When listening to Pet Sounds, it’s hard to think about anything but the total gorgeousness of the music, and all the insanely deep emotions it provokes in me. Which is why I never felt comfortable saying it had any influence on me. It’s an incredible piece of work, musically and emotionally, and that’s that. It’s so advanced that I find it rather embarrassing when the average mostly-amateur indie musician claims to be influenced by Pet Sounds. Really? It’s like the Ramones claiming to be influenced by Bach. I get that you listened to Pet Sounds and loved it, but come on. You’re not operating on anything close to that level.
But as I’ve spent more and more time with Pet Sounds, I’ve started to notice the elements that make it powerful and important to me other than its sheer musical beauty. One is the way it uses the idiom of sixties pop music to aim at the kind of grandeur and high-art beauty formerly reserved for classical music, opera, etc. Sure, Phil Spector and his many imitators had done pop grandeur before, but it always seemed to me to have a crassly commercial bent, a cynicism and tongue-in-cheek element that diluted its power. And of course, it never had Brian Wilson’s musical inventiveness and dexterity. The Beach Boys, in Pet Sounds, found a deeper sincerity in their music at the same time as they scaled dazzling new heights compositionally.
Brian Wilson’s coinage of the phrase “teenage symphony to God” around this period shows where his head was at. That phrase and the whole cluster of associations it evokes—artistic ambition, spiritual sincerity, bubblegum music trying to become something grand—is the big way that Pet Sounds had an effect on me as a songwriter/musician, aside from its devastating effect on my heart and mind as a listener.
* A portion of this essay previously appeared here
My first encounter with you was in 2010 at Lit Lounge in Manhattan. Despite being filthy, sticky and way past its prime, the place was packed and brimming with the unmistakable loud of drunk people screaming to be heard over music. I was drinking a nightcap with friends, attempting to stay enthused despite my preference to drink nightcaps in an actual bed.
The sweet sound of your synthesized bassline broke through the din and constant stream of indie dance pop which permeated the city’s bars back then: Cut Copy, LCD Soundsystem, Chromeo, The Juan MacLean, et al. Fine enough artists on their own but taken en masse it’s easy to overdose.
I expressed my intrigue to the gang and all I got was “You’ve never heard this song before?” and “Something about it reminds me of ‘Genius of Love,'” neither of which was much help. My ears were on high alert, not unlike a dog hearing it’s owners voice. I struggled to make out your lyrics so I could Google them in the morning and answer some burning questions: Who wrote you and when? Is that crooning I hear over your quirky disco sounds? Are you trendy throwback or a genuine original? If you’re an original, where have you been all my life?
Despite being a few drinks deep and up hours past my bedtime, I managed to get home and eventually wake with “I hope to God you’re not as…” swimming around in my brain. I couldn’t complete the lyric but, brimming with excitement, took to Google with high hopes.
Thankfully other people had found themselves in a similar situation which allowed me to piggyback on their quest and get some answers.
Who wrote you and when?
Orange Juice in 1982. Orange Juice was a Scottish post-punk band fronted by your writer, Edwyn Collins, who would later go on to record the ubiquitous 90s hit “A Girl Like You” (fittingly included on the Empire Records soundtrack; slightly less so on Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle). For the general public, that song’s success far eclipsed his previous work. Edwyn seemed like a one-hit wonder to most people, despite having a treasure trove of distinctive music under his belt.
Is that crooning I hear over your quirky disco sounds?
Indeed it is. What would Sinatra have thought if he’d come across you back then (assuming that as a 67-year-old he did not trifle with edgy young Scots)?
Are you trendy throwback or a genuine original?
You, my friend, are fortunate enough to be a genuine original. Edwyn must have known you were an oddball, coming from a band who was previously known for their jangly guitar-driven sound. Still, he went with his gut and recorded you, making you the only Orange Juice song to hit the UK charts.
Where have you been all my life?
Hidden in plain sight. I recall a conversation from 2005 where a friend asked “Have you listened to Orange Juice? They were a big influence on Belle & Sebastian.” The answer was no, so the same friend kindly introduced me to “Falling and Laughing” and “Simply Thrilled Honey.” Both songs are enjoyable, but do they take me to that special place you do? Not exactly.
So thanks to you, I dug deeper into the Orange Juice catalog and eventually learned about Edwyn’s remarkable recovery from a cerebral hemorrhage. I want to give him and all his songs a great big bear hug. It’s impossible to count how many times they accompanied me on the way to work or the number of times your melody and lyrics have happily stuck in my head.
Crooning and disco. Who woulda thought…? Your sound isn’t for everyone, but it’s perfect for me.
It was Seattle 1999. Many days of rain and clouds led me back to the video store down the street from my house (they still existed then!). My love for film led me to bump into a fellow film and music obsessive who at first I called “video store boy.” As video store boy and I also both frequented a place called Cranium—a coffee house, another Seattle survival tool—we discussed films and then started to swap mixed tapes (yes these still existed then too!).
Geeking out over lattes and comic books and old-school toys at Cranium, I was handed the first mixed tape, and heard your song with Neutral Milk Hotel, “Oh Comely” off your album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. When you sing, “Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums / The music and medicine you needed for comforting” it speaks to me of the time I saw you play live.
Fast forward to 2013—where my family and I lived and still live in Oakland, CA—when after a long hiatus (I thought I would never get to see you play) you announced the tour and your reunion with Neutral Milk Hotel and I saw you sing your heart out at the Fox Theatre. The words of “Oh Comely” literally came alive for me as the theatre was transformed into a psychedelic-indie-folk-punk church with everyone singing, crying and laughing in utter joy.
It is so cliché, yet it was one of the most musically spiritual moments of my life. I felt I somehow knew everyone in the audience and I knew you too. To hear your raw, shaky, soulful, authentic voice filled with melancholy, hope and wisdom in real-time instead of on our record player at home or in the dark, damp basements of Seattle was a dream come true and a checked off box on my bucket list. Thank you Jeff for following your creative darkness as well as your creative bliss to flourish back in Ruston, Louisiana.
Backtrack again to the late 90’s in Seattle, as I struggled to get through school and find my place 3,000 miles away from my family in the never ending grey skies, your music was a golden thread to validation for being outside the box, for being able to see the deep, dark beauty of the world and for it to be okay.
After playing your music on long road trips with my husband, he also became a convert. When I had the flu and gave his best friend my ticket to see you in Neutral Milk Hotel instead of solo, I knew he would represent my devoted love at your concert. My husband and his friend still talk about the amazing synergy of the horns (bagpipes too), the vocals, the audience love, the “thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums” to this day. They were so grateful for the introduction to your music.
I still am holding out to see you in Neutral Milk Hotel as part two of my bucket list. Please, please come back to the Fox Theatre in Oakland. I feel you may have gone back into your bear cave which I understand of course. How else could your brilliant lyrics be written? As in “Someone Is Waiting” on the album On Avery Island; “Someone is waiting to swallow all the halos out of you / As your face blows / Through my windows / Sending pieces flying all around the moon / And I love you / And I want to / Shoot all the superheroes from your skies / Watch them bleeding / From your ceiling / As their empty anger falls out from their eyes / All alone….” I know you need to continue to create yet I beg you don’t stay in your cave too long. Please don’t sequester your magic alone anymore, share it with the world and know you are loved.
You’ve even touched the heart of my five year old son Kirin. He heard “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” come on today and he jumped up, left his Legos (what!?) and began to dance. After twirling and spinning and making up cool dance moves, we had a beautiful mother-son dance inspired by you. My nine month old Saoirse claps and smiles with her two teeth which is her way of saying “Keep on keepin’ on.” And as they say out here in Oaklandia, “You are my spirit animal Jeff Mangum!”
Your obsessed fan and admirer forever,
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Someone Is Waiting
Tip 1) Listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from start to finish as it is a reflection on the Diary of Anne Frank. The album tells a haunting and creative story that is illuminated listening from the beginning to end.
Tip 2) Neutral Milk Hotel Pandora station is really enjoyable as you will deliciously swim in the sounds of Elliott Smith, Jose Gonzales, The Shins, Violent Femmes and so forth…
Have you ever really loved a music store? I mean really really loved it? Am I lucky to have grown up during a time where even in a small rural town in eastern Pennsylvania there was a (very cool) local record store? Am I thrilled every time I return home and I visit said record store and it smells EXACTLY the same as it did when I first began frequenting it in middle school? I will do my best to answer all of these questions (and more!) in this letter.
The store I love is Record Connection in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. You’ve never heard of Ephrata you say? Well put visiting it on your “to-do” list and make sure to visit on a Friday so you can also hit up the Green Dragon farmer’s market which is conveniently located across the street AND which also happens to have a huge fiberglass green dragon as part of its sign!!!!
The first time I ever went into Record Connection was in 6th grade. My brother, who is 4 years older than me, had been going there for a few years and buying used copies of albums such as “Houses of the Holy” and “90125” on compact disc. He had also been occasionally taking CDs from the family collection and trading them in without telling anyone, but that’s another story for another time. On my first visit I bought a John Lennon t-shirt and my first used album “The John Lennon Collection” on compact disc (do you see a theme here?). I wore that John Lennon shirt religiously. I was a girl, in the 6th grade, in a small rural town, who wore an oversized John Lennon shirt at least once a week. Let me be clear, everyone else was wearing shirts featuring Guns n Roses (if you were male) and Janet Jackson OR Paula Abdul (if you were female). I did not fit in.
In 9th grade, my fervor for Record Connection really gained momentum when I became friends with someone who was also female AND who was likewise obsessed with music. Millennials, you have no idea how easy you had it/have it. These days it is completely socially acceptable to be female and be a music fan (even in small towns? You tell me. Because…I’d love it to hear about it). In the 1990s in little ol’ Denver Pennsylvania I assure you this was not the case. My friend and I were most certainly the minority. Thankfully, our love of music triumphed over our desire to be socially accepted. Wow! This letter is really about to take a crotchety old-timeresque turn when I tell you that on the day “In Utero” was released we walked 2 miles from her house to RC so we could purchase the highly anticipated album. I bought it on cassette so I could listen to it on my Walkman while I walked to school; she bought it on compact disc. We walked the 2 miles back to her house and listened to it in her room with a passion for Kurt Cobain pumping through our veins (there was probably some incense burning going on as well).
There was a period of time where she and I regularly traded in albums in order to buy new items. This process began in 9th grade and continued through our four years in high school. I have two very clear memories of specific trades/deals that were cut during this time. The first one involved me trading in “Pleased to Meet Me” on cassette so that I could buy “We’re Not Gonna Take it” on 45 (by this time I had a record player and was interested in vinyl). Needless to say, I was mocked. I remember the guy who worked there at the time who my friend and I privately referred to as “the young guy” (there was also an “old guy”) loudly commenting “She traded in a Replacements album so she could buy a Twisted Sister record!” A-hem! For the record (pun intended) I still stand by this trade today. I love the Replacements to death, but in my opinion the production on “Pleased to Meet Me” is turd city. Need proof? Listen to a demo or live version of “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Guitars trump horns Jim Dickson!
My other standout high school trading memory involves me repeatedly taking the Therapy? album Troublegum to the store and sneaking it into my trade piles until one day the “young guy” said, to no one in particular, “She just keeps bringing this in. Fine! I’ll just take it!” I think that maybe he gave me $2 in store credit that day. I can’t remember if/how I spent it.
Record Connection has been, for me, a lot like the tree in that Shel Silverstein book. As I have aged, it has continued to meet my needs. Whenever I return home to visit my parents I try to squeeze in a visit. These days I typically leave with a stack of $1 albums and/or some $1 bootleg CDs. God how I love this store! When you use the bathroom you are sitting the same room with the vinyl soundtracks which allows you to look for Beat Street immediately after you finish taking a leak.
How can I fit it all in? The way that the “old guy” starting referring to me as Cyndi somewhere in the middle of 9th grade because I would always buy Cyndi Lauper albums/memorabilia. How I probably spent a significant amount of money throughout my high school years on the new old stock 80s pins they kept in a plastic bin on the front counter. (Yes, I do have a Goonies pin featuring Cyndi Lauper and yes I am bragging.) And how recently I was in the store and someone asked “the metal guy” who (still!) works there how he was doing and he replied with, “Eh. VG minus.”
Record Connection, I love you. Please, never ever change. Keep on being great! You’ll always be a VG+ in my book!
Handwritten notes from record store employees are a good way to get me to buy an album—notes that encourage browsers to at minimum investigate further and ideally to make a purchase. If it contains buzzwords such as “ambient,” “sparse,” “textural,” or “minimal,” I’m interested. It’s how I found myself with albums such as…
…and it’s also how I came across:
This missive is written for 5:14 into the second track, “A Paw In My Face.” In that instant, on the very first listen, I was pulled back in time to the backseat of my parents car where the radio station of choice was Soft Rock 105.1. Phil Collins, Fleetwood Mac, Sade, Michael McDonald—some really good stuff amidst what sounded like a sea of monotony.
There was an essence to the station which you’ve somehow captured in that moment of the song—that slightly off-beat horn burst. It took me so long to place it, and that’s not the only transportable moment in Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” The guitar solo and outro define and condense Soft Rock 105.1 into an ultra strength droplet on the ear drum. As a kid, I only subconsciously realized the importance of the song. Now, because of your music, I truly appreciate it.
There was a time—months—where I couldn’t get through The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner without crying. As a junior in college, there were several things I couldn’t get through without crying back then (the angst of puberty hit me very late—I needed your “punk rock for sissies” very much in 1999), but nothing really got me going like that album. I’d put it on in my bedroom while I attempted to write a paper, but the by time “Mess” was transitioning to “Magic,” I’d have my head down on my desk, sobbing quietly so my roommate wouldn’t hear me. You sounded so sad—my friends and I would say to each other, “Ben’s not okay,” our eyes bright with worry. You were simply “Ben” to us by then; we had all dispensed with formalities.
It feels like you’ve always been there as the background soundtrack to my everything, but there is a very bright line between Before Ben Folds (BBF; 1978–1996) and After Ben Folds (ABF; 1997–?). The first of your songs I ever heard was, like a lot of people, “Brick,” which was released right around my 19th birthday, and I have to be honest: I didn’t love it. A freshman in college, but not yet quite given over to the indie rock nerd I would become, I listened to the hard rock station in Pittsburgh almost exclusively and groaned every time your sad, slow song came on. Was it about abortion? Maybe? Did it matter? I didn’t know. Over Thanksgiving break, I went back to work at the flower shop where I spent most of high school working, and the most unlikely person answered those questions for me. My boss’ boyfriend Jim, a big lovable guy who listened almost exclusively to classic rock, defended “Brick” to me when it came on the radio. Fifteen years older than me, maybe the lyrics hit him in a place I couldn’t yet fathom. Or maybe he just had better taste. Whatever it was, Jim made me take a better listen to you. Thanks, Jim.
I don’t remember when I bought my first Ben Folds Five album, and I can’t remember if I bought Ben Folds Five or Whatever and Ever Amen first, but it doesn’t really matter because I fell in love with you head over piano-rock heels. By summer 1998, I was watching you at the Y100 FEZ-tival in Camden, NJ, completely mesmerized as you slammed your piano/drum stool, against the front of your piano, hitting the keys so hard at the end of “Jackson Cannery” that all 10 years of piano lessons in me winced. You were an animal that warm Sunday afternoon in June. I loved it.
I fell for you all over again when you released Rockin’ the Suburbs. Oh, I mourned hard when I heard that Ben Folds Five had broken up. But then! Then there was this gift of your solo album and suddenly it was all going to be okay. I think I listened most obsessively to this one; to me, it represents growing up in so many ways. I had just graduated from college and was working at my first of many dead-end jobs, living with the man who would become my husband. Rockin’ the Suburbs was released on September 11, 2001—do you ever think about that? At first I had to make myself listen to the CD, pull myself away from the news and conspiracy theories on the internet, but it became a balm of sorts to me during that time, those first notes of “Annie Waits” ringing out and lifting me out of whatever funk I found myself in. You sounded so much happier on this album; I was happy for you. It seemed like you were maybe finally settled, wife and kids. I felt myself sliding into that stage of life as well. Four years later, my husband and I had our first dance at our wedding to “The Luckiest.” We sang “Still Fighting It” as a lullaby to both our sons when they were babies.
As with all love stories, there are ups and there are downs—I don’t have to tell you that, do I? Has anyone ever taken you to task over “Bad Idea?” It’s the only song of yours I refuse to listen to and won’t let my kids hear. The R-word, man. Why? I get that it was 1996 and things were different, but even when I first heard the song during that wretched movie it was in I cringed. Now, as a parent of a kid with special needs, I just can’t even, you know? I once interviewed Adam Horovitz when he and Amery Smith were touring as BS 2000 and asked him what he thought about all the misogynistic lyrics the Beastie Boys wrote. It wasn’t a terribly original question, but he still answered it passionately, saying he was embarrassed by his younger self and regretted those songs and that they would never perform them live again. I don’t think you perform “Bad Idea” anymore but have you ever been asked about it? What would you say?
Ben, I feel like you and I have grown up together, despite you being 12 years my senior. I haven’t even gotten to your other solo albums or the recently reunited Ben Folds Five record (record! Good work, you!), or So There (I’m getting into it…slowly) or your TV appearances (bad fan; I haven’t really watched much). Your music has matured as you’ve gotten older—the last time I saw you play it was in front of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (it certainly made me feel mature watching that performance), and I recently watched an interview with you on CBS’ Sunday Morning (because I’m at a stage in my life where I religiously watch CBS’ Sunday Morning)—but it always manages to weave itself into my life in ways the girl who hated “Brick” could never have imagined. Thanks for being with me all these years.
P.S. I once watched a karaoke DJ in the Denver, Colorado suburbs absolutely and un-ironically kill it on “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” You know that growly part at the end? He was the embodiment of it. I think you would have loved the whole thing.
Is it ok to call you “dearest”? I feel like I can talk to you like that.
I have a surprisingly high number of regrets regarding the music I played at my wedding, but I am most sad I let my husband talk me out of playing “Sandcastle Disco,” because it didn’t smash as hard as “The Rat” or “Crazy in Love.” Maybe it was the chorus—”Baby I know you do that to all the girls/you know that I’m fragile/baby don’t blow me away.” In any case, I applaud you for putting out such a catchy song that hooked me and strung me along for years until you released “Losing You,” the first single from your triumphant, genre-leaping EP, True.
Every song you put out around that time was perfect, from “Sleep in the Park,” the b-side to “Losing You,” to the Jimmy Johns-referencing “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work,” but it is “Losing You” that I hold closest to my heart.
At first listen, there’s not much to the song: a sampled “Wow!,” good beats, and the repetitive lyrics (“Tell me the truth boy/am I losing you for good”). But it SWELLS and gains momentum. The beat drops around 2’35” and shortly after is my favorite part: when you sing the chorus and underneath you plead “Baby you know I tried/Can’t lose you from my life.” And the lyric, “We used to kiss all night but now there’s just no use?” UGH, the intimacy and sadness of it all just hits me.
When “Losing You” first came out, it was all I listened to. I even wrote a blog post about it. At work, I would put the video on one screen while I clicked away on the other. I told friends and strangers about how much more talented you are than your sister; “She likes indie rock! She covers a Dirty Projectors song!” I’d tell them.
The pairing of you and Dev Hynes, who cowrote and coproduced the song, is a magical one. The two of you were able to create a sound very unique to you, that is an extension of your style and influences. I would also like to thank you for re-introducing me to Hynes, as I have very much enjoyed his work as Lightspeed Champion and especially Blood Orange over the past few years.
And the video! Filmed in South Africa, it is filled with the brightest colors, the most beautiful local scenery and the most fabulously dressed people. You and your friends seem just-out-of-reach hip.
I have tried for years to emulate the pattern-mixing you perfected in the “Losing You” video, but my budget is more clearance Banana Republic than Suno and Kenzo, so I just looked like a very confused chubby schoolteacher.
In 2013, my friend Hilary won tickets to the Sweetlife Festival in DC. She led with, “Do you want to see Solange on Saturday?” realizing I was still hurt I couldn’t go to your 9:30 Club show a few weeks prior. The weather was so weird that day in May: rainy, humid, chilly and hot all at once. Because we are in our thirties, we drank a few craft beers (mostly to hide in the shade), slathered on some sun screen to prevent premature wrinkles, and then headed to the lawn to watch you.
When you played “Losing You,” my friends and I were dancing like the Solange fans we all are. We danced like we didn’t give a shit, which was absolutely true, because we were feeling it. Shortly after I noticed the lawn was full of kids at least 10 years younger than us, all chugging Lime-A-Ritas, and they barely acknowledged THE QUEEN that was performing in front of them. Maybe they were embarrassed to dance around their really cool friends who encouraged them to drink citrus-flavored malt beverages, wear high-waisted shorts that created insane camel toe, and spend $100 on tickets to basically have a boozy lawn party. In any case, your performance was as delightful and fun as something could be at 2 in the afternoon.
I know you have finished your new record and I am really excited to hear it, especially now that you and Dev have made up. I’m not saying you should have “Losing You II” on it, but it wouldn’t hurt. Also, please feel free to book a show in my town. I will be there at least!