Tag Archives: music

Tuning in to tune out

Original illustration by Robert Pinero.

Original illustration by Robert Pinero.

Commercials for a certain top of the line brand of headphones are my latest pet peeve.  Leave it to some of the most manufactured personas in music to capitalize on escapism by branding their product as its most vital “option” . . . And okay, while that is essentially what all branding is about, it’s always sad when something that used to be not so branded becomes heavily so.  Sad as watching as it happen to a cow’s butt (and I don’t even like cows).   There had to have been a time when sneakers were just sneakers.  Some brands were known for their relative quality, and some weren’t.  But then advertisers linked sneakers to professional athletes and their “god-like” quality of being victorious¸ and then, in the period after that, to fashion.  The wardrobe-matching potential of footwear and anything electronic/portable have obviously been a boon to their respective brands.

So the appeal of headphones is no longer just about music; it’s about music in the context of being surrounded by people, either to drown them out, or so they can notice the status-marker you have that happens to play music.

Lately I’ve had more sympathy for people who keep their heads glued to head- or smart phones in between everything — except for people who do such behind the wheel or while trying to cross the busiest of crosswalks.  If you’re not lucky, society hasn’t made getting to and from anything easy.  There’s less breathing room, less of everything, and the world asks more of you to get that.  (Always worth noting that note less of everything exists because of someone else’s greed.)

I was talking the other day to someone who suggested that, without smart phones, one would be actively trying to avoid making eye contact if you weren’t in a place you felt comfortable.  Some people are oddities wherever they go, and avoiding the awkward social component of that has to be appealing.  One of the reasons we listen to music, in the first place, is because it can make the world feels like it’s not such a mess … except for jazz, which some people maybe like because it’s a “brilliant” mess.  Yeesh, I say.

Anyway, if you’ve got headphones on, maybe you’re tuning in to something that makes the world seem less uphill.  Of course, people are also — and perhaps more frequently — trying to stay in tune with the latest flickering idol of a non-existent attention span, or validate their stupider tendencies.

Now they’ve got headphones perfect for the person who wants the world to be in sync with his or her own usually loud and abrasive soundtrack.  ‘Cause while someone may be disenfranchised from the things that society says really matter, one can loudly play music that suggests he or she is some kind of big wheel.

Ah, headphones, keeping you distracted from life — and depending on the brands you like, another stylish component of the image of the multi-media show that is “life” itself.


In honor of today

Lida Husik talked about Martin Luther King Jr. in my 2011 interview with her: “The American travesty that hurts me the most is the Black Experience.  I’m not a do-gooder, or politically active, besides voting, and being vegan. I don’t protest things or write my congressperson.  But I was six years old when Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. I remember that day and how it felt like a wound piercing my heart.  So this was what the grown-ups got up to.   The heart of a child never gets used to constant disappointment in adults. I grew up in Washington, DC, in the white sector, although later in jr. high and high school black kids were bussed in from other parts of the city, so I was exposed to that other culture thoroughly—and in the seventies as well, a different world.  You couldn’t see the math problem on the board through the sea of afros.  The black kids were loud, angry, and funny; they sang and danced in the halls and popped gum.  There was Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Parliament.  The hits were sung with gusto.  We little white kids tapped our Lawrence Welk toes hopefully along to the beat.  The black kids had a different way of speaking, mellifluous and abbreviated, full of mysterious code words that cracked them up.  We were meek and pale and tongue-tied, and turned even whiter next to them.  Most of our teachers were black, too.  They were warm and funny and had life experience in their faces.  The white teachers seemed shriveled and boring and nasal.

Art by Robert Pinero. Words by Lida Husik.

“Flash forward to the eighties and nineties and this godforsaken decade.  I am enraged by ‘gentrification’, the very word is so offensive, as if a bunch of ‘gents’ in ascots gallantly swoop in, take off their top hats, and say, ‘Sorry old chaps, we must have use of your neighborhood, but look, there’s a perfectly good crime-ridden suburb for you to move to, and we’ll just turn your old mammy church into a hipster wine bar’; and this has happened everywhere.  The old black grandmas can’t afford the property taxes; if there are government programs that could help they aren’t told about them, etc etc.  Now, I’m not saying that blacks are good and whites are bad; that would be stupid.  The black community has disappointed me too.  I don’t like the anti-gay bias.  I wish there was more of the old-time values instead of the hopelessness and violence, but that’s also just economics.  Mainly though, I’m so sick of how ignorant and selfish some white Americans are.  Just how ignorant of history do you have to be not to appreciate the great moment Obama’s nomination was?  How could you look at one second of footage of the sixties German Shepherd attacks and fire hoses, wielded by government employees, and not grasp that incredibly emotional opportunity for justice?  How could you not vote for Obama and call yourself a Christian?  Well, the hypocrisy never ceases to amaze.”


Joel Cadbury on South ‘sounding as diverse as their record collection’ — and more

Joel Cadbury, the primary lead vocalist in a the now defunct (but no less excellent) British band  South, was  kind enough to do this Words Away interview.


What connotation does ‘South’ have where you’re from?  The difference between north and south in the U.K. doesn’t seem as raw as the one in the States, but between the trio of yourself, Jamie McDonald and Brett Shaw and another band like The Beautiful South, I wonder what it means to you. 

Growing up in London at a time when a lot of the bands that influenced us came from the North of England — bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays — the name South was a kind of tongue of cheek dig but also by default an association to those bands.

It also confused people, as we’re North Londoners, so in London people thought we were speaking up for South London, but it wasn’t the case.

We never really took the name too seriously.  Although the North/South divide does exist in the UK, it’s not really the same as the States where in each State there is a North/South divide.

It’s easy to see reggae permeating through a lot of British music, including alternative rock or any other variation.  But one would probably be hard pressed to see anybody close to the root of that in any mainstream (even the mainstream indie) sense.  It hasn’t really been an overt influence in much of the work of yours that I’m familiar with, but — from your vantage point — how are people interacting with it at all?

I feel there is a stigma with white guys playing reggae and there shouldn’t be.  Man, Jamie and I had the whole Trojan back catalogue and borrowed the odd riff or melody on more than one occasion. There is also a 7 minute dub instrumental called “Dub Remedies” that came out as part of our 4 track sessions.

I think you’d be surprised how much influence reggae has on the mainstream.

What inspires you?  What’s something you wish more people had heard or read?

Hard to answer, but a record I’ve heard recently that I love is a 70’s record called “Dreamin’ Wild” by Donnie and Joe Emerson.  I am also always in awe of the vast catalogue of Can; there is always more to discover.

I feel like there’s a particularly dream-like nature to the lyrics in a lot of South’s early work, in which the music and lyrics were so evocative that I always felt like I got exactly what a song was about on an emotional level.  But you guys evolved over the course of four albums and to me songs on Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars, for instance, had more personal clarity carrying over in the lyrics. 

How has your approach to songwriting and crafting music changed over the years?

Our lyrics started out pretty abstract.  It was about creating a mood that could be expressed in the tone of the song musically as much as lyrically.  I wasn’t really concerned with telling a story — more reflecting half-remembered dreams.

I think the more we worked together the more we would look for new ways to challenge one another to keep it interesting for ourselves. That included being more specific about the themes we wanted to express. On the later albums Brett also took more of an active role in writing lyrics (and singing them).

And his approach was different to Jamie and I.  It did add another dimension to what we were doing.

In addition to being the song you might want to play after you’ve listened to the most banal pop song, “Autumn Morning” is not quite like anything else you guys did.  It’s got this relentless rocking quality, but it’s also funky in a way that I think would make Stevie Wonder and New Order nod their heads.  How did it come about?

South never ever settled on a particular sound, perhaps to our detriment.  We just weren’t built that way.  The music we listened to filtered into our collective consciousness, and we were happy to sound as diverse as our record collections.

The music we listened to filtered into our collective consciousness, and we were happy to sound as diverse as our record collections.

“Autumn Morning” is a good case in point.  We were messing around with sampling our guitars and drums and re-triggering them from an MPC.  That gave us the us the basis of the whole track.

It also coincided with the band taking a much more DIY approach to our records.  The big studios and producers were gone.  The big budget albums were gone.

We spent what money we had on building our own studio in Hackney and doing it all ourselves, learning as we went.  Our music of that period did share the DIY aesthetic of bands like New Order.

Songs like “a place in displacement,” which appeared originally on the Speed Up/Slow Down EP, to “lonely highs” two albums later on You Are Here, speak to a sense of isolation that South explored frequently throughout every album.  Also, in lines like, ” in a world gone mad / don’t let it go to your brains”  you spoke to the reality of life, but in a way that (often jubilantly) prompted the sentiment: “there must be more to life than this / no mistaking happiness.” 

Has that been something you’re conscious of?  I can still hear the same sensibility in songs like “Caged Bird” and “Ever Rest.” (songs Cadbury worked on for Unkle’s  “Where Did the Night Fall: Another Night Out”)

It’s weird.  It’s just the way it comes out.  I don’t deliberately set out to write a song about any one particular subject, but I guess in a way we were quite isolated.  We were never the darlings of the music industry; it’s only through fans enjoying our music that we kept going for as long as we did, not the industry. I don’t know how at peace I felt when you always feel you are not getting success (whatever that means).  It can be a brick wall, but then there is always more to life.

We were never the darlings of the music industry; it’s only through fans enjoying our music that we kept going for as long as we did, not the industry.

Per “Tell Me,” have you figured out if we can see more from the other side yet?

You know what?  I think we can see more from the other side. Jamie, Brett and I all now have families of our own and are still good friends and that’s all I can ask, coming through relationships as long and intense as ours.  We met at school when we were 11 years old and we’re now 35 — and to be able to look back and feel as proud as we do about what we achieved is a great feeling.  It’s also served as a good footing for the next stage of our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe one day we will do it all again : )

Cover of first South album, "From Here On In."

Cover of first South album, “From Here On In.”

Is a solo album on the slate?

Perhaps. I have been recording demos but have been working more on film soundtracks recently and have finished composing the music to my first Ballet, and to be quite honest I’m enjoying not having to be the front man for a while.

But saying that, there is always this music that’s got to come out so I’m sure sooner or later it will.


Much thanks to Joel for his time.



South on Amazon:


The top album cover is from South’s fourth and (so far) final album, You Are Here.

different notes

musicalnoteWhat I saw in the video for “Wake Me Up” by Avicii: A young woman walks around in a small, possibly southern town — she’s apparently supposed to be an outsider; all the drably dressed townspeople, including a black woman, give her and her sister the stink eye (yay for diversity).  The young woman wears a fashionable variation of a Union jacket.  She walks alone by herself one morning when, in what I imagine tourist advertisements for tropical islands also include, a man with dreads reaches out for her hand and his small group whisks her away to the smiley, safely diverse crowd at some concert (yay for diversity).  Aside from hippie-ish attire, they’re also distinguished by tattoos.  After said concert, she gets her sister and rides a horse to a more urban land of slightly multicultural goodness.

Music videos generally seem like a made-by-corporate-committee affair.  There’s lots of stuff to superficially and profitably appeal to a specific demographic.  Anything with a more singular vision, skewed or not, stands out a little.  The music video for the Black Key’s “Lonely Boy,” featuring the dancing of Derrick Tuggle to the rhythm and blues-drenched tune was a big hit. It wasn’t due on any intentional part of the Black Keys, but I always thought there was generally an undertone of amusement at how Tuggle seemed a bit square and yet his dancing was unbridled — this is mostly due to the way that rock is perceived now, as opposed to when it was rhythm and blues and performed by mostly black musicians whose cool affectations continue to be milked by rockers today.

So it was nice to see Tuggle in the video for Pharrell’s “Happy,” lip-synching on a music video with a kind of diversity not from some “hip” dream-reality.  There’s a swath of different people in there, all looking like they’re having a genuinely happy moment.  I haven’t followed his work too much, but it was the least cool thing I’ve seen Pharrell associated with and maybe it’s the better for it.  The music video for Bruno Mars’ “Treasure,” in which the woman of a crooner’s dreams is black (and not mixed) and portrayed with all the sentimentality and admiration that comes with that, is also not in line with the most superficial notion of cool.

Pure energy

Robert Pinero artwork

Robert Pinero artwork

Some people talk about taking a vacation to recharge their batteries — or maybe going on a retreat of some sort.  But I don’t know many with that option: to have one foot in a place you’d want to take a vacation from — and the other ably capable of stepping where life feels better.  Maybe it’s the latter part that makes one feel refreshed, like, Oh yeah, when I’m really tired, I can move to different air.  Or maybe it’s a sense of, of all the options that I know of, here’s a moment that’s good.

Everybody gets weary, at some point, and I’ve been thinking about the particular ways people try to revitalize themselves.   I’m not sure most people actually do that, so much as they throw themselves into some kind of escapism.  Generally that can be prefixed with junk: junk food, junk TV, etc.  None of which leaves you with a real sense of energy.

In some places, I’m not sure the simple act of breathing the air is conducive to feeling energized —  not in the traditional sense of what taking a deep breath should amount to (not when there’s a smog advisory).  If you’re in such a place and you’re aware of what smog is, or even if you think that it’s normal air, you need a sense of get up and go as much anyone.  As unfair as smog as normalcy is, stagnancy in escapism doesn’t help make that air seem any sweeter.

When it comes to fresh air, the old notion of countryside retreats for it can be a glorified kind of escapism in its own right — especially if you think of some nice area as off limits to the ‘pitfalls of urban life.’

I guess what I’m talking about is getting that sense of rejuvenation from something good–not just something that looks that way, but a real hearth.  Only not literally.  The only time I see those are on TV (Though those fake Amish deals look pretty nifty).  Something reliably heart-warming, instead.  It’s the inklings of such that can help keep you going: small acts of kindness; a smile from someone who seems to really see you; the feeling that you’re listening to a musician who wrote a song just to help keep you going.

You know, things that make you forget how airless the air can feel.


I wrote a review of the new Lisa Germano album for Rocker Zine: “Lisa Germano’s talent for producing stirring music remains clear on her ninth album, No Elephants, but it comes with asking a bit more of her listeners.”

The album doesn’t rip on elephants, so check it out.

Mull Historical Society on City Awakenings

mullalbum‘Mull Historical Society’ is the sometimes moniker of Colin MacIntyre, a singer-songwriter from the Scottish island of Mull.  After three albums under his given name, he’s taken up ‘Mull’ again for his latest, City Awakenings.  One of the things I like about his music is a tendency to go for broke.  He was good enough to answer a few questions in this Words Away interview:        


You wrote on your blog about being in a SoHo store, hearing one of your songs on the place’s radio feed, and how that made you feel closer to home.  Beyond home, would you say that your relationship to cities is somewhat mobile?  City lights, for instance, are probably most pronounced when you’re coming or going.   

I suppose hearing my song played in Soho NYC (as I was buying a hat) made me feel closer to home because whenever I connect with my music — no matter where I am — it reminds me of being the child in the bedroom, writing and recording my first compositions and that authenticity.  I recorded hundreds of songs in this way, learning and having fun with it. So that makes me feel like home — home as in what’s inside you, what makes you connect with your upbringing and the beginnings of becoming a songwriter, in my case. I’ve lived in cities since I was about 20, but my upbringing on the isle of Mull in the Hebrides never leaves me. It’s like a constant tap, a source of belonging. I do like the movement in cities — what I do is observe, that’s how I create — and there is more to observe in a city. I think going home from that kind of city environment for me then does make me appreciate the contrast with my home (Mull) even more so, and you do appreciate the beauty all over again. So I would say it is that which is more pronounced.

I first saw a city (Glasgow) at the age of 6, so coming to the city was memorable and that’s what the song ‘The Lights’ is about. The child leaving the bedroom, and opening up your senses to their attack / beauty / whatever else it is. That’s been my adulthood — trying to capture what is around me. It’s usually people.

Dreams seem to play an interesting role in your relationship to cities.  You dreamed about the city as a kid, and obviously you find your way to a few.  In “Must You Get Low,” ‘song-narrator you’ seems to sing about how the city gave you a sense of identity.  Dreams, and parts in them, can be written.  Is there an element of a city to you that’s always dream-like?

Yes, you can find the romance anywhere — even in the hustle of a city. I love ugly industrial city buildings. I used to drive to the dump in North Glasgow just to appreciate a particularly ugly pile of concrete; those journeys formed one of my early MHS b-sides, ‘Ugly Buildings Are Beautiful’. The song ‘Must You Get Low’ was my take on a city, in that it has a heart and a beat and personality much like we do. So the verses in the song were looking at my relationship and engagement with the city as just a small part of that pulse. Another part of the song (‘We write Dreams so what’s your part here’) was imagining an Orwellian group running the city’s subjects — controlling their lives (which was my original fiction in the song ‘Mull Historical Society’ of a group, in that case, controlling the island). The third element in the song (the choruses) is about a relationship of two people living in that city. This is sounding like some form of song maths in the explanation — but really it all comes from a spark, a feeling, something that touches me that makes me want to capture it. The romance, the city, its people. If I don’t capture it then I’ll lose it and a bit of me with it.

This is sounding like some form of song maths in the explanation — but really it all comes from a spark, a feeling, something that touches me that makes me want to capture it. The romance, the city, its people. If I don’t capture it then I’ll lose it and a bit of me with it.

How much of a city for you is in the parts that don’t look so great under some lights?

I suppose some of this is addressed above. I like to focus on small things, micro situations that hopefully tell a bigger, more universal story. I think that’s because I come from a small community — I’m drawn to the small things. In my experience as a writer you can only capture what moves and excites you as the writer and hope it subsequently resonates with somebody else. Cities are the things you witness; there is also ugly and obviously some things you witness are disturbing, but if it affects you (me) then you want to document it. So a city is a lot of things all under one roof: Glasgow, London & New York are the cities which most influenced ‘City Awakenings’ — people are people wherever they are. And the stories are usually the same. Things shouldn’t always look so great under the lights. A lot of inspiration for me comes from the darkness.

Things shouldn’t always look so great under the lights.

Across the board, who are some of the writers who’ve influenced your own work? 

Here’s some — in no real order: Philip Roth. Bob Dylan. Paul Simon. The Flaming Lips. Bach. Mercury Rev. David Bowie. Per Peterson. Raymond Carver. Marilynn Robinson. The Beatles. Lou Reed. Neil Young. Radiohead. Belle & Sebastian. Mozart. Children’s toy music boxes. Television.




The tangible form of the latest Mull Historical Society album is slated for stateside soonish from http://www.xtramilerecordings.com. You can find out much more about Colin and where to check his music out at his site.