About Ron

Rockabilly 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.

What’s New in the Northwest?

By my amazingly accurate calculations, Everett Public Library added 160+ rock and country albums that were released in 2016 to its CD collection. Of those, 15 albums are by Northwest artists. So what’s hoppin’ in America’s upper left-hand corner? Let’s find out, shall we?

thermalsWe’ll start in the southern quadrant of the PNW. Portland has an explosive music scene, and many of the local acts have gained national recognition. One of the more successful PDX bands is indie rockers the Thermals, and their latest album, We Disappear, shows that the success is deserved. Featuring music that’s loud and raw yet still intimate, We Disappear is filled with fun, fuzzy, lo-fi power pop and heavy lyrics touching on the ability of technology to isolate people. If you like energetic and edgy rock, check this one out.

esperanzaAnother Portland success story is bassist, singer and songwriter Esperanza Spalding. No slouch, Spalding has won four Grammy Awards, was Jazz Artist of the year in 2011 and was selected by Obama to play at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2009. (This elicits an involuntary Wow! from me.) Her latest, 2016’s Emily’s d+evolution, is hard to categorize. Elements of jazz, rock and funk pervade the album, and songs vary wildly in feel and style. The music is poppy yet bizarre. For those living beyond the edge of our musical galaxy, this is an outstanding album.

Other Portland releases include the dreamy folk pop of M. Ward on More Rain, Distortland by garage rockers The Dandy Warhols and the metal stylings of The Body on No One Deserves Happiness.

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Next stop to the north is Seattle.

carseatheadrestCar Seat Headrest began as Will Toledo’s lo-fi recording project, releasing 12 albums on Bandcamp and developing a large online following. He signed a deal with Matador Records in 2015 and just this year began touring with a full band. Teens of Denial, the band’s 2016 release, takes the group in a new direction while retaining Toledo’s strong songwriting and trademark lo-fi sensibility. The music is quite varied from song to song, always staying close to the world of pop, but also exploring post-punk and other quirky genres. The album has been well-received and points to great things yet to come.

7yearbitch7 Year Bitch was an all-female punk band that played from 1990 to 1997, so it might seem odd that they’re included in a review of 2016 releases. Well, a recently-found recording of the group performing at Seattle’s Club Moe in 1996 was released in 2016 as Live at Moe. Fortuitously, this performance came when 7 Year Bitch was at its peak, so the CD is a most excellent listen. Lyrics are filled with social commentary and the music leans toward a riot grrrl/punk aesthetic. If you prefer the raw DIY sound, check this one out.

Other Seattle releases include Beautiful Broken by long-time rockers Heart, Tacocat’s mixture of pop-punk and feminism on Lost Time, the noise rock of So Pitted on Neo and the psychedelic garage rock of Night Beats on Who Sold My Generation.

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 Finally, a short hop on I-5 takes us to Everett.

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In the last two years the Everett music scene has, well, started to exist! A crop of bands are playing shows, releasing albums and having success. 2016 saw the release of two local 3-song EP’s, What Is Crystal Desert? by Crystal Desert and Walking Blind by Tellers (the band formerly known as Preacher’s Wife). Crystal Desert describes itself as post-punk, garage and psychedelic, and this seems fairly accurate. Their music has a mix of influences from the dark side, crunchy guitars, a bit of a heavy sound. Overall their offering is quite enjoyable, and these lads show the potential for better things yet to come. Walking Blind is filled with slow tempos and dramatic vocals, music akin to soundtracks and the stuff found in dreams. Tellers self-describe as dark and heavy with a post-rock influence. Check out both of these groups to see what’s going on in your own town!

And this is just scratching the surface of Northwest rock. Check out our ever-expanding Local Music collection to find some more gems. And yes, we have a New Music display as well! In the immortal words of the Ramones: We want you to check out some groovy CDs from your local library!

The Perils of Reading

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Reading a good book can be fabulous and depressing all at once. Page turners, stories that can’t be put down, books that demand to be picked up again, all can leave a reader wanting more. Perhaps it’s a sad commentary on my psyche that I grow so attached to the characters in a book, but on the other hand gifted authors paint such vivid, realistic pictures that their characters practically jump off the page.

Enter gifted author Connie Willis. Classified as a sci-fi writer, Willis writes books that are really historical fiction with a bit of sci-fi thrown in. Her Oxford Time Travel series uses, wait for it, time travel to get characters to a particular point in history, and then the stories become almost entirely historical fiction. And what stories they are! Doomsday Book finds a time traveler trapped in a village during a bubonic plague outbreak. Here Willis creates a world where you-the-reader actually feel that you’ve experienced the insane hardships of the black death.

As amazing as this book is, today I want to discuss Blackout and All Clear, two books which really are just one book split into two. In this adventure, time travelers (called historians) from 2060 go to various points in WWII England to observe and study. Initially, the story jumps around quite a bit between 2060 Oxford and each of the traveler’s adventures. As stories begin to intertwine, three historians who are on separate assignments in 1940 gradually discover that they cannot return to 2060. They start looking for each other (not an easy task in the middle of a world war), each of them incorrectly assuming that the others still have access to the future. Thus the story ends up focusing on Polly, Eileen and Mike in London from mid-1940 to mid-1941.

As much as one can know facts about WWII, there’s no way to know what it was like living through it without having done so. And although Willis’s books are fiction, they thoroughly immerse the reader in the mindset of Londoners during the war. Terror and uncertainty caused by the blitz, loss of loved ones at any given moment, annihilation of homes, daily bombings, destruction of roads and railways and on and on.

But perhaps more than the negative impacts of war, we are shown the resilience of the British. Throughout eight solid months of bombing, people continued going to jobs, shopping, celebrating Christmas and living life day to day. I can’t even begin to imagine the numbing difficulty of living through such an event. And yet live they did.

There is also a sci-fi component to the stories with each of the main characters worried that they might change history (seriously, no one considered this in the 40 years that time travel had been happening?), that they could even cause Hitler’s Germany to win the war. In fact, they are obsessed with this issue. After the time travel process stops working, the three fear that their actions have somehow caused its failure. And to top that off, Polly had earlier in her life gone back to May 1941, so she must return to 2060 before then or the laws of physics and time travel will eradicate her. So we have a thriller that exists on several different levels simultaneously.

When I finished All Clear (some thousand pages later), I felt an emptiness because the end of the book was the end of my relationship with the book’s characters, people who took me through life-changing adventures. In a small way, it paralleled the end of the war when people who had grown so close returned to their normal lives without their wartime families. Happy that the war was over, sad that the experiences which forged strong bonds had ended.

Bittersweet.

Fabulous, depressing, wondrous and fleeting. This is the literary world. So read a good book, make new fictional friends and mourn their departures as the book concludes.

And then, repeat.

It’s No Longer Just For Fences

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Post-rock.

Let the hyphenated word flow over you like butter melted on a half-cooked flapjack: post-rock.

What in tarnation does it mean? The term elicits visions of a doctoral thesis with footnotes and a sports coat with patched elbows. A man in thick glasses and a pointy beard explains, in multi-syllabic folderol, the relationship of epistemology and horror punk while Abba plays endlessly through unseen speakers. Meanwhile, in a nearby room, banjos and mandolins attempt to tune.

But in reality it’s not that complicated. First of all, it’s important to know that there’s not agreement on what is meant by post-rock. The music tends to emulate a soundtrack (and, as it turns out, music by post-rock bands is often used in soundtracks) and is frequently free of lyrics, although a voice might be used as another instrument (i.e. singing without words). The music is generally minimalist, highly repetitive, changing slowly and exhibiting extremes in dynamics to create different moods/emotions. Unlike most soundtrack music, post-rock is performed on typical rock and roll instruments.

Caveat: This is not a genre I frequent. In fact, it is new to me. And it’s not a favorite I must say, but still worth exposing the huddled masses to (whoops, ended the sentence a preposition with). Please, do not attempt to review these bands at home, but listen to them from a safe distance and draw your own conclusions.

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SlintSpiderland (1991) is considered by some to be one of the most important albums ever. The band has performed on and off since 1986, but have not released a recording since Spiderland. Their music is sludgy and ponderous, with many moods and tempos coexisting within a single song. It’s hard-edged, hard rock, even metallic. Vocals are used, although at times they are too quiet to clearly hear.

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Swans – Not a band that easily fits within a single label, Swans’ experimental music exhibits many of the characteristics of post-rock. The Seer (2012) is almost operatic in scope. Drama and emotion are created subtly rather than with sweeping dynamic changes. Some tracks include singing and lyrics in a traditional song form, while others challenge the listener to find minute variations hidden in extreme repetition.  And yet other bits are similar to avant-garde classical music, featuring shimmering drones filled with ethereal timbre shifts. A beautiful, if not straightforward, listen.

Godspeed You! Black Emperorgodspeed – First of all, this could be my favorite band name of all time. But more relevantly, out of the groups I’ve explored for this post, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (it feels so good just to type the name!) strikes me as the most talented. Their music is slow-moving with lots of little stuff going on at any given moment, hard-edged and passionate. Unlike most post-rock musicians, band members are politically active. In fact, this lot is often referred to as anarchists, though they do not verify this claim. I’d give them a 12.

Explosions in the Skyexplosions – Explosions (as I’ve decided to call them) exemplify the epitome of post-rock as soundtrack. In fact, many of their songs have been used in movies and television. Almost exclusively instrumental, their music drifts along slowly, hitting emotional highs and lows with a vengeance. Dynamic extremes and more dynamic extremes are used to communicate these different moods, as well as to affect musical movement.

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Tortoise – Perhaps the most popular of the post-rock bands, Tortoise’s music is very different from the groups mentioned above. Their 2016 album, The Catastrophist, is not so much a soundtrack as it is instrumental rock songs. The album relies heavily on synthesizers and does include some vocals. Fans of mainstream rock music could easily get a groove on to the post-rock sounds of … Tortoise!

And this barely scratches the surface. Kaada, Mogwai, Steroelab, Pelican and Sigur Rós all are worth checking out for their varying interpretations of post-rock. Aaaand, if you want to take a listen to the classical music that post-rock borrows some tricks from, try Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Expand your horizons! Or don’t. But do enjoy some good music.

This One’s For the Ladies

TacocatI always enjoy finding an exceptional new band or album, and my most recent discovery is Lost Time by Tacocat. Let us pause a moment to spell Tacocat backwards.

T-a-c-o-c-a-t.

If that’s not enough reason to like them, there’s also the music. Labelling themselves post post punk pop pop, classified by many as punk or pop punk, Tacocat delivers ice-cream-with-bubble-gum-sweet hard-edged pop in a bowl of witty lyrics and feminism (from a fun viewpoint). They are the Go-Go’s’ slightly naughty younger sister.

The Northwest has been a hotbed for feminist bands since the 90s. Olympia was the cradle of the riot grrrl explosion (hard-hitting punk with feminist lyrics), which featured bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. The current crop of feminist bands (Chastity Belt, NighTraiN, La Luz, Mommy Long Legs and G.L.O.S.S. among others) don’t all play the same style of music, but their lyrical content and philosophical bent join them together in a musical movement that is poised to be the next big thing in our corner of the continent.

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Tacocat, the most popular of our NW feminist bands, came to some prominence in 2014 with the release of NVM, which includes Crimson Wave, a pop-surf song about menstruation.

Call my girls, see if they wanna go, take their minds off dumb aunt Flo
Sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit, ‘cause I’ve got sharks in hot pursuit
Surfin’, surfin’ the wave

The album, whose title is a nod to Nirvana’s Nevermind, was critically acclaimed, even being named one of the top 10 CMJ college radio albums of 2014. Lost Time has not been as well-received but it’s still a highly enjoyable listening experience. The album’s title is an X-Files reference and the first song, Dana Katherine Scully, is a paean to Fox Mulder’s partner, a woman trying to get ahead in that men’s club known as the FBI: “… she’s the only one thinking it through …”.

Topics that the band tackles on Lost Time include menstruation, women having sex and men belittling women. FDP, the album’s second song, features lead singer Emily Nokes’ feelings on the first day of her period: “So tired, so spent / Functioning at ten percent”. A pregnancy scare is looked at in Plan A, Plan B when a woman considers using the morning-after pill as a contraceptive following a condom failure: “Had safe sex / Faulty latex”. Men Explain Things To Me is a woman’s response to mansplaining: “We get it dude / We’ve already heard enough from you / The turning point is overdue”.

But not everything is feminism. I Love Seattle takes a look at the earthquake that will destroy the Northwest coast and the lack of concern that accompanies it:

Ooooh, beautiful Seattle
Ah, fall into the sea
Earthquake, tsunami
There’s still no place I’d rather be

And other songs are simply about day to day life, its joys and pitfalls. Night Swimming contains an obscurely funny lyric: “You can bring a boom box / But you can’t play R.E.M.”. I enjoy this line simply because I don’t care for R.E.M.’s music. But dig even deeper and you’ll find that R.E.M. also has a song called Nightswimming. Excellent arcane reference.

Be sure to check out Lost Time, and if you want to look further into feminist music from the Northwest, try Sleater-Kinney, Childbirth and THEESatisfaction.

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Rockers in Walkers

We humans are fascinated by car wrecks on the road of life, and aging rock stars provide a plethora of accidents for our viewing pleasure. It is with eager anticipation that we await the release of a new album by a dozing giant, hoping against hope that it’s a flop. Or maybe I just speak for myself.

It’s difficult, improbable even, for an artist to make a good album 30 to 40 years after their heyday. The Sonics were an exception in 2015. So it’s with morbid fascination that I search for albums by former stars or stars-on-the-decline, and 2016 has provided more than its share. Today we look at an ancient rock group, an ancient ex-lead singer and a slightly-less-ancient pop star.

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Cheap Trick hit the big time with the release of Cheap Trick at Budokan in 1979. Although they continued to create high-quality albums for the next 30 years, the band’s success peaked soon after Budokan. 30 years later, 2009’s release, The Latest, showed that the lads … er, gentlemen, could still create amazing songs in their trademark power pop/hard rock wheelhouse. But following this album the band entered the longest silence of their career and seven years passed before the release of another album, 2016’s Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello.

So the question is: Do they still have it? And the answer is an unqualified, Yes! Bang, Zoom is not without a clunker or two, but overall the songs are very well-written, performed and produced. I’m not a huge Cheap Trick fan (although, wait for it, I do like their early stuff), but this is an album I could see listening to repeatedly. These fogies fellas have passed the litmus test of time, presenting fans with another gem.

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Aerosmith first came into the public eye in 1973 with the release of Aerosmith. They are a rare band, one that has maintained a high level of success over the decades. At nearly age 70 it’s no longer so easy to Walk this Way (pause for laughter), but the fellows are still performing, be it somewhat sporadically. And over 40 years after the release of Aerosmith, lead singer Steven Tyler has released his first solo album, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere, an alleged foray into the country music world.

Many times over the years aging rockers have released country albums, so it would be easy to assume that Mr. Tyler is going down a well-trod path. However, to paraphrase a review of his album: country is no longer a genre, it’s a marketing scheme. If I had not read that We’re All Somebody was country before listening to it, I never would have suspected. The songs are power ballads, pop and some bluesiness, with a bit of mandolin, pedal steel, banjo and fiddle thrown in for that country feel. But in reality, there are no songs that could even remotely be classified as country. However, the album is well-done and if you like Aerosmith and Tyler’s voice you will probably enjoy it.

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Cyndi Lauper exploded on the scene in 1983, which some of us think of as recently, others as 33 years ago. Spokeswoman for a generation of female music fans, actress and activist, Lauper released nine more albums after her debut, the last in 2010. Then in 2016 at 63-years-old, a time when singers’ voices often change for the worse, Lauper returned with a (wait for it again) country album.

Unlike Steven Tyler’s latest, Lauper’s album Detour uses immortal songs from the annals of country music. Since the songs are already beloved, this leaves the success of the album in the hands of her voice (so to speak), which is a brilliant concept since the voice in question is still going strong. The mix of beautiful interpretations with classic country repertoire results in an album of highly listenable music.

So, no roadkill or dismemberments for today. Maybe next time. We are simply left with a trio of good-to-great albums by a collection of geezers. And I mean that fondly, as a near-geezer myself. As Ringo Starr said in Honey Don’t, “Rock on George, for Ringo, one time!”

Which clearly doesn’t apply to this review.

Let’s Get Sleazy!

SoHo SinsI need a bath. Maybe a shower too. And some steel wool. I might never feel clean again. But that’s kind of the point of reading pulp, to slither through filthy streets, vicariously partake of forbidden fruit and get really, really slimy.

The Hard Case Crime books are a contemporary series of pulp / detective / noir books, some reprints of old stories, some newly written ones. Many are gems. Today we look at a brand spankin’ new hard case, a trashy, delicious, disgusting, amazing story by first-time novelist Richard Vine called SoHo Sins.

I read a lot of pulp. Truth be told, there’s not a lot of variety in the genre. The beauty typically comes in the language, the prose. Stories tend to borrow liberally from the tried-and-true, with minor variations. Not so for SoHo Sins. What I like about this book is the ways in which it stretches the standard pulp template. The main character/narrator is a wealthy art dealer, not a detective (neither professional nor amateur). He is close friends with a P.I. but their friendship is never explained nor explored (which I quite enjoy). This P.I. asks the art dealer for help in investigating a murder that on the surface seems to be an open-and-shut case. So we do have a murder, a suspect (who is possibly being framed) and an investigation, all typical pulp fare. However, the way that things unfold is anything but typical.

The detective, usually the focal point of pulp novels, is almost a minor character in SoHo Sins. Instead, our narrator, the art dealer, is the story’s focus. He’s the one who carries out most of the investigative legwork. And this detecting occurs at an almost leisurely pace, pausing for months while the art dealer deals art. It’s a lovely technique for freshening up a well-trodden path.

As the investigation meanders along, the detective focuses on a suspected child pornographer, and we meet a 12-year-old girl who is the daughter of a friend of the art dealer (try to keep up with me here). The girl, along with her mother, moves into the same building as the narrator and she starts referring to him as her boyfriend. This does not bother him, a man of some years, as much as it should. The detective asks him to investigate the pornographer (who is obviously interested in the 12-year-old), which requires him to pose as a fellow … pervert? Thus begins the descent into the slime.

Perhaps you can see why it’s bath time.

SoHo Sins will be published on July 19 and it will soon join the EPL collection of Hard Case Crime novels, along with the titles pictured below:

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Bowie Has Left the Planet

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10 years of nothingness had passed when seemingly out of nowhere David Bowie released The Next Day. People assumed he’d retired from music, the album came as a complete surprise. Although it took two years to record, Bowie made sure it was kept entirely secret. If I’d been paying attention to his career, had known he was still capable of making incredible music, I would have been thrilled! But the release passed me by, unnoticed. Until now.

When I think of Bowie, I tend to think of Suffragette City and other songs in that vein. If one approaches his later work with the expectancy of Ziggy Stardust rocking out, one will be disappointed. Unlike mosquitos filled with dinosaur DNA, artists are not bugs captured in amber. Their work evolves over time. People age, their capabilities change. In the case of David Bowie, his voice is the most noticeable difference, no longer as flexible, no longer as energetic or dynamic. Yet … still amazing. Melodies tend to be a bit more monotone, tempos slower, dynamics softer. But this isn’t better or worse, it’s just new.

The Next Day includes songs that range from full-on rockers ([You Will] Set The World on Fire), to the slow and delicate (Where Are We Now?) to standard anthems (How Does the Grass Grow?) to chaos infused with fits of stability (If You Can See Me). Styles are incredibly varied. This is classic Bowie yet innovative. While you might find some tarnish amongst the glitter, the album is certain to please.

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The following year, 2014, saw the release of Nothing Has Changed, a career-spanning collection of greatest hits reaching back to 1969 and wrapping up with selections from 2013’s The Next Day. All phases of Bowie’s career, other than Tin Machine, are covered in this comprehensive release. If you’re looking for an introduction to 45 years of music, Nothing Has Changed is an excellent choice.

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And finally, all too soon, I come to that which I’ve been putting off, the acceptance of mortality. Perhaps when I was unaware of his later work I didn’t care as much, but now I’m truly sorry I’ve heard the last of David Bowie. His music will always be there for me, but it is complete, finite, there will be no more.blackstar

In my research for this series of posts I made an intriguing discovery: every David Bowie album has a picture of Bowie on the cover. Sometimes it’s a fairly simple photo, other times a cartoonish drawing, a stylized scenario, or even, as in the case of The Next Day, the re-use of a previous album cover (Heroes) with Bowie’s photo obscured by a white square. Every cover sports a picture of Bowie except for the cover of his final album. Blackstar features the image of a black star. This seems significant. We could ponder the symbolism of a black star or the clues found in the album’s lyrics, but instead of dwelling upon the sadness of death, let us rejoice that Blackstar is a stunning collection of music.

Somewhat in the same vein as The Next Day, the album features songs varying in style tremendously, laid-back vocals and a quiet/ethereal/sparse mood. It’s one of the best efforts from Bowie’s later career, a thoroughly satisfying and lush listening experience. The opening song, Blackstar, is simply gorgeous. Beautiful keyboards, a dark mood and a story well-matched by its music. Sue is an unsettling song filled with discomfiting music. Wild, crazy percussion and bass play frantically beneath sparse, languishing vocals. The album concludes with a celebratory mood in I Can’t Give Everything Away, a wonderful career-ending song.

And then, Bowie left the planet.