Month: June 2012

Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.

I’m not sure which female pop stars most newly-teenage guys were lusting after in 1997 while navigating the strangeness of puberty. If I had pinups on my wall at the time (not that I did), there probably would have been images of Emma Bunton and Victoria Beckham — “Baby Spice” and “Posh Spice” in those days — Jewel, and maybe Mariah Carey.

I wasn’t a fan of the music any of them made. It was more a matter of thinking, “You’re beautiful, and though I know I’ll never have you, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy having semi-wholesome fantasies about you.”

I think every living person with a libido goes through a similar stage of having celebrity crushes when they’re young and full of hormones. Plenty of adults have celebrity crushes too. It’s harmless fun and a useful reminder that certain body parts are still in good working order.

The first female artist I ever felt a more serious stirring for was Fiona Apple. When she came along, I’d never seen anything quite like her. This was before my self-imposed musical re-education, when I was still very much into pretty mainstream music and I still listened to commercial radio pretty often. So the only exposure I had to a lot of music was what I heard on the radio, or what I saw on television in the form of phone sex commercials (some call them “music videos”). My introduction to Fiona came via the latter medium.

She was beautiful, but in a different, earthier, unaffected way. Her songs came from a much darker, more personal place than anything I’d heard from a girl who played piano and wrote her own material. She never sounded young or “cute”, even then when she was still a teenager. Her voice was deep, weary, sultry, muscular. It contained dimensions I hadn’t heard before in the realm of “popular music made by pretty young people”.

There was something unusual about her. A vulnerability, and at the same time a sense of danger. She was silk-wrapped razor blades. I didn’t want to stare at her in music videos with goo-goo eyes. She was the strange, alluring, fascinating outcast I wanted to find and befriend in high school.

It wasn’t an obsession, but a different kind of interest I’d never felt for someone I saw on television. I actually found her interesting as a person. This is someone who, when she was eighteen years old, gave an acceptance speech at the MTV  Video Music Awards in which she told everyone watching, “This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing, and what we’re saying. Go with yourself.”

The general consensus at the time seemed to be that what she did was ridiculous and immature. I saw it on television when it happened. I thought it was brave, and a little startling. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her, and that was what made her exciting. She didn’t fit. She wasn’t a corporate puppet. When she had something to say, she said it. I almost fell over when I caught her on a late night show singing a song with a chorus of, “It won’t be long ’til you’ll be lying limp in your own hand,” spitting the words into the microphone with such force that she blew her voice out mid-performance. Her interviews were sometimes uncomfortable to read because of how unguarded she was. I always found it a little sad that some people pegged her as being crazy when she really just had the courage to be herself in a business where that’s not something you’re supposed to do.

I’d like to say I went out and bought her first album Tidal as soon as I knew it existed. I didn’t, though I should have. Back then I had this mental block when it came to music made by women. It had nothing to do with thinking they were inferior artists to men. It was about the feelings I had for women in general.

They were a foreign country I didn’t think I would ever get to visit. I admired them from afar and found them fascinating creatures but didn’t feel I was allowed on their wavelength. When it came to their music, the thought of investigating it kind of unsettled me, if I’m being completely honest. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I think I felt I wasn’t supposed to be privy to their thoughts and feelings in art form, since I wasn’t privy to them in any other form and didn’t have any real female friends.

It took Kate Bush to break down that wall a year or so later when I read about her, bought The Dreaming on a whim, and listened to it about three hundred times in the space of a few months. But I still didn’t investigate any of Fiona Apple’s music for a long time beyond the bits I caught on television. I’m not sure why.

When I did finally get around to it, I found Tidal was the only album that really resonated with me. There was a rawness to it that was electric. Every album I heard after that felt somehow too safe. Too polished. The talent was there, but I wanted the music and the production to go stranger places — to match the intensity of what she was singing about.

I found myself in the odd position of liking her more than I liked most of her music (again, with the exception of Tidal — there’s a lot more to it than “Criminal”). Then she fell off my radar for a good long while.

A few days ago I read about a new Fiona Apple album with a very long title: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. I thought I’d listen to some of the thirty-second song preview clips on Amazon just for something to do. After hearing a piece of the first song, I knew I was going to buy it the first chance I had.

This is the album I always hoped she might make one day. It’s weird, skeletal, aggressively noncommercial, and fiercely out of step with anything going on in popular music right now. She does things with her voice I’ve never heard her do before, shifting on a dime from a playful moan to an angry roar. I’m not sure anyone else could turn the word “brain” into a ten-syllable battle cry that ends up being one of the catchiest hooks on their whole album.

Fiona’s always had a facility for slinging anger in such a way that it sounds like she’s ripping the words out of her guts. That’s here too, but it only happens in a few quick flashes, making the explosive moments that much more powerful and surprising. Even “Valentine”, the one song that felt slight to me on first listen, has more emotional complexity to it than the lyrics would suggest. When she sings, “I love you,” during the chorus, she repeats the word “you” over and over again, her voice growing more crazed with each reiteration, until it sounds like a desperate attempt to convince herself of something she doesn’t really feel, or an effort to force the object of her affection to love her back with the weight of her own need.

It’s intensely personal stuff in a way that isn’t at all contrived. A few songs almost read like someone I’ve been in a troubled relationship with (and there have been a few of those) is trying to explain herself to me as honestly as she can. I’ve never experienced that with any other music I’ve heard.

What really puts it over the top for me is the production. It’s an unusual-sounding album and the most austere thing she’s ever done. Almost every song is built around her piano and voice, with barely a conventional drum beat or predictable groove in sight. Instead, rhythm is provided by the sound of fabric tearing, a bottle-making machine whirring, thighs being slapped, murky loops of indeterminate origin, and scissors hitting tin and plastic. Nothing sounds manipulated. Nothing is pitch-corrected. I don’t think there’s even any artificial reverb anywhere on the album. Every strange sound seems to be organic and man/woman-made.

And I’m not sure where Fiona gets these chord progressions from, but they’re absurdly inventive and unpredictable. How she manages to weave vocal melodies on top of what she’s doing on the piano is beyond me. I counted one somewhat normal/standard chord progression over the course of the whole album, acting as a hook in one song. That’s it. It’s as if she took pieces of all the jazz standards and Nina Simone songs she’s always loved, fragmented and refracted them inside of her brain, and then spit them back out as something her own. You could almost call some parts of the album “industrial blues without blues structures”. But I don’t think you can really stuff it into any category at all, and that’s part of its beauty.

For my money, it’s by far the best thing she’s ever done, and one of the best new albums I’ve heard by anyone in quite a while. It’s also one of the most dynamic albums I’ve heard in recent memory, to the point that it’s necessary to turn the volume up or down at certain points in the middle of songs. That’s shocking to hear, given how much music is still being crushed to death at the mastering stage.

Almost everything about this album is unexpected. In case you can’t tell, I kind of like it.


I just had to change the design of my blog again, because stupid infinite scroll was added to that last theme too, seemingly overnight.

Seriously. Leave me alone, infinite scroll. I don’t like you. I don’t want you. I will keep changing themes to get away from you forever if I have to, or at least until I get fed up and decide the juice isn’t worth the pulp anymore. But I’d really like to be able to stick with one look and not have to eventually switch to Tumblr. Let me have my blog the way I want it, or I’ll start walking around with this as my default facial expression.

You know it’s serious business when Serious Cat comes out of hiding. I have another picture of a cat that’s even more serious than this one. Don’t make me pull it out…’cause I’ll do it if i have to. And it won’t be pretty.

On a completely unrelated note, I know I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of compilation albums, but it needs to be said — the two Rolling Stones Hot Rocks compilations have to be two of the very best “greatest hits” sets ever released by anyone. I was lucky enough to find both of them on vinyl (and one on cassette!), and though I’ll still take the individual albums over any compilation any day, if you’re going to make a best-of collection really worth listening to, that’s the way to do it.

(Edit: a week after I posted this, WordPress finally made infinite scroll optional, which means I’m able to revert to the theme I liked best without having to deal with that annoying tab at the bottom of the screen. Praise potato pancakes.)

Play like you mean it.

I have this thing where when someone is both a singer and a musician I tend to feel a little less connected to their music when they make an album on which they don’t play an instrument. I also like it when they do their own vocal multi-tracking instead of relying on backup vocalists (unless the backup vocalists are really, really good).

I don’t know why this is, really. It’s just the way my brain works.

I’ll give you an example. Tim Buckley played acoustic — and later electric — twelve-string guitar on every great album he made. Even on Greetings from L.A., his first somewhat “commercial” effort after the record company clipped his wings and demanded more conventional music they could sell, he’s still in there playing guitar on every song, buried as he is in the mix at times. It’s on those last two albums that you barely hear him playing at all.

In Dream Brother, David Browne’s joint biography of Tim and Jeff Buckley, a friend of Tim’s remembers visiting the studio during the recording sessions for Look at the Fool and being unsettled by the image of Tim recording vocals with his guitar nowhere to be found. That instrument was a vital part of his artistry. When it was taken away you could tell something wasn’t quite right.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the few really great songs on those last two albums all feature the unmistakable sound of Tim’s electric Fender twelve-string. And to hear someone with his earth-shattering vocal range being forced to rely on female backup vocalists, knowing he could probably hit higher notes than even they were capable of reaching…no. That ain’t my Tim Buckley. That’s record company bullshit.

Or here’s an example that’s much more current and pop-culture-approved. There’s this reality TV show called The Voice that’s little more than a slight twist on the old American Idol karaoke singing contest thing. I watched a few episodes of it some months back, because I felt like it had been a while since I really got angry about anything related to shitty music and it was about time I had an excuse to shout profanity at my television again.

Some of the performers were actually pretty good. And in some cases they were rewarded for having some amount of personality. So that was nice to see. It was a fun way to kill a bit of time.

Something happened early in the game that made me angry enough to stop watching the show and promise myself to never watch it again out of silent protest.

For those of you who have never watched it, there are four celebrity singers/songwriters who act as judges and mentors to the contestants. Each judge gets to pick his or her own team, which they whittle down throughout the course of the show. The judges are also competing against one another for the distinction of being the one who can say they discovered “The Voice” when it’s all over. This wrinkle makes it all a little more interesting than it would be otherwise.

One of the judges/mentors is the frontman douche from the band Maroon 5. I know his name, but I prefer to call him The Douche. He’s probably the most arrogant and outspoken of all the judges.

Operating under the apparent assumption that cruelty is the best method of developing talent, after each judge has their team in place they have what are called “battle rounds”. The judges pair up singers on their teams in groups of two and have them perform the same song together onstage. Then they decide who did a better job singing the song.

The winner gets to stay another week. The loser goes home and gets nothing. They don’t even get the chance to perform during the part of the show where people at home are able to vote for who they like best. I think that’s even worse than being sent home because you didn’t get enough votes. The rejection is much more personal, and it’s coming from the same person who gave you the chance to be there — and the belief that you might make it all the way through — in the first place.

For one battle round, The Douche paired up two women. One of them played piano. She was pretty good. He chose a song for them both to sing. When they were rehearsing, he decided he didn’t want to see the one woman behind the piano anymore. He was going to push her to step out into the spotlight.

The piano was a huge part of her musical identity. That was where she wrote songs. She always played and sang at the same time. Without the piano, she felt uncomfortable. Like part of her had been stripped away. She said as much to The Douche, who dismissed her fear and told her she needed to do this to really push herself to the next level. Typical Douche “I know more than you know” arrogance.

So they had their battle round. And you could tell she wasn’t in her element. She wasn’t herself. Part of who she was had been taken away from her. Neither singer really gave a performance that stole the show. There was no clear winner. Even so, everyone chose the other woman over the one who used to play piano until The Douche took the piano away.

One of the judges told her she didn’t seem to be breathing properly during the song. Gee, do you think maybe you breathe a certain way when you’re seated at a piano, feeling connected to the instrument, when that’s the way you’re used to singing, and maybe you breathe a different way when you’re standing with a microphone in your hand, without the piano, having been given almost no time to acclimate yourself to a way of performing that is completely alien to you?

No. Of course you don’t think that. Not if you’re judging a singing contest when your own vocal talent is debatable at best.

The Douche made it clear he wasn’t thrilled with either performance. He sent the piano-playing woman home. He never apologized for ripping her out of her comfort zone without giving her enough time to adapt. He didn’t comment on the hypocrisy of being unimpressed with her performance when he was the one who went out of his way to create the atmosphere that led to the performance being less than what it might have been, had he allowed her to just be herself.

Do you see now why I call him The Douche? Do a little reading up about him and his exploits with women, and you’ll start to feel like you need a cold shower. Writing horrible songs that will make you a dumber person just for listening to them is only the icing on the Douche cake.

That incident on The Voice was what really took me beyond simple contemptuous indifference and into the realm of serious anger. It’s pathetic that people who are this artificial, little more than blobs of unjustified ego bouncing around and shitting on everything they come across, who say and do nothing, are given fame and celebrated as being important and worthwhile when they’re neither one of those things, just because they look like someone you could have sex with without feeling like you were slumming it. What he did to that woman made me want to projectile vomit in his face.

Back to the point.

Maybe the best demonstration of the phenomenon I first started talking about is the way I feel about Chan Marshall. I was, and still am, a big fan of the raw, angry, sometimes almost uncomfortably vulnerable early Cat Power albums. What Would the Community Think? and Moon Pix are two of my favourite albums by anyone. You Are Free and The Covers Record aren’t far behind. Her solo piano version of “I Found a Reason” is the best Velvet Underground cover recorded by anyone, anywhere, ever. It’s so beautiful I almost can’t listen to it. I like the first two albums too, and though I find them a little uneven in places, I like how it sounds in a lot of those songs like she’s making up all the words as she goes along, discovering her voice while the tape is rolling.

When The Greatest came out in 2006, it was hailed in some quarters as Chan’s masterpiece. If I’m honest, it kind of left me cold for a while. The first time I listened to it I almost fell asleep halfway through. Aside from the title track  — the only non-Big Star song I’ve ever heard that feels like it captures the dilapidated beauty of some of the piano songs Alex Chilton wrote for Third/Sister Lovers (whatever writer described the song as the sort of thing Alex might have written if he’d been a beautiful woman was right on the money) — and “Love and Communication” and the slight-but-weirdly-effective hidden track, the album felt kind of flat to me.

It dawned on me after a while that part of the problem I had with the album was not being able to really hear Chan playing on it. Aside from two songs where I could tell it was her playing piano and two or three others where it was clear it was her on electric guitar, she let the session musicians guide the music and stuck to singing.

I think she’s got one of the most unique and beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. I could listen to her sing the Yellow Pages. The session players she chose are fantastic musicians with great feel. And still, I really missed hearing her play guitar and piano. It felt like part of her personality had been amputated, and there was no getting away from that disappointment.

The kicker is — and she’s admitted this herself — Chan isn’t anywhere near being a virtuosic musician. On the first few albums you kind of doubt she even knew how to tune her guitar. On the piano she tends to pick a few simple chords and stick with them, doubling them up with the left hand instead of playing octaves or fifths.

But it works. It makes her music her music. And without her being involved in the songs that way, I have a more difficult time getting involved myself.

I did warm up to The Greatest after a while. I came to realize it’s great driving music. I like it now, even if it doesn’t hit me in the stomach like some of her other albums do. I still can’t get into Jukebox, though. And while I was glad to read about Chan conquering her addictions and finding some peace and contentment, it seemed to have that all-too-common effect of the happiness snuffing out some of the spark that used to exist in the music when the artist was a little less sure of themselves.

Today I found out she’s finished her first album of new material in six years, it’s going to be released in September, and she played every single instrument on every song herself because she felt a need to be completely connected to the songs again. She used the dissolution of a long-term relationship to fuel the songwriting.

If I knew how to do joyful back-flips (or any kind of back-flip at all), I would have done one then. I’m not happy a relationship she invested years of her life in didn’t end up working out, but all of those things are almost guaranteed to add up to the best album she’s made in close to a decade. It’ll be fascinating to hear how the maturity she’s gained in the intervening years plays off of the back-to-basics approach.

So that’s something to look forward to a few months from now. It has to at least be better than Sharon Van Etten’s last album. Man, did that thing let me down when I finally got around to giving it a good listen. There are two songs on the album I think are fantastic, two others that are really good, and then the rest kind of settles into a samey soup that gets a little boring for me after a while.

Whatever the critics say, Epic is Sharon’s crowning achievement, at least up to this point. Tramp doesn’t even come close. It just goes to show that a more professional production job provided by someone with more name recognition doesn’t necessarily translate to a better album. It’s also further proof, if we needed any, that the hype something receives is not always a guarantee you’re gonna dig it.

But hey, that’s just my opinion, as always.

(Edit: I had a similar experience here to what happened with “The Greatest”. I put “Tramp” away for a while. Then I dug it out again for another listen a year or two after writing this and was knocked out by how much better it was than I thought. Maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake at first. “Epic” is still the album of Sharon’s I connect with the most, and I know part of that is because of what was going on in my head and my heart when I first heard it. But it turns out “Tramp” is a fine album, and there are some gorgeous songs there. “Kevin’s”, “In Line”, and “Warsaw” are worth the price of admission alone. Sharon, like Chan, has one of those voices that just…does stuff to me.)

On a different note, remember how I posted that acidic thing a little while back about the MuchMusic Coca Cola Covers contest? I predicted the person who won would be young, attractive, and completely inoffensive. They would be able to strum a few chords on a guitar and sing in-tune, but there would be no real personality or uniqueness there. They’d be a blank slate waiting to be shaped and marketed in whatever direction some creatively impotent producer decided to guide them.

They’re airing commercials on TV now as part of the run-up to the MuchMusic Video Awards, acting as brief advertisements for the three finalists, one of whom will be crowned the winner. There are two girls and one guy. And wouldn’t you know, they’re all young, attractive, and completely inoffensive. All three of them are able to strum a few chords on a guitar, and they can sing in-tune, but there’s no real personality or uniqueness there. They’re all blank slates waiting to be shaped and marketed in whatever direction some creatively impotent producer decides to guide them.

Sometimes you just gotta laugh.

June rhymes with moon, spoon, goon, and pantaloon.

Well, the month of May sure was busy in blog land, wasn’t it?

That has to be the first time I’ve posted almost nothing in a month since the infancy of this site-thing. Just didn’t have much to say in May, I guess. I took my foot off the gas a little musically after finishing the second disc for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, and when I’m not doing much in the musical department there usually isn’t much to say here. It’s probably time I remedied that and got some momentum going again.

I had to change the entire design of the blog — not something I was planning on doing again. I was very happy with the theme I’d been using since last summer and was content to keep things looking that way forevermore. A week or so ago I learned WordPress was in the process of adding a function called “infinite scroll” to a number of themes, and the one I was using was one of the early victims. Not many people seem to be a fan of this new feature, but that isn’t stopping WordPress from ramming it down our throats.

Basically, it works like this: when you scroll down to the bottom of the homepage, the blog will keep loading more posts infinitely, or until there are no more posts left to load. There’s one problem: if you have as many posts as I do, the loading never ends. I have a fast internet connection, so there’s no freezing up, but not everyone is that lucky.

The real sticking point for me is that there’s a hideous white border at the bottom of the screen displaying the name of the theme in use and a link back to WordPress. It doesn’t matter that it’s small and only takes up the equivalent of two lines of text. I hate it. I think it’s ugly as hell. It obscures anything it happens to be on top of at any given time, distracting me to the point that after a while it’s the place my eyes are always moving toward by instinct. Because there’s no end to the loading of posts, there’s also no way to get to a point where the border isn’t in the way of one thing or another.

Since there’s no way to disable this new feature no one asked for, my choices were either to kill this blog and set up shop at Tumblr or some other such place, or to find a theme that wasn’t an unwilling victim of infinite scroll. I managed to make option #2 work, and the current theme is the best one I could find next to the theme I can no longer use if I don’t want to end up loathing the way my blog looks.

The text is actually larger and easier to read than it was before. So that’s a nice unintentional side-effect of the change in appearance. About the only thing I don’t like is the way the second line of the blog title is difficult to read. There doesn’t seem to be any way to make it stand out more. I’m also not a huge fan of the dates-in-grey-circles thing. I think it looks a little funny. Those are things I can live with, though.

If infinite scrolling is added to this new theme and it becomes something that’s impossible to get away from anywhere on WordPress, I will delete this blog and set up shop somewhere else. I’d prefer not to. I’ve been happy with WordPress as a blogging platform over the past four years and change. The support has always been excellent, with lightning-fast replies to the few messages I’ve had to send when I’ve had technical issues. I’m comfortable here. And I really don’t want to slog through the process of taking the insane amount of content I’ve built up here and transferring it to another place one piece at a time.

I just don’t like people messing with my stuff. Let me have a good old-fashioned blog where people have to click on things to get to different places and their computers won’t explode if they scroll all the way down a given page, and let me be happy with the way it looks. I don’t think that’s asking for the moon.

What else is new? I’m off Facebook again. After my four or five-month hiatus I thought I’d dip my toes back into the water, only to find myself immediately wondering why I bothered going back there. And then it became an easy time-killer all over again, and though I wanted to deactivate my page I couldn’t quite motivate myself to do it. Finally I just said, “Fuck it, this is a complete waste of time,” and pulled the plug.

Maybe this time it’ll be for good. Or maybe I’ll be back in another few months. I’m not sure. I just know Facebook makes it far too easy for people to pretend they’re talking to you when they’re not communicating with you in any real way at all. And that shit pisses me off. I don’t need any more reasons to be pissed off at people. They give me enough of those without Facebook having anything to do with it.

Still haven’t made another video progress report, but I haven’t forgotten about it. I’ll do that pretty soon, I hope. There’s quite a bit to say now, and Elliott’s been cooking up some good rants. When I do get around to making the next progress report, I doubt it’ll be less than half an hour long. Couldn’t have asked for the unexpected increase in storage space to come along at a better time, really.

Decided to get the inserts made up for the first two ANGLE discs before the other two are finished, to make the whole process of putting the album together a little less taxing. This way I won’t have to do it all at once and deal with four times the normal workload. I’ve got all the artwork finalized anyway, so it just makes sense to do it this way. The booklet is really the only thing that needs to wait until the very end, since I won’t know how the lyrics need to be laid out until the final disc is nailed down.

I might look into having the outer shell (the box that will hold the CDs and booklet) made while the album is still in-progress as well. I have a pretty good idea what I want that to look like, and I think I’ve found the place to manufacture it. Should look pretty cool when all is said and done (or played and sung).

I haven’t trimmed my beard in any meaningful way all year. Not sure I’ll make it to 2013 without grabbing the scissors, though. At a certain point it starts to get more scraggly than bushy, and thoughts of trimming the shrubbery start floating around. Then again, if it makes me less attractive to a potential suitor, I’m all for the beard being a scraggly mess.

I think that’s about it off the top of my head. I’ll put more effort into getting back in the groove of posting here roughly once a week (at least), for anyone who still might pop in on occasion. If nothing else, it’ll be a good excuse to talk to myself more. And that’s always a good time, because nothing’s off-limits. I mean, what could you ever say to offend yourself?