Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Great Songs You May Never Have Heard (6)

Let's lean towards a more pop-oriented sound this time, shall we? I first discovered Nada Surf via one of the music blogs that I frequent. While I was aware of them in some distant, peripheral fashion, they started up right around the time I was finishing up being a college DJ, and their forward movement since then has been rather jittery, including another case of being abandoned by their label. More power to them, though, for fighting through it, even including a period of time when the all had *gasp* day jobs.

Consequently, this is one band which I am no authority of. I've picked up what I know of them from bits and pieces of info floating on the wind. But not radio, of course. I'm sure there are places where they receive airplay, but this is another one of those inexplicable cases where, at least with the radio I have access to, they don't get played on the air.

And that's odd. Listen to "See These Bones." I hear this song and I just float away; it strikes me as being as close to the perfect pop song as could possibly exist. Of course, there is no auto-tuning, nor a 13-year-old striking poses to a hectic beat. Instead, there is a catchy opening guitar hook, a solid, propulsive but simple drum beat, and vocals that climb and carry you away. Do listen.

And then, as a bonus, scare up the time to also listen to "Beautiful Beat," also by Nada Surf, and which did receive some visibility, thanks to a play on the show How I Met Your Mother.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Favorite Christmas

In the summer of 2000 Aidan was 4 and Brennan was about 1-and-a-half. With no idea of what we were really getting ourselves into, Jo and I stepped off a cliff and moved the whole family from Edmonton to Logan, Utah, a small city (75,000 or so people, including the surrounding county) about a half hour south of the Idaho border, largely populated by Mormons. I didn't have a visa for work; Jo's job was why we were down there, and we discovered that I might be able to do something about that but it would take a chunk of time and an even bigger chunk of change, all directed towards a lawyer. So I stayed home and was a house husband, something that every so often raised an eyebrow down there.

We did eventually make some friends, although it often took both time and some pig-headedness on our parts. Early on Jo and I had to make due with acquaintances, but at least Aidan (and to a lesser extent Brennan, because of how young he was) was able to make friends fairly quickly.

In early autumn there was a problem with something in the laundry room: I can't remember if it was the washer, or maybe the furnace, which shared the space, but whatever it was, I wasn't able to deal with it. I called the landlord, a good and decent man who lived up the block and whose grandson was already Aidan's best friend, and after looking he decided to call in a repairman.

We talked, that repairman and I. Like many others who lived down there, he was surprised to find that someone had moved there from Canada and yet wasn't a Mormon. But he was a nice enough fellow, and already it was good for me to every so often have a grown up conversation.

Fast forward to late December, just before Christmas. We were staying put that year; the drive back to Edmonton to be with my family was close to 12 hours in good weather, and if we wanted to see Jo's family in Peace River another 5 or more hours would be tacked on top of that. And Christmas is not the time of year that either her family or mine travel, due to other commitments. No real friends yet, remember, although we were invited (along with a number of seniors from a residence and a few other unattached families and singles) to our babysitter's home for a big meal on Christmas. And while that ended up being a fine meal, it was so large and unwieldy that it felt a little impersonal, or like attending a charity meal.

Anyhow, one night just before Christmas - perhaps the very night before, although my memory has let that slip away - the doorbell rang. I went and opened the door and was greeted by the sight of Santa Claus, accompanied by a young girl, about 10, dressed as an elf. He made the requisite Santa-like noises, and then, seeing the evident confusion on my face (was this a Mormon tradition I was unaware of?) he pulled down his beard ever so slightly and reminded me that he'd been my repairman a few months before. Turns out he'd recognized somehow that a) we weren't going anywhere, b) weren't having family visit us and c) we were feeling mightily removed from the surrounding community.

I invited him in and we went to find the boys. Somewhere, buried in a box, there are pictures of Aidan and Brennan accepting candy canes from Santa and from Emily the Elf. Neither boy was brave enough to confront him head on, though, and so both had to hide behind Jo and then, with some coaxing from Santa and their parents, reach out just far enough to get their fingertips on the candy canes. Santa talked to the boys, and they played shy, and then he wished us all a very Merry Christmas and left, politely not noticing how close to tears I was.

Both Aidan and Brennan were pretty keen about this visit. After the fact, of course. And to this day Aidan says he thinks he can remember it.

There was no proselytizing that night, so attempt to see us on the rightness of one way versus the wrongness of another. Instead, all we saw was a glimpse of humanity, a man and a child who knew that perhaps just a tiny gesture would be enough to intervene on the potential gloom that can overwhelm you when you're alone - because even together, sometimes we forget and get lost in that loneliness - and remind you that there are good people out there.

We're "alone" again this Christmas. We haven't gone to visit family, and, same as always, they can't come visit us. Our dearest friends live in other cities, although we do have friends here, and will be seeing some of them over the next few days. But we have each other, and we try to step up for other people when we can, and, you know, the peace and quiet of a small family Christmas isn't quite so smothering as it once was.

Merry Christmas, all, and Happy Holidays. And let me leave you with a link to our friend Maria Dunn singing "God Bless Us Everyone" from The Carol Project.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fine and Funny Words About Napier's Bones

A short, one paragraph review of Napier's Bones was published on the web early in November, but I only just found it tonight. She misspells my name, but that's fine. You can read it all here, but I wanted to give you the marvelous money quotes: "This book is like putting a nerd in a blender. It hits so many nerd spots. You read it and go, 'Oh, that kind of nerd.'" And also: "... I'm really happy that this book was published, because it's not doing a lot of the things we seem to be assuming books all have to do, but it is getting its nerd on with great gusto and comprehensiveness."

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Great Songs You May Never Have Heard (5) Special Christmas Edition

You can't miss hearing "seasonal" music this time of year, especially on any contemporary music station (and I'm including CBC Radio 2 in this category). It used to be, I think, that Christmas music was something done by some artists, those who were already prone to doing special events songs (Elvis, for instance) those who were inclined to do so, usually by virtue of religious background (plenty of country artists), novelty acts (The Royal Guardsmen, natch) or those who had decided to make a statement (like Jethro Tull or Greg Lake - and argue as you will about the pretensions of these two, but I believe my point about trying to make a statement stands). And no, I'm not forgetting the Vince Guaraldi music for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I'm not sure when the change happened. Was it Bruce Springsteen and his live version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"? Or maybe it was the success of the A Very Special Christmas and its sequels and offshoots, all of which gave radio programmers more fodder for the days (weeks, actually) leading up to Christmas.

Outside of this possible sequence, recording artists have done excellent Christmas music. I think now specifically of John Lennon with "Happy Xmas (War is Over)", of the Pogues with the late, great Kirsty McColl (more on her in a future posting in this series) doing "Fairytale of New York" (and yeah, that's Matt Dillon as the cop), and The Band with "Christmas Must be Tonight."

Beyond that, well, name your favorites. As programmers have cast about for more to play, we're hearing a lot more, although often we're hearing more recent acts doing versions of older faves, even if they're slavish copies. The Pogues and Kirsty McColl come close to being my favorite song of the season, but in the spirit of music snobs everywhere, I tend to not like something as much when it receives so much airplay, and when everyone else professes to like it so much.

Instead, the song that speaks the most to me is one I first heard performed live and solo in the middle of summer, by an Australian who is revered Down Under but, aside from those familiar with the folk fest circuit and a few other fans of music to be found in odd nooks and crannies, unknown on these shores. Paul Kelly is a singer/songwriter who may show up on this list again a little later. The stories he tells are marvelous, powerful pieces, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always smart and precise. And I wonder: who else could write a Christmas song told as a letter written home by someone in jail? With cooking reminders, to boot. "How to Make Gravy" is that track, a deeply moving song that rises in emotion and even in temper as it proceeds, that with a sad economy of words tells you all you need to know about the man writing the letter. Enough to both feel sorry for him, and to worry not only about him but about his family on the day he finally gets out.

One final note. As I've been putting this together, I visited Paul Kelly's website for the first time in what is apparently a long time, and I find he has a book and CD box set and an iPad app, all titled How to Make Gravy. This is a thrilling, almost secret discovery, and I shall be partaking.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Great Songs You May Never Have Heard (4)

The danger of course with a series of posts like this is that there are inevitably people who point to a song I name and say, "What the hell? Of course I know it!" Or, casting a slightly wider net, if not the song, then they know the band.

Late 2010 saw the release of a new album by Guster, but aside from some airplay on satellite radio (which we happened to have in a rental vehicle while traveling), there was nothing anywhere we were able to listen. And then, midway through 2011, CBC Radio 2 picked up on the album, Easy Wonderful, especially giving airplay to "Do You Love Me" (for my money one of the best love songs of the past few years) and "Architects and Engineers." And of course they have a rabid fan base, known as Gusteroids.

Several years ago, though, another Guster album was released, reaching to about the mid-30s on the Billboard charts. Again, though, most radio play was via alternative radio stations. That album, Keep It Together, includes a song that has a deep resonance for me. "Come Downstairs and Say Hello" (not an official video, obviously) is a beautiful song, fluid and honey-like to the ears, but with lyrics that have spoken to me, most deeply on days when I've questioned myself and where I was going in my life (and yes, I've had plenty of those: not long before I sold my novel I was seriously considering quitting writing).

"To tell you the truth I've said it before/Tomorrow I start in a new direction/One last time these words from me/I'm never saying them again." Those lyrics still ride in my head, and remind me how tough those moments can be, when you second-guess yourself, when you fall into the same damned rut and feel completely unable to escape it. There were days where I would promise myself I was done with the nonsense, would step up to the plate and take care of what needed taking care of, only to repeat myself the very next day. To know that there were people out there who were familiar with this situation themselves, and able to complete such a marvelous piece of music out of it, well, that managed to pick me up and help me move on to the next level.

And besides, how can you resist a song that name checks the whole Dark Side of Oz thing?

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Great Songs You May Never Have Heard (3)

I'm sure that after only two entries, some people are already starting to worry that I'm a) only going to be posting links to country(ish) rock and b) I won't be talking about anything too recent. I can assure you that I won't be sticking too close to any single genre or time frame, although today we only move sideways for musical style.

I'm sure there are many people out there who remember the song "Welcome to the Boomtown" by David + David. The album hit Billboard's Top 100, and the song itself peaked, I believe, inside the rock top ten. This surprises me, to be honest. You don't think of a song with the lyrics "Now he smokes much too much/Got a permanent hack/Deals dope out of Denny's/Keeps a table in the back" as being something that will even make a minor stab at the top of the charts. We are, after all, a society that tends to prefer our music poppy and schmaltzy. Grit and anger always hovers just over the edge of the horizon, the property of disaffected youth who prefer punk and its offshoots or rap that isn't all about bling and booty.

The rest of the album is filled with gems, and I encourage you to seek it out if you don't already have it. "Swallowed by the Cracks," "Ain't So Easy," and more, the album is riddled with bitter, angry music, a worldview that gives us characters who skate on the edges of life, and yet is eminently listenable.

David + David didn't last as a group. For whatever reason, platinum-selling status didn't agree with the pair, and they broke up. David Baerwald moved on, writing songs for others, recording his own albums, and even helping form the Tuesday Night Music Club (a name you might recognize if you are a fan of Sheryl Crow).

Baerwald has recorded some gems during his solo career, but for me his absolute standout album has to be Triage. The cover alone tells you you're in for more grit and anger: two bloody hands, palms out towards the camera, with an American flag in behind.

Triage starts quietly enough, and indeed much of the album is fairly quiet, at least musically speaking. The lyrics, though, slam home throughout. Most of these stories go the same way as Boomtown, except that now Baerwald ramps it up, taking it from the lowlifes and hustlers on the street corner to the larger world around us. And instead of empathy, what we often get on this album is anger.

Rage, even.

The song that screams out the loudest, that in my opinion drowns out every other rock and roll political protest song (I'm looking at you, Green Day) is the marvelously-titled "The Got No Shotgun Hydra Head Octopus Blues." This song brings it up right quick, what sounds a bit like crickets in the background, followed very soon by Baerwald yelling, almost grunting. Then the bass line starts along with the drums, a steady, propulsive rhythm. Baerwald sings the first line, then the guitar finally kicks in, and the song is off to the races.

When I was a DJ at a university radio station, this song made it into as heavy a rotation as I could allow it, but that's likely the only radio play it ever got in those parts. And that's a shame.


Great Songs You May Never Have Heard (1) and (2)

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