Thursday, March 29, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 18

Neon - John Mayer

I discovered John Mayer as a guitarist first. Yes, he was a singer/songwriter too, but for me it was his acoustic style that initially caught my attention. I scoured Napster for all sorts of bootlegs of his guitar work. Some of them were live recordings, some were apparently from this album. On Napster the metadata was always screwed so it was hard to know these things.

Shortly after this he released Room for Squares, which was so overproduced that it made me sick to my stomach. It wasn't until he redeemed himself with his next album that I was truly able to forgive and return to Room for Squares to pick out the goodies.

"Neon" is a great track to demonstrate what initially caught my ear. The riff in this song is incredibly powerful. And it comes across far stronger here than it does with the full wall of sound from Room for Squares.

When Will I - Monte Montgomery

It was definitely Dan that pointed me to Monte. We were playing a lot of guitar together, and sharing recommendations of awesome artists we came across. He said something along the lines of "OMFG, this will blow your mind". I'll probably never find the bootleg live recording of "When Will I" that did exactly that. I remember that it ended with a stunned silence and then someone saying "holy shit" before the recording cut out. The album recording doesn't do hit the same highs, but it's all I've got after my hard drive with all those Napster MP3s failed. And it's still pretty damned good.

Gravel - Ani Difranco

So Jessica listened to a lot of angry female vocalists. It’s similar to how she loves books and movies where everything ends in beautiful tragedy. Later I would be exposed to many other different sides of Ani Difranco, but in the beginning it was mostly just the angry stuff.

I have two memories related to Jessica’s Ani mix tape. The first is her singing along to this song in the car, a bit too emphatically for my tastes. I mean, you really don't want your girlfriend singing "I abhor you" in the car with lots of ambiguous pointing. Sure, it also turns into "I adore you", but that whole love/hate blend wasn't exactly what I was looking for.

The second memory is an argument. She's not wearing her seatbelt, and is refusing my pleas to put one on. I now have a vested interest in her safety, and mild discomfort is not an acceptable excuse. She's not budging, so I escalate. I take this cassette tape, her Ani mix, out of the stereo and threaten to throw it out the window if she doesn't put her seatbelt on. She tries to call my bluff, and I chuck it.  It’s lost forever.

I don't think I've ever lived that one down. It was one of her favorite mixes. But I did eventually get her to start wearing her seatbelt.

I was really conflicted about what track to nominate here. I had a pretty intense reaction to "Fuel" as well. It's this crazy rhythmic poetry… something. It's music, but not in any conventional sense. And it's very powerful. But in the end the image of that mix tape laying in the gravel somewhere won out.

White Ladder - David Gray

I had gotten so used to Jessica introducing me to female artists that when she first played "Babylon" by David Gray I thought it was a female vocalist. She made fun of me for quite a while after that.

We went to see him at Bumbershoot. We don’t go anymore, because it turns out all the other people at Bumbershoot are colossal pushy assholes. But I do remember that David Gray evening show fondly.

I love the B-side of this album. Basically from "Silver Lining" on there's this lovely cohesive stretch. I don't know why they felt the need to include a second version of "Babylon" at the end of the album, because otherwise the close would be perfect.  When you can finish off with an album that has “Goodbye” in the title, you should.

Into The Mystic - Van Morrison

There's something about this song that seems to capture the maturing relationship between Jessica and me. We were relaxing into the more serious thing we’d arrived at. I was getting along better with her parents. For some reason this song sounds like that time to me, but I can't pinpoint any specific reason why. It's sure a great song though.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 17

Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer - Morphine

I discovered Morphine through my dad, of all people. Although at pretty much the exact same time Jessica also came across it too. To this day I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but what I know is that me, my dad, and Jessica were all grooving on this at the same time. My mom couldn't stand it, but she was outnumbered.

The entry point was The Night, and at least for me the first song was "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer". It was the sort of song that really worked for my dad, a real foot tapper. I remember sitting at the dining table listening to it with him and Jessica.

It's actually really striking how perfect an introduction this was for me. It's not an entirely representative Morphine song, but it was the right one for the journey I had been on. The beat, the organ, the horns, the nonsense lyrics, a deep earthy bass-y feel. Looking back at my path, this song had so many elements that my receptors were perfectly tuned for, waiting. And once this song hooked me, I delved into Morphine deep.

But let me tell you, there are few things as tragic as finally finding your favorite band, and then realizing that the album you hold in your hand is a posthumous release. There will never be any more Morphine, and it kills me. Their music speaks to me in a visceral way, and there's truly nothing else out there like it.

Souvenir - Morphine

Souvenir didn't hit my radar right away. But hot damn how it worked its tendrils in. The creepy piano. Minimalistic sound. Crippled drum beat. A rumbling darkness. It evokes a dark smoky bar, silent after hours. Or a black swamp. I feel like I'm moving through molasses. And then the horns start to come in, gently at first, and then in full climax. Rolling, unearthing, drudging up… something. So. Hot.

Running to Stand Still - U2

This is an odd choice to place here in the timeline. Let me explain. This was the Napster era. For music discovery, it was a beautiful revelation. Thought could become experience within a matter of moments.

But it was also an opportunity for rediscovery. Songs, ideas that I had been exposed to in the past… I now had a tool with which go back and explore them. This happened with The Joshua Tree. I'm pretty sure my brother had the album while I was still at home, but he wasn't about to let me hang on to it after I had so thoroughly stolen Rattle and Hum. It wasn't until the Napster era that I went back and turned those initial glimpses into a real experience. That's when I really found and fell in love with "Running to Stand Still." And then I bought the album.

Debra - Beck

The magic of the internet also enabled discovery of new awesome things, including this song. I had heard some Beck back when he put out Odelay, and that sound didn't really work for me. But this song. Is. Awesome.

It's funny. It's groovy. It's sexy. It made me like Beck, and really see the dynamic and capable artist he is. It takes some serious skill to pull off something like this, and he's got it in spades. I wouldn't start processing Beck on album level until Sea Change, but it's this song that laid the groundwork.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 16

Ever So Lonely - Sheila Chandra

I feel like I've been saying this a lot (and will continue to): this song is huddled inside, out of the cold and rain, in bed with Jessica. It sounds scandalous, but even though it's none of your business I feel like I need to say I'm not implying any impropriety. We just spent a lot of time in bed, cuddled up, listening to music. Let's be fair, we still do. But those first months were a huge injection of shared musical experiences. Some were new for just me, some were new for both. In this case it was an album from her roommate Erin, so we were processing it at the same time.

It's noteworthy how not in-line with my style this is. It's all vocals, and there's not a lick of rhythm to most of it. It's more ambience than what I'd usually consider music. But it's also incredibly beautiful.

Years later, Jessica and I were probably the only two people in the movie theater who perked up to a song in The Two Towers to wonder "Is that Sheila Chandra?"

Almost Done - Morcheeba

I remember "Friction" off of Big Calm being the first Morcheeba song Jessica played for me. But it wasn't the one that first connected. Naturally, it was the stuff we listened to while laying around: Who Can You Trust?

Apparently the whole time we were listening to it Jessica was a little on edge. I was listening to almost strictly acoustic music at the time. Every time a track had a little record scratch she was worried that I would freak out. I didn't. I had never heard this whole "trip-hop" thing, but it totally worked for me. Relaxed, but rhythmic? Sign me up.

"Trigger Hippie" is the catchy song that welcomes you in. "Tape Loop" then firmly carries you into a relaxed groove. But the real destination of all of this, the place you hope to elevate to, is "Almost Done".

I just want to breathe it in and live there. It's slow enough to leave you eagerly anticipating every next movement. This song is just so damned sexy. It's like the song is making love to my head.

Shoulder Holster - Morcheeba

After Who Can You Trust? won me over, it was time to delve into Big Calm. The tone of was considerably more up-beat, but still ever so good. Where the previous album was down and gritty, this one immediately lifted me up with the crystal vocals of "The Sea".

But the song that stood out for me was "Shoulder Holster". And I couldn’t immediately put my finger on why. It was this crazy blend of all sorts of musical influences, and it totally worked in this way unlike anything I'd ever heard. Deep vocals, a heavy beat, sitar, record scratching, slide guitar… it all melded into some crazy kind of awesome.

Dishonorable mention to the title track, "Big Calm". Pretty much every Morcheeba album had one truly awful song that never should have happened. How that became the title of the album is beyond me. Skip it, enjoy the rest.

Criminal - Fiona Apple

I had heard Fiona Apple before. I remembered seeing the video for this song on the MTVs, with her all vignetted, emaciated, and red eyed. I also remember her legendary acceptance speech. For as much as they tried to turn her into some weird heroine-chic sex object, there is some serious power in that tiny body. Her voice, her piano… so deep.

So I first heard this back in '96. I almost ended up with the album too. There was one of those CD club things where you could get a couple albums cheap if you then remembered to get out again quick. This album was barely cut from my first draft list, and I didn’t end up getting it.

Which brings us to this time with Jessica, who was smarter than me and had picked up the album. It's basically impossible to pick a single song to represent it; the album is just too good. And it matched the chill mood that Jessica and I had together. I finally got to my chance to sink into the deep rolling tones of Tidal, and it was so good.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 15

Say Goodbye - Dave Matthews Band

I told you Crash was going to show up a lot on this list. This one's special though, trust me.

I’m in my dorm room, and it’s raining outside.  With me is my new friend Jessica, and we just had an unexpected and delightful make-out session. The sound of the rain... I can still hear it in the song. I swear it's part of the track.

In that blissful moment we are listening to this song and drinking the lyrical kool-aid. “Tonight let's be lovers… and tomorrow go back to being friends.” I mean, this diversion was fun and all, but long-term it's a terrible idea. So we should just stick with the original plan and be friends. This is totally going to work. No problem.


Spoiler: I married her. Not right then and there, god no. We were so young! Years later. The point is, I can't hear this song without thinking about the beginning of it all. The moment when we first really saw each other and what could be.

Perfect Blue Buildings - Counting Crows

Jessica and I didn't go to the same school. We weren't so far away as to make crossing the distance impossible, but we only got to see each other on the occasional weekend. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that I didn't have a car, so mostly she had to come to me. But there were definitely times when I could make it out to her. And those times are deeply ingrained into me.

Jessica had painted her dorm room blue. This most definitely wasn't allowed by the school, but that didn't stop her. It was this beautiful soothing deep blue, with a print of Starry Night on the wall. It was sanctuary.

We spent a lot of time in that room together. Laying around, talking, and listening to music. This entire Counting Crows album is a big part of that. It's hard to pick out a single song to represent it. In the end I went with "Perfect Blue Buildings", in memory of her perfect blue room.

On & On - Erykah Badu

This song comes from those early times spent lounging about with Jessica. The Counting Crows weren't exactly a stretch for my palate; Erykah Badu was. But damn, this album is good. And not just as a collection of tracks, but as an album. It's got planned book ending with "Rimshot", which leads you in and out of the sound of the album. It's got songs in the progression that set up and then call back to each other. It was planned as a cohesive experience. And I love that.

Remember how not so long ago I was paying attention to lyrics? Yeah… don't think for a moment that that stuck. I was about to select a different song for this album, until I was informed that I had been mis-hearing the lyrics for, um, a decade. I thought the lyric was "still in bed", apparently it was "still livin'". Completely changed the song for me. Oh well, I still had "Certainly" and "On & On" as alternates.

Heavy Things - Phish

It was time to ring in a new millennium. Most years I would let the new year drift in without much celebration, but this was a moment worthy of epic party. I ended up going to a show in Portland with Jessica, Kevin, and Billy. Somewhere in a box I have photos from this trip, taken on a commemorative disposable camera.

The headlining band was The String Cheese Incident. I had heard of them before, but never listened to them. They were another jam band in the style of the Dead or Phish. I'm sure their performance was perfectly fine, but there was so much else going on that it didn't really leave an impression on me. I did pick up an album to check them out, and remember getting a kick out of their cover of "Take Five".

After the New Year had come I remember seeing a bit on TV about the various celebrations around the world. Of course our little Portland dig wasn't featured, but they did show a full song from the epic Phish concert. It was weird to see Peter Jennings introduce this band that I'd spent so much time with.

The song was "Heavy Things", and in no way did I experience that song during my actual New Year's Eve celebration, but after the fact it became the song I associate with the event.

Brunette - Keller Williams

There were many acts at the millennial New Year's Eve show: musicians, jugglers, dancers. One single musician really captivated me. He would record little bits with his guitar and voice (mouth trumpet and all), and in real time layer them over each other. It started out simple, but over time created a full rich sound.

He was clearly a very talented guitarist and the act was fun to listen to, but the nature of this type of performance doesn't really transition to an album recording. He did have albums, but they're just so different from what he did that night. I think something that at least somewhat captures his one man band sound is "Brunette". It doesn't have the layering, but it's sure a whole lot of sound for just one guitar.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 14

Baba Blues - Hanuman Trio

I was in Portland with Kevin for a show of this band I had been listening to called The Jazz Mandolin Project. I'd had a mediocre experience with opening bands before, but this one stole the show. The leader of the trio, Jarrad Kaplan, illuminated that difference between a drummer and a true percussionist. He was surrounded all sorts of things that made sound, and he worked each of them to his advantage. You can hear Jarrad in the background of this recording, vocalizing along with the guitar. Because he was so damned into the music that he couldn't help it. Such an raw energy in that man.

This song has such a delicious slow groove. It has time to breathe before it opens up. And the tone of Paul Benoit's guitar… tasty. I bought an album from the band on the spot. I walked away far more interested in this small local band than the band that had actually brought me to the show.

Green Man - Hanuman

I tracked this Hanuman band down with the magic of the internet. I found some sample tracks of their music on their web site, which was the first time I'd seen such a reasonable discovery experience. Try before you buy… what? That may had been technology magic, but the purchase was decidedly low tech: I sent a check to a local Seattle mailing address and one of the dudes in the band sent me back a CD.

The album that I had purchased was actually a journey backward in band time, to a time when the band had a flautist. You know… with a flute.

I liked the album, but I was oddly self conscious about it. I remember having a conversation with this girl in the dorms, Amy, about whether other people would judge me for my music. Maybe it was being thrust into a completely new group of people. Maybe it was living so close to everyone without a ton of privacy. But for moment I doubted myself. I doubted my music. She was reassuring. I got over it.

I think the track I played for her was "Green Man", the first track. But in cataloging this entry I was extremely tempted to skip the memory and use the slot to promote "Emry's Vision", on account of it being rad. Or "Moon Dog Funk". Lots of great moments on that album.

One Sweet World - Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds

I listened to a lot of Dave Matthews Band in high school, as you know by now. The same year I left for college Dave released this album from his acoustic college tours. He paired with Tim Reynolds, and the two of them worked without additional accompaniment to replicate the band's full sound. The album thus centered on songs that can be played by two guitars. As I set off to meet new people, guitar in hand, this was perfect for me.

I have many memories of doing Dave Matthews covers with my friends Dan and Billy in the dorms. Some of the residents loved that; others wanted us to shut up so they could go back to studying. Regardless I think of this as my high point in guitar-dom. Good music, good friends, simple times. One of us would continue on to take music more seriously. Sadly, it wasn't me; that honor goes to Dan.

My choice of One Sweet World here is pretty much arbitrary. It captures the feel of the album, but we pretty much played all of them and so much more.

Run On - Moby

Although we were in my acoustic golden age, that wasn't all I was listening to. This song… this song is excellent. That driving piano beat, the sampled vocals with that olde thyme feel, the smooth tone, and relentless grove. This isn't music performed by musicians on raw instruments. It's remixed, blended… and somehow better for it. This album laid some groundwork for my acceptance of music to come.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 13

Hmmm… I may have been a bit overzealous in zipping to the end of high school. These first two songs should be retroactively spliced in before prom and "Like A Prayer". I know, the academic sloppiness of being off by a couple months… you must be horrified.

Do What You Have To Do - Sarah McLachlan

I never owned this album. I say this not in an effort to protect my manliness (although this is probably the girliest entry on this list). I say this because it's noteworthy how well I know the album given that I never had personal access to it. This is the result of dating someone with a different musical history; you get a deep dive into their music tastes without even realizing that it's happening.

As I built this list I often do research by listening to albums I remember being exposed to at the time. Sometimes I come back with memories, sometimes I don't. This one was a bit of a late addition, something I didn't even consider until a week ago. But I'm glad I acted on that idea. This album sounds like high school to me. It sounds like prom. And it sounds like the relationship I was in.

I didn't go out of my way to select a song with any lyrical significance. But in listening through the album this song oddly stuck out to me, and then I noticed the lyrics of what I had chosen. "I don't know how to let you go." Wow, okay. Um, did I mention that this was a doomed relationship? It was the end of high school, and we were each going away to colleges in different states. The experiment had an undeniable fixed end point. It didn't really matter if it was going well, it was going to fall apart. It had to. That creates a very particular brew of emotions. And this song stirs those up.

There were less heavy aspects to this album. "Ice Cream", for example. But I'm going to stick with my first instinct and go with the melodrama.

They Can't Take That Away From Me - Diana Krall

Okay, I feel terribly exposed talking about all these intimate details on the internet. When I started this project I didn't realize how personal it was going to get. I guess that's just the cost of telling my musical story. My relationship to music is intimate and steeped in memory. I'm apparently incapable of talking about one without the other.

So, continuing...

It's a unique kind of relationship that starts from an existing close friendship. There's an immediate intensity to it. Combine that with a fixed time limit, and it's even more so. In this song I clearly see the two of us, up late talking, listening to music, and just generally enjoying the moment. This memory must have taken time during high school, not the summer after, because I specifically remember hearing the lyric of "the way we dance 'til 3" and realizing that it was at least 3am at that very moment. On a school night. And I had to be up in only a few hours. Still, no regrets.

For someone who isn't really into lyrics, I seem rather focused on them here. But the song doesn't lie, this was a person who really and truly changed my life. I would not be the same person if I had never met her. The memory of all that… no, you can't take that way from me.

Weapon and the Wound - Days of the New

Okay, we need a shift in tone. Something a little less heavy. Well… this song has one of those odd associations that's entirely personal to me and completely irrelevant to anyone else. This song makes me think of mammoth tanks.

I'm on the computer in my dad's office. I'm listening to the radio and they're doing an interview on the release of the second Days of the New album. It turns out the band is really just one dude, Travis Meeks, because he fired the rest between albums. The first album was basically acoustic guitar porn; the second one is a far more ambitious project.

The point is that I was listening to this interview and later the whole album as I'm playing Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun. I'm building my base, sending out tanks, and listening to my custom soundtrack. Two independent pieces of content consumed at the same time, forever linked together in my brain.

I struggled to pick the one song from the album to represent this connection. In the end it had to be "Weapon and the Wound", because I have a reaction to the orchestral beginning of this song that evokes specific units from the game. What I was doing and what I was listening to matched particularly poorly at that point in time. The song does not suggest mammoth tank carnage, but that's what was unfolding before my eyes. Yet now, they totally match for me, because that's how memory links everything together.

The Opera - The Jazz Mandolin Project

Probably more than any other, this song represents what this list is about. Music memory.

I had just dropped my girlfriend and her family off at the airport. I saw them off at the gate, because back then you could do that sort of thing. It's shortly after that moment, and I'm driving their minivan home. But it's my music in the stereo. This isn't the first song that comes on after leaving the airport; it's actually a bit later when this perfect match to my mood hits. To this day I can see where I was in all clarity, driving on I-5, every single time this song starts.

In that moment emotion and music found each other and fused. Permanently. Those first couple notes hit me so hard, and they still do. After that gentle start then the song develops this understated drive that perfectly synced with my very real and physical drive away from a difficult emotional moment. It then turns its somber character to be slightly more optimistic. I was in that moment considering my very near and very unsure future, and this tone was a great aid to me.

That first minute and a half of this song are so intensely familiar to me. It's honestly startling the power it still has over me.

I've always considered myself to have a poor memory. This whole project has really helped solidify a different perspective on that. It isn't that my memory is bad; it's that it doesn't store what I expect it to. I never have forgotten the memory of this song, but I didn't realize how many similar connections I have buried in my head. This musical archaeology has helped me realize this, and I'm so happy that I decided to go on this crazy journey.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 12

Little Wing - Stevie Ray Vaughn

In my last two years of high school I added on part time community college classes via the "Running Start" program. Between the two it was a lot of school. It was kind of ridiculous. For some reason I didn't really question the sanity of it.

It was the one time in my life that I ever really drove. I had delayed as long as possible before getting my license, and only a year or two later when I arrived at college I ditched personal transport for public transit. But when I was doing high school and community college at the same time there was no other way to get it done.  One of the few things I liked about driving was the excellent acoustics. There was something just truly personal about being sealed in with music all around you.

I have a distinct memory of driving to class at the community college when "Little Wing" came on. It created a dilemma. If I were to get out of my car right then (which is what I needed to do to be on time for class) I would miss the rest of the song. But this song was too good. I hung out in the parking lot to let the song play out. Finishing that song was clearly more important than my education.

The thing is, that wasn't even my first time with the song. I had heard it plenty of times before, and knew I would again. That was kind of the problem; I knew exactly how good it was. It's pure bliss, beginning to end, and on a level that manages to make Jimi look like barely knew what he was doing with the original.

Lie in Our Graves - Dave Matthews Band

This unassuming song takes me a couple places.

First is to an empty parking lot with my friends Kristin and Dave. We're listening to Dave Matthews on the car stereo, windows down, and dancing outside.  We probably look like total idiots, but we don’t care.

Next is at a church Young Life function, where Kristin is going through the song lyric by lyric in some presentation on the power of secular music. Dave and I are in the back, dancing in our chairs, and being thoroughly distracting.

Finally is me by myself, playing the song on the guitar. This was one of the few songs I actually learned how to play in its entirety. That may sound like it’d be a more common occurrence, but unless you're actually performing music it's far easier to just learn the main riffs of songs and leave it at that. This song has many different forms and transitions, and I decided to learned them all. I could play it from beginning to end, or at least I could back then.

It's not my favorite Dave Matthews song, but it is one that's special to me through some set of oddly personal events.

All-Star – Smash Mouth

This song is Dave. He was a totally charismatic guy that would go through the halls and somehow be friends with everyone. I've never known anyone with as much school spirit as Dave.  During Senior year he called everyone "All-Star".  He was kind of a catch phrase kind of guy, but he somehow managed to make it sound personal for each person.

We eventually became pretty good friends. We'd been around each other for all of high school and earlier, but it wasn't until Senior year that anything clicked. This was largely the result of shared proximity to Kristin, but Dave and I found our own ways to bond, like Starcraft.

Later we had a sort of a falling out. There was an incident involving a girl that Dave didn't approve of, but we never talked about it. We just allowed things to drift apart.  When you've both left to different cities for college it's incredibly easy to just let things fade and die naturally.

Sugar Craft – Medeski, Martin & Wood

Later in life Jessica (we’ll get to her, but not quite yet) would be worried about exposing me to Morcheeba because of the record scratching and general mixed and/or electronic elements. I had become pretty strongly acoustic in my music listening habits, and she was worried about offending my gentle sensibilities. But she had nothing to fear, because years earlier I had been listening to the continually evolving and experimenting music of MMW. Although it was dormant then, I’d already adopted stuff like this to my vocabulary years earlier.

Like a Prayer - Madonna

There are two memories to go along with this song. The first is well before this moment in time, somewhere early 90's.

It's dinner time, but MTV is playing in the adjacent living room. For some reason it just gets left on. My dad wanders over to watch what's going on over there. On MTV is Madonna, specifically "Like a Prayer". He seems a little overly fixated, or at least according to my mom's perception. Shortly thereafter a call is made to the cable company and we no longer have MTV.

This remains true until years later when they switch what channel MTV airs on and instead we're blocked out of some other (far more harmless) channel. My brother and I neglect to inform my mom of the change.

Pulling the plug on MTV was for the best, really. By then it had already started its transition from music television to teenage marketing. I was glad to be exposed to music videos at all, because the pairing of music to imagery can be extremely powerful. But in the long run I was better off without MTV.

Okay, so given that story why am I talking about “Like a Prayer” now?

It's Senior prom. Not my school's prom, but that of a friend. A special friend who never really became a special friend. Look, it's too complicated to get into here.

Despite not knowing anyone there because it wasn't my school I still had a good time at the prom. When it's over we head to an after-party at one of her friend's house. Nothing rambunctious, just a small group of people hanging out, giggling, and signing karaoke.

It was at this point that my friend completely transformed my interpretation of this song. She explained to all of us that this song is about fellatio, right before singing it, and dancing along. I remember laughing, a lot. She was quite convincing, and now that's all I hear from this song.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 11

I Could Be Wrong - Seven Mary Three

There is a drum kit in my basement. There isn't normally, but today there is. That's because there's music brewing in the basement. Me and a collection of friends are recreating “I Could Be Wrong” to the best of our ability. Including drums. Including horns. This shit is happening.

I don't think we did a terribly good job of covering the song. But we tried, and it was fun. I remember going through the shared guitar/horn solo with Andy. I remember that feeling of a group of people working together to co-create. For as much time as I've spent on music in my life, not very much of it has been spent making music with other people. That's probably not very wise of me.

This motley crew of half-committed musicians also attempted some original works. I have a cassette case labeled with one of those recordings. Cruelly the case is empty; the tape that goes with it got lost in the shuffle. I still hope that one day I'll stumble upon it and unlock a window into this time period.

Born on the Bayou – Creedence Clearwater Revival

In Freshman year my social studies class required a presentation on a scale that blew my middle-school mind. The teacher wanted us to talk for how long? In front of everyone? It was supposed to be about some modern nation, but I had Egypt and totally cheated by talking about pharaohs and mummification the whole time. I spent more time on the rendition of Anubis on my oversized poster than I did on planned talking points. When my presentation was over my teacher made some comment about my radio voice. I barely heard it over my relief to be finished. But it turns out he was slightly prophetic, as that I ended up being a radio DJ for my final high school years.

Okay, so it was only the local student station (KGHP). And it's not like I was selected for my voice - I just got the gig as a hand me down from my friends Phil and Ethan after they graduated. But I had a fair amount of fun with it.

I played a selection of music that sourced from all the things you've read about here, but more than anything I played classic rock. And Creedence Clearwater Revival is about as classic rock as it gets. So why "Born on the Bayou"?  Sure I could put on something like "Fortunate Son", but that song's only like two minutes long. Since I needed to manually transition every song change I found myself subconsciously preferring the longer songs that gave me more time between. Plus "Born on the Bayou" has a great groove.

Shelf In The Room - Days of the New

My dad has acquired a rental property. I'm there to see the units for the first time. For some reason there's an odd thing in the wall that also acts as a radio. I don't think there was a callbox, so this wall device can't be related to that. I feel like it was a thermostat, but what's a thermostat doing with a radio? I remember thinking this was odd, but nonetheless tuning the radio and picking up this song. The speaker sounded awful, but there was still something nice about filling the empty apartment room with some raw acoustic music.

That wasn't the first time I had heard the band or the song, but I think it was shortly after that that I picked up the album. It was exactly the sort of thing I needed: a celebration of the acoustic guitar. There are other instruments at work here, but there's no denying the aggressively foreground guitar. It's got a full and varied sound that makes you question why you'd ever need to electrify and distort such a powerful instrument.

I was excited to try to learn these songs. I bought the guitar tablature, but it turned out almost every song on the album had a crazy unique tuning. That killed the ability to pick up and play songs like these in a mixed rotation. It was hugely disappointing because I had been so excited to try to learn this style. Oh well, it was still inspiring to listen to.

Paran - Bar Kokhba

So my friend Kevin had already been this great source of music influences. This one time I was hanging out at his house and he was playing… this. It catches my attention. I got the name from him and later bought a copy of the album. It's the most Jewish thing I own.

I believe Kevin found the album as a result of the involvement of John Medeski, one of the M's in MMW. It's a strange album compared to the rest of my collection. I didn't know exactly what to make of it, other than that there was something I liked about it. And because of the purely instrumental nature it was something I could listen to alongside all sorts of things. This gave it some legs.

There's something about this album that makes me think of Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption, a PC game that I would be playing later in college. That association exists, but I'm not exactly sure they are things I experienced overlapping. It's true that this album feels like a good soundtrack for the early sections of the game in Prague and Vienna, but logistically I just can't imagine myself setting up custom background music. There's always been a mental connection between Kevin and Vampire (both the pen and paper game and the card game), so it's possible that my brain just connected these two things up all on its own.

#41 - Dave Matthews Band

Eventually I took a deeper look at The Dave Matthews Band. I can't remember what song brought me in, but it's safe to say that Crash was the album. I listened to Under the Table and Dreaming around this time too, and very much enjoyed it, but for whatever reason it didn't manage to form concrete memories like Crash did. Crash will have more contributions to this timeline than any other album, and that's on a list where I try hard to only pick one song per album unless absolutely necessary.

Once I discovered The Dave Matthews Band I got into them a big way. The band was capable of a diverse sound from its unique combination of instruments, which I appreciated. But something that was particularly important to me was that Matthews could actually play the guitar. Well. And it was an acoustic guitar. These were not simple three chord jams hidden behind waves of distortion. Playing along to these songs demanded that I make significant growth as a guitarist.

I can't imagine "#41" being played by any other band. It's a song that defies description, which is probably why it never got a name. It was most likely "Crash Into Me" that caused me to pick up the album, but it's the complexity behind something like "#41" that caused me to delve deep into this band for years.

Although I also have a loving memory of my dad dancing around like a monkey to "Proudest Monkey". That's good stuff too.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 10

Under the Bridge - The Red Hot Chili Peppers

I put this song far later into the timeline than when I first experienced it (which would have been 1991-1992). That's because to me it goes with a very specific memory, one which eclipsed whatever previous attachment I had for the song.

I'm on the return trip from my one and only experience ice skating. I'm riding in the back seat with a girl. I've been seeing more of this girl at school lately, and I've decided I like her. Somehow I muster the courage to sing this song to her. I'm sure it must have been along to the radio, not unprompted a capella, although over the years my voice has grown louder and the radio has grown quieter. Following this there was some head-resting-on-shoulder action. Apparently it wasn't so terrible as to make her run away.  She must have liked me, because it’s not like I can sing.

Three Marlenas - The Wallflowers

I remember a discussion about what was the best song on this album between myself, my brother, and my brother's girlfriend Francesca. The decision made (at least by that vote) was that it was "Three Marlenas". It's a good song, sure, but I think perhaps my brother may have been unduly influenced by the fact that the song mentions Chevrolet; he was a bit of a fanatic back then.

I'm sure my brother only has vile things to say about her now, but I really liked my brother's girlfriend. It was like having a big sister. She could give me advice that I very much needed.

At this moment in time I had a viable prospective love interest. A first.  As in a girl that seemed to like me back, and I thought we might kiss. Which I have never done before. Oh crap!

Francesca gave me the invaluable tip to practice kissing on my hand first. This is the sort of thing you need a sister to tell you to do. I felt more than a bit silly, but it better to work out the kinks well in advance. I don't know how awful I was, but I'm sure I would have been way worse without that advice.

Comedown - Bush

For me this is the point where we transitioned from calling it "grunge" to calling it "alternative". I mean, this is a pretty man. How can the music made by pretty people be called "grunge"?

This was an influence from my newfound girlfriend (!) Cambria. It wasn't a lasting impression musically, but it was nice that we could listen to the same things. I recall her not having a problem with the lead singer being a pretty man.

I had an image in my brain from the music video for this song. In my head I see a guitar cord that's a big tube and someone aggressively thrusting a guitar towards the camera. The particular image coincides with 3:33 in the song, where the music lands after drifting away a bit and is celebrated with a masterfully singular guitar hit. It's the powerful return to form that "Lightning Crashes" didn't have. Anyway, I had an image in my head of what that looks like in the music video. And I just watched it again and it’s not there. Clearly I remembered the video, but in my head the details are incredibly different. The edit of the song for the video is shorter, so the same moment happens at 2:47. I don't know when my memory drifted apart from reality. The specific image I have doesn't occur anywhere in that video. It's weird to have a concrete image in your head that is provably wrong.

Lucky - Seven Mary Three

This album is the greatest musical takeaway from my relationship with Cambria. After my general dissatisfaction with the previous Seven Mary Three album I hadn't followed up on the band. I should have, because the next album, this album, is great.

Well, great-ish. The correct way to experience this album is to listen to the first track ("Lucky"), and then skip ahead to track 4 ("Honey Generation"), and after that move to 6 ("People Like New") to ride out the rest of the album. I believed this so strongly that years later when I ripped the CD (digital music, crazy I know) I deleted those tracks (2, 3, and 5) entirely. Right now, as I'm writing this, I'm listening to them for the first time in at least a decade.

It's not that those songs are the worst ever. They're just wrong for the album. I feel like I'm repeating myself here, but the B-side of this album is the album. It has a sound, and that sound is good. That stuff at the beginning just gets in the way.

So why "Lucky"? Well, there would have been an easy way to bypass my problem entirely: always start at track 6. But I could never listen to the album without "Lucky". That would just be wrong. I would rather tolerate the pain of having to wait for the song to end and then quickly skip ahead past the bad stuff. The song was (and is) that good.

Soldier's Daughter - Tonic

Here we have another album brought to my attention by my first girlfriend. Shortly after hearing this song I decided I was going to attempt to learn how to play it for her. But playing it wasn't enough, I was going to both provide guitar and vocals. This is not something I actually could (or can) do, mind you. I don't know if it's the guitar playing or the singing that takes more concentration, but what matters is that the combination requires more than I have. So this was a doomed desire from the outset and thus never fully materialized.

One key thing made it even possible to attempt in the first place. That thing is the internet. Yes, we have an internet now at this point in the timeline. I know this because I looked up the guitar tablature for this song on the internet. Back in '97 with some pre-Google search engine.

The end result of all of this is that I know the song rather well. Not well enough, of course, but well. And I still like it, because it's a great song. I like the album as a whole, actually. It's something I only really listened to during this time in my life, but I feel like deserves more.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Music Made Me - Part 9

Billy Breathes - Phish

Throughout all my musical explorations over these years Phish was part of my vocabulary the whole time. It's not something that really any one else I knew was listening to, and it's not like Phish got much play on the radio, but I kept on listening.

The album Billy Breathes felt like a significant departure for the band. For a band known for their live performances, it was clear that this was a studio album through and through. From the first couple songs you could hear that the band was trying to create something tighter. The songs are reasonable in length, there are some lyrics that actually try, there are nice vocal harmonies, and there’s a distinct lack of meandering jams. This music was designed to be listened to in this way, recorded, not live. Which for Phish was… different.

Those first couple tracks felt more like singles, and they just don't stand up to repeated listening as well. But the B-side of this album is solid. Can I still call it a B-side when I'm talking about the remaining 10 of 13 tracks?. It just all sounds like a B-side. It's got a gentle consistent sound. It's actually hard to pick out the individual songs, because everything flows together so well.

I've mentioned before a habit of preparing for sleep with music; finding albums that had good endings so that I could just leave them on to play me out. This was definitely one of those albums. Maybe the last one, as that the habit didn't last beyond high school.

I was going to nominate "Prince Caspian" to represent this album in the timeline. It's the last song on the album, and would always bring me back awake a bit (albeit in a happy gentle kind of way). But after further reflection it's the title track, "Billy Breathes", that really sums up the whole run for me. It's understated, mellow, soothing, vocally compelling and musically diverse. And I love how it leads into "Swept Away", which then is turned slightly nightmarish for "Steep", which sets you up for the fresh breath of morning that is "Caspian". Many albums ago Phish had tried to do a dream concept album, Rift, but Billy Breathes pulls off the same idea so much better.

Three years later I would begin dating the woman who would eventually become my wife. That first year I gave her a Christmas gift, which was a bowl I painted for her... and this album. Billy Breathes had stayed in my head space that whole time, and really felt like something that showed a key part of my musical experience.

Bubblehouse - Medeski, Martin & Wood

Remember MMW from before? Groovy organs, maybe sometimes a little crazy? Well Shack Man brought a little more of that groove out. And my friend Kevin, who introduced me to the band, was not just listening to this, he was working on emulating it. Piano was taking a bigger role in his life, and he was starting to work towards the musician/composer that he would eventually become.

I think it was a school talent show, but I can't actually remember specifically. I just remember Kevin performing "Bubblehouse". Which is a bit of a gimmicky song. It increases in pace until it gets to unmaintainable place. Then some random stuff happens that doesn't really work well before it drops right back into the original riff at exactly the right speed (at 2:50, again at 3:33). It's one of those moments where departing from center makes center more valuable. Contrast. But the cost on this contrast is slightly unbalanced, limiting my enjoyment. Still, it was much fun to see my friend frantically hammer away at those keys. I don't know if he considers it a turning point in his life, but from my perspective it felt like it was.

I'd be remiss without mention "Dracula". Not because it's tied into another specific memory, but because it's a great MMW song from this album.

Too Much - Dave Matthews Band

I'm in my bedroom, playing with LEGOs. I'm too old to be playing with LEGOs, but LEGOs are awesome, so I don't care. I still don't. A song comes on the radio. It sounds kind of like "Sledgehammer". When the song is over the DJ says it’s by some band called "The Dave Matthews Band". I remark to myself that this is a stupid name for a band. I return to my LEGOs.

That stupidly named band will become a critical part of my musical experience from late high school to early college, but at this moment they leave almost no impact whatsoever. I have the memory, but in no way did I rush out and buy the album, or even look the band up.

Disco Inferno - The Trammps

The older we got the less my brother and I hung out, but there was still overlap. Some of his friends I liked, some I didn't. Some of them also became my friends. One of those was Ethan.

At our high school, seniors had to put together some sort of senior project as part of their graduation requirement. Ethan was interested in film making, so he decided to make a movie. More specifically, a stop-motion animated movie. I ended up being involved as the character creator and animator. The title: "Timmy and the Space Creatures".

In the movie aliens come to Earth in response to receiving an "audio delight" that reached them as radio waves after traveling through space for decades. They capture a young boy and demand he produce more. There's a dance sequence to "Disco Inferno". Forever that song for me is hours spent in Ethan's garage painstakingly moving small clay figures. It was a lot of work, and it was also incredibly fun.

Wake Up - Mad Season

Outside of the movie, I did get a more contemporary music reference from Ethan. I only remember two songs from the album: "Wake Up" and "River of Deceit". Those are the first and third tracks, but I have no memory of the second. I got this as a copy from Ethan on cassette, so I think that means he actually saved me the trouble and just edited that out.

I don't know about you, but I got pretty much no sleep in high school. The staggered transportation schedule with the other school tiers (middle and elementary) results in high school students having to get up ridiculously early. School eats up a large section of your day, and then you've got the remainder to find out who you are as a person. By the end of all of this it's late and you're exhausted.

As mentioned above, I would go asleep to music. But waking up to music can be nice too. I took the suggestion in the title "Wake Up" and for awhile I used that song as a gentle wake up progression. It starts soft and builds into something harder to ignore, making it a good fit for the sleep deprived student.

Freaks - Live

As far as I can tell, this is the last album I ever had a copy of on cassette. Yes, there were some mix tapes after this, but this was the last time I remember getting a copy of a full album on cassette.

In hearing this song I experience two concrete sensory memories of friends singing along. At 1:40 I see Mary, at 3:13 I see Andy. I think these memories are from the same sitting, but I can't place where. But it's startling how clear the image is.