Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Polly Jean Harvey and the mystery of my barometric iPod


Looks like we have a strong winter PJ Harvey in the jet stream this week.

I'm convinced my iPod has hidden powers that are not disclosed in any instructions, mentioned in any online FAQ, nor even talked about in the halls of the Cupertino Mothership. I think they're so under-the-radar that nobody knows but me…and the guy who enabled these powers. I envision some clever engineer burying hidden features—Easter Eggs—deep in the hardware/software architecture, self-sworn to secrecy until a safe old age wherein the culprit will make a confession to his grandchildren…

"I remember back before they implanted your entire music collection in the cerebral cortex when people use gigantic devices—MP3 players—to store their music. I worked for Apple you know…"

"Yes Gramps, and dinosaurs roamed the earth…you've told us a million times."

"Yeah well your old gramps has a secret that nobody ever found out about. I taught the iPod to think! It sensed people's moods…it made measure of political climates…it even reacted to the weather! THEN it would play the perfect song for such circumstances! It was unheard of…and I made it happen all without anyone knowing! It was genius I tell you!"

"Yeah, yeah gramps…whatevs."

And while the kids of 2043 may not believe it, I'm thoroughly convinced. I've often noticed that my iPod goes into a subdued melancholy mood when it's raining. It kicks in to an excited frenzy en route to happy events. Other times it almost seems to serve up commentary on current events as if it were tuned to news radio.

Case-in-point, during last Monday's nasty rain storm with the war and the economy and the general fuckedupness of everything on my mind—the Pod conjured Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." This is one of the great anti-war-what-the-hell-is-up-with-society songs of all time, the album cover of which features Mr. Gaye standing in what appears to be a downpour wearing a rain coat! The band Lucero followed with "Here at the Starlight," a song so desolately heartbroken and lonely you feel hallow by osmosis. Next was the Weakerthans ode to urban decline amidst the grey of winter called "One Great City," a tale about the slow death of Winnipeg, a Canadian metropolis struggling with long-term economic and social depression.

Conversely, on Saturday's drive up to ride mountain bikes at Demo—a genuinely cheery occasion—it was Parts and Labor's upbeat and sunny "Nowhere Nigh" followed by the Talking Heads' undeniably comfortable "Na├»ve Melody," finished up by Buffalo Tom's "Tangerine," a song that actually produces delicious, easy-to-peel citrus fruit!

A couple weeks ago I happened to turn on the local news radio station to hear a grim report about storms and landslides in Southern California. When they rolled in to an extended commercial break of mattress stores, jewelry shops and medicated powders, I pre-empted with the iPod. The first song to shuffle up—Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood."

I know what you're thinking…that I'm just selectively remembering the tracks that fit the situation. Or that it's all just coincidental. But something so specific happened on Tuesday night that I'm absolutely sure of the iPods predictive powers. As I rearranged things in the yard to start work on a garage project, a freaky little sprint of a storm pelted me with freezing rain/hail. It was the kind of precip that was ice cold yet burnt the skin at the same time. The wind kicked up and got bitter and cutting…almost Midwestern. It felt a bit painful, yes, but real too…like winter should, I thought.

The sting still on my face as I entered the shelter of the garage, I pondered what might be the musical match for such conditions. I powered up the stereo and hit 'Shuffle Songs' on the iPod for the answer.


The best "Rid of Me" I could find online doesn't match the intensity of the original recording, but you get the idea.

The slow guitar build of PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me" started drizzling from the speakers, slowly turning into a steady, cold rain as the rhythm increased to meet Polly Jean's subdued voice. The pleading backing vocals kick-in quiet-but-cold at first—"Lick my legs, I'm on fire; Lick my legs, I'm on fire"—giving way to a few more angry lines from Polly until the chorus rips in, guitars and drums and vocals blasting in an angry, cold, biting hail that burns like frozen rain on the face—"DON'T YOU, DON'T YOU WISH YOU, NEVER, NEVER MET HER," she screams. Her voice re-quiets then shifts to a wicked shrill the way a gust of cold wind runs through the formality of clothing until building it all up for another round of chorus that dies with an anguished reprise of "Lick my legs." After which, I assume, an exhausted and near-frozen PJ retreats to the relative shelter of her garage.

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