Tag Archives: listening to music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, it’s 1996 and 97.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#259: Thirteen Views of Listening to A Song

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I
With my eyes closed,
the lyrics become more vivid–
like icicles in my fingers.

II
Bouncing up and down
on a pogo stick, the drummer
has all of my limbs and I have hers.

III
I watch that wave come up,
a shimmering, a crescendo:
some nonsense makes me cry a little.

IV
A man and a woman
hear this song.
A man and a woman and a song
make a crazy sound, like cymbals.

V
The steering wheel becomes
my instrument; people look at me
and smile as they pass.

VI
Sometimes, a loop occurs
in the memory; the mind hears
that song even while it’s asleep.

VII
I don’t know if I prefer
this song at 33 rpm or 45.
This becomes a weighty matter.

VIII
Listening to colored vinyl
makes this song better,
there’s a tone unique to transparent green
or matte orange.

IX
I can’t remember the last time
I hated a song.

X
I’ve heard this song
ten times in a single week
in various stages of inebriation,
but I chose that.

XI
Sometimes a song comes on
in a public place, and you know it
but don’t know it.
That hurts a little.

XII
Is there something to
the fact that the artists I love
keep getting younger and younger?

XIII
I keep listening. Everything
could be caving in, or simply flying,
or marvelously indifferent,
but I keep listening.

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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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Last year, I remember talking in my classroom about the terrible news, the deaths of two British cultural icons, both personal heroes of mine, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both dead at 69. And from that discussion, this has remained in my memory: a student actually said these words to me, “So you’ve got about twenty more years to live, then.” Even though I probably should have been, I was not offended and I laughed the comment off, even sort of went along with the gag. Sure. That may be true. At 69, I too, might shuffle off this mortal coil–that is, if I get sick, or if I have some terrible accident. I don’t plan to do either of those things, but, as I understand it, these kinds of things aren’t really planned.  So, whether it’s likely or not that I’ll only live another 20 years or less, the deaths of David Bowie, and days later, Alan Rickman moved me to a surprising degree, and got me thinking, as I am still thinking, thinking seriously, about mortality and impermanence, about living a life, and about what might be learned about dying from the passing of these two giants.

My youth, as is true for most all of us, was punctuated by the deaths of celebrities. The ones I paid closest attention to were the deaths of musicians. Elvis. John Lennon. Bon Scott. These are the ones that come immediately to mind. And I know, that as a young person, these deaths shook me, saddened me, especially because all three of them were tragic, senseless, preventable. But I moved on, as young people do, and things would return pretty much back to normal for a long long time. The deaths of people I know, mostly family, mostly well into their 80’s when they died, stay with me in my vivid memories of them tied directly to experience. My father died at 83, 7 years ago now, after a year long recovery from a cardiac arrest, and while I mourned his death more deeply than any other, my memories of him are a constant presence for me. I feel him with me all the time, most powerfully, sometimes happily and sometimes not, in the ways that I realize I am so much like him, in the various and spooky ways I feel I AM him or have become him. With Bowie and Rickman I have no genetic connection, but insofar as their work has been with me off and on for 30 or 40 years, they too, feel like family; they too, feel like a part of my genetic make-up. As I am my Dad, I am also Bowie and Rickman.

In a way, especially for musicians and actors and writers, they remain very much alive: we have a tangible record of their artistic lives and we can revisit that record over and over again on our turntables, our televisions or computers, in our libraries, and in our memories.  My dad left no recordings. He left no writings, or at least I don’t think he did. He left me his wedding ring. He left me two brothers and a sister, he left me half of my own genetic self and 45 years of example through his parenting and husbanding. So while I can keep Bowie and Rickman spinning in the exterior world, my father must remain inside. But all of it will be with me so long as I can operate the audio-visual equipment in my house and the audio-visual equipment inside my head. I’m going to try my best to keep both in working condition past my own 69 years.

And finally, in our current state of affairs, culturally and politically in this United States of America in 2017, I feel more than ever a deep need to keep exposing myself to and attempting to create the ineffable, the deathless, the lasting, humanizing record in art of our existence. I feel now a kind of urgent need to listen to more music, make more music, write more poems and stories, to read more, and to live more deeply in the world. Bowie made music until the end. Rickman made films until the end. My friend Carlen Arnett kept contributing her art until the very end. I hope I can do as much in my own humble way. And so I begin with this little meditation that I have titled after this exquisite and famous poem by Dylan Thomas. I hope you enjoy both.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

 

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

Dear Flaming Lips,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XIII, Letter H

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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