Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What Makes A Great Steak?

I haven't posted in ages on this site. I have been posting reguarly on my smALL AGES blog, but this one has escaped me lately. I just couldn't find the motivation. And honestly, I've been writing so much (new books!) that I can barely stay awake at night long enough to do this. But I was thinking I would try something new.

There is a Wilco song, it's called "Hell is Chrome" and when I hear it, the lyrics, it makes me want to write. I don't know if anyone else has that feeling for a song, but this song, it has that effect on me. (Affect? Crap.) The lyrics conjure such a story that I feel longs for flesh. It is about the devil.

So I began to write a story based on the idea behind the song. Or rather, what I thought the idea behind the song was, my own interpretation. And so I've decided to post the first chapter here. It's super rough, no editor and I need an editor. But still. If you actually read it, let me know what you think. Not sure you can see exactly where I'm going with it yet, but I know. Oh I know. Song posted at the end.

I would sell my soul for a voice like Kelly Clarkson.

Not that I'd use it like she does.

I mean, save for that one catchy cheese puff "Since You Been Gone," hers isn’t exactly music to my ears. I prefer mine less glossy, less made-for-TV. But that voice. It's soulful, it's sweet, it's girly, it's sexy, it's pure pop perfection. You could do any number of things with it: A White Stripes 60s redux with screeching yelps and knowing hip shakes. Or a tender reading of a classic that brings tears to everyone's eyes. You could don a guitar and rock out like Jenny Lewis in Rilo Kiley, drawing all the boys in with coy smiles and knowing glances. You could sing sweet alt pop with an electro dance beat that gets all the gay boys on their feet. You could sit at a piano and sing melodramatic pithy songs about your sad internal life. Or punch it up with a swinging back beat and turn out some cool blue jazz for the new millennium. And of course, you could win American Idol and go on to sell bazillions of records. If that was your sort of thing.

I once asked my parents if there was any musical talent in the family genes. Did they ever sing in a chorus? In church? Did aunt Thelma know how to play piano or did Uncle Jim play guitar? I would've gladly eaten up that my distant cousin Pete playing banjo at a backwoods bar, badly. But all I got was a simple "Nope."

My parents are non-conversationalists. Not non-confrontationalist, but they are that too. See, they don’t have conversations, as in two-way, back and forth, ping pong.

They talk, for sure. My mother barely takes time for a breath, but they don't engage each other. Or me. Or any one else I've ever seen.

My mother rattles things off, like she's writing lists in the air. And she gives you blow by blow commentary on whatever is passing by her eye at the moment. Like in the car, "Oh there's the bank, it looks open" (not that we were headed to the bank or even needed to go to the bank at all) or, "you can't park along this stretch of road here" (not that we were setting to stop there or anywhere near there.) And her favorite topic is the weather, as in "haven’t seen this much rain in three months. Or four. No, three." None of which is kindling for conversation.

My father tells the same dozen or two very limited stories over and over again. They're not of the great action and adventure variety. They're more about a great savings at Costco on six extra large cans of baked beans or his dog's irregular sleep patterns that force him up at 3 in the morning. I say his dog because the dog simply ignores the rest of us in the house as if we were not there at all. Always has the best seat in the living room, the one facing the TV. His focus is solely on my dad and I think my dad likes it that way. Not that you can tell. He doesn't much smile. My dad's speech is mostly comprised of "uh-huh’s" to my mom’s endless parade of non-sequiters. That, and the occasional canned dinner table talk: "This butcher always gets a good steak." So one day I confronted this statement, which had just been said for at least the 17th time in this, my 17th year, I said, "What makes a good steak Dad?"

He didn’t even look like he thought about it, he just said, "You know one when you taste one."

So I asked about the butcher, "What's his name dad?"

"Don't know," he replied. He didn’t even look up from his plate.

"Where do the steaks come from dad?"

"Couldn't tell you." See what I mean? There is talking, sure. But no conversation. And the non-confrontational thing, well if I had finished that little conversational attempt by tossing out "I'm giving up steaks, Dad, and becoming a vegetarian," he would have just nodded and given me his patented "uh-huh." No questions asked.

I used to think the house's stifling boredom was due to the fact that my folks are so much older than my friend's parents. Sort of like, they were such normal 50s-era Leave it Cleavers they were weird. People always think they're my grandparents, not my parents, which seems to neither bother them nor amuse them. But then I figured it out. I put my finger to the core issue, the driving or rather stagnant factor of my mysterious familial misery. It's this lack of communication thing. The omission of dialogue. It’s the non-conversation. How can you value opinions when you don't ever seek them? How can you value knowledge when you're not ever asking any questions? How can I grow up to be a creative genius when I live in the thicket of this?

I’ve taken to imagining their lives before they had me. Or re-imagining them in my own shadows. Dad played piano in a juke joint, one of those places that barely had four walls and smelled of stale liquor and nobody minded. He did this in the evenings after working all day as a neurobiologist, curing diseases and whatnot. I dreamed he was a perfect yin and yang of brainy brilliance and searing talent. I dreamed that maybe he didn't talk so much even then, but his silence was simply masking his deep-seeded internal struggle, what with all the neuro-stuff by day and hot bombshells after him all night. Plus there was that super secret spy work he was conducting 24-7 unbeknownst to every one except the tight-lipped handsome man in a suit that appeared out of the shadows every Tuesday. Now Mom I imagine was a basketball star (she's tall, she could have been) with a sultry voice that made all the boys hearts quiver even though she wasn't the best looking broad in her brood. She was dangerous, she was a risk-taker, she was the personification of intriguing. I suspected that she'd sneak out to piano bars after her own folks were asleep and sing for the sailors, her long legs only barely sheathed in luscious ruby red satin.

It's hard to keep this image floating in my head when I hear her honk in her geese-like soprano, "Slow down, there is that deer crossing up ahead on the left." The deer crossing we pass every solitary single time we leave our neighborhood.

Wilco, "Hell is Chrome"

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

He's Older Now...
But So Am I.

I was so obsessed with Billy Bragg in my college years, when he made it over to the States I followed him around and got to see him play up and down the Cali coast. My love for him was due to my obsession with both socialist / leftist politics and Englishmen. The accent. Oh the accent. But it was his songcraft that was really at the heart of it. Below you'll find a couple of tunes from the KEXP podcast from SXSW and some others as well. I love the first song, "Greetings to the New Brunette," because besides riffing on James Blunt's hair, he talks about how while he's known as a political songwriter, "he did the mats on it" and really 3-1, most of his songs are romantic love tunes. And so romantic are they.

I'm not normally a poster of lyrics, mostly because I love them in context with the music and then they are allowed to swirl around us and be what we want them to be. But this song kills me.

Levi Stubbs Tears (Billy Bragg)

With the money from her accident
She bought herself a mobile home
So at least she could get some enjoyment
Out of being alone
No one could say that she was left up on the shelf
It's you and me against the World kid she mumbled to herself

When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs' tears run down his face

She ran away from home on her mother's best coat
She was married before she was even entitled to vote
And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes
The sort a war takes away
And when there wasn't a war he left anyway

Norman Whitfield and Barratt Strong
Are here to make everything right that's wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you

One dark night he came home from the sea
And put a hole in her body where no hole should be
It hurt her more to see him walking out the door
And though they stitched her back together they left her heart in pieces on the floor

When the world falls apart some things stay in place
She takes off the Four Tops tape and puts it back in its case
When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs' tears...

From KEXP podcast from SXSW:

Billy Bragg, "Greetings to the New Brunette"
Billy Bragg, "A New England"

From Back to Basics:

Billy Bragg, "Strange Things Happen"

From Talking wth the Taxman About Poetry:

"Billy Bragg, "Levi Stubbs Tears"

And finally a political track, this from the Yep Rock site, a twist on Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues":

Billy Bragg, "Bush War Blues"

Some Velvet Blog posted on Billy Bragg a few days back. He's got two great covers, the first a Love track, "Seven and Seven Is..." from the Rubiyat compilation that had newer Elektra artists covering older ones (on this same double CD it had the Sugarcubes covering Sailcat's "Motorcycle Mama" which I will be posting on my other blog, smALL AGES this week thankyouverymuch Heather.) The other Bragg track SVB has is "When Will I See You Again," originally performed by The Three Degrees, from an NME compilation.

More about: Billy Bragg, Some Velvet Blog
Buy Billy's re-mastered collection of songs, here.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Lush over dubbed vocals make me smile

Course I don't know what this band sounds like live since I never get to go out but gosh darn it if I don't just love the recordings by band Pas/Cal. Silly name, what with the slash and all, but I don't care. I loved their EP, "Oh Honey We're Ridiculous" for it's glorious unadulterated snap crackle and pop. They even shout out some spelling, a la the Bay City Rollers in the tops song, "What Happened to the Sands?" They are currently recording a new CD and the band blog about the happenings and coming and goings here. Two demo versions of new songs were found on their website as was my favorite Sands song. Lush and pretty like Belle & Sebastian with a bit more '60s thrown in for measure. I'm surprised they aren't bigger but then again, they have only recorded two EPs and a split single. Still, the sound is glorious.

Pas/Cal, "Oh Honey, We're Ridiculous" (demo)
"The Glorious Ballad of the Ignored" (demo)
"What Happened to the Sands"

Pas/Cal's website.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Starlight Mints

Okay so I didn't post on Friday (both internet and brain malfunctions) and now I'm here on a rare Saturday when I should be playing with my daughter or baking cookies or something. I love Starlight Mints. Not because they sound a bit like Pavement (and the do) or that they hail from Oklahoma or they have a married couple in the band but because I love jungly jangle pop music that has weird orchestrations and instruments, I love a little flute and strings in my rock, especially if it's sugar coated and Starlight Mints, true to their name, are indeed breath fresheningly sweet. New CD due April 25th of this year, that's just a few weeks away. Till then, a new track and two older tracks recorded live at KCRW in 04, I think.

Starlight Mints, "Inside of Me" (from Drowaton, due out April 25th)
Starlight Mints, "Black Cat" (live)
Starlight Mints, "Brass Digger" (live)

Pre-order the new CD. And their website.