Tag Archives: autobiography through music

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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Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume IX, Letter E

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Elbow, in the E’s for sure, and maybe right now in the entire alphabet, my favorite band.

Here we are with volume IX of a series of blogs about my attempt to listen to at least one compact disc from every artist in my music collection in alphabetical order. That is a mouthful. A mouthful for an earful.  I’ve been at it almost a year and I have worked my way through the first 5 letters of the alphabet–an alphabet which consists, I am told, of 26 letters.  It is Christmas eve, 2015, and I am  in the basement catching up on the writing about the listening while the family is upstairs watching “Elf” for the umpteenth time. There are some absolutely great things in my E collection–but they are slightly outnumbered by embarrassing acquisitions or some things that just no longer float my boat–or, they float my boat but I find little to say about them. You’ll see. Some dross, and then, among the dross, some of the greatest things ever.

The Eagles, “Desparado.” What a beautiful song that “Desperado” is, and what a lovely other thing is that “Tequila Sunrise,” but beyond that, beyond those tunes I heard over and over on album-oriented-radio of the 70’s when I was a wee lad, what a terribly boring record.  That’s just me. It’s a fault, I concede. I don’t appreciate, and did not appreciate as a youngun or as a teen, this thing the kids call country rock. Didn’t really begin to sing the Eagles’ praises until “Hotel California,” and even that was dispassionate and short-lived. This is a record I picked up out of an obligation to have at least one Eagles record, one that I knew was famous and for which I was unschooled. Okay. I’m schooled. I’m dropping out.     

Echo and the Bunnymen, “Self-Titled, 1987.” This record marks the first year of my marriage. It marks a transition into real adulthood.  Also, it marks the move towards trying to be a serious musician in a serious rock and roll band while graduating with an English degree from Lewis and Clark College, also serious.  A big time in my life, no doubt, and this record, a big serious record.  I think it’s safe to say that this was Echo and the Bunnymen’s breakthrough. It’s a terribly groovy, dance inducing, sexy record.  Not all of the tunes are “Lips Like Sugar” memorable, but they’re all worth listening to, and while I haven’t spun this disc in forever, I think it’s a worthy record of more favorable rotation, a record I could  totally see sucking up into the computer for a cool 80’s dance mix.

Eels, “Beautiful Freak.” I don’t like to say it, but I think one of the reasons Mark Oliver Everett (E), the man behind Eels, has had such a long-lasting, wonderfully multi-faceted career, is that one of these tunes, “My Beloved Monster,” was picked up for the “Shrek” film. Perhaps, (but I don’t know, cuz it’s never happened to me) this is a thing that can catapult a career–or at least, give one license to do whatever the hell one wants, which is the thing that Eels has been doing for almost twenty years now. The song that struck my attention on this debut album was the opening track, “Novocaine for the Soul,” which, for my money, marries perfectly the two things I love the most in music: pop sensibility and weirdness.  “Life is hard. And so I am I.”  What a great, perverse, funny first line! This record is full of the kind of characteristics that Everett would continue to exhibit throughout his career: sardonic wit, self deprecating humor, a touch of romance (only a dash), a wide stylistic musical range, an interesting marriage between tradition and innovation, and perhaps most importantly, an emotional depth at which most pop artists only scratch at the surface. And then there’s this bizarre personal connection.  I heard this record maybe 10 years after I made my first professional recording of my own music, and on that record a friend of mine, Allen Hunter, played bass. And then, I don’t know, maybe 5 to 10 years after the release of “Beautiful Freak,” Allen would get a bass gig touring with Eels around the world, a gig that has continued for him up to 2015 and has rewarded him with a musical experience that is THE DREAM for most  of us slugging away in the trenches of small local music scenes. I’m exceedingly happy for Allen and have enjoyed seeing him play with Eels, and finally, in 2015, seeing and hearing him perform with Mark Oliver Everett on the “Royal Albert Hall” concert film and record!

Elbow, “Asleep at the Back,” “Cast of Thousands,” “Leaders of the Free World,” “The Seldom Seen Kid,” “Build A Rocket Boys,” and “The Take Off and Landing of Everything.” That’s right. With this band (and this may be a first in this entire enterprise), I could not help but listen to every single record, in chronological order, from start to finish. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if  I was stranded on an desert island and could only choose the entire catalogue of ONE band to listen to for the rest of my days, it might be Elbow’s catalogue. Guy Garvey is one of the greatest pop singers I’ve ever heard, and he’s English, and he’s literary–his lyrics are artful and poignant and at least once on every record the combination of these words and this voice are apt to reduce me to tears. And the band, my god, this band is phenomenal and their production choices nothing short of wondrous. They can rock, for sure, but much of the music feels way underplayed, sometimes trancelike, quiet, while usually something crazy lurks under the surface. On that point (and another reason why I hold these guys so dear), one of their records, “The Seldom Seen Kid,” was perhaps the first rock album to really capture my son’s attention–then, only three years old. And I remember vividly the day it happened, when we were driving together in the car, just the two of us, and I put this cd into the player.  The opening tune on this record, “Starlings,” begins with this quiet synthesizer arpeggiation just percolating in the background.  It’s so quiet, your tendency might be to turn up the volume. The drums come in, again, quiet, a simple bass drum, hi-hat, and tom on two and four pattern. And in creeps, again quietly, these voices melodically chanting, almost gregorian, and then, and then, wait for it, wait for it, this intense and extremely loud, hair-raising horn blast on one. Blam! The first time I heard it I jumped out of my skin.  The first time three year old Emerson heard it, he busted out laughing uncontrollably. And again, every time it occurred in the tune, he just absolutely lost his shit in the very best possible way. And he would request this tune almost every time we drove together. This record, from start to finish, was a record he and I listened to at bedtime over and over again during that year. A pivotal moment–for me as a dad, for my son as a budding appreciator of music.  This record, and all the others, are nearly perfect from start to finish. I could not name a single bad song.  They are, Elbow, at this point in my life, my absolute favorite band. I hope they never go away.

Danny Elfman, “Music for a Darkened Theatre.” Don’t worry, when we get to the O’s where Oingo Boingo lives, I’ll go on and on and on about Danny Elfman and his influence on my life, but for now, suffice it to say how impressed I have been with him, with his move from punk new wave singer front-man to consummate composer of serious music for film. I consider his theme music for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, for The Simpsons, and for Batman to be absolute classics in the genre. Otherwise, unless I am listening to either of these three pieces or watching a film for which he has composed the score, this record is mostly skippable. It pains me to say this. Maybe I was just not in the mood, when I listened to this one weeks ago at the height of a professional meltdown, for movie music. I was not in the mood. But I do, just now, just thinking about it, have a hankering on this  Christmas Eve for a film scored by Danny Elfman.  Scrooged anyone? Nope, no one is interested. I’ll have to imagine it.

Electric Light Orchestra, “Afterglow” Boxset, Disc Three. Holy shit, these guys were great. Most of the time. Unable or unwilling to listen to all three discs in this box set retrospective, I go straight to the third disc. I find here a healthy collection from the two albums that, as a tween, I owned and listened to repeatedly: “A New World Record” and “Out of the Blue.” Both records are masterpieces. Both contain an abundance of truly great songs that nevertheless went on to become hits.  “Rockaria,” “Telephone Line,” “So Fine,” “Living Thing,” “Turn to Stone,” and my favorite, “Mr. Blue  Sky.” My cousin Nick turned me on to ELO and I have been forever grateful.  It’s hard not to think of him when I listen to this band. We were super close as young kids, our parents together often, camping trips together often–I felt closer to my cousins than I did to many of my grade school and middle school chums; but we grew further and further apart as we became adults, to the extent that we only ever see each other any more at weddings (less often) and at funerals (more often). So this music brings back my idyllic preadolescence and my friendship with my cousin Nick and it’s kind of sweet. But this music stands on it’s own and withstands the test of time. It’s superb pop music. The pre-Cheap Trick Beatles of the 70’s.

An Emotional Fish, “Celebrate” maxi-single. What the hell was this?  I have no idea why I bought this record but I am totally sure why I didn’t follow up and grab the full length LP, whatever it was.  This is a late eighties band trying to sound like a half a dozen different late eighties bands that were already in this territory. The “Celebrate” song is good in a derivative kind of way, but everything else on this five or six song “maxi-single” is completely skippable and immediately forgettable. One for the hopper.

Enya, “Watermark.” Sail away, sail away, indeed.  Music to nap by. I don’t know what turned me on about this either, except for that maybe I was trying to branch out into some new territory, a new age territory.  During the late eighties it was a record  that I could enjoy with my dad.  That was part of it, I’m sure. Don’t get me wrong. There are some really beautiful pieces here. But it’s so safe, so pedestrian.  She’s the Kenny G of eighties new age music.

The Eurythmics, “Peace.” Of all the possible Eurythmics records, this is the one I buy?! The only one? 1999? Used for $8.50–the sticker says, still on the jewel case–and that explains a few things. Annie Lennox, to me as a young lad, was so captivating and sexy, and I loved those early videos, playing as they did into some slightly perverse territory, which I dug; she’s so undeniably one of the greatest pop vocalists of the era, but this record (purchased on a whim because I thought I’d take a chance perhaps and felt a little guilty because I had never bought one of their records and should have, and while I dig the reference to “Sweet Dreams” in this first track)–this record is so unremarkable. I must  have listened to it once and then filed it away. Nothing is familiar to me here. It’s not bad. The vocals are stellar, the musicianship is exquisite, the production value is high. The Eurythmics, at their very worst, were probably never bad. This just does not float my boat in any way that would make me want to listen to it again. I know I’m not being fair to the material–and I accept that. If I forced myself to listen to this record on heavy rotation I would probably grow to dig it. I just don’t have the time. I apologize, Annie. Forgive me.

The Letter F awaits. I know there are treasures there and I’m am anxious to move ahead.  Merry Christmas, music lovers.

 

 

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Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume VIII, Bowie Binge Thanksgiving

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As many of you know if you’ve been hanging around the jolly old blog site of yours truly, I’ve been listening to a lot of music.  I’ve been attempting to rescue my languishing compact disc collection by listening to a single cd from every artist or band represented on the shelves in alphabetical order and then writing about the experience. I’m writing about the experience of listening, but I’m also writing about the memories the music stirs, commenting about what floats up, how the music might be marking an event or period of my time on the planet; hence, the title of the series: Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography. The project begun in February, slightly underestimating the depth of my music library, nine months later I have only just recently finished with the letter D.

The slow pace is due in part to the sheer amount of music and the limited amount of time I can afford to sequester myself away from family, friends, and other equally pressing activities like food, sleep, basic hygiene, and work. The other thing that slows me down? New music. I shop for new music monthly, or thereabouts, and whenever new music enters the household, it needs listening.  The A-Z project must take a back seat. Recently added to the mix: new Silversun Pickups, Ben Folds, Mew, Laurie Anderson, Joanna Newsome, and David Sylvian. What does any of this have to do with Bowie, you ask?

Earlier, in October, long after finishing with the letter B, I splurged and picked up the Five Years 1969-1973 Bowie box set on vinyl.  So, outside of listening to the other aforementioned new music that’s made its way into the car, I’ve been listening to nothing but early Bowie. Beyond the hit singles from the radio of my childhood, most all of this music (spread across 6 studio albums, two live records, and a disc of alternative mixes) is brand new to me.  I loved those radio hits of my childhood, but the household music in the collections of my older brothers and sister contained not a single Bowie album. He was, perhaps, too weird for them. I truly “discovered” Bowie as a teenager with the release of “Scary Monsters” and “Let’s Dance” and I’ve been loyal to him since–but I have never, until now, made the foray deep into the back catalog. It’s been a revelation. Almost all of it is worth repeated listenings. Save for the live stuff and the remixes (which I’ll likely never spin again), the studio albums are rich and deep and interesting.  The first two records are surprisingly strong and consistent, inventive and smart, and when “Hunky Dory” rolls along, we absolutely know we’re in the presence of a master.  “Changes,” I believe, is one of the greatest pop songs ever written.  My high school freshmen know this tune!  And for good reason. “Ziggy Stardust” is an exquisite record (although I’m hard pressed to hear the difference between the original and this box’s 2005 remix of the same). “Aladdin Sane” and “Pinups” round out the collection.  The last two are relatively obscure outside the single “The Jean Genie.” “Pinups,” wouldn’t you know (I certainly didn’t), is an album of covers–covers of contemporary artists from Bowie’s boyhood, 1964-67.  It’s all cool.  I’ve listened to most everything in the box twice now.  Pissed that there’s no download card so that I can have this music with me wherever I go, and then wishing I had a turntable in every room.  We can’t have everything!  Although, this Thanksgiving, with this wealth of Bowie and abundance everywhere else in my personal sphere, and as difficult as teaching has become, I cannot complain.  And to top everything, Bowie just unleashed upon the world a video for the first song of his upcoming record–a nine minute, mind-altering, futuristic, feministic, post-apocalyptic “Blackstar.”  Gotta love me some Bowie.

On to the letter E! Happy day!

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VII, Letter D

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Ahh. The letter D. D is for Dali’s Car. D is for Miles Davis. D is for Death Cab for Cutie. D is for the Decemberists, Deerhoof, Destroyer, Devo, Neil Diamond, Thomas Dolby, The Doors, and Mike Doughty. Taking up only two small shelves, four little cubbies of the ikea compact disc cabinet, the D artists in my collection are few but fantastic. Glancing over the roster here, there is nothing to which I am not looking forward! The letter D in my collection spans nearly six decades and represents some pivotal moments in my musical memory. It also represents at least one artist of significance to me, one of my current favorites, for which not a single cd exists in the collection.  Downloads and vinyl make up for the majority of my musical purchases now over the last year or two, so when it comes to a letter that features one of these, what am I to do? I may have to break the rules and bust out a record here and there–otherwise I would have to neglect discussing almost ANY of my current favorites in this wacky project of mine. That just doesn’t seem right. Does it? On the other hand, my most recent musical excursions don’t necessarily represent this “autobiographical” approach. The very new music for me represents the NOW and hasn’t had yet an opportunity to sink itself into memory, hasn’t attached itself to experience.  So I’ll be selective then about the current music and the vinyl and I won’t even begin to dive into the hard drive for recently downloaded material.  This project is also about rescuing the cd collection from oblivion, right?  So let us proceed.

Dali’s Car, “The Waking Hour.” For some reason, I missed the phenomenon of Peter Murphy’s Bauhaus; I discovered David Sylvian’s Japan instead, so when Japan had ceased to be a thing for a number of years and I had exhausted all the solo albums, I found Peter Murphy’s solo work, and then late, perhaps a decade after its release, I discovered this supergroup collaboration between Peter Murphy and Japan’s bass player Mick Karn, arguably the greatest bass player ever to emerge from the glam/punk/new wave movements of the late 70’s and early 80’s. It’s awesome to hear them together, but the tunes are not strong, and after the incredible work of Steve Jansen’s drumming in Japan, these dumb electronic drums and programs are really disappointing.  There are beautiful moments, though, and the bass playing alone is worth the price of admission.

Miles Davis, “Amandla.” Jazz music you can dance to.  Not a record that was spinning in heavy rotation when I first bought it, nevertheless, this evening I find it very enjoyable.  And I find myself dancing to it.  And grooving on the drums in a big way.   

Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism.” An early mid-life crisis record for me that brings back some painful memories around 9/11 and various personal catastrophes of the years that followed.  Nevertheless, I don’t feel sad listening to this record. It was 2003 and things were on the mend. I remember listening to “Trasatlanticism,” my first Death Cab record, over and over again in the car as I made my way to the offices of various therapists. Perhaps Ben Gibbard’s honesty, his comforting Kermit the Frog delivery, the psychological disequilibrium nearly always present in his lyrics were better medicine for me at that time than anything else. A beautiful, rocking, poignant record.     

The Decemberists, “Castaways and Cutouts.” I both love and hate the Decembrists.  I love them because they’re very good.  They’re interesting.  Meloy’s lyrics are literary and fun, although they’ve become on recent albums less daring, almost pedestrian, he’s still very much a writer’s lyricist. I hate them because I’m jealous of their success.  My band shared a stage with these guys in the late 90’s somewhere on a weeknight on a tiny stage playing for next to nobody.  A few years later they would be giants locally and on their way to stardom.  They worked really hard, though, and because they’re very good, their success is deserved.  I have everything they’ve done, I think, so my love for them overshadows my hatred. That’s a good thing.  Hey, let’s begin a record with a lyric in the point of view of a dead baby! That’s bold. This record, not as refined sonically as what would follow, is nevertheless bold and great.     

Deerhoof, “Friend Opportunity.” My first and still my favorite Deerhoof album. These guys are nuts. There’s no other way to describe them. Lead vocals by Satomi Matsuzaki are strange, surreal, nonsensical, and cute (in an adorable way, not precious), even if she’s singing about complete weirdness, which is usually the case. The guitars are noisy, angular, poly, and the drummer is nuts, so nuts, at times I think he’s one of the greatest drummers in rock and at other times I’m not sure if he knows what he’s doing. He never does the obvious thing. I wish my drumming was more like this. This album, for me, successfully marries a perfect balance between experimental music and great pop. I fear my descriptions are inadequate.  Here’s a video for the opening track:

   

Destroyer, “Poison Season.” Time for vinyl.  Destroyer, Dan Bejar’s solo venture, a singer-songwriter with a band name, is a recent discovery of mine. I first heard this guy on the first album I bought by the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers and four or five years ago now I picked up my first Destroyer album. I’ve downloaded or purchased on vinyl everything I have from this guy, but I couldn’t ignore it for this project as I might ignore some of the other music in the alphabet that appears in my collection only on vinyl. Destroyer’s kind of impossible to ignore. One of the most unique male singers, stylistically speaking, in recent memory. His voice is super distinctive, strange, imprecise, nasally, a bit whiny at times but always engaging, poetic, rhythmically unpredictable. And his lyrics. “Oh shit, here comes the sun.” My new favorite line.  Think Al Stewart meets Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits on helium.  That’s terrible.  I can’t describe it.  Like a lot of things I really love, it’s weirdness is central while it is inescapably memorable, hummable, melodic, and super well-crafted. It’s an album I’ve only had for a few weeks now and I’m listening to it over and over.

Devo, “New Traditionalists.” This record: because it was the first concert my wife and I, barely out of high school, saw together and it was this particular tour with the conveyer belts and the fake hair and I remember we were in the balcony of The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (then The Paramount) and it was shaking and we thought we might not get home alive.  Great concert. A few great songs, but really, for me, this is the first Devo album that was not great all the way through.   

Devo, “Are We Not Men? We Are Devo.” I had to go back to the beginning with this band.  I first heard/saw Devo on Saturday Night Live in 1978 and I didn’t know what I was seeing.  I was 14. It was, for me at the time, the strangest thing I had ever witnessed in pop music.  Their cover of “Satisfaction” is for my money the best cover rendition of any song ever.  That drum pattern, over and over again through verse and chorus with only a simple 16th note snare fill here and there, changed my life. Hey, where’s two and four? Fuck two and four. And lets wear yellow jump suits and pretend we’re machines. They rocked. Every tune on this record bizarre and beautiful. And that album art. Are we not men? We are Devo indeed. And as I reflect on my first reaction to this music, I’m fascinated by the fact that at first it repelled me. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand that this was something musicians could do. It seemed to break all the rules of the known universe. Same with my first Talking Heads record, “Fear of Music.” I took it back for a refund! It later became for me, as this record from Devo did, one of the most important records of my youth. Some of us are intrigued by what we don’t get–and we go back for more eventually. There’s a disposition for you. It explains a lot.

Neil Diamond, “His 12 Greatest Hits.” Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies. It’s Neil Diamond time. What a hoot. Great, complex, lovely songs. Another album I didn’t have as a kid, but these tunes, all of them, etched on my little radio head.  It’s strange. Many of these tunes I can sing along to from memory still. But these lyrics. Pretentious or dumb or both, completely at one with the era, blatantly sexist sometimes, especially in “Cracklin’ Rosie,” they seem downright funny to me now. But I can hear The Monkees in almost every one of these songs.  They were meant for each other. Was “I’m a Believer” never a hit for Neil? I don’t remember hearing it the first time until The Monkees did it.

Ani Difranco, “Dilate.” I admire much about Ani Difranco: her courage, her guitar playing, her distinctive voice, her feminism, her righteousness, but I cannot really say that I dig her music all that much.  I love all the various ways she can sing “fuck you” in that opening track, perhaps the best song on the album, but after that, all the songs sound the same and her delivery is often way more over the top than it needs to be and I just get tired.  60 minutes. Not necessary.

Thomas Dolby, “The Flat Earth.” The first Dolby album, featuring the iconic new wave of “One of Our Submarines” and “Blinded Me With Science,” was a big hit with me, but this record, perhaps the first monumentally influential record of my post-high school life, was a game changer. The songs were so good, the arrangements were a huge leap forward in sophistication from “The Golden Age of Wireless” and perhaps from any other new wave music of its era, and the lyrics were so literary and smart, I spun this record again and again. Maybe the first new wave record worthy of study–for songwriters, engineers, lyricists, singers, and synthesizer wonks. Dolby seemed to have found the perfect hybrid between the machine and the man–so much sonic information from synthesizers and drum machines but with a warmth and soul you’d expect from, say, a 70’s era Elton John record.  Every song on what was once side one of the LP, “Dissident,” “Flat Earth,” and “Screen Kiss,” as I listen to the album tonight for perhaps the hundredth time over the 30+ years since I bought it, is equally fresh, as emotionally poignant, as inspiring as it ever was.  Only five albums of new pop tunes released in three decades, Thomas Dolby takes his time with his music.  The rewards have always been worth the wait.  His most recent record, “A Map of  the Floating City,” is every bit as vital and interesting as “Flat Earth,” if not more so. I remain a huge fan.

The Doors, “The Best of the Doors.” One of my elder siblings had a Doors record or two when I was a wee lad.  I remember distinctly “Morrison Hotel” in the collection. As a kid, they didn’t really float my boat: too sober, too much rock for my childhood bubblegum palate–but as a young adult they fascinated me, and without having any particular affinity for any one Doors album but having all of the hits in my consciousness as a child growing up with the radio, this anthology of the greatest hits was a good bet. The mystique of this band was half the draw: the strangeness of Jim Morrison, the unhinged quality of his work and his life, those crazy words, that Oliver Stone film in the early 90’s with Val Kilmer, the incorporation of many of these tunes in all of those Vietnam War films that came out of the 80’s–somehow I just figured The Doors had to be a part of the collection.  And then I realized that I really liked them.  They were a good band, an original American thing, experimental, odd. Tonight I listen to the whole collection, all 19 songs, an hour and a half of glorious psychedelia.

Mike Doughty, “Golden Delicious.”  Goddamn, I miss Soul Coughing. I know Doughty hates them and his history with them, but I haven’t finished reading his “Book of Drugs” and I don’t understand why he left the band and half suspect he’s a bit kooky.  That’s not fair, I know.  But I have heard stories that the guy won’t even sign a Soul Coughing record for a fan and I think that’s just stupid. There’s groovy stuff on his solo records, but this one, my favorite of the two I have, is glitchy, it skips, and the best song on the record, “I Wrote A Song About Your Car,”  is unplayable.  Go figure.

Mon Dieu!  Sacre Bleu!  I am through the D section! I started this project in February of this year and it’s taken me seven months to get through 4 letters of the alphabet.  Not bad, actually.  I find that each time I finish one of these entries I feel the internal nudge to continue.  It’s a project that interests me. I realize, though, as I look at my blog entry stats comparatively, that I may be alone.  This may be a thing I am doing entirely for myself.  I accept that.  “You are writing primarily to please yourself,” says William Zinsser. In most cases, but in this case in particular, I know this is true for me.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VI, Letter C

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A wrench in the works for my project of listening to compact discs, one at a time, all the way through, touching at least once on every band or artist in my collection: I bought a new turntable for the basement listening lounge!  I have been distracted this week by vinyl and paused my project to bip around in the alphabet with the LP record: Here Comes Everybody, The Bird and the Bee, Eels, and Other Lives. Okay, no more screwing around.  Back to the C compact disc grind. Not a grind. Pure joy, actually.

In my rush to get to Elvis Costello I accidentally skipped a C artist, and, disappointingly, have discovered the first truly BAD record in my compact disc collection.  Julian Cope’s “Peggy Suicide” is definitely one for the hopper.  This guy can’t sing and he can’t write a song. His appeal seems to come, perhaps, from his politics maybe, his new wave cred, his striking good looks (at least in 1990), and his experimental, mystical, artsy bent. There may be a few interesting moments, but overall, it’s not good. And vaguely remembering this appraisal from my last listen 26 years ago, I groan out loud as soon as the display tells me this baby is 76 minutes long. God no. Make it stop.

Counting Crows, “August and Everything After.” Another pirate.  Someone must have been trying to turn me on to this band.  They went so far as to print a facsimile of the album cover to slide into the jewel case for the cdr. I like the hippy dippy grooviness and the musicianship, but I find these guys terribly boring. I don’t see it. Another one into the hopper.

Jim Croce, “Photographs and Memories: His Greatest Hits.” Yes.  This is in my collection.  I don’t know why.  I may have stolen this CD from my parents’ music library. I know I would not have bought it. But it was before my time and after theirs; if my parents bought it, it was out of some vague sense that, yeah, here’s this guy, we know a couple of these really nice songs, should probably have it. No doubt, there are classics here, and that probably, more than anything else, explains its presence in my house, however it arrived here. I’ve got some serious childhood sentimentality around some of these tunes.  “Time in a Bottle.”  “Operator.”  “I Got A Name.”  Hell yeah.  And “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Any early 70’s childhood experienced even in the least degree with music would have been unable to escape Jim Croce.

Sheryl Crow, “Tuesday Night Music Club.” I remember the video for “All I Want to Do” and I remember thinking that Sheryl Crow was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I remember, too, at the time of its release, not being quite smitten enough to buy the album, and that I didn’t really think much more about Sheryl Crow until I realized that Kevin Gilbert played on this album and wrote some of these songs.  So years later I found this cd in the used bin and felt I had to have it, for Gilbert’s sake, really. More on this later when we get to the G’s.  There’s no doubting Crow’s talent.  But except for a few tunes on this disc that are really pretty spectacular, it’s not for me an especially captivating record.

The Cure, “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” What a great band. What a great lead singer, one of what I like to call the greatest worst singers in rock.  He’s imprecise, whiny, sometimes operatic, but always 100% in. Emo? Okay, yeah, this guy might be the king of that kind of thing. I forgot how cool they were.  How they were not afraid to drone on a thing for three and a half minutes in order to create a vibe, how inventive the drum parts were, how unattached to two and four, but how, when it was necessary, like in “Just Like Heaven,” it could be absolutely square in service of the perfect pop tune.  Here’s a record whose seventy some minute running time is forgivable, not because every single thing is perfect and nothing is superfluous, but because their ability to change up the vibe from song to song and to create interest sonically in a six minute tune with no chorus to speak of earns them the right to stretch.  One of the best of the last of the great 80’s bands.  I’m sad I never saw them perform.

Curiosity Killed The Cat, “Keep Your Distance.” My wife is heading to bed early so my nine year old and I go downstairs to listen to music together.  He encourages me to carry on where I left off in the letter C.  This is our first joint listening venture since I embarked on this project.  He’s aware of it, but up to this evening has not been a participant.  What a fortuitous time to begin. This obscure band from England put this record out in 1987–a hugely important time in my own musical history, my wife and I, as Here Comes Everybody, having written our first “good” songs and made our first professional recordings. And I was reaching out to find as much cool new music as I could find.  This record here is a kind of funky new wave dance record, reminiscent of the first record from The Blow Monkeys but with more muscle and a decidedly less nerdy vocal croon. The opening track is “Misfits,” and my son and I find ourselves dancing together in the basement. He’s busting out moves I’ve never seen him make before and it’s glorious.  This record holds up, is musical, tight, and, as of this evening, approved by a nine year old boy.

We have time for one more record before we go to bed, and it’s another gem, for some reason incorrectly alphabetized after Croce, Crow, Cure, Curiosity and not before: Crash Test Dummies, “God Shuffled His Feet.”  Produced by Jerry Harrison, formerly of Talking Heads, and released in 1993, this great record rocked my world just as the David Byrne solo record I wrote about earlier did. It was a time of incredible personal and artistic growth for me.  I remember listening to this record over and over again at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, where I would realize that my pursuit of a writing vocation was no longer negotiable, and where I learned about the MFA program at Warren Wilson. Life changing stuff. And this band, a writer’s band, lead singer Brad Roberts having graduated with a double philosophy/English degree, absolutely floated my boat. I don’t think I know of a single band fronted by a singer who goes this low–not a typical pop music thing.  And they captured an absurdist bent that mirrored my own–I was after all, beginning work on the first novel I would ever write, a novel, appropriately enough, about spontaneous human combustion.  It fit right into the world of The Crash Test Dummies. Here’s this thing, not anywhere close to the best song on the record, but it was, after all, the hit. Remember? The nine year old is amused.

Jesus, I realize again that my alphabetizing is totally messed up.  Must be that during the move four years ago, compact discs were put in boxes in a particular order and then came out of those boxes sometimes in a different order. Either that, or I don’t know how to alphabetize.  That’s not likely, as I am, obviously, correcting the mistakes.  Somewhere between Counting and Crow if correctly alphabetized, a band that brings up the rear of my C section in its current f-ed up order, a band for whom I should not limit myself to just one album because they were and are a truly great band and I think I have every studio record they ever released, is New Zealand’s Crowded House. The pedigree of this band, as it is, spread between three other artists in my collection, Split Enz, Neil Finn, and Tim Finn, provides me with the inclination to choose just one–the only Crowded House record to feature the brothers Finn, an indisputable great album: “Woodface.” A celebratory record. 1991. The Finn brothers together again. I was gainfully employed. Felt like an adult. Some rocking good years, the next decade maybe the best decade ever thus far. And this album, not a clunker in the bunch, a perfect pop masterpiece to ring in the last 10 years of a dying century and to end, albeit incorrectly, my collection of artists and bands that begin with the letter C.

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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 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

Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume I, Letter A

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I have often thought of my record collection, now mostly a compact disc collection, supplemented by the occasional download and maybe 100 vinyl LPs, as a kind of musical autobiography. Listening to records for me has always had the same kind of effect as looking through a photo album, or reading old journal entries. The music contains vivid imagery and memories of nearly my entire existence so far on this planet. Only in my earliest years, up through about the 2nd or 3rd grade, are my memories not infused with music. Even then I know, and I bet I’ll discover more explicitly, I was surrounded by the music of my older siblings. At any rate, by now, 50 years young, I have amassed quite a collection, most of which gets listened to on very rare occasions, favoring, as I do, the most recent musical acquisitions over my old favorites.  Thus, I have decided, since I now have a kind of chill listening area in the basement close to the music cd library, to jettison the iTunes mind hive for awhile and listen to at least one cd by every artist in the collection from A to Z.

So much music has been neglected. I don’t blame iTunes entirely, because, in truth, I think the iPod technology has allowed me, through the mighty powers of the shuffle, to listen to more of my music then I did before.  But so much of my collection in compact discs has not been digitized and catalogued on to the hard drive, so a lot of it is languishing on the shelves in the basement studio.  So I embark this evening on this project.  It’s ambitious.  I don’t know if I have the stomach (or the time) to finish, but that’s not stopping me. I guess I have to convince myself that there’s a good reason to keep and store all of this music–and that this music, since I have it still, must be somehow meaningful to me.  As I listen, I’ll post some thoughts about how each artist has made an impact on my life–or not.  Maybe this might be a good opportunity to conduct some late winter, early spring musical purges.

If I actually accomplish this task in the way I’ve envisioned it here, this blog post might end up somewhat book-lengthy, and no blogger on the planet in his or her right mind would submit readers to these kinds of shenanigans.  So I propose to do one letter at a time.  Even this, it seems to me, may be pushing the limit, and I may discover that each letter may need multiple entries. Oh well, here goes: Volume I, Letter A.

First up:  ABBA, “Mas Oro.”  A bit of an embarrassing first stop, this is music from my late childhood and early adolescence, heard on the radio a billion times right before I became a serious young music consumer, but influential, no doubt, with it’s indelible pop orchestrations and sweet harmonies and lyrics that could really tug at you if you let them, and as a grade-schooler, a sensitive little boy suffering perhaps from one or two of my very first experiences in “love,” I was all over it.  I only added Abba into my collection as an adult, feeling that any serious pop music collection could simply not do without it. I must have been 10 years old when I first heard these songs.

AC/DC, “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It.” In the same way I discovered Cheap Trick when they opened for Kiss, I discovered AC/DC when they opened up for Cheap Trick.  I didn’t really have a concept of hard rock or metal; I mistakenly identified these Aussie rockers as a punk band. Without the staying power for me as some of my other teenage idols, this, AC/DC’s first live album, is the only record of theirs I decided to buy on compact disc to replace all the vinyl AC/DC records I lost when I sold the whole kit and caboodle in a  lust for little silver plastic things that everyone was claiming as a far superior medium in the mid 80’s.  At any rate, I love the sizzle of this record.  The energy is palpable. I was jumping up and down with glee.  I lost my hat. And I remembered, when my parents were out, thrashing about the living room with my air guitar, a Wilson tennis racket.

Adam and the Ants, “Prince Charming.” It’s 1981. I’m a sophomore in high school, one of two or three kids in my entire suburban neighborhood listening to punk and new wave music. I start dating (crazy to think) the girl who would become, only five years later (also crazy to think), my wife. This may have been my first (and last) musical conquest—forcing her to listen to and appreciate all that jungle drumming, yodeling, swashbuckling, theatrical, gun-toting, new romanticizing, Native American and Mexican music appropriating Antmusic. It was “our” album that year. It’s a nutty, infectious record, uncharacteristic of 80’s production stink. I gotta say, it holds up. I don’t think Adam Ant has done anything since that is as good.

Nichole Arden, “Under the Skin.” I’m only four artists into the collection and I find a record for which I know nothing about. I didn’t buy this disc. Someone gave it to me, I’m sure, but I don’t know who and I don’t know why. I have no memories or associations with it whatsoever. It’s 2001, the year my band Here Comes Everybody was on the “Astronauts” tour, and maybe we wandered into her territory and somehow came upon this record. The woman on the cover, Nichole, I assume, is lovely, ghostly, and mysterious. I like her. Let’s listen: It’s groovy folk rock, venturing into heavier territory, nicely executed, beautifully sung, smart words, strong musicianship, high production value, but pretty pedestrian, no surprises. I likely listened to it once and put it away, a photo in the photo album of people and places I don’t recognize, but good enough not to toss.

Alice in Chains, “Self Titled.” During the 1990s, I took to grunge hook, line, and sinker as the new new wave, the new punk, and I listened to “Dirt” over and over again–but I didn’t own it on cd; I made a pirate recording with my new DAT machine! I no longer have a DAT machine so I can no longer listen to “Dirt,” my favorite grunge record of all time, sadly, still not back in my collection. But I have this thing, the fourth record from the band, a record that does not figure hardly at all in my musical memory. Perhaps, I bought it too late, when I was over the nineties, onto other things. I put this baby into the player and the display immediately tells me the record clocks at 64:53. The nineties was the decade of the stupidly long record. I’m over that now, too. I’m not sure I’ll make it all the way through. Dark, dirty, minor, moody, melodic, almost medieval, groovy, but it’s no “Dirt.” The only tune that feels familiar to me is “Heaven Beside You,” an almost perfect Nirvana derivative. While it doesn’t ring very many bells, it’s undeniably good. The second band already in my collection of albums under “A” (that I know of) to have lost one of its members to drug or alcohol addiction. Presciently, the last tune on this record begins with a rendering of “Taps.”

Tori Amos, “Little Earthquakes.” It’s 1991, and before grunge kicks into full throttle, we discover its antithesis and epicenter, all at once, in this brave, edgy, beautiful singer songwriter piano player. I was still twenty-something, straight out of a lefty liberal arts college education, on the cusp of my budding new career as a high school English teacher, and thinking here was the Joni Mitchell of my generation, or at least, or more appropriately, Kate Bush 2.0. While we were still renting, climbing ourselves out of poverty, making new friends, charting new territory in every conceivable way, this record rocked our world. It’s been forever since I last spun this album. The production is decidedly eighties: big reverbs, huge drums, dramatic string arrangements. This was still a daring record, and seems so still to me tonight. “Silent All These Years,” I think, is a classic, and “Me and a Gun” is still absolutely terrifying.

Laurie Anderson, “Strange Angels.” Of all my records filed under the “A” category, I have the most Laurie Anderson titles of any other artist. I think I have almost everything she has done. I discover Laurie in the late eighties, see the concert film “Home of the Brave,” and I become a true convert. She does the things that most resonate with me as an emerging adult artist and music fan. She’s arty, she’s political, she’s visual, she’s literary, she’s funny, she’s bizarre, she’s experimental. But I followed the trajectory up to this particular album as her output began to resemble more and more something like actual pop music, and I completely dug it. Even though it’s her most accessible record, it’s unapologetically far from commercial, but nevertheless, hooky, smart, toe-tapping, funny, inventive, and spooky. Before I even spun this one, I knew the opening lines by heart: “They say that heaven is like t.v., a perfect little world that doesn’t really need you.” Yeah.

Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe, “Self Titled.” When is a Yes album not a Yes album? Or: When is a Yes album filed, not at the end of the alphabet, but at the beginning? When it’s titled “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe” and is released in 1989. I am surprised how familiar this record is to me when I start to spin it. I must have listened to it a lot when it was new, for a few months at a time, maybe longer, before I filed it away for 25 years. I was newly married, newly employed, newly financially independent; I must have been feeling very progressive indeed.

Andrew Sisters, “Ultimate Legends.” This might have been a study record for my wife René as she prepared a couple of years ago to drum in the pit orchestra for a musical called The Andrew Brothers in which a trio of hapless Andrew Sister male roadies have to do the show dressed in drag when the real McCoys all get sick and can’t perform. Hilarity ensues. My parents may have listened to this music as teenagers or young adults. Dad, off to the Navy for service in WWII and then Korea, would certainly have heard this. I don’t know when I would have become aware of its existence—some music simply becomes so ubiquitously famous, one would have to be living under a rock not to hear it somewhere, some time, in some place or other.

Angel, “White Hot.” It’s 1975, and the country needs a response to Kiss, and so this band, instead of dressing up like clown-faced devils in black, dresses up as, well, angels. They’re lovely. Their music, decidedly macho, belies their feminine attire. Very confusing for an adolescent. But, from my vantage point, the musicianship and the songs were stronger than any Kiss album. But the production on “White Hot” in 1977 is almost identical to that of “Destroyer” and “Love Gun,”  the greatest Kiss albums ever. So they were the Angel yin to the Kiss yang and I loved them, saw them in concert, one of my first. Listening tonight there is much headbanging and fistpumping. A truly good, rocking, overlooked band, unfairly picked on by Frank Zappa.

Angel City, “Face To Face.” Maybe it was an Australian thing, but I mistook this hard rock outfit, in the same way I mistook AC/DC, as a punk band. Doc Neeson’s stage presence was more new wave than metal, manic, frenetic, but undeniably geeky, unlike most of the metal posers of the day. He was for a time my absolutely favorite front man and gave me tons of inspiration and material for air band performance after air band performance. Peers that didn’t know me well would remember my high school assembly antics posing as Doc Neeson more than they would remember anything else about me. The album still rocks. It’s a little pedestrian in the song department; there’s not much inventiveness here, but for Doc Neeson, in memory of Doc, and his indelible influence over my own stage persona, I would not part with it for the world.

Animal Logic, “Self-Titled.” I was heart-broken when the Police split up, but given the enigmatic and goofy Klark Kent project and the truly inspired collaboration with Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway for the Rumble Fish film, I was excited about what my favorite drummer, Stewart Copeland, might be up to next.  It’s 1989 and here we have Stewart Copeland and bass genius Stanley Clarke with a singer named Deborah Holland.  Another cd in the collection that I haven’t listened to in 25 years.  It’s immediately familiar, so much so that I can practically sing along–especially with the choruses, hooky, clever, poppy.  Stewart’s drums are louder here than they ever were on a Police record, Stanley Clarke’s bass work is phenomenal, and Deborah has kind of a Martha Davis thing going on.  The record rocks pretty hard, is full of really strong songwriting, but lacks the adventurousness that I was hoping for from Copeland.  I forgive him.  I don’t know how many rock records he drummed on after the Police; I totally lost track of him, it seems. But this is one, and it’s a good one–even though it might be another 25 years before it spins again.

Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine.” Oh my gawd.  I don’t care how eccentric or weird or how unpredictable she is as a live performer, her recordings are nothing short of marvels, every single one, and this one in particular, a masterpiece, I think.  Her lyrics are raw and honest, her vocal performances almost completely free of any kind of studio wizardry, and her bands, or the musicians that help her flesh out her records, invariably stellar and inspired.  This record is perhaps my favorite Fiona record and I might even go so far as to say that out of all the compact discs in the A section, this one might be the greatest.  There’s never a dull moment.  That 50 minutes felt like 25.  And when this record came out, my son was on the way.  He was born in November and I’m guessing that I listened to “Extraordinary Machine” through most of the pregnancy–and a lot. For some reason, though, this music  does not stir memories of these months, of these specific experiences–rather  the music stands on its own, outside time, outside my experience, as something inviolate and pure. Weird.

The Apples in Stereo, “New Magnetic Wonder.”  The most contemporary thing in my entire A section.  This record was released in 2007. What a beautiful mess. It’s undeniably some of the happiest music you’ll find in the psychedelic, lo-fi, anthemic nerdy pop, alternative rock vein.  24 tracks over a little more than 50 minutes, there’s plenty of snippets, lovely little non-sequiter instrumentals in the middle of all of this Beatle-Byrd-esqe-Robyn-Hitchcockian melodic pop. I remember listening to this record in the 16 foot Airstream in my first year with it.  It was a good soundtrack to those years when I was happier than I had been in a long, long time, and happier than I have likely been since. So it’s good to listen to it now, and a good reminder, despite this particular song’s commercial abuses, that “the world is made of energy/and the world is electricity/and the world is made of energy/and there’s a light inside of you/and there’s a light inside of me.” Amen. Maybe one of the coolest records of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The Association, “The Greatest Hits.” I was only four years old when this greatest hits compilation came out, but I don’t know how early in my life I would have been listening to it.  I guess it would depend on when my older sister Janet would have been allowing me to spin records on the little portable suitcase turntable she kept in her bedroom.  Probably later, two years, three years, no matter. It would have been before I was ten, and I would have my sister to thank for introducing me to good pop music: The Association, The Monkees, and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits. She likely has no idea how much in debt I am to her for allowing me into her musical world.  “Cherish,” “Never My Love,” “Along Comes Mary,” and “Windy,” would have indelible influence over my pop instincts. There’s a lot of really goofy things on this record, however.  All of it painfully earnest and serious.  It’s funny looking at youtube videos of these guys: in between their very earnest and serious tunes, their banter was irreverent and comedic. I had no idea. But listening closely now, there are clues–in particular, “Time For Livin,'” which may have found safe haven on an XTC record. No wonder I remembered liking them enough as a child to buy the cd as an adult.

Audioslave, “Self-Titled.” The lead singer from the recently defunct Soundgarden joins forces with with the remaining members of Rage Against the  Machine. What could be better, right? Well, with this, the last compact disc in my A collection, we’ll see.  I have, before spinning this disc, absolutely no memory of this music released in 2002, maybe for good reason, and maybe having nothing to do with the quality of this band or this music.  Let’s see: As expected, impeccably performed, groove-laden, crunchy, angular, and unlike the Rage music, containing something like melody, but nothing as hooky and memorable as the last Soundgarden record.  In fact, as good as it is, for whatever reason, it is fairly unremarkable, difficult to remember, lacking any sustaining hooks and memorable moments.  I suspect that this may be as much if not more my fault as it is Audioslave’s fault.  I did not give this record the attention it deserved, perhaps, as it fell on the precipice of an enduring personal crisis that would not lift for another couple of years. But listening with new ears, remembering almost nothing from it, it seems now fairly skippable, although not without illuminating or inspiring moments.

Holy crap!  Only being able to commit a few late evenings here and there, getting through the A section of my cd library took me three weeks.  At this rate, this could go on for a very, very long time.  And I have no idea if any of this is interesting to a single soul, or if it is singularly a self indulgent exercise for an audience of one.  It was fun to do. It was somewhat revealing: in the A section alone I found a little mini-history of myself and a  microcosm of my musical tastebuds.  The B section looms large, is easily twice as musically voluminous, covers every decade of my life and then some, includes many of my most influential heroes, will be, if I can muster up the courage and the time, a grand adventure.

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February 8, 2015 · 11:00 am