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.

Advertisements

Lennon’s Last Interview

I don’t usually like to reblog stuff here. I prefer to write my own material and give other people the freedom to do the same. But for anyone out there who is interested in the amazing nature of 20/20 hindsight, then you should go read John Lennon’s last print interview, which Rolling Stone published in December 2010 after letting the audio tapes languish for 30 years. The interview, recorded exactly three days before Lennon’s death in 1980, is a stunning look into the mind of the man just before he ceased to be.

The most poignant quote is this:

[Speaking about the media and their styled image of him] “They only like people when they’re on the way up, and when they’re up there, they’ve got nothing else to do but shit on them. I cannot be on the way up again. What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero…. So forget ’em, forget ’em.”

Looking back on historical figures and events with the knowledge, vision, and mindsets of the present–and the conflicts that are inevitably created between them–has always fascinated me. It is the lens used by all historians view history with–whether consciously or unconsciously. It is the mental filter that makes the saying, “History is written by the victors,” so empirically true. But only when you are aware of this internal conflict can you really be moved by history. Its complexity, its beauty, and its tragedy.

And it is interviews like this one, where you are reading the exact answers that Lennon gave to specific questions, that you can really see through the reverence that so many began to show towards Lennon after his assassination. You see the man as he was–or as close as you can get–you see the human, not the martyr. The musician, not the ad campaign. And that is what makes this interview such an interesting (and arresting) read.

John Lennon: The Last Interview 

Perspective

I don’t even know where to begin. The last two weeks have been my best and worst weeks of 2012–specifically in that order. I got to spend several days in my hometown, watching people I love get married, bonding with my family, and climbing mountains (literally!). It was the best, most gratifying, and least dramatic visit home I have had since leaving the desert in 2007. And it was all shot to hell within an hour of landing back in Charm City… the less said about it the better, but practically everyone I know in this town is currently trying to get their feet back under them again–a process which is still in progress. (How’s that for vaguely ominous? Pretty good, huh?)

Well since the bomb dropped, I’ve been trying to collect my brain cells while watching the dust settle. Things will get better, I know they will. It’s just that sometimes it feels like the extreme juxtaposition of wonderful and devastating has made this new reality that much harder for me to take.  But–as I’ve been repeating to myself a lot lately–it is what it is.

So I’ve been spending the last several days striving  to keep my perspective in all of this. It hasn’t been particularly easy, but (as usual) it got a bit easier when I stumbled upon my current theme song. If you’ve been around the last year and have been paying attention, you know that I change them quite often. And my latest addition to that illustrious list is It’s Nice to be Alive by Ball Park Music. Courtesy of this adorable little indie rock group from Brisbane, Australia, with a lead singer who looks remarkably like a teenaged David Tennant, the song shows a refreshingly innocent sense of humor in both the video and their lyrics. Somehow they manage to keep things light in what could have been a rather existential song, proclaiming “You are alive! Isn’t that great?!”

So here’s your daily dose of perspective, folks. Please enjoy!

It’s Nice to be Alive by Ball Park Music

Confessions of a music snob (3)

Okay, what I am about to reveal is something that could potentially strip me of all my music-snobbery cred in one fell swoop. I have absolutely no right to criticize anyone else’s tastes in music because… well, I guess I should just come right out and say it. I am a closet raver. Shocking, I know. I’ll understand if you need a moment to recover from the massive bombshell that I just dropped on you.

Breath in. Breathe out. Okay, everybody still with me? Good.

Now in my defense, I did say closet raver. I have never indulged in the most iconic aspects of raver life. I have never dropped acid, experimented with black light body paint, and I haven’t messed around with light sticks since I was probably about 12 years old. In fact,  I have never actually even been to a rave…. unless you count that time that I went to a party with my host teen in Enger, Germany. It was in an empty barn with tons of beer, tipsy German teenagers, and positively booming techno music blaring from huge speaker stacks. But that wasn’t my idea and technically I didn’t know we were going to anything that could even vaguely be called a rave thanks to the language barrier. Plus I was only seventeen. Nothing counts when you’re seventeen, right? So I have never been what you would call a practicing member of the scene. And I think that given my introverted tendencies (along with the fact that I am no longer seventeen), it is fairly unlikely that I ever will be.

But if I ever put up a list of my biggest musical guilty pleasures, somewhere near the top would have to be a lesser known music subgenre called Happy Hardcore. One of the definitions on urbandictionary.com pretty much nailed it with this description:

A genre of electronic music that became popular during England’s rave movement. Characterized by a processed 4×4 kick, breakbeats, baselines, and high strung synths and vocals, happy hardcore is the staple of any candy kid’s listening experience. Drum & Bass also originated from happy hardcore and now are (ironically) anathema to one another. Where happy hardcore is known for it’s happy, almost cheesy, lyrics and sounds, Drum & Bass is a much more aggressive, hard-edged sound that is a much harder pill to swallow, so to speak.

(Never underestimate the Internet’s talent for giving even the most obscure concepts substance… as well as its talent for dishing out grammar errors). It is almost impossible to take Happy Hardcore seriously. It is like pure bubblegum on helium… and meth. But just try to keep a straight face imagining people dancing to it. It will make your day, I guarantee it!

And #1 under this heading (for me at least) is a German techno pop princess known as BlümchenFalling somewhere between an electro pop Britney Spears and a one-woman mash-up of the Spice Girls, Jasmin Wagner–better known by her stage name–was the queen of the German pop scene from 1995 to 2001. A native of Hamburg, she had a string of top 10 hits in her own country and in parts of Western Europe. Despite recording a bunch of her songs in English under the name Blossom, she never seemed to make a dent in the States, which is why you have probably never heard of her (Oops! Crap, music snobbery rears its ugly head once more).

I only discovered her through one of my undergrad German language classes circa 2000 when on one fateful day my TA decided to pop in a collection of German music videos. I laughed so hard that I knew I’d found something worth seeking out. And when I mentioned it to my techno-obsessed buddy, he loved her immediately and proceeded to feed me as much of her material as I could take–he was always generous when it came to acquiring and sharing media, especially in the carefree days before Napster was taken down. Suffice it to say, I was set-up in short order. And Blümchen quickly became my top pick for studying and grading papers (I worked as a TA for an astronomy professor at the time). To this day, whenever I am faced with a tedious or repetitive task that requires only half of my brain, I always reach for the techno. It continues to be a real lifesaver.

If you are still reading this after finding out about my dark (read: cheesy) secret, then kudos to you! Now you get a treat. And yes, it really is a treat. You’ve earned a taste of some classic German Happy Hardcore in the form of three videos. The first is the now infamous video that started me down this rabbit hole: 1998’s Ich Bin Wieder Hier, which roughly translates to I’m Back. This steam punk gem features a dirigible, WWII fighter pilots, and a flying whale. I am dead serious. A flying whale. If you watch only one of these videos, watch this one. You will not regret it.

Ich Bin Wieder Hier

Next up is the club gem Kleiner Satellit, aka Little Satellite. Featuring random dogs in an inflatable raft, some hilarious use of green screen tech, and the over-all appearance of vaseline smeared on a camera lens, this video is peculiar to say the least. But the song is infectious.

Kleiner Satellit

And my last pick, which is probably my favorite of her songs, is the hyper-actively upbeat and super positive Heut’ ist Mein Tag, which translates to Today is My Day. The video director’s use of sudden film transitions almost warrants a seizure warning. And the gratuitous use of cg fairy dust is a little distracting at times. But who can argue with a spontaneous dance mob on the streets of what looks a lot like Miami? No one, that’s who. Enjoy!

Heut’ ist Mein Tag

So now that my dirty little secret is out, it’s your turn. Are you a clandestine Happy Hardcore freak, too? Or do you have a skeleton in your closet that is equally embarrassing? Spill it!

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.

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.

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.