Monthly Archives: November 2012

Mixtape Monologue Monday – Radio Remix #1: "I’m Sorry" and The Party,"That’s Why"

Well, it’s a Thanksgiving two-fer, but it’s also sort of a cop-out.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Mixtape Monologue Monday – Radio Remix #1: Wilson Phillips, "You’re in Love"

Between 1990 and 1993, in those glorious days between pre-pubescence and the full onset of my infatuation with the grunge era (which, luckily for me, coincided with my transformation into a Consumer, babysitting money funneling happily away to Columbia House), I made a bunch of mixtapes. I did my homework on my bed, music blaring away on the radio-with-double-cassette-player next to me, anxiously awaiting my New Favorite Song – or just a song that sounded cool – to be played so I could record it.

These tapes are, in many ways, more symbolic of those years for me than any number of photo albums could be. I wore these tapes into the ground, constantly playing and replaying them. Each tape took on its own cumulative significance, the quirks of recording – a few seconds shaved off the beginning of a song when I didn’t hit ‘record’ fast enough, a few mumbled words from a radio DJ here or there, the beginning of the wrong song accidentally captured – creating a new 90-minute-long story, 45 minutes per side. I played those tapes even when the individual songs were no longer popular or were even laughable. It didn’t matter if I didn’t really care for song X anymore, because it belonged right where it was. It was part of the story. My story.

I played them at night to help me fall asleep. I played them at my father’s new house after my parents split up, because they reminded me of happier times and a happier me. I played them in college when I was homesick. I knew just what I had been reading or working on when I recorded each song – I knew I had been in my room, on my bed, with my books and my things around me. They grounded me. They took on a life outside the music. Even now, any of these songs might come on the radio and I know immediately which side of which tape they’re on, what songs they’re surrounded by, and I’m transported back to my room, back to my thirteen-year-old self.

So even if each song, nowadays, might be thought of as cheesy, or awesome, or reminiscent of particular styles of fashion or song production or consumerism – to me, they’ll always be just a bit more than that.

As an aside, I’ve mentioned I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of pop music growing up – my father, having been in his twenties throughout the 60s and having been brought up in a conservative, religious, southern household, stuck with country music and reviled pretty much all pop music created post-Elvis. My mother would put on the oldies station, as she had been quite a fan of the Beatles and, later on, of disco and dance music. The tensions between my parents musically were, in hindsight, rather reflective of the tensions between them in all other aspects of life.  By the time I was getting into fourth and fifth grades, and children begin to take notice of anything that makes them different (negatively) from the crowd, my absolute lack of knowledge of pop music had labeled me an outsider.  For my 10th birthday, I begged for my own radio/cassette player combo, which my grandmother bought for me – a light pink Sony, the same that every other little girl in my class had – and she asked me to pick out a tape that I might want. I picked Whitney Houston’s album Whitney! (featuring the smash hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”) – not because I liked her, not because I even knew who she was, but because it was listed as that week’s #1 seller in the store. I figured it must be something everyone liked, and therefore it was the only logical place to start learning about what all the cool people already knew. Thus began my intense study of pop music, because I knew I had a lot to catch up on if I were going to be treated as ‘normal’ by my peers in school. I like to think of this turn of events as my introduction to musicology – at the very least, it certainly explains the immense assortment of music trivia that I’ve collected over the years.

It’s interesting to me that the very first song on the tapes I called my “Radio Remixes” (I guess even then I had a penchant for alliteration) is not really that representative of what else found its way into my collection. Sure, Wilson Phillips were popular – you couldn’t hardly get away from them, especially when you had parents that had grown up with the Beach Boys or the Mamas and the Papas and considered their offspring to be the kind of clean-cut, morally upright women you’d want your young girls to look up to. I can very easily remember my father coming into my room to say goodnight and grimacing when he heard that I was playing pop, and not country, on my radio, but I don’t really remember him making any faces about Wilson Phillips. When they made guest appearances on the family-friendly sitcoms (Full House, anyone?), my parents didn’t moan and groan the way they did about, say, George Michael (whose ripped jeans and earrings sent them into frenzies of disgusted overprotectiveness).  They were Okay.

I certainly didn’t mind their music – it was catchy enough. I much preferred their more up-tempo singles, though, like “Hold On” and “Release Me.” I always gravitated toward music with good, close vocal harmonies, learning how to pick out the individual voice parts (especially the lowest ones) by ear and singing along with each in turn, and I can remember doing that with all of their songs. It didn’t really strike me until later that I was more used to doing that with male groups, and that I could actually sing along with all three of the vocal lines without any major strain. I guess, along with Motown, Phil Collins, and the soundtrack to Les Miserables, Wilson Phillips may have helped me pass ear-training in college. Who knew?

As a typical adolescent girl, I was occasionally moved to tears by a sappy love story or an overly romantic ballad, and I suppose that this song was no different, though I think that back in the day I didn’t really understand all the nuances. I knew it was about a girl whose ex-boyfriend was in love with another woman, and she’s – happy about it. But she’s still flabbergasted that he’s not coming back to her. Didn’t really understand it then, and little contradictions like that in lyrics have always irked me. While I certainly understand the gist of it more maturely now, the song still makes me feel a bit … ooky. I guess it’s the oversimplicity of the situation, but hey, a three-minute pop song isn’t required to represent every facet of human emotion, right?  Still, of all the songs I recorded on all ten of these Remixes, it’s one of my least favorite.

I know it was the first song I recorded, and I’d love for it to have some sort of deeper significance, but I can remember fast-forwarding through it even back in the day to get to the stuff I enjoyed a bit more – and yes, that included more Wilson Phillips. I still like the pretty-ness of some of the harmonies and vocal lines (all of which I can still sing), but the overly saccharine sentiment just sits less well than it ever did when I was younger.

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Rare Pearls

Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls
The Jackson 5
Okay, okay, I know that this box set has been out for a few weeks now, but come on, I’ve been a bit busy, what with the whole defending the dissertation right around the corner.  And I’ve just set up this blog as a place for my musings, for lack of a better term. So please forgive the delay in my happy squeals of joy.
I can easily remember waking up on Saturday mornings as a child and racing anxiously to the tv for the requisite, long-awaited morning cartoons, one of which was the Jackson 5 show. I came along a bit too late for the early heyday of the group, and I didn’t quite understand the fervor over young-adult-sparkly-glove Michael because I wasn’t allowed to listen to much pop music growing up, but I knew who they were from that show. When I was approaching adolescence, though, the “oldies” station was granted permission in the house, so I rediscovered Motown and the Jackson 5 then, and it’s been a love affair ever since.
After Michael Jackson’s untimely death a few years back, the market was inundated with homages, re-releases, remixes, alternate takes, and of course, the ubiquitous “long-lost masterpieces.” It’d be easy to chuck this box set in with all of those and ignore it, but while, say, “Michael Jackson: The Stripped Mixes” may be appealing only to die-hard fans and collectors, this set of recordings could almost be two new stand-alone albums.
Well, two new albums of B-sides, perhaps, but a Jackson 5 B-side can battle it out with many of the best A-sides of other Motown artists any day of the week.  Take the song most frequently mentioned on reviews: the punchy, energetic “If the Shoe Don’t Fit.”  Okay, so the lyrics are a little awkward, the language doesn’t flow as easily as it does in their bigger hits, but Michael, Jermaine, and Tito (in a fabulous cameo) sell it like it’s gold. The music is as solid, the harmonies as sweet, as anything else they released in their ABC years. You want evidence of Michael’s soul? Listen to “I Got a Sure Thing,” a Booker T Jones/Al Bell Stax-terpiece. Sure, he interjects the same riff over and over again, a heartfelt, throaty wail to a love he was too young to have known yet, but he sells that riff every. single. time. Maybe at 12 he was not yet an innovator, but he was one hell of an imitator.
Not every track is quite of the quality of those two, but the wide variety of covers and styles is fascinating in and of itself. Check out a half-funky, half-funny cover of Randy Newman’s/Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” their version of Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright” (which is both reminiscent of Michael’s solo version of “Rockin’ Robin” and a foreshadowing of their later disco success with tracks like “Dancin’ Machine”), the Smokey Robinson-penned “I’m Your Sunny One (He’s my Sunny Boy),” originally written for and released by the Supremes as the B-side of “Love Child.” As so frequently happens with Jackson 5 covers, their version of this song blows the original out of the water. Diana Ross is careful with her vocals, each word carefully wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bow. Michael, on the other hand, oozes confidence, charm, and a youthful earnestness that wins you over from the first word. It may be my favorite track off of either disc.
For those more knowledgeable of the Jackson 5 oeuvre (and doesn’t that sound pretentious?), they will no doubt be delighted by the last track of the second disc, the original demo version of “Mama’s Pearl.” Originally penned as “Guess Who’s Making Whoopee with your Girlfriend,” hearing Michael using such adult lyrics is a bit jarring (that’s not to say that some of the young Jackson 5 songs didn’t treat adult subjects, but the writers at least candy-coated the words for their youthful singers). But as a demo, you can hear Michael experiment with phrasing and test out a dozen or more different kinds of improvisatory fills; you can almost hear the gears churning in his brain as he throws out these different fills like pasta against a wall, testing what sticks and what doesn’t. It’s not all about Michael, though – these two discs show Jermaine growing from a throaty but occasionally imprecise teen with an impressive leading presence to a young adult with a smooth, smooth delivery. Jackie, Tito, and Marlon are each featured more here than what most of the J5 greatest hits would have you believe, and in what should come as no surprise to anyone, they’re all solid, solid singers. It’s a real shame that Tito, in particular, didn’t do more solo work.
MJ fans might be, as I was, a bit disturbed by one track, “Someone’s Standing in my Love Light.” Featuring a spoken interlude by a young Michael, the listener can’t help but be impressed by his amazing delivery – in a different age, he would have ruled the stage as a song & dance actor (as he somewhat did later on with The Wiz). In one eerie moment, Michael yells “I can’t sleep!” – a harmless exclamation of his search for love, but a sad foreshadowing of his history of insomnia, which partially led to his death in 2009.  A bittersweet track, indeed.
At this point, for me, there just isn’t anything related to the Jackson 5 or Michael Jackson that I don’t want to listen to. The swarm of releases around MJ’s death, even the bad ones or the ones that the cynical will claim were made just for the money, are still all amazing. The re-releases, the re-mastered editions, the 20th/25th/30th/40th(?!?) anniversary box sets – I’ll take them all.  But in terms of quality, interest, and sheer fun, this set should be on anyone’s wishlist.  But I’ll warn you – the actual physical box set pressing is extremely limited, probably because of the amazing 45 of “If the Shoe Don’t Fit,” so the odds are I’ve whetted your appetite in vain. However, the digital version is still worth the money – so get cracking!

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The Mixtape Monologues

In my closet, I have a shoebox, and in that shoebox are some of my most precious possessions.

Between 1990 and 1995, I made myself a collection of mixtapes – songs that I painstakingly hunted down and recorded off the radio. Okay, so painstaking might be a bit misleading, as I definitely recorded a bunch of things I had no intention of saving, but the final products became the soundtrack of my pre-grunge adolescence.

They’re becoming a bit decrepit over time, so I’m going to be going about the process of digitizing them to CD/mp3. But I’ve already lost one to overuse, and my thirteen-year-old self neither recorded the names of the artists nor always got the name of the song right, so in that case, I have to engage in a bit of musical archaeology.

As I go through them, I hope to use this space to post videos and talk a bit about my relationship to each of these songs. Some are embarrassing, some are expected, some are a bit out of the ordinary, but what I find fascinating is how I (still) react to them. Regardless of what I’ve learned about music, regardless of what I think critically of the artists or songs or production quality, regardless of the esteem or derision with which these songs are typically met today, these tapes are little urtexts of my past, and in context, each song brings me immediately, viscerally, to particular times in my youth.

Hope you enjoy the trip.

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Thinking back on this year’s AMS/SMT/SEM meeting

It’s been a week since the New Orleans conference. It definitely was a bit of a blur – I was getting over a horrible cold and as a result waded through the three-day crush in somewhat of a foggy-headed stupor. I had one very pleasant interview, met several colleagues whose acquaintances I was quite anxious to make, saw some old friends, mentors, and colleagues, and enjoyed some decent local cuisine. Never enough time to catch up with everyone you’d like, though!

A few thoughts on the papers and panels that stuck out to me the most:

1) Margaret Bent’s paper on Jacobus of Liège – or is he from “Hispania?” This, to me, was one of the more intriguing papers of the conference, since she succinctly summarized the history of what knowledge we have about Jacobus (not much, to be sure) but added a new piece of evidence. A new source refers to him as “de Hispania,” which means that our former association of him “de montibus” must not refer to Liège but to another mountainous region either in Spain proper (the Pyrenees?) or, as I asked afterward, perhaps even the Franco-Italian border. I’m really looking forward to this article (as I hope/assume that it will be published) or to hearing more about any findings on the matter …

2) Karen Desmond’s paper on the collection of treatises with the incipit “Omni desideranti notitiam” – formerly associated with the Vitryan Ars Nova, but we now know (or think we know) that there is no such thing. However, she proposes that it has particular ties to the Speculum Musicae, and suggests that it was this treatise, not an “Ars Nova,” that may have been by Vitry – lots of work to be done here. A little wistful/saddened that she didn’t wade into the waters of dating and offer a reassessment, but I’m not sure I want to open that can of worms just yet either! Her online critical edition is superb! — http://arsmusicae.org/home.html

3) the Soul Music panel – a conglomeration of speakers and a group discussion on the historiography of and current research on soul music. Fascinating looks at the unsung (pun intended) participants in the burgeoning soul music phenomenon, the history of the use of the word ‘soul,’ and some incredibly intriguing look at who has access to certain types of study. The group discussion revealed continuing senses of white guilt, issues of patriarchy, colonialism, gender dichotomies, and the current state of the field of musicology – unfortunately, I had to leave this discussion early, but I had to pull myself away. I’m going to be chasing down the Blossoms, Merry Clayton, and Clydie King over the next few weeks!

Already looking forward to next year …

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