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Notebook

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. 

 

Jan142022

Movie Review: “Being the Ricardos” (2021)

4/5 of 5 stars

Aaron Sorkin’s gonna Aaron Sorkin. Meaning there’s great dialogue in this movie, it’s brilliantly acted and a lot of the big speeches mean less than they originally seem to. But Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem knock it out as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on a fateful week of their career when the Lucy Show is threatened with cancellation.

You’ll obviously enjoy this more if you are fan of vintage television and mid-century America. If you aren’t its still a great movie about how hard it is to work with someone you are also married to/involved with/releated to. Frankly I don’t know how say, The Coen Brothers or Beyonce and Jay Z do it.

Jan102022

Book Review: “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading pulpy noir is so fun and seductive and delicious that you can whip right past how appallingly sexist and retrograde it can feel. Or you can not care about all of that and then I’d wonder if you hate women as much as Sam Spade clearly does.

Mr. Hammett spent the better part of his life romantically involved with Lillian Hellman, a mid-century force of nature, author of many of the greatest plays of the American theater and a survivor of the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s. I doubt Ms. Hellman would have put up with the kind of misogyny we see here in her lover’s protagonist: Sam Spade only sees women as objects to be kissed, banged, lectured to or slapped.

Ok, so know that gong in. Since this is perhaps the most famous noir novel of all time, you probably know the rest already: A murder, a femme fatale, men in black raincoats and shadowy glances across darkened streets. But its famous because it perfected most of those cliches and made them so tangible you feel as though you could visit the Stockton Tunnel in San Francisco and, at its base, find the body of the first victim of “Maltese Falcon” still lying on the pavement below.

If noir and its tics are your thing, this is the only place to start. And if you love San Francisco, that’s even better. The mystery and seduction of perhaps America’s most photographed city laid down in “The Maltese Falcon” holds on to us, nearly 100 years after Bridget O’Shaunessy walked into Sam Spade’s office that morning.

View all my reviews

Jan42022

Book Review” “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work” by Seth Godin

The Practice: Shipping Creative WorkThe Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I do wish the scope of Mr. Godin’s heart and its philosophy matched that of his ability to express it. I love what he says but often don’t synch up with how he says it. Maybe this is preference. Maybe wiring. He means so well and “the practice” (I am two days in to trying it) in a useful one. But in keeping with his message of “keep going, don’t stop” maybe a sustained argument rather than a bound volume of 200 snippets, thoughts and anecdotes?

I don’t know. It’s working for him and I’m happy to report its working for me. Which ultimately is the point. As a reading experience though, I’d say apply the old AA philosophy of take what you like and leave the rest and the newer Seth Godin of whatevr you need to do to get started, pivot or make a real change to become your authentic creative self, do it. Even if it means picking up this book a page at a time, circling back, underlining, and not quite understanding how it all adds up.

Don’t stop.

 

Jan32022

Greg Tate (1957-2021)

I have been thinking about the death of writer/curator/force of nature Greg Tate this entire month and my sadness has not left me. I did not know the man like so many writers I admire did. Instead I head about his books and essays about hip-hop, art and black culture from this generation of writers who taught me. Maybe that makes Mr. Tate, legacy-wise. like a great-uncle to the work I do. Or try to do.

Really though, what he created was too big, too magical and other-wordly for to pin it on my own chest. Reading him, listening to him in print or on television or radio was like discovering other planets, being thrown into the galaxies and knowing, instead of plummeting you would fly. 

Knowing we have read the last of his work is feeling like the sun has dropped out of the sky. 

Look at some of the titles of his obituaries…

That first one concluded thusly (bravo to its author, Jon Caramanica)

“By that point, Tate’s sui generis brilliance was widely acknowledged in our circles, and still barely touched by others. Showcasing his critical pirouetting was meant to serve as a beacon, and also a simple acknowledgment of the way he affected every writer I cared about and learned from — we’re all Tate’s children. I still buy “Flyboy” every time I see it in a bookstore. I never want to be too far away from it, lest I forget how vast the cosmos is.”


By “Flyboy”, Mr. Caramanica is referring to Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Tate’s first collection of essays published in 1992. The writer Jeff Chang and artist Tim’m West steered me to it during my early years in the Bay Area. If reading about music and art and the people who make it is act of redemption for you, Flyboy is like a volume of the Hebrew Bible.

I still have a few notes I scribbled down when I first read it all those years ago…

Reading “Flyboy”you realize you are in the presence of a genius, a voice reaching down from the cosmos unlike any you have ever heard. And so you forgive it when its once-in-a-while too twisted or loud or muffled or sharp. Because when it is quiet and you  are too, you are better for having heard it, better for your listening and it makes you want to be better as well.

Greg Tate died a week before Bell Hooks and two weeks before Joan Didion, writers he admired, knew and in their lifetimes, get many more trophies and honorary degrees than he did.  I’ve been distributing used copies of Flyboy to many wise men and women I know, who missed the word on Mr. Tate, the first time around. It’s a small gesture for an artist who knew and shared and gave so much. 

My friend and fellow writer Annie Zaleski once sat on a panel with Mr Tate and told me, shortly after his death, that the man, a generation’s worth of admirers did not scream out his gifts, did not ask you to praise them and led with a generosity of spirit that split through his work like light through glass. We weren’t simply gifted his imagination. His imagination showed us what we could be, how much brighter and smarter and far out. Apparently, he mentored dozens of young journalists too. 

Goodbye Mr. Tate. I’m late to a dream you opened right on time. 

Some of my favorite Greg Tate pieces are, in no real order

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