Monthly Archives: August 2016
Late summer’s shadows and light fall distinctively. Their angles start to sharpen keenly around the middle of August, and they are deeply ingrained as portents from childhood. In their way, shadows provide a natural warning while light holds a natural promise, (oh, delicious anticipation!) They combine to signal the ending of summertime’s freedoms and the beginning of something else.
Didn’t you always love the summer? The way the light touches the trees and flowers in the mornings, almost begging to be thanked – “I think you are sensational, Tree. Thank you for smiling back at me.”
I always have loved summer, but I loved school too, especially the beginning of a new grade, (except the second grade – that can be another story.) There was wistfulness in saying goodbye to summer that was tempered by all the possibilities that a “new year” hinted at. We take our new beginnings where we can find them and I always get a new beginning from late summer’s intoxicating concoction of abandon and restraint – it gets to me, and I appreciate that I am still rumbling forward, slightly lightheaded.The promise and warning of late summer’s light and shadow.
The experimental music of the band Stereolab is perfect for this time of year, accentuating the electrifying assimilation of sounds that come from combining restraint and abandon. And for me, they also captured the sound of the beginning of something. It is art approached with urgency and patience — structure, discipline, and improvisation, (think of an aerialist running at full speed on a tightrope across a mountain chasm.) The result is music for the beginning of something at any season and for many occasions.
The band has been a gigantic favorite for 20+ years. It is surprising to find how little has been written about them on this page, and how few of their great songs have been featured here. But Stereolab has been back in heavy rotation through speakers and headphones recently. Ideal music for a late summer walk.
Stereolab’s sound evolved and was always unmistakable. They managed somehow to make original rock that was hugely referential and incorporated broad influences across multiple genres and eras. There are elements of 1970s German electronica, 1950s and 60s Mexican lounge, French and English chanteuses, and American pop ranging from Bacharach to the Beach Boys to The Velvet Underground.
They strived to constantly refresh their music, to sound new and different from anyone else. In doing so, they amassed an ambitious list of collaborators. These collaborations along with a wealth of ideas led to a prolific outpouring of music, not only from their main project as Stereolab, but also from a fantastic bunch of guest artist appearances (with Atlas Sound, Blur, and Mouse on Mars, to name a few,) side projects (like Monade and Cavern of Anti-Matter,) and offshoots (the tremendous High Llamas). And Stereolab’s influence on other bands is difficult of overestimate.
Multi-instrumentalists Laeticia Sadier and Mary Hansen were right up front, anchoring the band’s signature vocal sound, providing dreamy counterparts and harmonies with plentifully sung “la las”, and lyrics in French and English. Guitarist Tim Gane was instrumental in developing and pushing their innovations forward, but stayed in the background when they played their explosive, sometimes deafening live shows. One of the great rock concert thrills in my memory is watching Gane break a couple of his guitar strings during a feverish ascent into white noise. The strings cut open a gash on his hand, yet he never hesitated and continued to play at max effort and volume with a bloodied paw. Likewise, Andy Ramsay’s propulsive and precise live drumming comes back to me when I listen to the studio recordings.
So here we are, at the beginning of something. Embrace the precious promise — soak in and store the pouring light of the late summer’s sun — and take a listen to some great tunes below — whether they are new to you or if you are revisiting this hugely influential band. All songs by Stereolab. As usual, italicized underlined song titles below are clickable to listen to and to view.
Among their many great releases, the LP Dots and Loops especially always sounded to me like the beginning of something….
Brakhage from Dots and Loops (1997 Elektra).
International Colouring Contest from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994 Elektra).
Wow and Flutter from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994 Elektra).
Nothing To Do With Me from Sound Dust (2001 Elektra).
Orgiastic from Peng! (1992 Too Pure).
Percolator from Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996 Elektra).
Pack Yr Romantic Mind from Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements (1993 Elektra).
Avant Garde M.O.R. from The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993 Too Pure).
Ronco Symphony from The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993 Too Pure).
Stereolab has been on an indefinite hiatus for years. Meanwhile, the members pursue their various other projects. The songs above are from what I think is their best vintage, from their inception through the years with Sean O’Hagan, and Mary Hansen.
21 August 2016
When Hillary Clinton clinched the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination after the June 7 primaries, history was made. Hillary became the first woman to win the nomination of a major party. Even so, I didn’t feel the emotion of the moment like I had eight years earlier with Barack Obama’s nomination. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Hillary, so that was undoubtedly part of it. And since Hilary’s nomination was a foregone conclusion, some of the majesty of the moment was missing.
But Hillary’s nomination did turn my thoughts to my mother, Elaine, and I thought about what the moment would have meant to her. For Elaine, and for the other women of her generation who would have dared to imagine a woman as President, the announcement certainly would have been filled with the thrill of vindication. Perhaps even relief.
First, let me clarify, in the sense of having given birth to me, Elaine wasn’t really my mom. Yet in every other meaning of the word she was; Elaine was my mother for thirty-three years.
My “real” mom, Phyllis, birth mom, if you prefer that term, died when I was two. My father never spoke much about Phyllis and didn’t tell me she had died until I was 27 years old. Why do adults always think children are ignorant of the ways of the world? Of course I knew she was dead, I had known so since I was a very young kid.
And as a kid, not knowing how Phyllis died, I imagined the worst. I assumed she had died in child birth, but in fact her death was much more bizarre – she had a seizure while drawing a bath and drowned.
When I was six years old my dad married Elaine. I’d like to believe that love was part of the equation, and I think it was, but as with all marriages other factors were involved.
Some background, Elaine’s marriage to my dad was her second. In the 1930’s Elaine married a man she met while attending the University of Nebraska. His name was Howard and he too was a student at the University. Howard played baseball and basketball at school, he was what they called back then a Big Man on Campus.
A few years later, World War Two came along and Howard left the University to join the army. He became an army officer, a colonel if I remember correctly. After the war Howard stayed with the army a while longer to work at the Pentagon. When he eventually left the army Howard became an executive at General Electric and father to a daughter he and Elaine named Nancy. And for a brief while Howard and Elaine were living the American Dream.
But the dream didn’t last. In the early 1950’s Nancy was diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later; she was eight years old. Of course I wasn’t around then, but I know that something went out of Elaine, something she never got back, something that can only be caused by the death of a child.
And things got worse. A few years later, Howard died unexpectedly. And just like that, within the span of a few years, Elaine was alone.
Elaine had to take a job as a secretary (even though she had a college degree) at a medical clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska. She was working there when she met my dad, who was in the Air Force. I can imagine Elaine’s loneliness and despair at the time. She was likely very frightened of an uncertain future. Perhaps my dad sensed that in Elaine too. After she died we discovered Elaine had lied to my dad about her age when they first met, telling him she was 42, when in fact she was 52. It seems silly now, but it shows how trapped she felt by her situation.
I can’t say whether my dad and Elaine had a happy marriage, whatever that means. Certainly their marriage had its ups and downs. They both had health problems toward the end of their marriage and in a curious way that seemed to bring them closer together. They came to depend on each other as they never had before. Elaine died in 1995. My dad died in 2oo7.
Sometimes I think of how my life could have been different if I’d grown up with Phyllis as my mom. As I said, I don’t know much about Phyllis except she dropped out of high school to help support her family after her father died. I guess it’s unfair to speculate, since I know so little about her.
As for Elaine, besides giving me love, the greatest gift she gave me was a love of reading. I don’t know what my life would be without books -but that is a different story.
Elaine was a survivor, someone who suffered unimaginable loss and still kept going. I smile as I write this and imagine her drinking a cocktail somewhere, toasting Hillary, with Louis Armstrong playing ‘What a Wonderful World’ in the background.
Elaine’s hometown, Caineville, Missouri.
Isn’t it interesting when you discover, (sometimes five, or ten, or even twenty years later,) that you missed an entire revolutionary pop-culture movement? For example, I missed the musician Moby and the whole dance/rave moment that surrounded him in the U.S.
Moby sold tens of millions of records, became the “face of techno music,” and was HUGE, but I own not one recorded second of his music, and simply don’t know much about him. Of course, some of his music was unavoidable and it kind of registers as familiar because it permeated the mainstream. And I was also familiar with many of the sounds that came from the subcultures that fed the genre he was working in. But still – I missed a big moment.
What got me thinking about this? Well, Moby wrote a memoir called Porcelain that details (mostly) his pre-fame life, feelings, and surroundings leading up to the release of his monstrously successful 1999 album, Play. Moby was interviewed recently on the fine WBEZ radio podcast, Sound Opinions, (the show’s hosts both loved the book, I haven’t read it,) and during their excellent interview, while speaking specifically about himself and his own situations, he made some fantastic, universal observations about things that are discussed fairly often on this page. He really captured my attention and I wondered, “What else have I missed?”
I certainly didn’t log right in to iTunes and load up a bunch of old Moby, but I did love listening to what the guy had to say. Especially because he spoke so well and plainly about certain themes that are explored on this page, and that often recur here.
On Nostalgia – We long for those old days sometimes, don’t we? Me especially. We look past the disadvantages and the downright grime of them to savor memories of days that seemed supercharged with possibility and creativity and even simplicity. Commenting on his happiness and excitement during youthful days in New York City, (when he was part of a deep underground musical movement that integrated house music and hip hop to propel a new and larger rave culture,) he was just scraping by and the atmosphere of the city was gritty, dangerous, and sometimes squalid.
Moby said, basically that maybe it is just a self-evident function of youth – as a person gets older and becomes nostalgic for the past, partially those are times and places that don’t exist anymore, but maybe it is just nostalgia for not being old.
On Relevancy and Success – Moby seemed to be genuinely delighted and surprised to have sold over twenty million records, and to have come to define what was known for a while as electronic dance music (EDM). But mass appeal was emphatically not his standard for success, and he had some particularly heartening things to say about what should be a standard of success.
He said, more or less, that success should not be measured by the size of an audience. He stated the obvious – that there are billions of [works of art] available to investigate, and it is amazing that even one person will take the time
and energy to check out and appreciate something that you have created. It is unhealthy and kind of sick to think that a musician or a writer could only have legitimacy if he or she is reaching mass numbers of people. You have legitimacy if you love what you’re doing and one other person loves it, too. That’s success.
On Music’sMagic – Moby worked with the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, who created the Institute for Music and Neurological Function. During the interview, Moby was asked about current music’s ability to change lives and form identities in the context of the music that formed him. He spoke precisely, intelligently, and passionately about music’s ethereal ability to fundamentally change people. I loved this…
He said that through scientific research at the Institute it has been shown that music affects the brain and the endocrine system and changes people, not just anecdotally, it actually alters neurochemistry, promotes neurogenesis, decreases stress hormones, and promotes growth hormones. Music is a magic pill, and yet it doesn’t even exist. It is ethereal.
Music and sound are just weird air molecules – nitrogen and oxygen – hitting the eardrum a little differently. A person with a jackhammer, and YoYo Ma with his cello, are creating essentially the same thing – just pushing air molecules a little differently – but one makes you weep and the other annoys you. The power of music that is ineffable and makes people do things: dance, march into war, cut their hair, move across the country, have sex – it does all this profoundly and it does this over and over again. How is it that something with no clear evolutionary consequences can be so powerful and make us cry or make us joyful?
And then he discussed, in his own way, how the subculture fringes become the mainstream. There is some disappointment and wistfulness in his voice that his movement, (EDM and rave culture,) are firmly in the mainstream now. What was born in warehouses and small sweaty nightclubs, (what was once being invented as it went along – was once secret and conspiratorial,) now attracts festival crowds of 50,000 people to stadiums.
Long-timers and oldsters remember the days when the industrial, funk, and hip hop music samples that nourished their beat-driven bacchanals were obscure outside of their scene – so when they hear the DJ play Katy Perry remixes or insert other such Top 40 uniformity into their sets instead of playing some obscure musician, they feel a natural ruing. (Remember those tears you shed when you heard Nick Drake’s music played in a Volkswagen ad?)
I think about this all the time – how the fringes of creative [sub]cultures sometimes blaze for a bit, sending a warm and promising light flickering toward a bland, homogeneous center. Then, these fringe movements, they mainly fizzle and die. Sometimes though, they evolve and find the fuel they need for their fires to feed the popular mainstream. If they do the result is at best an exciting distillation of that creative culture’s finest components. Usually though, if some fringe phenomenon catches and burns toward the middle, the results form a tepid, diluted, and ashy slurry, barely recognizable to the original early adopters of a cultural sensation.
But that’s the deal, rave culture, such as it is, (never my thing, but once a vibrant fringe sensation,) is now the mainstream. It is just one example among many that you are welcome to insert. The thing to remember though is that the fringes are still out there on fire. They are hiding their light from you somewhere else, somewhere in the distance, and you don’t know where. Are you willing to open your ears and eyes to search for the next big thing?
Could this be it? Merging blippiness and African-inspired guitar from Atlanta via Brooklyn. Good and fun, try any of these three tracks….
Anyway, all this got me looking back at some of what would have been in our home’s rotation around 1998 – 2001, when rave was ascendant in the mainstream. Maybe you missed these. Just the barest sample here…
Bacharach and The Beach Boys influenced the wonderful Sean O’Hagan’s outfit. I couldn’t get enough. From England:
Get Into the Galley Shop by The High Llamas from Buzzle Bee (2000 Drag City).
Three of Chicago’s post-rock and ambient wonders:
Not Sport, Martial Art by Jim O’Rourke from the EP Halfway to a Threeway (1999 Domino Records).
TNT by Tortoise from TNT (1998 Thrill Jockey).
A Blur in Your Vision by The Aluminum Group from Pedals (1999 Minty Fresh).
Oh, Air! French band…
Casanova 70 by Air from Premiers Symptomes (1997 Virgin).
Back to England for the beautiful chamber rock mastery of Tindersticks:
Ma Soeur by Tindersticks from the soundtrack of the film Nénette et Boni by Claire Denis (1997 This Way Up).
And you may have missed this, too, if you gave up too early on these wizards of pop music, XTC:
I Can’t Own Her from Apple Venusvolume 1 by XTC (1999 Canyon International).
What else did I miss?
5 August 2016