Monday, April 26, 2010

Vacation Days Remaining: 12

There's nothing like a day spent at home that was supposed to be spent at work. Waking up at a time usually reserved for meetings and hurried phone calls. Spending hours lounging in bed, long after the alarm never went off. It's easy to love these days when the sun is out, the temperatures are up and mental to-do lists consist of popping in and out of record stores and early afternoon drinking on some Brooklyn bar back patio. The idyllic neighborhood hopping - traveling between boroughs and leaving responsibility behind.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Written Over Three Very Good Days in New York

Monday through Friday my days play out much the same. My alarm clock buzzes, I jerk half-awake and I groggily strike out in the direction of the noise hoping to hit the snooze button. Eventually I drag myself out of bed, cook breakfast, take a shower and leave my apartment. On the good days the sun is shining and my landlord's cats are relaxing on the front steps, patiently waiting for me to play with them.

Six blocks north to the subway. Two flights of stairs down to the train. Hoping that the G is not waiting at the platform causing me to sprint or wait an indeterminate amount of time for the next one. A little after 9am I arrive at work. I drink coffee. I open up Outlook and Excel. I mess about with figures and paperwork. I stress out about things over which I have little control. At 5pm (or 5:30, or 6 or 7) I leave.

This flat, grey day-to-day is the basis of my everyday and yet there are times (like now, on my roof, on a 65 degrees and perfect afternoon) when I get the strongest feeling that this 8-5, five days a week is nothing more than an extension of my dreams. A waking, walking sleep. In those hours it certainly feels as if a part of me remains unconscious, waiting for that first breath taken after 5 (or 5:30 or 6 or 7) outside the office's revolving doors. Then during, for example, a walk from Union Square to the East Village for a burger and a beer the best parts of me start to come alive again. Chatting with a bartender for a couple of hours about proper techniques for pouring beer and mid-90s alt-rock seems more like Real Life and Real Experience than an entire day of the-same-as-yesterday.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Defense of Fans of Bland

When I woke up Tuesday morning I heard a voice. At first I couldn't place it; it was a voice I hadn't heard in years. It fought with my blaring alarm clock for my attention, and when my flailing hand finally hit the snooze it came through clearly. Sitting up in my empty bedroom I heard the smooth tones or Rob Thomas in my head as he sang, "she said I don't know if I've ever been good enough..."

The lines bounced around my brain while I cooked breakfast, showered and commuted to work until, unable to hold back any longer, I spent a large part of the morning time-traveling back to high school. Matchbox 20 wasn't a band I loved, but it was a band that made a few songs that I loved. I navigated my spreadsheets and e-mails that morning to the tune of Push, 3am, and If You're Gone and marveled that ten years later I still knew a lot of the words. Not only that, I found myself still liking the songs despite not liking the band anymore and despite knowing that if they came out now I would more likely than not dismiss them. Listening to the tunes again, though, I was unable to disassociate the songs from what I felt when I first enjoyed them.

I wonder now how some of the bands that shaped my late adolescence would fare with critical, curmudgeonly, 27 year-old me had I never heard them in the first place. This Brooklynite doesn't feel the same longing for escape and frustration with his surroundings that made Less Than Jake's "History of a Boring Town" - and the rest of Hello Rockview for that matter - so essential to the Ohio-rooted 17 year-old I was. I can't say whether the angst-filled earnestness that made The Get Up Kids' Something to Write Home About so compelling in 1997 would strike the same chords now without being played on decade old strings.

How much are our feelings for the bands that we love tied to who we were when we first heard them? More importantly, does this make our taste suspect - a product of our situation and environment more than our ear? Or does it just make our relationship with music that much more beautiful and personal?

As someone who's never wanted to level judgment at someone for liking (what I think is) a terrible band I'd have to say the latter. When it comes to music feeling is king. While originality, skill and emotion can often feed into that if a crap song comes along at the right time in someone's life then that song will be playing in their heads for the rest of their life. And while blogs like this can always try to ensure people happen upon songs like "For Me This is Heaven", if it ends up being "I Want it That Way" who is anybody to really judge?

Bands can be picked apart and musicians can be critiqued, but when it comes to fans sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants. Most people will call that a "guilty pleasure" but I say that when it comes to music no pleasure should be guilty. I'll blast my stereo to Arcade Fire and Kelly Clarkson with equal pride because who cares what anybody else thinks of it? When it comes to music cool is bullshit, approval means nothing and Rob Thomas is invited to my iTunes any time I feel like it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Third Annual Record Store Day This Saturday, April 17

In 2008, after the first record store day, I wrote a piece on the continual value of record stores with regard to music. As a meeting place, a communal resource and a stockpile of very old, very analog sensory perceptions these storefronts remain a vital part of musical culture.

Record Store Day began as a way to celebrate and revitalize the rich tradition of the music repository, the brick-and-mortar, the mom-and-pop. I've gone out and spent far too much on both previous Record Store Days and I happily anticipate a repeat this year.

I think you should, too.

Check out the Record Store Day Web site for participating locations. Several shops are hosting in-store performances by nationally known acts so check ahead to see if any can't-miss happenings are happening nearby. There will also be several RSD-exclusive released including a Bon Iver/Peter Gabriel split 7" where they cover each other's songs.

To commemorate the event Carrie Brownstein - formerly of Sleater-Kinney, currently one of the best music writers around - published a little questionnaire on her NPR blog Monitor Mix. Follow the link for her answers, read below for mine.

Q: What was the first independent record store that shaped, inspired or merely catered to your musical tastes? (If you've never set foot inside an indie record store, I urge you to head to one on Saturday and see what you've been missing!)

A: Chris' Warped Records, formerly located on Madison Ave in Lakewood, Ohio. For 20 years this was THE store in Cleveland. It traded in punk, hardcore and ska, hosted in-store shows and sold tickets to shows at local clubs. It was one of the linchpins of the Cleveland scene, but sadly is no more.

Q: What was the first album that changed your life?

A: Metallica's Ride the Lightning was the first album I loved and Blink182's Damnit was the first album to get me to love something that wasn't metal. Less Than Jake's Hello Rockview, though, was probably the first album that really hit home. The themes of dissatisfaction and anxiety over the future came around at just the right time, just when I needed them.

Q: What is one of the most prized albums or singles in your collection?

A: In February of 2003 I bought my first issue of Punk Planet magazine - mostly because of the name - and the cover story was a three part interview with the members Jawbreaker. I'd never heard the band before but based on reading the article, and the description of the band's influence, I was very interested in giving them a listen. One month later I was visiting New York for the first time and my sister took me to Generation Records in Greenwich Village where I found, among other things, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. It instantly became one of my favorite albums and remains so to this day.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

More Like Bore-Square

This is not a knock on everyone I know who uses this service. I encourage them to continue if they are so compelled.

But I fucking hate Foursquare.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Press Play on Hey Marseilles - To Travels and Trunks

While festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonaroo and Coachella get a lot of hype year after year for their huge line-ups of headlining talent it's the weeklong events of CMJ and SXSW that routinely capture my imagination. While the big, sprawling weekend extravaganzas offer the opportunity to see scores of huge names on one bill the small-club marathons in New York and Austin allow extremely talented, criminally overlooked acts to make a leap to the national stage. CMJ 2007 yielded one such gem in the form of a solo act armed with an acoustic guitar and a set of cracked, heartbreaking pipes. This intriguing find was none other than Bon Iver, who of course went on to explode in the indie world, even capturing the attention of Peter Gabriel.

I haven't been similarly blown away by anything at these two festivals in the two and a half years since, until SXSW 2010 yielded the Seattle folk orchestrations of Hey Marseilles. The band's full-length To Travels and Trunks - written in 2008 to be re-released this June - blew me away from the first listen of the first track.

The arrangements on the album are amazing, navigating the space between simple folk rhythms and sophisticated orchestral flourishes. Constant, steady guitar riffs press steadily onward as various strings and horns flit in and out of their path. As a violin fades, a trumpet takes its place in a series of crescendos filled out by booming percussion. It's an album of grand constructions that nevertheless gets all the little things right.

The record is a chronicle of wanderlust; an ode to exploration and braving uncharted experiences. To the tune of hand claps and light, ambitious strings the irrepressible "Rio" reads like an instruction manual on how to jump headfirst into possible disaster for the mere chance at unforgettable adventure. The band sings, "I will go where the days left to breathe are not gone; are still long. I am traveling on." For those taking the leap the marching drumbeats and triumphant guitars of "Hold the Morning" promise, "We will sing to the thunder. Clap as the earth shakes."

Inherent in any hunger for newness, of course, is a restlessness with the status quo. The soft guitar picking of "Cannonballs" lays down a soft launching pad to explore this stir-crazy anxiety. "These days are not fast. Times will not last, so they say, but I'm having trouble believing." The message repeats in the waltz-like rise and fall of "From a Terrace" which calls out, "Routine is rapidly pounding her post, can't you stay in the moment that needs you the most?"

There is no fear of consequence on this record; rather an idea that failure and loss are but steps on the way to something greater. "You Will Do for Now" states in a voice full of realized mistakes and insecurity that no matter how bad today is there is always tomorrow and, "Regret won't keep the sun from the sea."

Throughout the record Hey Marseilles strives to show off the stunning elegance of intrepid risk-taking, whether it be the heady thrill of success or the poignant melancholy of failure. This is no more apparent than in album stand-out "Calabasas". In past years both the Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem have used a technique that involved repeating musical phrases but adding to them with each repetition. Each time through instruments and layers of complexity piled on resulting in an incredibly multi-textured and evocative sound. "Rebellion (Lies)" uses this affect to create a grand sense of drama and exuberance while "All My Friends" channels a tremendous sense of isolated longing. "Calabasas" uses this to draw scenes of gentle, stunning beauty.

It begins with a recurring guitar riff supporting simple lines like, "Take what you need from the words I leave from the windowsill in blue concrete." Soon enough a gentle violin comes in bowing a gentle melody and the pair are quickly joined by a booming bass drum. Backing vocals, keyboards, a cello and an accordion all in turn slide in to fill out the sound underneath a lead vocal delivering the same few lines over and over again. Elements slowly fade out and fade back in creating a gentle ebb and flow that builds into a minute and a half long strikingly graceful instrumental interlude. The intensity picks up to crashing cymbals and the vocals cut back in leading a grandiose crescendo to a moving, intense climax and a coda that finishes back with the simple guitar that opened the piece. It's an arresting, picturesque love song that conjures more meaning with five lines than a lot of bands do in an entire album.

The song is a grand gesture, an exclamation point in the middle of the record and an early entrant for song of the year.

With To Travels and Trunks Hey Marseilles have crafted an earnest, absolutely gorgeous album that displays not only skilled songwriting but also heartfelt lyricism. While the vocals sometimes skew too tender they are generally compelling and when paired with the record's fantastic musicianship result in some of the most moving pieces of music in recent memory. The album is a must-listen, and for any lucky enough to be in the tour path the band is a must-see.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Happy Belated to Me

In my adult life I have generally not bothered to celebrate my birthday. I've only thrown parties twice, never tell anyone in advance and in recent years have taken to removing my birth date from all of my social networks when it approaches. When I turned 23 I left town.

This year, however, I decided to throw a little something together. That little something ended up growing into a four-day extravaganza that spanned three boroughs and highlighted some of the truly great things that make living in New York meaningful.

Monday, April 5, 2010

New Legislation Would Be a Few More Nails in Radio's Coffin

NPR recently reported that President Obama supports legislation that would charge AM and FM radio stations royalties to labels and artists, presumably in place of terrestrial radio paying ASCAP fees.

On the surface this seems like a pretty innocuous move - supported by struggling artists like Tony Bennett, Cheryl Crow and "Money is a drug and MCs are on it" - but really it looks to me like just another way the majors are trying to exert control over the musical marketplace and squeeze the last few cents out of their business model before it shrivels up and dies. The royalty rate hikes in 2007 nearly crippled Internet radio and this system would do the same to terrestrial indie stations.

Radio stations that play anything other than Top 40, classic rock or country tend to be locally owned businesses that aren't exactly raking in the cash. New fees on top of operating expenses and the tightening ad budgets of this economy will force most of these stations to run in the red or go under. Sure Crow and the Black Eyed Peas love this move. Their music gets played on Clear Channel stations all over the country, and with these kinds of laws Clear Channel will be one of the few companies able to pay the increased royalties.

But what kind of landscape does this leave us with? The same six songs on every channel played on loop every hour?

Artists deserve to get paid for their work. This is a fact. But moves like this are akin to artists poisoning the well that they drink from. How many small bands thrive on airplay? How often are record sales driven by a first listen on the radio or on a Web site? When up-and-coming bands would kill for the kind of listenership a medium-sized radio station - even in 2010 - commands, how does it make sense to claim that the radio stations are the only ones benefiting?

Musicians and radio stations - both online and terrestrial - should have a symbiotic relationship. When one thrives, both thrive. By increasing royalty fees on what is in essence radio stations advertising their product, the major labels - who not even ten years ago were found guilty of paying stations in exchange for increased radio airplay - are killing an essential source of musical distribution.

Is this the brave new world the online frontier promised young musicians? Not too long ago writers were tripping over themselves to declare the playing field level since now any artist with a guitar and a Myspace account could be discovered and make it big. Now OKGo, a band made famous by YouTube, isn't even allowed to embed their own music videos on their own Web site.

Make no mistake. The major labels would prefer it if customers bought music based on nothing but traditional advertising campaigns and album art. No advanced listens, no peer reviews, no refunds, no returns.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I Didn't Really Sound Like That, Did I?

Every year I sadomasochistically go back and review my old Livejournal entries from roughly 2001-2004. Generally it's pretty jarring to see such drastic swings between elation and depression, such poor writing (including things that I HATE these days like WRITING IN ALL CAPS and shortening yr words 4 no reason) and such comical taste in music.

Reflecting on the recurring themes, however - freaking out about love, freaking out about the future, freaking out about a lack of self-confidence - I realized that while my expression and perspective on these things may have changed my concern about them really hasn't. I still worry, on and off, about each of those things and while I'm less likely to spout off like a whiny five year-old about them I'm just as likely to spend far too much time thinking about them. Behind the horrific teenage poetry lies a person that is not far removed from myself.

I've grown past a lot of the frustration and angst surrounding the failings of my personality but, in large part, I have not actually grown past the failings themselves.

While those past entries are certainly embarrassing to the point that I hope nobody ever reads them again they're a pretty useful tool for self-examination. Looking back at 19-21 year old me I see that his fears are my fears and his hopes are my hopes. His dependence on his friends for identity is mine as well and I have to say we're both lucky to have such good friends to depend on. Some of the comments left for past-me were fairly prophetic - including my eventual move to New York.

While I'll never be using the rudimentary show reviews as clips they present a picture of where I was and how far I've come, both in taste and in writing.

I don't miss most of the days described in those entries, but I can't fault the passion that kid felt for something, anything to change. As cringe-inducing as some of the entries were, some others brought an aw-shucks smile to my face.

My last real day in Davis and Marge's goodbye comment. The first OSU snow day in 30 years. The Warped Tour where Mike first ran into Kate (and later Gewl). My 21st birthday. Kathleen and Edith asking me to run for office in PSA. The night Myk and Ryan first met. Mitch and Tasha's wedding.

All the sweet moments where a lost kid seemed to be found, however fleeting. Cheers to those, and more like them to come.

Current mood: pensive
Current music: the sound of silence

Shhh, Don't Tell Anyone

I've lived in New York for three and a half years now, two of those years spent in the still heavily Italian Williamsburg. Over the past ~38 months I've had plenty of opportunities to fall in love with the thin New York slice of pizza and believe me I've fallen hard. From the overflowing behemoth slices at Anna Maria's to a simple, clean cheese slice from Stromboli's I have no shortage of wonderful pizzerias to frequent.

Thus, it's to my unending shame that I admit: I eat a lot of Papa John's pizza. In the corner of my kitchen stands a tower of boxes from that bastion of Midwestern chain pizza and if it weren't for my penchant for recycling that tower would be four times as tall. In Ohio I ate Papa John's now and again and always thought it was a pleasant pie, though hardly my favorite. In New York it's still hardly my favorite but there's no pizza that I've eaten - here, in one of the best pizza cities in the country - more than good old PJ's.

It all started when Papa John's took a dominant place in my hang-over food rotation. Meatball subs gave way to General Tso's Chicken gave way to pepperoni pizza. The crust and cheese aren't bland but are generally inoffensive and the sauce and pepperoni add nice savory flavor the compliments the large amount of that hangover panacea: grease.

Eventually, though, the Papa followed me from hung-over haze to stone-cold sobriety. Perhaps it was the online ordering system allowing me to put an order on credit without talking to a real person. Perhaps it was the slew of cheap coupon deals Papa John's continually pumps out. Perhaps they put crack in the sauce. Whatever the reason, whatever the method John snuck his pizza into my psyche with no signs of letting go.