Melodrama – Lorde (2017)

“Royals” filled the airwaves for what seemed to be over a year after it was released. I never tired of it. It was simple in its structure yet carried a heavy beat and hooky melody. “Team” seemed to be in the same vein yet didn’t quite capture the energy of “Royals.” After hearing those two tracks over and over in 2013-2014, I expected Melodrama to be simple in its structure as well. I was wrong.

I don’t have any deep feelings or anything substantial to say about Melodrama. It is a well crafted pop record, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t typically get into lyrics of songs, especially upon the first listen. This is true of this album, so any reviews I read mentioned this being a breakup record or about being alone after a relationship. That didn’t sink in with me on the one time I listened.

I chose to listen to this album entirely in the dark just before falling asleep. I expected the sparseness and simple production, but I was overwhelmed by the pop production.

I was immediately struck by these layers of production but having the same hooks and melody of Lorde’s earlier tracks. After seeing Jack Antonoff’s name in the production credits, I understand the sound. Antonoff has become a proficient producer in the last 5-8 years helping names like Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, and St. Vincent. He also produced a similar sound as a member in groups fun. and Bleachers. I’ve yet to hear a Jack Antonoff produced track that I haven’t liked.

This is an album that I will come back to, especially tracks like “The Louvre” and “Supercut.” Their anthemic qualities made them earworms that I’ve since seeked out multiple times this past week.

This Is Happening – LCD Soundsystem (2010)

The quickest way to make me not listen to your album is to make it over an hour long with fewer than 10 tracks. Or to make all or most of your tracks over six minutes long. Unless it’s a masterpiece, I just don’t have the attention span for it. It has to suck me in and not let go until it’s over. Who’s Next by The Who, probably my favorite album ever, is one of the few that fits this bill.

So when I saw this album on my list, I dreaded it. I expected to be bored to bits. I’d only ever listened to one LCD Soundsystem song ever before beginning this album tonight. That one track happened to be the opening track to this album, “Dance Yrself Clean.” As with many songs, the first time doesn’t leave a lasting impression on me.

So I began my nightly walk with my two dogs with this album. With the opening track, it has a cadence that fit well with our walking pace tonight. It’s an unseasonably warm evening in early February (mid-40’s). Our walk tonight didn’t seem like such the usual chore. It could be why I enjoyed this album as much as I did. In fact, at the beginning of “One Touch,” I found myself doing some white man dance moves at a street corner waiting for a car to pass by. I can’t even imagine what I looked like.

As I made my way through the album, I sensed an influence of Lou Reed. I don’t know if James Murphy has ever cited him as an influence, but I hear some similarities. Most of the tracks contained a steady 4/4 beat, musically a rock/pop song, but spoken words along with it to give it a conflicting feel. “All I Want” contained some elements similar to Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting On The Man” but with a faster pace. It has a droning feel coming from the consistent back and forth two-note electric guitar (or synth guitar sound) much like piano and bass on the Velvet Underground track.

I know little about LCD Soundsystem or James Murphy except that they aren’t commercially successful. The track “You Wanted A Hit” is clearly a reaction to fans or critics. I’m not much of a lyric guy. Melodies are usually what hook me in. But I enjoyed this little ‘fuck off’ to everyone. Murphy isn’t making music for the fans but for himself. This is as it should be. If an artist starts making music to keep their fans happy, then the music usually becomes predicable and boring. Based on the span between LCD albums, it’s clear Murphy makes his own music at his own pace.

So after listening, this album too will probably not be put into my rotation of those I listen to in its entirety. But some of the tracks will be added to my running/dog walking playlists. Some of these beats are hard to resist, and I’ll continue to make a fool of myself on the street corners.

James Blake – James Blake (2011)

James Blake? That guy dating the tall British gal from The Good Place? Yeah, him. I’d heard seen his name on many year end lists, but until listening to this album today, I’d never heard his music. This made for a great first album for me to listen to for this challenge. It is very much out of my normal listening zone.

Having spent a couple weeks in the fall watching the Ken Burns’ documentary Country Music, I’ve been listening to a steady stream of 1960s-1990s country music this winter. I nestled into it like an easy chair over the past month. Anyone who knew me in high school 25+ years ago knows that is my wheelhouse. I’ve obviously listened to (and enjoyed) all genres of music, but James Blake is out of my comfort zone.

This album is listed under the genres of Electronic, Experimental, Blue-Eyed Soul, and Post-Dubstep. I heard all of these while listening to this album. Of course, I had to look up what Post-Dubstep meant. A simple definition is UK bass music with Dubstep elements usually around 130 beats per minute. I’m still not sure I could identify what that really means, but I get the gist.

The bass was prominent throughout, sometimes in a jarring way. Samples and various sound effects throughout reminded me of Radiohead. Even on the opening track “Unluck,” Blake’s voice sounds encrypted or coded, but clearly still contains elements of soul/R&B from his true voice. From what I can tell, his natural tone is similar to that of Sam Smith. It seems less masked on “The Wilhelm Scream” and “I Never Learnt To Share,” possibly the best tracks on the album. The lyrics are more intelligible on these than some of the others, and he seems to be more vulnerable allowing natural voice to be more exposed. “Limit To Your Love” is a cover of a Feist song. It, “Measurements,” and “Give Me My Month” are simpler tunes that also show Blake’s true tone.

My first listen to this album was while driving my daughter around trying to get her a nap. Especially towards the end, it was a soothing listen. I found myself getting more relaxed the deeper I got into it. (It clearly worked on Everly too as she was asleep by the third song. More likely, she was just tired from being a 3-year old.)

As I type this, I’m listening to it for a second time. I’m enjoying it much more this time than the first. The experimental aspect of it isn’t as shocking as earlier. Being a more mainstream pop king of guy, I’m not sure this album as a whole will make it into my regular rotation, but some of the tracks listed above will definitely be added to some of my mellow shuffle playlists. There are many highlights here…enough to make me want to seek out Blake’s newer albums.

#MWE

#MWE is making its way around social media among music writers and fans. Standing for Music Writer Exercise, writers and fans select an album per day for the month for February 2020. Being a leap year, this means selecting 29 albums that are overlooked or unfamiliar to the writer.

My older brother approached me with the idea of selecting albums for each other to listen to. These are albums that we predicted the other hadn’t listened to entirely. As such, in our case, the albums we chose for each other are mostly outside of our comfort zone. This is especially true for the ones Bill selected for me. Here is the list he selected that I will listen to in this order:

  1. James Blake – James Blake
  2. This is Happening – LCD Soundsystem
  3. Melodrama – Lorde
  4. Dirty Computer – Janelle Monae
  5. Carrie And Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
  6. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West
  7. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
  8. Blonde – Frank Ocean
  9. Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You
  10. Steven Malkmus And The Jicks – Mirror Traffic
  11. Cuz I Love You – Lizzo
  12. Hamilton Broadway Cast Recording
  13. Coloring Book – Chance The Rapper
  14. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go – Billie Eilish
  15. For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver
  16. Illinoise – Sufjan Stevens
  17. Late Registration – Kanye West
  18. Sublime – Sublime
  19. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road – Lucinda Williams
  20. Night And Day – Joe Jackson
  21. It Takes A Nation Of Millions – Public Enemy
  22. New Morning – Bob Dylan
  23. No Code – Pearl Jam
  24. Shawshank Redemption Soundtrack
  25. Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
  26. Demon Days – Gorillaz
  27. Shields – Grizzly Bear
  28. Currents – Tame Impala
  29. The Trials Of Van Occupanther – Midlake
  30. Eternally Even – Jim James
  31. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

There are two extra just in case I had listened to some of these. The only one that I have entirely listened to is the final album on the list, Arcade Fire. I still plan to listen to all 31 with the extra two as a bonus.

Below is the list I chose for Bill to listen to:

1 On The Track – Leon Redbone
2 Aerial Ballet – Nilsson
3 Making Movies – Dire Straits
4 I Wish It Would Rain – The Temptations
5 To Our Children’s Children’s Children – The Moody Blues
6 Loose Salute – Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
7 Stories Of A Stranger – O.A.R.
8 News Of The World – Queen
9 Sunflower – The Beach Boys
10 **** – The Greenhornes
11 Bat Out Of Hell – Meat Loaf
12 How We Operate – Gomez
13 Diamonds And Dirt – Rodney Crowell
14 Hot Cakes – The Darkness
15 Roots – The Everly Brothers
16 Silk Degrees – Boz Scaggs
17 Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina – The Left Banke
18 John Prine – John Prine
19 Heaven Tonight – Cheap Trick
20 Parallel Lines – Blondie
21 Ain’t That Good News – Sam Cooke
22 Guitar Town – Steve Earle
23 Bring The Family – John Hiatt
24 Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots – Flaming Lips
25 Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd – Lynyrd Skynyrd
26 Odessa – Bee Gees
27 Electric Warrior – T. Rex
28 Let’s Get It On – Marvin Gaye
29 The Who Sell Out – The Who
30 Mystery Girl – Roy Orbison
31 Forever Changes – Love

Each day (or day after) that I listen to these, I’ll post a subjective review based on my own tastes. After listening to the first album this afternoon, I can tell I will be way out of my comfort zone for the month. And I’m excited about that.

Winter Blues

We recently had the shortest day of the year, December 21. I’ve heard many people this year talk about this. Most of them are glad the days begin getting longer. I’m with them. But I haven’t always been this way.

I’ve always been a fan of winter. I enjoyed the respite from the warmer weather. The chill of each winter hit me with a freshness like many feel about Spring. I took some strange pleasure in knowing others were blue when I wasn’t. It was an equalizer for the rest of the year when I typically would fall in and out of a depression.

I’ve never been diagnosed with any form of depression. I’m very fortunate for that. I know many have a fight day after day, including many of my family members. It was simply life in my 20s that hit me hard. I fell hard from breakups, friendships and romances. Many regrets still linger in my mind of missed opportunities in personal and professional life. I feel I’ve mostly rid myself of those regrets to a point that I can dismiss them with a shrug after they cross my mind. I’ve matured and found true love that has brought me two wonderful daughters and a solid happy marriage of seven years.

The winter blues I feel now started 13 years ago and have grown stronger every year. 12/12/06 was the date my dad fell ill with a stroke that exposed his future fate. I didn’t know it that evening, but we would say goodbye less than 18 months later.

That winter of 2006-07 was one I remember well. Like most of my life, it was filled with music to get me through the hard times. That winter began my changes in faith, politics, and the fairness of life. Life isn’t fair. But my life has been good. Good fortune and luck have placed me in a free country where I can mostly determine my own fate. I still don’t know what my role in this world officially is, but I’m working on it. Not many people can say they willingly walked away from a well-paying management job where they were well-respected and successful. If you’d have told me 20 years ago I would be a stay-at-home dad/part-time substitute teacher when I turned 40, I’d have never believed you. But I am. And I have no regrets about the decision I made.

Music guided me that winter. Those songs are still ones that I reach for today when I need a pick-me-up or a good cry. They still move me. But that winter, I wrapped myself in three albums. Two of those albums are by my now favorite band, Guster. Theirs are Lost And Gone Forever and Keep It Together. The other album is Continuum by John Mayer.

Continuum still revives memories of sitting in cold waiting rooms at Barnes hospital in St Louis awaiting the news of Dad’s multiple brain surgeries. Each of his two surgeries were successful at the time to explore and remove (as best as possible) the tumors that weaved their way through his detailed, meticulous, and razor sharp mind. “The Heart Of Life” was on repeat on my MP3 player repeating the words:

Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
No, it won’t all go the way, it should
But I know the heart of life is good”

It reminded me that life wasn’t fair, but most of life is good. Especially if you choose to be positive. I was a fairly positive person, but I could go down slippery slopes if I allowed myself. Something changed in me that winter. I refused to go near those slippery slopes again. Sure, life has its downs, but there are many more ups, and I prefer to climb them.

My family bonded that winter. We were very close for the next 5-7 years, especially after Dad passed in 2008. But our families have gotten bigger, and I live an hour from everyone else now. That’s not terribly far away, but some days it feels like I live in another hemisphere. It’s not as easy to drop by for Sunday supper at Mom’s. We are all on good terms and all supportive of each other.

The two Guster albums have become long term staples of my day-to-day listening. I was familiar with Guster after discovering them the previous summer. But that winter, I enveloped myself in those two albums and listened to them on repeat. They still often recall cold weather on hot summer days.

I attended my first Guster concert in February 2007, that same winter. I was hooked. The atmosphere of their concert was unlike any I had ever attended. It was familiar and inviting, much like my own family.

I’ve since seen them perform three more times (2010, 2015, 2018) and have tickets to see them in March 2020. Their fans have an online presence unlike I’ve ever seen. There’s no negativity in the band’s official fan-to-fan Facebook group. There’s encouragement in so many ways. Fans will often solicit stories of how they discovered Guster, how Guster helped them through tough times, and their favorite songs and why. It’s a bright spot in a current world of great division, disagreement, and anger. I’m reminded as John Mayer said, “…the heart of life is good.”

As I trudge through this winter of 2019-2020, these tunes will remain my rock to keep me steady and a positive influence for my family. I hope others have a group of albums or songs that stabilize them, even to make it through a tough day.

Dolly Parton’s America

Fans of WYNC’s Radiolab have probably discovered this new series as I did this week. Jad Abumrad, the host of Radiolab, is hosting a new series titles Dolly Parton’s America. As stated in the first episode, he discovered that people from all walks of life, male and female, old and young, conservative and liberal, were fans of Dolly Parton. They are fans of her music, her style, her personality, and really everything she stands for. Abumrad was afforded an opportunity to meet and interview her. He expected it to just be a single interview but soon found enough material to make nine episodes.

Growing up a country music fan, I have had a basic understanding of her career trajectory and know many of her famous songs. But in listening to the first two episodes of this series, I was reminded I’m just a minor fan. She is a status symbol for women all over the world. Growing up poor in east Tennessee, she has proven not only what is possible in the entertainment industry, but also given hope to women in abusive or dead-end relationships or careers.

Episode 2 of 9 posted this past week, and future episodes will be posted on Tuesdays into December. I encourage you to listen along and get to know Dolly Parton’s America.

 

Billboard Hot 100 – 60th Anniversary

August 4 marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Billboard’s Hot 100 music chart. For those who may not know, this is the industry standard for measuring the success of music tracks.

In the original 1958 format, the chart represented a mixture of radio airplay, sales of singles, and jukebox play. After many adjustments over the years, the current format combines radio airplay, physical and digital download sales, and streaming service plays.

Billboard is celebrating this anniversary by highlighting the top 600 songs.

Check it out at the link below:

https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100-60th-anniversary

Billboard’s Chart Beat podcast is also highlighting the top 100 songs in a 4-part series.  Tracks 100-76 are highlighted this week:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/chart-beat/id1082747004?mt=2

The Old Songs…

Now 6+ weeks into my new life, I’m already failing on a promise to myself. No, not the one about getting more sleep (failing). And not the one about using my time wisely at homes (also failing). It’s the one I made about discovering more music. Digging deeper into my personal collection (Now over 10,000 pieces) and finding those hidden gems.

Why have I bought these records? Are they for show? Just to brag to everyone I have a big collection? I’ve always wanted to just own everything. I want it at my fingertips just in case I want to hear Alice’s Restaurant (or insert random song here…).

I’m 39. What better time to start now.

Well… The familiar songs are just good enough, right? Comfort food for the ears. Can’t go wrong with the old songs!

I spent my 20s trying to make up for my musical taste shortcomings of my youth. I explored every music blog I could find. I had a subscription to Rolling Stone, Spin, and Blender, and I would buy every copy of The Big Takeover and American Songwriter. I would’ve bought a subscription to Billboard if I could have afforded it. I simply craved information about new music.

I hit a wall, like most people do where they simply cannot absorb it all. And I got married, had kids, got a promotion, etc. More important things consumed my life, and deservedly so.

So when it came time to listen to music, the ‘old reliables’ would suffice. They reminded me of the younger days. Not that I longed to go back, but they provided me with a sense of comfort. They still do.

But I’m ready to invest again. I’ve been spending my mornings reviewing my Spotify Daily Mix playlists as I make breakfast for the girls. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Im hopefully only halfway through my life (or not even). There’s lots of time to keep digging, and lots of time to enjoy the new music that’s coming out (there’s really so much!!!).

As I’m cataloging my collection, my oldest regularly asks to help. I deny her because I simply can’t find a way to include her. She cannot read yet at the age of 4, but maybe this can be her way of learning. She can have an interesting story to tell everyone how she learned to read by sorting record albums and CDs. Most people will then ask, “What’s a record album?”

Maybe she can be the kindling to my musical fire. She can start picking songs by needle dropping. Or picking albums by the pretty album covers. There’s worse ways to pick songs, right?

Read This…

I’ve hated reading books since I was forced to do so on my summer vacation by my 8th grade literature teacher. She was my 7th grade teacher, and since she was the state teacher of the year, she was able to choose her own class roster. She kept everyone from 7th for her 8th grade class.

This was not a horrible idea in theory. The teacher and the students were able to continue to build their relationships. It should provide for a better learning experience, except half the class hated her. To top it off, she assigned homework over the summer. We had to write an essay and read The Red Badge of Courage. The book is not horrible, but I was scarred for being forced to read over the summer of my 14th year.

I have always had an aversion to reading fiction, even at that time. I’d rather spend my time reading about history, sports, music, or the newspaper’s daily news. This was at least spending my time diving into something that actually happened.

Over the years, I would buy books, non-fiction sports, music reference, or (auto)biographies. I might read one per year. The rest would sit on my shelves unopened, waiting for this guy to mature and age.

As I began 2018, I fully made a conscious effort to read more. Forget fiction; that will never happen. My goal has been one book per month. This includes books on CD. I traveled a lot for my job, so audiobook were great for the commute.

So far, at July 3, I have fulfilled 2/3 of my commitment. All books have been music autobiographies, John Fogerty, Carole King, Michael Nesmith, and Micky Dolenz.

I am currently reading four other books concurrently, depending on my location I am in my home. The History of Rhino Records by Howard Bronson on my phone ebooks app, Sound Man by Glyn Johns in the basement, Mo Meta Blues by Ahmir Questlove Thompson in the living room, and 10% Happier by Dan Harris on audiobook on my phone at the gym.

I’d like to provide a review for each, but unfortunately, none have been worth a full fledged review (although Questlove is sucking me in). I will provide some basic thoughts soon about each, as they have all provided me with some great insight on how to live or not live my life. Fame can be a curse to some people. The rewards come at a cost. A cost that I would never pay.

As I move into this next chapter of my life, now staying at home with my girls and leaving my job of 16 years, I look for this opportunity to develop a new habit and pastime of reading and continuing to enrich myself with the experiences of others.

And 26 years later, as I’m enjoying my 40th summer, maybe I can put Mrs. Allan behind me.

Cosmo’s Factory

As a kid, I enjoyed going through my parents’ music collection. Most of the records belonged to my dad. Some of Mom’s were in there too, but I can say that Dad’s drew my attention more.

Dad was born in 1954. His middle school and high school years were from 1966-1972: one of the most productive periods in the history of rock and roll. Even 10+ years into its history, rock music was evolving daily. It could be heard every day with the new songs hitting the Top 40 stations and even more on the newly founded free-form FM radio style. On FM radio, disc jockeys were given free reign to be taste makers and sift through new styles of music or play album cuts. Music studios were pumping out Psychedelic Rock, Progressive Rock, Blues Rock, Jazz Fusion, Country Rock, and even early forms of Heavy Metal during this time period. Many record labels allowed artists to write their own music and experiment with new instruments and recording techniques. Even labels like Motown were allowing artists to experiment with subject matter with topics of the day like the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, or both.

For many labels like Atlantic, Elektra, and Reprise, this would pay off dividends in record sales. Artists like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix Experience respectively defined or redefined what these labels represented.

For every major label pumping out top 40 hits and revolutionary albums, an independent label could be found doing the same. One of those labels jumped into the rock and roll genre in 1964 by signing a group called Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets.

In the 1960’s, Fantasy Records, based in Berkeley CA, was primarily a jazz label that was home to the likes of Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi, and the earliest recordings of Dave Brubeck. They took a chance on the Blue Velvets, a young rock and roll band based in the Berkeley area. Over the next few years after some unsuccessful single releases, the band went through two name changes (The Golliwogs) and a shift in band leadership (younger brother, John Fogerty).

Creedence Clearwater Revival was a band of four Northern California boys seeking to become one of rock and roll music’s greatest of all time. Their style of music was very American. They mixed rock and roll, country, and rhythm and blues to make their own style of rock music that sounded very familiar, but sounded fresh at the same time.

Their first hit came in September 1968, a cover of Dale Hawkins’ 1957 rockabilly hit, “Susie Q.” As was typical in the late 1960’s, the album version of the song was over eight minutes long. Fantasy split the song into two parts for each side of the 7″ single release. Side 1 was a fairly true-to-the-original version of the original song. Side 2 was a long extended instrumental ending showing off the true capabilities of the young band. John Fogerty’s solo guitar was featured prominently. His style of playing was unique, even on cover songs such as “Susie Q,” but he still made it sound familiar and look easy.

Their eponymous debut album contained 8 tracks: 5 original recordings, “I Put A Spell On You,” “Ninety-Nine and a Half,” and “Susie Q.” This is a formula the band would successfully use to create 6 additional albums through 1972. However, most of their future hits would be the self-penned tunes, not the covers.

Creedence would blaze up the charts in the new two years at a blistering speed. Including “Susie Q,” they released six singles in the next 15 months, with the last two singles also charting their B-sides in the Billboard top 30. This moved the band into 1970 with three #2 Billboard hits, “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and “Green River.”

Looking to continue the band’s success into the new decade, they released two more singles to Top 5 success before they had enough material for a new album. These singles were “Travelin’ Band”/”Who’ll Stop The Rain” and “Up Around The Bend”/”Run Through The Jungle.” Finally in July 1970, they released their fifth album, Cosmo’s Factory.

Cosmo’s Factory became the biggest selling studio album for the band.  The album would include both sides of the first two singles of 1970 along with both sides of the next single “Looking Out My Back Door”/”Long As I Can See The Light,” the John Fogerty penned barn-blazing psychedelic album opener titled “Ramble Tamble,” and four cover songs.  The selection of these cover songs would span everything from rockabilly (“My Baby Left Me”) to blues (“Before You Accuse Me”) to Motown (“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”) to rock and roll (“Ooby Dooby”).   Like many ‘peak’ albums for performers, the songs crossed all genres.

My dad just turned 16 when this album was released.  The songs were ubiquitous.  They represented the topics of the day while also allowing teenagers to escape from the looming pressures of the world.  Luckily, my dad was too young to serve in Vietnam, as the draft was abolished before he turned 18.  Others weren’t so lucky.

Dad was a gear head.  Driving fast wasn’t an option.  It was the only option.  Playing loud music in the car was the only option too.  My brothers and I inherited these traits from him when we approached the same age (and beyond).

As a kid, I remember dad playing Cosmo’s Factory fairly loudly on the bedroom stereo.  I would look at the album cover and wonder what those guys were doing in that factory.  Were they riding bikes? Or practicing music? Or just hanging out?  Whatever it was, they looked cool.

The tones used on “Grapevine” were very indicative of a Creedence song.  It was unlike the Marvin Gaye cover.  It added a haunting, swampy feeling to the song.  I have to admit, as a child, I didn’t like listening to that song.  It scared me.  As an adult, I get the same haunting feeling, but I can’t get enough of it.  I can’t help but think of my dad when any song from this album comes on.

We didn’t get a chance to fully discuss his feelings of this album.  I knew it was a favorite of his.  This is very obvious when I take the album out of the cover and see the wear upon the grooves.  He played it a lot.  Like most good albums, no matter the wear to the grooves, the music shines through.