Monday, June 30, 2014

IHRTLUHC: The Definitive Lawrence University Playlist 2004-2008

As described at the end of my last entry, a blissfully nostalgic weekend at my alma mater, Lawrence University, inspired me and two LU comrades (my friends John and Bob) to create a playlist of our favorite songs from our college years. A few notes before I proceed:

-We utilized Spotify for the playlist which therefore limited our options to artists available on there. As a result, there are a few glaring omissions. The first big one that comes to mind is Joanna Newsom, whom I fell hard for junior year (damn you Andy Samberg). She was definitely popular on campus, and I remember a co-op porch singalong of a Milk Eyed Mender song ("The Sprout and the Bean" maybe?) near the end of senior year. Another band that should be on this playlist is The Traveling Wilburys. My roommate John loved their first record, and a video exists of him dancing to the song "Rattled" in our Sage Hall dorm room junior year. I have just enough respect for John not to post the video. Also, Lawrence had an abundance of memorable on-campus bands that live on in our hearts but not on streaming media services. Most notably, this includes the legendary and inimitable Poop Sandwich, whose still-functioning myspace page gives just a small taste of the brilliance displayed in their heyday. My friends and I also spent much of Lawrence playing Super Smash Brothers Melee and Mario Kart Double Dash, and a truly comprehensive playlist would include the menu music from those classics. Last, The Beatles deserve to be represented on here because a) they were my favorite band when I started at Lawrence and remain as such and b) the poster below was featured prominently in each of my dorm rooms.
                                Foreground: Jesus christ did I never dust that TV?
                                Background: Bob rolls a cigarette as the Fab Four looks on

-I started off organizing the playlist chronologically, but it turns out meticulously arranging 125 songs is tedious. Who knew?! So, I suggest that the playlist be listened to on shuffle so that people can hear a smattering of songs from different Lawrence eras as they listen.

-Obviously, this playlist is just me and my friends' perspective amidst the Lawrence social universe. I'm sure there were popular songs on other parts of campus that were totally obscure to us (rumor has it the Sig Eps were HUGE fans of Karlheinz Stockhausen). Basically, the playlist represents a combination of what each of us were listening to, what we remember people talking about on campus, and what we remember getting played at social gatherings. However, if a song or artist one of us loved was totally irrelevant to the larger Lawrence whole, we tended to leave those songs off. In my own case, that means bands like Stereolab, Silver Jews, and Tindersticks-- all of whom I listened to incessantly senior year. In Bob's case, that means whatever weird ass, 25-minute long droney, noisey songs he'd play on our radio show while he went for a smoke break. For John, that includes Kristin Hersh and Watershed (I still don't know who Watershed are. Who are Watershed, John?).

-I am a mixtape purist, so that means that we only picked one song by each band. In a few instances, more than one song should probably be on there, but rules are rules. One such example is Radiohead, who had several songs that would often be played at parties (like "Idioteque" or "Where I End and You Begin") but also had a song ("The National Anthem") that would frequently be performed live by the band that would play at Sinfonia (a music fraternity) parties. Seeing as I can literally taste the Miller High Life when the opening bassline for that song comes on, the choice was obvious.

-Oh, and for you non-Lawrentian Static and Distance readers, the IHRTLUHC in the album title stands for "I Hereby Reaffirm the Lawrence University Honor Code." We had to write that acronym on every assignment we turned in during college, as well as on all mixtapes (that's a lie).

And now, without further adieu, allow me to take you on a collegiate aural journey. I will be describing my musical memories from each year at Lawrence, and then will reveal the full playlist in all its glory.

Freshman Year (2004-2005)
This was the least interesting year musically because I was still mired in my "if it doesn't get played on Chicago's 97.1 FM The Drive (read that with a whisper) classic rock station it is crap" phase. A few music-related memories from that year stand out, though. During "Welcome Week" (also known as the most awkward week of my life) at the start of Freshman year, I quickly had my "welcome to Lawrence" moment delivered in the form of a brass band version of Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" ("I want to fuck you like an animal" refrain and all). This was performed at a university-sponsored event, no less! During that first week, I also recall being pleasantly surprised that there were not one but TWO Steely Dan fans on my floor; I'd previously regarded my fandom of The Dan with a tinge of shame, but now I shout out my love of "Deacon Blues" from mountaintops.

Another thing I remember about freshman year is that everyone loved the band Cake for some reason, and I believe two of my friends had Cake posters in their dorm rooms. Seeing as this was 04-05 that Modest Mouse album Good News for People Who Love Bad News was played frequently. Freshman year also marked my first exposure to The Black Keys, in the form of their gritty debut album "The Big Come Up"-- spun repeatedly by John. I saw them open for Radiohead a year later to a largely disinterested Auditorium Theatre crowd. Oh how things change. I would also be remiss to discuss freshman year without mentioning Muse, whose Absolution album was championed by Bob (this is amusing in retrospect). Last, thanks to Bob's yearlong obsession with that other Bob fellow, harmonica constantly reverberated throughout the halls of first floor Plantz (from songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Desolation Row").

Sophomore Year (2005-2006)
When I think of sophomore year, one band comes to mind that is so profoundly influential they will surely be enshrined in the popular music canon and studied by our descendants for centuries to come: novelty Russian faux-lesbian pop act t.A.T.u. For reasons known only to himself, John became obsessed with these titans of pop music 5 years after their meteoric rise to fame. Having reunited as roommates for the last several months of the year after a disastrous stint living with the Nitrous Oxide-Addicted Roommate Who Shall Not Be Named, I recall t.A.Tu.'s "All the Things She Said" and "Not Gonna Get Us" (sometimes in their more authentic Russian-language versions) being blasted in our room on repeat. I also have to mention Wilco here, because by the end of sophomore year I was listening to them incessantly-- with playlist selection "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" even becoming my cell phone ring for a time.

Remember Tapes 'N Tapes? Neither do I. But they were totally a thing on campus that year, with some of my friends traveling all the way to Madison to see them. And since I apparently have the least to say about sophomore year, I'll just talk about jazz here. Lawrence being primarily known for its music conservatory, I was surrounded by jazz fanatics throughout most of college. Personally, I never developed more than a mild appreciation for the genre. Most jazz is too meandering for my taste. Nonetheless, to discuss Lawrence University and not mention Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and the like would be a tremendous oversight. Approximately 63% of all Lawrence students had a Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" poster in their dorm room. Moreover, Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" was a fixture at Sinfonia parties (fun fact! Herbie's Headhunters is the only jazz album I own).

Junior Year (2006-2007)
Junior year marked my full transition from classic rock nut to the indie rock fan America knows and loves. This metamorphosis occurred with the purchase of two albums from Second Hand Tunes (RIP) in Evanston, IL in December 2006: Broken Social Scene's You Forgot it In People and Sufjan Stevens's Illinois. This led to me buying albums by Beck, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth; within a few months I was voraciously consuming pretty much any album I could get my hands on, though it took me awhile to branch beyond "skinny, white, indie bullshit" as John affectionately(?) teased me about with regard to my music taste at the time. While I was busy retroactively discovering the bands everyone else had been listening to for years (Neutral Milk Hotel, Interpol) as well as new favorites (The National, Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem), John had moved on from t.A.T.u. and had become an Avril Lavigne fanatic. John loved Avril's "Girlfriend" to the core. How can you not be touched by such poetic lyrics as "she's like so whatever?" Around this time I remember Ratatat getting played at basically every social gathering, and my group of friends and I collectively became obsessed with Elliott Smith-- his extra-depressing self-titled album especially.

I finally got on the Arcade Fire train that year, with several friends and I traveling down to Chicago to see them on the Neon Bible tour (with a then-unknown St. Vincent opening!). Me being a Bruce Springsteen fanboy, the obviously Boss-influenced "Keep the Car Running" was basically the best song ever at the time. Junior year was also when most of campus fell in love with the television show Arrested Development, with its brilliant utilization of Europe's "The Final Countdown" leading to its frequent use at parties. RJD2's "Ghostwriter" was another party favorite, to the degree where I instantly think "Lawrence" when I hear it more so than almost any other song. Last, I can't mention junior year without providing a tip of the hat to iconic '70s band Television, whose Marquee Moon totally blew my mind (still does). I had no idea a band from the classic rock era could sound so modern-- speaking to that band's influence over basically every indie band I was listening to at the time. The title track to that album also provided a great soundtrack to beer pong gatherings in Bob's room (aka the classiest beer pong gatherings ever. I think the rest of the collegiate universe was listening to Soulja Boy by this point).

Senior Year (2007-2008)
Ah, my last and best year at Lawrence. Let me begin by talking about something that was all too rare in my Lawrence experience: an awesome (non-student) band that played on campus. One of my major college regrets was not becoming involved in the organization that booked bands on campus. Whoever was in charge of that while I was a student did a...not good job. The "big event" bands booked during my time at Lawrence were Guster, Ben Kweller, and (ugh) Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. However, some of the smaller bands that came to campus were decent, and one band in particular stands out: Inspector Owl. These guys (who still exist by the way!) performed on campus at least three or four times while I was at Lawrence, typically playing after parties at the Greenfire house. These Greenfire shows were always a blast. I remember giving the frontman an unintentionally condescending compliment after buying a CD from him: "hey, you guys are actually really good!"

Especially popular on campus that year was Caribou's album Andorra, which still sounds great. Senior year also marked my first exposure to two of my favorite musicians, Tom Waits (in the form of one of my friends playing "Hoist that Rag" constantly) and Nick Cave (Lawrence band The Beggars often performed a badass cover of "Stagger Lee"). Well, technically my first exposure to Tom Waits was via my dad playing Swordfishtrombones when I was 6 years old, at which point I remarked that he sounded like cookie monster, but I digress. I also must mention Captain Beefheart's "Safe as Milk" here because this was the year I joined Bob on our fabled radio program named after Mr. Beefheart's seminal 1967 album. Aphex Twin also deserves a mention, because Richard D. James had many supporters on campus and by the end of the year I had reversed my (laughably terrible) opinion that his music was "just a bunch of bleeps and bloops, man." As mentioned in my Bonnaroo recap, Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours was big that year, with the opening track "Feel the Love" being a personal favorite. Last, a theme throughout all four years of college was the semi-ironic playing of Coldplay songs. I'll support Coldplay for being a perfectly decent, if often unremarkable band who have a handful of legitimately good songs. I haven't listened in years but I'm pretty sure I'd still enjoy Parachutes. Regardless, Chris Martin's super-earnest ballads were ripe, as Martin's British compatriots would say, for taking the piss.

The Playlist
Now that I'm through with that overly verbose musical rundown of my years at Lawrence, on to the playlist! You may find it located in the handy dandy Spotify widget below. It turns out that you can't listen to playlist widgets on shuffle so to listen to this in its intended form, one needs to have a Spotify account and then follow this link, at which point you can shuffle the songs. It works okay as is, though it is front-loaded with freshman year songs before I aborted my attempt to place the songs in chronological order. Anyway, enjoy! (IHRTLUHC)

Sorry Steely Dan, I Went Back to My Old School. And It Was Great.

I have always been a relatively nostalgic person. I like looking at old pictures. I enjoy discussing old memories, random people from high school, and thinking about how things used to be and how I have changed. Hell, part of the reason I made this blog is I figured these posts would be interesting to look back on when I am older. If I am doing this frequently at age 27, god help anyone who knows me decades from now. I am totally going to be one of those "When I was your age..." elderly folks.

Two weekends ago, I had my first experience at the nostalgia fest known as a class reunion. I suppose I have reached an age where a reunion is not a totally ridiculous idea, though it still seems somewhat silly. When you are 27 years old nothing happened THAT long ago in the grand scheme of things, but nonetheless, having an excuse to reconnect with people I have not seen in awhile and revel in the nostalgia of a bygone era is not totally unappealing. The reunion in question was at my old college stomping grounds, Lawrence University. No, not Lawrence, Kansas (home of Kansas University), or Sarah Lawrence, or St. Lawrence University, or whatever other school people always seem to think I'm talking about which is literally every possible school besides the one I am actually referring to. The Lawrence I speak of is in the town of Appleton, Wisconsin: home of one of the largest per-capita bar ratios in the country, numerous paper mills (both in town and in the surrounding Fox Valley region), a sprawling mall which serves as a tourist destination for a large swath of Wisconsin, and hometown of such notable figures as Harry Houdini, Willem Dafoe (who got the fuck out of town as quickly as possible) and Joseph McCarthy (whose grave was once the site of an exorcism performed by Allen Ginsberg and other '60s-era eccentrics).

I look back on my time at Lawrence fondly now, but it was definitely a bit rough at first. I entered Lawrence in the fall of 2004 rather terrified to start college and feeling extremely anxious about my ability to meet people who I would connect with on the same level as my high school friends. Unlike a lot of people, I had a great time in high school and formed a tight-knit friend group that persists to this day. The thought of having to start all over was scary. And, just as I feared would happen, I never quite figured things out freshman year-- spending much of my time hanging out with my floor mates but feeling disconnected from the goings on (I spent most of that year watching people play video games like Final Fantasy VII or Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. Thrilling stuff right there). I almost transferred. But, for whatever reason, I stuck with Lawrence, which turned out to be the right decision. By the end of sophomore year, I started to feel as though I was making meaningful friendships, which continued into my junior and senior years-- each year more fun than the one preceding it. However, I never was someone with a large number of friends or acquaintances on campus. I had my relatively small group of friends, and that was basically it. So, when I first received a mail notice about the 2014 reunion (a "cluster" reunion for the classes of 2008-2010), I remember thinking "Nah, I'm not going to go to that. That'll be awkward. I barely knew anyone there." But, with the urging of some of my Chicago Lawrence friends, I decided to make my return to Appleton, Wisconsin.

After a detour in Ripon, Wisconsin to visit old college friends who would not be making the reunion, I found myself on a familiar stretch of Highway 41 heading for the College Avenue exit. At this point the waves of nostalgia swept over me (accentuated by the fact that I was listening to an old college favorite, Animal Collective's Feels). I later joked to friends at the reunion that it really hit home that I was back in Appleton when I saw the beautiful sign for Perkins Restaurant, where I guzzled many 3 AM burgers during my college career (that place was truly a sight to behold on a weekend night-- they needed security guards to control the rowdy crowd). As I rolled further into town and gazed upon the familiar downtown College Avenue establishments, it hit me that I really did miss this city. Chicago is a vibrant place, brimming with culture and delicious food, but it is also filled with people who like to break into my apartment and car (can people please stop doing that? Thx). Appleton, on the flip side, is an exceedingly pleasant place. The people are nice, there is essentially no crime, the drinks are cheap ($3 for a whiskey coke? Holy hell), and as the current top story on the Appleton Post-Crescent states, "Data Shows Two Thirds of Appleton's Roads in Good Condition." Way to take care of those roads, Appleton!

As I parked my car in a familiar campus lot, I felt genuinely excited to be back. Choosing to stay in a campus dorm with my roommate for much of college, John, to further heighten the nostalgia, I embarked upon what would be a rather glorious weekend. First, nearly everyone I wanted to see made the trip to Appleton. Additionally, I realized I knew way more people there than I initially gave myself credit for. Upon walking into Jekyll's, the first stop on a Friday night bar crawl, I was greeted by a large number of familiar faces. I usually hate small talk and "catch up" conversations, but these were people I actually wanted to talk to. In general, the prevailing theme for me during the weekend was feeling far more connected to the people, and my status as a Lawrentian, than I was anticipating. Anyone who asked me about my college experience during my six years post-graduation would have gotten a positive account, but I, uh, still ignored calls from the Lawrence Fund trying to get my money (sorry guys) and never really regarded the fact I went to school there as a prevailing aspect of my identity. After that weekend, I'm thinking perhaps it should be.

While walking around campus and conversing with people I hadn't seen in years, I began to reflect upon how differently I might have turned out had I gone to a Big Ten school like University of Illinois or University of Wisconsin-Madison (schools I was devastated to not be granted admittance) instead of Lawrence. Me being me, and this purportedly being a music blog (ohhh now he's getting to the point), the main thing I reflected on is whether I would be the music nut I am if not for Lawrence. I was already quite obsessed with music before I started at Lawrence, but the scope of my listening habits was rather limited. I listened to classic rock. That's it. Granted, I'd take the time to learn each band VERY thoroughly (guess who owns The Rolling Stones' 1989 album Steel Wheels??), but I still only knew like 12 bands (13 if you count Eric Clapton solo AND Derek and the Dominos). I recall giving my now close friend Bob a blank stare when he mentioned the Pixies to me at the start of freshman year. Obviously, there are indie music fans at any college, and perhaps I was bound to venture into that direction regardless. However, Lawrence certainly facilitated my musical renaissance rather naturally. Lawrence being primarily known for its music conservatory, I was constantly surrounded by outstanding music as well as the people who created it on campus. These people, it turns out, often had interesting taste. As I advanced each year, I became more and more interested in expanding my musical knowledge, and there were plenty of people around to guide me on this journey. Entering Lawrence without even being familiar with the goddamn Velvet Underground, I graduated in 2008 penning reviews for the college newspaper about semi-obscure indie releases by bands like Sunset Rubdown and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. For all I know the alternate universe University of Illinois version of myself still regards any music post-1985 to be crap (except for rare exceptions like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay, of course). So, I'm especially grateful to Lawrence for exposing me to so much fantastic music (as well as setting me on the path to discovering more on my own) that has truly enriched my life.

Sitting in our dorm room in between reunion events, John and I decided it would be fun to make a "Lawrence-era" playlist of all the songs that defined college for us. We pulled together 20 songs that weekend, and in the ensuing few days we, with the help of our aforementioned friend Bob, added another 105 songs to make a definitive playlist capturing that era of our lives. This is some Time Life infomercial shit ("All your Lawrence University favorites on four compact discs!!"). Anyway, this post has gotten long enough so in my next entry, I will discuss year-by-year the songs that impacted my friends and I at Lawrence as well as share a Spotify playlist of these songs. Stay tuned, loyal blog readers (just kidding, I already wrote the next post-- you can read it RIGHT NOW).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I Touched Nick Cave, Or Bonnaroo 2014

I'm currently sitting in my apartment, having taken a sick day from work after waking up with a sore throat. I take solace in the fact that the genesis of this illness lies in the four days of abuse I put my body through every June in the name of rock and roll and Spicy Pie pizza, the wonderful weekend known as Bonnaroo. 2014 was my fourth Bonnaroo, and it never fails to be a highlight of my year. This past weekend, while not boasting my favorite lineup compared to Bonnaroos of yore, was still about as much fun as I've ever had at a music festival. Maybe it was the basically perfect weather (no mud pits this year!), or that we had our biggest and best camping group yet, or the fact that I had just endured three months of work hell; whatever the reason, I felt particularly glad to spend the weekend under the Tennessee sun this year.

                                  Our sweet hangout area next to our RV which 
                                  I had absolutely nothing to do with setting up

Due to my preference for, you know, watching the performers on stage rather than staring at a cell phone or camera screen, I didn't really take any concert pictures. But I do have words to share! Below are my ten favorite performances of the festival. Note that I only included bands whose full sets I saw (with two exceptions I'll explain). Honorable mentions go to Jack White, who I thought sounded pretty damn good for the hour I watched him, and Phosphorescent, who sounded great. Definitely will be checking them out the next time they come to play a (non-Lollapalooza) Chicago show. Anyway, on to the list:

10. Cloud Nothings
I was really excited to see these guys given that 2012's Attack on Memory is one of my favorite albums of the past few years, and I thought that this year's followup, Here and Nowhere Else, was almost as good. Last time I saw them, it was at a tiny venue in Chicago (Schubas) and I was about two feet from the stage, so it is hard to compare the experiences. The band subtracted a guitarist since that show, and I felt like they had a little more "oomph" at the Schubas show. But again, this time I was halfway back in a tent rather than right next to the band, so who knows if that is accurate. Their songs still hit hard (particularly the longer, intense songs like "Wasted Days" and "Pattern Walks") and I left satisfied, just not blown away like last time. Nonetheless, this was the first full set I saw at Bonnaroo and it was a great way to kick off the weekend.

9. Warpaint
I'd listened to these ladies a bit back in 2010 when The Fool came out but had kind of forgotten about them, only spurred to re-listen when I realized that there was nothing else remotely appealing going on the Sunday afternoon of the festival. Turns out Warpaint released a solid album earlier this year, but their live show impressed me significantly more than anything I'd heard on record. Their atmospheric art rock songs took on a new level of intensity in concert, culminating in an epic version of "Elephants" which lasted close to ten minutes. Really glad I caught their set.

8. Cut Copy
This was my fifth time seeing Cut Copy over the last 6 years, and I always have a blast at their shows. Though 2014's Free Your Mind was a bit of a step backwards, in my book they're still the best synth pop/electronic band to come about since New Order. I thought the new songs, particularly Let Me Show You Love, sounded better live. And hearing all the old In Ghost Colours songs brought back waves of college nostalgia (crap, senior year was 6 years ago already?). I was a little danced-out at the start of the set, having seen Chromeo immediately beforehand (see below), but they managed to supply me with a new burst of energy rather quickly. I did miss the second half of Lionel Richie's set to see them, which pained me a bit when I saw his setlist (he closed with "We Are the Word"!!), but whatever, I had fun.

7. Darkside
                A terribly filmed video (turn your phone horizontally, bro!) by someone 
               who was probably on acid. But you can hear what the band sounded like.

One of the special things about Bonnaroo is you get to see awesome musicians play at ungodly hours. Darkside's album Psychic was one of my favorites from last year, and I'd already caught them this past January at Metro - a show that I enjoyed but didn't blow me away like the record did. However, seeing as few albums fit my mood better when listened to in the twilight hours, there was no way I could resist a 2:30 AM Saturday night set from these guys. Darkside's live approach is quite unique for an "electronic" group, choosing to recreate each song from scratch rather than relying on pre-recorded samples. The result is that most of their songs start out in an ambient haze, with recognizable components slowly emerging in ways that often only slightly resemble what is on record. Now, most people still out and about at Bonnaroo at 2:30 AM are looking for a dance party (hence why the competition was EDM acts Kaskade and The Glitch Mob), but anyone who saw this set got something subtler, but also more complex and rewarding. Because their songs took time to build and coalesce, when they reached their peak it was all the more satisfying. This time, with my expectations adjusted to reflect the fact that they would not be recreating the songs as they sound on the album, I "got" what the band was trying to do with their live show and found myself mesmerized for the first hour of their set. Sadly, I was so exhausted after 14 straight hours of music that I had to cut out a few songs early. On the plus side, on my walk back to our RV a (male) pizza vendor who was probably (definitely) hitting on me gave me three slices of pizza for the price of one, so my Saturday night still ended swimmingly. Yes, I devoured all three slices. Don't judge.

6. Chromeo
Despite many of my friends loving this band and frequently putting them on at parties, I never really got into them other than enjoying a few songs off of Fancy Footwork. But, seeing as literally all eight other people in my group were going to this set, I decided to check them out (forcing me to leave the aforementioned impressive Phosphorescent performance early). I'm glad I bowed to peer pressure on this one. Now, Chromeo won't win any awards for originality or innovation, but shit do they know how to make a crowd dance. We managed to get into the front pit area for this show, which was LOUD but also filled to the brim with energy. The band's approach was the antithesis of Darkside's - no subtlety here. But Chromeo doesn't make mindless music either - these guys are clever in their approach, taking a formula that Prince essentially perfected in 1984 and making it sound fresh. I, along with the rest of the crowd, could not resist song after song of infectious drum machine beats and synthesizer riffs. Great fun.

5. Kanye West
                                                      Where the press at??

This was bound to be the most controversial performance of the weekend no matter what Kanye did on stage Friday evening. "Fuck Kanye" graffiti has been a permanent fixture of the festival over the past several years. Obviously there is a lot of anti-Kanye sentiment out there in the world, but Bonnaroo has a particularly contentious history with Mr. West (click that link if you want to know why the backlash against his 2008 performance made him "type so fucking hard I might break my fucking Mac book Air!!!!!!!!"). Indeed, walking around the festival grounds, I saw countless examples of the aforementioned graffiti as well as many people with signs proclaiming Kanye to be a "gay fish" (a reference to a 2009 South Park episode). Though I'll join the masses in not being particularly impressed with Kanye West the human being, there are few recent musicians who have achieved a greater degree of both popularity and critical acclaim. Even for a non-hip hop listener such as myself, I always enjoy his albums. So, after reading some rave reviews of the Yeezus tour, I was excited to see him. Now, "see" ended up not really being accurate given that Kanye performed most of the set masked and in silhouette, with the video screens turned off. But what I heard was intense. The man clearly had something to prove here, starting the set with some of his angrier songs, culminating in several rants as shown in the video above ("Where the press at? Fuck the press!"and "I ain't going after nobody on the radio. I'm goin' after Shakespeare. Walt Disney. Mozart. Henry Ford. Howard Hughes. David Stern. Elon Musk. You can only achieve as high as your dreams." were some of his gems). These rants elicited an extremely negative reaction from those near me in the back of the crowd, with people booing and leaving in droves in a way I've never seen before at a headlining set. Did he deserve this reaction? Yes and no. Kanye's ego truly is a sight to behold. But for me, his rants actually increased my enjoyment - it felt like a more comprehensive Kanye West experience. It'd be like seeing Stooges-era Iggy Pop and have him NOT smear peanut butter on his chest or whatever. Kanye is never going to be a likable person. He just isn't. For me, this performance was satisfying and memorable because he did what he does best: perform some of the most iconic songs of the past decade with ferocious energy, and being a total asshole while doing it. It was fun to watch.

4. Diarrhea Planet (yes, mom, that is a real band name)
Alright, now we're getting to the really good stuff here. I was thrilled when Diarrhea Planet (or DP, as they are affectionately known) were named as a late addition to the lineup, but less thrilled when I saw they were slotted at the tiny "New Music on Tap Lounge brewed by Miller Light" stage for a late night set conflicting with notable electronic act Disclosure, whom I really wanted to see. But after consulting with my friend Bob, who raved about DP's live show and ridiculous four-lead-guitarist lineup, I knew what I had to do. I chose the rawk. And my god did DP deliver the rawk. Playing a stage better suited to entertaining random passerbys in between sips of beer, DP attracted an overflow crowd likely due in part to their local Nashville credentials. And as soon as those four guitars gloriously began playing together, the crowd went nuts. Like, everyone jumping up and down, pumping their fists, screaming at the top of their lungs, nuts. And this energy level never relented over the course of 45 minutes. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many crowd surfers. In a musical age where hip hop and electronic music dominate, there are all-too-few acts who play no-holds-barred, good time, rock and roll. These guys do that about as well as anyone out there right now, and any self-respecting rock fan needs to see their live show. To further illustrate this, the show ended as follows: all four guitarists soloing simultaneously, at which point two of them proceeded to stage dive while continuing to solo as they crowd surfed. Then, one of the guitarists traveled to the middle of the crowd and hooked his feet from a metal rafter overhead and began playing the guitar upside down and with his teeth. Rock and roll is alive and well, folks. You just have to be willing to tolerate bands with gross, feces-referencing names to find it.

3. Ty Segall tells me Ty Segall is my second most listened-to band over the past year, so suffice to say I was really excited to finally see him live. Inexplicably (but awesomely) provided a headlining, largely unopposed 1 AM Thursday time slot, I was amped to hear Mr. Segall's scuzzed-out garage rock numbers with a rowdy late night Bonnaroo audience. My excitement grew when I noticed one Mikal Cronin, creator of my favorite album of 2013, sound checking his bass beforehand. I had no idea Cronin, who has achieved plenty of notoriety on his own, still played in Segall's band on occasion. Once I finished geeking out over this, the band took the stage and proceeded to absolutely destroy their hour-long set. Though not possessing the guitar theatrics of Diarrhea Planet, Segall's performance slightly surpassed theirs in my memory due to the fact that Segall possesses a remarkably large and high-quality set of songs for a 27-year-old (ugh, I've wasted my life) and as a result was able to pepper his set with songs that already sound like classics to me - all the while playing with boundless intensity. The crowd responded in kind, crowd surfing and moshing throughout. Segall also played several impressive new songs from his upcoming album (when does this guy NOT have a new album on the horizon?), with my favorite one, I was delighted to learn just now, already seeing release as a single. It was a joy to see two of the best up-and-coming rock musicians (if you can even call Segall "up-and-coming" at this point, he has like ten albums already!) making a beautiful racket on stage together. Outside of the two rock gods discussed below, no one impressed me more at Bonnaroo this year.

2. Elton John
Another special thing about Bonnaroo is the opportunity to see absolute legends who you would not necessarily make an effort to see otherwise, and also from a distance that would cost you hundreds of dollars if you were to see them at the United Center or wherever. Elton John is someone who I almost like enough to go see at his own concert, and it nearly happened circa 2005 but I never ended up springing for tickets. I really only know his singles and only gave Goodbye Yellow Brick Road a spin for the first time a few months ago, but I've always enjoyed his music quite a bit. So I was pretty happy that Bonnaroo afforded me an opportunity to sing "Tiny Dancer" along with 80,000 other people. Thanks to an inspired, somewhat last-minute decision to get in the line for the front pit area and an empathetic security guard who snuck in the second half of our group (after originally cutting off the line after only four of us got in), we also had the pleasure of seeing Elton from about twenty rows back. And the experience was exactly what I was hoping for. Elton and his kickass backing band played a slew of iconic songs. You know, the kind of songs you don't realize you know all the words to until the band starts playing them. I mean, look at this setlist. I was very appreciative of the opportunity to see him play those songs while his vocals and piano playing ability remain in fine working order. The only problems were as follows: 1. Elton really needs to fire whoever made the visuals for this tour (I tried and failed to find a representative example on youtube, but trust me, they were pretty lame) and 2. We missed the last six songs to ensure we got our RV back to Chicago in time. But alas, sometimes one has to make difficult decisions at Bonnaroo. What I saw was wonderful enough to be the top highlight of most (non-Nick Cave featuring) musical festivals. Oh, and I actually took a picture during his set, though my crappy camera phone does not do justice to how gloriously sparkly his jacket was.

                                I guess you can sort of see the tacky visuals here

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Anyone who knows me well knows that I really, really like Nick Cave. I mean, a picture of him even greets guests to my apartment (Fun fact! This will confuse your plumber).
                                      Creeping out apartment guests since 2011

Suffice to say that his presence on the lineup was basically reason enough for me to make the trek to Manchester this year. The man is simply one of the best ever to make rock music. He's as good as any of the legends who are enshrined in the rock and roll canon, and yet, perhaps due to the dark nature of his songs or the fact that he does not exactly make "catchy" songs ripe for consumption by the masses, he remains a cult figure; revered by those who know his music and totally obscure to almost everyone else (though Harry Potter fans have unwittingly heard O Children, and Red Right Hand made appearances on the X Files and Scream soundtracks). Previous to Bonnaroo, I'd seen him three times - twice with the Bad Seeds, and once with his side project Grinderman (essentially a shrunken-down, more raucous version of his main band). Each of these, particularly the two Bad Seeds shows, were among the best concerts I have ever seen. I've seen a lot of good frontmen in my concert going career, but there is something truly special and exhilarating about the way Nick Cave commands the stage. He conjures the spirit of a deranged animal, stalking back and forth the front of the stage, pointing at individual audience members and shouting lyrics at them - engaging with the crowd with an intensity I've never seen anyone else replicate. Basically, Nick Cave would have to literally defecate for 90 minutes for him not to have my favorite performance of the weekend (and let's be honest, even that would make my top ten). So with that background, I was insanely excited to see him in a festival setting for the first time - feeling particularly curious what he would do when engaging with (what I thought would be) a larger crowd.

Alas, the scheduling gods had other plans. Mr. Cave was handed a 12:30 AM set time Saturday night (which in and of itself is fantastic), but against some very stiff competition: The Flaming Lips, Frank Ocean, and a Skrillex-led superjam. Indeed, when my friends and I arrived at his tent a half hour early, the awaiting crowd was pitifully small and only grew slightly by the time the band took the stage. Cave commented on this after the first song, saying "There's not many people here. Well, we've got the cream of the crop...We're going to do this quickly so we can go see Skrillex." Some artists, especially someone with a 35+ year career, would be dejected to play to a crowd far smaller than they deserve. If Cave gave a shit, he didn't show it - with him and the rest of the Bad Seeds tearing through their set with the same ferocity I'd witnessed in previous performances. Setlist-wise, there wasn't much different from the show I caught at The Chicago Theatre last year, save for the much-welcome inclusion of "Into My Arms" which I regard as one of the most beautiful songs ever written (and have long earmarked as a potential "walk down the aisle" song if I marry someone cool enough to let us use that at our wedding). However, this show stood out in that I've never been closer to the man, standing about two feet from the stage and in the precise spot where Cave spent most of the show engaging with the audience. In one moment I will never, ever forget, Cave stood directly in front of me during "Stagger Lee" - prompting myself and those around me to raise out our arms toward him. To my surprise, he leaned toward the crowd and grasped onto my hand, hovering over the audience with our fingers interlocked for what felt like at least thirty seconds. Totally wonderful and surreal. Side note: Nick Cave has surprisingly soft hands. Anyway, this show was also especially enjoyable because I was accompanied by several people from my group who had either never seen him before or barely knew his music; everyone walked out converted. It saddened me that the poor scheduling prevented many others from having a similar experience, but there's no doubt in my mind that even with my (admittedly huge) Nick Cave bias removed from the equation, no one gave a better performance at Bonnaroo that weekend.

                   My awesome fellow group members right before we left the festival 
                                  grounds on Sunday evening. Is it June 2015 yet?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stepdad Songs: "Fig. 14" by Human Sexual Response

In January 2014, I acquired approximately 200 records from my stepdad. In addition to many already familiar favorites, his collection included dozens of obscure-to-me but intriguing records. I will periodically be reviewing these records on this blog. For the full backstory, click here.

                                      Human Sexual Response- Fig. 14 (1980)

Human Sexual Response was an American New Wave band formed in Boston, MA in 1978. The band broke up in 1982.

Now that I've cut-and-pasted the first line from their Wikipedia page, let's get down to business. I had never remotely heard of this band before happening upon the extremely-striking album cover shown above. According to this Boston Globe article from November 2012, the band was actually rather popular in the Boston area in the early '80s. They were all over college radio throughout the country and even garnered some airplay on Los Angeles' KROQ for their biggest "hit," "Jackie Onassis." To my surprise, my dad (who lived in Los Angeles at that time) told me he had heard of the band, so perhaps that is why. The article also reveals a fun little factoid: the lone female singer in the group, Casey Cameron, is the mother of Cameron Mesirow-- otherwise known as notable indie act Glasser.

Alright, on to the music. The first notes I heard from this album were not track one, but rather, the song that leads off side two of the LP. Hanging out with some friends at my apartment prior to a visit to a local watering hole, I decided to throw on the record so we could embark on this aural journey together. Inadvertently, I neglected to pay attention to which side I was playing, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As the bouncy bassline of Side Two opener "What Does Sex Mean to Me?" started, followed shortly by handclaps and singer Larry Bangor's jerky, Tom Verlaine-esque vocals, I said aloud "hey this is pretty good." 
It turns out that Fig. 14 is full of catchy new wave songs, not far removed from Talking Heads and the B-52's. Lyrically, the album is a bit out there, as my friends and I soon realized as the second verse of "What Does Sex Mean to Me?" began with this truly poetic couplet: "I put my finger to my tongue/and I taste vagina." Alrighty then. The music, however, is consistently enjoyable (and really, the lyrics aren't nearly as bizarre on the rest of the record). Leadoff track "Guardian Angel" is a surging, guitar-driven anthem similar to what David Bowie was doing on Scary Monsters, released that same year. The aforementioned "Jackie Onassis" is an amusing rumination on what life would be like as the glamorous former first lady, while "Unba Unba" is a joyfully spastic number reminiscent of Devo's first album.
Of course, the album has some duds too-- particularly closer "Anne Frank Story" which, as one would guess from the title, is the album's darkest song. However, the subject matter is perhaps a little too heady for a band that is much better suited to writing quirky and infectious pop songs. Nonetheless, the album as a whole is a good one. Perhaps not great, and certainly not on the same level as the bands whose sounds are evoked on the record-- but highly enjoyable all the same. I am pleased to be familiar with this album, if nothing else so I can impress the DJ by requesting "some fucking Human Sexual Response, man" the next time I attend 80s night at Neo. All in all, a successful first foray into my stepdad's record collection, I'd say.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stepdad Songs: An Introduction

This past December, I was having a fairly typical family dinner when something extraordinary happened. My stepdad looked at me and uttered the five most beautiful words I have ever heard:

"Do you want my records?" 

"Why yes. Yes I would," I replied.

For music nerds such as myself, it is not everyday that one has an opportunity to dive into someone's record collection. Hell, just perusing someone's records is entertaining enough for me, but to get to pick out albums I wanted for my own collection? Yes. I was pleased. 

It turns out my stepdad was looking to cut down on the physical possessions in his life, and evidently after decades of disuse whatever sentimental attachment he had towards his records had eroded (me, on the other hand? You can pry my records from my cold, dead hands). I quickly scheduled a trip up to the far north suburb of Gurnee, IL where the records resided. While trekking up I-94 several weeks later I recall trying to guess what treasures might be comprised within his collection. I had already inherited my dad's records, which contained many awesome classic rock albums but also essentially stopped with his purchase of The Police's Synchronicity in 1983 (coincidentally, my sister was born five months later. Way to set back dad's music taste two decades, Katharine!) Anyway, I knew my stepdad's collection would be different. Unlike my dad, he actively consumed new music throughout the '80s. Moreover, armed with the knowledge that his favorite musician is Kate Bush, I was fairly certain he was into some weird, underground stuff (side note: my dad is now going to Mikal Cronin shows totally of his own volition so I'd say he came around eventually.) I knew my stepdad lived in Minneapolis for a period, so I had my fingers crossed for some Hüsker Dü or Replacements. Beyond that, I really wasn't sure what to expect.

The reality was even more glorious than I could have hoped. There were approximately 600 records, most in excellent shape. As I began to peruse the large pile snaking along the living room wall, I repeatedly found myself uttering "holy shit" as I pulled out album after fantastic album. He did indeed have several Kate Bush, Hüsker Dü, and 'Mats records, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Brian Eno. The Clash. Big Black. The Waterboys. Prefab Sprout. All three Nick Drake records (including a copy of Pink Moon purchased in 1972). The Jesus and Mary Chain. Nick Lowe. Sonic Youth. Captain Beefheart. I could go on and on. But what surprised me most about the collection was how many records were completely obscure to me, despite my self-perceived rather solid handle on rock history. Utilizing a combination of Googling and good old fashioned "huh that's a bizarre album cover, I want that one" thinking, I selected about 70 additional records to add to my pile of familiar favorites. 

And thus, a blog feature was born. At an entirely arbitrary and probably infrequent interval, I will be listening to and reviewing these weird, unfamiliar records obtained from my stepdad under the title "Stepdad Songs." First up will be a review of Boston new wave band Human Sexual Response's debut 1980 album Fig. 14, whose wacky album cover-band name combination inspired "Stepdad Songs." Stay tuned, loyal blog readers (once again, hi mom and dad!).

Monday, March 10, 2014

My (Belated) Favorite Albums of 2013

The impetus for starting this blog was twofold. First, my friend Scott was all "hey, you should make a blog." But it was also spurred by what has become a yearly tradition for me: the creation of my "favorite albums of the year" list. I spend an inordinate time every December thinking about all the new music I consumed over the previous year and subsequently ranking them in terms of greatness. Typically, I just share this list with my aforementioned "Safe as Milk" radio co-host, Bob, over gchat and then improvise comments about each album. However, this year I decided to write actual blurbs to accompany the albums on the list and then email them out to a bunch of my friends and family. I enjoyed writing these blurbs very much, and it reminded me how much I used to like writing about music. So, I think it is appropriate that my first substantive post include that list. Without further ado, here is what I emailed out back in December 2013:

Honorable Mentions:
Neko Case, Janelle Monae, Boards of Canada, Yo La Tengo. Also, Parquet Courts would be top 10 on this list if I’d elected to include them, but their album technically came out in 2012 and was re-released this year. But yeah, that album is great. March 2014 Edit: I have since become familiar with Cate Le Bon's excellent album Mug Museum which also likely deserves a top ten spot on this list.

20. The National- Trouble Will Find Me
19. Sky Ferreira- Night Time, My Time
18. Savages- Silence Yourself
17. Phosphorescent- Muchacho
16. The Knife- Shaking the Habitual

15. Postiljonen- Skyer
Nice shoegaze/dream pop record from Sweden—kind of in the M83 vein. Good stuff, and overlooked by most this year.

14. Daft Punk- Random Access Memories
A tad overblown, but also extremely entertaining to listen to. I dug the disco influence—the breakdown midway through “Touch” was one of my favorite musical moments of 2013. It was also nice to see a musical artist of this quality achieve huge commercial success this year.

13.  HAIM- Days Are Gone
The second-best party record I heard this year (behind Chvrches). Plus, they're Jews!

12. Deerhunter- Monomania
A bit of a decline from their previous two albums, but still quite good. Bradford Cox and co. moved away from the more atmospheric sound they nailed on Halcyon Digest and indulged in their punk/garage influences. Raw, unpolished, and pretty damn badass. I still regard them as one of the most exciting bands in indie rock, and though this record was more of a lateral move, I remain intrigued by what they will have in store in the future.

11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Push the Sky Away
Solid-as-usual offering from one of my favorite musicians. I always enjoy Cave’s more melancholy work, and this album leans in that direction—though there are some rockin’ moments (namely in the awesomely titled and generally awesome “Higgs Boson Blues”). Cave also delivered the best concert I saw this year.

The Top Ten
10. Chvrches- The Bones of What You Believe
The most “fun” album I heard this year, and an impressive debut from these Glasgow synth poppers. They aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before, but the world is always in need of catchy dancey synth songs, and this album has that in spades. I anticipate “The Mother We Share” and “Gun” remaining fixtures on my party playlists for a long time to come.

9. Darkside- Psychic
I’m not the biggest fan of recent trends in electronic music, but Darkside made an electronic album that resonated with me tremendously—probably because they incorporate some rock and roll aspects into their sound. This album has some fantastic grooves throughout. Sounds particularly good late at night.

8. Majical Cloudz- Impersonator
This is one of the more original albums I heard this year. It’s a synthpop album, but I’ve never heard an album in this genre that is so…unsettling. This is not a dance record—more of a confessional singer-songwriter album that is uncomfortably (but fascinatingly) intimate at times. Alluring stuff.

7. Torres- Torres
I probably have a somewhat irrational love for this album due to having a lovely conversation with the main lady in this band after a show at the Empty Bottle and having her tell me “you have no idea how much that means to me” when I told her that her album was the best thing I’d heard all year (which was true at that point- this was back in February). Anyway, it’s no longer the best thing I’ve heard this year but it does hold up as a very well constructed singer-songwriter album with a nice mixture of both intense and beautiful moments. If you like Fiona Apple you’d probably appreciate this record.

6. Arcade Fire- Reflektor
I have tremendous respect for this band and what they’ve been able to do over the past decade. No, they probably will never top Funeral but they’re still churning out excellent albums and pushing their sound in new directions. We’ve known since “Neighborhood 2 (Power Out)” that these guys can make dance music when they please, and here they more thoroughly explore that side of their sound. They don’t quite maintain the quality of the opening “Reflektor” throughout the record but the album is consistently engaging. Arcade Fire are one of the few modern bands that can successfully play to the rafters and this album gives them many more arena anthems in which to draw from.

5. My Bloody Valentine- mbv
I loved this when it came out and then kind of forgot about it for a good six months. Recent re-listens confirm that this is just about the best “comeback” record we could have expected from this band. It basically starts where Loveless left off but by the end of the album is somewhere totally different. Like Portishead did back in 2008, they managed to add another satisfying album to their oeuvre without harming (and in fact, adding to) their legacy.

4. Kurt Vile- Wakin on a Pretty Daze
I’ve always enjoyed Vile’s brand of hazy, laid-back rock and roll but he really upped the ante with this one. This is a sprawling record of guitar jams that never sounds overwhelming or overlong. As the title implies, it just kind of passes you by as you soak up the good vibes.

3. Vampire Weekend- Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend win this year’s “most improved” award. I enjoyed their first two releases but never cared much about them overall. I recall watching them from afar at the 2008 Pitchfork Music Festival feeling somewhat bewildered by the massive crowd that had gathered to watch them- “they aren’t that good,” I remember thinking. It took five years but I am now on the same page as the rest of that crowd. They took what they did well on previous albums (catchy melodies, smart/funny lyrics) and fleshed that out with impeccable production and some downright pretty songs (“Obvious Bicycle,” “Hannah Hunt”).

2. Bill Callahan- Dream River
Anyone who knows me well knows I am an unabashed fanboy of this guy, but I just continue to be in awe of his talent—and the fact that he’s only getting better with age. The dude is 47 years old and his last three albums have been incredible—with Dream River possibly being the best of the lot. I can think of approximately two rock musicians ever who operated on this level at Callahan’s age: Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Seriously, that’s it. Everyone starts to release shitty music in their 40s, but not this guy. Dream River is stunning in every sense of the word. What sets it apart from his prior work is that he sounds, well, kind of happy here. He’s even smiling in the press photo that accompanied the album. But rather than channeling that happiness into a boring album (i.e. like Wilco did with Sky Blue Sky after Tweedy got sober), Callahan created a beautiful ode to contentment. As he states on the stunning closer “Winter Road”: “I have learned, when things are beautiful, to just keep on.” This album shattered my previously held belief that most truly affecting music is only created by musicians who are suffering, and also cemented Callahan’s status among my very favorite singer-songwriters—right alongside the aforementioned Waits and Cave.

1. Mikal Cronin- MCII
In some ways, this is a peculiar choice for my favorite album of the year. It certainly wasn’t one of the more ambitious albums I heard this year. Nor is it particularly unique or groundbreaking. And yet I found myself coming back to this record again and again (iTunes indicates at least 12 spins of this record since May, which is an insanely high number given my typical listening habits). There’s something about Cronin’s songwriting on this record that I find exhilarating, even if, on a surface level, MCII is just another entry among countless singer-songwriter/power pop albums that have been released over the years. First off, his sense of melody is incredible. The album is chock full of songs so catchy and hummable that it’s downright amazing to me that these songs hadn’t already been written. Indeed, there is a timeless quality to this record. It could have come out in 1975 and fit in right alongside what Big Star and Nick Lowe were doing around that time. And yet Cronin manages to channel that “timeless” sound into something that sounds fresh and exciting in 2013.  MCII was also far and away the best driving record of the year—perfect for driving around on a sunny summer day. Simply put, MCII consistently made me feel joy in a way that no other album did this year. I expect this to be one of my go-to "let's rock out" albums for many years to come.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Introductions, Etc.

Hi. I decided to make a blog so my random musings have a home on the internet. This will make things more convenient for the (two- hi mom and dad!) people who might be interested in reading what I have to say. It will also allow me to pretend I am a music journalist, a field that has long since joined the ranks of paleontology and "professional lego builder" in my pile of discarded career paths. I might post about other topics too, but I anticipate this will mostly be a music blog. And we all know what the internet needs most is another music blog.

I last regularly wrote about music circa 2007-2008 as a staff writer at my alma mater's student newspaper, The Lawrentian. Those were good times. I do find myself nostalgic for when I had the opportunity to be paid $12 to slam a crappy emo band's performance in the student union (stay tuned, I will be posting some of my old reviews on here. Watch out, northsoutheastwest! And ugh, don't click that link, they are still terrible). Around that time, I also co-hosted a wildly popular radio program called "Safe as Milk" with my friend Bob, which once reached as many as ten listeners.

Now that you know my esteemed credentials, let me explain the title of the blog. It is from the song Farewell Transmission by Songs: Ohia, which is without a doubt one of my favorite songs ever. I have lost count of how many times I have felt chills listening to that song, which is an even more affecting listen in light of the passing of that band's leader, Jason Molina, last year. If you have not listened to that song while speeding down an empty highway at dawn, you have not lived. Anyway, some jerk named Lauren stole the URL I wanted to use ( and then left it abandoned for a decade after writing one very dramatic post (I hope you have since found peace, Lauren). But "Static and Distance," a haunting line from Farewell Transmission, works pretty well I think.

So here we are. A blog.