Sunday, May 23, 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Rocking the Suburbs: Mix #1

If you're a regular reader of Brendan Hilliard's excellent Obviate Media, you've probably seen his ambitious "Eternal Mixtape" project- basically, he challenged his readers to create a mix and a narrative that tied the tracks together.

I didn't exactly complete the challenge- it's a pretty daunting task for someone like me, to say the least- but I have completed a mix that meets some of his requirements. The full thing is up here for your listening pleasure, with commentary after the jump.

"Bulldog Skin," Guided by Voices: When I was in high school, my lifeline to the world beyond my ZIP code was 120 Minutes, the "alternative"/"college rock"/whatever program airing on MTV on Sunday nights between 10pm and midnight. I graduated to this program after spending my junior high years sneaking episodes of The Dr. Demento Show, which probably primed me to be open to the strange and unusual things I'd later embrace. One of the first videos by a then-current artist to really grab my attention (my earliest favorites on the program tended to be the "classic alternative" acts like Talking Heads and The Ramones) was "Bulldog Skin," the lead single from Guided by Voices' 1997 album Mag Earwhig! I had no prior knowledge of GBV, so I wasn't aware that this was the dawn of the controversial "Guided by Verde" era (don't worry if you don't know what it means); thus, my only impression was that this song was everything I wanted a three minute "rock" song to be. Swaggering riffs, a catchy hook, and a frontman who's not afraid to tell his guitarist to "get wild" on a gnarly solo- what more could a teenage boy want? Well, yeah, there's that whole socialization thing- girls at my school weren't hip to GBV, and it'd be years before I actually found one of their albums anywhere (this was pre-internet shopping, mind you), but Bob Pollard planted some seeds that are still bearing fruit.

"Every Day I Write the Book," Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Elvis Costello, whether he likes it or not, is the godfather to every agitated young man in glasses with the nerve to pick up a guitar since 1977, myself included. I discovered him most directly through randomly hearing this single and, at some point around '96, picking up the Rykodisc "best of" package to use as a primer- which, given his penchant for jumping from genre to genre, probably was a good call- and devouring it. I loved how he juxtaposed riffs nicked from ABBA tunes with menacing lyrics about the UK's bleak state of affairs in "Oliver's Army," a track every bit as good as The Clash's "Career Opportunities," and how an absolutely gorgeous ballad with a Chet Baker trumpet solo could, in fact, be about the war in the Faulkland Islands (that is what "Shipbuilding" is about, isn't it?) Elvis Costello made it okay for me to wear glasses, something I had been self-concious about throughout most of my early teens; I became empowered to the point that I adopted a pair of chunky black frames that became my calling card until I accidentally destroyed them by sitting on them the week before I got married. His songs made it okay for me to explore country music without reservation- in fact, Elvis Costello is largely responsible for my love of George Jones' late 70s/early 80s "comeback" era- and, at the same time, delve into R&B and New Wave. He produced The Pogues, for crying out loud! He made it okay to be a geek for all of these things, and, for that, I owe him a huge thanks.

"Emily Kane," Art Brut: This song, more than just about any other song I've ever heard, encapsulated what it felt like to be a gawky teenage boy who can't figure girls out and still believes in the power of pop music. I found myself talking to Eddie Argos and Craig Finn after a show on the NME "Rock and Roll Riot" tour in the fall of '07 and couldn't help but thank Eddie for writing that particular song, telling him we'd all been there. Eddie's response? "She won't return your calls either, will she?"

"Party Pit," The Hold Steady: This isn't my favorite song by my favorite band (that designation is reserved for the epic "Stuck Between Stations"), but it fits the current running through these songs a bit better. This might have been the moment in The Hold Steady's catalog where the need to address the trauma of casting off "childish things" and becoming a "grown-up" begins to emerge, and it does so by sneaking into a song that builds into a rousing sing-along boasting of walking around and drinking some more. There was a period of time where I would run into people I knew in a previous life with some frequency, and it was always a bit of a gut-check. Am I living up to what I could have been? Am I just settling into the same old ruts, just walking around and drinking some more?.

I ought to start a band, of course.

"Smoke," Ben Folds Five: This song kind of stands on its own merits. I kind of see it as a companion to "Party Pit" on this mix, though that may just be an imagined connection on my part.

"Waltz for Debbie," Bill Evans Trio: Bill Evans' piano is elegant and is perfectly framed in this setting. I go back to Evans from time to time. Live at the Village Vanguard is good for the soul.

"Beautiful Freak," eels: Mark Everett captures everything I love about the people I care about in this song. I have been fortunate enough to know more than a few beautiful freaks, and I hope they are all flying inside.

"Poor Places," Wilco: When I was a teenager, Wilco was the first band that I discovered on my own and embraced as "my" band. By the time I was ready to graduate from college, Wilco had become something different and almost alien from their previous incarnation; I was relieved to find that I had grown enough to accept them for what they had become- the rootsy heroes of the "alt-country" era had given way to the daring, experimental, often gleefully strange and beautiful outfit that produced this lovely piece of music (from the landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) without disavowing their earlier work. (There's probably something for me to learn in here.)

"Apartment Story," The National: Matt Berninger empowered me in a way not unlike how Elvis Costello or Craig Finn had empowered me. While Costello had made it okay for me to broaden my tastes and wear dorky glasses and Finn had helped me believe that there was still a place at the rock and roll table for those of us who weren't 18 and glamorous, Berninger's warm, low voice and haunting, sometimes funny, and always-arresting lyrics seem to be pushing me to take some creative leaps and risks. "Apartment Story" is a standout on my favorite National album, Boxer, and is shot through with this feeling that is at once intimate and beautiful and, though unsentimental, totally sentimental. The first verse paints a picture for me- a picture of a couple, he pinning flowers on for her, she holding his drink while he ties his tie- and it's as perfect a picture as you'll find in pop music. There's a sort of mature guy romance to the whole thing, I think, and that's a rare quality. (I'm adding the video because, frankly, it's one of the most perfect visual representations of a song I've ever encountered. My favorite moment might be after the woman in the red shoes inspires everyone to dance- watch for the hands clasping. You'll know it when you see it.)

"The '59 Sound," The Gaslight Anthem: Sometimes there's no way to describe the way something enters your life other than chalking it up to Divine Intervention. This record came out in the fall of '08, but I didn't really check it out until the spring of last year. In a three-week span, my daughter was born, my hometown was almost burned to the ground, and my family lost one of our dearest friends to cancer. I played this album in my car repeatedly, returning to the title track over and over again and finding peace in the music even as the lyrics echoed the hurt that was so real at the time in spirit, if not literally. I've got further thoughts on this one, but I don't care to explore them further at this time. Please give it a listen and give it your own verdict.

"La Passarella di Addio," Nino Rota (from the 8 1/2 score): What can I say? La Bella Confusione is still the better title.

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated- please use common courtesy.