Tuesday Tune Two-fer: Jeremy Blake (Red Means Recording)

Two tunes from an artist who showed what you can do with synthesizers and gave me calm when I needed it

Jeremy Blake is the musician behind (or maybe just slightly underneath) the brilliant YouTube channel Red Means Recording. He does really clever tutorials for various synthesizers and other musical instruments, predominantly the Teenage Engineering OP-1, along with their Pocket Operators. I imagine he’s tricked a ton of people into buying an OP-1, because he always makes it look like it’s easy to just sit down and get a fantastic track of out of the device every time.

He’s got a new album out called Hindsight, along with a great music video for the title track that combines footage from the Black Lives Matter protests with stock footage he didn’t pay for. It’s an ingenious trick to use humor to make the horror stand out; the super-heightened vapidity of stock footage contrasted against the surreal footage of police brutality that we’ve been seeing.

In March of last year he made a video called Opulent Polished Zircon, one of two videos demonstrating the capabilities of the Teenage Engineering OP-Z. It’s pretty great. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole 50-minute set, my favorite part is at the 27:50 mark. (It’s also available on Apple Music, where my favorite is the track titled “Oh, Luck”).

It’s unlikely to have the same impact on you as it did on me, but that’s for the best. I listened to it back in early February, at the lowest point of the worst year, when I was having to fly back to California on my own. Listening to this with headphones let me just get completely lost in the music. A wave of calm washed over me. It was a reminder that I could still enjoy something, and I was going to go on discovering new things to enjoy. I could see a glimmer of optimism again.

And then the pandemic started a few weeks later. But for a while there, I was hopeful, and I’ll always appreciate this track for it.

Semi-New Song Sunday: First Aid Kit

Hearing First Aid Kit for the first time makes me wish I’d grown up in their version of the 1970s, instead of the real one

In a rare victory for the YouTube algorithm, it recommended out of the blue the beautiful “Come Give Me Love” by First Aid Kit. The song is a cover of a Swedish pop song from 1973 by Ted Gärdestad. I’d never heard of the song or the artist, or First Aid Kit, for that matter, but they’re quoted describing why the song is significant to them in a post from Clash magazine1(Which I also have never heard of):

Ted Gärdestad is a Swedish national treasure. Just like us he started his music career when he was only a teenager and wrote songs with his older brother Kenneth. […] The original track was produced by none other than Björn and Benny from ABBA, with ABBA on backing vocals. We are huge fans of the original production and wanted to stay close to that 70s folky sound. This is an homage to that time period and recording style.

When I first saw their other videos, I got a heavy Heart vibe, but as I watch more, I realize it’s more like “What if Ann and Nancy Wilson had grown up in Sweden instead of Seattle, and instead of Led Zeppelin they’d really gotten into Simon & Garfunkel and Emmylou Harris?” At which point I’m probably stretching the comparison too far, but I still like it.

I often feel like my generation and the one immediately after are responsible for so much pointless disdain and negativity, getting all worked up about “authenticity” and “appropriation,” which is really nothing but self-righteous ignorance about how culture actually works. It makes me extremely happy to see examples of artists who don’t waste any time worrying about that nonsense, and just celebrate the stuff they love.

First Aid Kit’s songs and videos — hell, even their typography — are homages to the 1970s, and 1970s America in particular, that aren’t tainted by the self-awareness of nostalgia. So they’re allowed to be purely enthusiastic celebrations of the aesthetic itself. Too often when people try to make an homage to the 70s or 80s (or now, I guess, 90s and 2000s), they include all the artifacts like scan lines, film grain, and record hiss: implicit acknowledgements that they’re calling back to something that’s now quaint and dated. But when you present it in high resolution and high fidelity, it’s an admission that “No, I just genuinely love this stuff. And I want to present it the same way they would have, if they’d had easy access to the technology we’ve got.”

Another really nice video is “It’s a Shame”, which has a similar feel to Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” but its gimmick is the much simpler “one of these sisters is having a much better night than the other.” It’s also just a really great song.

My Possession

The latest Dirty Projectors song seems as close as 2020 is going to let us get to a collective exhale.

Still no plans to switch over full-time to a Dirty Projectors fanpage, but I was happy to see that their final EP of 2020, Ring Road, came out today, along with a video for “My Possession.”

I’m not savvy enough to recognize whether the beginning is a Google promotion, or just a gag about how some of us have been listening to “Overlord” non-stop since we first heard it. Either way, it’s a nice acknowledgement of late November 2020, setting aside a lovely song about fascism in favor of gentle harmonies about letting go of self-destructive obsession, complete with references to The Exorcist.

P.S. My favorite song from the last EP is still “Searching Spirit.”

Tuesday Tune Twofer: Songs for my Mother

Remembering the early 1970s, and two songs my mother liked to sing when I was a kid.

My friend Chris just commented that his daughter liked a song I’d included in a post, which made me wonder if this blog might be a bad influence on children, which made me think of the songs I remember liking when I was little. I loved ABBA, but the first song I clearly remember loving was “Top of the World” by The Carpenters.

Really, I remember a medley of songs, including “Close to You” and “Sing.” But “On Top of the World” was my favorite, and I still can’t think about it — even the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes version — without thinking of my mother singing it.

She also liked to tell a story over and over — that I don’t remember at all — of my getting out a portable microphone and sitting on a stool and singing “Sing” while crossing my leg and turning to face a non-existent camera, like I’d probably seen somebody do on the Mike Douglas show. In retrospect, I realize that that story, plus my love of ABBA, make it seem like I should’ve recognized some things about myself before I turned 33, but I’ll just say the 70s were a simpler time.

My mother also loved Neil Diamond, and eight times out of ten, you could find her either playing or singing “Sweet Caroline,” “I’m a Believer,” “America,” “Song Sung Blue,” or the one I remember her singing the most often: “Cracklin Rosie.Everybody knows the “Bom! Bom! Bom” from “Sweet Caroline,” but only the true fans could be found walking through the kitchen, seemingly at random, singing “Say it now! Say it now! Say it now!”

Also: that version of “Sing” I linked to above is one I’d never seen before, with Karen Carpenter and a small chorus of children singing the song in Japanese. Which is so rad that I’m going to include it as a unprecedented third song for Tuesday Twofer.

Semi-New Song Sundays: Nada Surf

Nada Surf is new to me but is still making me nostalgic for my college years.

I’ve heard of Nada Surf before, but to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never actually heard any of their songs. “Song for Congress” is from their 2020 album Never Not Together, and even though it’s not at all subtle, it’s pretty nice. Vocals that vaguely remind me of 60s British pop, jangly guitars, and some nice string arrangements: I’ll allow it.

Probably appropriate for a band that formed in the 1990s, this sounds like exactly the kind of music that was ubiquitous in my college years. Or probably more accurately, during my first job immediately after college, listening to Atlanta “alternative” radio on my commute to work. It would’ve played in between Luscious Jackson, Veruca Salt, and the Crash Test Dummies.

I don’t think I’m going to rush out to get one of their records. If I’m being honest, the reason their music sounds so familiar could very well be because I’ve heard them before and found it completely forgettable. But right now, there’s something comforting seeing a guy who’s grayed almost as much as I have, still making music that immediately takes me back to a better time. The biggest difference is back then, a lot of us were fooled into thinking the Clinton Administration had our best interests at heart, so there were fewer somber pop songs about the leadership vacuum.

Another track from their new album is “Something I Should Do”, which is even more the kind of song that seemed to playing constantly somewhere in Athens, sometimes following you from store to store. Based on the older songs I’ve heard, I’m guessing that the spoken-word-verse — which for “alternative rock” seems to date it to the 1990s as much as if they were making Martin references — is a recurring thing with the band. This time it’s about finding unity in a year with so much deep division. It makes me miss the days when bands could be unapologetically earnest, back before a D-list TV host could demand to see a President’s birth certificate and the people who voted him into office would act aghast that you’d insinuate that they’re racist.

Tuesday Tune Two-fer: Music to Feel Bad To

Today’s theme is feeling gross and going back to bed

I woke up around five am feeling lousy, fitfully slept for a couple more hours and felt even worse, and then over the course of the afternoon felt it turn into a massive headache. I’ve gone back to bed, but I still can’t let an early attempt at blog continuity die so soon.

Thankfully I’ve been having much fewer headaches in 2020 than I did in 20191Turns out allergy medicine does work after all, as long as I take it daily, so I’ve been hearing a lot less of Frank Black’s song in my head. I’ve liked the song ever since I first heard it, and I especially love the video which I somehow don’t remember ever seeing before, but it’s not a great one to have going on a constant loop in your brain when it feels like it’s swollen up and trying to burst through cracks in your skull.

Another video I’d never seen before today is the alternate video to Bruno Mars’s “The Lazy Song.” Bruno Mars songs already seem catchy but completely empty; I feel like he’s a genius pop musician who could be making incredibly memorable songs (but likely incredibly less money) if he’d team up with a lyricist who aimed for more weight. “The Lazy Song” has always felt twee to the point of being insufferable, probably because I can’t hear it without seeing that stupid video with all the monkey masks. It’s so much better paired with this alternate version, where the meaningless catchiness of the song is paired with Leonard Nimoy just no longer giving a shit.

Speaking of not giving a shit: I’ll try to come up with some better songs next week.

Semi-new Song Sunday: Run the Jewels

New-to-me: Run the Jewels make revolution look like a fun street party

Edited to add: Re-reading this, I noticed I’d carelessly used an idiom without thinking of the implications of it. Instead of silently correcting it, I’d rather draw attention to it as a reminder to be conscious of the connotations of what we write. Below, I wrote that Mike’s speech was about “how far black people have come,” which not only sounds condescending, but also makes it sound as if they were overcoming some internal limitation, or somehow “catching up.” What I should have written was “how much black people have accomplished, even in a system designed to keep them down.”

I’ve tried to get into Run the Jewels a few times, but it never “took” until “Ooh LA LA,” released earlier this year but super-appropriate for watching on repeat over the past week.

The image of dozens (hundreds?) of people dancing in the streets as the excesses of capitalism burn around them may be a little on-the-nose, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome to see.

Speaking of capitalism, that’s been the thing keeping me from getting into Run the Jewels for a while. They just seem like they’re trying way too hard to sell me something. I mean, I know that self-promotion is a huge part of hip hop, but they keep banging the same notes over and over again — the fist and the gun, and yeah we get it, you smoke — so often that it feels more like a commercial than a music video.

The reason I gave them another look is because I respect the hell out of Killer Mike for his heartfelt and reasoned call for peace in response to the protests of the George Floyd murder, at a press conference with his school friend, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. It was inspiring as hell. Not conciliatory, not compromising, vividly angry and disgusted, but reminding us how far black people have come — especially in Atlanta — and reminding everyone to respect the work of generations of people fighting against injustice and to stop tearing down the things that their work had built. After seeing so many white people tsk-tsking and saying “well I don’t see what looting could possibly accomplish,” it was amazing seeing someone calling for peace while still screaming at a system that callously crushes people with no recourse for justice.

I don’t agree with Killer Mike on a lot of political issues, gun control in particular, but those are the kind of political issues about which reasonable adults can disagree. Regardless, I’ve got to respect anybody using his voice and his platform to promote political activism and progressivism. It probably would be a lot easier just to make a fortune making songs about self-promotion.

Like, say, “Call Ticketron” from 2017. There’s not much to it, as far as I can tell, but it’s catchy and it gives Killer Mike a chance to go nuts with the rhymes. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Tuesday Tune Twofer: What a Wonderful Time to Be Alive

Two tenuously and tangentially related tunes every Tuesday, with a hopeful Election Day reminder that we’re living in the best time

For this pair of videos, the basic idea is that each of them made me gasp the first time I saw them, and think “What a wonderful time to be alive.” The first is “Like Sugar” by Chaka Khan, which undeniably calls back to Soul Train dance lines, but probably wouldn’t exist without modern editing suites. It’s a marvel every time I see it, just a pure celebration of music and dance and polyester.

Second is “Because I’m Me” by The Avalanches, which could’ve been overlooked as just a sample-heavy stab at nostalgia if it weren’t for the cinematic video about a boy and his crush. The way it keeps building still manages to make me gasp.

The other thing that both these songs have in common is that they could only exist in the time they were made. Not just because of video editing software, or a music industry and streaming platform structured to make cinematic videos possible, but because they call back to the past.

When I left Telltale Games the first time,1Yes, I was foolish enough to go back for more. it was part way through production of the season of Sam & Max games that I’d put the most of myself into. I’d thought of the season as pulling together many of the things from entertainment that I loved: Night Gallery,2For me, all of the Lovecraftian stuff came from a single episode of Night Gallery, since I was never a big fan of the original material. Battle of the Planets, Space: 1999, Zardoz, The Beast Must Die!, the Richard Donner Superman movies, Portal, film noir, Murder on the Orient Express and The Last Express, Hammer horror movies, the Haunted Mansion, and of course, the Sam & Max and Toybox comics by Steve Purcell. When I was talking about the season outline with the director of one of the episodes, he pushed back on that idea, saying he didn’t want his episode to be just a pastiche of references.

It was a little jarring at the time, and obviously it’s stuck with me, because it’s such an alien concept to me. Obviously, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way, and there’s not much value in simply regurgitating stuff that everyone’s seen before. That doesn’t result in “Like Sugar,” but “I Love the 70s.” But taking disparate sources and making something new means that you’re taking all your enthusiasm about a new idea, and combining it with your love for the source material. I believe that that much excitement inevitably comes through in the final result.

And by that measure, right now is always the best time to be alive, because it’s the time when we have the most to draw from.

This post is scheduled to go up on Election Day, but I’m writing it a couple weeks ahead, before the thought flies out of my mind. I don’t even know what things are going to look like two weeks from now, but I want to stay optimistic and hopeful. We’re always drawing from the past, building on what we have, always improving, and appreciating everything that we have right now.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Parekh & Singh

A duo from India reminds me to let pop music be pop, and not to dwell on how quickly the early 2000s are receding from the present.

This week’s entry in music that’s new, to me at least: “I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll” by Indian pop duo Parekh & Singh.

If I’m being honest, it’s really hard for me to turn off the hypercritical part of my brain, the part that says “Wow, these guys were hardcore into Rushmore,” and dismiss it as twee. Because that’s pretty asinine, when a perfectly charming pop song can nail a sound and a feeling, and come across as being a loving tribute to a style instead of simply a crass reproduction of it.

After all, I was really hardcore into Rushmore for a while, too, and I remember how it seemed like such a revelation to hear songs like “Concrete and Clay” for the first time. And since 2020 has been depressing enough, I’ll just conveniently ignore the alarming fact that Rushmore is now over 20 years old (!), meaning that the present is almost as far removed from that movie as that movie was from the songs on its soundtrack. At this point, the style isn’t even so much aping Wes Anderson as it is something that’s become fully integrated into popular culture.

The thing I especially like about the “I Love You Baby” video is how the scenes and details of India are incorporated. I was definitely not a fan of Anderson’s own attempt to do that — The Darjeeling Limited — but I feel like these guys’ videos do a better job of capturing what that movie was going for. There’s a sense of “You know, we don’t really need you to come over here to show India to western audiences; we’ve had TVs and cameras and musical instruments for quite a while, actually.”

I like the music well enough, but the videos are what really makes it feel like 21st century cross-cultural celebration.

Another favorite of mine is “Summer Skin,” which is dreamy and seems to drift between the late 60s and the early 2000s. The un-forced vocals over spacey, jangly guitars somehow conjure an image for me of Cass Elliott collaborating with Stone Roses.

Tuesday Tune Twofer: Road Trip Repeat Plays

Two tenuously, tangentially related tunes every Tuesday. This week: songs from road trips with my fiancé

I’ve heard that being able to go to IKEA together and remain civil is a good indicator of a strong relationship, but going to IKEA is such a miserable experience that I think it’s too high a bar to set. Better, I think, is being able to go on a long road trip with someone, including listening to their music, and still wanting to spend time together afterwards.

My fiancé and I kind of raise the bar on that, since we both tend to get a little fixated on certain songs and want to hear them over and over and over again. These two songs are ones that he tends to pick and that I ended up liking a lot. Hearing them not only reminds me of road trips we’ve taken in the past, but actually makes me want to go on another one.

First up is “Came Out of a Lady” by Rubblebucket, or as I’ve known it for years, “that ska-sounding song that reminds me of Jerry Lewis.” We listened to it a few times on a drive from South Carolina back to Atlanta, and once the hook gets into you, it’s difficult to forget.1Also, the lead singer looks uncannily like my friend Michelle.

The second is “Yes, Maria, Yes” by David Wax Museum. I most associate this with a trip we took down to Los Angeles in which we — and this still seems impossible to believe — didn’t visit Disneyland. We were driving from Echo Park, up through the Hollywood Hills towards the Griffith Observatory, and it played at least four or five times on loop, and I never got tired of it.

And I should probably save it for Thursday Theme Threesomes,2This does not, and will not, actually exist. but a road trip song from my own library that I could listen to on endless repeat is “Rolling” by Soul Coughing. I love Soul Coughing, but listening to that song in particular, while driving fast down a freeway on a dark night, just makes you feel like such a bad-ass.