Monday, September 29, 2008

i didn't die, i got old (the '90s, part one)

In a recent entry in his "Music: What Happened?" series, Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family renown* leads with the following sentence: "The nineties were better than the eighties."

Scott's argument is typically erudite, and I get what he's trying to say, especially when one considers his heavy engagement with the biz itself during the '80s, when Game Theory was trying to eke out a career.

But oh how I wince when I read and reread that statement. "The nineties were better than the eighties." Oh. my. God.

This is not my experience at all. Not even close. For me, the '80s were vibrant, teeming with ideas and energy and an abundance of spectacularly great albums (including at least one all-time classic from Scott himself). In my ultra-geeky yearly best-of lists, 1985 alone has twenty-five (twenty-five!) albums to which I'd give four and a half or five stars, and some other '80s years (1980, 1984, and 1988 in particular) were in my estimation almost as grand.

But something happened in the '90s. Whether it was to me or to the musical world, I'm not sure. I suspect that the "has the world changed or have I changed?" blame game probably should be scored 50/50. It's my hope that my upcoming blog entries** get me closer to answering that question.

Nevertheless, I know this for sure: what happened in the '90s wasn't good. For me, musically, the '90s don't come close to the '80s in either quality or depth. And this change, which has in many ways persisted for me into the 2000s (as per this earlier entry, we haven't Named That Decade yet), continues to distress me on a number of levels.

Like with most sea changes, there wasn't a convenient marker or milestone that I perceived at the time (though Kurt Cobain's April 1994 suicide was part of the fabric of the decade and saddened me deeply). To put it in baseball terms, it's not a slump when a guy goes 0 for 4 in a single game... but a week later, when it's up to 1 for 32, it's a slump.

And speaking in non-parenthetical terms about Cobain and 1994, it was 1994 when I realized that yeah, it was a slump. At that point, there hadn't been a year since 1988 that overflowed with great music. In fact, in the '90s, I often struggled to come up with 20 albums I actually liked for my year-end lists. (You can't tell by looking at the lists now; retroactive discoveries have upped the quantities.)

Through '94, my tastes were more or less in sync with the music press, college radio, and like-minded friends. My favorite band in the '80s was R.E.M., and just like most fans of "underground" or whatever you want to call it before the early-'90s rise of the "alternative" label, my collection had many beloved entries from folks like Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, Husker Du, the Minutemen, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Clash, Prince, X, Sonic Youth, the Smiths, and most of the usual CMJ / OPtion / Trouser Press suspects.

Perhaps not liking some of the early '90s darlings - My Bloody Valentine and Pavement, to name my most prominent misses of the day - should have tipped me off that something had changed. But at the time I perceived them not as harbingers of a drought but as the occasional whiffs that one encounters in any matter involving subjective taste.

Also, in '88 I at last gained true college radio when I moved to Nashville. WRVU, Vanderbilt's venerable station, entertained me to no end in those days, and my tastes and collection continued expanding thanks to things I heard there for the first time. They even caused me to reevaluate some previously-held dislikes. For instance, hearing "A Forest," "Charlotte Sometimes," and "The Hanging Garden" for the first time courtesy of WRVU completely reversed my opinion of the Cure.

And when friends who liked the same kind of stuff recommended other artists I didn't know, those recommendations usually paid off, be they from Danny Cantrell when I was at Concord College, or, from 1982 on, then-Welch Daily News sports editor Dan Stillwell. That world of like-minded friends expanded greatly when I got a modem in 1993 and discovered BBS message boards. Shortly thereafter, I "found" the proper Internet itself, and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame. It wasn't just me and fewer people than I can count on one hand who knew who Robyn Hitchcock was; I was on mailing lists with dozens and even hundreds of people who were just as knowledgeable, if not more so, then me.

Many of my dearest friends of today are folks I met during my early days on these lists. And these new friends and acquaintances had heard lots of music that I hadn't yet encountered, so my world was awash in recommendations. And since we all had so much in common musically (particularly from the 1977-1990 punk/post-punk/underground/indie world from which we'd just emerged), I fully expected to like the new names I was hearing about.

So I bought albums by newish artists that lots of my friends were way into. Albums by Guided By Voices. By Stereolab. By Elliott Smith. By the High Llamas. By Richard Davies and Eric Matthews, together and separately. By Belle and Sebastian. And I fully expected to love them.

I didn't.

Some of it was the growing popularity of Pet Sounds overorchestration and the baleful influence of soft pop, which began dominating the indiepop world from the mid-'90s on. Soft not only became the new loud, but midtempo became the new rocking. And for a song or two, surrounded by contrasting material, I'd be fine with midtempo con strings e vibraphone. But we're not talking a song or two, we're talking whole albums permeated by a sound that I never came around to enjoying, all played at torporiffic speeds. Sean O'Hagan's Banjo of Doom might as well have been the battle-cry of the Valkyries, because once I heard those string-plucking strains, I knew my enjoyment didn't have long to live.

But even the more rocking things left me cold, too. For instance, Guided by Voices was never shy about inheriting the loud, drunk, brash rock tradition. The music press always compared them to Wire, which gave me high hopes for GbV since Wire is one of my all-time favorite artists. However, that turned out to be a facile comparison based on GbV's proclivity to pack a lot of short songs onto an album. This is something that Wire did only once (their 1977 debut, Pink Flag), and GbV didn't really sound like Wire in any meaningful way.

None of that is GbV's fault - rather, it's the fault of lazy journalists - and I promptly adjusted my expectations once I heard the actual music. Unfortunately, I didn't like the actual music. It's tough for me to explain it, but the combination of low-fi with bombast and Bob Pollard's voice never clicked for me. And while something like "Portable Men's Society" was an achievement for evoking Rush, the epitome of "hi-fi" sound, in a low-fi context, well, I never cared for Rush.

Stereolab at least invoked the cool sounds of the Velvet Underground, and when they most veered into Velvetsy rhythms, I did actually enjoy them. But they also were about incorporating lounge and easy listening (albeit the hipper stuff like Escovel) into their sound, and that half of the equation was a turnoff for me, evoking memories of my mom listening to Sergio Mendes and the Brasil '66 on her reel-to-reel.

Even old favorites became unreliable. My most beloved artists of the '80s, R.E.M., Prince, and Robyn Hitchcock, models of consistency in the '80s, turned into hit-or-miss acts as far as their new releases went. I was a huge fan of Husker Du and of Bob Mould's initial post-Huskers solo forays, but his new band Sugar completely bored me. Morrissey's '90s offerings were so dull, aside from the glam-rock trappings of Your Arsenal (1992), that it was easy to forget that he'd ever been any good at all. My interest in hip-hop, which peaked with Digital Underground's wacky P-Funk vibe and musically rich 1990 album Sex Packets, waned as the genre gravitated toward the opposing poles of New Jack Swing and gangsta.

I don't want to make it sound like I didn't like anything in the '90s. Each year of the decade brought a slew of new releases that pleased me greatly, and some of those albums (off the top of my head: Nirvana's Nevermind, Wilco's Summerteeth, R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the Loud Family's Interbabe Concern) spoke as directly to my soul as anything I'd heard with a 197* or 198* date.

And yes, since the turn of the millennium, things have picked up for me, but only somewhat. Loud and fast made a comeback around 2000, which was a welcome turn of events after being stuck in Midtempoland for at least a half-decade. However, a lot of the new artists purveying that music were so derivative that the only thing I could think about while listening to them was, "well, I already have Stooges albums."

And I also realize that many of my favorite new artists of the last few years - Interpol, Editors, Goldfrapp, Spoon, the New Pornographers - strongly evoke the '80s music I love, so I can't help but think that I'm still failing to go - or grow - with the times.

Back in the '80s themselves, I used to make fun of the guys I knew whose musical worlds ended in 1977 even though they were only a little older than me. They hadn't liked anything since Skynyrd's plane crash, and they bitched over beers and joints while a 8-track of Paranoid crossbled in the background about how the new music of that day sucked. You couldn't even talk them into giving Van Halen and Cheap Trick a shot, much less something more adventurous like the Clash or Talking Heads.

I never thought I'd become one of those guys. I thought my mind would remain flexible, vital, open to new sounds and new artists.

Instead, substitute "1989" for "1977" and there I am, a coot before my time. Like the title says, I didn't die, I got old.

*There's another musical Scott Miller that I love, and I'm sure you'll be hearing about him in this space too.

**I do envision this as a series about the '90s - more specifically, of my struggle to come to grips with the '90s on a personal as well as musical level - of which this will be by far the longest post. Think of this as the two-hour pilot with lots of explication. I'll be serving up punchier, more concise one-hour episodes afterwards. Everyone exhale, ok? It'll be fine.

it was like i could read your behind

or, where have you gone, tammy copenhaver?

I find it highly unfortunate that I have lived long enough to see lettering on the posterior of women's garments return to the fashion world.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm talking about stuff like the picture in the upper left-hand corner. Ladies, this isn't hot. Seriously. Like bicycle shorts, this has never looked good on anyone in the history of humankind.

When I was in college (1985-1988), the "lettering on the ass of the shorts and jogging suits" thing was in full vogue. But then, it was at least largely confined to sorority girls, who honored their respective benevolent social organizations by sporting their sororities' respective three-letter emblems on the respective seats of their pants. I remember this unfortunate sartorial choice being particularly virulent among our campus' Tri-Sigs.

But nowadays, apparently you don't have to be a sorority girl to look as cheap as one. Again, ladies, this has never looked good. Not on the girls at my college, not on Gwen Stefani, not on J-Lo, and certainly on not you, no matter how attractive your appearance may otherwise be. Please stop wearing this sort of thing. Please.

Or if you must wear something like this, at least make it interesting. For example, instead of the "Juicy" logo, why not an eye chart? It still wouldn't look good, but at least you'd be walking away from a better kind of laughter.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

i first thought of this post back in the year four

One of the side effects of reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels is that you begin to think in the language of those books. For those not familiar with these twenty wildly entertaining volumes, the setting is the British navy in the Napoleonic era (1790s-1815), and the series served as source material for the first good Peter Weir movie since Witness.

When I first discovered the Aubrey-Maturin books, I was completely hooked, and was consuming two to four of them a week. At this level of immersion, the words would just start occurring in my brain naturally. For example, I'd be driving through the parking building adjacent to my then-workplace, and I'd think "I'd better steer to starboard to weather that pole." Or someone at work would be going on about the Sting luxury box tickets they lucked into that weekend, and I'd think - and sometimes actually say, depending on whether I thought I could get away with it - "I give you joy of that." (For some reason, I think Dave Foley would be proud of that.) Or instead of saying to a pal, "This round's on me," it might come out "A glass with you, sir."

I doubt any of these expressions will make a comeback outside of fans of these books. But there was one turn of phrase that struck me like it would be very applicable to the world of today. When the events of the books moved into the 1810s, the characters began saying things like, "A glass with you, sir, as we drink to Nelson's glorious victory in the Year Five."

It took me just a second, but I realized "the Year Five" (and by extension, "Year Six," "Year Seven," etc.) was how the characters were referring to the events of the previous (180x) decade. And I like it! And I think that's how we ought to be referring to the 2000s.

I don't think society has come up with an easy, elegant way to say the years of the current decade. So far, we're just saying the whole darn year, and who wants to say "Two thousand and two"? Heck, half the time, I find myself wanting to say "Nineteen ninety two" because I haven't wrapped my head around it being the 2000s yet, plus "Nineteen" part was just so ingrained in us growing up (after all, we had a whole century of it).

So I'm stumping for doing it the Aubrey-Maturin way. After you read this post, you'll look back fondly on the Year Eight, when you finally lit on the best way to talk about this Decade That Is Apparently Going To Be Named Later.

And yes, "Later" is a funny name for a decade.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

the great moth invasion of 2008

I grew up in a home that was extra-vigilant about many things. One of those things was moths. I just took it for granted that everyone stored their woolens in cedar chests, had mothballs in their closets, and transferred their out-of-season clothing to closed bins or bags with (of course) some mothballs or moth packets inside. My ex-wife's family did the same thing, even taking things one step further: when my ex-mother-in-law and her late husband were building their home, she insisted that every closet be lined with cedar.

Perhaps it's just a West Virginia thing: in Nashville, people in general don't seem as concerned with these winged cloth-eaters, and my wife, who has Nashville roots but grew up mostly in Champaign, Illinois, says that she never remembers her family taking any precautions against moths. And in 2007, she and I didn't have any problems here in the current abode.

But 2008, oh, it's been a different story. My mom and grandmother certainly raised me with a surfeit of caution, but this may have been something that they were spot-on about.

In the spring, weird, small, dark cocoons appeared on the ceiling. Mandy and I dubbed them "the wiggles" because you'd notice them furiously gyrating, doing a veritable twist in order to traverse the ceiling and walls. We did housewide removal of them a couple of times, but we admittedly didn't always stay ahead of them, because pressing issues - not petty everyday things, but huge life stuff like health emergencies, job instability, and me moving from my apartment to here with Mandy - consumed our spring.

Now we have a full-blown moth infestation. We see many of them flying around each day. The fact that the closets in the house (clearly added during a 2006 retrofit) are all completely open doesn't help matters. We've put cedar chips in the drawers, and we've hung cedar blocks and, out of desperation, smelly naphthalene moth cakes in the closets. If there was surveillance footage of us in our home - and given the way the Constitution has been shredded since 2001, there might well be - it'd look like we were tripping on acid, engaged in some sort of spastic dance with flying phantoms, given the number of times we spring up from the couch and slap our hands together in mostly-vain attempts to swat moths on the wing.

The most visibly effective thing we've done was Mandy's idea: we put flystrips up. It's not aesthetically pleasing in any way, but there is a lot of visceral satisfaction in seeing the moth corpses collect on them.

Nevertheless, despite everything we've done so far, the moths continue to materialize on a daily basis. I'm sure our wardrobe is suffering, though we've only found only a couple of chomped-up garments so far, and the moth onslaught of 2008 shows no signs of abating.

We're not sure how to reclaim our house and protect our clothing, and what we've found on the Interwebs isn't of much help. So if you have any suggestions - short of signing the lease over to the moths and moving into my ex-mother-in-law's cedar fortress - please let us know.

Friday, September 26, 2008

gallatin roads and signs seen

Now that I have a "real" blog, I feel more of a need to have "new" content on a regular basis! I can't promise daily updates, but I'm setting that as a goal. I'll do my best to emulate the frequent-update example of friends Steve and Rog, who not only post on a daily basis, but provide high-quality readin' too.

I definitely have some longer posts in the gestation stage. For whatever reason, my creativity's been in high gear the last few days, and I've had an abundance of ideas.

But for today, I give you a sign seen earlier this summer at the Cat's Records* on Gallatin Road:


While nothing in the way of marquee mad libs can compare to the days when Snatch was in theatres, I chuckled at this sign every time I made a Kroger run this past summer.

*The current incarnation of Cat's Records is technically still the same company as the one I knew in the '80s when I first moved to Nashville. But the Cat's of today is basically the 2008 version of yer '70s-'90s mall store (think Record Bar, National Record Mart, Camelot, Sam Goody's), and very unlike the great, long-defunct Cat's on West End with the well-stocked indie/import section that educated a generation of Music City rockers and fans. For example, it's the place where I discovered that Game Theory had another album besides Lolita Nation. Unfortunately, I arrived in town a few years too late to see Jason & the Scorchers play the most legendary parking lot show at Cat's (this may have been the show where Jason climbed the billboard).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

in the big inning

Hi. My name is Miles. Here are some things to know about me:
  • I'm from West Virginia, and like all Mountain State expatriates, I can and do talk endlessly about the state I no longer live in and too seldom visit.
  • I've lived in Nashville for 20 years, and love it here.
  • I'm blessed with the smartest, funniest, most creative, most fascinating, most beautiful wife that there could possibly be.
  • We have wonderful dogs - and one of them is not only subjectively but nominally great, since he's a Great Pyrenees.
  • I once shot Mike Reno, just to watch his headband die.
  • The rest, well, you're just gonna have to wait.
I have maintained a small, very occasional MySpace blog for a year or so now, and I haven't decided whether to discontinue it or not. I actually enjoy MySpace for what it is, bloated interface and all (how the heck it works as well as it does is beyond me), so I'm not in the brigade of MySpace haters.

However, the creation of this blog is, in part, my attempt to make my writing, my thoughts, and my life in general more accessible to everyone who might want to participate in them. MySpace forces folks to register if they want to view my blog or post comments. I understand anyone's reluctance not to submit to that requirement, and since I want more participation and community, not less, here we are.

Annnnnd.... here we go! In the words of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy before the first Summerteeth tour show I saw, "hope everything works."