It was 28 years ago today… “Losing My Religion” was released as the lead single from R.E.M.’s Out of Time. Warner Bros was pretty disappointed in the band’s choice of lead single. When I first heard it, it sounded like a step back for the band to me, but I grew to love it. What did you think?
For Mystics Anonymous, 2018 was a year bookended by two things: in February, we played a full-band show at the wonderful Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center right here in Greenfield. There, we played some tried-and-true favorites, as well as a brand new song and a few surprise, first-time covers, the latter of which was “He’s Gone” by the Grateful Dead. A surprise indeed! You can hear it right here:
On the other side of the year, Mystics released its free annual holiday single. This year, I decided I wanted to do a “surf instrumental” version of Winter Wonderland. These tracks are always fun to make, and they provide an excuse to jump in the studio and bang something out without thinking about it too much. No mean feat. You can hear that track, and download it for free, right here:
Other than those bookends, most of 2018 was simply myself woodshedding when I had the time. There are a bunch of new songs in progress, and you can hear a few of them in just a few weeks—on January 14th, I will be playing a Mystics duo show—with the great Steve Koziol—at The 413 in Easthampton, MA. It’s an early show, starting at 7 pm, and we’ll be playing a couple of my new songs, as well as some surprise covers. Hope to see you there and elsewhere in 2019!
As always, thanks for your support!
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/
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.
25 years ago today, R.E.M. released Losing My Religion, which signaled the exact midpoint between early R.E.M. and later R.E.M. After this megahit, things would never be the same for them, or for music in general. A #1 worldwide hit with mandolin? Really? No one could call it calculated. If anything, this track was a bit of a throwback to Fables-era R.E.M. and a far cry from the brash rock of the preceding three albums. The decade-long run of college rock (aka alternative, or indie) had now well and truly bubbled up to the mainstream surface. It’s no mistake that mere months later, Nevermind would top the charts as well, heralding a sea change in what kinds of music were popular. Here’s the very first live performance of the song.
I’m a big music geek. Surprise, surprise. I love listening to the albums I’ve collected, whether they are vinyl, CDs, cassettes, or digital-only. Usually, in addition to just listening to whatever thing I’m into at the moment, I also go through my collection to ensure I listen to it regularly. This also gives me a chance to re-evaluate what I have. Sometimes I purge stuff, realizing I just don’t love it enough to own it anymore. But more often than that, I am reminded of just how amazing each album is.
Anyway, last April my friend Nicole challenged me to listen to all of the albums I own, in alphabetical order by album title. At first, I refused. But then I decided to go ahead and do it because it would offer yet another way to enjoy my collection. And listening to albums by title is very different–it juxtaposes all kinds of music, and the transitions are great. I have a pretty eclectic collection, so it can flow from classic jazz to alternative rock to chamber pop to hard rock to spoken word, etc.
For myself, I made a few rules to keep it enjoyable: no compilations, no live albums, no classical or orchestral score music. Basically, I kept it studio albums in the pop/rock/jazz vein. This way, I reckoned, it really is about “the album” as an artistic statement.
I’m about halfway through my collection at this time. I think I may actually make it all the way through. If you have albums–again, whatever medium they’re on–I really recommend doing this project. Too often, people don’t listen to albums anymore. Everything is on shuffle all the time, and that can lessen the impact of an artist’s statement, and you may not have the deeper relationship with a piece that you would have if you listened to the whole thing.
And no matter how often you listened to it in your youth, Dark Side of the Moon is going to be a great listen.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in my life so far is to be open to new things. Too often we close doors ourselves, narrowing our own choices, convincing ourselves that we are “not into” something or that we’re “not that type of person / artist / musician.” But this limits our experiences, and keeps us from learning and investigating–in my opinion, one of the main objectives of life.
But what’s odd about this is that, though I first learned this lesson long ago, I continue to learn it all the time. I find new ways in which I’ve limited myself, and these often have been in front of me all along. For example, as a guitar player, I’ve long thought of myself as a “songwriter guitarist” and have always limited myself in terms of being a true “guitar player”–whether this means someone who solos, or can play other people’s songs, etc. This has been relatively easy for me to do for years, as I was not concentrating on guitar playing. I was more often playing bass in collaborative, real-time settings, and only playing guitar around the house, most often as a way of composing.
But then, a few things happened. One is that Mystics Anonymous began performing live occasionally, and so I dusted off my guitars and began playing songs on guitar again, often re-learning things I wrote years ago or things I only played guitar on a few times as I recorded them. Some of them I even wondered if I could play guitar and sing at the same time–something I rarely did while recording.
The second thing that happened is I found myself more often playing with friends in an improvisational way. Sometimes I would play bass, or keyboards, or drums, or other things, but when I played guitar in this type of setting, I found myself really stretching out and playing in ways I rarely or never played before. It was fun. And liberating. And I learned a lot about the instrument as I did this. And it reawakened my interest in just “playing” guitar–not just using it as a composing tool, but just being in the moment and reveling in the instrument itself and what it can do.
The third thing is that, in the past 18 months or so, I began learning other people’s songs again. Something that, other than in my teens, I really didn’t do that often. Historically, I found learning other people’s songs to be largely boring (I’m not talking about other bands I’m in, I love that type of learning other people’s songs–I’m talking about listening to albums from major artists and figuring out how to play their songs). This came about through playing live, and often playing tribute nights. Suddenly, I was learning and understanding (or re-learning) how songs were constructed by Lou Reed, Brian Eno, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker), XTC, Harry Nilsson, Robyn Hitchcock, Michael Nesmith, and The Band. This opened me up, not only as a player, but as a songwriter myself.
I’ve spoken with other artists and musicians about this, many of them far more accomplished than myself, and it seems a pretty common experience. There’s always more to learn. There’s always another way to be more open. And it teaches us so much.
So what have I done? I’ve begun playing guitar again more and more, actually buying some new pedals and getting interested in the instrument again. I’m still not a great guitar player, but I’m having a blast and learning and growing. I have a feeling it will show on my next album. Until then, excuse me while I go and crank up my amp…
XTC famously went out with the one-two punch of its Apple Venus Volume 1 and Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), the first of which came out in 1999, seven years after their previous album due to a self-imposed strike protesting the band’s treatment at the hands of its label. In short, us XTC fans were rabid and deprived, and this was a wealth of new material. And all in all, this was a good thing.
Of note, however, is that the Apple Venus project was initially conceived as a double album. At some point during the process, the band decided to split it into two separate, discrete albums. One would be the “acoustic with strings” album (what eventually was called Apple Venus Volume 1) and one would be the “electric guitar” album (Wasp Star). Dave Gregory disagreed with this approach, and conflict over the decision eventually led to his departure from the band before the release of either volume.
When Apple Venus Volume 1 was released, it was a revelation. I love it, and I think most reviews were overwhelmingly positive, calling it ambitious and delightfully poppy in that great Beatles and Beach Boys way of experimentation, unusual instrumentation and composition, and great use of the recording studio as an instrument. Also, how could you not love the soul-searching songs of a post-divorce Partridge such as “Your Dictionary?”
But when the second volume, Wasp Star, was released, it was met with much more neutral to negative reviews, and indeed my initial reaction was muted in comparison to the first volume. In the intervening years, I’ve come to realize that Wasp Star is actually filled with great songs, and perhaps XTC did the material a disservice by splitting it into its own album.
So what if the band had followed its original plan and released a double album with these 23 songs, rather than the two discrete albums? What would such an album sound like? Well, in typical muso fashion, I set out to devise the fictional tracklist of the XTC album that never was, which I call “Apple Venus.” In this alternate universe, XTC’s last album is not the slightly underwhelming but underrated Wasp Star, but a big, ambitious, eclectic double album in the vein of the White Album.
Here’s my fictional tracklist. If you own both albums, you can create this playlist or burn these versions of the album. If you’re a super geeky audio editing freak like me, trim some of the silence at the end of “The Last Balloon” for a wonderful segue into “The Wheel and the Maypole.” I think it works quite well, and I hope you do too! Enjoy!
01. River of Orchids
02. I’d Like That
03. I’m the Man Who Murdered Love
04. Easter Theatre
05. Wounded Horse
06. My Brown Guitar
07. Harvest Festival
08. We’re All Light
09. Knights in Shining Karma
10. You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful
11. In Another Life
12. Your Dictionary
02. I Can’t Own Her
03. Standing in for Joe
04. Fruit Nut
05. Stupidly Happy
06. Church of Women
07. Frivolous Tonight
08. Green Man
09. Boarded Up
10. The Last Balloon
11. The Wheel and the Maypole