More the Best of 2018 (So Far)!

Like a crisp newly-minted road map, the music of 2018 unfolds before our eyes leaving a wake of paper cuts and indecipherable allusions. Welcome to: More the best of 2018 (so far)!

The first thing one might notice about Screaming Females is that only one-third of the band is female. Were I to describe them in one word, that word would be HEAVY. Distorted guitars, hard rock riffs, vocals that bring to mind Ann Wilson. Screaming Females does not enter the realm of sludge nor are they simply hard rock, but there is a certain weight that permeates the music of their 2018 release All at Once.

Screaming

From the Bunyanesque opening chords of Glass House to the spine-blowing mammothness of Agnes Martin (a song about an American abstract painter) to the angular punkosity of Fantasy Lens, you could say that SF deliver the musical goods in a hefty bag filled with delight. But don’t get the idea that these two mute fellas and one screaming gal have only a single note in their bag of picks (see what I did there?); their music moves effortlessly in and out of a variety of feels and genres. In the words of Thomas Alva Edison, it’s good when a band is hard to pigeonhole.

If you like a hefty sound filled with hoo-ha and hullabaloo, you could certainly do worse than All at Once. This seventh album by an unknown-to-me band, fronted by a singer/guitarist I’ve never heard of who has been named the 77th greatest guitarist of all-time by Spin magazine, is definitely a standout in 2018. So far. As always, check it out.

In an unintentional gender-solidarity pick, Goat Girl (Goat Girl, Screaming Females; get it?) delivers another more-the-best-of-2018-(so-far)! album with their self-titled debut.

Goat Girl

The music is genre-defying: cavernous reverb, country-tinged riffs, jazz noir vocals… These elements combine to create a dark goth-like palette filled with down-home fiddle licks and a free ticket to the rodeo of the undead.

It’s hard to describe music that’s like nothing one’s ever heard. Take the song Cracker Drool. The opening features a simple, typical country bass line. Drums with an equally simple country backbeat, sparse faux pedal steel guitar and good-ol’-girl vocals complete this simple song. But wait! Simplicity is quickly engulfed by a driving, dissonant section that just as quickly disappears. This pattern more or less repeats and we think we’ve got the song figured out. Mais non! Suddenly the tempo and feel change dramatically, although the riffs stay fairly constant, and after a bit of this the song ends. Not at all typical.

And Cracker Drool is unlike any other song on the album. Variety is king. Sounds ranging from riot grrrl to swamp blues to indie rock with a country fiddle permeate this brilliant debut. So get out the excessive eyeliner, saddle up and discover aural worlds never dreamed of with Goat Girl. As always, seat belts are recommended.

2018 has already brought us a mix of pleasant, even brilliant albums. Stay tuned to the future for more excursions into the best of 2018 (so far)! Time machines are optional.

Some Types of Punk Music!

I have become fascinated with the definition of punk rock. There’s little doubt that the term was first applied to bands of the same ilk as the Sex Pistols, but as time passed punk became a blanket term for a variety of styles.

You’ve got your hardcore, your horror punk, Oi!, grindcore and pop punk just to name a few. And you can’t identify your genre without a scorecard. So, in the interest of Properly-Defined Genre Understanding (PDGU) I give you: SOME TYPES OF PUNK MUSIC!

Punk: ClassicPunk® bands, also known simply as punk bands, play ramped up rock and roll. Not so different from 50s rock, add distortion and politics, shake well, go heavy on the melody and voila!
Group punkHardcore: A response to what was seen as the selling-out of punk. Fast, loud, aggressive and hard-hitting. Rhythm is more important than melody and vocals are typically shouted. The standard verse-chorus song structure, a staple of punk, is not used.
Group hardcoreHorror punk: A highly visual subgenre steeped in horror and sci-fi movie imagery. Elements of goth and punk mix with doo-wop and rockabilly, creating a unique sound.

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Pop punk: Punk was never commercially successful. Until someone thought to add pleasant melodies to fast and furious music. Hey, that kinda sounds like ClassicPunk®, don’t it?

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But wait, there’s more! Crust, thrashcore, anarcho-punk, D-beat, stenchcore, powerviolence… It kind of makes a person want to create their own subgenres: sniffletrot, bonesaw-crunch, free retch… Ah, I see a hobby in my future.

But I digress.

My point today, if I do indeed have a point, is that the term punk has shifted in meaning over the years. The original punk bands, i.e. ClassicPunk® bands, are not significantly removed from the mainstream of rock music. Hardcore bands, on the other hand, are an entirely different beast. The aggression, the shouting, the breakneck speeds all combine to form a new type of musical expression. And in my mind, if not in the minds of others, punk has come to mean hardcore punk.

So while I struggled for many years with the label punk being applied to bands like the Buzzcocks, I now realize that their 3 minute songs of teenage angst, love and fast cars are all magnificent pop gems that we simply decided to call punk. And while there may have been but a single flavor of punk for a short time, now there are many. To be entirely clear one must cite which type of punk music one is speaking of.

So be the coolest kid on your block and check out some horror punk or crust or bloodspattergorefest (I made that one up!) from your nearest public library. Remember: Leather jackets are optional but open minds are mandatory!

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.

TMBG

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.

NoAge

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.

Listen Up! Spring New Music Arrivals

Faded collage of six album covers with the text "Listen Up!" printed over them.

Chase away the clouds with some great new music arrivals. Place your holds now:

Starchild & the New Romantic – Language (Ghostly International) – Down-tempo funk with a retro feel. Artist Bryndon Cook’s music may be a nod to greats like Prince, P-Funk, and Michael Jackson, but the album is far from derivative. It’s more of a homage to those who have come before with the sincerity of a creative and talented musician blazing his own path past the monuments.

Soccer Mommy – Clean (Fat Possum Records) – Dreamy, folky, a little gritty. Singer/songwriter Sophie Allison took what was more or less a home-grown scene of her making via her uploaded music and re-recorded her material into a robust full-length release for a wider audience. The album still has the intimate, personal feel of her earlier recordings, but is more fully realized with the backing of a band. Her material is stripped down, autobiographical, and highly relatable – giving you a window into the life of this very talented young artist on the rise.

Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism (Naive) – Ndegeocello’s vocals are spare, layered over production that has an almost dreamlike, ambient feel. Her work features interpretations of RnB hits that anyone who came of age in the 80s or 90s will recognize. Each track is less of a cover and more of a reinvention; there is a warmth and mystery to each that makes me think of them as throwback lullabies.

Shopping  – The Official Body (Fatcat Records) – A post-punk concoction that’s a little surf rock, pop, and new wave all in one. If the B-52s and The Slits had a love child, it would sound a little like this album.

No Age – Snares Like a Haircut (Drag City, Inc.) – Lush, full bodied noise-rock. No Age’s fifth studio album shows a maturity of sound that has developed over 13 years of collaboration. The mingling of beauty and turmoil creates an explosive mix of highly enjoyable tracks. Is polished roughness a thing? If so, they’ve nailed it.

Screaming Females – All At Once (Don Giovanni Records) – Alt rock with venue-dominating vocals and a punk vibe. Another release from a veteran act making the list, this is the 11th album for the Screaming Females. Clearly they haven’t lost a step as they continue to push the boundaries of generefication. Special treat for the fans of Fugazi – Brendan Canty makes a guest appearance on drums.

Dabrye – Three/Three (Ghostly International) – Hip hop with strong electronic production. Producer Tadd Mullinix returns to his Dabrye moniker after a long hiatus. His time ‘off’ has been fruitful for his work in different electronic music ventures, but fans of his hip-hop material have long been awaiting this latest release. Three/Three does not disappoint. This album boasts a long list of collaborators staying true to Mullinix’s Michagander roots by highlighting Detroit-area MCs new and old in particular.

Lindi Ortega – Liberty (Shadowbox Music, Inc.) – Dramatic ballads with a Spaghetti-Western flare. Ortega’s beautifully-emotive vocals lend an air of mystery to her tracks. Grab this album and be taken along on a wild ride as each track tells a tale of loss and salvation. I have a soft spot for albums that tell a story and this one delivers a Country Gothic tale worth hearing.

You Are an Obsession

Nowadays, openly proclaiming your obsessive allegiance to a beloved pop culture item is not only considered normal but celebrated. Be it a book, movie, TV show, graphic novel, album or almost anything, you can feel safe in declaring your intense admiration for it. As someone who in his youth had to hide his love of Star Trek (definitely team Spock), The Thing (the John Carpenter version thank you very much) and tactical board games (care for a game of Midway?) from the ‘norms,’ this is a welcome change.

But even today, some might argue that certain individuals take it a bit too far. While it is definitely subjective, since one person’s beloved hobby can be another person’s time wasting succubus, it is hard to deny that there is a line between really liking something and being obsessively, perhaps destructively, devoted to it. Here at the library, we have several newer books that examine both the objects of hyper devotion and the people who love them, and let you decide. Read on to learn more.

Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom by George Dohrmann

We’ve all seen them. In the panning shot of the spectators at a sporting event there is always at least one person in full body paint and no shirt screaming their support for the team. While many love the home team, some really, really, really love them. George Dohrmann sets out to discover what motivates a person to become a ‘superfan’ and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them. While there definitely is a lot that is bizarre and funny here, the author does not exploit his subjects. Rather he genuinely tries to understand what motivates obsessive sports fans and conveys their humanity to the reader.

Elements of Taste: Understanding What We Like and Why by Benjamin Errett

Rather than focusing on one object of pop culture desire, this work tries to create a framework for understanding why we like certain things so passionately. The author cleverly equates our cultural likes to the sense of taste, breaking our passions down into Sweet (ex. Cozy Murder Mysteries), Sour (ex. Mad Magazine), Salty (ex. True Detective), Bitter (ex. Tim and Eric) and Indescribable (ex. Gilmore Girls). While this might sound highly regimented, it is actually quite fluid and a fun way to look at the cultural artifacts we so adore.

Furry Nation: the True Story of America’s Most Misunderstood Subculture by Joe Strike

This is not a critical examination of ‘furry fandom’, a fascination with anthropomorphic animal characters, but a celebration of the culture itself. The author is a longtime participant and well placed to report on its history and the many forms it takes: from well-known cartoon characters and sports mascots to individuals creating their own works. He also argues that the desire to emulate animals, and see them as equals, can be seen in the human species from early on in the form of cave paintings and ancient rituals.

Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life by Steven Hyden

The interesting premise of this book is simple but effective: a person’s true devotion comes out when threatened. Steven Hyden demonstrates this by exploring nineteen musical rivalries that prompt fans to defend ‘their band’ to the bitter end. All the classics, and some you may not know about, are here: David Lee Roth vs. the Van Halen brothers, Oasis vs. Blur, Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West, Dr. Dre vs. Eazy-E and many more. Hyden does not try to declare any winners, however.  He is more interested in the choices fans make and what that says about ourselves and what we choose to love.

People Like Us: the Cult of the Rocky Horror Picture Show by Lauren Everett

Perhaps one of the first groups that could be considered superfans, as well as cosplayers, devotees of the Rocky Horror Picture Show get the lovingly crafted photo-essay book that they deserve here. This work is a celebration of those who like to dress up as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Riff Raff, Brad, Janet and, who could forget, Magenta as well as other characters and attend midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show all while shouting back at the screen. While primarily made up of photographs of the participants, this work also touches on why people choose to participate and what they get out of it.

Not only will you get an appreciation for other people’s passions after reading these books, you just might feel better about embracing your own.  Don’t dream it, be it, as they say.

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.