Wild Carnation

IMG_8393wtmkOne of the fun things about letting iTunes shuffle mode curate these entries is that sometimes it’s going to pull in a band from out of left field, just because the random number generator happens to glide to a stop in that particular slice of my collection. That’s part of the fun of going to live shows, too: There’s always more music out there that I didn’t know about, just around the corner from some of my existing favorite bands.

I’d seen the Feelies live many times before I even discovered that their bassist, Brenda Sauter, had her own band, Wild Carnation, which she helped start in the early ’90s while the Feelies were on their decade-and-a-half hiatus. And it took a couple more Feelies shows before, hanging around the merch stand and with all five of the band’s extant CDs already at home (plus those by spinoffs like Wake Ooloo and Yung Wu), I spotted a Wild Carnation disc for sale and decided I might as well give it a try.

For what I’m guessing was the ten bucks I put down, it was well worth it. The album I picked up was their second, Superbus from 2006, and it grabbed me immediately with its first track, “The Road to Bielefeld,” which has a Feelies-ish vibe as you’d expect, but even brighter and warmer, thanks in part to some lovely organ (Farfisa? I’m terrible at identifying organs, and the liner notes don’t say) and mid-era-R.E.M.-ish production. Sauter’s voice, usually consigned to harmonies in the Feelies, is both sweet and full of character, reminding me a bit of another singer/bassist, Fontaine Toups from Versus. (Who had her own solo band for a while, which I’ve yet to hear but which I already love for its name: the Fontaine Toups.) It’s all enough to land Wild Carnation in that zone of band that I don’t immediately think of as one of my favorites, but which I’m happily surprised to listen to whenever I remember to do so.

It’s music like this that reminds me why I go early to shows to stand through opening acts, which are usually unmemorable but occasionally produce revelations (latest in this category: Girls on Grass, who I only caught the final four songs of and who were playing only their second show, but whose mailing list I immediately asked to be added to), why I enjoy digging through Misc bins at record stores, why I listen to freeform stations like WFMU and XRAY.fm and shows like Radio Free Song Club and Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight, which will sadly be coming to its conclusion after almost half a century in another few weeks. I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but I find there’s no significant correlation between overall popularity and how much I’m going to like a band; while I certainly listen to my share of popular music (just see the list at right), I’m just as likely, or unlikely I suppose, to like a musician laboring in relative obscurity. As much as I’ve tried, I can’t identify what it is that makes me decide a band is a keeper — all I can say is I know it when I hear it.

And I can’t say what other people are going to think, either. Look, here’s a video of Wild Carnation playing live that’s only been viewed 84 times. Is that because they’re a hidden gem, or because I’m one of only a handful of people they’re ever going to appeal to? I guess it’s really all the same thing, depending on your perspective. If you like them, you’ll know it when you hear it.

Tom Petty

tompettyThere are some musicians who don’t so much arrive in your consciousness as you suddenly realize they’ve been there all along. But with Tom Petty, there are a couple of moments that made him leap from “guy I don’t mind hearing on the radio” to “guy I listen to of my own volition and pick to sing at karaoke and consider dropping $100 on tickets to go see.”

The first came when I was working as a production editor at Working Woman magazine, which during the week or so each month when the magazine was going to press was a job big enough to require two people. My co-pilot at the time was a hilarious guy from Oklahoma named Brian, and we quickly bonded over our mutual musical tastes. One month, Brian presented me with a surprise gift: He’d bought a Tom Petty boxed set as a present to himself for completing a round of chemo for the leukemia he’d been fighting on and off for years, which meant he didn’t need his Greatest Hits single-CD collection anymore, so would I like it?

Wikipedia tells me that Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits has gone 10x platinum, so odds are that you don’t need me to tell you about it. But still: It’s one of those albums that the minute I had it, I didn’t know how I’d lived without it. Just about every song is a classic, and the whole collection is just varied enough that re-listening never becomes tiresome. (It remains my go-to road trip CD.) And it’s a great reminder that Petty has managed to take classic Top 40 guitar rock and … elevate it? Perfect it? One of those, or both.

The second moment arrived a few years later, when my friend Matthew was helping to produce my band’s album (okay, he was mostly showing us how to use dynamic compression in Cool Edit Pro so we could burn better CDRs, but it sounds more impressive the other way) and mentioned that one of the best-produced albums he knew of was Tom Petty’s solo album Wildflowers, which Rick Rubin (yes, the Def Jam guy with the crazy beard before its time) had helped make into a stripped-down, intimate beauty. I didn’t know this album at all beyond the single “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — which mostly got attention at the time because radio stations forced Petty to release an edit that bleeped the line “let’s roll another joint” — but it turned out to be another can’t-miss selection, with terrific songs including the title track, “You Wreck Me,” “Cabin Down Below,” and the positively demented “Honey Bee,” which features one of my favorite over-the-top Tom Petty lyric sequences:

She give me her monkey hand
And a Rambler sedan
I’m the king of Milwaukee
Her juju beads are so nice
She kissed my third cousin twice
I’m the king of Pomona

Tom Petty and Neil Young are very much linked in my mind, not just because they occupy a similar folk-rock-turned-up-to-11 musical space, but because both start with classic rock forms and subjects and go off at oblique angles. A remarkable percentage of Tom Petty songs are about “girl, you’re so beautiful, and I can show you a better life/can wait for you if I have to/had to leave you,” but they manage to do so in a way that transcends triteness, or at least conveys the depths of emotion behind the trite. If there was a third defining Tom Petty moment for me, it was when I first heard Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby’s cover of “Walls,” which I’d somehow missed on its initial release, and which is one of the sweetest love songs (lost/unrequited category) ever written.

I still haven’t managed to see Tom Petty live — he played a set of shows at the Beacon Theater a couple of years back that I really wanted to go to, but they sold out in seconds (or at least Ticketmaster insisted they did) and I don’t love him so much that I was ready to spend $150 on StubHub. For some reason I never went to see him with Brian — in fact, I never went to any concerts with Brian, turning down his offer to go see Neil Young at Madison Square Garden because I was fed up with arena shows. I’m sorry I didn’t go, and not only because Brian’s been gone for over 15 years now, as that moment when he bought the Tom Petty boxed set turned out to be the high point in his fight with leukemia. I wish he were around for me to thank, and to chat with on Facebook about classic rock favorites, and to say something to him when he’s distracted so he can respond with his favorite Oklahomaism, “You did what behind the barn?” Not too unlike Tom Petty, he was a superficially simple guy whose complexities ran deep. You want to appreciate those people while you can.

Talking Heads

theadsI have a clear memory of the origin story here: In my Sociology 101 discussion section at UC-Berkeley, a classmate showing off the new LP of Stop Making Sense that he’d just bought. Or she. Or maybe it was a poster for the movie? Okay, not entirely clear, but at least I know where I was when I first became aware that I should be paying attention to Talking Heads.

I probably should have been paying attention years earlier, of course, but I was in no state to do so. They didn’t play Talking Heads songs on the rock radio stations I listened to (the band was still considered new wave, which was only played on “modern rock” stations like WDRE), and the clips that had shown up on MTV — mostly “Once in a Lifetime” — were too weird to appeal to me. I mentally filed Talking Heads away with Devo and the Buggles: people in weird outfits playing some kind of futuristic music for self-conscious effect, maybe entertaining to flip past on TV but not something I’d actually want to buy and listen to.

Stop Making Sense changed all that. Once I was back in New York (Berkeley didn’t take), I went to see the film at the Waverly Theatre, the Greenwich Village indie outlet that survives today as the IFC Center. (Other movies I’ve seen there include both Speed and Howl’s Moving Castle. It occupies an odd but important place in my personal cinematic history.) It is, needless to say, a great movie, and in it Talking Heads reveal themselves as a great band: coming on stage one by one, until finally making up the nine-person “big band” that they toured as in their later years; and running through everything from stripped-down straight ahead rock like “Thank You for Sending Me and Angel” to full-on polyrhythmic weirdness like “Crosseyed and Painless.” (The latter may in fact be my favorite Talking Heads song, though there are lots of candidates.) Add in David Byrne’s clever art-rock design touches — less the big suit and dancing with a lamp than the giant screens displaying surreal random-word aphorisms — and it was Village Voice-reading first-year college student crack.

My love affair with Talking Heads only latest a few years, but it was torrid while it lasted: I quickly bought up all their albums, and listened to them more than anything else during my college years. I even wrote a paper for my “Revolutionary Societies” sociology class that managed to cite, in addition to the usual Marxist theorists, David Byrne’s companion book to the very strange Talking Heads album (and even stranger movie) True Stories. (I got an A on the paper, so either Byrne managed to hit on some universal truths, or I did a really good job of selling it.)

For all that, though, Talking Heads were a bit of a musical dead end for me. I went on to listen to Tom Tom Club as well, and Bernie Worrell’s presence in the big band led me to discover Parliament/Funkadelic, but other than that, not much else: I still don’t own any Brian Eno or Adrian Belew albums, and most of the rest of my college listening habits remained firmly in ’70s trad rock territory (Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Yes). Though really, Talking Heads were kind of an evolutionary blind alley themselves in a way: They were the antithesis of the Velvet Underground “spawned a thousand imitators” model, and by the end they’d seemingly written themselves into a musical corner: When they came out with Naked, their final album, it immediately struck me as either the future of music or a complete experimental train wreck, and almost 30 years later I still don’t know if I could tell you which it is.

I do wish that I’d been hip enough to new music in high school to catch on to Talking Heads at least a few years earlier, if only because then I might have seen them at their legendary Stop Making Sense concert at Forest Hills Tennis Center, or even their equally legendary show at the Dr. Pepper Music Festival in Central Park in 1980. (The prospect of me having seen them at CBGB’s at age 12 or so is unimaginable even in a hypothetical alternate universe.) Aside from giving me memories and some props to impress fellow music fans, with, though, I doubt it would have made all that much difference in my ultimate musical trajectory. Talking Heads were an outlier in every way, and were destined to reside alone in one corner of my music library, cherished but unique. Not that that’s a bad thing at all — I could probably say similar things about some other bands.

Freakwater

freakwater2It was the mid-’90s, and we were all just discovering what was starting to be called “alt-country,” which mostly meant a whole lot of punk rockers who’d discovered that it could be just as effective to turn off your amps and focus on acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies, just like the DIY musicians of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s had done. Pete insisted that I had to listen to one particular band, a pair of women from Louisville who sang old-timey songs about dead babies and betrayal, accompanied by guitar, banjo, upright bass and some stunning harmonies. He was particularly enamored of a song called “Crazy Man,” with its tale of family dysfunction (“I have met your momma and she’s crazy too/You got more from her than just your eyes of blue”), which was fun to play and sing ourselves. (It wasn’t long after this that Pete and his friend Marianne and I formed our own alt-countryish band. Our version of “Crazy Man” was enthusiastic, let’s just leave it at that.)

Once I’d started picking up Freakwater albums, though (my first acquisition was at a live show at the Mercury Lounge, purchased from a band member at the lip of the stage), I was more drawn to “Gone to Stay,” a country song about a familiar topic — untimely death — but with an unexpected lyrical twist:

And there’s nothing so pure
As the kindness of an atheist
A simple act of unselfishness
That never has to be repaid

That stopped me in my tracks. It still does, really.

I had stumbled upon the true magic of Freakwater, which was that as gorgeous and unexpected their vocal interplay, as talented their musicianship, as uproarious their stage banter, they are absolute lyrical geniuses. In particular, not to disparage Janet Bean in the slightest (her “Cloak of Frogs” is a thesis-worthy trove of layered metaphor), but Catherine Irwin soon became one of my absolute favorite writers of any kind, someone who has inspired me in my own work to choose words with incredible care, because they have incredible power. (The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks is the other lyricist I’d put in this category.) Check out this lyric from “Good for Nothing,” off of 1999’s End Time:

Forgive and forget are words that never slid across my tongue
Revenge like a fleeting Christmas morning I knew when I was young
Put the toys back in their boxes
Let me tear the ribbons off them just once more
Inside my little box of bones a ray of light shines
Where I’m slowly keeping score

There’s an awful lot going on there, an entire short story’s worth of character development and emotional backstory. Or you could drop the needle just about anywhere on their sublime 1998 album Springtime and hear … you know, I tried finding various snippets of lyrics to quote, I tried listing some of the subjects explored in the songs (Muhammad Ali and his experience with racism, the long legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the ways in which working-class solidarity has foundered on the evil genius of modern capitalism), but some things just work better in context. You can listen to the songs yourself by clicking those links, or you can take my word for it that all of these expansive ideas, and more, are handled deftly and brought down to personal size, even while being plumbed for unexpected depths. As Irwin explained later about the care that she takes in writing her songs, “As a fiendish NPR listener, I’m aware that it’s easy to be heavy-handed, particularly about something that you’re really passionate about.”

(She explained that to me, in fact: That line is from an interview I got to do with Irwin on her 2002 solo tour, an interview that ranged from the Amish and the Wobblies to authenticity and elves, and which still makes me think, and crack up laughing, all these years later.)

Freakwater has only released one album in the last decade and a half, and they tour infrequently — rumors of a 2013 tour with members of the Mekons, to be called the Freakons, sadly turned out to result in only a couple of shows, including one at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival — but they recently headed into the studio to record some songs, which hopefully will mean an album and live shows sometime in 2015. As Irwin memorably said at another time, “If I had a master plan, it’d be trying to get people used to the idea of frumpy middle-aged losers singing music.” It may not be one big union, but as missions go, you could do much, much worse.

Neil Young

Neil-YoungThe notion of being “introduced” to Neil Young seems ridiculous: In the 1970s, his music was always in the air, and on the air. On rock stations like WPLJ and WNEW (which all the cool kids listened to), and even Top 40 stations like 99X (which I listened to until it switched formats to disco and then the cool kids and Dr. Johnny Fever shamed me into listening to the rock stations), they were always playing songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Ohio” and “Southern Man” and “Like a Hurricane” and that one with the line about “Johnny Rotten,” whoever that was.

At some point, I’m pretty sure, my friend Chris, who wasn’t one of the cool kids but had a lot of surprisingly cool musical tastes, brought over a copy of Live Rust, the live album recorded on the tour for Rust Never Sleeps, the album with that song with the Johnny Rotten reference. (Rust Never Sleeps, I would find out years later, was also recorded mostly live on a previous tour, but was considered a studio album, while there was also a movie called Rust Never Sleeps that was of the concert that on record was called Live Rust. These was just some of the many things about Neil Young I would have to puzzle out in coming years.) It was pretty cool: There were a bunch of sweet acoustic songs I’d never heard, like “Sugar Mountain” with its lyrics about not wanting to grow up; and then a bunch of rocking electric songs I’d never heard, like “Cortez the Killer,” with its lyrics about brave and strong Incas and the European conquerer who came to slaughter them and, for some reason, a woman who still lives there and “loves me till this day.” And there was some bizarrely fascinating banter, like a reenactment of the scene in the film of the Woodstock festival (which I’d never seen, but would soon enough) where someone announced from the stage, “Maybe if we try real hard we can stop this rain! NO RAIN! NO RAIN!”

Something was happening here, and what it was wasn’t exactly clear.

More information became available a couple of years later, when Neil played a show at the Beacon Theater, an old movie palace that was only a few blocks from my house growing up. I would see pretty much anyone halfway interesting who played at the Beacon (I later went to a show by GTR, a deservedly short-lived band featuring Steve Howe from Yes and Steve Hackett from Genesis, which will not be showing up on this site under any circumstances), so Neil Young was a no-brainer. I’d only been to a couple of concerts ever at this point, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this: Neil, alone on stage, wandering among a few guitars and a piano, searching his pockets for the right harmonicas and singing songs from all over his discography, and some from off the map entirely. After playing the then-unreleased “Too Far Gone,” he quipped, “If I’d known you’da liked it that much, I woulda put it on the record.” It was enough to make me a fan for life, even if bits of it were kind of weird.

Okay, more than kind of weird. The acoustic set was just the opening act, it turned out: After a little over an hour, Neil left the stage, and returned with a full band in the rockabilly guise under which he’d recorded his recent album “Everybody’s Rockin’.” While it wasn’t exactly bad, it was also a puzzling encore to what had been a folk-rock master class.

Thirty years later, my feelings haven’t changed much. One can’t exactly have a love/hate relationship with Neil Young — it’s more like love/bafflement. I’ve since followed him through some of the greatest albums (and shows) I’ve ever heard — just last week I took part in a Facebook debate over which of his 1970s albums, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere/After the Gold Rush/Harvest or On the Beach/Tonight’s the Night/Zuma, might be the best three consecutive albums by any artist — and some of the worst as well. (This is a man who in complete seriousness released an entire album of nothing but guitar feedback. Eat that, Lou Reed.) Sometimes it’s impossible to separate out which is which, as in possibly my favorite Neil Young lyric of all time, from 1975’s Tonight’s The Night:

It’s too dark to put the keys in my ignition
And the morning sun has yet to climb my
Hood ornament

A lyric that only Neil Young could get away with? A lyric that not even he should have tried to? Is there a difference?

After a stellar solo show at Jones Beach in 1989 (accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith and with a special guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen), I went years without seeing another Neil Young show because they were always at the Enormodome. Finally, in 2012, I went to see him during his maybe-final tour with Crazy Horse in 2012; I hated it. (I can’t say how much was due to self-indulgent feedback solos, how much to the self-indulgent record he was then touring, and how much due to it being at the Enormodome.) A year later he played solo at Carnegie Hall and I skipped it; I later saw a video of it and he was terrific. Most recently, in the last year he has divorced his wife of 36 years, started dating Daryl Hannah, and written and recorded an entire album about it, using an orchestra and a vintage microphone that once belonged to Barbra Streisand.

There is no excusing this kind of thing; there is barely any understanding it. It is all part and parcel of what makes Neil, as he loved to say of others in Jimmy McDonough’s fascinating biography of him, Shakey, an “inneresting character.” There’s a recording of a Neil Young show from 1971 in which he pauses in the middle of playing “Sugar Mountain” to explain that he initially wrote 126 verses to the song, and purposely left in the absolute worst one, “just to show what can happen.” Whether that’s true or just a story that his muse told him sounded good at the time, it’s about as Neil Young a concept as you can get.

Superchunk

110907-superchunk_617_409_Jason-Arthurs-CI’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Superchunk was in a story told to me by my much-aforementioned friend Pete, back when we were writing an article about how Nirvana were just riding on the coattails of more worthy indie rock bands. (It made sense at the time. Though come to think of it, Michael Azerrad concluded pretty much the same thing.) As I remember it, Pete was telling me about a Superchunk show he went to during the first Nirvana frenzy when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was everywhere; Superchunk had their own mini-hit, “Slack Motherfucker,” and people in the crowd kept calling out for it. Mac McCaughan turned to one of the shouters and said sarcastically, “You know, there’s a Nirvana show across town you could be at.”

I saw Superchunk once in the ’90s (at Lollapalooza of all places, another long story involving Pete that I’ll tell another time), but they didn’t make much of an impression other than being energetic and impossibly young-looking. The next time they sideswiped my radar was at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show, when Mac’s solo project (also involving Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur) Portastatic was the opening act, playing a short set that included a couple of memorable-because-unexpected Bruce Springsteen covers.

Jump forward another few years, to an outdoor show at South Street Seaport. I was there for the opening band, Versus (another Yo La Tengo Hanukkah opening act discovery), but Superchunk was the headliner, and I was there with my friend Courtney, who loved them. I liked them okay — nice crunchy guitars, hooky choruses — except for one new song, “Learned to Surf,” which I loved.

If you’re going to have a gateway song to Superchunk, you could do worse than “Learned to Surf.” It starts with a killer guitar riff (which I have tried and failed to learn how to play many times), then launches into what I have come to know as a quintessentially Mac-esque extended metaphor about how to get through life when trying to keep your head above water seems too much. It had an infectious mix of cynicism and enthusiasm, and lines that stuck with me:

When I learned to talk, I found words they weren’t worth dirt
Heavy like the rocks we carry, I stopped sinking and learned to surf

“Learned to Surf” first appeared on an excellent EP called Leaves in the Gutter, which I played out, all five songs of it (one of them another take of “Learned to Surf,” an acoustic demo). It appeared again on the even more excellent LP Majesty Shredding, which remains my favorite Superchunk album, with terrific songs like “Digging for Something,” “My Gap Feels Weird” (inspired by a dental visit by Mac’s daughter, but transmogrified into a commentary on something else entirely), and “Fractures in Plaster,” which retains Superchunk’s raw punky energy and takes it in a totally other direction. While I’ve grown to appreciate their earlier albums, I am a late-Superchunk fan, and make no apologies for it — I don’t know if it’s the self-taught pop lessons Mac learned with Portastatic during Superchunk’s early-2000s hiatus, but there’s a maturity and complexity to their more recent songs that has made them, belatedly, one of my favorite bands. (It doesn’t hurt that they are brilliant live, not least because you get to watch Jon Wurster’s incredible drumming while singing along to the beats, which is endlessly entertaining.)

And yet there’s still something preternaturally young about them, in the best sense of the word. Superchunk’s latest album, I Hate Music, is — like Fade by their friends Yo La Tengo, one of the videos from which features Mac miming to Ira Kaplan’s vocal parts — largely an exploration of mortality, but somehow Superchunk manages to combine this with a youthful enthusiasm that is neither naive nor affected. I mean, seriously, just check out their recent non-album single “This Summer.” You could do worse than that for a Superchunk gateway song, too, so dive right in — we’ve got a clear path down to the sea.

Shonen Knife

ShonenKnife130527-smallerAh, Shonen Knife. This is another band that I can credit to my friend Pete’s indie rock re-education project: He loaned me a copy of their then-new album Let’s Knife in 1993 or so, telling me something like “They’re a bunch of Japanese housewives who play Ramones-style rock.” (I may be misremembering the “housewives” part, but that misconception stuck with me for a while.) Let’s Knife was an excellent introduction into the madness that is the world of Shonen Knife, seeing as it features:

Let’s Knife is also the home of what might be the strangest song in the entire Shonen Knife catalogue, which is saying something. It is titled “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme” and goes, in its entirety:

Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner
Specially selected Pot Cleaner
The best pot cleaner in the world is
Specially selected Tortoise Brand

This appears twice on the album, in a slow version (“Sea Turtle”) and a fast version (“Green Tortoise”).

All of this is, needless to say, hilarious. It’s also great punk rock music, very much in the style of the Ramones, though some clever metal and pop touches float to the surface in places as well.

That was my first Shonen Knife record, and for a long time my only one. My second Shonen Knife acquisition came in 2003, when our friends Hova and Belinda started playing songs from the album Heavy Songs on their alterna-kids radio show, Greasy Kid Stuff, then airing Saturday mornings on WFMU. (It’s since moved to Portland’s XRAY.fm, where you can listen to it streaming or archived, as I do each week without fail.) In particular, one song, “Rubber Band,” was not only insanely infectious (and hilarious, with “boinggggg!” sound effects and lyrics about how “you can wipe away wickedness from the Earth using it”), it was the perfect song for bouncing my then-infant son on my knee to, provoking an inevitable giggle fit. (Even better, the next track, “Heavy Song,” is super-slow and ideal to make a giggly child stop bouncing and fall asleep in your lap.)

After that, I was a full-fledged fan. Founding bassist Michie Nakatani had left by this point, with drummer Atsuko Yamano shifting over to bass in her stead, but Atsuko’s sister Naoko was still there writing lyrics and playing guitar, and they were clearly still in top form. Eventually I got to see the band perform live, which was even better (it didn’t hurt that they played “Rubber Band”), as they blasted out song after song while wearing matching outfits and engaged in rock-band cliches like synchronized hair-flipping and pointing their guitars at the audience like machine guns.

This, in fact, is the essential mystery of Shonen Knife that I’ve yet to unravel: Are they serious about acting like heavy metal rock gods while singing songs about candy and bugs? Or is it all a goof? Or, possibly the most likely, is this some kind of Japanese merger of the two that has no direct analogue in American culture, like the opening of Iron Chef — something distantly related to “camp,” maybe, but without the irony?

It doesn’t really matter. Atsuko has since left the band as well, leaving Naoko as the only original member (Andrew likes to refer to them now as “Shonen Starship”), but new members Ritsuko Taneda and Emi Morimoto are great, and they continue to write songs that are both brilliant and loopy: Recent albums have included tributes to capybaras and to green tea ice cream. My son has grown into a big fan as well, coming with me to see them several times, including a show at Maxwell’s in 2012 where we were mere inches from the stage. The encore, at an audience member’s request, was “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme” — played three times in a row, each one faster than the previous. If anyone went home unhappy, they don’t know what joy is.

jordan-sk

Yo La Tengo

YLT_earlyIn 1991, at loose ends and with nothing better to do, I decided to spend the summer visiting a friend in San Francisco. At that point, two things happened (well, more than two, but let’s stick with those): I was offered a full-time job as production editor at the late, lamented Guardian Newsweekly. And I found out that the Mekons would be playing a free show in Central Park, of all places, at the end of June. I hurriedly moved up my return flight to the day before the show.

I, my not-yet-SO Mindy, and our friends Pete and Tara arrived super-early, to be ensured of getting seats up front and center. It was only at this point, if I’m remembering right, that I noticed the name of the opening band. Pete, my guide in all things indie rock, explained them: “They’ve been around for a while, playing around the city. The two main members are married.”

They were odd, that’s were for sure. “Around for a while” or not, they looked super-young, especially the aforementioned couple, who were both short and slim and dressed like they were headed to a high school yearbook meeting. (The third member, a bigger guy who played bass, was harder to pin down in age.) Their first song was a beautiful, quiet song that featured both of the married members playing guitar at the front of the stage. For the second, the woman went behind the drum kit, and the three of them unleashed some of the most cacophonous rock noise I’d ever heard. And so it went like that, through a dozen songs that were by turns folky and abrasive, all of them terrific to my ears. (Mindy and Tara were less enthralled, going for a walk mid-set during one particularly lengthy feedback solo by the little guitarist with the frizzy hair.)

A few months later, Yo La Tengo came out with the record most of the songs at their Central Park set were from, May I Sing With Me, with a cover featuring a black and white photo of Georgia, the drummer/guitarist/singer, holding an umbrella beneath a cascade of painted dots. (There was later an EP of one of my favorite songs from the album, “Upside-Down,” that featured Ira, the guitarist/singer, protecting himself from the same painted rain, but with a cymbal.) I listened to it incessantly, and snapped up their followup Painful as soon as it arrived the next year. It turned out they played around town lots indeed, and I got to see them a couple of times at Tramps, and grew to appreciate not just their dual loud and quiet modes, but their proficiency with coming up with offbeat covers of songs I didn’t always know but knew I should, and the gorgeous vocal interplay between Ira, Georgia, and James (the by-comparison-hulking bass player, who turned out to have a remarkable singing voice high enough that he would later record an entire album of Prince covers). They weren’t my favorite band, but they were definitely in the mix.

Then came their 1997 album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, which won me over completely for several reasons:

  1. Its second song, “Moby Octopad,” not only had the most unexpected tune I’d heard from them yet, with a funky, loping bassline, but it was about falling asleep on the sofa while watching a Mets game. (Yo La Tengo’s name, I had recognized immediately on hearing it, is a reference to one of the most infamous, if possibly apocryphal, moments in Mets history.)
  2. Its third song, “Sugarcube,” which kicked in with a crazy drum fill followed by a blast of sweet guitar-and-organ wash, and offered lyrics that were simultaneously cynical and heartfelt about the demands of love, struck me as just about the perfect rock song. (I didn’t yet know it also had just about the perfect rock video.)
  3. The other 14 songs on the album were equally great, and equally all over the map in terms of style and sound.

I was in awe. As was my stereo, apparently: The second time I blasted “Sugarcube,” one of my speakers promptly exploded.

And then, four years later, came the Maxwell’s shows. I’d already seen YLT at the legendary Hoboken club a couple of times: Once on New Year’s Eve in 1996 when the club was about to close to make way for a brewpub (the band honored the moment by opening with the Stones’ “This Could Be The Last Time,” eventually leading into covers of “What I Like About You” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as cautions of what could be around the corner), once in 1998 for the club’s celebratory reopening under the management of its longtime soundman (in the midst of a run of four shows, the band perversely played all their songs, including rockers like “Sugarcube,” at a whisper, Ira thanking the audience at one point for their indulgence). But this was going to be different, a series of shows on the eight nights of Hanukkah to raise money for charity, and promising unexpected guests: On the first night I saw them, the opening set was by some guy named Clint Conley, followed by none other than Penn Jillette and Gilbert Gottfried performing the “Who’s On First” sketch (kind of).

The Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows, which ended up stretching over nine non-consecutive years before Maxwell’s finally shut down for good in 2013, marked another level in my fandom. It became an annual ritual: lining up at the Manhattan record store Other Music to grab some of the few available tickets, usually half of them for people from out of town who planned to make a holiday visit to New Jersey, then shlepping out to Hoboken on the PATH train and sidling up to the door to peek at the handwritten sign revealing that night’s opening musical and comedy acts (neither of which were ever announced beforehand, by official custom). One night in 2002 (opening band Portastatic, comedy act Soundtrackappella) I cautiously approached a guy with what looked like small microphones clipped to his shoulders to ask if I could get a copy of his recording, and met my friend Brandon, who will be appearing further in these pages shortly. And I received a new education in bands in Yo La Tengo’s orbit (many of which will also be appearing in these pages shortly), and entered at least peripherally into the world of Maxwell’s, all of which my friend Jesse (who I also befriended at a Hanukkah show, after noting that he was carefully compiling setlists on a notepad as the show unfolded) has honored in his outstanding book.

Are Yo La Tengo my favorite band? That’s a really difficult question. I certainly listen to them more consistently than any other band, often delving into the mammoth collection of live fan recordings of their shows that they officially tolerate. I don’t always love them — while I don’t have quite the love/hate relationship with them that Mindy does (she invariably heads for the lobby the minute she hears the opening bassline of their epic drone-fest “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”), there’s plenty that they do that I’m not a fan of. (I am almost as lukewarm about their 2009 CD “Popular Songs” as I am in love with its predecessor, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.”) Much like WFMU — the famed New Jersey freeform radio station that Yo La Tengo takes on-air requests to raise money for each spring — I know that YLT is going to sometimes enthrall me, sometimes challenge me, sometimes disappoint me, but never, ever be dull or predictable. And really, what more can you ask for in life?

Television

Television-bandAs I’ve noted in a couple of other items here, one recurring feature in my musical life has been discovering bands a few years after everyone else knew about them. (Or everyone else who was cool, anyway.) Television is one band where I was behind the curve by the least amount of time: I’m pretty sure I was in high school, sometime in the early 1980s, when my friend Chris came over with an LP of Marquee Moon, their instantly classic 1977 debut.

I was still mostly listening then to the kind of prog rock (though we didn’t call it “prog” then, and certainly not “classic” — it was just “rock”) that bands like Television were largely a reaction against; for me, CBGB’s was just an odd storefront that I walked past sometimes on the Bowery, though I’m sure I had at least heard of the Ramones. Still, this was a language I could understand: interweaving insistent guitars, obliquely clever lyrics (“I want a nice little boat made out of ocean” from “See No Evil” remains one of my all-time favorites), and even some epic song lengths (the title track is 9:58, closing with a several-minute guitar duel between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd) that wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place on a Yes album. This was rock music, and brilliant rock music, and I couldn’t get enough of it. And it definitely pricked up my ears for the rest of this “punk” thing that I’d previously mostly ignored.

Being five years behind the curve on Television, though, was as good as a century. Soon enough, I’d discovered their 1978 followup Adventure, and that that had been their swan song to date, as Verlaine and Lloyd had famously imploded right after it was released. (Founding member Richard Hell had previously left after another run-in with Verlaine, and Lloyd had almost departed on another occasion, so really it’s somewhat of a miracle that there were any albums at all.) I ran across a Reach Out International Records semi-official live cassette called The Blow-Up that had a couple of songs that hadn’t made it onto either studio record, and those three albums became my only glimpse into this strange phenomenon that had just barely passed me by.

Verlaine and Lloyd later made up, or at least decided to put aside their differences, and Television finally came out with a third studio album, Television, in 1992. I wore that one out, too — I remember a stretch of time when that and Sugar’s Copper Blue were all I would listen to, possibly the only time in my life when I was listening solely to music released that year — but never saw the band on its ensuing tour for some reason. I finally got my chance in 2007, when they were booked to play an outdoor show at Central Park’s Summerstage festival — one that Lloyd soon announced would be his last with the band, as he was leaving yet again. Unfortunately, the week before the show, he ended up in the hospital, and the band went on with Verlaine’s solo bandmate Jimmy Rip in his spot. (The only mention of this from Verlaine was to mumble between songs, “Our other guitarist couldn’t be here today,” at which point Rip had to chime in, “We all wish Richard Lloyd a speedy recovery.”) The show was still great — in particular, it gave me an appreciation of how much of what makes the band special comes from Billy Ficca’s incredible drumming — but it wasn’t entirely Television.

The band is still around, with Rip on board full-time now: I saw them last year play an odd instrumental set over a screen lit with projections by the Joshua Light Show. I’ve still never seen Richard Lloyd in any shape or form. And I still listen to Marquee Moon more than any other Television album, and as much as most any other album in my collection by any artist. When you get something that right, I guess encores aren’t really necessary.

The Mekons

14-28aI cannot begin to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t picked up the Village Voice one day in 1989 and flipped to the music section. There my eye happened to land on a Robert Christgau column whose title I’ve long since forgotten (and it doesn’t appear to have made the transition to a digital afterlife); it was about some British punk band called the Mekons, and their new album The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll. This, Christgau assured readers, wasn’t a straightforward turn toward mainstream rock, but an album that slyly deconstructed the rock ‘n’ roll myth while simultaneously being the rockingest album the band, which had emerged from its raw three-chord origins to become known for pioneering forays into country-punk, had made yet.

I had no idea what Christgau was on about — I seldom did, though I liked to let his words slide over my eyeballs — but it hit enough of my interests at the time (left-wing politics and loud guitars) to pique my curiosity. I headed down to whatever record store was most convenient (probably Tower or a Virgin superstore, as The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll had somehow ended up with major-label distribution) and picked up a copy of the CD. And then I went home and played it.

The first song was a revelation: an onslaught of guitars, multiple voices, driving beats, and weird electronic noises that immediately filled the room and my head with its message:

Destroy your safe and happy lives
Before it is too late
The battles we fought were long and hard
Just not to be consumed by rock and roll

The second song was a revelation on top of a revelation: The multiple vocalists disappeared, to be replaced by a woman with a remarkable voice — Sally Timms, according to the insane liner notes, which folded out to reveal strange art surprinted over the hand-scrawled lyrics and a bizarre story about bored British youth and Khrushchev building giant sofas — singing of how “when I was just seventeen, sex no longer held a mystery; I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock ‘n’ roll.” And of dance clubs, and shop window displays, and vampires. And there were ten more songs like this, each one both a densely packed essay on life under late-20th-century capitalism and a joyous rock song. I probably listened to the CD five times that night.

A few months later, I got my first glimpse of Mekons in the flesh, at Tramps in Manhattan, and discovered two other things about them: First of all, they were great live musicians, the mob of people crowding the stage including a mad-genius fiddle player and a drummer who, I later found out, had played on any number of hit songs like “Watching the Detectives” before joining this odd collective. Second, they were brilliantly funny — especially the pudgy fellow on guitar at stage left who yammered menacingly about Bono between songs, and the wiry guy on guitar at stage center who shared vocal duties with him (and Timms) and was more prone to occasional wry comments that would stick with you long after the show had ended.

And after that… well, after that. The Mekons are, as its fans have found out as well as its members, less a rock band than a way of life. (Nearly 40 years in, they’ve all taken to joking that “the only way out of this band is in a box.”) Many of my best friends are people I’ve met at Mekons shows, or on email discussion lists about the Mekons, or somewhere else in the real or virtual world when the magic word “Mekons” popped up, and we knew we’d happened across a kindred spirit. Probably half my music library is of bands that in some way I found out about via the Mekons or their various spinoff projects, especially after Jon Langford (the Bono slagger) began recording on a tiny Chicago label called Bloodshot Records that helped pioneer something called “alt-country.” I have been introduced to books and movies and political history through references in Mekons songs, which have addressed everything from the colonialist history of the drug trade to the perfectly agonizing push and pull of heartbreak to how to make a zombie to political terrorism in 1910 amid the terrors of modernity. (One album, So Good It Hurts, even contains footnotes, though in true Mekons style these are more hilarious than scholarly.)

It’s hard to sum up an entire way of looking at the world in just a few sentences. (Though filmmaker Joe Angio has done an admirable job in 95 minutes of documentary.) The best I’ve heard came from Langford, during an amazing multimedia piece he wrote based on his own life story, the history of country music, and the Illinois campaign against the death penalty (this is a more or less typical Mekonian mashup), in a section recounting the lessons he learned as a supporter of his local soccer club, the terrible lower-division Newport County:

The fact that they weren’t much good and were despised by my Welsh-speaking, rugby-loving uncles only increased the attraction. Soccer in the lower ranks was not about the big victory or big money or big success, it was about the lack of it, and getting by against the odds, and somehow, sometime scoring some amazing heroic victory — but often as not, not.

If there’s a better credo for trying to survive as an artist, as a music fan, as a political activist, as a human in the modern world, I haven’t found it. The Mekons didn’t invent laughing your way defiantly through pain, but they may have perfected it. I cannot begin to imagine my life if they hadn’t come together in Leeds in 1977, and if Christgau and others hadn’t championed them, and if someone at A&M Records hadn’t briefly decided to give them major-label standing (a decision that was immediately and decisively reversed, as documented by their followup album The Curse of the Mekons), and if they hadn’t perversely insisted on carrying on for all these years. If the Mekons didn’t exist, no one else could have invented them.