7 Songs That Changed My Life – Day 7: The Long Answer

September 19th, 2015

Day #7


This is kind of a trick answer, really. And it’s the last day, so I’m going to take my time….

The Jazz Butcher song that changed my life was actually a homemade cassette lent to me and filled with various inspired album cuts, singles, and b-sides from this British songwriter and his gang of conspirators. Every song revealed an insightful, clever personality chronicling areas of life not often examined in song, from panthers and cowgirls to little pieces of chocolate and Grace Jones tapes. Some of the songs were recorded with a band in proper studios, and some sounded as if they were spat straight onto cassette in a late night fit of solitary mad genius. Hysterically funny, but also given to reflection and ennui, it was like peeking into someone’s journals and travelogues (true: one record was titled ‘Sex and Travel’), and I devoured it all like a big plate of pasta.

Musically it was all over the map, wearing its influences on its sleeve with a nice suit jacket on top to make them its own. It was music that needed no validation from you. In fact, it probably wasn’t concerned whether you were listening or not — it seemed to just enjoy being there — but if you gave it an ear you’d find it welcoming and happy to have you.

[I realize at this point I sound a little like Calvin when his mom asks him to describe his missing tiger, Hobbes, for the flyer they’ll hang in the neighborhood. He writes:

“On the quiet side, somewhat peculiar. A good companion in a weird sort of way.”

“I mean what does he look like?”


Additionally, if I hadn’t been so obsessed with the great catalog of Butcher tunes, I may never have met my sweet Kate, and that’s a road I’m thankful I didn’t have to walk!

So it was hard to choose just one song from this artist that changed my life more than any other artist. I waffled a lot and was nearly convinced that I’d choose the original version of ‘Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present’ – a subtly maniacal, solo, acoustic-based rendering of his epic classic that reminded me a little of Frank Zappa’s more bizarre moments, without all the notes – because it taught me that it was okay to sit in your room, do whatever you wanted while the tape was rolling, and claim it proudly. Sadly, no YouTube video exists to share, and it isn’t particularly representative of the larger body of work, so perhaps that’s for the best.

Instead, I chose this free-wheelin’ memento amore as it’s such a highly enjoyable song. The takeaway here, for me, is how the lyrics are both incredibly sweet & simple yet winkingly subversive. Also, that guitar work from cohort Max Eider is beyond beautiful, and if you listen closely you can hear the musicians breathing. I think that’s important to notice in music moving forward so we can be assured our future pop stars aren’t part of the inevitable robot revolution. Keep it real, friends!

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7 Songs That Changed My Life – Day 6: Castles of Sound

September 18th, 2015

Day #6


Well, here’s another band whose singer is usually hard to understand. Like Michael Stipe, Elizabeth Fraser has said that she’s often more concerned with the sound of words than the words themselves, and that really contributes to that signature swirling, otherworldly Cocteau Twins sound. And oh, that voice.

This song was an easy gateway into the Cocteau’s world of aural paintings – delay and reverb-drenched guitars lining the walls of heaven with an angel heralding through the halls. Castles of sound, all made by two guys, a girl and a drum machine. If you had the right gear and knew the proper settings, you could fairly easily emulate their style, but it introduced me to that mind-expanding world of the 4AD record label and its ethereal, Impressionist aesthetic in both graphics and music. I mean, is there a more beautiful body of album cover artwork and other materials than that produced by 23 Envelope?

Like ambient music with an edge, ‘Sugar Hiccup’ served nicely as background music for any number of thoughtful or primal endeavors, but it also had merit as a song whose melody could cling to your brain well after it had faded to silence. Truly, the same could be said for the majority of the Cocteau Twins’ output, whether it be their cloud-dwelling songs like this one, or their dark and more muscular songs such as ‘Persephone.’ Gothic, shoegazey (before the genre existed), and beautiful…what’s not to like?

Other than all that, I chose this song because its title is cute.

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7 Songs That Changed My Life – Day 5: Kudzu-Entangled Roads

September 17th, 2015

Day #5


R.E.M.? I’ll happily listen to anything from those IRS years. So simple, crisp, and jangly. They were rural yet sophisticated, with great songs and instrumentation, and a singer who led you down kudzu-entangled roads with lyrics that you probably misunderstood but surely your interpretation was closer to correct than anyone else’s.

There were many great songs in those early years, but I chose this one because from the first time I heard it I thought, “Man, I wish I had written that!” Like their other tunes, it was smart & catchy, and had a distinctly Southern feel which was refreshing and comfortable, and the non-linear & indecipherable lyrics proved that a song didn’t need to make literal sense to be moving and effective.

This one also helped cement my apathy toward the technical prowess of skilled musicians. Not that R.E.M. weren’t technically proficient, but I realized that I’d grown more fond of hearing groups who barely knew what they were doing conjure up something unique, than sitting through more than a minute or two of someone doing everything “properly,” and this song really sealed the deal – I would pretty much never again have any interest in most “popular” music. ‘Sitting Still’ made me a music snob!

I love the way the guitar shifts effortlessly from the shimmery picking to the subtle power chords and back again. The bass is carefree but propulsive, and the whole thing feels to me like an autumn Sunday afternoon. It’s a great song from a great American band, and what in the world is that shrill, distorted whistle-sound that comes in on the last refrain?

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7 Songs That Changed My Life – Day 4: A Jester in the Court of the Crimson King

September 16th, 2015

Day #4


I got turned on to ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ late one night in a haze of high school experimentation. We’d been listening to some of those prog-type bands, and someone had acquired this album after reading about it in an article about Robert Fripp and King Crimson. It had been released four or five years earlier, but things had a way of making it to Alabama a little late sometimes.

It was unlike anything we’d heard: crazy sounds and rhythms, simultaneously sinister and humorous, repetitive and chaotic, and surprisingly melodic. It was discordant, hypnotic, and beautiful. “Baby’s On Fire” became something of a weekend battle cry, but we perceived Eno as little more than the Jester in the Court of the Crimson King, not realizing he was actually more a Merlin whose sonic magic could prep our ears for the music in our future. He was duly noted, but not further pursued at that point.

Throughout the years, Eno’s name would appear again and again on the backs of interesting albums, and a worn cassette copy I had of ‘…Warm Jets’ kept returning to my playlist less a novelty than it had been before. The music had begun to make more sense as I began paying more attention. And I liked it. A lot. It helped me understand music that wasn’t structured in the expected way, and the more I learned about Eno’s philosophies and systems over the years the more I appreciated all the different things that music can be.

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7 Songs That Changed My Life – Day 3: Let There Be Rock

September 15th, 2015

Day #3


I’d been staring at it for weeks, that first KISS record. I didn’t know anything about them, hadn’t heard a note or any description of the music. But I came back and looked at it every week in the department store record bin…because it was COOL, and a little bit scary. I finally got it and sat in front of our record player listening to it over and over when no one was home, feeling like part of a secret society when Paul sang, “I know a thing or two about her….”

Not much over a year later, they had already released two more studio albums, and their first live album was hot on the shelves when they announced a concert appearance in Montgomery. Excited by the news, I raced home to ask my mother if I could go (well, I was 13 you know, and it’s kind of what you had to do). She was sitting at the dinner table chatting with a friend when I came in with my request, and she asked what the music was like.

“KISS? They’re acid rock,” her friend said.

“What’s acid rock?” my mom asked.

“It’s music that only sounds good if you’re on acid,” the friend replied.

Thanks, lady. But I was allowed to go to the show anyway after a little innocent convincing, and it was awesome! The blood and the tongue and the fire and the majesty of it all! And remember – this was just a basic stage set up, before the large multi-level extravaganzas they would shortly put on. Just incredible.

The very next day I bought the double-album ‘KISS Alive!’ and it was amazing too, but I had a problem with it. The entire record was EXACTLY the same as the concert I’d seen the night before – the same songs in the same order…even the between song banter was exactly the same, with only the name of the city being greeted changed. I felt a little bit ripped off.

I still liked KISS okay after that, but my interest waned and I never bought any more of their albums and never saw them again live. I certainly don’t mean to disparage them in any way here, but it did open my eyes to what I wanted from a band – or rather what I didn’t want – and that contributed to defining the types of music and artists I would seek out going forward.

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