Crimes against Humanity: Clear Channel

During an exchange with the good Historian over Twitter a few years back, I learned that the flagship alternative rock station of Boston MA, WFNX, has been sold to the media conglomerate Clear Channel. While much of WFNX’s ‘identity’ (its catalogue, call letters, etc.) remained the property of the local media company Boston Phoenix, it is a sad day when one of the better radio stations in the country goes the way of the evil empire.

Why is Clear Channel Evil? First, let’s be clear about what Clear Channel is: it is a media corporation that not only includes billboards (sight pollution) and hundreds of radio stations across the country (noise pollution), but it has also dabbled in television, live events and news. Its modus operandi is to buy a station, strip it down to bare bones, and deliver one of its common formats like Kiss or Magic or some other anodyne and boring fare.

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New Music: Saintseneca, “Happy Alone”

“He who can talk to himself, will have no need of another’s conversation”
qui secum loqui poterit, sermonem alterius non requiret
Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

A few days ago, my phone pinged, I looked down and I received the following tweet from my old college friend and our sometime contributor, Another J.

 

 

Another J has known me just slightly longer than my wife has and since we were in a band together and have shared music for over a decade, he knows my tastes pretty well.  He nailed it with this one. I hear some Rogue Wave in the vocals, some Typhoon in the song structure, and some wild vowels that remind me of Frightened Rabbit.  There are male and female vocals. They use acoustic guitars in angry ways. There are backing vocals that go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and they use a banjo in a non-abusive way (unlike, say, Mumford and Sons).

 

Here’s the lead single from the album:

 

 

The only problem is that the album comes out April 1st. I want it now! I listened to the whole album through NPR’s First Listen and I don’t think that this is the best track. It is actually a little conventional–in the way the Decemberists are in the song “July, July”, which is a great song, but rather poppy in comparison to the rest of their ouvre.  Here’s another Saintseneca track with an acoustic bass and some strangeness that reminds me again of some odd combination of the Decemberists and the early days of Arcade Fire (if they unplugged).

 

“Uppercutter”

The facial hair kind of kills me. I don’t feel hip enough to pre-order this album, but screw it. I’ll do it anyway.

 

Also coming in April: some new and fresh posts. I promise.

On the Radio (Flashback): Time Bomb

In the mid 1990s I used to work about 45 minutes away from home at a gas station–much to the chagrin of my parents who couldn’t understand why the hell I had to drive 45 minutes to pump gas when there were perfectly good places to pump gas in our home town.  The long and the short of it was: (1) I didn’t want to be caught pumping gas by someone I actually knew and (2) there was a girl involved (the place was owned by her father).

As with most things, the law of unintended consequences had a powerful showing here.This was the glorious year of the Ford LTD Stationwagon.  First of all, since I was young and driving a lot not only did I get into my first fender-bender, run out of gas during a snowstorm and receive my first, second and third traffic citations, but I also got to listen to the radio constantly at a time when alt-rock was king. During many of my long drives into the cold, I heard songs by the band Rancid.

I can’t listen to this song without getting happy now. What the living hell was wrong with me?

As I mentioned a few months back when I was going through my obsessive phase with Palma Violets, I was dismissive of almost everything in second-wave punk for no good reason. Although I grudgingly acknowledged the quality of Green Day (and who didn’t? the radio played us all into submission), Rancid–with its snarling vocals and stripped down sound–seemed easy to mock and easier to dismiss. And yet, when I listen to it now, it seems so much more transgressive, immediate, and authentic (again, whatever that means) than a lot of the other schmaltz I thought was good. (“Wonderwall? What the fuck?)

I think that a good deal of my suspicion of punk’s second sailing has to do with poorly held and even more poorly defined ideas of authenticity and originality. At 16, I thought that such words had meaning and had no concept of things like appropriation, homage, and metamorphosis. Even worse, when it came to a band like Rancid, I was too fucking ignorant to know that two of the members were old-timers from Operation Ivy who had enough cache and real DIY punk character to make the members of Green Day blush. Hell, Rancid never even signed with a mainstream label.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you’re worried that someone else is a poseur, you should probably check into their bona fides and, even before that, do the whole monkey in the mirror thing and make sure you’re not a complete fake. I’m trying to make amends for this and many other asshole moments in my youth.  Just today I downloaded the album.  My kids are going to be rocking out with safety pins this afternoon.

And what do you think of all this, my brother?

On the Radio (Flashback): Blu Cantrell vs. Shaggy

The other day I was in the gym and I was suddenly pulled back sweating through time to 2001 by the music video for Blue Cantrell’s record “Hit ’em Up Style”. Back in 2001, I also heard this song regularly at a gym (the only place I encountered mainstream music for a while) and I remember this song being in almost constant rotation on MTV (you know, when the channel played music) and the Canadian rival, Much Music, or whatever it was.

Blu Cantrell taught us how to hit ’em up in 2001

I was never confused about the basic issue of the song–men who cheat are dogs and deserve some type of punishment–but I was never quite sure about the concluding message which I guess is something like, hey, men who cheat are dogs–but make sure you get into their bank account before you say farewell.

The song is, admittedly, catchy, but I think I kept staring at the screen because (1) Blu is cute and (2) I was always confused about whether the song amounted to some type of female-empowerment rally call or merely just a reinforcement of some of the same gendered stereotypes. In the first interpretation men cheat and women suffer but at least women get something out of it in the end.  In the second, well, female ‘labor’ or value is still communicated in terms of material goods and men still do what they want they just pay for it (with material goods). Is the empowered Cantrell fan in any sense free or equal to the man? Who still has the power?

Of course, in my mind at the time, the song was in dialogue with the previous year’s heinous but catchy and inescapable hit, “It wasn’t Me” by Shaggy:

Shaggy, oh it was you. You created a new defense for cheaters in 2000.

In retrospect, Shaggy’s shrugging charm has no been rendered impossible by social media new technology. Honestly, I think that for Shaggy to be able to declare that it wasn’t him, he’d have to have a relationship that used no computers, email addresses or cell phones. And while I find Shaggy’s ‘aw shucks’ claim to not be a serial cheater somewhat repugnant (but less so than an entire population that made this song a hit), I do find the fact that we are now so much more the slaves to machines and software even more disturbing.

Now, I am not lamenting the loss of freedom to cheat, but the loss of freedom more generally. In my memory, the world was different when I heard these songs and even changed in between them. Shaggy’s song is the carefree insane optimism of the late 90s, when I was in college. It was a huge hit as I graduated. Blu Cantrell–rightly or not–reminds me of a reaction to the new pessimistic economy and the more vengeful world I knew after 9/11.

And both seem serenely naive now.

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.

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Radio on the Internet: Pandora’s ‘Newstalgia’

So, I was listening to Pandora again at the gym and enjoying a station a created based off of the Pixies when I heard an

You know what clung to the box? Hope.

You know what clung to the box? Hope.

advertisement for the genre channel called “Cover Songs Radio. There were two things that made me continue to think about this channel over the next day.

First, as some might remember, I have sort of an embarrassing obsession with cover songs. I have theorized about them (twice), I have gone through an intense period of watching amateurs perform them on youtube, I have fantasized about impossible cover songs and I have objected to particularly bad ones.

But what really go me going was the advertisement selling “Newstalgia”, claiming that this is the feeling that a cover song inspires you with because it is both something new and something old. This neologism freaks me the hell out because (1) the Greek compound nost-algia is one of my favorite words and this new word reveals absolute ignorance about the root words “homecoming-grief”) and, more pedantically, new is not a Greek root. The Greek word for ‘new’ would create a perfectly acceptable word “Nealgia”.

(I know. I know. A silly thing to get angry about. And just do a google search for “newstalgia” and see how many others have committed the same unforgivable barbarism.)

So, the idea of a station dedicated to pop songs stayed in my head for a day and a night. The next day I returned to my office and committed myself to listening to the first five songs on the station and writing them down. Here’s what happened: I got excited, I got sad and then I got angry.

Here we go:

1. Van Halen, “You really Got me” (Cover of The Kink’s 1964 hit)

In classic and typical Van Halen stlye, the vocals are sufficient but forgettable and there is way too much guitar soloing. The simplicity and the masculine directness that make the original so powerful are lost on this one. I am sure that the different style was really fascinating in the hoary year of 1978, but years later, it just seems obnoxious

2. Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” (Cover of David Bowie’s 1972 release)

I was surprised when this song came on because I still think of it as a such a revelatory moment for Nirvana. For one, I actually heard this song for the first time when Nirvana covered it in the unplugged show. In this version, the bass is so beautifully and simply played, the guitar-line is like some type of call-to-arms, and Cobain’s voice works well with its under-played presentation of the song. By contrast, when I listen to Bowie’s version, it seems almost cheesy. This cover, then, shows the power of a song translated from one style and time to another with the potential to characterize artist and song alike.

3. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, “Over the Rainbow” (do you need to ask?)

I wasn’t at all upset to have this song show up. For one, I have heard it about a thousand times but I didn’t know who sang it or really helped to redefine (for me and for a generation at least) what can happen when you transform a song from one genre to another. The ukulele is simple and his voice is a little thread-bare, but every time I have ever heard this song I have gotten a little sad.

Maybe it is the memory of this song and my youth. When I was a small child CBS or one of the networks used to play the Wizard of Oz one night a year. My mom and dad made popcorn, opened the sleeper sofa, and let me stay up late to watch it. I don’t know what inspired that, but I can’t think of or hear of Wizard of Oz without that thought. Even as I type this out, I am blinking away tears–the song is just too sad, to filled with that sense of the ephemeral nature of life.

And this is even more messed up. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole died at the young age of 38 in 1997 after fighting obesity his entire life. Is there a foreboding tone in this song? What is the song about but the desire for transformative change, for the release from this life to a better one.

Shit, I am getting weepy again.

4. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (cover of Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 release)

When this song came on after the first one, I decided that I should just stop doing anything for the rest of the day. “Hurt” is a powerfully harrowing song in its original high goth form. When Cash sings this song at the end of his life and after the passing of his wife, it is just way too much to process emotionally. Poignant doesn’t even begin to describe this shit.

I didn’t skip the song, though. I don’t pay for Pandora!

5. Aerosmith, “Come Together” (Cover of The Beatles’ 1969 release)

I did not know that Aerosmith covered this song. I can be quite honest about this. It is terrible. Tyler has such a unique voice that it does not meld well into other peoples’ songs–and this range is quite wrong for it. The over all tone of the song is really ill-fit for Aerosmith and the time period. I really don’t care that much for The Beatles, but after hearing this abomination I listened to the original as a type of soul cleansing. This is the worst type of a cover song: it reveals the weaknesses of the the band performing and makes you want to hear something else.

So that ended my day with Pandora’s cover songs. Anything new to you hear my brother?

On the Radio (Flashback): Sixpence None the Richer

I was strolling around the mall in one of those department stores that is designed intentionally to make you get lost and distracted in the maze of perfume, jewelry and bright mirrors. I was trying to block out the usually bland and anesthetizing sound of whatever pop music was being pumped in through the distant ceiling speakers when the saccharine, drooling tones of Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” came on.

I don’t really like department stores and I usually hate Mall music, so this moment was no exception to either rule. Yet, because I was waiting for my wife and pushing around a hefty double stroller I had no choice but to hear the lyrics and contemplate their sweet, simple vapidity. Just read them and enjoy (“?) the amateurish alliteration and repetition. I know that this song partly became a hit because of its nice, sliding bass-line and the gossamer quality of the vocals, but I was offended yet again–Ignatius C. Reilly style–by its emptiness, its stupidity.

Kiss me out of the bearded barley
Nightly, beside the green, green grass
Swing, swing, swing the spinning step
You wear those shoes and I will wear that dress.

Oh, kiss me beneath the milky twilight
Lead me out on the moonlit floor
Lift your open hand
Strike up the band and make the fireflies dance
Silver moon’s sparkling
So kiss me

Kiss me down by the broken tree house
Swing me upon its hanging tire
Bring, bring, bring your flowered hat
We’ll take the trail marked on your father’s map

Yet, such unfounded feelings of superiority lasted a few moments only before I was pulled back into a reverie, to the moments I most attach to this song. And, to tell this story, I have to tell somebody else’s story. This time, my brother’s

Still Killing?

Still Killing?

See, when my brother was between grade school and high school, he had a best friend from whom he was virtually inseparable. The two of them did pretty much everything together; they were peas in a pod, Laurel and Hardy, the two guys on CHIPs. So much were they the closest of friends that we all just imagined them being college roommates, future poker buddies or any of the things that men do when they get older.

Except, one day, after years of being together almost every weekend, this best friend just stopped coming over. My brother just stopped calling him. And, no matter how much we pried, my brother never explained what happened. I surmise from context clues that some decisions were made about our family not presenting the right environment for this young man (and that may have been a sensible decision at the time). I fear some days that I was part of this.

When my brother was too young, he used to come to visit me in my dingy college apartment. We all drank and smoked and, inevitably, so did my brother and his friend (even if in the beginning they were sneaking it, by the end my roommates and I were complicit). At the time, we all thought it was hysterical. As a parent now and many years removed, I shudder to think of the example I offered and the possible damage I caused.

What does this have to do with Sixpence None the Richer? During one of their visits, my brother and his friend would simultaneously break into mocking renditions of this song. This was only natural–they hung around with us playing video games, going to band rehearsal and hitting on college girls. (They even made a cameo during one of my band’s performances, dressed in masks and rocking out to “Psycho Killer”). The times were fun, certainly. But they also weren’t right for thirteen year-olds.

So, when I hear “Kiss Me”, my hackles are raised by the song itself. But i am also disappointed when I hear it because it reminds me of a younger, less considerate version of myself. It reminds me that the brother I wanted to be was rarely the brother I was.