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Best tunes of 2020: #22 Say Hi “And then some miniature golfing”

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I had never heard, nor heard of, Say Hi prior to 2020 but this album called “Diamonds & donuts” came across my radar in the early days of the pandemic and it hit all the right notes with me. As it turned out, I would spend many hours listening to it over my headphones, while working away at my dining room table, while my lovely wife was doing the same across from me*. And this track, “And then some miniature golfing” was the album’s opening number.

Eric Elbogen started this project, originally called Say Hi to Your Mom, in Brooklyn back in 2002 and then, relocated operations to Seattle in 2006. He is the main creative force and its only real full-time member, though he has sometimes enlisted musicians to help realize his work in a live context. He has recorded and mixed pretty much all of the project’s 13 (!) albums (including this one) from the comfort of his home studio**, performing it all by himself. Word has it that a fourteenth album is due to be released later in 2023 and I would hazard that it would continue the trend as a real DIY bedroom pop project.

According to Elbogen himself, “Diamonds & donuts” was influenced by the idea of a series of psychological focus group tests, with each of the thirteen synth pop songs on the album representing a different experiment. “And then some miniature golf” posits the theory that “the saddest experience achievable by a human being is to be jolted awake from the false belief that you’ve truly found your soulmate.”

Oh, you even met her parents
And talked about traveling the world
‘Til she said “No matter what you think
I will never ever be your girl”

It’s 80s synth new wave with layers upon layers of hurt and pain, like they stuck Duckie Dale in the friend zone, but rather than at the prom, OMD is performing at a downtown New York punk club and the vocalist is channelling Joe Cocker and the Boss. It’s nostalgic and wistful with sidelong and knowing glances. Elbogen knows this kind of hurt and knows the only cure is more synths.

*Minus the earphones and the Say Hi album

**A laptop on a small desk in a bedroom

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

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Best tunes of 1993: #13 The Smashing Pumpkins “Disarm”

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For a while in the 1990s, I went off of American music, and to a lesser extent, Canadian music. For a newly minted music geek that felt he had just begun to experience the best that the alternate music world had to offer, Nirvana’s ascent on the scene and the life altering effect that had was like a death knell. And I don’t mean to get down on the Seattle-based trio here because it really was the fault of big music. The dollar signs shone bright green in their eyes and they followed their noses to the west coast, snapping up all the acts there, and when that was done, started sniffing out similar sounding acts the rest of the continent over and in some cases, tipping some more established acts into more consumer friendly territory.

Smashing Pumpkins predated the Seattle renaissance by a few months and their debut album, 1991’s “Gish”, already had prognosticators comparing them favourably to be the next Jane’s Addiction, who at that point were already on their way to implosion. The expectations were high with Virgin executives when the band went back to the studio with the now mystical producer Butch Vig to record their sophomore album. By all accounts, the sessions were fraught with difficulties – drugs and heartbreak and depression – but as we know, from adversity springs beauty and “Siamese dream” is widely considered one of the classic albums of the early 1990s.

I remember hearing them a lot on the radio and despite being initially turned off, given that they were being lumped in with the Seattle grunge heads, still found something palatable in their songs. Yeah, I knew they were from Chicago and wasn’t fooled by the hype machine, but I could also hear something different, an element in their sound that made me not want to turn off the radio. There was something theatrical there, owing more to the goths and noiserockers from the 80s. I went out and got a copy of “Siamese dream” on CD on the strength of these radio singles and quietly became a fan.

And now that I am spilling the beans here, I might as well admit that “Disarm” is the rod that reeled this music fan in. I mean, really… chugging acoustic strumming… haunting chimes… and dramatic intensity heightened by violin and cello strings. It is operatic in scope but not in sound. Billy Corgan spouts dangerous and strong words that got the song banned in some countries but in truth, this is just him dealing with the trauma and pain inflicted upon him by his parents during his youth.

“Disarm you with a smile
And cut you like you want me to
Cut that little child
Inside of me and such a part of you
Ooh, the years burn”

It’s a song that begs to be turned up loud and played on repeat and that I did, on both counts back in the day, often the volume knob easing slightly more clockwise with each listen. Great tune.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1993 list, click here.

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Tunes

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.