Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.
I don’t remember what the context was that Sheep introduced Lisa O’Neill, but she’s much more the kind of artist I could become obsessed with. She creates beautiful music that she melds to singing and lyrics that are intelligent, sad, and angry.
The appeal of dark music comes from our knowledge of the nastier sides of life. Nothing ossifies a depression like a friend trying to cheer you up. But nothing helps as much as a friend sharing your pain. And that, I think, explains the appeal of Lisa O’Neill.
That and the fact that her work is gorgeous in its simplicity.
Gormlaith ingen Murchada
We are listening today to “Gormlaith’s Grieving.” It appears to be about the Irish Queen Gormlaith ingen Murchada. History is not my thing. And Irish history is even more not my thing. All the names run together. For example, this is apparently the first reference we have to her death, “The Daughter of Murchad son of Finn, queen of Munster, dies.” I want to run for the hills.
Luckily, Wikipedia helped me out a bit. When she was a teen, Gormlaith was married to Amlaíb Cuarán when he was roughly 50. He died soon after when she was only 20.
She then married Brian Boru who would eventually become High King of Ireland (and could have already been when they married, but probably not).
According to fiction written far after her death, Gormlaith then married Irish King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, who was made King (again) after Boru died. (There is no evidence this marriage ever took place.)
Gormlaith got around a lot. And by “got around,” I mean that she was involved in a lot of diplomacy, given this is what all this is about.
The song takes a more personal approach to Gormlaith. We find her at the funeral Brian Boru in 1014, when she would have been in her mid-50s.
She talks about how her brother and son want to send her away:
Saying I’m bad luck, Brian It’s dangerous lying beside me.
The tone is sad but determined throughout. Early on she says, “I’ve laid down for many men.” I take this to mean that she’s done what she needed to before and that she will continue to do so. Hence the refrain, “I’ll dance from the grave.”
I might be totally wrong about this. I can’t find the lyrics anywhere and I’m not great understanding accents. But it’s a lovely song.
Lisa O’Neill’s website contains a bunch of her videos that are well worth checking out. Here is her playlist from her YouTube channel:
I’m starting with The Hu. They are a Mongolian rock band that uses traditional instruments and throat singing. It was when Sheep in the Box mentioned this band that I realized I would do this series.
But if you want the real reason I’m highlighting them today it’s simple: I’m lazy. My closest work associate is really into throat singing so I sent off a track to her figuring she would find it interesting. So it’s close at hand. Also: I have been ridiculously busy ever since this pandemic struck. (I realize this may be annoying given that many of you can’t work, but I assure you, my life is just different — and probably worse.)
The Hu are a pretty new band — formed back in 2016. And I really have no reason to have never heard of them. One of their videos has over 44 million views. And the one I’m highlighting, “Wolf Totem,” has over 30 million views.
But this is what you all like about me: I’m about as unplugged-in as a person can be. Even when it comes to film, the things I’m excited about are not what other people are. And even then, I’m usually ten years behind the time. Right now I’m obsessing about an obscure film from 2003 called The Ghouls, which was never properly released on disc despite starring the great Timothy Muskatell. But I’m getting sidetracked.
“Wolf Totem” reminds me a lot of The Call. The song is modal — basically just one chord throughout. (The Call normally broke into a more traditional chorus.) The lyrics are a series of declarative statements that are linked by a single idea.
I’ve only read a automatic computer translation of the the lyrics. Even still, they are kind of… fascistic. The first line is, “Let’s kill a lion and race.” And it goes on like that. “Let’s race against the elephant.”
It could all be an environmental song for all I know. But that kind of focus on the natural world is very associated in my mind with fascism. It reminds me that George Orwell said that had Jack London lived, he would have become a fascist. And it’s there in the novels. Or go visit his ranch.
Again: I’m not accusing The Hu of anything here. I’m just noting that I find the (doubtless poor) translation of this song troubling.
I was looking for something to listen to in the background and I came upon a video from a YouTube Channel called Sheep in the Box. It was a response to a video by Thoughty2, “Why is Modern Music so Awful?”
Let me explain. Thoughty2 is one of those anti-SJW conservatives who rant on even as they make little sense. He has kind of a blogging approach to making videos. So he gets one idea and makes a video. In this particular case, he decided that music in the 1960s was great and it’s terrible today.
I should be clear: I’m all for people complaining about whatever they want. There are a lot of things I hate. But making generalizations like “music ain’t as good today” is just silly. And so Sheep in the Box responded — much better than the original video deserved.
Speaking of which: people on YouTube are idiots! Thoughty2’s video has over 9 million views with almost 330,000 likes! And it is just a young man ranting like an old man. Meanwhile, Sheep in the Box’s video has less than 2,000 views! What’s more, Thoughty2 has a higher like/dislike ratio.
(Note that Tantacrul also did an excellent and funny response to Thoughty2 — I choked when he said “Arnold Schoenberg.” It makes a clear argument against Thoughty2 and the research it is based on. It is much more technical. But it doesn’t include all the great music shout-outs, so we won’t be discussing it, great though it is.)
I recommend watching the video:
Recommendations From Sheep in the Box
But I’m interested in something else. In this video, Sheep in the Box mentions a number of really interesting musicians. There is a Klingon rapper, a band of pirates, and a Mongolian rock band that features traditional instruments and throat singing.
So I’m going to find whatever songs I can and present them here over the following days. It should be fun. The truth is, I’m far too focused on weird films to have the time to find out what’s really going on outside my limited view of the music industry.
See you tomorrow!
PS: Check out Sheep in the Box’s channel. The limited stuff I’ve looked at is good. If nothing else, check out the auto-play video on his channel; it’s very funny.
Sheep in the Playlist
When I’m done with this, I’ll put a YouTube playlist together. Here are the articles (it will be added to over the coming days):
Some of my friends are feeling way too cocky about the upcoming November election. They see that tens of thousands of people have died and that the economy is in trouble, and they think Trump cannot survive. What’s more, Trump has clearly screwed this up and more recently he seems like he’s losing his mind.
It does seem like a slam dunk. But both Obama and Bush Jr had low approval ratings at this point and they went on to win re-election. And the opposite is also true. A year out, Bush Sr had almost a 70% approval rating and he lost badly. I have little doubt that if the election were today, Trump would lose in a landslide. In six months? I don’t know.
Roughly speaking, there are two ways this can go. Things could stay bad. The cases could keep mounting and the deaths could continue to climb. The economy could struggle along but more or less stay where it is right now.
If that happens, not only is Trump going down big, so is the entire Republican Party. We could see Mitch McConnell lose his seat in Kentucky. And as much as I do not want to see this happen for my own sake and that of everyone else in the nation, such a defeat would be a silver lining. (But don’t kid yourself: after the Democrats began to heal the economy, the Republicans would come roaring back.)
The other possibility is that things slowly start to get better. In two months, new cases come to a trickle. In 4 months, most people are back at work. And in six months, sports return but with limited seating.
If that happens, people will likely re-elect Trump. They will only see that things are improving; it won’t matter at all that he is the guy responsible for making things so bad. I know: it’s crazy! But this is how people vote.
(I know a lot of my leftist friends are learning this painful lesson. I’ve seen people complaining that most Biden voters are more in agreement with Sanders’ policies. Welcome to the party! Politics really isn’t about policy; it’s about relationships. And if we are ever going to get the kind of power necessary to make systemic change, we need to embrace this.)
The Lynn Vavreck Election
Probably the best scenario is that things do return to normal quickly but we get an election like Lynn Vavreck laid out in The Message Matters. According to her research, an out-party (the Democrats in this case) can beat an incumbent despite strong economic growth if they can make the campaign about something other than the economy.
In general, it’s hard to do this. People care about the economy above all else. Think of it in the most blunt terms: people want to be sure they will have food and a safe place to live. That’s what a strong economy means to them.
I’ve often noted that had Howard Dean won the Democratic primary in 2004, he probably would have won the general election. That’s because he would have made the election about the Iraq War, which was unpopular by then. Instead, the Democrats nominated Kerry, who couldn’t make that case well because he had essentially voted for the war.
Can Biden Vavreck Trump?
If Biden is smart, he will make this election all about corruption. He could also make it about norms and civility. These are things where Trump is extremely vulnerable. Trump can counter, “Hunter Biden,” but I don’t think that plays outside the people who are guaranteed to vote for him.
One of the problems for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was this weird narrative that had been going on since the early 1990s about her being untrustworthy. Vince Foster killed himself just a few months after Bill Clinton took office and already there were claims that Hillary Clinton had him murdered!
Yes, that was all in the right-wing fever swamps, but it was something that accreted so much garbage over the years that mainstream journalist started thinking there must be something there. Either that or that they simply had to cover such nonsense as though it were real. (Also: it’s pure sexism — the idea that women are duplicitous and can’t be trusted.)
Biden doesn’t have that problem. And I think that whatever happens, Uncle Joe will come out like he did in the 2012 vice-presidential debate. You may remember that Paul Ryan was going on about how Obama was stealing money from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. And Biden came back with, “Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?”
I was blown away with that because it accepts the way people think. You don’t have to look at the numbers. You might not like Obama and Biden for a lot of reasons, but you know that they would protect Medicare better than Romney and Ryan would.
Help Joe Biden Win
So I think as long as Biden does not talk about the economy, he stands a good chance of winning. I can’t say more than that because, as Vavreck showed in her book, when this approach works, it leads to extremely close elections.
Of course, there is another possibility. It could be that our current situation is so unusual that none of the political science based on elections after World War II matter. In that case, we don’t know what will happen.
In that case, we need to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. And that means doing what we can to defeat Donald Trump in November. Sign up to make phone calls or send texts, help people get registered to vote and to vote when the time comes, talk to persuadable people, whatever it takes.
Most of all: don’t assume November is in the bag. We really don’t know.
Those then, who resist a confirmation of public order, are the true Artificers of monarchy — not that this is the intention of the generality of them. Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected.
When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanor — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government and bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day — it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
I think a lot of people think of Ramones as a New Wave band rather than a punk band. This is odd, given that New Wave as a thing comes much later.
But okay: Blondie dates back as far, and an argument can be made that they are New Wave. Really though: I don’t even know what New Wave is. Punk is not a form of music, but an attitude toward it. And one could even say that it doesn’t mean all that much because punk was just the embrace of what was always rock: the FUBU of music.
There is no question, however, that Ramones were better able to create perfect pop music gems than any other band of that era — including Blondie. What’s amazing to me is that Ramones never had a top ten hit in the United States. Is it any wonder I complain about pop music? If you can’t love Ramones, then you just don’t like pop music. And if that is the case, why are you even reading this?!
Here is the band back in 1977 at The Rainbow in London, England. The vocals are mixed a little low. They do some of their classic songs off Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia.
I recently heard the story of when Mojo Nixon met Don Henley. You see, Nixon had released a great song called, “Don Henley Must Die” on his album Otis. It’s a very funny song and is not nice to the six-time Grammy Award-winning musician. But in 1992, Henley showed up to a Mojo Nixon concert and sang the song with him.
Truly, I don’t give Henley that much credit for this. I know he’s a smart guy so what else is he going to do in response to a song that mocks him for being over-serious? Sure, Donald Trump wouldn’t be able to deal with it. But that’s a low bar.
Professionalism vs Chaos
The story does not, however, mean that the two of them became great friends. The truth is that they personify two trends in art. And it just so happens to be the difference I’m most interested in film, as I discuss at ridiculous length at Psychotronic Review.
Don Henley represents professionalism. And that does not mean that he doesn’t put his soul into his work. But necessarily, professionalism requires that you block a lot of the chaos of the id.
Mojo Nixon represents that id in about as pure a form as you can get while still creating work that people want to consume.
Neither trend is more authentic than the other. You can’t watch Mojo Nixon and miss that he’s performing. In that way it is no different than Henley’s “sensitive music idiot poetry.”
But I want to listen to Mojo Nixon far more than I want to listen to Don Henley. I realize that’s a minority opinion.
There’s an old Woody Allen routine about being selected to be the spokesman for a vodka brand. In it, he consults with his rabbi about the ethics of advertising a product he doesn’t use and finally decides not to do it. Later, he finds his rabbi is the new spokesman for the vodka. It’s a good routine. But a couple of years before that, Bob Dylan told the same joke in his song “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” off Blonde on Blonde.
I thought we would revisit the song today, since I see that my Bob Dylan page is filled with broken links.
The song is straight 12-bar blues — never wavering from the formula. So as is usually the case with Dylan, the focus is on the lyrics. It takes the form of a man trying to woo a women who wears a leopard-skin pill-box hat. There seems to be some sexual significance to the hat given that at the end he is upset that the doctor is wearing it. It at least seems to imply that with the hat on, the woman is dressed.
I most associate the song with Andrea Martin’s character Edith Prickley on SCTV. In fact, I was probably introduced to the character before I ever heard the song. Of course, she didn’t wear a pillbox hat, but it was close enough. I tend to think the character was based in part on the song.
One more day for John Prine. As I spent time listening to him trying to find something, I was reminded why I love that first album. It really is the best stuff he ever did. He grew as a songwriter, but that album is far more positive than anything he did afterward. Even in sad songs like “Hello in There,” he’s talking about something touching and beautiful.
Today, I offer up “Blue Umbrella” off Prine’s album Sweet Revenge. And frankly, it’s not one of his best. But it’s so evocative that I can’t help myself.
The Clueless Guy
It reminds me a lot of Dr Hook in that it’s hard to take it seriously. Prine seems to be making fun of a certain kind of guy. You probably know him — although it could be a gal too, even though they are less common.
They have many failed relationships and are in a constant state of confusion about why this is. What’s so funny (or annoying) about this guy is that everyone tells him what the problem is: the women who leave him, his friends, his family, even online quizzes he takes.
It reminds me of the scene in The Man with Two Brainswhere Steve Martin asks to be given a sign if there is anything wrong with his feelings for Dolores. There’s a loud moaning, “No!” The house shakes, the lights go out, the painting spins, they are explosions and the wind whips at him. And after it, he says, “Just any kind of sign. I’ll keep on the lookout for it.”
That’s the guy in this song: he thinks he can figure out the seasons if only he had an extra one, despite the fact that he gets to experience the seasons over and over.
But just like with “Sylvia’s Mother,” the song is both heartfelt and hilarious.
Sweet Revenge album cover mage via Amazon under Fair Use.
Since John Prine died, I figure I should spend a day with him. He created a lot of great music over the years. But I am still obsessed with his first self-titled album. I’ve purchased it numerous times and I never get tired of it. But there is one song on the album that misses for me. Not surprisingly, it is also the song that most people consider the album’s stand-out track: “Sam Stone.”
The song aims extremely high and it does manage to tell a tragic story and presents an unusually (for Prine) simplistic character. But it’s told in a weird and jarring way. The verses tell the story from an objective point of view while the chorus is told from the children’s. And given how evocative the refrain is (“there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”), I don’t know why he didn’t write the entire song from that perspective.
Sam Stone: One-Dimensional Junkie
The story also hasn’t aged well. When it was produced, there was major concern that soldiers were getting addicted to heroin in Vietnam and then coming home to become junkies. That turned out not to be generally true because drug us is contextual.
But the story does get something shockingly right — something that would become much bigger decades later: how pain poorly treated often leads to extra-medical use. But this is pushed to the side in the song to focus on stereotypes that are not true. For example, “Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.” Or “Sad songs never last too long on broken radios.” The implication is that Sam Stone’s real problem is that he can’t deal with the anxiety of life.
I think what most bugs me about it is that unlike most other people that John Prine sings about, Sam Stone is one-dimensional. He is just his addiction. And there’s even some dissonance in the song because of it. For example, somehow Stone manages to buy a house on the GI Bill but can’t manage to dress his kids. A far more interesting (and truthful) story would be about a man who works very hard to support his family while his addiction makes him distant and ultimately dead. That’s a far more tragic tale than the sad one Prine offers.
Don’t take this to mean that I think it’s a bad song. It was the first song that got my attention. And it works well enough. It’s better than anything I’ve ever written But when I’m listening to the album, I tend to skip it.
With the rise of The Go-Go’s, people in the music business figured there was a demand for lowest common denominator music. (That is not a complaint about The Go-Go’s, who I love.) They were right. In 1982, Toni Basil released a monster hit with “Mickey” off her first album Word of Mouth.
Based on what I’ve already said, you might think I’m not a fan. But that’s not exactly true. It is a catchy song that is well-produced. But mostly, I enjoy it for the joke that it is.
I especially love the organ riff that ends each chorus. It’s a simple arpeggio: I, III, V, I-8va. It’s so simple that I can’t hear it without thinking, “Those producers!” I’m sure Mike Chapman (who co-wrote the song and played keyboards on it) told them, “You want me to play what?!” The whole song features professional musicians playing with as little creativity as they can muster.
The song was originally performed by Racey as “Kitty.” It’s still features a very simple production. But not in-your-face simple. The crew that created “Mickey” really upped the game and produced a song destined to top the Billboard Hot 100.
I asked Will for a recommendation for a song and he mentioned Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.” I’m deeply divided about the band. On the one hand, they’re like the best bar band ever, and Ian Anderson is great on the flute. On the other hand, they’re like the best bar band ever, and Ian Anderson is great on the flute.
They are still worth listening to now and then. But Anderson grates on me after a short while. And his songwriting doesn’t thrill me in my mid-50s, but I will admit that it did thrill me in my mid-teens.
After reading a bit about “Locomotive Breath,” I find I have a problem with it too. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. It’s exactly the kind of song that the band was meant to play. I could do without the stupid introduction but once it gets going, it’s great.
But I read that Anderson wrote it to express his concern about over-population. Really?! I don’t see how anyone was supposed to get that from the lyrics. I wish artists wouldn’t talk about their work. It always makes it worse.