Saturday, August 1, 2015

It's Elemental--A Mixtape of Sorts

What is most elemental about summer? For me, it’s getting out on the road and being gone gone gone.
Like one of our other bloggers, I make my life as an expat teacher, so travel is a pretty...well, elemental part of life. and I'm gone as much as can be.

Which doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing—at least for me. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to getting the words down, and I often lament that I’m not taking advantage of new environments to inspire my work into new directions. Great writers would scoff at that notion--that it's hard to write when you're on the road. Maybe I spend too much time seeking out and imbibing the local booze...
When I do travel, though, I love listening to music, especially music inspired by the places I am. When I went to Philadelphia a few years back for a ball game and a night of boozing it up at one of my favorite bars, 12 Steps Down  I listened to Marah’s brilliant rock epic Kids In Philly the entire weekend, and the music made more sense when backed up by the visual vibe of the streets it spoke about.
 (an aside: Marah? One of the greatest f@#king bands you've never heard--The LAST Rock 'n Roll band!)
Meeting your music this way—viscerally, tactically, by-hand—is the best way to hear what it means.

Same goes for this batch of tunes I’ve picked out for our theme this month: elements. Each of these are songs I’ve dug into deeply in their proper places, by inspiration, by the fact that the song was written in or is about the place I heard it, or…just because it made sense to associate the place with the song. And speaking of, that is another great way to connect to a tune: loving it because of the time and place you first heard it, and forever associating it with the place. For example, I can not hear OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”  without going back to Spoleto, Italy 2003, when I was falling in love with the Umbrian hills and “Hey Ya!” was coming out of every radio I passed. It was the soundtrack to a great time. Always will be. And even if I don't particualrly like the song, the association has the magical, unnameable resonance forever attached to it, so, I will always listen when it comes on the radio.

That being said, here is a small selection, culled from a much longer list, from the strange soundtrack of my life with a brief explanation of how each song came to achieve its own unique significance.  (Making sure I could satisfy the ‘elements’ requirement made this all the more interesting…)

Iron Man by Black Sabbath—The Pawnshop, Woodbridge, Virginia.
There was a pawnshop right next to the Music and Arts Center where I first took guitar lessons. I was in 7th grade at the time, and while the guitar lessons were great, the pawn shop was it’s own wonderful treasure chest. Among the usual pawnshop fare—guns, jewelry, power tools—the place had a huge section of vinyl for sale. This is where I bought AC/DC’s Backin Black and Dirty Deeds; LedZeppelin Four; and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, which featured Iron Man, a strange little exercise in sci-fi headbanging. And the main riff , the one everyone knows, was pretty much the first thing any nascent guitar student learned. When I hear Iron Man, I always think back to rushing headlong across Rt.1 with my pocket full of saved up quarters, wondering musical gem I was about to find.

 Mercury by Counting Crows—Outerbanks, North Carolina
This gem from Recovering the Satellites is a ghost walking in a blues funeral suit. Recovering the Satellites was my constant soundtrack after graduating from college. Released in October of 1996, this disc was a perfect accompaniment to a quiet winter of near-total solitude when I lived in Nag’s Head, North Carolina, trying to figure out what to do with my life. The album, soaring and contemplative, full of affirmation and dark, whispery sadness, was the perfect turbulent collection of songs I needed to get from one ending to a new beginning. It was also a different, sometimes harder and much more complex sound than their debut, August And Everything After. And where that album spun gold out a feeling of nostalgia for American solitude and Van Morrison-esque lyricism, Recovering nearly roared to life at moments, and for this listener, cemented Counting Crows’ reputation as one of America’s finest bands. Mercury , one of the quieter tracks on Recovering, is a song about a girl who is unstable, and whose changes of mind and heart put the speaker through that special hell known as ‘love’, and though she changes like mercury, ‘she’s alright with me…’ Multilayered slide and whisper guitars and a rhythm like a creaking ship on the water, Mercury showed the band was capable of brilliant musical chameleonism, and they made a brilliant career out of exploring and expanding rock n roll soundscapes. And Mercury will forever remind me of sitting on a cold, windy beach at night, with my guitar, trying to capture not only that sound, but also a clue.

Silver and Gold, U2—Cape Town, SA
Another bluesy stomp, with the politically charged lyrics that are now almost an afterthought when it comes to the definition of U2’s sound and themes. Originally released on a compilation called Artists United Against Apartheid, with Keith Richards and Ron Wood, the better-known version appeared on Rattle and Hum. Both versions smoke—but it is Bono’s lyrical reaction to apartheid politics, the boom drop drums and the Edge’s lightning sweep guitars make this a loud and strident statement. When I was in South Africa, I kept hearing Bono’s famous refrain, “Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug you—OK, Edge, play the blues!” After listing a imagistic litany of grievances and abuses that dwelled in black and white on subjects like rich versus poor and freedom versus slavery, Bono’s question to the listener is hard to ignore. The song is literally on fire, taking about fevers burning white hot, and doing its best to explain to those who might not understand, why it is the oppressed is ready to take up arms against an oppressor.
One doesn’t need to study too long to know that sad tale that is modern South African history. The sense of wrong doing is palpable when you go there and
It’s hard not to shake your head in terrible wonder at what happened in South Africa for so long. Ghost stories about troubled times that seem like they might never really go away—but Bono’s take—that money and greed will always trump good will and morality—rings particularly true and rang in my head the entire trip.

Iron Lion Zion- Bob Marley—St. Anne’s Parish, Jamaica

Honestly, I never paid attention to Marley until I went to Jamaica and stayed off-reservation, so to speak. Bob Marley’s Legend was a prerequisite requirement for college admissions and honestly, every tool I knew that wore frat letters could sing Redemption Song by heart, and thought Get Up, Stand Up was all they needed to know to get a poli-sci degree. Marley was realpolitik to most of the kids I partied with and I thought I might crack if I had to dance another slow groove with some girl to Waiting In Vain. So, I never listened. Ever. Unless I was at…oh, any party ever.  Fast forward a few years later, my misspent college days far behind me, I got the opportunity to in a private seaside mansion in a pretty remote part of Jamaica, on the shore in Saint Anne’s Parish, where Marley was born. It was a pretty amazing trip—far away from the resorts and the pale, never- smoked-a-jay-tourists lounging it up in Montego Bay and really, just kind of out there. No Internet, no phone—just the vibe of solitude and the sound of the surf. Honestly, with what I know about the place now, I probably would never stay that far away from any kind of security, but at the time, it was pretty cool just to be in the middle of the island, walking to the villages, snorkeling in the open water and fishing for our dinner every night. Someone in our group was a big Marley fan, well beyond the greatest hits, and when I said I didn’t dig the music, he told me to put Rastaman Vibration, “dig into the stuff that doesn’t get played all the time.” By the end of the week, I’d gone deep, devoured all the LPs, and heard the songs that never got played on the college radio station.  By pure stroke of luck, he’d brought all his CDs with him—this was pre-ipod and mp3 days. So, in fitting with our theme, I pick Iron, Lion Zion as my representation of this time and the amazing memories I have of Jamaica. The track comes from the Songs of Freedom box set, which is where anyone not interested in hearing Legend for the billionth time needs to start. And the song itself is a good primer for the complicated political and religious belief system that mark so much of Marley’s music. Rastaman Vibration remains my favorite album by Marley, and even though, I don’t listen to Legend on principal no matter what song happens to come up by the man, I will always be reminded of good times on a strange, quiet part of the island of Jamaica.

...As I write this, I am waiting to get on a plane to head back to America. While I’m excited to see home, see my family, drink amazing IPAs and eat Mexican, I wonder excitedly at what new music I will discover on this trip and hope to find yet another perfect song that will define this summer and all the strange places I will be…

(Hint—I’ve been digging hard on the Dead this summer, so….and the new Wilco…hmmm….? What's next?)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


What fun! Against sense or justification I find myself with time to continue a trawl through some more of the elements. I am intrigued by still how potent a source of lyrical stimulation the periodic table is proving, even as we leave the everyday names behind. Naturally the temptation to use some of the more arcane names of elements for band names, especially if ‘heavy metals’, is too much to resist, for example the well-known(?) bands Nobium, Cobalt, Xenon, C(a)esium 137 and even Barium, hoping the latter haven’t made too much of a meal of it. Sorry to any of them, hoping for a tag to their latest, but I am sticking to the words in songs.

Buy Titanium
First off is dancemaster David Guetta, who, in 2011, produced this little number, featuring go-to girl in this genre, Sia. I find it fascinating that the video seems to display a girl with supernatural forces running from the Police, not least as the opening bars of the tune seem a lift from Sting’s finest? All a bit generic and by numbers for me. Understandably not in the Greatest Hits that crept onto my shelves last year.

Buy Vanadium, but you will need i-tunes
Unbelievable! Vanadium I had never even heard of, yet clearly a part of the essentials for this gloomy and never more industrial gothic sounding outfit, from their 1983 album "Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.", or Drawing of Patient O.T., which isn’t a huge help. The name of the group I knew, but this was my very first earburst of them, reading that their thing is the use of non-musical machinery as part of their instrumentation. Resisting the obvious cynical riposte, I am minded of the more recent Fuck Buttons, who similarly invoke noise as music. Oddly I can see an appeal, but maybe I have had too many MRI scans. Erstwhile member Blixa Bargold, guitar/vocals, later became a member of Nick Cave band The Birthday Party and then a Bad Seed.

Buy Chromium (electric)
The Church are, of course, world famous in Australia, with a lineage stretching back decades up into the present day: they have recently performed a few bijou gigs in the U.K. I think they should and could have been better known, tending towards a tuneful jangliness, reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub.This is the 2nd version of the song, appearing on a 2005 acoustic rehash of back-catalogue, ‘El Momento Descuidado, an LP I picked up cheap in Melbourne, whilst visiting my daughter, a couple of years back. I prefer it to the electric version here.

Buy Iron
Who could resist and who does not know this song? An astonishing 45 years old, or will be in a month, astonishingly simple and astonishingly effective. I forgive them for the successive waves of noisy tosh produced within their invented genre, if only for the joy of air-guitar aged 13. And all still alive and squabbling. Wonderful.

Buy Nickel
So, as stated, no room for Nickelback, thank the Lord, or Nickel Creek, mores the pity, here, so it’s the marmite man himself, Tom Waits. Fabulous songwriter, of which I have no doubt, it’s just his unusual corncrake grate of a voice. Sometimes, just sometimes, it works for me, and, by jingo, this is one of those times, the contrast with the strings imparting a pathos I didn’t know he had in him. OK the odd guttural hawk as it continues, making me wince and the front row of any audience duck. Nearly as good as Over the Rainbow.

Buy Copper
Confess I only know the W.O.L.D.(ee ee ee) song for this lauded writer, deceased many a long year. Not my proverbial, I fear, being too M.O.R. (ah ah ah). Cheap gag, move on.

Buy Zinc
I wanted, I really wanted to give this a chance, trying to forget the years of horror when T. Rex were a fixture on UK TV chartshow 'Top of the Pops', my mother unfailingly asking me who he, Bolan,  was, with my stock answer being that I didn’t know. In case she though it indicative of my taste. Best thing, as ever, is the Taylor/Volman backing vocals, fresh from their stint with the Mothers of Invention, with me never understanding quite why. Shame the Turtles never sang a song about, o, I don’t know, Tungsten. (Is tungsten even an element?)

Buy Arsenic
Unfamiliar with these guys, and, at my first wiki I was pleasantly surprised, preparing to give this formulaic pop-punk a second chance, mistaking the noughties Philadephia “punks”, the Loved Ones, with the Australian garage band of the same name, 40 years earlier. What is yawn now would be somewhatground-breaking in ’65. But it wasn’t to be. File under old lace.

Buy Molybdenum, sorry, Nobelium
Mindful of 3 spiteful comments in a row, I really need one to like, and this, I thought, was definitely the one. The sheer unlikeliness of a song called Molybdenum automatically excused any need to consider its value. But, frustratingly, not on the youtube……. But, they did do one called Nobelium, which is, even if straying from the order I had been seeking. In fact they have more, with songs Iodine, Uranium, two Oxygens, another Titanium, Selenium and Nitrogen, all on a 2000 LP called, with little surprise, elements. Who they? Noxious Emotion is the name. I applaud the idea more than its fruition, but it’s OK. Clearly a leader in what amazon call EBM. (No, me neither, so back to wiki….) Whatever. It's OK. Really.

Buy Iodine
Now I can imagine Leonard Cohen stumbling down a track on some obscure greek island, knees smeared with iodine, having fallen from a scooter after a liason with his latest olive hued muse. Which seems actually to fit the gist of the lyric. Maybe not his pinnacle. Produced, doncha know, by Phil Spector, giving some down time fun imagining the same song sung by the Ronettes. (Works for me!)

I think we are both tiring……

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It’s Elemental: King’s Lead Hat

Brian Eno: King’s Lead Hat

If you only think of Brian Eno as the guy who does those long, ambient pieces, let me introduce you to the rocking “King’s Lead Hat.” During the mid-1970s, Eno first entered the world of popular music as the synthesizer player for Roxy Music, quit the band, and then released four remarkable solo albums that mixed rock, electronic music, jazz and experimental sounds in a way that was, if not groundbreaking, was pretty damn cool. At the same time, he began to experiment with various techniques that led to the release of his ambient music, and released a series of such albums, including the legendary Music For Airports.

Before and After Science was the last of the rock-oriented albums from this period, released in 1977, and it includes ambient pieces, silly ditties, and a few rockers, none more aggressively so than “King’s Lead Hat.” Reportedly recorded, but lacking lyrics and a title, before Eno and John Cale saw an up and coming band, Talking Heads, at CBGB in New York, Eno gave the song a title that was an anagram for Talking Heads and wrote a bunch of lyrics around the title which either make no sense or are brilliant. Or both. Many Eno lyrics seem to use words more for their sound than as a vehicle for imparting meaning (like, say, this one), or to create vivid imagery. There may well be some sexual references in the lyrics of “King’s Lead Hat.” Or not.

What is clear, though, is that the music was way ahead of its time. You can certainly hear some Talking Heads in the jittery, New-Wavy sound, but you can also hear precursors of what the Talking Heads would sound like a few years later, when Eno began to produce them. And you can hear the roots of the synthesizer based pop music, that would become popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, starting with Gary Numan and exploding from there.

Not surprisingly, I had never heard Eno on the radio before working at WPRB starting in 1979, and his music was treated there with incredible reverence. We even had a show one evening, named in honor of his earlier, somewhat more experimental album, Another Green World, for music that fit into that genre of experimental, electronic, OK, I’ll say it—weird--music. One night, my friend Bill and I took over the show for a “performance” that you can read about in more detail here, along with a bunch more of my college radio reminiscences. Considering Eno’s involvement with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra that admitted only players who were either non-musicians, or were playing an unfamiliar instrument (Eno played clarinet), I suspect he would have been fine with my “performance.”

With the perspective of years, there are times that I think that some of the Eno worship is a bit over the top, but you can’t deny that he has produced some of the best and most popular albums ever, has made music that has influenced generations of musicians in numerous genres. And, I still enjoy his music.