Springtime Fever

Don’t let my watery eyes, running nose and expression of abject misery fool you – spring is my favorite season, and I’ll sleep with my windows open and drive with the windows down, my allergist’s advice notwithstanding. This spring in Kansas City is shaping up to be particularly beautiful, and I’ve decided to celebrate the best way I know how – by making a mixtape for 8Tracks! I’ve sequenced it for your perfect spring day – a quick vehicular jaunt through the countryside at sunset, followed by hedonistic revelry late in the night, into those chilly early morning hours when revealing conversations and stargazing occur. Enjoy here.

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Well, dear readers, you may not know this but I have an account on a website called 8Tracks, where I make mixes of songs that are currently striking my fancy. I was inspired by this beautiful weather today to make my most recent mix. Check it out here!

On the way to Bath, England.

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Winter Wonderland…or Hell

Ah, winter. How I love to hate thee, and hate to love thee. Winter inspires mixed feelings in me. It’s the season that brings us Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving, all holidays full of cheer, family fun and gift-giving. It’s that time of year when peacoats, scarves, cardigans and sweaters rule the land, when hot chocolate with schnapps is the drink of choice, when little snowflakes tumble through the air and grant all God’s children snow days.
But as with everything, winter has a dark side. It’s also the season that gives us Valentine’s Day. It’s the season in which people gain the most weight. It’s the season when you go to CVS for a few simple purchases and see the Valentine’s Day chocolate boxes on sale and before you know it you’ve bought three boxes and are sitting on your couch staring off into space vacantly while mindlessly popping chocolates into your mouth. It’s the season when you wake up in the morning and let your alarm go off for an hour, because, really, what’s the point? The skies are gray again. It’s the season in which if it snows, it won’t melt for four months, and it will sit in piles on the ground, turning darker and uglier as the weeks go by. Students everywhere fail tests, skip classes and sink into a dizzying spiral of lethargy and bottom-of-the-barrel productivity levels.
It doesn’t have to be that way, dear readers. Put the Valentine’s Day candy down and turn those suicidal frowns upside down. Here are a few suggestions for you when you’re feeling at your bleakest to stave off those SAD symptoms.

One of my favorite paintings at the Nelson.

1. Museums

As luck would have it, we in Lawrence are located just 50 minutes away from two fabulous museums — the Nelson-Atkins and the Kemper. Fly down I-70 to spend an afternoon among Impressionist paintings, modern sculptures and religious art. Put on your Sunday best and hobnob with Kansas City intellectuals. Gush over Monet’s waterlilies, de Kooning’s bizarre portraits and Pollock’s splatters. Or, you could do as I do and make up irreverent conversations between people in 16th century paintings (“No, Henry! I won’t have your baby!”) . You’ll also want to admire the architecture and detail inside the building itself, and maybe pop over to a recreated 19th century English parlor and imagine yourself at a party in 1836 London. I can see it now: me in a white wig, with crumpets and tea, discussing Lady Cubbison’s outrageous antics at the pub; don’t you know she was spotted canoodling with the East End commoners? Trés posh. After you’re done with the artwork, head to the main floor for a power lunch at Rozzelle Court (make it liquid if you must) and discuss what your favorite pieces were.

2. Food

We've all been there, Glenn.

Some of us hit the gym harder after New Year’s as part of our resolutions. Some of us simply throw our hands up and refuse to succumb to this society’s obsession with weight, weight loss and exercise. Shut up, Suzanne Somers, and pass me the deep fried pickles. I find the best way to cope with the cripplingly cold weather sometimes is to eat, eat and eat some more. If you’re in the mood for something hearty and quintessentially American, with a quirky twist, head to the Burger Stand (803 Massachusetts Street) in Lawrence. You’ll ooh and aah over their truffle fries and delicious burgers with all sorts of fungredients (why yes, I did just make up a word) Ever wondered what chipotle-cocoa ketchup would taste like? Ever thought to yourself, “Man, I could go for some habanero-cactus jam right now”? Wonder no more.
Not feeling the burger idea? Perhaps you’re in the mood for an ethnic adventure? Pop into Encore (1007 Massachusetts Street) for a delicious Asian treats. When people think Chinese food, they think takeout, but this is one place you’ll want to go for a sitdown meal. The decor is funky, it’s always packed with hipster hotties (it is right next to Urban Outfitters, after all) and their fried rice is divine. If it’s not too cold, try one of their fresh fruit smoothies with tapioca bubbles at the bottom. I’d recommend the strawberry-mango. Hell, even if it is too cold, risk the brain freeze and internal frostbite and spring for a smoothie. Live a little. Grab life by the horns.

3. Drink

College students and alcohol go together like McDonald’s and shame. After your dinner on the town, why not head to a local watering hole for some tasty beverages and people watching? Start at Henry’s (11 East 8th Street), for a cranberry vodka, and explore its intimate rooms. It’s the kind of place you’d expect Diablo Cody to use as source material for her next quirky drama. Next, you can head across the street to the 8th Street Taproom. The upstairs is relatively quiet and has a couple pool tables; it’s the perfect setting for a discussion on how to apply Bourdieu’s theories to modern life over a game of pool. While you’re at it, why don’t you drink a PBR? If sociology begins to bore you, head downstairs, where you’ll find a DJ spinning obscure soul records. You’ll see more skinny jeans, ironic mustaches and awkward yet earnest dancing in one room than you’ve probably seen in your entire life.
After your adventures on 8th Street, I’d recommend taking a stroll down Mass, over to Fatso’s (1016 Massachusetts Street). In all my times at Fatso’s, I have experienced many strange sights and sounds. I’ve seen a girl in an earth mother-esque wool poncho and fishnets busting it on the dance floor. I’ve overheard young mothers squealing drunkenly about their children learning to walk. I have seen fraternity brothers in the closet creeping on gay men. I have shared a bonding moment with another man over our bowties (he and his friend got in an argument about whether or not you can wear bowties with shirts that don’t button down all the way. I insisted that fashion rules were made to be broken). And if you must know, the special at Fatso’s is $3 Long Island iced teas.

So don’t let the gray weather and Arctic temperatures get you down. Get up, look alive, get out on the town! Petula Clark had the right idea. Just watch out for that black ice.

Posted in Art, Kansas City, Lazybones, Movies, Music, Winter | 1 Comment

Surfin’ In the USA…

Ah, the 1960s. A time of free love, hard drugs and the rise of social movements. It was the decade that saw the increasing popularity of rock and roll. It gave us beehive hairdos, the legalization of birth control and the beginning stages of white flight. Young people all around the country flocked to Haight Ashbury and Greenwich Village, looking for an escape from the traditional ideas of their elders. Often, this escape involved bisexual affairs, experimentation with LSD and pretentious conversations about philosophy in coffee shops. These coffee shops have become tourist attractions, in neighborhoods that now cost so much to live in that no hippie not living off a trust fund could afford them. Then they grew up, moved to the suburbs and became just like their parents…I guess challenging societal ideas doesn’t really pay the bills in the end.
But I digress. It’s also the decade that gave us surf rock! You really can’t get much more American than that. Back in the day, surf rock was most popular thanks to the Beach Boys. As the years went on, surf rock faded in popularity, and only poked its head out from time to time to say hello.
But surf rock is coming back, and in a big way…but from an unlikely source: Britons, New Yorkers and Midwesterners!
Here are some songs inspired by surf rock that are receiving heavy rotation on my iPod lately. Most of these songs aren’t strictly surf rock, but borrow heavily from it, as well as garage rock, punk, ’60s girl groups and other indie aesthetics.

Best Coast — When I’m With You

Okay, so I kind of lied. The first artist on my list is indeed a Californian. Bethany Cosentino, the frontwoman of Best Coast, is from L.A., but went to school in NYC. But it was the Big Apple that inspired her to turn to surf rock as a creative outlet for her homesickness. She left NYC and returned to the land of beaches, freeways and Pink’s Hot Dog Stand, and Best Coast was born. Bethany’s lyrics leave a bit to be desired, and her songs are all pretty similar, as angry iTunes reviewers like to point out. But I don’t care, because Best Coast’s music makes me want to head to the nearest highway and drive 90 miles an hour with the windows down on a sunny day. Underneath the sunniness, though, there’s just a tinge of sadness and regret, the kind of nostalgic longing that, I think, makes for great music. Like summer itself — it’s beautiful while it lasts, but you know that all too soon it’s coming to an end.

The Drums — Down By the Water

If my high school experience had been like one of those indie movies where everyone takes cutesy Polaroid pictures of their friends, gets really drunk and makes dark confessions on playgrounds, and uses super hip phrases that American youth don’t actually use but will after they see the movie, then I really couldn’t think of a better song to soundtrack it than this. I can see it now: the edgy girl who wears thick eyeliner and vintage dresses, the gorgeous yet aloof musician who wears beanies and deep v-necks who will never return edgy girl’s love, and the token closeted gay, each bringing a unique set of issues to the table. At the end of the movie, they all have a redemptive moment, drive to the beach, cry, laugh and wonder how life will be after they graduate high school. Cue the intro to this song.
P.S. In this interview The Drums listed some of their biggest influences as reverb, Elizabeth Taylor and the Shangri-Las. Subtle, right?

Male Bonding — Year’s Not Long

Full disclosure: I wrote a profile on this band for the magazine I worked for this summer. But as an objective observer, I must say I’m a big fan of their music. One of the YouTube user’s comments on the music video I posted was, “Is this an Urban Outfitters advertisement?” Indeed, this is the kind of band that is extremely UO-approved: they’ve toured with Best Coast, they’ve collaborated with the Vivian Girls (another surf rock band from Brooklyn), and a bunch of the guys in the video end up making out with each other — they’re not gay, they’re just poking fun at hypermasculinity, as their ironic name suggests. And — wait for it — they’re foreign! That’s right, they’re from London’s equivalent of Williamsburg. When I interviewed the band’s drummer, he insisted that they weren’t specifically influenced by West Coast-type music, but I definitely hear it. They’re a little more garage and punk than surf, but there’s enough surf for me to include it on my list.

Tennis — Marathon

Tennis are a husband and wife duo from Denver. They’re preppy, perky, blond and adorable. They keep it classy, WASP-style, just like the Beach Boys. Their love of Phil Spector’s ’60s pop hits and a sailing trip down the Eastern Seaboard inspired them to start making music. In my research on the duo, I discovered, via an NPR profile on the band, that such seemingly harmless facts can inspire rage and vitriol from online commentators. Be that as it may, I have a soft spot in my heart for this song. It’s not life-changing, but it’s just the kind of thing I want to hear when I’m looking out my window and all I see are piles of snow, gray skies and apartment buildings in desperate need of renovation, or at least a paint job. So sail on, my WASPy comrades. You’ve captured your fellow Midwesterner’s ears.

So with this, my dear reader, I hope I’ve given all my Kansas peeps some hopeful, sunny music to listen to when they’re staring out the window with silent tears rolling down their cheeks at the snowy, frigid landscape spread below them. Take that frown and turn it upside down with some surf!

Posted in '60s, Brooklyn, Hipsters, Music, Revival movements | 1 Comment

The lost art of the Sassy Background Vocalist.

Let me paint a picture for you. You’re going about your daily life. A song comes on. You’re not really paying attention to it all that much; it may be pleasant enough, but it doesn’t have that oomph that makes you want to frantically scour the depths of the Internet for it. But then, all of a sudden — bam! the Sassy Background Vocalist kicks in. This could entail wailing, moaning, the gospel shout (when the singer goes “Whooooooo!” in the highest pitch possible),  or an impassioned repetition of the song’s title or whatever the most recently sung lyric was. Artists through the ages have employed this method, from Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield to Madonna and Aretha Franklin. I fear, however, that the art of the Sassy Background Vocalist is slowly being lost. Let’s take a look at some of her most memorable appearances during her heyday, and pray that this once-national treasure is not lost to the depths of dusty record bins forever.

Elvis Presley — Suspicious Minds (1969)

We all know that the hunk of burning love otherwise known as Elvis doesn’t exactly need the SBV (as we’ll call her from now on) to make a classic…but “Suspicious Minds” is the perfect example of how the SBV can take an already great song and send it soaring. This song is the prototype all struggling musicians should look to when considering using the SBV as a weapon. You’ve got the passionate repetitions and the soulful “oohs” in a register just below what only dogs could hear. Best of all, the SBV’s vocals are prominent in the mix. It’s clear that Elvis knew what he was doing — the SBV’s addition is not a mere complement to the track, but an essential part. He repeated the same formula with “In the Ghetto,” and scored another hit.
Side note: the SBV featured on “Suspicious Minds” also sang with the Grateful Dead occasionally.

Pink Floyd — The Great Gig In the Sky (1973)

Stoners on college campuses across the Western world adore Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Legend has it that if you watch The Wizard of Oz and play the album simultaneously, you’ll see thematic similarities, and hear some of the same lines. I’m not really a stoner; consequently, I’ve never reached a state of consciousness in which matching up the film and the album would seem like a good idea. I am, however, a lover of divas and sassy women, and this song is yet another milestone in the history of SBVs. Hammond organs chug away, the piano crashes along, and the SBV in question wails, hollers and screams her way through one of the most passionate vocal performances I’ve heard (and I’ve heard a lot). And she’s from England, too! In the ultimate sassy moment, she sued Pink Floyd, claiming she didn’t receive her dues properly for her contribution to the song. Sing on, girl!

Aretha Franklin — Ain’t No Way (1968)

What can I say about Aretha that hasn’t been said before? Without her there would be no one. She is the one and only Queen of soul. There will never, never, never be anyone else that can even touch her, in talent, in vocal power, in spirit and soul. Her music makes me feel like I’m sitting in a church in 1968, not in my bedroom in 2010. But besides all those things, Aretha knew how to use the SBVs to her advantage. She didn’t just use them for one or two songs; indeed, the SBV is an integral part of all of Aretha’s music from the late 1960s, and no other song she sang exemplified this better than “Ain’t No Way.” Cissy Houston (yep, Whitney’s aunt) hits notes that would make Mariah Carey blush, while the other SBVs perfectly complement Aretha’s testifying, while never overpowering her. Today’s divas and pop stars could take a lesson from Aretha. The SBV is not just something you slap on to any old song for dramatic effect. The SBV should be treated with the dignity and respect she deserves.

As I mentioned before, the heyday of the SBV is now over. But cry not — would they? Hell no! Just crank the music up and stomp your way to campus while the sweet sounds of sassiness serenade your ears.

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