Exploring Europe: Fall 2017 Mixtape

1208426974_fNow that we’re finally wrapping that big fancy bow around the Fall 2017 semester and placing it under the tree, I’m glad to sit down and put this list together. I would like to do this for every semester I teach The Geography of Europe, Exploring Europe, or however my current department may name a course over-viewing European geography.

I could easily re-use many of these songs and videos to show off their respective countries and nations, but I’ll try to challenge myself and repeat as few of them as possible (Track 1 notwithstanding, for reasons you may understand).

  1. Der Tourist (feat. Friedrich Leichtenstein) – “Supergeil” VIDEO
    I already wrote extensively about this song’s viral, every-man-has-his-price adaptation for Edeka Supermarkets, but here is the original work. Since I don’t speak German or know much about Der Tourist, I can’t tell if it’s tongue-in-cheek level is quite as high as it’s advert counterpart, but it’s still quite catchy and Friedrich is a charisma machine.
  2. Can – “Vitamin C” VIDEO
    Jaki Leibezeit and Holger Czukay both passed away this year, which made this snippet of Can playing what may be my favorite song of theirs especially timely. I believe I read a blurb on Pitchfork once that called this “the funkiest thing to ever come out of Europe.” I don’t know about that, but you’d be hard pressed to find a catchier bass line than certain ones that Czukay spent decades churning out. True genius. Wait until I make the students sit through “Cool in the Pool” this Spring!
  3. Blind Cinema – “Objetos Ennegrecidos” VIDEO
    The worst thunderstorm that hit campus this fall (during daylight, at least) passed by around 10:30 – 11:30 am on a Tuesday or Thursday in early September. During that span, I had to run over 100 yards between buildings with no raincoat or umbrella to get from my prior class to this one in time. As I took off my shoes and dried off my socks, I put this song on for the half-soaked class to absorb, and lo and behold this may be my new favorite rainy-day music. Catalán jazz for the people.
  4. Cornershop – “Brimful of Asha” VIDEO
    Twenty years ago, SPIN magazine named When I was Born for the 7th Time their #1 album of the year, which played well with impressionable teenage me. The longtime collaboration between Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres had finally broken through in the states, which in retrospect was kind of surprising, even on the heels of Britpop madness (more on that in five tracks). To me, Cornershop were (and still are) one of the most quintessentially British bands of their era: multicultural, dance-worthy, and reeeaaaaally into drugs. As great as “Good Shit” and their cover of “Norwegian Wood” were (bonus points to the latter for being in Punjabi and infuriating future ‘Leave’ voters), “Brimful of Asha” was always my favorite track on this album. The video edit takes out Singh’s punjabi spiel that opens the album version, but otherwise it’s a classic video. Also,  I said it in class and I’ll write it here: the Norman Cook remix that ravaged the charts? Like 99% of remixes, garbage.
  5. Refused – “New Noise” VIDEO
    I’m losing track on which number cycle of love/backlash Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come is on currently, but I loved the record when I was 15, and I still love it today. This is hardly the best song from that record, but it was the closest thing they had to a “hit,” and through use on shows like Friday Night Lights, it probably still pays some of their bills. One of  my students remembered them fondly as ‘that band playing in the octagon.’   I mentioned that Refused originated in Umeå, which opened up a brief discussion about the prodigious output of metal from Northern Sweden and created a good talking point to revisit later (five tracks down).
  6. LiLiPUT – “Hitchhiking” VIDEO
    Like the crossroads that Switzerland occupies atop its Alpine perch between Italy, Germany, France, and Austria, it also sits in a weird position in pop music history. During the post-punk era, Kleenex/LiLiPUT (their recorded output, repackaged retrospectively, permanently straddles the two names) seemed to be everyone’s favorite Swiss band, kind of how their fellow countrymen Coroner would become within the metal universe a decade later. At any rate, this is my favorite song from the Kleenex/LiLiPUT catalog, and the video here is culled from a 1960’s Italian ‘shockumentary’ La Donna Nel Mondo.
  7. Bérurier Noir – “Vivre Libre ou Mourir” VIDEO
    The day after the French election this year, I posted a video on social media of Bérurier Noir playing “La Jeunesse Emmerde le Front National” in honor of the time-honored tradition the French have of pushing back against far-right intolerance. A friend from Paris commented with cautious optimism, saying that they’re happy that Le Pen lost, but that Macron is still an asshole. Then, he signed off with “PORCHERIE!” – a reference to the BN song that critically calls France a pigsty.  Anyway, BN is the punkest band ever to emerge from France and maybe the punkest band of all time, vying for that arbitrary title with The Bananas (Sacramento) and Chumbawamba (UK). Few bands of their stature have garnered such universal respect from French punks (at least, the ones I connected with for my fieldwork in 2015), and “Live Free or Die” may be one of the catchiest political punk songs ever written – and with a click track, at that!
  8. Yr Anhrefn – “Rhedeg i Paris” VIDEO
    I wanted to a music video that showed off Welsh language and culture, so I searched my memory banks for a Super Furry Animals track from their all-Welsh record, but instead came up with this. I had never heard of Yr Anhrefn, but the song is incredibly catchy and even features footage of the band playing in the Basque Country, thanking the crowd (in Basque) after wrapping their set. According to the translation offered by a Google User on the video, the title translates to “Running to Paris,” and the lyrics are about the desire to get out of Wales and see the world, but being unable to resist being drawn back to your homeland. It’s pretty powerful and somewhat universal stuff.
  9. Blur – “Coffee & TV” VIDEO
    Of all of these artists, Blur probably have the deepest catalog through which I could dig to find a video to start off my Britpop lecture. I just couldn’t resist using this one, because it may be the best music video ever made. It didn’t break in America quite as profoundly as “Song 2” had in 1997, but it was good enough for a follow-up semi-hit in the states, in spite of Graham Coxon’s dour vocals and melancholy subject matter. If you have a chance, check out the No Distance Left to Run documentary for an intimate look at a brutal time in the band’s history. Then, go out and buy everything the band ever released.
  10. Jens Lekman – “I Know What Love Isn’t” VIDEO
    Like Blur’s catalog, Sweden’s selection of indie pop videos is ostensibly a bottomless pit. I had a great time presenting a unit on Sweden’s pop music industry, drawing heavily from my friend Ola Johannsen’s work on ‘The Swedish Music Miracle.’ Other than Sondre Lerche (who is Norwegian), I can’t think of a more charming chanson singer that isn’t French or Belgian.
  11. Chisu – “Kohtalon Oma” VIDEO
    I discovered Chisu thanks to a special series that One Week // One Band ran a couple years ago called ‘Stop Making Sense,’ where contributors submitted an essay about a song in a language they didn’t understand. One writer included this painfully catchy jam from Finland, which hooked me in with not only a language I’d never heard in a pop song before, but also a captivating video. From what I can tell, Chisu is like Finland’s answer to Katy Perry or Carly Rae Jepsen: harmless pop songstresses carrying more of their respective country’s national identity than they seem to acknowledge.
  12. Pinkshinyultrablast – “Umi” VIDEO
    Shoegaze and dream pop are genres that are very easy to create but very challenging to do well. Pinkshinyultrablast, the lone Russian group featured here, have managed to become the forerunners of Eastern European noise pop. I remember when their first EP appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 2009; I think I found it on a Brazilian shoegazing blog that kept on getting shut down. Anyway, from what I’ve read, the band has had a rotating cast of members, led by singer Lyubov, who like so many artistically inclined Russians, lives in L.A. now.
  13. Frustration – “Assassination” VIDEO
    For a city I do love, I spend a lot of time discussing the dark underbelly of Paris in my coursework. This video is a fantastic, noirish slice of life where everyone’s a killer. Because I’m not French, I have difficulty explaining just what position Frustration occupies within Parisian culture (see Track 7). What I can tell you is that they are a hard ticket to get whenever they play a mid-size hometown show. Their drummer, Mark Adolf, runs the successful punk record shop and label Born Bad, a concern responsible for some of the most irresistible compilations of French underground music ever pressed.
  14. Los Nikis – “El Imperio Contraataca” VIDEO
    Until I saw their video for this song, which I think first broadcast in 1986, Los Nikis seemed like one of the many Spanish Ramones-worshippers on whom I had missed the boat. I saw that they opened for Airbag’s 15th anniversary gig in Madrid (more on that, two tracks down), but I haven’t really sat down and watched their set, which was very courteously included as a bonus feature on a DVD I had to go to Madrid to get. Now, I’m paying more attention and beginning the slow burn of obtaining all of Los Nikis’ releases, because this song simply kicks ass. Reflective of my focus lecture on Spain’s identity crisis, they even laugh at their country’s colonial mythology in the video. How perfect.
  15. Radio Futura – “Enamorado de la Moda Juvenil” VIDEO
    I saw a poorly transferred version of a video this group shot for this song sometime at the beginning of the 1980’s, then promptly forgot the band’s name. One day a few months ago, I spent nearly an hour trying to find the song, even messaging a friend in Spain who loves power-pop. Eventually, this ultra-catchy single found its way back to my brain via YouTube auto-play suggestions. So, I guess it’s not a completely bad thing. Anyway, as far as I can tell, there were a few Radio Futura bands (or, one core group with a couple of dramatic lineup and sound alterations over the course of the 1980s). This era, in which they appeared to be Spain’s answer to Blondie, The Knack, The Jags, and other skinny tie/skinnier microphone groups of the time. I can’t stop thinking of Alex Winter in character as Bill Preston, Esq. whenever I see that blonde vocalist here.
  16. Airbag – “Trailer” VIDEO
    From what I remember, I discovered Airbag off an Italian pop-punk blog called Ramone to the Bone sometime during my DC days and was hooked immediately. They’re an Andalucian trio who record catchy songs about science fiction, comic books, record collecting, and heartbreak. They’ve been a band for two decades and, despite a growing international fan base, they’ve only recorded a small handful of songs in English. From what I’m told, they’re the only group in Southern Spain playing music in this style. That’s surprising,that they haven’t spawned legions of imitators after being around and keeping their music quintessentially Spanish for so long. It’s not their fault it isn’t 1994 anymore.
  17. Stereolab – “Lo Boob Oscillator” VIDEO
    What could be more European than a British band with a French singer (singing in French) while trying to sound German? I’ll leave it at that.
  18. Manic Street Preachers – “A Design for Life”
    I understand that “Hen Wlad Fy Naudau” probably isn’t going anywhere, but I can’t imagine a better unofficial national anthem (for any country) than this song would be for Wales^. Not only did the Manics elevate Wales in the international pop music discourse at the end of the 1980’s, but they did it by essentially weaponizing art.  One of the most challenging books I read this past year was Simon Price’s tome Everything about the band, written at the end of their 90s supremacy. It may be the longest book I’ve read in some time, because not enough can be written about all that this band meant to their fans and to British pop music. Around that time, the group recorded their triumphant show at the Manchester NYNEX arena, and the video of them closing their set with this signature song made a perfect coda for the class on our last day. It makes you want to go and conquer the world, really, and isn’t that the message every professor wants to leave his students with? No? That’s fair.


^ Though I realize we can’t do much about “The Star Spangled Banner,” I do believe that “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians would be a much better, and more fitting, national anthem for the United States. Without giving too much away, I’m looking forward to premiering my ‘National Anthem’ project in GEOG/AMST 423: American Popular Culture this Spring…

I’ll see about putting a Spotify playlist together. First, I have to get on Spotify.

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Musical Geography 101: Blur – “This is a Low”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

… but it won’t hurt you. Those of you who know me know I cherish any opportunity to talk about Blur, one of my favourite [sic] bands and perhaps the best British guitar-pop singles group since the Kinks (or at least the Jam, who you’ll be reading about shortly). Of course, most Americans know Blur for “Song 2,” a ready-made anthem for sports arenas which began as a gentle jab at the Pixies and what the band viewed as simplistic American indie rock (though they undoubtedly love the Pixies, Guided by Voices, Pavement, and other quintessentially American bands they synthesized into their revitalized sound after the cocaine-drenched yet still wonderful 1995 album The Great Escape). Many Americans, particularly those tuned into MTV in 1994 while Britpop was thriving overseas, remember Blur’s magnum opus, Parklife. While the group themselves were hardly in awe of English culture, they did abscond and treat it not unlike Al Bundy treated Peg. It was a pain in their arse, but it was still what raised them and privileged them to be the most enduring, eclectic rock stars of that era. Sure, other bands sold more records (Oasis), broke more hearts (Pulp), and even seemed fairly adjusted and consistent (Supergrass), but none of those bands had the dueling secret weapons of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. The former has since established himself as his generation’s David Byrne through countless prolific musical collaborations and, oh yeah, another Glastonbury-headlining band he founded that included 1/2 of The Clash for a bit. The latter has spent the last two decades stretching the electric guitar to the absolute boundaries of what could still be considered pop music. Also, for those of you interested in drug policy and international relations, their bassist Alex James hosted a BBC documentary about the cocaine trade and has settled into a quiet, normal life collecting expensive instruments and making artisan cheeses. You can’t make this stuff up. If I told you their drummer has gotten heavily involved in the Labour Party and twice run for public office, you wouldn’t believe me, BUT HE ABSOLUTELY DID. For all the right reasons, Blur’s legacy has painted much of what the world conceives as “Britishness.”

Anyway, when the members of Blur were in their star-shaped mid-twenties, a lot of Albarn’s lyrics happened to include references to English landmarks (e.g. the white cliffs in “Clover Over Dover”), but “This is a Low,” supposedly inspired by a British shipping newsletter, closes out the record with a veritable catalog of places which dot the English cartographic landscape. Much like the 1997 track “Look Inside America,” “This is a Low” pulls back, floats high in the sky, surveys everything it can see, and decides, with a slight smile… “yeah, it’s alright.” From what I understand, Albarn had hit some writer’s block when James gave him a handkerchief that detailed British shipping centers as a gag gift. It may seem a cliché, but inspiration can come from the most surprising places.

Lyrics (from AtoZlyrics.com)

And into the sea goes pretty England and me
Around the Bay of Biscay and back for tea
Hit traffic on the dogger bank
Up the Thames to find a taxi rank
Sail on by with the tide and go asleep
And the radio says

[Chorus]
THIS IS A LOW
BUT IT WON’T HURT YOU
WHEN YOU ARE ALONE IT WILL BE THERE WITH YOU
FINDING WAYS TO STAY SOLO

On the Tyne forth and Cramity
There’s a low in the high forties
And Saturday’s locked away on the pier
Not fast enough dear
On the Malin head, Blackpool looks blue and red
And the Queen, she’s gone round the bend
Jumped off Land’s End
And the radio says

[Chorus x 3]

Alex James on Music (or, why it doesn’t hurt to judge people based on their avocations)

Quote

   The earliest tonal instruments were made from reindeer toe bones. They’re closer to a whistle than a flute to look at, but they are technically flutes because you blow across the hole, rather than down it… It didn’t look like much, I must be honest. It didn’t sound great either but those crusty little bones were where it all started. A primitive musical instrument made by a primitive scientist.
Twenty thousand years later, anyone sitting down at a piano is sitting on top of a huge mountain of accumulated knowledge. When you hold even the cheapest guitar, you’re wielding a very sophisticated tool. The twelve-tone scale is a triumph of scientific understanding. It’s such a perfect structure that it’s rarely questioned or even understood by the people who use it. All musicians know how to tune up their instruments, but very few have any idea what they are actually doing as they tune. Musicians rarely have any more of an inkling of what music is than an electrician knows what electricity is.
All the really tricky business of the evolution of music has taken place, and it’s not important to know everything. It’s just important to know what sounds good. All anyone needs is one little idea. It can even be someone else’s idea. All you’ve got to be able to do is pick the good ones. There are no rules that can’t be broken in music-making. Confidence is all-important. Things that are completely wrong can sound new and interesting if they are done with conviction.

via the artist’s twitter

– Alex James, pp. 158-9 in his autobiography bit of a blur (London: Abacus, 2008). I’ve always been interested in the non-musical passions of musicians, and James is perhaps one of the prime examples of proof that a truly brilliant brain cannot be shut down by mountains of cocaine, booze, and women. Over the course of his towering rock stardom, he became a Visiting Scientist at one of England’s top research facilities, a recreational pilot (following drummer Dave Rowntree down that path and terrifying Damon Albarn in the process), documentary (about cocaine) host, and a devoted maker of fine cheeses. And somehow (probably by not being English), I missed out on this football anthem he ground out in 1998 with comedian Keith Allen (Lily’s dad) and everything-person Damien Hirst. Also, I just did some light googling to find that image, and I discovered via his twitter that he and Jamie Oliver are throwing a three-day food festival at his farm in the Cotswolds. Bizarre.

via the anti-emo empire

It’s no coincidence that the rock stars that history remembers the most kindly are the ones who were never content to be doing solely what their “role” in the public eye commanded. I recently went internet-rolling on the late Dead Milkmen bassist Dave “Blood” Schulthise as this past March 10 was the tenth anniversary of his suicide and my friends/colleagues Scott, Jose and I had a rare opportunity to catch The Dead Milkmen right after the AAG Conference in Tampa. Some say he was the band’s controlling force and secret weapon. I wouldn’t disagree, but either way he was definitely one hell of a bass player. The Dead Milkmen were (and still are) some of the finest satirists of the past three decades, and the more I read about Dave Blood, the more I understand how his way of looking at the world influenced their art. If you have a few minutes, check out this wonderful interview that Mark Prindle did with Blood the year before he died. He finally had the opportunity to explain the deep love he developed for Serbia relatively late in his life, and how it gave his life new meaning after the Dead Milkmen broke up, he had to stop playing, and he no longer had music.

These are the things I think about while I should be focusing on getting all my end-of-semester work off of my plate. That being said, I do apologize for the recent lack of updates. I’ll be back soon to talk about some projects I have coming up for the summer. It’s going to be a busy one.

Scorched Pop Music and Representation in the Desert

As difficult as finding time to even breathe much less update this site has been this week, I would be remiss if I didn’t share a couple of thoughts about my experience at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival last weekend.

"Move along, nothing to see here..."

“Move along, nothing to see here…”

For the uninitiated, Coachella has steadily become the most expensive, grandiose, bombastic, and popular music festival in the United States and could one day be that for the world. It has grown in clout each year upon its inception in 1999 (with one key exception being 2000, when it was not held). At this point, the mere mention of the sun-scorched festival at the bizarrely-greened Indio polo club (Ian MacKaye publicly questioned the presence of Palm Trees and grass in the middle of California’s low desert) evokes a series of emotions from even those who’ve never ventured out. My own opinions about the corporate structure of these overblown musical events aside, I decided to cross over to the other side and check what the fuss was about this year. Also, my love of the band Blur outweighs my common sense (the Descendents, too).

When they announce the official lineup for Coachella every year, the internet goes kaboom. This is equal parts fans expressing their support, the cynical expressing their cynicism over the only four bands they find cool to not be billed, and as producer Chad Clark referred to it, “ahistorical stupidity.” 

The geographer, however, would look at it differently. Given how much of a premium the festival brass put on booking the top sellers and greatest hype-accumulators (and minimizing international flight expenses), a vast majority of musical acts across the six stages over the three days were North American. The biggest handful of exceptions were British (Blur, Stone Roses, New Order, Franz Ferdinand, Hot Chip, the XX, Alt-J), but a few other areas of the globe were represented, too, including Iceland (Of Monsters and Men), Australia (Tame Impala), Italy (Benny Benassi), and Japan (Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra).*

Oh, Canada... Scene at night from the car campground.

Oh, Canada… Scene at night from the car campground.

Given the festival’s international scope, it attracted a great array of visitors from all corners of the globe. All across the campground and sprinkled throughout the crowd, one could find innumerable markers of nation-state (and national) identities. I was too distracted to keep a tally, but I saw a large number of Canadian, Australian, British, Mexican, Taiwanese, Chilean, and other flags. I had great conversations with visitors from cities spread as far away as Calgary, Perth, and Tokyo. Here are a couple examples of other places that found a temporary home in the California wasteland.

MEXICO CITY
During Cafe Tacvba’s set on Saturday afternoon, an interesting phenomenon occurred. The band’s lyrics and onstage banter (almost entirely in Spanish) coalesced with the fervor of their fans (decorated with Mexican regalia) and the seething desert afternoon heat to simulate the place of a music festival that could have easily stood South of the Border. Of course it helped that many festival goers either spoke Spanish or were visiting from Mexico as well.

The crowd to see Cafe Tacvba on the main stage on Saturday afternoon, 4/20.

The crowd to see Cafe Tacvba on the main stage on Saturday afternoon, 4/20.

BOSTON
It was also noteworthy seeing Boston represented in the desert via the Dropkick Murphys’ frenetic set. The recent Boston marathon tragedy provided a sympathetic layer to the band’s usual reconstruction of their hometown through skinhead anthems, Irish musical threads (several waving Irish flags were visible, though none of the band’s members have ever been Irish nationals to my knowledge), and blatant name-checking of places in Massachusetts. Hearing these songs in 96 degree low-desert heat felt particularly strange, especially considering how much time I have spent in Boston in my life, but whether or not the crowd members yelling along to “Caught in a Jar” had actually been to Boston felt inconsequential. Few things could better testify to the band’s consistent expression of love for their city (other than perhaps how their first singer, Mike McColgan, left the band to become a firefighter).

For some reason, Palm Trees and celtic punk don't mix. Dropkick Murphy's on the Coachella main stage. 4/20/13

Palm Trees and Celtic punk don’t mix, but the band didn’t let that tone them down. Dropkick Murphy’s on the Coachella main stage. 4/20/13

Unfortunately, that’s all I have time for right now. As much as it would take a lot to subject myself to the experience again, I’m glad that I can now say I went. As much as my head still aches, it was a genuinely enriching experience of sorts.

CONFERENCE THIS WEEKEND

Not that I’m back in conference condition (if there is such a thing), but for those of you interested, my esteemed colleagues and I will be heading up to San Luis Obispo for the 67th annual California Geographers Society meeting. I’m presenting research (on emotional geographies of place in influencing LA record shop development over the past few years) on Saturday at 2:30 in Session 4C – Room 03-201… which I assume will make sense when I actually see the campus.

* Apologies to the bands and countries represented who I couldn’t mention due to lack of time and space. The full line-up is listed at their website here.