the Horn Farm Paste Mob


retro listening #61-70

All the albums I owned in high school, relistened-to in roughly the order I got them. We pick up in the middle of my freshman year.

61. They Might Be Giants – Flood

Mortifying memory: I was so excited about this album coming out that I expected my parents to drive out in an ice storm so I could buy it as soon as possible. Ugh.

And then, oh god, the Tiny Toons videos. It didn’t happen right away, but Tiny Toons made painfully literal videos for “Particle Man” and “Istanbul” that were a whole lot of people’s introduction to They Might Be Giants. I knew a guy in college who was telling me some theory about the point of music videos and it came out that, actually, those were the only music videos he could remember seeing. Ever. And so he concluded that music videos always depicted clearcut narratives, as tied to the lyrics as possible.

I hadn’t noticed the head-injury theme in Linnell’s songs here before. Decapitation in “Dead”, forehead replacement in “We Want A Rock”, colliding with a wall in “Whistling In The Dark”… oh, and “something unpleasant has spilled on his brain” in “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”. Interesting.

Someone once said to me– maybe they got this from an interview, or maybe they just made it up?– that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was about the very mundane experience of traveling around Europe without much money, as 20-somethings from the UK do, and that The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe was likewise about what had just happened to Douglas Adams when he wrote it, namely, suddenly being in fancy restaurants and not knowing how to act, meeting famous people, etc. And I wonder if some of the songs about anxiety and physical comfort here are, similarly, a response to unexpectedly having what appears to be a steady job making music.

62. Husker Du – Warehouse: Songs And Stories

It was never fully clear to me (and isn’t now) whether “These Important Years” is about high school or early adulthood or what. The line “yearbooks with their autographs of friends you might have had” makes it sound like looking back on high school from quite a distance– to me!– but the rest is tinged with condescension in a way that seems exclusively directed by adults at teenagers. How old even are the band members at this point?

Even though I owned this on tape, I got in the habit of playing just the Mould cuts. I found his songs catchier, and Hart’s annoying (the sing-song non-melody of “Charity, Chastity, Prudence And Hope” being Exhibit A). In retrospect, Mould’s rasp was (is) also much more my thing than Hart’s emoting.

Not to mention the clunky lyrics. “My eyes are burning / With the sight of your returning”, Hart sings in “Back From Somewhere”. Ugh.

I now notice that Grant Hart has a bit of a lisp. I didn’t know the songwriters in Husker Du were gay (maybe few people did, at that point?) but regardless, I think Hart rubbed me the wrong way because he seemed MORE stereotypically masculine, by which I mean: more like the hair-metal grandchildren of glam who were on the radio in the 80s. However incongruous that seems now.

Here’s another awful lyric: “Running around like an insane maniac anywhere that you please / Taking advantage of anyone handy to satisfy your disease”. Maybe you satisfy a compulsion or a need, but a disease? (That said, writing out the lyrics makes them seem clunky in a very post-hardcore way, which of course is still where Husker Du were coming from — as opposed to the incompetent-radio-filler clunkiness I was hearing before.)

Enough complaining. I like most of the Mould cuts a lot. In fact…

Okay, I just listened to the Bob Mould tracks on their own, in order. Some of the segues don’t quite work and the last three tracks (“No Reservations”, “Turn It Around”, “Up In The Air”) all want to be the big emotional turning point… but it’s a basically excellent album. Oh well. Somebody out there is probably doing the same thing with Grant Hart’s half.

Oh yeah, also, the bridge of “Turn It Around”, with “the biggest thing for me is making this thing work for life” — that seemed strange and bland to me at the time. Now it’s pretty touching, the urgency of feeling like a relationship is falling apart around you but might yet be saved…

62. Dead Kennedys – Plastic Surgery Disasters

Story #1: I bought some Dead Kennedys CD (I’m mostly, though not entirely, sure it was this one) and took it home excitedly. Put it in the stereo– funny, there’s only ten tracks, despite the 20 listed on the case. Well, maybe older CDs had to fit everything into ten tracks, and they’ll just have multiple songs per track? Sure, who knows.

I hit play… and heard oldies. Okay, I thought, they’re just messing with us– something funny is about to happen and then the real music will start. Four minutes later, that track was over and nothing but oldies had happened. And so on.

They were skeptical at the record store when I tried to return it, but eventually they did try playing it themselves and agreed that, in fact, probably the Dead Kennedys did not release an unaltered compilation of oldies in place of their album on purpose.

Story #2: At some point, I came home and found this CD’s liner notes torn up in the trash. When I confronted my mom, she said, “Oh… your little brother asked if he could tear that up and I said yes because I assumed it didn’t belong to anyone.”

She hadn’t destroyed the CD, though. Just the liner notes.

Both of these things are more interesting than the actual music.

64. The Damned – Anything

This album contains a Love cover whose title some internet tagger has rendered as “Alone Again or”. I really hope there’s no style guide that actually prescribes that lowercase ‘o’.

Huh. I definitely did not know “Gigolo Aunt” by Syd Barrett whenever I last listened to this album, so I didn’t catch the quote in “Gigolo”. As it is, I only know that song from Robyn Hitchcock covering it.

— Whoa. The song goes on to quote “My Wife And My Dead Wife” by Robyn Hitchcock. Maybe I knew that Robyn had worked with Captain Sensible at some point? I don’t know, I don’t care much now, but that would have seemed like the coolest thing ever in high school, if I had gotten to know this song (which I never did because the album just didn’t bear much listening) and later discovered the bridge was lifted from another musician.

Okay, enough of this. It was boring then and, aside from the intertextuality, still is.

65. Lard – The Power Of Lard EP

This is Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys and… someone else I thought was cool. Ministry? Right, Ministry.

I seem to only have this on 128k mp3, which will have to stand in for the crappy-sounding cassette I had of it. I recall loving the first track and always skipping the other two. Let’s see how it’s aged…

Huh. The music on the verses of “The Power Of Lard” make perfect sense now given Ministry’s affection for Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, etc. And the chorus sounds like contemporary Ministry.

I’m finding this thrilling almost despite myself. I also still know all the lyrics. Or, well, once a line starts I remember how it will end. The song’s an (intentional) string of non-sequiturs. Such as “Next time we have sex, just pretend that I’m Ed Meese”.

So the chorus is several people shouting “The power of lard!” in unison, but of course the song never says what that power is, and the non-sequiturs degenerate (evolve?) into pure nihilism: “Avoid everything! Avoid everything!” It’s kind of dada in its declaration that meaning things is boring, which given that Biafra’s main gig was to be constantly (yet vapidly!) political, maybe explains how totally gleeful it sounds, despite postdating nearly everything else worthwhile any of the people involved recorded.

Track 2 (“Hell Fudge”) ramps up the 70s factor to no real benefit. It turns out TV preachers are hypocrites. Also, fish in a barrel are easy to shoot.

Okay, so the final track is half an hour long. I didn’t have the patience for it in high school. Do I now?

Four minutes of slow vamping precede the appearance of a painfully off-key Biafra. This is a trial. No way through but through.

half an hour passes…

Yeah, that goes nowhere. But let it never be said that I didn’t listen to it all the way through at least once!

66. The Sugarcubes – Life’s Too Good

I had a few hundred dollars in bar mitzvah money, and I wanted to spend it on a stereo. There was a store a few blocks away selling used stereo equipment. Hooray!

After a great deal of comparative listening, I ended up with these huge ugly expensive speakers that… I have no idea if they were any good or not. I definitely had the notion that bigger was better, and am still slightly surprised when little desktop speakers sound good. And these held up a shelf in my bedroom for years, so there’s that. Anyway, the store also offered a free CD from their tiny stash of secondhand music when you bought a whole stereo, and this was the only one that even slightly appealed to me, so I got it despite not having loved the Sugarcubes tape I already owned.

It’s definitely better than the second album. I love that the lead vocal on the first track is Einar.

This is discordant without being noisy. That’s interesting.

Holy cow, were the Sugarcubes a no wave band? I mean, okay, not exactly, but… a whole lot of their reference points are becoming clearer to me as I listen to this. And I don’t think No Wave’s fondness for howling/shrieking vocals and unpleasant intervals between notes is irrelevant at all. PiL’s Metal Box is in the mix too.

“Deus” (a little more familiar to me now than the other songs; I think I put it on mixes?) gets at the heart of why I could dig Einar more than Bjork. Bjork is declaring “Deus does not exist, but if he did–”. It’s a flight of fancy, but one she’s keeping VERY FIRMLY in her grip. Einar, on the other hand, befuddledly recites “I once met him… it really surprised me… he put me in a bathtub, made me squeaky clean… REALLY clean…” Maybe I could identify with that? No, I have no idea.

… so part of my indifference to this album in high school was because it felt too long. And I guess the actual album was shorter than I thought? It looks like it originally ended with “Fucking In Rhythm And Sorrow”, or maybe “Take Some Petrol”. And “Fucking In Rhythm And Sorrow” makes more sense as a big finish than as a hoedown in the middle of an overlong album. That, too, is interesting.

And furthermore, I guess maybe Icelandic has more in common with other Scandinavian languages than I thought? I keep hearing “bensin” in “Take Some Petrol”, which I know is also Swedish for gasoline. Let’s see…

Apparently the refrain is “taktu bensin elskan” and means “take some petrol, darling”. I totally know those words, sort of!

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought Icelandic wouldn’t be related to the other Scandinavian languages. For some reason I just figured it wasn’t. (Context note: I started learning Swedish a year ago. This has nothing to do with the Sugarcubes.)

Oh hey, and this remixed version of “Deus” is great, with both orchestral strings and a fiddle. And weird roaring electronic noises. I guess it’s not news that this is where Bjork was headed.

67. Wire – Manscape

I was VERY VERY excited for this album. I mean… new album by a favorite band! That was still extremely novel.

I’m loving the guitars on “Stampede”, so heavily treated with a ‘cheesy’ chorus effect that it becomes something close to noise. Kind of a slow start, though. At some point I learned that the British release had a different running order and was missing the first two tracks, which seemed like an improvement. They’re not *bad*, just… lukewarm.

“Patterns Of Behavior” has two prominent vocal parts, but they’re both Colin Newman, just processed differently. This would end up being Wire’s last album for a while (sort of) — I wonder how well they were all getting along. Similar guitar noise on this track, too. There’s this crystalline, distinct almost new-agey synth pop song, and then sometimes somebody flips a switch and RRRRARGARARGARARGARAR.

In “Other Moments” — I promise I’m going to try not to do a track-by-track here, but bear with me — there’s a similar dynamic with a different guitar effect. Sort of different, anyway. More echo-y and metallic. Were they doing this on IBTABA and A Bell Is A Cup, too, and I just didn’t specifically notice it? It’s a pretty good trick. But having tuned in to it, I’m finding this album phenomenally unsettling. Not emotionally upsetting, just sorta impossible to relax around.

Maybe it’s my headphones. I know they tend to be midrange-heavy.

In the late 90s, I was sad that nobody was imitating New Order. (Then people started, and it was a mixed blessing, but anyway.) I don’t remember ever being sad that nobody wanted to be Wire, though. Nor discovering music that I loved because it reminded me of Wire. Why?

68. The B-52′s – The B-52′s

I’ve run out of things that I’m positive I heard freshman year of high school. So now we’re back at nerd camp.

We got to go shopping in town occasionally (‘town’ being a strip of about three blocks that had a lot of student-oriented shops near the dorms.) Given how much music shopping I was doing normally, I don’t know why I remember the things I bought there in particular, but I do.

Not sure of the motivational chronology here, though. I had heard “Channel Z” on MTV and loved it. At some point I would borrow a friend’s copy of Cosmic Thing and hate “Love Shack” enough that I didn’t want to dub a copy of the album for myself, but Wikipedia says the album didn’t come out until the middle of this summer. Maybe “Rock Lobster” was a standard at the nerd camp dances?

These songs are hard to tell apart, except that some of them are awesome. The retro organ and bassline are a good combination! Just… this album should have been a 45. Maybe two.

69. New Order – Low-life

At camp, Sean Rhyee made me a tape with this album on one side and Robyn Hitchcock’s Queen Elvis on the other. I believe that was also the summer he punched me in the stomach so hard that I couldn’t breathe for a minute, but that was because of a misunderstanding.

Did I ever like “Love Vigilantes”? If I did, it was ruined by WAY too many earnest covers way too long ago for me to remember.

And then there’s “Elegia”, which I’m amazed to learn is only 5 minutes long in this version (it seriously felt like longer). Somewhere I have a box set on which it’s 20 minutes long. Speaking of things I’ve never listened to all of even once…

… so I went to Wikipedia to understand why this version of “Sub-culture” sounds so much different from how I expect it to. Short answer: I’m used to the version on Substance and they’re not at all the same. Long answer: The version on Substance is a nearly-contemporaneous remix by John Robie, who outright produced their next few singles.

This whole album feels so *thin*. Sumner’s voice is wobbly but not vulnerable or frayed or anything, just… usually not up to the task. And fully half the tracks are familiar from other compilations or contexts, making it hard to hear it as an album. Of the less-familiar tracks, only the closer “Face Up”, with its gleefully ridiculous major-key synth horns, is making me wish I had paid more attention to this in high school. Not that it’s bad! Just, I dunno, I don’t feel that I was missing out.

70. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Queen Elvis

This, on the other hand, is another record so familiar (from continuing to listen to it in intervening years) that it’s hard to hear anew. Even my intervening discovery of the Beatles (whose influence I can tell is here, abstractly) doesn’t make this less familiar.

One song I know has changed for me: “Freeze”. I remember seeing Robyn Hitchcock play it live (solo) and being amazed that it was jagged, intense, trancy. And now I always hear it that way. (Here’s a performance from the tour I saw: “Freeze” at the Electric Factory. The vocals are stilted– I’m guessing Robyn wasn’t entirely comfortable being filmed– but the guitar is how I remember it.)

… and okay, “Autumn Sea” is a little better now that its obvious Beatle antecedents are more vivid for me– the tempo feels draggy if you expect it to be of a piece with the rest of the album.

Maybe I should come back to this again right after I listen to the earlier Egyptians records.
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strawberry goat cheese pie

From the LA Times (rewritten here in a more sensible order). It was amazing.

CRUST:

a. Make a standard cookie crust or see below.

FILLING:

3 cups whole strawberries
5 ounces goat cheese
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

b. Whip the goat cheese in a mixer or food processor until light. Add the milk and beat to blend. Add the tarragon and stir to mix.

c. Spread the cheese mixture evenly in the bottom of the pie crust.

d. Cut the stems off the berries and arrange them, pointed side up, on the goat cheese, covering the entire surface of the pie. Set aside.

GLAZE:

3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/2cup water
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 cup sliced strawberries

e. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest, water and balsamic vinegar. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then add the sliced strawberries and continue to cook until thickened, about 5 to 7 minutes. Pour the hot glaze over the pie. Refrigerate until the glaze sets, about 4 to 6 hours.

SUGGESTED CRUST:

1 1/2 cups almond biscotti, pecan shortbread or butter cookie crumbs
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted

If you have whole cookies, turn them into crumbs with a food processor or by putting them in a Ziploc and crushing with a rolling pin.

Place the cookie crumbs in a small bowl. Add the sugar and melted butter and toss with a fork until blended. Pat the crumbs evenly onto the sides and bottom of a 9-inch pie plate. Chill 30 minutes.

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swedish 1

I’ve been listening near-exclusively to music in Swedish for about two months and I want to share. I’ve included links to lyrics translations when I could find any online (even when clearly dicey, as most of them are). Any place I’ve glossed lyrics or titles myself is even more questionable. But I’m trying!

There will most likely be more of these posts. If you only have time for two songs, listen to “Det snurrar i min skalle” and “Dum av dig”.

Veronica Maggio – Pop with lots of nice instrumental touches. Maggio is a big star– her latest album, “Satan i gatan”, went to #1, as did its first single; lots of people online are conjecturing about which songs she and ex-boyfriend Oskar Linnros (also a pop star) wrote about each other, etc.

“Valkommen in” (“Welcome In”) (lyrics)

“Sju sorger” (“Seven Sorrows”) (lyrics)

Daniel Adams-Ray – Even more than Veronica Maggio, I have trouble putting my finger on any current US pop stars in this exact vein. Adams-Ray got famous as a rapper (he and the aforementioned Oskar Linnros were a rap outfit named Snook) but the internet calls this “neo-soul” and to me it just sounds like what a lot of indiepop bands would do if they had the budget.

“Dum av dig” (“Stupid For You”)

“Gubben i lådan” (“Jack-In-The-Box”) (lyrics)

Jakob Hellman – He made one album in the late 80s, sold a bunch of copies, and never followed it up but is still (according to the internet) beloved by Swedish listeners. Forever frozen in the Swedish national consciousness as an adorable cross between Daniel Radcliffe and Rivers Cuomo.

“Vara vänner” (“Be Friends”)

“Hon väntar på mej” (“She’s Waiting For Me”)

Familjen (The Family) – Really nice contemporary dancepop. The guy apparently has an accent from Skane, an area in the south of Sweden– most noticeably, “mig” and “dig” (“me”/”you”) sound like “my” and “die” rather than “may” and “day”. Of all these artists, Familjen are probably the one who I’m most certain I would have already been a fan of if they sang in English.

“Det snurrar i min skalle” (“It Spins My Head” (lyrics)

“Huvudet i sanden” (“Head in the Sand”) (lyrics)

“Det var jag” (“It Was Me”) (lyrics)

“Djungelns lag” (“Jungle Law”)

Far & Son (Father & Son) – These guys might be the Swedish LMFAO. Not sure. “Panik” does have several references to the Smiths song “Panic”, including a melodic quote in the middle. In each line of “Excellent Ecstasy”, all the words start with the same letter — the Youtube commenter who faithfully transcribed it saw one of their comments marked as spam, possibly since it was in fact a string of non-sequiturs punctuated with the names of prescription drugs.

“Panik”

“Excellent Ecstasy”

“Du är mina tankar”

Kapten Rod (Captain Red) – Earnest Swedish melodic dancehall (he also does plenty of more roots-style reggae). “Ju mer dom spottar” is an anti-hater song so relentlessly perky that it sounds like he’s *actually* managed to not care about his detractors, despite writing a whole song about them. “Saknade vänner”, on the other hand, is a tribute to a friend of his who died, made slightly less poignant by the fact that (if Wikipedia can be trusted), his friend, fellow musician Junior Eric, died in a moped accident rather than the gunfight the lyrics hint at. But still.

“Ju mer dom spottar” (“The More They Spit”)

“Saknade vänner” (“Missing Friends”)

Panda Da Panda – Glitchy and yelpy (i.e. totally charming! if you’re me) dubstep-inflected pop. “Tittar när han dansar” begins with him murmuring “I know something you don’t know… you’re in love with me!” a few times before the song really kicks in. The chorus is “Watch when I dance / Watch me when I dance / Watch me when I / When when when I dance”. At the end, he just starts shouting “My legs! My arms! Dancing!”

(The title, archly: “Look At Him Dancing”.)

“Turbulens” might actually be a better song, and I think is relatively sincere — the dispirited “jag vet” (“I know”) in the background gets me every time — but I mean… look at him! Dancing!

“Turbulens” [note: shirtless boy video]

“Tittar När Han Dansar” (“Look At Him Dancing”)

Next time: Snow White’s eighth dwarf, a kinky Jesus, and the world’s most beautiful waiting room.

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retro listening #51-60

51. The Cure – Disintegration

I totally bought the hype about this album (which at this point in the story was still one of relatively few records I had been looking forward to prior to its release)– I was positive it was going to be the most depressing thing ever, in a way I found appealing but a little scary. I didn’t think there was anything inherently awesome about depression (if I recall correctly); I just felt like that was where I was at a lot of the time.

So this first song sounds more like the theme to Chariots Of Fire than you would expect from that description.

It’s very STATELY. Not abject at all. As is the second track (maybe a little less so). And the third. The words suggest an elegiac mood, not a triumphant one, but they aren’t really going out of their way to draw attention to the lyrics.

“Last Dance” is about “a woman now standing where once there was only a girl”. That doesn’t strike me as a tragedy. Wait, let me check… yeah, okay, Robert Smith was 30 when he made this. Not too old to call romantic partners “girls” as such, but way too old to talk as though “girls” are preferable to “women”. (So that’s a little creepy.)

Thinking about how young the band were back then is not particularly good for my mental health. They seemed (like all musicians) incredibly old and wise, but… well, maybe the album is just depressing me, contrary to current expectations.

This is not, even now, how I handle emotional agony. The calm widescreen “here we are at the end of the world and isn’t it pretty” moments all come at the end of a crisis for me; the album’s slide from there into grimmer and grimmer moods (but still always slow, expansive, overwhelming) is genuinely a downer.

Not really sure who this is for.

52. Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine

I saw “Down In It” on MTV and liked it. I was surprised to find that this album was more like Depeche Mode with synthesized gunshot noises than the sparse, beat-heavy record I was expecting. (The former is obviously a better fit with the music I already knew, but I remember being excited that I’d discovered a new type of music to like and sort of disappointed that it wasn’t true.)

Now that I’m very firmly *expecting* synthpop, the places where Reznor was breaking the mold stand out more obviously: the white noise bursts in “Sanctified”, for example, though those do alternate with 80s guitar so cheesy that it spoils any effect it might have had.

This is a SLOG. Partly because I already revisited this album a few years ago, when I stumbled on Purest Feeling, the album of demos that became Pretty Hate Machine. That was kinda revelatory. The demos are missing nearly all the most pointedly ‘dark’ aspects: no “Head Like A Hole”, “Sin” or “Something I Can Never Have”; a cheerier title; no “slice my finger off” lyrics in “Ringfinger” (whose lyrics then become pretty generic workin-hard-for-the-money-babe sentiment). So that was interesting, but I’ve already played this album several times this century when it wasn’t what I wanted to listen to as such.

53. The Primitives – Lovely

I was both thrilled and a little disappointed when “Crash” showed up in Band Hero– thrilled because I love the song, but disappointed because it was somehow always crucial to my context for it that although it was a hit, it was a hit from far away and a year or two before I was paying any attention to music. I don’t think I wanted them to be My Discovery, in that way people (still, tiresomely) accuse music geeks of wanting, but I did want them to be A Discovery, as opposed to a thing mostly heard by people who didn’t care.

But now I feel like I have these false memories of walking around Camden High Street as a collegiate Londoner in the mid-80s, listening to “Crash”. Man, those were the days. I bet I ate “chips” and wore bright colors too.

For real, though, this messes with my time perception. The Primitives were, as I think I mentioned when talking about Pure, sort of a major-label version of C86-era indiepop, a style I wouldn’t know how to explore for another few years. I don’t remember how well teenage-me thought it meshed with the piles of Oingo Boingo albums I was listening to, but now it’s an anachronism. And a welcome one…

54. Oingo Boingo – BOI-NGO

Presumably a keen observer would have realized that Danny Elfman was phoning it in (sick of being in a rock band?) after he named this album. Or, failing that, after he named a different album “Boingo”, without the hyphen, a few years later.

I wonder how much of a “mature” move this seemed like at the time. It has a very similar feel to Total Devo (released around the same time, also by a “novelty” band, also an album of new material almost-but-not-quite self-titled… hm…) in its comfortableness.

For example, how is Elfman’s spoken break in “New Generation” not eyeroll-fodder for me? Hmm. I guess inspirational-speaker-Elfman hasn’t gotten on my nerves at all in this retrospective, just enfant-terrible-Elfman, who is nowhere to be found.

I recall that “Not My Slave” was my favorite track back then, which I think might still be true, even though it’s sort of an emotional muddle– I’m not sure, for example, what its bittersweet tone is doing there, since the narrator is dismissive about his past life following other people’s scripts and enthusiastic about his future in a relationship between equals. Maybe it’s not even meant to be bittersweet? But no: “with sadness in my heart and joy in my mind”… dunno.

“Outrageous” would fit right in on The The’s Soul Mining, with its fundamental boredness only sort of dented by cherished beliefs about how “something big” is going to happen.

Maybe he’s still a troublemaker, but he’s become that archetypal sly ringleader inviting people into the secret circus, instead of a pitchman shouting at people about egresses.

I didn’t expect to have that much to say.

55. Ministry – The Land Of Rape And Honey

I used to love “Stigmata”. I don’t actually know why, not for sure. But I have a theory.

Well, that constantly looping riff with the rising note must have been part of it. I still like trancy music, when it doesn’t bore me. Listening to this album is at least *kind of* like not thinking about anything.

But I think I also liked being assaulted by the song. This wouldn’t have made sense to me in high school, so I’m sure I never thought of it– liking a song had to mean identifying with it or aligning yourself with it somehow, right? And yet listening to it now, it’s a little relaxing, but entirely because the song is this external thing hammering at me. So that’s interesting.

The rest of the album is unbelievably boring. The music is boring (some boring ambient, some boring metal), and the attitude is a very pre-internet flavor of “evil” where just having a recording of Aleister Crowley chanting somehow made you a badass. Sure, it’s easy to sneer now, ignoring the fact that I thought this was cool at the time. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually listen to it all that much, beyond “Stigmata”.

56. Ministry – The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste

I had these two albums dubbed onto one 90-minute tape. (I remember having to decide which songs to drop to make them fit.)

This one’s kind of better. The sample-fest “Thieves” actually attempts to make something new out of its pieces (and the phrase “power to the people” still, to this day, often makes me think “police officer!” / “kill! kill! kill!” / “you will not kill!”).

“Burning Inside” even has something approaching a melodic hook. Well, it has more than one note in the vocal melody, anyhow. Eventually.

No, actually, this is still pretty bad. Less half-assed than the previous one, at least.

57. Camper Van Beethoven – Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

I know my interest in Ministry was fueled, at least in part, by a guy named Morton Taylor (name changed to protect the etc.) He was big and scary and probably smoked cigarettes. Friends of mine knew him from a BBS. I didn’t exactly like him, but him taking something seriously was a good reason for me to take it seriously, I guess?

At any rate, my freshman year I was also part of the “theater ensemble”, a non-performing group that did improv and movement exercises and a bunch of other cool things that I wish had continued after its organizers– two girls, one a junior and one a senior– graduated. Unlike with Taylor, I was very very clear on the fact that I wanted to be as much like them as possible. They were manifestly awesome. (And that group they started probably was responsible for a larger fraction of the confidence I made it through high school with than I realized.)

So one of them was also on the staff of one of the school’s newspapers and, in advance of Camper Van Beethoven coming to play a show in Madison, she wrote a glowing review that mentioned how the new album was pretty good but “She Divines Water” from their previous album was totally going to make her see God if they played it at the concert so hopefully they would.

I remember being on the fence about exploring CVB further. That article made the decision easier.

Musically there isn’t a ton to revisit here, since I’ve listened to this one regularly ever since. And yet I still don’t know what “come sit down next to your man, let him cough in your ear” means. It seems dirty.

Drug references made things seem cool to me, even though I was completely repulsed by friends of mine taking drugs. A little mysterious.

I do remember an attempt– in retrospect I must have seemed totally crazy even by lovelorn 14-year-old boy standards– to declare my affections to a friend of mine by singing a song from this album that seemed germane based on, like, one of the lines. Just thinking about that makes me feel severely igry. (q.v. this blog post)

58. The Damned – Machine Gun Etiquette

Maybe it’s just the thin production, but for some reason this is making me think of the Kinks.

Plenty of stupid to go around here. “These Hands” is a generic ‘killer clown’ concept, which admittedly doesn’t drag on. “Anti-Pope” seems slyer, criticizing churchgoers on the grounds that “I should know — I used to go there myself”. I mean, either it’s playing dumb about Christianity’s omnipresence in order to interrogate its cultural hegemony, or it’s actually just dumb. Good song, though, and one I’d forgotten.

Why are any of these songs five minutes long, though? Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

Thirty minutes later: Please stop jamming.

59. The Sisters Of Mercy – Floodland

“Dominion/Mother Russia” always seemed to me like it must have some story behind it– “Mother Russia” is too fleshed-out to just be a coda, but on the other hand, you couldn’t make a separate song out of it without courting the objection that these two songs are kind of the same.

Although there’s “Flood I” and “Flood II”. Don’t remember how similar those are; we’ll see.

The line from my early Ministry fandom to being a Shriekback completist only a few years later goes straight through this album, I think. Not to mention that I eventually discovered early Frank Tovey.

Wasn’t I just complaining about long songs? Because I am *just fine* with “This Corrosion” being 10 minutes long, I think. I’m writing this at like 6:24 in, though.

There’s also a song called “Never Land (A Fragment)” that is indeed a song fragment. Seems to be a fair amount of process being exposed here. I have faint memories of feeling like Andrew Eldritch must be the gothest dude in the world in person, always wearing black and probably saying opaque things. But I don’t think this music ever presented (for me) an illusion that it was just a raw expression of how he felt about anything. No presumption that the “I” in his songs is him. It’s very obviously a show being put on for my entertainment.

Maybe all I’m saying is that I never heard any emotion in his voice. Nor do now.

60. Wire – Document And Eyewitness

I realized a minute ago that I did know when I got this: I remember buying it while out on a shopping trip with a middle-school friend who I mostly lost touch with in high school. On vinyl, no less! So anyway, must have been freshman year. I got the CD later, but I think my listens must have all been on LP, since I am, right now, confused by the CD running order, which (sensibly!) puts the relatively musical Notre Dame Hall tracks first, followed by the Electric Ballroom performance.

That latter half is what I remember from this. I was super-excited at how many titles on the sleeve did not appear on Wire’s other albums. All new material! To my dismay, though, a lot of them seemed either like improvised noise, or audio documentation of some visual art taking place onstage. The sleeve described a lot of the latter: “Vocalist attacks gas stove”; “Vocalist accompanied and lit by illuminated goose”; “Vocalist eats 2 loaves and then blank scrolls are unrolled”.

My long-distance paramour from camp asked me, sometime that fall, what my favorite number was. I hated things which I thought of as superstition, and that was the only framework I could make any sense of “favorite number” in. I wanted to try it on, though, so I said, “I guess it’s 5/10″, since that was the name of a Wire song. “Isn’t that just 1/2?” she said. Well, er, I guess? I didn’t know you could have a favorite number but still endorse the workings of actual mathematics.

Now that it’s been so very long since I first heard this, and the vaults of Wire material from this era are presumably empty, I can appreciate a few tracks (especially “Relationship” and “Revealing Trade Secrets”) as Wire songs that were tragically discarded when the band broke up. It’s nice to have them. And the 9-minute “And Then… / Coda” is probably a better space-out than anything on those first three studio albums. But the sense of betrayal remains.
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retro listening #41-50

A year ago I started listening to my record collection in autobiographical order. Then I stopped for a while. Now it sounds like fun again!

41. Dead Kennedys – Bedtime For Democracy

Sort of listenable, but basically insufferable… not that little bits of this haven’t stayed lodged in my head for two decades, because they have. (And until just now, I had an unexamined conviction that “Where Do Ya Draw The Line” was somehow related to “Which Side Are You On”.)

42. The Primitives – Pure

I figured this would be refreshing after the pain of late DKs, but the juxtaposition does make single “Sick Of It” even less convincingly aggressive than it would have been otherwise (which to be fair is not much). It’s kind of funny how– in the middle of all the classic and terrific Primitives jangliness– there’s the one distorted guitar riff after the refrain, as if to say “Grr! Now I’m mean!”

(You need to imagine a really fluffy cat saying that, or whatever.)

This must have been more or less the first C86-derived band I listened to and I still have a huge sentimental soft spot for them. I do have to admit that side A is not that good. Side B, though: classic.

43. Colin Newman – Provisionally Entitled The Singing Fish / Not To

That first fall that I was really listening to music, a DJ on local community station WORT did a whole show (3 hours, I guess) of Wire and related music. He went by “Harry Rag”, though I only confirmed just now that that’s how he spells it– he’s still doing a show two Friday nights a month. Holy shit, dude. I can also read his top 50s from many many years, including 1989. (Wire’s “Eardrum Buzz” was #26; the Primitives’ “Sick Of It” was #42.)

At any rate, the night of that show, I had some overnight synagogue youth group event, and the program was due to begin smack in the middle of the Friday night prayers, so (iirc) I beseeched my mom to put in a tape and hit ‘record’ at the right time. I think I also got clearance to go home in the middle of the evening and put in a second tape, then come back. So my parents’ decision to buy a house within walking distance of the synagogue turned out to be valuable for me after all!

From that show (listened to many, many times), I think I already knew that the first half of this CD, originally issued as an album in its own right, was all instrumental. I still, even now, can’t tell what the point was. My best guess, actually, is that Newman was trying to prove something to his former bandmates, Gilbert and Lewis, who were making lots of records that sounded more like the proto-industrial “Fish 6″, whose harshness is mitigated only by a bunch of xylophone noises at the end, than like the rest, which sound like filler. Or, if you prefer, incidental music from a movie.

Finally, Not To!

Absent vocals bothered me, but incomprehensible lyrics absolutely didn’t. Even now that I can make out what more of the words ARE in “Lorries” and get that “soixante nouveau” is a pun (isn’t it?), I have no idea what’s going on.

By and large, the edge is off Newman’s voice, except during two Wire leftovers (“Don’t Bring Reminders” and “5/10″), and during “Blue Jay Way”, which I knew from the liner notes was a Beatles cover. A surprisingly faithful Beatles cover.

I like a lot of these songs, but they sound like someone gliding to a stop.

44. Colin Newman – CN1 EP

This extra EP came with the preceding twofer, and I think ended up being the rarest item in my Wire collection.

It’s all (or mostly?) instrumentals from Singing Fish, with vocals added. “We Means, We Starts” seems like close kin to a much later Newman song: “The Offer”. Both seem to be about romantic commitment, framed in a stilted or formal way– but is that part of the song, or just how Newman is?

45. The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry

Those last few notes were written last year, when I started this project. Now it’s now. Just so you know.

The handful of these songs that haven’t become incredibly familiar from other collections are surprisingly UNfamiliar. I thought I knew how “So What” went but was way off.

Even though I was expecting it, the blood-curdling scream after the fade-out of “Subway Song” was upsetting. I’m wondering now whether it’s some cleverly-distorted guitar rather than a person, but not willing to re-listen to it to find out.

I had this on cassette, so actually, that scream might be the entire reason I don’t know the album as such very well.

46. He Said – Hail

Where the later He Said album (which I heard first) was just mystifying, this is… pleasantly mystifying? Like, I can make out very few words and it’s salted with weird noises, but it also just seems rich and fabulous. Like Steely Dan crossed with Foetus, neither of whom I have too much truck with individually. (For both ends of the spectrum listen to “Pump” and “Shapes To Escape”.)

In high school I knew that some of the later tracks were bonuses, but maybe didn’t know which ones? No wonder– two of them are quite good (actually I’ve found “Pale Feet” to be totally comforting and encouraging every time I’ve ever heard it, so I guess that’s a little better than “quite good”) and two are disposable ambient versions of other songs. But at any rate, the album has either aged extremely well, or it got its hooks in me in a way that was weirdly immune to aging. I mean, it’s clear a lot of old records got their hooks in me, but usually, noticing that comes with a sense of dislocation, like, how am I the same person now as I was then?

Whereas Hail just still Works For Me.

47. Oingo Boingo – Good For Your Soul

I remember the Oingo Boingo albums I listened to earlier in this retro trip kinda putting me off the band. Or at least, off Danny Elfman.

“Sweat” sounds an incredibly square Joe Jackson. The music is viscerally satisfying but it doesn’t sound like anyone involved has ever actually sweated, much less had sex. They’re just as excited about the idea as other people are about the thing itself, which… well, fair enough.

Still pretty fun when I don’t pay attention, but if I tune in, it feels like a high school friend who really liked the sound of his own voice, hamming it up over a Howard Jones track while L.A. session musicians jam out.

48. Pixies – Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim

By this point the exact sequence of my purchases is kind of muddy, so I don’t necessarily think I actually got this right after an Oingo Boingo album. But wow the contrast.

Exact opposite of the previous album: if I don’t pay attention, it’s just catchy and comforting. I mean, I’ve heard these songs a LOT. If I attend to it, though, it sounds intense. I suppose I didn’t have any reason to think rock music didn’t all sound like this.

It’s certainly legible in the tradition of Zen Arcade. Bits of the drumming sound borrowed from hardcore, though Lovering is a lot more interesting than that would imply.

I got this on import CD, with both albums together. Never paid much attention to where the break was, in retrospect maybe because there are two big stops in the action shortly *before* Surfer Rosa ends: this famously awkward bit of studio banter, and the intro to “I’m Amazed”. But I mean now, paying attention, the debut EP is thinner and less jagged. “The Holiday Song” might be as screamy as Black Francis gets. Wait, no, there’s a full-on howl during the “Nimrod’s Son” break.

I don’t quite remember how I felt about the Pixies’ freakiness back then. I suspect “you are the son of a motherfucker” was thrillingly transgressive and the unsexy flirtation in “I’ve Been Tired” was more mystifying than uncomfortable. The idea of discussing sex with somebody you didn’t already utterly trust would not have made sense, I don’t think.

49. Chess

I had the version with the black cover. I think that’s the UK version?

So for a while I thought I might like musicals. This one seemed cool, at any rate– it had had a song on the radio, and was about chess, which I’ve never known anything about beyond how the pieces move but it was clearly an emblem of the brainy wing of adult culture, so I liked the IDEA.

Speaking of cultural affiliations, I can’t believe the young me made it through the choral number at the beginning. Maybe I was more open-minded, in some ways, than I am now.

The ABBA-ishness is obvious.

The accusation that The American is “a fruit” went right over my head back then.

Right now, I can’t help skipping around, and eventually ahead. I would go on to be in two of my high school’s musicals but I never really explored them as listening material after this.

50. Colin Newman – It Seems

I have a note from long ago saying that I got this the same week as I checked Chess out from the library. Apparently I remembered that fact well into college, when I first tried to figure out exactly when I’d gotten each of my records. But why?

Starts with “Quite Unrehearsed”, and… the quick, chiming, artificial synths with Newman singing more slowly over them instantly bring back a wave of what I remember about this album: a feeling that I could stop panicking and things would be okay. Mind you, I almost never COULD stop freaking out when something upset me. But it was nice to feel, sometimes, as though if I could it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

In retrospect, Wire were (are!) almost completely humorless. That’s not what I aspired to in high school and yet maybe it helped me take them seriously.

One song here is sung by Malka Spigel, Newman’s wife. I did not have a great attitude toward male musicians’ female partners, perhaps because I had no real model of what collaboration looked like, much less what it might be like to have a relationship with someone whose work you admired and wanted to share with the world. Spigel’s vocals on “Better Later Than Never” (Youtube has the title wrong) are a great contrast with Newman’s, though; I just don’t like her songwriting. Or I didn’t like it, and haven’t gotten over that?

This album also creates a very strong feeling of being in SFMoMA, which is clearly an anachronism (I first went there about 10 years after buying this album, by which time I really was not listening to it much).

I know I tried to feel as though “Not Being In Warsaw” was relevant to the long-distance friendship/relationship/whatever that I had with a girl who I’d met at camp the previous summer– tried to feel that way, and mostly failed. It’s funny to see that, in retrospect, it may well have BEEN about a long-distance relationship, but, obviously, that didn’t make it relatable.

Last story: I tried to take this CD back to the record store because it was missing one track printed on the label (“Si Tu Attends”). They were polite but said there wasn’t much they could do if a CD was missing bonus tracks that it was supposed to have. Which makes sense, but man, what a mystifying thing. I actually still think it seems like a good idea not to put absent tracks on the back cover of your album. It’s legitimately disappointing! 13 years later, I rebought It Seems from a French used-music store on the theory that if ANY printings of the album had the bonus track, ones from a different country were a good bet. Success! With that track restored, the album ends cheerfully unresolved, instead of disoriented (“Round & Round”). And I can’t find “Si Tu Attends” on Youtube, so it gets to remain a slightly obscure object of desire.
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Paul Goodman, “The Present Moment In Education” (1969)

The pre-requisite of city-planning is that children be able to use the city; for no city is governable if it does not grow citizens who feel that the city is theirs.

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match-3 research

Despite there being a million match-3 games out there, there are two things I’m having trouble finding. I wonder if you can help!

1. Mathematical data about Bejeweled-type games. If I randomly fill an n x n grid with gems of k colors, how many moves will there be, on average? How many existing matches (i.e. gems that break before my first turn) will there be? How many new possible moves per turn does ideal play create, and how many does playing at random create (or remove)? And so on.

I could do the math on some of those questions with a little work (and I could Monte Carlo them even more easily), but not all of them, and anyway I wonder if somebody’s already done it. Like that guy who proved there’s no strategy for Tetris that guarantees you won’t lose.

2. Match-3 games with strategic elements or substantial game mechanics outside the board. There’s the wonderful-but-slightly-grindy Puzzle Quest (and a bunch of failed followups by the same company), and Dungeon Raid for iOS. Oh, and you could count Gyromancer, but its RPG elements seemed like window dressing to me– the different creatures you summoned were interchangeable.

Maybe potential imitators of Puzzle Quest were put off by the fact that even the people who actually designed Puzzle Quest couldn’t do it a second time. But seriously, look around the App Store or Kongregate– the current state of casual match-3 development is the closest thing the gaming world has to an infinite number of monkeys. Something interesting must be happening.

By “match-3″ I mean the Bejeweled mechanic but also “Bejeweled Twist” (rotate 2×2 sections of the board) and path-tracing games like Azkend or Dungeon Raid. Anything that involves matching tiles on a static board which refills itself whenever a hole appears– as opposed to games where you fill the board yourself one piece at a time, like Tetris or Snood.

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retro listening #31-40

31. Pixies – Doolittle

That Love & Rockets concert I went to… the Pixies were actually the opening band. And they were *incredible*. This was back when they still played their sets in alphabetical order, but I don’t remember what they played. I just know I loved it. So yeah, the first rock band I ever saw play was the Pixies, and they blew L&R off the stage. I can never mention this without feeling like this one caller to Tom Scharpling’s radio show.

32. The The – Soul Mining

This might be one of my favorite records, but it snuck up on me. I think during the years when I was making top 10 lists, I wasn’t entirely okay with loving one album by an artist and not being attached to the others.

It’s kind of an adult record, isn’t it? “This Is The Day” seems to be about changing *again*– having distance from the past (“you’ve been reading some old letters / you smile to think how much you’ve changed”) but realizing the world is going to shift again. I don’t know, it’s an adult idea for *me* anyhow. It was a long time before I could see a big change in myself without concluding that all those OTHER times I thought I had changed weren’t the real thing.

On the other hand, Matt Johnson made Soul Mining when he was 21, so what do I know.

Another bonus track controversy: I grew up with the version that ends with “Perfect”. Matt Johnson’s preferred running order left out “Perfect”, ending with “Giant”. The extra song does diminish “Giant”‘s impact; that minute-long drum solo works better if what it gives way to is the album’s curtain call. But listening to “Perfect” now, I have a theory about why I prefer having it there– it contains, if I’m not mistaken, the only character seen through anything but introspection on the whole album! Some songs do have a “you” in them, but most of those are second-person protagonists; “Uncertain Smile” has both “I” and “you” but they seem to be the same person.

“Giant”‘s final lyric is “How can anyone know me if I don’t even know myself?” and “Perfect” answers that: maybe if you ever left the freaking house, I mean geez. So in the song, Johnson goes out and sees a society approaching ruin… an old man drinks himself into oblivion, the town turns into a Sartrean hell as more people move in… but he’s happy with himself, stable (feet “firmly screwed to the floor”) and seemingly soothed by the world’s predictable awfulness.

I’m not sure Johnson-the-songwriter means us to identify with Johnson-the-character here, nor that he does himself. But it doesn’t matter; the point is that engagement is *inevitable*, and as someone prone to completely losing myself in fits of navel-gazing, I LIKE the album when it ends with a little sunlight and a vision of people’s flaws as being limiting instead of corrupting.

33. The Mekons – The Mekons Rock’n'Roll

This sounded interesting (from MTV again? must have been) so it went on my Hannukkah list. I was disappointed.

Today, I like the Sally Timms songs okay (don’t remember what I thought before, but they didn’t stand out) and the rest… maybe if I were familiar with the band’s foregoing cultural critique, a rock album about the problems with rock music would make sense. As it is, it seems barely different from lampshading.

“Amnesia”, the one song I liked at all back then, sadly turns out to be a cross between “We Didn’t Start The Fire” and “Purple Toupee” (which are already a little too close for me to be comfortable hating the Billy Joel and liking the TMBG).

34. Colin Newman – A-Z

Wire’s singer (well, one of them), solo just after the band split up. I actually (I’m surprised to find) like some songs better than 154: “& Jury”, “Life On Deck”, “Inventory”. On the other hand, Newman’s experiments with no- or low-lyric songs still sound to me like nothing takes the place of the vocals; they’re just songs with a piece removed. Anyway, interesting intersection of Wire, 4AD’s gloomy sound, and a sort of Johnny Rotten-esque ululation that certainly wasn’t out of place in Newman’s style but was never quite as harsh as here.

35. Devo – Now It Can Be Told (Live 12/9/88)

The first version I heard of “Jocko Homo” was the campy soft-rock version that begins this concert. I never ended up liking the original song much either, but listening to this now, it seems like a supreme shark-jumping moment.

“It takes courage to be a Devo fan these days!” Crowd goes nuts. This is just embarrassing.

Eventually it settles into kind of a friendly groove. Devo on VH1 Storytellers.

Devo are self-deprecating but not modest. Their whole schtick is to act superior for knowing that the things people value are really just monkey poop.

36. Madness – The Rise And Fall

Beatles! The new ingredient on this album is the Beatles!

Exhibit A: “Primrose Hill”, not that most people would probably take much convincing. But at age 13, I didn’t think the Beatles sounded like anything in particular other than “old”, so I would never have caught that.

There’s also a lurch sideways to songs about family + home + England… not as jarring as I found Sgt. Pepper doing likewise, but noticeable.

Most of the song titles on side B are unfamiliar, and in a few cases the music is too. I didn’t spin this much, or maybe just always turned it off before “Our House”, which seems as pointless to me as it always did.

37. Otis Ball – I’m Gonna Love You Til I Don’t

They Might Be Giants had some glancing association with this record, which is why I got it.

I was disappointed by some of these songs back then, but now I find it easy to actually see what’s WRONG with them– mostly the lyrics, though the the music and arrangements are generic too. He’s at his best trying to sound like the Young Fresh Fellows, another artist I’d investigate because of They Might Be Giants, but not for another year or two. And I don’t know, geez, I just tried to really write a song for the first time the other day, and it’s hard to begrudge the guy his filler lines and whatnot.

A few years after this came out, I was at a They Might Be Giants concert with friends and a vaguely familiar-looking dude was at the merch table. “Are you Otis Ball?” Ben Smith asked. “Uh… yeah.” “Love the album!” He did not look any less miserable after this exchange.

And then– oh yeah! The last few songs are uniformly decent. I wonder what happened there.

38. Devo – Total Devo

To my surprise (that live album was so smarmy!) this is strangely on-target. Devo’s nihilism here sounds like the nihilism of Las Vegas, or, maybe more accurately, like the nihilism of The Big City in Blade Runner, A.I., Transmetropolitan, you name it. It sounds gaudy and *exhausted*.

Also, there seems to be a sincere self-help song which conflates the Jungian “shadow” with the radio superhero The Shadow. Instrumentally, this is close to that Information Society album, with big booming drums and… did InSoc have that synth xylophone?

39. Ramones – Brain Drain

I was never a huge Ramones fan (I think I taped this from the neighbor kid in a final burst of trying to be friends before high school took us in totally different directions), so I’m a little surprised at how WEIRD Joey Ramone’s voice is. Really it’s two voices– the deep voice with weirdly clipped vowels (the “Ramones accent”) and the higher-pitched strangly voice. Really unnerving. Also, not such a good album.

40. INXS – Kick

I’m just assuming I heard this at the same time, because it was on the back of that same tape. Unlike the Ramones, it’s not clear to me why INXS never became one of ‘my’ bands. This is pretty good! But maybe Hutchence’s rawwk vocals were enough to put me off.

I remember having the conviction that the last three songs were way worse than “Mystify”, so I usually skipped them. As a result, they’re familiar more from Beck’s re-performing of the album than the INXS versions. I have to say, Beck did a really good job adding weight to the title track. The other two… still not standing out.

The world in which I discovered music is starting to feel very small. Pre-mp3 it was a lot harder to hear new music, and pre-job I could only afford so many bad guesses. But I’m also remembering what it was like to not be as good at knowing whether I like something. I remember the excruciating feeling of not really wanting to listen to an album again but knowing there were some awesome things I’d never appreciate if I didn’t give them patience.

My ears are better now, with years and years of listening. But they’re also just faster, and I think without that, I would have gone nuts.
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retro listening 21-30

21. Wire – Chairs Missing

For a long time, I said this was my favorite record. It’s the first pre-breakup Wire I heard– they were a late 70s art-punk band, broke up in 1980, and reformed five years later to make the records I heard first.

It’s also… severe. Unlike Pink Flag or 154, though, it seems to be all about the tension between harshness and warmth, or trance and melody. A lot of people talk about “Outdoor Miner” as a “gem”, a perfect tiny composition. Which I guess maybe it is if your primary listening strategy is to uneasily wonder whether anyone will ever surpass the Beatles– it’s a nice piece of songwriting. It’s just not *great* unless you’ve wound your way there through 24 minutes of Wire’s un-pop imperiousness.

Although yeah, Sean, I want it played at my funeral too.

22. Camper Van Beethoven – Key Lime Pie

I’ve just noticed how unusual it was, when I bought this tape, that I was listening to an American band. And MAN are they American. Jack Ruby. Dreams of winning the lottery. Wide open spaces.

I thought it was cool that they had a violinist. Very classy. Except… listening now, on several songs the violin works mostly because it’s so much like pedal steel, or whatever that note-bendy steel guitar sound is. Which is a sound I love but would have mistrusted at the time– too much like country music.

The best songs here (and I don’t recall if this is what I thought at the time) seem to be the ones that lope along, like “Borderline” and “June”. Not too fast or slow, but persistent. The whole thing has a strange sense of defiance.

Primary association with this record: my first step away from being a picky eater. Sometime that fall, I ordered key lime pie off a menu despite having no idea what it was, because I was curious. My mom, knowing how hard it was to get me to try foods I didn’t already know I liked (even desserts) was very surprised.

23. Oingo Boingo – Boingo Alive

Another two-cassette best-of. It wasn’t just that they were cheap; I liked the idea of a retrospective, of getting to absorb the whole framework of a band’s career at once. At some point, the completist impulse would start to cut *against* buying anthologies, because if I ended up liking the band, I’d want all their albums and then that first thing I bought would have been a WASTE.

(This is somewhere between a best-of and a live album; they re-recorded everything anew for it on a “sound stage”, which I actually don’t know what that is but I assume it’s… a facility for making records like this.)

I have to give Danny Elfman credit: although he likes singing about how stupid other people are, he (unlike a lot of other songwriters fascinated with their own superiority) actually has a positive vision of how things could be better. I mean, it mostly boils down to “eat, drink and be merry”, but that’s okay, his critiques are simplistic too. I’d (slightly) rather deal with someone who thinks everybody that disagrees with them is stupid than with someone who concludes a priori that everyone else is stupid and looks for ways to disagree with us. If you see what I mean.

Lyrics aside, this is mostly still a blast to listen to. The band are tight and, as I guess was always true, the lovesongs benefit from being sung by someone who is audibly more comfortable singing about the undead but does really want to let you know how he feels.

24. Love And Rockets – Love And Rockets

One late autumn day, a car pulled up in front of my house. A friend of mine leaned out the rear passenger window and mysteriously handed me this CD– actually, the same friend who’d randomly ragged on He Said. It never occurred to me until just now that he might have been trying to apologize.

I liked the album okay at the time, and so, excitedly, asked my parents’ permission to go see Love And Rockets when they came to town. They were playing the Madison Civic Center, which is about as harmless a framing as a rock band could have. I didn’t enjoy L&R’s set much at all, but bought a shirt anyway (that’s what you DO, right?) and it’s actually become my favorite t-shirt– repeated laundering made it softer and softer without destroying it.

Back to now. This album is… stupid. Not stupid like hyphy, just like, misconceived and dim. It’s a rock album made by people who think the heart of rock music is wearing leather and frowning a lot. It does get better as it goes on (starts with: snide fantasy about murdering journalists, ends with: some decent glam tunes) but eh.

Big single “So Alive” sounds worse in context than it would if it came on in my dentist’s office, which, incidentally, wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

25. Wire – Pink Flag

The face that launched a thousand three-chord ships! Kind of.

13 of the 21 songs are under 90 seconds, which raises doubts about my idea that they hadn’t grown into their artiness yet in 1977. On the other hand, MAYBE this is super-formalized, but MAYBE it just seems like it fits inside the constraints of punk with perfect precision because this is what I think punk is.

I keep listening to see if Gilbert’s lead guitar is as hesitant as on Chairs Missing, and instead I just don’t hear it at all. Maybe at first he played rhythm guitar and Colin Newman just sang?

I don’t remember who pointed this fact out to me, but Pink Flag has two conspicuous erasures of sex in song titles. The “that” in “106 Beats That” is masking a song about sex, and “12XU” supposedly gets its name from the punk version of a pre-song countoff: “one, two, one-two-fuck-you!” Yeah, I know that shouting “fuck you” isn’t referring to sex, but the song itself is trying to capture sex en passant, with the repeated “Saw you in a mag, kissing a man”– everything else is left frozen. We infer it’s a porn magazine, and infer further that it’s gay porn, but all that’s really there is the fetishization of evidence, which is a fetishization of whatever’s been left out.

ANYWAY, I’m just noticing that “Field Day For The Sundays” also refers to erasing sexuality (“touched up near the waist / looking as limp as Sunday morning”) and “Three Girl Rhumba” is poised via its title to describe some kind of sexual indulgence, but rigidly replaces its instructions (how to dance? how to pick up chicks?) with austere nonsense (“think of a number / divide it by two / don’t get sucked under / a number’s a number”).

Also, as of like a month ago, a song from this album is the first song I learned to play on a guitar. Teen me would be proud.

26. Wire – 154

They changed fast. This sounds like post-breakup Wire quite a bit, only with the energy (and missteps) of being in new territory. Also, Lewis is singing sometimes, and quite noticeably.

It’s grand, but has never jelled for me as an album. Having it end after “40 Versions” is the right thing– actually, with both this and Pink Flag, I might have to agree with the (finicky) decision to leave bonus tracks off the remasters. “12XU” should really be the final track, and while “40 Versions” isn’t especially ending-y, the experimental bonus songs meant 154 ended with a whimper for me when I was in high school. (Chairs Missing has a nondescript ending anyhow, so “Former Airline” and “A Question Of Degree” more than redeem themselves.)

27. Husker Du – Zen Arcade

Another Rolling Stone-inspired purchase; I think it was on their list of “100 Essential Albums” or something. I figured it must be somehow about video games (maybe the RS writer thought so too?) which was enough for me. It’s not, though. Is it? The story is detectable but hard to make out.

Even when Bob Mould isn’t shouting, he just sings like he had long since shouted himself hoarse on the other songs: “Chartered Trips”. If it’s a narrative album maybe that vocal continuity makes sense, but the plotline, such as it is, seems to cover a period of days or weeks, so the hoarseness isn’t diegetic or anything. It’s just a fact of life when you’re handling life’s problems in the crucible of hardcore (which is still very much where Husker Du are at, here)… aggression is everywhere; even if you aren’t angry right now, sounding like you were recently furious is a matter of identity, not mood.

They packaged it up well. I mean, this was my first hardcore record and a few of the louder cuts did turn me off (I think this listen today was the first time I appreciated “I’ll Never Forget You”) but for some reason it’s all easy to take song by song. Hard to imagine now how a double-LP concept album struck people at the time– did Twin Cities punk kids already know they had this in them, or were they expecting the second half of Metal Circus? Or is the tension between ‘real’ songs and hardcore just something I’m projecting back onto that era?

28. The Sugarcubes – Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!

I always liked Einar Orn, Bjork’s peculiar co-vocalist in the Sugarcubes. He turns out to be more grating than I remember, but it’s pleasantly grating. Bjork is just exhausting.

Einar sez: “My friends the alchemists / Told me everything was natural / And will always be that way”

This is much nicer when I don’t pay too much attention to it.

I wanted to link to at least one song by way of demonstration, but both singers come off less intense in the video for “Eat The Menu” than in pure audio form: Bjork sounds less outrageous with her obvious physical agitation matching her vocal style, and Einar looks like just some dude in a rock band.

29. Madness – Absolutely

One album later, they’ve gone straight from a joke band to that oh-so-professional combo they’ve spent the three decades since as. Still some character bits and funny voices, but the persona of lead singer Suggs– dapper, sharp movements, raised eyebrow, half-smile– is now permanently the way things are.

They’re also really a singles band, but the filler here is nice (and includes some memorable songs that I don’t think were in fact released as singles, like “You Said”).

30. Howard Jones – One To One

My first slow dance ever (at a last-night-of-camp dance I mentioned earlier) was to “No One Is To Blame”, so I had a sentimental attachment to Howard Jones. I was also, however, suspicious of sentiment and couldn’t 100% distinguish Howard Jones from Rick Astley in my head. So I didn’t get this until I found it in a bargain bin that fall.

“There’s more to me than this double bed” means the opposite to me now from what it did then! I thought a “double bed” was a big two-person bed, so “The Balance Of Love” had to be about ending a live-in relationship, but no, it’s “we barely have a relationship anyway; I’m not inviting you over anymore”.

I don’t think I learned Jones was a Taoist until later, but from songs like “Good Luck, Bad Luck” I picked up that he had a philosophy motivating his music. Which kind of broke part of my sentimental attachment to “No One Is To Blame”– well, that and listening to it a few more times. It’s clear that when he says “we” it’s not the you-and-me “we” of a regular lovesong, and then there’s that confusing “ever” when the title is sung: no one EVER is to blame. So the song still suited the memories of mine that it evoked, but it was hard to maintain the illusion that it was eerily appropriate to my situation, the way teenagers want slow dance songs to have been; it wasn’t about me because it wasn’t about anyone.

I’m not positive I get it even now. The rest of the song is obviously approaching desire from a Taoist perspective: you always want things, we all want things, we want each other, but wanting things is pain and getting what you want doesn’t cure the pain. But most of Jones’ Taoist lyrics are pretty direct evocations of particular stories from Zhuangzi or sayings from Laozi, and “no one is to blame” isn’t, as far as I know. My best guess is that he means “don’t hold it against people that they break your heart; all desire is heartbreak”. Except that it’s very hard to say the second part without sounding judgmental so he doesn’t? Anyway, I’m not sure.

Maybe I should actually read the Dao De Jing at some point. A proper appreciation for late-80s synthpop demands it!

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retro listening 11-20

11. Wire – IBTABA

I bought this while at nerd camp (CTD, Northwestern’s version of the CTY programs) and I was very upset to get the tape back to my room and discover that three of the six songs listed for side B weren’t there. On the other hand, the songs on that side of the tape DID fill it up, so it was unclear how the others could in fact ever have been there.

Actually, I have to agree with my younger self that this is a big disappointment– mostly new versions of songs from the only other Wire album I had, and even now that I’ve been a Wire fan for my entire adult life, and just listed to A Bell Is A Cup and IBTABA back to back, I couldn’t tell you how any of the variants differ from their originals.

On the other hand, I’m just now realizing how good “It’s A Boy” is. I was always dimly aware that having “It’s A Boy” and “Boiling Boy” so close together in the tracklist (twice!) was keeping me from remembering which was which, but… I guess it really was.

The missing songs turned out to be CD bonus tracks, listed by mistake. And they were pretty great, though I didn’t know that at the time.

12. The Cure – Standing On A Beach – The Singles (and Unavailable B Sides)

There’s hella guitar soloing in “Killing An Arab”. I apparently didn’t used to have enough consciousness of punk-as-break-from-what-came-before to notice that. It’s incredibly rudimentary, is maybe why?

“Boys Don’t Cry” sounds very jangly and indiepop, all of a sudden. True, I was just listening to Go Sailor a minute ago, but that didn’t make “Killing An Arab” sound like the Fat Tulips.

“Charlotte Sometimes” is a tremendous clunker, compared to all the singles before it. I never did buy all those famously-depressing early Cure albums, so this is still my only context for it (if it was even on an album at all; I don’t know). “The Hanging Garden” is more like it, though I think (and I’d never noticed this before either), the appearance of the lead guitar line after each chorus is a mistake. It seems like it’s trying to reassure the listener that this is all still a Cure song, but it’s so completely unnecessary: the wonder of the song is how sparse the drumming makes it feel *despite* the other instruments being enthusiastically present. Why defang that?

At my last job, I had a coworker who informed me that hardcore Cure fans referred to Robert Smith as “Fat Bob”, which was also the name of her largest pet fish. I think at some point Fat Bob stood accused of eating all his cohorts. The fish did, I mean.

Here is some absolutely masterful abuse of the word “the”‘s narrative powers: “I called you after midnight and ran until I burst / I passed the howling woman and stood outside your door”. THE howling woman! No explanation, just… the. Honestly, most of what’s good in the Cure’s lyrics happens between the lines. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think that, like Morrissey, Smith took a lot of undeserved flak from listeners who didn’t realize he was in on his own joke. Morrissey’s lyrics *were* the joke, though, and often Smith’s vocals are more like props.

Finished with side A. The transition from old Cure to new Cure sure was abrupt– seven songs in, boom, it’s “Let’s Go To Bed”.

Aha! “Mr. Pink Eyes” is the transitional moment the a-sides were missing– Smith definitely has one foot in the deviant music-hall act that would lead to “The Lovecats” and “Why Can’t I Be You?” but it’s distinctly still post-punk. Sounds kind of like The Fall, actually.

I hung on to this tape until *2004*, when the Cure finally put out a b-sides collection on CD (by which time it was four discs long, instead of half of one 90-minute tape).

13. Wire – The Ideal Copy

I still had no idea how Wire had originally sounded (more on that later), so I think at the time, this just sounded, if anything, more naturalistic than A Bell Is A Cup.

I remember how I felt about “Feed Me”, though. Gods. I think that was the first time I ever felt compelled to turn out the lights and just lie there so a song could wash over me. This is a rare case of an album sequenced for LP or tape (i.e. with two sides) that got better when the songs were all run together– “Feed Me” wasn’t telegraphed as a big side-ending track, it was just this thing that happened in the indistinct middle of a list of songs.

“Cheeking Tongues” still always sounds (delightfully) to me as though it’s been sped up 10%. Other than that it plays the same role as “Kidney Bingos” did on their next album. Tongues, kidneys, hm.

14. New Order – Technique

I think actually I bought this earlier than 14th– in the spring of 8th grade, before I discovered The Cure or Wire. “Fine Time” confounded me– it was a while before I got that the album title might be a pun on “techno”, and a LONG while before I could recognize “Fine Time” as New Order’s version of the Madchester sound. (Even so, starting your album with a completely uncharacteristic song is still a relatively rare move; Clap Your Hands Say Yeah mystified a lot of people with it not long ago.)

Cut Copy have made a career out of songs that sound like the sunny half-acoustic New Order except more danceable.

I suspect the blankness/simplicity of Substance’s cover art read as authority to me; Technique was the first time I found their visual style evasive, as I think is the intent. (That link was just the best recap of their cover art I could find; the download links don’t work.)

15. The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

And maybe this came before Standing On A Beach! That summer I was 13, at camp, there was a dance on the last night. I began it standing outside with my friends, like you do. When “Just Like Heaven” came on, I got excited and said, “Oh, I want to go dance! I’m bad at it, though.” Carl Stern somehow convinced me that nobody cared, which for some reason carried extra weight *because* he was completely uninterested in dancing or pop music. (As far as I could tell, anyway– maybe he wanted to even more, and just couldn’t take his own advice!)

If I have this sequence even close to right, opening track “The Kiss” was one of the first genuinely angry songs I had. The idea of getting to kiss someone but being mad at them did not compute– actually, the song doesn’t make that much sense now either. Cathartic, though. Likewise, I always got that “hanging on your back” in “Torture” probably meant it was about sex, but even now, despite having memories of sexual experiences whose emotional tenor matched the song’s, its narrative is kinda opaque! Is he actually upset that it’s their last night together? Or…

(When I asked John Flansburgh about the meaning of some jokey TMBG lyric, during an interview I got to do with him in college, he replied, “Well, as my uncle said… not every beam is structural.”)

This is a slog. I’m on song 12 of 18 and more than ready for the album to be over.

Synth horns > synth bird voices >>> synth strings.

Also, I find Robert Smith’s attitude toward women less than exemplary.

16. The Damned – The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

I hope this is good. It’s two hours long– a double-cassette best-of that I’m pretty sure I was swayed to buy because of the music-to-dollars ratio.

ROCK MUSIC. Oh thank god, I was starting to stereotype my 13-year-old self something fierce. I seem to recall the Damned being dissed as “fake punks” at some point, which–

Aha, maybe it was around the time of the Hammond organ and backup singers, which just came on. Is this in chronological order? No. Good choice, starting the retrospective with an early song, when they still sounded like the Stooges, and then immediately zooming forward a decade.

Wait! “I Feel Alright” is BY the Stooges. I must have learned that back then, obsessed with reading liner notes as I was, but I wouldn’t have heard the Stooges until much later. And I guess I didn’t care for the song then, or I would have tracked them down.

Deep in the middle of disc 2… this is mostly not living up to the Stooges cover. I perked up for “Love Song”, whose opening bassline I am probably still programmed to like (and I mean, it is pretty awesome). Points also for “The History Of The World Part 1″, which I can’t distinguish from other late Damned in the abstract beyond its drier production, but I like it.

A quarter of these songs are over five minutes, for fuck’s sake. I’m going to skip a few.

17. Madness – One Step Beyond…

Remembered this as classic; it’s actually deeply inessential, mostly instrumentals and joke songs. What it IS is musically varied, and I think the excitement about Madness this sparked was me picking up on that– they were ringing the changes on a genre that was about all equally foreign to me. For that matter, the flimsiness of the lyrics marks them clearly as just an excuse for playing ska music, which the band are appealling gleeful about. Even back then, though, I think my favorite song was the comparatively substantial “Night Boat To Cairo”.

To clarify, since I was chatting with Super Roommate E about this topic the other night– there’s nothing inherently wrong with being insubstantial! But just like how a three-minute song can be too long even though another song is the right length at four minutes, the problem with *this* record is that it’s not meaty enough.

18. Devo – Freedom Of Choice

As I’d hoped, there was more to them than just “Whip It”. Super-dry production, though. I think to some extent this is a style misremembered as being about harsh blown-speaker chiptune sounds… the game designer Jason Rohrer made an interesting point about how the pixelated ‘retro’ aesthetic in a lot of current games is MUCH blockier than those classic 80s video games looked to us back then, played on TVs and 80s arcade monitors. What they look like, Rohrer pointed out, is the way those old games come out when played today, on an HDTV using software emulation.

(Rohrer makes me gnash my teeth a lot, but it’s a really good point.)

Anyway, I think we’ve done that sonically too.

19. He Said – Take * Care

My first CD, you guys! No, you’ve never heard of it– this was filed under ‘Wire’ at B-Side Records, along with lots of other side projects and import albums that I despaired of ever hearing if I stayed with cassettes. So I was excited when parents decided to buy a CD player.

Two songs with straightforward lyrics about tragedies (one suicide, one murder), the rest even more oblique than the songs Graham Lewis wrote for Wire. I still can’t make head or tail of “A.B.C. Dicks Love”, for example.

At the time I found the sound palette cheesy. Now I hear effects all over the place that are more unusual than a lot of other synthpop sonics, but this still spends a lot of time in Steely Dan territory.

One of the middle-school friends I was drifting away from infuriated me by looking at the CD packaging and then insisting that I listen to his a capella impression of what he was sure the music sounded like. I was just like, uh, that’s not how it actually sounds! It actually sounds some particular way that isn’t up to you!

Neither one of us could have ben enjoying that conversation much.

20. New Order – Brotherhood

Side A has what are probably my favorite New Order non-single tracks: “Paradise” and especially “Broken Promise”. (I liked those back then, too, but I preferred even more the melodrama of “Angel Dust”.)

I like things that monkey with the very framed, very monologuey discourse structure of song lyrics. New Order has a bunch, and now that I know you can include time offsets in Youtube links, I will share them with you! I had forgotten the coughing at the beginning of Technique’s “Love Less”, the laugh in “Every Little Counts”, and the way the two vocal parts on the chorus of “Paradise” are superimposed at pretty much exactly the same volume, heedless of each other.

But here’s the best thing, and this one I remembered: In the video for “Bizarre Love Triangle”, which is otherwise just images of people falling plus quick-cut footage of city scenes and digital blurs, there’s this bridge (watch until about 2:50). There’s no break like that on the audio version of the song, and those people don’t recur in the video.

I’m not sure why I love that so much.

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