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May292023

Buncha Jews in Utah…

2 AM from the balcony of my hotel room on the last night of the Reboot Summit after 3 days of crying, laughing, arguing and befriending 80 (not all at once but soon) fellow creative Jews. An amazing time.

Thank you to David Katznelson, Tiffany Shlain and Adam Mansbach for the introduction once upon a time, for the opportunity to make good and do good in the present, and, in 72 hours, even in the sweat-soaked, exhausted and free middle of the night, the aura of a limitless future.

May172023

Quote of the Day: “Just F’n Pay Attention”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_i-KIewT10

Heard on this week’s episode of WTF w/ Marc Maron’s podcast featuring guest Ice Cube, from Mr. Cube himself.

“If you find yourself someplace and you don’t know why, just fuckin’ pay attention” (around 23:45)

May172023

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. 

 

Mar292023

A History of Alternative Music One Album at a Time: 1977-2001: Album 2-25: “Jesus of Cool” by Nick Lowe (1978)

"Jesus of Cool" by Nick Lowe

Didn’t know much of anything about Nick Lowe going in. I knew he was a mentor to Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parsons, a leading figure of Power Pop and New Wave and he who gave us the song “Cruel to Be Kind.” Beyond that, I get him confused with Nick Cave about 7 times out of 8.

“Jesus of Cool” is Mr. Lowe (not Mr. Cave’s) debut album, 21 tracks strong. Every song is a complete idea, almost horologically well built. Mr. Cave was coming up on 30 when this album came out so we cannot extol him as a prodigy but rather someone who worked at and worked at it again, until he had something he thought was not only right but different.

The “different” is that most of this record is attitude–sly, winking, conspiratorial, joking. All of this was in pretty short supply at this time where you if you fashioned yourself a singer/songwriter AND wanted to be funny, you either had to come from a folk tradition (see Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Lehrer) or be the ringmaster and main attraction of a traveling circus (see David Bowie and Alice Cooper), a guy with a guitar or a guy at the center of a spectacle (women are rarely allowed to be funny in music. Which is gross, plain and simple). Perhaps Nick Lowe’s greatest achievement was the middle ground, a wit, even one as dry as pavement at high noon, without a bunch of theatrics or politics for ballast. Just funny for funny’s sake. 

The problem is that Nick Lowe, at least at this very early stage of being NICK LOWE was funny all the time and emotionally tuned in for about half that. Too much of the opening of this record is clever instead of present as if Mr. Lowe thought we wouldn’t get the joke if he let his band actually play instead of hold back. And despite the mission statement here, this is exactly the wrong place to put the airless hip stuff. It makes you want to quit on the record before it’s even really begun. 

Don’t though. By “Shake and Pop” (Track #4), Lowe finds it. Songs rock out almost like metal numbers and at least one is a blues durge as guttural as a Leadbelly cut. All are completely self-assured without being cocky and unwilling to commit, emotionally speaking. By Track #4 Nick Lowe is acting like an adult musician with a bratty sense of humor instead of a clever brat with fake detachment from his own creation.

At 21 songs, the back half of the record is erratic. He doesn’t make the cute-rather-than-true mistake again but not every song can be “Cruel to Be Kind” or the dopey glee  of “Rollers Show”  (about yes, going to a Bay City Rollers concert) and the slow boil feminist anger of “Born a Woman.” 

I am sure Nick Lowe grew and matured. He’s in his early 7os now and 15 albums into a career. But really it strikes me that his greatest influence will be his descendants, Costello and Jackson and the list of musicians they influence we could reel off until we passed out from lack of oxygen.

Would I try more Nick Lowe? Sure. Despite what I just said, I already like him more than Elvis Costello and as much as Joe Jackson. In the case of Joe Jackson, that’s quite a bit.

Hits:

“Cruel to Be Kind”
“Nutted by Reality”
“Halfway to Paradise”
“Roller Show

Misses:

“Music for Money”
“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”
“Little Hitler”

Up Next: “The Specials” by “The Specials” 

Mar292023

A History of Alternative Music One Album at a Time: 1977-2001: Album 1-25: “Fear of Music” by Talking Heads

Fear of Music by The Talking Heads

Some Context:

I’ve chosen/solicited from friends the records for this project because I have no personal expertise with any of them and see this as an empty shelf of my own musical knowledge I’d like to fill. I don’t have a good explanation why this is. It just means for every record we look at here, there will be some long glance of inscrutability over what I didn’t know coming in. Born in 1973 with Nevermind dropping the first week of my freshman year of college, I am exactly of the right age to be proud member of the “Our Band Could Be Your Life” generation and for these records to be the formative sonic moments of my youth. And for some reason they just weren’t.

Some would become that later. Like much later, like owning property, years-in-the-workforce later. I’ve left those artists (The Cure, Depeche Mode) pretty much out of this project as I know their work pretty well.

In we go then with only what I hear and learn in the present. I’ve no memories or nostalgia. My only context is now. And with that….

I really liked “Fear of Music” (1977) the third studio album by Talking Heads and the only one I had never heard before. I was a “Remain-in-Light” and forward Talking Heads admirer up until this point. Of course I knew what “Psycho Killer” and any other jam of theirs that appears in the Stop Making Sense movie were. But my time with the band’s eight studio albums was back-heavy. Talking Heads as already-famous critical darlings knocking on the gates of the mainstream I knew. Talking Heads as a CBGBs mainstay achieving escape velocity? No.

Imagine my delight then when FOM kicks off the with Afrofunk/beat poetry mashup of “I Zimbra” (the lyrics are apparently nonsense on purpose) and basically holds this grove the whole record. Some songs are more feeling than substance (Side 2 can feel like enough material for 2 songs that producer Brian Eno and band stretched into 5). But consistent with a feeling I often get from learning about music from the African-diaspora, there’s a commitment to a groove, to pleasure even when the song aims to be deadly serious.

The best example is, of course, the immortal “Life During Wartime” a futuristic jab of cynicism of an America drunk on its own SOMA of consumerism and violence which still manages to be great fun to dance to. The jerky-yet-unfailing enthusiasm of David Byrne’s voice and the willingness to place Chris Franz’s percussion higher and louder in the mix keeps much of this album between the hips as well as the ears.

I’d gladly purchase this on vinyl (I am only in for two of the bands eight records on wax at present) while passing on the 33 1/3 book about it (Jonathan Letham was an asshole to me at a book festival many years ago and I’ve never forgiven him for it) but might need an argument from wiser minds  on if I need the later records like “Naked.”

 

Hits:

“I Zimbra”

“Cities”

“Life During Wartime”

“Heaven”

 

Misses:

“Mind”

“Paper”

 

 Up next ” “Jesus of Cool” by Nick Lowe.

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