March is my favorite time of the year. College basketball madness begins and I start coaching again (this year it was ultimate frisbee, not the usual track and field), and I absolutely adore the emotions that go with that. Furthermore, the weather gets nicer, my birthday comes along, and I can walk around in my trademark look tiny running shorts.
The month got off to a stellar start. Final Fantasy VII Remake dropped, I played frisbee for two hours everyday with a hilarious and wonderful group of kids, and I was finally feeling like I was hitting my stride in my first year as a teacher. Alas, I had to adapt and learn how to teach all over again when we switched to virtual learning in that 3rd week of March. Relationships with my kids changed, and I could not go to a bar for a drink on my birthday. Still, I was pretty ignorant and unconcerned about COVID-19. Upon my word, the naiveté. Little did I know.
I coped with social distancing about as well as expected. I poured hundreds–no, thousands–of hours into video games. I got so masochistic that even after I finished The Last of Us 2 I started playing Dark Souls. TLOU2 is among the most miserable and depressing gaming experiences of my life, and following that up with what I can only call as the most punishing, hair-ripping, controller-destroying game franchise of all time was downright sadistic of me. I lied in the dark with my cat embedded in my armpit watching dark things like The Wire and the news. I didn’t exercise, barely ate, felt my eyeballs melt out of my head Indiana Jones style on Zoom, and even downloaded Tinder again, which, why? On top of that, the killings and protests in Philadelphia and the world along with the election year was, well, stressful. To put it mildly.
All of this isn’t to say that my situation is unique. COVID-19 has wrecked the world in ways we have yet to understand. My heart reaches out to everyone affected. But the point is I neglected a lot of my mental and physical health, and a core pillar of my self-care and healthy medication is music. Instead of losing myself in books while blasting music, going for walks while blasting music, driving with the windows down blasting music, I religiously listened to podcasts for the first time, something I have never done before (I know, I know) and consumed media that wasn’t enough of an escape.
Obligatory aside and shoutout to The Mandalorian and my cat though. That show and her are perfect, and I love them forever for the glorious magic you brought me this year. Grogu, Din Djarin, and Manchitas, you are the MVP’s of 2020.
To continue, music is my haven. Even if it’s doom metal or dark and brooding electronic, it helps me work through myself, the good and the bad. Relative to most of my life, I barely listened to music this year, let alone new songs, and I realized I was essentially ignoring a therapist or support group. A horrid mistake, but in the last month I have remedied this. I have been catching up on the year’s big releases, but among my favorites have been The Spice Cabinet’s Adventures of Pie Boy.
Jazz is great, but I do not normally seek it out, and I was skeptical. While Spice Cabinet’s debut was a cover compilation of works by some personal faves such as Dido, Frank Ocean, and the like, it simply wasn’t all that memorable. The Adventures of Pie Boy, however, is a tight 40 minutes of original compositions and it just might be the only thing from 2020 that I wish would last longer. Four of the tracks are interludes, and the other six almost have more to say. This gives the album a lot of room to breathe in a live setting, which for a large jazz ensemble like Spice Cabinet, I am more than sure will happen. Yes, my kindred musical spirit, someday live music and jam session parties will return. Hang in there and stay positive!
That command in a certain context is insensitive and condescending, but not so for Pie Boy. The first track “Stick it to Ya,” was Pie Boy themselves telling me to lift the blinds, get out of bed, and go for an adventure, which I did. I found myself dancing into the kitchen for some tea. When was the last time I had heard a song that genuinely sounded joyous?
Turned out it’s not even the happiest song on the album. A word on that in a moment, but halfway through middle track “Pie Boy Moon Bone,” the album surprisingly slows down into a flute and subtle acoustic riff. For a moment this seems to be a jarring decision, if not for the consonance of what immediately follows, “Bittersweet.”
Featuring The Orchid Quartet, “Bittersweet,” is a gorgeously sprawling track that centers on dulcet spoken word performed by Kate Ettinger and Diana Lizhao. Bringing in these six women is a brilliant decision that makes the song work in the middle of the complimentary, higher tempo arranged pieces. With Spice Cabinet, it seems there truly cannot be too many cooks.
Had the album remained subdued, it would had suffered, but de facto closing track, “Sugoi Smash,” is superb. Sugoi roughly translates to “amazing,” and it is filled with homages to classic video game tunes making the title almost read “Super Smash,” a classic Nintendo staple. The track simply shines, and after playing so many video games this year that were not delightful, (except for Animal Crossing and FFVII), “Sugoi Smash” reminded me why I love the medium so much.
The video for “Bittersweet” is similar to a lot of videos this year: different squares with individual musicians playing alone in their own spaces. A painful reminder that we still cannot fully share music together. The editing is terrific, and all of the different faces and instruments blend almost psychedelically. It’s not a numbing sensory overload, but appropriate and comforting in the way an ensemble like The Spice Cabinet plays their music, together and joyously.
So hard put ones finger on the passage of time / the days mercilessly ticking by, unrelenting / the feeling of only having so much time / wondering how much of it may have been wasted / like so many grains of sand in an hour glass / finite in number, more precious than diamond dustKate Ettinger & Diana Lizhao, “Bittersweet,” The Adventures of Pie Boy, The Spice Cabinet, 2020