Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Dead Man's Party:" A Halloween Tradition

Perhaps over the years, I've just become a stick-in-the-mud.  Unless I have a really clever costume, I don’t usually dress up for Halloween, and, at least in recent times, I make a concerted effort to avoid refined sugar. To most, it would seem that the holiday is a bust for me, but I do have a few very specialized traditions that I keep every year. During my more bachelorish times, I would invite over some unsuspecting victims and watch Peter Jackson’s voodoo zombie splatterfest Dead Alive. That ritual has fallen by the wayside in recent years, but another that still remains is to put Oingo Boingo’s 1985 classic Dead Man’s Party in rotation for a few days.

This tradition has its roots in high school, when my old friend Snoopy and I decided the piercing Jokeresque stare of Danny Elfman, who was then lead singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, harbored a macabre genius. Before his scoring career took off with the soundtrack from the first Batman movie and the now ubiquitous Simpsons theme, several songs from Dead Man’s Party were featured in television and films, not the least of which was the song Weird Science.

Dead Man’s Party is as a particularly well-evolved example of the post-punk/new wave/ska movement and overall, I think that it truly is a classic 80s album. Its distinctively wild-eyed menace is creepy in that enjoyable, wax-museum sense, where an immobile Frankenstein in the shadows with bolts in his neck is cause for simultaneous unease and glee. Although Snoopy and I pegged it as having a somewhat pleasantly morbid undercurrent, Dead Man’s Party did not become an official “Halloween Album” until a couple of years later.

In 1989, after being in college for just a few months, I went to a Halloween drumline party in the country with some people I knew from marching band. It turned out to be a somewhat bizarre scene. Freshman members of the drumline were being subjected to a knuckle-busting round of “rat trap roulette” while others were being recruited to throw an old piano onto the bonfire. This latter activity was particularly cathartic to those of us enrolled in the brutal piano classes that UNT used to weed out the weaklings.  The piano crashed into the flames with a thunderous clap and, as its frame began to warm and its strings began to break, it conjured an incredible death knell that lasted for almost an hour.  John Cage himself could not have come up with a better performance.

As the din began to die down, I remember standing on a hill and looking out on the scene with a mixture of admiration and disbelief.  Then, from behind me, I heard the distinctive synth-marimba intro of Just Another Day, the opening track from Dead Man’s Party, rolling out from the stereo in the house.

The hosts played the entire album at length to its end, and I was pleased see people I didn’t know singing along with even its deeper cuts. Since then, I have played Dead Man’s Party every year almost without fail for the Halloween season and strangely, the album has transcended nostalgia. I still find it to be a pleasurable way to acknowledge the holiday, even if I am not doing anything particularly festive.

These days, Dead Alive is pretty much off the table. I don't think its wife-appropriate, much less kid-appropriate. Perhaps in a few years, when the Little One is a bit older, The Nightmare Before Christmas can replace it as the official Halloween movie, and Elfman’s distinctive croon can make another appearance as the singing voice of Jack Skellington. For now, though, I think that Dead Man’s Party would be great to have on as we get on our costumes and get ready to go trick-or-treating for the first time.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Thundercat's "Apocalypse" While Juggling Dinner

When I am scheduled to have time alone with the Little One, people cautiously ask me “are you OK?”  I find the question a little curious, because there seems to be an assumption that I might be nervous to be alone with her. Although the Little One has injected no small amount of chaos into the everyday, I find that it is quite possible to include her into the things that I would normally do. Weaving our needs together is certainly more complicated than just doing my own thing, but it is also cathartic.

Earlier this week, I brought her home while my wife was working late. On evenings like this, after we feed and play, the Little One and I usually sit down and listen to music. The easy thing to do, of course, would be to make a quick dinner so that I could tend to her, but I am trying to continue eating on the Paleo diet I was introduced to in CrossFit, which inevitably requires some sort of preparation. This particular evening, we accommodated by changing the regimen a little, and we did our listening from the kitchen. While I chopped up yams and zucchini, we listened to Thundercat’s recent electrofunk release The Golden Age of Apocalypse.

Thundercat is part of a collective of musicians that orbit around laptop artist and producer Flying Lotus. As a sometime bassist myself, I admit finding a new bass guru is an appealing prospect, and Thundercat does not disappoint. He owes no small debt to bass pioneers Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke, but at the same time manages avoid taking himself too seriously. With more and more bands resorting to synthesized and sequenced bass parts, it is inspiring to see someone pushing the instrument to the front in a way that is both classic and relevant.

The Golden Age of Apocalypse is a great example of what I call a “waketime” album for the Little One. It’s far too energetic to be soothing, but it is fun and harmonically deep. Although his nom de plume is an 80s reference, Thundercat harkens back to the 70s when the shimmer of the Fender-Rhodes unified Earth, Wind, and Fire’s anthemic bombast with the jazz fusion chops of Return to Forever. The Golden Age of Apocalypse avoids delving into a full-on 70s rehash, however, by acknowledging the atmospheric innovations of acid jazz and turntablism. Thundercat and his backing group are probably capable of recreating DJ Shadow’s 2001 classic Endtroducing…... even hypothetically, that’s no mean feat.

Hang in there until the bass solo at 3:00.  Trust me on this one....

I would love for the Little One to grow up knowing albums like this one as a household staple. I suspect that by the time she gets into her own music-making, it will probably be far trendier to work in the vein of Flying Lotus’ laptop work than Thundercat’s more classic approach to the bass. I would, however, like for her to know the feeling of having an instrument vibrate in her hands so that she can viscerally appreciate good playing when she sees or hears it in some setting. Although it’s not necessary to have this sort of background to get into The Golden Age of Apocalypse, it does deliver on this level and beyond.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Grizzly Vear, the Vaccines, and Retracing my Steps

In the last 24 hours, I feel like I have retraced the steps of my life more meticulously than I have in the past five years. After a successful pep rally performance on Friday afternoon, I had the opportunity to enjoy an after-school snack with two very dear friends that I have not seen for nearly twenty years. Both of them played trombone with me from middle school through graduation, and it was nothing short of amazing to sit with these two gentlemen that were there during the formative stages of my musicianship. I stuffed my face with peel-and-eat shrimp and, too soon, had to hit the road for a quick “guerrilla-style” trip to Denton. I was met with the jagged symbolism of these provocative lyrics.

What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? is a bit of a diversion from my recent listening. The Vaccines don’t engage in a lot of subtle complexity or cross-cultural issues. They do, however, have a clever and immediately memorable libretto. For me, a person who usually doesn’t pay attention to the words of a song until much later in the game, it is unusual for lyrics to take hold during an early listen. Imbedded as they are, however, within the Vaccines’ expansively reverbed Ramones-meets-the-Smiths soundscape, the Vaccines wordplay invokes a distraught nostalgia that straddles decades.

When I got to Denton, I attempted to make a surprise appearance at my previous school’s Band Alumni performance. I turned down the road that, for a very, very long time, I drove daily to work. That particular stretch of what used to be farmland is haunted by my past, but in the last three years the feel of the entire area has changed dramatically. Now the stadium chokes out the moonlight that used to illuminate the countryside, and the school’s Performing Arts Center towers high like a monolith. Unfortunately, I got in just a little too late and the stadium was empty.

It was an arresting spectacle. My mind was divided, however, between the barren monuments of recent rural expansion and Grizzly Bear’s lushly textured 2009 release Veckatimest. Grizzly Bear was unanimously suggested by multiple sources, and listening to them now leads me to wonder how I have missed them up to this point. Their left-of-center psychedelic pop represents the kind of accessible experimentation that I find appealing. I was even more impressed to find out that their dreamy ambience is more than a studio construction: it is the result of the excellent musicianship of the band's members.

I just woke up at 6am at my Aiki Brother’s house (when you teach in a public school and have a newborn, that’s virtually opulence). Later this morning, I will achieve my aim for the weekend: the dojo where I “grew up” is changing locations, and there is now a disturbing “for rent” sign hung in the window. This will be the last time I practice in the space. The time and experiences my Aiki Brother and I had in that space will soon only exist in our memories of the past and the movements of the present. The people that we practice with, however, will be the glue that binds the two spaces together. I am looking forward to seeing them.

As nostalgic as I am about the people I have seen and thought about this weekend, there are not many things that I see as more distinctively Denton than a couple of decidedly non-Paleo breakfast tacos from Casa Galaviz and sitting down for some coffee at Jupiter House. Although Austin has coffee houses and breakfast tacos galore, they all seem to pale in comparison to these two iconic establishments. I anticipate a fine breakfast before the throwing commences.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pink Floyd's "Obscured by Clouds:" The Ghost of Steve Jobs

While the rest of the city was waking up, the shopping center was eerily still.  Its well-lit window advertisements faced one another but, waiting in the early dawn, beckoned to no one. The only establishment open at this hour was the quiet coffee shop that has become the site of my ritual morning stop. I exited with a large coffee in hand and finally felt prepared to start my day when I noticed that the Apple store, with its frameless windows and backlit iconography, seemed particularly surreal in its stillness. Stopping for a second to absorb the moment, I found several flower arrangements set up by the door, left in tribute to Steve Jobs.

From a business standpoint, I never forgave Apple for trying to convert my MP3 library to ITunes format. As an idea person, though, Steve Jobs did a lot to make computers less like the 80s movie Wargames and more like the idealized 60s future in Star Trek. His gadgets and others based on them have burrowed into everyday American life, and because of this, Apple devotees regard him as a saint. Still, to go out in the middle of the night and lay flowers on the front door of your local Apple store seems a little like zealotry.

As I pulled away, I took in the scene one last time through my car window and the surreal took a turn towards the dreamlike under the influence of Pink Floyd;s distinctive atmospherics. I have always been a dedicated fan of Pink Floyd, but my teenage prejudice against 60s style production has been a limiting factor on anything released before Dark Side of the Moon. I'm really quite embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of this era of Floyd’s repertoire is patchy at best. With the exception of Meddle, I’ve never gone back to immerse myself in it - that is, until the recent spate of sale-priced Pink Floyd remasters provided the incentive. Obscured by Clouds was the one to open this can of worms, and that was, at the time, serving as Jobs’ ad-hoc requiem.

There was a lot that I did not know about this album. Obscured by Clouds is a soundtrack to a film called La Vallee. In the film, an isolated tribe in New Guinea meets the Western gaze for the first time: a classic rendering of the transformational ethnographic encounter.

Obscured by Clouds was recorded quite quickly during the Dark Side of the Moon sessions. The musical connection it has with this land mark and its predecessor is noticeable. From a certain perspective, it does seem a bit like a collection of Meddle B-sides and Dark Side demos. By itself, Obscured by Clouds might seem less coherent than its bookends, but when viewed as an extension of these classic albums it has an engaging relevance. Regardless, it holds together better than most other bands’ best work.

Pink Floyd rarely played the Obscured by Clouds material live, so vintage performance footage is pretty rare. Still, several tracks, like Childhood’s End, harbor the ghost of future Floyd.

Pink Floyd’s early resume boasts a significant amount of soundtrack work, and doubtlessly their music predisposes itself towards this use. Throughout their career, they capitalized on the visual and narrative capacities of their music (as have their fans – Wizard of Oz, anyone?). This characteristic was most likely cultivated and formed in their early soundtrack work. It’s a particularly unique quality of Pink Floyd’s instrumental side to suggest a narrative where one is not explicitly given. For me, it caused me to contemplate a man I did not know, but that inspired an empty store, a glowing icon, and floral tributes in the breaking dawn.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Allergies, Gamelan, and The "Universal Language,"

When my allergies hit, it usually starts as a subtle and distinctively raw numbness behind my nose that inevitably progresses into at least a head-bloated daze, if not an uncontrollable cough, within a few days. I’ve learned to suppress it somewhat, thanks to my wife’s insistence that I adopt the neti pot. Things happen, however, in the two or three days that it takes for me to chase it out, and I never know what form it will take in the end. This time around, I lost my voice. By Wednesday morning, I could barely croak anything out. There was a temptation to stay home, of course, but I really didn’t feel bad – I just could not talk. My stupid work ethic compelled me to go ahead and push through a day of teaching band.

I gotta say that I was pretty proud of my kids for having a productive day. Aside from taking roll with the assistance of a loudspeaker, I spoke probably a total of two sentences in each class. I had a few generalized cues written on the board for reference, but I mostly modeled and mimed my instructions and feedback all morning. As long as I could keep their attention and play, we got things done. In some classes, we even had an improvement in focus and behavior.

It is commonly stated that “music is the universal language,” and stories of effective non-verbal communication between musicians like this one often serve as a justification for this claim. It’s a really problematic assumption, though. Granted, both language and music are forms of communication, and they are universal features of humanity, but they are not the same thing. Language is very good at relating cognitive ideas, but music conveys something that is implicitly non-verbal. Its essential meaning lies beyond the capacity of words, which is why talking about it is so difficult.

For example, I have been getting my ethno on listening to Gamelan of Central Java vol. XII: Pangkur One for the past couple of weeks. I have some experience in gamelan, but mainly in the Balinese style.  In the 16th century, Islam was introduced into Indonesia and displaced the Hindu/Buddhist population to Bali, causing a divergence in the two styles. The structure of Balinese and Javanese gamelan is fundamentally the same, but they realize this underlying construction in a radically different way.

Having only a superficial knowledge of Islam, and even less comfort with its Javanese iteration, I can only speculate as to the way that its worldview is expressed through its gamelan styles. From a practical standpoint, however, the emergence of Muslim courts had a profound effect. The loud, flashy, attention-grabbling styles that are now found in Balinese outdoor festivals would most likely be cacophonous in an indoor format. Instead, Javanese styles seem more austere and contemplative.

The liner notes for Pangkur One are described as “authoritative,” but they still assume a lot about the listener. They provide structural observations based on time cues, but the explanations freely use insider’s language. The translations of the text, however, depict themes and advice for good, moral living 
We set aside the needs of the self
For the pleasure of educating children
Through good songs
Worded beautifully and with care
That's not from this particular clip, but it did catch my eye in the liner notes.  Preach on, sisters!

Topics like this are relatively ubiquitous across many cultures, but in this case, the music that serves as their vehicle emanates my way from across a cultural border. As an outsider, I can’t glean the musician’s meaning or intention without crossing this border and embedding myself within the history that is embedded in every note. As a “universal language,” gamelan, like any music, is pretty opaque from the exterior. I don’t think, however, that because of this it is impossible for me to appreciate its sublime beauty and respect its status as an essentially human form of expression.