That was 2015: My End of Year Mixtape, Volume 2

A double-album required a double-post, so here is the conclusion of my mixtape commentary. You can read the first part here.

  1. Sheer Mag, “Fan the Flames” 
    A few tracks back I mentioned that Royal Headache’s second album suffered from its clean production. This – what these Phillie freaks have going on, that glorious SCUZZINESS – is what I am talking about. Back in the day caring about lyrics meant you were a folkie or a crooner, and that ain’t rock n roll.
  2. Bully, “Reason”
    Yep. Two Bully tracks. They deserve it. Hell here’s a whole concert. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
  3. Mikal Cronin, “Turn Around”
    I was introduced to this guy at this year’s Treasure Island Music Festival. Great power-pop songwriting, really good live band.
  4. The I Don’t Cares, “King of America”
    “So, they sort of sound like, if Paul Westerberg and, like… Juliana Hatfield had a band?” Well, that’s because for some reason this actually IS Paul and Juliana, although she isn’t exactly prominent on this track. Curious to hear the whole album.
  5. Florence & the Machine, “What Kind of Man”
    Been a fan since her first singles hit America. This song reminds me of The Cult but I cannot figure out why.
  6. Sharon Van Etten, “I Don’t Want to Let You Down”
    The Queen of the Sad Bastards. Exquisite.
  7. Ryan Adams, “Style” 
    Ah, the indie music media storm of the year. And I still haven’t listened to the original album. Hey, good songwriting is good songwriting, and both the coverer and coveree in this situation know what that is. 
  8. Josh Ritter, “Getting Ready to Get Down” 
    Such a smart, fun songwriter. I still think his high points were 2006’s “The Animal Years” and 2007’s “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” but the new album has some solid tracks on it.
  9. The Frames, “None But I” 
    It was fitting to put the Frames next to Josh Ritter, since they discovered him at an open mic in Rhode Island and convinced the Idahoan to move to Ireland where he first found success. I’ve been despairing of new Frames music for a long time, since singer Glen Hansard appeared in “Once,” won an Oscar and so forth. But they at least gave us a retrospective album this year, and this is one of the new recordings on it. Not the best Frames track, but even middlin’ Frames music is better than most.
  10. Father John Misty, “Bored in the USA”
    I caught FJM at the Treasure Island Festival this year, and I think I get what he’s at. The costume, the false-feeling camaraderie with the fans, etc. He’s subverting the whole Laurel Canyon coked out rockstar thing, right? In any case, this is a bold song. The laugh track cinches the deal.
  11. The Dodos, “Two Ships”
    Another installment from the Polyvinyl 4-Track Singles Series Vol. 2 but one that I can actually find a link to! These guys really took their sound in a different direction on this track, and the crunchy old synth outro seemed like a great lead in to…
  12. Chvrches, “Never Ending Circles”
    I’ve written about Chvrches before, so I won’t repeat myself. Just couldn’t pick one song so here’s 3. Also caught their set at Treasure Island and dammit they can do it live too. Such a great band.
  13. Chvrches, “Leave a Trace”
  14. Chvrches, “Clearest Blue” 
  15. Greg Dulli, “A Crime” 
    The Savior of Misbehavior covering the Queen of the Sad Bastards? Yes please! Frankly Dulli covering anyone is worth listening to.
  16. Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color”
    And now we start to ease ourselves towards the exit. What an undeniable voice (she also fronts Thunderbitch who appeared somewhat more raucously earlier in the mix), and although I am normally anti-vibes and anti-xylophone; just anti- any instrument the playing of which involves a mallet, really – this is a nice groove.
  17. The Black Ryder, “Throwing Stones”
    It was hard to pull a single song of this album, which is really all one big, dark highway run. It takes me back to the first Mazzy Star album and that’s never a bad thing.
  18. Crooked Fingers, “The Old Temptations”
    Yep, a THIRD entry from Polyvinyl’s 4-Track Singles Series. Go Polyvinyl! I even didn’t hate the Deerhoof single that was included. Hmmm. I just realized that this track has some mallet-involved instrument on it. Problematic…
  19. William Fitzsimmons, “Pittsburgh” 
    Don’t know much about this guy other than he has a mighty beard and a nice turn of phrase. Basically I figured anyone with the stamina to make it through the entire mix would probably need a rest, and this song, while really good, makes me sleepy.

And we’re done. Happy New Year, y’all.  Hope to get back to regular posting this month (and no that is not a resolution).



That was 2015: My End of Year Mixtape, Volume 1

For the last several years I’ve put together a mix on CD (I know, so 1999) for family and friends, had the kids decorate cardboard sleeves, and hand them out around Christmastime. Some years they had a theme of some sort (one year every song had something to do with dreams, for example; that was kind of a pain in the ass to curate); some years I used Toast Titanium to bleed & mix the tracks into each other, and sometimes I just went with my most listened-to tracks of the ending year.

This year I missed my deadline, but will persevere. I’ve shared a slightly mutilated version of the mix on Google Play already, but CD copies are being made (it’s a double album this year!), cardboard sleeves have been ordered, and while I put this all together why not share some thoughts on the songs included? Continue reading “That was 2015: My End of Year Mixtape, Volume 1”

Weiland: The Roof Brought Him Down

When I saw that Scott Weiland had died, I wasn’t really expecting to feel much, and I didn’t. I have honestly been expecting to hear that he had died for the last fifteen-plus years, since over that time period I’ve to see a lot more headlines about his arrests and stints in rehab than about his musical output. I stopped reading articles with Weiland’s name in the headline a long time ago for that exact reason. But I always turn up the radio when “Vaseline” or “Interstate Love Song” comes on.

I always thought STP got a bad break critically, initially due to the misfortune of releasing “Plush” as one of their first singles right when Pearl Jam was blowing up and, let’s be honest, he sounded a LOT like Eddie V. on that track.

So they got lumped into the grungepile despite the fact that by their second album they showed themselves to be a much more versatile band than that categorization allowed. They often eschewed big guitar solos, went in for interesting song structures and really had an ear for a good, tight pop song. This versatility gave us some of the great rock singles of the mid-90’s and at the same time probably denied them from the long-term super-fans that their nemeses Pearl Jam got by finding their formula and riding it into the flannel-hued sunset. They lacked the consistency of sound that brings those fans that will buy your albums unheard.

Those that paid attention also discovered that Weiland was quite the vocal chameleon, able to do that Veddery moan but also the punk sneer, the Morrison-esque croon, whatever the DeLeo Brothers’ compositions required. Plus he had that dangerous, who-kn0ws-what-he’ll-do quality that really good frontmen often have. Part of that was natural talent; part was stagecraft. And part of it was the drugs.

The drugs. I am probably sticking my hand in the fire here but fuck it, it’s not like I have advertisers to worry about. When it comes to music, for the most part I adhere to Bill Hicks’ controversial but difficult-to-deny theory that drugs and art go great together. They’re not essential or even useful for everyone, they don’t excuse anything, but they’re as intertwined with rock and roll as Gibson Les Pauls and ridiculous haircuts. Sometimes they’re a key component. Perry Farrell hasn’t released a listenable piece of music since he got sober, and now he doesn’t even have drugs to excuse the fact that he’s an intolerable twat. Aside from the obvious fact that one is a musical genius and the other couldn’t songwrite himself out of a paper bag, there are at least three other reasons why Keith Richards is a far more interesting person than Gene Simmons: Jack Daniels, Marlboros and heroin. Would Johnny Cash have become the Man In Black without the Dexedrine? Would Sgt. Pepper exist if Dylan hadn’t smoked out the Beatles? One of David Bowie’s most critically acclaimed albums was recorded when he was so fucking zooted on cocaine that he literally cannot remember a single second of making the goddamn thing.

There’s no need to feel guilty about enjoying that music, and thus condoning that behavior. We’re not built to take the weight of individual stranger’s problems onto our shoulders; I’m not talking about shirking our duties as a neighbor or a citizen, I’m talking about not involving our psyches in the life choices of some person you will almost certainly never meet whose record we dig. If you deny yourself the pleasure of engaging with art made by anyone who does drugs or makes poor life choices or does unpleasant things or is simply an asshole you’re just going to spend your life trying to enjoy really shitty art.

I don’t know the exact ups and downs of Weiland’s attempts at sobriety and how it coincided with his various musical projects over the last couple of decades and that doesn’t really matter; I don’t need to know and I don’t need to care. I’ve never listened to a Velvet Revolver song and I had no idea he even had another new band until I read his obituary today. And honestly, anyone who’s a genuine music fan has to admit that the only reason anyone gave a shit about Velvet Revolver was that it gave them a chance to hear two good musicians do fucking SOMETHING even though they couldn’t do what we actually wanted them to do, which was be in the great bands they started out with. That or they were mildly curious to hear about the latest drug-fueled escapade that Weiland got himself mixed up in. That second part IS something to feel guilty about if you participated in it, because that’s about celebrity schadenfreude bullshit, not art.

I don’t know what any of this means. The last new good thing I can remember hearing from him was a track called “Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down” and it was released in 1998. I liked that song a lot. It was Weiland in Morrison mode, a sloppy drunken waltz with a string section and accordions and all kinds of kitchen sink shit, plus a nice late-Beatles nothing of a chorus. It wasn’t a hit, but it was a good track and I listened to it a lot back then. He was talented, and he apparently did a lot of drugs, and he was in a really good band twenty years ago. Now he’s dead. I don’t know if he was a good person at heart; that’s for the people that actually knew him to celebrate or contemplate as the case may be. For me, I’ll still turn up the radio when “Vaseline” or “Interstate Love Song” comes on. What else should I do?

The Stack: Ziggy and Janis and Rod and the Zep

Another – very very late and kind of short – installment in my ongoing series.

I had a shitty stereo with a turntable in my room. At some point my Mom walked into my room with an armload of records. I don’t recall what she said exactly, whether I should listen to them or that I might like these or what. I’m sure at least some of the impetus behind the gesture was that she was sick as shit of hearing “Pyromania” and “Metal Health” over and over again. When she left I put the stack in my lap and took a look. A couple of Cream records, Janis Joplin’s “Pearl,” at least a couple of Led Zeppelin’s first 3 or 4 records, “Ziggy Stardust,” the Faces “A Nod’s As Good As A Wink…” and Rod’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.”

Even with a turntable, even with all these capital-A Albums, my memory still chops them up into 7” single-sized chunks. “Me and Bobby McGee” and the Faces’ “Stay With Me” were two big takeaways from the stack. The only albums of the bunch I remember listening to all the way through a lot were Ziggy and Led Zeppelin IV.[1] I don’t recall ever listening to the Cream albums even though their covers were so striking and I don’t recall any particular reason NOT to listen to them aside from, you know, the tweedly-deedly. I also recall a moment in the title track to “Every Picture Tells a Story” where someone in the band or in the studio while they were recording yells out “HEY!” in a completely random and non-musical way. Whoever that person was sounded EXACTLY like my stepfather and literally every time I listened to that song (which was a lot) I jumped when that “HEY!” happened because I thought it was him telling me to turn it down or go clean the pine needles out of the gutters.

Was it growing up with most of my musical intake coming from commercial radio and MTV that made me tend to think of music in terms of songs instead of albums, singles instead of bands? Dunno but that’s how it was and still is with me. Not that there aren’t albums that I love from front to back but I don’t expect to do so. Why should I be surprised when a group of even superlative musicians can’t come up with 40+ minutes of amazing music every year, or every other year, or even once? It’s arbitrary and more than that it’s really, really fucking hard to do. It’s hard enough to produce – and by that I mean everything that goes into it: writing, arranging, performing, engineering, mixing, mastering, artwork – one single song that people will want to hear more than once. But that’s do-able. Thus I never held it against a band or a singer if I only liked one or two of their songs. Sure there were times when I’d get pissed that I’d dropped ten bucks on a cassette only to discover that literally every song other than the one on the radio was absolute dogshit.[2] But you learn your lesson and you start to get a feel for when something’s a one-hitter or a going concern.

[1] Shut up. It’s their fourth album and I don’t wanna hear about the fucking symbols or whatever.

[2] I’m looking at you, Cutting Crew.

Can’t Surprise Mom

Another installment in my ongoing series.

This is backing up a bit, but once I was genuinely committed to playing guitar – ELECTRIC guitar – I naturally gravitated towards guitar-heavy music, and that meant going back in time, poring over the pages of the tablature-rich, ossified Guitar For The Practicing Musician and trying to figure out what the guitar gods of the last age were doing.   I also took lessons from guy named John Carney via the local music store.   He was a good dude, very much of the age (shiny-snaps shirt open 1/3 of the way, black jeans, kinda longish hair) and a pretty patient teacher. Instead of stuffing me with theory he would ask me to bring in a track to work on. I’d bring a tape and in about 5 minutes he’d have a basic tablature transcription and then we’d work our way through it, occasionally learning some theory along the way. At some point I heard Ted Nugent’s paean to domestic violence “Stranglehold” and was blown away and bought the cassette. Sure the lyrics are a goddamn nightmare but the combination of swampy funk groove and the endless yet surprisingly tasteful guitar solo that makes up the bulk of the song are prototypes of 70’s hard rock. So I brought it to John and he taught me the couple of riffs that the actual song consisted of. Then he sat there listening to the solo and said something to the effect of “OK, there is no way I am transcribing all of that business. Here is the A-minor pentatonic blues scale; it’s all he’s doing, just playing those five notes in various combinations up and down the neck. Just, like, learn that and then do it for six or seven minutes and you’re good.” And I was off. I don’t think I learned another scale for 2 or 3 years. You can play 80% of rock, blues and country songs produced in the last 60 years and never use another scale; just figure out the key and go.

On the way to or from practice one day, I slid the Nugent cassette into the deck of our Mazda GLC and glanced over to see how much Mom was hating the music. Not much of a reaction. I pointed out that it was Ted Nugent. “I know,” she said. “I saw him in concert one time. He came swinging out of the rafters on a vine, wearing a loin cloth.”

I don’t know what I expected. I had seen her record collection so there was no reason to be surprised that she had been witness to some Live Gonzo. I asked who else she had seen. Ridiculous. Janis (“people kept putting bottles of Wild Turkey on the stage, and she kept drinking them”), the Doors, the Allman Brothers[1], on and on.

[1] Apparently they played for 3+ hours then went to the local college radio station and played on the air for another couple hours. She didn’t say if they managed to get in anything aside from “Whipping Post.”

I Want My MTV As Long As They Stop Playing That Goddamn Dire Straits Video

Another installment in my ongoing series.

I don’t think the mainstreaming of music videos, meaning their conversion via MTV from promo clips that might get shown on late night TV or pay cable to THE way youngsters were exposed to new music, was quite as game changing as the Internet would be a generation later. But it certainly had a huge impact in regards to creating a shared/homogenized youth culture. I remember seeing the random video here and there before we got MTV – “Fish Heads” on Showtime at a friends house[1]; “Centerfold” on SNL one night; the full version of “Thriller,” obviously, at a church youth group ‘lock-in.’ I even remember my friend Kevin describing Tom Petty’s video for “Lucky” and being completely mystified. Music video wasn’t a term yet; he literally did not have the vocabulary to describe what he had seen to me. It’s like a Road Warrior movie but to a song? Huh?

Being from North Florida, Sir Thomas was always going to have a leg up in surviving the apocalypse.

Receiving MTV was a genuinely revolutionary event for me.   Out there in the sticks I had no pipeline aside from mainstream rock mags, mainly Rolling Stone; my parents’ record collections (which were not to be despised and on which more later); and once I was in high school some of the freaks in the upper classes were a great help. But MTV was fucking manna from heaven, especially up through maybe ’86 or ’87 when they were still playing just about any video they could in order to fill 24 hours with something other than Rod Stewart tracks (seriously, why did he do so many damn videos before there was a reason to?).

I had been playing guitar for at least a couple of years. My first song on the electric was “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and through junior high and into my freshman year it was all about the metal. But then I somehow was allowed to talk to girls, and they[2] liked the Cure and the Violent Femmes and obviously I was going to find out what that was all about. I started watching “120 Minutes,” and that late night video show was my one beloved pipeline to actual cool music from March of 1986 until I moved to Austin three years later. The first big gift I got from MTV was seeing The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” video on 120 Minutes one night. It grabbed me immediately, with the swirling psychedelic imagery and the opening guitar/sitar line evoking some of the late 1960’s records my Mom had loaned me. And then WHACK!!!! A gunshot of a snare hit and the song kicks into a propulsive, almost metallic chug. It was leading me into a musical borderland where I would spend most of my time thereafter. I sought out the cassette of The Cult’s album “Love” immediately and it was a solid collection, although “Sanctuary” was far and away the best thing on it.

To the eternal question of “Quaker hat or headscarf?” Ian Astbury’s answer is “Costume Change!!”

And then a funny thing happened. I recall sitting in English class talking to S.S. and I brought up the Cult and she asked to borrow the cassette. She loved it and then I loaned it to someone else, and someone else and suddenly my “thing” was turning people on to the cool new shit. I had people thanking me for introducing them to bands or records years later. I was a tunepusher.

I tortuously figured out how to play “Sanctuary” on the guitar and later on my girlfriend introduced me to some guys who needed a guitar player for their party band. They asked me to bring a song to the table, and “Sanctuary” was the card I dealt. I was in.

MTV’s second big gift I remember thusly: it’s a weekend afternoon, I turn on the TV and catch the last half of Concrete Blonde’s “Still in Hollywood.” It was exactly what I was looking for: loud guitars, shouty chorus, chick singer, grainy black and white, chaos and urbanism and punk rock[3]. In my memory it was later the same day when I rode with my parents to Wal-Mart and, improbably, there was the eponymous Concrete Blonde debut cassette right there in the rack.

This video predicted the popularity of cat videos, bad tattoos, hoarding and good musicians not making any money ever.

So I get this Concrete Blonde record and I’m REALLY digging its swirly, spacious sparseness and I’m thinking that, solos aside[4] it seems pretty simple guitar-wise. So I get my rig set up and push ‘play’ and start strumming along and something just goes ‘click’ in my brain; maybe it was “Song for Kim” with that simple single-note riff that brought it all into place for me, but regardless I suddenly knew how to play by ear[5]. I had never grasped how to do it before; it’s one of those leap-learning things that happens all at once. It just has to click and it clicked and I jumped in to learning songs with both feet.

Aside from its eternal association with my growth as a musician, I loved that record from the first time I pressed play. I still do, it’s a nostalgia generator par excellence. Whenever I go to L.A. it’s playing on a loop in my head if not on my car stereo. All because MTV existed and decided to play a regionally known indie rock trio signed to IRS Records in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

[1] Directed by Bill Paxton. Sorry I am required by my brain to trot out that piece of trivia any time it is even remotely relevant.

[2] By “they” I mean the tiny, tiny sweet spot in the Venn diagram of exurban East Texas girls encompassing those that a) would talk to me and b) had any valid opinion about music whatsoever.

[3] i.e. exactly the opposite of what and where I lived.

[4] Jim Mankey is a god.

[5] To the musician this means you can learn new songs by just listening to them instead of referring to sheet music or tablature.