“wot” – captain sensible (1982)

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I have been spending the last few weeks packing and preparing to move to a new apartment.  I moved into my current place about two years and it again felt the right time to find a new one.  I never really liked my neighborhood, so I put the time and effort to find a place in a neighborhood that was more my style.

I am a meticulous planner and I do not procrastinate.  So, I packed mostly everything that weren’t essentials a few weeks ago.  Sadly, these included my records and CDs.  Many would say those are essential, and I would agree, but they had to be boxed up.

When I’m doing any kind of work around the house, I love listening to music.  Since all my music was boxed up and not very accessible, I resorted to listening to various podcasts I subscribe too.  Listening to Jim and Greg share their sound opinions, Rachel Maddow fill me in on the previous night’s news, and Terry Gross interview interesting people have kept me company.  With those shows, I have to actively listen which is nice.  I am enjoying the show and it keeps my mind from thinking about how much I hate packing which would encourage me to put it off.

Fortunately, a few years ago, I migrated my entire music collection to digital form and store it on Google Play.  With it’s handy mobile app, I can access up to 20,000 songs and stream them over Wi-Fi.  While I have more than that, I made sure to prioritize.

When podcasts and talking heads start becoming a bit droll, I open up the Google Play app and browse the library on my phone.  Now, this is the hard part.  What do I play?  For me, that perfectly symbolizes modern American culture; the freedom to have too many choices.  Think about it.  Even when watching Netflix, how much time do you waste just exploring your options?  Usually when I’m looking through Hulu, Netflix, HBO, or any of the other channels on my Roku, I get bored and end up not watching anything.

A lot of my music is organized into playlists based on a number of categories.  Lately, I’ve been on a huge New Wave kick and put that playlist on shuffle; 773 classics and obscurities that draw in punk and electronic music influence that either defined pop radio in their time or lived on the fringe.  As I’m listening, I hear songs almost everyone knows, songs that I love, and even songs I completely forgot about.

One track that has been on my mind since rediscovering this playlist is the 1982 single “Wot” by Captain Sensible.  Captain Sensible, otherwise known as the Damned co-founder Raymond Ian Burns, is an eccentric figure who blends punk, psychedelic, and electronic music and all done while sporting his signature red beret.  “Wot” is such an incredibly fun song for me.  The Captain is singing about being disturbed by construction workers outside his flat, but then the lyrics become vague and lacking a narrative.  But, it doesn’t matter.  With a funky backing track and the repeated chorus, the song is very danceable and funky.  Mirroring the song, the music video also features the Captain’s humor and absurdity as he roams the building and streets while various antics ensue.

Captain Sensible isn’t a very well-known artist and Raymond Ian Burns’ more notable work is with the Damned.  But, I always end up listening to the Captain more than the Damned.  “Wot” always lifts my spirits and makes any mundane task or aggravation so much better.  Even the Captain found himself dancing in the street after being woken up by a jackhammer.  Don’t take things so seriously and enjoy how funny life can be.

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“electric fence” – califone (2000)

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A big part of my love for music is thinking about it.  I think about music and how it fits into my life and the lives of others.  These thoughts include what songs personally mean to me, why certain songs resonate more with people than others, the history of music, and even what songs would sound great in film soundtracks.

Sometimes these thoughts can be extremely complex and hard to define.  After all, even though I claim music is a big part of my life because I actively listen to it, play it, and talk about it, I also recognize there is so much of it I don’t have the education and experience to articulate.  I read a book a few months ago about how people listen to music.  It wasn’t long, but it was a challenging read.  The book was Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty by Ben Ratliff.  In twenty essays, Ratliff identifies and discusses twenty distinct ways to listen to music.  The reason for this was because though we live in a society where we have the technology to access any kind of music from any part of the world at any time, our personal tastes are still homogenized.

Disregarding music categories like genre because they are commercial constructs, Ratliff focuses specifically on qualities in music that encourage people to listen to music with an open-mind.  Focusing on musical concepts and ideas such as speed, silence, density, improvisation, repitition, loudness, and other qualities, Ratliff breaks down each quality and observes their distinct traits.  Ratliff also provides a playlist of suggests artists and tracks that exemplify each trait.

I was reminded of this book recently after participating in a music study.  A friend of mine in the community radio station I volunteer with advertised they had a friend who was studying sociology at the University of Chicago.  They were gathering information on how people interpret and describe music using adjectives.  Having some free time, I decided to participate.

In front of me on a desk were several dozen index cards with a single bold-faced word on each one.  Prickly, sexual, sticky, round, masculine, hot, dry, and other words were there to be selected to describe the music I was hearing.  The student would play me a sample of a track I had to pick five words to describe the music.  I had to describe what I was hearing and explain my reasoning while including any associations I may have like specific artists, genres, or memories.  It was tougher than it sounds.

After doing this for twelve songs, the student told me the artists and tracks she used.  There are songs by familiar artists such as Tiffany, Tiny Tim, and My Bloody Valentine, but the clips she selected made them sound alien and unrecognizable when played on their own.  I didn’t know some of the other artists, but one had me really intrigued.

Califone was one of the artists selected for this study.  Looking back, I remember I was really struck by the clip I heard.  There were no vocals in the clip.  Just hard percussion and a swampy sound.  When talking about it, I kept drawing connections to the musical style of T-Bone Burnett (specifically to his 2006 album The True False Identity).  After being told to not think about the Burnett association, I described the track as being swampy though that word was not one of the words on the index cards.  So, I had to find other ways to convey a swampy sound.

“Electric Fence” by Califone is a swampy song.  It is an oddly lumbering and menacing sounding track that evokes a darker side of a place like Louisiana.  The drums are heavy and the guitar murky.  From a production value, the track sounds hazy and dissonant.  Even when the vocals come in, they sound soft and almost distorted as if being sung from beneath water.  The track was incredibly exciting and piqued my interest, but having to describe it in a controlled exercise took me really into it.  I didn’t know anything about Califone, but I left thinking this is a band I need to keep on my radar.

It is interesting to think about music in alternate ways that challenge our previous conception.  This experiment was really a mental exercise.  It was fun, but I didn’t find it easy.  Everyone will, of course, come to different conclusions on how they interpret these sounds.  And that is a remarkable idea.  To know that different people can interpret different things from the same source speaks volumes about the power of music.  You end up seeing patterns and references you hadn’t noticed before, but were always there.  In fact, when leaving the radio station where the experiment was held, I saw a Califone poster hanging on the wall.

 

“i’m so beautiful” – divine (1984)

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I love everything about movies.  I am fascinated by how movies are made.  I am entertained by watching movies.  I am enlightened by reading about movies.  For just over a century, audiences the world over have gone to the movies to see stories told in exciting, shocking, and innovative ways.  The imagination and technical craft that goes into crafting a truly great piece of cinema serves as a testament to the pinnacle a person can reach as an artist.  And then there are those who just gloriously trash everything!

Last week, I went with a friend to see a movie at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.  As much as I love the movies, I don’t go as much anymore.  Going to the movies costs time and money.  Plus, streaming media with low-rate monthly subscriptions have provided audiences with thousands of titles at their fingertips, so who even goes out to the movies anymore?  Well, I do.  While it may not be as often as I would like, I make it a special occasion. I don’t go out and see every Hollywood blockbuster or every “Best Picture” nominee, but I see things that strike me in different ways.  I make it an event for myself; a treat.  Because that is what going to the movies is for me, a treat.  So I’m rather selective and choose films very carefully.  Though, sometimes, there is no careful thinking.  Sometimes, I know that I have to see something just based solely on one name.  Last week, I saw a John Waters movie.

I adore John Waters so much.  He is an incredibly well-spoken and intelligent person.  And for those unfamiliar with his work, they seem surprised at just how big of a perv he is.  Not only that, but they also seem slightly uneasy with the fact I enjoy the work of the Prince of Puke!  While Waters’ later theatrical output has softened up and is more accessible (Polyester, Cry Baby, Serial Mom, and Hairspray), it is his earlier work that resonates with fans and where Waters has exhibited his more specialized and nuanced taste; or about as nuanced as a drag queen eating dog shit can be.

The screening at the Music Box was for his second feature-film Multiple Maniacs.  Produced in 1970, it became a rarely seen film and still has never been released on DVD.  Janus Films, in association with the Criterion Collection, remastered the film and distributed it to a few select theaters this year and giving it the audience and attention it deserves.  In the film, all of the Waters’ Dreamlanders (the name given to the band of actors who appear in most of his early work) are present.  David Lochary plays the ringmaster for a travelling circus.  But not just any circus.  It is a cavalcade of perversion masterminded by Lady Divine.  It is there you’ll see perversion unlike any other including homosexuals, a man eating puke, armpit fetishists, and so much more.  Unsuspecting audiences are lured to the free shows where they end up being held captive and robbed by Lady Divine herself!  As tension brew between Lochary and Divine, Lochary plots with Mary Vivian Pearce to kill Divine.

The other Dreamlanders appear to drive the narrative including Cookie Mueller (who plays Divine’s daughter and helps her plot), Mink Stole (a transient lesbian who Divine encounters in a church), and Edith Massey (the diner owner who stirs up trouble). Like many of Waters’ other works, Divine plays the mother to the group or some kind of maternal figure.  In her all glory, Divine demands the attention and respect one reserves for authority figures.

Multiple Maniacs featured many shocking moments that can only be found in a class John Waters film.  Divine appears naked multiple times.  Mink Stole penetrates Divine with a rosary in a church in a sex scene juxtaposed with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  And Divine is raped by a giant lobster creature after stabbing multiple characters to death.  Classic John.

Divine is really the star of this film, as well as several other Waters’ films.  Born Harris Glenn Milstead, he later started dressing in drag.  It was Waters who ended up giving him the name “Divine,” a transformative moment for mother of all drag queens.

Outside of Waters’ movies, Divine developed a cult following and each branched out into other art forms.  Divine commands the spotlight, so it should be no surprise that she would get into music.  From 1981 until her death from an enlarged heart in 1988, Divine released multiple HI-NRG and synth-pop recordings.  Amongst original recordings such as “Shoot Your Shot,” Divine also produced campy covers of classic such as “Walk Like a Man” as made famous by the Four Seasons.

If you’re going into delve into Divine’s musical career, you have to be open to challenging conventional aesthetics.  While Divine affected a female voice in her roles in movies like Polyester, her singing voice is gruff and abrasive.  For me, Divine’s signature track “I’m So Beautiful” 1984.  It is the perfect declaration of who Divine is.  With vocals over a standard 80s synth-pop backdrop, Divine lays it all on the line.  She commands attention.  Leading up the chorus, she raises her voice commanding you to look at her because she is beautiful.  She even reinforces this claim by saying that you gotta believe she is beautiful.  While she is out walking the street and feeling the heat, she’s going to steal the show because there ain’t nobody better than her.

The flip side to the song is that it is an anthem about accepting everyone as beautiful regardless of their body type.  Divine was an unhealthily large person, but that didn’t stop her from wearing skimpy clothes and showing off some skin.  “I’m So Beautiful” is a song about acceptance and doing things your own way because who has the right to stop you from living your life, having fun, and commanding respect and attention?  Divine delivers this song like a force of nature.  Died way too young, she lived faster and harder and in a more entertaining fashion than many of us.

“rose garden” – joe south (1968)

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For the last year, I’ve been taking guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.  I’m fairly pleased with my progress.  I have managed to go through the entire core program of classes which involved learning chords and developing different strumming techniques.  At times, it would be difficult especially when learning barre chords.  However, I have enjoyed it all the same.

People have asked me why I chose to learn guitar when I had never played an instrument previously in my life.  Most of the questions pertain to what I expect to get from the experience or what I am going to do with my skills.  I get asked if I’m going to form a band or perform at open mics.  My answer is quite simple: none of the above.

I’ve always wanted to learn an instrument.  Now that I am in my late 20s, I really have no ambition of becoming a musical performer and trying to make it in the music industry.  I’m sure when I was younger, I would’ve loved all of that and I still get those rock and roll fantasies in my head from time to time.  But I don’t have any ambitions to get on the stage.  For me, learning guitar has been a more private and personal journey.  I see it as a great hobby for me to keep up with in my home.  They say it gets harder to learn new skills the older you get, but I actively fight against that.  I never want to stop learning and I never want to stop trying new things.  A year ago, I picked up something new and stuck with it.  That’s a personal victory I enjoy.

I love music and love learning about it.  And learning guitar was another step in that process.  It has also given me a new perspective on less popular and well-known artists.  In my music collection, you’ll find obscure artists and records.  I enjoy the novelty of a part of a small group privy to such artists.  However, learning an instrument has also allowed me to appreciate more well-known artists that somehow stayed under the radar; an artist who is both famous and not famous.

Joe South is certainly one of those musicians I would call a not-so-famous-but-famous musician.  He is most famous for penning “Rose Garden” in 1968.  Not even his version is the most famous version, but he is still moderately well-known for that song.  And rightfully so.  It is a well-written and beautiful song about the realities of love.  It is certainly one of my favorites.

Beyond that, the rest of South’s career isn’t as recognized.  He released multiple albums and a few dozen singles over his career, though many artists more famously covered his songs.  He also had a stellar career as a sideman for many iconic albums including Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde¸ Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, and Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  However, sidemen don’t get the respect of recognition they deserve in helping to craft amazing songs.

South had a respectable career including winning some Grammys and being inducted in the Songwriting Hall of Fame, but he still manages to be an amazing country artist that gets overshadowed.  “Rose Garden” is his quintessential masterpiece.  Kicking off a drum beat in the same vein as “Be My Baby” by the Ronnettes, guitars and castanets come in with a moving yet reserved rhythm.  South’s vocals are solid on this track with a wide range of emotion conveyed in his voice.  There are moments of yearning and pleading to his lover, but there is also a lot of hard truth with slight hints of anger as if South could walk away from his love at any second.  It is not just of the best country songs ever written, but one of the best ever.

I do think it is a shame his career wasn’t bigger because it certainly deserved to be.  Or maybe he was someone who enjoyed their privacy and staying out of the limelight.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I respect that decision.  I’ve grown to really appreciate artists whose careers were impactful, but not immediately known in the public consciousness.  Joe South had more of a career than I ever will, and that is fine by me.  I’m perfectly fine continuing to learn my craft and never have to get on the stage and prove it to anyone.

“loaded” – primal scream (1991)

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This past weekend, music lovers and festival aficionados flocked to Chicago to congregate in Grant Park for their annual pilgrimage to see the mother of all music festivals, Lollapalooza.  For the last decade, Lollapalooza has made Chicago it’s spiritual home.  It is quite the cultural institution as people of all ages gather together for the love of music.  Whether you’re watching a fresh, up-and-coming band or established legacy artists, there is something for everything.

I’ve been in Chicago for five years and I still haven’t been to Lollapalooza.  I’m sure I’ll go at some point, but I’ve mentioned before how I don’t typically enjoy large music festivals.  Lollapalooza is one of the biggest and certainly the most famous of those held in this country.  Of course, with that comes a lot of undesirable people and elements.  I was amused looking through my social media feeds reading my friends’ humorous observations of those attending the fest. And a lot of that came from people who actually went and had a good time.

Despite my complaints about music festivals in general, there is a lot to admire about Lollapalooza.  Since 1991, Lollapalooza has been an influential musical force for establishing how a music festival should be.  You don’t get to be around for 25 years if you’re not doing something right.

25 years is a long time for anybody to survive consistently in the music business.  I spent time thinking about how music has changed since 1991 as art and as industry.  Some things for the better, and others not so much.  As I continued reading about all of the great things to come out or premiere in 1991, I was intrigued just how influential that year was.  Not only that, but I couldn’t think of any subsequent year being as culturally significant with regards to music.  I realized that 1991 was the last great year in music.

Not only did Lollapalooza held it’s inaugural festival in 1991, but a lot of amazing and career-defining albums came out that year.  Ten¸ Pearl Jam’s debut, marked a stellar contribution to the grunge rock wave that Nirvana helped popularize with their monumental album Nevermind.  Already international rock stars, a very self-conscious U2 dropped the self-righteousness in favor of irony for the release of Achtung Baby.  And My Bloody Valentine dropped Loveless, a masterpiece that did for shoegaze what The Velvet Underground& Nico did for art rock in 1967.

With so many stellar and important albums coming out that year, it is understandable that a few get overlooked.  Primal Scream’s Screamadelica is not just one of those albums, but I believe it is the most underrated album of 1991.  Originally formed in Scotland during the early 1980s, Primal Scream initially started off as an indie pop band.  By the turn of the decade, they transitioned their sound and seamlessly blended alternative rock and electronica; pioneering new waves in alternative rock that include more danceable elements drawing influence from dub and house music.

There are so many great tracks on the album.  “Movin’ On Up” is uplifting and features tinges of gospel.  “Damaged” is an honest and emotional song with a quiet sense of minimalism when measured against the rest of the album.  “Slip Inside This House” is trippy fun.  And “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” is an essential dance anthem. 

With so many great tracks, it is hard to pick just any one out without listening to the whole album.  However, I continue to find that “Loaded” is my favorite track on the album.  Kicking off the track is audio of Peter Fonda from his film The Wild Angel (1966).  His demand to get loaded and have a good time is such an appropriate launching point for what follows.  Horns and gospel vocals charge in and then segue into a funky drum loop with a chill guitar and jaunty piano layered in the mix.  Many of the riffs loop throughout the track making this 7-minute track incredibly danceable.  A few random vocals are strewn about to break up the mix and a charging guitar strum adds a dynamic break.

Screamadelica is such a triumph.  Whenever I put it on, I don’t stop listening until the album ends.  The album has garnered a lot of praise over the years, but not enough.  Overlooked by other mega-successful albums launched the same year, Screamadelica still feels very much like a fringe experience; a cult classic.  Some elements may sound dated 25 years later, but it still continues to be influential.  If you’re looking for something fun and loose, pick up this album.