Monday, May 21, 2018

Albums of Influence: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

In 1991, I was working as a secretary in a small office in Beverly Hills by day, and at night, rehearsing and writing songs with my band.

The job was easy, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I spent a lot of it trying to fill in what I felt were gaps in my musical education. I read a lot of books, and spent my money on what seemed to be important records that I hadn't heard.

I didn't have a lot of money, and records were expensive. I kept a list of what I thought I needed to hear and worked my way through it. At some point in the year, I received an unexpected bonus of something like $50. I headed for Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard.

I was going to buy "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen.

I knew The Boss from the big radio hits. I had heard "Hungry Heart", "Thunder Road", "Born To Run", "4th of July, Asbury Park", "The River". My father had a cassette of "Born In The USA" when it came out, and between listening to it in his car and the endless radio airplay the album received, I knew that record all too well.

Springsteen seemed like a good songwriter, but maybe a little too bombastic, with his giant bar band sounding and seeming kind of dated to my raised-on-new-wave ears.

But everyone talked about how great "Nebraska" was.

They were right.

After some acoustic guitar, Springsteen opens the album with these words:

Saw her standin' on her front lawn
Just a-twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride, sir
And ten innocent people died

Listening to the album for the first time, I was floored. Instead of loud, overblown rock, this was almost folk or country. The album is famously little more than a 4-track demo, featuring a vocal track or two, an acoustic guitar, and maybe some harmonica or other minor embellishment.

Where Springsteen's other albums were heavily produced, "Nebraska" was lo-fi. Springsteen had hollered from the stage to the cheap seats. Here, he was whispering to you, or sitting right in front of you.

The desperation in his other works was cranked up to gothic maximum here, with no release, no escape, and no future. The songs all told stories or sketched out vignettes. It was like a collection of short stories, all told in the same grainy, blurry black-and-white with bold splashes of blood red that the album's cover displayed.

I put it on a cassette, with Nirvana's "Nevermind" on the other side. It barely left my car's player for a year.

"Nebraska" helped me understand how hard you could hit by barely doing anything. It is a remarkable magic trick.

I had been trying to write songs that were sweeping statements about feelings and the world, and had been increasingly abstracting my lyrics. It wasn't working.

Springsteen, on the other hand, seemed to connect to something universal by being incredibly specific. Where I was trying to draw almost mathematical equations, he wrote stories. He hit hard with just his voice, sometimes barely rising above a whisper, and a guitar. I took note.

Here also were dark, bitter songs that still were hooky, catchy, memorable. Something you could sing along to. Some of the melodies sound like folk songs or hymns. This was an important lesson (and one which it seems Springsteen himself would forget on the similar-but-lesser "Ghost of Tom Joad").

"Nebraska" made me a Springsteen evangelist, and caused me to go back through his catalog with a different and more critical ear. To this day, I tell everyone it is by far his best record.

This album also made me really re-think how I wrote lyrics. Fortunately, I haven't really tried to directly copy this style. I'm not as good a storyteller. I can't pull off Bruce's "I'm just an ordinary guy" pose. And I can't play folk/country acoustic guitar the way he can.

"Nebraska" remains a critical favorite in the rock canon. I hear its influence in countless ways. The entire "lo-fi" movement. All 90s "indie rock". There are many acts who have tried to find a spot somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Cohen's elegant acoustic despair and Springsteen's 3am Americana. Most don't come anywhere close.

I don't listen to "Nebraska" frequently. It's a bit much for me these days. But it is always in my car and on my phone, and when the mood hits, there's nothing else like it.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Albums of Influence: Run-D.M.C.

When you are a teenager, everything is new. Every experience you have is the first time you have ever really felt it, and so it is quite potent. The same is true for music -- you are hearing everything for the first time, and so everything is revolutionary. You have literally never heard anything like it before.

Every once in a while, you happen to have that experience while hearing something actually new.

1984. I am 15 years old, and a freshman in high school. Cable TV has not yet arrived in Northern Virginia, so I do not have access to MTV. My exposure to music videos and the exciting world of new music they offer is limited to late-night shows like "Friday Night Videos" and my beloved "RockN'America".

I cannot recall where I first saw the video for Run-D.M.C.'s "Rock Box", but I vividly remember the visceral thrill of hearing it the first time. This was some hard, futuristic stuff.

An explosive drum machine beat hammers as heavy guitars start riffing. And then, instead of post-Plant castrati singing, two black guys start yelling. At first pass, the words are nearly impenetrable. So you listen closer:

"For all you sucker mc's perpetratin' a fraud
Your rhymes are cold wack and keep the crowd cold lost
You're the kind of guy that girl ignored
I'm drivin' Caddy, you fixin 'a Ford..."

They jam 3 or 4 songs' worth of lyrics into the few minutes that "Rock Box" lasts. The lyrics connect to hip-hop's past, define its present, and even point to its future -- there's references of designer brands (though with a populist angle) and plenty of MC braggadocio.

The heavy riffs cycle over and over. There's even a guitar solo.

My brother and I were both captivated and wanted to hear more. We got hold of a cassette (all the store had!) of their debut album, titled simply "Run-D,M.C.". The low-budget album art fit perfectly -- a black-and-white photo of Run and D.M.C. against an urban brick wall, with some primitive computer graphics spelling out their name above.

The album is a masterpiece. To this day I can still recite large chunks of many of the songs, including favorites "Hard Times" and "Jam-Master Jay". Those 3 songs are a powerful start to a record that does not let up start to finish.

Hard times can take you on a natural trip
So keep your balance, and don't you slip
Hard times is nothing new on me
I'm gonna use my strong mentality
Like the cream of the crop, like the crop of the cream
Beating hard times, that is my theme
Hard times in life, hard times in death
I'm gonna keep on fighting to my very last breath

To my teenage self, the songs, sound, and record represented an idealized and imminent future. One where the new technology of drum machines and synthesizers stood next to the legacy of guitars. One where black and white were equal. One where we acknowledged things were tough but we would all move forward together to work through it.

This shining utopia was reflected everywhere I looked. In the futurism of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit". In Simple Minds' having Herbie Hancock play a keyboard solo on "Hunter and The Hunted". In new wave groups whose line-ups, lyrics, and ideologies were the radical inclusivity of their day, with LGBT members and every possible ethnic background not merely "represented", but just THERE, because, duh, it's the future, and it just doesn't even merit remarking on.

Ah, the idealism of youth.

Bills fly higher every day
We receive much lower pay
I'd rather stay young, go out and play
It's like that, and that's the way it is

Listening today, of course "Run-D.M.C." sounds a little dated, juvenile, and silly. But only a little. The stark, minimal production still hits hard. The dual MCs and vocal delays still sound fresh, in every sense.

"Rock Box" was a seminal track, and one whose influence and echoes were felt for at least the next 20 years. Everything from The Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill", Ice-T's "Body Count", all of the unfortunate 90s rap-rock, Lil Wayne's "rock" album, Third Eye Blind's debut record, to (arguably) Living Colour owe something to it.

Run-D.M.C. would go on to make more songs like this ("King of Rock", "Walk This Way"), and more commercially successful and popular records. But to my ears, they never exceeded the absolute perfection and power of this first record.

Run-D.M.C. remain somewhat under-appreciated as the avatars (if not progenitors) of many of hip-hop's tropes, awkwardly stuck between hip-hop's corny-but-beloved early years and the "Silver Age" acts of the early sampling era like Public Enemy.

The lack of samples (and use of turntable scratching) still strikes me as a much more exciting place for hip-hop to be than the endless strip-mining of someone else's beats that hip-hop seems to prefer.

I had heard and appreciated rap music before, from the life-changing early singles of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaataa to new wave experiments like Blondie's "Rapture". I thought it was cool and interesting.

But Run-D.M.C. made me understand this was real art, and from that record on, I paid closer attention to what was happening, listening to DC's "urban" stations (WHUR 96.3) just as much as its rock (DC101! Q107!) and alternative stations (WHFS).

Around this same time, I saw a demonstration of breakdancing at my first high school. I made friends with some of the black students there and they taught me how to do some of the moves. Somewhere, there may be public access video of me breaking.

Perhaps most directly, my 2007 album "Decayed, Decayed" was attempt to pay homage to that early hip-hop and its proximity to early industrial and electronic groups. The call-and-response vocals on "Fishwrap" as well as the message of not letting hard times get you down are copied straight out of the Run-D.M.C. playbook.

I still listen to hip-hop, but with flagging enthusiasm as the years roll by. Perhaps it is the creeping cynicism of old age or just old age (pop music is for young people), but while I have heard fringe hip-hop go in some weird (if not particularly interesting or entertaining) directions, mainstream hip-hop seems stuck in either nihilism and/or mopiness masquerading as "deep", brainless, dopey consumerist fantasies, or the occasional inch-deep "message" songs where the videos do all the heavy lifting.

And as recent events have shown, we are far from the utopia my teenage self envisioned.

Still, I and many others will always have a place in our hearts and ears for this brilliant album.

In some ways, Scritti Politti's Green Gartside said it best, in his 2006 song "The Boom Boom Bap". He closes out his lyrical parallels of loving hip-hop and booze to excess by simply running through the song titles of "Run-D.M.C.", his beautiful, soft voice making them sound like treasured possessions or jewels.

He ends by gently singing "I love you still...I always will."

It gets me every time, because that's how I feel about Run-D.M.C. It's a great album, but for me it also represents a missed future, and innocence lost.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Albums of Influence: Amber by Chill Productions


In 1998, my life was in a strange and uncertain place.

The original cover image for Amber by Chill Productions, 1998
The music industry was rapidly changing due to the sudden rise in home studios (enabled by high-quality, low-cost mixers from Mackie and affordable digital tape recorders from Alesis and Tascam). Tastes were veering from early-90s grunge and pop towards the next big thing: electronica. Napster would release a year later and set the whole thing on fire.

The internet was also starting to enter wider public consciousness. I had ISDN at home, delivering a whopping 128 kbps connection, which was lightning-fast compared to the 28.8 kbps dial-up I could get at work.

I didn't have a band or regularly active music project, and was trying to figure out what exactly I was going to do, both in the music business and for a job. My work by this point was fairly uninteresting and trivial. I had a lot of free time, and spent much of my day exploring FTP sites dedicated to trading MOD files.

MOD files dated back to the late 80s and Amiga computers. The files consisted of a blob of samples with instructions for how those samples were to be played, similar to a MIDI file. It's analogous to a text document with the fonts embedded at the end. As a music file format that were highly efficient and well-suited for electronic music. A 5 minute song might only be 64k, and thus easy to upload or download over a dial-up modem.

Even better, MOD files could be opened and edited. The same software used for playing them back was also used for creating them, which meant that you could easily remix or modify other people's work, rip out the samples and sounds for your own use, and learn how people had created their pieces. It also made collaboration easy.

The software you used to create these MOD files was called a "tracker", and many of them were free. Here was a truly revolutionary new music business: All you needed was a computer (not even a very powerful one!), and you could be making electronic music and sharing it with the world.

Trackers were also a very different way to make music. Trackers look like giant spreadsheets, and instead of thinking about notes on a staff, you indicate when in time you want a sample to play, and at what pitch and volume. All these and other parameters are input by literally typing numbers into the spreadsheet grid. If a digital audio workstation program like Cubase or Pro Tools was music software with a GUI, trackers were like making music with a command line or assembly language.

As noted, you had to use a tracker (or, later, a Winamp plug-in, though these were frowned upon as poor emulations) to play back MOD files. That also meant you had to be at your computer to listen. In 1998, that was unacceptable for me, so I hooked up my cassette deck to my computer's line out and made several compilation cassettes of my favorite MODs, with titles like "I aM 31337, gIv3 mE wArEz, d00d!".

Cyberspace's Local Music Scene

A small but rich, complex, and devoted community had formed around this file format. The artists all hid behind handles and the complete anonymity of the early internet, with names like "B00mer" and "Maelcum". It was like a local music scene from William Gibson's cyberspace.

As is often the case, young people were the driving force behind this music scene. Many of the MOD artists were teenagers, who wanted "real gear" -- a synthesizer, drum machine, or guitar -- but who wouldn't let that hold them back and would use a computer and free (or pirated) software instead.

Granted, like a lot of local music scenes driven by young people, much of the music was neither good nor interesting. There was a lot of fast techno and generic house, undistinguished and derivative. But there was so much, coming from kids/musicians/artists all over the world.

The scene included sites, groups, artists, and "labels", and of course, critics and fans. Some blurred the lines -- a popular site might be run by a group of artists clustered around a particular style, vibe or sound. Tokyo Dawn, for example, seemed to focus on a kind of jazzy downtempo. Legendary site Kosmic Free Music Foundation was more electronica-based.

My favorite group was Chill (later known as Chill Productions). They had an unknown number of members. They covered far more varied musical territory than most. And in 1998, shortly after it was released, I discovered their second "disk" or compilation of pieces from their group, "Amber".

Sprawling across 24 tracks and featuring contributions from a number of "guests" (including founder Maelcum), the album took only a few minutes to download and played for more than 90 minutes. I didn't (and still don't) love everything on it, but there were a few pieces that I immediately found outstanding, moving, and surprising.

Vildauget and TEG's "Deus Ex" is a beautiful ambient electronic melody (written as an homage to John Taite, the founder of Chill, and their friend) that gently floats and bounces along, and is one of those pieces I love so much I have to restrain myself from playing it to death. kjwise's "Black Desert of Freedom" is a downtempo ride across Iceland's volcanic plains. In_Tense surprises everyone with "Piano", which is, somehow, a beautiful rubato piano improvisation that drifts through classical forms, and demonstrates how MOD files, when programmed creatively, could handle more than electronica.

The rest of the album shifts between uptempo electronica, acid-ish beats, downtempo grooves, and ambient beauty and strangeness. I think it is a good representation of Chill (and to some extent, the MOD/tracker scene) at its peak.

My favorites all still live on my phone, in my car, and on my computer as MP3s.

A Different Kind of Influence

"Amber" was not a big musical influence. It delivered something in line with what I thought contemporary electronic music sounded like in the late 90s. As noted, I loved (and still love) many of the tracks on it. You may not. But "Amber" turned out to be profoundly influential in other and surprising ways.

For one thing, it made me realize this "underground" internet scene was far more interesting, cool, exciting, and of the moment than anything happening in the "real" Los Angeles music scene. More than that, "Amber" and the scene it represented felt like the future, where music could, should, or must go: the internet.

I ended up joining Chill. I emailed the group and sent some samples of my work. I unfortunately never released as many tracks as I wanted under my "Captain Kirk" ambient alias, but being so quickly accepted by a group of such remarkable musicians was validating at a time when I needed it. I (literally) repaid the favor by helping keep the metaphorical lights on a few years later.

"Amber" was a turning point for me realizing something about both DIY and the music business. Just a year before, I had spent nearly $2K to create a thousand copies of a compact disc of "Songs For The Last Man On Earth". I couldn't get any stores to take it, couldn't promote it, couldn't distribute it. That is why 20 years later, I still have copies of gathering dust in my garage (well, it also wasn't very good).

"Amber" pointed out how purely digital music, divorced from any physical media, was the future of distribution and consumption. CDs were obviously inefficient, outdated, and useless for kids whose lives were going to revolve around computers (especially when those computers shrunk to the size of a phone a few years later!). This helped plant the seeds for my big second act, including Rhapsody and the digital music revolution. In fact, when we were prototyping Rhapsody, I emailed the Chill group about it to get their read. Most of them thought it was a terrible idea that would never work. We still haven't decided if they were right nor not. But I see a direct line from the FTP sites that hosted MODs for people to download and what became the initial concept for a "music subscription service".

Several of the Chillies have become close personal friends. In_Tense, of "Piano" fame, in particular. We have collaborated on a number of projects, both musical and extra-musical. He played in Sid Luscious and The Pants. I attended his wedding.

kjwise acted as tour guide me and my wife when we chose Iceland for our honeymoon, and we have managed to see each other every so often since then (including just a few months ago), and collaborated on a few musical projects together. 

U-235 and I (as Sid Luscious) are in the final stages of finishing up what most people say is the best thing I've ever done. I've known him for 20 years and still haven't met him in person!

I have had the pleasure of meeting many of the core members of Chill over the years. Quasimojo (the funniest Chill member). MN-L/MattV (who made some of the weirdest music). b0b. I may be forgetting a few. We keep talking about a Chill meet-up but it keeps not happening. Maybe next year?

Artwork for the 2013 remastered re-release of Amber
"Amber" also confirmed for me the computer was going to become the centerpiece of everyone's studio. Not just as a replacement for a tape recorder, but as the whole studio. As computers have continued to improve their speed and capability, new instruments and platforms have developed to enable this. And as we transition to phones, so has the industry started to move real music creation tools to our phones and tablets.

Not all influential albums in your life have to make a critic's top whatever list. The best and most satisfying art discoveries are the ones where you feel like you've stumbled across something that almost no one else knows about.

Thank you for the music and so much more, Chill.

Epilogue: The End of an Era

Not long after "Amber" was released, the MP3 file format began to break out in a big way, and many of the MOD scene artists shifted to releasing studio recordings in MP3, either because they were frustrated with the limitations of the MOD format, excited about the benefits of releasing final audio rather than a file, or because they wanted to use studio gear and not just samples on a computer.

The scene had many discussions about what to do, but they all knew it was just a matter of time before MP3 won. Sure enough, within a few years all of the biggest labels had started to release MP3s, not MODs. Kids who didn't have big studio setups were left out, and the explosion of Napster just a year later made MP3 a household word. MODs -- and their accompanying scene -- were effectively dead.

Some of the net labels -- including Chill and Tokyo Dawn -- made the transition to being "internet labels", releasing MP3s rather than MODs. Most just stopped releasing.

Chill slowed down. The members (many of whom were teenagers when I joined) got jobs, got married, got divorced, got mortgages, and so on. Some disappeared. Most have continued to make music with some regularity, and all of them have improved as musicians. None of us make MOD files anymore.

The rise of new music platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud also means that destination websites like Chill, Tokyo Dawn, and Kosmic don't make sense for the general public. Chill still has a website, but some of the links don't work, and besides, you don't have a MOD player. You can, however, hear our music on Spotify or on Soundcloud, and buy it at iTunes if you like.

You can hear thousands of MODs from the scene's heyday at The MOD Archive. Some of my favorites are up there, including:

"Un (extended)" by B00MER
"Leeloo" by Falcon
"Life After Midnight" by A-Move

Just click the links and choose "Play with Online Player" under the heading "The Good Stuff"