(Learning to) Learn about New Music

One might think (if one thought quickly) that, with all of the access to information provided by the internet,  it would be easy to learn about new music. This might seem especially true if we compare it to the way we used to learn about artists and songs (from friends, print magazines, fanzines, the radio, MTV). Each one of these categories could be hit-or-miss (a friend might have bad taste, certain artists could dominate the radio just as genres would dominate MTV).

Yet, we (or at least I) developed strategies for coping with these–you know which friends have tastes like your own (and the other friends might actually broaden your horizons); you can change radio stations or listen selectively to MTV (not that this is an issue any more since MTV no longer plays music). But today the situation is just damned overwhelming. I have been burned by algorithmic suggestions from Pandora, perplexed by “people who buy this also buy…” from Amazon, and similar (even less helpful) suggestions from iTunes store and the ironically named “Genius” app.

Not so intelligent. Seriously.

Not so intelligent. Seriously.

There are so many music blogs, band websites, articles, and lists that even someone like me who likes both to read and to read about music feels somewhat (ok, more than somewhat) overwhelmed by even starting to wade through the myriad words. (So, my clever response? Make another blog to clutter up the interweb).

When it comes down to it, the best way to learn about music is still from actual human beings. Unfortunately, this means having relationships with people. You know, talking to them and shit. As some of you may have learned, as life gets busier and we get old it is not only harder to find time to develop and maintain friendships, but we seem to harden over emotionally as we age, becoming less likely to make the kind of connections we could when we were younger.

(I am a particularly bad case. I was never as gregarious as my brother and father; my years in graduate school exacerbated the issue. The Younger J and the Indian often joke about putting an ad on Craigslist reading something like: “30 something professor of humanities looking for platonic activity partner for viewing sporting events, participating in running and basketball, and occasionally drinking beers.” Seriously, they have made this joke enough that I am starting to feel self-conscious about not feeling self-conscious…)

I am about .01% as cool as this

I am about .01% as cool as this

But most of my closest friendships have centered around music–from the Artist I knew who gave me my first Pixies’ album, to my childhood best friend who copied ever Weird Al and TMBG recordings for me, my college roommate who introduced me to Guster and, the Historian who made me re-think hip-hop, and, even my wife, who has forced me to admit a grudging respect for Mariah Carey. Shit, even though I haven’t spoken to many of my former bandmates for years, I feel something residual and strong every time I think of them (in comparison to anyone else from the ol’ days) because we made music together.

This is going on longer than I meant already and getting typically maudlin. When I was in graduate school, I learned about new music during iPod dumps and through a quaint but amazing mail CD exchange with my college roommate (yes, we copied CDs and sent them to each other through the mail. He suggested burning Mp3s onto discs, but I was too much of a luddite at the time to figure that out) and learned about Bishop Allen, Lucero and other great bands.

The problem is that now, as a parent, professor and whatever else I am, I don’t really have many conversations or relationships where music (that I like) actually comes up. My field is still rather elitist and old-fashioned, so more people seem to listen to classical music and opera than, say, even Weezer. (Folks in my parts are just getting to the Beatles.) My region is overwhelmingly dedicated to country music (which, no matter how much my brother loves it, I just can’t get in to). Yet, every once in a while, I do meet students who, while younger than me, seem to have similar interests and tastes and who, on occasion, tell me about new things to listen to.

So, while I run the risk of being the creepy teacher who tries to be like the kids, I also get to avoid some of the traps of growing older. (My parents stopped listening to anything new after I was born which is why the soundtrack of my life up to MC Hammer was Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, and whatever was on the oldies station.) During the past summer I met a graduating senior who was smart, a little obnoxious (in a good way), and keen on talking about almost anything (including classwork). In a year when I was burnt out a bit, he really renewed my confidence in the entire educational experiment when he kept coming back after class was over and grades were entered because he wanted further suggestions for reading and he wanted to talk about literature.

(Seriously, forget you Craigslist. If I had two students like this a semester I would never lose faith. If you teach, you know what I mean).

Turns out, Mr. Former Student (The Only D) also cares a bit about music (and football, pity a Steelers’ fan this year) and life. He moved back home with his parents to live the typical life of a college grad in this economy. And, because he has plenty of time to waste, he’s let me know about some new songs.

Song: Switzerland

Comment from The Only D: “Folk/Rock hybrid, they kinda sound like Mumford and Sons but less “commercial.””

Ok, I agree completely with this description and I absolutely love this song. The ensemble is fantastic, the smiles on the musicians’ faces are infectious. I love the harmonies (I am a sucker for the the male/female vocals, as I have said before). The combination of instruments is excellent (I am also a sucker for a banjo used in a rock/folk style). I dare say that this might be a better band than Mumford & Sons, if only because of the mixed genders and the better lyrics. The line “Our dreams were barely worth the price we paid?” will be in my head for a while. This band leaves me wanting more. I will get the album when it comes out.

(And, to be honest, a band with the name bison just makes me hungry.)
Band: Ben Howard
Song: “Oats in the Water”, “Call Me Maybe”

The Only D Says: “Acoustic Folk/Blues, this guy can play and sing at the same time and has a melancholic sound I’m kinda into. Plus the pop song cover is hilarious, he laughs half the time. His Burgh island EP is pretty good.”

I actually like the cover more than the original. Howard’s voice has a little too much vibrato in it for my taste. The first song is also a little too David Grayish in the vocals. The spare instrumentation for some reason reminds me of the rocky seashores of Maine, so there is something going on. Yet, the harmonies and pacing of the cover make me think that I might like to hear more. So, I will investigate. Is it creepy that the first two songs have had me pegged so well?

Band: Now, Now
Song: Colony

The Only D Says: “You said you listened to Tegan+Sara and someone on youtube says they sound like them, so I went with it. Plus, a banjo.”

Ok, this is three for three, which is definitely creeping me out. Is this a Single White Female kind of thing? I love the banjo intro, the minimalist composition, and the slow build. The vocals, until the harmonies come in, are a little too ethereal for me, but when the harmonies hit, I am bought and paid for. If I were the producer, I would want some weightier percussion (a djembe beat or something). The snare  near the end seems a little too tinny. The song isn’t as dynamic as Tegan and Sara, but, again, worth listening to more.

(True story: I once played the tenor banjo for like two weeks).

Band: The Paper Kites
Song: A Maker of My Time

The Only D Says: “More folk rock.”

I think that the introduction to this band is a little lacking; I tried not to assume that it was because the band was lacking. If Band of Horses had a baritone vocalist or if My Morning Jacket put out a forgettable album (oh wait, they have), it might sound like this. I forced myself to listen to the entire track. It is anodyne (it doesn’t bother me) but I don’t know if I would listen again. I do like the harmonies, but I think the guitar line is overemphasized and the lead vocals are too bland.

Ha. Only 3 for 4 so far.

Band: The Jezebels
Song: Hurt me

The Only D Says: “Indie type pop rock, and they’re from Australia!”

I have to be honest: I would never listen to this song because of the band’s name and the song’s name. I do like the chaos of the opening  music and the cultivated abandon of the vocalist’s style. (She has a nice depth to her voice.) I am a bit suspicious of the production value (it seems a little too polished and glitzy to be real Indie rock). I got bored by halfway through the song, but the piano kept me interested. (I am not sure that the instrumentation works great. The “Edge-ish’ guitar playing doesn’t pair so well with the piano or her voice.

( I suspect that if the lead singer looked more like the vocalist from Tuneyards, the band would be less successful.)

Band: Of Monsters and Men
Song: Mountain Sound

The Only D Says: “If you’ve already checked them out go ahead and ignore this one, but this is the song where I said the male vocalist sounds like a gay Kermit the Frog.”

I really like Kermit the Frog (and, there is no homophobic intent there). The wide-open acoustic intro is nice enough. Rather than a Kermit, I hear more of a goth 80s influence (a la the Smiths’ “Big Mouth Strikes Again”). This band is a bit interesting. The chorus is compelling (I think the contrast between the female vocalist’s wail and the male’s nasally croak is nice). The choral effects seem a bit like some of the New Pornographers’ better stuff. Thee arrangements definitely bear the imprint of collaboration (like Grouplove’s recent releases). I don’t know that I would run out and buy this album, but I’ll listen to another track.

Band: Gary Clark Jr.
Song: Bright Lights

The Only D Says: “Blues guy, this song is making him popular”

This guy is all over Music Choice, which I guess means he has made it. He plays a nice, gritty blues guitar and has a baseball player’s name. I tend to like more delta-flavored or gospel-tinged blues, and this sounds a little too polished for me. The guitar solo is phenomenal.

Band: Joe Bonamassa
Song: Jockey Full of Bourbon

The Only D Says: “Not sure if you’ve heard of this guy or if I’ve mentioned him before but this is the best guitar player I’ve ever seen. This is a cover of a Tom Waits song and is the most unique thing he’s ever done. If you check out more of his stuff, in my opinion his last few albums have been his best, especially Dust Bowl and The Ballad of John Henry.”

The old-school saloon piano at the beginning is interesting; I am not quite sure that the blues guitar that follows works that well. What does it mean if a cover of Tom Waits is the most creative thing someone has done? The guitar playing in the song is an intriguing combination of different styles (as if he is trying to show us he can do everything.) The vocals are less inspired.  The guitar solos and random licks are really pretty great. But, as with many instrumentalists, they don’t quite seem to add up to some sort of artistic whole. It seems like a line is played here and there because it can be, not because it should be….

I feel like this song should be on the show Sons of Anarchy. I like the show, even though I know it is melodramatic, unrealistic and overwrought. Are you following me?

Band: Fair to Midland
Song: Short Haired Tornado

The Only D Says: “Alternative Rock band, they are kind of “loud” and I know you’re not into some of the harder stuff anymore but I think these guys are pretty good and have more than one good song, unlike most new alternative bands that tend to fizzle out pretty quickly. Plus their lyrics make no sense on some songs, check out Walls of Jericho and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.”

This song is too loud? No, it is fine. A little unfocused, and not completely compelling. But I checked out the next song and checked out the lyrics too:

Strange, a bit, but many songs are. This song makes it much clearer that the drummer is talented. Thevocals are a bit too Duran Duran for me. The combination of the Lincoln Park-esque guitar and thrash drums with these vocals just seems odd. I don’t hate it, but I don’t feel like listening to more.

So, that’s the list I received and it took me almost two weeks to find the time to listen. I downloaded the EP for the Last Bison the next day and I think some of the others are going to get some love.

So, some thanks to The Only D both for renewing my faith in teaching and giving me some great music choices. Did any of them appeal to you, brother?

24 comments on “(Learning to) Learn about New Music

  1. theyoungerj says:

    I dig you are seeking alternate routes to learn music, I am trying to do the same although there is far too much shitty electronic music around now. I actually know three of these. Gary Clark Jr is an up and coming guitar slinger who cut his teeth in Austin and I was introduced to like a year ago by an ex-girlfriend. Bonamassa has definitely been around a while and is in this crazy band called Black Country Communion with Jason Bonham, the beast’s son, the keyboardist from prog outfit DreamTheater and the cheesy but awesome bassist from Glen Hughes from Deep Purple. Lastly, Of Monsters and Men is actually a band I don’t mind but I did laugh out loud when I heard the Kermit analogy.

    • theelderj says:

      When I went back and did the year in review posts, I was delighted but not surprised to see how much this blog has spurred me to learn about new music. Before we started doing this, I was basically just waiting for new albums to come out by the same old artists.

      So, another good reason to keep the blog going…

  2. kate58 says:

    I’m with theyounger j: I love Bonamassa. An enjoyable read as always, But the thing that struck me most was what you wrote in the 4th paragraph: “we seem to harden over emotionally as we age, becoming less likely to make the kind of connections we could when we were younger.” Profound, & in my case DEFINITELY true. 😉

    • theelderj says:

      I think that the metaphor I was looking for but which escaped me was that we become calloused over time through emotional use and misuse–the disappointments, failures and even successes from life leave their marks on us.

      And I thank you for finding the statement true, but I won’t claim the profundity as a result of great insight. I just have seen it with myself and friends–we never seem to make the same kind of deep and forgiving relationships we made as adolescents.

      (except with our children. but that’s a bit different).

      Thanks as always for reading. We hadn’t heard from you in a while!

      • kate58 says:

        Been busy working on my novel & my poetry collection, which is soon to be published, so I hope you’ll buy a copy. 🙂 Writing is a solitary business, so it’s probably just as well that I’m not interested in forming new friendships/relationships…the relationship & have with my BF & my current mates is more than satisfying, & my PC & my laptop are jealous, demanding loves, LOL! 😉

      • theelderj says:

        I agree about the solitariness of our pursuits. Before I went to grad school I was already a little withdrawn, but years of research and writing have made solitude not just a necessary precondition for work but also a cherished state. I find that with siblings, my own children and wife, I have room for a few friends. And I don’t feel at all bad about it (even if my brother finds it suspicious).

        Congratulations on the book! What press? Let us know and we will be sure to get one.

      • professormortis says:

        I feel like another factor is simply the time one. When you’re working full time, you own a house, you maintain a relationship with an SO, etc., the time to carve out to spend with new people becomes an issue. Not to take away from your point in any way, though, I completely agree.

      • theelderj says:

        No, you are completely right. The time issue is huge. I didn’t mention that as much because i don’t want to short the.importance of the.emotional callous.

        I also didn’t want to complain about responsibilities etc. Sounds churlish.

      • professormortis says:

        Well, mine is just logistics…your reason is a bit more profound. I don’t think in retirement we’ll suddenly form deep, lasting friendships just because we have more time. 🙂

    • theelderj says:

      My former student–the Only D–keeps trying to get me to say something nice about Bonamassa. If you, he, AND my brother all like him, he must be doing something right.

      I have yet to be inspired by his music. I am wrong a lot of the time. I will try again. I promise.

  3. londongigger says:

    I don’t think there’s any set route to new music. We have a programme caller Later with Jools Holland over here in the UK, that’s puts together an eclectic programme of new and old acts of different genres. So I get some of it from that. Some I read about in the press, some is word of mouth and some comes the nominations in the BBC sound of 2013 or whaever the year. Other times I’ll stumble across new acts at festival which is why I still like going to those events. I do agree now ; you are bombarded with new act these days. At any one time in London there are in the region of 4000 acts listed as touring now or in the future.

    • theelderj says:

      4000 acts? My goodness. I used to live in both NYC and Austin, TX (locales that get a surfeit of bands as well) and I underutilized both opportunities because it is overwhelming and exhausting.

      One of the things that I didn’t mention (which is part of this age) is that the growth of available outlets has significantly sapped the power of ‘tastemakers’ and critics. This is good in one way (more opinions means greater variety) but tough in other ways–as with movies, and television, and novels, there are fewer common cultural touchstones. This missing cultural frame makes it hard for some people to begin even to have conversations about music.

      But, we try, right? Because we care.

      • londongigger says:

        It is funny and a little ironic ,though that while the marketeers, A and R and PR people proliferate, retailers are in terminal freefall, certatinly on this side of this pond. Only 2 weeks ago HMV went into adminsitration unable to complete with Amazon and online downloads. They are trying to find a way to keep it going but I’m not optimistic. This is highly relevant in realtion to your comments on cultural frame. My main introduction to new music when I was a teen was by the music press and trips to the record and then latterly CD shop. We discussed among my school friends not only the music but the artwork. It was regarded as a priviledge to own something tangible. That mentality sadly no longer exists.

  4. […] am pleased to see my brother is taking efforts to learn about some new music. In respect for his new endeavor and the fact that I should also learn about some new stuff, I will […]

  5. […] A few weeks ago I ruminated on the difficulty of learning about music (in a dependable way) in an age when we are overwhelmed by both the number of bands available and the media outlets discussing them. It isn’t so much that there are more acts out there (though, there may be) but that we hear about them all. One of our frequent commenters, londongigger, who has a very nice blog where he reviews live shows, noted that in London there are literally thousands of performances a week. […]

  6. […] listened to this band before I heard any traditional blues like Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson. Joe Bonnamassa has said in numerous interviews that he was more influenced by British blues like Zep and Cream […]

  7. […] this way, music becomes a type of personal currency, something we trade and share (freely, if we’re not jerks). The only problem I ever have is that, since my taste (and personality) are both a bit volatile, […]

  8. […] here’s a third installment of The Only D’s musical suggestions. Whether or not he wants me to tell you this, he has some time on his hands to search for new music […]

  9. […] garage band. I had to applaud the band for making the song and my brother for catching some thing cool before me. I can’t even remember what I was doing because I don’t know what the […]

  10. […] got really excited about the EP from this band (from when they were just called Bison). I got excited enough that I downloaded it the first day I […]

  11. zlewy sklep says:

    Very good article. I absolutely love this site. Stick with

  12. […] of an already popular form of music. I also believe this is one of the strongest group of musicians I have assembled in a long time, and they would be represented on my iPod if I hadn’t aimed low and gotten the 8mb version […]

  13. […] white people like but also a quintessential specimen of the soon-to-be extinct species, the tenured college professor, when I had to stop for a minute and wish that I could start a song […]

  14. […] only lasts a minute or so. This is another band I got really excited about when I first heard the EP from this band (from when they were just called Bison). This album has some forgettable songs. In fact, most of […]

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