Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Endorsement: WXPN’s Jim McGuinn and Traffic.com’s Lauren Valley—The Thinking Man’s Traffic Report

 

Here’s the situation: Most radio drive-time traffic reports are about as interesting to listen to as bedroom-

88.5 XPN's Jim McGuinn, sans Lauren Valley

Jim McGuinn

set assembly instructions are interesting to read. And here’s the question: Why aren’t more of them as good as the ones done by Lauren Valley on 88.5 WXPN between the hours of five and seven o’clock? I think the answer has something to do with Jim McGuinn.

 

With some exceptions, I usually leave my office at South Jersey Magazine in Marlton sometime around 5:30 in the evening. When I do, the first place I turn on the radio dial is XPN; not only because I love the music the station plays, but because (believe it or not) I look forward to hearing the drive-time traffic updates given by Traffic.com’s Lauren Valley. On her own, XPN’s resident guide to all things highway and byway is a pleasure to hear. The soft, alto timbre of Valley’s intonations fits perfectly with the station’s hushed, high-brow aesthetic, and her reports always walk that sublime line of authority and sympathy to which all traffic reporters should aspire. She never seems to take the task too seriously (I mean come on, it is only traffic after all) but at the same time she also knows when to lend her narratives a touch of the dramatic, a dash of the commiserative; for there is nothing worse than sitting in slit-your-wrists, shotgun-to-the-mouth bumper-to-bumper congestion and hearing a traffic reporter relay the situation as though he or she could care less. When the roads are that bad, the only person from whom you can usually gain both sympathy and comfort is the traffic reporter, and you want this person to at least pretend to share in your misery. You want her, in other words, to give a shit, and Valley is a master in this department (if a word such as master can realistically be applied to someone delivering the hour’s commuter breakdown).

But Valley’s persona and delivery are only half of what makes the early evening’s commute such a breeze to handle. The other half of the equation is Jim McGuinn.

When it’s time to break for traffic, McGuinn—a first-rate record spinner in his own right—doesn’t just hand over the mic to Valley and forget about it. No. He introduces her like another song, setting the stage for her reports while freeing the on-air vibe for the infusion of her animated personality. I am continually amazed by how seamlessly entertaining I find the interaction between them to be. Usually, McGuinn will invite Valley to comment on the previous thirty minutes’ playlist or top news story, and whether he’s curious to know what she thought about a rare Monkeys vinyl he just spun or an assessment he made as to why the White Stripes can be considered the premier rock outfit of the last five years, Valley always takes the bait and runs with it. Earlier this summer (and I can’t remember why), McGuinn was talking about the art of haiku, and when Valley came on she said, “Well, Jim, I actually prepared a little haiku for you this afternoon,” the recitation of which will go down as one of the most endearing radio memories I have. Or consider that just last week I heard the two of them riff for several minutes on a bomb scare in South Philly that turned out to be nothing more than unopened boxes of hotdogs. Valley could barely contain her laughter through the broadcast, and thus I was smiling all the way home.

I was recently riding with my friend Brian as he drove north up Route 73, swerving and dodging and bobbing and weaving his blue PT Cruiser through the tight pack of crowded cars all hurrying in the same heedless direction. At one point he turned to me and said, “Ya know, I think driving is when people’s true personalities really come out. I mean, think about it. What other activity is both so purely social and yet so purely anonymous?” He was right. In driving, we are all free to interact with one another as we have always wanted to deep within the recesses of our inhibited, socialized souls. Since this is the case, shouldn’t we expect the myth makers responsible for reporting the workings of our crazy dance of tires to at least resemble actual human beings? Shouldn’t we demand at least this much?

So the next time you find yourself on the road between five and seven o’clock in the evening, tune in to XPN. Sure, the tunes will help pass the time; but the traffic reports just may save your soul.

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The Endorsement: Darker My Love

 

I always seem to have a strange relationship with opening bands. Most of them make me feel either (a) completely disinterested (as was the case with the droning, unenthusiastic neo-country, Cowboy Junkies wannabes that opened for She & Him at the Troc in July) or (b) as though I am cheating on the musical love I paid to come see (as was the case last weekend when the California outfit Darker My Love opened for The Dandy Warhols at the TLA).

Because of the pre-show buzz and rollick that always seems to infect me whenever I go to a concert, I usually greet opening bands with a great response. If the band I am here to see loves these performers enough to take them on tour, I think, well then there must be something to dig. And usually I am correct to be so forgiving. Two years ago, Razorlight opened for Muse at the Wachovia center, and I left that show with a greater interest in and excitement for Razorlight than I did the headliners. When my sister and I went to see Rufus Wainwright at the Mann Center last summer, it was Neko Case’s brilliant opening performance that captured her soul. And last weekend, Darker My Love’s 45 minute set is what has stayed with me these past seven days.

To be sure, The Dandys were sub-par. Their performance was marred by a disproportionate ratio of their better post-pop ditties to those fuzzy, expansive shoe-gazer numbers they inexplicably love so much and that never seem to go anywhere; along with the sleepy, too-cool-for-school antics of a somewhat disinterested Courtney Taylor-Taylor who, amongst his many front-man sins poked fun at South Street several times (“It’s like a fucking mall out there. What’s that all about?”). Regardless, even had the main attraction delivered a stellar show, I still would have left with a newfound excitement for Darker My Love.

During their performance, my sister leaned in and said to me, “This band is everything Oasis still wishes they could be.” And while that may be overstating it a tad, she was right. The five-piece band delivered the kind of hard-driving, California psychedelia with Brit-pop twists for which American radio is in sore need right now. (See: “Summer Is Here”, a single that could have gotten phenomenal play during this past season of heat had it ever been given a chance.) The on-stage imagery—floating amebas, cellular blobs, and trippy swirls of god-knows-what projected on a large screen behind them—served to accent the influences even more, while the juxtaposition of front men Tim Presley (vocal and guitar) and Rob Barbato (vocal and bass) illustrated the wonderful aesthetic dichotomy present in some of America’s most exciting bands. Stage-left, Presley wore tight slacks and a shirt buttoned all the way to the neck, rocking a nostalgic British mop-top reminiscent of Roger Daltry circa 1965. All the while, Barbato’s lumberjack beard and layers of flannel grounded the visual experience in a cozy Northern Oregon woodsiness. They were a pleasure to hear and see.

It’s silly to talk about the salvation of rock and roll these days, because rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake is nothing worth fighting for. The evolution of pop music is as ceaseless and inevitable as the rotation of the Earth, a fact for which I am glad. I’m tired of making the case—and even more tired of hearing it made to me—that there are certain bands out there (are you listening Kings of Leon?) who subscribe to some sort of rock and roll purism that’s supposed to somehow be more nobel and righteous than the records produced by those who have no interest in recreating a sound Credence Clearwater Revival already mined 35 years ago. For example, as perhaps the greatest band of the last decade, Radiohead has not shown any need to partake in this silly nostalgia, instead choosing to let rock music evolve; to usher in a new way of making music that is both visceral and progressive at the same time.

Darker My Love seems to understand this principal (less in the way Radiohead does and more in the way, say, The Hold Steady does) and in doing so they may actually save rock and roll. Oh shit. Did I just say that? All of this is to say: give them a listen.

Smoking In the Boys Room (Or, What I Learned From The Dandy Warhols Last Weekend at the TLA)

 

 

The Dandys Looking Dandy

The Dandys Looking Dandy

 

 

Here’s the situation: I still have no idea what it means to be cool. And here’s the question: Does that even matter? Consider the following interaction during last week’s Dandy Wharhols show at the TLA in Philadelphia.

Another overly-priced Yuengling down the hatch and the the first of the two opening bands had just finished its set. The time had come to journey to the bathroom. I left my sister to stand guard over our spot at the TLA’s rather crowded bar and shuffled my way through the peculiar gaggle gathered to see The Dandy Warhols—an amusingly thrashed together collection of the in-the-know XPN faithful and the dangling remains of Philadelphia hipsters (of both the post- and pre-Iraq-war variety) sitting in ironic Indian style poses and sleep-stained, painted jeans. Tired eyes, all of them. Disclaimer: Of this scene I was far less cynical than my tone here would imply.

When I pushed open the door to the men’s room I almost hit a man with its swing. His inky black hair was slicked back and curly behind the neck, shining in time with his maroon leather jacket and complimenting to his rather sensible goatee. He was standing close to the entrance and smoking a cigarette over the sink; and what immediately struck me was the coolness with which he did this. Not cool in the way 1950s America once made smoking seem dangerous and sexy, but cool like a man standing on the top floor of a burning building roasting a chicken on the murderous flames while he composed one last love letter to the woman who stole his heart in Paris ten years prior. In other words, he was in no hurry and showed no signs of care for potentially getting caught. I suppose this means I still find disregard for authority cool, which probably also means I am still, in fact, young. In thinking this, I too felt cool, even though I had looked down at my black and white Chuck Taylors several times that night and thought, “Who the hell am I kidding. These are so 2004!”

I apologized to the smoking man—who looked to be in his late 30s—for the interruption, and made my way to the urinal. We were the only two in the small bathroom, and for some reason, as soon as I sidled up to the fount I cleared my throat. Suddenly, I could not have been less cool. In the seconds it took me to do this, I felt myself being transformed from a young man sharing this little corner of world rebellion with the smoking man to a thoroughly prickish dullard. A square. A jamoke. For only the most unscrupulous of individuals, I thought, would be so lame as to send an anti-smoking message by way of a high-pitched, faux cough of disgust to a man lighting up in a concert bathroom—even though this was not my intention in at all. I really just had to clear my throat at that moment. But I knew the man would probably interpret the act as my way of saying, “Um, excuse me, but I am highly offended by your obviously insatiable need to smoke, and the fact that you choose to invade my small, inescapable space with your odious addiction is beyond the pale, sir!” My Chucks might as well have been brown, laceless boating shoes. I might as well have just pissed on the floor like a child.

“I’m sorry man,” the smoking man said before my last throat-clear was even finished. He had an accent (Spanish, I believe) and spoke with even more cool, languid disregard than he smoked. “I’ll be done in a moment.” I immediately told him not to worry about it; told him I didn’t care in the slightest that he was smoking in the bathroom and that were I savvy (cool?) enough to have brought a pack with me to the show I would most likely have joined him on the spot. Go right ahead, I said. Smoke away. Enjoy it. Love it.

And this is when the smoking man started his speech.

“Fuck this place, man. Who are they to tell me I can’t smoke if I want to? Who the fuck are they.” This last line he uttered as if maybe I actually had a literal answer to the question. Like, Oh yes. I know exactly who they are, friend. Michael and Janet from Pine Street. Those non-smoking, oppressive bastards! Let’s ditch this concert and go show them a thing or two! Put a goddamn cigarette out right in their self righteous little eyes! “If I want to smoke, I’m going to fucking do it. And fuck them. They can’t tell me I can’t smoke at a fucking concert. Fuck them.”

I nodded my coolest nod, as if to say, Right on sir. Fuck them indeed.

Finishing, I made my way to the sink, where the Spanish smoking man was dipping the remains of his fag in a small, still pool of someone else’s handwash. I explained to him that I completely agreed. That I had always thought it was absurd for the powers-that-be to create laws making it illegal for free citizens to willfully partake in a thoroughly legal substance. That there was no difference between this concert venue and someone’s living room. And then, feeling proud to have shared this moment, I smiled a cool, rebellious smile, and made my way to the door. That’s when the smoking man put his arm around me.

“You know what I mean then, my man. You get it. You’re cool.” With a strange man’s arm wrapped around my shoulders in a cramped bathroom, I actually didn’t feel quite as cool as he made me out to be. Lest you think the discomfort had anything to do with a vibe of homophobia, rest assured, that was not the case. No. What made me uncomfortable, what usually makes me uncomfortable in these sorts of situations, was that the smoking man was overselling the moment; that his coolness was now coming into question because he couldn’t just let the moment happen and pass. He had a need to make it last, like a drawn-out ending to some twisted episode of “Full House” that concludes in  a sweaty, smoke filled concert bathroom. I listened for the swell of heart-string orchestration. Waited for Danny Tanner to make a cameo in the stall behind me.

Thankfully, someone else entered at that moment, breaking the connection. So the smoking man and I walked back into the lobby, still crowded with stereotypes and cynicism and the thudding of break music over the speakers. I looked toward the bar for my sister but couldn’t see her. As I started to walk back in that general direction, the smoking man stopped me again. “You like the Dandy Warhols?”

“Yeah,” said. “They’re pretty cool. I dig it.” This, even though I was honestly still unsure how I felt about the band, even after having listened to them for almost three years now. But what was I going to say? That I thought they were underselling themselves? That they continually seemed to resist being the great band they should be because of their unreasonable obsession with shoe-gazer tracks that seemingly serve no purpose in the grander scheme of their better pop repertoire? That would have been very un-cool.

“They’re alright. But do you know the uh…the Brian, uh, the Brian Jonestown Massacre? Like in that movie?” He was thinking of the documentary Dig and I told him so. “Yeah! Dig! The Brian Jonestown Massacre. They are the best band, man. The uh, the Anton Newcomb…he’s the fucking shit, man. His music is…his music is the genius because he makes the Sixties sound mix with today’s sound, man. Right? Am I right?”

Sure, he was recycling the same things everyone has said about the Brian Jonestown Massacre since they first burst onto the scene in the early 90s. Sure, he was bringing up a rather passe comparison between that band and the Dandy Warhols (so 2004 man!). And sure, he was taking up valuable beer drinking time with a conversation I had already had with many friends and acquaintances over the last three years. But I let my cynicism slide because the smoking man clearly cared about this music, and he clearly cared about how I felt about the music. To do anything else but shoot the shit with him would have made me no better than the disinterested hipsters I clearly, if only internally, lampooned since I first entered the TLA.

“Yeah man” I said. “You’re totally right.”

“Fuck yeah!” he said. “I know I’m right.” And then the smoking man put his arm around my shoulder one last time. Then he smiled and said, “Enjoy the show.”

He walked off into the crowd, not to be seen for the rest of the night. And while the Dandy’s were slightly less than impressive (I still don’t know how I feel about this band!), I think I learned another lesson in being cool, although I’m still trying to figure out what that is.