Monday, July 31, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 34: Elvis Costello & The Attractions: The Template for My Tastes

I strongly support self-expression.
Elvis Costello defined a lot of what I both like and value in music. Thought I should get that out of the way early.

I bought other bands/acts/artists before I heard him, and I gave up on his career long before he did – and for frankly stupid reasons – but, at least since high school, I have never not owned a at least one Elvis Costello album, and I have most of them in a minimum of two formats.

Those two thoughts seem related.

To pull a thread on a thread in the second paragraph, I have owned an album by Elvis Costello & The Attractions since high school. And that’s what this volume will focus on: Elvis Costello & The Attractions. And with only one, small cheat. Just My Aim Is True. It’s clean after that, promise. Elvis Costello put out some great albums with The Attractions – before, as he notes in his autobiography, they started playing “in spite of each other, or even to spite each other” – Armed Forces, This Year’s Model, and Imperial Bedroom, the album he hinted might have been the band’s peak.

I posted a playlist – one in the “Judge My Playlist” series – titled “The Toast of Elvis Costello.” Like a lot of the stuff I burned onto a CD, my selection included personal favorites as well as songs I worried about forgetting – e.g., “Uncomplicated,” “Riot Act,” and “Shipbuilding” – the latter because it’s on the only one of their albums that I simply don’t care for (Punch the Clock; then again, that one has what was probably his all-time best pop song, “Every Day I Write the Book”). That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs – or great ones, even – so much as it means you just don’t hear those songs unless you get off your ass and play ‘em. Then again, I don’t have a great perspective on where Elvis Costello fits into the popular culture, especially with both he and his fans getting old. For instance, what cross-section of the population would hear “Oliver’s Army (of which...some regrettable choices in that video), ” “Radio Radio” (and the famous moment when he went off-script on SNL) or “Pump It Up” and know who played it?

Saturday, July 29, 2017

New To Me No. 5: Music Band, Wake Up Laughing

Yes, even the things you love best.
And now we turn to a fine, too little known act from Nashville, TN.

Music Band, Wake Up Laughing

The Gateway Drug
“Day Stealer,” an angry mediation on a bad relationship…with guitar!

The Backstory
I’m a sucker for 70s rock – or just old-school rock, generally – so I slipped “Day Stealer” to a playlist sometime shortly after the first chorus (live version; look, the band!). Between the quietly trembling opening chords and the crashing guitar that plays under said chorus, it possesses the kind of tempo/volume changes that keeps a song lively, and gives you something to look forward to (as in, “wait for it…and, big sound!”). Music Band also sneaks in a couple deft touches too – e.g., “I think I like it just fine” whispered in between the first verse and the chorus, as if the singer/narrator still needs a little convincing on that point.

The slick title doubles as an insult, but “Day Stealer” tells a pretty clean story about a guy who keeps saying yes to the wrong girl (“I ain’t your partner in crime”), but who’s now building a personal panic room to keep her out. And the second segment of each chorus – “She’s all I ever wanted…if all I ever wanted was a lie,” structured like a joke (e.g., set up/punchline), has the kind of blunt eloquence that makes good lyrics work.

The Album
Every so often I flirt heavily enough with the idea that “rock” is dead to say it out loud. Music Band makes a supporting argument, but in perhaps the most indirect possible way. And I say that having read their facebook bio (expand "Biography," and fuck facebook) – which makes me think they might beat me up for such blasphemy. That bio is worth the glance, by the way; it’s the best kind of manifesto, your basic cri de Coeur. Music Band does not apologize for what they do.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 33: The Fastbacks: The Sound of a Good Mood

The importance (and, indirectly, the blessings) of proper scale.
Around the time the Seattle scene just started inching away from a national/media obsession, Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, ran a cover that featured four local bands and under the headline (I’m paraphrasing), “Who’s Next?” The question was who would be the next band to sign with a major label, maybe even blow-up like Nirvana. I can only remember two of those four bands (thank you, my stupid, soggy memory): Flop and, swear to god, The Fastbacks.

Now, Flop I got. If memory serves (again), they had just started playing and gaining notice as agents flooded Seattle in search of the next (or last, really) Big Cash Cow, so there was a certain momentum behind them. (I remember really liking one of their songs, too; just dug it up: "Anne") The Fastbacks, on the other hand, somehow felt like they played every show in Seattle – and to an actual impossible extent (is it possible for a band to play three places in one night?). That’s not a knock, really, because it also felt like they played with everyone because everyone really liked The Fastbacks – and I mean that as both people and band.

The research on this volume proved a little trickier than expected, and now that only casts further disappointed aspersions at my memory (e.g. soggy might be charitable). When I tried to fill in some blanks about The Fastbacks, my first search (on Spotify) pulled up what sounded like a country band (and, holy shit, Spotify, is that act hell to find on the web); the second search (just “The Fastbacks” typed into a navbar) pulled up an Italian heavy metal band – which I liked better, if for personal reasons (wait, wait, wait...they're gone...I didn't single-handedly shift the entire search...holy shit, what if no one looks for that? Uh...) I eventually pulled down The Fastbacks Wikipedia page – which included a couple nice interviews and sincerely fond recollections. Of all the (limited) stuff I read, one specific passage really stood out:

“We thought, ‘Well, I'm not gonna fool myself to think that it's for the good of our band, because when you start putting that kind of pressure on something, it's bound to fail." In fact, we made probably no record-company contacts that night. A couple people said, ‘Oh, yeah, we should do something or other.’ But I certainly had a good time, and the show was great, and everyone was nice to us. It was really cool.”
The whole interview is worth the read, but that line of thought, that sentiment, kept creeping into Kurt Bloch’s revelry about The Fastbacks. To borrow the most hideous of set-ups/clich├ęs, The Fastbacks are in it for the music – only, sincerely, they are in it for the music.

Friday, July 21, 2017

New to Me No. 4: Mitski, Puberty 2

That's it. Just not squeezing hard enough...
Another artist, another album, another review. Really liked this one, too. The album.

Mitski, Puberty 2

The Gateway Drug
Happy,” a smart, vulnerable vignette with a damned good musical score.

The Backstory
Some songs hook your ear right away. Others gradually draw you in. “Happy” takes Approach No. 2. Lyrically, it’s brilliant: it paraphrases a relationship in just two verses, then comments and elaborates on it over three chorus segments (probably; I listened to it twice in a row just now, and the family’s giving me looks already). In my reading, it speaks to devotion more than love – misplaced devotion, too. It tells the story of a born-rescuer, someone who takes other people’s crap partly out kindness, and partly from a capacity for martyrdom. In the second verse, the mess she describes – and it applies to the room and her life - confirms the anxiety from the first verse.

Also, “Happy” also feels unnervingly affirmative. By that I mean, the “narrator” (yes, part of me hopes that’s not actually Mitski Miyawaki’s day in the life, at least not a current one) walks knowingly into a place where she expects abandonment. She’s OK with it, basically, and scene.

Musically, this tune blows me away. Mitski arranged the song as a progression; the tone, volume, and weight of the rhythm grow with what I took to be the narrator’s certainty about embracing self-defeat. There’s a nice heartbeat effect that builds with the lyrics, until it becomes a throb, but the vocals in this, both in sound and structure, always, always stand out when I hear it.

The Album
I think I’m getting clearer on how I want these to read. At least I hope I’m getting closer. You tell me. At any rate…

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 8: The National Peace Jubilee, Like Woodstock, but Actually High-Minded Amazing to see this.
One day not so long after the Civil War, a man had a vision. That man was Patrick S. Gilmore and, holy shit, did he pull off something spectacular. Gilmore had a couple other visions, too, like this one from the first of several gestures toward enormity:

“In addition to many other patriotic tunes, during the last number, Hail Columbia, Gilmore shot off thirty-six cannon by electric buttons from the podium. As the cannon fired methodically in time with the beat, the bells from churches and cathedrals throughout the city chimed to create a most spectacular effect.”
Using an entire city (New Orleans) as an instrument gives you some sense of Gilmore’s expectations for scale (also of note, this happened in 1864, during the latter stages of the entire Civil War – and that was just two years after the Union reclaimed the city). The man lived on 11, but that’s what it takes to pull off an absolutely epic, town-consuming event. Gilmore set out to top his New Orleans (what else does one call it?) event by staging The National Peace Jubilee in Boston, Massachusetts, in June 1869, an event on a scale all but unimaginable in the era of the telegraph, before auto-ready highways, and the hospitality services that followed therefrom. Before you read the rest, consider an event with reasonable national pretensions came before even the light bulb. Even that framing feels inadequate. The point is, this whole thing happened decades before so much of the tech we take for granted had only just started to get rolling.

Gilmore didn’t want for inspiration. He was mindful that, per Richard Crawford, “the war’s end had not soothed the bitterness between North and South.” He wasn’t the only person to try, either, because that spirit was in the air. Even Abraham Lincoln called for a playing of the semi-infamous “Dixie” immediately after the Civil War; he claimed he liked the tune, but, politicians. When it came to showmanship, Gilmore operated on a grander scale. His vision/mission statement/declaration bears quoting in full (and that came from this):

“A vast structure rose before me, filled with the loyal of the land, through whose arches a chorus of ten thousand voices and the harmony of a thousand instruments rolled their sea of sound, accompanied by the chiming of bells and the booming of cannon, all pouring forth their praises and gratification in loud hosannas with all the majesty and grandeur of which music seemed capable.”
He pulled it off, of course. Per Wikipedia’s entry, by employing (ahem): “100 choral groups with a total of 10,926 singers, 525 musicians with the orchestra, and 486 musicians with the brass band.” Gilmore hauled this business to coherence just four years after the conclusion of this nation’s greatest trauma – and he did it all by begging and borrowing (no record of stealing) from (presumably) Boston’s famed Brahmins, businessmen, and anyone else with the cash and sense to fund the vision. Even critics like the (reportedly) notorious local critic John Sullivan Dwight came ‘round far enough to, from Richard Crawford (violently abridged) An Introduction to America's Music, praise the events for giving “’all classes (save, unfortunately, the poorest)’ the chance to experience music…perhaps ‘for the first time…a high and holy influence’ and ‘the birthright of a free American.’”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

New to Me No. 3: Diane Coffee, Everybody's a Good Dog

With an assist from gravity...
Truly interesting wee act this time around…

Diane Coffee, Everybody’s a Good Dog

The Gateway Drug
Mayflower,” a 30-year-old channels the 70s. And epically.

Heard this tune last year sometime, and my happiest memory of it happened when I walked around the supermarket loudly humming/imitating the horns (thanks, earbuds!). Every time I walked past a Mexican family they turned their heads. What I value most about “Mayflower” is its essential “bigness,” its bombast, the way it makes a fella want to hold his fists to the heavens and wail along with Diane Coffee’s singer, Shaun Fleming. It runs at a good tempo and he scales the music up and down nicely – the mechanics of that bombast – and the long, strumming drives beautifully into a close with those same horns. And…scene.

I only dug up the video yesterday and…well, I wish I hadn’t. Fleming (who grow up doing voice-work for one of my kids’ favorite cartoons) looks happy as a cat in catnip in the video, but the (low?) camp in that video somehow threatens my enjoyment of it. Something in me wants that song to be, for lack of a better word, sincere...and, after clearing up some of the lyrics, it matches better than I thought. Still. Resisting.

Then again, Fleming loves hamming. If you watch him in the band's Tiny Desk Concert (ft. “Spring Breathes,” “It’s Not That Easy” and “Mayflower”), you’ll see a man who can’t help performing.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Volume 32: Flying Lotus, On Personal Problems and Appreciation

OK...but is he wearing pants? And what does that mean?!
Did bullet points in the last volume, and that feels like a fail. Still, made some good choices, too, so those are incorporated herein.

How’d I Find It?
I really thought that Flying Lotus connected cleanly with the Odd Future collective. Then again, I didn’t name him in my (let’s face it, weird) write-up, so brain-farts abound. He has, however, worked with Hodgy Beats and Earl Sweatshirt, at least.

Gateway Drug/Album
I have no idea how I picked up Cosmogramma; I only know I have it. Listened to it back when, too, and remembered liking it. By which I mean, I was happy when I saw Flying Lotus next in the queue. I couldn’t quite remember what it sounded like, at least not beyond recalling it as instrumental-heavy…

Notes/Tracks (and No Bullet Points)
…and that matters, because I always struggle with instrumentals. With the way my brain snaps to lyrics, listening to music without words bears a rough resemblance to contemplating an unfinished painting; yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely a personal limitation, but whenever I hear music without lyrics, I can’t help but pat my pockets for one of those audio doo-dads they give you at museums to explain the history and meanings of the damn paintings. (And, as with paintings/sculptures/all visual media…just look at the damn thing, ya lazy twit; something’ll reveal itself*.)

(* Also, I have improve, lo, these past 10-15 years.)

In a bid to contain the sprawl, I confined my close listening to just two of Flying Lotus’ albums, Cosmogramma (2010) and You’re Dead (2014, non-Deluxe), but with one detour back to his debut album, Los Angeles (2008). A couple tracks (well, names, actually; “Beginner’s Falafel,” “Comet Course” (for once, read the comments) and “Roberta Flack”) stood out on that one, but focus requires focus, so those got short shrift…that said, in a moment that reveals the persistence of my need for lyrics, my ears pricked up on “Roberta Flack” and just because someone said something. (Sweet, sweet relief.)

Sunday, July 9, 2017

New to Me No. 2: The Paranoid Style, Rolling Disclosure

No idea. Googled some sensible words. I just like it.
Again, to briefly introduce what I’m doing here when I use “New to Me” in the title, I’m just reviewing an album that a song or two inspired me to listen to all the way through. The artists reviewed will be new, hopefully, but I really don’t give a shit so long as it’s something I’ve never heard before.

The Paranoid Style, Rolling Disclosure

The Gateway Drug
Daniel in the Basement,” a playful, defiant ditty with the volume and tempo set to racing speeds.

The Backstory
I get a lot of my new music, most of it, really, through Spotify’s fascinatingly hit-and/or (seriously, this operates on quantum physics scales)-miss (badly) “Discover Weekly” feature. By that I mean, some weeks, the algorithm all but softly blows great songs into my ear; others, it’s like navigating your least favorite corporation’s automated phone answering service. “Daniel in the Basement,” though, had my interest from the first verse/chorus combo. The blistering musical intro didn’t hurt either.

What really sold me on the track, though, was the way it rewards further listening. Once you catch snippets of…hold on, Elizabeth Nelson’s lyrics, you’re forced to go back to figure out what’s next. “Daniel” packs in smart (and unintentionally relevant) nods to, say, Lou Reed (“lookin’ just Holly from Miami, F-L-A”), and follows it up with still smarter, real poetic couplets (“such a ghostly pallor/what a way to earn a dollar/Oh, Daniel, you’ve got so/many other debts to pay”; and it gets even better after that; damn).

The Album
Eh, I don’t hate it. I’ve picked up a couple snippets about them once having/still holding lobbyist gigs in D.C., and that only makes them cooler (oh, the other person is Tim Bracy, her boyfriend/husband/look, does it matter?) I read a couple reviews – a pretty upbeat one from Spin, and another from something called The Monitor – so I’ve got a better sense of what they’re about, and I agreed with a lot of it, but I feel like none of it changed my handle on the band.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 31: Frank Ocean, R&B's Prodigal Son

Dunno. Feels cheap, reductive...
I’m trying to clean up these posts, to make them look outward a little more than in. That’s all I’ll say about that.

How’d I Find It?
I probably first bumped into Frank Ocean by way of one of Too Good For Radio’s monthly playlists. Think I found a bad remix of Ocean’s “Pyramids” (which I can't find) the same month I picked up a solid remix of Kendrick Lamarr’s “Swimming Pools.” The pressure built steadily after that, whether by way of older people talking up his PBR&B appeal (hipster), or my kids talking him up due to his connections to Odd Future. He was everywhere for a while, basically…

Gateway Drug/Album
Channel Orange. I picked that one up three-four years ago, and always found it impressive. That’s as distinct from just “liking” it. By that I mean, Ocean feels like he’s doing something new…even though the specific thing he’s doing at least echoes older forms.

Notes, Music & Tracks
Because Frank Ocean has only two albums, it feels right to put fewer tracks on the playlist. Going with 10, in fact, which feels like a goddamn relief after weeks upon weeks of skipping past entire albums for other artists (then again, after Liz Phair, lesson learned).

All in all, both lyrically and in musical mood, listening to Frank Ocean feels a lot like just sitting with shit. He comes off as the sad guy at a party as much as anything, the one quietly taking stock after too many nights that run the gamut from great to disappointing to disastrous, and as everyone else keeps doing the same thing every weekend. I’ll confess directly that I pick this up more from sound/tone than lyrics (because I haven’t had enough time with his lyrics), but I detect a distinct “spectator/novelist” vibe in Ocean’s lyrics, just plain vivid storytelling with an updated take on R&B music to frame the lyrics. And I think that’s his main appeal – especially against the back-drop of his association with the far angrier/noisier Odd Future.

There’s not one song on either album I’d label “aggressive.” It’s implied above, but he plays from a mellow tempo and register, and never left it, not across two albums. As it happens, I like the songs I like off Channel Orange better than the songs I like off Blonde – though, I did include an equal number of both below and on the playlist. He’s just a little bouncier on his debut (…dunno, if life weighed down this kid already, he’s gonna struggle...)