Posts Tagged ‘Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard’
Full marks for this iteration go to the networks of Radio U, that little radio station that saved my life in grad school and that became a lot more than that, which I still check every now and again just so that I can know Where Music Is Going.
See, musical waypoints were always very easy to find when I was young. I spent almost the entirety of the ages between childhood and 21 hearing new things; going from my parents’ taste in music (on albums, on 8-track, and on the old, old reel-to-reel) to discovering country radio to discovering pop radio to discovering all the possible different formats in between to wondering why I never heard any of the songs that Donnie Simpson played on Video Soul on the radio to discovering this little thing called “college rock” or “alternative” to going to college and being immersed in that to a pair of albums that changed how I thought not just about music, but about life.
Musical waypoints became much more difficult to find after I left college. In fact, for the first few years after I landed in Columbus and I wasn’t around many people with similar musical tastes initially, I found a little bit of static in my listening. Old friends kept up with electronically helped (hooray, rec.music.christian!) and new friends found…electronically helped (hooray, rec.music.christian!). There’s something of a gap in my library between 1993 and 1996, when on a fateful February morning, Radio U came on the air.
Radio U was exactly the radio this not-entirely-mature-but-entirely-too-earnest doctoral student needed in 1996. I loved the rock, and I did listen to CD 101 and 99.7 The Blitz as I moved, but I was still a very young Jesus-seekin’ Christian and I wasn’t getting to Cornerstone Festival after ’93 and I wanted more of that kind of music in my life. Radio U delivered it, and then some.
I’m going to spare you all the waypoints that intervened, except to say that there were more than a few earnest Christian kids in Columbus, Ohio in 1996 who, twenty years on, probably still get a bit emotional when they hear the guitars that open Stavesacre’s “At The Moment”. But I’m always grateful to that station that became this Christian-broadcasting multimedia thing that gave me confidence that Christians weren’t merely interested in making shiny happy music for the masses, but actual art.
Twenty years later, without even thinking that the radio station was twenty years old, while I was figuring out how to make a Roku box work on a TV, I installed a Radio U Roku app.
And I figured I could watch and see what was Most Wanted.
I have no clue what the first song I listened to was. It was kinda pounding and kinda Klingon and I just can’t get behind that sound no matter how much I give it a chance.
Now, the second song…well.
See, there’s a formulaic Christian song structure that I get used to, even in rock styles. That track resists every template. It resists it sonically, and it resists it lyrically. Every time I think I know what I’m about to hear, the song turns left and does something just a TINY bit different.
I enjoy that.
That sticks around for a couple of days and then I can’t get the track out of my mind and in 2016 when you can’t get a track out of your mind you take to the YouTubes.
Now, there IS a traditional music video for this song, and you should listen to it and watch it and stuff. But that lyric video is unlike anything I have ever seen. And it implants words into my head.
I wrote a short thing about Jimmy Eat World’s “I Will Steal You Back” and the fight of the last two-plus years – losing an institution, regaining status (for whatever that status means), and vocalizing what is lost. That song spoke to motivation, and to ambition – perhaps a dumb motivation, perhaps a foolhardy ambition, but the hope that I could contribute to change, and that change will be for the better.
So, of course, the very first song on this album has the refrain “Things don’t seem to change; they move in place, they stay the same.” And “People never change; they move in place, they stay the same.” You make the commitment, you take action, and then…nothing.
And then, as the first song dissolves into the second, the finger goes from pointing to other people to pointing at the self.
I was always out in front of it
Waging war against the storms when I felt overwhelmed and withheld
You and I were like a pair of thieves
Stealing from rich and giving to whoever we saw fit
Now you’re over it
I’ve been wrong a thousand different times
But I don’t know, I don’t know this time
You were there through every single lie and crime
What do you think of your son now?
The title of the song is “Birds Will Never Fly”, and the resignation behind the words is VERY heavy. And the doubt.
These are the left turns I hear in the words. Who is he singing to? God? His father on earth? The next lyric is “Wait a minute, I was here for you/Now you’re sick, you’re sick/I’m sick of it too” which frustrates me as much as ANY lyric I’ve heard in forever. I suppose it works both ways; disgust in the human relationship, projecting exasperation in the heavenly relationship. I really don’t know – except the frustration mirrors my own frustration at my own ineptitude.
Frustration isn’t good. It’s a result of not living in the world that isn’t what it can be. But frustration is good in that we have that picture of a better world, and we’re not content, and we’re motivated towards greater things.
The songs that open Move In Place put voice to frustration as beautifully as I have EVER heard from popular music.
And I feel that frustration more and more pointedly by the day. I know I have purpose here (and I have moments where I get, ahem, “clarity” regarding that purpose). But I also know intellectually how hard it is to make the world better, how to encourage people to cooperate. And even with knowing that intellectually, the emotions that surround that reality are heavy.
In the time between when I started writing this and now, I started a new job, learned a new city, moved into a new house (a full month and change after starting the job), and flailed in a new laboratory with experiments that worked sometimes (and they were experiments of my own design so it’s mostly my fault; in fact I’m finishing this while I’m trying to figure out how to salvage one of ’em). It’s felt like nothing’s gone right this fall, and often.
I have needed the first half of Move In Place. A lot. And I have a series of songs that are now waypoints to me, in same way I’ve gotten waypoints for other times in my life.
It’s reassuring, y’know? I’m nearly 45 years old. I’m in all likelihood over halfway through my life. And I can still find rock songs that speak to my season and that revitalize me.
And I need that song that laments how people never change to transition itself – into a song that speaks to a thing that remains the same.
Thanks to the men of Come Wind for the soundtrack to a new era in my life.
This is probably going to be a series I work on literally for the rest of my life, at this point. I’m averaging six months per post.
But, because it’s July 4th, a story came to mind.
My first Cornerstone Festival (RIP) was 22 years ago this year. It may not be what you think of when you think “bachelor party”, getting together with old friends and driving to a Christian rock festival, but it was mine, and I enjoyed the music more than a small bit. And I enjoyed the company more. Some of my favorite people from my just-completed undergrad (and a couple of dear friends from Franklin College) came along with me for the trip, we camped on the grounds, we saw more people with piercings and punk hair and tattoos for Jesus than we had ever seen in our lives; it was a moment in time I’ll always be grateful for.
The debate of the week had to do with John Austin’s debut record, recorded for Myrrh/Glasshouse Records – one of the new major Christian imprints of the moment that was going to be all about the artistic singer-songwriter, but artistic with INTEGRITY because after all it’s a Christian label. Austin had recorded a couple of demo tracks that my friend Dave got when he went to Cornerstone in ’91, “The Embarrassing Young” and “Island Girl” – and he couldn’t stop raving about those tracks, and he was excited for the full album. But when he got it, he was deeply disappointed because of the overproduction that went into several of the tracks, most notably “Island Girl”, which he loved.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Glasshouse was still too beholden to the Christian music apparatus of the era, which lacked any sort of creative edge whatsoever. There were creative artists on Glasshouse, but precious little of what was recorded registered – and what did register with the ears of people like me got too little love from everybody else. Glasshouse Records didn’t last nearly long enough, nor did John Austin’s major label deal.
But a bunch of kids who were bound for grad school and advanced degrees (and one who was bound to find his car battery had gone dead over the weekend) still enjoyed a show on July 4, 1993, one of the last sets of the festival. And Austin brought the goods. I know I’m a nerd who likes cheesy stuff, but lines like “Could’ve been a legend if I’d died in my prime/Could’ve been a poet if I’d known how to make the words sound alike” and “I don’t know the language, but I’ve got the accent down” have a permanent place in my brain; Austin’s witty songwriting and the tight music made me a fan.
And while I’d listened to the demo tracks Dave had and REALLY enjoyed them, when I heard the fully-produced stuff, I never really found myself missing the stripped-down quality. I’ve kept the album – and those songs – front and center in my CD rack, and then on my mp3 player, and then in iTunes, for a couple of decades now. Austin never has gotten the attention he merits, and it’s a shame.
“It’s the Fourth of July”, John Austin said towards the end of that set in Bushnell, Illinois 22 years ago. “Here’s our national anthem.”
Forever not knowing the language; forever having the accent down. Thanks for the tunes, John.
(I started writing this in June. Lawd, what a summer. This may yet turn into a series; in case you missed it, here is part 1.)
I would like to start this second installment by apologizing to the continent of Australia. For many, many of you, the title of this post does not apply to you.
But it does apply to the overwhelming majority of people in the United States, and it certainly applied to me as I began my college radio career.
I honestly don’t know what I expected when I heard that Rose-Hulman had a college radio station. I know that I had discovered “alternative music” (you know, R.E.M., the B-52’s, 10,000 Maniacs, Midnight Oil, and all those other important bands that MTV played…I was even really hip and had the Smithereens’ cassette tape) and there was a radio station at Baldwin-Wallace College, across the street from my grandparents’ house, that played some REALLY exotic sounds, like the Sugarcubes (from Iceland! how exotic! who had this lead singer named Björk! how exotic!) and Siouxsie and the Banshees (see? not Susie, but Siouxsie! see, I’m hip!). I was absolutely certain, I guess, that I would find even more exotic stuff, and the music I would listen to would be SO elite and would blow SO many minds and I would just be the coolest person on the planet.
I was kind of bummed when, on my arrival, that old WMHD program director tried to impress on me the importance of the blues and of this other old guy named Elvis Costello. Old folks. I wasn’t up for the old folks. I was up for the new and the cool.
But as I went through my DJ training, one thing that the station manager  impressed upon all of us new DJ’s, and the thing that was so much of the ethos of college radio in the 80’s and 90’s, was always listening and playing something new. People wouldn’t tune in to WMHD to listen to “Pinball Wizard” or “Love In An Elevator” (or even “Blister In The Sun” or “What I Am”) for the hundred thousandth time. They would listen expecting something they didn’t hear every day, and what you should do is look for the best of the stuff that other radio wouldn’t play.
It was in that season of my life that I flipped through the old College Music Journal and read a writeup on a new album by a band I’d never heard of with a name I thought was cool – Hunters and Collectors. And I had just noted the album Ghost Nation in the new music stacks.
Let’s give this a spin, shall we?
Here is track 1.
It wasn’t terribly exotic. There was a bit there that satisfied the nascent Midnight Oil fan in me, which made sense because Australia. But it was, at its core, a unique take on straight-ahead rock and roll.
I liked it. I liked it a lot.
It wasn’t something ABSOFREAKINLUTELY INCREDIBLE THAT EVERYBODY MUST BUY NOW, or anything like that, mind. This isn’t a story of a song that radically changed my life. It is a story of a song that gently, but consistently, nudged how I approached music.
I quit seeking the newest, freshest, most exotic sounds. I wouldn’t run away from them if they turned up, mind. But what I wanted was the best songs. Even in 1989, there were so many different artists doing things that didn’t get major radio play or any serious notoriety. We were there, in part, to be the champions for the best of those.
Of course, I soon found out that Hunters and Collectors had a great deal of notoriety halfway around the world. I discovered their back catalog (and much of the best of it is on Soundcloud – if I wanted to talk to you about songs that will change your life, I would totally be talking to you about “Holy Grail” right now), and discovered just how big of a deal they were.
And that’s a whole NEW layer on how the young mind develops – that your experience of the world is not everybody’s experience of the world, and music that is completely new to you is famous somewhere else, and what is old, dry and boring to you is revelatory to someone else.
This is obvious stuff, but these are the lessons that 18-year-old minds need to learn.
I’ve had an idea brewing for ages and ages now, and for reasons I’ll get into shortly, if I’ve ever going to unleash that idea on the public now.
Humans who have known me for any length of time know that I’m a music nerd. I tend to know it if it’s been released recently. I know it well if it was released ten years ago, even more if it was released twenty, and if it was released sometime between the late 70’s and the early 90’s it’s been seared onto my consciousness. And it’s not just top-40 that I know, either. I grew up on modern country, so much so that what I consider modern country most folks throw into the “classic” bin. Because of both my presence in church culture in my childhood and my collegiate (re-)discovery of Christianity, I’m far more familiar than most with Contemporary Christian music, of all kinds. Because I spent most of my undergraduate years playing around with college radio, I knew what alternative music was before alternative became mainstream. I have over 10,000 songs on my iTunes playlist, from million-sellers to hundred-sellers. Literally.
I feel like a lot of these tracks should be a lot better known than they are. And what’s more, my brain-dead habit – linking to tracks of songs on YouTube, because music video has always been YouTube’s killer app (even if that video just becomes the album cover just sitting there static) – isn’t possible with a lot of these songs, because they’re buried enough underneath the weight of all the other good (and not-so-good, and overhyped) music out there that nobody thinks that somebody might want to hear that song. Or simply because, for one reason or another, nobody has thought to migrate to that part of the country and listen to what that artist has to say.
Hence, Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard. Because I am not literary or original, I’ve stolen the title. (One of the chapters of Lewis Grizzard’s collections of columns Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You was called “Famous People You’ve Never Heard Of.” It was put together in the same vein – human interest columns about people who should have been important, for one reason or another.)
I’m going to put some effort in making this a series and drawing some songs from both my youth and my recent history out, and making this as much of a variety of music as I possibly can.
But I have an academic history. And so I’m going to draw from that first.
I’m pretty sure it was Fall 2008 when Katrina Barclay wound up in my physics classroom at Shorter. She was a transfer from Northeast Alabama Community College, a common pre-med chemistry major with an uncommon kindness and grace. Over two years, she came through both physics and physical chemistry, and she was a really solid student, and an even better classmate – somebody who you always wanted in your lab group, who would always show good cheer and better work. And at the same time, I always had a sense her passion was elsewhere.
I had heard that Katrina could strum a guitar pretty good, and did a pretty good job of leading worship when she was called upon (and she and I figured out very early on that we were equal parts music nerd and had a LOT of good notes to trade with one another). It didn’t really sink in, however, until sometime during her senior year when she sat down in my office and decided I was a person worth opening up to. She had an EP’s worth of songs together, she said. She was going to continue to be serious about performing – she wasn’t going to slack on study, by any stretch, but she was very serious about performing and making something work in music. There were certain things she knew. She had something to say, and she had the voice to say it.
And here is what I will tell you for certain:
If there is something to be said, Katrina has the voice to say it.
Three years or so on, here’s a transcript of Katrina and I chatting about making career moves (and me misspelling “no end” right off the bat):
I wish I was talking to you about careers in chemistry this creatively, because you are dang smart and I wish I had you employable in the major. Please know that I am annoyed to know end about this.
But if you have the pipes to make music work, you should take advantage.
(And holy cow I have played the crap out of “Time Machine”. That song. That VOICE. Dear heart.)
I literally just vocalized to mom what you typed about “Time Machine”. It seems you’re the only one who cares much about it.The song is literally the sound of my heart breaking.
Austen only made me sing it twice and he was like, “I’m not making you do it again.”
I kind of get it. It’s a bit more of my technical side, I suppose. I mean, you put all the emotion into the song into it, and I get that. But you also paced it BRILLIANTLY; the timing of every note you sing, and how long you hold them – you TIMED the song to best communicate your emotions. And then you TAGGED EVERY LAST NOTE at the emotional climax. Not oversung, not undersung. IMMACULATE.Recorded, I don’t think you’ve ever *sung* better than that one.
And with that much emotion, if it was me, I’d be oversinging the crap out of that.
All I can say to you is thank you and I needed to hear that about it.
I thought I’d said stuff like that before. But yes. “Time Machine” connected, and connected immediately, and connected like whoa.
I think the timing of your review is what made it so special. I almost threw in the “Time Machine” towel because it has been getting not even poor response but ZERO response. Maybe it has just been shocking people a bit. I mean, I was overwhelmed by it when I wrote it, in the studio, and listening to the finished product.
Well, like I said, having hung out with a vocal performance/musical theatre kid, I’ve been much more in tune with the technical performance stuff than the pure pop song impact. I don’t know how Time Machine relates to everybody else. I can’t QUITE say I can’t get enough of hearing it, because it it an incredibly emotional song. But I can say I play it a lot.
Look, there are a ton of stories that can be told about music from all sorts of different spaces that hasn’t had enough attention paid to it, the songs that the artist felt most deeply that never got an ounce of attention while the throwaway afterthought becomes The Great American Pop Song. So here’s one example. And, in particular, an example that is as breathtakingly sung as anything I’ve ever heard by somebody I actually know in real life.
Give it a couple of listens. You will not be sorry.
Now, if I was going to start this project anything remotely soon, I had to start it now, and I had to start it with Katrina. Here’s why.
Katrina is overdue to record a full album – her first since “In Your Shoes” in 2010. She has the songs ready, and she’s pursuing the funding to make the work happen. (I have heard a couple of these songs. I am being entirely selfish here. I desperately, desperately want to hear them recorded professionally.) There is an IndieGoGo fundraising page for this purpose. She’s not quite halfway to her (relatively modest, IMO) goal, and there’s a week left in the campaign.
I’ve tossed a few pennies into the project. I really wish you’d do the same. I believe in what Katrina’s doing, and I think given a listen, you’ll believe in what she’s doing as well.
I think there’s a ton of music that’s worth unearthing out there. Each of us have local independent artists in our universe who deserve far, far greater exposure, and deserve to get some of our disposable income as well. May we all do better in giving artists the capacity to do art, and to get paid for it.
And in the meantime, Katrina, please keep singing. That VOICE, dear heart. That. Voice.