Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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On May 16th, Meerkat Press will release their eagerly awaited superhero anthology Behind the Mask. (It’s available for pre-order now and the advance reviews have been great and the table of contents boasts some exciting names.)

This is particularly relevant to me because my Cobalt City story “Madjack” happens to be between those pages–a fact I couldn’t possibly be happier about. It’s particularly joyous for me, because the concept of Madjack has been kicking around in my cranium in some capacity since late 1991. And I can pinpoint it with that much accuracy because the two initial inspirations were Marvel’s Captain Britain with a costume that was more Jack of Clubs and less flag and… wait for it… Freddie Mercury.

The original Madjack was a British man with a terminal illness who could hold off death but only as long as he remained in his transformed Madjack self. Which he did for a while because he feared what would happen to him after his death. But when the time came, he accepted fate and sacrificed himself so the team could live.

Yes. The martyr trope. Such anguish. Much wow. What can I say? I was 22 and Queen’s “Show Must Go On” devastated me.

And I thought that was it. But still the idea of a Madjack–not a person so much as a concept that was passed down, a symbol of something unknown–it stuck with me on some level.

Fifteen years later, I was living in Seattle and part of a writing group that tried to turn out fresh material every other week. Somehow, Madjack resurfaced. But this time, the story centered on young man from a wealthy family in Hong Kong whose industrialist father dies under mysterious circumstances. Forced to return home from the states, he begins to uncover that his father might have been, much to everyone’s surprise, the superhero known as Madjack. And what’s more, his father wasn’t even from “around here,” and it was up to this young man to pick up his father’s mantle and legacy to avenge him.

And honestly, I never finished writing the story. Never got more than a few thousand words into it. Something was missing.

That’s the thing with what I call “junk drawer” stories. They’re often little more than neat concepts or characters looking for something else to make them complete.

I thought I had that something just a few years later when my love of early David Bowie sparked with the Madjack idea. What if, just what if Ziggy Stardust really HAD been an alien who came to Earth and became a musician? What if his own daughter didn’t really know if it was true or not? A musician in her own right, trying to forge some kind of her own path in the shadow of her exponentially more famous father, what was her story? It’s worth noting that at this point, Madjack moved away from the normal superhero tropes of “person with super strength and force fields and flight” and into something more complicated–“person with extreme empathy and projective empathy, with the other powers stepped down to take a back seat.”

I even plotted out a full novel I’d intended to write for NaNoWriMo in 2015. Called Throne of Stars, it was going to involve the new Madjack hiring John Gallows to act as her bodyguard during a week long period of shows in Cobalt City while she figured her shit out and processed her father’s death (and the followup attack of the aliens who killed him in the first place.) Think the movie The Bodyguard, but with a teleporter with self-esteem problems in the Kevin Costner role.

The problem is, I still couldn’t find the damn hook, and it was bugging the hell out of me. But I figured I could put it back in the junk drawer and let it rattle around a little bit longer. There was no pressing reason I had to write it now, right?

Then January 10th, 2016.

I was back in Durango, staying with my mom and helping my son move when I heard David Bowie died. I was a wreck for a couple of months. And let’s face it. 2016 was a brutal goddamned year.

I got talking with a few of the other Cobalt City authors, and we started kicking around the idea of writing stories about rock and roll set in the city. And I knew I had something with Madjack. I needed to do something with her. I had a few false starts, but something was missing. There was an emotional core that was missing, and I couldn’t find it.

So I went on a drive. No destination in mind, I just packed up my laptop, put a few CDs in the car stereo, and took off in a northerly direction. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of your head and letting things happen. It certainly was in this case.

I don’t honestly know how many times I had to hear this particular song before it clicked, but suddenly it did. I listened to it again and things started falling into place. I kept listening to the song as I raced to the nearest place with coffee and an electrical outlet. And in doing so, I figured out the heart of the story. I posted up in a Starbucks in some anonymous mall off the interstate and dropped down the first half of the story. The next two days, I wrote the rest of that first draft and sent it out to a friend for another opinion.

I loved the hell out of it, but didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, what to do with a superhero story where no one is fighting crime? Who wants a superhero story about a person dealing with their complicated family life and questions of identity?

Then Behind the Mask showed up on my radar, looking for stories of superheroes on their downtime. It was perfect timing. Weirdly perfect timing.

So now Madjack is almost out in the world and I can hardly wait for you to read it and the other incredible stories in Behind the Mask. I think you’ll enjoy. Madjack will even play a part in the Cobalt City novel I’m currently in the middle of. Her journey is just beginning.

Oh, and the song that provided the final spark? I borrowed my protagonist’s name from it.

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I saw a meme going around the Social-Media-Sphere™ this morning, a listy kinda meme, where you list several bands in a Band you Hate, Band you feel is Over-rated, Guilty Pleasure Band…kind of a gang of five musical Fuck/Marry/Kill situation. And I considered doing it. Because the kind of music a person listens to (or doesn’t listen to, or if they don’t even like music at all) says a lot about them.

But the truth is, it was an impossible list. I don’t know if I genuinely HATE any band. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who it seems it’s now fashionable to hate), have a song or two I like. And I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I either like a band or I don’t. I’m not going to feel an ounce of fucking shame for jamming out to Spice Girls “Stop” or Barenaked Ladies “The Old Apartment.”

And as for picking a single favorite band?

Go fuck yourself. Who does that? Who CAN do that? I’ve never had a single favorite band. Instead, I’ve periodically narrowed it down a glacially rotating roster of top five favorite bands. Sometimes another band will put out a brilliant album and replace a long-time roster holder, but these have been relatively constant for some time. So, without further ado, my 5 Favorite Bands.

Aimee Mann

I still remember my formative teen years when I (and the rest of the country) discovered Til Tuesday. For most people, the fascination began and ended with their hit song “Voices Carry.” But some of us bought every single one of their albums. And when singer/songwriter Aimee Mann split out to do her own thing and record solo albums some of us followed along with her then, too.

Such a singular voice. Sharp, witty as hell lyrics. Excellent musicianship. And determined to do her own damn thing. She’s been off the radar for a little while, but just released a new album that might be the best thing she’s written. Considering her previous one came out over a decade ago, it was long overdue.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve chosen something off the earlier album, The Forgotten Arm–a concept album that draws its name from a boxing term. It’s a fantastic album, and you should give it a listen. And her new one, Mental Illness, too. Anyway, here’s “Little Bombs.”

New Model Army

My kid brother introduced me to New Model Army over 30 years ago. I’m still a fan. My first tattoo, over 20 years ago, is the Celtic knot from the cover of Thunder and Consolation. I point to this album in particular as being the cornerstone to my early politicization. Justin Sullivan’s lyrics are uncompromising, angry, righteous, and hopeful.

These guys are one of the champions of my top 5 list. They’ve been on it pretty consistently for a long damn time. It doesn’t hurt that they keep cranking out incredible albums. I’d long worried I’d never be able to see them live due to visa issues for most of their career. But I got lucky 11 years ago and found out about a local show at a small venue that very night, and moved heaven and earth to make it happen. I’ve seen them twice more since, and each time is the closest I’ve had to what I think of as a religious experience.

For your sample song, I present “Believe It” off the incredibly now hard to find album The Love of Hopeless Causes, one of the three best albums they ever produced. For a follow up, I highly suggest their newest album, Winter, which rocks just as hard.

Ben Folds Five

It was Sunday night in 1996 and I was sitting around watching 120 Minutes on MTV with my mom, back when they still showed music videos. 120 minutes was my favorite show on the network, as it showcased off-of-center bands and music. Their two-hour showcase of alternative music. And my mom was watching with me because she was waiting for my kid brother to either come home or call from the police station. You know how kids are. Anyway, that was the first time I ever heard Ben Folds Five, the song “Underground,” off their debut album. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget, and tracked the CD down next chance I got.

See, I used to play piano. I’m drawn to piano musicians. In fact, from here on out, it’s all piano players, so get out now if you can’t roll with that.

And Ben Folds played the fuck out of those ivories. I’d be hard pressed to name another artist quite like him, piano yet punk. And his bass player, Robert Sledge is just a dynamo. While I love Ben Fold’s solo stuff, too, it’s really the stuff with his original trio that grips me by the short hairs. In particular, the masterwork that is The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

Damn, such a solid album. So, I’ve chosen one of his quieter songs off that album for your introduction, “Mess,” performed live because these guys are something else live.

Joe Jackson

I bought my first Joe Jackson album, Night and Day on the strength of the single “Stepping Out” through one of those 14 cassettes for a penny clubs in the age of antiquity. And I’ll be honest. I didn’t like it. But I kept coming back to it.

Call it Stockholm Syndrome. Or maybe just maturing tastes. But I eventually came to love that album. And here’s the thing with Joe. He keeps mixing it up, experimenting with different lineups, different sounds, different styles. Some, you might not like. Some you might love.

But he’s never boring. He surrounds himself with top-notch musicians, like the very deep bass of Graham Maby or percussionist Sue Hadjopoulos. And his live shows need to be seen to be believed, as he frequently re-arranges his old songs to suit the new lineups. Case in point, his song “Is She Really Going Out With Him” appears three times on his incredible double live CD, and each is distinctly different.

Your provided sample is the live recording  of “You Can’t Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)” that swaps out the brass section for Vinnie Zumo on guitar.

Billy Joel

Billy Joel was my first piano man, the first pop/rock star I ever became a fan of. In fact, in junior high, I didn’t listen to ANY pop music outside a scattering of soundtracks (Urban Cowboy and Heavy Metal being the two that come to mind). But I eventually succumbed to the Billy Joel. It was hard not to. He was everywhere!

But for my money, the earlier stuff, the albums before he hit it big with The Stranger? Those albums are all amazing. When I had to write a paper in my AP English class senior year about someone I admired, I wrote it about Billy Joel. I had three volumes of his his sheet music for piano, and would hammer the hell out of the keys trying to master “Angry Young Man” or “Captain Jack.”

By far my favorite album of his is Turnstiles, the one that marked the formation of the lineup that would stick with him through his peak. It also marked his return to New York after several years living in and recording in Los Angeles. I used to sing along to this on cassette in the back of the bus on Knowledge Bowl and Speech Team trips.

Because I was cool.

I still remember him playing this at the first Farm Aid, and it’s a prime example of why I love Billy so much. God. When he finally shuffles off this mortal, I’m going to be devastated, so fingers crossed he has many, many more happy years. Anyway, here’s “Summer, Highland Falls.”

In news that might not surprise many of you, I’m one of those bastards who loves musical theater. No joke. Couldn’t get enough of it as a kid. Found my mom’s album of My Fair Lady and never looked back. Now, my tastes have evolved considerably in that time. So much so, that there’s nothing from old-school musicals on this list. If you’re a fan of South Pacific, prepare to be disappointed. But at least I stuck to shows that originated on stage. And there are several on here that are at least a few decades old. I’ve also made a conscious effort to only list one song from any given composer. Otherwise this would skew heavily towards Jason Robert Brown. (Ok, I lied, I included two from JRB. It was a game-time decision. Don’t hate me. He’s so good!)

You’re welcome.

Also, for the Hamilheads out there, I didn’t include anything from Hamilton on this list, though I was tempted. It basically came down to the fact that Hamilton has so much exposure right now, I’d rather give that slot to a somewhat less-exposed show.

So, in alphabetical order and without further ado, it’s showtime!

Beautiful City from Godspell

I came across this musical as a kid on television in my grandparent’s basement. I had no idea what it was. It was strange. It had gutter-clowns, and some guy in a Superman-like t-shirt. And it was kind of Jesus-y. (Yes, I was very young and didn’t get a lot of churchin’.) It kind of fell off my radar until my late teens when my friend Eric re-introduced me to the soundtrack in his den. He later played Judas in the college production, thus confirming that Judas is okay in my book.

The book of the musical is not my favorite, but man, the music from Stephen Schwartz is so good. And “Beautiful City” has recently become my favorite from the show. I like the message of hope. And the revival cast from a few years ago was outstanding, which is part of why I chose this version to share.

Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar

Of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, this is the one that resonated with me. I know. It’s weird. And it’s merely by virtue of the alphabet that these two songs are back to back. I swear, the music gets to sinnin’ pretty quick after this.

My first wife got me hooked on JCS. So much so that I used to have an Easter tradition with a friend of mine. We’d cook up a feast and sing along at the top of our lungs. So maybe it’s timely this ends up in my list right before Easter. I’ve been doing the Norwescon convention the last several years which always falls on Easter weekend, and I’m missing those sing-alongs.

For my money, there’s no better Judas than Carl Anderson.

History of Wrong Guys from Kinky Boots

I love the movie Kinky Boots. I didn’t have any idea how they’d pull it off as a musical. Then they got Cindy Lauper to do the music.

Sold.

I don’t know what to say about this song other than the fact that it’s infectiously fun.

I love Annaleigh Ashford’s delivery. Strongest or best song in the musical? Probably not. But favorite? Yes, hands down.

Home (Reprise) from The Wiz

There are a lot of versions of this. Well, of course there are. Written by Charlie Smalls, this song is just an outstanding showcase for a great vocalist. And I went with the Diana Ross version for the very simple reason that she was my introduction to this song and musical.

I was a sheltered nine-year old living in rural Colorado when this came out. I either went to the theater to see it myself or dragged along my kid brothers. And I loved it. LOVED it. Sure, Stephanie Mills, who originated the role on Broadway might have been a better Dorthy. I didn’t know, and at the time I couldn’t really care. This movie was magic. And this song still hits me in the gut each and every time I hear it.

I’m Going Home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Damn that Richard O’Brian, but he writes a catchy torch song. And Tim Curry just sings the shit out of it. That said, my feelings about this musical are complicated. It’s not a good musical, the material is problematic as hell, but it has great music. It’s also impossible to watch with other people without them shouting along. Sometimes, I just want to listen to the music, much like I did the first several times I heard it–on a record at my friend Ivan’s house.

I’ve also done this one at karaoke a few times. Damn, just such a good song about coming to the end of a road and realizing the ride is over. For some of us, far too soon.

Lesson #8 from Sunday in the Park with George

If you had asked me five years ago who my favorite Broadway composer was, I would have said Stephen Sondheim without hesitation. That’s largely on the merit of how much this musical changed my life. I came across the musical on Great Performances on PBS about halfway through the first song and knew I needed it in my life almost immediately. For years, the only way I could watch this show was on an unlabeled VHS tape with part of a song missing. I have long since upgraded to better versions. And my friends Aarron and Michaela took me to see the revival for my birthday when it toured here almost a decade ago.

For years, the song “Finishing the Hat” was something of a theme song for me. It’s only been edged out in recent years by this one. The first is almost an argument Georges Seurat has with himself, that yes, he’s missing out on life, but that his art is worth it. But Lesson #8 reflects a bit more of where I am now. This feeling of being lost, questioning your artistic direction or if the journey is even worth it some days. I suspect all artists experience this from time to time. And Mandy Patinkin really sells it, too.

George is afraid. George sees the park. George sees it dying. George too may fade leaving no mark, just passing through. Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”

Midnight Radio from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

With music by Stephen Trask and book by it’s initial star, John Cameron Mitchel, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was like nothing else I’d ever seen. This song, in particular evokes David Bowie, which always works for me. And I went with this recording from the movie because it’s just so goddamned triumphant.

Sweet baby jesus, it gives me chills. I could, and have, listened to it on a loop a dozen times in a row. I can’t think of a better example of how we use music to discover our own sense of identity.

Never Get Married from Honeymoon in Vegas

Did I tell you I love Jason Robert Brown? I love Jason Robert Brown. He’s got a great ear for a hook and his lyrics are clever as hell. The idea of a musical based on an old Nic Cage movie is a weird idea. But damn if he doesn’t pull it off. The fact that this show was so overlooked breaks my heart. It’s fun and clever (and not without some problematic material, particularly in how it portrays Hawaii), and holy hell, it had Tony Danza tap dancing!

It’s pure Broadway.

This song, in particular, is just fun. It’s like something you’d expect to see on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Nancy Opel kills it as the mom to bewildered Rob McClure.

See I’m Smiling from The Last Five Years

Consider this your daily double dose of Jason Robert Brown. Hey, I could have thrown in stuff from Parade as well if I wanted, but I wanted to keep it reasonable. But damn, this show is so good. A strange concept, yes–five years of a relationship portrayed by two people, one moving from front to back, one from back to front.

The way it changes moods on a dime is incredible. Some songs are light and fun. Some are a slow knife to the ribs but in the best way possible. Then some transition in the middle with little warning. Like this one, that goes from hopeful to angry to resigned in a way I’ve seen real relationships do far too often in my life.

Really, the bridge just kills me. And while I have much love for Anna Kendrick who recently did this in the movie, there’s no substitute for Sherie Rene Scott from the original recording.

Telephone Wire from Fun Home

Got your tissues ready?

Good.

You’ll need them.

This musical came out of nowhere and kicked some ass at the Tony Awards a couple of years back. Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics & book by Lisa Kron, it was based on the great graphic novel by Allison Bechdel. It deserved every Tony it won. Such a great show. It’s playing here in Seattle this summer and I can hardly wait.

That said, I’m likely to cry myself to death. This song, where a woman looks back at trying to have a real conversation with her dad–her, a recently out college student, and him a closeted married man. A complicated relationship at best, it provides no easy answers for either character. And it’s one of the most powerful pieces of musical theater I’ve ever heard.

(Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why)

Posted: July 22, 2015 in Music
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Ink cover

So, I was asked to do this thing recently while promoting Ink Calls to Ink: pick something for a favorites list, then you know, build the list. Long time readers of my blog know how much I love music, so I chose ten favorite songs. Unfortunately timing didn’t work out and the list was never used.

Until now.

Without further ado, my (Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why):

Close Behind — Calexico — Not only does this instrumental capture the feel of the desert and the spirit of the greatest western never filmed, over the years I’ve come to think of it as my theme song. And if my Gato Loco stories are ever turned into a tv series or movie, I want this song over the opening credits.

Heaven On Their Minds — Andrew Lloyd Webber — There’s a reason that Judas is such a key figure in Ink Calls to Ink, and that reason is entirely Carl Anderson’s amazing performance in Jesus Christ Superstar. I’m not typically much of a Webber fan, but this song rocks and has always made Judas a sympathetic character for me. “Your followers are blind. Too much heaven on their minds” also comes back as a theme in my novel.

Night Lights — Gerry Mulligan Sextet — A delicate and simple piano tune leads you into the lush beauty of one of my favorite all time jazz songs. Listen, just listen, close your eyes and imagine looking out over a city at night. It’s absolute magic.

Tristan and Iseult — Tarkio — A great storyteller in rare form with the band he was in before the band that made him famous. For me it’s all about a good hook, and this has a great musical hook. And that line “He whispers soft, god, I love you but you trouble me, said Tristan to Iseult” just slays me every time. Because love shouldn’t be easy, otherwise what would we write about?

Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) — Joe Jackson — The horns slay, the bass pops, the guitar crackles, and the message turned my life around. You really can’t get what you want until you know what you want. No way around that. Once I realized what I really wanted was to tell stories, the rest of my life finally made sense. Plus, that astounding Graham Maby bass solo joined shortly by the Vinnie Zummo guitar solo and finished by horns is sheer perfection.

Jungleland — Bruce Springsteen — Sweeping strings and an epic story combine to show why Bruce Springsteen is such a master. The final song on his damn-near perfect Born to Run album, Jungleland felt like the thematic culmination of the rest of the album. Musically flawless with a sax solo courtesy of Clarence Clemons that will save your soul and lyrics that were sheer blue collar street poetry. It proved to be an influence on my novel Ink Calls to Ink in some strange ways. “Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy. Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it be. And in the pit of the night they reach their moment and try to make it on a stand, but they wind up wounded and not even dead.”

Like Rock n Roll and Radio — Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs — One of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, it’s the sound of loss set to music, the sound of drifting apart slowly but irrevocably. Sometimes this track will shuffle into my playlist and I’ll just listen to it on repeat five or six times in a row and let my heart get torn out again and again. To be able to do something like that with words is truly amazing, and something I aspire to.

Wild is the Wind — Nina Simone — Nina Simone is a force of nature that cannot be denied. Her voice was pure emotion. This has been my favorite song of hers for a while now. No list is complete without it. Her “Hmm” at 2:54 before the line “Don’t you know you’re life itself?” is worth the price of admission alone.

Rock and Roll Suicide — David Bowie — This song has been the basis for two short stories of mine, and I won a karaoke contest with it a few years ago. Again, this has a great horn section that sweeps in midway through. And when he bursts out with the “Oh no love, you’re not alone!” the song really flies into hyperdrive. Always a show-stopper, and still a staple in my karaoke repertoire.

All This and Heaven Too — Florence + the Machine — I’m somewhat of a latecomer to Florence + the Machine but this song blew me away almost immediately. That struggle to put words to something you can’t find words for set to a sweeping, symphonic arrangement is the very definition of epic.

Six Desert Island Jazz Essential Songs

Posted: May 19, 2015 in Music
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Time is never on our side.

Time is never on our side.

In my formative years growing up, my dad didn’t listen to popular music. A former musician himself (sax and clarinet), he had a fondness for classical and jazz. I was that kid who recognized the Dave Brubeck tune in the Tom & Jerry cartoon when I was ten just by benefit of osmosis. When I finally moved out and started buying music for my own collection, one of the first CD’s I bought was Jazz. And I still go back to it on a regular basis.

But I know Jazz confounds some people. They don’t know where to start, or what’s good, or what they might like. And that’s fair. There’s a lot of it out there across a wide range of styles. For instance, I’m a sucker for the West Coast Cool Jazz school, but I range outside of that as suits my whims. I find it stimulates the brain and doesn’t distract when I’m getting writing done.

So, because I feel like it, here’s Six Desert Island Jazz Essential Songs that I keep coming back to again and again.

Dave Brubeck QuartetStrange Meadow Lark 

From the album Time Out (which was the Frampton Comes Alive or Thriller of its generation), if you had one Jazz album in your house growing up, chances are it was this one. Strange Meadow Lark, which has a lovely, long piano intro before Desmond kicks in with the alto sax is just the epitome of Cool Jazz for me.


Ella Fitzgerald & Louis ArmstrongIsn’t This a Lovely Day

On their own, they are legends of Jazz. Together, they were magical–honey and vinegar. The formula is simple in concept but brilliant in execution: Ella sings an intro, Louis sings the song, then Ella repeats with Louis playing flourishes around her. Break for a trumpet solo, and then they reprise together, their voices blending into the sound of perfection.


Miles DavisSummertime

From his 1958 album Porgy & Bess which was arranged by pianist and Jazz legend Bill Evans, this is my personal favorite Davis track ever. It makes me think of sitting on a NYC fire escape to try and catch a breeze in a hot summer, neon flickering in the darkness. This song made me want to live in a city and have adventures more than any rock song I’d ever heard in my life.


Bill Evans TrioMy Foolish Heart

Speaking of Bill Evans, I’m so bewitched by this guy. His trio, this incarnation in particular, was absolute perfection with Larry Bunker on drums and Chuck Israel on bass. Give me rain, a cozy seat at the window, and turn on the Bill Evans and I’ll be there all day and night. The way he coaxes a tune out of a piano never ceases to astound me. And the other guys in the trio back him up like they have psychic powers. If you come away with an appriciation for any jazz musician you didn’t know before this, I’d hope it would be Bill.


Johnny Hartman & John ColtraneLush Life

Johnny Hartman is the best Jazz baritone you’ve never heard of. He’s like liquid velvet. Simply the best male Jazz vocalist I can imagine. This song comes from an album which paired him with legendary sax player John Coltrane for one of the best jazz albums of all time.


Gerry Mulligan SextetMorning of the Carnival from Black Orpheus

Ok, I’m putting it out on the line here. If you can find this album anywhere, buy it. You will not be disappointed. Unless you don’t like Jazz at which point I commend you sir or madam for making it this far. Opening with the song Night Lights which almost made this list, it also features this amazing Bossa Nova riff on a track from the soundtrack of Black Orpheus (which you should find and watch). Mulligan is from the West Coast Cool Jazz school, and one of the premiere barritone sax players around. This track sizzles and always makes me smile.

Amy Kucharik - Cunning Folk (2014)

Amy Kucharik – Cunning Folk (2014)

If you had told me ten years ago that “Ukulele Girls” would be a thing, I would have mentally filed your opinions in the category reserved for Y2K believers and Holocaust deniers. But mysteriously, the ukulele has become standard issue for hipster girls with clunky glasses, vintage style dresses, and awkwardly overwrought adorkableness.

Which, honestly, I don’t have a big problem with. I figure the more people creating art and music, the better place the world is. And I’ve loved the ukulele since seeing Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters play “Tonight You Belong to Me” in The Jerk (1979). Really…35 years ago, and that song is still goddamned magical. But to illustrate how ubiquitous the ukulele girl phenomenon is, searching for a video of the aforementioned song turned up Zooey Deschanel & Ben Schwartz playing the same song. Feel free to skip it, but Martin & Peters is well worth checking out.

Which brings us to Cunning Folk, the first full-length album from Boston-area musician Amy Kucharik.

This album is also well worth checking out, and not at all what I was expecting. Instead of quirky ukulele tunes with a paucity of full arrangements and at least a few covers of standards, Cunning Folk is packed with original songs more akin to front-porch blues with most of them featuring her full band, her Friends (With Benefits). Seriously. And not just the washboard, guitar, bass, and drums. I’m talking piano, strings, and horns. I’m still kind of amazed that this CD exists. And if I didn’t know better, I’d fight anyone who suggested it was an independent production.

Cunning Folk doesn’t sound like an independent effort. It’s goddamned accomplished. But it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard out in the musical wasteland recently. The closest comparisons I can make would be the late, lamented Asylum Street Spankers from Austin, Texas. Though the musicianship is not as tight as the Spankers, that’s a damn high bar which leaves Kucharik and the Friends still well ahead of the pack. Kucharik’s voice even evokes the sultry strength of the Spanker’s Christina Marrs. Though the entirety of the band is rock solid, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Ansel Barnum on harmonica who made me realize how much I missed hearing the instrument. Kudos.

It’s difficult for me to pick a weak track on Cunning Folk, though if fingers had to be pointed, it would probably have to be “Like a Boss,” which is unfortunate as that’s the first video that was created for the album. The song itself is perfectly competent, and fun. And absolutely filthy, packed with enough clever workplace sex innuendos to make the producers of office porn blush. Seriously, this song is straight up fuckin’ set to music without actually saying it. It just doesn’t feel as strong as the rest of the songs on the album. Perhaps it’s the over-reliance on innuendo that leaves the song feeling just slightly tongue in cheek. Once you’ve had the chuckle there isn’t quite enough spine to sustain it. But even so, it’s still a fun song and makes a nice transition piece between the opening track “Prodigal Son” and the black-magic tinged “Doesn’t Need to Know.”

In fact, you can almost interpret tracks 1-8 as the “Descent of the Wayward Daughter,” bluesy tunes drenched with sin while tracks 9 and 10 act as icing on an already delicious cake.

Take for example the opening verse of the rollicking front porch blues of the first track, “Prodigal Son” (with a lovely bass solo by Greg Toro and full accompaniment of guitar, washboard, accordion, drums, harmonica):

My grandma grew up in the Depression
That woman knew that life is hard
And whenever I’d complain that it just wasn’t fair
She’d tell me in Heaven’s where I’d get my reward
But Heaven seems like such a long way away,
And you’ve got no guarantees — it’s just faith
Well, here’s what I say: Let’s have some fun today,
And enjoy our Earthly pleasures just in case

And then contrast it with lyrics from track 8, the truly outstanding “The Snake” which opens with a string arrangement that evokes Eastern European folk music and layers in a full horn arrangement finished with Jeremy Valadez weaving sinuously through the arrangement on clarinet (sheer perfection, btw) :

Walked along a crevice in the road
Went all the way down to hell if I know
Met a truck with a devil at the wheel
And as he ran me down, he said, “I do not like the way you deal”

In between those two songs I felt a narrative, perhaps unintentional, of joyous hedonism and occasional regret. Kucharik wrote all songs and lyrically they betray her background as a poet without being snooty about it. Where else could I could catch references to the Bible, Buddha, and Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” in the same song? Highlights for me include “Doesn’t Need to Know” which flat out drips with sex, booze, voodoo, and murder while building to a great horns arrangement and, if I’m not mistaken, the whole damn band (though at just shy of 6 minutes, it’s way too long for radio play). “Buzzards Bay” is a rollicking klezmer-styled song which earns special points for me by being named after a location in my next Cobalt City novel, and I’ve always had a soft spot for klezmer. “Stranger“, a fragile song where, for the first time, the ukulele takes the lead with the gentle accompaniment of strings and harmonica is hands down my favorite song on the album. Lyrically, it’s gorgeous, and the arrangement manages to be both simple and lush at the same time which is no small accomplishment. “Clocks and Bottles,” the final track on the album descends into full on Dixieland ass-kicker by the end of the song and is a marvelous way to round out a stellar debut CD.

The full album is available on bandcamp as a digital download for only $10. That’s barely the price of two mochas. You can’t even see a movie for that kind of money anymore. And for ten tracks you’re going to listen to again and again while supporting a new musician who really knocked it out of the park? Pffff…trust me. Drop the ten-spot on these tracks and you’ll have no regrets. Or go hog-wild and buy the physical CD which comes packed with art, liner notes, and the full nine-yards for only $5 more. I recognize that some of you might have more narrow musical tastes, and that’s dandy. Someone has to buy those damn Robin Thicke albums, I guess, and it ain’t going to be me. But thanks to the magic of bandcamp you can stream the album in it’s entirety or sample it track by track if you want to see if it scratches your itch.

Consider my itch scratched.

The Ramones Have Left the Building

Posted: July 12, 2014 in Music


For me, I suppose the revolution began with Dave Eckenrode in 1984, though the fire had been lit 10 years earlier on a stage at CBGB.

I grew up in a small town in Colorado. It took a long time for things like punk music to filter down to us there. If not for my friend Dave, with his love for German tank tactical board games, Paddington Bear, and punk rock, I don’t know how long it would have taken for me to be introduced to punk.

People who got bit by the punk music bug can name off their list of favorite bands. They wear them like a badge of pride. They were into the Sex Pistols before they were just a t-shirt kids buy at Hot Topic. They remember when Talking Heads and Blondie were still cutting edge. They drew Dead Kennedys or Black Flag logos on their blue canvas 3 ring binders in school. But for me, the sound of punk music will always be the Ramones.

Dave introduced me to the band, probably hanging out in his room reading comics or playing games with other friends, and I was hooked. Undeniable energy, a sense of absurdity (Seriously, have you really HEARD the lyrics to “Pinhead” before?), and packed full with rebellion. They were everything I needed at that age. That year I got two of their albums for Christmas: Pleasant Dreams (1981) and Subterranean Jungle (1983).

There had been long gaps in the 30 years since I discovered them where I didn’t listen to the Ramones. My musical cravings move through cycles. But I recently started going back and binging on the music of my rebellious youth. Notably, those two old Ramones albums in particular, as well as some of the older ones that had lit the fire in me to begin with.

I woke up to the news that drummer Tommy Ramone died today at the age of 62. The last of the original line-up, he had been in hospice care for bile duct cancer. The rest of the band was already waiting for him in the great CBGB in the sky; Joey having died in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004. The Ramones defined an era and shook up a music scene that had been going stagnant.

We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard in 1974, there was nothing to listen to anymore. Everything was tenth-generation Led Zeppelin, tenth-generation Elton John, or overproduced or jus junk. Everything was long jams, long guitar solos. We missed music like it used to be before it got “progressive.” We missed hearing songs that were short, and exciting, and…good.

-Joey Ramone

It’s easy to listen to Ramones tracks now, decades later dismiss them as just, well, rock. And fairly tame rock at that. Sure, there were songs about recreational electroshock therapy (Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment), drugs (I Wanna Be Sedated and Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue just to name two), racism (The KKK Took My Baby Away), and violence (Beat on the Brat). But there was a brightness to the sound, an undeniable pop hook that reflected their musical influences: the Beatles, the Stooges, the MC5, Eddie Cochran, the Kinks, and the Beach Boys. Someone coming to the band new in 2014–hell, even 1994–would be missing the cultural context for just what a game-changer early punk was for the music scene of the time.

It wasn’t just music in the Ramones: it was an idea. It was bringing back a whole feel that was missing in rock music – it was a whole push outwards to say something new and different.

-Tommy Ramone

You’ll see a lot of retrospectives in the next week: musicians and music writers telling you how much of an influence the Ramones were. They touched a lot of people in their time.

For me, the Ramones were Punk.

Though the band broke up eighteen years ago Tommy’s passing marks the end of an era. The final, sad note of a song we never wanted to end.

Rock In Peace, Tommy. You’ll be missed.

Coming of age movies are a genre unto themselves. And when well-made, pretty awesome to boot. Few things helped to define my coming of age better than music–coming out from under the shadow of what everyone else was listening to to find my own musical path. A lot of movies seem to do that with soundtracks filled with pop hits played in the background (Breakfast Club, anyone?). But my personal favorites (Pump Up the Volume notwithstanding) are the ones that integrate that path to success and self-discovery through an active investment in creating music. First off, let it be known that I left Pitch Perfect off the list for two very key reasons: it’s pretty well known, even if I do totally love it, and also, I like the sound of “Three” movies.

Without further ado, 3 movies you should probably see to be a complete human being.


Fat Kid Rules the World
A little independent gem of a movie, Fat Kid Rules the World was shot in Seattle by Matthew Lillard. It’s sweet, complex, and has some amazing performances in it. It captures the punk rock esthetic in ways I haven’t seen many movies do in quite some time. The friendship forged between our hero and the “cool” but troubled guitar player is incredibly compelling and passes along some great messages about what it means to be a friend, and building self-confidence without being preachy. Plus, Billy Campbell does an amazing turn as the father, supportive and protective at the same time.


Bandslam
I honestly have no idea why this movie wasn’t a hit. I can only blame a totally horrible marketing campaign and people who expected it to be a High School Musical riff. At it’s core, Bandslam is about a sweet, awkward kid with a mysterious past and a deep love of music. When he moves to a new town with his mom (the delightful Lisa Kudrow) to start over, he gets recruited to help manage a troubled high school rock band. The storytelling is spot on. The use of music, both as background soundtrack, and performed by the band itself is top notch. I own this one and have watched it a good half dozen times. I loan it out on occasion and have yet to find anyone who didn’t enjoy it. Oh, and the band? They perform all their own music, and they rock.


Josie and the Pussycats
Did you honestly think I was going to leave this movie off the list? Not nearly enough people saw this movie when it came out. The studio marketed it in such a way that the people who would appreciate the satire of the music industry would never see it, and the people who did see it weren’t in on the joke. Wickedly smart, frequently goofy, and with a top-notch soundtrack. Not only do you get the Josie songs, you also get the boy band DuJour with their hits “Backdoor Lover” and “DuJour Around the World.” Trust me. If you haven’t seen this movie, clear an afternoon, pop some popcorn, and settle in. While a bit less of a coming of age movie than the others, it does remain a solid movie about friendship. And music. And subliminal messages in our media.

5 Under-Appreciated Comfort Bands

Posted: November 20, 2013 in Music

I’ll be the first to admit this is a selfish post. Heck. It might even be a bit Hipsterish.

I realized recently that there are a few bands/artists who I invariably return to again and again, bands whose output I have most of and will listen to for hours on any given day. These are bands that I’m consistently surprised very few people know about. I mean, I kind of get it. Without MTV giving a regular showcase to new, small bands, and radio increasingly a pay-for-play corporate hit machine, it’s really hard to discover new music. I generally rely on Youtube and word of mouth from friends.

So think of me as a friend.

Here are 5 bands you’ve probably never heard of, and why you’ve been missing out.

Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly

Named for a video game cheat code for an old Batman video game, Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly is the British phenom Sam Duckworth. He’s largely described as indie/fusion. A bit folky but with some great rhythmic structure and first class arrangement, his first album, Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager, came out when he was 20. That album charted at 26 on the UK charts but is virtually unknown stateside. It also landed him on a few prestigious top 100 lists for that year, including NME. Not bad for an album recorded primarily in his bedroom. Though there is some criticism that his guitar hooks are uninspired, his lyrics more than make up for it. And politically, he’s been an avid supporter of Love Music, Hate Racism which earns him bonus points in my book.

For music sample, get an earful of “Call Me Ishmael” which suggests, among other things, that “You are not your job. You are not the clothes you wear.”

The Damnwells

Speaking of bands centered around a single singer/songwriter, let me direct you to Brooklyn’s own The Damnwells, fronted by Alex Dezen. Their first album, Bastards of the Beat was recorded in Dezen’s bedroom and a self-storage unit, and was released in 2003. They went about recording a second album and went on tour only to have their label abandon them–all of which was chronicled in the documentary Golden Days (currently available on Netflix). For much of their history, they’ve been considered alt-country, which suits me just fine, though their sound strays a bit. I’ve got all their albums and listen to all of them regularly. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Dezen is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s MFA creative writing program, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he also taught Rhetoric and Creative Writing from 2008-2010. And while his writing chops show, he’s not as smug about it as The Decemberist’s Colin Meloy. Solid lyrics and pop hooks, and the occasional steel guitar…what’s not to love? Ryan Reynolds was such a fan he got them to do the music for his movie Chaos Theory (speaking of under-appreciated).

For a sample, I’ve chosen “Jesus Could Be Right” which showcases their easy harmony, slick hooks, and smart lyrics.

The Weakerthans

To be fair, if you live in Canada, you might know Winnipeg’s The Weakerthans. Outside the Great White North, odds are less good. Formed by frontman John K. Sampson in 1997 after he left the punk band Propagandhi, The Weakerthans have a bit of the punk edge left to their sound, but couched within crisp, pop songs (and a few with amazing steel guitar parts, such as “Benediction”). With a knack for insightful lyrics, they’ve sung about depression and inertia as viewed by a pet cat (“Virtue the Cat Explains Her Departure”), and the sport of curling as a metaphor for stagnant relationships (“Tournament of Hearts”). Damn are they catchy. And Sampson’s lyrics are goddamned poetry.

This is a band worth traveling to see, but you can skip their live CD as it doesn’t lend anything to the experience. For sample music, I’ve chosen “Sun in an Empty Room” — the video for which depicted the fading fortunes of a neighborhood of Winnipeg.

Pernice Brothers

While there are two Pernice brothers in the band, it seems that Joe Pernice of the Scud Mountain Boys is the driving force behind this band. Their first album, Overcome by Happiness came out on SubPop in 1998. If you’ve heard them before, it very well could have been their song “Weaker Shade of Blue” which was used to sell paint for a Sherwin William’s commercial a few years back. Of all the bands on this list, I can’t imagine a better example of a master craftsman of the perfect pop hook. It’s a crime that the Pernice Brothers aren’t huge. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who writes a more compelling melody paired with razor sharp lyrics. Again, Joe Pernice is a great lyricist with two books to his name, including It Feels So Good When I Stop which was published in 2009.

For the sample, I’m sharing “Conscience Clean (I Went to Spain)” which offers up the charming lyric “”There was a night, went a year too long, heady bliss and suicidal calls from dusk til dawn.”

Maritime

My kid brother, Ben, introduced me to Maritime with their first full-length album, Glass Floor from 2004. Made up with the broken pieces of the bands Promise Ring and The Dismemberment Plan, there is something decidedly Brit-pop about them. Their musicianship is super tight. And they have yet to put out an album that didn’t delight the hell out of me (though if you’re going to start anywhere, you can’t go wrong with We, the Vehicles from 2006). Maritime is a small band, regional to Milwaukee, if I understand correctly, so chances of you seeing them live on tour aren’t great. In fact, I’m not even sure if they’re recording another album or not, which would be a big loss. Their last album, Human Hearts from 2011 was outstanding.

For your listening material, I was going to  include the deceptively peppy “Someone Has to Die.” But in honor of it being winter right now, I’m going with the video for “Paraphernalia” which was shot during a blizzard in their home town. Cuddle up under a blanket and be stunned.

Lyrical Influence

Posted: July 19, 2013 in Music
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One of the things us writerly types like to preach is that to be a good writer, you should also be a reader. It’s sound advice. We learn by watching someone else do it. You can stand to learn a lot from good writing, like how to pace an action sequence, or how to foreshadow plot elements. Reading bad writing is also useful, because it shows by bad examples what poor character development looks like, or how angry people can get over plot holes.

And I’m going to go one step further.

You can also learn by listening to music.

Put down your glow-sticks and giant pacifier, kid. I’m not talking about all music. There are a lot of different reasons to listen to music. I tend to feel that all are valid in their own ways, and reflexively distrust people who don’t like any music. But a writer would be remiss if they didn’t consider the rich narrative tradition of story songs as a good source of inspiration.

For example, “17 and 53” by Danielle Ate the Sandwich compacts a powerful story about parents, children, and things left unsaid into a melodic few minutes.

And “American Without Tears” by Elvis Costello (originally recorded as The Costello Show on the album King of America), tells a multi-layered story about a British immigrant to the States encountering the story of British GI brides from another generation. Rich with history, loss, and hope, all in one simple song. Honestly, I could have picked several songs off this album to illustrate this point. Elvis Costello is a gifted storyteller, and songs such as “Sleep of the Just” and “Our Little Angel” are amazing micro stories in song form. If you can find King of America, I maintain it is one of the best albums front-to-back that he’s ever recorded.

It ultimately doesn’t matter too much what kind of music you like as long as there are lyrics. Spend some time with the liner notes, or pull them up online, and you might be amazed at what you can find. When I was younger, that’s just what you did. When you listened to music, you goddamned listened to it. Sure, some of it was insipid. Even some of it that I genuinely enjoy has very little to recommend it lyrically. I don’t love Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” because of the story–I love it because of how it evokes that raw 60’s garage rock sound. But for the most part, lyrics have always been a huge part of why I prefer some artist over others.

From Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and the Barenaked Ladies “Conventioneers,” all the way back to Marty Robbins’ “Long Iron,” the story song is everywhere. Let the lyrics in, let them share their story, and see where it leads you. Hell, Coheed and Cambria, not content with a single concept album, did a four album that told a sprawling sci-fi epic over the course of four albums.

There is a reason that Manuel de la Vega is frequently wearing a Calexico tour t-shirt in the Gato Loco novels. Their music speaks to me, helps inform the character of the work in progress. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have written two Gato novels with more in planning stages if not for Calexico.

Sometimes the story that is told comes in pieces–dreamy, fragmented bits of images that haunt you like a David Lynch movie. Take for example “Star Witness” by Neko Case (as wonderfully recorded here by Ontario High School students Kate and Janelle). Here you have a series of interconnected scenes, flashes of a bigger story that stirs the imagination. What is the full story? Fill that in for yourself.

And sometimes, the song serves up a heaping epic of operatic proportions. Bruce Springsteen is great at that. He articulates a certain narrative just as surely as Cormac McCarthy does. And he rocks it. I can’t think of a better example of storytelling through song than his masterpiece “Jungleland.”

Reading is great. By all means, if you want to write, you need to read. But be on the lookout. There are stories everywhere if you know where to look…and how to listen