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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On my radar

So the past couple weeks have been kind of a mess. Between intense 16 hour a day seminars at work, a recurring migraine that just WON’T LEAVE ME ALONE, and a bit of rather inevitable writer’s block, I’ve been hard pressed to put together the necessary brain cells for a blog post. But never fear, my dear readers for I am here. I am alive. I’m okay, I swear. Now I realize that crippling concern for my whereabouts is probably not what has been keeping you up at night, but I know that when I don’t write I start to itch–even if it doesn’t bother anyone else. Bringing to mind that ancient mystical question: If an unread blog doesn’t get updated, does anybody care? Ah well, I care. And I guess that is what matters.

For the last few days I’ve been desperately wracking my poor tender head for ideas to write about, but handy ideas have truly been feeling scarce lately. And despite a few recent purchases and quite a bit of casual listening, I wasn’t really feeling strong about much of anything musically. Or so I thought… and then the other day I got the (if not brilliant, at least positive) idea to post a few of the songs that are just coming on to my radar. Well, as with every good list, once I got started it quickly became hard to stop. But in the interest of reserving stuff for future entry fodder and to practice that useful skill called self-control, I’ve managed to cull the herd a bit. And so my friends, here’s a short(er) list of new-to-me artists who are currently getting me excited:

Cheerleader – St. Vincent

I’d heard the name bantered around the last month or so, but had no idea what I was in store for when I first encountered this video. I absolutely love the concept and am now leaving myself notes to grab a copy of this album.

From Now On – The Features

I didn’t realize it until browsing on YouTube just now, but I was totally into a song by these guys last summer. I failed to pick up on them at the time and ultimately forgot about them–shame on me! But I’m definitely putting them on my music store list now. Truly a fun and raucous song that is reminiscent of the more upbeat songs by Kings of Leon; although apparently that is not their normal sound. And the energy level this one inspires in me more than makes up for the fact that it appears to only be available on the Twilight Breaking Dawn Soundtrack.

That Old Black Hole – Dr. Dog

I love the playful lyrics in this one. Very clever and it pretty well mirrors my mood the last few weeks. No video yet, but here’s their recent performance on Conan.

Don’t Let It Get To You – Rostam Batmanglij

A quarter of New York City’s Vampire Weekend, Batmanglij (isn’t that just the best name EVER?) is also a promising music producer with what sounds like a very promising solo career in the offing. I love the layered organic sound of this song. Think of a bunch of people playing empty plastic bottles instead of instruments, then pair it with an orchestral string section. Creative is the very least that I can say about this guy.

These are just a few of the songs I find myself randomly humming these days. Who’s on your radar?

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

with tangerine trees and marmalade skies….

Too existential for you? Okay… Picture a young girl, about 11 or 12 years old, discovering her parents’ record collection on a boring, hot summer afternoon. She runs her fingers down the spines encountering names she has never heard of before—names like Herman’s Hermits and Ian and Sylvia. She pulls them out and stares at the covers of clean-cut boys in neck ties and dark suit jackets and long-haired, pensive youths kneeling on sunny beaches. Uninspired and unaware of their context, she pushes them back in and continues moving down the line.

Eventually she comes to a record with a red spine and a long, strange name. Intrigued, she pulls the record out and stares at the sea of faces on the cover, the bright colors, and the psychedelic vintage military uniforms. She takes the record and goes off to find someone who can tell her how to work that record player…

Now this was not my first brush with the Beatles. I had been singing along to them without knowing it in the back seat of my mother’s car since I was old enough to talk. I had taped their spy-spoof movie, Help!, off of the Disney channel a year or two earlier during my “I figured out how to use the VCR all by myself and proceeded to tape everything in sight” phase (yes, I was that kid). I even owned a couple of early Beatles albums on cassette acquired through the generosity of an older cousin who took me to a record store in Harvard Square and asked, “What do you listen to?” The Beatles was honestly the only name I could think of at the time, a name that had somehow stuck during hours and years listening to the oldies station with my mom.

But every Beatles fan remembers the first time they listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ask around and you’ll see I’m right. I remember pulling the cardboard record cover out from its resting place and thinking how funny Paul McCartney looked on the back cover, standing with his back turned while his band mates grimly stared at the camera. I remember opening the gatefold and the bright yellow background of the picture inside. This was an original pressing from 1967, purchased by my father back in his college days. I was intrigued to say the least. This was not the Beatles I had known before. They had been some of those clean-shaven young men in suits, like so many featured on the records in my parents’ collection. But here they were, in crazy colored outfits holding french horns and sporting bushy mustaches. I had never before realized that a band could change their image, let alone their sound. But when I put needle to vinyl, my world expanded a little bit.

I must have listened to that album for weeks on end, memorizing every word. I distinctly remember the day in the fifth grade that I got Lovely Rita Meter Maid stuck in my head and realized that I knew every note of the piano solo. To this day, it is still one of my favorites.

Little did I know that this would start a life-long admiration for the Fab Four. And undoubtedly I will explore more of them here in time. This should not surprise any of my friends who may happen to read this. Although they may be surprised when it turns out that this entire blog isn’t devoted to the Beatles…

But of the many memories that in time I would come to associate with this band, one is particularly dear to me. Being ten years older than my youngest sister, I was the resident babysitter and ofttimes third parent. I did my fair share of diaper changing and thankfully was cognizant enough to realize I couldn’t treat her like a baby her whole life. But in the line of duty, I read many bedtime stories to her. And I don’t remember how or when exactly this started, but somewhere between the picture books we made up a game: Name that Beatles Song. I would sing a few lines from a song and she would try to guess the title. It turned out that I wasn’t the only fan in the house and eventually she got so good at it that I had to start in the middle of second verses. Fourteen or fifteen years later, we still look back fondly on that game.