Sunday, May 21, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 26: Japandroids, Rock's Sneaky Party Band

Yep, those two hooked up...
For once, I don’t need to lard this volume back-story/personal history (and I’m working on minimizing that part, too; it’s about the music, kid). I picked up Vancouver B.C.’s Japandroids album Celebration Rock because I caught their name in The Portland Mercury, thought it was neat and/or clever, etc. I listened to that album a few times and liked it well enough, but nothing about it really lit my fire, so I tucked it away and forgot about it until something made me go back to it. This project, actually. (And, in case you’re wondering, yeah, this about half the motivation – i.e., spelunking around my own music collection for lightly-neglected, sometimes forgotten, nooks and crannies.)

Only one song stuck from those first several listens: “Adrenaline Nightshift.” By that I mean, unlike the rest, I immediately recognized it when I listened to Celebration Rock over the past week. Even so, it’s hard to imagine “Adrenaline Nightshift” as some guy’s all-time favorite song, or as the doorway to some complicated girl’s soul. It’s a rock song, and a decent one, but there’s nothing special to the sound or deep or poignant in the lyrics. It rocks and…that’s it, it just rocks.

After reading about the band – fidelity to a DIY ethic, their struggles to get signed and related near break-ups, touring like goddamn maniacs, a “health emergency”* - it’s almost impossible not to pull for them (*and, yes, that last one makes really makes me feel like an asshole). For all that, I can’t bring myself to sell them as a band anyone needs to hear; they’re nothing revelatory musically; Japandroids sound like their influences (more later), but with enough twist that anyone who knows them can pick out a song as theirs – probably by the vocals (not their long suit, really). And maybe that has to do with their long struggle to make a paying gig out of music (but, again, how many bands I like except the biggest ones do that for long?).

Something about Japandroids - and this only comes through their music, not deep research - makes me think they’d take all the above in stride. Having listened to nearly everything they’ve put out (just four full albums, plus some random shit I just found; song I've heard from them...damn), they come across as guys doing this shit fer kicks. Their lyrics, at least so far as I’ve teased them out, revel in everything about youth – the bingo-ball-bin way people come together, living in the moment like nothing else matters, and, when it’s all over, remembering those times with (giddy, drunken) reverence (see, “Younger Us”). Japandroids don’t only talk about “drinking and smoking” (see, “The Nights of Wine and Roses”), but those come up as subjects a lot, even if not so blatantly. Broadly, Japandroids approach to music leans heavily into wall-of-sound guitar – some shimmer, mostly drone – lots of anthem/chorus hooks and all of it more or less up-tempo. Their Wikipedia page (link above; see “reading about the band”) lists their influences as “one part classic rock, and one part punk.” Mmm, I’m less sold on that. As much as anything, they sound like alt-rock from around the time the 80s bent into the 90s. Or they did at least.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 5: The Germania Musical Society, Europe's First Invasion

Artist, suffering.
“On the morning of the 2d of August, 1848, the good packet ship “Diadem” sailed out of its London dock, bearing to the New World, in the midst of much other more or less precious freight, a group of German musicians.”
That group of musicians included 24 members. They called themselves the Germania Musicl Society, and they took the United States of America by whatever counts as the 19th-century equivalent of “by storm.” But that story starts with a back-story. And a premise.

It’s safe to call the United States of America, as a country, self-assured. That better-than-healthy ego has spurred its shares of accomplishments and atrocities, but it has carried the country through a lot and generally left it whole and, let’s face it, fat and wealthy. Americans like to think of themselves as leaders – or, if not that, sort of “alpha people,” better than your average [insert name/nickname of nationality of your choice] (also, keep it clean, dammit).

Inevitably, there are areas where that self-belief trips up a little. I’d say classical music, as an art, sits as a capital for one of those areas. I don’t know much about classical music, certainly not enough to state with any confidence that the U.S. has never produced a classical composer of any renown, but I’m also reasonably confident that only a vanishingly small number of Americans could name an American composer in a street-ambush interview, never mind one of any real reputation. Even as several American cities have resident symphonies, classic music doesn’t move the zeitgeist so much these days, and, if it ever did, I don’t know about it.

At the same time, Richard Crawford’s, America’s Musical Life: A History (as well as its “lightly” annotated version, now owned by the author, An Introduction to America’s Music) makes clear that classical music mattered. A proud lineage of, frankly, cultural high-brows has championed classical music since the U.S. has been a country. Crawford wrote a brilliant line about one of America’s more idealistic evangels, Theodore Thomas:
“Where most performers were obliged to respect audience taste enough to gratify it, Thomas worked to elevate public taste to a point where it would be worth gratifying.”
That’s as eloquent a way as I can think of to describe the specific tension between lowbrow and high in just about any art form. Because this series focuses on popular music, I don’t want to write much about classical music. I also believe that classical music counts as a clear and particular manifestation of the argument that Europe has “culture” where America does not. Not a little of what I read in Crawford, annotated or otherwise, confirms that. At the same time, classical compositions lent some artistic spine to what live performances occurred in mid-to-late 19th century America – and those performances, being live and attended by some amount of the public therefore count as “popular.” Because what is popular, after all, if not something people pay to listen to and look at?

And now I’m back to the Germania Music Society.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Judge My Playlist Volume 5: "Light Bulb"

Yeah, what the hell?
Oh, man. This CD came early. I think it’s first inspiration was The Velvet Underground’s “Beginning to See the Light.” And, for the record, I’m now confused all over again about The Velvets, because I picked up Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me…by which I mean, I think I just reached the break-point where The Exploding Plastic Inevitable morphed into The Velvet Underground most of us know, and with the idea that, as Ronnie Cutrone put it, “Lou was trying to become commercial.”

And, again, I’m shit for timelines. I have no idea what The Velvets sounded like between 1966 and 1967 – i.e., the period when they functioned as part of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It’s just that I’m guessing that “Beginning to See the Light” came after the whole “commercial” thing happened.

Also, I love that freakin’ song. As in, all of it. I can see how “There are problems in these times, but – whoo! – none of them are mine” comes like an anthem to privilege. I see it more as half-Buddhist release. If of the most Western variety.

The overarching thought of what I wound up calling “The Light Bulb” CD grows from that – e.g., the animating logic of the Serenity Prayer – or the opposite thereof, see Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” one of your better anthems of fatalism. But isn't that just the flipside of contentment? Call it an homage to the idea that we are, everyone one of us, what we do in the world, and for good or ill.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 25: Lou Reed, A Decade in a Man

I love this picture. Something reaching the other side.
Among the musical legends to have died recently, Lou Reed occupies a curious space. That’s fitting in a lot of ways. A couple passed as icons – Prince and David Bowie, particularly – prompting a couple days’ worth of widespread reflection on their place in our culture (hmm...sensing a theme) and hours upon hours of reliving their music (Prince made it harder). It’s not that I didn’t see tributes to Lou Reed – this song, about the bond between artist and admirer, ranks with anything I heard or read about Bowie or Prince – but they showed up in fewer and smaller spaces.

That’s a function of specificity, in my mind. Over a long career, Lou Reed wrote and played music that appealed to a certain kind of person. His voice doesn’t sound right, and he talks about weird shit and in an off-kilter way. For instance, pop music obsesses about sex, but it mostly on the level of love, beauty, and infatuation; for Lou Reed, sex was identity, liberation, something unattainable or even self-destructive. Then again, this is the guy who, per Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, would end a conversation by asking someone if they wanted to go to his place so he could shit in his/her mouth. Can’t remember the gender on that one (and I can’t find the quote), and that’s also fitting.

For some reason, I want to start digging into Lou Reed’s music by talking about New York, an album he put out well past his prime. It felt less like a comeback than a resurrection. Lou Reed never completely went away – he produced a couple albums through the mid-80s (and this after an entire, crazy productive decade in the 70s) – but New York seemed to revive interest in him in a way that wasn’t possible for a while. Basically, New York dropped at the beginning of the cultural moment when, as the awful phrase had it, “the alternative went mainstream.” The concept of “mainstream” has slipped a little – or maybe even a lot – now that everyone can burrow into his/her highly-specific pop culture niches, but, basically, a cultural space opened up around that time that was receptive to independent, off-beat, and, again, specific voices.

Dirty Blvd.” would probably be the song most people would remember from New York, and both the song and the album grew out of the time. “Dirty Blvd.,” along with a couple others (e.g., “Strawman,” “There Is No Time,” and “Last Great American Whale”) recall New York City’s crime infestation, but from an angle of broken families and social injustice, and both with a nod to a broad undercurrent of racism. It’s a decent album, full of the honesty and integrity one expects out of Lou Reed, but it’s also something I don’t believe he, along with a lot of artists, isn’t particularly good at: political. Between the guitar work and song structure, it also sounds closer to…I’ll call it generic rock, something vaguely exhausted.

It wasn’t the Lou Reed I knew, either.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Judge My Playlist, Volume 4: Future Panic

Jesus! So insufferably blue/gray.
Another week, another playlist…

“Future Panic” came about because I wanted to preserve the post-apocalyptic essence of some of my favorite songs by Gorillaz (no “the,” huh?). I only picked three songs by them in the end, but that’s a lot about me being rigidly democratic on my playlists. In other words, if I’m going to make a playlist, the thing is going to be mixed.

Portland’s very own, The Thermals show up a lot on this one too, but I think the whole thing devolved into just…songs about…I dunno, outer space? Before I got finished with it?

As always, and per the project, let me know what you think if you wanna. Or just enjoy. Or ignore. Free country, and all that....

As always, I set up a playlist for all the above on Spotify, but I figure if they have them, Apple Music, etc. will as well. Links are embedded below for all the songs that didn’t show up on Spotify. And, won’t lie, feel guilty about swiping The Make Up’s (fucking) classic, “Born on the Floor,” because I sense that band is off Spotify for fairly specific reasons. In my defense, I view this as spreading some form of gospel. “Born on the Floor” is fucking genius.

One more thing: the distortion on some of this stuff broke my wife on a recent road trip. You’ve been warned.

Future Panic
1) Born on the Floor – The Make Up
2) Our Happiness Is Guaranteed – Quasi
3) Search & Destroy – Iggy & The Stooges
4) Specify Gravity – Man or Astro-Man
5) An Ear for Baby – The Thermals
6) Kids With Guns – Gorillaz
7) Remote Control – The Beastie Boys (I said vaguely dystopian)
8) Starman – David Bowie
9) Ted, Just Admit It – Jane’s Addiction
10) Dirty Harry – Gorillaz
11) 100 Individual Magnets- Man or Astro-Man
12) (Dawning of a) New Era – The Specials
13) Before the Earth Was Round – OK Go
14) Books About UFOs- Husker Du
15) Eclipse(?) – The Beta Band (look, typed the title in wrong…long back story. Just…good song)
16) An Endless Supply – The Thermals (shit…they have SUCH better songs)
17) Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head – Gorillaz (bad fit; just…like the mythic element)
18) Like Clockwork – The Boomtown Rats
19) “A” Bomb in Wardour Street – The Jam
20) This Is Radio Clash – The Clash (and the sub-rosa motivation for the whole thing)

All for this week. Hope anyone who finds it likes it.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Judge My Playlist, Volume 3: Lovely, Lively

The vibe I was after...

Again, this little project is about just sharing a “playlist” – one that I slapped on a CD a few years back – that I’m posting here and on twitter to let people judge it, love it, deconstruct it, tell me where I went wrong, etc.

I titled this week’s selection Lovely, Lively. I went mostly, if not entirely, up-tempo and the songs trucked broadly in the giddiness of infatuation – though I definitely squeezed in a song or two, just because they kept up with the pace. Or talked about love, generally. Those are some personal favorites (see, "F.I.D.O"). If you do listen to this one, it shouldn't take you long to pick up a little "mission creep."

Then again, some songs made the cut because I wanted to get, say, a couple old Green Day songs onto a CD before I forgot about them. That actually applied most to the songs by The Dirtbombs and The Gories, both projects of the great and mighty Mick Collins. Man’s a goddamn genius, I tell you…

At any rate, the Lovely, Lively playlist is below. There was only one song that Spotify didn’t have, and there’s a link to a Youtube video next to that one. I also included a non-live version of The Buzzcocks “Love You More,” because I can’t make my ears accept recorded live music no matter how hard I try. Just doesn’t translate for me…

Lovely, Lively
1. La, La Love You – The Pixies
2. Black & White World – Elvis Costello
3. 1,000 Hours – Green Day
4. Keep You Around – The Ravishers
5. Nitroglycerine – The Gories
6. Hot on Your Heels – The Mint Chicks
7. I’m Your Torpedo – Eagles of Death Metal
8. Earthquake Heart – The Dirtbombs
9. Punk Rock Girl – The Dead Milkmen
10. Knock Me Down – Naked Raygun
11. F.I.D.O. – The Dirtbombs
12. Dancing the Night Away – The Motors (say…extended version; I like it! Slower pace, tho)
13. I’ve Just Seen a Face – Beatles
14. One Way or Another – Blondie
15. I’m Qualified to Satisfy You – The Dirtbombs
16. Turn a Square – The Shins
17. Dry Ice – Green Day
18. Love You More – Buzzcocks
19. You Gotta Sinned to Get Saved – Maria McKee

Thursday, April 27, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Volume 24: Menomena. Who Might Be My Favorite Band

Large intestines, c'mon forward! Shake it!
I first heard Menomena in…well, looks like that happened on August of 2012, but I actually pulled it from PDX Pop Now!’s 2010 compilation. The specific song was “Five Little Rooms.” I have been listening to that same song, often late at night and sufficiently loose (or tight…still struggling with which way to go there), since then, trying to decipher its meaning. I’m no Charlie Manson, some clown sifting the sound and lyrics for instructions on how to bring about Racist Doomsday (true story). Still, everything about that song – the drums pounding as if on the walls of those rooms, and vaguely funereal sound of the piano, the soaring buzz of the guitars toward the end, the mocking chorus – somehow recalls sensations of panic. Or, as one part of the lyrics puts it, “Click your heels and get the hell away.” Look, it sounds much more artful in the song...

We’re all familiar with the record store routine, the act of walking in there with a head full of ideas about what to buy, only to have every last idea leak out one aisle to the next, each successive band’s name taking you further and further from those original thoughts. When music collecting went mostly online, I stopped going to record stores – probably due to the above, too – but the day I finally did go, though, Menomena stayed front and center until I walked it to the register. “Five Little Rooms” had everything to do with that.

The above might reek of obsessive fandom, but, until this week, I’ve never quite pored over Menomena’s albums; and it’s rare that I pull a song apart like I did (and do) with “Five Little Rooms.” It’s not my style, for one (see: this entire goddamn project), but there’s also no world in which Menomena makes for easy listening. It’s not even that they don’t do infectious beats and addictive hooks – though they don’t do them much. Menomena is a study of details, the process of trying to catch and piece out the way they construct each song. They’re a band built not just for volume, but for the era of earbuds; listening to them almost requires sound-blocking, because it’s too easy miss an instrument, or some accent, or fail to note how, in one song, they built one bridge on a choppily pulsing saxophone, and the next bridge by plucking twinkles out of strings (see: “Weird”). That one also has one of my favorite lyrical phrases: “There’s no love lost that I can’t find again.” (Damn it! Typing that in plain text strangles the lyrics. Delivery matters. The way one communicates a thought or a feeling will always change it. Obviously.)

It feels right to tackle Menomena from the angle of approach, because it’s a big part of their sound. It starts with their songwriting process, something covered on the band’s Wikipedia page:

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Judge My Playlist, Volume 2: Crime, Most Sordid

Out ya go, son.
Another week, another playlist. I explained the project last week (so I don’t have to do it again; links as absolution for sloth), but, because “Cuter” always listened pretty well, I feel like I kicked some better fodder into No Man’s Land with this week’s selection of songs (or, like the kids like to call ‘em, playlists! Crazy, man, crazy.)

First of all, the title barely works. “Crime, Most Sordid,” I call this one, but that really applies cleanly to about half the songs. I’ll leave it to anyone who cares (anyone? anyone?) to sort the thematically-consistent wheat from the thematic-inconsisitent chaff…but, to give a clue, the latter mostly include songs about the essential supine state of drug addiction, and other bad decisions.

All the songs I dropped onto “Crime, Most Sordid” appears below and, as with last week, with links to whatever I can find on the Web, in the event Spotify doesn’t have the song I’m after. And, for the record, I came up empty once last week…songs are already getting lost, people…

Crime, Most Sordid
1. You Know I’m No Good – Amy Winehouse
2. Don’t Darlene – Rocket from the Crypt
3. Killy Kill – Rocket from the Crypt
4. I Fought the Law – The Stray Cats
5. Carolina Drama – The Raconteurs
6. Black Batons – The Taxpayers (no Spotify, so link; also, for the curious, a performance video)
7. Pyscho Killer – Talking Heads
8. Son of Sam – Chain Gang
9. The Switch and the Spur – The Raconteurs
10. Rehab – Amy Winehouse
11. Thunderbird ESQ – The Gories
12. Signed D.C. – Love
13. Eclipse – The Beta Band
14. Shot by Both Sides – Magazine
15. Ballad of Private Rifle Sound – Centromatic
16. Treatment Bound – The Replacements
17. Jack on Fire – The Gun Club
18. The Card Cheat – The Clash
19. Rock & Roll – The Velvet Underground

Yep, that last one does not fit (fuck it; call it a first toe-dip into vice). At any rate, tell me what you think if the spirit moves you…I could pick this thing apart all day, even though I’m big on a lot of those songs (specifically, Tracks 2, 8, 11, 13, 15, 16, and 18 – and, holy shit, does one of those not belong, like, in the least). Whether it’s organization, or grasping at songs to the fill out theme, this one feels like shooting fish in a barrel. Again, have at it. Or just enjoy.

Also, better success rate on Spotify carrying all the tracks. Beauty. All done.

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.