I ain’t dead yet

**To everyone who reads this post who is over 32-years-old, I apologize in advance.**

Sadly part of growing up is growing older. Even though the generational lines have been getting down-right blurry lately with adults continuing to act like kids well into their thirties (or forties… or even fifties), sometimes you have to admit that your body is getting older–even if the rest of you doesn’t feel like it.

This dichotomy has become somewhat more apparent to me during the last few weeks. Between the college students storming back into town (some of them are setting off fireworks in the street as I speak) and a carpal tunnel issue with my left hand (argh!), I have been feeling a little bit used up. Mentally, I feel like I am at least 10 years younger than I really am. Emotionally it is more like 15, thanks to a bit of pre-seasonal depression angst (I think). And lately it seems like I have the sense of humor of a 14-year-old boy (i.e., lots of snarky laughter at things that would have appalled me as a girl at that age). But my body tells a different story. And it annoys me. *sigh*

Thankfully, tonight I was reminded that I am not dead yet. I may be old enough to curse my aching hand, as well as the maniac students on the roads and in the streets. But I am not too old to roll down the windows on a cool Saturday night, crank the stereo all the way up, and cruise down a winding city road.

And what was I so happily blasting for one and all to hear? The wonders of shuffle mode once again served me up a song that felt just right for a night like this. With blaring horns, harmonious voices, and subtle, yet ultimately uplifting lyrics, it was Santa Fe from Beirut’s 2011 album The RipTide. Zach Condon’s brand of folksy, almost Mariachi-reminiscent indie rock (Do not let that stop you from listening to this! Live a little! Sheesh!) was just what I needed to soothe my soul and indulge in my remaining youth.

So please give this one a try. I promise you won’t regret it. And go ahead and crank it up a bit. If the neighbors complain, you can always blame it on the students. *smirks*

Santa Fe by Beirut

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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.

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

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?

They’re playing my song

Theme songs. You know you have one. We all do. That song that doesn’t just speak to you, but speaks for you. Theme songs come in two different flavors: philosophical and subliminal. The former is a conscious choice, while the latter is more a reflection of our unconscious.

Philosophical theme songs are often easy to find and are generally straight forward. They serve as our own personal propaganda campaign and support the image that we wish to present to the world. A biker might choose something tough, like “Bad to the Bone” (George Thorogood and the Destroyers), while a lady-killer (or someone who wishes they were one) might choose something like “Sharp Dressed Man” (ZZ Top). Silly examples, I know. But they are believable, right? And don’t even get me started on the songs politicians choose for their campaign rallies.

For me, if I had to pick a philosophical theme song these days, I think it would be “I Heard Ramona Sing” by Frank Black. This comes from his solo work outside of the Pixies and is also found on the soundtrack for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The lyrics, specifically the first verse, appeal to my sensibilities and play off of the image I am currently cultivating here–the thoughtful music fanatic.  “I had so many problems/Until I got me a walkman/I really liked it a lot and/They walked right in and they solved them.”

The second type of theme song, the subliminal, is more likely to choose you than the other way around.  Unlike with philosophical theme songs, whether you like this song or not is irrelevant. You’ll probably just be minding your own business, idly flipping through radio channels or listening to that new album you just bought. An innocent turn of phrase will catch your attention and suddenly you know that this song has got you pegged. Discovering this type of theme song can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience. The lyrics may hit too close to home, revealing secrets you may not have admitted even to yourself. But you know that what it is saying is true.

I recently had this experience with “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem. I love this song, don’t get me wrong. It is fun to listen to and always gets me going when I’m tired in the morning. But it speaks to me on many levels. It is the perfect theme song for someone entering their 30’s, who spends more time at work than away, and who is wondering if this is how the rest of their life is going to be. There is a tired, dissatisfied undercurrent to this song, perfectly counterbalanced by the infectious, sometimes off-kilter dance beats of the instrumentation. “Break me into bigger pieces/So some of me is home with you/Wait until the weekend/And we can make our bad dreams come true/And its a go/Yeah its a go/But if we wait until the weekend, we could miss the best things to do.”

It’s hard to grow up… and it’s even harder when you realize that it has already happened…

Do you have a theme song?