Thursday, May 28, 2020

Albums That Defined My Musical Tastes – Cake’s “Prolonging the Magic”

After nearly two weeks of prodding, poking, and analyzing my musical genetic code I have realized that at this point in my life (over halfway through) there are 13 essential albums that sum up what I like in music. If I really thought about I could probably find a few more, for example I do like classical guitar, symphonies, funk, retro swing, bluegrass, and some pop, but I could probably live quite happily without these if I had to.

My final album is Cake’s “Prolonging the Magic” (but it could have been any Cake release) and this album and choice represents all the bands I love that don’t fit cleanly into a category. Every time I start writing these journals I think of another band I like, and I was usually able to fit them into one of the earlier sets, but I ended up with this list of bands that just didn’t fit anywhere. And that is why they are so special. The best music is the kind that cuts across boundaries, and surprises us, and challenges us, and isn’t always easily understood. I could say the same thing about the best people that I know.

Cake is a band from Sacramento, California led by a guy named John McCrea who looks like any regular blue collar hoser you would see filling up their blue Chevy with gas at Costco. He’s not a great singer, nor is he a great guitar player, but he creates magic with both and writes some of the craftiest, cutting, most vivid and sometimes impenetrable lyrics of any musician out there. Cake has never really broken through into the mainstream, and I think they like it that way because they command a small army of cultish, devoted fans. I’ve only seen them play once, at the Ottawa Bluesfest with my brother Marty. The singer was playing a guitar that he might have picked up at a garage sale on the way to the show for twenty bucks. But it was all he needed to make his point. The band is completed by a solid drummer, an amazing bass player and a trumpeter that completes the Cake sound.

I discovered Frank Zappa only after he had been dead for twenty years. I listened to a radio series called “Alpha Beta Zappa” on the listener-supported CKUA station out of Edmonton (best station in the world). I became a fan instantly and worked my way through his bizarre, scatological, sex-charged, profane, and anti-establishment catalogue, wincing with every new obscene discovery.  Despite the strangeness of it all, I learned that Zappa hired only the best musicians to perform with him and you can hear it in the music.

Listen to a Doors album. It sounds experimental and exciting, despite being recorded over 50 years ago. Not everything they wrote was fantastic, but much of it was so out there and so ahead of its time that it is timeless. No other band has been able to successfully pick up where the Doors left off.

The Mars Volta is (was, is?) an experimental, progressive, psychedelic rock band whose main members Omar and Cedric have produced such a massive quantity of music that it’s hard to comprehend. Their music is challenging and sometimes hard to understand, and it sounds like it came from another dimension.

The first time I became aware of Gogol Bordello was the soundtrack from the movie “Everything is Illuminated” which featured the singer of the band Eugene Hutz as an obnoxious but sweet Ukrainian tour guide who successfully butchers the English language. This New York City based gypsy-punk band is a collection of ragamuffin immigrants from all over the world that tours constantly and cause mayhem wherever they go through their passionate high octane live shows and revolutionary music that is thick with accordion, violin, guitar, and fire buckets. They tell the story of living as an outsider, trying to make it in the world, but struggling to stay authentic. Don’t all of us feel like that sometimes? I am infatuated with this band.

Lastly, Beck. Here is one outsider that has broken through to the mainstream, but still somehow feels like he is not really in the club. His sound changes from album to album, sometimes folky, sometimes electronic, sometimes country, sometimes rock, but always experimental. He sounds like he is persistently searching for something he never quite finds and leaves it up to us try and figure it out.

Music is one of the most important parts of my life. Just like the soundtrack to a movie can make all the difference, the soundtrack to one’s life flavours everything we do. Like art decorates walls, music decorates time. I attach myself to people who are also infatuated with music, such as my brother-in-law Mark who has turned me onto so many amazing bands and is a damn encyclopedia of musical history.

One day Magnus stopped me in my tracks with something he said. He told me, “Dad, I realized something about friendship. Good friends will tell you about cool things, introduce you to new people, and take you to new places. But great friends introduce you to new music.”

How true.

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