Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grunge Part II: Nirvana, Nevermind

I started my grunge series back in July, and Thanksgiving is here. What happened? Well, I transferred jobs in August, with seven weeks of training after that, and I am finally settled in. Unfortunately, the new location does not give me the opportunity to stream music at work, so things are still a little slow. Hopefully, I will be back to writing more soon.

Every couple of weeks or so some of the other dads in the neighborhood walked up the street with me to the local "Irish" pub for trivia night. Usually we made a respectable showing, taking 3rd or 4th place. Every once in a while we actually won. Each of us had our specialty: Mike listens to a lot of NPR while commuting, so he is the current events/"on this day in history" guy; Adam grew up and played sports in the area, so he is the local history and sports guy; I'm the random useless information guy with a specialty in music. My team gets angry at me if I miss a music question (which is really unfair considering the dude who runs the game is in his '60s with a focus on music from the '50s). 

All of this leads me to a conversation I had with a man, Andrew, who was sitting at the bar one night. He was waiting for a takeout order and joined our team while he was waiting. There was a music question of some sort and I complained that if they could just ask questions about Nirvana or some '90s alternative, I would be money. Although he claimed to like modern rock, he said he never really liked Nirvana. I stared at him, dumbfounded. He was probably about 25. Just a handful of years younger than I was, and when I was a kid, everyone liked Nirvana. But if you were 5 when Nevermind came out, you missed it.

In fact, at my age, the first Nirvana album I really fell in love with was In Utero. The lead singer of the band Against Me, Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) was quoted as saying "Nevermind is the best Nirvana album, hands down. Anyone who says it's In Utero is lying. They're just trying to look cool." I honestly put In Utero on to listen to much more than Nevermind. It's the first Nirvana album I listened to over and over. It was shocking to me to hear discordant songs like "Scentless Apprentice," "Milk It," and "Tourette's." The lyrics of "Rape Me" alone are worth the price of admission to a teenage kid just discovering grunge. 

A few years ago I put In Utero on in my shared office at work. After a few songs a guy at another desk looked over at me and asked "What the hell is this?" He was about 7 years older than me. Big into classic rock, big into arena rock, missed the grunge boat. And there you have it. The bookends on enjoying Nirvana.

Artist: Nirvana
Album: Nevermind
Recording #10ish

Nevermind was one of the first CDs I ever bought. Although I liked In Utero more, I actually thought I had to own Nevermind first because of all the radio hits. But I think that's another reason that I tend to pull up In Utero more often; a lot of those Nevermind songs have been driven into the ground. Still, the opening bass line riff of "Come As You Are," the classic reframing of the chords of Boston's "More Than a Feeling" to make one of the all time great riffs in "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the darkness of "Polly" still inform rock today. And if you get into some of those songs that didn't get much airplay, like "Lounge Act," there is still a lot to discover in this album. 

Maybe, though, this album is new to you. I wonder how it would sound to fresh ears, and if it will sound as dated as Mother Love Bone sounded to me. I can imagine "Teen Spirit" hitting the charts again today, because it still sounds fresh to my ears, but if you didn't catch it the first time around, maybe it's indistinguishable from all the rest of the '90s alt-rock. I'd love to hear what you think about this album and this band. Throw in your 2 cents in the comments section below or on Twitter or Facebook.

Read Tom Moon's entry here.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Hungarian King of the Road

My Grandpa Roger died two weeks ago.

I've only had two jobs in my life: the one I currently hold and working on Grandpa's "farm." In the summers I would weed, mow, plant, re-weed (I'm not a detail-oriented guy), and in my last two summers at home I helped him with beekeeping. Grandpa sat with my dad at nearly every football game I ever played in. If I looked up in the stands, he and my dad stood in the back row next to the other blue-collar guys who favored the high vantage point, and honestly couldn't be trusted to behave themselves closer to the field. Grandpa once showed up by himself to watch me play baseball in the snow. I struck out to end the game (my teammates thanked me as we were being crushed mercilessly and freezing) and he patted me on the back and probably grunted.

To say he was rough around the edges is an understatement. He was the first adult I ever heard use the "F-word" (notably, about how I directed his truck into the planter we had just built: "Well, that was a **** up"). He once told me I had a good career ahead of me as a fireman (who, in Cleveland, work 24 hours then have 48 off): "You work for 10 minutes and then take a 20 minute break." He was a boxer when he was younger, and until he had hip surgery in his late 60s I wouldn't have wanted to face off with him in a fight (after the surgery I figured I had a chance to knock him off balance). When he hammered a nail he hit it once.

But I feel the following list of words are also understatements when describing him: Tough; I used to sting his back with bees a couple times a week because the arthritis in his hips was so bad. At first it was once a week, eventually more, and up to 4 or 5 bees at a time.The guy didn't flinch, even the time I accidentally dropped one down his pants. Smart; he invented a bunch of stuff. Some of his ideas and products were stolen by a shady business partner, some he used just around his house. A solar powered wax-melter was the one I remember the most clearly. Creative; he made Chief Wahoo windmills, taught himself small engine repair, and made beeswax candles. Mischievous; if he opened his mouth to talk he was probably messing with you. The last time I saw him was in the hospital, pretty hopped up on pain meds. When the nurse came in to take his vitals, Grandpa confused the hell out of him for five minutes because his humor is so dry. I'm not sure my wife ever had a conversation with him where she was sure if he was kidding or serious.

In some ways it felt that I was the least close to him of all my grandparents. He was not a very talkative guy. I can't imagine the onomatopoeia required to relate much of his language- grunting really is the best description, but different sounds meant different things. In truth, he was my closest relative outside of my nuclear family. I spent countless hours at his house; as a kid I would spend at least one weekend a year sleeping over, watching a movie or the Indians, working the land (an exaggeration in many ways, but that's how it felt) and making a cool 20 bucks. In high school I think I got $120 a week in the summer for three 8-hour days. When the church bells rang at noon lunch was provided. We would sit in the majesty of his air-conditioned house, first sitting together at the breakfast bar and eating ham salad sandwiches and pickles, then moving to the living room, he in his recliner, me on the couch. We'd watch the local 12 o'clock newscast silently, and when the hour was up, he'd get up wordlessly and I would follow.

If it rained I would "Rain-X" his car, or vacuum the garage... I honestly can't remember much else about rainy days, except that he would sit in the other recliner, in the garage, and I would do busy work and listen to his radio. WTAM 1100 was playing all day in the garage, first Paul Harvey, rolling into Rush Limbaugh, finishing with Mike Trivisonno talking sports. He never played music during the day while we worked. The most musical moment I can recall is that when I rode with him in the Caddy in the evening he might have played some country.

At the wake, my aunt made a slide show. I must have watched parts of it 20 times as it played throughout the day and at least 5 times all the way through. The pictures from before my birth were fascinating to me, and there were plenty from my childhood that brought back amazing memories. Roger Miller's "King of the Road" was the first song featured as background music. About the 15th time I was catching part of the video someone asked my aunt if he liked that song. I was surprised to hear her say it was one of his favorites. I had no idea that he had favorites. The last two times I saw him I planned on asking what music he liked and then chickened out: it just seemed like such an awkward question. I cornered my aunt and started asking about Grandpa's musical tastes. "Oh yeah," she said, "he would put on his little Bose real loud and sit in his chair." I had seen the Bose, but I'm not sure I ever saw it turned on. What did he listen to? "Frank Sinatra, Roger Miller, Glenn Miller... he was into that big band stuff and the Rat Pack. A lot of times he would play classical in the evenings. Oh yeah, he was really into his music."

I think the blood probably ran from my face right there, because when my wife told me to call him and ask, that I would regret it if I didn't, I really, truly, honestly did not think there was a chance in hell that I would regret it. He didn't listen to music, so what I would regret would be an awkward last conversation where I blabbed at him about music. I regret it. Maybe it would have been awkward: so many of my interactions with him were (always messing with people) but maybe I missed a golden opportunity to talk with a man, a provider of a quarter of my genetic code, who was as connected to music as I am. My mom has since confirmed that "Yes, he listened to music a lot." In the grand scheme of regrets, I can think of worse; I saw him many times in his last year even though I live out of town, spent so many of my formative years watching his example. I can't get too hung up on one missed opportunity. But I'm skipping around in the book now, and I'm branching well outside the list to hear the music my Grandpa considered his favorites.

Out of all the artists listed below I could have named one song at most from each (I recognize many after further listening, though). I'm glad that I at least am able to hear these songs and honor him in that way. He was a hell of a guy and I feel blessed to have had so much time with him.

1000 Recordings Entries
Frank Sinatra - Songs for Swingin' Lovers
Frank Sinatra - Sings Only for the Lonely
Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim - S/T
Sammy Davis, Jr. - I Gotta Right to Swing
Nat King Cole and His Trio - The Complete After Midnight Sessions

Just Grandpa's List
Roger Miller
Dean Martin
Lou Rawls
Kenny Rogers
Vic Dana
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
Tom Jones
Englebert Humperdinck

Friday, July 13, 2012

Grunge Part I: Mother Love Bone, Apple

Grungy Graph

Tom Moon's 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die has a lot of music I enjoyed long before I read about it in his book. Most of it is stuff I heard my dad listening to when I was a kid: classic rock like Zeppelin and Creedence; some is from the late '90s/early 2000s and would fall under "indie," representing the end of high school and college, when I was discovering lots of new music. 

The time when music meant the most to me, though, and I think a time when it means the most to many people, was during my preteen and teen years, in the mid-'90s. As an angsty, suburban teenager I shunned the East Coast/West Coast battle happening in rap, gagged when I saw bumper stickers for 99.5, Cleveland's country station, and latched solidly to "alternative." By the time I was buying my own CDs and changing the dial on the radio to hear what I wanted to hear (moving from the "Golden Oldies" station to "107.9 The End"), the first wave of grunge had long since washed over the country. Kurt Cobain committed suicide just as I was discovering his music: while some kids were wearing commemorative t-shirts to school and crying over the loss, I was just trying to figure out who the guy was. I was rocking out to Filter, Bush,  and Rage Against the Machine and while I also listened to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I was completely oblivious to the fact that they were the pioneers of the music I loved (alternative, not grunge per se).

As I mentioned in my interview with Mark Yarm, author of the amazing oral history of grunge, Everybody Loves Our Town, I was still oblivious to the bands that came before Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Mother Love Bone was a band whose name was vaguely familiar, but who I had never heard anything by. When I read Yarm's book I hadn't yet gotten to the "M's" in Moon's book, so I flipped ahead and pulled up Apple. I was more than surprised by what I heard... and not really in a good way.

Artist: Mother Love Bone
Album: Apple
Recording #518

This was the band that was supposed to break Seattle into the consciousness of the rest of America? What does this have to do with grunge? Mother Love Bone, to my ears, shares more with Guns N Roses than Pearl Jam. Of course, to the ears of a guy I work with who is about five years older than me, "That's totally Jeff [Ament] and Stone [Gossard]," who eventually went on to form Pearl Jam. So I pulled it up again.

Yes, lead singer Andrew Wood has a hair metal/glam rock style that I wasn't expecting, but the riffs backing him up are the prototype of the type of arena rock Pearl Jam would perfect. And Wood is nothing if not entertaining (again, get Yarm's book to learn about Wood's interesting, and unfortunately tragic, life). The song "Holy Roller" is an example of how good Wood could be in his frontman role, and an example of how different from "typical" grunge they sound. "Stardog Champion" and "Bone China" could almost be PJ songs, though: they would need new lyrics, less reverb on the drums and, obviously, Eddie Vedder mumbling, but there is something familiar in there. 

By the second time through the album, I got past my own expectations and enjoyed the album for what it is. Although it sounds dated to me (as Nirvana does to Foo Fighter fans- I'm not making that up, look in the comments section of any FF or Nirvana video on YouTube) it's a better listen than most anything else from the time period. If you're a alt-rock or '80s rock fan who hasn't heard this, give it a shot. This album bridges a gap between those two periods.

Read Moon's entry here.

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Friday, July 6, 2012

Interview: Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town

I start movies I never finish watching. I pick up a book and read half of it before I give up. But I am a black hole for music: I am all consuming. I am insatiable. When I picked up 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die my intent was to discover MORE. And thank God I keep notes, because I've heard so much new, amazing music I can't keep track of it all.

The first thing I did when I bought the book was to figure out how many of the recordings I had already heard: I happily added checkmarks next to Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Soundgarden's Superunknown, Alice in Chains' Dirt. Tom Moon didn't have to tell me these were essential recordings because those bands made up the core of my music collection in my formative years. Grunge: check. Or so I thought.

When I picked up Mark Yarm's Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge, which Time Magazine named one of its best books of 2011, I first noticed how long it was. I'm an incredibly slow reader, one step up from moving my lips while I read, and I thought it would take me forever to finish. But the book, filled with quotes from players in Seattle's grunge explosion; musicians, producers, friends, managers and more; was compelling in its portrait of a scene I thought I knew something about. The arrangement of the quotes, many contradicting each other in enlightening and humorous ways, pushes the reader forward as if reading a thriller. It was easily the best book I read in 2011, and the best non-fiction book I've had the pleasure of reading since Moon's.

I expected to read about the bands I mentioned above, and maybe the Melvins, who I had heard of in that Kurt Cobain considered them influential, but I was stunned by the number of other important bands I had never even heard of. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Grunge is the foundation of my musical education, and Yarm showed me there was so much more to that world than I knew about.

Mr. Yarm recently took the time to chat with me about his book, grunge, and music in general. His interview kicks off a six part series I'm writing on the Seattle area grunge bands included in the 1000 Recordings (Mother Love Bone's Apple, Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Alice in Chains' Dirt, Soundgarden's Superunknown, and Screaming Trees' Dust).

What do you think about the six albums that are included? Do you think those are the six you would have included?

I don’t know if those are the six I would include. I mean, I agree with some. Obviously you can't, I think, be a contemporary music fan without having heard Nevermind, and I think by the same extension Pearl Jam's Ten. Those were kind of the twin pillars of the grunge explosion, so I think that those two are necessary.  

You know, Soundgarden, Superunknown was the album that made them into a pop band. Actually, reading the description [Moon] wrote for the 1000 Recordings, he didn’t even mention "Black Hole Sun," which was their mega hit, which made them transcend grunge. It's this Beatle-esque pop song, so they became sort of a pop group at that point in some ways. For my money, I think Badmotorfinger, which came out around the same time as Nevermind and was kind of eclipsed by Nevermind in many ways, is to me the height of Soundgarden. A song like "Jesus Christ Pose" which is just insane; I think their best song from beginning to end. I mean, I can see Superunknown being on the list.

I do agree with Alice in Chains' Dirt. That’s just a brutal, brutal album and really captures a lot about their mental state and the drug scene and kind of the metal element that Alice in Chains brought to grunge. That's just a great album. I was never a huge Alice in Chains fan. When I started writing this book I really did start getting into them.

Screaming Trees; Dust is a good album. I would probably pick Sweet Oblivion, which was [its] predecessor, which was more, I'd say, the grunge era.

Mother Love Bone: there were a bunch of other bands... there should be Mudhoney on this list if anything if it's a grunge list. Mudhoney or Green River. Mudhoney Superfuzz Bigmuff and early singles and that need to be on a list of essential grunge recordings or just essential indie or punk rock recordings. Of all the albums that could be classified as grunge, I think the one I've listened to the most over the last three to four years during the process of writing this book, and even after, is Superfuzz Bigmuff. And you know, that says a lot because after writing about grunge sometimes that is the last thing you want to listen to.

[Nirvana's] Bleach is another album that I think should be on the list. Obviously they're probably only going to include one Nirvana album. Bleach turned 23 today and that still holds up very well. Songs like "Negative Creep" or even "About a Girl," which was the signal that this is a band that had a Beatle-esque side to it as well. I think Bleach should be on there.

Bands like Mudhoney and Tad, and even Green River and Mother Love Bone, I had never really been introduced to before. Was part of your idea to open up that scene beyond just Ten and Nevermind and Dirt?

Yeah, I mean the idea was always there were the big four grunge bands; you've got Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. And the scene was so much broader than that and so, also, incestuous. As you're reading the book you realize that [all these bands] grew up together, knew each other, played together, toured together, did drugs together, whatever. There were so many links between these bands and it's a real disservice to limit it to four or five of them.

If you look on the bookshelves there's been so many books written about Nirvana, so it was never my goal to write a Nirvana book, but obviously you can't tell this story without Nirvana. So in some ways I was kind of more psyched to get the U-Men: they're considered a proto-grunge, but the book opens up with a scene of them lighting the moat on fire at the Mural Ampitheater in Seattle. I talked to all eight members of the U-Men, which for most people will probably not really register. But I thought it was quite an accomplishment to have hunted everyone down and gotten their take on this band that not many people know too much about but were extremely influential on most everyone in that scene who saw them in the '80s.

So yeah, it was important to me to not only get the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams but the U-Men, the Tads and the Malfunkshuns and any number of smaller bands.

I've heard it described that this was a scene that was one of a kind and probably won't happen again. If you could choose another genre or scene to write about, not necessarily considering whether it would sell or not what would you most enjoy writing about?

To the first part of your question, Seattle is so geographically isolated; that first success in the '80s, it was something that [the Seattle bands] could only dream of if they even gave it a thought. [Playing] was more for fun. Seattle was way out there in the corner of the country and so some touring bands would skip it, so people would have to make their own fun. Plus they had a lot of time to hone their sound and it was such a small scene they also all very much influenced each other and sort of cross pollinated .

Today a band puts out their mp3 on the internet, and maybe they've had a couple of practices, and they can have their music heard all over the world if theyre lucky, without any time to get really get their chops or to establish a real identity and sound and hone that. So I don't really foresee another Seattle happening. I mean, I could be proven wrong but it seems that the internet and the availability of music has sort of blurred those geographic lines to many degrees.

As far as another [genre], I think hair metal would be fun to write about, but there's been plenty done on that. The Dirt, the Mötley Crüe book, if people haven't read that, after they read my book they should definitely read The Dirt, because that's just like totally depraved, Sunset Strip stuff and it's really great. But I do find it fascinating. We just had [the] Rock of Ages movie come out so theres always this fascination with that scene and it certainly was debauched and full of interesting players.

Severely underrepresented on the list I believe. 

I bet. Also, that music never really gained any critical acceptance. I interviewed Bret Michaels for the book, from Poison, and he's an articulate guy, he knows whats going on, and his argument was "It's all rock and roll." He took Alice in Chains out on tour early on. He recognized something in them. He liked Nirvana.

That is kind of like a myth, that somehow grunge killed hair metal when in fact hair metal was already a genre on decline at that point. It was kind of doing itself in already, so there was just a vacuum [where] we were ready for new stuff. And obviously there were hair metal bands like Poison and Bon Jovi and Def Leppard that survived. I think a lot of the smaller bands really suffered with that tide shift.

What would you include on a list of 1000 recordings someone should hear before you die? 

Other than grunge? The first album that came to mind is My Bloody Valentine, Loveless. Certainly some R.E.M. albums. I'm a big fan of the Afghan Whigs; I just saw them on their reunion tour here. I'd probably pick Gentlemen, in that regard. Against Me, New Wave, is one of my favorite albums. There are a lot of them. This could take all day. Some Replacements albums. A couple of the grunge albums I mentioned earlier. Sigur Rós albums. Galaxie 500 albums. A lot of stuff. A lot of stuff.

As we were chatting at the end of the interview Mark said something that really sums up how I feel about his book and why I think it shares a kindred spirit with Moon's: 

I get a lot of messages from people [after they read the book] that say "I haven't listened to Pearl Jam in 20 years, but here I am listening to them." Or "This introduced me to bands I've never heard," just like you’re saying, that are definitely worthwhile hearing. I was always hoping the book would have that effect on people; that people would say "This is a band I didn't know anything about or maybe thought I didn't like or wouldn't like, but you know they have an interesting backstory and let me give them a chance." Especially now when you can just click on Spotify and listen to them or find their music pretty easily online or take out your old CDs and listen to them. There's so many side projects and one offs and singles, so you can certainly keep busy after reading this book.

There's certainly a lot to listen to and I'm glad that people are going beyond Nevermind or Ten or some of the standard bearers and looking for Melvins albums or Mudhoney albums or Tad albums or 7 Year Bitch albums or any of the various lesser known groups that are in the book.

Hear more from Mark Yarm at his Twitter feed, Tumblr, and Facebook page where he keeps up a steady stream of news and information about all things grunge. And I highly recommend picking up his book.

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  • Wednesday, June 13, 2012

    COVER: Iggy Pop and Ginger Baker Rock the Black Keys

    1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die artists Iggy Pop and Ginger Baker, the drummer for Blind Faith and Cream, recently turned the tables by covering a much younger band, The Black Keys. The track, "Lonely Boy," is off the Keys' 2011 El Camino and is for a tribute album to the band called Black on Blues, due out in July. The song isn't revelatory, but it does rock, and it features Pop's famous whining. The album also contains a track featuring Dave Davies of 1KRBYD artist The Kinks, as well as some other famous and not-so-famous (outside of the blues) acts. Watch the video below, grab the track at Cover Me, then preorder the album.

    Stream Iggy Pop's 1000 Recordings entry here.
    Stream Cream's entry here and Blind Faith here.

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    Wednesday, June 6, 2012

    Kind of Blue: Revolutionary or Comfortable?

    Courtesy of
    My seventh wedding anniversary was on Monday. We cooked quinoa and corn, had a glass of Moscato, and watched The Office. My wife was in bed by 9:30. Lame, you say? Nah, it was just fine. Easy, comfortable, and familiar. I'll get back to that, later. Let's talk about jazz.

    Jazz seems so hard to understand. Okay, lots of it is pleasant to listen to (although lots of it isn't), but what's the difference between great jazz and mediocre jazz? To someone just getting started in the world of jazz, there doesn't seem to be much. After hearing dozens of jazz recordings since starting this project, from free to bebop to New Orleans, my ears have started to pick up on the workings of a jazz song (with some thanks to the 1000 Recordings Podcast guys who walk listeners through some of the jazz recordings). Also, based on the recommendation of the 1000 Recordings Podcast I've started watching Ken Burns' Jazz on Netflix. I'm only on the first episode, but I can already tell that the story of jazz is interesting and important, even if I don't understand it, yet.

    All of this brings me to what is widely considered the most influential piece of jazz (and, some would say, music) of the 20th Century, the highest selling jazz recording of all time, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.

    Artist: Miles Davis
    Album: Kind of Blue
    Recording #220ish
    Stream here or here

    Revolutionary, the critics say. Influential to the nth degree. Featuring Coltrane, Bill Evans, "Cannonball" Adderly (all featured elsewhere on the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die), this album will melt your brain, evidently.

    Dinner music is what I call it.

    I first arrived at this thought a few months back when my best friend, John, visited from New York. He moved there to go to culinary school, and instead got involved with a startup sandwich shop where he frequently invents sandwiches for their menu and runs one of the stores. When I lived in Texas he came to visit and destroyed my kitchen cooking us a watery coconut tofu dish, burning a piece of tofu to the bottom of my oven so bad that I'm not sure we ever got it off. He offered to cook us dinner on his most recent visit: I was, understandably, wary.

    After a delicious meal of bone marrow, lemon-butter seafood pasta, and brandied pears I finally had to let go of my nearly-decade long grudge for John's previous cooking discrepancies. Letting him cook for us was more fun and easier than trying to take an eighteen-month old out to a nice dinner. Which brings me, again, back to the idea of comfortableness.

    While we cooked and ate, I thought we needed a little mood music. John was a hipster music snob before the word hipster existed, my wife gladly listens to Top 40 radio, and I'm somewhere in between. Kind of Blue was something we could all agree on, which for an album with as many accolades as it has, is impressive. If you want to sit down with a pair of high quality headphones and pick this album apart, you can do that. It's incredible. I say have at it. Write a dissertation on it. But as background dinner music, it can't be beat. Modality is a word I've never written before, but if I understand it correctly, it's what makes this album so damn listenable. The subtle shifts in the songs were mindblowing at some point, but now they've become the premise behind easy listening.

    This weekend I am taking my wife out for our nice anniversary dinner, to a french restaurant, white tablecloths, multiple courses and all that. I think there's a 50/50 chance my son will wake up and we'll have to abandon our high-class plans and return home early to a screaming child and a frazzled babysitter. I'm still looking forward to it, but sometimes easy and comfortable can be so much more than they seem.

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    Friday, June 1, 2012

    1000 Recordings Sampler Episode 3

    If the third installment of the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die sampler has a theme, it might be "rainy day," with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau's "When it Rains," the introspective stylings of Malasian artist Toumani Diabate, Chopin's Nocturnes, and the weepy, epic guitar solo of Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel (according to legend, George Clinton told Hazel to "play like your mother just died"). As before, though, I have tried to highlight a wide swath of genres while picking out tracks I enjoy and hope that you'll enjoy as well!

    Play here on Spotify

    1. Brad Mehldau - "When it Rains" (Jazz/Rock)
    2. Sigur Ros - "Hjartao Hamast" (Indie Rock)
    3. Rory Gallagher - "As the Crow Flies" (Blues/Rock)
    4. Patsy Cline - "Lovesick Blues" (Country)
    5. Toumani Diabate with Ballake Sissoko - "Bi Lambam" (Mali/Strings)
    6. Frederic Chopin - "Nocturne No. 1 in B flat minor, Op.9 No.1" [Maria Joao Pires] (Classical/Piano)
    7. Funkadelic - "Maggot Brain" (Funk/Epic guitar solo)

    If you like the music, buy the tracks on Amazon: Mehldau, Sigur Ros, Gallagher, Cline, Diabate, Chopin, Funkadelic

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    Friday, May 25, 2012

    1000 Recordings Sampler Episode 2

    Here's the second installment of my 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die sampler, where I get to mix in a few of my favorite songs from Tom Moon's list. In the first episode I did a tribute to the recent deaths in the music industry, which meant the playlist was heavy on the pop music. This sample is a bit more scattered: although I grew up on rock and pop, I have been introduced to so much great music through the book that I think it's important to help folks find a place to start (especially if, like me, you are not well-versed in jazz, classical, and world). Here's the playlist for this week, you may know a few of these, but hopefully some will be new:

    Play here on Spotify

    1. Paul Simon - "I Know What I Know" (classic rock/South African)
    2. Tom T. Hall - "Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs" (country)
    3. Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin - "The Inner Mounting Flame" (jazz)
    4. Curtis Mayfield - "Billy Jack" (R & B, soul)
    5. Philip Glass - "Knee 1" (opera/weird)
    6. John Fahey - "Orinda-Moraga" (folk)
    7. King Sunny Ade - "Sunny Ti De" (Nigerian/juju)

    If you like the music, buy the tracks on Amazon: Simon, Hall, Mahavishnu, Mayfield, Glass, Fahey, Ade

    Related posts:

    Monday, May 21, 2012

    1000 Recordings Sampler Episode 1

    1000 albums (give or take a few) is a lot of music to get through. I've been working my way through the book for 3 years and I'm just past halfway - if you're a casual listener, it could be overwhelming. So today I am doing the first of a new installment: the Recording the Recordings Sampler. This is a way for me to feature some entries I enjoy without everyone having to sit through a whole album. If you don't like a track, you can skip to the next one; if you do enjoy it, you can pull up the full album on Spotify.

    In the past month we've lost an astonishing amount of world-class musicians, many who are household names. This week's playlist is a tribute to those we lost. Stream the playlist here.

    1. Isaac Hayes - "Theme from Shaft"
    Charles Pitts, 65, guitarist for Hayes. The intro with the "wah" is played by Pitts on this track

    2. Chuck Brown - "Midnight Sun"
    Chuck Brown, 75, the "Godfather of Go-Go." If you want to hear more about Brown, the 1000 Recordings Podcast guys just reviewed his work last week

    3. The Beastie Boys - "The Sounds of Science"
    Adam Yauch, 47, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys. This is one of my favorite Beasties songs and I never noticed before that MCA says "Yeah, that's right, my name's Yauch."

    4. Booker T. & the M.G.'s - "Melting Pot"
    Donald "Duck" Dunn, 70, bassist for Booker T, and a member of the Blues Brothers.

    5. The Band - "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
    Levon Helm, 71, drummer/singer for the Band, who also put out two great comeback albums after temporarily losing the ability to sing due to throat cancer.

    6. Gram Parsons - "She"
    Chris Ethridge, 65, bassist, co-wrote the above track with Gram Parsons

    7. Donna Summer - "I Feel Love"
    Donna Summer, 63, known for her disco-era hits, this is the only track that made it into the 1000 Recordings.

    8. Bee Gees - "You Should be Dancing"
    After I wrote this last night Robin Gibb, founder of the Bee Gees, died of cancer at age 62. It's been a rough month for music.

    If you like the music, buy the tracks on Amazon: Shaft, Brown, Beastie Boys, Booker T, the Band, GP, Summer, Bee Gees

    Related Posts

    Tuesday, May 15, 2012

    COVER: Sonos Do A Capella Version of Jackson 5's "I Want You Back"

    Caffeinated. Boppy. Groovy. Uplifting. All words to describe what has to be the best song ever to feature an 11-year old lead singer (no offense to Willow Smith), "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5. Tom Moon saw fit to include this gem on his 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die as a standalone song, praising the pop genius of it.

    Then along comes LA-based a capella sextet Sonos. Gone is the caffeine, bop, uplift, and all that's left is the groove. Chris Harrison's booming bass (electrically produced via an effects pedal) holds down the wicked bassline, and Ben McLain's beatboxing keeps the whole thing moving. I heard this back in '09 because my brother was a childhood friend of Paul Peglar's (who has since left the band to pursue his acting career) Due to the appearance of this song on NPR back in the winter of '09 the group's debut album ended up on iTunes top album sales for a while. The band also appeared on NBC's "The Sing Off" (where they performed this song and actually got some flak from judges Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men and Ben Folds for changing the original too much).

    While I think it rocks, check out their version below and decide for yourself. Refresh yourself on the sound of the original here, and then go buy Sonos' album (featuring covers of 1000 Recordings entries by Bjork ("Joga") and Rufus Wainwright ("Oh What a World")). They are working on a new one featuring their original material.

    Friday, May 4, 2012

    NEWS: Beastie Boys' MCA aka Adam Yauch Dead at 47

    Adam Yauch, better known as MCA, one of the trio of rappers from the recently Rock Hall-inducted Beastie Boys died today. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. He was 47, and as far as I'm concerned they were still at the top of their game. 2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (stream it here) made my top ten list last year, and their seminal Paul's Boutique, included on the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (as well as Rolling Stones' 500 Greatest Albums of All Time) is still an amazing listen. A sad day for music fans. (Thanks to Stu for the head's up)

    Stream Paul's Boutique here.

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    COVER: The Beatles' "If I Fell" Covered All Trippy by Greta Link

    Anyone who knows all about the Beatles seems to think that everyone else knows all about the Beatles. By that I mean that if you are "into music" then folks assume you know every Beatles song ever done. I mentioned before that I hadn't heard the White Album until I started reading the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, and although I had heard a lot of the songs off A Hard Day's Night, watching the movie was something of a revelation for me. Most of the songs off that album have that old, happy sounding Beatles sound you're familiar with if you listened to the "oldies" station as a kid, but then some have this heaviness to them that are surprising. "If I Fell" is one that I remember specifically being amazed by, thinking "I can't believe I've never heard this."

    So when I saw a Cover Me lede for Greta Link's version of the song I jumped at it. I think the song (and Link's video) speak for themselves, so check it out below and then click through to my Cover Me post to download the link (or go buy it for what you think it's worth at Link's Bandcamp page).

    Check out more from Greta at her website.
    Read Moon's entry here.

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012

    The Right Song at the Right Time

    It's been over three weeks since I last posted a feature. In that time I haven't really listened to much music, let alone written about it. Work, family, and everything between have combined so that although there hasn't been any catastrophe I can point to and say it's made my life impossible, I still feel like I have been treading water lately. We've had a lot of issues with the house we are renting (MOLD-- ended up not being the bad kind, although it looked pretty scary), work's been kicking my butt with paper grading and syllabus crafting, my son recently had pneumonia, for the second time, and might now have Lyme disease (although, again, seems to be doing fine). The stress level has been high.

    Like everything, though, the last month has had its ups as well as its downs. A couple weeks ago I went to see party-rocker Andrew W.K. (the link goes to the song where I crowd-surfed for the first time), which was the first show I've gone to since I saw Bon Iver last August. Also, my brother was just here and it was great to talk to him and hang out (and listen to music, of course). And everyday my son surprises me with the stuff he can do: catching bugs, pretending to cook us pizza, learning how to play hide-and-seek.

    What happened over the past week was the music seemed to be exactly what I needed at all times. Sometimes when I am depressed, I want to listen to something depressing: Beck's Sea Change and Elliot Smith's self-titled album are favorites. Other times I want to listen to something to cheer me up; Paul Simon's Graceland is a good example. Madonna's Ray of Light falls into neither camp, so I had to be in the right frame of mind to spin it.

    Artist: Madonna
    Album: Ray of Light
    Recording #538
    Stream album here

    I took over a week to listen to this: I saw it was up next, and I couldn't bring myself to put it on. Finally, one night after dinner, I stepped up and powered through. It wasn't so bad: it sounded exactly as I thought late '90s Madonna would sound. Cheery beats, reedy voice... I'm still a bit surprised at this selection, as I don't see it having more merit than her Immaculate Collection. "Little Star" was a surprisingly good track, and I actually listened to it twice. The thing was, I was in a good mood that night, and slogging through a mediocre pop record wasn't too tough.

    Artist: Madredeus
    Album: O Espirito da Paz
    Recording #539

    The next night I was dragging. I pulled up the next recording on the list, Portuguese group Madredeus. From the soothing opening track, the music was trance-inducing, worthy of a religious experience. The music is closely related to the Portuguese fado, which I discovered earlier in the book and love. The sound is melancholy, but in a way that it wouldn't be out of place in the lounge of a spa. It was just what I needed.

    Artist: Magic Sam
    Album: West Side Soul
    Recording #540
    Stream album here

    Later in the week, again after a rough day, I put on Magic Sam's West Side Soul. I had never heard of this guy. but but by the opening track's guitar solo I felt my clenched jaw relax. The rough blues, reminiscent of George Thorogood, transformed my mindset. The troubles of my day seemed to fade as I sank into the wicked guitar work.

    Artist: The Magnetic Fields
    Album: 69 Love Songs
    Recording #541
    Stream album here

    Finally, I came to the Magnetic Fields. It was a weekend, and I was in a great mood for the first time in a long time, so I was prepared for the three discs of inconsistency that make up 69 Love Songs. The first time I heard the Magnetic Fields was in 2008 while I was in Japan. I had a Paste Magazine sampler with a song on it called "California Girls." I hated it the first time I heard it. I popped the CD in my alarm clock, and as I lay in bed in the morning, slowly waking up, the song grew on me. I didn't particularly like the production, wasn't impressed with the lyrics, and pretty much hated the voice (I'm prejudiced against baritones, I will admit. It took a long time for me to appreciate Cincinnati natives, the National). But the melody became a worm in my brain.

    I'm not sure how to keep any "indie cred" when I say this, but I just am not a fan of 69 Love Songs. As you can see by my infographic above, it seems like every time lead singer Stephin Merritt hits upon a great hook, he fills the song with inane lyrics. "Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old" is a great example. The song is cruising along for the first few verses, and then he throws in the line "There'll be time enough for sex and drugs in heaven/ when our pheromones are turned up to 11." What? What are you talking about, dude? You couldn't find a better way to rhyme with "heaven"? "The Book of Love" is one of his most famous, and the first time I heard it, it was as a cover done by former-Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty. Not knowing it was a cover, in my review of Doughty's album I called the song out as some of the worst lyrics he had ever written. "Fido, Your Leash is Too Long" has a cool jittery, off-kilter beat, and the song is unlistenable due to the lyrics. More often, though, he writes killer lyrics and then covers them with jarringly bad music. "Love is Like Jazz," "The Things We Did and Didn't Do," and "Sweet-Lovin' Man" should be hits, but I can't listen to them more than once.

    When he does get it together, the songs are shockingly good. Out of 69 songs, I loved three: "Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget," and "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" are standouts on the third disc, and "Papa Was a Rodeo" is on the short list for songs I'd love to perform at an open-mic night. The stark and shocking tale shows what Merritt can do at his best, describing a life that sounds all too real and harsh. Was it worth slogging through almost three hours for 10 minutes of great music? Well, on that particular day, yes. But that's the importance of mood when you're listening to music. Sometimes it's just the right combination.

    Read Moon's entries here: Madonna, Madredeus, Magic Sam

    Friday, April 20, 2012

    NEWS: Levon Helm, Drummer for the Band, Dies at 71

    Yesterday, Levon Helm, drummer and co-founder of 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die artists the Band, died yesterday of complications from throat cancer. He sang some of the Band's most famous songs, including "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Weight." I honestly didn't know anything about the Band or Helm until I picked up his 2007 album Dirt Farmer, his first release since 1982, at the library. I was floored: this guy was basically told he would never sing again after his cancer treatment, and here he was just laying it down. My coworker lent me his copy of the DVD The Last Waltz and again I was amazed to see the Band in action. And then finally I heard the book entry, The Band, and I loved it. In conducting my interview with the Beau Brummels' Sal Valentino we discussed Helm's solo work and how much we loved his voice and songwriting (I preferred Dirt Farmer whereas Mr. Valentino was a fan of Electric Dirt).

    I often hear about famous celebrities dying, and I feel unaffected. Yes, I feel for their families, I mourn the loss of their art, but today I feel a pit in my stomach hearing about the loss of Helm. His singing was so down to earth, the songs he sang ringing so true with their hard-luck stories (check out "Growing Trade" from his Electric Dirt), that I feel his loss on a more personal level than I ever have for someone I never knew. Counting Crows' song "Richard Manuel is Dead," about the keyboardist for the Band, sums up the dumbstruck feeling I have now. My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Helm's family, and my thanks to him for all the wonderful music he's left us with.

    Listen to The Band here.
    Buy Dirt Farmer here and The Band here.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    NEWS: 2Pac is Back

    When it rains it pours. I hate going weeks without updating the blog and then doing multiple updates all in a row, but this is just too.... weird/good/really freaking weird to pass up. 1000 Recordings artist Dr. Dre closed out the Coachella music festival on Sunday night, and he evidently had a slew of guest stars (including 1000RTHBYD artist Eminem) but the most surprising was late rapper (and 1KRTHBYD included artist) 2Pac. Folks have been recording with 2Pac for years now since his untimely death in 1996 (a fact Dave Chapelle and 1KRTHBYD artist ?uestlove riff on here and that I wrote about on this Pink Floyd cover), but this has to be the first time he showed up in 3D for a gig. In fact, is this the first time anyone has come back from the grave as a hologram? Is this awesome, creepy, or just sad? You have to tell me, because I can't make heads or tails of this. It's certainly groundbreaking. Watch "2Pac" do his thing in the video below.

    Listen to 2Pac's All Eyez on Me here.
    Listen to Dr. Dre's The Chronic here (an album that helped launch Snoop Dogg's career). 

    Monday, April 16, 2012

    COVER: Counting Crows Rock Out on Gram Parsons

    I am actually still alive, despite my two week absence from the blog. I'll cover some of the reasons for the delay in my next feature post, which I am working on, but in the interim, I wanted to drop a cover on here and mention that my "Stream Recordings" list just hit 500 albums linked (halfway for all you non-math types).

    Counting Crows (my favorite band) released a new album of covers this week. Part of me was disappointed that it was a covers album because they hadn't released a studio album since 2008, but I still couldn't help but be excited. Lead singer Adam Duritz and his band sure know how to do a great cover. Based on their tracklist and the songs they have been playing live forever, the band loves to listen to music. In fact, in the liner notes, Duritz says "As much as I love our band, and I DO love our band, we were just one of a thousand bands, in one city among a thousand cities, and a lot of those bands were great or amazing in one way or another... I've never stopped being a fan." Really, one of their best skills is song selection, and they picked one of the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die on the tracklist for this one.

    "Return of the Grievous Angel" by Gram Parsons is one I discovered through Moon's book, and I can't claim that it really left much of an impression. I am way more into Parsons' work with the Byrds than his solo stuff. The Crows version was much more memorable to me, as they pick up the pace and get pretty rowdy on this one. The great lyrics are highlighted by the immediacy of the arrangement, the live energy of the band, and a couple kickass solos (one mandolin and one guitar).

    Listen to the song here, then buy the whole album here.
    Buy Gram Parson's GP/Grievous Angel here.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012

    Classical Training

    Dudamel having too much fun

    You may have noticed a trend in the recordings I tend to write about. I am not much of a fan (let alone expert) of jazz, showtunes, opera, or classical. While showtunes and jazz would be fun to see live, I don't care much for listening to them at home, and opera is a whole different challenge for my not-classically trained ears.

    When it comes to classical music, I have no problem enjoying it. I have a problem distinguishing between the pieces: I wouldn't know Bach from Beethoven or Brahms, Mozart from Mahler or Mendelssohn. In fact, I often tend to "tune out" classical music, which makes it great for grading papers or reading, but not so much for "hearing" in the sense of 1000 Recordings to HEAR Before You Die.

    My wife listens to a lot of podcasts because, as I've mentioned before, we spend a lot of time putting my son down for naps/bedtime, and after the "routine" (bath, pajamas, books, etc), all that is required of us while my son falls asleep is our presence. So while I often listen to music while I wait for him to stop thrashing around, she listens to NPR's This American Life and Radiolab.

    She told me about a month ago that she heard a Radiolab episode she thought I might enjoy. I don't spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, but I started getting into listening to the 1000 Recordings Podcast while I wash dishes, and since there was none this week, I browsed the podcasts I had downloaded for her. As I was looking I came across the one she had suggested for me.

    First, I highly recommend checking out this episode. It's well worth the 20 minutes. But here's the Cliff's Notes version if you don't want to commit the time. This guy, Bob Milne, claims to be able to hear two complete symphonies in his mind at the same time. When pressed by a neurologist, he upped that to four. I had the same response as the show's host, Jad Abrumrad: "That's total bull****." So the whole episode focuses on how they tested this claim.

    What really amazed me was not just that this guy can do this, but the way he does it. He literally sees the orchestra playing the pieces as a 3-D movie that he can zoom in and out of, increase the volume of certain sections, change the speed. He also gets certain "emotions" from chords. As Abrumrad protests, everyone has a strong emotional relationship to music (although more and more I am realizing there is a large variance between people on that one). But Milne's experience sounds much closer to synesthesia (for example, how Tony of the 1000 Recordings Podcast sees colors when he listens to music).

    Well, damn, if I could do all that then of course I would be able to discern between all the classical pieces. I could probably even differentiate between different orchestras! Here's the bottom line: I'm really jealous of Milne's brain, and Tony's, and anyone whose relation to music is that organic and natural. Because I feel like I have to be an intense listener. I study my music collection like a textbook: I know how many 5-star songs I have (133), how many of the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time are on my iPod (316) vs Pitchfork's list of 500 Best Songs of the Decade (185). I know songs by the first second of guitar feedback on a track. Songs that reference other songs are my favorite, because I feel like I'm in on a secret (check out "You Were Right" by Built to Spill for a great example) which may be a reason I love covers so much.

    My brain is analytical about something that really should be, I feel, more emotional. I have a very good memory, not just about music, and I am into statistics (my brother and I used to keep stats while we played Nintendo's Major League Baseball, for entire seasons). I have a strong passion for music, but I feel like I am working extra hard at something that some people have a natural ability for. I hear a song and the first thing I notice is, logically, the lyrics. In 5th grade I excitedly memorized my first song ("2 Legit 2 Quit" by MC Hammer), but if you asked me to play the notes on a piano I'd be nearly hopeless. I'd probably get there, because I have an obsession with this stuff, but I'm without talent.

    All this is to lead up to the four composers listed in the Radiolab podcast; Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Two I've heard, two I haven't gotten to yet. My ears have adapted since I heard Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (the only notes I wrote in the book were "slow and boring") and Brahms' Four Symphonies (for which I wrote no notes at all, probably wasn't paying close enough attention). I think I'm getting better at identifying the patterns in jazz, taking pleasure in the lofty voices of opera, and finding the common threads that tie all the pieces in the book together, but for some reason, I still have a bad habit of drifting off when I listen to classical. Hopefully, by the time I get to Schubert's Ninth Symphony and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto (listed in the book under violinist Yehudi Menuhin), while I may not have 3-D, technicolor ears, I'll hear something in this genre that grabs my full attention.

    I'm not sure what it's going to take, though, because it sure hasn't come naturally to me.

    Monday, March 19, 2012

    NEWS: Facebook Discussion Group and Challenge

    A new Facebook group was just created by a group of friends under the title "1,000 Recordings Challenge." Each day the group listens to a new recording (or at least the "Key Tracks") and discusses their thoughts. Sounds like a pretty good idea, because, like watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, I think this book is better when read as a group. I have learned so much about music through the blogs/podcasts/conversations of others as I journey through this list.

    Join in the conversation here. And hey, while you're already on Facebook, like my page. You'll get super fast up to the minute updates when I post something new, so you don't have to sit there and hit the refresh button over and over (F5, if you didn't know). Also, sometimes I share interesting news I find on Facebook that may not get its own post. 

    Sunday, March 18, 2012

    COVER: Mike's 1000 Cover the Recordings

    Last week the 1000 Recordings Podcast guys hooked the ultimate interview: the book's author Tom Moon. Before you read any further, I recommend you go check it out, and at least listen to the opening, where Moon talks about how he compiled the book.

    After listening to his criteria (imagining that he is trying to introduce the world of music to a very receptive teenager rather than "The Best" or "The Most Influential") I have had to reevaluate my own "Mike's 1000" choices. I think I would still include the ones I have, but I think Moon's list has become even more subjective than it already was. It's hard to argue against playing any particular entry for someone when you are just trying to expose them to music (although, in some ways this has helped me think of more entries that I feel are missing).

    Regardless of where my "Mike's 1000" list will go in the future, the three acts I've picked so far, Sun Kil Moon,  Iron & Wine, and Sublime, have all covered a recording that appears on the list. SKM and I&W, in particular, may be more well known for their covers than they are as originators. All three of these covers are fine tributes, and in the case of Iron & Wine, possibly better than the original. Check out the covers below, and then compare them to the originals at the bottom of the page.

    Sublime - "Rivers of Babylon" (The Melodians cover, filed under Jimmy Cliff' in the book)
    Sun Kil Moon - "Send in the Clowns" (written by Stephen Sondheim, sung by Glynis Johns in the book)
    Iron & Wine - "Waitin' for a Superman" (The Flaming Lips cover)

    Mike's 1000 Covers by recordingtherecordings on Grooveshark

    The originals:

    Mike's 1000 Covers Originals by recordingtherecordings on Grooveshark