About a year ago I was riding the Amtrak train from Penn Station to Rensselaer, on my way to my sister’s house in Lake George, New York. This was after a grueling flight from Buenos Aires with a layover in Atlanta, on absolutely no sleep. I was beyond tired, nodding out in my seat, not really making much sense out of the chaos surrounding me, but somehow getting by on sheer mechanics. I’ve long been under the impression that my creativity thrives in such precarious states of exhaustion. That the drowsiness and fatigue and general inability to focus somehow result in drawing associations that would’ve otherwise been obscured by the fog of common sense. I don’t know if there’s any science to back this up or if it’s just a holdover from years and years of cognitively reframing my chronic procrastination.
So as I was fading in and out of consciousness in my seat, my creative side was concocting all sorts of strange scenarios incorporating the bits and pieces of information that I was able to discern during each brief moment of lucidity. I suddenly took notice of the train attendant– this waifish, auburn-haired, remarkably attractive young woman wearing a comically ill-fitting uniform. I started to draw up ideas about who she was. What she came to New York to do. Why she was a train attendant. I started to wonder about her family, about her environment, about what she did every day after work, and about all the crap she probably had to put up with on the job. I wondered if she’d ever met any weirdos who developed unhealthy obsessions with her, or if she developed any strange obsessions of her own. If she was perpetually tormented, or a tormentor herself.
She looked nothing like this.
Within just about 10 minutes, I had developed a rough outline of a story: a farcical comedy-adventure about love and misery and mental illness and trains. It had laughs, romance, international criminal rings, gunfights, sex and all kinds of wackiness. When my sister Cristina and my brother Jonathan picked me up at the train station, I excitedly guided them through this Coen-esque adventure, throwing in ideas as I thought of them, egged on by their positive response. That very night, I typed up a version of this rough treatment and proceeded to send it along to various friends (industry and otherwise). For the rest of my stay in New York, I’d talk about it at social gatherings. I’d bring it up in conversations with new acquaintances, fine-tuning and rearranging the story with every reading. The response was unanimous. Everybody thought it was just great. Everybody thought it was sweet and funny. Everybody was excited. Everybody encouraged me to keep writing. It was great.
A year or so later, that rough outline has built a cozy little nest for itself in the Incomplete folder of my computer documents, with no immediate plans to move out. Stalled, stagnant, flatlined. The momentum had dissipated into a halt. The moment had passed. Why? Why was that initial flurry of creativity suddenly exhausted? What sucked the wind out of my sails?
With screenwriting, as with any art– be it song, painting, poetry or interpretative dancing– there are many possible reasons for coming up with an idea, and many other potential reasons for following it through to completion. Some are guided by whimsy, others respond to patronage, some get a thrill out of audience reaction, others feel this burning sensation from the pit of their stomach which tells them that this thing they’re making is important and absolutely needs to be said, and that it needs to be seen by the world– that foolish but admirably resilient (and remarkably powerful) conviction that there’s nothing more important than making it happen, and that you’ll just implode if they don’t get it off their chest somehow. There are all kinds of variations and permutations and combinations of these motivators, and they’re not specific to the artist as much as each individual project.
Some are motivated by hanging out with their famous friends, like me and my buds. Look, there’s no real use for this picture here, but there’s a lot of text and it’s a funny picture; deal with it.
The last screenplay I completed and sold was one of those projects that had to be completed, it just had to. I had to get it out, like my chest would start to cave in if I held it in for too long. So I wrote this deeply personal story, redrafted it a few times, then handed it on to languish at some executive’s desk. Boom. It’s out of my hands, but I got through it, and I was able to sell other people on it. This new idea? Nothing like that. It wasn’t tied to my sense of identity in any way. It wasn’t making grand proclamations about the world as I saw it. It didn’t even transmit a clear message. It was just a silly idea I came up with when I was riding the train, and I didn’t feel that deep-rooted sense of responsibility to finish it. Why was I so excited about it at first, then? If it was such a dumb idea, why couldn’t I stop talking about it for weeks? What got me all riled up, drafting outlines and talking about it at length with pretty much everyone I knew?
It was their reaction. It was their positive reinforcement. It was, in essence, the attention.
By talking at great lengths about an idea that I had, but hadn’t actually seen through to completion yet, I was awarded with a barrage of “oh wow how cool!”s and “you’re so creative!”s and “wow, I couldn’t possibly have thought of that myself!”s. Basically, I got the adulation from having made something great without all the hassle of actually having to make it. And once I get that, I am sated, and the desire to actually make the damn thing quickly fades away, like the last remnants of a dream upon waking. Since I’m describing it in the most hyperbolic ways possible, I’m avoiding the risk of nitpickers or negative feedback focusing on the details. As far as positive reinforcement goes, I get all the reward without actually risking a misfire, kind of like cheating. Well, not “kind of”, that’s exactly what it is– it’s basking in the glow of my supposed genius based on a hypothetical, an unfinished draft. Except when I’m talking about it, I’m not actually aware that that’s what I’m doing. It’s an obscure negotiation that goes on in a shady room somewhere in my subconscious. And upon realizing this, I started to think of dozens of other instances of this in my life– ideas that are entertained for a bit, talked about at length, reveled in the positive feedback, and then abandoned. That’s no way to treat a friend.
I didn’t have this problem with the last one because, well, that one was just too big, too important, too me. This one was a passing whimsy. But I want to be able to pursue those, too; if everything I wrote had to come from some place deep in my very being, I’d never come up with anything. I just don’t have too many important things to say. Big or small, I want to be able to chase that elusive muse where it takes me instead of taking shortcuts and detours to get some cheap praise. C’mon. How gauche is that? First you write the thing, then you bask in the glory of your unrelenting genius. So I think, for the time being, I’m done talking about what I have in the pipeline. Wanna find out? Good. I’ll tell you when it’s done.
You can proofread it if you want. Just go easy on the praise, I might never get around to pitching it.
I’m gonna say something now with the full knowledge that it may elicit some eyerolls and perhaps even make me lose credibility for some of you, but I hope, if you’re a regular reader of this webrag, that you know that I say this with utmost sincerity and without any millennial affected jadedness: I couldn’t give less of a shit about the Rolling Stones.
Honestly. And it’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t think they’re a great band, nor do I think they ever really were. I don’t bemoan their current status as a 100% nostalgia cash-grab rolling revue touring act, nor their gradual metamorphosis into full-on caricatures of themselves. I can’t make it through any one of their dozens of radio standards without feeling the urge to listen to just about anything else. I say this as someone who is completely aware of just how important they were for the musical and cultural landscape of the 1960s. Critical acclaim, obvious artistic merit and far-reaching influence notwithstanding, Exile on Main Street means nothing to me. It just doesn’t grab me. It never did. I don’t hate the band, but I’d be hard-pressed to name another group or musician of their scope and magnitude that I feel so utterly indifferent towards. If we’re sticking to the bands of the sixties, I’d rather listen to Pet Sounds. Or the Velvet Underground. Or The Kinks. Or all the great stuff that was coming out of Motown. Or even (gasp) The Beatles.
There’s always been some sort of roadblock in my appreciation of the Rolling Stones. It’s not that I’m unable to recognize that the tunes are there, and that they’re of some quality, and that for a while they represented rock and roll at its most irrepressibly outward and dangerous. It’s that there’s something in their very essence, their very identity, that is, in some strange way I cannot properly articulate, repellent to me. I guess it was my perception of a certain shtick which permeated the music and colored my every interaction, be it passive or active, with this legendary band. A certain affectation. Testosterone-driven posturing, even in their gentlest of ballads. I couldn’t shake it. Still can’t… not completely, anyway.
“Moonlight Mile”, however, caught me by surprise. I heard this song long before I ever purchased Sticky Fingers, and it immediately struck me as the greatest song I’d ever heard by this band. Easily the most instantly gripping, and the most nuanced and rewarding of repeated listens. A display of depth and songcraft that I’d no idea Richards & company were even capable of. The song was introduced to me through an episode of the HBO TV series The Sopranos, as a bookend to the season 6 episode “Kaisha”. The Sopranos is possibly my favorite TV series of all time, an achievement in episodic television writing that I believe is still unparalleled (I know, I know, The Wire– still haven’t seen past the first season. I’ll get there someday). Not only that, but it introduced me to a shocking amount of great music. “Moonlight Mile” is probably my favorite of those songs.
The source of an alarming amount of music in my library
As far as the subject matter, I realize the “sad, lonely rock star bemoaning his life on the road” fits quite neatly into the Stones’ act. And perhaps the concept is explored in a less lyrically compelling way than something like Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out”. But it’s such an elegant piece of music, and such a wonderfully understated band performance, that it feels utterly sincere– the weariness doesn’t come off as feigned or disingenuous, but like a brief flash of honesty. A respite from the chest-puffing bravado. From the oblique motion of its quiet, vaguely eastern-tinged guitar intro, to the lush string arrangements that carry the song forward, we are taken on a journey with this song. Charlie Watts shines in particular, his jazz background shining through as the toms and cymbal crashes mark the song’s movements; stopping and starting, tensing and relaxing, contracting and expanding. It sounds so good, too; the studio recording is a genuine pleasure to listen to, especially on a good set of headphones.
Speaking of, I refuse to listen to any other version of this song. I made the horrible mistake once of checking out a live performance of the song from 1999. Oy. It was kind of like what I imagine it would feel to see a loved one after a horrific accident left them hideously disfigured. Heartbreaking. I also refuse to listen to any other Stones songs; while the discovery of this track generated a brief surge of interest in the band, in a “oh my God have I been wrong about them all along?” sort of way, my forays into their catalogue have left me cold as always. I have resigned myself to the fact that this might be the only song of theirs that I’ll ever truly care about.
And you know? It doesn’t really matter. There’s a brief window of time, usually found between 4 and 5 in the morning, after I’ve doffed the burdensome cloak of public persona and retreated to bed; a point where I’ve kicked back enough glasses of wine that my mind’s placidly engulfed in a hazy burgundy mist, and all the pieces fall together beautifully. That’s the moment where “Moonlight Mile” becomes the greatest song ever written, not just by the Stones, but by any human being who ever had the audacity to pick up a guitar. For those brief few moments before I finally surrender to sleep, there’s no song that better captures the loneliness, resignation and muted rage that permeates everyday life as it unwinds and unfurls and finally dissipates into a shrug, and no song that fades more elegantly into its final, stately chord.
Listen to the gorgeous Rolling Stones song “Moonlight Mile” by clicking the embedded player below:
Bedhead Melodies is a seldom-updated post series featuring songs I rediscover late at night, usually right before I fall asleep, usually after some alcohol has been consumed. You can find the past songs in the series here. You should listen to them. Go on then. Do it.
Pictured above: a couple of boozin’ bozos doing their best to prove that time is nothing but a measure of how much fatter and balder you’ve gotten since high school.
Jorge Bedoya is one of my best friends. Aside from sharing our extremely-common first name, we’ve gone through a lot together: we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve helped each other through the emotional highs-and-lows of our notoriously melodramatic teenage love lives, we’ve played together in a punk rock band named Local 3, gotten sloppy-drunk and puked on each other’s floors too many times (alright, I did all the puking, but it still counts as a shared experience inasmuch as I shared my stomach juices with his living room carpet. There’s probably still some, you know, puke particles somewhere in those fibers). And what are old friends for, if not sitting around drinking whiskey and awkwardly reminiscing on years upon years of continued frustration and disappointment? All the while recording it in audio form and later posting it for the world to hear.
Fact of the matter is, this gentleman is more than a mere compatriot; he had a very active role in shaping my teenager years, serving as a kind of spirit guide for the beginning of my early punk rock forays, as well as encouraging me to follow whimsies and pursue every creative itch. He continues to be musically active, even as a bastion of the little-understood maritime law. We sat down and talked about the many bands he’s been in, our first memories of each other, and creeping on female musicians on Instagram.
Oh, we also listened to some tunes, as Bedoya was kind enough to put together an 8-track playlist to share with everybody. The tunes in Bedoya’s playlist are:
NOFX- “Hobophobic (Scared of Bums)” Supergrass- “Mary” Graham Coxon- “What’s He Got?” Augustines- “Juarez” Jack’s Mannequin- “Caves” Blondfire- “Waves” Wolf Alice- “White Leather” Wild Nothing- “Midnight Song”
If you listen hard enough, you’ll also be able to make out some bed music to adorn our meandering chatter. The song selection could be contributing subtle commentary on the conversation we’re having, or it could be apropos of nothing– depending entirely on how I was feeling at the exact moment I was editing the show. Whatever. Just click the embedded player below to listen.
My grandmother was a great woman. She was strong, caring and joyful, with an infectious energy that served as a beacon of inspiration for her peers, and a sense of humor that elicited boisterous laughter from those lucky enough to find themselves in her company at any given moment. She was passionate and forceful, but also compassionate, gregarious and kind. She had a heart that was filled with music and love. She knew the importance of song, of dance, of laughter. She cared, and deeply so.
For the last few years, in my visits back home, I’d witnessed a steady decline in my grandmother’s health and overall wellbeing. Her disposition, once sunny and affable, had dulled into a muted grey from the side-effects of medication and sheer exhaustion. Unscheduled visits to the hospital became a regular occurrence. Sudden and continued health scares led to live-in nurses. Daily blood work. Assisted living. Life became a daily struggle to stay alive, and soon that flame which shone so brightly inside her dimmed into a glimmer. Every once in a while, however, given the right combination of circumstances, like an old in-joke or a funny memory, that flame would materialize itself again in the form of a mischievous smile decorating her weathered visage.
I was extremely lucky to have been born into an environment where humor is such an integral part of our daily lives; where ridiculousness is not shushed or stamped out, but celebrated and encouraged. From both sides of the family, I was surrounded by people who knew how to have a laugh: at the world, at each other, at themselves. My grandmother knew the power of a well-timed zinger, and losing it over a ridiculous pun, and falling over in side-splitting hysterics. She instilled that sense of irreverence and jocosity in all her children, often to the chagrin of her husband.
My grandparents were married for 56 years. Any half-baked cynical bullshit I can come up with about the fleeting nature of human relationships and how marriage is an unnatural societal construct which keeps us from realizing our full potential starts sounding like the embittered braying of a snot-nosed punk when I think about all these two went through together. They were each other’s rock, and for over half a century they kept each other moored and at peace. During her last days, when the stress of constant health scares left her exhausted and weak, they’d take comfort in each other’s mere presence, communicating in absolute silence what a million poems could never say.
A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of one of my extended visits, my Dad woke me up and told me my grandmother had just passed away. He was weeping. I hugged him as hard as I could. He’d just lost his mom. I knew that the pain I felt from losing my grandmother couldn’t begin to compare to the staggering heartbreak he was grappling with, having lost his mother. The next few days were a blur of old familiar faces offering their sincere condolences. Words of remembrance and sorrow. A building cacophony of hundreds of different voices offering variations on a single idea: I’m sorry for your loss.
I don’t know much about grief. On a surface level, it seems counter-productive and, honestly, a little silly. But living through my grandmother’s funeral, seeing the amount of people who cared about her enough to make the trek to the outskirts of the city and pay their last respects, was kind of a profound experience. It got me thinking about the ripple effect in motion, and how our actions, however seemingly innocuous, extend way past what we perceive to be our scope of influence. How we can and do transform others’ lives in a million profound ways, and the power that we have to be a force for change in the world. This funeral– this hokey, seemingly archaic and wholly depressing ritual– is, in itself, life-affirming. The deceased reach the end of their earthly voyage, and the people that they marked in one way or another congregate to see them off. In this sense, the use of the word “loss” when referring to the dead starts feeling inadequate, as they remain with us regardless of physical presence.
I think there’s something beautiful about that. Solemnly ceremonial.
However troubled my grandmother’s final days were, the many upheavals she soldiered through, her mark on the world is one of kindness, passion and joy. Of an unabashed love for song, and humor, and Lebanese cooking. Everything she instilled in us will continue on for generations. She taught me more than I was ever able to express to her. I loved her, and I will miss her. But I’m carrying her right here with me, and I’m not letting go any time soon.
Living so far removed from so many friends and family, and coming in contact with as many transient folks as I have in Buenos Aires, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at airport goodbyes. I know to make them quick and lighthearted. I know to keep hugs from lingering for too long, words from getting too ponderous, to avoid getting overly sentimental or hypothesizing on when we’ll see each other again. Airport goodbyes should be treated as casually as a quick trip to the grocery store. One should take every measure to keep mutual misery down to a minimum. This is important.
And the longer the flight, the better– the more tedious the layover, exasperating paperwork, absurd line at customs. Books. Podcasts. Food. It all helps to keep you distracted and functional long enough to keep the avalanche of feelings from smothering you alive. This is how I’m able to get through the increasingly grueling ordeal of air travel without suffocating. Keeping sentimentality at bay, at least until you’re home and partially unpacked. I’ve gotten good at it.
But this past October, as I was hastily scrambling for a decent wi-fi hotspot at Albany International Airport, after saying goodbye to my parents and siblings to fly back to Buenos Aires all by my lonesome, I made the mistake of activating my iPod’s shuffle feature. I was therefore punched in the gut… metaphorically, of course… by an unlikely song. A wistful ballad about goodbyes, departures and heartbreak. A song that brought on all the bullshit I had been trying to avoid; the empty, awful aftertaste of saying goodbye to the people I cared most about to go back “home”. It devastated me completely, and left me an emotional wreck for the rest of the journey back.
The song was Tim Curry’s rendition of “I’m Going Home”, from the Rocky Horror Picture Show original soundtrack.
It’s a gaudy song from a gaudy movie, but it struck a chord. The concept of “home” has become a confusing one for me. Is it merely where my job is? Is it where my family is? Is it where I grew up or where I found my independence? When I leave Buenos Aires to spend the holidays in Barranquilla, am I coming home or leaving? I think I feel as much of an outsider in either city, just as much as I feel a strong kinship pulling me to them. Somehow, though, it’s very important for me to usher in the New Year in Barranquilla. It just feels weird to start the year elsewhere.
My relationship with 2013 was not unlike that of a fickle house cat and its owner. Sometimes it would lovingly cozy up by my side. Sometimes it would be an aloof jerk. Sometimes it would scratch the hell out of my arm for no apparent reason. It was mercurial and unpredictable. All things considered, the good outweighed the bad, and I felt myself grow as an individual, inching ever closer to true adulthood.
The bad: I went through a few small professional disappointments. Some of the projects I started the year off with never came to fruition. I went through some deeply unpleasant family drama. I saw the deterioration of my grandparents’ health and overall happiness. I said goodbye to a close friend. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted to. I flaked out on people. I was uncommunicative and withdrawn. I suffered through my first serious bout of abject depression for a couple of months. I drank more than I should have.
The good: I had a lot of fun. I traveled a fair amount. I got to meet some pretty awesome new people. I worked on several projects that were of deep importance to me. I spent a lot of time with my family. I went to Disney World. I listened to a huge amount of great new music. Watched a lot of great films. Regained my passion for storytelling. Completed two screenplays. Went to more concerts than any other year in my life. I laughed a lot. I learned a lot. I grew the hell up. I found that however deep a hole I dig myself into, I can always count on the wonderful people who’ve somehow found their way into my periphery to lift me right back up and towards the light.
And I guess, after all this coming and going, that’s what I’ve figured out about the concept of “home”. It’s not the house I grew up in, or my apartment in Buenos Aires, or even a group of people. Home is not something static, that I can always find in the same place. It’s not a building, or a city. It’s a feeling you can find anywhere you are. It’s safety. It’s comfort. It’s support. It’s the freedom to be gladly and irrepressibly me. And I find that feeling in my nearest and dearest, be it by actual physical proximity or through a phone call or letter or a Skype conversation. It’s shared laughs and comfortable silences. It means the world, and it’s worth chasing after.
I’ll be in Barranquilla for the next month and change, then I’m flying back to Buenos Aires to grab the new year by the face and make it work for me. This time I might let those airport goodbyes linger on for a bit.
Leaving home to come back home. There are worse ways to live.
This is the view from my family’s apartment in North Miami Beach. I took this picture just a few days ago, as I was unpacking my bags and settling back into that apartment for the first time in about 12 years. I kept thinking about how smell is the sense most closely tied with memory; how that subtle yet immediately identifiable aroma (probably just a mix of cleaning products) wafted from the room as soon as I opened the front door and transported me right back to my childhood. The apartment is empty for most of the year, used only whenever somebody in our extended family is in Miami and needs a place to stay. The decor appears to be forever frozen in the gaudiest part of the early 90s, which contributes to the bizarre feeling of temporary displacement I experienced upon walking through the front door.
Getting there was a bit of an ordeal. I was supposed to fly from Buenos Aires to Atlanta, then take a connecting flight to Miami. Flying from Buenos Aires to Atlanta takes about ten and a half hours, so already I was kind of dreading the whole experience. Nothing could prepare me for what actually went down: the airplane’s left wing was struck by lightning five minutes after takeoff. Now, I’m aware that commercial aircrafts are hit by lightning on a regular basis, and that the passengers don’t usually notice as the planes are equipped to deal with it. However, this actually caused damage on the wing, and it was quite noticeable– I heard a loud BOOM, saw a blinding flash of light, and panicked as I felt the plane flailing about for a couple of terrifying minutes. Upon righting its course, the captain assured us the lightning hadn’t actually hit the plane, it was just very close.
Nine hours of shaky flying later, we made an unscheduled stop in Miami for a “refueling”. After making us wait for the better part of an hour, the pilot finally admitted that the maintenance team had found that we had in fact been hit by the lightning bolt, and we had to deboard for repairs. They gave us new connecting flights and 100$ vouchers (but only after I complained on Twitter). So basically, we flew for 9 hours on a plane with a bum wing that had been struck by lightning. This ultimately worked out in my favor, as Miami was my final destination anyway, but goddamn was it ever scary.
I stayed in Miami for two weeks. The first week was spent attending boring work meetings and bumming around the impossibly hot and humid streets of Sunny Isles Beach. The second was spent with my Dad and my two little siblings, who flew up from Colombia for their first trip to the States. It’s always a treat to hang out with my little brother and sister. Feels like every time I see them, they’ve grown by about a decade. They’re such sweet, energetic, creative and hilarious kids, spending time with them is rejuvenating. I wish I understood the associations that their minds make– or maybe it’s better that I’m so puzzled and amused by them. They’re like little Dadaists.
We made the drive to Orlando and hit up the amusement parks. Trips to Disney and Universal Studios (and later, Universal Islands of Adventure and Busch Gardens) were a huge part of my childhood, and I was very happy to recapture some of the magic in my current state as a world-weary approximation of an adult. More than that, I was excited to experience it all through the eyes of my little siblings. Not only was it their first time in the States, but it was also their first time in any kind of major amusement park situation, so it was all very intense and overwhelming in the best possible way. The weather was not in our favor, but we soldiered on, ignored the rain and hit up every ride we could– even the really scary rollercoasters. I was proud of how brave they were.
After that, we flew to upstate New York to see the rest of my family– my sister Cristina (and her husband Jordan), my brother Jonathan, and my Mom. It’s been so good to have all the family together again, for the first time in forever. We’re all staying at my sister’s place in Lake George, up in the Adirondacks. This is my third visit here. I really love it, even though I can’t see myself living here for any prolonged period of time– my mind appreciates the respite from the chaos of tumultuous, cacophonous Buenos Aires, but it’s that chaos where my heart lives, it’s that chaos that I thrive in. Here? I’m just floating on by, enjoying the scenery, feeling my mind settle into a groove. Like a sort of mental massage, I guess. Priming myself for my triumphant return to Buenos Aires this weekend. I’ll be devastated to say goodbye to my family, but so happy that I got to spend time with them. They’re all pretty great.
Other than that, a few quick tidbits I’m bound to expand on when I get back to the real world: I’ve been enjoying the very excellent album by Elvis Costello & The Roots, Wise Up Ghost. Also, The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe is flabbergasting in the best possible way. I’ve listened to The Arcade Fire’s new single about a thousand times. I’ve watched a couple of terrible movies. Breaking Bad is still giving me panic attacks on a weekly basis. I’ve been visiting used record stores and scoring the strangest finds in the 3-dollar bins. And finally, the podcast I recorded with Agustín Donati got me listening to the music of Jorge Drexler– his beautiful cover of Radiohead’s much-maligned MOR composition “High and Dry” is posted below for your listening pleasure. It really speaks to me right now.
Continuing the recent trend in Every ist and Every ism of yielding the floor for other folks to share music that they’re into, here’s a new podcast episode. Agustín Donati is the lead singer for the Buenos Aires-based indie band Vestigios, who recently released their album “Inmortal Fraternal”. The album contains brawny, kinetic rock songs that run the gamut from calm and contemplative to devastatingly violent, with a fluid rhythmic base that pushes the compositions along into often unexpected places. Agustín is also in a three-piece acoustic side project named Che Koala, as well as writing tunes for a burgeoning solo venture. He’s a huge music enthusiast, and a good friend of mine, so I asked him to come along and record a little chat with me.
We got together on a Sunday afternoon to talk about the bumpy road towards musical adulthood, our shared teenage fandom for terrible bands of the late-90s, and the salacious sexcapades Argentine teenagers tend to engage in. I also tasked Agustín with putting together a playlist for the podcast, without any direction beyond “songs that you feel like sharing”. The songs in Agustín’s playlist are:
Bill Callahan- “Say Valley Maker” Jorge Drexler- “12 Segundos de Oscuridad” Ryan Adams- “Carolina Rain” City and Colour- “Body in a Box” The Low Anthem- “This God Damn House” Jeff Buckley- “Satisfied Mind”
Agustín was also kind enough to regale us with an exclusive live performance of two original compositions: “Ciudades Sin Tu Nombre” and “La Cara del Lugar”. You can check that out by clicking the embedded player below:
Check out Agustín’s band Vestigios by going to their Bandcamp page.
Well, this is a bit of a left turn. I am participating in a blog exchange! It’s very exciting. A music-themed one, too, which is perfect for this blog as I don’t think I have much in the way of recipes, outfits or video posts to offer to the larger “blog-ring” community.
The theme is simple: a collection of songs that have marked your summer. Now, being a resident of the southern hemisphere means “my summer” wasn’t much of a summer at all, and June through September were actually fairly chilly. Still, I put together a collection of songs that dominated my attention for the last few months. My post is hosted at Martin‘s blog, a most respectable web-periodical titled In Pursuit of Expression. You can read that post (and listen to the accompanying playlist) by clicking here. In turn, I am hosting Andres Rio‘s playlist, an intriguing collection of upbeat party romps & youth anthems that smells of liquor, cologne and licentiousness. In his own words:
Hi all, this is Rio here chilling on Jorge’s blog at the moment. I come on a journey, a musical quest you might say, to share my summer songs with you, Jorge Farah readers. This is a mixtape that combines the party essence of a summer concert, the funky sounds of the casual house party, and the sensual flavor of a summer fling. Boo-ya. I had fun putting these songs together, dancing and singing along for hours narrowing down the top contenders. They all have that “hope this lasts forever” feeling that the season often brings to mind. Hope you listen, enjoy, and bust a move or two to the beat. I’ll be right alongside you.
Rio’s playlist can be streamed here. I tried to embed it in this post, but WordPress wasn’t having any of it. Click it, listen, and enjoy what will probably be the only time that a T-Pain song is ever featured on this site. Also check out Rio’s collected ruminations on music, mathematics and miscellanea by visiting his blog right here. Now back to our regularly scheduled shoegazing over arpeggiated minor chords…
Maybe it’s because I grew up as a fan of Frank Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours”, later latching on to other morose masterpieces such as The Cure’s “Disintegration”, Elvis Costello’s “North” (the first half of which is among the dourest, most gorgeously despondent jazz music ever recorded) and, most recently, Bon Iver’s “For Emma Forever Ago”. These are deeply personal albums that describe an almost crippling loneliness and sorrow, and I’ve never had a problem with embracing that part of the emotional palette. I just never saw it as a bad thing. Sure, it’s an unpleasant feeling– but I recognized from a pretty early age that the sinking stir of complete isolation, that overwhelming need to connect, has a very clear purpose. It’s something that I’ve grown to relish and find some comfort in.
That’s not to say that I’m a miserable mope-about. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a gregarious, outgoing, generally social guy. I go to parties to meet people. Shit, any time I find out there’s someone I even remotely know flying in to Buenos Aires, I’m the first one to contact them and offer to show them around the city. But the reason I’m able to do that and not feel like a gigantic phony is, I think, because of the balance I’ve been able to achieve by identifying the true purpose of loneliness. And that “purpose” is something I’ve been aware of for a while but hadn’t been able to really vocalize until a recent web forum discussion (of course, internet commenters would be the utmost authority on the topic of loneliness).
See, I subscribe to the theory that “loneliness” isn’t a disease that comes over you (of course, barring clinical depression). I believe loneliness is humanity’s unaltered state. Loneliness is stasis.
It’s inherent to the human condition. It’s what we’re born into and subsequently spend our lives running from. It’s stillness, in that regard– the standard we keep slinking back to. It’s a good thing. It focuses and drives us– it helps us see the enormity of a shared moment, of friendship and family and support. It’s the great unifier, in the sense that we’re in a lifelong desperate struggle to push ourselves– and therefore each other– out of it. It’s the seed of the human need to gather, to assemble, to converse. It’s essential to who we are as feeling, thinking individuals, and it gives meaning to what we cherish every day: a lover’s embrace, the voice of a friend, a song that touches or excites you, a film that moves you to tears. These things mean what they do, and as much as they do, because they effectively pry us from what is our natural state. Loneliness reminds us of what we need, who we need and why– and it’s one of the most powerful and effective driving forces pushing us towards the light.
Suddenly, It starts to make a whole lot more sense when you approach it as a permanent condition that serves an actual evolutionary purpose and gives meaning to the spaces-between-our-loneliness. It’s something to cherish and attempt to take full advantage of. “Without the bitter, baby, the sweet ain’t as sweet.”
At least I think his name was Gilbert. It might have been Max. He went by a lot of names, but they weren’t fun nicknames like T-Bone or Coco. Instead, they were ordinary first names, like Gilbert or Max or Joe (which, honestly, should have tipped me off immediately that I was dealing with a pathological liar– it’s kind of weird when every person in the hostel is calling you by a different first name). And I think he was Venezuelan. I heard him claiming to be Swiss, or having lived in Switzerland, or being from a Swiss family or something like that, but he spoke with an extremely strong Venezuelan accent. I never heard him speak German. His English was atrocious.
He was a big man, tall and portly, but he carried himself like someone who’d just recently moved into a new body and wasn’t quite used to the feel of it. He appeared to drag himself around laboriously, like a soggy, uncooperative mattress. He was never quite at ease, shifting in his seat, constantly pulling on his t-shirt to keep it from sticking to his torso, I guess maybe he was a little self-conscious, which in hindsight seems out of character. He had these tiny little eyes that always appeared to be squinting mischievously, like he approached everything in life with bemused skepticism. He always wore sleeveless shirts and cargo pants.
I asked him once about the rainbow-colored bear claw tattooed on one of his arms, and he explained that he was a Bear, a sub-culture within the gay community where girth and hairiness are celebrated and sexualized. As an 18-year-old kid who’d just left his parents’ house in Colombia, the concept was fascinating to me. Gilbert told me once that if I ever decided to venture down that road, I’d be a Bear sex symbol. I laughed nervously. It kind of skeeved me out.
Gilbert was a tough person to live with. He’d ask for a lot of favors. He’d ask you to pick up a money transfer through Western Union, in your name, because he couldn’t do it himself for some mysterious reason. He’d often try to sell you electronics, claiming to have a hookup in the distributor who’d give him laptops dirt-cheap. He couldn’t go to sleep without spending 45 minutes or so masturbating. These were hostel dorms, mind you, but he didn’t care. Guests complained. I think he struck up some sort of deal with hostel management, because he was never kicked out. He was just moved around a lot. Thankfully, I never had to experience his blatant and unapologetic onanism personally. But my friend Dominic wasn’t so lucky; he had the misfortune of sleeping on the top bunk, directly over Gilbert, and having to endure 45 minutes of creepy moaning and squeaking until he was finally moved to a different room.
He left the Hostel quietly one morning, without saying goodbye to anyone. There was a bit of an uproar because he’d “sold” a few laptops to hostel guests that were supposed to be delivered the next day. Of course, they never came. Several things were found missing the morning he left. Somebody’s wallet. Somebody else’s shoes. Yet another guest’s entire backpack and everything contained therein. He left no contact information or evidence of his extended hostel stay. Oh, except for a series of horribly explicit photos of himself he left in a folder titled “private” in the shared hostel computer, the tamest of which I’ve posted above.
A couple of years later, when hostel life was already a distant, fading memory, a former roommate sent me a Facebook message containing a link to a website dedicated exclusively to exposing an international con artist. Of course, the con artist was our old pal Gilbert. Apparently, he’d been spending the last few years traveling around the world, making friends at hostels, bars or Craigslist. He’d give each one of them a different version of his life story, earn their trust and steal their money and possessions before high-tailing it out of their lives. A would-be lover claiming to have welcomed him into his home only to find he’d pilfered it and run away before morning. An elderly couple claiming he’d pretended to be a travel agent and sold them an expensive travel package that was, of course, completely fabricated. A police report about him bumming around Geneva, posing as a Catholic priest, selling stolen laptops. Yet another story about him claiming to have been a fireman in New York during 9/11 and suffering from PTSD. And so on and so forth. The claims piled on. Literally hundreds of reports. People sharing stories about this poisonous individual who had betrayed them completely, and approached life as one long con.
What a weird guy. I’m pretty sure he stole my copy of “Love is Hell”, too.
As fun as it is to sit by myself in a dark, musty room, wallowing in my own crapulence and ranting about music like an embittered melomane approaching senility, sometimes it’s refreshing to actually converse with someone else and be exposed to a voice other than my own. My good friend Aly Fields joins us in this edition of the Every-ist and Every-ism Blogcast, to talk about her love of outsider music, scuzzy lo-fi rock songs and sappy love ballads, as well as the secret origins of our 10-year friendship. This is accompanied by the occasional participation of her cat Juno, and an impromptu duet a capella performance of a Japanese hardcore punk song.
I tasked Aly with creating a short playlist of songs for the podcast– stuff that represents her general music tastes, songs that she’s currently into or all-time favorites. This is Aly’s playlist:
Hüsker Dü- “New Day Rising” Henry Plotnick- “Field 3″ Over the Rhine- “Circle of Quiet” The Minutemen- “History Lesson Pt. 2″ Everything But the Girl- “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” The Replacements- “Left of the Dial” Kate Bush- “The Morning Fog”
Aly makes insightful and poignant observations about each one of her picks, veering into topics such as classical minimalism and how a band can be misrepresented by a Top 40 hit. I mostly just nod and agree.
As background music to our prattling, you’ll also hear tunes by Urban Achievers Brass Band, The Missing Season, Crooked Fingers, Bash & Pop, Joanna Newsom and others.
Miranda July’s “Me And You And Everyone We Know” is a film that’s fraught with problems: meandering subplots that splinter off without resolution, tragically underdeveloped characters, dialogue that often resorts to vacuous platitudes and a resolute enamorment with its own sometimes-nauseatingly-twee quirkiness. Throughout the length of the film, we are subjected to several sequences that are meant to color our characters’ neuroses and bring us to an understanding of their worldview. And though they’re often charming in their own way, these vignettes feel more like self-contained short films stitched onto the larger fabric of the movie’s narrative, contributing little and instead diminishing the drama of their arcs.
And yet, despite all its flaws, it’s one of my favorite films. It holds together as a desultory mess of crippling doubt, false starts and dead ends; of beautiful character moments and imperfect human connections. It’s a film about connections. About wanting to touch, and wanting to be touched, and learning how to touch– not in a creepy way, but on an emotional and physical leve. It’s about the awkward, bumbling attempts at reaching out past the walls of our perception and finding each other, as fellow stumble-abouts, and finding comfort and solace. It’s about this absurd cast of characters, stuck in moments of doubt, finding their way out of them.
As someone fascinated by music and film and the dance they do together, there’s a lot to love in this movie. One of the most powerful scenes is accompanied by Spiritualized’s cover of The Trogg’s “Any Way That You Want Me”. Everything about it– the framing, the editing and the moments leading up to it– is absolutely perfect, but the ingenious song selection puts it in the realm of the sublime. “Any Way That You Want Me”, a rudimentary 1960s guitar pop relic, is a sweet, simple song originally performed by The Troggs (who basically cannibalized the main riff of their earlier mega-hit, and bane of every karaoke bar patron, “Wild Thing”). Spiritualized’s version plays up the wistful nature of the verses and drives the chorus towards a beautiful, cacophonous wash of guitars and what sounds like a Stroh violin warding off the waves of feedback and distortion.
To provide context as to what actually occurs in the scene is to rob the film of one of its great “a-ha!” moments, so I encourage you to seek it out. I first saw it in the 2006 edition of the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival, and just revisited it thanks to the magic of Netflix Instant, where it is currently streaming. You can also listen to the song by clicking the link below:
This is a picture of two friendly goats I found on the Internet. Aren’t they cute? Don’t you want to reach out and pet them? They’re there to remind me that the poor creatures aren’t inherently scary or evil, no matter how hard my subconscious (drawing from the influence of decades of Judeo-Christian interpretations of pagan imagery) tries to convince me otherwise.
You see, I saw a very different goat a couple of days ago. It definitely didn’t look as approachable and friendly as the two beauties posted above. No, what I saw was a tall, dark, horned figure, standing on two hooves, wearing a long green cape that draped over the floor. This malevolent Baphomet was nothing but menacing, pacing impatiently beside my bed, occasionally leering at me with eyes so frightening that I wanted to scream my lungs out. But I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t even move my arms. I was experiencing an episode of what is known as “sleep paralysis”– a phenomenon in which the body is frozen stiff upon waking, fully able to perceive the world around you yet incapable of actually moving. This usually lasts for a few seconds and is often accompanied by hallucinations, ranging from innocuous to spine-chillingly terrifying. Thankfully for you, this time around, it was the latter.
Also thankfully for you (?!), I decided to record a podcast about it! And to counteract the drab creepiness of hearing a guy struggle through describing his encounter with an imaginary goat-demon, I also decided to play some bitchin’ tunes, rant about how much Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins rules, berate people for not listening to music in languages other than English, and come to terms with the multiplicity of opinions expressed on the Internet. You can enjoy all of this AND MORE by clicking the nifty embedded player BELOW:
The aforementioned bitchin’ tunes featured in this podcast are: Ginger & The Ghost- “Where Wolf” Smashing Pumpkins- “Mayonnaise” The Thermals- “A Stare Like Yours” Maria Pién- “Fantasía en G Para un Pueblo al Sur del Mapa” Dead Leaf Echo- “Kingmaker” Stiff Little Fingers- “Suspect Device” Bronze- “Sunny Day” Lisa Hannigan & Ray LaMontagne- “O Sleep”
The intro music is Charles Mingus’s “Hora Decubitus”. In the background, you’ll also hear songs by The Notwist, Kevin Drew, Clever Girl, Chemical Brothers, Eddie & The Hot Rods and others. However, these are obscured by the sound of my rambling, which I apologize for. Still, I do hope you enjoy this rambly broadcast– the ‘podcast’ portion of this blog is a lot of fun for me, and something I definitely plan to do more of. So you better get used to it, punk.
Too often this blog focuses on old favorites and standards, songs and artists that have stood the test of time, been with me through thick and thin, shaped how I understand music and human relationships, and effectively become an integral part of me. And though I do post about new additions and lucky finds, I thought I’d dedicate an entire post to the albums I’ve purchased in the last two months and are still finding a comfortable space for themselves in my life and library.
I’m leaving out some recent acquisitions that I’ve still yet to really dig into, by artists like Arbouretum, Fire! Orchestra, Mountain Goats and a few others.
Neil Halstead- “Palindrome Hunches”
I picked up this album based on its cover art alone. I hadn’t done this in a while– it has led to discovering a few treasures over the years, as well as several uninspiring duds. Thankfully, “Palindrome Hunches” was a treat: A lovely collection of quiet, understated acoustic ditties by former Slowdive guitarist Neil Halstead. Though the delicate guitar plucking against hushed vocals may have been done a million times before, this beautiful collection more than makes up for its lack of inventiveness with strong songwriting and a remarkably warm, well-rounded production sound. These songs breathe and unfurl with a confident ease, the piano and violin coloring the open spaces beautifully as the melodies glide over the contrabass and open-tuned guitar. A delightful record.
Eluvium- “Nightmare Ending”
My current favorite album sporting a 2013 release date. A gorgeous smattering of (pardon the momentary lapse into tumblr-speak) feels in audio form– heartbreaking and desolate and irrepressibly joyous, 90 minutes of collapse and wonder, drone and beauty in songs, vignettes and sonic experiments, classical minimalism and explosions of sound. This album is staring out at the sunrise at the beach– those quiet moments of inexpressible, abstract understanding, when life suddenly, and oh so fleetingly, makes total harmonic sense. An absolute stunner.
Medeski Martin & Wood- “Radiolarians I”
My first exposure to a group that should have been in my radar a long time ago, Medeski Martin & Wood. The first installment of the Radiolarians series, this album is a powerful collection of avant-garde jazz freak-outs that emphasize groove over noise, with anfractuous keyboards slicing through thick slabs of bass over propulsive drums, rather than the shrill attempts at late-period Sonny Sharrock guitar acrobatics that a lot of these bands seem to find themselves falling into. A hell of a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to acquire and listen to the next two installments.
Pity Sex- “Feast of Love”
A collection of tight, economical, amped-up and energetic fuzzed-out guitar rock songs, complying diligently with the shoegaze tropes of indiscernible lyrics, generous use of reverb and ethereal half-mumbled vocal melodies, but straying from the deliberately impenetrable production in favor of accessibility. Like the Neil Halstead record, what it lacks in inventiveness it more than makes up in the strength of the songs, which are all short, snappy, energetic bursts of finely-crafted enthusiasm.
A Metropolitan Guide- “Lesser Tragedies”
A brilliant subversion of the hopelessly mopey, confessional singer-songwriter trope that has simultaneously plagued and defined the most recent generation of guitar-wielding young men. It’s right there in the title: “Lesser Tragedies”. This is a great collection of sharp and zestful folk-rock songs that discard the self-reverential pity-parties in favor of bootstrap assertiveness. The songs are decidedly earnest, without falling into the trap of the doe-eyed and quixotic; there’s a certain wry humor to them, and they are delivered with steadfast gusto. These songs crackle and pop with wit, cleverness and charm. A very enjoyable listen. It can be picked up in A Metropolitan Guide’s Bandcamp page.
Portugal. The Man- “Evil Friends”
The band whose choice of punctuation makes any mention of their name read awkwardly. I like these guys quite a lot, but never purchased an album of theirs before this one. Though Danger Mouse’s production flourishes can sometimes feel like they detract (or, at the very least, distract) from the overall package, these are still brilliant Baroque pop songs whose ambitions never weigh down their effectiveness; a sprawling, glorious mess of influences and celebrations. Still processing this one, and am continuously amazed (if sometimes a bit exasperated) by all that I keep discovering in these arrangements.
My Favorite- “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”
A band that had been on my radar for a while, an album I always mean to track down. My Favorite was brought to my attention by my friend Aly, who mentioned them during a conversation about Stars, pointing them out as an example of another band featuring boy-and-girl singers and melodicas and ethereal pop melodies. The song that she first sent me was “Burning Hearts”, and ever since I first listened to it I’ve had it stuck in my head. It’s just a great fucking song, swirling keyboards and jangly guitars and drums that should push the song forward but instead feel like they’re just kicking it around. Pure ear-candy, in the vein of the New Romantics, but with a boho-hipster NYC millennial sensibility that prevents it from surrendering entirely to its own melodrama. The entire album is great, definitely worth listening to, but so far I’m left with the impression nothing can quite compete with that track.
Kaleidoscope- “White-Faced Lady”
Another album that I purchased based only on its cover art. “White-Faced Lady” is a relatively obscure relic from the early 1970s, an album that was completed and abandoned for over 20 years, only released in the early 1990s when psychedelia was irrelevant and long forgotten. Still, it features some really lovely song, its progressive ambitions never really taking over and trampling any trace of joy from the music (as is often the case with the worst of this breed of bands). Another record I’m still working my way through and discovering, but so far “The Matchseller” is a highlight.
William Tyler- “Impossible Truth”
A message board recommendation. What a beast of an album. Winding guitar instrumentals that take sharp turns towards the most unexpected places, transcending its “rootsiness” and building its own musical language and logic. Every note in this album is expertly played and meticulously composed, the entire collection coalescing together like one long composition. This is an album that I know I’ll find myself going back to often in the next few months.
Melody’s Echo Chamber
Love this album. I’d already streamed the whole thing last year, and had already decided that “I Follow You” is one of the greatest debut singles (or, at the very least, side1/track1) in recent memory. But, for some reason, I didn’t own a physical copy of it. When I saw it had arrived at my local record store, I decided to correct that immediately. I’m loving every second of it. It’s just thrilling. Melodic, psychedelic, otherworldly ear-candy, with mind-blowing arrangements and a wonderful, off-kilter production that is heavy on effects, reverb, and everything else that makes this record sound like it was produced by anything other than humans.
Stone Gossard- “Moonlander”
This album is a nice little glimpse at the type of band that Pearl Jam would be if it were the only (or even just the main) creative outlet for the songwriting of Stone Gossard (and also if Eddie had a much more nasal voice). This album is filled with all kinds of strange, sideways brilliance: everything from a sentimental ballad about a stray dog, to a folk-rock song which boasts the prechorus “I gotta go, I gotta swim, I gotta use my fins”, to this title track that sounds like a sorrowful James Bond theme song. This album is rich with treasures, and is pretty different from what you would expect from the person responsible for bringing “Alive” into the world.
Monte Dunn and Karen Cruz
Another forgotten oddity. This album got lost in the great folk wash of the 1960s and was left stranded in the sea of obscurity for decades. A strange collection of off-kilter folk songs, but one that features several little treasures, like the strangely beautiful track “Order to Things”. Every song is a collision of genres and styles, but it’s been fun culling through it, trying to make sense of the mess.
Sigur Rös- “Kveikur”
A lot of people I know seem to have grown disenchanted with Sigur Rós over the course of their last couple of releases due to a perceived sameness to their music, but their latest release is a decidedly harsher, darker, more rhythmic affair. There’s a bite and menace to it, and the songs are filled with tension and mystery. Still, if you’re the kind of person who finds everything Jonsi & company have put out to be nothing but mood pieces, a wash of ethereal whale sounds devoid of structure or reason, I don’t know that you’ll get much more out of this one. I am happy to surrender to it.
I was left reeling for days after attending the Brad Mehldau Trio show at the Teatro Gran Rex in Buenos Aires. It was the kind of experience that leaves you with a new understanding of music– not just the theory of it, but what it means, on a fundamental level, to be moved and changed by what is essentially just a reconfiguration of the air around you. It picked me up from a slump, shook me awake and left me vibrant and re-energized in a way that a great night out with friends can. Which is funny, because I ended up going all by my lonesome.
I don’t usually go to shows by myself. Not as some sort of rule, but because I don’t often have to. It’s usually easy to find someone among my social pool to join me for a gig, but Brad Mehldau was a tough sell. I was unable to get anyone to commit to a show by some jazz pianist they’d never heard of, especially considering how I was looking to buy the most expensive tickets in the house, to be seated as close as possible to where the action is. These musicians are a wonder to observe– not just how they interact with their instruments, but how they interact with each other with subtle looks and the kind of musical shorthand that happens when you have three people locked so tightly to each other’s playing style. So while I was okay with seeing a microscopic version of Tony Bennett ham it up from the nosebleeds, I decided to shell out the big bucks to watch this live display of genius.
It’s simultaneously humbling and inspiring to see such a rich, vibrant performance; three masters maneuvering effortlessly through rhythm and melody, building upon patterns and expanding outward and weaving narratives throughout the length of a song, pinning ideas down just long enough to explore their emotional core before releasing; passion, playfulness and care. They played four encores, bending the songs upwards and downwards and taking everybody in the house through a series of emotional somersaults. Pouring themselves into the performance, continually rediscovering, transforming every moment and in turn being transformed by it.
The only other show in recent memory to have a similar effect on me was seeing Mingus Big Band play Mingus Mondays at the Jazz Standard in New York City, just a few months ago. I left that show feeling similarly giddy, excited, drunk with gratitude. This got me thinking about the transformative nature of jazz music, and how it’s the natural consequence of letting human beings (absurdly talented human beings) play around with a few instruments and a melodic base, the skeleton of a song. This is the kind of joyful vibrancy that I keep going back to when people try to tell me that jazz is dull, cerebral, uninspired. To me, it’s as moving and exciting and celebratory as music can get.
When I walked out of the Jazz Standard that night, I felt like I saw the world with a different set of eyes– everything just seemed better. I wandered the streets of Manhattan with a huge dorky smile on my face, the music still playing clearly inside my head. A similar thing happened when Brad Mehldau Trio took their final bow. I was elated. I walked outside into the drizzly city streets and met a friend for dinner. I tried to explain what had happened, but the words seemed awkward, ill-fitting and crass. It’s a hard thing to try to communicate to someone who wasn’t there. It certainly sounds like a melodramatic way to describe a very mundane event– three guys playing their instruments. But it was more than that. Everything was the same, and yet it wasn’t. Neither was I.
The first single for the upcoming Pearl Jam album was released last week. It’s a balls-to-the-wall punk rock number hilariously titled “Mind Your Manners”. I’ve been thinking about this song a lot– not because it’s a particularly ponderous piece (as you’re about to find out), but because of what my reaction tells me about my relationship with this band. For as much as I don’t feel a strong connection with Pearl Jam or its fanbase anymore, I do feel I’m somewhat indebted to them in a number of ways. I am going to try my best to articulate my thoughts, not just on this new single, but on my own personal history with this sharply divisive band, and where I stand with them. First, here’s the track so you can listen for yourself:
The song starts with a few bars of stopstutter metal riffing and ghost drum notes (anti-accents in the rhythmic pattern) that, at the very least, sound like nothing the band had ever attempted before– for those few seconds, a PJ fan perks up at the notion that the band may be about to deliver its first truly heavy-sounding lead single in well over a decade. However, those hopes are quickly dashed as the band kicks into an all-too-familiar punk rock facsimile that is, by this point, a well-worn road within the Pearl Jam canon. Driving powerchords atop a tight and economical rhythm section, the song is Hüsker Dü by way of Motörhead– in fact, those two bands are referenced so directly that it would’ve been a genius tip-of-the-hat to include an umlaut somewhere in the song title, as well as fitting in beautifully with the general snarkiness of its tone and execution.
The song’s strongest feature, apart from that exciting-yet-deceptive intro, is Vedder’s vocal performance. After two straight albums of shrill, screechy straining, he’s finally managed to find a comfortable range to navigate so as to make the best use of his declining vocal powers. Sounding like a madman wielding a doomsday device, Vedder rails against religious fundamentalism with a sardonic disdain that we hadn’t really heard since 1998′s “Do the Evolution”. His vocals have a grit and menace to them that are, sadly, missing from the rest of the song.
It’s not that the song is bad– in fact, I enjoy a lot about it– but I can’t help feeling that this is a huge missed opportunity; that they had the skeleton of a good song, but stopped themselves short when it came time to execute. Mostly, I’m exasperated that it’s so… damn… inoffensive. For a song that’s tailored itself so closely to its key influences– and I’m referring specifically to Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades”, this track’s closest traceable lineage– it seems adamant about making itself sound as characterless and polished as it can be. Where Motörhead’s riff roars like a cannonball, Pearl Jam’s feels like a feeble ersatz. Where the rhythm section in “Ace of Spades” charges madly like a wild boar, “Mind Your Manners” gallops gingerly behind.
It’s not just about the pace, it’s the nuances of the performance itself. Coupled with the smoothed-over production of Brendan O’Brien, this already-inoffensive song feels neutered and languid. Compare to Chiendent’s “Chien Battu”, a song that’s at a slower tempo than “Mind Your Manners”, and still manages to sound twice as intense, dangerous and caustic by virtue of its performance and production. Compare, also, to one of Pearl Jam’s past attempts at this throwback punk style, 1994′s “Spin the Black Circle”, which they nailed with aplomb. Execution is paramount when you’re attempting a song that aims for this kind of unhinged aggression, this nervous energy, and in that regard “Mind Your Manners” falls flat.
Still, I do think it’s a good song. It’s inoffensive, sure, it’s derivative, sure, but it’s fun to listen to and I imagine it’ll be a real blast for the band to play live (in fact, it seems designed for live shows, what with the call-and-response towards the end; this is another topic we won’t talk about in this blog post– Pearl Jam’s growing proclivity towards manufactured audience participation). All of that aside, I’m afraid the main reason this song is somewhat deflating to me is because it’s symptomatic of a larger problem I’ve had with Pearl Jam, or the band that Pearl Jam has become, and it was something I was quietly rooting for them to overcome.
First, a little bit of context. Pearl Jam occupies a strange spot in my life. I went through a long period of what could be described as hardcore fandom. I’m intimately acquainted with their history, trivia and minutiae. I follow their news and announcements with a kind of bemused interest– I even keep track of setlists, when they’re on tour, just to see what they’ve been playing. And yet, I rarely ever listen to them these days. When I do, it’s only to a specific 40% of their catalogue. Not only that, but more and more they’re becoming a band I constantly feel like I have to make excuses for.
When Pearl Jam’s name comes up in casual conversation with music enthusiasts, it’ll usually be referencing their reputation as the ultra-earnest grunge rockers of the early nineties; Eddie Vedder’s comically exaggerated baritone singing words about pain and alienation– the kind of pain and alienation that only straight white middle-class males can know– over melodramatic and utterly characterless classic rock approximations, all pomp and fiery passion and stout-hearted bravado. This is the enduring image of the band in pop culture, regardless of the fact that they’ve been well divorced from that sound and approach for the majority of their career. As far as the general public is concerned, they’re the perennially angry kids with long hair, bouncing around the stage in hilarious hats, singing these over-the-top songs about teen suicide. Of course, by today’s standards, that image is hilariously passé, almost embarrassing to watch. And for as many movie soundtracks and ukulele albums Eddie Vedder puts out to establish himself as a rootsy elder statesman of song, it’s those early years that he’ll always be most closely associated with.
THE FACE OF EXISTENTIAL PAIN
Sometime around 1994, Pearl Jam took a sharp turn in their songwriting, transitioning from fist-pumping, flannel-clad, self-loathing rock stars to a more modest, understated and self-consciously quirky garage rock band, first with the album Vitalogy (where they shed the last vestiges of their arena-rock inclinations) and later, more confidently, with their 1996 masterpiece No Code. I may have my reservations about Pearl Jam as a whole, but I’ll never turn my back on No Code, a rich and exciting album of sonic mishaps and genre experiments that features a band tearing down their supposed identity and reconstructing it piece by piece– but the pieces are all screwed up, the proportions are wrong, and the structure comes toppling back down again. A wonderful process of creative rediscovery.
“In My Tree” is arguably the centerpiece of that album. It’s also my absolute favorite Pearl Jam song. From the distant-rolling-thunder of the verses to the irrepressible roar of the chorus, all the way to its ethereal conclusion, “In My Tree” packs a wallop. It slams down full-force on the choruses, before reaching for the skies in its impassioned coda. Just an absolute stunner of a song, and one that I tend to offer as a counter-argument to friends who say Pearl Jam are a cock-rock band. The fact that they were able to write something so transcendent and nuanced and melodically complete is evidence that these guys have the potential to be world-class songwriters. Much more than some dude emoting unintelligibly over a rudimentary chord progression and some tasty guitar licks.
1996′s No Code. Wonderful music, hideous cover art.
Between 1994 and 2005, Pearl Jam released five full-length albums showcasing an off-kilter sense of musical adventurousness and experimentation across a remarkable variety of song styles and approaches, while still operating reasonably within the limits of rock music. They were mercurial in their approach– sometimes raw and unhinged, sometimes quiet, delicate and mournful. During those 10+ years, they were a band that focused mainly on whatever worked best for whichever song they were tackling, setting aside the general public’s notions of what they were supposed to sound like. This resulted in a band that was free to explore, to stretch and adjust the limits of its own songwriting. 1998′s Yield was built on this very premise, an exercise in egoless songwriting– an entire album predicated on the idea of letting the songs take you where they want to take you, giving way to all kinds of structural oddities and left turns and discoveries. And there was a palpable joy in that process. More than a bunch of guys trying to sound their angriest, Yield sounded like a band indulging in the joy of creating music, and being caught off guard by these creations.
Something I loved about this particular period of the band was their ability to construct songs that, though they had a foreboding sense of darkness, still managed to latch on to a glimpse of hope, a glimmer of light to see the song through. That as murky and left-of-center as their songwriting became, pulling towards the stranger and sometimes more desolate sides of melody and performance, there is still this overriding humanity and compassion cutting through the fog. This could be in the form of a warm vocal melody over an icy soundscape, a victorious guitar solo freeing itself from an oppressively downtrodden instrumental backing, or even just an upwards bend in a descending bassline. Their songs were filled with mystery and dimensions, hidden colors and flavors and emotional spaces they couldn’t have explored or expressed when they were sulky twentysomethings because they just didn’t have the musical language for it.
This, of course, came at the cost of their commercial success, with each consecutive record selling only a fraction of what their first three albums did. And as they retreated from the pop culture limelight, they also managed to alienate the fans who wanted more of the sound that made them famous. They had a knack for subverting their fans’ expectations; while the core of their fanbase was clamoring for more overwrought power ballads with dramatic declarations and wailing guitars, Pearl Jam were recording beautiful little anomalies like this obscure one-off, “Strangest Tribe”:
2003′s outtakes and rarities collection, Lost Dogs
And then, something happened. 2006 rolled around and Pearl Jam had officially ended their relationship with longtime label Epic. They had broken free of the commercial shackles of a major-label contract, and following their most deliberately difficult record (2002′s Riot Act), surely they were about to hit us with the most challenging and interesting work of their career– everything that those pesky major-label suits had been rejecting for all these years. Right?
Not quite. Instead, quite the opposite. Its members started giving interviews and talking about “hopefully making music that’s a little more accessible”. Shortly afterwards, they released their self-titled 8th album, signaling another sharp turn in their songwriting. All of a sudden, their songs went from playful, introspective, angular and adventurous to muscular, brawny, “punchy” and outward in a way that was a palpable shift from the direction they seemed to be heading. This was a “new, revitalized” Pearl Jam, putting the emphasis back on the rock side of their music, bringing the hooks and melodies back to the forefront, playing as loud and angrily as they could. A big deal was made of it in the press, too: Pearl Jam, the band that had dropped from the heights of relevance into relative obscurity for the better part of a decade, was now once again full of piss and vinegar, ready to bring back the RAWK. They were suddenly media darlings– this infamously elusive band, with a storied and contentious relationship with the dog-and-pony show of music marketing suddenly found itself plastered all over the television. They released their first conceptual music video in years. They were on MTV. They were on VH1′s Storytellers. They were on the radio. They were “back“.
Whether it was a commercially-motivated decision or simply the desire to reclaim the chunks of their audience that had grown disenchanted with them over the last few years, there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing the press game. The problem was, the album that they were doing press for was a one-dimensional, self-consciously beefed-up affair, with most of the songs lacking any kind of nuance or depth. They followed that album with 2009′s Backspacer, which was a sleeker, poppier, glossier affair, featuring the band dabbling with New Wave arrangements and more keyboards and string sections and some good songs, but none of the magic that the band was able to tap into during my favorite era.
Between 2009 and 2013, Pearl Jam released a movie (a self-glorifying hagiography directed by Cameron Crowe which completely skipped over the most musically interesting years of the band), an accompanying book, re-issues of their first three albums (the most popular ones) and even threw a weekend-long festival to celebrate their 20-year anniversary. They came to Argentina a couple of times, and I even went to see them this past April. While it was a great show and they played a lot of my favorite songs, I did feel a disconnect. I saw myself surrounded by an army of rabid fans who loved this band more than they loved any other band in this world. I knew then that it had been a long time since I felt that way towards Pearl Jam. I wanted to bring that feeling back, and I wanted them to fight to get it back again.
I think this is why “Mind Your Manners” felt like such a disappointment to me– there was so much hinging on it. The song is mostly devoid of character, mostly devoid of depth, mostly devoid of the nuance that made even their most abrasive rockers from that 1994-2005 era so fascinating to me. Sure, it’s a balls-to-the-wall thrasher, but it feels completely flat. It is, essentially, more of the same, when I desperately wanted Pearl Jam to shake me from my stupor, wow me with a curveball, remind me with a forceful assertion why I even liked this band in the first place. As much as I don’t want them to be remembered as those yowling, angry 20-somethings in ridiculous hats, I also don’t want them to be remembered as the balding 50-year-olds trying to sound like the Ramones.
Of course, this is only the lead single. Everything else from the upcoming album could be absolutely wonderful and a true return to form. But first impressions matter, and right now I’m wary of what’s to come. If they do win me back over, I’ll be thrilled. If they don’t, I don’t think I’ll be crying much over it. I’m perfectly fine with watching from the sidelines, content with the knowledge that I do have those five great albums to go back to at any time. I just won’t be making excuses for them anymore.
Four years ago I attended a mess of a festival headlined by REM and The Offspring. It also featured bands like The Mars Volta, Kaiser Chiefs, Spiritualized, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Bloc Party. It was one of those hastily-thrown-together collections of whatever big international acts happened to be touring South America that week, without much rhyme or reason, slapped with a big bright “GENERIC MUSIC FESTIVAL (courtesy of some brand of soft drink)” banner. It was all pretty crass and artificial, but hey, all big summer music festivals are.
The schedule appeared to have been assembled haphazardly, with The Mars Volta playing one of the first slots of the day. Of course, Omar & company played a tight, impressive behemoth of a set. They were immediately followed by a comparatively languid-sounding Bloc Party. Now, Bloc Party is a band that needs the kick. It needs to sound tight and snappy and precise for the songs to pop the way they should. Placed right after the technical virtuosity of The Mars Volta (who were playing with Thomas Pridgen at the time), they sounded flimsy and insipid. They would’ve come off so much better if they had just gone on a little earlier in the day. Alas.
It was a pretty weird festival, mostly because headliners The Offspring seemed so completely out-of-place, but there were two incredible performances that really stood out, by two bands I loved but hadn’t seen before: Spiritualized and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Both of these bands performed red-hot, scorchingly loud sets of glorious, chaotic noise, the feedback engulfing the crowd like a sonic tsunami, occupying every inch of the harmonic spectrum and then reeling the songs back in, receding and leaving us gasping for air. They were two of the greatest sets I’ve ever seen by anyone, and it really reaffirmed the idea that, though subtlety and finesse have their place, sometimes you just want to be drifting awash in tuneful guitar feedback.
All of that is to say… I really like loud music. And, as my (very public) vessel for late-night (and alcohol-induced) romanticizing, the contents of this blog tend towards the melancholy and reflective; as such, the accompanying music has tended towards the quiet, delicate and taciturn as of late. This time around, I made a playlist of loud, roaring, generally upbeat songs (without falling into complete dissonance). It’s 31 minutes long, and all the songs are great. Or, y’know, at least I think so.
You can listen to it by clicking the embedded player below:
(Play it loud.)
The songs in the playlist are listed below: Abe Vigoda- ”Crush” Kylesa- “Cheating Synergy” Pity Sex- “Wind Up” Cracker- “100 Flower Power Maximum” (with apologies to David Lowery) Wild Flag- “Romance” Dwarves- “The Crucifixion is Now” Wavves- “Super Soaker” Fucked Up- “Turn the Season” Love is All- “Talk Talk Talk Talk” Big Business- “I Got It Online” Beatsteaks- “We Have to Figure It Out Tonight”
In an unrelated piece of holy-shit-the-Internet-is-awesome news, I found the great Paul Williams on Twitter and decided to take my chances and send him the piece I wrote on one of his songs for the Muppets Movie soundtrack, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”. Much to my surprise, the man actually read my post and was kind enough to respond. I know it’s silly, but this feels monumental to me– that such a great songwriter (and personal hero) is, in some small way, acknowledging my existence… as well as taking the time to read my clumsy attempts at verbalizing how I feel about one of his songs… is pretty fucking great. So thank you, Mr. Paul Williams, for being a class act, and for retweeting my silly blog post, and for writing “The Rainbow Connection”.
A few days ago I purchased a beautiful album by Charlie Haden and Hank Jones titled “Come Sunday“. It’s a lovely, laid-back collection of religious hymnals expertly played on the piano and contrabass. A few days before that, I’d purchased a collection titled “Lukk Opp Kirkens Dorer (Throw Open The Church Doors): A Selection Of Norwegian Christian Jazz Psych Funk & Folk 1970-1980“. This was brought to my attention by my friend Aly (whose blog you should read here). More than just an intriguing oddity, this collection is a genuinely groovy, soulful, sometimes bizarre but completely enthralling bunch of tunes. I am not a religious man, but it’s not a problem with either of these albums because one is instrumental and the other is in… uh… Norwegian, I guess?
I told another friend, Sam, about these recent purchases. He immediately raised an eyebrow, the way the odiously arrogant do when they think they have something biting to say. “Are you going all Christian on me now?”. “Oh, no, I just really like the songs. You should listen to this, they–” He interrupted. “You know, because, by buying these records, you’re supporting an institution which stands for th–”
I tuned out. Sam is a nice guy, but the smallest mention of religion sends him into a rage. Before my eyes, he transforms from this mild-mannered, socially awkward system administrator, into an obnoxious, in-your-face militant atheist who can’t handle an opposing viewpoint without exploding into hysterics. More and more, I see people like Sam all over the message boards and comment threads; the Internet has dubbed them “New Atheists”, followers of Dawkins and Hitchens and lovers of reason and logic and science and, apparently, ad hominem attacks. And, though I am very much an ally to their cause in spirit… in reality, I think they go about it the wrong way.
Subversiveness against a dominant paradigm, if it’s a potentially harmful one that encroaches on society’s freedoms and breeds ignorance and hate, is generally a good thing. Confrontation can lead to debate which can lead to action which can lead to change. These are good things. But too often, New Atheists seem spiteful and mean-spirited, taking any sliver of an opportunity to force their views upon anybody who’s there to listen, willingly or otherwise.
I was raised in Roman Catholicism. I had my First Holy Communion at the age of 10. At the time, it was the most exciting thing I’d ever been a part of– a rite of passage that brought all those stories I had heard in church every Sunday to a physical, tangible level. Like most kids, I was always fascinated and excited by the concept of the eternal struggle of Good and Evil, the smiting of the wicked by the hands of the just. Fictionalized portrayals of that dichotomy in movies, TV shows and comic books would capture my imagination in a big way, and it proved to be the main driving force and overarching theme in the few creative works I produced at that age– every story I wrote, every picture I scribbled in my school notebooks, could all be boiled down to Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.
This was also the reason why I was one of those rare kids who didn’t mind going to church every Sunday: I saw the bible readings and the sermons and the ritual itself not as a mind-numbing obligation, but as yet another manifestation of that struggle. And what greater spectacle, what grander battle, than that of God vs. the Devil? The all-knowing giver of life, father to the Earth and all of its wonder, fighting against the Prince of Darkness, master of deception, hate and corruption– who was also, get this, one of his own men, fallen from grace for committing the ultimate act of betrayal and leading a coup against his creator, duking it out in an endless war for the souls of God’s errant children… I mean, fuck! It has all the makings of an exciting summer blockbuster (or, at the very least, a particularly ambitious WWE grudge match). This was church to me. It was an episode of Dragon Ball Z– intense, exciting, sometimes unbearably long and tedious, but ultimately satisfying on that base dramatic level.
HE’S BEEN CHARGING HIS ATTACK FOR EIGHT EPISODES, GUYS
I was excited because, by having my First Holy Communion, I was finally becoming an active participant in that epic war. I thought I was finally being given the chance to pick a side. I picked my side, and it was my Father’s side, and my Mother’s side, and Jesus’s side, and the side of everybody and everything that I knew to be righteous and good. For years, I didn’t question it. I was a soldier in God’s army, and I was happy to fulfill my duty as such by giving praise and observing these ten simple rules. And then… something happened.
I went to a Catholic private school, from kindergarten all the way through high-school graduation. This involved the obligatory bible study, religious education, and a class they called “Christian ethics”. This also meant that we were subject to the completely arbitrary and capricious whims of what the school deemed “appropriate behavior” and appearance. As we grew into our teens, we started seeing “guest speakers” on a regular basis. These guest speakers were usually Catholic priests who were paid handsomely to tour all across Latin America giving lectures to impressionable teenagers about the dangers of homosexuality, birth-control, and whatever flavor-of-the-week rock band was popular at the time.
These speakers would sit us down at the school amphitheater and they’d lay out all these names of famous musicians who had encoded subliminal messages into their songs to turn us all into depraved devil-worshippers. They’d talk about all the hidden messages in the media, designed specifically to turn us into sex-starved perverts, or, even worse, homosexuals. We were suddenly bombarded with all these over-the-top ideas about all the evil that surrounded us out there, and how we needed to remain pious and true in the face of all these predators who cared about nothing but corrupting our soul. And they were everywhere. Movies. Books. Television. Music. Trust no one.
I remember being very scared, and then coming to the realization that my school was using these religious teachings as a system of control to keep me in check and obedient, compliant and subservient. All of a sudden, it became very clear to me that I was being squeezed into a mold that I had no interest in fitting into. This brought on a flurry of questions. The very notion that all I had believed in all through childhood could possibly be predicated on a lie… was terrifying. I tried to talk myself out of it, but I knew, deep down, that something was wrong here. That this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I felt I’d been lied to, and I myself felt like a liar.
Armed with a healthy dose of teenage hubris, I “came out” as a skeptic, much to the dismay of my classmates, teachers and parents. Looking back as someone who’s been the owner of their own life for quite a few years, it seems like a silly and obvious decision to make. But at the time, it was enormous. It was scary. I was prying control away from my would-be oppressors. I was taking charge.
“Eff you, Jesus! Stay in your stupid cave!”
For a while, and I suspect as a kneejerk reaction to teachings that I perceived to have been forced on me, I became an angry atheist. The Internet was a great aid in this. I sought out information on God as he was understood by different cultures through history, all over the world. I tried to understand the human need for a creator. I started developing my own– very basic, very naive– atheistic notions of right and wrong, divorcing them from the Judeo-Christian guilt-trip parables I’d been hearing all my life. I understood God as an easy answer to complicated questions, and engaged in debate with people from school and from my own family. Not surprisingly, I was often outmatched– but I’d go home, do some more studying, and come back the next day for another round of reverse-proselytizing.
For a brief period in my late teens, I became interested in the teachings of Anton LaVey. This is a less-scary way of saying I became a Satanist (funny that the pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction that I was now actually “siding” with the bad guy). Now, to be clear: LaVeyan Satanism isn’t deistic, which is to say most of its members identify as atheists. This means there’s no actual devil worship going on– instead, it preaches a kind of rampant humanism, the idea that Man should accept and embrace his nature as a creature of the flesh, and indulge in every earthly desire– the figure of “Satan” is used metaphorically, as a symbol of disobedience and non-conformism. It was, of course, the perfect “religion” for a teenage boy. However, I quickly realized it was just as riddled with inconsistencies and silliness as any other organized religion, and I abandoned it (much to my parents’ relief).
Clearly these people are well-adjusted.
And so, for a few years, I existed in this nebulous state of uncertainty– sometimes identifying as an atheist, sometimes falling back into my Catholic upbringing, never quite sure of where I stood on the issue of spirituality. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I started feeling comfortable with the idea of agnosticism– of effectively saying “y’know what, I just don’t know“. Before then, it felt like one of those “easy answers” I was decrying– a copout. A lazy, flippant shrug in response to the biggest question you could ask about our lives in this planet. But more and more, as I started redirecting the effort and energy that I would normally put into trying to crack this impossible riddle, as I started letting go and accepting that I’m very probably never going to reach these answers, I started feeling at peace with myself for the first time in ages.
Perhaps humanity just lacks the fundamental ability to fully understand a God, if there is such a thing. And we’ve been trying for eons, and we’ve failed miserably, and we’ve created hate and resentment and we’ve manipulated and coerced and implemented systems of control and we’ve killed and tortured in the name of our imagined creator. This tells me that maybe we should stop trying, and just live. It tells me that religion is futile and senseless. It tells me that militant atheism is futile and senseless. It tells me that life is a mystery we will most likely never decode (at least not within our earthly lifespan), so I should put my energy on enjoying the time that I have here, without kneeling to Gods that may or may not exist, without adhering to a set of rules laid out in scripture from thousands of years ago. It tells me that doing anything other than focusing on the here and now, on making the most of our time on this Earth, with care and compassion and love for my fellow confused stumble-abouts, is not time well spent.
If we do that, and we exercise a little humility, and we stop yelling at each other about our individual spiritual truths… we just might be a little happier altogether. I guess it is kind of a cop-out, but it’s one I can live with.
Trying to come up with any kind of “definitive” list of 10 greatest albums from a decade as rich and diverse as the aughts– or, really, any decade at all– is an exercise in futility. I’ve seen people try; it very quickly becomes a list of personal favorites, a list about “influence” and iconography, or a list of chart-topping unit-shifters. These are all perfectly valid lists in their own right, and worthwhile topics to explore, but they fall far from the purported goal: an objective ranking of “greatness”.
Now, even if this was a website that concerned itself with anything other than the annals of my experience, I’d stay the hell away from applying the word “objective” to any type of artistic analysis: I think maintaining real objectivity about the quality of music– unless you’re approaching it from an academic standpoint, like jazz as an athletic showcase for instrumentalists and composers– is damn near impossible without falling into the trap of “I don’t like it, which means it’s objectively inferior.” Truth be told, I don’t believe in any objective measure you could apply to any album to conclude that it’s any “greater” than the S Club 7 Greatest Hits collection.
So what I’m left with is preference and personal significance. Even if I’m only taking these two factors into account, there will sometimes be a bit of a disconnect: some of my favorite music is of little personal significance, and some of the most significant albums in my life I simply can’t listen to anymore. Then there’s albums like “Left and Leaving”, the second LP by Canadian folk/indie/punk outfit The Weakerthans. This is an album that I love to death, an album that holds an immense amount of personal significance, and also an album that’s raw, imperfect and sometimes hard to listen to.
Formed after John K Samson’s unceremonious dismissal from Propagandhi due to conflicting songwriting approaches (Samson’s timid and tender tunes sat in hilarious contrast with Chris Hannah’s angry snarl), The Weakerthans combine nervous punk energy with a gentler, folksier approach. They write delicate, hushed ballads that transition into roaring pop-punk numbers, all the while maintaining a sweetness and naiveté to their melodies through Samson’s endearingly never-quite-completely-in-tune vocals. While the music is good, it’s the lyrics that really elevate these songs: Samson is one of the most skilled and literate lyricists around, effortlessly conveying melancholy, hopelessness, self-deprecation and humor in a way that doesn’t come off as precious and self-satisfied as other would-be wordsmiths of indie rock (looking at you, Colin Meloy).
My first exposure to The Weakerthans came from one of those dirt-cheap punk rock samplers I wrote about a while ago. Specifically, the Hopeless Records compilation “Hopelessly Devoted to You” volume III, which I picked up while on a trip to the US when I was 14. The Weakerthans song “Watermark” stood out as a punchy yet emotional number amidst the brawnier, brattier fare of bands like Dillinger Four, Fifteen, Selby Tigers and Against All Authority. I was especially impressed by the lyrics: “Speech will spill on space, our little cups of grace. But pauses rattle on about the way that you cut the snow-fence, braved the blood, the metal of those hearts that you always end up pressing your tongue to. How your body still remembers things you told it to forget. How those furious affections followed you.” It quickly became my favorite track from the compilation, so I sought out the album.
I listened to “Left & Leaving” obsessively through the remainder of my teens. I would read the lyrics over and over like poetry, marveling at the depth of feeling conveyed in these songs– “My city’s still breathing, but barely, it’s true, through buildings gone missing like teeth. The sidewalks are watching me think about you.” I also loved the sound of the album: it’s a ragged, rickety thing, barely holding together, nearing the point of collapse during some of the more hard-rocking tracks, the crudeness of the sound mirroring the rawness of emotion laid bare in the lyrics. This album stood by me through the more dramatic years of my teen life. I listened to it non-stop. It became a big, big part of who I was– and who I still am.
Maybe that’s why I find it a little tough to get through today. As much distance as I like to imagine between present-day-Jorge and the waffley puddle of feels that was Teen Jorge, all those anxieties and neuroses are still very much a part of me. And yes, I internalize pretty much every album I listen to and make it part of the ongoing narrative of my life, but albums like “Left & Leaving”, “Disintegration” and “In The Wee Small Hours” have an incredible ability tap into that backwater reservoir of emotion because they are linked to very specific moments and incidents and people. Though I may only be able to make it through a few songs before feeling the strange urge to switch to something less emotionally triggering, this remains one of my favorite, and most personally significant, albums of all time.
At the end of the day, that’s about as close to “definitive” as I can get.
Listen to the song “Pamphleteer” from “Left and Leaving” by clicking the embedded player below:
Buenos Aires is slowly but surely approaching winter weather, which means it’s about time that I fall in love with the city once again. As much as I am, at all times, aware of the many charms it possesses– the ones that captured me in the first place– their accompanying tribulations tend to pile up and reach the tipping point right around this time of year. For some reason, the city that I love comes back to life in the winter; it all starts feeling more like wonderful chaos to cherish and revel in, rather than an exasperating mess.
Growing up in the sweltering heat of Barranquilla’s subtropical climate, you’d expect me to feel right at home in the similarly humid and oppressive Buenos Aires summer. No such luck. I’ve always felt much more comfortable in the colder weather. I’m also drawn to cold-weather music, if that makes sense. A while back, I did a couple of posts on the topic: Say No to Summer and Say Yes to Summer. Going back to what we talked about in the previous entry, I’m thrilled to have music that represents, explores and takes root in all facets of life’s emotional multiplicity, cheery or dour or the myriad of in-betweens. Similarly, I’m happy that we have cold-weather music and warm-weather music. But in terms of personal preference, what I naturally gravitate to, what resonates with me more immediately? I’ll take those icy-cool synth lines over the jangly upbeat summer pop any day.
Speaking of, here’s a little treat. What I have here is a 38-minute playlist, lovingly compiled and edited by yours truly, of beautiful instrumental music. The tracks are mostly guitar-based, mostly melancholy, mostly expansive and ethereal. They’re culled together from various sources, including two wonderful albums I purchased last week– William Tyler’s “Impossible Truth” and Eluvium’s “Nightmare Ending”, two exquisite records that I’ll be exploring and writing about in the future. There’s no real throughline or narrative to the sequencing of these songs beyond simply sounding good together. And that they do.
So strap on your headphones at home/your place of employment/ favorite crying hole, click the embedded player below and space out to these lovely instrumental tunes. No pesky words getting in the way, distracting you by needlessly stimulating your neurological language center. Just… music.
William Tyler- “The World Set Free” Vestigios- “Todo Consenso Necesita de Alguna Renuncia” Eluvium- “Don’t Get Any Closer” Bill Frisell- “Gimme a Holler” Mogwai- “Relative Hysteria” Nancy Wilson- “Elevator Beat” Marc Ribot- “The Kid” Baroness- “Stretchmarker”