They’re playing my song

Theme songs. You know you have one. We all do. That song that doesn’t just speak to you, but speaks for you. Theme songs come in two different flavors: philosophical and subliminal. The former is a conscious choice, while the latter is more a reflection of our unconscious.

Philosophical theme songs are often easy to find and are generally straight forward. They serve as our own personal propaganda campaign and support the image that we wish to present to the world. A biker might choose something tough, like “Bad to the Bone” (George Thorogood and the Destroyers), while a lady-killer (or someone who wishes they were one) might choose something like “Sharp Dressed Man” (ZZ Top). Silly examples, I know. But they are believable, right? And don’t even get me started on the songs politicians choose for their campaign rallies.

For me, if I had to pick a philosophical theme song these days, I think it would be “I Heard Ramona Sing” by Frank Black. This comes from his solo work outside of the Pixies and is also found on the soundtrack for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The lyrics, specifically the first verse, appeal to my sensibilities and play off of the image I am currently cultivating here–the thoughtful music fanatic.  “I had so many problems/Until I got me a walkman/I really liked it a lot and/They walked right in and they solved them.”

The second type of theme song, the subliminal, is more likely to choose you than the other way around.  Unlike with philosophical theme songs, whether you like this song or not is irrelevant. You’ll probably just be minding your own business, idly flipping through radio channels or listening to that new album you just bought. An innocent turn of phrase will catch your attention and suddenly you know that this song has got you pegged. Discovering this type of theme song can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience. The lyrics may hit too close to home, revealing secrets you may not have admitted even to yourself. But you know that what it is saying is true.

I recently had this experience with “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem. I love this song, don’t get me wrong. It is fun to listen to and always gets me going when I’m tired in the morning. But it speaks to me on many levels. It is the perfect theme song for someone entering their 30’s, who spends more time at work than away, and who is wondering if this is how the rest of their life is going to be. There is a tired, dissatisfied undercurrent to this song, perfectly counterbalanced by the infectious, sometimes off-kilter dance beats of the instrumentation. “Break me into bigger pieces/So some of me is home with you/Wait until the weekend/And we can make our bad dreams come true/And its a go/Yeah its a go/But if we wait until the weekend, we could miss the best things to do.”

It’s hard to grow up… and it’s even harder when you realize that it has already happened…

Do you have a theme song?

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Shuffle mode and the joy of discovery

Not to get all sentimental on you, but it is one of the most wonderful feelings in the world when you find a new song.  It really is. When something catches my ear, it can take over my whole consciousness. The rest of the world recedes a bit when I hear the right song for the first time. What is the right song? Well, it is always changing. But I know it when I hear it.

The other day the right song was “Where Do I Begin” from 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers. It popped up on shuffle mode in the car when we were driving home from somewhere. Despite being downloaded in to our car’s hard drive and the fact that my husband has owned the album for over a decade, I had never heard this one before. The random whimsy of shuffle mode brought it to the surface. And it was definitely the right song at that moment.

So out of character with the few of their songs I’d heard before, it starts out quietly. No trace of their big beat electronic sound, just a slightly distorted guitar riff on repeat and Beth Orton’s voice softly singing.

“Sunday morning I’m waking up/Can’t even focus on a coffee cup/Don’t even know whose bed I’m in/Where do I start?/Where do I begin?”

As it progresses additional layers are added to the mix. The simple song becomes complex and in time, it becomes whole. I love songs that use this method of construction and deconstruction for this very reason. When they hit that sweet spot, something inside me just… resonates. It is hard to describe, but to be honest it is a moment I live for. I don’t take drugs and these days I rarely drink. Instead I have this…

The song eventually falls apart, all those layers begin to fade and are replaced by a grinding mechanical distortion. But those lyrics stay with me for hours and days afterwards. Sadly, the high doesn’t usually come back with repeated listening as all drugs lose their effect over time. I still love the song and am now anxious to hear the whole album. And I will enjoy it. This song will always feel special because of that connection I made. But it will never be the same. Not really.

So… what are you listening to?

Ok Go and the Five Stages of Grief

Have you ever had a bad day? I don’t mean a bad day like you got fired or your boyfriend broke up with you. I mean the kind of bad day where nothing really happened but once you are by yourself, you feel like you could kick the collective world in the shin just for looking at you wrong. The type of day where you walk the line between responsible driving and yelling at that car in front of you that can’t seem to pick a lane. This kind of day really sucks, mainly because you don’t have a good excuse to be in this bad mood but here you are just the same.

Well, for the last few years I’ve had a solution to this problem. Discovered one day through the crazy algorithmic that controls shuffle on my Ipod, I found this method to be so effective that now I reach for it almost automatically. I speak of none other than Oh No by Ok Go, their second album released in 2005. The reason is simple. In the songs of the album are the five stages of grief– or in this case, the five stages of dealing with a bad mood. Don’t believe me? Here, I’ll map it out for you*.

Stage 1: Denial – Do What You Want

So you’re cranky. The world is against you. Traffic is nuts. Pedestrians seem to jump in front of your car and all trains everywhere are late. You can’t get away from here fast enough and of course none of this is your fault, right? Right. The chorus of this song literally gives you an excuse to indulge in your general annoyance with the world: “Do what you want/What could go wrong?/Come on.” You are great. It’s just the rest of the population that is nuts.

Stage 2: Anger – Invincible

As you continue along, your energy begins to hit its peak. The strong guitar riffs and the whispering voice of Damian Kulash fan the flames of your supreme impatience with life while buttering up your ego at the same time. You don’t need to put up with this crap, whatever it was. You are invincible and you are going to destroy all who dare to cross you with your lazer-shooting eyes and general awesomeness.

Stage 3: Bargaining – Here It Goes Again

But the high of adrenaline doesn’t last. Generally at this stage, I start silently asking no one in particular “Can we not do this right now?” If they would just lay off a little, things would be okay and you’d stop looking daggers at the other drivers on the road. It’s a deal you promise to keep, but by the end of the song you start to doubt things will go your way.

Stage 4: Depression – Oh Lately Its So Quiet

So you’ve calmed down a bit, no longer ready to bite someone’s head off. But the void left behind by the adrenaline is hard to fill. As the album transitions from rowdy to more melodic, the dip in your mood increases. Maybe you think about people you’ve left behind—for better or for worse. The song asks, “Whose house are you haunting tonight?” It is a song of regret, but maybe of relief too. The past is gone and whatever happened (today or years before) that put you on this emotional roller coaster has moving away.

If that is the case, you are finally ready for:

Stage 5: Acceptance – Let it Rain

Finally, you are coming out the other side. Either you’ve figured out what the problem was or you’ve put enough distance between you and your day to be pleasant company again. Bad days come and bad days go. The song asks, “Did you come here to dance?/What’s in your glass?/Do you feel better?/Let it rain, let it pour.” Now you can just let it go because it doesn’t matter any more.

Try it sometime. It works, I swear.

*No, this is not quite the actual order of songs on the album. Just grant me a little artistic license, please?

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

with tangerine trees and marmalade skies….

Too existential for you? Okay… Picture a young girl, about 11 or 12 years old, discovering her parents’ record collection on a boring, hot summer afternoon. She runs her fingers down the spines encountering names she has never heard of before—names like Herman’s Hermits and Ian and Sylvia. She pulls them out and stares at the covers of clean-cut boys in neck ties and dark suit jackets and long-haired, pensive youths kneeling on sunny beaches. Uninspired and unaware of their context, she pushes them back in and continues moving down the line.

Eventually she comes to a record with a red spine and a long, strange name. Intrigued, she pulls the record out and stares at the sea of faces on the cover, the bright colors, and the psychedelic vintage military uniforms. She takes the record and goes off to find someone who can tell her how to work that record player…

Now this was not my first brush with the Beatles. I had been singing along to them without knowing it in the back seat of my mother’s car since I was old enough to talk. I had taped their spy-spoof movie, Help!, off of the Disney channel a year or two earlier during my “I figured out how to use the VCR all by myself and proceeded to tape everything in sight” phase (yes, I was that kid). I even owned a couple of early Beatles albums on cassette acquired through the generosity of an older cousin who took me to a record store in Harvard Square and asked, “What do you listen to?” The Beatles was honestly the only name I could think of at the time, a name that had somehow stuck during hours and years listening to the oldies station with my mom.

But every Beatles fan remembers the first time they listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ask around and you’ll see I’m right. I remember pulling the cardboard record cover out from its resting place and thinking how funny Paul McCartney looked on the back cover, standing with his back turned while his band mates grimly stared at the camera. I remember opening the gatefold and the bright yellow background of the picture inside. This was an original pressing from 1967, purchased by my father back in his college days. I was intrigued to say the least. This was not the Beatles I had known before. They had been some of those clean-shaven young men in suits, like so many featured on the records in my parents’ collection. But here they were, in crazy colored outfits holding french horns and sporting bushy mustaches. I had never before realized that a band could change their image, let alone their sound. But when I put needle to vinyl, my world expanded a little bit.

I must have listened to that album for weeks on end, memorizing every word. I distinctly remember the day in the fifth grade that I got Lovely Rita Meter Maid stuck in my head and realized that I knew every note of the piano solo. To this day, it is still one of my favorites.

Little did I know that this would start a life-long admiration for the Fab Four. And undoubtedly I will explore more of them here in time. This should not surprise any of my friends who may happen to read this. Although they may be surprised when it turns out that this entire blog isn’t devoted to the Beatles…

But of the many memories that in time I would come to associate with this band, one is particularly dear to me. Being ten years older than my youngest sister, I was the resident babysitter and ofttimes third parent. I did my fair share of diaper changing and thankfully was cognizant enough to realize I couldn’t treat her like a baby her whole life. But in the line of duty, I read many bedtime stories to her. And I don’t remember how or when exactly this started, but somewhere between the picture books we made up a game: Name that Beatles Song. I would sing a few lines from a song and she would try to guess the title. It turned out that I wasn’t the only fan in the house and eventually she got so good at it that I had to start in the middle of second verses. Fourteen or fifteen years later, we still look back fondly on that game.

Testing 1, 2, 3

Okay. I’m just going to come right out and admit it: I am a music junkie. Plain and simple. Always have been and (hopefully) always will be. One of my favorite past times is to throw on some  song or artist that you have just got to know about and then spend so much time talking about the lyrics, the sound, the back story on the band, and the memories that it invokes in me, that you won’t even hear half the song I so desperately wanted you to listen to in the first place.  I pick up music trivia like nobody’s business and somehow missed my calling as a music historian. If you get me started, I can go for hours. I love music, but more importantly I love talking about it. So much so that my sweet, encouraging (and possibly burnt out) husband said, “Why don’t you write a blog about it?” And so here I am, ready to lecture the world on why the Beatles were not only transcendent, but one of the foundations of my childhood.

This does not mean I’m a hipster. For one thing, I think the hipsters would just laugh at me if I claimed to be one of them. My knowledge is pretty good (in certain areas) and I am always on the lookout for something new. But I don’t have to be the first one to discover a great song that only a few people will bother with. This also doesn’t mean that I am a music snob. In my younger and more opinionated (read: whiny) days, I earned that title with interest. Ask anyone who was close to me in high school and they wouldn’t hesitate to tell you about how I groaned and winced every time they played that Garth Brooks song… again.

These days I try to be much more open to the possibilities. I’ll give anything a listen at least once. I missed out on so much great music as a picky teenager that I try to make up for it now. But in the end, there are genres I favor and some that I do not. And while I will try to present a wide variety on this blog, in the end it is my blog. If I don’t care for it, I probably won’t spend much time on it.

What I will spend time on here is talking about the amazing music that keeps my life in motion–my personal soundtrack.  I will use this space to share what I’m currently listening to, post reviews of albums and artists both old and new, and explore what makes my brain go pop every time I turn on the radio.

Currently listening to:

Deadmau5 – 4×4=12