Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review - You're An Ambulance Driver

2012 in Review - You’re an Ambulance Driver

Here we are again. Another year, another playlist. I can see where, if you peruse this blog, (which makes it statistically impossible that you are anyone other than my cat or my split personality,) you might’ve thought this wan’t going to happen. And I’m sure you were verrrryyy glum about that, right??!!!??

Me too. Sorry bad, busy year. First there was that injury. (See past, uh, recent entries.) Recovery from which went on (has gone on far longer than I expected). (Dig that grammar! It’s wrong on at least one level that I can think of, and probably many, many other, but I’m too fucking lazy to figure out how to say it right, and honestly, I’m sorta smitten with its spectacular awkwardness!) I’m trying to get myself together, but I’ve had some setbacks in that area recently that were frustrating. Then there’s friend of mine who’s self-publishing a book of short stories, and who’s also gradually drawn me further into helping him edit, assemble, etc. that. (I may be posting links at some point, if we ever finish it.)

Anyway, you don’t need these excuses! You are not my high school English teacher! You are either my cat or my split personality! (I’m not sure who/what my split personality is, but he/she/whatever is definitely not an Englsih teacher, ‘cuz the grammar and spelling in the creepy notes he/she/whatever uses in the notes he/she/it leaves for me is fucking awful, like along the lines of “slet yoor throot uf yoo try too not tape Gelligans eye land agin!” I mean, a split infinitive for fuck’s sake!)

All you need to know are three things--and the first thing you only need to know if you care:

  1. Despite my recent habits, I do not intend to abandon this blog. Rather I’m hoping to start updating more frequently once I get a break from my friend’s book, which should be in late January.
  2. I’m changing the format of these playlists as follows: I will no longer maintain an 80-minute/CD length. (Anyone who is committed to CDs can figure out where to break this for him/herself, I guess. After all, we live in a democracy. Just like Egypt.) Instead, I’ll be including 24 songs in my lists. That’s 2 songs per month, though I won’t be linking them to any specific months. It just seemed like a good round number.
  3. A change to the playlist writeup format, ‘tho this one may be temporary: Certain readers have brought it to my attention that, while they enjoy my writing, they feel I tend to ramble too much. I take feedback well, so when I was done crying and throwing things at them, I thought about it. I guess I’ve always felt that there’s something to be said for digression. Some of my favorite writers deploy it with great facility, and often it’s more revealing of personality, insight, emotional truth, or just plain fun than a stolid adherence to the point. On the other hand, my word counts get high, I sometimes lose my point, and I never finish some of my writing. (For example, my Hawaii opus!) So I’m gonna try to stay focused on my playlist write-ups. Keep ‘em short. No-nonsense. This particular go-around, I shot for 50 words or less per song, along with two expanded “featured songs with no word count. Guess what. I couldn’t do it. Then I tried 60. It went OK till I hit the EMA song. Fucking shit! So I’m going with 70. Hope that’s not too much. Look at it this way. It’s way less than you usually get!

OK. So with all that out of the way, here goes... My year in review playlist...

1. Time to Find Me - Seefeel - 26 Mixes for Cash - Aphex Twin remix of a British dream-pop/electronic group. Here, he's fairly restrained. You can recognize the source material, though he gives it a good twist. I listened to this a lot over the summer. Now it puts me back there, walking on the shady streets, thinking about writing.

And now for our first (of two) Featured Songs, written free form, with now word count.

2. Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue) - Neil Young - Rust Never Sleeps - Stark, ingenuous guitar lines house an impressionistic linking up of death and artistic irrelevance. You have two choices, the song sez, curl up and enjoy your curdling, or keep moving. Maybe a little simplistic, but what do you want from a rock lyric? In my early 20s, when I went to art school, Rust Never Sleeps was one of my favorite albums. Songs like this one and “Thrasher” focused on a search for and commitment to a way of life as an artist. They seemed to open my eyes to who I was, who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live the rest of my life. They were a part of an important change in me--it’s almost embarrassing how large a part. But then music has always been important to me. Recently I listened to Rust Never Sleeps, (mostly) attentively, all the way through, for the first time since I can’t remember when, and when I did realized all this was true and that I hadn’t really considered it so thoroughly before. It was a trick of perspective--I could only see it from a distance. Now. Whether I should be grateful to Neil Young or not is another question. I have my suspicions my parents wouldn’t be.

3. The Grey Ship - EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints - Another one of those albums wherein the artist's attempts to bludgeon you with her genius leave you so bruised and disoriented that you almost miss how good most of it is. It makes your neck snap as it caroms from lil' girl lullabies to singer/songwriter confessionals to the almost industrial punk howl of "Milkman" to this folksy death epic.

4. Give Me the Cure - Fugazi - 13 Songs - It starts with a faint guitar line and a nervous voice chanting over it. The sense of menace is palpable, and it grows quickly, but it’s not clear if the threat’s from inside or out, even after the song finally explodes. Intense and cathartic. I’m having bad luck with doctors lately. And for some strange reason, I keep getting hooked on songs like this right before the next unlucky thing happens.

5. Generation - Liturgy - Aesthethica - It was probably inevitable that some pompous intellectual would stumble onto the quaint anthropological archipelago of Black Metal, but Liturgy’s frontman did so with tongue so firmly in cheek that he wrote a mystical/academic manifesto about what he found there. It's online, if you care. Meanwhile, muddy sludge attains new levels of tedium and thereby transcends. Go figure.

6. New Brigade - Iceage - New Brigade - Contemporary dumb semi-hardcore punk music played by 17 year old Swedish kids that sounds pretty much like dumb semi-hardcore music played by 17 year old kids as it has always been worldwide, but here it’s done with a little more enthusiasm and imagination. Note, for example, that bizarre, melodic break at the 1:30 mark. Not something I’d expect to find when listening to this sort of shit.

7. The Other Shoe - Fucked Up - David Comes to Life - A stand-out track from a sprawling punk rock opera about a guy, a girl, and a bomb. Like the best concept albums, David’s an overstuffed mess, but some of the most remarkable stuff that’s crammed into it are simple elements like sweet female singing, lyrical guitar lines, and catchy (if unrelentingly barked and scarcely comprehensible) vocals. Rewards repeated listenings.

8. Dr. Jekyll - Miles Davis - Milestones - After reading John Szwed’s biography So What this year, I found myself delving into Miles Davis’s music with even more passion. The famous sextet arrangement, with Miles flanked by Coltrane’s volatile tenor and Cannonball Adderly’s bedrock alto made some of the most dangerous music of its day, and its energy remains undiminished and undated--as fierce as anything recorded today.

9. Comfortable Home (A True Story) - Ty Segall - Goodbye Bread -  When he's not re-creating the 60s and 70s, Ty Segall dedicates himself to re-creating the 90s, apparently. I was alive in the 90s. I've also owned couches. Both had their moments. But it's pretty easy to get too comfortable and get your ass stuck. Worth noting. Anyway, a smart, funny song that rocks. It’s not even the best one on the album. It’s just...I got a new couch this year.

10. Kurt Vile - On Tour - Smoke Ring for My Halo - Singer/song-writer who critics erroneously compare to Lou Reed comes out of the closet as a Cat Power impersonator. Cat Power circa 1998, I mean--you remember--when she was still good. You can’t see his face behind his stringy hair either. And while he does mumble a lot, his sadness and uneasiness seem a little too authentically human to remind me much of Reed.

11. Neighborhood #2 (Laika) - Arcade Fire - Funeral - Flatulent arena rockers deflate themselves long enough to junk the rococo and perform one really simple, heartfelt song with a backbeat and some urgency--despite the fact that its lyrics spin out on an elaborately referential bit of poetical pap about domestic abuse, cosmonaut dogs, and spoiled brat hippie icons. (That somehow works.)

12. Strange Fruit (1939 single) - Billie Holiday - The Complete Commodore Recordings - Iconic Billie Holiday song that still possesses the power to sadden and shock. The vivid lyrics were written by a school teacher, but it's the vocal that makes them inescapable. This is the original 1939 release, which was banned by many radio stations, but found popularity in the jukeboxes of some establishments. Read a lot about her in the Spring.

13. Jump Monk - Charles Mingus - Mingus at the Bohemia - A friend of mine passed through Chicago this year. I hadn’t seen him in 15 years, and we’d spoken only a little since. While it was a bit awkward, something we latched onto right away was this song. I put on the album, which he gave me way back in Ann Arbor, and he recognized it right away. I felt it deserved inclusion here--to mark a memory of a memory, and because you really never can listen to Mingus too much.

14. A.D.H.D. - Kendrick Lamar - Section.80 - A rising hip-hop star who’s getting up there by virtue of his obvious intelligence, individuality--and in no small part thanks to flowing, melodic production. The album moves along organically, and Kendrick’s voice, warm and edgy, is the central element. It’s a singer-songwriter album--no different from, say, Nick Drake--but with the layering of the best hip-hop albums. 

15. Happy Colored Marbles - Ween - Quebec - Quebec’s morose and muddled explorations were troubling. Not only did it seem somewhat lifeless as a “comeback album,” there was a feeling of insularity at its heart. By the time you get to “Happy Colored Marbles,” you’ve moved past claustrophobia and agoraphobia and on into a kind of insane escapism that is downright...uncomfortable... And yet, a pretty great song.

16. Dance of the Morlocks - DJ Spooky - Songs of a Dead Dreamer - Prominent turntablist takes a moment to focus on just one eerie, hypnotic groove. What he’s building here is atmosphere, obviously, and he does so simply and suggestively, which makes this song stand out on an album of dense soundscapes. Another favorite of mine while taking walks this year.

17. You Trip Me up - The Jesus and Mary Chain - 21 Singles - In this classic, influential track, unassuming vocals and a pretty little pop melody get dipped in a vat of molten feedback. It’s as if some polite British lad were wooing you, while some sadistic bastard electrocutes him with cables from a telephone pole. It’s exhilarating to hear music like this produced in such a primal way, without the self-conscious “noise” you’d probably get today.

18. Pussy Galore - Dick Johnson - Dial ‘M’ for Motherfucker - A cadre of smug hipsters who went on to form or contribute to various, generally inferior "bands" take turns at grunting and banging on things in an attempt to show their contempt for the idea of music and anyone who plays or listens to it. Actually that makes them sound cooler than they are. So why include this song here?

Hmmm... That’s a good question. Well, since I’m trying to keep my considerations short, clear and focus only on the essentials, let’s try to be even more disciplined by using an even more concentrated written form: the Japanese poetry form known as  haiku. As appropriately defined on the TV show South Park, a haiku is “just like a normal American poem, except that it doesn’t rhyme, and it’s totally stupid...haikus have five syllables, then seven, then five.” Boy, doesn’t that seem like a fine way to focus your descriptive writing?!!?!!

So where were we? Oh yes...In the form of a haiku, here’s why I included Pussy Galore despite their manifest cynicism and irrelevance:

best lyrics ever
killer percussion as well
best guitar part too

Wow! That was fun. And efficient. And poetic. And clear. And short. Why didn’t I just say that in the first place? I mean, even though, again, it does make them sound cooler than they really are. Who cares?!?

OK, let’s stick with this haiku thing. Discipline. Efficiency. Clarity.

19. Real Crazy Apartment - Winston’s Fumb’s - Nuggets II: Volume 4 - Oryginal Artifacts from the British Empire and Beyond 1964-1969 -

soft green cheetahs cradle me
would you like some ludes?

Still with me? Isn’t this great? Way better than before!!! I’d go back and re-write the whole thing this way if it wasn’t so much work!!! And if I cared more!!!!!

20. Convertible Balloon - Wavves - King of the Beach -

video game trance
a home is now a hideout
unplugged from the world

Jeez. That one was kinda a downer... and the song sounds so happy! Haikus were so fun up until now! Maybe I’m losing my clarity or poesy or something. Here, I’ll try again.

21. Film - Aphex Twin - Film (LP version) - Come to Daddy - 

Moody electro
‘Ambient Works’ with a beat
Bipolar EP

Well that went better I think! A pretty efficient lil’ bit of poetry, if I don’t say so myself. Clear, but vivid. Sorta limpid or something. Let’s try another!!!

22. July - Youth Lagoon - The Year of Hibernation

pretty keyboard plays
agoraphobic wuss sings
liberal reverb

Wow! That might be my best work yet! A little obscure maybe, but... C’mon! It’s all about the haikus... Screw the music!

Are Pitchfork “Best of” lists about music? Do you have the slightest idea what any of it sounds like or relates to when you read ‘em? Of course not! They’re just a bunch of laudatory impressionistic hackshit some music writer threw together to frame “sample” tracks (conveniently linking you to places where you can buy the music). As there, here... (minus the links to places where you vcan buy the music, sorry...) if you really still care about that, you’ve got the song. Go listen to it.

So... onto the next, which unfortunately, can’t be brought to you in haiku, because it is our second free form extra long Featured Song... (Bonus points if you make the Kurdt/Neil suicide note connection!)

23. Nirvana - Sliver - Incesticide - I do not like kids--which is not to say that I dis-like kids--only that I’m one of those adults who’s ill-at-ease in the presence of them. I don’t have many (any really) friends that have kids. So it’s easy for me to remain on an archipelago where I am only distantly aware of the customs of some mainland where people have children. Sometimes I catch glimpses of it--a strange foreign place--parallel, but often incomprehensible. It’s sorta like watching Telemundo.

I don’t understand kids, ‘tho I was one once, and I remember some things about what it was like to experience the world as a kid. Many of these recollections are not cute n’ wacky or tender n’ sweet, like the dross you see in the movies or on TV. A lot of my memories are shadowy and mysterious--the products of an intelligence that existed in a whole other state of being. (How much is a caterpillar like a butterfly, really?) I remember, for one thing, coming to understand that once you were a certain age, that there was a war on, Us vs. Them. And the Them were the Adults.

Kids are deceptive, weird-looking little runts with disproportionately large heads. They shriek and laugh at inappropriate moments. They speak to invisible entities. They are physically violent--sometimes to a degree that, if they were adults, it would seem perfectly appropriate to pepper spray them.

How come none of you who have children or are planning to have them sees this? 

Truth be told ‘tho, I do actually remember some pleasant things about being a kid, which is at least part of the reason I included this Nirvana song, an uncharacteristically sunny, if noisy, reflection on childhood. (Another reason being that I re-read Charles R. Cross’s tepid Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven this Spring, which led me back to my Nirvana albums.) (In what kind of thrall did Courtney Love hold that dude while he was writing this book? Did she actually allow him to doink her--which, I know, is a repulsive thought at this point, but y’know, back then? I more like picture her perched, regally on some Victorian armchair--one of her fungal-toed feet extended as he crawls forward to lick it slavishly like a dog. No actual sex, just that kinda thing.)

The other reason I included this song is more remarkable: I have it on good authority that this was The Worst Song Ever, but is now The Best Song Ever.

To know what the Worst Song Ever was? Well, that would put list-makers like me, my old blogging friend Jarrod, and more spurious hunks of crap like Rolling Stone a little more at ease. One of our ongoing tasks at least would be fulfilled, and we could all go drink a beer (if one of the former two,) or layout more condom ads (if the latter). But to know what The Best Song Ever was?

Well, I guess I already said what it was somewhere back there--”I Wanna Be Black” by Lou Reed, but then someone pointed out to me that I was being sarcastic, I guess. In this case, the person who was speaking, my 5(??? I think she’s 5, maybe 6??? see I really am not good with kids) year old niece said these things with such absolute certainty--without a moment’s hesitation--that I have to believe her.

I mean--let’s be honest here--one adult to another--how often in your life do you believe something with absolute conviction? Without a shadow of hesitation? Really.

Given the attitude toward children I expressed above, you may be wondering why I was discussing Nirvana with her. I assure you, it was not, in any way, my idea. It went something like this: despite the fact that I don’t like kids, I somehow ended up with two of them--my sister’s--in my home for a couple of nights this Summer. If you’ve read very much of this blog, you are probably shuddering, as you imagine two kids (he’s a boy--8 or so, I think--if that’ll help you flesh out your nightmare image) hesitating on the threshold of some gloomy alcoholic hovel. But don’t worry I cleaned up, aired out, hosed down. I scraped off, carried out, and threw away objects and substances that I can’t or won’t describe here. I cleaned--because if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that while kids aren’t supposed to narc on each other, they’re perfectly happy to narc on an adult, and I’d be damned if I was gonna give the little snots any information they could pass along to my sister.

Ah yes, but where were we? Well, he being a little older and therefore more like an adult, asked where my computer was and immediately fell into a narcotic haze induced by some video game or other. She, on the other hand, was more of a pain in the ass and wanted to do things that involved interacting with her physical environment and/or other human beings in a more dynamic way. For some reason. Weird shit. 

I mean, I kept picking up my beer to take a drink, and she’d say, “Let’s play hide and seek!”

And I’d have to set my beer down, without taking a single fucking sip and come up with something for us to do, ‘cuz like I’m gonna play hide and fucking seek!

So my beer sat there, basically full, getting more and more tepid, and I’d look at it longingly, as she’d drag me from one humiliating activity to the next. And then she started asking me about my paintings.

Another embarrassing fact: I paint as a hobby--like fine art stuff. Oil sometimes, acrylic others. I picked it up in college. I’m not very good at it. I have no delusions of doing anything with it. I never show my paintings to anyone, but I have a few hanging on my walls. It’s just a way to blow off steam or whatever. Anyway, one cool thing about my niece is that she seems like she might have sort of a creative streak in her. She tends to gravitate toward music, drawing, writing bizarre little stories, unlike most of the other people in my family, who are stolid, rationalist type people, who not only can’t draw, but don’t understand why anyone would want to.

So my niece asked me what the names of some of my paintings were, and, well, none of them have names, since, as I said, I am not inclined to show them to anyone. So she started assigning them names along the lines of “Ugly Stupid Man,” “Stupid Lonely Man.” This is one area in which her imagination appears to be underdeveloped--at least for the moment. In fact. when I told her the name of the one painting I have named, ”Swamp Thing Plays Basketball with the Mock Turtle,” (because it’s just some abstract blobs that just ended up looking like Swamp Thing playing basketball with the Mock Turtle,) she just blinked.

Anyway, her interest in my painting had the effect of increasing my interest in her--of course--since one’s interest in someone else grows exponentially in relation to the interest shown by the other person in oneself. It also gave me an idea. I looked at the cheap boards I had sitting around. I looked at my beat up old brushes. I looked at her cherubic little face. I looked at my acrylic paints. Most of all, I looked at my untouched beer.

“Hey, do you wanna paint?”

The mysterious little globes in her head glinted. Her smile, already suggestive of madness, grew larger. She smiled.

I thought about how creepy kids are as I went to get her an old T-shirt that was too large for me. On her, it was a friggin’ hospital gown. I set her up with paints, an easel board, and--most of all--a drop cloth.

I mixed colors for her. She demanded blues, yellows greens, in varying shades, and a desert scene took shape, with a pyramid in the distance. I think.

Ah, beer. Back to the beer. I watched her paint, to make sure she didn’t mess herself up somehow, and because, in a way, it was interesting. Still, if I was gonna sit there, I needed music. When I paint, I always have to listen to something.

“Hey, how about we have some music?”

She said, “OK, but it’s got be really creative! She turned and gave me this look of considerable gravity that was only somewhat undermined by the paint on her face. “When you paint, it has to be something creative.”

So I thought, well, OK, Mingus. There you go. All towering emotion. Bam! Pow! And, like, we’re kids pretending we’re beatniks or something creative like that...

But when I put on Mingus Ah Um, she turned around and gave me a look of exasperation.

“Creative, I said!”

“Oh. OK.”

She stared at me. Her gaze was a threat.

I turned back to my music. OK, something loud, upbeat, but more contemporary. She likes Katy Perry but thank god she wasn’t asking me to put that on. So what’s creative? I’d been reading that Cobain book, and he painted, drew, made sculpture all the time when not working on music--or doing drugs. How about Nirvana? It seemed like a dumb idea, but you never knew what a kid was gonna like. Their thinking is so...alien. Worse than cats. You know, you get your cat some toy, wave it around, and then the cat plays with a paper bag or something instead.

So maybe Nirvana. Then it hit me! “Sliver.” It was just too perfect. Kurdt singing about being a kid and getting hauled off to his grandma’s place and wanting to go home. What could be better?

So I put it on, and she just kept painting, so I thought maybe I’d made an OK--if not good--pick. I’d rather have her paint and stay quiet--even if it meant she wasn’t gonna enthuse over my choice--than I would have her start needling me again. 

By the second chorus though, I knew I was in trouble. She looked up, just as unhappy as before.

“Take it off! Agh! That’s the worse song ever!”


She started singing and dancing in place, but sorta as though she had a dislocated jaw and hip. “Grandma take me home, Grandma take me home...That’s stupid!”

“OK, OK.”

Fortunately, it was getting late. So once I got her cleaned up and my nephew pried away from his game, fed them, etc., they went to bed.

Then I drank more beer.

So the next day, after I tried to make them do other edifying activities that my sister had suggested, and after we’d ground out the rest of the time in other mutually awkward ways, we had some McDonalds, which I had been told was adequate dinner fare. My nephew settled in to play video games, and I was stuck with this little blond dwarf again.

“OK,” I said, unenthusiastically. “Whadda ya wanna do tonight?”

“Let’s paint!”

“Oh. OK.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about her new interest. On the one hand, it meant that I was gonna have to clean up a bunch of paint later. On the other hand, as her uncle, it was nice to see her indulging in this activity--one that I enjoy myself--because it meant I could mostly sit around, listen to music, and drink beer.  

So I set her up again, just as I had the night before. The XL shirt was back in service as a young artist’s smock. My crappier brushes were again at her disposal. A fresh board was in front of her on the easel. And without a thought, she was at work. I couldn’t help but marvel at it--aside from boundless energy, (for short periods of time,) she seemed to possess absolute confidence and unmitigated imagination quo this art stuff. Half the time I sit there, staring blankly for five minutes, before I can make a single movement toward paper, canvas, guitar, orifice...

But while it was interesting to watch her up to a point, it got kinda dull pretty quickly.

“Hey,” I said, “Do you want some music?”

“Yeah,” she said without looking up from her painting. “Put on that one song...” and here she started singing in the same stupid voice from yesterday: “‘Grandma take me home, Grandma take me home...”

“What? I thought you hated that song!”

Now she was smiling at me. “No... That’s the Best Song Ever!” She said it with the conviction that one imagines the Enlightened might speak--if they existed.

I put the song on.

So there you go. That’s how I found out what The Worst Song Ever was, which was profound in and of itself. Then I got to see it become The Best Song Ever, which was even more profound. Even ‘tho I still don’t really like kids, I think it was a worthy trade off.

Now lest you think that my niece was evaluating the song in a shallow and/or capricious manner, lemme tell you something: we tested it thoroughly in the following manner: She made me play the fucking thing over and over again for about an hour, while she continued to paint an Angry Bird in space, until I absolutely couldn’t stand it anymore. At that point, she still maintained that “Sliver” was the Best Song Ever. As for myself--as much as I like the song, I was pretty sure I never wanted to hear it again.

But you know, maybe she’s onto something... Because not too long after she left--with a CD I’d burnt her containing only that song--I sorta wanted to listen to “Sliver” again. Besides, who am I to argue with someone who has such strong taste in music? I love music, but I never could say with such unshakable conviction what the Best or Worst anything is--unless I’m being sarcastic. (Damn it! Guess I blew my cover there.)

OK, well. That was a Featured Song, but really long-winded. Even for one of those. It kinda abused the “free form” form! It was exactly the sorta rambling, self-indulgent claptrap my critics--both of ‘em--(my split personality and my cat)--have said derails my writing and especially my blog entries, as I’ve said. And obviously I’ve had an epiphany with this haiku thing, which will improve my writing for the rest of my, uh, career. (In fact, I may just give up every other sorta writing I do from freelance porn work to this blog and become a poet--one who writes nothing but haikus--as I am so inspired.) So let’s close out by describing my final track with one last haiku:

24. Easy Ryder - Ty Segall and White Fence - Hair - 

wiseguy slackers join
a used record store pillaged
vinyl walks the earth

Holy crap! See another piece of brilliance that reveals the essence of the song in simple, evocative, beautiful language. Way better than short blurbs, and certainly better than that long, windy personal crap I used to write! Who needs it?

I hope you’ve enjoyed everything that’s happened here as much as I have. I hope you’ve been OK with the change in the format of the playlist--I mean the abandonment of a CD length. I also hope you appreciate the shorter descriptions. (I can’t see how you wouldn’t be touched by the haikus.) If anyone misses the long rambling descriptions of yore--if you have any thoughts about any of this just lemme know...

See ya next year!!!!!

p.s. Ambivalent apologies to Pitchfork... I came across a lot of the music on this thanks to their reviews, and in fact, I think I stole the transitions of tracks 5-7 from a playlist they put up. (Not sure.) Regardless, I do think there’s a difference between exposing people to music and selling it to them, and in some cases that line gets real, real blurry.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2011 in Review: Whacking the Ball - Part 2

(NOTE: This is Part Two picking up at track number 11 of 20. It’s a CD length list of songs that affected me in 2011. You may refer to Part One in the previous entry, if you want to get yr. list in order. And why wouldn’t you?!? For further procedural notes, check the last entry.)


OK... so like where were we??? Oh yeah...
11. Death Rattles - The Woods - At Echo Lake: There’s a sort of a spooky vintage feel that extends from “Angeles” to “Death Rattles,” but The Woods, as their name implies seem more concerned with some shady, psychedelic countryside than they are with the bright lights of the big city. Maybe we’ve cruised down route 66, away from the heroin and into the ‘shrooms. Ida know.
Anyway. There’s so much to like about At Echo Lake that it’s hard to know where to begin describing it. Like Titus Andronicus, The Woods wear their influences on their sleeves--listen to the groovy Neil Young vocal and minor chord strums here, and you might or might not be surprised to find some surf guitar riffs bumping up against some crisp Neu! style beats elsewhere on the album. They throw it all together in such an apparently ramshackle way, but somehow it works. It’s great stuff and ends up being a very unique sound. (More so than Titus Andronicus, who I also like, & hate to knock, but well...)
This album really is good. So good in fact, that there was another song really slugging it out with this one to make it on this list. Go out and get the album, so that I know you’ve heard the whole thing. It’ll ease my conscience, OK? Please?
12. The Killing Moon - Echo & The Bunnymen: Oh wow... am I regressing into adolescence here or what? Well, somebody’s adolescence--some real murky Goth thing. I never dyed my hair black, but blond. I never cut myself with razors, but did burn my skin pretty badly with a cigarette lighter. Nobody noticed. Sniff sniff. Waaahhh... 
Being 40 is hard!
OK, I’m being an asshole to myself. I was 14. And it was the 80s. But you know what? I mostly didn’t listen to any of this shit...
Ah fuck, this line of inquiry is getting us nowhere. Except... There is a swooping romanticism to this song that defies absurdity. Snicker as you may--I feel it. As a kid, I felt it moving past me, even if it wasn’t the kind of music I listened to. And now that I’ve come to appreciate the Brit pop/rock of the late 70s/early 80s, I can really get it. That slashing guitar is just great. Those nonsense vocals seems so ominous, but couched in a longing for...something.
Echo & the Bunnymen aren’t great. They aren’t Joy Division. Hell, they aren’t even The Smiths. But this song is pretty great. It showed up on the similarly great British TV show Misfits and just took me back. The song was stuck in my head so that I had to download it. Sometimes the best memories are the revisionist ones.
13. Mrs. Officer - Lil’ Wayne, Bobby Valentino & Kidd Kidd - Tha Carter III: If the humanity doesn’t survive the post-millennial muck it currently finds itself in, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s extinguished, not so much by cruelty and violence, as by a loss of emotion. I’m not speaking of an unwillingness to care--I don’t see that as the agent of our destruction--but rather of the inability to feel. Sadly, it’s a Pandora’s box we may have opened ourselves that brought us here, or an Oppenheimer’s plaything that sorta got away from us. In our embrace of everything ironic, I think we’ve kinda lost our moorings. As one slacker said to the other when the Simpsons went to Hullablooza, “Are you being sarcastic?” “I don’t even know anymore” was the answer he got.
I mean, does anyone remember love songs? Imagine trying to sing one now and not being laughed at! Unironically, I mean. You can’t, and you know it. But think of Otis Redding, say, and don’t you feel that something has been lost? An expression of beauty, of real feeling that dates back millennia, across cultures--from the romantic to the erotic--there’s a reason why the Song of Solomon is also know as the Song of Songs, as in its the last word in songs--or why courtesans were held in such high esteem in the courts of feudal Japan, not just for their bedroom artistry, but for their balladry as well. And I’m not just speaking of sex here either. I’m speaking of love, which, sadly, has become even more embarrassing to discuss somehow. It seems we’ve talked ourselves into a culture in which we should be ashamed of our most powerful feelings--aside from the violent ones. Passion is essential to the human spirit: it’s a sign of life. As such, it would seem we might want to cultivate it rather than snicker at it.
It’s hard, I know, because there are reasons why we all needed irony in the first place. It was alla that plastic, all those platitudes, that those fucking platypuses were putting out. They were counterfeiting real feeling in commercials and shitty teeny bopper pop music. It was an affront to any real pains or joy you might have had in the brief time that you got to walk around upright on this planet. Real feelings became indistinguishable from their counterfeits, and now whenever you try to point that out, instead of Donald Sutherland pointing atcha and burping really loud like he had too many tacos last night, (hard shell with ground beef, tomatoes and lettuce,) you get a bunch of assholes laughing at you.
It’s comforting to find that some artists are, actually, breaking the flow, and turning back to bold, unadorned expressions of tenderness in music. Not surprisingly, Lil’ Wayne, who’s never been afraid to do the dangerous thing artistically, is one of them. Wayne has always been willing to stretch as an artist, and his efforts have sometimes frustrated his audience--like half-baked head scratchers like I Am Not a Human Being--or even flat-out embarrassed them--like his decision to strap on a guitar and fumble around tunelessly with it on the stage at the Country Music Awards. Nothing could put him in a more potentially risky position than releasing the deeply moving “Mrs. Officer” did, but he didn’t blink.
There are so many things that make this song a great one. Whereas it’s easy to become annoyed and overwhelmed by the surfeit of guest artists on contemporary hip hop tracks, it would be impossible to imagine this one hitting you as powerfully as it does without the work of Bobby Valentino. His wordless tones hauntingly recall a late night urban environment. Anyone who’s lived in the city knows how this feels. It gives Wayne a production that’s dense but flowing wherein he can set his drama.
And “Mrs. Officer” is a drama, make no mistake, in which a real relationship flourishes, changes in various ways, but always returns to the essential feeling at its center. Where Wayne is obviously alluding to the Beatles classic “Lovely Rita Meter Maid” here, a more appropriate classic rock touchstone might be Tommy in terms of epic sweep. Only Wayne has boiled all of that emotion down into one song and done away with the solipsistic navel gazing. (And no, we’re not talking Meat Loaf here, even if there is some paradise to be had by the dashboard light.) Again, Wayne is talking about love, and he’s not afraid to become flat-out lyrical to express himself if need-be: (or to have Bobby Valentino do it, anyway) “We can hear the angels callin’ us/ See the sunrise before us...” Simple words and images, I’ll grant you, but earnestly expressed. And in this context, moving.
It’s genuine feeling, beautifully expressed through music, which, I think shouldn’t be a revolutionary artistic concept, but Wayne is here to wake us up, and he continues to do so, when he takes the mike himself. He explores the tensions between his characters, how their love is complicated by her role as an officer by the law. “I know you wish your name was Mrs. Carter,” he rasps, but  at the end of the day, they both know she has to remain “Mrs. Officer.” The ambiguity of this verse is beautiful. It suggests so much about what might be going on between the characters--about how the protagonist’s love interest could be pulled away from him by a husband or devotion to duty--either way, the regret in Wayne’s voice is palpable, and he remains an evocative lyricist. (You only have to consider how he’s able to work in bits of social commentary, for example, the references to police brutality and Rodney King if you need further evidence of his skill in this area.)
This is just an amazing track, and it restored my faith in the power of the love song. The album it comes from, Tha Carter III, is a little scattershot, but very strong overall. I was definitely into it this year.
14. You Never Know Dub - Rockers All Star - Classic Rockers: Another highlight from the Augustus Pablo collection I drew from earlier--in this case ‘tho, the man is showing off his genius as a producer. What’s more there’s a radical difference in musical approach from the one found in “Jah in the Hills”--so much so that you’re essentially listening to a different genre of music--as dramatic of a shift as if you’d moved from Nashville country and western, say, to Chicago post-war blues, at least in terms of the sound. I mean, we are still talking about Jamaica here, and the cultural frame of reference is the same, down to Pablo’s melodica, which floats in and out of the mix, but where “Jah in the Hill” was a stark paean--a simple and direct statement from artist to listener (and then to points beyond)--this is a complex amalgamation. Here you’ve got a dense production reminiscent of American and European hip-hop and electronic music--not so coincidentally, as these Western forms have borrowed heavily from dub reggae. These sounds are just as exciting to me in their syrupy warmth and in the unexpected twists they take.
15. Up the Wolves - The Mountain Goats - The Sunset Tree: There’s a wicked twist of irony at the heart of this song that I would appreciate, even if it didn’t speak to me personally, because... well, I admire someone who’s able to do more than write good song lyrics, but to place them musically in a context where they can bite. When the refrain “There’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home” comes up the second time, it’s lost it’s celebratory feeling, and not just because the lyrical bent of the song has changed, though that’s definitely true, but also due to the a glaring anger that bled in there somewhere around the bridge. Now all that transcendence that the song promised in the beginning seems kind of forced, though maybe not outright sarcastic. I take it more like the singer was white knuckling his way through the beginning, and then, well, things changed.
Things do change. Those little things you hold onto to get through--maybe you don’t throw them out, but their meaning can get kind of warped. I take that to be the meaning here. It’s a lot to cull from a short folk/rock song, but that’s what’s so impressive about John Darnielle/Mountain Goats to me. He can throw a few chords together and play them flat out and just state something in a way that’s usually moving and thoughtful. In this case, he unleashes an explosion of anger that comes with the slow build of trying to do what we’re often told to do when something bad happens: to accept. This is a song about biding your time when you’re supposed to be coping, even if, maybe, you’re really just in denial--if there’s nowhere, really, for your anger to go.
So while I was into this song last year anyway, this year it clicked in a personal way as the lyrics took on an increasing personal significance. First, there were some losses near the beginning of the year. I moved on from these, with some difficulty, and I guess that was like the first verse, but then the low blow to me--‘tho as we all know...heh heh... life ain’t fair--was losing the use of me arm suddenly and some attendant horseshit in late August. At first, I even dealt with that OK, but I admit it, it wore me down. I lost it a little bit. To a point where I became about as angry as the singer at the end of this song... which is ridiculous... but, y’know... you had to be there. But in the interest of marking the moment, here’s this song. It’s pretty great.
16. Waiting Room - Fugazi - 13 Songs: Speaking of my arm and anger... 
From August through December of this year, I bounced from one waiting room to another, anticipating examinations, MRIs, X-rays, surgery, various (unpleasant) neurological tests involving electrical shocks and probes, and consultations with doctors.
Anger is frequently derived from frustration and feelings of powerlessness, and there’s nothing that induces these states more than waiting to see the doctor. Not that I wasn’t pissed off and confused enough already by what was happening with my arm, which is to say, it wasn’t working. But being pissed at your body is like being pissed at a doctor in a truly poignant and profound way: It’s a waste of time! Ha! Go ahead! Get as mad as you want! You are powerless!
The narrator of this song is where we’ve all been or, heh heh, are gonna be... (Trust me on this one, kids, your time is at hand...) Your body let’s you down, and that’s humiliating and depressing. Your arm won’t move no matter how much you will it to. Little old ladies will hold the door open for you. (If you’re lucky.) It’s hilarious!
The song is anyway--it nails a fundamental truth--a psychological state--some of the things you tell yourself--how you marshall your dignity, preparing to face the doctor and your circumstances as bravely as you can, trying not to get ground down by that interminable wait! It’s miserable!
“Waiting Room” is a great song that dignifies insecurity by a great band that transformed punk and pointed toward some new places music could go, as both underground and mainstream rock were falling on desperate times creatively. Fugazi wanted to be like Iggy Pop with reggae thrown in, but they are their own thing entirely, Not long before I got hurt, I picked up 13 Songs this year as I’d somehow let their stuff go missing from my collection. Just in time, it seems. I really ended up needing this song--and digging the whole record.
17. Miss Misery (Early Version) - Elliott Smith: For Aggie. She was a good soldier.
18. Take on the World - Wavves - King of the Beach: OK... You’re on the edge of your seat now, right? That is, if you’re not hip like me and don’t know about this ODB stuff. No, I don’t mean Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Wu Tang’s huge, so you can’t be hip just cuz you know about them, & besides, he’s been dead for years. He’s yesterday’s rolling papers. No, I don’t mean a shroud... Ah fuck... Let’s start over...
What I mean is I artfully left you hanging over that Marnie Stern/ODB/Wavves stuff, remember? That’s how I got you to read through all this shit. OK, in case you don’t know, here’s what happened: Back in September, during an interview with the music magazine Impose, Marnie Stern dismissed the lyrics of the band Best Coast. “What’s with her?” she asked of vocalist Bethany Cosentino. She then said, “You might as well be an 80s hair metal band, saying ‘I want pussy.’”
Ooooohhhh... indie cat fight?!? Uh... Not really. Cosentino told an audience in Philadelphia that “There’s nothing wrong with writing a song about your cat and boys. Haters can suck my dick...” (Which left me with some really confusing imagery... Cats, dicks, what is all of this shit, and where is it located?)
Marnie then got cagey and talked about how she never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings... (Uh, yeah, right... Respected you a lot more when you were stating your opinion outright, but OK...) “But a woman shouldn’t be saying anything about another woman--doesn’t that set us back however many years?”
I don’t know, Marnie, how many? Oh, wait, this isn’t a vaudeville routine? My mistake. I always was a lousy straight man...
Yes... Well, where were we? Ah, yeah... It seems that Cosentino’s boyfriend is none other than hip-hop blogger extraordinaire/Wavves frontman Nathan Williams, and his heart was stirred by the call of chivalry, so he did what any knight gallant would do and blogged forth: “If I was a tired old desperate bitch, I might say something like that too...”
And so was the dragon slain! Did that guy get, uh, cat that night or what???
But wait! There’s more! And it brings it all home!!! Marnie then, on the next leg of her tour, began distributing T-shirts with an image of her own face printed upon them, bearing the legend “ODB” beneath it. No, dumbass! That’s not “Ol’ Dirty Bastard! Remember? This is what got us into me having to add 300 or so words to an already overlong playlist description, damn it! It stands for Old Desperate Bitch! See? Who sez indie rock hasn’t got attitood??? Who needs hip-hop? Or Middle Eastern diplomacy?
Anyhoo, what does that have to do with this song? Well, duh, you are slow, aren’t you? Obviously, this song is by the Wavves, whose name, thankfully has an extra “v” in it, thus saving me the trouble of having extra letters to emphasize your stupidity. But I put it on here for a couple of other reasons: 1) I like it; 2) I think it’s a good sign that people are still making good, unpretentious rock music with some heart in it; 3) the small conflict between wanting things to be better than they are and wanting to be better than you are vs. kinda wanting to duck and cover that gets played out here, well I can sorta relate to at this point.
A really pretty good song from a good album. This band has a lot of promise to do more, I think. 
19. Atmosphere - Joy Division - Joy Division+- Singles 1978-80: From “I hate myself, man” to “a mask of self-hate...” Wo! Are you on suicide watch yet? No? Maybe I need to put Nirvana doing “I Hate Myself and I Wanna Die” next.
Seriously, I forgive you. After all, look at Joy Division. Ian Curtis’s bandmates have gone on record as being surprised that he hung himself while they were making their second album/masterpiece Closer, the lyrics of which are an unmitigated torrent of bile, spleen and despair. The sentiments are beautifully expressed--light years beyond the cartoonish posturing of a Trent Resnor and much more coherent than the yelps of Kurt Cobain (who was just as expressive as Curtis nevertheless). And embedded in the lyrics, repeatedly, are images of self-destruction, but somehow, the fellas in New Order, nee Joy Division, just didn’t get it.
“Atmosphere” is the first song that John Peel played on the radio after Curtis’s death was announced, and since then it seems to’ve become associated with his passing--a sorta elegiac piece. Certainly if you sit down to watch the new Joy Division documentary or the biopic Control, you will find it fading in at the appropriate moment, swelling up dramatically, and leading you into some sorta mandatory catharsis. And why not? It’s that kinda song. It sounds that way, right?
Well... for one thing, that association makes me wanna puke. For another, the bass line, ever as melodic as the apparent idiot savant Peter Hook can make ‘em, almost sounds like Peter Gabriel at his worst quasi-pan-global here, especially as it lopes along over the tribal thud of the drums. The shimmery keys, while, to be fair, were a relatively new touch, might seem corny, when they drift in and out to meet up with the power chords the guitar doles out.
Well it does for me anyway, and I hate Peter Gabriel.
I really don’t know. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’ve made an investment in Joy Division’s body of work, obviously. I’m willing to cut them some slack. But “Atmosphere” isn’t just something I tolerate; it’s something that moves me. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a statement of alienation that I can relate to, which is something of a paradox, I guess. At his best, as a lyricist, that’s exactly where Ian Curtis worked, delineating what was universal in absolute loneliness. To go somewhere that extreme, you have to risk silliness. Musically, Joy Division support his lyrics differently, with another kind of extreme playing that broke boundaries and established rules, but which might also elicit snickers now, if you’re unsympathetic to it. It is so much what it is, and pretends to be nothing else. No shame. Here, they chose a different path, eschewing down-tuned murk and discordant clatter,  and threw another light on Curtis’s lyrics. The words aren’t really that different than some of the slower, more contemplative numbers on Closer, but with the rough edges polished away, you hear not just the weariness in his voice, but something like equanimity?
Or maybe I just watched too many of those fucking movies.
Anyway, I’ve grown to love Joy Division in the last few years more than ever. They’re a young band--forever now, of course. They’ll always have a real spark, especially if you get a hold of their live stuff. They weren’t just goth or post-punk or whatever, but really one of the best rock bands or their time, I think, and they got me through some hard times here and there this year. 
20. Someday - Ween - Shinola, Volume 1: I have this awful tendency to shoot myself in the foot--or maybe it’s a healthy inclination to burst my own balloon when it’s getting too bloated. You tell me.
Also tell me this--please--wasn’t that a perfect transition? C’mon! I mean, for a minute there the mood seems exactly the same as “Atmosphere,” and then the lead singer comes in, and you’re thinking, “Uh, who’s this geek?” And then those muppet backup singers, and then “pizza day?” Ha! Brilliant!
Sorry. Things were just getting too weighty--the year, the playlist, all of it. I needed a good laugh. Maybe you did too. Let’s forget the whole thing and back to the old drawing board. Maybe 2012 will be better. I’ll check back with you later and we’ll see. We’ll get a pizza or something.
Also, I know I’m always promising to get back to this subject or the other--Hawaii epics, NYC excursions, etc.--but I have written most of an account of how I got shot and where it’s left me. If nothing else, it might at least explain why I’ve been so quiet. I’ll try to have it up soon, for anyone who’s interested. Take care of yourselves out there.