Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Perfect Songs - Manna

This originally appeared over (formerly FDRMX) back in December of 2014. At the time, I was beyond thrilled because Tanya Donelly commented on it. A week later, my dog, Kane, died and I was devastated, but this song had laid some kind of groundwork for me to deal with it. Over there it was filed under Single Review, even though it wasn't a single. Here, I place it back in it's proper place as a Perfect Song.

I got to see Ms. Donelly with Belly last year in Brooklyn, and while I didn't get to hear this song live, it was still moving to finally get to hear her live, in person and at close range after all the years of wanting to.

Lovesongs for Underdogs

Emotional responses to music do not depend on having any understanding of what the song is supposed to be about. In many cases it can happen even if you don’t understand the language at all and there are instrumentals that can evoke very specific feelings. Sometimes we do understand the language but the lyrics are just cryptic enough to somehow put you in a very vivid, if mysterious frame of mind. You won’t know what the original intent of the song is, but it won’t matter, and really it hardly ever does. When art manages to connect with something universal, while doing something that is likely very specific, it’s breathtaking, but when it does this and maintains a certain air of mystery that allows you to make it wholly your own, we’re in a transcendent space altogether. For me, a clear example of this is Tanya Donelly’s “Manna” off her first solo album, Lovesongs for Underdogs.

I fell in love with this song the instant I heard it, 17 years ago. It opens with a quiet whistling wind like sound that leads to a simple acoustic guitar chord progression, complete with fret noise that seems to suggests weariness. The song instantly transports me to another room and though I’m not entirely sure what is in that room, I know it’s white and there is a large open window with white lace drapes, letting the light shine through. And although the room is comfortable and providing some sort of relief, there’s a sense of sadness in it, or perhaps just melancholy. It might be grief. But tt might not be. It might just be intense love that somehow makes one weep at the sheer beauty of life. Either way, Tanya says she is “here now and I’m staying put, for reasons, my reasons” and I’m moved by her voice and presence. And she never tells us her reasons, which only helps this song become yours as you fill in your own reasons. Is this a deathbed she’s sitting next to? If so, whose? I don’t know, but it affects me in a very deep way that I cannot explain.

Once the chorus kicked in that first time I heard this song, and every time since, I was blasted with nostalgia that I could not put my finger on but also could not deny or avoid in any way. That marching snare drum and cello and the melody of Tanya’s angelic voice reminded me of something from my childhood. Over the years I’ve determined that it somehow brings to mind an artist my parents used to play when I was a kid, Demis Roussos. But try as I might, there’s no one specific song that I can say directly connects. It could be several, from “Goodbye My Love, Goodbye” to “Morir Al Lado De Mi Amor” or even his cover of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne a L’amour.” Interestingly, each one of those could also relate to “Manna” thematically, but I would not have known that from hearing them as a child.

I’ve always leaned towards thinking this song was about someone who comes to visit a dying loved one. Perhaps that’s because I took the lyric “and when I hold you like tomorrow you might die, well, that’s because you might, but I’m here now and I’m staying put for reasons my heart knows” literally. But over the years, I’ve also come to appreciate the preciousness of life to the point that I think I understand that we are always dying and now I think that’s what the song is about. And while that may be morbid, it’s also quite beautiful and touching to accept it so that you can fully love someone in the moment. What’s truly amazing to me is that while that idea comes through so clearly, there are verses about a “milky whiteness” that leave me scratching my head. Could the song be about trying to conceive a child? It’s likely this song is about something very specific in Tanya’s life, but I couldn’t care less to pry into what’s behind it because It’s now about so much more than what she might have intended that I think she succeeded, regardless. It’s a perfect song.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

IDLES, NYC 10/17/19 - I Was Done In On A Thursday

I guess it was about 6 months ago that I became obsessed with IDLES. I think I'd heard one or two songs before, but it wasn't until then that I really listened to the message. When I played Joy as an Act of Resistance for the first time I was moved in so many ways. The things they were singing were things I'd been feeling in stages for most of my fucking life and here I was at 46 years old before I really felt like another man really understood them the way I felt them. It wasn't one particular lyric, though if I had to boil it down it's obviously "The mask of masculinity, is a mask that's wearing me." But the entire feeling of the album made me feel heard and understood and like there was hope for the next generation after all. 

I've watched countless videos of their live shows and at some point while witnessing the beautiful madness I decided I must be a part of it. I’d never been in a real mosh pit, aside from that now almost laughable incident at Arctic Monkeys, 9 years ago. Again with those regrets I've spoken of before - things I wish I'd done when I was younger but I was too paralyzed by fear, depression, self-doubt and shyness. I've halfway denied that my increase in concert attendance over the last 10 years has been a midlife crisis, but in some ways I guess it has been. 

So, when I saw they were playing the last stop of a pretty short US tour at New York's Terminal 5, I started to figure out how I could justify going. And it quickly evolved into a trip where I would be alone in NYC for nearly 24 hours, with no room. Fly in, kill time, go to the show, kill more time, go home. Anyway, there's definitely something great about just being aimless and on your own in NYC. Still, it was a pretty long day before I even got to Terminal 5, so I was worried I'd be too tired to really enjoy it.

I got there just a few minutes before doors opened, so the line was pretty long. Yet, somehow I got in, went to the floor and stood 2 people from the front. I was excited now. At one point, during opener Preoccupations, I really had to go to the bathroom and got worried because I didn't want to lose my spot. I actually asked the dude next to me to hold it, he said he'd try and off I went. Coming back I felt like a complete dick and also realized (or should have realized) that getting in and out of this crowd was going to be impossible once IDLES came out.  And when they did come out, and started with the ever building crescendo of Colossus, well, reality laughed it's ass off at my midlife crisis.

The crowd behind me, all however hundreds there were, started this slow, rhythmic wave of that was crushing everyone. It would come forward, then back, then to the sides, then forward, getting slowly more intense. I quickly put my phone away and raised my arms up over my head so I could actually use them. I instantly knew I was going to die if I stayed and that I basically had no choice. And then I went into instant denial figuring this would get easier when it got faster. 

Among the things I regret but not because I never did them is getting blackout drunk. There's a night I won't detail, where I remember grabbing a drink and then it’s just  hazy, out of body flashes of crying and panic all around me, and then waking up on the kitchen floor wearing nothing but wet shorts. Those flashes of haze, where the details are completely lost, are something I do remember vividly as being quite scary. Once the last part of "Colossus" started - the hardcore tag that was supposedly going to be easier - I started to feel like that haze thing was coming over me. But my terror was mine alone. The crowd was actually fine and there was no danger of anyone intentionally harming me in anyway. That much was clear, but made it no less terrifying.

Pic from the excellent piece at Pancakes and Whiskey.
As “Colossus” went right into “Never Fight a Man with a Perm” my mouth went instantly dry. I was trying to jump and scream along, thinking I just have to get more excited, which I did, but it was no use. Quickly, the spirit of denial that was trying to keep me there, gave up and said "fuck this dude, you’re not equipped for this, get out of here." Now I had to figure out how to swim against this fucking raging ocean current and get out before I passed out. 

It took the entirety of NFaMWaP, and into “Heel/Heal” during which the haze kept threatening, to finally get clear of the mosh. I have no fucking idea how I survived but I have a vague memory of singing along at several points, with what must have been a distant look of terror on my face, in between shouting “coming out!” to whoever would listen. At various stages, several people did about all anyone could have done in the midst of that chaos, yelling "let this guy out!" with concern and authority before fading back into the tumult. Thanks, kids, for helping an old man having a panic attack after biting off more than he could chew.

By the time I got to the bar where I planned on ordering about 5 gallons of water, I was completely drenched in sweat, only mostly my own. The pressure of hundreds of bodies pressed against me with full force and not having any control over it was still lingering in my insides and I have no idea how I stayed on my feet. It was like my internal organs had been moshed. But the thing is, I did stay on my feet. I came to mosh and I did. And no matter how it went, I can no longer say I never did it. And now I know. And now I'm free from. . . something.  And it somehow feels like this experience has served as a surrogate for just about every experience I regret not having when I was younger. I don't honestly know why that is, but it is and I'm grateful. And now, a few days later, while the feeling still lingers, I have to say I would try again, maybe stupidly, but still. I would have to get in much better shape before I did, but if IDLES come back again any time soon, I may try to be in the middle of it.

The rest of the show, I was on the outskirts because at that point even if I had wanted back in, there was no penetrating the edge of that mass of bodies. I kept noticing how even by the bars there would be ripples of the force coming through the crowd. 

The energy of that crowd was the direct result of a feedback loop between everyone there and the band as one fed the other which fed the other which fed the other, etc. "Goes and it goes and it goes." This was the thing I love about music made into a physical form where you could literally see the emotional energy radiating through the crowd and back to the stage as band members kept coming out and surfing over them. It's one thing to see that on video or even from a distance, but to actually feel that in the room is beautifully powerful. 

And to top it all off, it's not wasted power. Because at the heart of everything this band does is community, love and acceptance. Being in a crowd that large that is receptive and welcoming of these things was quite moving. Singing “Samaritans” and "Danny Nedelko" at the top of our lungs together after Joe Talbot spoke about the fucked up state of the world and how New York was built by immigrants and the idea of true community was particularly special. 

Once it was all over, walking out of Terminal 5, everyone was overwhelmed by how amazing it was. Many were saying it was the best show they’d ever been to and as I walked the streets of NYC, no matter how far from the venue I got, I kept hearing people singing out IDLES lyrics in the distance from different directions. The message was spreading.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Songs of the Times - Going to a Town

rufus wainwright

In 2007, Rufus Wainwright released a song that I've always thought was the most complete in capturing the post 9/11 Bush era of sadness and impending doom. It would be one more year before we entered the supposed era of hope under Obama and while that hope was real no matter how imperfect, the stage had already been set and the racist backlash against Obama and the deeper entrenchment of the far right pulling everyone with them has proven to be unstoppable. Now, 11 years after its release, and particularly this week - the push to rob transgender people of their identity, the racist lies about an impending caravan of immigrants from South America, bombs sent to prominent Democrats, the right dismissing it as a hoax, and then today a shooting at a synagogue - "Going to a Town" is even more prescient than it was in 2007.

This song has always made me cry, but the other day, driving home after reading a few bits of information about the bomber (I won't use the cutesy, catchy name based on the president's shitty motto, fuck that) and other miscellaneous chaos, and thinking about how fucked the country is and the whole world because of it, it really got to me. I've never been a patriot by any stretch of the imagination. As a matter of fact, imagination is good word because my guiding principal - if I even have one - when it comes to countries, religion and isms in general is John Lennon's "Imagine," no matter how much of a hypocrite he was. But even though I've never really felt "America" in the way that people do, I do know that I'm deeply "American." I've benefited from it and do enjoy the lofty idea of it. Where I've always drawn the line is in any sort of allegiance or deification of it and its principals. Or any one country's for that matter, because I'm also a Trekkie. That being said, its loss is still sad and that's what this song is about.

I'll leave it at that because going on any more of a depressive rant about the state of the world would just be too damn much. Over on Saint Audio, we posted 2 (so far) Halloween playlists that touch on how we're feeling as well. It's kind of hard to shake, really. It's either completely forget about it or be consumed with feelings of helplessness. My choice for now is to, symbolically at least, go to a town where I'm more present with my family and enjoy what we have now - NOW. And if the revolution does come (and that is it what it will take, don't kid yourselves), great, but I'm not optimistic. What does that mean for the day to day when human rights and lives are at stake? I don't know that either.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to work and on the side of the road there was a guy standing next to what I guess was some kind of Buddhist monk, in full robes - in Davie fucking FL of all places. The monk was calmly holding the man by the shoulders and seemed to be trying to ease his turmoil - whatever that might have been. The man seemed a little agitated, but glad to be listening, glad to be heard, glad for some kind of connection and understanding. There were no other pedestrians, and this is not an area where this sort of thing would ever happen. There is no Buddhist monastery anywhere near there. So it was way out of left field to see this. I don't know what it means or if I was reading way more into it because of my state of mind, but either way, it stayed with me. All I know is that if there is anything positive that has come out of the severe state of fuck the world is in it has been in how ordinary humans of certain mindsets have sort of stepped up their game in terms of every day kindness - whether it's too late or not. That's the town that I'm going to, because I am sick and fucking tired of "America."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 1 - Nicole Atkins' Goodnight Rhonda Lee

goodnight rhonda lee

I'm not one for cheesy nostalgia, but I'm a sucker for music that can recall a time and place while still being fresh and timeless. Whether it's music made in the period in question or just as an homage to that period, the songs have to feel alive. This is usually not achieved by accident. It takes work but the final element to make it successful is to make it seem like it didn't take work - like the music just sort of came together, spur of the moment. Nicole Atkins' Goodnight Rhonda Lee feels so immediate that it almost comes across as an improvisational jam session. If you didn't know any better, you could believe these songs are all covers, though you may not be able to pin down exactly where the original came from.

This is essentially a break-up album where the relationship is with one's former self. Rhonda Lee is Atkins' name for her alter ego when she was drinking. Knowing that, the album's title and lyrics all come into focus as a nakedly personal expression. The thing is, none of it comes across as being quite that literal or ever crosses the line into being wallowing or navel gazing. The fact is, you don't need to know what it's really about to enjoy it or get the more universal truths of the lyrics and the emotions behind them. Who can't relate to a line like "All that I have left is the sound of my own breath/And then darkness falls so quiet/But the loneliness can have it’s own allure/I can keep the quiet and keep myself inside/Cuz my records are old friends/I have trusted in them many times before" from "Darkness Falls so Quiet"?

This year has not been easy for many reasons. While protest and facing issues head on in more explicit ways through art is important, sometimes things that are not about the fight specifically can work just as well if not better. An album about changing, maturing and putting harmful things behind you is as important as one about fighting injustice. And personal growth is always welcomed. We can all hopefully learn to "Listen Up" when listening to Atkins sing "I should’ve listened up when I was young/But I always talked to much/Punch drunk on some bad luck/Hard times/You gotta make mistakes to know/It takes mistakes to grow/And now I know I gotta listen up." The reward for this personal growth is that we can "wake up from a nightmare to a dream" as the album's closer, "A Dream Without Pain" tells us. This final song is musically reminiscent of "Knockin on Heaven's Door" but instead of Dylan's weariness, it leaves us hopeful while we put the past behind us.

This summer, as hurricane Irma took aim on Florida, we made the decision to pack the family up and head out of town. The stressful trip had it's ups and downs, and it's no exaggeration to say that having Goodnight Rhonda Lee on repeat for most of the trip made it that much better. I wrote about this before, here. This album will always be special to me. That level of connection to music is why I started this blog in the first place and having an album that is also beautiful on it's own merits accomplish this is icing on the cake.