Today has been a drag, and I almost forgot it was Tuesday. I’d been happy that we were getting unusually heavy rain over the past few days, until I was reminded that heavy rains tend to bring a biblical plague of ants into the house. We spent a good chunk of the morning and early afternoon trying to head them off, and ever since, it’s been a combination of obsessively cleaning surfaces and freaking out when I imagine something crawling on me.
It’s been difficult to get any work done, much less my blogging duties. But in honor of the tragedy, here’s “It’s Raining Again” by Supertramp. I never liked this song, to be honest, but I’ve heard it a billion times because it seemed to play every ten minutes on MTV and Night Tracks. In the early 80s, you just had to make a video “cinematic” to guarantee it got played a lot; it didn’t have to be particularly good cinema. In videos like this, where they hired actors and dancers for most of it, you could only tell who was actually in the band by looking for beards.
I’m pairing it with “Come to My Window” by Melissa Etheridge, because that’s how they’re getting in. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve about had it with Melissa Etheridge letting ants into my house!
Because I genuinely can’t understand a single word Ariana Grande is singing in “Thank u, next”
“Take Out the Trash” by They Might Be Giants seems appropriate this week, the day before January 20, 2021. TMBG may be my favorite band with one of my doppelgängers in it, and they’ve got a song for just about everything.
I’d thought I was going to use “Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye,” but I discovered to my horror that the title is actually “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” which is an image nobody needs now in this time of happiness and healing. If you want to see a bunch of studio musicians in 1969 failing to lip-synch to it, though, that video’s got you covered.
So instead, here’s the only time you’ll ever see Motley Crue linked on my blog, with their timeless hit “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)”. I looked for a pop song titled “Go Get Fucked (You Worthless Shitstain)” or “I Look Forward To Never Having to Hear Your Name Again (You Treasonous Little Bitch),” but didn’t turn up anything. Even from the Dead Kennedys!
Two songs about wanting America to live up to its promise
“America” is my favorite song by Simon & Garfunkel, but lately I’ve gotten a greater surge of emotion from listening to this cover by First Aid Kit, a duo of Swedish sisters born over twenty years after the song was first recorded. (This live version recorded in Stockholm that got a solo standing ovation from Paul Simon is also wonderful).
Simon’s genius lyrics take a bunch of highly-specific references and generalize them into a perfect expression of the hope and disillusionment of being an American in the late 60s. The cover resonates with me because it shows that the song is even more universal than that: it was never about a specific time or even a specific place, but about an ideal, and the perpetual sadness that comes from seeing that ideal remain unrealized.
Growing up in the Ronald Reagan-led, Newt Gingrich-fueled, jingoistic travesty of America that was the 1980s, I learned to reject American patriotism as the weak-minded arrogance of bigots and fools. So much of it seemed to be manifested in the laser shows at Stone Mountain. There were all the obvious signs of corruption and rot — the show’s climax traced the mountain’s carving of Confederate leaders and animated them riding off to glory, set to a medley of Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson singing “Dixie” and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. As the crowd around us hooted and hollered at the majesty of it all, my (white) friends and I could safely roll our eyes and mock it as gross and misguided but ultimately harmless. Virulent racists were dying out, I told myself, and the casual variety would flee back to their comfortable homes in the suburbs, where they weren’t reaching out to be part of a larger community, but at least they weren’t actively making things worse.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the comically absurd rot — a Confederate War memorial? In 1985?! Ha ha! — was more or less a front for the more pervasive fear and greed that would get more and more entrenched over the next few decades. That was manifested in a song, too: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I always misinterpreted it as dumb but harmless, a shallow take on patriotism that was easily dismissed with an eye roll and a wanking gesture. But it’s jarring now to look back and see laid bare just how selfish and transactional it always was. It’s all pride, no responsibility. You’ve got to thank the troops, but only for giving me my freedom and my rights. It’s all my family, not my community. The only suggestion of “stand[ing] up next to you” is to fight to keep what belongs to us.
I can at least understand why people like Greenwood’s version, though: sometimes you do genuinely just want the bombast and pride and being able to shout “America, Fuck Yeah!” Anybody who believes that the whole idea of “the American experiment” is based on just an accident of where you were born — for good or for ill — is missing the entire point, which is that none of this works unless we all to agree believe in it. That requires some faith and some swagger. It’s not a refusal to acknowledge all the layers of disillusionment and injustice; it’s a refusal to drown in them.
There are few more powerful accusations of American denial than Langston Hughes’ poem “America never was America to me.” It was Hughes’ prescient warning from 1935 to any of us who in 2021 are tempted to say “This is not who we are.” As if greed, exploitation, insurrection, corruption, and bigotry were new, foreign things to the USA, and not manifest in every phase of our history. Except that’s not actually the title of the poem, even though I always mis-remember it as such. The actual title is “Let America Be America Again.” It’s not content to just reject the promise of America as a lie; it insists that we work together to make it true.
And because it can’t be said enough: we can’t work together without first rejecting the lie. There’s no unity without justice, and no justice without accountability.
So if you want the simple anthem with waving flags and cheering and middle-aged people on their feet dancing, Neil Diamond’s always had you covered. My parents took me to a Neil Diamond concert when I was a teenager, and I was a capital-C Chode about it because I thought I was too cool for it. Even though it was a huge deal to my mom. I wish I hadn’t been such a chump, because his performance that night (as always) was a show-stopper. And if I’m going to stand up and shout “America!”, I don’t want it to be all about selfishness or fighting to keep what’s mine. I want it to be about welcoming everyone who wants to share in the idea and work together to make something better than any single one of us.
Since my home state of Georgia is in the news so much lately, both for the crucial Senate run-offs today against two of the most crassly, disgracefully, and blatantly corrupt and unqualified Republicans ever to run for public office; and because of a blatantly corrupt attempt to shake down the Secretary of State to subvert the democratic process and steal the Presidential election: today is two tunes from bands from Georgia.
Specifically, Athens, Georgia, which is where I went to college. First up is “McIntosh” by Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, who were one of my favorite bands while I was in college but never seemed to make much of an impression outside Athens (despite having Michael Stipe as a producer). I saw them perform twice at the Georgia Theater, and they were some of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen. One of the guys would play guitar, and the other sat in a rocking chair and would stomp on a box with a microphone under it. (They also had a drummer for their live shows).
Second is “Love Shack” by The B-52’s, since the first concert I saw in Athens was the band doing their Cosmic Thing tour. It’s definitely not my favorite song from the album — even before it got so overplayed — but it does mention the Atlanta Highway at the beginning. That’s the road out of Athens that I used to drive every weekend to my retail job in college, a frustratingly long, two-laned, tree-lined road that would pass places like Peanut’s Redneck Bar-be-que. There are several Athens references throughout Cosmic Thing, so being in town while there was so much hype around the band and the album was a neat feeling, like being at the center of something.
I was debating whether to include “Love Shack” or “The Rooster” by Outkast, which is my favorite song from Speakerboxxx, and which I like 99.9% as much as the more popular “Hey Ya” from The Love Below. But I felt like a poseur for naming it, because I didn’t even hear about Outkast until long after I’d already moved out of Georgia.
I hope everybody who’s eligible to vote in Georgia has already voted in the run-offs, or has a plan to before the polls close tonight! It’s crucial to get the corrupt Republicans out of the way before we can even start to make things better.
Until I did a search for year-end appropriate songs, I’d never heard of Two Door Cinema Club, or their song from 2013 “Next Year.”
It’s a pleasant song about making plans for later we can’t carry out today, which seems extremely appropriate for the long-awaited end of 2020. Most remarkable to me, though, is how much the beginning of the track reminds me of the Apple Loops-provided backbeat in my friend Graham’s legendary video “We Sing the Forest Electric.”
I’m hoping that in 2021, we all have more of the uninhibited forest dancing, and much less of the implied killing.
There’s also “Next Year” by the Foo Fighters, which had a video of the gang going to the moon and, impressively, choosing not to wear fat suits for comedic effect. I’m impressed they pulled it off! And I hope next year is better for everyone reading this, and even some of the people who aren’t.
If you don’t agree with me about these songs celebrating a season of peace and unity, you’re wrong and dumb. Merry Christmas!
This week’s theme is my favorite Christmas songs, which inadvertently turned into an additional theme of “needlessly controversial Christmas songs.” First is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside“, which over the past decade in particular has turned into a perfect litmus test for judging whether someone knows what they’re talking about.
Short1-ish version: this song isn’t creepy; the worst you could say is that it’s “mad horny.” The “I’ve got to go home” part is mock-protesting to keep up appearances. Anyone saying that it’s got a tone of sexual assault is either being deliberately manipulative, or is just demonstrating they’ve got a simplistic and condescending notion of gender.
And yeah, it’s a hill I’m going to die on. If it were just a bunch of people misinterpreting the context of a song and spinning it into a simplistic message about the importance of consent, I’d just shrug and carry on. After all, the re-interpretations and re-makes come out every year but quickly disappear2Most hilarious are the versions that claim to be progressive by gender-swapping the parts, seemingly unaware that the song’s first appearance in a film does exactly that, back in 1949, while the originals live on. But it’s not harmless to call it “problematic” or worse, “rapey.” It perpetuates an idea that women are fragile and/or frigid, that people in the 50s were more uptight and less self-aware than we are today, and is generally prudish and sex-negative . Not to mention, it also says that people always mean exactly what they say and that context is irrelevant, which is gradually making the population more and more stupid.
For the record, my favorite version of the song is actually the scene from the movie Elf. (Better than the one with Leon Redbone on the album, even). Partly because I love Zooey Deschanel’s voice, but also because it’s a modern interpretation that plays around with the idea of romance and innocence/prudishness inherent in the song. Also, it makes the song unequivocally a Christmas song.
Another perennial favorite: “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Funnily enough, I was originally just going to include it with the note that it’s the most stirring Christmas song that contains the words “slut” and “faggot.” But I’m only just now discovering that the “official” version on The Pogues’ YouTube channel edits out “the f-word.”3I can’t actually tell what they changed it to; it sounds something like “haggis?”
I honestly don’t know how to feel about this one. On the one hand, I hate the word, I went back and forth on whether I would keep saying “the f-word” or type it out, and its use in the song has always made me uncomfortable. On the other hand, it’s supposed to make me uncomfortable. The Pogues were a punk band. The contrast between the song’s couple absolutely hating each other and falling for the magic of Christmas in New York, hate and love, hope and hopelessness, is the entire point of the song.
Whenever you see someone complaining about “political correctness” or mocking the “woke,” or whining about censorship online, 99.9999% of the time, it’s just someone going out their way to defend being arrogant, selfish, and thoughtless. It’s the equivalent of being churlish and insisting on either “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” as if that were a real thing to be upset about, instead of brazenly manipulated outrage. If you can make a minimum amount of harmless effort and make other people feel better, you’re an asshole for stamping your feet and refusing to do it.
Except again, this is a weird take. This version suggests that “cheap lousy faggot” is inexcusable, but somehow “old slut on junk” is acceptable. That suggests that individual words are somehow more powerful than the context and intent behind them. It’s also odd because it’s being changed after MacColl’s death, and I get the sense that she’d be better able to justify it than anyone speaking on the song’s behalf, even Shane MacGowan. Apparently there’s a long history of edits to the song, with attempts that seem more equitable in cutting out all the potentially offensive words, but as a result making it completely toothless.
My ultimate takeaway is that it all makes it easier to understand why Christmas songs are typically more about gifts and carols and snow, and less about adult couples being angry and horny.
Two tangentially related tunes each Tuesday. This week’s theme: two bands I maybe haven’t given enough credit to.
Last Sunday I was kind of a jerk to HAIM, you guys. I pretty much dismissed them as “just fine” while posting a link to their performance of “3AM”. Turns out, the joke’s on me, since I’ve had that song going through my head non-stop ever since, and I’ve watched the video over and over. Even more than I’ve watched the video of the super-ripped guy dancing like a maniac with his shirt off, which should tell you something.
HAIM’s remote-directed-and-choreographed video for “I Know Alone” is pretty good too. When I first heard about them, I read that they sounded like Fleetwood Mac, which is something I didn’t hear myself — although I guess any woman singing calmly enough can sound like Christine McVie, maybe? — but figured was the kind of thing that people who knew more about music than me said. Eventually, I realized that was pretty dumb, though: Fleetwood Mac is all over the place, and “Don’t Stop” sounds nothing like “Tusk” or “Gypsy.” Well, this song sounds nothing like the other HAIM songs I’ve heard, so maybe that’s where the comparison comes in.
Anyway, they seem cool. And I think I’ve been doing them a disservice for just dismissing them as “just straightforward 21st century pop-rock music” because I always need some bizarre hook to keep my attention.
A hook like “Wait, is that Busy Phillips?” That’s what made me watch the video for Grizzly Bear’s “Losing All Sense,” which seems to be hinting at a lot about gender, authenticity, sincerity, envy, and social climbing. Grizzly Bear is another band that I’ve tried to get into several times over the years, and gone away thinking, “Yes, that sure is a band that makes music.” It’s possible that I’m just not a fan of the vocalist, and it’s never going to work for me. But I’ve got to acknowledge that even if it’s not speaking to me, it’s doing an awful lot. Like playing bare butts as drums and shooting laser beam out of nipples. Now that’s what I call a video!
Two of Kutiman’s post-Thru You videos, celebrating the cooperation and creativity of humans living in cities
“Thru Tokyo” is part of a series that musician and filmmaker Kutiman started after his wonderful “Thru You” projects. The idea is similar to “Thru You,” in that he’s taking disparate audio and video samples and remixing them into a new composition. The big differences are 1) this isn’t found footage, but is deliberately recorded for the purpose of the video; 2) each composition is made in celebration of a city; and 3) most of the samples are from artists and musicians who live in the city.
As far as I’m concerned, Kutiman alone justifies the existence of YouTube (if not the internet in general). Each video he makes is such a joyful celebration of collaboration and cooperation, creativity and talent. There is such a feeling of optimism and belief in humanity implicit in every one of these compositions, that if we ever make another Voyager probe, I want Kutiman in charge of making the next golden record.
My favorite of this series (and everyone else’s favorite, if the 7.3 million views is any indication) is “Mix Tel Aviv”1Technically, I believe these were different projects with different sponsors, so I mean “series” more in the sense of a creative connection. I believe that Tel Aviv is Kutiman’s home city, or at least it was at the time, and I think that several of the musicians involved are his friends. Regardless, the video shows a love of the city and its people that’s undeniable. In a just universe, Kutiman would’ve gotten the patronage to make videos like this for dozens more cities.
Digging through my iTunes library to find my favorite track twos and celebrate never being cool.
My favorite song from Come Away With Me by Norah Jones is the second track, right after the hit “Don’t Know Why” that you heard at least 1000 times during 2002, especially if you went into a Starbucks or a book store.1To be clear, I love “Don’t Know Why,” but it suffered the same fate of over-exposure as other great songs like “Hey Ya” and “Get Lucky.” It’s called “Seven Years”, and it’s the first song in this at-home live performance, one of many that Jones has been posting to YouTube during the pandemic.
Buying that album stands out as a significant personal milestone for me, oddly enough. As I remember it, I’d turned 30 and was barreling towards 31, I felt like I’d lost control of how my life was going, and I was having a crisis in a Borders book store in San Rafael, CA. Buying this album felt like I would finally be admitting that I was nothing more than a suburban, thirty-something white guy who’d drive his Volkswagen Jetta to a Borders to get middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter music that appeared on Starbucks playlists. And as I remember it — which is probably inaccurate but is true to the spirit of it — the song “Seven Years” came over the store’s audio system, and it was profoundly calming. No, I was never going to be cool, but who cares?2And no matter how popular Come Away With Me may be, it’s still extremely underrated.
Going back to find it tonight, I was surprised that it was the second track on the album. That lyric “a little girl with nothing wrong, and she’s all alone” is such a perfect lyric in such a simple, confident song, that I would’ve thought it’s something you build up to over the course of a set list.
And I thought it’d be mildly interesting to find other cases where the strongest song on the album (or at least my favorite) is on track two. Here’s what I found from my own library, instead of working on more important things I should be doing tonight:
“Dirty Back Road” by The B-52s, the second track on Wild Planet
“Cannonball” by The Breeders, on Last Splash
“Wait in the Car” by The Breeders, on All Nerve
“Song 2” (duh) by Blur on Blur
“The Distance” by Cake on Fashion Nugget
“Daddy’s Car” by The Cardigans on Life
“I Am Stretched on Your Grave” by Sinéad O’Connor on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
“Cruel” by St. Vincent on Strange Mercy
“Love is Stronger Than Death” by The The on Dusk
“Overkill” by Men at Work on Cargo
“The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin on Houses of the Holy
“Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush on Hounds of Love
“Photograph” by Def Leppard on Pyromania
“We Used To Be Friends” by The Dandy Warhols on Welcome to the Monkey House
“Walking on Broken Glass” by Annie Lennox on Diva
Taken all together, this shows… well, not much of anything. (I did only promise “mildly interesting,” after all). Sometimes it’s an artist using track one as an intro to build up to their strongest track. Sometimes it’s a song that probably wouldn’t be a pop hit, but is still strong enough to put up front. Sometimes, I just like a song better than the artist or producer did.
The one artist in my library who seems to do it (somewhat) consistently is Indigo Girls. So many of my favorites — “Secure Yourself,” “Galileo,” “Get Out the Map,” and “Crazy Game” — are the second track on their album. And so is “Least Complicated” from Swamp Ophelia, which is kind of thematically perfect: for my entire adult life, they’ve been making songs to remind me that it’s okay not to have everything figured out, and to remind me that I’ve never been cool. (And I don’t need to be).
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.
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.