Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Running for Sanity: Original Pirate Material

The following post was from August of last year. For obvious reasons I was not timely about posting it, and for not so obvious reasons I am finally getting around to finishing it up. Luckily I never did have to go for a run again in those early months.
My listening has been on hiatus for four weeks now. Maybe it's because four weeks ago we welcomed the newest member of our family, a baby girl. This should be a post about how wonderful and adorable she is (and she is) or how overjoyed I am to have completed my little family of four (my heart sometimes feels like it going to burst with thankfulness and joy). But this isn't that post. That post needs to come, but this is a post about running and escaping.

Last night I went for my first voluntary run, not including pickup basketball, since April of 2010. That's a long streak of no running, considering I have to pass a physical test twice a year.
But last night I ran. I ran until my chest felt like it would tear in half. I ran until my gut ached. I burst out the door and tore down the street like I was running from a horde of zombies (I've been catching up on a lot of the walking dead during my nearly sleepless nights) or like I was running down anyone who would hurt my family (my fatherly instincts are on high alert these days). I ran until I was spitting bile. I ran until the dry heaves forced me to the curb doubled over. Then I straightened up and ran some more. I felt miserable when I got home and wandered around my yard in the dark trying to keep down the contents of my stomach. For an hour I sweat and my head spun. But then I finally settled and all the intensity of the day finally melted away.
I needed to escape. Screaming baby, crying toddler, stressed out wife; the family I live for and have spent my life dreaming of finally having, was driving me crazy. There's a great song by Kathleen Edwards called "Run" that captures the feeling perfectly. But when I told my wife I needed to go for a run, a statement met with a look of shock, I threw on my shoes and earbuds, and put my iPod on random. The first track was The Streets "Turn the Page." Perfect.

Artist: The Streets
Recording: Original Pirate Material
Recording #50ish
The strings rise, pulsating, endlessly. Then that off-kilter drum beat, and more strings. "That's it, turn the page on the day, walk away." Mike Skinner's nasally voice needles its way into my brain. The night is warm, and my legs feel like nothing. The misdirected anger is boiling inside me. I know there is no one to blame for my frustration, that it's just part of the job description of "parent." But it just makes me angrier that I have no one to pin it on. I run harder. Other songs come on, but I don't remember them. I just remember that eventually I started to think less about my life and more about how my body was starting to hurt. I was happy about that. I punished my body by pushing it harder instead of slowing down. It paid me back when I got home, but in the end it paid off and I came home ready to try again at being a dad and husband.
The rest of Original Pirate Material is still great running music, by the way, but not for angry running. Skinner's unconventional rap style is too distracting to sound angry, and most of the songs focus more on his happy stoner demeanor than any sort of violence. I remember the first time I heard The Streets was back in the summer of 2002 when I was home from college. My music guru John put on "The Irony of it All" and I was hooked. Before I went back to school I had bought the album and listened to it daily. The lazy sounding production, the most awkward rhymes imaginable, and the head nodding beats were perfect for long nights of studying, or avoiding studying. I had a radio show where I played The Streets as much as I could get away with (and actually once got a request for more). Even more than a decade later nothing sounds quite like it. The follow-up, A Grand Don't Come for Free is nearly as good, and the story cycle of the concept album means I can't ever listen to just one song. There were highlights on the recordings that followed, but none matched the debut. Check it out on Spotify here.

Check out Tom Moons entry here.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Covers: Songs That Shouldn't Work

Here's a link to a great post at Cover Me where we answered the question "What cover song shouldn't work as well as it does?" The list is pretty great, and has an amazing number of 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die songs and artists, including:

Yes covering Simon and Garfunkle's "America"
Mariachi el Bronx covering "I Would Die 4 U" off Prince's Purple Rain
Dolly Parton covering Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," featured on How the West was Won
Sam Cooke covering Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind"
Richard Thompson covering Britney Spears's "Oops, I Did it Again"
Miley Cyrus covering Outkast's "Hey Ya"
and Bill Cosby covering the Beatles's title track from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Transition: There's No Place Like America Today

The last time I posted was May of 2013. A lot has happened in nine months. I've added a second child, I left the Navy after nine years of service (as I mentioned before, it's the only real job I've ever had), I searched for and eventually found a job, and I moved the whole family across the country. As I'm writing this, our household goods are in storage and we're all staying in a hotel waiting to move into a new house, and I'm waiting to start my first civilian job. So much has changed I can't really process it all.

All of that is to say two things: First, I haven't stopped listening to new music. I've only heard about 40 entries in the last nine months, but I'm still taking notes (and trying to keep up on Twitter). And next, I am hoping to get back to this site and write more often. I actually have a couple of entries banked that I wrote soon after my daughter was born that I never got around to posting. I'll be posting those soon, as well as a conclusion to my well over a year-old Grunge Project.

Looking back on everything that's happened and browsing the book, Curtis Mayfield's There's No Place Like America Today jumped out as the right fit for this post.

Artist: Curtis Mayfield
Album: There's No Place Like America Today
Recording #557

Anyone who has ever looked for a job or taken care of a newborn in the middle of the night can attest to the stress of both; I was doing them at the same time. Moving 1000 miles with two kids under the age of four was no picnic either. As my buddy, another soon to be veteran, has said many times over the last few months, "transition sucks." But that's only half of the story. I'm super excited about the new job. I'm relieved to be done with the uncertainty of the military. I'm overwhelmed by the joy my children bring me every day.

I think the duality of those feelings of joy and stress have been weighing on me for months. I had one job offer that cost me (and my wife) a week of sleep. And we were already getting just a few hours a night. I was so happy to have an offer, and so many things about it were great, but the stress of the uncertainty in the details of this particular job, as well as the travel involved, was killing me.

Mayfield's album is full of duality as well: the album cover features a billboard boasting the title behind a line of flood victims. Some days I'm in agreement with that irony, and other days I believe in the words as they're written. If you read the lyrics to this album, it's a powerful and depressing statement on inequality and violence, but the songs are delivered so sweetly that it's a pleasure to listen to. Songs like "Hard Times" (which I first heard covered by Baby Huey) and "Billy Jack" are clearly heavy-hitters, and on my down days they feel right. On the other hand, "When Seasons Change" and "Jesus" sound uplifting, even when the words don't match the music.

If you need a starting point for soul, you can't beat this (and if you liked Baby Huey, this is a necessity). If you're going through a change, this should be on heavy rotation.

Stream the album here on Spotify.
Read Tom Moon's entry here.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Best Music of 2013 (So Far)

The title is somewhat misleading: this is the best music I've heard in 2013, not necessarily made in 2013. There are 15 tracks from the 1000 Recordings that made the cut; classical, rap, country, folk and rock. You'll find a varied mix of my favorite songs of the last 4 months.

After those 15 songs I've thrown in my favorites that WERE made this year. 27 songs of up-and-comers and established hit makers. I try not to ignore the music being made today while I catch up on the classics of the past. So check it out below or at the link here. Listen to it in order for 1000 Recordings first, or select shuffle for a very eclectic mix. (Here is a link to just the 1kR mix and one for the 2013 mix).

And download Spotify! It's free (if you don't mind the ads) and one of the best ways to discover new music. The artists get paid pretty much jack squat when you stream their songs, but there are a lot of artists I would never have seen live or bought the album if I hadn't heard it free first.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Grunge Part IV: Alice in Chains, Dirt

I was at a semi-fancy restaurant last summer. This was before I moved for my new job, so we had a babysitter; I haven't been out to dinner with my wife since then, so that dinner is even better in my memory than it was the night we ate it. Small plates filled with raw tuna, lemongrass spring rolls, and gourmet french fries (we almost skipped those, but they ended up being the perfect dessert). No kids, a glass of wine, and '90s grunge playing softly in the background.

Wait a second. What was that last thing? Almost imperceptible to any normal person, above the din of other adult conversations, I caught the distinct drum pattern of classic '90s alternative. My wife didn't even notice there was music playing, let alone discern a particular song. But I know my '90s alt-rock. There are some albums (like Pearl Jam's Ten and Nirvana's Nevermind) from that time period that I have memorized start to finish. Other songs are so familiar to me that even though I haven't heard them since they debuted in the mid-'90s I can still remember all the words. So yeah, it was a strange choice, this ritzy place that was voted "Best Place to Order a Drink," playing grunge. But a choice I completely agreed with.

As I've discussed, there is a whole mess of grunge music I am ignorant of, but I know more than the average person in my age group. Back at my old job I used to hang out in the office of two friends with whom I would swap music recommendations. This eventually evolved into "who can name that song the fastest?" Rules were drafted, other coworkers invited, a leaderboard posted, and countless lunch hours wasted. I was late getting home more than once because I was talked into "just one more round." It was during these heated battles that I earned the nickname "Rainman." I can't help that I can recognize Radiohead's "Just" after one downstroke, or Alice in Chain's "Rooster" after one reverbed note, and other songs just by the feedback in the intro.

'90s Grunge and Alternative category was never in doubt. I was also the leader on Oldies, Old School Hip Hop, Rock, Classic Rock, Indie Rock, '80s, Pop, 2000's, and "random" on multiple coworkers' iPods. I did not, however, take first in Lite Pop, Best of 2010, Southern Rock, Country, or '70s.

I think that Tom Moon nailed it, though, when he says on the back of his book, "The more you love music, the more music you love." Now I can't claim I know every album from the grunge era: in fact, the album "Rooster" is on, Dirt, is one that I didn't hear in full until I read Moon's book. And that's a shame, because this album should have been on heavy rotation in my teenage years.

Artist: Alice in Chains
Album: Dirt
Recording #120ish

I first heard Alice in Chains in the car with my mom. Somehow I convinced her to let me put the radio on my favorite channel, and she put up with it for a few songs. In fact, I remember she said she actually liked Alice in Chains when it came on. The harmonies elicited the praise: "Now this is actually kind of musical sounding." I remember thinking the same thing, confusedly. Grunge can have harmonies? When did that start? To be fair, most of Dirt lives up to the name: this is heavy and grimy. As Moon says, "Pure Junkie Menace." But mixed in with the feedback and wallowing are the best vocals of the '90s. The dual vocal attack of Jerry Cantrell and the late Layne Staley is stunning.

If I had gotten into Alice in Chains instead of Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and Nirvana I might have gone down a much different path in my musical tastes. Although all of those bands can be heavy at times, Alice in Chains is much closer to heavy metal than the others. This album, had I heard it back in my teenage years, could easily have been my favorite, giving me a taste for heavier music instead of the more prog rock/art rock direction I ended up heading in. In either case, though I came to this album later in life, I can absolute appreciate it and, honestly, rank it among my favorites. And it's not too late for me to be an Alice in Chains fan: the surviving members reunited in 2005 and their new album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, is due out in just over a month. If you haven't heard the new single, check it out (the video is pretty awesome, too). It certainly sounds like old school Alice in Chains even if Staley is, sadly, gone. Oh, and if you know of a good music trivia league, let me know: unfortunately, my new coworkers haven't shown the interest that my previous ones did.

Read Moon's entry here.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Grunge Part III: Pearl Jam, Ten

I can't help it: when I'm happy I look insane
Fall, 1994. The scene opens on a painfully na├»ve preteen boy at a party where he is clearly out of place. Mike has been friends with Chris since kindergarten. In 5th and 6th grade they had weekly sleepovers; Mike’s house, then Chris', repeat. Chris has always been popular – his sense of humor has earned him the class clown moniker, but in a “cool” way rather than “klutzy.” His sense of fun is the link that sustains his friendship with Mike, and is the reason Mike is at a party surrounded by cool kids.

After a Saturday night sleepover, Mike and Chris had spent the previous Sunday morning in Chris’ basement planning the party. Chris knew exactly who to invite. At Mike’s forceful suggestion, the pretty new girl was invited, too. Mike even made the phone call to invite her to Chris’s party – immediately lending credibility to  his own “coolness.” Genius level middle school pickup move.

But now here they were. Chris, the social butterfly, was mingling with the small town’s most popular 7th graders. His parents were sequestered in the upstairs bedroom, while the party continued in the basement. Several of the kids had had a few drinks before arriving. One was offered to Mike – he passed. His  adolescent awkwardness was highlighted in the midst of this group of confident and self-assured peers. He was thrilled to have a friend like Chris who was helping to raise his social status, while  at the same time feeling absolutely uncomfortable in his own skin. Jammin ’92 blared on a stereo system and he nodded in time to hits like Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do it” and the Rednex “Cotton Eye Joe.” Some of the other kids were dancing and nodding along as well.

Suddenly, the opening riff to Pearl Jam’s “Alive” tore through the room. Its soaring solo guitar pierced the air, and to Mike it was as if the rest of the world was turned down. He had spent countless house at the library with headphones on, listening to the library’s copy of Ten on cassette. Each solo on the album was indelibly written on his soul. Seemingly unable to control himself and without any awareness of his actions, he began to "air guitar" and sing along.

Artist: Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
Recording #9ish

Evidently, this outburst did not go unnoticed. One jock in particular, who had never spoken a word to him or even acknowledged his existence before now, threw an empty two liter bottle at him. “Here’s a guitar for you,” he sneered. In hindsight, it was a pretty lame attempt at a burn. But Mike snapped out of his trance and noticed the many entertained eyes on him, and in his 7th grade mind his life had been destroyed. If this was a movie he would have run from the room in embarrassed tears as the crowd pointed and jeered.

Instead, he turned beet red, shuffled into a corner and attempted invisibility for the rest of the night. So much for trying to talk to the new girl. He was sleeping at Chris’ house that night, so adding insult to injury, he really had nowhere else to go. The music of '90s teenage outcasts had become a self-fulfilling prophecy as it solidified his standing as a spazz.

Later that year, as they walked to Mike’s house after school, Chris announced to Mike that he no longer “believed” in the concept of “best friends.” Mike understood – Chris needed to escape the friendship without crushing him. It was the best friend equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me.” Chris had tried to give Mike a hand up, and instead he risked being pulled down into nerddom.

The soundtrack of my teenage years, grunge, is intrinsically linked with my nerd status, which reached its peak in 7th and 8th grade. I have lots of fond memories of middle and high school – learning I was not (and would never be) part of the cool crowd was amazingly liberating. My core of lifelong friends was found in those years as we forged loyalty by embracing our outcast status and following our various nerdly passions. My lifelong love of music, especially of the obscure variety, was allowed to flourish because I didn’t have to worry about what anyone else thought.

My wife recently said to me that although I had relayed to her before what a dork I was when I was a kid, it didn’t hit home until she started paying attention to our son. His zest for life, completely unabashed earnestness and lack of self-awareness are endearingly adorable on a 2 year old. Imagining them in a 5 or 7 or 10 year old, though, she can see that our child will probably not be a “cool” kid. I’m okay with that. I can still remember the embarrassment of that night. Being a nerd is the price you pay for obsessive passion sometimes, but you have to follow what you love and what inspires you. I am who I am because I followed my passion and I hope I can pass that on to my kids.

Read Tom Moon's entry here.

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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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