The Great White North

December 10, 2011

Long ago I noticed that there seemed to be a significant portion of visitors to this outpost of mental noodlings arriving from the upper Midwestern US and parts of Canada.

I’ve also realized that I often frequent the writings of folks from from those same parts of the planet.

Having grown up in the American Midwest, I suppose that there is some common ground – similarities in temperment and mindset – that makes for more likely connections. Scientifically speaking, birds of a feather…

During our most recent trips to my homeland, I have noted to Paloma that the locals, who usually impress her with their considerate manner, are “charmingly bland.”

Before the hate mail arrives, by charmingly bland I mean that there is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense vibe that I find refreshing and endearing. Everyone’s temperature seems to be set a bit lower.

I’ve not been to places like Minnesota or Wisconsin, but based upon the folks I’ve known from these locales, that vibe seems to be even more profound, more deeply engrained and pronounced.

And the Canadians I’ve known through the years have mostly lived up to their nation’s reputation of being affable and good natured to the point of arousing suspicion.

So, if I truly am drawing a disproportionate amount of traffic from those residing north of the 42nd parallel, I’ll take that as keeping good company.

Of course, the image above isn’t an actual representation of the places to which I refer, but a good buddy from college who hails from Brainerd has told me that he and his fellow Minnesotans like to perpetuate the myth of their homestate as an Arctic tundra.

“It helps keep the riff raff out.”

I’ve often sung the praises of music from Canada, so I thought that I’d see what acts hail from Wisconsin and Minnesota. I knew that there were plenty from the latter – even if you limit it to ones from the ’80s – but I was surprised tha there were also a surprising amount from the former.

So, here are a two pair of songs from acts with ties to those states…

First, Wisconsin…

Robin Zander – I’ve Always Got You
from Robin Zander (1993)

After a commercial resurgence in the late ’80s, Cheap Trick’s career was in another lull which is why most folks likely never heard lead singer (and Wisconsin native) Robin Zander’s self-titled, solo debut from 1993.

That’s unfortunate. Though Robin Zander isn’t in the same league as classic Cheap Trick albums from the ’70s, it is Robin Zander, the man my buddy The Drunken Frenchman once dubbed the “second best rock singer” (after Eric Burdon) and I’ve Always Got You is a bit of catchy power pop.

Garbage – Stupid Girl
from Garbage (1995)

In 1991, Butch Vig had made his way from Viroqua, Wisconsin to become the toast of the rock music universe as the producer behind Nirvana’s landmark album Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish.

Though he continued to be an in-demand producer, he soon put together a new band of his own (following earlier short-lived efforts with Spooner and Fire Town.

I’d adored Blondie in my teens and, a decade later, Garbage filled a void that had been left when Blondie split up, becoming one of the finest alternative rock acts of the ’90s. I quickly embraced Garbage’s debut and loved their first few albums before losing track of them.

And now, two for Minnesota…

The Jayhawks – I’d Run Away
from Tomorrow The Green Grass (1995)

Paloma and I spent innumerable hours listening to Tomorrow The Green Grass, the third record by the alternative country-rock band The Jayhawks. Though the group never really broke beyond having a devoted grass-roots following and a slew of swooning critics, the Minneapolis quartet was beloved at the record store where we worked at the time.

I’d Run Away has always had special meaning to us and had everything we’d come to expect from The Jayhawks – stellar songwriting and musianship delivered in an exuberant mixture of country, folk, and roots rock.

Bob Dylan – Dignity
from Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3 (1994)

The parents of one of my best friends in high school had attended the University of Minnesota and claimed to have known Hibbings-native Bob Dylan during his brief stint at the school.

(closer to now, Paloma’s mom gets giddy at the mention of the troubadour)

As for Dignity, supposedly the shuffling song was inspired by the late, great Pete Maravich.

Noah, Noah, Everywhere…

May 4, 2010

Several co-workers got all excitible early last week over news reports that Noah’s Ark had been discovered.

It immediately took me back to being a kid and the spate of documentury films in the mid-’70s on the search for sasquatch, UFOs, and Noah’s Ark which were regular viewing fare on Saturday afternoon matinees at our hometown theater.

During the hulabaloo of the pious over this latest “discovery” of the bibilical mariner’s vessel, I heard one of them ask loudly to no one in particular about the a link from the “news” site to the original story.

“What’s sun dot co dot uk?”

Maybe there is an antediluvian cruise ship permanantly in port somewhere on Mount Ararat, but I think I’ll wait for a source other than the UK’s The Sun.

There’s no shortage of folks ’round here waiting for Jesus to bring the porkchops and I quickly forgot about this interest in the flood.

Then, a few days later, I came home from work to find Paloma watching Evan Almighty, a film starring The Office‘s Steve Carell as a modern-day Noah.

Still, I thought little of it as I ventured into the rain early Saturday morning to have some regular maintenance done on the car. I muttered to myself on the drive about the dismal performance of the windshield wipers, making a note to have them replaced.

“You’re going to love these,” Thomas, my mechanic, told me enthusiastically as he brandished a wiper blade. “These are like going from dial-up to a DSL.”

(Thomas is well aware that any automotive suggestions he makes to me are best expressed in non-automotive terms)

As I drove home, the storm increased in intensity, making for a good test of the new wiper blades and their performance was as good as advertised. I returned home, thinking that I would wait ’til later to do a few other chores.

I stretched out on the couch to the soothing sound of steady rain drumming on the eave outside the window.

Thirty-some hours and fifteen inches later, the rain finally stopped drumming on the eave outside the window.

It was a lot of rain but maybe I should have seen it coming.

There is no shortage of rain songs. Here are four that I felt like hearing today…

The Carpenters – Rainy Days And Mondays
from Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition

One of my earliest memories of music is The Carpenters and I can effortlessly picture sitting in the back seat of our Gremlin and there always being something on the radio from the duo. At five, that suited me just fine and it still does.

Albert Hammond – It Never Rains In Southern California

Right in the same time period during which The Carpenters were dominating the pop charts, Albert Hammond was also all over the radio with It Never Rains In Southern California and the five-year old me absolutely loved the song.

The 45 for the song was one of the first few singles I ever owned and, as I didn’t really develop an interest in music for another six or seven years, that was high praise indeed.

I Mother Earth – Rain Will Fall
from Dig

I Mother Earth’s debut Dig was recently featured over at the very cool Forgotten Disc Friday. I serendipitously discovered the band before Dig was released.

Out of college, I worked a couple of internships for record labels, including one in radio promotion. One afternoon, on my way out, my boss gave me a cassette and instructed me to critique it that evening. When I popped it into the player, I was blown away. It was demo recordings of I Mother Earth.

Combining the blistering, tribal rock leanings of Jane’s Addiction, the otherworldly poetry of The Doors, and percussive elements reminiscent of Santana (they actually toured with an ex-member performing percussion), I Mother Earth should have been huge. Our label lost them in a bidding war to Capitol Records who torpedoed their career by marketing them as a metal act. Well done, Capitol. Well done.

Garbage – Only Happy When It Rains
from Garbage

I loved the first few Garbage albums. I’d adored Blondie in my teens and, a decade later, Garbage filled a void that had been left when Blondie split up. Butch Vig parlayed a hot hand as a producer into one of the finest alternative rock acts of the ’90s.

I kind of lost track of Garbage and have only heard tracks here and there over the past decade. The songs I have heard were pleasant enough but didn’t lead me to believe that I missed too much.

And, as it was posted a couple years ago, you might have missed the near-miscommunication between lead singer Shirley Manson and me.

Evolution Isn’t Pretty

November 22, 2009

Paloma bought me an early birthday present yesterday, a copy of Andre Agassi’s new autobiography Open.

The book has caused a bit of an uproar in the sports world for some of its revelations and even rippled beyond as the man’s celebrity transcends the tennis court.

As a reformed jock, I played a fair amount of tennis growing up, but a lack of self-discipline – I smashed more than a couple rackets – hindered any natural ability I might have had. Ironically, the player I most admired was Bjorn Borg, the cool, unflappable Swedish great.

I was playing less tennis by the time Agassi began rising through the ranks. I was in college and other things were occupying my time. I wasn’t even following the sport as much.

In fact, I first really took note of Agassi when I was mistaken for him while traveling in Southeast Asia. It was 1989 and I had a mullet-like hair, a bit spiky on the top that was similar to his. In Singapore, some German tourists wanted an autograph. In Thailand, some local tried to dupe me into a common ruse to purchase worthless jewels – “You wealthy tennis player.”

I’ve read plenty about Agassi over the years inclduing an amazingly poignant piece in Sports Illustrated a few years back which I wish I could find. Driven from the time he was a small child to be a tennis machine by a father who had boxed for Iran in the Olympics, his tale reminded me of that of Michael Jackson.

I’ve also read excerpts from Open, including Agassi’s admission that he used crystal meth in an attempt to destroy/escape from a career that he, for the most part, never wanted.

I won’t discount that his career has afforded him a life that most of us would envy, though I imagine few of us would have had the fortitude to achieve. That said, I find the ballyhoo surrounding his tome to be missing the point.

The man wasn’t driven by blinding greed to pilfer and destroy the economy, placing the lives of millions in a precarious position. He didn’t manipulate facts in order to launch an illegal war to invade a sovereign nation, treating the lives and treasure of millions as his own toy chest.

The man hit tennis balls and did so well enough to become one of the best to ever do so. His mistakes were his own and though those mistakes likely caused those around him hardship and pain, they didn’t cause the average person watching him perform his athletic feats hardship or distress.

By all accounts, Agassi owns those failures in his book. There’s no, “Yeah, but…”

Since 1994, Agassi has been described as perhaps the most charitable athlete of his generation, founding a tuition-free charter school for at-risk children in Las Vegas as well as several other endeavors. And, as he played his final US Open match in 2006, he was arguably the most beloved US athlete.

In short, Agassi has travelled a star-crossed path from there to here, arriving a better person, an admirable person, flaws and all. If he’s to be held accountable for the hiccups along the way, he should also be applauded for rising above them.

It’s an interesting twist of fate that his book should arrive at the same time as another autobiography, that of someone who’s greatest attribute appears to be the ability to gut a moose, a woman who did quit when facing adversity, has no shortage of folks she blames for her failures, and apparently craves revenge more than redemption.

But, I suspect that Sarah Palin doesn’t believe in evolution.

Aimee Mann – Save Me
from Magnolia soundtrack

Sometimes it takes a while for the light bulb to go on. And, sometimes people need a hand. The closing scene of the movie Magnolia expressed those sentiments as powerfully as any film I think I’ve ever seen and Aimee Mann’s heartbreaking song Save Me was the perfect accompaniment.

Fiona Apple – Better Version Of Me
from Extraordinary Machine

Fiona Apple’s third album found the eccentric artist working with long-time Aimee Mann collaborator Jon Brion. The record had a troubled birth, rejected and held up by Apple’s label for a belief that it lacked commercial appeal.

It went on to be one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2005.

Yoko Ono – Revelations
from Rising

Personally, I like Yoko’s music – not all of it, but there’s some compelling stuff in her catalog – and Revelations is simply lovely with lyrics that are words to live by.

Garbage – When I Grow Up
from Version 2.0

When I Grow Up is twisted fun from Shirley Manson and crew.