Friday, August 18, 2017

It's...what now? And I'm Hungover: August 18, 2017: Narratives Are Wires

I like to think there's more time left, but...
Stuff That Happened, August 13 – August 18, 2017
Donald Trump showing his true colors after an unnervingly half-hearted head-fake suffocated the news cycle (and some relevant people noted and responded; developing), but some potentially enormous stories bubbled underneath it all – stuff about the militia movement (and it’s wandering attention span) and some reportedly linked directly to the Russia hack turning himself in, among them. Oh, and the North Korea thing I’ve been freaking out about in these little sidebars? Totally died down, and largely because all of one goddamn moron got distracted. (Related: a long read of interest.)

One article in The Atlantic had a great line about the ongoing evolution of the GOP’s “Southern Strategy,” specifically when it came to coddling actual fucking Nazis: “Trump put away the dog whistle and picked up a bullhorn, in terms of elevating these far-right movements, a long time ago.” And, continuing from there…

…with a hiccup. Steve Bannon is moving out of the White House. I’m not even sure that’s a big deal at this point. Film at 11. (Well, Sunday morning, actually; I want to flesh out some theories). Now, continuing from there…

Anchor Article(s):
“The Lewinsky news made Drudge an instant hero on the right. One lesson was: if you have the dirt, go with it. A second was, if you don’t have it, make it up, since ‘narrative truth’ outweighed ‘factual truth,’ as a former Breitbart write later explained.”
That came out of this book review (And, counterpoint (if any indirect one)).

More to the point I wanted to make, however, Vox plugged another pebble into the ever-growing wall of articles about “what do Trump voters/conservatives think” in the wake of the ungodly mess of Charlottesville. The reporter, Jeff Stein, interviewed “13 Alabama conservatives” and got their responses to Charlottesville and Trump’s response to it. On one level – e.g. the fucking glaring one – you see these voters/people contorting themselves into all kinds of conspiratorial thinking (e.g. fixation on socialism, George Soros financing…oh, everything, and President Barack Obama (see what I did there?) fomenting racial violence…somehow?) and drifting off into extreme vagary when trying to support fiercely-held beliefs (as in, count the number of times you see some variation of “I don’t know for sure” in there).

Thursday, August 17, 2017

New to Me: 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 taking her getting a wee kick out of dishing it out.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Pop Backstory, Volume 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 who’s going to futz with this guy’s bio?), Bishop made his name in the “ballad opera” genre, an English musical form that put popular touches to Italian opera – y’know, so people would watch it. “Lo, the Gentle Lark” came from a ballad opera called “Comedy of Errors” (yes, that one), so lyrics by The Bard. Bishop had another “hit,” “Home, Sweet Home,” but what’s most notable here is that this song came from England – e.g., America had not yet escaped the weight of the Motherland. At any rate, this version linked to above was the cleanest I could find (but there are others).

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…

Sunday, August 13, 2017

It's Sunday and I'm Hung Over, August 13, 2017: Charlottesville and Crowded Theaters

Stuff That Happened, August 8 – August 12, 2017
Oh, some stuff, I guess. The situation between North Korea and Donald’s Trump’s loose, raging lips deteriorated far enough for government officials in Guam to pass on reminders about not staring into missile explosions. The FBI also raided the home of former Trump campaign manager and eager, amoral sleaze-merchant, Paul Manafort, but at least those two descriptors show a level of consistency. Congress did nothing, obviously…

Yeah, yeah, a bunch of other stuff happened, but there’s just one thing to talk about.

Anchor Article(s): As comedian Kumail Nanjani pointed out via twitter, “Threat of nuclear war was the second scariest thing about this week,” a comment that referred a full-blown rally by white supremacists, KKK, and affiliated assholes over the past couple of days in Charlottesville, Virginia. All Fascists Eve kicked off the event with a kitschy night-time tiki-torch parade (Nazis still excel at looking stupid), while Fascist Christmas ended with street fights, and one counter-protestors dead and nearly 20 more injured (to emphasize, the good guys) after some pin-prick from Waumee, Ohio, who fell headlong into the stupidest possible purpose in life*, drove his muscle car (compensating) into a knot of protestors.

And, as everyone knows – at least outside the conspiracy right fever swamps – Donald Trump, the President of these once-United States, couldn’t bring himself to condemn Nazis. With that, the softest, slowest pitch of his entire presidency sailed over the plate with Donny Dipshit swinging wildly…

or did he swing wildly? Buckle up, America. We’re about to find out how racist our society really is.

I have a life’s worth of thoughts about racism and history, cowardice and courage swirling around my head this morning; like millions of other Americans, I’ve been restless since I first heard the news. With an eye to keeping these entries short, I only want to touch on two main thoughts: the baffling persistence of white supremacy, generally, and America’s peculiar strain of it.

Friday, August 11, 2017

New to Me: 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.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Programming Note(s)

After some months of grasping at an identity on this site, I finally feel like I’ve found some kind of footing. Now begins the climbing.

First, and mainly, two sets of regular posts will anchor the content: two each week on music (The Bins Project (see right sidebar for what passes for an archive) and the New to Me stuff (example/plug (dammit)) and, going forward, two each week on politics/culture, etc. One will go up on the weekend, and another sometime midweek. Settling on a specific weekday feels like madness due to personal incorrigible disorganization.

That’s the plan, at any rate. (Also, see “personal incorrigible disorganization” and raise that one dram of psychic fragility.)

Careful observers (anyone?) might notice one music feature absent from the above – e.g., the Pop Backstory posts that have gone up fitfully enough to make noticing them something like impossible (also, sample post; probably my favorite). That series I will finish with a slightly leaner concept and mostly out of spite. The first of the last posts in those series should go up this weekend. There’s one more note on that…

I tried to produce Pop Backstory blog-style – e.g., posting and researching simultaneously – and, as I see it, the content suffered for it; the writing alternated between flat and grasping and that’s just unacceptable. I want to retain the research side of it going forward, but post the content differently, whether in a series of posts that I’ll drop the way Netflix drops its series, or in one monster post the way Marvel/Disney drops its latest stupid opus. I’ll cross that bridge when I move on from Pop Backstory, aka, the bastard orphan urchin of this site.

I strongly suspect that I’ll get away from music at some point, maybe say spend a month researching something like “The Deficit,” not least because no one talks about that directly anymore, and what the fuck is up with that?

UPDATE: On a related note, I do hope to become a better twittizen - e.g., instead of joining the daily pile-on, I hope to instead forward articles from sources people aren't seeing everyday, items a couple steps at least outside the 24/7 rapid-fire news cycle to offer a little perspective. That's also the low-key reason I want to post politics (or society) just twice a week instead of daily: some days I feel like slowing down might save us all. Ah, but the daily pile-in: it is The Big Shit, and we are but flies.

OK, programming note complete. There’s a long way to go, obviously, including a lot of work to make archived posts easier to find, maybe making the layout less linear, etc. That may entail moving to a different platform, but, sweet Jesus, I don’t want to move to a new platform.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

It's Sunday And I'm Hungover, August 7, 2017

Democracy, rn.
Actually, it’s Monday night. But I’m a bit tipsy. Eh? Eh? Missed a deadline, goddammit.

Stuff That Happened, July 31 – August 6, 2017
I don’t know, man. Maybe a million tiny steps in the investigation into Donald Trump’s pervasive sleaziness, and not all of them related to Russia, plus a new military man as Trump’s Chief of Staff (John Kelly, who looks perfectly comfortable with that stick up his ass), and the subtle “phony” stability that followed. Also, happy about life in missile range whilst we play chicken with North Korea. [I do hope to expand these little summaries, or just clean them up; just a matter of how/when.]

Anchor Article(s): For some damn reason, one corner of my mind resides permanently in Caracas, Venezuela. A spike in news about the country followed from an election every good person wisely assumes was fucked up, and the return of an American journalist from ground zero, where she was around to report on the suicide of a society. It’s good and I’d encourage anyone who finds this to read it. Another interview posted last week covered a lot of the same ground – and that’s the one I plumbed for some of the notes below (the interview with the journalist only dropped today, it’s late, etc.) Added a couple other articles: one on the governor of West Virginia flipping Democrat to Republican, and an pre-election think-piece from Cracked that imagines an American revolution. Just, bear with me. I don’t do conspiracies…at least not until they start making sense (at which point, pray for us, or just me, as the situation dictates).

The main thing I want to point out are all the through-lines (and sorry for my repeated use of that phrase) between the professor, Terry Lynn Karl, references when she talks about Venezuela and aspects of American society/politics today. A selection:
“The party system collapsed, in my view, because it didn’t do anything for the poor.”

“The party system got very sclerotic, corrupt.”

“When you distribute money that you don’t have, you only have two solutions. You borrow—that’s what the United States does—or you print money. That’s also what the United States does.”
And, finally:
“Well, I think the main thing is to do no harm, because the last thing anybody should want to do is to push Venezuela into a civil war. I want to say that that’s a possibility, because a) everybody has a gun in Venezuela, and b) there are two completely different narratives.”
Familiar as that last one should sound, the only assumption just about every American agrees on is the corruption of the system. It doesn’t matter that they blame different people/organizations for the problem (e.g., “the Jews” for the nationalist freaks, versus the “elites” that confused conservatives rail against, or, for liberals...just Republicans/conservatives, or their pressure groups (e.g., the NRA)), everyone agrees that everything sucks - and that's enormously dangerous. The actual problem boils down to getting good people into the system as opposed to the self-aggrandizing sociopaths with the psychic defenses to choke down the bullshit of a political campaign, but no one knows how to fix that. So…

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: 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…