Frogs and shoegazing

Little did I know when I picked up M83’s recent double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, that it would include the formula for human-amphibian transformation. Think I’m kidding? Well… Maybe a little, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s get some business out of the way.

This Saturday, April 21st, is Record Store Day. This is an amazing chance for every music lover in the States (as well as some places in Europe) to go out and support local businesses, local and regional music, the concept of the traditional music store (something that is in danger these days), and well… the good old-fashioned album. Plus, there are exclusive national, regional, first, and limited-run releases in honor of the occasion. What is not to love? And I am by no means encouraging you to just go browse the CDs at the big box store of your choice. No, my friends! I’m talking about a real honest to goodness record store–preferably one that is participating in the event. I will personally be wandering up and down the aisles of The Sound Garden here in Charm City. You can get all the info at the official Record Store Day site, where you can also search for a participating store near you. Mark those calendars, folks! You won’t regret it.

And now back to our original premise: frogs… in a moment…

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming  is a gorgeous romp into the highs and lows of dreamy electro pop from one of France’s most popular exports, M83. Throughout the double disk there is a pervasive fantastical quality, only partly because of band leader Anthony Gonzalez’s exploration of his childhood and the concept of dreaming. Every song features extensive progressive layering of electronic tracks and guitar riffs. Although there are lyrics aplenty the vocals are soft–featuring muted and sometimes incoherent lyrics–that are often as not treated like just another instrument (I actually had to look them up! I’d been listening to this album for over a week before I realized I didn’t remember any of the lyrics!). And through some amazing feat, the double album is rife with infectious beats that somehow manage to lull rather than energize. Just how Gonzalez and his mates manage this trick I’m not quite sure, but it makes for a trance-inducing listening experience. With the exception of a few stronger songs on each of the disks in the form of Intro–closely followed by the stellar Midnight City–and Steve McQueen, the majority of this beautiful work is more ambient than danceable. Apparently, these are some of the prime traits of what is called shoegazing, a lesser known UK subgenre of alt rock that was pushed out of the limelight by American grunge back in the early ’90s, but that has been making inroads on American radio for the last year or so.

I’m really smitten with many of the songs featured on this album, but by far and away my favorite is Raconte-Moi Une Histoire, which translates to Tell Me a Story. This is an exploration of what dreaming is like to a child and it focuses on (you guessed it!) frogs. The song consists of a building electronic beat, layered with ethereal wordless vocals, and the voice of one child (possibly two?) speaking in English. It is truly something to behold and it made my husband laugh really hard when I played it for him. I dare you to listen to this without smiling!

Enjoy and remember to visit your favorite record store this Saturday!

 

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A taste of home

Heard this today and a little part of me abruptly flew away home and watched the desert sunset paint the sky gold. I miss the desert passionately and no matter how long I am away from home, I still pine for it. Mountains and purple skies and bright starry nights haunt my dreams and honestly always will. It is nice to know that I am not the only one who feels this way.

Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb

Sorry to get so sappy and poetic on you all the sudden here folks. But I promise I’ll make it up to you with something thought-provoking and scathingly critical tomorrow or Friday.

Moby and the lights on the Charles

I’ve been feeling nostalgic for Boston lately. Anyone who knew me when I lived in Boston would probably find this ironic, because at the time I gladly told everyone who would listen that I hated it there. Living all my life until the age of 26 in the sunny (read: blistering hot) climes of southern Arizona, I decided I wanted to do something more with my life than shelve books in an elementary school library. I got the brilliant idea to apply for grad school, move to the other end of the country, take out a ton of student loans, and get a master’s degree in library science.  Madness, you say? Well, probably. But it was madness my husband was happy to assist with. So we packed up and we went. Leaving my home, family, and everything I’d ever known was one of the hardest things I have ever done… and it turns out that it was one of the best things I have ever done.

Living in Boston was quite the experience. We existed without a car for over a year and I took the “T” everywhere. I ran around like a maniac trying to juggle classes, readings, part-time jobs, internships, and commuting. Our apartment was tiny, with no amenities to speak of, and we lived in Allston which is affectionately known as the “student slum”.  While we were there, Massachusetts had 2 of their snowiest winters in decades (this was before last year’s crazy snow) and I just about froze my butt off. I struggled with bouts of seasonal depression and learned to have a healthy fear of winter. We struggled with money more than we ever had before and it seemed like we were always waiting for my student loan check or my husband’s under-employment check (gotta love the liberal welfare system in MA!). The whole time we were there, I pined for Arizona like it was some mythical land of sunshine and goodness. I even became known around campus as that chick from Arizona. I wanted to go home in a big way and many of my journal posts from that time period are dark, pessimistic, and (let’s face it) down right whiny.

But I also found my niche in Boston. I worked hard and did really well in school. I built up my resume and made contacts I still use today.  I was more active and energetic than I think I have ever been. I discovered the joys of little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, tasty pizza made by guys with heavy Mexican accents, authentic dim sum downtown in China Town, and thoroughly explored the world of beer. I adored this little ultra-green bagel place and spent hours walking around in the Boston Public Gardens and the Museum of Fine Art. I made some wonderful friends who I will treasure for the rest of my life. I grew and changed there. I discovered that I could completely uproot myself (and my wonderful husband) and totally start again somewhere else. I became so much more independent and I found an inner strength I never knew I had.

Perhaps my last two years in Charm City and it’s less glowing social success has got me looking back more fondly on Boston. Perhaps I miss the collegial atmosphere of a graduate program and the ease at making friends among lots of people also looking to build a new life for themselves in a new place. Perhaps it is the fact that I recently rediscovered that my old on-line journal has a surprisingly large amount of positive entries from those days. Most likely it is all three mixed in with a healthy dose of greener grass on the other side. Either way, I found some great music while in Boston. And now I feel like sharing. Aren’t you lucky?

Something that makes Boston unique for me is that much of the music memories I created there are so deeply entwined with location. Listening to The Ting Tings reminds me of driving down a specific hill on Chestnut Avenue towards Beacon Street. Stratosphere by Junkie XL always reminds me of walking through this little green space from the Fenway train stop to the campus. And Invincible by OK Go will always call to mind riding the B-line past the Boston University campus on Com Ave. Most of the time my music memories are connected to the person who exposed me to that band or to a specific event. But with most of my memories tied to Boston music, it is the geographic location that is the key. The activities are mundane, everyday tasks that do not really stand on their own. Except for one…

Like the others I mentioned in passing, this memory and the song associated with it are tied to a very specific location: Memorial Drive, along the Charles River in Cambridge. The song: Ooh Yeah by Moby. It was fall, but not yet cold. I was in the middle of my internship working with a collection of old court docket books for the Harvard Law Library. It had been a good day spent on the job and I’d met up with my friends and my husband. We had probably gotten something to eat and were now heading back home to the other side of the river. The Charles River is  beautiful and winding, bordered by two main arteries: Memorial Drive and Storrow Drive. Street lights and stop lights line these roads and after dark they shine on the water in greens, reds, and whites; almost like Christmas lights. We climbed into our car, my husband driving, my friends piled in the back, and I in the front passenger seat. Getting a sudden urge, I plugged my Ipod into the dashboard and selected this song. We drove home in the dark, looking at the lights shining along the river. I feel completely calm and content, something I can assure you is very rare in a grad student. It was almost a surreal moment and it has stuck with me. Even now, I can’t listen to it without feeling a little of that calm.

I will leave you with one parting anecdote on what life was like in Allston, the student slums that I called home. One day I am walking down Harvard Ave, a unique area with comic books shops, Russian grocery stores, and Korean restaurants. Weaving through the foot traffic past the dingy store fronts, I notice that on the wall in the alley between two buildings someone has sprayed painted the words, “Have a nice day!” That was Allston for you. Sketchy, but friendly.

Do you have a song that reminds you of a certain place?

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?