Category: ShuffleLove

ShuffleLove: The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations, Boys And Girls In America, 2006

I never liked Jack Kerouac. I’m pretty sure that I was introduced to him way too late in my life–I was no longer a whimsical teenager who believed that anything was possible; instead I was a college graduate who was reading all of the classics that I should’ve paid attention to during those formative years while working at a golf pro shop.

The job was simple enough: I worked the desk, checked folks in & out, & from time to time, I would suggest various pieces of golfing equipment for customers. I would give vague advice in regards to club speed: you need to be able to hit the ball as far as you can, but you don’t want to sacrifice accuracy, I would vacuum the tartan-patterned carpet.

But most of all, I would read those classics–most I would slog through for the benefit of “bettering” myself; I was hoping to attend graduate school the next year & I figured I needed to at least have these books ready in my ‘have-read’ catalogue provided that I would find myself at an awkward party where someone would chastise me for never reading Rilke, or Kerouac, or that other white dude who did that thing.

During this classics binge, I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to know as much about writers as possible, & so I started reading through interviews in The Paris Review–I learned about Carver & Coover & Bishop & Eliot & Vonnegut & Didion, so on & so forth. I distinctly remember reading John Berryman’s interview, which was conducted shortly before he flung himself into the Mississippi River. In it, the interviewer asks him about ranking certain poets & writers: if he were to give the world a top five list, where would he fit. He refuses to do so, saying that it is hard to distance their work from his personal relationships with the work & the writers; he has dinner with Robert Lowell, so he can’t possibly put him 3rd or 4th.

This is all to say is that when we write about music, we tend to rank things: we obsess over year-end lists, we talk about who are favorite bands are, what is the best concert we’ve ever seen. Even in the previous iterations of this series, I’ve found myself mentioning how a particular album is still an all-time favorite; this other band was my favorite band in high school. The Hold Steady, especially Boys and Girls in America, would rank pretty high on the list of favorites–I have an intimate relationship with this album; it brings me back to the beginnings of my second year in Tuscaloosa–driving home from the Downtown Pub & not turning off my Ford Explorer until the pianos built back up during “First Night,” or running as fast as I can on a treadmill the next morning to “Stuck Between Stations,” trying to forget a Midwestern girl who didn’t show up to the bar even though she said she would.

And that’s the problem: the album arrived at a pitch-perfect time for all of these moments–I was about to turn 24, I was one-year into something that I was completely unsure of, yet entirely devoted to, I had things sorted out for a hot second before they cooled into something unrecognizable. I liked the warm feeling but I was tired of all the dehydration; I knew some damn good dancers & some terrible girlfriends; I was pretty good with words, but they were delivering me nowhere & nowhere fast.

So I sang along & deemed these songs anthems; told everyone that this was my favorite album of the year. But perhaps I had grown too close to it–as Berryman said, it’s hard to think rationally & critically about something when you had dinner with the artist the night before. To this day, “Stuck Between Stations,” is still on my iTunes Top 25 Most Played, & I haven’t come across it in at least two or three years now.

One of the great things in life is stumbling across songs from your past & re-evaluating them with an older ear: occasionally you’ll listen to something that you couldn’t get enough of when you were younger but it now sounds hollow. Other times, you hear something & have a new appreciation for. With the case of “Stuck Between Stations,” it’s hard to say that I would love this song as much if I came into it at a different point in my life; if, say, I had first heard it when I was 25, or, hell, even now, where my musical palate has shifted strongly away from guitars & towards synthesizers. I could’ve loved “On The Road.” I could’ve found Craig Finn’s rambling grating instead of endearing. I could’ve been a different writer. A different person.

And yet, I listen to “Stuck Between Stations,” now–the ringing piano coming in with its stop-start motions, the shouts of “on the radio,” & I get excited. I hear the references to Berryman, & the Golden Gophers, & the Twin City kisses & I think of my girlfriend from St. Paul who is sleeping with the lights on as I write this essay. I think of the randomness of static: the millions of patterns on loop, how every variable is unsystematic–& yet, in the end, the white noise is universal: a symphony of low frequency, the hum of a vacuum cleaner across golf cleat pocked carpet, the whirr of a transmission as it upshifts up the hill near the library, all things stray, yet all things delivered comfortably–a flat signal with no timeline to speak of.

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ShuffleLove: Dismemberment Plan – The Face of the Earth, Change, 2001

Each week, Brian Oliu will put his entire playlist on shuffle & write about the first song that pops up.

The Dismemberment Plan was my favorite band in high school. When I say “favorite band in high school,” I mean something entirely different than if I were to say “favorite band,” now. When you are 16 or 17 years old & a music snob like I was, you can’t pick a favorite band that has already been taken off the board: the older, cooler kids, had already taken Fugazi (whom everybody loved), & suddenly it was a rush to claim Washington D.C. post-punk bands before you were left with scouring the Dischord Records back catalogue hoping to find a steady winner. My pick came in late.

However, I really did love the band: they were fun, they were accessible, & they were clever—post-high school graduation, I found myself singing the praises of the band to my college freshmen dorm-mates at Loyola-Maryland. Furthermore, The Dismemberment Plan would often play in Baltimore, & soon I was able to convince a few of them to come with me to a show.

As a result, my “favorite band in high school,” managed to merge into my “favorite band” by my sophomore year of college—when Change came out.

The fact that I associate the band with my high school & college days is a little strange, as the genius behind Travis Morrison’s lyrics tend to speak directly to the post-college sect; the malaise of working a terrible job, the moving away of friends, the death of relationships, loss in general.

This is a loss song, as is most of this album, which was the band’s last hurrah—at least until a surprise reuniting was announced a few months ago: their new album, Uncanney Valley is set to be released mid-October. It’s the second track on the album, & it’s crushing: an almost angelic harp-like chord starts off the song, shortly followed by the great line “As kisses go / it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary,” which, naturally, sets us up for heartbreak later—in the form of the girl being literally blown from the face of the earth; perhaps my first foray into the concept of magical realism.

Of course, this is all a metaphor for losing touch: to have a relationship with someone & have them drop off the face of the earth—no friends in common, no way to get in touch with them. We all have these moments; for me, it was the friend of a friend of a friend who visited for one night—she got drunk & cried on my shoulder, which, of course, is like kryptonite serendipity for an over-emotional 19-year-old. Even in the age of Google, it is still possible to disappear completely; the mystery grows. While Morrison goes onto say, “it’s not like we were married / it was three or four months” it’s still strange to have contact with someone & have them be erased entirely.

It was on a drive down to Baltimore with college friends to see The Dismemberment Plan on their Change tour, I received a phone call informing me that my cousin had suddenly passed away. In the weeks & months after, I felt myself growing old—from that moment, my life would exist in two eras: pre & post his death.

Perhaps The Dismemberment Plan, “my favorite band in high school,” prepared me for that feeling of loss—that someone can literally disappear, that somehow, the universe knew that I would need this post-college advice earlier than I ever expected; that loss would come to me in its truest form.

After his death, I tried to find people from my past to tell them about what had happened; sometimes it was people that we both knew through summers of flirting with girls in Internet chatrooms, sometimes it was just someone new that I could share sadness with in order to help dilute whatever new-found emptiness was hollowing my guts. This song, as well as music in general, serves as a type of echo: something sent into the vastness to receive a response. With that mentality comes a strange belief: that if someone we have lost touch with answers back, then on a night where anything is possible, it is possible for anything, anything at all, to come back to us, even if it is just for one chord.

ShuffleLove: Refused – Tannhäuser/Derivè, off of The Shape of Punk To Come, 1998

Each week, Brian Oliu will put his entire playlist on shuffle & write about the first song that pops up.

I bought this CD at Siren Music in Doylestown, Pennsylvania while in high school—it was a favorite amongst my friends & would get major rotation as we crossed the border from New Jersey into Pennsylvania to cause various types of good clean mischief: extensive orders of Taco Bell menu items, meeting girls who went to other schools at the mall movie theater in hopes of finding a love that couldn’t exist within the walls of South Hunterdon Regional High School.

I often wonder how or why we stumbled across these bands of our youth: while the Internet was certainly a thing, it’s not like it is today where all information about music is easily accessible—if a friend of mine knows about a band, chances are I will know about the same band within one or two clicks. In high school, we had a few ring-leaders; kids who kept us on the precipice of cool—typically through CD players charged by cigarette lighters held by the front seat passenger in a 93 Saturn hatchback.

This track is one of the tamer ones on the album as it towards the back end dénouement: it starts off with a frantic yet beautiful violin solo before a drumbeat kicks in, followed by the rest of the band mates. The first two minutes of this song would be absolutely stunning in an Alabama Football hype video before the high pitched screech of Dennis Lyxzén comes barraging in. It is a high energy plodding song—I can’t help but picture fifteen-year-old Brian hypnotized by the track at a show, looking around at his friends to see if he is nodding his head with the proper amount of enthusiasm.

This album still holds up & is one of my favorites; often we listen to music we loved when we were younger & are embarrassed—we remember how hard we tried to be cool, & how we thought the world was there for us to change it. I made a mix CD for a girl who’s musical tastes were more on the Dave Matthews/O.A.R side of things which lead off with the first track of this album: a schizophrenic seven-minute track which opens with the line ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism / and it’s gonna break.” Needless to say, there weren’t too many dates after that first beautiful gift of Swedish post-punk; a type of blessing, as I like to believe my ability at making mix CDs for girls improved that day, which, in turn, brought me to a position I currently hold—an excellent dance party curator where the end goal is to simply make the people shake their wares & sing along, no matter how much you don’t want to hear Macklemore. As the lyrics in Tannhäuser/Derivè remind us, “every corner we turn will lead us / every corner we turn will lead us down the labyrinth,” & this is true—I exist here because of this album; that despite traveling deeper into the maze, you can still hear the sounds of years & turns ago through the walls.