Tag Archives: bands and artists alphabetized under B

Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume III, Letter B

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I’m betting you gave up on me.  I almost gave up on myself.  What with a trip to Disneyland scheduled for spring break, National Poetry Writing Month, and some illness in the family, it looked hopeless that I would ever get through the project of listening to at least one CD from every musical artist in my collection, let alone finish the damn B section.  But let me say, oh those of you of little faith, that I am back at it.  I continue chipping away at those B bands and artists, but with this difference:  I did a whole lot of listening without any writing at all.  So, here I am, trying to catch up this particular nutty blog project with the progress I have made into my collection of B music.  These notes will likely be shorter, more cryptic, in honor of National Poetry Month–maybe even poetic, although, as of this moment, we’re half way through May and Napowrimo is over.  But let me assure you that each of the albums listed here were listened to IN FULL by yours truly, even the really stupidly long ones from the 90’s, unless otherwise indicated.  I reserve the right in this blog post, however, to expound to a greater degree around those bands or records that truly rocked my world.  Here goes the rest of the B’s:

Tony Bennet, “Playin’ With My Friends, Sings the Blues.” Really famous old guy becomes hip again, singing duets with a bunch of artists from subsequent decades. I’m not sure why I have this record.

Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself.” Here’s a guy with a beautiful voice and prodigious multi-instrumental musical talent, staggering lyric skill, and perhaps the greatest whistler in the history of pop music. Really, he whistles. He’s progressive and nutty. His arrangements are dense and beautiful and feel simultaneously traditional and modern. Good stuff, Maynard.

Frank Black, “Self Titled.” The Pixies were the shit. Frank Black, Black Francis’s first solo album, was not so much the shit. There’s good music here, though. It rocks and it’s got serious hook material. But it’s not nearly as manic and wild as a Pixie’s record; it’s not a record that had any kind of staying power for me past the first twenty listens or so.

Perry Blake, “California.”  Must listen to this Perry Blake guy with a martini. This is martini music. And for me, it’s coming-down-from-an-early-onset-mid-life-crisis music.  2002.

Bleu, “A Watched Pot.”  Not a band, but the project moniker of a guy named William James McAuley III, a power pop genius and a genre hopper and an exquisite imitator of things he loves.  Great tunes.  A happy, funny, sweet and sour record. I recommend more highly “Red,” the album before this one, a record I downloaded, and thus, not a choice for this listening/writing experiment.

Blondie, “The Platinum Collection.” I was so smitten with Deborah Harry as a teenager, and those two titles, “Parallel Lines” and “Eat to the Beat” were phenomenal records.  This collection features those two albums generously. I’m grooving in nostalgia, hopping up and down in the basement to Clem Burke’s explosive drumming, resting now and then for a perfectly legal sip of wine.

The Blow Monkeys, “Animal Magic.” Remember the tune, “Digging Your Scene?” It killed me the first time I heard it, and continues to kill me now. An anomaly of mid-80’s new wave music, these guys were like some kind of blue-eyed white boy soul band from England with an adorable singer/philosopher who had the audacity to adopt a stage name after a famous Beatles tune, Dr. Robert. This record kills from start to finish.

Blues Traveler, “Save HIs Soul.” God, I hate the harmonica, but Jesus, this guy can really play the harmonica.  And he’s a great singer.  But I still can’t understand why this band is in my collection.  They rocked? Yes.  The drummer was good? Check.  They were an alternative to the alternative in the 90’s? Check. Still, I now find I could live without this band for a very long time.

So on the weekend of April 10 I took a little solo road trip to the coast for a writing retreat which afforded me about four and a half hours in a car.  I don’t like driving, especially, so if I’m driving a long way by myself I typically play very loud music to keep myself alive.  It was a happy coincidence that my road trip falls while I’m about to listen to one of my all time favorite bands, another band, only the second, for which I cannot listen to just one album, a band that had no less than a monumental influence on me as a teenager.  So three in a row on the way to the beach, The Boomtown Rats, “Tonic for the Troops,” “The Fine Art of Surfacing,” and “Mondo Bongo.” All three pivotal albums for me.  This band may be deserving of it’s own post, because I’m not certain I can even scratch the surface here.  These guys almost single-handedly revolutionized my musical tastes, moving me from a kind of classic rock fan into a punk, a new waver, a goofy clothes, purple converse, skinny tie-wearing, mullet-sporting music fan with an attitude, a penchant for all-out weirdness, and the budding awareness that there were ISSUES in the world that were larger, more important than me that might need my serious attention. Not only did the Boomtown Rats completely satisfy my developing and specific musical tastebuds, they gave to me in the person of Bob Geldof a rock star who was worthy of the HERO mantel. He’s been knighted for Christ’s sake.    

David Bowie, “The Last Day.” I don’t have a ton of Bowie in my collection, few of the classics, “Scary Monsters,” a greatest hits collection, and almost everything he’s done since “Let’s Dance.” I chose his most recent thing.  I am consistently blown away by Bowie’s ability to grow and continue to make music that is vital and inventive and interesting.  A couple of tunes on this record, including the single “Where Are We Now” are so good it hurts to listen to them.  And–there’s some filler.

The Breeders, “Last Splash.”  Outside the undeniable hookitude of “Cannonball,” This is mostly an awful record.  Kim Deal, from the Pixies, her sister Kelley, Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses, and some drummer dude.  It’s messy, sometimes interesting sonically, but mostly dumb. One for the hopper, perhaps.

Edie Brickell, “Shooting Rubberbands at the Moon.” I’m not aware of too many things.  I know what I am if you know what I mean. Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box; religion is a smile on a dog.  ‘Nuff said.  A fun record, whimsical, silly, sometimes sad.  Edie’s lyrics can be goofy but sometimes profound, her habitual note-dropping at the end of almost every line can be tiresome, but boy that drummer is good and the rest of this band is top notch.  It was truly enjoyable to listen to this again.

Bright Eyes, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.” This weirdo is irresistible.  And this record, almost a kind of electronica thing, so completely stylistically different from the rest of his mostly folky oeuvre, feels just as authentic as any of that other stuff.  A really cool, interesting record that holds up very well.  Lyrically, super smart. Perhaps, worthy of the name poetry.

Jon Brion, “Meaningless.”  If John Lennon were alive and still interested in pop music, he might sound like this guy.  Brion is a brilliant songwriter, and while I don’t know his entire pedigree, I know he was in the supergroup The Grays, a band that made only one incredible record; I know that Brion did the soundtrack for the nutty film “I Heart Huckabees;” I know he produced some of Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine;” and then I know there’s this record, which is, I think, the only full length Jon Brion record out there. We love the power pop.  We love the intelligent and slightly snarky lyric. We love the infectious melody.

Jonatha Brooke, “Steady Pull.” She’s just so undeniably good.  It’s hard to criticize, except to say that she’s an artist that’s so undeniably good that I bought three of her records before I realized that I just wasn’t all that interested.  This one, though, pretty rocking, edgy in places, funky, is undeniably good, but I will not likely choose it for another play for a very long time. If it comes up in an iPod shuffle, I’ll be happy to hear it again.

Bill Bruford, “One of a Kind.” I first heard Bill Bruford play the drums in the 70’s prog rock band Yes when I was but a wee lad. I had no clue at that time what I was listening to. I dug the music.  “Roundabout” was on the radio for crying out loud; it was just pop music to my naive little ears. But as I reached my teen years, transitioning from a rocker to a new waver and a blossoming young musician to boot, I also found myself gravitating toward the prog rock genre, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to show off virtuosic musicianship. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I know that at the time that was the thing that sucked me in.  So my real discovery of Bill Bruford was his work in King Crimson in the 80’s, and then I found this solo record from ’79, and then I’d end up going back to all those early Yes records, listening with fresh ears, ears that understood incredible drumming when they heard it.  So, it’s a real pleasure to go back to this record, “One of a Kind.”  I totally geeked out on this record as a teen, and I’m totally geeking out on it now. Allan Holdsworth on guitar, Jeff Berlin on bass.  Extraordinary still.

In the middle of the grunge era, there was this, Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” The most beautiful, rocking, but grungeless record of this era.  I don’t know when I first came across this album.  It may have been late, after Buckley had already met his tragic fate in an accidental drowning. There would be only one more record of new studio recordings, released, I’m almost certain, posthumously.  This guy sang like an angel, an angel with a meat cleaver. I’m not sure, before this guy, that I had ever heard in rock music singing so technically precise and yet so emotionally raw and incisive. This is a record that is worth weeping through and over.  A classic, for sure.

Kate Bush is a goddess.  And this record, “The Sensual World,” while it may not be my all time favorite Kate Bush album, holds a special place in my musical heart.  It wass 1989.  My wife and I were so broke in our third year of marriage that we moved into the basement of her parents’ house.  We were there almost a year, a year where my desperation for new music and my empty wallet drove me to the BMG record club where I ordered 10 compact discs for a penny.  I believe this was one of them.  As bleak as all of this sounds, it was not an entirely dire situation.  I had just been hired in my first teaching job.  Things were looking up. I was young, newly married, newly employed, on the verge of my illustrious teaching career, and despite the economics, I was extremely optimistic and had every right to be. This record by Kate Bush enchanted me and excited me. Kate Bush, as great as she is as a musician, composer, and singer, seems really like a storyteller more than anything else. Her songs embody story.  It’s easy to get lost in them in the way you’d get lost in a great piece of fiction. Eclectic, strange, haunting, and beautiful, these songs transported me. It’s still difficult not to absolutely break down before the end of “This Woman’s Work,” the Bulgarian singers on several tracks of this record are out of this world, and Mick Karn’s bass playing is, as usual with Mick Karn, revelatory.  I remember reading that the first track originally took the lyrics from Joyce’s Molly Bloom monologue in Ulysses, but Bush couldn’t get permission from the Joyce estate and ended up writing her own words.  You can still hear Molly Bloom in there.  Bush is the sexy Joyce of pop music.  Yes I said yes I will yes.  

David Byrne, “Self Titled.” Post Talking Heads, this, I believe, was Byrne’s third solo record.  I’ll have to go into this guy’s impact on my life at a later time, maybe years later when I reach the T’s, but for now, let’s just say that I chose this particular David Byrne record (I think I have them all) because this, 1994, was another pivotal year in the life of Michael Jarmer.  It was the summer I went to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.  It was my first solo travel experience.  My first cross continental flight.  My first writer’s conference.  I had begun my first successful effort at writing a novel. And here at Breadloaf I discovered my immediate and transformational future as a fiction writer: I learned about the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College, where I would apply and be accepted for the following winter term. It was a heady, trippy, exhilarating experience; it changed my life.  And this David Byrne record, buoyant, lively, rocking, and nutty, was the soundtrack playing over and over again on my little walkman cassette player! Could it be that at this time, if I wanted to travel with music, I had to record my compact discs to cassette?! Memory fails. I’m pretty sure it was a walkman–but I suppose it’s possible that it could have been a portable disc player.

A suitable ending to the B section of my compact disc collection, a transition and a transformation.  The B’s were bountiful.  The C section of the collection, not nearly as much, but perhaps containing artists and bands every bit for me as earth-shattering and mind-blowing as the ones back there in the B part. I don’t know when I will get to it. No promises. I realize, looking at the collection all orderly and alphabetical over there against the basement studio wall, that I am not quite 1/7th of the way through the collection–which does not include, because I have them stored in a separate section, local music from Portland, Oregon. Who knows how I will handle that. I can’t ignore it, that’s certain. That just wouldn’t be right. First world problem.  We will cross that bridge when we get to it.

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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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