Top Songs of (my) Year 2013

FatherTimeSomehow, another year has turned (as the Greeks would put it) and I find myself already contemplating writing retrospective and best of the year reviews. My sense of awe and disbelief derives not from actual disbelief since I can distinctly remember my life last year and where I was when I wrote the restrospectives of a year ago. No, my surprise comes from how fast it has all gone .

The alacrity of our passing years is in part perspective (the more you do something the fast it seems to go; objectively speaking, time itself has not been altered). And yet, in addition, the rapid transit of time is still accelerated more by our myriad modern distractions (I’m talking to you, 24 news cycle, twitter, social networks, etc.) and the busyness of my time of life—early career, young children, somewhat lame blog…

Is the enjoyment of life necessarily limited by speed and quantity? My suspicion is that the answer is yes. But the fact is that I don’t really want to contemplate the answer, because the only solution is to give stuff up. And I wouldn’t know where to begin. The fullness of my life is a blessing more than a curse.

Today isn’t about the busyness or the blog. I want to celebrate the fact that I still take time to enjoy music and that another year has brought me another group of songs I will always love. So, here are the ten songs I will most associate this year with in no particular order.

“New Distributor Cap”, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities

Some how I missed this alt-folk band years back. When I discovered it when I was writing a review of the Breeders’ Last Splash, I fell into one of those “wish I had been a different person reveries”. This song is sweet, and true. The central conceit—that the singer will fix the car for the girl he likes—is just so simple and universal as to be adorable. The fact that the music and recording is low-fi only brings into relief the greatness of the song even more.

(And this made me promise myself that I’d finally get around to writing about Small Rock. Just next year)

 “Best of Friends,” Palma Violets

I wrote about this song earlier. I listened to it every day for two weeks. Hell, I’m listening to it now. It is one of those songs that makes the rest of the album pale in comparison. It made me rethink Rancid. (And I’ll write about that next year.) It would be higher on the list if I had convinced my wife and children to like it.

“Dreams of Cannibalism”, Typhoon

When The Only D called me out on Typhoon and predicted I would like it, I was skeptical, but that crazy guy knows me too well. I love the album White Lighter. I love this song because it is so characteristic of how creative, dynamic and just damn musical this artist is. His songs are heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

I have shed a tear listening to this music while running in the wee hours of the mourning. Thankfully, it was always in the dark.

Late March, Death March,” Frightened Rabbit

I am going to cheat on this one and add in two more songs. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, and “Twist”. Earlier in the year I wrote how it would be impossible for me to write about Frightened Rabbit. I haven’t changed my opinion, but I have grown to love this band even more. The group’s most recent release (Pedestrian Verse) isn’t their best, but it is still pretty damn good.  I have gone days with the line “like mother said, less heart more head” from this song bouncing around in my head. It is now nearly a mantra.

“It’s Time,” Imagine Dragons

Yeah, I wrote about this song. Then, my children fell in love with it. Then it exploded and Imagine Dragons turned up everywhere. (I still don’t believe that LeBron James listens to the band.) My kids call this the “clapping song”. When my daughter sings along with the last line “I’m never changing who I am”, it chokes me up. I won’t lie.

“Super Bon Bon.” Mike Doughty (from the release, Circles)

I never thought I would get so excited about Mike Doughty again, but I was really interested to listen to this release of Soul Coughing ‘covers’. When my children heard it, they loved it and were at first perplexed by the fact that there was another “Super Bon Bon” that sounded different. They named the original recording “Drum Super Bon Bon” and this one “Small Super Bon Bon.” I play whichever they ask for. So, Mike Doughty, you made the list.

“Closer,” Tegan and Sara

When Tegan and Sara released their new album I did my usual contrarian thing and reviewed what I hold to be their best album (The Con) instead. But this song has grown on me enoguh that I listen to it a few times a week. I love these artists. I will probably buy every recording they ever make.

“Let’s Go,” Matt and Kim

Matt and Kim have always been a bit of a curiosity for me. I think that they are maknig dance music but I really like to run to it. It is memorable but not always that deep. This song is a little more complex than some of their numbers. The real reason it made it to the list is that I have ehard the song 20 times in the past five days. My daughter fell in love with it and I cannot resist when she asks for a song.

“Some Nights”, Night Riot (Used to be PK)

I grew obsessed with the song “Berelain” which I discovered just around the time I finshed the final book of the Wheel of Time series. I actually like this song more. How did it end up as the penultimate song to this list? Every time I hear it, I think, hey, I like this song. And, every time, it seems like a new revelation. That’s a pretty neat thing in a time when repetition kills everything.

“Every Time she Turns Around it’s her Birthday”, Caribou

I have written about this song a few times. I love it. But that’s not enough. No, the progressive and somewhat unstructured music is not just entertaining but it is also transformative. I haven’t heard a song that makes me feel like my state is altered in a long time. This one makes me feel, well, different. Listen.

Happy new year. May next year be even better.

Songs for a Busted Muffler

This is one of my favorite songs and I happened to stumble upon this bluegrass version accidentally and I am stoked with the results. I’ve loved this song a long time and always felt like I am sort of a “Mr. Wrong”.  Although, really I only lacked a muffler for a short time and I have no tattoos or a particular aversion to meeting any significant other’s parents.

I’ve really grown attached to my new job and, luckily, things are going pretty well. My students are good this year, my co-teacher is incredibly on point and my bosses are supportive as well as enthusiastic. They decided to send us to a workshop last Monday so we could work on project-based learning, which is something we plan to do a lot in our classes. That Sunday prior was the first big snow storm of the year, the first real sign of winter for us in the snow removal business.

As some may remember, I have done this in the wealthy neighborhoods of Portland, Maine for almost a decade for my hippie neighbor as the winter arm of the landscaping company. Because he neglected to plow out the end of my driveway, I chose to bust out and my 99 Subaru Impreza’s exhaust severed right in the middle of the whole system. I didn’t know this though and drove an hour north and spent 8 hours shoveling snow.  It actually hung together until I started it up Monday morning to head to this workshop with my tie on.

This choice probably seems pretty obvious for why I chose it. You may not know it, but this song is actually about the other fluffy white stuff, cocaine, which the boys in Sabbath did pretty hard for a good chunk of the seventies. The imagery of the sun no longer bringing you peace and the snowflakes on the trees is very apt for our particular form of snowy white stuff but I can assure you none of our shovel crew is on blow.

Here I was, getting my nice clothes all wet, trying to push through yet another shitty Monday. Why do so many bad things happen on Mondays? I suspect it’s the higher power’s message to get your ass in gear, it’s time for the work week, but in this case it was just the weather and a neighbor’s negligence. I was lucky because I was able to call my vice principal and get put down for a personal day so I could deal with this issue. Then, like clockwork, my friend who works overnights appeared and was willing to give me a ride, After a few phone calls, I was able to drop the car off by nine am.

My brother and I have different views on religion, polar opposite in some respects. However, I think that we could both agree that if angels did exist, they would sing like Emmylou. The woman sounds just like she did in the 70’s and I am always looking at ways of getting her music out there. Also, I’m on a  serious bluegrass kick as anyone whose been reading can see and it doesn’t seem to be letting up.

Ultimately, it all worked out. My wonderful co-teacher was at the workshop and got all the materials so I was able to slide right in there the next day as if I never missed the first one at all. My car was an easy fix, although band-aid is more apt at this stage in the vehicle’s career, and the only further drag was that I had to pick it up mad early the next day when the high temperature was -2. The day off was actually very relaxing and I watched the beginning of a shitty Marky Mark movie called Contraband which started with the following song.

I hate having videos which have ads on them but I prefer this version so much that I had to drop one on you all. This band really blows my horn and it’s been on a constant revolution since that day last week that my muffler fell off. Their sound is unique for the time and they are so enthusiastic about what they doing. I will be watching this band.

I couldn’t get through the movie but this song really hit me and even if that is the only thing I got out of the broken muffler Monday, that it’s a good day. This was a little over a week before Christmas which is now over and that’s something I’m thankful for. I perked up at times but generally, the holidays are a drag and I have to pull myself through them with mostly fake enthusiasm. Another year gone and a new one to begin, something else I’m thankful for, another year to perfect my version of the human existence. Things are pretty good and things I’m waiting for seem to be right around the corner. So, on that note enjoy this little ditty from J Roddy and I truly hope all of your holidays were a time of love, relaxation and a realization that life is pretty good when you look at it that way.

I just discovered this song last night and it’s so different from the other one but equally as awesome. The sparseness of this recording is amazing and their harmonies make me wish I knew how to sing. Keeping going J Roddy, I need you and so does America!

Albums of (My) year 2013

Last year I made a ranked list of the albums I bought during 2012. Since I enjoyed doing it and find pleasure now (and, as often, surprise) when I turn back to it, I am returning to this again. Though I distrust lists and the distorting aesthetic of list-making, I nevertheless find it to be useful to look back on the year to put it into perspective.

This year, I have decided to make things a little more interesting (or maybe just topical and snarky) by ordering the numbered list into roughly associated groups. Enjoy.

Group 1: I don’t know why I bought these albums

19. The Dunwells, Blind Sighted Faith

I believe now that I was experiencing some temporal rift or suffering some sort of mind/body crisis when I heard this song on the TV and liked it. In honesty, I think that the cooking fan was on, the kids were screaming, and I had a cold. I’ve said all that before. This song is overproduced. The album is not very good. I won’t be listening to it again.

18. City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

I was in a similar state of distraction when I first heard this song at the gym. When I wrote about it, I really thought I liked it. And then I listened to it when I wasn’t oxygen deprived and trapped on a treadmill. I don’t like it. The album is slightly better than the last entry, but not great.

17. Biffy Clyro, The Vertigo of Bliss

This band was suggested to me by iTunes. I don’t know why I keep falling for that, but I actually think this crew has some potential. The sound is a little too polished–another indie band that’s a bit overproduced–but it does seem creative enough that I will actually listen to this album a few times. There is some Superdrag and Eels-lite aura to the sound that makes me think I may end up liking it.

 Group 2: Disappointing Albums by Bands I like

16. They Might Be Giants, Nanobots

Oh, TMBG, I can’t stop loving you. The songs on this album, when they don’t seem formulaic, are small and uninteresting. I think that the band needs a long break or some type of epiphany. Again, I will probably buy albums by this band every opportunity I get, always hoping that they’ll surprise me again. But, then again, maybe the problem is me. Maybe I have moved too far away. 

15. Arcade FireReflektor

I really liked Arcade Fire’s first album. Neon Bible was pretty good. The subsequent two albums are musically bloated and lyrically stale. I keep listening to the earlier ones. I have tried to see if this album would grow on me, but it really hasn’t. It just seems, well, unfocused and forced.

14. PhoenixBankrupt

Lately I have been listening to “Lisztomania” a lot because my  son loves it and my wife just discovered Wolfgang Amadaeus Mozart was a great rock album. Bankrupt is part of a trend I have noticed in indie-rock bands, some sort of a strange rush to dance and synth-music (See Tegan and Sara’s Closer or Arcade Fire’s latest). I still find this album annoying after a few months. I wish they’d strap their guitars back on and make some recordings with a four-track. These guys have a good sense for music–it is just getting blotted out by all their toys.

Group 3: Good Albums by bands I like

13. Tegan and Sara’s The Heartthrob

Hearthrob, the title track from this album, has a rhythm but not always a beat. That’s an example of a sentence that sounds nice but is essentially meaningless. The title track is fun, but the collection as a whole doesn’t have the spit and vigor of the first few albums. I will not lie about my disappointment in this album. I know I keep announcing how much I love this band. The overlapping harmonies are still there, but the sisters’ voices just seem too small for the magnitude of the sounds thrown together on this album. Like Phoenix and Arcade Fire, I wish I could pay them to record an album with just a few instruments.

12. JunipJunip

So, Junip made a big splash lately when its song was used in promos for the Breaking Bad finaleI have loved the music of Jose Gonzalez for a long time. Junip is pretty good music–the extra production in comparison to Gonzalez’s seminal solo work is a little muddy and distracting; in addition, the composition of the songs is a bit unfocused as well. And, yet, this is a fine band with a fine sound. If you’re screaming because Phoenix’s new album is aurally victimizing you, listen to this as an antidote.

11. Why?Mumps, etc.

Why? is one of my favorite bands. If I can get my crap together, I will review the wonderful album Elephant Eyelash in the new year. No band I know of combines different genres and topics so honestly and inventively. This band is one of the top 10 most unique and interesting bands performing today. But, for some dumbass reason, I hadn’t bought this album. So I did. And I don’t regret it. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because this is my damn list and I want to be arbitrary

Group 4: Albums that Deserve another Listen

10. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero

I geeked out last year over the advanced single from this album, “The John Wayne”e. I loved it almost immediately. The full album fails to replicate the sound and success of that single, but I can’t quite agree that I am disappointed.

This is another album I think might grow on me if I give it the time. This song (“My Love took me down to the River”), for instance, makes me think of something gospel-influenced lodged between Rogue Wave and The Red House Painters. Not a bad place to be.

9. The Last Bison, Inheritance

“Inheritance”, the opening and title track is exciting and dynamic, but it 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 the memorable songs were on the EP.. Since the album was a bit of a rushed re-release of earlier work, I have hopes (perhaps unfounded) that the next album could be something special.

8. Okkervil River, Silver Gymnasium

.

Okkervil river is musically interesting and lyrically almost too honest. I can’t say that I love this album, but I think I might. I bought their album The Stand Ins years back and listened to it twice. So, if prior performance is an indication of future performance, this is not a good sign. But my friend Another J keeps asking me about this, so I am going to give it the ol’ school try.

7. The Dodos, Visiter

What the hell is wrong with me? I know that this is a decent and interesting album, but I never listen to it. The lyrical and musical combination strikes me as something somewhere between the best stuff of Of Monsters and Men and the least emo Ben Gibbard solo material with some Grizzly and Bon Iver thrown in for good measure. There might even be some less-than-lyrical Belle and Sebastien stuff going on here.

Group 5: The Contenders

6. Macklemore, The Heist                

This is not the best album of the year. This is just an album we posted four times about and which I listened to way too many times. Macklemore’s style is, I think, quite forgettable and he’ll probably just be a footnote in later years. But I may be wrong about that. If you want to know far too much about what we think about Macklemore, read one of the multiple conversations.

 

5. Caribou, Up In Flames

I wrote about finding this music late on the radio when returning from the airport. This is great music to get lost to and there really isn’t that much else out there that is the same. Thank you, Caribou. Thank you. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because It is too old and I can’t persuade anyone else to listen to it.

 

4. Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence

To be honest, I haven’t listened to this nearly as much as it deserves.  Whatever the case, I was really excited when I downloaded it. I recognize abstractly that it is a great album and musically impressive. I just don’t find it compelling. But it is good. Just not good enough.

 

3. Palma Violets, 180

This band made me think of Rancid and Fugazi with some more melodic and inventive rock thrown in there. I love the lead song from the album. And I think I listened to the full album three times in two days. Palma Violets won my attention for the whole week.Over the past week or so, my obsession has waned. So, for that reason the album rates a bit lower than the others.

2. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse

All year I have been listening to Frightened Rabbit. Any one on the albums could have served on this list. I use this one because it came out this year and I have really grown to love this album despite some initial reservations.

1. Typhoon, White Lighter

Typhoon’s White Lighter brilliant and manic. It is one of the better albums I have bought in a long time.The hard part is that it makes me want to die, Of course, I have listened to this record almost every day since I acquired it.

For the creativity, the gift of the few albums I have listened to by Typhoon, and the certainty that I will be listening to this album for a very, very long time, I am happy to say that this is my favorite album of the year.

 

Holiday Party Jams

Shoot back to my Christmas Spirit Jam too and Happy Holidays!

I hate Christmas this year.  I didn’t always hate Christmas and I suspect I will not forever hate it, but right now, I am Scrooge. It’s not a misanthropic thing so much as a reaction to where I think I should be in life right now and the fact that the holidays seem to make mourning my father a thousand times more difficult. The latter reason also propels my mother to handle it by going ape-shit on the Christmas decorations and buying a very expensive tree which was three feet to big for the palatial home to handle.

But, please keep reading, I am not going to continue the negativity.

I miss my old man who also always hated the season because his father passed away in an extremely traumatic way during the holidays several decades ago. I also know the old man would not want me to wallow in sadness and he would be cracking jokes as best he could. Luckily for the case of being positive, because I bartend and because I know so many people locally, I have gone to several holiday parties and had some pretty hilarious experiences  I am slowly feeling festive and I invite you to learn why.

No, I also have never heard “Aqualung” at a holiday party and it is actually in reference to a generally but slightly creepy DJ at the banquet hall where I tend bar.  You will notice a theme of non-seasonal musical choices here although do not fret; there will be choice cuts along the way like my boy Derek Trucks doing “Greensleeves” which I know is kind of a Christmas song right? Anyway, I digress as usual and am missing the point of this paragraph which is to say the creepy DJ is only creepy in that he is quite a bit older than the most of us at the banquet center and is always hitting on girls that could easily be his daughters and who also are not interested. Gotta hand it to him for trying.

He played this song many times at the holiday party for a local car dealership. Those ones are interesting because you have everyone from the secretary to the owner to the salesmen attending so it really makes for a strange mix of people who usually do not hang out socially. I made a million white Russians, as well as cheap vodka tonics by the score while the tips got higher and the peeps got drunker. Afterwards, for the first time ever, I decided to go out with some of my fellow employees to a Buffalo Wild Wings for a beer before last call. I’m not prejudiced against the people I work with, I just live farther away than most of them and often have other plans for after work. And, I tried to just go to Wendy’s and get a cheeseburger because I was starving, but it was closed so I really had no choice because I was famished. Open late, my ass.

When I got to Wild Wings, the creepy DJ was there and bought all ten of us a drink which was very nice of him. He also got some appetizers which I attacked with gusto as I had been denied my artery clogging two dollar Junior Bacon and Cheese minutes earlier. I’m sure the tall IPA and artichoke dip I sucked down weren’t great for me either, but again I stray from the point. The DJ, while everyone is talking to each other loudly, leans over and points at this bartender named Kathy and whispers “Is she single?”

What I heard was “is she cool” like does she smoke pot a la Dazed and Confused to which I replied “Yeah, I think she’s cool man”. When he used the restroom, Kathy left saying he kept hitting on her and all I could think of was “Slowride” by Foghat. I appreciate the free drink and I respect the enthusiasm of a DJ to hit on a girl so much younger and out of his reach. Happy holidays and good luck to you sir!

The next two parties I’d like to talk about are ones I attended. My dive bar had it’s company party the night after my trip to Wild Wings and I ended up getting out early because some idiot executive had hired a science experiment exhibition crew instead of a band, DJ, or even a magician. Granted, the science shit was cool but this group, also a car dealership, was mostly mechanics who just wanted the free vittles and the possibility of winning a raffle or impressing someone higher up with their witty conversation. So I got to the bar before ten with a green Santa hat on and I soon had a Wild Turkey on the rocks in hand and was shooting pool with my lead singer‘s father, a local pro. I was feeling good.

Then the shit hit the fan and it had to do with my lead singer and two separate crazy woman. The first approached me and asked me if I was seeing anybody and because this girl has a serious local reputation and I was not attracted to her, I quickly suggested she should seek the attention of another related friend who I knew liked her. She then decided to rip into my lead singer for taking some friend of hers home three weeks before who also used to date her brother.  He had told me about it and that nothing had happened and I related this information to the girl. Yeah, it barely made sense to me too and neither did the next incident two minutes later outside when one of the local bartenders and known hellion starts literally yelling at the lead singer because he didn’t call her father back in relation to some logging job.

As with the girl before, I jumped to the defense of my boy saying “You know it’s the freakin holidays, can’t we all just have a good time?” This was met with a scowl and a few beautiful moments of silence before she just started swearing again. Unfortunately  the drawback of smalltown-living is everyone is in everyone else’s shit out of lack of stimulation. This was turning into a very not jolly holiday so we did what we would normally do when things got weird at the bar which is take the back door when the two crazy girls went to pee. The holidays seem to rile other people up too.

I don’t like this song but it’s an apt choice here and is on the jukebox at the dive bar far more than anyone should have to withstand. Maybe finding a new bar or even not going to bars anymore is a choice for the new year?

For my last holiday party that is worth mentioning, I was invited for the second year to a very swanky restaurant’s holiday party, located down on a peninsula in a very popular coastal town where two former presidents are sometimes in attendance. I had a great time last year except I abused the privilege of the very nice open bar and drank all of the high end bourbons from Maker’s Mark to Booker’s, each one more potent than the next. Needless to say, I don’t remember much and this year I intended to network which really means talk to as many women as possible and invite them all to come see our band on New Year’s Eve. I was pretty successful at this without being obnoxious, at least in my humble opinion.

The downstairs bar of this place had a little dock where people smoked cigarettes and a vicious wind came off the water. I was demonstrating  the type of dancing I’d maybe do at a music festival to some younger folks and set my whiskey on a metal table. Like two minutes later, it slid right off the table and bounced off the ground, not shattering but certainly emptying. It had frozen up around the bottom and become a serious hazard and spilled all my whiskey.

Luckily, a very pretty girl offered to make me a margarita shot which is an offer I took up. It seems some dishwasher was dancing up on her on the pumping dance floor upstairs and she wanted to know if I’d help deflect. In my altered state of mind, I assumed she wanted me so I said I’d meet her up there post haste. The very young DJ played this song numerous times. Catchy once, annoying more than that.

The dancing with my tequila girl was not to be. I had attended the party with the head bartender and her husband, the General from my dive bar days, as well as another bartender whom we picked up on the way. This other bartender was three years younger than me and owned her own house paid for by tending bar. She also rode horses. I have a thing for equestrians and I know it’s a little weird so we don’t have to get into it too much. Needless to say, I was instantly attracted to her but she seemed to be more concerned with slamming Bud Light and talking to the elderly patrons who also came to the party. I went up from my shot to find the General and tell him we had to stay a while longer so I could dance when I saw my horse girl falling off the front porch of the bar. She apparently cannot handle her booze at all and we had to quickly leave. So much for Christmas love.

Is there a theme here? I think, at heart, everyone wants to be happy for Christmas and we can find that through relationships with other people, whether ones we have or ones we’d like to create. I know a big part of my own disillusionment with the holidays is that it will largely just be my mom and I this year and would probably be better if I had a significant other whom I really liked or maybe even a family as this is really what the holidays are about.

I was talking to an old dishwasher soon before I spilled my whiskey about finding love in the modern age and he said “You know man, you probably got so many women who like you and you don’t even know it.” He looked vaguely like Jerry Garcia so I took his advice to heart. If you got loved ones, tell them you love them and if you don’t, I firmly believe you will find them if you are supposed to.

O,k so one more song and it is in fact Christmas flavored but it made me laugh so hard that I can’t not include it. UH HUH! Happy Holidays!

Christmas Songs

So, my brother gave a list of holiday party jams last year and prepared an even funkier list for this Christmas. While I heartily approve of not playing Christmas songs, I can’t let this blog stand without some nod to tradition. Some of this is a re-post. But I’ve added stuff. If Christmas songs can be recylced, can’t Christmas posts.

You’re all unstuck in time. So, here it goes.

In an earlier post, I seemed to have almost totally denigrated Christmas as a holiday and, in the same gesture, to have dismissed all Christmas music along with it. In the spirit of the season—even if it isn’t a season that I love as much as others do—I need to clarify and be honest about my relationship with Christmas music.

True Story: We grew up in a place called Hollis, Maine. For a time, we used to change the words from this song, predictably, to “It’s Christmas time in Hollis Maine”. Another true story: I actually lived in Queens and the wife worked in Hollis.

Part of the attraction and danger of Christmas music is that it creates bit of a time warp (which is at least part of the intention). Every year we hear the same music from the same artists in contexts which, if they are not identical, they are at least similar enough to give an inebriated man (or woman) what David Foster Wallace would call the fantods. Now, this is part of the attraction and the charm. The atmosphere uses all of our senses—the smells of food and trees, the feel of full stomachs and anticipation, and the sound of music—to collapse present and past into one eerie yet familiar moment.

Yes, I had this NKOTB Album. And their Christmas album

This feeling of current satisfaction plus nostalgia isn’t what I hate about Christmas. I hate the ruthless hoards of corporate operatives who try to capitalize upon our weakness. I hate the equation of affection with spending power; I hate holiday payday loans at 5.99% APR; I hate the outsized expectations that set almost everyone up for disappointment. I hate the frustrated build up to this most unholy of consumerist orgasms. It leaves me feeling, well, dirty and used.

But, the truth is, most things are what you make of them. For real.  And with Christmas, we defeat ourselves before we start with unrealistic expectations. See, holidays will never be the iconoclastic moment that we remember from some sliver of our youths (and they weren’t that great then either). And they will never match up to the airbrushed ideals of Macy’s advertisements.

Contrary to my earlier claims, though, I do not hate Christmas music. I hate contemporary attempts to cash in on the intersection of temporary fame and Christmas mania—every asshole with a Billboard hit seems compelled to release a Christmas album. But I do not hate the classics.

One of my favorite Christmas tunes (you can have the lyrics, or whatever) goes by the current name “What Child is This?” but has as its oldest name “Greensleeves”, a haunting memory, perhaps about a prostitute, which is one of the oldest tunes in the English tradition. I probably love this song because it is one of the first tunes I learned to play when I was taking classical guitar lessons.

I have a real weakness in general for the older arrangements of the more popular religious Christmas songs. Songs like “Joy to the World” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” have traditional four part harmonies in older hymnals that can be both festive and challenging to sing. Too often, rather than trying to sing the older tunes, people either pen new ones or jazz them up. In “Angels we have heard on High” I especially like the vocal alternations in the famous “Gloria” chorus.

My real weakness, though, is for Christmas music in other languages. I love Latin carols. I absolutely love the Latin version of “O Come All ye Faithful” (“Adeste Fideles”). It has a seriousness and raised register that too many contemporary carols (ok, all of them) lack. Truly, try singing “Natum videte” instead of the English lyrics and deny the attraction.

Speaking of foreign languages: for a time, the family J attended a Lutheran church during my youth. One of the odd things about this experience, for me, is that it seemed like almost as much Sunday School time was spent learning about Martin Luther as Jesus. (And, like some others I have talked to, led to the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape as “Stille Nacht” and the night it was first performed. Later in life, I would sing the German version exclusively.

Seriously, German is not always the prettiest language. But the German of this song is so much better than the English. By comparison, our consonants seem harsh and abrupt.

Now why do I have all these songs in my head? For another period of time in my life, I often sang on Christmas eve either alone or with groups. I never had the strongest or most remarkable voice, but I had a little training and was the only one around my age who could pull it off. The hardest song I ever tried to sing was “O Holy Night”—which is like Christmas’ “Star-Spangled Banner”.

She has the voice to pull this off. I never did.

The year I pulled this song off I had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before. My wounds were infected and smelled terribly. I was on opiates and was probably sneaking bourbon on the side. I remember the red and white of Christmas vestments; the gleam of candle on the gold of the altar and the hush of nothing else but my voice.

And the fear of the death smell coming out of my mouth.

As an adult, I carry these songs around with me and the memories they evoke are almost always a blend of the embarrassing, the chilling, and the lost charm of youth. I don’t regret the passage of time as a loss most days of the year, but I can’t escape Christmas without a little bit of remorse and a few moments spent contemplating my own mortality. It only gets harder as we get older and sense the empty chairs around us.

Yeah, Merry Christmas. Seriously, let’s lighten it up with some Toots:

And you, my brother? Merry Christmas. I am sorry that there are so many miles between us.

Call and Response: Religious Songs

As we come to the high frenzy of this holiday season, I’d like to turn to one of my favorite exchanges from the past year, when my brother and I stopped being silly and got a little serious about, you know, religion and stuff. It seems that this is the season for that sort of thing, right? So, this is a re-post, but updated and just right for the longer nights and the colder days.

In last year’s honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

Continue reading

Christmas Jams: Where’s that Spirit at?

Bootsy Collins of James Brown and the  JB’s and Parliament Funkadelic fame can make anything funky and nails this yuletide jam right on the head. How have I lived 28 years and missed that this album was created? Lucky for me,  I have a cool new friend who teaches science where I work and he illuminated me after lunch one day last week.

As much as I tell everyone who will listen that I hate Christmas music, this year I have spent more time than ever seeking out holiday jams I can endure in a season I really don’t like in general. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has been a time I wish I could avoid completely since the passing on of my father three years ago this January.  The few Christmases after college and my post college break-up spent with just my parents  (while my siblings lived too far away), left me with some great memories.

My father hated Christmas and always acted like a jerk because his own father died decades ago in the winter time under some very traumatic circumstances. I don’t think that mourning ever really left him during those months and I now know exactly why he was so evil on Christmas mornings. Oddly enough, I actually look back at some of his temper tantrums about the trash caused by opening presents with a laugh because it was such absurd behavior. He’d circle with his giant black garbage bag wearing a frown/grimace hurrying us to unwrap presents so he could take away the leavings.  We all handle grief different ways and the loss of his Grinch imitation is polarized every Christmas morning.

I picked this record up at  a Goodwill when I first moved home and wanted my parents to embrace my record player and all the space it took up in their dining room. This makes a classic song really sing with the crisp lazy sounds of the slide, adding a blues feel to what is for many a very depressing time of year. This one works the opposite for me though, perking me up each time I play it. He was a legendary neo-classical guitar player who actually signed Leo Kottke to his first record deal. 

I’m thankful my brother and his family came home for Thanksgiving and my sister’s family also made the trek, but it looks like both will not be making the trip back for Christmas for a myriad of logistical reasons that are a bummer but a reality of the adult lives we have chosen. So that also makes the holidays a little worse to bear as well, with the further fact that this time of year always makes you take stock of where you are in life.

I should be ecstatic because I have come a long way this year, finding a job I love that is going well, a band that continues to improve and a wide circle of friends whose holiday gatherings I can crash without feeling like a third wheel to anyone’s family time. But I seem to focus on another Christmas missing my father and wondering why I haven’t settled down and had kids like so many around me have. My general malaise probably has as much to do with lack of Vitamin D as anything else. So, in an attempt to change my mindset, I have thrown myself into decorating for Christmas and discovering new holiday jams.

This is like a sure-fire smile right here. I’ve spun this record an endless amount of times at this point, predominantly while doing Christmas activities ranging from trimming to the tree to making cookies to having an eggnog with friends. I love the vibraphone in this. Most of the album’s tracks sound similar and that’s not a bad thing.

After going out with some fellow teachers Friday night, I picked up a six-pack of local beer and went home to spend the next several hours decorating my house with my mother. For two years now, I’ve stalled putting up such things until it was almost too late but this year I was inspired to get everyone in the mood for this holiday season. Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass band really gets everyone upbeat and a beer or two doesn’t hurt. I was so enthusiastic that the next day, I decided to walk through the woods where we grew up in Maine and cut my own Christmas tree down. We never did this as children, but I really liked the idea and I know my Dad would have as long as he didn’t have to do anything.

Buck Owens did Christmas songs? This is great, you can put pedal steel guitar on anything and I’ll like it. Also, the whole blue Christmas thing is a vibe I know far too well and this is cathartic to hear.

We had to hike almost a mile into the woods to find anything remotely acceptable because it comes to find out that Christmas trees are actually pruned in a specific way to foster that appearance and it rarely occurs naturally in the wild. We ended up cutting down a 40 foot balsam fir halfway down with a buck saw and then cutting 8 feet of the top of that piece. It still took both of us to bring it the whole way out and not have it become covered in mud and it only took a minute to realize the stand we put it into had a giant leak which soaked my carpet.

We got a new stand and put it up and no tree has given me as much happiness as this tree. Sure, its funny looking and closer to Charlie Brown than Martha Stewart, but I cut that tree and lugged it in. I need to focus on a steady girlfriend first, but if I ever have kids, we are doing it the old fashioned way because it feels a whole lot better every time you lay eyes on it.

Also very cathartic for those moments when you just wish the entire Christmas season never existed. 

The house is looking pretty Christmassy and I have made come cool plans for Christmas day beyond the regular viewing of Die Hard which we have had in place for some time. I have got a few Christmas presents, one of which is the promise to my 90 year-old Grandma that I will shave my horrendous mustache prior to the Christmas Eve church service, and this is also improving my spirits. We have tried to make a family rule of no one buying presents for each other this year so we can all save money so I hope everyone is actually doing that because I sure am.

As difficult as this time of year is for me and for so many else out there in the world, I know I feel better after trying to get into that Christmas spirit.  Whenever life gets hard for me, I find that baring down and working through it is the best solution. It’s always best to try to focus on the positive no matter how down you get which is often way harder than it sounds.  Holidays are really a minor thing and what you really want is a whole year of quality family, friend and life experiences. I know I’m getting closer to that every year so from the bottom of my heart, have a great holiday and a happy new year!

I cheated on this one and googled “funky Christmas songs” and wound up with this gem. I could not think of a better funk name than The Jive Turkeys, what a score!  I will for sure be dancing around the tree to this for many years to come.  I sure hope my nieces and nephews like funk music when they grow up!

Deeper Cuts of Nirvana

This is from their album In Utero  which was the last album before Kurt Cobain killed himself. My recollection is that I got into this album before Nevermind because I bought it when it came out.  I thought the cover of the disc was creepy in a cool way.

My old college roommate  came to visit this weekend and as usual, we talked about music and he mentioned he did not like any of the Nirvana he heard on the radio. Well actually, he said he didn’t like the band at all and this alarmed me as even now twenty years later, I love that band. He brought up a very good point though which is that if you don’t ever hear a band’s other non hit songs, it’s hard to really gauge if you like them or not. “Smells like Teen Spirit” is certainly an awesome song, but we have all heard it about a million times now and it’s gotten old. It must be “Stairway to Heaven” syndrome. Great song the first hundred times you hear it.

I used to listen to this song before school like everyday in fourth grade. No, I was not depressed or suicidal and I never even questioned whether fish had feelings or not. I could see why this song would make someone morose, but now, I think it really displays the other side of Nirvana, the quiet as opposed to loud dynamic they borrowed heavily from The Pixies.

Nirvana has  ton of good songs and I’m far more familiar with them as a band than Pearl Jam. It is unfortunate that the public at large doesn’t know more of the deep cuts but that is not their fault. I would lay the blame on the record industry in the last thirty years and iPods, where there is no emphasis on the album. It’s all about the single and how much quick money can be made with minimal effort. It’s a damn shame, I miss cohesive long form albums.

“Pennyroyal Tea” is one from the unplugged album, which my old roommate assured me he’d heard many times so I chose the version off In Utero. The tea is supposed be able to act as an abortive and I guess part of the song is a message to his hippie friends in Seattle that this method does not work. It also seems pretty emblematic of his growing suicidal tendencies which is sad.

Kurt Cobain was definitely a pseudo-hero to me growing up, as I am sure he was to many both now and then, even if he was a drug addled self-destructive mental case. I remember seeing interviews around age 8 before his death and thinking that there must be something wrong with him because he’s so unhappy. At that point, it made no sense to me why someone who so many people loved and had so much success could be feel so down and out. His suicide really confused me for this same reason. I had only a vague idea of the self-inflicted deaths by misadventure by people like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and it still made little sense to a fourth grader.

This one was the new song that came off of the greatest hits album in 2002 and apparently was the subject of a long running lawsuit between Courtney Love and the rest of the band. She felt it should be released as a single off of a Beatles “1” style record which it ended up being, while Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic wanted it to be on a B-Side/Rarity record. Love won, it looks like, but I’m sure they all made money off of it.

It’s hard sometimes when I talk to current students about Nirvana because they seem to think he’s their generation’s hero and that I probably don’t know anything about Kurt or Nirvana. I think it’s also a sign of me getting older because I’ve said more than once to them that I was listening to the band before they were alive. I think it’s good kids these days like the band as opposed to most of the bullshit music put out today, but it also concerns me that their fandom is interwoven with the glamorization of suicide and drug addiction. With the prevalence of suicide and self-harm in the teens today, which probably has more to do with mass media coverage than actual statistics, it is a legitimate concern that I try to mitigate whenever I talk Nirvana with the kids. My stock phrase is “Even though I love Jimi Hendrix, doesn’t mean I think it’s cool to overdose on sleeping pills and booze. What a waste of talent”.

I’ve listened to very little live Nirvana which is why I chose this track. I actually like this version more than the unplugged version, probably because I listened to it so many times as a youth.

So, I hope I have illuminated my old friend and anyone else who feels they don’t like Nirvana based on the popular radio hits. With so many internet radio options and some cool radio stations in existence, I could be wrong in thinking that any of these are even new to anyone. For my own interest, I did hear a few songs I’ve never heard and some maybe only once. The last track is one I don’t believe I’ve ever listened to before and that is super cool as I’ve been a fan for so long. For all his faults, Cobain will be remembered as a voice cut short for the 90’s generation and I hope the youths appreciate the music and take  a positive message away from this loss rather than  a negative one. As for my former roommate, I sure hope this post gave you something to like about Nirvana.

These last two tracks are off of Bleach and Insecticide, the two albums I never owned and that are a lot more punk rock then Nevermind. I was never a big punk fan but these songs sure make me want to be. Hope you found some peace Kurt, rest easy.

On The Radio (Flashback): Big Head Todd and the Monsters

Mmmmm. Music.

Mmmmm. Music.

So, the other day I was walking from my office past one of our departmental secretaries when I reached into the candy bowl on her desk and withdrew a little dark chocolate. As I walked away and the cacao-infused treat melted in my mouth, I looked at the wrapper, read the word “bittersweet” and, BOOM, I was suddenly not walking but in some time shift driving the Ford LTD to a band rehearsal with a twelve-string, a fender Blues DeVille amp, and a telecaster in the trunk. The radio was tuned to the local rock station and a track hauntingly hung in the air.

For a moment, I didn’t smell the chocolate I was infusing with saliva, but I felt the cold bite of a Maine winter combined with the slightly acrid, styrofoam character of an old engine burning oil mixed in with the sweet synthetic syrup of antifreeze. Even as I was walking in 95 degree heat, 35 years old, and a college professor smelling more of coffee than smoke, I was also 16 and late to be nowhere.

At first, I thought this song was by Matthew Sweet. Maybe it was the bitterSweet thing or that both bands were minor players on the early alt-rock stage.

My brother and I have both written before about the tactile, olfactory and auditory nature of memory–and especially the way that music can invoke those other aspects of the past as well. I have been especially inspired of late by the similar work of the blog Mixed Tape Masterpiece, but even I was surprised by the sequence of memories that ensued from that one word which transformed from taste, to idea, to song and again to smells of a different type.

Continue reading