Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World was released twenty years ago last week, i.e. June 28, 1994. It’s nice to be able to track dates like this down on the internet because then I’m able to take a quick leap back through time and stick a time-stamp on a certain memory that previously had been jangling around in my pocket like loose change. The memory isn’t anything dramatic, it’s just one of those things you weirdly remember for an unclear reason, and it’s of sitting in my family kitchen reading my parents’ copy of Newsweek and coming across a Freedy Johnston review.
I’ve been thinking recently about the French singer Françoise Hardy, and specifically thinking about the first Hardy song I ever heard, which did nothing for me. The song was “All Over the World,” one of Hardy’s songs in English. I remember feeling that there was something vaguely silly about it, that it felt kind of lightweight. The melody and backing track were pretty enough, but they also felt kind of clunky and conventional, with Hardy’s accent awkwardly distracting from the emotional pull of a lyric that felt generic to begin with. I kind of discounted the song, and even, at first, the singer. Then, about six months later, I was listening to another Hardy record and was struck by a beautiful, stately ballad; Hardy’s voice was gorgeous and whisper-quiet over an almost funereally solemn classically-derived piano arpeggio, and the lyrics, in French, seemed profoundly meaningful even though I didn’t know what they were about. I realized, when I looked at the title of the song, that it was “All Over the World” – the exact same recording, in fact, but with Hardy singing in French instead of English.
Here’s the deal, guys: somewhere around Birmingham my computer went down. I switched it on and there was this weird squiggly low-res pattern happening on there and then nothing, just a grey screen that popped up and wouldn’t go away. I tried “zapping the P-RAM,” which they tell you to do. I tried mashing the various combinations of keys they tell you to while you boot up – nothing worked.
If you’re a fan of ours, you probably know William Schaff’s work. He’s the artist responsible for almost all of the artwork on our records and he’s one of my oldest artistic associates and friends and one of the most talented people I know. (He’s also frequently confused with me because we have similar names, which is why at one point we made a couple of videos to clear things …
Okay so do you remember the part in Ghostbusters where Harold Ramis is down in the basement of the fire station with a spazzed-out and spirit-possessed Rick Moranis and suddenly Annie Potts comes down the stairs with that pissed off EPA guy pushing in front of her (William Atherton) and she says, “Egon, I tried to stop him! He says they have a warrant,” and then Egon says, “Excuse me, this is private property,” and the EPA guy says “Shut this off. Shut these all off” in this teeth-gritted, intense, red-faced way, pointing around the Ghostbusters’ HQ basement, at all the gadgets and gizmos and containment units we’ve been enjoying for 45 minutes or so by now, determined to ruin everything, to definitively end all the fun? And can you, like me, lipsyc basically the entire scene that follows because you have seen this movie so many times it might as well be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids?
I often make the outrageous drunken claim that the Rock*A*Teens were the single best rock and roll band of the 1990s. It’s sort of ridiculous to say, but as I write this sentence stone sober and drinking a glass of juice, I still kind of believe it. I keep waiting to not believe it, as I very frequently don’t believe all kinds of outrageous claims that I make, but I just cross-referenced with all the other 1990s rock and roll bands in my iTunes and I’m pretty much ready to double down; this disastrously scrappy Atlanta band with their not-very-good-sounding recordings and their name half-swiped from a 50’s rock outfit were…okay, let’s not say the “best,” because I don’t really believe there’s any objective truth when it comes to evaluating music – let’s say they were my favorite.
I’m told that at some point, usually around age 30 or sometimes later, a great many people basically stop seeking out new music. They circle back around to the same old albums, their favorite albums – the albums of their childhood, or of some time when they were happiest. Their iTunes library (if they have one) may slowly grow, but the amount of records they actually listen to contracts. It circles around the same twenty records, and then fifteen, and then maybe ten. They might occasionally be curious about their favorite band from fifteen years ago putting out a new record, or doing an overpriced reunion tour, but mostly they’re indifferent or even hostile towards the idea of new music. And then – and I’m scared to tell you guys, because I don’t want to believe such a thing could be true – it’s said that somewhere out there are people who have actually stopped listening to music.
Little Beaver made music that deserves to be the soundtrack everyone forevermore associates with Florida; if there were any justice in the world there would be Beaver-themed bars all over America and nobody would ever mention that Buffet fellow ever again. It is impossible for me to separate Beaver from Florida, from humidity, from relaxation, from jocularity. His songs all wear a tipsy perma-smile, and you can feel a hot, sticky sheen of sweat across them.
I’ve been hearing lots of chatter about Sparks bubbling up on the internet these days. I’m not sure why this is, but it makes me happy, because Sparks makes me happy. In my younger and more naïve days I would have taken this internet murmuring as an indication that Sparks are ready for some kind of popular comeback, but I’m older and wiser and more disappointed in the human race now and I’ve learned first of all that these things go in cycles and second of all that – in America at least – Sparks are never going to get the respect they deserve. Though Russell and Ron Mael spent four decades making some of of the most creative and iconoclastic pop-leaning music put on tape, that music was always a little bit too creative, too iconoclastic, and too “quirky” to have made them the household name they could have been. There just aren’t enough cool households in America I guess.
Over at the Okkervil River website there’s a video for the first song from the new Okkervil album The Silver Gymnasium. I went down and filmed the video last week at the Plainfield Town Hall, where a hand-painted backdrop by Maxfield Parrish has sat for decades. The backdrop was created so that it could be lit to simulate different times of day, and in the video Nancy Norwalk – Plainfield’s Head Librarian and one of leaders of a 1990 restoration of the backdrop – takes us through the different lighting schemes, from dawn to nightfall.