Saturday, August 28, 2010

Songs for the DMV

Last Saturday morning, at approximately 7:58 a.m., I arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles for the 8:00 opening. I say that everyone, rich or poor, must visit the DMV and I find it to be a fascinating people watching experience. On this particular morning, I thought about calling TLC and having them dispatch a camera crew from What Not to Wear to the facility ASAP, for instance. Most people dread their visits to the DMV, and it’s not even clever but more cliché to joke about how grumpy the workers there are. There is some evidence of the general unhappiness of the patrons at the facility: one sign warns not to use abusive language toward the employees, and don’t even thinking about bribing a worker. Also, you can leave your debit card at home and dig out your dusty checkbook instead. I particularly enjoy the situations where the security guard must intervene when someone becomes belligerent because they have not brought the proper paperwork, which is a trick in itself.

Nonetheless, there I was on Saturday morning and to my surprise and delight, I had a short and enjoyable experience. For instance, none of the workers I encountered made me feel badly that my license had actually expired five months earlier, as pointed out to me by a bank teller recently when she demanded identification for me to withdraw $20 from my daughter’s account. Never mind that I was depositing $80 cash into a different child’s account and could have just stolen that from my son if I’d wanted. My second pleasant experience occurred at the window where you have to update any personal information. I very bravely informed her that my weight might be just a bit higher than it was last time, but to my surprise she shaved a couple pounds off the number I gave her, closer to what she probably guessed is my goal weight. She also studied my hair and changed the color from boring brown to auburn- much better! Finally, the camera lady took three pictures of me before settling on one she was happy with. The first she declared looked too much like a mug shot, which didn’t bother me but seemed to bother her. In the second picture I apparently I have my eyes closed. By the time we got to the third photo, her coworker had joined the effort and they actually had me laughing. I think my real picture would most accurately be something in between a mug shot and laughing, but I admired the work she put into the whole thing.

You might notice the next time you’re at the DMV that while most of the adults look very unhappy, there is another group who is extremely excited to be there, and they are all 16 years old. Since we have a number of teenagers in our house right now, there are ample opportunities to visit the DMV as each child requires a minimum of two visits, one to get a permit and the other to get the actual license. Two visits is the best case scenario; if you forget any paperwork or the teenager does not pass either the written test or the road test, the experience must be repeated at a later time. Being the supportive mother that I am, I made it very clear to my children that they were expected to pass the written test on the first try, and I tried to position them as best I could for a positive outcome to the road test. So far, so good: two kids have their license in only four total visits. Let’s hope for the best with the other two; we’ll likely be headed back for child #3’s permit in early 2011.

While I was waiting for my number to be called last Saturday, I saw numerous youngsters anxiously leaving to take their road test, all on this particular morning returning happily, though I imagine that could be a tearful return in other instances. I started to think about how nice it might be to have encouraging music playing, not only to pump up the kids for their road tests but also just to make things more pleasant for the rest of us. Here are my suggestions- there’s something for everyone!

Shut Up and Drive – Rihanna

Roll on Down the Highway – Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads

Drive Slow – Kanye West, feat. Paul West & GLC

Car Wash – Rose Royce

Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen

Long Road Home – Sheryl Crow

Drive In Drive Out – Dave Matthews Band

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

John Mellencamp: No Better Than This

When I saw the latest John Mellencamp album, No Better Than This, reviewed by the Tribune’s rock critic, accompanied by 3 ½ out of 4 stars, I was intrigued. I was a John Mellencamp fan way back when he was…well, John Cougar. I’m from the Jack & Diane and Hurts So Good era and spent a lot of time with the Lonesome Jubilee tape in my Walkman during college (yes, kids, a Walkman!). I’ve kind of lost track of John, as I’ll call him, for the past 15 or 20 years, so I was curious to see what he is sounding like these days. I know that he has lived in Bloomington, Indiana with his adorable model wife and two sons for quite a long time now, and I know that at some point he had a heart attack, although I’m sorry to report that he still seems to be smoking. That’s about all I could tell you.

I’ll say this very objectively: this is a country album. Don’t let anyone, including iTunes, tell you the genre is rock because it’s not. John has always had a bit of a twang, but he is full-out countrified on this album. There are songs where I think he sounds like Johnny Cash and others where I think he sounds a little like Willie Nelson. Like many country songs, some are rather gloomy, and I tend to shy away from those, but some are very sweet. I get the feeling John is feeling rather philosophical these days and that is being manifested in his songs. I’m not even sure how much he really cares about commercial success anymore; I read a quote from him that essentially said he’s not doing anything he doesn’t want to do at this point. I also read that he recorded the songs on this album by putting a microphone in a room and having all the musicians sit around it, which gives it a pretty raw sound- it doesn’t sound like it was embellished much in the studio. You can just picture John sitting on a barstool with his guitar singing into a single microphone. Apparently he recorded 30 songs for the album and chose the 13 he liked best.

When I was in high school, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was a massive hit and I was smitten, eventually acquiring all of his previous albums. When I got to Nebraska, I was horrified because it sounded nothing like the other albums I had come to love, both the glossy and the gritty. Nebraska just sounded rough. No Better Than This has somewhat of the same feel, and I had a similar though less dramatic reaction; I am much older and presumably more open-minded than I was in the 80’s. This is a good album, but you need to be prepared for what you’re getting, especially if you’re like me and have been on a John Cougar Mellencamp hiatus for a decade or two. I will not be playing this one in the kitchen while I work because I don’t feel like defending it to the household teens, but I think my husband will probably enjoy it.

The following were the songs I liked best from this album:

· Save Some Time to Dream – a rather hopeful song
· Love at First Sight – very cute love song
· Clumsy Ol’ World – retrospective on a long-term relationship

If you like a good twang, you’ll probably like No Better Than This. Enjoy!

Friday, August 20, 2010

What Would Blago Listen To?

A number of times during the past several weeks I’ve been out and about in the Loop and have seen trucks representing every news crew in the city parked across the street from the Federal building, usually with bored looking production people leaning against them. Occasionally there would be a reporter doing a story, presumably about nothing, as the world, or at least Illinois, waited for the jury to finish deliberating in the Blagojevich trial. As we all know, that torture exercise ended rather anticlimactically, but it started me thinking about what poor Blago was doing to pass the time while he waited, the most anxious of anyone, perhaps with the exception of his mysterious brother Rob. It got me wondering whether he could use a playlist to help him pass the hours. I became obsessed with the idea, even emailing his publicist to see whether he wanted to provide me with some direction. Unfortunately for me- and you- the non-verdict came back the following day; otherwise, I’m sure I would have received an answer. If I was Blago, I would definitely want to make sure that information about my musical preferences was accurate.

My younger sister, a veritable pop culture savant, was only too pleased to forward me a YouTube video of Blago singing karaoke to an Elvis song at some block party. This performance really cannot be described; it would be worth your time to view it for yourself, although the actual song itself is a bit difficult to decipher. I came to find out that Blago considers Elvis to be one of his idols, as evidenced by the numerous items auctioned from the Blagojevich storage locker this week. The prospect of creating an Elvis themed playlist was not only unappealing but also uncreative. I really think Rod could stand to update himself a bit, so the songs I’ve compiled are meant to stretch him a little without fully pulling him out of his comfort zone.

I hope this doesn't sound like bragging, but a number of years ago, before Blago was governor or ex-governor, I had the opportunity to meet him. My company used to do demonstrations of our proprietary computer applications to politicians, which I imagine was quite thrilling for them. It was in that context that I got to meet him and show off what our systems can do. I should note that not only do I love music, but I am also a reality t.v. junkie and thus saw Blago in action on Celebrity Apprentice. It was then that I found out he actually did not know how to turn a computer on, so I’m wondering if the directive I received at the time to “show him all the bells and whistles” of our systems might not have been the best use of either of our time. Nonetheless, forever after I was able to say that Rod Blagojevich has been in my cubicle. Additionally, my husband knew his wife, Patti, in college, so you can see we are practically family.

I therefore hope that Rod receives this playlist in the spirit it’s intended. The title of this piece should not be “What Would Blago Listen to?” because we know that the answer would be Elvis, which is frankly boring and outdated. The title would more appropriately be “What Should Blago Listen to?” and I promise he will be more a man of the people for it. I call this an Elvis inspired playlist as I have tried to select songs that have kind of a bluesy rock & roll vibe to them:

• Tears Dry on Their Own – Amy Winehouse

• Everlasting Light – The Black Keys

• Jealous Again – The Black Crowes

• Thing Called Love – Bonnie Raitt

• Everybody Needs Love – Findlay Brown

• I’m Sorry – Hothouse Flowers

• You and Your Heart – Jack Johnson

• Waiting for the Sun – The Jayhawks

• Lie to Me – Jonny Lang

• Ruby – Kaiser Chiefs

• Set Me Free (Rosa Lee) – Los Lobos

• Catch Me If You Can – Outasight

• Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That – Robert Randolph & The Family Band

• Our Love is Fading – Sheryl Crow

Enjoy, Blago!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Misc. Singles V

A few days ago, on a typically thrilling Friday night, I sat at my computer perusing iTunes for inspiration about what to listen to next. I like looking at the songs and albums that are in the Top 10 to make sure I’m not missing anything good that everyone knows about but me. Yet again, I was struck by how many artists whose albums were in the Top 10 I was unfamiliar with (*sigh*). However, I tried to turn my discouragement into a positive: I would buy the most popular song from each album and test drive those. While I was starting at the computer waiting for the songs to download, my oldest daughter, who will be a high school senior in a week, walked in and offhandedly commented that I was squandering her college money by buying songs I didn’t need or even know if I’d like. This made me feel a little guilty, but I recovered quickly by rationalizing that the cost of the songs was commensurate with a couple lattes from Starbucks (never mind that I might be squandering her college money at Starbucks).

Once I started looking at the songs I was buying, I was startled by the diversity of the genres contained: alternative, pop, opera (oops, just spelled that as Oprah by mistake), country (2) and teen (I don’t really know what genre Camp Rock is and was very tempted to skip that album but was determined not to compromise the integrity of the experiment). I’ve been trying to save my “new” listens for my long weekend runs as part of the marathon training program. After a careful study of the humidity and temperatures on both Saturday and Sunday, I decided to do my long run on Sunday. This was disappointing because my husband and I were supposed to go to a party Saturday night and there is no bigger drag at a party than someone who has to run a great distance the following morning. Several times on Saturday during the day I was tempted to do a preview of my new tunes, but I used a small bit of self control and off I went Sunday morning (footnote: I actually studied the hour-by-hour humidity on on Sunday morning and was inclined to delay my run until afternoon, but my running daughters pointed out that I was being ridiculous, plus the anticipation of the run would have ruined most of my day). Here are the results of my highly scientific study.

· Florence + The Machine: Lungs (song: Dog Days are Over) – I feel like I’ve heard this song on the radio. It has a teeny bit of an alternative sound to it, but it’s actually pretty mainstream. The lead singer (Florence?) has a very pretty voice. This was probably my second favorite song of the group.
· Jackie Evancho: Prelude to a Dream (song: O Mio Babbino Caro) – This is the opera song and I cannot possibly evaluate whether it’s good compared to other songs of its type. I’m not really a fan of this genre, but it’s impossible to not be impressed by some of the high notes. Truth be told, it had kind of a nice calm sound to it amongst all the other songs, but honestly those high notes are a bit much for me.  Update: my sister informed me that Jackie is actually 10 years old and was on America's Got Talent.  I have a whole new appreciation for the song now!
· Blake Shelton: All About Tonight (song: All About Tonight) – Blake, it turns out, is a country artist. You know how when you aren’t really familiar with a certain type of music all the songs kind of sound the same? Yeah, that’s this. Basically, the setting is a bar (saloon?) and we are not to worry about tomorrow, it’s all about tonight; hence, the title. I’m pretty sure that is a fairly common theme amongst country songs, also.
· Eminem: Recovery (song: Love the Way You Lie, feat. Rhianna) – Impressively, Eminem has the same album in the Top 10 twice, one regular and one deluxe edition. I’m not sure what you get for the deluxe edition, more flowery profanity maybe? I actually like the other popular song from Recovery, Not Afraid, better than this one. Somehow I find it disturbing to hear Eminem sing about fighting with a girl and ultimately tying her to a bed and setting it on fire and Rhianna singing about how she likes the way it hurts when she burns. Seriously??? I’m not a prude, but I’m feeling a little Tipper Gore with this one.
· Joe Jonas & Demi Lovato: Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (song: Wouldn’t Change a Thing) – This song was no more and no less than I expected: perfectly pleasant and perfectly forgettable. The singing wasn’t horrible but wasn’t great, the lyrics were not stupid but not clever either. It very appropriate for the age it’s geared toward, which is very definitely no one over the age of approximately 16 or so.
· Mike Posner: 31 Minutes to Takeoff (song: Bow Chicka Wow Wow) – I actually like his other popular song, Cooler Than Me, better this one. This song has more of a “bedroom” vibe to it. It’s fine but not super memorable for me.
· Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More (song: Little Lion Man) – This was definitely my favorite song of the group and you may have heard it played on the radio (WXRT is playing it for sure). I initially thought this group was Irish and I was visualizing them in a little pub playing this song; the energy from the song kicked my arse along the Prairie Path during my run. I subsequently found out that they’re from London, so I had to change my visual image from an Irish to an English pub (no difference), but you get the idea. Great song! Warning: a central line in the song is “I really f***ed it up this time” and they sing that with conviction, so if you find that offensive you might want to buy the “clean” version. Since the industry I work in is predominantly male and has been compared to both a locker room and a fraternity, I am actually appreciative of a variation of the word in a meaningful context rather than just as an adjective, but that’s probably not a good thing.
· Zac Brown Band: As She’s Walking Away (song: As She’s Walking Away, feat. Alan Jackson) – It’s an impressive feat to have an album in the Top 10 before it’s even been released, but this album accomplished that. The title song was the only one available when I was buying. The lyrics to the first part of the album/song title are “Don’t be falling in love (while she’s walking away)”, which seems like practical advice. As with opera/Oprah, I have a hard time evaluating country music since it’s not really what I gravitate to. This song seemed fine but I’m guessing was very eagerly anticipated if sales were so brisk even before the album was released.
· Arcade Fire: The Suburbs – I reviewed this album last week and liked it a lot. I would still recommend the title track for a newbie.

That’s it. My standout faves were the Mumford & Sons song and the one by Florence + The Machines. Incidentally, only four days after I began this project, I looked at the Top 10 albums on iTunes and only two of the ten I’d seen on Friday were the same (one of the Eminem albums and Arcade Fire), so I’m not sure how frequently that is tabulated- daily? Anyway, for me it’s always fun to listen to something I know nothing about and find that I really like it. Try something new for yourself!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

Some albums are easier to listen to and like from the get-go than others. I listen to any new album in a variety of test environments to see how it does (and because this happens to correspond to my normal daily activities). Those environments primarily include: 1) running; 2) walking to/from work and riding the train; and 3) working in the kitchen. It’s hard to choose which of those activities is the most exciting, but the one that I certainly notice the most is the first. As I plod through the marathon training program, I spend about five days of each week gearing up mentally for my long weekend run. Early during this training process, I hatched the great idea that I would listen to a new album during each long weekend run, which would serve a dual purpose of giving me something to look forward to and (primarily) distracting me a bit from my run. This backfired the second week I tried it when I had what’s known as a “bad run” and thereafter didn’t like the album I associated with it. Since then, I have tried audiobooks, podcasts and other gimmicks in an effort to trick my brain into not noticing that I was running. Those failed, and I came back to the new album idea but with an increased awareness of the possible pitfalls.

I give you this background because I believe you often remember where you were when you first heard a particular song or, in this case, album. Last Saturday, I set out on my long run (please note that I did not defer this run to Sunday as I am apt to do), excited to listen to Arcade Fire’s highly anticipated album, The Suburbs, which was released last week. The conditions were all working in my favor. It was a “step-back” week (read: shorter distance), the humidity was relatively low, the temperatures moderate and there was a slight cloud cover. In addition, Arcade Fire was performing at Lollapalooza last weekend AND their album was #1 on iTunes when I downloaded it (at presstime #2). It all amounted to the perfect musical storm! Unfortunately, due to my run the album is one big blur in my head and has taken a bit of effort to overcome.

If you’re listening to someone like Sheryl Crow or Jack Johnson, you will not likely be surprised by what one of their albums sounds like, even from the first listen. They’re pretty easy to enjoy. My experience has been that a group like Arcade Fire takes a little more effort. The payoff, however, is in a greater appreciation for the depth of the lyrics and the unique sound. By Tuesday of this week, when I had spent about three days listening to The Suburbs in a mostly background capacity and the songs were beginning to emerge on a more individual level (and I should note that the album has 16 songs on it), I realized I needed to get serious about listening to it. Therefore, I propped my eyes open on the train, sacraficing my morning nap, and really listened to the entire album, and I do believe it was worth that investment.

I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the content of The Suburbs because I knew from listening to an interview with two of Arcade Fire’s band members (brothers Win and Will Butler) that it was actually inspired from their own suburban experience as children. As youngsters, they moved from a fairly rural small town to suburban Houston and experienced some significant culture shock. Because I work with a large number of city folk who frankly have a superiority complex about their addresses, I am sometimes a bit defensive about my own suburban 'hood and was concerned that this album would be an exercise in bashing its namesake.

What I found, however, is that while much of the album has a somewhat somber sound to it, it’s more reflective and observational than anything- I actually found it really interesting, not having given the suburbs much consideration in general. Some of the songs have sort of a nostalgic sound to the lyrics; others are more contemplative (what people might really be like behind closed doors, for instance). There are others that are more outwardly judgmental; there is not one but two songs entitled Sprawl, one painting a picture of “mountains beyond mountains” of shopping malls- probably a valid point. Some of the songs are upbeat, others quieter, some have a really pretty sound to them while others have a harder edge. The diversity, including both male and female vocals (Win's wife is in the group), will keep you interested. Now that I’ve listened carefully and considered the songs individually I don’t know how they all blended together for me on that first listen. Even if you don't love the sound of every song, I think you can definitely appreciate the album overall.

That being said, I do have some faves:

  • The Suburbs (title track) - kind of a ragtime, sing-song sounds to it. Sidenote: there is a second version of the song (very short) at the end of of the album that is very sweet and pretty.
  • Deep Blue - I love the music in this one, very diverse and kind of mellow
  • We Used to Wait - to me, this one seems to be contemplating the changing times. It's kind of a look back to how things used to be versus how they are now
I highly recommend the title track, which I think has quite a bit of mainstream appeal. Try one today. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


This weekend, THE major event in Chicago is the Lollapalooza music festival. I’ve never paid much attention to Lollapalooza as my main goal on Friday afternoons is to flee the city for the safety and comfort of the suburbs. Also, I envision a music festival like Lollapalooza as being really more for the youngsters and those who don’t mind using porta-potties, and I most certainly don’t fall into either of those categories. However, in light of my new heightened awareness of all things music lately, I decided to investigate Lollapalooza. I was very surprised and a little excited to see that some of the artists I have recently “discovered” will be performing. For a fleeting moment, I pictured myself not as I really am (suburban mom) but as a hip urban festival-goer. Then I saw that the price for the 3-day pass was $240, plus it could be hot and I would almost certainly have to stand in line for any sort of beverage, so I put the idea out of my head. However, I was still intrigued.

My research on Lollapalooza (done via looking at the website: revealed that there are about 6 stages in various parts of Grant Park, and multiple acts could be performing simultaneously. The “main” stage has some big names: Blues Traveler, Green Day, Lady Gaga. That last one is a puzzler as I recently read that her normal act includes no less than 15 costume changes and a multitude of pyrotechnics (some even part of her costumes!). There were lots of acts I’d never heard of but also some really good ones that I had. One thing that continues to startle me about music, particularly since I’ve been putting more effort into finding it, is what a small percentage of it is played on the radio. Therefore, I am challenging you to take matters into your own hands (and put your trust into my hands) and create your own Lollapalooza sampler playlist- I promise I will not lead you astray and you will feel cool to be listening to the music but won’t have to actually GO to the festival (and it will be much cheaper). Also, don’t be surprised if your kids don’t immediately recognize this slight bump in coolness; it’s taking my kids some time to recognize it even though I promote it to them frequently.

Okay, here are my picks:

The Black Keys (Tighten Up) – The Black Keys are kind of a bluesy duo who have a relatively new album out (Brothers) that I really like. I’m not usually too into serious blues, but after listening to the album for a while it really grew on me. That being said, I predict you will like Tighten Up right away.

The New Pornographers (Crash Years) – Don’t be put off by the name of this group (as I was). I don’t know why they decided to alienate a bunch of potential fans by giving themselves a name associated with vulgarity because they are a great band! Their latest album (Together) is really good and because they have both male and female vocalists, their songs have a different sound from one to the next. Other recommendations: Your Hands and My Shepherd.

The Strokes (Last Night) – You may well have heard this song at some point. I like The Strokes because they’re a pretty energetic group. If you ever have a party, throw one of their songs on the playlist. Other picks: Barely Legal and Someday.

B.O.B. (Nothing on You) – This guy is a little new to the hip hop scene and you’ve probably heard this song in passing. Even more likely is that you’ve heard his song Airplanes, which he sings with Ke$ha, America’s most fun (and possibly inappropriate) sweetheart. I do love Nothing on You, though.

Raphael Saadiq (Staying in Love) – I feel blessed to have relatives who spoon feed me good music. Just last week while on vacation in Michigan, one of my uncles gave me a CD of Raphael Saadiq’s: The Way I See It. From the very first listen, I was in love. He’s an R&B guy and I learned that he has produced songs for people like Mary J. Blige and John Legend, both of whom I adore. Apparently The Way I See It was nominated for some Grammys a couple years ago; I’m alarmed to have missed him entirely real-time, but listening to this album while I went to work this past Monday softened the blow of returning from vacation. Other picks: Never Give You Up (with Stevie Wonder!) and Love That Girl.

Spoon (Mystery Zone) – I don’t know a ton about Spoon except that every now and then I’ll hear a song I like and discover that it’s Spoon. Since a lot of my music listening is done while walking to or from work, I always notice when I fall in step with a certain song, and this one has a perfect beat for a brisk walk to the train, particularly if you’re running a tad late. If nothing else, you could recommend this song to any friends who happen to be mall walkers, although I think you’ll like this song in its own right.

Phoenix (1901) – You will immediately recognize this song, but you might not immediately realize why: it’s on the Cadillac commercials! Another good Phoenix song to try: Lisztomania.

MGMT (Congratulations) – This band has kind of a funky sound, but I think they’re really good. Congratulations (also the name of the album) is fairly mainstream. Another really good song from the album is Someone’s Missing, which feels like a musical journey with all its twists and turns.

Arcade Fire (Rebellion) – This band had an album a couple years (Funeral) that got a lot of critical acclaim, and they have a new album out this week with an exciting title: The Suburbs! NPR has a podcast series called All Songs Considered, and on one such podcast I heard the brothers from Arcade Fire interviewed and talking about the new album, amongst other things. I wish I could listen to artists interviews for every album- so interesting. On the podcast they played a couple songs from the new album, including the title track, which was really good. If you feel like not only being cool but also being cutting edge you might want to try that song.

There you go! Even if you don’t want to try all of these songs, choose a few and awaken your inner artist. Discover something new that might not be on the radio and know that you’re cool enough to be at Lollapalooza- if you really wanted to.