Thursday, March 28, 2019

100 Albums: "Hair: The Original Broadway Musical Soundtrack"

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Galt McDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado
Title: Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
Released: 1968
Genre: rock musical


Every now and then a musical captures the zeitgeist of a generation--at least, the zeitgeist of that generation's starving New York art scene. For the late 60's, that musical was Hair, a ground-breaking succès de scandale that depicted the burgeoning hippie movement in all of its racially-integrated, free-loving, drug-taking, war-protesting glory. It gained notoriety--and is likely best remembered--for its nude scene, but it was a significant cultural phenomenon for its time, running on broadway a full year before the era-defining event that was Woodstock. The soundtrack spawned a number of major radio hits that have been subsequently covered. It helped launch the careers of Meat Loaf, Melba Moore, Diane Keaton, and Tim Curry, amongst others. It tells the story of Claude, nominal leader of "the tribe" who has been drafted and is torn between continuing on penniless with his principles and his draft-card-burning contemporaries, or caving in to pressures from his conservative parents and joining the army. And that's pretty much the story. It's worth reading the plot synopsis on Wikipedia just for the staging of the acid trip that takes up much of Act II just so you can get an idea of how bonkers the show was.

Though it's called the first "rock musical" it borrows a lot musically from funk. The guitar tone through much of the recording wouldn't feel out of place on a disco record. The bass from Jimmy Lewis is incredible. As is common for musicals, the mid-range instruments are pulled back to make room for the vocals, so the bass is prominent and it's a lot of fun to listen to. Lyrically, the songs are intentionally provocative, celebrating sex acts, drugs, race, etc. Most of the songs in Act I are little more than vignettes, like the song Sodomy which has this to say: "Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty. Father, why do these words sound so nasty?" And... that's half the lyrics of that song right there. The most famous songs from the show are Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In, which would be immortalized by The Fifth Dimension--although I hate that they drop the first two thirds of The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In) and just repeat the chorus ad nauseam. It's easy to pick out the radio songs because they have tighter performances and cleaner mastering. Easy To Be Hard would go on to be a hit for Three Dog Night.

Some of the best songs are the ones that deliberately stoke race. Colored Spade has a black man going through a litany of "slang" words for "black" which is entirely made up of racial slurs before he settles on "President of the United States of Love". White Boys is a parody of the Supremes that is an absolute show-stopper. Abie Babie has a black woman reciting the Gettysburg Address as though it were an MLK speech, the whole time being distracted by the doo-wop singers backing her up. When someone pretends to shoot her, her response is "Bang? Shit, I ain't dyin' for no white man." It's a bold statement from one of the earlier Broadway shows to feature a fully integrated cast. Then there are the smaller, quiet songs like Good Morning Starshine, which was sung on Sesame Street, or Frank Mills, which I used to sing to my boys as a lullaby.

It's fun, it's rollicking, it's brash, it's messy, it's controversial, and it's occasionally filthy. Oh, and there are multiple passages from Shakespeare woven into the lyrics. A treat for the whole family, really.

Further Listening: They made a movie in the late 70s that makes some pretty big alterations to the story and disco-fies most of the music. Not recommended. In 1967 there was an off-Broadway version of the show that had a soundtrack release but it might as well have been a different show. The show had a recent revival on Broadway which gave us a new soundtrack, but I haven't listened to that one yet. Could be worthwhile.

Monday, March 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Touch" by July Talk

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: July Talk
Title: Touch
Released: 2016
Genre: indie alternative swamp-rock



For a few years there, it was just a given that an "indie" band would have both a male and female singer, the most famous probably being either Of Monsters And Men or She & Him. But aside from a few exceptions, the blended male/female typically result in neither vocalist being very memorable or distinct.

July Talk is the exception, co-fronted by Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis, who sound kind of like a happier Karen O and an angrier Leonard Cohen, respectively. They sing at complete opposite ends of the spectrum, Fay with an almost keening soprano and Dreimanis with a growly baritone, which means they don't blend so much as form a two-pronged assault. Fittingly, a lot of their vocal lines aren't so much handed off to each other as they are a call-and-response. You can hear that used to great effect on Lola + Joseph, a song about a chance romantic encounter at a liquor store, and also just a damned sexy song.

Despite describing their actual relationship as "brother/sister" Fay and Dreimanis frequently sing in character as paramours, and the messiness of adult relationships are an undercurrent throughout the whole album. Topics include being unsatisfied with voyeurism (Picturing Love), staying in a broken relationship just because the familiarity is comfortable (Strange Habit), and the complications around a casual "booty call" relationship (Beck + Call). The album ends with Touch, an atmospheric slow-build song about needing to connect with someone but at the same time needing to keep yourself walled off from everyone. And for good measure, there's also a song about colonialism (Jesus Said So).

It's a compelling album with a unique sound. I heard the song Touch on the Next Music podcast and knew I was going to need to hear the rest of the album. They're a new band, but one to watch.

Further Listening: The band only has one other album, a self-titled album from 2012. It's not nearly as refined as Touch, but you can hear rougher versions of the sonic elements that are on display here. It also has Summer Dress, which is perhaps the band's best song.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

100 Albums: "Astro Lounge" by Smash Mouth

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Smash Mouth
Title: Astro Lounge
Released: 1999
Genre: alt-rock surf-pop


Twenty-two records in and this is the third surf-rock album. I may have a type. This is another album that is just plain fun. And yes, All-Star is much maligned, and I suppose that's fair. It's light and fluffy and got seriously overplayed when it came out. But the entire album holds up. I make sure it's on my iPod before any lengthy road trip, because not only is it compulsively listenable, it even sounds good on crappy car speakers with messed up EQs.

It opens with Who's There, a track that gleefully announces what you can expect for the next fifty-odd minutes: vintage-guitar-and-rock-organ dance-pop that's been bedazzled with sci-fi sound effects and theramins. It's not deep, but it's up-tempo and immensely fun. And even if the singles are kind of played out, there are plenty of other great songs to choose from. I'm a big fan of Waste, Fallen Horses, Diggin' Your Scene, and I Just Wanna See. The only thing I don't particularly like about the album is the ending. The penultimate song Home would have been a perfect closer, but a cover of ? And The Mysterians' I Can't Get Enough Of You Baby is tacked on after (yes, I know The Four Seasons did it first, but SM's version definitely is inspired by ?atM). Skip it.

Further Listening: Fush Yu Mang, the band's debut, has a couple decent tracks, but nothing else Smash Mouth has put out really holds a candle to this, not that I've heard anyway.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Curious Fictions (And Some Blog Cleanup)

Hey everybody!

I'm going to be doing some housekeeping around here, deleting older posts and what not. Part of that means I'll be taking down the Friday Flash Fiction posts. I anticipate most of them will be given a coat of polish and then moved over to Curious Fictions.

Which, oh, by the way...

I've got a page at Curious Fictions. It's a platform for authors to post their reprints, so I'll be migrating previously published stories over that way. If you are so inclined, you can subscribe to my posts over there.

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100 Albums: "Play" by Moby

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Moby
Title: Play
Released: 1999
Genre: alt-rock but also techno and somehow kind of archival?


Alt-rock and grunge were on the wane in the late 90s, having been displaced by nü-metal, rap-rock, and the boy-band revival. Into that melange, enter Moby, a tiny bald vegan from New York whose song Natural Blues was essentially an EDM-lite remix of a Depression-era Mississippi Delta song by Vera Hall. So when that creeped into radio playlists, my cohort's collective reaction was "Wait, what the hell was that? Play it again!"

Though Play felt like a bolt from the blue, Moby had been working in music for nearly two decades. He'd started in the early 80s playing guitar for a hardcore punk band called the Vatican Commandos and then had a career as a DJ and techno artist through the late 80s and early 90s. In the mid-90s he'd started blending those sensibilities, putting out Everything Is Wrong, which has the vibe and tempo (mostly) of an alt-rock album but whose songs are largely structured like EDM songs and sung by guests vocalists. Several of those had found their way onto film--notably God Moving Over The Face Of The Water, which is prominently featured in the finale of Michael Mann's crime drama Heat.

Play takes those same musical sensibilities but adds a new gimmick: several tracks feature vocals sampled from delta blues songs. Trouble So Hard becomes Natural BluesJoe Lee's Rock becomes Find My Baby. Moby himself sings on a few, notably the singles Porcelain and Southside, the latter of which featured Gwen Stefani on both the single re-mix and music video (honestly, I prefer the non-Gwen version, but your mileage may vary). Overall, it's an odd duck of an album. It absolutely should not work, but it does work and it's kind of amazing. Moby's process at this point was to just record 150 songs in his apartment and then pick his favorite 17 or 18 to make the record. It's mostly driven by piano and slide guitar over looped drums. There are a half dozen lead vocalists. The liner notes contain essays about veganism, prison reform, and fundamentalism. It includes progressive dance (Bodyrock), gospel (Run On), spoken word (The Sky Is Broken), ambient instrumental (Inside), alt-rock (Southside), in addition to the delta blues remixes (Natural BluesFind My BabyHoney).

It is, in short, Moby being Moby. This is the man who, as a successful musician, opened a tea store in New York City where he would occasionally buss tables. He's just a guy who found a way to make a living doing what he loves, and his albums are always just doing whatever he's interested in, and for a while there, whatever he was interested in happened to be very popular.

Further Listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, Everything Is Wrong would be on this list for sure. Animal Rights, which fell between EiW and Play, is an interesting mix of lo-fi punk and ambient piano that just doesn't quite work. I do like 18, the follow-up to Play, but it doesn't break any new ground. It feels very much like a re-tread of the Play formula.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

100 Albums: "Puppy Love" by The Kickstand Band

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: The Kickstand Band
Title: Puppy Love
Released: 2012
Genre: garage surf-rock


I got this album as part of a bundle from the now-defunct music curation service Sound Supply. Of the dozens of albums I got from that service, this is the only one that really stands out (I've discovered lots of interesting songs, but this is hands-down the best album). It's light, it's poppy, it's energetic, and while musically it hews to a fairly classic formula, it has a lot of fun within the constraints of said formula. The two singers--it's an early teens indie band, so of course there's one female and one male singer--sound great together, and the playing is tight and lively.

Puppy Love is a mere 24 minutes long--the longest of its ten tracks barely crack two-and-a-half minutes. Still Thinking Of You is one of the of the slower songs. My fave from the album is Purgatory, which gives the afterlife the same sort of treatment the Squirrel Nut Zippers did with their song Hell: dressing it up with genre-specific lingo. I'm also a big fan of New Years Eve, the album closer. But honestly, there's not a track here I don't enjoy.

Further Listening: They've put out a few EPs, but no other proper albums. Nothing else I've heard from them shines quite a brightly as this. I'd recommend going to their Bandcamp page where you can stream the entire album and buy it at whatever price you think is fair.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

New Fiction Out Now: Please [redacted] My Last Email

I've got a story out in the Futures section of the new issue of Nature Magazine. This is my second time being published in Nature. It's probably the weirdest story I've ever sold, and I'm super proud of it.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

100 Albums: "Tron: Legacy" by Daft Punk

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Daft Punk
Title: Tron: Legacy Original Motion Picture Sountrack
Released: 2010
Genre: orchestral electropop


I've never seen the film, but I love this soundtrack. Neither am I a particularly huge fan of French EDM pioneers Daft Punk. This is simply a situation where the right elements came together to make some incredible. Instead of their normal sample-heavy dance tracks, Daft Punk crafted the music for this from whole cloth, blending their synth sensibilities with an 85-piece orchestra to create something that wasn't quite a movie score and wasn't quite a dance record, but existed somewhere in between. It's great background music. I can put it on while working on something and enjoy it without being too distracted by it. In fact, after Trouble Will Find Me, it's my favorite music to write to.

There is a single motif that runs throughout the album, and it's a great one. A stripped down version of it shows up in the Overture, a high-energy version over the end titles, and other permutations throughout. A few tracks break away to do their own thing, and of those I highly recommend Derezzed and Adaggio For Tron. It's got highs and lows, staggers and stops, but unlike a lot of the scores that you can find to listen to on their own, the tracks here each feel like their own song, not just an aggregate of music cues that have been glommed into a single track because they run together.

Further Listening: Random Access Memories is interesting, and digs a little more into funk and disco. Paul Williams sings on it, so that's fun. It's an odd duck of an album, but it features Get Lucky, which was destined to be the song of the summer of 2013, until it got blasted out of the water by Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines. And then there's the Daft Hands meme that sprang up around Harder Better Faster Stronger, which is itself a great tune.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

100 Albums: "Help!" by The Beatles

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: The Beatles
Title: Help!
Released: 1965
Genre: The frickin' Beatles


I almost went with 1 instead because honestly how the hell do you pick a favorite Beatles album? On a different day of the week I might have said Rubber Soul or Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, but I settled on Help! because it's the absolute best album of their early period when they were the most like a normal band. They still played together as a group and hadn't started getting super experimental yet--which, to be clear, I love their experimental stuff, but there's something to be said for a rock band in a room playing straight-forward rock music. At a certain level, it becomes less about what songs you like on an album and more about which album has the bits that annoy you the least. And for my money, I'd rather hear George Harrison mess around with an expression peddle (I Need You) than with a sitar (Love You To from Revolver, Within You/Without You from Sgt. Pepper, basically all of the Concert For Bangladesh).

Lennon and McCartney are absolutely on fire with their writing on this record. The title track is one of the best--if not the best--of John Lennon's entire oeuvre. Second-to-last on the album we have Paul McCartney's Yesterday, one of the greatest pop songs ever written and the most-covered song of all time. In many ways, Help! is the archetypical Beatles records. We get John being sad but in a poppy way (Ticket To Ride), John being sad in a sad way (You've Got To Hide Your Love Away), John being out-and-out depressed (It's Only Love), Paul's bubblegum pop in a major key (I've Just Seen A Face--my low-key fave on the record), Paul's bubblegum pop in a minor key (The Night Before), George being overly technical (It's Only Love), George kicking back and having fun for a change (You Like Me Too Much), a cover that's fun but doesn't really feel like it belongs here (Dizzy Miss Lizzy), and a goofy song for Ringo to sing (Act Naturally, a great Carl Perkins number). The only song that's not great is Tell Me What You See, which is a pretty good song actually, it just gets droney in the verses.

Recorded over four months and then released six weeks later, Help! came in the middle of a whirlwind of productivity when the Beatles were putting out two albums a year and touring constantly. There's a rushed feel--it never gets too perfect, but the Beatles were also extremely well-practiced musicians, so even the not-quite-perfect stuff feels pretty good: loose and vibrant, never sloppy. At thirty-seven minutes long, none of the album's fourteen tracks sticks around very long, so you get positively pummeled by brilliant pop song after brilliant pop song. After the dreary Beatles For Sale, Help! is a revelation. The band was reinvigorated in no small part by becoming friends with Bob Dylan (Dylan's fingerprints are all over You've Got To Hide Your Love Away) who introduced them to his other friend Mary Jane. So the band was relaxing a bit but hadn't gotten to the point yet where Paul was writing love songs about the drug yet (Revolver's Got To Get You Into My Life).

The album is accompanied by a movie of the same name, which I really can't recommend. The performances in it are fun, but the plot involves the band trying to escape a Thuggee cult that's trying to murder Ringo and it's... rough. Suffice it to say that seeing British actors in Indian make-up is problematic by modern standards, and really problematic when you dig into the history shared by those two countries. I don't blame the band for this, though. By their own admissions, they were basically stoned out of their minds for the entire shoot.

Further Listening: I dunno, all of it? I mean, it's the frickin' Beatles. What do you want? The White Album is a touch overrated, Let It Be is kind of a hot mess, and their really early stuff is sloppy, especially the stereo mixes. On the other hand, they're the frickin' Beatles. Help! kicked off a stretch of amazing records that got progressively more inventive: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (also overrated, but only because it's merely brilliant and not world-peace-inducing), and Magical Mystery Tour (uneven with some bizarre A-side tracks, but overall a very solid effort). But if you're looking to dip your toe in, I would still recommend 1, released in 2000 in an attempt to repackage The Beatles as a boy band and also somehow as direct competition with Elvis, for some reason? It's a decent career retrospective that includes almost all of their best-known hits (the big notable exception being Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds which was never a single). It was the first major remaster of any of the Beatles songs since they were originally released on CD in 1987, and its success led to the remastering of the entire catalog that was released in 2009. It's not as comprehensive as the blue and red compilations from 1973, but it's stronger for being a bit more streamlined.

Monday, March 4, 2019

100 Albums: "The Electric Lady" by Janelle Monáe

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Janelle Monáe
Title: The Electric Lady
Released: 2013
Genre: afrofuturist R&B


The Electric Lady picks up the tale of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android, hunted in her home city of Metropolis for falling in love with a human. So, Janelle Monáe is a big old sci-fi nerd, is what I'm getting at.

This album was a bit of a slow burn for me. Dance Apocalyptic is just breathtakingly fun, but nothing else on the record is quite as immediately accessible. The songs do get under your skin, though. After a complete listen, I found myself going back to groove on Electric Lady, It's Code, and We Were Rock & Roll. Monáe mostly belts out soul, but Q.U.E.E.N. and Ghetto Woman both feature some blistering raps. But I think my favorite on the album--after Dance Apocalyptic--is Sally Ride, an ode to eponymous astronaut who was the third woman in space, the first American woman in space, and the presumed first LGBTQ astronaut ever.

I poked fun at the sci-fi stuff above, but it's an important part of the album's aesthetic and message. A lot of it is relegated to the music videos and liner notes and some oblique lyrical references, but there are three interludes that take the form of a call-in android radio show that do some interesting world-building. The host, DJ Crash-Crash, fields calls from pro-human and anti-human androids, android sorority girls (the Electro-Phi Betas), even a human who has called in to say that "robot love is queer." It becomes pretty evident that in the context of this album, androids are an oppressed class who have formed their own vibrant subculture. And in case that metaphor is too subtle for you, I'll remind you that this is afrofuturism.

The Electric Lady is fun, inventive, soulful, immersive, and it has something to say. And I have a soft spot for ambitious projects, especially ones that you can dance to.

Further Listening: The Electric Lady is parts IV and V of a proposed seven-part concept series that started with the Metropolis EP and continued with The ArchAndroid. Both of those are highly listenable. Her most recent album is Dirty Computer, which I haven't listened to yet, but it's been very well-received. And while it's not exactly "further listening," Monáe gives a great performance as real-life mathematician and NASA engineer Mary Jackson in the movie Hidden Figures. Science!