hibernation listening

Most our tastes are cyclical. Like Seasonal Affectation Disorder, I crave moody music in the depths of winter and, at the first signs of spring, fall hard for some new, bright and shiny pop confection. For example, while I’ve come to absolutely cherish Damon Albarn’s solo LP, Everyday Robots—a glum and dispirited pop album. Not at first, though, it was released at the height of summer and it was months before I rediscovered it, when the weather (and my mood) suited it better.

I’m also keenly aware that I don’t re-listen to many records, at least not the way I used to. I have so much I follow now, it’s a full-time job getting it all in, let alone go back and listen again. This is fed by certain changes in how we, as a streaming society have changed. It’s hard to recall who sang what, or what song is on what album (or from what year).

A few years ago, I created an experimental remedy, though. I became utterly enthralled by Mary Timony’s Mountains—an album which had languished in my collection, only played a handful times before my little epiphany. Determined not to let the moment pass, I opted for a new challenge: I would forge a new bond with Mountains, branding it upon my brain by listening to it every single day for a month.

It’s a tradition I’ve kept up since. This February, I’m spending my time with Field Music’s fourth album, Plumb. It’s actually embarrassing for me to choose this one, since it appeared on my best-of list for 2012 —which begs the question whether I listened to it closely enough (I did, thank you). In the years since, though, it’s simply been overshadowed by Field Music’s turn towards sharper pop (and their epic, Measure, before it).

Listening to Field Music brother, Peter Brewis’ latest project, You Tell Me, I felt compelled to revisit Plumb. Like You Tell Me, it’s more stately and mannered—containing subtler pleasures. Compulsively listening to the new work made me wonder what discoveries were hidden in the older one.

Plumb is populated with small vignettes (15 songs in 35+ minutes). It’s less about individual, standout tracks and more about painting a complete picture with the whole. Within, Field Music paints a nuanced portrait. It ranges from the poppy charge of Who’ll Pay the Bills to an a capella interlude and a handful of chamber ballads. From Hide and Seek to Heartache splits the difference: a melancholy but bouncy number layered in strings and handclaps. All these turns make Plumb come off as one of their proggier dispatches, despite it’s brevity. (The vocalese solo on Sorry Again, Mate is a clear tribute to former Soft Machine drummer, Robert Wyatt.) True to their trademark sound, though, the entire album is rich with hyper-detailed percussion, up front and center.

Plumb is a richly detailed work, worthy of spending more time with (but brief enough to not be a burden), which is exactly what I aim to do.

proto-punk street-cred

There's a standardized laundry list of bands that gets tossed around as proto-punk: the Velvets, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers—even prog-rocker Peter Hammill sometimes makes the cut. To that list, I'd add Yoko Ono.

Once reviled as the anti-Beatle that ruined everything—which was of course, preposterous, Yoko Ono has run a lifelong gauntlet of bullshit. Her marriage to John Lennon provided her enormous opportunities, but also brought her art to the attention of people that had zero context or desire to understand or engage with it. She was used as a bad punchline for art-rock jokes. Lately, as rock itself has moved out of the mainstream (again) and it's veered in artsier directions, she's been enjoying a bit of unexpected, elder stateswoman status. Big names are lining up 'round the block to collaborate with her.

If you go back to her solo work in the early 70s, Ono makes a great case for her status as a punk rock progenitor. Those albums feature strident, socio-political lyrics over songs squarely based on barroom blues—sounding off-the-cuff without much of any concern about the 'right' way to play or sing it. That's about as good a description of the early punk albums as I can think of. 

The song driving this all home, for me,  was I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window off 1973's  Approximately Infinite Universe. The title alone is punk as fuck. Over a slopped, funky blues riff, Ono muses about self-determination and escaping from her parents' (and by extension, society's) expectations. While the feminist implications are obvious, It's reach is well beyond, tapping into a vein of pure teen angst—the universal desire to come of your own age; the fount of all things punk rock. 

While songs like Clear Glass Window certainly presaged punk, in many ways, Yoko Ono is also a proto-post-punk artist (if you can stomach such an oxymoron). When her more outré tendencies collided with popular rock forms, as on Don't Worry Kyoko (Mommy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow) she helped clear a path for the utter dismantling of rock-n-roll's structures from within that would happen in the post-punk era.

the trouble with classicists

Let's start with this premise: there's a difference between being prescient and being a progenitor. Neither necessarily sees the future, but both—consciously, or unconsciously—represent what is to come. The real difference is the progenitor can be said to have actively made that future come about. Someone who is prescient is merely serendipitous. Velvet Underground were progenitors. Camper van Beethoven (and by some extension Cracker)—who I'd like to talk about, a bit, here—were prescient.

To say, 'merely' is a disservice, the pejorative equivalent of being ahead of your time. Camper van did—and still does—sound like nothing else out there, really. So what were they prescient of? In retrospect, their omnivorous absorption of musical history certainly seems truly ahead of its time.

Camper van Beethoven blended underground rock, ska and even dashes of Eastern European folk—occasionally in waltz time—to find an original voice. Sure, there was already punk proper (the screamy kind) and the nascent forms of much-more-straight-ahead indie rock (read: Replacements and REM), but in the college rock cafeteria, CvB had to eat at the freaks table; looked at askance even by the people others called weirdos. Fast forward to 1994, when Beck drops Mellow Gold and the Beastie Boys are peddling rap stew spiked with punk rock and vintage funk workouts and suddenly Camper van make perfect sense.

The closest thing they had to a hit was actually a cover of the august psychedelic chestnut, Pictures of Matchstick Men, which took off while the Pixies were just beginning to make ripples on the scene. Let's take a minute to also appreciate just how weird that hit really was. They unearthed a long-forgotten single you would expect find on the Nuggets collection of 60s garage rock. Even if that song was on Nuggets (it wasn't), that set wasn't reissued on CD until a decade after Key Lime Pie. The idea of espousing your love of obscure ephemera was not nearly such a thing as now, in the post-LCD Soundsystem new millennium.

By the early 90s—when everything was sounding distinctly more eclectic—Camper Van Beethoven had already ended. From their ashes, rose Cracker. As an avid fan of the former, the latter took me aback. Gone were the über-hyphenated genre mashups and in it's place was what could only be described as roots rock. Sure, roots rock with one hell of a sarcastic, snarky frontman, but this rawk was oddly primal. I came around quickly. It was too well done, too fun to resist, and (in a peculiar way) this realignment has proven prescient in its own right. It seems just as the alternative rock world was catching up to Camper van, Cracker was busy predicting ten years hence.

I came to this thought, as I was contemplating what a good run of just stone-cold classic sounding albums some of my favorite indie rock bands from the 90s were producing. From Superchunk to Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth to Mary Timony's Ex Hex: all producing music that sounded not just classic in quality but more capital-c Classic, in tone and color. These bands were giving the young-un's a course in Rock 101. Echoes of everything from the Stones to the Cars to Grateful Dead could be heard in it.

So we return to progenitor vs prescient. Did Camper van Beethoven spawn the voracious genre-hopping of the 90s? I think it's pretty safe to say: No. They were a niche, or even the niche of a niche. There are certainly plenty more prevailing forces, both market and cultural, that can explain that phenomenon. Did Cracker lay the seeds for the current fashion of indie-rockers returning to the epicenter of rock and pop? Even though Cracker was far more commercially successful than CvB, still the answer is: No. The grunge era hasn't been fully re-appreciated yet. Cracker hits are the sort still sneered at by the cognoscenti—at best, it's a guilty pleasure, thought of as a nostalgic throwback.

Perhaps though, we should give Cracker a second thought. Even if you're not influential enough to be a progenitor, being that prescient twice in one career is no mean feat.

hibernation listening

For some, unknown reason, I find myself compelled to to binge-listen in the dark cold of February. Some album will call to me, and I'll find myself listening to it almost daily for a month (or more). I've tried, in the last few years to steer that desire towards something new, or under-appreciated in my collection—in a valiant attempt to avoid purely nostalgic comfort-listening.

2016 is the year I make peace with PJ Harvey's White Chalk. This LP has been a line in the sand for me (if you'll pardon the pun). I was deeply vested in Harvey's career up to this point, but just sort of lost the thread at Chalk, I've not paid much attention to what came after it, or best, half-heartedly tried to reconnect.

It's worth noting, I never really faulted Harvey's muse nor would ever claim White Chalk, or the albums since, were bad. They just… failed to connect with something inside me. Beyond the fact that I have an inherent faith in PJ Harvey as an artist, critical acclaim continued to pour in. I wasn't alone per se, it seems to be a divisive album among her fans, but I felt on the wrong side of history.

I was perhaps a tad afraid of being uncharitable. I've often argued that we give far more artistic leeway to male singers and pop stars than we do female. Women are expected to be catchy, attractive and sing nice-n-purdy. It would seem doubly offensive to not extend equal open-mindedness to a women who burst into our collective consciousness with such an openly feminist howl. She took a stylistic detour, let's see where it leads. Rather than leapfrogging over the problem album, I'm going to solve the problem. White Chalk: it's you and me, all winter long.

losses, both public and personal

I have no proper standing to write a tribute to David Bowie. I'm not an artist nor critic and (of course) I didn't know him personally.

As a fan, I was born well after his debut, and his best work was behind him before I had object permanence. All the same, I came to him later still. It didn't help that my introduction was *shudder* Labyrinth. The first Bowie song I actually liked was Golden Years. It was in some overlong, made-for-TV Stephen King movie, but it inspired me to pick up a used cassette copy of the hits-compilation, Changes.

After that, he resurfaced with Tin Machine—who get no love to this day. Let's face facts, though: flawed as they were, Tin Machine pulled Bowie out of a creative nose-dive. All the interesting work he did in his 90s-era career resurgence was with Reeves Gabrels from the Machine. More salient to my personal history, Tin Machine baptized me—I was a born again David Bowie fanatic.

Since my indoctrination, I've steeped myself in his work. In 1999, Bowie re-remastered his catalog, issuing it all without the bonus tracks Rykodisc had included in previous editions. My friends and I then put our own box set together, compiling all that missing extra material together in one place—and then continued on to include more recent b-sides and live material to create a complete and up-to-date, alternate-universe portrait of Bowie. We spent months on it—designs, levels, track order, obtaining obscure bits we were missing. I even made a custom re-edit of the I'm Afraid of Americans remixes. In all my collecting, I've never taken on a project quite like it.

In the post-everything, indie-rock world at the turn of the century, Bowie has graduated to being as much a forgone conclusion as the Beatles. There is no question of quality or importance, just discussions over which Bowie was your favorite—conversations I've had countless times. I've talked through contradicting explanations of his career highlights and lowlights. Being such a completist, I've always cherished what I thought were under-appreciated corners of his catalog: from Pin-Ups and deep album cuts or b-sides from the 70s to Tin Machine or Earthling and Hours in the 90s.

Of his recent output—the two albums he put out after a decade of silence—I was initially disappointed by The Next Day, thinking Bowie was playing it too safe. With the much more experimental follow-up, Blackstar (and now, his death), I look back at it differently. It's as if Bowie proved he could give us what we wanted and expected of him; that he could age gracefully. Then he decided to say, "Naw, fuck that." Of late, Bowie seemed to be having the same conversations about his work we were: trying to make some form of sense from the messy whole of his career.

What's funny, is it doesn't feel as if I put as much stake in his iconography as others seem to. Even though a good portion of his work is, in essence, himself, Bowie matters to me for what he put down. He has proven time and again that pop music can be artful, and a practice of 'capital-a' Art. Stars don't have to age into irrelevance—that is, if they keep striving. They may fail, Bowie often did, but he failed by trying. I'll take a misguided mess of aspiration over a flaccid, lukewarm walk-through any day. Bowie will never be remembered for his mistakes—he's big enough, they'll never go away completely (nor should they), but his successes will tower over them with ever-greater import in the coming decades.

Still, this morning, after I read the news so rudely displayed on my phone's home-screen as the alarm went off, I found myself tearing up. What a way to wake the fuck up, "Beep! Beep! One of your heroes is dead!" Given my arm's-length distance from his persona, I felt weird for crying. So I made some bad jokes, "I guess they'll have to scrap their plans for Labyrinth II, now" or, "Funny that a gender-bending, transgressive icon died, aged 69" (da-duh-duh). Then I felt sort of callous for joking about it. The sadness was honest. Even if I only took what he put to wax, I was deeply vested in the story of that creative output, the arc of his art over time. As universal and public as that loss is, the sting of it feels very personal.

Today, I'm listening to his entire discography. All of it. The good, the bad, the mistakes and the works of unadulterated genius. I'm listening with the new perspective that the tale it's telling is suddenly complete.