The songs in the Great American Standards songbook all have lives of their own by now – and why not, most of them are older than your grandmother. Even fairly obscure songs that your grandmother probably doesn’t remember listening to as a child have entire biographies. Grandma may not remember the 1937 Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance, or the sequence therein where Fred cuts a rug in a gleaming futuristic ‘factory’ with a bunch of black factory workers. But the song has gone on, in the hands of Ella Fitzgerald 20-some years later, and then in the next millennium as a remix.
Steely Dan is well and truly over now, what with that thing where Walter Becker died. It was, of course, very sad. But most people had accepted that Steely Dan was over and mourned their demise in the 20 years between Gaucho and Two Against Nature. It was very much an unexpected resurrection when the Dan got back together, with an equally unexpected amount of fanfare and acclaim. This wasn’t just another case of old geezers making a cynical cash-grubbing comeback to fund their boutique vineyards. Steely Dan still had a lot to say, and it was still the same sardonic misanthropy that made them the thinking man’s jazz-fusion combo back in the day. I have to say that what turned out to be their final album, Everything Must Go, is one of my favorite records, and I’ll be dashed if it isn’t an appropriately curmudgeonly high note to slide out on.
I usually stay far away from YouTube comments, which very often resemble toilet stall walls, but sometimes I read a real gem. The top comment for this Sylvan Esso song says “This song breaks my heart in such a comfortable way.” Yes, anonymous internet comment woman, there it is. Sylvan Esso is comforting and touching. In fact, Sylvan Esso lies exactly at the intersection of the long-trending synthpop movement and the centuries of folk songwriting that we don’t think of as overlapping with it. But Sylvan Esso is what happens when you pair bleep-bloop electronic production with the aesthetics of a folkie from a bluegrass background. Everything intersects with everything, of course, and music doesn’t actually have genre boundaries. It just takes people with different tastes coming together to make something.
I never thought I’d be converted to Miley Cyrus. She’s a former Disney Channel teen idol, fer fuck’s sake! She’s made some excruciatingly bad pop music, and the less said the better regarding her twerking phase. But then she made an album with Flaming Lips, and it was stunning. It seems like this girl has a lot more going on than her various pop star antics have let on. She clearly likes drugs a lot, which is not necessarily always a plus for making good music, but in this case, yes, it’s a plus for making good music. The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic aesthetic is all over this album, of course, but it’s impossible to dismiss it as just a Flaming Lips record with a different vocalist. It is, unmistakably, a very personal record, filled with stream-of-consciousness lyrics, observations and recalled dreams. Will Miley Cyrus do anything as good ever again? Most likely not, but I’ll give her a chance.
I have no memory of how I stumbled across this little treasure. Some random playlist or compilation package, I suppose. Wherever and however it was, though, Horace Andy’s distinctive vocals drew me in. It’s always nice to make an obscure discovery, though Horace Andy is actually well known enough among aficionados as a roots reggae trailblazer. He was a main player on the scene in the early 70’s when reggae music was breaking out of Jamaica and gaining worldwide popularity. Andy obviously never found the recognition that some of his other peers did, but he helped form the sound that we all know and love. He also found a second wave of fame later in life for his collaborations with Massive Attack, so he’s got that going for him, and unlike many of his more famous peers, he is very much still alive.
Before there was Moby, there was Eno. That is obvious. Before there were most things, there was Eno. MGMT even wrote a song about it. Brian Eno is the slow, inexorable trickle-down effect of personal weirdness bleeding influence into everything around it until it’s come to subtly dominate huge swaths of popular culture. This is why you have half-ambient car commercial pop music as its own genre now. This is why we have a lot of the pop trends that we have, but as always, the original is better and more interesting.
Music for teatime is a made-up genre that I often come back to, because for my needs, it’s an important distinction. Can I sit and relax and drift away to this? Moby is very much the master of music that fills those drifting-away needs. I can sleep to this, and I can write and create to it. It’s not quite full-ambient, but it’s close. I think that we should not underestimate the power of the near-ambient; it discreetly does a lot to tinker with our mood, and we need all the discreet spirit-lifting we can get, in this age of darkness that we live in.