Archive for February 2010
My friend J.J. sent me this yesterday. I didn’t know it, though I knew of it, and at first I was like, meh. I wrote back that I preferred the Elvis Costello version. (Elvis wrote the song—which is about the Falklands War—for Wyatt, and later recorded it himself.) You must be drunk, J.J. said, which I wasn’t, though actually I had a touch of fever (gone now). He said, Wyatt inhabits the song in a way that Costello can’t quite. I watched it again, and then watched this clip of a Costello performance of the song …
… and I still liked Costello’s oozier rendition better, though admittedly I’ve heard it a hundred times. Then watched Wyatt again, and now, I don’t know. I’ve had his version in my head all day—the clipped way he sings “Dad, they’re going to take me to task.” Actually, I’ve had the two versions playing in my head, looping one into the other. Anyway, there are worse ways to spend a half-hour than toggling back and forth between two interpretations of this majestic song, trying to decide which is better, and then deciding that the answer is “neither.”
There’s a family resemblance between the vocals of Kami Thompson and her mother, Linda, and brother, Teddy. No tricks, no great gales of expression, just beautiful, understated singing. Their voices have a natural purity—why add anything? Kami began performing in 2006; her debut album has been completed for a couple years now, and seems to be in some sort of limbo.
This band was briefly called Having a Baby, and now might be called BARB. The name is apparently also the nickname of Connan Hosford, one of the band members, though why it’s in all caps, I couldn’t say. BARB is a supergroup of five, and possibly six or seven, young and talented New Zealand musicians: Liam Finn, E.J. Barnes, Lawrence Arabia, and Hosford and Seamus Ebbs of the band Connan Mockasin. (I’ve posted about Lawrence Arabia and Liam and E.J. before.) The group has recorded an album, and made this goofy homemade video where they dance and run around. I’m not sure, but I think the interior dancing might have been filmed at the place where the album was made—Roundhead Studios, the amazing recording studio, furnished with vintage analog equipment, owned by Liam’s dad, Neil Finn. BARB’s album is supposed to come out some time in the middle of this year. An interview with them is here, back when they were using the earlier name. I love this song’s sunny, shambling vibe. It sounds like a bunch of good friends having fun making a record, which shouldn’t be such a rare sound, but is.
There are very few musical acts that I once embraced about which I later thought, lapse of taste. For a while, this one, from the rag and bone shop of the late 1980s, fell squarely into that category. When their first songs came out, the two singers in the band, who are sisters, sometimes wore top-knots and big, foofy party dresses, and I thought, with their name, they might be a kind of second coming of the B-52s. Which, I should say, was not something that I was sitting around waiting for. I don’t like my music too “kooky.” And still, I freely gave my heart to Voice of the Beehive. Here’s a memory: Taking the bus from Albany back to Boston, listening to the band on my headphones while reading a copy of the Atlantic Monthly. I had decided I should subscribe to the Atlantic in order to become a smarter person, and that I should at least read the cover story of each issue, so I would have something to talk about with civilized people. The cover story this particular month was, appropriately enough, about the psychology of shame.
Only a few years later, Voice of the Beehive seemed ridiculous. The high-gloss production of music from the late ’80s is now widely deplored, and the band fell victim to it if anyone did. My friend John had also bought their first two albums, and now that we liked Pavement and Liz Phair, and knew better, we used the name “Voice of the Beehive” as a kind of shorthand for “bands that we have surely grown out of.” But this video from Top of the Pops, which I came across by accident this morning while looking for another video (I can’t remember what now), makes me think that I’ve been wrong all these years. The dreds and scoop-neck black t-shirt on the guys aside—why did these things not startle me back in the late ’80s? did I see them every day?—Voice of the Beehive was pretty terrific. You would be proud to come from the same planet as people who had written a song as charming and infectious as this one.
The thing that I remember most about this song is that you could listen to it (the album version, not this shorter but excellent live version) on your Walkman in exactly the time it took to walk out of the Harvard Square subway station—I had traveled to the Square from my college in Boston—and up Massachusetts Avenue to Second Coming Records. The song had a good walking rhythm; it put a little spring in your step. On weekends, I did the rounds: after Second Coming, then Mystery Train, Newbury Comics, the Coop, and the dreary basement Strawberries. Add to that list in later years In Your Ear, Tower Records, and HMV. All but two, I think, are gone now.
My father bought me my first Walkman when I was a sophomore in high school. All of the exterior parts were metal, and it was shiny gold, like a jewel. The night that we bought it I slid a tape—Phil Collins’ Hello, I Must Be Going—into the deck, put my new headphones on and walked out onto the front lawn. I looked up at the stars and thought in amazement, I can now listen to music outside. The song I listened to was “Like China,” which Phil sang in a broad Cockney accent. I suppose it would have been more relevant for me to embed this video of Phil singing the song live, mugging shamelessly and slapping his pate with a tambourine, instead of X, but I have to draw the line somewhere.
My boyfriend and I have entirely different musical tastes. Or, rather, we like the same kind of music, but made by entirely different musicians. We overlap in the places where most everyone overlaps, though, and our shared favorites are pretty much favorites of everyone else who likes the kind of music we do: Belle and Sebastian, Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists. We’ve both had periods when we sort the songs on our iPods by applying the device’s five-star rating mechanism, with one star denoting a song that should be expunged from your hard drive and five stars signifying a song that you never tire of hearing. “How many stars?” I’ll call out when an unrated song comes comes up on shuffle. “Two,” he’ll say. “No, four!” I’ll reply. Of course, whoever’s iPod it is, wins. But we agree that this song earns the full five stars. It chokes me up every time.
There’s no official Decemberists-made video for this song; this was made by a fan, Katie Goeller. It’s lovely.
Brooklyn is covered with snow, but I just met a friend at a nearby restaurant for a summery meal of lobster rolls served with piles of French fries and haricots verts. Then, walking home after lunch, I put on my iPod and listened to this summery song, which takes its name from a variety of peach. Peaches make me think of the greenmarket a mile from my house, where I shop every Saturday through every season but winter, and all of the anxiety that shopping at a greenmarket brings. (If I take too long eating breakfast and reading the paper, will all the strawberries be gone by the time I get there? What if I buy these peaches and then see better-looking peaches at another booth? Does the bi-color corn really taste that much different than the yellow corn?) It’s now almost 4:00. Around this time, the apartment starts to get dark, but the snow descending on the streets and piling up on the windowsills has filled the rooms with a warm yellow reflected light.
Also: Having a pet deer, it turns out, is not all that different from having a pet dog.
I saw a therapist when I was in college who asked me, “Do you ever fantasize that you’re a musician or a movie star?” In my memory, the question came up apropos of nothing, as I was somewhat startled by it, but it’s likely that I had said something that led her to believe this might be the case. And of course, the answer was, yes, I did sometimes fantasize that I was a musician. Not just musician. Rock star? Alternative-rock star? I at least had fantasies that I would be famous enough to sell out the kind of clubs where I went to see my favorite bands. And I still have these fantasies. I can’t play any instruments with proficiency, and I can’t even imagine how one would go about writing a song. I don’t have any interest in rehearsing or recording in a studio, or spending long hours traveling around in a tour bus, or eating take-out food in a windowless room backstage, as real musicians do. So this fantasy has never been at all close to realizable. But I’ll admit it—sometimes I think it would be pretty fantastic to get up on stage in front of a lot of people and play music that everyone thought was cool and beautiful.
Since I can’t play or write my own music, in order to indulge this fantasy, I have to imagine that I’m a preexisting alternative-rock star. Which begs the question, who? On the one hand, for this fantasy to work, the alternative-rock star that I imagine myself being should be at least a little bit like who I am in real life—an effective fantasy should have some basis in reality, otherwise it’s too far-fetched to sustain itself. The thing is that I probably don’t have much in common with any rock stars. Rock stars are simply made from a whole different kind of fabric. They like to go out and drink and get to bed at a very late hour, and I like to stay home and read and go to bed early. (Also, they usually have good singing voices.) On the other hand, the alternative-rock star that I fantasize being should be a good deal unlike me. A fantasy, at least by early middle age, ought to be more or less out of reach in order to be genuinely exciting—otherwise it becomes something you could have done but never got around to, which would then engender regret rather than reverie.
A couple of years before my first therapist asked me that question, I liked to make believe that I was Robert Smith of the Cure. My identification was visual rather than musical, though—he had a crazy, overgrown hairstyle that I tried hard to replicate. Also, I wasn’t as depressed as his songs sounded. Then, for a while, I wished I was Mitch Easter of the now practically forgotten band Let’s Active, who also had messy hair but played more upbeat music. When I was in my twenties and my musical tastes centered less on a musician’s tonsorial choices, Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens seemed like a sensible person to wish to be. He wrote grown-up songs, and I was beginning to feel more grown up. Later than that, I thought I might make a good Elliott Smith kind of musician, only without the addictions. Once I saw him play, and after the show I was standing by the bar and he asked me to pass him a cocktail napkin—he wanted to write something down. He spoke and sang softly, and I thought maybe I could sound a little bit like him if I made my voice low and whispery enough.
Most recently, though, I’ve thought that if I could be an alternative-rock star, I would like to be Britt Daniel from Spoon. This isn’t the most obvious choice. I don’t sound like him, I’m not tall and red-haired, and I don’t have as nice clothes. Also, he sings a lot about girls. Britt seems like a friendly, intelligent guy in interviews, and I like to think that I’m friendly and smart enough. Spoon’s music, though, has swagger—thoughtful swagger, if there is such a thing. Britt Daniel seems like a man with confidence. One afternoon, not long after Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga came out, I drove back to Brooklyn from upstate and listened to the whole album through, imagining that I was the leader of Spoon, playing a show at the Knitting Factory—which has been closed for years, but I’m apparently not in control of this element of the fantasy. With my fitted shirt and my little Japanese cigarette case, I was in command of the band and the crowd, and I could make my raggedy voice do all kinds of fearless things. I could make people feel as good as Spoon made me feel. I could make people dance.
Kate Bush described The Dreaming as her “she’s gone mad” album, and putting it on for the first time, once you get steady on your pins again, you might think it’s a pretty fair portrait of a crack-up. The music is huge—a note on the inner sleeve says to play the album loud—and piled high with clamorous sounds: rackety drums, pipes, didgeridoo, clanging piano, the screech of car brakes. After twenty-five years of listening to the record, I’m still picking out odd noises—was that a sheep’s bleat? The album is frightening, and on it, Kate sounds frightened. She sings, and sometimes shrieks—by the end of the final song, she’s braying like a donkey, literally—accompanied by background (and sometimes foreground) voices. The voices sound like they come from another world: ominous male choruses, sad and staticky answering machine messages, a mournful (and possibly dead) chorister. I’m playing The Dreaming right now, and I think it’s upsetting the dog.
On the surface, The Dreaming resembles a collection of short stories. One song is about a bank robbery, another is about the white man’s destruction of the Aborigines, a third is about Houdini. Kate narrates these story-songs from the point of view of different characters, and the music varies wildly from song to song, but in each song she seems to be asking the same questions. Not just asking, beseeching. The questions sound dire. How do I get where I want to go? What if it vanishes before I get there? Is the journey going to be painful? (Because if it is I really can’t be bothered.) Can I get there by blowing up a safe? Can I turn into something else—a bird, the wind, a mule—and slip free? The Dreaming is full of images of entrapment: being tangled in gaffer’s tape, bound in chains, locked in a house or a body or a self. But there’s a key, right on the center of the album cover, the key that Kate’s passing to Houdini. It’s hidden on her tongue, and it might mean to speak, or to sing.
The Dreaming is timeless. Its accompanying videos, like this one, aren’t, but they have a weird, comic charm all their own.