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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 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 XIII, Letter H

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume X, Letter F

Happy and Totally Belated New Year, everyone. It appears that I took the entire months of January and February off from blogging. 2016 finds me having barely survived the first semester of my 28th year of teaching (which, disappointingly, turns out to be only my 26th), feeling gratitude for a new beginning with new classes, taking in some meditation practice, gearing up for a role as Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, and, when I have the opportunity, still working my way through the music collection in alphabetical order, listening to at least one compact disc from every artist or band represented there. Here it is, March, spring break, a year and a month into this wacky project, and I stumble fearlessly into the letter F. It may have to come in two volumes; there’s a whole lot of really great shit here.

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Donald Fagen, “The Nightfly.” I think, I’m almost 90% certain, that this album, the first solo record by one half of the genius behind the phenomenal Steely Dan, was one of my first compact disc purchases ever! It’s such a groovy, cool record, and listening to it now it feels just as groovy and cool.  It makes me want to dance. And so my son and I bip around the basement to “I.G.Y.” and “Ruby Baby” and my favorite: “New Frontier.”  

Faith No More, “Angel Dust.” Here’s an unlikely transition for you.  After dancing with my son to Donald Fagan, I put this on. He made me turn it off.  The boy is not yet used to noisy music.  Will not tolerate the heavy rock. I have to come back to this one way later.  Yesterday I spin it, doing the laundry, taking a head banging selfie that I posted on Facebook.  There’s something about this band, as dark and sardonic as their lyrics can be, that absolutely fills me with a strange kind of joy, a jump up and down kind of glee, pure energy born out of heavy guitars, explosive drums, and a vocal that is constantly shifting between frightful screaming and beautiful melody.  Mike Patton, I think, is one of the most gifted singers (and weirdest) to come out of the 90’s grunge scene.

Jason Falkner, “Can You Still Feel?” The first time I heard Jason Falkner was on the first record by the stupendously awesome and terribly short-lived band called Jellyfish.  I won’t say anything more about that until I get to the J’s in the alphabet. Suffice it to say  that anything by anyone in that band would pretty much have to be monumentally good, and almost everything Falkner has done has been exactly that. Not as flashy or as retro as Jellyfish, his talent is in writing inescapably hooky and memorable, finely crafted and expertly played power pop rock tunes while spinning super sharp lyric lines and singing really, really well.  I’m not sure that he had a single lead singing role on that Jellyfish record, so in that band his talents as a singer and composer remained mysterious.

Fantastic Plastic Machine, “The Fantastic Plastic Machine.” Lounge-jazz sixties-kitsch, Austin Powers meets a Japanese Beck. “Mr. Salesman” is a gem. I don’t recall how I discovered this record and the time I spent listening to it must not have made a giant impression on me, because, despite the cool vibe of that one single and a few other groovy moments, the tunes did not stick, did not animate my life in any way.

Maynard Ferguson, “Footpath Café.” I’ve spun this record maybe once or twice since I bought it in 1992.  I don’t have very much of this kind of thing in my collection, however, from the time I played in the high school jazz band, I have felt a kind of joyfulness associated with big band music. It’s not a thing I very often choose to spin, but listening to this now brings all that back. The musical skill and finesse evidenced here, especially in the drums, is undeniable and inspiring. I’ve alway admired drummers that could swing really fast and push all those accents and hits along the way. It makes my head bop up and down like a bobble-head. I could do without the singing, though. My least favorite tracks on this record are the ones that feature a vocalist.

Bryan Ferry, “As Time Goes By.” First heard this cat sing in the 80’s on Roxy Music’s “Avalon” album, which, years from now, when I get to the R section, I will have to spin. Actually, that’s not true. The first time I heard Ferry was on the 70’s hit “Love Is The Drug,” but when I heard and then bought “Avalon” as a young adult, I had no idea that it was the same band. At any rate, Ferry is one of those chameleon artists, all over the map, from jazz standards to Dylan cover albums, and that’s one of the things that makes him cool. This record of early jazz-pop standards from the 30’s is transportive, magical, and perfect for Ferry’s croon.  This record caught me, in my mid 3o’s, all sentimental and sappy and trying very hard to fall in love again and succeeding in the most disastrous way possible.

The Fifth Dimension, “Master Hits.” OMG. Some of these tunes, when I was a kid, I mistook as tunes by The Mamas and the Papas, perhaps because (as a little bit of googling proves) “Go Where You Wanna Go” was performed by both groups. No matter. Sooner or later I figured it out. “Wedding Bell Blues” (or as I would recognize it, “Marry Me, Bill,”) “One Less Bell to Answer,” and “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All” (God, I love those parentheses), finally gave it away (that’s no Mama Cass). Another group that, while none of their records made their way into the Jarmer household, were nevertheless constant childhood companions, as they were played incessantly on the radio–and who didn’t listen to the radio in the 70s? These are truly  great tunes.  I’m adding this to the digital library post haste.

The Fingers, “Prophets and Casanovas.” From what I can tell from a quick and dirty internet search, this band no longer exists, didn’t exist for very long, and perhaps, only made one record, this one here in my collection. The reason they’re important: we (as Here Comes Everybody) shared a stage with them in one of our late nineties or early oughts tours to Los Angeles, and hosted them once, I think, on one of their tours up here to Portland. A highly capable and energetic power pop band, the individual members of which, have probably gone on to do interesting and solid musical things. We’ve lost all track of them.  Brief blast from the past.

Neil Finn, “Dizzying Heights.” I decide to write about the most recent Neil Finn record (I think I have them all) because I have been listening to this one almost non-stop in the car for the better part of a year. Neil Finn seems to me to be about the wisest of pop song writers working. He’s smart and thoughtful and his tunes often have a deep emotional resonance despite the fact that the grooves are super toe-tapping and melodically interesting to boot. This record is a moody one, dark in places, weirder than most other Neil Finn records. The opening track “Impressions” is this slow, dirge-like swing thing with a bass drum pattern big enough to rattle your insides while a beautiful vocal whispers overhead. Bluesy, dark, but lovely. Looks like I’ll be hanging out with the Finn family for awhile. Ever since Split Enz rocked my new wave world in the 80’s and Crowded House followed fast on those heels, I’ve been loyal to brothers Neil and Tim–and now to the offspring, Liam Finn, Neil’s son, who has two or three records of his own by now.

Liam Finn, “I’ll Be Lightning.” Listening to Liam Finn is as strange as it was to listen to Julian or Sean Lennon.  In all cases, it’s quite possible to just close your eyes and hear the voices of their famous dads. Almost everything Liam does here would fit quite nicely on a Neil Finn record. He’s perhaps a little more adventurous and noisy than papa in the rhythmic and production departments, but the songs are not nearly as sophisticated, the playing is not nearly as professional, and here, I think, we’re listening to a songwriter who’s learning and totally devoid of any self consciousness–both highly admirable traits. This record came out in 2008. It’s been almost that long since I spun it last. It’s a lovely listen.

Tim Finn, “Self Titled.” Tim’s second or third solo record after his departure from Split Enz and a couple of years before his collaboration in 1991 with brother Neil on “Woodface” (maybe the greatest Crowded House album ever), this 1989 record closes out the decade for me and my world. The 80’s were my musical adolescence, both as a listener and a performer, and as I was learning how to write my own music and dreaming the dream and growing up into an adult and getting married too young and struggling to get through college, the Finn brothers had my back, along with XTC and Peter Gabriel and David Sylvian and Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson and The Smiths.  This Tim Finn record: I haven’t listened to it for such a long time, but as soon as it spins, my early 20’s come swirling back at me: finishing that English degree, starting grad school to become a teacher, having to move out of the love shack, moving into the basement of my in-laws, playing badminton in the driveway, drinking beer with my brother, the Chevy 10 van and the Buick Le Sabre, my first teaching job, moving out of the basement.  A hugely optimistic era.  And this record seems to capture that spirit. Tim, like his brother, is so gifted as a singer, but the tambour of his voice is distinctive, easy to tell from Neil’s, more vibrato, more theatrics, in some ways a more conventionally pop rock voice, but angelic at times and always precise. These cats did not need autotune. There’s some groovy rhythm section stuff here: Tony Levin on bass and Jerry Marotta on drums. Tim surrounded himself with heavy hitters on this record. Produced by Mitchell Froom of Crowded House and Suzanne Vega fame. I can’t believe this record isn’t in the digital library.  Consider it done. Somewhere I caught the rumor that Tim Finn was not healthy, psychologically speaking. I hope that’s a fib.  I hope he’s well. The Finns have brought so much joy into my life.

Well, I think that’s all the F I can take for today. It’s Monday of my spring break.  I’ve got rehearsals this week for Romeo and Juliet and lines to commit to memory, but other than that, my responsibilities are few and there may be more time this week for listening, for finishing up with the fabulous letter F, for another blog entry or two, and perhaps, for a full emergence from blogging hibernation. Even though it’s raining cats and dogs, IT’S SPRINGTIME, YO!

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VII, Letter D

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume V, Letter Costello

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It happened when I was listening to The Beatles; I couldn’t choose which record to listen to.  It happened again with The Boomtown Rats, again with Cheap Trick, and now, in my mission to listen to one cd from each artist represented in my collection in alphabetical order, I am faced with choosing a single Elvis Costello album from the 25 that I possess. I found with The Beatles, with The Boomtown Rats, and with Cheap Trick that it could not be done. I’m not even going to try with Elvis, the second most liberally represented artist in my entire collection. That would just be dumb.

As a teenager, discovering that I was nearly alone on a new wave island in suburbia, I gobbled up everything I could find that struck me as inventive, weird, nerdy, out of the mainstream, and I made quite a few important discoveries. The Talking Heads, Blondie, XTC, Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Japan, and Elvis were the harbingers of my adolescence. We had a classic rock station that was making some forays, late at night, into this territory, and of course, we had MTV in its very nascence. I don’t know if I saw Elvis before I heard him. I think I heard “Watching the Detectives” on the radio, and “Radio, Radio,” on the radio. That must have been it. For some reason, though, it didn’t occur to me to buy a Costello record until he was three albums into his career. It was the song “Oliver’s Army,” I think, that really did it for me–so “Armed Forces” was my first purchase–and perhaps, I don’t remember exactly, it could have been the video that finally sold me. After a quick perusal, though, I find the verdict is in. No, it couldn’t have been the video. This thing is terrible. Bad enough to kill a great song. Don’t watch it.

And yet, no, a terrible video cannot kill a great song. I have personal experience with this. “Oliver’s Army” is a great song. As a youngun, I often found myself drawn to tunes the lyrics to which I didn’t understand. I still don’t think I understand this song, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it–its giddiness, its exuberance, its changes, its tongue twisting lyric, and that awesome chorus tag: “And I would rather be anywhere else but here today.” And now that I think of it, remembering less poorly perhaps than before, “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” was my first Elvis love–and I remember distinctly hearing it on the radio radio late at night.  So, is it “Armed Forces?” I don’t know!  I haven’t even started listening but for the last few days I’ve had nothing but Elvis on the brain.  What about that first album? Such a perfect thing–such an odd thing–terrific songwriting–almost a kind of country record, and yet, strange, odd, exuding a personality unlike anything I’d ever encountered, horrible sounding, and yet, here’s a record that saves the very best song for last! Don’t get me wrong, “Alison” is a great song, but “Watching the Detectives” is one of the very greatest songs. Oh, crap, finding it impossible to choose, I begin at the beginning and can’t stop myself until I’m five albums in! Here goes:

“My Aim Is True”: A terrible sounding great album.  And it’s only now that I realize (unless I realized before and just forgot about it) that The Attractions had not been formed yet, so none of the greatness of that band is apparent here.  No matter.  As I’ve said, “Watching the Detectives,” with or without The Attractions line-up, is worth the price of admission. If I remember correctly, this was the third Costello album added to my collection.

“This Year’s Model”: This was my second Elvis record–and holy shit, what a revelation.  That first track, “No Action, ” tossed me into spasms of ecstasy.  I mean, OMG, the drummer Pete Thomas practically solos through the whole thing.  It’s full of kinetic energy; it’s explosive, bombastic, much punkier and more rocking than anything on the debut record, a clear transformation–and it worked a similar transformation on me, albeit, backwards.  This is the first album with The Attractions, perhaps the mightiest backup band for a solo artist ever assembled in the world of Michael Jarmer. They were absolutely smoking. Check out the “Ticket To Ride” drumset effect in “This Year’s Girl” and the punk-ass jazz fusion of “Lipstick Vogue.”  And then there’s “Radio, Radio,” indelibly etched into our minds as a kind of protest song in that first Elvis appearance on Saturday Night Live. Sophomore slump? Not even close.

“Armed Forces”: Again, my first Elvis record, and my what a record.  From the lead vocal solo pick up of “Oh I” to the downbeat “just don’t know where to begin” of “Accidents Will Happen,” to the raucous closure of “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding,” this record absolutely rocked my teenage geeky soul and it continues to rock the soul of this old man.  As a kid, I remember being so struck and taken by Elvis’s very particular vocal styling, a kind of nasally Bob Dylan meets Tom Petty, but only English and super smart and way more inventive and musical.  And this, along with my parallel discovery of The Boomtown Rats, really brought to my ears and brain for the first time the idea that rock music could really be about something big–even though I didn’t quite understand any of it. It had a weightiness to it, a gravitas.  Sonically, I love the way the drums sound on this record and the roller-skate organ continues to kill throughout.  This music makes me happy.

“Get Happy”: Here’s a radical idea–let’s put 20 songs on a single 12″ record, 10 songs a side! I think it’s important to mention that even though all these records are now in my cd collection, I bought all these albums when I was a kid on vinyl, the compact disc still six or seven years down the road. By necessity, because of the limitation of the LP format, all the songs on this brilliant record must be super short.  There may be only one or two tunes on this entire album that clock in over three minutes. So the record flies by. And there is gem after gem here, too.  Most notably, “Five Gears in Reverse,” “Opportunity,” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.” Great songs.  Soulful and short.  But this record didn’t captivate me quite as much as the previous three, but it was still beloved. This record, though, perhaps more than the previous three, improves with age–possibly, it seems less stuck in time, less tied to an era than its predecessors.

And last, but not least, “Trust.” I might go out on a limb to say that this might be my most favorite Elvis album ever. I’m not going to die by those words, but I know that if I could only take one Costello record with me to the desert island, this would certainly be one of the contenders. I remember vividly that I was listening to this record late one night when my girlfriend knocked on my bedroom window. There’s nothing really sordid to report.  She just stood out there and we whispered back and forth for awhile before she snuck off back to her home down the street.  That must have made me one happy camper, and as she walked off, I may have boogied by myself in the bedroom to “Clubland,” “Strict Time,” “Luxembourg,” “Watch Your Step,” and the groovy collaboration with Glen Tilbrook from The Squeeze, “From a Whisper to a Scream.” There was something about the lyric and musical variety of this record and it’s lush production that set it over the top for me–not to mention that I was in love.  That love and the pursuant heartbreak wouldn’t last more than a year–but this record, this record was built for the long haul. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites. This drum part. The space. The lyrics. That bass line. That cool vocal delivery.  Elvis at his early career best, I think.  Cheers. Finally I get get back to the conclusion of the letter C.

 

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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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