But I took my chances

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.03 – March 2023

So we’re going through another stretch of time during which, among other disconcerting things, AI is receiving a lot of renewed attention. It looks serious this time, huh? Robotic programs creating content on demand that appears to mimic human output, generated by appropriating existing material (with or without permission), launched off the capacity to crunch data at a superhuman level with no awareness of human context, and utilizing truly off-putting amounts of energy in the process. What could possibly go wrong?

I will tiptoe past the many and varied moral, psychological, sociological, and technological issues posed by this brave new world we’ve stumbled into and shoot right to the overlooked heart of the matter. Which is: do we as human beings care to be communicated to by machines? Of course we already are, all the time. There’s Siri, there’s Alexa, there are those robotic voices that answer customer service calls. An algorithm, likewise, is robotic communication; the songs that Spotify has “chosen” for you, that’s a machine doing the choosing. These new AI bots, however, offer a new level of machine communication because in these cases what the machine spits out isn’t just a list of recommended objects or preprogrammed sound bites but written words or graphic images or music that didn’t previously exist, and that may look and/or sound like something a living breathing human being might produce.

That a living breathing human being did not produce these things is, in fact, a profound difference. For template-oriented writing and commercial graphics this is not necessarily a big deal (except of course for people who may lose jobs in the process). But for anything resembling a creative effort the difference as I see it is chasm-like. My personal bottom line is: if a human being, with a depth of consciousness, a network of personal and familial relationships, and (important) awareness of their own mortality is writing a book or a song or painting a picture or doing any other variety of artistic endeavor, there’s a good reason to look and/or listen. This is one consciousness reaching out to another. That’s what art exists to do. If a machine–with no capacity to understand what it’s communicating, no depth of consciousness, no organic existence in our inter-relational world–is “creating” something, I have little interest in what it’s “saying.”

All of this is a (very) roundabout way of noting that these monthly playlists are the conscious effort of one human being reaching out to any other human being who finds their way here. Even if AI could assemble this exact list of 20 songs in the same order (ha! I dare it), this would not be the same experience. Or, correction: to the casual listener, I suppose it would be the same–same songs, same order, what’s the difference? But to an attentive music lover, how can this be the same? Doesn’t it matter that the songs are selected by a human being with a history, an idiosyncratic knowledge of the music being presented, an intuitive sense of what fits together, and a heartfelt interest in connecting with other similarly-minded humans? If we’ve gotten to the point where surface is all that matters, then we have surrendered an important part of our own humanity, which is our depth. I suppose another word for this is “soul,” which is precisely what AI lacks and will never acquire simply through the prodigious capacity to crunch data. (For a more developed series of thoughts on the matter, I’ll refer you to an essay I wrote three years ago entitled “Yeah, but is it art?”.)

And look: no doubt AI has the capacity to stimulate genuine human creativity based on what it produces; this may well lead to fruitful expression rooted in human effort and sensitivity. But chatbot output, of the kind the internet is currently marveling over, while fascinating at a surface level, is just extra noise as far as I’m concerned–and as such another excellent reminder to limit my screen time and make ongoing efforts to interact with the physical world and, even if online, actual individual humans.

End of soapbox. Note that this is the second playlist released in March, as I aim to be back on track numerically speaking, after February eluded me. As always, the widget for listening is below the list of songs. If you are not a robot and are interested in some extra notes about this month’s assortment, scroll down past the widget.

Here’s what you’ll hear:

1. “In France They Kiss on Main Street” – Joni Mitchell (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
2. “Cash Machine” – Hard-Fi (Stars on CCTV, 2004)
3. “Sharp Words” – Original Mirrors (Original Mirrors, 1980)
4. “The Pins” – Sara Radle (Same Sun Shines, 2012)
5. “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (Make It Happen, 1967)
6. “You’re in a Bad Way” – Saint Etienne (So Tough, 1993)
7. “Last Train Home” – Pat Metheny Group (Still Life (Talking), 1987)
8. “The Runner” – Allison Russell (Outside Child, 2021)
9. “Paris 1919” – John Cale (Paris 1919, 1973)
10. “You’re Not Alone” – People and Stars (People and Stars EP, 2016)
11. “Look Outside” – Broadcast (The Noise Made By People, 2000)
12. “Heartbeats Accelerating” – Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Heartbeats Accelerating, 1990)
13. “Souvenir” – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Architecture & Morality, 1981)
14. “LA Rain” – The Mynabirds (What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, 2010)
15. “Expressway to Your Heart” – The Soul Survivors (Absolute Torch and Twang, 1989)
16. “Bag of Hammers” – Thao & The Get Down Stay Down (We Brave Bee Stings and All, 2008)
17. “Pay As You Go” – Wayne Shorter (Second Genesis, 1960/1974)
18. “Drown” – Son Volt (Trace, 1995)
19. “Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977” – Steve Forbert (Alive on Arrival, 1978)
20. “The Worst is Done” – Weyes Blood (And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, 2022)

The fine print:

* It’s 46 years nearly to the day from the slice of time captured in Steve Forbert’s poignant “Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977,” found on his mighty debut album, 1978’s Alive on Arrival. However long-ago a moment he is chronicling via song here, the cool and somewhat comforting thing is that his light-footed descriptions sound all but timeless: there’s nothing in the scene he paints from a day spent busking in Grand Central that couldn’t describe the same scene these many years later. Sure, there are prominent contemporary specifics he couldn’t have written about–notably, the phone-scrollers and ear-bud-talkers–but by and large Grand Central was and is Grand Central, recognizably so to this day and beyond.

* I’m still waiting, hopefully, for another album from Laura Berhenn, who does musical business as The Mynabirds. Her 2010 debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, remains a retro-fueled joy from start to finish; her most recent release, 2017’s Be Here Now was another strong effort, with more of an ’80s than a ’60s flair in this case. Long-time Fingertips visitors may recall any one or another of the four times the Mynabirds have been featured in the MP3 section here (see Artist Index for details); Berhenn has also been tapped twice previously for inclusion in a playlist. While I know that the real-life LA rains have caused no minor amount of havoc and distress this year, the rain also had at least a bit of a bright side vis-à-vis the area’s long-standing drought. Berhenn’s song seems well pitched between tragedy and detachment, with its plaintive swing and matter-of-fact fortitude.

* Here’s another chance for you to be reminded of the glory of Allison Russell’s 2021 debut album, the painful yet triumphant Outside Child. No offense (necessarily) meant to 14-year-old TikTokkers (or to AI robots, for that matter), but the output of a mature, life-experienced artist is music coming to us from another, much weightier plane of existence and authenticity than the attention-seeking twaddle craved by audiences trained by now not to know any better, or even care. More than ever it’s up to you and me to acknowledge and honor the difference–to remember that even here in the inferno live some who “are not inferno,” as per old friend Italo Calvino, and to salute and encourage them.

* The short-lived British new wave band Original Mirrors laid down some indelible tracks before dissolving due to commercial disinterest. Personally I’m not sure why a song like “Sharp Words” didn’t become a new wave classic, along with their incisive cover of the Supremes’ oddly psychedelic tune “Reflections.” You can check out their self-titled debut album on Spotify; the one follow-up, Heart Twango and Raw Beat, has no digital existence. At the end of the day, the most notable thing about Original Mirrors is probably that it was co-founded by Ian Broudie, who later went on to some bit of fame and fortune as mastermind behind the Lightning Seeds. His co-founder was Steve Allen, a semi-known quantity back in the day as front man for the somewhat influential art rockers Deaf School.

* Speaking of which, the new wave era introduced me firsthand to the delightful quirks and charms of the British pop charts. The idea that a loping, melodic, synth-filled song such as “Souvenir” could be a smash hit in the UK in 1981 (it peaked there at #3) delighted me. The US charts from that same time frame had some half-decent stuff and some (let’s just say) fluff, but nothing that sounded like OMD. The band would not hit the top 10 in the US until 1986, with the smoother, poppier “If You Leave,” a song launched to the big time by its prominent use in the popular movie Pretty in Pink.

* This playlist’s seemingly inevitable memorial entrant comes from saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who died this month at age 89. While his jazz pedigree is impeccable, with early-career experience with both Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet, he is probably best known to rock’n’roll fans as founder of the celebrated fusion band Weather Report, and soon after for playing extensively with Joni Mitchell, appearing on all 10 studio albums she released between 1977 and 2002. Another rock-fan highlight: Shorter’s memorable tenor sax solo three-quarters of the way through the Steely Dan epic “Aja.” “Pay As You Go” is a short, spiffy track from the second solo album Shorter recorded, in 1960. For whatever reason, the album, Second Genesis, was not released until 1974. Note that I don’t listen to jazz as aficionados seem to; I’m not tracking the sounds and tones of the instrumentalists or the explicit manner of their interactions. I hear energetic playing and an engaging (and concise!) tune and I’m happy.

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