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.

Vancouver, the Canadian One

There is a saying: Nothing good ever comes out of Canada.

I might be paraphrasing.

Irregardless, other than currency that can easily be altered to look like Mr. Spock and curling, nothing good ever comes out of Canada.

Except poutine. And Canadian bands like the New Pornographers.

Hailing from Vancouver B.C., the New Pornographers fall somewhere in the power pop/indie pop continuum. From the release of their first album, Mass Romantic (2000), to the present, the band has garnered respect and accolades: Mass Romantic was chosen the 24th best indie album ever by Blender magazine, Electric Version (their second album) was voted the 79th best album of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine and Brill Bruisers (2014) charted at #13 in the U.S. Yet I’m guessing that many of us have never heard of this successful band. As a proper introduction, let us look at their fifth album, Together, from 2010.

NPTogetherSugar-sweet pop, tight harmonies and a happy mood dominate the songs on Together. A distinct ELO influence is heard in the vocal harmonies as well as in the use of strings and classical-oriented interludes. Many songs are driven by guitars, but keyboards also play a significant role. Unlike typical pop music, Together’s songs unfold in a variety of complex ways, often with introductions that starkly contrast the bodies of the songs. Unusual time signatures and accents combine with frequent texture changes to create intriguing musical palettes. In short, Together could easily become one of my favorite albums.

Perhaps what I like best about this album is that songs do not go where expected. Or start where expected. Take for example Your Hands (Together). At the start of this song the music starts and stops frequently until finally the drums enter playing triplets, which creates a strange rhythmic juxtaposition. Later, instrumental breaks which in most songs would be filled with solos are here filled with space – making them seem like anti-solos. Throughout the song textures change often, for example drums coming in and out rather than playing continuously. Overall, this song is a pleasant surprise that keeps the listener guessing.

Together is one of those unexpected gems that one finds every now and again. If you like catchy music that’s a bit on the different side, give this one a spin.

White Lung is another noteworthy Vancouver band. When they started out in 2006, the group played primarily punk and hardcore. Recently their music has evolved to a slightly more poppish sensibility. Deep Fantasy (2014), however, fits squarely into the hardcore category.

WLDeepIf I had to pick a single word to describe Deep Fantasy, it would be dense. Vocals, guitar and drums are astonishingly busy, the band’s sound palette tends to be bright and distorted, tempos are fast, songs are very short. As we say in the recording biz, they saturate the tape. Lyrics deal with heavy life issues: addiction, dysmorphia, rape culture. Coupled with the aggressive music, these lyrics are quite compelling.

The first song, Drown with the Monster, is an excellent introduction to this impenetrable wall of sound. The listener is immediately hit with urban assault guitar and rapid-fire drums. These are quickly joined by harpy-inflected (in a good way) vocals. Though there are relatively peaceful moments, the song is a 2:04 blitzkrieg of the senses. With its abrupt ending, one cannot help but feel relief. And then to cue it up again.

So yes, Regina, good things do come out of Canada on occasion. The Vancouver music scene is filled with impressive performers who make albums that can be found at EPL. As always, check them out.

Woah, Flashback, Dude

flasSince my early days as a li’l shaver, Electric Light Orchestra has been one of my favorite groups. Combining harmonies and hooks that would melt Frosty the Snowman’s heart together with jaunty, swashbuckling strings for the old folks, ELO has produced the best mixture of rock and classical music known to humankind.

One common observation about the band is that they continued on with the grand orchestral rock of Sgt. Pepper era Beatles. And yes, their songs are huge. Seemingly infinite string sections (courtesy of overdubbing), blaring French horns, banks of synthesizers… all of these elements contribute to the pomp. Then there’s a bit of Beach Boys in the mix as well. Sugar sweet multi-voice harmonies mix with deep-sea hooks in a candy-coated web of classical complexity. Or something like that.

On their earliest albums ELO focused equally on rock and orchestral influences. For example, their first hit single, 10538 Overture, includes 15 tracks of cello, as well as French horns and a fairly even blend of rock and classical elements. The song is quite catchy and is firmly entrenched in the rock genre, but clearly contains orchestral elements as well.

Their cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven employs the brilliant idea of mixing the iconic rock and roll song with bits and pieces of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. We hear synthesizers playing Beethoven riffs over rock band backings, strings playing rock and roll solos, and a fairly poppy interpretation of Berry’s tune. The combination is magical, showcasing the best of two different worlds.

As we move forward in time, classical elements become less important in ELO’s music. Strings and synths still appear frequently in the music, but within a more pop/rock framework. Strange Magic, off of the group’s fifth album, Face the Music, starts with a string intro that’s purely pop in structure, bearing little resemblance to the classical riffs of earlier songs. This intro quickly shifts to guitar and synth, then vocals and eventually drums. Strings and synth strings continue throughout the song, but more as pop accompaniment than to any classical end. It’s still easy to hear the “orchestra” in Electric Light Orchestra, but their style has forever shifted.

To my mind, Out of the Blue (1977) is the group’s masterpiece. This double album includes one fabulous song after another. Mr. Blue Sky, which is simply a pop masterpiece, is a prime example of the album’s excellence. Once again we hear strings and synth used generously in a pop context, giving the song a spacious, cavernous heft. As it begins to wind down, Mr. Blue Sky finds itself beset with operatic vocals, a sudden shift to new musical ideas, and a gradual dovetailing back to the familiar. The listener is left with an overtly dramatic, somewhat cataclysmic mood swing.

Flashback, a career-spanning retrospective, is a great place to start a relationship with Electric Light Orchestra. Early classical-oriented songs, mid-period pop gems, and late less-to-my-taste tracks can all be found here. So give it a spin in your jukebox, light up the disco ball and prepare to be amazed. Remember, the sweetness content is very high, so be sure to floss when finished.

Comfort Music

In times of stress and tribulation, some turn to comfort food. But I find my comfort in music. A single song can change the course of my day for the better. And so today I share with you my Post-Holiday Guide to Comfort Music.

bixOld-timey jazz is one of my go-to genres when seeking comfort. As a former trumpet player I admire the brilliance of Bix Beiderbecke (pronounced Bick Spiderbeck), an extremely influential musician whose heyday was in the 1920s. Bix, as I call him because it’s easier to type, played in a variety of dance bands during his short career (he died at age 28) and left a legacy that persists 100 years later. For your comfort, I recommend Bix Beiderbecke Volume 1, Singin’ the Blues.

bobwillsWestern swing is another source of succor for me, and so I turn to the king of Western swing, Bob Wills. Picture old-time country (you know, the good stuff) combined with big band, except the solos are played on traditional country instruments, and the musical language leans more towards country with a slight nod to jazz… Well, it’s a wonderful hybrid. And for your comfort, try Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: 1935-1947.

yourhitparadeSpeaking of the 1940s (notice the clever segue), I do love me the purdy songs from those post-war years. Your Hit Parade, The Late ‘40s features fantastic jazz and pop from that golden age. Listening to those tunes I can just picture the yuge tube radio in my neatly trimmed suburban home, slipper-clad feet on the ottoman, wisps of fruity smoke climbing eagerly towards the heavens. Sarah Vaughn interprets Black Coffee as only she can, Tommy Dorsey delivers The Huckle-Buck. Comfort for all.

thompsonFor beautiful Celtic/folk/folk rock/rock, there is none better than Richard Thompson. One of the greatest guitarists ever, Thompson is also a superb songwriter and a most excellent singer. Walking On A Wire (1968 – 2009) is a nice career retrospective, albeit nearly 10 years behind now, ranging from early folksy work with Fairport Convention to more recent rockers like my personal favorite, Bathsheba Smiles. His music is intricacy veiled in the guise of simplicity, complicated guitar paired with delicate melodies, tunes that will stick with you for days. Listening to this man’s music is indeed a comfort.

buzzcocksMoving on to music from my college days, Buzzcocks are a British punk band that started in the late 70s, and 40 years later they’re still going at it! Singles Going Steady is a compilation of their early hits from the 70s and 80s. Unlike what you might think punk is, the songs are catchy pop gems, generally not political, often steeped in teenage experiences, and most assuredly wielding a hard edge. So many good memories, much comfort provided.

ecAnd as the sun sets on today’s music-of-comfort we turn to the best of them all, Elvis Costello. I was first introduced to his music at a high school dance, saw him at my first rock concert, have performed his songs and stolen his dry cleaning (well, not really). Stylistically, this guy is all over the place, from country to jazz to power pop to acoustic rock and everywhere inbetween. His first album, My Aim Is True, remains in my heavy rotation even after 41 years. Songs like Welcome to the Working Week, Alison and Mystery Dance are perfect pop masterpieces. Check him out and you too will receive comfort.

We all need comfort at times and music is an amazing healer. Check out some of these titles, or look into your own favorite genres to find nourishment for the soul. Oh, and let me know if you find my dry cleaning.

Music 2016 Wrap Up!

2016 was the first year in which I set out to listen to as many new albums as possible. And while I didn’t sample as many as I’d hoped, my listening pile was yuge. Rather than focus simply on the best albums of the year, I give you: Music 2016 Wrap Up!

Let us start with Most Disappointing albums of the year. There were many to choose from, but here are two artists who I’ve really enjoyed in the past whose 2016 offerings were not up to par:

Violent Femmes  – We Can Do Anything
Ronnie Spector –   English Heart

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Many well-known artists released new albums, so I give you Legends of 2016:

Bob Dylan       Elton John       Eric Clapton
Jeff Beck          Paul Simon      Prince

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We got a Folk Icon and the Best Punk album of the year.

Joan Baez – 75th Birthday Celebration
Bleached – Welcome the Worms

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Strangest Idea for an album had co-winners.

Steven Tyler – We’re All Somebody from Somewhere, Tyler’s take on country
Train – Train Does Led Zeppelin II, and the title says it all

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Dream Pop became a popular genre.

Janel Leppin   Daddy             Frightened Rabbit
Mitski              Money             School of Seven Bells

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Some excellent traditional country albums were released.

Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming
Cyndi Lauper –       Detour

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And from the Do You Remember? files, many artists from the past put out new albums in 2016.

Blink-182         De La Soul        Red Hot Chili Peppers
Foghat             Pet Shop Boys   Rick Springfield

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The Most Surprising album of the year was Origins, Vol. 1 by Ace Frehley. I expected to hate it but instead… loved it!

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And the highlight of 2016? Here are some of my Favorite Albums of 2016.

David Bowie – Blackstar
Monkees – Good Times!
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing

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Some of these albums have been written up in previous posts, others probably will come in the future. Today I simply offer you a sampler. So dig in, put your feet up on the cat and enjoy your Music 2016 Wrap Up!

101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die

101-artistsWhat better way to end the year than to read 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die by Ricardo Cavolo? Sure, you’ve got your end-of-year best-of lists to explore, but this graphic novel includes a solid group of musicians from the last 300+ years that you can rest assured are worthy of your time. “Graphic novel” you say? Why yes indeedy, it is.

It might seem odd to present music reviews in a graphic novel format, but Cavolo’s artwork is an integral part of this exceptional book. Amazing portraits of the artists incorporate symbols, iconography and bits of history in a unique style unlike anything I’ve seen. Each picture is worthy of extensive study.

The book’s prose is also unusual and captivating. Writing about music is a most difficult task and Cavalo, who does not consider himself a musician or a skilled music reviewer, excels at it. He approaches music from an emotional and visceral angle, describing how it makes him feel, not attempting to fit the abstract into an intellectual box but using poetical descriptions to communicate his reactions. It’s a highly effective strategy.

The book is fairly chronological, starting with J.S. Bach and ending with Chief Keef. Between the two we find most every kind of music imaginable. For example:

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Old Crow Medicine Show (old timey), Leadbelly (blues), Woody Guthrie (folk), Dolly Parton (country), Buddy Holly (50s rock), The Sonics (garage rock), Black Flag (punk), Notorious B.I.G. (hip hop), Elliott Smith (indie rock) and The Chemical Brothers (electronica) to name just a few.

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And here are a few artists I recommend for my end-of-year best music official list thing.

djangoDjango Reinhardt – He’s the king of gypsy jazz, the man who can play more notes with two fingers (the other three were injured in a fire) than I will ever play in my life. Driving rhythms, virtuoso soloing, jazz violin courtesy of Stephan Grappelli.

 

vuThe Velvet Underground – They included Lou Reed and John Cale, they associated with Andy Warhol. At a time when youth culture was exploding and rock music was exemplified by the muscular guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix, The VU put out quiet little gems, rough around the edges and filled with beauty.

 

zombiesThe ZombiesTime of the Season is a favorite of many, but not a lot of other songs by this British Invasion band are remembered. Yet their catalog is filled with material as good as their more popular contemporaries. Take a listen to their album voted the 100th best album of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine.

 

iggyIggy Pop – The godfather of proto-punk has been recording albums since 1969. This year he released a new one and it’s quite good. A bit of Middle Eastern influence, dreamy vocals, and at age 70 he still can’t keep his shirt on. Don’t expect Stooges energy but anticipate a full frontal assault on new musical frontiers.

And so we say goodbye to 2016 (the first of many such goodbyes) and prepare to make lists and to share them with unsuspecting citizens. Your mission, should you accept it, is to find CDs of the artists listed above (hey, try looking at EPL!). Check them out. Listen. Make a list. Lather (optional). Repeat.

And now you’re ready for 2017. Happy listening.

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.