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Thoughts Detecting Machines Finds Coping Mechanism In New Album

"That Was the Year That Wasn't" album cover
Rick Valentin
"That Was the Year That Wasn't" album cover

Rick Valentin says dreary central Illinois winter weather is why he began writing and recording new music in January 2020. But that exercise for his solo vehicle, Thoughts Detecting Machines, evolved into an album that acted as a coping mechanism when the pandemic hit.

Rick Valentin is Thoughts Detecting Machines
Credit Rick Valentin
Rick Valentin is Thoughts Detecting Machines

The Bloomington-based frontman for the punk outfit Poster Children says "That Was the Year That Wasn't" is a compilation of 8 singles-- each with an A-side with vocals and an instrumental B-side.

Valentin said that self-imposed structure was very helpful--as he finds making albums overwhelming.

“A lot of times, what I'll do is I'll write all the music, and then I'll have bits and pieces of lyrics,” said Valentin. “And then I'll have a moment where it's like, oh, I have to finish the lyrics for eight to 10 songs, then I'm spending a month and a half really upset.”

He said writing lyrics can be a painful process for him.

“And all of a sudden, when I was doing this, where it was like, Oh, I just have to finish one song with lyrics. And then I have to finish an instrumental. All of a sudden, this small two-song package became really easy. And it kind of shocked me at the end, because I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe I'll put this on an album.’”

"That Was the Year That Wasn't" begins Jan. 1, 2020, when cannabis became legal in Illinois and Valentin penned “Legal. High.” He said it’s one of the most fun songs he’s been involved with.

“Because it's everything that I love and hate about the 80s … kind of encapsulated in one song,” explained Valentin. “I also think there's a certain aspect of my singing style, which I like to think of as a more Lou Reed singing style, but everyone else seems to think I'm more like Fred Schneider from the B-52’s, which is fine. I love Fred Schneider.”

Valentin pointed at Reed while further fleshing out “Legal High,” noting the Velvet Underground front-man revolutionary songs a half-decade ago, including “Heroin” and “Walk on the Wild Side” as a solo artist. Valentin wanted to reverse that idea.

Well, the hippies don't want to buy on the street They’re gonna get their fix from dispensaries They need a doctor's note to say it's OK To waste away another day Everyone’s a kid in this candy store It’s a Brave New World, it’s 1984. Eat me, drink me, vaporize You got nothing to lose You’ve got nothing but time “Legal High” from Thoughts Detecting Machines

“And now, where all of the taboos of that were groundbreaking. It was like, Oh, it's all kind of gone. Like what made underground artists cool, maybe talking about drugs, or talking about alternative lifestyles and everything like that, that's really not so edgy anymore. And in some cases, it's just mainstream. So, I started thinking, ‘Well, how do you write a song that's the polar opposite of that? The idea of legalization, not as freedom, but as once it becomes mainstream and allowed, is it actually a tool for keeping people under control? So that idea that I'm all for legalization, but I also want to make sure that the powers that be aren't using this as a tool to mollify us and not question the world, right? So that idea of some brave new world where you're medicating yourself to deal with the world rather than changing the world. In some cases, the power structures might find that advantageous,” said Valentin.

Each vocal song on “That Was the Year That Wasn’t” has an accompanying instrumental. “Disco 13” is the companion to “Legal High.” Valentin said the two sides are not connected by concept or sound.

“I definitely think of them in terms of that A-side and B-side. My previous record (‘Sound, Noise, and You’), I had done the vocal track and then alternating with an instrumental track, and I liked that model. And I'm also a huge fan of ‘Another Green World’ by Brian Eno, before he kind of split those two areas off where he had his instrumental side and he had his … I don't want to say pop song, but you know, song-based composition and ‘Another Green World’ is a great record where he's exploring both areas, but he hasn't divided those two in half and kind of almost had two musical paths. And they stopped being on the same record” said Valentin.

The 16 songs range from 80s style sprechgesang to psychedelic pop. There’s even a dash of spaghetti western soundtrack and electro krautrock.

As “Legal High” kicks off the year Valentin wishes that wasn’t, he ends with “Look Out for No. 1,” a scathing rebuke of the president that just was.

In my heart I know that it’s a sin To wish ill will on any living thing But you make it so hard for me to be a saint I can’t wait to see you burning at the stake “Look Out For No. 1” from Thoughts Detecting Machines

“Who wrote that,” laughed Valentin at himself. “That person seems a little angry.”

He said he struggles with our current environment as he believes every voice should be heard.

“My metaphor is that idea of being on the bus and it's like, we want everyone on the bus. We want everyone to be able to sit where they want. And that collective, you know, just to put a direct point on it, that's kind of a civil rights ideal, right? That everyone has a voice, and everyone has a place. But then the metaphor I think about now is that if there's somebody on the bus, who's running up to the front, and they're grabbing the steering wheel and saying we need to go over this cliff and they're grabbing the steering wheel away, you might have to say yourself, ‘Well, you know what, maybe everyone shouldn't be on the bus. Maybe people who want to drive the bus off the cliff … we should get him off the bus. And that's a really difficult thing to live with - that contradiction where you want everyone to have a voice and to be equal. But then some people are using that freedom to undermine those ideas. So it makes me angry. And it makes it difficult for me to show love and compassion for someone who is acting completely in their own self-interest.

As the album was a coping mechanism for Valentin, it seemed the title “That Was the Year That Wasn’t” seemed more a reaction to trauma or like waking up from a bad dream.

“Well, there was that old show called 'That Was the Year That Was,' and they would review the year. I was kind of taking off on that idea … where it (the year) existed and we live through that year, but it's also a year a lot of us would like to forget. And there's a little bit of that vaulting, not a little bit. There's kind of a few funereal theme to the cover art. And I started thinking about it more. And it's that idea that when you go through this trauma, and you go through loss, you memorialize it, and you have these mixed feelings, like when you lose someone, you think about all the pain that you experienced losing them, but you also think about all the great times you had, right? So, it kind of illustrates those mixed feelings where it was like … this year existed, but we kind of don't want to relive it. Obviously, we don't want to think too much about it. We want to get beyond it. But it's still an important part of our lives and has profound effects on all of us, I think … and we're going to see how it's changed us all as the years move on.” 


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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.