Albums I Haven’t Played in Ages: The Downward Spiral

KEXP played Nine Inch Nails’ “March of the Pigs” earlier today and it occurred to me that I have not listened to The Downward Spiral in ages. Which is surprising, considering I used to play the hell out of my taped copy (and later the cd) of it in the mid-90s during my last couple of years in Boston. It was even part of my Belfry writing session playlist for a significant time. I’m sure the main reason I’ve been avoiding it is that it reminds me a little too much of a not-so-happy time in my life. Very broke, very depressed, and very desperate.

I mean, “Closer” was everywhere on MTV and the alternative radio stations for months after it came out. [And I’m 99% sure it was because us Gen Xers were proud of the fact we could get a song with “I want to f*** you like an animal” as a lyric on commercial radio. When in doubt and you want to shock, might as well go all the way, right?] Mind you, it’s actually a step back from NIN’s previous EPs from 1992 (Broken and Fixed), though not by much. All three were extremely nihilistic and pissed off, but Downward Spiral seemed to step back just a little bit from the brink to be just this side of listenable.

I remember having a conversation with my then-girlfriend (the one I co-wrote True Faith with) about this album, how deliberate its production and construction was. It started with unbridled anger and violence with “Mr. Self Destruct” and only going…well, downard from there. The album does have a sense of resolution by its finish, however dire. By the self-titled song (the next to last track) the main focus is desperation and nihilism laid bare…followed by the damaged ascendance of “Hurt” as its final track. We’re not sure if the main character (so to speak) has reached the point of suicide or relief — or both — but it’s certain that the pain has finally gone away, one way or another.

I never got around to seeing Nine Inch Nails live except that one time, back in late 1989 when I won tickets to see them on Landsdowne Street in Boston, before their fame skyrocketed to arenas and music festivals. But by the mid-90s I was far too broke to go see any bands other than the free shows on the Hatch Shell anyway, so I made do with the music I could get cheaply. I followed the band’s progress through the years as I could, but I don’t think I quite connected with them as closely as I did with Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral.

I don’t remember the last time I actively gave this album a full spin, to tell the truth. I remember playing it in the stock room at HMV and in the Belfry when I was deep in writing The Phoenix Effect, but I rarely played it after that. It just struck a little too close to home.

I keep meaning to give it another play one of these days, now that time and age have intervened and the traumas of those years has faded, no longer equating those songs with personal and emotional hells. I can appreciate it as a fan and a listener and audiophile and not just a low chapter in my life.

Current Writing Session Rotation

So what have I been listening to lately while writing MU4? Lots of things! I’ve mostly been focusing on newer releases these last couple of weeks, and this is what’s currently on rotation:

Flyying Colours, You Never Know, released 17 March. A sort of Slowdive-meets-dreampop hybrid that’s a little more bouncy than shoegaze but still moody enough to keep me enthralled. I’ve been looking forward to this one since hearing the first single “Goodbye to Music” on KEXP.

Depeche Mode, Memento Mori, released 24 March. I was curious as to what this new album would sound like, and it kind of reminds me of Ultra melodywise, but the sound is more like Construction Time Again. It’s definitely a somber affair for many reasons, but this band has always fit perfectly in that niche.

The Church, The Hypnogogue, released 24 February. The band lineup has definitely changed over the years — Steve Kilbey is the lone original member at this point — but their signature sound hasn’t changed at all. This one’s very much like their previous records, very moody and experimental.

The Reds, Pinks and Purples, The Town That Cursed Your Name, released 24 March. I’ve recently found out that this local band has been getting play on KEXP, which makes me extremely happy!

Secret Machines, The Moth, the Lizard and the Secret Machines, released 24 March. Recorded not that long after 2008’s self-titled album but never released, the band finished it off recently. It’s quite unlike any of their other albums, more of a noisefest than a melodic adventure, but it’s perfect background music for my sessions!

U2, Songs of Surrender, released 17 March. A forty-song mix to tie in with Bono’s memoir, it’s full of reimagined recordings of both hits and deep cuts. Many of them also have updated lyrics (per Bono, he felt these new words are closer to what he envisioned for each track). Still, it’s a great set!

Twenty Years On: Distance and Time

Back in the spring of 1986, I remember being excited whenever I heard a Beatles song on the radio, especially if it was one of my favorites like “Rain”. (The song in fact does show up on one of my ‘radio tapes’ from summer of the previous year.) Back then, the idea of a song being twenty years old felt like a lifetime ago, its release five years before I’d been born. When you’re growing up, songs like that just seem so…distant.

Here in 2023, the music of twenty years previous was the music I listened to in the basement of my family’s house while I wrote The Persistence of Memories, what made the mixtapes I’d play on my commute to and from the candle warehouse, what cds I’d buy at Newbury Comics in downtown Amherst. This is music that still shows up on my playlists, like Sleeping with Ghosts and Hail to the Thief and Absolution and The Matrix Reloaded.

I think about this a lot, now that I’m older and especially now that the history of rock music has expanded and evolved since its early days in the late 50s (at least when it was starting to be called that, at any rate). I read a lot of music histories and biographies these days and this sort of things slides into the consciousness of my mind.

The fact that I was around and paying attention when so much popular music history was made, from the late 70s onwards. That when I started paying attention to what was being played on the radio as a preteen, FM had finally sprinted past AM as the most popular radio band (around 1978), music videos became more than just a rare specialized form of promotion (late 1981), and so many of its players and originators were still around, still clubbing and still releasing music.

This doesn’t make me feel old, far from it. Quite the opposite. It makes me feel glad and lucky as hell that I’ve been around to witness as much of it as I have.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about this down the road, but for now I’m just going to say that this is partly why I’m still as much of an obsessive music nerd as I am. Not for fear of missing out, but because I’m utterly fascinated by so much of this history as it’s happening. New sounds, new productions, new imagery. As well as the circularity of styles; the resurgence of shoegaze, the evolution of electronic music, the new generations of punk, and everything in between.

I’m always looking forward to what’s coming next.

All I wanted was a Pepsi

Conformity is a hell of a drug. I’ve said that before and I still stick by it.

Conservatives drafting up laws outlawing transgender care, targeting LGBT+ people with “Christian”-based hatred disguised as ‘moral concern’, outlawing drag shows, banning books, avoiding major health concerns by lying about them, bending the rules to gather more votes, chasing away the homeless instead of helping them, embracing gun culture to the point of pornography, refusing monetary assistance for those who need it, hating on anyone who isn’t cis and white and rich…need I go on? It’s like the fucking Reagan/Thatcher eighties all over again.

And they won’t listen to anyone telling them otherwise. Not that they can’t, but that they don’t want to.

We’re not asking for special laws. We’re not asking for preferred service. We’re not even asking for special privileges. All we want is the same thing the rest of you have. Just one bit of peace. And you won’t give it to us.

*

What the hell does this have to do with my music blog?

I think about this all the time these days. I mean, it’s hard not to, when several media avenues are filled with this bullshit. Again, forty years later. Same shit, different generation.

I’ve often mentioned how college radio opened my eyes and blew my mind when I was fifteen, when it became apparent that I was not going to fit in with the cliques and social circles of my small town. Even then when I encountered a style of music that resonated with me, I didn’t just connect with it, I took a deep dive. I’d obsess over discographies, get familiar with album cuts and b-sides, learn the band’s backgrounds. I read about the bands’ local fanbases, their inspirations and influences, and why they sounded like they did. That led me to other bands, other alternate ways of listening and thinking. I may not have physically latched onto the scene in the same obsessive way, musically or fashionwise, but mentally and emotionally I’d allowed myself a complete immersion.

That is to say, I’m pretty sure that unlike your casual music listener, I swallowed the whole idea of ‘the alternative’ fully and completely. I pretty much stopped trying to connect with the popular or the status quo. I could connect if I wanted to, but only when I wanted or needed to. [I will freely admit that I had to bow to the status quo for a few years in the 90s, mostly out of financial and emotional desperation, but that’s another story.]

I know many people who don’t take the spiteful evangelical right-wing conservative base all that seriously, partly because for a small but annoyingly loud base, they’re mostly all bark and no bite. I try not to take them too seriously myself by remembering that there are so many more people out there whose social mindset is calmer and more compassionate. It’s easy to slip into the feedback loop that there’s a constant WAR! going on (after all, this base prides itself on such hyperbole) that makes one want to fight back with equal vigor. I mean, this is truly a muddy, chaotic battlefield here, if we’re going to roll with the metaphor. Those at the sidelines might not understand how terrible it is in the middle of it all, and those caught in the middle might not notice how peaceful it is at the sidelines.

Over the years I’ve altered my point of view about all of this, partly because I was utterly sick of reacting to it all. Someone says or does something shitty, I respond emotionally, they double down, and so on. The feedback loop continues. It was taking me nowhere. It was physically unhealthy for me, and something had to change.

I had to remember what I’d learned in my youth: conformity is a hell of a drug. Why was I playing right into their emotional mind games? Why was I reacting every single time? I mean, let’s be real: I don’t have to play by their fucking rules. Never mind asking why I’d been doing so in the first place, because that’s not important. What is important is knowing that I don’t owe them the pleasure. I don’t owe them the satisfaction, especially if they’re spending all their time taking mine away.

It took me a fucking long time to figure that out because of so many social niceties and conflict avoidance issues drilled into my head over the years. It’s not only weird to admit I have that clarity now, but that I’d figured all that out decades ago, back when I was a moody-ass teenager with an obsession with alternative music and the lifestyle behind it. And I decided that considering that I already knew the answer, I didn’t have to dwell on the time wasted…I just had to pick up where I left off.

The status quo and the rigid conformity and the hatred and the ignorance and the bigotry will always be there, unfortunately. It’ll come and go, just like any other cycle of life. The most we can do for ourselves is to remember that we don’t have to play by their fucking rules.

What I’m Listening to Lately

Yes, believe it or not, I am not just listening to Belfry-era albums while writing! In fact, I’ve got a lot of relatively new tunes playing as well! Here’s a smattering of what’s on rotation here in Spare Oom…

The Tubs, Dead Meat, released 27 January. This is totally something I’d have listened to back in the late 80s-early 90s. It’s got that post-punk jangliness I loved at the time (The Church, IRS-era REM, and so on), plus its lyrics are very of that time (and very much similar to those of my band The Flying Bohemians). Thanks to KEXP — again — for introducing me to this great London band!

Belle & Sebastian, Late Developers, released 13 January. It’s essentially leftovers from the band’s 2022 album A Bit of Previous but they stand extremely well on their own. It’s a super fun listen and kind of sounds like a successful mix of their folkier early sound and their poppier later years.

Everything But the Girl, “Nothing Left to Lose” single, released 13 January. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt are back as EBTG after far too many years and they haven’t missed a beat. This is a stellar song and I’m eagerly awaiting their new album Fuse, which should drop mid-April.

New Order, Low-Life (Definitive), released 27 January. For some reason I always skipped over this album when I listened to this band back in the day, preferring Brotherhood instead, but giving this one a new listen recently has made me realize just how flipping great it is! However, as I’d mentioned to a friend earlier, it occurred to me that this is a stellar album marred by songs being in the wrong key; not that Bernard Sumner is out of tune (he tends to waver sometimes, which I’m used to), but that these songs are so out of his range, as he really strains on some tunes like “Sunrise”. Still, great album!

νŒŒλž€λ…Έμ„ (Parannoul), After the Magic, released 28 January. Noisy shoegaze from South Korea? Of course I’ll give it a listen! You guessed it — another band introduced to me by KEXP. They’re definitely reminiscent of Ride, with songs that sound like light bursts and unassuming vocals that insert themselves perfectly into the melodies.

Dave Rowntree, Radio Songs, released 20 January. The debut from Blur’s drummer is intriguing in that it’s quite moody and mellow but also reveals who might have been behind some of Blur’s more quieter and more introspective songs as well.

Listening Habits, 2023

I don’t necessarily hate it, but it’s annoying: the customer that comes up to the register with their earbuds on and completely ignores me when I say hi or ask if they need bags. It’s kind of rude, to be honest. [And yes, I will admit I was that same person back in my college years.] On the other hand, I am a bit curious as to what they’re listening to. I want to say it’s most likely a podcast or an audiobook, as those tend to be the most popular non-music thing people listen to with headphones. Still…at least pop one of those buds out so you can hear me, yeah?

Anyway…I’m trying to think of the last time I listened to music with headphones, and I’m pretty sure it was our flight to and from New England last year. We haven’t gone to the gym in months (although we have that on our 2023 resolution lists…), and I’m not counting the brief sessions in which I wanted to hear a new release in uninterrupted detail like the Revolver reissue. It’s been quite some time, really.

I mean, I could do what I used to do back in my high school days and listen to my mp3 player on the way to and from work (all of ten minutes) and during breaks, but again…kind of rude to anyone else that comes through the break room and I’m not up for that kind of short-session listening just yet. Maybe at a later time.

Still…I’ve been thinking about how to adjust my listening habits lately, and it’s a lot more to think about than I realize. Not just about headphones, but what I’m listening to (I mean, other than KEXP in the morning when I have a midshift). I’ve talked about missing out on listening deep-dives and connecting with music in general lately and wanting to fix that. And there is of course the fact that I’m about to embark on a Huge Writing Project that will demand a soundtrack mixtape or five.

I’m curious as to what will change in the coming months, if anything. Or if I’ll return to old habits that work. We shall see…

Coming Soon: A Listen to the Beatles’ Revolver: Super Deluxe Edition

When I have the time (and when Jules isn’t darting hither and yon and causing all kinds of chaos), I’ll finally have a sit-down-and-listen to the new Revolver box set! This album has long been my number one favorite Beatles record (with The Beatles coming an extremely close second) ever since I bought it sometime in the early 80s so yes, I am extremely familiar with it, inside and out. I’ve listened to it in headphones to recognize the quirks, semi-hidden sounds and edits. I play it every spring when I sit down to do my taxes. I’m slowly learning more of the songs on guitar.

So yeah…hearing this album with a completely new stereo mix is going to be interesting.

A few thoughts about music as safety

I just recently finished reading Brandi Carlile’s memoir Broken Horses and this particular song popped up, one I hadn’t heard for quite a while and forgotten I’d liked. It’s an “it gets better” song. It was partially inspired by a friend’s son that was getting bullied in school for not fitting in.

It got me thinking about my own teen years, in which I immersed myself in music as a form of safety. I wasn’t always bullied, at least not to any major or physical degree, but I definitely received my share of being called a f*g, thought of as a weirdo and excluded from most social circles, and being pigeonholed into a circle of outcasts and townies where I may have been accepted but it was definitely not a match I wanted or needed at the time.

And sure, I’ve already told you about the main reason I got into college radio and what became alternative rock: the whole fuck all of this conformity bullshit, go be true to yourself and you’ll be so fucking happier message it gave me. Not all of those songs had the “it gets better” theme, of course: some reveled in the darkness of life’s unfairness, and some reveled in destroying the status quo. It all spoke to me on a level few other things (and people) did. It said: the only real barriers you’re fighting are your own.

That, in a way, was the hardest lesson to learn of all, and it took me a LONG fucking time to really understand it.

Hearing this song again after so long and I think, yeah…same bullshit, different generation. We still have shitty people tearing others down who don’t conform to their way of living, praying, thinking, whatever. It’s why I’ve managed to stomach the shittiness of American Conservatives: they’re the same goddamn asshole jocks all grown up, still calling us f*gs and bullying us because we’re not like them. And that’s why I’ve managed not to fall prey to their violence: fuck all of this conformity bullshit, go be true to yourself and you’ll be so fucking happier. They still piss me off, but I refuse to let them ruin my life.

I still have my own barriers I’m fighting to tear down. There are far fewer than in the past, thankfully. Maybe a small handful instead of a teetering avalanche. One or two that are just about gone now.

And yet I still return to music for safety. It remains my emotional anchor to this day.

Listening from a different angle

You know you’re old when you remember this being played on TV.

Funny how turning ever so slightly makes all the difference.

For years I’ve had my PC monitor at the far left corner of my desk mainly because I had to share the space with my work PC and other things during my Work from Home years. It’s still there, but now there’s a second monitor that I’ve chosen to have as the primary. It’s slightly smaller, but it fits perfectly at rear center, flanked by my speakers.

And that’s where I’m suddenly realizing just how different things sound when you’re facing those speakers head-on rather than at a slight angle. I mean, I’d had the correct set-up for years elsewhere, including Arkham West, the Belfry, and most of my apartments in Boston, so it’s not as if I’ve been unaware of the proper placement of speakers for peak aural enjoyment…but sometimes peak wasn’t the easiest to achieve. Sometimes you make do with whatever setup you can get away with.

The wild thing, though, is just how different it sounds to me. I might have filtering issues when it comes to crowded white noise, but I’m also blessed with really good directional hearing. So now that I’m listening to my music correctly once more, I can really hear the mix, and it sounds heavenly. The music has depth and width now that I didn’t realize I’d missed all these years.

It’s almost as if this was the disconnect I’d been trying to figure out all this time…? Could it be that a simple error in placement kept me from truly connecting like I had in the past? Perhaps so.

Either way, this makes me want to explore more. Take more deep dives. Search for that connection with music I love so much.

Listening to…jets?

It’s Fleet Week here in SF which means the Blue Angels are once again WHOOOOSHing over our neighborhood. Alas, Karl the Fog (see above) has had other plans. We can definitely hear them, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be watching them any time soon.

There is a possibility that it might be clear tomorrow, but given how schizophrenic SF tends to be, who knows…?