Put On Some Silver

Because I’m sending these year-end CDs to Wales, my listening year runs November to October, giving me time to assemble and mail a mix in time for Christmas. This year, that meant I’d done most of the assembly work during the first week of November. Shortly after that, you may or may not have heard, the United States held a presidential election. It was a pretty low-key affair — only about 55% of us actually bothered to vote. What’s more, we have this quirky system that gives more power per voter to rural (ahem, whiter) areas of the country than to more diverse urban areas, a system we’ve decided to reinforce by drawing super-crazy boundaries around congressional districts in order to keep them as ideologically homogeneous as possible.

Anyway, when faced with a choice between the most dangerous and least qualified major party nominee, like, ever, and a woman with decades of political experience and a clear, proven track record of working to help vulnerable people with compassionate policies, we of course chose the qualified woman. That is to say, more people voted for her. Like, a couple million more. But, funny thing, she’s not actually going to get to become president, because the couple million extra people who voted for her live in the wrong states. Did I mention we have a quirky system?

Anyway, for people like me who were rooting for the qualified woman to not only win the most votes but also to get elected president, it’s been kind of an emotional time. You know how after you go through a big breakup or suffer some kind of major loss, every single song that comes on the radio seems to gain this halo of extra resonance, to get freighted with a bunch of additional meaning so that it turns out all those songs are about EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUFFERING, who knew? Listening to music was kind of like that for a few weeks in November.

That experience seems to have permanently infiltrated my experience of making this mix, and thus of listening to these songs. So it’s possible these liner notes may feel a bit repetitive for that reason. Oh, and also for the reason that a bunch of these songs have already been written about in the context of my ongoing album assignments project. All those messy caveats aside, here’s a mix of songs I was listening to in 2016, and a few thoughts about each one.

1. Taylor SwiftClean
This was the year I got around to 1989. The Taylor Swift album, I mean. I’d never been drawn to her stuff too much previously, though she did always seem to me like the real thing, a talented singer-songwriter who was committed to a musical life, rather than being a video pop tart. But the country idiom isn’t a natural one for me, so I never sought her out until I heard the infectious and addictive “Shake It Off.” (And stay tuned for that one.) A few singles into this album and I knew it was for me. I wasn’t wrong, either — I love the whole thing, and this track is especially compelling to me. It’s a collaboration between TS and Imogen Heap, who herself vaulted onto my list after this. Her album is on the docket for next year. “Clean” is a relationship song, clearly, but heard in the November context it was how I was hoping to feel on the 9th. That didn’t work out.

2. Jefferson AirplaneEmbryonic Journey
As I wrote in my review of Surrealistic Pillow, I think this is my favorite rock instrumental of all time. I find it absolutely transcendent, in a way that defies encapsulation in language. Maybe that’s part of the definition of “transcendent.”

3. Joni MitchellCarey
Blue was an assigned album this year, and listening to it I was struck anew at just how gorgeous it is. Every note sounds so pure and right. Every song feels on par with all the others, so picking a song from it was a bit arbitrary. “Carey”, though, feels emblematic of the album, musically joyful and lyrically both aching and celebratory. I love the bohemian images, and the feel of reveling in the sweetness of life just as we still revel in the sweetness of this album. The lyric “put on some silver” makes me think of making the choice to embrace life and happiness even in dark times. It seemed a fitting title for this collection.

4. Fountains Of WayneAction Hero
After getting to know FoW last year, I dove deeper this year, branching into some other albums, including their (presumably final) entry from 2011, Sky Full Of Holes. It’s a typically great collection, but for me this song stands above most of the rest. There’s the usual lyrical cleverness, stringing together rhyme chains like “tests”, “chest”, “best”, “guess”, “rest”, and “stress”, with an internal rhyme of “suggest” thrown in there as a flourish. But the moment that gives me goosebumps everytime is after the second chorus, when the music swells underneath “and he’s racing against time.” Where the action hero metaphor starts out comical, with the man serving as a bit of a punchline, by the end of the second chorus his true heroism reveals itself to us, reflecting upon us the way we’re all racing against time.

5. The LumineersSubmarines
On a musical level, I find this song hypnotic. The way it switches time signatures back and forth keeps me wonderfully off-balance, and the mix of instrumental voices is a pleasure — strong piano, subtle cello, stomps and snares for percussion. Lyrically, it’s about seeing a danger coming that nobody else believes. I can imagine there were a few who could relate to that feeling recently. I wasn’t one of them, though — I’m not sure whether I wish I’d seen it coming or not. That’s a bit like the old philosophical question about knowing the time and manner of your own death.

6. The MotelsSuddenly Last Summer
I think The Motels are one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s. I love Martha Davis’ voice, and her writing often has a mysterious, evocative quality, hinting at truths greater than the words can capture. This song is a perfect example — I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but you can’t miss the the yearning, regret, and pain in the music. It always makes me think of how some incident can change your life completely in an instant, branching you into a future very different from the one you expected. For me, the words “one summer never ends, one summer never begins” are about that inflection point.

7. Bob DylanPositively 4th Street
I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan this year. The subtitle of this mix may as well be “Hope Ya Like Dylan!” He’ll be showing up frequently in this list. This song is one of the best kiss-off tunes of all time. In Dylan’s context, I think it’s about the false friends he had in the Greenwich Village folk community, people who pretended to love him but were in fact jealous of his success and ready to undermine him at any turn. (At least, from his perception — no doubt there are many sides to that story.) In the 2016 context, it’s about seeing through bullshit, something we’ve all had to become well acquainted with.

8. Peter GabrielLovetown
Here’s a little-known Peter Gabriel track, from the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Philadelphia. Like many of the soundtrack’s songs, it’s an interpretation of the tone of the movie — a complement to Neil Young’s “city of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?” Gabriel’s song is more subtle, more translucent than transparent. But that’s where I think its power resides. It brims with powerful images, like “do those teeth still match the wound” and the corresponding “whose lonely lips will find these hidden scars?” I listened to that soundtrack this year, and even though I love most of the other songs on it, this one felt the richest and the deepest to me.

9. The Velvet Underground & NicoVenus In Furs
As I wrote, this is the song that captivated me most when I listened to the VU’s debut album on assignment this year. It illuminates an unusual relationship to suffering — pain as release, pain as freedom, pain as comfort. It’s not my path — as Armatrading said, “It’s their way of loving, not mine.” But I’ve learned about it from friends, and come to see it as another aspect of diversity, and possibly even a different approach to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s a brilliant purple candle flame in a darkened room, casting weird shadows on the wall but nevertheless an irresistible cynosure.

10. Bob DylanUp To Me
Oh, “Up To Me.” The way these mixes come about is that as I go through the year of music listening, I keep throwing standout tracks into a playlist, and then I pick from that group when November comes around. There are always more songs than would fit on a single CD, so some culling is necessary, and that’s all to the good. Some songs, though, I mark as sure keepers, that will make the mix no matter what else doesn’t. This is one of those songs. I found it on the third disc of Dylan’s 1985 box set Biograph. I listen to music mostly during my commute, and when a song particularly catches my interest, I repeat it. And when it obsesses me, I repeat it until I’ve learned it. That’s what happened to me with this song, which is every bit as good as anything from Blood On The Tracks, one of my favorite Dylan incarnations. It feels like an epic novel to me, but condensed down into a series of scenes that indelibly carve the runes of friendship, regret, responsibility, loyalty, and memory.

11. Stevie NicksSisters Of The Moon (demo)
There was a period, probably about a decade ago, where conditions in my life and conditions on the Internet were ripe for gathering lots and lots of Stevie bootlegs. People had web sites up where they’d feature some collection of mp3s for a week, then take those down and put up a whole new set, week after week, site after site. Some of this stuff gets pretty repetitive — how many fan-taped shows from the 2002-03 Fleetwood Mac tour does one person need? (Answer: a combination of “the best quality one” and “the one from early in the tour where they hadn’t dropped the rare songs yet.”) But there’s one collection that stands as my favorite. It was labeled “Gems” by whoever put it up, and the description is apt. It’s piano demos, mostly young Stevie singing by herself, accompanying herself, doing versions of her songs from when they were freshly written. Of that collection, this one is my favorite, an acoustic “Sisters Of The Moon” before it became a Fleetwood Mac powerhouse, when it was just a spooky, hushed, mystical gauze draped over a Tiffany lamp.

12. Buckingham NicksCrying In The Night
When I saw her on October 27th, Stevie’s set was full of surprises, but none more surprising than this one. This is the opening track from the Buckingham Nicks album, the one she and Lindsey released before they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. This album isn’t even available to buy — it’s been out of print since a few months after it was released in 1973, and has never even come out on CD. (At least, not in a version released by any record company.) I never, ever expected to hear it live, and it was a huge thrill. Maybe that means we’ll see a disc one of these years? We keep hoping.

13. The PretendersStop Your Sobbing
Yes, The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks are side by side in this mix because they were side by side in concert. And yes, pairing “Crying In The Night” with “Stop Your Sobbing” was no accident. But I’d likely select this song even without the thematic connection, because Chrissie’s performance on it was her fiercest of the night. Yeah, it’s a Kinks cover, but for me this is a Pretenders song through and through, and one of the best. This month, it also represents what to do next.

14. The PoliceTruth Hits Everybody
Now here’s a song that resonated in November. I’d just assigned Outlandos d’Amour the month before, and rediscovered the furious allure of The Police as a young band, especially Stewart Copeland. Now, listening back to the music I’d selected from the year, this song jumped out at me and took me by the throat. Reality has seldom felt so merciless.

15. Bob DylanTombstone Blues
Here’s another version of merciless truth, one flooded with metaphor and cloaked in symbol, but the chorus is pretty plainspoken: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food / I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.” Sure, there’s Belle Starr and John the Baptist and Galileo and Gypsy Davey and on and on, but at its heart this song is about poverty, desperation, and death. It turns out those are powerful forces that, in a democracy, can be harnessed and pointed at a target. Sometimes, the target is even the people themselves, though they only find that out later.

16. Jenny Lewis with the Watson TwinsThe Big Guns
The commander-in-chief says, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry.” Okay, I’m still on the previous song, but it connects right up. This Jenny Lewis solo album is much closer to the parts of Rilo Kiley that I love than was the actual last Rilo Kiley album. This track was a standout when I listened to it months ago, but it really jumped up when I was putting the mix together. “I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody.” Some people just love the big guns, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from them soon. Not that the last 8 years were some peaceful haven — we’re still in some kind of 1984 state of constant war — but it was directionally correct, and we’re about to lose that, I think.

17. HeartGoodbye Blue Sky (live)
Which leads right into this. I think it’s very hard to cover Pink Floyd successfully — I’ve not even heard that many people try. But I absolutely adore this version of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” It comes from a Heart live album in which they play the entirety of Dreamboat Annie, and then go on to cover some of the other people’s songs they loved from that period. The original of this is fantastically sinister, but the Ann Wilson treatment just launches it into the stratosphere, no unsettling reference intended. The incredible sense of menace and power fit my November mood perfectly.

18. ColdplayAmsterdam
The turning point. This song captivated me when I listened to A Rush Of Blood To The Head on assignment. I connected with it emotionally far more than any other song on the album. To me, this song is about being in the deep well of despair, for a time that feels it will stretch into eternity, and then finally seeing a shaft of sunlight break through. Right at 3:57, the song absolutely takes off, and the feeling changes from hopelessness to freedom. I’ve been through this once already. In 2004, I gave up on us in disgust, only to witness what felt like a miracle in 2008. This time, I’m not giving up — we just have to keep climbing until we get to that sunlight.

19. Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’
This song was first played on October 26, 1963. Less than a month later, and before the song was released on an album, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, giving the clarion words an entirely different cast. Yet when we hear it now, it signals all the good changes that came out of that painful decade. The words, though, can play either as hopeful or foreboding, or maybe both at the same time. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” That’s where we are. But the change doesn’t stop, and we can be a part of it.

20. Taylor SwiftShake It Off
So here we are. I started with a wish to be clean, but it’s a dirty time that lies ahead. But I can’t stay mud-encrusted. As much as I can, I have to rise above, and the only way I know to do that is to connect with human joy. This song crystallizes that for me. Haters gonna hate, and that’s not something we can change. What can we do? Shake, shake, shake it off. 🙂 And look forward to 2017, despite everything.

Happy New Year.

Stevie Nicks and The Pretenders in Denver, 10/27/2016

I saw my first Stevie Nicks concert 30 years ago, when I was 16. Since then, I’ve seen her every time she’s come to Denver, either solo or with Fleetwood Mac, and even gone to a few out-of-state shows. And I’ve had a wonderful time, every time. But if I had any criticisms, they would be these. First, Stevie’s opening acts tend to range from “okay” to “ugh.” On the “okay” end — Chris Isaak, Boz Scaggs, Peter Frampton. On the “ugh” end — Billy Falcon, Venice, Darden Smith.

Second, Stevie’s set list is almost always very safe, and very samey. She’ll open up with “Outside The Rain”, segueing into “Dreams.” She’ll play “Stand Back”, “Gold Dust Woman”, “Rhiannon”, and some songs from whatever album she’s promoting. She’ll end the show proper with “Edge Of Seventeen”, and finish her encore with “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?”. She has a repertoire of other songs that regularly show up in sets — “I Need To Know”, “Beauty And The Beast”, “Landslide” — and a catalog full of many, many more wonderful songs that she virtually never plays.

Now don’t get me wrong (heh) — I’ve loved every single one of those shows. And predictability has a comforting quality of its own. But I’ve frequently longed for Stevie to take a page from the book of more adventurous artists, like Bruce Springsteen, Tori Amos, or the Indigo Girls, who surprise fans nightly with rarities and deep cuts interspersing the hits.

Well, I got my wish this year. Early in the show, Stevie said, “This is not going to be your typical Stevie Nicks show. In fact, this is going to be the Stevie Nicks show you’ve been wanting for 35 years! Now, 35 years is a long time — you may not remember that you’ve been asking for this show all that time. But you have!” This show lived up to that promise, one hundred percent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me return to my first point, about mediocre opening bands. I could not have been more thrilled when this tour was announced, with the freakin’ PRETENDERS as an opening act! This is a band I’ve seen as a headliner multiple times — they’re one of my favorite artists of all time. Easily in the top 20, probably in the top 10. They didn’t disappoint either. Chrissie Hynde’s famous bangs are a little greyer, and her frame isn’t whip-thin anymore (having graduated to just “pretty thin”), but she still sounds fantastic.

Chrissie Hynde rocking out
Photo credit: Evan Semón

She strutted out with the latest version of the band, including original drummer Martin Chambers (who’s always a hoot in concert), and opened with the title track from their new album Alone, a rockin’ anthem which declares “Nobody tells me I can’t / Nobody tells me I shant / No one to say “you’re doing it wrong” / I’m at the best, I’m where I belong, alone / I like it, yeah, I like it alone!” This was the first time I’d heard the song, and I loved it. She also played several other good new songs, including their single “Holy Commotion”, which she introduced as “all over the radio in Europe… and that’s a total fuckin’ lie. But it will be!”

The band also played plenty of hits — “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, “I’ll Stand By You”, “My City Was Gone”, “Brass In Pocket”, and a particularly fierce “Stop Your Sobbing.” There were some lesser-known catalog tracks too, like “Private Life”, “Mystery Achievement”, and “Hymn To Her.” Oh, and “Tattooed Love Boys”, which I’ll never hear the same way again after having read the backstory about it in her autobiography. I won’t recount that here, because it’s… disturbing.

Anyway, they finished with an exhilirating “Middle Of The Road” before ceding the stage with a promise that “the Elizabeth Taylor of rock” awaited us. Their set would have made for an excellent evening on its own, but instead, I still had a whole Stevie Nicks concert to look forward to! Amazing.

So after the appropriate inter-artist interval, Stevie came out with her band, opening the show with… not “Outside The Rain”. In fact, amazingly, not any song from any released album, but rather the Bella Donna outtake “Gold And Braid”! Right then, I knew this was going to be a special show. Stevie had played “Gold And Braid” on one other tour, the 1998 tour promoting her box set, Enchanted. Up until this year, that was my favorite tour of hers, because she gave herself permission to play some more obscure songs that appeared on the box set, songs like “Gold And Braid”, “After The Glitter Fades”, and “Garbo”, which I never thought I’d hear in concert.

Opening with “Gold And Braid,” though, hearkened all the way back to the only other time she’d played it, on her very first tour in 1981, when she only had one album’s worth of solo material to even play. There’s a famous (among fans) recording of her dad introducing the last night of that tour, and the band kicking into “Gold And Braid.” It’s a funky, soulful number with tons of energy and drama, and she absolutely sold it, then and now.

From there it was “If Anyone Falls”, a seldom-played song for having been a Top 20 hit, and one I absolutely love. Speaking of hits, the next song was “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, originally a duet with Tom Petty but when she (occasionally) plays it in concert, she duets with her guitarist Waddy Wachtel. Except this time, here came from the back of the stage… Chrissie Hynde! In a bright orange Denver Broncos t-shirt, no less. It was an incredible thrill to hear two of my favorite singers duet on such an iconic song. Chrissie makes a hell of a Tom Petty substitute, and Stevie seemed to feel the same way, saying afterward, “You don’t often get to do something that cool.” She also mentioned that Chrissie scared her, because she was expecting the typical black clothes, and when this orange sight started approaching she thought, “They’re sending the wrong person out here!” Heh.

Stevie and Chrissie dueting
Photo credit: Evan Semón

It was about then that she made the “not your typical Steve Nicks concert” comment, and I was believing it. She said she was going to sing some songs that were meant for earlier albums, like “Gold And Braid”, but which she pulled because she didn’t like the production, or the way the song turned out at the time, or some other factor. That led into another fabulous Bella Donna outtake, a song called “Belle Fleur”, which she finally recorded for her 2014 collection 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault. We’d moved from “seldom heard in concert” songs to “never heard in concert” songs, and I was over the moon.

I was also starting to figure out what was going on. See, Stevie never toured on 24 Karat Gold — in fact, she released it on the very same day that Fleetwood Mac kicked off a yearlong tour. So these shows were the long-delayed tour for that album, meaning that we could expect to hear several more outtakes and demo tunes, since those were the backbone of the album. Not only that, she’d just released reissued deluxe versions of Bella Donna and The Wild Heart, stuffed with their own loads of demos and outtakes. No wonder this would be the show we’d been awaiting for 35 years! (Or 30 years in my case, since I was only 11 when she started touring solo. 🙂 )

It was at this point in the show that Stevie played the “Outside The Rain”/”Dreams” combo — a return to familiarity that was itself a surprise due to its unexpected placement. Then came one of the absolute high points, another never-before-played song: the title track to The Wild Heart. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, but I never expected to hear it in concert, given that she didn’t even play it when she was promoting the album. It’s an epic song, with an epic high note at the end, and perhaps she never played it because she wanted to avoid singing that note night after night. Well, she figured out a way to do it — the band truncated the song before it got to that climactic section, clicking immediately into the title track from Bella Donna, a song she hasn’t done since 1981. I was a little disappointed that the big finish was missing, but hearing these two super-rare title tracks back to back more than made up for that.

I’ve been going through the show song-by-song, but if I keep doing that, I’m going to run out of superlatives. Those who want to see the full set list can find it at the awesome setlist.fm. I’ll just mention a few more high points:

  • The other major jaw-dropper, and probably the peak of the entire show for me, was when she played “Crying In The Night.” This is the opening track of the still-unreleased-on-CD Buckingham Nicks album, the record she and Lindsey released before joining Fleetwood Mac, the one that Mick Fleetwood heard in the studio when casting about for a new guitar player. Talk about a song from the vault!
  • “Starshine” was another great selection from 24 Karat Gold, an ebullient rocker preceded by a fun story about how she recorded the original demo in Tom Petty’s basement. “You wish you could have been there, I know,” she chuckled.
  • “Enchanted” was another delight, though it doesn’t fall into the same seldom-played bucket as some of the others, at least not recently. The track is from 1983 (The Wild Heart album), but she didn’t play it in concert until 1998. However, since then it’s shown up frequently in set lists.
  • Not everyone knows that Prince wrote the keyboard riff to “Stand Back”, but Stevie drove the point home by projecting a huge photo of him on the screen behind the stage as the song started. Lots more Prince photos followed later during “Edge Of Seventeen”, appropriate for a song about (among other things) grief and death.

The final song, rather than the typical “Has Anyone Ever…”, was a lovely, chiming “Leather And Lace.” There was no Don Henley, and no Chrissie Hynde to substitute for him, but Stevie was magical singing the song by herself. An exquisite end to an enchanted night. All in all, I’d say it was the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.

Stevie losing herself in the music

Wait Another Day

This year’s music mix has a new factor thrown in. Normally these collections are culled from the music I’ve been listening to over the previous year (with “year” being defined as November – October, so I can get the CD mailed to Wales in time for Christmas). That part hasn’t changed, but the new factor is the album assignments game I’ve been playing with Robby over the fall. That’s changed my listening habits, so that a couple of days out of each week are now devoted to a particular album, with the aim of writing about it later. That’s brought in some things that wouldn’t have been in my regular rotation — Elvis Costello and The Clash among them. It also means that some of this stuff I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Of course, that means I may be a bit briefer than usual on some tunes.

1. The Airborne Toxic EventNo More Lonely Nights
Case in point. TATE is now on my “to-do” list after this track, which performs the minor miracle of resurrecting this Give My Regards To Broad Street tune into something subtle and moving.

2. Stevie NicksBelle Fleur
Okay, I just wrote four paragraphs of background about Stevie’s 24 Karat Gold album, then realized that they’re supposed to go in my article about the album itself. Robby doesn’t know it yet (as I write this), but I’m assigning that album to him next.

Meanwhile, a few words about this song. It’s an example of a song that I’ve had in demo form for decades, but never really connected with that much. This re-recording, on the other hand, moves me a lot. To me, it’s a story of love and magic, but not magic love — it’s no ticket to dreamland. What it is, though, is an exchange of stories, and a sharing of lives — you sing to me, and I’ll sing to you.

3. Joe JacksonOde To Joy
Speaking of new albums from old friends, I just saw Joe Jackson in concert in October, touring to support his new record Fast Forward. This was my favorite song he played that night, and my favorite from the new CD. I love its wholehearted embrace of joy, joy as a pure experience unfettered by the material and phenomenological planes. The New Yorker did a wonderful profile of Joe, and one of my favorite parts of that is this quote:

Some of my early stuff was infected by the deadly disease of cynicism, which is a disease of the young, I think. When you’re young, it seems very clever to be cynical. But as you get older, hopefully, if you’re not completely stupid, you realize that you have to be a bit more positive, as a simple matter of survival.

I happened to listen to this album right before reviewing Don Henley’s Cass County, and Joe’s optimism is a lovely contrast to some the harshness on display there. And being Joe, he cleverly quotes Beethoven in the bargain.

4. Elvis CostelloMystery Dance
I wonder if the kind of world that could produce this song is gone forever. Can sex still be mysterious when so much information about it is so easily retrieved? Sure, there’s a world of difference between reading about something and doing it, and lots of what’s out there could warp a kid’s perceptions and blur the difference between fantasy and reality, but there was a time in living memory when you could try and try and still be mystified. Does that happen anymore?

5. The ClashDeath Or Glory
I can hardly say more about this than I did in my London Calling post. Suffice it to say that I put it on repeat in my car for a day, and never got sick of it. And I drive a lot! It’s as energizing the 20th time as it was the first.

6. Fleetwood MacSongbird (live)
This last year was a special one for Fleetwood Mac fans, because we saw something we never thought we’d see again: Chrstine McVie touring with the band. I actually saw them in December 2014 *and* April 2015, which is why there are two songs from the set list on this CD. In April, she didn’t play “Songbird” — apparently she was dealing with some kind of injury, because it came back to the set later. She played it in December though, and it’s just the most perfect set closer. I never got the chance to see Fleetwood Mac in its prime — my first FM show was the 1987 tour where they replaced Lindsey with two other guitarists, and my first time seeing the classic lineup was in 1997. That was also my last time until now. It was such a joy to hear this song at the end of the show. This recording is from 1977, and was included in the Rumours expanded edition that they released a couple of years ago. [The YouTube clip I linked to above is from a different 1977 show — I couldn’t find the expanded edition one online.]

7. Tori AmosPromise
I’ve been a Tori Amos fan for a long time now, so I was aware that she had a daughter named Tash. But that wasn’t uppermost in my mind while I was listening to her new album Unrepentant Geraldines this year. So when I heard this song, I could tell it was a duet, but I didn’t recognize the other voice — all I could hear was that it was somebody who had a lot on common with Tori vocally. As I listened to the lyrics, discerning that this was a conversation between mother and daughter, I started to wonder, “Could this be Tash?” And sure enough, it is. That realization sent chills through me. Tash was born on 2000, so she was probably 13 when this song was recorded. Given that, it’s a remarkable performance, and as a parent I find the lyrics very moving.

8. Roger McGuinnIf We Never Meet Again
I revisited McGuinn’s album Back From Rio this year — I’ve always liked his twelve-string guitar sound, and this is my favorite of his non-Byrds releases. This time around, “If We Never Meet Again” latched onto me. The tone is just golden, and the message of acceptance for whatever may come sits well with me.

9. Best CoastEach And Everyday
I came across this band on a Fleetwood Mac tribute album done by a bunch of indie groups, called Just Tell Me That You Want Me. There were lots of great covers on that album, but Best Coast’s version of “Rhiannon” really grabbed me, mainly I think because of singer Bethany Cosentino’s voice. So I sought to know more about them and ended up quite enjoying both of their first two albums. (I haven’t got their third yet, but it’s on my wish list.) This is a track from their debut.

10. The ClashThe Card Cheat
There are so many great things about this song, but it has to start with the production. Contrary to what you might expect from a punk band, this song is as well-produced as any pop gem. The ringing piano, valedictory horns, majestic rhythm section — it’s like a classic Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound” record, infused with a cathedral grandeur. Wedding this incredible sound to the tale of a lowlife gambler is like the aural version of a Scorsese film, elevating the dismal criminal world to an operatic level.

11. Paul F. TompkinsKing Hat
My friend Tashi put me onto this comedian, whose records I just adore. Many of his bits have now become part of the conceptual vocabulary in my mind, especially the ones from his most recent album Laboring Under Delusions, which is a concept piece about all the various jobs he’s done in his life. I listened to that album a bunch over this last year, and knew I wanted to include something from it. I had a hard time picking. I went with this one because a) it’s a great showcase for his style, b) it’s a linguistic rant, which I find endearing, and c) it reminds me so much of the stories Laura tells me about her retail-esque experiences at the library. Oh, and because it’s so freakin’ funny, of course.

12. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary LambertSame Love
Here’s another album I spent an awful lot of time with over the last year. I was a bit late to the Macklemore party, but boy The Heist is great. A number of songs from it got thrown into the hopper for this mix, but if I had to pick just one (and, it turned out, I did), it’d be “Same Love.” I so appreciate the personal story flowing into the cultural analysis, and the strong, clear call for hip-hop to stand behind marriage equality. Damn right I support it.

13. Dan WilsonFree Life
Dan Wilson was the lead singer and writer of the 90’s band Semisonic, who were a one-hit wonder with the song “Closing Time.” It’s a shame that they never found greater success, because Wilson is an absolutely brilliant songwriter, who did amazing work with Semisonic and then went on to co-write such killer songs as Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This song is from his 2007 solo debut, and it stands out for me this year because my iPod dialed it up as I was driving back from New Mexico, having just participated in the 2015 Geek Bowl in Albuquerque. It felt so perfect for that specific moment in my life that I put it on repeat a few times, just listening to the music and feeling free.

14. Elton JohnRocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long Long Time)
Sometimes a classic just jumps out and reminds you why it’s a classic. I was listening to Honky Château in the car, and when this song came on I marveled at how intensely gorgeous it is. Plus, it’s a fantastic song to sing along to, which is probably why I sang it over and over on that 45-minute commute.

15. Elliott SmithJunk Bond Trader
I’ve had XO in my collection for a while, and while I enjoy it, I never really imprinted on it. Figure 8, on the other hand, knocked me out. So many great songs on that album — as with Macklemore, there were a bunch in the running and it came down to this one. The lyrics to this are so fantastic — elliptical and evocative, with the occasional razor-sharp one liner, like “Checking into a small reality / Boring as a drug you take too regularly.” What’s it about? I really don’t know. But I sure do dig how it’s about it.

16. Fleetwood MacSisters Of The Moon
This was the highlight of the April 2015 Fleetwood Mac show. It’s always been one of my favorite Stevie songs — I love the power chord progression and the mystical vibe. She can’t hit those high notes any more (the backup singers do it for her), and the cocaine-fueled frenzy that used to characterize live performances of this song is long behind her, but still, it is a powerful, spellbinding incantation, and it lifts me up every time I see it.

17. Florence + The MachineDog Days Are Over
Speaking of powerful. Ceremonials was a big record for me in 2014, so I decided to check out Florence’s debut as well, and I’m glad I did. There’s a reason this song got so famous. I love rock songs with big drums and a big voice like this — they make me feel like I’m flying.

18. Best CoastThe Only Place
Here’s a song from Best Coast’s second album. True to their name, it’s a paean to California, and I have to say they make a pretty good case. Especially for somebody like me who could be perfectly happy never seeing snow again, Southern California seems like a pretty amazing place to live. Oh, except for the earthquakes. And, I guess the mudslides. And the forest fires. And how expensive everything is. But other than that, aces!

19. Fountains Of WayneBright Future In Sales
One final showcase from another album I really got into in 2014. My friend Trish has been a huge FoW fan for ages, and always told me I should check them out. You know how it is with that kind of thing, though — I’d always think, “Yeah, I should,” and then go listen to something I already know. That’s the beauty of the wishlist, though. I can just tag something based on a passing thought, and then some angel will bring it into my life, where I can give it the attention it deserves. This album, Welcome Interstate Managers, dominated my car for about 3 weeks, and I got to love each and every song on it. There were a bunch to choose from, but this one does a great job of encapsulating the humor, the characterization, the storytelling, and the awesome power pop slam that Fountains Of Wayne brings to its music.

Scattered Thoughts From a Fleetwood Mac Concert

I saw Fleetwood Mac in Denver on Wednesday night, April 1. It was actually their second Denver stop on the same tour. This is the “On With The Show” tour, in which Christine McVie has rejoined the group and is touring with them again, something I never thought I’d see happen. They came here initially in December, and the cool thing about them coming back just 4 months later is that demand was greatly attenuated by the first show, and consequently I was able to get much better tickets — 10th row!

Now, normally at a concert I’m pretty absorbed by the music, but even so there’s some part of my head that occasionally perks up and writes out a little post, live-tweeting its comments back to me. Here are some of the things it had to say this time:

  • Before the show — somebody behind me just said, “Oh my god these seats are so close! THIS IS THE GREATEST DAY OF MY LIFE!” Heh. It feels pretty good when somebody behind you is super-excited about their seats.
  • I’ve had this thought at pretty much every Fleetwood Mac show for the last 20 years: I can’t believe these guys are still doing this and still sound so good.
  • Christine, until you came back, I never realized just how much I’d missed you.
  • This is the exact same show I saw in December, and not just the same set list, but the very same between-songs patter.
  • Lady to my right: No matter how many times you insist to your two friends that they are about to start “Black Magic Woman”, they are never about to start “Black Magic Woman”, and they never will be about to start “Black Magic Woman.”
  • There are all these graphics that show up behind the different songs, and I don’t object to them. In fact, some of them (like the ones for “Rhiannon” and “Tusk”) I quite like. But the giant Lindsey-head that floats above the group during “I Know I’m Not Wrong” is both super-weird and super-freaky.
  • Lindsey's floating head
    Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz!

  • Okay, man and two women to my right. Think about this. In the middle of a huge arena, with a rock and roll band playing fifty feet away from you, has got to be one of the hardest places in all of Denver at this moment to carry on a conversation. And yet, you persist in trying to have one, which means you are SCREAMING at each other through many songs. Did you seriously pay gobs of money to do this? Wouldn’t you be more comfortable outside?
  • GOD I love hearing “Sisters Of The Moon”. Even though Stevie can’t hit the high note on it anymore, it is still so good.
  • And now: Deep Thoughts, with Lindsey Buckingham.
  • Oh my god you three to my right! It was one thing when you were shouting shit to each other during “Everywhere”, but do you have to do it during the quietest moments of “Landslide” and “Never Going Back Again”? I feel like saying to you, “Hey, I’m having trouble hearing you over the music, can you speak up?” But because I do not want to get into a conflict and thereby miss even more of the show, I will just seethe over here and write nasty things in my head about you.
  • Stevie tells a story before “Gypsy” that is way longer than anything Lindsey says, but while I’m tired of hearing Lindsey talk before he’s even done, I could hear Stevie tell this same story over and over again and still be rapt. I know, because this is the second time I’ve heard it, and I love it just as much as the first time. Plus, afterward she sings “Gypsy”!
  • Christine: Still Perfect. Stevie: Still Spellbinding. Lindsey: Still Soloing.
  • Oh, I see, lady to my right. You meant “Gold Dust Woman” the entire time. While I will grant you that they are both Fleetwood Mac songs, they are so not at all the same song. Plus, I’ll bet you don’t even know that “Black Magic Woman” started out as a Fleetwood Mac song.
  • The thing Stevie does on this tour during “Gold Dust Woman”, where it is as if she is possessed by all the dysfunction of the worst versions of herself, is so theatrical, so disconcerting, and so awesome.
  • “World Turning”: Hooray! 10-minute session of Mick playing drum solos and grunting into his head-mic: Boo! This is such a buzzkill, and I have never seen Fleetwood Mac leave it out. At least he’s not getting up in front of the stage and tapping electronic drums built into his clothes anymore.
  • Woman in front of me, you have seriously had that Fleetwood Mac tote bag over your shoulder for the entire show. Wow. That is some serious dedication to your pre-show merch purchase.
  • “Don’t Stop” is so much better now that Christine is back.
  • It’s amazing how Stevie and Lindsey can still summon the drama for “Silver Springs”. Boy, it must really suck to have an ex as a lifelong co-worker.
  • Ahhh, final encore. “Songbird.” Except… where’s the baby grand? And why is Mick coming back out? Oh no, he’s launching into his same-as-ever show-closing monologue! But what about “Songbird”? Noooooo!!! Oh man, what an anticlimactic disappointment at the end of a show that actually has Christine in it.

    [I researched this later and learned that they dropped it from the set list about a month ago, and that Christine is thought to be nursing a hand injury. I wonder if she has some kind of repetitive-stress thing? Even so, I wish she would just come out and sing it with Brett Tuggle on piano, but I think that kind of solo spotlight is not her cup of tea.]

Isn’t It Good?

This year’s music mix isn’t nearly so autobiographical as last year’s was. I’m back to making mixes that are just songs I’ve listened to and loved during the year, and I like it just fine that way. Emotional pain, even when you’re emerging from it, makes music feel more meaningful, but it’s a pretty rotten trade-off. I prefer being happy, thank you very much. I certainly don’t love the music any less.

1. The BeatlesEleanor Rigby (Strings Only)
This was a very Beatles-y year for my listening habits. I found that in my job upheaval and subsequent office moves, I’d inadvertently packed away a Beatles A-Z collection my friend Robby had made for me, so I retrieved and listened to those. Besides that, I also dug into the Anthology series for the first time. I’m obviously a Beatles fan, but when those Anthology CDs came out, I wasn’t all that excited about them. They seemed like alternate, inferior versions of the tracks I knew, alongside tracks that didn’t make it onto an album because they weren’t all that good. Recently though, Trish told me they were worth listening to, and since my Beatlemania had been reawakened by the Love show, I decided to put them on my wish list. Now I’ve got them all, and I find that we were both right. There’s a lot of stuff on there that doesn’t excite me, but there are also a number of very cool tracks, and this is one of them. I went to a couple of great lectures this year by a guy named Scott Freiman, a Beatles scholar who does a series called “Deconstructing The Beatles.” He explains everything about the history and behind-the-scenes info of a particular Beatles album, and then plays tracks where he’s pulled apart the different parts of the mix, explaining how the song was put together, talking about earlier “draft” versions, playing sounds in isolation that you’d always heard but never noticed, mapping out how the technology of the time influenced the group’s sound. Super cool. This track reminded me of those lectures — it’s amazing to hear just one part of a Beatles song in isolation, and this one really emphasizes the loveliness of George Martin’s string arrangement. Plus, it makes an excellent backing track for car karaoke. Woo hoo!

2. Arcade FireSprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
It is seemingly becoming a trademark of mine to enthusiastically latch onto a group long after the rest of the world has taken a seat on the bandwagon. This year, it was Arcade Fire. My sister has been trying to get me into them for a some time now, and while I haven’t been hostile, I also just hadn’t put them on my list. That changed when I was preparing questions for a trivia bowl, and decided to do a bonus question on musical mash-ups, where two songs get blended into each other. I found great ones where Madonna merged into the Sex Pistols, or Nirvana into Michael Jackson. I also found this song merged into Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass”. I knew I had to seek out the song on its own. The lyrics grabbed me immediately: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” It also has just a beautiful energy to it, and a great vocal. I found myself listening to this song over and over again, and then doing the same with the whole album. The parenthetical title comes from a book by Tracy Kidder called “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about a physician who fights tuberculosis around the world and who encounters and embodies the Haitian proverb, “Beyond the mountain, there is another mountain.” I relate to that.

3. Indigo GirlsNo Way To Treat A Friend
In the early days of seeing Indigo Girls concerts, they didn’t have very many albums out, so they’d play all kinds of unreleased stuff. Some of this would show up later, and some of it wouldn’t. This was one of the songs I saw them play a couple of times back in the day, but which never made it to a studio album, so I more or less forgot about it. This year, I downloaded some tracks from the amazing Lifeblood site, which included a collection of pre-1989 studio recordings. I rediscovered this song on that collection. I think it’s a gem. Why did they never put it on an album? Maybe Amy was embarrassed about “walking right out of your eyes.”

4. The BeatlesNorwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
This is one pulled from the Beatles A-Z collection. I listened to those CDs at work a lot, and because I was sharing an office with someone, I tended to listen on headphones. That helped me really appreciate the sitar part in this song. I always liked the tune and the words (so sneakily risque for the day), but it’s amazing how headphones can illuminate details in a recording that you just don’t notice or appreciate as much without them. This song is also the source for the title of this year’s collection. I quite like how it expresses appreciation and doubt simultaneously. (Though in the song, I think the contrast is between sincerity and sarcasm.) I want to notice how good things are, even as I remain alert to the ways it can go wrong.

5. U2Silver And Gold (live)
I’d had Rattle And Hum on tape for ages, but burned it to CD for the first time this year. On revisiting the album, this song stood out for me. Not, mind you, because I think it’s the best song on the album, or even the best version of “Silver And Gold” — I prefer the studio B-side. No, it’s all about Bono pausing at the end of a long rant about apartheid to say, “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to BUG YA.” I just love that. It’s so funny to me. I even made it my email signature quote at work for a while.

6. Miles DavisBlue In Green
For the most part, I’m not really a jazz guy. Most of the time, it just makes me think of the Paul F. Tompkins routine about jazz — “It’s just a bunch of dudes playing solos at the same time. It’s like a genre of music that is defying you to like it.” In fact, instrumental music in general I find hard to latch onto. I’m a lyrics guy. (Interestingly, I don’t think of the first track on this CD as instrumental music… because I can hear the voices singing over it even when they’re not there.) However, as part of my ongoing project to obtain on mp3 everything that I currently have on tape, I picked up Kind Of Blue, since a friend of mine had put this track on a mix tape. I liked it. It’s still not anything I’d seek out on my own, but I found that listening to it while driving put me in a calm, meditative state of mind. So long as I was sufficiently caffeinated, that is. Otherwise, it made me kinda sleepy.

7. Pink FloydWhat Shall We Do Now?
My concert-going habits have been drastically curtailed due to the one-two punch of lack of funds and lack of time. However, I did make it a point to see Roger Waters perform The Wall this year. He’d come around with it once before, and seemingly 50% of my co-workers and friends went to it and loved it, whereas I’d blown it off immediately because I’m not a fan of solo Waters. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I bought a “cheap” seat (yeah, like $90) and watched the show from the back of an arena. It was AWESOME. The Wall is one of those albums I listened to over and over again in high school, and Waters pulled it off impeccably, with tons of clever staging approaches, and some very clever updating of the material. He also performed this song, which isn’t on the album (the much shorter “Empty Spaces” is in its place), but is in the movie. I decided after that show that I needed a better version of The Wall on my iPod. I own these crazy 24k gold CDs of it, but ironically their sound is mastered so quiet that whenever a song from them comes up in a random shuffle, it fades into the background unless I notice the lack of music and turn up the volume. So I found a remastered version that is much better, and on top of that ripped the audio from the movie, so now I have two different versions of this great stuff. This one is from the movie.

8. Jonathan Coulton & GLaDOSStill Alive
For Christmas 2011, my friend Tashi gave me a couple of computer games: a game called Portal and its sequel, Portal 2. Now, normally I’m just as late to the gate with computer games as I am with any other kind of entertainment, and this was no exception, at least in part. All my IF friends had raved about Portal when it came out in 2007, but it never even made it into my queue. However Portal 2 came out in April 2011, so for me to play it in January 2012 was amazingly current, for me. Anyway, the plot of Portal is that you’re a test subject running the gauntlet at the whim of a crazy computer named GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain). At first, everything seems legit — you’re even promised cake and a party at the end of your tests. But it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well. You have a “neat gun” — one that doesn’t shoot bullets, but instead can create dimensional warps — portals — that let you travel between different parts of the landscape. The game constructs a bunch of clever puzzles around this mechanic, ending in a climactic scene in which you dismantle GLaDOS (by directing her own weapons at her via the portals) and “throw every piece into a fire.” At the very end of the game, this song plays. It blew my mind when I first heard it. I’d never heard pop music used in a computer game like that, just exactly the way movies sometimes play a new song over the credits to sum up the emotional journey of the story. I thought the song was brilliant, the way it recast the adversarial video game relationship as a failed romance. Plus, it eerily informs you that GLaDOS wasn’t really destroyed, setting up the sequel. I immediately bought the song. It comes on an album called “The Orange Box” (named after the game bundle in which Portal was originally sold), and thus wraps up the colorful section of this CD — silver and gold to blue and green to pink to orange.

9. Arcade FireWe Used To Wait
Here’s another selection from that Arcade Fire album I kept listening to this year. Again, it’s the lyric that grabs me. I love the observation, that slow communication imparted a kind of hope. You could always believe a letter was on its way — something email, facebook, etc. just doesn’t afford. I think we’re still working to understand all the ways in which the Internet changed our lives. I love it, and I would never want it to go away, but I do understand a bit of the nostalgia in this song. I don’t necessarily equate paper with authenticity in the way that it does, but I do believe in patience, despite the constant acceleration of our lives around us.

10. Elton JohnPinball Wizard
I picked up the rerelease of Caribou and listened to it this year. This was one of the bonus tracks. I knew and loved Elton’s Beatles cover (Lucy in the Sky), but I never realized that he’d covered The Who. I adore piano rock, and this is a fantastic slice of it. The arrangement brings in the piano beautifully, and I love the way he works the “I Can’t Explain” riff and chorus into parts of the song. It was also wild to listen to it and hear *new* lyrics, which (at least according to Wikipedia) were written by Townshend. Of course, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I totally should have switched the order of this one and the previous one. “Pinball Wizard” would have continued the game theme from the Portal song, and the sense of bafflement would have transitioned into “We Used To Wait”, which in turn would have fit well with “Your Mother Should Know” in looking backwards. What was I thinking? Oh well.

11. The BeatlesYour Mother Should Know
More Beatles. I’ve always dug this song, partly because it has one of those impeccable McCartney melodies, and partly because I like the idea that even as they were at the top of the world, the group still paid its respects to the music that came before it. It’s funny, too, to hear it as I age and my musical taste gets just a bit more mired in the past, little by little, all the time. I still try to keep up with at least some of what’s new, but as time goes on I’m just out of touch. I have to laugh at myself when Jeopardy! runs a category about current music. I’m a music guy, but I am hilariously CLUELESS on those questions. (Also, based on its sponsors, I surmise that the Jeopardy! audience itself is not exactly a bunch of spring chickens.) I’m not sure if that’s how it has to be, but that seems to be how it is.

12. The ZombiesTime Of The Season
And now, let’s all get up and dance to this song, a hit before I was born. I have always loved “Time Of The Season” (along with the other classic Zombies tune, “She’s Not There.”) The unique rhythm, the breathy vocal, the keyboard part… it’s just so much fun. I’d burned a CD this year of classic rock mishmash, and this is the standout from that collection.

13. Paul SimonSo Beautiful Or So What
I’m a Paul Simon guy, and have been since I was about 8 years old. Amazingly, he is still writing great songs. This one was the title track from his 2011 album, which fell into my 2012 music year due to backups in the queue. The basic message of this song — “life is what you make of it” — is so simple as to be a cliche, but the way he puts it across is just beautiful, grounding it in everyday details like cooking and parenting. Then the chorus lifts into a higher realm of observation, distilling wisdom into quotable rhyme — I especially love the bit about “mistaking value for the price.” And then, unexpectedly, he draws the scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Did that story have a happy ending? Maybe yeah, maybe not.

14. Indigo GirlsGone
Those Indigos. I love how they’re still at it, after all these years. This was another 2011 album that fell into my 2012 music year, partly because I mark the year from November to October. Beauty Queen Sister was a nice return to form after their Christmas album, and it had a number of highlights — “Share The Moon”, “We Get To Feel It All”, the title track, and “Damo”, but I finally settled on this one. I love the romantic feel of it, how you meet your new life and wave your old life goodbye. Also, I have a fond memory of Dante hearing “I’ve seen a million suns go down on this tired town,” and replying, “A million suns? What planet is she on?”

15. The BeatlesGet Back (rooftop version)
Here’s the final Beatles entry in this collection, another entry from the Beatles A-Z collection. Robby and I have been doing this A-Z thing for decades — the first one was a Steive Nicks A-Z he made for me for my 18th birthday, which I thought was one of the most epic gifts ever. One of the fun things we do with these is try to introduce interviews, rarites, and other fun stuff to spice up the collection. This was a great example — I’d never actually had the rooftop version of this song in my collection. I love this song, and I love this version. John’s famously witty topper — “I hope we’ve passed the audition” — ushers in the comedy section of this CD.

16. Flight Of The ConchordsBusiness Time
A few years ago, Trish recommended that I watch season one of HBO’s Flight Of The Conchords show, a comedy built around Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, “New Zealand’s 4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy-folk duo.” She loaned me the DVDs and everything. I loved it, and began the process which eventually landed all their albums in my house. It’s a tough, tough choice to select a favorite from their self-titled album, but I eventually landed on this one. It’s just such a perfect choice to lampoon gettin’-it-on songs by casting one in the context of a long-since-settled domestic partnership. “Then you sort out the recycling — that isn’t part of the foreplay process but it is still very important.” The self-deprecation is dead-on — the song wouldn’t work without it, really. I’ve heard this song dozens of times, and still find it funny.

17. LoverboyWorking For The Weekend
Okay, so this isn’t technically a comedy song. For me, though, it is inextricable from two hilarious images:
1) Mike Reno in his ultra-80s outfit (headband, bandana, leather jacket & pants)
2) Shirtless Chris Farley competing for a Chippendales spot against Patrick Swayze
So it makes me laugh every time. Also, it’s just a totally fun song. I don’t subscribe to the “guilty pleasure” concept — I’m over having shame about the things I like. So it’s just a pleasure. Also, pairing it with “Business Time” pretty much covers the whole week!

18. Stephin MerrittWhat A Fucking Lovely Day!
As I noted a few years ago, when I saw The Magnetic Fields in concert, they played a bunch of songs I’d never heard before, from the various crannies of the Merritt catalog. This is one that just cracked me up, predictably, from the moment I heard the first line. Especially coming from Merritt’s deadpan baritone, it was just so funny. The recording took me a while to track down. It turns out that Merritt wrote the music for a few different theatrical musical adaptations. This one comes from a musical version of a thirteenth-century Chinese play called The Orphan Of Zhao. It’s sung by the cast member from the show, which is too bad, as it loses something without Merritt’s voice, but nevertheless, it’s well worth the 82 seconds it takes up.

19. Steve MartinGrandmother’s Song
Laura and I have evolved a little tradition for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. It’s a two-part gift. First, the honoree gets the day off from childcare (an ironic but still delightfully freeing way to observe the day.) Second, the honoree buys a gift for the partner to give. It saves effort and takes the pressure off the day. So this year, my gift from Laura to me for Father’s Day was a couple of Steve Martin CDs — Wild & Crazy Guy, and Let’s Get Small, from which this track is taken. I had these on vinyl, but never transferred them to tape, so hadn’t listened to them for ages. When I finally did listen to them, I happened to have Dante in the car when this track came on. He was utterly tickled at how this song gets sillier and sillier. He couldn’t wait to come home and play it for Laura. We all sat in front of the computer listening to the song, and he just about burst, waiting for “Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant” to come on. I like sharing all kinds of cultural artifacts with him, but it’s especially fun to share the ones I myself loved as a kid, since it gives me both the pleasure of nostalgia and the joy of watching him experience it for the first time.

20. Stevie WonderSir Duke
We finish with a couple of songs about the joy of music. I said a few years ago that I’d rehabilitated my image of Stevie Wonder, which had been unfortunately maimed by the fact that when I was discovering music, he was all, “I Just Called To Say I Love You, Part-Time Lover!” So this year I got the greatest hits, and started allowing the exuberance of songs that everybody else has already known and loved for ages. It was awfully hard to pick a highlight, but I went with this one just because it so gorgeously exudes a love of music, while encased in an excellent tune of its own. Plus, I just know that one of these days I’m going to ask a trivia question about which musicans he names in the lyrics. (Okay, that day was yesterday.)

21. The ByrdsMr. Tambourine Man
Here’s another love letter to the elevating power of music. Now, I’m a language-oriented person, and I favor lyrics over music. In a contest between this version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan’s original, I would have to favor the original — it just has so many brilliant words that this one leaves out. However, musically, it’s no contest. While Dylan has some mostly monotone strumming and a bit of lead guitar, The Byrds have a *killer* riff, a hypnotic beat, and harmonies as clear and sparkling as diamonds. This is the song that invented folk-rock, and it still sounds good after all these years.

That’s it! At least, until next year.

Ice Slowly Melting

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my annual Christmas traditions with my friends Siân and Kelly, a mix CD of songs I’ve been listening to that year. The songs generally reflect a little something about my life in one way or another, though not perfectly so — sometimes they’re just songs I’ve imprinted on for some reason. The liner notes tradition has continued as well, but I didn’t post the notes from 2010. See, 2010 was a terrible, terrible year. Professionally, it was by far the unhappiest I’d ever been in my job, and personally, my marriage tailspun into a major crisis right at the same time we moved into a new house and my work life was at peak misery. It was very difficult, and painful, and I withdrew from many things and people.

Then came 2011. In January, I started a new job, thank god. I am in a much healthier atmosphere now, and am much, much happier at work. Laura and I finally found the right counselor in the spring, and have healed a lot of things. By the time November rolled around, I had started to emerge from a fair amount of depression, and it was in that mood that I made this year’s CD. I feel really happy with the collection, both as a musical collage and as a reflection of my year.

1. DEAR PRUDENCESiouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie Sioux was always in the back of my mind as somebody I wanted to learn more about, so last year I procured a greatest hits album. I liked it, though I don’t think I’ll go much deeper than that. I quite enjoy her voice, especially on this cover. It was a pretty Beatles-y year for me, so this was a fitting choice for that, but even more so for the lyrics and tone of the song itself. To me, this is about emerging, after being shrouded in protection. That’s pretty much what happened with me this year. I can hardly measure how much better things are now, both at home and at work, compared to this time last year. Not that everything is magically perfect — there’s still a lot of work to do — but the skies are a lot sunnier now.

2. ALL THIS BEAUTYThe Weepies
And what do we see when we come out to play? This was a year of The Weepies for me. They’re a married couple of singer-songwriters, Deb Talan and Steve Tannen, who started out as fans of each other’s solo work, and then literally began to make beautiful music together. Their harmonies are lovely, and their songs are just killer. I absolutely fell in love with their album Hideaway, from which this track is taken. That was the launching pad for my Weepies infatuation, and this was one of the songs that made me want to buy the album. (Thanks to the Internet radio station for bringing them to my attention.) It’s hard to pick just one song from that album, but this one fit my mindset a lot, or at least a part of it. (Lucky for me, there are other Weepies songs to fit other parts. 🙂 It’s about remembering to be amazed — there is so much beauty in this world, and sometimes it’s easier to see it if you close your eyes, then slowly open wide.

3. HERE COMES THE SUNPaul Simon with David Crosby and Graham Nash
Speaking of lovely harmonies. I saw Paul on tour this fall, and he completely surprised me by singing this song as part of his set. It’s such a beautiful song anyway, and it fits his voice perfectly. After a little research, I found that he actually has a long history with the song — he sang it with George on an SNL episode way back in 1976, and various times in his career after that. I’m a lifelong Paul Simon fan, but I had no idea about this connection. It was a high point of the concert for me, and those always find their way to these end-of-year compilations. Not only that, it resonates with one of the most beautiful moments from the Love show I saw this year (more about that later), and perfectly encapsulates the theme of the year. Hence my title. I had a little trouble finding a good recording of him singing it solo, so I went with this one, from the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s 25th anniversary concerts.

4. TRUE FAITHNew Order
Sometimes focus falls on something one year because it belonged to a project from the previous year. So it was with this song. My Christmas gift for my sister in 2010 had a Guns ‘n’ Roses theme, since that’s one of her favorite bands. I decided to follow up on that with her birthday gift (not much of a reach, since her birthday is on New Year’s Eve.) Our tradition is some kind of themed CD as her birthday gift from me, so last year I decided to make her 3 volumes of songs from 1987, the year G+R’s first album came out. I love a lot of the music from that year — it’s probably not coincidental that I was 17 at the time, and just fully embracing music as a part of my identity for the first time. I’m sure plenty of people find much of their favorite music rooted in their late teens. This song appeared on that collection — it’s one of two New Order songs written that year to be bonus tracks on their greatest hits collection Substance. I find the music both hypnotic and uplifting, and the lyrics fit in well with the previous song — “my morning sun is a drug that brings me here.”

5. SECRET LOVEStevie Nicks
Why yes, Stevie Nicks did come out with a new album this year! 🙂 In Your Dreams was her first release in 10 years, and I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone that several songs from it would appear on this compilation. This one was the advance single, and the record company offered a download of it with pre-orders of the album. It’s based an a demo I’d been listening to for years. Stevie has tons and tons of these unrecorded demos that have circulated amongst fans forever, and it’s an incredible thrill when she finishes one up with a proper studio version and releases it. Sometimes these actually turn out to be a little less satisfying than the demo — a couple of songs from the 2003 Fleetwood Mac album are like that — but often they are wonderful realizations of a rough outline. That was the case with this song. I got a full-body rush when listening to it for the first time. I think Dave Stewart does a fantastic job of production, Stevie’s vocals sound great, and it got me very excited for the album.

6. MOONLIGHT (A VAMPIRE’S DREAM)Stevie Nicks
Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, and one of the standouts from her wonderful concert this summer. Again it’s based on a demo, but in a peculiar way. The demo that fans have been calling “Lady From The Mountain” has the beginning verses and piano part, but the more driving music that kicks in on the lyric “Strange, she runs with the one she can’t keep up with” is all new. Apparently Stevie was inspired by the first Twilight movie — she says it reminded her of an experience she had, though she coyly never reveals what that was. I’ve never read or seen any Twilight anything. All I know is that this song charges me full of energy every time I hear it. I love what it does with “Lady From The Mountain”, marrying its fragility to a smooth, powerful backbone.

7. GERM FREE ADOLESCENTSX-Ray Spex
This song begins what I think of as the “Thank You Siân” section — all artists I’ve learned to love because of her influence. Laura was friends with Siân first — they were in CU‘s English Literature PhD program together. That’s how I met Laura too, except that I was doing my M.A. Siân wrote her dissertation on punk rock. I remember her telling me about X-Ray Spex back when she lived in Colorado — in fact, now that I look at the dissertation, its very title is an X-Ray Spex reference. So I filed that away but rarely thought of it again until she mailed me a couple of CDs of punk songs from the Sunday Times. This song appeared on that CD, and I liked it enough to seek out a compilation. The songs in that collection made X-Ray Spex one of my favorite punk bands — “Identity”, “Art-I-Ficial”, “I Am A Cliche”, “Let’s Submerge”, “Age”… I’ll stop before I list out all their songs. They’re all great, but this was the one that lit the way, and there’s still something special about it.

8. SHOOT THE MOONHugh Blumenfeld
Yeah, here’s another guy I wouldn’t be listening to if not for Siân. Hugh is actually a friend of hers, and she’s put various songs of his on mixes she’s made for me over the years, and I eventually became a fan. She and Kelly visited us in August of 2010, and she brought me four of his CDs at that time. My backlog being what it is, I ended up listening to them in November, which marks the beginning of this music-listening year for me. There were many songs I enjoyed from those CDs — I picked this one both because it reminded me of Dante and because it happened to have a wonderful resonance with another much-loved song from another much-loved Siân Mile artist…

9. THE SPACE RACE IS OVERBilly Bragg
I think Bragg is Siân’s favorite artist overall, and another one I adopted because she passed some of his best stuff along to me. I’ve been buying more things in MP3 form in the past few years, to feed and fill the iPod’s sacred shuffle, but that’s meant that I don’t listen to them as closely as I do my CDs. Therefore, I periodically burn a batch to CD, and so it was with one CD from a Billy Bragg box set I’d downloaded a couple of years ago. It’s a fine collection — some songs I knew and liked because Siân had included them on various compilations, while others I heard for the first time and learned to love on my own. This was one of the latter. I think my jaw literally dropped when I heard him sing, “I watched the Eagle landing on a night when the moon was full / And as it tugged at the tides I knew that deep inside / I too could feel its pull.” What an incredibly gorgeous lyric. I love the way this song summons an elegiac and wistful tone for the bright future that might have been. I think it’s better than the Blumenfeld song, though that’s hardly a fair comparison, and they do pair so nicely.

10. PICTURE WINDOWBen Folds and Nick Hornby
This is from the album Lonely Avenue, in which Ben Folds and Nick Hornby do their version of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin partnership — Hornby wrote the lyrics and Folds wrote and performed all the music. It is a gorgeous album, and while it’s hard to pick a favorite song on it, this one emerged from the pack for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s just heart-rendingly poignant; it’s easily the most moving song on the record. Second, it reminds me strongly of an experience that made a major impression on me this year. A very close friend of mine went through a horrible hospital experience this summer — her 12-year-old son went into the hospital as a result of multiple health issues crashing into each other. I visited them frequently during this period — her son loves comics and music, so I was able to relate to him and bring him some things to make him happy in that difficult hospital environment. I watched him suffer awful, awful mental and physical anguish, and I watched her agonize every day over him, playing the very difficult role of protector and intermediary between him and the institutional realities. There was a series of horrible situations produced by a combination of organizational dysfunction, misjudgements, parental personalities, and the nature of his issues, which weren’t easily pigeonholed. After several weeks of hell, he finally got some treatment that, although rather invasive, began to turn things around. They were in there for a couple of months total, and they’re still recovering. Watching your child suffer like that day after day is one of the worst things I can think of.

11. HELPLESSk.d. lang
About 5 years ago I saw a movie called Away From Her, about a woman (played by Julie Christie) whose mind is slowly disintegrating from Alzheimer’s. It made a huge impression on me, and this song played over the credits of that movie. It blew my mind. lang’s incredible voice brings out a power I’d never heard in this song before, and every time I hear it, I feel this thick blanket of emotion settling over me. Eventually I sought out the album it came from — Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, in which lang covers all Canadian artists — and listened to it this year. Covers are definitely her metier, I think — her own material (with the exception of Ingenue) tends to fall flat for me. Whereas when she gets a hold of something that’s already really strong, like this song, she can make it profoundly affecting.

12. LIVING IN TWILIGHTThe Weepies
Remember when I said the skies are sunnier now? I know that’s true because we spent much of the earlier part of the year in the twilight this song so perfectly describes. Parts of my life this year were like one of those movies all scored by one artist (Magnolia, Harold & Maude, Good Will Hunting). The Weepies sang the soundtrack of my movie.

13. THE SOUND OF SETTLINGDeath Cab For Cutie
Last year, Pink was the artist I discovered 10 years later than everyone else. This year, it was Death Cab For Cutie. I think I listened to their album Transatlanticism for about 3 weeks straight in September. It is just amazing. I knew I’d be picking a song from it for this compilation, and the choice was so difficult I just randomized it. Fittingly, this was one of the Death Cab songs that made me decide I needed to go out and buy their albums. I find the first lyric especially arresting: “I’ve got a hunger / twisting my stomach into knots / that my tongue has tied off.” Wow! I just love that.

14. YOU JUST HAVEN’T EARNED IT YET, BABYKirsty MacColl
There is one reason that things are better between Laura and I, and that reason is that we have worked our asses off this year to get to where we are. We have both been very committed to learning new ways of relating, and putting our new knowledge into practice. As a consequence, our conflicts are fewer, less frightening, and more quickly resolved. I don’t mean to make it sound like we’re finished working, but we’re closer than we’ve been in years, and we’ve earned it, baby. I’ve loved this song ever since hearing it on the She’s Having A Baby soundtrack in high school. I’ve never been much of a Smiths person — I like Johnny Marr well enough, but with a few big exceptions I just find Morrissey too grating. However, I do have strong affection for some Smiths covers, and this one tops the list. I adore Kirsty’s voice, and the production is gorgeous and uplifting. I can’t get enough of it.

15. ON SUNDAY‘Til Tuesday
‘Til Tuesday’s Welcome Home was another of those CDs I burned from downloaded MP3s. I’ve been a Mann fan for years, but never went beyond the “greatest hits” level with her old band. I like this song a lot, and it fit my life since part of my commitment with Laura was to do a regularly scheduled session of emotional/relationship work on Sundays when we didn’t have a couples therapy appointment. “Why spend your sadness now? / Save it up for me, on Sunday.”

16. ROCKS AND WATER (LIVE AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011-08-27)The Weepies
As a part of my Weepy year, I saw them on tour at the Chautauqua Music Hall. It was a wonderful concert, everything I’d hoped it would be and more. The “more” was composed of a few things. One of these was actually the amazing set and lighting. They had this stylized miniature city set up on one side of the stage, and then kind of a forest glade on the other, and throughout the show, the lighting would change on various things to highlight different parts. At one point, a previously unseen river gets lit up, running through the city and the woods. You can get a little flavor of it from this photo, though obviously that doesn’t get at the different lighting changes. One of the other great parts was the new songs they played — well, new to me anyway. I have their albums, but forgot all about the fact that they had solo careers before they got together! This is a song from one of Deb’s solo records, and I just adored it the first time I heard it. As soon as I came home, I downloaded both her version and one that they did in an iTunes exclusive concert. However, neither version captivated me the way the concert version had. Lucky for me, some bright soul put up a bunch of clips from the concert on YouTube, so I used my handy-dandy DownloadHelper and turned the audio from that clip into an mp3. God bless the internet.

17. SEA AND SANDThe Who
Three things about this song. 1) I listened to Quadrophenia more intently this year than I had ever done before. For reasons “I Can’t Explain”, Quad was kind of a passed-over Who album from my youth, so I ended up really appreciating it much later than most of the rest of their material. 2) This song is a major standout from that album for me. It’s one of the most perfect Who songs to me, flawlessly blending Pete’s fantastic lyrics and storytelling with the immense power of the band. 3) Given that “Sea and Sand” was already on my list, how could I resist pairing it with “Rocks And Water”?

18. HERE COMES THE SUN/THE INNER LIGHT [TRANSITION]The Beatles
I went to Las Vegas for a trivia convention this summer — a great experience. While I was there, I saw the Cirque Du Soleil show of The Beatles Love — an utterly transcendent experience. I’ve already written about how I spent most of the show with tears streaming down my face, so I won’t rehash all that. I just new that I needed to pick a song for this compilation to represent that experience. It was very hard to choose. I settled on this one both for the reasons I mentioned in the Paul Simon entry, and because this part of the show remains absolutely indelible for me. It wasn’t the yoga poses and the trapeze artists, though those were certainly eye-popping. Instead, it was the massive ball of candles, glowing warmly and rising from the center of the stage, as robed children sit on the edge, radiating joy from meditative poses.

19. ADD MY EFFORTThe Weepies
Yep, one more Weepies song. This one returns to the theme touched on earlier in the MacColl and ‘Til Tuesday songs. It’s about loving someone who frequently lives in darkness — really loving them. I was always adding my effort, but without understanding, that effort can be fruitless or even counterproductive. However, when understanding is there, effort can be enough.

20. CHEAPER THAN FREE (FEATURING DAVE STEWART)Stevie Nicks
Yep, one more Stevie Nicks song. This the closer for In Your Dreams, and it felt like a perfect closer for this collection as well. It is a pure love song, and for me, purely magical. “What’s cheaper than free? You and me. What’s better than alone? Going home. What does money not buy? You and I. What’s not to feel, when love is real?”

Until next year…

Love in Las Vegas

Last year, I wrote about the Beatles album Love, an astonishingly brilliant mash-up of Beatles songs crafted by George and Giles Martin. That album is the soundtrack to a Cirque Du Soleil show of the same name, which appears in only one place in the world: the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Well, when I knew I would be going to Vegas, exactly a year after writing about Love for the first time, I seized the opportunity to see the show.

I’m finding the experience of the show very difficult to put into words. Here are the words I gave it in an email I sent that night:

Oh my god, I think it may have been the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t stop crying. Seriously, I must have cried through like 70% of it. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

Why? Well, a big part of it had to do with sound. I’ve never heard anything like the sound in that theater. They built the theater at the Mirage especially for this show. There are something like 6,000 speakers in it. Every seat has speakers embedded invisibly, including a speaker that faces the seat behind it. Hearing the incredible sound collage of Love in that theater… it feels like being inside the music. No, that’s not it. It felt like the music was inside me. I’ve been to plenty of concerts, including some where I was seated in the front row, directly in front of the band, hearing them play. This was different. The music was everywhere, not just in front of me, with pieces separated out — some close, some far, but all incredibly crisp and clear. It was perfect. It sounded perfect — like a sonic diamond. It would have been a moving experience just to sit in that theater and listen to the album, with no show at all.

But of course, there was a show. This was my first (and only) Cirque show, and it had what Cirque is known for: acrobatics, feats of daring, movements so graceful and gorgeous you can hardly believe they’re possible. “Humans in the service of beauty” should be their motto. And all of that was wonderful, and thrilling, but it wasn’t what was causing the tsunamis of emotion in me, or at least not in itself.

There was something remarkable, though, about seeing those movements synchronized with music that I love. Sometimes, the bodies on stage gave physical expression to the soaring, giddy feeling that was in me, inspired by a particular sound or lyric. Or a hopeful feeling, or a loving feeling, or sorrowful, or whatever. In a DVD extra to All Together Now, a documentary about the show, Yoko says, “Beatles were like acrobatics of the mind, and Cirque Du Soleil is the acrobatics of the body. When it comes together, it makes a kind of… something that’s whole.” She’s absolutely right. The other crucial quote from the film is from Dominic Champagne, director of the show: “You know, bodies go. George Harrison is dead, but we can really say that his spirit is with us, and we gave a body to that spirit. All together.”

It seems ridiculous to even try describing the various pieces of the show in any detail. It’s even worse than the old “dancing about architecture” bit, because the show is already dance, and theater, and art, about music. Not to mention, my powerful emotional reaction to it all makes me keep reaching for superlatives in a way that feels authentic to write, but I suspect is rather tedious to read.

So I’m not even going to try anything like a systematic recounting of the show, but instead just mention a few things that resonated intensely with me, and that remain strong memories of the show:

  • The kids: For whatever reason, I just did not expect there to be kids in this show. The way they were used just blew me away. Since becoming a parent, I’ve gotten rather softhearted about children as symbols. Consequently, seeing them sit in happy meditative poses in front of a huge ball of candles for “Here Comes The Sun”, or rocket towards the sky on a bed whose billowing sheet envelops the audience in dreamy atmospherics, or scramble through the rubble of the Blitz, was quite moving for me.
  • The imagery: Champagne calls the show “a rock and roll poem”, which aptly captures its astute use of imagery. Rather than just a greatest hits dance performance, or a musical homage, or, as I had originally imagined it, “a bunch of guys in tights, swinging from trapezes, forming human pyramids, and so forth”, the show is actually an evocation of some of the most important emotions woven into Beatles music. It does this with a deft use of images. Liverpool just after World War II — crumbling or destroyed brick edifices, exploded further by youthful energy. Groupies and Beatlemania — a girl with a dozen legs, frenetic in her movements. Longing and disappointment “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” — letters raining from the sky onto a solitary dancer. Lucy in the sky with diamonds — twinkling LED stars hang down everywhere, illuminating the swings and arcs of a trapeze artist.
  • The voices: I don’t just mean the singing, though that was breathtaking, especially the a capella voices of “Because.” But beyond that, at several points in the show, Beatle shadows are projected onto screens or hanging muslin, and they move in sync with recordings of the Beatles talking, from studio sessions or casual chatter. Combined with the amazing sound quality, this produced an amazing feeling of intimacy, like you were right there with them. It was an especially wonderful surprise because those sounds are not included on the album.

I could go on, and on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that if The Beatles hold a special and sacred place in your heart, as they do for me, Las Vegas has just become your Mecca. You must go there and experience Love in that theater, at least once in your life. I don’t know that everyone else will feel what I felt, though if you love the Beatles I suspect you will. For me, it was elevation, suffused with spiritual transcendence and love. If there’s such a thing as heaven, I hope it feels like that.