Highway to the Endangered Zone of Synesthesia Nostalgia

Sing Songs of Footloose Karaoke
Even I think this must be awful.

I will always associate vinyl records with the soundtracks of the 80s: Footloose, Rocky IV, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun. These were some of my father’s favorite records to play, especially after my mom banned Abba from public presentation. She had become a conscientious objector; Abba had been relegated to the headphones. How many times have I heard each of these albums? Undetermined. However, I will say that I could probably sing along to every song on each of those records with at least 90% accuracy. Some better than others. Nobody owns me in a Footloose karaoke. If I did karaoke.

For someone not familiar with the 80’s – too young or perhaps too “not here” as my friend from college Jimmy Kuo often claimed when we questioned his ignorance on specific pop culture phenomenon – it might be hard to understand the pure, unadulterated righteousness of the 80’s and its excellent movie soundtracks. Removed from the movies in which they appeared, would these songs have endured? A great soundtrack not only contains great songs but the songs must also benefit the movie. I’m not so sure we remember Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” if not for National Lampoon’s Vacation. Search Youtube for “Danger Zone” and you’ll find no fewer than a dozen tribute videos to Top Gun featuring the song. The soundtracks were integral to the movie-watching experience. As I’ve written elsewhere, music grounds our experience in a place and time. Music does the same in movies, but only if the music benefits the movie as a necessary component, the blood, the pulse. It often creates an identity far more powerful than the influence of the screenwriter or director. While we’re damn sure that Kenny Loggins performed “Footloose,” who directed Footloose again?

Herbert Ross
This guy.

At some point in the early 90s, movie soundtracks became a dumpsite. Artists contributed lesser tunes excised from previous or upcoming albums so that the distributing label could slap the artist’s name on the CD sticker. The Soundtrack for Transformers VI featuring a brand new jam from Justin Bieber.

Transformer Facepalm
Even Ironhide disapproves.

I’d like to blame The Bodyguard for kickstarting the deficient movie soundtrack phenomenon. Maybe they wouldn’t sell 17 million records, but the pretenders could damn sure move a few million without putting in any more effort than what was required to compile a mediocre mixtape. But this movie-product tie-in business is almost as old as the industry itself. Is it as simple as saying that at some point, Hollywood just decided it didn’t care anymore? Serious filmmakers will always care about the score – movies are really the last stronghold of contemporary classical music composition. But can you name more than a handful of movie soundtracks from the last fifteen years that A) instantly recall a movie moment; B) contain mostly (if not all) contemporary music; and C) proved integral to the movie itself?

Wait for It - Barney Stinson
…Wait for it…

 

It took me twenty minutes to come up with two examples.

o-brother-where-art-thou_l5

SPVW_CDCover_2F

Biographies like Ray and Walk the Line had to be removed. Then there’s the question of the 40-Year Old Virgin and Anchorman which feature ornately orchestrated performances of cover songs. But these, again, are covers played for laughs and slathered with irony like chocolate syrup on a hot-fudge sundae. Consider the soundtrack to Friday. It satisfies a number of requirements – though it relies as much on new music as it does nostalgia tracks.  There are plenty of excellent soundtracks that are no more connected to the movie than a sober Phish concert is to good times. The more research I did, the more Top 100 Soundtrack lists I scoured, the more I realized that the 80’s soundtrack model really wasn’t an isolated phenomenon (the theory of a contemporary, integrated pop soundtrack goes back to the 60’s with Easy Rider and The Graduate) but it has definitely become an endangered practice. And on top of everything else, nobody did it better or as often as the 80’s. But why? Righteous grooves weren’t proprietary to the Me-Decade.

Some Thoughts

In the early 1990’s, soundtrack trends splintered as popular culture fragmented. Gen X and the too-cool for pop-hits alternative culture commandeered the notable early 90’s soundtracks. Angst ruled. See Reality Bites, Singles, The Commitments. A few proud examples of killer, integrated mixtape soundtracks survived and oddly they almost always starred Mike Myers.

Mike Myers - So I Married an Axe Murderer
She was a thief, you gotta believe, she stole my heart and my cat. Betty. Judie. Josie and those hot pussycats. They make me horny, Saturday morning, girls of cartons will leave me in ruins, I want to be Betty’s Barney.

The Bodyguard and Boomerang sold bucketloads due to hit tracks from major recording artists. Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men struck gold in soundtracks for arguably terrible movies. After this the soundtrack business degraded into mix-tapes of B-sides from popular artists (maybe one huge single makes it out alive). These songs have no impact on the movie itself. See The Coneheads, Batman Forever, throw a dart and you’ll hit ten or forty-two compilations ranging in quality from useless to still-on-my-iPod. Not that these weren’t always around… just that their omnipresence seemed to increase.

The Coneheads
Thank you for giving us RHCP’s “Soul to Squeeze” but how did that song apply to condom chewing gum again?

Quentin Tarantino ushered in a refreshing new (and by new, I mean old) soundtrack paradigm – nostalgia for vinyl stacks and killer tracks (see American Graffiti). Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs begat more nostalgia in Dazed and Confused, Grosse Point Blank, Almost Famous, etc. Wes Anderson took this model and added a single-artist instrumental thread. The Life Aquatic being perhaps his most interesting experiment. Scored by regular collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and featuring David Bowie covers by Seu Jorge (a Brazilian artist who cites samba music and Stevie Wonder as his primary inspirations) Anderson combined the single-artist instrumental score with the single-artist mixtape. A brilliant soundtrack that still fails the 80’s model because outside of the few die-hard aficionados (like myself) no one could identify one moment from that film based on the music. Though I challenge you to watch the audio/visual poetry of the final scene of Life Aquatic (backed by Sigar Ros’ “Staralfur”) and not forever fall in love that song. Alas, the song doesn’t even appear on the final soundtrack.

Judgment Night soundtrack
Forgettable movie. Essential soundtrack.

The notable exception seems to be a short period in the 90’s where rap/hip-hop oriented soundtracks contained solid, previously unreleased tracks. See Juice, Judgment Night, Friday, New Jack City. Also Romeo + Juliet proves problematic for my oversimplified history. “Lovefool” probably sirs instant-coffee memories of Danes + DeCaprio, but this is a bl-g, not a motherflippin’ thesis and I don’t really

Old Maxwell House Instant Coffee Tin
A summary of my thoughts about Romeo + Juliet.

want to remember that movie. Moving on. The end result is the degradation of the big movie moment. The modern-mixtape soundtracks are nothing more than a collection of disconnected, disjointed songs. The New Moon album boasts an impressive roll call of indie favorites but what do they contribute to the movie? No one seems to build scenes or characters around pop music any more, certainly not without the sense of irony mentioned with regard to The 40-Year Old Virgin’s rendition of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” This is equivalent to the awkward kid making a sex joke on a date because he doesn’t know how to make his first move. Misfired sincerity is much harder to laugh away.

Synesthesia Nostalgia

Synesthesia by Kandinsky
Synesthesia by Kandinsky. Time to class up the bl-g with some modern art.

What always seems to be missing is the iconic movie/song combination that instantaneously recalls a moment, a movie, a character. Synesthesia nostalgia. I started writing this rumble because I thought a quick study might lead me to profound thoughts about the nature of music and the way we watch movies. My profound thought is that people just had more fun in the 80’s. No really. That’s it. Everyone believed that they were living in the best of all possible worlds and Kenny Loggins was the Grandmaster of Ceremonies. And then, suddenly, everyone found cynicism. Not only were we not living in the best of all possible worlds, but pop culture was and always would be a false prophet peddling false hope and a subpar product.

Kenny Loggins
MC Loggins. Respect the effin beard.

Demographics fragmented. A puritanical undercurrent rose up and conquered the Carefree 80’s just as it had conquered the Roaring 20’s. The music industry also changed. As I discussed in my rumble about Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the studios tried harder to protect their property as it became increasingly more difficult to promote and protect the “superstar.” Soundtracks became infomercials for movies and music samplers to promote a label’s artists. As a result the soundtrack album has become irrelevant. We can cherry pick singles of our favorite artists at $1.29 a pop. There’s no more slogging through the instrumental “Dana’s Theme” on Ghostbusters if we can just download some Ray Parker and the Alessi Brothers’ “Savin’ the Day” on their own. If we are to claim that digital media killed the album as an art form then the idea of a contemporary pop soundtrack has been tarred and feathered. We live in the Now Generation.

Click here for the Top 10 Synesthesia Nostalgia Moments of the 80’s

Iceman Volleyball Top Gun
The Iceman Cometh. Good clean fun, anyone?

The end result is that soundtracks can still be great, but the 80’s (and the 70’s while we’re at it) Hippy-hippy-shake-take-my-breath-away-man-in-motion model of soundtracking has been shelved up there in the cabinet next to your grandma’s marmalade because we’re too damn busy being nostalgic and f$#%ing serious all the time. The fact is that no one has the balls to orchestrate a two-minute, all-male beach volleyball montage to Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys” anymore. Today we mock this scene because it’s an easy target. But weren’t most of the 80’s? The Top Gun volleyball scene doesn’t represent the worst of the decade – it represents some the best. The fun, the confidence, the unbridled enthusiasm (to borrow one of a thousand favorite Seinfeld phrases).  It’s possible we missed the overt homoeroticism at the time, but we were all so innocent then. So innocent that we watched movies just because they were good clean fun, often backed by thematically relevant killer jams. Imagine the novelty.

 

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Michael Jackson – Thriller

Michael Jackson - Thriller
Did Bill Murray paint that kitty into the picture?

Continue reading Michael Jackson – Thriller

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The Mixtape Time Capsule

The Maxell XLII. My mixtape of choice.

Before I sold my Volvo I found a plush travel case filled with mixtapes in the trunk. They were labeled Stuff #1 through #7. Sonic time capsules of plastic and ribbon. I’d poured hours of energy into selecting tracks, ordering, pressing play and record at the same time, swapping CDs in the old Kenwood 6-CD stack system that jammed every time I selected the tray CD while the changer swapped discs. The gray Maxell cassettes each held a 90-min cross-section of my high school life between 1995 and 1997. Old songs mixed with new, whatever had hooked me at the time. The ink on the cardboard had faded or streaked. Most song titles had been rendered completely unintelligible. I’d been someone else then – a pimply-faced kid that thought 21 was an impossible age, that worried he’d never get laid, that had just begun discovering bands like the Allman Brothers, Velvet Underground, the Clash and the Cure. Sometimes I envy that kid. The world of music at his fingertips. As odd as it sounds I envy the time he spent compiling all those mix tapes, pouring over track lists, planning, stacking media in the order it was to be recorded.  The mixtape is an archaic concept that our kids won’t know anything about — having grown up in the era of digital music and the playlist. There’s nothing wrong with the playlist; drag and drop, compile, re-order. It’s the perfect, efficient means to an end. For the ultra lazy iTunes even creates playlists for you. Don’t get me wrong. I support the playlist because it has improved the quality mixtapes. Without the playlist I could never compile my yearly list of my top 50 songs of the year. It just wouldn’t be manageable over four cassettes, never mind the constant reordering. On the other hand, there are teenagers all over this world that are eventually going to clear out the back of their first cars in ten years, and I can tell you what they’re not going to find: they’re not going to find a box of cassettes containing seven mixtapes, a Terminator X and the Valley of the Jeep Beets (that belonged to Bill Pesce) and a Ghostbusters soundtrack. They won’t find those time capsules left by their younger selves. Playlists will be deleted, erased, left on old computers and iPods. So what did I do when I found that travel case? I threw the entire thing in the garbage because I’m pretty sure one of those mixes contained “I Swear” by All 4 One. That’s the downside to time capsules; your younger self was probably also kind of a douchebag that you’d probably rather forget.

 

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Summer Albums for Oh-11

I’m up early on this muggy Wednesday morning waiting for my daughter to decide she’s ready for the day. Since my new rumble on turntables isn’t quite finished I’ll share some of the new music that’s piqued and old music that’s re-piqued my interest. These are the songs that’ll become my soundtrack for the next few months. Since I’m in the right kind of mood, I’ll call them Summer “Jams” for Oh-11. If you don’t get why I find that amusing, you might be someone that says the word “jam” sincerely. Maybe you still listen to Jock Jams.

Delta Spirit – Ode to Sunshine

Delta Spirit - Ode to SunshineSome might consider the sound produced by this Long Beach band grunge played by Bob Dylan if Bob Dylan liked to dabble in garbage-can percussion. Okay, that might be my very own assessment. But a quicky search of the Interwebs supports this theory. It also supported the theory that people like to compare anyone to Bob Dylan. In fact, there are so many Bob Dylan comparisons out there that the entire analogy has become watered-down apple juice. And nobody wants to drink watereddown apple juice. Yuck. However you compare it, Delta Spirit plays the soundtrack of any summer. Grilling? Delta Spirit. Drinking? Delta Spirit. Jarts? Delta Spirit. Horse Balls (read: Ladder Ball)? Delta Spirit. If Delta Spirit could just move into a backyard tent for the entire summer, I’d be cool with that. “People C’mon” stirs up every great party memory you’ve ever had and releases that euphoria directly into your brain. 2010’s follow-up History From Below broadened the band’s range and provided hope for more great things to come, but it couldn’t match Sunshine. Get both, but keep History From Below on the shelf for those winter months.

Availability on Vinyl: Limited

We/Or/Me – Sleeping City

We/Or/Me - Sleeping City

We/Or/Me is Bahhaj Taherzadeh, a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who not entirely unlike me (though much more talented) found himself, after the arrival of fatherhood, in need of a re-acquaintance with the world. From these sleep-deprived sessions Bahhaj creates soaring, orchestral (if one man with “some occasional help” can be orchestral) ballads that demand your attention, like being slapped with a two-ton feather. Purchase We/Or/Me HERE here on CD or in your choice of digital formats. If you want a sample, listen to the epic “Tell Sarah” from the 5-song EP Ghostwriter from 2008. If you’re not hooked, you might be a little dead inside. Sit down with these in the dark; Bahhaj pulls you into the sadness and beauty of a night spent with nothing more than your regrettable thoughts to keep you company. Even the riotest summer needs a slow jam.

Availability on Vinyl: N/A

My Morning Jacket – Circuital

My Morning Jacket - CircuitalShedding the impenetrable cloak of curious genre shifts worn on Evil Urges, Jim James and My Morning Jacket return to something closer to home. And by home I mean Z. And by Z I mean somewhere in the general vicinity of what we might have expected the follow to Z might have been if Evil Urges didn’t exist. Stripped down and laid back, but with a driving purpose — Jacket doesn’t pen no slacker jams. James still can’t shake the tendency to slip into lovelorn weepies or curio interludes like “Holdin on to Black Metal” but when Circuital hits, it bruises on cuts like the title track, “Movin’ Away” and the acoustic “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” My Morning Jacket is still the “it” indie band (and yes, maybe they are a little over-hyped) but even their missteps make for good listening and everyone always wants to talk about the new Jacket record. And by everyone, I mean that buddy of yours that always wants to tell you about the hot new indie records like he’s delivering a  message from the gods.

Availability on Vinyl: Hip to the Revolution

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness BluesI’ll go from one “it” band to another. Fleet Foxes are omnipresent. Or maybe that’s just because I can’t stop playing the damn album. Happiness Blues makes a strong case for closing the album of the year competition early in 2011. We won’t, but for the sake of hyperbole, let’s leave that on the table. Helplessness is accessible when it should be pretentious, danceable when it should be morose. Fleet Foxes doesn’t radiate awesomeness or coolness and they won’t earn you any street cred when you walk down Penn Ave. with your boombox blasting some folk rock 60’s-era groove like “Sim Sala Bim.” And don’t be surprised if your parents request a copy of the CD. Pitchfork probably said it best when Larry Fitzmaurice in their review of the album said “it’s familiar in the most pleasing way, lacking conceit or affectation.” The best music isn’t purely innovative. Perhaps the best music is derivative in the most innovative and earnest ways.

Availability on Vinyl: Readily

Paramore – All We Know is Falling

Paramore - All We Know is FallingSince releasing this album Paramore has gone on to achieve a small measure of success. You know… a feature in Rolling Stone, a Grammy nomination, a tour opening for No Doubt, a platinum record and a headlining single for the soundtrack for the Twlight movie. Locally the Pittsburgh Penguins skated out to “crushcrushcrush” for a good measure of their 2009 championship season, earning Paramore a permanent locker in my Jock Jams Hall of Fame right next to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” I should feel anywhere between benign dislike and outright distaste for this band. In reality, after checking that damning “most played” list on iTunes, I found that I spin Hayley Williams and Co. as much as bands I openly claim to love, even among mixed company. Damn you, digital footprint. The most recent album may be a bland(ish) pre-manufactured corporate hit machine (two band members left late in 2010 claiming similar sentiments), but this debut album hits all the right inconsistencies to maintain the “punk” in their “poppy punk” genre label, trolling happily in the shadow of Jimmy Eat World. That a red vinyl edition of this record was just released (but now, apparently, sold out on their website) doesn’t hurt its status. I can spin that closet pleasure on the safety of my turntable, a contraption that doesn’t feel the need to remind me how many times I’ve played “Misery Business.”

Availability on (Red!) Vinyl: Get ’em now before they’re gone

Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters

Herbie Hancock - Head HuntersAs the hazy, humid evening gives way to debaucherous night so too must the playlist adjust accordingly. Herbie Hancock can no more be played at noon than Ode to Sunshine be played after midnight. When the long day of fraternizing forces its worshippers to the living rooms or lax patios and the tiki torches burn overtime to keep mosquitoes at bay… thus rings in the Herbie Hancock hour. His biggest mainstream hit, “Rockit,” has been put in a precarious situation: a monument of experimental sound sacrificed to the 80’s and the rigors of mass consumption. I throw around the phrase “it’ll change your life” with a kind of flippant hedonism, but Herbie Hancock quite literally changed people’s lives. Hancock worshiped modern technology — the synthesizer — at the sacred alter of hard bop. So we will acknowledge “Rockit,” but we will consider it anything but jazz. Instead we will spin Hancock’s fusion masterpiece Head Hunters, an album that is still fresh and funky and changing lives. It is everything and jazz. I rediscovered this album for the first time after a Six-Degrees of jazz binge: Art Blakey to Freddie Hubbard to Herbie Hancock to Herbie Hancock (or specifically Ugetsu to Hub-Tones to Maiden Voyage to Head Hunters). Critics of Hancock’s later synth-fury still malign anything that came after Blue Note, but don’t let that stop you from sampling the future sounds of 1971.

Availability on Vinyl: Available and Enhanced!

Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ Up the Pieces

Fitz and the Tantrums - Pickin' Up the PiecesMy final summer jam comes from another band shamelessly playing music your parents would love. Like Fleet Foxes, they do it without the wink-wink nudge-nudge of most retro bands. With “Breakin’ the Chains of Love” the album kicks off with a mid-tempo Stax or Motown B-Side straight out of Smokey’s vault and carries that momentum right through the infectious “Moneygrabber,” a song you’ll be singing for days after only one listen. Unfortunately (fortunately?) for all of us, “Moneygrabber” has begun appearing in everything from This Week in Baseball to Criminal Minds, hell bent on earworm global domination. Is it Indie Pop music without guitars? Is it Neo Soul? Does it matter? Spin this record in June before your friends tell you they “discovered” Fitz and his Tantrums on Grey’s Anatomy.

Availability on Vinyl: A Wax Necessity

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Embrace the Chaos

Kids today wouldn’t understand why we’d willingly listen to music laced with imperfections. The pops, the crackles, the static hiss when needle meets vinyl. Digital music is brushed free of all imperfection. Nothing but perfectly reproduced digital audio downloaded right to your iTunes library. The digital music revolution has done great things for remastering and other technical wizardry of which I’m probably grateful, but not particularly aware. But therein lies the greatest flaw in all those perfectly aligned zeros and ones:  benign and unholy imperfection. Consider your favorite writers, authors that reach a balance between logical progression and unpredictable improvisation. The greatest novels, like the greatest jazz compositions follow logical and regular musical patterns that frame illogical solo improvisation. Consider the music of Coleman Hawkins or the inimitable Thelonious Monk. Consider Colson Whitehead. His novel Sag Harbor was, at its heart, a standard coming-of-age story, but the details of his

Good Morning Vietnam
Just play it loud!! Okay?
protagonist’s experience leapt off the page in vibrant three-dimensional color and shape because life, like the protagonist’s experience, doesn’t rise steadily until reaching an ultimate and resolving denouement. Life is chaos, a series of regular routines flanking wild seat-of-your-pants improvisation. Digital music, while it satisfies our innate (but very contemporary) desire to be better, faster, newer — it contradicts the imperfection that makes us human. Vinyl records, in all their humility, awkwardness and frailty echo our own wanting souls. They are our siblings from another mother (or in this analogy another Thomas Edison). The response to a phonograph is visceral, primal perhaps, whereas we recognize with a certain about of sonic intellectualism why digital media sounds “better.” It sounds better because it sounds cleaner. It sounds better because it is more convenient and travels in the brains of thumbnail-sized iPods and doesn’t consume rooms with milk crates. It sounds better because it can be played in Dolby Digital 7.2 surround systems at excessively loud volumes without much distortion. But when you get right down to comparing the sound of vinyl against the sound of a compact disc (forget compressed audio) which sounds more real? That more accurately recalls a time and a place at a subconscious level? Which medium reproduces the sound that echoes life, that sometimes gets interrupted by a hairline imperfection, that skips and repeats and needs regular maintenance and attention? Without that maintenance and attention we slip into sporadic bouts of anxiety, depression and first world
Sonic Boom
Sonic Boom?
malaise. I do not mean to denigrate digital media entirely; I only aim to point out that progress isn’t always a full step forward. More often than not progress proves to be a lateral sashay. There’s a place in our collections for both because we carry out our first world modern lives in two worlds. In the so-called real world we are increasingly forced to be more timely, more exact, more beautiful than is our nature. We also need our media scrubbed clean and portable. People need alarm clocks loud enough to emit sonic boom (yes, this really exists because Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me told me so) just to get out of bed in the morning because our tendencies are toward sleeping in, being late, missing that 8:00am conference call. Our tendencies are toward imperfection. We float through this world projecting, feigning perfection; it is only at home, with our turntables and sweatpants that we can be honest with ourselves and embrace the chaos.

 

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A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick