Love at the Bottom of the Sea, New Album Review

Other sites and blogs have heralded The Magnetic Fields’ newest release as one of the most anticipated albums of the year.  I think this would (and should) be the case if more people actually knew about the stylings of the Stephin Merritt led band. But they don’t.

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I feel like most people  who say they like reggae don’t really mean reggae, they mean Bob Marley. Now I don’t mean everyone because there are wide swaths of folks into Ts and the Maytals, Burning Spear and a slew of other reggae acts. I mean middle America, the rank and file citizenry–they know only Marley in my experience.

Marley should be credited for bringing the music to the masses. However, reggae as a form  itself doesn’t get enough respect and I think that it should. It may not be developed to the level of blues or jazz, but it hasn’t had the time either; reggae as we know it hasn’t been around that long. Even jazz wasn’t even considered an art form for a long time and was eschewed by the music buying masses as “race music”. (Now it’s turned into this slightly snobby type of thing that only the intellectual elite can enjoy, but that line of thought is for another day.) Reggae, enjoyable to listen to and socially aware at times, demands respect.

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Sound and Sense?

The Post Below was written early on in the Brothers’ experimentation with the blog essay. The Younger, probably rightly, often rails against me for my egg-headedness. As the Greek poet Pindar writes (to prove my brother’s point): “not even the tawny lion nor the red fox can change the color of their kind”.

The post below is one of an infrequent series where I try to figure some things about popular music out. When my brother first read this he told me he felt like he was back in English class and was being forced to respond to a prompt. I apologize to him and anyone else for flashbacks.

“The Sound must seem an echo to the sense”

The epigraph above comes from poet and translator Alexander Pope and represents a dominant trend in interpreting and teaching poetry from Ancient Rome (where similar sentiments can be found in the Latin poet Horace’s Ars Poetica) through Pope’s 18th century right up through the 20th century where it resonated with New Criticism and Formalism.

Alexander Pope, no slouch

What this phrase means is a little more complicated that it seems (although, at times, just as simple). For Pope and others, if a line of poetry is about a whisper, it should be metrically light and full of susurration. Weighty matter (war, violence, etc.) should come in long syllables and harsh consonants. Mourning poetry, similarly, should evoke sounds of grief with nasal consonants and wide open vowels.

Of course, this is a brief and insufficient illustration of the principle as a way of asking whether or not we can expect the principle to work in music as well as it does or doesn’t work in poetry.

(I, for one, don’t think it matters if it works perfectly at all. The value of a theory isn’t its universal application or truth but whether or not the idea persuades you to consider something in a new way. For that reason, interpreters who cleave tirelessly to one theoretical approach—or for that matter politicians who embrace and espouse one governing philosophy—leave me bored and suspecting that they have let ideology get in the way of clear thinking).

I think we all realize intuitively that music regularly matches “sound” with “sense”—for this reason, dance songs are typically filled with happy beats and unimportant lyrics; love songs are pretty; and angry songs are, well, angry.

My question for pop songs, however, aims for more than their atmosphere and attitude. It is more a question of the extent to which the sounds of a song may be able to reflect the sense of its lyrics. If we want to claim (as I do) that pop songs have not only cultural and historical relevance but also the aesthetic complexity to rival conventional forms of ‘high art’, then their amenability to the same types of questions as those posed for the conventional forms is an important litmus test.

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New Album review: Toward the Low Sun, Dirty three

A few years back (ok, at least a decade now). I used to travel home on the holidays from my not-so-sleepy college town to the backwoods where I grew up. As you can tell from some of my brother’s posts on the area’s characters and atmosphere, it exerts a pull on you.  And it exerted a pull on me: I would come home for each holiday break and return to the places I had been before. Every time I left, the pull of gravity gained upon re-entry almost tore me apart.

If you grow up in one place and one house your home town (or neighborhood) reigns mythic in your mind whether you leave or stay. For my brother, the nature of the place that nourished us has become a defining feature of his identity; for me, leaving it has been as definitive. When I was younger, every time I returned and left home was like the re-opening of a festering wound.

For a while, I always returned to the home of my best friend, the Lead Singer, where, with his help, I obliterated my sorrow chemically. This is not a sob-story or a point to trade drug-narratives, but a simple statement of fact. While we were pointedly not talking about the widening gulf between us, the anxieties of accepting our meager places in the world, or the challenges of trying to be something greater, we talked about music.

Or, rather, he talked about music and I listened. While our taste in music was often similar and while I too often only learned of music from him, there were many cases earlier in our lives when I just dismissed his suggestions. But something about the desperation of my homecomings and the chemical disintegration of barriers made me his avid audience in these years.
I don’t know how, but I had never heard of Nick Drake until the Lead Singer made me listen to Way to Blue on one of those snowy evenings. I promptly bought every album I could. We started listening to the Dandy Warhols and other similar artists. But the real gift I received during one of those visits was the Dirty Three.

The Dirty Three is a band only for the lack of a better descriptive term. An instrumental trio comprised of drums, guitar, and violin, this Australian group has the most unique and memorable sound of any vaguely popular music outfit from the past twenty years. The violin is electrified with a jumped-up guitar pick-up (famously on a lark way back in 1992/3 by the violinist Warren Ellis); the guitar plays rhythm and lead riffs. The drummer borrows from jazz, rock and all-comers.

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Live Music

I have been very lucky in the amount of live music I’ve seen over the years. It had something to do with my siblings, my choice in friends and my choice in college. All three linked to give me the opportunity to see a wide variety of shows in a wide variety of places.

My first show besides seeing my brother’s band, as far as I can remember, was Guster at a bar in Portland, Maine when I was in seventh grade. They still rocked the bongos and at my young age, anything with older people was cool. I remember being very tired but enjoying it nonetheless. The opening band was called “Smokin Grass” and I didn’t understand what the lead singer of Guster meant by saying “Only seven more hours to 4:20” before the first song. Everyone laughed so I pretended to get it and followed suit.

Both my siblings took me to many shows over the course of my teenage years and I am a very lucky man because even if you don’t love the band, it is always an experience that you learn something from, even if it’s as simple as not ever buying food from a bar with dirt on the walls.

My brother brought me to many of his various bands shows and smaller local acts in Boston where he went to college. My sister brought me to singer/songwriter type of music and white boy reggae type stuff like Dispatch, the first and only show besides George Clinton in 2009 that I have walked out on. To Dispatch’s credit, they are a really good band, I just wanted to smoke cigarettes out front and the venue would not allow you to come back in if you chose to do this. Lame.

As for the Atomic Dog himself, it just got really boring after the twenty minutes of “Maggot Brain” and George was barely moving. He little just flapped his hands up and down. Christ, I know he’s not young and apparently very fat, but at least have the decency to go to rehab or quit touring. I will get into worst shows ever at a later date.


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Odi et Amo: On the iPod

“….Never change, Never Change, Never change / This is why I fell in love…”
–“I Can Change” LCD Sound System
“Sweetheart, darling, bear in mind all the time
that a constant friend is hard to find
But when you find one that is good and kind
Never you change, never you change”
–“Never You Change” Toots and the Maytals

In an earlier post, I lamented the deleterious effect that the digitalization of music along with technology like the iPod has had on the way we produce, consume and categorize music. Indeed, it is fairly easy to come up with a list of evils perpetuated by the iPod. We listen to (and purchase) individual songs rather than albums; the sonic fidelity (depending on the compression rate) is actually quite poor; the Apple headphones aren’t nearly as high-quality (or durable) as they claim; the ease of carrying around so much music trivializes it even more; and, to join other doomsday criers, the personal music player makes it almost necessary that we will listen to music alone rather than with others.
I Hate My Machine Overlord

Now, there are answers to each of these complaints. The album, for instance, has probably always been an unstable art form; for another, digital recording has long been compressing sound and altering fidelity (but so few people can actually tell the difference that this is negligible). Despite all of these complaints (especially about those damn white shitty headphones) I don’t want to present a jeremiad against the iPod. I’d rather sing its praises.

See, the iPod changed my life. Really.

And here’s where I will come too close to sounding like some a corporate puppet or parrot. Let me, then, first preface my effusive praise with a disclaimer. I really f**king hate Apple as a company. I hate their oh-so-aesthetically pleasing designs. I hate their emphasis on form and function. I really hate the implicit elitism of the cost difference between Macs and PCs and the overt elitism of Apple in the 80’s and 90’s when only certain stores could sell them. (My wife has a Macbook; I burn through a PC laptop every other year. I will not change.)

I also really hate Apple advertising campaigns. When they aren’t winking at you about their own cleverness, they are self-assured and self-righteous to the point of distorting reality. I hate the entire history of iPod commercials for trying so damn hard to look and sound cool. I hate the fact that I find myself liking 99% of the songs they use in these commercials.

I hate the iPad (I have a Kindle). I hate the iPhone (I have an android). I hate Apps for the iPhone. I hate people who have iPhones. I hate people who constantly check iPhones when they are at a restaurant, a movie, a meeting, a class etc. I know that my cell phones (which I change too often due to clumsiness) aren’t as easy to use or as aesthetically pleasing, but I will not change! So much of this is envy, but a good deal is revulsion at having a company try so hard to appeal to me and succeed right up to the point that I can only reject its overtures because I am by nature (and nurture, I suppose) a contrarian.

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Zombie Killing Music

In honor of the closing of AMC’s The Walking Dead‘s second season:

So if you’re lonely
You know I’m here waiting for you
I’m just a crosshair
I’m just a shot away from you
And if you leave here
You leave me broken, shattered, I lie
I’m just a crosshair
I’m just a shot, then we can die
From “Take Me Out”, Franz Ferdinand

Several years ago I met up with an old college roommate (I’ll call him the Historian). As usual, we ended up rehashing the old days before sitting down to a game. In this instance, we were playing a clever board game called “Maul of America” which is, essentially, a game where you play people in a mall trying to escape a Zombie attack. (Get the word play, Maul? HA.)

Now, this was a nostalgic moment. The Historian introduced me to “Maul of America” long before zombies were cool, before “28 Days Later”, before World War Z, The Walking Dead, Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, and everyone talking about the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse. Before Zombies went high culture, the Historian resurrected them from the marginal and the low.

This was a time before Zombie modes in video games (when the N64 was a recent revolution) and before the global war on terror changed the way we fear. The Historian and I are old enough to recall fearing the USSR—we remember legitimately worrying about a nuclear apocalypse. We didn’t have to invent doomsday scenarios in our youth. (Although we did retreat to the woods for safety in fear of Y2K.)

The Historian is an uber-Geek. While I simply played a Bard in D&D to the 21st level, he had  disdain for that game—well into adulthood he dabbled in the esoteric, running games called Champions and Call of Cthulu (he was not, however, a LARPer). While I had traded my 12-sided dice in for guitar picks years earlier, the Historian was still mastering the art of the interactive narrative.

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Leo Kottke

The song below is probably my favorite instrumental ever. I know that’s a heavy statement and there are many heavyweight contenders from old school Wagner to Derek Trucks transposing Coltrane’s solos from “My Favorite Thing”s on slide guitar to a million other awesome examples of music without words. My brother recently wrote an very cool post about the Australian instrumental group The Dirty Three who do some amazing things with just three people, one of whom plays a violin with a jury rigged pick up. More on them later but suffice to say, I don’t think even their coolness matches this favorite jam of mine by Leo Kottke.

I probably have mentioned this artist before but I can’t locate where. For those of you that don’t know, Leo Kottke is an extremely unique classical guitarist from the Midwest who has been sort of an underground phenomena for several decades at this point. He does things with the twelve string guitar people shouldn’t do and tells stories that are so funny that you almost spill your Long Island Iced Tea at your show. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing him twice, the first of which was blurry due to the aforementioned cocktail and my then new ability to buy and consume alcohol legally. My ex-girlfriend was not impressed with myself and a friend yelling loudly at a seated show of mostly middle aged concertgoers, but the second show was different. Not only did I drive and thus not drink very much, but also he played “Vaseline Machine Gun” which was and still is my favorite Kottke song and instrumental of all time. He first teased it then played the whole song near the end of the show and I literally couldn’t focus on anything except his guitar.

Whenever I play this for someone, especially my friends who take playing guitar seriously. it;s similar to my reaction whilst seeing it live. Their mouths are slightly ajar trying to figure out how he is playing this song but with a smile because it sounds so cool. One friend, the mysterious mountain man Fred, actually could play parts of it but also said he could probably never play it exactly as Kottke did. Fred is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known and of any that I’ve ever seen or heard so him saying this holds some serious weight.

Kottke has said that with this track, he wanted to play slide in a way that had nothing to do with the Delta Blues style.. The song is in two parts. The first is a series finger picked guitar lines with very little slide at all. He does this pretty fast and it is a very interesting to hear. It sounds like descending and ascending lines with a cool little turn around. The second part, clearly my favorite as I relentlessly herald the use of the slide, is where it gets weird. He plays this strange slide bridge that really doesn’t sound like the blues style at all. This bridge blows my mind, just in sheer weirdness. Every single time I play this for somebody, they look at me with disbelief when he rips into the slide part. The use of the twelve string gives it a very unique sound that is unlike anything I have ever heard. Kottke has endless amounts of good songs, pretty much everything he ever did is good. However, this one song is his best work in my mind and I hope some others out there hear this and feel the same way.

Songs of the Year — 1992

Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head,
“One” , U2

Songs of the Year: “Smells like Nirvana”, Weird Al Yankovic; “One”, U2

Runners-Up: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nirvana; “Under the Bridge”, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Honorable Mention: “November Rain”, Guns N’ Roses

In the year that They Might Be Giants released Apollo 18, Alice in Chains released Dirt, Blind Melon debuted and Dr. Dre changed the world with The Chronic, I was listening to Weird Al Yankovic.

My 1992 was two different years—half of the year capped off a bright and happy boyhood. The other half portended a mopey, angst-ridden adolescence. 1992 was a year of transition whose boundaries can be sensed in the music I listened to and the technology that provided it.

I wore this cassette out

In one half of the year I was still analogue. At the zenith of my boyish geekness, a circle of friends and I (all male, of course) circulated copies of every Monty Python cassette and every Weird Al tape. The last cassette I ever bought was Off the Deep End. I wore that out by copying it, by listening to it while mowing the interminable lawn, and by rewinding and fast forwarding ad nauseam.

So, while the rest of the world was learning about the weather in Seattle and trying on flannel, I was doing my penance for geek heaven. I learned all of Weird Al’s polka medleys by heart. I knew every Monty Python sketch on tape. I think that my friend and I actually performed the “Lumberjack” sketch at a school assembly. Others were wearing Guns N’ Roses shirts and carrying skateboards (ridiculous things in a place with mostly dirt roads…); I sang about suspenders and a bra.

It isn’t that I disliked Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, I just didn’t care much about it. It didn’t mean anything to me (yet). Now, Weird Al’s parody was a different story altogether. The tracks on Off the Deep End were the best produced of his career; the parody sounded like the original. In addition, the lyrics seemed, to me, to be witty and just juvenile enough (animal noises? Check.)

Why are they Giants?

I only know one thing for sure about They Might be Giants and that is that my brother the Elder loves them and has for as long as I can remember. I don’t think there are many bands I have liked consistently from a young age. In fact, the only two I can think of are Zeppelin and the Beatles but even that’s not the same because the eras of the two bands that I really like changes constantly. Sometimes I want early 70’s acoustic Zep instead of later more experimental stuff and once in a while I’ll listen to the early poppy Beatles instead of the super trippy stuff I normally take from later on the 60’s. I think the Elder likes They Might Be Giants all the way through and, although I don’t share his enthusiasm, I certainly respect his fortitude.

The only personal connection with the band I have is the one song I love by them, “Particle Man”. I had heard the song from my brother at some point but I really knew it from a Tiny Tunes episode where the cartoon characters actually act out the lyrics. It is funny and very well done. I believe “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” was also done in this way but I’d never had the same regard for that song.

My sophomore year of college was a big year. It was the year I declared my major and the year I met the girl I’d date for all of college and graduate school only to break up right before I received my master’s degree. Also, it was the year I partied the most and one song I had to hear after hours of Dead and Allman Brothers tunes was this song (“Particle Man”). It always provoked me to make some type of crazy dance and yell the lyrics which made absolutely zero sense to me. It is supposed to be about characters in the most literal sense, according to Wikipedia. I am not sure what that means.

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