by Peter Terzian, July 24, 2009 9:52 AM
Every so often, I'll make a mix. Not for myself, as any mix that I make is usually comprised of songs that I love so much I've already played them a hundred times. My mixes are always for friends. There's a lot of mix tape nostalgia going around these days, and the fond remembrance of mixes made as tools of seduction, but that never worked for me. In two instances, the relationships ended before I'd finished compiling the mixes — this was in the pre-iTunes old days, when making a mix took time and involved a lot of sketching out potential song sequences with pen and paper.
I know that the ideal mix should say, simply, "Here are some songs that might give you pleasure." But in college I knew more than most of my friends about new bands — I was one of those kids with a collection of expensive import twelve-inch singles by arty and entirely ephemeral English bands — and already I had the grandiose idea that I was, through the tapes I made, something of a tastemaker. I've never completely shaken this notion. In my thirties, many in my circle got married, started having kids, and stopped keeping up with new music. Not me (gay). And so these days my mixes, too often, say, "Aging friend, I'm going to offer you a listening experience that will knock your socks off."
And of course, no one ever says, "My socks got knocked off so hard I can't find them." The recipients may come back and praise a song or two. Maybe they upload the disc and my carefully curated mix gets scattered to the shuffle-winds. But it's more likely that no two people have the same aesthetic, and that in order to fully appreciate one of my mixes from beginning to end you'd have to be... me. I'll admit it: When the shoe is on the other foot, I usually listen to the mixes my friends give me a couple of times through, then pick out a handful of songs that I like and bypass the rest. But how cherished the mix becomes when one of those songs blossoms into a new musical enthusiasm, when I'm driven to track down an artist's complete body of work — as when my friend Darren made me a disc some years back that introduced me to the Decemberists, Iron and Wine, Keren Ann, and Brendan Benson in one fell swoop. Listening to a good mix should be like going to a party and meeting lots of interesting new people, even though in the end you may only end up becoming friends with a few.
Here, as a parting gift, is a mix that I made recently, with some of my favorite songs of the past few years. It's a mostly melancholy mix — it gets a little peppy about two-thirds of the way through, then goes back to being melancholy. Unfortunately, I can't hand it to you on a tape or burn it on a disc, and I can't (legally) offer it for you as a download. But you should be able to turn up many of these songs at the iTunes Store, or with a little canny Googling. (Hint: Try The Hype Machine.)
Linda Thompson: "Beauty"
Robert Forster: "Demon Days"
Feist and Ben Gibbard: "Train Song"
Bon Iver: "The Park"
James Yorkston: "Queen of Spain"
Crowded House: "English Trees"
Liam Finn: "Wise Man"
Johnny Flynn: "Shore to Shore"
Laura Marling: "Failure"
Portland Cello Project (featuring Thao): "Tallymarks"
The Shins: "Harvest"
A.C. Newman: "Take On Me"
Vampire Weekend: "Ottoman"
Jay Jay Pistolet: "Happy Birthday You"
Noah and the Whale: "Jocasta"
Emmy the Great: "First Love"
Loney Dear: "I Was Only Going Out"
Portastatic: "Song for a Clock"
Sam Phillips: "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us"
The Innocence Mission: "Song for
by Peter Terzian, July 23, 2009 9:49 AM
I learned about music, and then I learned about coolness, and became paralyzed with fear. At first, I liked the right music at the right time. When I was a very small child, you were free to like whatever music you chose. But if you weren't paying close attention, you could end up liking the right music too long, and then it became the wrong music....
by Peter Terzian, July 22, 2009 10:14 AM
A few months ago I bought an iPod Mini to replace my second-generation iPod, which a friend of mine referred to as "that old sardine can." The Mini's great, and it has a little screen where an image of the cover of the album you're listening to appears. You can download these pretty easily by going to the iTunes drop-down menu and clicking on "Get Album Artwork" — the artwork is then beamed down from a space station, I think. But what happens when the songs are not from an album, or an EP, or a single, or any other self-contained entity that comes with its own cover art, but rather from the broad category of demos, live tracks, studio sessions, and other downloadable miscellanea that proliferates on the Internet?
For instance, this year I fell in love with the music of Bon Iver. I bought his album, For Emma, Forever Ago, and then the follow-up EP, Blood Bank, and these reside on my iTunes with their little covers intact. But then poking around on-line I also found a set of live acoustic versions of songs from the album that he recorded for something called "The MySpace Transmissions," and then an amazing cover of Feist's "The Park" that he played one time when he was a guest on an Australian radio program, and then some live bootlegs from the Glastonbury Music Festival, and another live track of him duetting with the National at Radio City Music Hall...and these just float around out there in pure musical form without any images attached to them. What happens when they play on my iPod? Well, an Apple-supplied little graphic of an eighth-note appears on the screen, and I do not like that eighth-note one bit. It is flat, colorless, stripped of identity and meaning. It is the death of art.
Reader, I spent every free moment of two weeks replacing those harmless-looking icons with digital photos of the relevant musicians that I found on the Web. Not just any photos — I sorted through all of the pictures of the artists that I could find in search of just the right one. I didn't want any photo of a musician performing in concert, for example, even if the file that I was matching it to was of a live recording. I like watching live shows okay, but most pictures of live shows are dim and boring, the musicians all striking the same poses. You can take a great photograph of a musician just about anywhere else, though, and I lifted pictures of Sufjan Stevens standing in front of the window of a Sufi bookstore, Vampire Weekend fiddling around with their instruments on a bridge above a railway line, and a fashionably suited Colin Meloy posing next to a model of a clipper ship. I found a great one of Bon Iver holding a cat.
During those two weeks of cutting and pasting pictures, I frequently asked myself, "Why am I doing this?" My boyfriend kept coming by my desk and asking, "Is something bothering you?" It was, of course, a thoroughly pointless exercise. Nobody else cared if every song on my iPod had a little photo attached to it. In fact, when it came right down to it, even I didn't care that much. I didn't like those musical notes, but I wasn't losing sleep over them. And the things I could have been doing instead — reading Bleak House, or learning Spanish, or starting an herb garden! But when the job was done and I could dial through the "Cover Flow" function, in which all of the listener's song-images flip by like cards passing through a magician's skilled hands, I was...whoa, wait. What's this? Superchunk performing a live acoustic version of "Detroit Has a Skyline" on WUNC. No photo, just that stupid eighth-note. Have to fix that... Anyway, when I saw all of these pictures shuffle past, I was inordinately pleased, as though I had accomplished something great. You have to seize control where you can
by Peter Terzian, July 21, 2009 9:43 AM
I'm a fan of the Go-Betweens
. My friend Sean is a fan of the Go-Betweens too, and a few years ago he sent an e-mail to me and three other of his Go-Betweens fan-friends, appended with a rare track by Grant McLennan, one of the band's two singer-songwriters, that he thought we would all like to hear. Then someone wrote something back, cc:ing us all, and then someone else did the same, and pretty soon the five of us were engaged in a round-robin discussion. We chewed over which Go-Betweens long-player was the best and whether or not the production of their last, critically acclaimed album, Oceans Apart
, was actually terrible. We each listed our top three favorite Go-Betweens songs. Somebody tried to branch out by bringing up the Jam, but nobody took the bait. The conversation died down, but every six months or so, one of us will find a video of the Go-Betweens appearing on an Australian talk show, or discover a cache of b-sides posted on a music blog, or have a spare ticket to a Robert Forster concert (Forster is the band's other singer-songwriter), and will send out an e-mail to the others, and then the discussion will briefly revive. Though I just looked through my old e-mail, and I was the one who found the video and the cache of b-sides and had the spare ticket, so perhaps it's just me who can't let go.
A few months ago I sent the other folks in the Go-Betweens discussion group a message. I needed help with a music-related problem. For the past couple of years, I've been rapidly acquiring digital music. In the old days, if you liked a musician or a band, you would buy their new album. Perhaps you would also buy a single off of the album, to get the non-album b-sides. Today, though, you can get almost every note that a musician has recorded: not only the albums and b-sides but demos, live versions, compilation tracks, sessions recorded on a radio program or in some blogger's living room. Emmy the Great, a young British musician that I'm lately crazy about, has released one 13-track album, but somehow I've ended up with 40 different songs by her stashed on my iTunes. Meanwhile, my CD collection has stagnated. I used to spend my lunch hours in New York's now extinct record stores, picking up two or three discs every new-release Tuesday. These days I might buy one hard-copy CD a month. In the pre-Internet days, I would read a review of a new band and happily take a risk buying their music sound unheard. Now, with so many places to sample songs on-line, I'll only buy CDs by artists whom I know and love, and whose albums I want to own in concrete form — which I'll then upload onto my computer. Gradually my music listening has become centered on my Mac (as has the rest of my life). The tall Billy bookshelf that stands in the living room of my Brooklyn apartment and houses my CD collection has become a kind of museum. And so I wondered: should I transfer it all onto my computer and mothball the entire collection at my Dad's house, where I already have a couple hundred CDs in the closet of my childhood bedroom? I asked my Go-Betweens-loving friends if they were finding themselves faced with a similar dilemma.
"Get some $$$ for your CDs while you still can," Sean wrote. Brian said that he couldn't give up the physical product — he was too attached to the packaging, "the liner notes, the photos, the smell of the things." Jonathan said that he had at least 3,000 CDs and 1,000 vinyl records, in a storage space, in various rooms of his house, and in his car. "No idea where we go from here," he wrote.
In the end, the CDs in my living room received a stay of execution. Still, this is a problem that perhaps all contemporary music listeners face, particularly those of a certain age. And yet it is also particularly my problem. I have an innate drive to curate just about everything that I own, and I cannot restrain myself from obsessively fussing around with my music collection. That couple hundred CDs ended up in my childhood closet because of the great pleasure I get in paring down my Brooklyn collection, in an attempt to achieve a perfect library of love, comprised only of discs that still make my heart leap up. And that includes the collected works of the Go-Betweens.
Meanwhile, the once embraced, fondly remembered, but no longer heavily rotated — Velocity Girl and American Music Club and Electronic — has been relegated to the closet. I've exiled the historically important and critically acclaimed but not personally moving (to me): Bjork, Nirvana, Beat Happening. I separate the chaff from a beloved artist's body of work: I heart Blondie, but The Hunter really does suck, and it sits upstate, punishingly isolated from Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat and its other, more winning siblings. Even poor packaging of fine music is enough for me to send discs packing. I eagerly bought New Moon, a posthumous two-disc set of Elliott Smith's unreleased recordings, and the music is unfailingly lovely but the thing is an eyesore. Poor typography, grainy photographs, and huge blocky letters on the spine that made it the most visible object on my CD shelves — I left the beautiful music on my iTunes, and banished the case
by Peter Terzian, July 20, 2009 9:59 AM
When I was a kid, I loved pop music. This was in the seventies, and at first I liked a lot of musical acts that we now think of as corny, like the Captain and Tennille and Helen Reddy, musicians who played softly and sang about innocuous things and were situated well within my comfort zone. A little later I liked some musical acts that were a tiny bit more adult, like ABBA and Donna Summers, who sang about sophisticated things and were a little less within my comfort zone. These artists would put out albums, and I would hear a single on the radio and go out and buy the records. I would bring them home and open them and listen to a few songs, and then I would immediately want to take the records back to the store and get my money back. Because music scared the hell out of me. The musicians sang about making love and going to bars and discos and breaking up and being lonely, things that I didn't want to know about then. I bought a Billy Joel album, and on one song he sang the f-word. Sometimes the records had gatefold sleeves with pictures of the musicians in fancy, skin-revealing outfits. The men wore their shirts unbuttoned to their navels, to show off their hairy, sexual chests. I bought the soundtrack to the movie Xanadu, which had some songs by the unthreatening Olivia Newton-John, but also had some songs by the completely threatening Electric Light Orchestra, and all of a sudden there were pictures in my house, in my room, of these hairy men with enormous drooping moustaches and dark sunglasses and tight, sexual pants. And I didn't want any part of that.
So I'd take the records back to Record Town or Two Guys or wherever I had bought them and try to get a refund, and the surly teenage clerks would say, we can't accept this because you've already opened it. They seemed to get great pleasure out of saying this. I bought an 8-track of ABBA's Super Trouper album at Woolworth's, and the next day I called to ask what their return policy was for tapes. "We can only take it back if it's broken," the sullen girl on the other end of the line said. "OK, thank you," I said. I stayed on the line for a few extra seconds, and I could hear her say to another sullen teen clerk as she was putting the phone down, "Now watch it break."
So I would end up stuck with these bad, sexual, adult records. I wouldn't even want to look at them. I'd put them out in the garage. And I would try not to think about them, but then maybe the next day I'd feel guilty that I had asked my parents to spend $6.99 on a record that I now didn't want, and I'd go out to the garage and I'd bring the record back in and I'd play it, and kind of get used to it, and then play it a little more, and then play it a lot, and then I'd start to love it. I'd learn all the words, and I'd sit in my room and sing along and pretend that I was a fantastically popular musician. A few weeks after I bought Super Trouper, I sat in my bedroom one early evening after dinner, playing the 8-track and drawing the floor plan for a futuristic high-rise apartment tower. The tape kept circling through the player. ABBA sang about European things, walks along the Seine and late-night phone calls from Glasgow, and the keyboards made little hoppy, plucky noises, and I was so happy that I didn't notice that night was falling outside my window, and that soon I was surrounded by darkness, working in the thin arc of light shed by my desk lamp.
It was through this process of resistance followed by surrender that I learned to like pop music. By the time I was in high school, in the eighties, I considered myself a serious music listener with discerning tastes. The records I loved — Court and Spark, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Horses, Pirates — I really, really loved. I formed very deep relationships with them. I thought that I was the only person who truly understood these albums.
More importantly, I learned from these albums. In the suburbs, at that time in my life, the people around me seemed more or less the same. But when you listened to albums, just as when you read books or watched movies, as I did, you discovered that there were actually many different kinds of people in the world. There weren't people in my suburb who were at all like the Talking Heads or Rickie Lee Jones or Patti Smith or Prince. Not even remotely — even though I would later learn that many of these very interesting people came from the suburbs too, which gave me hope. Records were a kind of invitation from the world. They said, if you venture out into the world, there's a chance you'll meet interesting people like the ones who make these albums, and have experiences like the ones they're describing in songs.
The albums were right. Those sulky Woolworth's girls, flipping their long blond hair to expose their ears to my troubled telephone calls, kept watch over the warren-like record department, the store's Pandora's box. What they let out — sex, anger, revelry, alienation, desire, disaffection, joy, all of the terrible and magnificent adult emotions you could cram onto two sides of a piece of vinyl — they weren't going to let back in. We can't give you your money back, they said. But give another listen. Stick it out a little bit longer