Sunday, December 25, 2016

Blessed Be

Some two thousand and two squared squared years ago today, a bloke was born a bit outside of Jersalem who would go on to say some quite interesting and powerful things.  The general gist of his instruction had to do with peace and love and favoring kindness over power, which was quite radical at the time ... and, in many ways, is no less so now.  Today is, traditionally, the day that we are supposed to celebrate his life, and his death, and what it meant and continues to mean to quite a large portion of the world’s populace.

And, sure, maybe it wasn’t exactly today, and maybe it wasn’t exactly 2,016 years ago, and maybe he didn’t say exactly the words we have written down in our holy books, and maybe he really was a divine figure or maybe he was just a guy, and, hell: maybe he never lived at all and the whole thing is entirely made up—I certainly don’t fully subscribe to the religion carried forth in his name—but the weird thing is, whether you believe that everything in the Bible is exactly verbatim true or whether you believe that it’s all crap that feeds the zeal of religious nutjobs or whether you hold one of the many positions somewhere in between those two extremes, the one thing you can’t really ignore is the message.  Here are a few of the things that this fellow supposedly uttered:

Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.

If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Even if all this is completely fabricated and there never was a Jesus at all—even if the whole thing is 100% fiction—those are some poweful words right there.  Read through those things again, and really think about them.  Does this sound like the typical philosophy of the times round about two millenia ago? or does it sound revolutionary—practically subversive?  The entire story of Jesus is about a person who threatens those in power by teaching people that riches and authority are meaningless and the only way to get ahead in life is to be nice to each other.  No wonder they nailed him to a piece of wood.  Even today, people who preach messages like that are treated similarly: if they can’t be marginalized or demonized, they can always be persecuted and jailed.  We don’t literally crucify anyone any more, but we have our ways.

So this is still a resounding, powerful message, regardless of its source.  It sort of makes me feel like Jewish detective William Kinderman in William Peter Blatty’s Legion, who addresses a crucifix in a Catholic church thusly:

Who are you? God’s son?  No, you know I don’t believe that. ... I don’t know who you are, but you are Someone. ...  Do you know how I know? From what you said.  When I read, “Love your enemy,” I tingle ...  No one from the earth could ever say what you said.  No one could even make it up.  Who could imagine it?  The words knock you down.

I think we forget just how unlikely those words are.  Perhaps they’ve become dulled through repetition.  But they really are quite remarkable.  This is the main reason I love Legion so much: Kinderman—unassuming, Columbo-like, stereotypically Jewish—is the perfect character to remind us that, no, those words are not ordinary just because you’ve heard them a million times.  Love your enemy?  Think of the over two billion Christians in the world: how many can you name who are practicing that philosophy?  Personally, I got to Mother Teresa and Pope Francis and then I ran out.  (And, honestly, I’m not 100% sure about the latter.)  So, yeah: pretty heady stuff there.

So even if you don’t quite subscribe to all—or any—of the bells and whistles of Christianity, it’s worth taking a few moments today to ponder the words that underlie it all.  It’s worth thinking about the fact that, if you’re supposed to be loving your freaking enemies, you can damn well take some time to love your family, and your friends, and your coworkers, and just random people you see on the street.  Take some time to appreciate what you’ve got, and I’m betting that if you’re reading this blog you’ve got a lot.  Give some thanks for it.  You don’t have to direct those thanks to a divine being if that’s not your thing.  Just direct it to someone in your house, or send it out to the universe at large.  Can’t hurt.

From all of us here that make up this fractured, flawed, fantastic, fortunate family—all five humans, two dogs, three cats, one guinea pig, one bearded dragon, multiple fish, snails, shrimp, and an African dwarf frog named Jeff-O—we wish that everyone reading these words is as blessed as we seem to be, even when we can’t remember that we are.  Even if today is not your flavor of end-of-year celebration, we hope that you’re having (or have had, or will have had) a celebration of some kind, and that it was joyous, and loving, and that it lasted exactly as long as you needed it to.  And that it continues to warm you well into the future.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Descent into Holiday Madness

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is typically a pretty crappy time for blog posts.  Generally speaking, I’m lucky if I can manage two solid posts in that month-and-a-half, which I have already delivered unto you (last week and the week prior).  Sure, they were both posts in my music mixes series, which I find moderately easy to write, even though I know they appeal to a limited segment of my audience, but, as I continually remind you, you really shouldn’t be reading this stupid blog anyhow.  And also plus anyway, one of those music posts was actually totally holidayily relevant, as it presented my second yuletide mix, which kicks some major butt.  So you gotta be happy with that.

And I’m going to admit right up front that I’m writing the next two posts, which are scheduled to appear right on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day (respectively) right now, because, damn: it’s not like I’m going to take time to throw up even an excuse post on a major holiday.  I mean, I like you guys, but I don’t like like you guys, knowwhatImean?  Give a brother a break.  Take some time off from reading silly crap on the Internet and go spend some time with your family.  Next week (and the week after) I’ll have abbreviated posts for you, but nothing to get too excited about.  Please take the opportunity to continue to spend time with your family.  If you find yourself getting sick of your family, feel free to direct your efforts elsewhere, but hopefully somewhere still relaxifying and spirit-refreshing.  Because you deserve it.  No, I mean it: you really do.  You gotta do you, at least every once in a while.  Relax, refresh, and reset.  Come at the new year with a new vim and vigor and vitality.  It’ll be good.  Trust me.

Till then, clink a glass with me and inhale deeply and picture your happy place.  I’m right there with you.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Salsatic Vibrato IV

"Hot Ginger and Dynamite"

[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.]

For the fourth volume of my brassy, upbeat mix, I decided to open with a stretch about that favorite theme of retro-swing (and swing, for that matter): drinking.  Now, back on volume II, I had already experimented with this in a very small way by following Joe Jackson’s “What’s the Use of Getting Sober When You Gotta Get Drunk Again” with “You and Me and The Bottle Makes 3 Tonight” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  But there’s no shortage of songs about drinking, of course, and I began to slot several of them to form a great little run of tunes praising—or condemning, or occasionally both at once—the joys of alcohol.  Eventually, I came up with what I think may be the finest stretch of tracks on a modern mix.

We kick it off with “Party Life” by Eight to the Bar, who we were introduced to last volume, then take it down a notch with our old friends Asylum Street Spankers singing “D.R.I.N.K.,” a (mildly) more reflective tune.  Then we start to pick back up with “Whisky & Wine” by newcomer to these mixes Matt Costa, who was recommended to me by a coworker, and whom I now in turn recommend to you.  And of course no treatise on drinking would be complete without hearing from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, who advise us to “Gimme That Wine.”  The ever-excellent Atomic Fireballs follow that up with “Drink Drank Drunk,” a rollicking bit of boogie-woogie that comes in with a bump and ends the same way.  And, just for kicks, after all that drinking I thought you might be seeing a few “Bedbugs,” so I sent the Squirrel Nut Zippers to put you to bed.  Overall, it’s a magnificent six-song-run that has lows, highs,1 and a little bit of hot jazz psychedelia to close it out.  I’ve always been quite fond of it.

So we’ve already had a few of our old Salsatic Vibrato favorites, but there’s more to come, as always.  Always reliable, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies give us two tracks, and, for the first time, I’m straying from their retro-swing compilation Zoot Suit Riot to their follow-up album, Soul Caddy, which (like their previous, non-compilation ablums) features far more than retro-swing.  Although I’m sticking to the retro-swing cuts off that album, to be fair: both “Swingin’ with Tiger Woods” and “So Long Toots” fall comfortably into that bucket.  SNZ not only give us their contribution to the drinking run, but also another bit of odd psychedelia, “Ghost of Stephen Foster,” whose lyrics are so bizarre that it might have just as well fit in over on Bleeding Salvador.  BBVD also give us another track towards the end of the mix, in this case their take on the ultra-classic Louis Prima tune from Disney’s Jungle Book, “I Wanna Be Like You.”  And we hear again from the Atomic Fireballs for our closer, “Calypso King.”  Hell, even Eight to the Bar comes back in our second half, giving us our volume title with their remake of “Nagasaki,” from way back in 1928.  “Hot ginger and dynamite: that’s all there is at night.”  Very fitting for this volume, I thought.

Other returning favorites include the Brian Setzer Orchestra, with the best cut off what may be my least favorite album of theirs (proving that even a “bad” BSO album is still pretty good), “Gettin’ in the Mood” off Vavoom!, and Lee Pres-On and the Nails, with the classic “It Had Better Be Tonight.”  Both are covers.  The latter was originally composed by Henry Mancini in 1963 for The Pink Panther, sung in Italian in the movie by Fran Jeffries.  The English version has been sung by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Michael Bublé; LPN’s Leslie Presley is no Sarah Vaughan, but she sounds pretty amazing here.  The former is, of course, the classic Glenn Miller instrumental tune “In the Mood,” often considered one of the greatest swing songs ever.  Setzer adds some lyrics of his own devising here,2 which are somewhat reminiscent of his Stray Cats days.  But they’re pretty fun lyrics, so it works well here.

We also have Swingerhead, back from volume II.  Swingerhead isn’t my favorite retro-swing band, but they hit it every now and again, and “She Could Be a Spy” is probably their best.  Then we have Diablo Swing Orchestra returning from last volume.  As I said when I first introduced them, DSO is a bizarre mash-up of swing, metal, and opera singer that almost always doesn’t work ... but, when it does, it’s transcendant.  “Voodoo Mon Amour” isn’t quite as good as “A Tap Dancer’s Dilemma,” but it’s damn close, and provides a powerfully rockin’ transition from the six-song drunken tear into the center stretch of the volume.

We’re also hearing for the first time from electroswing favorites Caravan Palace, one of Europe’s many bands in that subgenre.3  The Paris natives could more properly be classified as “electro-gypsy-jazz,” if such a thing existed.  But I don’t think it really does.  But possibly the most amazing thing about Caravan Palace as regards this mix is that many of their songs (this one included) don’t actually include any brass.4  CP technically has a saxophone/clarinet player, but, if she’s doing anything on this track, I certainly can’t hear her.  But I still feel like “Jolie coquine” fits this mix, in spirit if nothing else.

We have less deviation from the retro-swing this time around (except what SNZ and DSO are providing, of course).  Mad Caddies are back to give us a touch of New-Orleans-infused ska with “Tired Bones.”  And Devil Doll, who so far we’ve only seen on Moonside by Riverlight, shows up here for the first time with her distinctive sound which I’ve tried (and failed) to describe for two volumes now: it’s 50s-adjacent, but not retro-rockabilly nor even psychobilly; it’s high-energy, spiritually descended from Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, but with very modern sensibilities; and, like all the best 50s rock-and-roll,5 it makes generous use of saxophone breaks.  Of all Devil Doll’s tunes of this nature (which is almost all of them), “Driven to Distraction” is the best.  It serves as our centerpiece for this volume.

Salsatic Vibrato IV
    [Hot Ginger and Dynamite]

        “Party Life” by Eight to the Bar, off Behind the Eight Ball
        “D.R.I.N.K.” by Asylum Street Spankers, off Mercurial
        “Whiskey & Wine” by Matt Costa, off Songs We Sing
        “Gimme That Wine” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Rattle Them Bones
        “Drink Drank Drunk” by The Atomic Fireballs, off Torch This Place
        “Bedbugs” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Bedlam Ballroom
        “Voodoo Mon Amour” by Diablo Swing Orchestra, off Pandora's Piñata
        “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago, off Chicago II
        “Everyday Sunshine” by Fishbone, off The Reality of My Surroundings
        “Swingin' with Tiger Woods (The Big Swing)” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Soul Caddy
        “Jolie coquine” by Caravan Palace, off Caravan Palace
        “Driven to Distraction” by Devil Doll, off Queen of Pain
        “It Had Better Be Tonight” by Lee Press-On and the Nails, off El Bando en Fuego!
        “The Perpetual Bachelor” by Jet Set Six, off Livin' It Up
        “So Long Toots” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Soul Caddy
        “She Could Be a Spy” by Swingerhead, off She Could Be a Spy
        “Ghost of Stephen Foster” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Perennial Favorites
        “Tired Bones” by Mad Caddies, off Keep It Going
        “Nagasaki” by Eight to the Bar, off Behind the Eight Ball
        “I Wanna Be Like You” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off This Beautiful Life
        “Gettin' in the Mood” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off Vavoom!
        “Calypso King” by The Atomic Fireballs, off Torch This Place
Total:  22 tracks,  76:19

Just to prove I’m still exploring new retro-swing bands, I’ve thrown in a tune from Jet Set Six, whom I also discovered via Pandora.6  After a brief perusal of their catalog, I found that much of it wasn’t particularly stand-out.  But there’s something about “The Perpetual Bachelor” that is just magnificent.  Oh, sure: it starts out as a pale copy of “Sing Sing Sing,”7 and its lyrics are vaguely sexist,8 and the addition of fuzzed out guitars is nothing that BBVD hasn’t done before them, and even the faux ending that kicks back in with a roar isn’t particularly original, but man ... the beat is pulsing, the trumpet work is outstanding, and lead singer John Ceparano’s voice is particularly smooth here.  I couldn’t pass it up.

In the category of less likely candidates, I threw in my favorite Chicago tune, “25 or 6 to 4.”  Chicago is not necessarily unlikely on a mix that focuses on brass, of course, but they often have a mellower bent than fits well here.  But I’ve always found this song to be pretty rockin’.  Plus it’s just a classic.  I’ve followed that up with Fishbone, which also commonly features at least a little brass on most of its songs: its two co-vocalists Angelo Moore and Walter Kibby play saxophone and trumpet, respectively.  But typically Fishbone is more funk than brass in the Salsatic Vibrato sense.  “Everyday Sunshine,” however, is a pretty powerful song that works very well here.  And it gives us some good variation from the strong retro-swing tendency of this volume, while still providing a good transition back to that tendency with its lead-in to “Swingin’ with Tiger Woods.”  Plus it adds just a little bit of funk.

Next time, we’ll add another fourth volume to one of our long-running mixes.


1 No pun intended.

2 Note that “In the Mood” has gotten lyrics before, such as Al Donahue’s version featuring Paula Kelly.  These are not they.

3 Others include Koop, Caro Emerald, Waldeck, and Parov Stelar.

4 Remember, I have a very liberal definition of “brass,” including not only the saxophone, which is not technically a brass instrument, but also the clarinet, which is not even remotely a brass instrument.

5 As distinguished from “rock” in general.  See also Wikipedia.

6 I had a brief discussion of my use of Pandora as a music discovery service last volume.

7 You may recall that I noted that every swing band has at least one song that starts out that way.

8 Although certainly no more so than other bands I like, such as the Violent Femmes.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Yuletidal Pools II

"Baby Jesus, Born to Rock"

[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.]

It’s been five years since I first introduced my holiday-themed mix, Yuletidal Pools.  You may recall that one of my main goals for this mix was to make sure I had some “fresh” Christmas music to listen to, because the standard fare was getting a bit old.

Unfortunately, if you listen to the same thing over and over again for five years, even if it’s only for a month or so out of the year, then that’s going to get old too.  You need some fresh blood.  We need even more upbeat, non-sappy, non-silly holiday tunage up in this joint!  So, just in time for the upcoming holiday season, I present: volume II.

Volume I was 25 tracks long, which (although it didn’t occur to me at the time) made it sort of perfect as an advent mix.  You could play one song every day, if you liked.1  This time around I’m throwing in an extra tune, for Boxing Day.

There are lots of other parallels with volume I too.  As before, we’re light on the covers: no actual traditional songs at all (although there are two based on traditional tunes), 3 covers of songs originally recorded in the 50s, which you may or may not have heard before,2 and one song from an animated Christmas special.  The songs are mostly upbeat, leaning towards rockin’, with just a few slightly more serious tunes right in the center.  There’s a bit of absurdity, a bit of decrying of the despoilment of the season, a bit of over-the-top lunacy, and a bit of genuine emotion covered up by power chords and silliness.  I have to admit that volume II is not quite as strong as volume I—it’s difficult to top the sheer perfection of “Oi to the World”—but we’ve got some absolutely great tunes, and I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed.

A lot of the specific songs have correlations too.  Our volume opener, for instance, is this volume’s “Oi to the World”: a strong, upbeat track that starts off lyrically a downer, but overcomes that to instill a positive message in the end.  In this case, that message is that Christmas is a time for redemption, and it doesn’t matter how much of a shit you were all year—you can still come together for the holidays.  The Hives, a great punky-thrashy band from Sweden, are absolutely perfect for this, and you can never beat Cyndi Lauper for bringing the pipes.  “A Christmas Duel” is definitely my new favorite song of the season.

After that, you can see a pretty strong correlation between numbers like Bob & Doug McKenzie’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” and Elastica’s “I Wanna Be a King of Orient Aah”: both are mangulations of classic Christmas tunes with new life breathed into them.  In the case of the veteran SCTV characters, the new life was unadulterated silliness; Elastica, however, takes a holiday standard and takes it to truly new and interesting places.  As does Yellowman, with “We Wish You a Reggae Christmas,” which is, as the Brits say, exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s also pretty easy (and obvious) to contrast South Park’s “Christmas Time in Hell” with Monty Python’s “Christmas in Heaven.”  Both are tongue-in-cheek; both feature outrageous characters; both are in some odd way odes to commercialism and excess.  And of course it’s hard to miss that there’s a rap song for each volume.  I didn’t choose “Christmas Is” just to have a rap song on volume I—I just like Run–D.M.C.  However, for volume II I’ll admit that I did go looking for one, because I really liked the vibe the Run–D.M.C. tune imparted to the mix.  What I eventually settled on was Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’.”  Now, I’ll admit that I’m not a Blow fan by nature.  And “Rappin’,” from 1979, is pretty old-school rap, by which I mean it’s reminiscent of things like “Rapper’s Delight”: fairly simple rhymes, nothing too tricky in the meter or flow ... overall pretty basic.  But it also has a funky bassline which strongly recalls “Another One Bites the Dust,”3 and some clever lyrics, so I think it works well in the final analysis.

We also have smooth upbeat Big Bad Voodoo Daddy originals in both volumes: last time it was “Last Night (I Went Out with Santa Claus),” about a drunken bar crawl in the company of the man in red; this time we have “Christmas Is Starting Now,” which I first heard on the Phineas and Ferb Christmas special.  The latter song is a bit simplistic, compared to the former, but it’s catchy and it’s happy, and that’s really all I’m looking for.  And, in the category of “songs that sound happy but are really about missing someone during the holidays,” volume I gave us “Santa’s Coming Home” by the Cocktail Slippers, whereas volume II goes out to Sweden’s Hello Saferide for “Ipod X-mas.”  The twee-pop of Hello Saferide is evocative of Pomplamoose, and this song, even though its lyrics could rightly be called depressing, is still somehow fun to sing along with.  Then there’s the “sort of serious but also not” category, which last time was represented by the Ramones, with “I Don’t Want to Fight,” and this time is povided by Timbuk 3, they who are so famous for “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”4  “All I Want for Christmas” has a very serious message (about the prevalence of violence in toymaking), but it also contains some surreal lyrics, like “deck the halls with great balls of fire” and “chestnuts roasting on the VCR.”

In the category of punked up and/or funky versions of animated holiday classics, last volume gave us “Mr. Heatmiser,” “The Chipmunk Song,” and especially “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” in a fantastic version by NJ punks the Whirling Dervishes.  This time Asylum Street Spankers5 give us a low-key version of “Linus and Lucy,” which isn’t exactly a Christmas song, but you can’t deny that, even without using any words, it will put you in mind of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is a pretty great thing to be in mind of around the holidays.  And as a sort-of-but-not-really version of the same motif, I couldn’t help but include the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s crazy—but very fun—Christmas mash-up of the theme to The Flintstones, “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide.”  This is one of the great examples of a silly song which is not silly: that is, the whole concept of rewriting the Flintstones theme to be a Christmas song is silly, but, once you move past that, it’s actually quite a fun song with happy, heartfelt lyrics.

When it comes to borderline-too-silly infectious pop, last time we heard from “Weird Al” Yankovic and the Vandals.  For this volume, tempted as I was to include Weird Al’s other Christmas classic, “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” it’s just way too over-the-top ... it lacks the fun of “Christmas at Ground Zero.”6  So I went with “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” by the Killers, which I found vaguely annoying the first time I heard it, but it has a tendency to grow on you, and “Xmas at K-Mart” by Root Boy Slim, which most of my family continues to find annoying, but I like it.  But the absolute best song in this category is, appropriately enough, “The Best Christmas Song,” by Canadian comedian and YouTuber Jon Lajoie.7  Lajoie brings an infectious, nerdy joy to his Christmas song, which is obsessed with mittens and Santa’s never-seen neck, and contains gems such as

This is the best Christmas song that ever existed.
If you don’t believe me, well ... you should believe me.
‘Cause this is the best Christmas song, so listen to it now.

Then there’s the category of “catchy songs that remind us that the holidays can be kinda stressful.”  Whereas last volume we had blink-182’s “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas,” this time out we get “Scary F**ked Up Christmas” by the amazingly talented musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates.  The thing about musical comedy is, generally speaking, you can sing good songs, or you can tell good jokes, but it’s genuinely difficult to do both.  Not many people can pull it off.  Garfunkel and Oates (a.k.a. Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci) are among the few that can.  Besides being an insanely catchy tune, the words are hilarious—in fact, this volume only narrowly avoided being subtitled “You’re Totally Tripping Balls.”

But, in the end, the honor of being volume namer went to the Eels.  “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” is a straight-ahead rocker that is reminiscent of last volume’s “I’m Getting Pissed for Christmas.”  The fact is, the Eels don’t generally do straight-ahead rocking ... they’re much more often prone to songs which are slightly off, like “Novocaine for the Soul” or “Beautiful Freak.”8  In fact, “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” almost didn’t make the cut for this volume: I listened to it with half an ear, made a note in my file that it was a happy little tune but nothing special, and had officially resigned it to a prospective volume III, but then one of my volume II songs unfortunately hit the cutting room floor.9  So I needed a replacement, and a rocker seemed like it would fit in perfectly.  So I auditioned it, and I finally listened well enough to hear our volume title, muttered half-audibly between verses.  Could there possibly be a more appropriate title for a volume of this mix?

I also decided to throw in a few modern remakes of mostly-forgotten holiday songs.  Last time that was primarily in the form of “Is Zat You, Santa Claus?” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which I was completely unaware was a cover until well after I’d fallen in love with it.10  This time I’m going with the Reverend Horton Heat.  “Santa Bring My Baby Back” was originally an Elvis holiday tune, which Wikipedia tells me was very popular back in 1957, although I swear I’d never heard it before.  The second track from the good Reverend is the Chuck Berry classic “Run Rudolph Run,” which I absolutely was aware of, but I just think it’s great anyway.11  I’m not claiming Heat is bringing anything super-special to these remakes, but, c’mon ... it’s the Reverend Horton Heat, fer cryin’ out loud.  As an added bonus, the Reel Big Fish update of Bing Crosby’s 1950 Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka” is absolutely a fresh (some might even argue a bit too fresh) take on a crusty old once-classic.

And of course I wouldn’t forget to throw in a few genuinely pretty songs.  I won’t tolerate mush for mush’s sake, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a song or two which just makes you feel happy inside.  Last time I chose Enya’s “White Is in the Winter Night” and “Peppermint Winter” from twee-pop band Owl Eyes.  This time around I was surprised to stumble across a holiday tune from a band I first heard from a couple of my college roommates: Carbon Leaf, who I always thought were from Illinois,12 but it turns out they’re actually from Richmond, Virginia, which is near where I grew up.13  “Christmas Child” is a sort of countdown song which skips merrily through the days leading up till the big day, and it’s quite fun to sing along with.  Whereas “Snow Angels,” by Pittsburgh alt-country band Boca Chica, is just a beautiful song which manages to exactly capture the feeling of a snowy Christmas night without ever once mentioning the holiday by name.14  While in general I find Boca Chica to be not nearly enough “alt” and way too much “country,” this tune is just perfect.

I also couldn’t resist a certain amount of parallelism in our closers.  For volume I, I went with “Merry Merry Merry Frickin’ Christmas”; for volume II, I find Denis Leary’s “Merry Fuckin’ Christmas,” as cynical as it is—and it’s a good deal more cynical than its counterpart—just plain fun.  If a bit NSFW.

Yuletidal Pools II
    [Baby Jesus, Born to Rock]

        “A Christmas Duel” by The Hives & Cyndi Lauper [Single]
        “Santa's Beard” by They Might Be Giants, off Lincoln
        “Merry Something to You” by DEVO [Single]
        “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra [Single]
        “I Wanna Be a King of Orient Aah” by Elastica [Single]
        “Santa Bring My Baby Back” by Reverend Horton Heat [Single]
        “Scary F**ked Up Christmas” by Garfunkel and Oates [Single]15
        “We Wish You a Reggae Christmas” by Yellowman [Single]
        “Christmas in Heaven” by Monty Python [Single]
        “Christmas Child” by Carbon Leaf [Single]
        “Snow Angels” by Boca Chica [Single]
        “Don't Shoot Me Santa” by The Killers [Single]
        “All I Want for Christmas” by Timbuk 3 [Single]16
        “Christmas Rappin'” by Kurtis Blow [Single]
        “Xmas at K-Mart” by Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band with the Rootettes [Single]
        “I Want an Alien for Christmas” by Fountains of Wayne [Single]
        “Chiron Beta Prime” by Jonathan Coulton, off Thing a Week Two
        “Ipod X-mas” by Hello Saferide [Single]17
        “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” by The Magnetic Fields [Single]
        “Linus and Lucy” by Asylum Street Spankers, off A Christmas Spanking
        “Mele Kalikimaka” by Reel Big Fish [Single]18
        “Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” by EELS [Single]
        “Christmas Is Starting Now” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy [Single]
        “Run Rudolph Run” by Reverend Horton Heat [Single]
        “The Best Christmas Song” by Jon Lajoie [Single]
        “Merry Fuckin' Christmas” by Denis Leary [Single]
Total:  26 tracks,  76:48

We also have a few just plain weird tunes in both places.  Last time that was provided by the Psychobilly Christmas sampler (specifically, “Halloween on Xmas” and “Shot My Baby for Christmas”).  This time I’m going even more bizarre by reaching for They Might Be Giants and Devo, who give us “Santa’s Beard” and “Merry Something to You,” respectively.  Both are fairly upbeat, musically; TMBG’s contribution is more like the volume I tunes in this category in that its poppy melody belies its darker themes, but the Devo tune is pretty uplifting, I’d say.  Plus they transition beautifully into each other.  Then, towards the end of the set, we stumble across “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” by the Magnetic Fields, an eclectic band from Boston that’s been called everything from synthpop to Baroque pop (whatever that is).  I’m not sure I can properly describe “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” ... you really just need to experience it for yourself.

And we need a few tunes that are as surreal as they are poppy and fun to sing.  Last volume we got that from the ultra-classic “Elf’s Lament” by Barenaked Ladies.  This time around I discovered “I Want an Alien for Christmas” by Fountains of Wayne, which is exactly as catchy as it sounds, and as you’ve come to expect from FoW.  I defy you not to sing along.  And I followed that up directly with amazing songwriter and NPR host Jonathan Coulton’s “Chiron Beta Prime,” which is exactly as clever and hooky as you’ve come to expect from him.  Plus the triple-threat of Fountains of Wayne, Coulton, and Hello Saferide is just a beautiful trill leading into the closing stretch of this holiday mix.

Have fun with it, and have an excellent holiday, no matter what your festival persuasion may be.

Next time, it’s time to get back to the brass.


1 Personally, I don’t have that sort of patience, but your mileage may vary.

2 I had only ever heard 2 of the 3, personally.  But then I was never much of an Elvis fan.

3 Although, technically, “Christmas Rappin’” preceded Queen’s The Game by six months, so it’s difficult to tell who was influenced by whom here.

4 We’ve already heard from them twice before: once on Tenderhearted Nightshade, and once on Porchwell Firetime.

5 Who we heard from on Salsatic Vibrato III and Zephyrous Aquamarine I.

6 Well, as much fun as a song about nuclear holocaust can be, anyway.

7 Wikipedia tells me that you might know Lajoie from The League.  I’ve never watched that show so I wouldn’t know.

8 Which we heard on Bleeding Salvador.

9 Not that it matters, but it was “Santa Claus” by Throwing Muses.  In the end I decided that, despite the name, “Santa Claus” just isn’t a holiday song at all.  And that’s sort of a prerequisite for this mix.

10 Specifically, it was a Louis Armstrong song from 1953.

11 And, yes, I’m cognizant of the fact that the lyrics of “Run Rudolph Run” have some lingering sexism—the boy wants a “rock-and-roll electric guitar,” while the girl only aspires to a “baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet.”  But I’m willing to move past this, as it was a product of its time, and also the rest of the lyrics are pretty cool.

12 I assume I got this mistaken impression from the fact that one of the aforementioned roommates had previously attended college there.

13 See, sometimes I even learn a thing or two about the bands I feature here in these blog posts.

14 In fact, you can make a very strong argument that this isn’t a holiday song at all: just a sort of winter song.  But it has sleigh bells in it, so I say “pooh-pooh” to that.

15 As far as I know, YouTube is the only place to get this song, which is the only reason I’m linking to it there.

16 This is another one that’s very hard to find.  You can buy the CD from the link I’m giving you, but you can’t download it there.  But try searching YouTube if you really can’t wait.

17 Yet another obscure one: it’s only available on a Swedish holiday sampler.  And on YouTube.  Of course.

18 Ditto the above, except substitute “Universal Records” for “Swedish.”

Sunday, November 27, 2016

It's Thanksgiving Time Again

Well, another year, another Thanksgiving.  As per usual, it was a quiet family meal with all our favorite traditional dishes—such as deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, buttered rolls, and stuffing—and some new touches, such as watermelon (added at the request of our middle child), and I suppose there was some turkey in there somewhere as well.  And we all came up with some things to be thankful for.  One of the things I was thankful for (yes, yes: after my lovely family and my lovely job) was the return of MST3K.

If you don’t know what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is, then you must immediately to go Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, or whatever your streaming engine of choice might be, and begin watching.  If you vaguely remember MST3K as “that thing where silhouettes of robots make smartass comments at the screen,” use the tips in the preceding sentence to refresh your memory, because you obviously didn’t fully appreciate the genius of this show at the time.  If you remember the show fondly, as most of us do, then I’m almost certainly not telling you anything you don’t already know.  The return of MST3K (probably early next year), roughly 17½ years after its last new episode aired, is a bizarre little story in its own right, and perhaps worthy of a longer post someday (not that I have any inside information; just a long-time fan’s perspective).  But today I’m just noting that I’m thankful to see it come back, with new talent as well as old, and I’ve got a lot of positive anticipation and excitement for seeing the new episodes.

And, on top of all that, we’ve now had a return of the Turkey Day marathons for the second year in a row, so we got to sit around and watch old episodes of MST3K before sitting down to eat.  So that was pretty cool.

Anyhow, I hope all my faithful reader(s) had a lovely Thanksgiving meal, if they were so inclined to do so and geographically poised to take advantage of said holiday.  Next week, if all goes as planned, we’ll start looking ahead to the next big holiday, which is already started to loom large in our household.  Here’s an idea of what’s going on at our house these days:

Smaller Animal: Alexa, how many days until Christmas?
Alexa: There are 28 more days until Christmas Day.

Only 27 more of those to go.  Sigh.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Shadowfall Equinox III

"Five Fathoms Below You"

[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.]

Although hardly any of my mixes are exclusive to a particular musical style, some of them are pretty close.  Shadowfall Equinox, for instance, focuses pretty strongly on ambient.  Oh, sure, there are touches of new age, world, and a healthy dose of darkwave, but the majority of the tracks are firmly in the camp of ambient.

But just what is ambient?  I recently stumbled on a pretty decent blog post exploring that exact topic, and, although the podcast the author references is no longer with us,1 the discussion is still very much relevant.  In particular, he throws out some of what Brian Eno said about the subgenre, which he is generally credited with creating.  The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Eno was inspired (or disgusted) by some Muzak he heard playing in an airpport.  Instead of taking “regular” music and watering it down, he reasoned, why not design music especially for being in the background of other activities?  This led to his landmark album Music for Airports, which many consider to be the first ambient album (or at least the first to be called “ambient”).  As the liner notes for that album proclaimed: “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

He expanded on these thoughts, being careful to distinguish ambient from Muzak:

The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak.  The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces—familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner.  Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music....  Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these.  Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities.  And whereas their intention is to “brighten” the environment by adding stimulus to it ... Ambient Music is intended to produce calm and a space to think.2

A space to think ... that is exactly what I use Shadowfall Equinox for.  And of course Eno says it better than I did (in my opening post for this mix), but allow me the indulgence of quoting myself here:

It’s the perfect mood music for contemplative thought, for creative endeavor, for living in the background while you go on living, not dragging you down but not lifting you up either; it doesn’t fade into the wallpaper, but rather makes you think; it doesn’t engage your brain actively, but somehow sneaks in under the radar, making your subconscious race and your dreaming self wake up and take notice.

I find Shadowfall Equinox quite stimulating, mentally.  And it mostly stems from my discovery of Hearts of Space (and particularly “Shadowfall II”).  From that particular HoS program we have, of course, another tune from Jeff Greinke, and another from Kevin Keller, but we open this volume with the same opener used for a different HoS program, “Tango Zero Hour”: “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla.  Piazzolla was often considered to be the top tango composer and performer in the world: you’ve no doubt heard his music on the soundtrack for 12 Monkeys, and how many other tango artists have an airport named after them?  A “milonga” is a type of tango (or, more properly, the musical precursor to the tango), so one might translate “Milonga del Angel” as “tango of the angel.”  And it’s quite a heavenly tune, one which establishes the mood immediately and strongly.

For a bit of Native American flavor, I’ve paired Robbie Robertson’s “Coyote Dance” with “Passage Two” from Kiva.  We last heard from Robertson on Porchwell Firetime; although I really hate his most prominent music,3 I’ve had much better luck with his solo efforts; this one is from his 1994 soundtrack Music for the Native Americans with the Red Road Ensemble, which included several members of his family.4  Kiva is a collaboration among Steve Roach—possibly the biggest name in ambient after Eno himself—and Michael Stearns (another well-known name in the ambient game) and Native American new age/ambient artist Ron Sunsinger.5  Kiva is the best example I’ve personally heard of ambient music with a Native American flair, although we may yet hear from another Stearns/Sunsinger collaboration, Sorcerer, on a future volume.

Surprisingly, we’ve no Falling You this time around, but our darkwave component is still represented admirably by darkwave godfather Sam Rosenthal in his usual guise of Black Tape for a Blue Girl, this time with the title track off his more recent Halo Star, with vocals provided by Bret Helm from goth-rockers Audra.6  Typically songs on Shadowfall Equinox don’t have words, but I tend to cut the darkwave tunes some slack.  Titles for the past two volumes were both provided by Falling You, as it happens, and “Halo Star” was in the running for doing so here, but it was narrowly beaten out by our other vocal track, “Five Seconds to Hold You” by Devics.  Devics, who we first heard from on Darkling Embrace but whom I spoke about at greatest length over on Smokelit Flashback IV, where I described them as dream pop crossed with darkwave, which is not a bad description.  “Five Seconds” has a slow, ponderous, nearly underwater feel that’s perfect for this contemplative mix, and it also provides our volume title.

Not quite darkwave but not not darkwave either, I introduced you to Nox Arcana in our last music mix installment, Phantasma Chorale, where I called them “gaming music,” which is appropos but insufficient.  Here I’ve chosen two tracks of theirs—one off Legion of Shadows and one off Grimm Tales.  The first provides our “almost-but-not-quite creepy” factor, and the second has a bit of a Renaissance-faire feel that flows nicely after Stellamara’s Balkan-infused selection, “Immrama.”  As a bonus, “The Forgotten Path” makes a nice closer, and “Immrama” gives us a Magnatune representative to replace Falling You (and Lisa DeBenedictis from back on volume I).  And, speaking of worldmusic, Logical Drift gives us a bit of world-inflected ambient with “Judean Desert.”  Logical Drift is a side project of producer John Matarazzo which I discovered via my satellite provider’s “Zen” music channel.7  So the closing triplet here on volume III is the nice 1-2-3 worldmusic punch of “Judean Desert,” “Immrama,” and “The Forgotten Path,” which all flow nicely into each other.

Shadowfall Equinox III
    [Five Fathoms Below You]

        “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla, off Tango: Zero Hour
        “Morpheus” by Delerium, off Morpheus
        “Coyote Dance” by Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble, off Music for the Native Americans [Soundtrack]
        “Passage Two” by Steve Roach, Michael Stearns & Ron Sunsinger, off Kiva
        “Hidden Realm” by Nox Arcana, off Legion of Shadows
        “Searching” by Kevin Keller, off The Day I Met Myself
        “Coelocanth” by Shriekback, off Oil and Gold
        “Halo Star” by Black Tape for a Blue Girl, off Halo Star
        “Friday Afternoon” by The Hope Blister, off Underarms
        “Five Seconds to Hold You” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
        “Last Wave” by Jeff Greinke, off Wide View
        “The Dogs of Breakfast” by Lawlor, off Mad Alice Lane (A Ghost Story) [EP]
        “Judean Desert” by Logical Drift, off Logical Drift
        “Immrama” by Stellamara, off Star of the Sea
        “The Forgotten Path” by Nox Arcana, off Grimm Tales
Total:  15 tracks,  74:24

The remaining tracks are unexpected in various ways.  “Dogs of Breakfast” is from Lawlor’s impossible-to-find EP Mad Alice Lane (A Ghost Story).  The title track of that disc is obviously what you want, and we will absolutely see it show up on another mix,8 but this “flip side” isn’t so bad itself, and it works well here.  (“Lawlor,” by the way, is in this case Peter Lawlor, most famous for providing music for BBC news and sports shows, including that used in the 2000 Olympics.  He was also a founding member of Stiltskin, but you probably never heard of them.9)

On the other hand, Hope Blister isn’t too surprising, and not but so obscure—especially once you realize that they are an Ivo Watts offshoot of This Mortal Coil, who graced us with a song each on the first two volumes.  Unlike This Mortal Coil’s constantly rotating personnel, Hope Blister was fairly fixed, with Louise Rutkowski (who also sang a few TMC tracks) providing the vocals, and the bass player from Dark Star playing bass.  Layer onto that a fair amount of cello and strings arrangements from Audrey Riley (who has done the same for bands ranging from the Style Council to the Smiths to the Smashing Pumpkins) and the occasional sax from Dif Juz’s amazing Ritchie Thomas,10 and you have a pretty decent continuation of what This Mortal Coil was trying to achieve.  While Hope Blister’s vocal tracks are decent enough, their instrumental tracks, like TMC’s, are ambient and occasionally fascinating.  “Friday Afternoon” is repetitive to the point of minimalism, but I find its synth-wash-over-the-sounds-of-a-rainy-day ambiance quite soothing.

“Coelocanth” by Shriekback is, with “Halo Star,” the centerpiece of the volume, so it has to be pretty strong.  Happily, it is: it has a ringing, echoey, undersea feel that befits its namesake.  If you ever saw the early Michael Mann film Manhunter, you may recognize it.  It’s quite atypical for a Shriekback tune, especially given that it comes from Oil & Gold, which, while not their poppiest album,11 is certainly no Big Night Music either.12  It’s the closer for Oil & Gold, being a winding down after mostly upbeat tracks, but its much more evocative and central on a mix like this one.

Which just leaves us with our second track, “Morpheus” by Delerium.  Delerium is a curious entity; Wikipedia accuses them of being purveyors of “dark ethereal ambient trance,” which is such a tumbled-together profusion of musical styles that it nearly takes my breath away.  Still, I suppose it’s a not-entirely-incorrect description of “Morpheus,” at least, although Delerium’s “style” (if you can even pin them down with such a word) is fairly wide-ranging.  Delerium grows out of industrial greats Front Line Assembly, and later evolves (or devolves, depending on your point of view) into trip-hop aspirants Fauxliage, who you may remember encountering back on Smokelit Flashback IV.  But Delerium is sort of dark, and ambient, and ... yeah, okay, ethereal and trancy, I suppose.  I don’t like all of their music, but every once in a while they hit on something magical, and I think “Morpheus” may be the best of the best.

Next time, we look forward to the approaching holiday season.


1 The only remnant of the podcast I could find was There’s Been a Change, which is pretty interesting to listen to if you’re really into ambient.

2 I rely here on the excerpts from Eno’s liner notes presented in the essay “Brian Eno and the ‘Quiet Club’: Subtle Beauty as Social Critique”, which is, along with the Wikipedia article on ambient, quite an excellent source for diving into more detail on ambient than I have room for here.

3 By which I mean the Band.  While I at least like some examples of nearly every type of music, the one I can’t stand is country, and there are certain artists which just drift too close to that line to be tolerated.  The Band is definitely one of them.

4 His daughter is providing some of the wordless background vocals on this track, in fact.  The Robertsons are part Mohawk.

5 Coincidentally, Music for the Native Americans was recorded at Sunsinger Studios (among other places), and Sunsinger gets an engineer credit on that album.

6 Who are, unsurprisingly, signed to Rosenthal’s Projekt Records.

7 Which I first talked about back on Paradoxically Sized World I.

8 In the fullness of time ... as the mix-starter, even.

9 I know I hadn’t, until writing this post.

10 Who is, not coincidentally at all, the same person who gave the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand a good deal of its awesomeness.

11 That dubious distinction would certainly have to go to Go Bang!, exclamation point and all.

12 The latter album being whence cometh tunes such as “The Reptiles and I,” which we saw on Slithy Toves, and “Cradle Song,” which I used on Numeric Driftwood II.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Reflections on a Disturbing Election

Last weekend was my birthday, so I celebrated by eating too much, drinking too much, going to see Doctor Strange, and spending lots of time playing D&D and Heroscape with my kids.*  And definitely not thinking about the upcoming (at the time) election.

Now, I’ve made no secret about being a liberal, which many people conflate with being a Democrat.  The truth is, I really don’t care for the Democratic party.  It’s just as corrupt and hypocritical as the Republican party, and just as repsonsible for the two-party stranglehold on our system.  Furthermore, I don’t care for Hillary Clinton.  I liked Obama (before he got into office, anyway), but Clinton I never liked.  She’s too facile, too adaptable to whatever audience she’s addressing, and I don’t believe much of anything she says.  But, you know: that’s how I feel about most politicians, so that’s no great surprise.

And, while I staunchly protest against being labeled a “Democrat,” it’s certainly true that I voted for more Democrats than anything else on this past ballot—and on every ballot I’ve ever filled out, if I’m honest.  I only voted for a single Republican** this year, and that was really only because I had to pick two people out of ten candidates which included eight avowed Republicans.  (And one total nutjob.***  As much as I typically dislike Republicans, they’re still better than nutjobs.)  Which I suppose is the perfect segue into talking about Donald Trump.

But let’s be clear: I don’t disparage Trump because he’s a Republican—truth be told, he’s not much of a Republican.  I disparage Trump because he’s a nutjob.  And, in some ways, worse than a nutjob: he’s the worst sort of scummy salesperson, the kind of sleazy used-car salesman you run away from and decide that riding the bus isn’t so bad; he’s a “rich” guy with six bankruptcies who managed to lose nearly a billion dollars running a casino; and the only time he’s not saying whatever (some) people want to hear is when he’s saying things that are utterly insane.  Most bizarre of all, we now have a “grab-em-by-the-pussy” president.  When I can’t repeat the words of the president-elect of the United States of America at work because I would be committing an HR violation, I have to believe there’s something seriously wrong with our country.

And I’ve heard, and greatly respected, the words of some excellent speakers who have urged us to move on, and to heal, and to try to understand the position of the other side: Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, and Chris Hardwick, and others.  Hell, Thandie Newton appearing on The Late Show was surprisingly (and beautifully) eloquent on the topic, telling all of us that we need to reach out to the people on the other side, and reminding us that the speech of hate is generally motivated by fear.

And I wish I could go along with that.  But I can’t.  Because of the whole “grab-em-by-the-pussy” thing.

And, yes, I keep saying that, and I’ll probably say it a few more times before we’re done, and, yes, it might offend you, but that’s a good thing.  If it doesn’t offend you, and you voted for Trump, well then I totally understand that and I’m not surprised.  But if it does offend you, and you voted for Trump anyway, then I have a problem with that.  Because, sure: Trump’s not a politician, and all politicians are scum.  I’m right there with you—hell, I voted for Ross Perot, once upon a time.  And Perot was a bit of a nutjob too, and quite probably a bit of a scumbag in business, just like Trump.  But he wasn’t morally repugnant.  And you were voting against Clinton, who is a liar and quite possibly an unconvicted criminal.  I’m with you on that one too, but the problem is that Trump is a liar and quite possibly an unconvicted criminal as well, plus he’s a bully, and a racist, and he said it was okay to grab women by the pussy.

Hopefully I’ve offended you again.  Now, it’s entirely possible that every person who voted for Trump was a racist misogynist scumbag just like he is, but I don’t believe that.  Mainly because I don’t believe that very very close to 50% of the people in this country—or at least 50% of those who voted—are that sort of person.  I’m a cynic, you may recall, but also a romantic, so I retain just enough optimism to refuse to believe that we have that many Ku Klux Klan supporters, and xenophobes, and male chauvinist douchebags.  Oh, there are a lot of them, I know—I’m related to a whole bunch of them, in fact—but half the country?  I’m just not buying it.  So, if you voted for Trump, but you’re not in one of the above categories, then I’m still having difficulty wrapping my head around it.

Oh, sure: I understand not voting for Clinton.  I didn’t vote for her either.  But you could have not voted at all, or voted for Johnson or Stein (or several others, even less well-known), as I did.  We whinge on and on about only having two choices, but no one put a gun to your head and said “pick one of these two.”  Now, many of my co-liberals are now going to scream at me: “you voted for a third party?!? people like you is why Clinton lost!”  I understand that viewpoint.  But it’s oversimplified.  For instance, I happen to live in California.  As I told my eldest while being bitched out for voting third party, it ain’t like if enough people had voted for Hillary California could’ve gone double-Clinton in the electoral college.  Sure, it’s true that in certain places (such as Florida) the difference between Trump’s votes and Clinton’s votes was smaller than the total votes for Johnson, but to assume Johnson cost Clinton the election means assuming that every disaffected Republican who voted Libertarian would have voted for Hillary if he hadn’t been an option ... and that’s just silly.  There were plenty of Republicans who voted for Johnson—or just plain stayed home—and that’s perfectly reasonable.  But they were never going to vote for Clinton.  And the ultimate point is, I have to believe that if only the Klan-loving, woman-hating extremists had voted for Trump, there’s no way he could have won.  (Note: Technically speaking, he didn’t win.  But the vagaries of our electoral college system are the subject of an entirely different rant.)

So I’m really trying to wrap my brain around the rationale for a rational human being voting for Trump.  Because, you may recall, this is a man who said it was okay to grab women by the pussy.  Now, I’ve heard a few defenses of this comment.  One of them goes like this: it’s just locker-room talk.  As Trump himself said: “It’s just words, people.”  Oh, good: because it’s not like we need the president of the United States to be able to talk to people or anything.  Nope, being a leader never involved actually speaking.  So that’s a moronic defense.  Here’s another one I heard today: we just don’t know what Trump will be like as president, so we need to give him a chance and see what he does.  Well, sure: we also don’t know what Charles Manson would be like as president, so let’s elect him next.  You know why we don’t know what Trump will be like as president?  Because he has no fucking experience.  He’s never been in charge of anything other than his daddy’s money.  So, yeah, we technically speaking don’t know what Trump will be like as a president.  But I know what spoiled rich boys are like, and I know what entitled old white men are like, so I think I can make a pretty good guess.

And, you know what, you could accuse me of stereotyping, and being prejudiced in my own right ... except for that whole “grab-em-by-the-pussy” comment.  It really does all come back to that.  I am prejudiced if I assume that Trump will act in the worst way of entitled rich white men if all I know about him is that’s entitled, rich, white, and male.  But the fact of the matter is, I don’t have to make any assumptions about his actions—I don’t need to pre-judge him.  I can actually judge him, because he’s quite open and outspoken and rather blatant in his distasteful, shameful actions, and his almost pitiful need for attention.  People, this is a man whose handlers no longer trust him with his Twitter account.  But we thought he could be trusted with the most powerful military in the world?  I honestly just don’t get it.

I want to move on.  I want the country to heal, and I want to try to empathize with the disaffected and the disenfranchised and the ignored.  But I’m not sure I can.  Because it seems like a significant number of Americans may not have been racist and misogynist themselves, but they’re apparently okay with having a president who is.  And I’m not okay with that.


* And missing another blog post for you guys.  Sorry about that.

** That I know of.  I voted for three people with no expressed party affiliation, so any or all of them may have been Republican as well.

*** Well, actually, I think one of the Republicans may have been a nutjob too.  But I wasn’t completely sure.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Phantasma Chorale I

"Shadows Are in Hiding"

[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.]

I like creepy music.  Probably because I love horror novels and movies, because my favorite authors are people like Stephen King and Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, because my favorite illustrators are people like HR Giger and Brian Froud and Edward Gorey ... and, yes, I quite like Tim Burton, and, while I wouldn’t name him my favorite filmmaker—that honor would probably go to Terry Gilliam, who has his own brand of creepy going on—Beetlejuice is definitely one of my favorite films.  So I’m a bit of a connoisseur of creepy music, and in fact I have about six different mixes that fall more or less into the general category of “creepy,” from one which features general goth music (which is not always creepy) to one which is more sound effects than music, for playing in the background while trick-or-treaters approach your porch.

But today, just in time for Hallowe’en, I want to share with you one of my favorite creepy mixes, Phantasma Chorale.  This mix is inspired by Bruno Coulais’ fantastic score for the quite excellent Coraline; when I first heard “End Credits,” which is our opener here on volume I, I was blown away by how awesome it was.  Creepy to the max, but also childlike and light.  It’s like a song sung by a chorus of ghost-children,1 hence the name.  I immediately started toying around with songs which either had creepy, wordless, choral vocals or a childlike quality, or preferably both.

With such a specific theme, I have to be flexible.  Not every song can have a theremin or a soprano that can be convinced to just howl without using any words.  In fact, Bruno Coulais uses neither of these techniques: he got the Children’s Choir of Nice to sing nonsense syllables—meaningless morphemes that sound just enough like real words, in English or French or Italian, to drive you crazy trying to figure out what they “mean.”  So I went scouring soundtracks, Internet music, and even a few “regular” albums for music that might fit this vibe.  Sometimes I settled for words in a language I had no chance of recognizing (like the Croatian of “U Plavu Zoru”) and sometimes I settled for no vocals at all, but a carnival-like atmosphere that provided childlike-but-creepy in spades.  The result is something which is not truly scary, but just enough unsettling to keep your mind from getting too comfortable.  Personally, I use it when I’m working on my novel: it keeps the creative juices flowing in just the right direction.

So, as I said, soundtracks were the first place to go looking.  There are three songs from Coraline here, including the mix starter, and I had to trim that down from how many I wanted to add originally.  On the one hand, they’re all very short—in fact, at 27 tracks, this is my second longest tracklist2—but, on the other, I want to save something for volume II, eh?  Beyond that, Danny Elfman was an obvious choice, so there are two tracks of his soundtrack for Beetlejuice, both offering the creepy carnival vibe.  As does Angelo Badalamenti’s contribution, a track off the City of Lost Children soundtrack.  On the other hand, “The Citrine Cross,” from the soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code, and “In Noctem,” from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, feature a classical chorus singing in what is most likely Latin, though it’s difficult to be sure.  The woman (or women?) in “Arrival at Rookford” from Daniel Pemberton’s3 score for The Awakening is probably singing in English, but the vocals are so haunted and eerie that I can’t quite tell.  Contrariwise, in “Betrayed!”, off Iain Ballamy’s trippy score for Mirrormask,4 I’m pretty sure the “vocals” aren’t actually vocals at all, but just synth-generated noises meant to sound like different vocal ranges of people going “aahhhh!”  But it also maintains a strangely childlike musical motif, as does “Primeval Landscape” by John Corigliano (off the Altered States soundtrack).  Well, that last one is a bit of a stretch, if I’m honest.  But I can hear some childlike motifs in it at any rate.  To close out the soundtrack category, Four Rooms provides a couple of our bridges, although in a list of songs that are all this short, it’s tough to say what counts as a bridge and what doesn’t.  Still, these two tracks (both by Combustible Edison5) both count, in my book: one is under 30 seconds long, and the other is a minute and a half of building, which I pay off with “U Plavu Zoru.”

Which is itself quite a curious choice here.  You may remember my talking about Pink Martini before,6 and specifically about China Forbes’ amazing ability to sing in (but not speak) 15 different languages.  One of those 15 is, apparently, Croatian, whence cometh “U Plavu Zoru,” which, according to a couple of translations I found on the Internet,7 means “At Blue Dawn.”  The lyrics for this are quite beautiful—so much so that the English translation of one line became our volume title, which is handy because it’s hard as hell to find a volume title for a tracklist composed almost entirely of instrumentals.  The music somehow reminds me of the theremin-laden theme from the original Star Trek.  So, you see, it fits perfectly here, despite being found on an album of popular rather than cinematic music.

But, still, cinematic music is the best place to find these sorts of tracks, and, once I ran out of soundtracks, I had to look for other sources of it.  My first thought was to turn from the people who had actually written soundtracks to those who just wish they were writing them.  The Internet is full of what I call “pseudo-soundtracks,” which I imagine8 are composed by people who want to write music for movies one day, so right now they’re putting out the soundtrack equivalent of a portfolio.  The end result seems to be soundtracks for movies that never existed, often really weird, genre-blending movies, to show off the composer’s range.  If you too are interested in this sort of thing, there are many places on the Internet you can look, but my personal favorite is Jamendo.  All music on Jamendo is free for personal use; what they really want to do is attract people who wish to license the music for use in video games, or YouTube videos, or—of course—movies.  So this is the perfect place for wannabe soundtrack artists to show off their stuff.  My absolute favorite such artist is Xcyril, a French composer who seems to specialize in fantasy and sci-fi music, which is of course perfect for this mix.  The two tracks of his that I use here both feature some wordless “vocals” (again, likely electronically generated); “Séraphine” has a bit of a Danny Elfman feel to it, and “Discovery,” from his album StarGate Odyssea is a little more sci-fi focussed (as its name suggests).

So where else can you go for cinematic music?  Well, there’s videogames, of course.  Next volume, we’ll hear a track from an actual videogame, but here I want to share with you something I discovered way back in 1997—before my kids were born, before I moved to California, back when I had my own company and my own fat Internet pipe and not a whole lot to do with my spare time but surf the dingier corners of the proto-web.9  And I stumbled across this page in the back rooms of CSU Long Beach’s website which talked about lucid dreaming, and music, and 3D rendering, and an “upcoming” videogame which was to be titled Chthon.  It’s now almost 20 years later, and, like ever-so-many pages on the Internet, it’s still there, untouched in over 15 years, talking about a game that will never be made, produced by people who probably don’t even know each other any more.  The music files they offer are just samples, snippets of full songs.  But they’re all so surreal that the fact that they fade in and out at odd times almost seems by design, so I’ve happily been using them in various mixes for years.  Mostly in my Dreamtime mix,10 but occasionally something will work elsewhere as well.  Like this one.

There is one more great source for cinematic music: gaming music.  At least that’s what I call it ... it’s cinematic music that seems to exist only to provide a backdrop for playing D&D to (or, more likely, LARPing for Vampire: The Masquerade).  To be fair, it can also be used as mood music for Hallowe’en haunted house attractions.  After that, though, I’m mostly drawing a blank.  The trouble is, outside of listening to it while you’re actually gaming, most gaming music is too monochromatic to listen to an entire album straight through, but also too good to ignore entirely.  So it lends itself very nicely to mixes, but it has to be a particular kind of mix, and luckily this is one of those kinds.  The two primary purveyors of what I call gaming music are Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana.  I’m not sure that either of those groups would appreciate being pigeonholed so narrowly, but then again I doubt either one would deny that background for gaming sessions is an excellent use for their music.  I have several albums by both artists, but we’ve never seen them on in any of my mixes ... until now.  Here we have two from Midnight Syndicate (one from Gates of Delirium and one from Vampyre: Symphonies from the Crypt) and one from Nox Arcana (from Winter’s Majesty); all three tunes have the wordless vocals we’re looking for (“Adelaide” in particular has some uber creepy wailing in the background).  And I can’t neglect the album that was my actual introduction to the wonderful world of gaming music: Shards of Eberron, by David P. Davidson, which was included for free when I bought my copy of Sharn: City of Towers.11  “Dreams of the Inspired” is quite possibly the best track on this album (which is saying something), and the one which best stands alone.  It’s perfect here.

And, when you run out of cinematic music, where can you go then?  Well, what I call “cinematic” is more often referred to as “neoclassical,” so perhaps there’s something to be found in the realm of classical music.  It turns out this this is a tough genre to find in the classical métier, but I did stumble across one good example ... completely accidentally, as it was being used in someone’s Kickstarter project video that I looked at.  It’s “Aquarium” by Camille Saint-Saëns, a short piece from Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) that has a spooky underwater sound which stems primarily from its use of the glass harmonica, a bizarre instrument created by Benjamin Franklin as a more efficient version of rubbing wet fingers around the rims of wineglasses filled to different heights with water.12  Once I heard it, I knew I had to slot it in here.

Phantasma Chorale I
    [Shadows Are in Hiding]

        “End Credits” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
        “Dreams of the Inspired” by David P. Davidson, off Shards of Eberron [Game Soundtrack]13
        “Arrival at Rookford” by Daniel Pemberton, off The Awakening [Soundtrack]
        “Aquarium” by Camille Saint-Saëns, off Le Carnaval des Animaux
        “Séraphine” by Xcyril, off Séraphine [EP]
        “Enter ... "The Family" / Sand Worm Planet” by Danny Elfman, off Beetlejuice [Soundtrack]
        “Strange Brew” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
        “Adelaide” by Midnight Syndicate, off Gates of Delirium
        “Oompa Radar” by Goldfrapp, off Felt Mountain
        “L'Exécution” by Angelo Badalamenti, off The City of Lost Children [Soundtrack]
        “Interlude II” by Stratus, off Fear of Magnetism
        “The Night Garden” by Waldeck, off The Night Garden
        “Discovery” by Xcyril, off StarGate Odyssea
        “Windfall” by Dead Can Dance, off Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
        “The Supper” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
        “Betrayed!” by Iain Ballamy, off Mirrormask [Soundtrack]
        “Primeval Landscape” by John Corigliano, off Altered States [Soundtrack]
        “Awakening” by Midnight Syndicate, off Vampyre: Symphonies from the Crypt
        “Chthon: Modules” by Ensemble of the Dreamings, off Chthon [Videogame Soundtrack]14
        “It Was Fantastic” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
        “Theme (from - "It's Better to Travel")” by Swing out Sister, off It's Better to Travel
        “Lydia Discovers?” by Danny Elfman, off Beetlejuice [Soundtrack]
        “In noctem” by Nicholas Hooper, off Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Soundtrack]
        “The Citrine Cross” by Hans Zimmer, off The Da Vinci Code [Soundtrack]
        “Invocation” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
        “U Plavu Zoru” by Pink Martini, off Hang on Little Tomato
        “Solstice Spirits” by Nox Arcana, off Winter's Majesty
Total:  27 tracks,  76:55

And that just leaves us with the unexpected tracks, primarily those which are coming from popular music rather than classical or cinematic music.  First up we have “Oompa Radar” by Goldfrapp.  Now you may recall Goldfrapp from Smokelit Flashback III (and IV, and V), but we’ve also seen them on Darkling Embrace, Sirenexiv Cola, and even Totally Different Head, thus demonstrating their amazing versatility.  “Oompa Radar” is a rare instrumental tune from them, very bizarre and carnivalesque, and it works well here.

Then we have a short connective tune from Stratus15 which flows directly into our centerpiece, the amazing track “The Night Garden,” by Waldeck.  Waldeck is an Austrian trip-hop artist who I first discovered via his cover of “Bei mir bist du schon” and so had him pegged as electroswing.  But he really is more suited for Smokelit Flashback,16 and of course the title track of his second studio album17 is practically tailor-made for this mix.  I have no idea if the primary feature of this tune is an actual theremin, or just electronically-generated “vocals” as we’ve seen on other tracks here, but it’s really quite stunning.

From there we hit the second Xcyril track, and then into a Dead Can Dance instrumental, “Windfall,” which somehow manages to be both wordlessly-vocal and carnival-like despite not really being either.  I’m not sure what instruments they’re using, but the combination of pipes and chimes, backed by the sound effect of a howling wind, gives the whole thing what one Internet reivewer described as “an almost macabre carnival style.”  Exquisite, and quite perfect here.

Which just leaves us with one of Swing out Sister’s instrumental tracks off of It’s Better to Travel.  Swing out Sister is of course best known for their tracks worthy of Smooth as Whispercats, but they have a bit of range as well, as this track shows.  It’s not quite as creepy as some of the tunes here, but it fills its slot here in the final stretch very nicely, bridging a Coulais and an Elfman, and setting us up for the 1-2-3 closing punch of Combustible Edison, Pink Martini, and Nox Arcana.

Next time, I think it’s time (and the proper season) to return to some autumnal meditations.


1 Which are, as you know if you’ve seen the film, an actual thing in Coraline.

2 My first, coincidentally enough, is the aforementioned Hallowe’en mix.

3 Pemberton I discovered from his work on LittleBigPlanet; The Awakening I discovered while aimlessly flipping through cheesy horror movies on Netflix.  It’s not too shoddy, really.

4 A trippy little movie by one of my literary idols, Neil Gaiman.

5 As are nearly all the songs on the Four Rooms soundtrack, to be fair.  You may recall my first mentioning Combustible Edison back on Paradoxically Sized World III.

6 Specifically, on Salsatic Vibrato III and then again on Moonside by Riverlight.

7 You always want to find at least two sources that agree for this sort of thing.  Otherwise it’s likely someone just pulling shit out of their ass.

8 I must stress I have no data to back this up.

9 And, honestly, they were all pretty dingy back in those days.

10 Which we shall come to in the fullness of time.  Probably.  Dreamtime and its cousins are not exactly “modern mixes”, but they’re not exactly pre-modern mixes either.  They live in a strange half-state that may or may not ever see them fleshed out in this series.

11 Please note that I have no idea if new printings of the book still include the free CD.

12 And, if you’re looking for a version of this track, make sure you find one that uses the glass harmonica and not an inferior substitute such as a celesta.

13 Again, while I normally hate to point you to places where you can download things for free and the original artist will get nothing, this album is impossile to find, so you gotta do what ya gotta do.

14 Not really a soundtrack, and arguably not even a videogame, since it was never actually produced.  But you can still download the music files for free in .wav format (or .au format, if you know of a program that can decode that).

15 Who we heard from briefly on Paradoxically Sized World I.

16 And we’ll start seeing there once we get to Smokelit Flashback VI.

17 By which I mean not counting his EP and remix albums.