Well, here’s song after my own heart. Don’t wake me from my dreams of a world where everything is exactly how it seems. Don’t wake me from my optimism and visions of a world that rewards goodness. Mostly just don’t wake me. If you’re like me – a realist – you’ve woken long ago from most of your delusions about the world. We’re all on a trajectory towards the same inevitable disaster. The only delusion I still hold on to, which you can pry from my lifeless fingers, is the belief that art is the only escape and the only thing in this world that transcends the day to day smog of living. This is why I think things like reading and listening to music are productive hobbies. Heck, for some people those are straight-up career options, but let’s not get carried away. We’re talking a lot, right now, as a culture, about the danger of putting people on pedestals and keeping them there against all odds, merely because they produce enjoyable sounds and visions. And that’s a great and important conversation, which we can’t shy away from no matter how much we might like to. In the end, it’s your call, as a consumer, to draw the line on how much value you place on any individual and their art. For some people, it’s very little. Some people don’t care much for art or music or creative endeavors in general. Those people don’t have souls, but they’re still entitled to their opinions. I still say, that anything that allows the mind to escape the real and lets some degree of wonder and beauty seep in, deserves all of the accolades and pedestals.
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.
Camera Obscura has been kaput since the death of singer Carey Lander, which is honestly the unsung pop tragedy of the decade. Lander died of osteosarcoma in 2015, and although she was not the group’s sole vocalist, the others very respectfully disbanded. For a decade, Camera Obscura made the kind of sparkling, time-traveling dream pop that’s become a cottage industry in their wake. (Their only real peers are Belle & Sebastian.) Their music draws equally from French 60’s pop music, folk, the Motown girl groups, light jazz and The Smiths. It’s knowingly twee, slightly campy, melodic, and a lemonade fizz of an alternative to all those weepy serious confessional singer-songwriter types. There may be lots of similar dreampop being made right now, but Camera Obscura were the trailblazers and the standardbearers.
Everything about The Real Tuesday Weld is precious and refined like cut crystal stemware. Their refinement is in everything from their parallel-universe-cabaret aesthetic to their acclaimed videos to their literary bona fides (more than one of their albums has the distinction of being a ‘soundtrack to a novel’.) Obviously, baroque pop or antique beat or whatever portmanteau you want to call it, is something the world needs more of. The incursion of jazz, chanson, tango or other before-the-war and old-world musical influences into the world of pop is never not refreshing, and anyone who does it earns instant upgrades in the class department.
The Knife’s music is a distant relation to the electronic music you hear at clubs and bars, in the same way that the frozen ‘breakfast pizza’ you were served in middle school is related to what people eat in Sicily. (Obviously, The Knife’s music is the authentic Sicilian cuisine in this equation.) The Knife evokes a frosty and surreal atmosphere, using such dangerous gimmicks as voice distortion and tinkling reindeer bells. It is, through and through, very Scandinavian, and like Scandinavia itself, not to everyone’s taste. Alienating music is by rights the most interesting music, and by alienating people in swaths artists gain cult-like followings from true believers. With The Knife, Fever Ray and solo projects, Karin Dreijer is definitely one of those artists who serves freshly-chilled weirdness to a small cabal of true believer-type fans. She is not about to become a household name or headline a major festival, but I’m guessing that she has more freedom and satisfaction in her idiosyncratic career than major pop stars may do in theirs.
What does David Bowie know about the disappointments and frustrations of a mundane life? Probably not much, having escaped from it long ago, but he can empathize. This may a standout from Reality, which I’ve always thought was a very strong album overall. It’s a return to the plastic soul sound he perfected so well in his Young Americans days. It certainly tunnel-visions it back to the days of station wagons with faux-wood paneling on the outside and Soul Train on television. And it imagines the nagging resentment of a life lived on the wrong side of the Hudson River, a life of suburban dreams grown shabby and the paths to escape growing fewer over the years and the repetition of daily life becoming the only experience. That’s a life we all either end up living, or narrowly escape from.