Whatever gets you through the night

Holy smokes! My life currently resembles a working case study in insanity. It feels like I am swimming upstream these days with a whole laundry list of stuff to tackle trailing behind me, which somehow never seems to get any shorter. Between taking on a load of extra responsibilities at work, prepping for 2 plane trips and 1 road trip, staring down the barrel of another birthday, valiantly (read: vainly) trying to get/keep my house clean, and desperately trying to find time to write, I am beat. And with the changing of the seasons literally happening as I type, I know that if I am not careful, I could have a really bad Fall… and don’t even get me started on the upcoming holiday season. It doesn’t even bear contemplating. *sigh*

What can I do but keep moving? For now at least, it is full steam ahead around here and in light of this I would like to present to you a little playlist. I think I’m going to call it my Holy Crap! Mix. If it has a frenetic beat and some unstoppable energy–mixed liberally with a sense of desperation–then it belongs here. Please enjoy!

Whatever Gets You Through the Night, John Lennon

(Probably the closest thing to disco he ever did, but don’t be discouraged!)

Excuse Me Mr., No Doubt

(My very favorite. Gwen Stefani will mess you up!)

I Hear Noises, Tegan and Sara

(From my favorite Canadian twins. When I am frustrated and tired, I literally can’t play this song loud enough. )

Forever Yellow Skies, The Cranberries (Live in Detroit, 1996)

(Blistering guitars and drums not withstanding, just watch lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s blur of an arm as she plays rhythm guitar.)

Paper Romance, Groove Armada

(Rather awkward video, but amazing song.)

Out of My Head, The Black Eyed Peas

(The moment I hear that base line, I literally breathe a sign of relief. Best sonic release valve I know.)

This is a list destined to grow. If you have any suggestions for additions, please drop me a comment and let me know.

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Confessions of a music snob (3)

Okay, what I am about to reveal is something that could potentially strip me of all my music-snobbery cred in one fell swoop. I have absolutely no right to criticize anyone else’s tastes in music because… well, I guess I should just come right out and say it. I am a closet raver. Shocking, I know. I’ll understand if you need a moment to recover from the massive bombshell that I just dropped on you.

Breath in. Breathe out. Okay, everybody still with me? Good.

Now in my defense, I did say closet raver. I have never indulged in the most iconic aspects of raver life. I have never dropped acid, experimented with black light body paint, and I haven’t messed around with light sticks since I was probably about 12 years old. In fact,  I have never actually even been to a rave…. unless you count that time that I went to a party with my host teen in Enger, Germany. It was in an empty barn with tons of beer, tipsy German teenagers, and positively booming techno music blaring from huge speaker stacks. But that wasn’t my idea and technically I didn’t know we were going to anything that could even vaguely be called a rave thanks to the language barrier. Plus I was only seventeen. Nothing counts when you’re seventeen, right? So I have never been what you would call a practicing member of the scene. And I think that given my introverted tendencies (along with the fact that I am no longer seventeen), it is fairly unlikely that I ever will be.

But if I ever put up a list of my biggest musical guilty pleasures, somewhere near the top would have to be a lesser known music subgenre called Happy Hardcore. One of the definitions on urbandictionary.com pretty much nailed it with this description:

A genre of electronic music that became popular during England’s rave movement. Characterized by a processed 4×4 kick, breakbeats, baselines, and high strung synths and vocals, happy hardcore is the staple of any candy kid’s listening experience. Drum & Bass also originated from happy hardcore and now are (ironically) anathema to one another. Where happy hardcore is known for it’s happy, almost cheesy, lyrics and sounds, Drum & Bass is a much more aggressive, hard-edged sound that is a much harder pill to swallow, so to speak.

(Never underestimate the Internet’s talent for giving even the most obscure concepts substance… as well as its talent for dishing out grammar errors). It is almost impossible to take Happy Hardcore seriously. It is like pure bubblegum on helium… and meth. But just try to keep a straight face imagining people dancing to it. It will make your day, I guarantee it!

And #1 under this heading (for me at least) is a German techno pop princess known as BlümchenFalling somewhere between an electro pop Britney Spears and a one-woman mash-up of the Spice Girls, Jasmin Wagner–better known by her stage name–was the queen of the German pop scene from 1995 to 2001. A native of Hamburg, she had a string of top 10 hits in her own country and in parts of Western Europe. Despite recording a bunch of her songs in English under the name Blossom, she never seemed to make a dent in the States, which is why you have probably never heard of her (Oops! Crap, music snobbery rears its ugly head once more).

I only discovered her through one of my undergrad German language classes circa 2000 when on one fateful day my TA decided to pop in a collection of German music videos. I laughed so hard that I knew I’d found something worth seeking out. And when I mentioned it to my techno-obsessed buddy, he loved her immediately and proceeded to feed me as much of her material as I could take–he was always generous when it came to acquiring and sharing media, especially in the carefree days before Napster was taken down. Suffice it to say, I was set-up in short order. And Blümchen quickly became my top pick for studying and grading papers (I worked as a TA for an astronomy professor at the time). To this day, whenever I am faced with a tedious or repetitive task that requires only half of my brain, I always reach for the techno. It continues to be a real lifesaver.

If you are still reading this after finding out about my dark (read: cheesy) secret, then kudos to you! Now you get a treat. And yes, it really is a treat. You’ve earned a taste of some classic German Happy Hardcore in the form of three videos. The first is the now infamous video that started me down this rabbit hole: 1998’s Ich Bin Wieder Hier, which roughly translates to I’m Back. This steam punk gem features a dirigible, WWII fighter pilots, and a flying whale. I am dead serious. A flying whale. If you watch only one of these videos, watch this one. You will not regret it.

Ich Bin Wieder Hier

Next up is the club gem Kleiner Satellit, aka Little Satellite. Featuring random dogs in an inflatable raft, some hilarious use of green screen tech, and the over-all appearance of vaseline smeared on a camera lens, this video is peculiar to say the least. But the song is infectious.

Kleiner Satellit

And my last pick, which is probably my favorite of her songs, is the hyper-actively upbeat and super positive Heut’ ist Mein Tag, which translates to Today is My Day. The video director’s use of sudden film transitions almost warrants a seizure warning. And the gratuitous use of cg fairy dust is a little distracting at times. But who can argue with a spontaneous dance mob on the streets of what looks a lot like Miami? No one, that’s who. Enjoy!

Heut’ ist Mein Tag

So now that my dirty little secret is out, it’s your turn. Are you a clandestine Happy Hardcore freak, too? Or do you have a skeleton in your closet that is equally embarrassing? Spill it!

The Great Detour of 2012

By Spyder_Monkey (Own work, modified data from Open Street Map) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For the past two years, commuting and (let’s face it) life in general in Charm City has been seriously disrupted over the Labor Day Weekend by drag racing. Yes, you read that right. Drag racing. For some ungodly reason (most likely tourism dollars), the city decided that it would be a good idea to close down all the roads in the heart of the city (making an already natural bottleneck 3 million times worse), cut down more than 40 huge and aged trees along the route (in 2011), put up acres of bleachers, and invite a whole bunch of indy stock car drivers to drive at screaming high-speed through the city while tourists watch. Buses are rerouted all over the place, the lower part of the city is practically cut off from the upper portion, and locals flee the city to escape the insanity. I have yet to meet someone who lives within the Baltimore/D.C. Metro area who actually is happy about this situation. It wouldn’t be so bad if the darn thing was truly successful, but thus far it has been plagued with mismanagement, low ticket sales, and a general lack of enthusiasm from what appears to be the city at large.

Apparently, I’m not a fan. Could you tell?

But I didn’t start this entry with the intention to hold a huge bitch fest about the Grand Prix, a lovely headache that we get to deal with for 3 (Three!) more years. Instead, I want to talk about how from now on I am going to associate Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with this ill-advised and thoroughly obnoxious event. Now I’m sure you’re curious to find out what the heck a folk rock supergroup from the 1960s–best known for their use of beautiful and elaborate vocal harmonies–could possibly have to do with indy stock car racing. Well, when you put it like that, very little. But they will forever be connected in my mind with traffic jams and what is sure to go down in history as The Great Detour of 2012

Lrheath at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The week leading up to the drive home on Friday, August 31st had already been an interesting juggling act for my carpool. Between the bus situation, the ever-constricting road closures, and the fact that many of my colleagues are blind and therefore not drivers, led to a daily changing cast of characters in the car. But so far things had gone well, due mainly to flexibility and a willingness to be picked up muchearlier than usual. And now it was time for one more long commute homeward.

The car was packed to the gills, with bags in the trunk and crowded knees and shoulders all around. Personal space was reduced to a fond memory, but everybody made it a point to remain cheerful and endeavored to refrain from poking their neighbor with an errant elbow.  Our driver had considerately thought ahead and packed one of her favorite albums by CSNY to make the trip home more enjoyable. While not everyone in the car was necessarily familiar with the band, I was pleased with the selection–you didn’t grow up in my house without hearing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes at least a few times. We pulled away from the parking garage and began to make our way along the circuitous route that would hopefully lead us all home. Making our way South around the football stadium, we swung out to the west and began making our way slowly down a West Baltimore street in stop and go traffic. Our intention was to get on to the only main artery that was heading north, and we were making ponderous progress towards this goal while listening to the sweet harmonies and folksy guitar chords. Despite the tight fit in the back seat and the frustratingly slow progress we were making up the street, everyone was in fairly good spirits. Snarky comments were flying at the blockheaded antics of other drivers around us and I seem to remember a great deal of laughter among the group. We knew that traffic would be snarled and we all settled in to make the best of the situation.

It was about 45 minutes into the commute (longer than it usually takes to get everyone home on a normal night) when our driver–the undisputed queen of route tweaking who is always on the look out for a way to avoid one more stoplight–spied a nearly empty side street. It was too good an opportunity for her to pass up and hoping to find a quicker way to the main artery, she eagerly turned up the street. Happily cracking jokes and already enjoying our second listening of Ohio, little did we know that impending doom was upon us. At first, everything seemed fine. There was still traffic on the street, but it was all moving drowsily along… until we came to a three-way intersection that left us no option but to turn left. This presented a slight problem because (of course) we wanted to turn right. There was nothing we could do but obey and hope that we could detour again farther along the road.

Well, to make a long story slightly shorter, the answer turned out to be a big, fat NO. Unlike many old cities on the East Coast, Charm City does have the luxury of roads laid out in a grid… in parts of the city. The rest is subject to the kind of haphazard sprawl that rivals even the likes of Boston, which many claim is laid out according to old cow paths (a much contested controversy, by the way). Combine this with the city’s penchant for one-way streets, and you’ve got the potential for some real messes during rush hour. Not only did our innocent little detour send us in the wrong direction, it undid almost all of our progress of the last hour. The real kicker is that we literally had to retrace our steps on the exact same route we had originally traveled. Our driver was beside herself with embarrassment, but everyone put on a brave face. The laughter may have taken on a more desperate edge, but what could you do other than get out and walk several miles north? So we all smiled and nodded and somehow managed to make it through the rest of what turned out to be a near record-breaking commute (only topped by the winter of 2010 when 3 feet of snow pretty much brought the city to a standstill for a couple of weeks).

But the funny part is that during this insane journey through the half-crippled city is that a collective hallucination took place within the confines of our car. We listened to that CSNY album from start to finish at least 6 times. Our driver lamented her negligence in bringing only one CD to share. Several of us with iPhones cursed ourselves for not bringing the necessary cords and wires to hook them up to the car. And for reasons I still can’t explain, not a single one of us remembered a little thing called the radio. No, my dear readers, instead of thinking outside the box (or in this case the CD player) we just kept listening to this album on repeat as if it was the only option left to us in a post apocalyptic world gone mad. It wasn’t until we were within 5 minutes of my house (I am the second to last drop-off) that my driver looked over at her stereo and sheepishly pressed a button. Both of us breathed a deep sigh of relief as the sounds of NPR came over the speaker system and then shared a slightly demented laugh over our amazing feat of short sightedness.

I think it is safe to say that for the rest of my life I will probably associate Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with detours and traffic jams. And because it was the song that just seemed to keep playing, I have for you CSNY’s rocking version of Woodstock. Originally penned by none other than the awe-inspiring Joni Mitchell, who was Graham Nash’s significant other at the time, this song helped define a generation of young people looking to change the world. Somehow tying it to a legacy of pollution-spewing cars and frustrated drivers seems a bit less impressive. Oh well, either way enjoy!

Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Let’s pretend we’re in Antarctica

I have to admit that I was rather tempted to simply post a review on some album or something and not comment on my radio silence during the last month at all. But then I thought, where is the fun in that? And I had absolutely nothing in the pipe line beyond a few vaguely scribbled ideas… so here we are then.

There are many excuses I could give for this lapse in activity. Insanity at work in the form of an archival collection more complicated than initially expected is a great excuse and has the advantage of being fairly accurate. Exploring the possibility of some new opportunities could be another. And of course we can’t forget that old stand-by: sickness. I had a really pesky cough that stuck around long enough to evolve into a full-fledged, anti-biotic-resistant case of bronchitis, which plagued me for the better part of two months (news flash kids: inhalers suck when you can’t stop coughing at 3am). That might have had something to do with it. And then there is the possibility that when an old friend from back in the day flies 2/3 of the way across the country just to see little old me, I could be a bit distracted while in hostess mode. And I won’t even dignify that unspoken question on your lips that concerns that most feared of all conditions for a blogger (*cough* writer’s block *cough*) with anything more than snide derision… and a perhaps a barely perceptible nod. I don’t really know what to tell you, my dear readers. The plain truth is that the rest of life ganged up on me. You can pick whichever excuse you like and we’ll all just go on about our business.

(However, I have to say that I do find it rather funny that my readership stats always seem to climb when I take an unscheduled hiatus. My hits last month were through the roof, but I think that has to do with my brilliant/ill-advised choice to use song lyrics as entry titles more than anything else… But if anyone out there is really interested, thank you for your support. Hopefully some of you brought in by song references to Walk the Moon are sticking around to read more.)

But while we’re on the subject of being a hermit and avoiding your (albeit completely voluntary and optional) responsibilities, I can think of no greater or more applicable song than Of Montreal’s Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games. This intriguing –and apparently quite prolific–band that hails from Athens, Georgia, is probably best known for their refusal to be tied down. With 11 albums released since 1997, these guys have roved through countless genres from R&B and funk, to twee pop (I am not kidding, that is an actual music genre), to indie rock and neo-psychedelia, all the way through vaudeville and music hall. Evidently they are part of what is known as the Elephant 6 Recording Company, which is a collective of American musicians who embrace the experimental side of music (notably among them is another one of my favorites: the Apples in Stereo). And from what I have heard so far, this troupe must surely feel at home there.

But this is by far my favorite song from these musical chameleons–in fact it is my ringtone for anonymous callers because it amuses me that much. With Kevin Barnes’ eccentric lyrics and subtle delivery, the most amusingly buoyant bass line, and a certain child-like air, this song is sure to please. And if you know me at all, you know that I love the juxtaposition of upbeat melodies and pessimistic lyrics. In this case the result falls somewhere between a person with acute agoraphobia trying to make the best of a bad situation and a pair of kids playing hide-and-seek in a big empty house. It is truly endearing in its dysfunction.

Normally I would limit myself to one video, but today I just can’t resist so you are getting a two-fer. First up is the official video, which is all sunshine, lollipops, and demented little cartoon animals cheerfully dismantling themselves in candy-colored sprays of blood. It is like someone wanted to animate a really, really happy acid trip… in Japan. The first time I saw this video, it actually took me a minute before I fully comprehended what was going on. Amazingly, it doesn’t come off as gory, so no worries if you have a weak stomach.

Wraith Pinned to the Mist And Other Games – Official Video

And because it made me laugh, as well as for being a pretty impressive exercise in creativity, the second video is a performance from Washington University’s The Stereotypes. A quirky and suitable fit for this song, this all-male a capella group–that sounds like the peculiar lovechild of Rockapella and an enlarged barbershop quartet–found a way to remain true to the original song while undeniably making it their own. Seriously folks, you have got to check this one out. Enjoy!

Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games – The Stereotypes