Normal History Vol. 413: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 33-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

While I was in my room listening to CCR and Rush, my parents were playing jazz on the hi-fi at the other end of the house. I loved how they loved it, how loud they played it, how they related to it, how it fit with the art they made, how they talked about hearing jazz at (the?) Hickory House (and other clubs) on trips to New York in the ’60s.

My teenage years were 1973-1979, but, by 18, I was living on my own in a tiny apartment closer to my boyfriend, the classical cellist who gave me several Jimi Hendrix albums. By 19, I was living with a man 10 years older than I was (a newspaper photographer), buying jazz albums (Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Yusef Lateef) loosely based on my parents record collection.

While I was a teenager living at home, the AM radio on a small shelf above my bed was everything. It was almost always on—unless I was reading (sometimes with one of my mom’s ice-cold seven-percent apple cider stolen out of the fridge) novels (Daddy Was A Numbers Runner, Another Country) until I went to sleep. My parents didn’t really read. Not the way I did, one book after another. I was always curious why they weren’t curious about what I was reading. Just as well.

There was a time when the public library started loaning LPs, and I took out a Grateful Dead album that made me feel slightly nauseous, and a Wings album that resulted in a similarly visceral reaction.

Around 1975, I recall trading a can of three tennis balls (I guess I gave tennis a try or maybe they were my brother’s) for Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy which always felt kind of tainted by the method of acquisition. I’d had IV for a long time and I liked the colors on the cover of “Houses of the Holy”, but I didn’t like the album much. I mean, let’s say you listen to “IV” a lot for a couple of years, then you slide Houses Of The Holy out of its sleeve, put it on and you hear “The Song Remains The Same”? What a drag. And then the violins on “The Rain Song.” Serious bummer. As was the horn section on “The Crunge”plus stupid lyrics. The 9/8 time signature meant nada to me. Wait … is that a keytar on “Dancing Days”?

“Then” from the album Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989) (download):

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From The Desk Of The Flat Five: First (And Second) Jobs

Ligon: My best friend Willie and I were going to save money and travel to Europe, so we both applied for a job at Steak ‘N Shake at the same time. We each got dishwashing jobs. I worked two days. Willie worked one. Then on my first day off, I had tickets to a Cardinals game and asked him if he could go. He said, “Well, I gotta work,” and I said, “Just fucking see if you can get out of it.” So on his second day of work, he actually went to ask our boss if he could go to the baseball game with me instead of working. Willie asked, “Could I just work a late shift?” and our boss said, “Absolutely not.” So Willie said “Well then, I guess I quit.” Then he went with me to the game, and there went our European vacation.

I continued to work at Steak ‘N Shake just long enough to suck the nitrous oxide out of all the whipped cream cans in the walk-in refrigerator, and then I quit. When I left, all that whipped cream was completely flat.

Then I was too embarrassed to come back and get my one and only paycheck, and when I finally did come back three months later they didn’t even know who I was. The manager on duty said, “We were wondering who this belonged to. Here’s your 50 dollars.”

My second job was at Kentucky Fried Chicken with my friend Dave. We’d been there for about a month when a new manager arrived and started making life miserable for us. Our previous manager had been fired for doing something awful, but I don’t remember what.

One night Dave and I walked out into the alley to smoke a joint by the dumpster. Our new boss burst out of the back door and said, “All right! Finish the night and then you’re fired!” Dave laughed and said, “Fuck that. If I’m fired, I’m leaving.” The she pointed to me and said, “Scott! Finish the night and then we can talk.” But I said, “Umm, I think I’ll just go with Dave.”

McDonough: The summer I turned 14, I was a caddy at the Ravisloe Country Club in Homewood, Ill. I was the worst caddy ever. I hated golf. Never liked golf. Ed Norton addressing the ball—that’s about as close as I ever came to liking golf. And I liked Caddyshack, but Bill Murray wasn’t anywhere near this place. (I do like mini-golf, ya know, but that’s probably because of the crazy holes with Frankenstein, a giant windmill or a big gorilla. It’s more about that than it is about golf.)

Also, my eyes kind of have their own thing going on. When I look up in the sky, I see all kinds of floaters. But when I was a caddy, whenever someone would hit the ball, I was supposed to follow it up into the air, watch it sail, determine where it landed, then go find it. Because of my floaters, I never had any friggin’ idea where it went. “It was here a minute ago! You’re the a-hole that knocked it away! Why don’t you go look for it?”

But I would grudgingly be out there at 8 a.m. waiting for a turn on the green, and then they would give me 10 dollars at the end of it—and I’d run to Record Swap and buy a Beatles album. That was really about it.

I was supposed to be paying off a guitar that my parents had bought for me: an Ibenez Les Paul “Lawsuit” that I eventually traded for my first bass: a Kustom. Anyway, I don’t know if I ever finished paying them off, because I was such a shitty caddy. Worst caddy ever.

The next job I had was as a dishwasher at Tom’s Family Restaurant for $1.75 an hour, a free meal and all the Pepsi you could drink. They definitely lost money on me on Pepsi alone. And my free meal was usually three eggs, some hashbrowns, toast, a cheeseburger and fries. That lasted about six weeks until one Saturday night I didn’t feel like going in. Working there was nothing like Diner. I had just seen that movie several times and thought, “I could do that”—but of course it’s more fun hanging out at the diner than working there.  I know that now.

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Jesca Hoop: All Stripped Down

On Memories Are Now, Jesca Hoop navigates the spaces between the notes

The first thing you notice about singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop’s seventh full-length is how spare it sounds, each song assembled only from two or three instrumental elements and Hoop’s warm-yet-adaptive, shape-shifting voice. Then you stop hearing that sparseness, so rich does the album sound. Somewhere near a half-hour into its 40-minute running time, it hits you again, and you start wondering how the hell Memories Are Now can sound so expansive, considering its skeletal arrangements.

Part of the answer lies in the clear, unadorned production of Hoop’s own voice and guitar, which remain front and center. Produced by fellow songwriter/musician and sometime collaborator Blake Mills, Memories Are Now isn’t strictly Hoop’s most instrumentally austere disc; Undress and The Complete Kismet Acoustic offered voice-and-guitar renditions of previously released songs. But from the outset, Memories was planned as a raw representation of Hoop’s formidable songwriting talents.

“The first step we took was to think about where the loyalty begins between myself and the listener, where that relationship forms,” says Hoop from her adopted Manchester, U.K., home. “And Blake and I decided that it happens in a live setting, where I’m much less wrapped in sonic information. My studio albums can be quite dense. So we wanted to create more space and be more discerning about what sounds were used.”

With other material, in other hands, such a project might’ve ended up sounding airy or lightweight. It’s to Hoop and Mills’ credit that Memories Are Now sounds as full as is does—even at times heavy, as on “Cut Connection,” a stomping track that provides one of the album’s more unsettling moments, both musically and lyrically: “I’m living a dream/In the dream I’m buried alive,” Hoop sings coolly, and later, “I summon your hands/To bring me what is mine … I don’t waste my breath/Don’t waste my time.” (Much of the album, perhaps fittingly, mines this subject—the idea of stripping things down to the essence, leaving behind what’s no longer necessary.)

As on all of Hoop’s LPs, styles and genres abound. “I’ve never felt loyal to any one genre,” she says. “I think that can cause trouble. If you’re an artist who identifies with a genre, you’re setting yourself up for some relative ease, but if you don’t know exactly where you fit, if you’re just playing and enjoying whatever you find, it’s hard to know whether it’ll resonate with people. Or whether it will again, when you put out another album.”

But Memories’ humble arrangements allow Hoop’s voice to be displayed comfortably in multiple settings. Check the gamboling folk/country harmonies and fuzztone roll of “Simon Says,” the harplike ballad plucking of “Songs Of Old” or, in particular, the watery, tremolo-drenched “The Coming,” which deploys divine and satanic imagery to spin a tale of love gone tough, endurance gone exhausted.

“The Coming,” which closes the album on a strong, stately note, was the first song to arrive in the process. “When I began,” says Hoop, “I kept thinking ‘15.’ I needed 15 songs to make an album.” (Memories Are Now ultimately contained nine.) “I was a little overwhelmed. So I went for a long walk—about 10 miles—and hummed to myself the whole way. But I was still frustrated. Nothing came. So I made dinner, and went to my writing room, and the little gates of my mind opened up after a bit. I didn’t produce anything on that walk, but that walk seemed to clear the way to produce ‘The Coming.’ So I had to approach the rest of the songs with that same trust.”

It’s a trust that extended to the production of the album as well. “I know Blake very well,” says Hoop, “but I didn’t know how good he was as a producer. I was surprised at his level of knowledge and skill, what he was able to do in such a short period of time. Sometimes it’s a negotiation, but production always has to serve the song: How do we best convey the communication and emotional intention in this song and keep the integrity? That was Blake’s intent the whole time, particularly in terms of the voice, its unique ability to communicate. I’d want to do another take, and he’d say, ‘I don’t ever want you to sing that perfectly.’ He really encouraged me to come raw, to let the songs remain human and flawed. I think that’s what he wanted to protect all the way through.”

—Eric Waggoner

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From The Desk Of The Flat Five: The Roches

In music, a flat five is a passing chord that harmonizes well with almost any sound. The singers in Chicago’s Flat Five—Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall—are as versatile as the name of their group implies. They’re all well-known songwriters, musicians and side-persons in their own right, but when they sing as the Flat Five, they touch on something transcendent. Their complex, intertwining harmonies bring to mind the shimmering sounds of the Four Freshmen, Beach Boys, Lambert, Hendricks And Ross, Harry Nilsson and the Everly Brothers—singers who could create breathtaking emotional effects using nothing but their voices. The Flat Five will be guest editing all week. Read our brand-new feature with them.

O’Connor: Urbana, Ill., 1987: I was away at Southern Illinois University, and my boyfriend at the time was two hours north at the University of Illinois. We were competitive mix-tape makers. His were usually better, but mine a close second. That’s when I first heard “Want Not” by the Roches (and “Bobby Brown” by Frank Zappa—what a weirdo … ) I loved my Walkman in college, and listened to a ton of Beatles tapes. Instruments bouncing back and forth between the left and right side of my brain. But the extreme panning of vocals on “Want Not” by the Roches made my head spin with glee. I’ve been chasing that level of panning on every record I’ve made since. It was the beginning of what would be a lifelong commitment to the music of the Roches.

New York City 2009: It was one of the very first times I left my budding family to tour. Back then, when the boys were little, I had to turn down gigs and touring opportunities. But there are certain people I always say yes to. Neko Case is one of them. I love the shit out of that lady! It was the perfect tour scenario, less than a week away from the kiddos. I had sung on a few tunes on Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone record. She graciously asked me to do a few shows with her and the band right around the record’s release. One show being David Letterman.

I wasn’t the only one that said yes. We were to sing “This Tornado Loves You” on the show, and I was beyond thrilled when I found out that Rachel Flotard (Visqueen’s front woman and an all around funny-as-shit super badass) and one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Lucy Wainwright Roche, would be back-up singers as well. All of us put sprinkles of vocals on Neko’s record that year. Kelly Hogan (who I’m convinced is maybe a singing polygamist because she has been Neko’s and my long-time singing wife) was the fearless leader of our backup singing pack. Hogan’s been singing live and on Neko’s records for many years now.

(Did I mention that Drew Barrymore was on the show with us? She flew in and out of the studio, and we only got whiff of her fairy dust. But hey, we were in the same building at the same time!! All I heard was “Drew needs a straw!”)

It just so happened that Lucy Wainwright Roche was also opening for the Indigo Girls in the city that night. I’m a blubbering fan of Amy and Emily, and I was excited to see Lucy do her thing, since I was really diving into Lucy’s first two records at the time.

Little did I know that when Lucy put us on the guest list, I wound up sitting in the VIP section with her mother and two aunts. Now, her mother is Suzzy Roche, and her aunts are Maggie and Terre: the Roches!!! I was sitting at a table with the Roches watching the Indigo Girls. It was too much. Too much, I say. I tried to keep it together, but it was very difficult. The Roches are my favorite family group of all time. Their melodies, harmonies and sense of humor hits me in all the right spots. I’m in awe of their guitar playing too. You can just tell they’re doing it right.

Near the end of the Indigo Girls’ set that night, the Roches got onstage and sang “The Hammond Song”—and, of course, it was pure gold. I tried so hard to be cool, and they were just so loving to me. It was a night I’ll remember forever.

Recently, Maggie Roche died at the age of 65 after a long battle with breast cancer. She was the main songwriter of the group and will be missed so much by all of her fans.

I’ve been reading a lot of tributes to Maggie, and this quote stands out: “‘It’s very important to collaborate successfully,’ she told me. ‘It’s rewarding every time you can manage it. I hate to use the word ‘share,’ because it’s so overused, but whenever you can share anything with someone else and not feel like you got ripped off, it’s very exhilarating. That’s what I get out of recording and performing. I hope that’s what other people get out of it.’” (from Maggie Roche: The Hidden Heart Of The Roches By Geoffrey Himes)

Since that magic New York City night, I’ve had the opportunity to become closer with Lucy Wainwright Roche (I’m always singing her songs at my solo shows!) and have gotten to know Suzzy a little bit. After Maggie’s passing, Suzzy described her sister as “smart, wickedly funny and authentic—not a false bone in her body—a brilliant songwriter, with a distinct unique perspective, all heart and soul.”

Hogan: From the time I first saw them on SNL in 1979 (while eating frozen coconut cream pie, babysitting in a suburban cul de sac in Douglasville, Ga.), the Roches meant everything to me—they were brilliant and playful, but also had those crazy blue-steel-perfect harmonies. I was blow away by the seemingly simple presentation of what I already knew (from singing in choir) was intensely complex and difficult music to pull off.

Later that night, as I walked home alone down silent streets, I was humming “The Hammond Song,” and my head was filled with new musical possibilities. Thank you and farewell, Maggie Roche. You and your sisters opened my ears.

P.S. Yep, The Roches are harmony geniuses—but really the secret harder thing to do is unison singing, and they are the top, top, top of that mountain. Assassins of unison. Mad respect.

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Essential New Music: Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner”

Ryan Adams and I have had our differences over the years, the majority of them in the pages of this very magazine. But despite the multitude of criticisms I’ve offered (drive-by appropriation of American musical forms such as C&W, chronic inability to edit one’s back catalog, a sensitivity and temperament more befitting a WWF contestant than singer/songwriter), it’s undeniable that Adams has both persisted and succeeded in ways I thought he never would. So this review is all about props, and on his 16th solo album in the 16 years since he dispensed with Whiskeytown, he deserves them all. There’s craft galore on display here: Bad-romance post-mortem “Breakdown” is probably as lovely a song as he’s ever recorded, splitting the heretofore unexplored difference between the Boss and the Smiths; his storytelling has never been sharper (“Swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl/I was so bored,” he opines on “Outbound Train,” a self-skewering self-examination that wouldn’t sound out of place on Nebraska); and Adams is starting to develop a classic way with a metaphor that even Hank Williams might’ve admired. (It’s hard not to hear “Haunted House” as a reading on the dissolution of his marriage to Mandy Moore; “To Be Without You” takes this subject even deeper and darker into the regret zone.) I’ve seen ridiculous reviews of his cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album that read way more into it than necessary and have basically concluded that this is the breakup album he’s always been threatening to write, his Blood On The Tracks. We may have had bad blood (and from Adams’ perspective, we may still), but, dude, I ain’t got nothin’ but mad love for you now.

—Corey duBrowa

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From The Desk Of The Flat Five: Thoughts On The Documentary “20 Feet From Stardom”

In music, a flat five is a passing chord that harmonizes well with almost any sound. The singers in Chicago’s Flat Five—Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall—are as versatile as the name of their group implies. They’re all well-known songwriters, musicians and side-persons in their own right, but when they sing as the Flat Five, they touch on something transcendent. Their complex, intertwining harmonies bring to mind the shimmering sounds of the Four Freshmen, Beach Boys, Lambert, Hendricks And Ross, Harry Nilsson and the Everly Brothers—singers who could create breathtaking emotional effects using nothing but their voices. The Flat Five will be guest editing all week. Read our brand-new feature with them.

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O’ Connor: I really enjoyed the movie 20 Feet From Stardom, but that title bugs me a little. I’ve never felt 20 feet away from anything. I’m very comfortable and feel super-valuable singing harmonies and supporting other singers. I didn’t want to be Elvis Costello—I wanted to be the ladies who sang “I’m giving you a longing look/Every day, every day I write the book!” Or the ladies who sang on “Lay Down Sally.” Or the ladies from Schoolhouse Rock: “Verb!/That’s what’s happenin’!”

Hogan: When it came out, so many people told me, “Hogan! You have to see 20 Feet from Stardom!” And a few years later when (sitting on my couch at 2 a.m. with wine and my laptop), I finally did see it—far from making me feel removed from stardom (or anywhere else some folks think I might rather be, or ought to be). On the contrary, my drunken notes from that night start off like this: “20 feet from my asshole! I’m a band person. A band person!”

Speaking purely for myself, I only ever wanted to make songs happen—it didn’t matter in what capacity. It’s just a blast to be part of a good song—whether that means singing the lead vocal, playing a bass part on a beat-up one-stringed guitar in the the Rock*A*Teens or singing backing harmony vocals. Which, on a few Neko Case numbers, means singing two or three words just once, a minute and 45 seconds into the song. So when people ask me, “What’s the hardest part of singing back-up?” I can honestly tell them, “Not singing.”

We are “The Noble Sidemen”—that’s what we sometimes say in the Neko band, and it’s true. There is an honor to being in the band. But nobody looks at the guitar player or the drummer and imagines that, while they’re playing their hearts out and kicking ass, they’re really wishing they were center stage at the mic—with all the pressures, scrutiny and uncomfortable undergarments that go along with that job.

There’s no All About Eve bullshit in what I do. When I’m singing harmony, I’m not holding a dagger behind my back, waiting for my “big break.” Hell no. I’m in the band, man. And that gives me great joy. The movie 20 Feet From Stardom actually confirmed the happiness and pride I feel from being just another part of the machine that serves the song.

I do love all those amazing singers featured in the movie, and I want all members of any band to get their due. I’ve pretty much had the good fortune to only work with bands who do just that—no caste system, all pulling together, sharing good times and bad. I’ve been treated with respect. I’ve tried to earn it with every note.

My Flat Five band member Casey McDonough was aghast the other night when I told him I wasn’t a big fan of The Commitments movie and had only seen it once. “Why?!” he asked. And I told him. Because at the end when they were onstage and the lead singer introduced the band, everyone was introduced with their full name, first and last. Except the backup singers. They were just introduced with their first names. And maybe it seems crazy to you, but that bugged me then and still bugs me now. Those singers were in the band. Just like the guitar player. Just like the drummer.

In the band, it’s the best place to be. That movie proved it for me. Reading my last wine-soaked revelation from watching that movie makes me laugh my ass off, and it 100 percent came true: “I’m a band person. Oh god I am gonna be so much happier from this day forward.”

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The Back Page: Don’t Stop Now

I didn’t buy the Guided By Voices tickets thinking they could be for my last show. That was in October, when the December 30 show at Philadelphia’s Underground Arts went on sale.

I bought tickets because that’s pretty much what I do when GBV is involved. I first saw the band at the Khyber Pass in 1993—I know that with some certainty because I found video of that show on YouTube—and have seen Bob Pollard and his various lineups somewhere between 25 and 30 times in the years since. So buying tickets for a GBV show wasn’t exactly a big moment for me.

It became bigger later, after I was diagnosed with leukemia in mid-November. Regular readers of this column (all six of you! Hey there!) may well know that I nearly died in 2014 from a sudden cardiac arrest. I didn’t die that time (or I did, and this is all part of some weird afterlife where I don’t know I’m dead and I just keep typing). In fact, I recovered pretty much completely and was back to living pretty much as I always had for my first half-century on the planet.

But then: leukemia. I assure you, it’s not a word you’re really expecting to hear your doctor say. In this case, my doctor also said some pretty encouraging things, such as, “The goal here is a cure.” She also recommended that I begin treatment as soon as possible, so I went into the hospital that day and started chemo the very next day. The following month wasn’t a lot of fun, but exactly four weeks after I went in, I was released from the hospital. I was officially in remission and still chasing that “cure” my doctor talked about.

The big thing about getting out of the hospital when I did was that it was in time for Christmas and New Year’s. That had been a pretty big motivation for me, especially since I was in the hospital for Thanksgiving. The folks at the hospital, including a charitable foundation (thanks, HEADstrong Foundation!), do their best to make Thanksgiving pleasant for patients and their families. And it was pleasant. But there’s nothing like being home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I was thrilled to be out of the hospital for those family moments.

In the middle of the holiday season was the GBV show. When I walked out of the hospital, I had no idea if I would be able to make it. I didn’t know how I’d feel or what else might be going on. It didn’t help that, the very day I got out of the hospital, TV sports reporter Craig Sager died. I had known that Sager was sick, but I had never really heard anything about exactly what he had.

According to the news story that day, Sager died from acute myeloid leukemia. I had just spent four weeks being treated for acute myeloid leukemia. So while the goal was still a cure, clearly nothing was guaranteed here. As the GBV show approached, I felt better and stronger each day. I thought I could make it to the show. I also knew that I would be going back into the hospital in January for more chemo and, later, a bone marrow transplant.

Put that all together, and without being melodramatic, it seemed reasonably possible that this GBV show would be the last concert I would ever go to. And that seemed pretty fitting. I have had a lot of favorite bands over the years, and it would be fantastic to see the Who or the Clash or the Kinks or the Replacements or Uncle Tupelo one last time. But some of those would require reincarnation and some would probably just be depressing. GBV is the band I’ve seen more than any other, so it would be the perfect band to end on.

Then came the show. It’s a little weird to go to a venue and hand over your ticket thinking it might be the last time you ever do something like this. That makes it tough to approach a show with an open mind, when you’re thinking, “Man, GBV needs to deliver a show worthy of the occasion here.” You want to go out like Ted Williams, hitting a home run in your last at-bat, not standing in front of a stage watching some band go through the motions in the middle of a tour.

But that’s one of the reasons I thought GBV was the right band. Even going through the motions (and I’ve seen them on those nights), they’re damn good. When they’re fully engaged and at their best, they can be transcendent. On the next-to-last night of 2016, they were pretty damn transcendent. Pollard sounded as good as ever (and miles better than he did in that 23-year-old clip on YouTube). Doug Gillard was back on guitar and sounding as much like some blend of Keef and Townshend as ever. The setlist was 55 songs long and represented a remarkable career survey.

It sounds like the perfect show to end on, but it wasn’t. Not because of the band or the audience or the venue, but because of me. I enjoyed the show, believe me, but not nearly as much as I normally would have. I just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t sick or anything. I don’t mean there was anything dramatic going on. My head just wasn’t in the right place. I got the fastball I was looking for, but unlike Ted Williams, I swung right through it.

Ultimately, I don’t have full control on whether that turns out to be my last show. Leukemia and fate and some very good medical professionals will decide whether I have more time for going to see bands, or for anything else.

I do have control over what I choose to do with the time I have left, whether it’s six months or 25 years. And I don’t think that was Ted Williams’ last at-bat. A few days after the GBV show, a friend texted me about a show scheduled for mid-January. Without even thinking it over, I told him to get me a ticket.

I didn’t know if I would be able to go—I might be in the hospital—but I did know this: GBV may still be the perfect band for my final show, but I’m thinking we’ll get to that a few years from now.
What do you think, Bob? Maybe 2025?

—Phil Sheridan

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From The Desk Of The Flat Five: The Barista Is Everything

In music, a flat five is a passing chord that harmonizes well with almost any sound. The singers in Chicago’s Flat Five—Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall—are as versatile as the name of their group implies. They’re all well-known songwriters, musicians and side-persons in their own right, but when they sing as the Flat Five, they touch on something transcendent. Their complex, intertwining harmonies bring to mind the shimmering sounds of the Four Freshmen, Beach Boys, Lambert, Hendricks And Ross, Harry Nilsson and the Everly Brothers—singers who could create breathtaking emotional effects using nothing but their voices. The Flat Five will be guest editing all week. Read our brand-new feature with them.

Ligon: I’m an espresso junkie. Some might call me a coffee snob. But I’m not a snob; it’s just very important that we get this right. Actually, my whole day depends on it. A badly pulled shot of espresso can ruin me. Once I’ve had the bad shot, there’s no undoing it. There’s no amount of perfectly pulled espresso that will fix my chemistry now. I’m going to be this angry-screwed up version of myself until I’ve slept it off. That’s why the barista is everything.

I’ve had shots pulled by two different baristas in the same coffee shop on the same day that were completely different. It’s frustrating. Apparently one of them just didn’t care as much. Don’t they know that my mood hangs in the balance? We have to get this right people! More importantly, my bandmates need you to get this right!

It’s 11 a.m., and somehow I need to be at my best about eight or nine hours from now. Only coffee—expertly grown, picked, roasted, poured and consumed at the exact right intervals—is going to enable this miracle to happen.

I don’t like it when I can tell that I know more about espresso than my barista does. I try to avoid this whenever possible, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. The first sign of trouble is if the espresso machine is a push-button, pre-determined pour. I’ll walk into a cafe, and the first thing I do is check out their machine. If it’s a fully automatic, push-button shot, I’m gone. “I gotta get outta here” is my typical exit line. Hell, they almost ruined the show tonight!

If a barista asks, “Do you want anything in your espresso: sugar or milk or anything?” then I know I’m in trouble. Anyone who can’t fathom the idea of drinking a shot of espresso without anything in it has no business being in this business. I’m sorry, get a job at Dairy Queen if you want to make milkshakes!

Also, please don’t think you’re doing me a favor by pulling me an extra long shot. You’re not. If I wanted a regular cup of coffee I would have asked for it. The perfect shot of espresso should be no more than one or two ounces, between 92 and 98 degrees Celsius, and served in a ceramic espresso cup.

I had a friend ask his barista to stop his shot short when he realized that the guy was pulling it way too long and the barista said, “Don’t you want the crema?” But my friend put it perfectly, “The crema starts with drop one!” Of course, that’s absolutely true. The crema isn’t hanging around at the very end just waiting to be released! Also, if the barista calls it “expresso” forget it. “I gotta get outta here.”

As far as I’m concerned, the snootier the coffee shop the better. I don’t care if the barista is a complete and utter asshole, just as long as they get my shot right. Go ahead, tattoo yourself, grow your beard, judge me as soon as I walk in—I don’t care. Just give me the good stuff!

Being a traveling musician means that you’re going to be bouncing around in a vehicle all day, sometimes for five or six hours—and once you finally reach your destination your job is just getting started. Getting the caffeine balance is essential to group harmony and sustainability. That is why I firmly believe that when it comes to being a traveling musician, the barista is everything!

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What The Hell Is Jeff Mangum Trying To Tell Us?

Over the past several months, a series of cryptic drawings by Jeff Mangum has appeared for sale on the official Neutral Milk Hotel website. The series, titled The Book Cipher Sings, appears to be full of clues and codes alluding to new music that could be on the way. Fans immediately noticed that several of the drawings say “Double LP” or “Double AWOL Bombe?” (which, when read aloud, sounds like a lot like “Double Album”).

In terms of new music, Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel have certainly been “AWOL” (a military acronym for Away Without Leave) and the mention of the word “Bombe” could be a reference to the code-breaking machines used by British cryptologists to decipher the German Enigma codes during World War II.

But whether these clues are indicating new music from Neutral Milk Hotel remains to be seen. The band has not released an album since 1998’s critically acclaimed In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and when asked on tour, Mangum said multiple times that there would be no new music from the band.

Here’s what we do know:

Many of the drawings contain the phrase “Stage Magicicada Cassini Huygens” and reference elephants.

The Magicicada is a type of “periodical cicada” that emerges from hibernation roughly every 13 and 17 years. It was roughly 17 years ago that Neutral Milk Hotel stopped touring the first time. According to Wikipedia, Brood VI is expected to re-emerge in the summer of 2017 in northern Georgia. (The Elephant 6 Collective originally hailed from Athens, Ga.)

Then there’s the possible connection to Cicada 3301, a series of complex cryptographic puzzles that may have been designed by the intelligence community to recruit codebreakers. The Washington Post called it one of the internet’s eeriest unsolved mysteries and described it as “a kind of internet scavenger hunt that relies on advanced code-breaking—and a working knowledge of things like obscure medieval literature and Mayan numerology—to unlock progressive clues. Who’s behind the puzzle is unclear, although many enthusiasts believe it’s a large, well-funded and shadowy organization trying to recruit into its membership. At this rate, we may never know.”

The Cassini-Huygens is an unmanned spacecraft launched by NASA in 1997 to explore Saturn. It’s expected to end its mission in September of this year. Many of the drawings include images of what appear to be ringed planets in front of the figures, numbered first, second and third, but the third planet is always depicted with two rings. Some have interpreted these as representing Neutral Milk Hotel’s albums, the first two being single LPs, and a clue for a forthcoming third double LP.

But there’s been much debate on Reddit and the Elephant 6 forums over whether or not these illustrations actually mean new music from Neutral Milk Hotel and Mangum, or something else.

They could be indicating a live album compilation from various tours (one drawing says “NY To SF,” while another says “1997 Chris Knox” referring to the member of the Tall Dwarfs that Mangum played with in 1998 and covered for a benefit record in 2009), or the drawings could be generating hype for the already-recorded but yet-to-be-released final album from another Elephant 6 band that Mangum was involved with, the Olivia Tremor Control. One drawing includes the phrase “Over The Countersign” scrawled on the back, leading some fans to interpret it as a clue for new music from that band since the first letters the words: O.T.C.

The lead singer of Olivia Tremor Control, Bill Doss, unfortunately passed away in 2012, but not before reportedly completing the recording of his vocal tracks for the final OTC album, The Same Place. The album was expected to be released in 2014, but it never materialized and there’s been no word on its status since a 2013 forum post by Bill’s widow.

Has Mangum taken the reigns and put finishing touches on the final Olivia Tremor Control record?

A leaked track list for The Same Place found online has only 11 songs that are rumored to be on that album but The Book Cipher drawings seem to indicate that whatever is coming from Mangum could include a total of 28 tracks, with seven per side. Each arm of the figures is segmented into seven pieces, and several of the drawings feature numbered lines extending from the hands of the figures up toward a series of seven concentric circles that look like tracks on a record.

Just recently, the mystery deepened when an image of the latest drawing appeared online. While similar to many of the others in the series, this one includes a series of three- and five-digit numbers written in the empty spaces. The three-digit numbers are all from one to 100, while the five-digit numbers are between 1,300 and 7,400. It looks very much like a code. Arrows point to the numbers 5-6-7 and 7-6-5 on the arms of the figure (which also bear resemblance to the rotors on a cryptographic machine).

Book Ciphers are codes created using a book as the cryptographic key. Numbers might correspond to pages or words to reveal a message. Are these new numbers on the latest drawing the “page numbers” of a book? So far, there have been no theories put forth as to what book the key could be.

The drawing also includes the words Angel and Echo—an Angel Echo is a term defined as “A radar echo from a region where there are no visible targets; may be caused by insects, birds, or refractive index variations in the atmosphere,” possibly a further reference to the Magicicada.

Whatever Mangum is trying to tell us, it seems to indicate new music on the horizon. I just hope we don’t have to solve the puzzle before we get it.

—Edward Fairchild

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Essential New Music: The xx’s “I See You”

On its second album, 2012’s Coexist, the xx doubled down on the minimalist aesthetic that made its debut an instant classic. Coexist found new ways to work with the spaces between Romy Madley Croft’s clear-toned guitar lines, Oliver Sim’s melodic bass and Jamie Smith’s restrained beats and gauzy keyboards, and new ways to throw Croft and Sim’s introspective vocals into sharp relief.

The danger of minimalism, however, is that it eventually becomes more difficult to create something fresh through subtraction rather than addition. The blare of horns that opens I See You announces a retooled, vibrant xx. I See You startles with its extroverted touches: the forceful vocals on “Say Something Loving,” the R&B hooks to “Lips,” the “I Can’t Go For That” Hall & Oates sample on “Hold On.” While “Performance” might fit on Coexist, almost every other song includes at least one disruptor, even if it’s as subtle as the increased BPM of “I Dare You” or the unison vocals of “Test Me.”

Smith’s 2015 album In Colour (credited to his DJ moniker, Jamie xx) is the obvious template: Both Croft and Sim contributed vocals to their partner’s club-happy debut. But what makes this xx album work so well is that the British trio hasn’t lost sight of what has made them special from their start as teenagers on their 2009 debut: their use of space and silence; the interplay between voices, Croft’s alto often in dialogue with Sim’s baritone; the earnest, self-aware, sometimes self-lacerating lyrics; the sense that this is a young band that grew up on hip hop and U.K. club music but whose DNA includes New Order, Young Marble Giants and the Cure without being self-conscious about any of them. It continues to add up to something special.

—Steve Klinge

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