Woly Boly: Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

It’s a rainy, dreary, drab day in Chicago, so seems a good time to try to be a better blogger while my laundry spins. So how about some music talk, huh? Remember how I used to do that all the time here, back before Twittering and other distractions shortened our attention spans to gnat-like levels? Yeah, those were the days.

I tend to spend the early parts of each year listening to old favorites on the house stereo and commuting iPods, just because I work so hard at the end of each year to digest as much new music as I can to support my album of the year report. But four fab new discs have emerged and caught my attention over the past couple of months, pulling me out of nostalgia head space for now. Here’s the reviews and reports . . .

Wire’s Silver/Lead leads the pack thus far. Released on the 40th anniversary of their first show as a quartet, it’s got a smoother, cooler, swingier vibe about it than some of their more frantic and metronomic dugga dugga dugga fare. If I had to liken it to any other albums in their high quality, eclectic canon, I’d probably compare it to 1988’s A Bell Is A Cup . . . Until It Is Struck. Both albums are melodic, mid-tempo and accessible on first listen, but rich with weirdness when you dig into them a little deeper. Colin Newman has dominated the vocals on recent Wire albums, so it’s good to hear Graham Lewis more represented in the mix this time; the variety of their voices is appealing when you listen straight through. Lewis’ lyrics are odd and wonderful, as always, though the album has a bit more directness and perhaps even poignancy in some places, with the emotions showing through more than they usually do in Wire’s often detached and icy worldview. I would judge this to be the best offering of the Wire’s current era with Matthew Simms on guitar, and while the inner workings of the band are inscrutable to outsiders, as as longtime (nearly lifetime) listener,  I feel like I’m hearing Simms really emerging here as something other than a junior partner replacement to founding and retired guitarist Bruce Gilbert. An early leader in the album of the year sweepstakes. Sample Song: “Playing Harp for the Fishes.”

The Residents’ The Ghost of Hope marks, as many Residents albums before it have, a turning point into a new phase or project. We’ve had Mole Shows, and Cube-E’s, and Great American Composers, and all sorts of other conceptual frameworks for short or long runs of Residents’ releases. The last several years have found the (sometimes) eyeballs in highly prolific form with the “Randy, Chuck and Bob” line-up, a bunch of (supposedly) historic album releases, a series of records from (alleged) primary composer Charles Bobuck (who has now apparently retired for health reasons), a (sort of) Spanish language album by (purported) member ex-member Carlos, and their Talking Light, The Wonder of Weird and Shadowlands tour rubrics. The many first person web releases, videos, albums and narratives of this era often purport to dispel the Resident’s permanent anonymity, although, of course, they do not really. The Ghost of Hope is now announced as a “classic Residents” project, restoring the group’s (assumed) quartet lineup, with long-time collaborators Nolan Cook, Eric Drew Feldman and Carla Fabrizio along for the ride. While you can never quite be sure what to believe and what not to believe when it comes to The Residents, they have the following to say about this latest project, make of it what you will:

Following their long tradition of projects based on narrative themes, The Residents are pleased to announce the release of The Ghost of Hope, an historically accurate album based on train wrecks. Pursuing this theme in both a literal and metaphorical sense, the group discovered a series of vintage news articles highlighting the dangers of train travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by the era’s elegant language, the group then contrasted that eloquence against the sheer horror of these devastating events, resulting in an album that sounds both startlingly new and curiously nostalgic.

From a sonic standpoint, it rocks harder than anything they’ve done in the past decade, with Louisiana-inflected crooner Mr Red Eye/Mr Skull/Randy Rose (these days dressed as a cow, while his band mates don plague masks) in very fine voice, and the accompaniments and texts being direct, disturbing, and delicious in equal measure. I don’t know how long this phase is going to last, but it’s a good start to something for some period of time, until it’s not (possibly), so I’m happy to be along for the ride. Hopefully not ending with a train wreck, I should note. Sample Song: “Death Harvest.”

I have to note up front that I was prepared to hate everything about King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Flying Microtonal Banana, and I mean everything. Stupid band name, ridiculous announced intention to issue five albums this year exploring microtonal music (as if their inexperienced offerings would somehow clarify what we haven’t learned from decades of jazz and non-Western tunings, puh-leeze), schmucky visuals, popularity with annoying hipsters, you name it, I knew I wouldn’t like it. In fact: I actually sampled the album for no other reason than to make snarky comments about it. (On Twitter, of course. Because Twitter). But, dammit, a funny thing happened on the way to my 140-character dismantling . . . because I was really, extremely and highly annoyed to discover that this was, in fact, a very good album, and I confess that I like it a lot, having grabbed the whole thing and spun it for a couple of months now. I hate when that happens!!! The microtonality thing is evident, but not overwhelming or annoying, in the guitar and vocal lines, and the whole thing chugs along smartly on rumbly double drum and bass beds, with surprisingly memorable, singalong melodies given the odd intonation of some of the songs. Grumble grumble grumble, dammit. Stop looking at me. Sample song: “Rattlesnake.”

Xiu Xiu’s last album of primarily original material, 2014’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom, was described by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart as an exploration of the “mean, tight-hearted blackness of Neubauten vs Suicide vs Nico” and, amazingly enough, it actually lived up (or down, depending on your worldview) to that evocative description of really dark, really powerful music. Of course, that makes it one of my favorite albums by the assaultive experimental ensemble. Surrounding it, though, were gentler records exploring the music of Nina Simone, the soundtracks to Twin Peaks, and Caribbean folk songs and American hymns, so Stewart and Company clearly hadn’t completely succumbed to the allures of the null and the void. This year’s Xiu Xiu offering, FORGET, is something of a happy medium merger of the aforementioned forays, with (relatively) accessible song structures, melodies and arrangements, spiced with Stewart’s typically frank declamations on all manner of deeply felt things, sacred and profane, wordly and other, sexy and ugly, almost all in equal measure. Core members Stewart, Angela Seo and Shayna Dunkelman are joined this time out by nearly a dozen guests — including genderqueer icon Vaginal Davis, Kristof Hahn (Swans, Pere Ubu), and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) — and the record has a richer, less skeletal feel than some of their blunter early work. It’s not easy listening, not by a long shot, and it’s not likely to pierce the pop charts, but it’s a little step closer in that direction from anything that’s come before it, and if that exposes Xiu Xiu’s brilliance to even a few more fans, then that’s a good thing.  Sample Song: “Wondering.”

Other discs I’m enjoying, but not quite long or often enough to review with any depth at this point, are Black Angel’s Death Song, Meat Wave’s The Incessant and Awa Poulo’s Poulo Warali. More on them, perhaps, at the mid-year report, or the next time a lazy, rainy weekend day intrudes on our Chicago schedule . . .

“So You Must Be Eric . . .”

On March 8, 1987, I graduated from Naval Supply Corps School in Athens, Georgia, and was given a one-month leave period to make my move to Arlington, Virginia. I was one of four from my year group in Athens (me, Mike, Bruce and Greg) who had been selected to work as procurement, logistics and budget officers at Naval Reactors Headquarters, which was considered a very prestigious posting.

After two days en route from Georgia to Virginia, followed by 29 days of being a dissolute wastrel, I checked in at my new office (Room 3N11 in National Center Two, on Clark Street, in Crystal City) on April 8, 1987, and spent a busy day learning the ropes, as Naval Reactors was very much a “throw you in the water to see if you can swim” sort of place.

Sometime in mid-afternoon, I managed a quick bathroom break and was hurrying back to my desk, when out of a door on the other side of the resource management department’s office area stepped a confidently attractive blond woman, her charms made especially striking when encountered in a building dominated by badly-dressed male engineers. (There’s a reason for the pocket-pen protector stereotype, believe me).

As it turned out, the very striking woman had already met Mike, Bruce and Greg, and so she properly deduced that I must be the fourth member of that year’s Naval Reactors Supply Corps cohort.

“So, you must be Eric . . .” she said, being a friendly type.

And I said in reply, because I am not half as clever as I like to pretend: “Must I be?”

Then I scurried back to my cubicle.

That was 30 years ago tomorrow, and that was the first conversation that Marcia and I ever had. Who could have possibly imagined where it would lead us?

It turned out we were neighbors, too, and we moved in similar social circles, so we saw each other a lot, at work and at play. I was quickly smitten, though it took a while before the feeling was mutual, and we didn’t start dating until about nine months after we met. After that, though, things moved quickly: within 18 months, we’d gotten engaged, bought a house together, and were married. The girl child (who is now 26) was born less than two years after that.

Then came Idaho. Then came New York. Then came Iowa. Then came Chicago. Wow.

I don’t know what I did that made me deserving of such an extraordinary life partner, but I’m thankful for whatever it was, and awed on a daily basis by my good fortune. So I must be Eric, indeed, and apparently, that’s just fine. Thank you, Marcia, for noticing. I love you with all of my being, and look forward to whatever adventures the next 30 years bring us!

Look what I caught! Can I keep it?!?

So Many Ways To Say “Some Stuff”

I’ve had a blog since before there was a name for blogs. See the archives scroll at the right for evidence of that, and then keep in mind that I’ve probably removed at least another 500 pages from this website over the years for a variety of reasons, atop the 1,034 that are here now.

Sometimes the posts are deep digs into specific topics, or at least touch on a single concept, message, or theme. Other times, though, I just use the blog to share a bunch of unrelated news items. Early on in this enterprise, I usually gave such posts some sort of generic “Bunch of Stuff” title. One day, though, I realized that I’d used “Odds and Sods” (named after The Who’s 1974 rarities and outtakes album) three times, so I figured it might make sense to come up with some other naming rubric, lest I confuse readers, bots, spider and myself. Since it was a song by The Who that caused the problem, I just decided to pick another Who title (“Underture”) and went from there; all omnibus posts would now be titled after songs by The Who.

The Who song titles on for awhile. I tried to look for titles that had some vague connection the “bunch of stuff” rubric in some way, or a conceptual tie to the lead article in the sequence, or a number in the title that matched the number of elements in the post. Eventually, though, there were no more Who titles that seemed to fit, so I decided to shift to another band’s songs titles. Then I did that again. Then I did that again. Then eventually I decided that song titles weren’t getting the job done, so I started collecting antiquated or foreign words that meant something along the lines of “odds and sods,” one way or another.

And I’ve been doing that for a long time now, most recently with the prior post, “Hunnik Asju,” which is Estonian for “a bunch of things.” With this post, I now think it’s time for me to come up with a new theme the next time I have a motley collection to share with you. So as I bid this era of assortments adieu, I thought it might be fun (for me, anyway) to go back through the various approaches I’ve taken to these collections over the years. Primarily so I don’t repeat one of them again, memory not being what it once was.

So . . . in reverse order from most current to oldest, here are all of the miscellany posts (well, at least the ones that are still on the blog), clustered into their various eras’ naming groups. It makes it pretty clear, if nothing else, how much more prolific I was in this space, all those years ago!

Foreign/Obscure Words Meaning “Assortment”

Hunnik Asju
Mengelmoes
Goedjies
Dingen
Okuxubile
Raznovrsnost
Shumëllojshmëri
Ezihlukahlukene
Pudi-Padi
Kholimog
Hondakinak
Kort Mengeling
Aštuoni
Változatosság
Verscheidenheid
Mélange
Cumulation
Colluvies
Farrago
Gallimaufry
Salamagundi

Nick Cave/Birthday Party Song Titles

Brave Exhibitions
Pleasure Avalanche
Capers
Shivers

Genesis Song Titles

As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs
Visions of Angels
Paperlate
Afterglow
How Dare I Be So Beautiful?
Deep In The Motherlode
Many Too Many
Seven Stones
Evidence of Autumn
Keep It Dark
Where The Sour Turns to Sweet
Dodo/Lurker

Frank Zappa Song Titles

Status Back Baby
A Token Of My Extreme
America Drinks And Goes Home
Strictly Genteel
The Lifestyle You Deserve
Galoot Up-Date
The Voice of Cheese
City of Tiny Lights
He Used To Cut The Grass
It Ain’t Necessarily the Saint James Infirmary
Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
Entrance of the Central Scrutinizer
We Made Our Reputation Doing It That Way
What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning?
What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?
For The Young Sophisticate
Nine Types of Industrial Pollution
Trouble Every Day

Emerson, Lake and Palmer Song Titles

Manticore
Hoedown
From The Beginning
Tiger In A Spotlight
Take A Pebble

Bee Gees Song Titles

This I Where I Came In
Monday’s Rain
Lemons Never Forget
Remembering
Don’t Forget To Remember
If I Only Had My Mind on Something Else
Spicks and Specks

The Who Song Titles

Sparks
Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy
The Kids Are Alright
Cobwebs and Strange
Underture
Odds and Sods (three times!)

Pre-Conceptual Titles

Ten Quick Bits
Six Pix
Dix Axiomata De Axon Anon
Fiat Linx
Quad Quix
Seis Snaps
Two Bits
This and That
Musical Miscellany
Sundries
This That
This, That, T’Other
Miscellany
Odd Ends
Some Things
Odds and Ends
Take Two

Hunnik Asju

1. Marcia and I purchased our first home computer nearly 25 years ago. Since then, I have been very good at maintaining and updating Die Maschinen, I always practice “Safe Surf,” and I am averse to technological change for change’s sake. This means I’ve managed to do everything I’ve ever done on computers at home while only owning three Maschinen. (That number could conceivably have only been two, actually, had not my spawn melted down Das Maschine Nummer Zwei accidentally during those awkward early teen years, enticed by the dangerous computer-eating wonders of the early social web). My current Das Maschine has been running like a champ since 2007, but Microsoft, Mozilla and others have announced that they are ending support and upgrades for its operating system (MS Vista), and I’m not willing to maintain an unsupported system for very long once that goes away. I researched updating the OS, but the economics of doing so didn’t make sense, so I finally succumbed and bought a new Das Maschine (Nummer Vier) last week. It arrived yesterday, and last night I went to break the news to Ol’ Yeller 9000 (Das Maschine Nummer Drei) that it was time for us to take a walk out behind the woodshed to talk about stuff, just the two of us. Things went downhill from there, though . . . negotiations are ongoing . . .

Ol’ Yeller 9000 doesn’t believe in fiat currency, so we’re negotiating in precious metal and booze . . .

2. I had hoped and planned that 2017 would be a bit less travel-heavy for me than 2016 had been. Looking at my first quarter route map, I’m thinking this may not actually turn out to be the case:

Upcoming stops: DC (again), Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis . . .

3. My most recent trip was to Washington, DC, and Marcia accompanied me on this one. After my work was done, we stuck around for a couple of extra days, had some nice meals with old friends, and explored the city where we first met 30 years ago. While the iconic buildings and skyline remain mostly unchanged, the evolution of the city below that level was profound. When we lived there, for example, “14th Street and U” would have been the answer to the question: “Where do I get a hooker, a gun, some crack, or all of the above?” Now it’s a gentrifying neighborhood and the next “hot destination,” bridging quirky Adams Morgan and the ever-expanded heart of the downtown Mall area. Another example: I love me some Washington Capitals and Bullets, but I had no idea that their new (to me) arena was in the same general area where I used to go to amazing concerts through the 1980s at the very sketchy and smelly original 930 Club, at 930 F Street NW. We paid a pilgrimage to that site, where I once saw Butthole Surfers, Chuck Brown, Camper Van Beethoven, Fishbone, Black Flag, Root Boy Slim, Bad Brains, The Busboys, Minor Threat, Guadalcanal Diary, E.U., and so many others I can’t even remember anymore, and you know what we found?  That we could now buy sweaters. Sigh . . .

I can’t believe they got the smell out of the building.

4. On our last day in Washington, we decided to make a quick stop in to the new (to us) National Museum of African American History and Culture. There didn’t seem to be any lines, so we strolled up to the entrance as one does at most Smithsonian museums to just amble in, but the gentleman at the door explained that demand was so high that advance tickets were required, and there weren’t likely to be any available for the rest of that day, nor the day following. He offered some helpful tips on how to perhaps score a stray ticket or two, but it didn’t look like it was going to work, so I said “Thank you, sir, I appreciate your help.” As I was walking away, he said “Wait . . . are you a Veteran? You sound like a Veteran.” And I am, of course, as is Marcia, and so we were admitted under the museums Vets’ policy. Good manners and politeness pay off in unexpected ways. We only had an hour to explore, so we actually only got through one of five floors, but it was so amazing and so well curated and so exciting that we will definitely be going back again. The highlight of highlights for me? Turning a corner and seeing this unexpectedly . . .

ZOMFG!!!!! THE MOTHERSHIP!!!!!

If you have to ask, you’ll never know, blah blah blah, but if you want to understand the significance of this iconic object, then sit down right now, click the next link, and watch the late Glenn Goins Calling Down The Mothership.

5. We also went to the National Air and Space Museum and normally I’d be falling all over myself to tell you about the rockets and planes I saw there, but even John Glenn’s Friendship 7 pales next to the experience of seeing The Mothership. Other snaps from our trip (including the obligatory cherry blossoms and a visit to the exceptional FDR Monument) are at my Flickr site, which you can reach by clicking the picture of the space nerd below:

SPACE MADNESSSSS!!!!

6. We were bopping around Washington on Friday as the healthcare vote debacle was unfolding, so it was interesting to see various helicopters and limousines racing back and forth between various key points in the city’s political infrastructure while the GOP did its best to punch itself in the face during its hot pursuit of political malfeasance. We both slept well that night, and let’s leave it at that, since I’m not intending to use my blog as political website, tempting as that may be. Besides, everything that really needs to be said about how things feel today in America is available in an extraordinary new video from Jed Davis and the mighty Hanslick Rebellion, linked below (language warning, NSFW):

I’ve been following Jed’s work since the ’90s, and have written about him many times here over the years. In short: I consider him to be one of America’s greatest songwriters, ever, and he’s got the instrumental chops, design skills, studio acumen, arrangement ear, and live charisma to make it all work in the studio, on the stage, in a box, with a fox, on a train, and even in the rain, in Spain. Get on over to his The Congregation of Vapors page now to discover what you’ve been missing all these years. It’s all genius, all the time, and the cast of characters who appear there with Jed (e.g. Chuck Rainey, Reeves Gabrels, Tony Levin, Anton Fig, Jerry Marotta, Avi Buffalo, Ralph Carney, Tommy Ramone, and many many many more more more) is mind-blowing in the extreme.

Mengelmoes

1.  So after finishing my short-story project in 2016, and with anticipated travel being less than it was last year, I figured I’d be a better and more regular blogger in 2017 than I had been in recent months/years. But here I am in the second half of February with six trips completed or planning in the first two months of the year, and only one blog post to my name. Oh well. I suppose I can always claim quality in lieu of quantity.

2.  I wrapped up the new short stories with some older ones and submitted them for editing (both content and copy) to a professional colleague and friend from olden Metroland days. He did an excellent job (if you need an editor, holla, and I’ll hook you up), but of course his great and thorough work means that I now have a lot more work to do to address his corrections, suggestions, concerns, and critiques. As it should be, I note. I actually miss having independent review of my writing, since I think that lack of quality and editorial control has reduced the overall experience to be had and accurate information to be gleaned online, witness our current political and journalistic shambles for confirmation. When I am able to get through revisions, I know I will have a much better product in hand. I hope to be able to share it in one form or another before the end of the year. Watch this space.

3.  Two of this trips I’ve taken this year were more fun that work travel often can be, since Marcia accompanied me (or I accompanied her, in one case), and we went to warm weather regions during the depths of Chicago’s wintry season. First up was Arizona, where we spent most of our time in Scottsdale, with a day trip to Tucson. Second was my industry’s Winter Management Conference in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. As is the norm here, I’ve posted some snaps for those who care to see them: Puerto Rico Arizona. For the nerds and the locals, I’ve also updated these galleries: AirplanesChicago Winter.

4. Since I typically do my “Album Of The Year” reports in late November or early December each year, there are invariably albums that come out in the last month of the year, or that I don’t discover until it’s too late, that would have made my list had I waited until the very last minute and listened to all of the things, all of them. At this point, my 2016 list is still looking pretty good to me, with only one glaring miss: Kubla Khan by Golden Suits.  A (mostly) solo project by Fred Nicolaus, whose sublime work with Department of Eagles still wins regular spins hereabouts, Kubla Khan is a delightfully engaging and enjoyable record, blending smart narratives and sweet melodies and creative arrangements into a very pleasing whole. My outsiders’ view of Department of Eagles’ inside workings has been that Nicolaus’ musical partner Daniel Rossen provided more of traditional singer-songwriter touches (largely based on his work with Grizzly Bear and solo), while Nicolaus provided more of the wildcard and arrangement touches. To some extent, I base this view on the fact that I like the slightly-weirder Department of Eagles more than I like the slightly-more-accessible Grizzly Bear, so if Nicolaus is in the former and not in the latter, then he’s likely the difference maker. That may be be so (or may not be), but Nicolaus proves here that he’s got formidable singer-songwriting chops of his own, and I’m glad to be able to hear his voice (literal and figurative) here, after many years of only listening to Rossen and Nicolaus working together. While it probably wouldn’t have challenged David Bowie or Chance the Rapper for the tip-top of my musical pile in 2016, Kubla Khan  is a solid Top Five album of the Year for me, so I regret that I didn’t get to it in time to properly acknowledge it with its peers at the time.

5. I will be riding in my third STIHL Tour des Trees from July 30 to August 5. We will be in the Washington, DC metro area this year, with a stop in Annapolis to see Ye Olde Navy Yard, hooray! The route will be a little over 500 miles this year, with a mix of urban and rural riding. All funds raised by riders (me included) go to support research and education programs to benefit our urban forests and the professionals who care for them. You can support my campaign now, with my deepest gratitude or I can bother you later on in the year with a personal request that’s harder for you to evade. Just saying. Here’s my rider page, and I’d seriously appreciate your support there, all kidding aside. It’s a good event for a good cause with good people. Can’t do better than that, really.