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. (And 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, godfather of band geeks, hated the phonograph on the entirely reasonable grounds that once people could hear music without having to someone around to play it, they’d stop learning how to play. He believed they'd lose their ear for and understanding of music and, honestly, do you really want to be on the other side of that argument. The passage of time proved him right, I won’t pretend I don’t have my regrets, but, again, we have record stores in our back pockets for solace. I've had worse.

That just acknowledges 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!), 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 originally American popular, and professional, entertainment – i.e., something that people paid to see, that Americans made up on their own. Other people found ways to make money in music (Lowell Mason, for instance; the subject of this series second chapter), most of that revenue came from selling sheet music, aka, single-song 45s that required the buyer's active participation (as in, if you couldn't play, all you had was a piece of paper). Those sheets sold to amateur musicians, and mostly to play at social gatherings, formal or informal, secular or religious, crowd size variable, and so on. Professional performance continued and progressed underneath all that, but, until transportation really picked up, if people wanted to hear music, they had to learn to play it for themselves, or make their acquaintance with a collection of more talented friends.

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.