Tuesday, January 01, 2019

2018 In Review

2018 seemed to have a recurring theme: Running out of time.

The highlight of 2018 was a party I threw for my 49th birthday. A hundred of my friends converged in one spot for a few hours. I played them a few songs. They ate, drank, and made merry. I got to see friends from every major era of my life meeting, talking, laughing. I wished it would never end, but of course, eventually, it is always time to go. I was exhausted when it was over, and realized I hadn't eaten any food and had only had one drink. I just ran out of time. 

Perhaps most significantly, the scientific community raised the alarm about climate change in clear and certain terms. We are quite literally running out of time to stop destroying our one planet. We should all think about what we can do to change our own lifestyles and change others minds. If we cannot all move global culture in a new and sustainable direction, humanity will begin to suffer in a few decades and may not survive too many more. 

This was brought home quite clearly during the massive California wildfires: we need a healthy environment so we can live. For nearly two weeks, the blackened skies rained ash. The San Francisco Bay Area air was dangerously unhealthy. Stores ran out of masks and air purifiers. Headaches and health problems ensued. It seemed like it would never end. By the time the fires were finally controlled and the air began to clear, we had all seemed to get used to it somehow, even as we complained. 

People have some legitimate concerns about the economic effects of fighting climate change. But climate change itself makes us run out of money as well as time. The Camp fire alone is estimated to have caused $7-10 billion in losses, to say nothing of long-term health damage.

The ongoing metaphorical fire in American democracy and government showed little sign of containment, however. Trump is still in the White House, still compromised, and still smashing whatever he can. It is increasingly difficult to deny how harmful he and his policies are, or to ignore evidence that he is in some way motivated by foreign interests.

Trump's election also seems to be somewhat enabled by the continuing reliance on social media, which only became more toxic and useless in 2018. The best non-fiction books I read in 2018 addressed these topics head-on: "Likewar" by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking and "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now" by Jaron Lanier. Both are highly recommended, and quite thought-provoking. 

I could come up with long list of dark and depressing news stories -- I suspect you have your own "Greatest Hits". 2018 was also a year in which I found myself turning away from the news more frequently, both because it was such a downer and because, whatever the format or provider, I found myself seeing too much of the machinations, business models, and agendas behind the scenes to not have cynicism seep into my interpretations of what was covered and how. The biggest "innovations" and influences in news for the last 20 years have been Fox News, the comments section of the internet, and social media. It is difficult for me to think of too many things more depressing.

For me, the year itself seemed to rush by. Most of my year was occupied with a serious illness, which dilated time in all directions. I am reluctant to focus too much on all this, as it is both tedious and terrifying, but when people ask "how was your year?" or "what did you get up to in 2018?", that part of it looms large.

I have been quite lucky so far, and I hope that luck holds out. Some of my dear friends have not been as fortunate, and they are in my thoughts daily. 

My own experience brought me back in contact with an old friend I had not seen in 35 years, which is a wonderful gift. It also served as a reminder that who we are and how we treat other people matters in ways that can be hard to predict, and that our actions echo into the future.

DBA - EP01
I managed to write a decent amount, averaging a post every two weeks here, some of which I thought were good. I hope to keep writing more in 2019.

I also finished a number of music projects that had been stewing for a while. 

The EP I worked on with DBA was completed and released. This modern rock album is one of the first collaborations I have done in a long time. It was refreshing to return to my roots as a synthesizer player and not have the burden of being the bandleader and primary creative force. 

"EP01" is available on Bandcamp and iTunes as well as popular music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. 

Pantemonium! -
Sid Luscious and The Pants
After 12 years of work, the new Sid Luscious and The Pants record "Pantemonium!" is mastered and ready for release, as soon as the CD artwork is completed. 

"Pantemonium!" has been a long time coming. It features some great contributions from Pants past and present. Steve Mason adds cello, Rich Trott adds piano, and Mark Erickson adds lead guitar to "Finale", perhaps my favorite song on the record. Maryann Faricy gets to sing lead on "Someone Close". 

My high school friends Darow Han and John Hong made contributions to a tribute to our friend Max Friedenberg on "To The Max", and the record was mastered by another high school friend, Christopher Davidson. Their contributions added layers to an album whose themes focus on wrestling with the past and nostalgia.

The first track, "One Life", gained new resonance for me throughout 2018:
"It sucks getting old, or so I'm told...but baby, don't believe all you hear..."

I am glad to have it finished so I can move on to other things. I am also quite proud of it and hope you enjoy it. I am currently planning on releasing it on Valentine's Day, 2019. 

End.Game. - Luscious-235
This year also saw the completion of another collaboration, this one with Brian Ward. Our band Luscious-235 combines the 80s sensibilities of Sid Luscious with U-235's synthwave and electronica. Our debut album "End.Game." is available now. 

This record is one of the best things I have done. I started working on it at the end of 2017 and finished it this year. We commissioned John Karborn to create the front cover. My friend John Hong played some amazing saxophone on "Better Off Dead". 

Head on over to Bandcamp and pick it up. And for those of you with record players, we are also doing a limited edition vinyl run.

I face 2019 with cautious optimism. I am ready, even as I hear the clock counting down.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

James Calvin Wilsey (1957 - 2018)

James Calvin Wilsey died on Christmas Eve this year of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

Originally the bass player for San Francisco Bay Area punk band The Avengers, Wilsey was best-known as the lead guitar player on the first three (and best) Chris Isaak records. His beautiful modern/retro tones and tasteful playing gave Isaak's heartbreak songs depth and mystery.

Wilsey's playing inspired me to return to the Fender Stratocaster in the late 80s, and remained a touchstone for elegant, restrained playing. I was lucky enough to see him play live with Chris Isaak in 1991. A rare talent and the real deal.

Thank you for the music and the inspiration, Mr. Wilsey.

"Kings of the Highway"

"Blue Hotel"

and of course, "Wicked Game"

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

2018 in Music

Album of the Year

Low - "Double Negative"

2018 was a rough year for everybody. Everything seems to be falling apart -- our society, our government, our environment, our relationships, our health. We are beyond outrage and into a kind of fatigue and resignation.

Low made a record both timely and timeless, something that sounds like this moment feels. It is a masterpiece of production and songwriting, and the fusion of same. 

"Double Negative" sounds only vaguely like Low's previous records, and nearly nothing like anything else out there today. It is a bold, thrilling work. The melodies are memorable and strong, and it hits slow, hard, and unrelentingly.

It is an album, rather than a collection of songs, and best appreciated listening from beginning to end. It is also dark, disturbing, and by far the best thing I heard this year.

The lyrics are frequently overwhelmed by the music, but that adds to the sense of weariness, confusion, ambiguity and mystery.

"Always Trying To Work It Out" offers a good sample...

But even better is this triptych of the first three songs on the album: "Quorum", "Dancing and Blood", and "Fly":

"Double Negative" is a remarkable piece of art, and the first music in a long time that really stopped me in my tracks.


Angelique Kidjo - "Remain In Light"

It is rare for a cover of an artist's best-known work to be as good as, much less surpass, the original. Rarer still for an entire album of covers to do the same (for proof, see notable attempts by artists including David Bowie and Duran Duran).

Angelique Kidjo's cover of the entirety of Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" manages to shine new light on the original, and transforms the music from its jittery new wave origins to transcendent pop. This could have been a disaster, but from the minute you first hear her sing "Take a look at these hands...", you know you are in for something great.

There's all kinds of meta-narrative and layers for those who want to focus on identity issues -- Talking Heads were a kind of epitome of white New York hipsterdom, and led by a man. Contemplating how their Africa-influenced music has reclaimed by a black African woman may add to your enjoyment.

Regardless, this is the best kind of pop music -- joyful, powerful, fun, and with a slightly subversive undercurrent:

And of course, "Once In A Lifetime":

While I didn't listen to as much new music as I would have liked this year, 2018 brought a lot of disappointment. Anticipated new albums by a whole range of artists, including Aphex Twin, Robyn, Smashing Pumpkins, and more turned out to be less-than-compelling.

Many new artists hyped by the blogosphere and new machinery of promotion were just terrible, or were Johnny One-Note acts making their effort at being contemporary pop stars, which these days is frequently more about Twitter and celebrity stuff than writing memorable songs and performing them well. (I know that makes me sound like an old person, but it is hard to believe any future artists will be covering the current crop of hits. Also, I'm old.)

There were also a few artists who made work so challenging it defeated me, either because it was too hard to listen to or too incomprehensible or just...unpleasant. An example is the new album "Pastoral" from Gazelle Twin. A powerful, detailed work of art about the current state of the UK, with plenty of brilliant references right down to the glitchy album cover. But most of it sounds and looks like this:

It's undeniably great, but it gives me a headache, and I feel like I'm enduring it, not appreciating it. Given the subject matter and themes, that may be the point. But I'd rather put that Low record on any time.

Even the "new" old-stock Prince album was more of a "huh, that's interesting" than revelatory experience, though it is always great to hear him put a different spin on songs you know. Stripping away his trademark production only reveals how talented he really was:

...but in the end, this is the sound of an artist rehearsing, warming up, playing around, not a masterwork in and of itself.

Brian Eno dropped a brick of an ambient compilation this year with "Music For Installations". The deluxe vinyl box cost more than $200, came with a glass-covered book, and included 9(!) LPs, but despite the heft and length of the compilation, I found it somewhat inconsequential (unfortunately, like much of his recent work). It is/was still nice to listen to on Spotify.

But for ambient / electronic stuff, I found myself returning frequently to a new album by Tangerine Dream: "Quantum Dream". Edgar Froese, the founder, died back in 2015. But like the Ship of Theseus (or perhaps KISS), he had been steadily replacing members over the years. The current line-up of Tangerine Dream includes notable modern synthsters Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss with violin player Hoshiko Yamane.

They may not have any "original" members, but they built this new album on ideas Froese had left behind, and it plays like a historical survey of synthesis and the so-called "Berlin School". Classic analog textures and motifs mix with digital tones, producing a modern space music that references the past while sounding contemporary. I found it enjoyable while working, running, or gaming.

Here's the new line-up doing "Identity Proven Matrix" live in the studio:

Good for fans of synth music and the "Stranger Things" soundtrack.

I look forward to hearing what 2019 has in store.