Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol. 23: MGMT, Genre and Variety

Yes, of course. You CAN wear it...
Every so often, Spotify uses this feature where it plays notes about a song as it plays – they call it “Beyond the Lyrics” or something. I caught this for the first time (yes, seriously) while listening to MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” Those notes stopped scrolling over the music the last couple times, so I’m stuck referencing something that touches on one corner of that same story - broadly, “Electric Feel” was the first song for which the band wrote lyrics. What I can’t confirm is what I remember as the gist of Spotify’s back-story – i.e., that the lyrics were kind of a goof, just some playful somethings that happened to match the music. For me, that adds up. Everything about MGMT feels light; sometimes I toyed with the idea it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek.

It is, however, worth flagging a quote from/about the band that I can find:

“We tend to be inspired a lot by artists that switch genr├ęs each album. Each song is different. (Anglo-Dutch experimental Rock band) Legendary Pink Dots are like that.”
Read the lyrics for “Electric Feel” for yourself and think whatever you like (I mostly get basic pop song - e.g. it's about fucking). To that statement on inspiration, it comes through on MGMT’s three main LPs, Oracular Spectacular (2007), Congratulations (2010), and MGMT (2013). “Switching genres” overstates things – it’s not like they go country, hip hop, then metal, or anything – but each of those three albums still sound arrestingly distinct from the other two. Whatever I think of the details, they deserve credit for that…

… you can probably see where this is going…

When I tweeted a poll about relating to one’s generation a couple days back, trying to wrap my head around MGMT prompted it. It’s one thing to know what they sound like, but I was fishing for the something deeper, and here’s that: does MGMT sound…normal, I guess? Or at least like people expect? If so, where do they fit musically? (Or can we collectively stop attempting to classify a band as this sub-genre, or that spinoff sound - e.g., “Dutch-American Alternative Pop Rock Electronica”? Is that even ballpark?) When I hear MGMT on the radio (and it’s been a while), they play on 94.7 KNRK, and that’s Portland’s “alternative” radio station, but is that sound alternative? Does that word have meaning anymore, because alternative to what? On the most fundamental level, my real question boiled down to something people sometimes wonder as they get older: is that what The Kids like these days?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Judge My Playlist, Volume 1: Cuter

The chains that bind you...
Don’t think of it as a new feature, so much as an easier way to have fun with music.

I used to pile songs onto CDs. I made them for road trips, or just for things to have around the house; sometimes I made them for people (say, my wife), or for special occasions (say, for a particularly long road trip), but it was mostly about the work of creating playlists before Spotify (and/or the platform of your choice*) came along and spoiled The Labor of Love that goes into building a playlist by way of, more than anything else, making it easy to edit a playlist.

By that I mean, if anything got lost with the end of the old audio tape/CD “playlist,” it’s the idea of finality. If, or, in my case, when, you fuck up and put the wrong song on a CD, or if you put things in an order that trips up the flow…well, that’s it. You’re stuck with it. There is no editing, no deciding you’re sick of the song you keep putting on every CD after the fact, because, again, no editing. (And…this is factually untrue, at least with audio cassettes; recording over those things happened all the time…but who uses cassettes anymore? CDs, like diamonds, are forever.)

I’m not going to put a lot into these posts – a series I’m calling, “Judge My Playlist.” All I’m going to do is list/link to a CD that I actually made and invite anyone so moved to comment on it. And, honestly, I don’t care what you think – and I mean that in a good way. Every song that I put onto a CD is a song that I just…like, or even love. Some shocked person telling me that I have shit taste doesn’t mean all that much to me anymore, that’s all. To rephrase the premise, “I don’t care what you think” means, have fucking at it. Rhapsodize about what you loathe in my musical taste. As Debbie Harry sneered over one of my favorite Blondie songs, “Rip Her to Shreds.” (Wait for it...) Or tell me what you liked. Music is meant to be shared, and, as I’m fond of saying, this is supposed to be fun, dammit.

Friday, April 14, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol 22: What's Up Matador, aka, The Best Compilation in Human History

Look, I am not exaggerating.
I’m not generally a nostalgic, but there’s exactly one compilation CD on the planet that ties together enough of my adult life to makeme wistful: the 1997 What’s Up Matador compilation. More than just a sweet little piece of marketing from Matador Records, it's a collection of a lot of the best music to come out of the 1990s. Listen to it and I’m back in a jumbled, under-decorated house in downtown Reno, Nevada, waiting to stumble toward the casinos to play Pai Gow till something like dawn; next, I’m in Jamaica Plain, in the middle floor of one of Boston’s famous triple-deckers, sipping a third night-cap with a bunch of guys in the days before we all paired off into full, final adulthood (think How I Met Your Mother, only without the shitty ending).

The whole thing winds up with the guy who owned that place in Reno giving me this glorious compilation four, five years ago. Maybe he noticed it meant more to me somehow – it makes for one of the few links to the friends I have on the West Coast, than the friends from the East Coast who I haven’t seen in years - or maybe he was just sick of it (because I doubt he’s aware of the East Coast/West Coast bridge). Either way, he was kind enough to let me have it and here I am nearly 20 years later and I can still drop Disc 1 into audio player and rarely skip a song.

Disc 2, on the other hand, rarely leaves its case and the folder where it lives on my desktop never gets opened. Songs from Disc 1 show up on the mixed tapes I used to make (actually, mixed CDs) with the regularity of a heartbeat, but only one song from Disc 2 ever made it onto one of those compilations: Railroad Jerk’s “One Step Forward.” I love that freakin’ song (but, no, Youtube freebies, sadly), enough to play it between 1 1/3 and 1 1/2 times every time I hear it, even now (I tell myself it's about a lyric toward the middle I really like, and not infatuation). Disc 1, though, I love. It’s a little clingy, honestly.

With many of the same artists showing up on both discs, and with the same people (presumably) arranging the music (more on that later), I don’t get how that’s possible. How can one disc feel that much better with that many commonalities? In between turning all these pieces over in my head, I tried to figure that out this past week. And I think I got there. I’ll get to why What’s Up Matador is the greatest compilation in human history in the second half, even with only half of it pulling the weight. For now, let’s dig into Disc 2.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol. 21: Modest Mouse, On Having Great Range Within an Octave (or Two)

Sure, there are limits, but...big expanse, yeah?
I moved to the East Coast for a bit, and I lost track of music when I did. Traveling light (10-box maximum, sent by train, and to multiple locations) meant leaving supplies behind here and there. The groups I fell in with back East either weren’t devoting time to digging up new music (most), or they devoted all their time to loving some bands very, very much (e.g., Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic) that I hated with equal, seriously?-I’m-leaving-the-room-now fervor.

Coming back west, circa 2002, also meant getting around at least a couple people who lived music as much as anyone who doesn’t play it regularly can. With them feeding both my music collection and my interest, my “musical libido” returned. And that is how I got my groove back.

Modest Mouse played a role in that, even if I can’t call it a big role. I thought she already had it when I met her, but my wife reminded me tonight that she asked me to buy Good News for People Who Love Bad News when it came out (2004). She found it through the radio, or something, and that brings me something about my wife: yes, she’s one of those people who will play an album – or, God forbid, just one song (see: “Cake by the Ocean”; nope! not kidding) - till every living person around her, and some of the pets (even the goldfish), beg her to stop. The negotiations that saved me from hating Good News for People Who Love Bad News raged loudly for a while – Stop and Pause buttons were pressed mid-song, threats made to “turn the goddamn car around right now, if that doesn’t go off” – but it went toward a good cause, because, goddamn it, I still love that album.

Seeing that Spotify gives the most famous songs from Good News pride of place in their popular queue (slots 1 and 3 of 5), it feels OK to call that album their Big One, the one that launched them to steady musical renown (and, ideally, financial security). “Float On” is still the one I hear most on accident (#1), maybe “World at Large” (#3), but a lot of the rest still feel like “hits” to me, if only by way of the fact that, like, a lot of people seem to know those same songs (e.g., “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “Bukowski,” “Bury Me With It,” and, personal favorite, “Black Cadillac”; just something about the combination of cadence and lyrics on that one; chorus doesn’t hurt either). Also, if the main way you consume an album is to sit down and listen to the whole damn thing (NO SKIPPING! These nice boys worked very, very hard on this!), the whole idea of “hits” kinda goes out the window.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, A Personal Musical History: Vols. 11-20

Even included a spare...

I explained this project in the first aggregation/compilation post – the one that pulled together links for Volumes 1-10 of this project – so, I’ll just briefly explain what’s going on here.

I picked up a lot of music over the past, oh, 30 years and this whole series is about listening to it all again, and in some cases more closely than I ever have before, and reflecting on not just the music, but also the associated memories and experiences each of them dredge up.

And I’m not even sorta close to done.

At any rate, I’ve embedded links below for Volumes 11-20. Some good stuff in there, even if only the music. Happy hunting!

Volume 12: Silversun Pickups (possibly the first band to leave me lukewarm in this project)

Volume 13: Quasimoto, On Indie Hop (Quasimoto  is Madlib / AWESOME! (srsly.))

Volume 14: Q-Tip and Tribe Called Quest (probably learned and appreciated the most on this one)

Volume 16: Pegboy, Too Much of a Good Sound (aka the limits of straight-up punk)

Volume 17: Odd Future, In Which I Really Stretch (too much like reading my kid’s diary)

Volume 18: Nirvana, On Fame and Authenticity (the world liked them better than me)

Volume 19: Mudhoney, Grunge’s “Biological Dad” (and how garage made them better)

All right, on to the next 10 bands…

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Volume 20: Mogwai, The Comforts of Pop Versus the Post-Rock Wilds

GUYS...see the lines, follow the rules, plz.
The super-(super-)majority of pop songs use one of several combinations of verses and choruses as a frame for the song. That basic, broad structure has held for well over a century. The most common arrangement goes, “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus,” or at least that’s what comes to mind after one full second’s thought. Songwriters probably break that convention all the time, but it’s the familiarity of the form that I’m highlighting here.

Music contributes to both the verse and chorus, of course, in that there’s a score for each of those sections, a repetitive one, usually, but there’s another regular component as well: words. Yes, most pop songs have lyrics. Moreover, a hell of a lot of artists arrange those lyrics in a way that lends them to easy recall and repetition, that get them lodged so insidiously into your brain that you’ll spend the rest of the day humming “Sweet Caroline” around the office and well off-key.

The Scottish post-rock* outfit, Mogwai, rarely uses lyrics (for rare exception, see “Cody”), and even when they do it’s clear they have no interest in whipping together a sing-along. (* Went with “post-rock” because that fits better than the other descriptor’s on the band’s Wikipedia page.) The band’s singer, Stuart Braithwaite, shared an interesting insight on that:

“I think most people are not used to having no lyrics to focus on. Lyrics are a real comfort to some people. I guess they like to sing along and when they can't do that with us they can get a bit upset.”
I am very much one of those people Braithwaite nods to in that quote (with that wee condescending “I guess”). A different song takes over DJ-ing duties in my head just about every hour; on the right night, and in the right mood (last Tuesday, for instance, about 10:30 at night, and on a bike), you might catch me wailing out lyrics as I pedal down the street (“Jigsaw Puzzle,” by The Rolling Stones, as it happens). Mogwai just doesn’t do it for me. With respect to Mr. Braithwaite and his clearly talented bandmates, I’ll stick comfort and let them wander into the post-rock wilds.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, A Personal Musical History: Vols. 1-10

A long time ago – because I’ve taken cold-eyed stock of the road ahead, far too long ago – I started a project about music. In my preamble-heavy introduction (sorry, that’s how I roll), I framed it as a process of looking back at all the music I collected over my ever-expanding lifetime and why I collected the things I did, but with an underpinning of mild anxiety that the arrival of algorithms that blur the line between helping people and thinking for them would, whatever their intentions, wind up confining all of us inside ever-safer yet ignorant bubbles of “the stuff we like.”

I don’t know if anything short of unplugging can fix whatever that is, but I wanted to go back over all the stuff I bumped into by way of a hundred of little accidents to really sit with all of it before spending the rest of my days getting fed one Spotify Discover Weekly after another.

And, to be clear, I am in no way just crapping on technology. This project started as a project of just reviewing the music I actually had, whether on hard drive or album, but the same technology that may one day give me musical tunnel vision (Spotify; and awful metaphor) made it possible for me to not only review, but to expand, like a lot, on what I know about all the bands I’ve either loved, or that I just half-accidentally collected.

Anyway, that’s just a preamble (see?) for what comes below. As I go march through my library, I'm going to start aggregating the posts on this project (and, before long, the other one), for the sole goal of stuffing more shit onto the sidebar. Below are links to the first 10 volumes of this project, each with the name of the artist I discussed and whatever subtitle I came up with. Hope most of the damn things make sense. The aggregated Volume 2 will come soon. I’m posting Volume 20 on Thursday (or sooner).