I'm thankful for my family of friends that has come together in my time in New Zealand, and that when I make it back to America the friends that I've abandoned still, more often than not, have time for me, let me invade their houses, and have continued to be people that I respect, admire, and care for deeply.
I'm thankful for everyone who helped me make JAKE, and is now helping to finish make JAKE, and I promise that I will do my best to make sure that everyone gets to see it next year.
I'm thankful I have work coming up, so that I can finish paying for JAKE.
I'm thankful for the power of music - something that is suddenly prominent in my life right now, having been reunited with my collection of records and CDs and my accordion all at once, while suddenly apparently starting a band. About which, more as it comes.
I'm thankful for the existence of TROLL 2, LADY TERMINATOR, MAD FOXES, PIECES, TRIBULATION 99, and HAUSU. For Richard Ford, George Saunders, Jonathan Franzen, and Richard Powers. For Sharon Jones, The Fall, The New Pornographers, Max Richter, Come, and Superchunk. And countless others.
But especially Superchunk.
I'm thankful I didn't have to hear Bono dedicate a song to the Pike River mine disaster tonight.
And I'm thankful for my family, without whose support I have no idea where I would be today, and who somehow put up with me, despite it all.
(Note: the content of this post is not nearly as interesting as the title may imply.)
How one comes to love music, and why, is a mysterious and beautiful process to me. I nearly tossed everything in to go to grad school back in 1997, with a view of getting a cognitive science degree and studying preference formation. (I'm sure there's a smarter academic term for it that I'm unaware of, but I'm just sticking with that.) Why is one person's beautiful music another person's unlistenable crap? Why does one song speak deeply to one person's heart and fail to register in anothers?
Et cetera. More intriguingly, to me, why and how do we shift from hating something to loving something. Two of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats and Guided By Voices, are bands I actively disliked on first blush, and it was only after repeated entreaties from friends who were fans that I gave them the chance to get under my skin. These days, they're bands I schedule international travel to see.
Now, there's a third band, who I've resisted for most of a decade, and whose charms have finally proven themselves to me. I'm talking of The New Pornographers. Fronted by Carl Newman (who also releases excellent records under the name A.C. Newman), and featuring such luminaries as Daniel Bejar (who also releases excellent records under the name Destroyer) and Neko Case (who also releases excellent records under the name, um, of Neko Case), this indie-rock supergroup immediately came out of the gate with an album, MASS ROMANTIC, that became a favorite of all my friends in Portland and was virtually inescapable, in record stores, in bars, everywhere.
And I hated it. I found it shrill and cloying, overly simplistic, the aural equivalent of being poked in the side at regular, frequent intervals. Decide for yourself: here is "Letter From An Occupant".
A couple years later, ELECTRIC VERSION came out, and somehow I wound up with no less than three different tracks from it being sent to me on various compiliations. They all sounded the same to me, twenty pounds of sugar in a ten pound bag. Here's "The Laws Have Changed".
Around this time, I took it for granted that I'd just never, ever understand this band. I couldn't quite let it go, though - I was active on a music geek mailing list at the time, and I'd look at the best of lists of other friends on there, and there'd be 9 albums I loved, and then the freaking New Pornographers. And then there were all their individual projects, which I mentioned before. There's the beautiful desolation of Neko Case, this being a fan video of "Deep Red Bells":
Then there's the post-Bowie grandeur of Destroyer, "Blue Flower/Blue Flame" here represented by a screensaver but nonetheless awesome:
And then A.C. Newman's solo project, easily as poppy but using a diverse, textured instrumentation to entirely different effect than he does in his band, this being "The Town Halo":
And how so much talent could combine to so little effect mystified me. (I don't mean to sell short the other members, by the way, whose works I'm less familiar with. I bought a Kathryn Calder solo record last night at the show; thus far, I'm really enjoying it, and look forward to getting to know it a lot better.)
When TWIN CINEMA came out, finally, there was a song I connected to. I assume someone put "Sing Me Spanish Techno" on a compilation for me, and after the second or third time, I was hooked. The hooks are backloaded on this one. But, in my case, boy do they sink in.
But it didn't really lead anywhere for me, for reasons I can't discern: as the Silkworm album goes, even a blind chicken finds a kernel of corn now and again. By the time CHALLENGERS came out, I don't think I was even interested in hearing it, and at this point was completely insulated from them. When they came to visit New Zealand in 2008, I didn't even seriously consider it. Which is a shame, as CHALLENGERS, I think, may be their best album. Check out this awesome video of Daniel Bejar singing "Myriad Harbour":
Fast-forward to Matador 21, last month, not long after the release of TOGETHER (their fifth album, which I had completely ignored), where the New Pornographers are jammed into the last day alongside Ted Leo, Yo La Tengo, and Guided By Voices, after a matinee show by The Clean (and ~15 hours of music the previous day). With such a full day, I seriously contemplated using them as a dinner break. But my showgoing companions were insistent of gaining an up-close spot for them, and I decided to give them one. last. chance.
This is where I tell you that the skies opened and it all made sense, right? Not at first. After so many amazing sets of music, it wasn't feeling revelatory, "Sing Me Spanish Techno" felt slow and perfunctory, and Daniel Bejar didn't really seem to want to be there (he rarely plays live with the band these days). But they had a nice stage banter, and I wasn't finding it painful, so after thinking about bailing I decided to stick it out.
I think it was the tambourine, which Neko plays mostly, that suddenly unlocked it for me. At the time, I made a reference to campfire sing-alongs, but in retrospect that wasn't quite right. In fact, what the New Pornographers are doing has to me a secular gospel feel, as raised on pop records. Maybe I'm crazy (well, I am; beside the point), but with slightly different lyrics and older production value, I wouldn't be surprised to hear these songs popping up on some Numero Group release. (Who are Numero Group? That's a whole post in and of itself.)
The NPs rely on a lot of sing-along harmonies, songs that you can sing along to after a certain point even if you've never heard them before, and others that are burnt in your head after one listen. "Testament To Youth In Verse" is a great example, a song I've never heard a recorded version of, but after just one listen its outro insistently buzzes "no no no no no no no no no no no no ..." in my head at random times.
And then it's the end of the set, and there's "The Bleeding Heart Show", which is a song I had heard but never really paid attention to. Somehow. I consider this a gross personal failing, because seeing it live, it was a roller coaster of joy, and with a room full of bouncing people singing "Hey, la, hey, la, hey la, hey la ..." it became one of the best experiences of the weekend.
And so a month and half later which is last night I saw the NPs again, this time without Daniel Bejar (a mixed blessing) and playing a full-length set (an unmixed blessing), and these songs that once irked me now delight me, it was a glorious experience, and I wish I could have convinced more friends to go and share the joy. But no one that I exposed them to seemed to like them very much.
Ah well, give it a decade, I suppose, and they'll be bouncing along with me, singing like there's no tomorrow, "We have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show ..."