More on Revisiting the 90s

I can easily divide up the 90s on a musical and personal note: the college/post-college years (Jan 1990 – Sept 1996) and the HMV years (Sept 1996 – Sept 2000). And I often do, because I approached my listening habits according to how much money (or more accurately, how little) I had in my coffers at the time. The former was filled with mix tapes of things recorded off the radio, dollar bin raids at the various used record shops I frequented, dubs from friends, and the occasional splurge when I really should have been paying a bill. [I’ll totally own up to that. But they were of course few and far between.] The latter was filled with meticulously crafted mix tapes of things bought at a discount from my store, freebies, even more dollar bin raids, and, erm, maybe a few dubs surreptitiously made in the back room of the store? The music of the post-HMV years, aka the Yankee Candle years, would be informed almost entirely by Newbury Comics. I’m pretty sure I singlehandedly kept them in business then. But that’s another post.

Personally, I would say the personal delineation is around the same time, and surprising no one, was informed by financial reasons; I was finally able to pay off overdue bills and stop deferring my student loans. I would also posit that it was also the time I got my shit together and started my writing career on a much more serious level. Whatever worked to dislodge myself from the spiral I’d found myself in. And once I found myself in a better mental and emotional state, there was no looking back.

I couldn’t listen to those early 90s years without feeling a sense of failure. I could have been such a better student. I could have applied myself better. I could have done this, I could have done that. Giving into my moodiness and lack of self-esteem far too often. So it’s with no surprise that I avoided obsessing over that era here at Walk in Silence for quite a number of years. The HMV years were much more positive, not to mention directly tied in with my Belfry years writing The Phoenix Effect and the Bridgetown Trilogy.

So why now? Why am I picking up these pieces? Well, it’s been three decades on, and I’m in a much better place. It’s time for a bit of closure on a lot of things related to that time. Make peace with what I couldn’t achieve, and celebrate everything else I’ve done since. I’m listening to these albums and singles the way I’d wanted to in the first place: without all the extra baggage. Experience them as the creative endeavors they are, and if I’m lucky, learn to appreciate them a hell of a lot more.

Updating the mp3 players

I’m ridiculously picky when it comes to updating my mp3 players. I currently have three, which I’ve acqured over the years: a Creative Zen Mozaic, an older SanDisk Sansa Clip, and a newer SanDisk Sport Plus. Do I use all three? Yes, of course I do! Normally I tend to have them filled up with specific themes or sounds; the Zen is usually reserved for new and recent releases plus the Beatles discography (because come on…do you know me?) while the Sansa Clip has older favorites.

Now that I work in an office again (grumble grumble), I’ve been putting all three to good use throughout the day. I don’t have direct access to my music library unless I use up a significant amount of phone data via our Plex server, so I make do with the old-school travel-sized players.

Lately I’ve been playing around with a new possible writing project (no promises yet) in which I sort of decided its soundtrack would be the music of the early 90s up to the early 00s. Why? Good question, but I won’t go into detail just yet. Suffice it to say, I’m going to start listening to these albums for first time without equating them to the Bridgetown Trilogy. I’m not doing it on purpose, it just happened that way. But in the process, I’m getting to revisit these songs with fresh ears and no prior influence.

But more importantly, I get to revisit these songs without the emotional attachment I’ve long had with most of them. I’ve written so many blog posts about those lean post-college years, and about the music I listened to during that time, but this time out I’m finally giving them a spin without getting caught up in all the personal drama. I’m listening to them in the context of what was going on in the world during the time of their release. [I suppose in a way you could say I’m purposely not making it all about me this time. Heh.]

Also, it’s kind of fun to revisit some of these songs and albums that I know pretty well but haven’t visited in ages. In particular, I’ve been making it a point to revisit some of the mainstream pop albums I enjoyed — the downside to being so into alt-rock is a habitual avoidance of all things pop — and getting something new out of them. It’s to the point that I’ve been tempted to do another visit to Amoeba Records’ dollar bin to find more of those albums that passed me by.

And who knows — maybe I’ll rediscover a few tracks that flew under my radar!

Mobile Music Alternatives

I’m still a bit annoyed that I can’t seem to get my mp3 players (or my phone for that matter) to play any music through the car. Apparently our car stereo is so low tech that it doesn’t even have a line-in audio selection on the interface. It does have a few USB ports, but no UI that will let me access whatever I connect to it. [It of course has Bluetooth and iThingie interfaces, neither of which I need.] All I want is to listen to something aside from the same stations playing the same dang things over and over! Why is that so hard? Eesh.

Anyway, this reminds me of those days long ago when I used to bring my boombox along when I went on a roadtrip with my friends, or when I had that unwieldy and not-always-working connector to my cd walkman (which would eat up AA battery power at the rate of maybe two cd plays and skip at the slightest jolt). I don’t think it’s currently possible to upgrade our car stereo, so there’s not a lot I can do except figure out an alternative or see if I can find a lifehack online somewhere. Right now I’m contemplating keeping a small Bluetooth-ready speaker in the car, which I’d originally bought for my PC, and plug in my mp3 player that way. At least I can charge that thing rather than go through all those batteries.

I find this quite amusing, actually, as it almost feels like I’ve gone full circle: if I really want to listen to my own music, I’m going to have to carry it on me and have something to play it on, or in this case, through.

I saw the decade in…

[A little something from my daily words that I wrote the other day…]

I’ve been listening to more music from 1990-1992 again, because why not? I’m still a bit fascinated by this era, where the sounds have grown larger than (and out of?) the college rock scene, but before the giant wave of Britpop and grunge. The music is lighter, less moody, even kind of positive in a way. It’s sort of like the early Beatles, or the early hippie scene, where it’s working from its surface, or perhaps from a more honest core, before the moods and the darker drugs and the hyped-up scenes came in.

I was on the back end of my freshman year at Emerson and just starting sophomore year, torn between the escape of my small town and being tied to it. It’s the era of the happier times and looking optimistically into the future. The end of the Cold War and the start of the Middle East wars — the first war televised In Real Time that Generation X could watch, bringing a lingering horror that we could possibly be dragged kicking and screaming into it whether we wanted it or not. We had Bush I in office which was essentially Reagan II, more of the same conservative bullshit. But we knew better…we could go further.

We were fighting with our blood and our emotions to break out of the old bigotries and passive ignorance. But it was also the era of great creativity: the new independent movie directors. It was an era of our generation deciding we were sick of the exhausted tropes and music-by-numbers and took a page from what we knew: our own takes on REM and The B-52s and French New Wave and so on. We were nerdy artists and we were having fun riffing on our own creations, knowing full well that we could now get away with it. In short: we were coming of age and we realized we’d had voices of our own. We were irreverent. We were saying fuck the world, let’s do it ourselves if they won’t help us. We were a generation that was seen as an amusing sideline

Out of the mire of my freshman year (and that frustratingly slow last summer working for the town barn) came a much healthier and more positive outlook. I’d grown past my attempts to fit in with the alternahipsters (I was just too square for them, I guess?) and relearned how to gravitate towards the people who would become close, if temporary, friends. There was a positive vibe coming across, despite the situations we often found ourselves in. I wrote some of my best songs to date, created Murph, worked on multiple screenplays for classes. And I listened to even more music than before, because I had so much more access to it: I had WFNX and WBCN and all the college stations (including my own) and I had all the record stores I could shop at.

It was a strange time, as I was indeed seeing the decade when it seemed the world could change in the blink of an eye. And it often did, slipping into so many different subspaces and subgenres before we could even notice it happening. I stayed within this positivity because it was so much needed at the time. I let myself open up to a lot more people. I started opening up my mind a bit, let myself experiment with different ideas and thoughts because I could trust myself now. What I started thinking about, feeling, doing at that point in time, that was when I first let myself go further. Let myself find out who I might be underneath all of this, without all the barriers and without having to put everyone else’s needs before mine.

That was when I chose to stay in the city the coming summer. I knew that going back would have been going in the wrong direction. I had to go forward, live a different life. I was poor as fuck and I spent most of the summer eating bad foods and barely scraping by, but I was bound and determined to break out of my old shell. I’d crash and burn (and spectacularly at that) just a few years later, but it at least gave me a direction when I could start over again.

Listening to Alt-pop stations

Another downside to having to commute again is that I’m stuck listening to local terrestrial radio stations in the car. Now, before you get all het up about that statement, let me explain: I’m all for local terrestrial stations! They’re good for the community, they keep me updated on when the highway I’m currently driving on might be all sorts of borked a few miles up the road; they do in fact keep me entertained on an otherwise uneventful and sort of boring drive* in their own way. In fact, I just recently found a Bollywood-themed station out of San Jose!

[* – The one non-boring bit of the commute I will never tire of is coming across the western span of the Bay Bridge and back into San Francisco just as the sun is setting. It’s a glorious view and I still have moments where I’m amazed I live in such a ridiculously photogenic city.]

No, the issue I have is the commerciality of most of these stations. Sure, I totally understand that these stations need advertising and numbers and set rotations to keep them going nowadays, as freeform radio is pretty much relegated to college and non-profit stations. But what has always made me tire of these stations is that the playlist can be so…predicatable. When you listen to the radio as much as I do, the playlist patterns start getting more and more obvious. I’ve worked at both college and commercial stations so I know what rotations are and why they’re a thing… I guess I just tire of them a lot quicker than other people do.

There’s only so many times I can hear classic mainstays like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” or Green Day’s “Longview” in a week (at least four to six) or new songs like Tones & I’s “Dance Monkey” (same, if not more, and the song kind of similar to Crazy Frog’s “Axel F” in that I find it quite annoying and yet somehow ridiculously popular). There’s certain songs that are like playing bingo: the day isn’t complete without hearing That Particular Classic Track.

I mean, I hate to sound like an old and aging hipster yelling at clouds here, but sometimes these “alternative” stations feel more like… “alternapop” stations, playing it safe with the same bands that feel more pop than alternative. They aren’t nearly as adventurous as they make themselves out to be. This is especially notable when I’m listening to a non-profit station like KEXP, which is far more adventurous in its playlist…and inclusive. It occurred to me recently that our local alternative station rarely plays bands of color (at least that I know of), and rarely any women aside from “Dance Monkey”, Billie Eilish, Shaed’s “Trampoline” and Meg Myers’ cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”. Maybe a Lana Del Rey track now and again, but it’s almost all men. That tells me it’s almost all about the numbers, and the numbers state that the listeners are mostly the “males 18 – 44” group. Everyone else gets the short shrift, even if that station is one of the very few in the area that plays the style and genre they like the most.

I’ll make do, but it’s really uninspiring after a while and I find myself spending most of my commute hitting the surf button for something different. I’m this close to giving up on these stations and ordering a headphone-to-USB cable so I can listen to my mp3 players in the car.

Thankfully, most of the terrestrial stations I do listen to, ones that appeal to my tastes and don’t bore me, also stream online where I can listen to them on my phone. Kind of tricky to do when your traveling, though.

2020 New Releases So Far

Hey there! It’s been far too long since I’ve posted one of these, and I’m trying to be good and keep up this time out. There promises to be some interesting new albums coming out this year, some from new bands and some from old favorites. And now that I’m able to listen to my favorite station at work via a phone app, I’m going to try to stay on top of this again!

Here’s a few new releases worth checking out:

Stabbing Westward, Dead and Gone EP, released 3 January. Well, this was unexpected! I had no idea they’d gotten back together (their last record was their self-titled fourth album waaaaay back in 2001), but their new record is a banger. They’re still loud and noisy as hell, and that’s just how I like them.

Field Music, Making a New World, released 10 January. On the other end of the spectrum we have a band steeped in that quirky angular sound that feels and sounds very much like Eno, Belew and Byrne. A bit odd but still catchy.

Beach Slang, The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City, released 10 January. Not as frenetic as their previous albums, they seem to have embraced that 80s new wave guitar group sound, and they wear it really well. I’m really digging this one a lot.

Deserta, Black Aura My Sun, released 17 January. I know I’ve posted this track earlier, but I just cannot stop listening to it! The entire album is full of that soaring guitar reverb slicing its way through tracks, gorgeous spacey passages and dreamy vocals. This one’s been getting the most play on my mp3 player lately!

Holy Fuck, Deleter, released 17 January. Another band I knew of (due to its, er, distinctive name, of course), but I hadn’t expected them to be so groovy! And bonus points for having Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor on the vocals on this excellent track.

Wire, Mind Hive, released 24 January. I’m intrigued by the last few Wire records, as they feel like hybrids of both old and new sounds. This one in particular sounds a lot like their early 00s Read & Burn / Send output but also is quite similar to the darker melodies of 154 and Chairs Missing, and I love it. Great to see they’re still consistently amazing after all these years.

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More to come!