Friday, January 4, 2008

Finn (2007)

In honor of my new son, Finn, I have compiled a selection of songs about babies.

Track 1: When A Man Needs A Woman
From the Beach Boys' 1968 album Friends. The song pretty much says it all.

Track 2: Embryonic Journey
From Jefferson Airplane's 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow. I remember listening to this instrumental when I was first discovered this album, I loved it then as I do now.

Track 3: Gold Mother
From James' 1990 album Gold Mother. Although I don't really like this song as much as the others in this mix, I had to include it because they mention "meconium".

Track 4: In Metal
From Low's 2001 album Things We Lost In The Fire. Beautiful song about wanting to preserve the sweetness of a newborn for all eternity.

Track 5: Beautiful Boy (Acoustic)
Originally from John Lennon & Yoko Ono's 1980 album Double Fantasy, this version is a demo acoustic. I (try to) sing this to Finn at night when he is fussy.

Track 6: Stay Up All Night
From Talking Heads' 1985 album Little Creatures. Just a song by a wonderful band that seems to be able to write great songs about everything.

Track 7: Kooks
Originally from David Bowie's 1971 album Hunky Dory, this cut is from Bowie At the Beeb (recorded between 1968-1972). Apparently written while at home listening to Neil Young records waiting for the call from the hospital to tell him the news of his child's birth.

Track 8: St. Judy's Comet
From Paul Simon's 1973 album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. I have always wanted to learn how to play this song on the guitar so that I might someday play it for my son. I haven't learned it yet, but now I have an audience.

Track 9: Living Proof
From Bruce Springsteen's 1992 album Lucky Town. It sometimes takes me a few listens before I can hear all of Springsteen's lyrics, so you can read them here. This song is so close to my path through the darkness that it hurts my heart to listen to, but I do because it is so perfect and powerful. (Thanks Laine)

Track 10: The Baby Tree
From Paul Kanter & Jefferson Starship's 1970 album Blows Against The Empire. Consider this wonderfully silly song a bonus track. Paul Kanter and Grace Slick had a baby together around the time of this album.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

No Music Day

I heard Bill Drummond (most notably of the British avante garde pop group KLF) talking last night on NPR about his relationship to music and why he started the No Music Day. I have also found an article from the NY Times that is an interesting read for more information. It turns out that No Music Day is specifically on November 21st because this day is the eve of the day of Saint Cecelia, who is the patron saint of musicians and music. So, my fellow audiophiles, turn your music off if it is on, keep it off if it is isn't, and think about how truly amazing music is in our lives on this annual day of music-fasting. Oh, and check out No Music Day's website for more information and to post your pledge and/or comment.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

2112 (1976)

Occasionally I wonder why I am keeping this blog since there are so many places to read album reviews already and especially when most of the albums have been around longer than I have. I mean, I wasn't even born when Rush's 2112 was released in 1976. After wondering this question recently, I decided that what I am most interested in writing about on this blog are all the things about certain albums and musicians that most people don't know about. Quirky things, you know? Well, I think I have found some good stuff this time.

The thing about Rush's 2112 for me is that I never really listened to it until just recently. Although I generally love prog rock and certainly appreciate Rush's talented lineup and music, I have really only listened to a small sample of their music over the years. 2112 was the Canadian prog-rockers fourth studio recorded album. It's original release on vinyl featured the eponymous 7-part suite on one side and the rest of the album's non-thematically related cuts on the other side. Given that the majority of this album is a concept piece and a core classic one at that, I am amazed that I have overlooked it for so long. What really shocks me though is that the concept of "2112" is about a dystopian society, which is a genre of fiction that I most enjoy reading. Hearing this album was a good reminder for me that there is always going to be something that I will come across and be unexpectedly enthused about.

First off, the songs on this album that are not part of the "2112" suite are not particularly noteworthy with the exception of the last track "Something For Nothing." In fact, you might want to avoid them if you are not already a Rush fan. Interestingly with "Something For Nothing", drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart saw some graffiti on the wall while driving to a show in LA that said, "freedom isn't free," which inspired his lyrics for this album's closer. This song is a fine example of what should be expected lyrically and instrumentally from this trio.

That said, let's get on to the heart of this album, "2112". Clocking in at 20:37, "2112" was inspired by Ayn Rand's novella Anthem. The seven part story of "2112" tells of a man, Anonymous, whose life is controlled by the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx. We begin with an overture depicting a planetary war resulting in the ultimate galactic rule by the Federation. The second movement sets the stage for us, complete with some serious drumming by one of the greats, Neil Peart. We learn that the Federation's Priests dictate what people read, hear, and watch all in the name of the Red Star of the Federation. If you pay attention to how bassist and vocalist, Geddy Lee, sings this song, you will notice that he tells the story using his two different singing "voices". Lee can sing in an interesting, high-pitched, screechy voice that he uses to represent the voices of the Priest of the Temple of Syrinx. His other "softer" voice tells the story of the protagonist. Knowing that Lee uses these two voices to represent different tellers characters in this tale makes it easier to understand the story as it is told over the course of this song. Many a would-be fan of Rush has been turned away by Geddy Lee's unique vocal styles. Hence, Rush is one of those bands where people either become fans or decidedly not fans at all. In the third movement, our protagonist discovers an "ancient miracle" in a cave behind a waterfall. (Notice the guitar tuning and the bubbling watery sounds at the beginning of this part?) The "miracle's" strings vibrate and create beautiful sounds when strummed. Enthused by this strange device, he decides to bring this guitar to the Priests so that he can show them what new beautiful music can be made and share it with all the people. In part four, the Priest's respond to our protagonist's guitar solo in Peart's lyrics:

"Yes, we know it's nothing new
It's just a waste of time
We have no need for ancient ways
The world is doing fine

Another toy will help destroy
The elder race of man
Forget about your silly whim
It doesn't fit the plan


Don't annoy us further
We have our work to do
Just think about the average
What use have they for you?

Another toy will help destroy
The elder race of man
Forget about your silly whim
It doesn't fit the plan"

Guitar now smashed, our downtrodden protagonist begins to realize the extent of the wonders lost by the Federation's rule. In part five, Anonymous falls into a dream wherein he visits with an oracle who shows him the land of the elders and foretells of the them returning to defeat the Federation and crush its Temples. Upon waking from his vision, our protagonist can no longer stand life and kills himself in hopes that he might be transported to the place he visited with the oracle. Not to fret though because the final part of "2112" brings the repeating message: "Attention all planets of the solar federation...We have assumed control." (And there was much rejoicing).

Alas, that is not even the best part. While perusing the Internet, I found a site dedicated to the synchronization of "2112" with the original Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, much like the synchronization of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. It is definitely interesting and have since watched it three times. I have included a link below to the clip from the movie that has "2112" synchronized already, but it is difficult to get an impression of this peculiar synchrony because the soundtrack from the movie overlaps "2112". My suggestion: download the "2112" file at the bottom of this entry, cue up the clip provided as per the instructions found here, and see for yourself.

My favorite parts are when Wonka is shaking hands and especially when Mike Teevee points his toy gun at Wonka. Notice what's going on when Lee says, "...and the meek shall inherit the Earth". One last note and then I will let you discover the rest on your own: make sure to turn the sound up on the videoclip when Wonka goes to play the little keyboard to unlock the door to his factory--this happens right at a movement change in the suite. Oh oh, ok last note: notice the sounds of the waterfall mentioned earlier in the third movement. That's it, see/hear for yourself. Once you have checked it out, look here.

Rush - 2112

Monday, November 5, 2007

audio files

Thanks to my dear friend and fellow musical connoisseur, Liam, I now have a way to upload music to this blog free through a service called Media Fire. In the next few days, I will be going back to my previous posts and updating them with downloadable .mp3 links. Hope you enjoy. Thanks for keeping me up to date once again, Liam.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


I have no idea how many of you are still with me now that it has been so long since I posted last. I am weeks away from finishing my senior thesis. When done, my life will be freer than it has been in years. Of course, then our baby will be arriving soon after so my life will promptly get busy again. I have been thinking of posting a podcast of music about children, having children, why children are so much better than school, anything children, so if any of you have any suggestions, let me know. This is what I have so far, Jefferson Airplane's "Embryonic Journey", Low has "In Metal", and then there is Paul Kantner and Grace Slick's "A Child Is Coming".

Thursday, April 19, 2007

33 1/3 series

I have been reading pieces from the 33 1/3 series over the past couple weeks. It appears that the aim of this series is to devote each book to a single album. The authors range from scholars to musicians, such as Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. There is a decent blog for this series that can be searched for comments and reviews on specific books from the series. I had heard from numerous sources that the series was very hit and miss, but having liked the two that I have read so far, I can't say really. I was in Harvard Square a couple weeks ago and ventured into the Harvard Bookstore to check out which books from the series they had and ended up talking to a fellow there who has reportedly read 42 books so far. I asked him what he recommended and if he had also found the series to be inconsistent, to which he replied that it depended on what I was looking for from the books. Fair enough. These books are only about 150 pages or so each, so I think if you don't expect a major piece of heavily researched work here, you won't be too disappointed. Some of the books are mostly anecdotal, others more researched with interviews, and others still more referential, such as LD Beghtol's field guide to the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. So far I have read Ric Menck's book on The Byrds' The Notorious Byrd Brothers and the series' oddball novella by John Niven inspired by The Band's Music from Big Pink.

The piece on The Notorious Byrd Brother was the first of the series that I read and I found it to be a perfect blend of the authors anecdotes, history of the band, history of the making of the album, and a song by song critique of the album. I stayed up late one night finishing the book with my headphones on, reading Menck's commentary on each song and trying to identify aspects of the songs he was pointing out. I had previously thought that the Byrds' Fifth Dimension was their best album, but after really sitting and focusing on listening to the lyrics and the instrumentation more than I had before, I definitely see why this album is so significant. The studio effects produced for this album by Gary Usher are tremendous and, at the time, innovative. I am embarrassed to admit that I had not even noticed that the songs blend seamlessly into one another on this album until I read this book. One last thing, Ric Menck includes commentary on bonus songs that can be found on the most recent CD release of this album. This commentary includes a note about an intense 7 minute recording at the end of the album where you can listen to the band, especially Clarke and Crosby, get into one of the arguments that had been brewing for some time, which eventually led to Crosby leaving the Byrds. I am including this track with this entry, though you will have to skip to about the midway point (~6:41) to hear the Byrds' argument.

In contrast, the next book I read was John Niven's novella, which is the first of its kind in the 33 1/3 series so far. There are plenty of reviews of this story, so I am not going to say much here. (There is talk about making Niven's story into a film. ) I will admit that I would have preferred to read about Music From Big Pink in the same manner that I read about The Notorious Byrd Brothers . That not being the case though, the novella was still informative and, though fabricated, left me feeling more of an intimate connection with the Band through their fictitious drug-dealer than I imagine I would have received through a historically factual account of the Band during the making of their first album. Well, I guess that is a flimsy statement to make, though I nonetheless enjoyed reading John Niven's work. The story felt to me to be less concerned with learning about the Band via the narrator's connections and more about the relationship the narrator had with the music on the album. There are countless snippets of lyrics that continue to conjure memories for me, whether by their apt descriptions of relationships or events in my life or simply from having been the music in the back ground while driving down the road. Certain songs from Music From Big Pink remind me of spending time in New York state amidst a confusing relationship with an old friend who introduced me to the Band at her mother's house out in the country. Other tracks remind me of driving highway 81 along Virginia's Shenandoah mountains years ago alone in my white pickup truck on my way to my home in the North Carolina mountains. At it's heart, I take Niven's story to be about these sort of connections we make with albums.

So, if you're tired of waiting for my half-assed, inconsistent album reviews, I suggest you check out the 33 1/3 series. If you do, write a comment on this entry and let me know what you think of those you've read.

The Byrds - Universal Mind Decoder (Instrumental) [+ argument]

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Drums And Guns (2007)

This is the eighth full-length album by Duluth, MN's soporific Low. I saw them play last Saturday with my wife and brother-in-law. I have seen this band during four of their last five tours and they are well worth seeing live, especially in a theater where you can sit down. I was first introduced to Low through my now long-lost friend Kai Benson. During my first attempt at college back in 1999, Kai and I bonded over coffee, cigarettes, 40's, the sweet, sweet soulful pining of misters Marvin Gaye and Al Green, and such painfully beautiful, minimalist music as Low.

Low is a trio consisting primarily of a Mormon couple, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. They have had three bassists since their first album in 1994. The visual pinnacle of this band's minimalism is seeing Mimi Parker standing behind her drum kit on stage: a simple floor tom, snare and cymbal. What I was told about Low when introduced to them was that they emerged onto the music scene when, in Duluth, loud, fast-paced grunge and punk rock dominated the music scene. The creation of Low was a response to this scene. Sometimes referred to as slow-core, Low is indeed quite a contrast to the tempos of grunge and punk rock, but I prefer to label Low as minimalist and harmonic. Lyrically, Low's songs are often poignant and tragically beautiful regardless of whether the content is sweet or dismal. For me, the most charming aspect of this band are the vocal harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker; man, these two have got it. Seeing and hearing these two sing together on a song is devastating. They do have quite a few songs that reference Christian themes, but let this not be a deterant. The members of Low are Christian (well, at least Sparhawk and Parker), but Low is not Christian rock. (They do have a really wonderful Christmas EP though).

I had intentionally not listened to Drums And Guns before the Low concert because I wanted to hear their new music live for the first time. I must say that I was not so pleasantly surprised when I first heard their new songs. Low's previous tour for their album, The Great Destroyer, was the only tour I haven't caught since they released Secret Name in 1999. Once I got home from the concert, I realized that I needed to go back and listen this last effort by Low. As soon as I did, I recalled that when I last listened to The Great Destroyer it didn't speak to me in the same way that Low's earlier work has. I think I had maybe listened to it a couple times when it came out in 2005, but have otherwise not paid any attention to it since. This is relevant to my critique of Drums And Guns because it was on The Great Destroyer that their sound really changed. Low has always had at least one or two faster paced, "heavier" songs on their albums, but The Great Destroyer really marks a shift toward the opposite ratio. Dave Fridmann produced both The Great Destroyer and Guns And Drums, which is quite obvious because these two albums do not sound to the Auricle reminiscent of the rest of Low's catalogue.

Drums And Guns retains the moody yet beautiful, simple sound that I have come to love from Low a bit better than it's predecessor. However, there is more of an inclusion of electronica on this album, which feels out of place for this band. There was a point during the concert when, in between songs, Alan Sparhawk played a looped recording of, presumably, one of his children singing the lines "you make me happy, when skies are gray" from "You Are My Sunshine," which I thought was sweet and lovely; just the sort of thing Low would include in their set.

I want this album to be more of Low's stark indie rock hymnals, but it isn't. It just isn't. It's sad, dark and moody, but not the Low I love. There are a lot of looped samples and, as I mentioned before, electronica that just doesn't feel right. To me, Low sound is definitively sparse and when this sort of ambient accoutrement and rhythmic layering is added, the result is a fuller sound but not, by far, nearly as intimate. And that's what this album lacks for me. It's the intimacy that conjures images in my mind of my future children falling to sleep listening to Low. I mean, this is a band that, at one time, made white pillow cases with mare tranquilitatis (sea of tranquility) embroidered in light blue along the opening.

The lyrics for this album just aren't up to par either. The song "Hatchet" is a real low (no pun intended) point on this album; this song should not have even made it onto the album. Also the song "Dragonfly", which I think instrumentally is one of the better songs on the album, but the lyrics are ridiculous. It seems like Low is regressing back into embarrassingly bad teenage poetry.

I can't decide what song to include with this review. I am tempted to put "Lion-Lamb" from Secret Name, which is the song they played after taking requests from the audience, stating that it needed to be played because it was Easter weekend. This is tricky because I want any of you readers who do not already know Low to hear what it is that has made me love them, which is not anything from Drums And Guns. What to do? Well, I'll do "Dragonfly" so long as we pay attention only to the sounds of the words being sung and not the words themselves. If you need to be properly introduced to Low, listen to Secret Name or Things We Lost In The Fire and go back to their beginning from there.

Low - Dragonfly