Archive for November, 2010

Long Live Radio

In retrospect, 1998 was a better year for music than I recognized in the time. Being in high school that required a lot of traveling, I certainly had an opportunity to hear music that was coming out, but I was a victim of the radio, and the radio I had then was fairly narrow. Even with a station like WHFS (which was really a shadow of itself at that point comparatively speaking…it seemed good at the time) and before the Clear Channel takeover that would make it so that most towns have the same few radio stations, just with different call signs, it wasn’t like there were a lot of radio stations busting out to play a lot of crazy, different things. And while I’ll certainly take The Current to task at times, they do a much better job than anything I’ve ever had a chance to listen to pre-Internet radio. It is a good station, and a boon to have in the Twin Cities, still really in its nascent stages (in its 6th year? Sounds right) compared to many other independent radio stations out there. Its shape has definitely changed over the past few years as it keeps trying to find things that work. The programming is much more in line w/ me during the late night (the 10pm-2am shift particularly), where they can take a few more chances and play some stuff that’s a little odder than what gets fit in during the more listened to daytime hours. Certainly, the station has its foibles; I don’t think I ever need to hear “Freefalling” by Atmosphere any time soon as it was in high rotation for a few weeks. They have a very deep playlist at times, but they still have playlists, and there are still certain songs that get played a lot still. Then again, even if it’s the Twin Cities, it’s nice to see that there’s some place where something like Atmosphere gets some radio play.

The reason I mention The Current, and 1998, is because they have been doing a time machine weekend. All in all, I can’t imagine they are the first radio station to ever do something like that, but when you have a large library and DJs that aren’t afraid to get a little off the beaten path, it makes it a much more compelling thing than that same Top 500 countdown your local classic rock station does over Labor Day weekend every year. The basic concept is that they do a different year each hour, and it jumps around. So we listeners left 1998 behind for 1971 here in the 11 o’clock hour (full list here). It’s been a fun listen to say the least. Considering the overall depth of my collection, it can take something to get me to listen to the radio for any amount of time longer than it takes me to fall asleep or drive a short distance. And The Current has succeeded this weekend. It’s not quite appointment radio, but in a weekend where I’ve had a lot of time to kick it around my apartment (holidays plus frigid cold help), I’ve certainly had The Current on more combined than I have the rest of the time I’ve lived here. The only other program that I reliably listen to is Teenage Kicks (and if you don’t, you must not love that time period as much as me) which I usually catch the last half of when I get up on Saturday. And while I’m sure this format will elicit complaints, like the guy who’s complaining they aren’t playing enough new music over this weekend and he’ll have to wait until Manday (you can’t make up a typo like that), I think it’s a far greater idea. First, there are a lot of ways to hear about new music, and I think fully half of what I will be putting on my year end list will be stuff they would never play on The Current because it’s too obscure, somewhat outside their general genres, or just something that the people putting the playlists together don’t think much of. I don’t ever recall hearing a single Japandroids song on The Current, and while I’m sure at some point they must have played “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, it’s not really where they lie musically. A few years back I used to think that this was something of a liability. Until I remembered, this is still a far better radio station than most people have in their towns.

In an age of satellite radio and portable music, there is indeed stiff competition for the local radio station. Not that The Current is just local. The advent of streaming media has made it so that some kid in Virginia could be listening right now as well. It wouldn’t be the 11 o’clock hour for him or her, but that’s an option for someone feed up with Clear Channel but without 15,000 songs. Anyone who listens long enough knows they are non-commercial, and they need money, etc, etc, etc. They will tell you over and over after all. But that’s how they roll. It’s how they get the in-studios. It’s how they sponsor shows. It’s how a lot of people do first hear about a lot of things, even if it isn’t the place where I might hear something first. That’s important. That’s worth supporting. If, in my musical consumption, I have learned anything, it’s that there are a variety of ways for me to find new music. And it isn’t just new music. Sometimes I just missed something. Which is where 1998 is useful. Sometimes I need to be reminded that I should own Billy Bragg & Wilco because “California Stars” is just a wonderful song. Just like an hour later, I sometimes need to hear the theme from Shaft. They might not be new, but they are both things I don’t own, both things that I can hear on a station that’s not like anything else we have around here. That’s a good thing. And I can dig it.

Cover Me

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In music, the art of the cover is one unlike any other. Covers say a lot about a band, from their simple willingness to play them to the overall choice. Sometimes it’s a window into when people grew up; sometimes it’s a window into what influenced them to be a band or what they want to sound like; sometimes it’s just a good suggestion from someone else that they pick up. There’s not really an analogue in other art forms. If you copy someone else’s painting, it’s just a copy. Rarely would it be considered its own living, breathing work of art. And while some covers fall on that end of the spectrum, just as many breathe new life into the song. From a willingness to change structure (to go so far as radically altering time signatures and parts) to style (think any punk cover of a non-punk song) to substance (new lyrics, appropriated for a totally different use than it might have been intended, etc) to straight up playing it note for note (here’s looking at The Walkmen), these all lead to different little thoughts about the music. As a listener, the reaction can vary from brilliant to blase, all depending on how each person is coming into it. Consider, for example, the simple effect of not knowing a song is a cover. One might think it’s tonally quite different from everything else a band produced. One might find it incredibly boring. In the example of knowing it’s a cover, either because the band told the listener so or the listener simply knows, the effect is quite different. One could still find it incredibly boring, a mindless indulgence, an awesome look at what one’s favorite band thinks is worth playing, or just right for the moment. That’s a lot of thoughts that can come out of a cover.

The first recorded one that I ever heard that I consciously knew was a cover was “All Along The Watchtower”. The first one I ever saw live that I can recall? “Leavin’ Here” by Pearl Jam on 09/24/96 at MPP. The last one I saw live? Robyn paying tribute to Prince in his hometown with “When Doves Cry”. I am personally all for covers. They are fun to play; they are fun to listen to; they give me something else to think about when a band performs. Recently, I even seen The XX play “VCR”, which is their own song and only came out last year. Somehow, I have also seen two disparate bands (The Antlers and Matthew Dear) cover that song live. Also, apparently Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark covered it on their new record. That’s a lot of love for a song that most people have only been hearing for a couple years. Sometimes, though, good songs cause band to rush out there and record their own version. This is how we (thankfully) have Fountains Of Wayne doing “Baby One More Time”, though that took several years to surface. Or Ted Leo doing “Since U Been Gone” (of course, true pop opens up a whole different category…after all, most of those songs were written for those people by other people). I’ve seen bands play covers that I never thought would (Spoon? Don’t they have enough of their own songs?). And in most cases, there’s a basic truth is if an artist is working with good source material, it’s still going to probably be listenable in the end. Covers produce fun debates about which version is better. I would say I happen to be partial to the original in most cases, but I doubt if that’s true. What I believe I’m partial to, in most cases, is the version I heard first. After all, that’s what I am judging the other one against.

That’s the unfortunate part of a cover. One can’t just judge it on its artistic merits alone (which is hard enough to figure out sometimes); if one’s aware that it’s a cover, then that comparison is always going to be there. Sometimes multiple comparisons depending on the song. Eventually, if a song is good enough, it becomes more of an expectation that it is a standard of the overall genre, but I think rock is still a little too young to have too many of those. Of course, if one isn’t aware that it’s a cover, it’s sort of a different listening experience. I remember how surprised I was to look at the liner notes of Fashion Nugget the first time and discover that four of the songs were covers. Of course, almost anyone at the time was probably familiar with or made aware of the fact that “I Will Survive” is a cover, but that was all I knew going in. Especially considering it was the mid-nineties, that’s a high cover count on a record. It was certainly a more common practice in the 60s with any number of bands, covers that were mostly filler anyway on records like Please Please Me. Not that Please Please Me isn’t a great record, but a large part of that is because The Beatles do such a great job of owning those covers just as much as they do their originals. A more common practice (still more common today unless it’s a covers record) for a band these days is to include one, maybe two very well-thought out covers, guideposts that help the listener understand the band. As an example from 2010, look at Gorilla Manor by Local Natives, with the well-placed and obvious band, non-obvious song choice of Warning Sign by Talking Heads originally. You best be bringing something to the table if you’re going to do a cover like that. And they do. It’s a well-earned cover. There, I think I used well enough in the past few sentences.

On the other end of the cover spectrum, there is the one-off, the joke, the temporally sensitive version. Those, more often than not, don’t hit our ears as listeners unless we happen to be at the shows they happen at. Given that I’ve been at a lot of shows in my time, I’ve had the opportunity to see more than a few like that. Sometimes it’s just that the band has run out of other material so they have to resurrect something that only happens at the practice space, or something they haven’t played in years. I saw a band do a sloppy, but thoroughly endearing version of “Damaged Goods” by Gang Of Four (off Entertainment…seriously, if you don’t own that record, just go buy it, listen, and then continue reading where you left off. Or take my extra cd copy) at a show a few years back that I doubt gets pulled out that much. Or I saw Bear In Heaven do an encore at the Turf in July that certainly is not a common thing for them. They put their rather distinct “I don’t know how to describe it but let’s say Krautrock” spin on Lindstrom & Christabelle’s “Lovesick”. I’ve seen Low play their Christmas numbers. Hell, I’ve played a Christmas song here or there in my time. Once the window is gone, the song goes away, maybe for a year, maybe forever. People tend to be a lot more forgiving for things like that, whether it’s because a band can’t actually play it (I have an early recording of Pearl Jam mauling “Baba O’Reily”, though in fairness, Ed does say they don’t know how to play it) or just because the band probably won’t be playing it again and it’s a unique experience, who can say?

Also generally lumped with these kinds of songs are full-length recordings of covers. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s one artist covering a number of artists, a number of artists covering one artist, or something in between, these endeavors are usually misguided from the start. Not that they can’t be good, but it’s usually either a situation where a single song or a single artist tends to stand out more than the rest. Or where a couple artists are there to draw one in so that one ends up with 2 songs that are good and 13 covers that are filler at best. Even when the record is strong overall, it tends to be a case of too much. Even if it’s too much of a good thing. People have no problem with this live occasionally, especially on Halloween when the band can do it in costume. The overall experience might not be the greatest, but people tend to view it more as joke, homage, or something else entirely. And once again, there is that sense of the experience being unique to that night which can help make what would otherwise be mediocre into something greater. For some reason, there is always a reason to downgrade one’s expectations of a covers record. Sometimes the record is for a good cause and the money’s going to charity, or it’s available for free or just on tour, or whatever else one might read or hear. Anyway, it doesn’t (fairly or unfairly) get judged the same way a single cover would if it were nestled in a record of originals, part of an overall original artistic statement. Even if it’s a one-off single it’s judged differently. Why that is is of course difficult to determine.

Why do I treat one set of songs differently than another? Because I’m a flawed listener. It’s the same reason I treat one genre differently than the next. It could be something as simple as me not taking the time to actually listen. We’re all flawed listeners, and all these songs have a lot of different moving targets to hit. It might be that a cover works its way right into one’s rotation. I know there are covers that I’ve instantly had no problem getting into the mix, songs that I know are covers of other songs that I love, songs that I don’t even realize are covers, songs that I’ll later learn after some digging or thought are. And then I might go and find more by that artist. And it might turn out that I end up really liking that artist. I’d say being a music listener is like playing hopscotch, but the web is obviously much larger than that. Still, an overall faithful cover of Washed Out’s “New Theory” was enough to make me listen to more Teen Daze, and that has been a pleasant discovery in the past few months. And the sparse, but wonderful version of “When You Sleep” has only made me love Memoryhouse even more. I was already digging them a lot, and then I heard a cover that’s been one of my favorite songs during the past few years and it’s been a genre that I’ve been listening to a lot, and it reinforced my feelings about the band. Not that every band out there could just go out there and pull off a My Bloody Valentine cover. Subjective? Of course. At their best, covers are well-chosen links to the reason that those people are even bands in addition to being wholly substantial works of music in their own right. What started as an attempt on my part to clarify how I think about covers doesn’t seem to have accomplished much. Then again, my writing is easily (and rightly) accused of being circuitous. It’s just something for me to keep in mind the next time I hear a cover.

Had Been A Cool 14 Year Old

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I’ve been listening to a lot of shoegaze recently. I specifically fall for that “I can’t figure out how the hell it’s tuned” wonderful nature of “Dagger” by Slowdive. It’s just been what I’ve been feeling. I find that I tend to move through my music in a somewhat purposeful fashion, even if I don’t understand the purpose at the time. The same holds true of my purchases. I go through phases; certainly we all do with anything that we are passionate about. I’m not talking phases where I pick up a totally different activity; we all certainly go through those as well. I’m sure you can think of several hobbies you’ve been meaning to put more time into. Take my love of board games as an example. I certainly don’t put much time into them anymore, for a variety of reasons. If I stop to consider, though, it’s because I’ve been riding my bike a lot. Or going to see a lot of live music. Or just working. Time being a finite resource, I can only do so many things with my time, and only so many of them can be combined. Certainly, I have the sort of work where I can digest quite a bit of music during the day. That’s ideal for me. It’s not always going to be the case, and then I’m going to have to ask myself some tough questions about how best to get in my music. But that isn’t the case now. And right now, it’s about shoegaze.

Why shoegaze? I cannot tell you exactly why. All I know is that the record that I’ve been playing the most is Souvlaki by Slowdive; it just fits how I’m feeling I guess. I’m sure when I look back at this in a few years, I can find some succinct explanation for all of it. Or I can make up one that fits the facts as I see them. Retrospect and all that. If I had been a cool 14 year old, I could have been listening to bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride; if I were even cooler, maybe I could have seen Sky Wave. Fredericksburg wasn’t that far away from Dumfries after all. But I missed out on all of that. I’d like to think that I was a cool teenager, but I was just a teenager. Probably not that typical, but not nearly as musically adventurous as I am now. There were a lot of limiting factors; I didn’t have the money; I didn’t have access to streaming media so I could listen to new music; even the radio stations that had deeper playlists didn’t open up music that much. I didn’t have an older brother leaving albums sitting around the house. I didn’t grow up in England. Any of those things would have fundamentally changed the kind of music I listened to. Hell, I somehow slept on Blur until about 5 years ago. I don’t know how that happened. But for a long time, they were just that band that sang “Song 2”. When I was a teenager, I simply didn’t have a lot of tools to keep up. So I listened to what I had. I had a radio, I had MTV, and I listened to a lot of mainstream rock and a lot of classic rock. All any of us can do as fans of anything is work with what we have. You may find that you haven’t read what will be your favorite book for the next forty years of your life because you haven’t heard of it yet. Or it hasn’t been written yet. Those are certainly possibilities. But even if your favorite things exist, there’s no guarantee that you will get to them right away when they become available.

I wonder how this process goes now for the generation younger than me. I am savvy in the use of the internet. I can certainly text, e-mail, and otherwise message my way through the day to day with my peers. But I did not grow up with the internet. It was a nascent thing in my teenage years, and the fact that I had access to it at home made me relatively exceptional amongst my friends. Information definitely existed before the internet, but our expectations and ability to find information have changed. Our expectations have changed because many of us expect to be able to find information much more simply, irrelevant of the reliability of that source. Our ability has changed to find it in as much as most of us have access to at least a basic browser that will help us sift through the detritus. I remember a time without those expectations and abilities, even if I digest the majority of my information through the Internet now. It leads to a different set of skills. I had to rely on different means to gain my knowledge of music until I got to college. Then, there was Napster and Pitchfork and a world where I could find out about when my favorite bands were coming without being reliant on venues and local weeklies. Even then, it was hard to gain access to a lot of music; now there are numerous ways to consume and find music. I had to go through something of a progression. Failing that, I had a few trusted sources (close friends, Pitchfork) that helped influence and shape my musical opinion while introducing me to bands that were sonic predecessors to the bands I was listening to at that time. A younger set can circumvent all of that. One can go to the artist’s Myspace, or Tumblr, or whatever, and find out about their influences. As for me, I particularly took to Pitchfork’s penchant for lists. I both followed them as a purchasing guide and began to develop my own lists and suggestions.

So almost 5 years ago, I read a review that told me it was important. And it resonated with me. Again, had I been a cool 14 year old, maybe I wouldn’t have needed that review. Maybe I would have already proudly looked over at my collection and thought, hey, I have that. If one more person goes out there and buys Souvlaki, then my work here is done. I hope that anyone has the same sort of reaction to any sort of list. A friend recently tagged me in a list of books that everyone should read (source unknown), and while I might scoff at several of them, and I have read several of them, it also reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read several of them. Even tastemakers are taking cues. They are probably not taking as many as the rest of us, but even they need something that gives them an indication of what is meaningful, fun, worth taking in, important, whatever. There are numerous ways to judge the value of these subjective pursuits we have. Even the teenagers these days have to develop that ability; I’d go so far as to say it’s more important. It’s a fine balance between the amount of information available and the actual value of that information. You, the reader, may not find much of value here. I hope that you do. I, for one, would rather expand my readership and keep writing. I do enjoy it. But what I’m looking for is the same problem I have with my music. I’ve only got so much time to take it in. To that end, I’ve gotta make it worth your time. And if it’s not, just go listen to some shoegaze and forget I ever asked.

Classics

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I’m sure this would be a great opportunity to talk just about “Caregiver” by Memoryhouse. It’s the new single, it’s coming out on Suicide Squeeze soon, and it’s generally pretty awesome. But that isn’t really the Memoryhouse song that I had in mind. In fact, I don’t really have any specific Memoryhouse song in mind. It just seems that I have a few words in me about Memoryhouse. Deal with it. Just at least listen to it.

About a month ago, I mentioned that the fine people at Arcade Sound Ltd. went so far as to have several excellent free downloads available in addition to their quality merchandise. I don’t know exactly where I first ran into them, but I do know that they are a band that comes up a lot if you listen to Washed Out Radio over at Last.fm. For whatever reason, late summer and early fall (they’re kind of the same season here in Minnesota), I’ve been really digging chillwave, so I was listening to a lot of that station, and Memoryhouse just kept coming up, specifically, “Lately (Deuxième)”. I love the sounds at the beginning of that track. It always makes me think of popping in a cassette. It could be that sound for all I know. For whatever reason (entirely in my head), this didn’t quite feel the same as a lot of other bands that were living in the past musical. Consider, as an example, that many bands are mining the girl groups of the 80s that mined the pop of the 60s. Think Grass Widow via Talulah Gosh via anything on the radio in 1965 if you need some help. There’s a long list these days for many bands. It’s good music, but it doesn’t mentally put me anywhere near the place that I end up in when I listen to Memoryhouse. The point is, I feel like Memoryhouse is obviously coming from somewhere that I can’t put my finger on. Somewhere like the dreamy mid-nineties shoegaze of Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. Of course, that could just be because of their wonderful cover of “When You Sleep”. But that’s not it either. Maybe these days, that’s a strength though. To be reminiscent without being derivative. Of course I’ve heard a few of their songs now dozens of times. Even after the first time I heard it, though I felt that way. It’s like someone’s soundtracking my dreams, and I finally found it. There’s a power there when you start conjuring up those memories in your head that feel like they’re being viewed on an 8 mm. And that’s what these songs make me think of most. Long gone days before the ennui that the working world has settled on most of us. Days when you sat around and didn’t do anything and that was perfectly okay because there wasn’t always something more to get done. I don’t know how nostalgia works on the younger set, but for me, that’s what I think about when I think about my past. Happy, lazy days with people that meant a lot to me. These songs aren’t those, obviously, nothing will be those memories other than those specific memories. But it’s a door…well, maybe just a window. That’s where I end up going a lot. Maybe I’ve just been yearning for something simpler in a life that has gotten much more complicated. Some bands I’m nostalgic for simply because I remember them from my youth, but I don’t feel particularly nostalgic listening to Pearl Jam. With Pearl Jam, though, it’s a definitive past. It’s thoughts of long drives, orange t-shirts, and some of my first concert experiences ever. Memoryhouse never was there, mere gossamer threads that I’m grasping at, an insubstantial and unreal past if anything at all. It’s a past constructed with piercing vocals, shimmery guitars, and halting piano lines, or at least bound with those things. At least that’s how I feel when I’m listening. It’s a classical glamor over a quotidian past (and present, it feels), and sometimes that just what I need to get me through another 9-5.

Memoryhouse is Even Abeele and Denise Nouvion. They took their name from a Max Richter album. Like most things I love, they’re from Canada. You can find out a lot more about Memoryhouse over at their Tumblr. “Lately (Deuxième)” is availalbe on 7 inch by the very same name. Or at least Insound says it is. “Caregiver” is available digitally right now, and is available in physical form from Suicide Squeeze. They put out lots of good records that I should own more of. You should too.

Lists and Lists

So it’s about time to start organizing my favorites of the year. Which means it’s probably about time to start collecting tracks and looking back so I don’t forget any of that excellent stuff that came out in January. Of course, how am I going to forget things like Teen Dream by Beach House? I don’t. Any time I make a list, though, I seem to leave out something. I don’t know why that is, and it seems ridiculous to make a list for a list, but that’s almost as if it’s what I have to do now. Especially these days, I’m digesting music through a variety of channels. I’ve got what I actually purchased. Some of it didn’t included digital download, so I only have it on vinyl. Some I only have digitally; some I downloaded and forget to get into iTunes, so they don’t end up on the iPod. A few end up on cds that other people occasionally give to me. Though it’s gone now, there’s all the stuff I was listening to in the first half of the year on Lala. There’s whatever random things I’ve dug up on the internet that I haven’t gotten around to buying that I can’t download. There’s whatever I’ve heard on Last.fm but haven’t been able to track down. If this doesn’t illustrate it, there’s a lot of places to get my music these days. I don’t even have all of it. I placed (hopefully for my checking account) one last order with Insound for the year. I may sweep up a couple others at the Fetus. And there’s still a few shows left to potentially get any albums I may have missed. I struck out at Matthew Dear last night (Black City was sold out on vinyl), but there’s Robyn tonight, Light Pollution on Tuesday, and a few other shows where I could potentially walk out with a few more pieces for my collection. I still haven’t ordered Teen Daze because I can only get that from Arcade Sound Ltd. It’s on the spreadsheet, though. That’s the only way I can remember all the records that I am interested in. Even then, I know I’ll never keep up with all of them. There are finite hours to listen, finite funds with which to buy vinyl, and more importantly, finite supplies of many of the records I’m interested in. I’m forced to make decisions about which limited edition 500-run 7″s I want to get when they cost as much as they do. And to that, I make lists. Lists of songs. Lists of sites that have lists of songs. The options are pretty much endless. Falling down that rabbit hole can certainly be imposing. It’s why people stop doing things. Delicious Scopitone folded up shop because it’s hard to stay on the front edge. Simply put, it takes a lot of effort for me to get music from them. I can’t imagine the effort it takes to for them to find that music. Those are the kind of people I look to to find my music, so what happens when they go away? These days, someone else steps up. There will be another blog out there that fills in that void. Or it could just be whatever is the next medium catching on. Maybe it’s just following Tumblr after Tumblr now. Me, I’m just trying to keep up. Everything I do feels like I’m two degrees away, getting my information from other people who got it from the bands before I pass it on. But who knows? Maybe I’m next? Is it why I do it? No, that’s not the intent. I write to write, and I write about the things I’m passionate about, which hopefully you could delineate after reading a few different entries, but if you need help, go back to the mission statement. Maybe it’s not a great time to love everything, but it’s certainly a great time to love music. The industry that exists to propagate what most people listen to might not agree because the bottom lines aren’t that impressive, and yet there’s more access to music than ever. That music’s probably always been there, but now I’m listening to a shoegaze band in Virginia after chamber pop from England after hearing a singer-songwriter from Canada. Or it’s afro-pop followed by four to the floor house music followed by 70s Iranian garage rock. People are crate digging and we’re finding out that this music has always been there, it’s just that we didn’t get good access to it. Even if I’m listening to half of it on a piece of technology that was basically once thought dead but is now the lifeline of physical music. And that’s not even getting into the live side, which has always been important, but seems especially wonderful now. The things I’ve seen just this year blow my mind. Even seeing Matthew Dear last night put on a show with a live band as an electronic artist. Not just putting on a show, but making the people at the Entry move like he did. Or Mono practically melting earplugs at the show at the Triple Rock? Free Energy and Titus Andronicus covering The Boss on the same stage 5 months later? The Rural Alberta Advantage’s third show, this time to several hundred at the Cedar (their biggest show to date by their word), still with the awesome closer where they come out in the middle of the audience and play a song that I can only hope will someday end up recorded? I still have those expectations for a few more shows, with Robyn tonight, Tame Impala a couple weeks from now. It’s everywhere, it’s tough to keep up, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are plenty of albums I won’t find for a couple years, and I wonder how I missed them, but that’s just how it is these days. There’s too much, but that’s okay. There should be something for everyone. And while certainly there must be some hobby or other passionate pursuit that doesn’t benefit from the increased connectivity, I can’t think of it. All of which brings me back to the fact that it is time to make that list. It’s going to be missing a few things, I’m sure. Things I haven’t heard, things I forgot about, things that just don’t mean as much to me at the time. Anyway, I should get working on that. There’s a lot to get together.

Excuses

I spent yesterday evening with a lot of people I’ve only briefly met or didn’t know at all. I had a good evening, had quite a bit of fun, and came down on the right side of luck, but as is usual for a large group of people that I don’t know, there were a lot of inappropriate pronouns. It’s not like I don’t notice. I am, after all, the one you are sitting right there talking about. Now, at this point, I give up. I really do. I am not sure what more I need to do for some people. I don’t know what more I can say, how much more I can explain my position, or how much more obvious it needs to be for people. And it’s not even like I had to wait 24 hours to be reminded again. It happens all the time in my building as well, with my neighbors and people that I tangentially know. Intentional or not, frankly, I just think pretty much everyone’s being assholes. Granted, last evening, I could have been more forceful. I decided not to be at that juncture. At other times I am. There are times, though, where I am sick of being my own advocate, always. I know I still have to be, but sometimes, I just don’t have it in me. It shouldn’t be this hard. So the reality, my takeaway, is that people don’t want to put in the effort. But I’ll never get it. So tell me why I don’t get it. Explain to me why it is difficult. Because on the outside, what it says to me is that you just don’t really care to try. By extension, it’s a lack of respect of who I am. So explain it, if you can; I don’t normally ask, and maybe I should. Failing that, just try.

Letter From A Loan Documentation Specialist

One doesn’t need to (but probably should) read articles about landlords renting out homes they don’t own or sloppy to fraudulent recording and other paperwork to know there’s a lot of problems with the mortgage industry right now. I, on the other hand, see a lot of this stuff externally (because it interests me) and internally at my job since I work for a big, bad mortgage company. Not only that, but I work an area that specifically touches on foreclosures since many of the homes that come through my specific area are foreclosures, short sales, or homes that have been renovated since foreclosure and are now being resold. You can’t believe how messy the paperwork is. But you can read about it, of course. There’s one little problem, though. While there’s certainly a ton of problems that need to be fixed with the mortgage industry itself, at the base level, there’s a lot of problems that need to be addressed.

I sympathize with the people in these articles I read. I really do. Usually, they were caught in bad situations, victims of unfortunate timing and poor understanding. Therein lies part of the problem. Yes, it is the responsibility of the lender to be, well, responsible. That’s obviously been lacking. But it’s also becoming apparent that people just don’t really understand how the housing industry works. There were obviously a lot of people doing bad things, pumping value, flipping homes, getting straw buyers, and these kinds of schemes effect everyone. Because as soon as the value’s inflated on a couple homes in a neighborhood, well, the next appraiser is going to come along, see those transactions, and potentially use them, creating a situation where soon everything is balloon in value. It’s pretty easy to see how this can get out of control quickly and people can over-leverage their homes. Quite possibly you are one of those people out there that did, and the word you read and the one we throw around the office is that you are underwater. So you’ve got lenders out there that are probably doing things they shouldn’t (still), you’ve got people that have all learned the opposite way they would have liked (through a rather terrible experience) what kind of effects a housing bust can have on them, and you’ve got a government that’s desperately trying to get people to buy homes. Where’s the problem?

The problem’s in all of these places. Lenders need to step back and start doing the process right. Some may find that when that happens the pendulum’s swung too far (people who want to buy round homes). But part of trying to do things right and clean up the entire mess means taking more time, ensuring that the items in a loan file are correct, and dealing with that before they are processed. It doesn’t stop a lot of companies from sending us a lot of messy files at work. Hell, the entire state of California seems to have a pretty big problem with the concept of a final HUD-1. It probably doesn’t feel like it to you, but it certainly does seem like there are at least some lenders out there that are trying to do their due diligence now. They should have before, but there’s not really anything we can do about that. Sure, people can (and are) piling on lawsuits to go after all those errors in the past. I’m not saying they shouldn’t; it’s just that there’s not a lot that those of us at mortgage companies can do about that other than let it be fought out in courts. Certainly, there’s a lot of debate about both the effectiveness and overall efficacy of the loan mod programs that exist today. I get plenty of internal e-mails that talk about how we’re doing such a great job with loan mods. I see just as many external comments and articles about how poorly we do it. I’m sure the truth, as in most cases, lies somewhere in the middle. But it is something the big lenders can improve upon. As most of us are learning, there’s a lot of things the big lenders can improve upon. Of course, there are lots of recording issues that are coming to light. Some of that’s being laid at the feet of MERS; sometimes, the counties and courts are backed up for months trying to get these things recorded. Especially with the transfers, warranty deeds, and other bits of paperwork that need to go through all these places, there’s a lot of paper work that needs to get processed. And obviously, that process needs to get better. I do believe that on some level there are lenders that are trying to do that better. I could go on and on about the things that lenders can do better, and you’ve probably seen multiple items on that. At the end of the day, I can really only speak to the specific, small area that I work in and in that area, I do feel like we are trying to do better, to do right by the borrower and the correspondent. I’ve seen how much the process has changed in the 3+ years I’ve been involved, and I really do feel like the changes have been positive in the sense that they exist to be even more thorough. Correspondent is an interesting world of reps and warrants, so we do things a little differently than other areas. Partly, we have to respect that the correspondent lender did their job right too, and provided all the paperwork they should have; we exist to re-verify information that should have already been properly verified in the first place. Personally, I think we do a pretty good job with that. But it’s just one small area of a very large company with a lot of exposure to the mortgage industry. I can’t really say what it’s like in another area, because I don’t work in those areas, or even how that attitude varies from company to company.

Secondly, I think (and I hope it’s occurring right now) there needs to be a re-evaluation on the part of potential homeowners everywhere as to the actual need for a home. There is a lot of pressure in our society to own a home. That kind of pressure doesn’t necessarily exist in different countries like it does here. We have a country that actively encourages home ownership. It’s a big part of the American Dream. That needs to change. Owning a home is not a responsible decision for everyone. There are a ton of factors that effect whether it’s right for you. Again, I know it seems like it when you read it, but on the whole, we can’t be too discriminating at a lender if you fall into the right set of criteria (good enough FICO, decent dti, those sorts of things). I see files where people obviously qualify (if they didn’t the DU would kick back an ineligible), but I still wonder if it’s a good idea. Obviously there are factors that I don’t understand with a loan; there could be a second income in the family, but due to FICO concerns, only one person qualifies; there could be a large level of undisclosed assets because they are unnecessary. Those are just a couple examples. Still, I see loans where I wonder how people are going to afford to pay the loans off. It seems that people are still in the mindset that they will be doing better off in 5 years than they are now. It’s a wonderful mindset to be in. I think almost all of us want to feel that way for good reason. But the last few years have provided ample evidence that can be a dangerous attitude. One never really knows what’s around the corner; it could be a windfall or a downfall. Sometimes people are getting loans on homes where if everything stays right, they will make their payments fine, but if anything goes wrong, it’s going to throw a wrench in the plans. Personally, I know I’m not at a point where I’m responsible enough to be a home owner. I have a lot of other things going on, and I have trouble enough not putting off today’s debts until tomorrow without a loan to stack on that. I like the flexibility I have as a renter, even if I currently have a rent that is probably on par with what I could get a repaired foreclosure for. That isn’t how I want to tie up my money or myself at this time. Another thought the past few years have helped change is the idea that one could simply sell and move. It’s obviously not that simple. I get that life circumstances change, but that’s something that needs to be considered when purchasing a home. It may change the month after you sign the paperwork, but it’s still worth bearing in mind. On top of all that, I think there’s one more bigger thought that needs to be considered before you are putting that pen to paper and signing all those documents. Do you truly understand what you are getting into? That’s a lot of money to take out; it’s a big responsibility. No one should feel any pressure to be a home owner; if it’s the right decision, it shouldn’t feel like pressure at all. There’s a lot out there, though, and that needs to change too. There shouldn’t be any sort of stigma attached to people who are not home owners. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not weird. It helps people maintain a different level of financial freedom and responsibility, a level that’s probably enough for some people. I might rent my place, but it’s still my place, and I shouldn’t feel that it’s not just because I signed a lease instead of a deed.

Lastly, the government needs to change its stance. I think FHA has done a lot of things that are not so great, and while they help a lot of people get homes that have lower qualifying criteria, there’s also some danger therein. I see FHA loans where I can’t help but think at this time, it’s okay, but given the lack of wiggle room, if anything goes wrong, this is just going to be another foreclosure going across someone else’s desk in a few years. Even with the deflated home values out there right now I think that. It’s the little things that can get you, after all. If the values do come around, that’s good, but then the taxes get a little bit higher, and you can get a little more out, and then all of a sudden we’re doing the same thing all over again. Plus, it’s a little suspect where the money that’s going to guarantee all these FHA loans is even coming from these days. The government obviously wants to stimulate the economy during a recession, and home ownership’s a hell of a way to do it. It’s a lot of money, and a lot of different people touch that money. It moves, and when money moves, that’s how a lot of the banks and lenders are making their money. The government wants that kind of activity right now, but I think there’s danger in continuing to promulgate the American dream as synonymous with owning a home. Owning a home is a highly personal decision; outside help is great, but can again lead to problems. Too much dependence on a special loan program, having to work a second full time job just to afford the home, whatever the case is, whatever a borrower leans on to help make home ownership dreams come true can become problematic. The government puts a lot out there to encourage everyone that this is a great idea, being a homeowner. It’s a rosy picture, having your own little space that you have control over, that you maintain and can come home to and truly call your own. But it’s not your own until you’ve paid off all the mortgages against it. In the case of many borrowers, it will never truly be your own. I’m always impressed when I see the older people and the estate sales of properties that have been paid off for 10, 20 years, with no additional mortgages against them. It’s just a lot more common these days to see a purchase loan, maybe a smaller loan later to leverage value, a refi to consolidate those two debts, a cash out a few years later for college, the boat, the second, whatever. These are people who are never truly going to own that home outright; there’s always going to be a mortgage against it. Yes, it can be the prudent decision depending on the circumstance. Some people can easily afford to do that; others cannot, but still feel it’s an option. There’s a lot of care that should go into any loan. Certainly, they are important to the modern economy. But that doesn’t mean that everyone can manage loans as well as others. I see enough credit reports to know that. I strayed a little bit from the government, but needless to say, they can help do their part by not subsidizing this whole mess. People should be aware of the trust costs. They should understand them, lenders should do a better job illustrating them, and the government should do less to hide them. When will we get to a point where the industry looks like that? I hope it’s not too far in the future, but I wonder if we can ever truly get there. As a country and as individuals, it doesn’t seem like responsibility has been high on our list of priorities. Everyone’s looking for someone else to blame in the mortgage mess when the reality is we all are culpable. There’s a lot everyone can do better. There’s a lot of distrust on all sides. The government doesn’t seem to really want to rein in the industry; the industry doesn’t seem to want to follow the law; plenty of borrowers don’t seem to want to pay. I wish I had an easy solution. I don’t think there is one. These are just the thoughts of someone who works with this stuff every day, potentially from a different perspective than you are used to.

You Are Ecclesiastes

“There must be something about books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Sometimes I feel like my education is lacking. It’s not education’s fault, though. There’s just too much to learn out there. Somehow, I made it through school without ever having read Fahrenheit 451. Never assigned. Never given to me by anyone. Never came up in my recommended reading. Never even came up in my dystopian future reading phase. But I was reading something else which had that above quotation, and it was mildly on my radar since it’s a posthumous Hugo winner, and then after one night, I’d finished it. I wonder why modern science fiction tends to be so long, almost as a rule. Here’s a book that’s probably only 50,000 words. And it doesn’t need anymore. Gets in, gets out, and says what it needs to say along the way. I really appreciate a book that does that. Sure, there could have been more development of some of the subplots in the novel, but they didn’t need to be developed. I respect not going too deep into the world that an author creates. I think it’s a tougher thing to do as a writer than we realize sometimes. After all, the writer needs to have a more fleshed out concept of this place, who these people are, what motivates them, etc. I even believe that’s why sequels and the like occur even when it doesn’t seem like they are necessary or pertinent. The author has to know more, but he or she ideally only lets us in on what we need to know. Let us wonder, and speculate, and react on our own. I wonder about the structure of a hidden society that preserves literature inside people; I wonder what really happened to Clarisse and her family; any good novel should leave us with plenty of questions. It’s not an author’s job to tell us everything, even if we would like that. The more novels in a series, the more questions people should end up with. It’s satisfying to get all the answers, sure, but is it necessary out of a novel?

I think not. If my education itself is incomplete in that I will never have the time to read all that I want to, then why should what I get out of a book be any more complete? I can’t read all the books that led to Ray Bradbury putting together the thoughts and ideas for Fahrenheit 451. And even if I did, I’m not going to be able to process them through the same lens. It doesn’t matter, though. As is discussed in the novel, that’s part of the problem with novels, why society wanted to get rid of them. All of our reactions to them vary. The ideas themselves may be fully concrete to some readers; to others, they may be mere phantasms. Whenever I read something especially fulfilling, it makes me want to read more. More by that author, more that influenced that author, more that is about that same subject, more that is about whatever ideas that novel touches on. I want to read more by Matthew Arnold just because of the novel’s excellent inclusion of “Dover Beach”. It’s the same reaction I had when I saw Huxley’s inclusion of Shelley at the end of Ape And Essence.

My education will always be incomplete. Even if I could go back and change the corpus that made up that education, I would have to leave something out to find time to put something else in. That’s okay. I may have read something I wasn’t ready for at 15 like Utopia; I probably waited too long to read Have Space Suit: Will Travel as it didn’t feel particularly challenging or engaging to me and it probably would have been when I was 15. But I can’t switch those two books in time. I read them when I read them. I made decisions. There is something about books, something that I’ll never be able to figure out. I’ll just have to read a few more to try and find out.

You Are Not A Snowflake

There is an op-ed in today’s Washington Post by Mae. N Ngai and John G. New blasting the mortgage industry for not given them a mortgage on a house that is irregular. Look at the pictures if you don’t believe me. While my analyst mind got thinking about it (since I deal with stuff like that at my job), I realized that I would have made the same determinations about this property that other people at other mortgage companies had made. Given the nature of the home as a unique structure (also on a large lot which affects things as well), I would be hard-pressed to think of an appraiser who could come up with comparable that wouldn’t have excessive adjustments. I would certainly utilize measures at work to ensure that the value is supported. I’ve done this before in similar situations where the house itself is probably reasonably valued, but it doesn’t fit the neighborhood. Even when I’m not at work, I think about homes like that. I know a couple who have a house that constantly causes me to wonder how it was appraised. From a professional standpoint, I understand why it would be difficult to find a lender that would give you a mortgage.

We all want unique, right? Or so many of us would like to think. It’s certainly popular to think of us as individualistic little snowflakes. And all of us are unique. But there’s a lot of sameness that connects us all as well. Many of us desire similar things out of life. Whether those are in-born desires or desires shaped by the society we live in is irrelevant. We have those desires, and most of us don’t step too far off the path, even when we think we are. There might be some area in particular where you are rather different than your friends. Take, for example, the authors of that op-ed. They want a unique house. But there’s really no accounting what everyone else they know would think of buying a home like that. Maybe many of their friends would. Probably many wouldn’t. For as much as we are all unique in some facet or area of our lives, we are homogeneous in many, many others. I may like music that is well outside the boundaries of what you consider normal or listenable, but I will spend a lot of money on a lot of food that is the same from place to place. Fast food isn’t good for me in many cases. And rarely do I ever feel like I’m finding some sort of exceptional flavor when I’m eating it. I know that. But there’s a sameness that’s comforting about it. I know what I’m going to get at a Chipotle here, or at a Chipotle in Denver. They should be the same, and that’s part of the concept. The reason I dislike a lot of pop music is because so much of it is the same. Yet that is exactly the reason so many people like it. And they might disdain my love of Chipotle for their local burrito place that only has one or two locations. If I am that person who only eats at my local places, whenever I travel, I’m faced with a lot of difficult decisions. I have no idea what I can count on as reliable.

Taking the argument one step further, maybe it’s our expectations that are the problem. We don’t want to be surprised. So we see the same movie. We might complain when we see the previews for it, but we’ll go see it, and it is the same as a movie we saw 10 years ago. Maybe Skyline is just another Independence Day, with a decade’s worth of special effects as the major difference. It certainly looks that way to me, and I wasn’t planning on going to see it anyway. I don’t see a lot of movies, though, so maybe that’s not a great example for me. Or maybe it is a good example in the sense that unless I think the movie I’m going to see is going to entertain or otherwise engage me (something I haven’t seen before) or I know it’s going to entertain or otherwise engage me (something I have seen before, but am willing to see again), I don’t go see it. After all, the last movie I saw in the theater was Back To The Future. I own that. I’ve seen it over a dozen times. I know exactly what I’m getting. Which is comforting. I could go take a chance on a new movie (like Skyline). It might please me immensely. Conversely, it could be incredibly disappointing. I don’t seem very open to those possibilities when it comes to the movies I seek out. At least, I’m not anymore. There was a time when I used to go see and rent a lot more movies. But now, when I see a movie, I like to know what I’m getting into. 17 year-old me saw L.A. Confidential without knowing a damn thing about it going into the theater. 29 year-old me isn’t even at the theater to take that chance. I’ve become risk-averse with my movie watching. If I’m going to spend 2 hours doing it now, I like to know what I’m getting into.

Certainly, I still take risks with many things, specifically the music I listen to. I will go see bands I’ve never heard. I had only heard one song by Candy Claws previous to their show at the 400 Bar last night. It didn’t matter. I’d read enough positive stuff and liked that song enough to take the chance and go see what it would be like. That it was only $5 didn’t hurt either. But I could run off a list of shows this year of bands I’ve seen because I’ve read something that made me think it would be entertaining. Even in the modern era when you can download entire catalogs by bands, I still tend to only know a song or two from a new band before buying their record, and I’m still willing to spend $10-20 bucks on those LPs. I knew nothing about Grass Widow other than they are signed to Kill Rock Star, it’s a three-piece with a lot going on musically (multiple overlapping vocal lines for example), and 2 songs. I walked out of the show with 2 LPs and an EP. I saw Free Energy last year at DC9 on the strength of “Dream City”. There were maybe 40 other people there. Last night there were 25. As a fan of music, I take many risks. But what did I grab for dinner last night on the way to the show? Wendy’s. Sure, it’s cheap, but I passed at least a dozen other restaurants that are just as cheap, and probably just as quick. I didn’t try them, haven’t tried many of them, and probably never will try many of them. Even as someone who tries a lot of different restaurants, I need a little bit more to go on to actually get me through the door. Sometimes it’s someone else to go with me. I used to be that way about going to shows. But then I started going to shows by myself. Eventually, I got to like it. I miss going with other people. When it’s a shared experience, it’s different. You have someone to talk about it with and I think that affects how we remember things, if for no other reason than there are multiple accounts of what happened. But I can leave as soon as I want to, show up when I think I need to be there, and not juggle anyone else’s preferences on where we stand or sit, how long we need to stay, or any of that stuff. Anyway, only doing something with someone else is just another way of being risk-averse. Certainly, it’s sensible if you are going to do something potentially dangerous. In many cases, though, it’s just an artificial barrier, something that we put in place that makes it harder to take risks. Whether it’s because someone is willing to take part in the risk or something else entirely, it’s certainly easier to take chances that others are willing to take with you.

It’s something to think about, anyway. In what ways are you willing to take risks? And in what ways are you not? How much of the pressure comes from within and how much comes from outside of you? We may have plenty of things that make our home space unique, our knickknacks and belongings (or lack thereof) imbue our spaces with a certain sense of who we are, from our cubes to our homes to our cars. But those spaces are still generically the same from places to place, and there’s some amount of comfort in that. I’m not going to try and claim that I’m that different. I know there are plenty of areas that I’m just not that willing to take risks in. It’s scary too. It doesn’t mean that I think everything in my life needs to change. But I know what it’s like to take a risk you never think you’re going to be able to. Sometimes we have to get over that risk-averse behavior to truly live or get the things we want. I hope no one believes that because I professionally would have not accepted a round house I personally didn’t want those people to have that home. I do want them to have it. I think it’s awesome that they want something that probably almost no one else out there would. Conversely, though, they reveal a lack of understanding with how the system works if they are blaming it on the current rules of the market. It’s a cursory piece that barely touches on numerous factors that could lead to it not being purchased. There are plenty of other things lenders won’t do that borrowers qualify perfectly for as well. Personally, I might be willing to take that risk, but I’ve been professionally trained to be risk-averse in regard to unique properties. And risk-averse at doing something that would lead to me losing my job. Those are chances that I am currently unwilling to take. Maybe my risk aversion will change in regards to my job in the future. Right now, I have tangible reasons for not wanting anything to disrupt that part of my life. Some might call them excuses, and possibly they all are. We all have our reasons for being risk-averse, though. Personally, I’d like to think it’s so that we free up enough energy to take risks in our lives in areas that matter. If being risk-averse with my job means that I can pursue all the other things that I want to right now, well, there’s a balance. Maybe in three years, I sell most of my stuff, put my records in storage, quit my job, and hike the AT. It’s not probable. But it seems just as possible now as transitioning seemed three years ago. And that turned out alright. I can’t possibly see the events coming in the future that are going to change what risks I’m willing to take. All I can do is be open to them, and take those risks when the opportunities present themselves. In the meantime, I’ll continue to be risk-averse in many other ways, big (keeping my job) and small (fastening my safety belt) to ensure that I get to that point. That’s all I can ask of myself.

Istigkeit

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In a vacuum, all music would be judged solely on its own merits. In fact, in a vacuum, that should be true of any individual, idea, etc. But we don’t live in a vacuum. Everything has to deal with the accumulated weight and detritus of the past, whether people recognize it or not. Something is new not only because it is now in existence, but because it is (against all odds) actually something different than what came before, not just an amalgam of what came before it. By that measure, SPORTS is not new. They are just another band using sonic combinations that other bands have used before to produce music. They are using drums, guitars, and vocals no differently than many bands that come before them or many bands that will come after them. They probably all did it before in other bands, invariably bands that sounded quite different than this (isn’t that how it always works?). It is not new except by virtue of the fact that they released it to the world in October of 2010. So if it’s not newness that I’m after as a listener, then what is it? And what am I judging this music against, since I’m not hearing it in a vacuum. What is it that causes me to keep hitting play over and over?

Sometimes a song just comes along at the right time. 2010 has thus far been a great year for electronic-infused, danceable indie rock; for example, from Caribou’s excellent Swim or just about any single that Robyn has put out this year, and this is just another song to add to the mix. It just fits in with the general flow of 2010, what I’ve been listening to, and what’s been catching my ear. It’s more of a slow burner, one of those danceable tunes that builds over the course of the song, but one that’s always sure to get your head nodding. And before you know it, the rest of you is kinda moving along with it. A good song, like a good book, fills a need that you maybe didn’t even know you had. Even after listening to it a dozen times, I can’t really put my finger on what it is about this that sets it apart from a lot of other songs I’ve heard recently. Processed through the lens of a Huxley-loving indie fan, it’s istigkeit. The song is what it is. And it fills a need for me, and several other bloggers out there, and it’s certainly getting attention. That’s half the battle these days. Will it be successful? If you ask me, it already has been. Now go listen to it again, like you need to be told.

SPORTS haven’t even played their first show yet. If you both read my blog (unlikely) and live in the Seattle area (doubly unlikely), you should go see them. Be sure to head over to Bandcamp to download “To Catch A Thief” and more; listen to even more at their Myspace; check out their blog for news and more goings on in the life of a band. Keep your fingers crossed for when you too can line up to by a limited edition 7″ (here’s hoping, right?).

 
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