Thursday, February 18, 2016

Best Album of 2015

I started GimmeDanger nearly ten years ago.  Over time, the tone changed and the writing improved.  I got more focused, less introspective.  But time is strange; as it passed, the less of it I had.  Now, in the year 2016, it appears to be a long time gone. 

This brings us to David Crosby and GimDang’s best album of 2015.  In a break from tradition, I made a better effort this past year to listen to new music.  Alas, nothing grabbed me.  Even reviewing the year-end, best-of lists from NPR and Pitchfork, I still wasn’t moved.  To be sure, fine work was released by Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett, Chris Stapleton, Jamie xx, Earl Sweatshirt and My Morning Jacket.  No matter.  None of it resonated.  However, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name sunk in.  Despite its 1971 release, I spent more time with this album than any other in 2015 -- and that’s why I’m naming it album of the year.

Crosby’s history is ­­­noteworthy; it is one of sweet music, famous friends and associations, as well as drugs and guns.  The dude lived more life than many others by the time he was about 30, when he felt compelled to make a solo record. 

If I Could Only Remember My Name is at turns loose and jazzy, angry and paranoid.  Employing the services of a who’s who of SF and Laurel Canyon’s finest musicians, it is nonetheless an assured and concentrated work with lovely hints of peace and grace.  I like to think that Crosby, a far-out and polarizing figure, was enough of a friendly and veritable talent that getting the support and assistance of so many notable individuals was no large feat.  Because of that, the resulting music is a testament to the power of community and the legend of Croz. 

Never a traditional musician, Crosby eschewed tried-and-true structures in favor of free-wheeling arrangements for If I Could Only Remember My Name.  His guitar-playing is characteristically unconventional; he often zigs where you expect him to zag.  For example, the foundation of “Tamalpais High” might sound unanchored if it weren’t for the hymn-like harmonizing of Crosby and frequent collaborator Graham Nash (never mind Jorma Kaukonen’s fluent noodling).  Other guests also help ground the album.  Jerry Garcia eloquently textures the eight-minute “Cowboy Movie,” tastefully underscoring Crosby’s spooky western tale and contributing to his own legend.  Garcia later plays on “Laughing” which, if not for Joni Mitchell’s haunting vocal, might be highlighted by his drifting pedal-steel.  Elsewhere, the kumbaya-groove of “Music is Love,” featuring Nash and Neil Young, makes a strong case that even the staunchest of hippies weren’t ready to leave behind the sixties.

To me, the real highlight is “Traction in the Rain.”  A spare, pretty tune that speaks to the feelings of disillusion I have to think were common to the flower children entering adulthood, it acknowledges those feelings and, perhaps irresponsibly, does nothing to alleviate them.  Beyond that, it’s beautiful.  The subtle acoustic guitar, the fleeting harp and Crosby’s passionately pleading voice combine to great effect.  It’s so choice.

Taken as a whole, If I Could Only Remember My Name is a glimpse into a past that I idealize.  And while the music of my day and age doesn’t necessarily bother me, it just doesn’t reach me or connect with me like this stuff.  The fact that members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, CSNY and various other folks gathered to hang and jam is something that excites and inspires me.  And considering their work in the context of my times (which might be a disservice to past music-makers), the fact that they took comparatively weak drugs and made incomparably great music without the aid of modern technology is something worthy of celebration.  So because little else got me going this past year, David Crosby’s 1971 album is GimmeDanger’s best of 2015.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Best Album of 2014

Mac DeMarco, a kooky Canadian with a knack for offbeat pop songs, made quite a name for himself this past year.  Generally not giving a shit, chain-smoking and troubadour-ing his way across the continent in support of his second album Salad Days, DeMarco did little to dispel his characterization as a stoned slacker.  Whether treating audiences to jokey covers of nu-metal jock jams or weirdly grooving through his own blue-wave tunes, he won over audiences, critics and me with his comfortably careless approach. 

Salad Days is a laidback set recorded entirely by DeMarco.  He played and taped all the instruments himself in a home-studio that’s been described as a cramped and cluttered, secondhand-smoke-coated cell-like den.  He’s likened this Brooklyn apartment to a “Chamber of Reflection” that allowed him to write and focus, free of distraction.  And, after hearing the results, it seems the environment both suited and stimulated DeMarco. 

Consider “Brother;” it’s a bit sloppy, somewhat slinky and certainly unconcerned with shiny perfection.  The same can be said for the album as a whole.  It almost feels like a collection of demos, songs thrown together for the hell of it, without any real hope of mainstream success.  That’s what I find so charming about Salad Days and that’s why it’s GimmeDanger’s best album of 2014.

From the warm, fluid flow of “Blue Boy,” which happens to feature the album’s coolest, most bubbly bass-line, to the slowly wafting “Goodbye Weekend” and what might be the set’s closest thing to a guitar solo, DeMarco colors Salad Days with hues of ambivalence.  It’s as if everything is just as it should be.  Even when he lazily pleads “please, go easy with my baby,” he also seems to accept that, good or bad, “that’s the way life goes.”

I like “Let Her Go” best.  It moves, it sways.  It advises a guy, any guy, to be true to himself and his girl.  But beyond the sentiment, it transports.  Use your imagination.  Picture palms, sand between your toes, a sweaty drink in your hand.  Or picture an open road ahead of you, wind in your hair and the sun on your face.  Or put yourself in my position when I first heard it: staring at the ceiling, head swimming, a contented smile forming as mine eyes slowly closed…

Oh, and dig this lyric: “you’re no better off living your life than dreaming at night.”  Think about it.

We're all witness to an age where music seems so calculated, where artists and producers are honing in on their target audience or methodically ticking boxes on the checklist of credibility.  To a small degree, I'm okay with that.  I'm realistic.  Nonetheless, it’s really refreshing to hear someone drifting along, embodying the DIY-mentality with such lovely results.

Kudos, Mac.  See you again soon.  Buh-bye.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Best Album of 2013

Say, amigos, it's been a while.  I even forgot how to log in to ye olde GimDang.  Either way, I should've posted this a year ago (even though I just wrote it).  I could make excuses, but I won't.  Stay tuned for the Best Album of 2014, which I plan to get up this week.

“This is the golden age of mankind.” So claims Yellowbirds’ main man, Sam Cohen, on what basically amounts to the title track of his band’s most excellent Songs From The Vanished Frontier.  Though this period hasn’t proven itself to be superlatively outstanding quite yet (indeed, things these days basically stink), Cohen recognizes its indelibility while hinting that the best is yet to come.

The Brooklyn band doesn’t boast much of a history or, for that matter, a track record of success.  Still, what Yellowbirds lack in the way of plays, they make up for in pluck.  Tunes like “Mean Maybe,” with its soft jangle and delicate harmonies, and “Young Men of Promise,” with its fits-and-starts drive and note of ambition, are heartening.  They remind me that things aren’t so bad after all.  Though the band hung it up this year (after only two official releases), Songs was definitely my favorite album of 2013.

It’s nice, it’s mellow, modestly layered with tasteful tones and subtle strings, as if Cohen was drinking the Pet-Sounds punch.  Too, the arrangements are top-notch; the 3-4-minute songs build with a kind of patience, without being too demanding of my attention, like a mundane scene unfolding with no real concern or consequence.  To me, in this case, that’s a good thing.   

Perhaps most appealing was the fact that Songs From the Vanished Frontier grew on me slowly rather than bluntly invading my headspace.  Julian” for instance is a shuffling little piece, unhurried, spiced with earthy licks and sweetened with Casio candy.  It might be the best song on the album, featuring all of the elements that distinguish Yellowbirds: nimble but bold guitar-work, hazy vocals, electronic accents and Brian-Wilson vibes.  

GimmeDanger respects music for what it is, what it represents and what it aims to be.  In a time when the ways of the world depress me, when pessimism reigns and I find myself shaking my head more often than banging it, Songs lifted me up.  Yes, “I still have desire.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Soccer --> Football

I enjoy soccer.  Though my attention to MLS soccer (and my hometown’s Timbers) has increased along with the level of competition, I really only feel true awe and appreciation for the beautiful game every four years, when the World Cup rolls around.  I know, I know, there’s plenty of world-class soccer being played in the interim.  But the only thing keeping me from paying attention to the European leagues was the time difference; waking up at the crack of dawn on a weekend to catch a match required a dedication I didn’t have.  However, as soccer gets more popular in the States, it’s getting easier to follow what’s happening out of the States (springing for a comprehensive cable-television package certainly helps too).  Accordingly, as a soccer, er football fan, I feel it’s high time I choose an EPL team to support.  So after much research, blog-reading, wikipedia-scouring and quiz-taking, I’ve selected a club. 

I focused my search on middling teams, not consistently dominant big-money organizations, not perennial losers too often facing relegation, but teams with which I could grow, suffering through the lows and glowing with the highs.  I considered teams with proud traditions and hallowed grounds, symbolic imagery and mythical home-stadiums.  I compared colors and crests, locales and lore, and past and present squads.  Along the way, my list narrowed.

Many of my friends root for Arsenal and, for reasons unknown to me (maybe I’m a contrarian?), I didn’t want to jump on their bandwagon.  Everton, Newcastle and Fulham appealed to me, mostly due to their rich histories and passionate fanbases.  Still, the same can basically be said for any of the EPL clubs -- they’ve all been around forever and their supporters live and die for them. 

So I compared cultures and crowds, the people that certain clubs attract and the cities they represent.  Everton, the club, led me to Liverpool, the city, and by default, the club.  Everton and Liverpool are crosstown rivals and when the Blues play the Reds, every Liverpudlian takes sides (incidentally, they meet tomorrow on Everton’s home-turf for a match the English call the Merseyside derby).  To say nothing of Liverpool’s history of success (the club has won more European trophies than any other English team though it has never won a single Premier League title), the town also boasts a storied musical history.  Not only did a certain Fab Four get their start there, so did Gerry and the Pacemakers (ferry cross the Mersey, anyone?).  And that fact is what tipped the scales.

I’d always loved Gerry and the Pacemakers’ take on the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  So when playing it one evening around friends, one of whom I soon learned was a Liverpool supporter, I was informed that the song was the anthem for Liverpool FC.  They sing it at every match.  It’s their song.  Like “Sweet Caroline” is associated with the Boston Red Sox, so too is “YNWA” with Liverpool.  And as a music fan, someone who feels and respects the emotional and unifying power of an arrangement of notes paired with a nuanced vocal performance, I was sold. 
It’s an awesome, moving song, easy to draw strength from, easy to rally around.  It’s inspiring and emboldening, leaving a sea of red-clad fans with chins up and chests out.  And, if ever I get to sing it at Anfield with a stadium full of Kopites, it will likely leave me with tears in me eyes.
Liiiiiiiiverpooooool, Liiiiiiverpoooool!
"Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone.  You'll never walk alone."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Once upon a time...

…I was in this band.  We called ourselves The Dregs.  I’ll spare you the semi-long story of how the group formed, mutated and evolved into this.  But yeah, man -- it was cool.  For the most part, we rocked.  We rolled some.  And for the other part, we partied.  I have a lot of fond memories of those times, some fuzzier than others: damaging our ears, disputing noise-levels with neighbors, sweating, shouting, crushing cans, lugging gear, breaking then repairing gear and, best of all, locking into a groove.  I remember once playing at a bar here in Portland, on Alberta.  I don’t think we were invited back.  But as I recall, it was one of our finer shows. 

At the time, we were practicing and playing out pretty regularly.  We had worked out what I thought was a pretty solid set: several originals and a couple covers, sequenced in what I considered a pretty compelling order.  We were lean, mean, and keen to cause scenes.  We were also wildly inconsistent; some shows were train wrecks while others were mere fender benders.  Rare was the show where everything went right, where nobody broke a string, where everybody hit their cues, where the vocals were clear and the breakdown on “In The Winter” came together.  Though perfection was never the goal, we nonetheless wanted to incite and inspire audiences while getting our own ya-yas out.  It was with this attitude that we set up a show with my girlfriend’s coworker’s boyfriend’s band.* 

The Stones get theirs out in 1969.
I can’t remember the name of the band but, I remember the night of the show.  It was a Friday, and the venue was packed.  In addition to the bar’s regulars, there were also a lot of people who came out to see the show, specifically the boyfriend’s band.  Not only that, the firm where my girlfriend (and her coworker) worked had flown out its delegation from Washington, D.C. for a conference, so there was a handful of corporate-type-dudes in attendance as well, one of whom was well known for impassioned karaoke performances of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” (more on him later).

Though we arrived early to load in our gear, I don’t remember meeting or seeing the other band before the show.  Still, we must have met them because it was somehow decided that they’d go on first and we’d go on last.  In those days, we often angled to go on last because it gave us more time to ‘loosen up’ at the bar and get a sense of what we were up against.  While it’s true that the local music-scene was generally friendly,** it also generated some friendly competition, battle-of-the-bands-style.  We (or at least I) wanted to win, as it were, by rocking harder, playing cooler songs, and turning in better performances.  And what we saw and heard before we went on that night made me (and probably us) want to go ape and kick some serious rock-and-roll ass.

The other band (whose name still escapes me (you can bet it was something corny)) played a set heavy on covers from the nineties, a decade that produced arguably the worst music ever.  Keep in mind that this was like 2007.  Or maybe 2008.  Point is, we were far enough removed from the nineties to have basically forgotten its crappy music and moved on, but close enough to still have fresh-ish wounds that made us wince when reminded.  I remember listening from the bar, exchanging confounded (but amused) looks with my bandmates as Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want” was performed in all seriousness, with genuine purpose and dedication.  We were taken aback, at once shocked and resigned, chuckling and shaking our heads as the band wholeheartedly tore through a set of what we regarded as decidedly uncool tunes.  Without a trace of irony and with nary a misstep, these guys churned out hits from the likes of Eve 6, Barenaked Ladies, Sublime and, if memory serves me right, Alice in Chains and Bush.***

Vertical Horizon
A couple things: I should note that these guys played well, with skill, and that I just happen to have a distaste for the musical stylings of what I call frat-rock.****  So to be fair, the band sounded good despite their sucky music.  And to give credit where credit is due, the singer, in his tight tee, neatly distressed boot-cut jeans and pointy shoes, handled rapping- as well as singing-duties with no apparent self-consciousness.  Another thing: the sizable crowd that came to see them (not us) play was disproportionately made up of pretty girls.  So they had that going for them too.  Still, they brought out the pompous prick in me.  Maybe I was jealous.  I’m not proud of it now, and I don’t think I was overt about it then, but I (and we, probably) judged them pretty harshly. 

Either way, their lame set list motivated us.  With each consecutive song, we got more antsy.  We were getting itchy and excited and anxious.  The crowd’s fervent response to them during and after their set only intensified the feeling.  We had the fever And the only prescription was pure, unadulterated rock and roll!

And so it was.  With a bellyful of beer and a hearty desire to outdo and outcool the other band, in a room full of people who were not interested in hearing us play, we prepared to take the stage.  It was me on drums, Tom on one guitar, Dick on vocals and another guitar, and Harry on bass.  As the other band broke down its gear, respectfully making way for us, we politely commended them on a good show.  They seemed gracious.  While Tom monkeyed with the input on his amp and Dick extended the mic-stand (Dick’s a tall dude), I busied myself with my drum set.

The Dregs: Tom, Dick, me and Harry.
Let me tell you a bit about my drum set.  When we hatched the idea to start a band, I didn’t own a drum set.  I had never had one, let alone played one with any degree of regularity.  Nevertheless, I fancied myself a drummer.  So when the band took form, everyone agreed to pitch in and help buy some drums.  After a bit of searching on Craigslist, I settled on a generic five-piece.  It was black, in good shape and, to a novice like me, pretty sweet.  But over time, the drum set got its fair share of abuse.  Marathon practice sessions fueled by Red Bull and vodka along with less than delicate handling to and from shows left it the worse for wear.†  It was misshapen, unbalanced and sticky, with unreliable jury-rigged hardware and a host of quirks.  The cracked cymbals barely held their shape, the floor tom teetered sadly, and the taut pockmarked skin of the snare was beaten so thin that it was one good strike away from busting.  It wasn’t the prettiest drum set, and it didn’t sound the best, but it was ours.  And as I got ready to piece it together on stage that night, the other band’s drummer looked on with a mix of pity and confusion.

He was toweling off, eyeing me and my set, and taking stock of the custom travel cases for his own drums.  His kit was cute.  It was small and sparkly, the kind a gentle, soft-touching jazzman might do some tippy-tapping on; it had sounded clean and solid, however wussy and weak, accented by a series of shiny little cymbals that splish-splashed sweetly.  He had played it tenderly and, before he started dismantling it, amid the hustle and bustle of trading places with our band, he turned to address me. 

“You wanna borrow my kit?” he asked, looking down his nose.  “Yours is kinda sad.  It looks trashed.”  I frowned at the affront.  He raised his eyebrows, expecting an answer, his crispy spiked hair glistening under the stage lights.  I think I furrowed my brow some, not doing a great job of masking my annoyance, before curtly replying, “nah -- no thanks, man.”  He shrugged and got back to gathering his stuff.  I don’t know if he was really being elitist; maybe he was being helpful, or just trying to avoid packing up his gear, but I was definitely insulted.  Here was a guy who just finished a set of dopey songs on a sissy little kit that he played with no shortage of arena-rock theatrics, who took one look at me and my drums and (maybe) went ‘pssh,’ who (maybe) thought he was above me before even hearing me play.  Regardless of his intent, I felt a fire growing inside me as I assembled my piecemeal kit.  ‘Screw you and your tiny toy drum set,’ I thought.  ‘Whaddya think you’re better than me or something?  You jerk!  I’ll show you what for,’ I fumed.

At that moment, strengthened by anger, I felt confident, powerful and eager.  I was ready to rock.  I nodded to my bandmates.  “C’mon, dudes,” I said, “let’s blast these dorks.”  We plugged in, turned on and turned up as Dick announced to the room, “thanks for coming out tonight -- we’re the Dregs.”  It was on.

We jumped out of the gate with volume, vigor and pent-up energy.  Our opening number was a bit of a New-York-Dolls rip-off; Tom channeled his inner Johnny Thunders as Dick stepped back from the mic to riff mightily.  Harry and I latched onto the groove.  We rocked as if our lives depended on it, though all we had to play for was pride.  With eyes closed and heads down, we plowed through another couple songs, only breaking for breathers long enough to utter a quick but sincere ‘thank-you.’  As our set progressed, we all hit our stride.  Dick barked lyrics and soloed madly while Tom held down the rhythm and banged his head.  I can’t speak for my bandmates but I was entering another dimension.  The spirit of Keith Moon possessed me.  I began chewing on the neck of my T-shirt, like a wild stallion chomping at the bit.  I flailed manically, flogging my beat-up drums for all they were worth.  Song after song, we were in the zone.  There’s something mysterious and magical about being on the same page as your fellow rock-and-roll soldiers, marching forward to the beat of your own drum, united in purpose, bound by rhythm and noise.  That night, nothing else mattered.

Tom, me, Dick with John Thunders and Keith Moon (above, left and right).
Every so often, I glanced up and out into the crowd.  To be sure, we garnered some awestruck stares along with some eye-rolls.  A few folks were shaking, shouting and shimmying. I remember seeing one of the guys from D.C., the one who liked singing Creed songs.  His ironed shirt was tucked into pleated pants, his hair was gelled and his face was shaved.  Appearance and his affinity for Creed aside, he wasn’t that uptight (I’d gotten to know him on other occasions).  Anyway, he was probably on his fourth or fifth Bud Light and he was really rocking (he’d later congratulate us on a ‘job well done,’ give us all firm handshakes and frank backslaps, and in the future ask me enthusiastically ‘how’s the band, man?’).  He was into it.  And that made me happy.  Still, many of the aforementioned pretty girls, along with most of the other band’s fans, had trickled out.  The few that remained watched with either dazed curiosity or abject horror -- it was hard to tell.  Though a few strangers left their posts at the bar to come in and see us, the other band (including the drummer) was nowhere in sight. 

The Dregs, minus Harry, at their very first gig, long ago.
When we finished, sweaty and spent with amps buzzing, we regained our composure.  Snapping out of the spell of rock and roll was always a strange feeling.  For me, it was like coming back to the surface after extended deep-sea diving, or what I imagine it’s like to step foot back on earth after space travel.‡  Either way, it was a kind of comedown, a feeling I think we all felt that night, grinning and basically returning to reality.  Blinking, we looked at each other and silently acknowledged that what had just transpired was special, though I don’t remember hearing anyone clapping.  Tom, Dick and Harry put down their instruments, I got out from behind the drums.  Then we just did what we usually did: grabbed some cold beers and did some high-fiving, going over the highlights of our set. 

That night, despite our track record of so-so shows, an unreceptive audience, and a junky drum set, the Dregs killed it.  Yes, the other band played well and the crowd ate it up, but I still felt triumphant.  We rocked harder, played cooler songs, and put on a fine show.  We won.  What’s more, with the dirt of industrious, passionate music-dudes under our fingernails, we were authentic.  And to me (and us, I’m sure), that was always more important than winning.


* My girlfriend at the time (wife now) was working at a communications firm.  Her coworker happened to be a college-acquaintance of mine.  She approached me, explaining that her guy was in a band still slumming around the college-town, and that he was interested in getting something booked in the big city.  She told me they played ‘rock-y’ music and had a decent following (which, admittedly, was more than we could say).  Seeing as how we’d play anywhere, anytime, with anybody, it seemed only logical to share a bill with a band we didn’t know and hadn’t heard.

** Bands are interested in supporting other bands because it builds and strengthens the scene; when one band succeeds, other bands benefit.

*** For those that might be questioning my memory, know this: I don’t remember names or places or circumstances or events so much as I remember sights and sounds and even smells.  I have an easier time recalling things that appealed to my senses, like bands and songs and appearances.

**** Frat-rock (see also nu metal) is unremarkable.  It’s artless music for philistines.  Though it’s characterized by unambiguous chauvinism, forced aggression, and lowbrow tone and content, it also features tremendously cheesy moments of emotional sensitivity.

† The kick drum was squished, as if someone sat on it.  It was more oval than circle, so the head and hoops didn’t fit quite right.  And, on a few occasions, the kick pedal fell apart mid-song; the beater came off the shaft and the shaft punctured the drumhead.  Each time it happened, I accessed a fresh patch of skin by simply rotating the head, leaving a series of holes around its perimeter.  We tried to give the snare similar treatment after sticks, broken in the heat of a jam, split the skin.  But, even with duct tape, that never worked out.  The cymbals, I think, were the worst.  They were already kind of chintzy, and I just beat ‘em up.  They cracked, totally affecting the sound, and since I was too cheap/poor to replace them, they ended up breaking into pieces.  I think we pronounced the set officially dead when the last of the cymbals was done for.

‡ Or, better yet, touching terra firma after bouncing on a trampoline for a while.