“let down” – radiohead (1997)

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I have discussed many times in this blog that I strive to be very open-minded when approaching new music.  For the most part, this has typically only applied to genres, artists, and periods that I was unfamiliar with.  While it takes me some time to get to the new releases, I still enjoy the discovery of music that has been around a long time but is still new to me.  That’s the easy part about being curious to new things.

However, what about the things you were previously sure you didn’t like?  I mean, there must be a reason why you didn’t enjoy a specific artist or song?  It could be that there was absolutely nothing that appealed to you, or perhaps there was one singular glaring quality that betrayed the rest of the work as a whole.  Regardless, there’s something you just don’t like.  Does striving to be more open-minded mean revisiting things you didn’t already?  What’s the point even if you know you already don’t like something?  While wasting your time with something you know you don’t care for, you could be spending your time enjoying something you know you love.  So, why even bother?

These were all questions I wrestled with when I went to Chicago’s Saturday Audio Exchange a few weeks ago for the June edition of Classic Album Sundays.  While the Classic Album Sundays is based in the United Kingdom and has been running for about a decade, the Chicago branch has been going strong for just over a year.  Having been to several events in a row, I have seen the growth and popularity of these listening parties.  While the crowd changes depending on the album, there has been a steady increase in the number of attendees.  What exactly is drawing specific people to a specific event centered on a specific album.  I considered these things as I observed and listen to fans discuss Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer.

I can tell you why I went this last time.  It was to experience what I’ve been missing, if anything at all, when it comes to Radiohead.  Radiohead has been a band I have struggled with for a long time.  I had heard a handful of songs prior.  Some were enjoyable while others not so much.  Though, I had never listened to one of their album’s in their entirety.  Something about Radiohead just didn’t strike a chord with me even though all the components within their music are qualities I enjoy individually; Britpop influence, musical experimentation, thoughtful tongue-in-cheek lyrics, themes analyzing our culture and political climate, etc.  I listen to dozens of artists that combine those qualities, but Radiohead had always been a band that I just never connected with.

For a few months, I knew OK Computer was going to be the May selection for Classic Album Sundays.  The reason being is that the album had it’s 20th anniversary that month.  I really enjoy Classic Album Sundays for a lot of reasons.  The social element is really great because I can talk to friends or mingle with new acquaintances, amazing cookies and lemonade is provided, there’s a dog running around the store that is amazingly cute, and the sound system set-up at Saturday Audio Exchange is perhaps the best way to hear any record.  Despite all those great reasons to go to one of these events, I was waffling on going.  Why?  Because Radiohead.

I debated going until the day of when I made my decision to attend.  I already had a social group meeting that day to talk about a Grandmaster Flash album and everyone wanted to go to Classic Album Sundays right afterwards.  I couldn’t be the odd man out.  Besides that, I had decided that I needed to give Radiohead a proper chance.  As discussed, I had never actually sat down and listened to one of their albums in full during one sitting.  If I’m going to someone who actively takes measures to try new things, then I had to give one album one chance to make an impression.  I owed Radiohead at least that before judging them.

At the event, I was surrounded by friends and strangers who absolutely loved that album.  I’m fairly sure I was the only person who actually hadn’t heard OK Computer in it’s entirety as a complete work of art.  Even one of my friends from the community radio station was asking me how I had never been subjected to listening to that album when most of my friends are music nerds and OK Computer is one of the most sacred releases ever to them.  I just said that I never had the opportunity.  And I was fine with that.  I considered my role at this event a little differently than before.  At previous listenings, I was more familiar with the album, was a fan of the artist, and actively engaged in the post-listening discussion.  This time, I was going to take a step back and discuss.

Sam, the organizer of the Chicago branch of Classic Album Sundays, gave a rousing and passionate speech prior to putting the record on.  Radiohead and OK Computer were very important to him and that certainly showed with his enthusiasm.  Sam doesn’t pick the record selections.  That is done by the main organization, but it is great to see Sam’s love for music every time he presents.

When the needle dropped, the lights were dimmed and we all sat in silence and listened.  At times, I would sit with my eyes clothes.  Other times, I would look around the room and observe others listening to the album; mouthing lyrics or bobbing heads to the rhythm.  I would also periodically look through the lyrics provided to us in book form if I got lost.

The tracks I heard before and knew were “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police.”  When those played, people got excited.  I wasn’t particularly interested in the songs I knew.  While this special listening might make me connect to the songs differently than before, I was more eager to hear the songs I didn’t know.  Of all the songs that played, the one I actually really enjoyed was “Let Down.”  It was melodic and catchy in a way I didn’t associate with Radiohead.  It was a pleasant surprise how much I really enjoyed that song.  It was new and unheard of for me and that’s what I enjoyed most about that experience.

But what about the part of the listening experience?  What about the songs you knew?  Granted, I came into the event wanting to experience something new.  In one way, that might mean songs that I had never heard before.  In another way, that could be discovering something new within a song I thought I was familiar with already.  And I did get that experience.  Primarily for two reasons.  The first being that the sounds equipment is utterly amazing and brings out richness and detail that is lost with poorer sound systems.  The other being that this was my first time sitting down with no distractions and truly listening to this album.  With albums I’ve heard dozens of times before, I’m alright hearing it as background music to whatever I’m doing.  But if I was going to really give Radiohead a chance, I had to do it right.

As with tradition during any Classic Album Sundays event, there is a discussion.  Sam leads the discussion and gets the audience to talk about their experience with the album and to ask any discussion questions.  While I cannot remember any specific details from this discussion, I did pick up on a theme.  Every person who contributed to the discussion shared that they discovered and became enamored with the album or Radiohead as a band when they were teenagers.  Whether this discovery happened when OK Computer was initially released or years later, this album and band became important to them during their formative, acne-ridden teenage years.  Based on that, as expected, I would gather that everyone else was there for some nostalgic purpose.  For me, nostalgia didn’t play a factor.

I left the experience enjoying the album more than I assumed.  While my prior beliefs on Radiohead are still with me, I didn’t leave the experience with a hardened affirmation that I do not like this band.  Instead, I am now more neutral to them when before I would say flat out that I didn’t much care for the band.  What this means is that I am not immediately dismissing them.  My neutrality to them keeps me open to them should I feel an urge.  My first full-length listen of OK Computer was not unenjoyable, but it wasn’t anything groundbreaking for me.  The connection the others around me had with this album had not made itself clear to me.  That being said, I am open to sitting down with it again in the future.  And perhaps maybe a different Radiohead album altogether.  What this listening experience has taught me is that, despite earlier claims, I don’t hate Radiohead.  They haven’t let me down.  I’m just passively waiting for a connection.

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“art groupie” – grace jones (1981)

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Last week, Grace Jones turned 69 years old.  Jones has been an icon I have come to love only within the last few years.  While there are still bands and musicians I nostalgically hold onto from my high school and college days, I still make active attempts to include room for new inspirations and influences in my life.  I began to really appreciate Jones when I read her memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Prior to that, I knew a few songs from her but not much else.  Really only a handful of her disco tracks from compilations I owned as well as the single “Pull Up to the Bumper” which was one of her biggest hits.  I had some time to read the book over the Christmas holiday that year and she intrigued me enough as a cultural figure for to invest my time.  Though I wasn’t completely unaware and blind to her as a person as well as the pop culture cliff notes surrounding her, I was still very much a novice when it came to what I knew about Jones and her music.

Born in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica in 1948, Jones was a daughter born to a local politician and Apostolic clergyman.   At the age of 13, Jones and her family relocated to the United States and lived near Syracuse.  As a teenager, Jones rebelled against her family and religious upbringing by wearing makeup and going to gay clubs.  When her mother remarried, Jones’ stepfather would beat the children and treaty young Grace the worst of them all.  This religiously motivated violence from her stepfather would be forever cemented in Jones’ mind and influence her career.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jones pursued a modeling career.  While some photographers sought Jones out for her unique look, many felt she was too strange to have a career.  Eventually, she would move to Paris where her fashion career would really take off.  During that time, she would go to the underground disco clubs with her modeling roommates Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall (can you imagine what that apartment must’ve been like?).  During the early to mid-1970s, disco music was still an underground phenomenon and an out for gay musicians and artists who wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else that would be mainstream.  This niche culture appealed to Jones and she started cutting her earliest disco tracks such as “I Need a Man.”

Towards the end of the decade, disco became a mainstream musical culture.  With that exposure came novelty acts that watered down and delegitimized the genre.  Disco was increasingly becoming a joke to after being coopted and appropriated who didn’t respect the origins of the art form established by the early pioneers.  Wanting no part of this, Jones moved away from disco.  Instead, she wanted to approach pop and dance music in unique ways she felt weren’t being done as the industry churned out disco clone hit after disco clone hit.

In 1980, Jones released Warm Leatherette.  While that album really starts to signify a change in artistic direction for Jones, it wasn’t until the release of Nightclubbing the following year that Jones truly came into her own.  So much about Jones’ 1981 masterpiece speaks volumes about the essence of her work, life, and character.  Immediately, you’re drawn to the cover.  While Jones identifies as feminine and a woman, she experimented with gender identities when it came to her work.  She has stated that her forays into masculinity have been influenced by both her grandfather and stepfather; she resembles her grandfather while her stepfather’s authoritative and violence behavior influenced the ferocity of her persona and work.  The cover features Jones wearing nothing but a blazer while the lines, angles, and shadow of her face evoke a masculine visage.  Even her breasts appear like muscular pectorals as they creep out of the blazer.

While the cover is truly striking, the heart of the album lies within the music.  As Jones shifted away from disco, she started settling into synthpop and post-punk with hints of reggae influence.  The big single off the album was “Pull Up to the Bumper” and featured a cool, rocking rhythm produced by Sly & Robbie.  What is interesting is that most of the albums is comprised of covers.  Jones manages to take tracks by the Police, Bill Withers, and Iggy Pop and reinvents them.  The narratives change to accommodate this image and sound that represents Jones as an icon to the point that they lose connection to their originators.  In essence, that makes an amazing cover.  It isn’t enough to merely copy the original.  You must make it your own and Jones does that impeccably.

Though not my favorite song from the record, one that deserves attention is the opening track on side two.  “Art Groupie” is only one of three songs from this nine song record that feature Jones as a writer.  It is a mellow song with a catchy hook.  She opens with this great declaration that she’ll never write her memoirs, that there is nothing in her book, and that her personal life is a bore.  That first line inspired the title of her actual memoir released 24 years later (and she kept her word because she dictated the book to Paul Morley and did not write it herself).

In the song, Jones assumes the role of someone who only embodies the role people push on her.  As an Art Groupie, she conveys that she is all style and substance.  All she needs is love adorned on her picture and for her audiences to admire her in glory.  What is fascinating about this is how this character differs from the real Grace Jones.  Jones, according to her memoir, has led an incredibly interesting life complete with creating art that challenges the foundations of pop music and gender constructs.  That hardly sounds like someone who is a bore.  However, there is a kernel of truth in her claim.  The Jones people hear on records and see in the movies is a carefully crafted image.  Jones even admits as much in her book.  While memoirs and autobiographies are meant to be very personal in that the author opens up their whole life, Jones isn’t going to divulge everything.  She has her secrets.  And there are legends and myths associated with her that she is in no hurry to disprove.  That is part of her mystique and charm.  As someone pours over a picture of Jones and tries to make sense of what they are seeing, Jones doesn’t help and only adds to the confusion.

Jones is still someone that I need to explore more.  Though I have read her book and listened to several of her albums, I haven’t had that much time with her.  It takes years to fully know an artist.  While I am glad I eventually found Grace, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to when I was younger.  Artists mean different things to you at different times.  As I get older, it gets harder to discover new things.  People start getting set in their ways and what they like and what makes them comfortable.  Plus, some much is happening that it is harder and harder to stay hip.  The only solution is to just at least try to make an effort.  You may not come across the most new and exciting thing, but you may find something deeply rooted in our culture already but without the visibility it deserves.  Jones’ impact on music and pop culture and so significant, but she has never garnered the respect and accolades she deserves.  As society becomes more open to LGBT and transgender issues, figures like Jones should resurface as icons because they’ve been committed to these ideas before it was fashionable.  I remember when Paper published that photo of Kim Kardashian wear she exposed her ass in an effort to “break the Internet.” That photo was ripped from Jones who did that two decades prior and completely nude.  Since Kim is what is hot right now, people are going to forget or ignore the pioneers that came before.  So, I stand by my love of Grace Jones and champion her every chance I get because she deserves all the attention from big gestures like a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction to the smallest nods such as when a current pop star claims to be an original.  Pop owes so much to this slave to the rhythm.

“five string serenade” – mazzy star (1993)

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Yesterday, the music world lost Keith Mitchell.  Mitchell was the drummer and one of the founding members of Mazzy Star.  Mazzy Star is a severely underrated dream pop band that explored alternative psychedelic forms in their music.  Painting lush and hypnotic landscapes with their sounds, the band’s small discography is still a treasure and worthy of considerable praise and admiration.

I remember the first time I became aware of Mazzy Star.  During the summer of 2007, I had just finished my first year of college.  That was an odd point because I wasn’t exactly aware of what to do when finals were over and the student population left. I had just gotten accustomed to the freedom of scheduling classes and finding things to do in between like volunteer for college radio and party.  The latter two activities would continue to happen throughout the summer, but I still had to figure out what to do with the rest of my time.

I managed to get a summer job at our local Wal-Mart working in the electronics department.  In the role, I would sell video games, watch out for people stealing CDs, carry big televisions, and provide uneducated and half-assed recommendations on computer software.  For anyone who has ever worked in a Wal-Mart, let alone any retailer, then you know how awful it can be.  If you don’t have professional experience at a place like that, then the rumors are true.  However, it was just for a summer.  I just had to stick it out for only a couple of months.

Not only did I have to find something to do with all this extra time when I wasn’t taking classes, I also had to find a place to live.  Being that I went to a state university school, most of the student population lived within the city or could drive home in just a few hours.  I didn’t own a car at that time and going back home wasn’t an option because my dad lived in a small rural farming community where there would be nothing but boredom waiting for this college student.  No, the best thing for me was to stay in town with my friends, crash on their couch, and drink beer when I wasn’t working.  And that’s what I did.

Since I didn’t have a car at the time, I had to walk to work from my friend’s apartment whose couch I was sleeping on.  Kentucky in the summer can be stifling.  Temperatures can push over 100 on the hottest days which make wearing the choice uniform of khakis and a blue shirt very uncomfortable (I didn’t change at work because you really couldn’t because the loss prevention guys were paranoid about you taking clothes into the bathroom).  And if the hot temperatures weren’t enough, a lot of small southern towns aren’t exactly pedestrian friendly.  I have vivid memories of going on sweltering death marches hiking on the side of small town highways just hoping I wouldn’t get honked at, accidentally swerved into, or have beer bottles thrown at me.  And all those things happened.  Just another day in the life of a tender-footed college kid just trying to scrape some money together.

The only thing that made those hikes bearable was my iPod.  Apple’s iPhone was just about to hit the market, but it wasn’t as cool as my iPod.  The first iPhone couldn’t hold 10,000 songs.  That is what mattered to me at that time.  To endure all this bullshit, I needed some great tunes to distract me.  Being in college radio, I was getting exposed all kinds of cool new music that was new to me.  It was a seemingly endless supply.  However, it wasn’t enough.  I needed some expert opinions on building the perfect iPod library.

My one-stop shop for all music was a local record store in town called The Great Escape.  It was a small place that franchised maybe two or three stores under that name, but it was the only option in this college town that wasn’t a Best Buy or a FYE.  Even if I wasn’t going to buy anything, it was still a cool place to browse, hang out, or to talk music with the employees.  Matt, the manager of The Great Escape, was always very good to me.  He sponsored my radio show where I got free soul music CDs in exchange for some underwriting spots which was great for me because I didn’t have much cash.

On one of my routine visits to The Great Escape with friends, it was a particularly hot day in July.  Walking into the store, you were met with an immediate blast of air conditioned relief that almost made you feel like you were in heaven.  As I was looking for the latest selection of recently received CDs, I became aware of what was playing over the speakers.  It was dreamy, cool, and I really liked the soft female vocals.  When I asked the counter what was playing, they told me.  All I needed was to hear that one minute before I knew I had to buy that album.  Between feeling great getting out of the hot sun and just enjoying the musical space I was in, it was the perfect moment for me to discover Mazzy Star.

The album I bought that was playing was their 1993 sophomore release So Tonight That I Might See.  The song that so entranced me was “Five String Serenade.”  I was in love with that song and it kicked off my summer.  So Tonight That I Might See became my personal soundtrack to summer 2007 as I listened to it every night.  Kentucky nights in the summer can be magical.  Things become quiet and serene.  It may still be a little muggy out, but it is still a relief from the day’s heat.  I walked around the empty campus at night listening to that album.  I fell asleep every night listening to that album.  I made out with girls to that album.  It was the soundtrack to a strange, new time in my life where you spend so much time trying to figure things out, but the music keeps you grounded and you try to enjoy the moment.

What is interesting about “Five String Serenade” is that it is the only song on the album that was a cover.  The song was originally penned by Arthur Lee of Love.  While my introduction to Love via Forever Changes would be a year away or so, this cover was everything to me at that time.  I didn’t really explore music until my college days and that was during a time when I was being amazed a lot by what I was hearing.  Now I know a lot more and have experienced a lot more music, so those moments when you’re wowed by a discovery become increasingly rarer.  Still, I enjoy that record now not just for it’s own artistic merits but also what it meant to me in a simpler time in my life.  Keith Mitchell was a part of that and I appreciate his work for that reason.

“tom joad” – country joe mcdonald (1969)

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Recently, I was catching up with a friend of mine who moved from Chicago last year.  Every couple of months or so, we FaceTime and just talk about what’s been going in our lives, families, and anything else that comes to mind.  I’m recommended new podcasts or television shows to binge and I really enjoy these talks

The news and current events come up in our conversations a lot.  Since the election last year, that’s really the only thing people talk about.  And rightfully so.  The last two years have been a strange time for the American politics and the citizens of this country.  News coverage leading up to the election in 2016 covered some of the strangest topics ever covered such as a dick measuring contest during one of the Republican primary debates.

Unfortunately, the chaos hasn’t stopped.  As soon as the current administration took control of the office, the sequence of events that has since followed is so fantastic that life right now seems like it was pulled from the plot of a movie.  There is so much happening right now that it is hard to keep up let alone take the time to discern the information overflow from news media outlets.

Whether it is the enforcement of a travel ban, the repeal of a healthcare law, the use of the largest non-nuclear weapon, or an unprecedented firing, the American people have a lot to be mad about.  In the last six months, millions of people have collectively taken to the streets protesting their anger against an administration built on a foundation of hatred and fear.  Watching these protests, and having been in some myself, I find myself bouncing between inspiration and disgust.  I see the people in the streets and I have hope for what people can accomplish together when united against a threat, but I am also dismayed by the institutional powerlessness felt when standing up the man.  Riding that spectrum takes a lot of work and patience, but people stick with it for no other reason than they should.

During my latest talk with my friend, we talked about our involvement in resistance movements against the current administration.  While there are people out there much more involved and devoted, we try to do the best we can.  Though I have always been a politically-minded person, I wasn’t always a politically active person.  However, surrounding the issues inherent in the 2016 election, I’ve become more active and involved than I have ever been.  Marching in the streets, reading reports, engaging in dialogue.  These are the things I had done before, but have since amped up in recent months.  We are in the midst of a perilous time right now and it is likely to get worse than it gets better.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a voracious reader. I have recently been engaged with books more focused on our current political state.  One of the latest books I read was The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election written by counterintelligence expert Malcolm Nance.  Published prior to the election in October, Nance lays down evidence and his analysis on how the Russian government was applying advanced tools and resources to direct the outcome of the 2016 election.  Now that Donald J. Trump has become president, these allegations have come to light in the form of a full-fledged investigation into his administration’s ties with Russia and any possible collusion.

While I read books that are more explicitly focused on a modern and developing issue, I do take time to enjoy books that, on the surface, appear to be unrelated.  Last week, I reread The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  I last read that book 12 years ago as a high school assignment.  I remember the novel having such an incredible impact on me.  As a 17 year old student, I was still developing my ideas of the world but I connected with the raw emotion of the book. Living in a rural farming community in Kentucky at that time, I felt like I could see some qualities of the farmers in the book within some of my neighbors.  Plus, the plot of the book was quite tragic and resulted in one of the most shocking endings I had ever read in a book.  The raw emotional journey of these characters was what I was drawn to because that was what I understood.  The underlying political themes of the book were something I was aware of, but wouldn’t quite fully grasp in a way they required.

A few months ago, I saw on Twitter that a friend of mine recently read Steinbeck’s classic and commented how surprised how heavily feminist the book was.  I tried to figure out what she had meant by that.  I remembered the larger plot details and general theme of the book, but the subtle aspects had been lost over the last decade.  Since my friend is an ardent and respected feminist voice within our peer group, I wanted to reread the novel to understand her claim.  Plus, I had always considered The Grapes of Wrath as my favorite novel despite having only read it once over a decade prior.  It was time to revisit.

As I read Tom Joad’s journey with his family from Kansas to California, I was emotionally invested in the story again.  All the heart-wrenching moments came back in a way that I had remembered, but also in ways that I couldn’t appreciate fully before. Now that I am approaching 30, I gravitated towards different elements and picked up the subtlety more.

While rereading this book, I was struck by just how relevant a lot of themes were today.  In the novel, tenement farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl combined with the acquisition of their land by banks move out west to California where plenty of work with high wages are promised.  Packing everything they have, these migrant farmers risk their well-being for the chance at a better life.  It becomes more clear they were sold a lie the closer they get to California.  Orchards and land companies distributed thousands of handbills in the hopes of attracting more workers than they needed so they could drive the cost down.  If fifty cents an hour was promised, then the work would be given at 25 cents an hour because there will always be someone more hungry and desperate than you who is willing to take it.  This toxic relationship kept landowners and the banks rich while the migrants were starving and working themselves to death.

The issue of wages was the first thing that struck me.  Right now, millions of Americans are employed but underpaid for the work they do.  While Americans could survive forty hours per week at minimum wage a generation or two ago, it is an impossibility now.  Rising cost of living and the wage gaps require workers in minimum wage roles to work multiple jobs at nearly 80 hours a week to maintain a minimum standard of living. Much of what drives this dynamic mirrors the wage issue in The Grapes of Wrath.  Multinational conglomerates whose workforce is predominantly comprised of workers making minimum wage justify refusing to pay their employees more so they executives at the top can reward themselves with lucrative bonuses.  And while the migrant farmers in the book who protested a drop in wages were met with loss of work, so are the workers of today who protest to earn higher wages but are displaced by an automated workforce in the form of computers and touchscreens.

The other shocking revelation I experienced while rereading the book concerned the misplaced aggression in the form of nationalism and the outspoken prejudice against the migrant farmers.  As migrants moved west, they encountered a level of vitriol and hatred they were unaccustomed to.  The migrant farmers were called “Okies,” a pejorative for people from Oklahoma, despite coming from various other places.  This term was violently used against people who had little to no money, traveled in trucks overloaded with their personal belongings, and did not have adequate resources to maintain personal hygiene.  Okies were viewed as dirty people who steal and compared to dogs or vermin.  The locals in California protested these people coming into their state and enjoying their great weather and bountiful resources because they were dirty, poor, and uneducated.  And when Okies couldn’t find work, they lived in jungle camps; settlements with inadequate housing and plumbing.  Even though these migrant farmers were fellow Americans, they were treated an invasive alien force by Californians.

It is not difficult to see the modern parallel between their struggle and the struggle immigrants face today.  While the farmers in Steinbeck’s book were Americans born and raised in the country, crossing the state line was akin to crossing the border to another country.  Today, immigrants from Mexico, Europe, Syria, and many other places risk their lives to find opportunities in America.  Despite this country’s history of open immigration being a symbol of liberty and freedom, there has been a rise in fascist nationalism that has been legitimized by the current presidential administration.  Travel bans have emboldened racists and nationalists to commit violence against immigrants who are just looking for work and shelter.  These fascists claim that they are natural Americans who deserve more of the country’s inherent freedom and wealth while proclaiming that immigrants do not belong and should go somewhere else.  These fascists forget that America is a nation of immigrants, but it does nothing to dissuade their fear and anger.

In 1940, a year after Steinbeck published his novel, Woody Guthrie released his album Dust Bowl Ballads.  Included was a two-part song called “Tom Joad” detailing the character’s life after being paroled from prison.  Guthrie’s’ song summarizes key plots from the book while driving home the spiritual and political narrative of the book.  As much as I love Guthrie and his music, it is Country Joe McDonald’s cover of “Tom Joad” that I enjoy listening to more.  Running at just over seven minutes, McDonald’s version is a full-band tribute to Guthrie and a great American literary protagonist.  McDonald’s version was released in 1969 on his album Thinking of Woody Guthrie; a tribute to the American folk pioneer.  McDonald’s version features a rich folk rock production and adds a livelier interpretation of Guthrie’s lyrics.

The last time I read this book, I was a smart but inexperienced young man.  At that time, I couldn’t event vote.  Though I paid attention to politics on a surface level, I couldn’t engage on such an intimate level quite yet.   Now that I am older, I am more engaged and continuously learning and develop my outlook on important social and political issues of today.  One thing that I see is history repeating itself.  It amazes me just how relevant a book published nearly eight decades ago can be today.  It is alarming because I feel it reinforces this idea that people, as a society, have short-term memory and tend to forget important lessons because they are constantly bombarded with distractions.  I don’t know what will happen over the next few years.  Things will get harder, but I believe that the people fighting against tyranny and oppression will come out stronger for it.  While the migrant farmers did not break and their anger turned to wrath, so will the anger of the American public in the next election.

“charger” – gorillaz feat. grace jones (2017)

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Talking about music is one of my favorite hobbies.  Hell, that’s why I have this silly blog; to talk about music and whatever inane thoughts I have at the time.  The interest isn’t just insular either.  I make pursuing my hobby social as well.  Whether it is contributing to the social listening parties of “Classic Album Sundays,” going to concerts with friends, or leading a discussion for an album appreciation group over beers, I adapt my relationship to music to suit my moods whether it is listening on my own or sharing experiencing with friends.

For this entry, I was thinking more about the solo adventures I’ve had with music.  I’ve always had eclectic tastes since high school.  Part of my musical exploration stemmed from curiosity.  Pouring over books and magazines, I gravitated towards certain artists and trace the musical lineage leading up to them and what came after.  Music as a journey is important to me.  The story of where we come from, our current state, and the future possibilities are reflected through our art.  You can analyze a lot when you look at what a culture or society is listening to at that time.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of top 40 radio.  We all did.  It is the easily accessible bastion of commercialism that appeals to the masses.  However, at the turn of the millennium, I just kind of quit paying attention to what the hit songs were.  I wasn’t completely oblivious.  The big songs I would hear and most other things would get to me, but it would take time.

During this stage in my life, I was exploring other things.  In 1999 and 2000, I just listened to a lot of classic rock.  The loud, energetic riffs of dad rock just appealed to my rebellious pre-teen nature.  As I got older and heading into high school, my tastes shifted away.  I was listening to the Cure, the Clash, the Police, and other bands that would cement my love for post-punk and new wave during my formative years.  Not that any of those bands weren’t widely successful, commercial, or accessible to a general listener, they weren’t bands that impressionable youth listened to when everyone else in their peer group listened to Nelly or whatever.

Looking back, I’ve held firm to my belief that the aughts would be the worst decade in popular music.  Now, a lot of that comes from the fact I just wasn’t paying attention at that time and nostalgia doesn’t play a factor for me.  However, I’ve had a considerable amount to catch up.  And caught up I have.

The overall issue of music in the 2000s were a culmination of things.  First off, popular genres were terrible.  This is the decade that gave as emo, crunk rap, and the height of cock rock bands like Creed and Nickelback (easy targets, I know, but I’m trying to make a point).  Secondly, this is the dawn of the digital and the correlation the decrease of audio quality and the rise of overproduction.  Vinyl was out and iPods were in.  Music was produced to be loud cutting out the nuance of depth and compressed as low possible so you could fit in your pocket as many songs as possible.  And finally, the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to handle diversity in listening.  While illegal downloading sites like Napster and LimeWire offered us a seemingly unlimited catalog of poorly compressed and improperly labeled songs to fill our mp3 players, audio streaming platforms had yet make a big splash due to slow internet speeds and limited bandwidth that prevented independent artists from sharing or selling their music.  Take all of that and throw in terrorism and a couple of wars and it is no wonder that the 2000s sucked.

Now it should be no wonder why I missed some artists or just simply didn’t care until years later.  Gorillaz are a band, for example, that just didn’t hit me until years later.  I don’t remember the first time I heard them, but I remember the first time I heard of them.  It was 2001 and I was travelling to England with my mom and sister.  Waiting at the airport during layovers, you take time to look around at shops.  At 13, I would just walk up and down the CD aisles judging the covers.  And I distinctly remember seeing the cover of Gorillaz’s debut album.  It was that album where the animated band were riding in a camouflage dune buggy against a stark background.  Kind of a shitty album cover when you think about it, but hey, it was 2001.  Combine that awful cover with the fact that it had that parental advisory label (music with that label was forbidden to me) and it was something I knew I wouldn’t be interested in let alone be allowed to have interest in.

When Demon Days dropped in 2005, I became a little bit more aware of Gorillaz.  “Feel Good Inc.” was a massive song.  It was inescapable on the radio and in the malls.  Still, it wasn’t something I felt fully invested in.  I liked the songs I had heard on the radio from that album, but I was spending my money on Bob Dylan CDs at that time.  Priorities, you know.

Coincidentally, it wouldn’t be until after the aughts ended that I would care about Gorillaz when their third studio album dropped in 2010 (great timing and out with the shit and in the with the…you know).  Plastic Beach was stellar.  The college radio station I volunteered with put “Rhinestone Eyes” in rotation and it was a hot track.  The DJs loved it and the listeners always requested it.  It wasn’t my pick to be in rotation.  I would’ve preferred “Stylo” or “Melancholy Hill” to go in rotation instead, but you couldn’t go wrong.  It was a solid album and one of the first vinyl records I bought.

On Christmas Day 2010, Gorillaz released a surprise new album for their fan club.  The kitschy thing about The Fall was that it was all recorded on an iPad while the band was on tour.  In less than a decade, the band would release their debut album in a time where physical media was still dominant to recording an entire album on a device that could create and distribute your music while being small enough to fit in a backpack.  I bought the physical release when the album was released in limited quantities to the public on Record Store Day in 2011.  The possibilities a band could pursue with ingenuity, creativity, and technology was practically impossible to quantify and exemplified by Gorillaz.

Then, there was nothing.  Gorillaz disbanded and Damon Albarn, one of the founders, pursued other projects.  Over the years, I still pulled out Plastic Beach on occasion.  I felt that with such a small discography, the band accomplished a lot and made a timeless record with their third release.  In fact, how long could you sustain a virtual band where cartoon apes were the face and voice of your art?  Perhaps that silence on their part signified that people didn’t care anymore.

Last year, news dropped that Gorillaz were getting back together and creating a new album.  And the first single dropped during the presidential inauguration.  “Hallelujah Money” featuring Benjamin Clementine was an apt release because the themes and music video were political in tone.  This was our first taste of new Gorillaz music in several years and it was exciting.

Over the next few months, more information on the upcoming album was released sparingly.  Announcements on the title (Humanz), release date (April 28th, 2017), and guest artists (so many) were released separately.  It was a classic example of withholding information to generate as much buzz as possible.  Even though a few songs were eventually released to give audiences a little taste, you couldn’t even sample the other tracks until the album’s release date.  I was jonesing to stream this album.  I even checked iTunes every day leading up to it’s release to see if I could just listen to a sample.  Nope.  Wasn’t going to happen.  I had to wait.

Humanz released last week and I’ve listened to it several times since then.  While Humanz may not live up to my love and appreciation of Plastic Beach, it is still a solid album complete with danceable tracks and apocalyptic themes.

One particular track I was looking forward to was “Charger” purely on the basis that it featured Grace Jones.  Jones has been someone I’ve grown to deeply appreciate over the last two years after reading her book I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Jones is a severely underrated and underestimated musical icon whose fashion, vocal range, and pop innovation continues to reverberate in today’s styles.  I was eager to hear how this enigmatic legend worked with one of the defining bands of my generation.

In fact, Gorillaz have always been great at bridging generational divides I music. One of my favorite tracks from Plastic Beach is “Stylo” featuring the soul master Bobby Womack.  “Stylo” is a fun, power driven song that utilizes Womack’s talents well.  Albarn had worked with a lot of the big patriarchs of music on previous recordings.  However, with Humanz, he acknowledged a lack of representation of musically talented women icons in his music and sought out Jones that.  Albarn wanted Humanz to feature powerful musical matriarchs.  As a result, great artists like Jones and Mavis Staples appear on this album.

“Charger” is a fun track.  I enjoy it as one of my favorite from the album.  However, I am disappointed with how little Jones appears on the track.  While Womack on “Stylo” belted out whole lines crisply over the backing track, Jones feels lost in the background like a specter.  And perhaps that’s intentional, but I really wanted more Grace Jones.

I read about the recording process of the track.  Albarn had wanted to work with Jones and brought her in to listen to the song that would eventually become “Charger.”  In that state, the song already had another vocalist which Jones did not like.  When Albarn removed the other vocalist, Jones ad-libbed in the studio for four hours with a level of energy that Albarn described as “supernatural” and “not entirely of this world.”  So, maybe, the foggy guest appearance reminiscent of a ghost kinda makes sense in the grand scheme of Humanz as a whole.  Still, you cannot go wrong with a little more Grace Jones.

I’m really glad Gorillaz are back and Humanz doesn’t disappoint.  While it is easy to get distracted by the cartoon characters of 2-D, Murdoch, Russel, and Noodle, there is a lot more to this band that what meets the eye.  When their first album dropped, it was easy to dismiss the band as a fad.  However, 16 years later, they have really grown into something that is innovative while also connecting the now with what came before.  By bridging a generation gap in their musical style and the company they keep as guest artists, Gorillaz exemplifies a band that respects that journey of music.