Sunday, January 25, 2009

Country Mile

My back was against the door handle of the backseat of the car. The sizzling sound of the wheels on the wet blacktop outside irritated the inside of my ears. The green dashboard lights began to illuminate the interior of the car as the dusk darkened the sky. In the fading light, I watched the scrambling beads of water on the opposite window dance across the outside of the glass. The shapes stretched and expanded trying to break free from their constraints, but were unable to do so. Behind the action, the darkening sky was briefly brightened by a sliver of blue peaking in between the menacing autumn clouds and the green horizon they were moving towards. My legs were extended across the backseat and my feet were pressed firmly against the other door. I imagined her sitting next to me, where my legs were. I could see a smile forming at the corner of her mouth the way it always used to when she didn’t want to think I had done something funny. It had taken me a long time to realize that I really loved her, so I never told her. The last time I saw her, she was standing with a group of her friends. I had considered going over to say goodbye, but instead I nodded and exited, oblivious to the sadness in her eyes. The car rocked from a hole in the narrow two lane highway, knocking me out of my reflection. My stomach burned. I was going back home to regret.


The first time I remember feeling something different about her was years after we met. A lifetime. So long that I don't remember ever meeting her. She had always been there. This day was different. We were playing Connect 4 on the back patio of her mom's house in the shade. Our parents were sitting on the lawn in the sun drinking lemonade and talking about whatever. Being with her must have always been an indifferent experience - until that moment. Things had never been bad nor good when I was with her. I had been conscious of what everyone else was doing and what I was not. But, now, there we were at the table competing, which seemed to be our history. We had always played games. This time, I could not win a game. We were sitting on either side of a round patio table. I kept my gaze on the blurry textures of the glass table top. I was keenly aware of the towering dark green hedges surrounding the rectangular yard and of the slowly moving shadow of the house drifting across the lawn. I could not look at her, because I was afraid of my nervous confusion. She continued to laugh at my continuous demise and I would half-heartedly quote the bitter kid from the Connect 4 70s TV ads: "Pretty sneaky sis." This was the moment I first realized that I had become lost.


I followed a crack in the blacktop pathway. The incline stiffened the deteriorating joints in my legs, as I strained my neck upwards to see the top of the hill. I released a long exhale at the peak and released the tension that had built into my body and up into my temples. The low sun sat behind the seemingly endless rolling hills, making me believe or wish that there was no longer a civilization. At the same time, I felt like the tiny bumps of trees and clear cuts to the south were blocking something grand. I pondered this idea, but lost the thought while examining the shadows of the scattered pine trees dotting some of the hillsides. These shadows became the only thing in my vision that offered definition, yet they were ethereal. Those shadows aren’t really there. My mourning was tempered with pride and determination. I am better having known her.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Not too long ago Jeff and I were discussing the most important songs or albums in our lives. It was an entertaining conversation, but I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. The most time and effort I put into any school assignment (aside from a failed attempt to understand Kepler’s Harmonies of the Planets) is when I took a recording engineer class and we were asked to write about our top five albums of all time. There are so many moments that came to mind during the discussion – from one of my earliest memories of being scared as a two year old by the opening heartbeat and screams of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” while my dad cranked it on his HiFi, to the 2003 Killing Joke LP that spoke to me so strongly that it helped me find peace with my declining health. How could I forget moving the needle around Blondie’s “Parallel Lines” from their hit “Heart of Glass” to the way cooler and addictive “Hangin’ on the Telephone” in 1977? Or when I bought my first New Order album just because the cover is so damn mysterious and beautiful? Or along the same lines, when Bill said that I should buy the Joy Division album with the white squiggles, because he thought he remembered hearing it at Charlie Taylor’s party one time? All of these are moments are of great importance to me personally in defining my tastes and impacting the quality of my life, but what is truly the most important album of them all? To answer this question, I have to look at things differently than I normally do. When I finally narrowed down an all-time top five for that assignment, I think I managed at that moment (1992) to combine my most listened to records with those that helped shape my interests and found ways to expand my horizons. Interestingly, I don’t think any of those are the most influential album, mainly because each one is an individual artist or band. My decision isn’t based on what I’ve simply listened to more than any other either, but how it led me to many of my most listened to albums of all time. What is this magical album? “The Vertigo Sampler,” a double LP released in Canada in the spring of 1985.

The day I found this record is still burned vividly in my mind. I found the record at Driftwood Mac (often referred to as “Butthole Mac”) in Taft on a warm but showery spring day in 1985. My parents had dropped me off there while they took care of some errands on that end of town. I was just becoming an avid music consumer, but was limited by not having an income outside of a weekly allowance for chores. I had been into our towns only record store once or twice before and was a little scared of the Mike, the hippie that owned the store. I wasn’t so sure about the random display of the small selection, or of the proliferation of psychedelic HP Lovecraft posters on the yellowed walls. However, I quietly continued on to search the records on display and avoided eye contact with hopes of avoiding any conversation with Mike. After all, I was stuck there until my parents swung by to pick me up anyway. Moving from A to Z, I didn’t find anything I wanted, but I did see a gray double album in the Various Artists section that was priced at $5. I picked it up to examine it. It included ABC’s “Be Near Me,” which I already owned a 45 for. It had a couple of Big Country songs and I liked what I had heard of them, but most significantly, it had what was called a “World Remixed Version” of Tears for Fears’ first LP single “Mad World.” For five dollars I decided I had to buy it!

When I finally put the needle down on the record, I went straight to this remix of “Mad World.” No matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, there seemed to be no remix. It sounded the same as the version I already owned. Despite this disappointment, I listened on, and little by little the songs sunk in. I heard the Boomtown Rats, The Icicle Works, Cocteau Twins, The Cult, Gene Loves Jezebel, Tones on Tail, Colourbox, This Mortal Coil, and complete unknowns Rubber Rodeo and Zerra 1. What did this collection do for me? It exposed me to several new artists. During the next year, I am certain that I bought 40 albums directly due to their exposure on the Vertigo Sampler, which in turn allowed me access to the artists that inspired them and so and so on. It is truly the most important album in my life, even if I’ve only listened to it a few times since the 80s.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Here we go again! It’s my annual list of music favorites provided free of charge and without request. Overall, this year was a drab one for music. I’m not sure if it’s because there wasn’t that much that was enticing, or if I didn’t investigate as deeply as usual. It’s probably a combination of both, but there was about a three month stretch this year, where I did not purchase one new song, let alone an album. I have no good excuse for this, especially considering that for the last month I’ve had a trio of all too powerful 80s songs rotating in my head endlessly: Wham!’s trumpet blaring hit, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Timex Social Club’s ode to gossip, “Rumors,” and please don’t let me forget “Cuts Like A Knife” from Canada’s own, Bryan Adams. Ah, good times. And now that I’ve misled you regarding my musical tastes, here are my favorite 2008 releases:

1. Sons and Daughters This Gift (Domino)
Released 11 months ago, this cracking collection (S&D’s second full-length) had the advantage of extended exposure and an opportunity for me to see them play many of these songs live, but it would’ve been my number one anyway. It’s a pumping blast of a dozen catchy tunes that do not let up until the end. The star here without question is main vocalist Adele Bethel. Her voice is full and rich and, at times, spine-tingling, as on the straight-ahead ass-kicking title track. Scott Paterson’s guitar work is as sharp as nails throughout giving these early 60s girl-group inspired tracks a punk energy and urgency. The second single, “Darling,” updates Iggy Pop’s famous “Lust for Life” and infuses it with Adele’s bitter words. Bernard Butler’s (of Suede) production is a brilliant match. He allows the guitars to buzz like a drill and in the red, while he separates the tight rhythm section who pound along in the low-end. This is exciting stuff!

2. Decoration See You after the War (13 B-Sides)
Decoration’s sophomore album (and a B-sides collection) is more of the same from this excellent band. Decoration has a C86, northern England vibe not too dissimilar from Leeds’ legendary Wedding Present, especially with vocalist Stuart Murray’s thick accent, but they’ve updated that early WP speed jangle by blending the guitars with keyboard textures that create walls of exhilarating noise or soft atmospherics – whatever the songs call for.

3. Ipanema Ipanema (Boss Tuneage)
This is CD is a sad one to write about. This is a trio that was led by Darren “Wiz” Brown, who fronted the amazing punk/pop band Mega City Four from the late 80’s to late 90s. Wiz, unfortunately, died just over two years ago and left an almost finished album. This CD collects their first two releases (a 7” & an EP), as well as the aforementioned album, which was eventually “finished off” by the remaining rhythm section: Lawrance and Rauf. What we’re left with is 17 tracks of shredding punk rock! Wiz’s guitars are layered and heavier than in his previous band, while the bass grumbles and grooves all over the place; sometimes driving the songs to near speed metal moments and then toward Wiz’s magical and addictive sweet choruses that feature his friendly and sugary vocals.

4. Robert Forster The Evangelist (Yep Roc)
Another sad story. Robert Forster had worked with songwriting partner Grant McLennan in the Go-Betweens for the better part of 30 years, but Grant McLennan passed away a few years ago. This is Robert’s first solo LP (5th overall), and it is very similar to recent Go-Betweens releases. He is backed by Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson, that band’s 00s rhythm section, the LP is produced lushly as ever again by Mark Wallis, and Robert has used some of McLennan’s words on a few songs. Unlike his previous solo work, Forster is lyrically more direct here. He still weaves interesting and poetic tales on top of elegant mostly acoustic, spare backing, but his veil of storyteller has been lifted and he has become the protagonist in many of these songs. It is a touching and uplifting work.

5. Death Cab For Cutie Narrow Stairs (Atlantic)
These guys are huge now, so I don’t need to say much. This LP is definitely loosened up a bit from their 2005 major label debut. My favorite songs on this one are: “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the epic trance-inducing “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and the horribly lonely song: “Your New Twin Sized Bed.”

6. The Wedding Present El Rey (Manifesto)
I believe this is officially the Weddoes 8th album since 1987 – maybe 10th, if you count the two Hit Parade albums. Not much has changed since 2005’s Take Fountain. Gedge still writes endlessly about his ineptitude with relationships atop the catchiest of tunes. The last track though is sung by bassist Terry De Castro (from Animals That Swim – whatever happened to you?), so I guess that’s different.

7. Wire Object 47 (pink flag)
Wire continues their comeback, though they’re down to two original members now and playing as a trio. This is their 11th album and second since they reunited in 2000. Oddly, they are progressing in a similar vein as they had originally. They went from oddball pioneers of punk in the 70s, to arty-industrial band in the 80s, to an oddball pop/techno band into the early 90s. Since their return, their first recordings and live shows have returned with a vengeance to the fast and furious punk sounds, but Object 47 finds them progressing again in a similar fashion. These songs have more in common with their classic third LP 154, or even some of the catchy numbers from A Bell is a Cup. I haven’t listened to a Wire album this much since 1987!

8. The Long Blondes Couples (Rough Trade)
The difficult second album? Yes, I’ve listened to The Long Blondes’ debut Someone to Drive You Home about 500 times, so this one was highly anticipated. The debut was a fun stab of post-punk guitar pop fronted by the strong and addictive vocals of Kate Jackson. For the second LP, we find them opening with a techno flavored “Century,” then into a disco-rock Blondie-esque “Guilt,” before jumping into familiar territory with the steady flow of “The Couples.” The album is all over the map and accordingly there are huge favorites and a few throwaways. Give ‘em credit for branching out and trying for the bold statement. Sadly, they disbanded due to guitarist/main songwriter Dorian Cox having a stroke in 2008. They have recently released a compilation CD of their early singles, so I’m hoping to track that down soon.

9. British Sea Power Do You Like Rock Music? (Rough Trade)
What a terrible album title! This is their third album and they have made their first big progression. The first LP was a shambling mess of cool short bursts of energy and long rambling instrumental epics. The second LP was more focused and worked almost as a singles collection of 3 minute pop tunes. This is an epic album of beautifully layered textures and driving rock-n-roll, combining the best of both worlds, while adding some new stylistic touches. I’m not sure what it’s all about, but the ride is a fun one!

10. Ray Death in Fiction (Pito)
This band is like a breath of fresh air and a total flashback. They embark on a similar ride as such early 80s luminaries as The Chameleons, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Comsat Angels. Stratospheric guitars are what we have here. Raincoat rock is back! Nev Bradford’s vocals at times reminds of Peter Murphy too! It’s unreal.

If you’re still alive and have made it this far, unfortunately, there’s a bit more. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some new-to-me bands, which didn’t have new music released this year, and some other stuff as well.

Defiance, Ohio. I picked up their two CDs (The Great Depression 2006 & The Fear The Fear The Fear 2007) on the Florida punk label No Idea and found a band full of political energy and messages, heartfelt thoughts on every day life, and even a song or two about trashing shit! Everyone in the band writes songs and sings. They play piano, the violin, and the banjo that add an Americana tinge to their unique protest music. Amazing! Standout tracks: “Oh, Susquehanna!” & “The List”

Eux Autres. Another brother/sister (really!) guitar & drum band comes along in the brave tradition of so many NW bands before (they have been residents of Portland). These two know how to write catchy sing-along songs that stick in your head and refuse to let go, and in this case, that’s a very good thing. They both trade off on lead vocals and endear with their nasally tones. They also have a predilection for writing songs about sports and Christmas. Standout tracks: “Molly” from Cold City (2007) & “Ecoutez Bien” from Hell is Eux Autres (2004/6).

Wilderness. This Baltimore quartet actually recently released their third album (k)no(w)here, but I haven’t picked it up yet. I did, however, get their first two albums this year: 2005’s Wilderness and 2006’s Vessel States. They have a sound that reminds me of the mellow stratospheric guitar moments of Killing Joke fronted by John Lydon during his PIL years. They have spare and repetitious lyrics that blend seamlessly with the spiraling guitars, deep bass textures and rumbling and deliberate drum work. It can be both comforting and agitating at once. Absolutely brilliant! Standout tracks: “End of Freedom” & “Monumental”

Northern Portrait. This is a new band from Denmark that released two 4 song EPs this year that sound so much like The Smiths that I think I started singing along with the songs upon first listen. I would be more skeptical, if they weren’t so good! The guitar work matches the light-touch of Johnny Marr’s amazing hand and the vocals are heavily echoed and nuanced in a Morrissey kind of way. It all feels fresh 20 years later, especially with Morrissey’s solo work mired in sub par songwriting partners. Standout tracks: “Crazy” from The Fallen Aristocracy EP & “I Give You Two Seconds to Entertain Me” from Napoleon Sweetheart EP.

The Secret History. From the ashes of NYC’s long time indie band My Favorite comes a debut EP from the Secret History titled Desolation Town. Michael Grace Jr has enlisted Lisa Ronson for vocal duties for this amazing collection! These six songs carry the deft touch of a band like Stars and piano and guitar driven pop that Lisa’s father Mick Ronson used to make with David Bowie back in the early 70s. Excellent promise. Standout tracks: “The Ballad of the Haunted Heart” & “Mark & John (Bring on the Glitter Kids)”

Happy New Year