Over the years I’ve grown more and more jaded with the banter of musicians on stage, particularly their “connection” to the town in which they are performing. Maybe I’ve watched too many Simpsons episodes (“Hello St Louis!!”) or maybe I’m … Continue reading
I’m pleased with this playlist (my first time behind the sound-board in a while), even if did get a little with thematic sets – particularly to start. But as schools are out and we’re mired in a heat wave, some summer songs seemed appropriate.
There are also some pleasant discoveries within, specifically Other Lives and Surfer Blood, both of whom I didn’t know before these latest albums. Other Lives’ profile on Spotify relates them to, among artists, The Antlers and Wye Oak – that latter one I especially don’t hear. To me they seem grander, like My Morning Jacket or even Radiohead, though that comparison might be reserved just for Jesse Tabish’ voice, which has a Thom Yorke quality to it.
Speaking of Wye Oak, I said it during the radio show and I’ll say it again and again: their 2014 album Shriek was criminally overlooked. I really wish I could have played more than one Wye Oak track on the show. (I’ve written more about Shriek here.)
You’ll notice that in Spotify I was unable to isolate the hidden track at the end of Galactic’s Crazyhorse Mongoose. I think the 90s should be remembered as the hidden track decade, and I would love to do an entire radio show just playing hidden tracks – everything from “Sgt Pepper’s Inner Groove (to my knowledge the first hidden track), the untitled track at the end of R.E.M.’s Green (the first overt hidden track I can remember), to #34 at the end of Dave Matthews’ Under the Table and Dreaming (with those annoying silent 22-odd tracks in between).
Finally, there are some really impressive records out right now by artists who continue to push themselves; Patrick Watson’s concept album Love Songs for Robots is fascinating, while Jaga Jazzist’s latest proves they are leading the avant-garde jazz fusion charge.
Here’s the playlist in plain text (including a couple songs which aren’t found on Spotify and the actual albums titles – some of which, again, can’t be found on Spotify):
1) Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Summer Feeling (Jonathan Sings!)
2) Other Lives: English Summer (Rituals)
3) Talking Heads: Popsicle (Sand in the Vaseline Vol 2)
4) Hot Chip: Love is the Future (Why Make Sense?)
5) De La Soul: Held Down (AOI: Bionix)
6) Patrick Watson: Love Song for Robots (Love Song for Robots)
7) Flight of the Conchords: Robots (Flight of the Conchords)
8) Radiohead: Idioteque (Kid A)
9) Mac McCaughan:Your Hologram (Non-Believers)
10) Mark Lanegan Band: Gray Goes Black (Blues Funeral)
11) Yo La Tengo: Moby Octopad (I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One)
12) Jaga Jazzist: Prungen (Starfire)
13) Thee Oh Sees: Turned Out Light (Mutilator Defeated at Last)
14) Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Like Acid Rain (Multi-Love)
15) Stevie Wonder: Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing (Innervisions)
16) Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings: Stranger to My Happiness (Give the People What They Want)
17) Galactic: [Hidden Track] (Crazyhorse Mongoose)
18) Shana Cleveland & the Sandcastles: Holy Rollers (Oh Man, Cover the Ground)
19) Sparklehorse: Shade and Honey (Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain)
20) Wye Oak: Shriek (Shriek)
21) Lambchop: What Else Could it Be? (Nixon)
22) Cody Chestnutt: Chips Down (No Landfill) (Landing on a Hundred)
23) Sharon van Etten: I Don’t Want to Let You Down (EP)
24) Daughn Gibson: Shatter You Through (Carnation)
25) Songs:Ohia: Two Blue Lights (Didn’t it Rain)
26) Surfer Blood: Feast-Famine (1000 Palms)
27) Dommengang: Hats off to Magic (Everybody’s Boogie)
28) Isotope 217: Audio Boxing (The Unstable Molecule)
George Sieburg is a part-time DJ at WNCW in Western N.C., a musician, and a writer. You can follow him on Twitter @georgesieburg or his new Instagram account @insta_gramophones where he concisely reviews an LP each day. You can also read his other blog here.
Can we talk about this video making the rounds of social media lately?
It’s an extracurricular group of students (7 to 12 years old) in the Louisville, Kentucky, area who are called the Louisville Leopard Percussionists. It is pure joy to watch a diverse group of kids engaged in a collective effort, particularly one that comes off so marvelously. They have captured the essence of Zeppelin, the driving force of the band, and while the students have probably been told to keep a respectful composure during the performance, there are wonderful moments when their bodies betray them: the girl in the white sweater whose right leg is perpetually flexing to the beat; the upright drummer in the back right corner walloping her drums to make John Bonham smile from beyond the veil. I love, too, the girl on the crash cymbal in the background, the kids on keys in the background waving their arms to “The Ocean.” I can’t help but smile to see their smiles at the medley’s conclusion; it’s obvious the amount of dedication these kids have put into pulling this performance off. No wonder that Jimmy Page himself is the one who got the video moving around the internet this week when he promoted it on his Facebook page.
Some of these kids, of course, are at the age (or nearing it) of the universal “Led Zeppelin” phase. Didn’t we all discover Robert Plant and the boys somewhere around seventh grade? I recall returning in the team van from away baseball games and passing Zeppelin tapes back and forth. I’d hand II off to Caleb and in return I’d get In Through the Out Door, popping it into my Walkman. There wasn’t much talking on those rides; just a lot of staring out the window at the passing trees, nodding heads at a certain groove, pressing rewind to hear a lyric or guitar riff again. But I think I can speak for many when I admit that when I first discovered Led Zeppelin, it wasn’t because of some deep artistic merit I found in their music. It was, simply, that the music rocked. It pulled no punches. It was raunchy in a way that my dad’s Motown never was; it was sloppy in a way that the Beatles never were. I took the music as a whole because of some overarching un-nameable thing those songs did for me, not because of some intricate melodic structure or unique production: I wasn’t parsing those details; probably, cognitively, at that age, I wasn’t even capable of such deep analysis.
Which brings me back to this video. What struck me about “Kashmir,” “The Ocean,” and “Immigrant Song” played by these kids – what went beyond their putting a smile on my face – was what Led Zeppelin on xylophone revealed to me about the intricacies of their music. Listen to the layers of notes and tempo in the descending riff on “Kashmir,” or the various moving parts in the bridge for “The Ocean.” Listen to that remarkable dissonance in the middle of the “Immigrant Song” riff. It’s complex music (rendered clearer for me through different instrumentation), a statement that probably is obvious to many people, but certainly wasn’t to my seventh-grade ears. It’s also easy to overlook, this far removed from the early 70s, just how groundbreaking the music was. After all, with “Immigrant Song” in 1970, we’re only 3 years removed from this. Even to my twenty-something ears, when I began to build my vinyl collection and would put on Physical Graffiti on a breezy summer day, it wasn’t because John Paul Jones’ electric piano work on “Down by the Seaside” is incredibly detailed but because that electric piano and that bowed run up the neck created an aura I was looking for. I will always be enamored of Led Zeppelin’s music because of that transcendent quality in many of their songs: who isn’t whisked away to some dry desert land by “Kashmir?” But this xylophone troupe from Kentucky has deconstructed the music for me, giving me a deeper appreciation of the craft behind Led Zeppelin’s songs.
Simultaneous to Page posting this video to his Facebook (the performance was actually recorded last fall) is the reissue of Physical Graffiti on the fortieth anniversary of its original release. Jimmy Page is in the process of remastering each Zeppelin album, and each reissue is accompanied by a companion disc featuring demos, outtakes, and works in progress. It’s a rare glimpse into the craft of writing music. As Page mentions in a recent interview with Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen at NPRMusic, there was an incredible dedication to craft among the Zeppelin four, and many wanna-be rockers these days are probably naïve to the amount of work necessary to create something truly lasting. (This brings to mind two standout albums from the past two years: Lost in the Dream, which the War on Drugs labored over for an additional year after finishing the recordings of the initial tracks; and The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, released four years after Neko Case’s previous album and the creation of which NPR documented.) Page and the boys have in the past guarded the Zeppelin vaults tightly, so this gush of behind-the-scenes takes is welcomed for a few reasons: it’s ostensibly new Zeppelin music, but it’s also a fuller document of the evolution of arguably one of the five most important bands in rock history. My sense is that similar to the Beatles’ Anthology, these companion discs will not serve so much as a new listening experience but as a textbook. I can envision a music professor using the early takes of what would become “In the Light” to demonstrate the craft of making music, much in the way that early drafts of Blood Meridian, for example, reveal much about Cormac McCarthy’s process and the novel’s evolution.
I must say, as well, that I appreciate the way in which Page is going about this process. It feels more organic and more artistically creative than the way the Beatles rolled out their Anthology. Look, for example, at Page’s recently-published photographic autobiography, so compelling and original in its format. With these releases, I have found a new appreciation for Jimmy Page. I was always a John Paul Jones fan; something in me wanted to rebel against the over-popularity of Page and Plant – their ostentation (c.f. Plant’s Zoso versus Jones’ un-ostentatious symbol); I liked the guy moving the levers in the shadows of the others, truly keeping the whole (air)ship afloat. With the preponderance of electric piano, organ, mellotron and other keys on the tracks, I always thought of Physical Graffiti as Jones’s record: a statement to his importance in the band. Page’s reissues, though, as well as his interviews surrounding Physical Graffiti’s anniversary, remind me, though, that Led Zeppelin was a foursome, each personal integral to not only the legend of the band but the artistic craft as well. Given what these companion discs reveal, it’s no wonder that on John Bonham’s unfortunate death, the band decided it couldn’t go on. They couldn’t plug someone new into the role; all four were intimately involved in the creative process, working diligently to not only rock (to my seventh-grade brain) but to craft something monumental as well. The Louisville Leopard Percussionists’ performance coupled with the reissue of Physical Grafitti is a reminder that art is hard work, and when that work bears fruit, the results can be truly transcendent.
Given the disjointed nature of my previous (and first) WNCW playlist, I consider this my first true playlist. For one, this time I was at the board for two hours, which allowed me to dig more deeply into the stacks of WNCW’s overnight music – what they call ARC (Alternative Radio Coalition). Toward the end of my second hour, ARC’s philosophy of “the familiar, the unfamiliar, and the unusual” was entering my consciousness. As I spend more time at the board, I need to remember: that philosophy isn’t just for the listeners but for me as well. So while I was familiar with Lambchop, The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” and “What if we Give it Away” (which on air I mistakenly attributed to Fables of the Reconstruction – as one who worshipped at the feet of R.E.M. through his teens and early twenties, I should hang my head in shame), Monogold and Celestial Shore were unfamiliar to me. As for unusual? In today’s musical world, can anything be thought of as unusual?
As I look back at the list I realize that it’s laden with songs about sex, which I suppose isn’t all that much of a shocker: isn’t half of all music about sex (while the other half is about death)? But song choices like “Damaged Goods” and “Not Enough Violence” surely would be shrink fodder. (Hey, Doc, I played some songs about eloping, too.)
Of course, anchoring the entire two hours is Viet Cong’s 11 minute opus “Death” (analyze that choice!). While Sleater-Kinney might be garnering all the press for their release, Viet Cong’s is quietly (yes, I’m being ironic there) getting the raves it deserves.
So, what about you? Anything on this playlist unusual? Unfamiliar? Anything worth getting familiar with (oops, there goes sex rearing its head again!)?
As my first radio show in 20+ years, I can’t complain too much about my catalog choices here, though toward the end of the hour the music got a little away from me: after The Flight of the Conchords’ “Foux du Fafa” (which I somewhat frivolously – though I was trying to be genuine – “dedicated” to the people of France after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo) I guess I was looking for some more French-y comedy, and all I could come up with was some De La Soul – you know, ’cause “de la” is French.
[Spotify for some reason only has De La’s 2004 release on its service, a tragedy of earth-shaking proportions. But I suppose that’s more De La’s doing that Spotify’s. Anyway, here’s the song I chose, further proof that the set had gotten away from me.
The middle part of the hour, a 5-song set of summery-feeling songs, had the most variety of any set: the alt-speed of Parquet Courts alongside folksy Beth Orton, outright tropical songs by Beck and Yo La Tengo (I know that’s Spanish), and the surprisingly jazzy Pink Floyd – easily the finest thing they ever did. In fact, I could just put these five songs on repeat and be happy for a couple hours – I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of the organ on “Call Me the Breeze” or the piano solo on “San Tropez.”
Of course, hearing the playlist on Spotify prevents you from hearing the transitions between the songs from the mixing board (and hearing my breaks to say the setlist), but, really, it being my first time at the board in two decades, the fades weren’t very well executed, and you’re spared on Spotify from playing the “Um” drinking game – I lost count of my “ums” somewhere in the teens.
Most importantly for this first show, my first since my college days, was the first song. “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork” was the name of the show my roommates and I had on WNUR-FM in Evanston, IL, at (I think) 4am on Wednesdays. Ours, the final “Freeform” show before Seth (he of the quiet public-radio voice) came in for the prototypical early-morning Jazz show, was a mix of some actual quality tunes and crass jokes spoken over bizarre childhood records like this, or strange public service announcements like this. Through the course of the show’s run, though, I don’t think we ever played the song “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork,” so here it is, going out (at whatever time WNCW put my show on) to those founding TMPFJOF members, spread across the country and probably blissful of not having to relive those late-nights. And, yes, fellas, I still have all the tapes of those shows.
Favorite album status, as much as musical composition and tastes, is about timing. The moment an album strikes you is a completely random act, but that album’s success is almost entirely dependent on the listener’s place and mental state. For example, would I have loved Wye Oak’s new record as much as I do if I they hadn’t opened their spring/summer tour here in Asheville with an incredible show – richly soundscaped and light-scaped – almost two months before Shriek was released? Would Lateness of Dancers have jumped so high up on my list so late in the year if, after the lush noise and lack of subtlety I had been listening to for most of the summer and fall, that album’s vividness and clarity hadn’t been a welcome reprieve?
Given that over 50,000 albums are released in given year, and that probably a tenth of them make it into the hands of at least a thousand people, the above should be fairly obvious. Not only are our musical tastes unique, but so too are the situations we find ourselves in when we hear something new (or hear it anew). I do not claim that the albums on this list are the best out of those 50,000, only that they serendipitously found me at the best time.
My top three albums were in place as far back as April. The next few filtered in throughout the year, and then there were others that stayed on my periphery, making themselves known only occasionally, like another planet in orbit only makes itself known by passing between us and the sun – they were lit mainly by the light of those favorites of mine. Those peripheral albums deserve some recognition, so they are the runners-up, not quite favorites but certainly ones I appreciated.
There were eight albums that clearly distinguished themselves for this year – and I returned to them again and again throughout 2014. And whereas in past years I have agonized over some type of ranking, ranking those eight this year was easy. That, too, I think, should be chalked up to timing.
This is just a great rocker of a country album, gritty and earthy and dirty. The (deliberately) messy production calls to mind Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone. There are a plethora of catchy songs, like “Head,” “Wine Lips,” and “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” all propelled by great guitar licks and heavy bass lines – and always grounded by Loveless’ endearingly sloppy country twang, a little bit Patty Griffin, a little Reba McIntrye, but uniquely her own.
Shovels & Rope come out swinging on this, their sophomore effort. “The Devil is All Around,” “Bridge on Fire,” and “Evil,” the first three songs on the album, demonstrate definitively that Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst aren’t playing nice. Male/female folk duos were given to grandiloquence thanks to groups like The Civil Wars; Shovels & Rope, refreshingly, aren’t concerned with that type of beauty; theirs is real and raw. That every song (like The Civil Wars) is a duet – a trope I can grow weary of – is the only reason Swimming Time didn’t make the final favorite album cut.
I came across Undefeated way too late in the year. And in the past I hadn’t paid Bare, Jr, much attention because to me his musical risks were too far afield for my tastes. So Undefeated has been a pleasant surprise. Bare, Jr, is still taking some risks, but he’s firmly in control of them this time around, making them feel integral to the music and not just for show. Hear “The Big Time,” for example, and the guitar hook that mimics a horn section is an intuitive choice. Ditto the subdued keyboard after the guitar solo on the title track, as well as the actual horns on “Blame Everybody (But Yourself).” A really impressive, grounded album by Bare, Jr.
Amelia Meath (of Mountain Man) and Nick Sanborn (of Megafaun) – what might seem an unlikely pairing – come together to create what sounds to me like a Feist album listing completely to the eletro-pop side. The result is endearing and ethereal, a trance record that, despite the listing, doesn’t capsize.
Steven Hyden at Grantland said it better than I ever could when he put Tinariwen’s album on his year-end list: “The baddest guitar band on the planet. These Tuareg rebels — I mean that literally; they fought against the Malian government in the early ’90s — had to flee their home country in 2012 due to the threat of Islamist militias. Emmaar was made in the U.S., but it sounds like the desert: vast, indefatigable, serene, and quietly lethal.”
Choosing St Vincent’s self-titled release from this year is a bit like an umpire calling the runner safe because he had missed the previous call – in other words, a make-up call. Despite how much I relished hearing a new St Vincent record, I wasn’t impressed with it on its release. Unlike, apparently, the rest of the world. But I did eventually warm up to the album, and there are plenty of gems: “Psychopath,” “Birth in Reverse,” “Severed Crossed Fingers,” are examples of St Vincent’s musical daring but also her groundedness; as she’s said, “I try to live at the intersection of accessible and lunatic.” For me Strange Mercy is where she most masterfully resides at the intersection, but I came upon that album a year after its release. Retroactively, it’s my favorite album of 2011. But it was too late, so here she is again in 2014. No one is making music like St Vincent these days, so an album of hers always deserves consideration as a favorite.
That I saw St Paul and the Broken Bones at my hometown free outdoor monthly concert speaks to how unexpected their stratospheric popularity was. Asheville’s Downtown After Five normally can’t afford to bring in acts that are selling out venue after venue, but that’s exactly what St Paul and the Broken Bones have been doing since spring. Getting exposure from such varied media as CBS, NPR, Garden and Gun magazine, Southern Living, and Rolling Stone helped propel Half the City to #3 on iTunes. Southern soul, when done with the panache that St Paul and the Broken Bones exhibit, should have broad appeal. Listen to Paul Janeway’s voice and hear Otis Redding in his prime; hear the tight instrumentation of the Broken Bones and you’ve got the Famous Flames or the J.B.’s backing up James Brown. If any one of the 12 tracks on Half the City (and, please, listen to it on vinyl, the only proper way to hear a soul record) don’t get you moving, check your pulse.
It’s probably unfair to keep calling The New Pornographers a super-group. The band has become Carl Newman’s primary focus and Neko Case’s vehicle to venture away from her unique brand of Americana. Besides, albums by super-groups these days tend to be piecemeal and disjointed as each artist does his or her own exploring. I’m thinking specifically of Golden Smog, and Brill Bruisers first struck me as another Weird Tales, with Jeff Tweedy’s and Gary Louris’s songs being distinct from each other. But The New Pornographers aren’t Golden Smog, and Brill Bruisers isn’t Weird Tales. Probably because of Newman’s focus, it is a unified piece of indie pop, with catchy tunes like “Champions of Red Wine,” Fantasy Fools,” and “Wide Eyes.” You can thank Newman’s sense of melody and Case’s sense of harmony for that. Newman clearly has been influenced by 80s (and even 90s) college rock and I hear what I hope is an appreciation for the criminally unknown Scott Miller of the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family in his songs. Brill Bruiser’s closing track “You Tell Me Where” could be dropped easily onto Lolita Nation or Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things and no one would be the wiser, and that, Mr Newman and Ms Case, is the highest praise I can give.
The rich, deep tradition on which American folk music is based is a double-edged sword: there lurks always in the shadows the danger of folk growing stale under its own tradition: why bother to reach for new territories when the territories already claimed by the likes of the Carter family and Woody Guthrie have proven so fertile and perpetually harvestable? In this quandary, the musician Alynda Lee Segarra and her project Hurray for the Riff Raff make the other edge of that sword sparkle with hope. Segarra obviously has been steeped in the folk tradition, but perhaps because of her New Orleans roots she has the envious ability to propel folk into those other territories. I love the accompanying organ on “Crash on the Highway” and the gospel swing of “No One Else.” But beyond her willingness to exercise folk’s muscles is her voice. On the album’s closing track, “Forever is just a Day,” her haunting vocals over an Appalachian fiddle sounds close to breaking. It’s a voice of powerful duality – equally strong and vulnerable. Couple that dynamic voice with Segarra’s ability to work both the beautiful/melancholic (“The Body Electric”) and the rollicking/raucous (“I Know it’s Wrong”) and you’ve got an artist who (like Gillian Welch a decade before her) can explore folk’s new terrain.
What a breath of fresh air this album has been for me. Every musical choice that MC Taylor makes – I’m thinking specifically of the fiddle/banjo/chorus addition to “Drum” and the organ solo at the end of “Mahogany Dread” – seems completely intuitive. There is no fluff here, no bravado. In fact, Taylor doesn’t even strain his voice on a single note, which gives the album a feeling of clear confidence and naturalness. I can put on this record on a day clouded-over, and despite the gray skies the world seems clearer, fresher, more vibrant.
I wrote at length about Transgender Dysphoria Blues in an earlier post, and I’m not going to run that horse into the ground. I’ll just say this: this record has been a revelation to me, and I hope to others. In his essay on the fiftieth anniversary of Howl, poet and essayist Robert Hass writes that “it is absolutely necessary, at least once in every generation, that someone get unhypnotized long enough to let the sense of the absurd crystallize and the grief and rage well up into a howl loud enough for the rest of us to hear.” Laura Jane Grace’s statement is for me what Allen Ginsberg’s was for so many upon Howl’s release – a piece of art to awaken me and put me among the nuances where I should continually be residing.
In her Pitchfork review of Shriek, Harley Brown laments the old Wye Oak sound, comparing the new record to a friend you think you see who turns out to be a stranger. (To her credit, she also respects Wye Oak’s new sound.) And I guess I understand that to a certain extent; on albums like Civilian and The Knot, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack definitely carved out a soundscape that was as unique as it was comforting. So it makes sense that Wasner’s eschewing of her guitar for pared down keyboards on Shriek would cause Wye Oak’s fans some discomfort. But it’s apparent to me that Wasner and Stack need to live in that discomfort and hope that their listeners will be willing to do the same. I know that not everyone is able to do that, but that unsettled feeling is what makes Shriek so compelling. There is, hidden among the drum loops and piano runs and bass riffs on tracks like “Shriek” and “I Know the Law,” an 80s pop-sensibility that feels familiar; Wasner and Stack, though, stretch and peak into unknown corners and peer around bends in the road (“School of Eyes” and “The Tower”), and the result is, for me, a record that is as unfettered to any past as any album released this year.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream
Listening to Lost in the Dream again and again over the past couple weeks in preparation for writing about it, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why exactly I’ve fallen so in love with it. Is it the melancholy (to which I’m naturally drawn) with lyrics about the heart that I can relate to (“Lost in the dream/or just the silence of the moment/it’s always hard to tell”)? Maybe. Is it Adam Granduciel’s reflections on loss and love (“Love’s the key to the games we play but don’t mind losing”)? Maybe. It is the small wonders, the surprising moments, like the saxophone at the end of “Eyes to the Wind” or the chord riff in the middle of “In Reverse”? I’m sure it’s all those things. But I noticed for the first time the other day just how much the drum work of Charlie Hall helps move this album along. Even if the core of Lost in the Dream is loss and grief, it’s a propulsive record, a driving record, one you’d carry on a road trip, and that’s in large part because of Hall. It’s almost as if every piece in his drum kit acts as a ride cymbal – the snare drum in “Red Eyes,” the bass drum in “An Ocean Between the Waves,” and, yes, the ride cymbal in “Eyes to the Wind.” Robbie Bennet’s subtle work on the keys deserves mention too, particularly on songs like “Under the Pressure” and “Lost in the Dream,” for helping create the ethereal air of the album. The resulting work is masterful, and there’s no doubt that Granduciel deserves all the accolades for his craft, but this is not a solo album: the War on Drugs made Lost in the Dream, collectively. Maybe that’s why I love it so; all of this – the lyrics, the instrumentation, the production – all of it comes together to create an experience that you hate to come to a close, like reading a Walker Percy novel and the skies he describes are just as important as the minds of his main characters and when you get to that last line and close the book you breathe a little differently, and you don’t know exactly why, you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know it permeated your being in the reading – or, in the case of Lost in the Dream, in the listening.
Picking a list of favorite songs from 2014 is of course completely arbitrary. As someone who rarely buys a single song on a place like iTunes or Amazon and instead buys entire albums, I usually find my favorite songs within albums that have grabbed my attention; so I could put the entirety of Lost in the Dream on a favorite song list. However, a song list with no limitations would eventually become saturated; therefore, in compiling a list of my favorite songs of the year, I must embrace the arbitrary. So you’ll note in the list below that there are no duplicate artists, making, for example, my favorite song by St Paul & the Broken Bones a difficult choice – all of those tracks were my favorite. I also gave myself the rule that I could not pick the title track from an album. Why? No reason other than I had a hard time choosing my favorite Wye Oak and Bobby Bare, Jr songs, and that rule simply made my task easier.
There are no ranking, here, by the way – again, ultimately out of laziness. But also because a favorite song on a cool April night will probably give way to a completely different song on a crisp September morning. These 32 songs are in alphabetical order, with a blurb about each to follow.
Avant Gardner – Courtney Barnett
I usually don’t go in for lyricists who cram as many words as possible into a measure (a la Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams), but the story Courtney Barnett builds in this song, of being short of breath, is a juxtaposition of having too much to say and not the breath to say it. “I’m having trouble breathing in” has such wonderful metaphorical undertones.
Backstairs – The New Pornographers
A power-pop powerhouse (as is most of The New Pornographers’ album of this year), with a driving beat and scintillating melody and harmony. It feels like A.C. Newman and Neko Case pulled this song from somewhere in the mid-70s, ran it through the gauntlet of the last 40 years of rock and roll, and set it down firmly in 2014, an embodiment of this decade’s pop-rock sound.
Bad Law – Sondre Lerche
Sondre Lerche used to come up in my Wilco Pandora station, and it always seemed an odd fit. It still seems that way, as “Bad Law” demonstrates Lerche’s 80s pop sensibilities, and the musical risks he takes seem much more new wave and post-disco than anything Wilco would ever do. “Bad Law” is ultimately a dance club tune, and one that I could imagine being played (and sampled) in discothèques for years to come.
Blame Everybody (But Yourself) – Bobby Bare, Jr
I came across Bobby Bare Jr’s album way too late this year; the fun and confidence of the entire record is embodied in “Blame Everybody.” I love a musical risk, and Bare Jr’s work is rife with risk. But whereas his risks used to seem far afield – to the point that I tended to ignore his music – the risks in this song – the horns particularly – and throughout the album Undefeated, from which “Blame Everybody” is culled, are intuitive, measured, and triumphant.
California (Cast Iron Soul) – Jamestown Revival
There is plenty on “California” that could be construed as cheesy, and because of those elements – like the dramatic pauses and heavy-handed drumming – it’s entirely possible that even a year from now this song is relegated to a one-hit wonder, a little too dramatic, a little too narcissistic for its own good. But for this year, it’s infectious and sing-able, and deserving of being on this list.
Call Me – St Paul & the Broken Bones
Choosing just one song from St Paul’s debut record was a major challenge of this list. But “Call Me” is driving, passionate, full of the stellar horn work and surprisingly good guitar work that makes St Paul & the Broken Bones one of the feel-good musical stories of the year. Paul Janeway’s voice is a revelation, and if the band keeps putting out songs like this, so indebted to classic R&B and Soul, we’ll be hearing that voice for years to come.
Chill Pill (Experiment 2) – Hawk House
Another late find from this year, Hawk House remind me of the hip-hop acts of the mid-90s that got drowned out by the West-Coast/Gangster rap of that decade: Digable Planets, De La Soul, Boogiemonsters. With Hawk House, the Love Movement has been resurrected, and I’ve pulled out my old A Tribe Called Quest records because of them.
Colorado – Chastity Brown
“Colorado” is the twin of Jamestown Revival’s “California” i.e. will I one day find that it takes itself too seriously? Never mind – the future is a blur. Right now I’m relishing in Chastity Brown’s gritty, soulful voice.
Dead Room – Nick Waterhouse
In all honesty, I wanted to love Nick Waterhouse’s record of this year, Holly. And in a certain context, with the cocktail shaker pouring out strong libations, the lights dimmed and shrouded, it’s perfect. But I had a hard time embracing the album. “Dead Room” stuck with me, though, with its surprising sax solo helping to distinguish it from the rest of the rather pedestrian lounge sound.
Emajer – Tinariwen
Oh my, what a sound the Malian rebels and refugees Tinariwen produce. This record easily could have made my list of favorites (except that I’m shamefully Eurocentric and prefer to be able to understand the lyrics). The word “Tinariwen” means empty places, and the album, recorded in Joshua Tree National Park, has that feel of the hot desert air, the wide expanses of sand and rock, the hot winds and cool nights.
Evil – Shovels & Rope
“Evil” stood out on Shovels & Rope’s 2014 Swimming Time with its molasses feel, its dirge-like tone. The band’s previous album sounded too much to me like Loretta Lynn, but “Evil” was proof that Shovels & Rope has its own sound and, given lines like “but every now and then I get evil/I’m ashamed in the shadow of a steeple/I’m a lunatic looking through a keyhold/I hit my kids but I don’t mean to/I’m a dead dog lying on the sidewalk/another victim of the mortgage-bubble pop/waiting on the other shoe to drop,” its own ethos.
Eyes to the Wind – The War on Drugs
Another stellar album from which it was a challenge to pull just one song, but The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream has as its mid-point this song, which simultaneously grounds the album and lets it soar off into other realms. “Eyes to the Wind” is an embodiment of the paradox that runs the course of the entire record: musically soaring and empowering while also deeply melancholy – thanks a lot, saxophone coming in there in the final 30 seconds, to remind us of that dark, brooding place we’ve all been.
Fuck Fame – Bart Davenport
In a year when the sound of the 80s has come back with a vengeance (The War on Drugs, Wye Oak, Broken Bells all channeling that decade’s synth-heavy sound), Bart Davenport’s guitar work stood out as the most evocative of 80s pop. “Fuck Fame” would have fit perfectly wedged between a-ha and Mister Mister songs on the radio – except for the expletive.
Fuckmylife666 – Against Me!
On a record rife with simultaneous angst-filled thrash and grace-filled melody, “fuckmylife666” is the centerpiece. Propelled by a timeless guitar riff and grounded by a bittersweet chorus, the song stands as an anthem for the ages. “I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger” could be a line in a Franz Wright poem. The message of Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is concisely told in this song: “There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.”
Heart is a Drum – Beck
Beck’s latest effort, Morning Phase, fell flat for me, because it seemed a rehash of Sea Change from a decade ago, and because the melodic strength of the record petered out in the second half. The first few tracks, though, are gems, with “Heart is a Drum” the best of the bunch.
High & Wild – Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen created a lo-fi masterpiece with this year’s Burn your Fire for No Witness. A song like “High & Wild,” even with its oppressive production and gritty feel, is a welcome melodic wonder among the dirge-like songs on the rest of the album.
Home (Leave the Lights On) – Field Report
Even if “Home” had no gently moving melody and totally singable chorus, it would be a standout simply because of this line: “And the body remembers what the mind forgets, archives every heartbreak and cigarette.” (Also, years from now, will this song be the new “I’ll be Home for Christmas”?)
Horizon – Real Estate
Another album I really tried to love and had a hard time latching onto. Maybe it’s because Real Estate are a little ahead of the trend-curve, skipping the synth-pop of the 80s that everyone seems to be referencing these days and going straight at the indie 90s and bands like the Red House Painters.
I Prefer Your Love – St Vincent
This is probably my single favorite song of the year. For all of St Vincent’s modern musical bravura and technical mastery, this song proves that she is first and foremost a gifted songwriter. That it feels just as comfortable coming from the car speakers on a clouded-over February afternoon as it does blaring from the home speakers on a bright summer Sunday is proof enough of the song’s transcendence. It is spare and nuanced and, ultimately, beautiful. There are moments when an artist finds that perfect sense of grace, and this, an ode to her mother, is St Vincent’s moment.
Jerk Ribs – Kelis
I’m a sucker for a good horn section coupled with a sultry voice, and Kelis delivers both on her compelling album, Food. Apparently Kelis is an accomplished cook in addition to writing infectious soul-pop like this song, as well as her biggest hit (by far) to date, “Milkshake,” which, given her love of food, might deserve a different interpretation.
Lazy Wonderland – Broken Bells
At the start of the year, Broken Bells’ new album After the Disco was the record I was most looking forward to. James Mercer and Brian Burton’s (Danger Mouse’s) debut collaboration of 2010 was my favorite album of that year; anticipating a sophomore effort is always dangerous, and After the Disco fell flat for me. There are some high points, and “Lazy Wonderland” is one of them.
Logic of Color – Wye Oak
I love the new direction Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have taken on their latest album Shriek. Replacing the waves of guitar sound are percussive loops and keyboard. The music at once feels pulled straight from 80s synth pop while also feeling wonderfully unique. “Logic of Color” closes out Shriek with such pared-down perfection – perhaps the best closing track of year.
Saturday’s Song – Hiss Golden Messenger
“Saturday’s Song” is a song that can’t be contained. It could be a Dylan song circa 1975. It could be a mid-80s Tom Petty song. There are elements of The Band and John Prine and any number of other songwriters in there, but it’s MC Taylor’s instrumental restraint that makes it a favorite song of mine. There’s no fluff, just straightforward piano and acoustic guitar and that wonderfully subdued mandolin riff, and, ultimately, a catchy guitar riff that could just go on forever.
September Fields – Frazey Ford
So apparently Frazey Ford was in the Be Good Tanyas. Did everyone other than me know this? Because as melodic and gentle as the Be Good Tanyas were, there was nothing in their sound that made me think any of them would put out a record as soulful as Frazey Ford’s Indian Ocean. I came across the record way too late in the year to give the entire album enough listens, but “September Fields” stuck out. Ford, like in her time with the Be Good Tanyas, isn’t taking any serious musical risks here, but the result is still infectious and compelling.
Silver Timothy – Damien Jurado
There are some real gems on Jurado’s latest effort, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. I love the tropicalia-sounding strumming of “Silver Timothy,” combined with Jurado’s ethereal voice and back-up chorus, the heavy bass line and the swirling guitars. It all makes for a song that’s at once grounded and at the same floating out in the ether. A truly unique sound this year.
Slow Motion – PHOX
The band PHOX seems to be trying to carve out a particular space between alt-country and 90s pop. I mean, doesn’t much of their song “Slow Motion” seem pulled straight from a Dave Matthews tune? Plus, the descending notes of the opening guitar line are a rip-off of Ryan Adams’ “Answering Bell.” But despite the unsubtle references, there’s something really appealing and, quite frankly, innocent about PHOX’s sound. It brings me back to a time in college when the only thing that mattered was listening to music late into the night with whatever substances were available – that is to say, moving in slow motion.
Stranger to my Happiness – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
Probably the best news of 2014 was Sharon Jones’ being back in the soul saddle. The album Give the People What they Want had been shelved in 2013 as Jones underwent treatment for bile duct cancer, so its release in early 2014 felt much like a comeback, even though the album had been completed before her diagnosis. But as Jones has continued to demonstrate her inexhaustible energy on stage, “Stranger to my Happiness” has demonstrated it on vinyl (because, really, that’s the only format with which to listen to her and her band).
Taking Chances – Sharon van Etten
Sharon van Etten’s follow-up to her critically-acclaimed Tramp was a bit of a surprise for me, with its glossy production and mainstream pop-influenced beats – both of which are featured prominently on “Taking Chances.” But van Etten’s skill has always been in the visceral insistence of her voice, which, despite her newly-produced sound, has not been lost in this song.
The Body Electric – Hurray for the Riff Raff
The production on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s stellar Small Town Heroes, by contrast, is crisp and understated, allowing Alynda Lee Segarra’s un-forced voice to ground every song. Here, on “The Body Electric,” her vocals resonate alongside the staccato strings; the effect is soulful and mesmerizing.
Waiting for the Sun – Jolie Holland
In all honesty, I don’t know why the closing track of Jolie Holland’s Wine Dark Sea appeals to me. Maybe it’s Holland’s interestingly sultry voice, maybe it’s the molasses-like baritone sax or the background trumpets. Probably it’s that all the above combines to make for a methodical song that doesn’t care how long it takes to reach its conclusion.
Water Fountain – tUnE-yArDs
tUnE-yArDs’ follow-up to their wildly successful W H O K I L L picked up where that record left off. For a band with such a unique sound as theirs, this meant nikki nack was doomed to stepchild status. Indeed, “Water Fountain” really belongs on W H O K I L L, while the rest of record should be relegated to a b-sides and rarities release. I know that sounds harsh, but for those just discovering the band, “Water Fountain” is the epitome of their sound – polyrhythmic, African, and looped incessantly – and other songs won’t reveal much that’s new.
Wine Lips – Lydia Loveless
Probably my favorite riff of the year is the one on “Wine Lips.” Lydia Loveless’ voice (hinting vaguely at Dolly Parton), the twangy rhythm guitar, and the heavy drumbeat make for a perfectly messy sound, gritty and unashamedly country, originally country. If Top 40 country wasn’t so insipid, Lydia Loveless would be embraced as its new darling. Fortunately, she’s too down and dirty, too damned herself, for that anyway.
You can read the first posts for 2014 Year in Music here (a personal overview of the year).
2014: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and the Awakening of the Heart.
In writing about the year in music for 2013, I made the off-hand remark that 2014 could be the “Year of the Transgender” – because someone [ahem] had tagged 2013 as the “Year of the Woman” in music. It’s absurd, to label an entire (and entirely arbitrary) 12 months as the “Year of Something;” hence my flippancy about this year being the “Year of the Transgender.” But here I am, for the second straight year, affixing a label to a span of time that should be beyond labels. Because I am going to say that, for me, 2014 in music was the “Year of the Transgender.”
Since about the age of two, my son has identified more with things that our society would call girl-ish. He wears leggings instead of jeans, chooses tutus over jerseys, skirts over athletic shorts. He has insisted on growing his hair long, and for a few weeks last winter wrote “Jane” on his school work instead of his given name. Over the course of the past three years or so, he has grown less and less comfortable with the trappings and norms that might be associated with boys. He now uses the girls’ restroom at school. This past summer he began insisting on wearing a one-piece girl’s bathing suit (previous years he had been okay wearing boy’s swim trunks). His newfound love is dance, and he has the pink leotard and tights to show for it.
All this, of course, from a distance, might seem like the normal phases of growing up, particularly since he has an older sister whom he adores. And for years this was the stance I took with him: he is constantly surrounded by girls – maybe if he played with more boys he’d be into cars and sports and superheroes. If he’ll just wear normal boy clothes to school, he’ll eventually get used to them and see that they’re not so bad. This was selfish of me, the thoughts of a father determined to have a boy to play with. Even if I robed myself in some noble justification – since he was born a male, he should fit into western male stereotypes so he won’t be bullied – it wasn’t about my son and his identity; it was about my identity and my stubborn desire not to lose the son I thought I had at birth. There was always – despite the growing evidence that he related more to girls and even often self-identified as one – the hope that the masculine would trump the feminine in him, and I would have someone to throw the baseball with, to go to basketball games with, to work on the car together with and to chop wood together with.
These are western clichés, I admit. What one boy loves another disdains, and I was casting upon him the unfair shadow of those things that I, as a male, love. But my son will be my son whether he gravitates to trucks and guns or stuffed animals and ballerinas – until that time when he tells me he is no longer my son but instead has always been my daughter. But I fear that day. I fear what that means for me and the idyllic, clichéd world I have tried to create within my family. I fear being cast adrift in a world with which I am unfamiliar – because isn’t that what the unknown is for us all, a place where we are untethered, vulnerable, exposed?
One album this year demonstrated just how myopic that holding on to an idyll is. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the punk band Against Me!’s first record since its lead singer came out as a woman. And throughout the record’s brisk 30 minutes, lead singer Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) pulls not a single punch in expressing her rage, her angst, her confusion, her loss and grief at the life she led trapped in a masculine body. The opening lines demonstrate her dysphoria growing up as a male: “Your tells are so obvious/shoulders too broad for a girl,” and, later in the song, “you’ve got no cunt in your strut/no hips to shake/and you know it’s obvious/that we can’t choose how we’re made.” And the way the rest of the world looks at her: “You want them to see you like they see every other girl/They just see a faggot/They hold their breath not to catch the sick.” Are there any words in modern rock more bracingly honest and absolutely shattering as those?
It would be one thing, though, if the album was only angst and rage, but for me Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a grand, gorgeous album because ultimately it is also filled with grace and love. In a song like “Two Coffins,” in which Grace sings, “How lucky I ever was to see/The way that you smiled at me/Your little moon face shining bright at me,” I hear her saying goodbye to the boy she once was. There are many farewells on the album, be it to her friend (and, by reading another double entendre, her former self) that she lays in the cold ground in “Dead Friend” or the nameless youth stuck in their own dysphoria and suicidal thoughts, as in the raging final track “Black me Out.” Ultimately, I feel that the album is a love note – a brutally honest one – to all those who have experienced any type of dysphoria, have struggled in any way with their identity.
So it has registered with me in my relationship to my son. It has been unfair of me to expect him to fit into some mold that I might think (whether nobly or misguidedly) would protect him best. Should he could continue to be gender fluid into his adolescence and teenage years (and there’s no reason to think that he won’t), he will face confusion and ridicule enough from the greater world. He doesn’t need me pathologizing him or questioning the person he is. There will be things about him to which I won’t be able to relate, but I hope to support him when he needs me; there will be times he is searching for an empathetic voice, and one person won’t be able to give it all to him – but Laura Jane Grace and Transgender Dysphoria Blues will join the chorus of voices supporting him.
I can confidently say that no punk album has ever brought me to tears – until this one. To think of the thousands of children and teenagers struggling with gender identity, feeling isolated in a society that sees gender as something very black white; to think of the higher suicide rates among people with gender dysphoria; to think of the confusion of feeling one way while your body looks a different way – and to think that my son might one day (and perhaps does now) feel what Laura Jane Grace felt as a man – it fills me with tenderness toward him, this little miracle of creation, who deserves none of the grief and suffering about which she sings. A chill runs through me when I hear her, in “Paralytic States,” perhaps the boldest and most fulfilled song on the album, sing, “Standing naked in front of the hotel bathroom mirror/In her dysphoria’s affection she still saw her mother’s son.”
That phrase – “dysphoria’s affection” – is a summation of the record as a whole, a contradiction of the black and white album cover and Western society’s black-and-white view of sexuality and gender. The whole world is gray and muddled, and this recognition that we all live in some sort of dysphoria is what makes the album full of universal truths. Punk though it may be, it is not far removed from other albums full of muddled heart that were released this year: Sharon van Etten’s Are We There, Hiss Golden Messenger’s The Lateness of Dancers, and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream come most prominently to mind. When Grace sings on my favorite song from the record (“fuckmylife666”) that “I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger,” (a line that would be right at home in a Franz Wright poem), she is adding her voice to the many who sing about brave love, the lessons of life and loss, and the awareness of the heart and its strengths and shortcomings, sentiments you can hear in the songs of The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, MC Taylor (aka Hiss Golden Messenger), and van Etten.
So I’ll amend my way-overgeneralized label and not call 2014 the “Year of the Transgender” but will instead call it the “Year of the Heart.” Because this year numerous artists released wonderful records full to bursting with grace and melancholy and poignant moments that speak directly to the human condition, to our attempt to know ourselves as best we can on this journey of life. None of those records, however, changed me the way Against Me!’s did. And perhaps I have never been changed by an album in the way Transgender Dysphoria Blues changed me – recalibrating the manner in which I need to parent my son, altering the way I view him and the person he is likely to become; exposing me to the grief and rage he likely will feel as he matures; and offering me visions, dark and terrible, of what might face him if he does not feel unconditionally supported in growing into his true self. Transgender Dysphoria Blues wasn’t necessarily my favorite record of 2014, but it was the most important that fell into my hands this year – and may end up being the most important ever to come into my family. As I write this, and Grace growls in the background, “does God bless your transsexual heart?” my son is asleep in his bed, organs pumping, cells dividing and growing like almost every other six-year-old on earth. His brain is getting the rest it needs in order to, in its waking hours, receive the world and all its signals – like most every other child alive. So why should his gender fluidity make him any different from those other hundreds of millions of children? There is nothing to pathologize. And yet, as he moves through childhood and adolescence, there will be many questioning who he is. Hell, he will probably do the same. But thanks to Laura Jane Grace’s rage, honesty and, yes, grace, I won’t be one of those to raise the questions, and my son will be blessed to have one more authentic voice from which to seek the answers.
This week’s playlist:
For a good portion of the country, this week and last week has seen children of all ages heading back to school. For many of us parents, it’s a bittersweet moment (“Finally, reasonable bedtimes!” “Aw, no more nights at the ballgame.”) and a transitional one. I hope for kids from Kindergarten to college it’s an exciting time. In my home on the first day, James was out of bed at 6:20am – dressed in under two minutes – and asking if it was time to go to school yet.
So what happened between the excitement of first grade and when these school kids grew up and started writing songs? Except for Jack White’s quaint evocation of elementary-school friendship (and CSNY’s more general “Teach your Children”), the songs in this week’s playlist get progressively darker and more complicated. Was high school really as bad as Patty Griffin portrays it? For “Tony,” obviously – and sadly – it was, devastatingly so. Of course, we all have to grow and change and face life as we move from elementary into middle school, and we cannot pretend that angst isn’t a daily presence in high school and even for some into college. And it’s not our jobs as parents to always shelter our kids from that angst and those growing pains; but it always makes me sad when I hear someone say they hated school. (Okay, yes, everyone hated middle school; it’s the one universal life anomaly.) So even though Steely Dan intone at the playlist’s end that they’re never going back to “My Old School”, we parents might need to go back in our minds to when school was an autumn idyll and hope it can be for our children for as many years as possible.
Apologies for that soap-box for this week’s playlist, but the beginning of the school year for me as a parent always holds a little anxiety and the hope that the spark that makes a six year old jump out of bed for the first day of school will not burn out.
“We’re Going to be Friends” & “Teach Your Children”
Of course these two songs are going to be the rosiest of the bunch. It surprises me that “We’re Going to be Friends” is so unique: there are very few songs painting such a picture of childhood from the eyes of the child – but written by an adult for an adult audience, because I don’t think anyone would ever mistake Jack White or the White Stripes as children’s music. That type of narrative stance – that is, the adult author using the first-person point of a view of a child – is more common in literature. The rarity in songwriting makes it such a compelling song. Of “Teach your Children” though, I have little to say. At its core, it’s a pretty unremarkable song, except that it turns the imperative around asking children to teach their parents: child is the father to the man, I suppose. Still, the song has entered our cannon, ultimately for the better, I think.
“The Second Grade Applauds “
Shamefully, no Scott Miller (leader of the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family) song will enter the cannon, at least probably not in my lifetime – and his premature death in April of last year means not in his lifetime either. This remembrance in The Guardian and this one in Spin show the respect that the musical world had for Miller’s music and his writing. As the Spin obituary alludes to, Miller was a highly intellectual songwriter and expected the same of his listeners. He dumbed down nothing (ref. “Cortex the Killer” : “I’m out in front of awful weather /Trying to hold together air that barely clings /My empire and any autumn day / are getting thought of as different things / Stained clothes cleaned with agitation / Lush earth scorched with expectation”). Which makes “The Second Grade Applauds” a challenging song to decipher. Yes, I know that it’s not about being a second-grader. But what is it about? Any ideas?
Little Joe says, “Tired of ropin’ steers”
Branding and fencing off the years
Spirit warriors dance out from the pines
Dance on the graves of our designs
Give me ground rules
You know I’ll obey
Go quietly down my resume
But all I want now is to throw it away
To see the second grade applaud all day
To see the second grade applaud all day
Causal virtue, actions neatly chained
Rule-driven heartbreak unexplained
Slips in mid-step, glass across the floor
Fine china lives to be no more
And we can’t run the film the wrong way
A thousand pieces to a glass on a tray
But it would be worth any price I could pay
To see the second grade applaud all day
To see the second grade applaud all day
“The Saturday Boy” & “Thirteen”
Oh, the challenges of being an adolescent boy. Billy Bragg’s “The Saturday Boy” is spot-on: call it a gross generalization, but in middle school the girls all seemed much older and more mature, and we boys were helpless in trying to understand their “magic mystery,” in our desire to experience some sort of closeness we only had a visceral knowledge of. And so much of boyhood adolescence – or at least my experience – is unrequited, even when we try desperately to make that connection. At least in “Thirteen” there’s the sense that something is going right. But more important than the romantic situation of the narrator in Alex Chilton’s song is the natural feel of the song – of many of these songs, actually. When it comes to recalling school days – be it Jack White’s sentimental view of childhood, or Bragg’s bitterness at unrequited love, or Chilton’s incessant requests – these songwriters create songs that feel natural, unforced, and never watered down. As if these experiences of fidelity and love are so important to life’s education that there can be no going through the motions when crafting songs about those experiences.
“Don’t Stand so Close to Me” & “Tony”
I had to choose at least one obvious school song, and rather than go down the Pink Floyd/The Wall road and its trite refrains, I chose a more sinister one. I don’t know what it says about us that “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” was so well-received as a song, because contextually, it’s about as untouchable as any subject in the public domain. Lolita, to which the song refers, never saw the success that “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” did. Of course, the character of Lola in Nabokov’s novel isn’t exactly complicit in the nefariousness, unlike the the schoolgirl in The Police’s song. And perhaps beyond the teacher/student indiscretion is the larger theme of a type of longing and lust that is taboo in society; the story is as old as Romeo & Juliet, probably older still. Teen suicide – or the reporting of it – on the other hand, seems to be a new prevalence. The link between social media and teen suicide is strong, and public awareness of it has increased in recent years. Not that Patty Griffin was ahead of her time in 1998, but the candidness with which she told Tony’s story seemed novel, particularly in the Americana genre that she was lumped in. It’s a brutally honest song, with lyrics like “they wrote it the local rag / death comes to the local fag” that don’t allow for any gray area; there’s no hiding behind some screen of veiled lyrics. Songs like this cut to the quick; while listening to “Tony” this time – the first time since my children have grown out of diapers and have started to show their unique personalities – I couldn’t help crying, out of fear of the sadness they might one day face. No one should ever have to feel so desperate and isolated.
So let’s graduate from high school and drive some Pacific Coast highway with Chris Isaak. Isaak to me is the quintessential Californian songwriter, as the reverb-heavy guitar evokes a rocky coast and Santa Ana breezes. I wonder if Isaak would have been taken more seriously without that syrupy crooner voice of his.
“Campus” & “My Old School”
Finally we get to college and beyond, from two bands who are to me the torchholders of all things college. How many Steely Dan songs mention universities and the college days? Every one, right? Give or take a few? Even those that don’t mention university life directly evoke the feeling of university days or the thrill of post-graduate youth. Ditto Vampire Weekend, who thirty years after Steely Dan manage to evoke that same twentysomething feeling to later generations. In putting this playlist together I thought I could choose any Vampire Weekend song from their debut, because in my mind every song was about college life. Not true, apparently, but their adherence to a New England of prep schools and designer clothing reeks of ivy-covered brick and maple-lined quads, even when they are singing of the Khyber Pass over West African rhythms. The band’s most recent album, their third, has gracefully moved beyond the college years – naturally, as the band members were recent graduates upon the release of their debut; five years later, they’re removed from that, and their music has grown into new thematic lands. Steely Dan, conversely, seem never to have grown beyond their university days, so that even when Donald Fagen sings that he’s never going back to his old school, you take that with a grain of salt; Steely Dan will be back in their next song evoking their college days, students gearing up for another school year, in perpetuity.
This week’s playlist:
“She” & “Witch Doctor”
When I saw Harry Connick Jr live in St Louis in 1994, I knew what to expect from the music; many in the crowd did not, even though Connick himself warned everyone what was coming. “I want to let you all know that I’m not going to be playing standards. This isn’t the kind of concert I used to do. This is a funk show. Prepare to get down.” – or words to that effect. He did not disappoint. Or rather, he disappointed a lot of people expecting him to croon “I Could Write a Book” or “We Are in Love.” I, however, was blown away by him and his band. Connick has fine piano chops, and he used them to soulful form, at times playing one hand on the piano and the other on a Fender Rhodes, bringing the New Orleans funk and dispelling whatever assumptions I had made about him as a musical lightweight. Whatever he has done since then I don’t even care about (returning to that lightweight role) – She is a greatly under-appreciated album, and I’ll just pretend that a different Harry Connick Jr than this one made it. Connick hails from New Orleans, as does the band Galactic. Crazyhorse Mongoose, their first album, was a barnburning funk album not unlike She. Subsequent albums have explored a variety of New Orleans music. I keep coming back to this first one.
“Nicotine & Gravy” & “The Mall & the Misery” & “At Home He’s a Tourist”
I’ve been thinking over the past few months about Beck’s 1999 album Midnight Vultures, a disco- and funk-heavy sex album. Sandwiched between Mutations and Sea Change, it wasn’t as universally loved as those two albums and has largely been relegated to the scrap-bin of the Beck discography. But I think it’s a perfect demonstration of Beck’s musical genius (“Nicotine & Gravy”), his sense of humor and his gift of pastiche (“Debra,” a pinpoint Prince parody), and his prescience: Beck was tapping into disco grooves a decade ahead of Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and basically all pop music of the last couple years. I think JT’s career is nothing without Midnight Vultures, and it’s better than any JT record as a whole. The band Broken Bells (producer and dee-jay Brian Burton [nee Dangermouse] and The Shins’ James Mercer) this year put out their sophomore effort, After the Disco, whose title shows which trend they’re following. It doesn’t come close to their self-titled debut, from which “The Mall & the Misery” is culled. That album was easily my favorite album of 2010. I love the isolated guitar brought to the fore in the middle of each verse. The first time I heard it I thought of Gang of Four’s “At Home He’s a Tourist” – obviously a very different song musically from “The Mall & Misery,” but still the kind of guitar work that is inspired: it works, though it seems so out of left field.
“The First Taste”
After the jarring noise intrusion of the previous tracks, Fiona Apple’s “The First Taste” with its dripping sensuality and langorous pace is the perfect palate cleanser. Though it’s not bad by any means, her later stuff was not as impressive as this, her debut. It’s a shame that the songs on Tidal were used to create a rather libidinous picture of Apple – who has since proved what a intellectual artist she is and always has been.
“(I Feel Like An) Astronaut” & “Astronaut”
It’s time I got back into Fetchin’ Bones and the world discovers (or, for a small community, rediscovers) their mix of infectious punk, blues, and roots rock. A band that was at least a decade ahead of its time, Fetchin’ Bones, fronted by singer Hope Nicholls, was a part of the vibrant North Carolina music scene of the 1980s, a scene that helped develop – most notably – R.E.M. but was really spearheaded by the likes of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who both played a part in Fetchin’ Bones’ and R.E.M.’s first few albums. That Fetchin’ Bones didn’t find stratospheric success like R.E.M. probably speaks to a music that defied definition; though both bands saw airplay on college radio, R.E.M.’s sound was much friendlier for the mainstream. With where music is now, maybe it’s time to reissue these Fetchin’ Bones records and create a new buzz. Instead of taking the easy segue and following with R.E.M., “Astronaut” put me in mind of another “Astronaut,” this by the Portland band Blitzen Trapper. Eric Early and his crew are the natural descendants of the great stadium rock of the 1970s, as “Astronaut” will attest. The tempo changes in this song are impressive, and lyrically, Early shows off his mastery of the quick rhyme (taken from his love of Hip-Hop). The line, “cause I’m an astronaut on the shores of this grand illusion” and the hum of the slide guitar and mellotron make for an evocative close to the song. (Also, see this band live, to watch them rip through a blazing rendition of “Good Times, Bad Times” or “Ramble On.”)
“Hang Loose” & “Moonlight Mile”
If Blitzen Trapper are the natural descendants of a band like Led Zeppelin (or the Kinks or [insert British Invasion band name here]), then I’ve always thought Alabama Shakes were the natural descendants not of The Rolling Stones in general but certainly of The Stones’ southern rock of the late 60s and early 70s – albums like Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers. And to continue with the motif of journeying, “Hang Loose and “Moonlight Mile” were a worthy pair – thematically that is. I recognize the risk (and perhaps ignorance) in naming such a young band as Alabama Shakes as the heir to what arguably was the most creatively superior four years of any band in the history of modern music: from Beggars Banquet in 1968 to Exile on Main Street in 1972, the Rolling Stones made four albums unrivaled in their brilliance (though an argument can be made for the Beatles from 1965 to 1969 or Stevie Wonder from Talking Book to Songs in the Key of Life). But I hear in Brittany Howard’s voice the same drawling swagger that Mick Jagger had during those peak years, and I hear the same Keith Richards jangle in both Howard’s and Heath Fogg’s (the Shakes’ other guitarist) playing. So while I acknowledge “Hang Loose” is not on a par with the best of the Stones, it’s certainly a song that gets you moving and drives itself headlong through a quick two and a half minutes. Of course it doesn’t hold a candle to “Moonlight Mile,” but to be fair not much does. I am enamored with the feel of Richard’s slide guitar woven between the plunked piano and the crescendo of strings. “Moonlight Mile” achieves that rarefied air of being expertly crafted and the perfect album-ending song – which makes it the perfect song to end this playlist as well.