Tag Archives: Music Millennium

Educational Music Shopping: Why Did These Artists Win Grammys?

Okay, I know exactly why the Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet record won a Grammy: because it is awesome. But I wondered about the other winners, the ones that, of course, I had heard of (you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of them), but had never listened to. So, at Music Millennium a couple of weekends ago, the oldest independent record store in Portland, Oregon, and one of my favorite places on the planet, I did some record shopping, and in an unusual state of looking for nothing in particular, I decided in the end to buy albums from artists that, while having minimal interest in heretofore, won a Grammy, and thus earned the distinction of the I-should-probably-know-something-about-this-record award from yours truly. I bought two albums that weekend from such artists: “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” by Greta Van Fleet, and “By the Way, I Forgive You” by Brandi Carlile. It was actually a different album from Greta Van Fleet that had the honor of winning a Grammy, but this was their most recent thing and, I thought, should be most representative of what they’re doing presently. They won for Best Rock album, and Carlile won for Best Americana album.

Let’s talk about the rock. Greta Van Fleet are clearly superbly talented young musicians. There can be no doubt about that. They’re a tight band, each member obviously not just proficient but accomplished on his instrument. They’re all very handsome young dudes as well, and the fact that three of them are brothers ads a kind of irresistible adorability factor. They have all those things going for them. Again, I’m not listening to the record that earned them a Grammy, but the one immediately and closely after. Are the songs good? Yes, on the whole, the songs are good. Is this band Grammy worthy? I have a few concerns.

The buzz around Greta Van Fleet is that they are a 21st century Led Zeppelin. And at first listen, and second listen, and third, this comparison seems absolutely appropriate. The lead singer out Robert Plants Robert Plant. He’s probably more virtuosic than the original, but if at times while listening to this record you close your eyes (which is a very silly thing to say, as the music will sound the same whether your eyes are open or closed), you will think you are hearing a long lost but sonically superior Led Zeppelin song. It’s possible that this singer is just doing his own thing, and his own thing happens to sound like Robert Plant’s thing, but it’s also just as easy to conclude that this guy is deliberately aping the mighty 70’s hard rock singer. It’s that close. And because, stylistically speaking, everything about this record seems to be paying tribute to 70’s hard rock bands, it’s difficult to believe that these boys were not studying the Led Zeppelin catalogue while they were in their diapers. And when he doesn’t sound like Robert Plant, the singer sounds like Geddy Lee. And sometimes he sounds like Geddy Lee sounds like Robert Plant, you know, a là Rush’s debut record. And not only is his singing eerily similar to these two giants, but his lyrics seem also straight out of the “Misty Mountain Hop”/”Kashmir”/”Anthem”/”By-Tor and the Snow Dog” songbook. And I find them silly. Rush’s lyrics are also silly, but when I fell in love with them first I was in the seventh grade. I think this record would have been infinitely more interesting to me in the 7th grade. But while I’m listening and driving, I’m banging my head. I’m a 7th grader again.

I read that Alice Cooper also dubbed these guys the new Led Zeppelin, and said they were doing a tremendous service for guitar rock in the 21st century, and if you love the Zep and wish they were still making records, I suppose Greta Van Fleet will satisfy those desires. My feeling is, yes, that could be a very good thing, but their stuff is super derivative, not original or groundbreaking in the slightest, and, I guess, not very interesting to me outside of its rocky goodness (no small potatoes), and perhaps, if it were my decision, Greta Van Fleet would not be worthy of a Grammy.  Nevertheless, I like this record and will listen to it a bunch more times likely before I tire of it.

Let’s move on to the Americana. First of all, what the hell’s Americana music? I’ve only been hearing this term for the last six or seven years, have played with musicians who consider themselves playing in this genre, but I’m still not completely sure I know what it is. But apparently though, it’s so much a thing now so as to have its own category of awards at the Grammys. So let’s look it up, shall we? From wikipedia:

Americana is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel, and other external influences.

The definition on AmericanaMusic.org is super similar, but they’ve added this little nugget, which I find instructive, that while Americana draws from all these other genres, it results “in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” What I find kind of funny about these definitions is that they seem to fit almost any musical outfit that is cross-pollinating genres. How “distinctively roots-oriented” could you get while playing around between six or seven different traditions–how could that be “a world apart”? I don’t have anything against artists and musicians who are not squarely in a particular camp, if fact, I admire that kind of thing, I’m just having difficulty deciding if Americana is an actual genre or whether it’s just a label we use when we can’t describe the genre but nevertheless decide that it feels genuinely American. Sidenote: listen to Elton John’s
“Madman Across the Water” and tell me that that record sounds British. I dare you.

So Brandi Carlile won the best album award in the category of Americana for “By the Way, I Forgive You”. What intrigues me about my response to this record is that, while it is a type of thing stylistically that I would be usually much less interested in than I would be in a record from, say, Greta Van Fleet, I like Carlile’s album a lot more than I like “Anthem of the Peaceful Army.”

At first, its decidedly country influence out of the gate puts me off some. Typically and with few exceptions, I do not favor country music. I especially do not like contemporary popular country music. Brandi Carlile’s voice is unabashedly a country sounding voice and the first tune on the album, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” seems to me an unabashedly country song. But she is none of the things I hate about country, and while I’m not a huge fan of that opening track, “The Joke” is something different altogether. This thing is an anthem. It’s got tremendous power, lyrically and musically. The first time I heard the song, I almost wept. In fact, in every subsequent listen, I can feel that tug. One of these times I think I’m going to have to let loose. It’s like the “We are the Champions,” the “Shout,” or the “We Are Young” of Americana. This is one thing that makes this album significantly different and better. Brandi Carlile is an ADULT and she’s writing very seriously about serious adult things; there’s no ice and snow in fairyland here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And the music, if it’s intended to be roots oriented, seems to me at times much more sophisticated, more progressive. Check out that third tune, “Hold Out Your Hand,” a tune with a jaunty little bluegrass verse that busts into a kind of slamming, again anthemic, four on the floor stomp swing in the chorus and culminates in this shouty, chant-like spoken word thing, coupled with one of those nonsensical background vocal hooks worthy of The Beatles. And, country twang or no country twang, Carlile is a powerful and interesting singer.

Americana? I guess so. There’s country here, blue grass, folk, rock, etc. Rootsy? Okay, but there’s orchestration on this album as well, beautiful and lush string orchestration, and that don’t strike me as rootsy. She sounds like Elton John trying to sound like an American. Maybe “By the Way, I Forgive You” is an Americana record simply because it defies easy categorization. That’s okay. I’m easy. Is it Grammy worthy? I think if it can make a 54 year old man want to cry, sure. Give this record a Grammy.

Postscript Ramblings: I’m kind of jonesing to get back to my alphabet project, the game of listening to a single album by every artist represented in my compact disc collection in alphabetical order and then writing about it. I started this project years ago, only got half way through the letter H, and then stopped. Mostly it’s because I cannot stop buying new music and new music listening seems to always take precedent. And I’ve spent lots of time listening to “new” music by artists that I’ve already written about in the alphabet, namely, rediscovering the entire early catalog of Bowie and the entire entire catalog by Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. And I’ve been discovering, like I have above, other new things that have ere now been completely out of my wheelhouse: Solange, Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Richard Hawley. I have to forgive myself for being distracted by so much good music pulling me away from the alphabet. I’ll get back to it some day, maybe someday soon. If this appeals to you, let me know.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

#158: Shopping for Records on the Anniversary of Paul Revere’s Ride

IMG_2392 IMG_2393

On the 240th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride,
I ride to Music Millennium for Record Store Day.
I wait in line for an hour to get inside
and while I wait I see a former student
of mine whose friend (just along for the journey)
is offered $100 by some dude with an ankle
injury to give up his spot in line.
I give $1, the last dollar bill in my wallet,
to a sad sad man who says he needs
bus fare. And speaking of busses, while we
all wait in line a bus pulls up
with a live band inside–and they do a set
inside this bus with the doors open so
people can hear, a three piece, I think.
There’s a drummer in the bus,
a guitar player who sings, and a bass player
who performs the set sitting on the floor
of the bus with his legs dangling out
the open doors. And the whole time the
bus is idling, you know, because that’s how
they are powering their amps.  They’re
pretty good but the exhaust fumes are
getting to me and I’m pretty happy as I
move farther up the sidewalk and closer
to the storefront doors and away from
the exhaust fumes.  Eventually, all
of us pilgrims are herded inside the store
and along a queue where all of the special
Record Store Day exclusive releases
are on display.  Each person takes his turn
flipping through the stacks in alphabetical
order and the line moves at a snail’s pace
while the rest of the store where one
would do his or her regular music shopping
seems relatively clear of crowd, nearly empty.
We all waited in line for an hour to wait in a line.
I love being here and doing this, one of the few
truly consumeristic pleasures I have, even
though I am underwhelmed by the offerings,
end up choosing only one Record Store Day
special release, a clear orange vinyl pressing
of “Do the Collapse” by Guided By Voices.
Everything else I bring home with me I could
have found on any other day at practically
any old time without having to wait in line
for an hour. New Death Cab, new Sufjan,
an old record sorely missing from my collection,
“Dirt” by Alice in Chains. No matter, I’m still
pretty pleased with myself, having had an
experience, an outing, a very public few hours
of solitude, doing the thing that since childhood
has been one of my very favorite things to do
in the world: shopping for records.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Poetry

#88: Why You Should Contribute To Music Millennium’s Kickstarter Campaign

37104-vinyl1

They need a new roof, for starters.
But more importantly,
if you are serious about music
and if you care about the industry
that has brought all of this delight
for so many decades, longer than
many of us have been alive,
and if you’re worried about
independent record stores
being squished by big boxes
and cheap and free downloads
and the new idiot box called
youtube, and if you’re like me,
and love to make a kind of ritual
of your music purchases,
love the smell of incense,
the nostalgia of classic candy
and the guilty pleasure of
an Alice Cooper lunch box
or the jigsaw puzzle version
of The Beatles’ White Album,
and if you love the heft in your hands
of 180 gram vinyl, black,
translucent, red or yellow,
and if you love the idea of all
of this coupled with a glass
of your favorite something,
the musical and alcoholic
version of the bookstore cafe,
then you need to contribute
to the Music Millennium kickstarter campaign.

insideout2

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Music, Poetry

Only A Bad Dream: Record Store Paradise Lost

I had a nightmare last night that Music Millennium, the oldest independent record store in Portland, closed its doors, and I wandered around the store weeping while the employees packed everything into boxes. It was a terrible, suffocating dream, vivid, emotionally as real as they come. You know the kind, one of those night time visions from which it takes a few moments to recover and about which you have to convince yourself: it was only a bad dream.

I was wondering about the origin of this night terror, hence, an inquiry that began a blog entry.

There are a few independent record stores in Portland but you have to go downtown or into city neighborhoods. I grew up in the suburbs, in Milwaukie, Oregon, and as a child and all the way through my teens there were two decent record stores within walking distance of my house. The first one went under about the time I started high school, is now the office of a used car lot, and the other lasted almost all the way through my teens, finally failed, and became in short order an adult video and sex-toy shop. That porno establishment is still going after more than 25 years, but there’s no music to be had anywhere in my old neighborhood (once again my neighborhood of residence), save for the electronics section of Fred Meyer’s Grocery or the few titles available at the local Starbucks. So, I make the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, sometimes weekly trek to Music Millennium, a twenty-five minute drive from my home, to shop for music. It’s food. It must be done. And while I order something on-line from time to time and download a bit every month, I always feel a little bit lazy and stupid when I do–unless I’m buying directly from the artist or from an independent label. So I have to work harder for new music. I have to travel.

I know that Music Millennium has had a rough time of it. There used to be two stores, one of which had a great stage for live music. Now there’s only one, the original, and it’s been in business for nearly 40 years, and it’s had to diversify, I understand, to make it. They do compact discs and record albums of course, and they have a massive selection, but they also sell dvds and books and classic toys and candy and games and  t-shirts and you can even buy a turntable there. Whatever, I say, it’s all good, and it all  has this power of recapturing the heyday of the vinyl record album, replete with incense aroma record store smell and great rock art everywhere; it’s a music fan paradise. Music Millennium is still in business and shows no signs of going under.  I hope it lasts forever.  But I worry, still, not just about this incredible store, but others like it in my town, all over the nation and the world.  And I worry not only about these great businesses, but maybe more so about the experience of music listening itself losing much of its vitality and richness.

It seems obvious that the artifact of the record album, despite its medium, digital or analog, is an endangered species and will ultimately become extinct and maybe soon.  This revolutionary fact that you can hold 40,000 songs on a device that fits in the palm of your hand makes compact discs and even more so the vinyl record album unwieldy, clumsy, inefficient things.  And the quality of the digital download has the potential to outshine the compact disc. So who’s complaining? What’s wrong with any of that?

First, the record album, the long-play record album, is a work of art worthy of preserving, and is at risk altogether when the practice of most music consumers nowadays is to download one song at a time, to pick and choose, to shuffle, rarely if ever to listen to a unified grouping of songs.  The record albums I loved growing up, and still love, are ones conceived, or at least understood, as one continuous whole–rather than a random collection of songs.  Think of The White Album, or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or The Wall, or Skylarking. These albums gave the listener a sustained experience, told a story, required our full attention, and the brevity of one side of a vinyl record in particular prevented us from mindless multi-tasking.

There’s a tactile experience, too, that goes missing without the music artifact. Vinyl records and their covers had a smell, all that cardboard and ink.  And you had to manipulate them physically, wrestling them out of their 12×12 houses, delicately pulling the record out of its sleeve with the tips of your fingers, careful not to muck up the first track, holding it gingerly between the two palms of your hands, gently setting it down on the turntable, selecting the correct speed, setting the platter into motion, admiring the shape of the individual tracks as they spun–yes, you could see this music!  And finally you set the needle down in the lovely and generous black space before the first song.  The pop of the landing.  The anticipation of the first note, beat, chord, word.  The reward.  Only some of this is maintained by the compact disc, a decisively inferior tactile experience–but we initially forgave that as we fell in love with this flashy new medium and believed at least we were getting superior audio quality even if we weren’t really.  But CD sales are way down and vinyl sales, even though there’s a whole bucket-load more of it than there was, say, a decade ago, belongs to a decidedly niche market, a niche market that seems to be stubbornly holding on, as I  notice that most new music I care about today is being released on vinyl.  It’s a tactile experience that true music fans are loathe to let go–and it’s not just nostalgia, truly.  The physical experience was part of the whole–an integral part, I think, that completely disappears with your iPod.

Next, the new portability of music allows us unrestricted, almost continuous, if we so choose, usage–which, in my mind anyway, devalues it, depreciates it.  We can, after all, listen to our favorite song while using a public restroom.  We used to have to make time for music.  One of my colleagues and I recently discussed how, as kids, we’d get up early so that we could listen to music before school. After school listening parties were daily rituals, even if they were parties of one. And unless you were lucky enough to have a stereo in your room, you also had to time your listening around the schedules of mom and dad. When you could get it, the time to listen was precious.  Today we are surrounded by it as often as we can stand it, and most of us stand it or desire it at least so much of the time that we really don’t know what it’s like often NOT to be listening, or watching, or looking at a screen. We develop a love and true appreciation for music, perhaps, only when we know what NOT having it is like.  I’m just throwing that out there.

This blog entry has become tiresome and long.  Let me conclude.

I don’t think there’s anything prescient about my nightmare: I am optimistic about the survival of Music Millennium.  It may, however, in a decade or less, be the only survivor in my town.  I feel bad for young people who claim to be music lovers who have never set foot in a real record store–either because they don’t know what such animals are, or because they can’t drive 25 minutes or an hour down the road to find one.  I’ve taught my son the joys and responsibilities of the record album. I’ve started buying vinyl again when I can afford it, not out of nostalgia, but in order to recapture the full experience of music listening.  I give myself permission to sit in a chair through the length of an entire record or two.  It’s rewarding.  It’s replenishing.  It provides a momentary continuity in the midst of all of the other noise in our daily battle with a thousand and one distractions.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Music