My Life as a Mix CD
Once upon a time I mentioned that I could make a mix CD of my favorite music, but I don’t think anyone would enjoy listening to it more than once. I made that CD shortly thereafter, but in the shuffle of moving to NYC lost track of it. I found it over the Christmas holiday. I had left in a Mercury Program CD case. I finally got around to writing about each track and uploading them via the ever-handy Dropbox.
Here are the songs:
Otis Redding – “Direct Me”
The Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Collection was a favorite of my dad’s, and it contained a lot of classic Stax/Volt singles from Memphis. It was my introduction to Otis, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MG’s and many others. I’ve always felt a connection to Otis. He’s the Charlie Brown of soul singers. He’s Mr. Pitiful. He’s the guy who wrote “Respect.” And this cut I didn’t discover until I borrowed dad’s complete Otis Redding Story collection. My favorite line is “when I see my baby again / I’m gonna bake me a carrot cake.” That’s funky as it gets. And Steve Cropper’s droopy-tuned guitar riff suggests that it was just another day of messing around in the studio for the Stax team.
De La Soul – “The Magic Number”
3 Feet High and Rising is probably the first album I memorized all the way through. It must have been around 6th and 7th grade when I discovered it via another after-school taping of Yo! MTV Raps. For a kid living in one of the most willfully homogeneous communities in America, hip-hop was entrancing. And of course, in 1989 it was still alive with joy and possibility, not yet overrun by cynical, materialist thugs. Pos and Trugoy’s rhymes were wildly divergent from the norm, but it was Prince Paul’s cut-and-paste production that kept me listening. I still find stuff in there that I missed before, even after 20 years. This track is also a great example of Steinski’s influence, as the backing track is lifted heavily from his work. The sample fills at the end are my favorite, though. So random (Johnny Cash, “is this the future?” “do the Shang-a-lang,” “anybody in the audience ever been hit by a car?”), and all built on an old Schoolhouse Rock song.
Steve Vai – “Erotic Nightmares”
My introduction to what the electric guitar is capable of doing. This is barely even a song, just a riff and lots of fills. Some recurring motifs, of course, but especially toward the middle, where the song descends into sound effects (many of them guitar-made), it completely blew my mind from a compositional standpoint. Otherworldy upper-structure harmonies, weird noises, blizzards of notes…what is this stuff? And how can I get into doing that? 20 years later and I still can’t play most of it.
Eric Johnson – “Cliffs of Dover”
As reserved and graceful as Vai is exuberant and maniacal, Eric Johnson showed my teenage self that there was room for melodic instrumentals that weren’t heavy metal cage matches. I remember hiking all over town with Ah Via Musicom in my Walkman. This is a song I still practice but doubt I will ever master. Eric is an odd bird – a lot of rock guitarists can’t stand his Christopher Cross-esque vocals, but to me it’s just who Eric is. He’s a softy. He’s into precision and lightness of touch. I wouldn’t have him any other way.
Dream Theater – “Take the Time”
Maybe I would have been diagnosed with ADD in 1992. This song remains my favorite of Dream Theater’s – rapid meter shifts, fiery solos, insane drumming, cool samples, surprisingly good lyrics – it has everything to hold the attention of a hyperactive 15 year old. It’s a great song for bedroom guitarists to get their chops together, and it’s also a message to them that they can find everything they need within the mind. I still pull out this song from time to time. I had most of it down by college, but it takes a lot of practice to keep up with this band. I haven’t been as excited by anything they’ve done since.
King’s X – “Life Going By”
Originally from Springfield, Missouri, this trio of Christians made progressive hard rock music in a secular market. And their primary singer (and bassist) was a black guy who later lost his faith after 40 years of denying his homosexuality. They’ve deserved so much more fame and fortune than they’ve received. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden both acknowledge King’s X as a primary influence. This song features guitarist Ty Tabor on lead vocals (you can hear bassist Doug Pinnick in the background toward the end), and it’s one of those songs where the band just sounds tired after 4 albums without much to show for it. They almost broke up when this record, Ear Candy, came out. But they’ve stuck it out. They remain one of my favorite bands of all time.
Steve Morse – “Highland Wedding”
I think I bought Steve’s High Tension Wires album because my uncle Barry had mentioned him, and I kept seeing his name in the guitar magazines. Soon after, I bought the music book for it, and today the pages are falling out from years of abuse. This cut is my favorite, a mixture of baroque classical sounds and amped-up Scottish bagpipe-style guitar shredding. That’s Steve Morse for you: the constant cross-pollinator. He’s the master of styles: country, jazz, classical. He can do anything. He gave up music in the late 80’s to be an airline pilot and made this record on the side before returning to music full time. He’s been Deep Purple’s guitarist since the mid-90’s so at least he doesn’t have to worry about not getting paid.
Chroma Key – “Lunar”
OK no guitars on this one! Chroma Key is Kevin Moore, the original keyboardist for Dream Theater, who gave up prog-metal for moody soundscapes. Most of his stuff is in this same vein: dark, a little sad, meditatively suspended. The story behind this song is that Kevin found a recording of the entire Apollo 11 mission, and found that the boring parts were actually pretty compelling for his purposes. After all the fanfare of the launch, with Earth left behind, the samples here hint at how lonely and tired the crew and their mission control counterparts must be, 61 hours into the mission. It’s hard to believe the guy putting this together was the same guy throwing out the keyboard solos in Dream Theater’s “Take the Time.” I should also mention that Chroma Key introduced me to numbers stations in 1998 with this tune, “Even the Waves.” I remember first listening to that CD on a dark night with my headphones on in the back of a car headed from Stuttgart to Amsterdam. Good setting. Oh, and all of CK’s albums are available for free listening at chromakey.com.
Jellyfish – “New Mistake”
My favorite song of my favorite album of all time. I found Spilt Milk at Been Around Records in Little Rock for $4 in 1997, a few years after the band broke up. Prior to that time, I had never wanted to sing at all. I was a guitarist. But this band’s vocal harmonies, intensely layered arrangements and crystalline production got me thinking otherwise. And a big shout out to Lyle Workman’s deftly melodic slide guitar solo (although I’ve since discovered he was performing a written piece rather than improvising). The ride out of this song I could loop forever and not get tired of it. The whole album is also another Star-Wars-for-the-ears experience, similar to Vai and De La Soul.
The Merrymakers – “I’m in…Love!”
Post-Jellyfish, singer/drummer Andy Sturmer produced a little-known Swedish duo called The Merrymakers. Andy also plays drums on this song, so it feels even more like Jellyfish: The Sequel. This track is actually a tribute/rewrite of The La’s famous “There She Goes,” which, for those know it well, is actually kind of a slapdash effort that could have been better executed and organized. So, that’s what the Merrymakers decided to do here. This song is also the very first song I ever sang on a stage. I had a band after college called Solid Junior with my friends Heather, Thelton and Jay, and our only gig was a rained-out Earth Day at Hendrix College. We played a variety of odd covers (Cake, Tori Amos, Cream) to, I think, 6 people.
American Football – “Never Meant”
This song encapsulates everything I want in a piece of music: a terrific drumbeat, lots of guitar ideas, melodic bass, heartfelt vocals and lyrics that speak to a specific moment in life. This is the perfect break up song. “There were some things that were said that weren’t meant” is spoken over the swirling guitar interlude, and the final line “let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me was never meant” is sung so slowly that it’s almost hard to piece together. It’s the saddest best song I know. And I have my friend Jamie to thank for it.
Ross Rice – “Miss July”
Co-written with Brad Jones, this is an abstract tune on the topic of feminine mystique. It’s the perfect song for spring afternoons spent driving with windows down. My favorite line is, “you were standing in back of my chair / I knew it was you by the warmth and smell of your hair.” It speaks to the presence of a person I know exists somewhere, and I’m still looking for her. I’m privileged to have gotten to know Ross personally (I made his website). He has given up his music career, and now lives in upstate New York where he publishes a local arts magazine, Roll.
DJ Shadow – “Mongrel Meets His Maker pt 1”
And so my subconscious interest in Prince Paul’s sound collages inevitably led to my interest in DJ Shadow. Shadow originates no sounds. Generally everything he does is a sample of some kind. His work is kind of a continuum of ideas, so I chose “Mongrel” because it’s the most concise. And I love the old phone ringing at the end. Sooo freaky sinister. There’s an undercurrent of paranoia throughout Shadow’s work that I really relate to for some reason.
Mos Def – “Hip-Hop”
At the risk of contributing to Mos’s reputation as Stuff White People Like, here’s one of hip-hop’s finest. With lines like “stimulant and sedative / original, repetitive / violently competitive / a school unaccredited” it’s easy to see why white people would appreciate a guy whose focus is more on words and ideas than lifestyle. Anyone whose motto is “stay fluid even in staccato” is someone an English major can appreciate.
Tori Amos – “Spark”
I bought Under the Pink in high school because I wanted to impress a girl I liked. But I kept listening because her piano playing was so eccentric and yet still very Rock. Whatever you think of her quirky persona, you can’t deny her originality and musical acumen. She makes Kate Bush’s style accessible. She makes Joni Mitchell’s confessionals Rock Balls. Occasionally, she’s a female Robert Plant. And this song’s verses are in 13/8 time (alternating bars of 6/8 and 7/8, really). You go, girl.
Stereolab – “Miss Modular”
I’d always been vaguely aware of Stereolab in college, but they never really grabbed me until I discovered a copy of Dots and Loops at the Laman Library in North Little Rock. What I like most about the band is their devotion to timbre. The way their vintage keyboards mix with the female vocals is velvety smooth. And the fuzzy bass tones and guitar noises dripping across the track: perfection. This is the sound of a band that occupies its own musical universe.
Richie Kotzen – “Cross the Line”
Back to our regularly scheduled guitar wizardry. Kotzen is just about the last guy standing in my guitar hero universe. I’m still learning things from him. And he’s a great vocalist. And he plays all the instruments on several albums. And he’s a handsome man. The only reason why he’s not a bigger star is he had the misfortune to join and be ejected from Poison. At least he gets to open for the Stones in Japan. God bless Japan.
The Churchills – “Beautiful”
This Brooklyn band has made a handful of records, but none quite top their first, You Are Here. This is the opening cut, and again it’s one of those songs where every instrument is doing something interesting: the guitar parts during the verses are tricky, the bass is walking melodically all over the chorus, and the vocal harmonies…this is everything a great pop song should be.
Sugarbomb – “What a Drag”
Another $4 purchase from Been Around Records. This Dallas band only made one record (well, two since their major label debut was mostly a re-write of their earlier effort – recorded in Little Rock interestingly enough). The song has a topic I don’t think I’ve ever heard discussed in any other song (an increasingly more difficult feat after decades of pop songs). It’s also great under headphones. It’s one of those songs that I loved from the first second. The fuzzy piano sound is gorgeous to behold.
Incredible Moses Leroy – “Beep Beep Love”
I was goofing off in Barnes & Noble one day and decided to listen to this CD, Electric Pocket Radio. This was the first cut, another love at first sound. And all the other cuts were great, so I bought it. I then started a group for them on Orkut (pre-MySpace networking site run by Google but now overrun by Brazilians; and the band is now known as The Softlightes, by the way) and met my friend Jamie, the only other person who joined. She went on to change my life in several ways by introducing me to bands like American Football and particularly Spiraling, who I went on to become friends with, and who planted the seed within me to try moving to New York. So basically this record altered the course of my life since 2001. Which brings us, of course, to:
Spiraling – “The Connection”
Jamie burned me their CD, Transmitter, which I promptly purchased legitimately (take THAT, RIAA), and it has since gone on to all-time favorite status. Thoughtful lyrics, cool keyboard sounds, badass drumming, tasteful guitar riffs…everything I love in a band. I can’t remember if I prodded Chris King at Sticky Fingerz to give them a gig or if that came later on their return visit, but after their first show in LR, my friends and I took the band to a house party afterward and had a good time. The next two LR gigs they stayed at my house, most recently when my Riverfest connection Randall got them hooked up with a prime slot opening for Live in 2006. One of the best things about 2008 for me was getting to see 4 or 5 Spiraling shows here in NY/NJ.
So there you have it. Fairly obscure, but reasonably diverse, I like to think. Let me know what you think.