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.

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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)