Sunday, April 10, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 30: Your Favorite Song at This Time, Last Year

If you want to get technical, this is Day 35 of the 30-Day Song Challenge: I fudged and neglected posting on a couple of days. And no, I don't want to go out on Toto (see previous entry).

Close to this time last year, I was first discovering the joys of Cobirds Unite, the most recent solo CD by Seattle's best singer/songwriter, Rusty Willoughby. The title track, my favorite song on the album, sounds (to me, at least) like the Beatles and Neko Case waltzing through a dense forest together, under a bright but foreboding full moon. Or something like that. Gorgeous, eerie stuff; sung sublimely by Willoughby and Visqueen's Rachel Flotard.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Day 29: A Song from Your Childhood

Some of my first favorite bands as a kid were incubated in the slick waters of AM radio. Before I discovered punk and new wave at age 15 I drank as deep from the well of arena-schlock as any child of the 1970's.

One of those AM-ready bands was Toto, whose big hits of the 1970's and '80's made for some reasonably tasty empty calories. One of the first LP's (vinyl, kids) that I purchased was Hydra, the band's sophomore release in 1979. The title track's combination of pompous prog rock keyboards, unicorn-piss fantasy lyrics, arena-metal guitars, and radio-ready gloss stroked my pre-adolescent pleasure nodes. I hadn't heard this song in ages, and it did take me straight back to being 11 years old. No, it's no damned good, but it entertained the hell outta me back in the day.

Toto actually made a 'video album' for Hydra, many excerpts of which can be found on YouTube. The 'Hydra' video is really damned entertaining pre-MTV cheeserificness (but sadly, not embeddable). This live version, however, is. Enjoy with a pack of Ritz crackers, as you would any pasteurized processed cheese food.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song that Makes You Feel Guilty

Still behind. Sorry. Took a day off yesterday from everything, including participating in this Facebook-rooted time-suck.

So what to make of today's Song Challenge? Are we back in Guilty Pleasure territory? Or are we talking about a song that triggers associations with acts of guilt and sin? Or are we talking about a song that really addresses issues of guilt in an eloquent fashion? This silly challenge yields as many nuances of interpretation as Shakespeare, I tell ya.

Well, I've already covered the so-called Guilty Pleasure turf (viva, Spice Girls!); and as an ex-catholic whose every breath and move induced guilt in his halcyon years (and sometimes today, for that matter), every third song I hear could probably trigger some guilt-induced association. And that's not particularly fun (though it is sort of funny).

So I go for Door #3: A great song that happens to address guilt. And as a bonus, I'll throw in two great ones.

The Arctic Monkeys are probably my favorite British band right now; four young pups who can rock like the Buzzcocks on a meth cocktail, craft pop hooks easily the equal of any UK band of the last thirty years, and top the whole combination off with some of the best song lyrics out there right now. Their last disc, 2009's Humbug, saw their songcraft collide with patches of sexual surrealism and a druggily-pulsating production by the Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme. It's a wonderfully odd-duck record that stretches creatively without losing sight of the band's considerable strengths.

Chief among those strengths is Alex Turner, the band's lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist. This Humbug highlight, "Dance Little Liar", showcases his sharp lyrical pen; and I love the way the song simmers, then explodes, then fades back into that pounding pulse. Call it Brit-Pop Noir.



If "Dance Little Liar" examines guilt with a sense of foreboding, Billy Paul's 1972 soul classic "Me and Mrs. Jones" unabashedly romanticizes it. The track captures the smouldering slow dance between infidelity-induced guilt and undeniable desire better than any other song ever recorded. Over a lushly-upholstered bed of velour strings and horns, Paul describes the clandestine affair between himself and the titular woman with such a vivid ear, you can picture the entire story in your head as it plays. An entire universe is conveyed in the hints and implications of the lyrics; and in Paul's show-stopping vocal delivery. A stone classic.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Days 26 and 27: A Song You can Play, and One You Wish You Could...

So I got a little behind. When you're up 'til 3 in the am writing trivia questions, this'll happen. Fortunately, both of these categories are easy for me.

Like every third person in the Northwest, I play (a little; very little) guitar. For awhile in my halcyon days of youth, like every third person in the Northwest, I even kicked around the idea of, you know, doing it for reals. Played two live solo gigs at a Chinese restaurant in Ballard, even.

During this period, I practiced guitar pretty diligently and got to the proficiency of a pretty skilled twelve-year old. One of the things you learn when you first pick up the guitar is that some of (OK, MOST of) the greatest rock and pop songs on the planet are pretty damned simple to play. So it's kind of a rush to discover a great song, a song that you love, that you can play. One of my first such discoveries was this one. There's a terrific guitar tab for it that's right in my vocal key, and with some practice...I sound like a pretty skilled twelve-year old playing David Bowie's "Heroes". So one of the songs I can play is "Heroes." But give me a week to practice/re-learn it first.



On the flipside, one of the other things you learn when you first start dinking around on a guitar is that, sometimes, its not as easy as you think. Whether it's the windmill power-chord goofball wizardry of Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, or the acoustic picking of Nick Drake, I do appreciate really good guitar playing.

I don't put a lot of cop into wankerly guitar virtuosity (songs, not wheedling solos, are my bag most of the time), but David Bowie has always aligned himself with amazing guitar players. Ironically, while "Heroes" is incredibly easy to play, "Scary Monsters and Super Creeps" sports squalls of incredibly precise yet crazed guitar soloing by Robert Fripp. I will never be able to play like this. But I'm glad that Fripp does.

Monday, March 28, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 25 - a song that makes you laugh

There are a lot of songs that induce intentional laughter in this world. Hell, the entire catalog of Flight of the Conchords would fill the bill nicely. But picking between all of the Conchords songs would be like the Octomom picking her favorite octuplet, so I'll go with someone else entirely, namely garage rockers Electric Six.

Don't know about you, but any band that mixes fuzztone guitar with handclaps, cowbells, and Abe Lincoln in tight leather shorts makes me mighty happy.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 24 - A Song that you Want to Play at your Funeral

I hope that the necessity for this soundtrack doesn't come for a good many years, but when it does I'd rather have people having fun than moping about my recently-departed duff. Party up, all.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 23 - A Song in a Foreign Language

The initiator of this here list suggested a change to Day 23, and that suits me just fine, especially in light of the artist who comes immediately to mind.

Serge Gainsbourg's probably best known today as the dad of chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg. But for over twenty years, he was an honest-to-God superstar in France, cutting records that combined his sense of lackadaisical Gallic cool with a wide variety of musical influences--jazz, afro-cuban, disco, and rock. My favorite Gainsbourg track is "Bonnie and Clyde," directly inspired by the 1967 Arthur Penn flick and sung in duet with the exotic Brigitte Bardot. Some of Gainsbourg's work took a left turn into kitsch (not a bad thing); "Bonnie and Clyde," with its surging acoustic guitar, strange looped (or at least they sound looped) cymbals, and insistent strings, just sounds gothic and haunting and wonderful. And really damned cool.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 22 - A Song that you Listen to When you’re Sad




I've tried to avert the climes of sadness a lot lately. The surging and chaotic tumult of life brings scary alien bouts of change; and those surges of unrest alternately hurt, terrify, and exhilarate. But plumbing deep into sadness--looking squarely into it--is a whole lot harder.

That's why when you hear music that truly taps into it, it can almost be too much to listen to.

For some reason, a cloak of sadness has been hanging over me pretty persistently today. Part of the credit's due to some exotic strain of something that's been hanging on far, far too long. And when your body doesn't feel well, the mind makes that same stretch easily. So when I got home from a co-worker's farewell party, I threw on Nick Drake's Pink Moon.

Nick Drake, in case you didn't know, was an English folk singer whose haunting, airy voice and sophisticated acoustic guitar playing wrought a massive influence on a lot of musicians. If you're a fan of the emotionally-naked songwriting of Elliott Smith, you're hearing the doomed spiritual progeny of Nick Drake.

Drake fit the portrait of a doomed spirit himself, passing away at the painfully young age of 26 in 1974. Before dying, he committed three full-length albums to posterity, all of which walk some very dark pathways.

The most harrowing of them, 1972's Pink Moon, is less than thirty minutes long. It presents Drake at his most stripped-down and chilling-to-the-marrow sad. All eleven tracks are deceptively tranquil--just Drake's spectral croon and his densely-plucked guitar--but beneath that lull of a voice is a melancholy of incalculable depth.

The title track was (stupidly) used by Volkswagen for a commercial a few years ago. It's understandable, I suppose. The soothing sonics probably seemed perfect for a bunch of hippie kids parked sentimentally under the stars. Volkswagen (wisely) omitted the full brunt of Drake's lyrics; a tale of the world ending, delivered with narcotic inevitability. If that ain't sad, I don't know what is. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song that you Listen to When you’re Happy

If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. And listen to James Brown's "Sex Machine."

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 20 - A Song that you Listen to when you’re Angry

So what do I listen to when I'm angry? Well, why am I angry? And what am I hoping to accomplish in listening to music?
Well, I'll tackle a couple of these possibilities. What the hell, it's only sleep.

Maybe I'm just flat-out pissed at someone or something and need something loud and cathartic. If that's the catalyst, then I pick "Jake Leg," a track by Baroness, an amazing metal band that flat out blew the top of my head off at Bumbershoot 2010. It's loud enough to satisfy the head-banging, but brimming with hooks--like Zeppelin and Dick Dale in a caravan, on amphetamines, with a pack of marauding cossacks hot at their heels. Bonus points to the guy who put this video together with clips from War of the Gargantuas and Frankenstein meets the Space Monster.



Am I looking at submerging into something immersive and escapist that's gonna whisk me away from anger-inducing/mundane reality? Then I'd program in the first three tracks from The Dandy Warhols' 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia (one of which is this, "Godless"). Guaranteed to whisk me off to someplace exotic, dangerous and sexy; even if I'm commuting or scrubbing a toilet. Seriously.



Now, if I want to remove myself from the angry with something happy there's plenty of places to go, happily. Right this instant, if I was fuming and wanted something that'd get my tootsies to a' tapping and the fun to start a' kicking in, I'd throw on this song in a New York minute. And I'd stop being angry, right quick.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 19 - a song from your favorite album

I already put my favorite song by Love on Day 1; and that band's Forever Changes is (pretty much) my favorite album ever. So I'm gonna fudge and put down a song from one of my (other) favorite albums ever. On certain days, it is my favorite album ever.

The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle came out in 1968; and in one of those glorious ironies of fate, it became a sizeable hit over a year after the band broke up. It is, I think, a perfect album--full of faultlessly-realized songwriting, a production that's as layered as it is crystalline, and exquisite singing by Colin Blunstone, a man gifted with the most hauntingly-beautiful set of pipes ever granted to a pop singer. The big hit from the record was the dusky "Time of the Season." It's still one of the most headily sensual rock songs ever recorded, and it's lost none of its power despite over forty years and use in umpteen commercials. But the rest of the album glitters like a chest of jewels exposed to sunlight.

Odessey's two key songwriters, keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White, drew from a massive bag of wonders--classical music, jazz, traditional English folk, gothic cabaret--and created something magical. This gorgeous madrigal, "Changes," is as good a representation of that magic as anything, and it takes my breath away every time I hear it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 18 - A Song that you Wish you heard on the Radio

As was addressed before, I'm not much for traditional radio. But if I did listen to it, I'd love to hear this song by Texas psychedelic shamans The Black Angels on it.

I'm pretty much in love with the Angel's third platter, Phosphene Dream. It's a sublime trip record, and this song, "Telephone", sounds like some great lost track by The Zombies. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 17 - A Song that you Hear Often on the Radio

A song I hear often on the radio. The radio? Does anyone listen to The Radio anymore? With the myriad listening options feeding the earbuds of the world nowadays, radio in its traditional form seems like a quaint, wheezing memory.

That said, every now and then a modern song becomes such a part of the pop-culture firmament that you can't escape it. And I'd hazard a guess that that means it also got played a lot on the radio. So here goes. If Your Obscurity-Huffing Geezer Truly has heard it, then that means it's REALLY become pervasive.

Hey, I kinda like it, too. That Euro-trash barebones synth is in the pocket, methinks. Put that in yer pipe and smoke it, hipsters.

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 16 - a song that you used to love but now hate

Wow, this shoulda gone up last night; but a date with The Residents kept me up til the wee hours. And a guy's gotta sleep sometime, y'know.

Music-wise, I'm not one to discard beloved songs like used Kleenex. But every now and then, a song can get overplayed to death (by you as well as the whole of the media universe). And it can wear out its welcome.

I used to be a pretty big Police fan in my halcyon days of youth, but the massive oversaturation of their last proper album (Synchronicity) and its first hit single ("Every Breath You Take"), coupled with Sting's precipitous descent over the years into tiresome old-gasbagginess, eroded a lot of that fondness. For about six months after it first came out, I thought "Every Breath You Take" was the greatest pop song ever.

'Hate' would be too strong a word for how I feel about the tune today, but listening to it again left me pretty cold, and had me scratching my head as to why I adored it so, back in the day. Honestly, I could go the rest of my life without hearing it again.

Friday, March 18, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 15 - A Song that Describes You

On a really, really, really good day, I do, in fact, move like a cat, talk like a rat, and sting like a bee, babe... Just saying.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 14: A Song that No One would Expect you to Love

Well, now that I've admitted my fondness for the Spice Girls, there really isn't much of anything that'll surprise folks who stray across this blog. Considering my propensity for music that's outside the mainstream much of the time, though, my fondness for this song might be a surprise.

A lot of folks worship Tom Petty pretty slavishly, and I've never been one of them. He's written a few great songs, but those efforts have often (for me, at least) been superceded by that mewling Dylan whine and (I'm sorry, but it's true) those teeth that appear too massive for that horse-face of his.

But, again, he's written some great songs, and this one--"Here Comes My Girl"--is probably my favorite. With all the tension in those coiled guitar chords and the spoken-word interludes, it sounds like Lou Reed with a libido. I'm still waiting for someone who can, you know, really sing, to cover this.

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 13: A Song that is a Guilty Pleasure

So any music geek willing to stick to his or her six-guns would preface this category with the exhortation that, "There should be no such things as guilty pleasures." I'd agree with that, pretty much. Unless you're a Celine Dion fan.

Kidding. Sort of.

So I guess my definition of this category would be music so utterly bereft of any traditional muso-snob 'redeeming values' as to raise eyebrows from most stuffy rock critics and indie snobs. If that's the litmus test, then I've got one that'll turn the PH strip into a frickin' kaleidoscope.

I love--no, scratch that, ADORE--the first two Spice Girls CDs. They're perfect, sunny uber-pop albums that hit every fizzy note you could ask for, and then some. And I'd argue that--with their hopscotching of genres, insidiously catchy tunes, and larger-than-life personae--Ginger, Sporty, Posh, Baby, and Scary were the ABBA of the 1990's. They're one pleasure that I'll readily cop to and defend to my dying breath, the way I defend my deep love of SweetTarts and Scooby Doo.

This song has been played to death, reincarnation, and death again since it was released some fifteen years ago, but God help me, I still love it. And with enough belts in me I can lay down a mean version of it on a karaoke night (be ready to help out on the chorus, though). So here's the story from A to Z; you wanna get with me, you gotta listen carefully...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 12 - A Song from a Band you Hate, and a Bonus

I've had a curve ball thrown at me by a fellow music nerd (OK, maybe the only person reading these posts besides me). Instead of just linking a song from a band I hate, how about also linking a song that I really like from a band I (normally) hate?

Quick and easy, on both counts.

Not even gonna waste too much copy yabbering about how much I detest Huey Lewis and the News. Sanitized, ultra-slick gruel that I've hated, literally since the day I first heard "Do You Believe in Love?" on the radio nearly thirty years ago. Ick, ick, ick, ick.

Rather than dignify these blandoids with a link or an embed of a straight-up video, I'm attaching a link to a YouTube clip of a sequence in American Psycho, in which Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman character sings the praises of the band's most grating hit single, "Hip to be Square". And if you put a tableful of Huey Lewis CDs in front of me, you can bet I'd treat said tableaux in the same way that Bale treats Jared Leto in the clip.

Here's the link (embed is, sadly, disabled). It's funny, it's gruesome, and it's definitely NSFW.

Meantime, as a bonus, here's a link to a song that I love, by a band I hate. This appeared on the Petri Dish a couple of years ago in a post on songs I'd bought as MP3's, and my sentiments about it still hold true.

Chicago, "Wishing You Were Here": God, admitting to this one almost hurts. My virulent hatred for Chicago's brand of  mellow pop knows no bounds. It's Steely Dan slathered with cheesy horns, a bowl of mud with a spoonful of Cool Whip on top. Good thing downloading gives you the ultimate opportunity to indulge in those anomalous freak tracks by bands that you normally loathe. "Wishing You Were Here" is brilliant, a haunting song of longing with some of the most ethereal harmonies I've heard in a seventies ballad. Sole credit goes to the Beach Boys, who guest on the song and anchor Peter Cetera's treacly songwriting (that cheesy-ass Cetera-sung bridge has gotta go) with their luminous intertwining voices.

Monday, March 14, 2011

30-Day Music Challenge, Day 11: A Song from your Favorite Band

Let's amend this to A Song from One of your Favorite Bands, why don't we? This selection comes from my personal short list of all-time faves.

For my money, Cheap Trick were the greatest rock band of the 1970's. They crashed the pompous Rock Artiste Jackass Party of that decade with an almost punk-rock irreverance, and to this day their meld of bright pop hooks, snotty humor, and monster power chords holds up like Gibraltar in a hurricane.

Somewhere nestled in the bowels of this blog is the beginning draft of a nerdily-exhaustive cap of their career, but for now, here's one of my favorite songs off of Cheap Trick's most recent album, The Latest. Listen--and rock--as four old guys blow out eardrums with more force than bands a third of their age.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 10: A Song that Makes You Fall Asleep

Some of the categories on this Facebook Time Vacuum could be open to several interpretations. Take today's, for example. A song that makes you fall asleep: Do you go with a song so numbingly dull that it instantly induces somnabulism in the stoutest of night owls? Or do you go with a song that captures that wonderful twilight time, when you're relaxed and contemplative and ready to drift happily into the wonderful universe of Dreamtime?

God knows there are more than enough songs out there that encourage the former torpor. Hell, the vast majority of the mellow ballads that somehow prospered in the 1970's could handily fill the bill; the collected works of Barry Manilow ("Copacabana" and "Could This Be the Magic" notwithstanding), Bread, Air Supply...Just writing their names is forcing me to stifle a major yawn as my fingers touch the keyboard.

But the nocturnal romantic in me vastly prefers contemplating songs that capture the twilight and ease you into the evening's indigo folds.

Circulatory System was a side project largely spearheaded by William Cullen Hart, lead singer of Olivia Tremor Control (one of the great, underrated psychedelic bands of the late 1990's/early 2000's). OTC put out a couple of great records, and sounded (to me, at least) like what the Flaming Lips have wanted to sound like for most of the last decade, only bolstered by much better singing. Circulatory System's lone disc swirls and mesmerizes with equal beauty.

The album's finest song, "The Pillow", makes for perfect nighttime music. Hart's hushed, spectral vocals layer atop themselves at the opening, gliding along a bed of gently-insistent kettle drums and eastern-tinged guitars. And on at least one night I've had occasion to lie in the darkness, staring at moonlight streaming through gaps between curtains, with this song on constant repeat as sleep enveloped me.

Listen, close your eyes, and drift there.

30 Day Music Challenge, Day 9: A Song You can Dance To

Somewhere in the recesses of my work-and-chaos-informed existance, I'd intended to post this on Valentine's Day, but that February pseudo-holiday came and went. Fortunately, this song fulfills the booty-shaking quotient required for Day 9 of the 30-Day Music Challenge, and then some, no matter what time of the year.

Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below was one of my favorite listens of the last decade (for reals--see here), in no small part because Andre 3000's portion of that big-selling hip-hop double-disc marked the best platter Prince never released. Sure, it was packed with sonic imagination and hooks to burn, but moreover, you could dance to the mutha.

"Happy Valentine's Day" sports the kind of potent old-school groove that packs dance floors, and it's funny as hell (the venom at the tip of Cupid's arrow, it seems is as rife with giggle juice as it is with the poison of unplanned passion). When the horny imp intones, "Keep on runnin', player...'Cause I got my good shoes on, and I got 'em tied up tight..." it's as hysterical as it is inevitable. Permission to shake your ass is officially granted.

Friday, March 11, 2011

30-Day Music Challenge, Day 8: A Song that You Know All the Words To

INXS were my favorite band for a lotta years; and they possessed one of the greatest rock vocalists ever in Michael Hutchence. When I made attempts at singing myself, I'll admit openly that Hutchence's dusky, evocative pipes were a massive influence.

The band's two best records were (I thought) 1982's Shabooh Shoobah and 1984's The Swing. They sounded more mature, more sensual, and richer than damn near anything else the era produced. I could blather on interminably about the many ways in which they rocked my world, but it's late, and I'm trying to stay on task.

After a lot of years, I still know all the words to every single song on both of these records, but the one that resonates with me the most on this cool, rainless Seattle night is "Johnson's Aeroplane," from The Swing. It's incredibly atmospheric, melding a funk pulse with stately strings and lyrics that have their hands placed firmly and empathetically into the Australian soil. It would've been interesting to hear George Martin put his orchestral touch on this track, but it's pretty perfect on its own, thanks.

I sang along with it tonight, some part of me hoping Hutchence would come slinking back from the afterworld to set my ass straight and sing it right.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

30-Day Music Challenge, Day 7: A song that Reminds you of a Certain Event

This'll be even quicker than last night.

The night of my graduation, I partied as heartily as any energy-filled kid at that crossroads; and the album from which this song came provided the soundtrack, thundering over the speakers in Frank Takahashi's Dodge Ram Truck like a choir of horny troublemaking satyrs. Damn, but I loves me some Diamond-Dave-era Van Halen.

30-Day Music Challenge: A Song that Reminds You of Somewhere

This will go fast. It's late, and I'm tired. But I love this song, and it's a location spike of total precision and clarity for me.

I spent a couple of weeks in England four or five years ago, and found myself enchanted by the noir grayness that enveloped much of it. There was also the deep sense of history that rose from it and clung to you like so much humidity.

Being a hard-core Anglophile I could summon up a lot of songs that make me think of certain aspects of Merry Olde. But sometimes one band captures the spirit of a place better than anyone or anything else can. Want to feel and taste what Compton's like? Throw on some NWA. Want to experience the almost freakishly sunny pocket universe of California's coast? The Beach Boys'll do the trick.

For me, no band captures the forboding, swoonsome, and spectral atmosphere that imbues much of England better than The Clientele--a limey quartet whose gently-psychedelic music seems deliciously, inexorably a part of their place of origin.

"Since K Got Over Me" is one of my favorite Clientele songs, a bittersweet and all-'round gorgeous rumination on the disorientation singer Alistair MacLean feels as he contemplates a world in which an ex-lover no longer reciprocates emotions he's still kicking around. Like England itself, it feels melancholy, austere, and swoonily magickal--in equal turns.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

30 Day Music Challenge, Day 5: A Song that Reminds you of Someone

Circa 1975, it was, I think. I was seven years old, on an Arkansas-bound Trailways bus with my mom and little brother. My mom sat next to John, and I sat across the aisle from the two of them, stretched out between two seats and looking out at the deep indigo sky as the silhouetted landscape zipped by.

At some point the bus stopped to pick up more passengers at a brightly-lit terminal somewhere around what I think was Idaho, and my stretched-out reverie was broken when a woman stepped on to take the second seat on my side. I politely shifted to the window seat while she took the aisle.

She made me nervous at first; just because I was a shy kid, too young to understand females in general. Strange, floral-scented aliens, they were, I thought. But after a few minutes of silence she noticed the book in my lap--Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--and asked me how I liked it. I started talking to her about how full of strange and wonderful things it was; how different it was from the Walt Disney movie I'd seen a few weeks previous, and yet how similar it was. And she responded in kind by talking about that book and other science fiction books she'd read. She was going to college, she said, and loved sci-fi.

After awhile my shyness began to thaw some, and I looked up at her. She was slender; with long, straight blonde hair and alert-but-kind green eyes. She wore a pink T-shirt and faded bell-bottoms, and laughed a lot. She was older than me, but younger than my mom and most of the other adults I knew. In the course of a few minutes time she was talking to me like an equal, engaging me in conversation and addressing me in a way that no adult before ever had.

She began telling me stories about the highway down which we sped. At one point, an illuminated cross pierced the night horizon, glowing about a mile away from the road; and she told me how it had been erected to commemorate the passing of a sports star who'd perished in a plane crash. She told me a lot of other stories, too; about places she'd seen, books she'd read, people she'd known. She looked young, yet seemed to know so much about the world.

Every now and then, she'd lean over me to point out some building or unusual tree. My eyes would follow her finger as it pointed against the window, and occasionally I'd find myself looking at her as she described the world beyond that glass. Little kid enthusiasm would play against her features, and that exhuberance was infectious. It was the first time I'd met a (pretty much) grown-up who possessed that kind of energy. After what was probably a good couple of hours I began to get drowsy. I stifled a yawn, and she smiled. "If you're tired, you should go to sleep," she said serenely. Truth be told, I wanted to talk with her some more; but exhaustion overtook me and I drifted off.

The next morning I woke with a start. In the place of the blonde girl who'd kind of enchanted me was a heavy-set Mediterranean-looking man with a jet-black cookie-duster of a moustache. The blonde girl was gone.

My mom gently needled me at breakfast about chatting up the girl the night previous, a concept that made my seven-year-old face flush slightly. That flush turned to full-blown tomato redness when a middle-aged African-American woman who'd befriended my mom on the bus said, "Tony found himself a girlfriend!" with a restaurant-filling chuckle. Of course I was embarassed: I was crushing hard on a girl--a woman--for the first time, and it was pretty uncomfortable being outed.

Days went by. My mom reconnected with close family, and my brother and I experienced a humid, fulsomely green land of adventure. We stayed at my great-grandparents' house, a two-story white structure that looked big as a southern plantation to my child's eye. Katydids chirped deafening choruses amongst the trees at night; John and I walked along the sidewalk shaded by oak trees as the sky drenched us with warm rain; my great-grandma fed me beefsteak tomatoes the size of my head; and my brother and I sat in a paddle boat with our Uncle Dane one hot spring night, watching a creek bed that teemed with masses of tadpoles and watergrasses that seemed to descend to infinity.

Then one morning my Aunt Brooke packed my brother and I into her giant station wagon, and she drove us to a burger place for lunch. On the way, a song came on the radio. And for some reason, that tune instantly took me back to being on that bus several nights previous. In about two-and-a-half minutes I found myself reminiscing on the conversation, on the world that stretched beyond that bus window, and on the pretty college girl who'd opened my eyes to that world for a couple of hours.

The song that played on Aunt Brooke's AM radio was "To Sir With Love" by Lulu. And long story short, it still makes me think of that girl on the bus every time I hear it.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

30-Day Music Challenge, Day 4: A Song that Makes you Sad

If you're talking about songs that induce you to drink from the fount of romantic and spiritual melancholy like a bittersweet and toxic liquor, well, I got a million of 'em. But as far as songs that just flat-out make you sad, there's always been one that's done it for me sure as the sun sets at the end of every day.

Like any thinking human who professes any sort of love for popular music in any form, I love the Beatles. And they could do romantic melancholy as well as anyone (cue "Julia" and "Yesterday"). But the band's last single, "The Long and Winding Road," pulls from a well of sadness so deep that I must confess that I have a hard time listening to it. It's the sound of the last fragments of the band crumbling away; and in that fragmentation you can hear a pretty rich metaphor for the dissolution and fragmentation of anything--a human life, a relationship, your childhood, whatever. The strings and the gospel chorus interjections are supposed to suffuse it with some sense of grandeur and hope, I reckon, but it's like gilding and fancy decoration on a corpse. Which, for the Beatles, it was at the time.

This YouTube video includes lyrics, which are about as diametrically opposed to a pick-me-up as you can get. Here you go, if you can handle it.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 3 - a song that makes you happy

I've spent the last five hours traversing downtown Seattle and Capitol Hill, aglow in that rarest of Emerald City joys--a sunny, mild(-ish), beautiful March day. And as clouds drag across the clarion blue sky, I've been listening to one song on repeat all afternoon.

Seattle band Curtains for You are making a bit of a splash lately, most recently in a City Arts magazine poll that picked them as one of the region's Best New Bands (plug alert: Yours Truly was asked to contribute a sentence or two extolling the band's considerable virtues). Curtains craft un-jaded, unapologetically heart-on-sleeve pop blessedly free of indie-poseur airs; packed with gorgeous harmonies and songwriting that carries on the tradition of pop classicists like Harry Nilsson and Village Green-era Kinks. It's music tailor-made for a day like today.

"Licorice Skies" closes out the band's (great) 2009 CD What a Lovely Surprise to Wake Up Here. It's a loping, joyous account of an extra-memorable Fourth of July, delivered with vivid lyrical imagery and the kind of exhuberance that only youth and happiness can produce. Music nerd that I am, I could produce a phone-book-sized list of songs that provide potent pick-me-ups. But in this moment, this burst of sunny pop makes me happy to be alive.

I'm far too much of a Luddite to be able to upload an MP3 of "Licorice Skies" to this humble blog, but if you go to the band's MySpace page, you can hear it in its entirety. Do so, and c'mon, get happy.   

Friday, March 04, 2011

Music Challenge: Day 2: Least Favorite Song

If you've ever been to a wedding or a family reunion, you've likely endured the nightmarish Lovecraftian Vortex of Treacly Hell that is Kool and the Gang's "Celebration".

Kool and the Gang earned their funk cred points in the 1970's with a lot of great throw-down tracks like the classic, "Jungle Boogie".  But their biggest hit has been beaten to death as THE soundtrack for any gathering populated by rhythm-(and taste-) impaired white people. It's R & B flavored with Nutri-Sweet. No wonder your grandpa can dance to it.

I hate the song so much that I won't even dignify it with a link to a video or MP3 of the actual original song. So I thought I'd link the most memorable version of (a portion of) the song I know.

SCTV was the Canadian equivalent of Saturday Night Live in the late '70's/early '80's. The sketch show spawned some of the previous generation's greatest comic sensibilities, some of whom created this (I think) hysterical parody.  Those of you too young to realize the amusement in the Old Guard's most lame entertainer (Perry Como) doing a 'funk' song are just flat-out missing out. So, here for your edification is the Perry Como spoof featuring a funny excerpt of "Celebration." Honestly, it isn't that much blander than the original. 


Thursday, March 03, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge, Day One: Your Favorite Song

I pride myself in averting most Facebook Time Vacuums like the plague. Farmville? Bah! Mafia Wars? Meh. But send me somethin' music-related and I'm like a horse addict given the opportunity to rave on about his favorite grades of China White.

My friend and Musical Yoda Dean Saling sent me the following challenge, and I'm in thrall to its siren song. I was looking for an excuse/vehicle to force myself into keyboard diarhhea, just for the love of it, on an extended basis, anyway. So here goes.

The challenge is thus: Every day for 30 days, post a song title, mp3, video or link to your Facebook profile, in this order:


day 01 - your favorite song
day 02 - your least favorite song
day 03 - a song that makes you happy
day 04 - a song that makes you sad
day 05 - a song that reminds you of someone
day 06 - a song that reminds you of somewhere
day 07 - a song that reminds you of a certain event
day 08 - a song that you know all the words to
day 09 - a song that you can dance to
day 10 - a song that makes you fall asleep
day 11 - a song from your favorite band
day 12 - a song from a band you hate
day 13 - a song that is a guilty pleasure
day 14 - a song that no one would expect you to love
day 15 - a song that describes you
day 16 - a song that you used to love but now hate
day 17 - a song that you hear often on the radio
day 18 - a song that you wish you heard on the radio
day 19 - a song from your favorite album
day 20 - a song that you listen to when you’re angry
day 21 - a song that you listen to when you’re happy
day 22 - a song that you listen to when you’re sad
day 23 - a song that you want to play at your wedding
day 24 - a song that you want to play at your funeral
day 25 - a song that makes you laugh
day 26 - a song that you can play on an instrument
day 27 - a song that you wish you could play
day 28 - a song that makes you feel guilty
day 29 - a song from your childhood
day 30 - your favorite song at this time last year

Yeah, I'm more than up to the challenge.

Rather than just post stuff to Facebook, I figured I'd post a link to this here Blog on Facebook each day. So today, day 1, marks Favorite Song of All Time.

Anyone who's wandered into this corner of the Blogosphere (or anyone who's been corralled into music nerd-speak with me at all) will not be surprised at the choice here. I've adored Love--the LA psychedelic cult outfit fronted by troubled genius Arthur Lee--since I was 17 years old, and if pressed I could (but don't worry, I won't) populate nearly every positive category on this list with a song by the band. You can go here for a personal account about this metaphoric and literal Love affair, if'n you're so inclined).

The band's finest moment, ironically enough, was penned not by Lee but by Love's only other contributing songwriter, the underrated and gifted-in-his-own right Bryan MacLean. "Alone Again Or" opens Love's 1967 masterpiece Forever Changes with a rush of urgent, propulsively gorgeous incandescence. Lyrically, it's conflicted as hell--the sound of an awestruck romantic celebrating the beauty of the people and the world around him ("I could be in love with almost anyone/I think that people are the greatest fun") even as he wrestles with loneliness (the next line? "...And I will be alone again tonight, my dear").

The song's so sonically breathtaking, though, that it utterly skirts self-absorbed navel-gazing. When the strings surge and the horns soar, "Alone Again Or" conveys (to these Love-struck ears, at least) the whole tapestry of life; every heady, sad, joyous, magickal moment. And that's why I will never stop adoring it, for as long as I breathe.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Passings: Tura Satana--Actress, Icon, Tigress

The Conqueror, a gloriously bad 1956 sword-and-sandal flick featuring John Wayne as Genghis Khan (no, I'm not smoking crack...), brims with ridiculous dialogue, but one line in particular has always stuck with me. It's uttered by Khan/Wayne in classic western-drawl style, and he uses it to describe the object of his desire, the fiery Tartar princess Bourtai (played by the not-very-Tartar-but-admittedly-very-hot Susan Hayward):

"She is woman...MUCH woman."

Tura Satana was one of maybe six women who walked the earth worthy of that bit of minimalist adulation. Satana, who passed away yesterday at the age of 72, was a Japanese-internment-camp survivor, an exotic dancer, paramour to Elvis Presley, and--most importantly--an energizing and world-changing (no lie) presence in some of the most entertaining cult movies of the 1960's and '70's. And she was much woman.

I put Tura under the Petri Dish microscope a couple of years ago, ironically enthusing how nice it was to write about a cult movie heroine who hadn't shuffled off this mortal coil. In the interim, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! blew the top of my head off several times. Screw all the jaded post-post-revisionist balderdash: The movie still roars like Varla's jet-propelled hot rod, and in the lead Satana embodies a full-strength, undiluted physical and sexual power that kick-started the notion of Woman Power years before the feminist movement took hold on a mass level.

That feminine strength got overlooked by the mainstream media back in the day, but Tura's animal charisma, strength, iconic look (jet-black hair in bangs, clad head-to-toe in black, mouthwatering figure poured into black jeans and blouse), and real-woman curves formed the roots of nearly every Tough Chick who followed her celluloid lead. I'll argue to my dying breath that, but for Varla and Tura Satana, there'd be no Marian Ravenwood; no Ellen Ripley; no Bride from Kill Bill; no Xena, Warrior Princess. Anytime a woman onscreen dishes it out as well as taking it, she's following Tura's lead.

Shortly after I wrote my last entry on Tura Satana, I had the great fortune of catching Faster, Pussycat! at Seattle's Egyptian Theater, with Satana in attendance. She was in great spirits, still dressed in black, and pretty much delighted with the local display of adoration. In a pinch, I could (and have) let go of a lot of the collectibles I've accumulated in my life, but my personally-autographed memento of my meeting with Tura Satana (a Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! lunch pail)? Hell, no.

So long, Varla: I'll eat your dust anytime.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit: Not Exactly a Home Run

Man, but it's been a long time since I've visited this corner of the Blogosphere. My apologies.

Truth be told, I've been far from idle. Between massive changes and upheavals, and a heap of outside projects, the ol' Petri Dish has been laying cold and neglected. More on all of that later...Maybe.

Meantime, I've given myself an hour (gotta sleep, y'know) to wax cinematic in these electronic pages for the first time in too damned long. And where better to start than in a movie theater?

I went into True Grit--the Coen Brothers' remake/reimagining of the 1969 John Wayne western--over Christmas, readily equipped with high hopes. Like most movie nerds worth the butter on their popcorn, I've been a pretty huge fan of Joel and Ethan Coen's brand of rejiggered genre cinema for a long time, and figured that this latest effort would maintain those lofty standards. Bottom line: True Grit does, and it doesn't.

For those unfamiliar with the original movie (or the Charles Portis novel on which it's based), True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, an adolescent girl who hires Rooster Cogburn, an alcoholic wastrel of a US Marshall, to apprehend the killer of her father. Along the way, she and Cogburn join forces with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to track down the culprit--hired hand Tom Chaney--and square off against Chaney and the outlaws with which he's aligned himself.

Looking back at it now, the original True Grit, entertaining as it is, is no masterpiece. It's an old-fashioned western, relatively untouched by the aesthetic influence of contemporaries like the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Epics or by the socio-political upheavals that left their fingerprints all over so much of the era's films. But it's a pretty entertaining formula picture that showcased John Wayne's craggy appeal to good enough effect to garner The Duke his first (and only) acting Oscar.

It's to the Coens' credit that they really do try to give their version its own distinctive flavor and life, ratcheting up the (pardon the pun) grit and sprinkling their distinctive brand of gallows humor into the mix. Carter Burwell's score bypasses the Old-West bravado of the original's Elmer Bernstein soundtrack in favor of something richer and more steeped in the time period, and cinematographer Roger Deakins (the Coens' DP du jour for a long time now) once again delivers some amazing work for the Brothers. 

Key members of the current movie's acting ensemble register strongly as well. Young Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie with a solid sense of purpose that feels totally genuine, and Matt Damon disappears (literally: it took me several minutes to recognize him) into the role of LaBoeuf. The Coens also improve on the relationship between LaBoeuf and Cogburn, rendering it more plausibly adversarial than in the original. Oh, and Barry Pepper's pretty damned entertaining in the role of lead heavy Lucky Ned Pepper.

So why didn't this new True Grit deliver for me? I'm still working that out. Part of it may be because the Coens have made a career out of subverting genre to their own ends; and here, they try to do so with a storyline that fairly cries out for a more conventional approach. The Coens' untethered imaginations thrive in self-generated projects, and this adaptation of a familiar property just feels like too limiting a structure for them.

But the biggest fault (to these eyes, at least) lies squarely at the center of the film, within Jeff Bridges' characterization of Rooster Cogburn. Yeah, John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn was John Wayne Playing John Wayne, but he telegraphed the character's core of tarnished-but-indisputable backbone clearly. The Coens have let Bridges run bull-in-China-shop-style through the remake: For much of the movie he's a jumble of Actors' Studio affectations and tics; and his indulgent lapses into method-actor mumbling sound uncomfortably like Pa Bear from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Hillbilly Bears.

Just when Deakins' cinematography--or Steinfeld's quiet determination, or Damon's unaffected work as straight-arrow LaBoeuf--would draw me in, Bridge's uncured ham act would completely pull me out of this often carefully-crafted world (the fistsful of huzzahs being thrown at his performance have me utterly stymied). It reminded me, all too frequently, that I was viewing A Show-Off Performance in A Remake of A Movie; not following an adventure. Only in the last twenty minutes of True Grit does Bridges set aside the affectations and begin to inhabit the character, and by then it's too little, too late. Silly as it sounds, Bridges' previous work as The Dude in the Coens' stoner-noir The Big Lebowski was more subtle, more consistent, and--dare I say it--several shades more believable. Swear to God.