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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, it’s 1996 and 97.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XII, Letter G

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers !

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume IV, Letter C

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Welcome to Volume IV of my crazy project of listening to a single compact disc from start to finish from each musical artist represented in my neglected cd collection and then writing about it in a blog post. Wow, that was a mouthful.  The B section was bountiful; it took two volumes of blog and many moons to complete.  Now Summer is upon us and I can feel time opening up for more listening. I predict that I will be through the C section before the end of this current month of July in the year of our dog, 2015. We begin with

Cake, “Comfort Eagle.” This record is so damn catchy.  I listened to it once with utter joy and then, maybe a full week later, the tunes still swirling around in my brain after only one listen, I had to listen to it again.  Cake, they are a wonder.  How could a singer with such a lack of stylistic flare, such a deadpan delivery, be so stunningly memorable?  Partly, it’s the delivery coupled with the lyrics and of course the melodies, which are sometimes more spoken than sung, nevertheless, infectious and difficult to abandon.  I’ll just give you a few lines.  “Swim in your kidney–kidney-shaped pool.”  The greatest misleading lyric turn since David Byrne’s, “Do I smell? I smell home-cooking,” from “Cities.” “You are an Austrian nobleman, and you’re commissioning a symphony in C.” Of course I am! “I am an opera singer.” Of course you are!  And perhaps the most famous Cake line ever: “I want a girl with a short skirt and a lo——–ng jacket.” Of course you do, and so do I!  And finally, more profound and about as seriously as Cake ever takes itself: “We are building a religion.”  This album brought me through, perhaps, the darkest period of my adult life. 2001. Thank you, Cake.

Camper Van Beethoven, “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.” Oh my god, it’s been a long time since I heard this record, the only record from CVB in my collection.  I could, without listening first, recall by memory the first two tunes, at least in part, by their lyric hooks.  “Eye of Fatima,” I could have hummed a bit of, and “O Death” I could have hummed in its entirety, but other than that, I could not have sung or remembered another single track. I tried to guess the album’s release date.  I thought 1989 and I was off by only one year.  But I could have purchased the record in ’89, as I associated it with living in the basement of my in-laws for a year while my wife and I got our feet on the ground financially.  So, not bad.  Music and memory. That’s part of what this whole project is about.  I’m surprised I only have one record from this group, because, as I listen I rock and I am immensely happy. This is a record that needs to go back into rotation, I think.  This one needs to be sucked up by the mighty iTunes program so that it can be carried around and shared between all the devices.  It’s that good.  And it’s a nice springboard, I think, into the 90’s.  Its lost most of the aspects I would associate with what I like to call the 80’s stink.  A cool, rocking, kind of progressive record. Rock band with fiddle. And David Lowry’s snotty but lucid drawl. Dig it.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, “Trout Mask Replica.”  I haven’t started listening yet.  I’m afraid.  I suspect that the only reason I have this record is that I have been since the early 80’s a Frank Zappa fan, and Zappa was a collaborator of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, and Zappa produced this album in 1969, so if nothing else, it represented for me a sweet little piece of Zappa history.  Also, more credibility piled on once I learned that another one of my 80’s rock heroes, Andy Partridge from XTC, was also a fan and heavily influenced by the Beefheart.  Okay. So I bought this record(cd) long ago, the album cover sporting a portrait of a dude who appears to have a fish for a head and is wearing some kind of pointy top hat.  Why am I afraid?  I know it’s an important record, and undoubtedly I bought it because I was informed that it was an important record, and I know I can’t remember anything about it off the top of my head, and I know it will be weird, and I’m afraid that I will not like it. Here goes.

Holy shit. It’s weird all right.  But awesome.  I can’t look away.  It’s like a train wreck in the very best possible sense. Perhaps the weirdest record in my collection. But listening now, after a bourbon, I can hear the influence on Andy Partridge’s angular guitar playing, and the guy from Gang of Four.  That’s what happened.  That’s why this is so remarkable.  And the words, holy crap, the words are “magical” indeed.  And as chaotic as the music sometimes is, it is surprisingly listenable–unlike other groups I love (The Flaming Lips) in their most experimental moments.

The Cardigans, “First Band on the Moon.”  What a perfect pop record.  There’s not a clunker on the thing.  This band exudes charm.  I’m in love with Nina Persson all over again.  And these are the best worst-sounding drums I’ve ever heard, boxy, compressed, like toys, but nevertheless awesome.  And their cover of “Iron Man” is one of the greatest recorded covers ever.  It is as unlikely and beautiful as is GWAR’s version of a Pet Shop Boys tune in the Onion’s AV Room.  It’s 1996, but timeless.  I don’t have very many specific memories associated with the record because I think it’s one that I kept listening to consistently over the next 19 years.

Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.”  I caught on to Canadian singer songwriter Neko Case through The New Pornographers, hadn’t realized at first they were a kind of supergroup of stellar artists all in their own right.  This is the first Neko record I bought, and it’s as far from The New Pornographers as one could go, it seems to me. I don’t even know how to categorize this record.  Is it country? Is it folk? Is it the blues? The answer, perhaps, to all three of these questions would be yes.  The drums are huge, played with heavy brushes.  The reverbs on her voice are wide open. The lyrics are astounding and profound.  And that voice is absolutely to die for. This record is only 10 years old.  I was listening to this album when my boy was an infant. This is not necessarily a happy record, but I know how happy I was when I found it. A beautiful, quietly disturbing and comforting listen.

The tweeters in my JBLs both died tonight–in the middle of the Neko record.  Headphones, then.

The Chamber Strings, “Month of Sundays.” This is, I think, only the second pirated cd I’ve pulled off the shelf in two and a half letters of the alphabet.  I’m not happy about it.  Some years ago, after a friend of mine burned me a copy of this record, told me to check it out, and I did, I should have gone out immediately and bought a copy. I might still have to do that, not only because I’m generally against pirating music, but most importantly because this is a truly great record. I’d not heard of them at the time my friend passed this to me, years after its release in 2001.  Because of record label issues, bad distribution, and the singer songwriter Kevin Junior’s drug addiction and poor health, the band kind of fell apart and then into obscurity–but nevertheless developed a rabid cult following, of which I now consider myself a part.  It’s pop music, but it’s melodic, smart, lush, serious, loose, yet expertly performed.  It’s a pop record that really breathes, feels legitimately human.  It feels like a record made without computers of any kind.  Note to self: buy a real copy of this record.

Tracy Chapman, “Self Titled.” “Talking about a revolution. . .Finally, the tables are starting to turn.”  It’s kind of sad.  This tune is probably just as relevant now, if not more so, than it was in 1988.  But we didn’t really get, and we’re still waiting for the revolution she’s singing about. It’s in progress.  It’s gathering some momentum.  She was 27 years ahead of her time.  “Fast Car,” again, profound, smart, heartfelt, poignant.  What happened to Tracy Chapman? I totally lost track of her.

Cheap Trick, “In Color and in Black and White.” My god.  Here’s another band for which it might be extremely difficult for me to listen to only one album. It’s almost impossible for me to express what this crazy rock band means to me.  I saw them open up for Kiss in 1976 and I immediately loved them. And after listening to a 40 minute set, I already knew the tunes after a first listen and had already decided how much better than Kiss they were.  There’s no comparison. This was my first Cheap Trick record, their second album. That opening guitar riff.  Bun E Carlos’s explosive drum entrance. Robin Zander’s evocation,  “Hello there, ladies and gentlemen.  Hello there, ladies and gents. Are you ready to rock? Are you ready or not?” I’m a 50 year old guy, but listening to this record tonight with headphones on, I am as excited as a school boy.  They rocked. But they were melodic and funny, sometimes smart, quirky, adventurous, the Heavy American Beatles, and between that voice (the best power pop singer EVER?), those nerdy Nielsen antics with the hats and the picks and the 1001 guitars, those 12 string bass parts, and the pure, effortless, pulsating, literally smoking drums of Bun E., I’d almost go so far as to say that Cheap Trick was (IS!) the greatest power pop band American music has ever produced.  And they’re still going!  There was a dark period in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but after 1997’s self-titled “Cheap Trick,” they completely reestablished themselves as a continuously relevant force in rock and roll. I haven’t missed a record since. Okay.  Let’s do this one, too: Cheap Trick, “Self-titled” (1997). 

In case you were worried or curious, I found a pair of Boston Acoustic Satellite Speakers with a matching subwoofer.  Headphones no longer necessary.  These babies sound pretty good.

Chicago, “Chicago Transit Authority.” This record was way before my time.  I was 5 years old.  But my oldest brother, 12 years my senior, had this album on reel to reel.  Yeah, he had a reel to reel tape deck. And between my brother and A.M. radio, I would have heard much of this famous record as a child. I thank the Almighty Almighty my siblings were avid music listeners.  If they had not been, there’s no telling whether or not I would have ever caught the bug that has shaped so much of my life. At any rate, only a decade or so ago, these first few Chicago records were remastered and rereleased on compact disc.  I felt that these records, at least the first two, were too important not to have a home in the collection.  So here I am, 45 years later, grooving on this music, miraculous in a way, that a band with such progressive leanings could land so many hit songs.  “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Listen to that jazzy opening.  Could a thing like this ever hope to be a hit on pop radio in this dark day and age? On the flipside, though, musicians got away with all kinds of shit in the 60’s and 70’s.  How about a 6:47 tune called “Free Form Guitar” which consists of nothing but, you guessed it, free form guitar?

Toni Childs, “Union.” 1988.  The first and last Toni Childs record I ever bought.  It’s groovy.  80s stink on the production. More spiritually minded, perhaps, than a lot of 80s fare. Cool musical ideas.  A strange, singing voice, an old soul voice. I’m not sure why I bought this record, initially, because it’s unlike a lot of things I dig. I often have found myself buying music, especially as I became an adult, that I thought somehow would diversify my musical experience, broaden my horizons.  Toni Childs was also a very beautiful woman to this 24 year old young man and that could have had something to do with it. There are cool moments on this record, though. I know I gave it some deep listening towards the end of that decade.  First time I’ve listened to it, perhaps, since then.

The Church, “Starfish.” Man, I don’t know, I’m four songs in, and even after the hit, which is a pretty darn good song, “Under the Milky Way,” I’m about ready to pack it in. Not a very adventurous band. Brooding. Lush, but predictable and dull.  Makes me want to gaze at my shoes.  I’ll hang in there. I understand the appeal, I think, but at the same time, I understand why this  record did not have staying power with me.

Billy Cobham, “Power Play.”  It’s 1986. I had not moved completely through my prog-rock jazz-fusion phase. I am probably not yet through it. However, this record strikes me now as an especially dumb entry in the genre, as it attempts, using synthesizers and drum machines (drum machines, my god, on a Billy Cobham album), to make itself “contemporary.”  And as prog-jazz-fusion goes, it’s not that prog-jazz-fushiony. There are moments, though, as there are on records like this, especially for musicians, when one is simply blown away by the precision and skill. When it’s good, it’s really good. Otherwise, it’s background music played by some of the best musicians in the world.

Cockeyed Ghost, “Ludlow, 6:18.” Perhaps the only group or artist thus far with which I have a personal acquaintance. I know this guy. I’m not sure how we connected, but he did a house concert at our place during one of his many extensive tours and he hosted us in Los Angeles in a club on one of only two tours my band ever made–down to LA and back, once in 1999 and again in 2001.  I think we played with Cockeyed Ghost in ’99.  I don’t even remember the name of the club.  At any rate, I have a few of this band’s records, and because they’re not “local,” they ended up in the general collection.  A good, solid rock band.  A singer who tries sometimes too hard to be Brian Wilson fronting Cheap Trick.  Good songs, though.  Some intricate moves.  Some angry-about-the-record-industry lyrics–always a big hit.  Crazy key changes.  A moving song about a girlfriend-that-could-have-been who committed suicide.  Heavy. Overall, though, a good rocking vibe.  I’m glad I know this songwriter.  I’m glad his music is in the world.

Coldplay, “A Rush of Blood to the Head.” I really wanted to listen to “Parachutes,” the debut record, but alas, it was a pirate, and worse, I couldn’t find it.  That’s a record that ripped my heart out for some reason and I have super fond memories of it, even though I haven’t listened to it in ages.  Never bought a real copy of it, either.  So I choose this, the next best thing, I suppose, before Coldplay got all arena rock on our asses.  Not a fan of the evolution of this band, but loved the first two records. Let me see if this one holds up. Oh yeah.  This guy is such a great terrible singer.  That was part of the charm, I think. I pictured him as a grizzly guy with a big beard and was kind of disappointed to learn he was so clean cut and cute.  This record rocks more than the first, is less intimate, but some of these tunes are gems.  And I know what it was about them that struck me. At this time in my life, they seemed to be speaking straight at me, to me directly, personally.  That second tune, “In My Place,” is a prime example. In 2001, 02, 03, I was lost, I was lost, I was scared, tired and under prepared. Absolutely. And then there was “Warning Sign.” And the truth is–I miss you.  Holy crap.  I think I recently saw a friend of mine place this song against a collage of pictures of his deceased wife, a cancer victim, a friend of mine from ages ago and a super huge influence on my life, and I didn’t know she was sick.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think I’ve remembered this incorrectly.  It was a different Coldplay song my friend used in the video collage of our mutual friend, but nevertheless, this is maybe the tune I heard.

Paula Cole, “This Fire.” I’m not sure what to say about this record.  Is it good?  Yes. Musically and compositionally interesting, sophisticated.  It sounds good. It’s a little too much like a Tori Amos record. Interesting, disturbing vocal inflections; she seems sometimes to be barking–otherwise, she sings beautifully.  A hit, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone.” You all know that one.  A good record, and yet, one that did not withstand the test of time for me. The best songs are the first three or four and then it’s all kind of down hill.

The Colonoscopy. Not a record, not a band, but what I actually had to do this week while working my way through the C section.  I’m 50.  It’s what you gotta do.  Everything they say about having a colonoscopy is true.  The day of preparation sucks, the procedure itself is a piece of cake, a walk in the park, a day in the sun. Except for the fear. In my case, unwarranted. Everything looked good–so they tell me.

Shawn Colvin, “A Few Small Repairs.” This record holds up for me as well as most other female singer songwriter records over the last twenty years.  Except for anything St. Vincent has done.  My god, when will I ever reach the letter S?! After all this while (it was released in 1996), “A Few Small Repairs” still sounds fresh, vibrant, timely, contemporary, and groovy. That’s a pretty great voice. And these are pretty great words.  And these musicians, especially this drummer, are pretty astounding. I’ve followed her over the years, but not a single one of her records is as successful to my ears. “Sonny Came Home.” Dynamite opening track. I gotta say though, that as the record moves along, it gets progressively less interesting.

Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting.” 1990 BMG record club binge shopping brought me familiarity with Concrete Blonde. I choose this record from two of the band’s records in my collection, neither of which I can recall a single specific thing about. Until “Bloodletting” starts spinning. It all comes back.  Bombastic and bluesy rock tinged with a kind of gothic metal merengue. A good record. Most all of the records I bought during my BMG music club months bring back memories of poverty and living in my parents-in-law’s house for a year and nevertheless feeling stupidly happy.

Alice Cooper, “Welcome to my Nightmare.” My first venture as a young man in the late 70’s into what would become known (later) as shock rock.  Kiss didn’t count.  Spitting blood didn’t count–not compared to the nightmare world of Alice Cooper. As a pre-teen, I started with the record he made with Elton John’s collaborator Bernie Taupin, “From the Inside,” saw that concert, and then worked my way backwards.  “Welcome to my Nightmare,” along with “Goes to Hell,” would have been one of my first acquisitions in the back catalogue. The title track is epic.  There’s a kind of dorkiness about the way it’s sung, I thought, but the elaborate arrangement and the dense instrumentation takes the tune to really far out places.  Vincent Price’s appearance on “Black Widow” is delicious, and the segue from the previous track, “Devil’s Food,” is exquisite.  “Some Folks” provides the evidence that Cooper had a healthy sense of humor to go along with his morbid interests.  “Only Women Bleed,” a beautiful, powerful, disturbing song, but lyrically speaking, is about the most unlikely hit single in the universe. But the second half of this record–almost every track after “The Department of Youth,” that whole  Steven sequence, is some of the creepiest rock music EVER up to this point in my early rock history. How is it that Alice Cooper became a conservative who loves to golf? I can’t get over that. I’m glad he’s still alive though.  He almost didn’t make it.  My discovery of him at that Bernie Taupin period was the culmination of his rehabilitation, hence, a record about a group of residents in an insane asylum. A brilliant record in its own right.  But I gotta add (obviously Alice had quite a hold on my early teens) that, even though it’s not the record I chose to listen to tonight, that “Flush  the Fashion” in 1980 became my absolute favorite Cooper record ever.

At nearly 3500 words, 3500 words that very few human beings will ever read, I realize what’s still to come in the letter C and  I understand that this letter, too, just like B, will need two volumes.  But I’m excited, because what’s coming up next is an artist that had a profound impact on my personal life, my musical life, my emotional life, my aesthetic orientation, the whole ball of wax, and who continues to blow my mind.  I’ll need some space for him. Like the Beatles and The Boomtown Rats and Cheap Trick, he’s an artist for which picking just one album will be a gargantuan challenge.  I’ve got 25 Elvis Costello albums to choose from, so far in the alphabet, the largest collection of records from a single artist. So wish me luck, and for now, let’s bring this episode to a close.

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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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