The Spin Cycle

I love this cartoon:

I feel like Charlie Brown’s kindred spirit at the best of times (premature chrome-dome, no fashion sense, unrequited love for the little red-haired girl).  This cartoon just cements it – tomorrow I go shopping for zig-zag shirts.

Mr. Schulz has posed a question for the ages.  Does listening to depressing music make you sad, or do depressed people simply choose to listen to melancholy music?

Here’s my two cents worth on the matter.  From my perspective (and I swear this isn’t meant to be a cop-out), it’s a bit of both.

I have always had a symbiotic relationship with my record collection.  In many ways, it is my best friend.  I’ve been told that I tend to put a noticeable distance between myself and other people, even my closest friends.  I doubt that anyone knows my favourite colour (cobalt blue), or what I want to do when I retire (putter around a cabin in the mountains, watching wild creatures wander through the yard), or even what I find most attractive about a woman (her voice and what she has to say).  The metaphorical wall I’ve erected around myself has been remarkably effective at limiting the number of emotional relationships I’ve shared with people.

But despite the impenetrable Fortress of Solitude, music is always right there at the centre of my soul.

My music is there when I’m out for a three-hour walk through aspen parkland.  My music is there when I’ve had a particularly good day at work or a good night at hockey.  My music is there as I sit around the campfire, summit a new pass on a hike, or wait in a departure lounge for a plane.

And, yes, music is there when I’m feeling blue.  It waits for me with open arms and a reassuring embrace.  It doesn’t judge.  It doesn’t mock.  It simply understands that not every day is going to be euphoria.  It knows that someone who has to work so hard to suppress his roller-coaster of emotions just to stay on an even keel is going to melt down from time to time.

Today is an odd day.  The calendar says it is springtime, but it’s been snowing since 4 a.m.  The pavement is wet, while big wet flakes continue to accumulate on my back lawn, now 4″ thick.  Maybe it’s the strange weather that is lending everything a sense of disorder.  Something just seems off-kilter, out of balance, incomplete.  I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else.  There’s an emptiness, a void; a yearning and a burning that can’t be extinguished.  Like the wise man once said:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields…
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Right after I post this meandering collection of words, I’m going to take the fourteen steps down to my basement, cue up the stereo, and re-establish my usual dent on the sofa.  At times like these, my record collection is my salvation.

I can’t speak for everyone.  But I know that when I’m feeling dislocated and disjointed, music helps to ground me.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that depressed people listen to sad music, or the act of listening to sad music will depress someone.  Reality is more complicated than simple cause and effect.  I do think that there is something incredibly powerful about music, something that taps into our humanity.  Something that makes us feel a little less lonely on a snowy Saturday night in April.  Something that defies a proper explanation, but is still very real and profound.  I think people in a certain mood are always going to gravitate toward a certain kind of music, just to remind themselves that someone else out there feels the same way.  The music doesn’t depress them – it offers them a refuge.  An arm around their torso and a head on their shoulder.

A quick check of iTunes will reveal the tracks you listen to the most.  Apparently, the top of the Craven Hermit charts goes something like this:

  • “England” by The National
  • “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  • “Lucky” by Radiohead
  • “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers
  • “How to Fight Loneliness” by Wilco
  • “Mess” by Ben Folds Five
  • “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie
  • “What I Have To Offer” by Eels
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay
  • “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
  • “Both Sides Are Even” by The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Drive” by R.E.M.

So, not exactly AC/DC’s greatest hits then!  But there’s very few things in this world that I would take in trade for my relationship with these tunes.

I wonder if Charlie Brown ever managed to find a copy of Transatlanticism on vinyl.  I bet he’d love it.


Upcoming Music Releases – April 2012


Great Lake Swimmers return with a new album entitled New Wild Everywhere.  This record, like all of GLS’s albums, should hit the spot as you’re sitting around a campfire roasting some wieners this summer.  Like a less-choral Fleet Foxes or a less-weird Bon Iver, GLS write songs that are wistful and windswept but still tuneful and interesting.  Here’s hoping that New Wild Everywhere builds on the residual momentum of 2009’s excellent Lost Channels.


Malian musicians Amadou & Mariam return with a new album called Folila.  Their infectiously melodic music has crossed over into wider circles thanks to Western pop benefactors like Damon Albarn. Folila reportedly began as two separate albums – one with more traditional African guests and one with a selection of their new Western friends.  But instead of splitting the finished songs into two separate albums, Amadou & Mariam bravely elected to pick the best results from all of the recordings and combined them into a single release.  Guests like TV on the Radio, Santigold, and Jake Shears (of Scissor Sisters) made the cut, and the results should be interesting to hear.  Integrating ‘world music’ with Western pop can be a treacherous path, but when executed properly (think Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel) the results can be greater than the sum of the parts.

Portland’s M. Ward follows up 2009’s well-received Hold Time with a new album called A Wasteland Companion.  Like Amadou & Mariam, this album was recorded with a laundry list of musicians (including frequent collaborator Zooey Deschanel), but that’s likely where the comparisons end.  M. Ward’s music tends to be rooted in a certain kind of Americana, one where shapes and textures are just as important as melodies and rhythms.


The new Spiritualized album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which was released in the UK back in March gets a North American release.  Although if you’re internet-savvy and a fan of J. Spaceman’s alternative, reflective, interstellar dream-pop, you’ve probably found a way to acquire this record by now.


Jack White finally cuts the cords to his various other projects (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather) and puts out an album under his own nom de plume.  Hopefully White takes some chances with Blunderbuss and pushes himself in new musical directions.  It would be cool if some twisted echoes of his Nashville neighbours made it into the mix.  But if the songs skew more toward the fully-formed melodic rock of The Raconteurs instead of the hyperactive riffs and underdeveloped musical ideas of a White Stripes record, so much the better.

The Dandy Warhols continue to try to undo the damage done to their careers by 2008’s uneven Earth to the Dandy Warhols and 2005’s frankly terrible Odditorium or Warlords of Mars.  Early word is that This Machine is a somewhat schizophrenic affair, flirting with the Dandy’s usual touchstones (psychedelic rock, grungey alt-rock) and new textures (electronic music).  Could be brilliant, or could be crap.  As a wise man once said, “It’s a fine line between stupid and clever”.

Record Store Day!

On Saturday, April 21st, the fifth annual Record Store Day will finally be upon us!  Get out and support your local merchant, whose business is more than likely hanging on by its fingernails these days.  Without local record shops catering to music fans that like something a little different, your brick & mortar music consumerism would be reduced to choosing between Rihanna and Maroon 5 down at the ever-shrinking Best Buy CD rack.

Many prominent musical acts are helping to promote RSD 2012 with a bevy of new releases.  On Saturday the 21st, look for limited quantities of these gems in your local shop:

Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (12″)
Brendan Benson – What Kind of World (7″)
The Black Keys – El Camino (2 x 45 rpm 12″)
Blitzen Trapper – Hey Joe (7″)
The Civil Wars – Billie Jean (7″)
The Clash – London Calling 2012 (7″)
Coldplay – Up With The Birds / UFO (7″)
Fun. – The Ghost That You Are To Me (10″ gold gear-shaped picture disc)
The Hives – Go Right Ahead (7″)
Paul Simon – Graceland re-release (12″)
Pete Townshend – Quadrophenia Demos part 2 (10″)
Uncle Tupelo – the seven-inch singles box set (4 x 7″)
Uncle Tupelo – No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20 1992 re-releases (12″)

As usual, Wilco are getting into the act with a very limited release of a deluxe LP box set for The Whole Love.  Big deal – I already have it! But the limited-edition turntable slip-mat looks pretty cool.

Rippin’ Records

Death is pretty final, I’m collecting vinyl
I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world

R.E.M., “I’m Gonna DJ”, from the 2008 album Accelerate

My musical coming-of-age happened while cassette tapes were king and compact discs were first entering the scene.  Tapes were fun; they were small & pocketable, sounded okay, and they were great in the car or your Walkman because they didn’t skip.  As a rust-on-tape technology they eventually wore out, and if you weren’t careful the tape could come flying off the capstans and all over the floor of your ’81 Ford Granada.  Thankfully, all you needed to fix a testy tape was a six-sided pencil and a bit of patience to rewind the spools.

CDs are fine.  The sound quality is generally excellent if they have been mastered correctly.  Skipping was a HUGE problem for portable CD players at first.  It wasn’t until oversampling technology came along that CDs were worth putting into cars and portable music players.

Of course, the musical world spins on mp3s and other electronic file formats today.  The concept of music on a physical medium is quickly going the way of the dodo bird and John Tesh’s career.  However, there’s a funny little secret about the music industry – vinyl is making a HUGE comeback.

For now, the fraction of people collecting new vinyl is really small.  And truth be known, it will probably always be a niche market.  However, vinyl sales are up something like 40% since this time last year, and it’s not just contrarian hipster douchebags with bed-head, bad beards and berets driving the comeback.  I think a lot of hardcore music listeners are looking for a change from the sometimes harsh sound and emotional frigidity of downloaded mp3s.  It’s also great to see large-format artwork on store shelves again.

Many of my favourite artists are releasing their new albums simultaneously on CD, iTunes, and vinyl, often in 180 gram audiophile quality and double-gatefold sleeves.  They aren’t cheap, but it puts the fun back into shopping for music.  It’s also a riot to sit around on a Friday night spinning platters of plastic and reveling in the unique sound of a well-mastered record.  It’s even cool to have to flip the record over every 20-ish minutes (hey, you have to get up to refresh your drink anyway).

I picked up my first turntable about a month ago.  I did my research, picked a price point that would give me excellent fidelity at a manageable cost, and bought a Pro-Ject Audio Systems 1 Xpression III Classic in a lovely olive wood finish.  The hi-fi salesman showed me that it can be upgraded if I really want to get crazy, but the quality of the stock components are all first-rate.  So far I’m really happy with the machine.

My Turntable

Everything is completely manual. You even have to take the platter off and move the belt from the small sheave to the large one to switch from 33 to 45 rpm (very old-school cool).

Usually when you buy a new LP today, it will come with either a digital download or a CD copy of the album.  Wilco are putting out all of their records on vinyl through their website, and they typically come with a CD.  The download code or extra CD is handy because it makes loading the album into iTunes a snap.  It gives you total control over your music collection; sit at home and listen to vinyl, or take your mp3s with you in your pocket wherever you go.  The experience vs the convenience.  However, the old ‘classic’ vinyl records, and even some new albums, don’t come with an electronic backup copy of the music.  I’m looking at you, Los Bastardos de la Coldplay.  So what to do if you want to take your vinyl with you on a walk around the neighbourhood?

I picked up a device called a U-Phono UFO202 at, from a company called Behringer.  It’s a device that takes the left and right channels of low level output from your turntable, boosts it to line level, then transmogrifies the signal to a digital bitstream.  It can also grab line-level signals directly (cassette players, CDs, DVDs, etc.) if you’re so inclined.

Plug that into your computer’s USB port, run a program like Audacity, and rip your records to hard drive.  Audacity gives you the power to balance the volume levels, eliminate clicks and pops, separate each side of the album into individual tracks, and edit the ID3 tags.  After a little playing around, I was able to make a digital copy of Mylo Xyloto.  It worked out pretty well.

Now I’m looking forward to ripping some of my parents’ old vinyl to mp3.  Chances are pretty good I’ll start exploring the local record shops for my own vintage vinyl, too.  Who knows what kind of out-of-print gems I’ll discover.

New hobbies rock!

Music Challenge Day 17 – A Song You Hear Often On The Radio

Coldplay represent a conundrum for me.

Their music is obviously catchy and melodic, which is right up my street.  They seem to be very adept at capturing lightning in a bottle when it comes to constructing songs with memorable melodies and that magic X-factor.

It’s been said that you know something is a hit if you hear your milkman whistling the tune.  Set aside the fact that milkmen (and quite likely whistling, for that matter) are now anachronistic.  I think there’s some truth in the idea that memorable tunes are deceptively hard to come by, otherwise everyone would be writing them.  Twenty years of highly-publicized releases with scores of top-flight producers and I can’t hum a single Mariah Carey song to save my life.  But I can recall one or more of the melodic hooks of a dozen Coldplay songs pretty much at will.  Some things just resonate.

The conundrum is the baggage that comes with admitting that you enjoy Coldplay records.  Firstly, the lyrics are quite often, how to put this politely, sucktacular.  I get that Chris Martin is going for an Everyman vibe – nothing too specific, nothing too abstract, something everyone can relate to on some superficial level.  Basically, ‘doing a Bono’.  I get that they want to write anthemic music to inspire the masses and enjoy a certain level of acclaim & commercial success.  No problem there.  It’s important that artists continue to make music that inspires people, and I won’t fault them for being pragmatic enough to earn a living and put shoes on their children while they’re at it.

But I bet if Chris Martin was really being honest, he’d admit that he should have spent more than ten minutes coming up with the lyrics to the entire first Coldplay album.  “Yellow” is just embarassing, and it’s not even the most egregious song on Parachutes.

Coldplay also tends to go back to the same well a little too often when it comes to vocal melodies.  There’s only so much “whooo-ooo-ooo-hooo-yoo-ooo” stuff I’m willing to defend to my friends.  General rule: if your lyrics look silly on the record’s jacket liner, you should probably try harder.  Yes I know, the Beatles had a hit with “I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob”, but they were higher than kites at the time.  And they still pulled off something as bizarrely evocative as “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye” later in the same song.

The new single from the Coldplay album Mylo Xyloto is called “Paradise”, and it’s getting a lot of play on XM’s AltNation channel.  I’ve even heard it a few times on terrestrial modern-rock radio.  I would imagine that Top 40 is playing it too, but I can’t bear to listen long enough to find out.

Anyway, “Paradise” does have that fairy dust melody that is instantly recognizable.  It’s going to go over gangbusters in concert.  Ladies will swoon.  Gentlemen will be excited by the suddenly-swooning ladies.  It’s all good.  But while I know that Coldplay fans will like “Paradise”, I also recognize that this isn’t going to change the minds of any of the Coldplay haters out there.  Too many “whoo-ooo-ooos” and gimmicky choruses.  I thought Brian Eno called them out during the making of Viva la Vida for being one-trick ponies, but I guess the lesson didn’t stick.

I think the synth programming in “Paradise” sounds great, and the changing sonic densities of the song are very appealing.  I bought Mylo Xyloto on vinyl, and it sounds excellent.  I even think that the expression “every tear a waterfall” is a cool idea for a hook line.  In a perfect world, all the hook lines would have insightful things to say instead of random permutations of “whoa” and “whoo”.

But alas, ours is an imperfect world, not a paradise.

Music Challenge Day 14 – A Song That No One Would Expect You To Love

I said early on that I listen to a wide variety of music.  In that context, it’s hard to come up with something that would surprise people.  My collection includes records that go all the way back to the 1940s and 1950s.  It includes rock, pop, country, folk, soul, psychedelia, hard rock, and the hundreds of sub-genres that popular music has developed into today.  There isn’t a lot of hip-hop or urban music on my shelves, which may or may not be surprising.  I guess they just don’t work for me.

There is one group that comes to mind for this challenge.  One day I picked up a buddy on my way to a hockey game, and I had Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” playing on the stereo.  He was surprised that I was listening to 1981’s Computer World album while just cruising around town in the 21st century.  Kraftwerk sometimes get misunderstood as a metronomic, electronic group with computer-generated melodies.  I think the genius of Kraftwerk is that the melodies aren’t robotic, they’re pure and evocative and definitely human.  There’s an uncluttered precision to the melody and the rhythm, sure, but the songs are far more emotional than something that a computer could ever automatically generate.  I think simplicity is elegant, and there’s something very calming about the structure and order in “Computer Love”, as though everything is exactly in its right place.

I like this song so much, it’s my iPhone’s ringtune 🙂

Kraftwerk maintain a very cool, very robotic demeanour on stage.  The spectacle comes from the visual graphics and the musical presentation, not from wild haircuts or extravagant clothes or out-sized personalities.  Maybe this contributes to their music being misunderstood.  I haven’t met many (any?) other Kraftwerk fans, but their influence can be heard on musicians across many genres over the last 30 years.

When Coldplay’s X&Y album came out and I heard “Talk” for the first time, I had to crack open the liner notes.  I was glad to see Kraftwerk get credited, since this song so obviously borrows from “Computer Love”.  I read later that Chris Martin actually wrote to Ralf & Florian to get Kraftwerk’s permission to nick their melody, so I guess that’s cool.  But it just goes to show that a great melody is timeless and, by connecting with people across different generations, distinctly human.