Posts Tagged ‘Too Long in the Wasteland’

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.”

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Oct. 25, 1989: Rows of folding metal chairs lined the floor of the Chestnut Cabaret this Wednesday night, a fair autumn evening if ever there was one – after a high of 77, temperatures plummeted into the 40s overnight. Two weeks before, we’d caught Lenny Kravitz’s Philadelphia debut at this same West Philly club; and a week later we’d see Syd Straw (with Dave Alvin on guitar) open for Camper Van Beethoven there, too. For those concerts, we were situated on one of the raised sides, where tables and spotty service could sometimes be had. Tonight, however, we were down in the valley (so to speak) – and in the front row.

The headliner: Texas-bred singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith.

James McMurtry, then known primarily as the son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, opened with a solid set drawn from his stellar debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, which was one of my favorite albums that year. He was backed by a crack band; I remember the drummer pounded those skins like his life depended on it.

nanci_stormsAt the time, Nanci Griffith was riding high – and winning a smattering of new fans – thanks to her sublime Storms album, which embraced a slightly sleeker pop sound than her previous country-folk works. Produced by Glyn Johns, it featured guest turns from Phil Everly, Bernie Leadon and Albert Lee and such songs as “Listen to the Radio,” “If Wishes Were Changes,” “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights,” the title track and “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go.” To my ears (then and now), Storms is a stone-cold classic.

Although I already liked her music, I’d never seen her live, so I was psyched; and her 90-minute set didn’t disappoint. I believe she opened with the charming “Love at the Five and Dime,” complete with the sweet story that leads into it…

…but I could be wrong. The night’s songs are something of a jumble. I remember she played a wondrous rendition of “If Wishes Were Changes,” one of my favorite songs by her…

…and “There’s a Light Beyond These Words (Mary Margaret).”

“Listen to the Radio,” complete with a wonderful run on the keys by James Hooker, was another highlight.

And, of course, “It’s a Hard Life,” a song I’ve probably heard her sing dozens of times in the years since.

Okay, so dozens is a tad hyperbolic, but in the decades since that autumn evening, Diane and I have seen Nanci more times than either of us can count – basically, whenever she’s played the Philadelphia area. We’ve seen her at the Chestnut Cabaret, Penn’s Landing, TLA, Keswick, Tower Theater, World Cafe Live, even the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., where she was accompanied by the Crickets (as in, Buddy Holly’s Crickets).

Anyway, here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer’s review of the same concert: Cogitation, Country-style, at the Chestnut.