New Car, New Sound System, New Music: Tennis, “Marathon”

Recently, my wife decided that she needed a new vehicle. And not just any new vehicle: she decided that with two kids it was time for something other than a sedan. So, at the beginning of the new year, it was minivan or SUV or bust. And none of this made either of us too happy.

Anyone who has read much of this blog has witnessed my brother or I mention cars–the Ford LTD station-wagon or Tempo, my lovely Buick LeSabre, the hellbeast Chevy Caprice and stereotypical blue Toyota Prius, for me and my brother’s love/hate for his Impala and irrational exuberance for his Subaru. Like many Americans, we have led lives that make cars necessary and whose necessities are translated into a commercialized communication of class and value. To say that we weigh down cars with overdetermined meaning would be an understatement. In our lives growing up, a person’s car was an immediate snapshot of their entire person.

Again, then, it would be an understatement to say that car buying is hard for me before I even leave the houseNot only do I worry what the car I drive communicates to absolute strangers, but I get almost dyspeptic with anxiety about the implied if unspoken judgments from friends and family. To say that my wife and my current relative financial stability (if not good fortune) makes me uncomfortable is merely to restate the definition of the word. And, of course, my wife’s feelings about cars are completely the opposite.

Add in to this mix the horrors of car dealerships, model varieties and salespeople and you’ve got a potentially toxic year-destroying brew. So my wife and I negotiated: no more then three weekends. No more than five test-drives. We individually read ratings, compared lists, enlisted the help of a car-fanatic friend and quickly decided against the middle-aged surrender of a minivan. My wife’s car–a Honda Civic hybrid, possibly the worst car Honda ever made–left her desiring something better, both mechanically and aesthetically.

She bought an SUV. And a nice one. It is not a vehicle I can drive comfortably–given my deep-seated class issues–but the first time I drove it alone with the kids and got to test the sound system for real (my wife likes he music too soft for my taste) I fell in love with the Bose speakers. This car has beautiful sound. As with many new cars, it came equipped with XM Radio. I flipped the dial and heard the song “Marathon” by Tennis:

This had to be one of those moments of obscene serendipity. It was a Saturday morning, we were all mellow, and the sun was blazing in the way that the winter sun will. The chill in the air felt a little less sharp with the background of this piece, a solo-performance built on a classic 50s/60s doo-wop progression with some surf-rock licks. The some doesn’t grow quickly, but it lingers and fills the space until it ends and it feels strange that it is gone.  The ethereal vocals were a bright and nice complement to the brittle sun and suddenly everything just felt, well, right.

The lyrics of the first verse are about surprise and foreboding:

Coconut Grove
Is a very small cove
separated from the sea
by a shifting shore
we didn’t realize that
we had arrived
at high tide, high tide
barely made it out alive

When I read them now it seems obvious that the tension between the anodyne simplicity of the music and the menace of the lyrics should unsettle me–but the fact is that it doesn’t.  I am used to tension; I am accustomed to paradox; and I have no problem with the compromises and inconsistencies that over time make us all hypocritical versions of our earlier selves.

I don’t know if I will love my wife’s car but it doesn’t matter. Life–in all of its tension and insistence–has been good to us of late. I’ll just be happy with the music that comes on the radio when these speakers sound so damn good.

Acoustic Music on Youtube: Imagine Dragons and Three Years Later

It has been a full year since the first time I heard “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons. And although part of me wants to reject the band because of their popularity (and, yes, that is the less mature part of me, I think) I can’t stop liking the song or enjoying different renditions of it.  A great deal of this has to do with the new memories I have gained in conjunction with this song. And most of this has to do with whom the memories surround

My three-year old daughter keeps asking for this song. Even a year after she first heard it, she loves it–especially this acoustic version. And a few weeks ago, while listening to the lyrics and watching her and my son sing along, I was completely undone. Because, you know, its the undoing time of year.

I don’t want to be the guy who spends the same night (or series of nights) every year tipping back drinks in honor of what has been lost.  I don’t want the end of January to be a black hole on the calender. I want to fill the year with new memories, to graft skin over the scar tissue in some pathetic search for normalcy. But, the scar tissue is never truly gone, is it?

This isn’t going to be another maudlin entry about what it has been like to pass another year without our father.  I have accomplished that far too many times. The people we live with and then without are the ghosts who accompany us to our own graves. We see them in our faces in the mirror, in furniture and objects around the room, in the simple action of turning over the soil from winter for the new spring. The act of living needs death for its meaning(s). But, as my brother said today, it is through living well that we honor the dead.

Yes, another year has past since the untimely death of our infuriating, irascible, inimitable, and beloved father. This year I did my best to be somewhere different (Washington, DC) doing different things. But as the day and the week goes by, he’ll be in my thoughts. He is almost every time I look into his grandchildren’s faces.

And this is the way of things.

On the (Internet) Radio: City and Colour

Recently I upgraded from my older phone to a newer one. I say “newer” because I never get the newest phone–Sprint will give out a ‘

newish’ phone for a lot less than the actual latest release. (Yes, I’m the jerk who walks out with a Galazy 2 feeling smug because I paid 50 dollars less than I would have for the galaxy 3.) I did what I always do with a new phone: I tried out many of its features to see if I will actually use it.

This post really isn't about phones

This post really isn’t about phones

Now, since phones are little supercomputers with more power than the machine that made the moon landings possible, there is no way I will use everything on them. But this phone as far more memory than my last beloved piece of crap, which means that I can actually run internet applications without my little and possibly carcinogenic friend committing ritual suicide.

So, after going through my semi-annual ritual of deleting contacts I don’t want to transfer and downloading all of the apps I need and getting my wife to help me figure out how to set up my email on the phone (because, my work has to make it difficult), I was ready to start.  I always put music apps on my phone (Pandora, Stitcher et al), yet prior to this phone I found them frustrating. Streaming music uses a lot of battery life and, at least in some early versions, Pandora sounded terrible on the phone.

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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:

Tame Impala: There’s one in my Yard

I have already broken my commandment of writing a long post and a short post each week, but it’s not due hardly at all to procrastination. In fact, I only recently got a real job where I have to be consistently engaged and no choice but to show up everyday, but I am sure the Elder is still sour with me as he should be. I will get into the details of my new job later since I think I could write volume on it at this point. Instead, check out this song that I know my brother mentioned at some point and I heard last night on a commercial.

This song, by Tame Impala, is badass. It’s like a dirty sounding T. Rex with all the fuzz and buzz one could want from a seriously righteous sounding garage band. I had to applaud the band for making the song and my brother for catching some thing cool before me. I can’t even remember what I was doing because I don’t know what the commercial was for.

Luckily, I heard the same song the next day on the weekly Psychedelic Breakfast on the classic rock station that I listen to every single Saturday morning even if I am up the whole night prior. True story is that the only thing that keeps me from listening to this show is geographical and apparently one can listen to it online so even if I am out of the state, I can still jam to this amazing set of music.

Naturally, they have a song called “Led Zeppelin” which almost sounds like a psychedelic version of one of that huge band’s song but with like a techno backbeat. Pretty cool.

After hearing the song and then getting the name from the DJ, I immediately remembered my brother talking about the band. These Australians describe themselves as a psychedelic band so it’s excellent I heard them on the aforementioned show. The song above grabbed my attention because of the name and ended up being very cool.  I have been scanning through their songs on the YouTubes and find them to be consistently awesome. They have this classic late 60’s, early 70’s feel with some sick riffs and the psychdelia of middle-era Beatles and early Pink Floyd but with more cohesive songs. Clearly, there’s a little prog rock in there too which I obviously love. Nothing insane for guitar solos so far, but give me some time!

After numerous mentions of the word Apocalypse, I still can’t spell with the word without spell check.  

To wrap up what is supposed to be a short post, I do in fact have a tame Chevy Impala in my backyard. Over two years after his passing, my father’s P.O.S  sedan with over two hundo on the engine still remains in the vacant spot where I should have heirloom tomatoes or some shit growing.  I finally have gotten the paperwork and enthusiasm to get rid of it and hope to sell it within the month and clear up the garden space and my mind because I know the old man would want it gone if it wasn’t running. I need to reboot my iTunes account and buy the whole album by Tame Impala and figure out more songs that rock while doing my spring clean up. This one definitely sounds like the Beatles.

This sounds so much like “I’m only Sleeping”.

This sounds to me a lot like the Revolver era of the Beatles that I probably like more than any other era and a heavier dose of psychedelia then they were into at the time.  This song, with the title of “Feels like we are going backwards” makes me think about my new job in education and almost every aspect of my life right now but I feel alright about it. Sometimes life does push you backwards which really just prompts me to push a little harder and try to think of how to do things differently. Spring is here and the glass is half full so let’s get on it!

Procrastination Station

Recently my brother posted about his battle with procrastination. Although I like to hassle him about it (as he makes clear in his post!), I must protest that this is not something I particularly find fault with in him. See, there are good reasons to put things off. The modern world, moreover, makes distraction and procrastination into preexisting conditions for all of us.

This has more import for this blog than I think my brother knows. This blog is both a product and cause of procrastination. And, there is also some important connection between music and time. I want to explore both of these things and, along the way, give you some songs about time.

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