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.
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…)
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.
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
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?