Cultural Consumption: 1/3/24

Cultural Consumption: 1/3/24
I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart

The discovery algorithms used by Spotify and Apple, etc. have never done a lot for me in terms of putting new stuff I'll love in my ears, so I'm kind of ambivalent about that stuff at best — but I'm also an outlier in a number of ways, and I cheerfully recognize that what doesn't really work for me might pay major dividends for someone else.

I say all this by way of leading up to some words of admiration regarding the 16-year-old's listening habits, specifically the way he allows the algorithm to send him bobbing along a wildly eclectic wave of sound. Since he really started getting into music, I can't count the number of times he's idly asked me if I've heard of an artist (say, Elvis Costello or Supertramp) or a song (say, "But Not for Me") that I never would have expected him to tumble onto — and similarly, I'm also unable to count the number of times I've sputtered "How did you even hear this?"

Anyway, we have a shared Spotify playlist now, which makes me happy. We're also connected on Airbuds, an app that lets you keep track of what your friends are listening to — which is how I noticed that yesterday, he'd had an artist named Jackie Leven on repeat. I asked him to send me a link to the record, he did, and it was waiting near the top of my queue this morning.

First, though, I read a review of Mo Troper's Troper Sings Brion, and came away intrigued enough to check it out. If you know me well enough to know how much I love Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman, you'll know the title and album artwork caught my eye right away — and sure enough, this is a page right out of the Nilsson Sings Newman playbook, featuring one artist paying full-album homage to another.

Nilsson Sings Newman has never been my favorite Nilsson record simply because if I want to hear Randy Newman songs, I'll just listen to Randy Newman — but Troper Sings Brion comes with a twist. If you're already aware of Jon Brion, you know he's the type of artist's artist who's arguably better known for the stuff he's done for other acts (contributing to Jellyfish's Spilt Milk LP, producing Fiona Apple records) than anything he's done on his own as a recording artist. And that's the hook here: Troper Sings Brion is entirely made up of covers of songs that Brion has never officially released.

It's a neat idea, and if this had been released during the height of my power pop obsession in 1996 or so, I might have eaten it like a meal. Listening to it today, however, my chief takeaway was that while I might actively enjoy hearing Brion sing Brion, I'm not super keen on hearing Troper sing Brion. It's like sped-up Wondermints with a two-pound bag of sugar dumped on top, and for me, it was all a bit much. You may disagree! Have a taste here:

Mo Troper, "Citgo Sign"

From there, it was on to Jackie Leven's The Haunted Year – Spring, which was released by Cooking Vinyl in 2009, ten years after Leven put it out as Man Bleeds in Glasgow on his own Haunted Valley imprint. I'd never heard of this guy before yesterday, but it turns out he has one hell of a story — he released his first album in the early '70s, started a band called Doll by Doll that lasted for four albums and a few years, and then went solo again, but was assaulted and nearly died while working on his next LP. That incident led to a period of years in which he lost the ability to speak and picked up a heroin addiction, which was in turn (at least according to his Wikipedia page) self-cured through "a combination of acupuncture and psychic healing."

I could go on, but you get the idea. In addition to living an extremely interesting life (often in the "Chinese proverb" sense of the term), he was also extremely prolific, releasing a slew of albums between the early '90s and his death from cancer in late 2011. The Haunted Year – Spring is the only one I've listened to, but if it's any indication of his broader tendencies, I can only say that Leven's fans were well served; at 23 tracks and nearly two hours, this is a lot. On balance, I'd say it ends up being much too much of a pretty good thing — the track listing captures live performances that run the gamut from bucolic English folk to a fairly ragged cover of Bill Withers' "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)," with a bunch of between-song patter sprinkled in. I'm glad I heard it, and while I have no plans to dig deeper, the whole experience was a welcome reminder that when you stumble across an artist, you're often opening yourself up to a whole world's worth of personal stories and songs. Try this one on for size:

Jackie Leven, "Farm Boy" (live)

Watching: The wife and I spent New Year's Eve watching The Godfather with the 16-year-old — the first screening for both of them, and they dug it enough to consent to Part II. Given that the three of us are no longer on vacation, it's impossible to tackle a three-and-a-half-hour movie in one sitting, so we're watching it in chunks. After I put yesterday's post to bed, we got up to "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart."

Reading: Still working my way through Thai Horse. Having been freed from the Central American prison where he was unjustly incarcerated, our hero is now hot on the trail of the old military buddy who was allegedly killed in action but who might actually be secretly alive and possibly also running dope in Saigon. The plot, it thickens.