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): Superdrag, Sucked Out

Like this, but lamer

Like this, but lamer

Recently my brother and I were talking about his band and some of the troubles they have had forging a unified idea of what kind of band they would be and managing expectations about success, playing out and ‘ownership’. Anytime you talk to someone who is in a real band, they will talk some about the music and the sound, but push a little more and you will uncover some hard-felt anxieties and hurt feelings about serious issues like who comes late to rehearsal and who lugs the most band equipment.

See, as I told my brother, most bands fail. And they don’t fail because of lack of success (although that will almost always happen) but they fail because they are based on human relationships and uneven expectations. Just as romantic relationships thrive on desire and sex but founder on garbage day and dishes, so too the most beautiful harmonies are shattered by the mundane details of schedules, personality tics, and whose turn it is to wake up the drummer.

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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.

On the Radio (Flashback): Second Acts, The Rentals, “Friends of P”

“There are no second acts in American Lives…” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Back in the 1990s when I was tooling around southern Maine in a rapidly deteriorating Ford LTD Stationwagon, I relished the pure joy of a few months of low-advertising and risk-taking on the local alternative rock station. One of the few things I remember about this period is the overwhelming airplay bestowed upon Weezer’s first album. Despite the overwhelming success of this debut, the band couldn’t stay together.  The bassist, Matt Sharp, departed and formed his own band, The Rentals.

For a brief period, it seemed like Sharp made the right decision. I remember cold winter nights, frost on the wind shield and touring around the back roads listening to the enigmatic and beautiful “Friends of P”:

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On the Radio: November Rain

So, recently my car, that blue 2008 Prius that makes me such a badass on the road, betrayed me. I live in a rather warm state and after only 141,000 miles, the air conditioning just gave up on the world and checked out. When I arrived at the dealership (angry because the local garage claimed that servicing an AC on a prius was beyond its capacities), I was skeptical when the service salesman said that AC units never go on Priuses (should it be Prii?). Guess what? The whole damn car had to be taken apart to fix. The repair bill was, well, sobering.

Cool enough for Larry David. And the chick in Weeds.

Cool enough for Larry David. And the chick on Weeds.

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Bass Blowing My Mind: Milt Hinton

The other day, I was driving around in my now classic Toyota Prius, yes, listening to jazz and drinking coffee thus making me not just the perfect example of stuff white people like but also a quintessential specimen of the soon-to-be extinct species, the tenured college professor, when I had to stop for a minute and wish that I could start a song over.

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Requiem for Grantland’s Quarter-Finals: Ni**as in Paris

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

Note: I wrote this post before the competition closed and quite erroneously predicted Adele’s victory. OutKast is victorious! This may undermine my claims about ‘recency effect’ or racism (although nostalgia and ‘safe’ hip-hop could be offered as explanations). For the wider public, I actually think that “Hey Ya” is more attractive than the subject of this post…

This is my third and final post about Grantland’s competition for the Best Song of the Millennium. My predictions have failed and the final competition is between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya”. I feel fairly confident that Adele will win the competition for a few reasons. For one, pop culture seems to have its own type of ‘recency effect’ whereby contemporary or rather recent phenomena are judged as better than those more distant in memory. “Hey Ya” defeated some stiff competition along the way (“Hot in Herre” and “Ignition Remix”) but those songs were also outside the memory of the younger generation.

The bigger issue that I think helps to explain Adele’s success apart from the fact that her presence on the radio is concurrent with the competition (recency effect) and her overwhelming difference from other artists, is her relative ‘safe-ness’, by which I mean , her music is non-edgy but ‘soulful’ R&B derivative, she is not over-sexualized, and, she is white.

I don’t want to make too much of possible racial patterns in pop-culture voting, but from Elvis to Eminem and Macklemore, white artists who channel black music often enjoy more success than their counterparts. (And, I suspect that former American Idol contestants are correct that racism is operative in that competition as well, the difference is that they blame the contest and not the voters.)

This is not to detract from the beauty of “Rolling in the Deep” or the power of Adele as an artist but to attest, instead, that the voting is influenced unduly by prejudices basic to our culture and by the bizarre circumstances of the Best Song of the Millennium bracket to begin with. And, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that “Ni**as in Paris” is an abrasive and, for many people, alienating song. That said, it is better than Adele’s song and I thought this a long time back. So here’s a re-posting of why love this song.

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

These, of course, are excuses. The real fault is my own. After an early love for bad mainstream rap (MC Hammer, I still feel you), I was a bit put off by the gangsta rap explosion (which came around the same time as grunge). The kids in my all white high school who were wearing cross colors, dropping their pants low, and talking about forties and the like just seemed like morons. So, I ignored the whole damn thing.

And missed out on some great artists. Sure, I heard enough Dre, Snoop, Tupac and the like to know one from the other, but I didn’t really get to appreciate hip-hop until I met my wife who listened to nothing but rap and hip-hop (with the exception of Bon Jovi, an addition I still do not understand) until she met me. Cross-pollination happened; and eventually so did children.

So, rather than wholly brainwash my children, or fight against their preferences (they really do seem to dislike some of the slower, guitar driven stuff I prefer), I play the local hip-hop station on occasion. And for about the past six  months or so I can’t get enough of one song: “Ni**as in Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Here’s the first weird thing about this: I don’t really like either artist individually. Jay-z does too much that isn’t rapping (although, as a producer I find him to be a great deal less annoying than the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy); Kanye, whose talent cannot be denied, just seems too thin-skinned in his public proclamations and a bit of a nutjob.

But, because I am so unfamiliar with current hip-hop, no longer watch music videos, and habitually ignore what DJs say, I didn’t know who sang Ni**as_In_Paris. The music drives forward, the opening rapping is aggressive yet not violent. The alternation between rappers works really well. The contrast between the faster and more muscular phrasing of the first rapper (Jay-z) and the dirtier, drawn-out syllables of the second (Kanye) keeps the song from getting repetitive.

(I had to be told by my wife who the artists were, that Jay-z was saying “ball so hard” and not something like “Hasselhof”; I told her that the lines in the middle are from Will Ferrell and originally reference that “Milkshake” song.)

In fact, I think that it is Kanye whose vocals made me like the song the most. When he first takes over the mic, he raps “She said Ye can we get married at the mall? / I said look you need to crawl ‘fore you ball / Come and meet me in the bathroom stall /And show me why you deserve to have it all”. He stretches and builds the vowels at the end of each phrase, and the growl in his voice coupled with the slightly lazy articulation makes me think of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.)

Here’s what else sets this song apart from the noise on the radio: like the best rap songs it is clever. The driving metaphor of the song is ‘ballin’ of some sort: Jay-z starts with a great boast (“So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me/ first ni**as gotta find me”) and later turns through a great list of luminaries (“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael / Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”).

But I think there is a self-deprecating play going on here (or else I should hate the song for being another anthem to how rich and awesome the rappers are). Let’s start with the obvious contrast in the song’s title between the reclaimed yet still powerful racial epithet and the European city known for its sophistication. From the beginning, then, I would suggest that this song declares “we, who are from the outside, are now where you live; we have the best”.

But rappers have declared this before. Kanye seems to play with this concept by poking holes in the pretense during one of the best parts of the song:

What’s Gucci my ni**a?
What’s Louie my killa?
What’s drugs my deala?
What’s that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest
Cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my ni**as in Paris
And they going gorillas, huh!

Note the inverted invocation of brand names (Kanye declaring he knows them by claiming not to know them) followed by a re-assertion of the artist’s realness as he reminds us again of the scene that might have been (and still is if we accept “ni**as” as denoting a particularly American identity) one of fish out of water, of outsiders dwelling (and now buying) where they shouldn’t. Implicit then in the last line of this verse is the cumulative force of racism and stereotyped expectation that both rappers buy into even as they undermine their own identities as hip-hop artists by indicating the shifting and problematic nature of their realness.

Moments like this are what I love the most about hop-hop—it provides a framework for some of the most complicated identity negotiation that occurs in modern music. I may spend most of my time listening to whiny indie music, and I have to admit that there is as much crap on the hip-hop frequency as on any other dial, but there is a reason that 100 years from now the rise of hip-hop will garner more notice than the zenith of alternative rock. It is more vibrant, worldly and often packed with the power of great poetry.

Oh, and my children love the beats.

I am also so on board with this:

(Yes. I drive a prius and listen to NPR. We are all stereotypes to some degree.)

On the Radio: Inexplicable Cover Songs, 311 “Love Song”

Because I go on and off the radio–sometimes breaking for years at a time before returning to the radio–and because casual music listening itself has been transformed by the internet, I often miss out on music for years before noticing it. Recently, however, I had to change from the local jazz station to  a pop station because I couldn’t handle a full hour of Samba music. (No offense meant to Samba, but after 45 minutes or so it gets a bit repetitive.)

I started out with the volume rather low, just as some kind of vehicular white noise. But my children, eager for some change or excitement to the day, begged for “more, more” music. So, I turned it up and the following horror assaulted me:

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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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On the Radio: Melody’s (not) a Fool

While driving to work during a run of recent rainy days–which is a rarity in my state where it is sunny 90% of the time–I was contemplating some weather-appropriate emotions of weariness, worry and frustration. I know that a great deal of this came from the weather, but it seemed to be bubbling from within and spilling over without.

As usual, I was listening to the radio. This day was a jazz day because I just couldn’t handle commercials or, I thought, anything with words in it. The children were strapped in their car seats. The traffic was beginning to clear. The rain stopped and the sky seemed to lighten. And then this song came on the radio:

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