Pop-Ambiguity

“I have climbed highest mountain / I have run through the fields / Only to be with you”
“I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, U2

For years I have contemplated what I still see as one of the greatest three-song sequences on any rock album: the first three songs on U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (“Where the Streets Have No Name”; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; and “With or Without You”). Love them or hate them (and I suspect once most of us get past any U2 antipathy created by the last decade there will be more love), these songs are immediately recognizable and eminently successful.

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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Songs of the Year – 1993


Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special
–Radiohead

Songs of the Year: “Creep”, Radiohead; “No Rain ”, Blind Melon

Runners-Up: “Cannonball”, The Breeders; “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, Pixies (DQ’d for year)
Honorable Mention: “Nothin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog

While 1993 was a year when I definitely started thinking more deeply about music and about why I liked what I liked, it was also a year when I started to display my most common (and annoying) characteristics: contrarianism and, for lack of a better term, obscuricism.

So, it is easy for me to list the major artists from this year that I didn’t get into. I ignored The Smashing Pumpkins; I was dismissive of middle of the road alt-rock bands like Gin Blossoms, Candlebox, and the Counting Crows. I got on the tailend of bands like James. I didn’t care a bit for Nirvana’s In Utero. I bought Pearl Jam’s Vs. the day it came out but only listened to it a few times. Strangely enough, bands like The Crash Test Dummies caught my attention.

Now while music history shows look back to this period with unmeasured bliss, we shouldn’t forget how much crap there still was: “Insane in the Membrane” by Cypress Hill was a top hit; Bon Jovi somehow got away with “Bed of Roses”; and we all had to wonder what Meatloaf wouldn’t do for love. Nevertheless, in comparison to earlier years, there was some great music on the radio.

I tried to stay true to the music I had learned to love the year before. But, betrayed by U2’s almost unconscionable Zooropa, I went back in time to bands I had missed out on when I was too busy loving NKOTB and M. C. Hammer. 1993 is when I bought and consumed Doolittle and Surfer Rosa. I immediately fell in love with the Breeders’ Cannonball. But the two songs that best encapsulate 1993 for me  are “No Rain” by Blind Melon and Radiohead’s “Creep”.

I first heard these songs while riding home in a friend’s minivan from theater practice. My best friend—the previously mentioned Lead Singer—and I were immediately floored. I can think of the road we were on, the yellow color of a dusty dusk, and the smell of the river approaching.  We demanded more. We surfed the radio for hours. We called into to various stations. We waited and were consumed.

Now, my native cynicism should have braced me against the commercial push behind these artists; I should have rebelled against their constant play on MTV; my contrary nature should have rejected songs that were so unequivocally embraced, but I seem to have been defenseless against these tracks. I cannot think of a time when two songs that were so different simultaneously gripped my attention so forcibly.

Where “No Rain” is bright, brassy, and optimistic, “Creep” is self-deprecating, dark and unclear. One is hard to sing; the other is easy to imitate but hard to sing truly. One invites harmonizing; but the other invites a ghoulish singalong. The video of the former was playful and memorable; the latter was of a simple performance (although I can still see Tom Yorke’s scowl from the video). Whatever the reason, I bought both albums after hearing the singles once. And, most surprisingly, both albums turned out to be really good.

(Pablo Honey is a phenomenal alt-rock album; “Been Thinkin’ About You” is Radiohead’s best (and only?) love song; I have not really liked a Radiohead album since (I know, heresy). Blind Melon is one of the better hard rock albums of the 1990’s; “Change” is one of the best rock songs of the decade. I don’t know why it was never released as a single).

Best Radiohead album (of the year)

While the sonic field and feeling of these songs are different, the schizophrenia of my love is best illustrated through the lyrics. Where Shannon Hoon croons “I just want someone to say to me  / I’ll always be there when you wake” he evokes the simple and optimistic dream that I think most of us share at some level. The dancing electric lead over the acoustic rhythm leaves you to believe that this is far from too much to ask. But Yorke’s self-deprecating “When you were here before / couldn’t look you in the eye” speaks to the lie of Blind Melon’s promise.

These two songs, along with being musical complements, exhibit complementary sentiments. They are each one half of the one reality that is and was the state of being in an uncertain place, of being uncomfortable, of being in-between. In 1993, there were moments when it was bright, when I was, in some figurative way, dancing in a field and hopeful that someday I wouldn’t be alone. But there were also nights when I was sure I wasn’t good enough, or just not fucking special. Radiohead may have been satirizing such sentiments. Blind Melon may not have believed what they were singing. But I did. Sometimes.

Now, brother: I know you must remember something of this year. I read the entire Dune series while listening to these two albums, over and over and over and….

Scourges of the year: Ace of Base’s “The Sign” tortured me. Billy Joel’s ‘River of Dreams” proved he still didn’t know what decade it was and Michael Bolton was still releasing singles. I also used to torture my siblings by singing the 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up” using my best Axl Rose voice.

(Songs for) Debt Servitude

I have read a lot lately about the spiraling forces of income inequality: student-loan debt, new possible mortgage fears, and the breakdown in the basic social compact of which education is a central and collapsing piece (Thomas Frank, why do you have to make me so sad?). During my sister’s recent visit when we got to celebrate the Red Sox’ most recent World Series win and even during the good news of my brother landing a real teaching job, discussions have been sobered by the reality of crushing student loan debt.

So, before the pretty lights of the holidays distract us, here’s a re-post and reminder that we live off tomorrow’s wages today.

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

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Rock Free Agency: A New Game

Note: Below is an email exchange with a new game, call it “Fantasy Rock Band”. Rather than write an essay about it, here’s the actual email exchange so you can see how shit gets done. (Or Not)

From: [Redacted]
Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2013 7:40 AM
To: [Redacted]
Subject: Rock free agency

Dear [Redacted],

I will probably start working on some Pearl Jam stuff tonight, but I heard an Audio Slave song on the radio and it got me thinking. In recent years, though it has been a few years now, we have seen this trend of bands breaking up, only to unite with other front men or artists and create these different entities. The two I liked the most were Audio Slave and Velvet Revolver, but during that time there were a bunch of others. I wonder, if you were a rock general manager, who would you like to see together? And what do you think of this trend?

[Redacted]

On Thu, Oct 17, 2013 at 1:24 PM [Redacted] wrote:

Dear [Redacted],

This is a great idea and I am warning you from the get-go that I am going to turn this into a blog post with all of the emails appearing as we typed them with names and emails redacted!

email-iconLet’s start out by saying that when I saw your subject line I was driving to teach and I didn’t read the email right away (you know, for safety’s sake). The first thing I thought was that you were riffing off my Baseball Lineups and Album list post and thinking about  how true musical free agency (really, the death of the old labels) has altered the landscape of music in the way that Baseball free agency did for the sport (both good and bad). I immediately thought of (1) Prince’s “Slave” on his cheek in protest against his label; (2) REM’s ridiculous contract with Warner Bros that made no sense to anyone at the time; and (3) the way that contracts to developing and young artists allowed the music industry to reap tremendous products for the ‘cost’ of developing and nurturing talent. There is a real analogy here to have with baseball.

See, baseball teams sign players young to team friendly contracts with the basic explanation that many players don’t realize their potential and the low deals allow them to develop multiple talents while the club remains profitable. Before free agency, of course, this translated into players essentially living lives as slaves to their teams. After? Teams from larger markets could acquire star players without allowing the developing team to reap the full benefits of their risks.

For music, the eroded power of the labels in the digital era doesn’t seem to have a clear parallel in baseball. There isn’t an accumulation of successful groups in one area; rather, we have a disintegration of power and authority (with the exception of mass media outlets like Clear Channel, even MTV/VH1 have given up on creating hits).

But, of course, that’s not what you asked about. Instead, you’re playing a kind of Fantasy Bandmate game where we get to mix and match musicians. I have to start by saying that I am not quite sure how this could work. Too many bands are built on having competent support for one clear talent. You can mix and match sometimes (as when Dave Navarro joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers or when Van Halen switched lead singers), but too often the basic chemistry of a band depends upon relationships and personalities that cannot be anticipated from the outside.

Who would have guessed from watching that Dave Grohl was the best musician in Nirvana (and the least inspired)? Sometimes the combos work briefly: Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” is a great lesson in combining big voices and big personalities. And, yet, I think the bands you mention (Audioslave and Velvet Revolver) show how this can fail. Other examples I know (Breeders; The Rentals) show that members of famous bands (The Pixies and Weezer respectively) can have second acts when they deferred to someone else.  But novel combinations can yield revelations: who would have thought that Death Cab for Cutie’s front-man Ben Gibbard  would create one of the most unique albums of the 1990s when combined with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello? (The Postal Service’s Give Up).

Nevertheless, I will play your game. Let’s start with my rules: I want to create bands that have what I like (a combination of male and female vocals with interesting song structure). So, if I could take Jose Gonzalez and force him to play guitar with the keyboard/drum combo in Mates of State, I think we might have something special. But that’s not really a fair example because that’s adding someone to a band. So, if I wanted to draft an entire band, how would I start? First, you have to decide what you want the sound to be—bass-driven progressive alt-rock like Primus? Conventional rock like Pearl Jam? Synth-pop? This changes your line-up. If I could, I’d want some Pixies-esque, pseudo-prog. So, give me the vocalist from Tune-Yards, Matt Sharp on Bass (from the Rentals and Weezer), the percussionist from Imagine Dragon, and a guitarist who knows how to make a little bit of a riff (let’s risk it, give me Jose Gonzalez, the best main-stream guitarist out there).

I fear that this group would be like the 2011 Eagles. A high-paid disaster.

What would you do?

[Redacted]

From: [Redacted]
Sent: Thursday, October 17, 2013 4:28 PM
To: [Redacted]
Subject: Re: Rock free agency

Dear [Redacted],

Yes I am absolutely stealing this from your baseball lineup idea–which by the way I would like to see you add something for the pitching rotation because that was my favorite part of that team. Pedro and Schilling need a song!

Okay, so I am obviously out of my league talking music with the J’s, but here is what I need in my fantasy band. I need a powerful lead guitarist. I need Slash. I need guitar solo intros. I need “Sweet Child of Mine” intros.

I also need a front man who gives a shit about what he is singing. I need passion. I need to feel like every song is the most important song he of his life. So, while I like Jacob Dylan for his sound,  I need Vedder for his heart!

Slash and Vedder! A good start?

[Redacted]

On Fri, Oct 18, 2013 at 9:38 AM, [Redacted] wrote:

Dear [Redacted],

See, the guitarist and vocalist combo is inspired by of all things Led Zeppelin. Everyone knows the vocalist and guitarist. But bands need bass and drums!

I like the combo, but you have to finish it up…

[Redacted]

From: [Redacted]
Sent: Friday, October 18, 2013 10:08 AM
To: [Redacted]
Subject: Re: Rock free agency

Dear[Redacted],

It would seem that I have a little Zeppelin in me, despite my age. I guess this could be because of their influence on bands I love or maybe Pops had a bigger music influence than I thought (he theme song is “Sweet Home Alabama” by the way.)

I was in fact considering Bonham, I mean he does have feature called “Moby-Dick” after all. He would make Queequeg proud! In terms of bass, I really like the stuff Muse is doing and so I think Wolstenholme would make the band a little bit more eclectic. He would the band a little bit more modern sound but would not over power the others.

So what do you think?

[Redacted]

Shit. That’s a good start. Next time we’ll do this on Twitter.

What do you think, my brother? What ‘Dream team’ would you put together

Baseball and Album Lineups: A Postseason Comparison

True Love.

True Love.

For the first time in four years, the Red Sox are back in the playoffs. Both of my children have only known a world where the Red Sox fold in August and September. This is not the worst tragedy—I lived this as a reality from birth until 2004. New Englanders have a manic relationship with their baseball team. Before the Patriots had Tom Brady, even as the Celtics set the standard for the rest of the NBA, Boston sports fans defined themselves by disappointment and failure. So, as part of my legacy as a New Englander, I think it is only fair that they feel some pain too.

And, yet, I find myself eager to watch this team in the playoffs. All season I have been unsure about this team—its rotating lineup, shaky pitching, and streaky habits have made me uneasy. But, of late, I have felt that this team is nearly the equal of 2007’s World Series Champions. (That said, I do fear the Tampa Bay pitching staff). However much I love this team, they will always pale in comparison to the greatest Red Sox team of all time (2004). No matter how much the new players impress me, no matter how deeply in love I fall with Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia, I will always have a place in my heart for the Idiots.

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On the Radio: Caribou

A few weeks back I had to get up earlier than early to take my mother to the airport. It was another typically fast and emotional visit. As I have intimated before, my mother and I don’t always seem to communicate in ‘real time’. This is symptomatic less of her than of my rather typically closed approach to relationships: I think I am being laconic; I am observed as being distant and unfeeling.

Man or Band? It doesn't matter. D. V. Smith is Caribou

Man or Band? It doesn’t matter. D. V. Snaith is Caribou

On the way back from the airport, swooning a bit from the early hour and senseless thoughts on the fragility of self and the passage of time, I turned the local jazz radio station up to an uncomfortable volume and rolled all the windows down. (Not a cool sight: remember, I am the one in the rapidly aging blue Prius.) Yet, much to my surprise, the local jazz station straight-out gremlins over night and becomes an Indie-Rock madhouse.

Now the thing about Indie-Rock is that it is mostly described by what it is not: mainstream, major label fare. Beyond the boundaries of delivery device and popularity, it can be anything. So, an overnight, red-eye into the belly of the beast will, in all likelihood, be a mixture of depression, delight and digression. For every moment of wonder, there is another Pavement wannabe or Velvet Underground worshiping poseur.

After languishing through some local act falling somewhere between Stevie-Ray Vaughn and the post-breakdown side of Daniel Johnston (seriously if you don’t know Daniel Johnston and want to be Austin-hip, check out the fine documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston) this track came on:

I love everything about this song from the name (“Every time she turns about Its Her Birthday) to the fantastic rhythms, free-jazz inspired horns, and especially, as anyone who has read this blog before can imagine, the indirect and almost incoherent lyrics:

Spinning round you weigh me down
Gravel hands of green and brown

In your cells both red and white
On the sun that gives us light
In your cells both white and red
From the mouth our kids get fed

Now, what I also love about this track is that there is an essential compatability of sound and lyric-sense–both are fluid, mixed and, for lack of better descriptive, cloudy. The music is somewhere between jazz, rock, and ambient while the lyrics are slightly post-modern and impressionistic. Both, and especially together, invite interpretation and contemplation.

Of course, before it was dawn, I had downloaded the whole album Up in Flames by Caribou who used to be called Manitoba. Caribou, I discovered, is not a band but a man masquerading as one with all the skill of an Aphex Twin blended with a Beck unsullied by mainstream success. The album? One of the most interesting and challenging compilations I have heard in a while. The music is thick and layered, like a sonic parfait doing battle with a milkshake. The lyrics are exceptionally oblique and always wrapped up or buried beneath steppes of rhythm and sluiced by horns.

I thought I had heard of the band Caribou before and bad the mistake of dismissing it as some Train wannabe or fringely progressive one-off. I am so glad I was wrong.  Before that morning, the only musical Caribou I knew about was this one I have heard my brother singing to many times before:

I can’t say that I understand what is going on in Caribou’s music or lyrics; I can say that I will try to. I can also say I am thankful to the randomness of the universe for giving me this song at that time. It took me away from myself and the monotonous road. It took me away from that marginal and displaced feeling in between the end of someone’s visit and the resumption of ‘normal life’. And, whatever normal life is, it saved me from that for a bit too.

Hungry for some more Caribou, my brother?