Sunday, March 29, 2015

Going to the birthday well again

Well, it’s the end of another March birthday season, and I’m right in the midst of my youngest child’s first birthday weekend that she’s old enough to talk for.  She doesn’t quite have a feel for the power yet: she caught on to “yeah! it’s my birthday!” quickly enough, but when we ask her what she wants to do or eat next, she just says “nuffin’.”

As I write this, I’m at the park near our house.  You would think that would have been a no-brainer, but we had to work hard to convince her to go along with this plan, which is necessary to give The Mother the opportunity to get the tea party ready.  My little girl likes her tea parties.

After tea, we’ll head off to the mall to that place where you make your own teddy bear (’cause my little girl likes her stuffed animals),* then tomorrow it’s off to ride a pony (’cause my little girl likes her horsies).  Another thing my little girl apparently likes is The Monster at the End of This Book, which she is now listening to over and over and over again on her new Amazon Fire with Freetime.  I used to like that book myself.  Now it’s starting to get a little old.

Anyway, as I am a slave to a three-year-old, I have no time to spit out blog posts for you, dear reader, and, while I was almost successful in my attempts to get a week ahead (you’ll notice I did not lose a week at the beginning of the March birthday season, when the Smaller Animal had his weekend), I fell behind again last week, with the end result that now I’m living blog-post-to-blog-post again.  Perhaps I’ll be able to crank out a double next week so that I can be ahead of the game once again.

In the meantime, you’ll have to be content with my observations that cucumber-and-cream-cheese tea sandwiches are surprisingly delicious, that a dozen helium balloons from the dollar store are utter hell to stuff into a closet, and that if I have to listen to Grover whine about my daughter knocking down his solid, strong, brick wall one more time I’m going to have to wring his lovable furry old neck.  Surely that’s enough to tide you over.

* Actually, as it turned out, the tea party was quite exhausting, so teddy bear building had to be postponed.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Salsatic Vibrato II

"King of the Monkeys"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Just as with the first two volumes of Smokelit Flashback, the first two Salsatic Vibrato’s were developed simultaneously.  I was very into retro-swing at the time,1 so I had no shortage of tracks, and there was plenty there for two full CD’s worth by the time I got to organizing.  So, it shouldn’t suprise to see many of the same names back for more: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy provides a whopping 3 tracks (just on the verge of too much), all from the same album as before (Americana Deluxe); Joe Jackson returns with another track off Jumpin’ Jive; and Movits! too is back, with two more tracks from mainstay Appelknyckarjazz.  And we get Lou Bega’s big hit off Little Bit of Mambo.

And of course our old pals Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.  CPD is a much more interesting case than the other retro-swing bands, because they’re not actualy a retro-swing band.  Actually, they have a very eclectic style that goes from retro-swing to power ska to something that can only be described as hardcore-inflected 50’s rock.2  Only 2 or 3 songs on each of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ first few albums were full-on retro-swing.  So what exactly is Zoot Suit Riot, you may ask?  Simple: it’s a compilation album.  Released by CPD’s label in what I imagine was a desperate attempt to cash in on the burgeoning retro-swing craze, it collected just the retro-swing tracks from their first 3 albums, and ended up achieving far more popularity than any of the albums it compiled.  Popularity is good, but unfortunately it meant that people ended up getting the wrong impression of the Daddies.  Wikipedia suggests that the band members themselves may have regretted Zoot Suit Riot; I bet it wasn’t a pleasnt experience to have legions of new fans pissed off at you for “changing your direction” when what you’re actually doing is the exact same thing you’ve always done.  Although I too am one of those folks who don’t particularly appreciate the Daddies’ non-retro-swing tracks as much, I do absolutely respect their very wide range of styles and their ability to transmogrify themselves completely from one track to the next.3  In the meantime, though, you’ll have to be satisfied with “Zoot Suit Riot” here, which is after all one of their greatest tracks.

I can’t neglect Squirrel Nut Zippers either.  This time I’m branching out from Hot (even though that’s my all-time favorite SNZ album) to touch on some of their great tracks from other albums.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Zippers aren’t truly retro-swing, so not all of their tracks fit well into the Salsatic Vibrato mold.  But the two here—“Baby Wants a Diamond Ring,” off Bedlam Ballroom, and “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill,” off Perennial Favorites—rock pretty hard.

But one of the best things about this mix is the 1-2-3 punch that kicks it off.  Every once in a while you just hit on a magic combination of tracks that feels so natural that, if you hear one track in some other context, you automatically hear the opening strains of the next track in your head as soon as it’s over.  This set is one of those.  It leads off with “Mambo Swing” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which also provides the volume title.  Then it slams into “Livin’ la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I do not like Ricky Martin.  Neither do I like Boys II Men or One Direction or New Kids on the Block or any other such crap.  But this one song is just awesome.  Oh, sure, I got sick of it when it was popular, like everyone else in the known universe.  But, once it stopped being everywhere you turned around, and I heard it again in isolation, I started to appreciate it: the funky bassline, the trumpets, the latin flair, the lyrics which were surprisingly non-trite.  Coming off “Mambo Swing,” which is easily the most salsa-inflected thing BBVD has done, it fits beautifully.  And then it rollicks along into “Sly,” by the Cat Empire.  Cat Empire is an Australian band, but this album was recorded in Havana, and it shows.  I’d never heard of them before Damian played them for me on WRNR, but “Sly” just blew me away.  The album is decent enough4 but that one song really kicks it.  These three tracks right in a row really put the “salsa” in “Salsatic Vibrato.”

Toward the middle of the volume, there’s another pairing I’m rather fond of.  “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk  Again)” (our track from Jumpin’ Jive this time out) is really too slow for this mix, but the joy I got from snuggling it up to “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” is just too sweet to pass up.5

The ska this time around is more spread out.  There are two tracks from Reel Big Fish: their excellent radio hit “Sell Out” and their inspired remake of “Take on Me.”6  Another track from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and another from Save Ferris keep the ska vibe going throughout.

You can also see that I picked up the soundtrack for Swing.  There are four movies that I know of which are given credit for helping out the retro-swing movement: Swing Kids and Bright Young Things we mentioned last time, and they’re at either end of a ten-year-span (1993 to 2003).  Then there’s Swingers, which came out in 1996; it didn’t really have much to do with swing music per se, but it featured Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, so it gets some credit.  But the best of the batch is Swing, which came along in 1999.  When I say “best” I don’t necessarily mean cinematically best, but best in terms of highlighting the music.  It’s a British flick about a former criminal who gets out of jail and decides to go straight.  His biggest problem is not having many marketable skills.  But he can play the saxophone ...  It’s really not a blad flick, and the music is excellent, sung by Georgie Fame and Lisa Stansfield (the latter of whom also stars in the movie).  The track I pulled here is a remake of the 1946 Louis Jordan tune that gave us the (admittedly useless) phrase “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.”  It’s a silly song, but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s got a great sax break in it.

Salsatic Vibrato II
    [King of the Monkeys]

        “Mambo Swing” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “Livin' la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin, off Livin' la Vida Loca [CD Single7]
        “Sly” by The Cat Empire, off Two Shoes
        “Äppelknyckarjazz” by Movits!, off Äppelknyckarjazz
        “Baby Wants a Diamond Ring” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Bedlam Ballroom
        “Sell Out” by Reel Big Fish, off Turn the Radio Off
        “What's the Use of Getting Sober (When You're Gonna Get Drunk Again)” by Joe Jackson, off Jumpin' Jive
        “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight (Baby)” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “The Rascal King” by Mighty Mighty Bosstones, off Let's Face It
        “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of ...)” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “The World Is New” by Save Ferris, off It Means Everything
        “Fel del av gården” by Movits!, off Äppelknyckarjazz
        “Mr. Pinstripe Suit” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “Zoot Suit Riot” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Zoot Suit Riot [Compilation]
        “Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens” by Lisa Stansfield, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Perennial Favorites
        “Swing Out” by Swingerhead, off She Could Be a Spy
        “Hey Pachuco!” by Royal Crown Revue, off Mugzy's Move
        “Take on Me” by Reel Big Fish, off BASEketball [Soundtrack]
Total:  19 tracks,  66:17

Two other things I’ll mention before I close.

First of all, note that I’ve included cover images (both front and back) for this volume.  I often have a vague concept for a cover image when I work on a mix: there’s a recurring element which will be on every volume (or perhaps it will be the background of each one), and then there’s the volume-specific imagery, which is tied to the volume title.  Usually these are just mental pictures that will never exist in the real world.  But then, every now and again, I actually sit down with the Gimp and go scouring the Internet looking for clip art and photos to cobble together.  As it happens, I’ve done all of the first four volumes of Salsatic Vibrato in order to make physical CDs for a friend of mine.  And I figured, why not share them with you too?8  (The fact that the monkey I chose for the “King of the Monkeys” is King Louie from The Jungle Book is a bit of an inside joke.  Louie was voiced by Louis Prima, who penned many of the great swing songs, including “Jump, Jive an’ Wail”—seen on our last volume—and “Sing Sing Sing,” which we’ll see next time.9)

Lastly, a brief digression on the concept of “hardening.”  I start making a mix by adding song titles to a text file.  On every line, the first 3 columns are reserved for characters that help me keep track of the status.  One of those columns is for the position of the track: that is, is it in the perfect order within the mix, or does it need adjustment?  Songs initially start out with a blank in this column, meaning I haven’t yet added them to the physical playlist—they’re just a notional idea at that point.  Once I do add them, the blank is upgraded to an X, which means this track is just sitting at this position because that’s the order I happened to add it in; it doesn’t really belong in this position.  Then I start pondering positioning, but strictly from a mental perspective.  That is, I think about the tempo of the songs, or separating songs from the same artists, or any other reasons I can think of why a song should go here or there, but I’m not listening to the actual tracks yet.  Any tracks moved because of a guess at this point get their X upgraded to a ?.  Now I start listening to the tracks in my guesswork order.  If the position works pretty well, I upgrade the ? to a ~.  If the position is perfect, I change that to a >.  Once every track is marked with a >, the volume is set.

Of course, sometimes a position sounds only okay at first, but the more I listen to it the more natural it sounds.  I call this process “hardening.”10  Gradually, over time, the list, which started out as soft clay, hardens into a permanent set.  So far, the only mix volumes I’ve shared were “fully hardened,” so to speak.  But many of my mixes and volumes are still open for modification.  Which means that you may come back one day to find that the mix has changed.  In general, this is a good thing: it means I’m always open to new ideas, and I’m not afraid to say I made a mistake and something could be better if we tried it a different way.

This volume is the first which still has a little wiggle room in the chosen tracks: specifically, it’s the last three.  They’re a fairly recent addition, and I’m still not sure they fully work.  The story is that the set was a little short (only 57 minutes), and I felt it needed extending.  I had the Reel Big Fish “Take on Me” that I knew I wanted to add, but just tossing it in at the end didn’t flow well.  I needed more.

I’d also recently acquired the soundtrack to The Mask, which includes some fine tunes, including “Hey Pachuco!” by Royal Crown Revue.  Many retro-swing fans love RCR, but I’m more lukewarm on them.  Still, there’s no denying that “Hey Pachuco!” is a great track and I’d already decided to add it onto a future volume.  (Eventually I decided to use the version from their album Mugzy’s Move, which has a stronger opening than the soundtrack version in my opinion.)  In some fit of experimentation, I determined that “Take on Me” flowed pretty damn well after “Hey Pachuco!” and I considered making this the opening of a new group, possibly for Salsatic Vibrato III.  Certainly “Hey Pachuco!” is a strong enough opener to start a group, if not a whole volume.  But the problem is that “Take on Me” is a pretty good closer, so I didn’t really want to put anything on after it.  So I decided to make them their own little grouplet, and I certainly had room at the end of this volume.

So now all I needed was a transition between “Suits Are Picking Up the Bill” and “Hey Pachuco!”.  While trying to find some info on another retro-swing band I’d heard on Pandora,11 I ran across the webpage of a pretty hardcore retro-swing fan.  A lot of the bands he talks about I’d heard of, of course, but there were new acts as well, so I scrambled to see which ones I liked.  One that I discovered from this page is the moderately obscure Swingerhead.12  I picked up a copy of She Could Be a Spy and it’s not bad.  Not great, perhaps, but not bad.  “Swing Out” is, at 2½ minutes, a bit long to be a proper bridge, but it works.  Perhaps eventually it’ll grow on me enough that I’ll call it hardened.  But, for now, it’s still at the ~ stage in the positioning column.

Next time I think we’ll take a more nostalgic turn.


1 Still am, I suppose.

2 I wish this style had a name, because we’ll hear from it again when we get to Imelda May and Devil Doll.

3 See, I told you last time that I’d redress that slight.

4 We’ll see a couple of other tracks off it on some other mixes here and there.

5 We’ll see a longer ode to drinking when we get to Salsatic Vibrato IV.

6 Which makes it the second ska remake of an 80’s alternative staple.

7 I cannot in good conscience link you to a full Ricky Martin album.  Your brain might suffer irreparable damage.

8 I’ve also gone back and added the cover images to Salsatic Vibrato I.

9 In fact, Prima’s song from The Jungle Book, “I Wanna Be Like You,” will show up on volume IV, sung by our old friends Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

10 Don’t ask me why.  That’s just the word that sprang to mind when I was pondering this process.

11 We’ll hear that track when we get to Salsatic Vibrato IV.

12 Remember that “moderately obscure” means the barest of articles at AllMusic and/or Wikipedia.  If there were no articles in either place, I’d call that “really obscure.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Saladosity, Part 1: Introduction

[This is the first post in a long series.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about salad.  Nothing wrong with that post—feel free to go back and (re)read it if you like—but lately I’ve been wanting to update it.  In fact, I’m going to do an entire series of posts about salad.  Not just the one salad I talked about in that first post, but several different kinds of salad.  But, you may be asking yourself: why devote so much time and effort to salad?

Allow me an analogy.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m a gaming geek.  Well, the first page or so of any roleplaying game (D&D, Vampire, Shadowrun, what have you) is devoted to answering the question “what is a roleplaying game?”  It goes on for some length about how it’s a game with no winnners or losers, and it’s cooperative, and blah-di-blah.  All us gaming geeks just skip over that part.  Because we all know what a roleplaying game is already.

Similarly, when you read about a new diet, it starts off with a bunch of hooha about making life changes in the way you eat and blah blah blah.  You always skip over that part, right?  Because everyone already knows what a diet is.

Except we don’t.  We’ve forgotten what the word actually means, because we’ve started using it in an entirely different way.  We mean the food that you eat (or mostly don’t eat) when you’re trying to lose weight.  But that’s not what it means at all.  Here’s the primary (first) definition of diet according to

food and drink considered in terms of its qualities, composition, and its effects on health

In other words, a diet isn’t what you eat when you’re trying to lose weight, it’s what you eat all the time.  Viewed in this way, “going on a diet” doesn’t make any sense.  You’re always “on a diet,” because you’re always eating something.  “Going on a diet” implies that at some point you get to “come off” the diet.  But you don’t.  Even when you stop trying to lose weight, you still eat.  You just go back to eating all the crappy stuff you ate before the “diet.”  Then you gain more weight, and then you “go back on a diet.”

This is silly.  You’re not going on and coming off a diet: you’re changing your diet—and then changing it back.  But this isn’t helpful in the long term.  The truth of the matter is: anyone can lose weight.  It’s actually not that hard.  The hard part is keeping it off.  And, honestly, losing weight is not the only thing you should be thinking about.  In fact, I personally believe it’s not the most important thing to think about at all.  I say, plan on eating healthier, more sustainably, more organically, more locally—whatever buzzwords turn you on—and the weight thing will mostly take care of itself.

Michael Pollan has famously said (over and over):

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

The thing I like best about Pollan is that he doesn’t demonize any particular types of foods.  He doesn’t tell you not to eat carbs, like the Atkins people.  He doesn’t tell you not to eat grains and dairy, like the paleo people.  He doesn’t tell you not to eat fat, like the Weight Watchers people.  He doesn’t even tell you to limit your calories.  He just says: eat food.  As long as it’s real food—not over-processed, over-preserved, pre-packaged crap that’s so far away from actual food that it doesn’t even go bad any more—you’re good.  He does advise you to stop before you get full, and to favor plants over non-plants, but that’s it.  Well, salad is real food, and it’s mostly plants.  You’ll have to handle the not eating too much by yourself, but the rest I think I can help with.

So what this series is about is making a change to your diet that involves a new appreciation of—and a concentration towards—eating salad.  I happen to think this is a positive change in just about anybody’s life, regardless of what tribe of priests you subscribe to when it comes to nutrition: if there’s a group out there claiming that salad is bad for you, I certainly haven’t heard of them.  Now, there may be various ingredients that I advise you to put in the salads that go against your particular viewpoint on what’s good for you and what’s bad for you.  But that’s okay.

Because the point of this series is not to give you exact recipes to follow.  Well, I suppose it sort of is, but you’re free to modify them as you see fit.  Because the real point is to get you excited about the possibilities inherent in eating salads as a regular recurring meal.  Because that excitement is what’s going to help you make a change in the way you eat, and what you eat.  And that’s where your long-term benefits will come into play.  I personally think you will feel better, and get sick less often, and maybe even live longer.  If you also happen to lose some weight: hey, bonus feature.

But it’s hard.  Salad is not an inherently exciting food.  Getting to the point where you will actually want to eat it 5 times a week, if not more, will be a challenge.  And the most general answer to that challenge is “variety.”  It’s not enough to find one type of salad that you like: you must find several.  I personally have six, so I can eat salad six times a week and yet never repeat a meal.  Some of them are so good that I want to repeat them, which opens me up for eating salad even more often ... or just having fewer different types in a week, because sometimes you need variety even in your variety.  You don’t require any salad schedules, or planned meals.  You just need a way to prepare your kitchen such that you can, on a whim, walk in there and say “I think I’ll have a _______ salad today,” and, in 5 minutes or so, start eating it.  If that amount of preparation is combined with a rich menu of possible salads to choose from, and all of them something that you really enjoy eating, you won’t have any trouble getting maximum vegatation into your diet.

So that’s our goal here.  I’m going to talk about how I got started down this road, and what my goals are for ingredients, and then I’m going to talk about building up a stable of handy ingredients to have ready for a variety of different salads, and I’m going to talk about pros and cons of those ingredients according to different nutrition philosophies, and I’m going to talk about how to make sure none of them go bad on you (because it’ll be real food, remember, so it can go bad), and I’m going to talk about how to combine all those ingredients together in interesting ways, and at the end I’ll display six completely different (and yet very functionally similar) salads that I personally eat on a regular basis.  You can make those exact salads yourself, or you can use them for inspiration to make your own, different salads, or some combination of the two.  As long as it inspires you to make a change—not to “go on” a diet, but to change your diet—then I’ll feel I’ve been successful.

Next up: debating various nutritional philosophies.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Salsatic Vibrato I

"Step up Ladies"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

So, Smokelit Flashback is great when you’re in that eerie, mellow mood where you want to feel like you’re tripping balls in a black-and-white movie.  But I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that I’m all about the downtempo.  While Smokelit Flashback is definitely my longest playlist, it only holds that distinction by 4 tracks.1  Coming in at the number two spot is Salsatic Vibrato.

Unlike some, I didn’t discover retro-swing via the movie Swing Kids.2 which most folks credit with inspiring the retro-swing movement.  But, really, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy had already been around for a year, and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies for 4.  Given that both were West Coast bands, with BBVD located right in LA, it could well be the case that the bands influenced the making of the movie rather than the other way around.  Whichever way it happened, it wasn’t until the late nineties that retro-swing began hitting the alternative airwaves, and that’s where I discovered it.

Back in those days I was in DC, so my station was WHFS.  I don’t know if it was “Zoot Suit Riot” or “You & Me & the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight”3 that I heard first, but I was very quickly hooked.  I had very limited exposure to jazz of any kind at that point—the closest thing to jazz I listened to up to then was probably Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles—but swing is kind of infectious.  It crosses boundaries, somehow.  And certainly the albums behind those two songs (Zoot Suit Riot and Americana Deluxe4) are excellent albums, and consistently so.  Every song on them is great, and by the time we get to the end of this playlist we’ll have seen a lot more of them.  But I showed uncharacteristic restraint and only included one track from each here on volume I.

There are some other obvious choices here as well: “Jump Jive an’ Wail,” the classic Louis Prima tune revived by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers tracks are all obvious choices for a retro-swing mix.  And that’s what this mix started out as: straight up retro-swing all around.  But somehow it seemed limiting.  When I heard “Mambo No. 5” (also on ‘HFS), I fell in love with that as well, and then later with that entire Lou Bega album.  It damned sure wasn’t any kind of swing, but it had the same infectious combination of big brass and a driving beat that makes your body want to move.  Gradually, the parameters of the mix began to surface: it needed brass (although I will accept clarinet in a pinch), it needed to be happy, and not too slow.  It must make you want to dance and sing along and probably snap your fingers into the mix.  This covers a lot of ground, from the core retro-swing all the way out to ska, touching on salsa, Bega’s take on mambo, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are really not retro-swing so much as they are retro-hot-jazz.

I first heard Hot because a very good friend of mine had a copy.  He was quite excited by it, but then he was much more tolerant of jazz than I was.  I rather dug “Bad Businessman” (which I chose to center this volume), but the rest of it I was lukewarm on.  However, as I began to get more into retro-swing, I felt that I was shortchanging the Zippers and decided to give them another shot.  I’ve never regretted that decision.  As I said, they aren’t really swing per se, but much of their stuff has that same energy, plus they have a broader range than many of the “proper” retro-swing bands.5  In the end, I came to love SNZ even more than the others: certainly I own more albums by Squirrel Nut Zippers than by any of the other bands featured here.  There are two tracks off Hot here (including opener “Got My Own Thing Now,” which provides the volume title), and one off their debut album The Inevitable.

The ska on this volume comes in a neat little package, from Save Ferris, Reel Big Fish, and the Mighty Mighy Bosstones, all of whom we’ll hear from again in future volumes.  My appreciation for ska isn’t nearly what my love of retro-swing is, but the three albums represented here are all pretty damned great, and fully deserve their space.  Save Ferris’ inspired remake of Dexy Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” is especially rockin’.  In the midst of all this ska is “Sunblock” by my good friends emmet swimming.6  I don’t know the producer who decided to inject some horns into that song, but I’d like to shake his hand.  “Sunblock” is not really ska (not even remotely), but I thought it fit well in this block.

The other artist and album that you see here which will be important to this whole mix is Movits!.  I’ll never forget the night that Stephen Colbert introduced a “Swedish swing hip-hop jazz band” and I thought, what the fuck is that?  I pretty much sat there with my mouth open throughout the entirety of “Fel del av gården,”7 completely unsure what to make of this new hybrid.8  This is the sort of music that’s so catchy you try to sing along with it even though it’s not English.  Their swing instincts are finely honed, and the rapping has a fluidity that you can’t help but appreciate even with the language gap.  The first two volumes of Salsatic Vibrato had to be significantly reworked to accomodate Movits! once I got their album Appelknyckarjazz.9

Coming back to the proper retro-swing, the other album I discovered while trying to track down as much of the genre as I could was Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive.  Joe Jackson is one of those fellows who completely changes musical genres on a whim (and does so with almost every new album).  I had no idea that he had done this swing experiment—way back in 1981, even—until I starting getting into retro-swing.  Of course, Jumpin’ Jive is not really retro swing ... it’s more like a pretty faithful recreation of some great old swing classics.  Other than perhaps “Tuxedo Junction,” nothing on the album is particularly well-known, but if you pick up this album you’ll see why he chose the ones he did.

Salsatic Vibrato I
    [Step up Ladies]

        “Got My Own Thing Now” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Hot
        “Tank!” by The Seatbelts, off Cowboy Bebop [Soundtrack]
        “Jumpin' Jack” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Americana Deluxe
        “Jack, You're Dead” by Joe Jackson, off Jumpin' Jive
        “Brown Derby Jump” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Zoot Suit Riot [Compilation]
        “Mambo Mambo” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “Swing för Hyresgästföreningen” by Movits!, off Äppelknyckarjazz
        “Twiggy Twiggy / Twiggy vs. James Bond” by Pizzicato Five, off Made in USA [Compilation]
        “Bad Businessman” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Hot
        “Jump Jive an' Wail” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off The Dirty Boogie
        “Steven's Last Night in Town” by Ben Folds Five, off Whatever and Ever Amen
        “Come On Eileen” by Save Ferris, off It Means Everything
        “Sunblock” by emmet swimming, off Big Night Without You
        “Noise Brigade” by Mighty Mighty Bosstones, off Let's Face It
        “241” by Reel Big Fish, off Turn the Radio Off
        “Jumpin' with Symphony Sid” by Joe Jackson, off Jumpin' Jive
        “Lover's Lane” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off The Inevitable
        “Rockin' at Midnight” by The Honeydrippers, off Volume One [EP]
Total:  18 tracks,  62:59

The set is rounded out by some more interesting choices.  The theme from classic anime Cowboy Bebop is by Yoko Kanno in her guise as Seatbelts, another genre chameleon.  Ever since I heard the opening strains of “Tank!” I dug it, and when my coworker (the same one who turned me on to so much of the raw material for the first two volumes of Smokelit Flashback) lent me a copy of the soundtrack, I knew it had to go into this mix.

Next up, “Twiggy Twiggy” by the Pizzicato Five.  I saw the video for this song at some point, long long ago.  It was my first experience with J-pop.  It wasn’t as transformative as the first time I heard retro-swing, or seeing Movits! on Colbert, but it stuck with me, and I thought of it again when putting this mix together.

Then we have “Stephen’s Last Night in Town,” a very atypical Ben Folds track.  Despite not having any actual brass, I always thought it fit very well in with the rest of this bunch.  As I said, the clarinet will do in a pinch.

Finally, the Honeydrippers.  While most of Volume One is more suited to a different mix,10 “Rockin’ at Midnight” is a more upbeat tune that makes a very pleasant closer for this volume.  Although Brian Setzer doesn’t appear on the album, he did tour with the Honeydrippers, so I kind of consider them responsible for giving us the Brian Setzer Orchestra some ten years later, who will be another recurring player in the Salsatic Vibrato series.

Next time around,11 we’ll look at Salsatic Vibrato II, which doesn’t stray too far from the blueprint laid out here.


1 As I write this.  By the time you read it, those numbers will undoubtedly have changed.

2 Although I did see Bright Young Things.  But that was 10 years later.

3 Both of which will show up on Salsatic Vibrato II.

4 Most sources, including Amazon and AllMusic, list this album as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  However, I think Wikipedia makes a compelling case for the proper title.

5 Which statement itself shortchanges Cherry Poppin’ Daddies quite a bit, but never fear: I will redress that slight in future installations.

6 And I do mean the “good friends” part literally: we used to hang out at the lead singer’s house occasionally, and their lead guitarist was my company‘s first official employee.

7 Which will also show up on Salsatic Vibrato II.

8 Apparently the Swedes are excellent at this sort of mashup, as we’ll see when we get to Koop and Diablo Swing Orchestra, coming up in Salsatic Vibrato III.

9 Like Victorialand, from our last installment in this series, it was only available via import.  Luckily my brother was kind enough to get it for me for Christmas one year, as I’m too cheap to pay that much for music, even when it’s awesome.

10 Which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

11 I should probably make it clear that I do not promise that “next time” will be “next week.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Smokelit Flashback II

"In a Half-Lit World"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

As I mentioned last time, the first two volumes of Smokelit Flashback were developed simultaneously.1  So in this volume we see lots more entries from the same 5 albums: Portishead, the two Lemon Jelly EPs, and the two Naomi albums.  However, we’re also already starting to see some important branching out.

First and foremost, we have two tracks from Falling You.  When some people say “darkwave,” they just mean “gothic.”  But I use the term in a very different way: oh, darkwave is very much gothic-derived, no doubt, but it’s also quite distinct in my eyes.  Siouxsie is gothic.  The Cure is gothic, as are Sisters of Mercy and the Swans and the Mission.  Gothic reaches its peak in bands like Mary My Hope and Fields of the Nephilim, who are so close to what would eventually become goth-metal that you could be forgiven for thinking they were just collections of the mellower songs from bands like Type O Negative and White Zombie.  But darkwave goes off in a different direction: through dream pop and flirting with trip-hop, before finally settling somewhere in a DIY æsthetic with strong electronica tendencies.  The first time I heard darkwave, it was Black Tape for a Blue Girl, and it was on Hearts of Space.2  Now I mentioned before that I was greatly influenced by HoS’s excellent mixes, but I also picked up a fondness for many new musical styles from that show, and darkwave was one.  Because, you see, Black Tape for a Blue Girl leads one to Sam Rosenthal3 and Sam Rosenthal leads one to Projekt.

Sometimes a particular label will come to focus on a genre or style to the point where it nearly defines that type of music.  Sun was rockabilly.  Sub Pop was grunge.  Blue Note was jazz.  Well, Projekt is darkwave.  It seems like any darkwave artist of any note ends up on Projekt sooner or later.  So perusing their stable of artists is a good way to discover the best of darkwave.  The funny thing is, despite the fact that Black Tape for a Blue Girl got me into darkwave, I don’t really like that band all that much.  There are a few BTfaBG tracks I like, of course, and one good album,4 but it was the bands I discovered through them that really excited me.  Lycia, and Love Spirals Downwards,5 and Autumn’s Grey Solace, and Unto Ashes.  And Falling You.

Falling You isn’t technically a Projekt artist, but the band has strong connections to the label.6  Like Black Tape for a Blue Girl, it’s essentially a one-man show, although John Michael Zorko doesn’t do any of his own singing.  He employs a number of very talented women with haunting, ethereal voices for that, and he provides the gothic wash of sound with the strong backbeat.   Falling You is, in my opinion, the best of the darkwave bands, and they are now appearing on a number of my mixes (including at least one track on every volume of Smokelit Flashback from here on out).

Just as Projekt is the darkwave label, so 4AD is the dream pop label.  The two biggest names in that field—the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance—had their home here, and I chose a track from each one for this volume.  Dream pop, with its glorious backwashes of swirling guitars and keyboards and its soaring, often celestial, occasionally eerie vocals, is a great match for this mix.

The Cocteau Twins—who, like the Thompson Twins, do not consist of two people—have an interesting history.  Like darkwave, they started in gothic (their first album, Garlands, is as dark as anything by Siouxsie or the Cure) and then transformed, but they stopped when they hit dream pop.  In fact, some would say they invented it.7  Certainly they define it in some way, just as Nirvana would forever define grunge, despite their not having invented it.8  If I need to explain to anyone what dream pop is, I just put on some Cocteau Twins.  They’ll get it.

I discovered Victorialand in 1986, shortly after it came out (although I didn’t know that at the time).  My record-collector father had a friend who ran a small record store in Chesapeake, Virginia, near my hometown.  Once while he was at the house visiting Dad, he told me I should drop by.  I told him I wasn’t into the 50’s and 60’s proto-rock that he and my dad were into.  He smiled and promised me he’d have music that would interest me.  He wasn’t kidding.  The small shop was called Unicorn Records, and it was there that I first heard Pleased to Meet Me by the Replacements, and Phantasmagoria by the Damned ... and Victorialand.  I had to buy an import because there was no American release yet—it may well be the highest price I’ve ever paid for an album that I bought myself.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  It was dreamy, and sonic, and only barely decipherable as English.9  It was too melodic to be ambient and too edgy to be new age and too dense to be electronica (also, electronica hadn’t been invented yet).  The best I could come up with to describe it was “angels singing in a pink fog,” which is what I told people for years when desperately trying to put the music into words.  Now, you may say, “how could you tell the fog was pink just from listening to it?”  To which I can only respond: “you obviously haven’t heard Victorialand.”  Ordinary white fog it ain’t.

Dead Can Dance is a slightly different story.  They’re still dream pop, definitely, but with a healthy dose of world, and an injection of Renn Faire to boot.  I’d heard the name kicked around, but I hadn’t heard any of their music when I fell in love with It’ll End in Tears by This Mortal Coil.  TMC was a group with a rotating membership, composed nearly exclusively of 4AD bands.  I knew the Cocteau Twins, of course, and I knew Martin McCarrick from his work with Siouxsie, but the other musicians were from bands I’d mostly never heard of: Cindytalk, Colourbox, Xmal Deutschland, Wolfgang Press.10  And Dead Can Dance, which of course I had heard of.  I figured I liked the Cocteaus, and I liked This Mortal Coil, so I better pick up some of these other bands.  And I figured I should start with the one name I recognized.

The album I eventually bought was Aion, and it too would become one of my favorite albums (possibly even eclipsing the other two).  This trilogy (Victorialand, It’ll End in Tears, and Aion) comprise the perfect music to relax to, to fall asleep to, to mediate to, to just lose yourself in.  Aion differs from the others in having a strong medieval bent.  As such, a lot of the tunes (such as “Saltarello” or “Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book”) don’t really work for Smokelit Flashback.  But then you have “Black Sun,” which I’ve always thought is one of Brendan Perry’s strongest vocal performances.  There’s no doubt that Lisa Gerrard is the vocal powerhouse of the duo, but when Brendan is on, he’s on, and “Black Sun” is the perfect closer for this volume.

The volume title is a line from “Mourning Air” by Portishead.  The sense of mystery it conveys is perfect for this mix.

Smokelit Flashback II
    [In a Half-Lit World]

        “Cowboys” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “She Hangs Brightly” by Mazzy Star, off She Hangs Brightly
        “Mercy” by Falling You, off Mercy
        “The Thinner the Air” by Cocteau Twins, off Victorialand
        “Mourning Air” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “White” by Naomi, off Everyone Loves You
        “Experiment Number Six” by Lemon Jelly, off Lost Horizons
        “Sumeria” by Transglobal Underground, off International Times
        “Syndicate” by Naomi, off Everyone Loves You
        “Humming” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “the art of possession (no escape)” by Falling You, off Touch
        “Ana” by Transglobal Underground, off International Times
        “Black Sun” by Dead Can Dance, off Aion
Total:  13 tracks,  63:16

As I mentioned back in volume I, the other bridge off Transglobal Underground’s International Times (“Sumeria”) is here, as is “Ana,” a song which simmers but somehow never boils.

Rounding out the set is a single track off Mazzy Star‘s debut, She Hangs Brightly.  Mazzy Star is often described as dream pop as well, but I find it to be something a bit to the left of that.  Not harsh enough to be shoegaze yet too harsh to be proper psychedelia, with just a hint of country twang, it exists in a bizarre world mostly to itself, with only Tashaki Miyaki and a few of the mellower Sonic Youth cuts for company.11  Much of the Mazzy Star ouevre isn’t quite right for Smokelit Flashback, although it’s all tantalizingly close.  But “She Hangs Brightly” is just an eerie, haunting tune that fits in perfectly here.

For our next installment, we’ll leave Smokelit Flashback for some more upbeat pastures.


1 This is actually quite common.  Often when I decide I have enough tracks for a full volume, I end up having enough for two.

2 Specifically, program 250: “Liquid Desires.”

3 BTfaBG essentially consists of Rosenthal and whoever else he feels like, much like Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor and The The is Matt Johnson.

4 Specifically, The Scavenger Bride.

5 We’ll see them on Smokelit Flashback V, if we get that far.

6 For instance, perennial Falling You vocalists Suzanne Perry and Dru Allen are the regular singers for Projekt artists Love Spirals Downwards and This Ascension, respectively.

7 While others might say that honour should go to labelmates Dif Juz.

8 Nirvana formed in 1987, which puts them 4 years behind fellow Seattle natives the Melvins, and 3 behind seminal Boston grunge band Dinosaur Jr.

9 And I’m being generous when I say “barely.”  Many people listen to the Cocteau Twins for years before figuring out that it actually is English.  I know I did.

10 I would eventually procure Devils and Funky Little Demons as well.  Still have never picked up any Cindytalk or Colourbox though.

11 Well, I say “only,” but that only goes to show you that you should never use words like that when it comes to music.  I’ve recently discovered Beach House and Widowspeak, and both are very similar to Mazzy Star, especially the latter.  In fact, I suspect that you’ll be hearing from one or both bands in future volumes of this mix.