Wednesday, December 31, 2008

F Buttons, "Bright Tomorrow" (#5)

"Bright Tomorrow"
(Andrew Hung/Benjamin John Power)
F Buttons
Street Horrrsing

This band from Bristol with a terrible (and unpronounceable, at least on this blog that potential employers might see) name nevertheless creates some of the most oddly beautiful music I've ever heard. Their debut LP, Street Horrrsing, probably doesn't contain more than three chords (and quite possibly fewer!), and each individual element is by itself either boring or harsh.

But you put them together and you get sublimity itself, something akin to Philip Glass joining a punk band. "Bright Tomorrow" is the best example. It's nearly eight minutes long and repeats the same three notes over and over again, with only three instruments: an organ, a kick drum, a heavily flanged guitar, and a louder, more distorted guitar that doesn't kick in for quite some time.

And yet it's hypnotic, and it contains a sense of motion that goes far beyond what you'd expect from my description. By the time the vocals kick in (screamed and unintelligible, but put far enough in the mix where they feel more textured than abrasive), you don't need them to. You could listen to those same three notes forever.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nana Grizol, "Circles 'Round the Moon"

"Circles 'Round the Moon"
(Theo Hilton)
Nana Grizol
Love It Love It

Athens is a weird place when it comes to the night sky. (It's weird in a lot of other ways, too, but bear with me.) I live in an apartment complex on the East side of the city--far, far away from the usually drunk undergraduates who pepper the neighborhoods nearer to campus--and while I'm sometimes blinded by light pollution from gas stations and fast-food restaurants, the sky is occasionally as clear as I've ever seen it. Sometimes I'm trapped by civilization. Sometimes it lets me by.

Fellow Athenians Nana Grizol seem to know what I mean, as they take their obvious shots at Atlanta ("City lights feel so awful / It should be unlawful to live where you can't see the stars") in favor of something rural enough for the Pleiades but urban enough for indie rock. But the song's about more than that--it's about growing up but not quite, losing your friends but not quite, wasting your time but not quite. It's about liminality, the type I thrived on when I was twenty or so.

I'm not a huge fan of the rest of Love It Love It, incidentally--Theo Hilton succumbs way too often to Kimya Dawson-style cutesy vocals. But here's manic here, a bit, perhaps, like Will Sheff or Conor Oberst but more optimistic. He's not drowning, as Sheff was on "Lost Coastlines"--he's lying on his back on the life raft, looking at the sky and realizing the ultimate possibilities of rescue.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Land of Talk, "Some Are Lakes" (#7)

"Some Are Lakes"
(Elizabeth Powell)
Land of Talk
Some Are Lakes

Here's a great newish band (from Montreal, of course, like every newish band of the past five years) with a fantastic, pretense-free pop song. It's the best of early R.E.M. filtered through the best of their '90s and '00s imitators--jangly but propulsive, cheerily melodic but dark somehow beneath the surface.

I'll confess that I generally don't like bands with female singers. I'd like to think it's less misogyny than the fact that I can't sing along with them. (This may also explain why I count Johnny Cash lower than most of his outlaw peers.) But I couldn't sing along with these lyrics anyway. It's fun to watch message boards try to collective figure out what on earth Liz Powell is singing here.

So she's stealing Michael Stipe's act (circa 1983) from him. And you know what? It works, and "Some Are Lakes" is way, way better than anything on R.E.M.'s 2008 Accelerate and maybe--and I'll risk the scorn of rock historians and Athenians alike here--better than anything on Murmur. Powell is hypnotic in the way Stipe was in his salad days, and sexy to boot. The only lyric I can make out is "I'll love you like I love you--then I'll die." I'm not sure what that means, but I wouldn't mind hearing Powell sing it to me on my deathbed.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Interlude: A Brief Meditation on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

1940's Fantasia is a high-water mark in animation history--Disney has rarely topped it, and no full-length animated film from any other studio has even come close. Nearly every moment of the film (at least the animated portions, all of them wordless or nearly wordless) is sublime, and the concept--introducing children (and the rest of us) to classical music via animation--is brilliant.

All of the segments are gorgeous, but none is more beloved than "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," set to the Dukas classic and starring Disney's flagship character, Mickey Mouse. It is unusual in Mickey's canon in that he is something of a troublemaker and a screw-up; these traits were common in early shorts like "Plane Crazy" and especially "The Galloping Gaucho" (in which our hero gets drunk and starts a bar-fight!), but the 1930s found Mickey becoming increasingly bland, an everyman for obedient children.

Mickey is here the everyman for all of us, particularly those of us in the West with a vested interest in science. Perhaps no man believed in progress more than Walt Disney, a subject I've written about more-or-less extensively elsewhere. But progress has its dark side. One day I will complete my dream project about Walt's conflicted attitude toward technological progress, but for now I'll advise you to take a look at the much-maligned but well-beloved (in my family, anyway) Carousel of Progress, in which the more things change, the more they stay the same--the technology keeps breaking down, and the show ends with a Smart Oven nearly burning down the house.

And so we come to 1940, one year after J. Robert Oppenheimer began his Manhattan Project, the research opportunity that would eventually level two Japanese cities and burn their citizens' shadows into the sidewalks. I am not sure about the public awareness of the embryonic atom bomb in the early 1940s, but nuclear awareness was on the rise, with the American military frightened about a possible Nazi bomb.

That growing public awareness of the split atom shows up in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," perhaps the darkest short Disney has ever released. (My fiancee is deathly afraid of it.) It's anarchic in a way that Disney is rarely anarchic, frightening in a way matched only by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' wicked queen (who, let us not forget, wants Snow White to be "BURIED ALIVE!!!") and Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent, one of film history's greatest villains.

But the revolution is that the villain in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is Mickey Mouse himself, the blandest and best of all everymen--perhaps foolish but ethically above reproach. (Walt Disney noted that Mickey wishes to share the spotlight with his friends, introducing and then playing second fiddle to Donald Duck and Goofy.) In this short, however, he commits Satan's cardinal sin, the absolute worst thing a mouse or a man can do--he plays God. He puts on the hat reserved for the Sorcerer, and he climbs the mountain and controls the seas. He splits the atom. He introduces an incredible evil into the world, an evil that cannot be stopped or controlled, an evil that multiplies indefinitely until only God or the Sorcerer can halt its march.

And so with the nuclear age. The tragic realism of the atom bomb (I'll not take a stand on whether Truman should have ordered its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) gave way to the nuclear hysteria of the 1950s and '60s. It created a world of horrible possibility, a world that, as many a historian has noted, we could destroy for the first time ever. And maybe the Sorcerer will save us with minimal punishment (he just swats Mickey on his behind, almost lovingly)--or maybe he'll let us drown.

Fantasia seems to anticipate this terrible progression. And so I must again suspect that Walt Disney was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation--perhaps even a prophet of sorts, envisioning not only the great interstellar flight of mankind but our capacity (and maybe desire) for self-destruction.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Glen Campbell, "All I Want Is You" (#8)

"All I Want Is You"
(Adam Clayton/David Evans/Larry Mullen Jr./Paul Hewson)
Glen Campbell
Meet Glen Campbell

Best I can tell, the success of the stripped-down covers comeback record depends largely upon the amount of credibility the artist had in his salad days. Thus, Johnny Cash's American Recordings series will probably go down as his best albums ever, and Kris Kristofferson's This Old Road ended up as a worthy addition to his catalogue--whereas Neil Diamond's 12 Songs was overwrought and top-heavy. (The less said about Pat Boone's mid-'90s comeback, No More Mister Nice Guy, the better.)

And so take a moment and think about how bad Meet Glen Campbell could have been. My generation, after all, chiefly knows Glen Campbell from his ridiculous 1975 smash "Rhinestone Cowboy," the title of which is both setup and punchline. And after Campbell's arrest for drunk driving a few years ago, I was pretty sure we'd heard the last of him.

And "All I Want Is You" should have been the worst of the bunch. It's a nice enough song, but (a) the U2 original encourages Bono-ian caterwauling and posing; and (b) its inclusion on Campbell's record is bound to draw comparison to Cash's amazing cover of "One," from American Recordings III. Campbell was going to wear a suit made of mirrors, wink, and sing, and we were all going to want our four minutes back.

What a surprise then that Campbell turns in one of the best vocal performances of his career. Campbell, it's true, always has his chest puffed out a bit--he's a good singer, but he comes from an era where "good" to some extent meant bombastic and coke-fueled. But it totally works for him here. His vocals are actually more subdued and nuanced than Bono's, and the country-pop arrangement suits the song better than I expected it to. And thank the Lord, it's more "Wichita Lineman" (still a great song, no matter how much people make fun of it) than "Rhinestone Cowboy."

The important thing is that for whatever reason, Campbell's past, both personal and professional, gives him the credence to sing these lines and make them sound genuine: "All the promises we make / From the cradle to the grave / When all I want is you." Maybe we want you, too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lackthereof, "Last November" (#9)

"Last November"
(Danny Seim)
Your Anchor

Lackthereof was never a pop band. I have a few of their records, and at the best they're mildly catchy--but more often they're awash in reverb and tremelo, as though Danny Seim's home studio were at the bottom of some lake. I'm not sure if it's the influence of Seim's other band, Menomena (themselves a long way from Big Star, let alone Britney Spears), but he has a melodic breakthrough all throughout Your Anchor, and it's most visible on "Last November."

The verses sound like prototypical Lackthereof--the droning organ, the crisp drums, and the double-tracked, mumbling vocals. But then the chorus kicks in, and for once it's a chorus you can sing along with: "Going going going going going." Sure, it doesn't say anything concrete, but it's clear and open and backed by U2 guitars. I like it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dr. Dog, "Hang On" (#10)

"Hang On"
(Toby Leaman/Scott McMicken)
Dr. Dog

So we enter the top 10 with Dr. Dog's "Hang On," the type of song Paul McCartney would write if he still wrote good songs--oh, and if he were obsessed with death and gospel music.

"Hang On," best I can figure, is about people needing people and not needing to need those people or at least not wanting to need to need those people. These relationships are formed in crisis--and most of life, I suppose, is composed of crises--but they grow mossy and stale once "the drowning stops."

But the real story is the singer (I got my copy of this album from emusic and don't know who sings or plays which instrument) and his plaintive wail. I'm a sucker for theatricality, I guess, and when he holds out the note, I'm hooked: "I don't neeeeeeeeeeed no doctor to tear me aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall apart." McCartney couldn't have said it or sang it any better.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ponytail, "Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel" (#11)

"Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)"
(Jeremy Hyman/Ken Seeno/Molly Siegel/Dustin Wong)
Ice Cream Spiritual

Victoria always says there are two types of people--lyrics people and music people. I used to be a lyrics person, but as time goes by (and as this list attests in multiple places) I find myself caring much less about what a song attempts to "say" and more and more about how it feels

And so we come to number eleven, Ponytail's "Celebrate the Body Electric," a seven-minute blast of pink noise and energy with absolutely nothing of value to say. The music says it all, between Molly Siegel's (surely artificially architectured) Camille vocals and the sheer volume and speed of the guitars. The resulting noise is somewhere in between bluegrass, heavy metal, and surf, with a good dose of noise rock thrown in.

It's almost more than I can bear, seven minutes of it, and the band--obviously either knowing that civilians can't handle this kind of energy or not being able to keep up the speed themselves--have thoughtfully provided us with brief breaks in intensity, in which the drums all but drop out and the guitars play gentle arpeggios. But those sections only make the noise more obvious, more glorious--you're ready for them to be over when they are.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Morning Jacket, "I'm Amazed" (#12)

"I'm Amazed"
(Jim James)
My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges

My Morning Jacket were always far more informed by 1970s commercial rock than the vast majority of their indie rock peers, but they reach new heights in that influence in "I'm Amazed," which begins with big drums and guitar noodling before Jim James bursts in with a Southern rock scream: "I'm amaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazed at the quiet ocean."

It's a political song, I guess, as James finds himself amazed "by the divided nation" and "the lack of evolution." But its message, as is true of so many songs this year, comes second to the sound of the song. It bobs and weaves, anchored by heavy bass and what sounds like a clavichord (although it could just be a distorted guitar) but buoyed at nearly all times by James' vocals.

And given the '70s influence on the song, you shouldn't be surprised (or amazed) by James' rock scream at the end of the second verse or by the Skynyrd guitar solo throughout. This song sounds like the best musical moments from my childhood; it doesn't sound anything like Dobie Gray's version of "Drift Away," but that's what it feels like to me: hearing Gray plead for the beat in the front seat of my father's company car as we were on the way to some trout farm or another.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Okkervil River, "Lost Coastlines" (#13)

"Lost Coastlines"
(Will Sheff)
Okkervil River
The Stand Ins

I finally got on the bandwagon and discovered Okkervil River this year. It's really a shame that "Plus Ones" from 2007's The Stage Names didn't come out this year--I listened to it probably a hundred times, and it would almost certainly be my favorite of 2008.

"Lost Coastlines" isn't quite as good, but it's got the same appealing sadness, masked by Will Sheff's witticisms and frantic pace. Listen to that jaunty bassline, and then listen to the melancholic strings that layer over it in the final minute and a half of the song, and you'll know everything you need to know about the ability of "Lost Coastlines" to mix the manic and the depressive.

Meanwhile, we're also given the contrast between the hyperactive, obsessive, paranoid yelp of Will Sheff and the cool, collected, sarcastic croon of Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg. They mix together and somehow end up saying something deeper and more meaningful than either of them could have managed on his own.

Sheff never lets up on his frantic rhymes, but it'll feel like the intensity decreases when Meiburg's vocals kick in. It doesn't. Sheff is the wave, Meiburg the undertow. Both of them drag you further and further away from the shore.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Lie Down Here and Be My Girl" (#14)

"Lie Down Here and Be My Girl"
(Nick Cave)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!

It's not surprising that the sick mind that brought us "Red Right Hand" and "The Mercy Seat" would write "Lie Down Here and Be My Girl," which is less a romantic come-on than a threat of necrophilia. It's not a murder ballad exactly, but Cave's unleashed sexuality has a definite edge of danger in it, from the screeching guitars to his mumbled/screamed vocals.

"You're as brittle as the wishbone of a bird," he sneers at her. "We've been scribbled in the margins of a story that is patently absurd." He's turned himself into Albert Camus here--that most famous of absurdists who once said that without God there'd be nothing for man to do but fornicate and read the newspaper. But Cave doesn't have a newspaper, and his fornication is something closer to murder than lovemaking.

He's Hazel Motes' "New Christ," the blood pouring from his side as he clutches at flesh and tries to rebuild a broken world the only way he knows how. But he's not so much standing on the hood of his car as lying in the back seat of it. The message is clear: The world doesn't make sense, no matter how much you try to make it, so all that's left is sex and murder. And they're the same thing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Decemberists, "Valerie Plame" (#15)

"Valerie Plame"
(Colin Meloy/Jenny Conlee/Chris Funk/John Moen/Nate Query)
The Decemberists
Always the Bridesmaid: Volume I

If nothing else, we owe a debt of gratitude to Colin Meloy for his valiant attempt to reintroduce the clause "if that really is your name" back into the national lexicon.

In its way, "Valerie Plame" is not that different from a few of the songs on the Decemberists' breakthrough record, 2005's Picaresque. It's a tale of intrigue and espionage gone terribly wrong, and in this it's a logical sequel to "The Bagman's Gambit." But it also follows the lead of the superb "16 Military Wives" in attaching Meloy's melodramatic and antiquated language to current events. Pitchfork calls it "unbearably smug." Sure, but what Decemberists song isn't?

You'd be foolish to attempt to determine Meloy's genuine feelings toward Plame from the song--they're not in there. Instead, he creates a character, no more or less real than the Ancient Mariner or the Engine Driver or any of his other characters, and writes a five-minute eulogy for her. It's the saddest carnival you've ever heard, and by the time it breaks into full Paul McCartney mode at the end, it's stuck in your head forever.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Duffy, "Warwick Avenue" (#16)

"Warwick Avenue"
(Aimee Ann Duffy/Jimmy Hogarth/Eg White)

Duffy is another in the recent flush of heirs to Dusty Springfield's blue-eyed crown, but she lacks the self-destructive tendencies of Amy Winehouse, and she's more restrained (okay, and prettier) than Joss Stone. It amazes me how all these British gals manage to make themselves sound as though they grew up in West Memphis.

"Warwick Avenue" is three minutes and 47 seconds of pure pop delight; it manages to sound held back and raw at the same time. And it somehow aches like the best soul (brown- or blue-eyed) while never feeling dangerous. My mother would love this song. And if that sounds like an indictment, you've bought into the Winehouse myth way too strongly.

The little reggae beat on the verse is nice enough, but the kicker, of course, is the chorus hook: "You think you're lovely, but you don't love me." It's straight out of your seventh-grade notebook, but Duffy sings it with utter sincerity and complete calm. She doesn't need the vocal histrionics of U.S. pretenders to the R&B throne--Mariah Carey or even Beyonce would slaughter this song--and it's her self-control that makes such a pedestrian moment perfect.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Frightened Rabbit, "Head Rolls Off" (#17)

"Head Rolls Off"
(Grant Hutchinson/Scott Hutchinson/Billy Kennedy/Andy Monaghan)
Frightened Rabbit
The Midnight Organ Fight

The Scottish, never known for their sunny, optimistic outlook, seem to produce the dourest of dour bands. There's Belle and Sebastian, memorably described in High Fidelity as "sad bastard music." There's Arab Strap, named after a bondage device and reveling in the depravity of sexual man. And there's Mogwai, who thunder apocalyptically and usually wordlessly.

Add Frightened Rabbit to the list. Here we have the flip side of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Bono and company sang about the doubts that surrounded a life of faith. But "Head Rolls Off" is about the certainty that surrounds atheism. It's a last-minute report from the guillotine by a man about to lose his life for blasphemy. He doesn't recant, of course, and what he gives us is an elaborate apology for humanism.

To anyone who reads this blog regularly, it will go without saying that I don't share Scott Hutchinson's religious beliefs. But something moves me in the way he sings it with such conviction--far more than Bono ever did. His humanist manifesto horrifies me at the same time it sucks me in. How can a band sound dour and anthemic at the same time?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

David Byrne and Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens" (#18)

"Everything That Happens"
(David Byrne/Brian Eno)
David Byrne and Brian Eno
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

David Byrne's first collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, happened nearly two decades ago and was a bizarre New Wave masterpiece of African polyrhythms and ambient electronic music. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today doesn't sound much like that record, however. The restless experimentation is gone, subsumed under the wave of adult life. Nor does it particularly sound like the Talking Heads' masterwork, 1980's Remain in Light (produced by Eno). It's not jerky the way that album is jerky. Byrne doesn't sound paranoid, at least not in the same way. Again, he sounds more sedate, more comfortable.

The title track, for example, features no percussion but instead floats on a cloud of synthesizer noise and treated guitar. It's Byrne's dream of the oddly simulated suburban neighborhood featured on the cover. He's no longer amazed, as he was in "Once in a Lifetime," the Talking Heads song to which the lyrics most obviously point; this is his beautiful house, and inside is his beautiful wife, and he's grown accustomed to it. He drives to work on a "perfect freeway," and even if he watches a car bomb blow his neighbor's automobile to bits, he's all right, and he wants to make sure you are, too.

It's not happy, exactly. Byrne is never all that happy, however upbeat and minor-key his music gets. But he's making his peace with a society he used to think was out to get him. It's not out to get him here. It's just silent, and if it's ominous, it's not sinister. Don't worry about the government. Same as it ever was.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Passion Pit, "Better Things" (#19)

"Better Things"
(Michael Angelakos)
Passion Pit
Chunk of Change

Plenty of skinny white indie kids have tried to do soul music in the last ten years or so, and big news: Most of them fail. For the most part they come off too arch, too removed. You can't sing soul and stand back; you have to let go of your self-consciousness, your "cool."

It may be the origins of Chunk of Change that allows Michael Angelakos' Passion Pit to escape this curse. He recorded the six-song EP as a Valentine's Day present for his girlfriend, with--we're told--little to no intention of the rest of us hearing it. But you can't keep secrets in an electronic age, and the disc passed from person to person until it finally landed at Frenchkiss records, who sent it out to the rest of us.

So "Better Things" ends up sounding personal (Angelakos is fully committed here) but also corporate--you could easily hear Prince covering this song twenty years ago and making it into a smash hit. The music is the glorious mess of Around the World in a Day, while the vocals sound like the helium-high "Camille" sections of Sign 'o' the Times.

All in all it's an ode to pure joy, one of the few indie funk songs I'd be happy sticking next to the best the '70s and '80s have to offer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jenny Lewis, "Carpetbaggers" (#20)

(Johnathan Rice)
Jenny Lewis
Acid Tongue

Jenny Lewis' "Rise Up with Fists" was my favorite song of 2006, but nothing from her latest, Acid Tongue has hit me anywhere near that hard. I'm particularly baffled by "The Next Messiah," a nine-minute tuneless monstrosity that everyone else seems to like.

And "Carpetbaggers" isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. It's a catchy little country-rock number reportedly written by Lewis' boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, during the Rabbit Fur Coat tour in an attempt to incorporate something upbeat in the tour repertoire. The melody, at least in the verses, is a blatant copping of Tom Petty's "Apartment Song" (though it simply must be stated that Rice's lyrics are far better than Petty's).

But the song itself doesn't matter. "Carpetbaggers" is driven into transcendence on the strength of its vocal performances. Lewis sounds as effortlessly sexy as she always does, half earnest and half sarcastic, half Midwestern, half Californian. I could listen to her sing a list of foreign cheeses, and it would probably make me want to cry.

And then Elvis Costello takes over the second verse as only Elvis Costello can. His sneering whine completely changes the tone of the song, and what was at first a sexy little tune about groupies becomes something more akin to "Alison" or "Pump It Up." I've always felt like Costello hates women--both his personal life and his lyrics back my theory up--and so it makes sense that Lewis and Rice would give him the lyric about his friend who wants to kill himself after getting married.

But no matter. The point is the way their voices mix together, these two great if unconventional singers who can wax postmodern and howl a new-blues howl at the same time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Goodbye, MP3s

I got the dreaded takedown notice from Blogger today, so there'll be no more MP3s on here. I'll continue posting the essays on my top 25 songs of the year, but you'll have to go elsewhere to find MP3s of them. I recommend the Hype Machine.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Gaslight Anthem, "The '59 Sound" (#21)

"The '59 Sound"
(Brian Fallon/Benny Horowitz/Alex Levine/Alex Rosamilla)
The Gaslight Anthem
The '59 Sound

Mostly I'm just angry this song didn't exist back when I needed it in the summer of 2002. I had it bad for this girl I was never going to get (and didn't really want in the grand scheme of things), and I was working the night shift at a hotel in Commerce, Georgia, a job from which I would drive back, 45 minutes, at 3 a.m. I've felt more alone than those nights only once, and that time it wasn't romantic or wistful, only scary. But that summer was a beautiful loneliness, a loneliness made of a strange sort of possibility.

I had just started listening to Bruce Springsteen, even if the only record I had was 1998's Greatest Hits, a strange compilation of hits and also-rans that I nevertheless must have listened to 800 times on those back roads, and I'm sure that I thought of that girl every single time I sang "Thunder Road" at the top of my lungs just to stay awake, chain-smoking Turkish Golds and mainlining coffee. Then I'd sit up for three or four hours in my dump of an apartment, unable to sleep for the heat.

"The '59 Sound" has absolutely nothing in common with the actual music coming out of 1959 except that it, like the songs of the era and like Springsteen between the two, is the music of pure possibility, of loneliness so deeply felt and so deeply romanticized that you know it's only a temporary loneliness and so you can drink it deeply and allow it to live inside of you as you live inside of it. I feel nineteen again when I hear this song, and nineteen for me was, believe me, as thirteen was for the rest of you.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

TV on the Radio, "Lover's Day" (#22)

"Lover's Day"
(Kyp Malone)
TV on the Radio
Dear Science

"Lover's Day," like many other TV on the Radio songs, is a masterful example of controlled chaos. For eight seconds, you think it might be a more-or-less typical indie rock soul song, what with the tambourine and the thumping bass and Tunde Adebimpe's rich vocals. But then, just as Adebimpe sings "the longing is terrible," the blast of horns (synthesized, I think) slaps you in the face like the longing itself, and the guitar (real, as far as I can tell) starts up. That guitar maintains itself pretty much through the entire song, and it's the most interesting part of the production, to me, anyway. They probably recorded it a lot louder than we hear it--it's an atonal wave of noise that they've pulled down in the mix so that it sounds as though it's behind glass. It's a sublimation of pain and longing, the type of pain and longing that "will melt our faces off."

But as the song progresses, the rest of the song follows that guitar--and while the genuine noise never makes it out of the back of the right channel, everything else in the track picks up the slack, rising to something glorious and transcendent, not so much a wall of sound as a mountain of it--unscalable, unexplainable, but absolutely beautiful.

And then in the final minute and a half, a New Orleans symphony of brass and woodwind kicks in, not so much eliminating the pink noise of the rest of the track as channeling it into something you can understand but still can't quite name.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Giant Sand, "Increment of Love" (#24)

"Increment of Love"
(Howe Gelb)
Giant Sand

Howe Gelb is a master of mixing the creepy with the funny, as evidenced on his excellent solo album Sno Angel Like You. Here he slows down Dick Dale and throws him into a minor key--"surfing on the waves of a lava head" about sums it up--and crawls into your veins to check out the scenery. Then he pulls cells out of your lips and stores them, against their will, in a Mason jar.

The lead guitar parts accomplish what I was always trying to get at in songs like "I Am Bound to Her," which is to say that they sound restrained but they're really going off the rails, the sound of a stress headache or obsession or oblivion. Truth is, I'm overwrought in my song, but Gelb is the model of restraint; you barely notice his electric squawking, hidden as it is behind his Tom Waits whisper and the horns filling out the mix.

It's a mood song more than anything else--there's no melody, and the lyrics don't, as far as I can tell, have any real meaning. But what a mood. The song is perfect for hanging out in someone's bushes at 2 a.m.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Islands, "The Arm" ( #25)

It's that time of year again--or actually, for the first time, since this is the first December I've had this blog. Each year, I pick 25 songs (it used to be 20, but it's too hard to cut them out) as my favorites from the past 12 months. For the purposes of this list, 2008 started last Thanksgiving and ended the day before this Thanksgiving.

A word: My list, especially this year, is what people have taken to calling "rockist," meaning that it's composed mostly of rock music performed by greasy white kids. I'm ashamed, I suppose, but I find the older I get the less I care for rap music, and while there were some good radio-pop songs this year, I didn't happen to buy or download any of them. It's an admitted oversight.

So here we go:

"The Arm"
(Nick Thorburn)
The Islands
Arm's Way

The Canadian invasion continues with this Montreal-based (imagine that!) band and their second LP. On this quasi-title track, they hide an incredible amount of venom behind the strings and propulsive guitar of neo-psychedelica. But that's the Arm of fate or a vengeful God reaching down to break your neck, to cover your "lifeless carcass" with a body bag after a "bad-ass car crash."

I guess I've always been a sucker for songs that punch you in the mouth while they're smiling at you, which is to say songs with upbeat and cheerily layered music and lyrics about death and alcoholism. The pinnacle of the genre, as far as I'm concerned is The Minus 5's Let the War Against Music Begin, but The Islands make a pretty nice addition here--even if they warn you not to go to sleep at the end. No, the point is to go to sleep, to let the chipper music lull you into an altered state so that the lyrics can creep inside your head and show you how stuff really is.

That's the argument I used to hear at Bible camp about the purpose for Christian rock. The music gets their toes a-tappin', and then Jesus can sneak into their brains via the lyrics. I guess you never really get past that worldview, even when you're talking about Canadian indie-rock bands who sing songs about bloody corpses.