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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 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 XII, Letter G

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 Those guys even got their own blog entry, currently unpublished and unfinished; I hope to post it soon.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers !

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XI, Letter F

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What follows is a continuing exploration of all the music in my cd collection for which the artist or the band name begins with the letter F.  Let’s begin with this.  F this.  Fishbone and The Flaming Lips, Ben Folds Five, bookends or markers for my 1990’s, perhaps the three most influential and inspiring bands for me in the entire decade.  It’s gonna be pretty rocking from here on out! Hold on.

Fishbone, “Give a Monkey a Brain, and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe.” These ska-punkers from the late 80’s became so absolutely rocking in the nineties, and this record and its predecessor, “The Reality of My Surrounding,” simply blew my late twenties and early thirty-something brain.  Listening to”Swim” and “Servitude” together, the opening tracks, I form a one-man mosh pit in my basement and bang my head while sorting the laundry.  The density of some of these arrangements, “Properties of Propaganda” and “Lemon Meringue” in particular, is awe inspiring still. These guys, perhaps more than any other nineties band, combined the raw energy of punk and grunge, the soul and funk from the 70s, the outrage of the Black American civil rights struggle, and married it to some of the most exceptional musicianship in rock. Holy shit these guys were good.  The memories this music stirs, almost entirely positive, are coupled with bittersweetness–as most of my closest companions of that era are sadly not now a part of my life, or at least, not like they used to be. It’s still joyful to listen to this, nevertheless. I may have to spin “Reality” as well. Hanging out with Fishbone, it’s really difficult to have “Everyday Sunshine” and “Sunless Saturday” missing from the playlist!

Damn, Fishbone blew my Boston Acoustics.

The Fixx, “React.” As important as this band was to me in my late teens and early twenties, I never replaced my vinyl copies of “Reach the Beach” and “Phantoms” in my cd collection.  So this is the next best thing, I suppose, a live album from 1987 that includes really the best of those two albums, a few tracks from the debut Fixx, and some other odds and ends. Save for a few exceptions, I have never really been a fan of the live album, but this one is sonically pretty clean and the performances are strong and the audience noise is mostly absent.  Here’s an 80’s band that has continued, to this very day, to work and write new tunes and tour. And they have the distinction of being the only heroes of my young life as a musician that I would have the honor to share a stage with. In 1999 and again a few years later, Here Comes Everybody got to open up for The Fixx at the Aladdin Theater here in Portland.  Quite the heady experience. A peak moment in my life as a musician.

The Flaming Lips, “The Soft Bulletin.” John Curtis, a good friend of mine, probably around the time this record came out in 1999, while he lived in Minneapolis for a time, sent me a couple of tracks from this album on a mix cd in the mail.  A mix cd! “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” and “Bugging,'” I think, were the tunes he sent. I thought maybe there was something wrong with my stereo, but I was intrigued. It took me a long time after that, maybe even a year, maybe more, to take the plunge to buy “The Soft Bulletin” album, but when I did, and spun it for the first time, from “Race for the Prize”  onward, I was having a kind of religious experience. This, it seemed, was a wholly new kind of weirdness. I don’t know. I hope I haven’t said this a dozen times before about a dozen different records, but I might say that this is probably one of my top 5 favorite albums of all time. It was and remains a revolutionary record.

Somewhere, I had heard the band’s early and only “hit” thus far, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and I was charmed but underwhelmed, so much so that I didn’t realize when I got hold of “The Soft Bulletin” that it was the same band. Where to begin: how about with the snare drum slap and harp flourish that kicks off the anthemic melody of strings and synth that begin “Race for the Prize,” the first track on the album. When the vocal enters for the first verse, high, tentative, imprecise, awkward, singing about two scientists in a competition to discover some kind of monumental cure, for what we never learn, the band comes way down (sonically, it’s as if it’s a different band or a different recording altogether), and I am totally sucked in, emotionally invested, because, after all, “Theirs is to win, if it kills them; they’re just humans with wives and children.” The second tune, “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” seems to continue with this science fiction and physics theme, something about a group of people trying to lift up the sun, and how much only a spoonful of this star-stuff would weigh.  Holy shit.  It’s just so flipping weird, but oddly, at least for me, felt not like a discombobulated and cold absurdity, but intensely specific and emotionally evocative.

What’s the emotional content here?  At first it’s joy, then wonder, and then, in the third track, when Wayne sings, “I accidentally touched my head and noticed that I had been bleeding.” I just want to weep. It’s almost incomprehensible.  And then he sings, in the same song, “I stood up and I said yeah.”  On the surface, it’s such a dumb lyric, but coupled with the delivery and the production (which always seems to indicate something may be wrong with your stereo) and the cool vibe that is created by all these things in combo, this declaration and things like “I accidentally touched my  head” seem like the most profound lyrics ever written. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that listening to both “Waitin’ for Superman” and “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” has on many occasions brought me inexplicably to tears.

Wayne Coyne is a terrible singer. No question. And he’s even worse live.  The one time I saw them play I was convinced he was sick–but realized by watching videos of the band live that that’s how he always sounds!  But his genius for big philosophical ideas embedded in pop music trappings, his gift for melody despite the imprecision of his singing, his knack for capturing the absurdities of being human added to the almost symphonic musical genius of his bandmates and longtime producer Dave Friedman–these things are a heady mix indeed. I have been loyal to this band ever since.  They’re super frustrating because they’re always changing it up–but that is also their super strength and what makes them so vital and interesting.

So excited about revisiting this band, I had to spin “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” as well, the album immediately after “The Soft Bulletin,” and again was blown away by the deceptive silliness; deceptive, because, despite the sci-fi goofiness of the album’s concept, deep, zen-like wisdom permeates. “All we have is now. All we’ve ever had is now.”And I’ve had “Do You Realize” on the brain for nearly a week now. Another beautiful record that nevertheless makes you believe there might be something wrong with your stereo. I must say that I got a bit stuck on these two albums, listening to them both three times in succession right next to each other in the van’s cd changer.

Perhaps, autobiographically speaking, the reason I found The Flaming Lips so captivating was that when they found me, at the height, or rather, the deepest depths of an early mid-life crisis, a time in my mid-thirties when I did not know what was up, when I was more lost than I had ever been in my life, when everything seemed on the verge of falling apart,  this band brought joy and hope into my life. In some ways, they saved me. Or, at least, they were with me all the way through.

Postscript: I just bought the bonus 20 year anniversary edition of “Clouds Taste Metallic,” the preceding album to “The Soft Bulletin,” and another essential classic from The Flaming Lips. These three albums, I think, are greater than anything they did before or since.  I’m really hoping they make another pop record soon.

I am so bummed about my blown Boston Acoustics.  I’m doing much of my listening now in the studio, using the computer as a cd player, having to look at the big dumb monitor, constantly teasing me with Facebook and other such dumb internet things while I listen. Not optimum. And then when I’m not in front of the studio computer monitor, I’m in the car, listening to records in chunks of three or four songs, depending on how far I need to travel.  Not optimum, either.

Flight of the Conchords, “Self Titled.” I don’t know if these songs are good or if it was the television show that was good. I know the show was good, but I don’t trust that the songs aren’t successful only because I know the visual gags that accompanied them in the show. I guess it doesn’t matter. I can’t help but start giggling on the opening track, “Foux du Fafa,” where our intrepid New Zealand pop singing heroes try to pick up a French girl by pretending to speak the language. These guys have great pop sensibilities and perfect comic timing.  Perhaps the most successful and talented novelty band in the history of pop music. It’s impossible to listen to these guys without smiling and occasionally laughing out loud. “She’s so hot she’s making me sexist.” But “Bowie,” this time around, is not quite as funny. Touching, rather.  “Bowie’s in space,” indeed.

Ben Folds Five, “Self Titled.” The debut album from North Carolinians Ben Folds Five was the second BFF album I bought, but I think it was the record that had the most profound effect on me.  I was a child influenced by Elton, and this was like Elton John for the 21st century.  This record was released in 1995, but I think it was at least 1999 or maybe even a bit later when I heard this band and this record for the first time. Here was the inspiration and the permission I needed to front a rock band that did not feature a guitar anywhere in the mix. Thank you, Ben. Here’s another songwriter who marries all the things I love about pop music into one tidy package: expert musicianship, humor, profundity of idea, emotional resonance, and high energy. Is there a greater pop song about finding one’s way than “Philosophy”? Is there a more profound tribute to the nerd navigating the punk rock scene than “Underground”? Is there a greater sports tune ever recorded (and this coming from a person who is inherently NOT interested in sports) than “Boxing”? I think not. I have become super loyal to Ben Folds.  I have all the BFF albums and every solo record Ben Folds recorded after, even the one he did with William Shatner, which is fucking brilliant, by the way.  And funny as hell. Here’s an artist for whom I could happily spin every album in my collection, but because I listen to him so regularly anyway, and because some day in my life time I’d like to get through the flipping alphabet, I’ll stop here at this brilliant debut album from one of my favorite bands of all time and certainly my favorite band to emerge from the 90’s.

I don’t want to give the rest of the artists in the F section short shrift, but I think it’s a necessity. I didn’t realize I’d write 1000 words on The Flaming Lips alone, and I’m anxious to get to the G spot. So the following artists, some of whom I love and will listen to their records all the way through, will get the haiku treatment. Sort of.

Brian Kenny Fresno, “The Big Finish.” The cd jewell case has a sticker on it that announces a “free bong tool inside!” I think this was a ruse. I don’t even understand, not being a pot smoker, what kind of bong tool might be concealed inside a cd jewell case and I don’t remember receiving anything that might fit this description.  Fresno is a one man band, a guy who plays a thing called a Chapman Stick (essentially a 12 string bass guitar) and sings crazy funny songs. He’s a nut. I saw him play once and bought this cd. He’s a phenomenal musician and a maniacal performer. He’s like a progressive rock farm boy. He wears overalls and sings songs about rescuing dogs, dentists in China, and stoner detectives, among other things. Not easy listening, and much more engaging in concert than it is on record.

Robbie Fulks, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.” I saw this brilliant guy open up for Ben Folds and I was blown away. One of the only country singers I can listen to, partly because he rocks, partly because he’s funny and smart, but mostly because he’s politically a lefty.  All of this is pure gold, but most amazing, perhaps, is the country music echo of XTC’s “Dear God.” Fulks’ tune is “God Isn’t Real,” and it is every bit as scathing an indictment of religion as is Andy Partridge’s tune from the “Skylarking” album.

fun., “Some Nights.” I wrote an entire blog entry about going to a fun. concert, so I feel justified in keeping it short here. Their first record rocked my socks to such a degree that I felt for a few moments that they were my band, and then they became hugely successful with the hit single “We Are Young” from this record and attracted an audience of 12 year old girls. You may make “fun” of me, but I don’t care; I still think they’re really good. You cannot argue with the skill of this singer and the sophistication of these arrangements and the emotional power of some of these words. However, if there’s anything that makes this otherwise stellar record suck a bit, it’s the use of Autotune, not to correct bad singing, but to synthesize otherwise good singing, which is really a dumb thing.

Down with Autotune.

The only time autotune is acceptable is when it’s used to make a spoken word thing into a song. That can be really funny.

Fugazi, “Steady Diet of Nothing.” Before spinning this disc, I can recollect absolutely nothing about it other than, at some point, I had learned that Fugazi was an important and influential band and that I should probably know about them. A sign, of course, that they had a minimal impact on me. At the close of the 80’s and at the beginning of the 90’s, they were still waving the punk flag and, I think, influenced a lot of the musicians that would be central to the grunge era. As I’m listening, I remember the tunes, and I kind of remember thinking, this is cool, but it’s not melodic, and it’s not beautiful, and I’m no longer 18 years old, and while I can get behind the energy and the punk experimentation, my boat is decidedly not floated, so I will only listen to it a few times and then put it away. It’s like Devo meets Gang of Four and the Sex Pistols, with odd time signatures and perhaps a little bit more instrumental finesse, but not nearly as tuneful as any of those groups and ultimately, for me at least, nowhere near as interesting.

That concludes the effing F section of the CD collection.  I don’t know when I will get to the G spot. I’m in a play and writing a poem every day for the next month.  Who knows. I might be able to squeeze it in. The artists and bands in the G section may be calling for me. It’s a short list of some truly great stuff: Gabriel, Galactic Cowboys, Gang of Four, Geldof, Geggy Tah, Grandaddy, David Gray, The Grays, Guided by Voices.  I’m excited. Are you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume 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 IX, Letter E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

On to the letter E! Happy day!

 

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