Friday, February 16, 2018

Pop Backstory, Chapter 16: Popular American Songs, 1911-1920: Dancing And Ragtime, America Loosens Its Collar

It lives...even now...
Welcome to the penultimate post and the next decade in this series, 1911-1920. This continues the Tin Pan Alley era - this could actually count as its glory days - and ragtime, and its various variants still ruled the...whatever they called airwaves at the time. (I actually know this: live shows and sheet music.) There was plenty of Irish and/or sentimental stuff too, but ragtime was what the hip crowd bopped to. Another novelty showed up at this time (this is from Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life: A History (reunited and it feels so good)):

“…starting in 1912 public dance halls opened in large numbers, and so did hotel ballrooms and dance halls in cafes, restaurants, and cabarets. A flood of new dances fueled the explosion…Dancing in earlier days had been a formal activity of learned steps and motions of the feet. But the new dances, many of them infused with syncopation and bearing such names as the fox-trot, turkey trot, Texas tommy, bunny hug, and lame duck, encouraged more spontaneous movements.”
Which reminds me, I need to do a unit on American dances. And vaudeville. Dammit! The business of staying on the righteous (focused) path gets harder as you go, not easier. Moving on, later in the same chapter that the quote above came out of, Crawford staked a pretty bold claim for all the above:

“These songs suggest how, during the 1910s, the social identification of ragtime shifted away from its African-American roots toward the expression of a new consciousness: a sense that Victorian’ culture’s days were numbered and that ragtime was both a symptom and celebration of its decline.”
Meanwhile, in the world beyond music (and perhaps as a reaction to?), World War I would dominate the decade, which contained the entirety of one of the dumbest wars in human history (which says plenty). But it also arguably counts as the first decade when Big Government (and the concomitant One-World conspiracies) well and truly took off thanks to the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve System, the U.S. government actually enforced an anti-trust suit (against Standard Oil; yes, that’s counter-intuitive). On the global stage, Woodrow Wilson did his damnedest to get the United States to join the predecessor to less slickly-branded predecessor to the United Nations, the League of Nations. Elsewhere, and completely in keeping with America’s peculiar definitions of freedom and oppression, this decade got the wheels rolling on Prohibition. The real stupidity didn’t start until 1920, so that’s one terrible idea starting where this chapter ends.

It’s really a lotta war shit, after that - e.g., the U.S. invading Nicaragua to enforce on behalf of American and European banks or riding into Mexico after Pancho Villa - while, on the brighter side, a bunch of national parks were established, along with a National Park Service to manage them, and Scouts, both Boy and Girl, to appreciate them. Some technological stuff happened - air mail service and the first mechanized assembly line - but it lacks the “WOW” factor of the 19th century’s breakthroughs. The first flight across the continental United States should make you feel better: New York to Pasadena clocked in at just over 82 hours.

All in all, it was a much, much slower world. Not just in that vehicles puttered compared to now, but communications and the overall size of the world. A lot of the music still sounds that way, too. So, let’s go forward…

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Bins Project Volume 53: The More ABBA Gold B-Side Redux

You dreamed a little harder because you had to back then...
"By the end of the twentieth century, it was far more contrarian to hate ABBA than to love them."
- Chuck Klosterman, about a decade later.
The 1990s ABBA resurgence came at a tricky time. (Also, sorry, I can't do the backwards "B" from their logo). Irony reigned, for one thing (you remember, that thing 9/11 killed), so when ABBA’s songs resurfaced in left-of-mainstream film imports like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert, the basic effect was a celebration of camp. What might have inspired those movies - I mean apart from Australia’s powerful ABBA fandom - was the 1992 release of ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits. As the 1990s swerved their blinkered path to The Ultimate Enlightenment of 9/11 (feel the panic; the terrorists won in the end), you’d hear ABBA all over - parties, the jukebox at the local bar, etc. It seemed like you’d hear one ABBA track without fail on any given night. And for years. Maybe it was the friends I had, I don't know. But everyone seemed to genuinely enjoy it.

Not even 9/11 could suppress the eternal bubbliness of ABBA: when Mamma Mia! came out in 2008, half the people I know lost their shit all over again. Barack Obama really did make people feel better…well, anyone not pissed off about getting lapped by a black man, anyway…

I always saw ABBA as a group I only liked with my brain turned off. I say that as someone, 1) who sings along with just about any song I know (I even rap in private), but, 2) who refuses to song along with ABBA as a policy (and I know their hits). That's on the grounds that, when I do, the noise(s) I belch out sound like glass-filled dog shit in contrast to the pristine pitch and clarity with which Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyndstad (aka, their names) present every single song. It turns out they were perfectionists in the studio and, cool side note, Faltskog and Lyndstad played a big role in shaping the vocals they made so famous (well, as least per self-reporting; hope it’s true, because it feels right). For all their talent, they’ve always struck me as light and silly, even goofy - something appreciated strictly for fun, never seriously or critically. But that came later…

I remember ABBA from my childhood. I saw the album Arrival in record collection at some friend’s house, or maybe a relative’s (photo above). Even though it’s a helicopter, it looked like a UFO to me - which could say something about how ABBA existed in the culture (also, the cover of Super Trouper…so many possible interpretations). Digging into this project confirmed just how goddamn utterly colossal they were in their hey-day. My favorite anecdote for that involves a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where “it was later revealed that the box-office received 3.5 million requests for tickets, enough to fill the venue 580 times.”

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Songs, Y'All! February 2018, Week 2

It feels this way because I let it...
Another week, another pile of songs, only last week ended with me juggling my hobbies in a different way (e.g., goodbye politics, welcome back soccer). I’ll be handling music differently too, and in a way that really opens up these posts in particular. Or at least that’s the dream. I have this awful habit of running headlong into the choice paradox at every opportunity.

Long story short, I decided to suspend/stop the New to Me series, or rather just redirect that content into these Songs Y’All posts. Ideally, this will free me up to listen to more new music/artists in a given week - or, god forbid, to listen to some of the songs I include in these posts more than once. That’s as opposed to listening (obsessively) to two artists (almost exclusively), and squeezing in everything else, which is what I’ve done till now. Basically, I hope I have time to look around a little more (e.g., check out things like Tiny Desk Concerts, etc.).

One more note of interest: when I went back to find a song by Whyte Horses (these (awesome) guys), I found that most of their albums had disappeared from Spotify. Wonder if that has anything to do with this settlement, or this lawsuit…goddammit, Spotify, don’t screw this up for me. And pay the damn artists. I’ll pay more each month…

At any rate, this week’s songs are below and a playlist will go up at the same time. Enjoy!

Tweedy - Low Key
A(nother) mid-tempo indie track, title thoroughly appropriate, etc. Even matches the comedic tone of the video.

Sparkly guitar pairs with mumbling vocals - again, tres indie - but it comes together nicely with the stumbling rhythm.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

New to Me, No. 32: Xenia Rubinos: High Degree of Originality

What? I'm entitled to Olympics metaphors.
Bear with me. Feeling uninspired tonight…and it has nothing to do with the artist.

Xenia Rubinos, Magic Trix and Black Terry Cat

Gateway Drug
Mexican Chef,” danceable consciousness-raising.

Back Story
This came in a wave of political tracks that Spotify kept feeding me in October 2016, for some damn reason. (Has anyone looked into Swedish attempts to influence our elections? I need Devin Nunes, stat!) Nearly all of them came from this collection called 30 Days 30 Songs, and took a pass on nearly all of them. “Mexican Chef” did not, and maybe that let it stand out. That, or the fact it wasn’t moping indie or snark-punk raging against Donald Trump. (Wasn’t all bad; gave me one of my favorite songs/spoken-word-thing for 2017.)

Another thing that stood out: this song just feels powerful. A thick bass-line opens it, before a buzzing guitar pulses in with a beat skipping under it. Rubinos takes this propulsive energy, shifting different pieces of the music between gears at different times, keeping what is a pretty simple interesting with breaks and pauses in different places. The song’s chorus plays a little like a mantra (another thing she bends and re-purposes) - and it’s just a list places and occupations, including the title’s “Mexican Chef.” The lyrics clear up things soon enough - you don’t forget the first time you hear “Brown even wipes your grandaddy’s ass” - and what Rubinos gives you is a delightfully, blunt assessment/fuck you of all the ways “Brown” contributes to and keeps American society moving. (So, maybe a "thanks," yeah?)

Protest songs don’t often pull off a sense of joy of any kind, but this track does it. It's relentlessly up-beat and brassy; call it swagger for the serfs. I saw the video some weeks later, can’t say when. It’s a weirdly lonely thing, just Rubinos dancing. And it’s not whether she can or can’t dance (she can), than that it’s hard for one person to hold all that space together dancing solo. What I’m really saying is that I’d love to see her in another (better) setting. (I checked out the video for “See Them,” as I’m writing and that works better...wait. It does until it doesn't. Also, doesn't matter. Back to it.)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pop Backstory, Chapter 16: Popular American Songs, 1900-1910: Tin Pan Alley Polish

Hell, yes!!!!!!
Hello, and welcome to the next edition in this reasonably earnest, if uneven history of popular music in the United States of America. Links to all the earlier chapters are embedded in the column just to the right, so dig in if you want to, catch up on any chapters you might have missed, or just look at this and think, “wow, crappy website” and move on. If you do stick around, you’ll find this is educational…in its way.

I often start by placing the many, many songs below in time (used this, btw). And, for a sense of that, consider that President Theodore Roosevelt took the first ever trip abroad by a sitting U.S. president in 1906 (I mean, that can’t be right, right?). As it happens, he was visiting to visit the newly-formed nation of Panama, which the U.S. connived away from Colombia and -what! - you want to give US a canal? That’s a round-about way of saying this was the period of naked American imperialism…

Still, lots of other stuff happened: on the technological side, Guglielmo Marconi sent the first two-way wireless communication across the ocean and Willis Haviland Carrier built the first air conditioner (so that’s how they got the name); elsewhere, the first cross-continental road trip (Hell, yes!) made the haul in two short months…plus 12 days. For every disaster (San Francisco Earthquake/Fire, that hurricane pummeling Galveston, Texas; 1906 and 1900, respectively), someone gave us a miracle (see, the first flight in 1903, or Las Vegas, or the, um, NCAA; no, screw it, see Marconi and Carrier above). Under Roosevelt and Taft, U.S. national parks went up all over the country and [______] Expositions were all the rage - though Buffalo, New York probably threw the worst one in human history (featured a presidential assassination, which, reportedly, hurt the gate).

On the musical side, this decade brings us into the early-middle of Tin Pan Alley’s dominance. Long story short, not many of the songs below came from any address but a tiny block in New York City, New York, United States of America, circa this decade. It sounds like it too, in that you’d probably lose track between one song and the other if you played them all straight through, consecutively. More than any other decade I’ve poked around before, music from the first decade of the 20th century has a sound, a near*-universal approach to what they’re doing (emphasis on “near”). There was a run of “moon songs” late in the decade, fer crissakes.

Anyway, that’s enough of me. Below is a quick tour of popular American songs for the years 1900 to 1910.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 52: Kitty (Pryde), On Hip Hop & Evolution

Seriously, is the look that predictable?

It started with a song called “Orion’s Belt,” something I picked up through Too Good for Radio on my quest to find anything but alternative rock. She went by Kitty Pryde back then, and I fell for her…calling it “medicated” rapping. She teamed up with Riff Raff, the guy James Franco may or may not have channeled for his character in Spring Breakers. Related/unrelated, I haven’t looked at a can of Bumblebee tuna the same since hearing “Orion’s Belt.”

At least one more Kitty song slipped into my collection - “How to Be a Heartbreaker,” which managed to have all the stuff I didn’t like about Kitty, and none of the stuff I liked - though I’ll be damned if I can figure out where I saved it (it’s not with the rest). She was batting .500, basically, when I stumbled across Bandcamp, but I must have liked what she did enough because I put down the money to buy her two EPs, D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (tell me I’m only typing that once) and ha ha i’m sorry.

After a few listens, I lost track of both EPs…or, rather, I lost interest in them; because Kitty put a heart on either side of her name when she released those EPs, they top the “Music” folder that contains all the music my computer isn’t weird about playing, so I can’t really miss ‘em. (For the curious, that folder is much, much bigger than the one I mined for the first 50 Bins Project posts. We have only just begun to march, etc.) The last I really remember hearing from her came with her role in The Danny Brown Blowjob Incident - she wrote something that framed it as sexual assault, he later demurred, etc. - but I liked those EPs well enough. Just not enough to kick ‘em up to even medium rotation.

For all the above, I’m glad to have another crack at Kitty because, as an artist, she existed in a weird space for me. The high-pitched “squeaks” that felt like comic flair on “Orion’s Belt” (introducing “cute hop”) pick up a cringe-y vibe when it felt too central to her ditzy, desperate stoner-girl appeal (good taste of the “squeaks," the intro to "smiledog"). To paraphrase every cop still fighting crime on the edge of retirement, I’m getting too old for tales of obsession and dating desperation. (Then again, I’m also at the sweet spot for divorcees shaking off the rust from years of marriage and trying again.) Most of what she does shouldn’t resonate, basically, and maybe that’s why I only gave Kitty the shot I did.

There was another reason I hadn’t heard much about Kitty over the years: she’s spent over two years (roughly the time between The Danny Brown Blowjob Incident and April of last year) literally suffering (through robberies, artistic frustration, etc.) to make her debut album Miami Garden Club. Now enlightened, I have nothing but respect for how she went about making that album, especially the artistic integrity side of the equation. Moreover, she took her sound in a different direction - because she was “sick of rapping.” But…

Songs, Y'All! February 2018, Week 0.5 Playlist

Add caption
I know flakiness undermines any project, but I have to yank another loosely-promised project. While  I could devote an entire “New to Me” post to elaborating on how little Aussie indie-pop act, Oh Pep! moved my personal needle, I’m not sure anyone wins with that (i.e., if they ever found this post, they might feel sad, insulted, or even superior (go with that), and I’d feel like a jerk, etc.).

I hardly blame Oh Pep! for the lukewarm embrace. Between the steady, wrong-headed algorithmic evolution of Spotify’s Discover Weekly and the odd dips into NPR’s All Songs Considered, I’ve gorged on music with such a similar profile for long enough that I can only tolerate it in ever smaller doses. I’m so sick of musically-inventive-yet-spare songs with poetic/smart lyrics that I can see putting down my ear-buds and walking away from music forever. I mean, if that's all the zookeepers are gonna feed me... (Outside of research, I basically shut off the usual sources this week and focused on Pigeons & Planes material. It gave me a couple new looks - including a slightly embarrassing one you’ll see below.)

To give Oh Pep! their due, I still like “Doctor Doctor,” the song that introduced me to them, and quite a lot. Without actually confirming, I’ve taken “nine months to the deadline/and nine weeks to make up your mind/once you’ve decided there’s no room for doubt/the rest of your life to figure it out” to read this song as alluding to an unwanted pregnancy (and those are some fluid lyrics). Can’t say how a psychic comes into the whole she-bang, but people cope with shit in different ways, I suppose.

If there’s a sub-genre I’ve swum in deeper than most since embracing The Spotify Lifestyle, it’s the female-fronted indie band. And, if there’s a through-line with all of them, I prefer their more up-tempo tracks (Margaret Glaspy and Angel Olsen excepted). The same goes with Oh Pep!’s only album (argh...that fucking exclamation point is messing with my sense of punctuation), Stadium Cake (what?): I can hear the quality on the first half, but it is, for lack of a better word, boring.