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.

The Name Of This Band Is…

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Talking Heads ’77, the initial offering by this New-York-via-Rhode-Island band of post-punk art rockers, came out more than 40 years ago. And it still sounds as fresh as the morning dew on the backside of a newly-hatched tadpole. Needless to say, the album quickly joined the soundtrack of my teenage life, with Psycho Killer paving the way for a musical awakening.

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By the time I started college in 1980, Talking Heads had released four albums in four years and I had begun to immerse myself in their vision of funk. As a white suburban kid from the homogenous WonderBread suburbs, funk did not often cross my path, but songs like I Zimbra and Born Under Punches (from Fear of Music and Remain in Light respectively) helped this white boy learn to play that funky music until I die.

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After the release of Remain in Light the band took a break from recording, focusing on touring and pursuing side projects. Finally, 1983 brought the release of Speaking in Tongues, the hit single Burning Down the House and the group’s greatest commercial success. By this time I was itching to see my favorite funksters live, and conveniently the band embarked on its Stop Making Sense tour, visiting the Seattle Center Arena on December 2nd. By turns enthralling, intriguing and energizing, this concert stunned my tiny mind. David Byrne is a master performer, not just singing pleasantly but also providing creative visual flourishes (such as running in place in his giant white suit) as part of the total experience.

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Now, I have to be honest here. Somewhere around the release of Little Creatures in 1985 I started losing interest in the band. This had more to do with my complete disdain for anything commercially successful than it did with the quality of their music. Little Creatures includes fabulous songs such as Television Man and Road to Nowhere. True Stories (labeled simply as Talking Heads on the cover) is music from the movie of the same name, a film which I thoroughly enjoyed. And Naked, an album which I’ve not heard enough to even recollect, received critical praise upon its release in 1988.

These later albums are definitely worth revisiting, but Talking Heads ’77 is the disc that continues to astound me. Back in the days of vinyl it was fairly common to have a favorite side of a platter (as we called them) and side 2 of ’77 is one of the greatest there is. The Book I Read, Don’t Worry About the Government, First Week/Last Week… Carefree, Psycho Killer and Pulled Up. Each song is musically unique yet cohesive with the others, different moods all fit within a larger happy feel (well, perhaps Psycho Killer is not so happy) and a good listen is had by all. Music can tie into our senses and memories in ways that are quite complex, and this album is forever part of my ascent into adulthood (which, coincidentally, I am still experiencing).

The band has now been disbanded for 30 years but their music is still vital and invigorating. We got a passel of Talking Heads albums here at Everett Public Library, so come on down and check them out. And never forget those immortal words of David Byrne:

“Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est, fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa…”

The Best of 2018 (So Far)

With the ending of each year come the inevitable “Best Of” lists. It’s a very tiring time for writers and reviewers. And readers. So, to make life easier, I’m presenting the best music of 2018 (so far). Perhaps if we find something sufficiently exciting we won’t need to do this again in December.

Like a comfortable shirt covered with paint and food stains, They Might Be Giants have nourished my soul for more than 30 years. These prolific songwriters create a vast arsenal of music, so much that some of it’s bound to be good, or even great. But beyond the mere volume of their material, TMBG are a talented duo, crafting quirky and engaging pop tunes by the dozens. I’ve enjoyed but not been blown away by their recent albums, until now.

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I Like Fun, an album whose name is rather difficult to ascertain from the album cover, is not necessarily typical TMBG fare, but it is a great pop rock album. Each and every song, from the somewhat Beatlesque machinations of I Left My Body to the hints of Queen mated with Esquivel in Mrs. Bluebeard to the outright weirdness of the title track, this is one catchy, foot-tapping cornucopia of fabulous music. I give it an 8.4 on the Richter scale.

But wait, there’s more.

No Age is a noise rock duo that has been around for some time now, although they are new to me. Their fifth and latest release, Snares Like a Haircut, has the best title I’ve heard in quite some time, but it’s also filled to the brim with good ol’ sloppy garage punk and roll. If Husker Du and The Replacements had hooked up after an art gallery opening, No Age would have been the resulting spawn.

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The band’s sound is steeped in distortion, but more along the lines of muddy guitar chords than heavy metal guitar riffs. Styles range from the fuzzy dream pop of Send Me to the Ramones-like Popper to the aggressive yet catchy Soft Collar Fad. Kind of sloppy, kind of lo-fi, but the music is still melodic and catchy. An unusual and enjoyable find, I give it a 7.2 on the Richter scale.

To be sure, there will be more great albums released in 2018, but come the end of the year They Might Be Giants and No Age will definitely sit near the top of my best-of-the-year list. So get your Christmas shopping done early (Note: If you want to check these items out and give them as temporary loans for Christmas, please wait until December) and stay tuned for more spectacular music from 2018.

Music and Pictures

Lately I’ve discovered some new-to-me cable TV shows that have amazing soundtracks filled with songs I’ve never heard, and I’ve heard a lot of songs. This has caused me to ponder the purpose of soundtracks, the effects that movies and TV have on songs that already exist. At the minimum, soundtracks can expose one to music that one would not otherwise encounter. And this can be exciting.

One trend I’ve noticed in recent-ish television programs is that the soundtracks are made up of songs that are not particularly well-known. Somebody out there is spending a lot of time finding quirky hidden gems of music. But the brilliance doesn’t stop there. The songs are used skillfully to create moments that the visuals or text or music could not create alone. This leads seamlessly to my philosophy of soundtracks.

Songs enhance movies, movies enhance songs.

It’s a simple philosophy but one that I think about frequently. I’ll use Tin Cup, one of my favorite movies, as an example. Its soundtrack is made up of music that I would not typically listen to or enjoy. Yet, because of the songs’ associations with the beloved movie, I enjoy them. The songs make me picture scenes from the movie, remember funny lines. The two art forms are more powerful together than each is alone.

US of Tara

United States of Tara examines how a family copes with the mother’s dissociative identity disorder (known as multiple personalities for many years). The show is part funny, part traumatic and all excellent. The closing credits are always accompanied by a different weird-ish song that somehow relates to the episode. Thanks to Al Gore’s interwebs, it’s possible to quickly find out song titles and performer names. For a musically curious guy like me, this creates a Christmas-like situation where I can discover enjoyable music that’s new to me.

Here are a few of the artists used in United States of Tara:

Billie Holiday is one of the all-time greatest purveyors of vocal jazz and blues. Not a new listening experience for me, but a noteworthy one.

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Bon Iver is an indie folk group that has enjoyed critical acclaim and success. Acoustic-ish, using some unusual instrumentation, often quiet, worth a listen.

Chairlift delivers sparse and delicate synthpop with amazing vocals.

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Hanni El Khatib is my favorite find from the United States of Tara soundtrack. His style is all over the place, but his music is always energetic and engaging. Acoustic guitar in a rock format, well worth the price of admission.

Weeds

Another show that has led me to fabulous music through its soundtrack is Weeds. A recently widowed suburban mom tries to make ends meet by selling marijuana. She quickly learns the depths of her naiveté and attempts to turn her business into a steady income, all while raising two teenage boys who bring their own problems into the mix.

Here are a few of the artists used in Weeds:

Malvina Reynolds was an American folk singer and political activist. Her song Little Boxes, an examination of the conformity that swallows suburbia, was used as the theme song for Weeds.

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Sufjan Stevens writes in a variety of styles, focusing on lo-fi, sparse indie folk. His music runs the gamut from the overly-precious to the sublime.

Abigail Washburn is an old timey banjo player who delivers haunting ballads as well as upbeat knee slappers.

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Flogging Molly performs a brilliant brand of Celtic pop rock. If you like Irish folk music, check out this group.

So it’s two for the price of one, brilliant television series as well as fun musical discoveries. All courtesy of the library! Take a chance on something new, dare to be pleasantly surprised.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Most popular music consists of both music and words. I find that I respond almost entirely to music, seldom paying too much attention to lyrics, which is probably just as well since most lyrics are drivel. This is not opinion, it’s science.

When I’m reading music reviews, the reviewer often will quote lyrics that he finds especially moving or clever. I almost always find these examples to be spectacularly inane, which leads me to wonder if when I share lyrics that are incredibly meaningful to me, everyone else finds them stupid.

Don’t get me wrong; clever lyrics can be amazing. But most folks who write rock songs are content to rhyme home and roam, wife and life, booze and lose. The little grey cells are not stretched much to come up with these expressions of creativity.

So, I set out to find strange, meaningful, beautiful lyrics. And let me tell you, it was not an easy journey. I finally arrived on my own doorstep, so to speak, with the album Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? by Seattle’s own Harvey Danger. Here we find clever, quirky lyrics that are coated with a fine sprinkling of pathos and powdered sugar.

Hear the voices in my head
I swear to God it sounds like they’re snoring
But if you’re bored then you’re boring
The agony and the irony, they’re killing me

Flagpole Sitta contains some of my favorite lyrics in songdom, yet if asked to explain the song’s meaning I would be largely guessing. If one looks at forums discussing this very topic, one will be highly amused by the extreme variety of responses. Ultimately, as with all great art, the lyrics mean whatever you want them to. That aside, I’m attracted by the waggish wordplay. In the above example the narrator is apparently suffering from auditory hallucinations, but at the same time has such low self-esteem that he feels he’s putting his hallucinations to sleep. Sad if true, but in the context of song lyrics quite amusing.

The chorus is short and poignant.

 I’m not sick but I’m not well
And I’m so hot ’cause I’m in hell

This gives some insight into the narrator’s mind: Not sick but not well, suffering as from the fires of hell. Not a happy person. But he’s still able to find humor in the idiocy of others.

Been around the world and found
That only stupid people are breeding
The cretins cloning and feeding
And I don’t even own a TV

Carlotta Valdez is another jocular song on this album, featuring lyrics that should have won a MacArthur Genius Award.

Everything’s subjective
Nothing lasts for Johnny O
K-Kiss Kim Novak where the redwoods grow

These lyrics refer to the movie Vertigo, which has a plot that’s insanely difficult to explain. Picture Jimmy Stewart, people falling off buildings, a femme fatale (played by Kim Novak) who Stewart becomes obsessed with, and a bad case of vertigo. Carlotta Valdez is a long-dead woman who is possibly related to the femme fatale.

Jimmy Stewart follows Kim to where your portrait hangs on a wall
Such a haunting vision, he forgets his partner’s fall

The words are actually a clever plot synopsis, far more succinct than any I could provide.

Go up the mission stair
I’ll follow anywhere — that is, until you climb too high

So the lesson today? Good lyrics do exist, but it can be a hunt to find them. And, choosing music based on the lyrics rather than the genre can be a good way to expose yourself to new things. Like Harvey Danger.

More Favorite Music From 2017

Welcome to Part 2 of my favorite 2017 albums. Today we explore the varied worlds of punk, country and blues. As always, please do not adjust your sets until the transmission is complete.

Punk, in various forms and incarnations, is alive and well. Whether it be straight ahead, Celtic or post-punk (I know, this is a stretch), it can be found on an album released in 2017.

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Seekers and Finders by Gogol Bordello
Question: What do you get when you combine elements of traditional Gypsy music with punk, dub and other genres? Answer: A passel of fun known as Gogol Bordello. If you’re looking for something unusual and exciting, Seekers and Finders is a good place to start.

11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory by Dropkick Murphys
Speaking of unusual mergers, Celtic music and punk make for a powerful combination. Dropkick Murphys have a catalog of solid albums and the latest does not disappoint.

Life is Good by Flogging Molly
Speaking of Celtic punk… Well, Flogging Molly is another band that creates outstanding music by mixing diffuse and disparate sources. Their emphasis is a bit more on the Celtic end of the spectrum, a reeling and rollicking mix of dancing and drinking tunes.

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English Tapas by Sleaford Mods
Demonstrating a minimalist approach reminiscent of early punk/post-punk groups such as The Adverts and The Raincoats, Sleaford Mods take a traditional punk stance on lyrics. Their groovy, repetitive songs touch on subjects ranging from unemployment to social injustices. For a truly unusual and excellent 2017 album, check this one out.

Nothing Feels Natural by Priests
Perhaps the most unusual of these 2017 releases, Nothing Feels Natural borrows elements of funk, darkwave, post-punk and a variety of other genres. Strongly political lyrics combine with this mix of styles to create a riveting and infectious album.

Country music and blues also flourished in 2017.

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Down Hearted Blues by Eilen Jewell
Eilen Jewell takes her amazing, honey-infused voice and turns it loose on blues and country for her latest album. The tunes, they are great and the performances, they are superb. Sure to please even the most curmudgeonly.

50 Years of Blonde on Blonde by Old Crow Medicine Show
This live tribute to Bob Dylan, served up with a typical OCMS old timey flavor, has a little something for everyone. Whether you love bluegrass or love Zimbo (the internets assure me that this is a Bob Dylan nickname) you are certain to love this album.

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm by Robert Cray
Straight from the guitar of Portland blues legend Robert Cray we find a new release filled to the brim with soulful licks and catchy tunes. Cray continues to put out high-quality material nearly 40 years after his debut.

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Northern Passages by Sadies
Perhaps you’re not ready to commit to full-on country music. The Sadies deliver another great platter of alt-country tunes, which is a fancy way of saying music with some sort of country flavor. If you like the band Cracker, this might be just what the psychiatrist ordered.

Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues by Various Artists
Speaking of old-timey, this collection of jug band tunes from the 1920s and 1930s is a must-listen for blues and country enthusiasts. A fine collection of songs presented in their raw and original form.

The Last Shade of Blue Before Black by Original Blues Brothers Band
Including only one member of the Blues Brothers band, the Original Blues Brothers Band, along with many guests from the original Blues Brothers band (get it?), have put together a fine album of, well, blues. Check out this unexpected gem.

And there you have it. Great music never went away, but you might have to hunt a bit to find it. And perhaps, oh I don’t know, Everett Public Library is a good place to start? As always, check it out.

2017 Rock(ed) and Pop(ped)

I know what you want to know.

You want to know my favorite albums of 2017, what had me jitterbugging across the speakeasy floor. You want to know what made my toes tap, my elbows chortle, my left eyelid lambada.

You want to know what’s hip, hipster.

Well hip hip hooray, here’s what you want and ye shall want no more.

Under the broad umbrella of rock music we find a variety of fine albums coming out of 2017. The genres stretch from riot grrrl to classic rock to power pop, psychedelic and garage. But what they all have in common is, wait for it, I like them!

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No Plan by David Bowie
Recorded at the same time as Blackstar, the songs found on this posthumous EP were written for Bowie’s Broadway musical Lazarus. The music is slow, intense and exceedingly lovely.

Live in Paris by Sleater-Kinney
The title explains this album fairly thoroughly. Sleater-Kinney, hailing from the great Pacific Northwest, is one of my favorite groups. This live show captures the intensity of the band exquisitely.

Near to the Wild Heart of Life by Japandroids
Straight from the wilds of Vancouver, BC, Japandroids deliver a unique blend of rock and punk with New Romantic vastness. Prepare to enjoy some anthemic goodness.

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LA Divine by Cold War Kids
A bit more mainstream and ordinary than their earlier albums, LA Divine still manages to showcase high-quality songs with a soupçon of Arcade Fire in the mix.

Give More Love by Ringo Starr
Who’da thunk that Ringo would be the one still making high-quality albums some 50 years later? The first song is an explosion of energy that sets the tone for this classic rock album.

Fierce Mercy by Colin Hay
“You may know me as the lead singer for Men at Work,” is something that Colin Hay might tell you. Well-done pop/rock. An enjoyable spin.

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Ty Segall by Ty Segall
Mr. Segall puts out some amazing psychedelic garage rock. He’s one of those artists you don’t hear that much about, but then you listen to his music and are blown away. Check this one out.

Robyn Hitchcock by Robyn Hitchcock
This twenty-first studio album from Mr. Hitchcock could have come straight out of hippie-laden California ca. 1968. Great stuff.

We’re All Right! by Cheap Trick
Churning out most excellent hard-edged power pop for 40 years, Cheap Trick scores another hit with their latest album. File this one under electroshock therapy.

The year’s best pop music stretches from dream pop to synthpop to chamber pop and beyond.

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Hug of Thunder by Broken Social Scene
Unconventional group made up of 6-18 musicians with music reflecting the unique stylings of each member. Some dance rhythms, energetic music but laid back performances, huge yet quiet.

Pleasure by Feist
Delicate, sparse, including lots of little quirks that make the music quite interesting. A curious mix of pop and post-punk.

Okovi by Zola Jesus
Music pulled straight from a soundtrack, huge in scope, dreamy with a hint of goth. Strange and worth seeking out.

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Dreamcar by Dreamcar
Songs that brings back those lazy, hazy days of new wave. Dreamcar has put out an entertaining album by channeling the Thompson Twins and Duran Duran and adding their own creative twists.

Crack-up by Fleet Foxes
Seattle’s own presents a unique blend of folksy post-rock. A change of direction, or perhaps a continued growth in the same direction, takes Fleet Foxes to new and intriguing places.

No Shape by Perfume Genius
Another denizen of the Northwest, Perfume Genius brings a level of, well, genius to his songwriting. Highly emotional, huge in sonic scope, filled with abundant variety. Music does not get much better than this.

The Queen of the Blues

One of my favorite albums of 2017 is, surprisingly, made up entirely of old blues covers. Typically, I’m attracted to artists who produce original music. However, as a performer, I love creating exciting arrangements of other people’s songs. If a cover is simply a faithful reproduction of the original, it holds little interest for me. But if it provides a new take, a different feel, startling insights… wellsir, that can make for some mighty fine music.

JewellEilen Jewell, who created this album, is an amazing singer, with a sultry voice reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan or Madeline Peyroux. Her music is typically categorized as country, although it contains a variety of other influences. For her 2017 release, Down Hearted Blues, Jewell borrows songs from some of blues’ greatest artists: Lonnie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Little Walter and Otis Rush, among others. The result is both an enjoyable listen and a delightful lesson in music history.

The album opens with Charles Sheffield’s It’s Your Voodoo Working, a song that defies any attempts at listener immobility. This tune is a perfect match for Jewell’s seductive vocalizations. Not to be outdone, the instrumentalists provide some of the finest chops this side of Chesapeake Bay.

Alberta Hunter’s Down Hearted Blues is transformed into a Hank Williams Sr. soundalike, oozing those white country blues in treacly globules of gratification. Here the band is at its finest, making a seamless transition from blues to country. Of all the songs on the album, this title track is the least similar to the original.

Next up is Clarence Johnson and Betty James’ I’m a Little Mixed Up, here delivered as a mixture of bottleneck blues, rockabilly Travis-style picking and a Texas two-step. The original, performed by Betty James in 1961, sets up more of an early R&B feel, but this updating of the song is equally delicious.

For a different beast altogether, look no further than Don’t Leave Poor Me, originally sung by Big Maybelle in 1955. Here we find Latin-tinged percussion, strong vocals and killer distorted guitar. The band is once again impeccable, demonstrating a keen agility to move convincingly between styles.

Finally on today’s whirlwind tour, The Poor Girl’s Story is a song that was recorded by Moonshine Kate, one of the first female country performers to be recorded, in the early 1930s. Jewell and her band take this tune on an authentic old-timey acoustic ramble through America’s musical heartland, complete with unwashed men riding the rails and folks heading west to escape poverty and dust.

In short, Down Hearted Blues is one of the finest albums of 2017. Whether you like blues, country, folk or simply fine musicianship, this one is worth a spin. And don’t forget to check out the originals as well. Jewell said of this album, “We really love to uncover the past. It’s almost like digging for buried treasure.” And here she has already done the grunt work for you. So sit back and enjoy this treasure.