Far Out Sounds! (And Other Space Age Hyperbole)

The Apollo program is far out!I’m on a roll with the new music; after producing two new albums for the RPM Challenge, I’ve already started on another new project. Drenched in vintage ’60s and ’70s keyboard sounds (electric piano, organ, and the beloved Mellotron — no, I don’t really have a Mellotron, just this, which, come to think of it, is actually better, or at least more practical, than the original in almost every conceivable way), the album is going to be a tribute to the music of the Apollo years: 1961-1975. Heavy emphasis will be placed on 1969-1972, which also happen to be probably my favorite 4 years in music history. I’ve already got a couple of minutes of a first track (just backing tracks, with a scratch MIDI bass track, and a rough mix) laid down (which you can listen to below), and visual inspiration for the cover. Man, that old Apollo logo is sweet!

“Lunar Landing” version 0.1 • February 21, 2008 • 2:07

Top 5 Albums of 2007

Wow, I can’t believe this is already the fourth year I’ve been doing this. I am truly an old fart because the years really are flying by now. That’s what happens when you’ve made 34 trips around the sun. I’m just scared to think what it’ll feel like when I’m 60.

Well enough angst. Let’s talk music. And there’s a lot to talk about: 2007 has, for my tastes at least, been an unparalleled year for new music. I would have a hard time identifying a year that’s produced more great music without going all the way back to 1971. (And I wasn’t around to experience that firsthand.) So, without further ado, here we go.

5. Rush: Snakes and Arrows
I’ve been a Rush-head for over half my life now. A sad fact of a band this long-lived and prolific is watching the quality of their output deteriorate over time. The band’s last full-length album, 2002’s Vapor Trails, was surprisingly good musically, but suffered from some of the worst production in the last several decades. The band had been enthusiastically touting Snakes and Arrows for several months before its release, and with good reason. The album is phenomenal. Easily their best work since 1984’s Grace Under Pressure. Great, rocking music, with more dynamics and variety than we’ve heard from the boys in years; lyrics with surprisingly deep insight into the woes of early 21st century American society; first-rate production; and… well what can I say? Three instrumentals. It just doesn’t get much better in the Rush canon.
4. Michael Brecker: Pilgrimage
Michael Brecker was at the pinnacle of the post-Coltrane jazz world for upwards of 30 years. Late last year he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia, and with less than 5 months to live, he put together a final farewell to those of us who’ve followed his brilliant music over the years. This album is full of moments of profound beauty and intense burning jazz as full of life as anything he’d ever done. Sadly he did not survive to see the album released, but it remains a fitting good-bye to this jazz legend.
3. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
I’ve enjoyed Wilco’s music since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and have been fascinated to hear the evolution of the band’s sound on each album. This is very much back-to-basics, and it works extraordinarily well. It’s simply not possible to listen to this music and not feel good. In a good way.
2. Radiohead: In Rainbows
This is the album it seems everyone was talking about in October. It may still see a traditional release in stores in 2008, but so far it’s only available as a pay-what-you-want download from the band’s website. But that in no way means it’s inferior work. The band has covered some challenging musical ground in the past decade since the release of their masterpiece, OK Computer, and this album bookends that one nicely. (There’s plenty of speculation out there that the albums really were intended to integrate in Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon style, but I’ll leave that to the stoners to prove.) If you haven’t already, download it now. What are you waiting for? (I assume you are wondering what, if anything, I paid for it. Well, I sucked it up and bought the £40 deluxe package, which should be arriving next month.
1. Foo Fighters: Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
I loved In Your Honor so I was eagerly awaiting the release of this album and it did not disappoint! From the lead single “The Pretender” straight on through, the band displays brilliant songwriting, impeccable chops (these guys can really play, and if you doubt that, be sure also to check out drummer Taylor Hawkins’ guest work on Coheed and Cambria’s No World for Tomorrow), and a wide stylistic and dynamic range. Dave Grohl’s voice matches the music perfectly, from a delicate whisper to a larynx-shredding scream. The best album of a great year of music.

As I said, it’s been a great year for music. It was hard to narrow the list down to 5. Here, in no particular order (OK, they’re alphabetical by artist), are some of the other great albums I enjoyed this year:

The Bad Plus: Prog
Beastie Boys: The Mix-Up
Circa Survive: On Letting Go
Coheed and Cambria: No World for Tomorrow
Dream Theater: Systematic Chaos
LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver
Minus the Bear: Planet of Ice
Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero
Pinback: Autumn of the Seraphs
Porcupine Tree: Fear of a Blank Planet
Room 34: Highway 34 Revisited (Had to put in a bit of self-promotion!)

And there are a few others that just missed the cut, like The Dear Hunter and Portugal. The Man. (“Portugal. The Man.” is one band. You have to give them credit just for the audacity of that band name.)

’70s flashback (literally)

Even though I’ve never dropped acid, looking back on the children’s television I absorbed like a sponge in the late ’70s, I think I got enough of the experience. Case in point:

I’m lazily linking over to this on YouTube, but I actually watched it again for the first time in 30 years earlier today on the Sesame Street Old School 1974-1979 DVD set I just bought at Target. Which is not — at all — to say that I hadn’t thought of it countless times in those intervening 30 years. The “plastic house” and the freaky yo-yo dude in particular are burned eternally into my memory.

Now, I know a lot of people my age are going to have a nostalgic recollection of clips like this, but I wonder how many are as deeply imprinted with these iconic images as myself. Back in 1978, when this clip actually aired, I was at my absolute peak of Sesame Street viewing and on most days I spent at least 3 1/2 hours watching the show. (We got two PBS stations; one aired it at 8:00, 11:30 and 4:30, and the other at noon and 3:00.) I saw many of these segments more times than I can count. And speaking of counting, fortunately, I didn’t need, at that age, to learn to do so in Russian:

The first time I watched this I was so in awe of the ambitious yet failed effort to squeeze the copious syllables of the Russian numbers into the fast rhythm of the song, I didn’t even pay attention to the fact that the entire “12” segment consists of U.S. landmarks (Statue of Liberty, Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, etc.). I wonder when exactly this clip aired on Russian television, and whether anyone involved in putting it on the air realized what it was depicting wasn’t just drugged out hallucinations. (Well, it was, but not just.)

“The Voice of _____ Your Man in Service”

Click to zoom...As I’ve mentioned previously, I recently purchased a USB turntable, so I can finally convert some of my more obscure (and generally, as it turns out, justifiably so) vinyl to digital. For the most part this consists of things such as the Hawaii Five-0 soundtrack (probably the most digitization-worthy piece in my collection) or the long-forgotten solo albums of members of Yes from 1975.

But as I was shuffling through my LPs tonight sorting them into three groups (definitely rip, maybe rip, and not a chance in hell), I came across a most curious item. It’s a thick cardboard mailer for a 7-inch record, sent from my grandfather to my grandmother back when he was in the army. The postmark is from Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, August 11, 1944.

The label on the record says “The Voice of _____ Your Man in Service.” (No, his name was not written in the blank; I suspect it was up to him to do that and he forgot. I do recognize his handwriting on the mailer.)

The sound quality is pretty bad. I spent the better part of an hour on multiple attempts at cleaning it up, and this was the best I could get it. Still, it’s pretty interesting to listen to.


Here’s my best shot at a transcript. Parts I can’t make out are indicated by […].

Introduction: […] the Pepsi-Cola company is proud to bring you this recording of the voice of your husband, located here at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.

Howard: Hello sweets, hello Tommy. You didn’t expect to hear daddy’s voice […] a package too. […] we were told we could send records of our voices home free. […] I know how much you — it means to you, angel, and of course Tommy. What I would give right now to be near you and see you. How’s everything? Do you really miss me as much as I miss you? How is everything out there? Fine?

As a matter of fact, it couldn’t be better here. Oh, the […] food and kinds of […] just can’t be beaten anywhere. I wish you could see me. I’ve […] as much weight as you’d want me to carry and the muscles are comin’ right through my uniform. The days here pass like lightning and the nights here… well, all I’d need is you and the baby and everything’d be perfect. Give me the next best thing — keep writing. I can’t tell you how much your letters mean to me.

How are the folks back home? Ask them to keep in touch with me; give them all my best regards. Love and kisses. The end, your husband, Howard. So long, angel.

I’m glad to say he came home safe and sound after his time in the service. My mom was born 3 years later. I got to know my grandfather well over the years as I grew up. He left this life in 1996. It’s kind of weird to hear his voice (almost unrecognizable to me given how young he was — I was convinced it was not the right record until I caught a certain cadence in his voice that I just knew was him) in this recording. He’s been gone almost 11 years, and suddenly here’s this artifact from back when he was younger than I am now, and years before my mom was even born! He was a great person and I still think of him often.

What do you get when you cross The Beach Boys, Queen and The Foo Fighters?

It might just be my ears, but I believe you get The Dear Hunter, in particular, the track “Smiling Swine.”

Despite the obviousness of the multi-layered vocal harmonies, I had never before thought there might be a musical connection between Brian Wilson and Freddie Mercury, but there you go.

This is one of numerous “post-emo” (that’s my term, I think, but you can use it) bands that have gotten my attention over the past few years, starting with The Mars Volta and especially Coheed and Cambria, but more recently Circa Survice, Chiodos and these guys (who may actually be one guy; I’m not entirely sure). At any rate, I had never really given emo much attention, mainly because it seemed like something I was about 15 years too old to appreciate, and to be honest I still haven’t really checked out any straight-up emo (whatever that might be; I wouldn’t even know where to look), but the stuff these guys are doing is unmistakably marked with the same grandiose ambitions that were the cornerstone of the early ’70s prog rock I’ve been into since high school.

The Dear Hunter’s music, in particular, is quite intriguing with its incredibly varied instrumentation and song structures. There’s nothing else quite like it, except maybe Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. It’s definitely worth checking out.