Happy Birthday, Eyeball Kid

Last week I got this limited edition pressing of Tom Waits’s The Mule Variations on Discogs:


Just today I found out from my good friend Dan that this week is the album’s 20th anniversary.

This is a pretty damn good track-by-track retrospective of what may have been his finest album ever. Tom Waits fans tend to divide themselves into periods. I have friends who like the oldest stuff best, friends who prefer the Small Change period or the era of Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years. Me, I love all of it. Even a couple of tracks from those early years, when he showed more promise than payoff.

The Mule Variations straddles all of those boundaries. It’s a primer on his whole career and an executive summary of the cuddly junkyard clang of his sensibilities. He croons, he screams, he digs up roots and pounds them to pulp on a hotel dresser. He creeps and growls and even thunders up a gospel song you could almost screw to.

“Pony” is my tired and lonely song. “Filipino Box Spring Hog” is my summer cicada stomp. I want to buy a banjo and a rooster so I can learn to play “Chocolate Jesus”. And “Picture in a Frame”? That song is me with shaking hands and a tattoo bandage, watching my wife come down the aisle.

Tom’s music was part of what sold me on her, incidentally. She made me a mixtape when we started dating, on an actual cassette. I was on board by the end of “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and in love by the end of “Train Song”. I spent two weeks memorizing “Step Right Up” and can still do the whole sales pitch. Hoped it might impress her. She stuck around.

I’ve sung his songs to babies and howled them blind drunk. I’ve torn my throat up on the loud ones and whispered the quiet ones like prayers. He’s laid down fully half of the soundtrack of my entire adult life. And The Mule Variations binds all of those songs together, the horse bone glue of a nearly half-decade-long body of work that I can’t imagine not having right at hand.

I suppose it should make me feel old, contemplating the 20th birthday of an album that fell out of the sky at almost exactly the same moment that my wife did too. But all I can feel is grateful that I was there when they both landed.

How Music Was Made on Super Nintendo

This is one of those intersections of art and engineering that never fail to delight me. The sheer scale of effort required to manually code individual sound instructions to get around the hardware’s technical limitations is insane to me. That’s a labor of love. And the end result is often beautiful enough to stand on its own as ambient music.

...and Peggy [thhbbpppt]

Weird Al has managed to simultaneously hit a very specific intersection of my interests while creating the perfect musical representation of what it sounds like inside an ADHD-addled brain.

Leaving LA

I know he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and a 13-minute acoustic song with no chorus certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve probably listened to this song more than any other single track in 2017.

Choosing “Pure Comedy” for the album’s title track was the right pick, as it's essentially the thesis statement for what follows. But it feels like this was the one he tore himself open for.

Listening to FJM is kind of like reading Vonnegut. There’s a constant thread of simultaneous contempt and love for our species. He sees that we’re hideous and beautiful all at once, and he doesn’t flinch from it. He sings to it.

Sometimes the cynicism on this album goes a bit overboard. I have to be careful about how often I listen to it, because optimism doesn’t come easily for me these days. But when I listen to it, I feel a little less alone in beholding the inherent absurdity and savagery of our existence and not knowing what to do.

Poignant piano covers of "Where Is My Mind" in TV shows, ranked

  1. The Leftovers: Used to decent effect as a motif, dovetails almost seamlessly with the show's main musical theme, supplemented with the original recording for contrast
  2. Mr. Robot: Obvious hat tip to Fight Club from a show that owes a giant debt to Fight Club, was a nice wink and a nod
  3. Crazyhead: Used as a brief backdrop to a mental health scene and quickly dropped, uses the lyrics, which makes it a bit on-the-nose-y

This trend, like overwrought covers of "Hallelujah", is a kinda-hack thing that I still kinda like because I'm a sap.

But the best non-standard cover is still THePETEBOX.

We don't remember the farmer, we remember the fruit

The whole thing's great, but the money shot's at the end:

A hip hop act that name-checks Bubastis and Aslan and Ramsay Bolton. A band that's named for a semi-obscure joke from "Avatar: The Last Airbender". Yet manages to be not remotely about nerd service and stays true to its roots.

Not to mention they have some badass grooves. And recognize warp drive technology as a valid counterargument to nihilism.

Damn near every time kids or marginalized people get murdered and the usual "thoughts and prayers" do-nothing calliope starts its familiar tooting and wheezing, I recite the last verse of this song in my head as an antidote. Damn near every time.

Whether or not there is a voice willing to speak for us, it's a good thing we know how to yell.

I keep coming back to these guys. It's all worth a listen.

The Dark Side of the That's-No-Moon

The first eight minutes of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" synced with Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon". They say the whole movie works. Of course, they also say that Slender Man is real.

This is the best one of these I've seen since they did it with "The Wizard of Oz", which is a better thematic fit if you think marijuana is great. As many Slender Man people do.

We talk about story beats, particularly in sequential art stories like movies and comics, and it's not just a metaphor. Language itself is inherently musical, regardless of whether you speak a tonal language, and stories themselves are often most satisfying when they have a musical-ish structure. On the flip side, even "Add It Up" by the Violent Femmes feels like a three-act play to me.

So while I don't think there's anything grand lurking here, there is probably something in our instinctive pull towards certain rhythms and changes in stories and conversations just like in music, the way most popular music was built on a handful of chord progressions.

If I had fuck-you money and an attention span worthy of the name, I'd start randomly pairing concept albums with movies just to see how often I get a decent hit. I bet it would be statistically significant, but then again something this subjective just screams confirmation bias.

There is crazy magic in our stupidly repetitive and predictable brains. Hell, sometimes even I think Slender Man could be real.

You Know How I Feel

Just listen to this.

You probably have already. Somebody covered it on some TV talent show and it went kerflooey everywhere. I think you'll agree that it's pretty damn wonderful.

I was painting my daughter's room just now while listening to it and that thing in my chest went twang and I welled up a bit and I started thinking about why it does that to me, other than Ms. Simone's turpentine-syrup voice. There's something raging in the scaffolding of that song, and I think it's this: She's singing about how happy she is, but she's doing it in a minor key, not the most obvious choice for the subject.

Her voice casts a solitary declaration out into the dusk. Then comes the BUH BUHBUH BUHBUH artillery of the horns. She follows along but doubles down against their descent, her voice rising up with a threadbare and gritty shade draped over it. The contrast between what she's singing and how she's singing it exposes the raw nerve of that joy, reveals it to be the act of defiance that it is.

It's just goddamn hard to be whole.

Now, I've got nearly every advantage in the world. I was raised middle class by the world's best parents, was labeled "gifted" at the age of three, got two college educations, am able-bodied, look faintly nosferat-ish but not unattractive, and I have no major mental illnesses or behavioral disorders. I have spent my life splashing in an endless puddle of love and opportunity. So if it's this hard for me sometimes, I cannot imagine how it must have been for her, a mid-century African-American woman who came up from poverty and got slapped around by schizophrenia.

"Talent is a burden, not a joy," she once told a crowd. "I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you." But she was us. She was us magnified. I wish she had known that.

Out of that loneliness comes the loudest line: "Freedom is mine, and I know how I feel." The words and notes demand to be belted, but she makes them a threat. Freedom, motherfucker, do you speak it.

We sometimes dismiss optimists as naïve, but I'm calling bullshit on that. If my own well-stocked larder is any proof, pessimism is cheap. Optimism, like joy, starts with a hard choice.

Optimism is belief in the possibility of joy. Joy needs freedom. Freedom means not being owned. It means casting off bonds and ballast. It means choosing defiance. Optimists have sand.

It is hard to be whole. It is an impossible chore, and it is the nature of our predicament that, if we are to have any hope at all, we must choose it.

Sleep in peace when day is done. That's what I mean.

God Damn

I remember the first time I heard a recording of a young B.B. King wailing and growling his way through a I-IV-V shuffle about some woman what done broke his heart. Something went twang in my chest, then there was a mild adrenaline rush, and I was hooked. As absurd as it sounds, my skinny white suburban middle class self would be inextricably hooked on blues music for the rest of my life. Because I needed that feeling every day.

Hasn’t been often I’ve had that feeling of a tectonic shift when discovering a musician. Clapton. Hendrix. John Lee Hooker. Muddy. Stevie Ray. Public Enemy. Tom Waits, after he chased me around a few times. A few others, not many for 37 years. They only come around once every few seasons for me. My wife and I had just started dating when the last one came around.

Another one just happened today, about ten minutes before I wrote this sentence. I found this MetaFilter post (via dooce, no idea how I missed it when it first went up) about an up-and-coming band called The Alabama Shakes. I watched the first video linked there.

I said god damn.

That thing went twang again, first time in about a decade. Maybe it was partly Levon Helm’s recent passing, maybe it was how long it had been since the last time–shit, maybe it was the Wellbutrin–but I even got a little choked up by the end.

I don’t want to oversell it. I got the album, and it’s damn good. Sources tell me it’s nothing compared to watching them live. My guess is you’ll be hearing a lot from them pretty soon. Because seriously, god damn.