30Hz Top 100 Songs of 2015: Part 2

50. “The Hardest Way” – Bop English

White Denim frontman, James Petralli, goes solo, and quite frankly, should remain solo. “The Hardest Way” is better than anything produced by White Denim. Soulful and layered. The last 30 seconds of decadent, tinkly piano rock your world. I wish I’d had more time with this record before judgment day.

49. “Breaker” – Deerhunter

I couldn’t decide whether this song was Top 20 or off the charts entirely. And then it was a different Deerhunter song. And then I told myself to stop being insane. I replaced “Breaker,” slapped it right in the middle and called it a draw. Serenity now. Bradford Cox’s vocals on “Breaker” are as fluid and succulent as they’ve ever been. Yes. “Succulent” is definitely the word I wanted there.

48. “Rien à faire” – Marie-Pierre Arthur

In keeping with the Francophilian nature of this 2015 countdown, 30Hz went full Québécois with this pick. This Canadian pop singer reminds heartily of Feist. Her music blends pop-vocals, retro-orchestration with sweet, saccharine hooks. In French!

47. “Sister of Pearl” – Baio

Vampire Weekend’s bassist released a curious, schizophrenic record full of genre indecision in 2015. “Sister of Pearl” feels like Vampire, and the dilly-dilly-dilly-dee-doo guitar on this track contracted at least a couple of minor but readily curable diseases because it was so damn catchy.

46. “Button Up” – Sheer Mag

Binford Tools presented this punky, garage rock band. (Because Binford Tools presented the fictional TV show “Tool Time” with Tim “the Toolman” Taylor, and Tim “the Toolman” Taylor always wanted more power. Which is probably what Sheer Mag said whenever they powered up their amps. In their garage, which was probably full of tools. And hopefully a poster of Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

45. “Bad Blood” – Ryan Adams (Taylor Swift cover)

Ryan Adams’ cover album of Taylor Swifts 1989 shook my world for a couple of reasons.

1. I was forced to consider whether I actually liked Taylor Swift.

2. Adams poured himself into crafting Ryan Adams songs out of another artist’s songwriting — an artist who most likely doesn’t gel with the tastes of most Ryan Adams fans.

I chose to champion “Bad Blood” because I disliked Tay-Tay’s chart-topper and found this down-tempo transformation to be pure magic, like Santa Clause magic for indie-music geeks.

44. “Bros” – Wolf Alice

You might not know the band or the name of the song, but surely, most probably, you’ve logged Ellie Roswell’s sublime indie-pop vocals as a highlight of 2015.

43. “I’m Stupid (But I Love You)” – Okay Kaya

Expect massive things from this largely unknown UK singer-songwriter, and by massive I mean someone somewhere will likely recognize her at a coffee shop. Not that she’s not supremely talented (because she’s a huge talent), just that the ceiling for UK singer-songwriter omnipresence is rather low. I stumbled across her Soundcloud page earlier this year. Her flinty, falsetto-lite vocals unearth emotions. Stuff you wanted dead and buried. But there they are, back in your life, because feelings, man.

42a. “Gibraltar” – Beirut

42b. “No No No” – Beirut

The Siamese twins of the countdown. The first two tracks on Beirut’s No No No, Zach Condon’s first record since 2011’s The Rip Tide, feel as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly or Statler and Waldorf. I could not pick one without the other. Even if the album could be considered a lesser overall production, Condon’s sound is an warm blanket, an afghan woven of strings, horns and velvety vocals.

41. “Between Me and You” – Brandon Flowers

As the frontman for the Killers, Flowers has specialized in anthemic fist-pumping ditties with sing-along choruses. As a solo artist, he’s more milk chocolate-gooey with a chewy caramel center. Flowers’ debut, Flamingos, churned out a collection of tracks of variable utility, watered-down, desperately wanting to be loved. His latest, The Desired Effect, succeeds in trying less hard. It succeeds because he strips away the pretense. This is a record that plays 80’s influences like they’re merely buttons on a soundboard. The Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat and Springsteen on speed dial. His lyrics are often comically banal, but the songs are catchy. Put simply, Flowers is a pop star. This is pop music. Don’t take it too seriously.

40. “Essence” – Jade TV

I don’t know a goddamn thing about this band. I Shazamed them during blog radio on Sirius XMU one afternoon. Now’s as good of a time as any to figure out what makes this jangle-pop band that out jangled DIIV tick.

*Google search for Jade TV*

Jade TV is James Allen. He’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan. His Bandcamp page says he “has a flair for navel-gazing jangle-pop.” His Facebook page says Shoegazer Alive 9 proclaimed Parallel Moments to be a Top 20 Dreampop Album of 2015 (#9!).

Thank you for joining me for Google Searching with 30Hz.

39. “Age of Transparency” – Autre Ne Veut

Four members of a jazz ensemble stumble out of a long day of rehearsals. They’re all like “Let’s go get two-for-one margaritas.” Well, it just so happens that the bartender at Tito Loco’s has a pleasant, welcoming voice that beckon drunks into the abyss. After four rounds of ‘ritas, the musicans took their instruments outside and began busking. At 2am, the bartender came out and joined them. To this day, the cello player claims her beatboxing (they were sadly without a drummer for a few key original compositions) to be “the fruit of the gods.” Some of this is true. Some of it is only true in their memories.

38. “Beneath the Brine” – The Family Crest

This is called “orchestral indie-rock.” I’d not heard of that micro-genre until now. I’ll add that to my list of nonsense music terms. But in a way, the nomenclature makes sense. Their wiki page claims that the band is made up of 7 core members with hundreds of additional performers for performances and recordings. You know, like an orchestra. The brainchild of frontman Liam McCormick, The Family Crest came together as a result of public flyers, Craigslist posts and friends of friends of friends. The Family Crest scoffs at you Broken Social Scene. They scoff.

37. “Mystery” – Boxed In

Boxed In aims to fill the void of piano-laden indie-pop left by the disappearance of the band Keane. If you don’t remember the band Keane, you might not have a piano-laden indie-pop void that needs to be filled. The band balances the piano nicely with driving backbeats and catchy hooks. They’re not breaking new ground, but oftentimes the ground doesn’t need to be razed — it just needs some new landscaping. Like a nice shrubbery.

36. “Ship to Wreck” – Florence + the Machine

So you know Florence + the Machine. Not much new to say here. So here’s a story I read on The Guardian about Florence Welch. She once drank so many martinis with Kanye West and Lykke Li that she passed out in the Bowery Hotel in New York City and yada yada yada she woke up with a chipped tooth and the hotel room on fire. Rock is not dead, it’s just got flaming red hair and responds to the name Flo.

35. “Greyhound” – Kississippi

It was only a matter of time before a band took Mississippi and swapped in the ‘K.’ I suppose we can also look forward to the hip-hop variation/Pharcyde collaboration “YourMamassissippi” in the (hopefully) near future. All certain prophecies and unfortunate band nomenclature aside, the band Kississippi released a 6-song EP in November that deserves your ears. Buy it here. This is the sound of your primal, subtextual sadness. This is your id’s schadenfreude-filled collect call regarding the damaged state of your ego.

34. “To Die in L.A.” – Lower Dens

The song that would have been a Michael Mann or a William Friedkin movie from the 1980’s if it’d had more neon and rolled jacket sleeves and maybe starred William L. Petersen. Maybe less William Friedkin because he’s made some stinkers. You can’t go wrong with Michael Mann… and you can’t go wrong with the Lower Dens.

33. “Space Song” – Beach House

In 2015, Beach House dropped 17 records, comprised 47% of all XMU airtime and rescued 22 puppies from shelters. Their best moment, however, was this dreamy ditty with recursive bleeps and bloops and swaths of melancholy synth.

32. “Empty Threat” – CHVRCHES

The best CHRVHES song you don’t know. (I’ll give you a hint: it’s track #7 and happens just after the one where the dude sings.) This is the CHVRCHES song that incites fist pumps and impromptu sing-a-longs. The deconstruction followed by a rise to denouement at the 2:45 mark is like “the move” in Seinfeld. Other CHVRCHES songs attempt “the move” and “the move” is still good, but it eventually gets back to “Empty Threat” that they stole “the move” and it’s all quite a fracas. You could lose a good car mechanic over “the move.”

31. “Should Have Known Better” – Sufjan Stevens

Signing about nostalgia, missed opportunity and general sad things through a hangover whisper backed by a bit of acoustic guitar plucking, but not too loud because the other patrons at the Waffle House don’t want to hear all Sufjan’s problems, because they’re, like, eating waffles. It’s just so Sufjan to disrupt the Waffle House stasis.

30. “Loud Places” – Jamie xx (feat. Romy)

People had multiple orgasms over this Jamie xx record. I faked a couple just to be polite. The exception: this track featuring Jamie xx’s The xx bandmate Romy Madley-Croft. If you need a clarification about all the x’s, Jamie xx is the solo/stage name for producer/DJ Jamie Smith. Jamie xx works with Romy in the band The xx. They make really good music together.

29. “Don’t Wanna Fight” – Alabama Shakes

From xx synthetics to authentic roots/blues rock. It’s Curtis Mayfield-inspired funk/gospel with vocals by a female James Brown (the bombastic vocalist Brittney Howard). The star of “Don’t Wanna Fight” is the furious bassline. If you can curate a life where that bassline is the soundtrack to everything you do, you’re doing it right.

28. “Älgen” – Amason

The Swedish supergroup released their debut LP Sky City back in January. This is intersection of Fleetwood Mac and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. For discriminating listeners who like their music familiar, finely crafted and sometimes in Swedish.

27. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” – Father John Misty

Father John Misty might be the Denis Leary of contemporary indie-folk. He clubs you upside the head with heavy-handed storytelling and a sock full of modern malaise and then tells you to fuck off, but you still like him because he seems like such a swell guy… other than the assault and the swearing.

26. “Water Under the Bridge” – Adele

A song you don’t know from a little-known UK crooner you probably don’t know. I mean, she’s not even on Spotify.

25. “Stonefist” – HEALTH

The opening of “Stonefist” is what you hear when you stick your finger in a light socket. Fun fact: This killer electro-thumper was the first track slotted into my “Finals” list.

24. “Air” – Waxahatchee

I feel like making some arbitrary, completely subjective assumptions that I can’t possibly assume without sounding like a bit of a gobshite. (Speaking of gobshite I once had the lead singer for Frightened Rabbit explain to me the differences between gob, shite, and gobshite. That was a brilliant conversation.) Anyway, now for the arbitrary and completely subjective assumption. Waxahatchee is one of the Top 7 mid-minor indie bands of which you’ve never heard. If you’ve heard of Waxahatchee, I’m certain you’ll agree. (Did you follow that? Did you see what I did there? Since this is a one-sided conversation I can’t tell if you’re keeping up.)

23. ” Lousy Connection” – Ezra Furman

Ezra Furman looks like a 14-year old that one day stumbled out of bed and decided to make a sweet-ass record based on the notion that retro is effin cool, man. The truth is that Ezra Furman is 29. He’s claims to be “gender fluid.” Without going into the logistical particulars about that detail, let’s just assume that it means he’s got a great ear for appropriating classic 1950’s/60’s hooks into modern soundscapes.

22. “Sea Saw” – Swami John Reis and the Blind Shake

Surf guitar experienced a micro-renaissance in 2015. Swami John Reis and the Blind Shake have conjured a shredding collection of surf guitar riffs that make certain people say “This sounds like that song from Pulp Fiction.” Not people I know, surely. The people I know are probably trying to make surf guitar sounds with their mouth. I hereby proclaim this phenomenon to be the new beatboxing.

21. “Margarita” – Mas Ysa

Pronounced MAAS ee-sa. This is the stage name for Thomas Arsenault, a Canadian musician, composer and visual artist. “Margarita” is Thomas mourning the death of his mother. He’s asking questions about the meaning of it all. He searching for the spiritual reasons behind her early passing. But ultimately this melancholy dirge uncovers hope and uncertain serenity. Beautiful, tragic, soaring and simply great pop music.

20. “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” – Natalie Prass

Prass’ perfectly fragile, retro-styled vocals are only undermined by the confidence with which she blends 60’s era pop music with folk and country. The former Jenny Lewis bandmember struck out on her own in 2015 and released her self-titled debut record with this being the Killer Jam to remember.

19. “Let It Happen” – Tame Impala

I bumbed “Let It Happen” up a couple of notches on the countdown for two reasons. First, the record, overall, was frickin’ fantastic and you could easily justify the place of 5 or 6 different tracks on a Top 100 2015 Countdown. Second, I slept on the last Tame Impala record. I became obsessed with 2012’s Lonerism sometime in 2013 and the track “Elephant” probably would have been a Top 10 Killer Jam. So it goes. Cheers, Tame Impala. Also, my bad.

18. “Feel You” – Julia Holter

Julia Holter’s ode to random, arbitrary, public butt groping. It’s not, of course, but when I lived in Cambridge, MA there were frequent reports about a man who went around grabbing women’s butts. Harvard so concerned itself with reports of “the Groper” that you’d have thought they had a Defcon alert system dedicated just to his serial groping. I mean it’s not funny, the groping of innocent college girls, but the reports themselves tried so hard to avoid certain words, the thesaurical dance around the topic became hilarious. Maybe you had to be in the thick of it, on the hard-ass streets of Cambridge, Mass, to understand the humor. But anyway…. back to the countdown.

17. “King Kunta” – Kendrick Lamar

THIS. This is the song for which I’ve been waiting from Kendrick Lamar. I just wish the rest of the record lived up to this brilliant bit of rap bravado and lyrical swagger.

16. “S.O.B.” – Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

I’m wondering how long I have before my daughters start actually listening closely to the lyrics of songs like, say, “S.O.B.” N.R. & the N. S. released a perfectly listenable, roots rock record that goes down easy, like a perfectly balanced Mint Julep.

15. “Fade Away” – Susanne Sundfør

The sleeper synth-pop vocalist of 2015. In her home of Norway, Sundfør is a massive superstar, a big f’ing deal. It’s easy to see why. Sweeping electronic orchestrations, organs, Abba-esque pop hooks and vocal precision. It’s disco. It’s chilly electro-pop. It’s artful sonic craftsmanship with a timeless bassline.

14. “Open Your Eyes” – School of Seven Bells

After the 2013 passing of founding member Benjamin Curtis (due to the rare T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma), I thought we’d heard the last of School of Seven Bells. The band formed as a trio with Curtis and twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. Along the way Claudia left the group, and in 2014 School of Seven Bells was just Alejandra Deheza. It turns out there’s still more left to be told. Before Curtis’s death, the band had nearly completed a full length LP. That record, to be released in February 2016 is called SVIIB. If you’ve followed the band through their career, there’s no way “Open Your Eyes” won’t choke you up a bit. Zero percent chance.

13. “Witness” – Makthaverskan

I don’t know one other song by this band. I’m not even sure Makthaverskan really exists. And what kind of name is Makthaverskan anyway? Can they ever spell that the same way twice? Am I even spelling it correctly? Did they even make a whole record? Why didn’t I listen to anything else they recorded? Did I make this song up? Why do I have it in my “Hits List”? Someone had to have recorded it. It’s not like it’s the Gorillaz with cartoons and stuff. OMG. Did I do it? Did I record this track while on a bender? Why didn’t anyone tell me was talented in the art of shoegaze? I’m really f’ing good, you guys!

12. “begin again” – Purity Ring

I asked @bsidesnarrative to contribute a guest blurb because I’m all blurbed out:

“Chill Canadian electro-pop. One half CHVRCHES. One half Heart. One half W.B. Yeats.”

11. “Annie” – Neon Indian

In a review I wrote for this Neon Indian record for Spill Magazine, I questioned whether “Annie” was the best song on the record or just the introductory hit of cocaine to get you coming back for the deeper cuts. To answer my own question, I kept coming back for the deeper cuts but “Annie” is still the best song on the record.

10. “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” – Unknown Mortal Orchestra

I did a 180 on this band (well, it’s really just one guy, but whatever) in 2015. I completely dismissed their first records, but fell madly, deeply, truly in love with Multi-Love. This song is a sly daytime disco groove that guarantees a chair dance out of me. When people praise Jeebus for that Tame Impala record (also great), I ask if they’ve also given Unknown Mortal Orchestra due consideration. (Have you?)

9. “Still” – The Japanese Hours

This is the sound of perfection. It’s slotted at #9 because it’s so goddamn perfect I hate it just a little bit.

8. “Depreston” – Courtney Barnett

It should be noted that I am not, per say, a huge fan of Courtney Barnett. I find her influences too immediately present. “Depreston” is the first track from Barnett that truly feels like her own. Like she’s finally stepped out from behind Dylan and Liz Phair and Pavement and Lou Reed to share a sweetly melancholy musical journey through her own modern malaise.

7. “Infamous” – Basia Bulat

I might be Basia Bulat’s biggest fan. To me she’s like Canadian Taylor Swift. I’d be all gushy fanboy if I met her, stumbling over sequences of words that only make sense after three martinis and a plate of nachos. Basia Bulat released one song in 2015. Here it is!

6. “4th and Roebling” – The Districts

This little band from a tiny town between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA creates honest rock & roll hooks. They occupy a slightly more sober bar-band territory in the vein of the Libertines or maybe  Phantom Planet. The sonic range of the Districts might be minimal, but “4th and Roebling” scratches a very particular itch. Even the smallest of itches deserves a scratch.

5. “Run Away With Me” – Carly Rae Jepsen

In early 2016, Carly Rae Jepsen’s playing a rather small venue here in Pittsburgh in 2016 that’s normally reserved for small- to mid-level acts. I’ve taken a poll and it seems that there’s no way I can go to this show (most likely by myself) and not be “the creepy old guy.” Cue sad 30Hz.

4. “Pray For Rain” – Pure Bathing Culture

The label “dream pop” feels marginalizing, like somehow “dream pop” can’t be profound enough to be both poppy and thematically dour. I read a review for Pure Bathing Culture’s sophomore album Pray For Rain that likens the band to the happy/sad drama masks. I quite like this notion. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it myself.

3. “Flesh Without Blood” – Grimes

I have nothing new to say about Grimes that hasn’t been said by the dozens, hundreds, beeeelllions of other music writers/bloggers/bl-ggers detailing how Claire Elise Boucher’s latest array of songs rocked their respective worlds. I’ll just say what is true about most great music. Grimes brings me back to the moment, the individual seconds of a song. I’m pulled into the layering of electronic soundscapes and beats. Her perfectly imperfect vocals of limited range but infinite utility. The way she uses repetition and subtle variances on that repetition as the song progresses. She’s just bloody brilliant.

2. “Downtown” – Magical Cloudz

This is the sound of our collective disillusionment. Our struggles to be better than ourselves. Our worries that our best is never enough.

And if suddenly I die / I hope they will say / That he was obsessed and it was okay

1. “Leave a Trace” – CHVRCHES

Surprise! I bet you didn’t think I’d put a CHVRCHES song at #1! I hope nobody Spoiled it for you on Twitter. Like maybe me when I sent out my daily CHVRCHES tweet. I wanted to be more creative here. I want to pull some revelatory track out from my hat of obscure ditties to shock and amaze you, reader. But I’d be a fargin’ liar if I said I listened to any song more than “Leave a Trace” or any record more than CHVRCHES Every Open Eye.

The Christmas Blues (aka The Creeping Holiday Terror)

The Christmas Blues (aka The Creeping Holiday Terror)

With Krampus haunting theaters this holiday season, I’m today concerned with how quickly “ho ho ho” becomes “ho ho horror.” There’s Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night and Rare Exports and Christmas Evil. The list goes on and on. If you want a good one you’ve probably never heard of, try the Dutch Sint (2010). St. Nicholas is a murderous bishop that kidnaps and murders children whenever there’s a full moon on December 5th. As far as rampaging St. Nicholas movies from the Netherlands go, I’ve got to believe it’s the pinnacle of the genre.

I’m not really here to talk about Christmas-themed horror movies because quite honestly most of them are pretty shit. That was just a sidetrack to start a bl-g post. (Can you have a sidetrack before you even have a track? Discuss.) I thought I’d try something new to spice things up before jumping into the post proper.

There’s always Gizmo in a Santa hat. Because that’s all kinds of warm and fuzzy.

gizmo santa hat

The relevant ho ho horror is the “Christmas blues.” I’ll call them the “Christmas blues” because Dean Martin sang one of my favorite Christmas songs about them, but for many people it’s far more serious than a case of the “blues.” Myself included. “Christmas blues” is the palatable version. Soul sucking self-loathing laced with fear, helplessness and anxiety doesn’t go over well with egg nog at office holiday parties. Maybe “Creeping Holiday Terror” is a more acceptable middle ground.

In case you haven’t been a loyal reader since I started this bl-g four years ago (and I have the site analytics so I know such a reader doesn’t exist), I’ll get you up to speed rather quickly. I came down with a touch of that clinical depression that’s going around in December of 2010 (linkified in case you’re unfamiliar with the traditional symptoms). I just wasn’t equipped with the tools to recognize or combat these feelings so I allowed it all to snowball. It was like experiencing all past disappointment and future fears at once. Even if you’ve experienced this brand of sadness it’s very hard to explain. I felt my most violent unease in fact when I tried to detail my feelings to my wife. I had no words, only metaphors about black pits and face grabbers. I assumed that what I was feeling would just pass. It didn’t.

alien face grabber CPR

I’d lost interest in the things I’d loved. I couldn’t watch my favorite movies or my favorite music. It had all become steeped with ghosts, with haunting nostalgia that reminded me of times and places and people now gone. Most vividly I remember not being able to write. I was in the middle of a novel at the time. I’d written more than 80,000 words. I just stopped. In fact I’ve never actually gone back to that work. That manuscript remains too closely associated… plus, it really wasn’t very good. (Or is that just the doubt and self-loathing?)

There were clues beforehand. I felt intermittent and unexpected anxiety. For example, I had to leave Inception a few minutes before the end because I experienced my first panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. My chest hurt. I waited outside the theater until it subsided. I thought I was having a heart attack. When my wife and father-in-law came out of the theater, I lied. I said I’d just gone to the bathroom and since it was almost over I watched from the hallway into the theater. I became dependent on video games to refocus my attention away from this shapeless dread and fear I couldn’t understand. Reading, watching movies, focusing on music all left too much time for my mind to wander into dark corners. But there’s a danger that goes along with constant anesthesia. Feelings like these don’t generally disappear, and I wasn’t addressing the root of the problem, merely avoiding the symptoms.

I found myself on the verge of tears throughout Christmas. Only focusing on my daughter’s immediate joy helped dam the waterworks. I could lose myself in her unbridled enthusiasm. Watching her comprehend Christmas for the first time. Not yet 2, she discovered how much fun it was just to rip wrapping paper. The gifts inside merely a bonus. These little moments saw me through. Until they didn’t.

Two days after Christmas I came home from seeing Black Swan. (It’s funny how I can put a timestamp on these moments because of my connection to film.) My wife had seen it the night before — the  home-and-home for young movie-watching parents. (One goes to see a movie one night, the other goes to see the movie the next.) We discussed the movie and drank wine at the kitchen table. After some time, I couldn’t hold it back anymore. Tears started flowing. I stopped talking about the movie. My wife said nothing. “I need help,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But I need help.” Later she told me those words took her breath away. She knew something had been wrong, but only then had she truly understood.

I started going to see a therapist and yada yada yada 18 months later, my therapist released me again into the wild. I’m not here to detail my path back to relative mental health. I’ve talked about it intermittently in 30Hz bl-g therapy posts. I merely want people to recognize that sometimes we’re just not okay. That sometimes we all just need a little help. The holidays in particular are a time of nostalgia and regret as another year winds down. I can’t speak for everyone, but I take stock of the past year and find my efforts wanting, my failures and disappointments numerous. Another year wasted on idle tasks, another year I didn’t do A, B or C. How could 365 days have passed already? How could I be 37? My once wee daughters growing up and becoming young girls and soon they’ll be gone… or worse… teenagers. But those are the easy “blues” — the “blues” we can measure and put into context. There’s so much more that wells up during the holidays that we just can’t really explain.

Help comes in all different forms. It’s not just professional help. Help is family. Help is acknowledge and addressing these feelings before they become all consuming. Help is being present in the moment and being grateful for everything that’s around us and not focusing on the ghosts of Christmas past and future. Charles Dickens was a pretty darn smart guy. I never realized it until I felt the arrival of my own haunting Christmas spirits.

scrooged spirits

In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wasn’t just talking about the crotchety old skinflint named Ebenezer Scrooge; he was talking about all of us. We may not all be penny-pinching bastards, but we suffer Scrooge’s fear, anxiety and latent desire to be better versions of ourselves. Scrooge self-anesthetized by collecting and hoarding money. We all have our individual ways.

The last line from A Christmas Carol:

“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

That one line should speak to all of us, those that have experienced depression firsthand, those that have known depressed friends and family. “…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well…” As the holiday season takes off in earnest, I hope you enjoy family and friends and that if you’re someone who feels the ho ho horrors of Christmas, that you pay attention to what your mind and body tells you. Don’t spend too time lamenting past or fearing the future. Remind yourself to look to the present and to the emotions we’re actually experiencing in real time. Enjoy the people that are your here and now. Most importantly, keep those other spirits locked safely in the shackled armoire of your long-deceased business partner… or nearest approximate containment unit. Keep Christmas well.

But whatever you do, don’t ask about the Christmas Twinkie.

ghostbusters storage facility

In parting, have a wonderful holiday. Don’t be afraid to sample some fruit cake (some are really quite good). Have some hot chocolate (with lots of marshmallows). Be a kid again. Unwrap a present and absolutely shred the wrapping paper. Take a midnight walk to look at the neighborhood Christmas lights. Put on a favorite Christmas record (maybe the Star Wars Christmas record?) and sit by the tree. Do nothing else but watch the lights. Make a gingerbread house and eat the gumdrops because why the fuck not? Roast chestnuts over an open fire/gas flame/backyard bonfire pit. Indulge your holiday traditions, but don’t forget to make new memories right now. It’s the new memories that keep us away from the Creeping Terrors of Christmas.

Echo and the Bunnymen @ Mr. Smalls 9/17


Some nights turn out shit. It’s an inescapable law of the world. “The best laid plans of mice and men” resonates for a reason. Still, I had a feeling about last night before it even began. I hadn’t been to a show in ages, yet I was looking for reasons to stay home. Not that I had anything particular to do. Maybe laundry. Killing flies for my wife… as this is apparently how she spent her evening of solitude… with a rolled magazine and white hot rage.

The great Mr. Smalls Funhouse venue is located in an old church in the Pittsburgh hamlet of Millvale. Millvale is a sleepy little enclave, going completely dark by 8pm… except when there’s a show at Mr. Smalls… and/or when the entire planet seems to converge on the town under the name of festivities called “Millvalle Days.” Millvale Days are a three-day festival where people prone to being drunk wander the streets, eat kettle corn and listen to Skynard cover bands. Someone ultimately stumbles on the uneven pavement and requires medical attention. It’s a scene, man. And every year I seem to attend a concert at Mr. Smalls during Millvale Days.

Combine Millvale Days with a sold out concert and you’ve shaken the powder keg. The main street is blocked off, thereby rendering half of the town’s parking inaccessible. Far away side streets, shady back alleys next to dumpsters and cars on blocks and illegal parking become the primary alternatives. After circling the illogical streets of Millvale for more than twenty minutes I settled on a 1/3rd legal parking spot, a spot that was far more legal than at least a dozen other parking jobs I’d already passed. I calculated the odds of a police person having enough time to rip tickets for the more egregious offenders before hitting the secondary offenders before the end of the show. I felt good about my chances.

So. Echo and the Bunnymen. I arrived just in time to grab a DogfishHead 60 Minute IPA and sidle up in a spot toward the rear center of the venue. Don’t get trapped under the new balcony, by the way, Mr. Smalls attendees. Echo opened with “Crocodiles” — the title track from their debut record. This introduced a block of songs that an average listener probably didn’t recognize. The earliest and the latest tracks — speaking of which, apparently Echo released a record last year. Who knew? And if you knew, why didn’t you tell me? Anyway. These were the tracks for the fans, tracks made us all anticipate the anthemic moments that were still yet to come. As much as I enjoy these early Echo tracks, they’re not the huge crowdpleasers. They’re not the tracks that incite spontaneous sing-a-longs and fuck yeah fist pumps. They’re welcome headnodders.

Ian McCulloch’s voice rang true as he hovered stoically at the center of the stage. A little more gravelly and aged, a weathered gate worthy of his 56 years. After shaking the rust, he sounded shockingly similar to the recorded tracks that by now feel etched into the stone tablets of our minds. But it wasn’t McCulloch that ultimately brought the crowd fully into the fold. Will Sergeant’s instantly recognizable guitar riffs catapulted the sold-out throng to life during the first moments of “Rescue” and then later when Echo launched into that string of mega hits, beginning first with “Seven Seas.”

McCulloch rarely opened up the proceedings for levity. He remained the angsty twenty-something raging against the dawn, a rare treat for fans of classic bands that have long since put aside the angst for a more age-appropriate level of placidity. He stood at the front of the stage, always in sunglasses and often cloaked by the shadows of the rear-lighting. He’d sing a block of songs before pausing to introduce another, his Liverpudlian accent and microphone reverb rendering all such words unintelligible.

For what reason has Echo and the Bunnymen fallen into relative anonymity? This is the question that began rattling around in my brain. They’re often compared to a band like The Psychedelic Furs. Post-rock. Jangly guitars. Brooding frontmen. Is it because the Furs contributed a song to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack? Their legacy endures because of the synesthesia nostalgia associated with Molly Ringwold and Ducky? If you type  “Pretty in Pink” into Google, it will suggest an autofill of “Pretty in Pink song” above the autofill for just the name of the movie. In my mind, Echo looms large over the 1980’s. Am I wrong? Have I been misled? If Duran Duran and The Cure are like the A-list of sometimes brooding, influential post-punk bands of the era, Echo feels like an A-/B+. Though I came around to Echo shortly after their peak, I vividly recall a time as recent as the late 90’s where everyone who knew music knew Echo and the Bunnymen.

When Echo announced this show at Mr. Smalls, I hopped online, day one, and bought a ticket. I figured this would be a hot ticket, a much ado about something in Millvale on September 17th. After all, when the hell had Echo last played Pittsburgh? Not during the 13 on-and-off years I’ve lived here.

A college kid that did some housepainting for me over a couple of days this summer really knew indie music. We engaged in many conversations. He asked about any upcoming shows I had on my docket. I mentioned Delta Spirit. I then added, with much enthusiasm, that I’d snagged a ticket to see Echo and the Bunnymen! Cool, right? Echo and the f’ing Bunnymen!

He stared at me blankly. The same guy who’d browsed my record collection, calling other 80’s-born records with admiration. Though we listened to the exact same music, followed the same modern bands, he had no idea about the Bunnymen. I never blame anyone for not knowing a band. Unlike some maniacal music fans, I do not take offense when someone’s frame of reference does not overlap my own. I was just confused. I knew… well, I thought I knew that Echo and the Bunnymen still resonated. You can’t turn on more than 20 minutes of college radio without hearing the influence of Echo and the Bunnymen laced throughout that amorphous genre known as “indie-rock.”

It’s time to start a public service movement. Introduce someone you love, someone you want to grow as a human, to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine or perhaps Ocean Rain. These are the gateway drugs. Once they proclaim their affection, keep going back to their debut, Crocodiles. Standing in Mr. Smalls on Thursday, seeing this mass of sold-out humanity moved once again by these songs reminded me just how essential Echo remains. Spread the word, Echo never really went anywhere; they just don’t remind anyone of Andrew McCarthy’s bitchin’ hair.

Lucky for me these epiphanies occurred during the show. Appreciation. Admiration for a band continuing on despite waning popularity due to time and distance. Remember when I said that some nights turn out to be kinda shit? Well, I skipped out of Smalls, on a nice post-show buzz, hopped it my car and headed home only to find out that the city of Pittsburgh closed the southbound tunnel. After 80 minutes of stop-and-go traffic around the damn mountain, I finally arrived home. Carnivals and closed tunnels. Semi-legal parking and ambient Skynard covers. A 4-hour round trip for 90 minutes of Echo.

So worth it.

photo by Justin Gill. This image pretty much sums up Ian McCulloch.

photo by Justin Gill. This image pretty much sums up Ian McCulloch.


I’ve never seen such a bizarre and bountiful collection of facial hair at one show. Is odd or distinctive facial hair the new midlife crisis? I saw Rollie Fingerses, Magnum, P.I.s, Johnny Fevers, Goose Gossages. I saw beards of all widths, girths and ineptness. I saw handlebars and fu manchus, braids and mutton chops. Instead of documenting the show I felt compelled to document the litany of notable facial coifs. A truly notable assemblage. Hence, the noting.


The Fuck It All Catharsis

From a certain perspective, I got back into the writing game these last few months. I’d taken a long time off to work on my James Bond project and start dabbling with a manuscript detailing the evolution of the entire project. With all my essays completed and the heavy lifting begun on the “behind-the-scenes” or “immersive journalist-y” part of the manuscript, I abruptly stopped writing. That makes sense right? I’d submitted 10 agent/publisher queries for the manuscript and received nary a derogatory comment in return. I’d not received a positive comment either. I’d received exactly zero words in return. In case you’re not well versed in the submission process, one must prepare a tailored pitch for every agent or publisher. So in addition to the hundreds of hours of work poured into the manuscript, there’s at least another 30-45 minutes spent on each submission. This includes researching targets and crafting the query. Silence is absolutely, positively, 100% the worst response for any submitting writer. This says, “Hey, you’re not even worthy of a form rejection.”

I’m not wallowing here. I accepted this bullshit part and parcel when I resigned myself to being a writer… or a failed writer. Or whatever kind of purgatory this is. Still, this is damaging to forward momentum. I shifted that manuscript to the “HOLD” pile while I tended to a few other projects and figured out what about my sales pitch caused people to not give any fucks.

During the month of May I poured myself into a James Bond short story for LICENCE EXPIRED: The Unauthorized James Bond short story collection. I played it safe, used characters from Fleming and drew inspiration from my favorite James Bond novel. I felt really good about my submission. I didn’t try to push boundaries. I made a few sly inferences that the nature of James Bond was something like taxidermy. I wrote what I felt was a very strong story with a nice bit of commentary on the whole franchise.


Dear James

Thank you for submitting your story The Bulgarian Tumble to LICENCE EXPIRED: The Unauthorized James Bond. Sadly, we are unable to include your story in the collection.

It did come very close, but ultimately didn’t make the final cut as it dwelt on themes and characters that too many other of the stories also touched. We’ll both be keeping an eye out for your work though; if you spot one or both of us in an editorial capacity, do consider submitting.


I should have known that expectations in the writing game only exist to be trampled upon. I hadn’t felt disappointment like this in years. I’d become hardened to all manner of writing rejection. At least I thought. This rejection, however, rekindled a landslide of forgotten emotions. I even heard from those old friends Self Doubt and Self Loathing, the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of cliched, sad sack writers everywhere.

Until this rejection arrived on Saturday, I’d planned to tackle another two projects in short order: a submission packet to write a 33 1/3 book for 333Sound’s open call window and a short story for Matrix Magazine’s LitPOP competition. Now, eh… let’s find out what’s jamming up the DVR. (A whole bunch of TCM movies! I’ll finally watch Wasp Woman!)

How quickly confidence becomes a bottle of gin. This is why writers become f’ing alcoholics. Gin always loves my writing. I kid. (I don’t. I really don’t.)

I went for an early evening run in the rain on Monday evening. I went for a run in the rain because it’s been raining every day and if I wanted to go for a run it was apparently going to have to be in the rain. I didn’t wear my headphones. As a result I couldn’t listen to some sad sack singer-songwriter with the Michael Smith seal of approval corroborate and lend credence to my unhappiness. I watched the rain come down and felt like a pathetic stooge in a 1980’s teen dramedy meant to piggyback the success of Say Anything. I felt thrilled to be a part of such a production. I also came to the realization that I’d never actually written a detective/spy/genre short story in my life. To backtrack/summarize: my harshest critic (me) had been *happy* with a story I’d written despite never having dabbled in that style of writing once in my life. (Anybody know where to submit a spy/espionage story featuring James Bond Clive Hardwood?)

George Saunders is a big f’ing deal because he was on the Colbert Report.

I came home and immediately sat down to polish a story for the Matrix Magazine contest, judged by George Saunders. Why? Because George Saunders is one of the reasons I write. If I had to name my literary idols, the list would begin with George Saunders. I picked an old oddball story about self-aware puppets on a Christian version of Sesame Street. The original ran upwards of 40,000 words. I selected one storyline and excised it, specifically for George. 6 hours of brutal editing brought the story in under the 3,000 word maximum.

Do I think it’ll make the cut?

No. Because that’s the healthy response.

People — and by “people” I mean the cultural hegemony of false positivity — suggest that we should always think positive. I disagree. I think we should try our best with as much time as we have and just say “fuck it all” when we’re done. “Fuck it all” doesn’t dismiss or judge or place expectation. It’s not even necessarily negative. “Fuck it all” just means, in that moment, I’ve done all I can do, I’ve done my best, so come what may. It means now I’m moving on to that next thing. I will not dwell on my disappointment. “Fuck it all” is new wave self help.

I had 48 hours to turn a 40,000-word story into a 3,000-word story. I did my best because I how often do you have the chance to put your work in front of your idol. I submitted that story early this morning. I’m under no delusions here. He won’t see a word of it. The Matrix Mag editors will put the kibosh on that puppet story long before he sees it because I didn’t play it safe or I did play it safe or it just wasn’t any good in the first place. It’s not what they’re going to want to read. But maybe it is. Maybe he will read it. Either way, fuck it all.

Now on to that other project. No, not the Bond book. Those typed pages are staring at me right now from that “HOLD” bin. I’m crafting a submission packet for the go ahead to write a book about one of my favorite albums for the aforementioned 33 1/3 series (a collection of books about music — each one focusing on one individual, influential record album). When I first thought about sending in a submission, I tried to figure out what album would be worthy of the series. I had a list of five or six records that hadn’t yet been tackled by 33 1/3. Records that most everyone would agree deserved a spot in the series. But then I thought about what records mattered specifically to me. And about what records inspired me, shaped me… and I decided I wanted to write about Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Dulcinea. Do most people consider that an essential record? No. But it is. And I do.

So fuck it all. Back to writing. Back to giving all the fucks… but at the same time none at all.



2Cellos plays Welcome to the Jungle: The Best Thing I Watched This Week

2Cellos plays Welcome to the Jungle: The Best Thing I Watched This Week

It might only be Monday, but I’m calling this race early. A) I’m too busy catching up on episodes of Bob’s Burgers to watch anything new on the tele and B) This is amazeballs. These two guys manage to rock as hard on cellos as Slash did on his guitar. Okay, almost rock as hard. But you can tell they’re rock stars. Just look at their cellos. I, of course, had to do a little bit of research on these Croatian fellows (Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser), known as 2Cellos, and it seems they’re quite popular and have records and tour and stuff. I’ve watched a handful of videos now and I have to say that this riff on GNf’R is easily their best stuff. It at least includes the most cello headbanging you’ll ever see in a two-minute video. And there’s something to be said for that.

the best thing I watched this week


2Cellos playing Welcome to the Jungle: The Best Thing I Watched This Week

Sidenote: Is it just me, or could these guys also be a pair of excellent Bond henchmen?

I don’t think I need to say too much more about this. I’ll just mention that they played this on the Ellen Degeneres show so there are a few million housewives that are more in the loop than I. (edit: apparently they also appeared on Glee at some point, but that begs the question if you appear on a television show after everyone stops watching it, do you actually appear at all?) Since I’m taking the rest of the week off from scouring the globe for “Best Things” I’ll just abandon ship without my usual assortment of hyperbole and rhetoric. As always, no need to thank me. You’re always welcome.

Bonus: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Sidesidenote: the image they’re currently cultivating is a half-step removed from John Corbett’s version of a Yanni character in Serendipity. He plays an oboe-like Indian/Pakistani/Bengali/Iranian instrument called the shehnai.

The More You Know… about John Cusack movies.

john corbett serendipity shehnai

Bob’s Burgers: The Best Thing I Watched This Week

Every so often we happen across a movie or a television show that’s so far up our alley that we have to stop and question how we’d co-existed in the same world for so long without crossing paths. So that happened this week. I had been watching a movie last Sunday night. When the movie ended, I flipped back to my cable feed. On my television I found myself staring at a show I’d long heard about but never watched. Confession: I’d long since given up on animation offerings on major networks. “The networks” just don’t take the risks necessary to make animation truly essential. At this point in my life I don’t have time for anything that’s not essential. Five minutes of Bob’s Burgers had me hooked.

the best thing I watched this week


Bob’s Burgers: The Best Thing I Watched This Week


This was the particular episode in question:



Once the novelty of hearing the voice of Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) performing the doughy, middle-aged titular Bob wore off (not to mention the number of references/connections between Archer and Bob’s Burgers), I found myself enraptured, held in comedic bliss. The family owns/runs a greasy-spoon Burger joint but that setting only provides a backdrop for endless opportunity for riffing on the various  personalities. The wiser-than-their-years children contribute most of the immediate laughs in juxtaposition with the languid, laid-back, even-tempered and thoroughly put-upon working-class Bob and his Jersey-ish wife Linda. The inimitable Kristen Schaal voices Louise, a perpetually bunny-eared pre-teen with isolated megalomaniac tendencies. Eugene Mirman (Flight of the Conchords, Archer) makes magic with Bob’s naturally dim son, Gene, who lives to provide the musical score to the family’s hijinx on a Casio DG-20. Set to electric mandolin. Okay, sorry… Flight of the Conchords reference. Gene’s keyboard is really good at sampling though. And then there’s the pubescent and sexually (perversely so) confused Tina (Dan Mintz) with a bizarre affection for horses. Bob’s Burgers is often perverse and a little bit crass, but a good-natured sincerity provides a baseline that grounds these characters as humans despite their crudely drawn animation and preposterous reactions to everyday events. There’s a bit of South Park, a touch of Archer’s banter and a heap of The Simpsons’ familial unit tucked into Bob’s DNA, but don’t let the similarities direct your judgment. Bob’s Burgers carves out its own unique slice of that animation pie.

Bob’s Burgers is available on Netflix Streaming and Hulu. Since I stumbled across this show on Sunday, not a day has gone by that I haven’t watched at least one episode. I can’t get enough. I’m off to see Mad Max: Fury Road tonight, but you can bet that I’m going to come home and queue up some more Bob’s Burgers to cleanse my palette. If I had to recommend a favorite episode from all of those that I’ve watched, I’m going to have to pick “Sheesh. Cab, Bob?” — the episode in which Bob starts driving a taxi and inadvertently becomes a pimp for a gaggle of transsexual prostitutes in order to pay for Tina’s 13th birthday party. Pure gold.