You know the expression “his eyes are bigger than his stomach”? It’s when you order too much food and can’t possibly finish it.
Well my ears are bigger than my… well, ears, I guess, because I tend to get more music than I can keep up with. So, right after a birthday or Christmas (where I’ve carefully instructed my wife and kids on what to get me) I get that bloated feeling, except that it’s around my head.
Every January, I make a half hearted, not-spoken-aloud resolution to cut down on the record buying. Maybe just get one CD a month, I suggest to myself. But then there’s that gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket, or that great offer from yourmusic.com (my current record club), or a great selection in the cut out bin of my favorite record store. And before you know it, I’m already up to ten and it’s only June.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
During the winter months, I try to pull my head out from up the ass of pop music, and explore my pile of “under-listened-to” - usually jazz or classical - records. This re-acquaints me with music I already have, and if this time around I connect with it, it’s almost like getting new music. It has the added advantage of keeping me from going out and getting more. And I was doing pretty well, holding out for a couple of months.
But then March came, and I was itching for something new. I couldn’t wait for the good weather to show up, so I ordered online:
As a lover of chiming electric guitars, I was disappointed to find what sparse use Spoon makes of them on "Kill the Moonlight" (2002). Their music is primarily rhythmic - driven almost as much by piano as by the drums. But it rocks like hell. And when the guitars do chime, they chime like hell. Recommended.
If you mix the Beach Boys with Yes (What?), and then have them move to Brooklyn, you get Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavilion" (2009). There's a lot here, so much so that it's almost too much to absorb. The synthesizers swirl and the voices reach for the heavens (in a sort of down to earth way), so the first few listens are pretty overwhelming. It's short of a masterpiece, but not by much much. Quite ambitious, and fun, too. And it sounded great when the warm weather arrived.
You want pretty and bouncy? Try Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (2009) and you’ve got it. There are some real nice moments here, but it's a little samey-samey, too, and so, slightly disappointing.
So in May, I crawled out of my cave, and happened to visit the record store (like how I happened to breathe). This was shortly after Alex Chilton died, so I thought, what better way to pay tribute than to pick up "Soul Deep: The Best of the Box Tops"? Okay, it was only $6.99 worth of tribute, but worth every penny. It’s the epitome of unpretentious blue-eyed soul, recorded while the rest of the world was going psychedelic. I’d love to know the story behind Alex’s leap from here to the Beatles styled pop of Big Star.
"Pilgrim's Progress" was one of those elusive songs I'd always loved but rarely heard on the radio. And since I don’t like buying a record for a single song, I waited and waited, until Procol Harum's "A Salty Dog" was finally re-mastered on CD. And I wasn't sorry. You probably know the title song, and the others range from good to great. This record gives classic rock a good name.
It's hard to turn down records that cost $4.99, especially when they're the old Grateful Dead albums I've always wanted. And "Anthem of the Sun" is the most meaningful one yet. What a revelation! I half expected a 60s relic that didn't stand the test of time, but boy was I wrong. The songwriting is already pretty good but it’s the ambition of it that’s even better. Powered by the best pharmaceuticals to be found in Haight Ashbury at the time, the boys play their hearts out, finding inspiration where others might just be self indulgent. Jerry Garcia wails away and the band doesn’t let the occasional mistake slow them down. The jam is so infectious that when my son heard it, he took out his guitar to play along.
Have I mentioned that I love Father's Day? The wife and kids know the drill - I usually ask for CDs I'm reluctant to get on my own - and they always come through. And they have to let me listen to them all day, too, ‘cause it’s practically the law. By the end of the day, they're all exhausted. I'm fine, though, and that’s what counts, right?
The music’s not bad, either.
Like "The Rolling Stones - The Singles Collection". It's got all of the Stones singles - three CDs worth - from their rhythm and bluesy beginning through their poppy mid-sixties up until their hard rocking early seventies. I was always a bit hazy on the early Stones, and this set helped a lot. I'm a better person for it. Okay, that's not saying much…
Conor Oberst, working under the band name Bright Eyes, has been writing and recording since he was, what? Thirteen? He's put out dozens of records and I have been trying to figure out where to jump in. Well, I found it. "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" (2005) contains ten lovely heartfelt country tinged tunes that even Mrs. Jaybee can stand. (Well, not anymore. I played it practically every day for a month.) The mandolin on “We Are Nowhere” immediately makes this a morning record. Conor's a loquacious young man, but I find that the quantity of words doesn't hurt the quality. He hails from the midwest, but sings about recently moving to the big city. I like when he mentions my neighborhood.
I had occasion to spend time with some wonderful young people I hadn't seen in a while, whose love for early 1980s punk rock - made before they were born! - inspired me to seek out some music I missed when I first had the chance. Friend Sean, all of 22, told me how much he loved Black Flag's "Damaged", from 1981!. This was Henry Rollins' first band and if anything he's more intense here than he is now. I will be living with this music for a while before I fully absorb it. But I love some of the songs, and the sentiments, already - "Rise Above", "TV Party". It really brings back what it was like in the mid-eighties, not that I really want to remember. And their disdain for most of it matches mine.
Is Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" classical music? Is it popular music? Or is it just modern music? Who knows? This hour of rhythm with miniscule shifts of tone and tune still manages to hold my attention all the way through. It’s never quite mechanical, never quite muzaky. And, when you get down to it, not even very strange. Just quite lovely all the way through.
Summer ends more or less with my birthday ( didn’t you know?), and it’s kind of like Father’s Day all over again, except that I don’t have to share it with other fathers. This time I got “Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptian’s Greatest Hits". Talk about your misnomers! But don’t let that discourage you. Allegedly a collection from Robyn’s middle – and not so great – period, it turns out to be tuneful and entertaining from beginning to end. The whole house really enjoyed this one. If it wasn’t a best-of, I’d call it my album of the year.
I took more of Friend Sean’s advice and dove into Minor Threat’s “Complete Discography”, which covers 1980-83. They are just as angry and but more idealistic than Black Flag. And as such, it will take this old man a little while longer to get to the bottom of it, if there is one. But I’m in awe of people who were looked on as thugs, merely because they had no use for the pop music or its outer trappings, of the time. (Those awful early eighties again!) God bless ‘em.
MIA spends most of her time lately pissing people off. She does occasionally make some music, and “Kala” is her second album. It’s kitchen sink hip hop/dance music and a bit too busy for me to take it at once. I’ll get it when it’s considered an oldie.
And even though I don’t love the Beastie Boys, it was time to check out “Paul’s Boutique” which is considered their masterpiece. It sounds pretty much like “Licensed to Ill” by these old ears. But I’ll give the Boys some time…
Belle and Sebastian can be bad luck for me. I have memories of listening to and loving “If You’re Feeling Sinister” in the late nineties. The trouble was that I was feeling miserable at the time, and the mood got associated with the music. It doesn’t help that their music is as sad as it is beautiful. So a vague unease, as well as a fear of disappointment, kept me from getting anything else by them. I waited ten years before trying “Tigermilk”, which turned out to be wonderful. I was even in a good mood at the time.
So I thought it would be time to try their compilation of non-album singles and EPs – “PUSH BARman TO OPEN old wounds”. Knowing full well how such collections can be very hit or miss, I was struck by the overall quality throughout the double CD set. There are some songs that are clearly experiments/departures/private jokes, but I find most of this collection to be quite devastating. (Yes, I was feeling down again.) So devastating in fact that I am very hesitant to listen to it – it was the only music I listened to for about a month. Stuart Murdoch is a master of melody, and pretty handy with odd/disturbing lyrics. Twenty five songs in all, there are at least twelve that I can’t live without. Why aren’t these guys more famous? Not quite an album by strict definition, so another not quite album of the year.
And finally, Christmas brought me “Intermission”, which is a best-of collection of Grant McLennan’s and Robert Forster’s solo recordings while they weren’t busy being the Go Betweens. few years. Robert and Grant each get a CD here. Robert can be spare and a bit awkward, and Grant, a little too smooth. And on a Go Betweens album, Grant’s pretty tunes were always put right up against next Roberts more tactile and verbal songs. It was the combination that was so effective. So, at first I was unimpressed. But now after a few listens, I’m liking it quite a bit more.
The Year of the Non Album:
There are a couple of themes this year. Jaybee reaching too far, and having to wait until he understands MIA, Minor Threat, etc.
But more importantly, it’s the year of the Best Of.
Perhaps it was the act of an old man hedging his bets and no longer digging deep, but in 2010 I got a hell of a lot of collections, whether they were best-ofs or compilations. Actual Albums, which I’ll define as a release of all new material by a single artist, are many fewer and farther between this year. As such, when I try to figure out what my favorite albums of the year are, a lot get eliminated on this technicality.
If I simply ask myself which records were the best, I’d have to say Robyn Hitchcock and Belle and Sebastian, but is it fair to compare them to “Anthem of the Sun” which was not quite as good?
Oh, who gives a rat’s ass anyway? Robyn Hitchcock and Belle and Sebastian. Easily.
I’ve Got Your Deus Ex Machina Right Here:
So here’s the funny part. Everything mentioned above is a record bought by or for me. What I haven’t mentioned is that my son Michael has been directly responsible for what may be the three best CDs – proper albums all - of the year:
Both Vampire Weekend albums and Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”. All three of these records are as good as anything else I’ve mentioned. And two of them actually came out this year! So he’s keeping me current, too.
Hmmm. Maybe it’s time for me to retire.
Well, that should keep you in suspense while I decide whether to turn over the family business to Michael. How does “Jaybee and Son” sound?