‘Cause I’m on fire

From the start, I’ve been planning on doing album reviews on this blog. Now that we’re 9 months in, I think I’ve found the perfect album to kick off this post category. And it is a doozy, let me tell you. So let’s get started.

The band is AWOLNATION (yes, the capitals are intentional). The album is their first full-length record entitled Megalithic Symphony, which was released in March of 2011. The brain-child of Aaron Bruno–who some may know for his previous work with the bands Under the Influence of GiantsHometown Hero, and Insurgence–it is the frenzied attention-deficit product that resulted when Red Bull Studios give him the run of their full-fledged recording studio and literally let him go wild. Yes, I do mean that Red Bull and listening to this album, it is very easy to imagine lots of late night sessions surrounded by and fueled with large doses of the taurine-powered energy drink.

Often classified as an alternative or electro-pop outfit, AWOLNATION pulls from what feels like a thousand genres all at once, including (but not limited to): punk, techno, ’80’s glam metal, garage rock, and old-school blues. Trying to classify this band is as complicated as trying to decode a master spy’s cipher. Not only is each song wildly different from all the others, but Bruno seems to habitually switch genres within the songs themselves. Throughout the album, his vocal and musical choices invoke a vast array of varied artists, among them LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Mika, George Michael, and even a little bit of Ronnie James Dio. In my research on the band, some have compared Bruno to Beck in his amazing mastery of the poetic and his chameleon-like ability to jump genres. But Bruno and his band mates take it to a whole new level with their frenetic beats, unexpected pauses, and the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics! Ranging from sweet, to inspirational, to cynical, and all the way to mildly disturbing. This is one album that constantly keeps you guessing and 9 times out of 10, you’re wrong.

But in all the ADHD mayhem, there is a truly wonderful and somehow strangely cohesive sound here. And it grows on you. The first time I listened to this album, I kept asking myself (quite loudly, I might add), “What the hell is this?!?!” It was such a high energy assault to my senses that it was almost too much for my poor brain to take in. But with every song and every moment of this confused listening-madness, a wide grin never left my face. I knew I’d have to give my head time to cool and listen to it again. Little did I know that I’d be compelled to listen to it again and again… and again.

To truly appreciate the full experience, you really do need to listen to the whole album. But for the sake of trying to keep this from becoming a novel, I’m going to focus on only a few of the songs.

First up is a track called Soul Wars. This is the perfect example of a song that combines two starkly disparate genres-in this case the electro-pop version of techno that is so popular these days and ’80s hair metal-into a sometimes jarring yet ultimately satisfying composition. It also introduces the listener to the hyper-active energy that can be found throughout the album. The best that YouTube could serve up is a lyric-version of the song, there being no official video and only live versions with hideous sound quality. But the upside is that the featured visuals are the Salvador Dali-like liner art, which only serve to enhance the novelty of the song. Plus as an added bonus, you’ll find out where the name of this post came from. Come on click the play icon. You know you’re curious.

To show you the astounding range this album serves up, I present to you my second highlighted song: People. Taking things down a notch, it lacks the heavy sense of power and high-speed  urgency that Soul Wars features. But what it lacks in the manic, it more than makes up for in the positive pop punch. I especially love the philosophical tint to the opening monologue for the song in which Bruno grabs your attention with the words, “Thank you for listening again/Or for the first time/Or for the last time that we share this moment/And I am grateful for this.” Sadly, this little speech is cut in half on the lovely live performance I dug up. But kudos to Red Bull Records for posting some really high quality live performances online.

The first single off the album is Sail, which has one of the most eerily creepy videos I’ve seen a while. The song is a strange mix of low-key electronic flourishes and Bruno’s voice howling like a gruff old bluesman. I actually didn’t like this song the first few times I heard it. Maybe it is an acquired taste, because it slowly won me over. It is probably the calmest song on the whole album, which is ironic because it also features the most screaming.  The shadowy video only adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the song and introduces the idea of alien abduction, something that makes an appearance in several of the songs.

Last to be featured is the second and current single called Not Your Fault. This is the song that made me buy the album, mainly because it sounded so different from Sail. You wouldn’t even know it was the same band until a full minute in when Bruno drops his smooth vocal manner for the shriek-like sound he uses in the first single. The gap between the two songs was so great that I was suddenly intrigued enough to put my money down on the record store counter. The video is a hilarious claymation romp that was obviously influenced by the high jinks of late night on Cartoon Network and the video for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. The claymation violence paired with the still cheerful good-humor of the video is a great distraction from the lyrics, which bring to mind the suicide notes left behind after murder/suicides. I am completely serious here. Watch the video twice! Once for the visuals and once for the chorus. It is a real trip.

Now  if you haven’t guessed by now, I love this album. I have been completely taken in and I give it a hearty two thumbs up. And if I haven’t peaked your interest in the music of AWOLNATION by now, then I wash my hands of you!

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?