random music “fridays” : closer to fine

God damn.

Remember the Proust Guy? I didn’t like him, and he’s no more appealing in retrospect, but he wasn’t wrong. Yes, yes, I have more or less put Proust on pause, because it’s hard for me to enjoy staring at my iPad over  a physical book. Perhaps the Kindle, with its gentler light levels, will change that. But speaking of Amazon, they just had a deal where you could get three months of their streaming service for a dollar, and because I become incandescently angry when ad after ad on Spotify comes between me and the songs (“AT THE CORNER OF HAPPY AND HEALTHY, WE GET IT, JUST CUT TO THE GODDAMN CATCHPHRASE ALREADY”), I took the offer. I know, I know, I’m a traitor, a millennial walking right into the trap of “no I’m not going to keep lugging this zipper pouch of CDs around all my life; I’ll either never listen to that again or I’ll download it somehow” that they banked on. Spare me your hot takes.

But so, with this newly-widened music library now open to me, I immediately started seeking out songs I’d lost over time, and one thing led to another, and I ended up at “Closer To Fine.”

Damn. Damn. Hats off to you, Proust Guy. Young me had no goddamn idea how on-point this song would be, decades later.

Oh she thought she knew, sure. Who doesn’t? I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard this song, but I taped it from the radio onto a cassette, if that’s any indication. Even then, it was played as a flashback, since the song itself is almost as old as I am. It’s the first folk song I remember liking, for so many reasons — the brief familiar flicker of a hornpipe, the unlooked-for harmonies, the the way she bites off “clarity” like she’s mocking herself for thinking she might ever find it.

And it’s also the first song that led me to read an article (or maybe listen to an interview?) about a band, and to realize I wanted nothing to do with that kind of fandom. Something about the Lilith Fair, and fans rejecting them when they went for more instruments than just acoustic guitars, and worse, some fans turning on one of them when she turned out to be bi rather than gay or something? Fuck you, fans. Even as an as-far-as-I-knew-gay teenager, that curdled my tongue.

But even the in-person interviews, which again I now knew I could seek out, frustrated me. I don’t want you to simplify something that means so much to me to one night or a string of nights you had out with some friends at a bar, I thought. (I was, full disclosure, terribly dubious of the supposed merits of alcohol, as a kid.) I didn’t want to hear about how they came to write this or that line, or who it reminded them of, or who they dedicated it to, or even to hear how their voices changed when they sang it live here or there or over time. I wanted none of that extraneous detail that distracted from how the song, in its cut-and-dried, reproducible form, spoke to my solipsistic dumbass teenage self.

And it did! Oh, it did. But I took it in with so many corollaries.

I spent four years prostrated to the higher mind

got my papers and I was free

Yes, well, that won’t be me, I thought. Those four years were to be my freedom! And I did not anticipate having any qualms about being prostrate to any higher minds, since, free to study what I wished (as opposed to, say calculus), I couldn’t imagine anyone loving the things I did, and wanting to bring others to love them, to be disappointing. At their jobs, or as people, or as harbingers of wonder.

Oh you foolish, foolish child.

The best thing you’ve ever done for me

is to help me take my life less seriously

it’s only life after all

Good luck with that. Like everyone else (in the 90s and 00s? surely ever) I was told the most important thing in a mate was to find someone who could make you laugh. And I mean, I had no interest in finding a mate, at the time, but damn. You do realize you’re going to be in dark places even laughter can’t light up, right? You’re gonna need more than some wisecracking Puck at your side, girl. Someone who’ll drive you for hundreds of miles between brown mountains and the sea with your head burrowed into his side, no music on because any and all of it reminds you of your dead mom somehow. Laughter is great, but it is not always what you need. Sometimes you need silence and space. Get you someone who can give you that.

And I wrap my fear around me like a blanket

Honey, you had no idea. You’re going to wear it not even like a blanket but like a cape, some great billowing red thing people should respect you for wearing, like Superman. You’ll flap it and it will make a snapping sound and everyone will be reminded of your loss and its creep in your blood, and they’ll become awkward and uneasy or just silent, which is the worst, because it’s what you said you wanted and it is not, in fact, enough.

There are zero things that are enough, because you don’t get her back; you don’t get to be fine. Just closer to it. And lo, even your puns will become so dark people don’t know if they should laugh or not.

The less I seek my source for some definitive…

Yep. Pretty much.

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hark

In a similar vein as the “I’m not a Christian but–” Gilead posts, the old holiday songs are just amazing.

I have always loved them. Especially the loud choral pieces that almost seem to threaten you with glory. Like O Holy Night, for example, at the “fall on your knees” part. It’s not a suggestion — it’s a command. Fall on your goddamned knees. I have always loved that. They’re trying to tell you something good, but it should bowl you over. I respect that, and can see it in so many places beyond just a religious context. When the old man in Home Alone cries seeing his daughter sing it on the fuzzy TV, I was sold forever on this song.

(…If I were someone else, in some other time, I could have been such a fierce believer, both because I set so much stock in the power of story (and less so in the facts of history, malleable as they are), and because I am unfailingly loyal, unfashionably so, past all sense says to abandon a person or cause. But…the same mechanisms that cause me to revile academia operate in organized religion, and have always done so. And in a world where you can receive knowledge and the constant questioning of it in other venues, without those superfluous and damaging trappings of hierarchy and status, I cannot do it. I cannot pretend to ignore all the crap they dump on top, between you and what matters.)

And spirals! Where one section is going up and another is going down and they pass each other along the way. Like Angels We Have Heard On High. I sang that once in a choir, because my friend was devout and in a choir and when she left my school I didn’t want to lose her, and man. That song. Singing it as part of a huge group. Our music director was a skeevy guy; his children were alternately skeevy like him and nakedly desperate for his affection; he was everything that was wrong with that church wrapped up in one thick-necked package. But being part of that tide of voices rolling out over an audience, like Gandalf’s river horses in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s magnificent. It feels magnificent, to be a part of.

I know, I know, it’s designed to be that way. What did Sam Sykes tweet the other day? That most of art history is fanart; it’s just that for a long time Jesus was the only fandom? If you were brilliant with your voice or your brush, for most of history you were probably using those tools to praise one god or another. I get that.

(But I also recognize that I’m that annoying person who goes around listening to movie soundtracks half the time. Because they’re epic! But also because, maybe, it makes you a little epic, listening to them? For however long they last, anyway. The fastest mile I’ve run in the past decade was while listening to First Class from the X-Men soundtrack. I don’t even like the X-Men. I mean, at all. But that song. Or, right after it, on the same playlist, Audiomachine. They came into existence to score trailers, and that’s exactly what it sounds like, and I don’t care. I’ve never run faster. Maybe it’s a narcissistic millennial thing. That instead of letting someone else’s words form the backdrop to my efforts, I choose wordless orchestral pieces, as though it were a training montage, something people shot and edited with purpose. But I only mention this to point out that I’m intimately aware of the allure of art, not even earnest art but mass-produced marketing art, telling you you’re important, and how easy it is to overlook or ignore all that’s attached to that movie or song in exchange for the momentary sense that that theme is for you. Even when it’s not and never will be.)

I mean, listen to Julie Andrews sing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. When she tells you to join the triumph of the skies, it is a party you definitely want in on. And O Come All Ye Faithful? Who doesn’t want to be joyful and triumphant? Pre-nazi Germany sure as hell did…oh. Right.

And maybe that’s another reason for my distrust of that kind of group-based joy. It’s too easily harnessed and manipulated. The best I can manage is a kind of mental cosplay of grandeur and fellowship, listening to these songs, before I remember that after that swell of voices dies down, everyone in the choir will go home and vote and say terrible things to their kids, and cause those kids to grow up and go out into the world and carry that poison with them.

That’s, I guess, what I keep expecting to hit in Gilead. But so far his humility has managed to keep him from seeming manipulative. Not just his humility but his bending what remains of himself toward small moments of beauty — hoping his son sees such moments to be beautiful — rather than toward harsh lines drawn in the sand past which one must not cross. Even if some people need strict rules to live by, like those bars that keep people from falling out of beds in hospitals, still, for your primary source of identity to come from the enforcement of those rules, rather than from helping people see what matters in the world that crafted them…you’re kind of a charlatan, at that point. You may go on about angels singing yes but you’re here to say no, over and over. And that’s shallow. People deserve better.

If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t be shepherding them across a street, let alone through the dark chasms of their lives.

random music fridays : gather your pub

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Last week Geek and Sundry’s Gather Your Party show did a Gather Your Pub edition. They drank and played public domain Irish drinking songs, and Erika Ishii rocked the everloving fuck out of the fiddle.

I was wrapped in blankets in front of an open window, alternately roasting and freezing to death, in the grip of a terrible head cold. I couldn’t see much of the stream because my eye kept watering. But I heard it.

When I lived in Japan, I used to put the Sims on across the room, just to hear people going about their lives. It didn’t matter, obviously, whether I heard what they were saying, since Sims speak gibberish. I just wanted to hear people.

This would be that, except it’s so much more, because it was startling and delightful as fuck-all to see people taking real joy in a thing I’d only pursued as an exclusively solitary activity for pretty much ever. Who, after all, likes Irish fiddle music? Not a soul I know. I don’t even have friends who like mixed drinks. And yet here was this raucous group of people, many of whom hadn’t known each other before this segment, having a damn good time singing and drinking and playing music together. It was the best, best thing to listen to when lonely and sick. Or when healthy for that matter. It was fucking great.

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civilization 6 : where the music goes

I’ll be honest, I’m bigger into the music for Civilization 6 than the game itself.

And I love that game! I do. But the music entrances me more. This is what the spare parts of my desk scratch paper look like:

civmusic

And we just got more music! With the new DLC comes new music, and I’m listening to Indonesia now. As that paper indicates, I’m most smitten, by and large, with the Industrial tracks. On the one hand this may be because I listen to these tracks less in-game; I’m not very good and my gluttony for punishment doesn’t always survive the medieval age. Maybe I’ve been over-exposed to the earlier tracks, and thus they unconsciously fall in my favor.

But there is also the cello factor. With regional exceptions, the same instruments often get called upon across civilizations, within the same timeframe. The Industrial Era brings a lot of cellos to the fore, and cellos, by and large, slay me.

There are exceptions, though. Because I am not big into sinister, and there are a great many civilizations whose Industrial and Atomic age themes are sinister.* Grandiose, yes, but also dark. Not ALL of them, though, and the decisions made about whose march toward modernity is triumphant and whose inspires fear, well, fascinates me.

Indonesia’s Industrial Age, incidentally, is purely joyous:

So is the Kongo’s:

At first, going through the tracks alphabetically as they are listed on the big compilation videos, you might think it was the civilizations who marched to modernity on the back of colonialism whose themes justifiably turn sinister in their modern eras. See, for example, France:

Note that I don’t mean the beginning of this piece — for, as with France, sometimes the compiler puts the “conflict” melody for a civilization first, before its neutral or positive effect music. I mean the entire leitmotif, that gets repeated across times. France’s gets rough. That slow, ponderous percussion, the brooding brass that soon becomes grand, if no less grave. The same goes for Germany:

And Norway:

 

So far, everyone mentioned defintely has a dark past when it comes to their actual real world, versus their imagined in-game, evolution. But what of Russia?

If that sound familiar, you are correct — that is indeed the folk song Korobeiniki, more widely known as the Tetris song. But why so sinister? As the Medieval Age version of the song attests, it doesn’t have to go so dark:

It can be folksy and fun! But Russia, despite lacking in overseas colonialist endeavors, steamrolled its landlocked neighbors and actively suppressed or extinguished a great many indigenous cultures in the Urals, the Carpathians and on down into the Caucasus. Most of that damage, though, was more recent in its timestamp. If, though, we are including 19th- and 20th-century exploitation on our list of crimes for which the music will brand the civilizations accordingly, why does Japan get a pass? Why, for that matter, does America?

Our brass is noble; our strings solemn at times but in no way despondent or foreboding. Our theme sounds like a mix of Appalachian Spring and the score for October Sky. Which answers my own question, really:

“Our brass.” “Our strings.”

Ethoncentrism, man. There’s no other reason for the America to get a pass except that it was made in America. By Americans. I mean, listen to our atomic theme!

Whereas many if not most of the others are downright grim, promising terrible things with this sinister march toward the stars, ours is heroic af. Hell, parts of it read like the Sims housebuilding music, which was written to make you feel like adulthood was an adventure and stuff would make you happy. (This is the point at which we all congratulate ourselves on being edgey enough to recognize that as very American. Moving on.) And you know who else gets a triumphant, shadow-free Atomic Age?

That buildup gives me chills. CHILLS. It goes everywhere you want it to and doesn’t make you regret it. It’s beautiful! But…China receive the same pass America does, here. No dark, brooding minor keys. No musical promise of doom. No one looking at Tibet or the Uyghurs would clap China on the back and say job well done. Same goes for looking at, well, anywhere other than at white people in America, frankly. So where is the musical foreshadowing? Why are we not threatened with the darkness of Russia and Germany and France?

Listening to more and more of the soundtrack — all the way through, instead of jumping to my favorites — and thinking this through over months, I kept remembering Goland, from 80 Days. That game was too nuanced to so baldly lift these people up and tamp those people down — everything came in shades of gray, as it ought to have done — but still, Goland was one of the most memorable characters for me. A Mongolian princess, she appeared to eschew the trappings of her station in favor of studying mathematics to, eventually, build rockets. She was straight-up born into someone else’s fantasy, and (it appeared) was setting it aside in favor of her own. And the fantasy of her choice was very specific, scientific, and linked to an advance of her people in the world’s eyes that is something of what Civilization enables us to engender.

Bethesda’s recent amazing (and, yes, sad that it has to be amazing) stance around Wolfenstein notwithstanding, I think most companies are still too timid to make bald statements like that. They, like with Civ, will give us the tools to relive histories to erase past atrocities (if only to commit new ones), but they won’t set a lot of hard rules about who can do what. That’s…fair, I guess, in this context. Each team can win, even if they choose fascism as their path to victory. But the music, I thought, might take a harder stance. Might be allowed to do so. It might be subtle enough — dismissable enough as “the whims of creatives”** — to make statements that the game itself could not. Or rather, that its creators would not.

But I’m not sure that, in itself, isn’t just a fantasy on my part. Whatever moral judgment I thought might be ascribed to the music pretty much stops in 1945. It looks no further forward, and forgives the entire history of America, and Japan’s brutal wars of conquest in the early 20th century. I understand, if don’t necessarily condone,*** the idea of providing a musical golden age civilizations never got to reach, at least not in recent years. Allow them their major keys. But if you are going to let the music remember cruelties enacted by those who actually did set out for the stars, remember all of them.

And forgive none of us.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

* If the Darth Vader theme is any indication, this may be due to a centralizing of minor rather than major keys. But that is a guess, as I am not musically trained.

** I really dislike this tendency we have to now classify creatives as some separate kind of person…it’s unnecessarily inviting of crass generalizations.

*** Because grandeur is dangerous, not because no one should attain it.

the things that we are made of : the album you didn’t know you needed

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And I can’t stop trying to hold in my hands
that moment I could feel my heart expand
with more love than I thought could exist in the world
the hollows were gone, the emptiness filled
a life transformed down to the bone
this map of my heart is all that I own

I don’t like many female singers.

This isn’t fair, I know. But I want more from them. I want them to speak for me, in a way I never expect male singers to do (when they do, it’s a pleasant surprise). The dissonances between female singers and me hit me harder, and turn me off. When they bring sass I cannot; when they excuse things they should not (see: Amanda Palmer), when they don’t let their lyrics sink any deeper than the sheets, I turn them off.

Not so Mary Chapin Carpenter, or her 2016 album The Things That We Are Made Of, which I hadn’t heard till now.

She uses words I use. Careen, cadence, stars. She is more honest than is necessarily safe. She allows for the contemplation of sorrow without either seemingly clinically distant or letting it overwhelm her. Without it defining her. While still allowing for the possibility of warmth.

She sounds exactly like she did in 1992, when my dad was at sea and my mom played her new album on audio cassette, in the kitchen in our rental under a stained-glass lamp that looked like the ones in restaurants. (I am, you see, biased.) At first we were baking figures we molded out of Fimo, but they all burnt, and eventually we laid the clay aside in favor of dinner. Mom stirred the soup as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” came on, and she sang along. I interrupted her, asking if her liking the song meant she’d leave our dad. Mom was, after all, home with children, and cooking for them, as was the character in the song.

She pressed pause to explain no. She played the song again and said listen, listen to how young she did this, how little else she has in her life before she started a family. I had a life first, she said.

I don’t know what music reviewers say about Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I don’t want to know. Like so many reviewers, they seem given to jadedness, to being snarky for snark’s sake. And this album is anything but that. It’s always a relief to stumble onto someone too worn out by fashionable disdain to employ it, whether by experience or emotional soreness, and she comes to her earnestness through both. Even the rare twangier chordings — from which I flinch more out of reflex; an expectation of cultural remorse that I suppose is a product of the messages country music typically sends than because twangy chords are inherently awful to the ears — cannot detract from her tenderness and what, I suppose, feels like honesty, though I am of course in no position to know one way or the other.

“The Middle Ages,” in particular, is striking:

We used to dread lives rendered ordinary
we always said we’d own a grander story
but the only kind worth telling somehow
is the one about a jolt that makes you listen
that jagged lightning bolt of recognition
that love and kindness are all that matter now

Meanwhile, “Note On a Windshield” manages to be a startlingly gripping narrative song. I can count on one hand the number of narrative songs whose narrative power lives up to their melodic power, let alone songs that are gripping. When I find myself thinking “please no, please please please…” waiting on the next line of a song lyric, of all things, I mean, man. It’s beautiful.

I wish I could write about her the way men have written about Leo Kottke or Bill Fox. I would feel less disloyal, less deserving of critique for my musical preferences. But a little grain of resentment rubs me when I read such paeans: there is a whole constellation of people waiting to speak for you, when you’re a man listening to folk music. Everyone is just sitting around waiting to identify with you on how difficult it is thinking about The One Who Got Away, or how hard it is Working For The Man, or Finding A Girl Who Gets You. Or how what you believed in childhood isn’t what you believe anymore. Or how the gradual decline of your parents makes you empty inside.

I move through the world like an arrow that flies
Slicing the air as I’m mapping the skies
And way deep down the echoes remain
Memories sounding like rattling chains

But lately I think I am coming around
I’m liking the feel of my feet on the ground
And last night I stopped dead in these tracks
Recalling your hand on the small of my back

When I was younger how I took my time
Folly and wisdom form points on a line
From one to another with space in between
For the lessons you learn & the dreams that you dream

But tell me what happens when dreams don’t come true
How you overcome some things until they overtake you
Why you never got chosen, why you never felt claimed
By some passion or person that is never explained

I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion
Life will take us apart but we never stop trying
To proceed as if whole and intact
Like I felt with your hand on my back

But we are asked either to be sassy or to be in love. That’s about it. And that’s a really shallow list of ways to approach the world. So to hear someone like Carpenter — whose voice I freely admit to being more willing to believe in, familiar as it is — articulate a broader spectrum of existence is like a hug you thought you’d never get. Maybe it’s just because my mom is gone. Maybe it’s foolish. Maybe it’s dangerous projection — but I’d never go up to her after a concert or write her a letter* or bother her with the tawdry tale of how her music makes me feel. As with Critical Role, or any number of books or video games, I look at how fans interact with with creators — and how creators react to that interaction — and wince at joining their ranks. It seems better to be self-contained, reserved and silent in your fandom, than to be open and risk disgusting someone with the fervency of your gratitude.

And here, I guess, the applicable word is more gratitude than fandom, really. But it is still something that goes best unexpressed. For what I am grateful for is for her blurring of lines she has no reason to know have been drawn. Between laughter and silence, between a desk lit by fluorescent lights and a stained-glass lamp over a stove. Between having a mom and not having one. If my love for this album stems from the shock and pleasure of hearing thoughts I’ve felt expressed by someone else, it is…offensive, maybe, to assume that such thoughts were believed to have been sent into a void. You write, after all, intending to connect to people. What for a listener (or reader, or player) is a shock and a pleasure was surely never meant to be. They intended someone to connect with them. The fact that it was you is immaterial.

And I remember feeling I’m alive and in no need of saviors
If the past’s another country I’m at the border with my papers
Where is your heart if not inside you

where is home or are you lost
where is love if not beside you

I had no answers but they let me cross

*Not technically true; writing letters is the easiest — but the world is small, and the threat of meeting a stranger after you’ve bared your heart to them is somewhat unnerving.