Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Down the brain of my river": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 13: #14 - #11

Back when I was writing part 6 of this beautifully rambling list, I announced that a decision has been made about the #1 song. I gave lyrical clues... genre clues and chronology clues. I sounded pretty sure of myself. But I knew and you knew that I would change my mind. In fact, I might change it back again or go in a completely different direction when I finish this list. Which could happen tomorrow. Or some time in mid January. No, it will happen tomorrow.

Who could it be? On whose temple could be bestowed the honor of "favorite song of the decade" by a strapping social scientist who spent the decade shambling between game show immortality and near-miss moments of clarity.... between great ideas rising to reality and bad ideas filling spaces between split atoms.... between engagement and marriage and divorce and the crazy 2006 and wacky 2009 sandwiching transitional 2007 and 2008.... between the great grand hall by the river and the small summer steps to the courthouse door.... between Seymour's slumpy shuffle and spry skittish heart and Ringo's rollicking roll and rough-hewn spirit. No change has been like this change. No past will be as meaningful as this past, as soon as it passes. I've never waited for such a thing.

Who could it be? The original choice, a street opera with lessons learned? That other song - the hit song - with its precise switches and its tailor-sewn metropolitan suits hiding continental courage? The song by the idol, the song my friend says will cause me great embarrassment if I put it at #1? The break-up song that breaks my heart even though neither one of them is me, not in that song? The friendship song? Have patience. First, some also rans:

14. Epilepsy is Dancing - Antony and the Johnsons (2009)
The second best song of 2009 is a beautifully quiet song that begins devastatingly:

Epilepsy is dancing
She’s the Christ now departing
And I’m finding my rhythm
As I twist in the snow

All the metal burned in me
Down the brain of my river
That fire was searching
For a waterway home
And in the end, a human voice cries out to be cut in quadrants. And the epilepsy has danced itself done spent itself, leaving the narrator to dance. Here's the fascinating video.

13. Your Little Hoodrat Friend - The Hold Steady (2005)
Of course I wasn't omitting this song, like I once threatened to. There were other candidates for deletion that raised their ordinary hands, allowing Finn, Kubler, Nicolay, Polivka, and Drake to rep-re-sent lucky 13. This is the first song I heard by them and the one I play first to people who've never heard them. The fact that I know all the locations cited in the song isn't the reason I like it. It isn't the Rick Springfield guitars. It's the rock and not the roll. It's the words and not the silence. It's just a damn sweet song.

12. Virginia - Vic Chesnutt (2005)
I'm sad that he took his life last week. I'm sad I only listened to a little of his music though I always admired the man. This is the Vic Chesnutt song I keep coming back to, the one that fills one void but leaves open another... I want more of his songs. It's a good thing many many of his songs will always be around. In this song, he loves his mother and maybe someone else. Virginia is the first of two songs on this video:


 11. You Were Right - Badly Drawn Boy (2002)
Earlier this year, I wrote about this song on my admittedly brilliant "Top 11 Chorus-less Songs of All Time" list.  I said "it's a song about choosing music over love and though I've never actually made that mistake, I sometimes I wish I would have." That sentence is full of lies. What I should have written is "it's a song about choosing music over love. I've done that. I sometimes wish I hadn't."


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Brief Interaction

This is my first post written on my iPhone. Considering that it took me over a year of iPhone usage before I felt compelled to use it for blogging, this might not be a common writing method for me. But you never know. If you told me back in 1988 that I would be typing diary entries on a miniature keyboard on an uncorded phone, I would have...I would have believed you probably.

I'm fully moved into my new apartment. I have no complaints, no crazy stories involving malfunctioning UHaul vans or tranny neighbors. I like the place a lot. It feels big and free. Private but not isolated. I have my own parking place for the first time since 2006. There's a skylight in the kitchen! Everything is in its proper place. My neighbors are nice.

(Aside to the 2 boys who live next door. Yes it was me who stepped on - and thus crushed -your Star Wars action toy spaceship or whatever it was. I'm truly sorry. But the courtyard belongs to all of us and until Oscar installs some security lights, it's pretty dark out there. Besides, it was just a Phantom Menace-era Wars toy so its no big deal So the lesson is this: Please pick up your toys.)

I'm enjoying my free week off. It's the best benefit of working at a university. I'm being paid to sit on my blanketed couch and watch OnDemand cable TV. I'm bored.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in the Foothills, 2009

After last year's epic about Christmas in La Verne, I bet all of you were hitting refresh on this page or checking your RSS and Facebook feeds to see what I had to say about another holiday spent with the family. By this morning, you were probably genuinely concerned. "I hope Ali's okay. How could he go this long without talking about the Fahmily?"

Unfortunately, it was a pretty uneventful day. Sure, I was verbally (and non-verbally) derided when I arrived 30 minutes late. My mother opened the door for me and I shamefully walked through the door with wine (a gift from someone else) and gift cards, ready for Christmas. They (the sister, the brother-in-law, my nephews, my nieces, and three others) were all seated at the gigantic dining room table. Some of half-lifted their faces toward me, muttering "welcome" and/or "merry Christmas." The rest of them just kept eating.

The "three others" referred to above were a family (man, woman, boy) whose house had burned down in a recent brush fire. My mother explained all this to me later, adding "I've never seen them before" as if they didn't belong in the Christmas house. But I have to admit that I was impressed with this gesture - someone in my family invited a family who just lost their house in a tragic fire to Christmas dinner.

But with one exception - the exception that I am building to in hopes of ending this entry on an entertaining note - the day was dull. The invitees were nice polite people, unlike the rape-obsessed racist and the wine snob guests from last year. There's a rather amusing story I could tell involving Target gift cards, stores with incorrect hours posted on their websites, fifty dollars, and milk. But I'm keeping quiet on that one; I want people to like me.

I did get one of those one-cup coffee makers where you insert the coffee disk and press a button. Do people think I'm lazy? There was dining room table talk about California traffic patterns as I attempted to explain for the 37th time that traffic heading inland from the coastal regions is ALWAYS bad on holidays and that's why I was late yet again.

Yes, I could leave earlier from home but there's no way I'm knocking on that giant door early, only to have to sit on couches that are better than mine and make small talk with small talkers. And it's not like I can enjoyably kill time in La Verne on Christmas day. Not much to do there. Only the Starbucks is open (I checked; just in case.)

So here's the funny story. After dinner, the burned-house woman asked my oldest nephew (a college freshman) if he knew a particular girl from his graduating class. He said he knew her. The woman talks about how this girl (a freshman in a local college) is dating a classmate of her son's and that this classmate is a sophomore in high school. She seemed positively shocked that their could be a three-year age difference in the dating habits of high school and college kids.

I'll admit that the older girl/younger boy relationship is somewhat of anomaly but I wouldn't say it's scandalous. (I experienced it firsthand. I was 18. She was 21. The hour was late. The park was closed. The Footloose soundtrack played on the tape deck... and so on.) Anyway, this woman just wouldn't let it go, trying to get my nephew to say something negative about this older girl and how she's corrupting the nice young sophomore boys of an esteemed Inland Empire public high school.

Sensing the conversation was getting ridiculous and going nowhere, my mother stepped in. It's her one true talent. This is what my mother said about the college freshman dating the high school sophomore: "She's a cougar."

Yes, that about sums it up. Nothing more needs to be said. It's a better story out loud. No amount of text formatting or font manipulation can get my mother's pronunciation of "cougar" just right. The conversation ended and new small talk began. Then dessert and coffee and silence and "its getting late" even though it wasn't all that late.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"She was living in her car. I was living on the road": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 12, #18 - #15

I have time. I have a lot of time until January 4. Time to write. So yeah - FOUR days in a row with blog entries is just the beginning.

By the way.... yesterday's bizarre entry about Rolling Stone magazine and Los Angeles and softball WILL make more sense in the future, when part 2 is posted. In retrospect, I should have just finished the whole thing first and then shared it with you as one large concise thorough piece..

18. This Blackest Purse - Why? (2009)
You know what's badass? What's badass is doing something that is seemingly the total opposite of badass.... where you lay yourself bare for the world to judge/criticize/hate/love. If you asked me a few months ago, what is the badassest badass moment in recent musical memory.... what is the moment that proves that the singer doesn't care what you think of him/her, when the singer says "yeah that's what was going on when that thing went down and here I am singing about it to you... so what are you going to do now? You're gonna listen that's what"? If you asked me that, I would have told you that the moment took place on the first song on the first Lifter Puller album released back in 1996. The song was Double Straps. Lead singer Craig Finn, likely unaware back then that 13 years in the future he would be over-written-about by a half-Egyptian half-Swedish dude with a Ph.D. and two cats on something called a blog, sings the following line: "She climbed into my bunk bed." Now, think about that for a second: a young man who wants to present himself as a rocker, someone who ostensibly wants the ladies to love him, admits to the world - debut album, track one, that he sleeps in a bunk bed. Can you comprehend the density of the balls that it took to sing - autobiographically - about having a bunk bed? No context is needed; you don't need to know what came before or after "She climbed into my bunk bed." With those six words, Craig Finn basically ensured that he had no inner censor holding him down, no limits to his songwriting breadth/depth. He would be going places. Too bad it took me 13 years to hear that song. Lessons could have been learned so much sooner.

But...this list is about the 2000s, not the 1990s. And if you ask me today "what is the badassest badass moment in your musical memory, Ali?" I might initially choose when Yoni Wolf (great name!) of the band Why? (terrible name) announces in his emoticons-get-embodied anthem This Blackest Purse that he's wearing "his ex-girlfriend's dead ex-boyfriend's boxers." Now THAT'S a place I don't ever want to sink into. I say that not because he's wearing another man's underwear; it's the "ex" and the "dead" that get to me. But wait - that would just be my first answer. I would then think about that moment in this particular song and we'd move on to the chorus in which Yoni Wolf asks "Mom, am I failing or worse?" First of all, no one says "mom" in music (any era, any genre). Plenty of people say "mama" and "mother." But "mom"? I don't know why no one says it but it is a word that is wholly unmusical. Next, he's admitting to failure. Or worse. And while admitting failure to a current or lost love is difficult and therefore super-badass (and wearing your ex's dead ex's boxers is such an admission), admitting it to your mother is the pinnacle. Once you've done that, you can do anything. You can do magic. You can build mountains. You can make an eggplant handsome.

17. The District Sleeps Alone Tonight - The Postal Service (2003)
If singing about weakness and failure is badass, then building an epic synth-pop love song on the loneliness one feels being stuck in the glassy entryways and antiseptic hallways of the "gaudy apartment complex" that houses a love that was painfully (and recently) lost is just a little shy of badass, the bar of difficulty that is set with this subject matter and this genre is high enough that very few people would try to write such a song. Also, the lyrical details one would insert into such a song are strange enough that very few people would even think about such a song. If you created a Venn diagram of the very few who would write and the very few who would think about... you'd get Ben Gibbard who surpasses his entire Death Cab For Cutie output (and future output) with this one awesome song. This is the millennial generation's Bohemian Rhapsody. Its Freebird is coming up soon. Its Smells Like Teen Spirit didn't make the list. Its Maggie May made it to 93. Its Stars of Track and Field made it to 55. And its Stairway to Heaven made it to 34.

16. Out of the Blue - Julian Casablancas (2009)
You may have noticed many songs from 2009 on this list. Is this because I'm listening to more music? Or has it just been a good year? Will I regret putting this song so high when I re-read this list in 2016? I don't know. I just love this song. I just love this year for music. Actually, this is only the 11th song from the current year to make the list. There will be two more. 100 songs... 10 years... that would be an expected value of 10 per year. 11 + 2 = 13.. 13 - 10 = 3. That's merely three songs...just 30% more songs than expected. So yeah it's a good year but let's not start erecting statues of mp3-wielding ne'er-do-wells in the town square just yet.

By the way, this song's opening quatrain is cool and all:
Somewhere along the way my hopefulness turned to sadness
Somewhere along the way my sadness turned to bitterness
Somewhere along the way my bitterness turned to anger
Somewhere along the way my anger turned to vengeance

  ...but it doesn't describe me. For one, I was never overly hopeful and yeah I was sad (am sad? sometimes) but bitterness is a rare emotion for me (or it's one that I can skillfully hide). Anger is fun sometimes and it can easily lead to memorable events in one's life (assuming no real violence accompanies it). Vengeance is something I have never ever known.

15. Rabbit Fur Coat - Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins (2006)

I forgot her. It was at about the 2/3 point of the list that I realized there was no Jenny Lewis on the list. I regrouped the judges (me, myself, and other me) and it was determined that while her two albums are about as good as any full-length genre exercise by a brilliant comely former child star could ever get, only the title track from her debut soared into the zone of true best-of-decade beauty. Slow, subtle, funny, weird.... this song always has at least a couple lines that get me every time. This last time, it was the line that comprises this post's title and the line that two people I know insist is about them: "A lady says to my ma you treat your girl as your spouse." If you have a chance to see Jenny Lewis live, do it - she's got a presence, swagger, denim, and talent. Here's an example, albeit a downbeat solo example:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Greatest Letter to the Editor Ever Written, Part 1 (the part that's not about the letter to the editor)

I checked out the Rolling Stone Top 100 Songs of the Decade list today. Now, my Stone subscription expired some time around my 16th birthday; I've been away from the magazine and its female belly button-obsessed covers for over half my life. But I was trying to figure out how far my tastes had strayed from that of the magazine which, during my formative years, taught me so many important life lessons with its coded language and seemingly off-the-cuff asides by its subversive writers. 

Read any feature article from the 1977-1983 RS era and every sordid rumor you've heard about that odd twitchy era could be found there. Stevie Nicks and her drug problems. Warren Zevon and his codependence issues with women. Steely Dan and their druggy codependence issues with each other, Lindsay Buckingham and his Stevie Nicks problem, etc. - they're all discreetly addressed, usually in an article's last few column inches - the "continued from" sections buried next to the ads for couples-friendly sex toys and the ads for couples-friendly mail order catlalogs in which you could buy sex toys. But if a smart overcurious pubescent Swedgyptian from the Philly suburbs like me could figure out the codes back then, then surely others could. 

(The irony of ME commenting about someone else's "coded language" and irrelevant asides is palpable in its juicy ripeness. So, no need to get all Johari Window on me - remember that the border between the Blind and Open quadrants is a crossable, if one-way, line.)

Let's just say I had a teenaged impression of the rock and roll world - more specificlly, the Los Angeles rock and roll world that Rolling Stone was obsessed with - as a decadent sleazy hellish nadir-land that besmirched all innocents that dared enter its borders. Having lived in the greater L.A. area for 15 of the past 21 years, I can neither confirm nor deny that this description was ever accurate and, if so, whether it still holds true today. I don't work in the music business, nor do I run with the movie/TV crowd, the enabling big brother to the music biz's curious kid sis. I have, however, met a few people who have personal experience and/or run-ins with the celebrity culture - a cast member of a hit NBC sitcom, a former child-actress-turned-painter who apparently is not a lesbian (based on my careful Googling just now), a session musician whose brief appearance on a now out-of-print 1995 album made me want to get to know her better after which I knew her better, a cast member of a hit NBC sitcom from the 90s, and one of the members of L'Trimm (Tigre, not Bunny, if I remember correctly). They all seem like lovely undecadent sorts that wouldn't hurt a naif. 

Where exactly is that Sodomic society, where the lesser bandmates (the bassists usually) were forced to buy the drugs, where housekeepers were hookers and hookers were personal assistants, where the smoother the music (or the more family-oriented the TV series), the rougher the living? I haven't seen any evidence. At the very least, I would have heard stories of such behavior. But even the stories are weak; they're not at all sordid, they're predictable and unsurprising. There are exceptions of course - let's just say that I won't be hanging out with Tom Sizemore anytime soon.

All this makes the editorial policy of Rolling Stone in the late 70s and early 80s - the policy that decreed that the Eagles destroyed rock, that Warren Zevon should only be celebrated for his eccentricity, that Fleetwood Mac's genius was so transient that nobody knew it was there in the first place, that any mention of Los Angeles had to have the words "sunny," warm", and/or "lala land" nearby, and back in RS's home headquarters of New York, that Lou Reed does no wrong - seem like an odd policy built on long-time grudges and blackmailable secrets. This anti-L.A. culture got so ingrained that, in 1978, there was a softball game between the Eagles and Rolling Stone taking place on the baseball field that sits 300 feet or so away from my office. There's no need to click the link; here's what you need to know: the Eagles won 14-8 and Ben Fong-Torres went 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter.

(I started writing this entry because I wondered about how many songs my list and Rolling Stone's list have in common. Now I'm on pace to write more words than anyone has written about anything and I haven't even gotten to the part about the letter to the editor! I'm tired of typing. I need to get in my car and go somewhere. Part 2 will appear soon, as will the remaining 18 songs on the list. Oh - how many songs do we have in common, you want to know? Nine. I thought it would be more like five.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Not About Music

Unless you consider poetry to be music....Because I've got some new poems up on TTBWY, my award-winning blog of verse. Which award, you ask? An imaginary one, bestowed by a cabal of clever men and women who meet quarterly in a former VFW Hall-turned-microbrew-pub in a secret Canadian city. They pore over thousands of internet poems (so you don't have to) and determine a winner on the basis of nothing less than sheer merit. They send the winner (me) a statue of a penguin locking arms (flaps?) with a statue of a penguin. They also send the winner a fancy pen (odd for a web-based poetry award), a membership card (for the clever cabal), and a get-out-of-analogy free card which I will use NOW.

The poems? The one with the years in parentheses in the title was written entirely in a bathroom. I had my laptop with me. I was not there for the typical reason. (Let's just say that until my internet service is turned on in my new place tomorrow, I have to creatively position myself in certain parts of the apartment to "borrow" a signal.) What's it about? A picnic table in 1987 and a picnic in 1997.

The one about the shoelace is seemingly about optimism but read carefully. Never has optimism been so conditional. Still, it's a ray of sunshine compared to some of my spring/early summer stuff.

If you go all the way back to the one I posted on 12/12, then you're a friend of mine. I take a real-life tale of allowing my mother to buy me a couch for Christmas as an excuse to complain about how far I had to drive to have someone buy me a couch... to complain about the heat... god what an ungrateful one I am.

First  things last - the one called Never Been to Hammond is a personal favorite. Unlike other poems (see Honor in a Misnomer, Tenleytown, everything I wrote between 1997 and 2006), I can pretty much explain what every word in every line means. I can explain the art of the line lengths, the math of the fours and the eights and the (hidden) threes. I cover just about every significant moment of my life and a whole bunch of trivial ones but most importantly, I get to write "Never been in a believer's church" (been saving that for a while) and I get to remind myself about Oxnard, beautiful Oxnard.

Where are we on the parentheses count? Nine left ones and nine right ones. It seems like a lot more, doesn't it? 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"We knew you were a dancer when we saw you at the City Center": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 11: #22 - #19

I have a dilemma. I have 22 spots left. I have 24 songs left. I could retroactively push everything down two spots and knock #100 and #99 off the list. The Hold Steady (#100) would survive, their ambitious grandiosity distributed across my list like Dairy Queens on a Midwest interstate - just when you want one, you see it there looming on the horizon and is it one of those Dairy Queens that shuts down in winter? God, I hope not. One fewer Steady song and this list will survive. Craig Finn - he of the short effective signature and the economical yet devastatingly meaningful personal message - will survive. Nick Lowe (#99) would take the news a bit harder. He worked hard on that album. His reinvention as a grey-maned winking wan crooner was a complicated one. Some would say that's what he always was. This edit would push Gravenhurst down to 100 and we could all breathe easier. But that would be asking you - my loyal reader(s) - to edit your own memories and rank everything two spots lower than I asked you to, in paragraph-length entreaties that fell into one of three categories: disturbingly wordy, densely brilliant, or confounding.

No, there will be no numeric changes. To rectify this problem of 24 songs for 22 spots, I am dropping a completely different Hold Steady song, one that I had pegged for the #20 - #16 range. Not because it doesn't deserve the honor but because more glory will be laid upon those 718-by-way-of-612 blokes and that damn little hoodrat of a song in the very near future when my top albums list comes out.

("No more music lists!" you say. Please Ali, write about your work day, write about your relationships, write about YOU. Not to worry - this was the decade of the song, not the decade of the album. That list will not be nearly as long. And in 2010, I will again reconsider the possibility of writing about myself, that bastard enigma that I am.)

To fix the other problem, I will do what the Oscars do when anyone deserving of accolades fails to get nominated or awarded in a volume appropriate for his/her legend. In other words:
Will Oldham aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, I award you the Blueprint Blue Lifetime Achievement Award; you just have to agree to me dropping that one love song you wrote. Think about it - LIFETIME Achievement. Really, you deserve it. Besides, anyone who can give the following quote about his music and its tendency to disturb also deserves my respect (and my fear):
"Because I know what a cocksucker I am, how loathsome I am, and how loathsome most people are. And rather than have someone hate the record because they have discovered it's not what they thought it was, I'd rather go ahead and be, like, 'OK, go ahead and listen to this, but be aware that it's not a clean situation you're getting into; don't cry to me that you're disappointed, because I'm telling you now, it's a nasty business. But enjoy it, please!'" (The Guardian - March 19, 2004)
Now this happens to be the very first BpB Lifetime Achievement Award. And considering that Oldham's moniker of choice, Bonnie "Prince" Billy is essentially initially identical (B 'P' B) to the shortened name of this blog (BpB), I will design the award after you, Mr. Billy. I will commission a sculpture to be made of you - specifically, of the way you look in this photograph:

Okay now that the difficult task is done, let's commence with the list. This is where the dirtiest work gets done - the top of the world, the vista from which only genius can be heard. Let's start with a couple of people who, along with Bonnie "P", could make up 60% of a kickass new version of the Traveling Wilburys.

22. The First of the Gang To Die - Morrissey (2004)
Morrissey has had quite a decade, hasn't he?
  • In 2004, he writes the best song about Los Angeles gang culture that anyone - L.A. native or gangly Brit - could conceive of writing. He nails the pious yet touching romanticism of the dubious fallen heroes of the gang wars (aka the thug life, dba the informal economy).

  • Also in 2004, he sits on a plane next to my friends Monica and Jason as they jet to Mexico for a honeymoon. He is travelling alone. They remain married and are expecting child #2 in that Valhalla of Promised Lands, Madison, Wisconsin.
  • In 2008, his song Everyday Is Like Sunday is used by the NFL Network to sell.... football. If you told me that this would happen back when he was asexually telling shoplifters to unite and hang the DJ, I would have laughed. But then I would have collected my thoughts and reconsidered. Sure, it could happen. A Morrissey song accompanying video images of a brutal masculine sport.
  • After years of being closed and advertising the words "We will rock again" on its marquee, Hollywood's Palladium reopens to something like 14 sold-out Morrissey shows in 2008. 
  • This year, he willingly participates in one of the best album cover photographs ever:

21. Paper Planes - M.I.A. (2008)
You're either with me or against me on this one. After all, I once wrote that this song made me want to marry M.I.A. and you know about my problems with that's saying something. I've actually considered making this song my ringtone. Which is an even bigger commitment than marriage. Not that my phone rings that often. I don't know. Take it away, M.I.A:

20. In Our Bedroom After the War - Stars (2007)
This song is about the end of the world. Or the almost-end of the world. Two people make it through relatively undead and now what? Now they have to move on. Which is to say this song is a metaphor about the end of a relationship. Two people wake up. In THEIR bedroom so you know it lasted a while. They know the war is over. 

What I can't figure out is: Do they both know they're doomed, that one of them is sleeping somewhere else from now on? OR Do they think they've got a shot because the end of the song promises a new beginning - "Here comes the first day!" 

Or is this song really just about the end of the world? Wait... I think it's about Katrina. I'll let you all decide...

...Okay, this is the only version of this song on youtube that gives the full uncut studio version of IOBAtW and it's apparently someone's home-edited tribute to a Grey's Anatomy love story plot. I've never watched Grey's Anatomy - can someone tell me... is it supposed to be a comedy? Actually, given that Sandra Oh starred in a really good end-of-world epic film (Last Night) made by Canadians (just like Stars), this is kind of poetic:

19. 4Dix - Lifter Puller (2001)
Really? This is what you're putting here, Ali? Another song about seamy / possibly nonexistent / romanticized Midwest subculture... another messy song about Nightclub Dwight and 15th&Franklin and the cross-significance of rock and punk? And if you really want to put a punny song about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on your list, what about Prefab Sprout's Love is the 5th Horseman

(Pausing while some one of you listens to Love is the 5th Horseman)

Now you see why, don't you? If you can find it, just listen to the bridge of 4Dix - the way it all comes forward and back and FORWARD again. Listen to the badass female vocalist delivering her sparse lines with the economic precision of Ian McKellan in a Pinter play and the soft strength of freshly served buttermilk pancakes on a cold spring day layered - not slathered - with butter and NO syrup.  Holy crap. This is brilliant. This song is brilliant!

Should this be higher? Top 5 maybe? Am I really putting that Julian Casa-fakename song ahead of 4Dix by LFTR PLLR? The freaking Fruit Bats ahead of the one true song about Jenny's downfall? Maybe even those weak-kneed Norwegians Kings of Convenience in front of a band whose silence between notes could kick their asses back to Bergen? Ali, please reconsider. Don't put this song so low.

(Pausing to reconsider)

No, I'm keeping this song here. Number 19. Not to worry, LP fans - their voice will be heard somewhere in the top 18. As for 4Dix, I can't seem to find a linkable full version of it anywhere. Maybe if you go to and type 4Dix in the search box, they'll give you more than the 30-second sample I got. Or just email me. Or read the lyrics. Or wait patintly and maybe someday I'll play it for you in the car as we cross the Mendota Bridge or the Washington Bridge or the Washington Avenue Bridge or the Continental Divide... or as we cross from Lynwood into Southgate searching for an open KFC.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"And the birds that were crushed... once had air in their bones... as oil was refined in her honor": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 10: #29 - #23

The numbers fall and the songs get bigger, better. These are 7 of my alone songs, the songs I listen(ed) to sitting alone on apartment couches and driving alone in cars somewhere between 5 and 7 years old.

(Clarification: The cars were between 5 and 7 years old. Not me.)

29. Blind - Hercules and Love Affair (featuring Antony) (2008)
Upon first hearing the vocal brilliance of Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, I feared something would happen. Something very particular. I feared that the perfect alien humanity of his voice would eventually be used for commercial and covert purposes by the producers and overlords of that most secretive and sinister of music genres: gay disco. I have nothing (much) against dance music and I am generally neutral toward the repetitive emotionality of its gay branch, its beats made 30% faster because the night doesn't last long enough or because of drugs or both. No, my protective older-brother-to-a-younger-androgynius-sister-I-never-had feelings toward Antony were based on the fact that his tragedies were laid bare purest in the slow stark songs he clearly loved writing. But then I heard his guest vocal on this dance track and yeah the spangled clutchers got him for this one song. This one amazing song. But he was just slumming - in 2009, Antony put out some more lovely slow songs, one of which is still to come on this list.

28. Crazy - Gnarls Barkley (2005)
Was it the spare sane touching lyrics about insanity that did it?
No, but they were nice.

Was it the cover versions by everyone from The Raconteurs to Lil Wayne to Pink to David Gilmour to Violent Femmes to Of Montreal to Adam Lambert?
No, though I appreciate the effort.

Was it the four separate "who do you"s before the "think you are" in verse 4?
No but you're getting closer.

Was it the "ha ha ha bless your soul" in the next line?

Link here.

27. Easy Beat - Dr. Dog (2005)
You will either laugh uncontrollably OR groove unobtrusively as you listen to this song. Did I say OR? I meant AND/OR. Dr. Dog is still the only band that I started listening to solely on the basis of an NPR story.

26. Joan Jett of Arc - Clem Snide (2001)
Look, I know it's a strained pun there in the title. And I know that if each precious lyric was worth a nickel, Eef Barzelay would be rich enough to buy a new white suit every week. But this song makes me happy. And happy is... happy.

25. Black Cowboys - Bruce Springsteen (2005)
If back in 1987, you had told me that Bruce Springsteen would put out 78 original songs in the next 22 years and that my favorite of these 78 would be a spare but intense acoustic tale of a boy named Raney William seeking out televised Westerns and then books about the old west and then eventually books about black cowboys, to fill the void left by an absent father, or perhaps silence the already too-low volume of the man his mom found to take dad's place but then the books opened Raney's eyes and he left his eastern city with its own cowboy dead, their street tributes of flowers and photographs not quite as exciting as the Seminoles and their legends and truths he would eventually find during a cross-America train ride.

If you had told me that in 2009, I would be writing 133-word sentence fragments, I would apologize and move on.

(Listening to this song again - nearly 24 hours after writing this entry - I realize that it may also be about the wreck that crack left in its wake, a severely underwritten topic in songs of any genre, surprising considering the toll it took in many cities.)

24. Hot Soft Light - The Hold Steady (2006) 
The national music press calls Craig Finn a Minneapolis rocker. And yes his teenage freedom songs - most prevalent on 2006's Boys and Girls in America - namecheck plenty of places in that great badass nerd of a city...landmarks like First Avenue, the Grain Belt Bridge (not its real name), the Washington Avenue Bridge (its real name), etc. But what Craig - can I call you Craig? - really nails is the great flat suburban vastness that surrounds Minneapolis and its bratty little sister city St. Paul.

Craig grew up in Edina and has apparently partied in Osseo, Richfield, and Bloomington, among others. I lived in Eden Prairie for a spell from 18 to 22 and a few months at 31 so I knew the suburbs. I can't say that the Hold Steady's tales of suburban (and urban) Minnesota squalor are necessarily accurate but I will say this: If there really is this much criminal mischief and and nudge-wink-knowing-smile goings-on in the winding lake woods and blank prairie of-highways-now-avenues of the suburban Twin Cities, then Craig and his buddies knew where to find it.

I didn't know where to find it. But I've got this song, don't I? This is where the band decides that a chorus isn't such a bad thing and writes one of the best in recent memory.

23. Barely In Love - Q-Tip (2002, 2009)
I heard this song for the first time last week despite it being "released" in some similar form seven years ago. Apparently, everyone heard the leaked form in 2002. And if "everyone" truly meant "everyone" and not just a handful of lost people, then I'd really be looking bad right about now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Panorama City is the Place to Be and I Mean That Unironically": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 9: #30... OR The Night Monica and Jason (Delicately) Betrayed Me

This will not be the norm. I will not relegate every song in my top 30 of the decade to the pressures of occupying its own post. Today I simply want to write about #30. 

(Also - I'm aware of the spacing problems. Too tired to fix them tonight. Maybe tomorrow.)

30. Is This the Single? - The Negro Problem (2002) 
It was a Saturday night in fall 2002. The 28th of September.

I was a married man then, newly re-relocated to Los Angeles. It was my 3rd try at southern California living. Despite my reservations at coming back, I thought it could all work out. More than seven years later, the jury is still out. They went to Hamburger Hamlet for lunch. They may not ever be coming back. But on 9/28/02, I had other concerns.

There was a culture war going on that year. And I feared it would come to a head that night. Two disparate musical artists shared a bill at the Knitting Factory, which had just opened its Hollywood outpost in an attempt to cash in on its New York laurels. It had to be a mistake, I thought, when I first saw that Frou Frou and the Negro Problem would be performing together. That would be like Air Supply and Molly Hatchet sharing a stage in '79. Or, for the younger readers out there, that would be like Atlas Sound and Rihanna performing together at ATP in 2010.

Back to the culture war of 2002. An insidious musical genre called "chillout music" was wielding it's new power stick on the indie FM airwaves and, more frequently, on mix-CDs that party hosts would specifically design to be played during the tail end of the night, when the Trader Joe's dips got warm and the mini-samosas got cold. I was no stranger to this form, having actually purchased a brand new copy of a Zero 7 album in 2001. It was my second biggest regret.

Chillout music had its champions on Santa Monica's KCRW, the all-too-powerful NPR outpost stationed just down 17th street from the next-to-last apartment that I'd be married in. Sure, KCRW would play better stuff, music that I liked. But it was a chore to sit through the Gotan Project and Portishead and even more standard pop fare like pre-good Coldplay just to get my taste of quality Flaming Lips, Stereolab, and pre-bad Badly Drawn Boy. So I listened to my CDs mostly, as I reconnected with being stuck in L.A. traffic

Now, I wasn't opposed to the entire sonic landscape that the chilloutistas favored. I liked some artists whose music could be described using any of the following: smooth, clean, relaxing, trippy, electronic, ambient, etc. I owned a Beth Orton album. I chose a Tricky song as the second of my three wedding songs one year and six days earlier. As recently as today I found myself lost in the delightful sea of Prefab Sprout's YouTube presence, their crisp sheen relaxing my heart rate. But I had a notion then, even more strongly instilled today, that the song and not the specifics of the sound was what counted. A great songwriter and musicians to put it all together, regardless of their ability to chill us out, was what mattered. 
I don't need to be relaxed. I don't need lyrics relegated to the background, or in the case of Moby (born exactly one day after me), lyrics mashed into found relics of a wayward pasture. I'm not afraid of the words. And in the case of Stew, the principal singer and songwriter of the Negro Problem (it's okay; he's black), there exists a man whose precise but unbashful lyrics, blessed by a brave sprawling life lived, music had given me my new best friend.
From 2000's She's Really Daddy Feelgood on Stew's solo debut:
I was sent home to the projects / To polish up your pretext / Email sent by the demon...
Who dig being your rejects / Your shiny black art objects / Spray hieroglyphs of semen
Okay I can't explain it. But I know what it means. It's about a life, a person. It's specific and adaptable. It sits on cluttered beds and thought is given to putting some of the clutter in piles. Three years after Feelgood and one year after Is This the Single?, Stew simplified it all on his 2003 solo album: "Love is a way of life, my love."
It's more than words. Stew and the Negro Problem created a small universe of pop wonder for me, one that stretched over the century's end and still gets me today. Even if Stew is keeping himself way too busy winning Tony awards and pleasing New Yorkers.
Over those years that I listened to his music more than that of any other artist (1998-2002), I never saw him or his band live. In 2001, he finally played in Minneapolis for the first time after I implored him to do so via email. On the day of the show however, I was stuck in Tuscany for a honeymoon and I missed it. My biggest regret.* So imagine my glee when the Welcome Black edition of the Negro Problem would be playing at a good-sized but intimate club. Close to home. On a Saturday night. And I could get the tickets. Yes, my glee was palpable.
Which brings me to Frou Frou, the chill-heavy ambient electronica project of brilliantly monikered British singer Imogen Heap and hard luck producer Guy Sigsworth.** In that fateful fall of '02, I took it upon myself to heap (get it?) every ounce of inner and outer musical dislike on Frou Frou. In my eyes then, they stood for all that was wrong with the new century's cold chilly harmonic reserve. I wondered why the new millennial shift and the 9/11 upheaval were unable to shake up much of the American independent music scene. I feared a culture impressed with Thievery Corporation and a pant suit revival would not be the culture I wanted.

Yes, I'm conveniently forgetting some medium revolutions that occurred back then (Strokes, Stripes) and some infinitesimal ones (Le Tigre). But I have an obscurist thesis to push through. I think I have to accelerate the process. Guy was the scientist. Imogen was the sleek educated lady with the over-reliance on breathing in audibly, then breathing out more audibly. I hated their music. I cringed as I watched the Frou Frou fans joyously pretending to dance in rhythm as the Negro Problem fans drank domestic beers and talked a little too loud. I was sick of standing. I wanted the headliner to hit the stage. I wanted all to be good. I wanted the chillouters to have second thoughts. It seemed like we could get through this war without any serious battles. Then she pulled out the cowboy hat.
Imogen located the cowboy hat (not the one pictured; imagine something twice as large) between songs, not far from the stage. She placed it on her head awkwardly and sang the last few songs posed like that - poised, balanced, in control, a Limey cowgirl claiming victory. Even before Stew and the guys and the girls hit the stage, the KCRW crypt keepers pumped their collective ineffective fist.
Then the talentless hacks of Frou Frou, with their high-end microphones and tumbleweeding synths - a pale bearded man and a wrinkle-free woman - strode off haughtily, unaware that their performance was a truly horrible thing.
The between set delay was longer than usual but I still didn't see it coming. From the looks in their eyes, it was clear that it was Monica's idea to leave. but Jason had no real investment in staying at the club. I witnessed the hippest couple in South Pasadena leaving before the good stuff started, perhaps unaware that they had just traded art for chilloutery. And to think: Jason and Monica met and fell in love in art school.
I could mention that the Negro Problem opened with Father Popcorn and set the motherfucking room on fire - confident, controlled fire but fire nonetheless. Stew sang about how he had no intention of putting any of us in a "pop coma." Soon after, as the band prepared to launch into the potsmoker epic Lime Green Sweater, Stew became the first performer I've ever seen to openly ask the audience for drugs:  "Don't give me weed in bags. I want loose joints. L.A. might be home but we're on tour and I don't have time to roll." The audience laughed at his audacity. People handed him envelopes. Eventually he sang this song, the one I put at #30: Is This the Single? Despite its catchiness and rollicking forward motion, this would not be the single. The Negro Problem didn't have recognizable singles; that was Frou Frou's scene.  (Yes, I'm aware that Frou Frou was just the opener and that 40% of you have never heard of them.)

Postscript: Both Frou Frou and The Negro Problem never record again as bands. They never tour again. Imogen Heap and single-named Stew continue on their bumpy roads to mild to medium stardom. Stew's musical Passing Strange wins a Tony. "Chillout" as an adjective disappears from the language. 'Chill' is still around, trying to sell itself as noun, verb, adverb, and adjective all at once. One of this will stick, maybe two, and no more.
This means the Negro Problem and all good artists won the culture war. He spends most of his time in New York. Which means he probably gave the place up in Panorama City, the place that everyone forgets. (Admit it: You heard of it years ago. You forgot about it until today.)
Monica and Jason get married. They have a lovely daughter and move to the promised land, Madison, Wisconsin. Laurel and I correct this imbalance and get divorced. 
The Knitting Factory just losed its doors and is looking for a new location. Rock and roll and Fresh and Easy don't go together. KCRW plays much better music these days. 
I forced myself to listen to some Frou Frou sngs for this piece and yeah they're not all that bad... not good but not bad. It could have been worse. It could have been Dido.

* Just kidding Laurel

** "Hard luck" in the sense that Sigsworth has worked with Britney Spears AND Zach Braff.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I've been borrowing images on both of my blogs lately from another site... which is gleefully borrowing images from the universe. Check out In a Dream House which appears to be the page of musician Kid A, a young woman from Virginia. The page contains a bunch of images that, taken together, are pretty mind-blowing... and strange and ecstatic and clever.

You'll find - as of today - 8,670 images. You can load them 50 at a time, instead of individually, here. If you're a child of the 80s,. you'll love it even more. (I'm a child of the 70s, with a bit of the 90s thrown in.) And Kid A's music is pretty great too.

"We're off to the land of hot middle-aged women": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 8: #35 - #31

Reading the AV Club's Top 50 Films of the decade list has gotten me feeling a bit down. How did we go from the 1990s - with at least 20 great films, 3 of which are in my all-time top 5 - to the 2000s and its stunning lack of cinematic greatness? This is something I never do: I never bemoan the present and go on and on about how things used to be better. In movies, music, literature, and every other art form except album cover art, things have always gotten better with time. Until now. Until film in the last 10 years. Make that 11 years; 1999 wasn't all that great. I 'm not declaring "film is dead." It has survived other difficult times - 1986, for example. But in a decade that may be the best in TV and music... in a decade that has held its own in fiction and non-fiction literature... one art form has not been holding its own and it's you, cinema. There were three great films in the last 10 years. On the linked list, they appear at #4, #3, and #1 (brave choice). I wish I could explain what it is about movies that I find less than inspiring. Is it "rejected screenwriter" bitterness? No, rejection is nothing new to me. Is it the ubiquity of Edward Norton? Yeah, that's it.

But this is supposed to be about music.

35. Hello 2morrow - Moodymann (2008)
This is a dance song. I generally don't dance. At least not with my body, with my feet. I dance in my mind. My thoughts get sweaty but my body stands still against the wall in the darkened nightclubs (only 3 of which I have visited this decade). If I were to dance with my feet, with my body, this is the song I would dance to. A mysterious veteran Detroit DJ reappears every few years, exciting the few people who have been waiting for him. Frustrating the new fans who take forever to figure out that maybe he was spelling 2morrow in a freaky special way.. By the way, this song's lyrics are essentially comprised of the following: "...Talking about Leo. Talking about Aries....And Canc-ah... And all you Scorpios....Hello 2morrow...Goodbye yesterday" and so on. Enjoy. I bet you will.

34. New Slang - The Shins (2001)
I know people who hate this song more than they hate hybrid meter maid/tow-truck drivers. I know people who would rather massage Dick Cheney than listen to this song. Granted, it gets knocked down 13 notches for being featured in Garden State, the worst movie of the decade and nearly the most awful two hours of my life. But there was a time when I worked at the school district office in downtown Los Angeles. My parking space was four levels underground and radio stations couldn't be heard as soon as I entered the garage. I could only listen to CDs or silence for that spiraling trip down. So, for a few weeks, I listened to New Slang every day as I descended into the pits of the garage. It would inspire me to be good, to be strong that day, to change the system or at least create something wonderful. Why did this song stir these feelings in me? It pretty much came to one of the best first lines I can remember "Gold teeth and a curse for this town." Strangely, that line line never made me think of L.A.

33. Tennessee - Silver Jews (2001)
I'll just repeat what I always say about this song:
Goodbye all you suckers and steady bad-luckers
We're off to the land of club soda unbridled
We're off to the land of hot middle-aged women
We're off to the land whose blood runneth orange
Nitpick if you will about the concept of land bleeding. But that's a stanza for the ages if there ever was one and the third line might be the most poetic thing anyone has ever said about any state. Just think about it. They are hot. And if you're looking for a good Christmas present for a person who likes poetry, head Jew David Berman's book of poetry Actual Air is worth the effort it will take finding it. There's actually a poem called Community College in the Rain. I could write a movie about those five words.

32. You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes (And You Get What You Deserve) – Johnny Boy (2004)

I'm not sure if they're singing to me. I have too many shoes. Or if they're singing to the generation after mine. I'm sure they have even more shoes. No matter - that's an evocative title if there ever was one. I can't understand a damn word they're singing but wow it's catchy. Listen here (embedding disabled).

31. Buriedfed - Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson (2008)
If you're someone who was promised a mix CD by me in the past 18 months AND I have not (yet) delivered on said mix CD, this would have been the opening track. So yeah I would have remained an enigma.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Of Kabobs, Zorro, and Fonts

I have a new poem and a new design on my poetry blog. Regarding the poem, Tenleytown, the "I" in the poem is not necessarily me and the title refers to a neighborhood - and subway stop - in Washington, DC. Tenleytown seems like kind of a low-key place. The Tenleytown Wikipedia page is short on detail and lacking in meaningful history and not much seems to be going on. Apparently, one of the most important things people want you know about Tenleytown is that "A kabob restaurant called the 'Hungry Tiger' has opened there in the past year." Let's compare that to a recent development of some other non-randomly chosen town's Wikipedia page. I'll look up the page of Doylestown, PA (my "home"town): "...a masked figure known as Naked Zorro made news by flashing several women late at night on the streets of the Doylestown Borough....The event caused unrest among Bucks County residents...Naked Zorro's story remains veiled in mystery to this day."  I vote for Doylestown.

Regarding the redesign of the poetry blog. the pink might seem scary at first but I've never been happier about how take the body with you looks. It's always seemed like the neglected cousin of the blog family, the one that shows up every few weeks and you just don't want to bother because of the poor layout. 

Speaking of blog appearances, I appreciate the addition of Helvetica to the Blogger font family. It's not just because I saw that cool documentary about Helvetica a couple of years back. it's not just because of the font's clean lines and lack of fear about being tall and strapping. It's not just because the other fonts Blogger offers are disappointing: Verdana is nice in theory but falls apart when asked to do too much (bold, italic, etc.); Trebuchet looks nice on the small screen (iPhone) but on a standard computer screen, the odd spacing between letters is frustrating and it's easy to imagine those letters yearning - screaming - to be closer together, especially in winter; and the serifed fonts - Times, Georgia, Courier - still feel stuck in the 20th century, their winged flourishes mired in a Clintonian white paper in some locked file cabinet in the back of an office storage room and no one can find the key (to the cabinet, not the storage room). Serifs might come back in fashion but we're still waiting for someone to invent the font which will guide its return.

(Note: The last sentence went through various permutations, each with forced analogies and strained metaphors. The phrases "font train" and "super kerning machine" were actually considered. In the end, I went straightforward.)

(Note: Yes, I didn't even bother mentioning Arial. And I like Arial.)

I actually don't know if the Helvetica addition and two other added features in Blogger - easy to control colored text and a strikethrough button - are new or I just think they're new because I accidentally changed some setting during my famed November 29 redesign. Just know that I intend to overuse them. And look what I just found: text background colors!

Other news: I'm moving again. Three blocks from where I'm living now. $145 cheaper. 40% larger. 75% nicer/cooler. The move will begin in earnest in the next week or two, building toward completion on the weekend before Christmas.