When the world brings us down or drives us crazy, we try to find temporary reprieves to help us recharge so we can face it again. For me, that reprieve has always been music. It”s helped me find clarity when my brain and emotions are in overdrive, it’s inspired me to find new ways to face tough situations. (Not to mention its near-constant ability to inspire my writing!)
One of my favorite ways of taking this break over the years has been watching the music videos of World Order. It’s the brainchild of musician/goodwill ambassador/former mixed martial artist and kickboxer Genki Sudo. Their visual style is that of business suits and robotic movement, hinting at the stereotype of the lifeless Japanese businessman. The music itself is pop-idol dance, but it fits their visuals so perfectly that it’s hard not to love them.
Their videos are always such a joy to watch; they’re clever and creative, and they always provide a positive message even in the face of adversity, which happens to be Genki Sudo’s motto: We Are All One. Enjoy! And stay for the end of the videos, as they nearly always leave us with a nice easter egg.
Bonus: I do love that they even wrote a song about a certain “leader”… 😉
I should have seen the signs when Davey and Jade from AFI decided to plug in their old-school synths and create Blaqk Audio and have a minor hit with “Stiff Kittens” back in 2007. It’s equal parts darkwave goth and emocore and it sounds like they’d been mainlining their 80s Belgian techno.
Considering I grew up listening to the original stuff on college radio back in the 80s and loved it, I of course gravitated to the new waves of New Wave each time they splashed ashore. They may not have been giant surges, but they always tended to stick around in one form or another.
For a while we saw a number of bands with a form a lazy dreampop like Small Black, or the splashy sound of Bear in Heaven, or the cinematic widescreen of M83:
(Mad props to them for channeling Akira in this particular video, by the way.)
We’ve also seen an uptick of the synth-duo band dynamic, such as Tanlines, MS MR, Bob Moses, and Public Service Broadcasting:
And of course there’s the one-man synth performer Robert DeLong who plays every instrument himself, often all at the same time, many of them consisting of kludged-together video game consoles and joysticks:
Synthpop seems to have finally gained more ground over the last year or so, as I’ve been seeing an uptick of records by performers and bands with a love for that classic 80s synth sound. Many of them are even channeling some of the more obscure goth and darkwave bands such as Xymox, Red Flag and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry such as Drab Majesty and Boy Harsher:
I’m drawn to this sound partly because of its spot-on retro inspiration, but also because it’s exactly the kind of stuff I’d listen to during my writing sessions. I’m about to create another playlist for Mendaihu Universe Book Four (Songs from the Eden Cycle Vol 6, if you’re playing along).
Some people may see this synth sound as sterile, or just another alt-rock hybrid, but I’m here for it regardless. It’s fun, it’s moody, and it’s creative. And I’ll be honest, I wish I had the money and technical mind to buy me one of those synths and record my own stuff. For now, though, I’ll stick with grooving along to these albums on my headphones at the gym or at my PC in Spare Oom, waiting for more.
REM’s first release for their freshly-inked deal with Warner Bros Records, having moved on from their indie years with IRS, usually gets passed over due to the albums surrounding it: 1987’s Document features two of their biggest commercial hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”, and 1991’s Out of Time features “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. What does 1988’s Green have, though? It’s a bit disjointed (on purpose), it’s a shift away from their classic pastoral folk sound (on purpose), and even its lyrics are less obscure and more understandable (again, on purpose). But it’s a hell of a fine album with some absolutely stunning and gorgeous tunes from start to finish.
REM has always worn their politics on their sleeves (this particular album contains a recurring theme of environmentalism), and in the release of Green was actually timed to coincide with the 1988 Presidential election with a brilliant promo postcard sent to record stores and radio stations:
While the ’88 election may not have finished the way they’d hoped, that didn’t stop them from continuing to use their voice for progressive reasons. Though this particular album may not be as overtly political as some of their previous releases, it certainly did bring issues to light by revising how they wrote their music. Singer Michael Stipe had requested the band “not write any more REM-type songs” in order to change their style.
As was becoming habit, the album kicks off with a lively, upbeat pop song, literally called “Pop Song ’89”, welcoming the listener to tune in and have a bit of fun. The video for the single (released in May 1989 and directed by Stipe himself) is goofy fun, featuring four topless dancers — including himself. When MTV asked to censor the video for airplay, he cheekily responded by providing an edit with black bars on all four bodies.
It’s quickly followed by another uptempo rocker, “Get Up”, which seems to actually be about asking someone to get up and out of bed. [Wikipedia states that in the late 90s, Stipe told an audience that this is indeed the case and was about bassist Mike Mills, who had been oversleeping during the sessions.] It became the fourth single from the album, and while it didn’t dent the charts, the video did start the career of one CalArts student named Eric Darnell, who went on to be a successful director of several CGI-animated movies like Antz and Madagascar.
Next up is a change of pace, hinting both at their earlier folk sound and later mandolin-heavy sound, with “You Are the Everything”. It’s a simple love song, but it’s a gorgeous one, and one that I’m pretty sure I used on a mix-tape to my then-girlfriend some months later.
Returning to the upbeat pop sound, they return with the fun and goofy “Stand”, right up there with “Can’t Get There from Here” as proof that the band definitely has a sense of humor. It’s such a chipper song that it’s hard to take seriously — even Stipe cracks himself up at the end of the video. This would be the second single from the record, and still gets airplay to this day.
It’s followed up, however, by a one-two punch of darker, more somber songs to finish up the first side of the record, with “World Leader Pretend” and “The Wrong Child” — both songs that at first listen seem to be about other people, but in actuality are about the narrator. One focuses on the inner turmoil of breaking down self-imposed barriers, while the other focuses on the outer turmoil of social acceptance. Both are about the strength needed to change and accept the self despite its physical and emotional obstacles.
Side Two kicks off with one of my favorite REM songs and the most overtly political song off the album, “Orange Crush”, and the album’s first single. It’s powerful and relentless in its energy, even during the breakdown halfway through. It has a deliberately mixed message, seeming to be pro-military while consistently reminding us of its horrors (the title refers to Agent Orange, used as herbicidal warfare in Vietnam).
It’s followed up by another song that uses this deceptive messaging to great effect: the positive and upbeat “Turn You Inside-Out” may sound like a fun rocker of a track, but its lyrics barely contain its bile. Its message seems to be “I could make your life really fucking miserable right now, but I’m going to be the better man instead.” During a stop on their subsequent tour, Stipe would dedicate this song to Exxon, whose Valdez oil tanker had struck the Alaskan coastline and spilled thousands of gallons of oil.
The record comes to a close with three deep tracks that have their own special charm, starting with “Hairshirt”, with its tender message of remaining human in the most adverse of situations. [This seems to be about Stipe’s methods of dealing with fame and privacy; he would later have a conversation with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about this very thing, inspiring Yorke to write “How to Disappear Completely”.]
It’s followed up with “I Remember California”, a surprisingly post-apocalyptic tale of a west coast decimated by rising oceans and climate change. It’s haunting in that it’s not so much about the destruction (or even the destructive powers), but the sadness about What Used to Be, through the eyes of someone who can no longer return.
The record ends on an unexpectedly high and positive note with an upbeat untitled song (officially called “Untitled Eleventh Track” on some discographies) where, at the end of the day, despite its struggles and frustrations, we are all here for each other. [It’s been said that drummer Bill Berry thought the drum pattern for this song was so stupid he refused to play it; guitarist Peter Buck fills in instead.] The song does seem a bit like an afterthought or an epilogue, but it does help bookend the album quite nicely.
I remember listening to this record a hell of a lot during my senior year in high school. I also remember quoting many of its lyrics on the blackboard in my first period Humanities class (a friend and I often wrote a ‘quote for the day’ before class started, and the teacher didn’t seem to mind at all). I would see them on tour in early April 1989, with Indigo Girls opening up — thus introducing me to yet another fantastic and long-loved band. The album has always stayed with me over the years as their most accessible and enjoyable from start to finish. It pretty much cemented my love for the band. It’s not their most popular, but for me it’s their most solid and most adventurous work.
I’ve been thinking lately about how I want to approach Book Four in the Mendaihu Universe (oh yes, there will be more of them!) and yes, I’ve even been gathering music for the writing soundtrack. And like all the other projects, I’m searching for a specific mood that fits the story I have in my head.
Recently I’ve been listening to Kasabian’s “Club Foot”, a) because it’s got one hell of a kickass bass riff, and b) the video is an homage to student revolt against government suppression, specifically the Prague Spring in 1969 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It’s also an homage to pirate radio and Radio Free Europe.
I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of rebellion. Sure, it grew out of my listening to punk and ‘that weird college radio stuff’ back in the 80s, but the fact that the whole point of that music was a form of rebellion against the norm attracted my interest. [Yeah, I’ll cop to not always outwardly showing it. But that’s for a different post.]
In the Bridgetown Trilogy, the Vigil group is there partly to play both roles: revolt against those in power, and its voice. But what of the new book? All I can say is that it’s a new game. It’s seventy years later and things have changed considerably on both sides. The rebellion shown in the Trilogy wouldn’t work this time out. Those books were all about accepting and maintaining a balance between two opposite forces.
This particular book, I think, is going to be more about Setting Things Right.
The “Club Foot” song and video got me thinking this morning, and I posted it as a tweet: What would be today’s analogue of pirate radio as student revolt? How would people listen to it? Phone app? Internet streaming? Radio like in the past? How would its signals be secure/untraceable like a VPN?
Which brought up the next question: How would this kind of revolt happen in an age of social media (and multiple forms of media in general) that are chock full of white noise already? Is a digital/aural underground network even possible?
(Mind you, whenever I hear a question ending in “…is that even possible”, my brain immediately responds with “Of course there is. We just have to figure out what it is.” I’m an optimistic goofball that way.)
Things to think about while prepping for future writing projects.
It was summer of 1991 and I was living in a rented top floor dorm room on Beacon Street facing out over the Charles and the Esplanade. I was working in the drafty basement of the Emerson College library during the day and staying up way too late at night, trying to figure out far to many screwy things in my life.
My musical tastes could have gone either way, really. Most of my friends were digging the guitar-heavy sound coming from Seattle, but I found myself veering more towards the music that was coming from across the Altantic: Britpop and shoegaze. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the swampy, heavy rock of Soundgarden and Nirvana and all those other bands (I may not have gotten along with my freshman year roommate at all, but he did introduce me to some fine Pacific Northwest bands)…I just found myself drawn more towards the, shall we say, more positive sounds coming from the UK. I was a huge fan of Jesus Jones, EMF, Inspiral Carpets, The La’s, Lush, and all the rest of them.
Primal Scream’s “Loaded” was already all over the place since the single dropped way back in February of 1990, with its ‘Hey Jude’ chord progression and Stones-y grooviness, not to mention the great opening salvo, a quotable sample from The Wild Angels. It was a blissed-out remix of “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have” from their 1989 self-titled second album and it caught on like gangbusters on both sides of the pond. I couldn’t go a day without WFNX playing it and raving about it.
By September I’d moved in to an off-campus apartment with my friend Lissa and scraping by with the library job, but somehow I was able to save up to buy a few albums here and there when I wasn’t furiously dubbing other peoples’ collections. There was a ton of great UK music coming out at the time and I wanted as much as I could get.
I remember first hearing Screamadelica at the basement Strawberries in Harvard Square over in Cambridge. It was one of the first times I spent an extended time in a record store for the sole purpose of listening to an entire album, it was that phenomenal. Primal Scream had been a semi-psychedelic indie band for a few years by then, but for this album they’d shifted in the direction of house and techno. The mix of the two genres worked perfectly for the MDMA-soaked rave scene blossoming in the UK.
“Movin’ On Up” is a wonderful opening track for the album, stating its case with a celebratory gospel chorus. It’s a simple ‘all you need is love’ song full of positive vibes, but it does its job perfectly. We’re going on a trip, and it’s going to be amazing.
It’s followed up by a beat-heavy headtrip cover of Roky Erickson’s “Slip Inside This House” originally from 1990’s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye tribute album. This also sets the tone for the rest of the album, with the tracks bouncing between fun and funky guitar-centric songs and extended techno beats.
A few tracks later I’d be blown away by one of the most gorgeous, head-trippy tracks I’d ever heard and still one of my all-time favorite songs of that era, “Higher than the Sun”. It perfectly captures the sound of 1960s psychedelic rock and intertwines it seamlessly with the LSD-laden dreamlike feel of rave.
The first side of the US cassette ends with a unique mix of another fun uplifting track, “Come Together” (which samples, of all things, Sex, Lies and Videotape!). [The UK version of this track is a different longer mix.] It’s a bookend track similar to “Movin’ On Up” both in its positive mood and message, and finishes off Side One on a pleasing, celebratory note.
Side Two opens up with the now-popular “Loaded”, and the rest of the album starts veering towards the after-party comedown, with slowly drifting tracks like “Damaged” before returning with an extended experimental retake of “Higher than the Sun”. It all ends with the quiet contemplation of “Shine Like Stars”.
Screamadelica is a record for partying and after-partying, but it’s also a record for sitting down and listening, and that’s one of the main reasons I gravitated towards it. Andrew Weatherall’s amazing co-production work on it makes it pleasurable whether you’re grooving to it on a crowded dance floor or kicking back on your bed with headphones on.
I highly recommend getting this record into your collection if you don’t have it already. [The 2011 twentieth anniversary version provides a great extended review of this album, including numerous mixes, remixes and b-sides.]
As promised, here’s my list of favorite tunes of 2019 so far. I deliberately decided to use “favorite tunes” instead of “best of” because I know my tastes tend to shift throughout the year. We’ll see how many of these show up for my End of Year lists! Happy listening!
I’m torn between calling myself lazy and accepting that I just have a lot going on at the moment, because I hate to disappoint my readers with these fly-by posts! Ah well…I should have more time in the next day or so to give you some decent stuff to read and watch!
But yeah, All the Cool Music Blog Kids Are Doing It — the best of year (so far) lists! I figure, why not? It’s been a fun year to date, with a lot of great stuff coming out that has been getting decent play on my PC and mp3 players. I’m thinking one post will be for songs and another will be for full albums.