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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The Great Detour of 2012

By Spyder_Monkey (Own work, modified data from Open Street Map) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For the past two years, commuting and (let’s face it) life in general in Charm City has been seriously disrupted over the Labor Day Weekend by drag racing. Yes, you read that right. Drag racing. For some ungodly reason (most likely tourism dollars), the city decided that it would be a good idea to close down all the roads in the heart of the city (making an already natural bottleneck 3 million times worse), cut down more than 40 huge and aged trees along the route (in 2011), put up acres of bleachers, and invite a whole bunch of indy stock car drivers to drive at screaming high-speed through the city while tourists watch. Buses are rerouted all over the place, the lower part of the city is practically cut off from the upper portion, and locals flee the city to escape the insanity. I have yet to meet someone who lives within the Baltimore/D.C. Metro area who actually is happy about this situation. It wouldn’t be so bad if the darn thing was truly successful, but thus far it has been plagued with mismanagement, low ticket sales, and a general lack of enthusiasm from what appears to be the city at large.

Apparently, I’m not a fan. Could you tell?

But I didn’t start this entry with the intention to hold a huge bitch fest about the Grand Prix, a lovely headache that we get to deal with for 3 (Three!) more years. Instead, I want to talk about how from now on I am going to associate Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with this ill-advised and thoroughly obnoxious event. Now I’m sure you’re curious to find out what the heck a folk rock supergroup from the 1960s–best known for their use of beautiful and elaborate vocal harmonies–could possibly have to do with indy stock car racing. Well, when you put it like that, very little. But they will forever be connected in my mind with traffic jams and what is sure to go down in history as The Great Detour of 2012

Lrheath at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The week leading up to the drive home on Friday, August 31st had already been an interesting juggling act for my carpool. Between the bus situation, the ever-constricting road closures, and the fact that many of my colleagues are blind and therefore not drivers, led to a daily changing cast of characters in the car. But so far things had gone well, due mainly to flexibility and a willingness to be picked up muchearlier than usual. And now it was time for one more long commute homeward.

The car was packed to the gills, with bags in the trunk and crowded knees and shoulders all around. Personal space was reduced to a fond memory, but everybody made it a point to remain cheerful and endeavored to refrain from poking their neighbor with an errant elbow.  Our driver had considerately thought ahead and packed one of her favorite albums by CSNY to make the trip home more enjoyable. While not everyone in the car was necessarily familiar with the band, I was pleased with the selection–you didn’t grow up in my house without hearing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes at least a few times. We pulled away from the parking garage and began to make our way along the circuitous route that would hopefully lead us all home. Making our way South around the football stadium, we swung out to the west and began making our way slowly down a West Baltimore street in stop and go traffic. Our intention was to get on to the only main artery that was heading north, and we were making ponderous progress towards this goal while listening to the sweet harmonies and folksy guitar chords. Despite the tight fit in the back seat and the frustratingly slow progress we were making up the street, everyone was in fairly good spirits. Snarky comments were flying at the blockheaded antics of other drivers around us and I seem to remember a great deal of laughter among the group. We knew that traffic would be snarled and we all settled in to make the best of the situation.

It was about 45 minutes into the commute (longer than it usually takes to get everyone home on a normal night) when our driver–the undisputed queen of route tweaking who is always on the look out for a way to avoid one more stoplight–spied a nearly empty side street. It was too good an opportunity for her to pass up and hoping to find a quicker way to the main artery, she eagerly turned up the street. Happily cracking jokes and already enjoying our second listening of Ohio, little did we know that impending doom was upon us. At first, everything seemed fine. There was still traffic on the street, but it was all moving drowsily along… until we came to a three-way intersection that left us no option but to turn left. This presented a slight problem because (of course) we wanted to turn right. There was nothing we could do but obey and hope that we could detour again farther along the road.

Well, to make a long story slightly shorter, the answer turned out to be a big, fat NO. Unlike many old cities on the East Coast, Charm City does have the luxury of roads laid out in a grid… in parts of the city. The rest is subject to the kind of haphazard sprawl that rivals even the likes of Boston, which many claim is laid out according to old cow paths (a much contested controversy, by the way). Combine this with the city’s penchant for one-way streets, and you’ve got the potential for some real messes during rush hour. Not only did our innocent little detour send us in the wrong direction, it undid almost all of our progress of the last hour. The real kicker is that we literally had to retrace our steps on the exact same route we had originally traveled. Our driver was beside herself with embarrassment, but everyone put on a brave face. The laughter may have taken on a more desperate edge, but what could you do other than get out and walk several miles north? So we all smiled and nodded and somehow managed to make it through the rest of what turned out to be a near record-breaking commute (only topped by the winter of 2010 when 3 feet of snow pretty much brought the city to a standstill for a couple of weeks).

But the funny part is that during this insane journey through the half-crippled city is that a collective hallucination took place within the confines of our car. We listened to that CSNY album from start to finish at least 6 times. Our driver lamented her negligence in bringing only one CD to share. Several of us with iPhones cursed ourselves for not bringing the necessary cords and wires to hook them up to the car. And for reasons I still can’t explain, not a single one of us remembered a little thing called the radio. No, my dear readers, instead of thinking outside the box (or in this case the CD player) we just kept listening to this album on repeat as if it was the only option left to us in a post apocalyptic world gone mad. It wasn’t until we were within 5 minutes of my house (I am the second to last drop-off) that my driver looked over at her stereo and sheepishly pressed a button. Both of us breathed a deep sigh of relief as the sounds of NPR came over the speaker system and then shared a slightly demented laugh over our amazing feat of short sightedness.

I think it is safe to say that for the rest of my life I will probably associate Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with detours and traffic jams. And because it was the song that just seemed to keep playing, I have for you CSNY’s rocking version of Woodstock. Originally penned by none other than the awe-inspiring Joni Mitchell, who was Graham Nash’s significant other at the time, this song helped define a generation of young people looking to change the world. Somehow tying it to a legacy of pollution-spewing cars and frustrated drivers seems a bit less impressive. Oh well, either way enjoy!

Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

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.

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!

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.

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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No Stairway? Denied?!

Well, not anymore! Led Zeppelin fans rejoice for there is hope shining like a candle at the end of a very, very long tunnel. Now you ask how this could be? John Bonham and John Paul Jones have been residing in the hallowed halls of Rock ‘n’ Roll Valhalla for decades now. And Jimmy Page and Robert Plant dashed the hopes of fans everywhere when they abandoned their last collaboration in 2009 and since have been focusing on solo projects that often stray far from their rocking roots. So how can a devoted Led Zep fan aspire for something more? Has hell frozen over? Have the laws of time and space been irrevocably altered? (Cue Peter Venkman!) Hardly! But Led Zep fans from back in the day may not believe their ears when they hear this little track.

What song could possibly have gotten my classic rock-obsessed mind into such a tizzy? Well my friends, I am referring to the surprisingly epic song entitled Little Black Submarines. What’s that you say, you can’t place it? Well, I can assure you that you will not find it on any Led Zeppelin bootleg recording and it has not been languishing on a shelf somewhere deep within the BBC vaults for the past 30 years. No, this song is from a little American rhythm and blues revivalist duo known as The Black Keys. Now you might be confused as to how anyone could manage to get these two bands mixed-up. Sure they do share some of the same blues and folk influences and they both employ masterful instrumentality, finely honed lyrics, and a production standard that screams quality. Yet there is some distance between the two of them, from their subject matter to their style, as well as their stage presence . But if an old devotee happened to push play on this track unwittingly, they’d swear it was everybody’s favorite blues rock Brits circa 1971. Don’t believe me? Well, first let’s start with a refresher for those of you lacking in your music education.

Now I don’t know if Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney consciously set out to make their Stairway to Heaven, but this is essentially what they have accomplished with Little Black Submarines. The words of the tragic singer who asks to be reconnected with his (lost?) lover border on the fantastical and the complicated circular style in which the lyrics are delivered belies their simplicity. Sure, they may lack the Tolkien-esque mysticism of Led Zep’s best known track, but they do come pretty darn close. And the stark contrast created between Auerbach’s soft-voiced intro–accompanied only by acoustic guitar–and the grandeur of the full-force percussion and roaring riffs of the climax easily matches the majestic transformation that takes Stairway from a whisper to a howl over the course of its 8 minute length. The only thing missing is Plant’s unmistakable wail at the finale, although this is somewhat alleviated by the addition of three female back-up singers. But unlike Stairway, Submarines benefits from the missing weight of Led Zep’s formidable pedigree and at the much more manageable length of just over 4 minutes, the song has the ability to become more accessible to a general audience. And the best part is that The Black Keys pay such beautiful tribute to these gods of rock without losing their own identity in the process. At no time does the song feel forced or overblown.

In the end Little Black Submarines stands as a beautiful song, a fitting tribute, and something that fans of Led Zeppelin can fearlessly play in guitar stores everywhere.