I’m in a relationship with the sun and it is complicated

For the past week or so, Charm City has been hit by the same heat wave that has been terrorizing a huge chunk of the country. With highs in the upper 90s, heat indexes of 105 or higher, and relative humidities of 60, 70, 80%, it has been absolutely miserable here. And despite working in an office that seems to get colder the hotter it is outside, I have been hard pressed to keep from flashing back to the alarmingly large part of my childhood that was spent heat sick in Southern Arizona.

It is ironic now to see me shunning sunlight in the middle of July when I would practically kill to get some of it’s warmth and Vitamin D in the pit of January. Readers in the know are well acquainted with my dislike for weather most of the year. It’s safe to say that if you can name a season, I can probably regale you with several reasons why I dislike it. Even the times of year I actually look forward to are tainted by their proximity to the seasons I despise. I long for fall color in July, but then spend all my time walking through October’s red and yellow drifts of leaves preemptively shivering over the February winds to come. Since moving to the East Coast six years ago, I have learned to fear and loath Winter with a fiery passion that is the only thing that can keep me warm in the depths of its icy grip.

But nothing, nothing can erase my in-grown, nurtured-from-birth, unholy hatred of summer. It doesn’t even matter that the heat wave currently holding my current city of residence captive will roll away on the crest of low pressure system within the next few days. Or that for the most part summer in Charm City hardly even be compared to August in the Old Pueblo. It is hot and humid here now, therefore a little voice at the back of my head is constantly screaming doom and gloom to the rest of my psyche. It is unreasonable. It is silly and childish. And ultimately my struggle against an entire season is futile. I know this. But I just can’t shake that icky feeling of resentment for a climate that includes things like heat indexes, code orange air pollution warnings, and the dreaded beast known as humidity.

All last fall and winter, I kept focusing on the sun. I posted pictures of sunlight filtering through leafy trees and pushed myself to walk outside in freezing weather to soak up every little bit of goodness from the sun’s weak rays. I truly longed for sunny days and warm weather and I have tried to keep that feeling foremost in my mind. It is unhealthy to make yourself crazy all the time. Constantly longing for something else instead of appreciating what you have is the best way to live an unhappy life. And I think I was actually doing pretty well this year. I even survived a week in the suffocatingly humid blanket that is Orlando in July without throwing a hissy fit about it. But this week has sorely been trying my patience.

And to top it all off, I have once again discovered that my subconscious is a bastard with a wicked sense of humor because I keep finding myself humming It Must Be Summer by Fountains of Wayne. Go figure.

Advertisements

Pay Attention Now

The last few months have felt pretty bland for me musically speaking. I’ve listened to a lot and acquired several albums that, while each good in their own ways, all failed to live up to the high expectations that I placed upon them. Each was purchased on the strength of a single song that hinted at the possibility of a wider, more innovative album. And each has left me feeling unsatisfied. Nothing has moved me. Nothing has… wowed me. And unlike the teenager I used to be, these days I really want to be wowed.

But I am excited to report that I have recently found two new artists who have not only wowed me, they have literally blown me away. Both are fairly new artists–one of them literally just released his first album last week–who employ layered/altered vocals; beats that change unexpectedly and often during the course of a single song; some rather inspired drumming; electronic influences; and well… Let’s just say that these two are kinda hard to define. They genre-bend like mad and the result in each case is something truly intriguing. Despite their similarities, their sounds are worlds away, yet both fall under what is currently called indie music–whatever that means these days. And most importantly, each of them literally had me itching to visit every record store in town until I could get my grimy little hands on their albums. You have no idea how wonderful it feels for me to be this excited about a new artist after this awful dry spell. There honestly are no words. But who, you may ask, has inspired me to such a frenzy with such a long introduction? Once again, dear readers, you ask a great question. So let’s get to it.

Artist you should absolutely know about #1: Tune-Yards.

This New England project is led by the crazy-talented Merrill Garbus, who literally records and loops vocals and drum tracks on the fly during live performances!!! (Yes, she totally earns those 3 exclamation marks.) Pulling in electronica, Afro-beat, R&B, and something affectionately called “wonky pop”, Garbus and her small band of experimentalists create some really interesting soundscapes. And her voice? Holy crap! Don’t even get me started. I literally had to hunt down a live performance for you because you will not believe that this voice can come out of one little white girl otherwise. I highly encourage you to check out some of their other songs, but for now here’s an in-studio version of Gangsta from their 2011 album Whokill. (Pro tip: Stick around at the end for a short interview. Highly informative.)

Artist you should absolutely know about #2: Robert DeLong.

This guy is so new that, despite having already started to gather acclaim, he doesn’t even have his own article on Wikipedia yet, but I’m sure that will change soon. There is something really fascinating about his sound, which is created through the use of a whole host of different drums and electronic devices, not the least of which is a Wii-remote. Aside from sporting a smooth voice, some major lyrical chops, and an obvious talent at drumming, DeLong manages to fill his songs with a sense of youthfulness that is invigorating and a philosophical world view that feels ageless.  His first single, Global Concepts, is a great example of this. Listen to him wax existential as he wanders through a variety of electronic flourishes, pounding drum beats, and changing time signatures. Suitable for black light raves, massive arena shows, and maybe even a mosh pit (do people even do that anymore?), this is one not to be missed. The video pays tribute to both his talent and his creativity by showcasing his many instruments, along with an impressive use of light tubes and some frenzied dancers. Expect to hear a lot about this guy in the coming months, both from me and from the wider music industry. I predict that Robert DeLong will be a name everyone will know soon. And if you didn’t already know about him, brace yourself and hit play. You can thank me later.

Winter malaise

It is time to face the facts. I have been suffering from a major outbreak of writer’s block, the worst case I think I have had since starting this blog. And it is almost comical because I didn’t even realize that I had writer’s block until I mentioned the blog to someone else at lunch today. I’ve been in a bit of a funk for the last several weeks and I wasn’t aware of how bad it was getting. I was starting to think that maybe I had lost interest in writing, but that is clearly not the case. Writing here has been on my mind almost constantly–ideas floating in, ideas floating back out–but every time I started to contemplate even outlining a new post, my mind would veer off in a different direction. Invariably, some small task, the furthest thing on my mind and way at the bottom of my to-do list, would suddenly take on significance of epic proportions and I’d run off to fold the laundry or wash that dish (or re-watch that episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation that I’ve seen 5 times) instead. Then I thought it was because I wasn’t hearing any post-worthy music lately, that maybe I was just bored with the scene. But my list of music to buy is growing by leaps and bounds, while my list of entry ideas is keeping pace. So that couldn’t be it either.

So what could possibly be keeping me in such a state of frustrated suspended animation? And when I said it out loud today without thinking, the answer became so clear: writer’s block. A textbook case to boot, magnified by a resurge in the seasonal blues. And for the last week or so, it has been getting worse. It seems like writing has been all I can think about, a constant dialogue in my head between my creativity and my apathy, the former desperately trying to get something done in the face of the latter’s soul-crushing indifference. I want to write, I need to write, but the thought of actually writing makes me feel panicked and a little helpless. [Would you believe that my New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to work on the blog more? Ha! One month down with barely a peep, only eleven more months to go. Sigh.]

Well, there is only way to deal with writer’s block and that is to put something (anything) down, save it, walk away, and try not to worry too much about the details. So here goes…

Charm City’s temperature has been all over the map lately, but the last several days have been the most bitterly cold we’ve had all season, and that mean old imp known as Snow and his little toady Sleet have been making less than minor nuisances of themselves. Winter and I never do seem to get along together, dessert rat that I am. Even at the best of times, it seems like we are only able to call an uneasy truce. And despite a period of détente, our current cease-fire is wearing thin.

But there is still a lot of brilliant music associated with this season–much of it stark, cold, and depressing–but beautiful none the less. So in honor of this, here’s my top 5 picks of the best songs for this most frosty (read: dreary) of seasons.

To start things off right is the Pixies and their classic cover of Neil Young’s bittersweet ballad, Winterlong. I first became familiar with this version and was kinda blown away to learn it is actually a Young original. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The Pixies pay this song some serious tribute, but the lyrics feature a sweetness and almost innocent longing that is not usually a characteristic of Black Francis or Kim Deal’s styles–as much as I love them.

Next up is Winter Winds by Mumford & Sons. Gorgeous vocals, layered acoustics, and a sense of the ethereal tempered with a healthy dose of cynicism, this band never fails to deliver. I know that they are hot to the point of being overblown (I hate to admit it, but I’ve been avoiding their new album because of burnout), but they are really talented guys. And in every live performance I have found of them, they are spot on.

Moving on, we come to the deceptively cheerful White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes. I know that I have ragged on these guys before, but their style has grown on me over the last year. What once seemed too avant-garde for comfort, now feels clever and rings of craftsmanship. Beautiful, polished, and harmonious, often with just a touch of the sinister, this band keeps popping up on my radar and despite my initial hesitation, they have earned my praise. This song, in particular, really appeals to me. To the casual listener, and without the visuals of the video, it seems sweet and upbeat, but a closer listen reveals much and the video truly showcases the darker themes of the lyrics.

The fourth entry in my winter list is the Bangles’ rock-out cover of Simon and Garfunkels’ Hazy Shade of Winter. Retaining the bleak cynicism of Paul Simon’s lyrics, while adding some feminine four-part harmony and a searing guitar line, the girls produce the goods. And a little bit of 80’s flamboyance never hurts.

And the last, and perhaps my favorite, entry on this list is the haunting Winter Time by Steve Miller Band. I have loved this song since long before I knew what love, longing, or winter really were. And now that I am a bit older and more knowledgable (if not wiser), I love this song even more. Perhaps the saddest piece I know of from this band, it lacks the pomp and bombast that featured so heavily in the 1970’s classic rock scene. No winter mix can do without this one.

2012 Closeout

It has been a very crazy, stressful, happy, sentimental, geeky, tear-filled, music-crammed year. For many reasons, 2012 really put me through the ringer and for much of the year I was more distracted from this blog than I care to admit. A lot of good and bad things happened this year. Looking back now on the last twelve months, all I can say is that I’m one year older, my joints are a little stiffer, perhaps I am a tiny bit wiser, and I am definitely a tad more cynical. But I’m still here. I’m lucky enough to have a day job that pays the bills, a loving husband who puts up with my moods, dear friends, faithful family, and snuggly cats. And I try to appreciate all of it, and give them their much-deserved credit for keeping me sane.

But enough introspection. The year is coming to an end and I’ve got a backlog a mile long! So let’s cut to the chase and fill you in on a few of the amazing albums I’ve been obsessed with this year, but have been just too darn busy to write about until now. Put on your thinking caps and open up your ears, my dear readers, because we’re going to hit them fast and hard and it is definitely going to get loud.

First on my list is an intriguing little synthpop trio from Brooklyn called Class Actress. This group was brand new to me, but turned out to be oh-so-appealing. Elizabeth Harper’s voice and lyrics bring to mind classic pop princesses like Tiffany and Blümchen (two of the artists on my list of guilty pleasures), but she manages to ditch the teeny bopper innocence and bubblegum in favor of sexy lyrics and a jaded world view. And when paired with Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal’s synthpop production, it is not surprising that their 2011 album, Rapproacher, is nothing short of top-notch. The bouncy beats, techno flourishes, and New Wave influences actually mask a lyrical content that is much heavier than is apparent at first. Much of the album is spent dealing with the problems of an almost obsessive love affair that is obviously coming to an end. Starting out strong with the upbeat and endearing Keep You, by the end of the track list all you are left with is the sad, echoing, and introspective plea of Let Me In. There is definitely more than meets the eye here, and the result is an album that is hard to put down for long.

Weekend by Class Actress

Next up is the emo-tinged pop-punk outfit known as Motion City Soundtrack. I loved 2005’s Commit This to Memory, but I kinda lost track of these guys until 2012’s release, Go. (Oops!) However, I was downright thrilled when I heard they were releasing a new album this year. Their first single, True Romance, is positively stellar and perfectly evokes all the things I loved about them years ago, yet somehow manages to feel amazingly fresh at the same time. The most likely culprit in this is Justin Pierre’s lyrics, which have changed a lot over the years. What happens to the neurotic emo singer that grows up? They start talking about the mid-life crisis that 30-year-olds across the country seem to be experiencing these days, that’s what. This is probably why I keep coming back to this album. Nostalgia pulled me in, but the way it speaks to my own experiences as an unwilling adult is what keeps me listening. As a whole, the album is a little unbalanced, starting strong but getting darker and more depressing as the track list progresses. The opening songs of Circles and Wires and True Romance start the album out on a high note. But when you hit the contemplative Everyone Will Die at track 5, you start to realize that this is a different kind of album than they would have released eight years ago. And it only gets darker from there, with the second to last song, Happy Anniversary, which is a rather chilling account of a man who believes he is dying. Pretty heavy stuff, I must say, and the mood only partially recovers in the closing track entitled Floating Down the River. Surprisingly, this all feels even more introspective than their previous work and throughout the album there is a keen awareness of the passage of time and the changes caused by it. However, despite the slightly depressing finish, there is some major potential here, which renews my faith in the viability of the post-punk rock alternative genre.

Timelines by Motion City Soundtrack

Moving away from the heavier (read: soul-crushing) stuff, we now come to the amazing riot girl rock of Wild Flag. This indie rock supergroup (if there really is such a thing) is made up of former members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and The Minders. The list of members would be familiar to many a hipster, I’m sure, but I found this straight up rock ‘n’ roll band through NPR’s All Songs Considered–confirming that I still like new music, while simultaneously publicizing my advanced age (listening to cassette tapes when dinosaurs roamed the Earth). Rejecting all traces of bubblegum, Wild Flag’s 2011 eponymous album is nothing short of indie rock bliss with a hard-rocking edge that avoids sounding overly heavy or dirty. Devoid of all the usual synthpop and electronica influences I so often gravitate towards, they feel like a real successor to Siouxie Sioux and the Banshees. Tough and intelligent, empowered and full of bravado, with just a touch of vulnerability, the result is downright brilliant. The album is filled with strong guitars, pounding drums, good bass lines, and the clever use of a Hammond organ that completely sidesteps being cheesy. And on some of the songs you can hear that they are just itching to be a jam band, which I’m willing to bet must be the case with their live performances. Clocking in at only 41 minutes, my only real complaint about this album is that it is always over too soon.

Black Tiles by Wild Flag

And last but not least, my absolute top album of 2012 is Master of My Make-Believe by the fantastic Santigold. This is a juggernaut of an album from start to finish. Well-balanced in both genre and mood, she ranges from boastful, arrogant, and tough as nails, to quiet, introspective, and understated. Throughout the track list there are touches of punk rock, synthpop, industrial, electronica, rock, rap, R&B, reggae, and a whole lot more. Hailing from Philadelphia with the title of A&R representative for the likes of Epic Records on her curriculum vitae, the unsinkable Santi White embraces all genres and bends them to her will. Everything, and I mean everything, is fair game. This is evident in every aspect of the album, from the music, to the lyrics, to the album cover, which features her in some of her many and varied guises, including an oily looking man in a suit lounging in a leather chair, two bikini-clad amazon gatekeepers flanking him, and a grinning country noblewoman posing in a massive portrait painting hanging in the background. She is everything and all. Not afraid to genre bend, she moves around and through them freely, both throughout the album and within each song. Displaying a talented voice, she is not afraid to push to the far reaches of her range, and her use of overdubbed vocals in the background is clever. And I have got to say that her collaboration with Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the opening track,Go!, is one of the more brilliant match-ups I’ve seen in a while. I truly adored her first album, and (if you couldn’t already tell) I can’t say enough good things about this second album. I love that she pushes the boundaries of my musical tastes and encourages me to get out of my rut, as all truly worth while artists should. I am anxiously waiting for her next project and just about ready to kick myself because I have not seen her live yet. So what are you waiting for? Hit play now!

The Keepers by Santigold

First Love

No matter how old you are or how many years may go by, you never forget your first love. There is something so inherently magical about them, the way they caught your eye, the way they commanded your attention. And no matter how far your life carries you away from that first moment–that first connection–when it is the real thing, you will always feel that magic. That day they became a part of you and whether you embrace it or deny it, they played a vital role in forming the person that you are today.

I clearly remember the first time I held Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in my hands. I stared at the cover and let the images wash over me: the vivid yellows, blues, and reds, the bizarre assemblage of people, the French horn. It was one of the first times in my life that I listened to music that I chose. I didn’t listen to it because it was handed to me by my parents or because it was pushed at me by the high hand of the Disney Corporation on the Mickey Mouse Club. I listened to it for no other reason than that I happened to stumble on my parents record collection one summer afternoon and I was intrigued. I pulled that vinyl out of the sleeve, laid it gently in the player, put the needle down… And after that I really was never quite the same.

I’ve spoken about the experience before on this blog. In fact, it is how I started the blog more than a year ago–my apologies to any long time readers who are now bored out of their skulls. Way back then I pledged that I would defy the expectations of my old high school friends by not constantly writing about the Fab Four–which I am sure got a few skeptical snorts and maybe even a few sighs of relief. Well looking back over my entries, it appears I was true to my word. Over the last year and a half I have only written about them twice. Take that you non-believers! And now I’m going to break my own rules…

The thing is that for all my obsession with The Beatles during my childhood and teen years, I rarely listen to them in my daily life. I’m too much of a voracious music fiend to dwell too long in one place, and since starting the blog that tendency has only increased. But every once in a while, life (sometimes in the most mundane ways) decides to remind me of my roots. And suddenly I am transported back to that day in front of the stereo, watching the needle travel the grooves as it produced some of the most wonderful music ever created.

Take last weekend as my husband and I made the rounds at the local Trader Joe’s (oh so glamorous, I know). While sifting through the frozen goods, I noticed that they were playing Norwegian Wood over the speakers. You get all kinds of canned music in grocery stores that range from the tolerable to the glaringly awful, so I was pleased for once to hear something that didn’t make we want to stuff my ears with cotton. Smiling, I continued my browsing. A little while later, I realized that they had to be playing the entire album and my respect for the Trader Joe’s staff increased ten-fold.

I hadn’t listened to my favorite band in months, having been distracted by that there new fangled indie rock they got these days. But I was truly amazed at how happy listening to them again made me. Sometimes it is the simple things, like music in a supermarket, that illustrate the most important life lessons. The things you truly love in life, the music, the people, the places, will always be there for you when you reach for them. For the relationships that really mater, time and distance mean nothing. And even if it is only in your mind, you can always rekindle your first love.

So in honor of this, here are some of my favorite songs from a truly worthy album: 1965’s Rubber Soul. First up is John Lennon’s tale of a one night stand with a modern girl. Featuring George Harrison’s first success in integrating the sitar into a rock n’ roll song, this song has grown on me over the years (something about it just goes right over the head of a ten-year-old). In this case, I have dug up a video featuring candid footage of the mop tops.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

Second up is the lesser known gem called You Won’t See Me. One of the few Beatles’ songs that featured real lyrical angst, Paul McCartney’s vocals are perfectly balanced by the airy backing vocals and Harrison’s ever-present guitar riff. Here’s a live version from 2004 in which Paul McCartney claims that it was never played in concert. I’m a little skeptical of this because The Beatles were still touring in those days, but they had such a voluminous catalog even then that I guess it is conceivable that such a beautiful song could be overlooked.

You Won’t See Me

And last but not least, one of my top 10 Beatles favorites is the immaculate composition entitled I’m Looking Through You. How do you write about an epiphany? How do you describe that earth-shaking moment when you take a real close look at the people around you and truly see them for who they really are? Depicting a mental thunderbolt is no mean feat. But I think Lennon and McCartney did a pretty good job with this one. Give it a listen and see if you don’t agree.

This particular video is a clip from the lamentable Beatles cartoon of the mid 1960s. Not having watched it in a good 20 years or so, I had forgotten how bad it really was. Think the creator’s of Rocky and Bullwinkle who, having never actually seen the Fab Four or heard their speaking voices, drop acid and have a go at it. Now make it worse. All I can say is poor Ringo! They really do him a bad turn. For those who just can’t stand the corniness, you can skip to the song by clicking on the embedded link in the song title.

I’m Looking Through You

And for those of you faithful readers looking for extra credit, you can listen to the album in its entirety here. Rubber Soul was a landmark album and the first one where the band mates felt like they had real artistic control. The production levels are gorgeous for the times and every song is a classic. All true students in the school of pop music should hear it at least once.

I watched, I let it burn

Music has always been a cathartic experience for me. When something is bothering me, exciting me, or depressing me, 9 times out of 10 I will reach for my headphones to deal with it. And considering the myriad of addictive choices out there that I could reach for (food, alcohol, sex, shopping, etc), I think this is a pretty healthy choice. Sometimes I roam through my music library in search of that one song that just hits the right nerve. I compulsively hit the skip button on shuffle mode, pausing only long enough for the opening bars to register before moving on, until that song that feels right right now hits my ears. As you might imagine, this is often times a frustrating and occasionally an unsuccessful way to go about things, being dependent on both the level of my agitation and the caprice of the shuffle algorithm. But other times I get lucky and the song finds me.

This is what happened to me last week when several large pieces of news (some good, some… questionable) were rather unceremoniously dropped in my lap. An agitated coughing mess with a lot of folders to label, I decided to indulge a little and listen to All Songs Considered while I worked. And right there in the middle of the podcast, a song that I had already heard once in passing without taking much notice pulled out a sledgehammer and said, “This is your song. Right. Now.” And all I could do was listen.

I’ve talked before about the art of the cheerful fuck-off song. There really is nothing quite so endearing (and sometimes profane) as a song which tells the world where to stick it in a bright and upbeat manner. The juxtaposition of a vicious dressing down with a rocking beat is one that I consistently find intriguing and amusing. These songs are extremely useful for burning through a store of nervous energy. Sometimes they even provide a sense of closure. Surprisingly, there appears to be a statute of limitations on taking someone to task and a chipper song that flips the bird at your regret of choice can really work wonders for your peace of mind.

During the last year or so I’ve been slowly compiling a list of songs like this and the latest edition has got to be I Love It by Icona Pop. Hailing from the Swedish club scene, this female electropop duo is spearheaded by DJs Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt, and their latest single is positively infectious. Hands down, it is one of the most energetic songs in my catalog. Featuring pulsating industrial tones and a throbbing beat sure to please even the most discerning of club crowds, Jawo and Hjelt paint the picture of someone who has reached such a height of frustration that they no longer care about the consequences. The result is impossible to listen to without rocking out and some of the lyrics will leave you chuckling.

The only problem with the song is the abrupt–and I mean abrupt–ending. There is no climax or even a winding down period. It screams along at an insane pace and then just stops. The effect is more than a little jolting and means that the song is highly sticky. You’ll find that you are still humming along hours or even days later. And if you are anything like me, you’ll spend a good chunk of a night lying in bed and staring at the ceiling while it blares in your head on repeat. Given this unfortunate side effect, do you dare to risk listening to it?

Oh, come on! Trust me, this is such a satisfying song that it is worth losing a little sleep over it. Go on and listen. You know you wanna!

I Love It by Icona Pop

Johnny 5 is still alive

Please excuse my radio silence during the last few weeks. If anyone figures out what happened to the month of June, please let me know because I completely lost the page on it this time around. Granted, that is kind of what happens when one of your non-vital organs unexpectedly decides to go supernova on you. Between an emergency trip to the ER, being admitted for surgery within hours of darkening their doorstep, and the subsequent recovery process that abdominal surgery demands, all of my other pursuits in life came to a complete and sudden halt. I have never been sideswiped like this before and it is almost like I am coming back to life. But I’m still here, my gut has healed, and I am finally starting to feel like a whole person once more. All of this means that the itch to start writing again has finally become too great to ignore.

Given the life-altering events of the last few weeks–along with a few other unexpected hiccups–there is one song that has appropriately been running through my head lately. In the perfect melding of irony, dark humor, and a bit of desperation, This Year by the Mountain Goats is the ideal front-runner in the race for my current theme song. With frontman John Darnielle’s snarky lyrics and his clipped delivery, it is no surprise that this song resonates with something deep in my psyche. Falling somewhere between a battle cry and an oxymoron, he vows “I am gonna make it through this year… If it kills me!” If that isn’t a mantra worth repeating in times of stress, I don’t know what is!

I’m hoping that regular posts will resume next week. In the meantime, give a listen to This Year by the Mountain Goats. Enjoy!