About Ron

Surf guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

Best PNW Albums of 2019

It’s time to play that audience favorite, What’s The Best PNW Album of 2019? What do we have for today’s winner, Johnny?

(Silence)

Johnny seems to be, umm, a figment of my imagination. So let’s move on to this year’s contenders for What’s The Best PNW Album of 2019?

As I’ve probably said in the past, I’m not much for picking absolute favorites. So today I’ll present you with some very good albums that came out of the Pacific Northwest in 2019. None of these are being designated as “the best” album of the year, and there are many other releases I could easily include on my list. So buckle up and uncork a tall one.

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First up is a heavy dose of pure power pop from Seattle’s La Fille. Their latest album, Alright Already, is a primer in just how good power pop can be. Catchy, sweet melodies tempered with a fine steel edge of R&R. Fans of Matthew Sweet should dig this one.

Portland’s Shivas channel a heavy psychedelic/garage vibe on Dark Thoughts. In fact, this album sounds like it was made in 1965, not 2019. Massive reverb, caterwauling from beyond the grave, cascading stacks of mind-bending riffs combine to please your frontal lobe as only 60s rock can.

Tullycraft, hailing from Bellingham, is a local band that made it kinda big. They are recognized as one of the, if not the progenitor of twee pop. This genre combines catchy, poppy melodies with raw, unpolished vocals that lean a bit toward the spoken side. 2019’s The Railway Prince Hotel is an excellent example of what twee can be.

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Portland’s Minus 5 made a stunning comeback in 2019 after frontman Scott McCaughey’s stroke in late 2018. The indie rockers released Stroke Manor, an album which attempts to suggest the experience of having a stroke. Styles range from poppy to hard rocking and everything inbetween. Be sure to check this one out.

The Seattle-ites, strangely enough hailing from Seattle, pay tribute to legendary ska band the Skatelites. Lovers of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones beware! The music on The Thing! EP is firmly rooted in first wave ska, a relaxed walk through the rocksteady beat. Authentic, extremely well done. Expect more great music from this band in the future.

Local Teen stirs up Portland with their own brand of twee pop/punk on Low Vibrations, Bad Emotions. Picture twee lead vocals with shouted backup vocals, male and female lead singers, horns, fast tempos, a ton of variety. A great band and album, well worth exploring.

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If it is punk that you seek, look no further than Night Danger by Vancouver’s Alien Boys. Their brand of punk takes elements from early British punk, pop punk, and even a bit of hard rock. The sound is unique and a pleasant alternative to all the soundalike punk groups. Fans of 999 should dig this group.

And if it is a walk in the country that pleases your ear buds, Portland’s Little Sue can soothe your brow with her latest, Gold. Sue has been a fixture in Portland for over 25 years, and Gold displays her excellent songwriting skills, resulting in a modern, original country album that sounds like it’s filled with standards.

Group 4

Do you like your power pop on the rough side? Or perhaps you’re into indie Canadian pop punk? Vancouver’s Pudding just might be the answer to your every desire. Kind of loose or DIY, 2019’s Pop Over takes its title literally, showing where the music will go once pop is no longer. A highly recommended listening experience.

Finally, we round out 2019 with a bit of old timey busking music by Portland’s Lightnin’ Luke. Volume 2 is a raw recording of classic and original blues played by a single person. But the performances never sound small and are packed with excitement as well as fun. Just the thing to scratch your hokum itch.

A ton of superior music comes out of the NW every year. Be sure to explore what’s out there. And don’t forget Everett Public Library’s local music section. It’s well worth the price of admission.

The Good Place

Finally, the ultimate philosophical questions surrounding life and death have been answered. In a sitcom. Called The Good Place.

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The premise is a little difficult to explain without getting into multiple spoilers, but here we go.

There is an afterlife! When people die they either go to the Good Place or the Bad Place, depending on how they behaved while alive. The show focuses on four people who die at roughly the same time and are thrust together in the Good Place in a neighborhood designed by an eternal (or nearly-eternal) being named Michael. Michael is sort of like a god in the neighborhood, able to help people, fix problems and create heavenly things such as frozen yogurt restaurants.

There is a “but”.

But Eleanor (the main character) realizes she doesn’t belong in the Good Place. She was, in fact, a horrible human being while alive. Thus, Eleanor assumes there’s been some sort of clerical error that saved her from eternal punishment. And, wanting to remain in the Good Place, she tries to cover up this mistake. To her credit, Eleanor does try to make up for previous behaviors by studying ethics with Chidi (a professor of ethics while alive), who is her soulmate in the Good Place. But it becomes apparent that covering up her past is not going to be easy.

Other characters include another pair of soulmates, Tahani, a rich socialite while alive, and Jianyu, a silent Taiwanese monk, who live in a fantastic mansion next to Eleanor and Chidi’s tiny, clown-themed house. And let us not forget Janet, a sort of supercomputer in human form, who knows literally everything and is able to fill all the desires of the neighborhood’s inhabitants (such as providing frozen yogurt).

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This is the premise, more or less, at the beginning of the first season. But it’s important to remember one thing about The Good Place: Nothing is what it seems to be. In fact, viewers’ expectations are constantly turned upside down over teakettle. By the end of season 1, the above description is highly inaccurate and the show reboots, so to speak, in an entirely different direction. And this is one of the strengths of the show, its willingness to explore entirely new circumstances, essentially trashing everything that has already occurred. In a way, this aspect of The Good Place is similar to the premise of Groundhog Day, with characters reliving the same or similar situations with different outcomes. This device provides a level of freshness that is seldom found on television.

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Later seasons are impossible to describe without giving away the many twists that make The Good Place such a refreshing show. Suffice to say, a variety of permutations of the original plot find their way into the afterlife, creating much humor along the way.

The fourth and final season of the show is currently airing on network TV, meaning there will only be 50 or so episodes of the show in total. Higher quality often means fewer episodes, which means viewers will have to find other innovative programming. So take advantage of this excellent program while you can. The writing, acting, plot twists and explanations of the afterlife are superlative. As a young British prime minister once said, “Hey, that’s my donut!”

Post Punk, Dance and New Order

It’s a fundamental rule of life that all the cool kids like certain bands. Oddly enough, I often can’t generate much enthusiasm for these bands, which is strange since I am one of the cool kids. Joy Division is such a band. Everybody who is anybody worships the very particles of sweat generated by these early post-punk legends, and their song Love Will Tear Us Apart is a theme song of my generation. Although the band recorded many additional outstanding songs, I can’t say that I really dig their sound: cold, distant and uncaring music accompanying frequently somber lyrics.

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After the band was no more, some of the Division went on to form New Order. This was an exciting prospect leading fans to expect more of that frozen post-punk groove. And the band’s first album, Movement, seemed like a fulfillment of expectations. Subsequent albums, however, moved in a different direction. And their second album, Power, Corruption & Lies, kicked off this journey to a veritable new… order.

Power

What’s amazing about this album is that it came at a unique point in time with a group moving on an unusual artistic trajectory, from somewhat morbid post-punk to solid gold dance hits. And while I’m not a fan of where they came from or where they went to, New Order created a perfect gem of post-punk dance hits on Power, Corruption & Lies.

Take the album opener, Age of Consent. It starts with a catchy high-register bass hook and simple dance-oriented drums. Jangly guitar and bass-end synth fill out the sound until vocals with a bit of the requisite angst enter, completing this gorgeous melding of genres. The result is a kind of happy sorrow that leaves me near tears while I tap my foot and shake my moneymaker. Songs do not get much better than this.

The next ditty, We All Stand, moves away from danceability and straight into quirky, dark and rhythmically complex worlds. It’s the perfect song for watching people attempt to keep the beat. But just when things look decidedly non-terpsichorean, we are immediately thrust back into the dance with The Village. Bass and drums act much like they did in Age of Consent and although the tempo is a bit medium, we hear many of the elements of the synthpop that is soon to take over New Order’s oeuvre.

Now I’m not going to take you through every song on the album, so let’s move ahead to Blue Monday. Here the group hits its stride, creating synth dance music complete with non-stop drum machine and repetitive synth-bass riff for 7 minutes and 28 seconds. Vocals are not plentiful, but are dripping with, oozing with ennui when present. And, there’s not much going on musically, so ya just gotta dance!

I will leave you all with Your Silent Face, a truly beautiful, slow synthpop song featuring melodica, jangly guitar leads and a lovely synth melody. Not really a dance tune but highly introspective, hummable and heartstoppingly sad, this song cements Power, Corruption & Lies as one of the best albums from the 80s.

Stop by the library and see what there is to hear. And be sure to check out New Order in your journeys. As always, don’t forget your dancing shoes.

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Chuck

Recently, as I sat and pondered the meaning of existence, I wondered what it is that makes a particular television program one of my favorites. Writing and acting are important aspects of any good TV show, but there’s more to it than that. And so I realized that what I look for in a show, although not consciously, is a cast of characters that I like, people who I’d hang out with. Or invite into my living room.

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To this end, one of my favorite shows is Chuck, a series focusing on a nerdy computer geek who is recruited by the CIA after a virtual computer is downloaded into his head. In other words, an extremely realistic premise. (Pause). This is not so different from many other shows where an untrained person aids the police/FBI/etc., but what sets this show apart from the pack is the interaction between characters.

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Chuck Bartowski is a nice guy. He attended Stanford University but got expelled shortly before graduation for something he didn’t do. With his life-plan derailed, Chuck ends up repairing computers at the Buy More (the TV equivalent of Best Buy). He lives with his sister Ellie, perhaps the nicest person alive, and her husband Devon (AKA Captain Awesome), perhaps the most positive person alive.

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Outside of Chuck’s family, tucked away in the depths of the Buy More, we find Chuck’s co-workers, a cast of misfits, clowns and losers. These eccentric individuals provide the show’s comic relief with their scheming and meddling and general screwing up. The comedy they bring is essential to offset the drama and death-defying action of Chuck’s spy guy activities.

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This leaves us with Chuck’s spy co-workers, John Casey, a by-the-books ex-marine and Sarah Walker, Chuck’s handler and pretend girlfriend. As a nerd, Chuck is somewhat overwhelmed by the attention of this beautiful woman and he would really, really, really like to get rid of the pretend status of their relationship. As with many a TV show, this sexual tension is one of the mainstays of the program.

Chuck

So, why is this show better than countless others? The answer is simple: relationships. Due to their undercover status Chuck and Sarah’s relationship is quite complex. Chuck makes it no secret that he’s head-over-heels for this smart, funny, attractive pretend girlfriend, but Sarah is all business. Mostly. She obviously likes Chuck but knows it would be dangerous for a spy to become emotionally entangled with anyone else, let alone her spy partner. She will suggest that they kiss as part of their cover, or even spend the night together (doing absolutely nothing), but she won’t let any real emotions show. And after time, this wears on Chuck. He wants a real girlfriend, specifically Sarah. The subtle nuances that Zach Levi and Yvonne Strahovski bring to their rolls is impressive.

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So what we have in the end is an action-packed spy show, a comedy, and a romance all wrapped into one. Of course I’ve just touched on the tip of the spy iceberg (spyceberg), so to speak, so you’ll have to watch to find out how everything unfolds. In the immortal words of the Earl of Sandwich, “I highly recommend that you check this one out. And fetch me some bread and bologna!”

Unhappy Comedies

I’ve noticed a recent trend in sitcoms. Perhaps it’s nothing new, but an extra twist of lime has been added to the mix, metaphorically speaking. Here’s the 411 on the down low: Most of the characters in these comedies are not likable and the overall feeling generated by the shows is discomfort. Please, come with me to THE LAND OF UNHAPPY COMEDIES.

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Our first stop is Bakersfield, CA. After flunking out of a prestigious French clown college, Chip Baskets is determined to fulfill his clowning dream. So, Baskets moves in with his less-than-supportive mother (played somewhat disturbingly by Louie Anderson) and takes a job as a rodeo clown. Chip’s only friend is Martha, an insurance agent who tolerates the poor treatment he heaps on her liberally. His twin brother Dale (mom’s favorite) is another source of irritation in Chip’s demoralizing life. And it’s a comedy! Don’t get me wrong, Baskets is a crazy good television program. It’s just not a happy viewing experience. Did I mention that it’s a comedy?

GettingOn

Moving approximately 135 miles to Long Beach, CA, we come to the Mount Palms Memorial Hospital where the dysfunctional denizens of Getting On help people who are ready to move on to their final reward. Meet head nurse Dawn Forchette, a woman who freely mixes her love life and job, failing miserably at both; nurse Didi Ortley, a compassionate and humane caregiver; Dr. Jenna James, who cares about nothing but her research, often at the patients’ cost; and supervising nurse Patsy De La Serda, a sexually ambiguous emotional wreck who puts a face on unhappiness. What better premise for a comedy? These characters frequently act with disregard for those around them, driven only by their own needs and desires. In Didi we have a reasonable person that most of us can relate to but the others are all toxic. The result is an uncomfortable but hilarious viewing experience.

LastMan

Our journey concludes in Tuscon and other ports of call. Humanity has been wiped out by a virus and Phil Miller is The Last Man On Earth. He travels the North American continent for two years looking for others but finds no one. As he sits in Tuscon contemplating ending it all, other survivors begin to arrive and we soon find out that Phil (who goes by his middle name, Tandy) is a real jerk with few redeeming qualities. After finding out that Carol will not have sex with him unless they get married, he (wait for it) marries her. But the bonds of wedlock do not keep him from flagrantly lusting after Melissa, who gradually falls in love with Todd, a shy and husky man who Tandy tries to kill in order to be with Melissa. Did I mention that it’s a comedy? The format of the show makes it simple for adventures to occur, with other survivors occasionally finding the group, some with evil intent, others not. As the show progresses, the group moves hither and yon, allowing for more variety in the storylines. No question, this is a great show, but the overall vibe is one of discomfort and shuddering. And it’s a comedy!

I enjoy all of these shows, but they leave me feeling a little bit dirty, a little disillusioned with humankind. Still, if you want to see superior writing, most excellent acting and clever plot twists, you could do worse than these unhappy comedies. Come on down to Everett Public Library and take one for a test drive. Mileage may vary.

Best Music of 2019 So Far

Many people come to me and say, “Kurt, what are some of the best albums of the year?” To which I reply, “My name is not Kurt and please don’t call me late for dinner.” This rather cryptic response is typically unsatisfying, but to soothe the masses of music seekers I give you a few great albums that dropped in 2019 so far.

StrayCats

You might remember the Stray Cats as the rockabilly revival band that rose to fame during my final years of high school. Forty years ago. Although the band has essentially been broken up forever, each of the members has continued in the music business, often in the greater rockabilly genre pool. On 40, their first new album in 26 years, Stray Cats return to the maniacal gut-thumping sweet rockabilly sounds that they first explored in their self-titled 1981 release. In fact, one might hear the occasional extremely familiar riff or chord progression. But, considering that rockabilly has a fairly limited musical vocabulary (which is not a bad thing; many genres are the same way), this is not really surprising or disappointing.

Brian Setzer is now age 60, which is strangely old for someone playing youth-oriented music, but his voice and guitar have never been better. This guy is about as good as it gets. Give the album a spin or two, maybe put on some pegged jeans, throw back a PBR and indulge in a little delinquency. You won’t regret it. Unless you get caught and imprisoned.

MeatPuppets

Meat Puppets, perhaps one of the best bands you’ve never heard of, started playing in 1980, and, other than a couple of shortish breaks, they’ve been together ever since. Originally known as a punk band, their music rapidly expanded to include a bit of the country and psych vibes. Cowpunk, as the mix of country and punk came to be called, was one of the more exciting subgenres to emerge in that era. It’s never attracted too many practitioners but has definitely influenced current bands including The Goddamn Gallows and Stoned Evergreen Travelers.

If you are a person who likes older Meat Puppets albums, you will probably enjoy their latest, Dusty Notes. There’s no groundbreaking genre-expanding mind-blowing quantum leaps here, just a solid punk rock foundation covered with sweet country crooning and psychedelic sensibilities. Songs tend towards the mellow with guitars a bit more in the background than the front. And the electric harpsichord in Unfrozen Memory? Well worth the wait.

L7

L7 came to prominence in the 90s, broke up in 2001 and returned to the rock and roll limelight in 2014. Although their music resonates with a distinct punk/metal feel, the group is often associated with grunge and its big-name acts. At a time when rock and punk rock were largely male-dominated, the women of L7 went against the norms and created heavy, sleazy punk that made listeners forget all about gender and stereotypes.

2019 saw the release of a brand spanking new album, Scatter the Rats, that picks up right where the band left off. Heavy metal guitar riffage, a pervasive Joan Jett vibe, gritty rock and roll, heavy pop… Lots of variety within the punk genre. But always, that hard metallic edge picks away at your brain brain brain driving you… Well, you’ll just have to listen.

The year is barely half over and there will undoubtedly be many other great albums to hear. But for now, unless you’re a time traveler, check out these and other recently-released albums at Everett Public Library. And always remember the compelling words of Captain Beefheart:

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The Best Albums From The PNW 2019

It’s that time of year once again, time for the annual semi-half-year best albums of the Pacific Northwest take-a-looksee. 2019 has presented us with a surprising number of spectacular albums in our soggy corner of the U.S. and here are just a few you might want to check out for yourself.

TACOCATtacocat-thismessisaplace-cover-

Tacocat is one of the more nationally-recognized Seattle bands these days. Their sound is somewhere in the pop-punk/mainstream-pop quadrant of the genre spectrum. Rich harmonies, a touch of 60s girl pop and sugary gooey goodness all color their latest release, This Mess Is a Place. If you enjoyed their previous release, Lost Time, you’re sure to love this followup.

THE BLACK TONESblack tones

One of the most talked about bands in Seattle, The Black Tones, finally delivered their debut album, Cobain & Cornbread, in 2019. And it is fabulous. The music takes me right back to 1969, but not to my 6-year-old self, more of a me-as-an-adult kinda thing… Anyhow, ferocious use of wah wah, a palpable Hendrix guitar vibe and wide open song structures all hearken back to a day when a bunch of kids squatted in a muddy field in upstate New York. Perhaps most notable is that here we have a band that does not sound like other bands of today. Heavy, fuzzy, riff-driven, filled with lengthy instrumental interludes and then BAM! A traditional old-timey gospel tune. This album has not been released on CD yet, but look for it out in the digital world.

THE HEAD AND THE HEARThead_and_heart_mirage

The Head and the Heart is one of the more popular and active bands currently in Seattle. Classified as indie pop or indie folk, the group spits out catchy hooks that make you sing along on their latest release, Living Mirage. This album, as well as the group’s other recent albums, is heavily produced, resulting in a huge sound that markedly contrasts with the intimacy of their first album. You can hear a variety of their releases, both in CD format and streaming, from Everett Public Library. Just click on the band’s name at the beginning of this paragraph.

ANNIE FORD BANDannie ford

If it’s country you’re looking for, try out At Night by Seattle’s Annie Ford Band. A dash of blues, a smidgen of swing and a veritable dollop of honky tonk combine with an amazing voice (look out Eillen Jewel!) to make a most hearty country stew. Those listeners expecting to hear the contemporary country/pop that tops the charts these days might find themselves disappointed. Old-timey country is Annie Ford’s oeuvre, and you just might come to expect Patsy Cline herself to lasso you a cold tall one while you enjoy these tunes.

It may seem that four magnificent albums are all we’re allotted in a year, but we’ve only seen a scant sliver of 2019’s offerings. Stay tuned for info on more local albums and be sure to check out EPL’s Local Music section. As my grandparents always said, if you don’t keep up with the Joneses the Joneses will keep up with you. Of course, my grandparents never met anyone named Jones. And please do remember, you can pick your friend’s music… but something something something.