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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