Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.

DangerousMelodies

New Tune – “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard”

Last spring the Fourth Circuit held an oral argument session in Charleston, South Carolina, rather than its usual home in Richmond. I had to go down there to argue a case, so I took the wife with me and we made a little vacation of it. Charleston is a neat old city, full of lots of history and architecture.

One day, while walking around, we passed this narrow passageway:

PiratesCourtyard (Small)

Something about the sign grabbed me. It wasn’t for a restaurant or bar and wasn’t any kind of historical marker. It was just a sign designating this places as Pirates Courtyard.

Almost immediately I got a riff in my head. Being that musical inspiration is usually fleeting for me, I did well to keep it going until we got back to the hotel. I jotted down the idea and, at the top of the legal pad with the notes, wrote “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard.” Usually I pick a title from my long list of nonsense phrases I keep handy just for that purpose, but this seemed to fit the riff and gave me some idea of what might come next.

After many months, and some good lockdown time, I’ve finally completed it. Does it really conjure a “dance party”? Probably not. It’s too slow, has a “chorus” in 7/4, and has an ambienty piano bridge. But I like it and it’s my song and I’ll call it whatever the fuck I like!
Anyway, here it is – hope you enjoy:

 

Decade – Favorite Songs

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

As I said last week, I listen to a lot of music. in trying to process all the great music from the last ten years I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums (which dropped last week), one of favorite tunes. Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list. While there’s no hard and fast rule that none of the favorite album artists could appear on this list, too, it just worked out that way.

2. One song per artist. Some of these albums are full of good songs and there are other albums from this decade, too, but I had to draw a line somewhere.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

Got it? Good. Let’s rock . . .

“Starts With Nothing” from The Future Is Medieval by Kaiser Chiefs (2011)

It doesn’t start with nothing, of course, but with a synth pattern, some kick drum, and vocals. After a brief respite, the full band kicks in and things build from there to a titanic conclusion. In a list full of epic prog tracks, sometimes you just need a good rock tune. Kaiser Chiefs are kind of my go-to for that kind of thing – intelligent modern rock with just enough keyboards to keep things interesting. Yes, that is my final answer.

“King of Number 33” from King of Number 33 by DeeExpus (2011)

One of the great epics of the decade, it has a story that sounds too odd not to have some basis in fact. The “King” here is a mentally disabled guy who rides the same bus over and over, not hurting anybody, until one day he shows up with sword and starts demanding obedience from his “subjects.” It’s sad and tragic, but the music is really good, with lots of nice instrumental breaks. It leans to the heavier side of the scale (as lots of prog does these days), but it gets the balance just right.

“Titanic Calls Carpathia” from COMM by The Tangent (2011)

COMM, as you might guess from the title, is all about communication. It’s not surprise, then, that Andy Tillison would choose to root one of the album’s epic in the one of the first uses of wireless communication in history, the distress call from the sinking Titanic. The theme of distress runs through the tune, folding in everything from Apollo 13 to a lonely person with a cell phone. There’s a cynical streak, of course, Andy being Andy, with regard to what we do these days for “comm.” Musically, everybody in that version of The Tangent was on top of their game.

“Some Memorial” by echolyn from echolyn (aka “Window”) (2012)

I almost went with “Island,” the opening track on this album (echolyn’s best of the decade), since it kicks things off in such a dynamic way. At the end of the day, though, I had to go with the track that closes the first disc. I love the way it works through various moods, from detached and jazzy through angry and driving to the concluding “take a handful of seeds / and a mouthful of earth / lie down, become a garden” section. The strings are a particularly nice touch, contrasting nicely with Chris Buzby’s keys.

“Judas Unrepentant” from English Electric Part One by Big Big Train (2012)

I’ve written about this song before, the story of an art forger undone by the hints he himself left in his works. That’s great in itself, but the music has a bouncy, broad quality that sort of takes the piss out of the seriousness of the story. It’s hard not to love a song that allows you to loudly belt out in the car lines like “charged him with conspiracy to defraud”! Oh, and the guitar work from Dave Gregory, percolating in the background for the most part, is superb.

“Houndstooth” from Senna by Mahogany Frog (2012)

Mahogany Frog exist at the confluence of fusion-inspired instrumental prog, electronica, and jam bands. They’re amazing live (I had a chance to see them at ProgDay in 2010), but they’re equally good at putting the energy of live performance onto tape. This track (actually the first two tracks) from their latest (c’mon guys!) album distills all that makes them fun to listen to into under ten minutes. Wonderful vintage keys, thumping drums, spiraling guitars. Fantastic.

“I Can Teach You How to Lose a Fight” from The Unraveling by Knifeworld (2014)

First impressions are tough, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a better one than the opening track on Knifeworld’s 2014 opus, the first thing of theirs I heard. It’s all just slightly off, but in the best way. It starts off almost industrial, with just rhythm and vocals and occasional guitar, before it explodes to take in the kaleidoscope of sound that Knifeworld is. The lyrics are unsettling (the line “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes” shows up as a song title later on the album). Seldom have I been so taken with a band so quickly.

“Remurdered” from Rave Tapes by Mogwai (2014)

Rave Tapes marries Mogwai’s usual guitar/bass/drum post rock with healthy dollops of electronics and synths. Nowhere does that come together better than “Remurdered” (what a great title for a song). It starts out with an insistent synth pulse with some spacey guitars before drums and seriously growly bass synth carries things away. It’s one of those songs that builds so well from sparse beginnings to thunderous conclusion.

“La Mitrailleuse” from The Punishment of Luxury by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (2017)

It’s old hat these days for bands that have been split up for decades to get back together and ride the nostalgia gravy train. Less usual is for said bands to make and release new material that’s worth listening to and can stand up with their best earlier work. Since returning with 2010’s dancy History of Modern, OMD has been doing just that. On The Punishment of Luxury they channeled a lot of Dazzle Ships, nowhere more than this track which is just layered vocals and the sounds of gunfire. Chilling and effective.

“Everything Is Awful” from I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists (2018)

If there was ever a song for our times, this is it (no coincidence that it’s the newest tune on this list). What makes it work is, despite the sentiment in the lyrics, the music is upbeat and creates this weird dissonance in your mind. You want to sing along with how awful things are. It’s like laughing in the face of tragedy or maybe a campfire song for the end of the world. Sometimes that’s the best you can do, so why not have a good song for it (see also, 3rDegree’s “A Nihilist’s Love Song”)?

Decade – Favorite Albums

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

I listen to a lot of music. There’s no way I could narrow down a decade’s worth of stuff to ten albums, so I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums, one of favorite tunes (that one comes next week). Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list.

2. One album per artist. Some of my favorites have had very good decades, but I didn’t want to fill up on them.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

With those in mind, away we go . . .

The Long Division by 3rDegree (2012)

LongDivision

3rDegree had a really good decade. Either of their two Ones and Zeroes albums could have been the one I picked for this list since they’re great, too, but I keep coming back to this one. About half the songs are political, but not partisan, in that they cast a keen eye on our fucked up American system (sadly, it looks like they’ll remain relevant for years to come). The rest of the album contains what is perhaps my favorite tune by the band, “Memetic Pandemic,” and the wonderfully sing-songy “A Nihilist’s Love Song.”

Clockwork Angels by Rush (2012)

ClockworkAngels

They say you’re supposed to exit on a high note. Rush did. Their final studio album was a return to their proggy concept album roots. Sprawling and epic, they used some strings very effectively (and even took them on tour). It’s my favorite thing they’ve done since Neal’s tragedies and probably since the 1980s (I like the synths!). The story is a kind of steampunk Candide, better on record than in writing.

Gravity’s Dirty Work by Darkroom (2013)

GravitysDirtyWork

If I had one word to describe my musical decade it would be “Bandcamp.” The streaming/downloading/artist portal website has changed the way I discover new music. The ability to hear about a band and just put their name into Google with “bandcamp” after it generally puts a lot of music at my fingertips. Such is the case with Darkroom, an ambient duo I read about in Prog magazine (I’m pretty sure). The music here is dark and dreamy, with equal parts thick layers of electronics and solo guitar that glides overtop.

The Bones of What You Believe by Chvrches (2013)

BonesOfWhatYouBelieve

Modern synth-pop lives! I learned about this Scottish trio from Keyboard magazine. Not only did I really like what I heard, but I was stunned to find out they’re actually kind of popular. More than once I’ve heard Chvrches tunes on TV (or in a FIFA video game soundtrack) and turned to my wife, in amazement, to explain that I actually own this song. Anyway, all three of their albums released this decade have been great, but the first one holds a special place in my heart.

Execute and Breathe by Elephants of Scotland (2014)

ExecuteAndBreathe

If I had a second word to describe my decade in music it would be “ROSFest.” I saw lots of new (to me, at least) bands there before the fest moved from Gettysburg to Florida this year, including these guys. No elephants anywhere and they’re from Vermont, not Scotland, but their Rush-influenced (with more keyboards) prog is very good. My big beef with them at ROSFest was that they lacked a strong lead vocalist, but that’s less important for a studio record. I listen to this album a lot.

Live In America by Sanguine Hum (2014 – or maybe 2012)

LiveInAmerica

Speaking of ROSFest finds. When I saw this set in 2012 I had no idea who these guys were. By the end of it I was a huge fan. I even stood in the meet & greet line afterwards (which I never did), even though they didn’t have their new album for sale (got to talk to Matt Baber about the Rhodes he used, though, so it was all good). Another band that’s had a great decade, Sanguine Hum have cranked out a lot of great music recently, but this is still a favorite because it captures the experience of diving into the unknown and coming out the other end grinning like a loon.

The release date is a little confusing. I think it was released on Bandcamp in 2012 to those of us who preordered the DVD of the show, but that DVD (which came with a CD, too) didn’t arrive until 2014. Make of that what you will.

The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting (2015)

RaceForSpaceCCCP

Central to The Race for Space is a gimmick – taking dialogue and monologue from old films (usually propaganda and news stock) and turning them into lyrics for songs. Not just laying them over beds of electronics like folks have been doing forever, but actually trimming and manipulating them to work in the place of lyrics. That said, it’s a hell of a gimmick and works super well, whether it’s in the context of the slow building, brooding “Sputnik” or the infectious “Go!.” Musically there’s a lot of electronics, but a backbone of real drums (and even horns on one track) and some guitar that keeps things from getting too artificial.

Hand.Cannot.Erase by Steven Wilson (2015)

HandCannotErase

Like 3rDegree, Steve Wilson had a hell of a decade and I could almost have picked any of his albums for this list. I think this one – a concept album based on reports of a woman who died, alone, in her London apartment and wasn’t missed for years (not a typo) – brings together the various parts of Wilson’s style the best. There’s lengthy proggy instrumental stuff (the Minimoog solo on “Regret #9”  is almost worth the price of admission alone) alongside modern electronic-style stuff, and more direct pop songs. The concluding “Last Regret” is pretty straightforward, but heart breaking.

Fuck Everyone and Run by Marillion (2016)

FEAR

At this point, Marillion cranks out consistently good stuff that occasionally rises to great. FEAR is their latest great album, a sprawling epic of raw nerve feelings. A lot of it is political, at least in the broadest sense, and lands some punches (without them being as targeted directly as, say, “Gaza” from Sounds That Can’t Be Made). At first listen those big statements were the ones I gravitated towards (particularly the last movement of “The New Kings”), but my favorite track has come to be “The Leavers” (which, in spite of the title and when it was recorded has nothing to do with Brexit), an ode to the push-pull dynamics of touring.

Say So by Bent Knee (2016)

SaySo

Another ROSFest surprise. Although I’d listened to their prior album (on Bandcamp!) before seeing them, nothing really captures this band like a live setting. They make the most out of wild dynamic swings, shifting from hushed, almost whispered vocals over piano to full-bore riffage in the blink of an eye. It helps that keyboardist/vocalist Courtney Swain has the voice to tackle both ends of the spectrum with ease. They’re a prog band, but thoroughly modern (one member just manipulates the other musicians’’ sound on stage with a laptop) and really exciting.

I could go on and on about all the great music that came out over the past ten years, but I can safely call these favorites. Go check ‘em out.

Some Festive (?) Winter Music

Every year, sometime around the middle of December, I think to myself that I really should make some Christmas music. Of course, by that time it’s too late, so I shrug and go on with things. This year, however, I got my shit together soon enough to actually make some tunes for the season!

Naturally, there’s a twist.

When looking for a holiday tune or tunes to adapt I didn’t want anything too obvious. One of my main gripes with Christmas music is that people pass around the same few dozen carols that constantly get reworked without either making something new or digging deep for more obscure material. Original wasn’t really in the cards, since I don’t write words and you really need words for a new Xmas song to make any sense. So I tried to find something different, or at least new to my ears. If it happened to be in the public domain, even better.

The more I dug, the more the “season” in question shifted from “Christmas” to “winter.” I got really into the idea of doing something about surviving winter. I know people for whom the short days and the cold really make life miserable. I’m not a huge fan of them, either. So I settled on two olde folk songs that fit the theme.

The first is “Drive the Cold Winter Away” (also called “All Hail to the Days”), an English song dating back to about 1625. It’s all about seeing through the long, cold nights with friends and others and invokes scenes of parties, caroling, and all that jazz. Naturally that’s too upbeat for what I usually do, but I found this downtempo version by Loreena McKennitt and took my inspiration from it.

The second is “The Winter It Is Past” (also called “The Curragh of Kildare”), an Irish song, parts of which date back to at least the 1700s. There’s at least one version that includes lyrics by my great-great-great-whatever (sure, why not) Robert Burns. It’s all about the return of spring as well as the departure of a lover. The bitter and the sweet, as they say. The melody here is more traditional and upbeat than the first part, so I hope it’s a nice contrast.

I needed a name for this amalgam and wanted to express a sentiment like “winter sucks, but it gets better.” Thankfully, everything sounds better in Latin, so it became “Hiems Sugit, Sed is Gets Melius.” My old Latin teacher would approve, I think.

Without further ado, enjoy – and Happy Holidays!

If you’re interested, I tackled the same basic idea (winter giving forth to spring) a few years back in an original tune, “The Ice, The Sun.” It’s more ambient and sprawling.

Weekly Read: The New and Improved Romie Futch

This spring the wife and I spent a long weekend in the other Charleston (South Carolina) and, naturally, found our way to a bookstore. There, in a display of local authors, I was drawn to one of the wildest covers I’d seen in a while:

RomieFutch

The concept seemed as intriguing as the artwork, so I put it on my “to read” list. Having now finally digested the saga of Romie Futch I can say the whole book lives up to the wild premise of that cover.

Romie is a man in a mid-life mess, with an unsatisfying job as a taxidermist, some issues with substance abuse, and carrying a huge, blazing torch for his ex-wife. He sees a potential way out of his rut in a medical experiment in which he (and several other similarly down-on-their-luck middle-aged dudes) has volumes of knowledge downloaded directly into his brain, turning him into a super loquacious narrator.

Armed with his newfound data dump, Romie tries to get his life on track. That largely involves occasional blackouts and other issues related to his upgrades, continued pining for his ex-wife, renewed interest in taxidermy as post-modern art, and the pursuit of an enormous mutated wild boar dubbed Hogzilla. No prizes for figuring out where the cover image came from then.

But that’s not really the point. The joy of this book is in the character of Romie and those he meets as he tries to get his life straight. Author Julia Elliott has lots of fun with Romie’s newfound vocabulary – the scene where he and several other test subjects sit down and talk for the first time, each unable to keep up with the stream of 5-dollar words coming out of their mouths, is hilarious. It helps set the tone for the rest of the book, too, as everything is always on the verge of just being too much – too many words, too many character quirks – but Elliott always keeps it from going too far. Romie may not have the best life, but it’s an amusing one to be a part of for a while (another highlight – his inner verbal monologue imagining his pregnant ex-wife being knocked up by her fiancé’s young hipster relation).

Along the way, Elliott is able to explore a lot of different areas of modern (and near-future) life. The whole book has a decaying Southern Gothic vibe to it, wherein all politicians are corrupt and big corporations wield power without any real oversight. There’s definitely a strain of anti-science through the book, as the only real knowledge pushers are doing it for malevolent ends (so far as we know – more on that later). It’s deeply cynical and the satire is pretty sharp in spots.

That being said, it does feel like there are some missed opportunities here and there. Romie’s pursuit of Hogzilla is much more satisfying than just about anything to do with the medical experiments performed on him. Since our point of view is Romie’s we never get a broader picture of what the point of the experiment was or who was really behind it. When it comes to wrapping up that part of the story the book feels at its most perfunctory, like Elliott knew she had to do something with it but wasn’t quite sure what. It’s a minor quibble, since this is a book where the journey is well worth taking, even if the destination isn’t quite what you hoped for.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character trait of Romie’s – that he’s a progressive rock fan! It starts out early with references to Yes and The Moody Blues, but gets so esoteric as to include a reference to Henry Cow bassoonist (you read that right) Lindsay Cooper. Romie has a particular affinity for King Crimson (not the Belew years, apparently, as the songs he name drops later all come from the band’s earlier days). To say I could see a bit of myself in him is an understatement.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this book a whole bunch. Whatever shortcoming it might have with some of the plot is more than made up for by the characters and the way they’re written. Weird and highly recommended – just like King Crimson.

Guilty Pleasures

This, floated recently in the New York Times, I can fully get behind:

We know them when we see them: The TV shows and movies we love, even though we just know they’re bad. The trashy books we simply can’t put down. The awful earworms we hate to love.

Yes, these are our guilty pleasures — what some people consider the junk food in our media diets. But if we enjoy them, why should we feel guilty? We should be free to enjoy whatever we like! And as it turns out, these so-called ‘guilty’ pleasures can actually be good for us, so long as they’re enjoyed in moderation.

I really loathe the term “guilty pleasure,” since it makes a value judgment about the kind of art or entertainment that grabs you. As I’ve said over and over, reaction to art is personal and what thrills one person will bore another. Think of the most popular thing on the planet (say, Avengers: Endgame) and consider that as popular as it is it hasn’t been seen, much less liked, by a majority of the population.

Don’t get me wrong – I have what others might deem guilty pleasures, I just refuse to feel bad about it. In particular I seem to have a particular fondness for “bad” movies with Max von Sydow in them – Flash Gordon, David Lynch’s Dune, Strange Brew, Victory. None of them were critically praised and at least two of them are loathed by portions of the fandom of the originals upon which they’re based. Those folks are entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to feel superior to me because I enjoy that stuff (while recognizing I’m in the minority).

I think part of why we like to label things as “guilty pleasures” is that it allows us to like what we do without actually copping to it, so we can still think we’re cool. That’s why we come up with ideas like reading something ironically or hatewatching to cover the truth – we just enjoy what we’re reading/watching/listening to. I mean how stupid is “hatewatching”? If you watch something that you hate so often you’re just in denial – you’re enjoying it, even if in a different way than the creators intended.

After all, it’s not like a bad movie or book is the same thing as an artery-clogging meal:

Guilt can be a healthy motivator to push us to change behaviors we don’t like, while shame — the painful feeling that our behavior makes us horrible people — is never productive. But when we disparage our reality TV viewing habits, for example, we typically aren’t describing a behavior we hope to change, nor are we saying we’re terrible people.

‘When you feel guilty, but haven’t harmed anyone, then you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism,’ said Dr. Neff, the associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

So throw down your chains of shame, brothers and sisters! Give not a single fuck about what other people think about your entertainment preferences! We all need brain candy sometimes – might as well admit it and move on with our lives. I’m with Loki:

GuiltyPleasure

Weekly Read: Great North Road

There was a time when how long an “album” could be was confined to the limits of vinyl. Somewhere between 35 and 50 minutes was the best you could do, and the higher limits were only available with compromising sound quality (hence why all the old Zappa/Mothers albums are so short per side), unless you were making a double. Regardless, it set expectations for what an “album” should be.

Then along came CDs and all that changed. The apocryphal story goes that the amount of music a CD could hold was designed so it could contain all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so about 79 minutes worth of music. Not surprising then that artists in the 1990s and 2000s took full advantage of the extended time, sometimes with great effect (Mike Keneally) and sometimes with an overabundance of filler (I’m looking at you Flower Kings). Equally unsurprising that, as we push on towards the 2020s, album lengths have generally returned to that 45-50 minute zone, even though with digital download formats they could be nearly endless.

Which is to say that in a world of vinyl-length novels, Great North Road is a jam-packed, full-length CD (my understanding is that author Peter Hamilton is known for lengthy books). Sadly, like many of those early Flower King albums, it doesn’t benefit from the additional time it takes up.

Which is a shame, because there are some very cool things happening in Great North Road. The title itself is a bit of a hint, as “North” is actually the family name of a huge clan of clones that has more money than God at this point. The family fortune was made on supplying a petroleum replacement (in the audiobook it sounds like “bi-oil,” but I have no idea how it’s actually spelled) sourced from the planet St. Libra. Said planet is reached through a Stargate kind of gateway located in (of all places) Newcastle, England. There are other worlds, other portals, and an existential threat called the Zanth (again, no idea how it’s spelled) that lingers over everything.

Into all this comes the murder of a North in Newcastle, which kicks off the book’s parallel plots. One is terrestrial, as a Newcastle cop tries to solve the murder. The other takes place mostly on St. Libra, where a military expedition is mounted to find if there is, perhaps, sentient alien life on St. Libra after all. The focus of that plot thread is Angela, who’s lengthy backstory is revealed as the book progresses. She, and her backstory in particular, is the most interesting part of the book, since it allows Hamilton to explore some other worlds and the societies that have developed on them. The way Angela’s past informs her present and dovetails into the St. Libra plot is really well done, even if that plot line is largely an extended riff on the “expedition is caught in the middle of nowhere with an angry monster” trope.

There’s no such compelling narrative to the plot happening in Newcastle, however. While the two do connect in the end, you’re left wondering if the Newcastle stuff could be confined to a lengthy prologue. The investigation just goes on too long with lots of extraneous details (the narratives of the way detectives navigate Newcastle’s highways makes me think of the SNL skit “The Californians”). Sid, the main detective, is a decent enough character, but he never really comes to life.

There are other annoyances – all the woman are beautiful, the Newcastle banter is really repetitive, things really wrap up a bit to neatly – that come and go, but given the length of the narrative they pop up a lot. It makes the narrative more of a slog than you’d expect for an interstellar adventure in which clones and a monster somewhat reminiscent of Hyperion’s shrike should be.

So all in all, there’s a really good, interesting book to be exhumed from Great North Road, but the effort leads to a solid shrugging of the shoulders by the end.

GreatNorthRoad

Weekly Read: Espedair Street

There are worse reasons to read a book.

A few weeks ago Fish, original lead singer of Marillion and solo artist in his own right, put up a link to a news story from the 1990s. It was part of a regular series (apparently) about how famous people met each other. In this case, the other famous person was author Iain Banks. As a fan of both guys I naturally went to read the article. Imagine my surprise when someone else I love popped up:

Back in 1990, I was walking away from my lawyer’s office in London, disconsolate over the way my foolish litigation against my record company was going. I was drowning my sorrows with the novelist Neil Gaiman, and he asked if I’d ever read Espedair Street, the Iain Banks novel about Weird, a very tall Scottish rock star. I hadn’t, and Neil said: ‘‘You’ve got to read it – the hero of that book is you!’

Naturally I had to read the book, so I downloaded Espedair Street from Audible (not all of Banks’ stuff is available there, sadly) and dove in. It probably never had a chance of living up to the expectations that arose from this particular singularity of my geekdom.

The book is the story of Danny Weir, aka “Weird, bass player and songwriter for a band called Frozen Gold that broke big in the mid 1970s. Weird tells the story in flashback from his life in the 1980s living as a recluse in an old church filled with stockpiled goods from the Eastern Bloc (they don’t really trade in currency, he explains at one point). He has adventures in the modern worlds as he relates the band’s rise and fall.

Since Banks is a great writer the book is a good read just on the basic level of words – there are wonderful words on display here. And Weird is, for the most part, a pretty good guy to hang around with, moderately clever but never taking himself (or his success) so seriously that it goes to his head. Having said that, his story itself is kind of dull. It’s basically a series of anecdotes that could be pulled from any rockumentary kind of thing from that era. Weird comes off as the kind of guy who would be a frequent guest on talk shows because he’s always likely to whip out some tale from the past that’s outrageous enough to laugh at but not horrible. They are, at the least, entertaining.

The problem is that, eventually, things turn serious and the narrative can’t really support it. The band breaks up after one lead singer dies in a stage accident you could see happening to Spinal Tap (or in South Park), while the other is murdered by a Christian zealot during the “modern day” narrative. Weird blames himself for both, even though they weren’t his fault, so he turns into even more of a sulker, until he decides to pursue a long lost love (who, of course, welcomes him with open arms). It just all adds up to a nice read, but nothing more.

And, I have to say, the musical nature of things are more than a bit confused. Weird (and therefore Banks) occasionally drop the word “progressive” in talking about Frozen Gold’s music. There’s even a reference to the band releasing a double-LP all instrumental concept album – which is just about as prog as it gets! But the timeline doesn’t quite fit (the band is just getting signed about the time prog peaked commercially) and when contemporaries are name dropped it’s the standard classic rock fare – Zeppelin, the Stones – rather than, say Yes or King Crimson. Frankly, the idea that a new prog band hitting it big in the late 1970s is as out there as anything that appears in Banks’ Culture novels.

Was the combination of Banks and Fish, with the assist from Gaiman, the brilliance I’d hoped for? No, but it was still a pretty good read. That’s all you should really expect, right?

EspedairStreet

Genesis – Ten of the Best?

Prog magazine recently asked their readers to help them identify the cream of the crop of Genesis tunes. Being that Genesis is one of my favorite bands I threw in my two cents, voting for the ten “best” (actually my favorites) tracks. I thought I’d provide some explanation of my choices, as well as point out one honorable mention that I couldn’t vote for in the poll.

As I suspected, this was pretty tough. I didn’t put any particular limitations on my choices (only one song from any album, etc.), but I did try and cover as much of the band’s history as I could. Here they are, arranged chronologically . . .

“The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme (1971)

A great, weird, story song with a thunderous climax. It’s a great example of what the band was in between Anthony Philips leaving and Steve Hackett joining, as there’s lengthy bits where Tony Banks is filling in the lead guitar slot with a Hohner pianet run through a cranked up fuzz box.

“Watcher of the Skies” from Foxtrot (1972)

Two words – Mellotron intro. Yes, the tricky rhythm that takes over for that (courtesy of Phil Collins) is great, too, but there’s nothing quite like that huge, ominous opening – possible because Banks accidentally got the Mellotron to playback two tapes at once.

“Can-Utility and the Coastliners” from Foxtrot (1972)

All that’s great about classic Genesis in an easily digestible package. Mythical lyrics? Check (the story of King Canute and the waves). Multiple solos? Check (including Mellotron, not normally a solo instrument). Symphonic grandeur? You bet. If I need to play one song to someone to show them what Genesis was like in its prog heyday, this would be it.

“Firth of Fifth” from Selling England By the Pound (1973)

The song that launched a thousand prog bands. This is the template for symphonic prog going forward – classically inspired piano intro, more mythical lyrics, widdly synth solo followed by soaring guitar solo. And a flute solo! Never better than the original.

“In the Cage” from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)

It’s hard to take one track from The Lamb . . . because they work so well together, moving from one song to another. This is the best choice to pull out and let stand on its own, I think. Another great solo from Banks. Gabriel’s vocals are particularly good, too.

“Los Endos” from A Trick of the Tail (1976)

Must have been a lot of pressure to get this right, since calling it “The End” means it’s your concert closer for years to come. Of course, they did. I particularly like the call backs from earlier in the album (from “Dance on a Volcano”) and from before (the “there’s an angel standing in the sun . . .” subdued lyrics from “Supper’s Ready”).

“Blood on the Rooftops” from Wind & Wuthering (1976)

I didn’t really get into this track until I heard Steve Hackett playing it in recent years, but it’s really grown on me. Hackett’s nylon-string guitar work sits well with Banks’ Mellotron sweeps and Collins’ vocals/lyrics have a deep melancholy to them that really stands out. Fits the grey album cover perfectly.

“Cinema Show” from Seconds Out (1977)

The studio version of this track is great, but this live version (with Bill Bruford on drums) is epic. It’s one of those prog mini-epics that hit my sweet spot (see also, “Starless” by King Crimson and “Squarer for Maud” by National Health, among others), with the delicate vocal first section giving way to a fabulous (and notably three piece) instrumental section.

“Me & Sarah Jane” from Abacab (1981)

Another weird story song, this time about a guy who makes up a girlfriend (and then mourns her departure). Proof that the band could still do interesting musical things in a shorter, more outwardly pop kind of vein.

“Domino” from Invisible Touch (1986)

While the band climbed the pop charts they kept making lengthy, weird deep cuts that really came off well live. This works as kind of a later-day “Cinema Show,” with the song-based first section and driving second section. “We’re all the next in line,” as they say.

Honorable mention

“Behind the Lines > Duchess > Guide Vocal” from Duke (1980)

The Prog poll listed each track separately, which means I couldn’t vote for this hunk that leads off Duke. The band originally toyed with the idea of a lengthy Duke suite, but wound up breaking things up over the album (they did it all together live, though). I love how these three tunes work together, so I’ll add them to my list.

Am I right? Am I wrong? Does it matter? It’s all great!