequent releases (which is saying something since all their albums are aces). But man – for 42 minutes I’m convinced this is as good as it gets.

Since Seamonsters the band has gone through various lineups with Gedge as the only consistent member. He shelved the band in 1997 to launch Cinerama for a few albums, then revived the Wedding Present name in 2005 with all new members. Despite these changes – and the passage of time, which renders many bands irrelevant – quality control has remained remarkably high, and any of their albums is worth your time.

Next steps: I can easily recommend everything they’ve recorded, but if you like Seamonsters (and if you don’t, you’re dead to me), go with George Best (1987) to hear their early adrenalized rush, then skip to Watusi (1994) for an infusion of pop smarts.  The band’s best latter-day album is 2012’s Valentina, which will give you a good idea of what they’re up to now.

Listening Post (Blue Aeroplanes Edition)

In an effort to maintain the “write to keep myself entertained” mantra of a couple days ago, I’ll be featuring a different album on here a few times a week.  It’ll be something formative – something that got me hooked as a nascent music fan, something that helped reify my tastes in my 20s and 30s, or something that’s speaking to me now, as a grown man on the cusp of total decrepitude.  You’ll get some commentary and some videos, and, as always, I invite your feedback.  So here it is, then, the inaugural edition of Listening Post.

Blue swagger

This shouldn’t work. Some guy recites free-verse poetry over indie-rock guitars, occasionally abandoning his own verse to use that of Sylvia Plath’s. There’re songs about fossils and androgyny and the symbolic power of colors. Oh, and of the seven band members listed on the album sleeve, someone named Wojtek Dmochowski is credited with “Dance.” It should be terrible. But for thirty years The Blue Aeroplanes have been pretty fantastic. They hit an early 90’s high-water mark with Swagger (1990) and Beatsongs (1991), and I probably could’ve featured either (or both) here. But Swagger, their fourth album, was my introduction to the band, and remains my favorite.

You get a pretty good feeling for what you’re in for from the offing. Vocalist Gerard Langley intones, “Pick a card, any card/Wrong!” over Angelo Bruschini and Rodney Allen’s film-noir guitars, and opener “Jacket Hangs” lurches into motion.

Langley gets most of the attention, and with good reason. He doesn’t sing, not even in the way Lou Reed and Bob Dylan “sing,” and his spoken-word approach – which should come off like a gimmick but doesn’t – inevitably makes the listener focus on his poetry. It’s surprisingly good stuff, certainly better than a lot of conventional song lyrics, turning on striking sensory images: the “sound of violins drowned in gunfire”; hands that “flutter round the neck/like nervous birds”; the “grass bank ghosts” left by a riverside. Langley doesn’t do anything flashy with his vocals, and his unadorned recitation allows the music to do most of the heavy lifting.

And Bruschini and Allen truly do yeoman’s work on this album. Like I said, Langley commands a lot of the attention, but it just wouldn’t work without the dual guitar accompaniment. They do the bluesy spy-movie stuff on “Jacket Hangs,” unleash an echoing whirlwind on “…And Stones,” work themselves up into a righteous fury on “Weightless,” and exercise some sheer pop smarts on “Love Come Round” and “Anti-Pretty.” And then there’s what is, for me, the album’s highlight: the delicate, pastoral “Your Ages.” Over chiming guitars Langley recites some of the most vivid, affecting verses on the album, urging a lover to take advantage of the time they have: “In ten years everything will bleach to primer/And we’ll lie in the light, grass bank ghosts.” As Langley makes his final exhortation, the guitars pick up the pace and build to a churning crescendo before slowly tapering off. Strong stuff.

There are some other tricks that add to the enjoyment of the album. Michael Stipe guests on “What it Is,” adding some distinctively Stipeian “oh”‘s and “ah”‘s, guitarist Allen takes the mic on the pretty, mandolin-led “Careful Boy,” and “The Applicant” is the previously-mentioned Sylvia Plath adaptation. The band makes the poem its own, turning it into a muscular, percussive tune, climaxing as Langley bellows, “Will you marry it?” The album ends with the relentless drone of “Cat-Scan Hist’ry,” the building storm of guitars and Langley’s repeated vocal line complemented by the squeal of violins and clouds of feedback. This is a band that does a lot of different things well, and they’re all pretty much on display here. Swagger, indeed.

Next steps: If you like what you hear, the most logical place to proceed is their next album, 1991’s Beatsongsfollowed by Life Model (1994).

Listening Post (1/7/13)

JetsAfter the unforgivable sappiness of my previous post I need a little vitriol and random anger. Unfortunately lumped in with all the turn-of-the-century emo crybabies, Jets to Brazil were always rougher, rawer, and smarter than their contemporaries.  They’re one of those bands that I don’t actually know much about except that over the course of three albums they blazed an incredibly cool trajectory, moving from jagged indie (1998’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary) to Paul Weller-esque anthems (2000’s Four Cornered Night) to autumnal ballads (2002’s Perfecting Loneliness).  And then they were gone.

This is a live rendition of “Morning New Disease,” my favorite song from their debut.  Enjoy, get hooked, and enjoy some more.

As Close as I Came to Being Right

biggest-loser-logo
The Biggest Loser returns tonight.  I will watch it, I will enjoy it, and I will steadfastly refuse to care that I’m not supposed to do either of those things.

I understand the impulse behind naming certain things “guilty pleasures.”  We all want to think our taste is beyond reproach, that we worship at the altar of the highbrow, and that at the very least we recognize that certain entertainments have little or no redeeming social value.  To cite something as a guilty pleasure is to position oneself as someone who knows better and in the process claim a certain moral or intellectual high ground.

It’s nonsense, of course.

When it comes to entertainment, why should we feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure? The truth (for me, anyway) is that I don’t trust people who claim to only like the “right” things. Thanks to my association with a certain music festival, I’ve come into contact with folks who claim only to like Japanese musicians who create found-sound drone collages out of kitchen appliances and the subsonic echoes of beating insect wings or six-hour black-and-white films about a Romanian peasant eating a potato.  It’s like a real-life episode of Portlandia, where  the insufferably pretentious assert their superiority by claiming never to have heard of Lost, and it always smacks of an effort to hide their insecurity by trying too hard.

I do recognize, however, that the flipside is true.  A steady diet of American Idol, Maroon 5, Nicholas Sparks, and Adam Sandler will do no one any favors, and those of us who have friends who snack incessantly on junk food should logically steer them in increasingly more substantial directions.  But taking those things in moderation – and, by necessity, recognizing their flaws – is nothing to feel guilty about.

In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to quickly discuss three entertainments (TV, music, and book) that some people would call guilty pleasures, but for which I make absolutely no apologies.  I like what I like, and that’s really all that should matter.

I know I’m not supposed to admit to any of the things that follow.  I have a Ph.D., and therefore should spend my days surrounded by fine art, books of philosophy, and classical music.  But I have nothing hanging on my walls, I haven’t read a philosophy book since my brief fascination with Foucalt in the late 90’s, and classical music bores me to tears.

jillian-michaels-and-bob-harperTelevision – The Biggest Loser

The perennial weight loss competition works for me for a couple reasons.  The main one is that, at its best, it’s truly inspiring.  Unlike most reality shows that seem to wallow in humiliation, Biggest Loser actually tries to make a positive difference for people, introducing them to exercise and a healthy diet (in between those annoying product-placement spots for Subway and Tupperware, which assume the contestants have all been living on Mars) and encouraging viewers in need of weight loss to make a similar change.  I mean, sure, there’s humiliation here, too, as we watch horribly obese people fall off treadmills, but on balance it does far more good than harm.

It also works because the show has chosen its trainers well.  Bob Harper is the Zen, centered good cop to Jillian Michaels’ batshit, drill instructor bad cop.  When the contestants are resistant to the training, Bob employs New Age, feel-good reassurance, resorting to anger only when gentle negotiation fails.  Jillian, on the other hand, screams at them and beats them about the head and shoulders with her abs.  I’m ambivalent about the most recent addition, Dolvett Quince.  He’s sort of a combination of the other two, with a penchant both for sappy platitudes and yelling.  He’s an an inoffensive character and many of the contestants seem to like him, but I’m not sure what he offers that the show didn’t already have.

There are, of course, drawbacks that I have a harder time defending.  Most problematic for me is the way the show constantly falls into a hero/victim dichotomy.  I sort of resent the clips of Bob telling the contestants that they’re “heroes.”  I get that we live in a hyperbolic society where words are continuously dulled and diminished, but it seems especially cheap to refer to someone’s weight loss as a heroic act.  I don’t even care if the contestants are doing it to be better parents.  Losing weight to be good to your family doesn’t make you a hero.  It makes you a responsible human.

On that same point, I grow tired of how the female competitors – usually mothers – are often portrayed as victims, as though gangs of rogue Hostess executives have held them down and force-fed them Twinkies.  Numerous times throughout each season, Jillian or Bob or Dolvett will say something  like this to one of the women: “You gave everything you had to take care of your family, and you didn’t have any time to take care of yourself.”  Look: I’m sure she was busy.  No doubt.  I’m not diminishing the difficulty of raising a family.  But when the show starts, many of the women are pushing 250 pounds or more.  That doesn’t happen by accident, nor does it happen overnight.  They might not have had time to take care of themselves, but they sure as hell had time to stuff their faces.  I think this bothers me precisely because in most instances The Biggest Loser so often avoids treating the contestants like powerless victims.  The show is usually about owning up to your demons and taking control of your life.  Laying the blame for some contestants’ obesity at their families’ feet seems like a cop-out.

All of this is to say that, even with its flaws, I have no problem supporting a show that encourages its viewers to be fit, to get healthy, to make smart choices.  Where most reality shows glorify bad behavior, The Biggest Loser asks us to live up to our potential.

ColdplayMusic – Coldplay

Ever since 2005 and the band’s appearance as the “You know how I know you’re gay?” punchline from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Coldplay has been seen as the relentlessly sappy group of effeminate Brits who give romance a bad name. Among certain music fans, their name is shorthand for cheap emotion and mass-market sentiment – the Hallmark Cards of guitar rock.

It’s not a totally undeserved reputation, but I love them anyway because, left out of that larger discussion is a really important point: they write some killer melodies.  Their 2000 debut, Parachutes, is a dynamite collection of songs that’s been overshadowed by the ubiquity of hit single “Yellow,”  and its follow-up, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, is one of my Top Ten albums of the first decade of the 21st Century.  And yeah, some of that album has been overplayed, but seriously: listen to “Clocks” with new ears and dare to tell me it’s not an amazing song.

Those first two albums went a long way toward replacing The Smiths in my lovelorn late-20’s vocabulary, and I vividly remember singing songs like “Shiver” and “The Scientist” at top volume as a balm for another broken heart.  And maybe this is why I’m drawn to Coldplay despite their detractors: at heart, I’m just as sappy and weedy as the band.

Anyway, 2005’s X & Y isn’t nearly as good as its two predecessors (although I still find “Fix You” to be almost annoyingly wonderful in its panoramic, widescreen bombast), but their last two albums, 2008’s Viva la Vida and 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, have taken the admirable tack of following stylistic tangents while still incorporating some of the most hummable melodies of recent times.  It hasn’t made them more masculine, but in our testosterone-heavy culture, I’ll take a little sensitivity anyday.

Stephen KingBooks – Stephen King

I’ve written about King so much in my other blogs that I’m a little tired of my own effusiveness.  But for the benefit of new readers: Stephen King is almost solely responsible for the reader I am today.  I think avid readers can trace moments like these, the times when we’ve read something that fundamentally alters not just our reading trajectory, but our lives.

I don’t know how I discovered it – or more importantly,why my parents let me read it – but Stephen King’s Cujo knocked me on my scrawny little 13-year-old rear.  I mean, are you kidding me? A big-ass dog ripping people to shreds, and my first encounter with the word fuck in literature?  Up to that point I was heavily into the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks and my reaction was this: “I’ve been reading about elves when I could have been reading this all along?  Ho-lee shit.”  Fortunately, this was in the late 80′s, before King had written eleventy-hundred books and started recycling plots.  The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Firestarter, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone – all fell in short order. This locust-like rampage through King’s bibliography eventually got me to Danse Macabre, wherein he describes some of his favorite authors.  And it was in that book that I first encountered Harlan Ellison, a sorta-kinda science fiction writer who continued my literary journey.  Ellison led me to Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, who eventually got me to Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy and T.C. Boyle and most of the other writers who are my favorites to this day.

But King set me on this path, and I still feel a debt of gratitude for that.  To this day I faithfully pick up his newest book whenever it’s published, but I don’t do this out of obligation or nostalgia.  King’s very popularity leads people to lump him in with (in my opinion) less-talented writers like Sparks or Grisham, but, as with Coldplay, I think this knee-jerk reaction obviates people from actually experiencing the art.  And King, for as long as he’s been doing this, still writes terrific stories with great passion.  Not every book is a winner – I grew tired of the Dark Tower series around Book 5 and still haven’t been able to finish it, and I’m still reluctant to read From a Buick 8 because I think we can all agree that two haunted car books is two too many for anyone – but I think we’d all be lucky to maintain such consistently high quality for nearly forty years.  So, y’know, struggle manfully with the new Thomas Pynchon if you like. King’s upcoming sequel to The Shining will give me more pleasure in the long run.

One final note about all of this: liking what you like and being proud of it, as I hope I’ve shown here, doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge its faults.  But it also doesn’t mean that just because it has faults that it’s not worthy of your attention.  For me, it’s more important that we have passions than that we worry overmuch what other people think of them.  And, to that end, you should feel free to make fun of me for liking any of the things I’ve written about here, just as I will make merciless fun of you for liking Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or Nickelback.  It’s only fair.

*****

Current listening:
Joy big
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar (2011)

Listening Post (1/4/13)

Love

The universe has a way of correcting itself, even if sometimes takes forty years.  Released the same year as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who Sell Out, as well as debuts by the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix, Love’s 1967 album Forever Changes is every bit the classic as its better-known peers.  It sank more or less without a trace upon release, the band imploded, and visionary singer/songwriter Arthur Lee eventually ended up in jail on firearms charges.

As time progressed, though, admirers caught on to the album’s blend of dark-edged psychedelia and impeccable songcraft.  When Lee was released from prison in 2001, he returned to the stage a conquering hero, fronting a reconstituted band with original Love guitarist Johnny Echols and frequently playing Forever Changes in its entirety to sold-out crowds.  When Lee died of leukemia in 2006, “better late than never” for his band’s crowning achievement was cold comfort.

But enough bio.  I finally caught up with the band in 2000 and was immediately floored.  I’ve given Forever Changes a lot of spins in the last dozen years, but after not listening to it in a while I recently bought a copy on vinyl and it’s every bit as good as I remember.  Lee had a way with a melody, to be sure, but Forever Changes one-ups the other psychedelic bands of the era by going dark with the lyrics and relying heavily on strings and brass to carry the tunes.  Opening track “Alone Again Or” is the song from the album that (rightfully) gets all the press, but my favorite is actually the closer, “You Set the Scene.”  This video is from the band’s triumphant performance at 2003’s Glastonbury Festival and is a strong argument that every song should end with repeated trumpet fanfares.

Everybody’s Got Nice Stuff but Me

45records

Music fans: Have you ever stopped to consider just how good people had it in the 1960’s? I’m totally aware of the argument against nostalgia and the contention that the past is never as good as we imagine it to be, but seriously: Just think about it.

I was recently reading an article about The Who, and the author made a throwaway comment about how in the late 60’s the Beatles were singing about love and the Rolling Stones were singing about lust, but the Who were taking a decidedly darker tack, singing about things like gender confusion and sexual predators.  And my first thought was, “Yeah, that’s pretty interesting.”  But my second thought – one that really hadn’t occurred to me before in any real way – was, “Damn.  The Beatles, the Stones, and the Who were all recording at the same time.”

Do we have anything comparable to that today? It’s nice that Springsteen, Dylan, and Leonard Cohen all released new music last year, but their 2012 iterations aren’t exactly the same as their 1970’s versions. And there’s just no way we can put Bieber, Swift, and Rihanna in the same category without vomiting.

The really bewildering thing is that the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who are really just the tip of the musical iceberg.  Let’s take 1968 and 1969 as a test case.  Consider the embarrassment of riches released in just those 24 months:

The Band – Music from Big Pink
The Beatles – The Beatles (aka The White Album) and Abbey Road
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills
The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Cream – Wheels of Fire
The Doors – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade
Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland
The Kinks – The Village Green Preservation Society
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin I and II
The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only in it for the Money
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet and Let it Bleed
Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends
Sly & The Family Stone – Dance to the Music, Life, and Stand!
Small Faces – Ogden’s Gone Nut Flake
The Stooges – Self-titled
The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
The Who – Tommy
Scott Walker – Scott 2, 3, and 4
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle

Even cherry-picking (and leaving out stuff I generally don’t care about, like the first Fleetwood Mac album, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and Bowie’s largely crappy debut), this is an unbelievable list of albums.  I count at least fifteen stone classics, a handful of highly influential albums that have grown in stature with time, and a number of  lesser works by major artists.  I mean, just stop and consider that The White Album, Astral Weeks, and The Village Green Preservation Society were all released in the same month.

There have certainly been other productive periods (the prime punk years of 1977-1978 would be a good comparison), but has there ever really been another concentration of indisputable classics like the one above?  I’m casting about, but not coming up with much.  And I admit this begrudgingly.  I formed my music tastes as a teenager in the late 80’s, worshipping at the altar of R.E.M., U2, The Smiths, Joy Division, Pixies, and all the other usual suspects from that era.  I still devour music voraciously, seeking out new bands that inspire and entertain.  My three favorite albums from 2012 came from bands I didn’t know about last January.  I hate hippies.  But I’ve still got nothing.

And I wonder why this is.  I’m reminded of Jimmy Fallon’s character in Almost Famous, prophesying the changing music industry.  Is that it?  It’s just a business now?  Artists aren’t allowed to mature on their own anymore?  They need the instant hit that allows for maximum merchandising, and an inability to replicate that gets them cast into obscurity?

Or is this just another version of the literary canon that gets taught in school?  Are Sgt. Pepper, Exile on Main St.,  and Pet Sounds just the musical equivalent of Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, overshadowing other works of equal merit just because they were created first?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I’m certainly willing to listen to theories.  As I write this I keep thinking about the word I used earlier: concentration.  I absolutely think there’s still brilliant music being made (f’rinstance, I’d rate Elbow’s 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid as highly as just about anything on the above list), but it’s not happening in the same numbers, and there’s just no way to make the argument that we’ll be looking back on the music made in 2012 with the same regard as the music made in 1968 – and if any of you say Ke$ha, I’ll punch you in the throat.

There’s just something about that time period that we haven’t been able to replicate. But maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe the fault is mine in trying to turn it into a past vs. present cage match. Okay. I can live with that. But the fact remains: I’d trade 90% of what was released in 2012 for just a handful of albums that lived up to the quality of 1968.

*****

Current listening:
Nick nocturama
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Nocturama (2003)

Listening Post (1/2/13)

clock-opera-band-007When I’ve previously kept a blog at the end of a calendar year I’ve half-heartedly attempted to assemble a series of best-of lists.  I love reading these year-end lists (it’s one of the best ways for me to discover some great stuff that slipped through the cracks), but I’m crap at making them.  #1 and #2 are always solid, but after that I might as well draw names out of a hat.

I won’t backtrack now and rehash my entire list, but for the inaugural Listening Post of Gold Star for Robot Boy, it seems appropriate to share my top song pick of 2012.  This year, #1 was a given since early spring when I first heard Clock Opera’s “Belongings.”    I’m a fan of melancholy, and what initially drew me to this song was its bittersweet repeating piano figure and the naked regret in singer Guy Connelly’s voice.  So far, so maudlin.  But what catapults this song into the realm of the classic is its slow build and the way it achieves lift-off at the 3:45 mark, leaving melancholy behind and becoming something defiantly euphoric.  I could listen to this thing until my ears bleed.

“Belongings” was my favorite song of the previous year, and Clock Opera’s debut, Ways to Forget, was my favorite album.  Still waiting on that American tour.