Brain Massage: The Radio Dept. and Fan Videos

The Radio Dept. are Swedish band who make perfect soundtracks for riding trains into stations at dusk, wandering around a beautiful city far from home, or just flipping through old photo albums and wondering where the years have gone.

When I come around to my unit on Sweden and the pop music industry in GEOG 371: Exploring Europe, narrowing down the bands I want to sample in my lectures is nearly impossible. Choosing one artist to represent a country,  language, or nation is always daunting, but for Sweden, I need to content with a nearly overwhelming volume. Stockholm and her smaller urban counterparts have been consistently grinding out both chart-topping hits and beloved indie pop gems for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing Refused destroy their instruments in the octagon back in 1998, which blew my teenage mind. In college, I sold some friends on Randy by simply naming off their song titles. Although I was reading Rolling Stone and devouring MTV news documentaries as often as they would air them at the time, I somehow missed that Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and many others owed their platinum success to Max Martin and the late Denniz Pop. Over the years, I would fill in these gaps in my knowledge while keeping tabs on the hottest Swedish artists diligently packaged and sold by indie labels. From what I remember of late 2006, it was impossible to go out anywhere in the DC area without hearing Peter, Bjorn, and John at some point.

In late 2010, I discovered Lund’s The Radio Dept. and wondered why it had taken me so long. Songs like “The Worst Taste in Music” and “Pulling our Weight” were exactly what my brain-soul Venn diagram needed at that time in my life. I included their music on my podcast (I believe they concluded an episode where I interviewed Harry Shearer, making for an odd but good juxtaposition), and sent their songs to anyone who would listen. I got one chance to see them at the Rock n’ Roll Hotel in Northeast DC on February 1, 2011. I was just out of touch enough with indie music trends to sleep on getting tickets; the show sold out fast. Fortunately, I found a face-value ticket on Craig’s List. The show was pretty good. No fireworks, no “duuuuuuuuuude you have to see this band before you die” sentiments, but pretty good. They took longer to come back for an encore (a ten minute wait for the demure and sweet “1995“) than any band I’d ever seen. I suspected that their blogger-bred reputation of being somewhat elusive and cranky was well-earned.

Recently, my friend in Long Beach sent me photos of The Radio Dept. playing a gig in Los Angeles, and I then spent the better part of the week catching up on the group. I was sizing up their music videos on YouTube for possible use introducing my Sweden lecture in a few weeks, and I discovered (or was at least reminded that) they have relatively few for a band of their renown. Again, this may have to do with their introverted, pointedly non-corporate approach to making and releasing music (see: their long gaps between albums).

In the course of this search, I found a handful of fan videos set to Radio Dept. songs. Fan videos, in a similar vein to fanzines, are publications created outside the artist’s purview. They use a particular song as a soundtrack to accompany film footage, and the Radio Dept. make exquisite music for this. Their dream-pop aesthetic, especially their more instrumental songs, creates a beautiful bed for equally dreamy footage.

There isn’t a heavy academic underpinning to this entry; I just wanted to revive my habit of spreading The Radio Dept’s musical love. I can see myself making something this an assignment in a future class, incorporating production, music, and geography. If I had a computer that could better handle video editing, I would start making these all the time, to procrastinate, inevitably.

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Your Feet are Going to be on the Ground

Video

Why I didn’t inaugurate this site with this video is beyond me. It may be the most bare-bones “geographical” song (and video) ever recorded, “Green” is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary, and who can say no to those long-extinct flowing locks that Michael Stipe once owned? Say what you want about their post-I.R.S. output (at least post-1996); few bands (if any) had a higher batting average (and at-bats aka albums) across the 1980s. Enjoy this fancy choreography and the Buck/Mills/Stipe/Berry long jump competition. If you’re confused, check with the sun.

If They Follow You, Don’t Look Back

When our parents were growing up, the person who knew about all the “cool” bands was a neighborhood celebrity (at least, according to my parents). Today, the moment you start extrapolating on the state of indie music and drop a reference to meeting Stephen Malkmus, you’re a putrid hipster and an elitist snob*. My theory is that people dismiss those who obsess over new bands and old vinyl because of the infinite catalog of music reference built into most people’s phones; anybody has access, so those who actively digest and regurgitate the information are clearly doing it to outclass their friends, right?

Seriously, though, as the literature says (especially when Foucault has anything to do with it), every single person you meet has a unique set of experiences that have informed their relationship with every place, space, and situation in which you encounter them. And instead of criticizing somebody for daring to enjoy a band that some influential website also enjoys, maybe take a moment and consider that they reason that a band becomes popular (on a certain level) could maybe, just maybe, be because they are genuinely good at making music and produce great songs.

On a related note, this documentary is absolutely wonderful, and you should take an hour to watch through this if you can. If not, then the first few minutes beautifully illustrate how pop music functionally romanticizes place.

This is wonderful, for so many reasons. Not only is Belle & Sebastian’s music great almost across the board (Sarah Martin is their secret weapon… and Stuart Murdoch doesn’t age, somehow), but their entire aesthetic paints their hometown of Glasgow in such a nostalgic, romantic light that you can’t help but associate the entire country of Scotland with happiness. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my buddy Jim a long time ago about Scotland. His then-girlfriend (now wife) was Irish and lived in the United Kingdom at the time, so he spent a lot of time traveling around in the North. When I told him about my preconceived notions of Scotland, he snapped back, “Dude, the Scottish need to sound happy…they need something. That place is like Newark [New Jersey] on a rainy day.” Hearing his account made me no less curious about visiting Glasgow, but it reminded me that no matter how hard “Act of the Apostle” (and many, many others**) unintentionally worked to mold this fantastic Glasgow in my brain, the reality was not much different than any social issue-plagued urban center in 21st century Europe.

The original “Blue Boy” 7″ single b/w “Love Sick.” Considering how much Postcard Records has done since 1980 to generate a glossy ideal of Glasgow, it’s weird that they’d go with an American wild west motif on their dust sleeves. I wonder why this was. To the internet!

One of the band’s greatest local influences, Orange Juice, provided me a crucial example of how music glues emotions together with places, even imagined. An old promo video for their “Blue Boy” single featured grainily-filmed Scottish teenagers gallivanting  gallivanting  gallivanting  Who’s to say that gallivanting was ever a thing, but damned if the “Blue Boy” video doesn’t make me want to gallivant through the Glasgow suburbs. Now, I’ve never once been to Glasgow, but I can’t help but smile when I think about it. For this, you can blame equal parts Edwyn Collins, Stuart Murdoch, Roddy Frame, and I suppose Jim Kerr (the 80’s movie fans just woke up).

The singer Martin Denny gave a great interview with V. Vale and Andrea Juno for their 1993 book Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 1 (Re/Search) about his Hawaiian Music records. They were hits across the board during the 50’s, predominantly with mainland listeners, who were unaware of how much of his music was conceived and produced in New York. The best sales tactic was to keep listeners’ imaginations flowing, which is clearly still true now as much as ever, even if novice listeners can pull more information than they’d ever want about an artist from the internet in seconds. Granted, Vale and Juno had no way of knowing that this would be the case twenty years ago when they released the (amazing) book, but their points and observations about this bizarre interplay between popular music and the human psyche are just as relevant as ever.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and think about riding around Madrid on city buses, because I have no choice when that song plays, for some reason.

– Ty

* This is a general statement, for any of my friends reading this. I’ve never met Stephen Malkmus, and like most twenty-something social scientists (who probably love Pavement), I wouldn’t know what to say if I met him… maybe something along the lines of “durrrrr.”

** “What others?” you may be asking. Even if you’re not, this is my website and here are my ten favorite Belle & Sebastian songs. For the record, I think their three best albums are  “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” “The Life Pursuit,” and “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” Their singles compilation is also essential.

  1. Sleep the Clock Around
  2. A Century of Fakers
  3. The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner
  4. Expectations
  5. Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying
  6. Big John Shaft
  7. There’s Too Much Love
  8. Dress Up In You
  9. Seymour Stein
  10. The Rollercoaster Ride