Category Archives: Music

Sgt. Pepper’s Magical Mystery Tour

This article comparing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, both released in 1967, got me thinking about what one hypothetical album that combined the best of both albums would look like. So as part of my Better The Beatles project, I’ve determined a track listing for Sgt. Pepper’s Magical Mystery Tour. Thirteen tracks from both albums, shuffled into an ideal song order for your listening pleasure.

  1. Magical Mystery Tour
  2. Hello, Goodbye
  3. With a Little Help from My Friends
  4. Lovely Rita
  5. She’s Leaving Home
  6. Getting Better
  7. Strawberry Fields Forever
  8. Penny Lane
  9. When I’m Sixty-Four
  10. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
  11. Baby You’re a Rich Man
  12. All You Need Is Love
  13. A Day in the Life

The cuts from Magical were pretty easy: “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “The Fool on the Hill” are either too weird or too instrumental. Sgt. Pepper’s was a bit more difficult; I won’t miss “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Good Morning Good Morning”, but ditching “Within You Without You” eliminated the remaining George Harrison song, and “Fixing a Hole” is interesting but not interesting enough.

I pondered what to do about the two title tracks that bookend the album. Theoretically they provide the framework for both albums, but I figured “Magical Mystery Tour” performs the same upbeat and psychedelic invitation that the first “Sgt. Pepper’s” track does, so that allowed me to ditch both songs and let the album name do the storytelling.

You’re welcome.

Make ‘The White Album’ Great Again

The White Album is too long. Everyone knows this. As a public service I have trimmed down the bloated double album into one cohesive record, leaving the order unchanged  but the musical integrity restored:

  1. Back in the U.S.S.R
  2. Dear Prudence
  3. Glass Onion
  4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  5. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
  6. Martha My Dear
  7. Blackbird
  8. Piggies
  9. I Will
  10. Birthday
  11. Mother Nature’s Son
  12. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
  13. Sexy Sadie
  14. Good Night

This means no “Helter Skelter” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (sorry George). No “Julia” or “I’m So Tired” because those should be on a Lennon solo album. I kept “Everybody’s Got Something” over “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” in the Long Title category because of the former’s exuberance and the latter’s being a mere half-song.

“Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” were easy nixes because the B-side version of “Revolution” is the best and #9 isn’t music. The hardest cut was “Rocky Raccoon”, but there are still 3 other animal-themed songs, which is plenty.

I went for “Good Night” over “Don’t Pass Me By” for the Ringo tune because it’s prettier. And I ditched “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” along with most of the album’s second half because they aren’t good.

You’re welcome.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

Not sure what drew me initially to Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, but it quickly hooked me. The vibrant cover maybe. I’ve been a casual soul fan for a while and had vague notions about Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Motown, but I didn’t know anything about Stax or its incredibly American zero-to-hero rise and fall in the 1960s and ’70s.

I had heard Stax songs, though, even if I didn’t know it: “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MG’s, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and “Respect” by Otis Redding (didn’t realize Aretha’s version was a cover), and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett among others. With this basic awareness, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between the Motown and Stax sounds, but they existed:

The sign at Motown read, HITSVILLE USA. The marquee at Stax answered, SOULSVILLE USA. “That whole Memphis-soul feeling—outside of the southern nightclubs, nobody had ever heard that laid-back, barely-make-it-to-the-next-measure bluesy soul feel,” says Mar-Key Terry Johnson. “It was different from Motown with the strings and the background voices and trying to pop up black music so white people would buy it. What came out of Stax was really not a very commercial music. It’s amazing the commercial success it had.” Motown songs made you want to sing along. Stax music—you were the singer.

That surprising commercial success early on was due in large part to Stax co-founder Estelle Axton, who had set up a record shop next to the studio and basically turned it into an R&D unit:

Her store wasn’t only for moving product; it was also for developing it. “I could also test the records they made in the back. If I had one that several customers said, ‘Give me one of those too,’ I could tell them in the back, ‘Go ahead and press that one, it’ll sell.’ That’s why we were successful with nearly everything we put out for a few years—we tested them at home before we let them go.”

As Stax songs grew in popularity, so did the company. Competing with big corporations with national reach like Columbia and Atlantic meant connecting independently with distributors and radio stations all over the country and convincing them to play Stax music. That convincing often came in the illegal form of payola, which some people were brought in by Stax to do:

“I was the payola king of New York,” Weiss later bragged. “Payola was the greatest thing in the world. You didn’t have to go out to dinner with someone and kiss their ass. Just pay them, here’s the money, play the record, fuck you.” One of his Stax associates remembered Weiss as the guy who could buy a million records for a million bucks. The distribution of them might not have been clean, the sales may not all be accounted for, but the money spent, the generator whirred, and the cash register went ka-ching.

Gordon places the story of Stax firmly within the story of Memphis, a regional hotspot for blues and country music but also an ardently segregationist town and hotbed of race-related civil strife. It’s the city that spawned Sun Records and Elvis, but also a years-long labor dispute between Public Works and majority-black sanitation workers that would bring Martin Luther King Jr. to his death. Stax became an urban oasis in its early years, forging a family-like atmosphere where black and white musicians could play and record together, even if they couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain when they left.

Ecstatic studio creativity and bitter infighting. Chart-topping hits and bankruptcy. Pool parties and plane crashes. Gordon catalogs it all with verve in this aural history, using interviews with the people involved with Stax over the years, many of which are still alive. I could barely put this down, and ended up with a mile-long list of songs to check out. (An audiobook with clips of mentioned songs would have been the ideal reading experience.)

Stax, I recently learned, is still alive, surviving buyout after buyout to land as a label of Concord Music Group. The self-titled album of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats was a recent release, and it contains a mix of spunk and soul that’s fitting for a Stax release. Here’s to many more from a legendary American institution.

Just a Moment

Sometimes it’s not the whole song but just a moment.

Like the verses in “Grease is the Word” from Grease. The chords alternate between Bm and E before hitting F#m7 at the end of the couplet. Then the bass steps up to Em7 at “There ain’t no danger” and walks down to D and C. That Em7 (at :23 in the video below) hits me like honey:

Or the beginning of the chorus to “The Mixed Tape” by Jack’s Mannequin, which is preceded by an electric guitar sliding up to the climax of the chorus. The piano arpeggiates, tickling the ivories as it tickles my spine, McMahon crooning “Where are you now? / As I’m swimming through the stereo / I’m writing you a symphony of sound” beneath a fulsome ahh-chorus, starting at :29 here:

I didn’t choose these moments; they chose me. They burrowed into whatever deep part of the psyche finds transcendence important, however fleeting. “The Mixed Tape” is from a very specific memory, and I listen to it to evoke that time. “Grease is the Word” doesn’t fit in with the rest of the songs from Grease (which isn’t even close to my favorite musical), but for some reason I like it the best.

There is no explaining it.

One Wild Life’s Too Short

I have a new piece at ThinkChristian on how a book and an album were telling me the same thing at basically the same time:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  You’ve probably seen this quote, the final couplet in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, on pictures of sunsets or accompanying “Adventure” boards on Pinterest. I encountered it elsewhere. First, it’s the inspiration for Gungor’s One Wild Life, a trilogy of albums entitled Soul (2015), Spirit (2016) and Body (forthcoming). I had Soul on heavy rotation when on a whim I picked up David Dark’s new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, simply because of the provocative title. Together, these distinct works of art share more than just the Oliver quote, which Dark also directly references. They preach a similar message in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience of readers and listeners who crave a richer understanding of religion.

Check out the full piece here.

Each’s Owned

Pictured is the haul ($8 total) from a recent afternoon browsing used bookstores, which I do once in a while, when my time is open and therefore my self-discipline is weak. But I didn’t feel bad about getting more Stuff this time, because I’m coming to something approaching terms with it.

I love books, movies, and music, but developing an extensive catalog has never been a priority. Working at a library is a factor. With easy, daily access to a plethora of titles, expanding our humble collection of books, DVDs, vinyls, and CDs seems unnecessary. Since I tend not to reread books, amassing more out of fun or bibliophilia isn’t an issue; only the most meaningful or heirloom-worthy books have secured space on our limited shelves. Ditto our LPs and CDs, which are now mostly survivors from several moves and curatorial weedings. For me, less stuff has been better. My friend jokes about being able to move me and all my stuff from college to grad school in one trip in his Geo Prizm.

That’s changed recently. I’ve rediscovered the desire to own analog media, if only as a supplemental collection to my mostly-digitized life. Also: for their tangible or aesthetic appeal, to preserve tangibility, to not be constantly tracked and advertised to, to escape the mercurial whims of licensing and arcane digital services, or to have something to do when the internet goes down.

In a way I haven’t even needed to rediscover it: the majority of my movie watching has always come from DVDs or the theater, and I’ll always prefer print over ebooks. We still have Amazon Prime for movies and Google Play for music, and they are often handy. But I need to remind myself once in a while that newer/easier/faster doesn’t always equal better.

I’m not concerned I’ll suddenly become a hoarder. In fact I’m starting to become concerned we’re not keeping enough things around we’ll regret not having later on, either as historical curios or as cultural artifacts that boomerang from modish to obsolete and back. I can’t tell you how many times, when I bring up my interest in typewriters, I’ve heard something like, Oh yeah, I had one from college, but… or My parents had one but didn’t use it anymore, so… It makes me cringe to ponder the fate of those machines. Whether it’s vinyls, typewriters, love letters, Polaroids, or anything else that doesn’t live in an app or social network, the things we think no longer matter in our lives might in time prove us wrong. And what with the internet ushering in a new Dark Ages, methinks we all should get a little more discerning on what we keep, what we don’t, and why.

But hey, to each’s own.

For Prince

I don’t think I could have named a single Prince song before he died. Nothing against him at all; I just never glommed onto his music. Though I was certainly aware of him as an icon, an object of parody, and as one of the few interesting modern Super Bowl halftime shows.

Given the outpouring of respect and adulation since his sudden death, I figured I should give him a try. Apparently a lot of his music is (intentionally) not available on the standard streaming services, so I checked Hoopla and sure enough there he was, 32 titles strong. Your public library, ladies and gentlemen!

Since I’m coming in fresh, I started at the very beginning of his insanely extensive discography with 1978’s For You, then moved 1979’s Prince and 1980’s Dirty Mind. And what do you know, I dig it. I mean, how great and danceable an opener is “I Wanna Be Your Lover”? Not sure how much more of his stuff I’ll like, and how different it will get, but I can start to see where everyone’s coming from.

Favorite Films, Books, and Albums of 2015

Resurrecting my 2013 choice to include all my best-ofs into one omnilist, here are 15 films, books, and albums I loved from 2015.

Film

1. Brooklyn
There’s a scene about five minutes into Brooklyn that setup the whole film for me. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), soon bound for a new life in 1950s America, watches as her friend disappears into the dance crowd with a partner, leaving her alone, on the outside looking in at what will soon be her old life. The camera holds on her face, which betrays a tender bittersweetness that characterizes the whole of John Crowley’s exquisite and humane film. Even while still at home she is homesick, a struggle she will have to endure long after she sails away from Ireland and attempts to forge a new meaning of home. Saoirse Ronan carried this film, and me with it.

2. Spotlight

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (if only for this shot)

4. Creed

5. Slow West (review)

hunt-for-vulcan

Books

1. The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (review)
I’m a sucker for concisely written popular histories that uncover forgotten pockets of history and render them understandable and entertaining to the general public. This book does just that. Having read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein last year I was a little better equipped than I otherwise would be when reading about Einstein’s role in this narrative, yet I found Levenson’s distillation of the theories revolving around the Vulcan episode even more accessible than others. I’ve been pimping this one at the library with hopes more people will enjoy it as much as I did.

2. Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker

3. H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (review)

4. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton (review)

5. The Typewriter Revolution by Richard Polt (review)

Albums

1. Psalms by Sandra McCracken
“All Ye Refugees” was quite timely this year, given the animus surrounding immigration. It’s heartening to remember public policy need not and should not be influenced solely by politico and demagogues. Though this album is explicitly based on the Psalms, like her previous albums The Builder and the Architect and In Feast or Fallow its blend of modern and ancient style lends it a timeless sound even the irreligious can appreciate.

2. Didn’t He Ramble by Glen Hansard

3. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

4. Such Jubilee by Mandolin Orange

5. Strange Trails by Lord Huron