EPS2-01

Speaking of quality, welcome to another edition of the Eclectic Playlist Series, which aims entirely at a quality listening experience, regardless of either how many decades or how many sub-genres of music we have to explore to get there. I mean, seriously: do you really only like one kind of music?

Note that there have been 11 playlists in the Eclectic Playlist Series to date before this new one, running from December 2013 to December 2014, and up to this point, no artist has appeared twice. With the new year, the EPS officially resets: we are in series 2, and you will now begin to see (i.e., hear) some of the folks who have already made appearances. Specifically, here on EPS 2.01, we say hello again to one of my long-time and all-time favorites, Sam Phillips, who previously landed a song on playlist 1.07 (“This Is Not What I Thought”).

Note too that this may be the least “classic-rock-y” playlist in the history of the internet that still manages to feature Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and the Moody Blues. The presence of Allen Tousaint, the Nerves, and Jessy Bell Smith, among others, helps. Plus Mick Jagger’s falsetto (and fine Arab charger). Did I help him carry his cross through town? Did I keep my ammunition under cover? Even so, they left me at the station, and down down down I went. But in the end, pressure makes diamonds, quality trumps quantity, and there is always more music to accompany us on this journey. See you next month.

Listen on Mixcloud via the widget. Entire playlist is directly below.

Just when it seemed about hopeless (Eclectic Playlist Series, 2.01) by Fingertipsmusic on Mixcloud


“I Was in the House When the House Burned Down” – Warren Zevon (Life’ll Kill Ya, 2000)
“I’m Gonna Destroy That Boy” – The What Four (single, 1966)
“Escalator of Life” – Robert Hazard (Robert Hazard EP, 1982)
“Cruel Inventions” – Sam Phillips (Cruel Inventions, 1991)
“Cherry Tulips” – Headlights (Some Racing, Some Stopping, 2008)
“You and Me” – The Moody Blues (Seventh Sojourn, 1972)
“Tractor Rape Chain” – Guided By Voices (Bee Thousand, 1994)
“Go Back Home” – Allen Toussaint (single, 1965)
“Ways of Looking” – The Mynabirds (What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, 2010)
“Open Your Heart” – The Human League (Dare, 1981)
“Delia” – Bob Dylan (World Gone Wrong, 1993)
“John Mouse” – Jesse Bell Smith (The Town, 2014)
“When You Find Out” – The Nerves (The Nerves EP, 1976)
“Off and Running” – Lesley Gore (My Town, My Guy & Me, 1966)
“Shiver” – Coldplay (Parachutes, 2000)
“Icarus” – White Hinterland (Kairos, 2010)
“Nothing But a Heartache” – The Flirtations (single, 1968)
“Nearly Lost You” – Screaming Trees (Sweet Oblivion, 1992)
“Emotional Rescue” – The Rolling Stones (Emotional Rescue, 1980)
“Pressure” – My Brightest Diamond (This Is My Hand, 2014)

Rebekka Karijord

“Use My Body While It’s Still Young” – Rebekka Karijord

“Use My Body While It’s Still Young” has a haunting richness to it that belies the edgy electronics that may first grab your ear. Some of this is a simple function of Karijord’s vivid mezzo, with its half-creamy, half-vehement tone; just about anything she might sing is likely to be rich and haunting.

But there’s something deep in the song that moves me as well, something timeless running through its urgent, 21st-century setting. To begin with, “Use My Body…” skillfully blends electronic rhythms with what sounds like organic percussion. That always helps. Note too how the steadfast, familiar sound of an old-school organ works its way to the center of a song characterized otherwise by jittery rhythms. But, perhaps most effective of all, there is way that the musical landscape, while pulsating with inventiveness, nevertheless roots itself in, of all things, the blues. Not that I am any kind of blues fan (at all), and not that this is in any actual sense a blues song (it isn’t), but if you listen attentively you may hear what I hear in both the chord progression (unfolding in a 12-bar verse) and in the primal passion on display.

Beyond the cumulatively entrancing music, the lyrics too bear consideration. It’s not your everyday pop song that addresses the fleeting vigor of youth. Then again, Rebekka Karijord is hardly your everyday pop singer—she is, instead, a Norway-born, Sweden-based composer/performer/writer who has written music for a variety of media, including film, theater, and dance; she has worked regularly as an actor as well. Meanwhile, as a singer/songwriter, she has recorded three albums. “Use My Body While It’s Still Young” is from her second album, We Become Ourselves, which was originally released overseas in 2012. Karijord is releasing a deluxe edition of the album for the United States next month, via her own label, Control Freak Kitten Records.

Auditorium

“My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” – Auditorium

The 2015 indie music scene is full of creative types who come from all sorts of idiosyncratic backgrounds. Even among his heterogeneous cohorts, however, Spencer Berger stands out for his unusual back story: from the ages of nine through 12, he was an opera singer, performing at the Metropolitan Opera with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti. And while you might not immediately guess “child opera singer” when “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” starts up, I’m pretty sure you can see that something muscular and expansive is going on here vocally, both in terms of Berger’s singular tone and his penchant for dramatic layering.

And so it turns out that this is as off-kilter as you might imagine a song entitled “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” would be; likewise is it bold and captivating. Berger’s penchant for stagy vocalizing is all the more convincing for its being matched, against expectation, with the simplest of accompaniments—acoustic guitars, a touch of piano, and a small helping of percussion is all that’s going on here, instrumentally. Musically, the song is dominated by descending melody lines, punctuated by intermittent yelping leaps; the overall effect is a kind of optimistic melancholy that helps give the whole thing the feel of a lonely suburban afternoon in 1972. I can’t pinpoint why but to me this seems quite clear.

Based in Los Angeles, Spencer Berger has been recording music as Auditorium since 2011, when his debut album, Be Brave, was released. (You can check that one out via Bandcamp.) “My Grandfather Could Make the World Dance” is a single released earlier this month. Thanks to Insomnia Radio for the link.

Emma Swift

“Total Control” – Emma Swift

Australian singer/songwriter Emma Swift has transformed this new wave classic via the most delicate and deft mutation. The Motels tune still burns slowly, achingly. In place of the original’s rubbery, late-’70s itch Swift employs a torchy, old-style country setting, with exquisite pedal steel work and a slight but effective vocal twang.

We know we are in excellent hands from the opening notes: Swift creates an entirely new introduction for the song, composed of lovely, unresolved arpeggios, played on a silver-toned guitar. It couldn’t be more different than the dated, repetitive staccato of the original intro, which had its new-wave-y charms but always struck me as clunky. (It can be a fine line between a slow burn and lack of imagination.) And while there is likewise nothing wrong with Martha Davis’s vocals—okay they were a bit affected but that was her thing—Swift here really sings this baby, accessing all sorts of actual emotion in places where Davis was content to go for eccentricity.

That’s the thing about this cover that feels almost shockingly appealing: how deep and lived-in Swift makes a song that never previously seemed much more than a quirky curiosity. Some of this has to do with the subtle but superb arrangement; there does not appear to be one note in the background or foreground that isn’t being played for a purpose. Even something as seemingly minor as the decision to deliver the oddly climactic line “Stay in bed/Stay in sheets” with harmony vocals (Swift otherwise sings single-tracked the whole way through) becomes a moment rich with ineffable delight via some combination of know-how and hunch. In any case, I have only rarely heard such a satisfying reinterpretation.

Swift is a singer/songwriter from Sydney who spends half her year in Nashville. She also hosts an Americana-oriented radio show on the Australian station Double J. “Total Control” can be found on Swift’s debut release, a self-titled six-song EP, which you can listen to and/or purchase via Bandcamp. Thanks muchly to Cover Lay Down for the link. Joshua’s been running a genial covers-only music blog there for years and years; check it out at http://coverlaydown.com.



And for those who may never have heard the original, if you have Spotify, you can check it out here:



Imagine for a moment that you could only ever listen to the most popular music—only the top 10 songs, say, or the top 10 albums. Imagine as well that you could only read the books that were most popular, and that the only available movies to see were, again, the super popular ones. Food, too, is limited in this scenario to only the most popular items. Even your activities: imagine for a moment you can choose in your spare time to do only one of, say, ten most popular leisure pursuits.

I am assuming this thought experiment is starting to sound a bit like a nightmare. Even a person with happily mainstream tastes veers regularly from liking and doing only very-popular things; everybody’s got a number of at least somewhat off-the-beaten-path favorites of some kind. This is why the accumulated preferences of a large population never coincide precisely with any one individual’s tastes. And they’re not supposed to: top 10 charts of various kinds are inherently interesting as information, but are not intended as strict behavioral control.

At least, not so far.

The web is working hard to change this—in particular, companies run by web entrepreneurs who so worship the God of Page Views as to drain life of qualitative meaning entirely. It’s all about quantity, all about getting the most people to click a link or like or follow. These are entrepreneurs such as Emerson Spartz, recently profiled in The New Yorker, who was there quoted as saying, “The ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”

This is patently absurd. It doesn’t require that much history or independent thinking to realize that popularity and quality are not only not always aligned but often enough misaligned. Things that are popular are not always of high quality and things of high quality are not always popular. This is a truth as old as civilization, and it is not changed by a home-schooled 27-year-old who seeks page views for a living.

And then there is this truth, perhaps too subtle for Spartz and his fast-moving, screen-focused peers: that sometimes a thing of quality takes time to be seen, understood, and recognized. Schubert would not have ended up on any “most popular” list in his lifetime. Nor the Velvet Underground while they were still around. Or recall, if you would, the way The Shawshank Redemption was received upon release versus the way it is regarded today.

Despite the gaping hole in their understanding of human culture and human nature, this new generation of web entrepreneurs are the ones taken seriously in our benighted digital culture—the ones offered the microphones at TED conferences, followed on Twitter, and generally glorified as shining examples of 21st-century success. The lonely few of us who focus our attention on quality rather than quantity are not merely ignored, we may as well not exist when it comes to the so-called “real world” of commerce and (ooh, that word) innovation.

And while much of the squawking about Spartz after the article came out had to do with how his click-bait web sites purportedly spell the end of serious journalism online, that part of the hubbub seems to me somewhat overblown. Serious journalism has never been all that popular, and it’s unlikely that junk sites like Dose are specifically exacerbating the problem. To me the more serious concern is the Orwellian implication here—if publicly acclaimed web leaders can willfully present quantity as quality, what else are they dissembling and misrepresenting for their own ends?

In the New Yorker article and elsewhere, Spartz speaks without hesitation of his fascination with “virality.” His career to date as a web-site entrepreneur has seen him devoting endless energy and data-crunching power to refine again and again his understanding of what causes something to become rapidly and monstrously popular online. The endgame, not surprisingly, is the increasing employment of sub-rational enticements to promote an all but addict-like response from unwitting visitors: use this wording and not that wording, this photo and not that photo, place the headline here and not there, and so forth.

Users caught up in this kind of virality vortex have left the concept of quality just as far behind as have the web sites they visit. Quality by nature is a response of the thinking and feeling being, not a robotic reflex; even if arising in an instantaneous sensation, the recognition of quality springs from the depths of open-hearted intuition, not reptilian-brain instinct. At least those entrepreneurs baiting users into meaningless clicking have the gratification of profit tied up in this awful game; visitors, however, are left after the fact with little but the emotional equivalent of a junk-food coma. What did I just spent all this time doing? And why?

Thankfully, short-sighted hucksters share a common eventual fate: failure, and ridicule. And mark my word, history shall prove these virality chasers to be laughing-stocks, as much for their risible inability to mature beyond a toddler-like sense of greed and entitlement as for their blindness to their own human hearts. They hide behind currently acceptable jargon (innovation! disruption!), incapable of recognizing the painfully familiar and unimaginative nature of their actual endeavor. As Leon Wiseltier wrote recently in the New York Times, “there is nothing innovative about pandering for the sake of a profit.”

Quality is real, quality is not measurable by engineers, and quality will long outshine the petty strivings of page-view millionaires and their Silicon Valley acolytes. If you have a moral compass, you understand the existence and the importance of quality, so right away this gives you a hand-hold on what people who belittle the importance of quality are like—rudderless human beings, blinded by power of one kind or another, and just as likely to do harm as good in the world. Steer clear of these people and for god’s sake avoid their web sites.