Welcome to the second, long delayed episode of Judging It By The Cover, a show where people try to guess works that are impossible to predict. These stories are known for blindsiding their audiences in some way, but will any of our guests predict whats in store for them?
In this episode, we discuss the movie called Serenity. No, it’s not the Joss Whedon one, we swear! This film flew under our radars for some time or we would have done it immediately after it’s release. What got our host Sly so pumped to cover this movie? Is he just that excited for a romantic comedy starring both Matthew McConaughey AND Anne Hathaway? Or is he a big fan of films starring murderous conjoined twins?
This is the first of a new wave of content Fronds Radio will be rolling out in the following weeks. Stay tuned for our upcoming review of the Evangelion anime!
We’ve already made two batches of donations! Snares’ funds are going to back Democrats taking the Senate back and the album is going to the ACLU! I’m prepping all the pre-orders any day now, so if you want some extra notes or fun stuff, pre-order it right now at: https://premiumheart.bandcamp.com/album/kosciuszko
I woke up this morning, I could barely breathe Just an empty impression in the bed where you used to be I want a kiss from your lips, I want an eye for an eye I woke up this morning to an empty sky
“Regular bad.” That’s how I’ve been answering the question “How’s everything going?” Let’s be real, no matter how lucky I’ve been, it’s not a fun time to exist right now. In the past, if you gave an answer like that, you’d get a follow up or a check-in from whoever you were talking to, but now you only get that if you say you’re doing great. I can’t shake that. That the norm is to be miserable and it’s weird if you’re having a good time. I can’t stop thinking about how normal that feels for so many of us, especially millennials. We’ve really never gotten a goddamn break, have we?
I search for you on the other side, where the river runs clean and wide Up to my heart, the waters rise Up to my heart, the waters rise I sink ‘neath the water cool and clear. Drifting down, I disappear I see you on the other side I search for the peace in your eyes But they’re empty as paradise They’re as empty as paradise
I’m really at the end of my patience with the whole narrative about millennials being coddled and entitled. That we refuse to grow up and are in a perpetual state of adolescence. Sure, a lot of us wallow in nostalgia and are obsessed with the good old days. Remember Magic School Bus? That was my favorite show! I remember watching it after school when I was 8, and for the first time, realizing all the things that I never imagined could happen in a school! It was right after my 3rd grade teacher sat us down and told us what had happened in Columbine. What an eye-opening time to be a kid!
When I was 10, the World Trade Center fell and we watched thousands die on television. By the time I was 13, we were in two wars and the National Defense Authorization Act and the Patriot Act were codified, promising we would never have peace and we would never have privacy. By the time I graduated high school, the economy had the worst crash in 70 years. I got my driver’s license two days before Hurricane Sandy shut down my island for weeks. And I’m about to turn 30 while over a thousand people die every day from a global pandemic the rest of the world has gotten under control and the economy is in the worst crash in 80 years. So fuck off that we’ve never been challenged. Fuck off that we don’t know what it’s like to sacrifice. The only trophies we’ve been given are inherited tragedies and pain. Fuck off if you think this generation is too soft. Instead of turning into bitter reminders of what we’ve lost, we’re the first generation in decades trying to turn it into empathy. We want to abolish student loan debt, even though we’ve paid most of it off already. We want universal health care even though we’re young and doing fine. I just can’t tolerate this bullshit anymore. Look around at the world we’ve inherited and if this is what we’re entitled to, I just hope there’s a good return policy.
I’ve been listening to a whole lot of his modern catalog, and few stand out as well as 2002’s, The Rising, which was written in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. And the thing that keeps me coming back is the unbelievable sense of empathy I get from this record. While the majority of older white guys were calling for mass bombings and xenophobic genocide of the middle east, Bruce was doing what he always does, blending optimism and love with his genuine care for the people in his country, especially the ones most marginalized. From “World’s Apart,” a song he collaborates on with Asif Ali Khan, a Pakistani singer, and his qawwali group.
Where the distant oceans sing, and rise to the plains In this dry and troubled country, your beauty remains Down from the mountain roads, where the highway rolls to dark ‘Neath Allah’s blessed rain, we remain worlds apart
Sometimes the truth just ain’t enough, or it’s too much in times like this Let’s throw the truth away, we’ll find it in this kiss In your skin upon my skin, in the beating of our hearts May the living let us in, before the dead tear us apart
A lot of the songs in this album deal with a pretty explicit reaction to the attacks, but so many of them feel like they can be applied to any of the horrific times we’ve had in the last 25 years. “We’re America, we can get through this! We’re strong, we’re tough, nothing can stop us!” has become this mantra that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. We never get a fucking break from “persevering” anymore. I’m just so tired. Tired of being informed with today’s atrocities. Tired of how little half of this country seems to realize, no matter how obvious it is. I’m tired of once in a lifetime events happening every three years. I’m tired of mass graves, whether it be from an attack, a hurricane, a virus, or whatever’s coming next. I’m just so tired.
But we don’t give up, do we? If we did, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be out in the streets fighting against a plague to try to ensure some sense of justice in this injust world. Our elders have failed us. Refused to take any action on *motions to literally anything.* We look to each other for strength, because looking to the past, the systems that gave the people now in power support have been gutted and stripped beyond recognition. Yeah, we’re soft. But I’d rather be soft than cruel. No contest. We keep seeing our friends and family die and instead of support, we’re met with scorn, so yeah, we’re gonna disregard the politeness on our way to overthrow the status quo that killed them.
The sky was falling and streaked with blood I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust Up the stairs, into the fire Up the stairs, into the fire I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire
May your strength give us strength May your faith give us faith May your hope give us hope May your love give us love
Regular bad. That’s the normal for us. Bad. Some days, I can barely keep it together and it’s only getting worse. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an exasperated sigh followed by “Something’s gotta fucking give, man.” And this isn’t new for us. We’ve been living with this feeling our entire lives. But we deal with it. And we don’t let it make us calloused or bigoted. We internalize the pain and use it to build empathy for people who have it worse than us. This cruel, terrible world took my childhood, but I won’t let it take my future and I won’t let it take my soul. Not without a fight.
Learn to leap, leap from ledges high and wild Learn to speak, speak with wisdom like a child Directly to the heart Crown yourself the king of clowns or stand way back apart But never give your love, my friend Unto a foolish heart
We’ve been staying home for over a hundred days. How about that? And guess what? Everything’s still terrible! But hopefully, everyone’s developed some habits that help keep them going. For me, I’ve been playing a lot of Breath Of The Wild, the Zelda game, and really just losing myself in a lot of different music.
For the first couple months of quarantine, I spent a lot of time with the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for years and spent much of my adolescence with them, both as a fan and as part of the extended Dead crew family. They’ve always been a safe place for me to just sink into and turn off all the bad in the world, and hoo boy, did I need it more than ever this time around. I dove deep into every nook and cranny of their catalog this time, from the nasty, explosive psychadelica of ’68 through the jazzy, exploratory 70s, but ended up landing time and time again in the Spring ’90 tour. I’ve always gravitated towards this era of the band, with no small part of the credit going to their keyboardist from 1979-1990, Brent Mydland. Often with lyricist John Perry Barlow, Brent added a level of deep pathos and personal songwriting that’s a real high point for me in the Dead’s massive catalog. From an unreleased demo from Built To Last:
When the police come, you better let ’em in, Gentleman, start your engines Don’t forget to tell ’em what a sport I’ve been, Gentleman, start your engines I got a head full of vintage TNT, They’re gonna blow me up ‘stead of burying me If you don’t like trouble, better leave me be Gentleman, start your engines
Like the Devil’s Mustangs, I’ve been riding hell for leather Put away angry, angry in the dark Let me tell you, honey, There’s some mighty stormy weather Rolling ’round the caverns of my heart
As an aside, because the Dead’s pretty much exclusively a live band, I’m using the last studio Dead album released in 1989, Built To Last, as an outline. All of the songs here are from the Spring ’90 tour, but are still tracks from that album.
The Brent-era is often maligned by Deadheads. He was the new guy, coming off of one of the most celebrated eras of live music for the band and a lot of the studio material suffered from cheesy production and overly catchy songs. It was the 80s, after all. But for me, by the Spring of 1990, I think the band was the best they ever were and this tour was really something special. I love their whole career, but this is the top of the top for me. And Brent was, for the first time, really elevated within the band. He writes and sings four of the nine songs on Built To Last and his songs started popping up more and more throughout the set. And with that, you can feel the pain and heart in every single one of his songs that helped make this tour the best of the best. And helped make me feel a little less isolated in this dark, terrible time.
Well, there ain’t nobody safer than someone who doesn’t care And it isn’t even lonely, when no one’s ever there I had a lot of dreams once, but some of them came true The honey’s sometimes bitter when fortune falls on you
And you know I’ve been a soldier in the armies of the night And I’ll find a fatal error in what’s otherwise alright Something shines around you and it seems to my delight To give you just a little sweetness… Just a little light
I have always heard that virtue oughta be its own reward, But it never comes so easy when you’re living by the sword It’s even harder to be heartless when you look at me that way You’re as mighty as the flower that will grow the stones away
Even though I’ve been a stranger, full of irony and spite Holding little but contempt for all things beautiful and bright, Something shines around you and it seems to my delight To give me just a little sweetness… Just a little light
A lot Brent’s (And Barlow’s) songs are pretty introspective and self-loathing, but Built To Last also features one of my favorite political Dead songs, “We Can Run.” The Dead were very rarely political after the 60s, as Jerry Garcia was pretty adamantly against working with a system he found repulsive, but by the late 80s, Brent and Bob Weir (again, both with Barlow), penned a few more explicit stances, which sadly, don’t feel all that dated.
I’m dumping my trash in your backyard Makin’ certain you don’t notice really isn’t so hard You’re so busy with your guns and all of your excuses to use them Well it’s oil for the rich and babies for the poor They got everyone believin’ that more is more If a reckoning comes, maybe we’ll know what to do then
We can run, but we can’t hide from it Of all possible worlds, we only got one, we gotta ride on it Whatever we’ve done, We’ll never get far from what we leave behind Baby, we can run, run, run, but we can’t hide Oh no, we can’t hide
All these possibilities seem to leave no choice I heard the tongues of billions speak with just one voice Saying “Just leave all the rest to me. I need it worse than you, you see.” And then I heard… The sound of one child crying.
The album’s not all Brent, obviously. Jerry and Bobby still have some great songs on it that really resonated with me this time around, too. As much as I felt like the whole world was falling apart and there was no hope for any of us, Jerry (and his lyricist, Robert Hunter) explain that the only things that are Built To Last are the things that arebuilt to try. If we give up, we’re definitely fucked. If we try, at least we have a shot, albeit a long one.
When I was really at my lowest, this tour helped me get lost in a better time. Like the wide open spaces of Breath Of The Wild, having a Dead show to close my eyes and go to helped ground me. The songs from Built To Last don’t ignore the anxieties raging inside us all, but they embrace them and turn them into something beautiful. Tragically, this was the last full scale tour before Brent died in July that year, a heartbreaking reminder that when the show’s over, and it always ends eventually, you still have to learn to better yourself and the world we all share. But until that last song ends, you can close your eyes and let the music take you home.
Johnson portrayed Freedom – it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion.
All forms of expression, whether artistic or not, are statements of values from the creator and are inherently political. If you can’t accept that and wish people didn’t have to be so political in their art, go fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, yourself.
In 1970, just about a year after Miles Davis recorded his groundbreaking jazz fusion album, In A Silent Way, he recorded the soundtrack to an upcoming documentary on the boxing champion, Jack Johnson. Johnson was one of the first black boxers who was “allowed” to box a white man and become the world heavyweight boxing champion, owned and operated several desegregated nightclubs in the 1910s, and was arrested, charged, and sentenced by an all-white jury for violating the Mann Act because of his relationships with white women before the Act was even passed.
In years, we’re about as removed from this record as Miles was from most of the events that made Jack Johnson a household name. But just like I feel that this album is as relevant today as ever, Miles felt a deep connection to Jack’s story. Not only as a trailblazer for Black Americans, shattering boundaries that White America fought (and still fights) so hard to uphold, but also as a victim of the system. In 1959, after releasing the masterpiece Kind Of Blue, Miles was beaten and arrested by the NYPD for not “moving on” from the steps of the club he was playing an Armed Forces Day benefit at (the Birdland, one of the most important Jazz clubs in Manhattan) after walking a white woman to her cab. Despite pointing out that he was on the marquee and had every right to be there, (“I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” said the cop) Miles was beaten bloody and dragged off. From his autobiography:
For everyone that says it’s only about class and that if we pursue economic justice, racial justice will follow suit, you’re still as wrong as people who said that to Miles in 1959 were. As wrong as the people that said that to Jack Johnson in 1912 were. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, a racist system is still going to abuse you if you’re not white. And then make you the villain for being angry. You’re the real racist for fighting against the system.
From Davis’ liner notes for the record:
Now I don’t know a whole lot about Jack Johnson and I’ve never seen the movie. But I can still really feel what Miles is trying to convey in his soundtrack. The first side, “Right Off” starts with a very rock and blues feeling electric guitar, drums and bass, that immediately invoke the presence that a man like Jack Johnson, a man like Miles Davis, always invokes when they walk into a room. He lets John McLaughlin’s guitar, Michael Henderson’s bass, and Billy Cobham’s drums tell the story for a few minutes, alternating between big fills and mellow lows until Miles comes in at about the 2 and a half minute mark. And he makes it clear that he’s the star here. His trumpet fills the space and reminds everyone that people like him are the reason we have jazz. The reason we have the blues. The reason we have rock n roll. Together, they build the song up to something truly magical. Until about 10 and half minutes in, everything drops out but Miles’ muted trumpet. Just long enough to remind you that hidden behind every jam that takes music to this kind of level, there’s a deep, solitary pain behind it. As much as Miles Davis was the coolest band leader who ever lived, he was still just a man. A man mistreated by the society that he made so much richer and better, just by expressing himself. But then it gets big again, and the party starts right up. For a few minutes at least. Until we get a similar bridge, this time with Steve Grossman’s sax and the bass, alone, but together. And this time, when everyone comes back in, Herbie Hancock adds his organ and it’s bigger and fuller than ever, together.
Miles always strikes a perfect balance between the highs and lows. The highs of his persona, the lows of how he was treated. The highs of his talent, the lows of everyone else’s appreciation. He saw a lot of kinship in Jack Johnson and fought against a lot of the same hateful bigotry. From his liner notes:
“Right Off” continues along the same kind of groove for a while, then about 18 and a half minutes in, until it completely changes into a heavy funk riff no one can see coming. This evolves into a groove that beautifully carries the energy of the song to it’s natural conclusion. Jack and Miles both knew that they could never become predictable or take it safe, otherwise the bigotry steeped in our culture would attack them at any opportunity they allowed. It didn’t matter that Jack was the champion of the world. Or that Miles was… well… Miles Davis. They couldn’t just be the best at one thing, they had to be the best at everything. As soon as Jack won the “fight of the century” and proved that white supremacy was a fallacy, Congress has to step in and outlaw fight films. The state stepped in to damage control the reputation of the white man. People couldn’t see that they could fight back; can’t let anyone get any ideas. Again, from the liner notes.
The second half of the record, “Yesternow” is a slower growth and more driving song. A bass melody carries the first half of it while the rest of the band peppers in phrases on top. For about twelve minutes, the band build upon this very minimalist idea until abruptly, everything stops and samples from In A Silent Way come in and remind you of the larger narrative that Davis is in the middle of. He’s still building jazz fusion, a brand new genre, just like Jack Johnson was building a new world for black athletes. But as soon as you start to fall into those comfortable, familiar habits, a new bass melody comes in. Harder, with more punch than before. The structure may seem the same on paper, but the comfortable familiarity is gone as the song jumps to a completely new place. Always keeping the audience on their toes, Davis reminds us how relentless his fight is and how he can’t let up for a second, otherwise they’ll just knock him out in the next round. The funk fades out and we’re left with a haunting trumpet melody, heightening the dissonance instead of comfortably resolving the album, and, as is becoming more and more clear every day, society follows suit. And as the final hints of melody fade out, we hear the only spoken words on the album, from the movie:
When I joined Premium Heart, I hadn’t written a song in a really long time. It had been quite a few years since I really took a lyrical queue in my head and pushed a whole song through it. But while we were writing and demoing the record, I felt like the themes that were already there, most of which were written by Nick, were so clear and inspiring that I knew I had something to say, and few of my contributions ended up meaning as much to me as what I wrote for The Credit Reel.
At its face, the song is about climate change. But that was only the lens through which I tried to express a larger feeling that I’ve been having for years now. Moreso than just the fear of a world burned up and barren, this song’s about the overlying existential dread a lot of us have been feeling since Trump came down that escalator, announced his candidacy, and declared Mexicans were rapists and criminals. It’s about the uncertainty I’ve been feeling; just when are we going to bottom out and things are gonna stop getting… worse? And clearly, we’ve still found new lows to fall to. Luckily, Nick was there to write some of the more optimistic parts, about being in this hellhole together, but also keeping it on my level by adding some really scary biblical stuff. Part of a complete breakfast and all that.
I used to consider myself an optimist. That people would rally together and do the right thing when it really mattered. Clearly that was an idealism born of privilege and a naive view of just how broken our system and culture is. America’s power structure and “majorities” have done such a wonderful job at showing us just how little they care about anyone but themselves. “Yeah, that’s rough, but not for me and mine.” Education, health care, human rights, a cleaner and safer environment, diversity, and the list goes on, have all become part of a “liberal agenda” and have become polarizing to the point that in our system of electoral delegates, they don’t even warrant a vote in the Senate. We’ve been protesting that Black Lives Matter for almost 7 years, and Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Amaud Arbery, and so many others are dead. And for what progress? Colin Kaepernick took a knee and was lambasted by the majority for it. What progress has this, primarily peaceful protest movement made in almost a decade? How long are people expected to just deal with a broken system when it not only doesn’t improve, but worsens? It doesn’t matter how much you point out the hypocrisy or try to make an example of someone clearly guilty of not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Just last month, the sergeant from the Parkland shooting, who waited outside while children were murdered had been fired, sure, but the police department waited two days longer than the mandatory maximum waiting period for repercussions provided by their contract, so he’s back on the job. What a coincidence that that happened to line up so well for him, who’s now been reinstated! With similar contracts around the country, even when “bad apples” are made examples of, the repercussions are rarely permanent, even more rarely causing any systemic reform, and only serve to further rot the corrupt system we have. It isn’t until protests garner national attention does anything happen, and even then, it’s often marred by specific protections that prevent justice from being served.
I know this isn’t a new problem. I know that so many people deal with this every single day, in ways that are much deeper than I’ll ever experience. But this time feels even worse. Maybe it’s just the pandemic getting to me. Maybe it’s that we’re approaching the 4th anniversary of Trump’s god-forsaken escalator stunt. I don’t know. But the juxtaposition of three major events has really broken the final shreds of whatever optimism I had left.
First was the Breonna Taylor murder in Louisville, Kentucky after police kicked in the door to an apartment that the suspect they’d been looking for, who was already in custody, had never lived in just because she knew him two years prior. One of the officers was already in the middle of an ongoing lawsuit regarding abuse of power. She was shot eight times.
Then in Minnesota, after the horrifying murder of George Floyd by a police officer who kept his knee on George’s throat for 9 minutes over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill… not quite the same reaction. Timelines are always hard to track from the outside in instances like this, but from what I can see, most of the severe escalation we’ve seen has been after tear gas was used to disperse crowds on the second night of protests. “THUGS,” says Trump, while repeating the catchphrase of Walter Headley, a segregationist police chief who tried to put down the civil rights movement, and later said by George Wallace, a segregationist presidential candidate of 1968.
Side note: I’m not going to weigh in on the role of outside agitators and white supremacist infiltrators, as that evidence is not clear right now while the Governor investigates. I don’t want to blindly adopt a lot of rhetoric that gets tossed around about the role of protests and violence in times of severe injustice.
I just can’t stomach seeing all of the exact same people who ripped apart Colin Kaepernick (who, by the way, is paying legal fees for protesters) and other types of peaceful protesters once again screaming that these people, who are so sick and tired of all of these injustices, should be more like those people, who just a few years ago were, to paraphrase the president, “sons of bitches who shouldn’t be in this country.” After almost a decade of these organized, focused protests at these injustices, it’s so clear that there’s nothing that people fed up with injustice are allowed to do except lay down and die at the hands of a system that keeps the majority of the country comfortable and safe.
Unless it’s about a pandemic and stay-at-home orders or asking people to wear a mask. Then it’s fascism? I don’t know, these fucking people don’t believe in anything except their entitlement to comfort. It’s a waste of time to argue or even think about their arguments. They’re nothing but selfish assholes and they’ll never be anything but.
Anyway, having said all that, I think it’s important to stay empathetic and compassionate to the actual victims of our system. I have no patience left for the perpetrators and supporters of injustice and the class hierarchy we have in America, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care deeply for the people who keep getting shoved under the knees and boots of the oppressors. We need to support them at every step of this. That’s why we’re releasing our first single, The Credit Reel, on Bandcamp, for pay-whatever-you-want and all of the money we get will be split between Black Table Arts* and the Louisville Community Bail Fund. As we saw, live on CNN, the Minnesota police are just indiscriminately arresting innocent people. And in Louisville, they’re shooting them with pepper balls or rubber bullets and not all of the people there are lucky enough to be reporters, live on TV, so they’re still sitting in cells they don’t belong in, victims of a de-funded and abandoned support system that prioritizes harsh punishment over ground-up community building. A system that silences the voices of those most affected.
I’m including the song here, but please, I implore you to give what you can to help the people who need it the most right now. The Boston Tea Party was a riot, the suffragettes rioted, Stonewall was a riot. Apparently, it’s the only way to ever get anything done.
A plethora of angels, no more snowmen left Too old to wish for much, but summer break would never end Cake’s run out of candles, be careful what you’re hoping for Second coming’s much more often now Seeing shadows never more
Let’s run out the clock together
Paper says wait till tomorrow Credits atrophy and die The whole world burns just like a dumpster Yeah, that’s rough but not for me and mine Class is cancelled due to apathy Armed and tragic and willfully blind Hope is a barren harlot Why don’t we run out the clock together?
Let’s run out the clock together
Light from the snow reflects through our window On we, for whom it’s reserved The blackness, the darkness forever Empty and without form
The original column was published on January 15th, 2020 and can be found below.
Read all the pamphlets and watch the tapes. You turn 25 and now you’re all out of escapes. Hey, the rock writer told me to tell you: “though you’re great and you’re brave You still lack that which makes you a star.” Read all the pamphlets and watch the tapes
I can’t stop thinking about creative growth and how much it ties in to our intellectual curiosity. As I get older, I’m more and more disheartened to see people just… stop learning things. Obviously, you can read a whole slew of political commentary into that concept; people refusing to grow past the status quo they’re most comfortable with or learn to accept people that previously made them feel “weird” about how different their lives and experiences are. But we’re in the Trump era and Biden’s the national frontrunner in the Democratic primary, so there’s a billion think-pieces on that. So let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about punk music.
Since I started listening to music, I’ve listened to punk. Pop-punk, ’77, and some early hardcore are my specialties. But around the end of high school, I started to kind of fall out of thecontemporary punk scene. At least in the scene I was in, heavier punk and metal merged a little too much for my tastes and got too… macho, the same thing that turns me off from a lot of 80s hardcore. Pop punk got too overproduced and started to drift away from the “my friends in their garage writing songs about girls” sound that I fell in love with of the late 90s/early 00s. So I fell out of it and started listening to a lot more indie and alternative.
But recently, I’ve started to fall pretty hard into post-punk. I’m new to it, so forgive me if I’m wrong about any of the details, but it seems like post-punk (and no-wave) seem to embody the DIY, relatable punk ethos, but without the cliché, trappings, and narrow genre focus of punk. I’ve been all about bands like Siouxsie And The Banshees, Sonic Youth, and Joy Division for the last few weeks after my guitarist gave me a path to delve in to. And man, it rules. It’s got that “garage band with friends” sense of freedom, but with a much bolder and unexpected musical direction. It really opened my eyes up to the idea that I don’t have to “leave behind punk” when I get bored of it, but I can just make different punk music. The punk ethos isn’t just about fast and loud guitars, but it’s just that, an ethos. The punks grew up and I had missed the whole thing for decades. This is the exact kind of music I want, no, need to be playing right now. Being an artist in 2020 has to be about inclusivity instead of gatekeeping. It’s all about making art for the right reasons, your reasons, not about following the structures set by the generations before us. Punk was punk because nobody had done it before, not because somebody did the exact same thing 40 years ago. And that brings me to LCD Soundsystem and their second album, Sound Of Silver.
LCD Soundsystem had been recommended to me a few times over the years, but I never really gave them a shot until this week. The aforementioned guitarist showed me a few songs and I wasn’t really wowed at first. But then I listened to this record and I was immediately won over. It really captured the exact feelings I’ve been having about making music today. So many songwriters just try to capture the sound they listen to instead of trying to do something new, something risky. I try to approach any creative project by first answering the question, what can I offer that no one else can? If this was just a straight album review, there are a million people way better than I am at talking about or analyzing music, so I try to focus on my reaction to music instead. Why would I want to make music that just sounds like a watered down version of someone I loved? Someone who I loved because of how groundbreaking and new their sound was when it came out? We have all unique voices, experiences, lives, why waste them?
If you aren’t familiar with LCD, they’re a bit hard to describe. They’re… dance-punk, I guess? A lot of the instrumentation is electronic and synth-driven, but James Murphy clearly comes from the New York punk scene. It sounds like a fun dance album, but lyrically, a whole lot of the record, probably because it is, seems like a punk record of the Bloomberg-era (Your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king). I’ve never heard a band that sounds like LCD Soundsystem. And that’s the point. It sounds strange at first, but doesn’t everything that leaves a mark? Everyone should have something to say no matter how hard to describe their voice is. If they think they don’t have anything important to say, maybe they should start to really think about why they feel like their voice doesn’t matter and who made them feel that way.
New York, I Love You, But you’re bringing me down. Like a death of the heart. Jesus, where do I start? But you’re still the one pool. Where I’d happily drown And oh… Take me off your mailing list. For kids who think it still exists Yes, for those who think it still exists Maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m wrong and just maybe you’re right And oh.. Maybe mother told you true and there’ll always be somebody there for you And you’ll never be alone But maybe she’s wrong and maybe I’m right and just maybe she’s wrong Maybe she’s wrong and maybe I’m right and if so, is there?
I’ve written a lot about legacy and nostalgia in these columns, too, and I’m not disregarding those! There’s nothing wrong with showing your influences or writing a throwback. But we should always strive to keep our art honest and personal. You can write about and with nostalgia and still have something new to say. Keeping your influences clear as a bibliography to fully understand the artistic curiosity that led you to create this piece in the first place is great! But there’s a big difference between continuing the collective narrative of our society’s artistic story and just being derivative. We should always remember where we came from, but never at the expense of where we need to go, no matter how untraveled that path forward seems.
The original column was published on December 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Workin’ in the fields til’ you get your back burned Workin’ ‘neath the wheel, til’ you get your facts learned Baby, I got my facts, learned real good right now Poor man want to be rich, Rich man want to be king And a king ain’t satisfied til’ he rules everything
Lately, I’ve found a lot of new appreciation for late 90s/early 2000s political critiques. Too often, and I’m guiltier of this than most, we become enamored by deconstructions of post-9/11 American domestic life and foreign policy and forget that there was plenty of division, strife, and protest in our “contemporary” society before the Bush Doctrine ramped it all up to 11. 9/11 was such a glaring and brutal bullet point on the American timeline that it’s easy to forget that a lot of the issues we still argue about were actually worth arguing about before we were shocked into the “modern American” mindset. A few of the things I’ve been thinking of are:
Christopher Priest’s fantastic 1998-2003 run on Black Panther, which serves as a stark critique of Clinton-era foreign policy.
A realization that the Star Wars prequels are secretly good and have a lot of very prescient things to say about America’s soon to start wars in the middle east.
And Bruce Springsteen’s late-90s output, specifically the live record documenting the final leg of his 1999 reunion tour with the East Street Band, Live In New York City.
When I started this column, I did a lot of soul searching on if I should include albums that weren’t just standard studio albums. Compilations don’t quite capture the moment in time and emotional thru-line that I try to focus on. Live albums have a similar problem, in that a set list might be pulling from songs that aren’t relevant to now or songs that are still popular and people want to hear. But in a live setting, older songs can be re-framed, in a new narrative, and given a new context to help us appreciate what they were trying to say all along.
Bruce is someone who I’ve never really listened to and I think it’s a great disservice to what he stands for that I took so long to really listen to his lyrics and realize what he was trying to say. I always knew he was a “blue collar” songwriter but I somehow missed just how much he spoke about so many of the economic issues we constantly talk about in modern political discourse.
From the Monongahela valley to the Mesabi iron range To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name
I mean come on, this is basically the script to an ad about the divide in the Democratic Party about trade deals in the Trump era. But with a bit more… realism and bite.
When I die I don’t want no part of heaven, I would not do heaven’s work well I pray the devil comes and takes me, to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell
And that kind of aggressive populism, raging against the rich who look down on all of us is present throughout the entire show. Even when they’re dressed up in folksy Americana.
But that’s not why I’m writing about this specific record. I was originally going to write about Born In The U.S.A.
Born down in a dead man’s town The first kick I took was when I hit the ground You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much Till you spend half your life just covering up
Born In The U.S.A. was the first Springsteen album I really loved. I put it off because I absolutely can’t stand that every nationalistic xenophobe since Reagan has played it at rallies. But then when I really listened to it, I realized the obvious. That it’s not some beautiful anthem on American exceptionalism
Got in a little hometown jam So they put a rifle in my hand Sent me off to a foreign land To go and kill the yellow man
It’s a harsh critique of our imperialism at the expense of not only the people we go over to kill, but at the young men and women who are forced to enforce America’s will abroad only to be shunned by the people who sent them over there in the first place. The pro-war hawks are almost always slashing funding, limiting health care, and destroying the VA so they can hold it up as an example of how “government doesn’t work.”
Come back home to the refinery Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me” Went down to see my V.A. man He said “Son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong They’re still there, he’s all gone
The version of “Born In The U.S.A.” we hear here is a somber one, stripped down to a 12-string acoustic guitar, reflecting the severity of the issue we were about to ramp up to 11. Just two years later, we started sending troops to fight the two longest wars in American history, with an economic recession just behind the corner, waiting for the lucky ones to come home to.
The hypocrisy of those in power really brought me to what may be the most powerful song for this whole show, the only song that was new for this tour. In the weeks leading up to this run at Madison Square Garden, Bruce and the E Street Band debuted a new song, “American Skin” in Atlanta and the lyrics leaked online. This song was in response to the Amadou Diallo shooting in the Bronx earlier that year. Springsteen had written political songs throughout his career, clearly, but this one sparked a bit more outrage, especially from the NYPD.
41 shots, and we’ll take that ride Across this bloody river to the other side 41 shots, they cut through the night You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule Praying for his life
I spend a lot of time thinking about protest and the most effective way to do it. I struggle with it a lot, especially since my life is pretty privileged and most of the things I’ve protested haven’t directly affected me. I constantly hear criticism from the right about how you’re supposed to protest. Our country was founded on protest, but so many people who support the status quo keep themselves distanced enough so they don’t have to confront that they would clearly be loyalists to the British during the American Revolution. Protesting is great and American, but you shouldn’t destroy property. The Boston Tea Party. They wouldn’t have gotten killed if they just listened to the police. The Boston Massacre began as the follow up to a British customs officer when he shot and killed an 11 year old boy during a patriot protest. A week and a half later, a protest turned violent when a British officer stabbed a protester with his bayonet. The rest is history.
41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school She says, “On these streets, Charles. You’ve got to understand the rules If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite And that you’ll never ever run away Promise Mama, you’ll keep your hands in sight”
My point is not to weigh in on specific cases of brutality or not, as I haven’t done the due diligence to discuss this case at length. My point is that if people have and they’re pissed off about it, that’s ok. I’ve seen so many people go so far out of their way to make sure they have no acceptable way to voice that disbelief. Street protests just get in the way of people trying to go to work. Public displays are inappropriate, and god forbid anyone kneels during the anthem. (As an aside, the Department of Defense spent millions of taxpayers dollars making the NFL more “patriotic” and players didn’t stand on the field for the national anthem until 2009). Celebrities are supposed to stay in their lane and entertain us, mindlessly, with no regard for or mention of their personal beliefs. One of the greats, Bruce Springsteen, has a huge reunion tour and comes out with a statement that he thinks is important. And he gets called a “floating fag” by the police and told to go back to singing “American flag songs and all that stuff.” If artists can’t protest through their art, how the fuck are people supposed to protest? If someone with a platform as large as Springsteen is called a dirtbag and told to shut the fuck up, how are regular folk supposed to stand up to an unjust system? That’s the trick, they aren’t. They’re supposed to just sit there and hope that the status quo deigns the downtrodden worthy to receive a blessing from above. If only everyone could be so lucky.
The original column was published on November 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Should we talk about the weather? (Hi, hi, hi) Should we talk about the government? (Hi, hi, hi, hi)
Currently, I’m in the final stages of a new music project that I’m so excited to release and it’s a great new direction for my writing. I’ve dabbled in political songwriting in the past, but I usually fell short and started feeling that when you make a political message the main focus, the song too often becomes more about sending the intended message over writing a great song. Sacrificing catchiness for importance. Placing relevancy over memorability. But this time, helped by the fact that someone else is writing most of the music, we’ve really crafted a record that I think is about some really important things, but never at the expense of making a great record that people will (hopefully!) want to listen to. And nobody balanced those two things half as well as R.E.M. did, especially on their 1988 album, Green.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing (Say, say, the light) I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me (Say, say, the light) Eviscerate your memory, here’s a scene You’re in the back seat laying down (Say, say, the light) The windows wrap around to the sound of the travel and the engine
Green was released on November 7th, 1988, the day before the 1988 American Presidential election. R.E.M. was very outspoken at the time against then-candidate George H. W. Bush and supported the Democrat, Michael Dukakis. Using their first major label release to raise their platform, it was clear that this album was going to be even more political than they’d been in the past.
Green is an interesting album in R.E.M.’s catalog. They’d been primarily playing in minor keys with more traditional instrumentation, but with Green they somehow managed to be more mainstream, while also becoming more experimental. Their songwriting became more major key and accessible, but their instrumentation was becoming much more diverse. This album features a lot of mandolin and pedal steel guitar, played by Peter Buck, and it layers the record in an eerie, but deeply, beautiful way. The higher string instruments interweave perfectly under Michael Stipe’s voice, which was reaching new highs with each new album, of which Green is no exception.
This is my world and I am the World Leader Pretend This is my life and this is my time I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit It’s high time I raised the walls that I’ve constructed
It’s amazing what devices you can sympathize (Empathize) This is my mistake, let me make it good I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down
You fill in the mortar, you fill in the harmony You fill in the mortar, I raised the wall And I’m the only one, I will be the one to knock it down
Just about every single song on Green deals with some sort of bigger picture. They all certainly resonate with me, but the diversity in the messages, alongside the diversity in the musical directions the album pushes into, help make Green a truly iconic album. I never really hear anyone talk about R.E.M.’s influence on music and pop culture, but they’re a real benchmark of the transition from the punk-focused Reagan-era of political music, back into a more mainstream level of politics in popular music. The most famous song on the record, “Orange Crush” doesn’t shy away from the explicitly political message at the heart of Green.Everybody knows “Orange Crush,” but I don’t know how many casual listeners realize what it’s about. It’s not soda, that’s for sure. Right underneath the endlessly catchy hooks is a story about Vietnam, specifically the chemical weapon, Agent Orange.
High on the roof Thin the blood Another one came on the waves tonight Coming in, you’re home
“We would circle and we’d circle and we’d circle To stop and consider and centered on the pavement Stacked up all the trucks jacked up and our wheels In slush and orange crush in pocket and all This here county, hell, any county, it’s just like heaven here And I was remembering and I was just in a different county and all Then this whirlybird that I headed for I had my goggles pulled off; I knew it all, I knew every back road and every truck stop”
(Follow me, don’t follow me) I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush (Collar me, don’t collar me) I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush (We are agents of the free) I’ve had my fun and now it’s time To serve your conscience overseas (Over me, not over me) Coming in fast, over me
This record really captures the dichotomy that I struggle with every time I put my creative voice into a project. I always want to be fun, optimistic, and inspiring, but I, more often than not, end up just wanting to unload all my anger and angst. I just want to shake people and yell at them to give a shit about whatever issues are really stuck in my brain at the time. To just berate them with rhetoric until they finally feel what I feel. But too often, it just comes off callous and angry. Maybe it’s better to give a more empathetic message, giving the audience the opportunity and the agency to come to some insightful conclusions on their own. And if you can put it all in a super catchy single, that definitely won’t hurt. You catch more flies with honey and all that.
More than anything else, R.E.M. is pure honesty. Green was the very first album I listened to when I got my own car and I’ll never forget the rush of hearing the album blaring (through a Discman, powered by two piggybacked AC adapters and a cassette converter) as I slammed the clutch, shifted into third, and merged onto the expressway for the first time. It was a relatively new album for me at the time, but I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to anything else. It was such a perfect blend of angst and optimism. Relevance and memorability. Catchiness and importance. It so perfectly encapsulates my constant struggle between trying to bring everyone up and to make sure everyone knows how important it is to get up and stand for something. The world makes me want to scream every single day. But those screams are not uniform. Screams of joy, screams of pain, screams of love, screams of hate. And that’s ok.