Category Archives: Music

The Black Keys: Brother

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 17, New York: It was 2010 and I quit my job. Mostly I needed to quit my job. But I also really wanted to take ah honest stab at writing a book. I’d written one already, but that had been a draft written for National Novel Writing Month and took nearly year to clean up in edit. I wanted to try the process for real. Give myself more than a month, dedicate all of my time to it, really write a book. So I quit my job and took some time off.

The first step for me in writing is picking a good soundtrack. Music that puts your keyboard-tapping fingers in the mood but also can drift off into the background. Everything I’ve ever written has been powered by some particular music. And I believe strongly that once you pick your soundtrack you can’t change it without subtly changing the tone of the prose itself. Especially in a rough draft. So as I began to write Drain the Gulf! I picked a couple of albums and I began to listen to them on loop. The most memorable was The Black Keys’ Brother.

This really is a fantastic album. It’s exactly the sort of rock I want these days— a couple of dudes making messy, sweaty music in the back of a bar that only serves whiskey. It was perfect for a novel that features plenty of hard drinking and a lot of the South.

I now know every note of this album by heart. Every drumbeat. Every inhalation before a lyric. It took me about six months to finish the rough draft of Drain the Gulf! and in total I worked on the book for about eighteen. Once I’d locked in my soundtrack, I was terrified to change it. Putting this album on equated to the mental space of this book. So it was just about all I listened to for eighteen months. I have such a strong (and happy) memory of sitting alone in our San Francisco apartment, freezing in July, cranking out a few thousand words every day. I had to write a minimum of 1000 every day, but I played a game with myself where if I wrote more than 3000, I could buy beer that night. A nice little incentive.

Listening today, it’s still a fantastic work album. Upbeat but easy to put on in the background (if you know it so well). I was also re-reading Drain the Gulf! this week, so it made a nice companion piece. It made me so nostalgic for that summer I spent rough drafting, hunched over a laptop in a sweater, headphones on and lips wordlessly moving to these lyrics. It made me want to write another book.

Buy this album and write a novel. It’s that easy!

DJ Shadow vs. Cut Chemist: Brainfreeze

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 10, New York: I could not possibly tell you how I first came upon this album. It’s a collaboration (live, perhaps?) between DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. I was never much a fan of either. Nonetheless, at some point in my sophomore year of college, this album found its way into my collection of burned CDs and became a staple.

It is roughly one hour of samples and deep cut soul tracks mixed and remixed by two master DJs, with a heavy emphasis on scratchwork. It begins “Hey martial arts fan. (scratch scratch) Are you ready to get your guts kicked out?” Yes, yes I am.

This was my work album throughout the film class in which I was shooting and editing super 8mm film. One of my few truly fond memories from that year of my life is sitting up late in my college apartment kitchen, surrounded by strips of Super 8mm taped to every available surface, drinking a cup of coffee, wearing a cowboy hat, and listen to this album on loop. Head bobbing, lips wordlessly singing along, fingers taping together bits of film stock.

For a contemporary listen, I saved it for a day I had some work to do. I stayed home Friday morning and focused on a two big projects for three hours. I put on Brainfreeze and was immediately productive. Like a magic spell for productivity. So happy I rediscovered this.

If you need a version of this that is not going to slow your computer down like a YouTube link, here you go.

Van Morrison

December 7, New York: I’m an early Van Morrison man, like most. I love me some Astral Weeks and Tupelo Honey, the hits and the rest. I was a teenager when he released his Best Of album and I loved it. Years later, in college and after college, friends began to introduce me to their favorite full albums and I discovered how deep the Van Morrison discography could go. There is no filler here!

My four Van Morrison albums are Astral Weeks, Moondance, Tupelo Honey, and Saint Dominic’s Preview. From these I derived the “title track theory” of Van Morrison: that despite the radio hits, the best songs on any of these albums are their title tracks. This is probably true, but it does leave out “And It Stoned Me”, “Jackie Wilson Said”, “Wild Night”, and “The Way Young Lovers Do”. That first one gave me chills when it came on during this listen. But, c’mon, “Tupelo Honey”?

The incredible thing about Van Morrison is that all four of these albums, though different, are so perfectly him and nobody else. I think it’s easier to give Van Morrison his own genre than to try to apportion out his albums across different influences.

These albums have been stitched through my life in so many instances. Dominic introduced me to St. Dominic’s Preview and I can’t listen to the title track that includes his name without thinking of him. “Tupelo Honey” was one of Jill and I’s driving-up-the-coast songs, an all-time favorite love song. We closed our wedding ceremony with “Jackie Wilson Said”— a perfect note of celebration. (And listening this time to “You’re My Woman” I couldn’t help but wonder how many Van Morrison songs are absolutely perfect wedding songs.)

With apologies to “And It Stoned Me”, “St. Dominic’s Preview” is my favorite Van Morrison song of all time and it’s album is my favorite album. God, those saxophones on “Jackie Wilson”. I could lay in bed and listen to “Almost Independence Day” for hours on end. But, oh man, that title track. It’s celebration, it’s nostalgia; it soars and it dives; it’s ruling class and it’s working class; it travels the world to spend time with friends and to share in good fortune; and every time the chorus comes back around I sing along. I want my life, in summation, to be “St. Dominic’s Preview”. To live well but be humble, to travel widely but see friends frequently, and to take moments out with Dominic and others to sing this song at the tops of our lungs.

I really enjoyed my weekend shot through with Van Morrison. None of this music is ever far from my heart, so I didn’t expect a lot of new revelations of come of it. Though it was only really on this last listen that I realized how much of St. Dominic’s Preview is dedicated to San Francisco. The title track itself, with its references to the city and to “a Safeway supermarket in the rain” is named for a San Francisco church (thanks Wikipedia). There’s “Redwood Tree” of course and “Almost Independence Day” is a 10 minute catalogue of locations around the Bay. Another great nod to nostalgia.

They sell Van Morrison on the Internet, duh. Start with Astral Weeks!

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos

December 6, New York: Years ago, I convinced my mother that the media I most wanted for Christmas was the Rachmaninoff Complete Recordings. It was a handsome set of CDs (the pinnacle of recording technology in that time), featuring Rachmaninoff’s work played by Rachmaninoff. Amazing. Though expensive, it was a good investment. That boxed set (particularly the first two discs, composed of his piano concertos) was my go-to classical fare for much of my twenties. Whenever the high-faluting mood took me, Sergei and his piano were there.

I still have those CDs, but they’re buried in deep storage and I wanted to listen to the albums away from the house. Ah the plight of the modern condition. I want it now! Here! Surely I could find this music streaming on the internet? Well, it took some sleuthing! Rdio did not have the complete recordings (and I only remembered the album by sight, not by exact name). So I Googled into the Amazon and I found a visually-similar collection just of the Piano Concertos. Cross-checked: it’s right there on Rdio. Success!

There are four concertos, numbered one through four, and I mostly know them inside and out. But it is the very beginning of Piano Concerto No. 1 that I could start singing from memory anywhere and anytime. No earworm could possibly dislodge it; I could be standing in the middle of the stage at the VMAs, pop music on full assault, and I could still pluck this melody out of the distant reaches of my memory. The orchestra clears it throat with eight quick notes and then it begins, that chaotic Rachmaninoff piano I love so much. This section in particular, which sounds like a ragdoll tumbling down a steep slope. The chaos is what attracted me to Rachmaninoff: great rushes of it, of organized, planned chaos that takes your full attention to follow the pattern and assure yourself that you are not listening to an orchestra tear itself apart in a concert hall donnybrook. It is commanding chaos.

It’s always been Russian composers for me. And you see this across the Thirty-Three Project. In my teens: Tchaikovsky. Going into my thirties: Shostakovich. And here, right in between, Sergei Rachmaninoff and his crazy pianos.

You can buy the whole damned thing… on CD. Or you could listen to the same album I found on Rdio.

The Velvet Underground

November 28, Westford, MA: I know the Velvet Underground in many contexts. When I was a teenager, I remember seeing the iconic big banana on a boxed set in a glass cabinet in my favorite record store. I don’t recall why (maybe because I hate bananas) but I wrote it off as silly music. Something I would never get into. The Velvet Underground turned out to be another of those many abject lessons in just how wrong I’d been in my youthful assumptions.

I suspect Dominic was the first to introduce me to the Velvet Underground; it’s with him that I have my first and strongest memory. One night, in his big boat of a Cadillac with the red leather seats, he put on “Sister Ray” and I put on my seat belt and we drove madcap to the ocean under the streetlights of Adams Boulevard for seventeen straight minutes.

Starting with that experience of “Sister Ray”, the Velvet Underground has always been a driving soundtrack for me. Particularly the self-titled Velvet Underground and Loaded, with their country-infused-rolling-rock. “Some Kinda Love” and “Beginning to See the Light” are my hands on the wheel. And always “Sister Ray” is my foot on the accelerator. It’s three o’ clock in the morning deep in West Texas, fighting desperately to stay awake and make New Mexico by dawn. It’s careening down the steep grade of Interstate 10 into Los Angeles County from the east, lightly tapping the gas when momentum itself isn’t enough.

There’s so much more to the Velvet Underground than that, of course. “Heroin” is such an incredible masterpiece of a song. And “Sweet Jane” is possibly the best song of all time. Which is always the thought you have in mind as you slide into “Rock n Roll”, which is a close competitor for the title. I love the Mo Tucker-voiced “After Hours” and “I’m Sticking With You”. Even the Nico classics and the little bit of John Cale that sneaks in from time to time. The whole of the discography is incredible. And more incredible are the directly derivative works that spin from those handful of albums: John Cale’s “Paris 1919″ and the Modern Lovers and Jonathan Richman and of course, Lou Reed’s Transformer.

But it will always be two hands on the wheel and a foot on the gas for me and the Velvet Underground. A car pointed west and “Sister Ray” at full blast. “Oh man, I haven’t got the time-time.” I’ve always got seventeen minutes for you, Velvet Underground.

Maybe you should go buy that funny Velvet Underground boxed set with the fuzzy Warhol banana.

Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

November 17, Flying from JFK to SFO: Once you get past the silliness of “Brown Sugar” this is a damn fine album. If you start your listening with “Sway” it’s damn near perfect. A little bit of blues, a little bit of country, a couple of mournful ballads. “Wild Horses” is overplayed but deservedly so. “I Got the Blues” is hackneyed lyrically, but man those keys. It’s a great album; it was good enough to even win over Aaron Kyle despite his anti-Rolling Stones objections.

“Dead Flowers” is the real star here. It anchors a perfect four song progression that closes the album. Some of the best nights of my life featured a moment, drunk, singing this song at the top of my lungs in chorus with the best of friends. Walking through darkened streets, around a crackling campfire: “You can send me dead flowers by the US mail.” It was the only song I ever learned to play on guitar (“play” is used here charitably).

“Moonlight Mile”, though, is a perfect morose crescendo. Few songs invite you so strongly to turn the lights off and just listen. And I’ve done that multiple times. Of all the things I love about this album, it’s “Moonlight Mile” that makes it divine.

Are you, like Aaron Kyle, a Stones skeptic? Let Sticky Fingers win you over.

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

November 9, New York: An ode to Sundays. To the sunlight streaming in and no haste to be found anywhere. An ode to black coffee and its steam rising in the morning sun. An ode to reading books or the newspaper and to feeling content to be reclined. Kind of Blue captures all of that for me, right in one single album. It can set any Sunday right.

You should own Kind of Blue. It is a crime if you do not.

Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks

November 3, New York: There’s an awful lot of Bob Dylan out there. I’ve listened to much of it, all the folk into the rock into what came later like “Hurricane”. And I figured there were two ways I could re-approach Bobby D in this project— I could either try to listen to all of it again (and there is so much of it) or I could pick one album that was emblematic of them all. The one that meant the most to me. The one album I had on vinyl, from my Dad’s collection, with “DJF” scrawled over the cover in black sharpie. That album is Blood on the Tracks.

I’ve re-approached this album a hundred times in my life, and you know what? It’s got everything you want from a Bob Dylan record. There is your true Bob Dylan poetic story-telling like “Tangled up in Blue” and “Shelter from the Storm”. There are the sweet little love songs like “Simple Twist of Fate” and “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. There’s even a highly judgmental little ditty in “Idiot Wind”. And the whole thing is shot through with country themes, so you don’t feel like your terribly missing out on Nashville Skyline (though you are missing out on Johnny Cash).

I even really love “Jack of Hearts”. Despite its repetitive sing-song story-telling, it’s always been one of my favorite songs on this album. There have been multiple times I’ve circled around the character of the Jack of Hearts, in narrative as a tarot card or as a raconteur, or in personality as a time-limited affectation in the years in which I was “living my age”.

I would argue that Blood on the Tracks is the perfect desert island Bob Dylan album. It’s got all you need.

Planning your desert island excursion? Buy Blood on the Tracks, and feel confident you’re getting a pretty solid Dylan experience.

Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker

November 1, Amtrak NYP-WAS: Aaron Kyle originally gave me Heartbreaker during our Music Exchange. It was only fitting that it would be sitting with him in a bar in New York that I would hear “To Be Young”, then have it stuck in my head for a week, and then decide it was the right time to write this album up for the Thirty-Three Project.

I wore holes in that CD Aaron Kyle gave me, particularly when I moved from LA to San Francisco. The melancholy mood fit me fine, in a new city with no friends, permanently wrapped up in fog. And despite all the other times I listened to Heartbreaker, it somehow became a moving soundtrack for me. It was the same, packing up and moving to DC and then to New York. Especially to New York, the unspoken character in the background of all of these songs.

There are so many fantastic songs here and so much incredibly lyricism. I mean, damn Sam do I love “Damn Sam (I Love a Woman Who Rains)”. (“with talented breeze that blow off your hat with a sneer.”) And “Come Pick Me Up”: “I wish you would / come pick me up / take me out / fuck me up / steal my records / screw all my friends / they’re all full of shit / with a smile on your face / and then do it again”. So good. This is a great album for being young (“and when you’re young you get sad”) in love with everything and anyone and, well, if you’re not young, then to dip into a slightly melancholy reminiscing. And that’s not so bad now, is it?

If you’ve never listened to this album, forget everything you’ve ever heard about Ryan Adams and buy it.

Dr. Dog

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 19, New York: This is the final post in this theme, as I think it’s appropriate to conclude the construction of a personality with a wedding.

Choosing a song for one’s wedding can be a difficult task. For Jill and I, the first thing we did the morning after we got engaged was start constructing playlists of our favorite songs to force our friends to dance to. Music was at the center of the ceremony from the beginning. That meant, though, that extra special care had to be taken for the Important Songs. And most especially, our first dance song.

After many months we decided on “California” by Dr. Dog. It fit all the criteria: sweet, fun, short, and with lyrics reasonably connected to our story. “Shoot the cannon / blow the horn / love was born / in Californ-/ -ia!”.

“California” is from Dr. Dog’s Takers and Leavers EP, their second release I had in my collection. I’d been listening to them for a long time, and absolutely loving their music. For a long time, I’d convinced myself that Dr. Dog hailed from New Orleans— half for their ragged, piano rag sonic qualities and half for how close to the heart each song hit me. (They’re actually from Pennsylvania.) Songs like “Oh No” get me every time, the fuzzy guitar, banging on the keys, ragged sing-alongs waiting to happen behind the wheel of any car. All of Easy Beat, really. I still get chills listening to “Wake Up”. These songs were prominently in our playlists for northen California excursions.

I still remember the moment in which we chose “California” as the song we’d dance to. Let’s say I chose it, suspected it could be the perfect song. It came on the car stereo as we were driving home on Highway One from a weekend spent north. I pulled the car over, turned the stereo up, and we danced on the Pacific seaside cliff as the seals played below.

Get to know your friendly neighborhood piano-slapping doctor, and buy some Dr. Dog.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 18, New York: This album represents a very specific period in my life, a period built by a confluence of factors. I had originally included For Emma, Forever Ago on this list, more for “Skinny Love” than anything else. But the truth is, this album is very important and very special to me. This is the story of why.

Jill and I were happily living together in a little apartment in San Francisco at the end of 2010. It was a time of transition— I was freelancing and finishing a book, she was back in school. We were both wanting to be on the East Coast— to live in New York, to be closer to family. The one stable thing in that time was our relationship, our love for one another. And so, at the end of 2010 we put a ring on it.

Soon after 2011 began I was offered a freelance job with the potential to become a permanent job in Washington. Starting in March, of the year that we would marry, Jill and I began to spend a lot of time apart. I would work for three weeks at a time in DC before returning home for a long weekend. The plan was that eventually Jill would join me, but there was more school to attend and “eventually” wasn’t until August. I spent many long weeks in DC corporate housing, missing my fiancée.

It was three months into this time that my back gave out. I’d been running on a treadmill every morning with no idea that I was tearing my muscles into string cheese. I was suddenly and painfully incapacitated by lower back muscle spasms. I continued to work, hobbling into the office in enormous pain for weeks, but exercise was out of the question. The doctor told me not to run or jog for at least three months.

And then my corporate housing ended and as we were saving for the wedding, I had to find a Washington apartment on the cheap. I ended up in a basement in the far northwest, nestled against Rock Creek Park for a long, hot summer alone. This period was a low point. I felt physically crippled, lonely, always sweating (DC summer!). But I had one regular activity that I loved: in the long afternoons and evenings after work I would go walk through Rock Creek Park. It was not strenuous exercise, but it kept me active. I would put my headphones on and listen to this album as I crept through the sun-dappled, long-light afternoon forest.

Unlike many listeners of this album, I love the final track “Beth/Rest”. Yes, it sounds like a 1980s Peter Gabriel or Genesis track that I would otherwise hate, but I feel like Bon Iver earns it. The sonic elements that comprise this song are scattered across the previous tracks (most apparent in “Calgary”, two before). And I take it with a healthy bit of irony (I mean, come on, that saxophone?). Walking through the forest in Washington, this would be the song that would pull me out of the sad reverie of the rest of the album, and return me to good humor. Grooving along to this crazy eighties jam. It still has that effect on me today.

Build up to the eighties with the self-titled Bon Iver album.

The Decemberists: Castaways & Cutouts and Her Majesty

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 18, New York: I first discovered The Decemberists around the release of their second album. I listened to and liked both very much. They were full of clever, fun, intelligent little songs. I went to a couple of Decemberists shows and saw them live. But these songs didn’t begin to fuse themselves into my life until I began to create collections out of them on my Ipod. Rending apart the delicately-constructed fabric of studio albums to create infinitely shuffle-able playlists hours in length.

To listen today, these two are no longer albums to me. The experience, then, is wildly mixed. Songs like “Leslie Anne Levine” and “A Cautionary Tale” are jarring in their graphic detail. But “Grace Cathedral Hill” is stitched through my heart and to re-listen is to run my fingers against a familiar cloth. To listen to “Red Right Ankle” is to wrap myself in the best old blanket.

These are songs I know now from playlists long repeated, the most memorable of which being one called “Easy like a Sunday Morning”. This was the musical accompaniment to long Sunday drives through the eucalyptus and sea cliff landscapes north of San Francisco. These songs were the soundtrack to Jill and I first falling in love, sneaking out of the city in secret on the weekends to weave through mountain roads on California Highway One. At the very beginning, Jill told me she loved picnics and on one of our first dates I drove her to Point Reyes for a picnic overlooking the Pacific. We listened to “Easy Like a Sunday Morning” all the way there and back.

For this reason, “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” is the song that always gets me. While I was falling in love with my wife on those drives, I was also falling even more deeply in love with California. When I left the state (thankfully, with the woman I’d found there) it broke my heart to listen to this song. I still get sweetly wistful to listen to it today. I know these two albums are struck through with Colin Meloy’s complicated attraction to and disdain for the state of California, but I’ve mapped my own meaning and emotion to the lyrics and songs. By soundtracking my own drives, they began to follow my own grooves of emotion. He might be dismayed to hear me say it, but in my ears the music of The Decemberists is all about truly loving a woman and truly loving the state of California.

Buy these albums from the ol’ Amazon.

The Faces: Four Guys Walk Into a Bar

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 18, New York: One emerges from a dark bad time slowly and does not mark the passing upward from bad into good as starkly as the memory of the guideposts on the way down. I could probably mark both directions around the dark bad time in my twenties by my various trips to Joshua Tree, east of Los Angeles. I would, from time to time, escape to the desert to clear my head. These decisions were usually emotional and without pre-planning (hence one night I found myself in the desert right in the middle of a heat wave and thinking better of it, checked myself into a hotel). For the sudden decisions, I kept a tent, a camping chair, and a plastic bottle of Kessler whiskey stowed permanently in my trunk.

Camping in the desert alone or with a few friends is an incredibly soul-cleansing experience. You drink by a campfire into the night, wrapped in your heaviest garments. You stare into the fire and let your mind wander until the whiskey makes you tired enough to sleep. The sun rises and you rise with it, groggy until coffee, and you spend the day hiking around on rocks with your thoughts. I went to the desert at the lowest points, discovered its mental healing properties, and then I began to go to the desert to ensure that my upward climb would not backslide. To shore up the new foundations any time there looked to be a risk of flood or quake. You felt stronger in physical and mental fiber after a day of clambering across hot boulders.

Another great thing to do in the desert is drive. Roll the windows down, turn the radio up, put on your sunglasses, and go. That’s where The Faces come in. A friend gave me this Faces boxed set: Four Guys Walk Into a Bar which, in the depths of an iPod, is just a perfect shuffle of rock n’ roll piano, deep organ, fuzzy guitars, and Rod Stewart. It’s hours-long played in its entirety and one day I listened to it at least twice through, just driving. A bad time might have forced me out of the city into the desert, but that day is one of the happiest I remember from my twenties. It was pure being; an enlightened state.

Given that my listening to this collection is all about the shuffle, most of the music blurs together. A few songs still stand out: the BBC recording of “Stay With Me” is just incredible. I’ve always loved “Maggie Mae” and “Ooh La La”, but the covers of “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” and “Jealous Guy” are really quite special. Struck throughout is the sumptuous organ; I’ve long held a fantasy of buying and learning to play an old Rhodes, just hammering away on the keys.

It is just as fun to listen to this now as then, though I no longer own a car and couldn’t replicate the experience. (Instead I listened to this on an airplane while I worked on a Keynote presentation. Less pure being.) The one thing I had a hard time shaking this listen, however, was how perfectly representative The Faces are of white appropriation. Rod Stewart is blue-eyed soul personified. Forgive him that if you can, ignore that Luther Ingram’s “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” is far superior, and let “Stay With Me” be the soundtrack to some long drive you’re taking.

Four guys, four discs, buy it for your next long drive.

Le Switch

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 18, New York: My friend Aaron Kyle is a very talented singer-songwriter. When I first met him, he was fresh off of a bad break-up and the writing and recording of the subsequent EP was an exhalation of all the pent-up fury and frustration from the period that came before. Those songs were angry and passionate and struck through with pain. But when I first met Aaron Kyle, his ambitions were turning to f-u-n, FUN. And that’s where Le Switch came from.

Le Switch (The Switch before some metal band sent a cease and desist) consisted of five of my good friends, led by Aaron on the microphone and lead guitar and joined by Maria Deluca, Joe Napolitano, Josh Charney, and Chris Harrison. They played fun, sometimes poppy songs with a country twist. Maria brought both the viola and the trumpet, so one could also argue that they played country songs with a Southern California twist. Aaron sang everything from bouncy country ballads to heart-rending songs of despair (from the previous period). One time a music writer called Aaron’s vocals “whiskey-soaked”, which while apt, does not take into account that one sip of whiskey transforms him like the Incredible Hulk into Angry Aaron.

Le Switch was a rarity in the Los Angeles music scene of the mid-aughts: they aimed to make every show a dance party. And in Spaceland in Silverlake and the Echo in Echo Park, us hipster kids would just stare back and nod our heads to the beat approvingly. I always danced at a Le Switch show. I had one goal in the Los Angeles music scene and that was the be the absolute biggest fan of this band. When I later moved to San Francisco I would go see them every time they came to town (and once even drove out to see them in Sacramento).

It is a treat to sit down and re-listen to the Le Switch discography. Toe-tapping “Hard Talking”. Dark and haunted “Out of My Mind”. My perpetual request (to Aaron’s great annoyance) “Le Country Song”.

Le Switch eventually disbanded but most of them continue to make music. Aaron now plays under the moniker Geronimo Getty (and I will see him play next weekend in New York). There’s nothing I loved better in those years than being a true and honest fan of this music, made by some people who I thought were so talented, but also happened to be my friends. It would give me a rush of pride to bring a San Francisco friend to a Le Switch show and have them leave with the LP.

You too can buy some of that Le Switch, right here.

Donny Hathaway: Live

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 15, New York: There was a period in our lives in which my dear friend Aaron Kyle and I passed many nights in the Short Stop in Echo Park. Part cop bar, part Dodgers bar, part hipster mecca, the Short Stop offered Pabst Blue Ribbon for a buck-fifty at happy hour, and we would find ourselves there early on a weekday night after work (and then, quite to our surprise, late on that same weekday night). It was one of those nights that we initiated “Music Exchange”.

It began chiefly because I realized Aaron had never listened to Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones. (Aaron hated the Stones.) And God knows how much music I’d never heard; Aaron was the musician between us. We agreed to exchange five albums every week— on burned CD. We were diligent about it and kept up the practice for probably a full year. Some of the best music in my collection came from Music Exchange… and I like to think I shared some good stuff with Aaron, too. He still hates the Stones, but he begrudgingly acknowledges that Sticky Fingers is a great album.

One the absolute pearls of the bounty of Aaron Kyle was Donny Hathaway Live. Soul was a weak point in my musical knowledge and Aaron dedicated multiple weeks to catching me up. They were all fantastic, but man, Donny Hathaway? This album? Whoadang. The Live album ruined me for his studio albums, and there’s not a ton of live material, so it’s me and this album, forever. Every song is an incredible jam. The organs are so good. And Donny Hathaway is just incredible.

My favorite from Live is “You’ve Got a Friend”. So favorite that I danced with my mother to this song at our wedding. I chose the live version— even though it plays more poorly through speakers— because the energy is just so good. The whole crowd behind Donny singing: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall… / All you got to do is call”. And that was my mom and my wife and both of our families, everyone’s arms interlaced and singing at the tops of our lungs… “All you got to do is call.”

Thank you, Aaron Kyle, for Donny Hathaway, for this version of “You’ve Got a Friend”, and for the absolute betterment of my musical knowledge.

Get yourself Donny Hathway Live and sing along at the top of your lungs.

The Mountain Goats

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 6, Flying from New York to San Francisco: John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats have been with me for a while. Jed introduced me to Nine Black Poppies in college, specifically to “Cubs in Five” which was just the most clever little ditty I’d ever heard. (“The Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league / And the Tampa Bay Bucs will take it all the way to January / And I will love you again…”) Darnielle’s song were raw of emotion and of production— they were stripped down to the barest elements of guitar and voice and the lyricism shone right through. He’s a fantastic story-teller and the tales in those songs were angry and sweet and sad and loving sometimes all at the same time.

I think there are three distinct periods of the Mountain Goats. The third and most familiar is everything that’s come after Tallahassee, in which Darnielle is joined by a band and the songs are well-recorded and sometimes the whole albums tell stories. The first period was all cassette releases— the Ur-Mountain Goats. And the second, in the middle, was where I found them. In which all the collected material of Darnielle’s prodigous output was collected in digital formats. I bought every CD, re-released or compiled or EP or LP I could find for the next five years and there were plenty to find.

Jed and I both remained enormous fans of John Darnielle. We went to see him every time he came to town. We knew all the words to All Hail West Texas and The Coroner’s Gambit. Jed, a sometimes musician with the most incredible Soul voice (god, could he belt “Bernadette” at karaoke) would write songs in the Darnielle style, and record them as such, too. See, most of the discography we were consuming sounded like it was taped in a bedroom on a four track. We once heard a legend that one Mountain Goats cassette had been recorded on a floor display four track in a Wal-Mart. Many of the songs sounded that way, the wheels of the mechanism turning audibly behind the music.

Once Jed and I went on a roadtrip and we called it a tour and we emailed Darnielle to ask him where to play in Denton, Texas (which we only knew from “The Best Death Metal Band Out of Denton”). Remarkably, he emailed us back and he said the Rubber Gloves. Jed played an open mic there and we both left with t-shirts. Later, when Jed got cancer and moved back to Indiana I went to a Mountain Goats show and John Darnielle was kind enough to write “Hey Jed, Fuck Cancer, Love John” on a cocktail napkin for me.

Jed came back after beating cancer and I had compiled the most incredible collection of Mountain Goats CDs. Every time I’d go to Amoeba on Sunset Blvd I’d check the rack and one in five times there would be a used CD I’d never seen before. I’d always buy it no matter how broke I was. Ghana, Bitter Melon Farm, Beautiful Rat Sunset, there ere so many.

For years I listened to these albums, let them wear themselves into grooves in my memory, packed with forgotten and lost emotions. Yesterday, listening to “Alphonse Mambo”, I was moved to tears on the streets of New York. Some long-forgotten emotion rose up from some long-forgotten sad episode in which I must have listened to this song and its line “…waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay” on repeat for hours.

John Darnielle is an incredible songwriter. Nearly all of his songs are stitched together with this remarkable vulnerability, a vulnerability I can’t help but opening myself up to now when I listen to them. I am unsurprised he wrote a book and that it’s been edited by the fantastic Sean McDonald at FSG. I can’t wait to read it when this year is completed.

There’s a lot of Mountain Goats out there. Though I do love Nine Black Poppies, you should probably start with The Coroner’s Gambit.

Kanye West: College Dropout and Late Registration

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 4, New York: Kanye West is a genius. I think that’s pretty unassailable. As a producer, as a rapper, as a conductor of album-length musical experiences. He’s also one of the contemporary lyricists with the most authenticity. Each album is a reflection of what is happening in his life, for better or for worse. Each song, even a club anthem, is a short slice of autobiography. That makes the arc of Kanye’s albums dizzying as his life has changed so much over the last ten years. He rockets from nobody to somebody to ego to just-plain-strange and records it along the way.

My two favorite Kanye albums are the first two: College Dropout and Late Registration. In these two, he’s still hungry, eager to prove himself. The first is exactly that: his chance to show the world that he’s more than a producer, that he’s a rapper in his own right. And it’s shot through with that ambition. It leads to some really incredible songs: “Get ‘em High” with guest spots from both Talib Kweli AND Common is just so good. “New Workout Plan” is fun and fantastic. “Through the Wire”, in which he raps the whole song with his jaw wired shut? C’mon.

In Late Registration Kanye is still hungry, but the tone shifts to “holy crap I can’t believe this is actually happening.” The historic story-telling of the first album is still apparent here (it finally disappears by Graduation). This second album is full of solid gold HITS(!)— ”Golddigger”, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, “Touch the Sky”, but still so many songs that call back to his life before fame. You still know this guy, you remember him from the last album, and you’re totally rooting for him.

I was in my twenties and living in LA when these albums came out. It was invigorating to suddenly have such a great new voice in hip-hop and we drove around listening to these albums on repeat. I still grin and shake my head in disbelief to the stanza in “Get ‘em High” where Kanye just drops the beat out and raps over silence. Twice. He is so good. “Gone”, from Late Registration, was totally my jam for a long, hot minute. I’d listen to this one song on a loop. I’d drive around the block a couple extra times just to hear it one more time. The orchestral arrangement, the tinkly rock piano, Killer Cam’s guest spot. The refrain (“We starve at home / we ride on chrome”) is still in that humble theme of these first two albums, still congruent with the second albums “Broke Phi Broke” skits. It’s great.

I’m not ever going to be a successful musician. I’ll never be a hot rapper. But in that time with these two albums, I could sort of identify with Kanye. He was talented and hard-working and he made it happen. My friends and I, we were rooting for him. We were struggling in obscurity, we were broke phi broke, we thought we were talented, too. And here this guy had made it and was humble and ambitious and having fun all at the same time. Every creative person in their twenties wants to be the Kanye that just released College Dropout.

Kanye remains a genius. He’s never stopped making incredible music. It’s just harder to identify with songs that reflect the singer’s life when that life has become so difficult to identify with. The ego that leaks out in Graduation. The raw sexual orgy of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The stark loneliness of fame in Yeezus. It’s interesting to watch, sometimes great to dance to, but it’s unrecognizable. But Kanye we still love you. And we’ll always have these two fantastic albums.

Root for Kanye again and buy his first two albums.

Arcade Fire: Funeral

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 4, New York: The winter I was 23 was probably the lowest of the last very bad time. I was newly alone (“single” is the descriptor, but “alone” was the feeling) after a series of nearly consecutive relationships lasting over three years. I wasn’t sure who I was or what I wanted to be when I grew up. But here I was out of college and in a job and paying rent and paying bills and maxing out credit cards and drinking in bars and staying out til dawn and well it seemed like that was grown up stuff to do. But there was something wrong, something inexplicably broken that I needed to learn to fix and I couldn’t figure out what it was. The winter I was 23 feels like the time I started to try to turn it around.

I recall the scene so clearly— wrapped in an old favorite coat with faux fur on the collar, sitting in the driver’s seat of a borrowed family Cadillac, driving through the night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, listening to Funeral by Arcade Fire. I’d get in the car, I’d begin with “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, and I would slap my hands against the steering wheel to try to beat out the cold in my bones and to try to beat out the bad sadness I couldn’t shake.

That winter I quit smoking. That’s what seems, in retrospect, like the moment I began to try and turn it around (it probably wasn’t for a bit after that). Quitting smoking was hard as shit. In Baton Rouge, bored and insomnia-ridden, I would drive to a bar where I would sit quietly and drink whiskey. And Louisiana bars, at the time, were pro-smoke zones. It was torture. But it worked.

This album is bigger than that moment, was in my iPod for far longer than just that holiday trip. Songs like “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up” and “Crown of Love” are still perfectly-remembered and satisfying sing-alongs today. I put these songs in mixes. I bought later Arcade Fire albums. I once saw Arcade Fire live with David Byrne and it was incredible (Byrne brought them on stage for a few songs, but then his big finish was “Crazy in Love” backed by both Arcade Fire AND the Extra Action Marching Band; holy fuck). Funeral is a fantastic album and we are lucky to have it. But it is seared in my memory for this one song, sung-along to terribly in the quiet cold dark of the Louisiana night with the beat of my palms against leather keeping time with the drums.

Buy yourself some Arcade Fire and sing along like you used to.

Lifter Puller: Fiestas and Fiascos

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

Friday, October 3, New York: Fiestas and Fiascos, like the other handful of Lifter Puller albums, tells anecdotes of a drug-addled nighttime scene in a nameless city with reappearing characters and locations. Katrina or K, Juanita, Nightclub Dwight, and the nightclub the Nice Nice. Songs about doing drugs and drinking hard and scoring drugs and waking up on lawns, all layered in with exquisite detail (most impressive as it’s in a fictional setting) and hard-scrabbled desperation. While the album doesn’t follow a strict narrative (it’s not quite a rock musical) but it does build to a conclusion.

The first thing one notices about this album is how incredible Craig Finn’s lyrics are— the scenes he paints in a line or two, the clever rhymes that drive them. “Do you like lighting fires? / I’ve been looking for a fire-lighter for hire. / Do you like lighting fires?” But it’s not just the lyrics. Lifter Puller is just fucking great rock and roll. “Bruised hips from doing the bump too much. / Blue lips from slipping the tongue too much.” Half-sung, half-spoken vocals, hot fast drums, sexy organs and keys. The genetic codes on display here pop up again in The Hold Steady, but this is a whole separate species. A homo superior of rock music.

There was a specific temporal slice of my life to which this album was the soundtrack— being in my early twenties in Los Angeles. The sun would go down, this album would come on, and you wuold drive around feeling dangerous and itching for the start of the night. I never lived the Nice, Nice life (“Dry ice and knifefights on every other Wednesday night”) nor the 90s rave scene that inspired these songs, but hell, my buddy Jed and I would go in for a dirty martini-soaked Koreatown karaoke club tour and we’d warm up the pipes screaming about Nightclub Dwight on the way.

The final thing to say about this album is how it ends: There are two songs that complete the record (notably, Lifter Puller’s last studio record before pulling up stakes and evolving into The Holy Steady). “Lifter Puller Vs. The End of The Evening” describes the scene spiraling out of control and spinning downward. You’d think it would be the perfect conclusion, title and all. But no. There is “The Flex and the Buff Result”, which describes in exquisite detail the “eye-patch guy” (“he was dripping wet with gin fizz / he was half dead and dynamite / he had needle-marked arms like the front man for some grunge band / he cooled himself off with a Japanese hand fan…”) and his orders… (and this is the point at which the album rocks the hardest) “I want Nightclub Dwight dead in his grave I want the Nice Nice up in blazes. / I want Nightclub Dwight dead in his grave I want the Nice Nice up in blazes”. It’s SO FUCKING GOOD.

Lifter Puller, I’ll always love you. Bring on the bed spins, bring on the mini-thins.

Buy this album and listen to it driving around at night instead of doing a bunch of drugs.

Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 1, New York: There are exactly 69 love songs in the aptly titled 69 Love Songs and they are a mix of the poppy, the top-tapping, the cute, and the strange. In late college and the years that followed, it seemed everyone I knew had this three disc set hanging out somewhere on their CD rack, and many of these songs were ubiquitous in the cars of friends. Listening this week, it was funny how patchy my familiarity with them is— some of these songs I know completely by heart: “Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”, “Busby Berkeley Dreams”, “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old”. And then there are the ones that are completely foreign (and odd): “Fido, Your Leash is Too Long” or “Love is Like Jazz”. Partly I wonder if this a change in media; when I listened to these it was on three CDs and you made a conscious choice which CD you’d put in. Or if it’s a reflection of the age of the playlist; all of these songs cry out to be removed from their context and wrapped up into a mix CD with some other sweet indie rock tunes for your crush.

At its core, 69 Love Songs is an experiment, a concept album. Wikipedia tells me (which I never knew) that Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields originally conceived of this as a live orchestral revue. And much of the time, it feels like an experiment. Despite “Love is Like Jazz” or “Punk Love”, though, there are some absolutely perfect little pop love songs scattered across these sixty-nine. It’s the great shame of our time that these are not being covered like crazy by teeny crooners the world over.

The most enjoyable part of this listen was stumbling across the songs I just love, the ones that made me grin ear to ear when they came on. “Washington, DC” with its cheerleader bridge— oh how I love to clap along. Or “Reno Dakota” (“you make me blue / Pantone two ninety two”). And possibly the sweetest song on the album to my ears: “Papa Was a Rodeo” (“Home was anywhere with diesel gas / love was a trucker’s hand.”) I can’t remember is anyone danced to this song at their wedding, but I’ve been to a few where they should have.

Buy this album and relive your early aughts with Stephen Merritt and his ragtag band of lovers.