“senses working overtime” – xtc (1982)

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Most of the time, I pretty much have everything under control.  I am the master of my own destiny.  It takes a lot of discipline and time management, but I typically make it work for me.  However, there are times when things happen beyond my control.  This happens to everyone everywhere all the time.  And each time, I’m always caught off guard and then it is time to not let myself get derailed.  Of course, you never see these distractions coming.  No matter how many times these chaotic events come into play, things do work out in the end.  They key is to just grab the wheel, not lose composure, and get back on the road.

When life throws me curveballs, that is really when I get down to business.  I’ve worked hard for the things and opportunities in my life.  Like most people, I appreciate security and some form of the status quo.  So when shit happens, I work even harder.  All the chips are in.  I’m betting to win.

XTC’s 1982 single “Senses Working Overtime” best represents these moments in my life.  The blended feelings of panic, confidence, stress, and hopefulness wage a war inside my body and head.  Sensations and my reactions to external stimuli are heightened.  Everything is brighter and louder.  Either that or I’m slightly more sensitive to things.  Regardless, every part of my body is working overtime.

XTC is a wonderfully manic new wave band.  A criminally underrated band as well.  Alan Partridge and Colin Moulding are both witty and keen about the world them.  They manage to tap into a neurosis and recondition it as interesting and lively pop music. On this track, the vocals are sharp and crisp.  As the instrumentation builds and the band comes together for the chorus, there is a sense of madness the surrounds you.  It is a clever juxtaposition from the verses which feature a prominent tambourine and militaristic sounding drumming style.  The song takes you from one extreme to another.  You’re bouncing around as this song manipulates and teases your every sense and perception of pop music.  It isn’t a song meant for casual listening.  It is far too engrossing.

I’m preparing for a family vacation next week.  When that starts, I plan on turning everything off.  My boss has been notified I will not answer emails or calls.  I am also making sure everything is taken care of before I leave.  That takes a lot of effort and preparation.  I’m confident things will go well, but you never know.  Until the moment I can switch everything off, my senses and me will be working overtime.

“you can never hold back spring” – tom waits (2005)

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This week was the first full week of spring; a great milestone in every year. I just get so excited when spring is coming. Winters in Chicago can be brutal and long.  Lake Michigan makes it so much worse.  The lake effect makes the snow wetter and the wind colder; the kind of weather that cuts straight to the bones.  Although, winter can be nice at times. As much as I enjoy the snow and a crisp, grey winter day, it can get old quickly.  As soon as the winter holidays are over and we have started the New Year, I’m just done.  But, I know I have a few more months left to wait.  So, when spring arrives, I’ve had a lot of time to build up my excitement.

Spring in Chicago can be a loose and fluid concept.  This time last year, we experienced around a foot of snow.  This week, it has been relatively rainy with a mixture of appropriately warm days and cold days. It is technically spring according to the calendar, but it isn’t quite here yet.  There are glimpses, but they are brief.  Though, each time I get a little more sun and temperatures just a little bit higher, I know it is only a matter of time before spring has truly sprung.  It really is the kind of transition that can test one’s patience, but the reward is worth it.

The first time I ever heard Tom Waits was while listening to Bob Dylan’s radio show on XM (this was before it became Sirius XM). Dylan’s show was a collection of songs and musings about a particular subject.  Each show had it’s own respective theme and none of them were anything particularly abstract or vast like the subject of love.  The themes on the show were things along the lines of taxes, weather, coffee, or even the state of Tennessee.  Finishing off the first season in 2007 was a show about spring cleaning, a special two-hour episode containing leftovers from previous episodes mixed in with songs about the spring season.

The final song played was “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” by Tom Waits.  This track was released a year before in 2006 on a three-disc compilation album called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards. The collections contained 56 songs, 30 of which were brand new for the release.  Not only that, each disc represented a specific theme or style. Disc one was Brawlers, a collection of rock and blues tracks. The songs that made up Bawlers, disc two, were slower and more melancholic in tone. And the final disc that was Bastards were more experimental in nature including poems and the type of musical noise that has been associated with Waits over the years.

“You Can Never Hold Back Spring” was one of the songs included on the Bawlers disc, though it wasn’t a new track.  It originally appeared in the 2005 film The Tiger and the Snow directed by and starring Roberto Benigni.  This was my first Tom Waits song.  While I remember liking it enough, it took a long while to truly appreciate his style.  Over the course of 2007, I dabbled here and there without quite catching on. It wasn’t until I discovered his releases Alice and Blood Money, both released in 2002, that I finally started to grasp his style and personality.  Considering my inaugural track was recorded three years later, it seems that his 2000s input was the sound I appreciated the most.  From there, I was able to navigate the rest of his discography and truly appreciate his artistry.

On this track, Waits croons like a romantic balladeer.  His famously gruff voice is subdued and full of harmony.  It is dreamy and like a lullaby at times.  In this song, he is singing about his love for someone who may not fully realize their true feelings.  Waits claims that even though this person has lost their way, he and the rest of the world keeps dreaming of spring.  I don’t think Waits says this in a literal sense pertaining to the season, but rather a romantic allegory.  No matter how hard you may fight, you can never hold back spring just as you cannot deny your feelings or your love.  In the meantime, Waits isn’t forgetting the blushing rose.  It is such a sweet song and wonderfully uses changing seasons as a theme representing time and love.

Musically, the song is quintessentially Tom Waits.  The recording is scratchy and dusty as if it was recorded 100 years ago onto a 78 RPM record and left in an attic.  It doesn’t detract.  That kind of aesthetic touch only add to the song’s charm.  Backing Waits are piano and a few horns.  The music is subtle and performed low and soothingly.

Tom Waits has been a treasured musical figure in my life in the last decade.  While I tend to gravitate to other songs, albums, or periods in his career, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” was the one that started it all.  Perhaps I was heading towards a musical awakening and this song was the symbolic representation of the discovery of new sounds.  Either way, it is such a relevant song for me this time of the year.  Like the lover Waits is yearning for, I’m yearning for the warm caress of sunlight bright flowers.  Despite the dips that bring the colder temperatures and biting rain, I know it won’t last forever.  Something has got to give because spring will never be held back.

“jesus thinks you’re a jerk” – frank zappa (1988)

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The election season is gearing up to be in full swing. In just a few months, both the Republican and Democratic conventions will have chosen their candidates after what has become one of the most bizarre campaign seasons seen to date.   The circus that has been created in Washington and exacerbated by the media has been fascinating to observe, and a little frightening admittedly. It is just a very exciting time to be of voting age.

Illinois held their primaries on Tuesday. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was declared the primary winner over Senator Bernie Sanders. As a Bernie supporter, I was a bit disappointed. In the last few months, Chicago has been a political hotbed of racial and social issues. The unjustified murders of several black men combined with the systemic corruption within the police department to cover up these hate crimes has made the people of Chicago’s anger so palpable. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has been the focus of this criticism and many people are urging him to resign. Emmanuel has also backed Clinton in her presidential campaign. I though the people of Chicago were sick of “politics as usual” and wanted something different. I was wrong. Witnessing this, I’m becoming aware of the fact many of our politicians do not have their constituent’s best interest at heart. At this point in my life, I’m ready for someone to shake things up; a true iconoclast.

I have a lot of respect for people who fight against the status quo in order to expose hypocrisy. Frank Zappa is exactly that person. Despite being a famous musician, he is largely unknown to most people and has many misconceptions attached to his career. Many saw the long-haired guitar virtuoso and assumed he was a hippie or abused drugs. Neither was the case. He abhorred the Love Generation and was staunchly against the use of any illegal substances. He was also a Conservative in the truest sense of the word. He believed in free enterprise and upheld the economic values associated with conservative principles; he was definitely a “pull up your bootstraps” kind of guy who valued hard work and earning your own way.

Zappa was not a conservative as they are defined today; people who use religion to manipulate voters into supporting them. During the 1980s, Zappa became very political and this was reflected in both his studio recordings and on stage. His orchestrations became sardonic and parodied the religious and political leaders of the day. He singled-out television evangelists for stealing funds from their supporters as well as politicians who criticized sexual promiscuity but then would be caught in a career-ending sex scandal. Zappa’s wit and hardened principles took his music in strange and interesting directions; themes that were a departure of his earlier work.

I became a Zappa fan around 2007. He was a figure I had heard of and had seen around, but never had the opportunity to listen to him. When I did, I was hooked. While many people gravitate toward the career highlights of his work with the Mothers of Invention such as Freak Out! or solo albums like Hot Rats, I really love his work in the late 1970s and 1980s. I liked the departure from the psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and enjoyed his work on the synclavier. The sounds were incredibly interesting to me. Also, I was always a fan of political humor, so his musical commentary was welcomed.

In 1988, Zappa released a heavily over-dubbed live album entitled Broadway the Hard Way which contained a lot of tracks criticizing various religious and political leaders. Sting also joins Zappa for a jazzy rendition of The Police’s “Murder by Numbers” after Sting declares Reverend Jimmy Swaggart called him a son of Satan for writing this song. Broadway the Hard Way is an incredibly funny, political album complete with Zappa’s own orchestral style with hints of jazz and hip-hop.

The track “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk” was an early Zappa discovery for me. Though I cannot remember how I came across it, I checked it out because the title was fantastic. Despite being a lengthy song, it goes by really quick and is the highlight of the album for me. It’s full of cultural and social references from the late 1980s with orchestral instrumentation that contains some polka elements and random noises like dogs barking. Musically, it is a bit of a mess in that it abruptly changes frequently. However, that was Zappa’s style. While a lot of other tracks from the album have better musical compositions, the allure of the track are Zappa’s vocals and commentary.

Zappa and I do not align much politically. I’m more of a leftist than he ever was. However, I truly respect him for his commitment to his ideals. He valued freedom of speech and a person’s right to express themselves without their rights taken away by people with a skewed and uninformed agenda. He fought against the “Washington Wives” who helmed the PMRC and demanded censorship in music. Before his death, he was also gearing up for a presidential run during the 1992 campaign. Based on his interviews and debates on shows like Crossfire, that truly would’ve been a site to see. Here’s to a strange and exciting election in 2016!

“cynical girl” – marshall crenshaw (1982)

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I recently read a powerful and funny book on relationships in the modern world.  Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari was an exploration in how technology has influenced people’s dating habits and impacted how we communicate with each other.  Witty and eye-opening, the data and analysis presented in the book made it abundantly clear that while there are more options for people, we all experience the same issues on the journey.

While I was reading this book, I was reflecting on songs about love and people.  And love is a subject that isn’t scarce in the music world.  There are songs about unrequited love, unconditional love, forbidden love, and just about every form of the feeling that makes the world go round.

I went through my collection of songs that covered the subject.  Since there are so many out there, I didn’t have time to go through them all.  I listened to some tracks that will never escape the public consciousness and are so engrained in our culture after so many years. These are great for a lot of reasons, but can get stale when you want something different. And I listened to the more obscure ones; songs that were once chart-topping but long forgotten, or stories about love that just never got off the ground. During this, I rediscovered one of my favorite LPs in my collection.

Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 eponymous debut album is certainly one of the best albums of the 1980s. In fact, everything about it screams and exudes the decade of excess and plasticity.  The cover features Crenshaw wearing a strikingly purple suit and sunglasses that can make any face disappear.  He is sitting at a built-in kitchen table that is a relic of the 1970s in all if it’s retro worshipping glory.  And if that wasn’t enough, the colors are deeply saturated and all subtly in tone is lost amongst the exaggeration of the cover art.

Musically, the album sounds a bit dated.  The production style is muted and lacks a lush presentation, while the songs themselves are short and repetitive.  However, the album is charming and bears repeated listens.  Despite it’s flaws, the record, and by extension Crenshaw, show that they don’t have anything to prove by being the best. Completely understated compared to the synth-pop melodies and lavish production styles of it’s top-40 contemporaries, Crenshaw’s debut album is an exercise in musical restraint.  Despite elements of any flashiness or stylistic excess, Crenshaw seems to relish in the opportunity to satirize the music motif of the early 1980s.  And in a decade that felt artificial and all about having more, Crenshaw is a refreshing alternative.

Beyond the single “Someday, Someway” which one of Crenshaw’s more popular singles, the standout track on the album for me is “Cynical Girl.”  This is a love song that embodies Crenshaw’s attitude.  He wants companionship and he wants it in the form of a girl that is tired of all the garbage around them.  There’s nothing good on the radio or on television, and Crenshaw seeks someone who sees the world the way he does.  Interestingly enough, there is some clever imagery in the song.  Crenshaw sings about meeting a girl who has no use for the real world, and that begs the question as to their definition of reality.  I feel that most cynical people see the world as being phony most of the time, so it is interesting to hear Crenshaw sing that he desires to escape out of reality and into his own world.  Does this suggest what he wants isn’t real, or could it mean simply shifting from one perspective to another?  Could he be looking for someone to save him from the monotony and bullshit that surrounds him?

“Cynical Girl” is simply a great pop song that is catchy and spins the love theme on it’s head.  For me, it is a great escape from the bubblegum pop love songs and presents something that feels more real.  Crenshaw is a criminally underrated songwriter.  Crenshaw never became super famous, but he has had a steady career including writing songs for his own albums and for movies such as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story where he was nominated for several awards.  I had the privilege of meeting him after a performance at the Old Town School of Folk Music and he was incredibly pleasant.  He was a really cool, down to earth guy.  I didn’t bring my record for him to sign but it still stands out as a jewel in my collection.

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“dead!” – carolyn sullivan (1967)

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For about three years, I hosted an independent soul music radio show on my college radio station. I loved soul music and my station didn’t have a block of programming that focused on that particular genre. It first aired January 2007 and really offered a mixed bag in the beginning. I played a variety of already well-known standards plus songs I wouldn’t have played once the show matured. Until I got to the point where the material was interesting and cohesive, I had to do my homework while the show was clunky for it’s first semester or so.

At the same time, I obtained a leadership role within the station handling promotions. This meant taking the station’s brand and increasing visibility within the community. I figured one way of doing this was partnering with businesses that catered to the station’s listening demographic. Places like record stores, coffee houses, and comic book shops. I became pretty good at this type of work and developed a lot of great relationships with vendors.

One particular vendor that was close was a record store; really the only one in town. The owner had been a long-time listener of the station as well as my show in particular; he even would record my shows onto his computer for later listening which never bothered me. The record store owner was also a soul music aficionado and turned me onto some new stuff he was recently getting in. At the tail end of 2007, he introduced me Sharon Jones and the Daptone record label. When I heard Jones, I knew that was the sound I was looking for to kick off the second half of 2007 as the show entered into it’s second semester.

What really thrilled me about the Daptone label was the raw sound. It sounded dusty, but was recorded that very year. I then wanted my show to focus on independent soul artists that were contemporary, but had the style and appeal of an aged, obscure group. Through my experience doing promotions with the station, I worked out a deal with the record store owner. He could sponsor my show in exchange for free CDs for me to play. This worked out really well for me because I needed more content, but didn’t have the money to constantly buy CDs for the show. At the tail end of 2007, I became acquainted with soul record labels like Numero Group and Jazzman. Looking back, I may have been the only person in town who knew of these kinds of record labels. If not, then I was the only one who really cared.

My last show was December 2009; a Christmas show. I had one more semester left, but external circumstances took all motivation out of me to pick it back up again. Now that I wasn’t doing my radio show, I kind of stopped listening and keeping up. Graduation was coming and I just wanted a job. I then turned my attention to other kinds of music I had neglected over the last few years. I knew I loved soul music deep down, but I needed a break.

Within the last couple of months, I’ve been breaking out my old soul compilation CDs again. Southern soul mixes from Mojo, UK imported northern soul collections, and even my sizable Daptone collection have been getting rediscovered. I love compilations featuring obscure artists. One of my favorites is a 2006 release called Dead! The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits. This compilation features an eclectic mix of rock, pop, psychedelic, funk, and soul. Every track is about death. Some of it funny. Some of it macabre. All of it fascinating jewel within my collection.

One track that stood out for me was the 1967 single “Dead!” by Carolyn Sullivan. Now, I cannot tell you a single thing about Sullivan. According to Discogs, she only released three singles and appears on only a handful of compilations. Like many of the other artists on obscure compilations, she may have been someone who recorded a single and just couldn’t sell it. Or maybe it was something else. Who knows?

Our station featured breaks in the normal programming called “specialty shots.” These specialty shots began with a promotional introduction for that particular show while the song served as a taste of what a listener could hear. “Dead!” became one of my favorite specialty shots.

The track actually has two versions. One is darker and evokes the imagery of a woman slicing her wrists open while the other is a lover’s lament that her boyfriend has left her because he won’t pick up the phone. Naturally, I prefer the former. That version is so powerful and shocking to hear. The vocals are dark, sad, and project a sense of dread. Sullivan is on the verge of killing herself and you hear every aspect of her pain through her words. At times, it can be a bit too much and you need to resurface from the murky depths Sullivan is dragging you down into. Regarding the backing track, it may have been recycled from another single. The organ appears to sound jaunty at times and creates a stunning juxtaposition to the lyrics. The mood and tone of the organ change throughout the song and leaves the listener confused yet mesmerized.

Soul music offers a vast array of possibilities for the listener to suit whatever mood they may be in. The happy, party soul music can ease. The breakup soul music that can comfort. And then, you have “Dead” which serves as a sobering reminder that things can always be worse, so enjoy life while you can.