Monday, June 19, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 7: Charles Ives, His Experiments, and My Limits

Like this, only looser, more unconventional.
"It's all right to do that, Charles, if you know what you're doing,"
- George Ives
George Ives was the father of Charles Ives, one of the first purely American composers of classical music, as in born, bred, and trained entirely States-side. I keep talking about classical composers that might feel off in a series devoted to American popular music, but Charles Ives’ music fits into the popular American musical tradition with only a little friction. It’s his spirit of his approach to music, more than the music itself, that makes that possible. While capable of producing delicate, harmonious compositions, he favored complexity and experimentation, aural effects like dissonance (just glance at the notes in the early parts of the first song here), and narrative interpretation.

That yen for innovation came from his father, George, an avid lover of music and musician who Richard Crawford evocatively described as a “Yankee tinker” in An Introduction to American Music. Crawford noted experiments by George Ives like suspending weights at the end of violin strings in order to stretch quarter notes out of them; a good website I found on Ives relates other experiments:
“George Ives would have his boys sing in one key while he accompanied in another; he built instruments to play quarter-tones (see?); he played his cornet over a pond so Charlie could gauge the effect of space; he set two bands marching around a park blaring different tunes, to see what it sounded like when they approached and passed.”
Another concept, and one with more direct bearing with this project, was George Ives’ sincere appreciation for people who couldn’t “sing,” or pull off anything about music, in the traditional sense. Charles Ives recalled a conversation he was had with his father about a stonemason who sang in the local choir. From Crawford:
“’You can you stand it to hear old John Bell sing?’ Father said, ‘He is a supreme musician.’ The young man (nice and educated) was horrified – ‘Why he sings off the key, the wrong notes and everything – and that horrible, raucous voice – and he bellows out and hits notes no one else does – it’s awful!’ Father said, ‘Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds – for if you do, you may miss the music.’”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Judge My Playlist, Volume 9: Oldies, Volume 1

Look, has anyone told you that age is mostly a lie?
For anyone following this series, I have to think that this particular volume feels like a stretch. That’s because, in this chapter, I finally let me very particular “freak flag” fly – e.g. my particular love of “Super-Oldies,” as in the songs that all good people counted as “square” back when my parents' parents decided what was hip. And, honestly, not one song named below constitutes “hip” or forward-looking in any but the very first decades of the 20th century – i.e., a time before all of the songs below were written and popularized.

For all that, outside the tracks I included as “WTF” curiosities – and I’ll flag those below - I genuinely love some of them. By that I mean, a good pop song is a good pop song, so don’t over-think it.

OK, before the usual process of picking through what belongs (and what belongs as a “WTF” song), the backstory on this is mildly amusing. I used to work at the Harvard Archives and, as a going away present, my co-workers gave me a gift card to some music store off Harvard Square. I was walking around wondering what to buy when I spotted “Memories Are Made of This,” a 10-CD collection of songs made popular between the (roughly) 1940s and the (roughly, and I’m guessing early) 1960s. My wife would later donate those CDs to one of her old folks homes…seems like a good place for them, at least for the next 10-20 years.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

New to Me: Esme Patterson, We Were Wild

I dunno. I like it. Challenges the songs...
[Editor’s Note: This starts yet another series within this project, one that will feature newer music by newer artists; that’s as opposed to talking about all the stuff I already have, like I do in the One Last Pick Through the Bins series. My streaming service of choice, as well as other outlets like Seattle’s KEXP, NPR’s music show, and even Song Exploder, introduce me to at least 30 new songs each week. It’s just that song, though, which always leaves me wondering what the rest of the album sounds like – especially when the song really hooks me. And that’s what I’ll do with these posts/this series: listen to that whole album and let people know what I think of it.]

[Editor’s Follow-up Note: This was actually the original intent for this entire site – just talking about what I was listening to. But I wanted to give people a little context for the kind of music I listen to and like…so I started the Bins project. I guess I wanted people to know where I was coming from when I turned to this stuff. True Story.]

[Editor’s Last Note, Swear to God: This will be the only time I do a preamble for these things. Promise. OK, here goes…]

One of the first songs that Spotify’s Discover Weekly delivered to me that I later fixated on was Esme Patterson’s “Feel Right.” With a blistering tempo, tightly-packed plucked guitar playing over frantic rhythm guitar, and her belting out anthemic theories on how the heart gets to know what it wants, it’s an easy track to love. Having grown in the post-MTV, deciding to see what she looked like, and what she’s all about came pretty naturally; the inter-relation between “Feel Right’s” lightly-provocative lyrics and the lightly-provocative cover art for Patterson’s 2016 release, We Were Wild, only goosed my curiosity a little more.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Judge My Playlist, Volume 8: Just Rawk


The first remotely relevant image I found googling "rock guys."

Think I’ve done the drill often enough by now – i.e., below is a list of songs I put on a CD back when, and that I’ve now put on a Spotify playlist. Feel free to judge, ridicule, amend, append, celebrate, etc. Again, I’m not expecting any takers. I think it’s the spirit of the exercise that counts…

I called this one “Just Rawk,” and that title’s suggestive. All I wanted to do here was stuff a CD full of songs that just…rocked. I had no specific artist I wanted to get onto something I would listen to again and again; I don’t think I repeated a band/singer once on this one, and that’s rare (wait…nope, Fitz of Depression made it on twice…fair play; damn good band, that). At any rate, what’s that Latin phrase I love so well – “the thing speaks for itself”? (Oh yeah, res ipsa loquitur).

OK, songs and rationale for/defense of their inclusion are below. This time around, people are free to ask, “you think that rocks?”

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 29: Hammerbox, The Gits, And My Initial, Limited Grasp of the Exotic


Sometimes, you lose too much when you only focus on the plumage.
I first became aware of Hammerbox by way of a happy version of the ominous whisperings that start a fantasy movie – basically, along the lines of people “hearing tell” about something strange passing through a familiar world. There was nothing ominous about them, of course: the words was that the band’s lead singer, Carrie Akre, could sing – I mean, actually sing. If that sounds like an odd thing to say about any lead singer in a band, time and place had a lot to do with it. Also, just about anyone who heard the comment immediately understood its meaning.

A lead singer has to command a stage – that’s the barest prerequisite, no matter the genre – but Akre really did stand out because so much of what I listened to (and still listen to) accepts of lot of shortcuts around a clean, strong, powerful set of pipes. Carrying a tune, or expressing/manifesting an attitude or persona…just so does the trick often enough. Akre’s voice cleared the “clear, strong” bar without even one thread of her dress touching it (and I always remember her in dresses, and the way she danced while not singing; it worked), and, until this week, I rated their music highly enough to pick up their eponymous debut about five years ago, but I didn’t have to pay for it, either (seems relevant).

I don’t have a lot to say about Hammerbox after that. I liked them, even went to see shows they featured in mostly to see them, but the only song of theirs that I carried in my head from past to picking up Hammerbox again was “Texas Ain’t So Bad, Really.” Some other songs came back when I listened again – “Bred,” “Under the Moon” (which should have stuck, because, good tune; gratifying video, too, because it gives a taste of them live), and “Ask Why” – and I’m glad to kinda/sorta have them again – that is, Spotify doesn’t have Hammerbox’s debut album, but I can always stare at the mpegs in the folder on my desktop (that I can’t play), or find the songs on Youtube (as I did above). Then again, something about having a goddamn large music store in my back pocket (a smartphone and Spotify) and at least a galaxy’s worth of music to explore turns that tiny little barrier into the Great Wall of China…only one built to undercut effort instead repelling Mongols.

Spotify does have Hammerbox’s second album, Numb, but that one didn’t grab me the same way their debut album still does. Whoever made it carried “When 3 is 2” forward from Hammerbox, but Numb feels less varied overall, almost as if the band’s trying to fill an artistic space that’s at least half commercial (i.e., it sounds like branding). At any rate, Akre left after that album to form Goodness, and the only thing I’ve heard by them is the song they recorded for Schoolhouse Rocks Rocks! (cute song!). That would literally be all I had to say for this post…if I didn’t spend all of last week, when I supposed to focus on Hammerbox, thinking about The Gits.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 28: Kanye West: The Dreamer Versus The Dream


Yes, even Kanye floats....
I spent more time wrapping my head around Kanye West than I have done with most artists in this series. Based on the intensity of some of his fandom (a person, who shall go unnamed, but who swears he wouldn’t cry if he broke up with his girlfriend, figured he would cry the first time he saw Kanye). People as invested as that might hear a little voice in his/her head telling him/her that Kanye’s music just makes me, a middle-aged white-guy, uncomfortable. That’s true, but only a one specific level:

A lot of people view West as a genius…and I can’t get there. On that level, I'm uncomfortable. Or awkward with it, really.

Unlike a lot of acts I’ve reviewed over the 27 prior volumes in this series, a lot of Kanye’s music just doesn’t stick for me. When I walk away from it for a while, I don’t get a lot of, “damn, this track? Why haven’t I listened to this since last [insert fondly remembered moment of your choosing]?” when I come back. Still, I’m impressed by Kanye’s body of work, deeply too, and I like a lot of his work. I don’t think that he’s ever made a bad song. He’s only made songs that I don’t like. Or even hate sometimes. And, more often than not, that’s an issue with the subject matter. There’s this song, “Blood on the Leaves,” and it just gets under my…

Kidding! To pick up the actual thread, one song on The Life of Pablo plays for me as Kanye Distilled: “I Love Kanye.” Self-referential, self-obsessed, and aggrieved: that’s what actually bugs me about Kanye. At his best, he projects those meditations outward; overall, though, he seems to wallow more and more in his grievances as he ages, and that’s doubly-weird, for me, precisely because he’s so revered. 

Still, I’m fascinated by “I Love Kanye.” I read a couple different reviews earlier this week (first one feels relevant, somehow) – and about a very different song – and, outside that, I tracked some of the comments on the genius.com notes that run over the songs playing on Spotify (and Kanye gets more of those than any artist reviewed so far; see general notes on adulation), and a clear argument runs through it. The idea is that fans and the smarter critics understand that he’s in on the joke that is the performance of his ego. Viewed through that frame, “I Love Kanye” comes off as a “fuck-you” masterpiece, a thoroughly self-aware prank on everyone who cringes at that performance of ego.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Judge My Playlist, Volume 7: All 60s, All Good


The fifth image in a Google images search? Seriously?

Dredged up another semi-ancient playlist for those willing to dissect (no takers so far; not really expecting any at this point).

This one’s actually more straightforward than the rest (again, what I’m doing here), because this CD didn’t have to fit a theme. I had to keep my wife occupied during road trips. Long story short, her personal limit for consecutive songs she doesn’t know stops somewhere between six and eight songs, depending on the day, and, as such, I tried to make a CD that she would know all the songs on, and one that wouldn’t make me crazy from boredom/repetition. She knows most of the same songs from the 60s that most people our age know, so, for me, I made some effort to step away from each of the artist’s easiest choices. Not saying I succeeded (again, fight me), but I did have some restrictions (my wife had to know it). And, again, I think all the relevant artists recorded each of the songs in the 60s…the late, late 60s sometimes.

Also, if you notice a couple names popping up more often than you’d expect – say, Elvis Presley – yeah, a lot of this had to do with making sure some of my favorite Elvis tracks made it onto a CD I could hear with some regularity. This was also an attempt to get The Doors the rest of the way out of my system.

OK, songs and rationale for their inclusion below. Again, I was mostly looking for songs just ONE step away from the tediously familiar. And all songs should have been recorded in the 1960s.