Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Mailbag Returns!

It's that time again.  Time for turkey-induced comas, outlet mall mayhem, the most wonderful music of the year, and eggnog-fueled family confessionals.  It's also time (over time, in fact), for another Mailbag!

Thanks again to everyone who wrote in--your mail was awesome, as always.  And if you'd like to be in a future Mailbag, just drop me a line!  I promise all emails are read and much appreciated.

Here we go!

Chris--sometimes I get hangovers.  I also have to get on the subway, so I like to have music to listen to instead of the grinding of trains.  What would you suggest for a good hangover playlist?
--Becky, Park Slope, Brooklyn NY

I spent more time thinking about this question than I did deciding my major in college.  I'm thrilled to answer this.

First thing's first: I have obviously never had a drink of alcohol in my life--save a glass of champagne at my own christening--and certainly wouldn't have consumed enough to merit a hangover.  Further, I don't advocate the consumption of alcohol in any volume that would induce physical/emotional illness afterward.  My motto has always been, "stick to apple juice."

Now, if I DID experience a hangover, I can't imagine I'd want anything excessively loud.  I wouldn't want to kick out the jams with jarring percussion and amps cranked to eleven.  Similarly, it's not the time for hip hop; I couldn't dance if I wanted to.  I'm guessing (again, totally guessing here) that I'm dealing with equal doses shame, self-pity, and regret.  So songs with blatantly carefree messages ("Don't Worry, Be Happy") won't help--and likely will compound--my problem.  I don't want something synthetic, techno, or experimental--my hangover is here, it's now, it's all too real, and it's visceral.  Finally, I probably want to put the entire sideshow behind me as soon as possible.  This excludes all music that would remind me of why I drank in the first place.  The range here is anything from party tracks to breakup music.  No "sad bastard" songs.  I'm low, and don't want to feel lower.

I want music that eases the mind, but isn't overtly happy.  I want something steady, not rocking.  I want something with a pulse, but a slow one.  I want it to have company (more than just an acoustic guitar, for example), but it can't be loud.  This sounds counter-intuitive, but I don't want anything too good, too impacting.  I don't want a lyric I have to engage.  I don't want to think.  I want the musical equivalent of a warm bath.  Essentially (and again, this is all hypothetical) I want what Rob Gordon wants one Monday morning in High Fidelity: something I can ignore.

Here, now, is The Morning After: Sixteen Songs For Today's Hangover:

Tom Waits, "Ol' 55" - Tom Waits is the linchpin of any hangover mix.

My Morning Jacket, "Golden" - I can't imagine anything being easier to listen to.

Lyle Lovett, "If I Had a Boat" - Even Lyle's darkest songs make me think everything's going to be okay.

Vetiver "Rolling Sea" - Really, anything by Vetiver fits the bill.

Belle & Sebastian, "The State I Am In" - What was Rob Gordon listening to that Monday morning?  "The new Belle & Sebastian."

Stereophonics, "Caravan Holiday" - More British mid-tempo, easy melodies.

Green Day, "Macy's Day Parade" - Vague malaise, exhaustion, but not in your face about it.

Elliot Smith, "Because" - The Beatles version would carry too much with it.  Gorgeous, nondescript--sounds like a really nice nap.

Delta Spirit, "Tomorrow Goes Away" - Bad news: it's pretty explicit about its angst.  Good news: it's really short.

Billy Bragg & Wilco, "California Stars" - A lot of the Mermaid Avenue stuff fits the bill, but this one's the least love-centric. 

Radiohead, "No Surprises" - Radiohead's dangerous territory if you don't want your hangover to get too heady.  This one's the lightest--and prettiest--of the options.

Pearl Jam, "Around the Bend" - A weird lullaby; as negligible as you want it to be.

Ryan Adams, "Chin Up, Cheer Up" - Because at some point you need to test the waters with a dose of cheer and optimism.

Tom Petty, "It'll All Work Out" - Sure, it's about a girl, but Tom Petty can be the exception to the rule.

R.E.M., "Find the River" - Pretty, mid-tempo, balances frustration and hope, sung by one of rock's most reassuring voices.

***Bonus Playlist!***  Good Morning Midnight: Twelve Songs for This Year's Hangover

Now there is a type of hangover that only happens so often (my friends tell me).  It's the rare hangover that you want to face head-on.  You want to wallow in all the self-pity available.  You want to stare down the drink and the shame and give it the saddest laugh imaginable.  When this happens, you'll know it.

The key (I've heard) is embracing what physically led to the hangover (drinking like an idiot) more than what emotionally led to the hangover (breakup/depression/rush party/etc).  There are some beautiful songs inspired by bad-idea-drinking, and this is what they're there for.  They are some of the darkest, bleakest, saddest, pitiful tracks ever committed to tape, and I love them for it.  Embrace them fully, then (for God's sake) leave them behind.

Tom Waits, "Closing Time" - Tom Waits is the linchpin of any hangover mix.

Ryan Adams, "The Bar Is A Beautiful Place" - Gorgeous, haggard.  Hard to hear but irresistible.

Cory Branan, "Freefall" - Unreleased, about bad ideas and empty acts.  Arguably Branan's darkest--and most powerful--song.

Lucero, "Noon As Dark As Midnight" - Really, pick a Lucero song.

Uncle Tupelo, "Moonshiner" - The acoustic guitar's walkdown to minor mode (1:58) following, "pretty women...I wish they was mine," has always killed me. 

Radiohead, "Motion Picture Soundtrack" - A really specific memory attached to this one.  It sounds unspeakably sad to me.

Pawtuckets, "Empty Bottle" - For all the obvious reasons; you're never quite sure who he's talking to.  Especially the vocal delivery on "let go of me now/let go of me please."

Bright Eyes, "Lua" - Get down, Bright Eyes fans!  Props to this one--it deftly tells the story I described above.

Beck, "Guess I'm Doing Fine" - As you might've guessed, he's not doing fine.  Not at all.

Amy Winehouse, "Back To Black" - Self-destruction prophesied.

Stereophonics, "Lying To Myself Again" - Tellingly, my favorite Stereophonics song.

Bob Dylan, "Most of the Time" - Sure, this is about the girl more than anything else.  But my God, how can a song this brutal feel this good?

Those are my picks--what are yours???

(Sports Alert!  The next question is about college football.  If you're not interested in college football, now would be a great time to hop in the breadline, commie.)

Interesting stat: since the BCS championship game started in 1998, only 12 different teams have ever played in the game.  My question: with approximately 120 teams in the FBS division, is it a good thing that college football is dominated by such a small elite? Would a playoff really change this?  Sometimes you get a little tired of the same teams.
--Jimbo "Secretly an Egalitarian" Fisher, Buffalo NY

The bad news for egalitarians: college football has always been and always will be dominated by a small number of elite teams.  The good news: those teams change.  Look at where Alabama was in 2002 compared to now.  Conversely, look at where Miami was in 2002.  I think what you're getting at is even though dominance for this group is cyclical (Bama's up, Miami's down, etc.), there's still a small number of teams that even have a shot at dominance.

I'm not so sure.  Virginia Tech is an example (albeit maybe the only example) of a program that started in obscurity, rose to prominence, and has maintained that success in the long-term.  It can happen, but it's infrequent.

It also takes:
1) A coaching staff that finds unconventional ways to win against more talented teams (VT example: special teams).
2) One game-changing recruit (VT example: Michael Vick and, in a different way, defensive coordinator Bud Foster).
3) Some luck. (VT example: Michael Vick, my God, Michael Vick)
4) Some outside-the-box marketing and recruitment ideas (VT example: playing a ton of nationally-televised Thursday night games before anyone else thought to.)
4) Admitting to yourself that the playing field isn't equal, the Big Guys don't want to give you the benefit of the doubt, and you have to go above and beyond "what's fair" to prove your worth.  (VT example: scheduling more tough non-conference games than they should've.)

This last point is something Boise State needs to come to terms with.  One big non-conference win a year clearly isn't enough.  Maybe that's not fair, but that's your reality.  Schedule two, or three top ranked teams outside your conference.  Stack them up and take on everybody (the way Bobby Bowden did when he was building up Florida State in the 80's).  Some programs are born on third and think they got a triple; some programs have to do more to get to the same place.  It's not fair, but it's reality.

As for a playoff, it wouldn't help the lack of parity.  That's a systemic issue in the way each program works and the resources it has at its disposal.  A playoff would only help the stray non-BCS team get its shot at a title.  Boise St. is more likely to get a real shot at a championship in a playoff than in the current BCS format;  it's the difference between earning one spot out of several in a tournament (which they clearly would do) and earning enough votes for one spot, period. 

I don't get sick of watching the same teams in the Big Game (Oklahoma, Ohio State, etc.).  I get sick of watching the same teams lose the Big Game (Oklahoma, Ohio State, etc.). 

Cue obnoxious SEC chant!  S-E-C!  S-E-C!

Chris: Like you, I generally dislike baseball, and I favor football, particularly college football.  However, I find that there are many, many good songs about baseball and nearly zero about football.  For example, the album that the Baseball Project* released a couple years ago was one of my favorites of 2008 (check out the song "Harvey Haddix" in particular) and Todd Snider's "America's Favorite Pastime" appeals to fans of sports and recreational drugs.  Football has given us nothing in the music department.  Why is this?  Must the baseball fan turn to art in order to prevent himself from going insane with boredom?  And, when will Chris Milam fill the college football pop song void?
 --Seth in Urbana, IL

*This band features REM's Peter Buck plus two solid songwriters from bands that are apparently well-respected were previously unknown to me, The Minus 5 and the Young Fresh Fellows.

First thing's first: the Young Fresh Fellows are fantastic.  I was introduced to them by the now-classic music doc Hype! about the Seattle rock explosion in the early 90's.  This song backdropped a grunge-gone-mainstream montage: flannel couture, Japanese fans with Elvis sideburns, etc.  The other obscure Seattle band that movie introduced me to was the Fastbacks--their song "K Street" is still one of my sleeper favorites from that era.

Second thing's second: when you say "football has given us nothing in the music department," I'm assuming you don't count the "rowdy friends" Monday Night Football intro?  Courtesy of Bocephus?  Or the Faith Hill "hey jack/slappin fat/etc." Sunday Night jingle? 

Yeah, I don't either.

NOW to the heart of the matter: why does baseball inspire better music than football? 

Theory #1:
It's older, or at least has been mythologized by America for much longer.  Simply more time for baseball tunes to work their way into our song canon.  This is especially true from football's side: it's been widely viewed since the sixties, but it's only become America's true past-time (and the dominant sport in terms of popularity and cultural relevance) in the last generation.  Give it some time.

Theory #2: 
The sport itself is more musical, and more pastoral.  The crack of the bat sounds like a rim shot.  The grassy outfield inspires "home on the range" lyrical cliches.  Mellow ballpark organs fill the gaps between innings.  Compare this to football, where everything basically sounds like a Detroit auto plant--one huge metallic explosion after another--and this (a little) makes sense.

Theory #3: 
An extension of #2: what type of music would football inspire?  Heavy metal, probably--brawny, screaming, leaden, heavy metal.  Not bouncy American standards that can be sung while watching the green grass sway and tubby dudes in pajamas trot around dirt.

It's hard to admit, but the thing I find so lame, irrelevant, and relentlessly dull about baseball is the same thing that lends itself to easy songs: it's an accommodating blank slate, filled with a cliched lexicon we're taught since childhood.  It's easy to write another baseball song because SO MANY have already been written; just listen to "Centerfield" and paint by the numbers.

What we need is one--just one--truly great football song.  That'll provide the blueprint to future generations of red-blooded American singers and songwriters.

Clearly, this is my destiny.  Thanks for the push, Seth.

But what do y'all think?  Are we totally forgetting a catalog of football tunes?  Am I off-base?  Oh Lord, I even intended that pun.  Time to move on.

Chris, you like ranking things arbitrarily.  It's the holiday season.  Rank all the major holidays!
--Chris in Memphis

Fine, I wrote this one in myself.  But someone needed to!

I'm defining "major" holidays as:
--Secular holidays everyone celebrates or at least remembers and looks forward to (days of remembrance aren't included, as they're not typically a "celebration")
--Religious holidays that I've celebrated.  All apologies--I'm sure I'd love them all, but can only speak to my Methodist experience.  Please tell me what I'm missing in the comments!

So, that gives us this list (and let me hear it if I'm missing any):
--Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years, Halloween, July 4th, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Easter, Valentine's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day.  Eleven total.  Let's get to the rankings!

Honorable Mention: Michael Vick's Birthday (June 26)
You've got your Christmas, I've got mine. 

Honorable Mention (Seriously): March Madness
The first 24-48 hours of March Madness might as well be a national holiday.  Nobody gets any work done, everyone's doing the exact same thing, and it's a time of hope, celebration, and (later) bitter disappointment.  Bonus points, since this occasionally coincides with St. Patrick's Day.

11) Memorial Day
People always have big Memorial Day plans, but I never do.  In my life, I don't think I've ever done anything fun on Memorial Day.  So this is me, being bitter.

10) Labor Day
Fall's my favorite season, and Labor Day weekend is its unofficial beginning.  Huge points for football-season-starting associations.

9) Cinco de Mayo
I love Cinco de Mayo.  The problem is that not enough of my friends remember it or celebrate it, so it's only occasionally (and incidentally) fun.  Clearly, I need to move to Mexico.

8) Easter
The holiday itself doesn't blow my hair back, but the periphery does: cheerful folks at church, girls in sundresses, etc.  How dare you judge me!  (Side note: Easter gets points deducted for the same reason all early spring events do--it's early enough that we all still look like our pale winter selves, but late enough that the sun's illuminating us in all our ghastly glory.  Easter/Steeplechase pictures are usually horrifying.)

7) Valentine's Day
In all honesty, I actually enjoy VDay.  On the years with good Valentine's memories, I've looked forward to it.  On the forgettable VDays, I haven't begrudged couples their fun.  And God knows we need something to take the edge off February.  I just can't put it ahead of the Top 6.

6) July 4
Love mid-summer, love pool parties, love BBQ.  Love AMERICA.  The downside is that it seems like folks are always traveling/out of town/spread out for July 4.  There's rarely one, centralized celebration.  But when there is, it's one of my favorite holidays.

5) St. Patrick's Day
For all the predictable reasons.  Also, SXSW typically overlaps, as does March Madness, as does some (unseasonably) good weather.  By the time mid-March comes, I normally have so much stored, frustrated energy from winter that St. Patty's is a much bigger deal than it should be.  Bonus points: my first day of recording my first album (Leaving Tennessee) was St. Patrick's Day 2005.

4) New Years Eve
Its ceiling is ridiculously high, but it's almost always disappointing or anticlimactic.  But when it's good, it's fantastic, and it's the last real chance to celebrate the holiday season before two months of dreary weather and non-events set in.  The downside: I don't like black eyed peas.

3) Thanksgiving
Ten years ago, Thanksgiving might not have cracked my Top 10.  "Let me get this straight," Chris would've said, "it's just Christmas dinner, but without everything else?  Lame!  Also, I'm asking Nicole to Homecoming and she's definitely saying yes."  Oh, how wrong I was.  About everything. 

Now, I get it: the food's fantastic, the little traditions (throwing the football with my brother, betting on when Dad falls asleep during the Cowboys game, etc.).  I love Thanksgiving for the same reason I love September, Fridays, appetizers, Please Please Me, the drive to a party, etc: it's the beginning of something.  And when this something is "the holiday season," that's a big deal.

2) Halloween
Look, if I could just eat candy for the rest of my life and not get scurvy, I would.  So the "food" category goes to Halloween.  It's always fun, people are always in a good mood, girls are dressed in "special" ways, it's the peak of fall, the weather is Chris-friendly (brisk but not cold), and you've got more great holidays to look forward to.  But there's also the other element, the weirdness of Halloween, that my brother pointed out to me years ago.  It's cool that a country founded by mostly Puritans decides to really celebrate all things dark, morbid, pagan, demonic, supernatural, and generally frightening, have its cherubic kids dress as devils, and party with tall tales, vandalism, and candy.  Halloween has the same dichotomy that all my favorite things embody: really fun if you don't think about it, and endlessly weird/amusing/kinda dark if you do.

1) Christmas
I'm on record at this point.  The Day After Thanksgiving hits, I decorate my place, I watch Love Actually, I drink hot chocolate, I listen to my Christmas playlist, my heart doubles in size Grinch-style, and I turn into a warm and/or fuzzy bowl of figgy pudding.  If you ever need a favor from me, or need to give me some bad news, do it in December.  I'm invulnerable.  I'm euphoric.  Christmas season is one of the only things I can think of that never disappoints--it's always memorable, always heady, and always has a little bit of magic.

What are your rankings?  Did I leave out your favorite holiday?  Want to make the case for Flag Day?  Hit up the comments!

If you need me, I'll be elbow-deep in some punkin pie.  Tis the season!

Until next time,

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