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).

Friday, March 24, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 19: Mudhoney, Grunge's "Biological Dad"

Paul, seriously, I'm hung up. Nirvana or Mudhoney?
If the words “Superfuzz Bigmuff” weren’t the first words I heard on arriving in Seattle, it didn’t take long to hear them. I started college in Bellingham, Washington, right after that*, but chatter about Mudhoney followed me up there. Just a few weeks later, I watched a couple guys I knew singing “The Rose” in my dorm’s…shit, it’s not a cafeteria? Common room? Nah, that’s Harry Potter. It’s the place where people eat, they moved stuff around, my friends played, etc.

(* Is it possible that I doctored this chronology? Oh yeah. Still, minimal license taken.)

It’s a bit lucky that Mudhoney legitimately follows Nirvana in this project because I’ve always thought of those two as Seattle’s biggest bands, the Beatles v. Rolling Stones of the Emerald City circa 1990. That probably has less to do with objective reality than a dichotomy that came about because I’ve always liked Mudhoney more. And that’s where this volume detours into an exploration of memory, projection and bad assumptions.

First, both Nirvana and Mudhoney define the “grunge” genre; Mudhoney’s lead singer, the inimitable Mark Arm, coined the term. Grunge as a genre, doesn’t exactly contains multitudes, so it follows that these bands can’t sound worlds apart. In fact, according to Mudhoney’s Wikipedia page, Kurt Cobain credited Superfuzz Bigmuff as one of the “most influential albums to Nirvana’s sound.” It’s just rock in the end, a sound that just sorta mashed together punk rock and (to my ear, old-school) heavy metal (and the kind that falls on the “Black Sabbath” side of the “Black Sabbath/ Led Zeppelin” creative/tonal divide); stomp on a distortion pedal a couple times and, voila, major-label hawks swoop down on Seattle for a couple years trying to find the next Nirvana.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 4: The Rise of the Machines

Me. Thought I'd start with a smaller elephant...
The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison (hey, turns out he actually invented that one). Those first six words come out so easily, but it’s worth sitting with the idea for a while, because it’s nuts: for the overwhelming balance of human history, recorded music did not exist. (Seriously, what did college kids talk about when they were stoned?) 140 years later, we’re all walking around with record stores in our back pocket, so a little awe seems appropriate.

John Philip Sousa, the hip godfather of band geeks, viewed the invention with hostile ambivalence (mild oxymoron, intentional). He believed that once people could hear music without having to have someone immediately on hand to play it, they’d stop learning how to play music, which would result in them losing their ear for and understanding of music. And, for what it’s worth, I think the passage of time proved him right. I won’t pretend I don’t have my regrets – I mean, I can keep time and all, but I can’t play a single musical instrument to even coherence, never mind semi-proficiency, but, again, record stores in back pockets.

I’m not saying anyone “won,” so much as I’m acknowledging that upsides don’t always go straight up.

I last posted to this project back in late January. As much as I hate gaps in production (5 Year Plan!), but I took a break for good reasons. The last post I put up was on minstrelsy, a form that truly does feel like the first manifestation of specifically American popular entertainment – e.g., something that people paid professional performers to do in front of them. Other people found ways to make money in music (Lowell Mason, for instance; the subject of this series second chapter), but most of the revenue generated from that came from sales of song sheets and collections of songs to amateur musicians, and specifically for them to play at social gatherings. The settings could be formal or informal, secular or religious, but the broad reality featured people getting together to play instruments, sing songs, etc. Professional performance continued and progressed after minstrelsy’s pre-Civil War heyday, but it was pretty simple in the end: if people wanted to hear music, they had to learn to play it for themselves, or find a whole bunch of friends who could.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 18: Nirvana, On Fame and Authenticity

It is what it is.
In a break with past tradition for this series, I’m not going to say a whole lot about Nirvana’s songs and music. I mean, it’s not like Nirvana’s some band pleading for word of mouth buzz to help them break-through. They’re fucking Nirvana, a band you couldn’t get away from for a period of time, at least not without going off the grid. If you haven't heard them, it's because you don't want to.

To get it out of the way, though, my favorite Nirvana songs came out right at the sweet spot in their arc between obscurity (say, playing Seattle’s OK Hotel for a couple dozen or so people over capacity (think it’s about 500, but it’s been years)) and global, cultural-altering fame. So, that’s “Dive” and "Sliver" (actual favorite; those themes) even as I’m not so clear (again) on just how big a role nostalgia plays in this, but, after that, I’ve always been partial to everything about Bleach, whether sound, song structure, production…just, all of it (and, favorites there include, “Blew” (for starting off the album), “Negative Creep” (because that was the song they most clearly got sick of live; the chorus became things like "I like strawberry crepes, I like strawberry crepes"), “Mr. Moustache” and “Love Buzz,” a song I now appreciate in a whole new way after hearing Krist Novoselic switching up the bass during the song’s long middle passage for the first time this past week).

Between Nirvana’s fame and (semi-ongoing) ubiquity, the central question of this entire volume became this: what the hell do you say a band that just about everyone knows, and well?

The first starting point I came up with turned on the question of why, after “Sliver” and “Dive” came out, I basically stopped listening to Nirvana. By way of that approach, I learned I had never listened to Nevermind all the way through. Also, it turns out I never once listened to In Utero. And I mean, never: as the (original) album (Spotify has re-releases that include 70 songs) played through, I kept thinking, “this is what now?” I thought “Scentless Apprentice” was by a completely different band. No joke.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol. 17: Odd Future. In Which I Really Stretch

"Psycho Kid Ruins Thanksgiving" feels like an interpretation. Also, with knives.
Odd Future gained notoriety (maybe of an extraordinary local kind) for telling its teenage fans to kill their parents. Maybe that was on the cover art to something they put out, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m the object of that sentiment, not the subject. Just so we’re all on the same page. Still, my oldest daughter lost her goddamn mind about Odd Future, and I’m still alive, so there’s that, too.

I didn’t put too much time into Odd Future, because I understand that they’re not for me. I’m also close to certain that I would never have picked up any of their stuff had my daughter not turned on to them like only a teenage boy can. (No typo.) Still, I wound up with The OF Tape Vol. 2 in my bins…and it wasn’t some half-assed attempt to “bond” with my daughter either. First of all, that shit doesn’t work; the last thing your kid wants to do with her parent is geek out over music. But she listened to them – and a lot – and I drove her to couple concerts, and kids have that thing about playing the band they’re about to go see on their way to the show, so they sorta became background noise to our lives for a couple years. And, if you’re curious enough about music, you find yourself listening to them one day. Sure, you’re listening to what your daughter is listening to…but it’s less about figuring out what she’s listening to, than whether or not you actually like it.

In case you’re not familiar, Odd Future was (and sort of is) a Los Angeles-based hip hop collective, one that included guys like Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, and Earl Sweatshirt, but also associated/included acts like Jet Age of Tomorrow and The Internet, plus guys that I only heard my daughter say, but now know better, like Hodgy Beats, Domo Genesis, and Mike G. (Did I get how all that shit fits together loosely right? Eh…not so much; I mean, there’s a whole mythology at play here, within the albums and outside them, so read more here and here; I mean, all that’s good to know – and some of latest news hit me as weirdly encouraging for reasons I’ll get to in the closing – but that’s not the focus here). (So…what is?)

Because I have stuff by Tyler and Earl and Frank Ocean and Jet Age of Tomorrow and…shit, never mind. Because I have some amount of Odd Future’s solo work elsewhere, I decided to limit the review of Odd Future to the two mixtapes (fuck, I dunno if they’re mixtapes; just…things, OK? Bodies of work they put out), 12 Odd Future Songs and The OF Tape Vol. 2. I’ll get to those solo projects later, and that only makes more sense after listening to two of Odd Future’s “official” releases.

There’s one line in “NY (Ned Flanders)” from The OF Tape Vol. 2 that sort of acknowledges what the whole project is about: “I'm sneaking in your kid's ear lobe; ‘Oh, no! It's him! Goblin!’” It’s a lot of pushing buttons, basically, wallowing in teen angst, real, imagined and amplified. Here’s where I pick up the parenthetical in the intro: I’ve met flesh-and-blood human beings who said to me, and emphatically, “They’re telling their fans to kill their parents! How is that OK!?”

Friday, March 3, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Volume 16: Pegboy, Too Much of a Good Sound

One could break a land-speed record without noticing.
I would have killed to hear just one ballad. That’s not something I say often, but there it is.

Chicago’s Pegboy spun off of Chicago’s Naked Raygun and, as noted in some of the reviews posted on the band’s Wikipedia page, the connection ain’t subtle, even if some reviews are kinder ("The band has a knack for writing anthemic choruses in the tradition of guitarist John Haggerty's former band, Naked Raygun") than others ("This workmanlike band inherits the Chicago muscle 'n' melody tradition of Naked Raygun").

Then again, one could chalk up the tonal difference of those reviews (“workmanlike”? damn) to one of them having a better album to work with (that’s Strong Reaction versus Earwig, respectively). Unlike most of the past volumes of this project, I was able to make it through Pegboy’s entire body of work. Also unlike past volumes, there’s no feeling that I could go on all day. And the opening sentence of this volume hints at why.

Playing loud, fast and heavy can feel exhilarating, but, as with driving fast, the sensation of speed fades if you do it long enough. Listening to a great stomping rocker by itself – say, “Dangerace” from Pegboy’s last studio album, Cha-Cha Damore - feels like driving 50 through a residential neighborhood. By contrast, listening to all of Cha-Cha Damore feels like driving 70 on the freeway, and for hours, across, say, Eastern Montana. It’s not that “Dangerace” is some left-field stand-out track, either (though it’s probably the album’s most up tempo song); “Dog, Dog” features a kind of background guitar noodling that you don’t hear in a lot of Pegboy songs, while “In the Pantry of the Mountain King” (apart from having a great fucking name) features a guitar that has whiffs of surf sound and production.

Friday, February 24, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol. 15: The Pretenders, and How You Never Stop Growing

Not a perfect analogy, but it's the one I got.
It feels like I don’t need to spend much time introducing The Pretenders. While the band might not fall into the “rock legends” column, a small, random sample of people under 30 had heard of them when I asked. Given that, I want to spend more time picking through things about the band that people maybe don’t know. For instance, raise your hand if you knew The Pretenders put out an album in 2016.

I’ll get to all that, but I should also start by acknowledging that I have only ever owned The Singles, a States-side, sum-of-their-career sort of release that included the bands’ most famous hits. I definitely have some favorites, but I didn’t appreciate the full stupidity of the Desert Island Disc concept until I sat down one recent morning to name a Top 5 from The Singles (in the event you follow me on twitter and spotted that tweet, yeah, this is where it came from). Even after I throw out (what I call) the dross – e.g., “Back on the Chain Gang” and that cover of “I Got You Babe” the Pretenders lead singer, Chrissie Hynde, put out with that dude from UB40 (sorry, UB40 feat. Chrissy Hynde) – the only thing I’m confident about is that whatever I landed on for a Top 5 would change from day to day.

For today, though, I’ll go with “Kid,” “Talk of the Town,” "Day After Day,” “Message of Love” (I’m a percussion nut, and I love what they do on those last two), and…really struggling on this last one…shit, shit, shit, uh, let’s go with “Hymn to Her.” Rather than bore you with the songs that lost out (for today), I’ll just say there’s something about that song that feels like some combination of brave and liberating…even as I sense that it’s not so much a song for me (am I alone in reading that as a feminist anthem?).

50 Shades Darker: A Public Service Announcement

Only implied by the movie; also, sexier than anything in it.
Several years ago, I dragged my wife to see Pacific Rim. I was into Godzilla and movies with giant monsters battling over a city-scape growing up, so I figured we might enjoy it. Instead, my wife and I reference Pacific Rim anytime we're grasping to explain how awful something is – e.g. “well, it wasn’t Pacific Rim bad or anything, but…”

Last night, my wife took me to see 50 Shades Darker. She’s into romance novels and light bondage, so she figured we might enjoy it.

At one point last night, she leaned over and whispered to me, “this is worse than the first one.” I whispered back, “This is your Pacific Rim.”

Dear God in Heaven, where do I begin?

Last night I tweeted that 50 Shades Darker has “the narrative tension of an IKEA manual.” I’ll add to that in this modest piece of public service, because the experience was actually closer to finishing building a piece of IKEA furniture after someone else started it.

Say it’s a dresser you’re working on, a product that we’ll call a “Mouvee” (you’ll have to place/visualize your own umlauts on that). Because someone else has already started construction, you start with a frame (in this case, 50 Shades of Grey), and a whole bunch of parts. In the end, you know that all those parts will fit together somehow as a finished product – again, a “Mouvee” – but all of it looks like a pile of cheap junk prior to construction.

It’s worse, actually. Imagine that, instead of working directly from the instructions, the people asking you to build Mouvee insist that you listen to other people read and explain them to you. Moreover, the people chosen to do the reading sound like they’re reading those instructions for the first time, absent working familiarity of all the pieces and no clue as the final product. For all that, they talk you through what happens first, and then next, and then next again. A number of things happened – e.g. events and conversations - a lot of them separate mini-projects that only fit together because they happened to occupy the same two-hour (?) space (honestly, I spent most of the time wishing I could go to the bathroom). To wrap up the analogy, think of Mouvee as a dresser; now think of sticking a clock on top of the damn thing, because you can, so why the hell not?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 14: Q-Tip and Tribe Called Quest

Q-Tip was the guy who kept popping up in other act’s songs. When he wasn’t poking his head in on De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I,” he was hogging the spotlight on The Beastie Boys’ “Get It Together.” And every time I heard him, I’d think, “ah, I like him.” Blessed with one of the most disarming flows in the business, Q-Tip had a knack for making his raps sound as personal as a close conversation in a quiet room. Just…relaxed. Almost peaceful.

While I understood those cameos came from his vast, much-esteemed body of work with A Tribe Called Quest (hereafter, “Tribe,” because who wants to type the full name every time?), you can put them down as yet another band I took too long to get to (curse you, indie rock!). I knew a couple songs – “Bonita Applebum” got through somehow (and it's better than I remember) and my wife played “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” enough that I can’t listen to it anymore – and it wasn’t so much about liking them, as recognizing that they deserved respect somehow. I’d heard The Low End Theory here and there, but always too deep in the background to get anything out of it. After that, there’s just one thing: I’ve never heard a single person breathe an ill word against them. And that’s something.

Tribe comes up now because, thanks to the winding road this project’s driving, I got to The Renaissance, a solo album Q-Tip put out in 2013. How’d it get in my bins? Beats me. It just did. For this post, though, that’s the end of the road. I want to start with a question that all but begged itself after just a couple listens to a specific sub-set of Tribe’s oeuvre.

I somehow got it in my head that The Low End Theory was considered Tribe’s masterwork, so, after a couple re-listens to The Renaissance, I moved on to that one. By only the second listen to Midnight Marauders – Tribe’s “junior” project (The Low End Theory was the sophomore effort), something from which I’d never heard even one track – I just…knew that someone, somewhere had measured one album against the other with an eye to declaring a winner.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 13: Quasimoto / On Indie-Hop

For me, the comparison applies.

Late last week, I think I came up with a good way to draw out what I really like about indie-rap artist/alter ego, Quasimoto. More on the second half of that descriptor later. Which makes sense by way of dawning awareness – e.g., until this week, I had no idea who Quasimoto was, or how he fit into hip hop. Back to it…

Kanye West slipped a long tail on the end of his debut, The College Dropout, with a track titled “Last Call.” It’s sort of an audio autobiography, his telling of his break into the music biz. It’s not a bad song, by any means, but – brace yourself – he’s clearly the hero of his own story, artist and muse all in one. It’s also the longest track on the album. Like, over twice as long as every other song. (Yeah, yeah, cheap shot. Kanye takes time to tick through his idols, and the people who helped him level up. The man is talented.)

Quasimoto slipped a similar track onto his debut, Unseen; he actually sprinkled his album with a couple songs that loosely fit the label/genre, “personal history.” The main one, though, is called “Return of the Loop Digga.” It kicks off with the kind of contrasts you usually get in rap – e.g., “I am awesome, doing stuff no one else does” – and, just like Kanye’s “Last Call,” it touches on his inspirations. And that’s where the difference comes: instead of delving into who he knows and what he did, Quasimoto talks of offbeat genres (jazz, “1970s stuff,” reggae) and mining used record stores for cast-off vinyl (and vinyl, only) that no one else is looking at. The track comes off less as the story of Quasimoto’s life, than a thank you note to the world for giving him a huge goddamn playground of sounds to play in. He echoes his mini-manifesto on a couple more tracks form Unseen – “Boom Music” (hip hop inspirations) and “Jazz Cats Pt. 1” (jazz homage).

To pick up the loose end in the lead, Quasimoto is an alter ego for Madlib, a guy who (to borrow from Wikipedia), “described himself as ‘a DJ first, producer second, and MC Last.’” Madlib is also, as Wikipedia points out, prolific. After connecting Madlib to Quasimoto, I bounced over to Madlib’s discography to see how much they sounded like one another – e.g. did Madlib, say, use the Quasimoto character as a place to drop the jazzy/weird shit? Did he sound more “normal” in his own work? The answer came in two parts: 1) holy shit, that is a lot of music, and unless I want to spend the rest of my life here…moving on; 2) nope, Madlib sounds pretty “Madlib-y” wherever he goes. And that is a good thing.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 3: Uh...Minstrelsy, The First Real Pop (on All Levels)?

Yeah. Master race. Sure.
“The title of one study of early blackface minstrelsy captures in an arresting phrase the white entertainer’s relationship to blackness: ‘love and theft.’”
- Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History

With the intention of getting to the most uncomfortable stuff about “minstrelsy” right at the top, Jim Crow started as a stage character before lending the name to a collection of laws that shame (the good parts of) the United States to this day. And, hey, the guy who came up with it, Thomas D. “Daddy” (why?) Rice? He’s from my hometown (stay classy, Cincinnati). Also, guy named George Washington Dixon worked under the stage name, “Zip Coon.” (This is his title track, apparently, and…harsh start…”Do Your Ears Hang Low”? My…my childhood? In the tune of a straight racist classic? Whoof…)

Without dignifying the specific creative form known as minstrelsy – e.g. stage productions featuring white performers in blackface, which peaked in popularity in the two decades running up to our nation’s only true existential crisis (so far), the American Civil War (roughly, 1840 – 1860) – context is always important. To quote Crawford:
“When characters of American Indian, Irish, or Scottish descent appeared on nineteenth-century stages, their stories were immediately ripe for elaboration because the audience expected them to behave in certain ways.”
Minstrelsy offered up stereotype as humor, basically, a long, proud tradition that limps on in (what feels like the dead form) “white people do this/black people do this” comedy. By way of live stage shows that followed a fairly standard pattern – “first a group of songs…then an ‘olio’ (hodgepodge) section including stump speeches and other novelties; and finally a large-scale burlesque skit set in the South” - minstrelsy could very well stand as the first truly popular (e.g. secular) musical form in American history, even as the sophistication of the material changed. As Crawford notes, it “proved to be the first musical genre to reverse the east-to-west transatlantic flow of performers to North America.” So, minstrelsy sounds like America’s first pop culture export. Yeah…

Thursday, January 26, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 12: Silversun Pickups

Just my favorite image under "how Prozac feels."
I should like the Silversun Pickups (or is it just Silversun Pickups? Going that way). But I do not like Silversun Pickups, at least not a lot.

With them, we get into what I think is a fairly small subset in my collection, bands I picked up through Rock Band. Yes, the video game. Rock Band 2, in fact, as I've just learned. Also, my actual history with this band? It goes back only a couple years.

Of course “Lazy Eye” was the song. Near as I can tell that’s their biggest hit. I liked playing “Lazy Eye” because it had a kind of tricky, yet accessible, rhythm that you can master in about 10 tries (again, on Rock Band, in medium, but, once you nail that, you’re good for the expert pattern too; but I digress…into something at least mildly embarrassing. Look, even little doses of dopamine feel good. And, for what it’s worth, I think 10 tries to success for the average person makes for a good general ratio – certainly in video games, but maybe even in life. I haven’t really penciled that out, so, just a thought, but, yes, I think the bosses should get progressively harder in a certain kind of video game so that the last one almost brings the gamer to tears before he beats him/her/it/the life force; life, maybe less so; hard enough as is; but I digress; clearly).

Back to “Lazy Eye,” that came off of Carnavas, the band’s second album-esque offering. In the context of the band’s oeuvre, Carnavas (2006) all but tripped on the heels of the band’s album-esque debut, Pikul (2005), suggesting that the latter caught enough fire to make sense of pushing the rest of what the band carried in its back pocket out the door when people would notice. That could be why “Lazy Eye” gives the listener such a clear sense of what to expect from Silversun Pickups, and that holds at least through Swoon: a lot of strumming, a lot of it over a “wall of sound” throb, and that weird kind of distortion that doesn’t quite sound distorted. And the lead singer’s voice and style of singing. Which is fine. Just. Fine. At any rate, I generally like all those things, and I'm rarely all that particular on voices. So, why doesn't this band land for me?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 2: The First American Music Mogul and the People's Hymns

The present-day equivalent of Lowell Mason.
I’ll be lumping a couple chapters from Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life: A History into this post. It’s a little light on the musical side of things, but, please, bear with me. If this feels like sadism to anyone who reads it, the inverse is true for me, and I’m not into that kind of thing. At any rate…

According to Crawford, a fella named Lowell Mason “seems to have been the first American musician who realized capital – profit in excess of expenditure and wages – from musical work.” A ton of that work had to do with teaching singing, first in churches, then in communities, and, finally, in Boston public schools – and all of that based on course materials he created (good business plan, btw) - but Mason succeeded by dint of seizing one main chance after another. He built it all on a tunebook that he compiled (but didn’t compose, only arranged (distinction); again, the music was largely borrowed) and sent into the world under the auspices of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. He titled his the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music and, in a twist that would utterly throw people today, he didn’t make the name of the author bigger than the title (he was a banker and, like all sane people at the time, he didn’t believe he could make a living through music).

The material on Mason’s steady, half-conscious takeover of musical education for contemporary Bostonians (he later conquered New York as well) is somewhat interesting, but, I can hear some unlikely reader now echoing the refrain of every man or woman who finds himself/herself hanging by a thread to his/her place in a band: “I thought it was supposed to be about the music, man.” It is, honest, but it’s worth recognizing Mason as the American pioneer on the cash-money side of the ledger, e.g., the side that bedevils anyone who tries to make it in music. And he nailed that shit, died richer the Croesus, etc.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 11: Talib Kweli, or Right About When Things Get Tricky

Taste is, like, half the point. At most.

To post this series’ first existential question: how much time should I spend on a band/performer that I don’t like so much?

I came to Talib Kweli’s solo work because I heard (and loved) Black Star, his collaboration with Mos Def. I picked up a couple other signals (this piece of brilliance is the only one that comes to mind now, and, see below, but I’m pretty sure out of timeline) and, with that, Talib Kweli’s name possessed a couple positive associations.

I picked up Talib Kweli’s Beautiful Struggle 3-4 years ago (yeah, yeah, late bloomer) and, outside of Black Star, that’s probably as far back as I go on anything he touched. Also, had you asked even last week if I dug Talib Kweli’s work, I would have ranked him high. But, as it happens, I wrote in that vote without doing the homework…

Here’s where I get in my head a little, not to monkey around in my psyche, but because I think a lot of people like or dislike one thing or another, but without thinking much about how they separate (alleged) wheat from (alleged) chaff. And those parentheticals are less a copout than to acknowledge the same kind of uncomfortable truth that undermines the whole goddamn wine-tasting empire: on the pop level, it’s all but totally subjective. Seriously. Also, this is a meditation on the difference between what you like (Talib Kweli) and what you love (big list).

Reviewing all this taught what could be a lesson in how a brain edits information – e.g., I like Talib Kweli because Black Star, and because “The Actual” (link above; and, shit, here), and I can recall a couple good songs on Beautiful Struggle, therefore I’m a fan of Talib Kweli.

And there’s another wrinkle: I’m good with Talib Kweli. I like his politics, I believe it’s possible that he brought a key element to Black Star, one whose absence I might feel when (or if) I go deep on Mos Def’s (now, Yasiin Bey) oeuvre, and I think that, across his three solo albums that I explored I found some damn good songs. I also found songs that sound like generic (lazy?) club-bangers to me, plus a bunch that felt similarly flaccid (maybe due to where he fit in my musical universe going in?). But even that slips around the heart of the disconnect.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 1: Broadside Ballads and the Birth of American Music

Instant classic of its age...
Some controversy surrounds the question of the first American to “produce a Musical Composition.” A guy named Frances Hopkinson staked claim to the honor, but, upon a little digging, a music historian of some import named Oscar G. Sonneck unearthed a second candidate, a guy named James Lyon. Sonneck went with Hopkinson in the end (composition titled “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free”), but still others noted the year of composition (1759) and argued that Americans can’t predate America (touche) and that brings in another work by Hopkinson (“Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano”), written 1788, as the first “American” work, so the credit still attaches, if for a different song.

Few Americans had access to classical music back then; Thomas Jefferson often lamented how damn hard it was to scare up a band in the wilds of Virginia, and he was a big fan of music (“the favorite passion of [his] soul”). Amateur enthusiasts made do, playing mostly in the home and with whomever came to hand; scaling up was hard and musical education, while possible, not only cost money, but required the correct address. Even then, the songs came from the Old Country, not the States, and (as noted above) original composition took a century and two-thirds (or thereabouts) to happen, and it was never an object of mass popularity.

It was another borrowed form that seems closest to the first truly “popular music” to take hold on these shores. These went by the name of “broadside ballads,” and were little more than tales of adventure (and sometimes bastardry) set to familiar songs that already existed. Different poems often borrowed the same tune, too: for instance, both “The Children in the Woods” and “Chevy Chase” (not a typo) could play over the tune of "Ponder Well," from a production called The Beggar’s Opera. (That's the whole thing, btw; buckle up.)  (Also, The Beggar’s Opera actually comes up a lot, see “Our Polly Is a Sad Slut,” which played under “The Lawyer’s Pedigree”). The themes vary quite a bit – e.g., “Chevy Chase” records a fateful day of battle (not to mention the aching stupidity of fighting over an intangible like “honor”), while “The Children in the Woods” tells the sad tale of young children getting victimized by a treacherous relative. (Another classic, and a charmer, “The Spanish Lady” also shows up in Richard Crawford’s book).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pop Backstory: A Hawaiian Prelude

There's a Hawaiian honky-tonk image, but...
Welcome to this first post in a personal history of American popular music. Decided to stick with a simple title for the series (e.g., “Pop History”) because all the other titles I came up ranged between hokey to stupid. As noted in the introductory post to Pop History, I want to begin the project by reading and relating what I learn by reading America’s Musical Life: A History, by Richard Crawford. After that, I’ll dig through Wikipedia’s sprawling, cross-referenced pages until I get to some satisfactory end. That’s months, if not years away. Thought it appropriate to start with something of a cautionary tale.

When I read Wikipedia’s history, it felt like the author(s) kept bringing up Hawaiian music often enough, and specifically, to make me wonder whether the editors resided in Honolulu. As it turns out, he/they made only six references – and one of them just as a category label – but that still seemed outsized given a personal belief that Hawaiian music sounded like “Aloha ‘Oe” (go to the top right for audio) and, when it came to mainstream pop, the borrowings came out sounding like some sappy Andy Williams bastardization (example).

Oh, and fun detail, the last queen of Hawaii wrote “Aloha ‘Oe.” That’s kinda cool.

Wikipedia’s entry ("Music of Hawaii") disabused that blinkered view within the first paragraph. (And it only now just occurred to me that surf might have originated in Hawaii (no? No. Huh. Seemed like a natural fit)). The actual story packs a still bigger “wow/weird” factor, in that the Hawaiians invented not just the steel/slide guitar technique, but the popularity of the Hawaiian sound prompted the development of the first electric guitar (in a phrase, damn, fam). And to further demonstrate the guitar-madness among Hawaiians, they also developed a technique called slack-key guitar. To reuse a word, that’s an out-sized pop culture footprint for a handful of small islands.