Archive for the ‘2019’ Category

In many respects, the magic and mystery of music has melted away much like a tape left atop a dashboard on a hot summer’s day. And since most folks never bought pricey blocks of Maxell XLII-S and TDK-SA cassettes, or even the cut-rate packs of Realistic wonders, they don’t care. Tapes, and the music therein, hold little value to them. (This is a half-assed metaphor, I know, but bear with me.) To them, mixtapes (and even mixCDs) are a thing of yore that they never bothered with except, occasionally, as unwanted gifts.

Growing up, I believed there were two types of music fans: AM and FM. The AM set enjoyed the hit singles, while the FM variant immersed itself in albums, and that belief held even when, for music, the AM band faded to staticky silence. I’ve come to realize that I was wrong. Simply put, there are those who care deeply for music, be it the latest hits or yesteryear’s album tracks; and there are those who care deeply for background noise.

A college professor of mine, way back in the early ‘80s, observed that many people are afraid of silence – and not just when around others. He said they turned on the TV or radio when they arrived home out of an unconscious fear of being alone with their thoughts. It makes sense. In today’s world, of course the “TV or radio” usually translates to a smart phone or computer, and the noise accompanies them while they surf the modern equivalent of tabloid newspapers (aka social media).

They don’t buy music. They don’t rent it via subscription tiers. Instead, they click-click-click into readymade playlists on ad-supported streaming sites and leave it at that. A simple search within those same sites often gives one the ability to hear specific songs after commercials, too, so music – at the top tier, at any rate – has become commercial bait. (In a way, the illegal-downloading boom spurred by Napster and its clones assured that entire generations would know of no other experience.)

That my Top 5s feast at the same trough I decry is an irony not lost on me. And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Relics of a Bygone Age…

1) Bruce Springsteen – “Thundercrack.” A 1973 performance by Bruce and an early incarnation of the E Street Band from the Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles.

2) Jackson Browne – “Running on Empty.” A Joel Bernstein photo montage set to the classic song, which – along with its album namesake – was reissued in remastered form on July 5th.

3) Lucy Rose – Live at Decoy Studios. Lucy’s artistry harkens back to a time when fans dropped LPs onto their turntables and studied the lyric sheets. This short set of No Words Left songs features “Conversation,” “Solo(w),” “Song After Song” and “Treat Me Like a Woman.” 

4) Caroline Spence – “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes.” The sterling singer-songwriter owes a big debt to ’90s-era Sheryl Crow on this Mint Condition tune. (The video was released on July 9th.)

5) Anna Calvi – Live at Salle Pleyel. The fine folks at ARTE Concert have shared this intoxicating concert, filmed earlier this year in Paris, from the always mesmerizing Ms. Calvi, who seems to have stepped through a time portal from an era when music mattered for art’s sake, not commercial gain. (It helps, of course, that she channels everyone from David Bowie to Maria McKee (circa Life Is Sweet). 

On Tuesday, I picked up Nolan Gasser’s Why You Like It: The Science & Culture of Musical Taste. Gasser is the chief architect of Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project (MGP), which shapes the Pandora experience, and the book – which delves into the whys and wherefores of musical taste and preference – is intriguing. 

The MGP, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the underlying data map that guides Pandora Radio’s algorithm, which is what creates the personalized listening experience. Instead of stitching together discordant songs and leaving the listener frayed from the stylistic jujitsu, the algorithm links songs based on matches within their individual data maps and user feedback. If you like A, odds are you’ll like B, C, D and E, with your thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs further weighting the music matches and nixing the mismatches. 

Or something like that.

Until this week, I never opened Pandora’s box. So, for research purposes, on Tuesday I launched a station by selecting Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”; Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” followed and, honestly, that bored me enough to shut down the experiment in its tracks. Yesterday morning, however, I tried again and launched another station built upon one choice: the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants.”

In total, I listened for about four hours and then, this morning, returned to it and listened for about three more. 

The total: 85 songs (give or take). On Thursday, I gave a thumbs-up to tracks I liked, thumbs-down to others, and let others play through without any reaction, as my hunch is that’s how many listen. On Friday, I only gave thumbs-ups, as flipping back and forth between browser windows gets old. Aside from a few interruptions from my feline, I kept track of the songs.

Now, back in the day, if I’d made a tape (using the requisite Maxwell XLII-S cassettes, of course) that began with the Bangles, I’d have included a few fellow Paisley Underground acts, such as the Three O’Clock and Rain Parade, an influence or two – the Beatles and Beach Boys – as well as, perhaps, the Plimsouls. I’d have made room for a few of the jangle-pop acts that followed the Bangles, too, such as the Blake Babies, Belly and Matthew Sweet, and added a few neat mixes – maybe Suzanne Vega’s “In Liverpool” going into the original version of “Going Down to Liverpool” by Katrina & the Waves (or ending Side A with one and opening Side B with the other).

Likewise, I probably would have included the original Simon & Garfunkel version of the Bangles’ 1987 hit: 

I may or may not have included the Go-Go’s, but if I did, I would have located my copy of Sid & Susie’s Under the Covers Vol. III collection and matched whatever song I chose (“Capture the Light,” maybe) with “Our Lips Our Sealed” as sung by the Susie in question, Susanna Hoffs. Or, if I had access to a bootleg of it, this cool version (from January 2016) of Susanna and Belinda Carlisle singing it together…

(I always liked to include “rarities” on my tapes.) Rainy Day, the one-off Paisley Underground collective, would have found its way onto the collection, too. I’d also stretch beyond the past, including Jade Bird’s rendition of “Walk Like an Egyptian”…

.. and Molly Tuttle’s “Light Came In (Power Went Out),” which possesses a power-pop sensibility…

…as well as this First Aid Kit song, “Nothing Has to Be True” (from their 2018 Ruins album), which would make a great closing track.

What Pandora returned, however, was predictable, though – by and large – enjoyable. On Thursday, it stuck tight to the ‘80s and Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Go-Go’s, and Belinda Carlisle, while making room for Madonna and Berlin, as well. The biggest surprises were Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” and singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert’s “Twice Struck,” as both were stylistic mismatches. Quarterflash and Pat Benatar tunes were odd inclusions, too, as they they trade more in the AOR sound than jangle-pop. Pandora’s “Discover” mode, which I suppose delves deeper into the musical genomes, turned up the Motels, Tracey Ullman and Rachel Sweet, but not – as I imagined – Jules Shear or Big Star. 

Friday morning, it was more of the same, though the circle expanded to include solo tracks from Susanna Hoffs (including, surprisingly, one song from her delightful 2012 album Someday) and Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go’s), plus some not-quite-the-same songs from Whitney Houston and Bonnie Tyler. 

All of which is to say, after seven hours of listening, the Pandora formula seems more geared to making matches based on the chart hits from a particular era and not from the overall music of the era. That said, as the songs came and went, the playlist did dig a little deeper. Susanna Hoffs’ version of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” for instance, was a welcome delight…

.. and on a homemade mix I would’ve followed it with a track from Lulu herself because she is far more than Babs, the character she played in the film To Sir With Love:

But, again, such connections seem – at this stage of the listening experience, at any rate – to be beyond Pandora’s purview. Instead, it seems aimed more at casual music fans and/or folks who just want something playing in the background while they work. I have an open mind, however, so will continue with my Bangles channel to see whether it expands its reach, treads water, or retrenches. (I.e., expect the occasional update in the months ahead!)

Here’s my entire Bangles station experience:

Thumbs-Up or No Reaction (Thursday & Friday):

Bangles – If She Knew What She Wants
Cyndi Lauper – All Through the Night
Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Belinda Carlisle – Heaven Is a Place on Earth
Bangles – In Your Room
Go-Go’s – Vacation
Bangles – Eternal Flame
Madonna – Material Girl
Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time
Go-Go’s – Head Over Heels
Belinda Carlisle – If Heaven Was a Place on Earth
Blondie – One Way or Another
Berlin – Take My Breath Away
(switched to “Discover” mode)
Motels – Only the Lonely
Susanna Hoffs – Falling
Tracey Ullman – (Life Is a Rock) But the Radio Rolled Me
Rachel Sweet – I Go to Pieces
Jane Wiedlin – Rush Hour
Suzi Quatro – Too Big
Susanna Hoffs – Grand Adventure
Rachel Sweet – B-A-B-Y
The Motels – Suddenly Last Summer
Jane Wiedlin – Give
Bow Wow Wow – I Like Candy
Girlschool – Yeah Right
Romeo Void – Never Say Never
David Wilcox – Out of the Question
Susanna Hoffs – Darling One
The Motels – Remember the Night
Jennifer Paige – Crush
(back to regular mode)
Bangles – Manic Monday (Extended)
Cyndi Lauper – True Colors
Go-Go’s – We Got the Beat
Eric Carmen – Hungry Eyes
Pat Benatar – Love Is a Battlefield
Bangles – Hazy Shade of Winter
Madonna – Open Your Heart
(Friday:)
Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian
Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Madonna – Like a Prayer
The Motels – Only the Lonely (Re-recording)
Bangles – Waiting for You
Susanna Hoffs – To Sir With Love
Belinda Carlisle – Circle in the Sand
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
The Bangles – Something That You Said
Madonna – Angel
Cyndi Lauper – Iko Iko
Pat Benatar – Hit Me With Your Best Shot
The Bangles – Walking Down Your Street
Blondie – Call Me (Original Long Version)
Jane Wiedlin – One Heart One Way
Susanna Hoffs – Beekeeper’s Blues
Cyndi Lauper – She Bop
Madonna – Crazy for You
Belinda Carlisle – Mad About You
Pat Benatar – Heartbreaker
Blondie – Heart of Glass
Cyndi Lauper – True Colours
Go-Go’s – Vacation
Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Belinda Carlisle – I Get Weak
Madonna – Into the Groove (Remix)
Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart
Pat Benatar – Invincible
Belinda Carlisle – Leave a Light On
Blondie – The Tide Is High
Susanna Hoffs – My Side of the Bed
Modern English – I Melt With You (Re-recorded version)
Roxette – Listen to Your Heart
Duran Duran – Hungry Like a Wolf
Go-Go’s – Head Over Heels
Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams
Susanna Hoffs – Always Enough
Prince – When Doves Cry

Thumbs-Down (Thursday only):

Bryan Adams – Summer of ’69
Debbie Gibson – Only in My Dreams
E.G. Daily – Waiting
Whiteout – Thirty Eight
Kate Pierson – Throw Down the Roses
Frida – I Know There’s Something Going On
Mental As Anything – Apocalypso
Quarterflash – Take to to Heart
Vance Gilbert – Twice Struck

I’m enjoying a much-needed “staycation” this week, the first extended time I’ve taken since Christmas (and that wasn’t much of a break – we moved from state to state). Among the things on my to-do list: re-watching Covert Affairs, a spy-thriller series that aired on the USA network from 2010 to 2015 that I thoroughly enjoyed; reading Nolan Gasser’s 700-page Why You Like It: The Science & Culture of Musical Taste; and what I’m doing now, tap-tap-tapping away on a blog post.

Nolan Gasser, for those who don’t know, is the chief architect of Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project, and in the book he – to quote the book jacket – “breaks down what musical taste is, where it comes from, and what our favorite songs say about us.” I can’t weigh in on the tome as a whole, as I’m a mere 35 pages in, but it looks interesting and wonky – aka right up my alley. (For more, see the WYLI website.)

In some respects, the Music Genome Project (aka MGP) seems similar to a search-and-recommendation project I was involved with for a few years, though that focused on TV shows. (I found it a fun endeavor, as I have a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of TV history, but others found it tedious.) 

That project is one reason why I find the idea of deciphering what makes (and breaks down) this thing called musical taste (or preference) fascinating. Yet, at the outset of the book, I have to admit that the predictive measures seem both obvious and slightly absurd. On the obvious side: It should boil down to artist, genre, sub-genre, era and fellow travelers, songwriters if an outside songwriter was involved, and include additional aspects of the songs, with all that data creating a pattern that’s as intricate, sticky and fragile as a spider’s web. On the absurd side: Given that many folks, myself included, have a wide range of musical likes that span multiple genres, how can those many facets be woven into a seamless listening experience? Or will it flow as thus: mid-tempo, mid-tempo, slow, mid-tempo, fast?

And, too, would the MGP follow Bobby Darin’s “If I Was a Carpenter” with Tim Hardin’s “A Simple Song of Freedom,” the Long Ryders’ “Looking for Lewis & Clark” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”? (There’s a chain there that astute music fans should ferret out.) In other words, it’s one thing to enjoy a sonically similar playlist, which is what the MGP seems geared to do, but another to be pulled in by subtextual sequencing.

But I’m not pre-judging. I’ll give Pandora a go for the next few mornings to see if it can actually predict my likes and avoid my dislikes.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Subtextual Sequencing…

1) Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row.”

2) Van Morrison – “Summertime in England.”

3) The Bangles – “Dover Beach.”

4) James McMurtry – “Too Long in the Wasteland.”

5) Natalie Merchant – “maggie and milly and molly and mae.”

On the heels of Springsteen’s sublime Western Stars, just about everything new I’ve heard has sounded flat – until this morning, that is. On their fourth album together, Texas troubadours (and husband and wife) Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis turn in a stellar 10-song set that delivers hard-earned truths about love, heartache and middle-aged life.

Here’s the opening cut, the Adam Wright-penned “If I Had a Rose,” which was released as a stand-alone single last fall. (According to this interview Robison gave Texas Monthly magazine, it’s what jumpstarted the album.)

Is that aural beauty in a song, or what?!

“Astrodome,” the second track, was written by Robison and Jack Ingram. One need not be from Houston or have ever stepped inside the former home of the Astros and Oilers to enjoy listening to its protagonist, an old man talking about the good old days and how the world sometimes feels like it’s moved on without him. 

Another walk down memory lane, albeit for different reasons, comes courtesy of “One Dime at a Time,” an old Ernest Tubb hit that was written by Jerry Chestnut and Dottie Bruce. It’s a tear-in-my-beer tune, the kind of thing that was once the hallmark of mainstream country music. Another track that channels that old-school country vibe is “Nobody’s Perfect,” which was also written by Adam Wright. It’s a killer cut with a killer vocal by Kelly: 

The title cut, “Beautiful Lie,” a stripped-down rendition of an old Amazing Rhythm Aces song, conjures no less than Gram and Emmylou.   

In short, for my ears and taste, country music doesn’t get much better than Beautiful Lie. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, the best music reflects its time even as it stretches beyond it. Such is the case here.