Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Albums of Influence: "Second Toughest In The Infants" by Underworld

Los Angeles, 1996.

It is a hot day. May, probably. You are on the freeway. 101 southbound. Driving from your small house in the Sherman Oaks suburbs to Hollywood.

You are listening to KROQ, as you often do. You have to stay up on what's popular, what the kids are into, what's selling. Plenty of what's on these days leaves you cold -- stock pop-punk, barely-OK pop, metal. 

It's maybe 2 pm. A new song comes on. A synthesizer chord stretches on forever. A stuttering vocal sample bounces on top. You hear an insistent drum loop, the rhythm skipping as it's retriggered. The synthesizer bass is all rapid-fire 16th notes with a slow flanger. You think it sounds like helicopters, the ones passing overhead at night.

The vocals recite stream-of-consciousness lyrics, distorted and echoing:

rioja rioja reverend al green deep blue morocco the water on stone the water on concrete the water on sand the water on fire smoke the wind the salt the bride boat coming dave in the water old man einstein on top of his house... 

It's arresting. It's strange, it's not some typical verse/chorus la-la-la bullshit. You pull over onto the freeway shoulder and wait for the over 9 minutes of the track to end. The DJ says something about "Underworld" and "Pearl's Girl". You pull back onto the freeway and head for the record store. You buy a CD.

Your bands have come apart. Your marriage is coming apart. Your life is coming apart. You are going to quit your job. You are going to quit everything. 

The song feels and sounds like the fugue state in your head. The blue-and-gray album cover looks like your life feels - some kind of modern, abstract smear. Maybe designed, maybe random. 

The record is a revelation, full of contemporary sounds and long, abstract songs.

Your sun
Fly high
Your window shattering
Your rails
You're thin
Your thin paper wings

You hear on the news that people have been shooting out windshields on the freeway. On your way to work, at the job you'll be quitting soon, a baseball-sized piece of concrete seems to appear out of nowhere and knocks a golf-ball-sized divot into your windscreen. At 65 miles per hour, in the morning rush. You manage not to kill anyone as you brake and swerve.

You think of the vocoded chants, the incessant grooves. The way the chords feel like breezes in the San Fernando valley's heat. You can't always make out the words, but you can always make out the feelings.

white room sun room shadow room night transmitting cars across the room these things sent to dance across the room eye watching from your bed returning to you

You listen to this record in your car. Your wife doesn't like it, but then, she doesn't like anything about you these days. You listen to it as you walk through the neighborhood at night, after she's gone for good.

You spend a lot of time running laps around Balboa Park. Thinking about everything. Trying not to think about anything. Words and deeds. Bad songs and failed bands. Your ideas and lack thereof. You wonder what you are going to do. Tonight. Tomorrow. Next year. With the rest of your life. Do you even have a rest of your life now?

You look up in the evening sky and see the Hale-Bopp comet, blazing, the size of your thumb. They say it only comes around every 2,500 years. Cultists are killing themselves over it, and you can understand why.

It is miraculous, mysterious, ominous, beautiful. A reminder there are more things in Heaven and Earth than dreamed of in our philosophy. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, inescapable.



Your feet hammer the path. You glance up again. Despite everything, the ruins and the chaos, you know you are lucky. Lucky to be here. To see this marvel, day after day.

The album closes with a brief guitar instrumental, a palate cleanser before the echoing "Stagger".

cover your teeth
i love you
don't bite me yet
i believe in you
i found you shopping in europa
on wardour street
not phoning packwidth
guilty as sin
straighten

Everything is falling apart. The future is uncertain. The world is full of wonder.

Ain't it good to be alive?

and old man einstein crazy in his attic crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazy

***

"Second Toughest In The Infants" isn't Underworld's best album -- that would be "dubnobasswithmyheadman", their debut. But "Second Toughest..." is my favorite Underworld album, because it introduced me to the band, and their arty take on electronica. It reminded me that weird can sometimes be commercially successful, or at least get airplay. It showed me how the most banal and boring of genres can provide a grounding for adventurous and bold work.

Some albums are important because they are so indelibly fused to a time and place, to memories of the past and memories of future dreams.

Whenever I hear "Second Toughest...", I am right back there on the path around Balboa Park, staring at the comet in the sky as I try to outrun my life. I am in my car, driving somewhere in the Los Angeles heat. I am still young, confused, and alive.

***


Monday, May 11, 2020

The Music Industry and The Pandemic

[A friend asked for my thoughts on this Esquire article about how "Coronavirus Might Kill The Music Industry."]

The problems described in the article were all making life difficult for musicians long before CoVID-19. The pandemic is doing the same thing to the music business as every other industry: choking off cash for an extended period of time, with resulting economic asphyxiation at multiple levels.

Live music was under threat from rising rents and what is referred to as "gentrification" plus a general loss of interest in music from the average person well before the pandemic. The current situation is just putting extra pressure on things, as it is for every struggling business.

Like restaurants, a bunch of venues will go out of business. A bunch of them were on the verge anyhow. Like a forest after a fire, you'll get a few starting to grow back in a few years. It won't be the same, but life never is.

Are we really going to start arguing that streaming services are bad? They're the only growth the music industry has had after decades of economic nose-dive. People aren't going to go back to buying vinyl or CDs or (god forbid) downloads. That's over.

When did the music industry ever "work for everyone?" The "golden age" of the 1970s and early 1980s, where a handful of payola-fueled artists locked down segregated and limited radio stations? It was very much winner-take-all in those days, and independents had no way to get any real exposure or distribution. And there were no other real outlets for media and culture. No internet. No video games. No DVDs (barely VCRs, and movies on tape cost the equivalent of about $250 of today's dollars).

More music is being made now than ever before in human history, and more is available to everyone to listen to.

Economically speaking, it's not a surprise that recorded music has little value anymore. A decade-plus of piracy (late 90s-early 00s) and limp and hostile industry response meant an entire generation grew up with the expectation that music was (or should be) free.

The fact that artists have been complaining about it all for ~20 years doesn't help. If the MAKERS of the music are constantly saying "It sounds like shit, it's not worth paying for, it's a rip-off, and I don't make any money from it anyhow," (refrains for CDs, downloads, AND streaming) what makes anyone think the average person will say "ooh, yeah, I'm going to spend money on THAT!"

In 2020, there's an endless supply of free recorded music. Pick whatever service you want, you can probably find what you want to hear or something close enough for $0.

Thanks to the democratization of recording, recorded music isn't special. People can (and do) make records on their phones or computers now. The number of new recordings has gone up to an astounding number. Granted, most of them are terrible, but few people care about the "quality" of the music.

Music has also become less of a cultural force than it used to be. I don't mean for music fans (like us), I mean for the average person. The 80% of the public that really just doesn't care that much anymore. They used to buy a couple albums a year, maybe, and that was the margin that kept the business going. Now, that money goes to Netflix or Disney+ or video games or phone apps or paying for broadband.

You can see this reflected in most people's homes. They don't have stereos anymore. Not even boomboxes. Maybe they have a "smart speaker" they sometimes use for listening to music. They definitely don't have a CD player or turntable. (Again, not talking about the handful of fans. I'm talking about everyone else, the majority.)

The ocean of music out there means people also don't have to have their tastes challenged or new stuff cycled in and out periodically. FM and AM radio are wastelands, good for polarized talk radio and little else. In your car, you're listening to SiriusXM or your phone. Alexa and Siri play what you expect or ask them to.

If you're exposed to new music, it's likely because the artist made a clever or shocking video, which people watch 30-60 seconds of on social media, either with the sound off or hissing out of their tinny, tiny phone speaker. Or because they did something outrageous and you read about it and wondered what they sounded like.

When you have massive supply of a good and the same (or declining) demand for that good, the price of that good drops.

As for streaming service payouts...really, this again?

Briefly: If artists have bad deals with their labels, it's the artist's problem. Services make deals with the owners of the recording and publishing copyrights. Streaming services already pay so much off the top they can barely survive.

Look at the graveyard of services past and compare them to what you've got now. There's exactly ZERO difference between, say, RDIO and Apple or Spotify. Practically the same interface design, same business model, same features. Marginal differences, more music.

The majority of the public thinks music streaming is too expensive, which is why there's only one semi-independent player left standing at this point (Spotify, who is partially owned by the labels and titans like Tencent.) and the other streaming services are arms of major tech titans who can afford to take losses on music as part of a larger digital media or device ecosystem strategy.

That's right: losses. Nobody is really making lots of money off of streaming services. Even Spotify is aggressively moving into podcasts because those cost so much less for them to provide.

It is a winner-take-all world in streaming, but it's always been that way in the music business. We hoped that streaming would make things slightly better by giving everyone a platform; it ended up making it slightly worse due to the overwhelming flood of music (and industry incentives to promote certain artists over others, and people's inherent laziness in curating their own media universe, which is completely understandable and predictable for non-music fans).

All physical media has taken a big hit -- books, DVDs/Blu-Rays, etc. Again, look at people's houses. No CD player, why should they buy CDs? CDs were a bad deal for most people anyhow, with the average CD being played fewer than 10 times after purchase.

One thing to keep in mind is this: People, fans, listeners seem to have no problem paying for one or more expensive video streaming services -- Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Disney. Each of those costs around $10 per month to provide a narrow slice of "content".

Ask the same people to throw down $10 a month for all the music in the world, and they hem and haw and go to YouTube and listen for free, or ask their smart speaker to play something and suffer through ads.

Why? I go back to "music doesn't matter that much anymore".

The live music business has been broken for a long time before this. Classical and jazz ensembles and institutions have had to beg rich people for money for decades. They are museums for the wealthy, and their repertoire and business models reflect and cater to that demographic reality.

The average person just doesn't attend those performances. Maybe for a date, once. And sales are embarrassingly small numbers.

Live pop music also has plenty of problems. It's too late, it's too loud, it's too long, it's too expensive.

Big shows are spectacles, and if you're a major act touring without video walls and dancers, you're probably doing it wrong. P.S. People don't care about backing tracks anymore. The aging rockers can tour their albums to their aging fans, but that is literally a dying art. Younger bands have to focus on
"the show" more than "the music" to attract attention.

Festivals are great if you're someone who likes festivals. Personally, I can't stand them. But like Marvel movies, ultimately the festival's star is the FESTIVAL, not the bands on the bill.

Independent bands in clubs can be thrilling experience, but are most often boring and simply not worth it. Smaller venues have been suffering from rising rents and changing urban values for some time. Again, some of this is simply because most people don't care that much about music.

Put another way, if you ran a restaurant, would you only serve food from 9 - midnight (the sign said 8, but you made people wait around for another hour before your actually opened the kitchen)? Would you make the food so hot that it burned people's mouths unless they took precautions? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Even if you do care about music, is it really fun to stand around at 11:30 on a Wednesday night having your ears blown off by a bunch of amateurs? Sometimes. Maybe.

Personally, I can't stand live-streamed concerts. It's like the worst of both recorded music and live music, with little of the good bits. I can't imagine that anyone is really sitting through an hour of that.

It is also worth noting that nearly every other media vertical is suffering. Cinema/film/movies are taking a big hit for many of the same reasons as music. The future there is shaky indies, mediocre streaming-service series, and soulless Disney/China behemoths, streamed to your phones.

Nobody cares about books, either. If you want to see some scary numbers, read some articles about how many units "best-selling" authors move, and how little money they pull in.

All that said, MUSIC is going to be just fine. Because real artists don't do it for the money, they do it because they WANT to, or because they HAVE to. It is a difficult life choice, as it has always been.

Anyone who chose to go into music for the money, as a business, is also in for a tough time, but I'd argue there is no business that isn't suffering right now, and/or that isn't tough in the 21st century. Maybe banking.

[For context, I've been playing music since I was single-digit years old, was a professional musician for most of the 90s, and helped invent and launch the music subscription business. I'm also old and a little jaded about all this.]

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Albums of Influence: "Computer World" by Kraftwerk

Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk died today, after a short battle with cancer. He was 73 years old.

Florian Schneider
Schneider was a co-founder of Kraftwerk, which started in 1970, not long after I was born. Schneider and the early version of Kraftwerk were part of a famously creative nexus of musicians in Germany known as "krautrock" or kosmiche musik that would spawn bands like Neu!, Harmonia, Cluster, Can, and Faust, as well as more synth-driven groups like Tangerine Dream, and eventually, what we think of as mature Kraftwerk. You may not be too familiar with them, but your favorite bands are.

Kraftwerk has been called "The Beatles of electronic music", which is apt. Their influence is profound, and any electronic musician, even if they've never heard or heard of Kraftwerk, is following in their footsteps. And in the same way, from our current vantage point, it can be difficult to see what all the fuss was about.

I first remember hearing Kraftwerk on the radio not long after "The Man-Machine" came out in 1978. It stopped me in my tracks. I only heard perhaps the last third of "The Robots", but I was immediately transfixed. It was like the spacey sounds of Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre but wrapped up in a catchy pop song, with dark overtones and what sounded like Cylons singing.

As was often the case with pre-internet music discovery, the radio didn't tell me who the artist was or the song. I had no idea, but I never forgot that sound, and assumed I'd never hear it again.

Years later, I was in a record store. The punk girl behind the register put on a record, and I went up and asked her "who and what IS this?". She smiled and said "It's Kraftwerk. 'Computer World'." It had just come out. As soon as I had saved up enough allowance, I bought it. On vinyl.

"Computer World" front cover
Kraftwerk's "Computer World" was released in 1981. Computers, particularly home computers, were still rare and magical things. The world was still blurry analog. Society was just beginning to understand how computers would be permeating all aspects of our world. Even music prominently featuring synthesizers was still a novelty, and considered something between lame and outright cheating.

The album was one of the first that registered for me as a complete artistic experience, with every aspect considered.

Take the cover, for example. It's an eye-searing yellow-green, the color of early CRT computer displays. Against that field is a black-and-white photo of a computer, and on the computer screen, the image of the band, done in period-accurate graphics with what passed for computer typography in those days (and for my younger readers, seriously, computers looked like this, both the hardware and the screen, and we still thought it was mind-blowingly futuristic and cool). This was powerful iconography, and also had the advantage of making the album stand out in record stores.

The back of the album featured the band...or was it mannequins?...posed in front of computery-looking machinery, shaded green and black, with computer text across the bottom (including being in all upper case).

"Computer World" back cover
The band isn't getting the spotlight -- the computer is. And it is worth noting that, if anything, the band is somehow reduced by the computer on the cover.

Drop the needle on side one. A robotic but funky groove (Kraftwerk's specialty!) starts off, with catchy percolating synthesizers, before a tranquil string pad wafts over the top. You immediately notice (particularly in 1981!) what's missing, what you're not hearing: No drums. No guitar. No electric bass. This is all synthesized. But it is full and engaging.

Over the groove, the singer chants clipped and minimal phrases: "Interpol and Deutsche Bank. FBI and Scotland Yard." He is answered by what sounds like a Speak N' Spell: "Business. Numbers. Money. People." Or "Time. Travel. Communication. Entertainment." Each line repeated twice, before the vocoded chorus simply notes "Computer world." You can almost hear the period at the end. Not an exclamation, or a lament, or a joke. A fact. Computer world.

Side one then moves to the album's "hit singles", "Pocket Calculator", which features tones that sound like they're from a Merlin game, and somewhat cute lyrics that are again as merely descriptive as they can be -- "I am adding and subtracting. I am controlling and composing. By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody". Seems harmless enough.

The other single on the album was "Numbers", a typically Kraftwerk-y beat with typically Kraftwerk-y lyrics -- in this case, just recitations of numbers from different languages, rendered with a variety of techniques ranging from purely synthetic to vocoded to spoken and sung. There's hardly any "music" to it, no bass riff, no chords, just an odd, echoey synthesizer sequence bending and bouncing, and that's only present for about 1 of the song's nearly 3.5 minutes. The rest is voices and drums, minimal and primal. How could they leave so much out?

This segues into a reprise of "Computer World", with the counting returning before it all fades out in a blur of robots reciting numbers.

Side two kicks off with perhaps the most beautiful song in Kraftwerk's catalog, "Computer Love". It has beautiful and simple synthesizer melodies rendered in twinkling tones or silky strings. It is remarkably expressive for all its restraint, and Ralf Hütter's wobbly singing.

It is hard not to hear this now (and perhaps, RIGHT NOW) and not feel how prescient it is:

Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen
I don't know what to do
I need a rendez-vous

Computer love.

At the time, the idea of computer dating seemed weird and futuristic. From the vantage point of 2020, it is hard to imagine a time when people didn't find dates through the internet, through computers.

The music manages to convey both the sense of loneliness and a sense of beauty. Observing, not judging. And it stretches out, for a glorious 7 minutes and 20 seconds, floating, gliding.

This is followed by "Home Computer", which has a much more sinister groove, and lyrics that simply state "I program my home computer, beam myself into the future." That's it. They're sung by a human who sounds focused but disinterested, as the track's groove splinters into percussion and bubbling computer noise.

The album closes with the starker and darker "It's More Fun To Compute". No human sings on this track -- the album closes with a robotic voice intoning the title over a bass drone and an alarm. The silky synths and percolating grooves of "Computer World" return, but somehow feel desolate and disconnected. Computer world.

The total effect was potent at my young age. This wasn't just a bunch of cool songs, this was an album, with an arc and purpose from song to song, and arranged in a specific way. But it was also cool, catchy, easy to enjoy, different from what was on the radio, and not just modern, but futuristic.

Also, only 7 songs and 35 minutes. They said what they needed to. No filler. No pandering.

***

This was Kraftwerk's last great album. It would be a long time before they would put anything else out, and aside from the odd single, they haven't done anything truly new since, mostly re-hashing or re-mixing their old work.

I would go back and discover all their great records -- the arguably even-better "The Man-Machine" (which had the song I'd first heard those years back - "The Robots"), the sublime and influential "Trans Europe Express", the primitive "Radio-Activity", and their foundational "Autobahn". I'd even track down their earlier work, which feels much less vital but is still interesting and creative.

Those records were all great, but were just furthering the impressions and understanding of things I had gleaned from living in "Computer World": Make total statements. Consider all aspects of your album. Be creative. Be restrained. Don't be afraid of technology.

Thank you for the music, Florian. And thank you for the music, Kraftwerk.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Albums of Influence: The Shadow featuring Orson Welles on Murray Hill Records

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows!"

In 1976, Murray Hill records released a series of three-album boxed sets documenting classic radio programs. My Dad brought two home for me. "The Green Hornet" and "The Shadow", which was voiced by Orson Welles.

It was my first record.

I was quite young, and this was before VCRs, cable TV, video games, and the internet. I loved records. The technology itself was magical. And "The Shadow" let me experience movies for my mind, and I could play them any time I wanted.

The original recordings were relatively low fidelity, but fine for playback on a kid's record player. I must have played those 3 discs -- 1 episode per side -- a hundred times.

The original shows were broadcast in 1938. Back then, The Shadow was the equivalent of today's Marvel superheroes, and had been adapted from pulp books to several radio reboots. Orson Welles was 22 when he voiced Lamont Cranston, before moving on to bigger and better things. These recordings include the original in-broadcast commercials, which are historical artifacts in and of themselves. As are the voices, accents, and dialogue, capturing an America that now only lives in black-and-white movies and scratchy recordings.

It didn't seem too corny to me. Even back then, I could appreciate the patina of history on these short, simple radio dramas. 

If nothing else, "The Shadow" taught me how entertaining and fascinating records and recording technology can be. It also taught me that records can tell a story, and should be worthy of being replayed. If my records have concepts, themes, and sound effects, well, perhaps this is why.

I still have these records, which are the only things that remain from my childhood.


***

[This concludes the 2020 "Albums of Influence" series. Thanks to Adam Tober and Paul Zyla for asking me, and thank you all for reading.]


Albums of Influence: Security (a.k.a. "Peter Gabriel 4") by Peter Gabriel

Released on September 6, 1982, Peter Gabriel's 4th solo album was the peak of his creative career. He, somewhat perversely, wanted to call the album "Peter Gabriel" -- just like his last 3 records. Geffen Records, his American label, insisted the album have a proper and unique title, at least for the USA, for obvious reasons. Gabriel reluctantly agreed, and chose the title "Security". It was placed, via sticker, on top of the shrinkwrap of the LPs and cassettes (Dear reader, the compact disc had not yet been invented).

I was aware of Peter Gabriel primarly through his previous hit single, "Games Without Frontiers", from "Peter Gabriel 3" (a.k.a. "Melting Face"). I heard it on FM radio and found it oddly compelling. The oily, fluid bass guitar, the clanky drum machine against the tribal drums, the whistling hook, and the surrealistc lyrics all made an impression. 

When I heard his new single, "Shock The Monkey", and saw the video, I resolved to get the album. I was only able to find it on cassette (the worst audio format ever), but bought it all the same. 

"Security" was a continuation and refinement of what Gabriel had been working on since he left Genesis to be a solo artist.

The cover art, for example, is just like his previous 3 records: a dramatically distorted photo of his face, both mocking and hewing to the conventions of pop music stardom.

And that really is his face. It is a still grabbed from a video shot and directed by Malcolm Poynter, who says “...my memory of this project, which was crucially pre-Photoshop, was us dragging around flexi mirrors and Fresnel lenses, and...having a very creative (if chaotic) time."

One can only imagine how Geffen records must have felt: That cover image, the title being the same as his last *3* records, and a "hit single" about animal experimentation.

The album starts with "The Rhythm of the Heat", which fades in what sounds like bamboo pipes, before Gabriel's alien wailing drops into dramatic and dynamic drums. The piece is, in some ways, very "Genesis-y" -- it's got a bit of music theater vibe about it, but is also creepy and unsettling. It's like a song version of the Wicker Man, all strange rituals on the edge of violence. 

Listening to his voice whisper "Smash the radio...no outside voices here! Smash the camera...you cannot steal away the spirits! Smash the watch...you cannot tear the day to shreds!" before he starts screaming about how "The rhythm has my soul!" and drums and chanting bring the song to a crescendo and climax was...potent. Like musical theater, it might be a little cheesy, but that doesn't mean it's not affecting, if you 

The second song on the album is "San Jacinto", a similarly elaborate composition that details a coming-of-age ritual and measures it against modern life ("each house a pool, kids wearing water-wings, drinking cool...past Geronimo's disco...").

Gabriel is interested in studying culture as an abstract. Everything is ritual, power structures, lore. He's long explored the idea that "modern" culture and "primitive" culture are basically the same. That nothing really changes, that one is not better than the other, and that perhaps we shouldn't be so proud of ourselves. That there are forces beyond our comprehension, or at least more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy."

"I Have the Touch" and "The Family and the Fishing Net", for example, are basically an alien or outsider observing business and a wedding and documenting what they see. The commonplace becomes exotic through distance and perspective.

"Shock The Monkey" kicks off side two. This was the album's single, and was about scientific experimentation on a monkey...from the monkey's point of view. Gabriel shot a pretty great video for it, where he manages to obliquely address the song's lyrics and get at his obsessions and album themes. It's a pretty solid pop song, and one of the more conventional productions on the record -- there's a steady beat throughout the song, you could probably dance to it, and it has hooks.

Similarly, "Wallflower" is a beautiful ballad, with Gabriel's lovely voice and chiming Yamaha concert piano (the same kind U2 used in the early days -- it's a very distinctive sound). If you can look past it being about tortured political prisoners, it almost sounds romantic.

The album was one of the first completely digital recordings, and also extensively featured the then state-of-the-art Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument), which allowed for sampling. Back in those days, people used it to make instruments, rather than rip loops off of records, and songs like "Lay Your Hands On Me" (Jesus as a suburbanite) have all kinds of clanking cans, eerie blown bottles and pipes, and other "found sounds" that are melded into the track. 

Gabriel famously told the drummers not to "use any metal" on the album -- no crash cymbals, no hi hat. Just drums. This helps give the album a tribal vibe, and forces the drummers to play different kinds of beats. Some of the songs have artificial hi-hats and crashes, but Gabriel's rules and aesthetic help give the album a distinctive sound.

Gabriel has a deserved reputation for spending excessive time in the studio tweaking the minutia of his recorded work. Whereas this makes records like "Us" sound overcooked and flat, his attention (perhaps tempered by finite budget and cruder tools) made "Security" exciting, at least for its time.

After "Security", Gabriel decided to play it straight. His next album, "So", was a kind of commercial sell-out capstone to his previous four arty-but-unsuccessful records. "So" had a simple and memorable title, displayed prominently. The cover featured a beautiful black and white photograph of Gabriel's handsome, unobscured face by Trevor Key, and was designed by Peter Saville (see also: New Order). 

"So" featured songs that were shiny, simplified pop takes on his multi-cultural world music sound, with nearly all of the weird and dark stuff stripped away, or confined to a single, album-closing track Milgram's 37, the chorus of which features people sing-chanting "We do what we're told to do". Perhaps it is Gabriel's sly commentary on capitulating to pop machinery.

Yes, "In Your Eyes" is nice, but it's pretty much "Wallflower" part 2, with the weird stuff subtracted and replaced with treacle. "Don't Give Up" has a beautiful vocal from Kate Bush...but that's about it. The singles are lame, and are basically Gabriel singing about his dick, supported by gimmicky videos. This, from the guy that had done "Biko" just a few years prior.

Naturally, "So" was a smash hit, the biggest of his career, and marked the end of his truly interesting and challenging work. It sold 5 million copies in the USA alone. Finally, Geffen Records was happy.

Gabriel's soundtrack to Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" is fantastic, but has no songs or vocals, and is largely about timbre and vibe. His subsequent solo albums were attempts at recapturing either the success and sounds of "So", or "Security", or trying to fuse them together. 

"Us", "Up", and the rest are totally fine. Gabriel has a great voice, writes good or great melodies, hires top-notch players, and meticulously crafts his records. But a certain fire, or perhaps perversity, seems lacking post-Security.

For me, all of that has only emphasized how great "Security" is.

Aside from lessons observed from Gabriel's career, Security showed me how you can make strange things into pop songs, and how the fire of personal obsessions can drive you to interesting places. 

And perhaps, how selling out can make you rich at the expense of your weird little soul.

***

"Shock The Monkey"

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Albums of Influence: Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk

Some records define their own genres. So it is with Talk Talk's apex, "Spirit of Eden".

Mark Hollis, already a veteran musician by his late teens, formed Talk Talk in the UK in 1981. The band was quickly picked up for various deals before ending up with a recording contract with EMI. EMI had just broken through with Duran Duran, and with Talk Talk, saw similar prospects for new wave gold.

Talk Talk's first album was straight-up new romantic / new wave pop. It was produced by Colin Thurston, notable not only for engineering Bowie's "Heroes", but for having just produced the fantastic debut album of Duran Duran. 

One can hear a sonic connection between that first Duran Duran record and Talk Talk's first album, "The Party's Over" (1982). Both records are full of Simmons electronic drums, chorused bass guitar (fretless on Talk Talk's record!), and plenty of keyboards, the albums give plenty of room for their distinctive vocalists to shine, and the production highlights the strengths of the songwriting. Talk Talk would even support Duran Duran on tour in 1982.

And Talk Talk's pop songs were quite good. While the band didn't particularly like that first record, I love it. I saw the video for the song "Talk Talk" on Rock N America, a small, late-night syndicated video show, and was immediately interested. I ended up buying a vinyl copy of the album and devoured the songs. I taught myself fretless bass by learning to play all the bass parts on that record.

Talk Talk's next two albums ("It's My Life", 1984 and "The Colour of Spring", 1986) were increasingly elaborate productions. Still very much pop / new wave, the sonic palette broadened on each record. They continued to write great songs, albeit with less consistency and less pop rigor. At the time, I found the lack of wall-to-wall pop songs disappointing.

But "The Colour of Spring" held my attention in other ways. In particular, there was "April 5th", a moody, piano-driven track that drifts off into strange clouds of sound. I played it over and over.

And then, in 1988, as I worked at WDCR, we got a pile of promotional copies of the new Talk Talk album, titled "Spirit of Eden". The mostly white album cover focused the band's typical surreal artwork (every single one of the band's album covers and singles contained artwork by James Marsh) and suggested something naturalistic.

I put the record on, and was blown away.

I can still remember the smell of the air, the sounds of the leaves blowing outside, how I felt, as the first notes of the album started. This wasn't a new wave pop album. It wasn't even "rock". I didn't know what it was. It was...music. Woodwinds and trumpet. Wailing harmonica. Yes, some electric and acoustic guitars and drums, but fitting with this larger band.

There were 6 songs, which had some kind of structure, but it wasn't chunks of 16 bars. It almost felt improvised. It was dynamic, ranging from barely audible to crashing volume (increasingly rare in pop music). And it was largely rubato, freed from a click, pulse, drum machine, or steady beat.

While it was unusual, it wasn't difficult to listen to, or abrasive, or noisy for noise's sake. It was composed, in every sense. Emotional, contemplative, and alive.

6 pieces. Just under 41 minutes. It finished. I wasn't even sure how to respond. Did I like it? I played it again. By the time it ended, I knew it was a masterpiece.

Nearly every musician I have met (and I know a lot!) agree with me. You will find this album on countless musician's lists of most influential, important, desert island, etc.

There's plenty to be read these days about the unique way the album was made, or what a commercial failure it was (supposedly the record executive cried when he heard the record, because he knew it was brilliant but he also knew it wouldn't sell), or how difficult Mark Hollis had become by this time.

But for a long time, the record just existed as a statement of what was possible. Here's this great art for you, world.  

I just listened to the album again as I wrote this. There's still nothing like it, except the next, final record Talk Talk would do -- "Laughing Stock", which is every bit as good as "Spirit of Eden", and the single brilliant Mark Hollis solo album (which was originally intended as a Talk Talk record).

Hollis retired from the music business after his solo album was released in , and he died in 2019 at the age of 64.

Another band and artist that moved from pop towards something unique, making undefinable music for a machine that largely had no idea what to do with it. Talk Talk showed me your best work comes from doing what you want. It probably won't make you a ton of money, but it will make you great art.

***

If you have never heard "Spirit of Eden, do yourself a favor. Find 45 minutes where you can give it your attention. Put some headphones on or sit in front of your stereo and listen to it, all the way through. Don't use YouTube, try to find a source with decent fidelity.



Talk Talk was also a great band prior to "Spirit of Eden". With hindsight, one can clearly hear them heading towards that record:

"April 5th", from "The Colour of Spring", 1986:


"Life's What You Make It", from "The Colour of Spring", 1986:


"It's My Life", from the album of the same name, in 1984:

"The Party's Over", 1982:

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Albums of Influence: Gone To Earth by David Sylvian

"Gone To Earth" original album cover

I heard this album when I was a senior in high school. One of my friends put "Taking The Veil" on a mixtape. I was entranced by its sophisticated chords, its fretless bass, meticulous production, and lyrics referencing Max Ernst (a favorite artist).

I bought the double vinyl LP used at a local record store. The gatefold's front cover suggested something vaguely mystical. An amulet? Some kind of religious symbols?

The album is two discs. The first is seven long-ish songs. They are quite a step away from Japan's New Romantic pop songs. While they still have verses and choruses, the harmonic choices are more interesting, the melodies go in unusual directions, and Sylvian sings in his deeper "mature" voice. There's nothing you'll dance to, and the melodies aren't exactly built for singing along.

The record is practically adult contemporary. It's got great players (Robert Fripp! Bill Nelson! Mel Collins! B.J. Cole! Kenny WheelerSteve Nye!), piano, soprano sax(!), flugelhorn, and drums that are both quiet and booming. It has a jazzy, almost easy-listening vibe. The title track is the one exception, which weds a more angular melody to little more than Fripp's skronking bent-metal guitar.

It reminds me a bit of Sting's "The Dream of The Blue Turtles", which was recorded around the same time (1985) and was another example of a pop singer trying to establish a solo career by "going jazz", growing up, and moving in a slightly smoother direction. (Though I think Sylvian's record is by far more interesting and timeless).

"Gone To Earth" is overwhelmingly tasteful, which is perhaps the only bad thing you can say about this album, if not David Sylvian himself. It's not crazy or dangerous or ROCK! at all. It's beautiful and relaxed.

Sylvian's voice is gorgeous, and given plenty of space by the dynamic, wide-open sound of the record. The mix is fantastic -- I occasionally use it as a reference when testing systems or doing my own audio work. The 2003 remastered CD is one of the best-sounding examples of the compact disc I have heard.

The second disc of the album is ambient music. No singing. Just minimal, looping tracks, built up from synthesizers and guitars. A few tracks have some vocal samples, all but obscured by reverb and EQ. I found them compelling, even if the titles edge from mystical to borderline new age corn.

This album has influenced me in different ways at different times. Initially, I was inspired by the music's harmonic language, vibe, and production. I hoped I could eventually move beyond my simplistic song construction and chord vocabulary to something more like this.

I became interested in how Sylvian's lyric choices also affected the record. The lyrics are cryptic (and not reproduced on the album) and, per Sylvian, "intermingles the personal with the themes of gnosticism and alchemy".

I also was surprised (and inspired) by someone who was such a famous singer choosing to make instrumental ambient music.

Later, I began to appreciate what this record had represented for Sylvian -- a bold step away from his pop career towards something unknown, new, and strange. A choice to do the difficult thing, and to keep challenging himself.  

Sylvian would go on to make a few more adult contemporary-ish records as the 20th century ended ("Secrets of the Beehive", "Dead Bees on a Cake") before getting weirder, darker, and artier as befits the 21st century (notably, "Blemish" and "Manafon").

Sylvian is still occasionally making records, and they are beguiling works of art, and continue to inspire and influence me. Here's an interview where he reflects on some of his work.

***
David Sylvian - "Taking The Veil"



David Sylvian - "The Healing Place"

***

[Second of three "adult contemporary" albums in this series. "Diamond Life" was the first.]

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Albums of Influence: Power, Corruption and Lies by New Order

Of all the records I could write about, this is perhaps the most obvious choice. Given that half of New Order had a listening party today to discuss this album, I thought it was high time to write about it.

The albums that have influenced me the most tend to have a few elements in common. Maybe I heard it when I was a teenager, and discovering and falling in love with music. Maybe it has catchy, memorable, hooky songs. Maybe it is a little strange for its time. Maybe it has great artwork. Maybe it is something that inspired me, or is something I have ripped off.

In the case of "Power, Corruption and Lies", all of these things are true.

I was introduced to New Order by Tim Reynolds, who made me a cassette containing their epic "Blue Monday", which was literally life-changing: That song set me on the path to being a rock musician.

That track was so compelling I sought out anything else I could find by the band. I was eventually able to track down a copy of the 12" single of "Blue Monday", and later, the album from that same era: "Power, Corruption and Lies".

This is New Order's best album. It has great songs, covering a range of sounds, moods, and tempos. Guitars, synthesizers, live drums, and drum machines all co-exist. Bernard Sumner warbles his half-brilliant lyrics in his not-too-great voice. The album thrives on contradictions and dichotomies. It's polished and amateurish. Punk and disco. Detached and emotional. The surprisingly dark title belies the generally up-tempo and light music.

It's accessible, and easy to listen to, but it's not really pop. The songs have clear sections, verses and choruses, but they're a little off. Some are nearly instrumental, some are mostly guitar, some are mostly keyboards. There's no "Bizarre Love Triangle", ready for radio. There are slow songs and fast songs. You can sort of dance to some of them. One song talks about the "red hell tide inside" of the singer. The album closes with a wistful song called "Leave Me Alone".

The artwork is surprising: "A Basket of Roses" by Henri Fantin-Latour, which seems about as uncool and unhip as possible. Legendary cover designer Peter Saville overlaid some digital-looking colored blocks in the upper right-hand corner. It turns out these are a code, spelling out the catalog number of the record (FACT75). 

The album is balanced -- 8 songs, with 4 songs on each side. It is impeccably sequenced, and the perfect length.

I have quoted or referenced the floaty string keyboard line from "Age of Consent" in so many of my songs, I should probably send New Order royalties. 

I love this album, and have listened to it countless times. I studied its sounds, beats, melodies, chord progressions, and songwriting. It is difficult to overstate how much it has influenced me, for better or worse. 

I originally bought it on vinyl (because CDs didn't exist yet), then on CD twice. Plus downloads of the "Deluxe Edition" when that became available.

Not long ago, I was facing the very real possibility of hearing damage, up to and including deafness. I thought about what I would choose as the last albums I would ever hear, and "Power, Corruption and Lies" was on that very short list. I bought a reissue of the vinyl. 

It sounds wonderful.

***

"Age of Consent"

"Your Silent Face"

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Albums of Influence: Diamond Life by Sade

"Diamond life, lover boy..."

Released on July 16, 1984 in the UK, Sade's debut album "Diamond Life" is a perfect record.

While very much of its time, the album also sounds like a classic. While some choices (chorused guitars, some gratuitous sax) and technology (a hint of DX7 "epiano") slightly date the sound, it has remarkably restrained and neutral production for an album of that era.

I first heard it like everybody else did -- on the radio. I taped the album from a friend (on the reel-to-reel recorded I had salvaged from the basement!).

I was surprised how much I liked "Diamond Life", given how little it had in common with the other music I was into at the time. It wasn't filled with synthesizers and drum machines. It wasn't edgy, weird, arty, or new wave. 

It was, relatively speaking, conventional. Its comparative subtlety and aspirations of refinement did separate it from the other garish strivers on the charts, and its very quiet and understated elegance were their own strong statement. 

But I kept coming back to it, because it was "cool", in every sense. The songs were great. Memorable, without resorting to gimmickry or cheap hooks. Strong melodies, solid playing. It had some heart and soul beneath its lustrous surface. 

I still like listening to this record. It is easy to enjoy when paying attention, good background for dinner or parties, and everybody likes Sade.

"Diamond Life" was a smash success, selling over 6 million copies, and held the record for best-selling debut by a female vocalist for 24 years. It immediately gave the band the freedom to do what they wanted.

It turned out that what they wanted to do was more of the same -- carefully crafted jazz-influenced pop records, with a gradually increasing amount of time between them.

Sade doesn't really have any bad albums (though I listen to "Lovers Rock" the least). They're all pretty great, with a few being transcendent in places. But I don't think any of them have the same consistent high quality of "Diamond Life".

This record made me re-consider fashion (transient, flashy, disposable) and style (slow, understated, timeless). The older I get, the more I appreciate what Sade and her band did on "Diamond Life" and the rest of their records.

I have cribbed beats, bass lines, ideas, vibes, tempos, and riffs from their work over the years. This is most obvious and conscious on several tracks from my 2010 record "Reflection".

Friday, April 10, 2020

Albums of Influence: Call of the West by Wall of Voodoo

Wall of Voodoo and Stan Ridgway taught me how the limitations and tropes of genre and pulp can provide palettes, fuel, and launching pads for art.

I first heard Wall of Voodoo on the "Urgh! A Music War" compilation, but it was either Steve Huybrechts or Rich Wagner who played me a rare 12" single that including a remix of their cover of "Ring of Fire" and had a live medley of themes from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" and "Hang 'Em High".



Wall of Voodoo had an immediately identifiable sonic palette. The beats were provided by a rickety, ancient drum machine (a Kalamzoo Rhythm Ace) supplemented by a live drummer playing temple blocks and other odd percussion. The guitar player used a Flying V, but instead of busting out metal riffs, he plucked out clean twang that would have made Duane Eddy envious. Old organs and primitive synthesizers played 5th intervals. And all topped by the distinctive voice (my wife can't stand it!) and lyrics of Stan Ridgway.

The music was pop, but clearly informed by Ennio Morricone as much as anything. Their first EP had some weird instrumentals clearly referencing film soundtracks -- the band itself had started when Ridgway was trying to compose film music. Their songs had some of the sharp angles of  Californian late punk and early new wave, but also suggested sweeping desert vistas. It swapped punk's aggression for cowboy swagger.

They also had a distinctive and clear visual identity, with great, evocative album art. All the pieces fit together -- the sound, the lyrics, the images. Total and complete art.

I was sold.

By the time on board, they had 2 albums out on I.R.S., the coolest of the cool labels. The first one I picked up was their second album, "Call of the West".

The album kicks off with "Tomorrow", which lays out the band's hooky and quirky sound. The lyrics are about a guy who keeps putting things off until tomorrow, and then there's a nuclear war. Other songs on the album document heartbreak and the emptiness of modern society, all seen through the strange prism of Ridgway's pulp-influenced writing.

The entire album is great, with hooky, memorable songs front to back. Perhaps the best song is the title track, which spins Wall of Voodoo's sound into a towering epic.



The big hit single was "Mexican Radio", which has all of the band's signature elements but swaps subtlety and emotion for a poppy sugar rush. It got radio airplay, and courtesy of a video weird enough to accompany the song and band, MTV play, too. It's a great combination, but unfortunately cemented the band's public image as a goofy one-hit wonder, and overlooked their darker and more interesting work. 


Of course that success ruined the band. After playing the legendary US Festival, Ridgway left the band for a solo career. The band continued on with new singer Andy Prieboy, but the magic was gone, and the band faded away after one strong song ("Far Side of Crazy", which doesn't sound like Wall of Voodoo at all), and three more largely unremarkable albums.

Perhaps it is for the best. While the band's early sound was distinctive, it was quite limiting. Ridgway took his unique voice and vision and continued to refine and expand it.

Ridgway's solo career kicked off with a brilliant collaboration with Stewart Copeland -- "Don't Box Me In" for the movie "Rumble Fish". Ridgway made a pile of solid solo records with great (if more conventional) self-production, and lyrics that were miniature movies or short stories.

He had minor college radio hits with "Camouflage" and "Drive She Said" from his first solo album "The Big Heat". His second album, "Mosquitos", had "Goin' Southbound" and "Lonely Town". He went on to write some records for kids and do film scoring. 

Wall of Voodoo's first album, "Dark Continent", is just as good, but slightly darker and rawer.

Wall of Voodoo also made me start a band. In college, on a break from my "real" band, some friends and I wanted to do something fun. So we fused Chris Isaak with Wall of Voodoo. Drum machines, twangy guitars, western tropes. 

It was something both goofy and beautiful, funny and sad. Wall of Voodoo illustrated how a band could embrace all of that. Their music was ridiculous, but also transcendant. 

Thank you, "Call of the West".

[This post was partially motivated by Alex Patsavas' piece on NPR]

***
***

Stewart Copeland and Stan Ridgway - "Don't Box Me In"


Stan Ridgway - "Drive, She Said"


Stan Ridgway - "Lonely Town"


Stan Ridgway - "The Big Heat"

Wall of Voodoo - "Tse Tse Fly [live]"

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Albums of Influence: Joshua Judges Ruth by Lyle Lovett

I am not entirely sure how I got this record. I am pretty sure I picked it up while I was working at The Record Plant -- I recall a pile of them being around. My CD has a hole drilled through the case and booklet, which indicates it was a promotional copy.

Back in the 1990s, when I was a music professional, I was constantly receiving free CDs. Because I was young and poor, always interested in hearing something new,  and music used to be valuable, I took it home to listen.

I didn't know anything about Lyle Lovett, other than he was a "country singer", with a reputation for being quirky. I suppose I was expecting something goofy and/or lame, a jokey, hokey borefest.

Instead, I heard a beautiful and surprising record. The production and recording are pristine, clear, and minimal (probably why it was lying around the recording studio). For a guy who used to advertise his "Large Band", Lovett's recordings on this record are sparse, and filled with top-shelf session players.

The songs are understated and full of feeling. I was particularly struck by the slower tunes on the record -- "North Dakota", "She's Already Made Up Her Mind", "Baltimore", and "Family Reserve" blew me away.

"North Dakota" is perhaps the best on the record. The shards of piano, Rickie Lee Jones singing. The wide open space. The heartbreaking lyrics.


I suppose it is country -- that's the genre you'll find Lovett filed under. He sings with a mild drawl, his writing has some "country" tropes, and his instrumentation (acoustic and electric guitar, piano, bass, drums) and note choice move him into that territory. But a few tweaks and he could be a folk artist. It's certainly not Toby Keith or whatever your avatar of Stetson-hatted, boot-wearin', ass-kickin', y'all-hollerin' "country" is.

This album reminded me that great art comes in all genres, and that we often benefit from approaching art with no expectations and an open mind and heart.

I haven't really liked any of his other records that I heard, but I still love this one.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Albums of Influence: Kiko by Los Lobos

Every once in a while, I hear a record that immediately grabs me and demands my attention. This happened recently with Low's "Double Negative". It also happened with Los Lobos' "Kiko".

Los Lobos had been around for a while. They'd attracted some attention with their breakthrough 1984 album "How Will the Wolf Survive?", and sold a pile of records with their cover of "La Bamba" for the soundtrack of the movie with the same name.

Los Lobos are a great, solid band, but they never made much of an impression on me. Then, in 1992, I heard "Kiko And The Lavender Moon" and saw the video on MTV. Back then, it was still relevant, and a purveyor of next big things.


The song was well-written, but what really sold it for me was the dramatic, stylized production. This wasn't what one expected from a roots-rock band like Los Lobos, who seemed to pride themselves on a certain kind of authenticity. 

I read a few more glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and Spin, and picked up a copy from Tower Records on Sunset. 

Almost from the first note, the album held my attention. The songs ranged from solid to good to great, and the production was just wild enough to spice things up without overwhelming them.

"Kiko" showed me that bands I don't love can make albums I do love, and that creative production can lift songwriting and performance to another level, particularly when the material or artist is otherwise solidly in a particular genre.

MItchell Froom (producer) and Tchad Blake (engineer on the weird tracks) are largely responsible for the compelling and fresh sound of the record. 
Froom and Blake had something of a moment in the 90s, working as a team for most of that decade. They worked on a pile of records by great artists, including Suzanne Vega's stellar "99.9" album (which nearly made this year's round of albums), which David Hidalgo of Los Lobos contributed electric guitar to. 

Like Los Lobos, Vega was an otherwise fairly traditional artist with good songs but whose traditional approach kept her work from really standing out. Froom was Vega's husband from 1995 - 1998. 

Froom and Blake got something of a reputation for being the guys with the weird, fucked-up sounds, which of course they resented, fought, and ultimately embraced. Froom, Blake, and a couple of the Lobos started an "experimental roots collective" called "Latin Playboys" that made a few records.

When I hear this record, I think of holidays in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It remains fresh-sounding, with its effortless roots grooves shading into acoustic balladry. For something occasionally strange and distressed-sounding, it is surprisingly easy to listen to. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Albums of Influence: My Brother Thinks He's a Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children by Barry Louis Polisar

Before YouTube, Pixar movies, and other oceans of content designed to engage kids, parents resorted to records.

My parents brought Barry Louis Polisar's record "My Brother Thinks He's A Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children" home for me in 1977, not long after it was released. A precocious child of single-digit age, I was both allergic and resistant to "entertainment for kids", because it was pandering, stupid garbage. And like many kids, I was also immediately suspicious of anything my parents suggested I might like.

But I always wanted a new record, and there was something about the album cover that intrigued me. The design was simple, but had a vibe I would later know as "underground" or "indie". The title was already more complex and literate than you might expect from a "kid's record". A stark black and white photo of a friendly, hippy-ish looking guy, holding a fruit bowl with a banana in it. His somewhat sardonic grin made me want to hear these "provocative songs".
The original album cover

I was not disappointed. Barry's songs were catchy. I haven't listened to them in decades, but I can still sing the hooks of many of them. Barry's songs were also smart and clever. The title track name-checks the Bhagavad Gita, for example (which naturally prompted me to track down a copy from the local public library and read it). There's a song on the record called "For my Sister, Wherever I May Find Her", which brought a knowing smile to my Simon and Garfunkel-loving Dad's face. 

Another of his songs about "child solidarity" ("Marching Shoulder To Shoulder", from "Naughty Songs for Boys And Girls") asserts the movement "won't trust anybody who is over thirteen", a hilarious take on Jack Weinberg's statement "don't trust anybody over thirty". 

Some of his work shades a little dark, but that works for kids (see also:  John Mulaney's "Sack Lunch Bunch"). 

I managed to get my parents to buy me Barry's other records ("Naughty Songs For Boys and Girls" and "I Eat Kids and Other Songs for Rebellious Children"). I wrote Barry fan mail. I asked him to come and play my grade school. 

And he did! Somehow my school got in touch with him, or vice versa, and there was an assembly where he came and played songs for the whole school, just him and his guitar, playing for a legion of kids sitting cross-legged on the floor. My first concert, I suppose. Seeing someone hold an entire school of fidgety kids rapt was transformative. 

Most of Barry's albums also had one really sweet song. For "...Banana", it was a song called "All I Want Is You". This would turn up years later as the stunning opener for the movie "Juno", and allowed me the ultimate hipster cred of claiming that I was into him before anyone, and that I had original vinyl, AND that I had seen him live. When my cousin Claire asked me to play a song at her wedding, I chose "All I Want Is You".

With the hindsight of many decades, I can see how this album and Barry's other work affected my life. He wrote and sang his own material, and performed. 

Barry's songs are also playfully subversive. In a recent Facebook post, he noted:

...Sesame Street asked me to write three songs for an album they wanted to release of songs from a kids perspective.  I remember reviewing my early drafts with them and they had words like “molotov cocktails” and “kids liberation front” circled in red marker with exclamation points and question marks. They quickly realized my ideas were a little too weird and they dropped the project. 

(Eventually Sesame Street did use some of his other material)

He was too radical for Sesame Street (and, perhaps, for the mainstream). Smart, literate, clever. Hooky. And totally independent, making and releasing these records himself. Getting his message out, one school at a time. D.I.Y. personified. And kinda punk rock, in his own way. Pete Seeger for kids.

The world eventually caught up, and Barry has won Grammys and Emmys. He's played some big venues, including The White House, The Smithsonian, and The Kennedy Center. A few years back, he was the subject of a double-album tribute CD -- all those musical seeds he planted over the decades have sprouted.

Barry still lives in Maryland. He is still performing for kids (and adults), still writing songs, and still making records. He is one of the nicest people I have ever written to. He remains an inspiration. I hope to write songs as pure and beautiful as his some day. 

I hope to be like him when I grow up.

Thank you for the music, Barry. 

***

Barry Louis Polisar's music is available on all the big streaming services and download stores. You can also stream them all at his website, read his lyrics, watch episodes of his TV show, and read his books.

If you have kids old enough to listen to music but young enough that they'll still listen to YOU, they should be exposed to the music of Barry Louis Polisar as soon as possible.

"My Brother Thinks He's A Banana"



"All I Want Is You"

***

[Author's Note: About 2 years ago, I was tagged in one of those Facebook posts to share some albums that had affected me. This week, I was tagged again by 2 different people. Given the oceans of time the CoVID-19 pandemic has given us, I thought i would write about some more records that mattered to me.

I am trying to choose interesting and non-obvious records. I hope these are surprising and enlightening for you to read.]