Music Challenge Day 9 – A Song That You Can Dance To

The big single from Genesis’ second-worst album was “I Can’t Dance”.  It’s not a song that I’m going to defend; I guess it’s kind of catchy but it’s a gimmick that didn’t really suit the respectable smart-pop niche the band had carved out for themselves after the departure of Peter Gabriel.  But it did draw one universal truth from the zeitgeist – white boys can’t dance.

I count myself among the “can’t dance” fraternity.  I can live with that secret shame.  At least I have the quiet dignity to not display my dance suckitude to others in public places.  My dance moves make Elaine Benes look like Jennifer Lopez.  So I can’t in good faith list a song that I can dance to.  Lots of songs make me want to dance (“War” by Edwin Starr, “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder, even something newer like “Out There on the Ice” by Cut Copy).  But the wires in my cerebral cortex connecting the ‘music’ region to the ‘dancing’ region have apparently atrophied beyond all repair.

Although I can’t dance, I have found over the years that certain songs do make me walk faster out on the trails.  A lot faster.  I have vivid memories of listening to LCD Soundsystem’s “Get Innocuous!” on one of the river valley trails last summer.  I was flying.  Rubber pounded pavement, and I was blowing by people left & right.  Despite going up a 5% grade, at one point I think I passed a guy on a bike.

There’s something about the beat and metronomic rhythms of certain songs that do seem to be wired to my walking motor functions.  “Get Innocuous!” is the first track on the 2007 record Sound of Silver.  The whole album is brilliant; it’s like Kraftwerk for the 21st century, infused with a tongue-in-cheek alt-rock manifesto.

Pretty much the entire LCD Soundsystem canon is great for walking.  When it isn’t pee-inducingly ironic and funny, it’s often crushingly heartfelt and human.

Epilogue: the worst Genesis album, by a mile, is Calling All Stations.  To this day, I still want Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks to give me my fifteen bucks back.


Music Challenge Day 8 – A Song You Know All The Words To

I’ve noticed that you can group people into three reasonably distinct categories:

  • a select group of people are music fanatics (you see them in brick & mortar record stores, or at club gigs at midnight on Tuesday nights)
  • a larger subset of the population are music fans (appreciative of music, but can take it or leave it, and probably haven’t bought more than five albums since they finished school)
  • pretty much everyone else just don’t get into music at all (these people are weird and frighten me)

It also seems like you can split the fanatics into two fairly distinct camps: those who gravitate towards the music or those who tune into the lyrics.  Growing up, whenever a catchy song came on the radio, my mom would pick up on the melody while my dad always seemed to remember the lyrics.  Usually it’s the melodies and rhythms and dynamics that ensnare me, rather than the words.

But once in awhile, the music and the words come together in a way that bridges the gap.  “Time”, by Pink Floyd, from 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon is a fine example of a beautiful song where the melody is inextricable from the lyrics.  While all of my high school classmates were rockin’ like Dokken, or sewing Motley Crue patches onto their jean jackets, I was working my way through the Pink Floyd back catalogue.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Roger Waters would have been about 28 years old when he wrote the words to “Time”.  Years later, when I was an impressionable teenager, they sounded like a cautionary tale from someone much older and wiser than myself.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then the one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

The message seemed to be “live every moment to the fullest and don’t get stuck in a rut, otherwise some day you’ll wake up and realize that half your life has evaporated with nothing to show for it”.  Maybe that propelled me forward through my university years; it’s hard to say.  I didn’t always live every moment to the fullest.

The second half of the song seemed to be a lament from a middle-aged man:

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

In the last few years, I’ve noticed how the seasons seem to fly by.  One day you’re slathering on sunscreen and walking around in shorts.  But seemingly the next day you’re raking the leaves, and the day after that you’re putting the snow tires on the car and digging your winter clothing out of the basement.  And I’m not even particularly busy away from work; I can only imagine what kind of acceleration my friends feel with spouses and kids and all their other commitments.  I try to make efficient use of my days, knowing that I’m only immortal for a limited time.  I can’t stand wasting time on low-value activities, either at work or at home.  I try to keep an even keel, but it drives me nuts when I have to wait 90 minutes at the government office to renew my passport, or when I’m expected to spend half a day at work taking care of some random detail that has no bearing on my designs.  Still, there’s been more than one occasion where I spent a Friday night or a Sunday morning curled up on the sofa doing sudoku puzzles.  It makes me feel guilty that I’m not living a ‘real’ life.

The way that Waters segues the lyrics of “Time” into a reprise of the song “Breathe” is also pretty brilliant:

Hanging on in quiet desparation is the English way
The time is gone the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

The line about ‘quiet desperation’ is so quintessentially English.  And then, of course, Waters does have something more to say.  The last part of “Time” is about being at home, curling up next to a fire to chase away the chills & demons:

Home, home again
I like to be here when I can
When I come home cold and tired
It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire
Far away across the field, the tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells

This reminds me of an old hound dog, one that’s protected his master’s property for a decade.  Now, with his days of chasing jackrabbits long behind him, he sleeps at his master’s feet in front of a smoky hearth, wagging his tail and dreaming of more fleet-footed days.  It seems like an apt metaphor for growing old and facing the inevitable.

Even though I know all the words to this song, don’t expect to see me rocking it at karaoke any time soon.  Despite its brilliance, it’s kind of a buzzkill.

Epilogue:  not much good came out of the Live 8 concerts in 2005.  But I will be eternally grateful that we got to see masters Gilmour, Mason, Waters and Wright back together for one last gig.

Music Challenge Day 7 – A Song That Reminds You Of An Event

I’ve been wearing a pair of headphones pretty much continuously since junior high school.  Some people might be surprised to learn that my headphones weren’t surgically grafted onto my head at birth.  So, with the amount of listening I do, you would be excused for thinking that I must have accumulated dozens of song/event combinations to choose from for this challenge.

Strangely, none of the conventional big events in my life (high school graduation, university graduations, first date(s), first day of work, the births of my nieces, the passings of my grandma and dad, driving my first new car off the lot, taking posession of my house) seem to be linked to music.  My high school graduation song was “Youth Gone Wild” by Skid Row, which I remember only because it was a completely terrible choice that embarassed us all.

But one day from last summer does stand out.  A friend of mine had decided that she wanted to try something different, so she told me she was leaving the place where we worked together.  On her second-to-last day in our office, our close-knit team hosted a pot-luck lunch for her at the office as a way of saying thanks, goodbye, and good luck.  Bread was broken, stories were shared, and everyone enjoyed being together for one last bittersweet time.  I was heartbroken at first that my friend was leaving, but I eventually realized that she was making the right decision for her career.  She’s a very smart lady – always looking to the horizon and beyond.  With any luck, we will work together again some day.

The song that was playing in my car on the way to work that day, and ringing in my head all through the lunch, was “Madder Red” from Yeasayer’s 2010 album Odd Blood.  It wasn’t the lyrics that got to me; I don’t really know what the song is about.  With the benefit of hindsight, it kind of sounds like the shrapnel of an unfortunate dissolution of a relationship, which isn’t really appropriate to my situation.  99% of the time it’s not the literal lyrics but the music (the melodies and the rhythms) that wraps around my DNA.  And the music in this song is very affecting, with gorgeous synthesizers and layers on layers of programming and snippets of guitar in all the right spots.  I think the tension and release in the music, the anxiety and the resolution, the sorrow and the joy must have shared some kind of wavelength with how I was feeling at the time.  To this day, I have no idea how I managed to get to work that day without crashing my car, but I defy you to listen to the bass synth programming in this Yeasayer track and not feel SOMETHING stirring in the bowels of your soul.

It was a tough & emotional day, but I muddled through intact (and so did my friend).  And now I have “Madder Red” as a souvenir that I can carry with me forever to remind me that I don’t always have to be a soulless robot that hides behind the defence mechanisms of nonchalance and sarcasm.  Sometimes it’s okay to let your guard down, even for a moment, and genuinely care about someone.

Music Challenge Day 6 – A Song That Reminds You Of Somewhere

I could write a dissertation on this one.  One of my favourite things EVER is road trips with appropriate soundtracks.  I always seem to come home with some new, permanent meta-link in my brain between music and location.  I could hit “random” on my iPod and come up with many relationships.  Just for example:

Chemical Brothers – “Out of Control” – driving the Bow Valley Parkway between Lake Louise and Banff, Alberta at ‘entertaining’ speeds (but not technically ‘out of control’)…

Supergrass – “Sun Hits The Sky” – riding the trains & buses around Cardiff in 2001, checking out Caerphilly Castle in the back yard of my ancestors…

Spinal Tap – “Big Bottom” – stuck in traffic with my buddy somewhere in the BC interior on a road trip to Vancouver and Seattle to see the Manic Street Preachers do a North American club tour…

Matthew Sweet – “Girlfriend” – en route to an airshow in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba with my high school friends circa 1991 (if I recall correctly, none of us had girlfriends at the time, but we all loved the song)…

Guster – “Architects and Engineers” – on a bumpy early-morning flight to Calgary on company business last month, thinking about the day of engineering meetings ahead of me and the steady progression of ranches and farmyards appearing and disappearing below my shuddering window…

Radiohead – “How To Disappear Completely” – watching one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, Radiohead at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington state, USA, on the Amnesiac tour, from a grassy hillside as the sun set behind the stage and then a full moon appeared above the horizon behind us…

Paul Simon – “America” live from Central Park – as I flew over the Verrazano Narrows bridge and Liberty Island on approach to LaGuardia airport in New York City at night for the first time in 1996…

The Autumn Defense – “Spend Your Life” – hiking at Elk Island National Park one beautiful autumn day, and seeing a bull plains bison slowly negotiating his way through the trees off to my right…

Pink Floyd – “High Hopes” – punting on the River Cam in Cambridge, England with my friends, back in David and Roger and Syd’s old stomping grounds on a sunny summer afternoon…

I could go on for hours.  And over the next few months, expect me to revisit this theme.

But the classic example of music being forever linked with a location in my mind is when I flew home from London, UK to western Canada in August 2001.  The great circle route between Heathrow and Calgary takes you pretty much over Iceland and the southern tip of Greenland.  I had a window trip for the journey (I always book a window seat – how often do you get to see the world unimpeded from 40,000 feet?).  As we flew over Greenland, we were lucky enough to witness icebergs calving off of the glaciers into the North Atlantic, pockmarking the water like an armada of brilliant white ocean liners on an azure sea.  Meanwhile, in the earbuds of my Discman (hey, it was 2001!), I had the whole of the Agaetis Byrjun record by Icelandic band Sigur Ros providing the soundtrack.

It was a perfectly clear day, I had the Atlantic Ocean at my feet, and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up from the synchronicity of time & place & music.  The music, like the scenery, was out of this world.  Pure magic.

I can’t wait to go on my next road trip to make some more musical associations.

Music Challenge Day 5 – A Song That Reminds You Of Someone

My favourite local music group is the Corb Lund Band.  Since returning to his ‘country’ roots over a decade ago, Lund and his troupe have made several records that blur the lines between alt-country, folk, and traditional country & western music.  I think he’s a natural successor in the Merle Haggard line of songwriters, but there’s a lot of other flavours in his musical chili as well.

The Corb Lund Band’s 2007 record Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! features a song called “Hard On Equipment (Tool For The Job)”.  It features lots of twangy Telecaster guitar, and this mid-tempo country rocker wouldn’t sound out of place in any Texas roadhouse on any random Saturday night.

The song is about a handyman that sounds like a decent enough guy, but he tends to destroy a lot of machinery and tools through his “innovative” work techniques.  A sample lyric:

He’s been roundin’ off bolts since the age of fourteen
Was that a five-eighths or a nine-sixteenths?
He’s got a metric socket that don’t quite fit
Well it’ll wiggle just a little but it ain’t quite stripped

Well it’s vise grips for pliers, and pliers for a wrench
A wrench for a hammer, hammers everything else
It just don’t seem to make much difference
I sure do like him but he’s hard on equipment

I grew up on a small grain & cattle farm in the Red River Valley.  My dad taught my brother and I everything we needed to know about using tools to work on machinery.  Our farm shop featured a variety of (woefully incomplete) socket sets, several pairs of vice-grips covered in weld spatter, half a dozen hammers with dangerously loose heads, and two perpetually malfunctioning Jack-Alls.  When those didn’t get the job done, we knew it was time to either go get “the maul” (an eight-pound sledgehammer) or “the bar” (a five-foot-long wrought-iron bar).

My dad mentored me on how to use a flat-bladed screwdriver as a chisel, how to cut 1″ steel plate with a disc grinder, and how to fix a cracked steel beam by welding another random chunk of steel to it.  I’m convinced that Corb Lund’s handyman was my dad’s long-lost cousin.

Unfortunately, we lost our dad earlier this year after a long fight with diabetes.  But whenever I miss him, I can cue up “Hard On Equipment” and it transports me back in time to the farm shop all those years ago.  He always has a new lesson ready for me.