Category Archives: Music

Entries about playing, recording, performing, and listening to music

Concert Review Confessions: St. Vincent at the Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, January 20.

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In part because I have listened to all five St. Vincent albums over recent days in preparation for the live appearance this last weekend here in Portland, I have made no new progress on the H section of my CD collection, on my alphabetical listening and blogging project that seems to go on forever. Instead, I’ve prepared this little confessional.

I love St. Vincent, Annie Clark’s rock project of the last 10 years. I love her music, but I’m also a little bit in love with her. If I were not married and if I was fifteen years younger, I might drop everything and follow her around the world. I’ve not been so enamored with a pop star since I was a teenager. She is enormously talented as a songwriter and musician; she’s got an incredible voice, her guitar playing prowess is prodigious, her lyrics are challenging, provocative and smart, and she is beautiful. Oh my god, is she beautiful.

I saw her band two albums ago on the “Strange Mercy” tour at a local concert club and it was almost a religious experience. I was out by myself in this club with hundreds of strangers and I remember that I was, at several points in the show, on the verge of weeping in the wake of the band’s sonic power, their precision performance, and Annie’s otherworldly presence.

Having missed the last tour, I was super stoked to get St. Vincent tickets as a Christmas present for the appropriately titled “Fear the Future” tour in support of the Masseduction album.  The confessional aspect of the title of this blog entry has to do with a few issues regarding her recent album and tour that have given me some pause, made me somewhat uncomfortable, and have raised questions for me about the nature of her work, the nature of live music, and the design and marketing of a music product.

So, to begin with, I’ve seen St. Vincent perform live on television a couple of times over the last few months since the new record came out. In all cases, Annie was singing and playing guitar in front of a pre-recorded musical backdrop, one that approximates in an almost identical way the recorded tracks on the record. I believed when I saw these spots that it was some kind of television studio expedient–that for some reason she chose to perform this way on t.v. Then I started to see a promo photo or two for the show which again pictured Annie Clark with a guitar in front of a microphone on a barren stage with a colorful backdrop. I was in denial that this would be her mode of performance all the way up to showtime. It was, it turned out, indeed the way she was to perform this concert–all by herself, with voice and guitar, backed by pre-recorded tracks and surrounded by a most sophisticated slow crescendo of lighting, staging, and film effects.

I really wanted her to have a band.  Alas, there was no band. I wondered if she was lonely up there. But from my perspective in the audience, was I bored? No. Was her performance lacking? Hell no. Did it sound bad? No. Was it sterile? God no. Was I disappointed in the show? No. Again, she blew my mind and rocked my world, even without a band. I don’t think there are very many artists who could get away with this. She pulled it off. The show was engaging from start to finish, visually and sonically. And there is something about the material, more electronic than anything she’s done before, even while electronics have always seemed to be in the center of her music, that may have leant itself to this kind of presentation. So, even while I was sad there was not a band, I enjoyed myself, and am no less smitten with Annie Clark than I was before.

Here’s the other thing I’ve been thinking about, especially regarding the presentation of the new St. Vincent album and its tour. I have always found Annie Clark’s persona, her vocal stylings, her arrangements, her bold guitar work, and her lyrics–rather sexy.  On this record, in the art, in her dress, and in the visuals for the show, she seems to have amped that up a great deal. When I received the deluxe version of the LP in the mail and opened that baby up, I felt a little bit like I was handling contraband of some kind; it felt a little bit dangerous, and certainly something I wouldn’t be sharing with my 12 year old son. It’s not pornographic in any way, or is it? It depends on how you define pornography. If pornography, as James Joyce defined it, is art that elicits desire, then, well, was this pornographic? This is what bugs me: I can’t or won’t tell. And I also am really interested in her intentions for this design, provided that she had any creative freedom in the matter–which–because I trust her as an artist, I like to believe that she did. Take a look at the album cover and the posters and the t-shirts: a woman’s red stiletto heels, long, pink-stockinged legs, and an ass, adorned with leopard-patterned leotard, her entire torso bent over, one of her arms and her head disappearing through holes in a wall. So, basically, the cover is all legs and ass against a brilliant blood-red backdrop. In other imagery from the album’s art are legs with vividly colored thigh-high latex boots likewise emerging from holes in a wall. In the videos, we see more legs coming out of t.v. screens. Here’s a woman lying on the floor in a clear plastic bag. Annie, for the show, is dressed in what I would call a kind of dominatrix outfit. The only men I remember seeing in the projections during the concert were guys doing yoga while totally wrapped, head to toe, in some strange kind of blue full-body socks. Why do I have second thoughts about publishing this paragraph in a blog entry? What does this reveal about me? I know there is something to work out here, but I’m confused and part of me just wants to listen to this great music. Another part of me really wants to know the significance of this imagery, and how its unquestionable kink matches up thematically with the music. Here’s a lyric from the chorus of the title song, which, even though it seems to be missing an ‘s’, is pronounced mass seduction:

Masseduction: I can’t turn off what turns me on.
Masseduction: I hold you like a weapon.

I want to say that Annie Clark is making a bold and feminist statement about the nature of desire and the fetishizing of body parts and clothing–but beyond that, I am decidedly befuddled. I don’t know what that statement is. I can’t read the tone. It’s absurdist and weird and beautiful. How are you supposed to respond? Are you disturbed or excited or both? Are you disturbed that you’re excited? Are you excited that you’re disturbed? So, finally, I have come to this conclusion, because I trust her: I’m not yet smart enough to figure it out, but she has done for me with this record and this concert and these visuals what great art is supposed to do: make us squirm, make us uncomfortable, make us question, make us interrogate what we think we know. I’m all in, Annie. Thank you. Happy to be a part of your masseduction. I can’t turn off what turns me on, either.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XV–Here Comes Everybody Survives the 20th Century

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The cover of our very first CD release in 1997: The chicken head man and the naked dog foot lady, of course.

Back again so soon? I’ve got about a day and a half to fulfill my Pre-New Year’s Eve New Year’s Eve resolution of writing about the entire Here Comes Everybody catalogue before 2018. In case you’re just stepping into the fray, in short, it has been my project over the last three years or so to listen to my neglected CD collection, one artist at a time from A to Z, and write about the experience. A year ago I found myself mired in the letter H. The letter H happens to include my own band, Here Comes Everybody, which at first I thought I would just sort of skip over, but have since, for autobiographical reasons, changed my mind.

In my last entry I worked through the first six years, from 1986 to 1992 and I shared a stupid but by now kind of famous youtube video of my crazy bad self lip syncing to my own music in 1987. I was listening to and writing about the last CD we released, a 30th anniversary compendium of the first six years of songwriting and recording we ever did as a band. It’s important to note, especially perhaps for younger readers, that, in the 80s and early 90s, independent bands released their original material almost exclusively on cassette tape. Vinyl was way expensive and on its way out. CDs had just arrived, but were also cost prohibitive to produce. Everybody and their dog had a hi-fi cassette deck in their home stereo and in their cars. Cassette tape ruled the day–and for good reason. It was compact, convenient, reliable, and sonically pretty damn good.

All of the material discussed in the last installment of this series was initially released on cassette tape and had to wait 30 years until 2016 for a digital release into the world. After the cassette releases featured on Everything Is Here: 1986-1992, we continued to release albums and e.p.s on cassette tape for another five years, during which there were essentially only two releases, a cassette full-length album called Squish in 1993 and another cassette e.p. entitled Hump Day from 1995 or so. By the time these cassette records came out, the band was full-on grunge/funk/hard rock, a far cry from the synth pop of the 80s and early 90s.

How did we make this radical stylistic turn? Well, we were smitten, as was everyone else in the Pacific Northwest, by the hard rock grunge movement. It’s what we were listening to. It was raw and rowdy and full of energy and political power, and while it really wasn’t stylistically or radically different from the hard rock of the 70’s, it felt totally new and fresh and served as a rebellion against what felt like the antiseptic and artificial pop of the late 80s. And in this moment just before the Life, Friends, is Boring era discussed in the last entry, we had found a new guitar player, Jeff Bryner, a guy who was firstly incredibly inventive and secondly super prolific as a writer. So, combined with our current musical interests in guitar rock and this new dynamic member of the band, the music started to come from the guitar and NOT the keyboard. Eventually, so much so, that René tossed the keyboards altogether and got behind the drum kit. At that moment, by 1995, we were a full-on guitar band. We had left every vestige of keyboard, nu-wave power pop behind us.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. It was new and exciting and I think it was good. But the Here Comes Everybodyness of the music that René and I had been writing during the previous seven or eight years seemed to have been drained out and replaced by something else. I am proud of that work, but it sounds like a totally different band. At one point we toyed with changing our name–and I think we even did a gig or two with some new stupid identity, but it didn’t take, and, eventually, creative differences momentarily disbanded that mid-90s roster.

Some really great songs came from this era, though. Again, approaching the novelty song, our most successful tunes were often our funniest ones. From the Squish era came “I Like My Neighbors,” “My Dentist Is A Good Man,” and a song about forgetting your own lyrics during performance, entitled appropriately, “I Forgot The Words.” Here’s my favorite, the “Neighbors” tune in its original lo-fi glory:

And then something pretty remarkable happened: the advent of the professional quality HOME STUDIO. We recorded Squish (which opened with the “Neighbors” tune) on a cassette 4 track recorder. It was decidedly and unabashedly lo-fi. So grungy. I remember recording the keyboard live during the mix down! That’s just crazy. But suddenly, in 1996 or so, professional quality home recording equipment became, for the first time in human history, somewhat affordable. That was a game changer for us–and the rest of our musical history from that moment on was totally influenced by this phenomenon.  

Some of the best of this early to mid 90s material ended up on a 13 year anniversary CD released in 1999, appropriately called Thirteen. One of the first of the stupidest ideas I ever had was to release a kind of greatest hits record that would collect on CD the best of what we had released on cassette over the first thirteen years. Stupid? We had no hits. We made 1000 copies, because, you know, 1000 copies is cheaper than 500–really, seriously. It cost, in 1999 about $1,000 to replicate a thousand compact discs, whereas 500 copies would cost only a hundred bucks shy of that–so why the fuck not produce 1000 of those babies?! Well, because there’s not a market for it, that’s why. However, it was fun. It felt good to give the music a digital run, but we couldn’t afford to master it, it includes crappy four track recordings, and it was, as most albums produced on CD in the mid to late 90s were, too flipping long. Who has the patience to sit through a 73 minute compact disc? Outside of the appearance of a few select tracks from this mid-90s hard rock era on the Thirteen cd, this material, so unlike us, feeling to me today not totally authentically us, will likely never see the digital light of day. Although, by special request from a single individual who was a fan of that particular era, I recently burned a copy of Hump Day and sent a single solitary CDR off into the mails. Yeah, I could do that again.

Okay, it’s 1996 and 97.

Once More With Feeling. Kids in a candy store, having put together our first home basement studio with bonafide real professional recording equipment, we wrote and recorded our first album to be released on a compact disc. On this record, we primarily started the practice of promoting ourselves as a duo. The band, then, consisted of past band mates, HCE alum, who were willing to lend a hand. And we got almost every one of them involved somehow, going all the way back a decade to our very first full line-up.

Its weaknesses are that, again, it’s too long. It’s super self indulgent. We included everything, even the most silliest of things like jazz improvisations over spoken refrigerator magnet poems, nutty manic tunes that are nearly unlistenable, the absolutely absurdist spoken word poem that inspired the artwork, a crazy thing about a naked woman with dog slippers sitting at a bar with a massive, human sized chicken talking about those orange spider mites. Okay.

Its strengths: some of the best songs we had written to date:  The manic opener of “Holier Than Thou,” a satirical piece about any kind of hypocritical moral authority in which I get to do my best impression of an evangelical preacher; “Ba Ba,” a song that takes its title from the monosyllabic background vocal but delves more clearly than “Blue Refrigerator” could about the importance of self discovery and authenticity; “The Love Thing,” you know, about the love thing; other more serious and issue driven pieces; and a lot of really fine performances by so many good friends of ours. Overall, its variety, its manic qualities and its more reflective quiet moments, the instrumental experimentation (horns! acoustic guitars! improvisations! fake jazz!) the whole thing feels like a big ass party.

My goodness. There are four albums that I have yet to mention over the next two decades–the material that I am most proud of, actually. And I’m finding myself, on the eve of New Year’s Eve, at the end of potentially the most exhausting year in memory, unable to go further tonight. So I’ll leave you with this, a kind of sleeper from Once More With Feeling, but, as I’m re-listening now, nevertheless a tune that stands out as a favorite, and features a reunion of the 1987 band, Allen Hunter on bass and Greg Kirkelie on guitar. “Everybody’s made of something. What are you made of?” That’s a pretty good line.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XIV–31 Years of Here Comes Everybody

Oh my. It’s been almost an entire year since the last time I added an installment to this series. Maybe I will make a New Year’s Resolution not to wait another year before the next one!

I did not intend to write about my own music in this series, only tangentially as it related to something I was listening to, or, if something I was listening to was an influence on my own songwriting. Why the hesitation? Oh, I don’t know; I didn’t want to seem self-indulgent. I know, that makes terrible sense; I am blogging, after all, primarily using my own bad self as subject matter! What could be more self-indulgent?  And if this is an autobiographical sketch through the lens of the music I have listened to over the years, what could be more autobiographical? And here we are, the founding members of the rocking teen combo Here Comes Everybody, myself (Michael Jarmer) and my wife and musical partner in crime, René Ormae-Jarmer, in the midst of our 31st year of marriage and 31st year of playing music together in this band. It seems fitting now, both because of the momentousness of the occasion, but also because here I am, after 13 blog entries and thousands of words covering the musical compact disc collection alphabetically from A to Z, in the middle of the letter H. All right. Let’s do this.

Because of it’s longevity, Here Comes Everybody has become an integral part of my identity. The thought of doing a solo album is distasteful to me. The thought of being the principle singer and lyricist for somebody else’s band, while not out of the question, is likewise to me unfavorable.  I like to play the drums. I like drumming so much that in the last couple of years I have taken to the throne to drum for other peoples’ projects. But no one else has ever asked me to write lyrics for them, and I’ve only had very brief flirtations over this last 31 years singing in somebody else’s thing. Whether it’s because I’m being selfish and holding on to my talents for this one singular project, or because my talents are not conducive to any other thing, remains to be determined. Whatever it is, I feel HcE is a piece of me just as much as is my inclination to write, or my love of reading, or my dedication to teaching, or any other proclivity or tendency that one would lump under the category of Things That Make Michael Jarmer Michael Jarmer.

So what’s the approach here? Should I follow the rules and write about only one or at least one record–or should I, like I only have, I think, for Elbow thus far, write about every single record? And since this is about my neglected CD collection, should I limit myself to material released on that format, or should I also give air time to the “records” we made that were released only on cassette?!

I think, if it’s true that Here Comes Everybody has indeed become part of who I am, it seems that I owe them at least the same kind of attention I gave to Elbow, a band I only discovered in 2002, a full 16 years after the first recording my wife and I made together. So let’s do the whole damn CD catalogue. And I might mention, but not go deeply into, those cassette-only releases–just because they form an important part of the picture, even though it seems that there’s a pretty good reason those pieces never escaped their magnetic tape origins.

Everything Is Here: 1986-1992. For the 30th anniversary of the band, we went back to the very beginning, remastering and releasing on CD for the very first time our complete early recordings, 4 short albums over two compact discs.  Our debut e.p., “Holy Smokes,” is kind of what you might expect from 22 year old kids in an 8 track (!) professional studio for the very first time, recording their very first batch of original tunes: pure unbridled enthusiasm, blinding self-confidence, awkward amateur performances, and some really strange, albeit 80s appropriate choices–like a band with two drummers relying on a drum machine for all the set work! My voice is quite a few notches higher here than it is now, in fact, sometimes embarrassingly so. I sound like someone’s pinching me really hard. I think I remember the phrase “manic yelp” as being the way our earliest critics described my voice. Yep. Totally accurate. I was indeed manic, and I was indeed yelping. We started as a trio (vocals, keys, and bass)–a configuration we would return to in the late 90s–but clearly we understood that we could not carry the tunes completely without guitar, so we found a hired gun in a guy named Kieth Charley who came in and performed these screaming lead guitar solos on a few of these tunes. They are awesome, sometimes the best part of the tune, even though they are somewhat anachronistic.

By the time our second e.p. came around, we had had the realization that real drums were the way to go and that the guitar should be an integral part of the band, so “Brand New Species” found us in a 24 track studio and with a year of lots of gigging and more writing under our belt, sounding like a real band. Oddly, still a band with two drummers already, we found a different drummer (high school buddy Sean Moultrie)  to play the kit–mostly because Rene had her keyboard duties to perform and I wanted to jump around on stage like a maniac. It wouldn’t be until 1997 when finally I would decide to sit down and play some drums in my own band.

Autobiographical note concerning the roster: René and I were high school sweethearts. Our first bass player, Terry Gassaway, was a high school chum. Our first guitar player, Greg Kirkelie, was not only a high school chum, but a guitar player with whom we played in our very first band ever. Our first drummer, Sean, was a high school chum. Our second bass player, Allen Hunter, was a chum from our teen years with whom we played in our very first band ever. Stephen Westerhout and David Gilde are the only musicians on these early recordings that I did not know as a teen, but I met Steve in college and Dave a little later–we must have only been 27 or 28 when we met. It strikes me as important and kind of profound that I would be willing and happy to play music with any of these individuals again and still to this day continue to think of each of them as friends. Insert something wise here about musical soul mates and the long lasting friendship power of our earliest creative acquaintances. 

The Everything Is Here compendium closes out with our first kind-of-full-length album clocking in with 8 songs, “Wake,” and then another e.p. called “Life, Friends, is Boring,” after John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” While “Wake” was most powerfully influenced by the likes of Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love,”  “Life, Friends” was our earliest foray into the heaviness that would become grunge. By 1992 we had all had our fill of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Cross all of that with our early new wave and prog rock influences and you’d have a pretty good idea about what we sounded like.

Out of these first four records came at least three tunes that would become emblematic of our quirky irreverence (is that a redundancy?) and, for better or worse, would become our most popular tunes early on: “I Am Not A Social Cracker,” “I’m Gonna Send You A Mail Bomb,” and most famously, now clocking in at over 3500 views on youtube, “Blue Refrigerator.” In 1987 we made a video for that tune, shelved it, showed it to no one, and then, on a whim, after digitizing our old tapes, decided to post it to youtube. The rest, as they say, is history.

During this whole era, from 86 to 92, we gigged like crazy. We gigged ourselves silly. We played everywhere for anyone. We opened up on many occasions for local heroes The Dan Reed Network. We exhausted the local scene. We were under the mistaken impression that the more we played the more likely we would be to “make it big.” What we probably should have done, but never quite had the courage to do, was tour. Finishing college, establishing careers, finding our way in a new marriage, the life of the road was just not in the cards and nobody was throwing money at us. We didn’t get famous, but we got pretty fucking good.

What’s most interesting to me, personally, about this collection is that it shows how fast and how wide our growth was in these first six years. I find it kind of impressive, enough so that 30 years after that first song was recorded, I felt the work deserved the attention and care of a remaster and a cd release.

I didn’t realize I’d get 1500 words out of that first CD. We may have to do this episodically, one record at a time. We may have to spend a lot of time on the letter H. I wasn’t finished with the other H-artist albums in the collection a year ago–I’ve still got Jerry Harrison, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Holiday, and the Housemartins to explore!  Pre-new years New Year’s resolution: finish the Here Comes Everybody entries before the clock strikes 12 on December 31. Please don’t hold your breath.

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Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of “Oczy Mlody”

Dear Flaming Lips,

I love you guys. Your music changed my life. Or, maybe this is more accurate: I discovered your music when my life was changing and it became a kind of soundtrack for those wild years. It was both heady and silly and cathartic, and private too, because no one else I knew was listening to it, and while I seldom knew what the lyrics were really about, somehow they nevertheless seemed to reach down deep inside of me to pull something out, usually something heavy. Your music made me unaccountably happy during a time in my mid thirties when everything seemed really fucked up. I count “Clouds Taste Metallic,” “The Soft Bulletin,” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” among my favorite records of a decade, maybe of all time. So I thank you for that. And I have been loyal to the band ever since. On record store day I went out and bought the Heady Nuggs Volume 2 box set which contains all five of the records you recorded between 2006 and 2012, two of which I already possessed on compact disc. But I have had a dilemma, a difficulty, a trouble with everything you’ve released post “At War With The Mystics.” And I’m writing to you because I don’t quite understand why I don’t like the records post 2006 nearly as much as the earlier records; in fact, I’m not even sure I like them at all, and it’s been kind of freaking me out. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s you. Maybe you can help me figure it out.

Let’s pretend for a second that it’s you. You guys went from an engaging, fun, and intellectually challenging pop band into a band that does noisy mood music. The newest stuff (and I’m mostly talking about “Embryonic” and “The Terror”), is droning, often lacking distinguishable verses, bridges, choruses, the vocals are whispery or distorted, indecipherable without the lyric sheet, the music often punctuated by gratingly loud noises or repetitive loops that jar or bore the listener, and on “The Terror” in particular, the tunes are rhythmically minimal, often without drums. The lyrics and vocal performances that used to be spirited, buoyant, exuberant, sometimes dark but hopeful, are now just mostly dark, quiet, subdued. It’s almost as if you’ve had a songectomy. This is not the pop band I fell in love with in 2001. It’s as if you have deliberately jettisoned all the things that made great those three records I’ve listed above. It’s a pisser. It’s disappointing. Have you run out of ideas? Have you betrayed your fans? You’ve never been a great singer, Wayne, but at least you were out there loud and proud, which I loved. Have you given up on your lovely, limited, but always charming voice? Why all the whispering falsetto stuff? Why so sad?

Okay, devil’s advocate: maybe it’s me. I simply don’t understand what you’re doing. Or, you are demonstrating the highest artistic integrity by giving absolutely zero fucks about what anybody thinks and you are earnestly experimenting to discover something new. It’s about the art, after all, not about appeasing your fans. Your recent minimalist approach to songwriting is about preserving a core of what’s really important and jettisoning all the flotsam and jetsam of pop music. And, like me, you’re getting older. Your artistic ambitions are changing, morphing, sobering, reaching for something higher and nobler than the three and a half minute pop song. So part of why I don’t like what you’ve been doing is because I am nostalgic for that state I was in and that state you were in 17 years ago. That’s no longer a reality.

Fast-forward to January, 2017, a year after David Bowie’s death, and the month of a dark, dark moment in American history, the inauguration of the gigantic orange man-baby to the presidency. You do two things almost simultaneously. You release your cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and you release your first album of new songs since “The Terror.”
I have the new album, “Oczy Mlody,” right now in my hot little hands and I am about to spin it for the first time. In this dark hour, I am crossing my fingers for some kind of miracle. I know, that’s a lot of pressure and responsibility that you don’t really deserve, but I’m giving it to you anyway. You helped me through a difficult time in 2001 and I trust that you can do it again.

Notwithstanding the crazy 1997 experimentation of “Zaireeka,”the four records designed to be played simultaneously on separate players (which I have not had the pleasure of hearing BTW), if the last two albums could be categorized as your most difficult listening, then this record here, the super-strangely titled “Oczy Mlody,”comparatively, is the easiest. Easy listening Flaming Lips. On first spin it was immediately likable, relaxing, contemplative, dark, yes, but melodic; and this album, unlike the last two, contains much of that lovely, synthesizer orchestration that made the “Soft Bulletin” all the way through “At War with the Mystics” records so entrancing. And while there are no tunes on this new record that include the kind of ballistic drumming  of “Race for the Prize” or “The Spiderbite Song,” there are drums here, or at least some drum programming, that help percolate the tunes in a way that most of the songs on “The Terror” do not percolate.

The lyrics are nuts, as usual, and that’s a bonus, but because I haven’t taken the time to read all the way through them, word for word, I can’t really say anything about the continuity that I sense is present and the story (I’ve read) these lyrics are supposed to tell. But on the second tune, Wayne, when you sing, “I tried to tell you, but I don’t know how,” I’m right back there feeling once again that  what you’re singing is resonating in my life in a super specific and meaningful way. And “The Castle” is maybe one of the most beautiful and saddest love songs I’ve heard in many a moon. And “We a Family” makes me love Miley Cyrus in a way I never thought I could, and to be thankful for the effects of a brilliant pre-chorus. This tune is anthemic and gorgeous in almost the same way that “Do You Realize” was.

So fast-forward once again into February and I have listened to this new Lips record maybe a dozen times by now. The first thing I can say is that it holds up to repeated listening. I kind of forced myself to listen several times to both “Embryonic” and “The Terror,” but it kind of felt like a chore or an obligation, a duty, but this is a record that compels me, after a break of only a few days, to listen again. It’s not necessarily a return to old form, which it probably shouldn’t be, but it is a return to something recognizably and loveably The Flaming Lips. And I couldn’t be happier. And that’s it. My favorite Flaming Lips records have made me stupidly joyful in super dark times, and here I am again. So thank you, Lips. Keep doing what you’re doing.

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XIII, Letter H

This job of writing about my music cd collection by artist in alphabetical order wouldn’t be nearly so difficult if I would just stop acquiring new music! What has occupied my listening habits over the last several months has been mostly vinyl of the David Bowie variety, but there’s also been the new Suzanne Vega, the new Duncan Sheik, Andy Shauf, the Minus 5 album in part a tribute to The Monkees, The Monkees, The Cars, the new John K. Samson, the new Bon Iver, and a local band that has become a new favorite, Coco Columbia. The listening plate has been full indeed, and the time required to listen to older music has been utterly supplanted, which is, after all, one of the inspirations for this listening/writing project in the first place. What’s the point of having a collection if you are not going to enjoy it? Otherwise, you might as well just listen for a few months and then immediately return the thing to some used record store for a trade. That has never been my modus operandi. Hence, the task I set for myself: listen to at least one cd all the way through from each artist represented in my compact disc collection.

It turned out this last week that a solo drive to visit my brother at the Oregon coast for a few days gave me about 5 hours in the car. Letter H, here I come!

 

Haircut One Hundred, “Pelican West.” Remember how cute these guys were? And how infectiously groovy was the “Love Plus One” hit and the opening track, “Favorite Shirt”? I remember this was one new wave group (and I use that term very loosely here) that my parents could dig. They liked the horns and the jazzy inflections–maybe it brought to their minds Burt Bacharach and Herb Albert and Ray Conniff. But I remember that my Dad would sometimes actually request this record. “Play that haircut band,” I imagine him saying. Early in the two and a half hour drive to the coast, this is a good tonic, unmistakably happy music, music to drive by. I’m drumming on the steering wheel that persistent but stupidly straight forward disco funk.

Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, “Mirrors of Embarrassment.” The best $5.99 on a used compact disc I ever spent–in fact, it’s this kind of used CD purchase that makes one feel guilty about buying used CDs. I don’t even know how to describe this music. Is it jazz, fusion, jazz fusion, country, prog rock, experimental pop, blues? Yes, it’s all of these things, played by a band of musicians with incomparable skill and  fronted by a dude who sings like your avante garde grandpa and who plays something like a ukulele from hell (he calls it a chazoid). This is the kind of record you want to spin for a musician in order to watch the uncontrollable head movements that accent all the odd meters and pushes. That’s what I was doing while I was driving 2/3 of my way to the Oregon Coast. My god, these guys were/are great. There were two simultaneous movements in the 90’s–one was grunge and the other was the jam band. These guys were the very best of the latter.

George Harrison, “Cloud Nine.” I’m embarrassed to say that this is my only George Harrison record. But listening to this baby in the car I was immediately brought back to 1987 and this album was among some of my first CD acquisitions and it holds up really well. Better than that. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t listened to it again sooner. There’s really nothing skippable on this entire record and George’s vocal performances are wonderful and his guitar work is wonderful and you can feel Jeff Lynne’s influence all over it and I swear that’s Ringo drumming. I just checked the liner notes. It is! It’s the best Beatle Not A Beatle album of the 80’s!  Don’t quote me on that. Paul had a couple of cool things, I’m sure, but this is really a great record.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, “Once: Music from the Motion Picture.” This must have been a great movie–because I bought this record. But I don’t remember the film, and this is a terrible album. It just bores me every which way to Sunday, although, there are moments, Marketa’s moments, mostly, that are beautiful or touching. It was kind of painful to get all the way through. This was my first record on the way home from the beach. Not a memorable beginning for the ride.

P.J. Harvey, “Rid of Me.” Holy shit. P.J. Harvey is indisputably a revolutionary, boundary pushing, kick-ass artist. The intensity just bleeds from this record. I knew it was great when I first listened to it and listening to it again now, it’s greatness still shines. But here’s the weird thing: I don’t like it very much. It’s one of those odd moments when you know a record is great but your tastebuds are still not sufficiently tickled. It’s a record to respect, but not a record to love and listen to over and over again. It’s almost study-worthy; it’s that good. But it’s an ugly record, too. And maybe I just didn’t want to look too closely. So glad I have it, though.

Don Henry, “Wild in the Backyard.” 1991. I have no idea why I bought this album, how I got turned on to this guy. It must have been an association thing–like maybe he wrote a song that somebody I love performed, or maybe I read something about him–I really don’t remember. It’s a genre, especially in the 90’s, that I was not engaged with or interested in; he’s essentially a singer songwriter in a country vein. Maybe I heard a tune somewhere. Damn, I wish I could remember. At any rate, I know immediately why I liked him, maybe even loved him. These songs are really funny, but also emotionally moving–and expertly performed and recorded. I could do without some of that massive snare drum production, but, snare-drum notwithstanding, these are great, funny, moving songs. Try listening to “Harley” and not laughing and crying at the same time. Betcha can’t do it. Try not laughing and at the same time feeling super righteous indignation at “Into a Mall.” Try not weeping through “Beautiful Fool.”  I dare you. What a lovely rediscovery.

The H’s are not finished. And damn it, wouldn’t you know it, I realize that I incorrectly alphabetized some things, so Jerry Harrison, the keyboardist and guitarist of Talking Heads fame, should be here but he’s not. Next time. But there are only a few H artists left. What I have to consider is whether or not my own band, Here Comes Everybody, should be a part of this project. I mean, what could be more autobiographical, especially since we’ve just arrived at our 30th anniversary as a music making  machine. I’ll have to stew on that one. It weighs on me a bit. As soon as the calendar flips to 2017, our 30th year will have come and gone. Stay tuned. Please let me know what you think.

 

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XII, Letter G

Forgive me, music blogosphere, for I have sinned. It’s been three months since my last music blog, the continuing saga and silly self-challenge of listening to and writing about every single artist represented in my languishing cd collection. I got stuck in the F’s. There were a lot of them, first of all, two blog entries worth, and some of these F artists were my favorites. I got especially stuck on The Flaming Lips, brought those records into the car and listened to them over and over. Those guys even got their own blog entry, currently unpublished and unfinished; I hope to post it soon. So finally, several days ago, I arrived at the G spot in the collection and picked up with Peter Gabriel during a spontaneous father and son basement dance party. We do this, he and I, from time to time, have a dance party for two in the basement. There’s actually some dancing, but mostly he sits, listens to daddy’s music while playing video games on his tablet while I sit with him and listen and sip something. If we feel moved to get up and dance together, that’s what we do.  This week has been a good dancing week. Here’s what we’ve spun, not all of it together, over several evenings, actually, truth be told, over several weeks in this month of August, 2016:

Peter Gabriel, “So,” “Us,” and “Up.” Peter Gabriel left the Genesis band and released a number of brilliant solo records: “Peter Gabriel,” “Peter Gabriel,” “Peter Gabriel,” and “Peter Gabriel.” Of these four, my favorite, of course, was “Peter Gabriel,” the “Shock the Monkey” record, the album sometimes referred to as “Security,” but which nevertheless only says “Peter Gabriel” on the cover.  Later in his career, his album titles got significantly more sophisticated by two letters. I find this hilarious because his titles (or lack thereof) belie the sophistication and genius of these albums. Here’s an artist for which I could have been happy to spin almost every record. I started with “So,” 1986, because that was the year, 30 years ago, I got married, and subsequently experienced my first foray into adulthood and self-sufficiency, and because “Sledgehammer” became an anthem to mark out a year almost unlike any other song before it. Both Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson, two other heroes from this era, make appearances, and, generally speaking, there’s not a bad song on the album and the drumming is fantastic. I must have listened to this record a billion times. Everything is familiar and comfortable and still moving. “Us,” however, a different story. It was as if I was hearing it almost for the first time. The album’s hit, “Digging in the Dirt” and the sledgehammery “Steam,” I remembered, but everything else seemed brand new.  I tried to figure this out. Gabriel has not been known to crank out albums. “So” hit me in 1986 and I think I almost immediately bought every record before that one, but by the time “Us” hit the streets nearly 6 years later I had moved away from this kind of grandiose, lush, sophisticated and smart pop music into the depths of grunge.  At this time of interest in mostly aggressive rock music, I perhaps lost some of the tastebuds I once had for more nuanced songwriting. But listening to “Us” now, I feel I have rediscovered a beautiful lost gem and I am thankful to have recovered those tastebuds. “Up,” his most recent record of new original material is weird and wonderful and that first tune, appropriately called “Darkness,” is perhaps the most frightening and beautiful song I’ve ever heard.

Diamanda Galas, “The Singer.” Talk about frightening and beautiful. I don’t have a lot to say about Diamanda’s record because I did not listen to it a lot. I did not listen to it a lot because, for the most part, her records are difficult to listen to. Difficult listening. Classically trained on the piano and with a vocal range that is truly unearthly, coupled with her gothic style of dress and make up, Galas plays on this album what could only be described as spirituals from Hell. She covers tunes like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “Balm in Gilead,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” in a way that makes them truly terrifying and disturbing. My one significant memory of this record is that, after a nighttime gig on the Oregon Coast and a decision to drive back home to Portland late at night, I played this record all the way home as loud as I could stand it because I knew it would keep me awake, afraid, and alive.

Galactic Cowboys, Self-Titled. Grungy, grungy, grunge, grunge, grunge, except for the prog leanings, except for the lovely harmonies in the background vocals, and, generally speaking, a thing called melody, a thing jettisoned by many of the grunge bands of the era. In places, too much like Faith No More, in other places, too much like Bon Jovi. I saw these guys live once open for one of my grunge heroes, I forget now which, and I was impressed enough to snag their album. I’m sure I listened to it a bunch then. Listening now, it’s pleasantly familiar, but I haven’t spun this one in eons. Cheers. Did they ever make another record? I don’t know.

Gang of Four, “History of the 20th Century.” “Cheeseburger,” I think, is the one of the best post-punk new wave songs of the early eighties. It’s aggressive, funny, odd, rhythmically explosive, a brilliant commentary by an English pop band of American sterility, commercialism and cheapness. These guys were such an odd group–fine musicians, the guitar player clearly exceptional, but deciding, especially on earlier records, to eschew melody and rhythm in favor of angular, choppy, discordant, sometimes improvisatory riffing. By the time these guys get to the “Cheeseburger” album, the one called “Solid Gold,” they were still aggressive and weird and political but easy on the palate, groovy, danceable, and significantly more accomplished. Somehow, after the single “I Love A Man In A Uniform,” they had become pretty safe, more like other eighties new wave commercial pop bands, and kind of boring. This greatest hits compilation takes us up to that move. Recently, though, the band has reemerged and sound truly amazing and astonishingly contemporary. I only had one Gang of Four record as a kid and “Cheeseburger” was, to me, the best thing on the record–the rest not quite compelling enough to make me hard core. This disc I bought some years ago to replace my lost vinyl and to educate myself about the rest of the early catalogue.  I am now once again schooled by “The History of the 20th Century.”

Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On?” I did not come to this album until recently. I can’t remember what year exactly, within the last decade certainly, so, even though the tunes “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy Mercy” were firmly planted in my childhood radio brain, the experience of this record from start to finish is new. And it’s flipping amazing. It’s a chill festival, a love-fest of the highest degree, the ultimate expression of tastefulness and groovy musicianship and soulful uplift. Even as I find the more overtly religious overtones a bit off-putting, all is forgiven through the sheer meditative, trance-like, celebratory and loving vibe of the music and the lyrics and the singing.

Geggy Tah, “Sacred Cow.” My favorite record of 1996 and possibly one of my favorite albums from the decade. Wacky. Progressive. Inventive. Clever. Surprising. Melodic. Funny. Decidedly un-grunge. These are words that describe all the things that most often turn me on to a band these days and always. They’re all descriptors of Geggy Tah. The keyboardist of this band would go on to form the pop duo The Bird and the Bee with Inara George. I don’t know what happened to the other two guys. Geggy Tah only made three albums, this one and the last one five years later were both exceptional pop rock records worth repeated listenings. Close your eyes in the title track and tell me you don’t  see Kermit the Frog fronting an amazing and crazy pop band. Here’s a lyric that sticks from the title track, question and answer: “What side of the tracks are you on? Both sides–because the world is round.” A dear friend, no longer in my life, turned me on to this band. A bittersweet remembrance. Talk about carpool karaoke: here’s the video for the big hit.

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Bob Geldof, “Deep in the Heart of Nowhere.” As sad as I was to learn that The Boomtown Rats had broken up, I was a truly happy rock and roll camper when Geldof’s first solo record came out.  I’ve been super loyal to Bob over the years, have every single one of his solo records, and it’s been a mixed bag. He’s unpredictable. That can be a good thing, in fact, I’d argue that it’s almost always a good thing, but you have to be willing to go with the flow, to learn along with your favorite musicians as they experiment and try not the make the same record over and over. I loved this first solo record, and listening back to it now, I understand why. It was the most Boomtown Rat-like of any record Bob ever made. It’s thunderous and rocking, it’s hooky, it’s mostly sober and serious, but not without elements of fun.  I mean, compare “the whole world dies, so we die slowly” to “love you like a rocket on fire” and you get the picture. It was 1986, so along with Peter Gabriel’s “So,” this record was the soundtrack to my first year of marriage, my first year of being able to drink legally. I appreciate the lyric to “When I Was Young” now a thousand fold more than I did then, but still it was one of my favorite tunes on the record. It’s so bombastic and loud and anthemic.  Damn, the fun. guys have nothing on Bob Geldof, my hero; he continues to be an inspiration to me, this guy. He’s been dealt so many shitty cards in his life, but has done more than maybe any rock star on the planet to make the world a better place. He’s been knighted. I think he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If not, he should have been.

Lisa Germano, “Lullaby for Liquid Pig.” Haunting, quiet, and weird, the hushed, shy, whispering voice front and center, hardly any drums, mostly synths, strings, guitars and bells and whistles, I got turned on to Lisa Germano through Neil Finn, I think, but a little research yields the fact that she’s been a session musician and/or collaborator with a bunch of famous people. I think this album, as cool as it is, was too much of a downer for me in 2003, so I didn’t listen to it much. Hearing it now, I’m glad I have it. It’s lovely and scary and a good companion for contemplation and solitude. A keeper, for sure. “Someday, someone is gonna need you, too.” What a great line.

Kevin Gilbert, “Thud.” Here’s a gem from 1995 that had nothing to do with the grunge movement. A masterpiece of pop craftsmanship married to a perfect mix of weirdness, Kevin Gilbert’s “Thud” is a beautiful, funny, smart, quirky, emotionally moving, expertly performed collection of songs. This guy co-wrote with Sheryl Crow on her groundbreaking “Tuesday Night Music Club” album, but this solo record shows a songwriter doing his own thing entirely–it was really a surprise to me about how many mainstream songwriters he worked with. He’s anything but a mainstream songwriter on this album. I guess, the true pros, guys and gals who make a living doing this music thing, have to be chameleon-like in their moves from genre to genre, from one stylistic extreme to another. At any rate, this is a beautiful record introduced to me by a beautiful friend of mine from this most positive and creatively inspired time in my life when everything was swimming along and profoundly interesting and exciting. Tragedy not too far away from any of us at any time, just as I got super excited about this guy, the year after the release of this brilliant record, his FIRST solo record, he died accidentally from autoerotic asphyxiation. Damn. On a side note, but not terribly tangential from the G spot, Bob Geldof insists that Michael Hutchinson of INXS did not commit suicide. Another brilliant and talented artist who went out the same strange way.  Happy I was not blessed with this particular kink.

Grandaddy, “The Sophtware Slump.” The first time I heard Grandaddy, I bought a record, the next record after this one, I believe, called “Sumday,” and I bought it as a result of spending some time at a listening station in a record store, listening to the first 30 or 60 seconds of each tune and deciding almost immediately that it was irresistible and that I must have it. It was a friend’s recommendation that initially got me to listen, but it was this record, the band’s second, most excellently titled album, whose praises he was singing. Outside of The Flaming Lips, this was some of the strangest and most intoxicating pop music at the top of the 21st century I had yet discovered. Part of the charm was, as it was with The Lips, the science-fiction bent absurdity of the lyrics and the strange production, but also, the disarming vocal style of the lead singer, Jason Lytle’s gentle coo, almost childlike, the inescapable hook of the melodies, the somewhat subtle because imbedded in humor environmental advocacy (see “Broken Household Appliance National Forest”), and the spacy, dreamlike enchantment of some of the band’s more psychedelic movements. I understand these guys have reunited to make a new record. I’m all in.

David Gray, “White Ladder.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know who turned me on to this guy. All I know is that this 1998 album found its way into my mitts in 2001 while my band Here Comes Everybody was on a fall tour down to Los Angeles and back to promote our newest cd, “Astronauts.” I don’t dislike this music. There’s something about it, emotionally evocative, lyrically lively, Dylanesque in its Englishness, folksy and yet suffused with modern electronic drum machine and synthesizer textures, that is beyond reproach. And yet, it’s also pedestrian. Straight forward. Commercial. I guess it fits that bill that Coldplay fulfilled: it’s sincere, groovy, sensitive, underplayed, straight forward to the extent that it seems radical somehow. Anyway. I liked it. I still like it, hearing it now for the first time in perhaps a decade. It’s a very nice record.

The Grays, “Ro Sham Bo.” Holy crap. One of the best power pop records ever. That’s a bold statement, I know. Maybe of the decade, at least. Here’s a super group formed, primarily, between Jon Brion and Jason Falkner, both of whom have incredible rock resumes as writers and producers. They only made one record, this masterpiece, released in 1994. My pet name for them would be The Heavy Beatles, and that name would go a long way to describing their music. Perfect melodies sung with rock and roll choirboy precision, complex arrangements, smart lyrics, great grooves, and crunchy, sometimes acoustic but always tuneful guitar playing. Not a single clunker on this record. And this music is timeless. It doesn’t date itself at all. Close your eyes, imagine inferior sound quality, and they’re a great 70’s band. Or imagine them sharing a stage with XTC in the 80’s. For me, released in the same year as Kevin Gilbert’s “Thud,” those two records were the antidote to grunge–with Seatle’s The Posies, which, I’m sorry to say, I won’t be getting to any time soon–even though they’ve been in regular rotation all through the F’s and the G’s. Back to this: “Ro Sham Bo”–an all-time favorite, desert island disc.

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Phew. This has been a long-ass entry.  I made a commitment to myself to get through the letter G in a single blog entry, and so, here it is. It’s been a good letter, the letter G. Almost everything I spun I found immensely enjoyable. And last but not least, another 90’s era super group in the world of INDY: Guided By Voices, “Do the Collapse” and “Isolation Drills.” I had been reading about the genius of this group and its lead singing mastermind Robert Pollard for years before I finally took the plunge and bought an album. I guess it was that I kept reading about their lo-fi aesthetics and that kept me away. I’ve never been a fan of shitty sounding records, no matter how great the songs were. There were exceptions, of course, like rock records that were made in the genre’s infancy, when studio gear was limited and super expensive, before the time of the marvel of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, records that couldn’t help sounding shitty. They are forgiven. As cheap as it has become for almost any joe to make a “good sounding recording” at home, it seemed almost stupid to me to purposefully create something that sounded bad. “Do the Collapse” was my first Guided by Voices records. Produced by Ric Ocasek from The Cars, it boasted crafty and short pop masterpieces and high fidelity stereo sound. Man, does it deliver. It’s a brilliant record. So brilliant I recently bought a vinyl version of it, just because. I don’t know what influence Ric Ocasek had on this music; it certainly doesn’t sound like a Car’s record. Or does it? Holy crap, it kind of does. It’s wackier, for sure, the lyrics more obscure and strange, the arrangements a little bit nuttier, but I can almost hear Benjamin Orr’s voice in Robert Pollard’s voice. Almost. Yes, I can. “Isolation Drills,” in many ways, feels like “Do The Collapse” part two; not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sonically, they’re similar. Great power pop rock songs in small little packages. Odd little turns and quirky, surrealistic lyrics. These two records are sort of inverse bookends, “Collapse” closed the 20th century and “Drills” opened up the 21st.  For me, both personally and historically, a happy ending followed by a tragic beginning. Perhaps that’s why I don’t know and love this second record as well as the first.

Here’s an interesting fact: Robert Pollard has 2,000 + songs registered to him through BMI. It appears that the dude simply breathes out this stuff. And while some of his songs are slight, clocking in sometimes under a minute, I can’t tell you that I’ve ever heard a bad one. I cannot say as much for myself, having written hundreds of songs since 2004 alone, a handful of which were truly successful. Pollard is an inspiration and a “guiding voice,” and with that stupid little pun, I bring the G section of the alphabet, the G spot, to a close!

Cheers !

 

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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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