“The Fashion Focus (song)” – The Fashion Focus

“The Fashion Focus” is a breath of fresh air. It’s just so pleasant. It has the shuffle of a 3/4 song even though I think it is in 4/4. The piano and the guitar weave in and out of each other like people doing a Maypole. This song is a dance. Whether it’s the jumping from high to low notes and back again, those cute waterfall descending lines or the cheeky key punctuations during “You’re the one who played the keys”, this song is playful and happy. Strange for a song that mentions the world getting you down so much.

So what
So I think you know
That you
Were the first to go

Through lonely towns with one way streets
Met the ones I’d love to meet
By driving cars, deliveries
You’re the one who played the keys

I was thinking about this song in reference to one of my ex’s (the one who liked to play White Trash Monopoly) a couple of months ago when she called to tell me about a troubling health diagnosis. Oddly enough, I came to know her through work which involved me driving down a one way street to deliver cleaning and medical supplies to a mental health residence I managed. We knew each other for three years before we ever got together. The getting together business was a bit of a dance, jumping from high to low and full of unexpected descending lines. She didn’t play the keys but she had a lot of keys [insert joke about about lesbians and key rings here].

She was, in ways, a hard woman. She’d had a hard life with no family support. She made her way through life with a sarcastic wit, unbreakable discipline and a level of emotional discernment that could pierce through anything or anyone she encountered. I felt like she never even had a chance in this life. If she didn’t have bad luck, she would have had no luck at all. I felt like if she could just get away from all the influences in her life that fed off of her and if she could live an environment where she was loved just as she was, she could finally know what it means to live (ah, the foolishness of my 20’s). I set about making that environment a reality.

It’s odd
How you always notice when the world gets you down
I find it odd
How you always notice when the world gets you down

The relationship had it’s promising first years. Then things started to happen, frightening things. Life or death medical problems. Freak accidents. Life became a matter of conquering whatever the new crisis of the week was. And there was always a crisis; we couldn’t go two days without something happening. Whatever the new crisis was, I would set about solving it by force of will. My motto was the line from the Billie Holiday song, “The difficult I’ll do right now/ the impossible might take a little while”. I even set about using my brain power to factor probabilities of what might happen in the future and taking steps to prevent the inevitable. For example, I would take daily tours for the house looking for anything in the floor that she could possibly trip on and putting it away before she cracked her ankle again.

Finally, I got to the point of asking why it was that I needed to do this for another grown ass adult who should know damn well how to walk across the living room floor without sustaining a crippling injury. She always noticed when the world got her down; in fact, it was her preferred state of existence. If there was nothing in particular to be down about, wait 48 hours and something new would come up. I’m not saying she made these things up or exaggerated them; she did endure very real, difficult situations. I think that is more that she drew these things to her because it is what she wanted.

Why would anyone want to be down, sick and crippled all the time? Well, if it’s all you’ve known all your life, then there is a sort of comfort in staying in what you know. If you are held down by circumstance, you never have to deal with the existential angst of reaching for or fulfilling your potential. It’s odd, I know, but that is the way it was. For those who want such a life, they will never miss an opportunity to notice when the world gets them down.

It’s odd…

You know what else is odd? That it is a sf59 song making this point. After all, Silver and Gold were pretty much all about JM noticing when the world got him down. Americana was about being angry about the world getting him down (which first requires noticing that it has happened). The Fashion Focus is something different altogether. It is a turning point, not only in musical style and skill, but in lyrical intent. It is almost like JM could be looking at his previous three albums and saying, “The fuck, dude?”

One thing that I’ve found to be true in my writing life is that you usually end up writing what you need to hear. I think that’s what this song is. It’s getting some distance from that voice that used to sing such mopey tunes and singing a new way of living into being. If you look at the entire sf59 catalogue, this song, more so than any other, is a fulcrum point. The balance of the musical and lyrical composition will never be the same as it was in the beginning. Just because you have been depressed doesn’t mean it has to stay that way for all time. Your perspective can change and you can look back at your previous life with a whimsical “It’s odd” and move on. And what a glorious thing it is!

“Shut Your Mouth” – The Fashion Focus

I’m back after a week long break. Some of you might have thought that I finally shut my mouth, but, alas, it is not so. I’ve known what I was going to write for this song the whole time but it was hard to get it on the page.

“Shut Your Mouth” continues the trend on this album of sounding like it is straight out of the ’60s. We are talking a ’67 Monterey Pop Festival vibe here. This such a song to listen to as you are taking mind altering substances while sitting in a bean bag chair and complaining about the president and the war to your fellow stoners. This is The Doors, The Mamas and Papas and Big Brother and the Holding Company all rolled in together.

This trip into psychedelia is plotted by the plodding determined drum beat. The lead and the organ compete for attention hitting dual, clashing accents in the verses. The lead drops out in the chorus and lets the organ carry the solo. In the background, we have one rhythm guitar with a clean tone playing simple arpeggios with some variations. Another rhythm guitar is underneath playing chords in what I think is a heavy tremolo. The bass moves around the fretboard more than usual for a sf59 song and gives a feeling of cool detachment. Some vibes are hovering somewhere between the bass line and the clean rhythm guitar adding to this “too cool for school” stance the song takes.

Now, let’s talk about these background vocals. There is a double to the main vocal sung in a falsetto in the chorus. This is a new thing. We haven’t heard this in any of the songs we’ve reviewed up to this point. This album is a sort of showcase for testing out new production tricks. But I think this is more than a production trick. It is a sign that the singer is speaking with a forked tongue. You’ll see what I mean when we dig into the lyrics.

Let’s not forget the ominous “Ahhhhh” in between the chorus and the verses. They sound kind of churchy, don’t they? I haven’t plotted out the notes on these vocals, so I could be wrong about this, but I believe they are missing the 5th note of the chord structure. This type of hollowed out chord structure was common in pre-Renaissance church music, like Gregorian chants. It’s a sound that is ancient and haunting, something that came hundreds of years before Vatican II which gave us all the permission to chill the fuck out and stopping judging so much. This is completely appropriate because this song is about judging or, to be more precise, it is a song about projecting your judgement onto someone else. It’s an important distinction to make.

After all
You really stink it up
And the lies that you tell
I really think that you know

When I first sat down to right this, the lyrics made me think of one person only – Donald Trump. I’ve always thought he was an odious man, but I could ignore him before. Now he’s stinking up the presidency with his lies and I can’t get away from him. This is not intended to be a political post; I’m talking about what I think of him as a man and I will try not to tarry there long as it makes me feel icky.

I ran across this article once titled something like “Let Donald Trump be Your Spiritual Teacher”. I clicked on it thinking it would be good for a laugh. The article was quite sincere. It talked about how all of Trump’s characteristics that you hate so much are really things that you dislike about yourself. Are you a white person who’s angry about his racist pandering? Well, maybe you are a little too comfortable with your own privilege, but, hey, you’re not as bad as him, right? Are you disgusted by his womanizing? Maybe you haven’t yet taken account of the ways you will objectify a woman’s body. The thing about Trump is that he takes all the characteristics we hide, even from ourselves, and he just does them out in the open. See Trump as the mirror of unacceptable aspects of yourself. The article was not the barrel of laughs I was expecting. Shit got real.

Left your girl and you left your family too
Things that you’re never sure about
Just know that there’s one thing I’ll get through

You’ve got it all worked out
I wish you’d shut your mouth

He’s left multiple wives and children. He thinks he’s got it all worked out (and he’s the only one in the world who does). And, God, I wish he would shut his mouth and shut down his Twitter. How does this mirror me? I’ve left my girl before too and some family members when I wasn’t sure how things would go. As for having it all worked out, I live in that philosopher’s realm where you can spout theories about anything but still yet cannot say for certain if chairs exist. This no man’s land allows me to be both superior in all that I know and can debate about but without the potential nasty consequences of taking a committed stand on anything. See, I’ve got it all worked out.

After all
You really like just to never tell
We really think that you’ll burn in hell
I really think that you know

I think it is that the singer likes to never tell – at least about himself. It’s so much safer to point out how someone else is going to hell, isn’t it? Trump is a master at projection too. You never hear him say a negative word about himself; it’s all superlatives, all the time. If he things that anyone or anyplace isn’t for him, they get all the nasty descriptions or nicknames that he can think of. And all of it revolves around him and the image he has of himself. He cannot even spare attention for anything that is not about him.

It’s this classic narcissism that probably gets on my nerves the most about him. So that has to say something about me. I’m not saying I am a narcissist. I’ve actually given considerable thought as to whether I fit the diagnostic criteria for NPD and that is something a narcissist would never do. That being said, I sure to like to talk about myself. Notice how each of these song reviews end up being something about me? People don’t do music reviews this way. I can think that I’m doing something bold and new. But maybe the truth of it is that this project wouldn’t hold my interest for very long if I wasn’t writing about myself so much.

You’ve got it all worked out
I wish you’d shut your mouth

I made a comment a few posts ago about how I thought the theme of this album was judgement. I want to amend that. I think the theme of this album is about projection. We’ve already seen several songs where the singer had it all worked out when pointing out the evil doings of others (“Sundown”, “The Birthrite”). When the singer focuses on himself, the songs are about being stuck or about abdicating all responsibility (“I Drive A Lot”, “We’re the Ordinary”, “All The Time”). It’s all this abdication that makes the projection so necessary. Hey, maybe I don’t have it all worked out in my own life but I’m better than this fucker over here and I’m going to tell him so. The abdication and projection go hand in hand.

And, with that being said, I’m going to shut my mouth.

“Card Games and Old Friends” – The Fashion Focus

I’m getting into the drum intro on this one. It’s a simple beat but it sets up a syncopation on this song that you don’t hear often on these earlier albums. The guitar is minimal but playful. Is that a tremolo pedal or a vibrato? I can’t tell. The real spice in this song in the synths. It sounds like it has some kind of effect on it but, again, I can’t tell. The synth hits pulse points that are just a little bit off from what you anticipate. The whole thing carries the illusion of being simple and minimal but there’s little pieces of it that don’t play to expectations. Maybe the song is constructed this way to match the story of the lyrics.

Say goodbye
It’s no life
We never realized
Where we’ve been
Sad ends
We never realized

This song always reminds me of a time about 10 years ago when me, my partner at the time and friends of ours who were also a couple would get together on Friday nights and play card games. We would cook out and blare the ’90s college radio channel on the cable TV. I’m a ruthless Uno player. Eyeing player with one card left, I’d slap a Plus 4 card down while Hole blared in the background. I would join Courtney Love’s guttural drawl singing, “Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice?”

Card games and old friends
Always no sad ends
Card games and old friends
You mess it up

Monopoly also made an appearance often. We played our own variant named “White Trash Monopoly” where we rename all the housing blocks after gutter-butt trailer parks in town. The Chance cards were things like “Pay $150 at the methadone clinic” or “Get $3,000 in tax refunds for all your babies”. I only bought the high class trailer parks and I installed double-wides. I was living the hillbilly high life with all my pastel bills.

No surprise
Different lives
Express the world on time
Sad ends
To bad ends
We never realized

A lot of smoking. A lot of cussing. A lot of singing. A lot of laughing.

It was short lived. As the respective romantic relationships fell apart, the friendships did too. I miss them and love them all still. But people mess up. They pick sides. They run. They move on. You are left to remember what used to be and how it all met sad ends. The only other option is not to remember at all. I think that would be worse.

“The Birthrite” – The Fashion Focus

I’m glad that we are back to a song that bears its teeth a bit. Don’t get me wrong; I like the songs we’ve reviewed on this album thus far. I just like my Starflyer a little bit rude. This song has swagger. The drums are steady but powerful; they go double barrel in all the right places. The layered “yeah yeah yeah’s” have the disaffected sneer of a post-punk Liverpool teen (I do love Liverpool boys; they are like Kentucky boys but so much more exotic and they have better musical taste). I like how the track starts with the sound of a song in progress. I feel like I arrived at the party fashionably late (which is accurate for me in general).

The guitar and bass run the show here. The rhythm and bass combo pounding out the da-da-da-da-da-da line is as relentless as the Red Army attacking Berlin. What really gets to me is the krnk-rgggk upstrokes at the end of a phrase. It’s all about those upstrokes for me. Take it from a girl who knows – you can pound out that da-da-da-da-da-da line all day and everyone will have a decent time, but it’s those upstrokes thrown into the rhythm that hits a girl at her epicenter. Yeah yeah yeah.

Some might
Some might sell out on the birthrite

This is another one of those instances where I was today years old when I learned the lyrics to this song. I don’t know that I have much to offer here. But just like the lead guitar on this song sounds wonderfully unplanned, I’ll go with it and we’ll see what I can come up with.

Esau sold his birthrite for a bowl of soup. As we used to say when I worked mental health, Esau had “poor choicing skills”. I think girls had to hear this story growing up in church more that the boys. Well-meaning Sunday School teachers would raise the specter of Esau to teach us girls that we needed to hold our sexual purity so close to our bosoms that no one else could get near them. I always wondered why we focused on Esau’s poor choices when Jacob was the real dick in this story. Why didn’t we talk more about Jacob?

Never shy
And you never shot a bird right

I take this as a reference to sin. In particular, it reminds me of that definition of sin as “missing the mark”. Maybe that reference comes to mind for me because I was always the designated skeet puller for my dad’s gun shooting extravaganzas.

But you’re taking on the worst shine
You’re taking on the worst shine
With the hairiness you never had

At first I thought this was a diss on bald guys. Being bald must be hard. But having hair is hard too (me and my hair are frenemies at best).

Oh wait, someone is finally talking about what a dick Jacob is. Thank you, sf59! I’ve been waiting for this. Jacob tricks a blessing out of his blind father. Jacob impersonates Esau by slapping on some animal skins and guiding his father’s hand to touch the fur (man, Esau must have been, like, Robin Williams level hairy).

Jacob is a complicated hero. He’s a trickster. On the whole, people do not benefit from knowing him. Plot twist: he wrestles with himself all night, then demands a blessing. He’s wounded for life but he is also reborn as Israel (“one who struggles with God”) and becomes the father of the church. Maybe that’s why they didn’t like talking about him in Sunday School. Jacob is too real. If we look at him too long, we might have to wrestle with our own sins.

Some might
Sell out on the wrong side
In the corner of his eye
“Well he never shot a bird right”
But you’re taking on the worst shine
You’re taking on the worst shine
With the hairiness you never had

The second verse repeats the first for the most part but there are some shifting perspectives here. Why is “Well he never shot a bird right” in quotes? Doesn’t that seem odd?

I haven’t yet addressed what I think the theme of this album is. The previous three albums were a sort of trilogy, each with their own theme or spirit (as it is with other great trilogies like the Star Wars Ep IV- VI or LOTR). The Fashion Focus is more scattered, but there is a theme here. Several of these songs are about judgement. You’ll see it more as we get further in. It’s a special brand of judgement too; it is judgement issued from a place of perceived purity in the singer.

This line in quotes stands out to me. There’s been several judging verses so far on The Fashion Focus. This is the first line that hints that the judge might be starting to observe his own judging behavior.

… Or maybe the song is just about skeet shooting and bald guys.

“All The Time” – The Fashion Focus

“All The Time” has the vibe of a New Wave interpretation a spaghetti western background track. The soaring synths and the persistent four on the floor drumbeat are classic New Wave. We find the western influence in the slide guitar and all that reverb that is as wide as the desert that the cowboy crosses on his horse on his way to find whatever it is that motivates him – whether it be vengeance, a home or a long lost girl. The music battles between weariness, loneliness, longing and hope. Which of these should we feel? How about all of them at once, all the time?

The lyrics remind me of the concept of locus of control. Your own understanding of yourself is shaped by what you think you can control. You may act upon the world; you can, through your own agency and will, change the world. The world can also act upon you and change you, sometimes against your will. Your sanity rests on finding the balance between these two realities.

“Locus of control” is the concept of where you find that balance. The balance will fall somewhere on the continuum between the opposing poles of “external” and “internal”. If you fall on the extreme ends of the external pole, you will believe that you are always at the mercy of what is outside of you. The world does as it will to you and you are powerless to stop any of it. You are a puppet on a string, destined to move only as you are directed by the puppet master. It is a bleak existence. The learned helplessness of this way of understanding your place in the world leaves you paralyzed and shattered.

Of course, having an extreme internal locus of control isn’t much better. If you believe that you can control the trajectory of all that happens around you, you have a completely different set of problems. You can be blind to your own motivations if you do not recognize the external forces that shape them from birth. You push ahead, asserting your own way in everything because if you stop long enough to ponder the source of your motivation, your self-contained, self-made image of who you are might fall apart. You may even begin to take responsibility for the actions of others, to take their burdens onto yourself, because doing so is preferable to contemplating a world that you cannot control. Interestingly, an extreme internal locus of control will leave you paralyzed as much as its opposite pole. I read once that catatonics suffer from a sense of too much responsibility. The burden is too heavy to carry and the consequences too great if they fail, so they just stop moving all together.

We don’t make the world go round
We don’t know much about
Life and little things
We don’t make it happen
We don’t make it happen
All the time

We will focus on the external locus of control today because this is where the lyrics lead us (and that was not intended as a pun, really). This first verse is an outright denial of personal agency. We don’t make the world turn. We don’t know about this stuff. We don’t make anything happen. It is an abdication of responsibility and of making decisions. Hey, it ain’t my fault the world is the way it is. It ain’t me.

Love a world that’s not your own
And pretty soon we’ll go home

The second verse takes an unexpected turn. I assume the world that he loves, that is not his own, is heaven. Here’s what is strange about that line – he tacitly takes ownership of the very world he abdicated in the first verse. If heaven is the home that we love and will go to at some point in the future, then the earth must be the world we own now. This may not be a sound interpretation of this. I haven’t exactly plotted this out using deductive reasoning or anything. But it strikes me as strange. The only world that is his right now is the world that he denies any responsibility for.

Find some real love
That’ll make us happy
That’ll make us happy
All the time

In some future state, we will go home and we’ll find real love. This are the only direct verbs in the entire song. The rest of the song talks about what he doesn’t do or doesn’t know. This is the only expression of actually doing something (even though it is in future tense, it’s not happening right now). So what is he actually doing right now? Denying responsibility for the world and dreaming of a future heaven state where a real love will make him happy all the time. Notice how this real love that will “make [him] happy all the time” is another external force that will act upon him?

These lyrics pretty much describe the criticisms that non-Christians have about Christianity. Christians will turn our backs on the suffering of the world with a “I’m not my brother’s keeper” shrug. When it comes to being accountable for our own actions and self-improvement, we expect some Jesus atonement magic to do all the work for us. This is why evangelical Christianity is such a punchline in the world right now.

Now, I know that the truth of atonement is much more than this. But I’m also frustrated that we Christians make it so easy for the world to paint us with such broad strokes. We were not put here to abdicate our place in the world while dreaming of a future heaven where all our problems will be solved for us. God has no hands in the world except our own. We are here in this world now, all the time. We should act like it.

Wow, this post did not go in the direction I thought it was. I should do something to bring it full circle. In the beginning, I wrote about how this song sounded like weariness, loneliness, longing and hope. This external locus of control business can explain why there is weariness and loneliness here. It doesn’t explain the longing and hope. Maybe the music tells us more than the lyrics do.

Let’s go back to that image of the lone cowboy crossing the desert that the music evokes. The myth of the cowboy is an American creation – the rugged individual who cares for his herd and does his duty no matter the weather conditions. The cowboy is the mythical figure that Americans wish we could be. He is undoubtedly the symbol of an internal locus of control. And there is the hope.

The longing is in the space between the lyrics and the music. It is the distance between who we say we are now and who we wish to become… all the time.

“A Holiday Song (Happy Holidays)” – The Fashion Focus

It’s Christmas in July, folks! It feels strange to contemplate the holidays when the sun attacks me every time I walk out the door, but this is the song order dictated to me so I must work with it. It helps that this is not your average Christmas song. From the first da-da-da-da-da-deeeeee-da-duh-da-duh of the acoustic guitar, you know this song is its own thing. This ain’t your mama’s Christmas carol. It’s kitschy as hell. Trust me, the gays know kitsch like no one else. This is not meant to be derogatory; I love kitsch.

The song is playful and boppy. The drums bounce all over the place like a toddler at a birthday party. The lead guitar holds its notes a little longer than expected on occasion and, at other times, a note stops just short of where you think it will. The bass jumps up and down and does some fun waterfall descending lines. And let’s just pause for a moment and talk about the keys. I talk often about how sf59 has a ’50s or ’70s vibe, but this is pure 60’s. These keys sound like what would happen if The Doors and The Monkees had a baby. Like, I should be wearing a Nehru collar and black slacks listening to this, y’all (I’m wearing Thai fisherman pants right now so maybe that is close enough).

You know what day it is?
The day we fell in love

Listening to this song today reminds me of the time that I fought for its inclusion in an eclectic Christmas season playlist with my most recent ex (the one who doesn’t like New Wave). We thought up this idea that we would start our own Christmas family traditions. When you aren’t accepted as you are in your family of origins, you have to make up new traditions with the family you choose. A weirdo Christmas playlist that would last the season was one of ours. I fought hard to get this song included, but it never was added to the list. I had better success at convincing her to add Fleming & John’s reinterpretations of classic Christmas carols as AC/DC and Led Zeppelin tunes (and if you didn’t know that was a thing that existed in this world, you need to go look it up right now on YouTube; it’s totally worth it).

Long and sad goodbyes
So sad you couldn’t stay

My ex and I agreed in our musical tastes the majority of the time, but she hated sf59. I could never figure out why. When I inquired about her distaste for all things sf59, she told me that they had no melody. No melody? Are you kidding me? This song was the lone song out of their entire catalogue that she even moderately liked. She said it was the only one that had any melody (Tell me, is it really because this song has sleigh bells? Because I think it’s the sleigh bells). This charge of “no melody” floored me, to the extent that it made me doubt and question my own tastes. She knew more about music and music theory than I did by far. She could play more instruments. We both played guitar. I was the better chord player but she far surpassed me at picking. She could sing and had such a command of her voice that she could come up with harmonies the first time she heard a song. What was she hearing that I didn’t?

I’m sure you all have had experiences like this – you introduce a music lover to sf59 and they just don’t get it. You’ll hear, “It all sounds the same,” or “It all sounds like a bunch of mush.” They don’t hear what you hear. It doesn’t resonate in their blood the way it does in yours. Then you are left to wonder why they miss what is so obvious to you. And, in case you haven’t noticed, I like to ponder on things and my ex’s criticism of sf59 was no exception. I even went to the extent of digging into some musical theory (what little I know) to find the answer.

Musicians sometimes like to play a game called “What chord are you?” If a musician asks you this, you have to scramble for a chord is a perfect distillation of your personality. I am Fmaj7. I’m not really a minor chord although I like to hang out with them. I’m not a full-throated major chord either; I’m not bright enough. The thing I love about a maj7 chord is that you take one of the cornerstone notes of a major chord and drop it down a step. It makes the sound so much more complex and nuanced. If I had to guess what chord my ex would pick for herself, I would say a straight Gmaj. She would want to sound bright like that. She might have picked a chord with an added 2nd or 4th for harmony but those weren’t in her chord vocabulary. Ironically (or perhaps truthfully), she couldn’t actually play a full G major because her hands weren’t big or strong enough. She would hold the high e string at the 3rd fret and play half the chord. When you heard her play it, your mind would fill in the rest of the chord with what you expected to be there (and, honestly, that is the best metaphor for the nature of our relationship I have yet to find).

You don’t have to go
Spend the holidays

So I started thinking that maybe all the maj7 chords in sf59 songs were the reason my ex did not like them. Maybe that’s why people in general don’t go for sf59. These are not chords you hear on what passes for pop music these days. We are serving roasted chicken marinated in a fine vinaigrette with herbs and they are used to a diet of breaded chicken tenders. There’s nothing wrong with chicken tenders, per se. I will eat them when I have neither the time or the energy to do something better.

And maybe that’s the thing right there – it takes some time and effort to peel back the layers of sf59 songs, to hear all the complexity and nuance. This is the reason I love sf59. I hate it when I hear a song on the radio and I can tell what chords they are playing without even picking up my guitar. I want a song that challenges me and my ears. But most people are happy with plain old chicken tenders and in the words of Miss Jean Brodie, “To those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

(Happy Holidays)

… I still think it’s because of the sleigh bells.

“Fell In Love At 22” – The Fashion Focus

“Fell In Love At 22” takes a contemplative pace as is needed for this stroll down memory lane, a stroll that you just wish would last a little longer. We are all suckers for nostalgia around here. I know you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps we want to stay here longer in these memories because we are selectively picking only the good memories to revisit. We can tell that is the case here because of how gentle the song sounds. If we actually listen to songs JM wrote during this lauded age, we see that things weren’t so gentle at the time.

This song uses a different set of tactics than what we have seen in most of the sf59 songs up to this point. The guitar’s role and importance have switched; it now exists to provide accents and punctuation, a bit like guitars in reggae music. The guitar isn’t the work horse here. JM allows the bass, keys and vocals to carry the melody and harmonies. The piano and synth parts weave in an out of each other. The backing vocals come in like a Greek chorus to remind us why these rememberances are important – this is our life, our old times.

Fell in love at 22
With a girl that’s close to you
Find a job and find a life
No more long days, longer nights
With your girl and family too
Playing card games in the room

I never fell in love at 22, but I did fall in love at 24. It was my first experience with falling in love. I was thinking about this the other day when I looked out my bedroom window and saw the sun reflecting off the green leaves of the forest. It reminded me of the way the sun shown down on the southern Appalachian mountains I drove past as I was heading toward where my love lived at the time. The summer seemed to have so much promise; the light bouncing off all the beauty that surrounded me confirmed it.

I had been friends with this love of mine for years. We met when I was a freshman in college and I started my work study assignment in his science department. I knew that he wanted us to be more then, but I was not ready yet. Still though, we had a lot of fun. Being the rogue that I am, I installed illegal game console emulators on the department’s computers and we played many 8-bit Nintendo games in between classes. Our gaming wasn’t limited to the illegal variety either; we played many card games as well. He taught me how to play gin rummy. He always played any card he could as soon as he could. I hoarded my cards, quietly shifting them in my hand. I could see in his eyes the pride that he felt thinking he was doing so well at beating me. He would temper this pride with well-meaning statements about how I was just learning the game and I would get better. I smirked as I laid down my entire hand of perfectly matched cards at once. He sat blinking in disbelief. It took a few seconds for him to realize what had just happened to him.

We remained friends like this for years. Eventually I graduated from college and he moved down south to pursue his doctorate. We would chat by computer in the evenings. After awhile I realized that chatting with him was my favorite part of the day. He did a semi-autobiographical web comic with a modest following which we discussed regularly. There were always new video games to discuss. When we weren’t talking about these things, I was busy undermining his belief in a world that could be easily understood. He was a hard scientist and I was a psychologist with a side fling with philosophy. I flexed my epistemological muscles enough to make him realize that the scientific method is just a theory and that just because a thing can be measured doesn’t mean that its measurement is all that it is.

This is our life, our old times…

When we started dating, he made a comic character based on me named “Milli Graham” (based on Stanley Milgrim whose experiments on social conformity and perceived authority revealed how easy it is to get a person to kill another). Milli was a psychology student who ran into his character at the school library. She was part love interest and part foil. Milli was sarcastic and challenging. She always wore head scarves (a style I maintain to this day). Anytime his character would state something as obvious according to science, Milli always pointed out that things were not so obvious as they appear. She was also the only character who could beat his character at Tetris. I am not that good at Tetris myself, but he always took Tetris skills as the highest form of achievement so I took the fact that my character could beat his as the highest of compliments. The readers of the comic fell in love with Milli and would comment in the forums about how they wished they could meet a girl like that.

The love affair was charged and a lot of fun. I always knew it was temporary though. There was nothing wrong with the guy at all; I just knew that we were not destined to be together for all time. I said as much one day, not realizing the bomb that I was dropping on him. He sat blinking in disbelief. It took more than a few seconds for him to realize what had just happened to him. It took some time for me to realize it too. I would have thought what I said was obvious. I did not realize that he would interpret this proclamation as evidence that he was not good enough. That wasn’t a part of my thinking at all. I have since spent time working on anticipating how the things I say might actually be interpreted. It’s taken a lot of work to learn that.

The relationship in the comic played out much like it did in real life. The pair had a perfect day together until Milli blurts out that the relationship won’t last in the third panel. The fallout continued to be incorporated into the story arc of the comic. The people on the forums who loved Milli quickly turned on her, blasting her for her insensitivity. It was illuminating for me to watch this unfold but also perplexing. Milli was always a foil from the beginning. Didn’t they know that doing the unanticipated was always a part of her character?

Now that John is 42
With a family like you
With a job that led him down
Don’t you know I led him round?

It’s funny, even after the fallout of the breakup, I would still post “Happy Birthday John” on his birthday. His birthday is coming up soon and he’s probably about 42. I hope his life is better than this verse suggests. I don’t know. It’s hard being a scientist in this post-truth world.

Although he may have felt dismayed at the time that I called the relationship temporary, he may have cause to appreciate my prescient proclamation since. He got married a few years later. They had kids and a house, all the things that he wanted and all the things that I could not bear to be tied down by. He always did play his cards as soon as he could. As for me, I’m still holding onto my hand, waiting for the day that I can lay all my perfectly matched cards down at once.

“Sundown” – The Fashion Focus

What is that noise in the beginning? Man, I don’t even know. We are getting to the point in the sf59 catalogue where I may no longer be able to accurately identify instruments. Is it a synth? Is it a bass with crazy effects? Who can say? It sounds like the auditory representation of the way a cat moves when he first thinks he is in trouble and then when he knows for certain he is in trouble and scurries off in haste.

Maybe that is an appropriate beginning to this song since this song is about being in trouble. This is our first entry about a sf59 “spooky song”. The spooky song becomes a standard trope in later years but this will be our first foray into one on this blog. I love the spooky songs. Maybe having cats in the house has attuned me to things that are just a bit evil.

After that weird intro noise, we get a strong drum beat and JM’s rumbling baritone announcing “This is the sundown.” The lead guitar starts out methodical and intentional. With all that reverb and the slight waver in the notes, you can’t tell if you’ve landed at a drunken luau or a ’50s horror film. Maybe someone did some crossover fan fiction of a late ’50s Elvis Presley movie with a Vincent Price movie, you know, that kinda thing. Then the second part of the first verse kicks in. The notes descend. That schizophrenic synth starts running around in the background. It is menacing. We are definitely in spooky territory now.

Your bet is lost
You’re fading slow
Sundown, the dark has laid you low

One of the main differences in the lyrics of this album compared to previous albums is that the focus has shifted (and I didn’t even mean that as a pun, really). In previous albums, JM mostly wrote inward. The songs were either about internal emotions or about people who stirred his internal emotions. The singer is always a character in the song. In this album we see JM write about other people. This song is about someone the singer has observed and he’s not going to hold back on his judgments about it.

A rite to save your own
The blackness fiend will take you on

These lines remind me of teenage witch curses sworn in the dark of night while everyone is wearing pajamas. And it makes me laugh. I can’t help it. Then I remember the time that some of my high school friends had a sleepover with activities that included witch curses, tarot card readings, summoning the dead with a homemade Ouija board and huffing Glade. One of the girls huffed too deeply and died that night. But I don’t want to write a post about that. I’ve stopped laughing though. It really is getting creepy around here.

Sundown

The “sundown” is a metaphor for the light going out of a life of one who has chosen darkness. They are in trouble now and you can hear the darkness creeping in the music. It seems this person’s fate is sealed according to the singer.

Your slipping heart
A gray shadow
Sundown, the dark has laid you low

A rite to save your own
A rite to save your soul
A rite to save your own
The blackness fiend will take you on

The singer continues his proclamations about the future of this person. As I am listening to the words, all I can think is that this song was written by someone young, someone who believes that good and evil are as distinguishable as light and dark. It doesn’t seem as simple as all this to me. I have lived enough to know how subtle evil may be and how it can creep up into your life without even sounding like a spooky luau at all.

I’ve also lived long enough to learn a thing or two about grace. There is no offer of grace in this song, just punishment and torment. Maybe your understanding of grace expands as you learn the subtly of evil and how easily it may ensnare a person. Maybe those realizations go hand in hand. At least it helps to do some living first before you make your proclamations of judgment.

“We’re The Ordinary” – The Fashion Focus

This song sounds like molasses. The pace crawls. It opens with the lead guitar and a synth mirroring each other on the melody line. The instruments in the background are sparse. You get an ’80s synth inflection here, a chord from a ’60s-esque, reverb-laden guitar bursts in there before retreating to the background. Just at the end, layers of guitars fill in the space and a blistering lead rides on top, but it is gone too soon. This song sounds like it is trying to find its place or at least making a half-hearted attempt at it. Maybe sometimes you don’t have a song.

I don’t mean to sound so harsh on this one. This was probably my favorite song when this album first came out. It got more repeats than any other song during my honeymoon phase with this LP. After awhile, it started to grate on me. I’m not sure why. Now the song just sounds like malaise in auditory form.

The lyrics tell of malaise too. We’re ordinary people. We struggle. We are alone. And, yeah, others have had it worse. But you still know what it is like – what it is like not to have a life. Just as the synth and the lead guitar mirror each other on the melody, we mirror each other in our discontent and our half-hearted attempts to find our place in the world.

It’s the “in” thing now to get on your preferred brand of social media poison and share memes about how much you struggle and fail at adulting and how much the world irks you. This is at least more authentic than previous generations who pretended to have it all together for the sake of public opinion. But it’s not exactly fulfilling, is it? To do this dance of making jokes about how the world holds you down or you hold yourself down. Even if you can make a good joke about it, you are still held down.

All of this talk of malaise made me think of Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, which, ironically, he gave during this very week 40 years ago. In 1979 (also the year of my birth) the ordinary folks were not happy. There was an energy crisis which caused people to stand in long lines to buy expensive gas. The wounds that came from the Vietnam War, Nixon’s impeachment and the Civil Rights struggle had not healed. Unemployment was high and inflation was rising. The decade had seen the emergence of new cultural characters like cult leader Jim Jones and the serial killer referred to as the Son of Sam. Carter decided to address the existential core of the problems the people felt. It didn’t go so well.

Carter opened the speech by repeating some of the criticisms received at the White House. One in particular from a woman in Pennsylvania is relevant for us here: “I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power.” The ordinary people are powerless. They are excluded from the mechanisms in place to affect change. My intention here is not to get political here, so don’t worry. I find this woman’s quote illuminating and as true today as it ever was. The political is always personal, ultimately, and that is what I am reaching for.

Carter attempted to diagnose what lies at the center of the malaise of the nation. He called it a “crisis of confidence”. In our doubts and fears about the future, we closed the door on our past and in so doing, we were losing our identity. Sometimes we don’t have a life.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Carter’s suggested antidote to this malaise was personal responsibility. If each person learned to focus outward to the world instead of inward to themselves, a balance could be restored. Think about how you spend energy; don’t spend needlessly. Put on a sweater before you turn on the heat. Don’t take unnecessary trips. Don’t spend or consume when there is no need. Help your neighbors and have faith in them. Sacrifice a little for the common good. Make conscious decisions to improve your community instead of depending on the government or foreign oil imports to make your happiness for you.

Carter’s argument was sound and was initially well received. It was a potential pivot point for the country. Then after people had a couple of days to think about it, the mood changed. Why does Carter think there’ something wrong with us? We’re the greatest country on earth! What does he mean that we are self-indulgent? I work for everything I have and I’ll spend my money as I damn well please. He’s the president and he’s supposed to fix these problems.

Once the backlash began, Carter, ironically, did not take responsibility for the way his message was received. He fired a significant portion of his Cabinet and would make no further comments on the matter. When the next election cycle came around, the people went with the charismatic leader who promised to make America great again and told the people that there was nothing wrong with them or the way they lived. The country doubled down on hedonism, consumerism and self-indulgence in the ’80s which put us on the path that lead us to where we are today. I wonder where we would be now if we had taken the path Carter suggested 40 years ago.

This is who we are, us ordinary people. We want to spend without considering the real costs to other people in our world. When the unavoidable consequences of living that way finally reaches our doorsteps, we want to blame others and then latch onto whoever we think can fix all the problems for us. We certainly do not want anyone who might call us out or suggest that we might have to roll up our sleeves and play a part in the fixing of the mess. This is not a conservative vs. liberal thing; both groups do this in nearly equal measures.

Sometimes we don’t have a life because we refuse to make one. Can’t someone else just do it for us, please? We would rather wallow in memes about our own apathy than take any responsibility changing the way things are. In his book Love and Will, Rollo May prophetically wrote 50 years ago that “it is now upon us; and is indeed a tremendous event — that man stands at the point where he can be present at the birth of a new world or can preside at the destruction of humanity itself.”

I think what stands between the ordinary and greatness is a combination of taking responsibility and caring for others. It is not enough to have power and make decisions. May says that asserting one’s will without caring is just manipulation (and I can certainly see this truth personified by those who hold power or who seek power today). If you love but do not act from that love, your feelings are merely sentimentality (and I can see this personified in those who say they care about people who are marginalized and abused but do nothing about it).

It’s not as if I have this all figured out or anything. I can talk a good game when I am writing. But, in full disclosure, I am typing this on my brand new iPad Air that I really didn’t need but purchased anyway because of the convenience. Maybe I’m writing what I need to hear which is often the case with me.

I think what it comes down to is this: If we don’t find a new way of living in this world, then this “we don’t have a life” thing won’t just be a “sometimes” kinda thing. I’m writing to you because I think you know too.

“I Drive A Lot” – The Fashion Focus

Today’s review is going in an unexpected direction. We are going to talk about cocaine, folks. You didn’t anticipate that, did you? The Fashion Focus is the continental divide of the sf59 catalog. People tend to see it as the point when sf59 finally became something or the point when it all started going off the rails. I do not intend to argue the merits of the album. I want to pull the lid off this thing to figure out what changed and why the change happened. Cocaine will be my metaphorical crowbar for this task (at least on the first song).

The drum intro of “I Drive A Lot” tells us right away that the pace is different than anything we’ve heard before from sf59. Then those synths burst in like sunlight hitting a dusty room when you’ve opened the curtains. We’ve got that four on the floor beat. The vocals are slightly off tune. There’s no way around it, y’all. This is a New Wave song.

I had always suspected that JM was influenced by New Wave, even when distorted guitars were the order of the day. JM revealed his cards a bit with “You’re Mean”. There were other signs too. All those songs that sounded like a reinterpretation of ’50s music? That is a standard New Wave trope. The utilitarian drums? Check. The preoccupation with sadness and aloneness? Check. New Wave was always there hiding behind all those guitar tracks in the first three albums.

I grew up on New Wave. It is as natural to me as breathing. One of my earliest memories is going on a road trip and hearing the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” constantly on the radio on the whole trip because it was the #1 song at the time (Side note: is it any wonder that I became a person who constantly questions the motivations of people? “Sweet Dreams” taught me this). I cannot imagine music without New Wave. It was not even something that I realized consciously until it was called into question once.

Once my ex and I went to my best friend’s house. As often happens with my best friend, we started watching music videos on YouTube which led to us to a captivating performance by Berlin at some outdoor festival in 1983 where Terri Nunn was just blown out of her head. I looked over at my ex and she’s bored out of her mind. I asked her later what she thought of Berlin and she said she didn’t like them. I started listing off other New Wave bands and she responded each time saying that she doesn’t like them (she didn’t like sf59 either). The best description I could get from her for why she didn’t like New Wave was “It’s too frantic.” I started connecting the dots in my brain. All the bands she didn’t like were known cocaine users. Her brain couldn’t work at the speed of cocaine and mine could. Where she just heard noise and frenzy, I heard home and long road trips with my family.

I started thinking about why cocaine was such a major feature of New Wave music and how it impacted the sound of the songs and the lyrical content. My favorite New Wave bands are from the UK, NYC or the American South. I started thinking about what happened in those locations that would lead a generation of musicians to write the way that they did and snort cocaine like there was no tomorrow. The New Wave generation grew up in extraordinary times. In the UK, there was the vast destruction brought by World War II and the Troubles in Ireland. In the US, we had the civil rights movement and the threat of the Cold War. This generation was the first that grew up with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. No wonder they snorted cocaine. This generation knew what horrors humanity was capable of. They needed something to make their brains move faster than the ever-present existential dread of living life.

You can hear the existential dread in the music if you pay attention. But these kids weren’t going to be all morose about it like the baby boomers of the ’60s. No, they are going to write songs about isolation and fear and you are going to dance to it, dammit. They will sing about the difficulty of life but do it in such a way that it sounds like they are one step ahead of it. I suppose cocaine helps you run just out of reach of those cultural boogeymen. If you listen to the pace of the music, you can hear how they are driven to outrun the past or run toward some unattainable future.

And if you need it a lot
I’m talking just to waste my day
I drive a lot
I drive a lot

There has to be something for those of us who abstain from drugs for personal/religious reasons or who don’t have enough money to feed a cocaine habit. For me, it has always been driving and listening to music. I suspect it is the same for JM too. My propensity to find solace in driving was formed on those road trips with my family. I would sit in the back seat with my headphones and relax into a steady beat as trees, road signs and gas stations zoomed by. At the time The Fashion Focus was released, I was commuting to college and delivering pizza. Except for the hours when I was in class or sleeping, I was always on the move, always pushing the gas pedal down so my anxieties could not catch up.

Think of things I’d be
With time to kill and just had lots of money
Time to kill and just had lots of money

Yeah, I thought about these things too back in those days. There is this sense in these lines that the lack of time and money is preventing the singer from being who he wants to be. It’s that unattainable future that he’s driving towards.

When I’m all worked up I think of
Friends of mine now 35

35 seemed like such a long way off when The Fashion Focus came out. Now I wonder where all time time went. The singer says he’s “talking just to waste [his] day” but at the same time, he is conscious that time will run out. He will get old.

This song sounds happier than anything on the first three albums but it is filled with just as much existential dread. I can’t be who I would want to be now because I don’t have the money or the time, but time will eventually run out. What can I do about this? I keep driving. And I drive a lot.