Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rocktober: "The Monsters Were Just Trees"

But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up
You were looking at me


My nomination for the Song of Halloween 2014 includes the lyrics above. The song is one of doomed romance, doomed by fears of fate, fears of failure, and just fears. Allegorically, it captures an essential part of our psychological zeitgeist.

That song? "Out of the Woods" by Taylor Swift.

Are we out of the woods yet
Are we out of the woods yet
Are we out of the woods?
Are we in the clear yet
Are we in the clear yet
Are we in the clear yet? Good.

It's repetitive, with good reason. The song pounds along in a minor key. Everything about it feels a bit paranoid and dark. 

It speaks for our evolving nature of romance, where no relationship ever feels completely safe. You ask this question after the first date, after the first kiss, after meeting the parents, after he gets down on one knee, after you say "I do," after that first four-month stretch of no sex, after the baby weight won't shed quickly enough, after his work becomes his second wife, after the kids move away to college. Hell, it could be the song for the closing credits of Gone Girl, the ultimate twisted fable of our modernized middle and upper class relationship values. 

It speaks for parenting in the 21st Century. It's removing swings from playgrounds for being dangerous. (Are we out of the woods yet?) It's not allowing your child to go into the backyard beyond your eyesight lest something awful happens. (Are we in the clear yet?) It's attending all their practices lest the coach does something mean or insensitive. (Are we out of the woods yet?) It's worrying whether they know enough math, whether they'll get into a good college, whether they'll be straight, get married, have kids, a job they enjoy but that lets them be comfortable. (Are we in the clear yet?) 

It's our worries about health. It's avoiding the wrong foods lest we get cancer, and it's the six-month MRIs to see if we're still in remission. It's processed foods and gluten and shellfish. It's Ebolanoia. It's our fear of vaccinations.

It's the economy, and our job security, and our fears that we're not completely in control of ourselves, much less the circus and chaos that surrounds us and morphs daily.

It's how a lot of Christians treat their relationship with God, as if there's some checklist of behaviors or attitudes that will guarantee their safe passage, but they're always just a little bit scared that they're not quite in the clear yet. It's that realization that maybe we've been raised to worship a God who is a scary and vengeful mofo rather than a parent who wants to give us a hug, who wants to give us shelter no matter how many times we've screwed up.

The lyrics to "Out of the Woods" aren't scary, exactly, but they are haunting, and the narrator is haunted. "Oh I remember!" she repeats toward the end. Memories are a big deal to Taylor. If "forgive and forget" is the rule, Taylor is rarely interested in forgiving anyone for anything lest she lose the fuel for another hit. Ultimately, though, is there much difference between refusing to forget and being haunted?

Some will dismiss OotW as just another song Taylor wrote about a short-term boyfriend, likely inspired by her fleeting romance with Harry Styles of One Direction. Please, however, take a moment to consider that perhaps Miss Sure Thing Pop Queen is being just a tiny bit more ambitious. Because OotW is a bold and impressive pop gem.

Intentional or not, she has expressed our modern paranoia, our fear that anything and everything is out to get us, bound to ruin us or devour us or kill us. We're doomed, and we're just waiting for the bell to toll.

But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up
You were looking at me

We're scared of nothing but our own shadows, of one another, of frappin' trees. And even when we see the truth in the harsh clear light of day, we still can't convince ourselves that we're safe.

Our desperate need to be afraid of and worried about everything, constantly, is surely what will kill us.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rocktober: Trunk Or Treat Playlist

Billy and I would be remiss, would we not, if we did not have at least one Rocktober post that focused on Halloween and the music that relates to it.  While it might be easy to cite "Monster Mash" or "Werewolves Of London," I'm taking a different tack this year.

I absolutely despise the concept of "trunk or treat."  I mean, despise it.  As defined at Homestead.com, here is a good explanation of the event:

Trunk or Treat is a Halloween event that is often church- or community-sponsored. People gather and park their cars in a large parking lot. They open their trunks, or the backs of their vehicles, and decorate them. Then they pass out candy from their trunks. The event provides a safe family environment for trick or treaters.

But as a Halloween activity, it is built upon one or two flawed concepts, and maybe both:

1.  That trick or treating is an unsafe activity for a typical suburban or small town or small city or rural or subdivision kid, either because there people giving out razor blades in apples or because it is no longer safe for children to walk around their neighborhood.  You live in a dangerous, urban area and feel the need to trunk or treat, more power to you.

2.  That Christian children or socio-economically similar children, and their families, are best served by spending this most pagan of holidays together in a spirit of fellowship, like mindedness, and safe exclusivity.

Both conceptions are wrong.  First, the belief in maladjusted neighbors giving out dangerous treats has long been proven to be nothing but Urban Legend,  and even if they weren't, children could be trained not to eat those tainted apples until they got home.

The most dangerous woman in my neighborhood on Halloween makes children recite a Bible verse before she will give them candy; the second most dangerous house gives out toothbrushes, which clearly ignore the spirit of the holiday.

But it is the second belief, the safe, spend-the-night-with-people-you-know aspect of trunk or treating that I find most troublesome.  It is holiday as privilege; it is holiday as exception.  Rather than mix with The Great Unwashed, these families who meet in a well-lit parking lot or a school playground or within reach of a national chain store isolate themselves with high quality, expensive candies, stellar costumes, and clean, new or newish automobiles to create the Halloween equivalent of a gated community that keeps out the riff-raff, whether it come from lower social status, lower "Believer" status, or simply people of different races.

My neighborhood, by contrast and whether it likes it or not, has more children from out of the neighborhood than in it, traipsing along its sidewalks and streets in a never-quite-expected-enough frenzy of costumes and candy, parents and chaperones, extra bags for relations who couldn't be there and a willingness to keep knocking on doors after the neighborhood's stated curfew.

Halloween is the wild in us, the irrational, the holiday that makes no sense in terms of nutrition or protection.  It only makes sense in terms of hospitality, in giving to strangers, in spending money for people we don't know, and welcoming them to our yard, our front door, or even into our homes.  Trunk or Treat is a violation of all that Halloween stands for, even all that America stands for, or at least those parts of America that are still willing to rub elbows with each other.

In the spirit of trunk or treating, though, I offer this playlist to pipe from the fine sound systems of the clean cars at such an event:

1.  "Ooh, The World Is Scary" by No Shades Of Grey.
2.  "Onward, Christian Trunk Or Treaters" by The Sunday Schools.
3.  "Lock The Door, Turn Out The Lights" by Neighborhood By Day.
4.  "Just Us" by Us.
5.  "Ain't No Junk In This Trunk (radio edit)" by Workin' Out Women (featuring Annie Rex).
6.  "You Can Choose The Candy, But You Don't Get To Eat It" by The Moderations.
7.  "Jesus Wants You In Bed By Eight" by The Near Christmases.
8.  "I'll Pick The Costume, You Pick The Position" by Creative Counterparts.
9.  "Daddy's Got Candy" by The After Darks.
10.   "Your Friend Sarah's Got A Nice Momma (Who's A Good Christian Woman)" by The Ten Commandments.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Rocktober: Heresy

About five years ago, maybe more, we got a new music venue in town, Track 29.  Located in a building that used to house a hockey rink at the far end of a hotel complex, Track 29 revolutionized Chattanooga's music scene.  Almost immediately, Track 29 began to attract a caliber of national artist who previously might not have considered a stop in our city.

Track 29 is a quality operation: thorough, impeccable security, a lock-tight ticketing system which prevents scalping and ticket reselling, an adjustable stage which can make the space intimate, if necessary, sprawling, if necessary, seated, if necessary.

My only beef with Track 29 is that I didn't get tickets for Jack White, even though I pulled over while driving in East Ridge and hit the "Purchase" button on my phone at the exact second those tix went on sale.

No, I've seen any number of great shows at Track 29--Steve Earle, Trombone Shorty, Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, Drive-By Truckers (briefly), Sufjan Stevens' Christmas Show, among others.

So, look out, because here comes the heresy:  I much, much, much prefer seeing shows at Rhythm And Brews, the tiny venue that used to draw most of the top talent that would come to Chattanooga (barring, of course, the larger acts that would play the stiff settings of the Tivoli or Memorial Auditorium).

People criticize Rhythm And Brews as being oddly-shaped, a music venue that was too wide and not deep enough, maybe some issues with sound, tight quarters, etc.  Not for me.  I was there the other night for a Chris Knight show, and I was reminded immediately how much I have missed it.

There is no security at Rhythm And Brews.  You show your printed out ticket voucher, your ID for beer, and you are in.  Some shows have tables, some don't, and, depending on when you arrive, you might get a good spot, you might have to go to the balcony, you might be jammed in on the main floor, you may get pushed off to the side.  Bathrooms are close and easy.  You can get food.  You have a waitress.  You don't have to wait a long time at the bar.

I've seen any number of great shows at Rhythm And Brews--Steve Forbert, Richie Havens, Drive By Truckers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Son Volt three times, Justin Townes Earle, Dinosaur Jr.,  Jake Shimabukuro, Chris Knight, and many others, as well as a bunch of local acts and tribute bands.

I know I should prefer the larger, more professional venue and the music that it has afforded us, but I don't.  I like the little hometown hole-in-the-wall, warts and all.  It hasn't changed.  It hasn't improved.  It has less of a chance than ever of bringing in quality acts on a regular basis.

Still, for years, it was the only game in town and we thrilled with the offerings it provided us.  But now, for most of us, it is under the radar.  It is rare that an artist on tour that we hoped to see will set up shop there.

But I love the evening it allows--meeting friends at the Big River, enjoying drinks and/or a meal before walking easily to the other side of the building, maybe heading in early to put a coat down and reserve a table, maybe just taking a chance on a show we don't know much about because we know the setting, at least, will be accommodating, and that makes us more inclined to give the music a chance.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rocktober: Naive Disillusionment & the Data Mining of Music

This summer I attended a semi-exclusive A&R event in midtown Nashville, where a collection of up-and-comers and hopefuls on the country music scene performed for a small crowd and hobnobbed with label reps, hoping to get the right one’s attention and be offered a contract and a path to the big time.

While there, I got into a fascinating conversation with a guy who has begun a start-up company specializing in data-mining hit music.

Basically, he said, making chart-topping music is more science than art. It’s no different than cooking. You need to know the precise ingredients and measurements required to make any specific dish. Then, and only then, can the supremely gifted chefs add their “little something special” that vaults a simple recipe into another stratosphere. But even the “little something special” things can be measured, tracked, investigated, analyzed.

Likewise with music. Hit songs are, truly, recipe driven, and it’s more true in contemporary, mainstream country music than anywhere.

So his company takes hit songs and breaks each one down into hundreds of different data points. Beats per minute. Primary chord and chord progression. Number of words per verse, per chorus, per song. Time length of verses, of chorus, of bridge. If it can be isolated or categorized, they’re doing it. Song by song, note by note, data point by data point, all going into columns and rows for comparison and contrast.

“Once we’ve built up a sufficient database of hit songs, we will be able to take someone’s new song, run it through the analysis, and identify the precise likelihood of that song becoming a hit,” he said. Even now, he explained, with the limited database they’d built up, their predictions were stunningly accurate and were only going to improve as they tweaked the system. They could isolate the comparison to the past year's worth of hits or the past two decades' worth.

Surely they’re not the first ones to try this, to come up with scientific formulas as a means of dissecting hit music, I said. No, he said, but the music industry is not unlike professional baseball.

“Have you seen or read Moneyball?” he asked. And he had me. Because I frappin’ love Moneyball.

“How long did it take baseball, a sport swimming in statistics, whose popularity is built around statistics, to wake up and realize that you could use those same stats to build championship teams rather than relying on the judgment of scouts and GMs? It took a long time, right? Because they were in denial.

“That’s where the music industry is. They’re just waking up to the reality that they’ve spent lots of time crunching music stats, but they’ve been looking at the wrong numbers in the wrong ways and relying on A&R reps and talent spotters rather than using the stats to build championship teams.”

It's cool. It's believable. It's utterly depressing.

Music isn't baseball, dammit.

Inside the scaffolds and structure of a song, the innermost part of myself can seek sanctuary, that endless hunger for inspiration and insight can often be fed. Music is my real church. Like love and faith, I perceive my relationship with music as a mystical experience, not a scientific one. I don’t need to understand why I like a song or a band, only that it moves me somehow in a way I seek to be moved.

My heart wants to believe you can't do this. You can't entirely make art into a science. But I'm sad because, and my heart hurts because it's probably true.

But. If it were completely true, if science was vehicle by which we could all be pulled back together into a shared love of particular songs, why are we more splintered musically than ever? Why is everyone fighting for ever-smaller slices of an ever-smaller pie?

No no. There's still plenty of magic in music. Or, as Olivia Newton-John would say so well, "I have to believe we are magic."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rocktober: Billy's Lilith Fair, a.k.a. Bilith Fair

When Sarah McLachlan attempted to revitalize the late 90s modest Grrl Power success story of Lilith Fair for a v2.0 run in 2010, things didn’t go as planned. A third of the dates were cancelled, and several artists backed out for fear of not getting paid. Taking full responsibility for the failure, McLachlan told The Globe & Mail:
"Bringing the same thing back last year really didn’t make any sense, in retrospect, without due diligence being done on how women have changed... In 12 years, women have changed a lot. Their expectations have changed, the way they view the world has changed, and that was not taken into consideration, which I blame myself for.”
She’s right, of course. Add to this the not-minor fact that the music scene is in the midst of an armageddon of sorts, an earthquake that has megastars giving away their music and nobodies rocketing to the top of the charts but making minimal money in the process. It hasn’t been all bad for women, though.

The 21st Century music scene has mirrored the rest of corporate and artistic America in that women are no longer the lessers. In most cases, they’re neck-and-neck if not outright ahead of their male counterparts.

College-educated women make up a lower percentage of the unemployed than their male contemporaries.

Fifteen of the Top 20 NYTimes bestsellers are authored by women (yes, I’m counting Nicholas Sparks as a woman), and four of the men are there by riding the coattails of long-running characters Virgil Flowers, Stone Barrington, Michael Bennett and Jack Reacher. All 10 of the 11-20 sales are by women authors.

All of the top 5 Billboard Top 100 spots are currently claimed by women, although their numbers dwindle noticeably after that. Very soon Taylor Swift will probably occupy every spot in the top 10 with static.

(Amusing side note: Only two of the Top 10 Country songs are by women. The Age of the Country Woman has begun to dwindle. Then again, Country is currently in the Glam Rock phase of mid-80s rock, and no one sane and interested in making good music really wants to compete for the drinkin’ sleazin’ boot-scootin’ truckin’ competition that currently marks the race to the top of the country charts.)

With the exception of Bonnaroo, it seems that the time of music festivals and events with a Star-Studded Lineup of Musicians is in the past. Unless you count the never-ending string of music awards shows on network television that exist solely to cover up the fact that their regular programming sucks. I don’t. Count music awards shows.

The lovely and talented Sarah McLachlan was right, though. Her attempt to revitalize Lilith failed because she failed to realize that the landscape of feminism and music had changed underneath her. I can fix that.

I would like to propose Billy’s Lilith Fair, or BILITH FAIR. Two-days per stop. Eight cities. Done. General ground rules:
  1. Instead of stubbornly creating a lineup built to attract women, build a lineup that would play like the best kind of Ladies Night at a good bar. Aim for 35% attendance by males who believe they can find an impressive and appealing assortment of heterosexual women in the audience.
  2. A wide mix of styles should evolve throughout the day, from folk and country to rock and electronic, but with of course the bigger names at the peak hours.
  3. Start smart, end wild. Start smooth, end with a party. It's gotta end by partying like it's 1999.
None of the acts can be so strong and popular that they sell out big venues by themselves. This should be the Kansas City Royals of female musicians, not the Yankees. It should be Texas Christian, not Texas. It should be Trapper John, M.D., not M.A.S.H. It should be a celebration of music that just happens to be female-led, not a celebration of females who just happen to play music.

My lineup for the 2-day, 2-stage Bilith Fair tour. Eight stops. The order of acts could be improved. You could add a few and drop a few names and lose little of the pull or punch.

Day One
(acts on alternate stages throughout the day, 90-minute sets, noon to midnight)

  • Lori McKenna
    • Boy
  • Holly Williams
    • Haley Bonar
  • Lucius
    • Ingrid Michaelson
  • Kacey Musgraves
    • Jenny Lewis
  • Sleeper Agent
    • Sara Bareilles
  • Garbage
    • Sleigh Bells

Day Two

  • Caitlin Rose
    • Jenny Owen Youngs
  • Shovels & Rope
    • Broods
  • Lake Street Dive
    • Haim
  • ZZ Ward
    • Chvrches
  • Brody Dalle
    • Tegan & Sara
  • Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
    • Paramore

Additional acts for consideration or substitution:
Tift Merritt
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Katie Herzig
Lana Del Rey
Metric
The Royalty
Neko Case
Zola Jesus
Lykke Li
K.T. Tunstall
The Rescues (or just Kyler England and Adrianne Gonzales)
Robyn
St. Vincent
Against Me!
Patty Griffin
Brandi Carlisle
Indigo Girls

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rocktober: Musical Alchemy

A Boy And His Guitar--"Interrupted Prayer For A Lost Friend"

And what would Rocktober be without a discussion of the act of still trying to rock?  And so the greatest musical joy of this particular Rocktober has been the arrival of a Bugera V22, a new amplifier to me, but an old-style amplifier in terms of its tube-driven sound and classic features.

The amp has a clean, clear sound, if that is what I want, but it can also get dirty like a panda, if that is the sound I'm after.  And anywhere in between.

As pleased as I am with this amp, this praise is neither an endorsement nor what I really want to write about.    Nope, today I'm jazzed about musical alchemy, the explicable blast of discovery and creativity that occurs when I plug one of my old guitars into that new amp and all that was old becomes new.

But it doesn't have to be an amp.  It could be a different guitar.  It could be the ukulele that you bought to take to Korea.  Or the harmonica that you pick up at your friend's house.  It could be Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place," where they all swapped instruments and came up with a "naive melody."  It could be the "vibe" Neil Young felt when he bought Hank Williams' Martin guitar.

Ask any musician and he or she will confirm, I am certain, the indisputable magic in the air around a player with a different instrument, an fresh effect, a better sound reproduction system, a new set of strings, a vintage purchase.  It can lead to a song, a riff, a combination of chords you've never tried together, a run or a reach you couldn't get to before.

Nor is this some kind of bogus, romantic superstition, at least not to me.  It has simply happened too many times.  When I received a dulcimer for Christmas while I was in college, messing around with it that day, before I knew chords or patterns or anything else, I got a pretty interesting, intricate song out of it.  Same thing when I first got a 12-string from my brother.

Same thing with this amp.  Since plugging it in a week ago, I have come up with three song structures different from anything I've come up with.  Songs I haven't played for years by other artists have come back to me strangely in different keys than I've played them in before.

And I am absolutely convinced that these would not have happened had I not plugged my old guitars into this new amp.

Take the fragment I've posted above.  While I would claim neither that it is genius nor that it is poised to change the direction of modern music, I do think that a listener would be hard pressed to miss the excitement and the joy in the playing that comes from the little lead run and from my discovery of a C#m-Cm-A chord progression that I've never put together before.

And the sound.  The sound of the guitar coming out of the amp is key to the alchemy, the bit of distortion, the subtle reverb, the sustain that allows notes to flow into and over each other.

Like any good alchemist, I'll be back in front of that black box, trying to get gold out of it, before nightfall.

(Producer's note: The ultimate in lo-fi, the track was recorded using the Voice Memos app on the iPhone 5s.  The impromptu title shows both a desire to give the piece some weight and the reality that an incoming phone call interrupts the recording on this app.  While I call it a prayer for a lost friend, my daughter says it sounds like the theme music to a mid-season replacement television show.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rocktober: Flood Warning

Editor's Note: it has been a few days since I started this post.  Where I live, the storm did not achieve original predictions, my basement "flooding" consisting of mere rivulets that I was mostly able to wipe up with a towel.  Still, the impetus for this post had me looking for a great batch of related songs, so I'll carry on with the original concept.

It has been a strange, rainy October around here, not typical at all.  Right about the time when we might be expecting an Indian Summer, instead we've been getting a fairly regular soaking over the past several days.

Tonight, we await a long, fierce storm that continues to make its way from the west.  The storm has already brought tornadoes and punishing winds, as well torrents of rain.

Tonight, I have preparing my basement for the inevitable flooding that will occur.  Maybe it won't be deep, but it will be wet. And with the ground already wet, we don't really have any way to stop it.

If what happens to my basement is the worst thing that happens in this area, that will be just fine.  Recent years have brought too many storms, devastations and deaths, floods and downed trees, and I imagine all of us feel a certain amount of trepidation when a major storm approaches.

Still, I have to try to find s little bit of good news in all of this imminent water:  we are trying to grow grass in our backyard and it was seeded a week ago.  Now, if the seed has rooted. Another dose of rain could be great; if it hasn't, our seedlings will be washed to who knows where.

But on to the music.  For those of us aging rockers, music has provided a soundtrack to so many events--painful teenage breakups, holidays, car trips, rites of passage.  Tonight, as I'm thinking of all of the rain and potential flooding headed this way, I realize that such storms have provided the basis of any number of great songs.  And while I know this would be more effective if we could all click on the songs, I still offer my favorite storm songs (some winched in to fit contextually).

1.  "Stormy Monday"--the Allman Brothers' version.  The storm here is emotional, the beginning of a long week where something goes wrong most every day.  Along with Derek and The Dominoes, this song introduced me to the blues.

2. + 3.  "Texas Flood" and "Couldn't Stand The Weather" from Stevie Ray Vaughn.  The full range of Vaughn's genius in just a pair of songs, one a cover with all the power of the original and more and the other a blues update with a riff built around a long pause (warning: not for beginning bands) that shows off the tightness of his band.  And a blistering solo.

4.  "Higher Ground" from the Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's CD, Wildflowers.  One of those great Perty songs buried in the middle somewhere that just makes you say, "Holy shit, this rocks!"

5.  "Rain" by The Beatles.  One of John's greatest songs driven by Ringo's best drumming, a complicated pattern like no other.  And one of John's most dismissive couplets: "When the rain comes, they run and hid their heads/ They might as well be dead."

6.  "If I Had A Boat" by Lyle Lovett.  And if I had a pony, I would ride upon my boat. Exactly.

7.  "Shelter From The Storm" by Bob Dylan.  Like "Tangled Up In Blue," another star-crossed lovers song with a killer, double-edged last line to every verse.  "In a little hilltop village/ they gambled for my clothes."  Only Dylan can get away with that one.

8.  "South Central Rain" by R.E.M.  I have no way of knowing what an early R.E.M. (or late one) is about, but with a chorus of only one repeated word ("Sorry") this one achieves that mythic level of high art.

9.  "Drowned" by The Who.  A yearning, a cleansing, a primordial desire, an escape.  Townshend loads the water with the full weight of symbolic possibility.

10.  "I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement" from the first Ramones album.  I don't what was in their basement, but I know what will be in mine, and it will involve fans, towels, dehumidifiers, mildew, and a whole lot of work.