Thursday, April 12, 2018

Playlust, April 2018, Week 1: SXSW, Part 1, Reviewing Reviews

I don't not picture this. Still. I know.
First, my apologies to every band and artist named below, because I am giving each of you less attention than you deserve. Still, personal deadline, or this log-jam just keeps getting bigger, and I’m very sorry. Yes, very sorry.

To give a quick outline, I spent the past week mostly listening to NPR’s SXSW Top 100 Playlist - which, as it happens, actually included 191 songs, some of them pretty dubious (e.g., Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer,” Dead or Alive, “You Spin Me Round,” plus, like, three down below…and, whoops, just noticed I was listening to some rando’s bootleg; still, has all that right songs, and I digress). Won’t lie: I got lightly goddamn bored off and on going through this thing. More particularly, either NPR self-selected a bunch of low-tempo acoustic indie, or SXSW invited a relatively narrow band of musical acts. Whatever, I heard a lot of new stuff and I’m grateful…

…all the same, that got me thinking about that big stash of songs I downloaded from the 2013 SXSW - of which, I have about 700 songs left after the first purge (down from about 1,250). In my memory (and from a couple days’ worth of recent listening), those songs felt different - more upbeat, for starters, but that year featured a shit-stack of “cumbias,” for some (totally fine) reason. That loose impression reinvigorated my desire to plow through that pile, see whether the music sounded a little brighter back just five short years ago. ‘Twas a happier time…

I plan to get two things out of that: 1) the 2013 Top 100 playlist I mentioned a couple weeks back (on both Spotify and the home database), and 2) a short history of the South by Southwest music festival. Because I intend to get that posted with next week’s playlist (e.g., the March 2018, Week 2 Playlust Playlist), don’t expect a ton of depth; it’ll be more famous (or infamous) events from past festivals and answers to the piercing questions like, why does SXSW cost so damn much, and why does half of everyone seem to hate it now?

So, my preamble for this week is basically, there will be a preamble next week. I have 25 songs down below (just 25!), most of them(?) favorites from this year’s NPR/SXSW Top 100, but also several songs from…yeah, this would be last week’s Discover Weekly playlist (eh, I’ve had better, I’ve had worse). I’ll do my best to get a note or two on each artist down below, but, honestly, don’t expect more than a name, a song, and a glance. I’ll be a better boy next week. Or just wish that I was with another week’s regret piled on. This is how I roll…

Thanks for reading (it’ll be better next week?!), and happy listening!

Playlust: The 2018, 1st Quarter Top 50 Playlist: Songs for Speedwalking

Famed for its elegance...
[Ed. - Apart from the broad mid-tempo range, this playlist has nothing to do with speedwalking. I'm just buggered for a title.]

I’ll start with the good news: the slow evolution of this site/these posts (what’s it been, a year? year and a half?) might have landed on a sustainable formula (my people live on eternally unrealized plans). If so, I will have found my skeleton key, slain my own personal white whale, and the cure for my halitosis, quests that have plagued my life for years.

The bad news? I’ll have to kick it off next month - and that only takes care of the monthly playlist (coming up for April!), and not these quarterly posts. Hmm…

I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it (in May, apparently), but, that’s more than enough, welcome to the Top 50 playlist for the first quarter of 2018, a list of the songs I’ve…felt the most over the dark days of January, February and March (with links to them all). I kept my comments on each song brief, and not just because I’ve discovered that it’s thoroughly exhausting to say something novel 50 times, even when dealing with 50 fairly (reasonably) different songs. If nothing else, I get tired of typing the words, “song,” “music,” and “sound,” and I’ve got no fucking clue as to how I’ll replace any of them. Anyway, I might get it one day, or I might just stop doing them.

And, to tip the hand a little on the next generation, I won’t need to come up with 50 different things to say all at once, because I’ll already have included notes on all those songs in all those weekly posts that come before the final monthly posts. That way, I can just drop in links to those - and (YES!) I can then link to them again when I post the next quarterly playlist post. At the end of June...when I'll be...never mind.

Speaking of the weekly posts, I have one to get to/half-ass before the night’s out (and it’s looking a lot like quarter-assing at this point), so let me get this posted now. Enjoy!

A solid guitar-driven mantra. Feels very positive…

A tongue-in-cheek meditation on loneliness and desperation in the power-pop tradition.

Elliott SmithCoast to Coast
Indie rock with a good, dramatic vibe.; orchestral in its structure. Outro goes straight to the 90s.

Love the way everything about this song sort of staggers. The kids seem to dig the drowsy.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Playlust, The March 2018 Playlist (ft. Leonard Cohen) (Barely)

I understand I scheduled a decent write-up on Leonard Cohen - and for two nights ago, actually (curse my own twitter previews; never trust them), but it’s two days late and, as for quality, the best I can offer is honest and brief. I spent too much time wrapping up all those goddamn songs down there, instead of getting in the research, etc. So, briefly, on Leonard Cohen…who is clearly a legend. I mean, that is not a Wikipedia entry for a mere mortal.(Yes, I give them money.)

As for my contribution, I spent all my time on the two albums introduced to me by two songs (via Spotify, credit where it’s due): “Is This What You Wanted” (from New Skin for the Old Ceremony) and “Memories” (from Death of a Ladies Man). I listened to both albums and I liked them both very, very much. The one interesting thing I can note between them was Phil Spector came in on Death of a Ladies Man, and Rolling Stone didn't care for that one bit, no sirree. (I was good with it, but I got my thing, y'know.) As in, I don’t know when I’ll clear the mental space to give them the time they deserve (and why the hell isn’t that making me reconsider my life?) When I say I liked them, I mean engrossed, I mean parsing them for levels of meaning, most of them probably unwarranted. All the same, there’s a richness to what Cohen is doing that barely belongs in the pop culture realm. Even if his lyrics are dressed up, you can still futz over the meaning of “dressed up,” and in the post [insert (made-up) era].

I’ve started his Wikipedia post twice now, but, with time so compressed this week (and me believing I have to move on because…? I got nothin’), the only things I have to measure Cohen against are his Rolling Stone obituary and a smattering of phrases from the songs by him that I know best. Which, face it, are self-selected. That obituary, though, included a quote I liked more than a little:
“One of the reasons I'm on tour is to meet people,” [Cohen] told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I consider it a reconnaissance. You know, I consider myself like in a military operation. I don't feel like a citizen.”
You get that out of his lyrics, that sense of never-ending tourism among the natives. I’m hooked on him as a story-teller, mostly, but that has a lot to do with my practical ignorance of music. The only thing I can say for sure is that you don’t hear the sounds Cohen sings over every day in mainstream pop; if I had to guess (I do), it probably calls back to a mix of jazz, folk, and a broad mix-up of popular standards (which borrowed from jazz and folk), plus rock, obviously, and anything else around. He recorded in the 70s, and that’s a lotta pop culture past Chuck Berry for inspiration. I understand he got deep into synthesizers in his later material - that is albums put out beyond the two I dug into - and that'll be an entirely different adventure. Looping back to his lyrics, Cohen started as a novelist and poet; he morphed into a singer-songwriter (holy…did he brand the freakin’ genre?), and, thinly educated as I am, I don’t want to act like I know which of those phases gave more to pop and/or counter-culture. But I also know I’m going to keep going on Cohen - and Jason Molina. There’s just so much there with both of them that I want to keep listening to one album a week by each for a while. As I said at the top of my Jason Molina post, this is probably the music I was born to age into.

There’s just a lot of it left. I will eventually spend all day going on about it and apologize in advance.

Speaking of, there’s a big stretch of post left (sorry!), but - promise! - I’ll be reining in the format on this weekly stuff soon. At any rate, I pulled my favorite 30 songs from what I’ve heard in the past month and posted links to all of them down below, along with notes and/or descriptions with enough information in them to tell you whether or not you want to hit that link. Uh, that’s it. Thanks for reading and happy listening! (See that? Gave myself a tag line. Fuck you, NPR. [ed. - why?])

Monday, March 26, 2018

Playlust, March 2018, Week 3: Music I Was Destined to Age Into

The seagulls symbolize anxiety.
[Ed. - I started this post last night by kicking my own ass for not getting to my research timely. It was a good call on a couple levels. That said, I’m mostly noting that I’ve revised a lot of the content above the playlist. Whatever mistakes I made down there, I gotta live with.]

Over the past week (plus a little bleed into this one), I gave as much time and space to Jason Molina and his major projects, Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., as I could Also, I don’t care whether this comes off pretentious, but, since hearing “The Dark Don’t Hide It” by Magnolia, and “Farewell Transmission,” I’ve always understood that stepping into Molina’s work would require work - very intense work. Bluntly, there’s something in Molina’s music that scares the shit out of me. As much as anything else, he takes the corrosive pain and dread we can’t face or stomach and push to the farthest possible edges of our daily lives in order to function (and not alienate people) and he just sort of stops time for a while and calls them by name. It helps that he makes pain beautiful, but it's still a whole lotta pain.

What's the draw, then? Maybe Midwesterners are just tight with dread (Ohio kids!), and we just love that shit. On that note, I held onto a lyric from a song titled “North Star” that makes a good introduction:

"I heard the North Star sayin'
Kid, you're so lost even I
can't bring you home."

To pick up that first edit (the one about revising content), I won’t pretend I have a ton of fresh insights to add just 24 hours after posting this for the first time (think it was Monday night), but I read Molina’s history closer, then closer still, then I watched a couple interviews, a couple live performances (also, the Internet, the DVR you didn’t know you had). And, after all that, I’m more anxious about the whole thing, not less. That’s because I know I’m going to go through the rest of Molina’s, frankly, massive body of work, and soon. More to the point, I’ll be going through that with a lightly haunted sense of the man and his many acts of self-sabotage.

I want to start by getting Molina’s alcoholism, and related death therefrom, out of the way. A lot of the easiest thing to find about Molina are obituaries, things that came out after his death as either tributes or - and I can think of nothing more appropriate - complicated reminiscences. The only think that sucks less than living with an alcoholic is working with one - especially when, say, you’re sharing a tour bus (see "complicated reminiscences"). Another thing that comes out is a push/pull kind of aloofness, his clear sense of ownership of his projects - especially in the interviews. For all that, the two words people keep mentioning with Molina are “generous” and “goofball.” Molina prickles a bit in interviews, and that makes it harder to see, but something tells me he was different in interviews than he was behind the scenes. Though, to be clear, he still sounded difficult (again, “complicated reminiscences” link). To wrap up this point, Molina killed himself drinking (mostly), and pissed off a lot of people professionally and personally on the way through. But he still left ample reverence behind in this world, both for him and his music.

To acknowledge something sort of messy, all that...that mess, it worked. By that I mean, giving Molina (and his thoroughly Midwestern work ethic; this sentence, "he treated his work as a musician like a standard job, writing music eight hours per day," comes through in multiple interviews) massive amounts of artistic control paid off. Simply put, the man was restless, and to the point of willfully going against the grain of building a semi-permanent, fan-sating set (see the “one online interview” link); he never settled down artistically and something in his make-up compelled him to put out new songs, music and sounds - until, that is, he exhausted his body roughly four years before his death. This, in particular, is where what anger and resentment existed came in - e.g., the bad nights on stage when he was too drunk to perform (the word "crap-shoot" comes up) or the general weird shit that inevitably follows from being that out of whack, that often.

Now, to the music, down below, I declare a song (“7th Street Wonderland,” the link's somewhere below, and great song) a “bridge between” Molina’s major projects, but I can’t even place that song in time. Per the sources I’ve read, the change came when Molina released Magnolia Electric Co. (the album) “as a Songs: Ohia project,” and, on my limited experience, that looks like a good line. Also, if you try to flag all the similarities between Ohia and Magnolia, you’ll lose track before you give up. But, where they sound the same (probably more often than I want to pretend), they feel vastly different…which having Steve Albini step on production could affect.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Pop Backstory Chapter 17: Popular American Songs, 1921-1930, It's Like This, See?

On the grind.
With this, I, and anyone I’ve dragged through this hell, have reached the penultimate chapter in the Pop Backstory series (it'll make sense when I do it). This one wins the war, even if that leaves the inevitable mopping up (e.g., editing the old posts for typos, clarity and stylistic consistency).

On the plus side, this chapter includes a fair number of songs I’ve known and appreciated for years; in others words, we’ve finally arrived on an era of music that I know more than barely, or not at all. I even knew some of the songs that I didn’t know, only not by title. The same goes for the decade for which these songs provided the soundtrack. Most adult Americans can summon an at least roughly correct mental picture to go with “The Roaring Twenties” - which is an enormous relief from the 1910s (aka, "the decade World War I happened in"), the 1900s (the...decade before the decade World War I happened in), the 1890s (the decade…before that one). It wasn’t all flappers, Prohibition, speak-easies, talking pictures and wing-walking on biplanes (e.g., look up the Palmer Raids and the Warren Harding administration, the latter of which should sound sharply familiar), but, broadly, it was a decade when Americans let down their collective hair after a truly stupid and shitty war, and a totally terrible outbreak of the flu (also, the Klan foisted a disgusting revival on the country). I’m pretty sure women got the vote somewhere around this time, and the world started opening up for them accordingly (and, please, continue to open).

Because I’ve had enough preambles in this series for a couple years, I’m going to leave it there and jump straight into the music from that decade in the form of its most popular songs. I pulled the materials from two sources primarily - the Youtube video that inspired this entire series/12 (or more) Labors I assigned myself (aka, The Source Material), and a list of songs made famous by the Tin Pan Alley song-writing machine. Where I found inconsistencies (oh, here and there), I corrected them as best I could down below and, when it comes to credit for a song, I’m always gonna go with the writer. Enjoy!

Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan & Gus Kahn - Ain’t We Got Fun
Per tradition, I listed the writing credits, but like Taylor Swift channels a handful of Swedes, a duo called Van & Schenk (Gus Van and Joe Schenk) made this song famous. They got their start as vaudeville comedy act…before wracking up one hell of a back catalog. They did “ethnic” (e.g., “Pastafazoola”) (which worked like Popeye’s spinach), they did topical (e.g., their World War I era spoof, “I Don’t Want to Get Well”), they recorded 78’s and even made a movie or two. All the same, “Ain’t We Got Fun” has to be their cultural mainstay. While it’s reasonably open to interpretation, my read on the lyrics calls it a “fuck it” to poverty. I found a version by Peggy Lee that makes the lyrics easier to hear…still, her take just doesn’t sound right (like this one, which includes the lyrics).

Friday, March 16, 2018

Playlust, March 2018, Week 2: Gallic Dream Ninjas and More

Like this, but better. Choirs of angels, etc.
Another week, another playlist. Think I’m getting closer to sustainable model, rue or celebrate that as you see fit, but this feels like the best path I’ve walked so far. Just some fine-tuning to do.

First, and best, the week set up a little weird and, with the new program, open. For one, while I knew this post would feature/star/highlight the French duo, Air, I don’t remember whether I even named the two-three sub-ft.s I intended. This worked out (and didn’t) because, when I bitched at twitter about Spotify’s Discover Weekly planning yet another shitty date night (anyone know a good divorce attorney?), a good and stout fella (posts on twitter as @BackOfficeGavin) graciously lined up some bands for me to check out. And here’s the beautiful part: I had the time. Instead of death-marching myself through eight albums by two artists, I had space to lose some of his suggestions here (e.g., Anatomy Class; too familiar), dabble there (e.g., Django Django), and then get a little obsessive in a corner all by myself, and can you excuse me, don't you have something else to do? (The Go! Team).

Later in the week, I remembered a couple bands/artists I had intended to check out (might even have mentioned), in Night School and Sam Evian, but it all fit…well, reasonably well (I was cramming far too late into last night, steps). I always want more time and, in this case, the time I lost only leaves time for the briefest notes on the “sub-fts.” (I count three really: Night School, Sam Evian, and The Go! Team), because I still have notes on the songs I want to get in, plus I wanted to dump some stuff on Air because they mark the fairly rare example of a band whose music sunk deep roots into my life - the second part of it, as in happens.

When I hear of Air’s debut album, Moon Safari, it takes me back to the earliest days with my wife, before kids, marriage and nearly 15 years. At the end of our first dates, we’d hit play on the CD player, crawl into bed and, with “La Femme Argent” slinking around the darkness, we’d squeeze together until we found that sweet spot where a young(-ish), infatuated couple finally feels close enough. “Ce matin-la” evokes an even stronger feeling. On one of our first family trips with both kids, after we’d driven through the night to save money on hotels, that song opened as we drove into a sun rising on a massive mountain valley. Everything glowed in that moment and, with that song playing, my life felt perfect as what they want you to buy in one of those car commercials. No, no, the classy ones. None of that truck shit.

As seems to happen…more than I really noticed, frankly, I more or less completely lost track of Air. At most, I listened to their third studio album, 10000 Hz Legend, a few times before deciding I liked Moon Safari enough that I could ignore their follow-up. Through the gift of my back-pocket record store (Spotify), this past week caught me up with the Air - who, as it happens, studied architecture (Nicolas Godin) and mathematics (Jean-Benoit Dunckel) in college (from Wikipedia, as usual). Also, they palled around with Sofia Coppola, provided the music for a couple high-profile indie movies (Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation)…and here’s where I stop pretending I put in a ton of research into the band. (Full disclosure: The combination of my deep admiration for and lack of curiosity about the daily thoughts and feelings of actors, musicians and athletes should interest at least a few shrinks. Hmm…)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Playlust March 2018, Week 1: An Accidental Southern Tour...With Some Detours

Among the first 25 entries when you google "riffle." Healthy country.
Because I organized this week’s post the same as last week’s, I…I…don’t need a preamble. Wow.

Well, that’s not totally true. First, I came up with a series title I like: Playlust! It feels pretty slick, speaks to the yearning element of all this, and so on. (This one might even stick.) As for mechanics, I settled on 25 songs this week and think I’ll use the same number in weeks to come, or as long as it makes sense - which takes only, say, deciding to bookend this weeks' playlist with a pair of songs by Lee Moses. Speaking of Moses and two others, that’s where I’m going to start: with this week’s three (briefly) featured artists. As much as I’ve started to put some thought into which artists I pair up for these posts, I didn’t consciously pick this week’s three with any theme in mind. But, as the title suggests, I found one: they're all "Southern" acts. Total accident. And, for no particular reason, I’ve organized them below in descending degrees of raunchiness, which Birdcloud (emphasis, so you see the names easily) just volunteered to go first because, holy shit.

Open a song with “I woke up in a pool of my dog’s own vomit,” I’ll probably like it. And I’ll give you a shot at a minimum. Throw in an entire song titled, “Washin’ My Big Ol Pussy,” and I’ll sit through a lot of fairly repetitive, twangy music and sometimes off-key singing (offset by some lovely harmony), just because I want to see where you go with it. A respectfully long article on noisey slapped a genre on them that’s new to me: country-punk. Yeah, sure, go for it.

I fell in love with Birdcloud about halfway through hearing “Springwater” for the first time - and not just because it rhymes “Flowers for Algernon” with “the Parthenon," but for its playful depravity. Jasmin Kaset and Makenzie Green are all there is, and they’re plenty. Due to the relative simplicity to their sound, the “bit,” i.e., the joke, the characters they’re playing, what have you, feels like the meat of their act. Going the other way, neither of them sees what they do as comedy; it's more story-telling in character. If they have a sensibility, I’d peg it to John Waters’, in that both Birdcloud and Waters know the characters they’re creating and have genuine affection for them. Both that noisey piece and another article I found dub this satire and, given the sharpness and fearlessness of their writing, they at least aim at that. Before today, I might have warned people away from Singles Only (a greatest hits, near as I can tell), thinking they might burn out on the sound, but I just sat back through the whole thing and, as they put it in “I Can’t Stand Up (I'm Fine),” I had myself a time.