Morning, luvs. It's a few days from 2006, and I'm drinking my first cup of coffee and counting my blessings after a year of loss, longing, and tons of bright spots that I make damn sure I don't forget. At the moment I'm listening to Uncle Tupelo's "Give Back The Key To My Heart" and trying to giving thanks for all sorts of things. I love writing about music; this blog has been one of the best things to happen to me this year. I hope you're digging it.
Among other things, it's helped me discover new music, which, as always, means I've discovered new portals to myself and the world, even though I admit I sometimes have to take a break from all the from-the-heart stories, all the big-picture philosophy, summaries, sermons, sadness, glee. In those times, I need to burrow in for complete quiet, away from all that to-the-boneness.
So why keep doing it? Why keep listening, and so intently, and writing about it? Simple. It's like email, or phone calls to people who've either stayed in or fallen out of your life; to share and share alike and to stay connected -- not just to my peeps, but to strangers, lovers, haters, and auld acquaintances unforgotten. Master of the obvious here, maybe, but I'm gonna have another cup and get all eulogy on you and talk about what I came here to talk about: musical mentors.
My older brother Jay, of course, was the classic mentor. His bedroom was filled with great records, and while he was working or going to the bars, I was locked in his bedroom, listening to vinyl on headphones. I'd be hard-pressed to name a better New Year's Eve than the one I spent all by my 15-year-old self in that bedroom, listening and writing in my journal until four in the morning.
My younger sister Molly has some of the greatest old-school taste you'll ever want to hear, and my younger brother Terry and his heart-of-gold passion for songwriters, bands, and the communal life that happens with live music has been equally instructive; he and his band are a jukebox that brings comfort and joy to anyone lucky enough to stumble on the party.
Yes, my fellow saps and aural-fixated suckers, I'm feeling grateful today. Mentors, teachers, there's too many name. They've come in the form of critics, fans, record store gurus, writers, deejays, musicians, bloggers, films, books, and fellow mix-makers, all of whose words, opinions, and love can enter me with the drop of a note, and put me at their side. Rodney Bingenheimer pretty much nailed it for me when he said he listens to music because "it makes me happy." I would add that "it teaches me" and "it makes me realize that whatever I'm going through, no matter how archaic or seemingly rare, there's a song for it, which proves I'm alive and not alone."
I'm sure some make fun of me behind my back for writing stuff like that, because we here in the persnickety prairie don't cotton too well to all that fooking Irish-ass bald-faced sentiment. I don't blame you, I guess; I'm guilty of some of the same suspicions about myself, because I've been trying to get a handle on it, The Big It, publicly for so many years, and it can drive a guy a little nuts. I also understand why passion or enthusiasm can get dismissed as shtick or self-parody, but I don't care. The shit still moves me like nothing else.
Lately I've been enjoying talking, casually, to old-timers about their memories of the Minneapolis underground. We've all reached an age where we appreciate what happened, and so we've been trading stories -- almost coincidentally; unplanned, unabashed and unembarrassed -- about different characters, stores, practice spaces, gigs, clubs, and the secret histories of the beginnings of what we now call the Twin Cities scene, most of which has never been written down. (Hmmm... I wonder what a new song recorded by these guys might sound like?)
Maybe it's because Karl Mueller died this year. Maybe it's because the Musicapolis exhibit sparked a brief window of nostalgia for an era that was fiercely anti-nostalgic, but nonetheless continues to reverberate. All I know is I'm not taking much for granted these days. Here's a great piece from the L.A. Weekly from a few years ago that I saved; it still sings today.
All of which is to say I'm determined to continue counting my blessings -- which I suppose has been a theme in my writing since the start; it would be a relief if I could finally quit writing about it and just do it, whether it be my luck to find myself coaching a bunch of great kids in basketball, or that I get to write for a living, or the fact that I have all sorts of love in my life, or the fact that people are listening to, discussing, and making music more than ever, which can only be good for this fucked-up world.
Weirdly, so many of my musical mentors these days are (much) younger than me, because, for the most part, they're the ones who have kept listening. Then again, there's people like my friend Susan, who's around my age and who said her book club recently morphed into a music club for a night, in which they each brought a couple tracks to play for each other. This is what they came up with:
"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," Cole Porter. "In Love Again," Stacey Kent. "Everytime We Say Goodbye," Silje Nergaard; "Everytime we say good bye, I die a little..."
"Ramblin' On My Mind," Robert Johnson
"Here Comes The Sun," Richie Havens.
"Gorecki Symphony III," London Symphony. "Cvaldo," Bjork.
"Se ilden lyse," Sissel Kyrkjebø. "The song is from 1994 and is a love song between people and with the Norwegian land. It is also cleverly disguised as an invitation to the Olympic Games. A lot can be read into the lyrics and the English translation does not do the song justice."
"The Rising," Bruce Springsteen, and "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors," Moxy Fruvous.
"Duvemala Hage" and "Min Lust Till Dej," from the musical "Kristina Fran Duvemala." "The music is by Benny Andersson and the words are by Bjorn Ulvaeus (both of ABBA fame)."
"Imagine," John Lennon, "Shelter From the Storm," Bob Dylan, "Gettin' Ready," the Temptations.
"The Wheel," Rosanne Cash, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, "Extraordinary," Liz Phair.
* * *
So, yes. I'm thankful for them, and others. Conrad may have said it best in accepting his Minnesota Music Hall Of Fame award at the Minnesota Music Awards this year, something about how lucky he feels to work at a place and live in a town where people actually go out and pay money to hear live music.
Count me in. I'm particularly grateful for ravenous musicheads Jon Hunt and Diablo Cody (above), this week's guest Walshfilers. They're a husband-wife team, and what follows is a beautiful duet. Take it away, lovebirds:
1. "Chinese Rocks," Richard Hell. When I tire of baroque flourishes, synth bleeps, ABBA samples and other affectations of modern rock, I cue up this nostalgic palate cleanser. Ugly guitars, Hell's adenoidal whine, and straightforward lyrics about selling your "best things" for heroin are as comforting to ex-punks as mac n' cheese. "Boy the way the the Voidoids played…songs that made the Hit Parade…those were the days!" (DC)
2. "Hazel Eyes," The Darkness. I'm sorry, the Darkness are great. No -- no, you misheard, I didn't say "the worst band in the history of mankind," believe it or not, I said they're great. And I'm not even saying that "ironically" or "sarcastically" -- I understand that there's a layer of joke, and above that a layer of earnestness, and above that another layer of joke, and then possibly topped off with a nice whipped topping of "we mean it, man," but I don't care. There's a way of looking at their music where its just the coolest, most fist-pumping-est hard rock that anyone's done since grunge supposedly did away with this style of metal. "Hazel
Eyes" is the ponciest tubthumper all year, and if the chorus to this song fails to move you, you need to put away the Arcade Fire records, dig up a couple old Van Halen records, and rediscover why it is you listen to rock music again. (JBH)
3. "Jesus was a Crossmaker," Judee Sill. The obscure, now-deceased Sill sounds eerily like Liz Phair to these ears. Her tomboy twang and excellent songcraft are addictive. (DC)
4. "The Blues are Still Blue," Belle and Sebastian. In which the Scottish wimpsters find their inner glam-rockers. Over a shuffle lick that would do Slade proud, Stuart Murdoch spins a sardonic tale of reuniting with his woman, and how, when he does, he's likely still gonna be pretty damn depressed, all told. Far from sounding dour, however, he sounds pretty damn sexy -- and yes, that's possibly the first time the word "sexy" has been used in conjunction with Belle and Sebastian who are usually the ultimate Record Shop Guy band, but this time they muster it. He purrs the damn song, and the rest of the band manages to buoy him up with some gorgeous confectionary harmonies. Even people who hate B&S have liked this when I've played it for 'em. PS: yep, its off their as-yet-unreleased album, but its out there. You know what I mean. (JBH)
5. "Dance Dance," Fallout Boy. A few zillion iTunes customers can't be
wrong. Fallout Boy are never quite as awesome as I want them to be, but this song nudges greatness. (DC)
6. "Something in 4/4 Time," Daryl Hall. This one is just plain batshit crazy. A friend of mine in England sent this to me -- this is off his "Sacred Songs" LP, which was produced by Robert Fripp. Yes, THAT Robert Fripp, King Crimson guitar wizard, and yes, it absolutely sounds like it. Forget everything you think you know about Daryl Hall, except the bits about how freaking great his voice sounds even on the most dire '80s song you can think of -- this is one of the strangest
songs you'll hear thisyear. It veers between sounding like prime-era Billy Joel to sounding likea very Berlin-ish Bowie to sounding like, well, King Crimson, especially on the cryptic, modal guitar break. It's pop, but its the kind of angular pop that would evolve into New Wave in just a few years' time. The entire album is just this odd, an avant garde blast from a guy whose career could have gone entirely differently. (JBH)
7. "First-Time Mother's Joy," Mercury Rev. I don't normally listen to music this aggressively gentle (oxymoron?) but Mercury Rev is like a cup of warm Ovaltine after an afternoon astride the toboggan. (DC)
8. "The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown," Judee Sill. Discovering Judee this year was absolutely a revelation. She combines pretty much all my musical genres of interest: country, folk, chamber pop, sunshine pop -- and does so with a sort of emotional weight that eludes even some of her most accomplished contemporaries. "Lamb" is Judee to the max -- a lilting melody, an incredibly dark and surreal lyric that hints at deep, unresolved demons, baroque instrumental breaks, a delicious arrangement and a gorgeous stacked harmony choir at the end. This is one of those mystifying records that makes you wonder what's so god-damn wrong with the world that kept this from being a massive worldwide hit. In an alternate universe, she has Joni Mitchell's career. (JBH)
9. "White Houses," Vanessa Carlton. This breathless single from Carlton's flop Harmonium is staler than a McDonald's crouton. I think it was released like, a year ago. And yet, I suspect the rich man's Michelle Branch didn't get a fair shake the first time out. In this climate of antiseptic Lohan-pop, Carlton plays con brio. Not only does this song have the energy and panache of an early Billy Joel hit, the lyrics were honest enough to get censored by MTV. (Carlton wasn't allowed to say "blood" in reference to losing her virginity.) (DC)
10. "Chicago," Sufjan Stevens. I feel like the last guy on earth to discover Sufjan. It's like there was this really great party and I arrived only after all the beer had been drunk and half the crowd had passed out. Nevertheless, this song knocked me for a loop the first time I heard it. I was kind of idly flipping through the record in someone else's iTunes queue at work, and working while I was going, and then BAM! Like a bolt out of the blue, straight to the heart. I'm pretty sure there were a few tears welling up. I remember going back and listening again, to make sure I was really hearing what I was hearing, and then again, and then again. I remember smiling broadly and emailing everybody I knew to tell them how they needed to buy this right away. And even still the part where he talks about crying in the van with his friend for freedom hits me like
a ton of emotional bricks. (JBH)
11. "All I Want for Christmas is You," Mariah Carey. In the year of the Mariah comeback, who can resist this evergreen? Y'all can laugh, but M.C. is so convincingly ebullient on this track that few can resist it. (DC)
12. "Blue Monk," Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. This is from that newly discovered "at Carnegie Hall" concert, and wow, what a stunner. For non-jazz-fans, its like this: imagine that the very best Beatles record of all time, better than White Album, better than Sgt. Pepper, has been sitting in a vault in the basement of Abbey Road with a label on it that says "record." A staggering, magnificent album, and this song boasts possibly the greatest Coltrane solo of all time. I'm sure somebody would like to beat me up for saying that, but there it is. (JBH)
13. "Jingle Bells," Esquivel. More random zoots and dweets than you can shake a candy cane at. Refreshingly un-Christmasy! (DC)
14. "The Four Horsemen," Aphrodite's Child. The best thing about running an "obscure 60s music" website is that people constantly send me some of the most absolutely insane music ever made, knowing full well that I'm going to freak out over it. Aphrodite's Child were a Greek psych/prog band from the early 70s, featuring as their main member one Vangelis, later the author of the stirring and much-parodied "Chariots of Fire" music. This ain't no new wave, though. Its a freaky-to-the-core concept album about the book of Revelations featuring appropriately apocalyptic and powerful music. Track it down. Its literally like nothing you've heard. (JBH)
15. "Out Tonight," Rent Original Broadway Soundtrack. I haven't heard the new movie version sung by Rosario Dawson, but the old-skool 1996 recording always prompts me to strike ridiculous feline poses and meow like a tabby in heat. Too bad I don't live "in a city of neon and chrome." More like Freon and snow. Or something. (DC)
16. "I Found Love," the Free Design. A meaningful find for me this year was the Free Design, a band so impossibly good I can still hardly believe they exist. My wife finds them horrifyingly twee, but there's something about the delicate sweetness of their music that tugs that one particular heartstring reserved for Stuff I Used To Love As A Child. "I Found Love" is so fully the great lost song of the 60s. Lilting and sweet, every bit as delicious as those first few moments of being in love, or the way a smile looks on a child, or the way dandelion fluff blows in the wind, and no, I am not kidding. If you haven't treated yourself to the Free Design yet, do yourself a favor. (JBH)
17. "Luxurious," Gwen Stefani. This unabashed "Big Poppa" biter scrolls through my head at maddeningly frequent intervals. Best lyric: Old-fashioned girl Gwen includes "growing old with hubby" on a list of her most-coveted luxuries. Hey, who sneaked family values into my empty ode to materialism? (DC)
18. "What A Wonderful Man," My Morning Jacket. I spent so long hating My Morning Jacket for being second-rate Neil Young rip-off artists that I failed to notice them morphing into the blasted Flaming Lips. The entire "Z" record, produced magnificently by John Leckie, is a killer psych-pop slab, but this song is just a stone blast. Fun, loud, dumb and absolutely melodic. Who the hell knew they had it in 'em? (JBH)
19. "Beat of My Heart," Hilary Duff. Ignore the fact that the melody is comically simple and the lyrics are unbelievably repetitive. This song is really quite brilliant in its crudeness. Take a shot of apple Pucker every time Hil says "beat" and you'll be bound for the ICU in no time! (DC)