Category Archives: music

Necessary Spinning

Here’s what’s doing it to me in my earhole these days:

Los Campesinos!—Hello Sadness

This record has been getting mixed-to-positive reviews, which I can’t fathom. It’s a brilliant leap forward in an oeuvre of consistently brilliant albums. Whereas previous LC! records have functioned as exhilarating, overstuffed collections of killer songs, Hello Sadness is a proper album, even a concept album, with a clear direction…straight downward from the first blushes of doomed romance to the bleak wreckage of the breakup. As such, the track sequence progressively unwinds from the impossibly catchy, gang-shouty, hand-clappy, tribal-drummy “By Your Hand” (possibly the band’s best-ever single) to the stark funeral marches and elegies of the record’s back half. I fell for these guys hard back in 2008, and while they continue to mine the ins and out of broken romance, my love affair with them is stronger than ever. Key tracks: “By Your Hand”; “Hello Sadness”; “To Tundra”

Real Estate—Days

I never catch up with the rock and roll until after the cool kids are already over it, which means for this and the next two entries, album #2. I’d chalk it up to my being an out-of-touch old man, but I’ve been this way forever. Nevermind, Doolittle, Loveless, etc. were the entry points to my favorite bands back in college. Perhaps this is why I’ve always been slightly confused by the myth of the “sophomore slump”—so many of my favorite bands saved their strongest work for their second go-around. Real Estate certainly have their sound figured out for their second full-length, Days. While there’s not much here as instantly memorable as their early single “Beach Comber”, the shiny, slinky production on the new release does this band all kinds of favors. Chiming guitars, loping beats and mellow harmonies want clean, clear sound to shimmy around in. Not experimental, neither adventurous nor challenging, just impossibly pretty, slightly hazy late-summer indie rock. That’s way more than enough. Key tracks: “Easy”; “It’s Real”; “Younger Than Yesterday”; “All The Same”

Wavves—King of the Beach/Life Sux EP

Brash and bratty, surf-inflected guitar rock that sounds like it didn’t take much longer to write than it does to bash out or listen to. (Which, perhaps I should explain, is a compliment.) Again, the guy has considerably cleaned up his sound from his distortion-drenched debut only to reveal some amazing hooks. “King of the Beach” from the 2010 album, and “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl” from this year’s follow-up EP are the reason I listen to rock music—that moment when you first hear a song, and it tricks you into thinking: This is the best thing I’ve ever heard. I want to hear this forever. I live for those songs, those brief bursts of irrational exuberance that are inevitably killed by the fifth or sixth listen, but man, while they’ve got your head turned….Key tracks: see above; “Take On The World”; “Bug”

Dum Dum Girls—Only In Dreams

Not a lot to say about this one, except that lead signer Kristen “Dee Dee” Gundred’s uncanny Chrissie Hynde impersonation works completely. Lyrics are a little dumb, but the music takes a satisfyingly straightforward approach befitting its obvious inspiration. “Caught In One” and “Bedroom Eyes” are both “in-an-alt-universe-this-is-a-smash-hit” songs. Key Tracks: see above; “Coming Down”

Mr. Muthafukin’ eXquire—Lost In Translation mixtape

Because I am such an old man, I only recently discovered that there is such a sea of brilliant hip hop and R&B being released online for free (I suppose both to avoid the hassle of clearing samples and to get music straight to listeners instead of chasing down Jay Z or Kanye to beg an audience for your demo tape.) In the past year I’ve swooned over Das Racist, The Weeknd and others. Lately I can’t get enough of Mr. Muthafukin’, a Brooklyn-based MC whose album recalls the very best of East Coast rap from the past 30 years. A big, confident Chuck D voice meets super-raw lyrical content rooted in eXquire’s lower-to-working class surroundings. This isn’t champagne-sipping millionaire hip hop looking back on a childhood in the projects; this music rooted in tenements, food stamps and 40s. The music is hungry, bristling with ideas and attitude like Jay Z a long, long time ago on Reasonable Doubt. The album-ending remix of paean to drinking “Huzzah” featuring El-P, Das Racist and others plays like a modern-day version of De La Soul’s “Buddy” remix featuring the whole Native Tongue posse. And the Das Racist verses are stronger than anything on their recent album Relax. Key Tracks: “Triple F”; “The Last Huzzah!”; Lou Ferigno’s Mad”

Life’s Rich Pageant

I have a distinct memory of the first time I heard of a band called REM. It was a Saturday morning in 1984, and I was standing around with some friends after a youth league soccer game. One of my buddies who had an older brother said that he was going to a college (!) concert that night to hear a band called REM.

I had never heard of the band, but my friend made them sound like everyone who was cool knew who they were and if this band was playing at W&L, then the college kids certainly thought they were cool, which legitimized their coolness…so, it goes. I feigned coolness—“Of course I had heard of REM”—but I wasn’t allowed to go to a college concert, said. (To be honest, I don’t know if this was the case or not, but it was a convenient excuse. There was no way I would have stepped foot in a “college” concert at the age of 13, for the same reason I never trick-or-treated at college fraternities on Halloween; college kids, en mass, were scary. Of course, some of my friends had no such fear. They were cool, and I was not.)

In any case, after that one episode, REM slipped from my consciousness for a few years, until my sophomore year of high school. That previous summer, Life’s Rich Pageant had been released, and during the waning days of summer and the first days of autumn, my friends and I listened to that cassette tape non-stop. From the opening riff of “Begin the Begin,” I was hooked, transfixed by a sound that was addictive and unlike anything I had ever heard.

Now, for context, I was a relative novice, music-wise. My listening experience had been limited to listening to my parents’ record albums (ranging from The Beatles to Flatt & Scruggs, Scott Joplin to Mussorgsky . . . great, eclectic, quality stuff, yes, but The Ramones and Velvet Underground, they were not) as a kid to the stuff popular at middle school dances (think Journey and “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine…”).

REM spoke to me, spoke to us, in a way that Morrissey and The Smiths have spoken to teenage angst across the decades. A blogger for the New York Times Magazine has described this sound as “mysterious, self-effacing, earnest, hopeful, yearning, humble.” Yes, exactly.

To me, that album remains REM’s quintessential work—because it was the album that introduced me to them, to a world I had never laid eyes (or ears) on before. And while I would come to appreciate other albums more (Murmur and Reckoning, the band’s first two releases, became the “classic” REM albums in my eyes, the ones every aficiondo appreciated best) Life’s Rich Pageant was the gateway drug, the album that screams “REM” to me more than any other.

Yet, with all that said, it was their first commercial hit, their first album to go platinum, that still delivers the strongest emotional wallop. The release of Document coincided with the clichéd but oh-so-real coming-of-age year. It was the year of driving, of going on real dates, of going to parties and all that entailed—under-aged drinking, parents out of town. It was the year a friend attempted suicide at one of those “home alone” parties.

Add to that the soundtrack of “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World…” and, well, you have a combustive, emotional brew. (And as much as those two songs have become standard bearers bordering on musical chestnuts for that album and REM at that time—and no doubt contributed to how I recall those years—lesser know tunes such as “Disturbance at the Heron House” and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” instantly return me to that time and place, as well.)

With the announcement that REM is no longer, it prompts flashes of all these emotions—discovery, exuberance, possibility, young love, young heartbreak, even shock and horror.

When I was in college, I used to see Michael Stipe from time to time. He was (and I presume still is) friends with the artist Sally Mann, who lives in the town where I grew up and went to school. For a year or so, I had seen him around—walking down the street, driving in a car—but I never had the occasion to speak to him until I literally bumped into him at a big college party called Fancy Dress. I apologized before I even realized who he was; in my hazy recollection I believe I spilled a drink on him. And then I noticed that Sally, who I’ve known since I was a child, was the companion of this slight, bald, and, for W&L, unconventionally dressed guy who happened to be Michael Stipe.

I think I mumbled something to him, some platitude about how I loved his music, and that was that. Looking back, I can’t imagine anything else I would have said or done at that time. But now, with the benefit of hindsight and wisdom and sentimentality–age and time, really—I think it’s appropriate to offer a word of gratitude, of thanks, to not just Sipe, but Peter Buck and Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Thanks, not just for the memories, but for making the memories what they are.

Don’t, stop

So, the news that The Stone Roses are getting back together for a “world tour” and new recording has thrown me for a loop. The Roses loom large in my musical imagination; nearly as large as singer Ian Brown’s outsized ego. Their 1989 self-titled debut album, which I first discovered in a friend’s room in Battell Hall in the spring of 1990, essentially soundtracked my life at Midd from that moment forward. A clue to its impact is that I can actually still remember that moment, hearing “Fool’s Gold” for the first time, with the Pollock-inspired CD art in my hands. My mind’s eye may have embellished the gorgeous amber light suffusing the room and rising chorus of angels. Still, love at first listen.

In the days before Nevermind swept the campus in the Fall of ’91, the Roses album was the one record that everyone I knew could agree on—from indie rockers to my pal who swore by Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss. (We all also agreed that the backwards-tape-loop dirge “Don’t Stop” could have been left off the album with few complaints. I’ve grown to like it.)

It’s fortunate the album is so good, because that was pretty much it for the band, aside from a b-sides collection and a couple of stray singles. A dispute with their label kept the group out of the studio through the rest of my college career and beyond. Finally, in 1994, the legal clouds lifted and their follow-up Second Coming was released to inevitable disappointment. There were a few good songs, but during the forced layoff their tastes had clearly morphed from lush, Byrds-inspired guitar pop to warmed-over Led Zep riffs, half-hearted rave tracks, and worst of all, the jive pseudo-funk practiced by so many of the lesser “Madchester” bands they had helped to spawn. By ’96 the band was no more, and it seemed like a mercy killing.

Now the Roses are reunited, seemingly ready to right the wrongs of their awkward, bitter implosion, boasting that they’ll finally live up to their promise. I’m not holding my breath—at least not in anticipation. In some respects, this reunion comes at just the right time, as R.E.M. gracefully folds their tent and Kim and Thurston are about to make daughter Coco’s future Christmas plans twice as complicated. There’s something nice about one of my favorite old bands burying the hatchet just as many of their 80s-era peers finally call it quits. I look forward to the chance to see them live, despite Brown’s erratic (to be charitable) voice in concert. In other respects, however, I’m 83% convinced that this isn’t going end any better than the last time around. I’m wary of having perhaps my strongest music nostalgia monkeyed with. Not every band has it in them to pick up where they left off live, like the Pixies, or even better, release more classic albums like they never skipped as beat, as with the amazing Dinosaur Jr. We’re about to find out if lightning can indeed be put in the bottle twice. If they can make some money, fine. But I don’t need them to do this. That first album doesn’t need them to do this. It’s taken on a life of its own.

In My Room

It seems to me that Cole’s post would be incomplete without the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ 1963 song “In My Room.” Written by Brian Wilson, along Gary Usher (Usher was not in the Beach Boys, but was part of the surf-music scene in Southern California), the song captures the emotional intensity of being a teenager, alone and cocooned in a private realm.

Few singer/songwriters do such fantasies better than Brian Wilson.

In My Room

There’s a world where I can go
and tell my secrets to
In my room
In my room

In this world I lock out
all my worries and my fears
In my room
In my room

Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing laugh at yesterday

Now it’s dark and I’m alone
but I won’t be afraid
In my room
In my room

Only The Lonely: Post by Cole Odell ’93

Technically, this is a guest post, but once we get Cole his log-on privileges, he will be a regular contributor to Music at Sixty-Eight Degrees. We also hope to get him up to Middlebury from his home in Brattleboro for a turn on the radio show.

*******

In my personal experience. fandom can be a lot like masturbation: a solitary pursuit, often done in the privacy of your own room. Maybe that’s because I first came to fandom through comic books, not sports, well before geek culture conquered pop culture. Also, I grew up in a small, sleepy Vermont town. The idea that other actual people shared my interests took a long time to present itself to me. I now make regular treks to Comic-Con in San Diego with my best friend from Midd and tens of thousands of other fans, but no matter how big the crowd gets, part of me still feels alone in it.

This attitude has bled into my experience with music. Did I mention I grew up in small-town Vermont? That meant a radio dial filled with 90% static and 10% classic rock, top 40 or country. No college stations. A cable system that didn’t pick up MTV until 1987. A cohort whose collective musical tastes ranged from the Doors, Rush and the Stones, to Led Zep, the Who, and…not much else.

Geographic isolation also meant no rock concerts nearby. And to my parochial thinking, rock towns like Boston or even Northampton might as well have been the moon. Instead, being a music fan for me meant staying up until 1 AM on a school night hoping the radio would play my request for “One Night in Bangkok”; learning everything I could from the occasional copies of Rolling Stone; perusing my parents’ neglected record collection, or hanging around the record store.

Things changed over time. First, there was my high-school pastime of driving endless loops around town with my friend Todd, and Prince. Our mutual admiration for Sign ‘o the Times and Lovesexy marked my first instance of shared music interest. When MTV finally hit our area, it became a huge, if halting topic of conversation, as I found I spoke in Cure, P.I.L. and Love & Rockets, while Todd conversed in Crüe, Ratt and Winger. But at least our enthusiasms were within spitting distance.

Then my first concert, when I yielded to Todd’s hair metal devotion for a “99 Rock FM Party Bus” pilgrimage to see Skid Row and Bon Jovi in all their leather-pants-wearing, fireworks-exploding glory alongside, for the first time, thousands of genuine screaming fans. Still, as guilty-pleasure catchy as “Runaway” may be, I knew I wasn’t one of them.

Finally, Middlebury College remade me, especially my experience at WRMC. The station exposed me to a huge amount of music new and old, and providing regular access to live shows, shared with fellow fans I still consider some of my best friends—people with whom I still swap Spotify playlists, go to occasional shows, and have endless “have you heard this band” conversations. That said, today I live in a slightly larger Vermont town, with a spouse who’s a passive music fan at best, kids with little interest, and very few local friends who kept paying attention past their 20s. Most of my time spent with rock and roll is the same as it was when I was ten. Just me and the music.

Being There

Matt’s post about being a fan called to mind the first rock concerts I went to as a teenager. I purchased my first record—a 45—when I was in sixth grade (“Grazing in the Grass” by the Friends of Distinction) and my first album shortly thereafter (by Blood Sweat & Tears).  But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I went to a concert on my own.  I remember going with my family to see Judy Collins at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Fall, Ohio, about 30 miles outside Cleveland.  I must have been fourteen or fifteen, and this was a pretty tame affair: lawn seating, blankets, and white wine (for the adults).

My next concert was much different, and marked my first real outing as a rock fan.

The big event was something called “The World Series of Rock”—one of several all-day concerts held in the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the 1970s. Torn down in 1996, the Stadium was a cavernous structure that held over 80,000 people and served as home for the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns.

For the management of the Indians and the Browns, the World Series of Rock must have been a questionable proposition, regardless of the revenue opportunities, since the concert brought thousands of people on to the field and chewed up the turf. But for concertgoers—at least for me, a sixteen year old—it was a kind of delirious mayhem.

The first World Series of Rock concerts took place in the summer of 1974, and I attended two of them. The first included the Beach Boys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh, and REO Speedwagon. The second featured Santana, the Band, Jesse Colin Young, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

The crowds that attended these concerts were huge and rowdy (drugs and alcohol had their effect), and I remember feeling exhilarated—and a little fearful—when I ventured onto the infield and was engulfed by a mob of people.  It turns out my apprehensions had some merit since several people ended up getting seriously hurt when they jumped or fell from the second deck of the stadium.

There is nothing like a live concert to drive home the sensory pleasures of rock ‘n roll. It’s a full body experience, especially if you are an adolescent male.  I remember hearing Lyrnyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” for the first time (in the smoking lounge of my high school) and thinking of it as some kind of revelation (just short of “Stairway to Heaven”).  Seeing/hearing it performed live at the Cleveland Stadium—with dual guitar solos—did not disappoint.

The fact that I saw this concert with thousands of other people raises a question that Matt suggests in his post.  Can you be a music fan by yourself?  Or does being a fan necessarily mean being part of a larger collective?

Being a Fan

I would like to take a second to discuss this photograph. And, yes, I can hear you: “Here he goes again. First, procrastination and now college hoops. What, exactly, does this post have to do with music.”

Well, I’ll tell you. It has to do with being a fan, specifically how being a fan of something or someone when you are a kid is impossible to replicate in adulthood.

This picture was taken in December, 1982; I was 12 years old and a rabid fan of the University of Virginia basketball team. Growing up an hour or so away from Charlottesville at a time when the Cavaliers were one of the best teams in the country and featured the best player in America, Ralph Sampson, I lived and died with UVA hoops. Nothing was as important. And while I still follow the Cavaliers and consider myself a big fan of both their football and basketball teams, it’s not the same. I was reminded of this the second I took a look at this photo, which an old friend pointed out to me with the message, “Get ready for some serious nostalgia.”

As soon as I saw this image of Ralph battling with Patrick Ewing under the basket in what was then called “The Game of the Century,” I was hit with a wave of emotion that is near impossible to describe. Seeing that uniform, and not just that uniform but that uniform in that particular moment, frozen in time, made me feel for a nanosecond like I was 12 again, and there was no more important thing in my orbit than the fate of the UVA basketball team. And then the feeling faded, like a wisp of steam evaporating in the air.

Had I been a music nerd rather than a sports nerd at that time, I imagine that I’d have a similar reaction to artists who I first heard as a young adolescent, when one’s love for something is unencumbered by, well, real life. As it is, I still have visceral reactions to albums that I remember my parents playing at that time (The Beatles’ “Abby Road” and Lester Flatt’s and Earl Scruggs’ “Nashville Airplane” are at the top of the list), but the feeling is not as intense as it would be if I had wanted to be a musician or a music journalist.

So, what about you? What takes you back to adolescence and makes you feel like a kid again?