The ones that nearly got away: Depeche Mode, Singles 81 > 85

[Depeche Mode - Singles 81 > 85]

Youth can be such a humorless time.

The only reason this compilation of early Depeche Mode singles slipped my grasp was because I found them too bright and airy.

For the longest time, Depeche Mode were my brother’s band, so I felt obligated to feel ambivalent toward them, if not downright hostile. My opinion didn’t turn around till Meat Beat Manifesto, Hooverphonic and Rammstein nailed covers of Depeche Mode songs on the tribute album, For the Masses.

Singles 86 > 98 followed soon afterward, and it spurred me to buy Violator and Music for the Masses.

My first stab at exploring Depeche Mode’s early singles was, of course, Catching Up with Depeche Mode. The weak mastering of the CD left me unimpressed, so I decided to wait if a remastered collection similar to Singles 86 > 98 would follow.

It did. I remained unimpressed.

Depeche Mode’s darker sound locked my perception of the band, to which the Vince Clarke-era material failed to conform. The early singles also sounded crude next to the richness of Violator. State of the art for 1980 was no match for state of the art for 1990.

Seventeen years would pass before I would give Depeche Mode’s early work another listen. The same trip to Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store that netted me True Blue by Madonna also caught me a vinyl copy of Catching Up with Depeche Mode.

I’ve mellowed out considerably since 1998.

I like the sunniness of those early singles now, and listening to them closely, they’re every bit as sophisticated as the later work. Perhaps more so, with synth lines in “Dreaming of Me” and “New Life” calling and answering each other in a post-modern form of counterpoint.

“Everything Counts” and “Shake the Disease” remain my favorite early singles, but “See You” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” join that list.

The second half of Catching Up is the point at which my brother foisted Depeche Mode on me. “Somebody” was pretty cringe-worthy when he overplayed it on the car stereo, and my opinion of the song has only dimmed with time. “Master and Servant” and “Blasphemous Rumors” thankfully wash out all that treacle.

Rather than remaster Catching Up with Depeche Mode for a CD reissue, the band’s label opted to give the UK-only Single 81 > 85 a proper US release. The result meant the loss of “Fly on the Windscreen”, which I prefer over “It’s Called a Heart”. (So too did the band.)

The remastering on Singles 81 > 85 do the songs justice, so skip Catching Up on CD and find it on vinyl instead.

Vinyl find: Madonna, True Blue

[Madonna - True Blue]

I’ve been a Madonna fan since 1990, but it’s taken me 26 years to include True Blue in my collection.

I probably wouldn’t have if I didn’t find a decent copy on vinyl at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store selling for $6. That was a price point with which I could live, and it was for charity.

I can’t disentangle the heavy marketing of the album at the time of its release with its critical reputation over time. The album contained only nine tracks, but 2/3 of them were released as singles, all of them played to within an inch of their lives on radio.

“La Isla Bonita” is the only track that really caught my imagination, and it’s still a favorite. The synth strings of “Papa Don’t Preach” also put it in a class above the other tracks on the album. Otherwise, I’m not entirely convinced the songs which have become Madonna canon really deserve their spots.

“Live to Tell” shows up on numerous Madonna compilations, but the track has always left me underwhelmed. Music from the 80s was often accused of being cold and robotic because of its over-reliance on synthesizers and MIDI. “Live to Tell” would certainly be guilty of this accusation.

Bill Frisell did a tremendous job infusing humanity in the song, replacing the brief, ambient middle section of the original with an extended downtown New York freak-out.

The title track is something of an ear worm, but it’s not the strongest song on the album. It didn’t even make the cut on The Immaculate Collection. Does anyone even remember “Where’s the Party?” being a single?

Unlike Like a Virgin, the non-single tracks on True Blue don’t attempt to be anything other than filler. I’m pretty baffled by the gangster movie samples in “White Heat”. They made more sense on I’m Breathless.

Marketing muscle made True Blue a success, but without it, I’m not sure its excellent bits are enough to make up for its middling moments.

How Pulse magazine shaped the way I discover music

[Tower Records Pulse! magazine, Dec. 1989]

Steve Reich turned 80 years old on Oct. 3, 2016. I discovered Reich when he had just turned 50. He would be one of many discoveries I made through a magazine published by Tower Records called Pulse.

In 1986, I started high school. The popular radio stations played all the usual hits of the era — Madonna, Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, to name a few. Toward the right of the dial was a classic rock station and a light jazz station. On the other end, the classical music station played the war horses, while the University of Hawaii radio station couldn’t be heard beyond three miles of campus.

Radio’s insistence to overplay its most popular tracks spurred me to abandon the format in 1988. I replaced it with Pulse.

A shopping guide in the guise of an impartial publication, the magazine went wide with its coverage, including classical, jazz and world music with rock and pop. An interview with Sting ran next to an article about Buster Poindexter. Reviews of Bulgarian women’s choirs shared column inches with Throwing Muses and R.E.M.

The ads were as informative as the editorial content. Pulse offered a “No-Risk Disk” guarantee for Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut album — return the album within 14 days if you don’t like it, no questions asked. That purchase would lead me down a rabbit hole of the Nonesuch catalog.

But I wasn’t just paying attention to band names in these articles. I scoured liner notes for credits, making note of producers and guest musicians.

In 1991, MTV ran a short feature on a band called Smashing Pumpkins and featured a snippet of “Siva”. It was enough to get me curious and pick up a cassette copy of Gish. It became one of the most played albums in my collection that year.

A few months later, an article in Pulse about a band called Nirvana mentioned Butch Vig, who I remembered produced Gish. So I bought Nevermind based on that connection. I showed the album to a friend of mine, who found the naked baby on the cover quite odd. It would another half year before he heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio.

Pulse ceased publication in 2002. By then, the Internet had edge it out as a source for new music.

Even before file sharing networks, word of mouth through online communities — Usenet groups, mailing lists, bulletin boards — served as recommendation engines. I also happened to live in Austin, Texas in the late ’90s, where Waterloo Records’ generous policy of allowing shoppers to listen to anything in the store verified those recommendations.

I kept picking up Pulse every month till the end, but format changes and shifts in editorial focus left the magazine gutted. File sharing put Tower Records on a decline, and the shuttering of Pulse was an early harbinger.

But Pulse helped me take responsibility for my listening choices. It taught me how to parse music reviews to make educated guesses on whether I’d like an album. I would apply the habits I developed with Pulse to other sources. It’s Japanese counterpart, Bounce, would guide my choices in the early 2000s, which I parlayed here on this site.

Looking ahead, October-November 2016

[Meredith Monk - On Behalf of Nature]

At first, I was excited to see my new release wish list starting to grow, but upon closer inspection, a lot of anticipated releases were just being delayed till October.

Mike Mills, Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and Orchestra, Oct. 14

Mike Mills was R.E.M.’s secret weapon. He was never content to anchor his bass lines with the tonic. Classical music from rock musicians always garners some amount of skepticism, but I might give Mills a bit of leeway.

Meredith Monk, On Behalf of Nature, Nov. 4

I’m pretty much picking up this disc because Sid Chen, who works with Kronos Quartet and has popped in the comments section on the site once in a blue moon, performs on this album. We’ve followed each other on social media for years, but we’ve yet to met.

Sting, 57th and 9th, Nov. 11

I have a soft spot for The Dream of the Blue Turtles and … Nothing Like the Sun. So I’m always willing to give Sting a chance, even in the face of a Mercury Falling or The Last Ship.

R.E.M., Out of Time (Deluxe Edition), Nov. 18

I’m not sure where Out of Time falls in the critical evaluation of R.E.M.’s career, but it was released in a pretty turbulent point of my life, which imbues it with a powerful pull.


Depeche Mode, 101, Oct. 21

I remember this album being a pretty big deal for people around me back in 1989, which makes me curious as to why.

  • Madonna, Ray of Light, Oct. 11
  • The Killers, Hot Fuss, Nov. 4
  • Enya, The Memory of Trees, Nov. 11
  • Duran Duran, The Wedding Album, Jan. 13, 2017

The ones that nearly got away: Blur, Parklife

[Blur - Parklife]

The first time I heard “Boys and Girls” by Blur, I was incensed.

It was 1994. Duran Duran had its first bonafide hit album since its peak in the 1980s. It would be another decade before the lifetime achievement awards would get handed out. Despite a cocaine problem, John Taylor was still going strong.

So who was this upstart band blatantly ripping off a John Taylor bass line? The synth work barely rises to the level of Human League, let alone Nick Rhodes. And this whiny singer with the heavy middle-class accent is no Simon Le Bon.

To borrow the word of Elizabeth Bennett — delivered with such aplomb by Jennifer Ehle a year later — insufferable!

“But give it a try!” my Duranie friends would remark. “Blur is really a good band, and the rest of the album sounds nothing like ‘Boys and Girls’.”

I eventually caved in some time in the late ’90s, and I gave Parklife the old college try. Everyone was correct — “Boys and Girls” was the anomaly. The rest of the album was quite English, very eclectic and remarkably tuneful.

Problem was, my tastes were shifting away from Duran Duran, and rock music at the time was in some serious doldrums. I liked Parklife, but it was too arch for my taste. So out of the collection, it went.

The title track of the album re-entered my life in 2014 when Twitter users would reply to comedian Russell Brand with the hashtag #PARKLIFE whenever he went on a rant. If I had to nominate a favorite track from the album, it would probably be “Parklife”.

That made me crave to hear the song again, an impulse on which I wouldn’t act till the Friends of the Seattle Public Library held its annual book sale in 2016. I found a copy of Parklife selling for $1.

I’m not sure how 20 years could make such a difference in perspective. All the dopamine triggers the album should have hit in 1996 struck with more accuracy in 2016.

It was similar to how I experienced Different Trains by Steve Reich. The first time I heard the work, it bored me to sleep. Four years of classical music training later, I listened to it again and was deeply moved.

Did something similar happen with Parklife?

I admit my exposure to English culture the first time I encountered the album was limited to Duran Duran and a smattering of Ivory Merchant and Kenneth Branagh films. Since then, I went through a heavy Celtic phase with Enya and Clannad. I’ve read a number of novels that would appear on an English literature class syllabus. And, of course, there’s Downton Abbey, Sherlock and a bunch of documentaries spelling out the inequities of the British class system.

The archness that eluded me? I get it.

And now that everyone is copying John Taylor, I’ve mellowed out considerably over the slinky bass line in “Boys and Girls.” Heck, I’d like to hear Nigel play it himself one day.

When, exactly, is the birthday of

[ avatar]

If I were to be technical about it, was born on Sept. 21, 2000, when I registered the domain name.

There’s a few problems.

I had already been writing music reviews online for at least a year before hand, and some of those entries can be found in the earliest archive. This review of Freedy Johnson’s Blue Days, Black Nights dates back to Aug. 1, 1999. But it was published when the site was called The Soloist’s Notebook, and that date isn’t very accurate because that entry in particular was written before systems such as Movable Type and WordPress came into widespread use.

In that case, didn’t so much launch as it did re-brand.

I’m inclined to consider the domain registration date as the official starting point for the site, since no other record seems more definitive.

That means this site is 16 years old. The web itself is only 25 years old. I’ve been building web pages since 1995. Let’s break down those stats.

  • I’ve been working on the web for 21 out the web’s 25 years, or 84 percent of the web’s life time.
  • I’ve been writing for this site for roughly 16 of those 21 years, or 76 percent of my web career.

I’m old.

Because I haven’t taken down any of the old versions of the site, I’ve got 16 years bad and half-baked opinions out there for search engines to crawl and for readers to ignore.

It’s probably time to take a look back at some of that stuff to see how badly off-the-mark I was. I might do so in addition to the weekly entries.

Should be fun.

P.S. Happy Birthday,! You’re not old enough to be drafted, but you may get your driver’s permit just yet!


Sept. 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. I went to the record store.

[Ozomatli - Embrace the Chaos]

Sept. 11, 2001 was not a great day by any measure, but for me personally, 2001 was turning out to be a pretty awful year.

The end of August 2001 put me in the ranks of the unemployed, one of many casualties of the dot-com bust. So for the week preceding Sept. 11, I would get up and … well, that’s it. I didn’t really have anywhere to go, and since no one was hiring in my sector of the tech industry, looking for work was alternately pointless and fruitless.

I remember watching a lot of Law & Order during those lean days. A lot of Law & Order.

Cocco released a retrospective on Sept. 4, after having announced she was retiring from her music career. That news didn’t improve my mood. In contrast, Do As Infinity’s third album, DEEP FOREST, would arrive the following week.

In between those releases was Embrace the Chaos, the second album by Ozomatli. The band’s self-titled debut was a favorite among me and my friends, and seeing them live a few months before made that anticipation more pronounced. I planned to pick up the album when Waterloo Records opened that day.

I woke up and turned on the TV. My first reaction upon seeing the news was, “Again?”

I lived in New York City for two semesters on an inter-college exchange program from 1992 to 1993. I was running errands for my record label internship when I heard murmurs about the World Trade Center being attacked.

A car bomb exploded in the parking garage with enough force to collapse a number of levels and to disrupt subway service. That was February. By May, the towers had reopened, allowing me to play tourist before I moved back to Honolulu.

So I pretty much was in denial about the severity of the 2001 attack. New York is a resilient city, I said to myself. The Towers would be OK. I switched on my VCR and watched a rerun of Star Trek: Voyager instead.

After a few minutes, my subconscious finally parsed the implications of the report I saw on TV — it wasn’t just a garage bomb. The towers had fallen by the time I stopped the tape.

Broadcast news, of course, replayed the video of the collapse on repeat. I’m not sure when I decided to switch away from the news reports to the banality of daytime cable programming.

At 10 a.m., I went to the record store to pick up the Ozomatli album.

The Waterloo Records TVs, which usually played videos, was tuned into the news. Since the system was connected to a cheap antenna, the picture was fuzzy. Yeah, it was pretty absurd — big terrorist attack on the US, and I’m shopping for music. The other customers in the store were probably thinking the same thing.

But we also acknowledged that life — for us — had to move forward. Going to the record store was a bit of normalcy on which I had to cling.

It turned out the album didn’t really appeal to me.

My tastes had already shifted drastically to Japanese indie rock, and the album itself felt like a classic sophomore slump. The events of the day did little to improve my perception of the album.

As my unemployment stretched the following nine months, Embrace the Chaos would get traded for cash. I stopped following Ozomatli after that.


Looking ahead: September-October 2016

[John Adams - Scheherezade.2]

Well, Frank Ocean finally dropped his much anticipated album Blonde. I think the fall 2016 release schedule can get drunk and go home now.

John Adams, Scheherezade.2, Sept. 30

John Adams brought Scheherezade.2 to the Seattle Symphony last season. Leila Josefowicz must have dropped some mean gauntlet for Adams to create a work of such athleticism. I’m not sure if I absorbed enough of the piece in the concert hall because that was a lot of music.

Steve Reich, The ECM Recordings, Sept. 30

From what I can tell on Amazon, this reissue of Steve Reich’s albums on ECM won’t split the movements of each work into individual tracks. That would seem to be an important oversight to correct on a reissue.

MONO, Requiem for Hell, Oct. 14, 2016

Reports indicate the orchestras are on their way back on this album.

Nico Muhly and Tietur, Confessions, Oct. 21

Songs inspired by YouTube comments performed by a Baroque ensemble — if anyone can make this premise work, it’s Nico Muhly.

Shaprece, COALS, Oct. 28

Shaprece’s performance with Seattle Symphony was riveting, and I’ve been looking forward to this album since.

Ty Herndon, House on Fire, Nov. 11

Ty Herndon announced this album was to be released back in May when he performed in Seattle back in February, but now it looks like he has some label interest. No date has been specified for the release. UPDATE, 09/11/2016: Herndon announced a release date of Nov. 11, 2016, with pre-orders starting on Oct. 11, i.e. National Coming Out Day.


Angelo Badalamanti, Music from Twin Peaks, Sept. 9

I can’t hear that descending/ascending bass line without picturing the dancing little man.

Madonna, Something to Remember, Sept. 13

Ray of Light seems to have dropped off the release schedule for now with Something to Remember taking its place.

Emmylou Harris, Red Dirt Girl, Sept. 23

Like Wrecking Ball before it, Red Dirt Girl was a pivotal album for Emmylou Harris, marking her transition from interpreter to songwriter.

Kronos Quartet, Pieces of Africa, Sept. 23

I’m hoping this release is the first in a series of Kronos Quartet vinyl reissues because I’m not yet in the financial straits to track down the European pressing of Black Angels.

Duran Duran, The Wedding Album, Sept. 23

This reissue was actually listed for a March release, which came and went without notice. Then it popped back up for September.

Sting, The Studio Collection, Sept. 30

Brand New Day and Sacred Love make their first appearance on vinyl, but the only album I’m really interested in is Ten Summoner’s Tales, a European release of which I can still snag online.

Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet, Dracula, Oct. 28

In time for Halloween! goes on summer holiday

By the time you read this announcement, I would have wrapped up my vacation in July. Because I write my entries ahead of time, you wouldn’t have noticed a thing … until now.

I took a week off to visit family in Hawaii, and another week to recover from that visit. Now I’m facing a large project at work starting to ramp up.

So I’m taking a break from updating this site, which means August will be a barren month.

Entries should resume in September.


Looking ahead, August-September 2016

[Madonna - Bedtime Stories]

UA released a new album earlier this year. Cocco will release her next album in a few weeks. Utada Hikaru is on the release schedule for September. Would it be too much to ask for Shiina Ringo to drop some news about new album as well?

The Bad Plus, It’s Hard, Aug. 26

Covers have always been a special treat from the Bad Plus, and this album marks the second time the trio dedicates an entire album to other people’s music. Or third if you consider The Rite of Spring a “cover”.

Jack Ingram, Midnight Hotel, Aug. 26

First, Jack Ingram was a part of a new generation of country rebels that included the brothers Charlie and Bruce Robison. Then at some point, he traded in the rebellion for a spot at the top of the country charts. Now he’s back to his indie roots.

Eluvium, False Readings On, Sept. 2

I’m still looking forward to a new album, despite not warming up to the last two albums.

Pansy Division, Quite Contrary, Sept. 9

Pansy Division isn’t the first punk band with gay members, but they managed to go further than most, opening for Green Day and Rancid during the ’90s. New albums from the band are few and far between these days.

Utada Hikaru, Fantôme, Sep. 28

When Utada Hikaru announced she was taking a break from pop music, I figured she was making good on her promise to retire early. So her return is a welcome surprise.

Pixies, Head Carrier, Sept. 30

Well, maybe they worked out the kinks since Indie Cindy


Madonna, Bedtime Stories, Aug. 16
Madonna, Ray of Light, Sept. 13

A 2013 European reissue of Ray of Light might still be floating around online merchants for a not-so-exorbitant price, so the real treat is the reissue of Bedtime Stories.