New Niece Playlist

About a month ago, my sister gave birth to her first child, a little girl. She came very early, about six weeks before she was supposed to, so apparently she shares our family’s complete lack of patience. It was a little scary at first because they had to perform emergency surgery due to complications but everyone is doing fine and she seems to be progressing well. I was able to go down and see her just two days after she was born and it was a very cool experience. The Elder J lives on the other side of the country, thus I was not able to see either of his kids in their first few days of their lives which only made this experience more significant.

As I said in my New Nephew Playlist, my siblings having kids polarized the loss of my father. I don’t want to belabor the point but I wish he had been able to see more of his grandkids and something my brother in law said led me to believe he might just be seeing them anyway. When the baby was born, he said he felt a hand on his shoulder. This could be a multitude of things; however, it is known that my father was not a toucher. I can’t ever remember him hugging me until the last year he was alive and even then he was weird about it. Some people don’t show their love that way. He never hugged his son-in-law and in fact, the only time he even touched him was at their wedding. He put his hand on my brother in law’s shoulder and said something, the specifics of which I do not know. Who knows what is real and what is not but I know that I am confident he’s looking on from somewhere. So what music does this make me think of?

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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Missed Shows

The Shows That Could Have Been

I’ve already written an entry about live music and two shows that really blew my head apart. I will surely get to shows that sucked, but what about those shows you never got to for whatever reason? I got some serious musical letdowns due to a wide spectrum of issues ranging from nobody to go with to sheer stupidity. Let me share some of these with you.

I have two that are in the same mold, both of equal importance in the loss I felt when I fucked up and didn’t go to these shows. Both also were missed because I knew no one else who wanted to go to the concert so I’ve vowed not to do this again. Hell, it’d probably fun to go to a concert alone; maybe I could pick up random women. Alternately, I think the live music experience is best when with someone you like and who has an at least passing interest in the music at hand. It is fun to introduce somebody to a band they eventually love.

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On the Radio: Move My Jacket

As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife corrupted our daughter in utero. On her way to and from work, she would listen only to top-40 and Hip-hop stations. I worried then that this would make our first child predisposed to my wife’s musical tastes, but I could not have that argument. (Who but a fool argues music choice with a pregnant woman?)

The actualization of this fear was not complete until my daughter started eating ‘table’ food, as they (pediatricians and other baby people) call it. My daughter is about as finicky an eater as you can imagine (although her aunt, the sister may have given her a run for her money: she ate nothing but grilled cheese and cheerios for a decade or something like that).

We learned early on that we could get our daughter to eat by (1) distracting her with novel household objects (2) singing and dancing or (3) playing music. We exhausted option 1 fairly quickly; we found ourselves often too exhausted for option 2. So, we turned to the radio. And guess what, the only stations that worked as an invitation to dinner were the stations my wife listened to while pregnant.

Of all the horrors I have been subjected to during this time, the song that has tortured me the most is “Move Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 (with Christina Aguilera). The first problem I had with it is understanding it: for the longest time I was convinced that the lyric was “move my jacket”, which I took as a metaphor for locating your home and identity with another person. That was, obviously, too deep.

The second issue: I don’t think the vocal stretching of the vowel in “move” is clever, aesthetically pleasing, or an indication of talent (too much autotune). The song is catchy the way an advertising jingle is.

(It doesn’t help that I think that Maroon 5 is completely overrated or that Adam Levine should be silenced by executive order.)

The third problem: I can’t tell what moving like Jagger means. See, Jagger doesn’t even move like Jagger. He moves like a white version of James Brown (on heroin). That patently tortured issue of identity aside, what is the semiotic value of Jagger’s movement? What cultural association is the singer trying to evoke? I fear that, like too many pop songs, Maroon 5 is merely trying to float a reference out there from pop culture to force a shared frame of reference and derive some benefit from a prior cultural symbol. By evoking a revered icon, however, in an unclear usage, the band runs the risk of cheapening it and emptying out any preferred meaning.

Or something like that.

The larger objection is that the song is stupid and the forced reference is lame. Someone moving like Jagger might be effective if mentioned once (as when Ben Folds starts a song by singing “I met a girl who looked like Axl Rose / got drunk and took her home / and we slept in our clothes” in “Julianne”); as the centerpiece of the song the reference starts out confusing, becomes hollow, and then gets lame.

I know that you don’t share my disdain for Maroon 5, brother, but am I off-base for this song?

Here’s the kicker: every time I move a jacket, I sing to myself “mooooooooooove my jacket..”  Do I protest so much because I secretly like the song?

Here’s something better:

Doolittle (does a lot)

I’m making good friends with you
when you’re shaking your good frame
fall on your face in those bad shoes
lying there like you’re tame

How does one judge an album? Is it by the influence it exerts on its time or the degree to which it is representative of its era? Is it by its ‘originality’ (the magnitude by which it differs from its time)? Should we rank albums based on what people or artists say about them (some kind of BCS voting for music)? Or should we, as many do, evaluate an album’s merit based on its subsequent influence? (This rubric itself is shifting; influences have varied durations and potency.)

In the patently subjective and admittedly haphazard spirit of my mission—to collect the ten albums I could live with forever—I prize the wholly individualized “memory” index balanced against beginning-to-end ‘listen-ability’. For ‘historical’ albums—those whose time on the charts has largely come and gone—these are the only two rubrics that really matter: how an album connects you to the timelessness music promises; and whether or not the entire sequence is consistent, coherent and compelling.

(The ‘historical axis’ is also important for establishing musical canons and trends, but I won’t pretend to possess the breadth or depth of knowledge required for such tasks. Of course, these categories cannot be immediately applied to new albums. Instead, when I listen an album the first time, I let its sounds wash over me; I endeavor to ‘inhabit’ the music, to dwell in a void where there is nothing else and to breathe with every rim-click and to feel the slight dissonance of fingers sliding on guitar strings. I try, as if a formalist or unreflective New Critic, to experience the piece as an aesthetic moment apart from everything else.)

The Pixies made an indelible impact upon me at an impressionable age. What I have not completely resolved is which of their albums I love the most. Come on Pilgrim is delightfully unique, but it lacks the confluence of melody and dissonance that I associate with the Pixies most strongly. Surfer Rosa has one of the best three song sequences of any album ever (“Gigantic”, “River Euphrates”, and “Where is My Mind”) but its later “Tony’s Theme” and “Oh My Golly”, while interesting, aren’t as powerful or well-arranged. Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde have strong offerings, but fall flat in comparison to the band’s coup de grace: Doolittle.

(I am sure that ‘real’ Pixies fans and alt-rock aficionados will take issue with this ranking. Doolittle is probably too popish; the songs are too polished: it lacks the raw excitement of Surfer Rosa. But, screw them and those contextual concerns. Doolittle, from beginning to end, is a masterpiece.)

Part of my affinity for this album has to do, as always, with the memories. I remember lying on the floor of a half-finished house hearing “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (and being pulled back to this repeatedly when the Bloodhound Gang’s “Fire Water Burn” was popular). My siblings and I used to drive around town listening to “Here Comes Your Man”. I (more than once) made out to “La La Love You.” I debated the meaning of “Debaser”, defended the screams of “Tame” and felt a shiver when I first heard TV on the Radio’s cover of “Mr. Grieves”.

While Surfer Rosa most clearly establishes the Pixies’ sound, Doolittle perfects it and elevates it through variation. The Pixies are known, as their documentaries proclaim, for the “loud, quiet, loud” contrast that abandoned the basic crescendo or constant volume typical of rock music (although, they as often start quiet…the point is that they are dynamic through sharp, daring (almost schizophrenic) contrast). But this claim is not quite descriptive enough. The sound contrasts are amplified by the use of the instruments (simple, but booming bass lines; complimentary and creative drum lines; strange but effective lead guitar riffs) but they are focused to perfection by the vocals.

Black Francis (Frank Black) has one of the more unique vocal styles from the past 30 years of alt-rock. His tone is good (he can sing sweetly when he wants to) but it is the way he uses this instrument that matters. He can speak a lyric (as in “Monkey Gone to Heaven”), he can offer the cadence of a pop singer (“Here Comes Your Man”) or give a playful, almost detached performance (“La La Love You”). But what really characterizes him is the severity of the contrast between his whispered lyrics, his full singing voice, and his growling scream. Frank Black can wail and it is not pretty, but it can shake you down to your feet.

When combined with the sweet, almost understated, harmonies of Kim Deal, the vocal acrobatics of any Pixies album may not be for the tender-eared. What makes the Pixies—what makes their near screeching sounds (both from the guitars and the vocals) effective is the unexpected harmony between sound and sense. In an earlier entry I discussed the early literary ideal that a poem’s sounds ought to echo tits sense. While there are certainly myriad exceptions to this ideal, there is something about the Pixies’ sound that touches upon the ineffable.

Pixies’ songs are torrents of emotion contained within lyrics that flirt with clear statements while nearly defying any interpretation. The violence of converting ‘meaning’ into language, or emotion into music, is thus indirectly represented through the rupture of perfect harmony. What makes these ruptures musical, what gives them potency beyond raw emotional vigor, is that the songs never disintegrate into pure noise. Instead, they flirt with disaster while insisting on a return to the boundary of the song.

In a way (and this may be too grand of a claim, but fuck it) the typical Pixies’ song imitates individual life at its foulest and truest: strong beginnings and ends, indefatigable structure, all surrounding a voice that strains and protests at these bounds while really surrendering to be part of them.

Within this general trend the contrasts developed through the songs support the power of the album and a claim that this is the most representative Pixies’ album. “Debaser”, and “There Goes my Gun” could easily sit on Surfer Rosa while “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “La La Love You” are playful but musically effective where many of the tracks on the earlier album fail. “Here Comes Your Man” could have been a top-10 single; “Tame” and “Crackity Jones” are frenetic and grating without sacrificing an underlying melody. “Gouge Away”, “I Bleed” and “Dead” are not easily forgotten.

One of the best songs on the album, one of the most beautiful alt-rock songs ever is “Hey”. In many ways, this piece is one of the band’s greatest achievements. Black shouts the song into beginning :“Hey, been trying to meet you” and hums as the bass line rolls in while the accompanying guitar lick turns and churns us through the verse. Black sings, alternating between rhythmic words and stretching out syllables (“Hey..where…have you…been?” The sentence is a question and a lament). Black’s vocals crack as he approaches the verse where Deal’s level harmony helps to anchor him. At the same time, the lyrics converge to a moaning “if you go I will surely die / we’re chained”. Black turns the word “chained” over and over—stretching it to three or four syllables before clipping it off with a shout.

This song contains some of the most conservative guitar solos on the album, but they blend beautifully into the musical bridge where Black again alternates between grunts and singing.. He stretches out “This is the sound” until he almost shouts “that the mother makes when the baby breaks” before moving back to the lamentation “Chained”.

What the hell is this about? The song starts with a devil in the bed, the singer sleeping with whores and ends up with the breaking of a baby. The chains could be metaphors for any type of restriction, for any bondage. But, combined with the image of sexuality cast in shrouds of sin, the song seems to me to be musical grief for mortality. Black calls himself and his audience to attention with the shouted “Hey” and then muses on the bounds of the human condition.

Or something like that.

This album wins my undying devotion because it keeps moving on me. I am never sure how to take a given song. The music itself seems to grow alongside the protean flow of the lyrics. The longer I hear them, Black’s vocals seem more nuanced and subtle. So, because the album rewards repeated listening, it must rank high. The weakest track is “Silver”, which, after the barely checked fury of “Hey” is a quiet, if proleptic relief (it really anticipates some of the sounds of The Breeders).

Doolittle is the first lock for the desert island list. I have been listening to it for nearly 20 years. I will be listening to it for at least 20 more.

And you brother, what do you think?

Come on Irene

This was written last August during the below mentioned  Hurricane,

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane”

Hurricane season is upon us again along with all that it can entail (well, really, it is almost over). In my region of the Northeast United States, we always see some effects of hurricanes, but not since Hurricane Bob of 1991 have we dealt with the real deal. So, as Irene moved up the coast this week looking to be pretty serious, people got pretty buggy.

The different reactions of folk to supposedly imminent natural disasters never cease to amuse me from the borderline psychotic to the decision to get drunk all weekend because “it’ll be fuckin’ stormin’ anyway”. I went to the townie bar twice as the storm moved up the coast and both times I heard multiple parties talking about organizing massive hurricane get-togethers complete with diesel generators and giant vats of rum cocktails.

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Songs of the Year – 1993

Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

Songs of the Year: “Creep”, Radiohead; “No Rain ”, Blind Melon

Runners-Up: “Cannonball”, The Breeders; “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, Pixies (DQ’d for year)
Honorable Mention: “Nothin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog

While 1993 was a year when I definitely started thinking more deeply about music and about why I liked what I liked, it was also a year when I started to display my most common (and annoying) characteristics: contrarianism and, for lack of a better term, obscuricism.

So, it is easy for me to list the major artists from this year that I didn’t get into. I ignored The Smashing Pumpkins; I was dismissive of middle of the road alt-rock bands like Gin Blossoms, Candlebox, and the Counting Crows. I got on the tailend of bands like James. I didn’t care a bit for Nirvana’s In Utero. I bought Pearl Jam’s Vs. the day it came out but only listened to it a few times. Strangely enough, bands like The Crash Test Dummies caught my attention.

Now while music history shows look back to this period with unmeasured bliss, we shouldn’t forget how much crap there still was: “Insane in the Membrane” by Cypress Hill was a top hit; Bon Jovi somehow got away with “Bed of Roses”; and we all had to wonder what Meatloaf wouldn’t do for love. Nevertheless, in comparison to earlier years, there was some great music on the radio.

I tried to stay true to the music I had learned to love the year before. But, betrayed by U2’s almost unconscionable Zooropa, I went back in time to bands I had missed out on when I was too busy loving NKOTB and M. C. Hammer. 1993 is when I bought and consumed Doolittle and Surfer Rosa. I immediately fell in love with the Breeders’ Cannonball. But the two songs that best encapsulate 1993 for me  are “No Rain” by Blind Melon and Radiohead’s “Creep”.

I first heard these songs while riding home in a friend’s minivan from theater practice. My best friend—the previously mentioned Lead Singer—and I were immediately floored. I can think of the road we were on, the yellow color of a dusty dusk, and the smell of the river approaching.  We demanded more. We surfed the radio for hours. We called into to various stations. We waited and were consumed.

Now, my native cynicism should have braced me against the commercial push behind these artists; I should have rebelled against their constant play on MTV; my contrary nature should have rejected songs that were so unequivocally embraced, but I seem to have been defenseless against these tracks. I cannot think of a time when two songs that were so different simultaneously gripped my attention so forcibly.

Where “No Rain” is bright, brassy, and optimistic, “Creep” is self-deprecating, dark and unclear. One is hard to sing; the other is easy to imitate but hard to sing truly. One invites harmonizing; but the other invites a ghoulish singalong. The video of the former was playful and memorable; the latter was of a simple performance (although I can still see Tom Yorke’s scowl from the video). Whatever the reason, I bought both albums after hearing the singles once. And, most surprisingly, both albums turned out to be really good.

(Pablo Honey is a phenomenal alt-rock album; “Been Thinkin’ About You” is Radiohead’s best (and only?) love song; I have not really liked a Radiohead album since (I know, heresy). Blind Melon is one of the better hard rock albums of the 1990’s; “Change” is one of the best rock songs of the decade. I don’t know why it was never released as a single).

Best Radiohead album (of the year)

While the sonic field and feeling of these songs are different, the schizophrenia of my love is best illustrated through the lyrics. Where Shannon Hoon croons “I just want someone to say to me  / I’ll always be there when you wake” he evokes the simple and optimistic dream that I think most of us share at some level. The dancing electric lead over the acoustic rhythm leaves you to believe that this is far from too much to ask. But Yorke’s self-deprecating “When you were here before / couldn’t look you in the eye” speaks to the lie of Blind Melon’s promise.

These two songs, along with being musical complements, exhibit complementary sentiments. They are each one half of the one reality that is and was the state of being in an uncertain place, of being uncomfortable, of being in-between. In 1993, there were moments when it was bright, when I was, in some figurative way, dancing in a field and hopeful that someday I wouldn’t be alone. But there were also nights when I was sure I wasn’t good enough, or just not fucking special. Radiohead may have been satirizing such sentiments. Blind Melon may not have believed what they were singing. But I did. Sometimes.

Now, brother: I know you must remember something of this year. I read the entire Dune series while listening to these two albums, over and over and over and….

Scourges of the year: Ace of Base’s “The Sign” tortured me. Billy Joel’s ‘River of Dreams” proved he still didn’t know what decade it was and Michael Bolton was still releasing singles. I also used to torture my siblings by singing the 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up” using my best Axl Rose voice.

On the Radio: Whose Fault is it?

Recently, I have ended my embargo of the radio. Typicall,y I find conventional radio play objectionable in several ways: the constant commercials, the inane repetition of the same group of songs, the increasing absence of variety or difference from one station to another, and genre-based formats  (to name a few).

Although I do everything I can to avoid listening to FM radio (toying with and then abandoning XM; using my iPod everywhere; listening to audiobooks), I am periodically pulled back into its mediocre cesspool. Sometimes, it may be the station choices of a gym or office; or, perhaps, a desperate day’s drive when I have exhausted all other resources. Earlier in my life new jobs or new bosses inflicted variations on the radio theme upon me.

Over the past few months, however, there is a new source for my radio pains: children.

See, my daughter, under two, loves the damn radio; she won’t eat a meal without it playing. What does she love? Hip-hop and top 40 stations only. I have tried everything from country and NPR to carefully crafted playlists. She loves LFMAO. (I blame my wife for her music choices for our daughter in utero). My son, under 6 months old, cannot abide any type of silence—but he doesn’t quibble with my music choices.

The problem is that if there is any break in noise, he will freak the fuck out. This is especially perilous to start a car ride. So, to appease the boy, my car radio is set rather loud on the local ‘independent’ rock radio station.  The virtue of this station is that at times I hear songs I used to hear on the radio in my youth (White Zombie, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins).

The downside is that it has newer ‘hit songs’ in heavy rotation. The song I hear every I turn my stupid car on? “Not Your Fault” by AWOLnation. And the worse thing? I can’t decide whether or not I like it.

Here’s the thing about this song: it is completely schizophrenic stylistically. The verse sounds like a Pixies imitation (and a halfway decent one), the run up to the chorus, where the vocalist lets his voice break, is raw and sounds real—almost a Jack White growl or Social Distortion gravel.

But then we get to the chorus, “It’s not your fault”, which lends its name to the song. It sounds like 100 different marching choruses from bad mainstream alt-rock bands from the last decade. In comparison with what precedes it, it sounds too pretty. In content, it seems like it should be on Broadway or in an afternoon special (It may be even a bit too trite for that, whose fucking fault is it?). Can I take two parts of the song, but not the whole?

The biggest problem: I can’t get the damn thing out of my head. Does this mean the song is a success? Just because it is catchy, does that make it good?

And you brother, what do you think?

Why I may start liking the Black Keys

I have maintained ambivalence to the Black Keys for some time and for pretty stupid reasons. The first is that I always compare them to the White Stripes. I love the Stripes and will talk about missing their show in a later post. I think they’re wholly original and the guitar/drums duo is awesome. The Black Keys, besides having a similar name, number of band members, and Midwestern roots, are not really that close in sound when you pay attention. I never took the time to pay attention and chose one over the other. It’s a stupid call and arbitrary and not a good reason to dislike a band. I do it all the time though, don’t even get me started on Mastodon versus Clutch, it’s a major point of contention with one music friend.

The second big reason I have disliked the band in the past is that everyone else likes them. Furthermore, it’s really ignorant to not like something because everyone else does. When they recently stopped in my northern rural state, everyone in my age group went while I said “oh they aren’t that good”. Everyone said it was an amazing show.  I certainly got this from my brother and will blame the tendency on him, but not the continuation of it. I have always practiced this and I think it’s something that needs to go because I’m a giant hypocrite. I love Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles and a myriad of other bands that everyone else does because they are great bands who make great music. Obviously bands do not become popular because they suck, although I can think of several examples but it would get me away from my point.  You should like a band cause you enjoy their music and that should be it. This can be hard and I will always be guilty at some level of this, but give it a try if you’re in the current state of snobbery that some of us still reside in.

The last reason is that I’ve had to hear their hit “Lonely Boy” a billion times over the last year on my little FM radio that I often listen to both at work and at home while working on a multitude of household activities from doing the dishes to walking the dog. The alternative station, one of the few that has a strong signal on this archaic device of mine, had it on repeat which made me hate it. However, as many of you well know, the reverse of this can work well. Eventually, I did get to like the song and the whole impetus of this short piece is the constant airing of their newest single “Gold on the Ceiling”. I really like this jam and I can tell you why. It sounds like some early 70’s garage rock revival, like the Stooges with newer technology. I once read an article about their new album and this was their goal apparently, to sound like 70’s rock. Well done, I will now do some research.

I am going to give the Keys a try and write something at length in the future. I need to listen to their whole sound from the beginning to their most current work until I can form a real opinion.  I always sort of listened to them through their album Blackroc which pairs the Black Keys with various rappers. I really like old school rap which I will talk more about in the future, but this was the first thing I liked related to the Keys I will leave you with my favorite jam from that album featuring the late and great Ol’ Dirty Bastard and a sense of hope that I may have found a new way from my arbitrary hatred of popular music.