Recent Listening

I may have posted about this before, but I'm not a very astute music fan. Don't get me wrong, I love music, I just don't understand it the way I do with something like, say, movies or books. I gather I'm very unusual in most respects when it comes to music, especially when it comes to lyrics. In short, I rarely pay attention to them. My focus is generally on the music and the way the sound of the voice plays into that, which I know is a crazy way to listen to music, but it's what I generally find myself doing. When I really get into an album or a band or something and I spend a lot of time listening to their stuff, I will eventually get around to the lyrics. Sometimes I'm very pleased with the experience and it takes me to the next level. Other times, I find out that I've been listening to German anarchists (and I suppose there's a next level there too).

Part of the issue is that I really have no technical knowledge of music. Tune, chords, notes; I have a general idea of what these things are, but I'm not a musician. I treat music much more subjectively than I treat movies or books. I can recognize when I like the pretty sounds coming out of the speakers though, and that's good enough most of the time.

Anyway, I've lately come to realize that my music catalog is becoming outdated and rather stale. I'm getting sick of listening to the same stuff, so I thought it was time to branch out. Even when it comes to my preferred genres of music (i.e. Rock), I'm not a terribly knowledgeable listener. So in an attempt to broaden my musical horizons, I got a book called 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon. So far, I've made my way through 38 of the albums listed, which is pretty slow going. At the current rate, it would take me a many years to listen to all of these at least once, but it's still been fun. Here are a few highlights (The book has a website, but not all the albums have the descriptions posted yet):
  • Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise: Moon writes a great into to this album, which has become one of my favorite recent albums:
    At first people thought Sufjan Stevens was joking. After garnering big acclaim for his second solo effort Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003), the singer, songwriter, and nu-folk mystic from Michigan told interviewers he intended to create a series of albums of original songs, one for each state in the union. A grand and quixotic plan a social studies teacher could love, this project seemed likely to exhaust Stevens's considerable compositional resources—even as it earned him a place in the novelty-music hall of fame.

    Then came the even more inventive Illinoise, and suddenly Stevens's modest proposal didn't seem like such a joke.
    One thing I think I've come to appreciate is the instrumentation in these songs. There are some that are a tad slow and I haven't gotten around to really looking at the lyrics (which are seemingly important here), but there are a number of great songs here. Standout tracks include "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" and (my favorite title for a song) "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!" Alas, I don't think that Stevens will ever get to all the states, though he has apparently released a number of individual songs that could be associated with various states and is reportedly working on a New Jersey album (apparently some sort of ode to the New Jersey Turnpike, which is funny).
  • The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath: This music is a bit hard to describe, but it's very dense, which is something I enjoy in music. I like when it takes a few listenings before I can really parse a song's structure or make distinctions between various sounds and effects. It's also very fast paced and they sometimes get into a sorta rock groove (like, for instance, the end of "aberinkula"). The singer's voice initially got on my nerves a bit, but that eventually went away and I've been able to really enjoy the album. Standout songs include the two opening epics, "aberinkula" and "Metatron" as well as the third song "Ilyena" and the perplexing "Askepios". I suppose this is what progressive rock has morphed into... and it's something I want to listen to more of.
  • Johnny Adams - The Real Me: Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: I've never really listened to a lot of the Blues, but I've always appreciated the sound and feel of the genre, even if I wasn't that familiar with it. These songs tend to be based on lyrics though, so it's something I probably need to listen to a lot more in order to fully get it, but luckily the music seems pretty great too.
  • The Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir - Shakin' the Rafters: You know that scene in The Blues Brothers when Jake and Elwood go to the church and get their mission from God? And then James Brown leads a Gospel Choir in song? This music reminded me of that. It doesn't quite have that same feel, but it is good stuff. Not something I see myself revisiting regularly, but I'm glad I was exposed to this, because it's not something I would pick up on my own.
  • Arcade Fire - Neon Bible: This album is a bit disappointing because I like the music so much, but when I finally got around to thinking about the lyrics, I was surprised at how depressing it was. Moon captures this well in his writeup: "in most rock anthems, the music strides solemnly while the lyrics supply the hope. Neon Bible turns that upside down: The lyrics are borderline despondent, and whatever sunshine there is resides in the cresting, bursting-with-possibility music." The music really is great, and at this point, I do want to check out their first album, Funeral, but I'm just not into the despondent lyrics. Standouts include "Intervention" and "No Cars Go".
  • King Sunny Ade - Best of the Classic Years: This is one of those discoveries that makes this process all worthwhile. Here's this Nigerian guitarist that I never would have heard of in a million years if it weren't for this book, and I love this music. I won't pretend to have any familiarity with African music, but this does strike me as a gateway drug to more from that vein. I've only listened to this once, but it's definitely something I want to listen to more.
  • The Beatles: For unclear reasons, I've never really been that into The Beatles. This is probably a crime for any rock music fan, but I'm doing my best to rectify that. There were 6 albums listed in the book, so those were the ones I started with. A Hard Day's Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road.

    I'm still getting to know all the albums, but a few things have crossed my mind. First is that their songs are so short... I've noticed this before, but it always surprises me. Most of their songs are like 2-3 minutes long. Maybe it's just the other types of music I listen to, but most of the time when I see a 2 minute song, I think it's a filler or transition song between two longer songs. This isn't a bad thing at all, especially when you've got musicians this talented, and I realize that songs generally used to be shorter and that there were physical limitations of records that made it hard to do epic 20 minute long songs and whatnot, but it still struck me as a bit odd.

    The other thing that struck me was just how distinct each album feels. I set up a playlist with all the albums and just started listening in the background one day whilst blogging or otherwise messing around, and every time the music transitioned from one album to another, I could definitely pick it out very easily. It's not so much that I had ever thought of The Beatles music as all sounding the same, but I wasn't expecting such distinction between albums. Overall, I've been very pleased with The Beatles and am still not sure why it's taken me so long to listen to them seriously.
  • Danger Mouse - The Grey Album: Notable in light of the aforementioned Beatles album as well as recent posting, this album "uses an a cappella version of rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album and couples it with instrumentals created from a multitude of unauthorized samples from" The White Album. Sadly, it can't be bought as EMI was apparently none-too-pleased with the album and sought to suppress it. But you can't stop the signal, and the album is still easily found on the internets. Interestingly, it's also been featured in a number of best-of lists, both from 2004 and for the decade. I've never been a fan of rap, but this is the type of album I could probably get into. Of course, it's mostly because Danger Mouse did an exceptional job remixing the Beatles tunes into something new and interesting. I still have no idea what Jay Z is talking about with his lyrics, but this album works really well.
As I write this post, I'm listening to Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, which is rather strange. I feel like I'm in the 60s. So yeah, nothing especially earth shattering in this post (which is probably demonstrative of my lack of musical knowledge more than anything else), but I'm enjoying myself. I did some skipping around the book, but have recently started going "in order" and am still plowing my way through the A's. There are probably a dozen other albums I could list here right now, and I'll try to revisit the subject from time to time on the blog. Anyway, happy listening.