Part V of Learning About New Music

So it has been awhile since I’ve posted something and, in fac,t since I started this post, one of these bands has visited the city I live near twice. And yes, I managed to miss both shows. But all is well as they are not yet popular enough for their record company to remove all their videos off YouTube. I’ve left a veritable smorgasbord of differing artists for whatever musical predilection you are feeling like today. Rock, pop, folk (and even some prog-rock for our friends born before 1980) something in this list will strike you.

Band: The Neighbourhood
Song: Sweater Weather

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Rain Music

This band has been a mainstay in Maine since the mid 90‘s and I believe the Elder J once peed in a urinal next to the lead singer while at a battle of the bands in about 1995. I guess he was kind of a dick, so I didn’t like this band forever because I thought the singer was mean to my brother. Turns out they are pretty good. It’s shocking how many people, not just my 8th grade students, who can’t do long division by hand which is what I think every time I hear this song, beyond the whole groovy context. Clearly, we need to have math teachers work away from calculators and get those pencils back in hand!

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Cover Songs: Pink Moons and Psycho Killers

In the past, I have spent a good deal of time talking about cover songs. I have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream combinations of songs and performers.

One thing I have not talked about is the fact that certain songs should never be covered. Now, I know that such wide-open generalizations are inevitably proved false (you know, with all those monkeys working away on all those typewriters….), but I think there are songs that are so indelibly and unalterably bound to their performers that they should never be assayed by someone else.

What got me thinking about this? Last night my children politely requested their nightly dance party (at almost 3 and almost 1.5 years, they actually screamed for it, but I digress). I turned on the television to Music Choice’s (sadly and pathetically) default Adult Alternative station and the following abomination filled the air:

I don’t really know who Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren are and I am so incensed that I will not even bother to check them out Wikipedia. (How’s that for some false indignation?) Here’s the thing: “Pink Moon”, Nick Drake’s brief, ethereal and ephemeral anti-anthem, works because of its (1) simplicity, (2) beauty, and (3) brevity, all of which are made possible by the solo combination of Drake’s eerie/breathy voice and his iconoclastic finger-picking.  When the spare piano notes come in, their vibrattoed-brevity brings that solitary sense into relief like the light of the moon in a darkened sky.

This cover is earnest—the performers obviously love the song, but they just do too much. The two voices deprive the song of its solitary space; the extra instrumentation clutters up the sound; and the repetitions lengthen the time past its key feature: the almost orgasmic (if subdued) brevity that leaves you wanting more.

And isn’t that the central story of Nick Drake’s music and his life? The lack—the wanting, and the ultimate space of hope and disappointment left at the end?

The next morning, my good friend and sometime-commenter on this blog (who keeps threatening to write a post…) asked me about a song we used to cover when we were in a band, “Psycho Killer” by the talking heads. See, the band just released an earlier version of this song with a damn cello in it.

This version, I must admit, actually seems to reside somewhere between the 1977 version and the live version–it doesn’t seem to have the same stilted pace of the album version. It also seems to anticipate a little bit of the life of the much later live performance. When it comes down to it, though, the cello isn’t that noticeable or radical.

Now, here’s the problem with “Psycho Killer”. (If it is really a problem at all.) The version I grew up knowing (and ultimately the one our band covered) was actually from the live performance that became the sensation Stop Making Sense. In that live version, David Byrne walks on to the stage and presses play on a sound machine to produce the beat—he performs the song at a pace much faster than the album version for the most part alone.

The band slowly integrates into the music as the concert builds on. By the end of a few songs the stage is filled and the air vibrates with some of the most dynamic and symphonic sound to ever come out of lower Manhattan.  The album version of the song, however, is slower, almost sloppy even though recorded, and ultimately unsatisfying if you heard the concert version first.

Now, in between the original recording and the performance was over half a decade. Anyone who has performed the same song for a year, much less seven, knows that songs develop as if they are in fact alive: they mature and become more complex; sometimes they lose vibrancy and urgency. But what is important is that they, like the performer and the audience, change.

So, perhaps some of my resistance to hearing another version of this song and part of our cultural attachment to individual versions of songs is that they offer us the false promise of sameness—the recorded song stays the same, it doesn’t develop, it is like a photograph or a video: it is a fossilized version of something that once was. The song lives on forever. Psychologically, isn’t this an attractive flouting of the fact that we will not do the same?

Still Killing?

Still Killing?

The trick of this, though, is that the experience of the song has changed because we as listeners are no longer the same and we live with the earlier experiences of hearing the song as part of our memory and our associations with that piece.

Now, “Psycho Killer” is a song whose power rests not in its particular beauty or in the simplicity of its articulation but in its message and structure, does lend itself to different reinterpretations. One of our favorite bands, Bishop Allen, does a fine and light job of it here ( I do appreciate the nearly manic pace of this cover and the humorous intro-patter; the slight change in phrasing isn’t as effective; the overall effect, though, seems to channel more of the punk-era aesthetic that the Talking Heads came out of). And the original version of the song above shows us some of the surprising depth that can be plumbed merely by adding in new instrumentation or varying the pace.

The lyrics of the song also lend themselves to pointed reinterpretation—where one version of the song is plaintive protest, another is mocking jest. What would this song be in the mouth of someone more earnest? What if a Bob Dylan or Bright Eyes performed this song? (There’s my impossible recover request: Bob Dylan, performing “Psycho Killer”,  five years before it was written in Washington, D.C. during the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal. Don’t ask. Just imagine.)

Of course, it is not only a simple song that is hard to perform. At times, the more complex a song gets, the more it depends on a dangerous tension between execution and failure. One of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Nothing But Flowers”, works only when performed with a paradoxical severe levity.

I love this song. And, when I heard it performed live by another one of my favorite bands, Guster, I thought I was going to die of happiness. And, for at least a minute of the song, I was filled with joy. But, slowly, the sound started to wash over me and I realized how it seemed only half-way there, like something essential was missing.

So, the moral of the story? (Wait, there was a story?) Cover songs are hard and delicate work. An artist needs to make the song his or her own without losing whatever is essential to the song’s core.

I think. Maybe. While I figure it out, here’s another cover to mull over:

(Off and) On the Radio: Podcasts and Jaimeo Brown

I haven’t been listening to the radio as much lately because I have gone on a typical binge of audiobooks and podcasts. Even when running, I have forsaken some of the usual playlists (and, not because I have been using my wife’s iPod) for the spoken word. What, you might ask, do I listen to when I don’t listen to music?

I have a few go-to podcasts that I like to store up. I also periodically select audiobooks (especially long ones) to distract me. Here’s a quick list before I get to the musician of the day (Jaimeo Brown).


1. This American Life: I have to be completely honest about this one: I have downloaded all of the back episodes. I have donated money through my cell phone. I have dragged my poor, pregnant life to a live simulcast of this show. I regularly cry

Ira, you cruel, cruel bastard.

Ira, you cruel, cruel bastard.

while listening to it.

Now, I thought this attachment made me special. I thought my love for what I think of as the emancipatory power of narrative made me different. I even imagined that my ability to weep (while running, nonetheless) to Ira Glass’ nasally voice in some way indicated an emotional apparatus even my brother denied to me. When I mentioned this once at a party, I was quickly disabused of my fantasy: a woman around my age quipped “Everybody cries at This American Life.”

I am just shocked that the show doesn’t get its own entry on Stuff White People Like.

2. The Moth: If you don’t know the Moth–a series of events where people tell stories without notes live (often in a competition)–and This American Life is a little too structured for you, check out this podcast. The stories range from hysterical to heartbreaking. The common denominator? Narrative. Hearing these stories makes me feel more alive in a strange way because of the vicarious sharing of emotion and experience. Try out a few.

200px-Underworld3. Radiolab: This podcast is like This American Life for science. The episodes are always fascinating, enlightening, and entertaining. The problem? They don’t come out frequently enough.

4. Audiobooks: Recently, I finished listening to Delillo’s Underworld, a fascinating novel that uses as one of its conceits the story of the life of baseball hit by Bobby Thompson in 1951 to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers with a walk-off homerun after that game. The story is far more complex and finely written than that summary implies and it is one of the finer novels I have ‘read’ in a while. Of course, maybe this is because before I was obsessed with the Game of Thrones books…. 

Ok, ok. This was supposed to be a short post about something I heard on the radio and I digressed. After I finished underworld and before I downloaded a few books by William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon, I was listening to the Jazz station (the same one that metamorphoses into an Indie Rock station at night) and a breathy (probably adolescent or just a bit older) DJ introduced a track from the album Transcendence by Jaimeo Brown.

The lead single “This World is Not My Home”

Now, what first got me about this track is the phenomenal blend between blues sensibility and jazz instrumentation. After downloading the album and watching the performance, I realized that there was also a finely-tuned hip-hop aesthetic at the center of the choice to sample instead of performing some of the under-tracks. The sense of the performance is one of music history and present at the same time.

Jaimeo, the drummer, has a fantastic sense of rhythm and the composition blends parts blues, free-jazz and fusion (and hip-hop, the guitarist Sholar has worked as a producer with Jay-z and Kanye). But, what kind of shocked me about the music was the narrative frame provided by the DJ. He claimed that this album would prove to be “controversial”.  Why? The LA Times music reviewer Chris Barton alleges that  this album “should not work” but does because it is “a conversation between generations”.

Brown has real chops as a jazz drummer and an expansive mind for music, as well as  a great sense of its history. The album is eminently listenable–the tracks tend to be short (like blues instead of jazz) and each one offers something different. At times, the sound is more conventional, at times bluesy, at times I think I am listening to The Dirty Three.

If you have time, my brother, check out the track. I’d love to know what you think.


Spring Sunday Morning: A Quick One

It’s too bad Ray wasn’t from Maine originally because then I could say he was our greatest musical export ever. Granted, there a few other really good bands to come out of my beloved home state, but Ray is just awesome in everyway from his blue eyed soulful voice to the super tasty production. This a Sunday morning staple for me right now.

It has been a crazy couple of months. Between things with the band getting way more busy, my new job, my old jobs, fixing the old homestead up for spring and trying to expand my social scene, I am pretty scattered right now. Granted, I have a pension for procrastination which is infamous and a continual point of contention with my brother so I am trying harder to write stuff more regularly amongst the chaos of my life. I know the Elder J is also  incredibly busy so he doesn’t notice my slackery as much which actually works against me because the guilt I feel when he give me shit actually forces me to write more.  I am sure he is not sitting around waiting for me to post stuff as he tries to move his growing family into a new home and all the other crazy stuff in his life, but I thought of this song anyway.

Love the Kinks and this song is so classic of that sound in the mid 60’s. I someday want to write a series of posts of why bands like The Kinks never got as big as the Beatles when they could of or a good one too would be how come Ten Years After never even approached the greatness of Led Zeppelin. More on that later.

I had my first day off in roughly two weeks yesterday and I spent much of it mowing my lawn and clearing out beds for my vegetables which I need to plant next weekend. I woke up painfully early after going out and seeing my lead guitar player’s sister play a songwriter’s round gig at a way too classy for me bar in the largest city of my homestate in Portland, Maine. The music was sick and the beer was expensive but good so I really relished the first sip of the West Coast IPA I ordered as soon as I could get to the bar.

Like five minutes later, in walks a school superviser and his wife in a completely out there coincidence. I guess all of our principals hang out at this specific spot so I did what I thought was necessary and got them a round. It turned into a great networking scene and I ended up being out later than I expected yet still woke up on teacher time at roughly 5:30 am. I realize I was blowing off steam from two weeks of stress, but it felt pretty whack.

Probably self explanatory.

Our first big show of the season is next Saturday afternoon. I am pretty excited since it is an afternoon show to raise money for breast cancer. It’s a bike run that has a bunch of motorcyclists pay to ride between a few different locations before meeting up at the end to eat food, have a beer, and watch our band play some tunes. A bunch of people who would never come to a show at night because of familial obligations, puritanical values or an early bed time. It will hopefully raise some more money for a good cause while introducing a bunch of my friends and acquaintances to my band. The whole biker thing is not new to us as a band, I just hope it doesn’t scare anyone who is not so familiar like my teen age cousins. Lastly, I think we can all support breasts and the saving of them.

I could not stop singing this song yesterday and the Saturday before in unison with a dude I met at my old job of banquet serving/bartending whose name is Levon and he is from South Carolina. This guy was quite a bit older than me but busted ass carrying trays while telling me some hilarous stories about living down south.

Chicago is actually an incredibly good band which is why we will end out this post with a double shot. I always saw them as this cheeey band but now I can’t really see why I would ever think this. Ok some of it is a little sharp in the cheese department, but come on, this jam right here is gold. The piano make me think of Carole King and the horn section is like funky Phil Spector production. I guess they are only behind the Beach Boys in American bands in most charting singles and albums which is a brand new fact for me. They still tour and apparently are not bad. The former lead singer/guitarist Terry Kath shot himself in the head accidentily in 1978 playing Russian Roulette with a semi automatic pistol. The man can wail but seriously, what is the thought process there? Clearly he did not grow up around firearms.

This  is the late Terry Kath tearing it apart on an extended solo which sounds like it’s got a bunch of wah-wah pedal on it which is never a bad thing for me, as much as it annoys so many others. I have to attend an adult chorus concert tonight, do you think I have any chance of hearing this bad boy getting performed?

So now it is Sunday morning and I am going to finish writing this, maybe do a little fishing before attending my mother’s adult chorus concert at three and then being home in time for band practice at six which will hopefully end by nine so I can see the new Game of Thrones episode or at least finish watching the episode from last week that I still haven’t finished. Wore me out just writing that sentence but I ultimately feel blessed that I have so many things going on that I am interested in and passionate about. I know a lot of people who waste a lot of their time from my outsider’s perspective and one day we all figure out that time is finite and you better spend it well. So on that note, spend a solid few minutes listening to this amazing cover of a an amazing song and contemplate.

Obviously really into Ray right now, again. He’s the man.

Songs for Teachers

My brother recently wrote about his struggles in working with middle school students. He and I talk a lot about education (even though we come at the topic from very different perspectives) and I have tried to commiserate with him, but I know that he has one of the hardest jobs in the world. Now, this post isn’t just an excuse to ramble on and list some of my favorite songs about teachers, but it is a recognition of the important connection between music and education as well as the critical work that teachers do.

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On the Radio: Caribou

A few weeks back I had to get up earlier than early to take my mother to the airport. It was another typically fast and emotional visit. As I have intimated before, my mother and I don’t always seem to communicate in ‘real time’. This is symptomatic less of her than of my rather typically closed approach to relationships: I think I am being laconic; I am observed as being distant and unfeeling.

Man or Band? It doesn't matter. D. V. Smith is Caribou

Man or Band? It doesn’t matter. D. V. Snaith is Caribou

On the way back from the airport, swooning a bit from the early hour and senseless thoughts on the fragility of self and the passage of time, I turned the local jazz radio station up to an uncomfortable volume and rolled all the windows down. (Not a cool sight: remember, I am the one in the rapidly aging blue Prius.) Yet, much to my surprise, the local jazz station straight-out gremlins over night and becomes an Indie-Rock madhouse.

Now the thing about Indie-Rock is that it is mostly described by what it is not: mainstream, major label fare. Beyond the boundaries of delivery device and popularity, it can be anything. So, an overnight, red-eye into the belly of the beast will, in all likelihood, be a mixture of depression, delight and digression. For every moment of wonder, there is another Pavement wannabe or Velvet Underground worshiping poseur.

After languishing through some local act falling somewhere between Stevie-Ray Vaughn and the post-breakdown side of Daniel Johnston (seriously if you don’t know Daniel Johnston and want to be Austin-hip, check out the fine documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston) this track came on:

I love everything about this song from the name (“Every time she turns about Its Her Birthday) to the fantastic rhythms, free-jazz inspired horns, and especially, as anyone who has read this blog before can imagine, the indirect and almost incoherent lyrics:

Spinning round you weigh me down
Gravel hands of green and brown

In your cells both red and white
On the sun that gives us light
In your cells both white and red
From the mouth our kids get fed

Now, what I also love about this track is that there is an essential compatability of sound and lyric-sense–both are fluid, mixed and, for lack of better descriptive, cloudy. The music is somewhere between jazz, rock, and ambient while the lyrics are slightly post-modern and impressionistic. Both, and especially together, invite interpretation and contemplation.

Of course, before it was dawn, I had downloaded the whole album Up in Flames by Caribou who used to be called Manitoba. Caribou, I discovered, is not a band but a man masquerading as one with all the skill of an Aphex Twin blended with a Beck unsullied by mainstream success. The album? One of the most interesting and challenging compilations I have heard in a while. The music is thick and layered, like a sonic parfait doing battle with a milkshake. The lyrics are exceptionally oblique and always wrapped up or buried beneath steppes of rhythm and sluiced by horns.

I thought I had heard of the band Caribou before and bad the mistake of dismissing it as some Train wannabe or fringely progressive one-off. I am so glad I was wrong.  Before that morning, the only musical Caribou I knew about was this one I have heard my brother singing to many times before:

I can’t say that I understand what is going on in Caribou’s music or lyrics; I can say that I will try to. I can also say I am thankful to the randomness of the universe for giving me this song at that time. It took me away from myself and the monotonous road. It took me away from that marginal and displaced feeling in between the end of someone’s visit and the resumption of ‘normal life’. And, whatever normal life is, it saved me from that for a bit too.

Hungry for some more Caribou, my brother?


Who is Molly?

A friend who plays fiddle with my band suggested David Lindley to me a while back and has a portrait of the man in his living room where I often occupy the couch while jamming late into the night. This song gave me a very real feeling of closeness to my Father because I know he would have loved it since he held an affinity for religious tunes. Also, it’s so much better than the music I am subjected to on a daily basis as will be seen.

I have talked recently about how I have a new job. I am the long term substitute for the head of an alternative education program in the 8th grade. Both of the two teachers in the program had to leave (the last quickly), so I was shoved to the top of the ladder and suddenly had my own program.

I don’t want to get into specifics, but it has been a hard transition for everyone, most importantly the students. Most of these kids come from broken homes and have never succeeded in the traditional classroom due to a myriad of social, mental, and chemical reasons that cause them to exhibit some non-traditional behaviors. They love this song and I am constantly shutting it off throughout a normal school day on their iPads, iPods, laptops and cell phones. What happened to the Sony Discman?

The kids think I don’t know this song is about drugs. I asked them one day, just to mess with them, “Who is this Molly girl?” Although I never took this drug, whenever Disco Biscuits or Sound Tribe Sector 9 or Phish came through town in Vermont, there’d be a lot of it around and all the dread locked white kids (wookies) would be spinning around the campus greens. I was always more of a beer guy. For those not in the know, “molly” is pure MDMA, which is the active ingredient in Ecstasy and I believe a few other designer drugs. 

Some of them allegedly do drugs, which is a shame at their age and for their already suffering thought processes. Of the 16 kids in my class, I bet at least half of them have smoked pot or currently do, with half of those claiming to also do other drugs. I continually am explaining why the consumption of any mind altering substance at their age, molly or otherwise, will help to stop the development of their brains because their young minds are still forming. They almost always answer that this is only the case with hard drugs like molly or acid or cocaine and that weed and alcohol are ok and, in fact, legitimate stress relievers. I hope they don’t learn this from their parents, but I am sure they learn a lot of  it from Lil’ Wayne.

I had to explain to my assistant principal what Kush was when they played this in the gym while we shot some hoops at our daily gym time right after lunch. This is one of the things I instituted when I came in because I feel one of the issues is the kids don’t get their energy out in a positive way. He quickly shut off the stereo when he realized what the song was about but as soon as he left, back on it went while I was across the gym working on my free throws. I play the turn down or shut off game while one of them reverses it all day long.

I have never liked Lil’ Wayne, always being more of a fan of old school gangster rap like Biggy and Tupac. So much of his vocals are auto tuned and I just find that noise to be incredibly annoying. Furthermore, I find most of his messages are be about getting messed up and treating women badly which none of my students need in their lives. Now, there are many many misogynistic lyrics in the rap I like too but I didn’t listen to it in 8th grade and I could surely separate reality from fiction at that point in my life. I suspect that my students can too, but when engaged in an argument with a student on him attending French class last week, I said he was acting like a baby for refusing to go. In response, he swore at me and said  “Do babies snort coke off of strippers asses?” I almost responded  with “No they don’t and you don’t either because you have no money and can’t even get into a strip club” but my good sense prevailed and I just walked him down to the principal’s office to cool out. There is one song they play that is from my generation, albeit still kind of stupid but at least having a good beat and funny lyrics.

This guy was huge in my home state around freshmen year of high school, but it was “Cause I got High” and “Colt .45” and I don’t think I ever got through the album enough to hear this little diddy. I obviously can’t allow them to listen to this, but of the songs they listen to, this has the best beat and the most amusing lyrics.

I shut this song off at least ten times a day while the kids dance around to it and yell the parts with profanity louder than any other lyrics just to show people they can yell swears and attract attention. One of my favorite/worst students is a kid whose mother is dying of cancer in their trailer park while the step father does very little to help and the father having died when my 8th grader was in the 6th grade. This kid basically only has control over anything while at school so he mostly spends his days disrupting other classes and driving me nuts and occasionally sitting down and talking with me about why he acts the way he does.  Yesterday, he ran into a classroom in the sixth grade and yelled “sugar tits” and then slammed the door, prompting an email sent to me within two minutes of the crime committed  Dealing with that took up the best part of third period,  but he ended up not getting suspended and driving my stress levels up the rest of the day.

I am trying to get  a job in this school district next year so I deal with these kids as best I can to various results. My bosses think I’m doing a good job and some days I do, but I worry about these kids succeeding in the high school and in life in general. It’s more social conditioning than anything else so I wish I could play them this one rap song which will roll at the end of this paragraph. If they learn nothing else from me this year, it’s that you can’t play obscene songs in public areas and you need to use your words calmly and not yell at people. In other words, express yourself!

I could actually use this, it’s got clean lyrics! Plus, Dre says something about a subject and a predicate right?

On my Wife’s iPod (Again)

So, a few months ago I confessed to misplacing my iPod and daring to run in the wee hours with my wife’s iPod instead (something I unfortunately compared to wearing someone else’s underwear—which would probably be much less comfortable than trying out an iPod, depending on the music). The follow-up confession I feel compelled to make is that even after I found my iPod, I kept using hers.

Yeah, them too,

Yeah, them too,

(So, I guess you could say I found out something new about myself, if we keep up with the transvestitism of the underwear analogy.)

Part of this decision, I swear, has only to do with the novelty of it. Even if you labor sedulously to perfect your playlists the element of surprise and wonder that makes a lot of music listening so thoroughly compelling is gone. When I dumped a thousand songs into my wife’s iPod (which sounds far more sexual than it should) I created something of a hybrid of her tastes and mine. A new, strange, musical offspring.

As I ran around the streets of our adoptive town, I found myself newly engaged both by the strange juxtaposition of some of my chosen tracks next to hers (Wilco as a prelude to Rihanna? Sinatra followed by Fugazi? Whiplash.) and by initial hearings of songs I didn’t know my wife was listening to. See, she and I have been together (if not as husband and wife, as the prequel) for fifteen years. I didn’t know she was keeping secrets from me.

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Tupac: You Are Appreciated.

“God Bless the Dead” is certainly my favorite Tupac song and possibly my favorite rap song ever. It’s got bad-ass beats and, as an extremely white person from almost the most northern state of the United States, the lines “I was the last of G’s, pump the shit that make the white man bleed” really strike a chord with me. Although a much bigger fan of Biggy, I can say that Pac was definitely a mainstay of my high school class’s listening, he definitely wrote some more socially conscious lyrics and was definitely more publicly in trouble with the law which made me him scary to me as a youth. Tupac Shakur was one of the greatest rappers ever and like his Mama, he is appreciated.

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