Automatic for the People turned 25 last year. The reissue box set sounds great, and reveals how timeless this work is. My children can’t help but react to each song—my daughter’s flailing during Monty Got a Raw Deal is actually a pretty good Stipe impression, and she’s never seen him do it. The famous 40 Watt show from November ‘92 is included, and even though I’ve heard it countless times, this is the first professional mix of it, and it matters. At the time this album came out, I had some ambivalence about it, even though R.E.M. remained my favorite band. With time, I’ve come to embrace those elements I initially couldn’t make sense of or judged as too weak or simple. Its themes of mortality and nostalgia only resonate stronger as life goes on. The year this album came out, Sgt. Pepper’s was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and here we are 25 years later. This fact almost serves as a bonus track. And is there any better two-song closer on any album ever? I’m not sure there is. “The river to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow.”
Goodbye, 2017… and hello, 2018!
What happened to 2017? It seemed to go by so fast. It was definitely a year for a lot of personal events in my life, both positive and negative, but throughout the year, I managed to squeeze in some Mystics Anonymous music-making. Check it out:
In January, Mystics released the experimental track “De-Tunia, Pts. 1 & 2” featuring yours truly and fellow Mystic Steve Koziol – you can hear it here:
In March, Mystics played as a five-piece (Patrick Garland, Andrew Goulet, Brian Marchese, Matt Silberstein, and myself) at Sierra Grille in Northampton, MA, along with the bands Nanny and Endless Mike. You can watch a few of the songs from that night—“(I Want to Be A) Mathematical Rarity” and “Maudlin, You Liar,” to be exact—right here:
In May, Mystics showed up to play the Harry Nilsson tribute at The Rendezvous, this time as a three-piece (Drew Hutchison, Matt Silberstein, and myself), along with several other wonderful local artists. Truly a night of great music, and we contributed two songs: All I Think About Is You and the classic Coconut, which morphed into Tomorrow Never Knows before ending.
In July, Mystics played Luthier’s Co-op, along with the bands Tawdry and The Salvation Alley String Band. That night, we played as a four-piece (Andrew Goulet, Brian Marchese, Matt Silberstein, and myself). You can hear “Sinner’s Lament” from that night right here:
In December, Mystics played above John Doe, Jr. Records in Greenfield, MA, in a lovely, intimate room dubbed Jane Doe, Jr., along with Bob Fay, Lauri McNamara, and Wednesday Knudsen. That night, Mystics was a duo featuring Steve Koziol and myself. You can hear our first three songs, including a cover of “The Spy” by The Doors, right here:
Also in December, Mystics released our annual digital holiday single—this year’s selection was the classic R&B track “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” recorded in one snowy afternoon over at Rick Murnane’s cozy Makeshift Sound studio. Rick and I had a lot of fun playing ukuleles, guitars, keyboards, and hand percussion to make a homey, lo-fi version of this lovable track (and I may have added a few new lyrics as well). You can listen to that track, as well as download it for free, right here:
Definitely a fun 2017. And Mystics already has plans to poke our heads out in 2018 as well. Until then, make merry and have a Happy New Year!
Some of you might remember that I announced 2017 as the year of my De-Tunia project. This was a concept I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while, returning to a more experimental recording approach built on layers of rhythms and pure play. The idea was to share works in progress throughout the year and once I had an album’s worth of tracks, do a final mix & master and put the whole thing out online, digital-only.
I was pretty excited to build new tracks this way, and began in earnest right away in the month of January. By the end of the month, I did a rough mix of the track I was working on and excitedly posted it online, promoted it and sat back to enjoy the feedback and online discourse I had been imagining would be a crucial aspect of the project.
I won’t lie to you–engagement with my post was low. So low, I got discouraged. Maybe the fault lies with me–maybe I communicated poorly about it, or maybe the music is just too weird, or maybe people don’t want to be bothered with “works in progress.” The idea was to keep people engaged and interested, and give them a peek into the creative process. But even just writing that last sentence, I got bored. Unless you’re someone’s favorite band, why would they listen to works in progress?
So I’m rethinking the whole thing. Moving forward, I don’t think I’ll share what I’m working on right now. That means you won’t hear anything from me for a while. Like, maybe a couple of years. But I hope that when you finally hear what I cooked up in that time, you’ll like it.
Then again, who knows what may happen?
For Mystics Anonymous, 2016 was pretty eventful. We finished up our new EP, She Wanted the Future, and released it halfway through the year in June. In addition to the usual download and CD versions, we had a limited edition version that came with a 10-page comic book illustrated by Ingrid Steblea. That was partially funded by an Indiegogo campaign, and we thank everyone who pre-ordered that way and helped make it happen! Once released, the EP garnered some very positive reviews in the press and even a little airplay, most notably on Boston Free Radio and the Sokol Heroes show on 93.9 The River. Thanks, guys!
Mystics also played some fun shows–a few rare solo shows from yours truly, with covers from Camper Van Beethoven and Echo & the Bunnymen sprinkled in among other surprises. Two EP Release shows with the full band and special guests in fun rooms with good crowds! Two tribute shows, for Prince and Leonard Cohen, respectively. For Prince, I put together a big band and we had a blast opening the night by playing a medley of three big Prince songs–1999, Pop Life, and Raspberry Beret. For the Cohen tribute, I did a solo electric version of First We Take Manhattan. Odd fact? I almost opened our Luthier’s Co-Op show in October with a solo ukulele version of Careless Whisper, and now we have also bid farewell to George Michael. Yikes. Next, we ended the year with a raucous set at The Rendezvous to a small crowd during the first winter storm. Thanks very much to everyone who performed on stage with Mystics this year, and everyone who showed up to watch us do our thing. I hope we did you right.
Finally, this year’s digital holiday single was a rendition of Baby, It’s Cold Outside featuring myself and Brandee Simone in an improvised duet. That was a blast to record, and I think it got the most eyeballs (or ear-somethings?) than any digital holiday single we’ve ever released. I hope you enjoyed it!
So, 2016 wasn’t all bad. And what’s up for 2017? Well, one thing is for sure: I am embarking on the next Mystics project, and this one will be an experimental music project called De-Tunia. Look for tracks to be posted online throughout the year.
And if you’ve read this entire blog post, and you’re paying attention to Mystics Anonymous, I want to thank you on behalf of myself and my fellow Mystics. Knowing there’s an audience out there helps a lot when things are tough or require a lot of work to make happen. Long live independent music!
We lost another one. It makes sense that we’re going to be losing more and more music icons as the generation from the heyday of rock n’ roll continues to age, I guess. Just another sad reality we have to get used to. And sad reality was Leonard Cohen’s stock in trade. Or maybe sad surreality.
Since his passing, many people have been posting their favorite Leonard Cohen songs all over social media, making their Leonard Cohen playlists, and in general celebrating his work and legacy. And of course we’ve all heard “Hallelujah” a thousand times in the last few weeks. I would like to share a few lesser-known Cohen covers from other favorite artists of mine, especially since that’s how I came to Leonard Cohen myself.
First, here’s the Pixies covering “I Can’t Forget”:
Next, here’s R.E.M. covering “First We Take Manhattan”:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds covering “Avalanche”:
Concrete Blonde covering “Everybody Knows”:
In a small way, I will pay tribute to Cohen myself in a few weeks, when The Rendezvous in Turners Falls hosts a Cohen tribute night. On Saturday December 10th join me and a number of other local artists as we play Cohen songs and drink to his memory. The Rendezvous is a great venue, you can check it out here: http://rendezvoustfma.com/
Those who know me know that I am not only a music geek, but I am also a film buff. I studied film, both formally and informally, and consider it one of my passions. A great film, for me, is almost the perfect artistic expression, combining writing, visual artistry, acting, and sound and music. Being passionate about both film and music, however, poses some interesting problems when viewing a film ABOUT music.
So let’s talk about Whiplash. First, what a great film. Extremely well-acted, especially with the scene-chewing turn from J.K. Simmons, who usually takes a backseat, character-actor position in productions. As a psychological exploration cum thriller, the film is very well-written and thought-provoking. It looks great–the lighting, the sets/locations, the shot framing, which communicates so much to us about these characters and the internal worlds they inhabit.
The film ostensibly takes as its milieu the world of music conservatories and jazz music competitions. Throughout the film, Simmons plays the role of the abusive, overbearing band instructor. Miles Teller plays the role of the dedicated student, a slave to the idea of being “one of the greats.” Simmons tells Teller the story of Charlie Parker and Jo Jones, wherein Jones throws a cymbal at Parker’s head when he doesn’t like a solo the up-and-comer is playing. For this film, the story is supposed to mean that if it weren’t for the violent abuse that Jones metes out to Parker, Parker would never have become the jazz genius we all know.
But you know what? That’s all wrong.
Jones wasn’t throwing the cymbal to hurt Parker. He actually threw it down on the stage–not, as the film says, at Parker’s head–and it was meant as more of a gong-show statement of Jones’s displeasure at Parker’s playing. It’s not that Parker sucked, either. It’s that Parker was playing in a new way that Jones just couldn’t accept. Did Parker practice more after this episode? Yes. Did that practice turn him from a bad player into a genius? Absolutely not. Genius is not a matter of practice. It’s a matter of creativity and originality.
That being said, even the idea of “genius” is problematic at best. And the persevering celebration of the “tortured genius” is absolutely toxic. The idea of mental illness as a positive creative force is actually pretty harmful, and most artists who suffer from mental illness will tell you that they find this trope to be a myth. Pushing Teller’s character to extreme mental duress in order to achieve his greatest performance is, frankly, bullshit. I mean, c’mon. A little adversity is nice and builds character, but Teller’s student is frankly doomed to unhappiness. And also unlikely to be considered “one of the greats.”
Finally, I’ll admit I don’t know the world of music conservatories. But I do know jazz. And if this is how jazz bands are run in those schools, then they don’t understand jazz at all. Teller’s character is pushed to play a double-time swing beat faster. And faster. And faster. Until his hands bleed. This is not jazz. As if an incredibly fast drummer is a great drummer! And if your hands are bleeding, I think you may be holding your sticks incorrectly.
Want to understand jazz better and see a media representation of the music that gets at the true soul of jazz? Watch the excellent HBO series Treme.
Treme, taking its name from the New Orleans neighborhood, treats jazz with great respect while also understanding its vibrancy and wonderful insouciance. It delves into the lives of players–many of whom hold down day jobs or who are grinding out a living as a musician on the fringes of mainstream society–with an unflinching but reverent lens. This life is hard, it says, but the music is transcendent and the choice to play it is driven by the moments of ecstasy and community it brings.
In one episode, Steve Zahn’s character is talking to legendary New Orleans musician Kermit Ruffins. He says to Ruffins, “You’re going to stand there and tell me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?”
And you know what Ruffins says? “That’ll work.”
Is Keith Richards the most over-rated rock guitarist of all time? Between all the stories of his nodding off during recording sessions, and that open G tuning that makes those riffs he plays, well, easy… the answer may be yes. But even moreso than those examples, I find the biggest example—for me, anyway, is the fact that my favorite era of the Stones may well be the era in which Keith had very little input. Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about late ‘70s through early ‘80s Stones. And yes, I know this is rock ‘n roll heresy.
Why do I say this? Well, let me take you on a little journey…
First, total transparency: that ancient Beatles vs. Stones question? I’m a Beatles person. I love the songcraft, I love the production, I love their voices, I love the eclecticism of their vision. Growing up, the “raw” and “swampy” Stones of the ‘60s and early ‘70s didn’t speak to me as much. In my mind, most of that stuff was poorly recorded and sounded a bit ramshackle and tossed-off. I know, right? Some of you are, like, *really* angry with me right now.
There are some exceptions: “Paint It Black” always gave me shivers, and I love Between the Buttons (not surprising, maybe, as this album was kind of like the Stones’ bid to become more Beatles-esque). But as I grew up and continued being a lifelong student of music, I would always ask myself: why didn’t I like the Stones more? And I’m the kind of person that really interrogates that question. If I don’t “get” what everyone is talking about, I really spend time with it—I picked up all the “classic” Stones albums and listened to them (a lot), read about them, etc. And I admit, I came to really respect their work, and enjoy it to some extent. But still… a fan? No, not really.
And then recently, something happened. I was reading the 33 1/3 volume on Some Girls, and like most of those books, it spurred me on to listen to the album. Holy moly, what a great album! And I realized: wow, this is actually the Stones I grew up with—Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, Tattoo You. I revisited each of these albums and realized I still really knew these songs pretty much by heart.
But I hadn’t listened to them in over 20 years—because when I tried to get into the Stones as an adult, I picked up all those albums I’m *supposed* to love—Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., etc. But god help me, I prefer those edgy, new-wave rockers they put out between ’78 and ’81. I love Mick’s falsetto vocals, I love the four-on-the-floor beats, I love the jagged guitars that conjure up The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. And yes, I love the better production! Those guitars sound BEAUTIFUL. And you know what? By all accounts, Keith spent most of those years barely knowing what was going on, lost in his hard drugs. Mick was really driving the ship through those years.
So, call me crazy, but I’m going against the grain here. I’m gonna go listen to “Miss You,” “Shattered,” “Beast of Burden,” “Emotional Rescue,” “She’s So Cold,” “Hang Fire,” and “Waiting on a Friend.” Seriously, make that playlist. It’s pretty awesome, right?
No? Maybe it’s just me.
Friday marked the 50th anniversary of The Beatles album Revolver, and I posted the fine Rolling Stone article from that day that posited Revolver as the Beatles’ first “on-purpose” masterpiece. It’s also arguably the point in The Beatles where Lennon’s influence and McCartney’s influence achieved the perfect balance. Before this point, Lennon had somewhat dominated as the creative force behind The Beatles, while from this point on, McCartney would largely drive the ship.
Is that why the album is so good? I think so. The Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, bolstered by George’s best material yet (Taxman! Love You To! I Want to Tell You!), results in a standout release with only one weak number (Yellow Submarine, probably–although perhaps that song is forever tainted by being a mandatory 6th grade chorus selection for most kids).
The band was also–largely due to McCartney at this point–beginning to experiment more and more in the studio, regarding it as yet another instrument. This forever changes how we view rock ‘n roll albums and alters our expectations moving forward. Tape loops, automatic double-tracking (ADT), backwards guitars, compression…
Songwriting. Production. A highly charged creative period. It all results in some fascinating moments:
- Paul’s guitar solo in Taxman, apparently inspired by seeing Hendrix live, but truly unlike any guitar solo ever.
- Eleanor Rigby’s string arrangement, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score.
- The dreamlike quality of Lennon’s ADT vocal and Harrison’s backward-masked guitar solo in I’m Only Sleeping.
- The Indian music-inspired Love You To.
- Here, There and Everywhere, McCartney’s answer to Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows.
- The sound effects and playful atmosphere of Yellow Submarine.
- The oblique lyrics of She Said, She Said.
- The vaudeville pop of Good Day Sunshine, with a dollop of Lovin’ Spoonful-inspired ebullience.
- That guitar line in And Your Bird Can Sing!
- The lyrical maturity of something like For No One.
- The Motown-inspired love song to marijuana that is Got to Get You into My Life.
- And the moment that blew my mind–and everyone’s–upon first listen: Tomorrow Never Knows. That drumbeat! That droning chord! Those dreamy ADT vocals! Those Tibetan Book of the Dead-inspired lyrics! Those tape loops and sounds that weave in and out of the track! Has anything in the history of recorded music trumped this track?
Like many kids in the U.S., I grew up with the U.S. version of the album–I still have my vinyl copy, which omitted classic tracks like I’m Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing, and Doctor Robert. To this day, I’m a bit surprised when these songs play next in the sequence, such is the power of early memories.
But hey–don’t take my word for it. Go ahead and put on Revolver today. You DO own it, right?
“Is the water warm enough?”
“Shall we begin?”
Too many thoughts about Prince’s untimely death, and I’m not sure mine would really add anything to what people have been saying. From first discovery with 1999, to the huge hit of Purple Rain (I still have my original vinyl copy), to his influence on my own writing (especially in the Go Figure years). Also, like Zappa, he was a talented studio auteur–highly idiosyncratic. You could always tell his music by the production. I think of him, along with a handful of others, every time I set foot in my studio. And finally–When Doves Cry is a great pop song with NO bass track. No bass! Love the open-mindedness and willingness to follow his instincts.
He left us a lot of good music. He also left us Batdance. But that’s OK. Let’s all continue enjoying Prince.
Sad. Went to bed with the news of George Martin’s death. Woke up in the middle of the night to the news that it was a hoax. Then woke up this morning to the news that it is indeed true. Rest in Peace, Mr. Martin. You forever shaped how I listen to and create music.