I live in Seattle. There is almost no other place in this country that is as stereotyped as the Emerald City, save for maybe San Francisco or Los Angeles. And I suppose stereotypes are there for a reason. Yes, Seattleites are pretty much commie-sympathizing hippie granola recycling organic liberals (and we like it that way). We drink too much coffee, live for the outdoors and all have college degrees. We’re also well aware of our collective pasts. No, I didn’t grow up here, but I’ve been here long enough to know that Dick’s is an institution, that we lament the loss of Chubby & Tubby on Aurora and that the Wingdome probably needs to change its name now that its predeceasing sports arena has bitten the dust. And even with this sense of history, you don’t hear too much in this city about grunge anymore. Even the most recent, and well-reviewed I might add, Pearl Jam album was but a blip on the collective radar of Seattle. Frasier and Grey’s Anatomy seem to be “just shows.” Hell, the constant establishing shots in the latter of the Space Needle drive us all crazy. We get it! It’s Seattle! But, as Marcy Playground reminded me in the early parts of this shuffle, the shadow of Seattle looms large over popular music. This city may have spawned the overuse of flannel, but it also provided the world with Jimi Hendrix and Heart. More losses will come, as reports abound that within the next five to six years, the historic Showbox Theater will be torn down to make room for condos, and very soon Pretty Girls Make Graves will play their final performance. But the shadow of Seattle will continue to loom…
“Siriustar” by Deerhoof
I’ve only recently begun to appreciate Deerhoof. I’ve a lot of people say that because I liked Blonde Redhead, I should definitely be into Deerhoof, but the latter seems a little more angsty. This particular song, from The Runners Four, features that same kind of “oh so innocent” vocal style as Blonde Redhead, but when the power chords crunch in and the feedback starts to wail, you know that you’re into something a little more dangerous. Howling at the moon never sounded so good! With slight nods back to the psychedelic roots of their home city of San Francisco, Deerhoof seem on paper to be a conglomeration of things that might otherwise turn me off, but instead they have become one of my new favorites. And man do those guitars kick ass in this track!
“Plasticities” by Andrew Bird
Yay! Andrew Bird is back and sounding better than ever! Taken from Armchair Apocraphya, “Plasticities” finds Bird doing somewhat of a Jeff Buckley impersonation without the dizzying highs, but sweet nonetheless. The song depicts decaying America, cubicles and the dying of the arts. Being that I haven’t had time to listen to the album in full quite yet (that’s the drawback of doing so many CD reviews, you just don’t have enough time in the world to even listen to the stuff you want to listen to), after hearing this song, I know I’ll head back for the rest. That’s one of the beauties of the shuffle feature, getting a little sample before you order the full serving, like those little pink spoons at Baskin-Robbins.
“The Shadow of Seattle” by Marcy Playground
Now this was an interesting song for my iPod to choose for me! I had just moved back into Seattle (the Eastlake neighborhood to be more precise) and I hadn’t heard this song since “Sex & Candy” was played on the radio ad infinitum. I thought back then that Marcy Playground was an underrated band, and now listening to this song, I stand by that affirmation. Some think this song is about Kurt Cobain specifically, others about the Seattle music scene in general in the early 90’s. The latter holds more water for me as the title suggests that grunge was a behemoth that had record executives scouring the country for the next Nirvana, Soundgarden or Pearl Jam. The lyrics contain slight nods to Cobain’s words and music, but overall I think this had more to do with bands in the mid to late 90’s having a tough time distancing themselves from the overwhelming hype of grunge.
“Parachutes” by Pearl Jam
And how’s that for irony? You follow up a song about grunge in general with Pearl Jam’s most ‘un-grunge’ like song they’ve ever written. In a way, this song says to me, in this context, that the only real ‘shadow’ in rock music is the shadow of the Beatles. This track about love and death is just about the most 60’s psychedelic that Eddie and the boys have ever dared to get. I have to admit, I haven’t really listened to much Pearl Jam since Vitalogy (does that make me one of those sellouts that respond to tours and videos?), but I really enjoyed this lighter track. I don’t think that anyone who played Ten over and over again back in 1991 could have ever predicted that in fifteen years PJ would have ever sounded like this, but we couldn’t have wished for a better result. After all, they could be Queensryche, right?
“Sugar Pill (Demo)” by Ambulance, Ltd.
I remember being caught off guard by full-page ads about three years ago for Ambulance LTD. I had no idea who they were, had never heard their music and for a band that comes out of the ether, everything seemed far too glossy. My bad. As Lenny would say, “That’s why pencils come with erasers.” Luckily, I did correct my mistake and now I realize how great this band is. Unlike the grunge bands referred to above, Ambulance LTD seem to defy location. Their ads made me think of Manchester, their music of European shoegaze, but they remained steadfastly from Brooklyn. Huh. Go figure. “Sugar Pill” was a fantastic song from their debut full-length, but this demo version, from their New English EP, is somehow a better version, gauzier and more ethereal, as if Zero 7 and Air were covering Kevin Shields. I don’t know how all of these diverse bands come out of New York. I guess with that many different types of people, the music is bound to be dramatically varied.
“Friday Night, Saturday Morning” by the Specials
Long before the Rakes (“22 Grand Job”), Maximo Park (“Apply Some Pressure”), Art Brut (“We Formed a Band”) and the Kaiser Chiefs (“I Predict a Riot”) began singing heavily accented looks at daily rude boy life in England, the Specials had turned punk into two-tone ska for singles gold. “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” was a tongue in cheek reference to British writer Alan Sillitoe’s “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” a slow reggae-like look at hanging out with one’s friends and getting drunk. Singer Terry Hall, who later left to start Fun Boy Three (with some heavily underrated songs including “Our Lips Are Sealed,” a song Hall cowrote with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin), ends the song with “I wish I had lipstick on my shirt / Instead of piss stains on my shoes.” Haven’t we all been there? This song originally appeared on the Ghost Town EP, the Specials’ very first single release.
“Return” by OK Go
At first they were known as the one-hit wonder who recorded “Get Over It,” the MTV2 / Subterranean crossover hit that introduced Damien Kulash’s charming lisp. To get through that tag, the band became even more famous for their YouTube friendly meticulously choreographed videos for songs from their second album, “A Million Ways” and “Here It Goes Again.” “Return” is from the band’s debut self-titled album, apparently about a former lover, but in the context of this shuffle, could be another song about Kurt Cobain! The lyric “You were supposed to grow old; Reckless, unfrightened and old. You were supposed to grow old,” is surprisingly appropriate for the situation. So far, the shadow of Seattle has covered Chicago and New York. What could be next?
“A Question of Time (Remix)” by Depeche Mode
Over the past two years, I have been frequently finding myself on Depeche Mode benders, making myself drunk silly off of repeated DM listening, and the recent reissues are certainly helping to keep me in my cups. “A Question of Time” is, of course, notoriously from one of DM’s most celebrated album, Black Celebration. The hour-long documentary on the new reissue is illuminating. The label executive found the music too dire and dreary, thinking there was not a single in the bunch. The US executives passed on the brilliant “Stripped” as the first single, instead picking “But Not Tonight” thanks to its inclusion in the terrible sex comedy, Modern Girls. Despite the apparent ‘lack of singles,’ Black Celebration became heralded as a fan favorite, and the darkly sinister “A Question of Time” one of its danceable standouts. I wonder if “To Catch a Predator” is ever going to create a sting operation for Martin Gore thanks to the number of songs he’s written about underage girls.
“Comforting Sounds” by Mew
I missed Mew at SXSW. I came back to Seattle and ended up missing them here as well. Damn. And I’m a big Mew fan! How did this happen? To add insult to injury, it seemed as if everyone and their mothers went to one show or the other. In my 4 am shuttle to Austin Bergstrom Airport, the gentlemen who rode with me were talking incessantly about how great the Mew show was. Back in Seattle, at least three people passed by my brother and I at the Isis / Jesu show talking about the Mew show the night before. Oddly enough, when people asked them about the band, they would describe them as ‘boring, but good.’ Then why did you go? Bastards! Maybe they didn’t want to ruin their metal cred by appearing at an Isis show and declaring their love for a Danish pop band. The truth is, Mew is anything but boring and “Comforting Sounds” is one nine-minute piece of proof. When the strings and harps kick in at the halfway point, you know that it’s just going to keep building to even greater heights, and it doesn’t let you down. This is one of my favorite songs of theirs, and thankfully, the US powers that be rightly decided to re-release the song’s origin, the brilliant Frengers.
“Opus 36″ by Dustin O’Halloran
From the original Star Trek like wailing of the end of “Comforting Sounds” to the beauty in simplicity of Dustin O’Halloran’s “Opus 36″ from the Marie Antoinette soundtrack. At less than two minutes, it’s the antithesis of the Mew song in yet another way. All in all, it’s a nice coda to yet another omniscient session of “Life on Shuffle.” I mean, really, how could my iPod have picked a better two-song combination to end this mix? When I proposed this column to my brother, he asked if I ever threw songs out of mixes to make them ‘seem’ more cohesive and my answer was a resounding “no!” Believe it or not (I’m walking on air?), I write about these shuffle sessions as is, which eventually could be very embarrassing for me considering what bits of fluff I have hiding in the dark corners of this little black box, but ultimately organic works with just about everything. And here we are, back in the shadow of Seattle.