This morning, en route to procure brewing supplies for an imperial pumpkin brew, my freshly, and hopefully finally, first fever free daughter and I had the opportunity to listen to the first few tracks off Slow Club’s Paradise. The overwhelming sound is one of music being produced in the middle of an empty warehouse. And as anthemic as each song tends to end up, the hollow echo undertones carve out a decidedly minimalist sound, leaving the noise uncluttered by anything resembling excessive. Not to say there aren’t a handful of well placed and deceptively intricate layers to the music, on both a sonic and lyrical level. And as is the case with so much of the excellent noise I’ve come across lately, my only gripe is my lack of auditory acumen in 2011 when Paradise dropped.
It’s getting easier to skim through thirty second clips of potential material for the blog while the baby stays strapped to my chest, making her way through the morning nap. But when we first sit down, me on the yoga ball, her in the Bjorn, and her disproportionately long legs kick a fledgling rhythym in defiance of sleep, putting my nuts in serious risk of being squashed by a baby foot, the likes of Street Sweeper Social Club or similarly mooded contemporaries will not suffice. Wheezy Baby demands electronic lullabies in the form of BeachesBeaches, Lykke Li, Feist, Twin Shadow, etc. And as I’ve made my way through all those albums and so many more countless times in the past months, it was time to start Flipping Through the Record Bin, a practice I haven’t taken part in for quite some time. After a short shuffle, Memory Tapes album Player Piano emerged as a clear winner for this morning. While not as strong collectively as Purity Ring, Twin Shadow or some of my more recent finds, it will more than suffice for Sunday morning larping in the sun. I could do without the extra squeaky synthesizer sounds that dot the album frequently enough to distract from an otherwise consistent collection of almost immediately endearing songs. If I were to predict the future of this album’s existence in my collection, I’d be surprised if it made the start to finish stretch more than a handfull more times. But sliced and diced, I’ll be pulling songs from Player Piano for years to come when I go about making a playlist for a summer party or lazy days in the sun.
Oh, and as a somewhat related plug, our friend Janelle runs a company called The Little Brown Boot that specializes in baby clothing that, from what I can tell, is way cooler than anything you, me or anyone I know owns. She worked with my wife to design a custom kiteboarding onesie (below) but has a wealth of other righteous baby, maternity and wedding goods for sale at The Little Brown Boot Etsy shop: http://www.etsy.com/shop/thelittlebrownboot. As far as I know, this may be our first advertisement. Mac, pardon the digression as my impetus to sell out the blog was spawned by some serious entheusiasm over Young Money being the best dressed baby I’ve ever seen once that torso grows about another inch.
When Mac brought up the idea of writing a blog post in homage of literary ties to music we like, I knew I was at an immediate disadvantage. Mac is a well read individual if ever there was one. My wife and I spend at least 50% of our reading time consuming texts recommended by Mac. I had a feeling I could look through my music library for days and miss about 75% of the allusions in titles not directly related to my distinctly pigeonholed taste in literature. (More on that later.) So I started to break down my understanding of literature the way one might structure a middle school language arts class, and try and identify artists who embody the best representation I know of various elements that work together to constitute good literature. For the creation of interesting, dynamic characters in under four minutes, Buck 65’s ‘Centaur’ stands out above the rest. The use of simile goes to The Blow for ‘Sky Opened Wide Like the Tide,’ as does a nod for a poetic rhyme scheme. ‘Monster’ by Kanye West effectively constructs metaphor, and makes for a fucking scary music video. For a fully structured plot, ‘Dancing with the Devil’ by Immortal Technique carries a story arc from start to finish in under five minutes. In terms of creatively interpreting the all important rules concerning grammar, ‘LigHt Years AHead’ by Schoolboy Q and ‘Dollaz & Sense’ by Blakroc make for ideal mini lessons, aside from the actual words in the songs. But they do embody a willingness to experiment with the English language, as does ‘Wordplay’ by Wale, along with almost everyone else mentioned in this list. I even tried to account for exposure to various literary genres, be it an (alleged) biography of Anne Frank done by Neutral Milk Hotel as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or a full on character driven novel (or musical equivalent thereof), in Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady. Below I’ve compiled a playlist spanning all the songs mentioned and/or my favorite track off the album.
While the songs above bore some abstract connection to the concept of a literary connection, the list left me feeling as if I hadn’t done a proper job of exploring the connection between music and literature, at least as it relates to my consumption of the two. So I started writing down a hand full of titles spanning some of the favorite books I’ve read in the last ten years of my life, an admittedly typecast list. I started by going back to Freshman year of college, where the first book I read all the way through (not ever, just that year) was A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. This book set the stage for the textual pattern that was to emerge, but at the time I was struck by the power the book had to read like it was the most important document in the history of humankind while remaining perfectly simple and relatively brief. The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway followed shortly thereafter, also in the tradition of finding strength in honest simplicity. And this is where my list begins, comparing The Sun Also Rises to my favorite Avett Brothers album, The Robbinsville Sessions.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and The Avett Brothers’ The Robinsville Sessions— The Avett Brothers start Robbinsville with the song ‘Talk on Indolence,’ the most memorable verse in the chorus being something about remembering at time I got raging drunk with you. Hemingway also got raging drunk for most of The Sun Also Rises. Beyond the literal, booze soaked connection though, both the Avetts and Hemingway have produced some of the truest prose ever written, using a plaintive, earnest voice to record what’s right in front of them. Put side to side, a pretty girl from an airport ends up just as affecting as a bullfight, and arguably equally sentimental.
William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and Buck 65’s This Right Here is Buck 65—One of Buck 65’s early albums is titled Language Arts. While it’s always been hard for me to go back and listen to the much less raspy rhymes of his early work, there has been a constant thread of avant garde linguistic progress through the entire Buck 65 catalog, This Right Here the quintessential example of his particular flow. When I read Naked Lunch I was often confused, occasionally completely lost, regularly disturbed and consistently hypnotized by the power of language. The exact same could be said for This Right Here.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale—When Mac first pitched the idea of a literary themed write up, Ghostface was the second artist to come to mind after Colin Meloy. On most Ghostface albums, Fishscale in particular, verbal styling for the sake of linguistic vanity come second to the stories, each one a compelling yarn about life in the underbelly of America in the tradition set of chronicling the counter culture, at least in part, by Jack Kerouac. If Kerouac were around today, documenting his brand of oppo-conformist behavior, college freshman would relate to, but often outdo his style of debauchery. Ghostface’s stories run about ten times more devious than anything Kerouac could have imagined doing, but pay homage to his cadence, respect for the words and dubious moral standards. Unintentionally I’d imagine.
Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker and Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam—Layers of sound compounded in a surreal mode of infinite playfulness, ultimately constructing text relevant enough to weather generations. That goes for both of them, in case anyone was wondering. Given the change in the pace of information between the debut of Still Life with Woodpecker in 1980 and Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam in 2007, it’s a testament to Animal Collective’s staying power they are still on the upshot of their career five years later. And it’s a testament to Robbins in 1980 that Still Life With Woodpecker is basically required reading for any modern college kid who’d like to be taken seriously by their peers.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear and Street Sweeper Social Club’s The Ghetto Blaster EP—In the lyrics to ‘Everythang,’ Boots Riley, front man for Street Sweeper, preaches, “Every cop is a corrupt one / If you ain’t got no cash up in a trust fund…Every slave story present tense / Every uprise a consequence / Every time it be something sweet / Every banker is a fucking thief…” This is about as true as the line in Kingdom of Fear when Hunter Thompson describes the complaisant American populace as “..not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you. Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George W. Bush.” I think Thompson, had he stuck around long enough to see the occupy movement remind the collective American psyche of our potential to wipe the shit out of our eyes and take a stand against the bastards working tirelessly to send us back into the dark ages, would have reveled in seeing Boots Riley center stage at protest rallies in Oakland.
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room and Wu Lyf’s Go Tell Fire to the Mountain—The common factor between both texts is the idea they are transcendent of the boundaries typically applied to the genre they originated in. In Mawer’s case, a premise of affluent Jews living in central Europe during the Nazi regime ends up being a story much less about political persecution, never mind the Holocaust, than an exploration the boundaries between lust, marriage, love and friendship. For Wu Lyf, the premise of a pseudo death growl, organ chords nothing short of ominous, a double kick pedal and the word ‘heavy’ in their album title end up sounding like something well within the boundaries of pop. Which is why it’s probably the other word in the title of one of the album’s songs.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love and Tennis’ Cape Dory—Both are undeniably sweet, undeniably reliant upon a preexisting pathos, and don’t waste one line being anything less than honest and reliably profound.
Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing and Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin—Huston and Tyler alike spend most of their time wallowing in–and adding new theoretical acts to–the worst of what humanity is capable of. Despite the lurid appeal of the content, both end up coming off as infinitely easy to consume as a whole and undeniable in their mass appeal.
Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—When I think Kesey, despite his relatively small body of heavily circulated literary work, ‘massive’ is still the first word to come to mind, thanks largely to Sometimes a Great Notion, and more than likely Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Identifying the musical equivalent of Sometimes a Great Notion alone is a daunting task, as it stands out to me as one of the most challenging (through the complexity of construction alone) and important books I’ve ever read. For me, Kanye West’s body of work, and his manufactured (but probably actual) personality, are the closest an artist gets to Sometimes a Great Notion. Never mind direct comparisons between the two as individual humans–which is likely sparse–the work they create both defies convention and embodies ambition. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Sometimes a Great Notion, through artistic conception alone, toed a treacherous ridge above similar attempts met with hamartic failure (think most movies Kevin Costner has been responsible for.) Kesey and Kanye, however, succeeded in creating text that is, if not larger than life, larger than 99% of what anyone else would dare attempt, and ultimately nothing short of genius.
Speaking of albums, The Flying Burrito Brothers Guilded Palace of Sin and Burrito was one of the first records you have stacked up around your classroom I put on during my stint learning how to be a language arts teacher in your room a few years back. When you first threw out this challenge, I was, of course, intimidated given your much wider musical repertoire to draw from than my hipster centric collection of musical knowledge. But within thirty seconds of the Burrito Brothers’ lumbering, jangly rhythms the connection was quite clear. Far from hipster, the Jayhawks are one of the favorite acts of my musical awakening. Play the two groups back to back and the resemblance is uncanny. Sure, I hear some Allman Brothers in there, My Morning Jacket at times, maybe even a little Wilco. But the connection to the Jayhawks is so strong all others seem like over extended metaphors. In an effort to capture the places they took me, I put together a little playlist alternating Burrito Brothers and anything else they remind me of.
Last week Jon and I exchanged albums. I do like to say albums. I miss albums sometimes, but that is for another post. I reached back to my cobwebbed youth, while Jon snatched up a new release (We’ll reverse that next time). I gave Jon The Flying Burrito Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin and he gave Washed Out’s album Within and Without. The idea was not to review the albums but rather to see where the albums took each of us.
Well, the album cover took me where I probably shouldn’t go, someone else’s bedroom. But I can see where this music would be perfect for connubial canoodling: lush synthesizer melodies, lyrics that don’t get in the way, heavy on the romance. Yeah, definitely. The music could easily fall into the ambient category and I don’t mean that to sound pejorative (I have always wanted to use that word. It feels good.). I’m unambivalently all over ambient music. I’ve got to believe that the name Washed Out is all about the music, which is wavey and oceanic. The lyrics are secondary and are, in fact, almost unintelligible. And I think that is purposeful.
As I was scouring YouTube for clips, I came across this one from an early Beirut album. They may not be lyrical kinsmen, but musically, for sure.
Beirut, Postcards from Italy
Washed Out evoked the ’80s for me, in a good way. I was reminded of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music and the plaintive voice of David Byrne. And both come together on “Strange Overtones.”
Peter Gabriel also came to mind, “Red Rain” to be specific.
I had not thought of Aztec Camera for a decade, but when the first Washed Out song finished, I says to myself, “Myself, there’s a bit, no, there’s a lot of Roddy Frame in Mr. Washed Out.” (Washed Out is really just one guy from Atlanta.) Aztec Camera represented the best of New Wave music in the 1980s. I’m not sure the two clips capture what popped in my head when I gave Washed Out a first listen, but it will have to do.
All I Need is Everything
And there is a little of Prefab Sprout in there as well. I must admit looking at these videos is almost painful. The ’80s were a stylistic wasteland.
Well, Jon, let me know your thoughts on The Burritos.