What d’ya know, mistletoe? I’m Michael Donaldson, and I’ve returned for another episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, an email newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and the astonishing culture around those things. Thanks for joining our hacienda of Ringos. As Tony Wilson once said, “Never there when you want me, always there when you need me.”
It’s a newsletter in flux! Right after I announce that Ringo is resuming a weekly schedule, I take three weeks off. Not a good look. It turns out the end of the year/holiday season is not the best time to get ambitious.
More on that subject at the end of this newsletter. In the meantime, I’d like to remind you that every episode of RDoLC has a theme song. This time it’s called “Lelewo.” I usually embed a SoundCloud player at this point — and you can still listen to it on SoundCloud here — but ’tis the season, so I decided to post a short video for this song. (After clicking to it, you may have to click the speaker icon to hear the tune.) Shot a few years ago on Apalachicola Bay, it depicts a rare and strange sight that only occurs at Xmas time in Florida.
In The Quietus, Daniel Dylan Wray (who claims to listen to five new albums a day) feels that 2020 deadened music’s healing power for him. As the months (and pandemic) dragged on, music only added to the deluge of information (“Pressing play sometimes felt like opening up Twitter …”), and silence was often preferable. Though Daniel still experienced euphoric music moments, a lot of music (or the act of listening to it) felt “draped in sadness.”
Daniel has a theory. His 2020 listening experiences are happening in a singular space — the same place where he’s locked down, living monotonous days, working from home, endlessly worrying. He’s not bonding with music in grungy nightclubs or record shops, or discovering new tunes with friends, or equating albums to time spent on road trips or in unfamiliar cities. Daniel explains:
The process of discovering and experiencing music is intrinsically linked to a sense of place. We all have indelible memories – from the profound to the prosaic – attached to where we were during a musical epiphany or awakening. This year that process has been hacked down to nothing more than sitting in front of a computer screen at home. … Music is a multi-sensory experience, from the sweat and pulse of a club to the stench of stagnant gig venue carpets, and from rifling through fusty charity shop records to perfectly programmed light shows that dazzle the eye as music tickles the ear and chugging smoke machines engulf you. 2020 has robbed music of these other senses.
He has a point. I do equate many of my favorite songs and albums with events, people, or places. And I don’t go out as much as I used to (even before COVID-times), which might be why I don’t have too many current songs with strong memetic connective tissue.
Music critic Ann Powers writes about similar feelings in her moving new essay Diary of a Fugue Year. Like Daniel, she refers to music as another layer of information to digest. But she also finds that her mindset toward music has transformed after months of lockdown, flavoring the act of listening with a strange intimacy:
Music makes me yearn for what feels lost: a whisper pushing breath onto my neck, a voice singing loud into a crowd yelling back at it. In my solitude, though, recordings become a lifeline. Spending time with music has never felt more private, a way of both sheltering from and mediating the noise from outside. At the same time, the sound always takes me somewhere; it’s often the only way I hear a stranger’s voice on any given day. See what I’m getting at? Nothing’s got just one meaning. In a year crowded with contradictions, music’s way of enhancing emotion can feel clarifying, or it can overwhelm. Like every other form of information, music is reaching people through static-filled channels, distorted, muffled, feeding back.
We know many new practices will linger after the pandemic: working from home, live-streamed concerts, and telemedicine, to name a few. We might also listen differently, our ears heightened to receive the emotion of the moment. At home, songs will continue to sound much more personal than before COVID-times. And in the wild, music discovery becomes a visceral experience like few others. Or, at least, it will seem that way for a while once we get out of this.
For me, one album that’s strongly attached to a specific spatial memory is The Clash’s Sandinista! It was the first vinyl record I ever bought. I remember wandering into the mall record store thinking, “I should get something by this band The Clash I’m hearing about.” Looking through the bins, I see that Sandinista! packages three records filled with music for the price of one. So, that’s the one I picked over London Calling or the two others.
As I told Lawrence Peryer at the end of my interview on the Spot Lyte On podcast, Sandinista! probably wasn’t the best first exposure to The Clash. The album was difficult to latch on to — there was so much music, and the styles varied wildly from track-to-track. I remember liking “Magnificent Seven” and “Police On My Back,” but I didn’t get it overall. Maybe I chose the wrong intro album, making The Clash a band I’d merely appreciate through the years.
Simon Reynolds recently wrote about Sandinista! on his Blissblog, calling it a “fan-perplexing triple – which must be their least-listened record (well, apart from Cut the Crap) but which makes for a surprisingly listenable listen for streaming-era ears.” A vintage album best suited for streaming, then? Simon explains, “It’s not a record that can be listened to in a single sitting, especially in those days of vinyl — all that getting up and removing another disc from the sleeve, or flipping over the platter.”
Matty of MusicREDEF tweeted his thoughts to me:
When we first dip into a catalog, I wonder about the effect of that first record we listen to from a band. It can make the difference between becoming a fan or “meh.” Catalog dipping is a lot surer with streaming. You’re not really taking a chance anymore. And it’s easy to know which albums are the favorites, the most listened to, or the critically lauded ones. Before digital music, we were often guiding our chance-taking by album price. Three albums for the price of one was tempting. Also, there was the cut-out bin. Those $3-and-under records were often our intro albums, but, usually, only a band’s least popular records ended up as cut-outs. (Though I did discover Eno via the cut-out bin. That was Before And After Science, I believe.)
The Clash’s ambitious triple album Sandinista! was released 40 years ago this month. Of course, I now enjoy it quite a bit. And I see “Magnificent Seven” (and much of the album) as an ’80s milestone, ahead of its time. I agree with Matty.
Here’s a fascinating oral history of that song from Consequence of Sound. And there’s a new music video for “Magnificent Seven.” The legendary Don Letts edited it from footage from The Clash’s time in NYC and their 1981 Bond’s residency. So good, so nostalgic.
You can’t have too much of a good thing. Since the very beginning of COVID-times, Bandcamp has waived their revenue share on the first Friday of every month. That means after payment processor fees, artists (or their labels, if managing the account) got an average of 93% of the total.
Bandcamp Fridays were a rousing success for everyone involved, not the least Bandcamp itself. Though the company led us to believe these first Fridays ended with 2020, I suspected these events would continue. And here’s Bandcamp with breaking news:
Although vaccines are starting to roll out, it will likely be several months before live performance revenue starts to return. So we’re going to continue doing Bandcamp Fridays in 2021, on February 5th, March 5th, April 2nd, and May 7th. As always, isitbandcampfriday.com has the details.
Also, in the announcement, Bandcamp rightly points out that fans shouldn’t think these are the only days to buy music and support artists. Normally, “an average of 82% reaches the artist/label” through Bandcamp on a day that’s not the first Friday of the month. That’s still pretty good and remarkably better than those other guys.
So why have these special Fridays, then? Well, they’re a lot of fun. Bandcamp Fridays remind me of Tuesdays at the record store — new releases came out every Tuesday in the olden times — and fans would line up at the door before we opened in anticipation of their favorite artists’ fresh music. Nowadays, Bandcamp Friday’s excitement carries over to social media. The social platforms come alive on Bandcamp Fridays with recommendations, exclusives from the artists, and praise from fans. It’s a nudge to the broader public that there’s something more than Spotify, that an inclusive music community bubbling with intention and enthusiasm exists in 2020. And because of that, I expect Bandcamp Fridays — or some version of it — to continue well beyond next May.
• Elijah Knutsen – Music For Vending Machines 1 → Elijah Knutsen, who gave us the exquisite Blue Sun Daydream album a couple of months ago, is back with Music For Vending Machines 1. Elijah refers to this first-in-a-series as “a miniaturized listening experience … much like something purchased from a vending machine.” The three songs, each clocking in at an average length of nine-and-a-half minutes, note a particular noise in their titles: “Air Conditioner Sound,” “Vending Machine Sound,” and “Purple Wisteria Tree Sound.” Those titles are red herrings as these ‘sounds’ are spacious, melodic, and far from mechanical or ordinary. “Vending Machine Sound” in particular gives our ears a visceral variety — layers of mesmerizing, shimmering tones fade into a chorus of voices and footsteps. And then those noises succumb to warm bendy chords alternating in the stereo field, like an interim track on that lost mid-90s My Bloody Valentine album. As with his previous Blue Sun Daydream, Elijah Knutsen’s self-described “micro-release” is a gorgeous-sounding diversion, transporting and soothing the listener within its sonic world. [LINK]
• Monta At Odds – A Great Conjunction → Kansas City’s Monta At Odds are a spacey band, both in sound and obsessions. Science fiction literature had a heavy influence on their Argentum Dreams album (released in 2018 on my 8D Industries label). And the band’s recent single “When Stars Grow Old” is inspired by a vision of a future culture remembering its past on a distant world. So it’s no surprise that December 21st’s ‘great conjunction’ of Saturn and Jupiter would inspire the band to summon a new set of cosmic tunes. These five songs are Monta At Odds at their Oddsiest — a crafty mix of soaring space-rock, frantic jazz drumming, fluttering sine waves, and post-rock echoes. “The Gods Are Conspiring” is the highlight, a rousing instrumental sound-piece that imagines an agitated Popol Vuh blissfully rocking out. Along with the other tunes on this EP, it’s a fitting soundtrack for watching heavenly bodies appear to collide in space. [LINK]
• Shea Betts – Sea / Sky → This album is the first release from NYC-via-Canada librarian and music-maker Shea Betts. As evidenced by the title Sea / Sky, the album is an ode to both, with the first half inspired by the ocean’s movement while the second reflects the windiness of the atmosphere. Shea tells me that he had “a desire to make a more ‘abrasive’ ambient sound – something more distorted and overdriven than the subdued ambient that I often listen to.” That abrasiveness is anything but, closer to an accommodating tinge of distortion on keyboards that sustains like church organs. This organ-like quality gives Sea / Sky a religious air, an almost worshipful respect for the natural world inhabited by the album’s two subjects. With measured difference, the ‘Sea’ half conveys roughness while the ‘Sky’ portion is lighter and flowing. And the songs in the middle are a combination. “Where the ocean meets the sky,” says Shea. Despite its simplicity, Sea / Sky is expressive and visual — listening in full, with the concept in mind, is movie-like. I imagine a vertical slow-motion camera pan from the water to the clouds. Probably in black and white and dramatically contrasted. Is Béla Tarr available? [LINK]
• Body Meπa – The Work Is Slow → Body Meπa named themselves after an Ornette Coleman album (though Coleman’s lacks the crafty pi sign). They create an occasionally-at-odds-with-itself rumble that isn’t too far off (at least conceptually) from what Coleman was transmitting on that album. Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, Grey McMurray, Melvin Gibbs, and Greg Fox handle a standard guitar-guitar-bass-drums line-up but, in righteous post-punk fashion, Body Meπa sonically exiles standards. The Work Is Slow is Body Meπa’s new album, comprised of mesmerizing riffage, cometary improvisations, and a sharp rhythm section guiding the reins. There’s no nonsense to the production (in the stereo field, Sasha is credited with “right guitar” while Grey wields the one leaning to the left), but the variety of squeals, squalls, and cyclical melodic phrasings bends the album away from simplicity. And you kinda want to see just what is happening to these guitars. A good intro track is “Money Tree” with its opening eterna-looped guitar and double bass action (I think — which would be a call-back to Sasha’s dual-bassed former band Ui), calmly landing in Tortoise territory. Body Meπa’s album has earned many listens in my lockdown space, a noble achievement in a time when new music temptations are relentlessly hitting me sideways. As for the title The Work Is Slow, Sasha had this to say in an installment of his essential email newsletter: “I use ‘the work’ as a way of describing a daily practice of spiritual health and emotional sobriety, but you may have another discipline that fits the bill.” A limited number of bumper stickers with the phrase are available. [LINK]
• These four albums and several more are included in my latest Buy Music Club list of Bandcamp recommendations. Dig in! [LINK]
Thanks again for reading Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care! When will you hear from me again? Well, I’m going to follow an unplanned three-week break with a planned three-week break. Which means you’ll find Ringo in your inbox no later than January 10. That’s a new year (finally!), and that’s the 33rd episode of something that started as a wobbly “should I really do this?” experiment. I can’t believe I’ve made it this far.
During my Ringo break, I’ll frequently post on the blog, so please find me there. And I’m going to play around with some ideas for this newsletter. I’m considering a few different format changes, the addition of a new section or two, and a couple of other small enhancements. Who knows what 2021 will bring to the Ringo-sphere. I certainly don’t. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I sincerely wish you a happy and wonderful holiday season. I know this is a challenging one so take care of yourself and your loved ones. 2021 is right around the corner, and it’s going to be filled with hope, friendship, and great music. Stay safe, hang in there, and I’ll see you in the new year! 🚀
btw — I'm Michael Donaldson and you can read more about who I am and what I do here.
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I thought to myself, if he gets out even one newsletter during the holidays I will be seriously impressed. I also thought, if there is one don't expect it to be engaging, which wouldn't entirely be your fault but more related to my own holiday busyness. And yet, here I am still thinking about what you wrote about Sandinista! in the middle of a busy work day and how impressed I am with it. My wanna-be rasta brothers were always trying to sell me on it but the Clash really pissed me off with that album. I spent a lot of money on that triple pack and it had no where near the punch as my first LP purchase, Parallel Lines. Plus, I was always getting burned by double and triple packs - The Beatles red and blue double packs sounded like garbage, Goodbye Yellowbrick Road - yawn, didn't like London Calling, either. The first double pack that changed my mind was Zen Arcade and I still think that album could've use less songs. It took me much longer time to warm up to Double Nickels, I wasn't ready for it until long after it was such a big deal, but that might be the only double album everyone should own. Funny thing about Sandinista! is that it is now by far my favorite Clash album, every song is a miracle, and it was my dancefloor secret weapon prior to covid. You speak of it so eloquently and from a different perspective but touched on so many of the things that made that album so great, for me in hindsight, which is always 20/20 - although I will be the first to admit I had terrible taste as a lad and would never thought the Clash post debut or disco were cool even if I went back and did it all again.
Disco is my segue into your excellent point-counterpoint about music appreciation in 2020. I try to listen to five albums a day, not necessarily new, but with the size of my collection it often is at least new to me and I am always up for that challenge no matter the circumstances. I'll probably be in the headphones as I am dying someday based on how I have listened this year. Music listening is just such an intensely personal thing for me, a means of escape unto itself. I am also a mailorder guy so there are few memories tangibly related to any particular disk, LP, or 45 I own. I care deeply about the message not the medium so the plague has been an excellent opportunity to dive as deep as I can in as many directions as I can regardless of format, although I rarely stream. The one dive that has brought the most joy has been classic disco, especially the futuristic, escapist, and joyous re-edits that came to define the more underground sounds. Sappy TSOP strings, a Miami session player bass line, or just a well-written song have helped me through some of the worst days of covid - and there have been some truly awful ones that I won't quickly recover from mentally - but at least I can counterbalance them with some ecstatic memories of music's incredible power to heal. Disco music will be the only thing I remember when I look back on this year and I can totally live with that.