Crazy things happen on the last evenings of years. Just a scarce decade ago, a lot of people sat in fear that their computers’ clocks would explode and take down all of human civilization in one fell swoop, much like the wrong move in a game of Mindsweep. Coincidentally, a decade ago might have been the last time anyone played Mindsweep. But as you might have surmised, such a thing did not occur. The human race lived to see another ten years of astounding innovations and profound tragedies. And those same computers that threatened our very way of life continued to make it possible for us to hear days and days of music that span both the astounding and tragic sides of the spectrum.
Around this time a decade ago, I was still rocking the mixed tapes that Laura made for me. Bands such as Crooked Fingers, the Old 97s, and Belle & Sebastian were featured alongside Lou Reed, Depeche Mode, and the Turtles. That year, I received my Toyota Corolla from my parents, and the outer body contained none of the bullet holes or other imperfections that it would acquire in the years to come. I drove around, blasting the tapes from the Toyota’s cassette deck, to get to classes, to work, to friends’ homes, and in a few years, to San Francisco.
But there’s a lot of time to elaborate on that. I just wanted to put that musical memory out there as well as the following list of some of my favorite albums of 2009, just in case 2010 is the real year that computers come alive and eat us all. If you’re reading this from such a computer, I hope it’s not too late.
Not shutting it down permanently, don't worry, though after writing this entry I look a little like this.
One thing I’ve learned during my 2009 foray into the music blogosphere is that there is a lot of music out there. Seriously a lot, like if you took the number of bands you know about from your hometown and assume that each group member’s cousin also plays in a band, then multiply that number of band-moonlighting relatives by 336. That is an approximation of the number of music-making artists on the Interwebs on any given day.
So the task of sifting through such a vast glut of material is time-consuming, to put it mildly. To be less diplomatic, it makes you wonder if the transparent accessibility of the Internet is what will eventually drive a well-intentioned music aficionado to crave nothing more than white noise from the TV screen to croon her to sleep. Of course, that also means that it is a thrilling time to be a musician just based on the ease of the venture.
At a very basic level, that’s an exciting prospect for a fan. It can also be quite horrifying because it means anyone can post the six tracks they can reliably strum up for scrutiny. And to top it off, remember that hometown band member’s cousin? For every other cousin, there is a music-blogging second cousin who posts more frequently than you and informs the public of more obscure yet somehow proportionately more inventive acts than your blog does. It is galling and pretty tempting to hate all the second cousin bloggers, but you need their expertise as badly as you thought the Interwebs needed yours.
Still, to bring it back around to myself, I’m someone’s second cousin, too. I also hope to post on musically-inclined artists who may or may not win me any tight-jean cred awards but hopefully fulfill the former teacher in me who just wants people to know whatever it is that I know. Although it’s been a long time since I’ve made a post here, rest assured, I am listening to a boatload of music. Isn’t that the point? If you are not listening to a boatload of music yourself, I humbly suggest you start with the following songs of ’09 that I have listened and loved but not mentioned here for various reasons.
Nothing says America like home shopping, rock and roll with proud country roots, and breaking shit for no reason. As you embark on your Thanksgiving plans, whether they involve Tofurkey, bitter arguments fueled by red wine, or camping out at the mall at midnight, be sure to take a break and check out the Avett Brothers’ video for “Slight Figure of Speech” from their recent full-length, I and Love and You. This has been a breakthrough year for the boys from North Carolina. The band transitioned to American Recordings for their latest record, and with that step took on the masterful ear of producer, Rick Rubin. I and Love and You highlights the band’s skill and comfort with discussing love in its myriad shapes, from its abashed and slippery expression in the opening track, which shares its name with the album, to its wide-eyed, bare-boned declaration in “Kick Drum.”
But sometimes, all that waxing poetic on the subjects of desire and devotion can be a little much. The video proves that even though the Avett Brothers have made it to the big-time, they can still cut back and have the same hootin’ and hollerin’ fun they’ve had in their nine years of tireless touring and numerous releases on the Ramseur label. Although the music takes a while to start (roughly two minutes into the video), the result is the opposite of tryptophan.
“Slight Figure of Speech” ~ Avett Brothers ~ I and Love and You ~ American Recordings
Lately, every music writer from scoresofmediasources has been talking until they’re breathless about four small words that take on stratospheric proportions in some peoples’ minds: Best. Of. The. Decade. And it would be very easy, rather enticingly so, to peruse through my iTunes library, pick out my favorite albums, and chime in from my tiny soapbox.
Some music outlets have presented trends of the past decade, like technologies that have revolutionized the way casual and devout fans attach themselves to artists. There’s a lot to discuss in that arena. That’s evidenced in the fact that I couldn’t get through my first paragraph without mentioning iTunes.
Frankly, I don’t have the time to offer a thoughtful essay on every topic pertinent to musical sounds and shifts of the decade even though I could, as could many other scholars and shills, some in much better form than me. For that reason, a list seems to be an easy format. Bullet points without the jumbled snarl of footnotes and rebuttals to encumber them would certainly cater to my already hectic holiday schedule. Basketball and football, in the same months! It’s madness! But another unexpected hurtle that I came across as I started to explore this buzzing, rich area of discourse is that there’s truly so much to say about music from this decade. You could jot down a handful of items, but if you’re paying any attention at all, you’ll probably have way more to add. Then by the time you get up to help yourself to a beer, you’ve composed something that looks like your notes from your ancient Chinese history lecture.
I don’t want to subject anyone to my horrendous written take on Lao Tzu and the Bronze Age. Instead of an outline, I’ll offer some thoughts on certain ideas that got a lot of mileage in the aughts, if only because of their absence. Plus, I still plan to pay some respect to a few of my favorite songs and artists from the last nine years. This is a music blog, after all.
Where Have All the Labels Gone?
When I saw Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at the Great American Music Hall, they headlined at a Lookout Records showcase. It was, to use the parlance of the time, the shit. Representatives from the label passed out bright yellow bags full of bumper stickers, fliers, a still-handy tape cutter for CDs, and two compilation albums on which to test the handy cutter. One woman working a booth sized me up, proclaimed “You look like a teacher,” and gave me a shirt that bore the assertion that Corporate Radio Still Sucks. The label celebrated the people at the concert as much as everyone in the audience cheered in response to the bands. I proudly pulled my new shirt over the dress I was wearing and moved right to the foot of the stage. I never do that, even though it’s just about impossible for me to see anything if I don’t position myself there.
It helped that the main act’s set was one of the most exciting concerts at which I had ever been present. Bay Area bands such as the Oranges Band and Communiqué opened with gusto. Then Ted Leo proved why critics refer to him as the hardest working man in indie rock. He beat the top of his skull with a tambourine during “The Ballad of the Sin Eater.” He erupted into falsetto as exuberantly as most people tear into bags of Doritos. He made the music hall full of calculatingly decorated San Francisco cool kids shake it like preschoolers.
Some things haven’t changed since that 2003 show. Corporate radio is still alive, albeit barely, and sucking just as much as ever. Ted Leo tours as rigorously as he did at the start of the aughts. This December, he’ll follow a sold-out show at the Bowery in New York City with stops in Spain and the UK.
But time hasn’t been as benevolent towards other things from that night. That T-shirt is long gone, probably a casualty of a hasty trip to Goodwill or car theft. Sadly, Lookout Records hasn’t weathered the decade well either. Last April, the head of Little Type Mailorder, the label’s online sales distributor, passed away. All sales through the Lookout website have ceased. But that was the most recent episode in a series of bad luck. There was the notorious reverse-no-backsies move by Green Day in 2005 when the band pulled their EPs and two full-length albums off the Lookout catalog. Operation Ivy did the same in 2006.
While those losses took place, the role and relevance of all record labels were put into a tailspin as file-sharing made it easy for listeners to discard careful studies of a label’s offerings in favor of cherry-picking singles. It’s tempting to latch onto the image of some tightly-suited fat cat in a corporate high-rise office pounding a meaty fist onto his desk as he curses all the kids with their computers and decides which person’s dream to exploit next. It’s difficult to remember the point when a record label served as a base, how the label helped navigate listeners through various artists’ work before Amazon or Pandora or iLike took the reins. No one should forget the contributions to modern music culture of such labels as Kill Rock Stars, Matador, Merge, and the recently beleaguered Touch and Go, who released Ted Leo’s last record.
You can’t disparage the ease of access not only to music, but to information about the music that interests you. Maybe it’s in that electrically charged space that ushers interest into the world, the distance between the short girl in the front row and the band on the stage making her dance, where both big and small labels should be paying the most attention.
“Timorous Me” ~ Ted Leo and the Pharmacists ~ The Tyranny of Distance ~ Lookout
Apologies for the darkness in this pic, but at least it's appropriate.
A pattern seems to emerge every time I attend a concert at the Wonder Ballroom and attempt to review it here. Step One: Drink red wine. Step Two: Promptly forget to take notes. Step Three: Wake up too late to shower. Step four: Curse pattern. So forgive me as I try to piece together the details from the Mountain Goats and Final Fantasy show last night. At least, I think it was last night. It feels like eons ago.
Some (hazy) observations:
Owen Pallett is dreamy! To bring the subject back to the music, his live act is a lot like Andrew Bird’s but without the whistling. And both men are dreamy!
John Darnielle brought up the brief period of time he lived in Portland, as he references in “Genesis 3:23.” During one of the numerous anecdotes to the audience, he mentioned a storage unit on NE Broadway. Later, he performed a song with Owen Pallett on the violin that name-drops the Burnside Bridge. As evidenced by the fact that Darnielle no longer lives here, his time in the city was not spent happily. The “Genesis” song describes a point when the songwriter was “doing the things that train wrecks do—crashing into things.”
Selections from The Life of the World to Come were heavily represented. Since Darnielle and the band are touring in support of the album, that makes sense. The album’s Biblical cues have been discussed at length, and like much of Darnielle’s work, a lot of the verses pack tightly-wound punches. All the same, I’m not connecting with the newest addition to the Mountain Goats’ canon as readily as I did with Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree. It may simply require a quiet hour and attentive ear. But I kept wanting to blurt out “No Children!” and “Dance Music!” between songs. Fortunately for everyone around, I exercised restraint (mostly – at least one of those titles slipped out once). Another stroke of luck – the Mountain Goats finished the regular set with “This Year” and concluded the encore with an unembellished rendition of “Love Love Love.” Needless to say, I loved it.
“Isaiah 45:23” ~ Mountain Goats ~ The Life of the World to Come ~ 4AD
If you’ve used the Google homepage any time during the past week, you probably already know. But in case you’re not sure what it all means, let me assure you that the meaning is brought to you by the letters H, U, G, and E. Sesame Street aired its first episode forty years ago. A lot of kidlets learned valuable lessons from the show, including but not limited to useful Spanish words, numbers, and when to put down the duckie. Then, perhaps inevitably, many of us grew up to be Grouches, Cookie Monsters, and Super Grovers.
Alongside the lovable cast of Muppets, there were humans who smiled and sang and treated all the human children with care and respect. Though I don’t watch the show anymore, it makes me truly happy to know that Bob, Susan, Gordon, Maria, Luis, and Linda are still hard at work, enriching the soft skull years for the current generation of kidlets. I don’t want to consider the thought of children’s television without them. I won’t even get into the day that Mr. Hooper stopped coming to work at his store.
Beyond fondness for the artifacts of one’s youth and gratitude for extra help with the alphabet, I think everyone who watched Sesame Street can agree on the intangible, emotional pull the show had on our hearts then and still holds today. Maybe it’s a hackneyed observation, but Big Bird and Snuffy and the monsters and even that megalomaniac, Elmo, all had characteristics that a viewer could see in herself or aspire to be. Sesame Street is more than a televised school day because it makes you feel the pride of the characters’ accomplishments, the apprehension they experience as events change their neighborhood, and the affection they have for each other. When does art end and life begin? What kind of a person did Sesame Street make me want to be? What kind of life would I have wanted without Sesame Street?
As it turns out, the show even possesses prescient powers. When I was a kid, I always loved the pleasing melody of Ernie’s lullaby, “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon.” It’s a surprisingly sophisticated song, as Ernie weighs the desire for adventure and imaginative travels with the comforts and joys of home. Since more than a few adults struggle to find a balance between the two, I think this song is brilliant. Plus, any writer, artist, or chronic daydreamer probably understands why I have an affinity for a chorus that starts with “Though I’d like to look down at the earth from above, I would miss all the places and people I love.”
“Are you feeling heartbroken ’cause you’ll never be mistaken for a good looking man about town?”
Oh, Morrissey. How does one manage to be so simultaneously droll and sympathetic? How can I master this skill that you have in spades? For all of Steven Patrick Morrissey’s flaws, his sense of humor in his work has always been bitingly, lovingly unsinkable. So after his highly publicized onstage collapse, the singer cracked wise with the audience at his return concert in London and informed them how, “The doctor said I shouldn’t smile. I told him, ‘I don’t.'”
Morrissey is currently on the road to promote his full-length from earlier this year, Years of Refusal, as well as a collection of B-sides from his last three albums entitled Swords. There’s even a live David Bowie cover tossed in. Unlike Bowie’s ill-fated Ziggy Stardust, here’s wishing one of pop music’s greatest fussbudgets a continued productive career, good health for the rest of the tour, et cetera, et cetera.
Morrissey will play at the Roseland on Monday, November 30.
“Good Looking Man about Town” ~ Morrissey ~ Swords ~ Polydor