In the Ears

Music reviews

Radio Meditation: Music Lessons in Impermanence

So here in the Twin Cities we have this brilliant radio station, 89.3 The Current. (You can stream it here if you’re not a local.) It’s a Minnesota Public Radio station, which means yes, pledge drives every once in a while, but all the hosts/DJs are great, and consequently there’s loads less advertising than other stations. But the best thing about it is (as it should be) the music. And the best thing about the music (for me) is that it’s unpredictable.

Because what’s great is that I don’t even like all of the music, which you’d think would be completely counterintuitive, but this is what makes it so fantastic—the element of surprise. Most of the time, if we’re choosing to do anything, our first preference is to pick something we expect to like so that we won’t get surprises, won’t get stuff we might not like. Love Oldies stuff? Find an Oldies station and settle in. Like Country? Just scan the dial. With most stations, you pretty much know what to expect. We tend to pick based on familiarity. It’s comfortable.

But the only thing I’ve learned to expect from The Current is the surprise—and they pride themselves on it. In addition to some of the more “normal” fare you’d expect from a pretty much all-ages-friendly station, the hosts have this deep and diabolical love of throwing new/random/weird stuff your way from pretty much every genre imaginable, though they do tend to skip the realms of Classical (there’s another MPR station for that) and stuff like German death metal (which is admittedly fantastic, but not really a public radio sort of thing). But they will often say, “If you don’t like the song that’s on right now, wait five minutes.” And they’re right. It’ll be something completely different. Don’t like Johnny Cash? The next track might be Johnny Rotten. Still not your favorite? Wait five minutes.

This is just the radio, sure. But this is also life. Constant change. Every moment is new. If I don’t like this particular part of my life right now? Wait a bit, play my part while whatever it is plays through—it will change. And if I like what’s playing right now? Yes, in a while, that will change, too. We’re more than seven billion people here trying to make music out of our lives, and the harmony and dissonance of that changes every single moment. And when it comes down to it, I know I’m not completely in control of my playlist anyway—only how I respond to the songs I’m hearing. The practice of being really alive is just to pay attention to each song as it plays, engage with it, see what it’s about, what it contains, what you can learn. And then decide what to do with it.

In another setting, this sort of observation could actually be called Zen Buddhist meditation practice, noticing the impermanence, the constant change, of life, the universe, and everything. That would be done in silence, and you would be sitting and noticing the thoughts showing up in your mind—what you like, what you don’t like, where you get stuck. Your job there is just to notice your response to life.

But the practice of noticing life doesn’t have to look exactly like that. So sometimes I use The Current for a somewhat unorthodox meditation practice. What’s this song? Do I like it? Am I itching to change the station? Why? Why does Justin Vernon’s voice bug me so much? And why does my whole body relax when my ears hear even just the very first notes of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand?” And when are they going to play that Courtney Barnett song again? (The one I really like, not that other one…) And I get it, I get it, he was magnificently talented, but really… 24 hours of Prince?

And so I listen to the radio sometimes to find out what I’m like. I notice feeling like I really hate a song, but then I realize the guitarist has really great technique, and also notice someone made that guitar with great care, and those strings, and the piano, and somebody really loves that lead singer who’s really just trying to put his soul out into the world through his music. By the time I’ve considered all of that, I realize I hate that song a lot less than I did five minutes ago. There are people in there now. And it’s really unpredictable, because one day, after hearing a song I didn’t like from someone I consider more celebrity than musician, I read that she’s locked inside this soulless performance contract, and I actually found myself feeling sorry for her. So now every time I hear that song, I just feel sad.

This is a weird practice.

But my most favorite things are the songs I never saw coming, that I never knew existed, that come on the air and I realize halfway through the track that I’m grinning madly (Ursula 1000’s “Mambo”) or notice that my jaw is dropped open because wow, who even thought this could be a thing? (Like seriously: Sturgill Simpson covering Nirvana’s “In Bloom?”) Or the slow recognition of the sideways genius in Father John Misty’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the War.” If I actually controlled my own playlist, I would never have chosen these songs, and my life would be massively less fun than it is now. There’s just so much great music out there I don’t even know about, and I can’t wait to hear more of it. (Of note: listen for the “No Apologies” track around 4pm every day and wait for the crazy to roll in.) I still smile remembering one dreary afternoon when I was driving home and they played Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.” I was laughing so hard by the time the song ended. There were no words for this—well, okay, there were words: “All I wanted was a Pepsi… ”

This is life for real, the big picture: it’s a surprise, and it can be way more fun than what you had planned. You’re not in control anyway. So enjoy yourself, make good music, notice the people making all the music around you. Welcome the surprises. And practice paying attention—even if it’s just listening to the radio.

Categories: From the Imagination, In the Ears, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anything Too Stupid to be Said…

is sung, at least according to Voltaire. “But,” I would add, “it isn’t sung by Stephen Merritt.”

I discovered the many worlds of Stephen Merritt in a rather roundabout way. Having become completely enthralled with Lemony Snicket’s dark, dire, and cleverly written “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, when I discovered that the audiobooks, at least the first few, were read by Tim Curry, I couldn’t help myself, and began at The Bad Beginning (which is a very good bad place to start). But the first recording began not with the story, but with a song—a dark, accordian-lurching waltz sung by an equally dark, melancholy voice, low and dead-eyed, forewarning the horrors of Count Olaf and his henchmen. (“You might be thinking what a romp this is, but wait till you meet his accomplices…”)

Extremes are a funny thing. For instance, there are some animals that are just so homely that they’re completely endearing. Likewise, the Snicket books are so gloomy and macabre that they’re hilarious and delightful—this is also true in the world of Stephen Merritt. Under the guise of The Gothic Archies for the Snicket books, he wrote a dreary, depressing tune for each book filled with tales of the terrible things to come, and about what a horrible world it is.

Lots of people have done this. Lots of people sing depressing songs about what a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad world it is. But they’re not funny. What makes Merritt’s lyrics hilarious is his wordplay, his juxtapositions of strange words and rhymes perched jauntily on top of dreary ukulele melodies that lurch under the weight of the awfulness to come. Anyone who can rhyme “accomplices” so cheerily and then fall into a folk song-y cadence of “run, run, run, run, or die, die, die, die die…” is a delightful genius in my books.

All thirteen songs from the Snicket series have been since compiled onto a standalone disc, The Tragic Treasury. But to my delight, I discovered that Stephen Merritt had yet another group, a “real” group, The Magnetic Fields, that had been recording long before Snicket and the Archies even existed. I picked up the “i” recording, more than a little nervous that it would be much more mainstream than the Archies. But not to worry… the same melancholy tunes, Merritt’s same melancholy voice, the same deadpan humor and despondency. A little more mature in content than the Archies in places, but all the same beautiful, terrible tales of love and lost love and fanciful desires. “I wish I had an evil twin, running round doing people in…”

There is laughter and mischief mixed in there with all the melancholy. And the world can be a very scary place—a little chuckle in between can take the edge off just a bit.

Categories: Audiobooks, From the Lips, In the Ears, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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