To the servant's quarters, all of you! | Main | Dear Diary, Nov. 24

November 21, 2004

November Carwash

Posted by Mike on November 21, 2004 4:59 PM

The Volvo's been sitting by the side of the house for about a year now. The last time I remember driving it, it was to take Al to a childbirth preparation class. It grew a light layer of moss on the shady sides. Sitting doesn't do much good for a car, so I had it towed in to get looked at by a local Volvo specialist who fixed a relay in the fuel line and filled the tires again.

I took it to the DEQ for an emissions inspection so I could renew the tags, but it failed because it's been sitting so long (said the technician) that the fuel is sludgy and filthy. Nothing to do but take it to a carwash and scrape off the moss. And I'm going to be driving it around a lot in the next few days to work all the filth out of the fuel line.

I'm pretty happy with the thought of finding a stretch of road to cover as long as I've got the iTrip along, because the one sort of weird thing that's happened since the election has been a sudden re-interest in music after a really, really long time of not much caring about it.

(continued on the inside... though it's a way to go to get where everyone else probably already is.)

I went through a jazz kick when it was the subject of a course, but I don't think that was so much a musical experience as it was a cerebral/historical/aesthetic experience. I like playing jazz a lot more than I like listening to jazz, and I haven't played jazz in a very long time (though I've thought it would be fun to pick up a trombone again, probably even more fun if I had someone to play with once I got my lips back).

But for the most part, music has taken a back seat to other interests, and I've been in a holding pattern that's seen almost no change in what I listen to for a very, very long time. Everything's been ruled by a collection of fairly predictable selections: the Velvet Underground, Meat Puppets, and X formed a sort of core; with Television, Uncle Tupelo, and a lot of this and that tossed in. Then add some outliers like Negativland & The Residents, or the Butthole Surfers. And then toss in the old Sun collections from Elvis and Mr. Cash, and the Patsy Cline greatest hits CD. Then toss in generous helpings of SomaFM and you get this thin gruel that I'd happily defend on its merits, but that's been getting sort of stale all the same. I felt like a teenage boy who's solved all wardrobe problems with jeans and black t-shirts (which is how I tend to solve wardrobe problems, now that I think about it, except I've become more fond of pigment-dyed shirts in the last few years).

But I'm lucky to know pk, who doesn't so much collect music as accrete it, so when he played the "I know how much you liked the Meat Puppets card" and fingered the Shins a while back, I took his word for it and grabbed a pair of their albums and pecked at them a few times, then decided it was easier to go back to what I already had. But a sense of guilt (I bought the albums) and obligation (Phil bothered to recommend them so I should figure out an opinion) and fear (if I don't listen to these albums, maybe it'll be proof that my music gland has finally just died) got me to listen a few more times, and I discovered that golly, I sort of dug 'em. Well... one of the albums. The other one I didn't so much. But it was a start.

So then he came back last week with a recommendation for Neutral Milk Hotel, and I downloaded that much more quickly and it was a much more immediately revelatory experience, probably because it has trombones, and I always relate well to trombones... especially the big, sloppy, boozy trombone on that album.

There are trombonists who haven't reconciled themselves to the fact that everyone else thinks trombonists are either weird (the slide... the slide intimidates them) or just not very good (because trombone players in high school bands spend a lot of time just filling the sound out instead of carrying much melody, unless there's a sudden pure cheese moment that calls for low and high brass alike to lift up their voices together in a crowd-pleasing bleat of unity, or perhaps an arrangement of the theme from Rocky that gives the trumpets a break but doesn't dare abandon the melody, lest the audience get bored and start throwing wadded up programs) and so they overcompensate with either range (the squeal of a trombone pushed octaves past middle C can cause the nervous system to seize or cure intestinal parasites, depending on the purity of the trombonist's purpose) or busy-ness, trying to prove that sliding around a few feet of slide and articulating into a mouthpiece the size of a novelty shot glass can be a matter of dextrousness and precision. They miss the majesty of a trombonist who isn't out to impress, but out merely to accomplish his mission. It's big, broad, blustery, but with an ease that's akin to an elephant sauntering through a native village, not charging through it. And there's a little of that in Neutral Milk Hotel, but more in a sort of "degenerate Salvation Army street corner band" kind of way. Along with a vocalist who is damaged... deeply hurt... "processing." Processing all over the studio.

So I liked Neutral Milk Hotel enough to want to know more about what, exactly, it was. I visited All Music Guide and learned that there were a few pigeonholes: lo-fi, indie rock, neo-prog (I didn't like the sound of that and still don't). And then I looked up the Shins and noted that both groups shared a lo-fi pigeonhole. Hm. So then there was more digging around, and some recommendation agent or another seemed to think that if I liked both of those, I might like Belle & Sebastian... I think that might be because the Shins also fall into "indie pop," as a broad category. I'd avoided Belle & Sebastian for years, mainly on the grounds that NPR had covered them early on in their career and made them sound sort of heinous (to my ears at the time), but the switch had been flipped: Neutral Milk Hotel made me want more new stuff. So I got their first (well, really their second, but their first widely distributed) album. It's not at all like anything on Neutral Milk Hotel, and perhaps maybe a tiny bit like the Shins albums I had, but pretty compelling in its own way. And somehow that led to picking up a Stereolab album (another recommendation agent somewhere) on their shared "indie pop" pigeonhole. And then I noted that AIR (which contributed a track or two the Lost in Translation soundtrack) was turning up along the Stereolab axis, so I got Moon Safari, which is kind of space lounge. And there's also the digging out of a pair of Nick Drake albums from Sam I'd set aside as too pretty at the time but now make much more sense to me.

That's the most music I've bought in a week in a really, really long time. I'll slide a quick word in favor of the iTunes Music Store experience here, too: no clerks, no trepidation in the period between finding a disc on the shelf and making the trip up to the cash register (if I bought everything I'd carried around the store in the past decade, I'd have a big collection)... mostly frictionless, with the exception of the after-purchase time spent fixing some issues. The "people who bought... also bought..." provides some odd connections now and then, but it's useful in its own way, too.

The net result of my mini-orgy is a newish perspective on music for the first time in a while: I kind of like "catchy" now. I also don't mind "poppish" or "poppy." It's pleasant. It doesn't have to be stupid or offensive. It can just be. It can occupy a space between demanding concentration (like the sense that Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists are doing base 12 math in a semi-circle while cowled acolytes spoon nutrients into their toothless mouths or dab at the drool sliding down their chins) and sliding off the back of the brain unregistered. And in turn, that recasts things that have been in my collection for a long time:

  • "Heroin" is not morally superior to "Rock and Roll Music" or "Sunday Morning"
  • It is not wrong to prefer most of "Anodyne" to "Still Feel Gone."
  • That brief period where I stuck up for No Doubt was a legitimate and natural reaction to well-crafted pop.
  • Someone who shall remain unnamed was very, very wrong to turn off my Stone Roses album in mid-play 13 years ago because they were fine, too, even if "She's a Waterfall" and "Shoot You Down" were sort of atrocious.

We could veer toward calling it an expansion of musical tolerance, except it's made me sort of cranky where a few other things are concerned: I'm less fond of the novelty acts that prefer to inflect older forms with self-loathing or misanthropy, as if to say every form but the cut-up remains of what has come before has been exhausted. I mean, I still sort of enjoy Killdozer plowing through "Sweet Home Alabama," (especially the grunting, belching "Oo... oo... oo!" in the chorus), but I'm less tolerant of the "dark novelty cover." On the flip side of that, I can look back at Ween, which is less a subversion of a particular song and more a subversion of an entire form (like in "Push th' Little Daisies" or "Don't Get Too Close") and still be pretty content.


So I took the Volvo out to Jantzen Beach, which gave it the opportunity to burn through some more of whatever crud has the sensors at the DEQ going berserk (and me the opportunity to get to know it again as a highway car, where it's a pretty pleasant ride), and that gave me the time to think more about this.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be about music the same way Jack Black is in High Fidelity... all opinionated and angry and judgmental. That's sort of a developmental milestone for a lot of people, right? Everyone seems to pick a tribe of some kind, and music lends itself nicely to adolescent differentiation rites. But it's a losing proposition if you've got a relativist streak (I do). Maybe it feels right to say "Nothing really moves your ass like the Red Hot Chili Peppers," for instance, but then someone comes out of nowhere and says "No... nothing really moves your ass like the Red Hot Chili Peppers," and there you are... it's down to how much will you care to bring to bear on the problem. I have very little.

The thing that makes all this sort of revelatory is that I was still listening to a collection of music that felt like the old reliable jeans and black t-shirt... it was premised on some sort of tribalism past, and bound up in how well I could defend it. I'm not sure if I can defend anything I've found over the past few weeks on any grounds other than relativist ones, but it's a new turn for me to not care about that.

So maybe that's behind a recent spate of musical exhibitionism with Audioscrobbler and mp3Fridays. Either way, it's a lot more fun looking for new music than it has been in a while.

Brought to You By

There were an awful lot of All Music Guide lookups to process for this entry. I did a quick script that let me highlight the band/artist name, hit the context menu to activate the script, get Omniweb to launch a search on the name, and build a clipboard entry in the form of a Markdown href tag that pasted itself into the selection:

--Open this script in a new Script Editor window.

on main(s)
    -- AMG's a giant pain:
    set baseurl to "" & s
    open location baseurl
    display dialog "Add this link to the document?"
    -- On ok, make OmniWeb give us its frontmost URL (which we just opened with the "open location baseurl" command
    tell application "OmniWeb"
        set theFrontmostWindowID to item 1 of (ListWindows)
        set theFrontmostWindowInfo to (GetWindowInfo theFrontmostWindowID)
        set myURL to item 1 of theFrontmostWindowInfo
    end tell
    -- make the URL into a properly formatted Markdown reference URL
    set the clipboard to "[" & s & "](" & myURL & ")"
    -- open up BBEdit
    tell application "BBEdit"
        --paste the properly formatted Markdown URL into the selection
    end tell
end main


I bought that Stone Roses album when I went through the Brit pop phase last year, and I was fully and happily prepared to eat crow--but I still didn't like it. So I'll apologize for my lack of courtesy, but I'm standing my ground aesthetically. Many differ--but many think Oasis were the best band ever, and I still think they're shite. (I bought their album last year, too, and sold it back the next week.) Deal-breaker in both cases wasn't "too soft" or "too poppy" but rather "too snooty." There's a certain kind of dumb that reveals itself by an utter lack of humor or humility, and that's something I can't get past. And anyway it was my house.

But let me make something very clear:

I like Guns 'N Roses.

And I've really never made a secret of it. Which obviously dispels the idea that I can defend my tastes. Subjective criteria of musical quality are pounded to dust by my willingness to rock out to "It's So Easy." Certain kind of dumb? Utter lack of humor?! You bet, and violent misogyny, too--but the guitars are big and loud!

So if, in my orthodoxy, I pronounced any rigid theories and arbitrary judgments that contributed to anyone in our tribe feeling a residual obligation to defend their musical choices, for that I do apologize, though my hypocrisy has long been on display.

Run naked thru the tulips, my friend. Your only mistake was not developing sooner some pleasures to truly feel guilty about.

p.s. - Try the Mosquitos, Imperial Teen, Spoon, the Secret Machines, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.

Posted by: pk at November 22, 2004 10:23 AM