Monday, May 31, 2010

May's Mailbag

Happy Memorial Day!

To celebrate, May's Mailbag returns with a decidedly
summery slant. There were a lot of hot topics this month, including (but not limited to):
--Good new music (as always)
--Good bad television
--Summer plans and vacation destinations
--Pink Floyd
--Reactionary journalism, and what it means for Kobe Bryant
--The Cheers theme song
--Watermelons and Napoleon

So, salute the flag, grab a burger, nurse the high life (or six), and enjoy...

(If you'd like to be in a future Mailbag, just drop me a line at Be sure to write "Mailbag" in the subject. I promise every email is read and appreciated.)

Hello Chris, I am asking if you have any summer plans. If not, want to come to my barbecue? There will be a slip n' slide. --Jill in Madison
Hello Jill, I am answering if I have summer plans. If your "barbecue" has BBQ, I'm in. But we're probably talking about different things.

To answer your question, I do have summer plans! I'll be on tour all of July. Those dates will be posted Wednesday at the site. I can't wait. If I travel near Madison, that slip n' slide's got my name on it.

I've been meaning to ask you for new music suggestions. I got the new Josh Ritter, but I want new NEW--like, different people or bands. You are the only one who can help me. Actually, that's not true, but everyone needs to feel important, right? --Elizabeth in Jacksonville

First, a disclaimer: if these artists/songs aren't new to you, my apologies. Most of them aren't new at all, some are more popular than others, and some aren't even together anymore. The thing they all share is 1) they're relatively new to me, 2) they might be new to you, 3) they've got some great songs. Onward!

Roman Candle, "Eden Was a Garden"
I'm late to the Roman Candle party, and arrived when a friend/former bandmate joined them on tour recently. I've since plowed through their catalog and highly recommend it. But "Eden Was a Garden" was my introduction to the band, and still my favorite song. It's chock-full of melody, memorable lyrics, inspired performances, vitamins, minerals, you name it. Just a mature, savvy band firing on all cylinders. The refrain it makes sense in a non-literal, indefinable way, as many great R.E.M. lyrics do.

Say Zuzu, "Lonely"
Say Zuzu was one of many alt-country bands of a certain post-Uncle-Tupelo type around Y2K. They released rootsy records to critical acclaim during the boy-band millennial scrum. This 2002 album, Every Mile, was recorded at Memphis's Ardent Studios. Hence, my brother and some friends found it then, and loved it then, and recommended it to me then. Like a dweeb, I took that recommendation eight years later and gave "Lonely" a listen this April. I haven't looked back.

"Lonely" is a great first impression, a cross-section of what they do best: heart-of-the-matter lyrics, visceral-yet-tight performances, accessible melodies. They sound like a band you've heard before, in the best possible sense. The highlight of "Lonely," for me, is the harmonies. Great harmonies can be super-tight (think The Byrds/Beatles), but my favorites are loose enough to create tension, but pitch-perfect enough to still sound great. They're two voices in sync and at odds, parting ways, then coming together.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, "I Learned the Hard Way"
Again, this may or may not be a new discovery, depending on how much you follow Pitchfork on Twitter. After gushing about Amy Winehouse's Back To Black in April (if you're noticing a Chris-is-late-to-discover-great-albums trend, well done), I received a Sharon Jones recommendation. Jones and the Dap Kings faithfully recreate the 60's R&B/soul fusion that Winehouse merely channels. Winehouse sounds like Motown meets the Millennium; Sharon Jones simply sounds like Motown.

If you're like me, there's enough retro love for both.

Halfacre Gunroom, "Palisade"
Another alt-country band with Memphis ties. The opening guitar sound is perfect. The stutter-step chorus recalls Lucero's "California," which is to say it's catchy, and it rocks. But really, if the song doesn't have you at hello (the opening line: "In a leased S-40 Volvo/500 miles to go..."), it never will.

It had me at hello.

Good Old War, "Just Another Day"
I found the Good Old War in Hackinsack, sharing a bill with Cory Branan and the Honorary Title. As gorgeous as these harmonies are (a polished counterpoint to Say Zuzu), they're a different animal live. Just a jaw-droppingly tight, sunny, rootsy trio that's worth many listens.

The Walkmen, "Canadian Girl"
Longtime readers will remember my fondness for the Walkmen's "The Rat." It's a perfect piss-and-vinegar rocker, and indicative of much of their catalog. And then there's "Canadian Girl," which I found this spring on NPR's SXSW sampler. It's,''s kind of a Frankie Valli song. It's unexpected, instantly credible, and wholly awesome. There's no shtick, no tongue in cheek, no irony. It's just a winning moment from a band that can make crooning badass.

And as a bonus, a few extra thoughts on this spring's well-known releases:
1) I continue to enjoy Dr. Dog's Shame, Shame. If you like Dr. Dog at all, you should definitely buy this album.
2) I continue to love the New Pornographers' Together. If you like anything at all, you should definitely buy this album.
3) I truly like MGMT's Congratulations, but don't know what to do with it. It's interesting to listen to, but not practical to listen to. If that makes sense.
4) My favorite song off the new Band of Horses is "Older." But there's plenty more to enjoy.
5) This still was the new music highlight of my spring. Tom Petty, putting the kids to bed.

I'll open this question up to the readers: who are some artists we need to hear? Any Roman Candle fans out there got a full album recommendation for me? Who's floated under my radar for too long?

Chris, do you watch The Hills? Are you watching this season? I'm pretty sure it's not worth watching, yet I can't stop. --Dave in Dallas
Dave, I do watch The Hills. Laguna Beach begat The Hills, and I'm an unabashed Laguna Beach fan. I feel no shame or guilt for having ever liked LB, but it's with great reluctance I admit to watching The Hills. Here I am, and here you are, and here we both are. We can get through this together.

Conventional wisdom surrounding this show and these people has always been:
1) They sold their soul to the devil for wealth and stardom.
2) Eventually, the spotlight would turn on them; years on an unreal reality show would shatter their sense of reality. Or something.
3) The whole thing would take a True Hollywood Story turn for the worse, devolving into addiction, rehab, plastic surgeries, public meltdowns, etc. Karma would kick their ass. The high life would hit new lows. Etc. Etc.

Supposedly, people watch this show to vicariously live a glamorous life while hoping that these lives aren't as great as they seem. They want to see an awesome birthday party they'll never attend, but they want to see everyone there seem unhappy and alone. It's a perfect premise: it offers the viewer a different world while validating their own. People want to see these characters live the dream in anticipation of a nightmare.

This season, it took that turn. It's gone True Hollywood Story. The dream's become a nightmare. But what makes it interesting isn't that our anti-heroes have fallen--it's the way they've fallen. Longtime viewers expected dramatic arguments behind velvet ropes, rumored drug problems, broken love triangles, etc. We expected them to "go crazy" in a conventional way.

We didn't expect Spencer to talk to crystals and have monkeys in his backyard. The producers didn't, either.

I'd be fascinated to see their ratings this season. I suspect they've dipped. The average Hills viewer (a normal, middle-American teenager) wants to see conventional craziness, contrived scenes of personal dissolution, etc. They don't want to see someone who's authentically insane. What used to be glamorous, predictable, and escapist is now authentically weird, confusing, and unsettling.

Dave Chappelle, after returning from Africa, said Hollywood can make a sane man crazy. Well, what's it do to an unstable man? We always knew stardom was a potentially dangerous thing. We've seen fame ruin careers and lives. We know, without having experienced it, that level of notoriety can be hard to deal with. The Hills matters because we might be seeing for the first time how destructive celebrity can be in 2010. And it's worse than we thought.

And now I feel bad for Spencer, which is as surprising as anything. Maybe bad shows have to get worse to bring out the best in their viewers?

I just witnessed forty people share a karaoke-d moment to the Cheers theme song. Twenty years theme song ever? --Thomas in San Diego
It's on the short list. One downside to Tivo Era is the slow extinction of theme songs. Fewer shows have them and those that do typically use a snapshot of an already-popular song rather than creating their own. It's the difference between the Cheers theme and the O.C.'s adoption of Phantom Planet's "California."

Let's separate themes into those two categories, and list some favorites.

Original Themes:
1) Cheers. Everybody knows this song. It's brought Cheers to a generation born after its finale. That's all you can ask a theme to do.

2) Ducktales. Jam right.

3) Family Matters. To be fair, the entire TGIF lineup was stellar. Most would prefer Full House, but Family Matters' chorus stuck in my head like algebra never did. Perfect Strangers shatters the cliches-per-minute record (previously held by Mr. Mister's "Kyrie").

4) Saved By the Bell. No list is complete without it. And while SBTB is the standard by which the California Dreams were measured, nothing is funnier than this video. Nothing.

5) Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Points granted for continued awesomeness. Points deducted because this is what unfunny people do at weddings now.

6) I Love Lucy. Who doesn't?

7) The Office. Pitch-perfect work by--you guessed it--the Scrantones.

Adapted Themes:
1) The O.C. Phantom Planet's "California." I still find it weird that Jason Schwartzman essentially wrote the O.C.'s theme song.

2) Pete & Pete. Polaris, "Hey Sandy." My all-time sleeper favorite theme song. Classic mid-90's alt-rock weirdness meets classic mid-90's Nickelodeon weirdness. (Hey Dude's was never a favorite, but I'd be lying if I never finished an email, "watch out for those man-eating jackrabbits and that killer cacti.")

3) The Wire. Tom Waits, "Down In a Hole." You should know by now that any TV-related list I make will feature The Wire. Each season's theme has a different artist's version of this song, with Waits' original appearing in Season 2. Each version was selected to reflect the unique story and mood of that season. Like everything else with this show, they're all great.

4) Friday Night Lights. Explosions In the Sky, "Your Hand In Mine." Sounds like West Texas.

5) Also, some Saturday morning cartoon from the late 80's occasionally used "Danger Zone" in its opening sequence. I don't remember anything about this show, except that it was awesome.

I have now included Tom Waits and DuckTales in the same blog. My work here's almost done...

If you had to live with the music from one 50 square mile area, which would you choose? How do you define music from a place: born there, grew up there, recorded there? Where are the lines drawn? --Justin in Nashville

The short answer is Memphis. It's home, and the music that reminds us of home tends to have the biggest impact on our lives, our memories, our shared experience, etc. But this question deserves a longer answer, because not everyone's home has that kind of musical heritage.

By picking Memphis, I'm not implying that its history is better than any other place's. Its history is great; that's what made my pick so easy. Someone from Flagstaff might not have much "hometown" music to choose from, and might look at other cities first. Other places have a great heritage, of course: New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Detroit, San Francisco, London, etc., are all great and worthy picks. Anyone who loves any brand of American music would have Memphis on their short list. For me, it was the only choice.

Now, as for claiming artists, that gets tricky. A few factors are at play:
1) Where is the artist/band originally from? That is, where have they spent most of their lives?
2) Where is the artist/band's career centered? That is, where have they spent most of their professional lives?

Each factor is weighed differently case to case. The factor I care least about, actually, is the artist's birthplace. I care about it insofar as an artist's birthplace is often the place where they grew up and began their career. But birthplace alone matters less to me, because some places have a powerful artistic environment and some don't. Elvis was born in Tupelo, but Elvis was a Memphis artist. It took the unique atmosphere in that city, the entrepreneurial talents of Sam Phillips, and their shared knowledge of Memphis's musical roots to create Elvis the Artist and Future Icon. Before Memphis, he was a gifted truck-driver from Tupelo.

Every place has its own artistic community, its own ethos, its own prevailing aesthetics, and (most importantly) its own atmosphere. For example, if I'm a gifted artist in Des Moines who's passionate about Latin music, I probably wouldn't plant in Iowa. I might move to Miami, or the Caribbean. For lack of a better term, some places have "something in the air." There's a mood there, and if it appeals to an aspiring artist, then that place informs their art and development more than wherever they were born. Greenwich Village in 1960 was clearly a special time and place to be a folk singer. Something was certainly "in the air" in Seattle in 1991. Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, but Nirvana was from Seattle.

One last example: Lucero. Lucero opens most concerts with the greeting, "Thank y'all very much for coming out tonight--we're Lucero from Memphis, Tennessee." However, singer Ben Nichols is originally from Arkansas, and many songs include place names and people from there. Arkansas papers write Lucero features, claiming them as a "Little Rock band," citing Nichols' ties there. And you know what? Good for them. If someone wants to enjoy "Darken My Door" more because they too frequent the Whitewater Tavern, go for it. Any reason's a good reason to connect more to a song, or root more for a band.

But Lucero isn't from Little Rock; they're from Memphis. How do you know? They say they're from Memphis.

It's not just that the band formed in Memphis, its members met in Memphis, and its development was shaped by that city's unique musical community and heritage. It's that they (rightly) self-identify as a Memphis band. In many ways, they're a quintessential "Memphis band."

They're effortlessly cool yet "aw-shucks" humble. Their songs are rough around the edges yet pop-structured and accessible. Their lyrics detail complex feelings in simple language; they're smart, but not academic. Their sound has incorporates alt-country, folk ballads, pop-rock, traces of rockabilly, and (most recently) Stax horn arrangements. If someone listed all the traits that make Memphis a potent musical environment, and all the things that make anyone a "Memphis artist," that list would look a lot like Lucero in 2010. They were shaped by the city, and they've helped shape it.

So, I'm taking the 50 miles around Memphis and not looking back. But I'm inviting Detroit and Liverpool to the party.

What 50-mile radius would you take? And where do you draw these lines? Are you a Tupelo native who hates my whole premise? Let me hear it in the comments!

Be safe this Memorial Day!

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