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 (farewelltransmission.blogspot.com) 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.