Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Little Help From My Friends

A lifetime of collecting music to love is a bit like a lifetime of saving money – when times are tough and you can’t come up with any new tunes to enjoy, you need an “account” of old music to draw upon to get you through. But you always want to be sticking a little more into the old bank. I’m constantly on the hunt for holy money: the sweet rewards of new music – or more accurately, music that is new to me.

Bank of MUSIC.

Regular readers may remember that a consistent theme threading through these posts is the experience of music as a form of time travel. With a little help from my friends, I recently got hipped to two great things worth sharing – and both of them fit right in for experiencing music as time travel.

First, thanks to my friend Amy Farnstrom. She and I have exchanged opinions on music from time to time since we were at college together. Our tastes run close so it is no big surprise that when we would catch up to exchange suggestions with one another, (sometimes after long stretches of being out of touch,) we’d discover that we had picked flowers from the same musical garden. She helped turn me on to one of my all-time faves, Belle and Sebastian; she was always a huge fan of David Bowie; and she championed wailing guitar gods like Johnny Marr and Pete Townshend.

She recently sent me the link for the self-titled first record of the band Heron Oblivion. I got a chance to listen to the whole thing once through this morning. There were immediately “grabbing” elements that Amy knew would be in my wheelhouse – especially the wonderful female vocals and the psychedelic rock aspects of the songs. I could also tell that the record will be a “grower” and that there will be much to pull out and appreciate on repeat listens.

Blessed psychedelic wonders, Heron Oblivion.

Blessed psychedelic wonders, Heron Oblivion.

The expansive sound percolates with fantastic rhythm provided by great 60s/70s style rock and folk drumming, and by creative bass flows. Throughout the record you can depend on the sweet, dull roars and resounding flickers of psychedelic guitar. And the big star for me here is singer Meg Baird – her vocals fairly sparkle.

The time travel machine invoked by Heron Oblivion can take you back to any of the prior five decades. The opener, Beneath Fields, has the assured trippy psych-folk quality that I would associate with a smoky subterranean San Francisco bar in the mid-1960s. My immediate favorite song, Faro, conjures the late-80s and the 90s with a driving, insistent, wildly experimental pluck and flow of sound that is straight out of Sonic Youth’s playbook – including the freaky guitar tunings and the breathy lyrical delivery that Kim Gordon mastered – a mixture of spoken and sung words that convey simultaneous vulnerability and confidence.

Heron Oblivion.

Heron Oblivion.

The record is due 4 March 2016 on the Sub Pop label. You can hear individual songs, or the whole thing here, now:

Heron Oblivion – NPR First Listen

Thanks also to friend Scott Lewandowski for his recent ‘reco’. Sweet Lew and I were boys together, and have stayed in close touch ever since. He has always had a great ability to sniff out cool sounds – and he recently unearthed a band that we had missed from the early 1980s – ESG – Emerald Sapphire Gold. (They recorded 1980-1985, and again for a time after 1991 – their music was reissued in 2010 on the Fire label.) I have just been poking around on YouTube to sample the band’s tunes and every click leads to a delightful new find for me.

Funky! The Scroggins Sisters.

Funky! The Scroggins Sisters.

It turns out that we have all probably heard lots of ESG’s music because so many great bands, including Public Enemy and Beastie Boys, have sampled it. Their influence on the original music of bands like Luscious Jackson is easy to hear, too. What is so crazy is that the Factory Records’ sound guru, Martin Hannett who is associated with Joy Division, produced the band’s first EP.

ESG’s main drivers were the Scroggins sisters from the south Bronx. They created a pretty stripped down and original music that is remarkable for its variety – from weirdly dark to just funky and fun.

Lew suggests checking out this one because, “the chorus sounds like dogs barking,” and he, “loves the tambourine.”

Dance by ESG from Dance to the Best of ESG (reissued in 2010 Fire Records).

This should be familiar:

UFO by ESG from the EP ESG (1981 Factory/99 Records).



Naked Eye by Luscious Jackson from Fever In Fever Out (1996 Grand Royal).

New Town Velocity by Johnny Marr from The Messenger (2013 Sire Records).

Get in touch with an old friend.

27 Feb 2016

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Prophetess of Spiritual Apocalypse

My mother annotated her environment. Florence was mainly a homebody and as we’ve been cleaning out her house, my sisters and I keep finding little handwritten notes – hundreds of them – often in nearly microscopic but always beautifully legible cursive. She made notes in expected places like book margins, on the edges of photographs, and on calendars.

Wasted youth? Partying with my sisters - 1966/67.

Wasted youth? Partying with my sisters – 1966/67.

But she also wrote highly detailed, sometimes florid notes on un-special pieces of scrap paper. She would then tape them to the bottoms of delicate china, or sturdy silver trays. She tucked them between the colorful folds of fancy silk scarves, in jewelry boxes, in the labels of long unworn clothing. I found an old, pale yellow Pepsodent toothbrush holder with a tidy little reminder slipped inside that it had been, “Used only three nights in Las Vegas.” Her sacred and lucky toothbrush case.

Keeping it light. My sisters set Jesus up for a comfortable little rest in mom's bed where they were sure I would find him.

Keeping it light. My sisters set Jesus up for a comfortable little rest in mom’s bed where they were sure I would find him. Good stuff – but no notes.

All of this would be hilarious if it were not also heartbreaking. There is a soulful quality to the endeavor of cataloging one’s surroundings – something generous that is close to being spiritual. Some of her commentary is delightful and lighthearted – charming reminders of the origins of her keepsakes. Many of her notes are simple, straightforward, and descriptive. But a few individual scraps of paper betray the quivering hand of a writer who set down each careful word with anguish, squinting, and with her eyes full with tears.

Florence at about age 16, with parents Clyde and May Rose Campbell.

Florence at about age 16, with parents Clyde and May Rose Campbell.

She was determined to get her story down and began writing little notes early in her life – we have found her memories recorded and attached to items dating from her girlhood days in the 1930s and 1940s. She was fiercely devoted to her parents and dearly loved her family. But the frequency and the urgency of her existential footnotes reached new levels during crises – for instance, after my dad died – and then especially in later years when she was developing signs of dementia. Most of her notes from that time are clearly meant for dual purposes – first, to remind herself of herself; and also, to tell others of the significance of her important things and the people who populated her life. Taped to the clapper of a ceramic handbell: “From Phil, My Dear Husband, Our children’s Daddy – Berlin, Germany – 1983 – He LOVED you. Great Guy!”

Combined with the practical necessities of tying up loose ends at the end of a loved-one’s life – these little notes have made cleaning out our mother’s home a form of emotional anthropology for my sisters and me. During our times spent together going through mom’s things, there is a mixture of joy and sorrow that we feel, both individually and as a sibling group. There is banality, mystery, and gratitude in our work – respect and confusion. It makes me sorry for anyone who must do such things alone, because it is exhausting. Each detail, each story, and each shred of paper is really a plea: “Please remember me.”

These are matters that also have me thinking about how other people tell their stories and the importance of doing so. Recently I learned about a fascinating Ukrainian artist named Mariana Sadovska, (thanks to coverage by NPR’s All Songs Considered of globalFEST 2016 at Webster Hall in New York City.) Writer Rob Weisberg’s summary of her is very fine: “… a charismatic and adventurous musical and theatrical performer. She began her career in avant garde theater, but also traveled across Ukraine, her home country, to learn songs from village women. She combines these influences and uses an array of traditional and non-traditional vocal techniques to create some of the most distinctive interpretations of traditional song you’ll hear anywhere.”

Sadovska in performance.

Sadovska in performance.

I will add that I first heard Sadovska while driving my car ninety minutes from my home to my mother’s. I was alone, and by the end of the first song I was so moved – so shaken – that I impulsively growled out a loud, “WOW!” when the song’s last notes faded away. Her singing infused me with a shock of adrenaline and emotion. I am unaware of any Eastern European heritage in my family, but this music hits me the way blues must hit others. I immediately replayed the song and my reaction was the same.

There are centuries contained in Mariana Sadovska’s voice, and multitudes. It is as if she has the ability to gather up into her body the events of years, and the anxieties, grief, and joys of souls from the past, then unloose them in displays of spectacular primal vocal variety. Her voice is at times otherworldly but always distinctly human, like the crying of a single soul echoing out from a thousand-year old tomb, or a curious and soothing sound riding to you on a breeze from the heavens. At times it is as dark as the inside of a closed coffin. And at other times her voice is an eruption of fire, while she embodies a witchy prophetess of volcanic spiritual apocalypse.

Isn't she witchy in pink.

Isn’t she witchy in pink.

Although the methods and the scales are poles apart, it strikes me that this wonderful artist, (with the devastating notes of her songs,) is making the same essential plea that my mother made with her notes: “Please remember me.”

I cannot decipher the lyrics of most of this song – her incantations are in Ukrainian, Russian, or Polish – but a chill will almost certainly rush over you when she sings a few words in English and you realize that the intensity of her tone and attitude are products of an undeniable universal affliction – the desolate torments of reflecting upon lost time and wasted youth.

Heaven-shaking power - Mariana Sadovska

Heaven-shaking power – Mariana Sadovska

Modern and ageless simultaneously, here is a link to a perfectly titled song:

Spell by Mariana Sadovska recorded live at globalFest 2016.

And this one:

After You’ve Gone by Marion Harris (1918 Victor).

Please remember me.

13 Feb 2016

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February Bike Ride, or, “Der”

J writes…

I am going to write about things you already know.

That global climate change is real – not an opinion – and that it’s worrisome to have a span of summer-like days in the middle of what should normally be the coldest month of the year.

But also, how wonderful it is to get a nice day in the middle of February, just when many of us are about to sharpen up the axe to use on our families.

Today, on the third day in a row the temperature here on the plains hit 70, I pumped up my bicycle tires and hit the trails. I rode past people doing yard work and washing their cars.  I rode by walkers, runners, and other bikers who could not help but flap their hands in enthusiastic waves of recognition about how we strangers were enjoying the sun and warmth. “Hello again, do I recognize you from the warmer months? Maybe not, but let’s share the path anyway. Take care. See you in the Spring,” the wave said.

I report (with serious consternation for our plant and animal brothers and sisters)  …   the February bike ride was awesome X 100.

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