Monday, November 20, 2017

Favorite Album of 2017 Contenders

It's that time of year for best of lists to start rolling out.  At some point I started a google doc with new albums and my ratings for them, but life is a thing that happens so that kind of went to shit. Anyway, I more or less know what will be in my top 5, but beyond that is kind of open right now.

I've been contributing over at Saint Audio where I posted a piece about a new app called Stationhead, for you iOS people. I started a station on there and have already loaded some of the top album contenders on there, so go check that out. If at some point, I see there are actually people listening, I might say a few words.

If you don't have access to iOS, Stationhead or a Spotify premium account, you can get a sample of the albums I'm considering on this playlist. Go listen, one way or the other and soon I'll begin my countdown. As I've said in previous years, I intentionally use the word favorite and not best. I don't know what the best is, just what I like. Fight me.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Perfect (Cover) Songs - Alison

elvis costello

I'm just going to get to the pretty obvious and well established point: Elvis Costello is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, period. The fact that one of his greatest songs comes from his very first album in a long and ridiculously productive career is a testament to this fact. "Alison" is one of those songs that is brilliantly original and yet, somehow, stupidly obvious in how it taps into musical and emotional ideas that just seem to be part of the fabric of existence. While there have been many covers, few come even close to the original's simple perfection. In fact, most covers are pretty bad, but there's one that I think finally matches the original, and comes close to surpassing it, but first let's hear from the man himself.

This early live version trades in some of the soulful polish for, maybe, even more soulful, raw emotional edge. The droning organ in this version really amps the moodiness where this could be a small bar with nobody in it and Elvis is some nobody who just lived this moment where he saw his long lost love after years and is now just laying it all out for whoever happens to be there to listen. While Elvis can certainly mine new feelings from this or any of his songs with every performance, along comes the one cover that has blown me away, from Lydia Loveless.

I've been listening more and more to Loveless the past couple of years and I'm always moved by how plaintively empathetic her delivery is on everything she does, but here it really stands out to me. Stripped down to just guitar and vocal, this can't get anymore raw and nobody right now does raw like her. It comes across as incredibly open and honest in just the way that Elvis's best work usually does, but her very distinct and natural twang adds both sweetness and edge in a unique combination that makes this hers. Lately, when I feel like listening to this song, this is the version I pull up. Although, occasionally, I go back to back with this and the original. To think this was just a b-side for her. Then there's a Linda Ronstadt version that was a minor hit for her. But, man, it's pretty horrible.

That sax is just completely out of place and it comes across as this light FM thing you'd hear in an elevator. But worse to me is that she changes the whole tone of the song for no reason by altering the best line in the song from "I don't know if you've been loving somebody, I only know it isn't mine" to "I don't know if you were loving somebody, I only hope he wasn't mine." Is Alison the other woman to Linda's husband in this scenario?  I don't know, but the rest of the lyrics don't change, so it makes no damn sense at all. Yet, as bad as that is. . .

Bono is as insufferable as his worst caricatures on this cover and I actually like U2. Had he ever even heard the song before? Bono the Butcher they should call him. Fuck. I don't care that Elvis is there with him, this is a disaster. I mean, I know I celebrate rawness and this is certainly raw and unhinged, but damn, dude, there's a limit. This goes way beyond the guy at an empty bar singing out his heartache and right into drunken ex-boyfriend doing bad, heartfelt karaoke at Alison's wedding while everyone stares in horror - you know what, fuck it, this is actually kind of brilliant now that I think of it like that. The bizarre scatting at the end is the best part. This is now my new favorite version (not really).

Monday, November 6, 2017

First on First - Jimmy the Exploder

jimmy the exploder

The White Stripes first album was released on the day of my 26th birthday, though I wouldn't know they existed until about 2 years later when I first saw the iconic video for "Fell in Love With a Girl" and instantly fell in love with a band. I think I bought all three albums they had out at the same time and just played the living fuck out of them. They were raw and unpretentious and deceptively simple. But if you paid attention, it was clear none of it was just tossed off. It was crafted by a genius, from the songs to the production to the visuals and the mythology. Were Jack and Meg really brother and sister? Were they previously married? Both!? It was easy to track down the truth online, but maybe it was better not to. And the colors. Always the same three colors, from that video I loved with the stop motion, abstract Lego mosaic duo playing to every album cover and every outfit: red, white and black. Always. Somehow those colors were enough just like a drum and guitar were enough. It's primal and primitive and childlike - but not childish. Innocent but not naive. And the first song on the first album is a concise representation of all this and more. "Jimmy the Exploder" not only captures the sound but also the general experimental aesthetic energy of the band and all they would go on to become.

Blown out and pounding this screaming garage beat has undeniable energy. It just instantly makes you want to jump around the monkeys on the bed, yelling "hoo hoo hoo!" It's before you know it, but not before taking somehow making you think of everything from Led Zeppelin and The Ramones to The Violent Femmes and Son House, all filtered through a couple of kids just messing around with toy instruments. Seriously, every time I heard this songs back then and still today, I'll notice some other little bit that obliterates the whole "it's so simple" veneer all over it. What's the song about? Well, Jack White says "I’d been writing all these childish songs, like ‘Jimmy the Exploder’ from our first album – this story I made up about this monkey who exploded things that weren’t the color red."

The rest of the album adds more layers to this but not more complexity. At the time the thankfully dropped term "blunk" for blues+punk was tossed around to describe the sound. While that's a stupid label for many reasons, not the least of which being that punk already contains blues in it, it was understandable that a new label was sought. But I think the mistake was that the sound itself was not necessarily what was new, but rather the approach. In that sense, the punk part was true and there's obviously a strong blues influence in everything Jack White has ever done. But, the essence of The White Stripes was always the sense of discovery. From Meg White's primal drumming to Jack White's insistence on using shitty guitars, it's like the music comes out through shear force of will and that struggle is what gives it urgency. It's as if each song on the album was caught by pure luck because they likely couldn't play it exactly the same again. The fact that they famously didn't use set-lists in concert only added to this. Having seen them in concert, I can attest that what they did was magical and every song was alive in a spontaneous way that I've never experienced at another show.

It would be an exaggeration to say that "Jimmy the Exploder" contains everything they would ever do in it's 2 and a half minutes. But the essence, the feeling, the possibilities are all there. It sets everything up, laying some of the cards on the table, and while their would be many other cards to come, they'd all be coming from this one very unique deck. As unexpected as each new deal might be, what would strike you more is how one simple deck could have so many amazing combinations.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Perfect Songs - Winter

tori amos

I have a playlist I've put together I call Zoey Sleep, that we use for the shocking purpose of getting my 4 year old daughter to sleep. It's not your typical set of lullabies, but instead features songs from Juliana Hatfield, Tanya Donelly, Bon Iver, Alison Krauss and several others. I add to it once in a while and she likes the songs I've added. But there's one that not only works best, it has a whole other impact on me: Tori Amos' "Winter.," a perfect song.

This song has taken on new meanings for me over the past 8 or so years, since the birth of our first daughter. Most nights, it works like a charm, calming Zoey down quickly which is a big deal if you know Zoey. It used to do the same for Shayera. And that calmness comes with a lot of reflection on my part as well as it gives me a few minutes of just laying with my daughter, listening to the lyrics and having images run through my mind. Every single time, there are tears. Usually they come after the girl is asleep, and I can just lay there listening to the rest of it.

I've always thought of this song as a (better) companion to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," complete with the father daughter relationship and the images of snow. The whole concept of growing older and somehow colder, from the daughter's perspective, and how the father is still there for her, knowing what the future will bring as she faces her teenage years, etc. Look, the song speaks for itself. It's beautiful and multilayered and it was always one of, if not my very favorite of Tori's songs. To the point that we briefly toyed with naming our first born Winter. But my moments with the girls tend to turn the song around a bit, because I imagine the conversation in it slightly different than is perhaps intended.

In my version, the father (me) and the daughters are both sort of saying parts of the lyrics to each other. "You must learn to stand up for yourself cause I can't always be around" is the guiding principal and heartbreaking truth that guides every parent that gives a shit about their kids. And maybe even more so when it's daughters facing a world that continues to be shitty to women. "When you gonna love you as much as I do?" could easily be my daughters telling me that when they were first born and I was really overwhelmed by what the love felt like from them and for them. And I hope it's not something I ever have to say to them, but then the song also goes into the complexity of what our relationship may be like as she gets older, when she says she'll always want her father near and he responds with "things change." By the time the song swells with the last verse about grey hairs, dreams on a shelf and wanting each other to be proud of the other, I'm usually laying in a puddle of tears.


I've always said the most tragic thing you can give a child is a balloon. It's really just a metaphor for mortality and never ends in happiness. It's just this ball of impending sadness. Either you watch it slowly die as it floats less each day, withering like a senile relative before your eyes in a matter of days, or it floats away before you had a chance to truly get to know it, forever a memory of happiness that really could never have been. Sure you can suck the life out of it and speak in a funny voice for a few seconds, but then you're a murderer and empty inside (yeah, just go with it). Even with all this pain, it doesn't prepare you for the realities of parenting. The dread you feel at maybe not being able to be there for them, no matter what, leads to panic when you realize you obviously can't. And then you scramble, daily, to prepare them for EVERYTHING, as if anybody possibly could. But you know full well you can't. You've lived this life and you know what it's done to you. I remember every balloon I've lost both literal and figurative. And it sucks that I can't keep my kids from losing their share as well.

So, yeah, I get a little warm in my heart when I think of Winter.