Sunday, July 31, 2016

Slithy Toves I

"Here to Eat Your Apple to the Core"

[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.]

We’ve talked about Cherry Poppin’ Daddies in this series before.  We talked about their ability to crank out retro-swing, lounge, and the as-yet-unnamed hardcore-yet-retro 50’s-early-rock style.  But the first time I heard “Here Comes the Snake,” I knew it was something different.  Ostensibly, it’s a lounge soung, but there’s just something ... slinky about it.  Which of course is entirely appropriate (and I’m sure intentional) given the title and subject matter.  It’s really hard to define—I suppose it’s something in the beat that makes the song just slither along—but I know it when I hear it.  And of course the words to this particular track reinforce the theme:

Yes, I believe, but I’d rather not pray;
What I believe in I’d rather not say, baby.
Did your God show you the door?
Well, I’m here to eat your apple to the core ...

Here comes the snake indeed.  The idea of music that slithers its way into your brain somehow put me in mind of the slithy toves from “Jabberwocky” ... you know, those little creatures1 who did gyre and gimble in the wabe.  And thus this mix was born.

A long time ago.  Newer mixes have bubbled into existence, struggled along, and even had several volumes completed before I managed to put the finishing touches on volume I of this mix.  The reason is simple: for most of my mixes, I know where to go looking for new songs to add to the collection.  But this particular theme is unusual ... there’s no genre or subgenre of music which is more likely to churn out this type of song than any other.  There are not even too many bands that we can count on going back to again and again: in a certain sense, nearly every track in this particular mix is unexpected.  So, while building the mix, I’ve just had to rely on discovery—just waiting until I happened to stumble on a song which would be perfect rather than being able to go looking for them.  So it’s just grown very slowly, very gradually, and only recently did I feel like I had enough to put things in some semblance of order.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have some immediate ideas.  Our opening track here, “Jane’s Getting Serious” by the lesser-known of the Astleys,2 was probably the very first thing to pop into my head when I thought of songs that slink along into your brain.  Very shortly followed by “Smooth” by Santana, featuring Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20.  Supernatural is an uneven album, in my opninon, but “Smooth” is the standout: really amazing guitar work from Santana (as always), and some sexy vocals from Thomas.  Both these songs were no-brainers.

But perhaps the strongest contender for this mix (after the mix-starter itself) is “Why Do We Call It Love,” which is what really caused me to fall in love with the Swing soundtrack in the first place.  We’ve seen Lisa Stansfield’s tracks from that movie show up on Salsatic Vibrato II3 and Georgie Fame’s tracks on Moonside by Riverlight, and those are good tracks.  Nothing wrong with those tracks.  But this song ... this song is just incredible.  Smoky vocals from Stansfield, that slinky beat that drives it to this mix, clever lyrics—“Why Do We Call It Love” has it all, and in spades.

Now, as I said up above, in general bands don’t immediately spring to mind when you’re looking for slinky, slithery songs.  However, if there’s an exception to that, Shriekback must be it.  Primarily centered around the keyboards and vocals of Barry Andrews, keyboardist with XTC for their first two albums, Shriekback can do big, bold party songs, such as most of Oil and Gold and much of Go Bang!, or it can do quieter, reflective songs such as most of Big Night Music and a few scattered other songs.  So throughout this series we’re going to see Shriekback on such vastly different mixes as Funkadelic Bonethumper, Wisty Mysteria, Rose-Coloured Brainpan, Bleeding Salvador, Smokelit Flashback, Moonside by Riverlight, Shadowfall Equinox, and Numeric Driftwood.  They’re versatile, is what I’m saying.  But we’ll probably see them here more than anywhere else, starting with two tracks on this very volume.  “The Reptiles and I” is a slinky but quiet little song of lists from Big Night Music, whereas Shark Walk is one my favorites from Go Bang!, a more upbeat but still quite sinuous tune that focuses more on the selachian than the serpentine.

Other early choices include Joe Jackson’s cover of Louis Jordan’s 1944 hit “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and Cat Empire’s interesting song about a gypsy woman haunting their dreams, “The Night That Never End.”  In the former case, it’s a swing standard—I think Jackson’s version adds a bit more flair and maybe more brass, but the slinky undertones are present even in Jordan’s original.  In the latter case, it’s whatever style you want to accuse of Cat Empire of being—probably something latin-ish—and it carries the sneaky, sinuous theme through into the lyrics, in which a “gypsy lady” sneaks into your sleeping head carrying a bottle of schnapps.  The end of the song, where the trumpet-drenched bridge gets faster and faster until it peaks in a crescendo of frenetic energy, is one of the most amazing pieces of musical craftmanship I’ve ever heard.

I also remembered “Caramel” by Suzanne Vega off Nine Objects of Desire, an album which in general I like less than the magnificent 99.9 F°.  But “Caramel” is probably my favorite off NOoD, and has a perfect sinuous beat to fit in here.  Similarly, relistening to Into the Labyrinth by Dead Can Dance, I was instantly struck by how perfectly the feel of “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” slots in here.  The song has an Arabian vibe that’s reminiscent of a snake charmer’s tune which is perfect for this mix.

Less likely (and more of a stretch for theme here, if I’m honest) is “Take Me Dancing” by Meaghan Smith.  Last time we saw Smith was on Sirenexiv Cola, where she had a poppy electronica/orchestral tune from her excellent album The Cricket’s Orchestra.  Here we have another track from that album, which has a bit of the slinky feel we’re going for here, concentrated mainly in what I feel sure is a Hammond organ.  But what it lacks in strict adherence to the theme it makes up for in sheer joy.  It shows that, while Slithy Toves is mostly a collection of slower songs, there can be upbeat tunes that fit the mix as well.

Another thing we talked about last week was my discovery of KT Tunstall, and how I’ve not been as excited about any other artist in the past few decades or so.  I threw out a couple of candidates for next runner-up,4 but I should have mentioned Iron & Wine.  His album The Shepherd’s Dog is a revelation: part folk music, part alterna-pop, with a tinge of electronica and surreal lyrics reminiscent of Michael Stipe or Robyn Hitchcock.  Several of his songs slither about with an ambience that makes them well-suited for this mix.  The one I chose for volume I is “Wolves,” which is sort of the title track to The Shepherd’s Dog.5  It’s a slinky, slithery track that flows beautifully into “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove.”

Slithy Toves I
    [Here to Eat Your Apple to the Core]

        “Jane's Getting Serious” by Jon Astley [Single]6
        “Why Do We Call It Love” by Lisa Stansfield, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Take Me Dancing” by Meaghan Smith, off The Cricket's Orchestra
        “Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby” by Joe Jackson, off Jumpin' Jive
        “The Reptiles and I” by Shriekback, off Big Night Music
        “The Night That Never End” by The Cat Empire, off Two Shoes
        “Borneo” by Firewater, off The Golden Hour
        “Smooth” by Santana, off Supernatural
        “Here Comes the Snake” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Zoot Suit Riot [Compilation]
        “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)” by Iron & Wine, off The Shepherd's Dog
        “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” by Dead Can Dance, off Into the Labyrinth
        “Shadow” by The Primitives, off Lovely
        “Shark Walk” by Shriekback, off Go Bang!
        “Caramel” by Suzanne Vega, off Nine Objects of Desire
        “Ghost Highway” by Mazzy Star, off She Hangs Brightly
        “Sarah” by Bat for Lashes, off Fur and Gold
        “I Close My Eyes” by Shivaree, off Who's Got Trouble?
Total:  17 tracks,  72:20

The rest of the tunes I more or less stumbled upon by accident.  Firewater’s “Borneo” is, like the Meaghan Smith tune, a bit of a stretch here, but it’s a rollicking fun track that upholds the upbeat portion of the festivities nicely.  Plus it flows into “Smooth” really nicely.  “Shadow” by the Primitives is another Middle-Eastern-sounding song that rolls along coming off the back-end of “Lovegrove,” and provides a nice change-of-pace from their usual alterna-pop.

Which just leaves us with our 3 closing tunes.  “Ghost Highway” is in some ways a typical Mazzy Star song, but in others it’s quite distinctive, including a serpentine beat that underscores the duo’s typical echoing, buzzing style.  That flows into Bat for Lashes’ “Sarah,” a slow, sinuous track that shows off her distinctive voice.  And we polish it all off with “I Close My Eyes” by Shivaree.  We first discussed Shivaree’s eclectic style back on Smokelit Flashback III.  “I Close My Eyes” contains quite a bit of torchy Moonside by Riverlight overtones, but it still retains enough of the undulating quality that we’re looking for here to provide a solid closer.

Next time, we’ll go back to the beginning for another installment of the mix that started it all.


1 According to Humpty Dumpty, toves are “something like badgers—they’re something like lizards—and they’re something like corkscrews.”

2 Weirdly, Jon Astley is not related to Rick Astley, despite them both being Astleys, both being British, and looking remarkably similar to each other.  Shame: I’d never have minded so much getting jonrolled.

3 And we’ll see them again on future volumes of that mix.

4 Specifically, Devics and Firewater, the latter of whom we’ll hear from in just a minute.

5 By which I mean that the title of the album appears in the song’s lyrics, even though it’s not the song title.

6 I try not to link to YouTube for music, and in fact I’ve never had to do so before.  But this track is stupidly hard to get hold of—I don’t believe there’s any place you can purchase it digitally at all.  Since desperate times call for desperate measures, I’ll let you know that it is possible to turn a YouTube video into an MP3 file, using any number of sites that will do the conversion for you.  My current favorite is

Sunday, July 24, 2016

To post or not to post

It’s been nearly 2 months since I skipped a blog post, and we can’t have that, so I’ll be skipping this week.

Well, okay: to tell the truth, it’s only been a month or so since I actually skipped a post.  But it’s been 7 weeks since I posted saying I wasn’t going to post.  The other skipped post was my annual traveling-for-YAPC-and-just-spaced post.  That hardly counts at all.

So I’m posting here to say that I’m not posting, which is already both oxymoronic, paradoxical, and meta, all at once.  (Yes, that’s right: it’s all two of those three things.  I said it was paradoxical.)  And, while I’m posting about not posting, I’m telling you about my other type of not posting, which was not posting about not posting.  Now, often when I post about not posting about not posting, I post about posting, which makes my non-post almost a post, although it’s typically not as long as an actual post, so I often don’t count it as a post, but rather a post about not posting (which it also is).  But this is not that.  Rather, this is a post that is reflective of the collective of my posts about not posting.  See, my posts have labels.  All my posts.  Even the posts about not posting.  Those posts get a special label, “interstitial,” which indicates their non-postiness.  You know, in case you don’t want to actually read the posts about not posting, on account of their lack of postiness, you can easily skip them, because they all have the same label.  “Interstitial,” of course, means “between things”—in this case, it means the posts about not posting which are between the actual posts about things.

But there’s also a little “word cloud” over to the left (near the bottom), and, you know what I’ve noticed recently?  The “interstitial” tag is the biggest one.  That’s not really how I’d hoped this blog would turn out.  Now, on the one hand, it’s not particularly a fair comparison, because the posts about things all have different labels (22 of them, not counting the the posts which are not posts at all and the posts which are essentially just links to other posts), while the posts about not posting all have a single label.  So, it makes a certain amount of sense that that label has more entries.  That doesn’t make it any more palatable though.

There are 82 posts with the “interstitial” tag.  The next closest would be the “Perl” posts (i.e. the posts which are links to other posts) at 52, then the “fiction” posts that represent my ongoing novel, at 37.  The largest “proper” blog post label is “music,” which has 32 posts, primarily because I find those really easy to crank out, so it’s a standard fallback when I’m pressed for time.  But another interesting point about these labels is that any post can have multiple tags.  So many of the posts which are tagged posts about not posting are actually posts about things, but just not full posts about things.  So they get stuck labeled as “interstitial” when they’re really just ... short.

Like this post, for instance.  I’ll label it “interstitial,” and perhaps also “metablogging,” since it’s a post about posting.  Which is even more oxymoronic and paradoxical (and meta) because now it’s going to be tagged as a post about posting and a post about not posting.  Mildly bizarre.

Now, 37 of the 82 posts tagged “interstitial” are also tagged something else, meaning that only 45 of the posts about not posting are actually about not posting ... or at least only 45 are only about not posting.  I’m starting to think that maybe I need a different label for posts about things that are not full posts about things.  Perhaps “partial” would be appropriate.

Anyhow, this post about not posting has turned out not to be about not posting so much as about posting, and posting labels, and posts in general.  Not sure that makes up for it not being a “proper” post, but perhaps it’s still better than being about not posting at all.  I’ll let you be the judge.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Why the MCU Is Cool: What "MCU" Means, and What It Means To Me

[This is the first post in a new 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.]

When I was a kid, I read comics.  And, for me, comic books always meant one thing: superheroes.  I was aware that there were such things as horror comics, and war comics, and western comics, and just plain “funny books” (like Archie)—I just didn’t care.  I can barely remember buying comics at the 7-11 for a quarter, but the vast majority of my purchases were at 35¢.  At that time, there were only two comic publishers: DC and Marvel.  (There are barely more than two today, although the situation has been getting better of late.)

I always considered myself a DC man.  Especially when I was younger, titles like Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes were very appealing, and I was also fond of Justice League and The Brave and the Bold.  Oh, sure, there were a few Marvel titles I especially liked—X-Men and Defenders and a few others—but I never got very much into the major Marvel titles: Spider-Man and Daredevil I could always take or leave, and Iron Man I never cared for at all.

Of course, DC has never fared so well on the big screen.  Many people are very fond of the original Superman, although I found it a bit blasé.  (But, then, I never liked Superman as a character much either.)  Then there was Batman ... better, but I never thought it lived up to the hype (even though Burton is of course an excellent director, and Nicholson was brilliant).  And then there was ... oh, yeah, there was nothing else.  A mediocre Wonder Woman TV series, an awful version of Supergirl, a moderately decent Batman reboot, a hideously bad Superman reboot ... I’m withholding judgement on Batman v Superman because I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not hopeful.

But you know what I love?  The Marvel Cinematic Universe (forever hereafter “MCU”).  Now, we must be clear that the MCU is not the same as “Marvel comic movies.”  The Spider-Man movies, which I have mixed emotions about, are not MCU, and the X-Men movies, which I have a real love/hate relationship with, are not MCU.  Nor are the Ben Affleck version of Daredevil, which I tolerated, nor the Nicholas Cage version of Ghost Rider, which I forgave its many trespasses just because Ghost Rider is so damn cool.  The reasons for this are complex and have to do with character rights being sold and transferred and reclaimed and bargained over and held for ransom and given back, but only sorta kinda, and so on and so forth and back and forth ad infinitum.  But the reasons are not important.  The important bit is that the MCU—defined as those interconnected movies and TV series put out by Marvel Studios, many of them centering around the Avengers franchise—is freakin’ awesome.

I just recently watched Captain America: Civil War, and it reminded me with amazing forcefulness just how intensely this is true.  The reasons that it is true have to do with a lot of interlocking factors, and that is what I wish to explore in this new series.

One aspect is the nature of the comic book stories themselves (and, honestly, the nature of comic book stories in general).  Another part is my personal relationship to the comic book stories.  Part of it has to do with the intelligence and savvy of Marvel, which is proving itself to be far superior to that of DC.  And part of it (perhaps the largest part) is the involvement of Joss Whedon, who I’ve talked about before, and whose genius is not faded one whit based on his performance thus far as the primary architect of the MCU.  I’ve thought and thought about how these various aspects fit together and what I want to say about them, and I’ve decided it can’t be done in one blog post—thus my desire to make a new series.

In this series in particular, you’ll need to forgive me quite a few tangents.1  I’m going to need to explain quite a bit about comics (in case  you’re not a comic book fan), and quite a bit about my personal relationship to, and interaction with, comics, and quite a bit about how comic book stories are put together.  Much of this will be my personal opinion, and (especially if you happen to be a comic book person yourself) you may disagree with some of my hypotheses, and/or some of my conclusions.  That’s okay.  I believe my ramblings will be interesting even if you disagree with them, and hopefully there will be some insights even for those who are rabid MCU fans themselves.

If you’re not a comic book fan, you may not much give a shit about comic book movies, and that’s okay.  I’m also a huge horror fan, and a big fantasy fan, and I know that some people don’t care about those genres either, and they’re probably never going to understand my fascination with Stephen King, or Game of Thrones.  Fine.  But hear me out for just a second, even if you’re not inclined to care, in general.

I think that every genre of fiction, regardless of specific media (that is, regardless of whether we’re talking movies, books, TV series, music, comics, or whatever), speaks to the human condition.  Merely because I think that fiction that doesn’t speak to the human condition doesn’t survive as a genre.  Now, you personally may not see the value in a particular genre: you may think horror movies are crap, or that speed metal is not really music, or that harlequin romances should not be considered “literature,” or whatever.  But all those genres speak to someone, and there’s no point in trying to deny it.  We often like to find ourselves superior to things, and media genres we don’t understand are usually at the top of our lists of “things to feel superior to.”  But the fact that the genres are popular enough to penetrate our little bubbles of apathy are indicative of their staying power, so pretending they can’t be appreciated by smart people (by which we inevitably mean “people as smart as we are”) is pointless.

So, forget the fact that you find comic books silly for a moment.  Comic books are, first and foremost, a way to tell a story.  The fact that that method involves pictures and words does not mean we should ignore it—that’s nonsensical.  You enjoy Goodnight Moon and The Cat in the Hat, right?  And those involve both pictures and words, right?  But perhaps that’s the source of the snobbery.  Books which have pictures on every page are obviously for children: grown-up books only have pictures every other chapter or so.  Except that’s silly.  It’s a stylistic choice to throw the pictures out and demand that the story stand only on its words.  So, likewise, it’s a stylistic choice to demand that the story require the pictures to be sensible.  To take an analogy, I find musicals stupid.  Mainly because, I think a story should stand on its own without requiring the songs.  The songs can support, and even enhance, but once they’re required then it’s stupid.  If you think about it, this is the exact same situation with comics.  As long as you’re reading, say, Alice in Wonderland, and John Tenniel’s illustrations are extranneous (if still beautiful, and iconic), then you’re happy.  But if the story were incomprehensible without those pictures, then it would be pointless, or stupid?  Honestly, if you can accept a musical, you should be able to accept a comic, at least in principle.2

But even once you’re willing to accept that comics are a valid way to tell a story—and, as manga shows us, they can be powerful stories about just about anything—then you come up against the next stumbling block: the superhero.  Now, as I said way back at the beginning, there have always been comics in American culture that weren’t about superheroes, and there still are today.  But, in many ways, the superheroes “won.”  When my parents were kids, there were horror comics, and sports comics, and war comics, and western comics, and romance comics (you know: for the girls).  But by the time I came along, most of those comics had disappeared.  And the ones that hadn’t got co-opted, to the point where Jonah Hex had to team up with Batman, and former pal of Millie the Model Patsy Walker actually had to put on a costume and fight crime.3  Non-superhero comics are making a bit of a comeback in the modern day, but it’s still a fair statement that, for most people, comics equals superheroes.

And superheroes in many ways hurt comics as a medium that should taken seriously, because it’s often hard to take superheroes seriously.  Except when you’re a kid, when they’re damned serious indeed.  But that only reinforces the concept that comics are juvenile, which is not what we want either.   The fact of the matter is, it’s really impossible to generalize about comics, because there are just so damned many of them, written and drawn by so many different creators.  Talking about whether “comics” are serious or not is pointless—we could perhaps talk about whether comics by Alan Moore are serious vs whether comics by Frank Miller are serious vs whether comics by Grant Morrison are serious,4 but to talk about comics in general as a monolithic entity just doesn’t make any sense.  Are comics juvenile?  Sure ... some of them.  Heck, a lot of them, realistically.  But comics can also be brave, and mature, and introduce kids to diversity, or to politics, or to conflict, or to drama.  The genre of the superhero is in many ways a simplification of the basic conflict between good and evil: with few exceptions, the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, they fight, the good guys win, and that’s the story.  Now, certain comics try—and many even succeed—to break out of that mold, but that’s the basic template.  And there’s something very pure, and simple, and joyous about that basic story that appeals to many different and diverse readers.

If you can move past the tights.

In this series, I plan to explore what makes the MCU so appealing to me, and hopefully you’ll find some reasons it should appeal to you as well.


1 Although, I’m assuming, if you couldn’t forgive my tangents, you’d have given up on this blog a long time ago.

2 Contrariwise, I suppose I’m a person who can accept a comic but not a musical.  But let’s just say I’m willing to grant you that your ability to accept, and even enjoy, a musical is not a moronic pursuit.  And I’m hoping you’ll grant me the same in return.

3 No doubt we’ll talk more about Patsy’s interesting journey when we get to Jessica Jones.

4 In the latter case, generally no.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sirenexiv Cola I

"You Sparkle and Burn"

[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 once had a friend (and coworker) who, when he’d pick music to play at work, always picked from my alterna-pop CDs which featured female vocalists.  Whenever I asked him why he never picked male singers, he’d just shrug, give an enigmatic smile, and say, I like the women’s voices better.  And admittedly there are times when I do as well.  During those times, I reach for this mix.

The real inspiration for this mix was my discovery of KT Tunstall.  This was only a few years back, and I stumbled across her name in conjunction with something else—I have no clue what it was now—and she sounded interesting.  So I did what I often do in such cases: I asked AllMusic which was her best album, then went and listened to the free samples of it to see if it was any good.  In this case, that was the double-album Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon.  Which I listened to, and thought it was moderately decent, and put it on my list to pick up one day.  But nothing too exciting.  And then I decided to listen to just one more album, and I picked Tiger Suit.  And, man, let me tell you: it blew me away.  I can’t think of an artist I was this excited about since stumbling across Movitz! on The Colbert Report.1

And, weirdly, it parallels my discovery of whitechocolatespaceegg by Liz Phair.  That’s another album that I was quite surprised to fall in love with, after hearing one song2 on the radio, by an artist whose other albums I don’t like nearly as much ... even down to not being that keen on the one that AllMusic tells me I “should” like.  In Phair’s case, the critical darling is Exit to Guyville, but I’m fairly “meh” on that one.  whitechocolatespaceegg, on the other hand, is magnificent.  As a bonus, Tunstall’s style is very close to Phair’s—but not identical—so that Tiger Suit is both familiar and fresh at the same time.  I knew that I needed to put together a mix featuring Tunstall and Phair.  (And note that, indeed, they provide the first two tracks here.)

I decided to center the mix around female vocalists, with upbeat, vaguely poppy songs as sung by sweet, often sexy, voices.  Some of my friend’s favorite artists are well represented here: the Sundays, the Katydids, Tori Amos, and of course Liz Phair.  When I tried to think of a creative name for this mix, I thought of various words that might bring to mind a beautiful female voice drifting over to the listener, and of course I thought of “siren.”  But I also thought of “vixen,” which implies extra attributes of cleverness and sexuality.  So I just glued those two words together, and added something to indicate the poppy nature of the whole, and there we have “Sirenexiv Cola.”

Now, obviously not every female vocalist is going to work here.  As much as I love the Cocteau Twins, Elizabeth Fraser’s dreamy vocals are not quite right for this mix.  Bold, brassy vocals such as Amy Winehouse or Alf Moyet (from Yazoo) are not going to work well here either.  Nor are the hard rockers like Joan Jett or Pat Benatar, nor the more experimental folks like Throwing Muses or the Breeders.  On the other hand, there is the anti-folk movement, which is perfect here.

Now, I rather think of Tori Amos as the original anti-folk artist, even though she was around before most of the modern artists that term is applied to were ever heard of.3  And we have a track here from Tori, one of the rare upbeat tracks off her stunning Little Earthquakes, which is certainly one of my favorite albums.  (And “Happy Phantom” contains one of my favorite all-time lyrics: “They say Confucius does his crossword with a pen ...”)  And the rest of the (mostly) ladies who wear the anti-folk label are way more upbeat than Amos: Feist, Regina Spektor, Keren Ann, Mirah4 ... all of whom we have represented here, of course.

Feist, you know: indeed, “1234” in particular you know, because that iPod commercial wormed its way into your brain and never let go.  Feist is way more than that one song, and we’ll hear more from her on future volumes, but there’s also a lot to be said for that particular tune, as pervasive as it was.  Spektor is probably best known for singing the theme song to Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, and the original version of that song is our closer here.  Spektor is more than just that one song too (and in fact I already knew of her before OItNB), but that song is pretty spectacular.  Keren Ann and Mirah are a bit more obscure; I believe I found both of them from following “artists like this one” type links (probably links from Regina Spektor and/or Feist, for that matter).  Multilingual Keren Ann was born in Israel and raised in the Netherlands, but she sings primarily in English and French.  The track we use here is from her first English album, Not Going Anywhere, which is quite pretty.  Mirah is a bit more hit and miss, but “Sweepstakes Prize” is a pretty awesome tune, and it provides our volume title.

In the category of other artists who shouldn’t be a surprise, we have Beth Quist, a Magnatune artist who we first met on Smokelit Flashback IV.  Most of her stuff is not particularly as poppy as “Monsters,” but she’s still an excellent choice for this mix.  Competing with Magnatune, we have Jamendo, which more often showcases folks who are putting together sonic portfolios by creating soundtracks for non-existent movies.  But they also have other types of music, including Bella Ruse, a duo from Columbus that also qualifies as anti-folk in my opinion.  Their female-fronted songs are delicate and upbeat, like the one I chose for this mix, off their debut EP.

Sirenexiv Cola I
    [You Sparkle and Burn]

        “Glamour Puss” by KT Tunstall, off Tiger Suit
        “Perfect World” by Liz Phair, off Whitechocolatespaceegg
        “Clean White Love” by Lisa Mitchell, off Wonder
        “A Little Love” by Meaghan Smith, off The Cricket's Orchestra
        “Heart of Everyone” by Bella Ruse, off Bella Ruse [EP]
        “Sweepstakes Prize” by Mirah, off You Think It's Like This but Really It's Like This
        “Fingers” by P!nk, off I'm Not Dead
        “Get Some” by Lykke Li, off Wounded Rhymes
        “You Never Know” by Goldfrapp, off Supernature
        “Energy” by Lisa Germano, off Happiness
        “You're the One [Blood Orange Remix]” by Charli XCX, off You're the One [US] [EP]
        “Dollhouse” by Melanie Martinez, off Dollhouse [EP]
        “Monsters” by Beth Quist, off Silver
        “Right Now & Right Here” by Keren Ann, off Not Going Anywhere
        “Happy Phantom” by Tori Amos, off Little Earthquakes
        “My Finest Hour” by The Sundays, off Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
        “The Boy Who's Never Found” by Katydids, off Shangri-La
        “1234” by Feist, off The Reminder
        “Fortune Teller” by Ed's Redeeming Qualities, off It's All Good News
        “Fall Away” by Eleni Mandell [Single]
        “You've Got Time” by Regina Spektor [Single]
Total:  21 tracks,  75:29

As I talked about before, I really like P!nk.  Most of her music is too party-girl for this mix, and in fact there were several times that I almost decided that “Fingers” was too risqué to fit in here.  But, in the end, I decided that I wanted to include Lykke Li’s “Get Some,” which is a pretty decent party song itself.  So then “Fingers” seemed like a pretty logical lead-in to the Swedish pop star’s driving beat.5  And, following Li, we have Goldfrapp, another artist who can bounce around from trip-hop to uptempo pop without too much difficulty.  “You Never Know” has a bit of a Kate Bush feel that slots in perfectly here.

There are a few other hardcore pop artists here, including Charli XCX, whose “You’re the One” is about as pop as it gets.  I prefer the “Blood Oranges remix” from her CD single / EP: I think it adds just enough flavor to tone down the over-the-top-pop to the perfect level for this mix.  Australia’s Lisa Mitchell is also normally considered pop, although I think she has enough anti-folk cred to earn her place here with the quite wonderful “Clean White Love.”  And I think Melanie Martinez qualifies as pop, although she drifts around a bit as well.  We first heard from Martinez on Darkling Embrace, after all.  But “Dollhouse” is a pretty decent fit here, and I love its clever lyrics.  Eleni Mandell is more of a country singer than a pop singer, but she also has range, and I really like “Fall Away,” which was used in Monkeybone.

Finally, three songs from moderately unexpected quarters.  First up, we have a track from Meaghan Smith, who I talked about discovering back on Moonside by Riverlight.  “A Little Love” may not be quite as good as “Heartbroken,” but it’s pretty damned awesome, and it’s got a bit of electropop-meets-orchestral feel that makes it quite distinctive.  Right around the center mark, we have Lisa Germano, possibly the only major 4AD artist that I missed discovering back in the day.  But I stumbled across her again recently while looking for cool music that featured violinists, and Germano’s name naturally came up.  The second I heard “Energy,” I knew two things: first, that I’d heard it before and somehow forgotten about it, and, secondly, that it was a big ball of awesome that I’d been missing out on for about 20 years.  It’s one of the best tracks on this volume, and trust me when I tell you that’s saying something.  Last but not least, we have Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, who have a tendency to turn up in odd places, like here.  We first heard from them on Tenderhearted Nightshade, then they popped up on Zephyrous Aquamarine, and now here they are again.  ERQ doesn’t always feature female vocals of course, but Carrie Bradley, who would go on to play fiddle for the Breeders, then start her own band called 100 Watt Smile, has a beautiful voice, as well as a sure hand on either acoustic guitar or fiddle.  Silly-yet-poignant is ERQ’s specialty, and, while “Fortune Teller” has some highly amusing lyrics, it’s also touching somehow.  But still upbeat enough to work well here, introducing our closing stretch and leading, via Mandell, into the strong closer of “You’ve Got Time.”

Next time, we’ll attempt to achieve even more balance by counteracting last time’s downbeat and this week’s upbeat with some mid-tempo, of the slinky variety.


1 Perhaps the closest I could come to it would be either Firewater or Devics, both of whom are great, but Tunstall still has them both beat.

2 Specifically, “Polyester Bride,” which I have no doubt we’ll see on a future volume of this very mix.

3 Similarly, I will always think of My Bloody Valentine as shoegazers, even though technically speaking the shoegazers were the folks that followed in their footsteps.

4 Note: some of those folks will be listed by some sources as “indie pop” rather than anit-folk.  I personally put them all together.

5 We first talked about Lykke Li back on Darkling Embrace.  Although in general I prefer Youth Novels, she does have other albums with good songs.  They’re just not as consistent, in my opinion.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Off to Camp

Today is an interesting day.  My eldest child, who is less than six months away from not being a child at all any more (at least according to our legal system), is going away to summer camp for the first time.  This is not because we wouldn’t let them go before now ... it’s just because this is the first time they ever wanted to go.  The Mother, of course, is as devastated as one might expect from a mother on her first child’s first day of school.  Which makes sense, if you consider that, between their initial career at a Sudbury school and later homeschooling, this really is the first time that we’ve sent them off to be with strangers in an environment which we know will be good for them but simultaneously know they will have difficulty with.  It’s a tough transition.

Now, in case you’re wondering why I’m being gender-coy with the pronouns, I can assure you it’s not because I’m having an overprotective moment where I want to keep my child’s identity so anonymous that I can’t even let you in on their gender.  No, it’s because that’s how they’ve asked me to refer to them, and I do my best to respect those wishes, even when it’s hard for me to grasp exactly where the wishes originate from.  I suspect (though I don’t know for sure until they choose to enlighten me) that it’s not a case of them being uncomfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth.  Rather, I think that the issue is they’re not that comfortable with any gender at all.  I think (and I must continue to stress that I’m speculating here) that they’ve come to realize that all gender is is a label, and no one likes to be labeled (especially not at their age).  If you think about it, we are all identified by a multitude of labels: gender, race, hair color, height, weight, social class, geographical background, sexual orientation, political leanings, occupation, technical adeptness, income level, marital status, type of car I drive, whether I rent or own my house (or neither), whether I have children or not (and, if so, how many), whether I have pets or not (and, if so, how many, and what species), which books I read, which TV shows I watch, what foods I like ... just an endless series of labels, some of which we accept and some of which we avoid, but all of which carry baggage.  Even the ones that seem innocent.  If tell you I’m a gay male, or a black woman, or a rich Jewish person, you’re going to have a picture of me, and you’ll probably even realize that you’re stereotyping.  But if I tell you that I’m a redhead, or that I’m from Minnesota, or that I live in my parent’s basement, or that I own a lizard—any of those things will also cause you to think you know me, and many of them won’t be that obvious.

Like all of us, some of those labels I own, and some I eschew.  For instance, I’ll happily tell you that I’m a liberal, and a father, and a technogeek.*  Others I don’t talk about as much: I don’t bring up my race or my gender or my social class that often, because my race and gender and social class are pretty privileged, and I don’t wish to be defined that way.  Oh, I accept that I’ve often had an easy life because of those things (and others), but it’s often easy to imagine that people who can’t possibly have had it as hard as you have therefore never had it hard, and that’s not the same thing at all.  If you’ve suffered a lot, whereas I’ve only suffered a little, it does mean that I don’t have the right to judge you, or to talk about what you’ve been through.  But it doesn’t mean that my suffering doesn’t count.

Being stuck with one of those labels that you never particularly wanted isn’t suffering, especially when it happens to be one of the “good” ones.  But that doesn’t mean it’s totally fine either.  At this point in my life, I happen to be an old white man.  There is little separating me from those idiots you see in Congressional committees (particularly those impaneled with determining women’s reproductive rights, or settling disputes with Native Americans).  Well, apart from my long hair and scruffy beard, which, honestly, I mostly cultivate exactly because it will set me apart from those morons.  So I’m an old white man, sure, but I’m not one of those old white men, and I don’t appreciate being lumped in with them.  Do I know what it’s like to be black, or Jewish, or gay?  Nope, not in the least.  But I do have some inkling of what it’s like to have a burning need not to be judged by those labels: not to be reduced to a stereotype.

As part of the research we as parents are currently doing into gender roles and related issues, I looked at some information from a fellow named Sam Killermann.  He has a comedy show that he performs where he talks about stereotypes, and snap judgements.  Here’s a snippet that caught my ear:

It’s natural, like it’s instinctual—we just do it so fast, we jump to those conclusions, we make those decisions—you know, it snaps—and it goes into your head and you just have to let it go out ...

It’s like, there’s a stereotype, and that’s just like, an assumption about a group, and there’s prejudice, which is the next step.  That’s where you act upon it.  I don’t think it’s really possible for us to just ignore the stereotypes, for us to get rid of them all, at least not in this generation, but it’s possible for us not to act with prejudice.

I think this is key.  Stereotyping is, in my opinion, an inevitable consequence of human intelligence.  We analyze and cogitate by separating and categorizing and compartmentalizing—this ability to put things in boxes and put labels on them mostly works to our advantage.  It lets us take exceedingly complex concepts and simplify them enough to be grasped and grokked and thorougly dissescted and reassembled and twisted inside-out and turned into brand new concepts that we then put out there and let other people start the whole process all over and produce even newer concepts that then go out into the world and do it all again.  This process has enabled scientific advancements and literary achievements and depth and complexity of emotional shading and mechanical assembly and microscopic discovery that have launched us humans to the pinnacle of life as we know it.  Also, it’s launched us into countless wars, and inquisitions, and genocides, and pogroms, and bombings, and rock-throwings, and hateful words.  Because when you apply that reductive categorization and labeling to a mechanical structure, you get to understand what makes it tick, but, when you apply it to another living, breathing person, you completely fail to understand what makes them tick, because human brains have that ineffeable quality that, so far, nothing else in the known universe seems to have: it’s greater than the sum of its parts.  That is, you can understand all about neurons, and synapses, and frontal lobes and cortexes and medullae oblongatae, but still utterly fail to comprehend how another person thinks.  Because there’s simplifying, and then there’s oversimplifying.

So stereotypes are a natural, but dangerous, way of oversimplifying people, which is okay, but only as long as you know you’re oversimplifying people, and you know you better cut it out before you think you know them.  Because stereotypes may have grains of truth in them, but, unlike DNA or quantum physics, they don’t have universal truth.  And labels enable stereotypes.  And many people feel that, if we can get rid of the labels, we can get rid of the stereotypes.

I don’t necessarily agree with this.  I’m with Sam, up above, where he says it’s not really possible for us to get rid of stereotypes.  Of course, he holds out hope that future generations may be able to succeed where we will fail, and I’m not even sure I’m willing to go that far.  I’m not sure I believe it’s possible to get rid of stereotypes at all—not while remaining human.  Perhaps someday we’ll evolve into something else, and then of course all bets are off.  But, until then, I personally believe we’re stuck with them.

Which is not to say that I’m not going to respect other people’s attempts to get rid of the labels, though.  I may not agree with such attempts, but I admire them.  Striving to achieve the impossible is a victory in the journey, even when the destination is never reached.  Plus, every now and again, I’m reminded of one of my favorite uplifting quotes, from Pearl S. Buck:

The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.

So let folks attempt the impossible, I say, and I will support them, even if I don’t quite believe in it.  ‘Cause I might be wrong.  Often am, in fact.  So, go for it.

But I also want to encourage people to learn to ignore the labels, even when they haven’t been expunged.  I think people have to learn to ignore the labels that people place on them, and also (probably more importantly, even) to ignore the labels that they, perhaps unconciously, place on others.  I say, don’t feel bad about labeling people.  We all do it.  Just be able to throw the label away after you print it out.  Because, ultimately, it means nothing.  If you get to know a person and it turns out your initial label was correct, that means nothing more than the proverbial infinitude of simians reproducing Shakespeare.  If you decide that you can jump off your roof and not be hurt, and you do so, and, by some miracle, you happen to land unhurt, that doesn’t mean you were right.  Ditto for people-labels that happen to turn out to be right.  More often than not, though, you’ll find that, even if you were partially right about people (and often you’re not even that), people are just so damned complex that “partly right” isn’t worth much.  Unlike horseshoes and hand grendades, “almost” is not particularly useful in psychoanalysis.

So I respect my kid’s desire to avoid the gender label as much as they can, as long as they can.  But I also hope they can learn to ignore the label ... I think that’ll be more useful in the long run.  I hope they can learn that they can be whoever they want to be, regardless of how other people look at them.  To sum up, I’ll use a quote often misattributed to Dr. Suess, but which is really a Suess-ification of a quote originally spoken by Bernard Baruch, a white, male, Jewish, upper-class father and stock broker who advised presidents, bought a former slave plantation, and endowed the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  But, like all people, he was more than the sum of his labels.  And he expressed the original sentiment that inspired this reformulation, which is another of my favorite uplifting quotes.

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

And that really says it all.


* And, in fact, I often have, on this very blog.