6 Songs of Your Life

Read about this cool 6 songs of your life idea via NPR about a month ago and have been thinking about it ever since. After several drafts, here are my six…

“Taxi” by Harry Chapin
My parents are big Harry Chapin fans and would play this a lot when I was little. So much that the first sentence I ever said was the paraphrased “I go fly high stoned” lyric from this song. (Allegedly my grandmother was not amused.)

“Back In Time” by Huey Lewis & The News
The first album I ever owned was the Back to the Future soundtrack. BTTF kicked off my lifelong obsession with time travel, but the way this song loosely tied in confused my nine-year old brain. It’s a song about the movie. But they don’t actually go to 1999 so it’s wrong. Did Huey even see the movie? Maybe the movie was based on the song? I still overanalyze little things like this today.

“Even In His Youth” by Nirvana
I knew I needed a Nirvana song for this list. And right when I decided I’d go with Smells Like Teen Spirit instead of a deep cut I realized this was a better choice. It was the first time I learned of the concept of a B-Side. There’s this awesome song. But it’s not on the album. And every band does this?!?!? Teenage mind blown…

“All Night Thing” by Temple of the Dog
In college we used to frequent this awesome restaurant in Syracuse called Mother’s Cupboard.  They were only open for breakfast, and the hours were (and apparently still are) 6:00am – 1pm. Being up by 1 on a weekend was tough for us college kids, so the only times we’d go to Mother’s Cupboard were when someone had the idea at 1am and we stayed up all night to arrive right when they opened. We’d always listen to this song on the way home.

“Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz
My first “real” job after moving to California was running a call center for a startup called iNetNow. It was the era before smartphones and our business was looking stuff up on the Internet for people who called in. We had special software for searching, and an interface called “term trail” that let you see what others were searching for in realtime in case they needed help. One night I saw “damon albarn rap song” pop up on term trail and scrambled to monitor the call to learn what this was. The caller ended up being my best friend from high school calling after hearing it on the radio. Even 3000 miles away we were able to discover music together almost simultaneously.

“Farther On Down The Road (You Will Accompany Me)” by Taj Mahal
My wife and I eloped, but we still consider this to be our wedding song. We first heard the Jack Johnson cover version which caused us to seek out the original. We went to see Taj Mahal at the House of Blues and by the end of the set he hadn’t played this. My wife wanted to leave to beat traffic, but I made her stay for the encore just in case. First and only song of the encore was this, and it was magical.

Of The Year – 2013

It’s best of time again…

1. We The Common — Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
This album came out in January and managed to hold the top go to slot all year. Rockin’ and poppy, with shades of The Breeders here and there. Saw them live three times this year and they didn’t disappoint. Thao’s encore duet of “Be My Baby” with the opening band at the Troubadour was a concert highlight.

2. We Are The 21st Century… — Foxygen
Heard “No Destruction” from this album for the first time on December 28th when my iPod died in the car on the way home from dinner. Then I listened to the full album 7 times in the next 24 hours. Love love love love this record and how it feels like an oldie in a Local Boyish sort of way. Only reason I’m not calling it #1 is the late discovery and acknowledging I’m still in the honeymoon phase, but I reserve the right to retcon later.

3. The Ghost of Escondido — Escondido

4. Solid Sound Covers Set — Wilco
Though not really an album per se, you can buy it from Wilco’s site so I’m counting it. An unexpected all request covers set at the third annual Solid Sound Festival, and one heck of a diverse setlist.

5. The Ballad of Boogie Christ — Joseph Arthur
Benji Hughes once sang “I haven’t heard an original heartfelt song about Jesus in awhile.” Here are a bunch of them — in a non-religious musical concept that plays like a modern alt-rock Jesus Christ Superstar.

6. Charge — David Ford

7. Fade — Yo La Tengo

Re-imagined, Reissued, Remixed, Recovered

My original plan wasn’t to review these two albums together, but when the synergy hit me I couldn’t pass it up.

Nirvana & Mike Doughty somehow managed to intertwine themselves with my musical DNA years ago and haven’t ever let go. Nevermind was my first favorite album and the one that pretty much made me who I am today. Doughty’s Skittish solo record dethroned it when I’d tell everyone I knew that “the guy from Soul Coughing has this amazing acoustic solo album!” Both artists left a heavy stamp on Timely Persuasion. By my unofficial count Nirvana got 14 allusions and a subplot about a time traveler trying to stop Kurt’s death, while Doughty got 21 allusions (10 solo & 11 SC) and his handwriting font used on Local Boy’s setlists and retirement letters. (Yeah, I’m not fanatical…)

And now they both put out records a week apart that let me revisit my misspent youth in new and interesting ways. Nirvana’s In Utero gets the 20th anniversary deluxe treatment highlighted by a new nifty alternate-history style Steve Albini mix. Doughty hits the reset button on his past band by re-imagining 13 songs from the Soul Coughing back catalogue in solo form on the greatly titled Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless How Many Cans? True Dreams Of Wichita Monster Man Mr. Bitterness Maybe I’ll Come Down St. Louise Is Listening I Miss the Girl Unmarked Helicopters The Idiot Kings So Far I Have Not Found the Science (which are the names of all the songs included, but not the actual running order…).  Re-issues and re-covers in general tend to be a mixed bag with a touch of a bad name, but these manage to pull it off in differing ways.

When I heard about the In Utero deluxe edition I was more excited about spending some 20th anniversary time with the record than actually buying it again. I’d already bought it thrice in my life (on the day of original release, then again 6 months later when I found an import copy, noticed something was off about the back cover tracklist and excitedly realized it had a bonus track!, and finally about a year later when I found a bootlegged version billed as the Pachyderm Sessions with Albini’s mixes), already had all of the B-Sides (pre-box set from singles and compilations — I confess I bought The Beavis & Butt-head Experience the day it came out so I could hear Nirvana’s “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” song…), and never really found remastered or remixed versions of anything all that compelling. But when details of the mysterious “2013 Mix” started to emerge I was pretty intrigued.

The idea was pretty cool. This remix would be more about “exploring the roads not taken” by subbing in different guitar solos, vocal takes, and backing parts recorded originally but not used. Sort of an alternate history, second chance at mixing the album with 20 years of hindsight. The changes are relatively minor in the scheme of things, but I still smile when I catch one of them. “Serve the Servants” has a different guitar solo. “Dumb” no longer has a cello. “Heart-Shaped Box” has an extra harmony on the verse. “Very Ape” adds some more guitar feedback to the intro. But my favorite part of all are Kurt’s screams on “Scentless Apprentice.” I’ve always said that “Spank Thru” had my favorite studio version of a Cobain howl, but now there’s a new winner.

While the In Utero 2013 mix is about small differences, Mike Doughty went for some bigger changes with his album of re-imagined Soul Coughing songs. Soul Coughing covers used to be a big part of his solo shows, but they slowly dwindled as he had more of his own material until they evaporated altogether. Doughty later started discussing more openly how much he really hated his time in Soul Coughing and how the old songs brought back that pain, culminating with the release of his memoir, The Book of Drugs.

After reading the book I felt guilty about often referring to Doughty as “the guy from Soul Coughing” (as I did at the start of this post), but later realized that wasn’t really such a sin. I wasn’t calling him “one of the guys” from an old band, but specifically “THE GUY” — as in the one and only. In the eyes of my younger self it was his band, they were his songs, and he can and should take them with him to do whatever the heck he wants with him. So I was especially excited to learn he was taking them back in an attempt to reclaim them for himself and purge the demon of a dark time in his life.

The differences in the new Doughty versions vs. the old Soul Coughing versions vary a bit, but all in all I’m really digging the re-done versions. “Sleepless” loses the lo-fi intro I never really liked and gender swaps the personified sleep character to make the lyrics work better. I have a vague recollection of sitting in a car outside a party listening to the original “How Many Cans?” when a friend said “this song would be awesome if the music part was better.” Seems he was right. “True Dreams of Wichita” has always been one of my favorite songs by any artist, and the new version further cements it for me — even improving on it by nicely retconning the awkward “stand on the corner and bellow for mush” lyric with the far better “stand in the branches of a juniper bush.”  (Plus I love the inclusion of “I Miss The Girl” since the line “going down to Baltimore, going in an off-white Honda” is among the top utterances to slip out in my lifelong battle with lyrical tourette’s.)

Of course playing the comparison game sometimes exposes some questionable calls on the new takes. Does “Dumb” really benefit by taking away the cello? Was “Monster Man” really worth redoing when most of the lyrics were skipped? How would Kurt Cobain have felt about the whole reissue/anniversary type thing?  That’s a loaded question that’s pretty much impossible to answer. Doughty’s change of heart around revisiting his past illustrates that anyone’s perspective can shift — and that’s a good thing.

Outside Lands Recap

In the spirit of my 2010 Coachella recap, here are some thoughts on last weekend’s Fester-esque trip to Outside Lands in San Francisco.

  • Arrived a little late on Friday, mostly getting the lay of the land while gearing up for Paul McCartney’s highly anticipated headlining set and fulfillment of my lifelong dream to see a Beatle live.  (Yes, I realize that in some regards this might be me.)
  • Band of Horses were ok, but not exactly what I expected. The National were more impressive and quite solid. But Sir Paul exceeded all expectations and then some.
  • I could go on and on but I’ll try not to, consolidating down to two points: If the reason I went to shows was to seek the perfect performance, I could stop now. (Don’t worry, I won’t.) And if you say your favorite band is anyone other than the Beatles, you are a liar.
  • Ok, a little bit more. Singing along to “Paperback Writer” was a transcendental life moment. As was “We Can Work It Out” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Hey Jude.”  Unexpected surprises included “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “All Together Now,” “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “Day Tripper.” And my neck still hurts from banging my head to “Helter Skelter.”  Wow…
  • The Beer Lands & Wine Lands concepts were pretty cool, though I was most impressed with the special beers at the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp tent. Shawn Smith from Fester would have been in heaven — assuming he could get a wristband and some scrips…
  • I liked the location in Golden Gate Park better than the Empire Polo Field where they hold Coachella. Cool wooded walkways, a nice hillside view of the second stage, a fun old-timey side stage (complete with 3 card monte for a buck!) — plus it’s not 3 gajillion degrees out in the middle of the desert.
  • Day two highlights included Thao & the Get Down Stay Down (still holding the lead for my album of the year), Tallest Man on Earth, and the Head and The Heart.
  • The most fun of the whole weekend (outside of Paul) was the Bring the Rock show in the Barbary comedy tent at noon on Sunday. Quoting the perfect description: “Comics and Musicians tell funny stories about music and then…they rock.” The rocking was all cover songs (Replacements, Lucinda Williams, Stone Temple Pilots, Motörhead, Social Distortion) that loosely tied to the previous story. If this was a recurring thing in LA I’d go see it every month.
  • Day three became the inevitable festival lightning round day due to setlist conflicts. Got to see Camper Van Beethoven play “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” Fishbone cover “Date Rape” by Sublime, some kick-ass rocking from Deap Vally, and the first half of a fun set by Trombone Shorty.
  • Hall & Oates were a neat nostalgic trip, though I still can’t fathom how they could NOT play “Private Eyes” or “Kiss on My List.”
  • Rounding out the night Dawes were impressive and warrant a further listen, Willie Nelson made for nice hillside viewing, and I think I re-aggravated my “Helter Skelter” neck injury with some guilty pleasure rocking out to “Give It Away” at the end of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Next up on the belated Fester festival tour will be Way Over Yonder in October. See you there!

Fester Commentary

The Coachella Lineup announcement reminded/inspired me to work on the long delayed commentary for my “Fester” short story. I’ll use the same bulleted stream of consciousness format from the old series of Timely Persuasion commentary posts.

Warning:  Some of the below contains minor spoilers. If you haven’t read “Fester” you probably don’t want to read the commentary just yet. “Fester” is available as an eBook from the Apple iBookstoreBarnes & NobleDieselSony, or Smashwords.

First the background & origin story. “Fester” is a chapter in a novel about jury duty I’ve been writing on and off (mostly off) for the last few years. Working title is Duty Calls, though sometimes I think Jury’s Out might be better and other times I think both of those titles are lame. So TBD, but for simplicity I’ll keep calling it Duty Calls for now when needed.

That said, “Fester” as a standalone has nothing to do with jury duty whatsoever. Concept was to do an ode to Coachella-esque summer music festivals. A road trippy adventure that turns into a comedy of errors around getting there, getting beer, and getting home.

Why do a standalone? That was never really the initial plan, but one day TP fan Scott Schnaars sent me a Facebook message asking when my next book was coming out. I didn’t have a new novel ready, but that got me thinking as to why I couldn’t start chunking out Duty Calls as one-offs when each story reached a logical conclusion. Could serve to both build demand for the real deal and allow an avenue for reader feedback — much like I promised a couple of critics I’d consider on future works. Felt like a win win all around, and here we are.

On to the proper commentary:

  • Much like what happened when I was writing the first chapter of TP, I wasn’t sure on where this music festival story should start. And much like what happened with that chapter of TP, my past self came to my rescue. I had written a short story called “Wrong Number?” based on a real life incident involving many calls from a mysterious international number. Felt like a great answer to a “why are you late today?” question so I made some modifications and ran with it as the intro.
  • Back when we were in high school, the last 4 digits of my friend Jon Mack’s number used to spell “BOYS.” Shawn’s number spelling “COCK” was half based on that, and half on the referenced Jeff Tweedy monologue.
  • I couldn’t resist the subtle LOST reference with the “We have to go back!” line.
  • I am a firm believer in the rules around not listening to the band you’re seeing that night beforehand and not wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see.
  • The list of bands Bobby introduces Shawn to are mostly earlier projects by artists who later became more famous either in a different band or solo. I also included a few easter eggs of bands my friends have been in. (Which may someday satisfy the same criteria of early bands by people who became more famous later…)
  • The Handoff is an unfinished screenplay I wrote back in 2001 or so. I’d send it in serialized format to my friend Nate Pepper for feedback, mainly to motivate me to keep the story moving. He’s the only person who will get the deeper meaning of the reference besides me. I re-read it for the first time in ages a couple of months ago and was surprised by how much I still liked it.
  • The state police really did shut down part of route 95 leading into Lollapalooza one year, which led to a similar parking lot party on the freeway.
  • The spilled beer on the lap was something that happened to me in college when I was a passenger on a late night drive from Syracuse to Boston in my friend Farley’s car. My spill was coffee rather than beer, which was a bit worse…
  • In high school I knew some people who often used the Moscow Symphony Orchestra ticket trick to get into shows at clubs in Providence. It was amazing how rarely the ticket taker noticed that the ticket was for the wrong event.
  • I first encountered “scrips” at Jack Johnson’s Kokua Festival in Hawaii, and to this day I still don’t really understand the purpose.
  • The wordplay with the bolding and the exclamation points about the loud band is one of my favorite parts.
  • “Cacophony of controlled chaos” is one of my favorite phrases. I’ve used to to describe Nirvana for as long as I can remember (and used those exact words to do so in Timely Persuasion), but a quick Google seems to show the phrase isn’t as original as I had thought. At least I still seem to be the only person to have written that phrase while referring to Nirvana in Google’s wide-reaching eyes.
  • I don’t remember if it was the same Lollapalooza referenced previously, but I did once accidentally leave Jon Mack at Lollapalooza in Rhode Island, inspiring the ending here. We had many Jo(h)ns in our circle of friends, leaving Jon Mack with the nickname “Jon Jacob Left At Lollapalooza.”
  • Because “Fester” is a small part of what is intended to be a much longer work, we’re left with quite a few dangling plot threads. Though it’s somewhat subject to change, right now I know (or think I know) that the mysterious phone calls, Doug’N Donuts, The Handoff, Bobby’s bookie & hooker, the girl Shawn meets at the festival, and the impact the events of “Fester” have on Shawn & Bobby’s relationship will all be explored further in the larger Duty Calls novel.

Of The Year – 2012

The Play ‘Em All experiment meant that I didn’t give new music the attention I usually do in 2012, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a top list.

(And yes, once again I was too busy/lazy to post this when I should have so I’m time traveling back to insert this post.)

1.  Boys & Girls – Alabama Shakes
Don’t you love it when your most highly anticipated album of the year satisfies that expectation?  Great record, pretty good live show. Not sure how long the band will last, but Brittany Howard is the real deal.

2.  Daytrotter Session – Mike Doughty
This might be on the line of violating my rule that an EP can’t be album of the year, but rules are made to be broken, right?  My favorite Daytrotter session of the year if not all time. The covers felt super random at the time, not yet knowing that Doughty had an all covers album cooking.

3.  Barchords – Bahamas
A little more rockin’ than Pink Strat and a strong follow-up. Also has the honor of being the last band I saw live in 2012 and the first band I saw live in 2013. Afie Jurvanen has a great stage presence and banter during his shows, right up there with Benji & Doughty.

4.  A Wasteland Companion – M. Ward
He just keeps doing his thing, and that thing is fine by me. Now when is that new Monsters of Folk record coming out?

5.  There’s No Leaving Now – The Tallest Man on Earth
Every time I listen to this I love it more. His gig at the Ford Amphitheater was my favorite of 2012.

6.  I Know What Love Isn’t – Jens Lekman
A little more quiet and a little less goofy than what came before, but I still dig. (And for the record I have nothing against goofy at all – that’s meant as a compliment.)

Play ’em All

Christmas Eve was an especially historic day this year.  It ended up being the conclusion of my yearlong project to listen to all 13,747 songs in my iTunes library at least once in 2012.  Started with “A Commotion” by Feist and ended with “I Wrote A Book About Rock and Roll” by Dr. Frank (of MTX fame).

The exact origins of “Play ‘Em All 2012” elude me since it’s been nearly a year, but I recall the motivations included:

  • Based on our Last.fm stats, we listened to a lot of the same things over and over
  • I often claim that I like all of the music I own, and wanted to see how true that really was
  • I was starting to worry that at some point it may no longer be mathematically possible to take on this project, so why not now?

Rigged up a Smart Playlist in iTunes and just let it count down all year.

Last Played is Before 1/1/12; Media Kind is Music

That “Media Kind = Music” bit is important, or you’ll end up including Podcasts, videos, and voice memos.

The goal was to listen to what we felt like as always, but knowing the playlist was counting down would drive us to mix things up and dive into the archives more frequently.

There were only a couple of ground rules:

  • Certain albums were off limits, ensuring some gems would be saved for later.  (The whole Beatles catalog fell into this category, under the reasoning that the joy of being surprised by the Beatles on shuffle outweighed the joy of intentionally satisfying a periodic craving for Rubber Soul.)
  • Myself or my wife had to be present and at least passively listening when something was on.  No “cheating” by leaving something on while we went out, or leaving iTunes on all night while we slept.

At first it was pretty much business as usual.  We blazed through those well worn albums like nothing was different.  I’d alternate between Podcasts and throwing my iPod on shuffle while commuting, diligently synching each night to watch the countdown progress.

I had signed up for iTunes Match in an effort to have remote access to the “Play ‘Em All” playlist from anywhere, letting me easily sneak some extra tunes when running errands, walking the dog, etc.  Good idea in theory, but it was almost my undoing.  Turns out iTunes Match does a rather poor job of keeping play counts and last played data in sync, which led to a lot of “I swear I’ve already heard this song…” thoughts before I figured out what was going on.  iTunes Match was turned off for good after about a month.

Event based listening took on new extremes.  I always try to work through the Nirvana catalog on April 8 or the 311 catalog on March 11, plus have a nice playlist on standby for whenever it rains.  This year saw new custom playlists themed for an Eclipse, Judgment Day, 4th of July, and Thanksgiving.  Any excuse to thematically (and creatively) group bunches of unplayed songs was a welcome challenge.

Around early September I realized the math wasn’t working and we were in danger of not achieving the goal.  This resulted in a ban on podcasts while commuting (at least in a car; the poor showing of iTunes Match opened the door to Podcasts when commuting by foot) and perpetual shuffle play most waking hours.

It’s interesting the fun facts you learn about your music library in an exercise like this.  For example, your wife used to like the Grateful Dead way more than you imagined.  #1 artist by song count in our library, though the bulk of the tracks had a play count of zero prior to the big Play ‘Em All experiment.  Ripped from CD years ago and forgotten on the hard drive.  To be fair, I did develop a new appreciation tolerance for the Dead after working through 500 tracks this year.  (Sorry, Jerry Garcia!)

500 Grateful Dead songs is neither an exaggeration nor a rounded off number.  I’m surprised iTunes doesn’t natively handle this better, but exporting my library and manipulating it a bit in Excel yields this top 15 list by song count:

Artist Song Count
Grateful Dead 500
Mike Doughty 291
Wilco 288
Pavement 233
Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine 228
Mason Jennings 200
Bright Eyes 197
Jack Johnson 185
Nirvana 183
Jeff Tweedy 179
The Felice Brothers 172
The Beatles 166
M. Ward 162
Beck 161
Jim Bob 142

Even rolling solo Tweedy with Wilco and solo Jim Bob with Carter, the Grateful Dead still rule the roost!

Grateful Dead jokes aside, it was pretty impressive how true the “I dig everything I own” theory proved to be.  I wish I had a better way to track this accurately, but I’d venture that less than 25 total tracks got banished to the trash via mutual veto as a result of this ongoing review.  Most were one off tracks picked up as part of free sampler downloads.  Only one full album ended up being a casualty.  (Sorry, John Mayer!)

Now that it’s done, it’s both strange and refreshing to be back in “album mode” for the first time in what seems like ages.  Plus having the freedom to listen to anything at any time again.  Really curious to see how this impacts our Last.fm stats in 2013…

Only downside is that I’m way behind on my Podcast listening and have 20+ episodes of Coverville to catch up on.  (Sorry, Brian Ibbott!)

Year Zero

Recently finished reading Year Zero by Rob Reid and mostly dug it.  Learned about the book via this headline on the All Songs Considered Blog:

Aliens Have Landed, Hoping To License All Of Humanity’s Music

Gets a little wacky and a little campy at times, but overall it’s a heck of a fun ride.  I especially liked the hidden musical tourette’s scattered throughout ala Timely Persuasion.  (Less frequent, but I’ll admit sometimes less forced…)  And the epilogue is just plain brilliant.

Check out the trailer below.