a nice little gem of a band

Soundtrack in my head: Soundpool, “Brand New Dawn”

Every now and then, I’ll do a video search of certain genres of music, just to see what is out there. One of my favorite genres is a category known as “shoegazer music,” which is rock or pop music characterized by layers of long, liquid, reverberating tones that create somewhat of a dense, otherworldly, and often remarkably beautiful “wall of sound” effect.

It could be argued that the Cocteau Twins pioneered the sound starting in the early 80’s and in my opinion, were the best and most creative musicians of the genre. But nobody really referred to it as a genre until a number of bands seemingly influenced by the Cocteau Twins came along in the late 80’s and early 90’s, causing music critics to come up with the term “shoegazer.” Ride, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Chapterhouse were examples of such bands.

Actually, probably no band from that time ever felt comfortable with the “shoegazer” moniker, perhaps because they didn’t want to be categorized, and also perhaps because it was a rather pejorative term–if it wasn’t originally intended that way, then it certainly became that way in the early 90’s. It seemed like the music press at that time was goose-stepping to grunge bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. Other forms of “alternative rock,” be it synth-pop, Manchester pop and shoegazer music were being pushed aside because they did not “rawk” enough.

But recently, it seems like there have been more bands keeping the shimmering sound alive. Last year, I discovered a Japanese band called Hartfield that has kept the sound going. And in the last couple of weeks, I’ve discovered a nice little gem of a band named Soundpool.

One downfall of some shoegazer bands is that the music sometimes gets too lost in liquidy layers of sound. There has to be something in that sound to grab onto—otherwise the listener will feel like he or she is drowning in noise. Fortunately, this is not a problem for Soundpool.

Their album, “On High,” is a remarkably diverse effort. Sixties pop is a big influence here, and there are plenty of effective pop hooks to catch the listeners’ attention. At a couple of points, and particularly on the track “Span The Universe,” they sound a little like Stereolab, except with more warmth. Other times you can hear Petula Clark or Brian Wilson influences if you listen closely enough to the tracks “Polyphony” or “All of Eternity.” They also insert a few interesting thirty-second tracks to round things out, such as “Be” where the members are chanting the word “be,” or “Choir,” which recalls the opening chorus of voices on Brian Wilson’s “Smile” album.

One thing I like best about them, though, are the lyrics—very positive, sunny and bright. Not all shoegazer bands are known for that—some, like My Bloody Valentine, can go into quite dark places. But it’s hard not to sing along to “sunset, sunrise, the sun in your eyes, revolves love endlessly,” or “hear me, we’re gonna be o.k.” There is also a bit of social commentary in the song “Millions&Billions&Trillions,” which talks about “dollar bills and stars up in the sky, profits made and tears that people cry.”

Except—and this is my only criticism of the album—it’s a bit hard to hear the lyrics. I recognize that there can be an aesthetic quality to making the vocals barely audible above the sound, and making the singer’s voice sound more like an instrument unto itself. This has been pretty common among “shoegaze” bands. But in this case, the words are far too good to bury, and I think the songs would be even stronger if lead singer Kim Field’s vocals were more prominent—there’s nothing to apologize for with these lyrics.

The album stays strong throughout, and picks up energy through the last five tracks. It says a lot about an album when listening to it lifts your spirits and leaves you in a good mood.

My favorite song is actually in the video below, but it’s not on any album or available online as far as I can tell. “Brand New Dawn” is a perfect song for April as it talks about the transition from winter to spring. The video, filmed somewhere in New York, shows both winter-like and summer-like weather, and I know that both New York and Wisconsin have had both types of weather this month. Could Soundpool end up being Brian Wilson’s favorite shoegazer band? Watch the video and decide for yourself.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRR7vxiKBnM]

in defense of the art of DJ’ing

Soundtrack: Deee-Lite, “Groove Is In The Heart”

Recently, there has been debate over whether DJ’s can, in fact be considered legitimate musicians or musical artists. Since I’ve begun to do a little DJ’ing recently, and have also played musical instruments and taken music lessons, I feel that I can speak to this issue. I do very much believe that DJ’s can legitimately be called musicians.

I took piano lessons for about five years when I was a child. I studied music theory and learned how to read music. And so, when I learned a piece, I usually learned it by reading the music and get to know it intimately enough so that I could play it from memory. Learning music in this way is certainly a useful spiritual training—it requires you to walk in the shoes of the piece’s author.

But I didn’t always learn music this way. I was lucky enough to have been born with perfect pitch (where I could identify a note just by hearing it) and so I was often able to play what I heard without having to see it on sheet music. It wasn’t ever a perfect imitation, and it often would lack some of the details that the original piece had, but I learned it well enough so that people would recognize it. I would learn later that this is precisely how musicians around the world have learned music, and that in fact many jazz musicians can’t read music. I found this hard to believe until college when I took jazz piano lessons taught by a local jazz musician in Urbana, IL.

The way he taught me was most interesting. He had me spend weeks practicing seventh chords in different keys. Now, I’d known what seventh chords were since the age of seven, and this seemed almost too easy, but he kept on insisting that I focus on it. He also gave me a cassette tape of jazz music, which included selections from famous jazz keyboardists like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith, and McCoy Tyner. Then one day, he sat me down at the piano, sat on the piano bench next to me, started playing a bass line on the lower ranges of the keyboard, and said, “Okay now, play.” I responded, “Play what?” He replied, “Just play.” Confused, I asked again, “Play what?” He said, “Play what fits. Play what sounds right.” And before I knew it, I was taking what was now rather intimate knowledge of the seventh chords that he had me practice and using it to take my first baby steps at jazz improvisation.

I didn’t make jazz piano a high priority for myself, but I did find myself appreciating jazz much more. In seeing live jazz, it has been fascinating to watch the interplay between the musicians as they try to get a sense of what each other is doing. You can often read their faces, and know when they are reaching, trying to find something that fits, and you can also see the moments when they are on a roll, when the music is almost playing them. For the longest time, people who didn’t read music were not considered real musicians, but that has changed as people have grown to appreciate the art. They may not be reading music, but they are required to think on their feet to a higher degree than people who read music and learn a piece—jazz musicians have to observe what is going on, and respond in a way that works.

By the same token, DJ’ing is a very interactive form of performing music—but this time I’m interacting with the audience—that is, the dancers on the dance floor. The instrument in this case—a mixer employing two turntables, CD players or MP3 players or even a mixture of the above—does not require quite as much technique to play, though a sense of rhythm and timing is still required that is every bit as acute as that of a person who plays an instrument. But of greater importance is understanding the dancers. I had not realized this before I started DJ training, but the goal is to keep the dance floor as full as possible. There will always be people who choose to sit out this or that song, but a good song brings people back onto the dance floor and so the number of people on the floor will tell you to a large extent how well you’re doing.

Song selection is very important—knowing what song is a good song to follow the one you are currently playing is important. Flow is important. I’ve been on dance floors where the DJ radically changes the song and it disrupts the dance floor. Follow a high-energy Deee-Lite track with Spandau Ballet and you are guaranteed to empty the dance floor.

Each audience is different, and sometimes you have to figure out by trial and error what it is they want to dance to. You have to really abandon your ego here. If you think your music is so awesome that you think everyone will like it, you won’t last long as a DJ. It doesn’t matter too much what you like—if people aren’t dancing to it, you aren’t doing your job as a DJ.

But it’s more than just following what the audience wants. Many DJ’s have their own distinctive style. How they reconcile what the audience wants with what they play is a real art. They will sense what the audience wants, but then put their own unique spin on it, perhaps leading the audience on a journey or introducing something new while still keeping the dancers engaged. Some great DJ’s have been described as having the ability to crawl into one’s head. Those people have really mastered the art. I haven’t yet.

When my housemate asked me to consider DJ’ing, it sounded like it would be a lot of fun, but I now realize that it takes considerable practice to make it work. I am a long way from being proficient at this art. I had to ask myself whether it was worth my while to continue to work developing my DJ skills, taking into consideration the other goals I have in life. But after thinking about it, I realized that being able to cultivate the ability to “blend my mind” with that of other people, and at the same time putting my soul into the music I play, and by extension, the dancers I play for—I could see this being a valuable skill that would extend well beyond the dance floor and into other aspects of my life. I think it has everything to do with developing the ability to connect with people. So for now, I’m going to continue at this…

leave the poor lady alone, please

Soundtrack in my head: Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry”

The media outlets and Florida prosecutors are at it again. They have chosen to release to the public yet more dirty details about the private life of Lisa Nowak, the former U.S. astronaut arrested a few weeks ago and later formally charged with attempted kidnapping.

I won’t repeat the details here except to say that they reference digital photos, and ones similar to them are probably found on the hard drives of millions of home computers in the United States. The Associated Press article went into fairly significant detail about the photos.  However, the AP story did not reveal until the ninth paragraph that investigators concluded that the photos had no direct evidence related to the attempted kidnapping charges.

Why bury such an important fact so deep in a story? And why print the details if it has no connection with the case? It seems to me that the notion of the “public’s right to know” is being stretched to rather ridiculous proportions here. It also speaks volumes of what the mass media considers to be news and not news.

Months before the opening gavel of her trial, the former astronaut’s dignity has taken a real beating in the public arena. This has happened because officials in Florida chose to release embarrassing and questionably relevant details about her arrest, the items found in her car, and what she was wearing under her clothes. The most recent details fit right into that pattern. Perhaps it’s part of an effort to put a spin on the trial months ahead of time, or maybe even extract a guilty plea—Nowak has pleaded not guilty to the charges filed against her.

It’s not hard to imagine why the prosecutors would release such sordid details, but why have news outlets taken to these details like a dog rolling in something fetid? If people really want to obsess on the type of photos found on a disk in Ms. Nowak’s car, let them download their own from the Internet.

It seems like we’ve gotten to the point where newspapers need special ratings to measure the appropriateness of their material for children—much like the ones movies and TV shows now have.

One of my favorite commercials is one where DirecTV advertises the ability for parents to block out specific TV programs inappropriate for their children. One has a middle-aged mother in her living room sitting down with mafioso characters from a particularly violent TV show, and politely informing them that she will have to lock out their show because of the content.

I would love to see a commercial where a mother sits down in her living room with the Florida officials and senior editors from the Associated Press.   She would say, “Well, I am glad that you were able to apprehend someone potentially dangerous to others and I’m happy to hear that she will have her day in court. As for the details surrounding her arrest and her private life, well, that’s really more than I want to know, and definitely more than what I want my eight-year old daughter to know. So, sorry to say this, but, um, I’m going to have to block you.”

diamonds under the snow and other tangential thoughts

Soundtrack in my head:  Wooden Io, “Ill Winds”

Baseball season opens this week.  The baseball season has a funny relationship with winter.  In the Upper Midwest, Winter has a habit of overstaying its welcome (despite the occasional 70 degree day in March).  Spring is usually patient and puts up with April blizzards and even May snow flurries.  But baseball?  Baseball is punctual and will start its season the first week of April no matter what winter happens to be doing at the time. 

I have this image of Winter dawdling in an apartment it was supposed to have moved out of March 31st, while Baseball, the next tenant taking over the apartment, is standing at the doorway looking at its watch saying, “It is APRIL you know, you were supposed to out of here March 31st and it is now APRIL.”  And then to push things along, Baseball  starts moving its stuff in as if Winter weren’t’ there in the first place.

Don’t ask me why I think of things like this.

Snow flurries might be coming in tonight and highs are supposed to only be in the 30’s through the weekend–about fifteen degrees below average.  Meanwhile, I’m trying to decide who my favorite major league baseball team is. 

As far as football is concerned, when I moved from Chicago to Madison, I immediately switched from being a Bears fan to a Packers fan.  I’d always liked the Packers even when I lived in Chicago. 

But baseball was always a little complicated.  The White Sox had been my favorite team during childhood but that was back when the old Comiskey Park existed and the White Sox didn’t have uniforms that could be confused with those of the New York Yankees.  (And I never really liked the Cubs that much.)  A childhood fantasy was finally realized when White Sox won the World Series in 2005, and since then I’ve wondered whether I’ve now run out of reasons to continue to have them as my favorite team. 

The Milwaukee Brewers have been growing on me as a team.  There’s a lot of buzz about them finally being a contender again this year.  I’ve always wanted to see Miller Park where they play and the “sausage races” that have become famous there.  Maybe I’ll finally get out there this year.  I have one housemate who is a huge Brewers fan who kindly reminded me that it’s okay to have a favorite National League team (where the Brewers are) and a favorite American League team (where the White Sox are).   I think she’s being very patient with me. 

Then again, Madison has its own team, the Mallards.  It’s not even a minor league team, but a team in the Northwoods League, which is a summer league for college baseball players.   Because these players are committed to their college team, the season only runs from June to August.  The Mallards play teams from Duluth, Green Bay, Eau Claire, Wausau, LaCrosse, Mankato, and other small to medium-sized towns in Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Ontario, Canada.   The games are fun–and inexpensive.  They also won the league championship in 2004 and 2005.

Anyone wondering why Madison would have a team called the Mallards obviously hasn’t spent much time on the Isthmus in the spring.  During my first spring here we had a tiny pond in our backyard that was basically a hole not much wider than a record album, and draped in a thick vinyl sheet.  Not much to look at, but nevertheless it was big enough to attract three ducks who would swim around and around like some waterfowl merry-go-round.  I also saw ducks floating in a couple of water-filled ruts in the neighbor’s driveway.  They certainly are resourceful creatures.

As any baseball fan will tell you this time of year, hope springs eternal.  Hope that the home team will finally have a championship year, and for those of us in the more northerly latitudes of the United States, hope that winter will finally go away and stay away until after the World Series. 

tribute to d. boon

Soundtrack in my head: Minutemen, “No! No! No! To Draft and War”

In a relatively recent post, I wrote about the passing of Arthur Lee, the leader of the 1960’s rock band Love and how I was lucky enough to see him perform once. Today marks the birthday of another departed rock legend—D. Boon of the Minutemen. Who? The Minutemen? You mean the anti-immigrant vigilantes patrolling our borders? NOT. The Minutemen I’m referring to were a 1980’s punk band, but with a creative impulse really not found anywhere in modern music today.

I went to a number of punk shows when I was in college. I listen to very little punk nowadays—when I do, I usually grow tired of it after about ten minutes. But I’ve never grown tired of the Minutemen–indeed I listen to them now more than before. They did not fit the stereotype of spiked, pierced and leather-clad punk rockers (which usually wasn’t accurate anyway), they were just three regular guys from San Pedro who played a high-octane mix of punk, funk, jazz and folk. They eschewed distortion guitar in their music–the sheer energy they put into their music and shows gave the music all the energy it needed and then some. D. Boon was a huge guy, bigger than anyone you’d find in a Casual Male XL catalog, but that did not stop him from jumping, flailing and flying all over the stage.

Their songs were notoriously short—many of them less than a minute (though some of their improvisational jams could last quite a long time). Their album “Double Nickels on a Dime” albums stuffed 45 songs onto two LP’s, and this was in the vinyl days when an average LP contained 10 songs. One example of their love of brevity was “Badges,” a 38-second song featuring a thumping bass line from fellow band member and songwriter Mike Watt and the famous “we ain’t got no badges” quote from the Humphrey Bogart movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” It’s not James Joyce, but as a song it works quite well, and would have lost something had they tried to stretch it out to three minutes.

Some of their song titles give insight into the madcap thinking of the Minutemen, “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs,” “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,” “Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?” “Maybe Partying Will Help,”  “The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts,” “Song For El Salvador,” and “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost.” As you can see from the title of the last two songs, the Minutemen were deeply concerned about social justice issues and war.  They wrote a lot of songs about Vietnam, Cold War paranoia and Central America—the latter of which was subject to a lot of civil war and U.S. intervention during the 1980’s. One of the most poignant lyric about war and the threat of war came in the song, “King of the Hill” in which D. Boon sang “Is it peace to point those guns/Is it war to fire those guns?”

A friend of mine invited me to see the Minutemen in Champaign, IL in the fall of 1985. I declined his invitation because I wasn’t familiar with them at the time. I would later regret this decision, because on December 22, 1985 he was killed in a van accident in Arizona. He was lying in the back of a van without a seatbelt because he had been suffering from a heavy-duty fever. The van lost control and Boon was thrown out the van’s rear doors, killing him instantly.

The Minutemen disbanded immediately, though surviving members formed fIREHOSE, which existed until the mid-1990’s. Mike Watt, who wrote many of the songs for the Minutemen—particularly the wildly creative stream-of-consciousness ones—has continued with various musical projects to the present day.

I have many compilation tapes that I made between the mid-80’s and the mid-90’s. One of the last ones I made I entitled “Alternative Rock—They Named It And Then They Killed It.” That pretty much encapsulates how I’ve felt about the music industry since the early 90’s. There are a lot of musical gems out there today—it’s just that you have to look really hard to find them. I find myself more and more taking on the mission of telling people the truth about the 1980’s so that people realize that this much-maligned decade was about much more than mullets, mall hair,  Michael Jackson, and Ronald Reagan. The reality is that the 80’s–or specifically the years 1977-92–witnessed a more creative, thriving, and diverse underground music scene than at any other time since the advent of rock n’ roll.

The Minutemen were just one small part of this scene, but listen to “Double Nickels on a Dime,” or “Ballot Result,” and you get a sense of the energy and creativity that existed then. The making of “Ballot Result” in particular says a lot about the creativity, spontaneity and interaction with the fans. The band decided to do a live album, and passed out ballots to fans to help determine which songs would be on the album. Boon died before the live album could be recorded, so instead the surving members used the ballots and existing live recordings to put together the album. Amazingly, many of the tracks were from tapes sent in by fans—the track “No! No! No! To Draft And War/Joe McCarthy’s Ghost” was recorded at an encore performance here in Madison in 1985.  I don’t think you’d see many record companies allowing that nowadays.