Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Good songs on bad albums

Because I'm of a certain era, I fucking love Jets to Brazil.  It's Blake Schwarzenbach's (Jawbreaker) grown-up indie band.  It's also his dad's classic rock band, his Neil Diamond band, his spacey drug-fueled afternoon band.  It's a lot of things.

When they first came together, it was all about Blake's new band, man.  A bunch of people got pissed because it wasn't Unfun pt. 2, but like most bands with cult followings, we can understand if the new band's target demographic is a little different.  Artists like to art in new and exciting ways.

They came out with an album Orange Rhyming Dictionary, and that title says a lot about it.  Not in some pretentious way, but in that way where a high school band has a real shit name but somehow put together one great song.  That's this album, but it's maybe 4 songs.  Some songs were just so blandly rock fueled in a way that was nearly an admonishment of Jawbreaker.  Other songs were so fucking Jawbreaker people wondered if they were written for that never-recorded final album.  It's hard to imagine I Typed for Miles being for anything other than a Jawbreaker album.  Generally, the album is inconsistent, with some pointed, angular rock songs and some rolling dark rock, capped by a folk song.

Their second album came out some years later and it just sucks.  People are open to their opinions, sure, but guh.  What a bland writing-a-school-report-on-a-Sunday-afternoon album this album is.  It starts off with a song called You're Having the Time of My Life and I'm already asleep.  Don't get me wrong, there's a massive aesthetic appeal to this album - it's technically proficient, a very grown-up album.  It's just that it sounds like the album Blake felt like he should be doing, rather than the album he should have been making.  It doesn't sound forced, it just sounds languid with really cliche pop moments.  Lyrically, sure, Blake's always had that down, but even his words just sound boring.  The album ends with a slow-build song called, what, Orange Rhyming Dictionary?  What?  Like the first album?  A holdover?  Title song didn't make the cut?  It's a decent song, but whatever.  Funny thing is, as fucking boring as this album is, it's nice to have on in the background.  It's a lazy afternoon.  It's a writing-a-school-report-on-a-Sunday-afternoon album, right, so it comes with all that entails.  It's fall and I'm 12 and it's cool outside and other kids are playing football but I'm at my warm desk sitting in a sunbeam.  It's boring, but familiar, like a hug from your racist grandmother.  I won't ask for it, but it's kind of nice when you're there.

Third album comes around and people seem to hate it.  I'm indifferent.  Having been innoculated to lazy Blake, this album slipped away like a one-hit wonder's third album.  I mean, yeah, it's fine.  A little more solidly built, a little exploratory in a way Blake's projects had never done.  Wish List is pretty catchy and Rocket Boy was the first thing that came to mind when 45 started talking shit on North Korea.  As a whole, though, this album?  Muh.

I was working on an article about child abuse and realized I'd been listening to Jets to Brazil on repeat most of the day.  It was perfect for writing.  That doesn't make them a great band, or their albums great albums, because they were good as writing-about-child-abuse music and that's not often a great sign.  Generally, a good writing album is inoffensive, familiar, bland, and a little upbeat.  That's these albums, hooboy.

In case it's not clear (heh), I fucking love Jets to Brazil because I'm 36, started listening to them half my life ago, first saw them when I was 21 and all mushy and shit, have heard Chinatown 10,000 times and love Jawbreaker more than you loved your first dog.  I think Sweet Avenue is one of the single best songs ever written in the history of music.  I've let out more rage to I Typed for Miles than an otherwise mentally healthy person should have.

I just dislike about 70% of their songs.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

You want me to read TWO things?

I got this on my Google Music feed.  It's suggesting albums, since I like the band Glossary and have listened to them a bunch on Music and Youtube.  I know a few of these - Cory Branan, Two Cow Garage, Joey Kneiser, but am not familiar with the others.  These are country-ish bands, ones that I would certainly put in the realm of modern Americana.  If you've experienced a lazy summer day in the States, you could probably get down with any of these.

What I was surprised about were the themes present here in these album covers.  Cory Branan's 80s clothed-in-the-tub album cover aside, two feature dilapidated rural housing (and one run down motel), three have children in some sort of rustic American dress (I'd argue shirtless and jeans is the most American childhood dress ever, even more than the kid literally draped in the American flag) and a solid 80% are in either black or white or some sepia shade.  From a marketing perspective, if I was targeting the run-down America backwater old-timey memory of childhood, it'd look like this, too.

Well, good for them, because it worked.  This Lauderdale album sounds like the Drive-by Truckers and it's great.  It'll wear out its welcome, certainly, but at least I have some other sepia albums to wander into.  Thanks, Google, for finding me bands I like that sound like other bands I like and yet wouldn't have heard of, if not for your crazy algorithm of truth.

I'm now wondering if Google can do some sort of social engineering and filter some of this good stuff into people's Kenny Chesney-or-whoever-the-fuck-is-on-the-radio stations playing that version of country that's really just sloppy pop with twang and stereotypes.  I just heard this band and song for the very first time, but tell me this isn't ten times better than any song on the 'country' radio stations:


On another note, it's been 14 years since Hot Snakes put out an album?  Is that right?  As with most of Hot Snakes, I'm not sure I'm digging this, but I love it in principle.  Other new releases from bands I'd forgotten about, like Yo La Tengo, The Decemberists, The Go Team, Calexico, the Shins.  Think there's an Okkervil River in there, too.  What is this, 2003?

Friday, November 10, 2017

They Live

Fifteen or twenty years ago, The Lillingtons, some Wyoming Misfits-sounding punk band had this one song I loved called "The Day I Went Away."  It was super-catchy in that way that pop-punk bands would, rarely, but on glorious occasion, stretch beyond the normal brackets of the genre to produce these simple, immediately singable songs.  Think top-down, California coastal highway drive on a sunny day kind of songs.  

Also, this song was about being carted off to some sort of institution.

There's a whole genre of these kinds of bands where the content is dark and the music is light.  Hence the Misfits reference above.  "I want your skull"?  Yeah, ok, pointy-haired muscle guy, your songs about horror films warm my heart.  Sure, it's a pretty niche realm of music, but not all punk songs can be about the government.

The genre of this band has generally been 60s late night horror B-flick content.  UFOs and crazies and the like.  I'll admit never digging very deeply into their collection of albums from the late 90s and early 00s because I considered the genre too lame for my high-brow music tastes.  No, I liked the Promise Ring!

And then The Lillingtons disappeared and I forgot about them until about a month ago, when I caught wind of this album coming out.  Remembering that one song I liked, I listened to this album on a lark.  Oh, hell, it's so catchy and dark and lovely!  Mmmm, like a warm hug on Halloween.

Far more complex than any of their earlier songs, this is a lovely rebirth for what could only have been described as a simple pop-punk band.  There's a depth here that's likely just attributable to a growth in musical ability, but it feels so well thought-out that I can imagine this turning into another album or two.

Don't get me wrong, I'll probably forget about it in a month; it's not a "great"* album, but it offered a much-needed hat-tip to my late teens at a time when I'm writing fancy job applications and have written so many narratives of myself that I'm having trouble remembering who I am.

I'm that guy that likes dark and catchy pop-punk songs, I guess.  Yeah, I am.

*I mean, other people who know more than I do might not think it's great, but it hit me just right, so I guess that makes it great to me.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


"Dear Faculty Search Committee,

I am writing you to apply for the faculty position at the rank of Assistant Professor at..."

Wow.  In all the movemovemove and pressure and necessitated punk rock nostalgia, I just need to take a second and say, holy shit!  I'm applying--and qualified--for professor positions.

Sure, I've had 7 years of graduate school.  Sure, I've been expecting to go down this road since I was 21.  Sure, I've carefully constructed the methodological skills and substantive knowledge necessary to engage in productive research.  Sure, I've taught several graduate courses.

But, you know, holy shit, dude!  How did this happen?  Maybe it was the 8 years of poverty, the near-abandoning of close friends and relations, the totally undeserved commitment and tenacity of my love, a complete destabilizing of mental and physical health.  And some hard work.

It's been all that, but mostly a great, great deal of privilege.  And that privilege will just...continue... as I will get to learn and share knowledge for a job.  That's nuts.  That's so nuts.

Hopefully, I'll knock this degree out this year and then spend my life repaying everyone.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Call Before You Dig

Speaking of John K. Samson (who hasn't been in this band for 20 years), Propagandhi has a new album.  It's killer and I totally feel like I'm 14 again!

Seriously, actually, though.  I first got into Propagandhi in 1995, "borrowing" my brother's copy of "How to Clean Everything."  It, along with a Pennywise and a Bad Religion album, formed the crux of my post-grunge, post-depression punk-rock rebirth.  Why be depressed, when I should be angry?  I felt myself an activist for the next several years, soaking in all elements of political resistance music, trying to understand power structures and the oppressed.  It was the outlet I needed, an approach to placing some brackets on the world to understand it - be good, know things, be vocal.

A few years later, I majored in sociology.  Then I became a social worker.  Now I am teaching a graduate class on Poverty and Inequality.  I literally can trace the work that I'm doing now to the music I listened to when I was 14.  Maybe it was me, maybe the music, but either way, a match.

Truly, though, they were inspiring.  This was the most productive, vocal, and honest band I think I've  heard, to this day.  They toured like mad, put out goofy, challenging albums, were aggressive vegan anti-capitalists and ran their record label as a co-op, publishing books by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky for super-left Canadians.  They won't tolerate fighting, misogyny, homophobia, or meat.  They inspire bros with their metal guitars, but mock them with their lyrics.  Well-read, edgy, and honest.

This album feels like a rebirth of sorts?  A return to earlier work?  I've listened to this album 10 or 12 times since it came out and I can't quite put my finger on why it tickles all my nostalgia bones, but it most certainly does.  Don't get me wrong, it sounds nothing like their first two albums, except maybe for a few guitar lines?  The tuning?  I have no idea.  Maybe someone else knows.  It's far more technically proficient, and its lyrics are far more abstract than most previous albums, but it seems like it's recaptured some of their earlier heart.  More punk than metal, this time?  They have a new guitarist, and she totally fits in with them, in a way that makes me think she grew up with them or something.  Just a perfect fit.

I'm acknowledging how awful this writing is.  I had a migraine all day (with flashing lights and a loss of vision, no less) and I'm trying to return to writing application letters, so figured I'd spit some words out here and whatever.  You get it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Simpsons reference?

John K. Samson has written some lonely songs, and while they all tend to dally with an existentialism-at-arms-length (he'd probably hate that), they do tend to typify his unique perspective, and rarely reflect the more common romantic tropes. This song is a miserable happy medium - my heart has been broken, so what does that make me?

I'd been thinking about his academia-oriented songs, when I heard this song mentioning an 'ampersand.' Knowing his knowledge of literature and his expertise with language, I looked up the lyrics, finding a story - and then, looking at the comments, I found an explanation.

"So, I'm the first one in again,
With the quiet and the window growing snow,
When I hear the furnace rouse itself
From its slumber, somehow suddenly I know,
As my eye stops on one curled up in my lesson plan
That I'm just your little ampersand.
When your voice springs from the intercom
With announcements, and reminders, and a prayer,
I remember how you made me feel,
I was funny, I was thoughtful, I was rare,
But like the jokes about my figure
Kids think that I don't understand
I know I'm just your little ampersand
After Christmas holiday
You never asked to drive me home again
Sometimes in the staff room I
Catch your eye with "why'd it have to end,"
But I know from how you worry at your wedding band
That I'm just your little ampersand
At the last conjunction after every other and
I was just your little ampersand"

From user HellionChild:
"When playing this live John said it's about an elementary school teacher who falls in love with her principal. After writing it he wondered what inspired him and then realized it was the Simpsons. Edna Crabapple and Principal Skinner. Only this is set in small-town Manitoba, Canada."

Monday, August 28, 2017

New old favorites? Old new favorites?

Mid-'90s "hardcore" (read: "rock") band Painted Thin has recently become one of my new old favorites.  At times sounding like the pop-punk bands that defined the Fat Wreck scene, and other times sounding like the early '00s Promise Ring set*, these guys had a couple of pretty solid, peppy albums.  And by the way, do you like The Weakerthans?  This band had most of them.  Whoa!

There's nothing fancy or mind-blowing here, but man, "I Hold My Breath" (track 4) and "These Unremarkable First Ten Years of Life" (track 7) are such sweet '90s boil-overs.  Really, the middle of this album, say tracks 4 to 8 or so, are just one great song after another.  Short, under-produced, crackle-voiced and off-key, super-emotive exploratory pop songs for the 35 year-old nostalgia set.  Just hook it to my fuckin' veins!

This band is a good personal reminder of why I never delete music.  I've had one of their albums on my computer for, what, 10 years?  Never really gave it much of a thought until a shuffle adventure brought them to my attention.  Now I can't get enough.  Nicely timed after a nostalgic Weakerthans love affair some months ago, too.

*So what if my knowledge of music pretty much covers only the outcasts of the 1994-2003 era?