October 30, 2009

Whatchu talkin’ bout Willis?

Today on my lunch hour I sat in my office and watched the snow twirl outside in hard white specks, while the last of the reddish leaves fell off that huge gorgeous tree by my window. A new reader from England sent me an mp3 link to an interview author Nick Hornby gave last week on Robert Elms’ BBC London radio show to talk about his new movie, his new book, and the role of pop music in the world today. I queued it up, and as we neared the 28-minute mark and I heard one of my favorite authors say the name of my blog, my face turned all shades of flushed and my heart pounded with a hearty measure of disbelief.

Nick’s been extremely kind and encouraging to write about the places he finds joy in my site (like this wow!), and I love that we hear music in the same ways — but for an audiophile like me who runs an mp3 blog, hearing him talk about it with his own charming voice was really, well… the capper of my music-geek year.

I stifled a whoop lest my co-workers become suspicious, and felt humbled and very happy. I guess after Songbook and High Fidelity and the new Juliet, Naked, we can call this one even, Nick. Thanks.

Nick Hornby on Robert Elms – BBC London (Oct 23)

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September 6, 2009

the things that help us feel alive.


British author Nick Hornby wrote a fascinating piece in today’s Guardian about what he’s found in mp3 blogs, and the changing ways we seek out and share and find connection with music and other music lovers. In the piece (entitled, “The Thrill Of It All“), Hornby muses:

Keeping in touch with the things that help us feel alive – music, books, movies, even the theatre, if, mysteriously, you are that way inclined – becomes a battle, and one that many of us lose, as we get older; I don’t think enough of our cultural pundits, people who write about that stuff for a living, fully understand this.”

When I got to that sentence this morning, I stopped, and immediately re-read it three times, then set down my cup of coffee and thought about it for a good while there in my kitchen. I kinda wanted to make that first part the tagline on my blog, or script it out in flashing pink letters down the left sidebar of the site (my designers would not like this), because it simply summed up what I hope this blog would always be about to me, to you, to everyone that stops by. How do we keep in touch with the things that make us feel alive as we get older, with so many things that jockey for position and jostle to the head of the line to be attended to in the limited hours before we collapse from exhaustion at midnight, one a.m., later?

Lately I’ve really felt the weight of expectation (mine and others) in regards to my writing here, and struggled to frame and define it in a way that I can embrace moving forward. Since the inception of music blogs, and the year 2005 when many of us moderately-oldtimers started our sites, things have diverged in a dozen different directions. As with any new medium, the rules are written as we go along, and with music blogs, they’ve been written by each of us simply taking the tack that feels right to us. What I want this site to be — nay, what it really has to be for me to want to continue to be invested in it — is a place for me to keep in touch with some of the tangible, artsy-type things that help me feel alive (so thanks, Nick, for phrasing that in a way that makes it seem so clear and simple).

When I write about music, I don’t do it with an eye to the stats or an ear to the ground to bring you the hottest news out there. I figure there are dozens of sites that do the news thing far better than I do, mostly because it’s their full-time job, and this for me is something I do “in addition to.” I started writing Fuel/Friends to share my voice, and the things that poked me somewhere in the deep red of my heart, or the analytical, word-loving part of my brain. If a revised tack of increasing balance means that I post less often in this season, but I only post things that spark a genuine reaction in me, then that to me is far preferable for where I’m at in my life these days. One thing I’ve learned is that people will absolutely take as much as you will give, and more. On the one hand, it is flattering. On the other hand, it will wear me to a tiny nub of dessicated exhaustion if I don’t set hedges in place.

Ultimately, many things in the life I lead help me to feel alive. I try every day to balance the ones I don’t blog much about (namely, my marvelous little boy, my deeply rewarding job, and all my interpersonal relationships that take time and watering and love to grow) with the things that I do sit down to tippety-type about: the songs, the albums, the movies, the books, the art exhibits, the poetry that sends a jolt down my spine and lights me up inside. Lately I’ve been struggling quite a bit with folks’ comments about what they expect to find here, versus what I see this site as being and doing in my little corner of the internet. If you would like to pop in every now and again to share what I’m connecting with, please do. I love having you here. But I hope you don’t expect me to meet your news and coolness needs (and comment negatively when I don’t) because I promise you, I will let you down.

I feel extraordinarily lucky every day that I get to engage this stream of new music and culture that comes pouring through my mailbox, my inbox, my network of friends. There is so much good stuff out there that I can’t envision a time when it will ever dry up, and that feels like a miraculous thing. There was a time when I graduated college and got so wrapped up in grown-up responsibilities that I handily cut most new music out from entering my life, simply from lack of time to find it. Music blogs have meant as much to me as they might mean to you, in that they have singlehandedly revived my excitement about all the new sounds.

Now. Come, let’s carry on. There’s new music being recorded right now, new sprigs of vibrancy popping up all over the place.

I, for one, can’t wait to hear it.

[img via]

July 4, 2009

Juliet, naked and lovely


I’ve just walked in from stretching out on the lawn alongside my house, where I finished rapidly devouring of all 400 pages of Nick Hornby’s massively enjoyable new (forthcoming) book Juliet, Naked. My skin is warm from the beginnings of a sunburn, and my insides are glowing from the focused joy I understood in these pages.

One reason I quote Nick on this blog’s sidebar (and one reason I think he and I have something in common) is because I sense that he feels music the way that I do. This book is a pitch-perfect look at the lives of music obsessives (within the first thirty pages we have a British guy on the Berkeley-bound BART, scouting out the house of his favorite reclusive musician’s muse, “Juliet”) — and what that kind of fandom looks like as you get deep into the world of message boards, theories about the epic album versus the just-released demos that preceded them, and what we think that can tell us about the artist on the inside. It underscores emphatically how little we know about our musical idols, and how in dissecting them down to minute detail, on some level we’re truly just hashing out stuff about ourselves. Something in the unfinished narratives of our own lives finds solidification and beauty in the way our favorite musicians write about theirs.

The book follows the fictional story of Tucker Crowe, a lauded singer-songwriter from the Eighties (“Bruce plus Bob plus Leonard equals Tucker” was his press campaign line) who has vanished into deliberate obscurity after his masterpiece album Juliet (read an excerpt from the opening chapter). Duncan is a British man from the seaside town of Gooleness who is a self-proclaimed “Croweologist,” and has started a website to track every bit of news (or lack thereof) and host endless message board discussions about his music. Annie is Duncan’s museum-curator girlfriend who has been listening to Crowe’s music and following after Duncan for 15 years, and something in her is about to crack and shine through. It’s a beautiful thing.

I connected quite frankly with Annie, as she discovers she is capable of so much more than she ever thought through the music of Tucker Crowe — her own worthy opinions about the music so proprietarily beloved by Duncan but never her purview to discuss. It’s Annie who shines to hold this story together, grappling with a raw relationship deal and attempts at mathematical equations to calculate the true cost of fifteen years wasted in a soul-crushing relationship. As she strikes up an unlikely transatlantic email correspondence with Crowe, she gets closer to not holding her breath any more, but engaging life — and how music has changed both of them. She finds that she has more in common with Crowe than she would have thought when he first (shockingly) initiated contact with her.

I was touched by this insightful book, through the lenses of characters that I felt I understood. Hornby writes confidently, crisply, with a distinctly British humor — all traits I find irresistible in my American girl longwindedness. He doesn’t lapse into sappy meanderings to plunge the depths of what music can mean to us, and why relationships fail, and how we open our eyes and decide for something more; rather he slips them cleanly into the engaging narrative out of the blue, with a paragraph that swoops in to punch you in the gut.

Take this passage about Annie, which packs a lot into it: “She was trying to say something else; she was trying to say that the inability to articulate what one feels in any satisfactory way is one of our enduring tragedies. It wouldn’t have been much, and it wouldn’t have been useful, but it would have said something that reflected the gravity and sadness inside her. Instead, she had snapped at him for being a loser. It was as if she were trying to find a handhold on the boulder of her feelings, and had merely ended up with grit under her nails.”

Or this acute observation from when Crowe goes to see a local bar band: “The trouble with going to see bands is that there wasn’t much else to do but think, if you weren’t being swept away on a wave of visceral or intellectual excitement; and Tucker could tell that The Chris Jones Band would never be able to make people forget who they were and how they’d ended up that way, despite their sweaty endeavors. Mediocre loud music penned you in to yourself, made you pace up and down your own mind until you were pretty sure you could see how you might end up going out of it.”

While not as laden with direct pop culture references as some of his previous books like High Fidelity (although to my delight this one does mention Billy Collins, a poet I’ve just fallen in love with these last few months), this book still delves into music as culture, music as lifeblood, music as the glue and then the wedge in a relationship. It’s never dry, even as the characters face heady business — the glue of music that gets all over everything.

My Back Pages (Dylan cover) – Steve Earle

Juliet, Naked is in stores in September (so preorder or add it to your library hold list now!), and when Mr. Hornby comes through on his presumed book tour, I purport to buy that man a drink.

June 10, 2009

MGMT makes Violens even more fresh and enjoyable


Today’s aural fixation is the skittering, diving new MGMT remix of the Violens song “Doomed,” which is anything but foreboding in this incarnation.

Undulating and  iridescent, like looking up from the bottom of the clear blue ocean with the sunlight filtering through, this remix ends too quickly for me, after only two and a half dulcet minutes. It’s totally and completely irresistible.

Doomed (MGMT remix) – Violens

The original version appears on their EP (out now through Cantora Records), and you can count me as a fan of what Violens is doing. The first time I heard them I wrote, “Zombies! The Zombies stumble into a very fashionable ’80s club where everyone has long angular bangs cut diagonal in a swoop. The music of Violens strikes me as a little new wave, a little smoky, but with good structural bones and catchy melodies under all the haze.”

SPIN raved (of their single, “Violent Sensation Descends“) : “In 1966, this alternately ominous and sparkly nugget would’ve been the No. 50 British single of the year, after the Creation’s ‘Making Time.’ It’s that good.”



I got an extremely kind mention today in Magnet Magazine from author Nick Hornby, under the guest editor eye of Old 97s’ Rhett Miller. Like whoa! It’s a richly wonderful feeling to be able to give back to someone whose work resonates with you so intensely.

March 7, 2009

Nick Hornby thinks you’ll like it


Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and my favorite Songbook, enjoys the occasional blog and keeps one of his own. This week he’s written about the table of book recommendations that he gets to populate for the ubiquitous British bookstore Waterstone’s throughout the month of March. Nick explains:

It can happen anywhere: a dinner table, a pub, a bus queue, a classroom, a bookshop. You have struck up a conversation with someone you don’t know, and you’re getting on OK, and then suddenly, without warning, you hear the five words that mean the relationship has no future beyond the time it takes to say them: “I think you’ll like it.” This phrase is presumptuous enough when used to refer to, say, a crisp flavour; if, however, you happen to be talking about books or films or music, then it is completely unforgivable, a social solecism on a par with bottom-pinching. You think I’ll like it, do you? Well, it has taken me over fifty years to get anywhere near an understanding of what I think I might like, and even then I get it wrong half the time, so what chance have you got? Every now and again I meet someone who is able to make shrewd and thoughtful recommendations within the first five years of our acquaintance, but for the most part, the people I listen to I’ve known for a couple of decades, a good chunk of which has been spent talking about the things we love and hate.

We are asked to believe, usually by critics, that the most important factor in our response to a book should be its objective quality – a good book is a good book – but we know that’s not true. Mood and taste are important, self-evidently, but mood and taste are formed by educational background, profession, health, amount of leisure time, marital status, state of marriage, gender (men don’t read much fiction, depressingly), age, age of children, relationships with children, and parents, and siblings, and, possibly, an unfortunate experience with Thomas Pynchon’s ‘V’ as an overambitious and pretentious teenager. All of these and thousands of others are governing factors, and many of them are wildly inconstant.

As it happens, I have been asked to choose forty-odd books for a writer’s table at Waterstone’s, and I think you’ll like them.

With so many varied recommendations, I suppose I will like several of them. At least I look forward to the prospect of giving it a go; I’ve read woefully few of these selections but my nightstand can always use a few more books stacked atop it, longingly imploring me to get off the damn computer and pick one of them up already. I do so love to read. Today the weather outside has dipped back down into the 30s, as if to remind me that it ain’t quite Spring yet. Colder weather means a good day for this massive new fuzzy blanket I bought, a couch, and a good book.

Check out Nick’s book recommendations.

[header image actually belongs with this totally unrelated book]

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October 29, 2008

In the future, we’ll all have jetpacks and listen to Robert Harrison

In the mid-90s, Cotton Mather (named after an especially foxy-looking Puritan minister) made a splash with some of the most divinely-arranged power pop I’ve ever heard. For example:

My Before and After – Cotton Mather (from Kontiki)
Heaven’s Helping – Cotton Mather (from the 40 Watt Solution EP)

Yeah, it’s that good — the 1:11 mark in Heaven’s Helping is one of my absolute favorite moments in any song ever. It borders on celestially sublime; sixteen seconds of downright musical perfection.

I discovered Harrison’s work only after Cotton Mather broke up, and now their albums are often solely the purview of lucky record store cratediggers and used-on-Amazon buyers. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Austin-based frontman Robert Harrison came back to musical life last year with a cinematic new band, Future Clouds and Radar. The sound is evolving into something a bit more psychedelic and sweeping, but that Lennonesque voice obviously remains the same.

After 2007′s self-titled double disc, Future Clouds and Radar is back with their sophomore effort, Peoria. The opening track has a rosy glow that builds and shimmers, as it sings about “an Epcot view of the stars.”

The Epcot View – Future Clouds and Radar

Peoria will be out on election day in the U.S. on their own Star Apple Kingdom label, and there are a few rare tour dates on the books.

Also, a flabbergasted thanks (!!) to one of my favorite writers/fellow music lover Nick Hornby for the Fuel/Friends mention today on the New York Times site. He must have known that I have Songbook on my nightstand right now, not even lying.

May 29, 2008

First drafts of the parables of Jesus

From Dave Eggers’ journal McSweeney’s:

Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

One of the disciples asked, “What of the man who builds his house inside the house built on the rock? Surely his house will be even less damaged by water and wind. Is this what we should do?”

And Jesus said, “No, don’t do that.”

I just laughed myself silly.

PS: Look at the CD you can order! I made one myself when I first read this book, but heck — this is a lot less work.

January 23, 2008

Nick Hornby and Josh Rouse at Union Square Barnes & Noble in NYC

Other than an exceptionally peppy emcee here who seems almost like a Saturday Night Live character, this is a very cool video segment showing author Nick Hornby (Songbook, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch) discussing and reading from his new book Slam, along with musician Josh Rouse performing some tunes off his new album Country Mouse, City House.

This was for the laudable Barnes & Noble “Upstairs At The Square” series in Manhattan which pairs authors and filmmakers with musicians (other artists have included Craig Finn, Rosie Thomas, Badly Drawn Boy, Sondre Lerche, Duncan Sheik, and Jesse Malin).

The connection between these two guests, as Ms. Pep says in the intro, is that “Nick Hornby is a writer who wants you to read his words like music. Josh Rouse is a musician who wants you to view his songs like chapters out of the book of your life.” An enjoyable glance at these two artists that I enjoy.


January 7, 2008

Monday Music Roundup

Today is slushy and grey and cold, and twenty degrees or so. In four days I will be on Kauai and I just keep telling myself that when the wind smacks me in the face and takes my breath away (and not in a Top Gun soundtrack kind of way). I am so very tired of having cold hands all the time.

Here are two links worth a click today:
–I heart Nick Hornby and the way he writes about music, this is a documented fact. Check his list of favorite songs from 2007. I hope he writes another Songbook someday.

–Stereogum posted this Celine Dion video last week, and good heavens I think she’s IN-sane, but I laughed relentlessly. Amazing indeed.

Music for the frosty week:

Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution
The Black Crowes

Here’s our first listen to the sounds of the brand new Black Crowes album Warpaint (March 4, Silver Arrow Records). You got your down-home noodling on the steel guitar, the emotive wails of Chris Robinson and some stylistically-appropriate Civil War lyrics about daughters of an unnamed revolution. It just feels good, what with them singing about how we can join the jubilee, running for the gates of the city. And when he sings about coming ’round midnight to her back door, some part of me just really doesn’t think he’s singing about her porch. The Black Crowes will be playing their full new album in seven lucky cities this March, tour dates just announced for those.

Honey Come Home
Murder Mystery

This quartet isn’t sinister as they sound; Murder Mystery is a scruffy group of indie kids out of NYC whose debut album Are You Ready For The Heartache Cause Here It Comes was produced by JP Bowersock (Ryan Adams, The Strokes). With the pleasing jangle and reverb of surf guitar and Buddy Holly, with more than a Stroke of Casablancas’ croon and edge, this song tells the story of an unsure young man who puts his hands on the small of her back, because “you told me you like that” (but he sure doesn’t sound like he ever would have thought to do it himself). Simultaneously evoking school dances and Lower East Side bars, this album charmed me — plus they have a girl drummer so come on, I’m in.

Jake Troth
First the fabulous Mr. Troth made me kinda wish my name was “Caroline,” and now I am thinking maybe Aubrey would be a nice name so that I could claim this song as my own. No such luck. This is a new demo from Jake Troth, I love the way the bluesy opening notes take their time blossoming, hanging sweet in anticipation. And is it just me or do you want to sing the opening lines to Augie March’s “One Crowded Hour” when this cues up? Different songs, but both superb. Oh, and you hipster fashionista, here’s one musician who can also deck you out in finery since he’s studying that business – check out jacob-rogers.com, a collaborative clothing line project that he contributes the artwork to, and each item ordered comes with a free EP of original music.


Their MySpace profile lists Foals as “snotty art school dropouts hungry for the dollar,” and okay, sure I can cop that. I mean, they’re barely 20 and signed to Sub Pop, and we love art school dropouts from Oxford here. The music coming from this dance-punk 5-piece is aloof and cool, but with with a underlying flashes of multilayered musical originality. There are touches of Talking Heads and Devo, as well as more modern nods like Franz Ferdinand. This song is all herky-jerky with an apocalyptic breakdown halfway through, and splashes of a bright pigment accent the rhythmic chaos. I also like how relentless the tune “Hummer” is, listen over on their MySpace. Their full length album Antidotes is due in Spring 2008.

You Cross My Path
The Charlatans

Does anyone really confuse these guys with The Charlatans from the ’60s? Calling them The Charlatans UK seems superfluous to me, the same way my wonderful beloved nubbin of an NYC friend Jenn always says “Airfrenchband” as if it was one breathless word, instead of just Air. ANYWAYS. These Charlatans are winding up their second decade of making music as kings of their own Britpop/alternative fifedom. Managed by Oasis guru/Creation Records head Alan McGee, they’ve decided to digitally give away their first single from their upcoming 2008 album. Thom says everyone is doing it, and when he speaks, people follow. Good.

April 5, 2007

Warm sun pours over me :: Badly Drawn Boy live in San Francisco, 3/23/07

Today I am very excited about this fantastic show from Damon Gough, aka the perpetually stocking-capped Badly Drawn Boy, at the Great American Music Hall (love it) in San Francisco from a few weeks ago. I was actually supposed to see BDB a few days prior to this show up in Boulder and I totally goofed it and went out of town that weekend instead. I felt like an absolute dolt when I remembered ex post facto, and after hearing this I am kicking myself anew.

This is a trademark extra-long, gorgeous set from a talented and multifaceted musician. If you haven’t become familiar with Badly Drawn Boy (who has this kind of childishly-odd emo moniker, but you can ignore that and just call him Damon if it makes it easier for you to give him the props he deserves) — this is your chance.

BDB music is complex and literate; finely-woven pop songs that incorporate acoustic guitar, piano, strings, harmonica, even some attempts at whistling. You may also remember that Gough also scored the film adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel About A Boy, and he includes three songs from that album in this set (including the wonderful “Silent Sigh”).

He has an impeccable ear for unforgettable melodies that get under my skin and etch themselves in my memory. They are the sort of dense, truthful songs that I could see soundtracking my life if I could play them on a loop to overlay my quotidian activities. I would feel much more meaningful with this stuff scoring my day. But as Damon sings in the bittersweet You Were Right, “songs are never quite the answer, just a soundtrack to a life that is over all too soon.”

As likely to insert a snippet of Springsteen (“Thunder Road” at the beginning of the lovely “Walk You Home Tonight”) as he is to check Journey (a perfect choice of a closing tune once the bar has closed and everyone really just wants to sing along), Gough’s musical influences traverse a wide and rich landscape.

This set is stuffed with gems and engaging conversation with Damon and the audience. Damon says that “this whole tour’s been one of the best tours I’ve ever been involved in,” and that he is dedicating his shows lately to his grandfather who passed away in March, as a celebration of his life. A celebration indeed, this is one of the loveliest shows I’ve listened to in a long time and it makes me wish I could keep my concert dates straight and not be so daft. Grrr.

Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, March 23, 2007

Time of Times
Journey from A to B
Degrees of Separation
Born in the UK (title track from his new album)
Further I Slide
Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind
Welcome to the Overground (instrumental)
A Minor Incident
The Shining
Once Around the Block
Don’t Ask Me, I’m Only the President
This is That New Song
Above You, Below Me
What is it Now
The Way Things Used to Be
I Love You All
All Possibilities
Without A Kiss
Walk You Home Tonight
Like a Virgin -> Silent Sigh
You Were Right
One Last Dance


I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
Donna and Blitzen
Don’t Stop Believing (Journey cover)


Damon heads next to Carnegie Hall to play the upcoming Springsteen tribute, a benefit show which just keeps getting more interesting.

Top pic by Anders Jacobsen

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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