Tag Archives: Robyn Hitchcock

Christmas songs for people who hate Christmas music

Christmas was a wonderful time when I was little: waiting for Santa Claus, helping Dad string up lights, the dog chasing the cat up the Christmas tree, traveling to see kin folks, and of course, getting presents. I have a little image from some long ago Christmas Eve, the living room lit up with different colors, music on the stereo, everyone in the family just enjoying one another’s company. The night just radiated happiness. I can recall plenty of other images like that if I try.

Over the years, the holiday has become less joyful. Getting older and having to worry about things like earning a living, persevering through a few painful Christmases where people were ill, watching the holiday become more and more commercialized, and probably worst of all: Christmas music. Countless renditions of the same old carols, year after year after year, generic-sounding Muzak versions, out-of-tune church choir versions, piecemeal bits in TV commercials. Try as you might, you can’t avoid it. You have to go to the grocery store, stop in a convenience store now and again.

Yet I do sometimes stumble on some Christmas-themed music I actually enjoy. Doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. I put together a little playlist of songs that I’ve been enjoying for the last several days. Some celebrate the holiday, some lampoon it, some just touch on it, all are great music. That’s a must for me.

Big Star – Jesus Christ — lovely song from a ’70s band that influenced a lot of people. You could take it as a pastiche or a straight up carol. Either way it’s really pretty.

Michael Doucet – Bonne Annee — actually a New Year’s song, taken from Alligator Stomp Vol. 4 – a Cajun Christmas.

Colin Meloy – Cherry Tree Carol — from the lead singer of the Decemberists, covering a song by Shirley Collins. It contains a lovely image of cherry trees bowing down to the virgin Mary.

Legendary Pink Dots – Rainbows Too? Really good Dots song from Plutonium Blonde. Contains the line, “It’s Christmas on the Moon.”

May Blitz – The 25th of December  1969 — a sort of jazzy number from one of those bands at the crossroads of hard rock, prog and metal.

Built to Spill – Linus and Lucy — live instrumental rock ‘n’ roll version of the song I associate with the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

Fountains of Wayne – I Want an Alien for Christmas — I Fight Dragons did an awesome cover of this. I love both versions just about equally.

Robyn Hitchcock – Winter Love

Jim White – Christmas Day — sad song about reuniting after a breakup.

We Were Pirates – Merry Christmas 3 — great breakup song.

Inspiral Carpets – Commercial Rain — a song about commercialism. Go figure.

Robert Earl Keene – Merry Christmas from the Family — really fun song about a white trash Christmas gathering.

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Top 5 songs about death

Or maybe not the top 5, just 5 songs I like a lot and could think of on short notice (and could find videos for on Youtube). I saw someone making a list like this on Facebook and figured I’d do one myself, sort of an addendum to my recent blog post, Almost Halloween — time to harvest those beautiful dark songs.

The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy- “Sister Death”

Ralph Stanley – O Death

Robyn Hitchcock – When I Was Dead

Alan Parsons Project – Can’t Take It With You

Legendary Pink Dots – This Could Be the End

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Songs for the Fourth

Happy Independence day folks! I love the holiday and I’m a patriotic kind of guy. I love watching those little parades made up of  kids on tricycles and in wagons, decorated in red white and blue and I always salute the color guard. Gets me all misty-eyed, but lets face it, the Fourth of July is not a very good day for art. Nobody can sing the Star-Spangled Banner on key, especially when you get to “and the rocket’s red glare,” and all those US flag decorations are kitchy at best. So what to post?

There’s no point posting Jimi Hendrix’s version of the National Anthem from Woodstock. I know you’ve heard that before. And I’m definitely not going to post Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” Blech. What I’ll do instead is put up a few vids of American-themed songs, whether they’re patriotic or not. America stirs strong emotions all over the world, both friendly and otherwise. That ought to make us feel proud. At least folks are thinking about us.

I also asked folks from Rate Your Music forum to come up with some USA songs and they’ve already come up with a ton of great suggestions. Check that thread out here.

What are some other good songs for Independence Day?

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Robyn Hitchcock: Thanks for twisting my brain into the correct shape!

I saw Robyn Hitchcock for the first time at South By Southwest 2004. Just him and his guitar. No band. At first I thought the frat boys in front of me were going to ruin it. They talked, clinked their beers together, yelled during the songs — you know, basic meathead behavior. But then in between songs, Robyn compared his guitar to a javelina, talked about how the world didn’t exist if you never went outside, talked about the German doppelganger myth: “If you see someone coming toward you who looks just like you, it means you’re about to die, or you just met an identical twin no one told you about — or both.” Really weird and funny. And the meatheads in front of me chuckled, shut the hell up and listened. He totally won them over. Very impressive.

It took a bit longer for me. I was already a big fan by 2004, but when I first heard Robyn’s music in the mid-’90s, I hated it. Several of his songs were included on the mixtapes that eventually turned me onto postpunk music. Before that I was pretty much a hard rock guy, though I was somewhat open to things like blues and classical and was starting to check out world music. But the radio sucked, and I could tell the music on those tapes had substance, so I kept listening.

Robyn’s were my least favorite at the time. First of all, I didn’t like his voice. Second, the lyrics were just too weird and disturbing. Because some of his songs were mixed in with stuff I did like right away — Chameleons, Shriekback, Peter Murphy, etc. — I heard them occasionally and tolerated them. “Leppo & the Jooves” and “Balloon Man” first started to grab my attention, and I would think okay, let’s give this guy a chance, and would pop in a tape my friend made of his favorite Hitchcock tunes–and I was lucky if I made it five or six songs in before I turned it off. I was like, blech, what’s wrong with this guy?

Then for some reason about two or three years later, something just clicked. I think it was “She Doesn’t Exist” that caught my attention. All of a sudden I realized he was absolutely brilliant. My friend’s Hitchcock mixtape seldom left my stereo. I played it over and over. From that point I couldn’t get enough of him. I had to get every CD of his I could find and thanks to SXSW I got to see him perform a couple of times.

If you’re not familiar with Robyn’s music, it can vary a lot in terms of energy and style, but all of it is influenced by the psychedelia of the ’60s. Syd Barrett is obviously a big influence. His early band The Soft Boys influenced REM (that band’s guitarist Peter Buck later joined up with Robyn in The Venus 3). In addition to being a wonderfully idosyncratic songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano, bass, harmonica), Robyn is also a visual artist. Some of his psych art wound up as album covers. Explore his website a bit if you want to get an inkling of his many talents: The Museum of Robyn Hitchcock.

My favorite Hitchcock songs change depending on when you ask me, but my custom mix goes something like this:

“The Crawling”
“Leppo & the Jooves”
“Man with a Woman’s Shadow”
“Into the Arms of Love”
“Where are the Prawns?” (from Soft Boys – Underwater Moonlight” – Matador Records release, an extra, I think)
“Chinese Water Python”
“Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)”
“Chinese Bones”
“Old Pervert” (an extra from Underwater Moonlight)
“Wang Dang Pig” (ditto)
“Only the Stones Remain”
“Railway Shoes”
“America” (from Gotta Let This Hen Out)
“When I Was Dead” (from Alive Not Dead live EP – I don’t like the one on Respect quite as much)
“Lysander”
“Egyptian Cream” (from Gotta Let this Hen Out)
“Vibrating”
“Balloon Man”

“Ted Woody & Junior”

“Brenda’s Iron Sledge”

“Trash”
“Let There Be More Darkness”

Not sure if that fits on a standard CD-R…

If you want to dive in and buy some albums, I would start with one of these: I Often Dream of Trains, Birds in Perspex, Storefront Hitchcock,  Gotta Get this Hen Out, or Fegmania. I really can’t recommend against any Hitchcock album, but those are my favorites and I can’t imagine anyone who “gets” him not enjoying them.

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Archive.org – a musical smorgasbord and all for free

Have I ever used the word smorgasbord before in my life? I can’t remember. Anyway, this time it fits. I’ve known about Archive.org for a long time now, but it’s been a while since I visited. Frankly, there’s so much stuff there that I find it a bit overwhelming, but if you ever have a little free time and want to dig around for some musical gems, you can’t ask for a better place.  They have a lot of live recordings – some of them surprisingly high quality. Some by bands and groups you know, a lot by people you never heard of. You can search by artist or you can browse. Some of the recordings have been reviewed, which will give you an idea about the sound quality and performance. You can download in a variety of formats – mp3, flac, ogg – or you can stream in a little radio on the page and judge whether you want it or not.

I found some nice concert recordings  from Robyn Hitchcock, Sarah Jarosz and the Asylum Street Spankers. Something else I just recently found is a collection of digitized 78 rpm and wax cylinder recordings. You expect those to sound a bit scratchy, but some of them are quite clear. Lots of old ragtime, vaudeville and stuff like that. Just found a singer named Sophie Tucker that I really like. I’m going to spend a lot of time downloading those songs, especially Tucker’s.

Music is only one part of Archive.org, which is a non-profit organization creating a digital library, archiving all kinds of material – art, culture, websites, written material, podcasts, you name it. Kind of like a private, all-digital Library of Congress. I could literally immerse myself in this thing for days at a time.

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Requiem for my ability to go to SXSW

When people find out I live in Austin (or close to it), they almost always ask if I’m going to South By Southwest (March 17-21 for the music festival, March 12-21 for the whole thing). Answer: I wish. I have been several times and mostly had a blast. Definitely discovered a lot of great music. However, I don’t know if or when I’m going back. I probably won’t unless I can get in with a press pass, which isn’t likely since my newspaper (The Hill Country News) is very local and we’re also working on a special section right around that time.

First time I went to SXSW, I got in with a wrist band, which is affordable, but now the demand is so high it’s almost impossible to get one. When they announce that wristbands are on sale, you have only a few hours to get to the location. Since I work in the burbs, that means it’s never gonna happen. I can remember when you had at least a week to mosey on down and pick up a wristband before they sold out.

Then assuming you did get one, everyone with a badge gets in ahead of you. So most venues and most shows will fill up before you ever get in. The Fire Marshal’s office is very strict on the issue of overcrowding. When a venue is full, that’s it. No one else gets in. I still got plenty of enjoyment out of SXSW as a wristband attendee, but now it’s so crowded that even badge-holders often wait in line for hours and don’t get into shows they want to see. And the badges are EXPENSIVE. To register now for the Music festival alone would cost $750. If you registered before Sept. 15 it was “only” $595. I like movies too, but I only ever attended the music festival because music comes first for me. A Platinum badge, which gets you into Music, Film and Interactive festivals, started at $920 and is now up to $1,225. Way, way out of my reach.

Two years in a row when I worked at another publication, I applied for and got press badges, which didn’t cost me, but I was expected to cover the festival and report on it. I would do feature stories on any local (Dripping Springs) musicians in the festival and would review the bands I saw each night. The newspaper I work for now can’t really use reports on SXSW so it’s not an option.

A couple of years ago I got the bright idea of taking my vacation during SXSW and buying my own badge, $500 on my credit card. Then my friend who was going to go with me got called away on business unexpectedly. He was supposed to come back and catch a few days of the festival with me but during his trip back he got a horrible case of the flu. So I was left to wander around the festival alone with no one to talk to. Then my radiator on my pickup truck blew up and I had to get it towed, and it cost me $300 to fix the thing. I still had a good time overall, found some great bands, but it made me pretty shy about plunking down that kind of money. It was scary enough planning a vacation to San Francisco last fall knowing the possibly deadly swine flu was going around. Lucked out on that one.

You might expect me to have sour grapes and say SXSW sucks and is too corporate, but the fact is I got a great deal out of it and would love to go back some year. I discovered a lot of great music there – Gogol Bordello, Antibalas, Kinky and Melissa McClelland to name a few. Also got to see one of my musical heroes, Robyn Hitchcock, three different times. Maybe one day…

If you happen to have a few thousand bucks lying around or work for a company that would pay your way and want to sign up, you can do it at http://www.sxsw.com/. And if you get to go, lucky SOB, tell me who you saw so I can live vicariously and discover some bands secondhand.

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