September 27, 2013

Mighty Joe Moon

Mighty Joe Moon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Paul Simon: “That’s Me” (Surprise)
  2. The Avett Brothers: “Head full of doubt/Road full of Promise” (I and Love and You)
  3. Uncle Tupelo: “Moonshiner” (March 19-20, 1992)
  4. Blitzen Trapper: “Heaven and Earth” (Destroyer of the Void)
  5. Sarah Harmer: “New Enemy” (All of Our Names)
  6. Grant Lee Buffalo: “Mockingbirds” (Mighty Joe Moon)
  7. Gillian Welch: Tennessee” (The Harrow and the Harvest)
  8. Beastie Boys: “Jimmy James” (Check your Head)
  9. Ornette Coleman: “Congeniality” (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, Vol 5)
  10. Pixies: “Rock Music” (Bossanova)

A fairly weak list this time around.  The majority of these songs are not standouts on their particular albums – “Congeniality” and “Mockingbirds” being the exceptions.  The latter certainly was the song that introduced me to Grant Lee Buffalo.  Sophomore year of college I suckered myself into joining Columbia’s CD club for whatever the bargain basement price was.  Although I can’t remember all 12 initial CDs I got (for a penny, right?), I do remember: Seal, Sarah McLaughlin’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, Message in a Box (the Police’s complete recordings – that cost 4 of my allotment of 12 CDs), and Mighty Joe Moon.  What was it about that album?  Grant Lee Phillips’ stark lyrics – a sort of pre-Decemberists medieval evocation – seemed purposefully obtuse, and the budding Creative Writing major that I was loved their ambiguity.  But also melodically, I heard in Grant Lee Buffalo’s music a type of folk music that I was unaccustomed to in the mid 90s: pared-down, sparse, loose.  The band combined acoustic guitar, banjo, accordian and a simple drum kit, and yet their hooks were catchy.  They took risks within their songs, notably to my young-ish ears in “Lady Godiva and Me” and the one minor chord thrown into the line “I do fall upon my knees/and ask you how you can just sit there and be a rock” in the album’s closing song “Rock of Ages“.

My guess is that the Decemberists would say they owe something of their sound to Grant Lee Buffalo, and the new folk rock movement of this decade – read: the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons – certainly follows in Grant Lee’s footsteps.  So does that mean as a band they were well ahead of their time?  At the very least, listening to them today, I feel like they should have been a bigger act than they were, and wonder if they didn’t become huge because they didn’t fit into the grunge and alt-rock culture of 1994.  But they did have an underground following; I had chosen among my CD-club choice Mighty Joe Moon – unheard – because the previous year, as an intern at Northwestern’s radio station WNUR, I had come across their debut Fuzzy; WNUR’s staff had gushed over that album – and the staff at that time was notoriously anti-establishment vis a vis the corporate music industry and leaned farther alternative that I even knew was possible.  (Freshman year, at WNUR’s orientation, I overheard a fellow freshman – who would eventually become my best friend at college – ask the DJs if they “had ever heard of this band called Live“.  I watched them all roll their eyes; Live was played on commercial radio, so they were verboten. (It strikes me now that those DJs were annoying hipsters before annoying hipsters were hip.))  Later that semester I was dressed down for playing R.E.M. in one of my sets.  Rolling Stone had called R.E.M. America’s best rock and roll band just a few years prior, so obviously they were too big for WNUR’s college radio.  But I’m sorry: didn’t R.E.M. essentially create college radio?

Unfortunately for Grant Lee Buffalo, “Mockingbirds” had some small success on commercial radio, so that CD was dumped to the curb by WNUR.  But why?  Just because a song gets airplay on a high-powered station it shouldn’t be played elsewhere?  I understand that to find a niche, a public radio station like WNUR needs to find an ethos, and the overriding philosophy of the music directors during my time there was that we, as a small station, had played these musicians and bands before they became big, and once they became big, WNUR had done its job and it was time to find the next unknown gem.  Of course stations like that need an ethos to define themselves; WNCW based here in Western North Carolina is a great example of that.  A few years back WNCW released a t-shirt with these names in a single column on the shirt-back (there were more, but I can’t remember them all): “Dylan, Garcia, Watson, Young.”  These were the rocks on which WNCW’s foundation was built.  Last time I checked, Neil Young was a superstar, yet I still hear him played on WNCW, even though I can tune up the dial to the classical rock station and hear him there as well.  I guess what it comes down to is this: having an ethos is fine, but play what you like and love what you play and your listeners will tune in.  If one song doesn’t necessarily fit that ethos, it will be okay.  That’s what I appreciate about WNCW’s DJs: each has his/her own style, and when I tune in, depending on who is DJ-ing, I know I might hear a band that doesn’t fit on the “Dylan/Garcia/Watson/Young” ladder.  And that’s why I tune in – to hear what I do know right next to what I don’t.

I think I’ll call them right now and request “Mockingbirds.”  It fits somebody’s ethos.

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September 26, 2013

1) Neko Case: “Still Night Comes” (The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You)
2) Wilco: “Either Way” (Sky Blue Sky)
3) Beth Orton: “That Summer Feeling” (Sugaring Season)
4) Led Zeppelin: “The Crunge” (Houses of the Holy)
5) Radiohead: “Bodysnatchers” (In Rainbows)
6) A Tribe Called Quest: “The Chase, Pt. II” (Midnight Marauders)
7) Bob Dylan: “She Belongs to Me” (Bringing it all Back Home)
8) Rolling Stones: “Moonlight Mile” (Sticky Fingers)
9) Dr. Dog: “Over Here, Over There” (Be the Void)
10) Isotope 217: “Beneath the Undertow” (The Radioactive Element)

(Spotify doesn’t have any of Isotope 217‘s music.  Find it.  It’s great Avant-Garde stuff.

At first blush this seemed like a very random set of songs, but 3 of the 10 songs are by “classic” rock artists, or at least Mega Artists (Led Zep, the Stones, and Dylan), and it could be argued that Wilco is fast approaching that status.  (This make-up of songs probably says a lot about my musical tastes, and I picture Jack Black going off on me in my record store for my musical pussy-hood: )

Anyway, happy that Neko’s new album came up in this track list, because I have been anticipating her record more than any new release in the last 4 or 5 years, and she has not disappointed.  It might be that the content of The Worse things Get… is hitting me at a certain time in my life (no doubt that it is), but I also agree with what NPRmusic wrote when it was previewing the album: “it’s clear that Case remains essentially peerless: No one sounds like her, so every little revelation feels altogether new.”  And yet, each revelation also feels like you’ve known it before.  With Neko, there’s a sense of musical deja vu that I can’t quite elucidate, but her songs seem to have been with me long before I heard them.  In this song, for example: “I’m gonna go where my urge leads no more/swallowed waist deep in the gore of the forest/a boreal feast, let it swallow me please.”  I’ve never heard depression described in quite this way, but I still feel like I’ve known it be that way.  Am I gushing too much if I call Neko Case the musical poet of the new millennium?  Probably overkill, but who else out there is writing lyrics like these put to the melodies she creates with a voice as unique as hers?

Two of these deserve a brief mention, one because it’s so confounding, the other because it’s so hilarious.  The former first:  can we just say that “The Crunge” was the moment that Led Zeppelin jumped the shark?  How was my seventh-grade mind supposed to digest that song – I wasn’t savvy enough then to see it as a pastiche of Soul/Funk, and now that I’m old enough to recognize it, I still wonder why the Boys went there.  Certainly after “The Crunge” Led Zep made great music (Physical Graffiti is a phenomenal album), but this almost seems beneath them.  If, like “Going to California,” a love song of sorts to Joni Mitchell, “The Crunge” is a mash note to James Brown, I don’t think James Brown should feel very flattered hearing this.  Back in seventh-grade, the only thing I remembered was Robert Plant saying “Where’s the Condfounded Bridge?” and it’s still all I hear.

“The Chase, Part II” closes out Midnight Marauders and I can just picture the smile on Q-Tip’s face as he’s closing out the song.  The fantastic staccato of his final verse (“Here we go, let’s begin/making people jump out their goddamn skin/lyrically we bit like we Rin-Tin-Tin”) is followed by his shout-outs, a staple of mid-1990s hip-hop.  (Are artists still doing the shout-outs like then?  I don’t listen to enough contemporary rap and hip-hop to know.)  His “Everybody ___________, rock- rock on” – who ends a hip-hop album giving a shout-out to everyone stuck at McDonald’s?  It’s brilliantly ironic, as a send-up of hip-hop shout-outs.  Whereas “The Crunge” falls flat as comedy, “The Chase, Pt II” is comic gold.

This concludes the Random Music Project program – Day 1.  Press any key to return to the main menu.  And take the poll to pick your favorite song from the list.