Eclectic Vol 5

One of my ongoing beefs with the futurist contention that music is destined to move entirely into the cloud, that access will obliterate ownership, is the inevitability of gaps in the libraries of music streaming services. I love that streaming is available but I will mourn the day it becomes the only thing available, because no streaming service will ever offer everything. The vagaries of music licensing are just too, well, vague. Do we want high-quality, deep-value songs to disappear simply because the Acme Streaming Service can’t license them for streaming?

This is a roundabout way of introducing you to the fact that two songs I have included in the original version of Volume 5 in the Fingertips Eclectic Playlist Series are not available on Spotify. I did my best to replace the absent songs with reasonable fits, but anyone who has ever spent time aiming for a tightly conceived mix will know that there is no precise replacement. And, so, here: “Afternoon in Kanda,” from Jesse Harris, should actually be Oscar Isaac’s affecting cover of “The Death of Queen Jane,” from the soundtrack to the film Inside Llewyn Davis; and where the true version of the playlist has the song “Stoned Out of My Mind,” by the Chi-Lites, I have substituted “Drowning in the Sea of Love,” by Joe Simon. Spotify only carries three songs from the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, for unknown reasons, and, as many times that “Stoned Out of My Mind” by the Chi-Lites is available on Spotify, it appears always to be a re-recorded version, not the original 1973 studio version, which I prefer without hesitation.

The good news is the playlist will eventually appear as originally intended when I get around to making a Mixcloud version. The less good news is I still haven’t gotten a Mixcloud version of Vol. 4 online yet, so Vol. 5 is no doubt a good few weeks from being Mixclouded. The bastardized Spotify iteration will have to do in the meantime. And there are of course plenty of fine tunes on board, as always. I am happy to include the overlooked Elvis Costello treasure “No Hiding Place,” from his rapidly created 2008 album Momofuku; the whole album isn’t operating at quite the same level, but that would be difficult, as this song stands up with the best of anything he’s written, in my mind. The Boz Scaggs song that follows is from his landmark Silk Degrees album, but it is a song I had entirely forgotten about until I heard Bruce Warren play it recently on one of his casually masterful weekend radio shows on WXPN here in Philadelphia. The St. Vincent song, from her new-ish self-titled album, is a formidable keeper, a song which I feel will emerge in future decades as powerfully evocative of whatever it is we are going through right now. The Grays’ song “Both Belong,” meanwhile, from the first half of the’90s, strikes me as powerfully evocative of a time period that until recently seemed not very long ago but now seems nearly as remote as the one other rock’n'roll decade that rivals it for its breadth and quality of music (which to me would be the ’70s). By the time we get to “Dime a Dozen Guy,” an overlooked Marshall Crenshaw treasure from 1999, things seem back in the realm of the more recent past, somehow. What went on from 1994 to 1999 that makes those five years seem like almost 15 in retrospect I will leave to historians to fathom.

For those who want or need the direct Spotify URL:

And for those who are interested but are not Spotify members, and therefore can’t access the list (once it’s on Mixcloud, of course, there is no hiding place), here are the songs featured, along with year of release and album of origin, if any:

“Här Är Det (Here It Is)” – Ebba Forsberg (Ta Min Vals/Sjunger Leonard Cohen, 2009)
“The Rainy Season” – Howard Devoto (Jerky Versions of the Dream, 1983)
“A Shot in the Arm” – Wilco (Summerteeth, 1999)
“One in a Million” – Maxine Brown (single, 1966)
“No Hiding Place” – Elvis Costello and the Imposters (Momofuku, 2008)
“Love Me Tomorrow” – Boz Scaggs (Silk Degrees, 1976)
“Love and Anger” – Kate Bush (The Sensual World, 1989)
“Digital Witness” – St. Vincent (St. Vincent, 2014)
“Sick of Myself” – Matthew Sweet (100% Fun, 1995)
“Lost” – Dusty Springfield (A Brand New Me, 1970)
“Talking” – Annuals (Such Fun, 2008)
“Myself to Myself” – Romeo Void (It’s a Condition, 1981)
“Both Belong” – The Grays (Ro Sham Bo, 1994)
“Down to Zero” – Joan Armatrading (Joan Armatrading, 1976)
“Afternoon in Kanda” – Jesse Harris (Sub Rosa, 2012)
“The Execution of All Things” – Rilo Kiley (The Execution of All Things, 2002)
“Drowning in the Sea of Love” – Joe Simon (Drowning in the Sea of Love, 1971)
“Dime a Dozen Guy” – Marshall Crenshaw (#447, 1999)
“The Fox” – Niki & The Dove (The Fox, 2011)
“We Belong Together” – Rickie Lee Jones (Pirates, 1981)

If you are just tuning in to the Eclectic Playlist Series, I suggest likewise going back and seeing what you missed in the first four installments, as follows:

- Volume 1 (featuring Brian Eno, Ben Folds Five, Laura Veirs, New Order, et al.)
- Volume 2 (featuring The Stone Roses, Arcade Fire, Björk, Randy Newman, et al.)
- Volume 3 (featuring Liz Phair, Vampire Weekend, Connie Francis, Stevie Wonder, et al.)
- Volume 4 (featuring Courtney Barnett, the Grateful Dead, the Cars, Portishead, et al.)

Ages and Ages

“Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)” – Ages and Ages

The fine line between good-catchy and bad-catchy remains indistinct. And, of course, one person’s good-catchy may be another’s bad-catchy. But I do have two basic guidelines. First, there has to be an actual melody. Mindless repetition, or silly chanting, for me, is bad-catchy, not good-catchy. Secondly, there should be a sense of softness to counteract the unavoidable bluntness of aiming to be catchy in the first place. Neither ears nor minds generally speaking like to be bludgeoned without respite. And by softness I am not talking about volume; I simply mean I want to sense the humanity in the music. Lord knows the songwriting factories behind most of today’s Top 40 (arguably a more homogeneous-sounding Top 40 than at most other points in pop music history) have taken formulaic bad-catchiness to new heights (or depths), with robotic sheen and mercenary techniques obliterating any whiff of palpable human-being-ness.

“Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)” is an antidote to that kind of musical conception and delivery. An ambling, deftly-building piece of homespun wisdom, the song centers around a swaying, repeating, group-sung chorus that manages the neat trick of sounding both goofy and inspiring. While the song employs one recurring melody for both verse and chorus, it adds depth and interest via heedful instrumentation and a variety of counter-melodies that rise in conjunction with the chorus as the band forges onward with redoubtable exuberance.

The title track to the band’s new album, “Divisionary” has been floating around the internet for a few months, but only recently, to my knowledge, became available as a free and legal MP3, via NPR Music’s excellent SXSW-related cache of downloads. The album was released on Partisan Records at the end of March. Ages and Ages is a seven-member band from Portland, and were featured previously on Fingertips in August 2011.

Rae Morris

“Skin” – Rae Morris

“Skin” launches off an ear-grabbing tick-tock rhythm, glides into a precisely calibrated duskiness, and builds unerring drama and interest from the knowing interplay between an itchy drumbeat and melancholy, softly-voiced piano chords. Morris—21 and British—emerges here as a young Kate Bush for the Lorde generation, with an elastic tone that ranges from sweet to muscular, and an elusive speech idiosyncrasy (listen to her “r”s) that seems only to add character to her already formidable presence.

I am not sure whether to thank Morris or her producer (Ariel Reichtshaid, who has worked with everyone from Cass McCombs and Vampire Weekend to Skye Ferreira and Kylie Minogue), but I love how adeptly “Skin” transcends “girl-at-piano”-type rock music. Part of this has to do with how obliquely the piano is employed; it never goes away, but it is very much an ensemble player here, creating the sense that every chord that does come forward is there for a purpose, not just because the singer plays piano. And then there is the song itself, and its subtly indelible chorus, which would not be as effective as it is without its unusual setting. First, there’s a pre-chorus (first heard at 0:51), followed by a chorus involving two asymmetrical iterations of its central motif. The second time (1:12), the “We break the rules” melody is repeated, after which new lyrics blossom without warning into the song’s pivotal moment: “We break our hearts and pretty much everything.”

From the seaside city of Blackpool, in North West England, Morris was signed to Atlantic Records when just 19. “Skin” was released in January, available as a free download via SoundCloud, and will apparently end up on her debut album, scheduled for release this summer. Morris has been releasing a series of EPs since late 2013; the latest is due out next month. A new single from the forthcoming EP, “Do You Even Know,” is available to stream via via SoundCloud.


“Melt” – Heyrocco

Here’s a shot of adrenaline for you ’90s rock fans, full of loud crunchy guitars, gratifying melodies, slightly affected-while-trying-not-to-sound-affected vocals, sexually forward lyrics (“When you undo/My belt/I melt”), and some of that loud/soft oscillation that worked so well before smartphones took over (not that there’s a connection…necessarily…). In the bigger picture of things, “Melt” is timeless rock’n'roll—young men making their desire desirable via backbeat, melody, and loud crunchy guitars.

But notice the tempo here. It’s got a backbeat, yes, but a deliberate one. For all the mighty, bottom-heavy sound on display, “Melt” is nearly a ballad, albeit a loud and R-rated one. (Tricky of a power trio to wrap its sensitive side into a thunderous song that appears to be at least partially about premature ejaculation.) And yet this is not to be confused with those treacly so-called “power ballads” arena rock bands used to churn out back in the day. This is maybe just a slowed-down rock song, but with such brawny vitality that the crowd’s going to dance anyway. From start to finish, the sound is stout and bracing; the simple, declarative chorus is the definition of killer; and the guitar solo you have waited patiently for (2:46) is a concise, off-kilter triumph. For three minutes and forty-nine seconds you can pretend Bill Clinton is still president.

Heyrocco is a young trio from Charleston, South Carolina with one digital-only full-length release to date, 2012′s Comfort, which you can listen to and/or buy via Bandcamp. A full-fledged debut album is expected later this year.

We have so quickly grown accustomed to social-media-fueled communication that it seems almost quaint to remember that one-to-many communication was once both difficult and expensive to arrange. Only people who were either public figures or professional communicators were routinely put in the position of communicating at a distance to multiple people at the same time.

Today, anyone engaged with social media is typically doing so many different times a day, effectively for free. Sending the same message simultaneously to lots of different people we know is easy and fun and oh so efficient.

As a matter of fact, the internet not only allows us ready access to one-to-many communication, it seems to have flipped the equation in terms of what kind of communication is more readily employed. After all: how many of your friends and family members have sent you a personal email in the last week, or have actually called you on the phone, versus how many have sent you a social media message of one kind or another?

Easy and fun and efficient is winning out at this point, yes?

But where, I am beginning to wonder, does all this easy fun efficient communication leave the people on the receiving end?

Potentially overwhelmed by information, for one thing, but that’s not my immediate concern. I am concerned, instead, about the genuine and vital human need for specific attention, which is decidedly overlooked in the social media milieu.

Each of us is an individual, with the thoughts and feelings of an individual, the challenges and joys and desires and frustrations and dreams of an individual. And, in the course of our daily existence, one of our basic needs, as individuals, is for communication that substantiates and validates this individuality. Up until very recently, this was one of the wonderful things friendship was for.

Today, thanks to social media, even communication that happens in what is supposed to be our personal space is all too often replaced by the impersonal communication fostered by Facebook and other social media applications.

The rise of impersonal communication

Because that’s what one-to-many communication is, by necessity: impersonal communication. It may come from someone you know, it may have to do with circumstances you are familiar with, but such communication is not being specifically tailored to the individual that you are. This is a new mode of relating to one another—”I know you personally but I will address you impersonally”—and it’s sad, to me, in an elusive but powerful way.

On the sending side, the impersonality of personal broadcasting strikes me as an equal if not greater cause of subtle sorrow. Say you share a personally meaningful tidbit on Facebook with your social network only to be greeted with silence—no responses, no comments, not even any “likes.” Isn’t this kind of crummy? Or do most people not even notice, because it’s really more about the sending than the receiving? Which is also kind of crummy, if you think about it.

Of course non-responding recipients don’t mean to be making you feel badly. The nature of social media frees the recipients from the obligation to respond. This is hardly the same as letting a personal letter sent via the post office go unanswered.

But to me, this is exactly, and cumulatively, the problem. The central means of communication we have adopted in our 21st-century lives has freed us from not only the obligation but, one might suggest, the desire to respond to even our actual friends and family members.

And all this impersonal communication fostered by social media is actually so unnecessary. Here we have the most powerful and widely-utilized communication-oriented invention in the history of humankind—the internet—and it’s like we’ve pushed the one-to-many button and it’s gotten stuck.

The internet, after all, is still an unprecedented tool for genuinely personal communication. The asynchronous instantaneity of email remains a powerful way to dive into thoughtful conversations with close friends and relatives. Texting has its virtues, as long as you let it overwhelm neither your ability to be physically present nor your capacity for handling more involved or time-consuming dialogue. And, of course, picture-phone technology such as that offered by Skype or FaceTime allows us to turn a personal, one-to-one telephone conversation into a face-to-face(-like) encounter with ease.

But something about the social-media revolution of the ’10s seems to have cooled our collective enthusiasm for one-to-one communication, however beautifully enhanced the internet has rendered it.

Talking to everyone and no one

Perhaps the unabashed, on-display metrics of social media have hypnotized us into believing that even in matters of the heart and spirit, quantity counts more than quality. Social media applications love to display your number of friends and followers, while continually encouraging you to find more. And there these contacts sit day after day, all but begging us to address them—which of course is easily done with quick status updates and tweets via handheld devices we rarely let out of our grip. We are encouraged to send out personal details—new photos, new recipes, new jobs, new ideas, new links on the web—and forget we are wrapping them in an impersonal package. In talking to everyone collectively, we talk to no one individually.

Beyond the immediate realm of social media, there is no confusion about the difference between personal and impersonal communication. Even when Kevin Spacey’s character on House of Cards talks to you on the screen, you understand he is not talking to you personally, he is talking, collectively, to the audience who is watching. Talking at them, essentially. As theater, this is both reasonable and entertaining.

But in our lives, with our actual relationships, we seem willing to go along with the ruse. When your friends on Facebook send messages they are not talking to you personally but to the collected audience of people who happen to be “watching.” But because you know them, the illusion that they are in fact talking to you is easier to believe. But they are merely talking at you.

And don’t get me wrong—personal broadcasting surely has great utility in our interconnected world. Being able to say the same thing to lots of people at once is helpful in many contexts. Twitter, for instance, has almost single-handedly given those who aspire to the position of “thought leader” in any given industry an unprecedented platform. This is the power of personal broadcasting at its best.

I also understand the argument many might make that hearing from far-flung friends and family in any manner, impersonally or not, is better than not hearing from them at all. Facebook has surely put people in touch who would otherwise not be in one another’s lives in any fashion, and this seems only a positive thing.

Should friends be an audience?

But note the context. People you would “not hear from at all” if you were not receiving their impersonal, broadcast messages are, by definition, people with whom you are not close—people who don’t really know you in the here and now, nor you them. Distant friends, cousins many times removed, and random scattered acquaintances may in fact be the ideal audience for impersonal messaging: you sort of know them, so you believe they are addressing you more than Kevin Spacey is, but you also don’t really know them, so you are not unconsciously expecting any kind of direct connection.

There have recently been studies that have suggested that using Facebook is often a depressing experience for people. Articles discussing such studies typically focus on the potential for Facebook users to feel envious while watching a parade of pictures and status updates from friends having joyful and exciting experiences. This leads to stress and sadness, goes the theory.

I have yet to see anyone discuss what might be the bigger underlying problem, which is social media’s one-to-many communication mode. We seem so enamored of our newfound broadcasting powers we have thus far overlooked the discouraging effects both of being ongoingly talked at by our very own friends and family members and of being often deprived of personal responses when we ourselves are doing the broadcasting.

Simply put, one-to-many works best when the “many” and the “one” have no personal relationship. In this case, the inherent impersonality of this type of communication is no issue. When the broadcaster, on the other hand, is someone who does in fact have personal knowledge of who you are, of what your life is like, of what matters to you, and so forth, finding yourself now merely a member of his or her “audience” may not feel especially gratifying or connective.

Meanwhile, broadcasting via social media puts a person continually in the position of seeking an audience, not seeking a personal connection. This is why people are routinely discouraged if they post a status update on Facebook and only one person comments. If they were seeking a personal connection, they might be delighted with one comment. But they are actually seeking an audience, and an audience of one feels like failure.

To me, the actual failure is the over-use of personal broadcasting. To experience our connections through impersonally-directed snippets on social media is to be denied the heart and soul of friendship.

It all gets back to the idea of being specifically tended to. This is what social media works to take away from us. We have no reason to assume a friend is ever expressly thinking of us when he or she sends thoughts or news out into the social-media world, and we are never guaranteed the reassuring attention of a friend when we, in turn, send our own thoughts and news into that relentless stream.

Obviously this is not a black-and-white situation. There are still good reasons to employ social media for personal broadcasting. And there obviously remain many other ways to reach out to our closer connections, beyond sending out social-media salvos. I am just not convinced we are doing this as often as honest-to-goodness friendship might seemingly both require and desire now that we have this new communication tool so centrally placed in our arsenal.

Recently it has occurred to me to wonder if our online social reality is some weird kind of karmic retribution for life in the Citizens United era here in the United States. The Supreme Court, after all, would have us treat collections of human beings (i.e., corporations) as we would individual human beings. Substituting broadcast communication too broadly for personal communication seems to me to be part of the same category error.

Personal broadcasting has yet to make quite so many people quite as angry as the Citizens United decision, of course. But time may yet tell.