Friday, April 17, 2009

ten records that changed my life

I tried to just write a top 10 list of my favorite albums like a normal person. The thing is I think about music all the time, and it's at the center of so many facets of my life. Also, I was a literature major at college, and I drink way too much coffee. I started writing on my blackberry on the train to work earlier this week and I couldn't stop. I ended up with pages and pages. I ended up with a God-damned memoir.

These are the some of the records that have meant the most to me, in no particular order:

1. Milk Eyed Mender - Joanna Newsom

This album hit me hard when I first heard it. I remember the first time I heard "Bridges and Balloons" on WNYU radio. At first I thought she was playing nylon string guitar. The sound of her voice was shocking to me at the time. It was shocking in the way I imagine that bob dylan's voice was shocking in 1964. I remember the first time I heard "Peach, Plum, Pear" I was sitting in the parking lot of this specialty camera store in lindenhurst NY; I was going to buy super 8 film for a video that Phil and I were making. I think I might have been nearly ready to quit music at that point in my life. I was uninspired and I didn't have any sort of direction to what I was doing. The sound of Joanna Newsom's voice and her sort of visionary, dreamy wordplay was like a bolt of lightning shooting down my spine.

2. Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan

The truth is, I can't really pick a favorite Dylan album. I could pick like 10 or 12. I'll go with Blood on the Tracks though. I have this weird thing where I love divorce records. I won't get divorced. My parents didn't get divorced. Something about a songwriter singing about divorce gets me good. Is there really anything sadder? A divorce is like the annihilation of an entire world; a collapse of a whole system of beliefs. I love those divorce songs on Paul Simon's Graceland album-"Crazy Love, Vol. 2" especially. I even love that Sting song "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying." And generally, I detest the man's music.

Dylan takes things to a whole other level. Good lord. The record is such a complex tapestry. Such a storm of emotions. Such an innovation in form in the world of singer-songwritering. The scope of the narrative, the kaleidoscopic view and the shifting perspectives. It's the master doing what he does best. And I love the NY sessions so much better, even for "Idiot Wind" and "Tangled Up in Blue." The emotion is less guarded. The performances sound more inspired. I think Dylan's going to re-record half the album in Minnesota may have helped this record on the Billboard charts, but it took away from the raw power. Thank God for the bootleg series.

3. Its a Wonderful Life - Sparklehorse

This record opened lots of doors for me, in my mind. All the Sparklehorse records are great, but this one is the most perfect, the most consistent. I love how Mark Linkous develops his own world within the lyrics. It's a sort of backwoods psychedelia. Like Faulkner, if Faulkner was into sniffing glue. Linkous relies strongly on wildly contrasting images, like "rusty metal hearts", and strange free associations, like a "piano fire" or a "sea of teeth." I think developing your world like that is important as a songwriter and probably as an artist in general. The language is consistent and recognizable so it can take a listener someplace they know they can go back to. Other songwriters that come to mind who do this really well are leonard cohen and bruce springsteen. Isaak Brock also.

With Sparklehorse, there's a sort of haunting pathos too - in "More Yellow Birds" Linkous sings about "Captain Howdy" on his shoulder. I don't know who Captain Howdy is for sure, but for me he represents death. A sort of grim reaper character. Linkous did have an accident in 1996 where he overdosed and nearly died. He was unconscious for 14 hours with his legs pinned beneath him and he nearly lost his legs altogether. You can sort of hear it in the music. This guy is seriously haunted. There are ghosts in every corner of these songs. And then the arrangements can be so delicate, sad and beautiful. Transcendent, like there are angels too. And the production is just sick. I love the crazy mix of low and hi-fi sounds. None of the Sparklehorse records ever get old for me.

4. Astral Weeks- Van Morrison

I actually already wrote an essay on this record which you can find here, along with a cover I recorded of "the way young lovers do."

I can't add much to that other than to say that this record is sort of even more than my all time favorite. Its my religion. Oh, and I didn't get the new live album. I'm sort of afraid it will change my perception of the original in some way.

5. Is this it? - the strokes

Yeah, the Strokes. I remember never understanding the backlash when they first came out. Musician friends who were a couple years older than me would be like, "Yeah but I can name all these british bands from the 90's who did what the Strokes are doing so much better." The La's? Seriously? A line had been drawn. I was with the Strokes. I kind of understood my friend's reaction to the Strokes a little better years later when I first heard Vampire Weekend. I wasn't into it. It just seemed super annoying. Then I realized it wasn't for me. It was for my little sister. I was the older musician friend now.

Say what you will about the Strokes, this is a classic album. The songs are great, the arrangements are perfect, and the execution is brilliant. I'll never forget what it felt like to be in NYC in the fall of 2001, when I first started playing out at clubs like the Luna Lounge, Arlene Grocery, and the Mercury Lounge. It was right after 9/11 and we all felt like the world was ending, so thank God we had the Strokes to remind us that music could be fun again. Before that we were all still getting over high school and all we listened to was all this grunge music and depressed downer indie rock. You could put a Strokes record on at a party and people would actually dance to it. At the time, that felt like a revolutionary act.

6. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco

I got in a fight recently with some guy on Facebook because I said that Wilco was better when Jay Bennett in the band. Now, I get that Jay Bennett is a tool. I've seen the movie. The thing is, YHF and Being There are my 2 favorite Wilco records. And Summer Teeth has also got some of my favorite moments. There's also that part of the Wilco movie where Jeff Tweedy is talking about how each time he had made a record there was always that pressure, like this record is going to be "the one." I guess with Sky Blue Sky, that's what I miss. I like music to have a sense of urgency, and I like bands that sound like they have something to prove. Maybe art is greater when it comes from a struggle, and a push and pull.

I find the Jay Bennett clips in Trying to Break Your Heart excrutiatingly annoying, especially when he rhapsodizes about giving a song "more sonic weight" while twirling his dreadlocks. But I like how he tried to push Jeff Tweedy in a more pop direction. It produced songs that were more driven by melody, and for me just more fun. And he rocked out those rolling stones riffs on "Monday" and "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" too. My friend John says its about yin and yang, and I'm inclined to agree with him.

The thing is, most Wilco fans will agree that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is their best record. Jeff found a way to balance his impressionistic lyrical approach with his abilty to craft melodic, succinct, brilliant songs. And Jim O Rourke focused the production, eliminated the dead weight (I'm guessing multiple Bennett keyboard tracks) and struck the right balance between the stately Americana of the tunes and the band's more psychedelic, experimental leanings.

Man, I've rambled at length on this one. To put it simply, I just love this record-everything about it. And maybe its a testament to the band that they have passionate fans of each of their different phases, so I can have the psychedelic freakouts of "War on War" or "Via Chicago" and that guy on facebook can have the adult contemporary stylings of "Sky Blue Sky."

7. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea-Neutral Milk Hotel

First of all, this is one of my favorite sounding records of all time. The fuzzed out guitars and bass of "Holland, 1945" and the wild, unhinged drumming to me is exactly what a rock and roll song should sound like. I hope this is what music sounds like in heaven. Everything about the track is exhillarating. Jeff Mangum a visionary if I've ever heard one. Like with Sparklehorse, the lyrics are wonderful and strange free associations, with visually powerful contrasting images. There is a healing power to this music, a catharsis that is beyond words. Beyond the realm of pop or "indie" music.

I feel like this record is seen as sort of a touchstone for the too-cool-for-school, indie elitist crowd to swoon over. That was my first impression of it, when I heard about it from some art school kid at the Juke Joint bar in Bellmore NY on night in 2002. I think at the time the band name just sounded really weird and out there. The truth is, there's not much that is "cool" about this record. The performances are incredibly earnest and wildly exuberant. Jeff Mangum sings too loudly and enunciates all the words about the heartbreaks of childhood and family disfunction. Mangum's performance is far too vulnerable to be "cool." And the biggest influence on the record is Mangum's heartbreak after reading the diary of Anne Frank. A few of the songs are addressed directly to her ghost.

The story of Neutral Milk Hotel after this record is pretty fascinating; basically Jeff Mangum cracked up and pretty much stopped writing songs. I'm not one to be inclined to romanticize this sort of thing. Of course I'm intrigued by the the legend of Brian Wilson losing his mind while recording Smile, and erasing the master tapes. I can also remember reading Lester Bangs contemplating Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, and how Van got so deep with that record that he had to step back, in an act of self preservation. Van the man never quite went back to that space as an artist. Maybe with Veedon Fleece. Maybe a glimpse on the track "Into the Mystic" and on a few tracks on Saint Dominic's Preview. But it was never quite the same. The music was a bit more guarded, and more about songcraft. There is something about when an artist lays it all on the line, emotionally, spiritually. Its dangerous territory, mentally. Another example I can think of is Dylan after Blonde on Blonde. He burned out, used his motorcycle accident as an excuse to dissappear. When he did come back with John Wesley Harding everything was obscured, like he was speaking in code. When he really came back into the public eye it was with Nashville Skyline, which was completely detached, as if he were a completely different person. It wasn't until blood on the tracks (NY sessions in particular) that he came back alive, stepped back into that ring of fire; visionary and wild eyed.

Jeff Mangum took the trip and he still hasn't come back. He brought Neutral Milk Hotel to that point where music is greater than words and microphones and haircuts and genre, into something mystical. The most powerful thing for me about the record is the sense of empathy you hear in Jeff Mangum's voice. Empathy for Anne Frank, for being a kid, and for just being human. It's all filtered through this wild, kaleidoscopic, sonic explosion, and thankfully, captured onto magnetic tape for us to keep.

8. Electr-O-Pura - Yo La Tengo

This is another record where I have a strong sense of time and place attached. I bought Electr-O-Pura on vinyl at a great little record store near Brown University up in Providence in the spring of 2002. I bought Cat Power's Moon Pix on the same day. Liz and I were newly married, and we lived in our first little apartment on Jericho Turnpike in Mineola. There was another great record store down the block called Mister Cheapos and I was in the early phases of my increasingly obsessive vinyl collecting. I had a portable record player setup in our tiny kitchen and it was always on. Tim and Rob from the Diggs lived down the block and were in an early version of Beat Radio (along with the staggeringly brilliant, if slightly elusive, Jim Mansfield on drums.) We used to rehearse in our living room. I was reconnecting with rock and roll again, after spending most of college immersed in folk music, and obsessed with Van Morrison. I wanted to sound exactly like Yo La Tengo.

Fans of the band (myself included) seem to favor the golden trilogy of albums they made in the mid nineties: Painful, Electr-O-Pura, and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Electr-O-Pura is my favorite, maybe just because of when I bought it and how obsessively I listened to it. But it's got great fucking songs. "Tom Courtenay" and "Pablo and Andrea" are 90's rock classics. The closer "Blue Line Swinger" is a gigatic, sprawling toure de force. Yo La Tengo have a playful and more eclectic side to their music that prevails throughout much of their work. They have a great sense of humor and I love that about them also. In the mid nineties I think they let themselves be a little bit more serious, and kind of went for it in a different way. They captured that dramatic spirit and bravado of all those wild 60's garage rock records that Ira Kaplan loves so much, and without irony. In 2002 I was sort of obessed with that sound, and the challenge of setting poetically adventurous lyrics over a backdrop of an old fashioned rock and roll setup-Phil Spector beats, old tube amps, music that felt sexually charged and dramatic. I was also listening a lot to the early Rolling Stones, Van Morrison's teenage band Them, and The Patti Smith Group's record Easter. We never really figured out how to pull it off as a band. Tim and Rob were destined do be so much more awesome and start the Diggs, and Jim and I eventually found the right sound with the next Beat Radio lineup. Electr-O-Pura is still sort of the blueprint for me, and the sound of tremolo electric guitar coming through a weird old tube amp is still my single favorite sound in the universe.

9. Ctrl Alt Del - The Diggs

That was a good segue I guess. Ctrl Alt Del by the Diggs is the only one on the list that was created by people I know. I've gotten to know a lot of great musicians playing around New York over the last 10 years. The Diggs are a band that was amazing from the very first demos they recorded in their living room back when we lived in Mineola. They have 2 LP's and I have a hard time choosing which of their albums I like better. I think the first one, Commute, actually sounds better, and I'm not just saying that because Phil produced it. But there is something about the songs on Ctrl Alt Del that just sort of kills me. The the lyrics for "...and in the end shoot back" were written by a friend of ours, a brilliant young writer who tragically passes away a few years back. The first 3 or 4 times I heard the song I couldn't keep from getting teary-eyed. Of course I had the emotional connection to the words of the song, but there was also something about the melody that resonated deep in my chest. I feel like it echoes some old traditional irish melody maybe? Whatever it is I can't really think of a song, besides the ones I've written myself, that I feel so emotionally connected to. Any time I listen to it, it still completely knocks me out.

The whole album has a really sad undercurrent going through it, borne of frustration and dissappointment. The theme is articulated pretty brilliantly by the album title. How do you feel when you're stuck behind a computer that's freezing up? It's sort of that listless feeling of being in your mid to late twenties and not knowing what the fuck you're doing. But then to contrast with that melancholy feeling, there are these massive, epic, dynamic arrangements that are completely enthralling and uplifting. Tim has long perfected his unique lyrical style-minimalist, concise, strikingly honest and vulnerable lines, somehow simultaneously heartbreaking and optimistic.

I sort of feel like I'm reviewing the album at this point and that's not really what I'm looking to do. What I'm hoping to express is this: these guys are an extraordinary band, and its been a God damned priviledge being around to see them do what they're doing over the last 5 years.

10. Kid A - Radiohead

Yesterday I was sitting around absently strumming an acoustic guitar an I started singing "Motion Picture Soundtrack" which is the last song on Radiohead's Kid A. I thought "Jesus, was there ever a melody written that is more beautiful than this one?" And I love how on the record the production is so simple and wide open. The album is very percussive and intense, sometimes to the point of being jarring, and the way they sequenced the songs it builds up this perfect tension until you get to this last track and there's nothing. Not only is there no percussion instruments but there is nothing but the harmonium which has no percussive quality whatsoever. We've come through it all and we've gone to heaven, set free, reeling.

I remember reading an interview with Thom Yorke after the album came out and there's was all this backlash because the album was so frantically anticipated and people like the Edge from U2 were saying things like Radiohead had stepped away and not embraced their opportunity to take on the mantle of being the biggest band in the world. Like it was their resposibility to make a record full of stadium-ready, guitar driven rock songs. Anyway, I'm paraphrasing but Thom said something like: "All I can say is yesterday I sat in the back seat of a car listening to the whole record and I wept all the way through." Of course he did. Kid A is a heartbreaking masterpiece for the modern age. I think reading that interview was a big moment for me. It sort of helped me cement my ideals and beliefs about being an artist. We are motivated to create art because we have something that we feel inspired to express. All we have to do is follow the path that the inspiration takes us on. If we can do that, we can express an emotional truth in the end. This can be a powerful thing. It can leave you crying in the back seat of a car, because it's a difficult journey and there are lots of ghosts you have to face. But in the end you triumph and it makes it all worthwhile.

Thanks to anyone who labored their way through this entire post. It was ridiculously long and really has no place on a blog. I guess I didn't realize how much I had to say until I started saying it. Now if we should meet, you'll know to not get me started talking about music!


Friday, April 10, 2009

you can follow beat radio on twitter now, in case you want to keep in touch with me like, all the time. i will most likely say several ridiculous things each day, and provide updates on my singer-songwritering and my misadventures trying to feed casio keyboards through distorion pedals. it will probably blow your mind. love bri.