Best tunes of 2013: #28 John Grant “Pale green ghosts”

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I’ve said it before on these pages and I’ll likely say it again. The lot of the opening act is a tough gig.

At the risk of dating myself here*, I’ve been going to see live music for almost three decades now and pretty much for every show to which I’ve ever been, I’ve arrived early enough to catch the lion’s share of, if not the entire set by the opening act. And I’ve been rewarded with some excellent performances for my efforts. I’ve discovered way more great bands in this way than I have had to suffer through forgettable sets. In some cases, I’ve even walked away from shows having been more impressed by the opening act.**

My practice these days, as it has been ever since music streaming has become a thing, is actually to sample the opening artist’s wares in advance of the gig and if it sounds promising, give it a proper chance to sink in beforehand. Such was the case back in the early spring of 2014, when I purchased tickets to see Elbow playing at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. I made it a point to check out the latest album by the solo artist starting things off.

I had never heard tell of American singer-songwriter John Grant before, nor had I heard of the alternative rock band that he had fronted for over a decade called The Czars. He had just released his sophomore album the year before, recorded with one half of electronic duo GusGus, it was apparently a bit of a departure from his first solo album. The opening track is of the same name as the album title and is the stark wake up call one would think it might be to long-time listeners.

“Pale green ghosts must take great care,
Release themselves into the air
Reminding me that I must be aware”

It is six minutes of rumbling tribal beats run through all kinds of digital distortion and augmented by bleats of synthesized horns blown by heartless robots. It is suffocating and intense and harrowing. And through it all is jaunty John Grant singing breathlessly and with purpose but in that whiplash-inducing voice that is inescapable and that commands such a presence. What a voice indeed.

*It’s probably too late.

**I made a playlist a couple of years ago inspired by all the great opening acts I’ve seen.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2013 list, click here.


Eighties’ best 100 redux: #98 Nena “99 luftballons” (1983, 1984)

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Back when I counted down my Eighties’ best 100 the first time, “99 luftballons” came in at #99. Honest to god. And I didn’t even plan it that way.

In fact, I hadn’t even realize what I had done until I was discussing the list with my friend and colleague Ian and let slip the song at #99 on said list. I actually considered switching the list order right there and then, so that the readers on my old blog didn’t think I was trying to be clever. In the end, I decided it was too early in the game to be making changes to the list and in spite of those original worries, I decided to let the list grow organically this time around as well, and the let proverbial chips fall where they may. So it is merely incidental (I assure you) that for this redux, the song moves up one spot to number 98.

Of the now three songs into my top 100 songs of the eighties, “99 luftballons” is the first but most likely not that last song by a so-called “one hit wonder” to grace the list. I think it would be near impossible to discuss the best tracks of the nineteen-eighties without one or two of them rearing their ugly noggins because the decade was full of them.

Unlike the previous two songs, I distinctly remember listening to this one when it was popular back in 1984. I used to watch the Chum FM 30 video countdown every week on CityTV and wait for the video to come on, typically near the top of the list. What I didn’t know back then though was that the version I was listening to (and watching) was translated and re-recorded into English from the original German to be more palatable for international audiences (hey, I was still a kid). I didn’t actually hear the original German version until almost a decade later when a friend in university put it on a mixed tape of retro tunes that she made for me.

Nena (named for the lead singer Gabriele Kerner, whose stage name was Nena) came from the very German school of New German Wave music. It originated as an underground scene that was heavily influenced by British Punk and New Wave. As the sound gained popularity, more commercially viable bands based on this sound came out of the woodwork, incorporating English instead of German lyrics, among these were Nena and other acts you might recognize (like Alphaville, Peter Schilling, and Falco).

Most people I encounter prefer the German version of the song but I can appreciate both (and I have included both for your listening pleasure below). The German version because it is as was initially intended and the English because I likely would have never truly understood the song in the first place and it really is worth understanding. It’s not just a good beat that you can dance to. In fact, its Cold War protest implications landed itself a place in an exhibit I once took in at the Canadian War Museum on the impacts of the Cold War on music and music videos, along with Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” I don’t think that particular exhibit is still there but the museum is very cool and if you’re ever in Ottawa, I highly recommend checking it out.

I’m sure you’re familiar with one of these two versions but here they are for your enjoyment nonetheless.

First, here’s the German version:

Now, the English version:

Original Eighties best 100 position: #99

Favourite lyric:
In German:
“Hab’ nen Luftballon gefunden / Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen” I don’t know what she’s saying – it’s just the way she sings it.

In English:
“This is what we’ve waited for / This is it boys, this is war” Again, it’s the way she sings it.

Where are they now?: Nena (the band) broke up long ago but Nena (the solo artist) had a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000s and was rather prolific up until 2015. She most recently released a new album called “Licht” in 2020.

For the rest of the Eighties’ best 100 redux list, click here.


Best tunes of 2020: #23 bdrmm “A reason to celebrate”

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From Urban Dictionary:
“Bedroom pop – A genre DIY indie music, bedroom pop is characterized by its lo-fi quality and often contemplative lyrics. Bedroom pop share elements with other indie genres including shoegaze, dream pop, jangle pop, and emo. Guitars and vocals often feature heavy use of reverb or delay.”

From Wikipedia:
“The rise of modern digital audio workstations dissolved a theoretical technological division between professional and non-professional artists. Many of the prominent lo-fi acts of the 1990s adapted their sound to more professional standards and “bedroom” musicians began looking toward vintage equipment as a way to achieve an authentic lo-fi aesthetic, mirroring a similar trend in the 1990s concerning the revival of 1960s space age pop and analog synthesizers.”

Bedroom pop and rock feels almost like a dirty word to me. I can appreciate the DIY-ness of it all and the ability for anyone with a laptop, a guitar, a synthesizer, or maybe just some good software to create something out of nothing and let it loose on the internet. But on the other side of this shiny bitcoin, there’s also a lot of it out there to wade through, kind of the like the explosion of wannabe YouTubers and influencers. Whenever I hear the term “bedroom” to describe the next big thing, I shudder a little bit on the inside. And then, I proceed to give the act in question a chance, because I’ve discovered more than a handful of artists that got their start in this way.

Hull, England five-piece, Bdrmm*, actually started out as a bedroom project for frontman Ryan Smith. Listening their 2020 debut full-length, “Bedroom”, you’d likely never guess it, though both the band name and album title are none too obvious hints. Theirs is a fully realized shoegaze sound, more guitars than keys, and sounding to this old school shoegaze fan’s ears like the brightest points of early Ride and Chapterhouse. Smith put together the group with family members, friends, and musicians he’d worked with before and released an EP that had them catching the eye and signing with the noisy label, Sonic Cathedral. The debut longplayer was released just a few months into the pandemic, when it seemed like everyone would be chained to their bedrooms for the foreseeable future.

“Well, it’s okay
For you to walk away”

The last song recorded for the ten track album was “A reason to celebrate”, which given that these words don’t appear in the song, feels more like a feeling and an exultation. Though it happens to be my favourite of the bunch, it’s not by a long shot. There’s lots of reverb and layers of guitars to stare at your fingers to, crossing your eyes at them and waggling them about. It’s a blast of inspiration to stir your languid and lazy afternoon on a grey day into something worth exploring. It’s bursting forth from the bedroom into that big old world out there, anxiety and fear be damned, and that’s just damned exciting.

I can’t wait to hear what this group comes up with next!

*You can guess how that’s pronounced.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2020 list, click here.