The Decemberists – Make You Better

 

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As long as Bernie is comfortable. That’s what’s most important.

I awake just past 6am, my brain a buzzing with activity and it feels like I just walked into the middle of a heated conversation. Like I opened the door to a room filled with whirling dervishes and it shut behind me and locked me in. I could have slept at least another hour; or at the very least I had no good reason to arise before 7, if not 7:30. This realization leaves me feeling irritated as I know I’m up for good now. There’s no going back to sleep.

 

I see no need to exert myself and actually get out of bed, so I reach for my iPad on the bedside table. My headphone earbuds are still attached from the night before. I’d finally fallen asleep around 2am to a Spotify playlist of didgeridoo soundscapes, but the calm that the circular breathing had instilled is but a distant memory. I decide to play a guided meditation from my Insight Timer app. Something to guide me to focus on my breath and slow the dervishes. I push the white orbs into my ears and a second later, music begins playing. Not Australian dronings, more like familiar alternative rock. Something I’d heard many times before but couldn’t yet place. I figure that maybe Spotify is still streaming and the tablet had never shut down. I flip the cover of the iPad and double tap the round button on the bottom. Spotify is inactive. I check Google; no tabs open. iTunes. Nothing. I close every app. The music still plays.

I suddenly realize the song playing is The Decemberists’ “Make You Better,” one of my favorite songs from 2015. I decide that as much as I’m flummoxed by not knowing the source of the music, I’m glad that this ghost DJ has awesome taste. My anxious mood begins to lift; I can feel it literally floating off my body as I let the song’s opening swirls of piano, bass and drums fill my heart, brain and lungs. By the time Colin Meloy’s familiar, inimitable warble summons the opening phrases, “I want you, thin fingers/I want you, thin fingernails” the song has coated the entirety of my insides like a velvety gas. It feels like eating the most exquisitely chilled, chocolate cheesecake. (Which would indeed create a velvety, pungent gas should I not take two Lactaid.)

Of all the bands that I was obsessed with in the early 2000s who are still making new music — New Pornographers, Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon — The Decemberists are the only one that has grown along with me, some 15 plus years later. I’m just as likely to play their most recent album, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, as I would their early classic, Castaways and Cutouts. I still harbor a deep love for that 2002 debut, can still be transported back to the first time I heard it, playing it on a CD boombox while I planted lettuce and squash in the garden. I bought the album based solely on a written review in Mojo magazine. Now when I read a review of a highly praised debut album, I just digitally toss it into a bucket of Spotify playlists and hope I find time to listen to it one day. (That’s a topic for another post.)

Castaways and Cutouts sounded like nothing I’d heard before. The vocals were up front in the mix and I could actually understand the hyper literate lyrics. Well, maybe not understand exactly — there were a ton of historical and nautical references that went over my head — but I could make them out, they were well-annunciated. And they weren’t a typical guitar/bass/drums band. Accordion was featured prominently, as well as theremin, pedal steel and organ. The songs were dark and moody but with an undercurrent of humor that kept it all from becoming dreary and precious. For those who like comparisons, The Decemberists, to me, were like The Smiths by way of Neutral Milk Hotel. I feel pretentious just writing that sentence. “The Legionnaire’s Lament” best encapsulates all those qualities for me.

When listening, now, to a song like “Make You Better,” I can hear and feel a profound musical and thematic expansion in The Decemberists’ sound.  They aren’t singing about shanties and fair maidens anymore; the accordion and theremin have been shelved. But there’s an honesty and a reverence of pop songcraft in this tune that they needed thirteen years of playing music together to achieve.

But we’re not so starry eyed anymore/Like the perfect paramour that you were in your letters, singer/guitarist Colin Meloy laments in the song’s chorus. It’s a comment on a long-term love relationship that may or may not be over, a remembrance of youth and of dreams, but it’s not entirely nostalgic. There’s an underlying feeling of having become a better person because of a shared history.

So, I suppose The Decemberists do still sing about history and exotic far off worlds, but they no longer need to dress in pantaloons and sail the fiery seas in order to find their musical treasures. They’ve discovered the pirate booty in their own backyards, the stories hidden in their modern day lives.

Who knows if The Decemberists’ new music will continue to musicially and thematically align with me over the years — they could put out a Barry Manilow tribute album and I’ll probably love it — but I feel like we’ve had 15 years together to develop a certain comfortability, and no matter what crazy roads we decide to travel, they will undoubtedly lead us right back to each other.

music-medicine

I have to believe that this phantom musical moment is a sign to rekindle the Fuzzy Warbles music blog. I’ve been feeling pretty shitty for having abandoned it for a couple of months. I’m good at being harsh on myself; music has been my #1 savior in combating the evil beasts of depression and self-loathing for my entire life. Hearing this song again is yet another reminder of the power of music. But just listening to it isn’t enough. I need to write about it. Cause that’s the one simple truth about music It makes you better.

 

R.I.P. John Wetton

The deaths of rock and roll icons continues in 2017, with the passing of Prog Rock legend, John Wetton. Even if you don’t know who he is (and if you are over the age of 40 you should know), you know many of the bands he once played with.

King Crimson. Asia. Roxy Music. UK. Uriah Heep. Wishbone Ash. Just to name a few. Also, an extensive solo album career.

For most of these bands Wetton played the bass, and also sang vocals. Usually lead. His voice was unique and recognizable, deep and smooth, with a slight bit of rasp, but there was always something comforting in his voice. He sounded like someone’s dad fronting a bar band. He didn’t have a lot of range, he couldn’t hit the high notes, but he had the essential ingredient — feeling. I think it was what led to Asia, his most commercially successful band, to such great heights in the early 80s.

I’ve written about Asia a bit more extensively here, so I won’t go into detail, but for fans of the members of Asia — Wetton, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, Geoffrey Downes — Asia was a bit of a disappointment. The mind-blowing solos had disappeared and been replaced by hooks and sing-along choruses. But, listening to the first two Asia albums again today, although the production on them sounds quite dated, there are some masterful instrumental breaks that showed these prog-rock dinosaurs still could show off, just for ten seconds at a time instead of ten minutes.

My favorite John Wetton recorded performances were probably with King Crimson, where he played on arguably the bands most musically adventurous albums: Larks Tongues’ in Aspic, Red, Starless and Bible Black, and USA.

It’s not easy to play the intricate type of music that Robert Fripp writes, let alone sing at the same time. I’ve spent many hours in my late teens and early 20s focusing on the individual parts of the King Crimson canon. Usually I concentrated on the drums, but Wetton’s bass lines were deceptively crazy. But at the same time, Wetton played the role of “glue”: keeping the songs together when all the instruments seemed to be heading in all different directions. There’s a reason King Crimson, once Wetton left the band in 1975, never had a bassist/vocalist again.

John Wetton was irreplaceable and there will never be another musician like him ever again.

I leave this post with one of my favorite songs Wetton ever played on, recorded with the band UK…though this is during a reunion, just 6 years ago, back in 2011, with Eddie Jobson and some other fine musicians.

Firefall – You Are the Woman

firefallThis is the sort of song that pops up in my head unbidden. Without having heard it in a supermarket or a shopping mall. But it was ubiquitous in my parents’ cars growing up. It was songs like this that permeated and saturated my pre-teen ears whenever slumped into the backseat of Dad’s Datsun 280zx or Mom’s yellow station wagon. I could feel the bile climbing up my esophagus as an endless stream of soft rock, by bands like Firefall, America, Seals & Crofts, Captain & Tenille, Ambrosia, Bread and countless other syrupy sensitive artists sung sweetly about the biggest part of me and horses with no names — sending my impressionable self into the open arms of Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent and Led Zeppelin. And not a minute too soon.

Now, a million years later, I can appreciate bands like Firefall. There’s a distant comfort that warms my blood when a song like “You Are the Woman” courses through my veins. I find myself singing along — loudly if in the car — because I know all the words. Even if I’d always thought the lyrics were “You are the one that I always dreamed of,” not “woman I always dreamed of.” But it works either way. Like singing “kiss this guy” instead of “kiss the sky” in the Jimi Hendrix classic “Purple Haze.”

While searching for the above YouTube video, I entertained myself by playing the entire Firefall Greatest Hits album (you know, to get in the mood) and  FRIGGIN’ RECOGNIZED EVERY ONE OF THESE SONGS! Jesus – this was no one-hit-wonder band! I was even bopping my head along to their 1978 hit song “Strange Way” which, I dunno if it’s the chords or what, but the way the flute and bass and keyboards blend together, it’s like a musical massage to my deepest plexus (plexii?). It’s soft-rock magic. I even, for a moment, paying attention to the lyrics, found them dare I say, profound. I mean, am I wrong?

Didn’t I hear your voice this morning, didn’t you call my name?
I heard you whisper softly, but the words were never plain.
And in your dream of darkness, I came shinin’ like the sun.
Waiting for the laughter, but the laughter never comes.

That’s a Strange Way to Tell Me You Love Me indeed. Maybe this is what happens to people when they turn 50, they start to reconnect with the bad music their parents made them listen to as kids. Today I find myself listening to Firefall; last week it was Little River Band, and yesterday, Genesis. I try to resist this bizarre nostalgia trip by playing something that came out in 2016 and this new song (I can’t even remember the name or the artist) floats right past me like yesterday’s underwear.

I just made up that metaphor, but it feels right somehow. Floating underwear is today’s white bread. Maybe tomorrow’s underwear is more apt. No, that’s exactly backward. Firefall is like yesterday’s underwear. Though clearly very white when you brought the undies home from the store, they’ve undoubtedly been through a lot — the wringer you might say. The stains are never coming out no matter how much bleach you use, and the whole thing is a thread’s breath from falling apart. Yet, despite the aging and the fraying, it’s the most comfortable piece of clothing in all your closets and drawers.

In this YouTube clip above, it’s the version of “Strange Way” that, if you know the song, is the one you will recognize. And it’s great as it is, to be sure, but during my spelunking deep into the Firefall wormhole (a situation that occurs quite often when putting together these posts) I discovered a nine-minute live version of “Strange Way” from their 2009 reunion album, creatively titled “Firefall Reunion Live.”  It’s a very clean and crisp recording, and the band sounds especially tight. There’s even a Latin-break about 4 minutes in, replete with alternating percussion, drum and flute solos! The perfect journey into yacht-rock heaven!

 

 

 

Genesis – Abacab

As I scan the shelves at my local Pet Food Express for Bernie’s canned food, I find myself lost in thought, planning out the rest of my day. Would I have time to complete the myriad of tasks on my to-do list before 3pm? I have finally developed a routine of keeping track of my tasks using the “notes” app on my phone and as soon as I think of something I need to do, buy or remember, I jot it down in a note. Because my brain is like a sieve, I check this list multiple times a day, to make sure I haven’t skipped an essential item. Oh shit! I forgot to get a birthday card for Mom! Well, that doesn’t happen now, because, like Santa Claus, I check my list, way more than twice and really can’t tell the difference between naughty and nice.

But I digress. I am scanning the cans, searching for wild boar and rice (Bernie’s favorite) when all of a sudden I find myself bopping to and fro, caught in a pleasant reverie spiral. I realize it’s due to the music coming from the store’s speakers. The recognizable keyboard chords of Tony Banks, the thumping bass-lines of Mike Rutherford, and, of course, the solid drumming and vocals of Phil Collins, playing the fantastic title song from their 1981 album, Abacab.

Genesis.

I will admit, right here and now, that it wasn’t until Peter Gabriel left Genesis that I became a fan of the band. I just couldn’t connect to the epic 20 minute prog-rock jams of the early to mid 1970s Genesis. I liked some of the prog bands of the day — like Rush and Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer — but it wasn’t until the 80s, when Genesis dwindled down to a trio, and specifically on the song “Turn it On Again” from the Duke album, that I became a real Genesis fan. It was this song that received a lot of radio airplay on KLOS and KMET, the stations I listened to for my rock and roll down in southern California.

I got some shit from my fellow 13-year-old friends for not digging The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but even as a young teenager I could recognize the greatness of Peter Gabriel, but more from his just released third solo album (we just called it Melty Face) than from his time as vocalist and band-leader of Genesis. It was the best of both worlds: two bands for the price of one. It’s 1980, Peter Gabriel releases his arguably best album, and Genesis, finally finds its new voice as a more pop-oriented, yet still experimental band, with Phil Collins more than handling the reins as vocalist.

But as much as I liked Duke, it was a year later, in 1981, with the release of Abacab, when Genesis really took hold, not just of me, but of the world as a whole. It helped immensely that the album coincided with the birth of MTV, a brand new, 24-hour cable channel featuring non-stop music videos. It wasn’t the six-and-a-half minute title song that MTV added to its rotation though. It was the more upbeat, horn-laden 4-minute track, “No Reply at All.” The video for which, shows the three band members goofing around and having a lovely time. Pretending to play the horns and smiling and, well, let’s just say that a person didn’t need to see that video too many times to instinctively lurch to change the channel when it came on. Don’t get me wrong, “NRAA” is a great song. Deserving of all the attention it received and perhaps still receives today. But that video has left a little bit of scarring, so I tend to have more pleasant connotations with their song “Abacab.” Which I thought was an actual word for many years (OK, 35 – I just learned today that it represents a series of notes somewhere in this –or maybe another–song, but reversed — BACABA.)

To this day, Abacab is the album I put on to play from Genesis whenever I’m in an 80’s Genesis sort of mood. It isn’t necessarily their best album; there are certainly some throwaway songs (“Who Dunnit?” is particularly bad), but, for me, 1981 was such a defining year. It was my first year of high school, MTV debuted, I had a solid base of friends and was feeling hopefully for the first time in a long time. Yeah, Reagan just took office, but to a 13 year old boy, that didn’t have much of an impact. What had a much bigger impact on this teenage boy would come a year and a half later, when the family would decide to move to the San Fernando Valley, the summer after 10th grade. To be continued….

Shovels & Rope – Botched Execution

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Going back to the roots for today’s Warble. I have to thank my friend Alisa for turning me on to Shovels & Rope. This is the Americana album of 2016 for me, Shovels & Rope’s 4th album, Little Seeds. I like that the band is not called “Shovel and Rope.” It’s not a singular shovel, but plural shovels. Cause sometimes you need more than one. Adds another layer of macabre to the proceedings.

This song captures the dark humor that Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst (yes, they are married) have been known for since the start. If I had to describe their sound, I would say Handsome Family meets The White Stripes. Maybe a little bit of John Doe and Exene. There’s a lived-in quality to Trent and Hearst’s vocals; a raspy comfortability that brings an honesty to even the most ridiculous of songs. Like this one. And the video is darling, isn’t it? I just saw it for the first time, looking it up on YT.

I did put this on my best of 2016 album list, so if you like this tune, go find the whole album because it’s great all the way through. Like a 12 layer chocolate cake. Yummy.

Little River Band – Cool Change

OK, it’s time to go back to a true EARWORM song. This one lives in the annals of most silly songs of all time. It has all the markings of classic cheese: piano, strings, sax solo, overly sensitive lyrics. And when the whole band comes in at the end to sing, “Time For A Cool Change,” and the horns and the guitars and the strings and the drums all grow louder and more urgent, well, it’s hard not to get swept up in the rush of swiss and cheddar and especially gouda, and believe that it IS TIME for a cool change. It is time to get away from society and sail on the cool and bright clear water. Time to stare at the full moon like a lover. And time for this song to get stuck in your head all day long.

If there’s one thing in my life that’s missing
It’s the time that I spend alone
Sailing on the cool and bright clear water
It’s kind of a special feeling

When you’re out on the sea alone
Staring at the full moon, like a lover
Time for a cool change
I know that it’s time for a cool change

Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Well I was born in the sign of water
And it’s there that I feel my best

The albatross and the whales they are my brothers
There’s lots of those friendly people
And they’re showing me ways to go
And I never want to lose their inspiration

Time for a cool change
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change

I’ve never been romantic
And sometimes I don’t care
I know it may sound selfish
But let me breathe the air

Let me breathe the air…
Well I was born in the sign of water
And it’s there that I feel my best
The albatross and the whales they are my brothers

It’s kind of a special feeling
When you’re out on the sea alone
Staring at the full moon, like a lover
Time for a cool change

Read more: Little River Band – Cool Change Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Childish Gambino – Riot

childishgambinoI like to connect the posts: from Twilight Zone the song to Twilight Zone the TV show to Sly and the Family Stone….from Run the Jewels “Thieves” including a MLK Jr. quote about rioting, to the Sly album (There’s a Riot Goin’ On), now to maybe the funkiest album I’ve heard in quite some time, Awaken, My Love by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and the song I chose for today, “Riot.” That’s the thing about music, it connects everything and everyone. Yeah man, that’s like so wild how, like, how without even thinking about it, all those songs lead from one to another, like it was meant to be….(to be read in the voice of Chong from Cheech & Chong.)

Awaken, My Love is clearly an homage or at the bare minimum heavily influenced by mid-70s era Funkadelic. Lots of layers of sound, lots of funk and lots of psychedelic. Most of the songs on the album would fit right in to One Nation Under a Groove or Hardcore Jollies. And the parts that don’t sound like Funkadelic lean heavily toward mid-80s era Prince. The song “Redbone” might best exhibit the blend between the two, with the slow-jammy bass-heavy groove of George Clinton and the falsetto vocal stylings of Prince. I listen to this and can’t believe it was made in 2016.

Childish Gambino, if you don’t know is the musical stage-name for the actor Donald Glover, best known for his roles in Community, Atlanta, Girls and other TV shows and movies. His previous albums have been hit and miss, and have hewn close to the hip hop genre for the most part. So, I was pleasantly surprised that he has taken a step back into the past to bring it into the present. I can’t help but be awed and jealous of Mr. Glover. Acting, Writing, Directing, Rapping, Singing, stand-up comedian. He’s got to have something he can’t do, right? Maybe he is a terrible cook.