Monday, March 14, 2011

Oregon: Watch Out for Dysentery!

If you grew up in the 1980's, you were likely exposed to the phenomenon known as the 'Computer Lab'. A classroom at your elementary school, junior high, or high school that had anywhere from 5 to 30 really really low powered, really really high cost Apple computers that were good for pretty much only one thing.

Oregon Trail.

Sure, there were OTHER games, typically involving a block-headed-Mickey-Mouse, a stick figure carrying random balloons to no foreseeable destination for no explainable reason, or some other early attempt at computer 'graphics', but the only game where you could potentially DIE, and even KILL (mostly snakes, and buffalo, but STILL) was Oregon Trail. As a prototypical bloodthirsty eight year old, this was the absolute greatest 40 minutes of my school week.

Keep in mind, had I had Oregon Trail on my home Commodore 64, it would have very rarely, if even been played. See, at HOME I had all sorts of games where I could kill eight-bit baddies with all the malice of a truly vengeful deity of ancient times, but isn't that true of everything 'great' we were exposed to in school? I can recall really digging on a Greek Mythology reel-to-reel I watched in my Sophomore year World History class too, but it was no Clash of the Titans, that's for DAMN sure. It was just the best you could get as a captive audience, and that made it about 1000% better than listening to a room full of fifteen-year-olds reading excerpts of a text book chapter about the importance of clay pots.

This is not to say that the entire state of Oregon is infested with rattlesnakes, charging buffalo, and only entertaining to a captive audience, it was simply a brief aside turned into a chilling look into my childhood psyche. Relax, you'll all be glad to know that I got out of the habit of killing innocent digital citizens round about the release of the original Grand Theft Auto. Now I'm more an Angry Birds type of guy.

Still, whenever I consider Oregon, I can't help but being both angered an elated by the dark and brooding Apple green glow, informing me that my quest had ended. Somewhere along the line I had contracted a disease, and the GS Reaper now delivered the ghoulish news: You Have Died of Dysentery. Sure, my game was over, but not because I didn't deliver the ridiculous balloons to the useless party in time because I hadn't properly spelled my vocab words, Oregon told-it-like-it-was. My game was over because I was DEAD. That's it, that's all, no more buffalo burgers for me. Oregon turned eight-year-olds into men. At least during computer lab.

Anyhoo, we're not here to wax nostalgic, or ruminate upon the great cleansing force of that nostalgia, making even the dullest moments of our past shine like great beacons of 'Better Days', we're here to talk music, right? It's time to pay homage to not just a game, but the great state that is it's namesake, Oregon. A land where one can find many trees, fabulous donuts, and The Goonies! There is oh so much to love about Oregon. Rain, liberal politics, towns ending in the words 'falls' and 'pass', a Salem where they DON'T burn witches, craft beers, industrious uses of tofu, and a thriving indie music scene.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't also share some Internet acquired "facts" about the 33rd state inducted into this great US of America. For example:

- Oregon's Crater Lake National Park is the only national park in Oregon. Crater Lake is not a crater but a caldera. Kind of makes you wonder what ELSE Oregon is lying about, DOESN'T it?

- Humans have inhabited the area that is now Oregon for at least 15,000 years, and claim it has rained every day.

- In 1811, New Yorker John Jacob Astor financed the establishment of Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River as a western outpost to his Pacific Fur Company; this was the first permanent European settlement in Oregon. In 1985, Sean Astin declared it was Our Time... Down Here...

- According to the Oregon Tourism Commission (also known as Travel Oregon), present-day Oregonians  pronounce the state's name as "OR-UH-GUN, never OR-EE-GONE". Good for THEE-EM.

- Some famous Oregonians (OR-UH-GUN-EE-ANS) not listen as our musical honored guests include: Wally 'I Was a 1986 Met' Backman, Scott 'I Was a 1998-2000 Yankee' Brosius, Trevor 'I Play For the Indians' Crowe, Sam 'I Don't Play Baseball' Elliot, Beverly 'Mouse and the Motorcycle' Cleary, David 'The First Rule of Fight Club is I Directed Fight Club' Fincher, Kevin 'Good Lord Lots of Baseball Players are from Oregon' Gregg, Tonya 'Lead Pipes and Sex Tapes' Harding, Howard 'Dr. Johnny Fever' Hessman, and Johnnie 'The Singer NOT the Baseball Player' Ray. As well as lots of other people, most of whom played baseball.

There's all sorts of other things I can say about Oregon, but really what more is there to say but Voodoo Doughnut.

Musically, Oregon is an interesting place. Through much if the state's history, it had been isolated from the popular forces of music present in most of the east coast and Midwest states forming in the early part of the 1900s. The population of Oregon, always a higher percentage of white, European immigrants than the Latin, or African American cultures that have held a profound effect on the music of the rest of the nation, didn't really become a contributing factor to the nation's music scene until popular radio spread rock n' roll coast to coast. In the 60's Oregon began making up for it's slow start in a big way, and Portland is currently one of the booming scenes for the modern independent rock genre. As such, there will not be culture-shifting historical selections on this list, but role-players in the great rock explosion of the Pacific Northwest during the fuzz-guitar end of the 1960's, and a look into the future face of rock with the Young Turks beginning to make 'Portland' the next 'Seattle'. For more info on the hyper-speed evolution of Oregon music, check out the Music of Oregon wikipedia entry, and all it's corresponding links. It's a great place o explore if you're looking

Solo Artist: M. Ward
Referring to M. Ward as a solo artist is as fair as giving the 'Best Picture' Oscar just to a film's producers. It's really not an accurate reflection of the depth of people involved in a film, or in this case, in making the full catalog of music that can been rolled up under the stage name of one Mathew Stephen Ward. Since his self-released 1999 Duet For Guitars No. 2 M. Ward has been an icon in the indie scene. He has collaborated with Bright Eyes, is a member of the Folk-Rock super group Monsters of Folk, is the 'Him' of She & Him, and within his solo work, has partnered with Zooey Deschanel ('She'), Cat Power, Neko Case, Beth Orton,

The Court & Spark, Jenny Lewis, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Jason Lytle, Lucinda Williams, Tom Hagerman, and Mike Mogis.  

M. Ward is one of the seeming stereotypical hard workers of the Portland indie circuit, having released seven solo long players and two EPs, two volumes under the name 'She & Him', one Monsters of Folk LP, along with production credits and guest appearances on the albums of many of those mentioned above.

For someone who loves his music, I appreciate the voracity with which he records. At the same time, as someone who've followed the trajectory of musicians, the best approximation I can think of to his work ethic and immersion into an entire music scene in Steve Albini, who traded in his Big Black axe for a producer's seat, greatly slowing down his prolific music making pace.

Until (and if) that day comes, grab a pair of headphones, a cold Pacific Northwest craft beer, and enjoy.

Band: The Kingsmen

Louie Louie, oh no
Me gotta go
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said
Louie Louie, oh baby
Me gotta go

Fine little girl waits for me
Catch a ship across the sea
Sail that ship about, all alone
Never know if I make it home


Three nights and days I sail the sea
Think of girl, constantly
On that ship, I dream she's there
I smell the rose in her hair.


Okay, let's give it to 'em, right now!


See Jamaica, the moon above
It won't be long, me see me love
Take her in my arms again
Tell her I'll never leave again


Let's take it on outa here now
Let's go!!

Now you know the words. And here you didn't think you'd get anything of value out of reading this blog post. I aim to surprise.

Aside from recording the penultimate version of the undeniable classic above, The Kingsmen, along with Idaho honorees Paul Revere & The Raiders helped fire the first salvo of pop music cred from the streets of the Portland music scene. With fuzz rock guitars, department store discount amps, a pieced together drum set stashed in a closet in the bedroom of a parents' house, a movement was born. From suburban neighborhoods came Garage Rock, which begot West-Coast Punk/Hardcore, which begot Grunge, which begot Alternative, which begot Indie.

We owe it all to the little bands that could, and to The Jolly Green Giant.

Honorable Mention: Blitzen Trapper
I could have used this space to expound upon the indie cred of long-time independent stalwarts Floater, who have been riding the 'Indie' wave since 1993, sill never signing with a major label, but it would be disingenuous. I don't listen to Floater, never have, and if I begin to now, it won't happen 'organically' but rather because I came across them while researching this post. Instead, I'll attempt to prognosticate what 'In the Know' hipsters the world over will be listening to 6 months from now (for a period of about 2 weeks). Honestly though, even that is hedged bet. Blitzen Trapper has been performing in the greater Oregon indie circuit since 2000, and has seen indie radio airplay outside of Oregon's rocky shores off and on for much of that time. My bestest friends at Pitchfork wrote them up in 2007 on the strength of their 3rd album, Wild Mountain Nation. Since then, 'BT' has proven to be as prolific as they are talented, changing labels (moving over to Sub Pop records) and releasing two more full lengths and an EP in the following three years.

I'm sure signing with one time Indie cred-maker, now alt-rock power-players Sup Pop is the modern Hipster version of 'Sellign Out', but for those of us who think artists SHOULD get paid for the work they do, and that fame is part of the goal, Blitzen Trapper is still on their way up. Their 2008 release, Furr earned them a two-page write up in Rolling Stone and a #13 spot in the Rock-God-Mag's albums of the year. The band is currently touring their 2010 release Destroyer of the Void and will be releasing a new single in a months time. Head on over to the Sup Pop merchandise forum on April 16th and get yourself the latest and greatest.

But I'm not here to sell records, I'm here to try and explain why I think Blitzenn Trapper is 'Important' enough to beat out any of the other Indie artists who could have taken this spot. The big reason for me is that if all I knew of Oregon was the Lewis and Clark expedition, the settling of the west, the great dreams of the people who arrived here two hundred years ago to fulfill America's Manifest Destiny, my expectation would be that the modern music currently being played in this rugged enclave would sound a hell of a lot like Blitzen Trapper. See what you think.

I hope this nugget will help you enjoy the great music of Oregon as much as I do, and in 10 years time when the new 'Scene' is Peoria, or Evansville, or Yucaipa, or Osh Kosh, you can tell folks that you remember back in the days when 'Portland' was the hub of indie rock and roll... Then they'll call you old and laugh at you as they take off down the street on their rocket powered skateboards...

Damn those kids!!

Next up Pennsylvania! What will the land of Hershey's chocolate and the Amish hold in store? Stay Tuned!!

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