What Wednesday #6

Today I look at music–from its wonderful highs with Questlove and Ray LaMontagne, to its terrible lows as a weapon for torture.


What Wednesday is where I talk about what I’m watching, reading, playing, listening to, etc. Today I look at music–from its wonderful highs with Questlove and Ray LaMontagne, to its terrible lows as a weapon for torture.

What I’m Reading: Mo’ Meta Blues by Questlove I love music for many reasons. One of the best reasons is that it gives sonic vibration to emotion; and often that emotion is joy. Mo’ Meta Blues captures this joy of music more fully than anything else I’ve ever read.

Questlove is the drummer and co-founder of the legendary hip hop band The Roots, who you might know from their 1999 landmark album Things Fall Apart, a powerful neo-soul statement that…ah, who am I kidding. They’re Jimmy Fallon‘s band. That’s how you know them. You’ve probably seen them on your Facebook feed remixing massively popular songs with classroom instruments. And while they’re great on the show–a perfect fit for Fallon’s own childlike love of music–they’re also a historically important group that’s garnered a ton of critical acclaim over the past three decades. This tension–between music that is culturally important and music that is just enjoyable–is a constant in Questlove’s book:

That’s the kind of kid I was, even early on, trying to balance the pleasure I felt in hearing music with the pleasure I felt knowing that certain albums were considered critically superior. (pg. 41)

I feel that so much: I watch all of the relatively unpopular, but critically lauded TV shows and read difficult, frustratingly complex novels. Sometimes it’s tough for me to tell if my taste comes from myself or Rotten Tomatoes scores. (Music is actually easier for me because it’s so emotional. If I can’t connect to it, it’s hard for me to like it, no matter how “important” it is. Which also means I like plenty of awful music just because it makes me happy or moves me. Especially growing up. Like thisSigh)

Questlove often took this desire to listen to highly respected albums to an extreme growing up: he’d listen to new albums and try to guess the Rolling Stone score; he even papered his childhood walls with reviews of important albums. Even now, while he’s working on an album, he gets a sense for what the album is by visualizing what the reviews will be for it (and he’s usually right!). Which is kind of a startling admission–usually artists that publicly care about reviews are seen as artistically shallow, insecure and only in it for the praise. But I can relate, because I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about the Emmys when I’m putting together a big feature story…

Another thing I can relate to: though he grew up playing in a family band and being heartily encouraged in his musical pursuits, his parents eventually began believing that some music was not acceptable. Which, surprise, much of the popular music of the day was considered too salacious:

A few months later, there was this other guy named Prince, and if you wanted to see how dangerous he was, well, just take a look at the cover of this 1999 record. Turn it upside down, for starters, and the title changes from something futuristic and fun, to 666, the mark of the beast. Oh and also the part of the title that’s not Satanic when you turn it upside down, the 1, well that’s clearly a drawing of a penis. This went out on the church wire as something to be worried about, and my mother recognized it as something from my collection. “You have it,” she said. Of course I had it. (pg. 44)

Questlove says that he purchased that album (!) times, each time after his parents found it and threw it out. His dad even went so far as to break the record over his knee in front of him. Looking back, it’s laughable. I mean, this is what they were scared of? But it can be a very serious battle. What kid from even a moderately strict home hasn’t had some of their records (or CDs or YouTubes) thrown out? I still remember the day my CD binder of hip hop albums was found and taken from me in high school. Thankfully they didn’t find my other hip hop binder 🙂 Because, as Questlove says, whenever his parents said no, he instantly had to have it.

(One of the ways that he hid his music was listening to it on headphones while playing a totally different song on his drums. That’s insane! Try listening to one song and even thinking about another song at the same time, let alone playing it on an instrument. Even if you’ve never listened to his music, that in itself displays a huge degree of skill!)

But I haven’t even gotten to the main draw of the book yet: Questlove’s broad, seemingly endless knowledge of all types of music, and his joyful love for almost all of it. It’s infectious. Every time I sit down to read it, I invariably find myself playing the albums and artists (usually ones around well before I was born) that he so passionately talks about. The whole book is written in such a personal and exuberant style, it’s hard not to get caught up in that joyful love of music. Highly recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in music (parentally approved or otherwise).

What I’m Also Reading: “When Music Is Violence”, by Alex Ross, The New Yorker Now for something completely different. This New Yorker article tackles the complete opposite of the joy of music. Alex Ross traces the use of music as weapon and tool for torture: as far back as the trumpets blowing down the walls at Jericho; to Nazis using happy, upbeat polka music at concentration camps to cover up screams; up to the present with Christina Aguilera being used on suspected terrorists in Abu Ghraib. One of the most powerful (and depressing) arguments the article makes is that music is not inherently good. In fact, that idea has a creepy link with the Nazis:

German thinkers in the idealist and Romantic tradition—Hegel, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Schopenhauer, among others—sparked a drastic revaluation of music’s significance. It became the doorway to the infinitude of the soul, and expressed humanity’s collective longing for freedom and brotherhood. With the canonization of Beethoven, music became the vehicle of genius. Sublime as Beethoven is, the claim of universality blended all too easily with a German bid for supremacy. The musicologist Richard Taruskin…likes to quote a phrase ironically articulated by the historian Stanley Hoffman, who died last year: “There are universal values, and they happen to be mine.”

So, no, classical music isn’t a universal, unassailable gift to the entire world. Ross points out a 2006 psych study into music therapy that found “a suffering person was better served by his or her ‘preferred music’ than by a piece that was assumed to have innately calming qualities. In other words, music therapy for a heavy-metal fan should involve heavy metal, not Enya.” Taste is more important than any inherent qualities of music. Sorry, parents, music from your day is not “better than the crap on the radio now.” In fact, in the 80s the chain 7-Eleven, frustrated with loitering teenagers, found that using classical music as background music outside their stores drove away the kids without any other enforcement. Maybe that’s why “adult contemporary” is so popular in retail. Get those kids with their Pokémon Go and no-money-having out of here! The whole article is fascinating and only a little depressing. Worth a quick read.

What I’m Listening To: Ouroboros, Ray LaMontagne Ok, back to the fun part of music. Ray LaMontagne is a singer-songwriter with a soulful voice that’s been around for a long time. You’ve probably heard this song at a wedding or two. Katie and I went to a concert of his over the weekend that was often wonderful, occasionally weird, and featured one big surprise (for me, at least, because I’m an idiot). Unbeknownst to me, his most recent album, Ouroboros, an album that I’ve listened to and really enjoy, was a collaboration between him and well known alternative rock band My Morning Jacket. So imagine my surprise when LaMontagne introduced his “jacket boys” near the beginning of the concert. It was awesome. They jammed out for 2 and a half hours. Like the album, they gave off a serious 70s jam band vibe, going off on tangents and generally taking their time. So if you’re into Pink Floyd, definitely give the album a listen.

What Wednesday #4

Today I defend a kids show, get emotionally wrecked by Room, enjoy a surprisingly good James Bond knockoff, and vibe out to some plunderphonics.

What Wednesday is where I talk about what I’m watching, reading, playing, listening to, etc. Today I defend a kids show, get emotionally wrecked by Room, enjoy a surprisingly good James Bond knockoff, and vibe out to some plunderphonics.

What I’m Watching: Star Wars: The Clone Wars Yes, The Clone Wars is a kids show. Yes, I’m a 32 year old man. No, I don’t have kids. But I also don’t know many kids shows that would send a half dozen slaves plummeting hundreds of feet to a horrible death. On screen! It was actually more than a little disturbing and something I never expected from a “kids show.” (Kids in this case probably means early teens. There’s enough intense action and mature plot lines that little kids should probably watch the younger skewed Rebels) It was interesting watching a show aimed at a younger demographic deal with such a complex and morally difficult topic like slavery; and while it predictably simplified things, the fact it went there at all was cool. I can see it prompting deeper discussions with parents, which I think is an admirable goal.

Although Clone Wars occasionally deals with weightier topics (often clumsily–read this for an excellent deep dive of how weirdly twisted it can be), it’s still STAR WARS, which means lots of sweet lightsaber fights and space battles, and that’s all I really need. I spent a good chunk of my childhood reading every Star Wars  book I could get my hands on (I was not what you would call a “cool kid”), so when I found out there was a relatively high quality Star Wars show out there on Netflix, I had to give it a go. And while it is a (beautifully) animated kids show, it actually isn’t half bad; in fact, it’s often quite good–at least as good and, in many cases, better than the prequel movies it’s based on. There are good reasons that when you Google “Star Wars clones”Clone Wars pops up well before Attack of the Clones (probably the worst Star Wars movie ever made–that thing is hot trash compactor garbage). In fact, Clone Wars actually makes young Anakin Skywalker not completely insufferable and even sorta likable…which is a minor miracle in itself.

What I’m Also Watching: Room This might be the most emotionally draining movie I’ve ever seen. It’s at least up there with movies like 12 Years a Slave and Precious. There were at least 4-5 moments of sheer emotional devastation–and that’s only within the first half. A quick plot rundown: 17 year old girl gets abducted and held captive in a small shed; is raped and eventually impregnated; births and raises a 5 year old boy within her tiny prison. To protect the boy, she tells him that nothing exists beyond the walls of the room they’re in, which he then fills with typical childlike wonder, greeting each mundane object as a close friend.

It’s impossible to overstate how powerful the performances are from Brie Larson, as the mom, and 9 year old Jacob Tremblay, as the little boy. I never once questioned if they were mother and son. Maybe they actually are. It wouldn’t surprise me. The writing is also wonderful. Jacob is precocious and startlingly poetic without being ridiculous. What could have been an exercise in emotional manipulation, turned out to be a thoughtful take on shared trauma and motherhood. The writer of the book it’s based on, Emma Donoghue, even said it can be taken as an extreme representation of motherhood in general, the tight bond between a mother and child not unlike being trapped together. The characterizations throughout were also on point–plenty of moments had my therapist wife nodding along in agreement with their responses to trauma. If there’s a more emotionally powerful movie out there, I don’t want to see it. I don’t think I could handle it.

What I’m Also Also Watching: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Based off a second-tier campy TV spy show from the 60s (miss); that plays up the ridiculousness of James Bond without a charismatic superstar like Daniel Craig (double miss); from a director whose style can get more than a bit grating (new Sherlock Holmes movies? no, thank you–triple miss). I definitely didn’t expect to like this movie…but I did! A good bit, actually. It was tightly plotted, occasionally hilarious, and anchored by solid performances from the main cast, including Superman himself, Henry Cavill (and I hated Man of Steel, so definitely a pleasant surprise). I liked it enough that afterwards I googled info on a sequel. Long story short: didn’t make enough money, not gonna happen 😦

What I’m Listening To: The Avalanches, “Colours” Samples on samples on samples. The Avalanches matter because of their hugely influential and critically acclaimed debut album, Since I Left You. Their new album, Wildflower, matters because it’s their first in the 16 years since that debut album. They’re probably the best in the genre known as (wait for it) Plunderphonics (betcha haven’t heard that one before), which basically means taking pieces (samples) of different songs and putting them together in weird ways to make a totally new sound. In other words, Frankenstein music. It can be gimmicky, but it can also be awesome, as these guys usually are. (Ironically, “Colours” is the one song on the album that doesn’t actually have any samples, but it nevertheless still sounds wonderfully strange.)

What Wednesday #3

Today I play some arcade games, watch the best political show around, and listen to a surprise from Blood Orange.

What Wednesday is where I talk about what I’m watching, reading, playing, listening to, etc. Today I play some arcade games, watch the best political show around, and listen to a surprise from Blood Orange.

What I’m Playing: Classic arcade games at Abari, a recently opened video game bar (aka, heaven) down the road from us in Optimist Park.  Katie and I went there with a few friends on Saturday night and confirmed it’s as awesome as I had hoped. NBA Jam. X-Men. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All the basics for a balanced arcade diet are there, plus pinball, if you’re into that (weirdo). They even have a relatively new arcade game called Killer Queen. (Someone somewhere still makes new arcade games–who knew?!) It’s an intense ten player cooperative game spread out over 2 huge HDTVs. And when I say intense, I mean it; I got shushed by a teammate for talking about something besides game strategy. Sorry lady!

One of the coolest attractions there isn’t even an arcade game. In one corner, you’ll find a period accurate recreation of a 80s-90s living room, complete with Atari and Nintendo Consoles. We played a particularly spirited 4 player game of Mario Kart 64, which had me marveling at our ability to still enjoy games that are literally painful to look at. How the N64 didn’t blind an entire generation of kids is astounding.

What I’m Watching: Veep Season 5 Finale Filled with hilariously vulgar narcissists that spout of occasionally scathing political commentary, Veep has always been a favorite. I’ve always thought that the show’s conceited idiots more closely matched the reality of politics than the cold, brilliant superhumans on House of Cards. And while it’s always been great, this season absolutely crushed it. Smart, outrageously funny, and surprisingly unpredictable, Veep just finished one of the strongest comedic seasons in recent memory. With GOT also coming off its best season so far, HBO is killing it (though Silicon Valley had a bit of an off year). Highly recommended, if you can stand potty mouths and heavy cynicism. Bonus: The Big Short If you can keep Katie interested for 2 hours of financial and economic intricacies, you did something right.

What I’m Listening To: I was going to talk about The Sideshow from DJ Shadow, a solid throwback DJ “scratch track” (as in physically scratching the beats, Pro Tools loops not needed), but then Blood Orange went ahead and dropped his album early. One of the first artists on the 80s revival train, Dev Hynes is a British songwriter with a talent for interesting sounds and provocation. Upon first listen, it’s pretty good, but time will tell if it passes his second Blood Orange album, Cupid Deluxe, which has long been a favorite of mine. With guest appearances by FKA twigs, Debbie Harry, Carly Rae Jepsen, De La Soul, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, to name a few, it definitely has potential. It’s already getting rave reviews.

What Wednesday #1

What Wednesday is where I talk about what I’m watching, reading, playing, listening to, etc. It’s the absolute least I can do and still consider it writing (barely).

What I’m Watching: The Americans Season 4 Finale I’m just going to go ahead and assume you’re not watching the Best Show On TV (sorry Game of Thrones). What’s wrong with you?! Cold War spies. The early 80s. Incredible performances. Deep moral quandaries. David Copperfield. It’s Mad Men does James Bond. And like Mad Men, some call it slow. I call those people idiots. It’s the most mature, complex, difficult drama I’ve ever seen (sorry The Wire).

What I’m Reading: A Dance With Dragons Speaking of Game of Thrones, I’m slowly (very slowly) working through the “newest” (it’s 5 years old!) Game of Thrones book. The later books in Game of Thrones can be a slog. I’ve thought for a while the TV show has become better than the books. Watching the current season while trying to get through this book seals it.

What I’m Hearing: Beck, “Wow” (don’t say wow, don’t say wow) Wow! (ugh) Beck filtering modern hip hop sounds through his own weird lens, much like he built his career on with Odelay (1996). His sound changes in concentric waves, from Odelay to “Wow”, Sea Change to Morning Phase, alternating between styles, never doing the same thing back-to-back. Love it.