Tag Archives: music

Stories are Everything: A PJ Harvey-Inspired Reading List

I listened to PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake obsessively while researching people who were sickened or died as a result of their work building nuclear weapons. The album is both simple folk storytelling, and a timeless work about war in the grand tradition of Goya or Hemingway; like the best writers, she turns discrete stories into a broader lens through which to view the world. The music helped me grapple with what each data point of suffering and sacrifice meant, the contradictions in our national remembrance of the cold war, and the forces still shaping that memory.
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While They Were Creating the Album, the Beastie Boys Were Also Creating Themselves

After their 1986 debut Licensed to Ill, the world had high expectations of the Beastie Boys. But their second album, Paul’s Boutique, was viewed as a commercial failure. The hip-hop trio then had the creative freedom to pursue whatever they wanted next, and the result, 1992’s Check Your Head, presented their most ambitious vision yet, and allowed Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D to finally come into their own. At Flood MagazineMarty Sartini Garner describes how the Beastie Boys discovered themselves.

But the album is guided by a kind of audacity that refuses to recognize itself as audacity. It doesn’t even dare you to suggest that following the sunbaked rock of “Gratitude” with a conga-led organ jammer is a bad idea; it succeeds almost entirely on the power of the Beastie Boys’ conviction that it would succeed, that the contours of their map might be recognizable even if the landmarks aren’t. “They could relate and dig deeper with Check Your Head, because it fit their [evolution] in a lot of ways, too,” Diamond says of the audience they discovered when they finally took the album out on tour. “It may not have been the same trajectory of music that they discovered along the way, but they could relate.”

It was “this freedom to [try] shit and be inventive and use the whole century as a palette,” as Nishita puts it. “Let’s just smash it all together.”

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The Gifts of (a) Prince

Prince Mural

Prince made too much music for just one person. He knew this, banking thousands of hours of unreleased material in the vaults of his Paisley Park studios. A year after his unexpected death on April 21, 2016, we’re no closer to realizing what he stashed away in his vaults, but what he gave away in his lifetime represents an important chapter in his legacy.

A year after his unexpected death. Prince was the soundtrack to the most naively optimistic years of my life, the years that my life was first my own. Years full of risk and erratic income and the first time I fell in love as something resembling an adult. A year after his unexpected death. I still catch my breath when there’s a Prince song on the radio. I can’t sing along without my voice literally choking on the emotion I still feel from this loss.

At Pitchfork, Stephen Thomas Erlewine reminds us that Prince existed beyond his own discography. We know about “Manic Monday” and “The Glamorous Life” and “Jungle Love,” but there was so much more. And much of it went to women.

Prince’s cottage industry as a songwriter for hire was a key part of his purple reign in the mid-’80s. He wasn’t contracted to write hits but instead gave songs to acts he deemed worthy. Usually these were women, which emphasized Prince’s androgyny and feminine empathy, but also reflected the practical reality that he no longer had Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6—the short-lived girl-groups he built, respectively, around his ex-girlfriends Vanity and Apollonia in the early ’80s—as a vehicle for exploring this side of himself. Certainly “Sugar Walls,” the tune he gave to Sheena Easton in 1984, felt like a throwback to Vanity 6’s sex-saturated 1982 hit “Nasty Girl,” and Easton delivered it with a heavy-handedness befitting its single-entendre. But if “Sugar Walls” treads familiar territory, “Manic Monday”—written for the scrapped second Apollonia 6 album—was a genuine departure into psychedelic pop. In the Bangles’ hands, “Manic Monday” carried a bittersweet sparkle suiting the Paisley Underground scene, which inspired the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day.

There’s an Apple Music playlist included at the end of Erlewine’s homage to Prince’s diverse side projects. You might want to grab your headphones.

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A History of American Protest Music: When Nina Simone Sang What Everyone Was Thinking

Nina Simone

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2017 | 10 minutes (2,329 words)

 

On June 12, 1963, in the early morning after president John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights address, activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back as he stood in the driveway of his Mississippi home. He was returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers and officials, and carried an armload of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.” Evers was taken to a local hospital, where he died less than an hour after being admitted.

On September 15, 1963, four girls were killed when white supremacists planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the side steps of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The children were preparing for a sermon titled “A Love That Forgives.” According to one witness, their bodies flew across the basement “like rag dolls.” Read more…

His Heart, Her Hands: A Pianist Helps a Musician with Fading Memory to Save the Songs in His Head

Steve Goodwin was a software engineer by profession, but music was his true passion. But he had never recorded or written anything down, nor played for anyone outside of his family and friends. As his memory began to fade, his family found a professional pianist, Naomi LaViolette, to work with him to save the music in his head. Steve played parts of his songs that he could remember, and Naomi filled them in. Through 2016 and into 2017, she memorized 16 of his favorite songs and scored the music for future musicians.

At the Oregonian, Tom Hallman Jr. shares the story of their collaboration and includes audio samples of songs, like “Melancholy Flower,” the last piece Steve would ever compose.

All those years, I never wrote my songs down or recorded them. Everything — every note and phrase and chord progression — was in my head. All my life, I could remember every song and how to play it.

Then I couldn’t.

I felt like my fingers and my heart were doing everything they were supposed to do. But the result wasn’t coming out the way it was intended. There was a gap between my head and the piano. I can absolutely hear the music in my head. That’s what’s so frustrating. I know how it’s supposed to sound, but I can’t make it happen.

I’m angry.

I’m sad.

I’m scared.

It’s all in my head.

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‘Turn Off Your Brain and Just Trust Instinct’: Q-Tip on the Evolving Sound of Hip-Hop

A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, is a reminder of how much time has passed. As Noisey editor Kyle Kramer notes, it brings Phife Dawg’s voice back from the dead, uses familiar samples, and has that unmistakable Tribe groove. But the hip-hop group’s final studio album also marks now, and for many fans is very much relevant and political, especially given its release the day after the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Kramer talks with Q-Tip about being egoless and instinctive — and staying true to himself and to Tribe while evolving with the sound of hip-hop.

I think you have to always look ahead, in anything. We sometimes become creatures of habit, and we want to continue to do things that we maybe have enjoyed or that strike a particular chord that we’ve experienced a long, long time ago. But as time moves on and humanity moves on and man moves on and art moves on and philosophy moves on and so on and so forth, you find yourself either faced with a choice of adjusting and moving on with it or staying put. Now, there’s also some good things about what you may have experienced in the past or whatever, and therein lies the challenge. Of: Man, how do I keep to my ethos and keep to my philosophy but adjust it and update it and still have a fresh kind of attitude about it? And that’s tricky. To be able to do that, again, you have to just be egoless to a degree and you have to allow yourself to be challenged and allow yourself to be uncomfortable. And turn off your brain in a way and just trust instinct. And then fall into that, and I think you may end up on a good side.

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The Roots of Cowboy Music: ‘This Is the Music We Made. This Is the Land We Made.’

At MTV News, Oakland writer Carvell Wallace travels to Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and reflects on what it means to be black and American.

I think about the American government sending armies to wipe out the nations that had thrived here for millennia, warring with them for generations, committing atrocities that most Americans have never heard about in order to clear out the West so that rough-hewn men, gallant cowboys and lion-hearted ranchers, could homestead their land and claim their stake. Grow their cattle and bequeath land to their families. So they could watch life raising itself from the earth and contemplate the miracle of it all as they gazed into the heavens. And compose terse and delicate verses about how marvelous it all is.

I thought I had come to Elko to wallow in the melancholy of the cowboy poet, but really, it was just another chance to see if I could belong in my own country. And the results were inconclusive. When I walked through that lobby, nodding awkward hellos to people whose glances lingered just a little longer on me than maybe they would have otherwise, I felt foreign.

But when I sat with Flemons and Farrow and we traced the roots of cowboy music all the way back to our great-grandparents and the songs they sang, songs that they had probably learned from their parents, who would have been born into slavery, I didn’t just feel like I had a right to be here. I felt like I belonged here. Like this was my home as much as it was anyone else’s. I was reminded that people like me don’t pick up guitars and scratch out anguished rambling songs because we want to be white. We do it because we’re answering a call buried somewhere in our blood and bones. This is the music we made. This is the land we made.

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A History of American Protest Music: How The Hutchinson Family Singers Achieved Pop Stardom with an Anti-Slavery Anthem

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)

 

On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”

“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”

It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders. Read more…

Milo. Kind of Our Fault.

The Beach Boys, 1965

Iain Martin, former senior editor at The Sunday Telegraph and current columnist at Reaction, muses on finding the Beach Boys on YouTube, why the Telegraph made room for incendiary characters like Milo Yiannopoulos, and the impact of doing so.

The voracious appetite for clicks hasn’t been without cost.

Milo had plans for Telegraph blogs. Lots of plans. And suddenly, for a brief period, he was the Telegraph’s visionary guru handing out internet kool aid to us baffled and sceptical hacks and to the seriously talented people then in charge of the site. He was parachuted in to meetings with the company’s leaders where he mapped out his vision of a Telegraph at the forefront of a millennial media revolution.

This all sounds ridiculous now. Hell, it was ridiculous then. But it was before we had all realised that Facebook and Google were not our friends. They were going to suck up all the ad money and kill all but those with the sense to charge for quality content. We didn’t know that then. Anyway, the ferocious pace of change in media at that point, and the need for novelty, for an answer, any answer, meant that a character like Milo (a charismatic conservative chameleon) could walk right in.

With hindsight, I failed miserably in my responsibility as comment editor and should have made a stand. I was not alone in this. Quite a few other experienced executives thought the Milo for clicks experiment would blow up but we agreed in the pub that there was no point being near the scene of the explosion.

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Breaking Elgar’s Enigma: Cryptographic Genius or Crackpot?

In New Republic, Daniel Estrin writes about how a former insurance adjuster claims to have solved the 118-year-old cryptographic mystery of the hidden message in Edward Elgar’s infamous Enigma Variations.

And far from the ivory towers of music academia, mostly on his blog, Elgar’s Enigma Theme Unmasked, Bob Padgett has emerged as perhaps the most prolific and dogged of all Enigma seekers. His solution, which has caught the attention of classical music scholars, lies at the bottom of a rabbit hole of anagrams, cryptography, the poet Longfellow, the composer Mendelssohn, the Shroud of Turin, and Jesus, all of which he believes he found hiding in plain sight in the music.

Over the course of seven years of work, and in more than 100 detailed blog posts, Padgett identified about 40 other clues that support his theory, weaving a confounding web of musicological, literary, theological, and historical references.

There is another way to experience music, and that is Padgett’s way: to dissect it, to learn its grammar, and, ultimately, to borrow a phrase from the sequence of coded letters he discovered, to know it better. For Padgett, who is very religious, wrestling with Elgar’s work is akin to studying the Bible. It is reassurance that a grand, intelligent design exists. “For him, it’s a religious text,” his wife told me. “But he didn’t want to go on faith alone. He wanted solid proof.” “I’m an outsider, you know. I’m not one of these credentialed academics. I’m not published,” he said.

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