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Apr62022

Listening Through all of Fishbone’s Albums. Album 1 of 7: “In Your Face”

Album 1 of 7: IN YOUR FACE

Released: November, 1986

Recorded at: Sunset Sound & Ocean Way Recording (Los Angeles)

Produced by: David Kahne (who also designed the iconic Fishbone Logo)

Stand out tracks: “When Problems Arise”, “In the Air”, “Knock it”

 

Fishbone did not emerge from the aquarium fully formed. The African-American sextet with a hybrid of members from black and brown South Central Los Angeles and the way whiter San Fernando Valley, had been signed to a major label barely out of high school. Yet their debut album, as riotous, fun and groovy as it is, feels like promise and not peak. This might have been a band who had been playing together since about the 9th grade. But while their sound rests completely in each other’s pockets, that sound hadn’t become what we know as Fishbone’s. At least not quite yet.

That sounds like a grievance but it’s not. Fishbone had come up in the Los Angeles punk scene of the day, befriending and later influencing both their contemporaries (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) and a younger generation (No Doubt) with a sound that essentially tossed funk, ska, punk and R&B into a steaming cauldron and got a rich gumbo instead of thin gruel. “LA Punk” usually calls to mind Darby Crash and his older siblings–short, tragic bursts of chaos meant to run you over while soundtracking your pain. But it was never only that. The Chili Peppers borrowed from east coast funk and their hometown’s Latino lowrider and skateboarding culture. X were as interested in country music and Americana (as their later albums would show) as they were in two minutes of fury and guitar distortion. And Los Lobos, a bit older and from the city’s eastern districts formed because they were the few Mexican kids at Garfield High School who liked punk’s elder influences (rockabilly, blues, brill building pop) as much as cumbia and mariachi music.

So LA Punk could be lean and fierce like a yellow line on a highway or wondering through many musical neighborhoods like a boulevard. The overlap between the two was in spirit if not feeling: LA Punk no matter its colors, flavor or highway exit was usually youthful, free and funny. And Fishbone, immediately a boulevard if not a fully paved one (it’s telling that Fishbone has always been a large band of at least 6 members usually dressed identically in jumpsuits,  but only 3 are on the album cover) were always these things: A funky/jumpytwo-tone/ragey/improvised/hilarious thing in your ears that made it pure punk in its soul.

The opening four tracks–“When Problems Arise”, “A Selection”, “Cholly”, and “I Wish That I Had a Date”– are a mad dash through 50s teenage angst with a smartass twinkle in their eye–think Buddy Holly as run with by Biz Markie. The record then slows down (not a wise move for a band like Fishbone, whose strengths lie in their antic energy) but blows through the finish line and past it with “In the Air” at position 7, a bass-forward new wavy midnight jam and a high stepping tribute to casual sex “Knock it.”

It’s these two late tracks that give us an idea of what Fishbone will grow into–satirical, multi-hyphenates who do not see dancing, getting high, getting aware and laughing your ass off as mutually exclusive. That wonder of a mixture around the next bend. Here, in all our faces, is a debut, that works largely as a first chapter of many but is a bang(er) of a start nonetheless.

Feb92022

The Smokler 50 (2021): My Annual Playlist of New Music

 

Every year since 2012, I have put together a playlist of 50 songs from the 600-800 new songs I discover each calendar year. The songs don’t have to be new (as in released that year), just new to me (as in I had never heard them before this year). Ordinarily these are on Spotify but no thank you to that.

I started doing this because I would fall in love with an artist, a few weeks would pass and I would forget their name. Literally. As though we had never met. The playlist gives me a facimile of everyone I met and fell in love with, musically, that year.


The name The Smokler 50 is dumb. And I have not come up with something better yet.


I usually tell anyone who dives in if you have three new discoveries, I’ve done my job. And immediately skip anything that isn’t working for you.

Enjoy.


Jan252022

In Praising of “Listening Through” (Every Album By Your Favorite Artist)

Lately I’ve assigned myself the project of listening to every album recorded by a band I like. This came about when, kicking the hull of my own ignorance, shook out that Depeche Mode has released 7 studio albums AFTER  Violator, home of their last chart hits, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what Devo had been up to since their 1982 video for “Peak a Boo” freaked me out as a second grader. 

This isn’t middle-aged memory loss. A more recent example might be that the album that brought Lizzo into our lives was her third, not her first. We can’t control when we learn of an artist’s work and it’s probably just some quirk of the human brain to believe, at least a little, that someone didn’t exist before we know of them. Nonetheless, it’s incorrect and I ain’t about to say “oh well” when I found out there’s more on offer from a band I already love. Give me all of it. 

The idea then that I only knew fractions of the output of artist who’d given so much to me felt selfish, like not knowing the date of someone I cared about’s birthday.  Over time, we’ll miss almost everything and all we have is what we chose to to do with our time and attention. So for something as important to me as music, I’d rather spend that time on long-term commitments and not unresolved affairs, on friends who have been with me through it all instead those I once knew or haven’t even met. 

I’m in the middle of my third “Listen Through” project (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings). These efforts happen alongside listening to perennial favorite records and in tandem with the faucets I turn on regularly for drips of new music. Otherwise, deepening your romances comes at the expense of seeing and making friends. And nobody should be that guy.

How it Works

 Before I start in on an album, I will usually read its wikipedia entry as well as the review in AllMusic. I am curious about different performers, producers, engineers on different records and a little why the band might be trying something different this time around. I’m not musically smart enough to know what chromatic scales are or which studio results in this or that sound. But I like to have a sense of who had a hand in the choices that went into a record and who showed up on the day it became real. The answers are always more interesting than believing it all happened by magic.

 I will usually listen to one album every two or three days in the afternoons during the scutt-and-boring-tasks portion of the workday. I’ll jot initial notes after the first listen then 2-3 days later revisit those notes and be rigorously honest if I was being unfair, impatient, etc. If I was doing any of those things, I listen again. If not, I scrawl a quick review to a group of friends with two goals in mind:  1. To have it be fun to read even if whomever is reading it doesn’t like the band/hasn’t heard of them. 2. To be clear in such a way that whomever is reading can hear the music even if they haven’t heard it before. My opinion is a distant third priority.

Writing for a living, I feel a responsibility to do this. You can write down your thoughts just to have them. Or not. 

I focus on studio albums (meaning no live records, reissues or greatest hits compilations) usually with an artist who has more than 5 records in their catalog. The courage hasn’t yet arrived to take on the discography of a Nina Simone (40 studio albums) or a Dolly Parton (51 and still going). It also helps to at least start with musicians who have died or retired or bands that have broken up. Then you know exactly how many records you are dealing with and they won’t release a new one while you are mid-swim. 

Listening in chronological order renders the clearest picture of where an artists sound began and where it ended up. The second option, equally valuable, is to enter an artists catalog during their peak “accessible phase” (i.e when they hit the pop charts or became a star) which gives you great appreciation for when they zig and zag. Like wading in off the beach but appreciating the depth and mystery of the ocean.

Format really doesn’t matter. I happen to love vinyl records but the project is the same no matter how the music gets to you.  

Also try to avoid running a segregated lunch counter (musically speaking) and only listening through to bands you remember fondly from 9th grade or who are all of one genre/race/gender/moment in time. It’s fine to start out that way, led by the same question I was: “What’s doing with that old friend I haven’t spoke to in a while?” But it’s just as valuable to visit undiscovered countries than to stay close to home.  

What I Learned

Even the great treasure of music can seem dull at times. I’ve found that giving over real considered time to an artist’s work has taught me so much–about art, about creative decisions and really just about how we all get up in the morning and have to make that day happen in a way that it mattered. 

I’ve quit making thoughtless judgements about how successful a band actually was. I’ve learned through enjoyment. If we need to change into our relationship with music to keep it from dulling, Listen Though has provided the shine. 

Try it. I bet you end up in the seat next to me, alongside your favorite artist, both receiving their music and piloting the sonic skies with them. 

 

Nov212021

Maiden Voyage: “Last Splash” by The Breeders (1993)


Wherein we consider wildly popular or important albums I have never heard before.

Context:

Had only heard of “Cannonball” , the band’s one hit and the album’s one single, up to this point. Familiar with The Pixies (i.e. the prior band of one of The Breeders two lead singers)  but not anything else by The Breeders at all. Missed the album entirely upon its release.


Initial Impressions:

Far more a base and drums band than I had thought. Bass makes sense as is the instrument of the band’s founder. But the drumming here has a martial urgency that reminds me of early U2 and vintage Janet Weiss from Slaeter Kinney and hits me in all the right places. Great vocal harmonies too but that’s not a surprise given the sibling chemistry of the frontwomen.

Hits:

“Cannonball”, “Roi”, “Flipside”, “SOS”, “Saints”, “Divine Hammer”, “Driving on 9”

Misses: “New Year”, “Invisible Man”, “No Aloha”


Assets:

Killer chops on all instruments, great vocals working brilliantly together, drawing from a wide range of inspirations (Sonic Youth, Americana-era X, Brill Building Pop).

Liabilities:

The band’s impressionistic, minimalist lyrics can make songs feel like sketches instead of finished pieces. Also (and I can’t believe I’m saying this)  for a pop-inspired band, The Breeders are not always served well by short run times on songs. Several of their 2 minute numbers feel curiously unfinished and could have benefited from another verse or chorus or just more of the same, because “the same” here is wonderful.


Verdict:

A very strong album I would totally buy on overpriced vinyl (an option, apparently).

This wasn’t my kind of music in 1993 when I was 20 so I doubt it would have spoken to me then. But I have enjoyed the project very much of getting to know music I missed the first time around. “Last Splash” was a great find 25 years later.

Sep222021

Listening to Every Song I Own: Songs #1843 — #2000 (of 12,218)

The latest update to my bewildering project to listen to all 12, 218 songs in my iTunes library straight through, no skipping (called Abba Zappa Zoo, thank you to my old friend Mike Gluck for the name) takes us from…

“Domino” by Van Morrison (Song #1843)

to

“The Dreamer” by Anderson.Paak (Song #2000)

The Math:

Songs: 167

Completion Percentage: 15.1% – 16.4%

Cold Facts:

May162020

Listening to Every Song I own: Letter “C”

The latest update in my absurd project to listen to all 11, 704 songs in my iTunes library straight through no skipping (called Abba Zappa Zoo, thank you to Mike Gluck ) included Song #1235: “Charlie Loves Our Band” by From Good Homes to #1334 “City Rising from the Ashes” by Deltron 3030.

The Math:

99 Songs
10.5% complete — 11.3% complete

Trivia:

“Charlie Loves Our Band” by the New Jersey folk rock band From Good Homes pays tribute to their most loyal fan in the group’s early days. It’s an incredibly sweet reminder that, when creating anything, you have to start with one “Charlie” and can always go somewhere higher from there.

“City Rising From the Ashes” is one of a dozen great songs on the self-titles dystopian hip hop album Deltron 3030 from the year 2000 about the year 3030.

1. The most common title words in this block are “City, Cherry, Child, Chill and Choice”

2. In one string of songs “City of Dreams” by the Philadelphia bar room rockers Marah and “City of Dreams” by The Talking Heads sit next to each other.

3. Best one-two punch: “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick followed by “Children’s Work” by Dessa.

5. Song you really must know but probably don’t…

“Chase” an instrumental soundtrack banger by Giorgio Moroder which has become intro/outro music for dozens of people, places and things.

 

Mar142020

Listening to All of RUSH’s Albums to Honor Neil Peart: Hemispheres

Hemispheres -- RUSH

I am listening to all of Rush’s albums in order to honor the life and work of their drummer and lyricist Neil Peart who died on Jan 7th at age 67. Next up…

Album Name: Hemispheres

Released: October 1978

Folks, I’m afraid this one’s going to be quite brief as Rush’s sixth studio album “Hemispheres” does nothing for me. The last of their golden prog rock period is the proggiest of them all, featuring on one site a mini rock-opera and on the the other a twelve-minute instrumental. The musicianship here beats all but leaves me cold as a dead fish: Virtuosity will never move me like songcraft. So fine, if you love this record, keep on doing you, but I’m going to take a quick pass and scuttle right on the next one.

Mar32020

Listening to all of RUSH’s Albums to Honor Neil Peart: A Farewell to Kings

 

"A Farewell to Kings" -- RUSH

I am listening to all of Rush’s albums in order to honor the life and work of their drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, who died on Jan 7th at age 67. Next up…

Album Name: A Farewell to Kings

Released: September 1977

Rush’s fifth studio album is the second of their golden prog-rock period where side-length sci-fi tales of ridiculousness were coin of the realm. Many vintage RUSH fans love this stuff but it is not for me. Therefore, it will surprise no one that Mr. Peart’s contributions I zero in on here and continue to appreciate most all these years later, are on shorter, more approachable material.

Best Drums: “A Farewell to Kings”

Often overlooked, I think, due to its sonic similarity to “2112,” the band’s preceding album, what begins as a woodsy British folk ballad soars to the heights of a classical opera, mostly thanks to a wash of keyboards. But what would sound metallic and thin is made magisterial by the sober throb of Neil Peart’s drums. It’s foundational rhythm at its quiet best.

Best lyrics: “Closer to the Heart”

Possibly Peart’s finest composition, an open-chested plea for tolerance, peace and a new way of living from a famously shy and quiet man.

And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the Heart
Closer to the Heart

The Blacksmith and the Artist
Reflect it in their art
They forge their creativity
Closer to the Heart
Yea, Closer to the Heart

Philosophers and Plowmen
Each must know his part
To sow a new mentality
Closer to the Heart
Closer to the Heart

 

Feb62020

Listening to all of RUSH’s Albums to Honor Neil Peart: 2112

"2112" -- Rush

So I am listening to all of Rush’s albums in order to honor the life and work of their drummer and lyricist Neil Peart who died on Jan 7th at age 67.

Next Up:

Album Name: 2112

Released: April 1976

Rush’s forth studio album 2112 is a gloriously silly space opera that somehow manages to justify its excesses. Unlike its predecessor Caress of Steel its 973 minute opening takes us briskly into the rest of the album AND stands on its own instead of collapsing in on its own weight. Even though it’s hard to look at in plainly in retrospect (its the band’s breakthrough record and arguably them at their best. It’s human nature to muddle the two).

For the record, it is not my favorite incarnation of Rush and not why I signed on 35 years ago. I was barely in a full set of clothes in 1976 and my earliest memories of the band are when they’d left this stuff far behind. Still, I admire their nerve here as a young band and how well these epic pieces hold up live if not in fashion but in repeat performance.

Best drumming: That overture is mostly keyboard -driven but the drums sure buttress it nicely

Best lyrics:

Though it is simply about drug culture, “A Passage to Bangkok” paints a coked-out tableau with great wit and punnery.

“Our first stop is in Bogota
To check Colombian fields
The natives smile and pass along
A sample of their yield
Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams
Golden Acapulco nights
Then Morocco, and the East
Fly by morning light

 

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