Support your local independent record store!
I’m not going to rage too much about this whole fiction snub for the Pulitzers… enough of that has been done, more earnestly, on Twitter and the Interwebs. But in case you hadn’t heard, the Pulitzer committee deemed no book of fiction worthy of the grand prize. Why? Because one book must win a majority of the vote. Which means that this could have been the best year for fiction in the history of the world but because the committee couldn’t largely agree on which earth-shattering tome belonged at the top of the heap nobody gets a trophy, and everyone gets parting gifts. Thanks for playing, here’s an assortment of cheeses and a cheap Bordeaux that may or may not taste like feet. Michael Cunningham and critics Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson, the three-person fiction jury delivered the committee 3 books, down from the original 341 and that 18-person committee shat the bed. No 10,000 prize. No spotlight on excellence. No furthering the sales or expanding the readership of great literature. Instead we have this:
Fiction: no winner
The three snubbed nominees were Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and The Pale King by the late, great David Foster Wallace. That’s right… one of the authors is farkin’ deceased and even that–even the thought of a final reward to one of the great writers and thinkers of the last metric crap ton of years–couldn’t push that 18-person committee to a final conclusion. I think I speak for every writer, of any genre, when I say “FIX IT.”
In the meantime, Pulitzer VIPs, while you’re off fixing a broken system that has done exactly the opposite of its intent, I will suggest a few ways by which you can settle these disputes in the future. I’m not merely going to point fingers. I’m a problem solver.
1. The Pulitzer Games.
You’re readers, right? I do have to clarify these days. Even if you’ve not read the Hunger Games, you’re knowledgeable of the premise. Drop your finalists into a North Carolina woods with their choice of analog weapon (bow and arrow, mace, whip, blow darts laced with frog poison, a boombox fueled by the collective works of Nickelback) and let them have at it. Televise it. Of course, since DFW can’t make it, that leaves two. Even better for you. Fewer paperwork, logistics, etc.
Edge: Karen Russell. She’s sprier by three decades, kinda sorta looks like a brainy version of Katniss and based on her book, figures to handle herself in a swamp, i.e. adverse conditions, with aplomb.
2. Today Show Cage Match
The ultimate in Today Show gimmick events. They’ve done weddings and weather. Now they can do hyper-educated MMA. In a dome-like cage. Lauer announces. Microphone drops from the ceiling of the studio. Ann Curry’s the ring girl in a sequined bikini and Roker referees (and he no longer requires vertical stripes!). I’m not necessarily suggesting Beyond Thunderdome rules. We’ll allow tapouts. But if you’re a young writer, do you give up on your wildest hopes and dreams just because of a few broken bones? Dizziness? Decaying consciousness? Hell no.
Edge: Denis Johnson. He’s never struck me as a dude that you wanted to corner. Quite frankly I’d be intimidated by sitting in a seat behind him on an airplane. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T KICK THE SEAT! He’s got those crazy eyes. Dude’s seen some things… I know. I’ve read Jesus’ Son.
3. Fiction Slamline
Sort of like a hybrid between Drumline, Step Up 3D and a Poetry Slam. Each author would take turns reciting passages from their fiction. No cheat sheets allowed, call and response style. One steps up, then the next, then the next. Meanwhile the crowd gets rowdy, fists pump, witty barbs are tossed about like popcorn. “Johnson writes in decidedly primitive stages of reflection!” or “She is the pimple of the age’s humbug!” The judges start nodding their head in appreciation and awe. DFW could attend in the form of a hologram. If Tupac can do it, so can David Foster Wallace.
Edge: Hologram David Foster Wallace. Brainy, dramatic and doo-ragged take this one, even from beyond the grave. His delivery might be a little wooden, but nobody could out-think DFW, even as a digital projection imitating life… in 3-D.
Let’s see. Final tally…. that’s one win for each of them. Shit. Oh well. I guess the Pulitzer committee got it right after all. And to think I just wasted everyone’s time with a trifle of an argument that amounted to nothing. There’s just no reasonable way to decide these writers’ fate. No way, indeed.
When writing about music the goal is to inspire some feeling of Frankenstein viscerality in the reader. Especially regarding a band you’ve probably never heard of. I assemble descriptive words and band names and familiar song titles in such a way that my reader(s) hopefully have some sense of the sound without having actually heard it.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
That quote has been sometimes attributed to Steve Martin, sometimes Martin Mull, sometimes Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello… and so on and so forth… but nobody really seems to know from whence it came. No matter. There’s as much fallacy as truth embedded within that famous line. On one hand you’re not attempting to recreate the music itself, but a potential reaction to the music, thereby writing about music by using familiar emotional attachment and response to similar bands and objects. I process the music as I hear it using my own sensibilities. I then translate what I hear into concretizations and regurgitate those concretizations so that the reader might then process the words and related bands and recreate the music in their own mind. In other words, writing about music is a whole heap of bullshit. But I love it. Because as a writer, I can say just about anything. Failure at writing about music is only the inability to elicit any kind of visceral response.
That said, as I write these rumbles I tend to make up and bastardize words. If it sounds like something, you’ll still understand, perhaps more so than if I stuck to that ever-so-limiting Dictionary. I’m trying to describe something that does not actually exist and therefore using words that don’t exactly exist seems rather apropos. Wouldn’t you say?
I thought about this as I wrote about The Jezabels in my recent “30Hz Recommended” feature. I resisted using a word. But that word has stuck with me. It has inspired me to write this bit. And continue to update the 30Hz Glossary of Music Writing Nonsense Words. Not only will I include my own but any others that I find in my reading and internet travel. If you have suggestions (and I like them!), please tweet them to me (@30hertzrumble) with the hashtag #30hzglossary or leave them in the comments. You’ll get credit and everything.
n. Abstractions made real and palpable, but not so palpable that you can actually touch them. So not palpable at all. Like playing a theremin.
Melodrama Rock (mel-o-DRA-ma rawk)
n. Alt-rock subgenre. A sound relying primarily on earnest, sweeping sonic swells and plateaus. Songs tend to trend longer and start more slowly. These bands likely play their instruments very seriously, with little outward emotion because what they are playing is serious goddamn music. See: the Joy Formidable
n. An individual song that is so terrible as to have the power to suck the life out of an entire album. Pertains especially to vinyl records where there is no such thing as skip track or fast forward. A pinch is an inexplicable inclusion on an otherwise standout or legendary album. See: “The Girl is Mine” on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Protomelodrama Rock (pro-toe-mel-o-DRA-ma rawk)
n. Alt-rock sub-subgenre. Melodrama rock with an added texture: the use of distinct and palpable nostalgia, most probably that for the 80’s. God help us if 90’s nostalgia bands ever hit it big. See: the Jezabels
n. Alt-rock subgenre. An overused descriptor that has been saturated to the point of meaninglessness. A style of music characterized by the “WALL OF SOUND” which is generally comprised of prolonged and loud guitar and reverb that render lyrics incomprehensible. Applied to bands as varied as the School of Seven Bells, the Twilight Sad and Spacemen 3. Originally applied to UK bands in the 1990s and inspired by a band’s demeanor on stage: the guitarists spend much of their time staring at effects pedals, apparently deeply lost in thought and overly concerned about their shoes.
Synesthesia Nostalgia (sin-es-THEEZYA no-STAL-juh)
n. The synthesis of music and image and/or action. For example, a scene from a movie that is inextricably linked to a particular song. The song immediately recalls the movie and vice versa, thereby inspiring a wellspring of longing for a more utopian past, i.e. the 1980’s. See 30Hz Top 11 Synesthesia Nostalgia Moments of the 1980s.
Trifle Theory (try-FULL THEER-ee)
n. A seemingly incompatible combination of influences that result in a sound that is not unwelcome to the ears. Refers to a Friends episode where Rachel makes a Trifle dessert out of fruit and meat and Joey, predictably, loves the heck out of it. Used in reference to bands that wear three or more influences on their sleeve, especially when one really doesn’t seem to belong. See: Fanfarlo.
n. A state of feeling emotions that might be deemed visceral. Swelling emotions and shit.
The Twilight Sad @ the Empty Bottle, Chicago
March 2, 2012
If I hadn’t been riding in a cab to the show I would have had to double check my directions. After arriving at the Empty Bottle in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village I couldn’t believe that a band like The Twilight Sad would venture from Kilsyth to Chicago to play in a corner dive bar. If I hadn’t seen the band’s bassist lingering around the swag table (which flanked a Ms. Pacman cabinet) I’d have called the whole operation into question. No punches pulled, the place is a dive, though a dive in the best possible sense – a local joint where you’d go to see your cousin’s band play a set of Ramones’ covers but only because of the $3 Shiner Bocks. The walls held together by thousands of staples, the wallpaper comprised of the impressive shards of posters documenting past acts. Tattoo-sleeves on the bartender. Multi-colored Christmas bulbs dangled above the stage. Chiaroscuro spots at the side of the stage, that would in due time, obscure all of my attempts at in-concert photography.
Micah P. Hinson warmed up the early crowd with some standard-fare singer-songwriter angst, albeit wearing white Buddy Holly specs which at least provided a topic of conversation while my party warmed up the back end of the bar.
The penultimate band, a Bay Area export by the name of Young Prisms, provided a pleasant smattering of Jesus and Mary Chain covers, which actually turned out to be their original material. The perfect opening act – familiar and unmemorable but with some potential to become an “I-saw-them-way-back-when” band. The curious footnote about the Young Prisms’ set, which proved to be a harbinger of things to come: we couldn’t tell if the supposed lead singer was actually singing. I changed my viewing angle of the stage so that the microphone wasn’t blocking the lead singer’s mouth. Yes, indeed, she’d been singing. News to us.
More about the venue. Imagine an L. Place the bar along the long upright and a two-tiered riser for concerts in the short end. The stage at the crux and a brick column flanked by doorways directly in front with room for about two dozen spectators between the stage and the column in a crowded mass. With Stella in hand I pushed near the front end of the bar in anticipation of the Twilight Sad. Though it wasn’t really anticipation per se since they were already on stage testing and honing levels without much fanfare. And then they paused. James Graham huddled over the microphone, wilting inside himself. A pause before synth and haunting distorted bass reverb commandeered the Empty Bottle. Graham’s body seethed with intensity as he brooded the opening of “Kill It in the Morning,” the concluding track on their latest No One Can Ever Know. No translation necessary. Not that deciphering his thick Scottish accent proves necessary to getting lost in the music or understanding Graham’s cryptic lyrics – but because it was almost like he wasn’t singing at all, despite the clear intent and focus on consuming the microphone. The swell of synth and percussion near the end of the song resonated with the largely idle crowd, causing the first head widespread lost-in-the-music head nods and air drumming. With the vocals drowned out by a wall of reverb, I relocated to the two-tier risers, figuring on improved sonic fidelity.
“Don’t Move” followed but instead of reverb distorting their sound, percussion overshadowed the mix. Only when drummer Mark Devine launched the recognizable opening drum cadence for “That Summer, at Home I Became the Invisible Boy” did a song resemble an album recording. Graham belted the repeated chorus “Kids are on fire in the bedroom” clearly and intentionally, the minimal reverb finally allowing an aural connection to the singer but these connections seemed localized to songs from their prior albums. Fan favorite “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” and “Reflection on the Television” succeeded due to a more minimal, precise mix of vocals, drums and guitar. “Cold Days” in particular offered Graham’s voice a chance to come into focus. He lingered on particular passages, slowed the tempo, played with our expectations and highlighted a sadness in the song’s chorus that isn’t wholly apparent on the album version.
But this highlight came too late in the show, perhaps, to hook anyone unfamiliar with the bands catalog. Those already familiar with The Twilight Sad and their music would have reveled in the chance to witness Graham, in the way the prior music generation witnessed Ian Curtis’ localized intensity, his ability to command a two foot space on a stage and thereby an entire room. The orchestration sustaining his performance on stage, eyes closed, lost in the synth and reverb. Songs from the “No One Can Ever Know” album, as great as they are on the album, amplified too large for the space and drowned even Graham’s confident vocals. Poor Stephanie Hodapp of the Young Prisms’ never stood a chance.
Still trying to find that sweet spot, that spot that allowed each component of music to flourish, I nestled into the small crux of the “L” next to the brick column directly in front of the stage and located a semblance of fidelity just as “And She Would Darken the Memory,” a favorite track from Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, concluded. Even the accent-clouded lyrics of the chorus “And their friendly faces with put on smiles” emerged through the din with a measure of intelligibility. Sigh. Once the Twilight Sad left the stage after their curious closer, “At the Burnside” – a song noted for its notorious “wall of sound” comprised of wailing guitar, piano and percussion – I reported my finding to my party, now nursing their final drinks at the rear of the bar. They shrugged and we wandered out into the snowy Chicago evening. We caught a cab and I spent the entire time questioning what went wrong, my voice too loud for the silent cab. I began the process of turning down the volume on the synth and reverb still echoing in my head. I questioned the choice of venue and the sound engineers but never the band. Not even once. The performance was there and showcased brilliantly in fits and spurts. But in the end, I decided that maybe this venue, this corner dive, was precisely the place that the Twilight Sad could be precisely themselves, baring their damaged souls but still hiding among the reverb and causing everyone else to question, exactly, what it all means.
Reason #278 to buy vinyl: Rescuing misplaced treasures from a vinyl purgatory
For any open-minded, intrepid collector and music enthusiast, Reason #278 might be the best reason of all to support vinyl. The earliest lateral-cut discs (the precursor to vinyl as we know it) had been produced nearly a century before compact discs stomped all over its turf like Godzilla over Tokyo; therefore, it’s no surprise that the breadth and variety of available music for the turntable knows no equal.
Wander any decent second-hand record store and you’ll be treated to unorthodox genres long since forgotten. At some point in our consumer past, sellers/distributors shoehorned all genres into a select few. Rock/Pop. Jazz. Country. Classical. Rap/Hip-Hop. Am I missing any? Shop vinyl and you’ll find genres like Hawaiian. Banjo. Soul. Rockabilly. I am always compelled to linger over these genres even though my knowledge of the artists contained within could be found lacking. I want to pick one at random, just to give it a listen. If nothing else, experiments like these provide great fodder for the bl-g. But the number of potential targets overwhelms and ultimately I move on to more familiar pastures. Next time I’ll come armed with a Google search and a list of obscure artists in obscure genres and do some exploration. After all, $2 per adventure seems pretty damn cheap these days.
I am much more comfortable making decisions at the intersection of the familiar and random. And it turns out that the best place to discover the intersection of familiar and random is at shops that are not just music purveyors. Half-Price Books, for example. While they have vinyl, they are predominantly a seller of other used media. The vinyl that winds up in the wooden crates at Half-Price is generally of the omnipresent variety: Tom Jones, Roger Whitaker, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Barbara Streisand, Huey Lewis, Kenny Loggins, Chicago and so on and so forth. These stores are a dumping ground for entire collections that no longer have value to their owners. Many are inherited. Some are just unwanted, replaced by space-saving digital media. But when people dump collections indiscriminately, collectors are often rewarded for taking the time to dig a little deeper.
Last week I brought my daughter into Half-Price to do a little browsing. On this occasion she’d been the one that had asked to go to the “record store.” And who am I to disagree? I’m so proud of her—the “record store” resides right next door to Toys R Us and she never thinks twice about her decision. I’ve been through the crates at this particular Half-Price enough to know that I’ve pretty much picked out anything that would have interested me. My daughter sits down at my feet and re-sorts the 45s. And by “re-sorts” I mean she finds one with a spacious paper sleeve and crams as many as she can fit into that sleeve. These records are generally in such bad condition (read: unplayable) that I don’t monitor her too closely. If I notice she’s getting a little too aggressive I pick her up and ask for her help flipping through the 33s. This is for her benefit only. If you’ve ever tried to read a book in a toddler’s hands you’ll know the impossibility of browsing records when they’re similarly in control. It’s not an ideal solution but she’s two years old, almost three—there are no ideal solutions for two year olds and vinyl shopping. This particular day I noticed that she’d gone a little too far with the 45 molestation, reaching a crop of unsullied records that deserved a better fate. I bent down to redirect her attention to the previously mauled items or the Disney Princess card game (she is content to merely dump this on the ground) but as I did so I noticed the boxed sets of vinyl stacked up behind the piles of 45s. They were situated in such a way that from my angle I could not have seen them unless I’d been kneeling on her level. There were some mail order classical music collections from anonymous orchestras but the boxes were curious enough and unusual enough that I felt compelled to pull them out and peruse their innards. As I descended into the abyss behind the 45s, beyond the mail-order classical, I found a couple of boxes much more to my liking.
The first was a generic, blue vinyl folder. The Half-Price sticker labeled the set: “$5.00 – Random.” I unsnapped the cover and flipped through the sleeves. The book had been filled with 7” 33rpm singles of various big bands of the 40s and 50s. Almost all were in great condition. Bing Crosby. Louis Prima. Kay Kyser. The history of this folio intrigued me. Someone had taken exquisite care of these records, most produced between 1945 and 1955, only to have them dumped here. The value isn’t the point however. They could be worthless, everyday coaster-fodder, but it wouldn’t matter. There’s a history here that’s beyond monetary measure. Old records smell like history. They have a weight, an importance—even when they came a dime a dozen at the time of their original distribution. I could take these home and one by one, place them on my turntable and discover something old and potentially meaningful that is again made brand new. People that do not buy vinyl just do not understand this. They don’t take much care in browsing a used CD rack for oddities and curios. Anything that is odd is probably not worth having. And if there is some perceived worth in compact discs, the worth is measured in nostalgia or kitsch but not adventure or discovery. Vinyl shopping is a treasure hunt. Used CD shopping is a force of habit.
My second discovery wasn’t so much an oddity but a welcome and immediately identified necessity. Though the box appeared worn, somewhat torn and tattered around the edges, the picture of the front screamed “BUY ME”—Nat and Cannonball Adderly beneath the title: Great Jazz Artists Play the Music of Great Composers. So I did. I bought that sucker and the “$5.00—Random” folio. Later, I looked up the label that released the set, Murray Hill, and found that they mostly reissued other catalogues. Sure enough, there on the back of the set:
“…these unsual LPs, drawn from the extensive catalogues of Riverside and its affiliated Jazzland label, bring you a fusing of some of the finest and most interesting examples of both elements. Here are many of the best and best-loved melodies of our greatest songwriters, as interpreted by varied lineups of modern jazz talent…”
And some further interweb browsing revealed that the set sells for as much as $50. Again, the potential resale value isn’t important. Interesting… but not important. The find, the search, the discovery, the hope of finding something sacred in a slushpile picked through by hundreds before me. Sacred means something different to everyone. For me, it was looking on the back of Great Jazz Artists to find Cole Porter songs played by the likes of Bill Evans, George Shearing, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin. Thelonius Monk playing Irving Berlin. Charlie Byrd and Billy Taylor doing Gershwin. These names are sacred to me. And after only one listen through Side 1 of Record 1 I knew I’d found something special. The recordings are clear and the vinyl in excellent condition. I can’t help but imagine this set’s prior owner and their connection to the records. Did they consider it a gem or merely part of the overwhelming burden of their old music collection? Judging by the condition of the box (worn and split along one seam) compared to the condition of the vinyl (superficial scratches, no skips)—I believe it must have been treasured just as I treasure it now. And this thought gives me great pleasure, that I’ve again given this music a good home, having rescued it from a vinyl purgatory. I haven’t yet listened to the entire set—there are 12 glorious discs that must be savored and brought back to life, but all in good time. Listening is only part of the joy. Shopping for vinyl—going, browsing, inspecting—forever offers new opportunities to strike gold, but if you’re not taking the time to search those darker corners of the second-hand stores and flea markets you’re going to find a lot of Anne Murray records but nothing particularly as precious or mysterious as “$5.00—Random.”