Thursday, December 8, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 8: The Hives

How far to back into that one?

The first song I ever heard by The Hives was “Hate to Say I Told You So.” A boyfriend of an in-law used that and a song by The Czars that I can’t remember to pad out the rest of a CD with The Strokes first album on it. So, yeah, good day for me. Great song, too, one that worked exactly the same way any great single should (i.e., “you like that kid? There’s more where that came from.”)

I didn’t listen to that parenthetical voice. When the next chance to pick up something by The Hives came ‘round – and this was years later, a half decade at least - fate threw two albums at me: Barely Legal and Tyrannosaurus Hives. Barely Legal, as it turns out, is the band’s debut album. It also turns out it’s not easy to come by, even by today’s (or Spotify’s) standards. I want to pause here to acknowledge something people can’t appreciate in these days of “(almost) every song at your fingertips.” There was a time when some kind of essentially accidental logic sent that Swedish album to a random record store in the American town you actually have to live in. Add to that the necessity of some random person going on a bizarre music-porn quest to seek out this semi-mythical, yet documented (in fanzines) colored 45 of a European import. This was treasure hunting, people. I only did it in Seattle and in the early 90s, and very, very passively. Also, that was a time when people just threw all that shit at you. You only had to decide whether you wanted to eat the extra cost. Still have a few colored vinyl 45s. Just sayin’…

At any rate, Barely Legal came from a European label, and featured an essentially anonymous band (e.g. The Hives; no one knew who they were…maybe just outside of Sweden). Even as I barely remember how I came across it (old gypsy woman?), it’s a good debut, one filled with a healthy dose of straight punk numbers – e.g., “Well, Well, Well,” “King of Asskissing,” and “What’s that Spell…Go to Hell!” – but a couple prototypes for future songs came in, too – e.g., “Here We Go Again” and “BlackJack.”

Tyrannosaurus Hives built from the prototypes. (It felt better to use “builds” in the prior sentence because good music feels current when I hear it, but that’s why I kept The Hives’ discography close while I looked into this stuff; Barely Legal came out in 1997; their most current is 2012, for reference). It came in the middle of their run and years ago – things change, people change, hairstyles change - but it’s still the cleanest embrace of what feels like the band’s best self. Searing pace, nervously manic guitar riffs, all topped by a bellowing sociopath who knows how to use a good scream: these are a few of my favorite things, and The Hives gave them to me on Tyrannosaurus Hives. When I think of The Hives, even with the oddballs on Barely Legal, Tyrannosaurus Hives is their sound.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 7: The (or the) Lemonheads

Don't get it either...

According to “my sources,” The Lemonheads cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” “got them the most exposure they had had.” (Hat tip, though, for the quick reference to Madonna's "Like a Virgin.") And that’s a goddamn shame, not least because it’s not even their best cover. Here, I’m willing to entertain a debate: I’m partial to their “Amazing Grace,” but I’m sure some people out there would vouch for “My Name Is Luka.” That last one is a rare case where a male voice works better…something about vulnerability and the way men tend to suppress it…

Apart from knowing it happened at some point during high school, I can’t really say when I first heard the Lemonheads - but it happened before they, or rather he, added the definite article to the band’s name. And, “he” means the guy you’re likely to know, if you know The Lemonheads at all, Evan Dando.

However and whenever it happened, the Lemonheads put out two of my all-time favorite albums, Hate Your Friends and Creator. I played both into the fucking ground for years upon years and they somehow still make a steady appearance in my musical rotation to this day. One detail makes that doubly weird, or arguably embarrassing: the themes they address on both albums, even the way they approach to music, is decidedly adolescent – or, generously, “young adult.” Then again, that might be shortchanging just how cleanly they hit a couple major themes – among them, frustration in relationships, heartbreak, anger…I guess it’s mostly just frustration, really, a mindset that I don’t know that I’ve ever let go of. I’m not even sure that I’m capable of letting go of it. Put another way, I can listen to “Fucked Up” over and over again and still feel every word. I mean, who can’t connect to the idea of being reminded again and again and again of something that you already know in your bones – that, yes, I fucked up. And I’m real sorry.

So, yeah, both Hate Your Friends and Creator loom large in my pantheon of albums – they live in Arcadia, even Mount Olympus. They put out a couple albums after that – Lick, among them, which is where you find their cover of "Luka" – and Lick was fine, even as I had no idea at the time about where the band was when they released it (e.g, nowhere good personally, but improving professionally). Lovey came after that, and, bluntly, I’m not sure I even remember that one coming out. The only album after Lick that I remember coming out was It’s a Shame About Ray. That’s where they put “Mrs. Robinson,” along with the title track, but my opinion on it at the time of its release can best be summed up in the way I renamed it: I called it “It’s a Shame About The Lemonheads.” And I meant it.

Monday, November 28, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 6: Notorious B.I.G (and 2Pac)

Eh, fair play.

As noted way back in this series (as measured by time; the link is Volume 1; production slow), I kept current on rap (going with that over “hip hop” per a distinction heard made in this (awesome) mixtape (also, more)) in a vague sort of way, but without mucking around so much in the innards. That had a lot to do with why I knew about rap’s greatest all-time beef – 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G - while really knowing nothing at all about it. Still, I picked up B.I.G’s Ready to Die barely thinking about it, and, because I was going to review that, I figured that made sense of catching up (going with) The Beef.

Like most…going with white people here, even if that’s a little broad, the whole thing felt like a waste to me. Two talented dudes shot dead months apart for nothing more than talking shit about one another sounds plenty dumb; with a better appreciation of both artists’ bodies of work, it feels even more pointless. After putting in a little research on it (won’t lie; very little research), I picked up the time-lime, and learned a (weird) thing or twenty along the way – e.g. that Tupac’s Black Panther mom, Afeni Shakur, had her bail money paid in part by Leonard Bernstein and Jane Fonda, or that Tupac picked up Tony Danza as a pen pal while in prison.

As for the details, the most earnestly thorough (mildly typo-ridden) account I’ve so far read went tipped The Beef in 2Pac’s favor, and on the fairly sound metric of units moved and posthumous reputation. (It also puts the blame for 2Pac’s death on Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records, and holder of a sizeable adverse position to the label 2Pac founded, Makaveli Records (of which, catchy)…what? Yes, yes, I know that the overwhelming majority of people reading this already know the story better than I ever will; I’m way behind, admitted as much; this is for my education, please bear with me.) Then again, the author of that post comes at the whole thing from a place of declaring 2Pac the victor, but he’s also pretty decent to B.I.G, only musing about why he didn’t say more when The Beef heated up (ew…phrasing).

Another one of my sources, a 2011 article in (what?) The Guardian (yep, that The Guardian), comes down on the same side that I did in the end. An uneasy part of my mind keeps whispering, “not a coincidence,” in my ear, but, since I made the mistake of reading that article, and since their phrasing both captures and improves upon any formulation I arrived at so far, I’m just going to quote it:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 5: The Pixies

Gets at the tone pretty cleanly...

The first song I heard by The Pixies was “Debaser.” This makes linear sense in that someone dropped the needle on Doolittle, and that was the first song, so…

It was love at first listen. I was just…18 (? - look, I’m shit with linear time), I knew nothing, and still know nothing about Luis Bunuel, I don’t know what Un Chien Andalou is accept a corrupted lyric (I think The Pixies phrase it “Chien Andalousia,”), but the hyper-drive drumming and thudding bass with that soaring guitar hook playing over it hooked me right away. I went on to listen to the rest of Doolittle – probably several times over the next week – to figure out what it was about it that hit so cleanly. Later, I went back to Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa, the first an EP, the second a full album (maybe?). Back when that sort of thing happened.

The Pixies made for a fantastic companion for life after high school. They covered all the big ones - sex, art, relationships (or, rather, artistic sex, creative violence, and fraught relationships) – and with the right portions of ambiguity and a sort of saucy, disarming humor. Better still, they droned those puzzling lyrics over actually superb compositions. On top of that, they added sneaky-clever little chop-cuts (see, the adorably relatable lead in to “I’m Amazed” and the goofing around before Surfer Rosa’sVamos,” which, tragically, doesn't make YouTube's video) that sounded enough like stuff you did with your friends. It hardly hurt that, at that time, just about everyone in the places where I lived either were in bands or wanted to be. (Related: If I can figure out a way to explain/do justice to Pullman, Washington’s tidy little rock scene, I will.)

“Debaser” gets at the way The Pixies leaned into “art” concepts, but without getting too far from traditional rock/pop approach and structure; I think the word/backhanded compliment for that was  “accessible” back then. Their sound lurked on the “poppier” edges of the college rock scene – which may or may not have been what people called the genre back before people started using the grab-bag vague term “alternative rock”; forgive the faulty memory – which made it stand out from the heavier stuff breaking through around the same time (think grunge, which would soon swallow too much), but without being music that everyone could tolerate or listen to. Against a subculture on persistent high alert against selling out, that mattered too. Even if it shouldn’t have.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 4: The Rolling Stones, Less Hot Rocks

What is that...has a really strong fiber note...

The greatest hits album, the Cliff Notes of a musical act’s career, the gateway drug to said act’s oeuvre. It takes some amount of relevance plus time in the cultural spotlight to merit a “Greatest Hits” album. Only bands of a certain stature and longevity receive the pop music world’s commercial equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award: multiple greatest hits Albums.

When it reaches the rarefied air of the retrospective, a musical act achieves godhead, presumably, but that’s neither here nor there. Here.

For this volume, I want to talk less about The Rolling Stones – because I’ll do that later – than to talk about what I’ve always regarded as one of the greatest, greatest hits collections of all-time, Hot Rocks. But even that’s just a path to that collection’s famous sequel – and I mean sequel in every meaning of the word – More Hot Rocks. Just like any actor who picks up a life time achievement award, a band that’s lingered long enough to be worthy of serial releases of greatest hits albums has, frankly, squeezed out some amount of shit while pushing out the good stuff (graphic; sorry; it’s what came to me). Like the sawdust that pads your cat’s food, it has a purpose; it’s just that your cat isn’t eating that and thinking, “I taste the pork, but, oh my god…is that sawdust? C’est magnifique”!

The Greatest Hits Album falls into some neither-here-nor-there category between shortcut and advertising. By that I mean a lot of people buy a band’s greatest hits album and stop there, maybe even more people than most. Honestly, I have no idea; but that’s the “shortcut” iteration – i.e., a long introduction that leaves everyone with good memories, but not deep attachment. On a commercial level, though, I have to believe that at least one mission of the greatest hits album tracks the same logic as Discover Weekly does for Spotify, only it’s a much more specific pitch. Either way, the idea is the same: here are a bunch of songs; if you like that, why not roll over here and buy “Band X’s” other albums/get more eyeballs on our app.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 3: Ty Segall (and his various inspirations)

Just wanted to go with something grotesque. That wasn't the album cover.
I used to frequent a site called It was mostly an outlet for (my understanding of) EDM (electronic dance music, yes?), or it might actually have been nothing more than a space for remixes of popular pop songs. I never read the site’s mission statement and resentment that I had to get on Facebook to download their content formed the strongest thought/emotion I had for it, but I’ve bent all kinds of dumb ways for free/cheap music. Anyway, amidst all the Skrillex and Deadmau5 and DJ Bahler (hey, it was 2012, Year of Mayan Death), I came across Ty Segall. Or I might have found his song, “I Bought My Eyes,” on Pitchfork, back when that site offered up more free downloads. Again, I’m very, very cheap.

“I Bought My Eyes” led me to Slaughterhouse, the album it came from. When I plugged in my earbuds to get reacquainted with it, I realized that I’d never actually got acquainted with it before. I picked it up based on that one song, which is pretty good if you ask me, but then I listened to the rest maybe once and never went back again. If you’ve ever got too ambitious on collecting music, this shouldn’t sound strange at all – I mean, who hasn’t over-bought at some point (or, in the modern era, over-subscribed)? – but things got (mildly) weirder after. I hopped over to Spotify to confirm that I could find it there, because why (intentionally) tell you about something you can’t find and listen to (then again, youtube)…only I couldn’t find it. Spotify has plenty of Ty Segall stuff – good stuff, too – but Slaughterhouse didn’t pull up. From there, I went to The Lazy Man’s Encyclopedia (Wikipedia) to see if I couldn’t figure out why. So I read his entry, and, like most music stuff, it’s interesting, lousy with other avenues to explore, both with Ty Segall, in particular, and his related projects, etc.

As I read, though, something caught my eye:
"Segall has stated in interviews that his favorite band of all time is Hawkwind.”
I only mention to explain the delay between volumes in this series.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 2: Willie Evans Jr. (Is Brilliant)

Beyond its late role as obligatory, super-expensive job training for the modern workforce, college also serves as sort of cultural/pop-cultural swap-meet. For as long as you're there, you’re surrounded by people who throw art, music, movies, TV, just everything at you every single day and for several years. That’s one hell of a side benefit, honestly.

Later, when you get old and isolated, that firehose of things to explore dries up. You can still find this stuff through ever-evolving music media (magazines online/off-line, blogs…which, it occurs to me for the first time are like the ‘zines of my youth (look, I’m slow)), but it’s both a lot harder and, often, more narrow; you lose the beneficial scatter-brain nature of inputs that comes with getting thrown together with a bunch of random people. Those people expose you to the names of artists, even entire genres, for you to check out and, when the stars align, fall in love with. Again, pretty damn amazing, but then once one’s four or five or six (me) years of college ends and it all goes away.

So, what do you do?

When my interest in music sort of reignited in my mid-30s, I had decent luck with picking albums by cover art. Even as it’s not as central to a musician’s art as his/her music, what he/she puts on his/her album cover speaks to a person's idiom. The artist makes his/her introduction through that album cover. This approach just worked out more often for me to going by a review of a band.*

Thursday, October 27, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 1: Wu-Tang Clan

Literally, the first image under "hip hop."
I don’t want to say that I’m ignorant about hip-hop, but I just googled it because I wasn’t super-clear on whether or not it’s hyphenated. (The answer: “it depends”). “Ignorant” goes a little too far, though, because what I really mean is that, down the years, a couple other genres got in the way, and I went pretty deep on those, so, what I’m saying is, I approach this stuff with due humility. (And, till further notice, this site's naming convention is "hip hop," sans hyphen.)

Me, Myself & I” sent me to the record store to buy De La Soul’s Three Feet High & Rising when it came out. During my freshman year in college, a friend of a friend passed on a mixed tape...hold on, that word has a different meaning now. By that I mean, I knew a guy who put a bunch of rap on a cassette tape - e.g., Boogie Down Productions, Poor Righteous Teachers, Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. & Rakim. Some exposure did happen, and beyond “Yo, MTV Raps.” The point is, most of the exposure came to me, not vice versa.

And yet leading with ignorance makes sense because it fits my relationship to the first artists I’m exploring for this project: The Wu-Tang Clan. It’s also why starting this entire project with a hip hop act just feels…right. If there’s a purpose to the whole thing, it’s exploration – answering the question of why something connected, regardless of when it connected. So, to lean into that ignorance as hard as I can without falling off, I had no idea that Wu-Tang dates back to the first half of the 1990s - completely missed that. I’d heard of Method Man (part of Wu-Tang) and Red Man (not part of Wu-Tang; turns out they’re cousins) in a couple fish-out-of-water movies from the early-aughts, but didn’t know to connect him to Wu-Tang. For years, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the only Wu-Tang member I could confidently identify as Wu-Tang, even if just related, and that only came when he died.

So, like the rest, Wu-Tang came to me. By that I mean, I’d heard songs by either Wu-Tang (“Gravel Pit”), or individual members (“Baby, I Got Your Money” and “Shimmy Ya”; sensing a theme?), before I really knew where they came from; later, I heard “A Day in the Life” on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People. I wasn’t even sure if actual members of Wu-Tang featured in it (they did), but the songs hit all the same - the style, drag and sound on the vocals as much as anything else. And that’s the long and the short of how you find a Wu-Tang album in a bin, decide to pick it up, take it home, and upload it onto your hard drive.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On (My) Music: A Project, an Inspiration

Here, my right hand massages the lobe for music appreciation…
Like a lot of people of a certain age, I have compiled my share of music collections. I’ve lost and gained them by way of break-ups (typical), cross-country moves (perhaps less typical), and just plain negligence (drunk?). There are songs, and entire bands, I can only remember when someone asks me, “hey, remember those guys?” And even then, I can’t always find them (e.g. Big Chief’s “Start at the Top,” which, across three albums (damn…they have them?) Spotify can’t find either. More on that software later.

When it became possible to save more music than I thought I’d ever own on my computer, I did that. The result is 214 + 47 folders across two entirely practically divided sets*, most of them containing folders within those folders, and all of them containing a lifetime’s worth of not just music, but interests and memories. Building and maintaining all that took about two years. And then along came Spotify.

I resisted Spotify, and for quite a while, for reasons both ideological and self-serving. Even now, as I look forward to my Discover Weekly playlist each and every week, it still feels like some experience has been lost. Or maybe it’s just the old Protestant mind-fuck needing to do work (or just to suffer) before anything registers as worthwhile. Regardless, by way of algorithms and convenience, Spotify can give me something close to what I want each and every week, whether by feeding it to me via Discover, or just by allowing me to search an actual universe of music.

Since getting Spotify just two months ago, I have compiled a secondary library of 80 songs, minimum, several of them that I just flat-out love, and with the giddiness of a new fling. The one anxiety I can’t escape is the notion that there’s some ur-song out there, some end of the rainbow iteration of what I like in music that Spotify will pinpoint and feed me over and over again, and that I’ll love it so much and so unconsciously that it’ll satisfy the “music lobe” thing in my lizard brain, and I’ll hear what old people’s brains have told them since the beginning of time – e.g., it all sounds the same and that the stuff of one’s youth is better, so why bother with that new-fangled __________? (aka, is Justin Bieber the end of music?)