Favourite “New” Music – August 2022

Yep, still here. I just paid for another year of this domain name, so I’m not going away just yet. Like all hobbies, writing a blog sometimes has to take a back seat to other things in life that need to be prioritised, or just going through periods where you need to step away to refresh. My paying gig is 90% reading and writing or talking about the things I’ve read/written or will read/write, and there are many days when writing for another hour – even something I enjoy as much as doing this blog – is the last thing I want to do. But I am back to pontificate some more.

I’ve been listening to a lot of 1950s rock lately, thanks to a playlist (prepared by someone with Job-level commitment) compiling the almost 150 hours of music referred to in Bob Stanley’s fantastic book “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé”, so naturally there was a good chunk dedicated to the works of Elvis Presley. It didn’t just stick to the 1950s, so the journey passed through the godawful low of “Yoga is as Yoga Does”. Elvis’ career in the 1960s was a series of bad movies with soundtracks that would have been even worse but for The King’s splendid instrument. “Yoga is as Yoga Does” fits the mould, coming from a 1967 film called “Easy Come, Easy Go”. Bonus points if you know it: the song is so obscure that the biggest Elvis fan I know had never heard of it. That obscurity is well-deserved.

The movies don’t get a lot of attention in Baz Luhrmann’s film “Elvis”, which strikes me as a better creative choice than Presley made in appearing in them. The film is both an indelible portrait of what made Elvis great, and a reminder of how often he failed to honour his prodigious talents. It does a great job of showing the force of nature that Elvis was at his peak. Those powers never went away, even when Elvis misused or abused them, and his fans somehow kept that idealised image in their heads, so that when he lifted himself out of the muck and gave the world art again in something like the 1968 television special, there was always a parched desert of believers eagerly waiting to drink. His career was an endless series of failures to be great, yet the highs are so powerful and the hits so unforgettable that he remained great in spite of making bad choice after worse choice.

That the film works is thanks to star Austin Butler, a Disney/Nickelodeon kid now grown up and kicking ass. (Next up: picking up (not literally, I hope) Sting’s codpiece for “Dune”.) Playing such an icon is a tall order, but if you don’t buy Butler as Presley, you didn’t see the same movie I saw. The film is cheesy and campy – it is a Baz Luhrmann film, after all – and a lot of fun until it isn’t. Tom Hanks is sort of over the top as Colonel Tom Parker, and other than the young fellow playing Little Richard and the Butler lookalike playing the juvenile Elvis, I barely remember the rest of the cast. But Butler makes it worth your time.

• • •

And now, to my favourite listens of August 2022.

  • The Ronettes – Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica (1964)
  • Fred Neil – Fred Neil (1966)
  • Muddy Waters – Electric Mud (1968) (Blues purists hate this album. It’s that lack of purity that I love.)
  • Fleetwood Mac – Mystery to Me (1973) (I was never much of a Mac fan, and definitely didn’t pay attention to the pre Nicks/Buckingham incarnations. This album comes from when Bob Welch was the dominant creative force, and the poppy brilliance that later gave the world “Ebony Eyes” and “Sentimental Lady” is on display, along with Christine McVie’s prodigious talents. So good, I played most of it back-to-back.)
  • AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)
  • The dB’s – Like This (1984)
  • Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987) (These guys really were (are?) a significant cut above other hard rock bands of their time, weren’t they? (Of course, I had this same thought an hour later about “Back in Black” era AC/DC, so either (1) I’m an unaware hard rock fan or (2) I need to listen to more hard rock so I can actually develop a coherent opinion about this stuff before I make more such comments.))
  • Del the Funky Homosapien – I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991) (Spotify claimed that my friends were listening to this. I must meet these “friends”.)
  • Kathy McCarty – Dead Dog’s Eyeball (1994)
  • The Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
  • STRFKR – Vault Vol. 1 (2017)
  • Austin Jenckes – If You Grew Up Like I Did (2019)
  • Jeremy Ivey – Invisible Pictures (2022)
  • Flo Milli – You Still Here, Ho? (2022)
  • Maggie Rogers – Surrender (2022)
  • Megan Thee Stallion – Traumazine (2022)
  • Fireboy DML – Playboy (2022)
  • Horace Andy – Midnight Rocker (2022) (The search for reggae that I enjoy finds a place to land.)
  • Sun’s Signature – Sun’s Signature (2022) (If you’ve been missing Cocteau Twins, and assuming you’re a little less depressed now than you were from 1982 to 1996, this could be your new favourite band.)
  • Jeshi – Universal Credit (2022)

Favourite “New” Music – July 2022

On a recent evening, I selected “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” by The Waitresses for my drive-home aural accompaniment. I had owned it on vinyl in the ’80s, but never went beyond playing a few favoured tracks. It seemed like a fun way to navigate rush hour traffic, with Patty Donahue’s droll delivery guiding me home. (Also, what was the deal with Akron in the 1950s? How did Donahue and Chrissie Hynde both come out of there?) As the album played, and each familiar tune was followed by another familiar tune, I soon realised that I had played the whole thing before, and probably a few times. How could I have forgotten that? I love The Waitresses: they’re even on my Christmas playlist. I have spontaneously sung the chorus to the title track (“What’s a girl to do? / Scream and screw? (No!) Pretty victories”) in the presence of my then-young children (maybe not the best decision). I was befuddled.

The next morning, I selected “Vivid” by Living Colour (shoutout to Americans for following the Anglicised spelling) to accompany my rituals of cat feeding, dishwasher emptying, lunch preparing and generally getting ready for the day ahead. I had also owned this album (this time on cassette), which had been a critics’ darling in 1988, though much of the coverage had been in the back-handed and highly racist nature of “Can you believe that Black guys can play hard rock?” I was fairly certain this time that I had listened to the entire album, but after the opener “Cult of Personality”, I became less confident with each track, and certain I never had by the end.

I rather enjoyed the surprise that came with both experiences. Mixing the familiar with the unexpected is part of my love for cover versions. A few days ago, I played “Tomorrow the Green Grass” by The Jayhawks. I’d never listened to any of their records, but knew “Blue”, the opener, from its inclusion on Spotify Americana and alt-country playlists. At roughly the midpoint of the album, “Bad Time” started playing, and I almost immediately recognized it. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and saw it was written by Mark Farner, a name I knew but couldn’t place. A few clicks later, I knew it was a 1975 hit for Farner’s band Grand Funk, another group I have never consciously listened to, off an album whose cover photo I remember from album racks of that era. My enjoyment of The Jayhawks’ version had been enhanced by a bunch of things I either didn’t know or knew only subconsciously. Such are the wonders of music.

And so, we come to my list of favourite listens of the month past, including Living Colour in the slot where I expected to find The Waitresses.

  • The Clash – The Clash (1977) (Never listened to a Clash album before. Not sure what was wrong with me for 45 years, but at least I finally got it fixed.)
  • The Kinks – State of Confusion (1983) (Every album I dip into is a fresh revelation with these under appreciated masters.)
  • David & David – Boomtown (1986) (Simply one of the greatest one-album bands ever.)
  • Living Colour – Vivid (1988)
  • N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988) (Easy-E is not mentioned often enough when the best rappers of his era are discussed.)
  • Cub – Betti-Cola (1993) (Further evidence that Canadian content rules failed us: did radio stations really need to play another Bryan Adams or Celine Dion song when this delightful cuddlecore band from BC was waiting for our attention?)
  • Freedy Johnston – This Perfect World (1994)
  • Poi Dog Pondering – Pomegranate (1995) (If there is a genre that they miss on this delightful record, I don’t know what it is. Spotify has much that is wrong about it from the artists’ perspective, but it allows musical nomads like me to discover bands like this, which applies to both the previous name on this list and the next one.)
  • Blake Babies – God Bless the Blake Babies (2001)
  • Mayday Parade – A Lesson in Romantics (2007) (Nothing says you’re in an emo band like titling one of your songs “If You Wanted a Song Written About You, All You Had to Do Was Ask”.)
  • Tyminski – Southern Gothic (2017) (A masterful bluegrass-tinged country-rock album from Alison Krauss’ long-time band mate.)
  • Taylor Swift – folklore (2020) (I am slowly accepting that I need to let go of Swift’s public persona – which may be out of date in any event – and just enjoy her resplendent art.)
  • The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers (2020)
  • Leo Nocentelli – Another Side (2021) (It is no slight to say that the story behind this record is even more amazing than the album itself.)
  • Myriam Gendron – Ma délire / Songs of Love, Lost and Found (2021) (This and the next record from a pair of Montrealers made for a magnificent soundtrack to a walk along the beach.)
  • Allison Russell – Outside Child (2021)
  • Leikeli47 – Shape Up (2022)
  • Hollie Cook – Happy Hour (2022) (Maybe the path for me to enjoy reggae is the artist’s own characterization of her sound as “tropical pop”. As a bonus, her dad was a Sex Pistol.)
  • Beach Bunny – Emotional Creature (2022)
  • Tank and the Bangas – Red Balloon (2022)

Favourite “New” Music – June 2022

I tend to assume that people of my own generation have similar cultural touchstones. Depending on your interests, it may be where you were when Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in the Summit Series (I’ll save for another time my tale of Valentine’s Day, an English-style pub and the relationship that my friend and I almost ended by drawing the male partner into a discussion about said event, together with “Seinfeld” “second spitter” on the grassy knoll reference), having your mind blown the first time you saw “Star Wars”, your pride when the American diplomats escaped Iran with the assistant of Uber-Canuck Ken Taylor, or the sorrow when you learned John Lennon had been murdered (lying in bed after one of the greatest weekends of my life, still). I am, of course, wrong in that assumption, and received another reminder of this yesterday.

Let’s step back a moment, shall we. I own a lot of t-shirts, which are my go-to casual wear of choice. These are largely related to pop culture: movies (“Pulp Fiction”, “Star Wars”, anything Marvel), television (“Community”, “The Last Kingdom”, “WKRP in Cincinnati”), even literature (Haruki Murakami) and art (Roy Lichtenstein), the latter two courtesy of Uniqlo. Most were purchased by my wife as gifts, but last year, after the Festivus giving of cash stretched to include my mother, I invested said funds in another batch of my own choosing. And high on my list of choices (thanks to RedBubble) was this one:

Ah, yes. K-Tel. The source of so many of the records that I listened to as a child and young adult. 20 songs crammed into a space that usually held 10, so some of them were edited down to make room for the others. 20 songs when you at most wanted half of those, never knowing that some of the songs were on there because they were either (1) Canadian and helped fulfil CanCon regulations or (2) forced onto K-Tel in order for it to get the rights to a song it actually wanted. I can’t complain too much about either: as a lifelong hunter for new sounds (I always listened to the “B” sides, and sometimes ended up preferring them to the “A” track), those deep cuts certainly must have occasionally (I can’t say for certain right now) revealed to me a few songs that I might not have encountered otherwise, to my misfortune.

I would expect someone of my approximate generation to have had some K-Tel records, or to at least be familiar with them from endless television ads hocking their product. I was wrong. I wore said t-shirt to work yesterday, and ended up having to explain what K-Tel was to two colleagues who aren’t so much younger than me that the company could have been completely off their radar. Speaking to another colleague shortly after, he was shocked to be told this about our co-workers.

Anyway, I loved those records, and am glad to have had K-Tel in my life when I was young. 20 singles would have cost me around $25. For less than a third of that amount, I could in one blow increase exponentially the stock of my music collection. It’s too bad my colleagues missed out on that opportunity.

Which brings us to my favourite “new” music of last month. I try to avoid including compilations, so I mention here two such beasts:

  • Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel – Make Me Smile: The Best of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (1992). This guy was something of a big deal in Britain, though I’d never heard of him before. It’s career spanning, and thus sort of all over the place stylistically, but always a delight.
  • XXXtentacion – Look at Me: The Album (2022). He was not a very good person – serious issues with impulse control paired with a violent temperament – but a brilliant hip hop artist. A good subject for one of those “do we throw out the art because the artist is a piece of shit?” discussions. I fall on the “keep the art” side, but get the other perspective, because listening to Michael Jackson still makes me feel a bit squeamish.

And here is the actual list. Enjoy!

  • Paul McCartney & Wings – Red Rose Speedway (1973) (Critics are not fans of this record, which likely proves that most critics are more interested in being clever than being right.)
  • The Only Ones – The Only Ones (1978)
  • Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain (1983)
  • Tiger Trap – Tiger Trap (1993)
  • Steve Burns – Songs for Dust Mites (2003) (Yes, it’s the “Blue’s Clues” guy, and he absolutely deserves more attention for his work as a musician. Glad those PBS paycheques freed him up to make this record.)
  • The Flat Five – It’s A World of Love and Hope (2016)
  • Tacocat – Lost Time (2016) (A perfect blast of pop punk – I will stan for any band that makes me forget my baseline anxiety for 29 beautiful minutes.)
  • Ratboys – GN (2017)
  • I Am the Polish Army – My Old Man (2017) (Frontwoman Emma DeCorsey put out a decent EP, “The Dream”, the following year, but nothing since. I’m waiting.)
  • Spoek Mathambo – Mzansi Beat Code (2017)
  • Nicholas Jameson – NJ (2018)
  • The Beaches – The Professional (2019)/Future Lover (2021) (Apparently, these two EPs will be repackaged as an album sometime soon, and that will likely also be a favourite listen when it comes out.)
  • Slothrust – Parallel Timeline (2021)
  • Ryan Pollie – Stars (2021)
  • Rosalia – Motomami (2022)
  • FKA twigs – Caprisongs (2022)
  • Caracara – New Preoccupations (2022) (A compelling emo-esque record that would fit nicely on your Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional playlists.)
  • Fantastic Negrito – White Jesus Black Problems (2022) (This feels like a recovered Sly Stone record.)
  • Sharon Van Etten – We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong (2022)
  • Ethel Cain – Preacher’s Daughter (2022) (Very disturbing record (umm, ritual murder and cannibalism), but you can’t shut it off. Still a bit haunted by this, several weeks later.)

Favourite ”New” Music – May 2022

I spent a chunk of May checking out music that came up in “Major Labels”, a fantastic book by Kelefa Sanneh that I was reading, and a few of them ended up on the list below. Sanneh does a sort of history of seven major genres: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance and pop. I say “sort of” because it takes a lot of pruning to survey such a topic in under 500 pages, but also because the book is as much about the author’s journey through the music he loves (and loathes) as the music itself. A writer after my own heart.

There’s a fantastic quote in the introduction that shapes much of what is to follow:

  • But even those of us who are nominally grown-ups may find that we never quite outgrow the sense that there is something profoundly good about the music we like, something profoundly bad about the music we don’t, and something profoundly wrong with everyone who doesn’t agree.

I’m on record as saying there is no such thing as bad music, and I stand by that. But I think Sanneh is spot on here. It makes sense that we would have difficulty understanding others’ tastes. What are these people hearing in Ariana Grande that I’m missing? Or why don’t they get how fantastic Fountains of Wayne were? We like what we like, and are confused that everyone else doesn’t hear what we hear. Sanneh tries to make sense of that dynamic. I highly recommend it to any music lover.

To my amazement, this month’s list (21 albums again – I just couldn’t bring myself to make that last cut) does not include the new Kendrick Lamar record, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers”. I expect I will listen to this multiple times over the year to come, and perhaps it will rise in my estimation. But after the majesty of “DAMN.”, I just wasn’t feeling this one after two plays. Which means that anyone paying attention to this list might get a chance to find something else new and exciting, which is why I do this every month anyway. Sorry, Kendrick. (He’ll be fine without me.)

  • Muddy Waters – At Newport 1960 (1960)
  • Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies (1973) (I don’t understand why Vince doesn’t get more love as one of the giants of his era.)
  • Waylon Jennings – Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) (Probably my favourite lyric in a while, from “Black Rose”: “Well, the devil made me do it the first time / The second time I done it on my own”.)
  • Cristina – Sleep It Off (1984) (An amazing dance-pop record from one of the earliest arts world victims of COVID-19.)
  • Black Sheep – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (1991)
  • Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
  • The Darkness – Permission to Land (2003) (I totally slept on these guys when they had their brief moment as stars – there is much more to them than just “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”.)
  • Free Cake for Every Creature – Talking Quietly of Anything With You (2016)
  • The Obsessives – The Obsessives (2017)
  • She Drew the Gun – Revolution of Mind (2018) (Updated mid-60s psych pop with a danceable vibe.)
  • Sir Chloe – Party Favors (2020) (Bristling alt pop with a punkish flare and a keen sense of when to turn it up to 11.)
  • Miranda Lambert – Palomino (2022)
  • Sunflower Bean – Headful of Sugar (2022)
  • Let’s Eat Grandma – Two Ribbons (2022)
  • Arcade Fire – WE (2022) (Not understanding some of the negative press for this – sure, it’s no “The Suburbs”, but it’s hardly fair to expect that from anyone.)
  • Yard Act – The Overload (2022)
  • The Juliana Theory – Still the Same Kids Pt. 1 (2022)
  • Say Sue Me – The Last Thing Left (2022)
  • Phelimuncasi – Ama Gogela (2022)
  • Pastor Champion – I Just Want to Be a Good Man (2022) (Uncomplicated songs of faith, sung with conviction.)
  • Barrie – Barbara (2022)