Couldn’t Miss This One This Year

The downside to working in retail once more is that I’m no longer able to listen to what I like listening to. I can only listen to KEXP on days off or before/after work. Which means that I’ve been listening to a lot of slightly tinny harmless current pop and retro tunes from the 80s and 90s. Some of it’s good, some not so much, but thankfully the level of oh god not this song AGAIN is at a bare minimum.

I am curious, however, as to whether or not the work tunage will be holiday-themed come this Friday. [Which, by the way, I don’t think I’ll be suffering another Black Friday as we’re not that kind of store. We’re more of a “you mean you forgot cranberries too?” shop.] I’m not complaining mind you, because I actually enjoy holiday music at work. It’s just the right amount of Christmas cheer that isn’t intrusive or distracting. And it’s a theme that crosses all sorts of genres and bends the playlist rules on radio stations and workplace music loops.

Either way, it’s going to be a pretty good year’s end here and I’m not going to complain.

A bit on the new Cure songs

So The Cure, one of my favorite bands from the 80s and a huge influence not just my songwriting but my fiction writing as well, have finally slipped out a few new tracks! Well, sort of, at any rate. They’re in the midst of a tour and they’ve been playing what seem to be new songs, quite possibly from an upcoming album called Songs of a Lost World (at least that’s the current rumor).

This isn’t the first time they’d test out new songs live before recording them. A lot of bands do that, actually. Let’s give them a listen, yes?

I joked with my friend Chris, who shares my longtime love for the band, that these two new songs passed right by me because I swear they had a song called “Endsong” already. [Well, “End” is on Wish and “Plainsong” is on Disintegration, so my brain probably smooshed the two together.] Still…I like what I hear so far. It’s similar to their track “Homesick” in that it has the slow and extended opening before arriving at the main lyrics, which don’t seem to have a chorus. Very much a Disintegration/Wish vibe going here.

“It Can Never Be the Same”, on the other hand, reminds me a lot of 00s-era Cure, a mix between The Cure and 4:13 Dream. It’s got the patented dark dreaminess but with a tighter and more orchestral sheen. But it also hints at the construction of repetition that made Disintegration so mesmerizing.

What to make of these two tracks that may or may not be a part of a VERY long time in coming future album? It certainly shows that Robert Smith hasn’t rested on his laurels since 2008. Between the numerous tours and guest spots on albums and soundtracks, he’s kept busy. And that classic Cure sound hasn’t gone away, either…their best songs have either been the irresistible pop of songs like “Friday I’m in Love” or “Close to Me” at one end of the spectrum and the epic gloom of “Homesick” and “All Cats Are Grey” at the other. I’m glad to see they’ve still got it.

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 at Work

I’m actually kind of surprised here.

Most piped-in music at retail stores are feed subscriptions of mostly innocuous pop tunes that are enjoyable but not anything that’ll distract you from your shopping moods. (I say ‘most’ because our local Trader Joe’s seems to have cornered the Gen-X mood of 80s alt-rock faves and cool retro stuff instead.) At my store I can easily file our feed into three distinct formats:
–early 80s MTV (Thomas Dolby, Men Without Hats, Tears for Fears, etc.)
–mid 90s alternapop (Deep Blue Something, Dishwalla, Vertical Horizon, etc.)
–adult pop from about 5 years ago (Kelly Clarkson and so on)

The other day however, I heard this one song that I hadn’t recognized and pulled out the Shazam app. It happened to be the new(ish) 5 Seconds of Summer song I posted above, and thus the surprise: I was so used to hearing the same music loops day in and day out that hearing a new song was quite unexpected. I kinda like it, too! Just goes to show that the subscription feed we have does actually get updated now and again.

It reminded me of one of my other retail jobs, at the Longwood Coop in Brookline, where the loops were actually sent to us in this huge plastic cart that looked like a mutant cross between a laserdisc case and a radio station cartridge, and carried a couple dozen songs. Each cart had a different musical mood, and, you guessed it, I’d try to sneak on the one that had the weird alternative songs, one of which was a New Fast Automatic Daffodils track that I’m sure no one in the store had ever heard of. And during my HMV days, we had a set collection of promos we’d play in store, but on days where I was floor manager I’d throw on some wildly obscure imports instead.

Sure, I don’t have any say in what gets played at this job, but I’m not going to complain about it. Most of it’s enjoyable, and mostly already in my mp3 collection anyway. But it is fun to have that occasional surprise song that trips me up!

Outside Lands This Weekend

This year’s Outside Lands looks to be a bit more of a sedate affair this time out, mainly due to the changes in schedule and availability of bands, and after this weekend’s weather we’re hoping it doesn’t turn into a Glastonbury/Bonnaroo washout. On the other hand, the choice of bands is quite eclectic and inclusive this time out! Here’s a few bands we’re looking forward to seeing!

Unexpected Inspiration

Me: *relaxing with a bit of YouTubing at the end of the day, watching music videos*

Me: *watches K/DA’s “Villain” once again*

Brain: *poke poke* Oh hey…you know what would be a great villain idea for a sequel to In My Blue World?

Me: Oh COME ON —

Brain: I’m picturing a pirate, a woman with the ability to steal magic from multiple worlds —

Me: WILL YOU STOP THAT I’M TOO BUSY ALREA–

Brain: And she’s like, super strong and almost invincible, and Zuze needs Diana’s help in fighting her off —

Me: … *sigh* FINE. *writes 1500-word synopsis*

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PSA: Listening to music and being inspired to write yet another novel can be hazardous to your health.

Why do I not have…?

I know I often go on about how stupidly huge my mp3 collection is (and it is), but quite often I find myself reading a music biography or hear a tune on the radio and realize…why do I not have more of this band’s music? Most embarrassingly, these are often well-known bands that I just never got around to picking up, most likely because I was too busy focusing on completing someone else’s discography, or being distracted by all the shiny new releases.

So, without further ado, I am about to embarrass myself by providing you with a bit of a selection of bands and singers whose songs I am sorely lacking from my library. I really should do something

I have exactly two Sly & the Family Stone songs — the above one and ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’. I really need to rectify that. Especially since they’re a local band!

I’m also woefully missing out on a lot of Tamla/Motown stuff too. I grew up on a lot of this stuff playing on the radio and I love it, but I guess I’ve just been so distracted by alternative rock all these years that I keep forgetting to make good on adding it.

I have maybe five or six Byrds songs, and that’s it. They pretty much kickstarted the folk rock scene of the 60s and only now am I starting to appreciate that genre and its history.

Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” was one of my favorite mid-80s pop-rock songs, and I loved his work with The Power Station…so why do I only have Riptide, a few singles, and absolutely nothing else of his?

I was far too broke to catch up on a lot of early 90s music at the time it all came out — and there was a lot I had to catch up on — so I’m sadly missing a lot of the classic riot grrl/grunge scene. [As mentioned in a previous post, I was too busy focusing on the shoegaze stuff from the same era.]

Yes, even current bands are missing from my collection! I came to appreciate bands like Against Me! only recently, so I’ve been pretty much gathering those titles when and where I can.

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Now that I have the time and the wherewithal (and now that I’ve caught up with so many other discographies), I’ve been slowly making my way through the histories of popular music and making mental notes. Many of these are songs and albums I can stream, or find in the dollar bins at Amoeba, or borrow from the library or elsewhere.

You’re messing with the enemy

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.

Twenty Years On: February 1998 in Review

Welcome to another edition of Twenty Years On!  It’s February 1998, and I’ve started to take it upon myself to order imported albums for my store that I think will sell.  I’m reading all the British music magazines and reading the reviews, and for the most part I do a pretty good job.  Though I may also order a few imports for my own purchase…

Ultrasound, “Best Wishes” single, released 1 February. The major label (Nude UK) debut for this psychedelic Britpop band was an unexpectedly calm track and a one-eighty from their previous small label (Fierce Panda) single, the raucous “Same Band”. A piano-only version of this would later show up as a hidden track on their first album.

Primal Scream, “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” single, released 1 February. After the blissed-out Screamadelica and Stones-y Give Out But Don’t Give Up, PS would return with something equally unexpected: jazzy dub electronica, with 1997’s Vanishing Point. Critics loved it, and fans, once they got used to it, called it a brilliant success.

Catatonia, International Velvet, released 2 February. The Welsh band’s second album might not have made as big a splash as they’d hoped in the UK, but they certainly knew how to write catchy and fun alt-pop singles filled with brightness and humor.

Ian Brown, Unfinished Monkey Business, released 2 February. The former lead singer for the Stone Roses released his first solo album nearly four years after the Roses’ last one, and it’s full of oddities as well as catchy riffs. It’s missing the sunshine-psych sound of his former band (and definitely sounds like demos in places), but it also shows that he’s a strong songwriter lyrically and musically.

Pearl Jam, Yield, released 3 February. The wildly popular Seattle band returned to the airwaves with a classic album that channels both their Ten/Vs sound as well as the angular and punkish No Code. They also returned with their first official video since 1991’s “Jeremy”, co-directed by Todd McFarlane, then known as the creator of the Spawn comic book.

Roni Size/Reprazent, “Brown Paper Bag” single, released 10 February. Taken from 1997’s New Forms album, this fantastic track is a perfect example of the drum & bass sub-genre that popped up around that time. Size and his group were one of the best of their style, seamlessly mixing electronic dance and smooth jazz.

Curve, Come Clean, released 16 February. The group’s third album came nearly five years after their previous one (during which time they’d dissolved, done some solo work, and regrouped two years later and released a few rare singles).  It contains the signature guitar-driven heaviness but with a harder, more acidic edge.

Loreena McKennitt, “The Mummers’ Dance” single, released 17 February. McKennitt was part of the new-age/folk/Celtic wave of the mid-90s (thank you, Riverdance) and had a very strong following, enough to release a remixed version of a track from 1997’s The Book of Secrets album. This version would get significant airplay on many alternative stations around this time.

theaudience, theaudience, released 23 February. An amazing British power-pop band that really should have been a hell of a lot more popular than they ended up being. The entire album is filled with catchy riffs, smart and clever lyrics, and sung by the wonderful Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Alas, they were not only a band that suffered from the Universal/PolyGram merger (a sampler EP for the US was put together but disappeared soon after), their guitarist and co-songwriter quit the band soon after, breaking them up. Ellis-Bextor, thankfully, went on to become a popular solo singer in her own right just a year or so later. Highly suggested to add to your collection if you happen to find it.

Craig Armstrong, The Space Between Us, released 24 February. Armstrong is more known for film score composing (including numerous Baz Luhrmann movies such as Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby), but he’s also released a handful of gorgeous albums full of rich ambiance.  His work is perfect for chilling out — and also perfect for background music during writing sessions!

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Next Up: March 1998!

[Note: I know, I know…I skipped Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea from 10 February. While I understand and appreciate its ridiculously huge cult status, I’ll admit I’m not that much of a fan and decided not to list it here.]

Dialing it back — just a little bit

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Quite possibly my favorite scene from a Prince movie…

One of my many resolutions for this year was to dial back the music purchasing.  And let’s be brutally honest here — I purchase a LOT of music.  Other guys with midlife crises buy sports cars or hang in their mancaves, I obsess over discographies and release dates.  Go figure.

Anyway, I’ve realized that while I do like to surround myself with a lot of tunage, I really have to dial it back.  Not the listening part of it, no — just the buying.  I came to this realization when I started going through my purchases over the last five or six years just to give them a listen, and noticed that a sizeable amount of these albums didn’t stick with me.  They were good albums and I liked them at the time…but five years on, I don’t remember this or that album at all.  Which is fine if I was still a cd purchaser, but you can’t sell mp3s back to Amoeba, can you?  I’m stuck with these puppies.

So…maybe I should figure out a way to dial that back.

As I’m an Amazon Prime member and thus an Amazon Music user, I have my own perfect streaming service.  (Many of you know that I’m not an avid user of services like Spotify…I have weird and quite varying tastes and I break algorithms easily.)  I can use it to listen to albums multiple times to see if it sticks with me before I buy it.  Which is what I’ve been doing the last few weeks.  I’ll give the albums at least three or four listens before I decide to buy it now.  I’ve successfully weeded out a few titles like that already, so this will save considerable money (and hard drive space) for me.

I’m quite curious to see how this will affect my overall purchasing over the year!