small blue flowers

Wednesday

Blacktop, Pt. 1

One of the things that frequently blows my mind is how the North American continent is set up, road wise. I could literally pick any destination on it, and with the help of an atlas or a few good maps, plan a trip there. Eight lane highways, local streets, dirt paths, interstates, lanes, avenues, cul de sacs - roads take varieties of all kinds, and in my first 3-part series for Bluets, i will be examining some road songs.



Part 1: Midwestern Highways

“You and I/Westward on a highway forever/You and I/Finally alone.”

Route 70 runs across the state of Pennsylvania (my former residence) and connects the southwestern part of the state to the mid-west. When thinking of the Midwest, if Nashville-pop-country music and Republicans don’t come to mind, certainly a slower, more laid-back way of life does. Towns where front porches and rocking chairs are more common than traffic lights and litter-clogged sidewalks.

There is something inherently romantic about the idea of picking up the fast paced life some of us suburbanites and city dwellers live and moving someplace where pedestrians crossing the street are waved and not honked at. This is especially an appealing thought if in a relationship that has a serious future. For kids in love, what could be better than having nothing to do but put on a pot of coffee (or tea), putting on your favorite record and lying in a hammock on a Saturday morning?

Of course, this idea is really a myth – no such place really exists without its negatives. Good bands may never pass through the fictional town I speak of, nor may many people of different races, creeds, and sexual orientations. Who wants to raise their kids someplace where they are shut off to so much of the world?

Part of this is a spoiled east-coaster talking – I grew up a bus ride away from some of the world’s best museums, concert venues, restaurants and theatres. I was in a very multi-cultural school system (mainly white and Asian for the most part, but there were certainly Latinos and a few black kids) where the arts, as well as the mid-western holy ground, the football field, were nourished.

As romantic as a trip across 70 West sounds when sung by Homunculus co-lead singer and fellow East Coast native (and son of my dentist) Kevin Shima, I’ll take my tolerant churches, good live music, and stone’s throw from an Indian restaurant over the idyllic Idaho sunset.

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You don’t expect idiosyncratic jazz music with a dry sense of humor from the same region of the country that the film Fargo so perfectly introduced the coats to, do you?

Well, that is just one of the surprises that The Bad Plus brings in tow. Three composers in one band who are skilled enough to disguise their compositions so you don’t know that the drums-heavy piece was actually written by pianist Ethan Iverson, or that the bass heavy song is one of drummer David King’s.

One of King’s finest songs, “Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass,” you would swear was written by bassist Reid Anderson. It begins with a tuneful bass introduction that swings its way into the rest of the tune. A clever piano counter melody comes in on top of a breezy beat that builds up and breaks down, but always comes back to that bass melody.

What does this have to do with a Midwestern highway? Well, “Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass” is a trucker/CB radio term (in fact, it is used in the pantheon of white trash culture, C.W. McCall’s title song for the filmConvoy) and is the title of this composition written by Minnesota native King. In the liner notes to These Are The Vistas, the record this is drawn from, it says of this song "The Bad Plus are from the land of 18-Wheelers, and this one is for truckers everywhere."

At first, second, and perhaps six thousandth listen, the song appears to have nothing to do with trucking. It is perhaps as far from trucking as can be, actually. Quiet jazz with a groove on a record with a robot on the cover and a Blondie cover? Yeah, I’m sure they pipe that through Cracker Barrels and Truck Stops throughout the breadbasket of America.

However, like many great songs, this one’s an onion. You peel off the layers until you find what it is you are looking for (even if it is not what the artist actually had in mind).

See, how I hear the song is that the opening bass figure, that repeats throughout, is like the song’s own personal CB handle. For those unfamiliar with CB radios, if I, Brian, were delivering paper goods to the good people of Topeka, Kansas, and got bored on the road, I would pick up my trusty CB receiver and call out to see if anyone is around to converse. I’m sure its more like talking about traffic and good rest areas to have secret homosexual affairs than like “The Best Little Chat House 2167,” but the way I identify myself among the sea of CB-ers out there would be to start all my transmissions with my handle, a name given to myself in the trucker world. Think of it as a screen-name for the multi-lane blacktop internet.

I think I’d be the Duke of Jersey.

So anyway, back to the song. The bass figure is Anderson calling out to those on the road. The piano and drums are answering him in conversation. Every once and awhile, he has to re-identify himself, so the figure repeats.

Towards the end of the song, there is an elongated bass solo. I like to think of that as a soul-bearing monologue that the driver simultaneously hopes is never heard by anyone and yet screamed into the radio, begging for compassion and understanding. And after it is over, the tears wiped off his face, nose blown into a checkered handkerchief, he simply restates his handle, and continues driving.

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MP3s (PC Users Right-click and Save As, Mac Users Control Click Download Linked FIle):

Homunculus - "70 West"

The Bad Plus - "Keep The Bugs Off The Glass, And The Bears Off Your Ass"

Commerce:

Purchase Homunculus' The Pulse of Directed Devotion and other fine records from the now-defunct group.

Purchase the Bad Plus' debut, These Are The Vistas and their subsequent two studio records, as well as the internet only Live in Tokyo.

Monday

From Oregon with Love (The Black Keys)

bluets

As part of this months theme, “Geography” I thought I would keep it local. I am a native Oregonian….that’s right NATIVE…not one of those obnoxious Californian transplants. The following is part 1 of several music seeking adventures in my lovely state and especially in Portland, Oregon.

____________________

We arrived at the Roseland Theatre at 8pm. Line was full of hard core Keys fans. I chatted with a nice Wisconsin College boy standing in front of me in line. He was alone and visiting Oregon. A college dorm friend had loaned him a Black Keys’ CD, and that was all it took. I didn’t bother to ask what had brought him to Oregon, but he mentioned that his visit had made him question his stay in Wisc.

8:20pm-we were past the metal detectors and survey of our belongings from the security guards. I made a bee line to the balcony for my pick of seats. I looked over the crowd gathering on the floor. I counted 3 hoodie clad youths already. One out of three of the boys sported the shaggy haircuts and skinny legged jeans that seem to be in vogue again. One of the boys had already made his way to the t-shirt vendors and was examining his new TBK tee. I noticed as he slipped the new shirt over his thermal that it was yellow with a large sunny side up egg on the front. It went well with his brown vintage blazer. Man, he must be warm! 1-2-3…young girls seemed to be accompanied to the show by their fathers (at least I hope it was their fathers). I glanced behind me. The frat boys in their ball caps and two days of beard growth were congregating next to the bar-hands clutching beers. Seated in the balcony around me I see through the dim light several Elvis Costello styled glasses framing faces.

On the stage were two prominently placed drum kits. It wasn’t had to figure out which one was Patrick’s (drummer for TBK). Oh no! I see a keyboard. That obviously must be the opening act, Beat Awake. I have never heard of them. I already had a bad feeling. Thoughts of the band Chicago shoot briefly through my head. They use keyboards. I saw Chicago on one of my first big dates in school. I doubled with another girl and her boyfriend. I can’t remember my dates name….what was it?....George! That’s right! Waiting for a show to start always brings the random thoughts out in me.

Anyway….as usual most of the concert goers closest to the stage appear to still be in high school. I mentally send out a high-five to them for their good taste in music. At least on the floor, the boys out number the girls 1 to 10. The girls remind me of the ones from my own high school days who listened to Def Leppard and were in the AV club. Maybe that is why I am so bitter about Chicago and keyboards. None of the guys I went out with were adventurous when it came to music…or other things for that matter.

Finally! The lights dim further. The opening act enters. They remind me of characters out of the film “Roger and Me” with their trucker hats, mustaches and overgrown hair. “Hi. We are Beat Awake from Kent, Ohio. Glad to be here in Portland. We have had so many friends who have recently moved here, and we can see why.” At this point they seem to wave at those same friends. I guess when you are the opening act it is wise to brown nose the audience a bit. As they began their set I understood why brown nosing was necessary. Oh, how I wanted to like them. They were young, taking a risk (as all musicians who dare to step on a stage), and dude…they were opening for The Black Keys which had to be tough. I don’t know maybe I just don’t like hippy, jam bands whose lead singer sounds like he is calling the pigs in for dinner. I decided to go down stairs to the main floor bar for a smoke (I remember when you could smoke anywhere in the Roseland). At least I had an excuse to leave for a bit.

While downstairs I continued to watch the act on the projection scene they have set up, but then decided to daydream a bit about my hours spent before the show. It was the first Thursday of the month which meant that all of the high-end art galleries in the loft-life infested “Pearl District” were holding their monthly open house. Gallery after gallery I had inspected how much you can sell the appearance of something special for. The best had to of been a piece of canvas covered with very semi-vintage ladies gloves that were merely tacked on with a couple of hand stitched. They were the kind of cheap knit fabric ones you can still find in most Good-Will clothing bins for a mere 25 cents. The wall of gloves covered a 5 X 7 space which by my estimates used about $125 dollars worth of gloves. The piece was priced at $1300. I don’t know if I will ever understand the pricing of art. Maybe it has something to do with all of the wine-sipping, women wearing look-at-my-ass-white jeans that were in almost every gallery. If you tell them it's art…the bimbos will buy it I guess. Soon after the gallery with the gloves we made the five block journey to the Roseland. As I rounded the final corner, I watched a woman in a mini-van make a crack deal and took my place in line. I had gone from the riches to the rags of the city in just a few minutes.

Snapping myself out of my daydream I crushed my cigarette out and went back upstairs. Beat Awake were just finishing up. Shortly after the stage was set, and then the lights went dim again. I had seen the Black Keys just a year earlier and I was just as excited as the first time. As the Black Keys made their first appearance of the night the entire venue exploded with welcomed cheers. The balcony and the entire place for that matter were now filled to capacity. Older concert goers now surrounded me in my balcony seat. As the Black Keys hit their first couple notes I felt myself blurt out “Fuck!” I couldn’t believe how good they sounded. I would repeat that word several more times throughout the show. I am not sure what it is about the Black Keys (especially their live show) or hearing the blues (which permeates much of the Black Keys sound) that is so amazing. But I heard it said somewhere “You have to emotionally be there. There is no music without the voice to share it.” I would have to agree. There is a connection to their music that is so passionate and honest. There is no “phoning in” a single word in their song, note of the guitar, or beating of the drums. “Stack Shot Billy” and “Girl is on my Mind,” was just as fresh and it seemed even more full of emotion and new musical nuances than the first time I heard it live. And when they played “Modern Times” and “Your Touch” (two new songs off their latest album, “Magic Potion” that was being released a week after the show) I knew I would have yet another favorite album to add to my collection.

The Black Keys certainly did not disappoint that night and I don’t think the audience disappointed them either. Dan mentioned before his final encore how much they enjoyed being back in town again. I suppose most bands say stuff like that, but I would like to think he really meant it. After all, we are talking about Oregon……

long way around the sea




Well, as neat as it is, the river does indeed flow into the sea (or another, bigger river) so following my last post in the geography theme, I'm going to write about the sea/ocean.

Is there a difference between a sea and an ocean? The only real difference that I could discern from their meanings is that you can have an inland sea (Caspian Sea), but not an inland ocean. Maybe someone with greater knowledge than I can shed some light. Now normally talk of the ocean would be a good excuse to talk about pirates, or if we went back to last months theme we could talk about how Pirates of the Caribbean 2 has just become the third biggest grossing film of all time. But we shouldn't do that really. We should examine closely the links between music and those vast expanses of water. We should wonder at the metaphors used within, woven so cleverly that even the most ardent fans still argue for hours over the internet about what they really mean. We could wonder at the destructive nature of the sea, the mystery of it and indeed the mysteries it holds. We may even look at the man made craft that skim atop its surface, like the ill-fated Titanic, the Marie Celeste or the HMS Bounty. In fact the list is practically endless and I have no idea where to begin.

Saying that, as I write it, I have the sudden idea to write about one of the greatest oceanic mysteries, Atlantis. Where did it disappear to? Did it really exist?

The earliest mention of Atlantis came from Plato in about 350BC where he describes several conversations overheard. One of the participants of these conversations (Timaeus) claims that his account stems from Solon the Lawmaker who visited Egypt in the 6th century BC. Timaeus may actually be a fictional character invented by Plato, however, Solon is a historical person. Of course, we all want to know where Atlantis was (while at the same time trying to banish images of Patrick Duffy's webbed hands and feet from our minds). Many theories suggest that Atlantis was somewhere inside the Mediterranean, at various locations. This is given some weight due to the volcanic eruption of Mount Thera which occurred in the 17th or 15th century BC. The eruption would have caused a massive tsunami which could easily have wiped out a coastal civilization. Certainly, if Atlantis didn't exist, then its legend may have been based on this.

The Black Sea is also a popular theoretical site. In about 5600 BC the Black Sea flooded with 200 times the daily flow over Niagra Falls pouring into to it for some 300 days through the Bosphorus. It was then a freshwater lake and this flooded some 150,000 square kilometeres of land. In fact this flood has also been postulated as the flood of Noah, but many scientists believe that was some 2000 years or so later.

Maybe it existed in the lost continent of Mu? Maybe not. Other popular destinations for the fabled city are Cyprus, Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. I'm not sure if anyone will ever truly find out where Atlantis was, or even if it existed, but I do know we'd be poorer without the myth.

I suppose I should have talked about the songs, but suffice to say they're great, with the first one being the least great, but increasing in oceanic greatness as we go down the all too short list. (even Bat For Lashes, kitten)

mp3: Frank Black - Atlantis (Buy)

mp3: Bat For Lashes - Mother Sea (Buy)

mp3: Low - Long Way Around the Sea (Buy)

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Wednesday

exit music (for a film)

The screen dims, the curtains close and the stunned and bleary eyed audience begin to rise from their seats and shuffle out as the music fades away to silence.....

After a delay which is entirely my own fault (or the fault of the person who gave me the cold) bluets first podcast is completed and the movie theme can finally be laid to rest. On it you will hear a select few tracks from the posts of the last month and the dulcet tones of this blogs contributors.

So concludes August for Bluets. We've watched some films, listened to some music and talked about some things that weren't even really related but we thought were interesting. I say we I mean me, I'm terrible for that.

Enjoy.

Podcast: exit music (for a film)

Notes: exit music (for a film) PDF

Poll:
One option we've considered for bluets is as well as having a podcast at the end of each month providing you with a download and burn mix tape of the tracks featured in the podcast. We'd give you a cover, a tracklist and the MP3's so you can do it yourself. Would this be a useful thing? I don't know that's why I'm asking you....



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Monday

Into the Valley



Here's the second of my posts with a geographical bent for this month, and rather than going into the deep and hidden meanings of what a valley means lyrically, I'm just going to write a little bit about one of my favourite artists. It's kind of geographical in another way in that this guy was brought up in Dunfermline, not far from where I lived in my teenage years. I'm talking about Stuart Adamson founder member of The Skids, Big Country and then in the 90's The Raphaels.

I can't exactly remember when I first saw Big Country live, but it was probably around 1986/87. I saw them in Glasgow, Edinburgh and once in their hometown of Dunfermline. That gig proved to be a bit embarrassing, as in our naivety we phoned the venue to ask if there was a dress code. The venue said shirt and tie. We scrambled to borrow our fathers' ill-fitting clothes and turned up to find noone else wearing said garments. I guess we made someone happy. Gig was fantastic though. I'd loved them since their first album The Crossing came out in 1983 and although they'd had a couple of singles beforehand, In A Big Country was the first single that grabbed me. I always remember there being a huge rivalry at school between fans of Big Country and fans of Marillion as to who was the best. It seems silly now, but then it was a huge deal. Stuart Adamson left the slow punk of The Skids behind and formed Big Country in 1981. Essentially he was the driving force behind both bands, The Skids quite literally living up to their name after he left.

Big Country followed The Crossing with Steeltown and The Seer, where for me they began to lose it. Peace in Our Time gave a brief glimpse of what they had been, all bagpipe guitars and swirling hooks peppered with Celtic lyrical imagery. But then I gave up. I noticed they had albums out but was never tempted to by them, except for some strange feeling of guilt at abandoning a long-loved artist. Their 1999 album Driving to Damascus (John Wayne's Dream in the USA) dragged me back kicking and screaming after hearing the single Fragile Thing, with Eddie Reader. It was/is a cracking album, but failed commercially. For Stuart Adamson this was a blow, which led him into depression. A disappearance and reports of alcohol abuse followed (he had signed the pledge on Live Aid day in 1985). He tried to restart his career with the country-rock band The Raphaels, but his demons remained and after another disappearance in 2001 he was found hanged in a hotel room in Honolulu.

I find the whole story tragic. A man who had so much to live for and music to give, pulled down by depression, alcohol and his inner demons. I guess it's not unique, but for me it's close to home. One of my favourite anecdotes about Stuart Adamson following his death was this. (and I paraphrase) When Stuart met you and talked to you he didn't ask "What do you do? Where do you live?" he wanted to find out who you were, what your thoughts were, why you felt like that. He looked deeper than the surface, which is all most of us do, and was genuinely interested in people.

That struck a real chord with me and it's something I try to do whenever I can. Smalltalk sucks so bad sometimes, wouldn't it be great if we actually gave a shit about how other people feel? Maybe we'd learn something.

mp3: The Skids - Into the Valley

mp3: Big Country - Broken Heart (thirteen valleys)


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Friday

Take me to the river


For this month's theme of things 'geographical' (we all have different takes on this) I decided to look at geographical features and after mulling over a few I'm starting off with rivers. I had thought that when starting this I'd be struggling to find tracks, but actually, there's hundreds of them.

But why rivers? What's so special about them that makes musicians write about them time and again. In general, civilization owes an immense debt to them. There's hardly a major city, certainly in Europe, that isn't built on a river. Paris (Seine), London (Thames), Belgrade/Budapest/Bratislava (Danube) to name a few. In fact if you take the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq, they are two of the four rivers mentioned in the Bible that are said to flow from the Garden of Eden. On a non-religious note, civilization is believed to have began there in about 4000 BC, principally because the fertile regions around the area gave the perfect environment for humans to settle together. That's why the region is of such historical interest and value.

I guess the most famous song involving rivers is Brice Springsteen's 'The River'. There, it seems to me, the river is a place of calm, a place for him and his wife to escape the hardships of life. Maybe even a place where their worries and fears are washed away and they can be together. Of course, metaphorically, it probably means their love, their joy of being with one another. So at the end of the song when Springsteen sings 'that sends me down to the river though I know the river is dry' he's singing about the end of the love in their relationship, the realization that the spark that was once there has gone.

So, literal or metaphorical, the river is still a powerful image to use in a song. Neil Young's 'Down by the River' seems to use the river as some kind of division device too. A barrier between him and his 'baby', although truth be told, I can't really figure out those lyrics. Talking Heads' "Take me to the River" seems a bit easier, the river there is a metaphor for change. Here he is on his sixteenth birthday prepared to give up everything for this girl, it may even be in an effort to get his first experience of sex. Although I can't help feel that when David Byrne is singing 'Dip me in the water, drop me in the water' there's an allusion to Achilles, like this girl is his achilles heel.

Haha, listen to me go all english litcrit. Still, it's my take on these songs. Hope you enjoy them

mp3: Bruce Springsteen - The River

mp3: Talking Heads - Take Me to the River

mp3: Neil Young - Down by the River


buy: Springsteen /Talking Heads / Young


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