Monthly Obsessions – March 2021

So I haven’t done one of these in (mumble, mumble) years but it’s back, baby! Below is a mix of songs that I had on repeat this month.

The playlist is a blend of old and new; kicking things off with iconic ’90s rock, then moving into ’00s pop. (I love the ay, ay that echoes in the back of “Apologize.” Nostalgia!) The live version of “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds is amazing, especially when played on my new speaker system. Petey’s cover of “Crash Into Me” is the subject of a forthcoming post so that’s a little preview there.

It’s a mini mix this month as I get back into the swing of things but I’m excited to be doing this feature again. Listen below:

Music as a cultural response

Happy Monday! It’s a quick one today but I wanted to jot something down. In Meet Me in the Bathroom, an excellent oral history exploration of early-’00s indie, bands like !!!, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Strokes talk about what got them started. What stood out to me was the recurring observation of how 9/11 changed the landscape of music. It forced America to look inwards and reevaluate its priorities.

In a grim way, it created a new opportunity for musicians. Old standards were ripped apart or forgotten. In the first few months after what happened, clubs were shut down so people had to get together in their apartments; these informal jam sessions led to bands being formed. The sound got rougher, too: “Heads Will Roll” has a screechy distortion that both masks and somehow enhances Karen O’s powerhouse vocals. Last Nite is an experimentation in the tight, clear electronic sound that would become prevalent in later ’00s bands. When clubs reopened, DJs remixed it all into the next generation of house music.

I’m reading another book right now that touches on a similar topic regarding the symbiotic relationship between culture and music. Music takes what’s happening around us and compresses it into lyrical and/or danceable form. It evolves as we do and bloggers like me are just along for the ride.

New Music Reccs: “Oblivion” by Alaska Reid

Terrible Records is an indie label with a deceptive name. One of their artists is Alaska Reid and her latest album Big Bunny has an excellent song that I’d like to focus on today: “Oblivion.”

First of all, Alaska has a beautiful voice. I don’t use that word lightly, especially since I know it gets thrown around a lot. It is so mature, somehow solid, even, and slots perfectly between the light crunch and snap of the song’s electronic beat. I love the way her voice stands its own ground during the chorus – you and I, c-come on, somewhere in oblivion – without getting lost in the rising waves of its synths. I do like how she allows herself to fall into a vocal fry occasionally because that makes her sound real and self-aware. She’s not straining herself unnecessarily. Her voice has echoes of King Princess, without the mumblecore. I also found comparisons between Alaska’s sound and Lorde’s, especially when it comes to the lyrics, specifically the lines about drinking PBR and talking about scars. “Hollow like the bottles that we drain,” anyone?

Speaking of those lyrics: they’re haunting when you give the song another listen. (I got lost in her voice so I had to reexamine the song a few times.) Alaska is talking about the ghosts of her past and wondering whether she really is better off without them, or if she hates herself for being unable to let them go. There is an excellent tension within the song between chasing after those ghosts and trying to leave them behind. I also loved Alaska’s description of meeting someone in the “pine trees and sweet grass.” It evokes a quiet, secret place where past and present mix.

Above all, this song is so incredibly catchy. Give it a listen and don’t be surprised if it ends up on repeat for you, too:

Victrola 6 in 1 Record Player Review

The player, closed

At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, this record player really does it all: it plays CDs, cassettes, and vinyl records. You can also connect Bluetooth or an auxiliary device. Last but not least, it has an FM tuner for radio. The impressive thing about this Victrola is that the turntable enables all three speeds (33 1/3, 45, 78 RPM).

The player, closed

I love the sound quality of the player. The first song I played on it, using Bluetooth with my phone, was “The Gift” by Angels and Airwaves. It brought out the drumbeat that underlies the song and made it richer and fuller in a way I hadn’t heard before. After that I put on “Sabotage” by The Beastie Boys, also with Bluetooth, because I wanted something to turn up loud and see if the sound quality changed there. The song itself is fuzzy but the grinding thickness of the guitar came out nice and strong.

I primarily use this for streaming music but I look forward to starting a record collection. Fittingly for my blog name, I also have a bunch of cassettes. I haven’t been able to play those in years so I’m excited to dust them off! All in all, the Victrola just expands my options and supports my relationship with music in a new and better way.

Prep vs Punk

One of the observations I made in my first-ever post on this blog was about the tension between appearance vs. the music you enjoy. That’s been a recurring theme around here ever since. I was recently inspired to revisit the topic after I went for a drive with some friends. One of them referred to The Official Preppy Handbook and the “punk/prep” connection. That connection was admittedly something I’d never thought about before so I wanted to dive into it more.

The Official Preppy Handbook was published in 1980 as a satire of the boat shoes-and-lacrosse set. It goes into detail about what it takes to really fit in with that lifestyle: the “right” schools to go to; how to correctly hem your pants; the importance of combining kelly green and pink. And in a little column, almost hidden away, the authors talk about the punk-prep connection.

Some preps are the types who might only read about music for the shock value. Others might genuinely love its sound and would go all out if they could. On weekends they swap their uniform of Sperry Topsiders and polo shirts for sneakers and oversized t-shirts. The column also mentioned the Talking Heads, which I found to be an interesting choice: I’d never thought of the Talking Heads as being especially “punk.” New Wave, certainly, but not of the same ilk as, say, the Sex Pistols.

Maybe the authors labelled the Talking Heads as punk because some of their songs have a heavy guitar beat but are a palatable level of alternative for a traditionally buttoned-up (literally and figuratively) group of people. Someone can jam out to “Burning Down the House” on Saturday and go back to being a marketing executive on Monday.

I think one element of the punk-prep connection is rebellion. Preps have been told their entire lives how to think, dress, act, even eat and drink. Punk is the complete opposite of all of that. It offers an alluring, total escape: scream your heart out, rip your clothes, raise your finger to The Man. Do whatever you want. As Against Me! would sing, years after their forefathers yelled their way onto the charts, “The revolution was a lie!” (Coincidentally, that song, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” really spoke to me back as a youth.)

You’ve also got timing. Prep has been around forever, but in a lot of ways it was really reaching its zenith in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s of course when punk was taking shape, too. Students at prep schools would have been growing up at the same time The Ramones mumbled that they wanted to be sedated. They might have sneaked out past curfew to see a concert or two. And if they were anything like me, those beats would have hit them straight in their hearts and shown them a world far beyond what they’d known for so long.

Sun Room and that 60s Sound

I wrote a post about the 1970s and its musical sound a few months back. A new song I discovered has me thinking about the 1960s. It’s called “Just Yesterday” by Sun Room and it has all the hallmarks from that era: jangly, crunchy guitar and distorted vocals that sound like they’re straight from a Kinks deep cut or that iconic Woodstock performance by Jimi Hendrix.

The 1960s were, obviously, a decade of change and nowhere is that more evident than in its music. The Yardbirds gave rise to Led Zeppelin and codified the rock and roll that had begun in the 1950s. The Beatles hopped from genre to genre and shaped psychedelic, soft rock, and even EDM for decades to come. (Give “Tomorrow Never Knows” a listen and you’ll hear what I mean.)

Lyrics also became more self-referential: “Go Ask Alice” was a winking nod to the experimentation with substances that influenced experimentation with music. Social commentary became more common: “For What it’s Worth” and the “Fixin’ to Die Rag” are prime examples of early social justice through music.

The teenagers who had grown up listening to the Buddy Hollys of the 1950s were now burned out by political realities like the Vietnam War. It wasn’t quite time for punk yet, but you can hear the beginnings of it in “You Really Got Me” or even “Revolution.”

Give this excellent throwback a listen and tell me what you think:

“It’s just a song.”

I took a walk with a friend yesterday and they commented about me, music, and how they find my relationship to music inspiring. They also told me something that really struck me: apparently a few years ago there was a song they couldn’t listen to because of the painful associations it had. (Turns out it was a pop song from the mid-2000s.)

And apparently what I told them back then, and not callously at all, was “It’s just a song.” Those few words set them free and they were able to listen to the song again.

That anecdote was a good reminder for me. I’ve recently found myself dancing around some of my own painful music-related memories. It’s so easy to literally replay those experiences every time you listen, to the point where that’s all you can think of. (It’s especially difficult when those memories are associated with someone who loved music as much as you. Ahem.)

What if you changed the tune? I’m not suggesting repressing the memory, or saying it doesn’t matter – to be sure, that’s something I can get confused about, too. Easier said than done!

But a song is so much more than what we tie it to. Maybe the song is something folksy-indie that can hold the depth and breadth of human emotion if we let it, rather than our own particular experience. Or maybe the song in question is a mindless club hit that can keep us moving – and maybe even dance away the fears and sadnesses it used to hold.

It’s something I’m still working on, but speaking for myself it’s definitely a process that gets easier over time.

How it started/how it’s going

Alternatively titled, “(Don’t You) Forget About Me.”

So I had planned on blogging a lot more than I actually have during quarantine. It’s the weirdest thing: I have so much more time on my hands, and yet, for some reason, I just feel like I have nothing to say.

I had a long conversation with someone over lunch about this. They described the difference between “head” writing and “heart” writing. Head writing is formal and rote; the observations you feel like you’re “supposed” to make. Heart writing, by contrast, is completely opening yourself up.

In terms of my own writing here, I know that my best entries are when I really sit with a topic and explore it.

I also know that I’ve been flinging a bunch of short entries out there.

Is it impatience? A desire for quantity over quality? To just “get something out there” and see what sticks?

(Uh…probably all of the above. Whoops.)

I think there’s something else going on here, too: I feel bound by the limits of my vocabulary – or, more accurately, lack thereof.

I don’t have a formal music background by any stretch of the imagination. I never majored in the subject, I can’t play an instrument, and I can passably sing. It’s my enthusiasm that motivates me, really: the deep love I have for music and how intrinsic it is to my identity.

You can imagine how frustrating it is, then, to feel like a part of something you love so much is still locked away.

To be sure, I know my stuff: I read the biographies, I saw It Might Get Loud, I took a class on rock & roll, listen to interviews, seek out as much as I can. But it’s the formal language that evades me.

I know how a song feels to me; I just need to be better at explaining why.