For my mother

I think it is safe to say that my mother is directly responsible for my life-long obsession with music. Unlike my father, who I came to find musical common ground with in my late teens, my mother and I were on the same page from Day One. My earliest memory of my mom is 2-year-old me getting the brilliant idea to sit on my feet while she is trying to put on my shoes on and thinking how funny this game is until she gets annoyed and pulls my feet out from under my butt (who knew she’d look for them there?). My second earliest memory of her (and years of memories after) is driving around town in the back of her car and listening to her sing along with the radio. When I was little Mom was the stay-at-home type, which made her the first line of defense against a child with ideas. Five-year-old me tended to associate her with unwanted complications to my little life like nap times, the giving and taking of TV privileges, eating vegetables, and not drawing with markers on the couch (the only time I was ever officially grounded). By default (i.e. because he wasn’t home for eight hours a day), I was a devoted daddy’s girl when I was small. Now I look back on this with the eyes of an adult and feel that this was horribly unfair to the woman who made my mac’n’cheese, took me to swim lessons, and walked home everyday from kindergarten with me. But what can you expect from a 5-year-old who knew the power of a good pout?

However, everything would quickly change when she strapped me into the back seat to trundle down the road on one errand or another and unruly child would morph into listening child and later into singing child. On these excursions the radio dial was always tuned to the Oldies Station. As a result my primal musical influences growing up were my mother’s–namely Motown, the British Invasion, Psychedelia, and Surf Rock. To this day I can’t hear the Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Susie or Neil Diamond’s Cherry Cherry without remembering our vehicular singalongs. You could always tell if my mother liked a song by the volume of the radio and of her voice. My mother is a born blaster, to be sure. And hopefully when she sees what I’ve dug up for her, she’ll attempt to burn out the speakers on Dad’s laptop.

But the best thing about my mother and music is that she always encouraged me to seek out the songs that sounded good to me. As I got older and began to develop my own tastes, she was always willing to give something new a listen, be it Save Ferris, NIN, or Duran Duran. She never once tried to censor or disparage my inclinations. And she was my first willing audience when I began my transformation into the music edition of Trivial Pursuit. For this, I am eternally grateful.

So now in honor of Mother’s Day and her birthday (which fell on the same day this year), here are a few of the songs that I associate with my mother and elevated volumes. Crank it up to 11, Mom! I love you!

Green Tambourine by the Lemon Pipers

To Love Somebody by the Bee Gees

Wild Thing by the Troggs – An undeniable favorite that could easily have led to scratchy speakers in more than one mini-van.

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.

Wishes for 2012

The last two weeks have been absolutely wonderful and just a little bit insane. Between family coming to visit (including cousins, a sister, and a 4-year-old ball of pure energy called a child), multiple tattoo shop visits, and that whole holiday thing, I’m feeling a little ambivalent. I’m feeling physically drained, yet emotionally recharged. As a result, I’ve decided to count this as a win, even though I’m still catching up on sleep and my shoulder is still healing from my little self-inflicted art project. But with all the excitement lately, updating the blog just kept getting pushed farther and farther down my to-do list. So I decided to take a little unscheduled holiday hiatus from writing. Plus, I figured that 2 Christmas themed entries from me was more than enough for one year. And since I’m still not quite back to the usual grind, I’m going to keep this short. But I plan to begin posting regularly again starting next week. A little New Year’s resolution, if you will.

But with the advent of 2012 now whizzing past us, I still feel the need to at least comment. 2011 was a complex year for me, to say the least. A lot happened and I’m still trying to total up both the good and the bad columns in my 2011 ledger. It was a bad year for pets and an even worse year for some people I care very deeply about. I traveled more than expected, but most of it for work. I was officially asked to stay on in my grant-funded position and ever since I have been trying to come to grips with the idea of living in Charm City (or at least this state) on a more permanent basis. My husband got hired by the company he was contracting at and started talking about buying a house. I experienced my first earthquake and dealt with an unexpectedly strong case of seasonal depression (apparently, Winter #5 is a doozy). I spent some extra time quality with family and had one of those significant (as in permanent) bonding experiences with my youngest sister. And (quite momentous for me, if for no one else) I started this blog in an effort to bring some creativity to my life. It has been a crazy time and for the most part, I am glad to put 2011 behind me–even though I do believe that all-in-all it wasn’t a bad year. I still hope that 2012 is a better year for me, or else I may lose what little is left of my sanity.

And as for you, I wish you immeasurable happiness. I hope you hear from an old friend. I hope you find that $20 you squirreled away in a forgotten hiding place. I hope you read your favorite book (again). I hope you watch a gorgeous sunset painted across a desert sky. And I hope you hear a new (to you) song that literally stops you in your tracks and takes your breath away with its power and beauty.

To possibly help you achieve that last one, here is Energy by The Apples in Stereo. A beautiful song that makes me feel like the whole world is goodness and light, with a slide guitar solo that somehow always brings tears to my eyes. Enjoy and have a very Happy New Year!

Best guest star in a music video

There is a long history of big name movie stars randomly showing up in music videos, usually years before they have made their reputations. It’s literally gotten so prevalent that you almost can’t watch VH1 these days without running into familiar faces. Some famous examples include Alicia Silverstone in Cryin’ by Aerosmith, Courtney Cox in Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen, and Hugh Laurie in Walking on Broken Glass by Annie Lennox. Haven’t seen these videos? Have you been living under a rock for the last 15 years? Any way, in each case a huge artist or band just happens to cast a great, if relatively unknown, actor for their video. Hindsight is 20/20 and eventually, often years later, someone digs up a copy of the video and starts yelling at the tv screen, “I know that person!”

It is less common for the opposite scenario to happen. But it does happen. And my favorite example has got to be Elijah Wood’s appearance in Dance Floor by The Apples in Stereo.  The album, Travellers in Space and Time, was released in 2010, years after Elijah Wood became a household name for portraying Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. For all that I happen to love The Apples in Stereo for both their quirkiness and their ability to make truly happy music and I honestly believe that they are a wonderfully talented band, their reputation pales against that of Wood. So how did they get him to appear in their video? Why, he’s a fan! That’s how! After what may one day become an infamous meeting between Wood and Apples frontman, Robert Schneider, at SXSW in 2003, led to Wood signing the band to his label, Simian Records, in 2006.  He also went on to direct the video for Energy on the album New Magnetic Wonder.

In Dance Floor, Wood pulls off an amazing performance and shows off a little-known (at least to me) talent for physical comedy. He is utterly adorable and invariably makes me want to smile and pat him on the head. The song is catchy as all get out, blending smart hooks with subtle auto-tuned backing vocals. It is happy and up-beat, but with a strong undercurrent of uncertainty. Schneider asks, “Where are we to go when our world is so confusing?” It is a message equally appealing to the angsty 14-year-old and the disillusioned 30-year-old alike. But Wood’s endearing performance proves the perfect bridge between the peppiness of the music and the sometimes dark lyrics.

And that is why he gets my vote for best guest star in a music video!

Do you have a favorite cameo in a music video?

The award for creative music video, Part 1

There are a ton of music videos floating out there in the media. And most of them follow pretty basic lines. Band plays, someone sings or raps, pretty girls dance, and so on and so forth. There are entire genres and experimentation is not dead by any means. But sometimes it seems like if you’ve seen one video, you’ve seen them all.

This is not the case with a band like the Black Keys. Really liking these guys lately. Great voice, high production values, and bending genres while playing on the nostalgia of the 1960s and rhythm and blues. Also, they have really amusing videos! Their video for Howlin’ For You is one of the most creative videos I’ve seen in a while. The entire video is presented as a movie trailer, with famous actors popping up left and right–Shaun White, Tricia Helfer, Corbin Bernsen, Sean Patrick Flanery, among others. The whole presentation smacks of Quentin Tarantino and the Kill Bill movies, although he isn’t actually involved. There’s sex, violence, explosions, and a healthy dose of cheese. The song is mainly background for dialogue and fight scenes and is constantly being interrupted. The band doesn’t even show up until near the end and never plays a note. It wins my award for most creative video.

If you haven’t seen this yet, here’s your chance!