The start of something good

Yesterday was my 8th wedding anniversary, so please excuse me for entertaining a little nostalgia trip (I promise I’ll keep the mushiness to a minimum). Somehow it doesn’t feel possible for this much time to have passed since my husband and I tied the knot (I think we both agreed it feels more like 5 years–how’s that for abstract?), but this is probably a good sign for relationship longevity. We’ve been through a lot as a couple. Over the years, we’ve transitioned from friends to friends with benefits, significant others, roommates, fiances, and finally to husband and wife. We’ve lived in 7 apartments and 1 uncle’s basement in 3 different states. We’ve survived undergrad, grad, employment, underemployment, and unemployment–with all the usual associated states of financial (in)stability. Our lives have changed greatly since we decided to make it official. Now we’re both a bit older–although perhaps not wiser–and a whole lot more comfortable with both ourselves and with each other. But we’re still having a grand old-time driving each other nuts and from my vantage point, it looks like we’ll be making mischief together for a very long time to come.

I have to admit that there was a time (as in all significant relationships, really) when it wasn’t so certain that we’d end up together. I watched him on stage with the local cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show for about 2 years before I ever said my first nervous hello to him. I thought he was dashing as the Criminologist in his old Coast Guard dress jacket and downright adorable running around the stage in his underwear as Brad. I was a shy, sheltered college student who quietly indulged in a little crush every few months when I had time to attend a show. I never expected anything to come of it and I’m pretty sure that nothing would have come of it if a bad break-up and a suddenly empty summer hadn’t emboldened me to join the cast as a tech person. Suddenly I was crossing paths with that cute guy all over the place, but my shyness was the thickness and consistency of a cinder block wall. I could walk up to him and say hello, but I could never seem to figure out what to say next. Sadly (or possibly thankfully now), these pitiful attempts to strike up a conversation barely registered with him. I think it was mainly that my timing was bad and that mousey tech chicks don’t tend to stand out much when surrounded by rainbow bustiers, filmy white slips, and french maid costumes.

And things would have ended there if it weren’t for the swift thinking of a mutual friend/cast mate who swung into action when half of the expected attendees to my 21st birthday party didn’t show up. Hoping to stave off my impending birthday disappointment, she immediately hopped on her phone and rounded up several cast members to fill out the room. And lo and behold, one of the people was him! (Years later he claimed that he had no idea who I was at the time but that he came because of the promise of ice cream. Moral of the story, folks: Never doubt the power of ice cream.) But thanks to my friend’s quick dialing, the miraculous hand of chaos, and some heretofore unknown inner courage, I ended up having my first real conversation with the guy I was smitten with. The path from that first real conversation to a wedding ceremony is long and winding with many stops along the way, bits of which may be end up in this blog some day. But that night I had no clue what was in store for me, I was just proud of myself for finally daring to make an impression.

After the party ended, I went home and opened the new cd given to me by that same lovely friend with the quick dialing skills. It was Fountains of Wayne’s under appreciated master work, 1999’s Utopia Parkway. Their special brand of nerdy power pop and quirky lyrics were just the thing to appeal to the angsty late bloomer that I was. And in the years that have passed since that night, there is one song in particular that has stuck with me. Every time I hear it, I am transported back to the days when I acutely wanted to be liked by someone I believed was out of my league… the man I have now had the supreme luck to have spent the last 10 years with.

So here it is, the very first song I ever associated with my wonderful husband: Fountains of Wayne’s Red Dragon Tattoo. Enjoy!

I love you, Monkey!

One last thing: My husband and I have been contemplating getting matching tattoos for the last few years. Completely independent of my love of this song and its association with my husband, he suggested we get the constellation Draco, which is his Chinese zodiac sign. How’s that for ironic? Thinking of making mine red…

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The fine line between irony and toilet humor

Now I already know what you are thinking. What does a literary rhetorical device denoting an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually stated and a brand of off-color humor meant more to shock the viewer than make them laugh have to do with each other? And while we’re at it, just how fine a line can there be between the two of them? To which I will exclaim over how astute you are, my dear readers! I’m so glad you have asked these very pertinent questions. The answers are really quite simple when you are talking about The Magnetic Fields. In their case, irony and toilet humor are hopelessly entwined and the line between then is… well, there is no line!
Originally hailing from Boston and releasing records since 1991 (how’d I miss out on this?), the Magnetic Fields is the satirical and oft-times amusingly vulgar troupe that is helmed by indie music mastermind Stephin Merritt. Delivering cynical, tongue-in-cheek lyrics in his distinctive deadpan bass voice, Merritt proves that he is sharp of tongue and even sharper of wit. Aside from penning the majority of the songs and serving as the primary lead singer, he is also their producer and a multi-instrumentalist. On past albums he has shared the role of lead singer with other band members and this is true of their latest offering, 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Approximately half the album is sung by band mates Shirley Simms and Claudia Gonson, although their voices are so similar please don’t ask me who sings which song.
Ranging from quirky synth pop with occasional industrial influences to folk-tinged rock, the band pokes fun at sex, religion, violence, and gender roles in a less than subtle fashion. Think of They Might Be Giants without the sense of childlike innocence or perhaps a mellower version of the Butthole Surfers. And with all the springy little electronic embellishments added in, Devo certainly must have been an influence to some extent. The mood of the album fluctuates between the maniacally cheerful to the endearingly despairing–with many stops along the spectrum. And Merritt goes out of his way to write songs that obscure the singer’s gender identity and sexuality, leaving the interpretation open to the audience who are free to identify with whatever orientation they choose. The result is a clever, naughty, and at times surprising album. And the songs are strong, with just enough pop appeal to keep the album afloat, and every line is delivered with a completely straight face. The real kicker though is that like Discordians and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’re never fully certain whether or not they are joking with you, but you’re pretty damn sure they are laughing at you behind your back… Probably…
Opening the album is the techno composition called God Wants Us to Wait, which flirts with industrial with its distorted tones and pulsing beats. In it a detached, rather mechanical attitude competes with the overt sexual references sprinkled throughout the lyrics.
One of the high points of the album is the melodic Andrew in Drag, which would be downright sweet if it weren’t for a few crude but clever double entendres. The video is wonderful though and I love that they chose to feature a drag king as counterpart to Andrew’s drag queen. Be warned, this is not safe for work (mind the boobs!).
Showcasing the blackest of humors, Your Girlfriend’s Face is the height of buoyant brutality. Probably one of the most chipper songs on the album, it focuses on a spurned lover who hires assassins to exact their revenge. It was about this time that I really started wondering just what I’d gotten myself into. Ironically, it is the song that seems to get stuck in my head the most and I have found myself randomly singing lines from it during the past week. Kind of makes me wonder what that says about me…
The album closes with the slow-paced, heavy-on-the-horn-section tune entitled All She Cares About is Mariachi. Employing some classic sounds from that characteristically Hispanic genre but dragging out the melody to a snail’s crawl and peppering the lyrics with peculiarly convenient rhymes, the song skirts around cute and into the just plain odd. But it is catchy, I’ll give Merritt and his cronies that much.
The first time I listened to this, I truly was unsure how I felt about it. After listening off and on for the last few weeks, I’m still not sure. But I’m still listening, which has got to count for something, right?

For my mother

I think it is safe to say that my mother is directly responsible for my life-long obsession with music. Unlike my father, who I came to find musical common ground with in my late teens, my mother and I were on the same page from Day One. My earliest memory of my mom is 2-year-old me getting the brilliant idea to sit on my feet while she is trying to put on my shoes on and thinking how funny this game is until she gets annoyed and pulls my feet out from under my butt (who knew she’d look for them there?). My second earliest memory of her (and years of memories after) is driving around town in the back of her car and listening to her sing along with the radio. When I was little Mom was the stay-at-home type, which made her the first line of defense against a child with ideas. Five-year-old me tended to associate her with unwanted complications to my little life like nap times, the giving and taking of TV privileges, eating vegetables, and not drawing with markers on the couch (the only time I was ever officially grounded). By default (i.e. because he wasn’t home for eight hours a day), I was a devoted daddy’s girl when I was small. Now I look back on this with the eyes of an adult and feel that this was horribly unfair to the woman who made my mac’n’cheese, took me to swim lessons, and walked home everyday from kindergarten with me. But what can you expect from a 5-year-old who knew the power of a good pout?

However, everything would quickly change when she strapped me into the back seat to trundle down the road on one errand or another and unruly child would morph into listening child and later into singing child. On these excursions the radio dial was always tuned to the Oldies Station. As a result my primal musical influences growing up were my mother’s–namely Motown, the British Invasion, Psychedelia, and Surf Rock. To this day I can’t hear the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie or Neil Diamond’s Cherry Cherry without remembering our vehicular singalongs. You could always tell if my mother liked a song by the volume of the radio and of her voice. My mother is a born blaster, to be sure. And hopefully when she sees what I’ve dug up for her, she’ll attempt to burn out the speakers on Dad’s laptop.

But the best thing about my mother and music is that she always encouraged me to seek out the songs that sounded good to me. As I got older and began to develop my own tastes, she was always willing to give something new a listen, be it Save Ferris, NIN, or Duran Duran. She never once tried to censor or disparage my inclinations. And she was my first willing audience when I began my transformation into the music edition of Trivial Pursuit. For this, I am eternally grateful.

So now in honor of Mother’s Day and her birthday (which fell on the same day this year), here are a few of the songs that I associate with my mother and elevated volumes. Crank it up to 11, Mom! I love you!

Green Tambourine by the Lemon Pipers

To Love Somebody by the Bee Gees

Wild Thing by the Troggs – An undeniable favorite that could easily have led to scratchy speakers in more than one mini-van.

2 for 1

It has certainly been a crazy couple of weeks for me out here in Charm City. Between car accidents (without injury, thankfully), navigating between our insurance and crazy-lady-who-ran-a-red-light-and-hit-my-car’s insurance, trying to get our car fixed, and dealing with the fatigue that inevitably sets in after the shock wears off, I’ve been hard-pressed to convince myself to write. My head felt like it was packed with cotton all last week. I could barely put together two brain cells outside of work and I finally had to just put off last week’s entry. Which is a shame because I am literally overflowing with fodder for album reviews and recommendations from all the amazing music I picked up on Record Store Day (my new favorite holiday). So to make it up to you, I’m going to treat you to a two-for-one deal. It’s a double-headliner tonight folks, so sit back and enjoy!
First up is a beauty of a London indie rock band called Bombay Bicycle Club. Their new album, A Different Kind of Fix, is a satisfying collection of songs that call to mind the vocal harmonies of Fleet Foxes and the quiet intensity of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, while presenting something instantly more radio-friendly. The over-all feel of the album is even and low-key, but not for a lack of energy–more for lack of variation. For the most part the flow is steady and constant, without major highs or lows, but there is a whole lot more going on below the surface than you might be conscious of on your first listen. Each song is rife with great bass lines that propel you through the track list and keep the fire burning bright. Jack Steadman’s vocals are velvety and understated with an occasional outburst of discord that is reminiscent of Robin Pecknold without dredging up the sense of tight-lipped dread that seems to accompany all of his songs.
Beggars is a great example of Bombay Bicycle Club’s ability to mimic Fleet Foxes’s harmonies, but with an instrumentation and a beat that manages to hit a sweet spot that the other band never quite seems to achieve. Here’s a pretty little live performance they did last August that while done well, lacks the punch of the studio version. Still it is a great showcase for their talent in an off the cuff environment (that thankfully, is not filmed by an amateur with an iPhone), so it is definitely worth a look.
My favorite song off the album is called Your Eyes, and it is everything that I love about this band: Suren de Saram’s vigorous drumming strategically building the energy of the composition, the rollicking guitar of Jamie McColl, and Steadman’s rather tremulous voice rising above it all. But it is the driving, relentless bass work of Ed Nash that really makes the song for me. I have always been a sucker for an intricate bass line and this song has one of the better ones I’ve heard in quite a while. The result is an addictive song that gets your blood flowing with every listen. Here again I found a decent live version of the song which someone was kind enough to film without shaking their phone around until my eyes watered. I’d love to see these guys live, but if you prefer to hear the version off the album then you can find it here.
The second half of this double feature is devoted to an intriguing singer-songwriter named Eleanor Friedberger. Perhaps better known for her work with her brother Matthew Friedberger and their experimental indie collaboration called Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor released her first solo album, Last Summer, in July of 2011. Throughout the album, she seems to waver up and down a spectrum with her exploratory music roots at one end and a more traditional brand of folk pop at the other. She alternately displays an amazing pop sensibility for turning out catchy, yet deep songs, and a willingness to abandon all those tried and true song-writing rules in favor of indulging in her poetical lyrics. The result is some surprisingly catchy songs that on occasion seem to have more syllables than melody. Honestly, she appears to be the nothing less than the tuneful love child of Joanie Mitchell–the queen of the quixotic lyric– and Carole King–the supreme monarch of pop-craft. But what really clinches it for me is Friedberger’s voice, which decisively asserts her spiritual connection to Carole King (I am absolutely convinced that she would do a killer cover of I Feel the Earth Move). Her mellow alto flows throughout the album, giving everything an easy-going sheen that is evident even in her darkest songs.
In honor of her musical split personality, I present to you one example from each of her styles. First up is the superbly crafted conventional folk pop ditty, I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight. Here’s an acoustic live version that is a bit more minimalist than the album version, but is somehow more moving in the simple presentation of a small venue performance.
To contrast the polished pop glow of that first song, I present to you Friedberger’s Roosevelt Island, where she employs an almost spoken word approach to her lyrics. Placed over top a funk-inspired instrumental track, this is a prime example of the syllables and the melody not quite matching up. But while it is miles away from her more traditional compositions, it still makes for an interesting listening experience.