Recent Music Purchases, January Edition

Hey there!  Here’s some tunage I’ve picked up over the last few weeks.  Hope you enjoy!

Dropkick Murphys, 11 Short Stories of Pain and Glory, released 6 January.

Gone Is Gone, Echolocation, released 6 January.

The XX, I See You, released 13 January.

The Flaming Lips, Oczy Mlody, released 13 January.

Colony House, Only the Lonely, released 13 January.

Alex Clare, Tail of Lions, released 20 January.

Captain Wilberforce, Black Sky Thinking, to be released 27 March. [Special email list early bird download!]

More than just the music.


The trusty Jonzbox — before the internet, this radio showed me what the rest of the world was about.

I was thinking about this yesterday, during the furor over Trump’s administration suggesting cutting the funding for ‘frivolous’ things such as the National Endowment for the Arts.  I mean, aside from my anger and annoyance that, once more, the arts gets the shit end of the stick while other things get overfunded.  [You know my feeling on that: ‘oh, we don’t have the money to support arts at your high school…but god forbid we get rid of football!’]

It occurred to me that there are numerous reasons why I got into college rock, and in effect fell headlong in love with alternative rock, a crazy infatuation that sticks with me thirty years later.  It’s more than just the sound of the music.  Sure, a big part of it was that it introduced me to a circle of great friends that I’m still connected with to this day. And it’s more than realizing that I could be a goofy self-professed nonconformist in a small town high school.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that college rock, and in effect college radio, made me realize there’s a much, much bigger world out there than what was being given to me.  In the afternoons on through the late evenings in 1987 through 1989, I’d hear the brutalist electronic dance music of Belgium, Slovenia and Germany, the Thatcher-era malaise of the UK, the high weirdness of Californian experimental bands, the several versions of American punk, right alongside the local collegiate sounds of Boston and the Pioneer Valley.  Sure, I loved what I was hearing, but I wasn’t just listening to everything that was played; I tried to understand the emotions and the meanings behind it.

Years later, and I have the internet at my fingertips.  As of this moment, I’m listening to Radio BDC, an online station on the opposite coast, playing a song by a band from Denver.  My current music purchases include bands from London, Oklahoma, Boston, Tennessee, and Los Angeles.

Why do I bring this up?  What has this got to do with anything?

Well, this is because apparently I’m an elitist..  Or a snowflake.  Or a libtard.  Or an overly sensitive, politically correct cuck.  Or whatever the hell else they want to call me.  At least that’s what the self-proclaimed Deplorables want to label me.  In 1988 I was probably called a fag a few times by the local jocks.  In the 90s I was a slacker.  In the 00s I was un-American.  And this decade I’m a lazy-ass looking for a handout.  [I mean, really, people.  Why are you so proud of being deplorable?  When Denis Leary sang “I’m an asshole, and I’m proud of it”, he was making a joke.  In fact, I’m 99% certain he was making fun of people like you.]   And there’s one thing conformists hate the most, and that’s the square peg that won’t fit into their mold.

Call me what you want, I don’t care.  I’m proud of the fact that I’ve kept my eyes and ears open to new things, thanks to those formative years.  I may have made a few mistakes, said a few stupid things, but I’ve owned up to them eventually.  I’m a work in progress; I don’t want to be stuck in a mold at all.  Nor do I like to be passive, not like I once was in my preteen years.  I hate being easily influenced.  I hate being ignorant.

This is why I keep my eyes and ears open to new things all the time.  Music, books, movies and TV, news, whatever.  Seeing things from different points of view is not an elitist action at all.

It’s about learning what the world is truly about.


Ultrasound’s ‘Everything Picture’

In the last few years of my run at HMV, I was given the go-ahead to do special orders for customers, as well as order the occasional import.  This came in handy when NSYNC released the single “Bye Bye Bye” some time before the No Strings Attached album; I knew it would be a huge seller despite the price, so I had them order a good hundred or so copies.  They all sold out within a few days.

Around that time, I’d been reading all the reviews in the British music magazines and catching up on bands that may or may not break here.  One of my favorite finds was a five-piece called Ultrasound, whose sound was a fantastic cross between crunchy guitar-led Britpop (very similar to Kaiser Chiefs, predating them by at least a few years) and seventies psychedelia, with a bit of Pink Floydish prog in there as well.  They released a handful of singles and one album, Everything Picture, before breaking up.  [They would, however, reconvene twelve years later for a second album, Play for Today, and have just released a new mini-album at the end of 2016.]

It’s a sprawling album, twelve long tracks stretching an hour and a half over two cds (most of the tracks are around six or seven minutes long, with the last track featuring a truly epic freakout that lasts a little over 21 minutes plus a two-minute hidden track!).  Due to its length and wide scope, many critics found it bloated and meandering, but despite that, it reached to number 23 on the UK Albums chart, and it’s remained a fan favorite.  I for one loved that it was a long album; a sort of The Beatles only with fewer and much longer songs.  I dubbed it onto cassette and listened to it constantly whenever I drove around New England.

The single “Stay Young” is one of my favorites from this album.  It’s a wonderful rock anthem from the loud-soft-loud school, a twenty-first century rewrite of “My Generation” in a way.

The track “Aire & Calder” is another favorite.  I love its driving beat and folksy melody that evokes the feeling of riding a caravan through the British wetlands.  [Aire and Calder are two rivers that meet up near Goole and Castleford just outside Leeds; both towns are name-dropped within the song as well.]

The album still holds up well nearly eighteen years later.  I can see where the critics were frustrated, as it slides all over the place, changing moods and sounds constantly (again, much like the White Album), but taken as a whole, it remains a strong record from start to finish.

A stranglehold on a certain feeling

As I dive once more into the 80s music nostalgia, one band I plan on checking out is Ultravox.  I’ve always heard great things about them (both the John Foxx and the Midge Ure years), and I even owned the greatest hits and Vienna albums, but I never actually sat down to listen to them very closely.  Chalk it up to being one of those bands I’d hear on the radio or MTV but could never find their stuff at the mall.  [And when I did see them at the various record stores, often I’d be reserving my money for something else I was looking for.]

This past Christmas I finally got their box set The Albums 1980-2012 (aka the Midge Ure era), and during our visit to southern California this past weekend, I stopped in at Amoeba to pick up the John Foxx era box, Island Years.  These cover all but two 90s albums (Revelation and Ingenuity, essentially keyboardist Billy Currie with a newer lineup) and only the latter box contains single sides and ephemera, but th0se are easily acquired online if I’m further interested in completing the discography.

I do love the career-spanning box sets, especially the ‘album collection’ ones, as it gives the new listener — or like me, the once-passive fan who wants to hear more — the ability to check out a band’s discography at a relatively decent price.  I’ve bought quite a few of these over the years: Roxy Music’s The Complete Studio Recordings, Nilsson’s The RCA Albums Collection, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions’ Collected Recordings 1983-89, and The Boomtown Rats’ Classic Album Selection, to name a few.  Not all of them are complete (there’s often a few items missing, like a cover or a live track or a b-side), but they’re complete enough to provide an excellent overview.  Sure, they can be expensive, but sometimes you can find a great deal.  Some are even available as mp3s, cutting the cost almost in half sometimes.

I’m looking forward to listening to these two Ultravox boxes!

Down the Rabbit Hole Again

Every time I think I’m escaping the rabbit hole of 80s college rock and moving on, I end up slinking back in again!  Well, this time I’m not working on a related writing project…I’m just enjoying the music this time out, while I wait for new releases to come out.

Plus, I get to listen to some of my radio mixtapes from back in the day!  It was a little over thirty years ago that I decided to put a blank tape in my Jonzbox and let it record 30 to 45 minutes of whatever WMUA was playing that evening, just to get a taste of their playlist.  I’d just bought a six-foot retractable antenna for the radio, which boosted the signal considerably, so I could go nuts at any time of day.  Soon I’d expand to other stations, with WAMH becoming my home base for the rest of the decade.

By early 1987 I’d changed things up in my bedroom.  It had gotten a new coat of paint, I’d gotten rid of some furniture I’d grown out of, and my radio had moved across the room to the top of the bookcase, where the few books that I had were slowly being shoved out to make way for my growing cassette collection.  I was hanging out with the Vanishing Misfits gang, which meant that a goodly amount of my collection at the time was borrowed albums dubbed onto tapes of questionable quality and age.  But hey, as long as I had the tunage, that’s all that mattered!

Interestingly, I only made one college radio tape that year, but I think it was because all my hard-earned money was going to buy albums down in the Pioneer Valley!  I did make a few mixtapes that year, though, mainly commercial radio stuff, but by the end of that year I was itching to make more.  I had one of my buddies who was into the hardcore punk/metal scene (he also introduced me to Slayer’s Reign in Blood…at catechism class, no less!) make me a mix on the back of a cassette dub I had of The Sisters of Mercy’s Floodland (my favorite album of the moment and possibly my number 2 favorite of the year, just under Music for the Masses).

Thinking back, 1987 was definitely a sea change year on multiple levels for me.  Changes in friendships, tastes in music, personal and emotional outlook.  My writing was still crap, but it was better crap than what I’d been writing just a few years earlier.  Hell, I was even changing the way I looked, letting my hair grow longer (no more 80s spike, thank god), wearing concert tees and pins of alternative bands.  Taking myself a bit more seriously.  Sure, I had a hell of a lot more growing up to do, but that was the year it took hold.  I was no longer the annoying nerd trying to fit in.  I was the kid with the Walkman, listening to bands you’d never heard of.  I was the kid who spent his study periods in the library, writing away in a notebook.  It was the year I’d finally figured myself out and didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it.


The Joshua Tree Turns 30

I remember when U2’s breakthrough album The Joshua Tree came out, because it wasn’t just the usual music nerds like me that were eagerly awaiting for it; most of the guys I knew on my high school football team couldn’t wait to get their hands on it!  That was certainly a change.  Usually the jocks’ tastes in music and my tastes never crossed paths at all.

It could be that the teaser single, “With or Without You”, was such a huge hit that resonated with pretty much everyone.  I think there was also the fact that their previous  releases — the atmospheric The Unforgettable Fire from 1984, the excellent but far too short live album Under a Blood Red Sky from late 1983 and the amazing War from earlier that same year — were big favorites on MTV and rock radio.  And that classic performance at Live Aid in the summer of 1985 had given them a big ol’ boost as well.

I remember not being overly excited about the release at first.  Sure, I loved U2, but I wasn’t a hardcore dedicated fan yet.  In fact, I was more focused on the new Siouxsie & the Banshees cover album (Through the Looking Glass) that was released around the same time.  But I went ahead and bought it anyway, ordering the cassette from the BMG Music Club, and deemed it worthy of repeated listens.

It wasn’t until that summer, around the release of the third single “Where the Streets Have No Name” that the album really clicked with me.  I’d started hearing more deep cuts from the album being played on WAAF, WAQY and other New England radio stations as well.  The drifting beauty of “One Tree Hill”,  the barely restrained anger of “Bullet the Blue Sky”, the pastoral melancholy of “Red Hill Mining Town” (the last of which reminded me of the dead-end feeling I was having about my home town at the time).

The album kicked off such a storm of excitement that their tour ended up being THE EVENT TO SEE.  Sadly, I would never get to see them live until nearly ten years later for the PopMart Tour, but my sisters did get to see them down in Worcester for this tour, much to my extreme jealousy.  Numerous parts of the tour stops were filmed for what would end up being the documentary Rattle and Hum, released in 1988 complete with soundtrack and new songs recorded on the road.  And a little over ten years later, they’d resurrect and re-record one of the b-sides for “Streets” and release it as a single for one of their greatest hits mixes:

I’d revisit the album numerous times over the years: a constant soundtrack during my post-college writing years and even more during the Belfry years; talking with my then-girlfriend about how the album was sequenced into a specific flow of sound and mood; a constant replay when the band released their (almost) entire discography on iTunes; while working on my Walk in Silence project.  I’ve never grown tired of it.


Thirty years on, this album is still considered a classic.  U2 themselves are celebrating its anniversary with a tour of North America and Europe, playing the album in its entirety.  I doubt I’ll be going when they stop by Santa Clara in late May, but I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic show.  [For a brief moment I thought hey, maybe they’ll come to Outside Lands!…and then I realized they’ll be wrapping up their European leg about the same time so I doubt they’ll be in the mood for trekking all the way back to California by that time.  Wishful thinking, though!]

It’s a Mad Dog’s Promenade, So Walk Tall (Or Don’t Walk at All)

I just recently finished reading my first book of the year, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.  It’s quite the lengthy tome, and if you’re familiar with his music (particularly his early epic-length songs like the one above), you’ll feel right at home with his life story.  His long-format musical storytelling fits right in with his literary storytelling.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but one of the most common threads I see in a lot of music biographies is the musician’s moment of how the hell did I get here?, especially when they’re put in an unexpected situation.  In Johnny Marr’s book Set the Boy Free, his moment was when he was jamming and talking personally with Paul McCartney about the breakup of the Smiths (Macca’s words of wisdom for him: “That’s bands for you.”).  For Bruce, it was the moment he was on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame stage, with Mick Jagger on one side and George Harrison on the other, singing ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.  And the most interesting part of that tale thread is that, more often than not, they didn’t climb up their Marshall stack and yell ‘Top of the World, Ma!’.   They just smiled and laughed stupidly at their incredible stroke of luck, and kept doing the only thing they know how to do best, and that’s play music.

Bruce Springsteen has always been the Champion of the Working Man sort of singer, and Born to Run makes sure you know that.  A sizable portion of the book — at least half –is dedicated to repeated returns to New Jersey to see old friends, visiting his sisters and parents, and bringing up three kids.  He may not be the Troubadour that people make him out to be, and he frequently reminds the reader that that’s not his aim, to be the next Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan.  He’s just a storyteller who knows how to tell a good story about the blue collar man and woman, the people he grew up with and still connects with to this day.

[If I had one complaint, his writing does hint just a tiny bit at being a newbie, as I can see some of the usual writing habits that nag us all when we start out.  He relies on hyphenated phrases, ellipses and ALL CAPS more than he should.  That said, however, I’m not going to shoot him down for it.  I’m just as bad in my rough drafts.]

It’s definitely a fun read, though.  Well worth picking up!


Side note: I chose the above music and title, as it’s one of my favorite early Bruce tracks from his second album.  It’s a lovely piece, and I used “Mad Dog’s Promenade” as the name of my radio show my sophomore year in college.  I also put that there to note that there’s more to Bruce than just the hits we all know, and he’s one hell of a solid musician and songwriter…the deep cuts from his albums are often just as fascinating and imaginative.

A bit of listening

The one downside to listening to new things this early in the year is often that there isn’t anything new out to listen to.  So I’m often bouncing around my music collection, throwing on whatever happens to pop into mind at the time.

As usual, I’m writing this just before my evening writing/editing session, and I was in the mood for a bit of Porcupine Tree — a band I’d discovered while at HMV (their 1999 album Stupid Dream had just been released) and one that would often be a go-to for my writing sessions during the early 00’s.  In this case, 2002’s In Absentia came to mind, so I popped it on.  It’s a lovely album, recorded at the point where they’d decided to morph from dreamlike, guitar-based prog rock to a more prog-metal influenced sound.  [Note: lead singer/band leader Steven Wilson would be the first to slap me for labeling them prog, as he quite loathes the term.  But I digress.]

I’ve posted numerous times before about some of the key album releases over the years that influenced, or at least gave a soundtrack to, the Bridgetown Trilogy.  This album, Dishwalla’s And You Think You Know What Life’s About, Mansun’s Six, Beck’s Sea Change, and so on.  They’re all great albums that I’ll still throw on now and again while I’m writing or editing.

Does music distract me from my work?  Well, yes, sometimes it does.  Especially if I hear a song like Silversun Pickups’ “Panic Switch”, which often sends me across the room to pick up my bass to play along with it.  But more often than not, just as it has since I was a scruffy teenager first attempting to write novels, it serves a dual purpose: it’s background noise to help me focus on the task at hand, and it’s also a sound that, if I choose correctly, influences whatever it is I’m working on at that moment.  I’ve listened to music for so long, and for such long stretches, that if I don’t have anything playing while I’m working, I kind of feel naked in a way.  The silence makes me self-conscious.

But you know, that’s why I have such a large collection as I do, and why it’s 99% digital now.  I have a library of sound that helps me through the day, in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s writing, editing, or the Day Job.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way.