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Surviving World War C:
Music to Span the Social Distance

March 24th, 2020

Last week’s post offered a list of “Podcasts for Shut-Ins,” which included what was then an unreleased installment of Inside The Hive. Although I had expected that podcast to feature an interview with screenwriter Scott Burns (Contagion), it instead offered a conversation with radio host Kai Ryssdal (Marketplace). Titled “Coronovirus against the World,” the interview concluded with Ryssdal giving some sage advice: “You got to know what the news is, but you don’t have to know what it is all the time. Just check in once or twice a day and then take care of yourself.”

So let’s assume that you have addressed the latter. You are stocked up, settled in, and asymptomatic. Situation stable. Now what?

This time, I’d like to offer some music recommendations. And, in keeping with this blog’s consideration of the writing life, we’ll focus on the work of contemporary writers who are also musicians.

Image: “Typewriter + guitar = steampunk,” guitarpang.wordpress.com

Up first: The Theatre of Time, an album of ambient music featuring the ethereal guitar of fantasy artist and author Martin Springett. I’ve written about Martin’s music before, in the posts “The River of Stars Suite” (April 2014) and “Ready to be Reborn” (October 2015).

Lately, I’ve been playing his collection The Theatre of Time in heavy rotation. The album opens with “Gypsy Caravan (Soul Of A Rose)” – a shimmering blend of eastern sitar, electric guitar, and acoustic twelve-string. By turns meditative and rollicking, the tune — like much of Martin’s music — has the power to lift the soul and take it for a cosmic spin.

You can listen to Martin’s music for free online, but you’ll likely want to pay the piper for the benefit of downloading and taking the magic with you. The music is the perfect accompaniment for a solitary walk, sitting in the grass — or any of your favorite social-distance activities.

You’ll find six of Martin’s albums available for instant play and permanent download at his Bandcamp page.

Keeping with the prog-rock vibe, I also recommend the album Symphony for a Million Mice from the band Horsefeathers. Featuring lead vocals by writer, director, producer Mick Garris, Horsefeathers began in the early 70s with a sound that the band describes as “commedia dell’arte rock.” Their vintage recordings (largely unreleased when they were together) have now been remixed, remastered, and released as a full-length CD that is as much fun as the band’s name implies.

You can hear the entire album at the Horsefeather’s website, where you can also order the CD in either a regular or signed edition.

If you’re interested in the work singer-songwriters, you’ll want to check out the music of sf writer Sarah Pinsker. According to the Windy City Times, “Pinsker’s original songs are catchy and hummable. They will lift your spirits […] and then set your spirit free.” I first heard Sarah when we performed together at the Baltimore Book Festival in 2013. I’ve been a fan ever since.

You can hear excerpts, download tracks, and order CDs at Sarah’s CD Baby page. You can also catch a terrific interview/performance recorded live at Paste Studios in NYC.

Another singer-songwriter dominating my playlist is Craig Spector, whose life story is as inspiring as his tunes.

After graduating with honors from the Berklee College of Music, Craig went on to become a New York Times bestselling author, screenwriter, editor, and songwriter. His solo albums Resurrection Road (2017), Outposts (2018), and Kicking Cans (2019) are distinguished by virtuoso guitar playing, soulful vocals, and powerful lyrics. Consider the opening lines of  “Gratitude,” from his forthcoming CD Dangertown: “Just as it seems that all is lost and everything is ash / comes a feeble bit of light like a preternatural flash, /and in that moment we can see the cost / and everything is clear.”

According to his website, Craig began living with stage-four cancer in 2016. Of the experience, he writes: “The last few years have been a journey, and what a strange trip it’s been.”

And what an inspiring one, considering the musical output that began with Resurrection Road and promises to continue with Dangertown.

You can read more of Craig’s story on his website, where you’ll also be able to play and order his music.

Finally, I’ve just received a preview CD from P.G. Sturges and R.C. Matheson, the writer-musicians who (along with Craig Spector) brought us Smash Cut, (reviewed here in August 2018). Titled Fool Skool, the new CD features Sturges on guitar and vocals, Matheson on drums, and a cadre of fellow musicians who together call themselves Pearly King & The Temple Thieves. The CD features ten tracks of indie rock that are about as solid as anything I’ve heard.

Executive producer David Pascal of Pascal Records reports that Fool Skool will be available within a month or so, and I’ll be posting a complete review with details on where to find it soon. In the meantime, their previous album Smash Cut is available on YouTube. Click here to play, and I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as Skool’s in session.

One final note (a public service announcement, if you will):

These days of social distance have been particularly tough on musicians. I speak from experience since the Celtic-influenced music of both the Laughrey-Connolly and Connolly-Davis Bands usually keeps me hopping on and around St. Patrick’s Day. For years we have played March shows to SRO crowd. But not this year.

Moreover, although there might have been a time when a reasonably successful band could rely on recorded music to earn its keep, these days the money is mostly in live performances.  Recognizing the challenge, the music platform Bandcamp recently held a sale to raise awareness regarding “the pandemic’s impact on musicians everywhere,” during which they waived their revenue share to “put much-needed money directly into artists’ pockets.”

So … if you enjoy the music featured above, and if you have the ability to do so, you might consider purchasing a few downloads. You’ll be supporting original music, and the tunes will be yours to play wherever you want.

For now, I’ll leave you with a video featuring the music and art of Martic Springett from the album The Gardening Club — sights and sounds to span the social distance.

Podcasts for Shut-Ins:
Tune In, Hunker Down

March 19th, 2020

I’ve been trying to track down a piece that I heard on NPR following the 9-11 attacks. I can’t remember who delivered it, but the voice in my memory sounds like Scott Simon. It was a reflective piece about the uncertainty felt in the aftermath of the attacks, a time when the country was bracing for an uncertain future.

As I recall, the commentator contrasted the moment with bombings in Europe during WWII, when people would hunker down and await the all-clear. The piece ended with the question: Will there ever be an all-clear this time?

That question seems even more relevant now.

Today, as we adjust to a world profoundly different from the one we knew a couple of weeks ago, it may be difficult to believe things will ever return to a semblance of normal. Yet, though there are never guarantees, the odds are in our favor if we follow the guidelines offered by the CDC and other reliable sources — all of which urge avoiding close contact as much as possible.

Unfortunately, isolation leads to other problems, not the least of which is a sense of disconnection and boredom.  If you’re lucky enough to be able to work from home, you already have part of the day covered. But what do you do with your downtime?

Books have always worked for me, and being able to download them from reliable vendors (a.k.a ones-that-pay-the-authors) makes it possible to access virtually anything without leaving the home. It’s the same with movies, where Universal is now making its latest theatrical releases available on your favorite streaming services. But lately, I’ve been turning to podcasts, where the conversations provide a sense of social connection. And unlike reading books and watching movies, I can tune in while walking, working out, cleaning my office, or doing home repairs that are not as easy to ignore as they used to be.

So what have I been listening to? Glad you asked. Here (in no particular order) are a few that work for me. Your mileage may vary, but all are worth a test drive.

First up is Inside the Hive from Vanity Fair. Hosted by tech-writer Nick Bilton, the blog covers technology, politics, and current events, with each show centering on a one-hour (give or take) conversation with writers, journalists, scientists, and political commentators. If you’re interested in checking it out, you might start with an episode from October titled “Sam Harris Explains Why There’s No Free Will” — just the thing to divert the mind from the fight-or-flight drive that seems to be running our lives today. Or, if you’re looking for an up-to-the-minute conversation about the current health crisis, you’ll want to check out this week’s show, where screenwriter Scott Burns (Contagion) is slated to talk about pandemics and other things related to the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century.

You’ll find it all at Vanity Fair, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. The interview with Scott Burns drops on Friday, March 20.

And if you want more conversation on the current state of affairs – and particularly if you like the Sam Harris interview on Inside the Hive – you’ll want to check out the most recent installments of Making Sense, where neuroscientist, philosopher, and best-selling author Sam Harris interviews Yale professor Nicholas A. Christakis (Episode 190), Johns Hopkins disease specialist Amesh Adalja (Episode 191), and psychologist Paul Bloom (Episode 192).

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a break from the challenges of the day, you might download Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast with Frank Santopadre, in which a hyperkinetic comedian (Gottfried) and a television writer (Santopadre) interview screenwriters, songwriters, comedians, directors, actors, and other folks who helped shape pop culture in the twentieth century.

Some of the best conversations are with people you may not have heard from in a while, like Michael Nesmith (guitarist for the Monkees) or Ron Dante (frontman for the Archies). The conversations are free-ranging and spontaneous, with the most interesting ones held together by Santopadre’s encyclopedic knowledge of each guest’s career. And Gottfried is hysterical, although there are times when he goes completely off the rails (as in a recent interview with Tony and Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan). You might find him an acquired taste, but when his antics work, there’s no one funnier.

And if you’re a horror fan, you might try Post Mortem with Mick Garris, which features interviews with some of the biggest names in scary movies. Currently produced by Fangoria, the podcast has featured conversations with Stephen King, Barbara Crampton, John Carpenter, and others. As a writer, director, and producer in his own right, Garris always makes the interviews sound like conversations between friends.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog might be the Post Mortem episode “Live at the Fantasia Film Festival,” recorded following the world premiere of Nightmare Cinema. It features directors Joe Dante, Ryuhei Kitamura and Alejandro Brugués along with writers Richard Christian Matheson, Sandra Becerril and the 21st-Century Scop himself in an hour-long conversation moderated by Fangoria’s own Tony Timpone. Pull up a chair and join us.

Also in the horror vein, there’s The Wicked Library, now in its 10th season of delivering novelette-length fiction for the ears. This year’s season kicks off just with the release of a new story by British writer Christopher Long. Read by Louie Pollard, scored by Nico Vetesse, and produced by 9th Story Studios, “Shiny Entrails” provides an interesting blend of psychological and ecological horror that rewards repeated listening. I found it a welcome diversion from the real horrors in the news streams of the day.

That’s some of what I’ve been listening to, but there’s lots more where that came from. Good thing too because it looks like it could be a while before we get the all-clear. Until then — hunker down, tune in … and scop on!