Music as Junk Food

It would be a lie to say that I’m not biased, or that I’m not opinionated. We watched a streaming concert tonight from The Decemberists, one of my all time favorite bands. And watching and listening, I’m reminded of the distinction between art and product. The Decemberists are a band made from the traditional mold, with a relatively small number of members, who’ve been together for a good long time, who’ve worked together, toured together, and written together for that time. As in most cases, there is not a perfect creative balance there, as Colin Meloy is decidedly the lyrical genius behind the band. I remember an interview on Fresh Air with Colin shortly after the release of their album The Crane Wife in 2006, which is how I came to hear of them, and when asked about some of the more obscure language he used in his lyrics, he spoke of a desire not to be limited by the fraction of the language that was in common use.

Their songs spring from the mind of this super creative artist, and the band puts together inspired music, with a mix of traditional rock instruments and other less common ones as well. This sits in stark contrast to much of pop music today, which is often written by committee and composed by computer. It strikes me very much as akin to the difference between junk food, which is manufactured of highly processed food-like substances, and which is designed by committee to please a very broad palate, (so lots of sugar and/or salt), with very little that’s unusual or likely to offend. It is designed to be consumed by a large audience, and be inexpensive to produce, so that those who produce it can become wealthy on the razor thin profit margin by producing and selling billions of units. This kind of food, and/or music, provides you only with the basic needs for survival, and nourishes (barely…) only the body, and not the soul. Contrast this with eating a meal at a gourmet restaurant, where the meals are crafted by a chef, who is inspired to find unique and intriguing combinations of flavors, using fresh and local ingredients where possible, and where each serving is created with the care and attention of a professional, in an atmosphere designed to help you relax and enjoy the art.

Anyway, while it is a poor substitute for the in-person concert we were first supposed to attend in 2020, then 2021, then never; seeing them perform is always a treat. They appear to genuinely enjoy each other, and play off each other musically. They play their instruments live, the tempo varies, there is no backing track. Bravo to them, and we will look forward to seeing them perform in person next time around. Here is a sample from a couple of weeks ago:

Hell Toupee

There were still patches of snow on the ground from the weekend’s Ocsnowber Nor’easter, but it was a nice night for trick-or-treating, at about 45 degrees. I had our light on from 6-9 but still only served 10 kids, and 6 of them were in one group! I do my best to be a welcoming house: porch light on, jack-o-lantern out, and I always play some “appropriate” music, but very few kids come through our neighborhood for some reason. My “All Hallows Eve” playlist includes:

Bad Moon Rising — CCR
Bela Lugosi’s Dead — Bauhaus
Black Magic Woman — Santana
Bright Yellow Gun — Throwing Muses
Burnin’ For You — Blue Oyster Cult
Culling of the Fold — Decemberists
Don’t Fear the Reaper — Blue Oyster Cult
Everyday is Halloween — Ministry
Gallows Pole — Led Zeppelin
Hell — Squirrel Nut Zippers
Highway to Hell — AC/DC
Institutionalized — Suicidal Tendencies
The Mariner’s Revenge Song — Decemberists
Monster Mash — Bobby Pickett
Monsters in the Bathroom — Bill Harley
One Halloween Night — SteveSongs
People Who Died — Jim Carroll
Prince Nez — Squirrel Nut Zippers
Psycho Killer — Talking Heads
Run Like Hell — Pink Floyd
Shankill Butchers — Decemberists
Werewolf — SteveSongs
Werewolves of London — Warren Zevon
Zombie — Cranberries

In the afterlife
You could be headed for the serious strife
Now you make the scene all day
But tomorrow there’ll be Hell to pay

–Squirrel Nut Zippers, Hell

Turning the Tables

For my recent (45th, but who’s counting…) birthday, I received a gift that I specifically requested — a deluxe box set of the Decemberists’ latest release, The King is Dead.
Happy Birthday, Tom!
Among other items, it features a pressing on “180 gram white vinyl” which is very cool. Records are making something of a comeback, among audiophiles and a younger crowd to whom they have that coveted “retro chic.” One of the nicest things about records is that the album covers are BIG and therefore the artwork on them is that much more enjoyable than the little CD’s we’ve grown accustomed to. Or worse yet, the thumbnails available on downloaded music. In this case, it’s just a photo of the band (a nice one, though), so perhaps the canvas wasn’t used to best effect, but it’s a pleasure to hold and see nonetheless.

Ironically, I may never get to hear the album this way. The last turntable I owned was also the first I bought, back when I was in high school. We just got rid of it when my parents moved out of their house, and I forget exactly what brand/model it was. But I do remember that it was a “changer” (meaning you could stack records on it to play in turn), and that it had a ceramic cartridge (as opposed to the preferred magnetic). It played 33’s (LP’s), 45’s (singles), and 78’s (oldies — had to flip to the other needle in the cartridge)! I remember that some multi-record sets (dad’s set of Beethoven symphonies, for example) were pressed specifically for record changers, so that you could stack up sides 1,2,3,4 and then flip over the stack for 5,6,7,8, for example. So 8 would be on the back of 1, and 5 on the back of 4, etc. Anyway, records were much more tangible than the recordings we have today. There were people who could look at the grooves on a record and recognize the recording just from that! I still have my collection of old records (somewhere…), so perhaps someday I will buy a turntable. But for now, the record will remain a conversation piece.

I was introduced to The Decemberists back in early 2007, around the time of the release of their Crane Wife album by an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. The lyrics were so different from most pop music, and so refreshing, that I felt intrigued by a band for the first time in perhaps a decade. Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter for the Decemberists, has a unique voice; and while he may throw around “10 dollar words” like they’re going out of style, I prefer his perspective, which to paraphrase, is a desire not to be constrained to using the limited vocabulary currently in vogue. But it’s not just the words, it’s the stories. While it seems to me much of today’s music (and to be fair, not just today’s) can be characterized as regurgitated love songs, the Decemberists explore a much greater range of the human experience, and draw from a wide variety of source material and ideas. Give them a listen, if you haven’t.

January Hymn

On a winter’s Sunday I go,
To clear away the snow,
And green the ground below.

On Friday night, Susan and I went with friends to see our favorite band, the Decemberists, play at the House of Blues in Boston. It was a fun night, which started with dinner at the H.o.B. The opening act was a band called Wye Oak, who were interesting in part due to their configuration: a female lead singer/guitarist, with a male drummer/backup singer. And the drummer only used 3 limbs for drumming — his left hand was playing keyboard and/or twiddling knobs. So they had a surprisingly rich sound for a two person band. His drumming looked rather frenetic as well, as he tried to do two arms worth of drumming with one. So they were intruguing, and I even sort of liked the vocalist’s voice, but you (I) could hardly understand any of her lyrics. And she was quite the shredder on guitar; not my particular favorite style. Anyway, curious enough.

The D’s came on at shortly after 9:00, and played until about 10:15 with a brief break. Disappointingly short set, but we learned later that Colin apparently was suffering from a stomach flu. Sorry, Colin. Last time we had tickets to see them, someone in the band got rather sick, and they had to cancel the remainder of their tour. That one was called The Long and Short of It, and it was two nights: one for their long songs, and another for their short ones. We had tickets to both nights, which was quite extravagant for us, and so very disappointing to have it canceled. But again, our feelings were with the band (mostly). We missed them when they came around for the Hazards of Love tour, which certainly would have been fun. Anyway, I can’t claim to be much of a music critic, but we certainly enjoyed the show — it was a good mix of material from their new album, and older tunes. And on the bright side, it saved us some baby-sitting money 🙂