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.

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Three days from New York City

If you are anything like me, then it has probably been a lot longer than you’d like to contemplate since you’ve had a real vacation. Not the fake kind of vacation where you visit family, go to a conference, or squeeze in a little sight-seeing after a job interview. No, I mean a real vacation–when you take time off school or work, travel to a city you’ve never been to before, and go exploring. Well kids, I’m long over-due and I’m really excited to be able to say that this problem is about to be addressed. In case the entry title slipped past you, I’m going to New York City! I’ve actually never been there, my only experiences with the Big Apple being several drive-thrus (read: slowly losing my mind in stop-and-go traffic) when going back and forth between Boston and Charm City and a lay-over at JFK with a huge plaster cast on my leg (long story). Sadly, this time is still not quite ideal in that I’ll only be there for a little under 48 hours and for most of that time my poor husband will be working. But he’s made his peace with it and I’ve been busy making plans for a solo exploration of Manhattan.

I’ve decided to take a page from Anthony Bourdain and treat this like a real layover. On the advice of several people, I’m going to avoid most of the usual tourist stops. My goals are few and flexible, which I hope makes them doable:

1. Go to the New York Public Library and see the original toys owned by the original Christopher Robin of A.A. Milne fame (to make the little 5-year-old me immensely happy)

2. Get a real New York City bagel for breakfast

3. Visit Strawberry Fields in Central Park (my very first real Beatles pilgrimage! Somebody pinch me!)

4. Visit my buddy from grad school (she’s been trying to get me up here for about 2 years now. How can I refuse?)

Everything else I do will be incidental, unplanned, and hopefully delightful. I do hope that my husband will be able to pal around with me in the evenings, but I’m not holding my breath. Honestly, I’m just thrilled to be getting away from my normal life for a little while. I’m sure I’ll be exhausted when I get back, but it will be well worth it.

So now in honor of my maiden voyage to the Empire City (and for your entertainment, of course), here are my top three picks for songs about New York City. Enjoy!

First up is the impeccable Joni Mitchell and her 1969 classic, Chelsea Morning. Hailing from her second album, Clouds, this song showcases that amazing lyrical magic that Mitchell is known for and which helped to cement her reputation early on as a hit-making songwriter. Originally covered by Judy Collins in 1967–for whom it charted higher, I might add–I find that I much prefer Mitchell’s version. The combination of her simple orchestration and complicated lyrical rhythm make for a pleasant listen every time.

Next on my list is the often energetic and always eclectic Vampire Weekend with 2008’s (holy crap! Is it really that old already?) A-Punk. Their strangely obscure and at times unintelligible lyrics do in fact have something to do with New York City. And I’d like to think that the hyperactivity of this frenetic song reflects something of the city’s bustle. Either way, the video is creative and will make you smile.

And last–but certainly not least–is a little Canadian indie rock girl band called Cub that chances are you may not have ever heard of. But if you’re a nerd like me, you’re probably familiar with They Might Be Giant’s cover of their song, New York City (I know! I was as shocked to discover this as you. This is why I am not allowed to call myself a hipster). Cub was a short-lived trio from Vancouver who favored a soft brand of pop-like punk that some critics apparently dubbed “cuddlecore”. Personally, I think the name is both fitting and adorable. But what do I know? Oh well, Cub broke up in 1997, but first they made an equally cutesy video for this song in 1995. It is ’90s-tastic. Enjoy!

Wish me safe journey! I’ll try to post some pics next week.

On my radar

So the past couple weeks have been kind of a mess. Between intense 16 hour a day seminars at work, a recurring migraine that just WON’T LEAVE ME ALONE, and a bit of rather inevitable writer’s block, I’ve been hard pressed to put together the necessary brain cells for a blog post. But never fear, my dear readers for I am here. I am alive. I’m okay, I swear. Now I realize that crippling concern for my whereabouts is probably not what has been keeping you up at night, but I know that when I don’t write I start to itch–even if it doesn’t bother anyone else. Bringing to mind that ancient mystical question: If an unread blog doesn’t get updated, does anybody care? Ah well, I care. And I guess that is what matters.

For the last few days I’ve been desperately wracking my poor tender head for ideas to write about, but handy ideas have truly been feeling scarce lately. And despite a few recent purchases and quite a bit of casual listening, I wasn’t really feeling strong about much of anything musically. Or so I thought… and then the other day I got the (if not brilliant, at least positive) idea to post a few of the songs that are just coming on to my radar. Well, as with every good list, once I got started it quickly became hard to stop. But in the interest of reserving stuff for future entry fodder and to practice that useful skill called self-control, I’ve managed to cull the herd a bit. And so my friends, here’s a short(er) list of new-to-me artists who are currently getting me excited:

Cheerleader – St. Vincent

I’d heard the name bantered around the last month or so, but had no idea what I was in store for when I first encountered this video. I absolutely love the concept and am now leaving myself notes to grab a copy of this album.

From Now On – The Features

I didn’t realize it until browsing on YouTube just now, but I was totally into a song by these guys last summer. I failed to pick up on them at the time and ultimately forgot about them–shame on me! But I’m definitely putting them on my music store list now. Truly a fun and raucous song that is reminiscent of the more upbeat songs by Kings of Leon; although apparently that is not their normal sound. And the energy level this one inspires in me more than makes up for the fact that it appears to only be available on the Twilight Breaking Dawn Soundtrack.

That Old Black Hole – Dr. Dog

I love the playful lyrics in this one. Very clever and it pretty well mirrors my mood the last few weeks. No video yet, but here’s their recent performance on Conan.

Don’t Let It Get To You – Rostam Batmanglij

A quarter of New York City’s Vampire Weekend, Batmanglij (isn’t that just the best name EVER?) is also a promising music producer with what sounds like a very promising solo career in the offing. I love the layered organic sound of this song. Think of a bunch of people playing empty plastic bottles instead of instruments, then pair it with an orchestral string section. Creative is the very least that I can say about this guy.

These are just a few of the songs I find myself randomly humming these days. Who’s on your radar?

Points for creativity

Okay kids, today we’re going to stray a bit from our beaten path–a bit of off-roading, if you will. Now usually I talk about things that I like on this blog. This is pretty much my whole purpose in writing and posting here, to share with you what I am listening to now, what I listened to back then, and what associations I make between my music and my memories. I may make a few critical remarks every now and then about a song or an artist, and sometimes a song is associated with a bad memory, but for the most part you get to read about what I enjoy. But not today, my dear readers.

No. Today I’m going to talk about a band that I am (rather surprisingly) very interested in at the moment. But I’m also going to talk about their latest single, which (spoiler!) essentially creeps me the frack out! The band is Seattle’s indie folk band Fleet Foxes and the song is The Shrine/An Argument, which is the first single from their second and latest studio album, Helplessness Blues–incidentally nominated for the Best Folk Album Grammy award this year. And I’ll come right out now and say it, the Grammy nomination was definitely well deserved. The band features a mainly acoustic instrumentation of drums, mandolins, guitars, bass, and the mysteriously titled “multi-instrumentalist”. And they apply a heavy hand in the use of layered, harmonizing vocals that inevitably put me in mind of 1970s era folk rocks bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, America, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The only modern-day equivalents that I am aware of are The Civil Wars (who beat them to the Grammy) and perhaps Mumford & Sons, who may come off as a bit more rocking but employ the same emphasis on vocal harmony. I’ve been a fan of CSNY and America for years, and I’d probably rank Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More as one of my top 10 albums of 2011. So you would think that Fleet Foxes would land smack dab in the middle of my bailiwick, right? Well… as I am coming to find out, Fleet Foxes is not here to make things easy on you.

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