Sunday, October 1, 2017

Wisty Mysteria I

"Silent Sunset Orange Cloud"

[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.]

You may remember back when we talked about Rose-Coloured Brainpanover 2 years ago, now—that I mentioned Depression, the first of the “proto-mixes.”  One of the biggest reasons I refer to anything from that period as “proto” is because those mixes were just random collections of songs.  There was some small amount of thought as to theme, but no real coherent throughline, nothing that would tie the songs together to form something like an album.  By the time I got to college1 I understood that a mix tape needed to be more than a loosely related collection of randomly ordered tracks.  I started to make mixes that were much closer to an album: tracks that fit together to form a picture, and were laid out in an order that told a story.  Now, I still hadn’t learned what the inimitable Hearts of Space was to teach me a few years later—all the stuff about transitions and thematics that I’ve discussed many times beforebut I was making progress.  These were what I call the “pre-modern” mixes, and the very first one I made was an attempt to create a refinement of Depression.

So, as I’ve said before, the biggest problem with Depression is that its picks were all over the place.  The songs from that proto-mix are now scattered across several modern mixes, such as Rose-Coloured Brainpan, Tenderhearted Nightshade, and Darkling Embrace.  Each of these captures a much narrower slice of the range that Depression was trying to examine.  But before any of those mixes, I started with something that would be a little sad, but not too much—sort of wistful, so to speak.  Something where many songs would have a bit of a creepy or mysterious vibe, but again not too much so.  So it would be a little bit wistful and a little bit mysterious, and the first thing I came up with was “Misty Wisteria”: the mist provides the mystery factor, and the wisteria provides the association with sadness via scenarios like doomed gothic romances.  But eventually I just swapped the initial consonants and ended up with far more direct analogs of “wistful” and “mysterious,” but the fact that neither is an actual word encourages the listener’s ear to do the transposition and end up with the original phrase anyway.  Wisty Mysteria was not only the first of the pre-modern mixes, it was also the first to use my weird naming convention.2

The pre-modern mixes were developed in the early 90s, so, just as we saw on HipHop Bottlerocket (whose songs all lived in the very narrow timeband of 1988 – 1990, except for 2 throwbacks to the late 70s), we have a similar situation here.  This time we widen the band somewhat: 1986 – 1991, with a single mid-70s throwback.3  But you still need to be feeling nostalgic for that period from the late 80s to the early 90s to properly enjoy this volume to its fullest.  We even have several crossover artists from HHB, such as Fishbone, Dramarama, Concrete Blonde, and Jane’s Addiction.  Which is pretty strange if you think about it ... Wisty Mysteria is nearly diametrically opposed to HipHop Bottlerocket, thematically.  But that just shows what range some of these bands have.

I think this is a fairly faithful recreation of the original Wisty Mysteria, though theoretically the original should have had more tracks.4  Plus I threw in an extra track at the end: “The Last Resort,” by the Eagles.  I just felt like the mix needed a stronger closer, and “Last Resort” is a melancholy, slow tune that makes good use of Don Henley’s voice to make some stinging commentary on commercialism and religion.  And it’s just a good closer.

So, on the “wisty” side, the saddest song on here is perhaps “Walking in the Woods,” by the Pursuit of Happiness, a Canadian band who are best known for their insanely catchy 1989 hit “I’m an Adult Now.”  Musically, the song is not as downbeat as you might expect, but listen to the words at your own risk: they’ve been known to bring an actual tear to my eye on occasion.  Second might well be a-ha’s “Manhattan Skyline,” where Morten Harket sings “I don’t want to race this pain.”  I also tend to find “Heart of Stone” (by the highly underappreciated Dreams So Real) a bit tear-jerking; certainly the lyrics “she’s gone away ... I’m so alone, and all I own is a heart of stone” is a big clue.  And yet there’s something that’s also not-sad about this tune: its power chords are cathartic, somehow.  And that tends to be where a lot of the choices here land.

“You’re Still Beautiful” by the Church, for instance, with its ode to fading beauty, or “Little Conversations” by Concrete Blonde, which I’ve always felt is a perfect recollection of late-night chats with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t really attracted to you and is too oblivious to notice your feelings for them.  Or perhaps “Part of Me Now” by the Lucy Show, which seems to warn “please don’t break my heart,” or “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me)?” by the Spin Doctors, which expresss all the puzzlement that its title implies.  Even “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” by the BoDeans, which is clearly a story of abandonment (“Jenny Rae left me late last fall; didn’t say much, she just left, that’s all”), is somehow not particularly sad about it.5

On the “mysteria” side, some of the songs here are more obscure; it’s not always clear what they are about.  Is “Blue Green” (by local-to-my-college-town band Hearsay) about drowning?  Does “The Woods” by the Call symbolize a tangled forest inside one’s heart?  Is the echoey, repeated call of “home” in “Up the Beach” by Jane’s Addiction supposed to be welcoming or ominous?

“Obsession” might be about sitting alone with someone you care about in a candlelit room ... but then why does it sound so gothy and dark?  (Probably because it’s from goth-master Ronny Moorings, during his Xymox phase.6)  “Fireplace, Pool & Air Conditioning” by Dramarama is ostensibly a song about seduction (“I’ll take you home ...”), but its surreal lyrics (one of which provides our volume title) hint at something more.

Note that most of these bands are more noted for upbeat songs (or at least mid-tempo), but these tunes showcase their softer sides.  Just as the band that sings “Manhattan Skyline” is the same one that brought you the ultra-pop 80s hit “Take On Me,” so do many of the tracks above share bands and even albums with much more upbeat songs: “The Last Resort” is from the same album as “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Little Conversations” shares a disc with “God Is a Bullet,” “How Could You Want Him?” accompanies the so-poppy-it’s-almost-silly “Two Princes” ... hell, even Dramarama, not necessarily known for hard rockin’, was last seen in this series belting out “Last Cigarette” on HipHop Bottlerocket.  Also on that mix was “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” by the amazing (and eclectic) Fishbone.  Here they provide our opener: “Pouring Rain.”  This is not really a sad song, but it sure ain’t a happy one.  A taste of the lyrics:

He had one foot in the gutter,
Another on dry land.
His ship had sailed without him.
Across life’s burning sands,
He cried out in the distance.
And no one, no one heard a word
For a prophet’s not respected
in his own world.

Even Walter Kibby’s trumpet has a lonely feel to it ... hell, even Norwood’s bass sounds like it’s echoing in a vast, empty space.  I always thought it was the perfect opener here.

Wisty Mysteria I
    [Silent Sunset Orange Cloud]

        “Pouring Rain” by Fishbone, off Truth and Soul
        “Obsession” by Xymox, off Twist of Shadows
        “Velveteen” by Transvision Vamp, off Velveteen
        “Part of Me Now” by The Lucy Show, off Mania
        “Manhattan Skyline” by a-ha, off Scoundrel Days
        “You're Still Beautiful” by The Church, off Gold Afternoon Fix
        “How Could You Want Him (When You Know You Could Have Me?)” by Spin Doctors, off Pocket Full of Kryptonite
        “Little Conversations” by Concrete Blonde, off Free
        “Blue Green” by Hearsay, off Triggerfish
        “Heart of Stone” by Dreams So Real, off Rough Night in Jericho
        “Fireplace, Pool, & Air Conditioning” by Dramarama, off Stuck in Wonderamaland
        “Walking in the Woods” by The Pursuit of Happiness, off Love Junk
        “Up the Beach” by Jane's Addiction, off Nothing's Shocking
        “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” by BoDeans, off Outside Looking In
        “The Woods” by The Call, off Into the Woods
        “The Last Resort” by Eagles, off Hotel California
Total:  16 tracks,  79:33

In closing, I’ll tell you two more things.  First is a bit of background on one of the bands I only briefly mentioned above.  Hearsay definitely qualifies for my definition of “very obscure band”: AllMusic’s “entry” is so impoverished that it doesn’t even have an overview (because there’s literally no info to overview), and Wikipedia has nothing.  They were in fact a small, local band from a suburb of the town I went to college in ... which is itself just a glorified suburb of Washington D.C.  I scoured the Internet for a digital copy of their magnificent album Triggerfish, but found nothing; the link above will take you to an Amazon page, but you’ll actually be buying a copy from private sellers, and paying anywhere from $15 to $60.  Not saying it’s not worth it; just opining that it’s unlikely too many of you are going to bite on that type of deal.  Perhaps one day I’ll get industrious and upload some of their music to YouTube myself.  In the meantime, you’re mostly going to have to take my word for it that they exist at all; about all I could find other than the Amazon page was an old article from the Washington Post.7  So just trust me when I tell you that lead singer Jeny Nicholson’s vocals are angelic, and Doug Kallmeyer’s bass work is phenomenal.

And, finally, we have “Velveteen” by Transvision Vamp.  Velveteen the album is the lackluster follow-up to the far superior Pop Art; it’s an inconsistent affair whose highlight is a song carried over from its much better predecessor.  “Velveteen” the song is a long, overblown bit of melodrama that drips with cheese ... but I find it irresistable, for some unfathomable reason.  If I were assigning it to a mix today, I would no doubt slot it for something a bit more operatic,8 but at this point it’s become integral to my mental model of what Wisty Mysteria actually is.  It’s not sad, per se, although there’s a sense of yearning at its core.  It’s got way too much in-your-face sexual innuendo, but that’s pretty standard for this band (which after all has “vamp” right there in the name, so you knew what you were getting into).  It can’t really decide what style it wants to be, and its sense of what seduction means is about what you’d expect from a Twilight novel.  And yet ... and yet there’s something about it which captures my imagination, in between the cheesy lyrics and the bombastic strings, something perhaps in the interplay of Wendy James’ sultry bark and what I assume is Nick Sayer’s throaty whisper.  Let’s call it a guilty pleasure and leave it at that.

Next time, we’ll head out on a world tour.


1 For the second time.  I had a weird college career where I attended for 2 years, dropped out for 3, then went back for 3 and finished up.

2 And, yes, I realize I’m being very generous in calling it a “convention.”

3 Again, count on future volumes expanding on that.

4 All the original pre-modern mixes were on 90-minute cassettes, so modern mix volumes are generally about 10 minutes shorter.

5 In fact, this is probably the most country-ish song the BoDeans have ever done that I can still stand to listen to.  And yet, despite that, I’ve always really liked this particular track.

6 That would be after his Clan of Xymox phase, but just before his Clan of Xymox phase.

7 Fun fact: see how the final paragraph of that article says: “if you miss them at the Bayou, they’ll be at Fat Tuesday’s in Fairfax Thursday”?  I was actually at that show.

8 A mix which we shall come to in, as always, in the fullness of time.

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