Written by Parisa Eshrati
Play It By Ear is an ongoing series by T&E writer Parisa where she shares musical discoveries along with informational tidbits, casual musings, and whatever else spills out of her brain. This post discusses the Denver punk scene, recent jazz and neosoul releases, and the search for the "perfect" pop sound.
Hello friends/fellow music nerds! Glad to be back with another Play It By Ear post. I originally started this blog series as a way to casually share music without getting too in my head about my writing. The last few entries ended up being very thought-out and structured, which is fun and all, but this post is going to resort back to the older Play it By Ear style and just share some tunes and informal thoughts.
I’ve been working on my 2021 year end list for T&E, and I find that this time of year usually makes me reflect on and revisit my favorites of the previous year. Some albums really take time to grow on you, or even if you already loved them, you form a new relationship after having lived in the music a bit more. I feel like especially last year, though I loved a lot of new releases, I didn’t connect with music in the way I normally would. I wasn’t making memories with the sounds or listening in any unique way aside from sitting in front of my computer. Plus, I felt so burnt emotionally that it was hard to connect with anything in a very deep level (does anyone relate? One of the hardest obstacles for me during the height of the pandemic).
Anyway, one of my favorites of last year was this Dinner Party EP, a collaboration between modern jazz legends Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin and 9th Wonder. AllMusic writer Andy Kellman puts it nicely, “There's no crosstalk, just completed thoughts". It’s a lush set of songs that combine jazz and hip-hop in a way that only these guys could do. There’s a history and real genuine connection between them all, and that’s just the kind of thing you can’t fake in music. It really evokes the feeling of a dinner party - the heart and soul that can only come out when you’re sharing a meal and conversation with the people you love the most.
I’ve been revisiting this EP a lot this past week, because as I’m reflecting on 2021, this album actually feels the most important to me (even though it was a 2020 release.) After getting vaccinated, I was able to visit one of my best friends from high school after not having seen each other in about five years. One of my other friends from high school (who lives out in Phoenix and I still hang with often) flew out to Boulder, CO while I was there so we could all be together at the same time. We spent the first night together doing what we normally would do in high school - sit at a dinner table, break out the speakers, and share music with each other. At one point this Dinner Party EP came on and we listened to it all the way through, nodding and grooving along, only stopping occasionally to remark about just how good it is. An album we had all listened to and appreciated on our own, but finding a whole new appreciation for it while we shared it together.
I guess it’s all to say that one of the most sacred experiences in the entire world, at least for me, is listening to music with the people you love. This EP really epitomes that experience through sound. And man, am I glad to be connecting with music again.
Speaking of Colorado, one thing from my haul of book, zine and comic souvenirs (my new addiction) was this book called Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks: A Collection of Stories From the '80s Denver Punk Scene. I knew quite literally nothing about the Denver punk scene, but it’s been one of my favorite reads in awhile. Tons of interviews with local bands, record store owners, and other essential characters from the scene. All alongside some really incredible original artwork as well! The history seems very similar to the Tucson ‘80s music scene - dusty, broke, and pissed off. Both scenes also seemed to have shared the same fate - none of the locals got much recognition outside of their respective cities, though it would have definitely been deserved.
Anyway, here’s a great 9 min EP from one of the clutch hardcore bands out Denver that I discovered from this book, the Frantix’ My Dad’s a Fuckin’ Alcoholic’:
Totally rips, and I love punx with a good sense of humour. I'm excited on checking out all the others from this book. (Total aside: I aspire to make a book like this one day with all of the interviews I've done for T&E. One day!)
More on the Colorado note, here's perhaps one of my favorite songs of the year. When I first heard the new La Femme record it didn't do much for me, but now that I'm revisiting it about six months later I'm completely obsessed. I'm always amazed by the way they created a retrofuturistic sound, harkening to the style of 60s French pop a la Serge Gainsbourg or France Gall, but meld it with a dozen other genres and innovative production.
Similar to what i was saying in the first section, I think I gravitated towards this album (and this song in particular) at the end of the year when I've taken more time to reflect on things. My trip to Denver was the only time I got out of Arizona in several years, so this song has become a sonic souvenir, if you will. (Side note: It was a great trip, but I'm not too big a fan of Denver. Y'all ever been out there? It feels a lot like Phoenix.)
I’ve very much been on the “no clean singing” side of metal the past couple of years, but after finally listening to Graveyard’s self-titled 2007 debut release (I know, I’m real late on the Graveyard train), power vocals are all I want anymore!
I especially love Joakim Nilsson’s take on the hard rock/blues singing. The blues rock revival of the 2010s saturated the genre with so much absolute shit, so it’s nice to revisit that time frame and come out with a new obsession. This was one of my most listened to albums of the year!
Also, I first heard this song on Brian Posehn’s radio show on Gimme Metal. A killer radio station with one of the best online communities. A chatroom feature in 2021...this is all I’ve wanted!
While music culture has spawned many great philosophical debates, one question I really think about daily is - what is the perfect pop song? Of course, I know that there is no one definitive answer, perfection doesn’t exist, music is subjective, etc. etc. blah blah blah. Nevertheless, I think the quest for that answer is one of my favorite musical brain teasers.
On one hand, you think about pop music being so formulaic - so what are the essential ingredients for the perfect pop recipe? There are certain structures that have been repeated endlessly in pop history, simply due to the fact that it’s been proven likable time and time again (mostly to our dismay, seeing as how now anyone conventionally attractive can become a pop star because the formula for success has already been set -- however, there is still some undeniable truths in that formula’s core of what makes an objectively good song!) It makes you wonder about what makes a song “catchy”, or really what such a broad and vastly encompassing term like “pop” means and how that definition affects the cultural zeitgeist.
On the other hand, you also realize that none of that fucking matters. Isn’t pop music just something that’s supposed to make you feel good? I know that’s overgeneralizing and I don’t intend to demean any artistry of pop music, but jesus christ man, isn’t that what this is all about? You hear a pop song and go, “Man. That’s the perfect song.” Like how Hesh in the Sopranos would say, “a hit is a hit!” There’s really not much else to it, even though...there’s everything to it.
So anyway - every time this great question of “What is the perfect pop song?” come to mind, there’s one clear answer that always immediately comes to me.
“I Had An Excellent Dream” from The Dentists’ 1985 jangle pop masterpiece, Some People Are on the Pitch They Think It's All Over It Is Now.
While I should have some grand reasoning for claiming this is a perfect pop song, some breakdown of the melodies, chords, whatever - that seems to somehow not be essential in the discussion. It’s just a really, really good tune. It has everything that should be in a pop song. And that’s just that!
The other song that comes to mind after The Dentists is “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)” - The Buzzcocks. Same explanation as above:
And when I think about it, this may very well be one of my favorite songs of all time.
Of course, pop music has been pioneered by Black, queer, and women artists. These are merely just two songs out of the endless other songs that immediately come to mind for me personally. What song comes to your mind when you think of a perfect pop song? Again, I know there is no single answer, but it’s a fun discussion to have and I’m curious to hear your thoughts (yes you, mystery reader!)
Lastly, I want to share this performance that I watched every single day for a year straight (I’m not exaggeration):
Greentea Peng is going to be a legend. Her neo-soul (or self-described “psychedelic R&B”) debut album was one of my favorites of the year, yet still nothing compares to watching her with a live band. The energy in this room is THICK. The transitions are seamless. And the way it sneaks you into that surprise cover track at the end - are you KIDDING ME? I melt every time.
That’s all for now. I hope to be doing these posts way more often, but you can find previous editions by clicking “Play It By Ear” on the categories tab. And as always, please feel free to share comments, music, and/or thoughts in the comments or via the Contact Form. I hope these posts spark conversation and comradery - isn’t that what blogs are for anyway?