Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Is It Safe?

I’m coming up on the 8th anniversary of my kidney transplant. If you know me, or have taken the time to peruse the nonsense I’ve been posting on here for the last few years, you’ll know how monumental that event was for me. However, I am not heading in to this year’s celebration feeling too hot. It all reminds me of the second and third years after the transplant. Once the huge high of receiving the new kidney and lease on life started to wear off, once the build up of a few years worth of terrible side effects from massive doses of steroids began to exact their toll, and once reality started to set in, I had a minor crash. When I first received the new kidney, they had me so hopped up on steroids (including rabbit adrenaline!) that just a few days after the surgery I was literally riding my IV pole throughout the hospital hallways like a skateboard with my hospital gown blowing free and loose in the breeze. The excitement of getting a second chance mixed with the brew of hyperactivity inducing drugs had me talking a mile a minute and nearly foaming at the mouth with excitement. I vowed during that frantic time that I would never waste my time again. Of course, within a few months I was back to my old work grind, living essentially as I had before, and instead of being pumped with energy, I was in constant physical pain from something called “avascular necrosis” (which roughly translates as ‘dead or dying bones’ - caused by the same drugs that were helping my body accept my new kidney), and exhausted all of the time. It was then that I truly realized that my big plans and ideas were not realistic. Life is a series of mundane activities broken up by occasional moments of excitement both good and bad, and in my case, after all the 27 (gulp!) surgeries and horrific medications that helped keep me going at all costs along with my increasing age, I was no longer physically capable of doing what I used to or longed to do. It was during that time around 2006 and 2007 that I was working to earn a living for survival, but had zero energy left over to do anything in life that I enjoyed. My life had become mostly a cycle of getting out of bed, going to work, and coming home to watch TV until I fell asleep - only to start over the next day. Does this pattern sound familiar? I think a lot of us have a similar discouraging pattern, but because of my vow and because of that second chance, it felt so acutely painful to realize that I was too exhausted and limited physically to feel like I could escape. It took me a long time, but I was able to slowly work my way to better health again and to finding more frequent moments of recreation – so much so, that this year, I made another unrealistic vow to try and do as much as I could to get out of my home and my shell and do. I can proudly say that I have! This year has been stuffed with adventures, road trips, a ton of live music, my insane LPGA marathon, and more, but I have once again found myself exhausted and frustrated by my total lack of energy and wondering if I will be able to climb back out of the hole again. What I find most depressing about all of this is the daily grind – the ease of falling so easily into the spin cycle of working every day and watching time fly by helplessly.

It’s no wonder then that the second album from L.A. based artist Dina D’Alessandro (Is It Safe?) has found its way back into my car’s CD player all summer long. I was first introduced to her music via Myspace, of all places, around the time that I was struggling with the dark spiral of the endless work grind of 2006. Back in the mid-00’s I would get 10 to 20 friend requests a week from different musical acts on Myspace (along with the multitude of “prostitute” requests from stock photo blondes claiming on my profile page things like “UR HOTT!!” despite the only picture available on my page being one of the mythic Bigfoot strolling across a clearing) and only sometimes did I actually bother to listen to the music from these artists. Thankfully, when I received this friend request, I was in one of those searching for new music mindsets and took a listen to the handful of songs featured on her profile. I believe it was then that I immediately clicked the link to CD Baby and ordered her two albums. I absolutely love them both, but it was her second offering that especially clicked with me.

2005’s Is It Safe? is absolutely a soundtrack for those of us who are not satisfied with the work a day world. D’Alessandro’s ability to capture the feelings of self disgust and frustration toward living the unfulfilling first world problem of the un-self-actualized life of a worker ant (the name of her music publisher, by the way) is profound. The opening song “Masquerade” was an instant favorite. Not only does it open with a quivering guitar line atop a bed of electric noise that rivals the best moments of A Flock of Seagulls (who she so expertly covered on her 2009 Beautiful Things album with an inspiring and energetic “Space Age Love Song” – my 2010 #16 pick – see review here), but it blossoms into a story of sitting at the office and pretending that all is well and good, while burning up inside with pain and turmoil (“I go to work and start my day / I make believe its all okay / but it’s not okay”). That’s not the only aspect that struck me immediately with this song, because the second verse brings in the element of serious health issues that I identify with, obviously, on a deep emotional level, as our character struggles with not only the dilemma of balancing work and life, but trying not to let physical limitations get in the way (“Disease is such an ugly word / A word I think they’d find absurd / but it’s not absurd / A word I’d rather not discuss / because I don’t like to make a fuss / deny it all the way”). The clincher for why this song speaks so heavily to me arrives in the third verse as Dina brings the story full circle, because part of the need to go to work every day is to get health care coverage and to make enough money to pay for mounting medical expenses, despite the potentially declining ability to work that extra amount needed to do so (“I can’t take it anymore / the desolation I ignore / I’ve got all these bills to pay / I’ll deal with it another day”). It is absolutely heartbreaking.

This album does not focus solely on this dark topic, but touches on it enough throughout to keep the emotional thread alive. The second track, “Dream the Day Away,” which is an amazingly catchy pop rock song with a fantastically catchy chorus atop layers of buzzing guitars, still finds us dwelling on a serious need for escape from “misery.” “Down Again” opens with a guitar riff that reminds me of the stratospheric edgy guitar majesty of the much missed early 90s UK band Adorable as it builds to another driving sing-a-long that finds Dina in a fighting mood and refusing to “go down again.” Before I lose control with my over analysis of the lyrics within, due to my extreme personal identification with these stories as I have interpreted them, I must point out that, aside from the minute long instrumental “Interlude” stuck fittingly in the middle, that this album is an upbeat thrilling listen. I don’t say this enough about the music I recommend, but this is fun to listen to! The performances are spot on, as Dina is backed by a tight rhythm section, giving her space to layer her stellar guitar work and the huge hooks that she writes out in front. Over all of these years and all of the listens (especially the last few months), I still find myself not only singing along while I drive down the road, but throwing in air drum fills, and wringing out feedback on my air guitar as I bounce around behind the wheel. There is not a dud in the bunch. If you take away some of the emotional impact of the lyrics, this album reminds me musically of the chiming beauty of an album that fellow Californians Julie Plug (In Every Corner) released back in 1998, one that is so endlessly likable and (sorry) adorable that it begs for repeated listens, or the non-Madchester inflected Darling Buds from the early 90s (i.e.: their amazing Erotica from 1992). However, D’Alessandro brings an added depth that makes this album an emotional rollercoaster, along with the amazing ear candy, giving her music a timeless feel. In other words, take my medical trauma colored lens interpretations of almost every song herein (aside from “Interlude” and “Everybody Loves You” – an ode to disingenuous trickster) with a grain of salt and give the album a chance to sink in and affect you in its own way. Having said this, I cannot finish this piece without mentioning the closing song “Silly Girl,” and its powerful return to the tragedy of the opener “Masquerade.” The song opens with the lines: “Hope I never see this place again / Hope I never need this place again / The world goes round me every day / As I sit here and waste away” and it is exactly the sentiment I have echoed time and again after leaving a hospital stay (or even the office at my job). Luckily, the opening guitar turns electric, a shuffle beat comes in and the lyrics offer a message of hope and support from an outside voice. It is the perfect closing song to a powerful album (these two song bookends also provided me with inspiration for an early blog post where I quote “Silly Girl” and steal the “Masquerade” title – which can be read here) that I highly recommend. Please go to CD Baby as I once did and at least give her a chance.

Unfortunately, I could not find a song from Is It Safe? on Youtube to post (oddly though this song has the cover art representing it), however, "Disappear" is a great song from Dina D'Alessandro's 2003 debut album Sweetness and Decency and is representative of her great music!


  1. Hi Chris,

    Facebook alerted me to this lovely blog of yours. I'm extremely touched that you wrote about my music like this and that it has been of some solace to you. So sorry that you've been through such hard times but you will climb out of that black hole again - I promise! Thank you for inspiring me with your thoughtful and kind words. Stay healthy and strong.


    1. Thank you Dina for the nice words and for the amazing music! Please keep me informed whenever you have new music coming out, because I will be there.

  2. Exceptional writing from an exceptional man.
    Well done, Mr. Gilliland.