Unca John has found the theme song for the midlife crisis”

Review of "How the Hell?", The Other Side Reviews

Unca John's vocals slice through the air, delivering lyrics that cut like a razor”

Review of "Your Opinion", Last Day Deaf


I'm a middle-aged economics professor living in the Baltimore suburbs, with all the fashion sense and charisma you would expect from an economics professor.  I'm an average singer at best.  I can't even play guitar or piano.  So what am I doing here?  

The answer is in the songs. I write in the classic style—get ready for catchy riffs, hooks, harmonies and acid-tongued wordplay.   You’ll hear all that and more in my singles, “How the Hell?”, "Your Opinion" and "Replaced by Robots", and in my debut album “Midlife Crisis Vanity Project.” 

My influences include the Beatles, Who, Stones, Velvets, Steely Dan, Costello, Buzzcocks, XTC, REM, Nirvana, and Pavement.  These are the bands that formed my musical sensibility, so naturally my sound tends towards retro.  Nevertheless, I am inspired by the recent resurgence of great rock songwriting by Car Seat Headrest, Alvvays, Brittany Howard, Mitski, Big Thief, Snail Mail,  Soccer Mommy and many others. 

I'm a card-carrying band nerd (sax and clarinet), and I’ve been writing and playing jazz and choral music most of my life.  I started recording rock songs a couple of years ago, once I realized that I can generate any guitar or keyboard sound I want using a laptop, Audacity, music notation and Guitar Pro 7.5 (the best $70 I’ve ever spent).   I bought an AKG mike to record myself on vocals, sax and drums.  So my music isn't exactly garage rock or bedroom pop, more like kitchen table rock.   

All songs written, produced, programmed and performed by John Shea, except "Replaced by Robots", lyrics by John Shea and Mike Ramsay.

Mastering and mixing by Andrew Young @ Elevatedsound.com.  Artwork by Krystal Penney @ Strange Paradise Design.  Photography by my best friend and wife, April Lee.  

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Queen City Sounds and Art reviews "Your Opinion"

The Denver-based music and culture blog Queen City Sounds and Art has weighed in with their review of “Your Opinion”.  Referring to the song's combination of wry humor with songcraft, the review compares “Your Opinion” to Camper Van Beethoven, a…

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Album Reviews on Buffablog and Edgar Allan Poets

The first two reviews of my debut album Midlife Crisis Vanity Project are now available on line.  The first comes from Nick Sessanna of Buffalo-based culture blog Buffablog.   He notes that the album is “full of classic rock, jangly pop,

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It's Album Release Day!

My complete debut album Midlife Crisis Vanity Project is now out!  Ten tracks, 43 minutes of music, all original songs.  I feel like this is the most worthwhile thing I have ever created, music or otherwise.  If you know me…

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York Calling review of "Replaced By Robots"

Jane Hawkins of the British music blog York Calling has reviewed my music before, and is back with her take on my latest single “Replaced By Robots”.  She notes that “The track is extremely catchy, having quite an upbeat, positive

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Earmilk reviews "Replaced By Robots"

Natalie Patrick of the major music blog Earmilk has weighed in with her review of “Replaced By Robots”.   The key takeaway: This spirited indie-rock track is infused with contagious retro power-pop vibes, driven by irresistible rhythm and lead guitar

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Thoughts In My Head

Long Live Pitchfork (and what's in my CD case) 

You may have heard that the inflential music blog Pitchfork (https://pitchfork.com/) recently became a subdivision of GQ magazine.  As of now, Pitchfork is still posting music reviews and news just like before.  Nevertheless, some articles have sounded the death knell for Pitchfork and for music criticism more generally, such as this interesting piece from The Verge by Elizabeth Lopatto: 


Lopatto traces Pitchfork's history, noting that its favorable reviews “broke” many important indie bands during its heyday in the 2000s, such as Arcade Fire and The National.  She discusses several structural reasons for Pitchfork's recent decline in revenues and viewership.  First, the music business is less lucrative now that streaming has replaced CDs as the dominant medium, so record label advertising budgets have shrunk.  Second, those smaller budgets are increasingly devoted to targetted ads on Facebook and other social media, where labels can target people who already like a particular artist or genre.   Third, artists are able to communicate news about upcoming tours or releases directly to fans through social media, so blogs are no longer as important as sources of music news.  Finally, Spotify and other playlist curators are increasingly replacing blogs as gatekeepers.  Two decades ago, you might have read Pitchfork or Spin to learn about new music; now, you hear it on your favorite playlist, and there are thousands of playlists that are tailored to whatever genres and niches that you like.  

If Lopatto is correct and Pitchfork and other blogs are doomed, I believe this is a sad and ominous development for the future of music.  I think independent-minded, opinionated and thoughtful blogs like Pitchfork still have an important role in introducing new music to the public, one that will not be filled by social media and streaming services.  

I am an old man who sometimes yells at clouds, but I don't subscribe to the stereotypical view that “music was better in the old days”.  I don't like much of contemporary Top 40, but there are plenty of great indie rock bands to come along in the last decade whose music I follow (and buy) avidly.  And the way I learned about Alvvays, Weyes Blood, Black Midi, Mitski and so many other artists was by reading about them on Pitchfork, Obscure Sounds and other blogs, especially their year-end and decade-end “Best of” lists.   

It has never been easier to record and distribute music, and as a result there is a flood of new music released every day on Spotify.   Frankly, most of it is not good, but some of it is great.  We need gatekeepers to filter out the good from the bad and to let the world know who is worth listening, especially new artists who need attention and nurturing, lest their music sink into obscurity or, worse, never be created in the first place.  

But why do we need blogs?  Why can't playlist curators fulfill the same function?  To some extent, they do--new artists can submit their tracks directly to Spotify for consideration on their own “editorial” playlists, which have a high volume of listeners, and websites like SubmitHub allow you to submit tracks to both blogs and other playlists for consideration.  But there are important differences between blogs and playlists.  First, playlists only feature singles, while blogs also review albums.  I've wrtten before about why I think albums are still an essential medium for music.  

Second, and more important, blogs are more likely to recognize and promote original, quirky, groundbreaking music than playlists, because they face different incentives.  Playlists make money by fostering continued engagement.  The worst thing that can happen on a playlist is that someone hears a song they don't like and switches to another channel.  Curators are thus incentivized to play it safe, to play songs that are already familiar or that fit safely into the playlist's established vibe.  Playlists would rather add a song that fades into the background than a song that stands out and sounds different.  An edgy track might really appeal to some listeners, but it will drive others away, and avoiding the latter outcome is more important to curators than achieving the former outcome.  So playlists tend to be conservative.  They encourage new artists to sound like bands that are already popular, and to fit comfortably into a particular niche and vibe.  

Blogs, meanwhile, have an incentive to be provocative, to draw attention to things that are truly new.  They thrive on passionate fans who come back to find new things.   Pitchfork gained notoreity by doing outrageous, attention-getting things, such as giving Radiohead's Kid A a perfect 10/10 score while giving other records 0/10.  Blogs want to be known for breaking new bands, especially bands that are weird or quirky, bands that don't fit comfortably into one genre or create a new genre unto themselves.  Bands that are really just 59-year old economics professors ranting about things that they think are stupid.  (Ok, maybe the last example is idiosyncratic).  

Put it this way--if you want new music that sounds just like existing music, then go ahead and listen to whatever playlists give you.  If you want new music that actually is challenging and original and exciting, go read Pitchfork and other blogs while you still can.

Or maybe I can be your gatekeeper.  Here is what I've been listening to lately, old and new.  

Alex G, House of Sugar

The Band, Stage Fright

Black Midi, Cavalcade

The Breeders, Last Splash

Feeble Little Horse, Girl With a Fish

Game Theory, Big Shot Chronicles

S.G. Goodman, Teeth Marks

Mitski, This Land Is Inhospitabe and So Are We

Steeleye Span, Parcel of Rogues

Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

Ron Wood. Boulders 



The Grammys (and What's In My CD Case) 

The Grammy Awards will be presented tonight.  Ordinarily I do not care about this.   My brother Tom, an actor/singer on the Chicago theater scene (and far more gifted than me), thinks that all competitive artistic awards are a waste of time, because it is impossible to compare works of art against each other.  I agree with the latter point, especially when it comes to music, which is fragmented into so many distinct genres--how are you supposed to compare a good album by Kendrick Lamar against a good album by Taylor Swift?   Apples and oranges.   

Nevertheless, I think that some award shows (like the Tonys and the Oscars) are useful in helping to guide audiences towards worthwhile but less commercial work that they might not otherwise have seen.  In recent years, for instance, I doubt that I would have seen Minari or Triangle of Sadness had they not been nominated for Best Picture.  

Unfortunately, the Grammys rarely serve the function of helping introduce audiences to good work, because they are usually very conservative and market-driven in choosing nominees and winners for the main categories (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year).   In a typical year, all of the nominees are already well-known and have sold a lot of records.  They don't need the exposure of the Grammys.   Moreover, Grammy nominations inevitably gravitate towards the most popular genres (pop, hip hop) that don't appeal to me in the first place.  I wouldn't be interested in the Oscars either if the nominees were mostly superhero, action and horror movies.  

I don't have a theory for why the Grammys are generally so useless, although I suspect the answer would be similar to the related question of why music criticism is less successful as a gatekeeper relative to (say) movie criticism.  For any new movie that comes out with any studio backing, you can quickly read a review in the local paper and you can learn a broader set of opinions from IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, and in general the critics do a good job identifying and promoting good work by lesser-known, underbudgeted artists.   Wouldn't it be great if there was an Internet Music Database that served the same function?

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this is that this year, I actually have a rooting interest in the Grammys:  The Record by Boygenius, the indie-folk-rock “supergroup” made up of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, is up for seven Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year (the latter for the standout track “Not Strong Enough”).  It's a terrific record, definitely worthy of recognition, and maybe, just maybe, it will get some young people to get off the dance floor for a change and actually listen to some of the great indie rock music that young bands are making these days.  It's fitting that Boygenius has the chance to be the tip of the spear for getting younger audiences back into rock music, because most of the good bands that have come out in recent years are women-led (and many of them are also queer).   

Speaking of which, here are some of the records that have graced by CD Case in the last few months.  Few if any of these artists have ever won a Grammy.  

Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Boygenius, The Record

Cate Le Bon, Reward

Game Theory, Real Nighttime

Little Feat, Sailin' Shoes

Mitski, Laurel Hell

Queens of the Stone Age, R

Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

Sufjan Stevens, Javelin (my vote for Album of the Year for 2023)



Why albums? (And what's in my CD case?) 

We are supposedly living in the golden age of singles.  Listeners nowadays mostly get their music from streaming services, no longer buy CDs, and mostly want to listen to playlists featuring singles from lots of artists that capture a particular vibe.  As I was preparing to release my music this summer, I read a bunch of books and blog posts about the modern music industry.  They all agreed that the best strategy is to release a new single every 6-8 weeks, year round, year after year, with no breaks.  Albums are an afterthought; nobody pays attention to them unless they are by megastars like Beyonce or Taylor Swift.  

Maybe I'm just old school, but I still think that albums are important.  I have never listened to a playlist or a mixtape in my life.  I sometimes listen to music on the radio, but most of the time I am listening to full albums, ideally in a single sitting.  I don't feel like I know an artist's music until I've listened to one or more of their albums multiple times.  

Why are albums important?  If you have 10 good songs recorded, why not just release 10 singles?  Why listen to an album all at once?  I have two answers.  

FIRST:  albums have room for a broader range of expression than singles.  Most successful singles have to fit a certain mold:  they should be short (2-4 minutes), energetic, immediately appealing, and danceable.  Lyrically they should be easy to follow and inoffensive--unless you are a hip-hop artist, in which case your lyrics must be hard-edged and use a lot of jargon to create a mystique.  

These were the rules back in the days of AM radio, but in the age of Spotify there is an additional rule, which is that your single's sound has to fit squarely into one or more high-traffic playlists, which usually specialize in narrow subgenres.  There are playlists that play jangle pop, and they only want music that sounds like Alvvays.  There are playlists that play dream pop, and they only want music that sounds like Beach House.  I love both of those bands, but I don't think slavishly copying an existing style is a way to make great music.  

Albums are where good musicians can spread out and make music in a variety of styles and moods.  I love the Beatles' singles, but some of their best songs were not cut out to be singles--“A Day in the Life” is too long, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is too downbeat, “Here, There and Everywhere” doesn't have much of a dance beat.   Elvis Costello is my favorite living songwriter, but most of his songs are too ornery and complex to succeed as singles (and he only made the top 40 a couple of times in his career).  

I did release three singles from my new album Midlife Crisis Vanity Project.  Two of them ("How the Hell" and “Replaced By Robots”) followed the rules, while the third ("Your Opinion") was too political and has gotten less attention (lesson learned).  But my favorite tracks on the album are probably “Subway” and “Wyoming”.  I didn't release “Subway” as a single because it's downbeat and because the lyrics are ironic (a fact that seems to have been lost on at least one reviewer, who thinks that the song is actually supposed to be a paean to Subway).  I didn't release “Wyoming” as a single because it's over 6 minutes long, and because lyrically it's a dystopian political ballad that requires careful listening to follow.  

SECOND:  an album can add up to more than the sum of its parts.  While most albums (including mine) are just a collection of unrelated songs, sometimes an album has an overarching theme that gives it an extra layer of gravitas.  This is most obvious for narrative albums like Tommy, The Wall, and American Idiot, but there are more subtle examples as well.  Consider Bob Marley's masterpiece Exodus.  Every track is perfect on its own terms, but the song placement creates a spiritual journey--side one features songs of struggle ("Natural Mystic", “The Heathen” and the title track), while side two focuses on love songs--first erotic love ("Jammin", “Waiting in Vain”) and finally universal love ("Three Little Birds", “One Love”).   Another example is the modern masterpiece Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest.  The individual tracks are all great, but only by listening to the entire album can you hear the intricate pattern of linkages across songs--virtually every track refers to or is referenced by another track on the album, often in unexpected and exciting ways.   

So I will continue to treasure albums.  Now that I have tracks on Spotify, I have the privilege of creating my own “artist playlist”.  Mine is called “The Best Song Wasn't the Single” (borrowing a line from Frank Ocean's “Sweet Life”), and it features 100 percent killer album tracks that were never released as singles, from great bands and performers old and new, no more than one track per artist.  Give it a listen, and long live the album!

Speaking of albums…Here are the albums that have been in my CD case for the last couple of weeks: 

Alex G, God Save the Animals

Black Midi, Hellfire

The Band, Northern Lights, Southern Cross

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Face the Truth

Sigur Ros, With a Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly (the one with the naked guys running on the cover)

Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt

Weyes Blood, And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow

What Happened to My CD Case? July 2023 

My normal CD listening habits were disrupted this month, for two reasons.  (1) My car hood got totalled by a flying metal object.  Fortunately nobody was hurt, but my car was in the shop for almost a month.  (2) I visited my Mom in Northern Michigan.  So I spent over a month in rental cars with no CD player.   

But all turned out well.  I was looking for a college radio station on the left of the FM dial and instead stumbled upon WTMD (89.7), an Adult Album Alternative (AAA) format station in the Baltimore area that I had not been aware of before.  I grew up listening to AAA stations like WXRT in Chicago and WFNX in Boston.  When I moved to Maryland in 1996, WHFS was the closest substitute, but when they converted to Latin music in 2005 I stopped listening to the radio.  (Yes, DC-101 was still around, but every time I listened to them over the years it seems their playlist was the same as it was in 1996.) 

So it was a pleasure to find WTMD, which says that “TMD” stands for “Total Music Discovery".  They operate out of Towson, so I supsect that originally TMD stood for “Towson, Maryland”.  In any case, they are listener supported , no commercials, and play lots of new indie music including music by Baltimore area bands.   

Alas I have never found an AAA station in Northern Michigan.   In my many years of driving in the Traverse City area, I have found sports radio, NPR stations playing classical music, pop stations, country stations, and classic rock stations that play Kid Rock at least once an hour.   So this time, I paid the rental company extra for satellite radio, and discovered SiriusXMU (channel 35).  They play new and classic music by underground and indie artists, and their definition of “indie” includes both bands on small labels and unsigned artists that have nothing more than a good song on Bandcamp.   They have half-hour “studio concerts” (Alex G was featured the week I was listening).  

I'm not going to stop listening to CDs in my car--I still think that once you've found someone you like, it makes sense to listen to a lot of their music in a focused, intentional way.  But it was good to be reminded that it's good to take a radio break every now and then (assuming you have a good station to listen to).  It's a great way to be introduced to new bands (or new-to-me, anyway).  I will definitely check out more of Michigander, Yot Club and Beirut, for example…and on the other hand, I learned about some much-hyped new bands that probably aren't worth my time, which is also useful to know before I plunk down money for a CD.  

What's In My CD Case? May 2023 

Alright, I'm old school.  I still listen to albums all the way through, and most of the time I listen to them on CD in my car.  Yes, my car still has a CD player.  In fact, I bought my car (2019 Toyota Corolla) exactly BECAUSE it was one of the only cars available that had a CD player as a standard feature.  

So, if you want to know what I'm listening to at any given time, you need to know what's in my car's CD case.  I usually have about 10 albums in rotation.  If I already know an album well and just felt like listening to it, I will only listen to it once, but mostly I like to explore.  I will keep new albums in rotation for 4-6 weeks, until they are old friends.   Unless it annoys me so much that I can't make it through even a single listen.   Those albums are not mentioned below.  

If you are a boomer or GenXer, hopefully this list will give you some ideas of newer rock bands that you should check out, because rock and roll is not dead no matter what you hear.  If you are a Millenial or GenZ, hopefully you will be inspired to explore the great rock bands of the past.  

MAY 2023

  1. The Fall, Bend Sinister (1986)
  2. Snail Mail, Valentine (2022)
  3. Alvvays (2014)
  4. Mitski, Puberty 2 (2016)
  5. Cate LeBon, Pompeii (2022)
  6. The Guess Who, Canned Wheat (1969)
  7. Beach House, Teen Dream (2010)
  8. Car Seat Headrest, Twin Fantasy:  Face to Face (2018)
  9. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (2022)
  10. Soccer Mommy, Sometimes, Forever (2022)