Thursday, November 10, 2016

LINER NOTES: Upside Down





Upside Down Spotify playlist

*sigh*

I pull music for these sessions in advance, so even prior to Election Day I knew this night would have to capture the frightening absurdity of the election season. The ugly embers of this nation's resentments have been stoked, fanned and fueled for over a year. Regardless of the outcome, I felt the music had to mix the anger frustration fear with strength hope release.

So, it's Three Stack's heavy sigh that opened the night. It's a sigh weighed down from smiling through the pain. It's weighed down from seeing one's love twisted beyond recognition. It's weighed down from realizing how routine this perversion has become. It's a cumbersome burden that is shucked off by instinct as soon as the beat drops... because there's an audience? "See this is the way that we walk on a sunny day when it's raining inside and you're all alone..." And so the sing-song melody taps happily atop a buoyant beat while Dre, Bigga and Antwan go down down down into the stress. I suppose it may have felt like you walked in on the story like you missed the beginning, but you haven't missed anything if you've been here the entire time. It's just a matter of looking around.

And so we moved both back in time and space to see where this despair comes from. First, we check in with a pair of the UK's most noted emoters. Surprise, the Thatcher era plots a familiar narrative. The The's "The Beat(en) Generation" is like "Whole World" in its absurd pairing of soft shoe folk with apoplectic GenX warnings. The entire Mind Bomb LP feels similarly ham-fisted in its fury, but Mat Johnson's warnings ring no less true over a quarter-century later. Oh, and that is Johnny Marr strumming along sullenly in the background... Meanwhile, Morrissey shows no loss of step in his like ability to coax along the coming armageddon to a shiny happy melody.

Waylon's "Down Came the World" and Earl Hines' (really, Walter Fuller, who sings lead here) cover of Cab Calloway's "Topsy Turvy" take us out of the overtly political arena, but their similar characterizations of women doing them so bad they can't even... feels familiar. So we let Joanna respond: "What we built at the kiln that won’t be stilled / Did not set well." Emphasis on we.

Looking at this background it becomes clear the mix of female and political becomes explosive. Betty Davis and Amanda Palmer grab this notion by the balls/pussy (your choice) and snatch away a couple choice cuts from some doods. Davis nails the creepy DC pol personality to a tee, while Palmer invigorates a classic English ballad about labor and property rights with only her voice and a uke. Of course, doods are always lurking around trying to get in on the action. That's Betty's then husband Miles growling some lecherous nonsense about covering Cream with the "gum in your mouth and all." And Lin Manuel-Miranda's "Yorktown" only references "World Turned Upside Down," but notably moves the theme from working class protest critique to macho military anthem (hi, silent Eliza!). Doods, can you not be such doods all the time?

Ornette gets it. And, so we close the first half of drawing with "Lonely Woman." Only fitting this anthem comes from the accurately titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.

In the second half, we began to move away from the details of the muck. We reviewed the weight of the world, but from a more macro perspective. Prince seeing sin everywhere in 1987. George Clinton calling out crackpot consumerism in between acid sessions. P.F. Sloan taking a wild stab at mid-60s anger while Barry McGuire breathes fire into "Eve of Destruction." And we closed with a more contemporary form of bullet-point protest "Stakes is High" perhaps the apex (or nadir?) of De la's abrupt about-face from their anything goes birthplace.

I suppose it was belaboring the point to continue with Curtis' apocalyptic "(Don't Worry) If There's Hell Below We're All Going To Go," the vertiginous "Soliloquy of Chaos" instrumental and the unnerving "The Upside Down" from the Stranger Things score. But the journey was all to get us to the tinkling synths and that whoop in "I Need a Forest Fire." Justin Vernon requests "a new dream" and D stays cautious, but both are optimistic. Tuesday may not have been a good day, but sometimes we "wander off just to come back home."

So, next time Diana says you're making her feel "Upside Down?" Tell her you're not alone.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

LINER NOTES: Reset





Reset Spotify playlist

Reset was meant to be a secular nod to the Muslim and Jewish New Years, both of which fell in October. By LINER NOTES standards the music spun reflected the theme broadly. Mostly thoughts about the past and reflections on change. As such, the tone spanned a few emotions.

Optimism towards change is perhaps more prevalent in song than in real-life. Credit Johnny Nash for capturing that a-ha! moment for middle America and wedding dinners across the land. Jonathan Richman's "I'm Just Beginning to Live" is nowhere near as ubiquitous, but perhaps more delirious with ecstasy over his new state of being. Even surly Bob has nothing but love likening his sweetheart to a "New Morning." Perhaps that's why we toned down this optimism with the cynical realizations in the Velvets' "Beginning to See the Light."

At times we allowed the optimism to become aggressive. At the start of the cult film Wild in the Streets, Max Frost sings "Shape of Things to Come" with a religious fervor calling out to the nation the youth invasion. By film's end Frost is a demagogue consumed with exercising his vision at any cost. The song becomes less a youth anthem and more an explicit threat of genocide. I suppose the writers had some issues with the hippy generation. Less malignant is Common's ball-swaggering "Resurrection." The song remains the emcee's "Giant Steps" stacking rhymes upon rhymes upon rhymes." If you had bars like this at 22, what would you do?

A bittersweet look backward seems common for most adults. NaS and Quik walk us through their respective childhoods with equal respect for the better times and the blemished memories. A fresh out of retirement Lennon channels his rejuvenated outlook while subtly acknowledging his constant moral meandering on "Starting Over." Recent events may weigh more heavily on Solange's mind, but she knows she has to "go ahead and take some time" on "Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)." Everyone moves forward in lock step with the march of time.  


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Thursday, August 11, 2016

LINER NOTES: Runnin






Runnin Spotify playlist

I have a hard time getting excited about the Olympics. Perhaps it's the dubious economics, or the irresponsible environmental impact, or the antics of out-of-control, privileged white kids. Hard to say. That said, exceptional athleticism is like any work of art—a spectacle filled with inherent thrills and beauty. The Nation's sports editor Dave Zirin shared a concise crash course on this love-hate relationship on Hari Kondabolu and W. Kamau Bell's Politically Reactive podcast. Check that out.

So, this sense of aesthetic wonder is what buoyed much of the evening. Sometimes the beauty was in the style. Ray Barretto and Ray Charles sound jocular swinging beats with the greatest of ease. Sometimes the beauty is unexpected and iconoclastic. Like Arthur Russell baking ideas in a railroaded kitchen/bathroom. And sometimes the beauty is nostalgic and juvenile. That's Loudon Wainwright III proud and fearless once upon a time.

Being the Olympics, we had to validate our champions with that most holy dookie chain. Didn't Ezekiel say something about gold and silver not appeasing the Big Homie? Well, that book ain't my book, so don't ask me. Instead, I let Joe and Toots share their ideas on the truest treasures in life. Spoiler alert: hoarding a ton of the precious isn't a good look!

Best to focus on the literal mechanics. R.E.M. may not medal with that leisurely "Nightswimming," so we throw some hot sauce on the Georgian quartet and have us some Fatback Band "Backstrokin'" instead. DLR's fantastically chemical vocal take on "Runnin' With the Devil" should inspire anyone to be first off the blocks. Sly was likely similarly enhanced while recording "Runnin' Away," but feels more like a Bolt victory lap.

The modern Olympics are a multimedia spectacle complete with a programmed soundtrack. The songs are generally meh. Every once in a while, something exceptional slips through. Kudos to whomever pitched Icelandic artist Björk's "Oceania" for the 2004 Olympics in London. Medúlla found her in a full Meredith Monk state of mind at the time. Pairing this with the capitalist swagger of contemporary Western European pomp is like mwah. Whitney's "One Moment in Time" feels far more simpatico to the proceedings, what with its '80s syrup and melodrama (it's got a Be My Baby beat, for crying out loud). Except it's Whitney in her prime and Whitney in her prime is a supernova, so stfu.

Our opening and closing themes required a slightly deeper dig—in my case, an accidental discovery. Visions of Eight is a compilation film by eight filmmakers, containing eight short vignettes about the 1972 Munich Olympics. Yes, that one. Only one of the filmmakers overtly acknowledges the terrorist kidnapping and mass killing, so it's accurate to call this an awkward film. That said, it has a Mancini score filled with period thrills and leisure suit muzak. His take on Olympian pomp feels accurate and less manufacture. So in the spirit of the Olympics' supposed championing of athletics, we bookended the session with Hank's horns.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

LINER NOTES: Every May I Write The Book




Every May I Write the Book Spotify playlist

I read a lot of non-fiction; check the year-end lists and you'll see the preference.

Nate reads a lot of fiction. So, his recommendations are a good counterbalance for my biases. He's passed along unfamiliar writers, like Karen Russell and Mohsin Hamid. It's good to get out of fact-collection mode and focus more on language and style.

The literature theme is my way of reaching across the aisle. It collects a number of songs with literary references (the vast majority are from fiction) -- a number of which I admittedly don't get because I haven't read a lot of these works. So, it's a fun way to share some discoveries with Nate, while giving us some new leads on future reads.

Elvis's "Every May I Write the Book" seems the most ideal way to kick off this theme, what with Declan's use of writing techniques and literary devices as simple metaphors. The middle-aged steppers' feel and '80s production of this recording has never endeared itself to me. But the writing, suitably, captures the essence of the theme.

There are plenty of book-related tunes, but I opted to skip over most of these in favor of more specific references. I stuck with the old guard of rawk to cover this base, so thanks, Mr. Diddley and the Monotones. Special mention should go to Los Campesinos! for the band's hilariously bitter "We Are All Accelerated Readers," which takes the idea of curling up w/ your favorite book to another logical conclusion -- seclusion from the frightening world of relationships! What would the Staple Singers think of the line, "You should have built a wall, not a bridge"?

I went with some familiar (literary) works for the evening's first mid-length poses. Lewis Carroll ("White Rabbit," and Aceyalone reading and breathing all over "The Jabberwocky") and Russian celebs, like Nabokov (I don't think I can listen to "Don't Stand So Close to Me" anymore) and Dostoyevsky (Magazine's "Song From Under the Floorboards is essentially a post-punk Cliff's Notes of Notes from the Underground).

The kid's influence creeps out with the Sendak Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack (and Alt-J's surprising "Breezeblocks") and some Shel Silverstein (those original recordings are still both chilling and entertaining).

My grasp of the references breaks up around the poetry section. I shared some Langston Hughes and Jack Kerouac because they both wrote extensively about music and recorded with music backdrops. Gang Starr's "DWYCK" is technically there because of the passing Hughes / can't lose when I cruise line, but moreso to inject some life in the proceedings (by the way, this is the notable track missing from both the YouTube and Spotify playlist; it's a remix from the "Take it Personal" 12). When we get to 'Pac's invocation of Walter Scott or Serge's homage to Baudelaire, I really can't comment. It's all new to me, but exciting because it gives me a new layer to reveal. Y'all have any recommendations for me?

We'll be back in June with a globetrotting theme. We'll explore tunes from around the world that focus on the body.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

LINER NOTES: xx/xy




xx/xy playlist

As an adult, my consistently favorite musical theme seems to be gender identity. I've often explored 'gender inversions' (my term) (e.g., Bill Withers' "Who is He?" begetting Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Who is She?" begetting Me'Shell NdegéOcello's "Who is He?"). I've never tackled gender as the central lyrical focus, so this was a welcome challenge.

The old, bloated elephant that has historically occupied most of the room is the cis-male-hetero idea of masculinity (and, because everyone has to have an opinion, of femininity, too). Because this has been the norm for years of pop music, I intentionally didn't give it much airtime. Instead, I selected a small batch to capture the essence of this ethos. Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man" embodies this spirit like few other songs, from its tough riffage to its blunt title. Plus, it felt good to bookend the session between that song and Neko Case's "Man" ("I'm not an identity crisis / This was planned"). I admittedly picked "Walk Like a Man" less for its outline of manly qualities, but more for the shits and giggles of hearing Frankie Valli's ridiculous falsetto punctuate this list. And I had to include the Bacharach-David composition "Wives and Lovers" for its stunningly bone-headed lyrics -- a useful reminder that misogyny does not begin and end with [fill-in-the-blank African-American-rooted popular music style]. And then there's Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," which IMO trumps "I'm a Man." Waters has numerous recordings of this song. I goofed and played the Electric Mud version when I meant to play the Hard Again session (yes, I know there are some goofy ass players backing him on that record, but the relatively modern recording standards makes that record bang hard as fuck). Do yourself a favor and check it out in the playlist, if you aren't familiar. Well, he literally screams, "I'm a Man!!"

More interesting to me are the challenges to these standards. "Runnin'" leads the charge courtesy of Fatlip's soul-bearing verse which details an adolescence stripped of any Superman notions. Surrounded by a sea of aggression ("I can recall crip niggas throwin Cs in my face"), he knows what path he's supposed to follow, but has no tools to achieve it ("My pappy never taught me how to knock a nigga out"). Coupled with the song's hook, the running metaphor becomes a particular condemnation of macho standards.

I also focused on cis-female-hetero ideas of gender. The ideas of femininity range from the stereotypical traditional (Peggy Lee serving womanhood on a doily with "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and Joyce's fragrantly poetic "Feminina") to the prototypical feminist (The Slits' shit-talking "Typical Girls;" and even the solidly blue country of Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round"). Just like the straight fellas, homegirls give considerable attention to masculinity. Sylvan Esso's "Hey Mami"calls out catcalls, while PJ Harvey's "Dress" paints a fuller picture of the male's perverted gaze. Suzanne Vega's "As Girls Go" highlights the more subtle, but no less pernicious digs at women.

I clearly can't get enough of inversions, because a fair amount of the set explored various border crossings and non-binary states. Etta James' muscular vocal performance on "W-O-M-A-N" (and, in fairness, most everything she recorded) is a great example of simultaneously encapsulating and exploding traditional notions of femininity. The recording is sexy, smoky, sensual... but continue throwing superlatives at the wall and you quickly find the list weaving in husky, swaggering, ballsy... did we take a left turn? No, she sings with all those qualities, but is undeniably a W-O-M-A-N. Thank goodness for the Mats's "Androgynous," which paints such a natural, loving portrait of gender and sexual identity exploration ("Mirror image, see no damage / See no evil at all"). Sure, the ending is a bit of a middle-aged bummer, but kudos to Westerberg for being able to forecast that in his mid-twenties when he wrote this. "Masculine Women, Feminine Men" was included mostly as a historic document of how long hetero mania over border-crossing (or, the notion there is only one border or that borders even exist) has existed.

When I return to this theme (and I certainly will, given how much fun this was), I want to break out of the cis-male and cis-female hetero voices. A good chunk of Antony/ANOHNI's work is really a starting point for me. I'll have more to say after exploring this some more.

And a quick word about the name of this session, "xx/xy." I recognize that referring to chromosomes suggests biology and sex identity. I know this is not the best session name. I'm happy to revisit this theme with a new session title. Any suggestions?

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