Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume II, Letter B

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Herein you’ll find volume two of a written record of the experience of attempting to listen to at least one compact disc from every artist represented in my collection. I think I’m crazy and I don’t know how long I can maintain or persist in this folly. I managed in two weeks and about 3,000 words to get through the A section. The B section, as I have said, proves a daunting task to say the least, as, for some reason, I have acquired an uncharacteristically vast collection of music produced by bands or artists whose names begin with the letter B, many of which have provided me with the most important music of my life. So, here’s a start, but no conclusion, to the second musical letter in the alphabet.

Burt Bacharach, “The Best Of Burt Bacharach, 20th Century Masters.” I think these tunes are permanently etched on the consciousness of any American human being that was listening to music in the 60s and early 70s. This particular record, though, is a collection of original Bacharach recordings of these classic tunes, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again,” “Do You Know the Way to San José,” et al, and not the ones popularized and made into megahits by a half a dozen different artists covering his tunes in later years. No matter. These are mostly instrumental versions of these tunes, but they still give off that same vibe, that same irresistible and almost indescribable Bacharach thing, a thing I wouldn’t fully appreciate until his collaboration with Elvis Costello in the 90’s, which, btw, totally blew my mind, and came to me during a period of intense inner work and transformation, some toward the good, some not so much toward the good. If Bacharach is anything, he’s bittersweet.

The Bad Plus, “Give.” Hey, it’s a jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) that plays like a rock band and occasionally, at least once on every album, does some whacked out cover tune of a grunge classic, a disco tune, or a hard rock anthem. As silly as that sounds, over the last decade or so I have found these guys kind of irresistible. This record may have been my first acquisition of The Bad Plus. They do rock like no other jazz trio has, I think. And it is indeed jazz and not fusion, it seems to me. Why do I say that? Here’s an attempt: There’s upright bass, almost always. The piano is doing things that jazz piano players do. But the drums? This drummer, Dave King, is nuts, out of control, is no jazz drummer, mind blowingly good and wildly eccentric. He rocks the jazz, rather than fuses the rock and the jazz, which, I think, is what the fusion is supposed to do. I don’t think this makes a lot of sense, but neither often does The Bad Plus. P.S. The covers on this record of The Pixies’ “Velouria,” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” will both melt your face off, as they did mine.

Barenaked Ladies, “Born on a Pirate Ship.” A kind of guilty pleasure, I have to admit, because I have always found these guys infinitely charming, smart, talented, all of that, but I have not ever taken them seriously in the way that I have other bands doing a similar kind of thing stylistically. They’re too clean cut, too earnest, not edgy enough, but simultaneously, super engaging. This record is, perhaps, more adventurous than most of what would follow. I would stop listening altogether after the “Stunt” record. I think I have one of my student teachers to thank for turning me on to these guys in the late nineties. This young woman, like this band, had goodness written all over her. And sincerity. It’s a rare quality and enviable in people and in bands, especially when they are successful.

The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds.” This is a different kind of guilty pleasure: guilty, because I didn’t encounter this record as a fully blown album until I was an adult, even though these tunes, a few of them huge radio hits, surrounded my childhood. Given my older sister’s propensity for great pop music, and through her my first and lasting encounter the with the “Sgt. Pepper” album, for which “Pet Sounds” was a likely inspiration, I’m surprised this album was not in her collection. Listening to the mono version, because, apparently, that’s what you do, I’m thinking, yeah, this is clearly a beautiful, inspired record (it ain’t no surf music), but ain’t no “Sgt. Pepper” either.

The Bears, “Self-Titled.” From 1987, the first disc in the collection that is a pirated copy of somebody else’s album. I don’t have too many of these, surprisingly. When we were kids we copied records from everyone and their dog onto our cassette recorders, and for some reason, when the collection turned toward digital, I insisted on buying most every one of my acquisitions. I’m spinning this thing—and as cool as it is—I remember none of it; I might be listening to the record for the first time, which goes to show, it seems to me, that we value the things (especially art things), that we pay for! This is really great pop music from a band that features one of the most inventive guitar players in rock, Adrian Belew. In this regard, perhaps, he has the honor of showing up twice in my collection under the same place in the alphabet. I’ve got all kinds of Adrian Belew. And here’s this thing I’ve never heard, or at least don’t remember that I’ve heard—what a nice surprise.

The Beatles. How do you decide, when you’ve got the whole catalogue in your collection, which record to spin from The Beatles? There’s a part of me that wants to spin every single one in chronological order because they’re all that good and they’re all that important. I realize, if I did that, the B section of my music library would go on forever. Should I listen to the one that had the most personal impact on me, or should I listen to one equally loved but late discovered? Should I ask facebook friends for help? Okay, did that. We’ll see what happens: Early on it’s a facebook tie between “The White Album” and “Abbey Road.” But for now, if I had to pick just one damn album by The Beatles, I would have to choose the one that was my first, the one that had the most early influence on my musical brain, the one that I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor spinning over and over again on her little portable suitcase turntable, the first album for which I committed to memory every single little word and to this day still remember. It has to be The Beatles, “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It turns out, though, that I could not stop at just one. There may be only a handful of groups or artists in my entire collection of which I will not be able to choose just one; The Beatles are the first. So I also spin “The White Album” and “Revolver,” in that order.

Beck, “Midnite Vultures.” I’ve got to say, I loved the 90’s. It was a transformative decade for me, a time of enormous growth, youthful energy coupled with the benefits of an adulthood on an upward and forward trajectory in almost every sense. I established myself in a profession, I earned an MFA in creative writing, I finished my first novel, and I discovered a meditative practice, and all the while I was rocking harder than I ever had. This Beck record comes as maybe one of the last and maybe most  important records of the decade, 1999. It’s brilliant, fun, absurd, absolutely infectious, groovy and geeky, all at once. Nicotine and Gravy. Debra, I want to get with ya, and your sister. Oh baby. And I just have to say right here in this space how proud I am of Beck for winning a Grammy this year, and in his modesty and humility and good humor, without even trying, for making Kanye West look like a tool.

The Bee Gees, “Greatest Hits.” In 1979 it became the fashion to hate disco and everything associated with it, so I was dismissive about the Bee Gees of the “Saturday Night Fever” phenomena and pretty much failed to make the connection between those tunes and the earlier hits, in particular, “Nights On Broadway” and “Jive Talking,” which to me tonight, sound absolutely and totally hip. Rocking. Got the whole family dancing for a few minutes. This is a two-disc collection of almost 40 tunes. I can’t quite make myself spin the second disc—not at all because I couldn’t stomach those disco era tunes, but because there are so many B’s and a limited amount of time. “If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby.” There’s a good line. Perhaps, this music, more than any other music of this era, has my puberty written all over it. Ick. That didn’t sound right.

Beirut, “The Flying Club Cup.” It’s the 21st century and a lot of pop music is beginning to sound like it was made a long time ago. This American band almost defies description. Are they a big band? A marching band? It’s worldy (new word alert), but from which part of the world? France? South America? New Orleans? I don’t have a good enough handle on these things to make a firm determination. What I do know is that it’s at once fresh and classic sounding, familiar and strange. But the bottom line is that there are stellar performances here and good tunes, strong lyrics, inventive and sophisticated, beautiful singing. And horns. And accordions. What sounds like a percussion section as opposed to a drum set player.

Adrian Belew, “Mr. Music Head.” Bringing the 80’s to a close, here’s a whacky record from a whacky guitarist for a whacky 20 something pop music fan with a serious progressive leaning. I think I first discovered Adrian Belew’s madcap guitar and vocal work on King Crimson’s classic “Discipline” album and I was hooked. This, his fourth solo album, more pop than progressive, is sometimes silly, irreverent, and sentimental. It’s still cool. Great record for painting—which is the thing I was doing while I listened today.

As I continued to paint a wall in the basement, I took the opportunity to spin a couple more B records, but because I was painting, unable to take any notes, I listened to these two back to back and can only say a few things about both: Belly, “Star.” It’s 1993 and Tanya Donnely from Throwing Muses forms a new band, a rocking thing standing out in the early days of grunge as being particularly upbeat, melodic, and delicious.  A few tunes really hum along and I remember liking them, and continue liking them as I’m listening and painting, even though before putting this record on I would not have been able to sing you a single line even if I had a gun to my head.  A good record I totally forgot about–so how good could it be, right? Well. . .  And then comes Dan Bern, “Self-Titled,” from 1997.  Another anti-grunge record, this thing is full-on folk, guy with acoustic guitar, a Bob Dylan with a sense of humor.  And I’m not kidding about the Dylan thing–this guy sings almost like he’s doing an impersonation of Bob.  I respect Dylan, but was never a fan.  I bought this Dan Bern record, I remember, because the guy was political and he made me laugh.  Not a whole lot of staying power in my musical consciousness, though, but again, good painting music.

The Bird and the Bee, “Self-Titled.” From 2007, this record has the distinction of being the first pop album our young son, Emerson, really took a shine to, and at two years old, his first favorite record with a parental advisory sticker, the first record to which I remember him actually singing along. The duo of Inara George and Greg Kurstin created this sweet and hook-laden mash-up between electronica and melody driven pop—and it’s a beauty. Clever, inventive, difficult to forget, expertly performed and recorded—with some curse words thrown in. And I discover on this evening another gift of proceeding with this mad task of listening to all of these neglected cd’s languishing on shelves.  On a few occasions, especially if there’s a piece of information I need, like the date the record came out because the liner notes on the cd package are too damn small to read, I’ll do a little webby research to find out some stuff.  On this occasion, I discover that Greg Kurstin was in another one of my favorite 90’s bands, Geggy Tah, and things click for me that hadn’t clicked before!

Bjork, “Selmasongs.” The Icelandic mid-to-late-eighties band The Sugarcubes was a revelation to me.  On principal, I’ve followed Bjork’s musical solo career ever since.  It’s been a rough ride.  She’s a true genius, I think, and I admire her adventurous and experimental spirit.  It’s hit and miss, though, and I was disappointed in the sterile production and overuse of machines in her first two solo records after being so totally spoiled by the incredibly rocking skill of the drummer and the rest of the musicians from The Sugarcubes.  This record, however, the soundtrack to the terribly bleak film in which Bjork had the starring role, “Dancer In The Dark,” is tremendously powerful and frightening and beautiful.  I pulled this one out because I think it is my favorite Bjork record. It was a heart breaking film.  The music, too, is painful, but it’s difficult to listen to Bjork’s singing and unconventional arrangements without smiling, without feeling a little hopeful.

I realize, have realized for some time, even though I’ve been railing against the conclusion, that I cannot finish the B section of the music collection in one blog post.  So, knowing that I still have 19 more B artists to cover, I conclude tonight by listening to one more compact disc, the first album I bought by the Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian, the 2003 release, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” I feel kind of like a DJ.  I wish there was a way, a quick way, say, through telepathic communication, while my readers were reading this, to project album cover art and clips from songs and me doing funny dances interspersed amongst all these words, to truly make this a multimedia experience. Sorry. I didn’t do any of that. I’m going to shut up and listen to this record.  Afterwards, I’ll tell you about it.  Here goes:  I’ve been following Belle and Sebastian ever since I bought this record, but this first track, “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is still my absolutely favorite song ever by this band.  The subject matter is serious, delivered from the point of view of the bad guy, an office manager who is sexually harassing his female employees, but the tune itself is a romp, dramatic, cinematic, full of these lovely tempo changes and wonderful musical surprises, something this band doesn’t do very often. And after “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” the record evens out and becomes significantly less adventurous, but still a lovely listening experience.  “There’s something wrong with me. I’m a cuckoo.”  Indeed.  Good night.  Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead. Wish me luck on finishing up with the B’s.  Do you think, dear reader, that we will ever, in a thousand years, reach the letter Z?

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Filed under Culture, Music, Self Reflection

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