Roadtrips and Playlists

Who's up for some CarPlay?, 5 Tracks from Zach, Jeff Lynne, and the greatest thing out of Sweden since meatballs

An Ode to a Bunch of Shitty, Horrible, Nonfunctioning Electronics that I Used to Own

HANK:
This time of year, I always get a little antsy. It’s a vestigial feeling left over from the five years that I would undertake two epic trips per year to travel from southern California to Kentucky in the summer and again at Christmas. I’d do it solo, driving between 11 to 13 hours a day to make it nearly across the whole continent in three days. It was a lot of driving. I honestly can’t fathom doing that again. But, because it was a lot of driving, it was a lot of time to listen to music (or hate listen to Rush Limbaugh when I was about to fall asleep and needed something to give me a little boost). 

If you’re around my age (40 in a couple months, thank you very much), then, like me, you’ve been through about four major format shifts in your time listening to music: cassettes to CDs, CDs to MP3s, MP3 to Streaming Audio. It’s been a wild ride, right? And, while there’s something nostalgic and kinda weirdly cathartic about my quest to repurchase all the cassette tapes that I used to have in my first car, there’s also one, inescapable fact -- It is way easier to listen to music now than it was back then. Forget the fact that if you subscribe to something like Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal you have access to an absurd amount of music that all the CD books in the world could never hold, and focus on the ability of Bluetooth, CarPlay and all sorts of other interfaces enable you to take that music from your phone into your car speakers. 

Given that I spent all that time in my car and that my cars always lagged at least one format behind, I was always perusing the CB aisle of some Love’s in a godforsaken part of the world just to try and figure out how to get my iPod Nano into my speakers. Yes, I had one of those. So, this is a sort of retrospective, or an electronic freakshow, if you will, of all the crappy, cheap technology that I could never get to work the way that it was supposed to.

The Cassette Adapter

Cassette adapters were probably the most reliable way to get your discman and then your iPod into your car stereo. Only someone had the bright idea to stop putting cassette decks into cars sometime in the mid 2000s. Wikipedia tells me the last car with a built in tape deck was the 2010 Lexus SC 430. My issue with these was that my car had an automatic reverse, which came in really hand when Weezer’s the Blue Album effortlessly flipped so that I could feast my ears on “Surf Wax America.” However, if one of these buggers got a short in the line, what would happen is that it’d send a signal for the autoreverse and you’d get a flip to silence before flipping back over. This could sometimes happen sporadically or the whole thing would just go topsy turvy with the deck flipping sides back and forth faster than a child’s tightrope toy. I think I had a friend who had one that lasted two years. I seem to recall almost everyone that I purchased came with a short built in. It was infuriating.

Before iPods (or Zunes, okay?), when CD skipping was a thing, you had the added bonus of placing your discman on the parking break and any bump sending the CD skidding and making the discman recalibrate. 

I will, so as not to further trigger those of you who may be having too strong remembrances to this right now, kindly not discuss the horror of AA batteries in discmans.

FM Transmitters

What can only be characterized as the stupid older brother of the Cassette Adapter is the FM Transmitter. Rather than being inserted into your tape deck these “transmitters” allegedly would send a radio signal over to the frequency on the dial. Supposedly, you could, if you found a frequency that didn’t have anything on it,listen to the music that’s plugged in. The part in italics is the kicker. You would be surprised how weak of a signal was needed to make sure that you didn’t hear the album you just downloaded on Napster.

I once had to drive from southern California to eastern Texas. I spent several hours in West Texas watching the radio dial spin, first on FM then on AM, unable to find a station. I had an FM Transmitter. Yet, the damn thing would not work. My transmitter had radio even featured even numbered frequencies (89.8, for example) which supposedly would carry a weaker signal. Still, no dice. Thankfully, somewhere along the way I found a station carrying George Noory’s Coast to Coast AM and that saw me through. Really, the best way to listen to Coast to Coast is on a highway, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the little green men to beam down and take you away.

Detachable CD Faces

Once CD players in your car became a thing, I had friends who would wait in line at the car stereo installation at Best Buy to get the thing put in for a cool hundred. I’m still forever grateful to my friend Jon Stephen for ensuring that his car had one, even though they had forgotten to put styrofoam around the thing and the CD would skip every time we hit a bump. The problem, of course, with having something so pricey in your car was that it’d get stolen. So, someone got the bright idea to include detachable faces as a sort of car camouflage. If you took it off, it didn’t look like you had a car stereo installed, thereby deterring smash and grab thieves.

When my car stereo was stolen they made off with all my Elliott Smith CDs, too, so that must have been one sad bastard of a stereo thief. My roommate and I had just been to see a movie and when we got back to the car, someone had smashed my window in and stolen the stereo and the book of CDs that I had in my pickup truck. I would have been devastated but, the movie we’d just seen was Talk to Her and I was honestly just so enthralled, I couldn’t be focused on material objects like car audio. Oh, and the stereo was broken at that point anyway, so I doubt me taking the faceplate to an Almodovar movie would have made any difference. I mean, look at this…

Now, of course, those days are gone. I’ve got a respectable family car with CarPlay that effortlessly hooks up to my relatively new generation iPhone whenever I sit my dad ass down in it. I can speak into one of multiple assistants who will regurgitate my language back to me and find whatever weirdo playlist that I’m subjecting my son to on the way to daycare. Things are so effortless these days.

So, why spend the time on these misbegotten horrors of my techno-past, which in the course of drafting this I’ve found are still for sale and still frighteningly about the same price as they were way back when?

Well, because there’s one crucial difference between these things and my plugged in, unlimited data existence. These electronics of yesteryear aren’t trying to fucking spy on me.

Back in May 2020, Spotify launched “Listening Together,” a website that exists to somehow convince you that you’re not alone by showing you that at any moment (according to the press, 30,000 times a day) two people press play (or do nothing and let the app automatically stream) on the same song at the same time. A Fast Company article sums it up with utopian flair:

“By sharing how we are listening and making it easy for others to see the songs others are streaming at the same time,” says Alexandra Tanguay, VP of global brand at Spotify, “we’ll not only surface the content recommendations we are all looking for [but] we’ll also establish a sense of connection and the togetherness that we all need right now.”

If your neoliberal bullshit meter didn’t go off, let me trigger it for ya. Just like those apps which made you upload multiple photos of yourself, this seems to be a way that Spotify is making their mining of your data more palatable.

Look, it’s no secret that we’re rapidly becoming resources for tech companies to mine data from, or generate digital exhaust, in order to manipulate our behavior in ways that push and pull us toward products and services. Nor is it a novel claim to see how a service like Spotify engages in this sort of surveillance capitalism. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend checking out Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism for a fuller picture. Even if you knew nothing of the term, then the sheer amount of “personalized” features that Spotify has slowly rolled out over the past years—Daily Mixes, Time Capsules, On Repeat, Repeat Rewind—should begin to make you suspicious of just how much they’re watching you. I mean, there’s a whole page just dedicated to you when you go to “Search” now. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to know that much about myself. So, of course, I’m picking on Spotify a bit here. As you can tell, I’m a user and have been for a while. But, it’s alarming when Common Sense gives Spotify a 56%, enough to earn a Warning on their privacy report. Because, it isn’t simply about what data is collected, it’s also about where the data goes. And, it may be all well and good that the Spotify algorithm tells me to check out Bonny Light Horseman, but what about when it’s sending that to someone that I’ve unwillingly consented to. And for those of you who are claiming that data is anonymized, then I’d point you to Zuboff who points out that with a rough age and zip code and listening history, it’s not that hard to un-anonymize someone. He’s the 39 year old listening to Bonny Light Horseman!!

Did I mention that I haven’t even gotten to the part about paying artists a livable wage yet? Or the idea that on those services, we’re letting algorithms decide what we like and what we don’t? Don’t worry, we’ll get there in this SubStack.

So, sure, some of this is cherry picking, but it’s still accurate and food for thought the next time that I plug my iPhone in and pull up whatever seminal indie band that I’ve decided to torture my son with on the way to daycare. Opting out, may not be the option, but it does throw that FM tuner into a different light. Sure, you didn’t work well FM tuner, but that was the grandest of your sins. And it never left us. Or west Texas.

Five New Tracks

ZACH:

The Narcotix - “Lilith”

There are five to six (maybe more) different melodic concepts on this single track and I love each of them.  “Lilith” is a slow moving stream of sound, little bubbling pockets of shimmer that slowly unwind and glide into a new form without disconnecting from the flow that unites the piece as a singular perspective defined by sprouting change. 

Katy Kirby - “Peppermint”

Katy Kirby’s “Peppermint” accomplishes what I’m looking for in music… It makes me feel every part of it.  When I put this track in my ears, I walk with a little extra skip to my step and my neck can’t help but match the bouncy guitars that are off-set with these perfectly placed drum hits.  “Peppermint” is built around clever drop outs and tempo changes that act as circular restarts… the silence or slowing melody always leading to a welcomed invitation to rejoin the breezy sections that makes this one of my favorite summer songs of the moment.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - “Weekend Run”

To quote Pusha T: “If you know, you know.”  

For anybody balking at the idea of exploring UMO’s discography… just click play on any of their albums, any of their tracks, and after a few hours it should be clear that UMO is one of the greatest gifts to modern music.

Sun June - “Once In A While”

The morning is underrated in its ability to deliver an extraordinary sensory experience only using calm and silence.  Songs play differently in the morning and recently I’ve been playing Sun June’s fantastic album “Somewhere” as accompaniment to my coffee and start of the day.  There is an emotional patience that drives the music of Sun June and on “Once In A While” the band trusts each of their smallest decisions in order to build a textured piece of music that is driven by undisturbed sincerity. 

Van Dyke Parks - “Camino a Casa”

The life, talent, and creative output of Van Dyke Parks is nothing short of extraordinary.  His Wikipedia page is one of the best reads on the Internet because Parks has his fingerprint on so many wonderful pieces of art.

A few facts and opinions about Parks:

  • His first paid gig was arranging "The Bare Necessities" for the Disney film The Jungle Book (1967).

  • “Song Cycle” is one of the most important and fascinating albums of the ‘60s.

  • Played Jack Racine in “Twin Peaks”

  • Released my favorite 7” series of all-time (Info Here)

  • Co-produced one of the greatest records of my lifetime: Joanna Newsom - “Ys”

It’s a bit unfair to the rest of the creative world that in his seventh decade of making music, Parks just released one of the best EPs of 2021 with “Only in America – Solo en América”.

“Only in America – Solo en América” is a Chamber-music Suite of Songs of the Yucatan, featuring the poetry of Verónica Valerio and orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks. Starting with a new arrangement of Agustin Lara’s classic “Veracruz” the album transports us to “a place of pyramids and pre-Columbian history” following that place and time with three originals by Verónica Valerio called “Cielito Lindo”, “The Flight of the Guacamaya” and “Camino a casa”.

“Only in America – Solo en América” is the result of a musical relation that started more than two years ago, after the two artists realized their mutual interest for traditional folkloric music. Parks and Valerio join in their wish to bring people together, to emphasize the community and create the sense of a global village.

With “Only in America – Solo en América”, Parks once again proves to be the master of orchestral arrangements and continues to be a hero of mine concerning the true freedom of voice/expression found in artistic creation.

One Thing

Hank’s One Thing: Swedish Dish Cloths

One thing that you can never have too many of when you have a toddler are wipes, paper towels, napkins, tissues. Oh, shit, was that many things? Well, you get the picture. A friend mentioned these Swedish Dish Cloths to me as paper towel replacements and they are legit. Seriously, buy a pack and put them to the test. Quick messes, dry messes, wet messes, “what the fuck is that?” messes, they all either get sopped up or easily wiped away by these little marvels of Swedish technology. You know, the same people who put meat into balls. Did I mention that they can be cleaned in the dishwasher or the washing machine? Genius, Swedes, genius.

Zach’s One Thing: ELO Live Concert Video

One of the best concerts ever.  
Close to two hours of perfect music.