On being cool

I like to believe that I have always been the coolest person I know. Being cool has always meant being the first to do something, so that when everyone else caught up you could tell them, “I’m too cool for that.” I never used training wheels on my bicycle, instead learning the art of balance by rolling down a hill on a banana-seated two-wheeler and into the splintery throes of a wooden fence. My siblings, also insistent on making me cool, exposed me to a variety of “cool” things early on, like how to jump out of moving cars (age 7), smoke Marlboro reds (age 11), and most effectively beat the pulp out of anyone (I’m still not saying sorry to Bobby Cleveland, age 9). My peers eventually learned these skills as well (some, I may say, more effectively than others), but it took them some time to catch on.

It came as a surprise, then, when I was in high school, that no one ever caught on to loving hair metal as much as I had during seventh grade. Eighth grade came and I was slowly getting weaned off hair metal in favor of a more aggressive black metal, and I thought that perhaps it was just too soon for them to get it. But then there was ninth grade, then 10th, and people weren’t wearing their ripped up T-shirts from last night’s big Poison concert. Something was wrong.

I was beginning to feel uncool, a feeling that only worsened when even my well-intentioned siblings tried to tell me I was at least a decade too late. I started breaking out the old T-shirts. I cut my hair into a punk-rock mullet that I teased up with hair spray (a haircut that, minus the hair spray, may or may not still exist today…). I wanted to try again, and I thought that I might have some more success this time as commercial music television broadcasters began airing specials saying all kinds of wonderful things about Cinderella, Winger, Quiet Riot, and Warrent. I could watch the “Sweet Cherry Pie” video after school, and be impressed with myself for “getting it.”

The thing is, though, even with the TV specials and all the “classic rock” radio stations in Philadelphia that would spin the life out of a Boston or Europe (or Kansas or Asia or London) record, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated when I went to see Motley Crue during their “Carnival of Sins” tour in 2006, and none of my classmates were there.

Even with all our technology, I still believe there is no replacement for the face-melting shreds, ballsy bare chests, and blatant creepiness involved in videos like Winger’s “Seventeen.” I’ve been waiting nearly a decade now for hair metal to be in style again, making it nearly two decades since its heyday. Now, I’m not saying you all need to feather your hair, but maybe you should, maybe you would like it. I’m just asking — please, let me be cool again. Listen to more hair metal.

On mixtapes

Some people think that the mixtape died with the advent of the MP3. Now, apparently, all we do is shuffle our libraries, and a coherent musical narrative is not important. The amazing choice of being able to download almost anything, and then being able to listen to whatever you have in whatever way you want, has killed the importance of a track listing, or so conventional wisdom goes.

Of course, this isn’t true. Such vast choice makes the existence of a worthwhile filter on the music we hear more important than ever before, and while artificial intelligence is making some strides (see Pandora, Last.fm, and iTunes Genius), the best filters remain human — musicians, critics, or DJs whose opinions you respect, as well as your friends. And, most often, these filters come in the form of playlists.

Music blogs are the most obvious filters of this kind, and while some may balk at calling them examples of musical narratives, I think it’s totally warranted. Here the narrative isn’t the same as an album, of course, but it is an example of a listener’s path through current or past music. One can hear the development of authors reading through theirarchives or following their blog’s updates. This is the modern analog of asking friends what they’ve been into lately, and MP3 attachments and podcasts extend it to the modern analog of coming over and hearing what’s on his stereo (or borrowing a disc). This is not the traditional kind of narrative, like a mixtape would be, but it’s wildly popular and is an active kind of listening in sharp contrast to shuffle.

The venerable mixtape itself has not died either, of course, though now it’s sometimes not physical. But the main purpose of the mixtape was for a friend to assemble a kind of album and share that listing of tracks with you, in a way that played all of them in sequence, hearing connections between disparate songs that make the playlist more than a sum of its parts. Muxtape (muxtape.com) was a wildly popular service that did just this — it allowed users to upload tracks from their own libraries, arrange them in a clean and simple interface, and then gave them a link they could send friends so they could listen to the whole tape right there on the page.

Of course, this was so wildly popular that the RIAA killed it, but the Internet responded in the way the Internet knows best — by decentralizing it. Opentape (opentape.fm) provides software, free for download, that can exactly replicate Muxtape’s functionality on your own web server.

So we see that meaningful arrangement of music is not at all dying because of the influence of new technology. Rather, new technology is enabling these narrative arcs to travel in novel, more distributed, and more personal ways. The mixtape is not dead.

On Viking Moses

I went on this tour for two years and I was just like, ‘I’m hittin’ the road and this is what I’m doing: I’m just going to dedicate myself to playing shows and I’m not going to say no to anybody and I’m not going to charge. I’m just gonna get what I get and I’m gonna go until I just can’t go anymore…’ and that lasted about two years before I was like, ‘Man, I’m really tired. I gotta stop this.’ ”

It’s been a long road for Viking Moses, performing alias of troubadour Brendon Massei. Since 1994, the Missouri-born songwriter has been on the move, crashing in such places as Las Vegas, Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Providence, Nottingham, and Scotland. With nearly 15 years of constant touring and moving about, Viking Moses just released his second full-length album, The Parts that Showed.

The album follows the folk tradition, staying the course of a single narrative throughout the 13 tracks. The story is that of a teenage prostitute who uses the money she makes to buy ice cream for children in the neighborhood, and of a sexually obsessed man who lusts for her. The songs are not stifled by the narrative; however, they present an array of perspectives and span what seems like a lifetime in this strange backwoods town: dogs chase after adulterous lovers, brown grass waves in fields like you would expect it to, and characters grow old and go back in time.

What Viking Moses leaves us with is a colorful portrait of a place we’re not sure exists, and we’re not sure whether we want it to exist. The songs can be despairing and playful in the same breath; the ease of simple country arrangements often belies the darkness of the lyrics. The conversational approach of songs like “One Arm Around the Sinner” and “Ma Moses” makes the listener feel impossibly close to the characters. Without pretension, Viking Moses presents his imagined narrative as if it is all he’s learned these last 15 years going between places.

Now on another seemingly endless tour, Viking Moses stopped by the WRCT station with his tourmate and sidekick Golden Ghost (Laura Goetz) to play a few songs and talk about time on the road, sustaining life via food service jobs, and the endless glory of Dolly Parton.

-M. Callen

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