music


15
Aug 22

Cats, books, music — all the hits

It was a quiet and uneventful weekend. I think I spent almost the entire time on the front porch, enjoying the breeze and the shade, and the neighbor’s 1980s tunes. How long does it take to clean a grill? Pretty much the entirety of the early 1980s pop catalog.

So no big events, but a host of usual things to make your visit worthwhile. First, the most popular feature on the site, the weekly check on the kitties. They’re doing great.

Phoebe is ready for her closeup.

Poseidon, meanwhile, is laying a trap.

He’s just waiting on someone to spring it.

And here’s the daily check on the chipping away of the Poplar’s Building. It was a 1960s dorm, but that was a bust. And it was a sorority house, another bust. And it lived for a time as a hotel, the first premium hotel here, apparently. And then it was a “research and conference center” before finally becoming administrative offices for the university. It was time for it to go.

But no rush. The big machines didn’t pull any of the building down Friday. No one was even on site, as far as I can tell. They did move that big orange monster today, once.

Most of the day’s effort, though, was on the ground and just out of our view. Maybe they needed to rearrange the rubble, or move some of it off, before the peeling away of the past continues.

I finally finished this book yesterday. It had been my late night reading, slowly peeling the past away of some of the history of American journalism. I’m glad this one is now in the “read” stack. I was ready to move to something else, so, yesterday, it become afternoon reading. Wrapping it up.

You don’t have different books for different times of day? I have books for all manner of different kinds of events and occasions, and it used to be much worse. It used to be as out-of-control as my bookshelves. But I digress.

This book started off on the wrong foot.

But it grew on me over time. I stopped looking for errors and became impressed by some of the people that are in the book.

This part is about Jose Martí, a pioneer of social justice journalism. I have to agree with the authors, Gonzalez and Torres, that Martí’s “dispatches should long ago have accorded him a special place among America’s nineteenth-century newsmen.”

Almost everything he wrote seemed evocative.

There are a lot of stories in this book you’ve never heard of. For example …

“Only months after the US entered World War I, a frightening wave of racial violence rocked the country. The troubles began in East St. Louis in the spring and summer of 1917. The second of those disturbances culminated in one of the worst massacres of blacks in US history.”

Conversely, I grew up learning about the Scottsboro Nine, a 1930s Alabama case. I’d love to know who Ted Poston was talking about here, and who those people wrote for.

I might know some of their bylines by reputation.

Here’s another story I never got in a history class or any other book I’ve read.

The book is filled with a lot of tales of individuals, and some institutional and organizational anecdotes. It tells another, important side of the history of our media ecosystem. It tells of, as they make the point, the sides of American journalism history that were seldom noticed contemporaneously, and haven’t been deeply studied in retropsect. It’s a good book, if you’re interested in this sort of book. And it’s an important book, to be sure. But, and this is just the reader’s perception, I felt like I was reading it for forever.

So I finished that, yesterday, and I started this.

I bought that, and three other of May Sarton’s books, on the strength of this one quote. (Used bookstores offering free shipping are dangerous for my mail carrier and the local delivery folks.)

I googled her, found someone suggested these four memoirs and made it about a third of the way through this one last night. She’s in her mid-40s, her parents just died, and so she’s buying her first home. This is a book about that house, in a small town in New Hampshire because she had to have somewhere to put the sentimental family furniture. Sarton is a poet, but this isn’t sappy or purple. It’s just good writing. She’s visited four houses and then, on the fifth house, a rundown 18th century farm. And it worked out. She’s writing this memoir eight years on.

“In the end I knew I would have to trust to instinct, not estimates …. What I came back to was that moment of silence, and the oriole. Everything here has been a matter of believing in intangibles, of watching for the signs, of trying to be aware of unseen presences. In the end the oriole tipped the scales.”

And what I’ve said here, what I’ve read in this book and on her Wikipedia page are all I know about May Sarton. And, now, today, this:

May Sarton is a writer that one grows into. One can read her when young, but if one re-reads her later in one’s own maturity, her words take on extra depth and meaning. When I was in my twenties, I discovered her journals and poems, particularly Journal of a Solitude, most likely still her best known book. While I liked it, I moved on. When I re-read Sarton in my early forties, suddenly every word was alive and deeply compelling. I had grown up enough to have caught up with her.

I’m basically Sarton’s contemporary today, but not in the age-is-just-a-number sense. I’m sure I’ll have much more to think about this as I work through the book in the next day or two.

But, first, we have something else to dive into.

We need to keep up with the re-listening project. I am working through all of my old CDs in the car, repeating a project I did a few years ago. Only I didn’t write about it then. Shame on me! So I’m writing about it now. Shame on me! These aren’t reviews, usually. Mostly they’re just memories, or marking the time between good times.

This is strictly chronological, which is to say the order in which I bought all of these things. My discs crosses genres and periods in a haphazard way and there’s no large theme. It is, a whimsy as music should be. And this is purely a pop and rock update.

I bought “Slang” right as it came out, in May of 1996. If you had MTV in the 80s, or a rock station nearby in that same period, you couldn’t escape Def Leppard. They are as much the soundtrack of my early adolescence as anyone could be. We’ll catch back up with some of their earlier work later, when I started replacing old cassettes with replacement discs. (Format changes, am I right?) But this was new, and it was somewhat different. Their sixth album, first in four years, first with Vivian Campbell after Steve Clark died in 1991. Half the band was going through a post-successful rock period in their lives. They were trying to steer away from the first five records, and around grunge. There was a lot going on, and you hear it right away, there’s a sarangi, and other exotic (for them) instrumentation all over the place. It charted at #14 on the Billboard 200 and #5 on their native UK Albums Chart and was certified gold in both countries.

Since I’m doing two of these in this post, just a few selections. The first thing you hear when you load this thing up is “Truth?” Campbell’s sensibilities are an immediate addition here.

Everything on the record is solid to good or better, but it’s not especially cohesive. This is a good record to skip around, which simply does not fit my listening style. I’m a bit of a completist, and will only move over songs that just annoy or embarrass. What is unique about this record, to me, is that each track has a place, you just need the right mood for the moment.

So it was a good car record. I can’t imagine a lot of group listening to this, but I do suspect it got a lot of spins on longer drives. Probably a lot of interstates. The mind was already wandering anyway, right, what’s a little aimless singalong?

This is the ninth track, “Blood Runs Cold” it’s the closest thing I would say that is a bridge from their traditional sound and the themes of this record — and it’s a bit more emo than their glam origins and massive stadium anthems.

Mutt Lange did not produce this record, and that is how this song made it on the finished project. Not that it’s bad, but Pearl of Euphoria is just … different.

Just before Def Leppard put that on shelves, Hootie & the Blowfish released their second album, “Fairweather Johnson.” And if you couldn’t avoid Lep in the 80s, everyone within earshot of a pop, alt, rock, MOR or adult AC station was getting stalked by Hootie in the mid 1990s.

I still really, really enjoy Hootie & the Blowfish. Their sophomore effort debuted at the top of the charts, but has only sold 3 million records, but wasn’t the 21-times platinum that their debut was. So, somehow, this is a failure?

The music business is weird.

Just for fun, then, because this is a good record, here are a few of the songs that weren’t singles.

I sang this around the house all weekend. (Sorry, dear.)

When I decided to do the re-listening project again I was confronted by a problem right away. And the solution was, I’m just not ready to play a lot of Nanci Griffith after she passed away (a year ago last Friday). This is, perhaps, the only exception.

I’m pretty sure Darius Rucker growls through part of this song. He’s laying the groundwork for his solo projects, and staying true to his Carolina yell.

There’s a hammond organ throughout this record, and Jim Sonefeld’s wet drum work, and there’s a moment in this track at the end of the record when it seems that all of that, and the jeans and the weather-worn hats and that whole fratastic 1994-1996 counter-to-the-counterculture aesthetic maybe should last forever.

And it would last, for a little while longer, anyway. Music is a weird business.

But the next time we come to this feature, we’ll have some blue-eyed funk, which is still a little weird, a quarter-century on.


11
Aug 22

Settle in, there’s a lot of ground to cover here

My goal with my bike commute is to make the entire trip without having to put my foot on the ground. I had to unclip four times this morning, but only twice this evening. Had I been just a tad more daring I could have gotten that down to one, but that doesn’t really seem the point. Otherwise, the highlight was this little strip of road here.

They paved this in August/September of 2018 — I have photos — and again this week. The scrapped up the 2018 work on Monday, and it was a nice new ribbon today. How long does asphalt last around here?

Or, put another way, this little stretch of road fronts a Civil War era house. At this rate, it must have seen … carry the two … 36 coats of asphalt over the years.

I’m sure they had asphalt around here then. And I’m sure they treated it about the same way in those old winters as they do now: poorly.

I will not, I will not fall down the rabbit hole on this and read the entire history of asphalt, but just know I skimmed it to see how outlandish that joke was. Asphalt has been around since the Babylonians, and it was first used in the U.S. for roads in the 1870s, so not impossible, but not hardly likely for the tucked away place this was in the 19th century.

An interstate finally passed through here in 2015 or so.

But enough about construction, let’s see some destruction! I have for you, if you peer closely, an action shot of the grout removal going on at the Poplars Building. And by grout removal I mean the Poplars Building.

That’s some 60 years of stone and dust and carpet and dust and dreams falling out of that building just now. You’ll note they’ve got that screen held in place by the second crane. It comes and it goes, that screen. Seems to be protecting the parking deck. Protect the parking deck at all costs!

Sometimes they spray water on the rubble as it falls down. Some sort of safety measure, no doubt. I wonder what determines when they do and when they don’t spray.

I figure by Monday they’ll get to that protruding shaft — possibly the elevator system, I don’t know, I’ve never been in that building and it doesn’t seem safe to go exploring at this late date. If that’s what it is, I bet it comes down quickly.

The weather has been in the delightfully enjoyable 80s the last few days, which means the evenings have been a nice time to sit outside. We even had dinner outside this evening, because why not?

We were rewarded with a nice view.

We ordered Chinese. There were no fortunes in the fortune cookies.

They were just … cookies.

Let’s get back to the music! Last week I decided to start working my way through all of my old CDs when I’m in the car. Good way to mix it up. I did this a few years ago and enjoyed it, but figured, this time, that I could write about some of it. These aren’t reviews, except when they are. Mostly they’re just memories and good times.

I’m not doing this alphabetically, and not autobiographically — so I can’t tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Howling Wolf in 25 moves. And if I want to find the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac I have to remember that it’s in the I Never Bought It Pile. Because Fleetwood Mac was old when I was young, and people always seemed to have it on the radio, somehow. I’m doing this chronologically. Yes, I know the order in which I bought all of these things — which, apparently, impresses people. Now let’s see how many of them I’m willing to tell.

The collection crosses genres and periods in a haphazard way and there’s no large theme. It is, as I said the other day, whimsy.

Recently I finished Memory Dean’s second album, which was self-titled, but people called it the “In My Father’s House” record because of the cover art. If that sentence is a mystery, don’t worry. They’re a regional band from Georgia. A good live act. A good college band back in the day. Probably quite popular in bars. I only saw them at festivals.

A college buddy of mine basically grew up not far from them, and had followed them for some time. He gave me this record, which is a curious mix of studio and live tracks. And, if you’ll notice on the Discogs site, they refer to it as the track side and the live side. Because this was a cassette first.

In the live portion they even talk about how they’ll have tapes on sell in the back after the show! This was released in 1993 and let’s say it was produced that same year.

I found this great piece from Rick Koster, writing for the Dallas Observer, that references Memory Dean:

Rather, Memory Dean’s music is an intriguing collision of spring-break choruses, beer-fueled rhythm, and a lightly twisted lyrical sense–all of which bring to mind Flannery O’Connor and Brian Wilson harmonizing on a cypress-cloaked veranda over their morning grits.

Within that Deep South context, it’s hard to pigeonhole Memory Dean’s sound. More than just snappy choruses–there are millions of those floating around, seeking to light in listeners’ brains–the band’s songs are, on first listen, anchored in the instinctively unique vocal harmonies of co-founding guitarist-singer-songwriters Jay Memory and Bubba Dean. With naturally occurring parts that recall the low harmonies and counter-melodies of the Indigo Girls or, perhaps, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon after a night of tequila, the fluent vocal blend lures you in just long enough for the words to hit you over the head.

[…]

Originally rivals in street-corner minstrelsy, they hooked up and began writing the sort of songs borne of two things: 1) the innate tradition of a town that gave birth to REM, the B-52s, and several other seminal ’80s “modern rock” bands, and 2) the sure knowledge that through music came liquor and sorority girls.

Koster, who wrote that in 1998 and is still working, these days at The Day, in Connecticut, overdid it — by a lot — with the Flannery O’Connor reference. And I think you sense that in the second album, even more so than Koster found it in the third album. And I think people try to sound like they overthink Flannery O’Connor because they think it makes them sound smart.

It doesn’t.

Otherwise, that piece feels spot on. Re-listening to their eponymous record, trying to figure out what it means all these decades later, I had two thoughts. First, there’s an obvious mix of bawdy lyrics that feel too clever to the authors, mixed with some surprisingly deeper material. And when Koster quotes them, they’re pointing out “Yeah, we started writing in college. We’re 30 now.”

At any rate, these days Jay Memory and Bubba Dean are a lot older than 30, and they’re still doing it a bit. There don’t seem to be an album cuts from this record online (you can’t even buy this on Amazon!) but there are a few live performances from recent years with some of these tracks.

Which brings to mind the second thing I thought. Memory Dean is the musical college companion of the entitled annoying guy with the annoying boat on Lake Lanier. Not the one that loved college, but the one that still loves it too much. He’s a little too loud. A little too tipsy. A little too much. He rents that boat. And I’d bet this crowd, with its dedicated fanbase, had examples of that guy, and his “WOOOOOOOOO” wife.

This is misnamed on YouTube. The actual song title is “Beowulf, Captain Hook & The Albatross.” See? College kids wrote that.

And while the lyrics are a little muddled in that recording, the chorus pops pretty well, and this is important. The band is at their best when they’re doing harmony. My friend said that around Georgia people called them the Indigo Boys, which naturally intrigued me.

This is “Peach State of Mind” which is a song about Georgia. This is recorded in Athens, Georgia. There will be barking from the crowd.

For some reason they sped up the tempo of the song there, compared to the record. It probably fits the bar scene better, or maybe they’re just sick of it, but that one change takes away the lament and soul of the song, which is important when you’re talking about being homesick.

I know of which I’m talking here.

This is the funniest song on the record, the crowd participation song, and one of my least favorite. I’ve sometimes wondered, when this came to mind, if they would freshen up the lyrics if they had the chance. Now I know. Yes they do. And they always pick the best low hanging fruit. They say “Rap Music Sucks,” but you don’t get here without an appreciation of the genre. And they reference “Rapper’s Delight” in an important way. It doesn’t get twisted. They don’t point out, as they do when they send up Sir Mix-A-Lot, that this is actually a good song. They just do a variation on “Rapper’s Delight.” As if, even in 1993 they were already saying that the pop version of rap is not all that it could be.

Which, for some white guys from Georgia in 1993, probably seemed prescient.

In our next installment of musical nonsense, we’re going to hear from post-peak Def Leppard. It’ll be a treat.


2
Aug 22

Let’s listen to old music

I did this some time back as a change of pace, and figured it might be time to do it again. But this time, these four years later, I figured I would write a little something about some of it. Who knows how this will work out, where it lead, how extensive we’ll get or even when I’ll just forget about this on one end or the other. The general idea is that I am working through all of my CDs in chronological order.

Yes, I know the order in which I bought all of these things. Somehow that impresses people. I know it, more or less, anyway. There’s a brief period of time where it’s just a guess, but none of that matters. Not that any of this matters. The collection crosses genres and periods in a haphazard way and there’s no real large theme. There’s too much from the popular catalog for that anyway. It’s not an evolution or path of discovery, it is whimsy.

So let’s be whimsical and listen to old music.

The first CD I bought — and this one is obviously important because it was really considered … not just another record, but an entire format change, and I had a lot of important-to-me cassettes to replace! — was late to the format. And it meant adding hardware. So I bought one of those tape-to-CD chunks of plastic. Plug the tape into my car stereo, run the little cable out of the tape converter to the little lap player. Even then these were growing more scarce.

This was the spring of 1996. It was Tracy Chapman’s newest record, which came out in November of 1995. I bought it that next spring, because the person I was dating owned it and I heard the whole thing and I liked it, and I liked her, and I had always enjoyed Chapman’s music, and so the decision was made.

Chapman won a Grammy, her fourth, off this, an award given for Best Rock Song to “Give Me One Reason,” an incredible popular blues song. She, and that record, were nominated for four other Grammy Awards (her 13th nomination). All told, she shipped north of five million copies domestically, a few more globally, and who knows how many digital plays she’s counted. “New Beginning” was a great record.

None of this is a review, and we won’t be spending a lot of time unpacking philosophy or chord changes, but you should go buy this, if you somehow don’t have it already.

Here’s the title track, number two if you’re playing along. I didn’t know until just now that she plays the didgeridoo here, and that this was controversial for some. The use of a didgeridoo by women, Wikipedia tells me, is taboo in many aboriginal nations. To me, in this song, it just wrapped all of us together for the message. And it really accentuated the rhythm section.

The third track is “Smoke and Ashes,” and it is still one of my favorite Chapman songs, and still feels so sonically perfect. I concentrate on the backing vocals of Adam Levy, Andy Stoller, Glenys Rogers and Rock Deadrick. All these years and spins later, the shift through to the bridge is so gentle and severe and evocative I can’t help but marvel at it. “Only smoke and ashes babe, baby” kills me every time.

The fifth track lays it out, right from the title, “At This Point In My Life.” Chapman was 31 when she produced this. I wonder how it feels to her now.

On “The Promise” the strings almost get lost in the lyrics. Or the lyrics get supplanted by the strings. I can never say. It is such a character-driven song, and it’s gift is that it lets you put the particulars of the character in place yourself.

Here’s the big hit from the record. Again, the vocal work that Chapman can bring are so rich, and so perfectly complemented here. Also, there’s one little moment that always sends me back to the Gulf Coast and a little circular dance of the hand that I re-enact each time I hear this song. It’s a delight of memory and the blues.

“I’m Ready,” is the last named track on the record. Plenty of songs are laments. I’m not sure how many of them are better than this. It gets more potent with each play.

And most crucially to me, the hidden track. Plenty of writers can wax on about music and anyone that knows more about music than I do can do it at great length, with greatly envied success. That’s not what any of this simple exercise, here on my personal site is about. All of this is to just enjoy some of the things I enjoy, and share them with people who might also enjoy them, and to tell you this remains one of the most powerful 100 seconds of audio ever produced.

You get the sense Tracy Chapman just wanted to be a singer-songwriter, maybe in a cafe or whatever, and then that famous Nelson Mandela show that launched her into the stratosphere happened, and then she had some monstrous hits, and maybe, hopefully, she’s just enjoying the regular day-to-day life. She released eight studio records, her last in 2008, and released a greatest hits collection in 2015. She toured through the oughts, at least. She’s been involved in a variety of causes* important to her for probably her whole life, and generally, you would think, just values her privacy.

I don’t think she’s online much, so she’ll never see this. But if she does, or we ever have seats next to one another on a plane, I promise to not make a deal about it. I would absolutely pull out a notebook and ask her for advice on a line or two. It is a big treat to say this verb was suggested by someone whose work you admire.

*My first job was working for one of my teachers. The teacher was moonlighting in the summer doing some landscaping. I was the extra pair of hands. One day she was telling me at great length about how Chapman’s first record, the eponymously named debut album, the one with “Fast Car” on it. Everyone listening to a radio or watching a television in 1988 knew “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” and “Baby Can I Hold You.” And something in there, she said inspired her and her friends to join the Peace Corps. But we’ll get to all of that, and that duet with Luciano Pavarotti, eventually. We have a lot of other records to get through first. Up next, something you’ve never heard of — unless you live, or go to a lot of live shows, in Georgia.


8
Jul 22

Handle Me With Care

I’ve been sharing video this week from the Toad the Wet Sprocket, Gin Blossoms, Barenaked Ladies show we saw last Friday night. As I mentioned here, this is making up for a 2020 show. We bought these tickets in 2019. It was supposed to happen again in 2021, but, finally, here wer were last Friday.

I’d never seen Toad the Wet Sprocket, somehow, but always wanted to. Gin Blossoms I hadn’t seen since college. BNL we saw in 2018, and last week was the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen them.

And then they came out for a one-song encore, an ensemble of all three bands, Something of a supergroup covering The Supergroup. There are 18 platinum, nine gold and one diamond records and something like 30 million total sales and 20 top 10 singles between them. I bet the Wilbury step-brothers would approve of this.

It came as a surprise to me how much I enjoyed that, how happy that song would sound, how happy it’d make me feel.

We left the venue saying it was a great show, saying it was all worth the wait.


7
Jul 22

It’s raining macaroni

A few more clips from last week’s Barenaked Ladies show to pad out the week. Why not? After all, you don’t hear enough bass solos these days.

That led to this. It was never released as a single, never had a video, and “If I had $1,000,000” hit 13 on the Canadian and UK charts and made it into the US Top 40 and, of course, is a live show staple.

Also, my mother-in-law quotes it to me now, which is the best part.

BNL does rap covers and medleys and they come off as ad libbed, but this has been done before. No one puts “Just A Friend” and “Coincidence” together on a whim.

And they closed the show with a few covers. Devo is always a popular choice.

And then there’s Led Zeppelin. It is 53 years old and still rocks.

Whole Lotta Love was off II, their second album, which Led Zeppelin recorded on tour. It went platinum 12 times. That song was about Jimmy Page’s instrumentation and legendary bluesman Willie Dixon‘s lyrics. (He sued. They settled.) And now, 53 years later, bands with four-decade pedigrees of their own, are still covering their efforts.

I wonder if they had any sense of the staying power of this stuff at the time. Page was 25 at the time they recorded Whole Lotta Love, Robert Plant was 21; John Bonham and John Paul Jones were in between. They closed every concert with that for four years. Now, BNL does, too.

Well, except for the encore, which you’ll see tomorrow.