Whatever gets you through the night

Holy smokes! My life currently resembles a working case study in insanity. It feels like I am swimming upstream these days with a whole laundry list of stuff to tackle trailing behind me, which somehow never seems to get any shorter. Between taking on a load of extra responsibilities at work, prepping for 2 plane trips and 1 road trip, staring down the barrel of another birthday, valiantly (read: vainly) trying to get/keep my house clean, and desperately trying to find time to write, I am beat. And with the changing of the seasons literally happening as I type, I know that if I am not careful, I could have a really bad Fall… and don’t even get me started on the upcoming holiday season. It doesn’t even bear contemplating. *sigh*

What can I do but keep moving? For now at least, it is full steam ahead around here and in light of this I would like to present to you a little playlist. I think I’m going to call it my Holy Crap! Mix. If it has a frenetic beat and some unstoppable energy–mixed liberally with a sense of desperation–then it belongs here. Please enjoy!

Whatever Gets You Through the Night, John Lennon

(Probably the closest thing to disco he ever did, but don’t be discouraged!)

Excuse Me Mr., No Doubt

(My very favorite. Gwen Stefani will mess you up!)

I Hear Noises, Tegan and Sara

(From my favorite Canadian twins. When I am frustrated and tired, I literally can’t play this song loud enough. )

Forever Yellow Skies, The Cranberries (Live in Detroit, 1996)

(Blistering guitars and drums not withstanding, just watch lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s blur of an arm as she plays rhythm guitar.)

Paper Romance, Groove Armada

(Rather awkward video, but amazing song.)

Out of My Head, The Black Eyed Peas

(The moment I hear that base line, I literally breathe a sign of relief. Best sonic release valve I know.)

This is a list destined to grow. If you have any suggestions for additions, please drop me a comment and let me know.


Better make it strong

Sometime in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, I became seriously jaded with the current rock and alternative scene. The radio stations were filled with testosterone-fueled rap-rock and quasi-metal from artists like Rage Against the Machine and P.O.D. or over-sexualized (and often scantily-dressed) pop stars like Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. What was a chubby, geeky girl with rocking aspirations to do? Well, in this case she turned to the classic rock of groups like Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, with some Joan Jett, Pat Benetar, and The Pretenders thrown in for good measure. It took me some time to figure out what was wrong, but what I was really craving in those days was some strong female role models who could run with the big boys of rock and punk. Not that the musical terrain of classic rock was littered with such women, but it filled the void in ways that the mainstream music industry of the day wasn’t even interested in acknowledging, let alone addressing. But much to the joy of my music-obsessed heart, things have changed for the better. The Internet and the Long Tail Effect have irrevocably leveled the playing field for both better and for worse. And I for one am reveling in the myriad of choices parading through my headphones.
In my constant quest to make up for lost time, I have had another eureka moment. This time it is Dum Dum Girl’s sophomore offering, Only in Dreams, which would undoubtedly have done my poor seventeen-year-old heart good. What started as the solo project of Grand Ole Party’s drummer/singer Kristen Gundred, who goes by the stage name Dee Dee, has blossomed into an amazing 1960′ style California pop girl band with a real rocking edge. Seemingly part of a wider 60’s inspired West Coast wave, including the likes of Best Coast and Fitz and the Tantrums, Dum Dum Girls presents a highly polished sound featuring amazing production values, sophisticated lyrics, and an underlying resonance that recalls that old Wall of Sound thing Phil Spector seemed to like so much. But while their sound and Dee Dee’s velvety voice are unmistakably influenced by some of the greats, among them The Ronettes, Patti Smith, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, there is so much more here. There are the layered vocal harmonies of 80’s New Wavers like The Bangles and the playfulness of The Go-Gos. There are the psychedelic leanings of California’s Paisley Underground movement and the echoing guitars of Mazzy Star. And there are the rich vocals of singers of substance like Neko Case, Kate Bush, and Debbie Harry.
But most importantly, there is a verve and a cohesion that make this album incredibly hard to turn off. The subject matter mainly explores the crippling loneliness that results from long-distance relationships and lost lovers. But even in the most melancholy songs the jangling guitars, simple beats, and exuberant bass–along with the strategic use of oohs, aahs, and whoa-oh-ohs–all work to keep the overall atmosphere from dragging the listener down. And Dee Dee’s lyrics display a striking inner-strength and backbone that is flat-out admirable.
The first single off the album is the ultra melodic Bedroom Eyes. I literally snapped to attention the very first time I heard it. I automatically loved it and was singing along with the chorus before the song even ended. I had such a strong reaction that when I finally had the chance to buy the album, I balked. I suddenly found myself walking up and down the record store aisles with it in my hand, putting it back, picking it up again, and wavering so much about whether I should buy it that I finally decided that this was my sign. Maybe I was afraid the rest of the album wouldn’t stand up to the single? Maybe the shadowy double-exposed album cover creeped me out? I don’t know, but either way I am now eternally grateful that I put that money down on the counter. The video can literally be summed up in three words: multicolored plastic sex. Throughout it the band members sport super short skirts, blank expressions, and stylized make-up that walks the line between the uncanny valley and the rest of reality. And there is a unique twist on the traditional stage performance video with the bright and slightly unsettling kaleidoscope effect.
Taking a left turn from the feminine despair of Bedroom Eyes is the feminist declaration of Just a creep, which puts the riot grrrl attitude front and center. Yet another song worthy of my ever-expanding list of cheerful fuck-off songs, this song positively screams to me of Nancy Sinatra and her iconic 1966 hit These Boots Were Made For Walking. Who takes shit from overbearing boys? Not this chick!
With 80’s New Wave harmonies in the chorus, an almost alternative country cadence in the verses, and a non-stop beat throughout, Heartbeat is a buoyant call for serenity in a life that is no longer fully under the singer’s control. She’s been used and abused and is now walking along the precipice between moving on and giving up. The choice has yet to be made, but the tension hangs in the air like a thunderstorm waiting to break.
And the piece de resistance is the unexpected masterpiece that is Coming Down. The most melancholy song of the album by far, it is slow, measured, soul-crushing, and so painfully beautiful that you can’t help but listen with respect. The connection to Mazzy Star’s epic Fade Into You can not be denied, but while it rightly pays homage to that song, it also breaks its own path through the musical landscape. The climax in particular is truly something to behold and in this live version recorded for Sirius XMU, you get a taste of how talented this band really is. If you don’t listen to anything else from this band, you must listen to this! Trust me.
I may have had my doubts, but this album strode right up to the impossibly high bar I set for it and stepped over it like it wasn’t even there. I am smitten and look forward to hearing more good things from the Dum Dum Girls in the future.

Why don’t you make like a tree and leave (NSFW)

Tonight’s title probably sounds a little cryptic, but it will all make sense soon (plus, it made me chuckle). Honestly, I had to really stretch for a title this time, but thankfully Biff from the Back to the Future trilogy saved the day again (you’d be surprised how often that happens). I promise that this is not another one of my crackpot theories about music. (Really! I mean it!) What I wish to speak to you about in this week’s little lecture is well… how can I put this delicately? My subject is songs that lyrically tell someone to take a long walk off a short pier, but with a great beat you can dance to. In short, the cheerful fuck-off song (well… so much for putting it delicately). There is a real plethora of songs out there that fit this bill. Death metal has by no means cornered the pissed-off music market. Pop, rock, and even punk are chock full of amazing songs that can inspire bouncing around in your socks in the living room or dancing in your chair at work (I, of course, would never ever do anything so undignified). Sometimes when listening to this type of song you can be having such a great time that you forget how serious or angry or jaded the lyrics really are. The joyful energy of the music can have a masking effect, shielding the listener from the sometimes blunt anguish of the singer. But I find that the combination of lyrics and music often intensifies the experience and can be a great way to work off the negative vibes that accumulate throughout the day. And I’ve assembled a short list of examples here. Feeling stressed? Want to tell someone to go suck on a lemon? Well then let’s get started!

My first example is a no-brainer: 1982’s Goodbye to You by Scandal, a New York-based pop and rock band fronted by Patty Smyth in the early 1980s. ’80s pop is one of my biggest guilty pleasures (I’ll admit it) and this song makes me incredibly giddy whenever it comes on. With its great guitar riffs, manic electric keyboard solo, and Smyth’s smoldering delivery about a love that has sickened, it easily earns it’s place on this list. I’ll warn you though that the video is a little odd. Either someone didn’t quite master their lip-syncing skills or the video producer didn’t bother to match up the recording with the performance. It’s so close, but just enough off that there is almost an uncanny valley effect. Also, whoever thought random freeze-frame close-ups of the band members’ faces was a good idea probably had been smoking something that day. Oh well, here it is in all its slightly unsettling glory:

Next on the list is a song that might seem a little far-fetched at first, but bear with me. I speak of none other than Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 classic Go Your Own Way. True, it lacks the pure pop joy of Scandal, but this song more than earns its place here. The driving beat, the vocal harmonies on the chorus, the amazing bass lines of John McVie, and the plaintive voice of Lindsay Buckingham all add to the energy of the song and build something greater than the sum of its parts. Need to work off some steam really quickly? Take a power walk with this one in your headphones and you’ll be beat by the time the last guitar wail fades. I guarantee it! The lyrics are almost shocking when you stop and analyze them–essentially calling Stevie Nicks out on the carpet and branding her as an ungrateful slut! But the rocking tenor of the song softens the blow to the point that you walk away thinking only, “Wow. That relationship was a bit of a mess, wasn’t it?” It took me years (and a Fleetwood Mac Behind the Music special) to finally catch the true meaning of what he was saying. This time I’ve procured for you a video clip from their 1997 MTV televised reunion, responsible for generating a whole new chapter in the band’s lengthy collective career. As a bonus, you get to chuckle at the antics of drummer Mic Fleetwood. (By the way, I love Nicks and think that Buckingham probably could have handled the break-up better… certainly, he could have done it more discreetly.)

The third example in my little presentation is going to be really obvious. If you are compiling a non-soul crushing soundtrack for telling someone to drop dead, you would be horribly remiss to leave out Cee Lo Green. Let’s face it, his 2010 hit would make this list on the title alone. With a name like Fuck You he’s not exactly beating around the bush, now is he? And this song (and the accompanying video) have so much going on that they could easily merit their very own blog entry. Green is an amazing artist in his own right, but he has this great talent for imitating other singers. And in this song he is channeling Stevie Wonder like you would not believe. He even has a bunch of back-up singers who immediately put me in mind of The Pips (as in Gladys and). In the video we follow the growing pains of young Green, played by actors who do a kick-ass job lip-syncing, as he tries and ultimately fails in his attempts to win the girl of his dreams. It’s highly entertaining and is one of those videos that will give you a major case of the warm fuzzies–at least that’s what happens to me. I don’t know how you could have avoided seeing this video some time in the last year or so, but just in case here’s the uncensored version (NSFW!):

My last offering tonight is a song called Lemonade by Tsunami Bomb, a lesser know punk band from the Bay Area who broke up in 2005. The song was released in 2001, but I first discovered this band around 2002 or 2003 through a now infamous file sharing program called KaZaA (yes the spelling is accurate). Around that time I was seriously craving harder rocking bands that actually featured a female singer, but in those days your choices were either Christina Aguilera or Sarah McLachlan. Nothing particularly wrong with either choice or the genres they represent, but being a huge punk-rock fan I wanted something edgier. And the beauty of music sharing, although obviously illegal, was that you could expose yourself to music you often couldn’t find elsewhere. Tsunami Bomb didn’t always stick to strictly punk, often ranging along both the softer and heavier ends of the spectrum. But this song runs right down the middle. It is raucous and raw with exaggerated drums, the best bass line ever, and lead singer Emily Whitehurst’s surprisingly potty mouth lyrics. Even after all these years–and a couple cart loads of baggage connecting the song to someone I used to know–this song still hits a satisfying chord inside me. My list could never be complete if I left it out. (Sorry for the Powerpoint slide show for a video, but they never made an official video for this one and good live performances on YouTube are apparently in short supply.)

This is just 4 songs and I’m willing to bet that it is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s your favorite cheerful fuck-off song?

The Origin of Angst

Sometimes I am still amazed at the way that a song can instantly transport you to a time in your life and a feeling that you thought was long gone. I find this kind of ironic, given that this sentiment is essentially the entire point of this blog. But none the less, there it is. This lesson recently was driven home for me (again) at work. I was innocently listening to satellite radio on my computer and had happened to choose the 90s grunge station. Lost in my task at hand, I hadn’t really been listening too closely to what was playing. That is, I wasn’t until a very familiar guitar riff came over my speakers. Suddenly, I was 14 years old again.

Now I was a very different person when I was 14 (who isn’t?). Aside from all the other obvious things (like  not being an adult, married, or working in the area of my chosen profession), I was barely starting to discover who I was and where I was at musically. Most friends at the time probably would have labeled me shy and innocent (although maybe not quiet… I didn’t learn volume control until years later). I was always the last one to get the simplest of dirty jokes and I never tried to take the spotlight. Romance was like a foreign country (one I’d have liked to visit, but couldn’t seem to get a Visa to) and boys had only recently begun to transition away from the role of playground torturer to that of plutonic companion or secret crush. But I was a pretty happy kid, for the most part. And yes, at 14 I was definitely still a kid (a.k.a. a late bloomer). I had a loving family, a stable home, good friends, and a very limited world view. Life was still pretty simple and my biggest problem in those days was getting through middle school in one piece (looking back that wasn’t a very big problem).

And then I discovered a little band called Soul Asylum…

Specifically, it was their 6th album that I discovered, entitled Grave Dancers Union. In 1993-94 their song Runaway Train was being played practically everywhere, even on my school bus. I had recently begun to make my first foray into the realm of alternative rock–the first time in my life where I actually picked the music I liked, not what I thought I was supposed to like–and had managed to save up my little allowance long enough to pick up the CD. I retreated to my bedroom, placed the disc in my CD boom box, and sat there in a daze while track 1 officially ushered me into my teenage years.

This was the first time I truly came face to face with that magical (and at times amusingly tragic) concept called teenage angst. The idea that you could be so lonely that you would accept any kind of attention, even negative attention, was a truly foreign notion to me. But in a strange way it appealed to me, just like it has appealed to practically every teenager produced by modern Western culture. I don’t know if it was my shyness and tendency to play supporting roles in social situations or if it was just hormones, but that jarring opening riff, Dave Pirner’s pleading/demanding lyrics, and the guitar-driven beat all resonated with thoughts and emotions I hadn’t been aware of until then. Little did I know the ride I was in for… but that’s another story.

Do you remember when you discovered your angst? What were you listening to then?

Why I don’t listen to the Counting Crows anymore

I have a very clear memory of my first impression of popular music. I was still mainly listening to the oldies station in the back of my mother’s car in those days and was just starting to listen to music on my own. It would be years before I would seriously evaluate the music I was listening to, let alone figure out my own tastes. Being only a child of seven or eight flipping through stations on my tiny little boom box, I summed up main stream radio in very simple terms: Music is about love and longing. Either you’re wishing you were with someone new or wishing you could get back with someone old. I had no idea what longing was in those days, but everyone sounded so earnest that I figured it must be something important. And when you think about it, 8-year-old me stumbled on a grain of truth in there. Most music, popular music in particular, revolves around this one concept. Obviously there are many exceptions to this, but we’ll be exploring that sort of thing on another day.

It has been a very strange week around here. I was recently contacted by my one-and-only ex-boyfriend. We hadn’t had any contact for about 10 years and our history is really starting to get a bit ancient. I won’t go into all the gory details, but he was seeking some closure and hoping to grant me some as well. We’re both now happily married to other people and agree that things turned out for the best. But for a bit there, my mind was boiling. Our parting was as tragic and angst-filled as any emo teenager could ever hope for. And I thought my memories of that relationship had faded away, that the past had lost its sting. But it turned out I was wrong. I don’t want to go back and I wouldn’t change anything now. I’m in a loving long-term relationship with the man of my dreams. And the lessons I learned in my failed relationship all played a part in making me the person I am today. But my reaction to this whole experience has truly caught me by surprise. Things I hadn’t thought about in years started floating to the surface and I was amazed by the strong emotions they still sparked in me.

What really got me was the music that kept creeping into my head. I spent a lot of time lost in thought when I should have been doing other things, and there was always a song running in the background of my inner-monologue. Every now and then I’d kind of come to and finally listen to what was running through my head. Every time the song turned out to be strangely appropriate. Most of them were songs from those days, but some were new songs that suddenly took on new meanings. The list grew so fast that I had to start writing the songs down. There are many more than I want or need to go into. But to give you an idea of what was happening in my head earlier this week, here are three of the most appropriate ones: one bitter, one wistful, and one chaotic. All three were around when I was originally dealing with the break-up, and all three represent aspects of what I was going through then.

You’re So Vain by Carly Simon (specifically the 2nd verse)

Name by the Goo-Goo Dolls

Medication by Garbage

So now you’ve been reading for quite some time and you’re probably wondering what this has to do with The Counting Crows. Well, let me explain. When the relationship ended, I didn’t listen to music for several days. It seemed like every song I heard reminded me of what I had lost or literally said things I wasn’t ready to acknowledge. But this didn’t last and after acquiring several CDs from my sister and a dear friend, I started listening to music again in like it was water in a desert. It was around this time I picked up The Counting Crows first major album August & Everything After. Already seven years old when I bought it, it was new to me. And every song mirrored the turmoil I was experiencing inside. I listened to it constantly for a month or more and found some kind of respite with it. Like most of us have experienced at some point in our lives, I realized that what I was going through wasn’t new. I wasn’t the first to be hurt and I took a little bit of comfort in knowing that someone else had felt the same way. I loved that album. But I listened to it so much that it is now inextricably linked to that time in my life and to my memories of that relationship. I can’t listen to it, even after all these years. It’s not because I dislike the band and it isn’t because the music is bad. It doesn’t matter that I have/am/will make peace with my past. I just don’t have the heart to listen to it. It’s a bit like visiting a grave.

Despite my constant repetitive listening to this album, there was one song I always skipped. It hit home in ways none of the others ever did and I could never get past the first few lines without crying. I guess time does heal a lot of things because (thankfully) that is no longer a problem.

I want to end this entry with some amazing philosophical statement that summed up the importance of music and dealing with the things that life throws at us. But whatever I say will probably be trite and inadequate. The interplay between music and memory can sometimes be a painful experience, but in the end I know that it is useful. The Counting Crows played a big part in helping me to sort out my emotions and to move on with my life, but in the process they became a play list casualty.

The radio program This American Life has a wonderful exploration of the importance of the break-up song, which is definitely worth a listen to. Sorry for the link, but I can’t get WordPress and their embed code to play nicely together. Just trust me and follow the link. It is a great story and probably says somethings more eloquently than I can.