Mixinformation #1 (5/9/21): AgainstZapZepRollTayTesting+…

Yet another attempt at launching a recurring DAE series, “Mixinformation” gathers for comment and inevitable digression eleven songs plucked on shuffle from the gargantuan greater playlist that provided the strange and lively partial soundtrack to my most recent road trip from the flats of Central Ohio to the hills of East Tennessee. Some 5,000 songs can’t fill or fit comfortably into any journey of just under 400 miles, of course, but that’s kind of the point. Music at its best challenges and comforts us in equal measure, makes the open road less lonely, more romantic, easier to eagerly embrace. Its companionship is invaluable, its worth incalculable. What follows is but chapter one in a serialized love letter of sorts…

  1. “Sing Me Spanish Techno” – The New Pornographers (2005) – The unassuming black and yellow (natch) thumb drive that has long served as my faithful travel companion contains thousands of automatically indexed subfolders when you break it down, though “Music” is the only one that really matters for our purposes. By this latest trip, it had swelled to over 5,500 files, dumped into a common gumbo pot with borders between artist, genre, and era summarily erased, haphazardly organized only by either title or a meaningless track number affiliating said song with an album that, strictly speaking, no longer existed. The idea has always been to mitigate long haul boredom by bombarding the highwayman with a heady procession of random music of varying types and temperaments – sometimes jarring, sometimes sublime. To that end, my trip couldn’t have begun with a better pair of songs, though, full disclosure, they were not exactly products of chance. No, “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, one of my very favorites from the alt-reality hit factory that is Vancouver’s estimable New Pornographers, was just coincidentally the first song to appear when I reopened the bank vault, and I couldn’t very well deny its soaring, spectacular, three-part harmonic chorus yet another appointment with my overeager if under qualified vocal cords…or skip the song I noticed cued up to follow it before finally starting the shuffle in earnest.
  2. “Spanish Moss” – Against Me! (2010) – Not to court controversy from the jump in our ridiculously polarized, hyperreactive social media age, but I am in favor of equality and happiness above all. I root for underdogs instinctively. My otherwise privileged existence has seen me socially marginalized in the past just enough to divine a fleeting sense of what too many among us experience every day. What vanishing little I know, for example, about the struggles of being transsexual is derived from my exposure to two remarkable women, one a member of my family and another who has, over the course of eight years listening to the punk firebrands in Against Me!, come to feel like one. “Spanish Moss” is an emotional powerhouse in a lexicon already lousy with them, with an anthemic chorus that chokes me up every time I attempt to sing along. “You just need to find / some place to get away / you can forget your name / and there’s no need to apologize”. What is it about those words that so reliably reduces me to rubble? Not any sense of sadness, but, rather of aspiration…toward a better life, purer, more authentic, less burdened. A universal aspiration, understandable. Insert your particular burden here. Every artist has a comparatively obscure song that just connects. “Spanish Moss” is that song for me, and it is perfect, the best thing IMO that Against Me! has or will ever play. Laura Jane Grace may not have technically existed at the time it was written, but her spirit was watching from the wings with keen interest.
  3. “Disco Boy” – Frank Zappa (1976) – Nothing enlivens a road trip, especially in its early stages, like a surprise appearance from Mr. Frank Zappa. It’s always a surprise appearance too. For better or worse, nothing else in my catacombs of mix sounds remotely like Frank in general or “Disco Boy” in particular, with its lacerating, observational lyrics and trademark flashes of Zapponian instrumental brilliance punctuating an otherwise loping, groovy feel. As disco began its brief but terrifying ascension to the top of the world, punk revolted, most other genres cowered, and none but our Frank, amused but hardly threatened, the lone planet in a musical galaxy far removed from ours, offered his unsolicited but welcome critique. From its gaudy style to negligible substance, there was surely lots to skewer. “Leave his hair alone, but you can kiss his comb,” he purred like the world’s most erudite fourth-grader. I find Frank Zappa delightful even when I don’t entirely follow his flight path. One day, when new music and I finally, definitively part ways, I’ll make good on my longstanding plan to fully follow him down the rabbit hole and it’ll be like mapping an undiscovered country. For now, however, the occasional surprise dalliance will more than suffice.
  4. “Dream Deceiver” – Testament (2020) – I once described the experience of seeing Testament live as akin to watching five clinicians play simultaneously, except coherent. And infectious. And fun. Youtube is of course chock full of footage of Alex Skolnick and Gene Hoglan demonstrating/deconstructing their prodigious gifts for anybody who might wish to join the peerless guitarist or drummer for a hair-raising, dumbfounding, frustrating evening and inevitable overnight of ultimately futile instrumentalist wish fulfillment. I’m much more intrigued by the band’s songwriting process, which is hopelessly under documented by comparison, assuming video evidence even exists. Titans of Creation, as I’ve also said before, should have been THE metal album of 2020 and most assuredly would’ve torn the domestic touring and foreign festival circuit a whole other exit if Covid-19 hadn’t tragically intervened. Listening to “Dream Deceiver”, with its peppy chorus straight out of Seventies radio wrapped in aggressive thrash drag, made me long for a deep dive into the discussions between Eric Peterson and Chuck Billy, peppered with talking head insights from the rest. Skolnick’s foundational riff and leadwork are New Order worthy, while Hoglan’s rolling thunder double bass and sweatless fills are high test rocket fuel. It takes serious skill to sound this natural.
  5. “Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin (1971) – The most popular radio rock song of all time was, along with twenty or so of its Zep fellows, among the first mp3s I loaded onto my thumb drive during its embryonic stages, though, to my knowledge, this unexpected spin marked the first time the gods of shuffle had yet seen fit to bring us together. I was struck somewhat by the oddity of the occasion, which serves to underscore how comparatively little shorthand I have, despite my fervent admiration of Zeppelin overall, with this, the most ubiquitous track by arguably the first name in rock and roll. “Stairway” is, first and foremost, a long and patient song, plenty audacious for any arena anthem, but what always strikes me is how downright pastoral it is once it graduates from stand to sway to walk. Page and Plant spin delicate guitar and vocal lines intertwined into sticky, reinforced webs, and the picture that effortlessly occurs to me is of Frodo Baggins leading his intrepid band of hobbits through the far reaches of The Shire toward their dark and portentous shared future. What precedes it is so exquisite and evocative that once the song finally starts to rock, it’s almost incidental. Almost.
  6. “Things Can Only Get Better” – Howard Jones (1985) – The 1980s blessed us with some truly marvelous one-hit wonders, unapologetically glossy, often wacky earworms reflective of a fascinating time where the unofficial definition of pop music became “anything played on MTV”. Indeed, much of the evergreen fascination with and affection for the majesty of Eighties pop – for it truly is the best of any era – comes from its accidental commitment to presenting wondrous variety in its many semi-congruous forms. Looking the part of not just a prototypical ‘80s one-hit wonder but also the stereo wonk who sold you the Buick-sized speakers through which you listened, gangly and demure English synth specialist Howard Jones is actually neither, having sustained a fairly accomplished career on the strength of keyboard acumen, unassuming tunefulness, and tall hair. Twinkling and predictably, infectiously upbeat, “Things Can Only Get Better” is the unquestioned peak of Jones’ recorded output, fusing together strange bedfellows like funk bass, marching band-ready brass, and faux-falsetto notes even this distracted driver can approximate into so much harmonious claptrap. As ever, Jones is a master of inoffensive eccentricity, creating a song that’s all smoothed-out edges and deceptive craft. It’s the key to both this wonder of a hit and his lasting appeal overall.
  7. “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” – Meshuggah (1998) – The concept of wondrous variety brings with it various logistical concerns. For every thumb drive song that plays, I tend to skip several others I’m simply not feeling, often with a split-second’s worth of deliberation. Sweden’s Meshuggah has always been one to announce its presence with authority, and musical statements don’t come, as if fired from a chain gun, more emphatic than “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”, the spastic, caterwauling cornerstone of the Djent pioneers’ anti-nu metal masterpiece Chaosphere. All the elements that set Meshuggah among the most important single factors in first stoking and then maintaining my interest in extreme metal came flooding back to my memory: Jens Kidman’s rottweiler cum drill sergeant vocal cadence, Fredrik Thordendal’s alternately droning and serpentine leads overlaying the mayhem of Tomas Haake’s groundbreaking drumwork. And such beautiful mayhem it is – seemingly asymmetric yet perfectly calibrated, like a sentient paint mixer run amok. How thrilling it was to decode “Cyanide’s” legendary drum coda over two decades ago, or to bang it out on the steering wheel (again) just last weekend. Five seconds of uncertainty gave way to five of recognition, then another five of relief, before barreling into an ever-evolving, steadily escalating auditory endorphin rush.
  8. “Mirrorball” – Taylor Swift (2020) – Apologies for pulling back the curtain here, but despite what the structure of this post might otherwise suggest, its eleven songs did not cascade forth from my thumb drive in an uninterrupted stream of musical spontaneity… except in two notable cases. The first I’ve already mentioned as something of a cheat, two all-time faves nestled back to back with no shuffle either necessary or employed. The second couple, born of an authentic shuffle the way these things are supposed to work, saw Swedish metal monster Meshuggah play opening act for pop chanteuse Taylor Swift, a whiplash-inducing juxtaposition of styles that almost saw me reflexively skip the homemade headliner out of something akin to shock. I’m pleased in retrospect that cooler, perhaps more refined heads prevailed. “Mirrorball” is a simply lovely song, among the top third of tracks on what, in last year’s intimate Folklore, is certainly Swift’s best release since I became a fan and probably since her prior zenith, 2005’s adrenalized country hybrid Red. Taylor sings as if in a dreamlike reverie, with emphasis smoothly shifting throughout from her underappreciated voice to similarly velvet turns of phrase, wonderful accompaniment to the rolling West Virginia foothills unspooling outside my window.
  9. “Thank God” – Ice Cube (2008) – Talk about a palate-cleanser. Buried like treasure amongst the dregs of Ice Cube’s otherwise middling late-period water-treader Raw Footage, “Thank God” is a surprise gut punch that sees my favorite ever mic-dropper not only rise from the ashes but seize the moment to flash his bona fides in high style. Set to a banging, horn-infused beat that fits his limber, playful, metaphor-rich intensity to a tee (scarcity of same was a recurring problem on every album post-Lethal Injection), Cube arrives at the party, or perhaps vice versa, full of “California swagger” to do what, in spite of his distracting social awareness, he has always done best: proudly proclaim his unquestionable greatness to a capacity, rapidly quieting room of haters. “Thank God the gangsta’s back,” goes the instant classic refrain, “and we ain’t got to put up with this brainless rap.” It’s a clear warning shot to doubters/discounters, and if it ended up also being his parting shot – Cube would release another two albums, as yet unheard by me, though their potential always makes me wonder – he couldn’t have picked his spot better. Step to the king one last time, young blood, and get yourself got for old time’s sake.
  10. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones (1969) – It’s hard to tell exactly what animates Mick Jagger at the beginning of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, as the introductory choral refrain hangs in the air and strummed guitar and french horn replace the voices of those ghostly children, but he certainly seems in a pensive mood. He has likely of late seen some images that he can’t quite shake. An elliptical slice of life pulled from observing the downtrodden daily existences of dope freak Londoners in varying states of need, the song sets an indelible, inescapable mood with its lyrics and builds the basic into something transcendent. There are better songs to be found in the vast, frankly intimidating Rolling Stones catalogue – bolder songs perhaps, brighter songs, songs offering more attitude or agreeable rides – but there are precious few with its gravitas, the sense of something momentous issuing forth from a hidden place to arrest and overcome the senses. At first it doesn’t sound like very much. By the end, however, with full band accompaniment including percussion and a reprise from the swelling choir, this tale of gutter rats stalled in their search for personal grace has exploded from a haiku into a great English novella.
  11. “Halcyon” – Elder (2020) – Now here is a band that understands just how (and how much) patience is a virtue. Every song I think I’ve ever heard by stoner metal mavens Elder – and, full disclosure, there have still only been five (so far) – sounds like it could, or perhaps even should, be the grand finale, whether to their excellent 2020 effort Omens (#9 cross-genre if you were keeping score), or to some amazing concert, or festival, to a cross-country roadtrip, or perhaps time itself. “Halcyon” is the prototypical Elder monolith – atmospheric beginning, simmering steps forward in search of chemical reaction, metal mass mutating in movements, the epic ending proper flanked by a thunderous afterword – that, as track three, ironically serves as the spine of Omens rather than its conclusion. Fitting that I should choose it as the period, or, rather, three consecutive periods, at the end of this particular journey, a placeholder until we meet again. It’s been fun to wax rhapsodic on the soundtrack to my most recent road trip, and I hope, for both the sake of the blog and my sanity, that chapter 2 (approximately 212 in real life) visits me, with all the wondrous variety it entails, sooner than later…

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