Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018’s Best Songs

My sources for new music included:

Matt Wilkinson on Beats 1 radio, recommendations from friends, Pitchfork, Buzzfeed, randomly monitoring new releases and grabbing songs that looked like they might be cool, checking out interviews with my favorite artists to see what they’re listening to, Reddit, and Twitter.

Here’s a couple of songs that I thought were great in 2018.

Venice Bitch - Lana Del Ray

This is some perfect Laurel Canyon nostalgia (can you count the lyrical references?) segueing into a pretty and noisy middle, back out into pretty folk, and then back into the noise. It’s over nine minutes long, but it doesn’t feel drawn out or padded. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and one of my fave songs of the year.

French Riviera - Cautious Clay

One of my happiest discoveries this year was Cautious Clay. He’s Brooklyn, and I guess you could say he’s part of this new wave of indie R&B. He’s got a real feel for how to bring the big chorus (check out Joshua Tree for another example of his production prowess). His lyrics are cynical and heartfelt at the same time, guarded and vulnerable. I missed his debut show at Baby’s All Right, and I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive myself. Watch this kid - he’s gonna be huge. 

Doesn’t Matter - Christine & The Queens

This one reminds me a lot of an old fave of mine, La Roux: open wound angst over chilling synth beats. The second part of the song (“Run if you stole a shard of sunlight/Don’t ever tell them I’ve got your back/Choking to tears on shards of sunlight/Run if you stole a shard of sunlight”) makes me cry every time. Sometimes it’s tough to be happy and optimistic in this life, and though I’m a cheerful, sunny person by nature, I’m not sure people always realize how much work it can be to remain that way, despite everything. This song gets it.

Break Thru - Dirty Projectors

I would listen to this song over and over while taking showers this summer. It reminds me of my wife, whom I love more than anything in the world. I’ve been a DP fan since Bitte Orca, even though it would be cooler to say “since Rise Above” but that would be lying. The circular riff, the squishy beats and bass, his weirdo vocals - I love it all.

bless ur heart - serpentwithfeet

For about a month, I was making everyone I knew listen to “four ethers” by this guy (which is not on this list because it was released in 2016). Then this album came out, and this song is the final track. It breaks me every time I hear it. It’s the end of a relationship, an attempt to come to terms with what happened. The only growth worth having has a least a little pain in it. Arianna Grande’s “Thank U, Next” isn’t even smart enough to wish it were this song. Even after all the times I’ve listened to it, it still made me cry when I listened to it while writing this.

(also, his outfits are ridiculous, and I have a soft spot for true weirdos)

Don’t Miss It - James Blake

I spent a number of years, most of my life maybe, being a depressed, self-centered asshole. A few years ago, I stopped doing drugs so much, I started taking care of my health, I married the love of my life, and I started being grateful for having such a great life. 

Then I got cancer, and all those things were thrown into sharp relief. I was confronted by my mortality, and whereas before I had been trying to be happy, I now realized that there was no other real choice. Happiness was the only option. I am so lucky. You are too, really, if you want. Don’t miss it.

High Five - Sigrid

This fucking song. Pure pop and absolutely glorious. When the chorus kicks in, it’s like a shot of pleasure straight to the spine. The production is stellar, too (the drums! the vocals! the breakdown in the middle 8!). Just listen and enjoy. 

Honorable mentions:

Golden Wings - Gabriel Garzon-Montano (IMHO this one’s an invocation of the God Mercury, may his name be Thrice Blessed, and the best invocation of a god through music since Holst)

LOGOUT (ft. Chance the Rapper) - Saba 
The beat in this one kept me coming back over and over.

Tomorrow: 2018’s best albums

Sunday, May 20, 2018

You Didn't Miss It If Everything Is Happening At Once

One of the things I hated most about coming up in the music scene in early-90's Tucson (and there were a lot of things to hate about the scene, even if the music was quite good), was the near-past nostalgia. This is, of course, a symptom of the hipsterism that, even then, permeated the town. Nothing defines a small-potatoes backwater with big-city ambitions better than vicious backbiting about matters of taste. Of course, Tucson didn't invent sneering hipsterism, but when I moved to New York in 1996 and went around the music venues, the cynical affect of a lot of the folks I met was not entirely unfamiliar to me, even if I still had no idea how to respond to their lack of enthusiasm for anything.

But near-past nostalgia was particularly prevalent. If a band put out a new album, it was nowhere as good as their early effort, and even I got caught up in it, going so far as to come up with a rule with my then-songwriting partner: first album was best, and everything after that could only be in the running for second place, at the highest. Part of this was in response to a lot of metal and punk bands already being in their "difficult middle" years in the early 90's.

The more I write about this, the more I realize I might not really have a thesis. The truth is, I just hated the idea that, whenever I first discovered a band or an album, there was always somebody there to tell me, "Well, that's kind of their sell-out album. You should have heard them when they first started out." This always led me to believe that, whatever was going on, whatever scene was happening, I had arrived too late. I had always just missed it, whatever "it" was. When I got to New York, by the time I was hearing about Williamsburg in 1999, it was, per all the truly "in-the-know" kids, already over. Bushwick is the same now, as anyone who has been paying attention would be happy to tell you that it's been over since 2010 (or earlier).

I discovered Sonic Youth because of "Goo." I was told that was the "sell-out" album. Maybe they were right, all those hipster kids with their indie-cred gatekeeping. It was pretty pop. Even had a video on MTV.

But because of that album, I went out and found "Daydream Nation". And that's the money, right there. "Daydream Nation" made everything else possible: noise, melody, snark and sincerity rubbing shoulders and butting heads. It was more than a dialectic of rock, punk and art. It kicked ass, and it allowed all the bits and pieces of those things to co-exist and create something more than the sum of the parts.

Everybody told me that "Daydream Nation" was also a sell-out, and that the real shit was "Evol" or "Sister". Then some other people were like, no, even those were too poppy, and what you really wanted was "Bad Moon Rising" and the truly evil stuff they recorded with Lydia Lunch. Nope, said others, it's "Confusion is Sex" and "Kill Yr Idols" or nothing.

Fuck it. The noisy early stuff is fine. Not my thing, though. For my money, "Daydream Nation" is the perfect prescription. They had some good stuff later, too, but this is where it all came together. Art and pop. My favorite.

There's a larger point here, though. "Daydream Nation" put together a lot of disparate elements and allowed them to co-exist. Similarly, on the internet, everything is simultaneous. When the sum total (or damn close enough) of human expression is available at any given moment, suddenly which came first becomes less relevant. The new Anderson .Paak album isn't competing with just the last AP album, it's also possible to compare it with Sudanese dance music from five years ago, Australian pop from the late-80's, and whatever the hell is happening in some small town like Tucson. And not only that, but you can compare it (and cross-fertilize it) with the latest movie by Spike Lee, an essay on metamodernism, or a GIF of Steven Universe with superimposed text written by a kid in Oslo.

There will always be asshole gatekeepers, and there will always be those who hang on to their scenes with a death grip to prop up an insecure sense of self-worth and identity. Regardless, thank you, internet, for making the argument over "artistic progression" vs. "selling out" completely irrelevant, in fact if not in discourse.

Monday, May 14, 2018

This is America, So Lose My Number

Donald Glover (as Childish Gambino) put out a song and a video that blew up the internet, called "This is America". You've probably heard of it.

It details visually, musically, and lyrically, the way that America destroys black lives and then covers up the damage with entertainment.

A few days later, a mash-up video put the first few minutes of the video together with an earworm from the early oughts called "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen. And then THAT blew up the internet.

I'm not linking to that video, because it's radioactive as fuck. If you haven't seen it, you're probably an adult, you can find it.

That being said, I do have some thoughts on it. 

It seems like there are several different reactions one could have to this video, only some of which are legit.
  1. "This is hilarious." Full stop. These people are likely missing the point of the original video.
  2. "This is awful. The people who think this is funny are missing the point of the original video." As we can already see, reaction 2 has a basis in truth, see reaction 1.
  3. “This is hilarious BECAUSE it is awful.” Another way of phrasing this is: "This is hilarious, because it makes me incredibly uncomfortable.” This reaction is responding to the way this video simultaneously seems to undercut the message of the original video and then reinforces it by the juxtaposition of the banal and the serious. Note that this reaction is very difficult for others to distinguish from reaction 1, because it’s both difficult to explain (and remember that any joke you have to explain is explicitly NOT going to be funny to the person you explain it to), and difficult for others to accept in good faith if they are already are in pain from feeling trivialized by reaction 1. It’s also difficult to express because people having reaction 3 are VERY leery of being lumped in with people having reaction 1, and so they’re already starting out from a position of defense. Understandably so.

Reaction 1, while understandable, because this is cleverly and skillfully done, doesn’t fly. I doubt anybody here just thinks the mash-up is straight up funny in its own right. 

Reaction 2 is completely valid: there’s a lot of pain being expressed in the original video, and anything seen as trivializing that is like a slap in the face.

Reaction 3 is also valid, but difficult (and somewhat dangerous) to express, and harder to justify. Laughter that comes, not at the expense of others, but at the existential horror of suffering, is a tough sell to those who are in the midst of suffering.

The laughter that comes from watching somebody fall down an open manhole and die is qualitatively different from the laughter of reaction 3, but that’s not going to make somebody having reaction 2 feel any better.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Rage Against the Past

In 1992 or so, the guitarist and co-songwriter for my band came back from a trip to California with a bootleg cassette of a band. "I've been making everybody listen to this," he said, shoving the tape into my hands. "This was everywhere," he added, shaking his head. "In six months, everyone in Tucson is gonna be playing this."

He was right, of course. He was right about almost everything. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

No One Knows When the Fineline Closed

Fourteen years old or fifteen maybe, and you know you're not like the other kids. This is one of the great myths of adolescence, the kid who's not like the other kids, when really all the kids are exactly alike in their alienation and utter difference from one another. None of the kids are like the other kids. 

But while a lot of the other kids have figured out ways to hide their difference, their secret shame, you haven't. Not savvy enough, not socially apt, unable to conceal or dissemble. And the other kids can spot it. They can smell it on you, the porous boundaries, the absence of a tough outer carapace to keep the world out. So they fuck with you, because it's easy, and because it's kind of fun, and because it takes all the pressure off them. Why would anyone bother to suss out their weirdness when yours shines out for everyone to see. You're an easy target, and it sucks. You learn to hide, to disappear, to avoid getting fucked with, which means spending a lot time with yourself. 

And in your solitude you find the music. It had already started in Junior High or Middle School. You went off the beaten path looking for music that wasn't like what they listened to, and you found strange flowers of song growing in the rocks. Now that you're able to explore you find vistas of music opening up, populated by weirdos like you. Whole scenes, people who, like you, strayed from the path, or threw themselves off it deliberately, or who never walked the main road to begin with. People who can't help feeling things, who aren't athletic or pretty in the conventional way, people who read and write and think and aren't afraid to talk about it.

You find your people, even if, because of the accelerated rate of change in the adolescent world, they're only your people for a few weeks, a few months, even just a semester or a year. 

In Tucson, in 1985, they wore black eyeliner, and flowy clothes, or heavy chains and leather, or pale white pancake makeup. Their clothes imitated bondage gear, cock rings and dog collars and safety pins, leather-daddy hats. They loved roses, and darkness, and cemeteries, skulls and blood, drugs, Baudelaire and Bauhaus. Some of them were gay, the first gay people you ever met.

And in Tucson, in 1985, they went to The Fineline. The Fineline was a club down near Miracle Mile, where the porn shops and the prostitutes hawked their wares. Once a week, on, if I remember correctly, Wednesdays, they had an all-ages night. I would go with my friends, the ones that could drive, and dance to Joy Division, to The Cure, to Bauhaus, to Siouxsie and the Banshees, to Sisters of Mercy. It was a dark and scary place, and being the good little Christian boy I had been raised to be, I found it thrilling. It was brooding, the music was mournful, the blacklights made everything ghostly.

This is where it started. Nights hanging out in graveyards while my friends made out on tombstones. Reams of overwrought poetry. Funny looks from the kids at school when I wore jewelry and eyeliner.

The Fineline was heaven. It was my first time experiencing a scene. I felt home, for a little while.

This song captures it as well as anything not actually from that era. The chorus, "No one knows when the Batcave closed," references the seminal club in the London goth scene. In Tucson, The Fineline was our Batcave. Enjoy.

Despite the title of this post, there' s a very nice article about the closing of The Fineline here

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Giant Sand Where God Lives

The mushrooms had just started to kick in when I saw the storm roll down the canyon toward me.

I'd driven out to the Saguaro National Monument (now a National Forest) in my first car, a sand colored Volkswagen Rabbit I'd named "Shadrach,"expressly for the purpose of tripping out in the desert. Out here, surrounded by the petrichor and the smell of the creosote and the slightly alien looking giant saguaro reaching their huge arms in supplication to a darkening sky, I felt like I would have the kind of experience I'd been looking for. I'd often said to my friends who asked me why I still lived in Tucson, long after most of them had moved to bigger cities and better things, that "God lives in the desert." Just ask the Jews. Just ask the Muslims.

The line of rain, a grey haze billowing like a sheet across the sky, seemed to move slowly. You always think you have plenty of time. The closer the rain comes, the tougher it is to tell just how far away it is. The hard dividing line between rain and sand becomes fuzzy and indistinct.

There was a sound, like a few people sucking in air between their teeth, moving my way. A few people became a group. A group became a crowd, then a mob, now all shushing each other, running toward me. A few drops plashed my face, and then it was upon me. Hammers, buckets of water, soaking my clothes, my skin, the earth. I felt the strong urge to get to higher ground. The part of my brain concerned with bodily safety was rapidly shutting down, but it must have managed to remember that flash floods were a real concern in this area, and was able to send up a subconscious signal flare through the star bursts that were starting to explode in my frontal lobes. I clambered up a hill, over shifting shale and dirt that was rapidly churning into mud beneath the onslaught, until I found an outcropping of rock under which I sheltered, shivering in my wet clothes.

It dumped. It plummeted. The heavens shouted rain down on the desert until the visibility decreased to only the few feet just beyond my primitive shelter. Thunder clapped and boomed, but I remained entirely unconcerned about my safety. Wind hooted and moaned, driving rain into the mouth of my little makeshift cave. I laughed.

Then, it was over.

The sun came out almost immediately on a disheveled and ravished scene, I stepped from the cave, dripping and cold, and felt my skin tighten as I started to dry. I stood on a rock, my heart quiet and full of light, and looked down into the valley below where my car was parked. The air still glistened with moisture, and the low sun made a rainbow from where I stood right down to the car. I swear. Mushrooms or no, that happened.

The same kind of ramshackle grandeur, the aloneness that isn't lonely, fills this song.The tension that mounts as the storm rises, the sun that opens up on the hook between the verses. This isn't the song of the storm, but what comes after, the still, small voice that speaks in the quiet when the storm has passed. Imagine the voices stuttering to a halt in your head, imagine the sun coming out, imagine the darkness that is coming, has gone, is still to come.

Howe Gelb - "This Purple Child"


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Pop Goes the World

If I stood on the concrete outside the boxy, modern-looking fine arts complex at Canyon del Oro High School northwest of Tucson, and looked south toward Mexico, I believed I would see it, that it would be the last thing I would ever see: a flash of light as the nuclear missiles from Russia detonated over Davis Monthan Air Force Base. It was 1988, I was 17 years old, and I believed that the world was about to end. Not in a couple of days, or a week, or this year, or before I graduated. Today.

The madness of absolute certainty had gripped me that morning. Awakening from a dream perhaps, or maybe after church youth group the night before. I wasn't sure where the idea had come from, only that it was unquestionably true. I could feel the truth of it humming in the center of my chest, fizzing around the edges of my brain. I was glorious with it. The day glowed with edges and shadows sharper than the usual razors of Arizona sunshine. 

The fact that everyone went about their days without panic, with no sense of the horrible destruction about to rain down upon us, only served to further confirm my knowledge. I couldn't tell anyone, of course. They would never believe me. I had been given this knowledge, not because anything could be done, but as a gift, from God. I could say goodbye to the people I loved, my friends and family, I could ask for forgiveness for my many sins, offer my paltry soul to Jesus for safekeeping, and die, hopefully instantly, in the fiery inferno descending on us all from the clean blue sky. 

I was one of the lucky ones.

I walked around in pious, giddy sorrow for almost three days, joyously mourning every person, every beloved thing I came in contact with. My heartfelt farewells at every parting with every friend might have raised a few eyebrows, were I not already a little (a lot) weird. Nobody probably gave my doe-eyed departures a second thought.

It was the end of days! Finally! No more depression. No more unrequited crushes on almost every woman I was friends with, had ever met, or had read about in a book or seen on a screen. No more the inescapable weight of guilt every time I masturbated to pornography, skipped class, wrote poetry instead of doing homework. No more impossible to fulfill expectations of success, and, finally, no more "potential." I would never disappoint anyone ever again. I would be free. All God had to do was kill the world.

I wondered, briefly, if there would be a mix of the bloody biblical grotesqueries I was so fond of reading about in the Book of Revelations, the ones my youth group leaned on when they wanted to spice up bible study, and the hard science fiction of nuclear holocaust I knew so well from television and movies. Would Jesus come before or after the mushroom cloud? Would the Devil ride down from his kingdom in the air on a Soviet bomb to do ultimately fruitless battle with angels and principalities before he inevitably succumbed to the powers of Good?

Not my problem. Here come the jets. 

The hardest thing about prophecies that don't come true is the moment of double vision where two worlds exist simultaneously. There's the world where the prophecy is going to come true, absolutely, without question. This world is luminous with meaning, fraught with portent.

Then, superimposed over this world, off by just the fraction of a degree necessary to require a choice between them, is the other world. A world in which none of that shit is happening at all. This world has the benefit of continuance, but it is terrifying in its uncertainty, and it is meaningless, 

One morning a few days after my vision of a world cleansed in nuclear fire, I woke up and realized that it just wasn't going to happen for me. The bombs, despite my hopes, were not going to fall. Jesus wasn't coming back, no matter how bad tensions in the Middle East got. I saw the world of prophecy, and the world that was, and I knew I just didn't have the energy to sustain that kind of crazy. I started going to class again. I thought about applying to college. The sun continued to rise. 

All of this is to segue into this song by Scritti Politti, It's called "Overnite" and I'm pretty sure it's about someone who believes the world is going to end. I've done my research, and nobody else seems to subscribe to this theory, nor are there interviews with its author, Green Gartside (the "Green" of "Tell us about it, Green" in the lyrics), confirming it, but none of that matters. The guy who believes, against all evidence, that the world is going to end via nuclear conflagration in the middle of his senior year of high school clearly isn't looking for validation. It's just a theory, and a beautiful song. As the song says, "Check it out."

Overnite - Scritti Politti

When I was seventeen (Tell us about it Green)
There was a world to know about (Check it out)
Everyday she'd call me (What'd she say?)
Is it over yet? Do you love me?

Overnite - and while your troubles away
Under the stars up above - I'll build you another day
Close your eyes - I'll be home before it's light
And all the tears you cry - will dry in the dead of night

And now I'm in between (Tell us about it Green)
It all became a mystery (Check it out)
Everyday she calls me (What does she say?)
It is over yet? Do you believe them?

Overnite - and while your troubles away
Under the stars up above - I'll build you another day
Close your eyes - I'll be home before it's light
And all the fears you have - will die in the dead of night

Someday - maybe soon - we could show them a way
I would love just to watch it falling
Oh my pretty one - show me a way

Overnite - I heard a satellite say
There'll be a wind from the west - to blow all your dreams away
Close your eyes - and maybe before it's light
Oh all the hopes that you have - will die in the dead of night