Monday, December 22, 2008

May all your Christmas' be bright...

So it is that time of year, get out your wool slippers, throw another log on the fire and hunker down for a long winters nap. Yeah it's really cold up here in the great north east, and I'm trying to figure out why I subject myself to this. I hate the cold weather. Hate it! However with this MS thing hanging around the heat has become a bit of a kick in the pants as well. Figures.

Anyway, I hope that everyone is staying warm and enjoying the holiday season. We here at "Did You Montel Willams has that?" ("We here..." I like to to make it seem like my blog is actually a fortune 500 company, and I have a team of advisors and assitants that attend to the blog and it's needs. People running around like crazy yelling things like "Save, save, make sure you save that post!" or "Mr. Faranda this is just came to my attention...."at which point I push everything off my desk in disgust. Nothing like this ever happens but, perception is everything.) would like to wish you a very Merry of whatever it is your celebrating, and if you aren't celebrating then disregard completly. I had hoped to get this out before the holiday but it was a crazy time hardly appropriate for this bald guy to disregard his real family for his new cyber one.

But allow me to take the time now to say that these few months since I have been writing have been great. Thanks to everyone who reads and to those of you leaving comments. It means a lot to me to hear your thoughts. Also, and probably more importantly, to those of you who are witting your own blogs keep writing. There are some amazing things out here and
I have been real lucky to find some of them. It's nice to know that I'm not so alone in this thing. Your words are really important to me as well to many others.

Anyway, Christmas to me is about wishes and dreams, and while it is true that everybody knows that your first wish should be for more wishes, and that trying to explain your dreams in real time generally just makes you sound foolish if not insane, in the Christmas spirit I would like to try to put one of my wishes forth into the world of the waking.

Of course we should be wishing for world peace, the end to hunger, the overthrow of the American political system, but lets be honest these things aren't good for business. I don't think there is a genie, let alone a Santa Clause, we could find to make these things come true. So that then leads me to the obvious: that this damn MS thing didn't exist. That is my one true wish for me and for all of us, but then this of course is not good for business either (theirs not ours). So I move on to my next wish that I think I can get an angle on since it is self made and not really much of a wish at all. That this wasn't some nambie pambie diseased blog it's the place you come for all you musical needs.

A hip cutting edge sorta place where you come to see, listen and discuss the latest in music, but not the kinda stuff you would find on some billboard listing or on the cover of the Rolling Stone. A blog for only serious music aficionados and those looking for a new spin on your record player. You see that is really what I wish.

So here is a blog about music in our new mythical world........(look for normal posts about MS and all that stuff in the new year. Till then Happy Holidays)

Happy Holidays from all of us here at "Did you know Montel Williams doesn't listen to that..." Things have finally settled down over here at world headquarters as all of my advisers and assistants all have taken some well deserved vacation time. I will be outta here as soon as I get this last post of 2008 up and to you the loyal reader.

So here is the big pay off of the year, what you have all been waiting for: 2008's top 10 albums of the year as per Bald Ben. It was an odd year. A quiet year for the most part, I mean to say that the records that were released seemed to be on the quieter side. Which makes me wonder if the artists were feeling quieter or if those of us listening have just tuned into this quiet sound? I mean its been a tough year all around and who knows what's coming up in 2009? (besides the new Andrew Bird album, Neko Case, Great Lake Swimmers, Animal Collective, M. Ward, Grizzly Bear just to name a few). Furthermore it seems that all the "top ten lists" this year have had a lot in common, but not many that have agreed on rankings. You will notice that my number ten has topped many lists this year, while my number two really hasn't shown up anywhere. One man's trash....

So here is the criteria: the record has to have been released in 2008 (although as you will find I don't exactly follow this). Second and most importantly it has to move me enough to want to give the record the highest of compliments: to purchase it on vinyl. Yes that old school antiquated means of relaying sounds to eager listeners. A large 12" disc generally made of black plastic with circular grooves that somehow hold music. Truth be told I only own one of these on vinyl right now, but the economy is weak, I got kids, and I'm a bit too lazy to get out to a record store to find them. I mean it's the holidays, aren't people supposed to surprise me with presents and what not? I guess I should have put the list out before Christmas. Anyway, feel free to comment and tell me how much of a genius I am, or how terribly predictable.

10. TV on the Radio – Dear Science [4AD/Interscope]
This record has topped tons of lists this year. Not mine. I think this is a great album, but it’s not quiet what I was looking for at least as a topper. There was tons of hype before its release and there was even more after we all got our grubby little indie-rock fingers on it. I resisted, maybe I was just trying to be too cool for school or whatever, but I just didn’t listen to it. No matter who told me I needed to hear it I passed it by. It was in November that I actually broke down and took a listen.

The sonic guitar opening of “Halfway Home” quickly drops the Ramone’s style BaBaBa’s before the smooth vocals of Tunde Adebimpe seep into your veins and helps you realize that you’re not on “Cookie Mountain” anymore. This record is deep with layers and deserves a little more of my attention, perhaps had I taken the time it would have placed a bit higher on my list.

9. MGMT – Ocular Spectacular [Sony/Columbia]
You will find that my list has a bit of a leaning. These days find me listening to much more organic acoustic based music. Luckily for me it was a year that also leaned that way. That being said MGMT’s ablum “Ocular Spectacular” is not any of those things. This is a record drenched in drum machines, delay pedals, and studio trickery to polish these gems of indie-electro pop. The album may run the gamut of styles but at its heart it is just an ironic mess of catchy pop songs.

One of the biggest problems with this record, though, is that the opening track “Time to Pretend” is so good that it sets the stage for an album that would be almost impossible to deliver. Try they might they never quite reach that mark, but they have still put together one of the most solid debut albums to date.

8. Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill [Tape]

This is what ghost sound like….

7. Blitzen Trapper – Furr [Sub Pop]
I have also come to this album late. While it was only released in September I didn’t get around to hearing till after it hit a few “best of” lists that I have some respect for. This is a band that has gotten better and better each time they release an album. The obvious Dylan, Neil Young influences are still very present here, but there is a much deeper understanding of what these folk rock troubadours were/are after. Deeper still are influences of Big Star or a late 60’s early 70’s sensibility to music that I happen to really love. If for the title track alone go find this album and listen to it over a lazy afternoon with your favorite girl/guy near by. Furr is easily my song on the year.

6. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson – S/T [Say Hey Records]
This record hasn’t made too many lists. Perhaps it is Robinson’s unabashed take on his own struggles with drugs, depression, and his sometimes homelessness. The lyrics are dark and heavy. The music, while based in folk rock, has a frenetic edge to it that gives the listener a taste of the chaos that he sometimes must live in. Although for all the darkness, there are some hopeful moments as well. Even if it is only the fact that he has unabashedly expressed himself to us the listener. A guy has to think that that has to be good for something, right?

5. Dr. Dog – Fate [Park the Van]
I may be biased here. You see I know these guys. I have known them for a long time. I knew them before they were Dr. Dog, and I continue to be very very proud of them as they release great album after great album. I wish I could take an ounce of credit for the great albums, but I can’t. As a matter of fact I have nothing to do with their music. I do however have a lot to do with listening to their music and being in awe of a bunch of great dudes that can write great songs like I have never heard before.

Well I suppose that isn’t totally accurate. They write songs like I have heard before. Songs from the cabinets of my father’s record collection, from dusty vinyl hidden in the back of some long lost forgotten set, songs from an era that we could only hope to have been a part of. Yet in wearing there influences on their sleeve they are able to surpass and even improve upon what it is they are emulating.

Their new album “Fate” is making lots of peoples lists this year and the Dr. Dog name and their albums have been touted by the likes of Beck and Lou Reed. It seems like just a few years ago when there were only a handful of us going to shows, and now they play to thousands who have the same if not a greater sense of devotion, and it is well deserved. To the Beatlesque vocal lines of “My Friend” or the Waitsian delivery of “The Beach” these boys have tapped into something that we all have responded to since the early earliest days of recorded music, good songs.

4. Fleet Foxes – S/T [Sub Pop]
I grabbed this one very close to release date and loved it from the moment I heard it. Although truth be told lead singer Robin Pecknold vocals remind me a lot of Jim James of My Morning Jacket. There is a soaring quality, an echo that doesn’t need studio mastery to embolden it. It carries you through the top of the grain silo and out over the fields into the mountains that they are so desperately trying to let us know about. This is a credit to the record but for me was also a detriment. The similarities of voice lead me to turn off of the record for a while. Luckily the Ipod shuffle function brought me back to the record and the more I listen to it the more I tell myself to shut the hell up and listen to one of the best records you’ve heard in a long time.

3. Vampire Weekend – S/T [XL]
Easily one of the best records this year and one of the worst. Their hype burned bright even before the album was released which, as with all great flames, begins to consume itself. Yet, the album and the 13 songs you find there can hardly be contained. A bunch of white, over-privileged kids from New York producing some of the best Afro-tinged pop heard this side of “Graceland”. All the haters be damned, these are just good, catchy songs. There maybe a second album, there maybe a career in the future, but for now just enjoy these 13 perfect punchy numbers.

2. Death Vessel – Nothing is Precious Enough For Us [Sub Pop]
I am sitting here listening to this right now trying to figure out how this album makes it to #2 on my list. This record barely made a blip on anybodies radar, but I can’t stop listening to it. Essentially Death Vessel is nothing like what you would think they are. The name quickly denotes some sort of visceral grind core sound, but in all reality it is the exact opposite. A clean record of what is called neo-traditional folk music (what the hell that means is your best guess). Death Vessel is really only comprised of one member: Joel Thibodeau. Joel then adds a cast of revolving musicians to fill out the production.

Here is the rub: Please note I said Joel Thibodeau. Joel as in a boy’s name. I make mention of this so you do not have to go through the same crisis of conscious that I went through. See Joel sings in a very high falsetto voice: a very feminine sound. To further compound the mental image while he sings in this high register, his voice also has an almost pre-pubescent timbre to it.

Now I went into listening to this record (as well as their first record) not knowing this. I assumed it was a woman singing. Imagine my surprise just a few weeks ago when I found out about Mr Thibodeau. That she was in fact a he, and I’m not talking I picked up some girl in a bar only to find out she’s got an….adam’s apple. No, this is just a guy who sings real high. No illusions of femininity. This revelation led me to some serious introspection.
The preciousness of my then favorite record was suddenly lost. My mental picture had been blow to hell. There was no closing my eyes listening to this one anymore. Yet here it is at #2 on my list of 2008. Why, you ask? Well, you get over it and quickly. The songs are so so so good, The musicianship is amazing, and the voice even though it comes from a grown man, is still just as precious as it was the first time I heard her---I mean him, despite all my inner tumult.

1. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever ago [jagjaguwar]
There has been a lot of talk about this record. Sadly lots of the talk these days is about the validity of the release date. Yes, it is true that this record was released late in 2007 independently. However it was given a much wider distribution in January of 2008 when good sir Justin Vernon signed with jagjaguwar. This is insignificant to me. While I heard some rumblings about this record when it was released in 2007 I didn’t get my hands on it till probably around February, but let me tell you that I had wished I had it before that.

I wished that I had it the day it came out, I wish that I was there when he recorded it, hell I even wish I was sitting on his molars while he was singing it. This is just a perfect little record. Very plain, very heartfelt, hits me in all the right places.

The record itself was made in only the way great or mythic records seem to come about. Ala “Exile on Main St”, Mr. Veron, exiled himself to a cabin in the mountains of Wisconsin (Wisconsin has mountains? Who knew?) a few months later a bearded Justin emerged from said wilderness with a record that will endure in my memory for a very long time. Makes a bald guy wishes he had lots of hair and a big beard and was able to go hid in the woods to find some songs. Dig this record out of whatever shop, mp3 site, or however you procure music, particularly for those of you enduring the snow filled months that are upon us, it will keep you warm in only the way heartbreak can.

Happy Holidays eveyone...thanks for indulging me this year. See you in 2009.....

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Throw my ticket out the window....

I’m not one to be over sentimental or make this blog some sort of monument to the things that simply mark my life. I have no intention to make this my diary or journal, it is just a place for a few musing or thoughts about the things that pass between my ears and stick. Things that I feel are worth mentioning. I need some sort of outlet, right? If I don’t, I get myself into trouble. Currently, I just keep reciting the Presidents of the United States from beginning to end.

Why you ask?

Well, because I can you see. That’s just how smart I am.

Honestly, it is really just a parlor trick. Anybody can memorize it, but for some reason I just keep getting the impulse to recite them. Maybe it has something to do with my hour car ride to work. A bald guy needs to fill his brain with something and I suppose it is better than spitting out the alphabet backwards, although I can do that now as well. Idle hands as they say. I figure if I could juggle while I drive then I might have an act. I could take it on the road….oh yeah, I’d already be on the road, but as per usual I am way off track here.

The reason I point out that my blog is not a place to be over sentimental or a monument is that I am about to do just that. Call me a fraud, call me a hypocrite, it’s fine I have been called it all before. I have also been called buttercup, but let’s not get into that.

The reason I write today is actually a serious matter. My Aunt passed away Monday morning due to complications of ALS, a very cruel and very swift disease that left her incapacitated for the last 6 years.

(Here’s a link if you want to know more.)

Aunt Faye garnered one other mention here on the blog back in September as I went through my IVIG treatments. One of the nurses that worked in the infusion center where I took my treatment had also taken care of my Aunt at an ALS ward of one of the hospitals that she sought treatment and had remembered her. My Aunt was only 58 years old and for the last six years she sat in a chair unable to move, her only means of communication was to blink her eyes. But far more than the end, it was the beginning and the years before the illness that made such a deep impression upon me.

My Aunt and Uncle lived about an hour and half from where I grew up. We honestly only saw them and my cousin a handful of times a year: Christmas Eve, Palm Sunday, a few other random trips to the area, and a family party that found us leaving the soot and grime of Reading PA to relax at the oasis that was my Aunt and Uncle’s in-ground pool. You see where I grew up people didn’t have in-ground pools, and only a few people had above ground pools. Most of those you didn’t want to get into. So you can understand my excitement at having free reign at what seemed to me to be a private resort.

This resort came with every amenity: more food then you could eat, more soda then I could drink, and I know this to be true because I gave it my best. Although truth be told my Aunt had a full supply of Shasta. I’m not sure who actually drinks this stuff, but for whatever reason she had a ton of it, and to top it all off a traditional water balloon fight between my Uncle and I. It generally ended with him pushing me into the pool. I was happy regardless.

Though the times may have been few they were always deeply anticipated. I looked forward to Christmas Eve like most kids not only because I knew there were a ton of presents coming my way, but upon waking I couldn’t wait to get to my Grandmother’s house because I knew that Uncle Paul and Aunt Faye would be there. My grandparents only lived two blocks away so as soon as I heard that they had arrived I cleared my throat and with my most annoying voice became the bane of my parent’s existence until they broke down and sent me up the street. Of course the lure of presents, my grandmother’s cooking, and the never ending supply of Coke a Cola never hurt, but it had generally been a few months since I had seen my Aunt and Uncle and I bet they had something to show us.

You see Aunt Faye always had a knack of finding all kinds of crazy puzzles and games to occupy us. I suppose it was her feeble attempt to keep us out of the living room shaking the colorfully wrapped boxes whining incessantly, “when are we gonna open presents? when are we gonna open presents?”.

It worked… sometimes.

I can remember her showing us those ridiculous magic eye puzzles, Games magazine, and any number of brain teaser that she could find. I was never real good at them then, but I can always remember sitting in the backroom of my grandparent’s house, with a cacophony of odor slipping from the kitchen, and my Aunt helping us solve some sort of grand riddle. Furthermore when we did rip into the presents, the multi-colored paper now laid wasted on the floor to reveal something so spectacular that even though you didn’t know it, it was exactly what you wanted, and precisely what my Mom would have never bought us because it was “too messy”.

When I was older and I began to get presents that were “age appropriate” I was a bit sad. While those sweaters were real nice, and I wore them all the time, they didn’t have the same punch as the Fisher Price Printing Press and the stained blue fingers that it produced.

When my boys were born I stopped into the hospital gift shop and found an issue of Games Magazine. It reminded me of those days, how they had passed, and it made me wish that my Aunt was able to come and visit us.

Aunt Faye was nothing but fun, and if she was there I wanted to be near by. I remember as a boy how my Dad’s cousin had asked me to be a ring bearer in her wedding. Now this was all fine and good, but I was six and being six you don’t really understand what is going on. Furthermore you don’t understand that the white tuxedo that you are dressed in is rented and needs to be taken care of.

This was a Catholic wedding and as is evident from the length of my posts Catholics are not known for their brevity. I had to sit up at the alter, in a chair that I am imagining was probably used in the Spanish inquisition due to its comfort. Never had I longed so deeply for the hard wood of the pew that my sister and cousin had the good fortune of sitting in. I suppose they expected me to behave, and I guess I did. My Uncle Sam only had to come up like three times.

Nevertheless, after we went outside and were all pelted with bird seed (Of which I ate a ton of. What? I was six and I was starving. Do you know how long that mass is?) the wedding party piled into a waiting limo that whisked them away to the reception, but I stayed behind opting instead to ride with my Aunt and Uncle in their car.

The reception was a drag to a six year old so Aunt Faye and I snuck outside and she let me tear through the grass like only a six year old can. Here’s where the problem comes in: there was a lot of “sliding into second base”. Allow me to remind you I was six, wearing a white tuxedo and I had no idea that grass could pose a problem to fabric. Again, I ask you who allows a six year old to take part in these things?

Needless to say both my dad’s cousin and my mother were pretty pissed when I came walking back into the hall drenched in sweat and a white tuxedo that looked like the swamp thing had just disrobed. I began to hear the things that a small boy hears when he has made a bad (albeit honest) mistake. Aunt Faye just smiled and whispered to me, “We’ll tell the rental company we had a problem with some guacamole.” Now, I had no idea what guacamole was at the time, but what I did know was that Aunt Faye had my back and guacamole or no guacamole it sounded like a solid excuse to me. Now, though, at 31 years old, looking back I’m not sure how the rental company would have cared whether it was guacamole or grass stains, their tux was ruined. I wonder whatever happened with that…..

When I was grown I moved to Philadelphia, much closer to my Aunt and Uncle. I began to see a bit more of them, and felt that my relationship was getting closer to the way I had always hoped it could be. However, it wasn’t long after my relocation that my Aunt started to have problems. It wasn’t my business and I would be told what I needed to when I needed to know it. I don’t remember when I found out that it was ALS, nor do I remember when I realized how serious it was, but quicker than I had ever imagines my Aunt was being taken away from me and the rest of the family.

Once Aunt Faye was in her chair but still able to speak relatively well I sat with her for an afternoon. We didn’t talk much about the disease, just about what I was doing and what I was trying to accomplish. Actually most of the time was taken up with her typing rude things about my Uncle and dad into her new voice computer. When they came back from picking up lunch she unleashed a barrage of digital epithets that were less then flattering. She had a great sense of humor (you have to to survive in my family) even when she was incapacitated in her chair. My Uncle would show her a board with the alphabet written on it and she would blink as the letter she was looking for was spoken. You would write the letters down and read what it was that she wanted to say. This was a slow process and sometimes very frustrating, but there were many instances that she made a mistake that I believe was on purpose just to confound my Uncle.

The last time I saw her was at my cousin’s house. The summer party had been moved there despite the lack of in-ground pool (a bit of an oversight that I will forgive them). As my Uncle helped one of my Aunt’s nurses load her into the van at the end of the day I walked with them. My wife was very pregnant with our boys at the time and I said to my Aunt, “I’m gonna try to come out and see you before the boys come, because God knows what’s gonna happen once these two monsters are unleashed.” I could see her smile, if only in her eyes, but it was a smile. Sadly I didn’t get out to see her, and once the boys did come time was non-existent. I kept saying to my wife that we really need to take the boys out to see my Aunt, but it never happened. For that I am sorry.

I am so sad that she has passed, but what is far more devastating is the loss of time. Which I suppose is always the true shame of death. I wish I could have talked with her. She was unable to speak when I was diagnosed with MS in 2005, and she was one of the few people I thought might have an insight to the road that I was walking down. While ALS and MS are very different diseases there are many similarities in the pathology, but more important the psychology. The things I think and feel I would imagine she went through, on some level, as well. I like to think we could have helped each other in some way. At the very least I know she could have helped me.

Although perhaps she did help me in just being as she was. We look at the people as we loved them, we look at ourselves, we hold memories and images in our minds and hearts and despite the fact that they are unable to be themselves I always imagined she was who I knew her to be. She was just unable to express it in the way that I knew her to before. Locked in they call it, and I think that it actually applies to many of us. We were locked in to the image that we had already lost; an image that had made an indelible impression upon me and one that I didn’t want to lose. Yet now there was a new version of my Aunt and I’m not sure that I was ever able to adjust to the changes.

Yet, many of the same changes are affecting me now. Not in the same way and if it all goes well they won’t be as destructive, but I remember my Aunt’s cane and then her wheelchair and neither of us aware at the time that these events would be so relevant to me today. I look at so many situations now with a deeper scrutiny an intense yearning, and I wonder what she would have said to me. Would it even have been remotely relatable?

I do look, though, to what she did do. How she was able to stay here with us for as long as she did inside of her own body. The strength she proved to us with out lifting a finger, the grace that had shown so brightly though she couldn’t breath on her own, the truth that despite what problems beset us our spirit can always be stronger.

So, go to your dad’s record cabinet (or your own, that’s my plan) pull out Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, (which you undoubtedly have) once Aunt Faye told me that this was her favorite record, put the needle down and raise your glasses high. Drinks are your choice…..I think I’ll have a Shasta.

Here is to my Aunt Faye

All my deepest love, respect and thanks