Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XI, Letter F

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What follows is a continuing exploration of all the music in my cd collection for which the artist or the band name begins with the letter F.  Let’s begin with this.  F this.  Fishbone and The Flaming Lips, Ben Folds Five, bookends or markers for my 1990’s, perhaps the three most influential and inspiring bands for me in the entire decade.  It’s gonna be pretty rocking from here on out! Hold on.

Fishbone, “Give a Monkey a Brain, and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe.” These ska-punkers from the late 80’s became so absolutely rocking in the nineties, and this record and its predecessor, “The Reality of My Surrounding,” simply blew my late twenties and early thirty-something brain.  Listening to”Swim” and “Servitude” together, the opening tracks, I form a one-man mosh pit in my basement and bang my head while sorting the laundry.  The density of some of these arrangements, “Properties of Propaganda” and “Lemon Meringue” in particular, is awe inspiring still. These guys, perhaps more than any other nineties band, combined the raw energy of punk and grunge, the soul and funk from the 70s, the outrage of the Black American civil rights struggle, and married it to some of the most exceptional musicianship in rock. Holy shit these guys were good.  The memories this music stirs, almost entirely positive, are coupled with bittersweetness–as most of my closest companions of that era are sadly not now a part of my life, or at least, not like they used to be. It’s still joyful to listen to this, nevertheless. I may have to spin “Reality” as well. Hanging out with Fishbone, it’s really difficult to have “Everyday Sunshine” and “Sunless Saturday” missing from the playlist!

Damn, Fishbone blew my Boston Acoustics.

The Fixx, “React.” As important as this band was to me in my late teens and early twenties, I never replaced my vinyl copies of “Reach the Beach” and “Phantoms” in my cd collection.  So this is the next best thing, I suppose, a live album from 1987 that includes really the best of those two albums, a few tracks from the debut Fixx, and some other odds and ends. Save for a few exceptions, I have never really been a fan of the live album, but this one is sonically pretty clean and the performances are strong and the audience noise is mostly absent.  Here’s an 80’s band that has continued, to this very day, to work and write new tunes and tour. And they have the distinction of being the only heroes of my young life as a musician that I would have the honor to share a stage with. In 1999 and again a few years later, Here Comes Everybody got to open up for The Fixx at the Aladdin Theater here in Portland.  Quite the heady experience. A peak moment in my life as a musician.

The Flaming Lips, “The Soft Bulletin.” John Curtis, a good friend of mine, probably around the time this record came out in 1999, while he lived in Minneapolis for a time, sent me a couple of tracks from this album on a mix cd in the mail.  A mix cd! “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” and “Bugging,'” I think, were the tunes he sent. I thought maybe there was something wrong with my stereo, but I was intrigued. It took me a long time after that, maybe even a year, maybe more, to take the plunge to buy “The Soft Bulletin” album, but when I did, and spun it for the first time, from “Race for the Prize”  onward, I was having a kind of religious experience. This, it seemed, was a wholly new kind of weirdness. I don’t know. I hope I haven’t said this a dozen times before about a dozen different records, but I might say that this is probably one of my top 5 favorite albums of all time. It was and remains a revolutionary record.

Somewhere, I had heard the band’s early and only “hit” thus far, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and I was charmed but underwhelmed, so much so that I didn’t realize when I got hold of “The Soft Bulletin” that it was the same band. Where to begin: how about with the snare drum slap and harp flourish that kicks off the anthemic melody of strings and synth that begin “Race for the Prize,” the first track on the album. When the vocal enters for the first verse, high, tentative, imprecise, awkward, singing about two scientists in a competition to discover some kind of monumental cure, for what we never learn, the band comes way down (sonically, it’s as if it’s a different band or a different recording altogether), and I am totally sucked in, emotionally invested, because, after all, “Theirs is to win, if it kills them; they’re just humans with wives and children.” The second tune, “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” seems to continue with this science fiction and physics theme, something about a group of people trying to lift up the sun, and how much only a spoonful of this star-stuff would weigh.  Holy shit.  It’s just so flipping weird, but oddly, at least for me, felt not like a discombobulated and cold absurdity, but intensely specific and emotionally evocative.

What’s the emotional content here?  At first it’s joy, then wonder, and then, in the third track, when Wayne sings, “I accidentally touched my head and noticed that I had been bleeding.” I just want to weep. It’s almost incomprehensible.  And then he sings, in the same song, “I stood up and I said yeah.”  On the surface, it’s such a dumb lyric, but coupled with the delivery and the production (which always seems to indicate something may be wrong with your stereo) and the cool vibe that is created by all these things in combo, this declaration and things like “I accidentally touched my  head” seem like the most profound lyrics ever written. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that listening to both “Waitin’ for Superman” and “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” has on many occasions brought me inexplicably to tears.

Wayne Coyne is a terrible singer. No question. And he’s even worse live.  The one time I saw them play I was convinced he was sick–but realized by watching videos of the band live that that’s how he always sounds!  But his genius for big philosophical ideas embedded in pop music trappings, his gift for melody despite the imprecision of his singing, his knack for capturing the absurdities of being human added to the almost symphonic musical genius of his bandmates and longtime producer Dave Friedman–these things are a heady mix indeed. I have been loyal to this band ever since.  They’re super frustrating because they’re always changing it up–but that is also their super strength and what makes them so vital and interesting.

So excited about revisiting this band, I had to spin “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” as well, the album immediately after “The Soft Bulletin,” and again was blown away by the deceptive silliness; deceptive, because, despite the sci-fi goofiness of the album’s concept, deep, zen-like wisdom permeates. “All we have is now. All we’ve ever had is now.”And I’ve had “Do You Realize” on the brain for nearly a week now. Another beautiful record that nevertheless makes you believe there might be something wrong with your stereo. I must say that I got a bit stuck on these two albums, listening to them both three times in succession right next to each other in the van’s cd changer.

Perhaps, autobiographically speaking, the reason I found The Flaming Lips so captivating was that when they found me, at the height, or rather, the deepest depths of an early mid-life crisis, a time in my mid-thirties when I did not know what was up, when I was more lost than I had ever been in my life, when everything seemed on the verge of falling apart,  this band brought joy and hope into my life. In some ways, they saved me. Or, at least, they were with me all the way through.

Postscript: I just bought the bonus 20 year anniversary edition of “Clouds Taste Metallic,” the preceding album to “The Soft Bulletin,” and another essential classic from The Flaming Lips. These three albums, I think, are greater than anything they did before or since.  I’m really hoping they make another pop record soon.

I am so bummed about my blown Boston Acoustics.  I’m doing much of my listening now in the studio, using the computer as a cd player, having to look at the big dumb monitor, constantly teasing me with Facebook and other such dumb internet things while I listen. Not optimum. And then when I’m not in front of the studio computer monitor, I’m in the car, listening to records in chunks of three or four songs, depending on how far I need to travel.  Not optimum, either.

Flight of the Conchords, “Self Titled.” I don’t know if these songs are good or if it was the television show that was good. I know the show was good, but I don’t trust that the songs aren’t successful only because I know the visual gags that accompanied them in the show. I guess it doesn’t matter. I can’t help but start giggling on the opening track, “Foux du Fafa,” where our intrepid New Zealand pop singing heroes try to pick up a French girl by pretending to speak the language. These guys have great pop sensibilities and perfect comic timing.  Perhaps the most successful and talented novelty band in the history of pop music. It’s impossible to listen to these guys without smiling and occasionally laughing out loud. “She’s so hot she’s making me sexist.” But “Bowie,” this time around, is not quite as funny. Touching, rather.  “Bowie’s in space,” indeed.

Ben Folds Five, “Self Titled.” The debut album from North Carolinians Ben Folds Five was the second BFF album I bought, but I think it was the record that had the most profound effect on me.  I was a child influenced by Elton, and this was like Elton John for the 21st century.  This record was released in 1995, but I think it was at least 1999 or maybe even a bit later when I heard this band and this record for the first time. Here was the inspiration and the permission I needed to front a rock band that did not feature a guitar anywhere in the mix. Thank you, Ben. Here’s another songwriter who marries all the things I love about pop music into one tidy package: expert musicianship, humor, profundity of idea, emotional resonance, and high energy. Is there a greater pop song about finding one’s way than “Philosophy”? Is there a more profound tribute to the nerd navigating the punk rock scene than “Underground”? Is there a greater sports tune ever recorded (and this coming from a person who is inherently NOT interested in sports) than “Boxing”? I think not. I have become super loyal to Ben Folds.  I have all the BFF albums and every solo record Ben Folds recorded after, even the one he did with William Shatner, which is fucking brilliant, by the way.  And funny as hell. Here’s an artist for whom I could happily spin every album in my collection, but because I listen to him so regularly anyway, and because some day in my life time I’d like to get through the flipping alphabet, I’ll stop here at this brilliant debut album from one of my favorite bands of all time and certainly my favorite band to emerge from the 90’s.

I don’t want to give the rest of the artists in the F section short shrift, but I think it’s a necessity. I didn’t realize I’d write 1000 words on The Flaming Lips alone, and I’m anxious to get to the G spot. So the following artists, some of whom I love and will listen to their records all the way through, will get the haiku treatment. Sort of.

Brian Kenny Fresno, “The Big Finish.” The cd jewell case has a sticker on it that announces a “free bong tool inside!” I think this was a ruse. I don’t even understand, not being a pot smoker, what kind of bong tool might be concealed inside a cd jewell case and I don’t remember receiving anything that might fit this description.  Fresno is a one man band, a guy who plays a thing called a Chapman Stick (essentially a 12 string bass guitar) and sings crazy funny songs. He’s a nut. I saw him play once and bought this cd. He’s a phenomenal musician and a maniacal performer. He’s like a progressive rock farm boy. He wears overalls and sings songs about rescuing dogs, dentists in China, and stoner detectives, among other things. Not easy listening, and much more engaging in concert than it is on record.

Robbie Fulks, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.” I saw this brilliant guy open up for Ben Folds and I was blown away. One of the only country singers I can listen to, partly because he rocks, partly because he’s funny and smart, but mostly because he’s politically a lefty.  All of this is pure gold, but most amazing, perhaps, is the country music echo of XTC’s “Dear God.” Fulks’ tune is “God Isn’t Real,” and it is every bit as scathing an indictment of religion as is Andy Partridge’s tune from the “Skylarking” album.

fun., “Some Nights.” I wrote an entire blog entry about going to a fun. concert, so I feel justified in keeping it short here. Their first record rocked my socks to such a degree that I felt for a few moments that they were my band, and then they became hugely successful with the hit single “We Are Young” from this record and attracted an audience of 12 year old girls. You may make “fun” of me, but I don’t care; I still think they’re really good. You cannot argue with the skill of this singer and the sophistication of these arrangements and the emotional power of some of these words. However, if there’s anything that makes this otherwise stellar record suck a bit, it’s the use of Autotune, not to correct bad singing, but to synthesize otherwise good singing, which is really a dumb thing.

Down with Autotune.

The only time autotune is acceptable is when it’s used to make a spoken word thing into a song. That can be really funny.

Fugazi, “Steady Diet of Nothing.” Before spinning this disc, I can recollect absolutely nothing about it other than, at some point, I had learned that Fugazi was an important and influential band and that I should probably know about them. A sign, of course, that they had a minimal impact on me. At the close of the 80’s and at the beginning of the 90’s, they were still waving the punk flag and, I think, influenced a lot of the musicians that would be central to the grunge era. As I’m listening, I remember the tunes, and I kind of remember thinking, this is cool, but it’s not melodic, and it’s not beautiful, and I’m no longer 18 years old, and while I can get behind the energy and the punk experimentation, my boat is decidedly not floated, so I will only listen to it a few times and then put it away. It’s like Devo meets Gang of Four and the Sex Pistols, with odd time signatures and perhaps a little bit more instrumental finesse, but not nearly as tuneful as any of those groups and ultimately, for me at least, nowhere near as interesting.

That concludes the effing F section of the CD collection.  I don’t know when I will get to the G spot. I’m in a play and writing a poem every day for the next month.  Who knows. I might be able to squeeze it in. The artists and bands in the G section may be calling for me. It’s a short list of some truly great stuff: Gabriel, Galactic Cowboys, Gang of Four, Geldof, Geggy Tah, Grandaddy, David Gray, The Grays, Guided by Voices.  I’m excited. Are you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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