Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lonesome Crowded West - 20th Anniversary Review

I thought about writing this review a few weeks ago, but I wasn't sure there was any point. Modest Mouse fans already know they at least like the album, and most fans will consider it the best or close to the best thing the band has ever released. For me, it's definitely my favorite Modest Mouse album, making it my favorite album of all time by default. But back to my original thought; why am I even writing this?

Is it for you, for me, for the band? Do I hope to convince you of its utter brilliance? Am I hoping that these words will inspire someone to check out the album who otherwise would not?

In the end, I'm writing it because I recently found that something in my head was dictating the words while I was trying to sleep. If I don't do this, it will haunt me.

If you are like me, some of your current favorite music did not instantly grab you the first time you heard it. Lonesome Crowded West falls into that category for me. However, investing time in several complete listens might just unlock the 'thing' that makes this the best album ever released. That's asking a lot in an age when most people are looking for instant gratification. They aren't looking for a homework assignment. Here's why you might consider it.

Lonesome Crowded West is like art. It's a Dali painting or a David Lynch movie in musical form. This album has layers and texture! It's too vast to assimilate with a casual single listen. There's just too much going on underneath. I might compare it to the difference between checkers and chess. Until you can hold the entire pattern of each song in your head, and absolutely know what is coming next, you can't fully appreciate this music.

Are you bored yet? Here's another image.

I bought Lonesome Crowded West, played it, and decided it was very good. Not as good as The Moon and Antarctica, but very good. It was about ten years later that it climbed to the very top of my Modest Mouse favorites and longer still before it became my favorite music by anyone. I want to visit the places on the album cover and learn to play all the songs. This review is yet another way I can hope to get a little closer to the music.

Let's take a look at the actual songs to see what all the fuss is about:

The album opens with an almost baffling assault on the senses. Teeth Like God's Shoeshine is my favorite track by anyone. The opening few seconds fling you into utter chaos. It's a fast, spiraling, guitar-driven beginning which soon features Isaac Brock's shouted vocals. "From the top of the ocean to the bottom of the sky." He's taking you on a journey and you have no control. The first 30 seconds pack in so much action before switching gears into the next phase (layers upon layers). After 90 seconds, Brock lets us catch our breath as the tempo shifts again. You'll notice as you work your way through this album that the lyrics are incredible. This is true of all Modest Mouse albums. The intelligence is always present. Who is the man with teeth like God's shoeshine? He sounds like some kind of salesman. The song forecasts the demise of the mall among other things. The flow of this music is hypnotic, urgent, essential, repetitive and reflective, all at the same time. Just when you think it's all over, Brock springs into action and gives us another minute of fiery guitar. Oh my goddamn! This song inspired me to make a fan video, so I am familiar with every tiny little detail. Here's the video if you are interested.

One song down, 15 to go. The second track would be my personal choice as Modest Mouse's anthem. Heart Cooks Brain is a very different beast and it quietly flows rather than assaulting you. The opening sounds sinister, as if Brock is taking you down a secret path in the woods. "On the way to God don't know, my brain's the burger and my heart's the coal." I love the line "I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears." And of course, the bitter buffalo. The lyrics almost magically flow together as if the words have only ever been used in this song. The whole time, guitar is woven into the sound, giving that extra texture. Brock is very restrained in his delivery, but the song is extremely potent and one of the band's best. The sudden ending is perfect.

Convenient Parking is one of those repetitive songs that bores its way into your brain and never really leaves. The style matches the subject matter. We're stuck in cars for way too long every week and it does get repetitive. Our lives can seem futile if we allow it. We are creatures of habit and we put up with a lot in order to earn the money that allows us to exist.

Have you ever played the game of judging an album by the quality of the first three tracks? I do that all the time. Hard to beat the three that start Lonesome Crowded West.

The album sounds terrific on vinyl and that's the format I am using for this review. That way, there's an extra track. Baby Blue Sedan shows Brock in mellow and reflective mood. "A nice heart and a white suit and a baby blue sedan, and I am doing the best that I can." This song would work well as the first part of an encore. It fits well at the end of side one. It's another song with perfect flow.

Side two opens with Jesus Christ Was An Only Child. You'll have noticed that a lot of Modest Mouse songs mention God in some way, but is clear that Brock isn't a fan or a believer. This song has a repetitive delivery over a prominent violin. "I know now what I knew then, but I didn't know then what I know now." And the violin continues weaving throughout the song. The innocent song runs its course and then a monster...

Doin' the Cockroach has claims as the best song on the album. I have it a hair behind Teeth Like God's Shoeshine. As the lyrics at the top of this post brilliantly proclaim, "I was in heaven, I was in hell, believe in neither but fear them as well." I wonder how many people feel the same way? This song is flat out exciting to me. The whole delivery is filled with adrenaline and I find it impossible to keep myself from shouting along. The lyrics contain a lot of insight, but it's the guitar-driven delivery which elevates the song to the elite tier of Modest Mouse songs. Brock shouts his way through a lot of the lyrics. As I once read somewhere, he sings like he's being chased by wasps. That's definitely true in Cockroach. See if you agree.

How do you follow that? Luckily, side two contains three superb songs that all have strong claims for inclusion in a Modest Mouse Top 10. Cowboy Dan is another with an almost sinister guitar line. Brock transitions from shouting for all he is worth to more reflective phases of the song. He's only partially possessed in this one. As I mentioned at the outset, it's hard to take everything in on the first listen. Cowboy Dan grows into something memorable after a few repeat listens. You end up craving that guitar line. "He drove the desert, fired his rifle in the sky and says, 'God, if I have to die, you will have to die'." I love the part where Brock slows it all down and gives us a few lines of wisdom:

Standing in the tall grass thinking nothing
You know we need oxygen to breathe oxygen to breathe

Every time you think you're walking you're just moving the ground
Every time you think you're talking you're just moving your mouth
Every time you're looking you're just looking down

Side two is just as incredible as side one because next up is Trailer Trash. The song eases its way in. "Eating snowflakes with plastic forks." "Short love with a long divorce." I like honesty in songs and in people in general. Trailer Trash seems to be a brutally honest assessment of Brock's early life. It builds into one of the more traditional song structures, so it is probably one of the easiest to absorb on the first listen. The last two minutes focus on the music and it's really fleshed out compared to the simple opening verses. I'm tempted to say it's a microcosm of Modest Mouse's career so far, but that sounds pretentious even to me.

Side three is a road trip. All four songs are about driving or some kind of travel. Out Of Gas meanders along, occasionally throwing out brilliant lyrics such as "opinions were like kittens we were giving them away." The simple theme and structure continues in Long Distance Drunk, which is a link to the shortest and longest songs on the album. Shit Luck is an absolute rant and is on the attack from the very first line. "This plane is definitely crashing." It shakes you out of the false sense of security of the previous track. Guitars are furiously spiraling away and the relentless drumming helps drive the song. It's quite amusing in its way. The final track on side three is a shade under 11 minutes long. Truckers Atlas is another grower. It seeps into your subconscious and the more you listen, the more you hear. It's repetitive, but always interesting. I particularly enjoy Green's drumming and the guitar layers that fill the song. If you're interested in how these songs developed, I give Pitchfork's documentary on the album my highest recommendation.

Only one more side and this 78-minute epic is over. Side four begins with the gentle Polar Opposites. It's hard to find much to say about this song. It's one of those that has perfect structure. Every instrument, every note, is just where it should be.

Bankrupt On Selling has to be the rawest song on the album. Honest lyrics usually do sound raw.

"Well, I'll go to college and I'll learn some big words
And I'll talk real loud, goddamn right I'll be heard
You'll remember the guy who said all those big words
He must have learned in college"

If you own the CD version, Lounge (Closing Time) is track four. On the vinyl, it seems to work better. For some strange reason, I never hear people talk about this song. I have no idea why. The scratchy guitar opens the way for Brock to give us a lot of information in the first minute of the song. The scene is set and the pattern repeats.

"I've got a girlfriend out of the city
I know I like her, I think she is pretty"

The thing that makes this song so great is the way the band starts rocking out at around the 3-minute mark. This segment is up there with anything the band has ever done. Maybe most people don't like all-out guitar rants as much as I do? Of course, Brock slows everything down again. It's hard to remember that the song is seven minutes long and has several phases. Those phases within each song are one of the reasons I love Modest Mouse. There's always something different before very long.

The final song is almost exactly the same length as the first. Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice On Ice, Alright mentions religion. It has several phases. It has repetitive sequences. The tempo shifts from reflective to exciting. The second part of the song is incredible live. In short, it's a typical Modest Mouse song.

"I'm in heaven trying to figure out which stack
They're going to stuff us atheists into when Peter and his monkey laugh
And I laugh with them
I'm not sure what at."

"God takes care of himself and you of you."

Lonesome Crowded West is one of several brilliant Modest Mouse albums. It was released on November 18, 1997. All of the band's releases are worth your time. If you ever heard the album and dismissed it or forgot about it, I urge you to give it a few more listens. I love music and I think discovering the secrets this album holds was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

Join me in saying happy 20th anniversary to a superb musical journey.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Stephen King Rant

Stephen King is not my favorite author; that honor goes to Lois McMaster Bujold or Orson Scott Card, with Dan Simmons not far behind. I'm essentially a fan of science fiction. I've read the Vorkosigan series and the Ender Wiggin series more often than I can recall. That said, I felt compelled to write about Stephen King today.

I used to read a lot more often than I do now, but my life has changed drastically over the past few months and reading has assumed greater importance once again. After going to hospital for what I thought was a fairly routine test, I was told that I had a serious heart condition. Two days later I was sitting in bed after undergoing a quadruple bypass. One of the consequences of that rapid series of events is that I was forced to miss work for three months. However, it also allowed me additional time to read. Friends bought me a copy of Mr. Mercedes to entertain me while I was recuperating and I read it in less than two days. I had almost forgotten how enjoyable it could be to read a truly engaging story so I quickly picked up the other two books in the Bill Hodges trilogy and read them within a week of opening the first book.

I'm also waiting to move to a new apartment, but it isn't quite ready. All of my existing books and other possessions have been placed in storage while I continue to wait, so I am staying with the same friends who bought me Mr. Mercedes. Since reading that, I have bought another 12 Stephen King books. The spare bedroom in my friends' house is starting to resemble a library.

I wouldn't claim to be Stephen King's biggest fan; I own perhaps 40 of his books and have read about half of them so far. I'm not really a fan of horror at all, but I am open to any book or movie genre if the story is well-written. If you are somehow new to King, I also want to point out that only a small percentage of his books are horror; most have supernatural elements, but the stories have so much more depth than most books in those genres. They are not vehicles intended to simply scare the reader. That's partly why I am bothering to write this post because I wanted, no, needed to tell you how much I have been enjoying and appreciating King's writing in the past few weeks.

Although King has received plenty of recognition, there are still a lot of people who can't take his work seriously because it is fiction. Others want to label him as a horror writer or too weird. That's a pity because there is so much more to his writing than what genres he happens to operate within. I think he's successful because the roots of his stories are situations which exist in the real world. His characters and the situations they find themselves in are usually easy for us to recognize because we have experienced similar thoughts and problems in our own lives. I don't mean that I have ever been possessed, or that I have supernatural abilities, but haven't you ever found yourself agreeing with one of King's characters when they decide upon a course of action? The logic and reasoning works. I often become that character when I read whatever book it happens to be.

Like David Lynch's films, King's work is composed of normal everyday elements with a small twist or addition that changes everything. King understands what makes us tick and could probably write a wonderful book on human behavior.

My own experiences reading Stephen King's extensive bibliography have always been extremely positive. I love how normal the world of Needful Things is when the story begins and how things slowly escalate until there is utter chaos; every step makes sense. In The Dark Half, Thad Beaumont has such a believable ordinary life until his imagination creates physical manifestations. You can imagine yourself facing those problems and making similar choices to those of King's characters.

Two of my favorite movies are based on Stephen King stories; The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile make us think and feel. Sometimes I watch Shawshank and feel like I am Andy Dufresne. I would try to survive by creating meaning in my enforced surroundings and music would definitely be one of the tools that would keep me sane. Another common theme in King's writing is coping with adversity. How would society adjust if all the rules no longer applied? The Stand is the supreme example because of the sheer depth of the story. It's more than a simple good versus evil yarn.

After racing through the Bill Hodges trilogy, I decided to buy more Stephen King books so that I could read them before returning to work. I finally decided it was time to read The Dark Tower and I picked up the first two books. Three days later I went to buy the remainder of the series after loving the first two installments. I was easily able to locate five of the six, but The Waste Lands was out of stock everywhere within 30 miles, so I started Doctor Sleep and ordered The Waste Lands from Amazon. Now I have The Waste Lands, but Doctor Sleep is too good to put down. First world problems?

To complete my recent obsessive behavior, I bought a ticket for an evening with Stephen and Owen King, discussing their upcoming book, Sleeping Beauties. Something told me I should seize such opportunities because they don't come along very often.

I'm sure most of you already understand the brilliance of Stephen King's writing or you wouldn't still be reading. In today's world, I think it's increasingly rare to set aside the time to read a lengthy novel. There are so many things competing for our time and focusing on one thing for more than ten minutes can be a challenge. I think I wrote this because I haven't felt so enthusiastic about reading for several years. I feel like I just discovered it for the first time. I may invent fire tomorrow.

Thank you Mr. King. See you in Toronto in a couple of months.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

One of the best deliveries I ever received

This post is for those of you who have a passion for music. If that's not your thing, you might have trouble understanding the level of excitement I felt when friends recently sent me a package of old records that I used to own.

First, here's the background story:

I left the UK in 2005 and decided to live my life in Canada. One of my decisions was to travel light, so I started giving away some of my things to friends and neighbors. At that time, I had a significant CD collection and listened to all of my music on a Marantz CD player, through a pair of Mission speakers. To my ears, music had never sounded so clear. I didn't feel the need to transplant my remaining vinyl records to another country. I hadn't even had the means to play them for several years. I ended up donating them to one of my closest friends. We spent years attending concerts together and countless evenings listening to music on the Marantz system, so he was the obvious choice.

More than 10 years passed without me giving a second thought to my old vinyl collection. Then one day, another close friend finally convinced me to give vinyl another try. I bought a turntable. That simple sentence actually required a lot more effort than you might imagine.

There are many areas where I will happily buy a budget option, but that's not the case when it comes to music. My usual thought process is to buy one of the entry level options from a proven manufacturer. I narrowed down my search and eventually found myself choosing between an Audio Technica LP120 and a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon (DC). The Pro-Ject was my final choice. Then I needed some records.

The biggest reason for attempting to improve the way I listened to music involved Modest Mouse. I had been a casual fan of the band for years, but during 2014, I found myself playing the band's music almost non-stop. The albums that I had dismissed as being too raw finally fell into place. I loved it all. How could I listen to that spectacular music in a way that would do it justice? I found myself ordering every Modest Mouse album on vinyl (I already owned the CDs). Unfortunately, the shipment was delayed until Strangers To Ourselves was released, so my initial new record collection was limited to Ugly Casanova's Sharpen Your Teeth. I gave the album one listen and I was completely sold on the vinyl experience. I found myself sitting in the dark listening to every note as if it was being played by a musician sitting across from me.

I spent about $1,000 on records and equipment before I heard that one record. If I hadn't liked the result, it would have been an expensive experiment. If you factor in concerts, the various format changes, equipment, and remastered and bonus versions of existing albums, I have easily spent $50,000 on music over the course of my life. It's safe to say that I'm a fan and that music is important to me.

That was a longer background story than I anticipated, sorry.

Ever since I rediscovered vinyl two years ago, I've had a dilemma. Just what exactly should I buy? If I just buy everything I already own on CD, am I wasting money? How many albums do I listen to on a regular basis? Can I justify buying things I might not play even once during the year? So I decided that vinyl would be the ultimate format for those albums that do receive regular play, and I would restrain myself beyond that. To further complicate things, I knew that eventually my friends would dig through their attic and return the records I gave them 12 years ago. I never anticipated asking for them back, but I didn't understand the level of passion I would feel for the old format. When I found out they weren't being played, I explained what it would mean to me if they could possibly be returned. Once that became a certainty, I had to reign in my purchases even more. What had I owned anyway? What would be in those boxes when I finally opened them?

As a result of all these unknowns, my record collection numbered just under a hundred until a certain package arrived a few days ago. I paid the shipping, which ended up being $280. To my surprise, the package took just one day to travel from England to Canada. I collected the records and sat down to document the experience. The first thing I noticed is that the entire package fit into two record cases, one black and one brown. I recognized those cases from my past. I had bought them around 30 years ago.

What would I find inside?

I started with the heavier brown box. It appeared crammed with a mixture of 12" singles and LPs.

Would I find anything embarrassing from my extreme youth? Probably not.

The first thing out of the box didn't even have a cover. Ah yes, The Beatles 1967-1970 compilation I had bought from a friend for 50 pence while I was in school. I decided to make an Excel spreadsheet as well as add everything into my Discogs collection. I didn't actually own any Beatles vinyl until that moment. While not a band I listen to very often, it was exciting to own an original pressing of something that had sentimental value to me.

Next out of the box was an album by the Fall. My favorite band from about 1980 to 1995 was heavily represented. I became more and more amazed at what was in the box. That first album, A Part Of America Therein, 1981, was one of 17 Fall albums in the box. The first 11 studio albums were all there, along with a live album, a few compilations, and the legendary Slates EP. There were also a number of 12" singles and 45s. Try to imagine yourself in a similar situation. One of the most important bands in your life is suddenly a huge part of your record collection again. The vast majority of the albums are original pressings and most are out of print (although a few are starting to see releases again).

One thing I noticed immediately was that everything was in incredible shape. No musty smell, damage, or warping of any kind. They actually look clean enough to play in many cases, but I'll definitely clean them first.

Next out of the box was Blondie. In fact, the first six studio albums were there, as well as a 12" and some of Debbie Harry's solo stuff. I almost bought Parallel Lines at the flea market every time I saw it. I'm glad I restrained myself.

All of these thoughts about music make me think about where our musical influences originate. My parents and grandparents never showed any interest when I was growing up, so my early favorites came from listening to the radio. Then, when I was about 12, my neighbor introduced me to the music of David Bowie. That has stuck with me for more than 40 years and I still own most of Bowie's output. Perhaps my biggest influences came from school and then the John Peel show. You can easily see Peel's influence here as 39 of the 111 records are by The Fall. I was delighted to find more bands originally discovered by listening to Peel's show. This first box included albums and EPs by Half Man Half Biscuit and Yeah Yeah Noh. Bands discovered at school included The Damned and John Cooper Clarke, so I was delighted to find Damned Damned Damned and two Clarke albums hiding in the box.

And so to the second box. It felt a lot lighter than the first because about half the records were 7" singles. That said, it was still an exciting package. The most welcome and unexpected record was definitely the original pressing of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. I remember buying it in the final years of school. The recent 180g remaster sounds fantastic, but it's incredible to own the original again. The black textured sleeve with its iconic logo was in superb shape.

Other welcome finds in the second box included singles from The Wedding Present, Sugarcubes, Pavement, Magazine, and Throwing Muses. My Muses vinyl collection is severely lacking and most of the albums are out of print, but it is good to have a few more singles and EPs to play on vinyl. There were a few other surprises, such as a Bill Nelson single on red vinyl and the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP, which has always been a favorite of mine.

Music is like a time machine. It allows us to travel back and experience all kinds of things, good and bad. The memories attached to these particular records are mostly very good and it's great to have doubled the size of my fledgling collection. I can't thank my friends enough for the effort involved in making this happen.

For those of you who like statistics as much as me, here is a full list of what was in the boxes:

Artist Title Format
Beatles 1967-1970 2LP
Beck Devils Haircut 7"
Belly Pretty Deep 7"
Belly Seal My Fate 7"
Blondie Sunday Girl 12"
Blondie AutoAmerican LP
Blondie Blondie LP
Blondie Eat To The Beat LP
Blondie Parallel Lines LP
Blondie Plastic Letters LP
Blondie The Hunter LP
Bowie, David Pinups LP
Bragg, Billy Between The Wars 7"
Breeders Head To Toe 10" EP
Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch 7" EP
Clarke, John Cooper Me And My Big Mouth LP
Clarke, John Cooper Zip Style Method LP
Damned Damned Damned Damned LP
Drugstore Fader 7"
Dury, Ian Do It Yourself LP
Fall Slates 10" MiniAlbum
Fall Hey! Luciani 12"
Fall Mr Pharmacist 12"
Fall The Peel Sessions 12"
Fall Why Are People Grudgeful? 12"
Fall Telephone Thing 12" EP
Fall Couldn't Get Ahead 12" Single
Fall Free Range 12" Single
Fall Living Too Late 12" Single
Fall There's A Ghost In My House 12" Single
Fall Victoria 12" Single
Fall Call For Escape Route 12" Single + 7" Single
Fall Kicker Conspiracy 2 x 7"
Fall Bingo-Master's Break-Out! 7"
Fall C.R.E.E.P. 7"
Fall Cruiser's Creek 7"
Fall How I Wrote 'Elastic Man' 7"
Fall Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul 7"
Fall Oh! Brother 7"
Fall Rehearsal Early '77 (Vol.1) 7"
Fall The Man Whose Head Expanded 7"
Fall Totally Wired 7"
Fall 77 - Early Years - 79 LP
Fall A Part Of America Therein, 1981 LP
Fall Bend Sinister LP
Fall Dragnet LP
Fall Grotesque (After The Gramme) LP
Fall Hex Enduction Hour LP
Fall Hip Priest And Kamerads LP
Fall I Am Kurious Oranj LP
Fall Live At The Witch Trials LP
Fall Palace Of Swords Reversed LP
Fall Perverted By Language LP
Fall Room To Live LP
Fall The Wonderful And Frightening World Of... LP
Fall This Nation's Saving Grace LP
Fall Totale's Turns (It's Now Or Never) LP
Fall Fall In A Hole LP + 12" EP
Fall The Frenz Experiment LP + 7"
Foxx, John No-One Driving 2 x 7"
Foxx, John Metamatic LP
Girls Against Boys Super-fire 10"
Half Man Half Biscuit The Trumpton Riots 12" EP
Half Man Half Biscuit Dickie Davies Eyes 12" Single
Half Man Half Biscuit Back Again In The D.H.S.S. LP
Half Man Half Biscuit Back In The D.H.S.S. LP
Harry, Debbie Free To Fall (Picture Disc) 12" Maxi
Harry, Debbie KooKoo LP
Harry, Debbie Rockbird LP
Harry, Debbie/Blondie Once More Into The Bleach 2LP
Joy Division Unknown Pleasures LP
K.U.K.L. The Eye LP
Lennon, John Imagine 7"
Magazine Give Me Everything 7"
Magazine Touch And Go 7"
Nelson, Bill Furniture Music 7"
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark Red Frame/White Light 7"
Pavement Carrot Rope 7"
Pavement Stereo 7"
Pavement Give It A Day 7" EP
Peter Cook & Dudley Moore Derek And Clive (Live) LP
Pixies Debaser (Demo) 7"
Pixies Limited Edition Interview Picture Disc LP
Psychedelic Furs Dumb Waiters 7"
Queen Bohemian Rhapsody 7"
Queen Now I'm Here 7"
Riley, Marc with the Creepers Fancy Meeting God! LP
Sonic Youth Master=Dik / Beat On The Brat 12" EP
Specials Ghost Town 7"
Sugarcubes Deus 10"
Sugarcubes Planet 12"
Sugarcubes Walkabout 7"
Throwing Muses Chains Changed 12"
Throwing Muses Dizzy 12"
Throwing Muses Dizzy (Promo) 12"
Throwing Muses Counting Backwards 12" Maxi
Throwing Muses The Fat Skier 12" MiniAlbum
Throwing Muses Ruthie's Knocking 7"
Throwing Muses Shark 7"
Throwing Muses Shark 7"
Various Vinyl Conflict 2 7"
Various They Shall Not Pass LP
Wedding Present Brassneck 12"
Wedding Present The Peel Sessions 12"
Wedding Present Montreal 7"
Wedding Present Montreal 7"
Wedding Present Sucker 7"
Wings Listen To What The Man Said 7"
Yeah Yeah Noh The Peel Sessions 12" Maxi
Yeah Yeah Noh When I Am A Big Girl 12" MiniAlbum
Yeah Yeah Noh Cutting The Heavenly Lawn Of Greatness LP

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Ultimate Playlists 12: Built To Spill

Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more

Unlike most of the bands in this series, I have not been listening to Built To Spill for 10 years or more. The music is still quite new to me and all of the current albums were already released before I became a fan. I have only seen the band in concert once and I am yet to associate any of their songs with events in my life. If I make another Built To Spill playlist in a year or two, it might be drastically different to the one I am going to offer you today.

If you think of all your own favorite bands, you'll probably find that the album you heard first from each one is either top, or close to the top of your favorites for that band. In this instance, every Built To Spill album was first played by me over the span of a couple of days, so what I think about each does not suffer from the bias of having heard it years before the release of the later albums.

What this list is influenced by is what I find most appealing about music. That will always be the case with anything that I listen to. I am sure many of you will violently disagree with some of my choices, but all I can say is that they are honest. 

Built To Spill have produced a lot of songs with much more melody that I would typically listen to. The jewels of my music collection tend to be messier and more complex than most of the songs on this playlist. Doug Martsch founded the band in 1992 and has been the only permanent fixture. His voice is more accomplished than my favorite vocalists. Like I said, I gravitate toward messy sounds.

One thing that stands out is the sheer variety of styles present across eight studio albums. That probably has something to do with the continual changes in personnel. However, despite all of the changes, Untethered Moon (2015) seems to be one of the band's best for years, at least for my tastes. My absolute favorites from the band's discography are Perfect From Now On (1997) and Keep It Like a Secret (1999). The playlist is heavily influenced by those two in particular.

To get to the final 20 songs, I quickly ran through the band's songs and worked from a shortlist of 34. About half of the final 20 picked themselves, but the remainder of the list was not easy to pin down. The contenders each had something to offer that I think is worth hearing.

Here's the final 20. As outlined above, these are not in order of preference, but are in a sequence that I might choose for an actual live concert. Here is the YouTube Playlist if you want to enjoy the full experience.

The Plan
All Our Songs
Kicked It in the Sun
Goin' Against Your Mind
Out of Site
Living Zoo
Time Trap
Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)
You Were Right
Trimmed and Burning
I Would Hurt a Fly

Horizon to Cliff
Broken Chairs
Randy Described Eternity
Carry the Zero

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ultimate Playlists 11: Talking Heads

Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more

Talking Heads are one of the bands associated with playing New York's CBGBs, along with Television, Blondie, The Ramones and a long list of other notable musicians. David Byrne's (lead vocals, guitar) reedy vocals somehow blended with the overall sound created by Jerry Harrison (guitar, keyboards), Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums).

Music is always evolving, but the seventies will always be special to me because it marked the point where my own tastes started to evolve in their own way. Talking Heads are one of the bands that really caught my attention when punk and alternative music emerged as a genuine musical force. Unlike many of the bands lumped into that category, Talking Heads could really play.

So, what defines Talking Heads' sound? That's an incredibly difficult question to answer because their sound was always changing. Early albums consisted largely of short, punchy songs, with spiky guitar. But Talking Heads were not a punk band. With the release of Fear of Music in 1979, it was clear that this was no ordinary band. The rhythm section was becoming increasingly dense and more complicated with every release, and some of the songs on Fear of Music, such as Cities, had a funky guitar sound that became even more prominent on later releases. The sound is raw, polished, funky, layered, sinister, poppy, progressive, meandering, simple and catchy. I don't want to label it, but whatever it is, the blend works for me.

Remain in Light is often regarded as the band's best album; Rolling Stone ranked it the fourth-best album of the eighties, while Pitchfork ranked it as high as second. Personally, I prefer Fear of Music, which fused together African music with the existing sound. But Talking Heads were so much more than a studio band. I would argue that their live shows added an extra dimension to the overall sound. The lineup often included extra musicians to create that layered rhythm section, as well as additional singers for the backing vocals. It was like an indie version of a Pink Floyd concert, but with a much more complicated sound.

For the purposes of this playlist, I will include plenty of examples of the band playing live. One of the best concert movies ever made - Stop Making Sense - is a great way to introduce someone to the band. It has the advantage of drawing from most of the band's catalogue. Although Fear of Music is my favorite studio album from the band, I would choose The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads as the best listening experience due to the expanded lineup and the incredible quality of the recording. I'm very happy with my limited edition from Newbury Comics:

It's time to reveal the 20 songs I have chosen for the playlist. As with all of the entries in this series, choosing the final 20 was far from easy. A lot of excellent songs did not make the final cut. I imagine Once In a Lifetime as the first song of the encore. Here is a YouTube playlist if you want to enjoy the full experience:

Artists Only
Don't Worry About the Government
Life During Wartime
And She Was
Pulled Up
Take Me to the River
Warning Sign
Stay Up Late
Crosseyed and Painless
The Book I Read
Making Flippy Floppy
The Big Country
No Compassion
Road to Nowhere

Once in a Lifetime
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)
Psycho Killer

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