Tag Archives: Music listening A to Z

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XVII–The Impactful Album Challenge

What follows, dear reader, is a revised and slightly expanded version of my participation in the Facebook Album Challenge that’s been making the rounds of late in this merry, merry month of May in the year of our pandemic, 2020.

I include it here so that it’s all in one spot for quick reference for anyone who cares to take a gander, but mostly for me, as a record of how I responded to the challenge, the challenge to post a photo of 10 album covers over 10 days of records that had a significant impact, whatever that means. These could be records that influenced your musical tastes. If you play an instrument seriously or are a songwriter, maybe these could be records that had the most impact on your own path as a musician. For me, it was both of the above, but also I considered records that intersected with my life during important moments of development or growth, that enriched my spirit, and also, that have withstood the test of time for me. I could listen to any of these records right this minute and experience that same sense of wonder and joy and giddiness. For example, when I was a kid, Kiss records were impactful–but very little of their music is on current rotation, so they’re not here. Similarly, The Sweet–a profound early influence–and yet, their cringe-worthy lyrics offend my 21st century sensibilities. But unlike the Kiss omission, that was a super difficult call, one that I’m still struggling with, one that I may have to amend.

I also thought that this might be an accessible reentry for me into a blog series I started years ago, the purpose of which was to listen to a single compact disc from every artist represented in my collection, A to Z, and then to write a little reflection on the experience. I wrote 16 volumes of that series over several years, I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words, and I managed to get to, but not finish, the letter H. At this rate, I thought to myself, I might not live long enough to finish, and then I’d never get to write about Frank Zappa! Oh, the horror.

So here they are, my entries to the challenge, revised a bit, with the photos of the “10” most impactful albums on my life and times.

Photo on 4-25-20 at 10.44 AM

XTC, Apple Venus Volume 1: I was nominated by my friend John Stanford to play the album game. I accept begrudgingly, only because I don’t like being “called on” and I’m not too keen on the rules. Nevertheless, I accept, because who could turn down John Stanford. So I vow to break the rules all over the place. Here’s me, with, perhaps, my favorite pop record of ALL TIME, a record that never gets old and seems to me as timeless as Sgt. Pepper. The band is XTC. It’s the second to last record they would ever make together. It’s 1999. I am one decade into my teaching career and I am feeling brash and optimistic and unstoppable, just like this record, just like almost any record from XTC, who are, it’s safe to say, my favorite band ever. They were, to me, The Beatles of the 80’s and 90’s. I could have chosen a half a dozen of their albums for this challenge. For now, I would say, though, “Apple Venus Volume 1” is tied in first place with this one: “Skylarking.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Day 2 of a record album game in which I ignore the established rules. This was maybe the first album I ever obsessed over. I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor with her tiny little portable suitcase turntable and I played this album over and over. This was the beginning of my love affair with music. Maybe the first album for which I ever memorized every word.

The Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones LTD.: Day 3 of the record album game. Right alongside Sgt. Pepper, I spun this again and again as a child, and, like Sgt. Pepper, it has had the same kind of staying power for me. The neighbor girl and I liked to pretend we were radio disc jockeys. There was this odd little nook in her family’s attic that became our “station.” The requests for this record kept pouring in. We played it over and over. It’s a dream of mine to do a song-by-song cover album of this baby.

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Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Day 4 of top 10 most influential, pivotal, earth-shattering, mind-bending, life-altering record albums. This one blew my little 4th grade mind right open. Adventurous, varied, naughty, literate, literary, beautifully performed; every tune a gem. Not a clunker in the bunch. I was so hard core about Elton in elementary school, some kids called me Elton Jarm. This record was the pivotal one, and shortly after that, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the first LP I ever bought with my own money. Two favorites to this day.

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Laurie Anderson, United States Live; Kate Bush, The Dreaming: Day 5. Let the cheating begin in earnest. No serious music fan could name just 10, so I’m squeezing in a two-for. I can think of no two women who had more impact on my musical life than these two. They both enlarged for me the possibilities of pop music, what it can do sonically, and what it can do for the head and the heart. Anderson’s record, the first box set I ever purchased, a live album over 5 lps, brought so much of what interested me in my early adulthood into one brilliant package: she was funny, super literate, poetic, absurd, a trailblazer of music technology and for the marriage of the literary and the pop culture. Pure brilliance. And Kate Bush? This is her fourth album, but it’s the first one that I heard and I found it absolutely magnetizing and sexy and weird and theatrical and I loved it for nearly all the same reasons that I loved Laurie Anderson. But man, Kate could really sing. One of the most distinctly original female voices in rock music.

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Talking Heads, Fear of Music: Day 6. Talk about an appropriate title, the first time I heard this record I totally freaked out, thought it was the weirdest, ugliest, most unlistenable thing I had ever heard. I took it back, claimed it was defective. It haunted me. A couple of years later, after easing myself back in by trying their first two albums, “77” and “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” the “Fear of Music” album worked its way back into my collection and summarily changed my life. It is, still, by far, the weirdest Talking Heads record–but in the best, most beautiful way. “Electric guitar gets run over by a car on the highway. This is a crime against the state. This is the meaning of life: to tune this electric guitar.” Need I go on?

Devo, Are We Not Men? Oingo Boingo, Nothing To Fear: Day 7. Between these two I could not choose. By the time I had accepted Talking Heads into my heart, Devo and Oingo Boingo were busy carving out space in my mind for full on Nerd Rock New Wave devotion. And these two weirdo bands have the distinction for me of the best cover renditions of all time, Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Oingo Boingo’s “You Really Got Me,” both tunes on each band’s debut, respectively. This is not Oingo Boingo’s debut, but their sophomore effort. It kicks more ass; it’s less like a West Coast Devo. I wore out the grooves on this one and years later replaced the record with a CD. Watch me replace it on vinyl again if it ever reappears there. Who knew then what Mothersbaugh and Elfman would have in their musical futures? No body.

Joni Mitchell, Wild Things Run Fast; Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth: Day 8. It was 1984. I was a community college freshmen. The Dolby album was brand new that year, and simultaneously, I discovered “Wild Things Run Fast” from two years before, my first serious listen to Joni Mitchell. I immersed myself inside both of these albums, both artists becoming giant influences. Both records were imbued with this beautiful infusion of pop and jazz in a way that I don’t think I had ever heard before. In the next year or so, these two heroes of mine would collaborate on Joni’s “Dog Eat Dog” album, in hindsight, kind of a failure, but at the time I was over the moon. I love it when heroes collaborate. David Byrne and St. Vincent? Andy Partridge and Robyn Hitchcock? Brilliant. More please.

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Cheap Trick, The Dream Police: Day 9. I could have posted any one of their first five studio albums. This band–a childhood favorite that continues to blow my mind and continues to make great music. Check out anything from “Cheap Trick ’97” onward. Robin Zander, I think, is one of my all time favorite ROCK singers. Even their Christmas album rocks. Yeah, they made a Christmas record. Sad to see that Bun E. Carlos is out of the fold. He was such a force in this band. I loved his drumming, especially his tendency to put the eighth note bass drum hits on the other side of the snare in the rock beat. He and Rick Neilson were the perfect foils for super models Robin Zander and bass extraordinaire Tom Peterson.

Here’s my story: I saw Cheap Trick open up for Kiss without ever having heard a single song of theirs–this was before the Budokan album made them famous–and I thought, even as a young tike, that if you took all those pyrotechnics and motorized platforms and blood spitting and make up and crazy outfits away from Kiss, Cheap Trick was clearly the superior band musically, in every way.

The Boomtown Rats, The Fine Art of Surfacing; Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model; Japan, Tin Drum; Gary Numan, Telekon:

Day 10 of breaking all the rules. Appropriately enough, today I share my own personal New Wave Holy Quadrumvirate. There’s no way I could leave any of them out of a group of songwriters or bands or albums that ultimately shaped me into the musician and lyricist I became. Bob Geldof, from the Boomtown Rats, in particular, was my first political songwriter. The wit of Elvis is incomparable. David Sylvian from Japan may have been my first rock star spiritual guru. And Numan was just freaky, a perfect role model for awkward and nerdy teens.

It feels wrong to cut out too early here. It’s hard to express the impact all four of these records made on my young life. It’s worthy of its own blog entry, perhaps. I have been loyal to them all over the years. The Boomtown Rats just reunited after 37 years for a new record and I’ve followed everything Geldof did as a solo artist. Elvis is frighteningly prolific. He’s the artist in my collection that is most plentifully represented, second behind only one other artist. David Sylvian’s solo work has been super exciting to follow, challenging, far reaching, deeply spiritual and literary, and Gary Numan continues to make great, really great records.

Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch: Day 11. Zappa much? While not a completist, I have more Zappa in my collection than any other artist, 37 albums in all, many of which are double and sometimes triple cd collections. This one may not be my all time favorite, but, as it was my first Zappa record, it has a special place in my memories of all-things-Frank. Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch, indeed! The best musicians in the world playing the weirdest, most difficult rock music ever composed. Zappa also has the distinction of being the first artist, while living at home, that I felt I needed to hide from my parents. I listened at relative low volume in my bedroom or cranked it up when they weren’t at home. The line in particular from “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” comes to mind, a song I would never want to play within my mother’s earshot. Iconoclastic. That’s the word. The music, the words, the thought–he was in every way a musician’s musician and a thinking person’s musician. Everything he did was daring, astounding, funny, intelligent, incisive, brilliant. Cancer sucks, by the way. What might he have done had he continued to live?

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The Police, Message in a Box (The Complete Recordings); Rush, A Farewell to Kings: Day 12 of the Album-Game Cheat-fest. Today, it’s about the drummers, man. These two guys, more than any other drummers, shaped my musical brain. Copeland maybe more so, because I never did develop anything close to Peart’s chops. Stewart’s chops likely dwarf mine as well, but I cut my teeth playing to Police records and could pull most of it off. The Rush stuff I had to fake. In my Cheaty-McCheat-Face way, I’ve included the entire Police catalogue. And then this, I think, my favorite Rush album of all, in it’s original cover artwork glory. I wanted to take a picture of the 40th anniversary edition–but you know, they’ve reimagined all the artwork. I don’t know how I feel about that. I DO know how I feel about Neil Peart’s untimely passing, and you can read all about that here.

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Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings: Day 13. They were punk, they were ska, they were funk, they were soul, they were metal, they were pop, they were super smart; their energy was frenetic, palpable, and, while they chronicled our American ugliness, their music was undeniably joyful and life-affirming. I am somewhat embarrassed that Black American Music is not more widely represented in my collection–but I am so appreciative of this band for bringing to my twenty-something white boy privilege some awareness and consciousness that, truly, I had little of before encountering this band.

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They Might Be Giants, Flood, Apollo 18: Day 14. “Penultimate” is one of my favorite words. It’s a word that I have been guilty of abusing, but not this time. 😁These guys were my antidote to the grunge movement of the 90s. I needed the nerd rock to cleanse the palette in between all that Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. And I loved those bands, but I am uniquely aware of their conspicuous absence on this list. Nevertheless, here it is, my penultimate offering in the Most Important Records In Your Life game, cheater version: They Might Be Giants.

Photo on 5-10-20 at 11.11 AM

The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin: Day 15. To conclude the 10 day, one-album-a-day challenge, about which I have bent the rules considerably, I choose this 1999 classic, a record I did not hear for the first time until 2001, a record that came to me at a perfect time in my life, a record that matched the absurdity, the profundity, the magnitude of my world, externally and internally. It is, perhaps, with a half a dozen XTC records, one of the most important records of my life. “Suddenly, everything has changed.”

I have penned more words on this blog site about this band than perhaps any other band. Check out the “Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography” under F and “A Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of Oczy Mlody.” They have consistently challenged me, intrigued me, touched me in really surprising places, but also, from time to time, pissed me off. Unlike XTC, they have made terrible records. But I appreciate their fearlessness. I appreciate how successful they have become while being so undeniably weird and counter to most of what you might call mainstream pop music. Wayne Coyne, I think, is really something else.

And that’s it for my list of the “10” most impactful records of my life. But, I’d like you to notice, I have included only music from the 20th century. I have continued to listen avidly and to actively seek new music out. New music continues to shape me and move me. So maybe, I’m thinking, there may need to be a 21st century edition, again, not because anyone is holding their breath to know what my favorites are, but because this activity of writing about music that was meaningful to me is a little bit therapeutic and life-giving. I feel like I’m doing what Whitman was doing in his SONG: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” My record collection, though, is way better than Whitman’s, but serves in many ways, both literally and figuratively, as my Song of Myself.

Postscript: Honorable Mentions in no particular order. “Destroyer” by Kiss, “Give Us A Wink” by The Sweet, The Pretenders debut album, “Life’s Too Short” by The Sugarcubes, “Parallel Lines” by Blondie, “Powerage” by AC/DC, “Face to Face” by Angel City, “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie, “Call of the West” by Wall of Voodoo, “The Big Heat” by Stan Ridgeway, “True Colors” by Split Enz, “Temple of Low Men” by Crowded House, “From the Inside” or “Flush the Fashion” by Alice Cooper, “Ten” by Pearl Jam, “Dirt” by Alice in Chains, “All You Can Eat” by K.D. Lang, “Discipline” by King Crimson, and “Thrak,” also by King Crimson, “Songs from the Big Chair” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears, “So” by Peter Gabriel, “Globe of Frogs” by Robyn Hitchcock, “Whatever and Ever, Amen” by Ben Folds Five, “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths, and “Spilt Milk” by Jellyfish. I’ve forgotten something. I know I have.

Until next time, happy listening!

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Thank You, Neil, Part 2: On Becoming a Rush Completist

I pinned down the year I stopped listening to Rush to 1983. Totally immersed in the New Wave and Punk movements of the day, listening to progressive music I found more avant-garde, like Zappa or Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, it was the year I graduated from high school, the year after the Signals record came out. I liked the singles from that record; “Subdivisions” and “New World Man” were cool tunes, if not significantly less adventurous and progressive than almost everything that came before, at least rhythmically. But I didn’t own that record and didn’t listen to it all the way through until maybe five or six years ago, when I decided to collect the three Rush box sets, Sectors I, II, and III, collecting every album, studio and live, from the very beginning all the way to 1987’s Hold Your Fire and the live album that followed, Show of Hands. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia (I had sold my entire vinyl collection in 1987 and all my Rush albums with the lot), and the fact that I had gotten over a decade or more of snobbishness against the band, but I felt like it was time to dive back into Rush and I did that in a big way. A few years later, 40 year anniversary reissues of my favorite of the classic Rush records started to come out, and I just had to have Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres on heavyweight vinyl. I was all in. And then, this January of 2020, Mr. Peart, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, he shuffled off this mortal coil. And while I was mourning that loss and listening to those two favorite Rush albums again, I realized that there was almost 20 years worth of Rush albums since Hold Your Fire that I had never heard–not even one song.

I had homework to do.

Apparently, there was a box set made especially for me, especially for this occasion, a collection of every studio album from 1989 to 2007, seven compact discs in all, released, perhaps, before the band knew that they would ever release another record, or, more likely, released after the band’s exit from the Atlantic record label. There would be only one more studio album after 2007, Clockwork Angels from 2012. So, as far as Rush’s studio albums are concerned, save for this 2012 record, which I have not yet heard, I have become a Rush Studio Album Completist.

I read somewhere recently that since Peart’s death, Rush record sales and streams have soared upwards about 2000%. I am happy to have contributed to that. At the same time, there’s a kind of sadness about the fact that the popularity or public interest in an artist always surges after they’ve died. But I think the joy outweighs the sadness: I have always found great pleasure in discovering a band several albums into a career and then being able to check out the back catalogue, to find out what I had missed. I did this in the 80s with Japan, XTC, The Boomtown Rats, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa. Recently, I’ve done this with Father John Misty, St. Vincent, The Dear Hunter, and The Mountain Goats. Now, I have the pleasure of knowing the music of a band’s trajectory almost 15 years in, and then of being able to explore another 20 years worth of music going forward! So, thank you again, Neil, for that.

I worry: might there be a good reason I never heard a single song from 8 albums over 20 years? Wasn’t there a good reason for falling out of love with Rush in the first place? Are these new records from the catalogue going to have any kind of staying power for me now? Or am I just going to listen to them once, say to myself, okay, I did that, and then put them back away for ever?  Well, let’s find out. Here’s a little listening tour in miniature of every Rush album made from 1989 to 2007! Don’t expect full-blown reviews. These are essentially notes I was taking as I listened to each record for the first time. And, F.Y.I.: I did not do this in one sitting.

Presto: The first song out of the gate is one that I know I’ve heard: that opening riff of “Show Don’t Tell” is, perhaps, at least in my memory, the last of the iconic Alex Lifeson riffs, and maybe the last of the big singles. This tune rocks. It showcases each member of the band at the height of their powers. I’m disappointed in the fade-out, though. I like it when bands write endings and record them, especially on the first track of the album. “Chain Lightning” has kind of a new wave thing going on. Geddy hasn’t yet jettisoned the keyboards. But this is no synth pop. I hear The Police in the third tune, continuing to make impressions on the dynamic Canadian trio. It seems clear that the era of the epic prog tune is over for Rush at this point; not a single song reaches six minutes in length. This was also true, I think, of their previous two albums, Grace Under Pressure and Hold Your Fire. “Scars” is almost a dance tune. I’m not kidding. Miraculously, it works. The title song begins with the line: “If I could wave my magic wand.” Not a great lyric moment for Neil. “Superconductor” out-Polices The Police. Super rocking song. And its central riff is in 7. Yea! More good songs follow. Nothing mind blowing, but nothing either that I would be tempted for a moment to skip over. In the last song, “Available Light,” a piano predominates the verses. This is a very different Rush thing and it’s lovely. The vocal transition between the chorus and the next verse is an exquisite move. Strong ending, friends.

Roll the Bones: “He’s got a road map to Jupiter.” This might be the first Neil lyric, at least that I’m aware of, about riding a motorcycle, unless I’m totally misreading the lyric, which is possible. This first track, “Dreamland,” is a palatable rock song. “We’re only immortal for a limited time.” That’s clever. The title track is funky, a happy chance, after the sleepiness of that second tune. I wanna shake my booty. Oh my, there’s a kind of rap thing going on right now and I’m frightened. It didn’t ruin anything, happily. More rock. It’s impossible not to do that chicken head maneuver along with the beat of “Face Up.” An instrumental? Oh yeah. Super groovy. And it’s got an absurdist title: “Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy)” Whoever said Rush didn’t have a sense of humor? Clearly, when you see them in interview or in that beautifully inspiring documentary, they do, but rarely does it show up in the music. Here it is. This whole thing is in 4–but there are fantastic Neil moments in this one. Things get pretty pedestrian after this. “Ghost of a Chance,” though, is effective pedestrian. “You Bet Your Life” is a celebratory, fun, nutty closing tune. This background vocal chant-thing is exquisite. I’m a fan.

Counterparts: Drum intro after an obligatory, and funny in this case, 1, 2, 3, 4 count-off. “Animate” is the first track here, and it rocks, and it features some lyrics that are at once a return to philosophical and fantastical form for Neil, but also seem to fit nicely into the disaffected and anti-establishment ethos of the early grunge movement. “Stick It Out” continues very much in this vein. This record, so far, is way heavy. Metal, even. I dig. Am I listening to a lost Faith No More album? It sounds great and I just want to bang my head. Some touching and politically pointed lyrics in “Nobody’s Hero,” the closest thing to a rock ballad I’ve heard yet in these albums. Strong, affecting. The next two songs continue to rock, are interesting melodically, and have cool arrangements, but “The Speed of Love” is a little sleepy. “Double Agent” is a rocking thing that in sections returns to progressive odd time signatures and is punctuated with some spooky spoken word. Another instrumental! “Leave That Thing Alone” demonstrates that while musically their instrumental works remain super focused, tight, melodic, their titles can be (or have become) super silly. That was awesome. A favorite moment. There’s nothing unpleasant about the last two songs of this album. Verdict: a very good record.

Test for Echo: It just seems wrong to hear so much 4/4 on Rush albums. The odd time signature was one of those things, as a young man anyway, that defined Rush for me. I’m trying to let that go. On this album, I counted not one crazy drum fill. I could have missed it. I may have spaced out. Geddy’s singing is consistently in lower registers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Out of the first four discs in the box, this so far is my least favorite. It’s just not very interesting, adventurous, or memorable. Is there a single tune that stands out to me? Maybe I’ve had too much to drink. To be fair, I’ll have to return to this one.

Vapor Trails: That opening drum intro kicks ass. “One Little Victory.” Okay, this is the Rush I love. Not super melodically interesting, but it’s sure rocking. “Ceiling Unlimited”: mo’ better melody. Heady words. We’re out of the 90’s now, Dorothy, but still, this is almost punky grungy. And, apropos of the 90s: running time on this one is 1 hour and 8 minutes. Too long. Another motorcycle song: “Ghost Rider.” Yea! Odd time signatures make a return on “Peaceable Kingdom.” Ooh. That’s almost a Beatle-y bridge. This song is long and has lots of parts. I’ve forgotten where I am. A bit of folk-pop in “How It Is,” decidedly uncool. Titular tune, decidedly sleepy. “Freeze” is maybe the coolest, most melodic and thus most interesting thing on this record, which, overall, tends to be seriously good.

Feedback: An album of covers?! Oh my. What do we have here? Seems kind of antithetical to everything Rush has done since their debut album. Maybe that’s the point. This, perhaps, was all formative shit for the dynamic trio. “Summertime Blues”? Really? Cool idea to replace the spoken word breaks with bass solos and drum solos. Nifty and surprising ending. The Yardbirds cover, a song I don’t know, is groovy. Geddy’s vocal on this is especially pleasing. Buffalo Springfield! Stop, Children, what’s that sound? It’s Rush doing cover tunes. The Who! Neil has said that Keith Moon was a big influence. More Buffalo Springfield! The first and only time I’ve heard the song “Seven and Seven Is” was on an 80s vintage Alice Cooper album. I’m learning things about Love. More Yardbirds! And finally, Robert Johnson a la Cream: “Crossroads.” Neil’s playing the super straight ahead rock drums on this whole collection, but nevertheless, this has been an unexpectedly enjoyable experience.

Snakes and Arrows: The last disc in this collection, Rush, circa 2007. First tune, “Far Cry,”  is rocking, guitar riffy, melodic, and begins with a series of classic Rush intro breaks. I have a good feeling about this one. Hey! The odd time signature makes a comeback in the verse of “Armor and Sword,” a beautiful song that seems to move seamlessly between a bunch of disparate pieces that nevertheless all hang together. “No one gets to their heaven without a fight.” I can dig the use of the “their” pronoun in this lyric. It changes everything. The following two or three songs are not nearly as remarkable, but still undeniably good and smart. In this lovely instrumental, “The Main Monkey Business,” I think I hear references to early Rush tunes–and I think they’re deliberate allusions to 2112 and Hemispheres and not an accidental rehash. Maybe I’m imagining things. Nope, there it is again. Holy cow: that truly rocked. Followed by a kind of blues-thing-not-a-blues-thing. It seems what Rush is trying to do here and in many of these earlier records from this collection (successfully, I might add), is to rediscover themselves as ROCK band. I can’t remember hearing anything on any of these records that might be considered a ballad. The closest we get is a moment here and there of relative quiet–but only a moment. Fist pump. Devil horns. Head bang. They may have been more “easy listening” in the prog era of the 70’s. Is “Faithless” a kind of atheist anthem? I’d have to read these lyrics more closely. “I don’t have faith in faith. I don’t believe in belief. I believe in love, and that’s faith enough for me.” There’s some playfulness, some actual humor, I think, in “Bravest Face,” musically and lyrically. I’m finding this thoroughly enjoyable, all the way through. This last one may be my favorite of the seven–indicating perhaps that they just kept getting better. Rush was a fucking great band. There are bands that I have loved more, bands that I would never have stopped listening to even if you put a gun to my head, that I have been more loyal to over the years, but ultimately, Rush was unstoppable. Only death could keep them down. And that is really saying something.

 

 

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Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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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 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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