Tuesday, June 27, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, A Personal Musical History: Volumes 21-30

Your taste is terrible. Admit it.
And…we’re on another index post for this project, which I’ve named “The Bins Project” for decently reasonable reasons (no typo). In fact, this is the third index post – and here are links to the first and second indices (as in, that's 20 more bands/acts/artists for your consideration) - and I haven’t even sort of decided what to do if/when I pass an actual, major milestone, say, 50 or even 100. That’s looking increasingly plausible…Jesus…

Again, The Bins Project boils down to this: I’ve picked up a lot of music over the years and, to simplify earlier iterations, I now have the tools to listen beyond what I’ve bought/saved/stolen, to listen to each and every (or most) artist’s entire body of work. So, that’s what I’m doing here – e.g., listening to albums I’ve never picked up, running down side projects and the odd original iteration, and then puking up all the information that seems interesting and inviting anyone who finds this to give each these artists a listen, partially because I (generally) think they’re good, but also because these are creative people putting stuff out into the world, and I’m 1000% for that shit.

Yea, I feel drunk on power, like that one super villain…in that one movie. Yeah, think that red-headed asshole from The Incredibles, I guess. I have implausibly easy access to things that someone living even 50 years ago – genius critics, writers and thinkers, too – could only dream of. Still, their lack doesn’t have to be mine, so I’m listening to a lot of music, and on a timeline that’s both brief and deep, and I’m pretty sure that’s doing something to both my brain and taste…

And, here we go, links and titles to Volumes 21-30 in this project. Enjoy!

And, that’s all of them. The point of this entire project isn’t to tell anyone what music to love. The only real goal involves listing a bunch of songs that, for all I know, some or all people have never heard. I like these songs - some of them a lot, I mean like old friends a lot – so I guess sharing feels nice. Enjoy ‘em if you do!

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Volume 30: Grand Puba, a Brilliant Brand Nubian

Yep, first association. Also, not so far off.
I first heard Grand Puba (given name, Maxwell Dixon) rap languidly over Handsome Boy Modeling School’s, “Once Again (Here to Kick One for You).” I was 10-plus years behind even on that (So…How’s Your Girl? came out in 1999). Legendary producers, Prince Paul and Dan the Automator (well, they’re legends in my little corner of the universe) get credit for the music – the atmosphere created by the organ, the half-speed snippet of “Just an Old Fashion Love Song,” etc. – but it was love at first listen with Grand Puba’s flow. The only analogies for his delivery that come to me reference baseball – e.g., thinking a change-up.

The Handsome Boy project owns a lot of the credit for me circling back to see what I missed with all of hip hop (the other, li’l embarrassing, was Girl Talk). The seed they planted with Grand Puba took deep enough root for me to pick up his 2009 release, Retroactive. I didn’t expect it to match Handsome Boy - i.e., I don’t just throw around that word, “legendary” – but hoped he would hold onto the mellow flow.

Happily, Grand Puba is no slouch when it comes to arranging/composing. He lays down three reasonably distinct sounds/tones between Retroactive’s first three songs (“I See Dead People,” “Hunny,” and “It Is What It Is”): a melodic, soulful meditation on our nation’s brutality against African Africans, precedes a light, bouncing get-her-digits tune, which precedes a sultry narrative number about a woman using her body to get paid; check the particular politics in each song as it suits you, but that’s range, people.

A couple other tracks stand out – e.g., “This Joint Right Here,” an approach I loosely label a “club track,” and another number where he gives the stage to Sarah Martinez, who spits poetry-slam stuff on “Reality Check” (which has some tangled politics) – but the one that really stuck with me was “Cold, Cold World.” It’s not the best song on Retroactive (see any of the above, really), but I can’t get the sense that it pokes the tongue into his cheek just a little – i.e., see the lightly overwrought chorus, etc. Even if that song could be heard sincerely just as easily, I find that little wink endearing, for some damn reason.

Monday, June 19, 2017

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

Like this, only looser, more unconventional.
"It's all right to do that, Charles, if you know what you're doing,"
- George Ives
George Ives was the father of Charles Ives, one of the first purely American composers of classical music, as in born, bred, and trained entirely States-side. I completely appreciate that this series is meant to cover popular music, not classical, but I'd argue Charles Ives’ music fits into the popular American musical tradition and with minimal friction. Ives approached music as a conscious innovator: technical, experimental, but still creative and always thinking about possibilities. He could produce delicate, harmonious compositions, but also threw from left field, playing with aural effects like dissonance (just glance at the notes in the early parts of the first song here), and narrative interpretation.

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

New to Me No. 1: Esme Patterson, We Were Wild

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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