Ice Cream Man

The summer I turned sixteen, my parents informed me I was to get a part-time job. No longer could I spend all my days watching three-hour blocks of I Love Lucy reruns or setting off on rambling, endless bike rides all over town. Time had come for me to make a living, or at least earn some spending money beyond a weekly chore allowance (and the very occasional babysitting gig.)

Luckily, I had plenty of entry-level employment options within walking distance from home. I could stock shelves at Sav-U supermarket or Payless Shoes Source, bus tables at B&B Lounge, expose myself to a variety of chemicals at Wolf’s Dry Cleaners—there was even a fish market I could work at, although it emitted an odor one could smell from up to a block away.

Such potential first jobs barely crossed my mind, however, for I was fortunate enough to live close to both a frozen custard stand (for the unfamiliar, frozen custard is richer, fattier ice cream freakishly more popular in Milwaukee than most other cities) and a Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. The former, named General Custard’s (“Food Good Enough to Make a Stand For!”) was a block closer, but also a burger joint. Not wanting to return home reeking of grilled onions and meat every night, I gravitated towards the Baskin-Robbins, which had been in its long, narrow storefront location since before I was born. In addition to loving the stuff (oh how I would anticipate what each Flavor of the Month would be when I was a tyke!), scooping ice cream was also something I knew I could probably do, even with my total lack of experience.

The last week of May, I walked the two-and-a-half blocks over there to ask if they were hiring. Stan, the ancient, white-haired man behind the counter whom I’d later find out had owned and operated the franchise for over 25 years, handed me an application. I could have filled it out at one of the three tables (all of them encrusted with traces of sugar, butter and cone) to the right of the gleaming display freezers stacked with nearly forty different three-gallon ice cream tubs; instead, I took it home, completed it very carefully and brought it back the next day. Stan was still there, tallying up the afternoon’s sales, printing an almost comically long receipt from the cash register. He browsed over the application, and asked when I’d like to work my first shift. I told him I’d be out of school next week. “Come in Wednesday at 3:00 PM,” he responded in a guttural smoker’s rasp I’d soon know very well.

I had done it! I was going to scoop ice cream and furthermore, make money doing so! How cool was that? Apart from my folks, I told no one else of my summer plans; I didn’t want to jinx my good fortune. Of course, being a newbie to the workforce, I had no clue what to expect, but I didn’t care—I found a job right near my house, and I suspected I’d be able to eat a lot of free ice cream there too.

That following Wednesday, I made sure I arrived at the shop minutes before 3:00. As I opened the door, Stan looked up from behind the counter and regarded me as if I was merely another customer, asking, “Whadda you want?”

Caught off guard, I hesitated, “Uhh, it’s me. Chris… your new employee?”

“Ach! Come on back,” he grumbled. I followed him behind the counter and into a rear room partially concealed from the public via two swinging half-doors not dissimilar from those separating the kitchen and dining room in my Aunt Judy’s suburban ranch home, only these were painted the color of Pepto Bismo. Beyond them sat shelves haphazardly stacked with all the crap Stan never threw away: piles of old promotional banners, faded flavor labels, assorted paper and plastic goods like napkins and straws and a somewhat tarnished array of ice cream cake decorations, from frostings and sprinkles to a rainbow of sugars. Along one wall sat a couple of upright and top-opening white freezers populated with brand-new ice cream tubs waiting to take the place of those sitting in the display cases out front after their depletion.

Stan handed me a polo shirt the same color as the swinging doors and an outsized thick plastic binder that was the Baskin-Robbins employee handbook. He ordered me to put the shirt on, sit down at the desk next to the cake decorations and read the book. He then returned to the front of the store to wait on customers, tally up sales and whatever else it was he did all day. I dutifully sat there, scanning the handbook cover-to-cover, learning everything one could possibly know about scooping ice cream and exhibiting good customer service.

At least thirty minutes passed before Stan came back through the swinging doors and bellowed, “What, are you sleeping?” He gestured me to follow him out front, where he showed me how to use the ice cream scooper, craft such delicacies as a fudge brownie sundae or a banana split, run the cash register and use a waffle iron and a spherical wooden tool that formed the freshly made waffles into cones.

Within an hour, one of my co-workers arrived, also named Chris and also Stan’s grandson. Two years older than me, this other Chris had worked there for some time; as Stan left to go home for dinner (he also lived in the neighborhood), his grandson would continue my training. The other Chris was fun because he was a smartass and a co-conspirator. That first evening, when it came time to get ready for closing, he showed me the bathroom in the back where I’d prepare the mop to clean the store’s tiled floors. Next to a rusting sink and a mirror desperately in need of a streak of Windex was a slightly cracked sign from the Milwaukee Health Department: in funky, early ‘70s-style lettering, it said “Wash Your Hands,” the words actually rendered within the shape of a hand. Directly underneath it, a plastic shelf held a yellowed, dusty bar of soap.

“You know, the soap’s older than that sign,” the other Chris remarked. I nearly believed him.

In those hours when it was just us two Chris’s at work, we had a blast—especially in the colder months as up to an hour would often pass by without a single customer. We’d hang out in the back room, rummaging through piles of old stuff such as a poster for “Monte Carlo Stripe” (a flavor inspired by the long-forgotten 1977 flick Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo), making note of such peculiar stock as a cardboard box of Maple Nut topping stamped with a then-six-year-old expiration date. Whenever the front door opened, the other Chris would suddenly snap to attention and proclaim, “INCOMING!” (a M*A*S*H reference), our cue to emerge from the back room and actually do some work.

I certainly enjoyed working with him far more than my other co-workers, two guys both my age. Frank, who wasn’t much for conversation, had started working there only weeks earlier but never failed to lord this sort of dubiously-won authority over me. When not telling me what to do, he sat next to the rear counter, doodling in a well-worn spiral notebook. Joe, on the other hand, might’ve been less friendly than the other Chris, but I appreciated his droll demeanor. A regular customer who lived three doors down would come in at least once a week and always order the same thing: two scoops of chocolate chip topped with hot fudge. During one of his visits, Joe said to me, quietly and pointedly, “I’ll take care of Monty Clift over there.” At the time, I had no idea who that was; in retrospect, Joe’s assessment of this handsome, if somewhat creepy guy was spot-on.

Joe could be a co-conspirator as well. Once, we were in the store alone together when an obscenely large, hairy, yellow-brownish rat emerged from under the rear counter. I quickly ran into the back and grabbed a broom, but before I could return to the front, we suddenly had customers (INCOMING!) whom thankfully did not see the rat behind the display cases. Joe quickly put his hands up in a “NO! NO!” sort-of-way at me to prevent the customers from witnessing me running out with a broom in hand (was I planning on sweeping the rat away?) Luckily, the vermin soon disappeared back under the counter and we never saw it again.

I can only imagine what one of our customers would’ve done upon seeing a rodent in the store, for many of them were nuttier than the massive plastic container of macadamias we had for a special Hawaiian-themed sundae. Baskin-Robbins was where I learned the actual cardinal rule of working in retail or food service: contrary to popular belief, the customer is hardly ever right, but it’s polite and often expected to let them think they are. The mother and daughter who sample a dozen different flavors and then leave without buying anything? The middle-aged man who asks for a scoop of “Blue Chocolate Chip” (meaning our most popular flavor Mint Chocolate Chip, of course) two minutes before closing on a Saturday night, the floors all mopped and chairs upside down on the table tops? The wispy young couple whom, upon inquiring how long we’ll have Bubblegum ice cream and, after being told just for the next two months, whining, “For the whole year???” All of ‘em wrong to various degrees, but not yelled at, turned away or (openly) made fun of by me and my fellow scoopers.

A few customers made this exceedingly difficult. I’m thinking of the clueless woman who asked me, “Is this your first day?” as I stood there, the only employee at the store, my right hand bleeding profusely from a mishap with our nefarious cake-cutter as I could not help but betray my impatience with her ninety-nine questions about the display freezer full of prepackaged ice cream quarts and pints. Even better was the lady to whom I accidentally served a scoop of Fudge Brownie when she had asked for Chocolate Almond (they looked almost identical.) Whereas you or I would likely just say, ‘Hey idiot, this is the wrong flavor,” she took a seat at a table, ate her ice cream cone and spat out all of the brownie pieces into a napkin. She then left this napkin full of masticated food bits on top of the counter right under my nose and said, “I don’t remember these being in Chocolate Almond,” and left. I believe I was literally speechless for the first time in my young life.

I suspect Stan had seen it all. I didn’t know much about his past, although the other Chris once disclosed he had worked as an ambulance driver (!) before he bought the franchise. Stan was a constant presence, opening and closing the store every day and night, usually handing off the reins to his young male scoopers for hours in between. His equally ancient wife Adeline would occasionally come in to help decorate ice cream cakes. She was quiet but nice enough, her most distinguishing feature being her two-toned hair (as my mother described it), probably due to a messy dye job. Although he was a crotchety old fart, Stan knew what he was doing as a manager—he would have had to, given that he’d been running this franchise and presumably turning a profit for nearly three decades.

Still, Stan had his own share of quirks. Every night, he’d prepare a sink full of soapy water to prep rags for wiping down all the counters and tables. The water was always SCALDING HOT, as I discovered the first time I stuck my hand in it. In time, I’d come to prep it exactly that way, with the other Chris once reaching in for a rag and exclaiming, “Hey, that’s STAN hot!” He also loved contemporary country music (he was of the age where you’d expect him to be more into big-band oldies or polkas) and regularly used such dated colloquialisms as “darn-tootin’” and “cotton-pickin’”.

Stan once even ended up on the 5:00 news: that first Christmas Eve I worked there, I was home in my bedroom when my mom called out, “Hey Chris, your boss is on TV!” Running over to the living room, I learned from our television that some guy had taken a massive cement truck for a joyride and ended up crashing into Stan’s garage, mere blocks away from my own house. Adeline showed up at the store days later, a few yellowed bruises on her face. “I guess you heard we had a dramatic holiday this year!” she remarked with folksy understatement of the sort one often encounters in the Upper Midwest.

As the lowest on the store’s totem pole, I must have worked those first ten or fifteen Saturday nights in a row before I finally asked Stan if I could have the next one off. He gave it to me, but he also occasionally gave me a rough time. More than once, he pulled me aside and said, “Y’know, I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why doesn’t that young man of yours ever smile?’”, insinuating I was the sullenest of his four teenaged scoopers. The accusation always maddened me because I suspected it was the dour Frank they were talking about, but I wasn’t comfortable shifting the blame over to him, which would be akin to tattling. It bugged me, but I learned to put it aside. Initially, the job’s benefits far outweighed any of these frustrations: free ice cream, for sure, but also a lot of autonomy—particularly on winter weeknights, when I’d be the only person at the store. I’d sit in the back, do my homework, and occasionally watch a 13” black-and-white TV while my mom would swing by with TV dinners and fast-food takeout, since my usual shift would go from 4:00 to 10:00 PM, not allowing me to leave for a meal break.

However, little things began gnawing away at me. The other Chris left for a stint in the Army (INCOMING!) and Stan never replaced him, resulting in more work for all, but also additional shifts spent in close quarters with no one to talk to but Frank. I remained the new guy more than eighteen months after I started; I was also getting paid less than minimum wage, which I was too green and meek to do anything about. When I once asked the other Chris how come we were paid so low, he said, “Oh, that’s because the job is agricultural,” some hot garbage I could never confirm or deny given this was the age before Wikipedia (or the Internet, even.)

As the next summer came and went and I entered my senior year of high school, I grew to loathe those six-hour weeknight shifts, the measly pay, the same three co-workers in different permutations, the waffle cone maker that never failed to burn my fingers, the endless parade of customers asking to taste this flavor and that flavor on the little pink sampling spoons we had in abundance. I had particular contempt for the plastic cutout of a giant, grinning anthropomorphic pink spoon hanging over the doorway to the back of the store—Baskin-Robbins’ half-baked idea of an unnamed cartoon mascot (Spoony? Scoopy?) I’d look up at it and think, “What are you so happy about?” and picture it accidentally falling off the wall, hitting Frank in the head.

The final straw came in January. One otherwise unremarkable evening when I was in the back searching for a new tub of Jamoca Almond Fudge, I heard a sudden THUMP. Looking out, I saw that Stan had accidentally dropped an opened, full tub of Cookies N’ Cream face down on the floor behind the counter. He proceeded to pick it up and place it back in the display case without so much as wiping any residue from the exposed surface. Once again, I was speechless. When he wasn’t looking, I examined the tub for hints of dirt or crumbs or other floor particles but couldn’t detect any (of course, Cookies N’ Cream can conceivably mask such stuff.)

That night, I decided I’d give Stan my two-week notice. I didn’t want to work there anymore and the Cookies N’ Cream fiasco was only part of it. I had four months left of high school and was just beginning to open myself up to the world. Over the past year, I’d discovered how much fun it was to hang out with friends and have a social life instead of watching TV every night. The idea of spending most of my evenings and weekends sequestered in a half-dead ice cream parlor for four bucks an hour was none too appealing; I estimated I wouldn’t be giving up much in terms of spending money. I’d worked my first real job, but it was time to move on and enjoy my newfound social life—I could always look for another job come summer.

When I told Stan of my plans, he didn’t say anything, just a near-quiet harrumph as he continued refilling the hot fudge dispenser. My last day ended up being the last day of January with just Stan and myself at the store. We had no tearful goodbyes or any goodbyes at all, period—after mopping the floor and wiping down the counters and tables, I hung up my pink polo shirt for the last time, and walked out into the chilly air, taking the five-minute route back home I had walked hundreds of times over the past two years.

Exactly two weeks later, whizzing past the store with a buddy on our way to the movies (see, I was socializing!), he remarked, “Hey, this morning in church, they said that the ice cream guy died.” Upon hearing this, I’d like to think I turned as bright white as the painted exterior of my mother’s Grand Am that I was driving.

“WHAT?!”, I responded, “You mean STAN?!!”

“Yeah, you know… the ice cream guy!,” he replied, not knowing I’d worked for the man until very recently. Somehow I managed to maintain control of the car, not pulling off to the side of the road as we headed to the Skyway Cinema to see Groundhog Day. The next morning, I phoned St. Helen’s rectory and the secretary confirmed that Stan’s funeral was scheduled for noon that day. I didn’t ask about the cause of death and never found out, too embarrassed to call up the store, much less inquire in person. I assumed it was something like a heart attack or a stroke—the man was in his late ’70s, after all. Even though I rationally knew I didn’t cause Stan’s death by quitting, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly guilty at the unfortunate timing.

I happened to have off from school that day, President’s Day. My mom and I talked about attending the funeral but I decided I’d rather not have to face Stan’s family or my ex-co-workers. She said to me, “Can you imagine if that big pink spoon hanging over the doorway had shown up at church? He’d probably wave and say, ‘Bye, Stan! I’ll miss ya!’” I could always count on her to lighten the mood.

Stan’s family kept the franchise running for a few more years; it was a pizzeria after that for some time. It currently houses a tortilleria, or tortilla factory, reflecting the steady influx of Latinx people over the past two decades into this formerly overwhelmingly white neighborhood. That summer after finishing high school, I worked the first of a series of entry-level retail jobs that paid marginally better than Stan did, but I never liked any of them as much. I now know I left Baskin-Robbins a little hastily—I could’ve easily stuck it out for another six or seven months before beginning college (I commuted downtown to Marquette University that first year, so I could’ve stayed even longer.) Still, I acquired my first taste of what it was like to have a job. As with that infamous mother-and-daughter duo who tried a dozen different flavors without buying a single thing, I just had to sample other jobs and find out what type of work I was and wasn’t suited for; in the latter category, that was my next job, a first (and to date, last) foray into real food service, bussing tables at a chain buffet joint.

Stan was far from the best boss I ever had, but with decades of work experience behind me now, I can at least appreciate what the ice cream man accomplished. Yes, his franchise was part of a massive international chain, but by the time I arrived there, Stan’s constant, long-term presence had turned it into something more like a neighborhood institution. On those rare occasions when I get a scoop at a Baskin-Robbins (there aren’t too many in New England, where I now live), I always tip my pink plastic spoon to him.

Formerly, Stan’s Baskin-Robbins. RIP.
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Halfway Through 2019

Before I take a hiatus from blogging for the rest of the summer, here are my ten favorite movies and albums midway through this year, in alphabetical order.

MOVIES:

Apollo 11
Ash Is Purest White
End of The Century
Gloria Bell
Hail, Satan?
Her Smell
In Fabric
Museum Town
The Souvenir
Sword of Trust

ALBUMS:

Alex Lahey, The Best of Luck Club
Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
Calexico and Iron & Wine, Years To Burn
Charly Bliss, Young Enough
The Dream Syndicate, These Times
Holy Ghost!, Work
Hot Chip, A Bath Full Of Ecstasy
The Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons
Robert Forster, Inferno
Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

100 Albums: Epilogue

A few of my 100 favorite albums are currently in this crate.

 

Why did I write one hundred essays on my favorite albums, in chronological order from Revolver to Record? When I began this project five years and one month ago, I saw it as a constructive way to write more extensively about music, and also as an opportunity to get used to working on longer pieces in general. I figured I could complete a thousand-word essay a week and get to the finish line within a little over two years.

And I more or less kept up the pace until I got to album number 6, Abbey Road—a record I had far more than a thousand words to write about. Once I reached the ‘90s in my timeline, I encountered many albums that, due to when I first heard them or what presence they’ve continually maintained in my life, required far more time and attention to assess than I initially expected, to the point that at the two-year mark, I was only halfway through the entire project.

Now that I’ve finally completed it, I feel a sense of having accomplished something, but what, beyond finishing what I set out to do? I’ve left a record of my taste in music as it stands over this half-decade (go back to my 2004 list to see how it has shifted); I’ve also continually drawn connections between albums from nearly every notch on this half-century-plus timeline up to the final entry (thank you, Tracey Thorn, for injecting into your own Record a song title from Songs of Leonard Cohen!)

Throughout, I kept revising the initial list I came up with in 2014. My original end point was Random Access Memories, an ideal choice given its fixation on channeling past sounds into contemporary and possible future ones. However, it ended up at #94, which allowed me to include six more titles released after it. What happened to the six older albums I left off? Apart from the Mekons’ OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads) (I still wonder why I nixed that one; was it too similar to Sleater-Kinney’s contemporaneous One Beat?), I honestly can’t recall what they were (my original list is sadly lost to time.) I occasionally replaced one album with another from the same artist: Dig Me Out and All Hands On The Bad One were candidates instead of One Beat at various points, and I kept going back and forth between Scarlet’s Walk and Boys For Pele for Tori Amos before deciding I had more to say about the latter (mostly because it’s nuts.)

Still, as I made my way through 100 Albums, it gradually dawned on me that this project had a certain flaw: By writing only about records that I loved, I was in danger of lapsing into hagiography. Truthfully, I’ve always felt more comfortable dissecting art I was drawn to than stuff I found repulsive or that simply left me cold—I’m a fan/geek more than a critic where music’s concerned (film criticism, on the other hand, I have a graduate degree in.) While it was often fun reviewing records on a weekly basis for a website back in 2003-04, a majority of them were so awful, when I left that gig, I was elated to go back to focusing on albums I genuinely liked.

The other difficult aspect of writing essays about your 100 favorite albums is that before long, you are inevitably prone to repeating yourself: How many different ways can you say something is good and make a sound critical argument as to why others should listen to it? I’ve tried my best to confront this challenge and write criticism that comes from an honest point-of-view. I haven’t gone back and re-read every last entry in this project, but I can single out ten that I think are, at the very least (to quote Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-n-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show), pretty groovaay:

The Beatles, “Abbey Road”
Joni Mitchell, “Hejira”
Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting”
R.E.M., “Automatic For The People”
Saint Etienne, “So Tough”
Ivy, “Apartment Life”
The Avalanches, “Since I Left You”
Sam Phillips, “Fan Dance”
Tompaulin, “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt”
Kate Bush, “Aerial”

It helps that every one of these ten would probably make a top 25 if I had to rank the entire list*, but another common thread runs through them: they are among my most personal essays here. I repeatedly found myself enjoying the writing process more when I was able to lead off or build a piece around a reminiscence or an anecdote directly related to an album, one that could help flesh out or even unlock what meaning this particular piece of art had for me.

I can firmly say there will never be a likeminded follow-up to 100 Albums: No 100 Films, 100 Books, 100 TV shows, etc. Putting aside the danger and difficulty that comes with only writing about beloved art, I’ve gradually discovered throughout this project that I have other, more important things to write about (even if I now regret not including Cosmic Thing by The B-52’s or anything by Steely Dan, among other artists.) Haunted Jukebox will continue, but its primary focus will no longer be music. Oh, there will be mixes (annual and otherwise), year-end lists and likely a decade-end album list in early 2020, but I’m ready to move on from criticism into more personal terrain. Thanks to anyone following and/or invested in this project.

 

* In 100 Albums: An Introduction, I said I’d do this upon the project’s completion, but since rankings of all-time lists are so prone to fluctuation, I’m leaving it up to each reader’s perception as to what my favorite, favorite albums are.

2018: Vibrate, Resonate

And so we’re up-to-date: the most recent completed year 100 Albums covers, not to mention my first full year of streaming (as opposed to digital downloads.) I wrote about a dozen of these songs last December and referenced a few more via the year’s top ten albums.

That leaves a number of leftovers (Neneh Cherry, Brian Fallon, Inara George, Paul Frickin’ McCartney—at least he’s still good for one great track per LP) and late discoveries, like Tracyanne & Danny (first overheard in a Pier One Imports!), an isolated track from former Vampire Weekend member Rostam, a lovely, lucid new song from the former singer of Concrete Blonde (which I can’t believe currently only has 3,149 streams on Spotify) and sharp ’90s-revival alt-rock from the awesomely-named The Beths.

I’ve chosen to highlight another leftover from Eleanor Friedberger. Over the past decade, she’s quietly established a pretty neat solo career that sounds very little like the ambitious (and in my mind, often irritating) stuff she used to do with her brother as The Fiery Furnaces. It took awhile for “Make Me A Song” to register as strongly as past singles like “When I Knew” and “He Didn’t Mention His Mother”, but it eventually did with its simple, indelible hook of “I could love you more” (among an excess of other hooks.)

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2018 on Spotify:

  1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Talking Sense”
  2. Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”
  3. Sam Phillips, “American Landfill Kings”
  4. Neneh Cherry, “Kong”
  5. Lake Street Dive, “Shame, Shame, Shame”
  6. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”
  7. Brian Fallon, “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven”
  8. Inara George, “Slow Dance”
  9. Christine and The Queens, “The Walker”
  10. Paul McCartney, “Dominoes”
  11. Troye Sivan, “Bloom”
  12. Metric, “Now and Never Now”
  13. LUMP, “Curse of the Contemporary”
  14. Roisin Murphy feat. Ali Love, “Jacuzzi Rollercoaster”
  15. Janelle Monae feat. Zoe Kravitz, “Screwed”
  16. Sunflower Bean, “I Was a Fool”
  17. Jessie Ware, “Overtime”
  18. First Aid Kit, “It’s A Shame”
  19. Gruff Rhys, “Frontier Man”
  20. Twin Shadow, “Too Many Colors”
  21. St. Vincent, “Fast Slow Disco”
  22. Florence + The Machine, “Patricia”
  23. Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex”
  24. Calexico, “Music Box”
  25. Rostam, “In A River”
  26. Natalie Prass, “The Fire”
  27. Ray LaMontagne, “Such A Simple Thing”
  28. Johnette Napolitano, “Riding The Moon”
  29. Eleanor Friedberger, “Make Me A Song”
  30. Years & Years, “All For You”
  31. The Beths, “Not Running”
  32. Lord Huron, “The Balancer’s Eye”
  33. Ezra Furman, “I Lost My Innocence”
  34. Amen Dunes, “Believe”
  35. Field Music, “Daylight Savings”
  36. Robyn, “Ever Again”
  37. Neko Case, “Bad Luck”
  38. The Decemberists, “Once In My Life”
  39. Tracyanne & Danny, “Cellophane Girl”
  40. Tracey Thorn, “Dancefloor”

Tracey Thorn, “Record”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #100 – released March 2, 2018)

Track listing: Queen / Air / Guitar / Smoke / Sister / Go / Babies / Face / Dancefloor

After Amplified Heart gave Everything But The Girl a crossover hit with Todd Terry’s remix of “Missing”, this duo of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, then more than a decade into their career, soldiered on for two more albums of electronic dance music inspired by this late-breaking success before essentially disbanding in 2000—I purposely use that term, for the longtime couple stopped being a band but remained together in every other sense. Thorn, who had given birth to twins two years before, later revealed in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen that she was simply ready to stop recording and performing to raise a family. She and Watt would have another child in 2001 and eventually, officially marry in 2008, over a quarter century after they met at Hull University.

Fortunately for her fans, Thorn didn’t stay retired from music (though she never returned to live performance.) Surfacing in 2007 with a solo effort, Out Of The Woods, she retained the sound of those later EBTG albums but on a more intimate scale. Directly addressing her time away from the spotlight on such tunes as “Nowhere Near” and “Raise The Roof”, Thorn crafted a modern, electro-update of singer-songwriter chestnuts like Tapestry and Blue. Her next album, 2010’s Love And Its Opposite, displayed a wider array of textures with a far more somber tone. She later called it her “mid-life album”—a keen assessment given songs like the uncharacteristically peppy “Hormones” (“Yours are just kicking in / Mine are just checking out,” she tells her daughters) and the stirring, chamber-pop ballad “Oh! The Divorces.”

In the past decade, she’s continued building an unconventional solo career: writing multiple books and a newspaper column, appearing on duets with such indie-centric artists as Jens Lekman and John Grant, recording a Christmas album here and a movie soundtrack there and just being a generally delightful presence on Twitter. When commencing work on Record, her first studio album of new songs in eight years, she tweeted something along the lines of, “Well, it’s time for me to make another album,” her casual frankness disarming as ever. And while I thought very highly of Love And Its Opposite when it came out and came around to thinking Out Of The Woods was even better than that some five or six years after its release, at present, I’m confident that Record is really Thorn’s most essential album since Amplified Heart.

“NINE FEMINIST BANGERS” reads the sticker on Record’s cover and one could not sum up its appeal more succinctly. Once again working with producer Ewan Pearson (having helmed the majority of her output since Out of The Woods), Thorn keeps to a limited but effective palette: synths, drum machines, some guitar and on one track (“Smoke”), a string arrangement. The blunt, one-word song titles perfectly fit their tunes’ musical and lyrical directness. Like Home Counties, Record was mostly conceived in a post-Brexit, Trump-ridden world and it subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) reflects such times from a distinct perspective—ever approachable and candid, Record is Thorn’s ongoing monologue of who and where she is now.

In that sense, opener “Queen” is an ideal statement of purpose. A sonic analogue to Saint Etienne’s 2012 single “Tonight”, it finds a woman considering herself in midlife over ringing, swooshing synths and a clarion, yearning chorus: “Am I queen / a magisterial has-been?,” she ponders, or perhaps “A star / Propping up the backstage bar?” They are questions specific to her life as a singer and public figure, but she shifts from the potentially autobiographical to the firmly universal by concluding, “And will I ever find love / or am I still waiting?”

From there, Record finds Thorn looking back and taking stock of her past. “Air” gently bubbles with traces of an awkward adolescence and the gender politics that drove and very nearly defined it: “Didn’t understand the rules or how to play,” she notes, before rattling off a series of self-critiques: “Too tall / All wrong / Deep voice / Headstrong.” Meanwhile, the music’s mid-tempo R&B-inflected pop (the closest Thorn has emulated the sound of Idlewild in some time) and breezy backing vocals from Shura reinforce the chorus’ simple but persuasive main hook, “I need some air,” with the word “I” delicately stretched out to five syllables.

“Guitar”, propelled by pulsating synths with the titular instrument only first appearing in the second verse offers transcendence from this dilemma. Although Thorn credits a boyfriend with “arm(ing) her with three chords,” teaching her how to play, it turns out he “was only just a catalyst.” She looks back on the affair with self-deprecation and a little bemusement, name-dropping Leonard Cohen, then slyly quoting his song “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” a few lines on (“Oh god, you couldn’t make it up,” she adds.) Still, she emphasizes her eventual self-triumph: “I couldn’t begin until I fell apart,” she admits before declaring, “Thank God I could sing and I had my guitar.”

“Smoke” goes back ever further, detailing her ancestral origin story in the guise of a modern folk ballad complete with a narrative structure and repeated phrases. Beginning with her Great-Grandparents, Thorn tells of how they moved into London (“to the rolling smoke”) and “had a son called James, who had a son called James” (“were there no other names?” she asks.) Two World Wars follow, and her mother “survived the Blitz / though she knew a girl, who knew a girl / who was blown to bits.” Thorn was born after her parents “fled the smoke,” escaping to the post-war suburbs where she herself would escape from come adulthood. Still, on the scintillating chorus, she sings, “London, you’re in my blood but I feel you going wrong.” As the song builds and sighs and marvelously changes keys at the bridge, Thorn’s history unfolds and blossoms, stretching on and outward like time itself.

“Sister” brings us back to the present with Corinne Bailey Rae’s brief, a capella vocal: it’s a beguiling intro to a minor-key anthem in the guise of an extended, eight-minute vamp sparkling with taut rhythm guitar licks, a mid-tempo beat groovy enough to dance to and an array of various synth filigrees (brought to the foreground in the mostly instrumental second half.) But don’t let the running time fool you—this is Thorn’s razor-sharp feminist manifesto and Record’s literal and thematic centerpiece. “Don’t mess with me, don’t hug my babies / I’ll come for you, you’ve bitten off more than you can chew” it starts before the singalong chorus where she states, “I am my mother / I am my mother now / I am my sister / and I fight like a girl.” Nothing cute, pensive or repentant here and that goes double on the bridge where she pointedly, cathartically asks, ‘Oh, what year is it? Still arguing the same shit. / What year is it? Same, same, same old shit.”

“Babies” is another anthem, far less angry but just as firm, offering no apologies for waiting to become a mother: “I didn’t want my babies until I wanted babies,” goes the chorus, following an opening verse that’s one of the most clever ever written about birth control, rhyming “you push a little tablet through the foil” with “better than a condom or a coil.” But the song is also an ode to what happens when you decide to have babies and when they grow up to be teenagers. “Go to sleep, it’s 3 AM / Where are you, it’s 3 AM / in a cab at 3 AM / Don’t wait up it’s 3 AM,” she rattles off as the music percolates with a joyous, assembly line sheen.

On either side of “Babies” sits Record’s two ballads. “Go” is addressed from a parent to a child leaving home for the first time. Over slow, lingering chords reminiscent of a George Michael lament (most notably “One More Try”), the generally low-voiced Thorn starts off singing in her highest register: “I resign myself to time and what’s no longer mine,” before her own grief gives way to tenderness and support as she tells her child, “Pack your bags and smile, it will only be a little while.” “Face”, in which Thorn scrolls through an ex’s social media page seems less immediate by default, although her self-effacing humor (“If I just keep refreshing, maybe you’ll disappear”) buoys what is a perceptive take on having perhaps too much access to too many people at your fingertips.

Record roars back to life on its exhilarating closer, “Dancefloor”. Like much of the album, it’s Thorn making sense of who and where she is now as a mother, sister, wife, singer, songwriter, musician, author, etc. She asks questions both philosophical (”Where did we begin?”) and searching (“Who’s just desperate for anything at all / anything at all like love?”) before proclaiming, “Oh but where I’d like to be / is on a dancefloor with some drinks inside of me,” hanging out with friends, turning it out together to such perennial bangers as Chic’s “Good Times” and Shannon’s “Let The Music Play”. The vibrant, fizzy, electro backdrop, complete with robotic voices repeatedly announcing, “ON A DANCEFLOOR!” reinforces all of this. When Thorn suddenly reveals, “Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me,” it’s a simple but immense, resounding epiphany—the kind one forever seeks but rarely finds in a pop song. How fitting that the last album in this project is not only called Record, but also recognizes how awesome it is that music has the power to shape and sustain a life.

Up next: 100 Albums concludes with an epilogue, or, my own looking back and taking stock.

“Dancefloor”:

“Sister”:

2017: Give Each Other Hope

At the time, I didn’t originally put together a year-end mix for 2017, though I did count down my 25 favorite tracks—I retained most of them here, with a few substitutions (“Losing All Sense” for Grizzly Bear instead of “Mourning Sound”; The xx’s “Replica” instead of “I Dare You”) and tracks from the year’s top albums.

A few other additions: a topical, propulsive anthem from the ever-unpredictable Canadian All-Star indie collective Broken Social Scene (with Metric’s Emily Haines on vocals), a gem from Slowdive’s surprisingly durable self-titled reunion album and a song from another British group’s own reunion album, The Clientele’s Music For The Age Of Miracles. I had never knowingly listened to them until “Lunar Days” once popped up on shuffle on Spotify and I immediately fell for it.

Iron & Wine’s slow-building “Call It Dreaming” leads this mix off and is still my favorite, but nothing encapsulates this year better than “Try Harder” by Mavis Staples. 2017 was personally a rather tough year to get through—in addition to this country’s awful new administration (there exists no kinder word to describe it), for the first time as an adult, I suddenly lost two close friends (one to a heart attack, the other, cancer.) Staples (then 78!) repeatedly wailing “Don’t do me no good to pretend / I’m as good as I can be,” over a primal, guttural guitar riff remains cathartic and still inspires me to keep moving forward.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2017 on Spotify:

  1. Iron & Wine, “Call It Dreaming”
  2. Laura Marling, “Soothing”
  3. The Clientele, “Lunar Days”
  4. Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
  5. Grizzly Bear, “Losing All Sense”
  6. Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie, “Sleeping Around The Corner”
  7. Perfume Genius, “Wreath”
  8. The War On Drugs, “Pain”
  9. Jessie Ware, “Your Domino”
  10. Sylvan Esso, “Die Young”
  11. Waxahatchee, “Never Been Wrong”
  12. Ted Leo, “Used To Believe”
  13. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Deadly Valentine”
  14. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Cut To The Feeling”
  15. Tennis, “My Emotions Are Blinding”
  16. Goldfrapp, “Tigerman”
  17. Erasure, “Still It’s Not Over”
  18. Mavis Staples, “Try Harder”
  19. Aimee Mann, “Patient Zero”
  20. Lana Del Rey, “Love”
  21. Saint Etienne, “Magpie Eyes”
  22. Dan Croll, “Bad Boy”
  23. Alvvays, “Plimsoll Punks”
  24. St. Vincent, “MASSeduction”
  25. The xx, “Replica”
  26. Slowdive, “Sugar For The Pill”
  27. Stars, “We Called It Love”
  28. Spoon, “Tear It Down”
  29. Tori Amos, “Reindeer King”
  30. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery Of Love”
  31. Joe Goddard feat. SLO, “Music Is The Answer”
  32. Emm Gryner, “Imagination”
  33. Lorde, “Perfect Places”
  34. Sparks, “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”
  35. The Mountain Goats, “Rain In Soho”
  36. Nicole Atkins, “If I Could”
  37. Alison Moyet, “The Rarest Birds”
  38. Jens Lekman, “Evening Prayer”
  39. Broken Social Scene, “Protest Song”
  40. Destroyer, “Le Regle du Jeu”

Saint Etienne, “Home Counties”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #99 – released June 2, 2017)

Track listing: The Reunion / Something New / Magpie Eyes / Whyteleafe / Dive / Church Pew Furniture Restorer / Take It All In / Popmaster / Underneath The Apple Tree / Out Of My Mind / After Hebden / Breakneck Hill / Heather / Sports Report / Train Drivers In Eyeliner /  Unopened Fan Mail / What Kind Of World / Sweet Arcadia / Angel Of Woodhatch

After the superlative song cycle Tales From Turnpike House, I couldn’t imagine what Saint Etienne would do next—apparently, neither could the band, at least not right away. Seven years passed before the release of their next album, Words and Music By Saint Etienne. Concerning the rituals and pleasures of pop music itself, the concept seemed ideal for a trio of self-avowed fans-turned-aspiring-popstars; in practice, it worked well enough, widely viewed as a comeback on both sides of the pond. It featured some of their very best singles (“Tonight”, “I’ve Got Your Music”) and, as usual with this group, exceptional album tracks that could’ve easily been singles as well (“Heading For The Fair”, “Last Days Of Disco”, “DJ” and the song this blog takes its name from.)

And yet… as a big fan myself, I found Words and Music not completely up to snuff with the four previous Saint Etienne albums I’ve covered here. For one thing, it has a substantial amount of, well, not filler, exactly, but lesser songs I rarely listen to in isolation (“Answer Song”, “Twenty Five Years”, actual throwaway “Record Doctor”); also, celebrating pop through the prism of London is more or less what this trio has always done, but by making it so explicit and upfront, they almost lessen what’s so singular and special about it. Again, for any band, Words and Music is a good album and for them a shrewd one to make after such a long absence, but it doesn’t add anything new to their catalog in the way, say, Tiger Bay or even Good Humor did.

Fast forward a few more years: there’s another band sabbatical during which Sarah Cracknell puts out a second solo album, Red Kite (solid singer-songwriter folk, and worlds away from the dance-pop of her earlier effort Lipslide) while Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs continue curating compilations of subterranean gems from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When the trio commence work on new material in mid-2016, the world in is flux. Brexit has passed and Trumpism clouds the air. Their new songs aren’t especially angry (how inconceivable to think of an incensed Saint Etienne!) but these developments (especially the hitting-closer-to-home Brexit) have no small impact on the direction their ninth album begins to take.

For most Americans and non-anglophiles, the title Home Counties requires some explanation. The two-word term refers to the seven counties surrounding London—in other words, the suburbs. All three members of Saint Etienne grew up there before moving to London as adults; it follows that one can view the record as reminiscent and hyper-specific of a time and place as Fox Base Alpha and So Tough were of early ’90s London, only observed from a great distance instead of documenting it in real time. However, the album transcends childhood nostalgia because of the band’s obvious love/hate relationship with the region, elevated in no small part by that recent specter of Brexit hanging in the air—throughout the actual Home Counties, more people voted to leave the EU than remain, whereas London voted heavily in favor of the latter option.

The result is an intriguing push-and-pull for Saint Etienne: emphatic and celebratory as always, but now guided by hindsight and filtered through a sharper, critical eye. Initially, it resembles Good Humor more than anything else in the band’s catalog thanks to its live-band feel (the winsome yet enigmatic “Unopened Fan Mail” could easily slot into it) and the fact that Cracknell’s, Stanley’s and Wiggs’ coming-of-age years coincide with the AM radio gold the earlier album successfully emulated. However, Home Counties is no Good Humor II: a mosaic of instrumentals, spoken word interludes and tone poems along with the expected three-minute pop songs, it’s the band’s longest (19 tracks in 56 minutes, but they do fly by) and most varied album since Finisterre (maybe even So Tough)—it plays like a thoughtfully, lovingly compiled mix tape that coheres into a shimmering whole after multiple spins.

As you’d expect from a band known for their meticulous, often hand-crafted attention to detail, Home Counties has ultra-specific talismans woven throughout its fabric. It makes ample room for birdsong and a pastoral children’s choir (“Church Pew Furniture Restorer”), a spot-on Northern Soul simulation (“Underneath The Apple Tree”), a little harp and plenty of harpsichord (most prominently on “Whyteleafe” and “Take It All In”), and not one or two but three recreations of vintage radio transmissions, with quiz show “Popmaster” rather tongue-in-cheek in offering such decidedly modern prizes as “a digital radio or a blue-tooth speaker.” For a band whose early albums were liberally sprinkled with sound bites from classic films, this reprises a tradition of dropping references that will go over a majority of listeners’ heads but also lend much distinction and texture to the world depicted within.

Throughout, Saint Etienne can’t help but retain a certain fondness for where they’re from. In one song, Cracknell eagerly encourages us to “Take It All In” over a baroque retro-pop arrangement with a vaguely trip-hop beat, resembling a rather unlikely cross between The Association and Portishead. “Dive” is a memory of the kind of sensual, horn-driven funk workout one could get down to at the local disco or at a backyard, tiki torch-lit house party. With its clarion chorus and propulsive beat, “Magpie Eyes” encapsulates the bittersweet feeling of being young in a small town after summer’s gone with nothing to do but seek hidden treasure among what remains. Along those lines, “Out Of My Mind” further evokes both the euphoria and turmoil of adolescent infatuation, its ebullience and urgency rendering it a proud successor to such past triumphs as “Nothing Can Stop Us” and “Lightning Strikes Twice”.

Still, they just as often firmly (if considerately) resist suburbia as the utopian ideal. “Whyteleafe” may imagine an alternate universe where David Bowie never left home for London, settling into an ordinary life as a local businessman (Cracknell singing, “His sweet mu-ni-ci-pal dream” over a surging synth is one of the album’s most indelible hooks), but it’s merely a clever “what-if” scenario (and, a year after his death, a refreshingly unconventional Bowie tribute.) Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Something New” is desperately searching for “a sound that she knows could be fun”, and the song’s electric 12-string guitar and Mellotron-aping synth lends her support, especially as it gives way to the resolve and warmth of a brass coda. “Train Drivers In Eyeliner” sweetly advocates for more flamboyantly attired, Whitesnake-listening conductors in an attempt to gently shake up the status quo: “All over this land, that’s our plan,” Cracknell coos, as if stumping for the idea at a Town Hall meeting.

As Home Counties proceeds, it further scrutinizes suburbia, putting aside any notion of rose-colored lenses. Its primary hues purposely turn darker beginning with “Breakneck Hill”, a gorgeously drowsy instrumental that sounds straight out of Twin Peaks. Its spooky female sighs and Eno-esque ambient drone set the scene for “Heather”: a Hitchcock film in miniature, it recalls a neighbor or a childhood friend. Maybe she’s a ghost now, for “She comes and she goes like the warmth in the daylight.” Near the end, Cracknell repeats, “This house is haunted” as the sputtering but insistent rhythm and minor key synths swirl around her, almost fortifying her claim. Perhaps, this tale’s ghost is the narrator herself, wrestling with her past and present selves.

A few tracks later, laden with sweeping, urgent strings, “What Kind of World” fully acknowledges this identity crisis in relation to its milieu. “This is my home but I don’t feel at home tonight,” Cracknell declares before suggesting, “Let’s find another country / a better one,” and it has a thunderbolt’s impact—for many, the suburbs are a place to escape from due to their isolationism, conservatism and provincialism; Brexit enables the suburbs to uphold these tenets, legally cordoning off the outside world. It’s an easy explanation as to main reason why the members of Saint Etienne left the Home Counties, but it doesn’t necessarily shed light on why some people stay.

“Sweet Arcadia” makes an effort to elucidate on this. Opening with another talisman, a watery electric piano of the kind heard on such ‘70s hits as “I’m Not In Love” and “Just The Way You Are”, it’s another Cracknell spoken word piece in the tradition of “Teenage Winter” and “Over The Border”: “The trains took us away from the smoke,” she begins, narrating a travelogue through obscure, self-contained locales with names like Benfleet and South-End-On-Sea. A fetching, suitably locomotive rhythm moves us along as she recounts how the modern suburbs came to be. Over aching chord changes, she recites, “We built our own cinemas, we named our own houses,” charting the ever-forward march of progress until she concludes, “We took your land, and made it our land. Sweet Arcadia.” Her narration disappears halfway through this nearly eight-minute-long epic, consumed by extended flute and soulful organ solos as the beat slows to a wavering ebb-and-flow as if hovering on water.

After Cracknell mournfully sighs the song’s title repeatedly at the close, we’re left not with a resolution but unease. Saint Etienne have offered us plenty of reasons to both love and loathe suburbia; such a mass of contradictory feelings is more true to life than art that would either merely bask in the glow of its idyllic landscapes or only reveal them to be nothing but a cultural wasteland. And as much as this trio has forged a career on songs about transcendence and escape, Home Counties is a step in another direction, observing the world not just as it could be, but also as it is.

And why can’t we consider both simultaneously? If the penultimate “Sweet Arcadia” is to Home Counties what “Hello Earth” was to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, closing track “Angel of Woodhatch” is this album’s equivalent to “The Morning Fog”. Its gentle woodwinds and sparkling wind chimes potentially suggest promise and renewal; here, with no lyrics to guide us toward a particular opinion, they could simply infer calm and stillness—a sweet surrender to a complex world with so many moving parts. Home Counties is Saint Etienne’s “mature” album for sure, but its richness and teeming ambiguities gives that off-derided term a good name.

Up next: #100!

“Out Of My Mind”:

“Sweet Arcadia”: