Pitchfork recently started does a cool little feature where they ask an artist to identify their favorite songs at the ages of 5, 10, 15, etc. The first in the feature is the incredibly hard-rocking Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney fame. I’ve done something like this before, but I wanted to do one of these features for this blog. Of course, I don’t get to interview cool indie rockers. So, you just get me. Feel free to share your own favorites in the comments or write your own post in response.
I turned five in 1980. It’s honestly very hard to remember music when I was five. I do know that my parents were Rolling Stones fans. Mom was a huge fan and my dad saw them in the ’60’s at Dayton’s Hara Arena, the same venue I saw Nirvana many years later. A particular song that resonates throughout my life is “Satisfaction”. It was so raw and powerful. That song was the opposite of sunny, top-40 pop. There’s a direct line from that track to the garage rock-turned-punk of the 1970’s and beyond. Whenever I listen to the Replacements or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or Titus Andronicus, I think of the raw dissatisfaction of that one song. I took special notice when PJ Harvey and Bjork once performed “Satisfaction” together, Cat Power remade the song for a covers records, and even when I found myself singing the song to my infant daughter. That song will stay with me forever.
In the summer of 1984, my brother and I discovered Prince (and his/the Revolution). The little rocker from Minneapolis released a movie, Purple Rain, we were not yet old enough to see. Then, right after my tenth birthday, my mom went on this trip to visit family in California. Dad let us see some rather racy movies. Purple Rain was one of them. We had the LP since September when my brother turned 8 and we quickly gathered as many of his records as Columbia House would allow. Among those purchases was Prince’s classic 1999, another great album loaded with killer track after killer track. Among all the Prince songs we listened to over that two or three year period, I’ve gone back and forth as to which song made the biggest impact, but I’ve somehow landed on “Little Red Corvette”. It had the hook, a story, and well…It was all Prince. From the 1982 album by the same name, this was the hit we played more than any other.
Truth be told, my introduction to indie/alternative music was not Nirvana. That came a year later. No, the shit hit the fan in 1990 with Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual. That record came at a time when I was listening to a lot of classic/hard rock. Radio stations had picked up “Been Caught Stealing”, a track I was all over. I mean, it had dogs barking. However, even my gateway track was not the most memorable off the album. “Ain’t No Right” which might not even be the best track on the record touched on a lot of anger I had stewing beneath when I was 15. It was the punkest thing I had at the time. Anything remotely punk was a rare thing in those days in West-Central Ohio. Somehow, Jane’s Addiction combined hippie-like politics, heavy metal heroics, and punk grit to everything they touched. It would be another year before the inaugural Lollapalooza and another three before I’d start even going to shows, but this was the track on the record that sent me on my way.
In 1995, I saw Pavement for the first time. I attended the third of three Lollapalooza’s. It was the middle of my college years, years that were greatly influential in shaping my musical tastes. Although Wowee Zowee was in full rotation for much of the year, I discovered another band on Matador that had been around for a while who was also playing Lolla that year. The band was Yo La Tengo and the album they released in ’95 was Electr-O-Pura. The track that has always given me a tingle was “False Alarm”. I saw the band twice that year and “False Alarm” was easily the highlight of both sets. Ira Kaplan just seemed to fall all over his Hammond B-3 organ, choosing to play with his elbows or chest rather than the more conventional fingers. The song is so loaded with angst and lust and jittery goodness that I didn’t hesitate when I hit my 20th year on this list.
2000 was a strange year for me, musically. Pavement was out of the picture for a year, a reunion a long way off. I struggled to find that groove in the scene within I used to fit so comfortably. Modest Mouse was leaving their indie years behind and fully embracing their major label selves. My music collection needed a swift kick in the ass. Enter The White Stripes. De Stijl was not a wickedly popular album at the time and Jack and Meg were still siblings/married couple. My sister turned me on to them. I still remember picking up the record in a tiny basement record shop in Athens, OH where she was living. “You’re Pretty Good Looking (for a Girl)” was the opening track that pulled me in. Despite the fact that it’s nothing like the rest of the album, the song made the rest, which was the jolt I needed, so much more approachable for me. Anyway, say what you will about Jack White, but he made some pretty amazing music back in those days.
Thirty may have been the year of the greatest change for me. Within a week in July of 2005, I passed a Master’s exam, supported my partner as she successfully defended her dissertation, closed on our first house, married said partner, and moved 500 miles from the only state in which I ever lived. It was stressful to say the least. I needed some music to address this uneasiness.
Spencer Krug’s “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” hit me like a ton of bricks from the first listen. My sister had pushed Wolf Parade on me, citing the fact that Pitchfork loved them and they were from Canada, which at the time was a winning combination. Anyway, that song still gives me goosebumps. Instead of flipping the record on that first go around, I simply moved the needle back to the beginning just so I could here that song with that drum beat, those piano blasts, and those lyrics. Man. Goosebumps.
Oh, that’s now. Well, I’ve decided not to over-think this one. Easily, the song that has it’s stamp all over this year is “I Won’t Lie to You” by Let’s Wrestle. Again, my sister is to blame. She put the track on a CD for my daughter. We played that thing into the ground for most of this year. Then I bought the Let’s Wrestle album and it was all over. The song is still the standout track, but the entire album has captured my longing for days gone by and that giddiness I used to get at rock shows or in record stores. The opening lines say all you need to know about me: “No matter how many records I buy, it still won’t fill this void.”
Those were the most meaningful songs to me every five years of my life. What were/are yours?
1OK. So, it was nothing like this post. That older link is to a post where I picked an album for every year of my life using my current experiences and perspective. This list takes into account what I was into at each age.
2Normally, this would have been a footnoted item. Oh, wait. I did just footnote it.
3Which was OK, but way better than her last covers record, Jukebox.
4In retrospect, might have not been the best move. It wasn’t perverted or anything. We watched Purple Rain, Up the Creek, and Revenge of the Nerds. These films are pretty tame by today’s standards, but they did have an effect on my perspective of sex and women. The good thing my dad did throughout the weekend moviefest was remind us that none of this was real. It was pre-AIDS can infect straight people. It was a simpler time for sure. Where was I going with this footnote?
5I don’t know how many times we joined one of these clubs. It was always a penny plus shipping for something like 10 or 12 records/cassette tapes. We would just stock up, buy a few records over the course of the three year commitment, quit the club, and join another. The best was when one of them started offering Matador albums in the mid-nineties.
6The first was on the second stage at the aforementioned Lollapalooza. The second was a great little show at Stache’s in Columbus, OH.
7However, Modest Mouse did release Building Something Out of Nothing, a collection of rare EP and 7″ tracks from their indie label Up (RIP). I had all these songs on the original EP’s or vinyl, but it was a nice collection all together and helped expose a lot of major label Mouse fans to their earlier work.
8Very popular with the lesbians. I ran around with a lot of lesbians in those days. Of course, I’ve been called a “lesbian” before, but that is another post/footnote for another time.
9It could be argued that Jack White still does make good music, but I’m not the one to make that argument.
10Actually, I had very little to do with her successful defense and possibly less to do with her finishing her book earlier this summer. However, whenever she feels the stresses of the academy, I feel them too and remind myself why I never took that route.
11This does not count the summer I spent in Seattle. Of course, does a summer spent anywhere really count as living there?
12Actually, my siblings and I have influenced each other’s music collection than is normal. I love Swearing at Motorists and other Dayton, OH bands because of my brother. I still remember my sister sneaking my CD’s in high school and college so that she could dub tape-after-tape of her own mixes. Music is a huge connection for the three of us, maybe even more than that whole blood thing.
13Although, the version my sister sent us was from an earlier release which is superior to the one on the proper album. It’s rawer, more immediate, livelier.
14Thanks to Carrie the Wade for setting me straight on this one. Sometimes in my old age I get the facts mixed up or am totally out of the loop as to what all the kids are into these days. Had she not pointed out this grave error I would totally look like an out-of-touch, aging hipster. Just to be clear, Carrie Wade reads the P4k all the time, a pursuit my frail old body cannot handle anymore. For more information I am too old to share with you (I mean, I’m thinking of writing an Arcade Fire review next. What am I? NPR?), go to Carrie’s blog where she covers way cooler music than I do. See you at Pavement, Carrie!
There was this funny phenomenon back in the day when Pavement would release an album. Fans and critics would complain that they were losing their edge and making conventional classic rock records1. Part of the “problem” was that each album’s production value improved as better recording studios became accessible to the band. They moved away from their lo-fi beginnings as they recorded on better equipment with better engineers2 turning the nobs. Also, Stephen Malkmus started crafting songs instead of just throwing sounds together over the hiss of the tape. All this growth coincided with the band becoming a proper outfit3. They left day jobs and became full-time indie rockers4.
The transformation into a conventional rock band spit in the face of everything for which their fans thought Pavement stood5. Of course, complaining about a Pavement album is a right of passage for every Pavement fan6. Those who knew them from the early Slay Tracks era hated the slick sounding Slanted and Enchanted. I remember every Pavement fan I knew hated Wowee Zowee when it was released only to love it as soon as “that piece of shit” Brighten the Corners hit the shelves. The phenomena even worked retroactively. I discovered Slanted after Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain thought it superior in every way despite my obsession with the newer record. A lot of us blamed this regression on the band giving in to traditional rock band structures, becoming a conventional rock ‘n roll band.
Of course, this was all ridiculous as each Pavement album stands on its own merit, regardless of the state of the band. In fact, one could argue that they were less of a cohesive band by their farewell album, Terror Twilight despite how so many die-hard fans complained of its adult contemporary-like accessibility. Regardless, that’s the impression fans and some critics had. Punk rock ruined us all. We love sloppy, ramshackle rock bands7. They always made us feel like we could do the same thing. We couldn’t, but the fact that our favorite bands were fuck-ups made them so attainable.
Wolf Parade is a different band. They were a combination of other bands those in the underground love(d). Each member has his share of other projects with nearly as much clout as Wolf Parade. However, none of those bands ever recorded an album as glorious as Apologies to the Queen Mary. That was their debut, relegating them to careers aimed at surpassing that achievement8. Every album the members release on their own or collectively is compared to Apologies which is too bad as each album should be judged on its own merit, within its own, unique context.
The band’s follow-up was the forgettable9 At Mount Zoomer. However, had their sophomore album been the debut of another band or a piece in any other discography, it would have hailed as a great record. It just didn’t measure up to Apologies.
Now comes Expo 86, maybe the band’s most cohesive effort to date. I still can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. That’s why it’s taken me over a week to put these thoughts in a blog post. Despite my doubts, the album is good. I can’t wrap my head around it as of yet, but I’m working hard on this one10. I’m not getting that punch-in-the-gut feeling Apologies gave me, but there is a slight tingle.
Never have the writing and vocal styles of Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner fit together so seamlessly. I always felt their albums were battles to see which style would win out. In the end, both would go back to their various projects dejected. There, Krug and Boeckner would find themselves again and return to the fight that is a Wolf Parade record. Not so on Expo 86. I had trouble keeping score between the two primary musicians, losing track as to who was singing and whose song they were hacking. The album fits itself from beginning to end. I can’t deny the cohesion11.
Then I wonder if this is a good thing. Should I not only feel that punch in the gut but also that slap to the face? Apologies grabbed me from the opening beats. It took me to the woodshed and had its way with me. I was hypnotized despite its uneven, two-pronged attack. Of course, the cohesion on that album was somehow created from Isaac Brock’s production in which he stripped both Krug and Boeckner of their identities…but I digress12.
Expo 86 is, at the very least, worth several listens before writing it off. Some will complain about its mediocrity, that it’s neither good nor bad.
At its very best, it’s a challenging album that takes time to appreciate, an album that stays in the rotation because it’s too interesting to dismiss and thought-provoking enough to garner discussion and debate.
Either way, the transformation of Wolf Parade into a conventional, cohesive band is having an effect. Expo 86 might not be the end of this story. It might just be the beginning. The direction the band takes from here will be telling as to whether this move toward a conventional rock band is a good or bad thing. For me, Expo 86 will appreciate if the conventional turns out to be the same thing that drew me rock ‘n roll in the first place13. However, this development might just give me fodder to complain about each successive album, only appreciating the previous release once Wolf Parade releases another. Then, maybe Wolf Parade will be a lot like Pavement.
1Which is so laughable in retrospect. Pavement couldn’t make a classic rock record of they tried. And besides, what the hell is “classic rock”? I feel like it used to be the Beatles, Stones, maybe Zeppelin. Now it’s as if every hair metal band from ’83 is classic rock. Classic rock might be the worst moniker for a genre of music this side of indie, crunk, and slow-core.
2Sorry, Gary Young. You were a shitty drummer, gymnast, and record producer. Pavement was better off without your burnt-out California, gun-toting, plant man shtick.
3And by “proper”, I simply mean that they practiced a bit before they toured, maybe rehearsed before recording. I don’t think they ever all lived in the same city at the same time. Pavement might be more proper than ever just by simply doing this reunion thing.
4I believe that I read somewhere that Bob Nastanovich actually left another day job in order to join the reunion. He was maintaining some horse racing database or something.
5The emphasis should be on the what the fans thought here. I don’t think that it was ever Pavement’s collected stance to abstain from becoming a real band. They certainly toured a shit-ton in the mid-nineties and played nice with some alt-rock luminaries (sans Smashing Pumpkins, but who played nice with that asshole Billy Corgan?). Pavement were a vehicle for their fans to reject anything conventional even though the band was a pretty conventional rock outfit for the most part – dudes with guitars played loudly.
6Just wait for all the blog posts from their upcoming summer dates around the country.
7See Black Flag who was hated by their own fans once they started incorporating metal riffs and grew their hair long. Of course, we’re all thankful Henry Rollins stuck with the dirty gym shorts and didn’t discover spandex.
8Another band who did this but has failed miserably in trying to attain the same heights as their debut is Interpol. Turn on the Bright Lights is as perfect a debut as there has ever been, but when when the following two duds are taken into consideration. I haven’t heard the new Interpol record. I think it’s safe to say that it will be a dud as well.
9I only use this term because no one ever remembers this record. It had a really bad cover and strayed far from Apologies, ironically making a sound much closer to what the band members intended for their first go-around.
10I’m still listening to it constantly, trying to piece together a coherent thought beyond the coherence of the record. Is that coherent? Coherently coherent?
11Or overuse the term, apparently. That, I guess, is a characteristic/flaw of my writing. I’m redundant and use the same word over and over, in case you haven’t noticed. Good thing I don’t do this for a living.
12That’s what the footnotes are for. I actually really love what Brock did to Wolf Parade. A synth-heavy debut would have come off contrived, pretentious. Looking back, it’s actually quite surprising Brock stripped the music down so much considering his tendency to overdo it. Somehow, he made it work but at the cost of what makes the individual parts of Wolf Parade so amazing. A good topic to debate would be whether Isaac Brock ruined Wolf Parade or did he make them great?
13You know, rebellion, your parents hate it, has a good beat, danceability, etc.