by Anna Merlan
I haven’t written one of these columns in a long time. That’s because I’m getting ready to move to New York City for graduate school in about a month and a half. This is amazing and great and terrifying and makes me feel a little bit like throwing up everywhere. I haven’t done that yet, which is really better for both my esophagus and the carpet in my room. But that does mean that I need to pack up that room, and I’m going to need a seriously huge amount of music to pack by. This is actually a rather tricky balancing act. Boxing my things up means that I’m going through all the stuff I’ve accumulated in the six years I’ve spent in Santa Cruz; that time represents roughly two and a half relationships, seven houses, twenty-odd roommates (in some cases very odd), one bachelor’s degree, three or four jobs, and the consumption of a truly staggering number of fruit snacks. I know I’m going to get mired down looking at old photos, reading old journals, and staring at ancient pairs of underwear, wondering why in the hell I’ve taken the trouble of moving them seven times. I need music that’s reflective without being depressive, buoyant without being gratingly cheerful, and interesting enough to keep me partially distracted but not completely new and unfamiliar. Or maybe I’m just insanely high-maintenance and totally procrastinating and I need to just turn my stupid iPod to shuffle and get on with already. I guess that’s a possibility too.
I’ve been reluctant to start packing up, honestly – I spent the first eight months in this house living out of boxes, because I’m astoundingly lazy and it was neater that way. I was also fairly broke and didn’t know how long I’d be staying, which made getting furniture really daunting. I didn’t want to take all the trouble to unpack, only to have to get rid of everything again a month later. But right around January or so, my wonderful housemate Christina made it her personal mission to mock me into furnishing my room. I would complain about how cold it was in there at night and she’d snort gleefully and say something like, “Maybe if you put some goddamn furniture in there it would lessen the Arctic chill!” Or she’d wander in, look at the wall of boxes I was also using as a makeshift dresser and say, very gently, “It looks like total shit in here.”
She was right. By March, I’d spent fifty bucks and furnished the whole damn room. Then a week later I found out I’d gotten into school and I’d be moving again. There’s a lesson in here somewhere, but I refuse to figure out what it is. So the other day I started packing up. I was selling my awesome avocado-green bookshelf to my friend Veronica, which meant cleaning it off, going through all the books, and dusting the thing. This took me four hours, roughly an hour per shelf. Are you starting to see why music is such a key part of this process? I don’t even want to tell you how long it’s going to take me to do the closet. So I dug around in my computer files for a bit and finally settled on an album, originally released in 1994, that I just got a couple weeks ago – Holiday, by the Magnetic Fields. Stephin Merritt’s sad little robot voice sounds like a dispatch from a heartbreak hotel on the moon, but his deliciously sunny electro-beats make it hard to get too down. And he’s so fucking smart! His lyrics make dizzying arcs and loops around you before landing into the most satisfying, anthemic choruses. Take “Strange Powers,” when he sings, “On the Ferris wheel, looking out on Coney Island /under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand/Our hair in the air, our lips blue from cotton candy/ when we kiss it feels like a flying saucer landing/ And I can’t sleep, ‘cause you got strange powers/ you’re in my dreams/ you got strange powers over me…” He simultaneously decimates the whole idea of a love song and re-writes it better, smarter, quirkier. Love Song 2.0.
Holiday was a good choice because it’s newish, so I haven’t had time to get bored with it, but I love the Magnetic Fields, so it doesn’t feel totally unfamiliar. Take Charm of the Highway Strip, also courtesy of Mr. Merritt and Co. It’s one of my favorite records ever, but it also makes me think very specifically of July 9 – 15, 2009, and, to a lesser extent, of October 7 of the same year. That can be a great feeling, when a song or an album brings you right back to a certain place, the way the smell of cigarette smoke and dusty perfume on a shirt you pull out of the bottom drawer does. But right now I’m trying to move forward – the only things that will do are either records so old they don’t remind me of anything specific at all, or new things by bands that I already love.
With that in mind, I’m starting a list of other stuff I’ll be able to listen to while packing – so far I’ve settled on Tim, by the Replacements, and That Much Further West, by Lucero. Tim is like a perfect drinking buddy sitting next to you at the bar – maudlin and raucous and sweet all at the same time. It’s filled with this hard-earned, slightly battered wisdom, along with a thin, sharp vein of dark humor and a little bit of real pain running underneath all that rowdy guitar fuzz and boozy charm. “Left of the Dial” is also pretty much a perfect pop song; every time Paul Westerberg chokes out that line, “Sweet Georgia breezes, safe, cool, and warm…” it gives me shivers.
That Much Further West is also in my top five favorite records, not to get all High Fidelity on your ass. In some ways it’s a great choice for packing, because it’s all about travel, the open road, missing somebody who’s somewhere else, driving all night chain-smoking and stewing about some girl who’s sleeping in an upstairs room across the country. It’s an album about love fading, people leaving, things ending – sweet Jesus, I must be high. I’ve literally just talked myself out of that one in mid-sentence. It is in no way a good idea to listen to that while I pack. I’ll dig it out again in three years, when I’m settled someplace else and things aren’t quite so sharp to the touch.
So that leaves me with two records for what’s sure to be about three weeks of work. I need suggestions, people. My brother recommended The Cars self-titled for when I drive away, which I liked a lot. “Not the greatest hits,” he argued, when I mentioned that as another option. “There’s too much shit on there. Do you really want to be forced to listen to ‘Drive?’ While driving? Horrible.” He’s a smart man, my brother.
I was also thinking that Judas Priest would be great moving music. It’s hard to get too introspective and self-pitying when you’re listening to “Turbo Lover,” right? But seriously, give me your moving music recommendations, people. I’ve got a lot to do over here.
by Anna Merlan
I was at work the other day, checking in some orders and talking to my extremely cool friend Ralph, when The Police Greatest Hits came on the store sound system. Without warning, an immensely clear, forceful and highly significant realization struck me. “Ralph,” I said thoughtfully, “I never ever need to hear the song ‘Roxanne’ again. Ever.” Ralph nodded, a little wearily. He’s worked at Streetlight a lot longer than I have, and he knew exactly what I meant.
There are some songs I never seem to get tired of; I’ve been playing Neko Case’s “Hold on Hold On,” from her album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, for months now, and I’m still fascinated with the way her lyrics fit together, the flexible violet steel tone of her voice when she sings, “now it’s the devil I love, and it’s as funny as real love, and it’s as real as true love…” I’ve written before about Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call; every time I listen to “Brompton Oratory,” I get something else from it, as he sings about the “great shadowed vault” of the cathedral, and, thinking of his absent love, “The blood imparted in little sips/The smell of you still on my hands /As I bring the cup up to my lips…” Songs like these have layers of meaning; the song changes as you do, expanding or narrowing to fit your mood, your level of concentration, the way you resonate with a chord change, a word choice, a drum solo or the catch in the singer’s voice. The same goes for some albums: the Drive-By Truckers Southern Rock Opera is one of my absolute favorite records, a sprawling double-disc epic about Lynyrd Skynyrd, growing up in the 1970’s Deep South, punk rock, plane crashes, alcoholism, love, death, remorse and dropping acid as a 14-year-old while watching Blue Oyster Cult. I’m a youngish Jew from New Mexico who can’t really identify personally with a lot of that subject matter, but in the years I’ve been listening to those songs, they’ve always taken me somewhere new. Getting inside songs like these is a little bit like a burglar crawling in through the doggy door, to use a really inelegant metaphor. It takes a while to crawl into these songs, but once you get there you’re rewarded with a mansion of meaning, and every repeated listen brings you into another room, stranger and more colorful and further away from the front door than the last.
It’s not just that I’m sick of hearing “Roxanne” because it’s on the radio every twelve seconds. It’s because, for me personally, the song gave me everything it had to offer in the first five or ten times I heard it. When I listen to it, I hear a song about a guy who just doesn’t want his girlfriend to continue being a prostitute. It doesn’t matter what she wants, and he sure as hell doesn’t suggest any other ways for her to earn a living, he just really, really wants her to stop putting on that red light. If Sting wants his ladyfriend to stay home of an evening and do some knitting instead of plying the world’s oldest profession, fine. Whatever. It might piss me off as a feminist and pain me as a writer when he rhymes “light” with “night” and essentially tells this woman to stop alley-catting it around just because he says so, but that doesn’t mean somebody else won’t find different things to appreciate in that song the 100th time they hear it. Interpretation is a slippery thing like that.
Take “Free Falling.” I love Tom Petty. I find the man strangely attractive, and I think the lines “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell but I won’t back down” are a pretty good summation of exactly the kind of fuck-you ethos that makes rock n roll so great. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was the first music video I think I ever saw, and it scared the shrieking bejesus out of me. You’ve seen it too: he kidnaps his dead girlfriend from the morgue and embalms and wines and dines her, then dances her around the living room. It looks like some serious necrophilia is about to go down, but then he just puts her body in the water and lets her drift out to sea. Sure, Tom Petty. Sure you did. Anyway, my point is that the man is great, and kind of a weirdo, and he once declared bankruptcy just to embarrass his record label, which is pretty badass. But if I hear “Free Falling” one more time I will tear the stereo from my car and run screaming naked as a jaybird down the street. I don’t need to listen to yet another tired old song about a bad man leaving a good girl (or a five-year old – she loves horses and Elvis and her momma and Jesus? Really, Tom Petty, are you writing about a grown woman here? Do you know anything about her at all? This reads like the first lines of a bad Match.com profile, not a summation of an actual human being) That song gave me everything I could get from it the third time I heard it – the way his voice opens up when he sings, “It’s a long day livin’ in Reseda/there’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard,” those delicate glassy chords at the beginning that fall down like water into the first verse. But I’ve finished with that song, the same way I don’t really need to ever eat another Snickers bar. I know what they taste like, and I know I prefer M&Ms. But somebody else is going to get something new every time they eat a Snickers or listen to that particular song, the same way I could listen to Drive-By Truckers “Dead Drunk and Naked” 1,000 times and still not be done with it. I did love “Free Falling” at one point, and now our love affair is over, just like “Building a Mystery” or “Say It Ain’t So” or a bunch of of other things. I might look back fondly, but I don’t need to revisit them every time I turn on the radio.
So out of curiosity I went around to my coworkers and asked them what songs they’re done with, the ones they’ve loved and left behind. It can be hard at first to distinguish these songs from ones we never really liked at all (and we came up with a lot of those – J.J. alone named “One Week,” by Barenaked Ladies, “Sell Out” by Reel Big Fish, “Hotel California,” “Bridge Over Trouble Water,” pretty much anything by the Steve Miller Band – the list goes on, and they’re all equally shitty. Nice work, J.J.). Katy Grace came up with “Sweet Home Alabama,” which I think is an excellent choice. Our manager Roger named “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor, and added, upon further reflection, “and pretty much all of his greatest hits too.” Chelsea went with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – sorry, Joy Division diehards. Mari added a Sly and the Family Stone song, but I can’t remember which one because I lost that Post-It note. I do all my rough drafts on Post-Its. I’m an idiot. Mari, if you’re reading this, make sure to let us know what it was. Ralph was torn between “Purple Haze” and the Doors’ “Break On Through.” And Rob, our classical music buyer, and a lovely man who is immensely fed up with all our pop and punk and rock bullshit on the stereo, closed his eyes in exquisite pain and said emphatically, “We Will Rock You. By Queen. Never again. Never, ever again.” So tell us, esteemed commenters: what song do you never need to hear again, and why?
by Anna Merlan
It seems like everyone’s got a workout mix. People sometimes like to justify their CD purchases to me by explaining that they’re going to use it for exercise: “This is awful,” they’ll say, plunking Justin Timberlake or Pink or Britney Spears down on the counter, “But it’s really great music to work out to.”
Until suicide becomes my preferred workout method, Ms. Spears will not be occupying my ears while I’m at the gym. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t occupy yours, or that you should feel embarrassed about what the surly kid behind the counter will think of what you’re buying. I can’t speak for the other clerks, obviously, but usually when I’m ringing you up, I’m not expending a lot of mental energy on judging your purchases. I’m probably thinking about lunch. Or my hair. Or Hans’s hair. Or a chapter in a book I just read, or where I put my keys when I came in, or a million other stupid things that have nothing to do with your buying habits. The only time I truly take notice of what you’re buying is if it’s an album I absolutely love. Or if you’re getting Nickelback. Then I judge you. Hard.
Basically, the embarrassment people feel about purchasing pop albums touches on these issues we have about music that’s a “guilty pleasure” versus something that we actually feel okay about enjoying. At some point, if we can actually get people to write about it, we’re going to do a series on this blog about the guilty pleasures of everybody who works here, the music and movies and TV we hate to love, similar to a series The Onion’s A.V. Club did awhile back. But the idea of a guilty pleasure makes me inherently uncomfortable, this ranking of pop cultural artifacts and assigning them cool points. There’s no quicker way to suck all the joy out of the act of listening to music then analyzing if you should be enjoying it as much as you are. I say let’s just scrap the whole idea of a guilty pleasure. I have a ton of respect for people who come in and just ask for what they want and aren’t ashamed, like the middle-aged businessman who recently came in and bought most of Boy George’s back catalogue. Bravo, sir. Bravo. (And yes, I know I just implied a paragraph ago that Britney Spears makes me want to kill myself, which is pretty damn judgmental. Sometimes I contradict myself. I’m like Walt Whitman; I contain multitudes. Let it go.)
That being said, let’s get back to this idea of “workout music.” I’ve got it too – there’s a mix on my iPod called “Work It Out,” and it’s a mix of things I’d listen to anyway (X, The Cure, Iggy Pop, Lucero, Jawbreaker) and stuff I really don’t play anymore outside of a gym setting (Rancid, Propagandhi, 7 Seconds). Workout mixes are crucial, because exercise is inherently boring and awful and you need something to distract yourself from the banality and futility of what you’re doing. The gym I go to is heavily populated with muscled, over-hair gelled bros, the type of people I can’t believe actually exist outside of TV shows like Jersey Shore. It can be exquisitely painful to go in there and spend too much time in their company, especially when I have to fill that time by running in place for half an hour or picking up heavy objects and putting them back down again. But I’d like to stay under 700 pounds and have a heart and lungs that kind of work. So I put my headphones in and crank the music up real loud and get through it, so I can live for another day of ruining all my hard work with drinking and smoking and eating terribly. What follows is my current workout mix. I rock it loud. I rock it proud. Except the Rancid. That I’m actually kind of embarrassed about.
- “Knowledge” – Operation Ivy
- “Year 1” – X
- “Hanging on the Telephone” – Blondie version usually, but sometimes I swap out the original by the Nerves
- “Kill the Poor” – Dead Kennedys
- “Close To Me” – The Cure (I like the version from The Head on the Door better for working out, for some reason, although I think I prefer the remix from Mixed Up generally)
- “Seven” – Vagiant
- “Strutter” – Kiss
- “Mr. Brownstone” – Guns N’ Roses
- “Sixes and Sevens” – Lucero
- “If I Were You” – John Paul Keith and the 145’s (I think this is a Del Shannon cover, actually)
- “Lust For Life” – Iggy Pop (even that bullshit cruise line commercial can’t fuck this one up for me!)
- “Jinx Removing” – Jawbreaker
- “Gifts” – Propagandhi
- “Ruby Soho” – Rancid
- “Suspect Device” – Stiff Little Fingers
- “Lucky Ball and Chain” – They Might Be Giants
- “Don’t Do Me Like That” – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
- “99 Red Balloons” – 7 Seconds
- “Brother” – Murder By Death
by Anna Merlan
I was sitting in the Las Vegas airport the other day, eating a really horrible sandwich and listening to the weird, clicking cacophonous whirr and jingle of all the hundreds of slot machines that line the terminals there. I was halfway between Santa Cruz and New Mexico, where I was born, on my way to see my family for the holidays. In between praying that my makeshift dinner wouldn’t give me food poisoning and debating whether I should gamble just for the hell of it (I decided against it – the last time I tried using a slot machine, at a Vegas casino, I ended up staring blankly at the thing for a long time trying to figure out how to make it work and then was, for some mysterious reason, mistaken for a prostitute. I had to say a number of increasingly insulting things to make the gentleman in question go away) – I pulled out my iPod. Airports work a strange and horrible black magic on my music collection – things that I listen to and love at home are suddenly bleached of color, robbed of meaning, made into dull background noise. There’s something about the antiseptic stale air of airports and airplanes, the experience of sitting in a series of uncomfortable chairs with a bunch of indifferent, forgettable strangers, the feeling of being alone and in-between two places that’s profoundly alienating, and not just any music will work to make that feeling go away. When I was a teenager, I would try to combat this travel-induced boredom and isolation with super-loud punk rock – as the Descendents or the Misfits or Operation Ivy leaked out from my headphones, earning me dirty looks from other travelers, I’d begin to feel a bit more comfortable, a bit more like myself. Plugging into a source of rage and energy always made me a little more cheerful, even when the lady reading her Bible across the aisle was shooting red-hot laser beams of disapproval at my ripped jeans and fishnets and big black boots (ah, the days when you didn’t have to take your shoes and most of the rest of your clothes off to travel, eh? These days I just wear my velcro Vans – 14-hole Doc Martens are a real pain in the ass to get through security).
But much as I try to fight it, I’m getting older and (sort of) more mature. The feelings that going home to New Mexico invokes are increasingly complicated. Playing really really loud, profanity-laced music doesn’t always help, though a spot of Carcass sometimes still does the trick when I’m stuck in Denver on a five-hour delay and I feel like smashing up the duty-free in frustration. These days, there’s no telling quite what will make me feel more comfortable when I’m traveling; though I’ve been listening to and really enjoying Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, it didn’t quite do it this time. Neither did another new favorite, Tom Waits’ Glitter and Doom, although a few minutes of the second disc was nice – it’s just him telling his random stories and making the weird, cryptic asides he likes to pull out between songs, and it had me smirking and giggling, which is, by the way, not something you want to do when you’re traveling alone. I got a lot of nervous sideways glances and I decided to turn it off before someone called security.
Ultimately, the only album that really calmed me down and made me feel a lot better about my twelve hours of travel time was, strangely enough, Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call. This is an odd musical choice because I don’t think this album has ever made anyone feel better, ever. Cave recorded Boatman’s Call in the aftermath of his tempestuous relationship and devastating breakup from PJ Harvey. If you haven’t seen it, check out the video the two of them made together for their song “Henry Lee” – they filmed it at the very beginning of their relationship, and the intensity between the two of them damn near melts the computer screen every time I watch it. The breakup completely wrecked him and he recorded this very melancholy, stripped-down record, replete with lots of hymn-like piano lines, alternating pleading, desperate, adoring love with just plain old desperation. But it’s incredibly real, for lack of a better word; the emotion conveyed in the lyrics is so raw and so well-articulated at the same time, the music so precise and spare and uncluttered. Airports feel like unreal places, sexless, deathless, germless vacuums where everyone is encased in a little traveler’s bubble, time stopped, suspended in amber like a bunch of prehistoric bugs. What I really needed on that particular day in Las Vegas (besides a better sandwich – that thing was really god-awful) was something true, something real, to cut through that traveler’s ennui. Who would have ever thought that listening to a heartbroken man sing words like “No God up in the sky/ No devil beneath the sea / Could do the job that you did, baby /Of bringing me to my knees” could make me feel so peaceful?
by Anna Merlan
There are certain albums you should never listen to when you’re depressed, no matter how much you love them otherwise. The Cure’s Disintegration will always be in my top five favorite records; Beck’s Sea Change might crack my top 20, if you catch me in the right mood. But God help you if you decide to listen to either of those albums when you’re feeling a little bummed out, or worse, going through a breakup; if there’s a faster way to find yourself perched atop a very high ledge with someone talking to you through a megaphone, I can’t think of one. Interestingly, both Beck’s and Robert Smith’s lyrics can strike me as almost preposterously melodramatic when I’m feeling relatively chipper, not something that anyone could take seriously enough to get depressed over. For example: in the last verse of Sea Change’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, a gorgeous song all about how even though she’s gone and his life is falling apart and he’s crying all the time, he guesses he’ll be okay (but not really), Beck sings the lines: “Press my face up to the window/see how warm it is inside.” For me, this never fails to conjure a faintly hilarious image of Beck standing outside some suburban family’s home while they’re eating dinner, trampling their plants, staring forlornly in at them with his hands cupped against the glass: “Mom, Beck’s staring at us again! I don’t like him!” “Just ignore him, honey, and he’ll go away.”
And Robert Smith? My love for the Cure goes back a long way, and if he ever wants to give me a call, he’s more than welcome to, no matter how old he gets or how smeary his lipstick is, if you know what I’m saying. But Disintegration has some unbelievably ridiculous lyrics, when taken out of their musical context. Take the title track: “Now that I know that I’m breaking to pieces I’ll pull out my heart/and I’ll feed it to anyone… it’s easier for me to get closer to heaven than ever feel whole again.” That’s some heavy teenage angst right there. Don’t get me wrong; there are some great lines on that album too, and songs like “Fascination Street” are classics for a reason. But Robert Smith is not exactly the guy you’d want to go to for a balanced and healthy perspective on love and life, you know? The man’s been married for about a million years to his childhood sweetheart, he’s probably got more money than he knows what to do with, his fans are some of the most diehard, adoring weirdos you could ever hope to meet, and he’s still singing things like “I’ll never lose this pain/never dream of you again” (“Untitled”).
But depression is notorious for making you into a humorless bummer, and lyrics like these, which might make you smirk a little bit in better times, will make you cry bitter, self-pitying tears when you’re in the thick of it. So I found myself driving around in the rain a couple weeks back (I know, I know), feeling maybe not so hot, and I did the only sensible thing: I put on L7’s Bricks Are Heavy. These ladies may have been from L.A., and thus far away from the flannel-clad epicenter of grunge that was the Pacific Northwest, but this is still one of the best records from that era. It’s a nasty, angry, dirty slice of feminist outrage and asskickery, and it rocks incredibly hard to boot. Much as I love the politics of the whole Riot Grrrl group of bands, I can’t really bang my head to their music. But Bricks Are Heavy is as hardcore musically as is lyrically; the first song, “Wargasm,” is a blistering critique of the war-glorifying, scaremongering tactics of the U.S. government and the mainstream media, with heavy-as-fuck drums and amazing distorted guitar riffs, all overlaid with Donita Sparks’ authoritative growl, which she’s capable of raising into a hellion’s screech when the mood strikes her.
On the subject of Donita: this is a woman who takes no shit. On this record she sings about kicking out loser boyfriends (“Slide”) and savages the diet industry for being both dishonest and deadly (“Diet Pill”); on “Everglade,” she takes on the perennially relevant subject of big stupid dudes who insist on starting a mosh pit in the front row of every show and knocking the crap out of everyone around them. “Rednecks on parade/don’t cross my line,” Donita warns, and after listening to this record, you ignore her at your peril.
This record snapped me right out of my stupid funk on that rainy drive, sending me back out into the real world ready to kick some ass and take some names. So borrow a page from L7’s book: don’t get emo, get mad. Better yet – get outraged about the things that really matter, the ones that should really piss you off. Need some ideas? How about two pointless wars, a budget deficit you can see from space, and a culture that relentlessly disrespects women’s minds and bodies? Mope around with Robert Smith and Co. some other day. St. Donita, Patron of Kicking Butt, wouldn’t have it any other way.