Rough Mix Issue #18

Rough Mix is a newsletter about all things audio curated by Aaron Rester and brought to you by Beartrap Spring Records. Every other week, I highlight great music, articles, podcasts and more that I think are worth sharing and spending some time with. Have a suggestion for something to share? Email roughmix@beartrapspring.com, or connect with Beartrap Spring on Facebook or Twitter. Music highlighted in these emails is available on our Spotify playlist.

Music

Adia Victoria, “Different Kind of Love”

I keep seeing Nashville-based singer-songwriter Adia Victoria’s style being described as “gothic blues,” which hits all the right buttons for me. This tune in particular, with its swampy snares and shivering lead guitar, is right in my sonic wheelhouse.

Podcast

“Imaginary Worlds,” on Audio Dramas

In a time of global freakout, escaping into a world outside of our own is a tempting thought. Eric Molinksy’s fascinating podcast about why we create imaginary worlds “and why we suspend our disbelief” mostly explores science fiction and fantasy films, novels, and other artifacts. In episodes 101 and 102, he explores the radio history and the podcast-era resurgence of audio dramas—how they’re produced, and why they’re so compelling.

Article

“The True Story Of The Fake Zombies, The Strangest Con In Rock History” –  Daniel Ralston, Buzzfeed

Ah, the ’60s. Back when no one knew what bands actually looked like, and all it took was adding some quotation marks for unscrupulous promoters to semi-legally run impostor acts—including future members of ZZ Top!—out on the road to capitalize on a mysterious British band’s hit single. This Buzzfeed article lays out the whole weird story.

My 2019 Mixtape

Last year was a pretty lousy year for a lot of people I know. Call it escapism, call it self-care, but sometimes music is the only thing that can pull us out of a bad place. Most of the songs on this year’s annual mixtape are pretty upbeat, even if the subject matter is often not (which should be no surprise if you’re at all familiar with the music I write), but the common thread between them all seems to be a belief that clawing one’s way out of the darkness and into the light is always possible… and having a good soundtrack never hurts.

“Only the Stars” by The Long Farewells is now out

Last week, my latest album (and the second record on Beartrap Spring Records), The Long FarewellsOnly the Stars was released. AmericanaUK called it “a fine album with lyrics to pique your interest and imagination… pleasingly literate songs with stories to tell,” and it’s available on just about every streaming and download platform out there. To save you the trouble of  looking for links:

This Sunday, November 10, we’ll be appearing on the Val Leventhal Show on Que4 Radio  to talk about the album and play a couple of tunes. Show starts at 10am, we should be on around 10:40 or so. And next Friday, November 15, is the album release show at the Montrose Saloon in Chicago.

Music News: The Long Farewells and Beartrap Spring Records

Somehow, summer is almost over, and I’ve been neglecting this site even more than usual, though perhaps for better reasons than usual.

“Johnny Went off to War,” the first single from the upcoming album by my new band, The Long Farewells, was released on August 1 (you can find it on Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, YouTube, and just about anywhere else music can be streamed). Only the Stars will be released digitally and on CD on November 1, and we’ll be playing an album release show on November 15 at the Montrose Saloon in Chicago.

As noted in my last post, I’ve expanded the online presence of the tiny record label on which both the new album and my previous solo effort were released. In addition to getting updates about Only the Stars, there are some other projects in the works for Beartrap Spring Records; if you’re interested in finding out about them as they grow, you can sign up for the bi-weekly newsletter, or connect on FacebookTwitter, or Spotify.

Introducing “Rough Mix”

Back in 2017, when I released Americayana, I did so through a conjured-from-thin-air label I called Beartrap Spring Records (named after the cabin in the Catskills where I grew up).

Now, as I prep for the second Beartrap Spring Records release(!), I’ve started an email newsletter in which I share audio tidbits—music, podcasts, books, articles, what-have-you—that I think are worth sharing and spending some time with.

If that kind of thing interests you, you can subscribe to the newsletter directly, or, if you head over to the Beartrap Spring Records site and sign up there, you just might get a sneak peek at the upcoming release.

My 2018 Mixtape

It’s that time of year once again… time for an endless parade of year-end best-of lists! Here is my contribution to the morass, along with a Spotify playlist featuring a song from each album. It was a tough call deciding on the top five, as it was basically a five-way tie for number one, and how I rank them will probably shift with my mood on any given day. Feel free to chime in with your own year-end lists in the comments!

  1. The Essex Green, “Hardly Electronic”
  2. The Limiñanas, “Shadow People”
  3. Superorganism, “Superorganism”
  4. Young Fathers, “Cocoa Sugar”
  5. The Beths, “Future Me Hates Me”
  6. Shakey Graves, “Can’t Wake Up”
  7. James Hunter Six, “Whatever It Takes”
  8. Fantastic Negrito, “Please Don’t Be Dead”
  9. Jeff Tweedy, “WARM”
  10. Rhett Miller, “The Messenger”
  11. The Decemberists, “I’ll Be Your Girl”
  12. Arctic Monkeys, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”
  13. Holly Golightly, “Do the Get Along”
  14. Cat Power, “Wanderer”
  15. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Virgo Fool”
  16. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, “Years”
  17. Wussy, “Getting Better” (EP)
  18. M. Ward, “What a Wonderful Industry”
  19. Courtney Barnett, “Tell Me How You Really Feel”
  20. Elise LeGrow, “Playing Chess”
  21. Thievery Corporation, “Treasures from the Temple”
  22. Cupcakke, “Ephorize”
  23. Superchunk, “What a Time to Be Alive”
  24. Mazzy Star, “Still EP”
  25. Belly, “DOVE”
  26. Holly GoLightly and the Brokeoffs, “Clippety Clop”
  27. Poster Children, “Grand Bargain!”

Making Americayana: Got to Go

After figuring out how my hero was born, the next episode in the story that I wanted to tackle was his exile. In many versions of the Ramayana (IMVOTR), Rama is exiled to the forest for fourteen years by his father at the request of one of his father’s other wives, who wants the throne for her own son, Rama’s brother. His wife and some combination of his brothers vow to follow him into the forest, and they have many adventures while traveling across India.

While trying to figure out why my hero would have to leave the family that had sacrificed so much to get him and head “out on the road” as I had already decided in “Burn So Bright,” I started thinking about how IMVOTR, Rama’s divine nature is unclear to the people around him (and sometimes even to himself). How unnerving it must be, I thought, to grow up around someone who just might be a god.

That in turn made me think of the HBO series Carnivale, about a young man who discovers he can bring the dead back to life; shunned by his family for possessing these unnatural powers, he joins a traveling circus troupe (the series was unfortunately canceled before revealing the true nature of the struggle between the hero and his apparently evil counterpart, a charismatic preacher). Why not combine aspects of both of those characters, I thought, and have my hero exiled by a community suspicious of the glimpses of uncanny powers that even he does not understand, and forced to make his living traveling the land as a preacher? Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger definitely had some influence in this idea as well.

Musically, “Got to Go” is pretty straight-up rockabilly — there’s a lot of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” in its DNA, especially in the lead guitar line. One slightly unusual aspect of the music is the percussion, which is made up largely of looped claps and table drumming; at this stage in the project I still had the idea that I was not going to use any software percussion, but rather just create loops of percussion I could do on my own. That idea didn’t stick, but it’s mostly in effect here. I’m also pretty happy with the distortion on the vocals and the harmonica, both of which were done through a Green Bullet microphone run through my guitar amp, in a nod to Little Walter.

Making Americayana: A Small Sacrifice

When I finally decided that “Burn So Bright” didn’t quite cover the whole story that I wanted to tell, and that I wanted to challenge myself to write an entire song cycle reimagining the Ramayana via country music, I also decided that I was going to try to write and record the whole album in sequence. While I had a rough idea of the various episodes that frequently occur retellings of the story, I wanted to see how each song would lead to the next lyrically and stylistically. So for the first song I was going to consciously write as part of this project, I wanted to start at the beginning of the story.

In many versions of the Ramayana (I guess I need to start using the acronym IMVOTR, since I’m going to be using this qualification a lot in these blog posts) the story begins with Rama’s birth. Usually, the story goes, Rama is an avatar of Vishnu, who crosses over to Earth in order to defeat the demon king Ravana. This ten-headed rakshasa, for complicated reasons, can be killed neither by a god nor a man; a god who is also a man, however, seems to have been an acceptable loophole (protip for demons: always read the fine print).

IMVOTR, Rama’s conception involves a long, complicated Vedic sacrifice performed by his father, King Dasaratha. As I thought about the kind of old, weird America where I intended to have the album unfold, I couldn’t figure out what the equivalent of such a sacrifice might be in such a milieu. Then I realized that that old standby of blues and Americana, the deal with the devil, was not unlike the ancient Vedic sacrifices — giving up something of value in the hope that a supernatural figure will provide what you want or need. I just needed to figure out why one of our hero’s parents would make that deal with the devil.

At the time I was writing “A Small Sacrifice,” I had a number of friends and relatives who were trying to have children, and it got me thinking about the lengths that people will go to become parents — frustrating years of trying IVF or other therapies, traveling to distant continents to adopt, and so on. Like Dasaratha, they were making profound efforts to get something they desperately wanted. Perhaps one of our hero’s parents would desire his birth so deeply that they’d be willing to give up their lives to make it happen. In the end, I decided to tell the story from the point of view of our hero’s mother, whose desire for a child leads her to make a deal with the local priest, who may or may not be a representative of the divine, or the diabolical.

The actual recording of the song started with the rhythm track, which is just a sample of a vinyl record that I slightly chopped up to provide a steady 4/4 beat. The chord progression is very simple, and repeats throughout the song, so to keep it interesting I started it out very sparse and added new elements with each verse — this kind of layering is something I do on a lot of songs. The first stringed instrument you hear is a ukulele, filtered through GarageBand’s “Telephone” effect.

The next verse introduces an acoustic guitar and a tinkling piano, then a banjo, then a tambourine and bass. The latter two were software instruments on GarageBand, since I didn’t own a bass yet; even after I bought one a couple years later and went back to re-record live some of the software bass parts I had been working with, I decided to leave this one as is. It’s so simple and, to me, perfect, that I could only screw it up by trying to make it more complicated. Finally, I added in a Telecaster played through my then-brand-new Fender Twin Reverb amp; I was (and still am) enamored with that classic vintage reverb sound, and you’ll hear it all over this record.

The thing that really ties the song together, though, is that haunting sample that starts the song and loops throughout the entire tune. I knew I wanted to add some kind of sample to add the feel of “ritual,” and I scoured Freesound.org for just the right one. When I stumbled upon this recording of a church choir in Holland, it felt perfect. Even though its rhythm is nothing like that of “A Small Sacrifice,” I love the way it winds in and out of the quiet spaces of the song, swelling and receding in a way that gave exactly the beautiful but slightly creepy texture I was looking for.

In an interesting epilogue, when I finally finished the album a good five years or so after I originally downloaded Klankbeeld’s recording, I went back to Freesound to try to figure out where to provide attribution. It turned out that the original recording had been accidentally deleted and was no longer available. But since I still had a copy on my computer, I was able to return it to its grateful creator halfway around the world. Sometimes the internet is amazing.

My 2017 Mixtape

As I’ve done the last few years, I’m posting a playlist of some of my favorite songs of the year for 2017. Rather than also post the list of my top 25 albums compiled for my annual higher ed web music nerd list, the songs are listed on the playlist in the order of my ranking (so, for example, She-Devils put out my favorite album of the year, Valerie June had my second-ranked, and so on). I had intended to recuse myself from including Americayana on the list, but just couldn’t resist the lure of getting to 25 albums. I’d love to hear what you think of the selections, and hope you all have a 2018 worth singing about.

On Tom Petty

It’s been just over two weeks since Tom Petty died, and some time stuck in an airport last week finally gave me a chance to jot down my thoughts on one of my favorite songwriters. My generation has lost a lot of its musical heroes in the last few years. We’ve been through this before, of course — back in the 90s with Cobain and Staley and Buckley and Tupac and a dozen others who, to borrow the cliche from an earlier generation, burned out before they ever had the chance to fade away. In this second, most recent round of losses, some — Chris Cornell, Phife-Dawg — are our contemporaries, who managed to make it through the peak of their fame and go on to establish long careers, only to have them cut short by illness, whether mental or physical. Others — Prince, David Bowie — were like cool older siblings, or the badass aunts & uncles who showed us you could be our parents’ age but still keep surprising everyone.

Tom Petty is the first of this recent group to whom I felt a real connection. I respected Prince and Bowie as artists, but their music never really did it for me. I owned and enjoyed (and still do) Soundgarden and A Tribe Called Quest albums, but they never really felt like “mine.” Petty’s music did, though. I wasn’t a fan from childhood. Yes, a cassette of Damn the Torpedos was in the rotation along with Bob Dylan and Huey Lewis and The Highwaymen in my dad’s truck when I would go visit him out west each summer, and I remember hearing the early stuff on the classic rock station that always played on the school bus, and the new stuff on the Top 40 station that I listened to because I didn’t know any better, and I remember seeing the video for “Into the Great Wide Open” at the houses of friends who had MTV. But it wasn’t until the Greatest Hits album came out, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was suddenly everywhere, that something clicked. Somehow that adolescent switch had been flipped that turns some of us from people who hear music to people who listen to music, where what had been sonic wallpaper suddenly becomes the soundtrack to our own lives.

By the time Wildflowers (still my favorite Petty album) came out, I’d discovered a whole new way of listening, like the shift from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz. And heard through that filter, Petty was unique among the songwriters I heard around me. He wasn’t creating surrealist wordscapes like Dylan or his grunge-era heir apparent, Beck. He wasn’t dramatic, confessional and angsty like Eddie Vedder and Adam Duritz (two other songwriters I idolized back then, but whose output has not aged nearly as well as Petty’s). He was crafting these understated impressionist short stories of characters in a moment in time, with enough specificity to create a mise-en-scène but leaving just enough space to allow your imagination fill in the gaps. In “Time to Move On,“ a woman is “moving through the airport, she’s an honest defector, conscientious objector, now her own protector;” I swear there’s an entire novel waiting in those two lines.

Yet Petty also seemed to never take himself too seriously. A deep sense of empathy for his characters lives side-by-side with a great sense of humor— the line in “Down South” where his narrator is “gonna impress all the women, pretend I’m Samuel Clemens, wear seersucker and white linens” never fails to make me smile. And on songs like “Free Fallin’,” he was able to take two-and-a-half chords and make them simultaneously anthemic and achingly intimate, timeless and completely of the moment. He was one of the artists who made me want to write songs, and his fingerprints are all over just about every song I’ve written in the last fifteen years (there’s a particularly obvious nod to him in the “it’s good to be king” line in “A Small Sacrifice”). If I ever manage to write anything even half as good as one of his tunes, I’ll consider my little hobby a perfect success.