Magical aural moment: “Rain in Soho” by The Mountain Goats

Oh, you know John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, you know him by years of storytelling with his band The Mountain Goats, by his novels, so when the first track of the new album Goths, “Rain in Soho,” launches with an urgent, soft drum attack filigreed with quiet keys and a distant down-and-up piano melody, you’re waiting for Darnielle’s urgent, quarter-spoken vocals, and sure enough, in he comes with “no one knows where the lone wolf sleeps,” and you stop mid-stride in pedestrian traffic. You are and remain riveted. It’s a song about gamers, you’re sure. No one else could tell it.

Oh, and after two verses, behind Darnielle is a high voice descending “no, no, no, no” . . . can my life arc any sweeter? When the chorus cuts in, it’s massed voices underpinned by “no” and “no one knows,” all pounding drama. His voice launches into strident passion, the action rises, high chorals plunge into a final minute of electric piano doodles.

Describing is no substitute for ears. I lost 4 minutes, 46 seconds. Again and again and again . . .


Magical aural moment: Methyl Ethel’s “Ubu”

A wash of keys, a pumping bass out of dance-land, a high voice (male or female?). . . . In trots a strummed electric figure, another verse, a bit of “na-na-na-na,” so far nothing special, quite the opposite. I’m about to switch it off. Then the verse becomes more urgent, morphing subtly in melody, “waiting in the dark.”

Wham! A frothy repeated chorus of “Why’d you have to go and cut your hair?”  slaps a smile on my face, the grin of teen radio listening, of intoxication with melody and rhythm and lodging lyrics. The band pootles, then the chorus revs up and spirals, ever more bubbly and bouncy and so damned lovely, a never-ending (but it finishes right on time without overstaying) bliss bomb of sentiment and pop pageantry.

(From Methyl Ethyl’s album Everything Is Forgotten.)

Why not plunge in?

Years ago I used to buy non-commercial CDs from a nifty new website, CD Baby. It was bought out eventually, making a small fortune for founder Derek Sivers.  Now he’s put out a compact book of his wisdoms: Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. He is direct, engaging and often interesting, but my read didn’t yield much for my purposes, except for one para of advice. It’s advice that speaks to a future project that I can’t seem to begin, and his words jibe:

If you want to be useful, you can always start now, with only 1 percent of what you have in your grand vision. It’ll be a humble prototype version of your grand vision, but you’ll be in the game. You’ll be ahead of the rest, because you actually started, while others are waiting for the finish line to magically appear at the starting line.

Rock Music Big Year: Why am I not listening to prog rock?

This year I’ve graced my ears with 79 new rock music albums. That’s a ton of new music! Yesterday I lauded David Weigel’s The Show that Never Ends, an engrossing, entertaining history of prog rock. Of my 79 albums, how many have been prog rock?

I’m startled to discover only two 2017 prog rock discs on my slate. Steven Wilson’s To the Bone is meant to be his album of pop songs, but the 2000s king of prog rock (he of Porcupine Tree fame) always “sounds prog.” And Sleepmakeswaves are a Sydney band carving out a huge reputation (they’re usually labelled as “post-rock” but my ears tell me they’re prog). You can see I gave the former a rating of 6/10, the latter’s Made of Breath Only shone with 8/10, so precious little of my best 2017 listening has come from a genre of rock that once ruled the airwaves.

Is it true that punk rock killed prog in the late 70s? Punk itself has remained alive, and in fact just about any historical genre I can think of has a modern, healthy incarnation. Is prog rock the exception? Is it on life support? If so, I grieve.

Who can remember Jethro Tull?

What about Yes? I bet you’ve never heard of Gong, Gentle Giant, or Porcupine Tree. Remember Keith Emerson sticking knives into his massive bank of synthesizers while performing mad versions of “Pictures at an Exhibition”? Probably you’ve listened to Genesis and Pink Floyd. And who of a certain generation didn’t fall in love with Tubular Bells by reluctant prog superstar Mike Oldfield?

This largely forgotten world from the sixties and seventies sparkles back into life in The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, a new music history by Washington Post journalist David Weigel. My friend Graham, a prog tragic, read it in days and passed it to me, and I whizzed through its memories and revelations. Weigel pitches the narrative perfectly, with no indulgence but feverish with personal recollections. So much brought back to me my teens and twenties, yet I learnt oodles about the hidden, tumultuous history of the prog rock scene.

And Weigel even covers a more modern prog rock incarnation, Marillion. Remember them?

Magical aural moment: “The Prince” by My Friend The Chocolate Cake

A tinkling, plunking piano, that world-weary, slightly raspy David Bridie voice . . . Right away, we hear his opening line – “When the Prince sings” – and we know this is about Trump, Turnbull, some tyrant. Drum and bass sneak in. Your memory buds activate and you remember the sublime “World Leader Pretend” from R.E.M. nearly three decades ago. “When the Prince says go back to your country, this is not your real home, nothing’s for you here” . . .

And then plucked strings, a held violin note, and Bridie begins a lyric-less refrain that sounds like “gooda-gooda,” soft and shifting, bursting with sad melody, the band swelling around him, and fair dinkum, hairs stand up on the back of your neck. So unexpected and intense is this yearning croon that the song instantly transforms from a quiet tune of rage into something transcendent.

If you don’t know My Friend The Chocolate Cake, this new album The Revival Meeting stands as one of their best and is perfect as an introduction. Buy it and please, please wait patiently through eleven tracks until “The Prince.”

Month 8 of the Big Year

Strange to say, only now in August am I settled into a productive Big Year environment. Why so long? The Fitness Big Year was clumsily conceived (too complex) and had to morph three times. The Writing Big Year inculcated steady, quality work but my emphasis on nothing-but-writing mornings was misplaced: I’m more at peace exercising early. The Rock Music Big Year is straightforward and I’ve stuck to it but only now am I gaining joy from it (I need to figure out why).

None of this reflection makes me regret my first eight months, not at all. Happiness isn’t wine and roses, at least for me, and my inner battles this year have been worthy. Daily calls to action work for this geek.