Sunday, February 26, 2012

Forgotten Favorite

Some late evening some time ago, I received a text message from Mindy (whose excellent blogs can be found here and here) challenging me out of the blue to write a story about making a mix tape/cd for person one had never met. We have had a few discussions prior regarding the sometimes agonizing process of making mixes for people we already know all too well. The idea of making one for a person one would know very little about would be torturous. I thought this was a great idea, so her idea sat in the back of my thoughts for several days with no solid story line popping into my head. Then one day soon after, I received an email with her very raw and emotional story using this theme (please read it here!) and I knew I had to get my act together. Here are the so-so results:

Chuck had been at his new job for a week, but had already found himself hopelessly infatuated with a co-worker. As far as he could tell, she worked in the accounting department, but this was a big place and he hadn’t quite figured out where everything was. He was not used to the size of everything. He came from a small town and had grown up working at a mom and pop shop through high school and during his summers of his college years. Now, he found himself alone in a new city in the shipping and receiving department of a company that occupied the entirety of a business park in the suburbs.

Chuck was quiet and insular, so he didn’t make friends easily. The friends he had earned were close and lifelong, but he had been looking to branch out and get away from the environment he had grown up in. Going to college was a huge step, but he still relied on his parents and his old friends too much. He needed to find his own way. This way began here with this job and his first studio apartment. He liked the group of guys he found himself working with at this place so far, but he hadn’t reached a level of trust with any of them yet to feel comfortable about inquiring about the hot girl on the second floor.

What enticed him most about this woman he was lucky enough to see around two or three times a day, as he made his rounds through the offices to grab packages to be shipped out, was that she reminded him of the women who sang on some of his favorite indie records.

Chuck was a music enthusiast. At that time, “alternative” music was setting the world on fire, which was something he had often hoped for during his formative teenage years. He would wonder why his punk and post-punk bands didn’t get the exposure they deserved. To his ears, there wasn’t anything not to like about this music. Instead, in school, he had been labeled as the guy who listened to “fag” music, while most everyone else had love affairs with bands like Bon Jovi, Poison, and Def Leppard. Yet, now that music inspired by his genres of rock had climbed into the mainstream, all he could feel was mild disdain. This stuff wasn’t as good as his icons, nor was this music forward thinking. Instead his realm of music had flown further off the charts into the most minute scale, so much so, that he had to buy (and buy he did) nearly all of it via mail order directly from bands and small labels. His collection had become almost entirely stocked with limited edition, colored vinyl 45s that would arrive in his mailbox with handwritten notes from the artists themselves. Still, he would wonder to himself: why aren’t these bands getting more exposure?

Over the years, his efforts to extend exposure for this music he was so passionate about, generally involved making mix tapes for his friends. Almost always, they were thoughtless compilations of all the brand new stuff that had him watering at the mouth. A few times though, he had stressed over a mix that he hoped would open doors for him with some particular girl who he was attracted to. Those were painful exercises, as he would fret over what songs would convey his interest for the girl without going too far and becoming creepy. This always proved more difficult then it would seem on the surface, because in these instances, he would realize that his taste in music seemed to always coincide with lyrics of severe longing, loneliness and depression. Not exactly the “hey, here are some fun songs, I kinda like you” vibe he strove for, then again, small town, Bon Jovi, etc. Those girls probably didn’t listen to lyrics anyway, since they seemed to enjoy their music with a heaping dosage of spandex, teased hair and keyboard enhanced power riffs. In other words, these tapes were fruitless and would become a part of his long lonely drives through town late at night, as he hoped to run into someone else who might be out and about in the dead town with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Now Chuck was in the city – a place where there were good bands to see nearly every night and multitudes of people who shared his interests, and though he didn’t know the woman from accounting, he believed that she was a kindred spirit. In his short time at this company, she’d always shown up to work with a different hairstyle. Her hair was short and a little butch, but she was very feminine. One day she arrived at work in a black leather jacket, a short black dress and tattered fishnets. Another day, she wore an oversized white T-shirt with a big black question mark adorning the front. She always wore lots of brightly colored bracelets and skull earrings. She didn’t dress like anyone else there and she clearly didn’t care that she wasn’t following the ‘business casual’ dress code regulation he remembered reading in the employee handbook.
That particular morning, the first chilly one of the fall, he saw her arrive to work, while he was standing at the front truck dock stacking a bunch of boxes onto a pallet. She was wearing striking make-up around her eyes and what looked like a vintage bomber jacket with its fur lined hood framing her stunning features. It was at this moment that he’d decided to find a way to get to know her. He would try and say something to her as he passed by her cubicle, while pushing his orange squeaky cart through the office. If she wasn’t around, he’d keep making casual passes until she returned for as long as he could stall without being noticed by anyone else.

His heart raced as he approached her domain, which she shared with two other older women. He could tell that she was at her desk, because he had already become attuned to the magical scent that would linger whenever she passed nearby. His routine up to that point had always been to approach everyone’s cubicle, check each person’s outbox and transfer whatever was ready to his cart and move on wordlessly. The only evidence of his presence was the shrieking wheels of his cart that would howl obnoxiously in the hushed environs of the office. This time, he was announcing his arrival and talking to everyone, in order to build up some courage to talk to the hot accountant.

“Good morning,” Chuck declared to the three women, all sitting with their backs to each other, working silently on their PCs. “Do you have your packages ready?” he continued.

“No, Chuck, but you’ll be back by later for a final run, right?” asked this new woman of his dreams, as she leaned her chin against her upraised hand and smiled at him.

“Oh, sure, of course,” he agreed, not sure how to respond, “I was just checking. Thanks!” he shouted a little too loudly. She knew his name! “I’ll see you later!” he added with enthusiasm as he shoved his whining cart away with a huge grin on his face. It was then that he knew he had to make her a mix tape.

That evening Chuck eschewed trying to make himself a meal, in favor of focusing on creating the perfect mix tape for this new woman in his life. This was a big one; the tape he had been practicing for all along. He didn’t know much about this person, other than where she worked and a small sampling of her fashion sense. He hadn’t learned her name. He began to doubt his earlier resolve that doing this was a good idea. He played some scenarios through his mind about how his encounter might go the next day. He could ask her if she liked music. And she could respond sarcastically and make him feel small. He decided to scratch his pessimistic mindset and simply make the mix. He had already pulled about 100 selections of amazing songs for the 90 minute limit. The records and CDs were strewn all over his small studio apartment in small groups. The songs were matched to each other based on how they would sound together and on a macro scale were organized in a way to make the tape flow from light upbeat and catchy pop songs to more meaningful and powerful songs. He imagined her listening to the tape over and over again, always thinking of him.

He was up all night testing songs against each other and debating internally over which songs would make the cut in order to make the subtle message he was attempting to express. He was excited by how easily it all came together. Still he found himself tossing and turning for the few hours he had left before having to get ready for work in a state of worry about some of the lyrics. Plus those scenarios about how to give this tape to her out of the blue plagued his thoughts. Who makes mix tapes for people they don’t know? He kept thinking to himself. He could’ve simply asked her out, but this step had always proved too difficult for him. He had been down that road a few times and it always led to instant rejection. If only the music that he loved so much could do his talking for him. It would do so much more elegantly.

He was startled awake by his beeping alarm clock with a sound so terrible that he had always awoken before its repeated screeches in order to avoid its harsh reminder. He pounded the off switch with the back of his fist, took a deep breath with his face smashed into his pillow, and then pushed himself out of bed. He showered, put on some cologne that he had never touched, chose his lucky shirt – the only shirt that anyone had ever complimented – and snagged the new tape on his way to the bus stop. He flipped the tape case over and over in his hand nervously. He had titled it: “Forgotten Favorite” after the Velocity Girl song. He went through the list of songs he had so carefully written down on the J-card in alternating black and blue ink. He played bits of the songs through his mind as he examined the song titles. It sounded really solid to him, which built his always sagging confidence.

It was all he could do to wait till his first go round through the office at 10 am. He hadn’t seen her arrive that morning, so he feared that she would not be there and his resolve would fade. At the same time, he could feel a small part of him hoping that she would not be there, so he could take a breath. It was a Friday morning, and if she hadn’t been there, he’d have been stuck with this heavy anticipation and self-doubt the entire weekend. At least if he had made his odd move and if it all went down in flames, he’d have the satisfaction of having made the effort. It was little consolation in the face of another failure that he would no doubt stew on.

As his cart squawked his arrival through the office, he finally approached the big cubicle. He could hear her voice over the grinding wheels of his reject cart and his heart stopped beating. He felt light-headed, like he might pass out. He grabbed a couple of envelopes from the basket, peered slowly into the doorway of the cubicle and warbled an unsteady ‘good morning.’ It was at the moment that he realized that he hadn’t said a word to anyone since he’d left work the prior evening, so his throat was not ready for use.

“Hey! Good morning Chuck,” she responded with a bright smile. He loved how friendly and genuine she presented herself.

“Do you like music?” he asked with zero transition.

“Sure! Love it! Who doesn’t? Why do you ask?”

This would’ve been an opportune time for Chuck to invite her to a show, but his mind went blank as to what was coming up, despite having looked at the city’s culture weekly paper not ten minutes before in search of weekend shows to attend. Plus, this new strategy was way off script.

“I-I was listening to this old mix tape I made on the way to work this morning, and I thought that maybe you’d – maybe – want to check it out.” He held it out toward her and she reignited her smile, more likely from his rambling suggestion, as opposed to the gift he was offering.

She took the case and examined it for a moment, turned it over and looked at the song listing and told him that she really liked his handwriting.

This was not what Chuck had been hoping to hear, but it wasn’t as bad as what he thought would happen. He nodded a thank you as she offered the tape back to him.

“Thank you, that’s really sweet of you, but I don’t have a cassette player,” she apologized, as their hands met for a second during the exchange. A shock went through his body.

“Oh, okay. That’s cool,” he barely managed, before abruptly turning his cart away from her desk towards his next destination. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, and there didn’t seem to be any songs in his collection that would help him at that point.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Love and other Demons

When I first bought UK band Strangelove’s debut album Time for the Rest of Your Life in the spring of 1994, I found it to be an endlessly long, overdramatic, bombastic collection of songs that I listened to constantly. Patrick Duff’s vocals are so overblown that it could easily be a deal breaker. He seems to do his best at channeling the special vocalizations of William Shatner (which were making a comeback during that time, come to think of it, as his Transformed Man had been released on CD for the first time on a hip indie label) if he could actually sing. Okay, maybe his vocals reminded more of Shatner’s nuanced acting. Whatever the case, it was a bit much, but somehow worked. Whenever I hear the piano ballad “Low-Life” on that album, I imagine a packed Wembley Stadium (or whatever) swaying together, with lighters held aloft and burning bright, all chanting along while choking back their burgeoning emotions. Really, it was sickening then, and still is now, yet, I found myself listening to that album a lot during 1994. I first learned of the band in 1993, when I was a subscriber to the Rough Trade singles club. I sure miss those old singles clubs. I was a long-time subscriber to the Sub Pop and Rough Trade clubs as well as the unbelievably cool Archive Series on Independent Project Records. Anyway, the 7” A-Side was named “Zoo’d Out” and I pretty much ignored it. The song somehow stuck with me enough that I took a chance on their debut CD at an extreme import price, when I happened upon it at Ozone Records nearly a year later (none of their records were released in the US). In the long run, it’s always been Strangelove’s second (of three) long player that has been the go to selection when I decide I need an injection of their overdriven melodrama, so out comes the appropriately titled Love and Other Demons.

The first of the material I heard after the debut arrived in 1996, when I ran across the double CD single “Beautiful Alone.” Before I go on about this fantastic three minute pop-nugget, I must complain about that era of “double singles.” These things were the curse of collector obsessive’s like me. Labels took advantage of us by releasing an artist’s non-LP B-sides across two separately sold CD singles, forcing us to buy two copies of the same single. This act supposedly boosted the chart status and sales of a single and it got out of control in the mid-90s, when some singles were released with separate non-LP B-sides across every format (2 CDs, 10” & 7” vinyl, etc). It was truly an evil practice. Anyway, where was I? Oh right, “Beautiful Alone” is pop music at its lush finest. It’s more upbeat, to the point, and downright catchy than anything on their debut. A soft string arrangement and an acoustic strum are carried along by a driving bass surge, chiming guitar fills and perfectly timed cymbal crashes. During the summer of 1996, ask anyone, I could not get enough of this addictive piece of narcotic bliss. I remember driving around with Wil, Liz and Midori one cloudy Saturday afternoon in Vancouver of all places listening to this song over and over on our way to a small party at a stranger’s home. The warm glow of the song forced me to buy a used and cheap silk shirt for the occasion and was a perfect soundtrack to a fun day and evening.

After hearing this song a million times, the album became a much sought after item, despite yet again having to delve into the realm of high import prices and unreliability of sources to track this stuff down. In this case, I turned to the Bay Area music shop Mod Lang. I phoned them up, asked if they had it in stock and then promptly placed my order. I cannot reiterate enough how much work went into finding my music of choice back then! Again, the effort was worth it, as this album became one of my favorites of that year. Strangelove had trimmed back the fat of their debut considerably, but not enough to lose the flavor. The opening song (and eventually the third single) “Living with the Human Machines” kicks things off with their most aggressive and explosive track. Its pounding beat and siren guitars urge on the still over the top vocals of Patrick Duff. The upfront message of this song is like a slap in the face - a warning to wake up and notice the isolated direction that our society is heading. “20th Century Cold” (back then I never thought about living in the 21st century) continues this theme with some sharp lyrics: “I see myself reflected in the television screen / somewhere far away / I can hear myself scream.” Even better is the angry, lullaby-like “Spiders and Flies,” which asks us to “meet the new world nobody can find.” The world wide web never sounded so ominous as it does throughout this album (“it’s a spider’s web just above your head”), which makes it even more interesting to listen to today, because much of its message is still relevant today. The closest they come to love songs are the ones completely based from a perspective of loneliness. “She’s Everywhere” encapsulates brilliantly the longing for a lost loved one. Similarly, in “Elin’s Photograph,” the narrator’s thoughts are dominated by a picture, much like The Cure’s “Pictures of You” (“take away this photograph so I can live again”). Meanwhile, the string-laced ballad “Sway,” is resigned to simply give everything up and drink life away. Lastly, the epic closer, “The Sea of Black,” truly spells out a finale for the character we’ve followed through this sad paranoid journey (“hear no voice / see no smile / feel no love / by my side”). This is a touching, thoughtful and emotional rollercoaster of an album filled with hummable melodies with enough of an edge to drive its meaning straight down one’s throat. Oh, and yes, it’s way out of control. It predates the big Radiohead landmark OK Computer by a year with its very direct message of isolation by way of technology and it is a sprawling mess that seemed to go underappreciated at the time. Strangelove seemed to get lost behind the big battle for dominance between Oasis, Blur and Suede at that time, but of those bands, they are the one I still listen to every so often.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Since doing the too epic Top 40 albums of 2011 blog entries, I have found myself in a reflective mood about all the music I have sitting around in my home.  That top album list marked the 25th year that I have put something together ranking my favorites of a particular year.  It all started at the end of 1986, when as a high school sophomore I photocopied a blank top 10 sheet and handed them out to a bunch of friends and compiled everyone’s favorites.  I don’t know why, or how I managed to deal with Matt’s 6 way ties for #1, or even what I thought about Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night II always appearing in the Top 10, or why Jeff always puts Siouxsie’s Tinderbox as his #1 choice no matter what the year.  Whatever the case, it was always fun to see what people were listening to.  Of course, I always did mine, and though I stopped the poll decades ago, I have continued to create a list of some sort every single year.  All this music over all this time and yet I find that I generally look forward and focus mainly on what’s next, while hundreds upon hundreds of records and CDs sit collecting dust on my shelves.  What was I listening to 25 years ago?  My #1 pick that year was Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration – beating out The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, The The’s Infected, Pet Shop Boys’ Please and New Order’s Brotherhood.  As my horizons have expanded since being 15 years old, and my knowledge of music has increased, I still have a fondness for all of these albums and have been heard to say that side one of Brotherhood may be my favorite side of all time.  I say that kind of thing a lot about a lot of different albums.  None of these statements are true and yet all of them are true.  There’s just too much to love and not nearly enough time to take it all in.  Beginning here I thought I’d occasionally post a little tribute to some of these albums from the past that have meant a lot to me over the years and encourage anyone reading to share your thoughts about some of your eternal favorites, long lost loves, or forgotten moments in time.

Recently, while scanning through my CDs I started to think about Popsicle.  Popsicle were a Swedish pop band that I often credit with pulling me out of a deep dark time and pushing me towards the most insane, chaotic and adventurous year of my life.  I’ve found myself in a bit of a funk as this year has gotten started, and thought that listening to Lacquer, Popsicle’s debut album, might have a similar effect to the very first time I threw their CD into my player.  I’m trying to remember how I first learned of this band.  It was the fall of 1993 and I read about them initially via CMJ Weekly’s (College Music Journal) import section, I believe, where the writer compared the band to Ride and My Bloody Valentine who were two of my favorite bands of that time.  Soon after I happened upon a three song CD single named “Hey Princess” at the much missed Ozone Records across Burnside from Powell’s (oh, I could go on and on about this magical store – a merging between the legendary and designed exactly to my tastes Ooze Records and the fledging straightforward Outer Limits shop), and oh my, it was even better then I could’ve imagined!  The rush of the quickly building “Hey Princess” bled into a blasting “Blow Up” and closed with another adrenaline rush of the three minute “Never Know,” which repeats the resigned line “every thing must die” sung with desperate finality.  I played this thing over and over for weeks and knew that I had to find their album.  Ozone, back then, always had an amazing assortment of new import CD EP’s in stock, which were the release of choice at the time for so many of my favorite artists at the time, but they didn’t always carry the full length albums, and this Swedish import proved to be difficult to find.  Eventually, I wrote a letter to the label Snap Records inquiring about mail order.  After a few months I received a slick sheet with all of their releases, and there it was: Popsicle - Lacquer, and surprise surprise a CD from Easy named Sun Years!  Easy had one of my favorite albums of 1991 with their shining Magic Seed.  This was before the internet and the cloud and the ease of finding music just by pressing a few buttons on a keypad.  Next up was a trip to the bank to obtain an international money order for the proper amount, which seemed to always involve multiple tellers and a lot of effort as a long line of people would angrily shuffle around behind me.  Then, after mailing the package, the waiting and anticipation would begin. 

It’s amazing to think of how difficult all of this all was back then.  I read about a band that sounded like one I might like and SEVERAL months later, after consistent effort, I finally had their CD in my hands!  I will never forget it either.  It was the spring of 1994 by then (Lacquer was actually released in Sweden in 1992) and I was in seriously dark doldrums.  In my car I had a 120 minute cassette that had been playing for months that consisted of Labradford’s Prazision LP on one side and The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’s Free-D Soundtrack on the other.  If anyone reading this knows these albums, they will know that neither album would fit onto a 60 minute side, and that there’s not a lot of joy involved.  The choices were either an endless, tuneless drone or nature sounds on top of a different drone.  No one who rode in my car wanted to hear it, and by the time they would be free of my car, they would feel as bad as I did.  It was either that, or hearing Boston and their spaceship rock the world on every Portland radio station.  Anyway, the day after my new Popsicle and Easy CDs arrived in the mail; I listened to them both and felt a surge of life spark through me.  I recorded these two albums onto a new tape for the car.  But it was the next day, when the first sign of spring time appeared with a glare of sun through my blinds and I decided to call in to work and tell them I needed the day off.  For the first time in eons I felt inspired and energized and I wanted to live life again! 

As I listen to Lacquer right now, I am amazed at how much fire they packed into their performances.  The comparison to Ride and My Bloody Valentine are apt, though they lean more on the early Ride pop rushes a la “Like a Daydream” or “Taste.”  Twelve of these 13 songs are filled with layers and layers of shimmering and shredding guitar work and busy as can be drumming.  Yet, even though these in-the-red guitars are pushed so far into the high end that it can hurt one's ears, they are so tuneful and the songs are so damn catchy that it only makes me want to turn it up louder.  Every song is loaded with shimmering melodies and fantastic breathy background harmonies and even though I’m not always sure what they’re singing about, I find myself singing along no matter what for days after hearing this music.  The single “Hey Princess” opens the album perfectly and with its abrupt finish jumps immediately into a Sonic Youth-ish feedback sprawl that starts the short “Popcorn.”  “Popcorn” is the perfect song in my little world.  It’s fewer than two and a half minutes, is full of all of that aforementioned atonal feedback and also manages to include one of the most infectious choruses I’ve ever encountered.  There is a slight chance to catch one’s breath while some bird sounds open “Undulate,” before that driving guitar burst returns with full momentum and carries into another fast breathtaking onrush of energy.  This album is relentless, but like the slow fade out closing of the 12th song “Sandy,” these songs are so light on their feet that each song feels like air and it is always a bit of a let down when these 45 minutes come to an end.  This isn’t all one big blast of the same song over and over again either.  There is some nice variety buried underneath the beautiful noise they create.  “Pale Honey” seems to have a layer of some seriously fast mandolin that enhances the chorus with a nervous energy like one might feel when stricken with a new crush.  The 7th track “She” is the one truly slow song and acts as an intermission and to set the stage for the more varied second half.  More animal sounds open that second half (or side) before jumping back in to the fun of “Template” (“Let’s get out of here / Let’s have some fun / Get nothing done / Let’s disappear”), “True,” and the oddly named “A Song Called Liberty,” which sees the return of that mandolin sound.  Next up is “Bird” which is the strangest song of the bunch, but maybe the most immediately accessible (along with the straight forward pop of “Hey Princess”) with its dance shuffle and its silly chorus: “Hey girl I’m okay / I just lose myself in what you say / I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard / I circle around you like a big ole bird”).  “The previously mentioned “Sandy” is another hyper catchy crush song that absolutely lifts off into the stratosphere.  Finally, the closing “Slow” starts off with quietly strummed guitars and some very casual humming before building into a mid-tempo triumph.  This is why Lacquer was my #1 pick for favorite album of 1994, and spawned a flood of Swedish pop bands into my collection like This Perfect Day, HappyDeadMen, Cinnamon and of course, the always amazing Easy.