Sunshine On the Radio: Variations on a Theme with Ron Carter

I was about to drive home today in the oppressive heat of my adopted state and when I flipped on my car the radio was set to the local jazz station. This station plays mostly instrumental pieces, heavy on standards and classics with some great programs that highlight new jazz, Brazilian jazz etc. from time to time. So, I was a little surprised when the piece playing was just an upright bass.

Ron Carter stretches, rocks, rolls and massages out of “You Are my Only Sunshine” a timeless lesson in the relationship between a standard, a musician, and the audience. I can’t stop listening to or thinking about this number.

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Radio (on the TV!) Again: 2 Chainz is Different

A few weeks ago I wrote about my (re)discovery of Music Choice, the big media conglomerate that primarily brings music to digital television for whatever narrow profit the banner ads will bring. I have spent more time over the past week or so (as my children and I have been spending chaotic and messy quality time at home) contemplating the various channels that Music Choice gives to the world.

I don’t know exactly how the system works, but there must be some inter-corporate back-scratching going on because the tracks repeat regularly on each station and there are typically underrepresented artists (I have yet to hear They Might Be Giants, the Pixies or Fugazi on any channel). But, since I am too lazy to do any real research on the matter, I will just assume corporate shenanigans informed only partly by actual music knowledge and taste.

The last time I talked about Music Choice I was so breathless with the single “The John Wayne” by Little Green Cars (a passion that has tempered, but only marginally) that I mentioned the artist 2 Chainz only in passing. As to be expected from Music Choice, I have heard this song a couple of times now and I am obsessed (for no good reason) with the double-bind it presents.

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Some more Political Songs

The Personal is Political, said Carol Hanisch. The guys in Fugazi know that

After I read my brother’s post about political songs, I knew that I couldn’t be silent. It is not that I do not like his list; in fact, I like it a whole lot. What I cannot leave untouched is his sense of disenchantment.  I think it is terrible that he feels so apolitical. I would call it tragic if it were not so common.

See, I feel  apolitical too. We live under a political system that is at best a plutocratic oligarchy where corporations are citizens. Our elections are so corrupted by money that we spend the GDP of some nations on elections. Even English speaking allies like the Canadians and British think our system is ridiculous.

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Song Studies: “Passenger Side” A. M. (1995)

Hey, wake up, your eyes weren’t open wide
For the last couple of miles you’ve been swerving from side to side
You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer
Passenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger side

Years back at a party in my apartment I received several compliments on a playlist I had put together (called the Phoenix List in honor of the burned out apartment whose rebirth was being celebrated). This was not too surprising—if a list has significant variety and some rare tracks over four hours of drinking it is bound to seem good to someone.

There were, however, some exceptions taken to certain choices. After Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” came on, one of my guests (who, incidentally, had tattoos on the inside of his mouth and made a point of mentioning that he didn’t drink but would do cocaine) began to interrogate and mock. Of course, I would like Wilco, he said. I probably like Death Cab for Cutie too. (The answer to that question in a later post.)

Now, as then, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Wilco Fan. Some of their music is good, but I prefer Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. (Jeff Tweedy is, also, a little more than annoying.) The early Wilco albums are pretty good; the recent stuff is fairly mediocre.
But, I guess the question I pose to myself, is: why do I buy Wilco records when I don’t really listen to them all that much? The answer: one song. What draws me to that song, I think, tells me more about me (as usual) and about what makes pop songs work (if not art in general).

The first time I heard “Passenger Side” I was hooked. The song is pretty simple: one vocalist, a basic rhythm guitar with some countrified electric licks, backed by an organ in the background, some strings peppered in effectively and a simple but clear drum line. Tweedy’s voice is raw and breaks at just the right moments. The verses transition well into the chorus; a bridge appears ¾ of the way through the song before the final verse.

This musical description can’t possibly explain the attraction of the song—too many rock and country songs fit the same description. What makes this song effective is its narrative. The singer asks for a ride from a friend (someone who could have been a lover) because his license has been revoked.

The story is simple, but its details strike up just enough verisimilitude to evoke memories from my world growing up—the friend offering a “few dollars to put in the tank” to go on mundane errands because he or she is somehow barred from driving; someone worrying about spilling a beer in a car; “rolling another number” for the road; court dates to get driver’s licenses back.

The story is also a simple one. This is not an overtly political song. This is not obviously engaged in broad universal themes, but there is something in its simplicity that is deceptive. Regret suffuses the lyrics and nearly drips from the chords and guitar licks. When Tweedy’s voice breaks it seems worn by both the weight of nostalgia and the knowing self-deprecation of remorse. The narrator seems to know that he is, like most of us, a self-saboteur.

The chorus, the complaint of being relegated to the passenger side, helps to expand the focus of the song from the specific to the general. The ‘passenger side’ becomes a metaphor for being sidelined, for being compromised, for being, in some way or another, disabled. By engaging with the mundane, by evoking a simple believable life where the narrator is incapable of running simple errands but still drinking and smoking and making grand deals over minor gestures, the song achieves a sublime effect. It makes the able bodied listener feel disabled. It puts drivers in the passenger seat.

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Article Link: tUnE-yArDs

Go here for an interesting article by the novelist Chuck Klosterman on ‘indie’ fame.

 

The article is most about the artist tUnE-yArDs but offers the interesting subtitle “the perils of critical adoration”. Klosterman senses well the disconnect between what critics like and praise now as opposed to what consumers like, on the one hand, and what will actually prove to be influential and aesthetically pleasing in the future.

 

 

Klosterman does a good job of describing the music and isolation what makes it good (experimental, not avant-garde; good rhythms). There’s a little chaos in the music; but there is also a decent design. The vocalist is quite adept at seeming untethered to melody but returning just in time to avoid dissonance. The sound is different, but not totally unique (I have heard simile drumming, vocalisms and dissonance in other bands). The combination is striking: the spare sound of drums, arpeggio guitar and almost haunting vocals on “Powa” feels somewhere between Animal Collective, The White Stripes and a child of Wolf Parade and David Byrne (with some soulful Prince sprinkled in for good order).

Most impressive–the vocalist can range from sounding like a flighty mezzo-soprano, to a screaming tenor a la 1990’s bands like Collective Soul (at times the vocals remind me in breathing of The Bedouin Soundclash). Check out some tracks if you want to bear witness to a tremendously talented and eclectically styled vocalist.

What Klosterman could mention more (and only just implies) is that critics look for something very different from what attracts an audience.  And, while critics (and snobs) often claim that this difference is a function of good taste, time often proves the critics wrong. This leaves us something to contemplate–the does the critic’s pose prevent him/her for seeing art and music for what its worth? Is an artist like tUnE-yArDs favored only because of difference?