Sunday, April 5, 2015

Rose-Coloured Brainpan I

"Billion Year-Old Carbon"

[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.]

In the beginning,1 there was a mix called Depression, which I would play when I was in a bad mood.  There were two problems with this:  First, it was a bit too on-the-nose.  That is, 90 minutes2 of continuous, depressing music is not helpful when you’re already depressed.  And, if you’re not depressed, it’ll just make you depressed.  Secondly, not all the music on this mix was actually depressing.  It was all slow, sure, and full of minor keys, but, even so: it turns out that music is quite good at doing different shades of “depressing.”

Next came Wisty Mysteria, which was one of the pre-modern mixes.3  As I explained when discussing my penchant for bizarrely named mixes in the first place, “Wisty Mysteria” is supposed to convey the concepts of “wistful” and “mysterious” at the same time, plus a few more for good measure.4  These tunes weren’t really depressing, but they filled a space that Depression used to ... at least partially.

And now we’ve arrived at April 2002, which is when I watched episode 7 of season 2 of Six Feet Under, titled “Back to the Garden.”  The episode was named after the lyrics of “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell, and featured that song in a central role.  Now, chances are that I’d heard this song before, but I likely dismissed it because I’m not that huge a fan of the seventies.  There’s a few bits of it I like,5 and a few bits I don’t mind so much, but as a general rule I consider it the low point in the history of rock.  So every now and I again I can still be pleasantly surprised to rediscover some 70s gem.  Like this one.

“Woodstock” is not so much wistful as nostalgic.  That’s a subtle distinction, but I knew right away that this tune would not fit in with the rest of Wisty Mysteria.  Those songs have a sense of longing, often for something that you can’t really put your finger on.  This song—this mix—is about reimagining the past to suit the needs of the present.  Although it’s entirely possible to appreciate the lyrics of “Woodstock” without ever thinking about its eponymous festival, it’s also worth noting that this is a song about Woodstock written by someone who wasn’t there and always regretted missing the opportunity.  The resulting hyperpoetic romanticization is emblematic of the mood that this mix projects.6

So what we end up with is a collection that’s mellow, certainly, but not that depressing.  I don’t really even make mixes that are completely sad any more, but Rose-Coloured Brainpan isn’t even as downbeat as Wisty Mysteria, or Tenderhearted Nightshade.7  This is music about examining memory and retrofitting it: a little bit nostalgia, a little bit regret, a little bit wishful thinking.  To see the world through rose-coloured glasses means to put an optimistic spin on things ... even when those things don’t really deserve it.  And if the “things” in question are memories, the bits of flotsam one finds in the bottom of one’s neurological oilpan, perhaps ...

Unlike many of my mixes, there’s no set of bands or albums that dominate this mix, although there are certainly a few that lend themselves to it.  The first time I ever heard August and Everything After, for instance, I didn’t particularly care for it.  Too wimpy, and I really didn’t like “Mr. Jones.”  Still don’t, for that matter, but I’ve come to appreciate that the annoyingly pervasive single was the worst song on that album, and what I perceived as wimpiness was actually a quiet, mellow brilliance.  “Round Here,” with its opening lyrics:

Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog, where no one notices the contrast of white on white.

is just too perfect to pass up for this mix, as is the lush, not-quite-goth of Peter Murphy’s “Marlene Dietrich’s Favourite Poem” from Deep, which contains nonsensical but strangely haunting phrases such as “sad eyed pearl and drop lips.”  The former Bauhaus front-man put out a moody, atmospheric album that I fell in love with as soon as I picked it up off the strength of “Cuts You Up.”  And our old friends from Smokelit Flashback, Naomi, are back with a rare vocal track, “October,” whose thoughtful, almost surreal, lyrics are, again, perfect here.

On the other hand, some of my other choices are from unlikely sources.  If you know the reggae-tinged alt-dance of Escape Club,8 you may not expect the pining quality of “Only the Rain.”  And if you know the upbeat punk-pop of Tuscadero,9 you may find “Nancy Drew” surprisingly reflective, if still pretty peppy.

Which brings me to another important point about this mix: not all the songs are slow songs.  In fact, after the classic Smiths bridge “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,”10 which is about as close to depressing as this mix gets, I launch into a far more upbeat set, starting with the Smithereens’ sixties-throwback-tune “Groovy Tuesday,” off their killer album Especially for You,11 then proceeding through the aforementioned “Nancy Drew” into “No Regrets” by Dramarama, the almost upbeat “Tread Lightly” from Kirsty MacColl, and finally winding down with OMD’s quirky “Women III” off Crush.  Both “No Regrets” and “Women III” are self-critical examinations of a life from a female perspective as sung by male singers, so interposing the bittersweet “Tread Lightly” between them seemed almost a necessity.  All three of those source albums12 are among my favorites, for different reasons.  They have very different styles, but somehow this set of songs seems to flow very well.

Winding down the volume is “A Month of Sundays,” one of the few songs that can reliably make me cry if I sing along with it.  I picked up Building the Perfect Beast in my freshman year in college on the strength of the poppy hits “The Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” but ex-Eagle Don Henley has a mellower, serious side as well.  Perhaps it’s because three of my four grandparents were raised on farms that this song strikes such a chord with me.  But maybe it’s just the strength of Henley’s touching portrait of an old farmer who seems a bit lost in the modern world.

And, finally, “Dust and a Shadow,” which closes out Shriekback’s Go Bang!, also concludes this volume.  This track is one of the few moments on Go Bang! that echoes earlier albums such as Big Night Music, and I always thought it was very pretty.

The mix starter also provides the volume title.  We are stardust.

Rose-Coloured Brainpan I
    [Billion Year-Old Carbon]

        “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell, off Ladies of the Canyon
        “Can't Find My Way Home” by Swans, off The Burning World
        “Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem” by Peter Murphy, off Deep
        “October” by Naomi, off Pappelallee
        “Round Here” by Counting Crows, off August and Everything After
        “So gone” by Myles Cochran, off Marginal Street
        “Only the Rain” by Escape Club, off Wild Wild West
        “Girls' Room” by Liz Phair, off Whitechocolatespaceegg
        “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths, off Pretty in Pink [Soundtrack]
        “Groovy Tuesday” by The Smithereens, off Especially for You
        “Nancy Drew” by Tuscadero, off The Pink Album
        “No Regrets” by Dramarama, off Stuck in Wonderamaland
        “Tread Lightly” by Kirsty MacColl, off Kite
        “Women III” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, off Crush
        “A Month of Sundays” by Don Henley, off Building the Perfect Beast
        “Dust and a Shadow” by Shriekback, off Go Bang!
Total:  16 tracks,  66:32

The other tracks here are mostly unsurprising.  While I don’t find The Burning World to be the equal of Love of Life in general, there’s no doubt that the Swans’ cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” is one of Jarboe’s finest vocal moments, and it flows so beautifully after “Woodstock” (and also drifts seamlessly into “Marlene Dietrich’s Favourite Poem”).  Liz Phair’s spare arrangement on whitechocolatespaceegg‘s closer “Girl’s Room” serves as a fantastic winding down of the quieter first set on this volume, working as a bridge to the bridge of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.”

And finally I’ll mention Myles Cochran, who is one of the artists I discovered through Magnatune.  I found Magnatune while exploring darkwave, because they’re the primary label for Falling You.13  Unlike those labels which epitomize one particular style of music, Magnatune is all over the map.  Cochran is described on their site as “alt-country”; although country is the one style of popular music that I can’t stand, apparently I’m okay with alt-country.14  Definitely Cochran’s easy-going style has a lot of twang to it, but it never crosses the line for me.  “So Gone” is one of the best tracks on this album, which you should hop over to Magnatune and check out: you can listen to the entire album for free.  In fact, you can listen to all their albums for free.  As their motto proudly proclaims: they are not evil.

Next time around,15 we’ll take a step back to look at one of my all-time favorite volumes.


1 By which I mean in the mid-eighties.

2 This was before CDs, so I made my mixes to fit on a 90-minute cassette.

3 Meaning we’re still talking about cassettes as opposed to digital playlists, but at least by now I was recording off of CDs.

4 I’m sure we’ll cover the full gamut once we reach Wisty Mysteria in our series.

5 Primarily the Doors and the Eagles, I’d say.

6 Admittedly, sometimes it’s difficult to figure out whether a song should land on Rose-Coloured Brainpan or Wisty Mysteria, and I have a couple that regularly float back and forth as I change my mind on where they belong.

7 Both of which we’ll come to in the fullness of time.

8 Most famous as one-hit wonders for their hit “Wild Wild West”.

9 Known—as far as they were known at all—for songs like “Latex Dominatrix” and “Candy Song.”

10 Which, at under 2 minutes, I’ve used to fill small gaps at the ends of mix tapes for years.

11 Which I believe was another of my finds at Unicorn Records, which I mentioned back in Smokelit Flashback II.

12 That is, Stuck in Wonderamaland, Kite, and Crush.

13 Whom you may recall we discussed back in Smokelit Flashback II.

14 Remember from Smokelit Flashback I that I also mentioned I like Chris Isaak.

15 Remember, not necessarly next week.

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