Tuesday, August 29, 2017

New to Me No. 9: Open Mike Eagle, Hella Personal Fim Festival

Suppose the currents have something to do with it...
Pretty excited about this one. Not only do I love this artist, he sets up a nifty tie-in with the next Bins Project post (per this much-posted-on-this-site video).

Open Mike Eagle/Hella Personal Film Festival

The Gateway Drug
Admitting the Endorphin Addiction,” a meditation on the totality of infatuation, with soaring, expansive music that somehow feels both appropriate and unexpected.

The Backstory
This will be the last time I use the phrase “love at first listen” (swear to god), but, when the music opened up after the opening guitar riff and melded with the chorus, this song went straight to a playlist. It took a couple listens to tease out the opening couplet (right after the chorusy chorus) – “I chase my poison tail, and get so high that voices fail/I heard that when you in a fucked up space, no one can hear you signal help” – sets you straight on the tonal dimensions of the song: self-reflective, self-critical, but thoughtful as hell, and determined to own everything that’s going on, good, bad or otherwise.

The song unfolds more than continues from there. It’s a deeply self-centered song, one that swims between its own angles; it frames relationships on foisting every part of yourself onto some other poor soul (you’re the “prize”!). There’s another refrain that follows what I called the “chorally chorus” (that’s the “The first time I saw you,” etc.) up above that goes, “My addiction, my obsession, my admission, my rejection, I insisted, I accepted, my prescription, carried us away,” that I’m still puzzling out. Again, intimate relationships, right?

But that could be me projecting, too.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 10: The Most Popular Songs in America, 1830-1839

Best I could do for the 1830s. Wish I was kidding. Songs fit the theme...
And we’re back with another edition of Pop Backstory, this one talking about the American Hit Parade between 1830 and 1839.

You might remember the 1830s as the decade when (thank you, VH1!) as the decade that started with the Indian Removal Act, followed by The Trail of Tears over six-pus years. The same decade also planted the seeds of Southern treason with the Nullification Act and push-back against a doomed system in the form of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Another lowlight: The Black Hawk War, just more examples of the horrible things Americans did to others in the name of…what? Bodily subjugating one set of human beings while stealing from another? On a somewhat perverse plus side, American settlers laid the earliest ruts on the Oregon Trail, P. T. Barnum arranged his first tour, and the city of Chicago got its charter.

Crap. That was depressing. As much as I value having cultural context for an era’s music, that's a lot of ugly tangled up in the story of progress. Different times, different minds. Still, might back off the VH1 format.

For all that, the above slips a back-drop behind the songs and notes below. Artistically, this decade saw the launch of minstrelsy, the foundation for a solid/racist playlist. A couple other currents picked up steam as well, specifically, a nostalgic sensibility that followed from Americans straying farther away from home than they had historically to find their fortune. The emotive religiosity of the Second Great Awakening echoed through that decade as well (and beyond; trust me on that one), and the “parlor song” tradition continued with the sheet music trade keeping it alive, as noted in an earlier chapter. Irish influences trickled in with that population, while African-American traditions bubbled up, under and around the Pecu...no, the fucked-up institution of slavery. The music of the decade soaked all that up, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

Before diving into the music, I’m going to make one final note about time and place. It’s very easy – too easy even – to judge earlier American cultural attitudes through a modern lens. Slavery was monstrous, and I’d never apologize for it (here, “apologize” means defend), but all the racialist bullshit, the early conceptualization of Manifest Destiny and all that: that was normal in the culture at that time; it was received wisdom. We can condemn it till we can’t breathe, and rightly so, but all that doesn’t change what happened. Recognizing slavery and the Trail of Tears as barbarism does make us a better country, and that's what makes our country a better place today, as well as we do it.

OK, that’s enough of that. On with the songs.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 37: The Didjits, Hard Rock and Shelf Life

True confession: I’ve ripped my share of CDs from friends’ collections. I remember muttering a little “Oh, hell yeah,” when I spotted The Didjits’ Hey Judester during one expedition. The semi-collage cover art – a grimacing fanged leer in a green-yellow head framed by a bouquet of flowers – got songs like “Jerry Lee” and “Plate in My Head” and little memory snippets of life in one of those “dude-pile” households looping in my head. You know those - places where barely-post adolescent males put off growing/cleaning up for another couple years.

Call that a case where a band’s music meets a perfect setting for an album – and this post references the past. The Didjits broke up in 1994, after releasing 1993's Que Sirhan Sirhan, and, as it happens, bassist Doug Evans died earlier this year (and fond obits followed). For all the times in past volumes that I talked up the importance of a band or an act “evolving,” some part of me likes having The Didjits arrested in time and age. Reminds me a little of a painting. Or an album’s cover art.

Hey Judester’s cover suggests the band’s aesthetic – i.e., casual violence meets cultural slumming meets freakshows in their lyrics and the trio played with cage-rattling aggression. In other words, something distinctly anti-social and at least lightly juvenile informed The Didjits’ music. If I ever had the honor of seeing them, I blacked it out (another night pissed away), but on the subject of settings, that sounds like their natural habitat, the place where their kind of music would fit best. Their lead singer/guitarist, Rick Sims, held the stage and played to the crowd as a kind of character/provocateur he called Rick Didjit. (Before I forget, Brad Sims, Rick’s brother, rounded out the trio as their drummer.) March through The Didjits slim catalog and all that comes through.

Listen to all four albums on the same day (twice this week), on the other hand, and you’ll understand why they benefitted from a short studio run. (And, yes, I skipped over Full-Nelson Reilly entirely; first song (“Top Fuel”) made me threw me, made me think it’s a live album; I have no real excuse beyond just being a little weird about live albums.) The songs from Que Sirhan Sirhan sound like they came from a band that’s out of ideas. Their style of music – there, I keep seeing punk rock (OK), hardcore punk (wha? nah…), and just “rock and roll” (sheesh, just label them “BAND” in bold, generic block font), but I had always slipped them a couple slots closer to garage rock or psychobilly. Those sounds build a brilliant, searing live set, but it lacks as a foundation for a long career in the music biz. Evolve or die, or just die timely. Even a band has options.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

New to Me No. 8: Margaret Glaspy, Emotions and Math

Selected with the utmost appreciation...
OK, this time, I’m actually going to see this person perform. That’s Sunday. Think I’ll update after.

Margaret Glaspy, Emotions and Math

The Gateway Drug
You & I,” a sly, plucky tune about drawing clear lines between love and a nice fuck-around.

The Backstory
Loved this song from the opening couplet – “Ah, tonight I’m a little too turned on to talk about us/tomorrow, I’ll be too turned off, and won’t give a fuck” – which then steps into the song’s title, but almost as an afterthought. And I love that, too, because that underlines the essential failure to communicate between the titular “You & I.” The same kind of contrasting couplets carry through the song, each of them something the narrator ticks off to her lover to show they’re reading off opposite sides of the same sheet. That, people, is solid writing.

The tune itself is pretty basic – and “good basic,” as in uncluttered, and with a respectable groove - but Glaspy has fun with the arrangement, burying the title (as noted above) and having, for lack of a better word, “chorus verses” (“verses choruses”?) that handle the exposition (e.g., “See, I thought we had some kind of understanding,” etc.). She indulges herself (and she has my gratitude for it) by playing a few bars of intricate, plucked solos that, as I watch her fingers dance like spider’s legs all over the guitar strings in her Tiny Desk Concert, impresses an unwashed simpleton like me (three good tracks in there, btw, including one not mentioned below). I don’t know; looks like she knows what she’s about up there.

Also, glad the song plays at a lower key. And, yes, I’m still learning how to explain songs. Jesus god, is it hard to find words for these goddamn things.

The Album
The balance of Emotions and Math (both the album and the title track) goes against “You & I,” in that Glaspy typically speaks for the pining party. “You & I” also plays heavier than any other track as well; “Situation” pushes hardest, especially with the sloppy/angry guitar and defiant stance. “Situation” leads into “You & I,” and, with the song after that, “Somebody to Anybody,” Emotions and Math moves closer to its natural tone and tempo – slower (without being quiet), moodier, emotions pushed close to the surface and with the angles to avenues of self-defense clearly calculated (eh? eh? Emotions and Math?).  In that context, “You & I” feels like the victim getting a wee kick out of dishing it out.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 9: The Most Popular Songs in America, 1820-1829

No, stay. You'll be less sad. Then again, there's the art...
I had this two-cycle post on John Philip Sousa mapped out, but then realized that the fact he had “absolute pitch” probably counts as the most fascinating thing about him for me (well, this is also useful). OK, yes, he enjoyed massively successful and long career, but he built his legend on the American march and I just couldn’t get excited about that genre, even after several runs at it. In the spirit of “it’s me, not you,” I’ll just confess my shallowness and wrap up this Pop Backstory series with something much simpler.

While researching a variety of different things, I stumbled across a couple things – one a video, the other an entire site – that identified the most popular songs for each year for most of the 19th and 20th centuries; between them, they start in 1820 and carried up to (get this) 2013. Since my interest strained a little with everything up to ragtime, this felt like the most comfortable way I could share what music sounded like during something like the entirely of American history (1820 – 1789 = just 31 lost years).

This post covers 1820 – 1829, and with only one and a half year(s) missing. And, for anyone interested in skipping ahead to find out what was hip all the way up to 1860, here’s the source material. And away we go…

1820Lo, the Gentle Lark (aka, “Bid Me Discourse”), by Henry Bishop
According to his Wikipedia entry (which I trust reasonably, because why futz with a bio on someone this old?), Bishop made his name in the “ballad opera” genre, an English musical form that put borrowed from Italian opera, while lightening it with some popular touches. “Lo, the Gentle Lark” came out of a ballad opera called “Comedy of Errors," which I guess means crediting The Bard for the lyrics. Bishop had another “hit,” “Home, Sweet Home,” but what’s most notable here is that this song came from England – i.e., America still feeling the weight of the Motherland. The version linked to above iss the cleanest I could find.

Monday, August 14, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 36: Dinosaur Jr., Art and Anger

Only she has a guitar, and she's swingin' it!
As much as I’ve always respected Dinosaur Jr. as a band, most of the people I’ve known liked them more than me. And, if there’s an accidental upside to this entire project, it has forced my attention to the particular components in a song that I like, whether instrumentation (e.g. the piano fixation) or sound (at least a step away from common denominators).

On that subject, I really am working toward a goal of making these posts less about how I found/discovered any given band/act, and more about, y’know, the band. Actually read a thing or two about Dinosaur Jr., and here’s something I found in a Spin magazine bio that came out shortly before 2012's I Bet On Sky:
“’I think I was in the womb, already trying to kill myself,’ he continues. ‘I had the umbilical cord around my neck and I was upside down. I didn’t want to come out. I feel like that must be from a past life. I’ve always felt like a crotchety old guy yelling, “Get off my lawn.”’”
The “he” quoted above was Dinosaur Jr. frontman, J Mascis. He’s a hell of a guitarist, but the thought highlights something about Mascis – e.g., people who say such things are often difficult people. No member of Dinosaur Jr. bore the brunt and/or took greater offense to Mascis’ personality than bassist, Lou Barlow. Barlow would later go on to form Sebadoh, something that reads as an act of self-rescue. If there’s a tragi-comic in the relationship between Barlow and Mascis (and it’s more comic than it should be, but only from the outside), it’s how both men handled their inevitable crack-up. Read Wikipedia’s entry and you get a generic “Barlow was kicked out of the band" - something that happens to just about every band The Spin article, on the other hand, injects blood into that bloodless note:
“During a show in December of 1989, he sabotaged a set by milking feedback during a song that didn’t call for it, taunting his bandmates all the while. It was Mascis who eventually responded, taking a swing with his guitar, and as Murph started to leave the stage, Barlow jumped up on the drum riser, in triumph, ecstatic for having finally provoked a response.”
You see, kids, when two people loathe one another very, very much…

Friday, August 11, 2017

New to Me No. 7: Big Thief, Masterpiece

Ambassador to my community...
As noted above, I almost saw Big Thief earlier this year. Well, factually, I saw them – as in the people in the band – only I didn’t see them play. The opening acts – one, a super sleepy acoustic act from (I think) Seattle and, the other, something like a jam band – exhausted my wife’s patience at least an hour before Big Thief took the stage.

Big Thief, Masterpiece

The Gateway Drug
Masterpiece,” a mid-tempo(?) song built from plunging hooks, thick picking and crashing cymbals.

The Backstory
When I heard “Masterpiece” (the song, not the album), 1) I went onto a playlist immediately after the first couplet (“Years, days, makes no difference to me, babe/You always look exactly the same…to me”), and 2) it felt like the album could go just about anywhere. The line, "there's only so much lettin' go you can ask someone to do," doesn't hurt, either.

Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief’s front-person (lead vocals/guitar), has something like the best possible voice for a song like “Masterpiece” – clear, resolute but with a flutter of anxiety in the way it cracks (I guess? Is that a crack?). The contrast lurks in the song in that weakness that lets the narrator hold onto the dodgy relationship(s), while also holding the whole damned thing together. Lenker mumbles as much as she sings – and to good effect (e.g., bone-weary) – so, for all the times I’ve heard this song (takes counting by tens), I could never sort it out without checking the lyrics. Looks like the songs examines a number of relationship, notably the way one aspects of one relationship bleeds into another, and another, and so on.

It’s a dramatic song, musically, which lends it a little immensity – clunky phrasing is deliberate – so, to start a good habit (e.g., actually naming the band), credit to Buck Meek (other guitar), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (drums) for providing Lenker’s pipes such a lovely stage.

Monday, August 7, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Volume 35 - Elton John: A Study in Closets

That's Bernie (fucking) Taupin, people. And that's Carlsberg, apparently.
My first, clear memory of Elton John is his “I’m Still Standing” video (and listen to the chorus on the cover from Sing; gives one an appreciation). I was 12 years old at the time, living in southwest Ohio, at least a decade before that part of the country talked about homosexuality – or anything outside “when a man loves a woman very, very much” – as anything but a punchline. The country as a whole hadn’t gotten hip, really, but a kid in city that lost its shit over Robert Mapplethorpe? Never had a chance. As such, what really stood out from the video was all the dudes sporting marble bags. I never cared for the song that much, but I do believe those dancers fascinated me on some level. I watched the video a lot and, I don’t know, maybe they opened up my world a little.

And if that paragraph feels like a clunky start, I’ll bring it around.

Another song from that same album, Too Low for Zero, actually struck a chord. How “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” made a kid who had only kissed a couple girls (during games of Truth and Dare and to their (apparent? mock?) horror), never mind had a girlfriend (12 people; I was fucking 12) feel anything whatsoever, I’ll never understand. Maybe the light 50s-era doo-wop vibe hooked me. I still know the song well enough to anticipate even the hitches in the tune, and that should give you some idea of how many times I just surrendered to MTV’s heavy rotation and sat through it. I also somehow failed to mention said appreciation to anyone. (Just listened to it; didn't hold up).

All that sounds somehow dumb and wrong as I type it out. There’s almost no way I could have missed Elton John’s more famous songs – e.g., “Crocodile Rock” or “Bennie and The Jets.” Hell, I probably saw him play one song or the other on The Muppet Show (yup, turns out I should have caught another one as well). (And, again, how high was he performing in a room stuffed full of singing puppets? #Heaven) I guess the emotional responses to those songs just came later – e.g., a girl I worked with in a Seattle bagel shop hated “Crocodile Rock” as much as I hate Four Non-Blondes insufferable “What’s Up?” (A quarter billion hits, world? SRSLY?!) Any time it played, she would leave the shop. That became the point of playing the song, naturally.

Even if I liked any given Elton John single – quietly, always quietly – something in me resisted counting any of them as “good.”  And then the universe slipped me a musical mickey. “Take Me to the Pilot” snuck onto one of the audio tapes I made back when I recorded songs off a local classical rock radio station, and then into heavy rotation. It didn’t register as Elton John; I might have even assumed it was a woman signing (good ear, kid). Still, it hits a bunch of my enduring musical calling cards – e.g., piano, syncopation (which I didn’t even know was a thing), and, yes, Elton John’s vocals – so, after someone finally revealed Elton John as the artist, I didn’t stop liking it, so much as I stopped liking it publicly…probably goes back to the marble bags or something similarly hung up…wow…closeted feels like both the right word and the wrong one.

It took a couple decades for any personal appreciation for Elton John to breathe open air. The song “Tiny Dancer” (neat video) gets the credit, but it still took a scene from Almost Famousthe tour-bus sing-along starring the entire cast that captured music's capacity for becoming collective (and emotional) memory (still magic, for shameless people of certain dispositions) – to tip the “shame scale” to where it properly belongs: not giving a shit and just liking the stupid song. And it really is a lovely song, a romance of the weird, accidental families that come in and out of most people’s lives. More specifically, it’s about that extraordinary someone in that accidental family who changes your life, even after she goes away. Or at least you can write it that way for yourself. Yay, music!

Now, after that excessive framing, the rest of it.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

New to Me No. 6: Whyte Horses, Pop Or Not

Clear that first one, and who knows?
Getting a wee bit trippy with this one.

Whyte Horses, Pop Or Not

The Gateway Drug
Peach Tree Street,” a lightly grooving, syncopated daydream, maybe about a street, but probably not. I don’t know.

The Backstory
Actually, I do know – because, courtesy of a later mix recorded by a children’s choir, I now know the lyrics – and, whoa, that’s one damn bleak little ditty. It’s about a (possibly) dead actress and how nothing good happens on that particular block (“there is no peach, there is no tree, on Peach Tree Street), which only makes me like the music more. It’s airy stuff, and when the lighter guitar strains ever higher through the bridge, it feels like the narrator (who, even in the original, I picture as a kid) tries harder and harder to float away and forget Peach Tree Street.

I suppose none of the above belongs in the “backstory” for this track, per se, because I only found that over this past week. And I’ve had “Peach Tree Street” on a Top 40 of 2016 since October of that year (NOTE: Top 40 included only the last quarter of 2016; just for perspective). When I create those Top 40s (still doing it, but with no idea how to contain it), I’m usually paring down from three months’ worth of music, and with 40-60 songs for each month – and some of those pulled from Bin Projects listens (see the list of volumes on the right sidebar), e.g., songs by artists I’m pretty high on from the get-to. “Peach Tree Street” survived multiple cuts, so something about the song spoke to me – and even before I knew the lyrics.

The Album
I live in this utterly pointless fear that, one day, I’ll have to just totally shit on an album, that, the one song that brought me to it aside, I’ll hate every last word of every song, and even fractions of every note, even though the band didn’t play those fractions. This site barely has an audience, but, y’know, the internet, and what if feelings get hurt? I want creators to create, and I’m willing to tolerate promising failure…just not hackery. Or naked commercialism. Boundaries, people…