Favorite Albums: Duncan Sheik

Just before i started my job at HMV in late 1996, a new record popped up that hit the airwaves of both alternative rock and pop stations; even though it was primarily filtered down to Adult Alternative for its easy and melodic sound, the songwriting was so unexpectedly tight and adventurous that it got picked up everywhere. It was not the bombast of Collective Soul’s self-titled record, or the earnestness of Live’s Throwing Copper; it was simply a lovely album to listen to.

But that lightness is betrayed by darker, gloomier lyrics. James Hunter of Rolling Stone likened Sheik’s music to Talk Talk and The Smiths, perhaps for that reason: the musicianship is top notch from start to finish, the melodies are wonderfully creative but not overly complex, and the songs definitely get stuck in your head.

If you’ve only heard “Barely Breathing”, I suggest you check out the rest of the album — it’s definitely worth it.

Bonus Track: A year and a half later he popped up on the Great Expectations soundtrack from early 1998 with another fabulous track, “Wishful Thinking”, which got a lot of airplay at the time.

His later albums unfortunately did not get the attention they should have — partly due to changing tastes and partly due to the late 90s industry shake-ups — but they too are well worth looking for. He’s also kept busy since the mid-00s by writing and scoring music for multiple stage plays and musicals, his best known being Spring Awakening.

Indie Rocks

Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, courtesy KEXP.org

For the last seven or eight months, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to KEXP online while working from home. It’s an affiliate of the University of Washington and non-profit, and they play some damn fine indie rock that’s made my ears perk up repeatedly. A good portion of my downloads during this time have been informed or influenced by the station.

Okay, that may sound like a shameless plug, but let’s be honest, I’ll happily plug any station that broadcasts purely out of a love for music rather than for the ratings. If your station is dedicated to a creative playlist, bands both local and international, and is not afraid to shake it up now and again, you’ve got my ears and my loyalty.

Sometimes it’s hard to find these stations, especially when they seem to be a vanishing breed. Even though the Giant Conglomerates seem to be losing money hand over fist due to a severe bout of All The Stations Are Playing The Same Damn Songs, it’s often hard to find these stations on your car stereo or elsewhere. You often have to go online and further afield like I did. I might live in San Francisco, but when a good number of the local commercial stations are all owned by Cumulus or some other big name, I have to dig a bit.

And sometimes the college stations don’t exactly work for me, either. Some like Berkeley’s KALX or Stanford’s KZSU are good but far too leftfield for my tastes. Others like Santa Clara’s KSCU run mostly on minimal programming and maximum library autoplay. Some have become shells of their former selves, broadcasting an NPR feed with very few live shows.

This is why I’m still a big fan of streaming radio stations online. Not streaming full-stop; I do have a Spotify account but I rarely use it, and for the most part I only stream albums on New Release Fridays. I crave the live deejay atmosphere. [And most definitely not the “morning crew” kind, which I find far too irritating. Howard Stern may have made it popular, but that format is way beyond its sell-by date now.]

I’ll usually find these stations in one of two ways: either by word of mouth/band announcement (KEXP is known for hosting quite a few live-in-studio performances) or by local listening. I’ve favorited stations that I happened upon while on vacation. I love to find new stations and check them out via their website.

I find KEXP to be a perfect blend of all the good parts of the above. Maybe a little leftfield, but never weird for weirdness’ sake. Silly deejay banter, but never meathead locker room humor. Each host has their own style and tastes. I might hear a song on heavy rotation, but I won’t hear it eight times a day. They’ll often surprise me with deep cuts from new albums. They’ve introduced me to a hell of a lot of indie bands I never would have heard of otherwise.

And I’m always curious to find even more stations. Who knows what I’ll be listening to six months from now?

Twenty Years On: Spring 1999

I’d have to say 1999 was kind of a weird time for me, as it had some smashing highs and some really frustrating lows for me. While I still loved my record store job at HMV, things had changed there, and not necessarily for the better. The new manager and I often butted heads, and I also found my shifts often being pushed to weird hours to cover someone else’s plans. I’d gotten frustrated with the fact that my sci-fi novel (The Phoenix Effect) was getting no bites from publishers and its sequel was soon to be aborted when I instead chose to completely rewrite the whole damn thing.

Radio was also getting more frustrating to listen to, the more melodic sounds of 90s alt-rock getting replaced by what I’d call ‘meathead alt-metal’, with the drop-tuning and growling (and sometimes unfortunate white-boy-rapping) of Korn, Limp Bizkit and Marilyn Manson. I started listening to less radio and more of my own collection, which of course had already grown considerably in the last couple of years. On the plus side there, I’d discover a lot more imports and obscurities that became some of my favorite records of the time.

The Supernaturals, A Tune a Day, released 8 February 1999. I was pretty heavy into the imports at this time. I would read the British music mags religiously, checking out the news and reviews and following up accordingly, ordering a copy or two for the store. A lot of it was hit or miss, and most of the time I’d be ordering a copy simply for my own collection. The Supernaturals are one band that got some minor reviews in Mojo and elsewhere but kind of vanished soon after. I really dug the alternapop of this record, though.

Annie Christian, Twilight, released 8 February 1999. The same goes with Annie Christian…they were part of a newer British wave of guitar groups that wrote some really nifty tunes that unfortunately got ignored by pretty much everyone.

Tin Star, The Thrill Kisser, released 9 February 1999. Now THIS record is groovy and quirky as hell and more people need to know about it. The “Head” single got some minor airplay on the alt-rock stations, and every now and again I’m pleasantly surprised when it resurfaces. This record got a hell of a lot of play during my writing sessions. Well worth searching for and checking out.

Lit, A Place in the Sun, released 23 February 1999. These guys could easily be filed away in that same meathead alt-metal gang, considering their biggest hit is about being an alcoholic loser…but they do it in style with catchy riffs and fun tunes. Bonus points for providing a nude cameo of Blink-182 (following up their “What’s My Age Again” streak) in their video for “Zip-Lock”, another radio favorite.

Jimmy Eat World, Clarity, released 23 February 1999. Before the enormous success of 2001’s Bleed American, this band was a favorite of the emo crowd, and “Lucky Denver Mint” was a minor hit on a lot of alt-rock stations. Their early records are definitely worth checking out as well.

Badly Drawn Boy, It Came from the Ground EP, released 1 March 1999. This one remains one of my favorite import finds from the HMV years, and it’s one of BDB’s best songs, and really should have gotten a hell of a lot more attention than it did. I always play this one loud because it’s just that awesome.

3 Colours Red, Revolt, released 2 March 1999. Yet another fantastic alt-rock album criminally obscured by alt-metal radio and record distributor shenanigans of the day. “Beautiful Day” is a gorgeous tune that has the epic quality of Bends-era Radiohead. Had this come out a few years earlier or later, it may have been a much bigger hit.

Blur, 13, released 15 March 1999. Blur, on the other hand, was the Britpop band that survived the late 90s fallout of their scene by way of changing up their sound considerably. Their 1997 self-titled record introduced a much heavier and more experimental sound, while this record exposed their more emotional (and emotionally fraught) side.

Various Artists, The Matrix OST, released 30 March 1999. Say what you will about the trilogy, the first movie definitely changed the entire game of American science fiction movies by being fiercely original, relentlessly creative, refusing to rely on tired tropes, and introducing some of the best jaw-dropping special effects ever made up to that point. And it had one hell of a great soundtrack that just had to be played as loud as possible.

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The last year and a half of my HMV tenure may have been fraught with irritations and stress, but it also provided me with a ton of excellent music that would keep me busy and entertained. This was the peak era of my weekend road trips to comic stores, book stores and Boston, and it was also an extremely creative time for me as well, even if my current project was about to be completely restarted from scratch. My social life was nil, but that was the least of my worries, as I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I was actually getting paid enough to be able to afford it to some extent. I’d dug myself out of an extremely deep depressive funk, and despite managerial frustration, I refused to fall back into that trap again.

Writing Session Music: A Recent Playlist

At the moment, I’m focusing almost completely on the revision of Diwa and Kaffi (yes, that’s the Apartment Complex book title now), which means that my writing session playlist has shifted accordingly. Right now it’s focusing mostly on lighter fare, to fit the mood of the novel. In particular, I find myself listening to a lot of synthpop and light alt-rock. Here’s a few albums that have been spinning lately here in Spare Oom…

White Lies, Five. This album kind of reminds me of the modern pop sound of the late 80s/early 90s that I used to listen to back in the day. It’s light but has just enough heft and emotion to it that it’s not throwaway.

The Cinematic Orchestra, To Believe. Great mood music I can get lost in. It’s quiet and lovely and just kind of floats everywhere, and I love it. This is the kind of stuff I listen to when I just need background but not exactly a specific mood.

UNKLE, The Road Part 2: Lost Highway. I can never go wrong with James Lavelle’s brilliant work. It’s dark and brooding, but it’s also quite expansive. (Having Tom Smith from Editors singing a few tunes is also really cool.) I usually reserve UNKLE for my Epic Novel sessions, but I’m such a huge fan of the band that they fit in quite nicely for any book I’m writing.

American Football, American Football (LP3). This is an AMAZING album, and it’s absolutely gorgeous and dreamy. This one’s been getting some heavy replays, almost on a daily basis, since it came out a little over a week ago. It’s just enough for me to get lost in the mood of the record without it interfering with the book proper.

The Sound of Arrows, Stay Free. This one’s a few years old but it’s been a huge influence on the book since I started writing it last year. (So much so that the title track plays during the ending credit sequence for the anime version in my head. Heh.) It’s a lovely and quite positive album to listen to, and it fits the mood of D&K perfectly.

I’m still on the first couple of chapters of this novel right now, and I’ve purposely not given myself a deadline; I’m already damn proud of this book and think it’s one of the best I’ve written (even better than the trilogy!), so I want to give this one as much TLC as I can before I decide whether I want to self-publish it or submit it to a professional house. I’m not even focusing on that right now, to be honest — I just want to give this one my all. Establishing a writing soundtrack, then, becomes an important part of my process; writing with music helps me focus on the work at hand, and it also mutes out any background noise that might distract. Creating this kind of playlist is one of my favorite parts of the process, as the music helps me achieve the mood of the story.