Monday, April 28, 2008

Book No. 15: Carl Wilson - Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love

Carl Wilson's 33 1/3 book is unusual in many senses. First, Wilson is not enamored of Celine Dion's album, which is very much unlike the relationship most of the 33 1/3 authors have for their subjects. Second, Wilson is primarily interested in fan reactions: why do so many people love Celine Dion's music while so many critics hate it? Third, Wilson's methodology is aesthetic. He is trying to explain his own reactions to Dion's book through the signifiers it carries for him.

It's not just unusual but astonishing, too. Wilson rises to the occasional admirably, breaking out why Western listeners have their aesthetic reactions, delving into a brief history of aesthetics, constantly challenging not just himself, but his readers, too. As a work of music criticism, it's more like Harry Frankfurt's work of popular philosophy On Bullshit than anything else. I loved it and recommend it to anyone interested in pop culture, not just the music and lit geeks who usually enjoy 33 1/3 books.

Music Library: Andrew Bird, Andrew Hill, Andy Kim, Andy Partridge, Animal Collective

Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha. The best one yet. Thoroughly weird and American and beautiful.

Andrew Bird - "Self-Torture" eMusic single. An outtake from Armchair Apocrypha. Sounds like it.

Andrew Hill - Point Of Departure. Hill's work recalls no one quite as much as Charles Mingus. This is augmented in that all of Hill's sidemen are artists typically associated with Mingus. Except Hill's work is different from Mingus's in a way that I don't have a vocabulary for. Mingus started with Ellington, but Hill is coming at his compositions from another angle, just as resonant. There's very few musicians who could even stand to compare with Mingus, and Hill holds his own.

Andrew Hill - Dusk. This is a late entry in Hill's catalog, but it sounds like the answer to the question of what Mingus would have done if he'd lived longer.

Andy Kim - "Rainbow Ride" and "Tricia, Tell Your Daddy". Bubblegum from a schock-meister. The former is actually fairly rockin', and the latter is lyrically interesting, at least, as Kim asks Tricia Nixon to remind her father that he's everybody's father for now. Groo-vay.

Andy Partridge - "It's Snowing Angels". I really don't like Partridge or XTC. I don't know why they rub me the wrong way. Lots of sharp music geeks dig them, but I don't find them clever or funny or even particularly tuneful. It's a dead space in my ear. I don't like this song.

Animal Collective - Spirit They're Gone Spirit They've Vanished. I love Animal Collective for synthesizing avant-garde compositional works with strange and dark folky songs and an unabashed love of pure pop for fractured people. This is Avey Tare and Panda Bear's first album together and it sounds surprisingly cohesive, considering how weird their journey is to be.

Animal Collective - Danse Manatee. Adding in Deacon and Geologist for the full Animal Collective experience, this album is more offputting than Spirit etc. for its weirder effects and skronkier loops and hooks buried much further than before under blank noise.

Animal Collective - Hollinndagain. Somewhat unfocused early live album. There's some real beauty here, but as many misses as hits.

Next time: More Animal Collective!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Music Library: Amy Rigby, Amy Winehouse, And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Andrew Bird

More music library stuff. I think I'll be doing this off & on until 2011.

Amy Rigby - Middlescence. I mentioned her wit and exuberance when I wrote about her first album. Those still stand. This one isn't as good as the first one, but it has some great songs on it, "The Summer of My Wasted Youth," foremost.

Amy Rigby - The Sugar Tree. Same as above. The standout tracks (for me) are the clever "Cynically Yours" and the sweet "Sleeping With The Moon." I used to like the song "Balls" a lot, but the punchline ("Wish I could grow a pair") has diminished with time, alas.

Amy Rigby - "Keep It To Yourself" - 18 Again: An Anthology. My wife & I liked this song when we heard it live. For a while, it was only available as a free download on Rigby's site, which is what this mp3 actually is, I think. She released it with the anthology of her first three albums, which was, I presume, an attempt at growing her audience.

Amy Winehouse - Back To Black. Retro R&B. Some pretty good songs. Is there anything else one can say about Amy Winehouse?

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Worlds Apart. 'Sokay, I guess. Too much bombast, really. Sounds like a lot of other bands, too. Maybe it's not so okay.

Andrew Bird's Bowl Of Fire - The Swimming Hour. This is the earliest Andrew Bird recording I have, but it's clearly a work with one foot in the past and one in the future. I knew Bird's name from his work with the retro-swing enthusiasts Squirrel Nut Zippers (in fact, I recall seeing them with a wild violinist back in the late 90s, and now I wonder if that man was Bird). Bird was about to start creating some truly startling indie-rock, and this album sounds equal parts retro-jazz and future-indie.

Andrew Bird - Weather Systems. Bird apparently moved to rural Illinois to work on this album, and it sounds like an intense leap forward in creativity from The Swimming Hour. Using loops, whistles, minimalist arrangement, and songwriting that is both unique and well-informed by the past, Weather Systems sounds like the demo for all of Bird's future music.

Andrew Bird - The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Utterly brilliant. Bird fractured those same blues, jazz, and avant-garde sources that make Tom Waits' music so vital, and rebuilt them all into little indie-rock symphonies. Each album Bird makes is another way of pushing the now into the future.

I have one more Bird album, so next time: the future is now!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Book No. 14: David Maine - The Book of Samson

David Maine is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I loved The Preservationist, liked Fallen, and really like this one. Samson tells his story in the first person. He doesn't realize (could not realize, even) that to modern ears he comes across as a psychopath and an arrogant lout. To his mind, he is a simple champion for the LORD. Maine's book never directly asks what sort of evil god would have given Samson so much power, but he strongly hints at the question, especially when Meneth, the priest of the Philistine god Dagon, tells him towards the end of his life that no, the Philistines do not plan to celebrate his death by destroying the Israelites. They will simply go back to their farms, glad to be rid of him, a mass murderer free of conscience. But, as you probably remember, the LORD allows Samson to commit mass-murder one last time, despite his foolishness and stated weakness for wine and women. That's an Old Testament champion for you: killer of men, women, children, babies, and animals, filled with the bloodlust of an Old Testament god.

The Book of Samson is not as funny as either The Preservationist or Fallen. It's funny, yes, but it's also angrier. And that's ok. It works with the material.

Maine has another book just out called Monster, 1959 that appears to leave the Bible behind in favor of B-movies. I intend to get around to it as soon as I clear my reading backlog.

Book No. 13: Amanda Petrusich - Nick Drake's Pink Moon

Some of the commenters on Amazon's page have been unkind to this book because Petrusich spends a good chunk of space talking about the VW commercial that spurred Nick Drake's current popularity. I think that's a stupid attitude.

I hadn't been a Nick Drake fan for long when I heard that commercial. Maybe a year, but less, I think. I was in a different room while my wife was watching TV. I heard the opening strains of the song "Pink Moon," and yelled to my wife, "You're playing Nick Drake?" She sounded surprised herself, and said no, it was on a commercial.

I felt a little put-out at first. Drake seemed like such a private pleasure that I felt conflicted about sharing his music with the world via a commercial. But I liked the commercial. I made peace with it.

Drake's story is pretty cut-and-dried at this point. Too young and sensitive for this world. Petrusich found a way to tell it again by gathering stories from Drake's sister and Joe Boyd, who knew him best. She asked a number of fans to submit a few paragraphs about their relationship to Drake's music. And she talked about the commercial, how it opened him up to a brand new audience. Good stuff.

On a personal note, I want to mention that the musicians on Drake's first record are many of the same ones from the album I wrote about, Shoot Out The Lights. Richard Thompson on guitar, Dave Pegg on bass, and David Mattacks on drums. Not always, but sometimes. I also wrote a short section that dealt with September 11, 2001, which Petrusich talks about as a time that she turned to Pink Moon for comfort. And yet our books are quite different. Cool, huh?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Book No. 12: Gilbert Hernandez - Chance In Hell

Reviewing comic books now, apparently. I loved Gilbert Hernandez's dreamy Sloth, another non-Love & Rockets book from last year, and so looked forward to this one quite a bit. But I didn't much care for it. It was about an abandoned child in an uncaring country who grows up to a more stable life, even as she fears being pulled under by her own demons. Sounds promising, yes, especially in the hands of the master who gave us the rich Palomar stories and Love & Rockets X. And yet I never found much to connect to in the story. The main character is so alienating and her circumstances so horrifying that I never wanted to bridge my distance from her. Maybe she had only one chance in hell, as suggested by the title, or maybe, on the other hand, she has no chance at all in life. I'm not sure. And I don't really want to figure it out. Great art, great eye. But cold, cold, cold.

Book No. 11: Mike McGonigal - My Bloody Valentine's Loveless

McGonigal's take on the 33 1/3 form is semi-journalistic, although McGonigal inserts himself in the role of enthusiastic guide. I love this album, but it's by design a mystery of sorts. It's a loud, distorted rock album that is almost ethereal. There's few lyrics on it that seem to make sense, but the songs seem perfect as they are. But I'm afraid I'm running out of new ways to say things about 33 1/3 books. The facts in the book are fascinating, the interviews enlightening, and McGonigal's personal touches are loads of fun. If you're a MBV fan, you should read it. If you're not, you probably won't dig it. If you've never heard MBV, go get the album and the book at the same time and read it while you listen.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Music Library: American Music Club, Amerie, Amon Düül II, Amy Rigby

American Music Club - California. Aw, I love Mark Eitzel's thing. The standout tracks are still, clearly, "Firefly" and "Western Sky," but the whole album is a beautiful slice of sadness pie.

American Music Club - "Western Sky (Live)" from Live At Slim's. This is the only track I have from said album, which was a promo, I think. But yes, I still love that song.

American Music Club - Mercury. Lots more beautiful weird sadness. Not many dynamics.

Amerie - "1 Thing" - From Said The Gramophone. Downloaded from the music blog. I'm not as blown away a they were, but I like it enough to hold on to it.

Amon Düül II - Phallus Dei. Heavy psychedelic krautrock.

Amon Düül II - Yeti. Heavier and more psychedelic krautrock. I have a burning desire to cover "Eye-Shaking King" at some point in my life.

Amy Rigby - Diary of a Mod Housewife. I never listen to this album these days, but if a song pops up on shuffle, it's always a delight. Rigby is a clever songwriter spinning a feminist slant on folky pop music. There's a little too much reliance on Nashville-style bar-bluesy guitar for my tastes, but her wit and exuberance always shine through.

I have two more Amy Rigby albums, so that's where I'll pick up next time.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Book No. 10: Allyson Beatrice - Will The Vampire People Please Leave The Lobby?

This is the second catch-up book post. Beatrice is someone I virtually know via one of the online communities she mentions here.

This is a breezy book about fandom in the early 21st century. Beatrice recounts how she left her unsatisfying corporate job and moved across the country to look for happiness in LA. She met a few people through the Buffy The Vampire Slayer fansite The Bronze. Then she becomes involved with fan activism and eventually forms lasting friendships with other posters and some of the show's (and other shows that emerged from it) writers.

Beatrice is an entertaining writer, not just funny and insightful but willing to lay her heart bare in pursuit of the truth. Her kindness shines through the pages, and she has enough ironic distance from herself to understand when she's being - as she puts it - a jerk, although I don't know that anyone who knows her online persona would describe her that way. Anyway, as a diehard nerd who loved the mix of whimsy and brutality that made shows like Buffy and Angel and Firefly and Wonderfalls and (now) Pushing Daisies - excuse me, that mix that made these shows so special, I certainly enjoyed her adventures and recommend them to others like me.

Book No. 9: Brad Vice - The Bear Bryant Funeral Train

I read this a while back, actually. I meant to blog about it, and then I was concerned that I wasn't doing it justice, and then I forgot to finish blogging about it. I have another book that I read around the same time where the same thing happened. Both were written by people I know.

This one is the more notorious of the two. Back in late 2005, a few voices threw accusation of plagiarism at the original edition of this book. I posted about it at the time, first about UGA's decision to pulp the book and then about the absolutely ridiculous NY Press hatchet-job written by the guy who'd elsewhere called for another Sherman to metaphorically burn down the literary South. Shame on him. I hope anyone out there who called for Brad's head on a spike without reading the book in question has come to his or her senses. If not, shame on you, too.

This version of the book is a little different from the UGA publication that was unceremoniously pulped. The stories are in a different order and the epigraphs from his original text have been restored. So, the burning question: is it any good?

That it is. Vice's stories are uniformly smart, well-observed, and deeply touching. In fact, I liked the most controversial story, "Tuscaloosa Knights," least of all, although I can say that I liked it a great deal. Some of the stories in part one ("Stalin" and Other Children's Stories) were working through Vice's relationship with his father, and the protagonists of those stories share a father who is both a farmer and a teacher, somewhere between hard-bitten realist and dreamy intellectual. In "Artifacts," a woman and her increasingly-absent husband quietly grieve over the loss of their young son until things come to a surprising head. I found the culmination of this story very silly on the face of it, but it managed to break my heart completely at the same time. "Chickensnake" is likewise haunted by a lost child - the older brother of the protagonist this time - as it quietly reveals how the violence of farm life is a reflection of life's constant close proximity to pain and death.

Part two of the book (The Bear Bryant Funeral Train) opens with "Tuscaloosa Knights," the story that lead Vice's literary witch-trial. In this one, a neglected young wife in 1920s Tuscaloosa watches a Klan rally with her only friend in town. Some of her observations are verbatim from Carl Carmer's nonfiction account of life in 1920s Tuscaloosa, Stars Fell On Alabama, in the section titled "Tuscaloosa Nights." It's a good story, but I like the others in this section better. "Report From Junction" explores the farm/city dichotomy with the backdrop of Bryant's tenure as head coach of Texas A&M. "Demopolis" yanks happiness out from under the feet of its protagonist suddenly and violently, and its description of Tuscaloosa in the 1990s is perfect. "Mule" is so utterly beautiful that I don't want to spoil a word of it here. The final story, "The Bear Bryant Funeral Train" is a little postmodern exercise in fakery as the protagonist creates a fake document of a real event, heightening it into the realms of myth. It's the perfect explanation for Vice's use of reality and unreality to create greater truth. That's what fiction writers do.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Music Library: Allman Brothers, Alvin "Shine" Robinson, Alvin Cash, Amadou & Mariam, Amalgamated Sons of Rest, John Cage,American Cosmic

Say, it's been a month since I wrote about my music library. We left off with The Allman Brothers Band's Eat A Peach. But, realizing that I had a hole in my collection the same size as the ABB's first two albums, I bought them, so I'll retroactively add them back in.

The Allman Brothers Band - The Allman Brothers Band. The first outing of the brothers Allman with the classic ABB (they'd previously made a Brit Invasion-style album as The Hourglass, which I know because my dad had a copy from his college days). It's a pretty great jammy Southern-rock blues guitar & organ. You can hear from the outset that Duane Allman and Dickey Betts are insanely creative interpreters attuned to each other to a rare degree. I'm not much of a fan of the blues, especially when rock bands appropriate it, because it usually sounds like unearned thievery of someone else's suffering from a place of privilege mainly designed to showcase yourself (see "Clapton, Eric"). The ABB somehow convey how important these songs are to them by crawling inside and living them like rock songs. The only song on the 7-song album that isn't blues-rock is "Dreams," which isn't much of a departure from the rest of the album, but incorporates more psychedelic flourishes and, just incidentally, kicks the Grateful Dead (and just about all the other jammy psych bands of the 60s) right in the keister.

The Allman Brothers Band - Idlewild South. Pretty much everything I said about the last one goes for this one. It's a little more garage-y and the psych-hippie standout track is the beautiful instrumental "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," but yeah, it all still holds.

The Allman Brothers Band - The Fillmore Concerts. This is the expanded version of the classic album Live At Fillmore East. Excuse my nerdy analogy, but this is the rare exception where the extended version is better than more heavily edited version, also known as the Lord Of The Rings Conundrum (coming soon from Robert Ludlum!). Usually artists benefit from editing and tighter scope, but rarely - and this is one of those cases - an artist comes across even better with a larger palatte. The length gives them more room to showcase their virtues, and even seem, counterintuitive though this may sound, more intimate. At the end of all this music, crazy-long solos and polyrhythmic drums and all, I feel like I know these guys' music better than I ever thought I would.

Alvin "Shine" Robinson - Shine On. Enjoyable New Orleans-style R&B. Not essential, by any means, unless you're a New Orleans-style R&B completist. Reminds me a lot of Bobby "Blue" Bland, but he's not quite as expressive.

Alvin Cash & The Crawlers - "Twine Time" - Rock Instrumental Classics. This is a single track from a massive Rhino collection of singles. It's a groovy instrumental dance track from the 50s or early 60s that sounds like a John Waters movie in the making.

Amadou & Mariam - Dimanche a Bamako. I don't love what we Westerners condescendingly call "world music," but I like the music of this duo, a blind couple from Mali, quite a bit. Francophone afro-pop! What's not to like?

Amadou & Mariam - Je Pense a Toi: The Best of Amadou et Mariam. A best-of collection that precedes the above album. There is a discernable production contrast between the two, as if this is the more rootsy music and Dimanche a Bamako was an attempt to reach a more Western audience.

Amalgamated Sons of Rest - s/t. An indie-folk supergroup of sorts, ASoR consists of Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia, Bonnie "Prince" Billy/Will Oldham, and the even-more-obscure Alasdair Roberts. The album is a six-song EP with each songwriter taking lead twice. It's pretty good, but certainly inessential.

American Composers Orchestra - Cage: The Seasons. This is a performance of some of John Cage's minimalist compositional works, a somewhat discordant ballet, and a piece of music for toy piano, performed solo and with orchestra. I dig it, but I can't say I understand it. I'll bet Steve Hicken and/or Alex Ross could explain it to me, but I'm not sure I could retain their ideas.

American Cosmic - Band In Decline. I'm one of maybe six people who own this album, but that's about right: I'm one of four people who played on it. It's all nostalgic for me, because we were so young and hopeful when we made it. Every note I sing is a little out of tune. I remember Robert Huffman, who recorded it, compared my voice to Chuck Prophet in Green On Red. I think that's a little kind in retrospect, because I wasn't anywhere close to even his standard. A few of these songs have turned up on Dexateens albums, which is fitting, because about half were written by Dexateens guitarist John Smith. Mike and Jeff were a killer rhythm section, and even now, I feel like this band should have been a bigger deal than it was. The story of my life as a creative person: nobody gave much of a shit. Ah, well. That's life.

Edit - deleted dead link 12/13

Thursday, April 03, 2008


Here's a delightful site that allows users to upload mixtapes of their own devising for listeners to enjoy. I think we may have another day or two before the RIAA sues it out of existence.

Some kind soul, who may or may not be yours truly, has created this offering. Enjoy!

Holistic Mix 2007: Heads In The Cloudz

Our holistic mixes were built around the idea of Songs That Took You By Surprise. As defined by Leonard Pierce, "This can mean a song with a surprising or unexpected moment, a false start or a false ending, songs you discovered you liked by an artist you generally dislike, songs you like in a genre or style you don't generally care for, songs you'd never heard that came out of nowhere and completely enthralled you so that you immediately sought out the artist, songs with shocking lyrics, or even songs that start out poorly and then get really good."

1. Danielson – “Headz In The Cloudz” (A Prayer For Every Hour, 1996)

A delicious acoustic guitar drone anchored by straightforward drumming and punctuated by Daniel Smith’s squeaky vocals. This is from the Danielson Famile’s first album, which was also Smith’s senior art thesis project at Rutgers. It’s interesting to me that he roped all of his younger siblings into this project, which features a lot of avant-garde noise-pop and highly personal, explicitly Christian lyrics. There’s a charming video for this song, too, with crude artwork of cloud-headed cartoony Daniel Smith flying through the sky mixed with the real Daniel Smith wearing a silly cloud-head hat as he wanders through a large city. I was introduced to this song through the Danielson Famile documentary, which I rented as a lark. I’d previously heard a few Danielson songs and found them offputting, but the movie won me over to his viewpoint, and I consider myself a fan now. Anyway, how many surprises here? The vocals? The structure (drone-y A part/strange B part/mostly a capella C refrain/back to A for a few minutes)? Just an altogether weird song, but somehow it rocks.

2. Andrew Bird – “Simple X” (Armchair Apocrypha, 2007)

I’ll go ahead and admit that I’ve tried to populate this mix with recent music as often as possible. This Andrew Bird track is a collaboration with drummer/keyboardist Martin Dosh, who wrote the music, and it stuck out on the album as a surprisingly oddball tune on an album full of oddball sounds. I don’t think the lyrics mean anything literal (just another apocalyptic love song, to my read), but the melody is gorgeous.

3. cLOUDDEAD – “The Velvet Ant” (Ten, 2004)

Catchy! With a rectangle iris! What the fuck does this mean? Why is it so catchy? Seriously, what the fuck?


4. Wooden Shjips – “We Ask You To Ride” (Wooden Shjips, 2007)

I originally drafted this song for the particular mix as the one that doesn't change throughout, but then I realized that it had a few minor variations, so it didn't work. Still, when that brutal electric guitar comes out of nowhere, I almost jumped the first time I heard the song.

5. Grizzly Bear – “Little Brother (Electric)” (Friend EP, 2007)

This is a pleasantly unpredictable song. It's a re-recording of a mostly acoustic track from Grizzly Bear's 2006 album Yellow House, and it's pretty much a three-piece band, until a 2nd guitar joins near the end. The singing is immaculate, the guitar line clean and creative, and the structure all over the map.

6. Akron/Family – “There’s So Many Colors” (Love Is Simple, 2007)

Speaking of unpredictable structures, this one defies all logic. It starts with a chorus of voices singing "there's so many colors without the dirty windows" for about a minute-and-a-half. Then there's two-to-three guitars playing the main theme followed by a section of clean, bluesy licks with feedback and shakers and tambourines. This takes us to about the 3:30 mark. Then, there's a folksy verse section, complete with banjo, leading into an electric guitar-driven choral refrain, followed by crazy multi-guitar soloing. Then, everything drops down to a sweetly sung, acoustic-picked section about "that chemical mountain chaser." That's some avant-garde bliss-hippie weirdness right there. I love it.

LINK TO MP3 (which is somewhat different from live version)

7. Cardinal – “Public Melody #1” (Cardinal, 1994)

Little musical interlude. The first time I heard the Cardinal disc, I was thinking, "did they just put a baroque instrumental someone on this rock album?" The answer was yes.


8. Joanna Newsom – “Cosmia (Live)” (Joanna Newsom And The Ys Street Band EP, 2007)

Here's where we stretch out a bit. I know there's some Newsom-hatas out there, but I figured I'd give y'all a chance to hear her at her most ambitious and passionate. Her singing and playing is usually a bit cool, but here, when she reaches the final chorus, she gives it her all, and the band joins her. It's a revelation. Then there's a fade-out accompanied by bowed saw. Yes, indeed.

9. Boris – “Naki Kyoku” (Akuma No Uta, 2005)

Some of y'all may think I'm mad to follow the feyest of my favorite current artists with one of most muscular. But, as you may hear, the Newsom flows into the Boris almost seemlessly. And the Boris track starts from a quiet beginning (justifying the cover art of the album, which mirror's Nick Drake's Bryter Layter) into a blistering psychedelic middle into a furious final section. When I first heard this album, I was digging Akuma No Uta up to this point, when it became one of my favorite things ever.


10. Sparklehorse – “Spirit Ditch” (vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, 1995)

I was working in a record store in Tuscaloosa, Alabama when this album came out. I'd read a little about Sparklehorse in No Depression magazine, so I was expecting a slightly psychedelic country-rock album. What I heard instead was this lunatic folk-rock album like nothing I'd ever heard. I remember that I was alone in the store when this song came on, and when I heard the quiet spoken voice at the point where most bands would have put the guitar solo, I cranked the store stereo. The voice, an answering machine message about a nightmare the artist's mother had about him, thoroughly creeped my shit out. It's still one of my favorite albums.

11. My Morning Jacket – “Phone Went West” (At Dawn, 2001)

Most of y'all probably have heard this one, but let me just point out that this song starts out as a reggae track by bona fide hippies, and that before it is over, it will even have a dub-ish section. Let me then draw your attention to the fact that this song is pretty awesome, a beautiful, poignant track that I can't help but love. Surprise!


12. Espers – “Flaming Telepaths” (The Weed Tree EP, 2005)

Hey, how's about a Blue Oyster Cult cover by a psych-folk band that emulates 60s British band The Pentangle? Why sure, we can throw in a four-minute guitar freakout! You want the song to stop abruptly in the middle of a phrase? Why, I think we can manage that!


13. Mekons – “The Building” (Punk Rock, 2004)

Ending with an a capella melody-less song about oppression in a totalitarian state. Good times! The original is a single by the Mekons from the late 70s which I first read about in a Greil Marcus essay. Despite this, I was completely unprepared for actually hearing this song, which is like a fascist koan.

(Can't find this one online, sorry.)

Particular Mix 2007: Prisons and Math

Some friends and I made two mixes at the end of last year and beginning of this one. This is the particular mix, wherein each song must match a specific category. I specifically also tried to incorporate songs from as many of my favorite 2007 releases as possible.

1. The last thing you'll ever hear:
Akron/Family - “Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead” (Love Is Simple, 2007)
Featuring a lovely melody and words of comfort (all lyrics: "Don't be afraid, it's only love/love is simple/don't be afraid, you're already dead/love is simple/la da didi da da didi dum"), this is the song I want playing in my head on my deathbed.

2. Song about a body part:
My Teenage Stride - “Ears Like Golden Bats” (Ears Like Golden Bats, 2007)
I wrote elsewhere about how My Teenage Stride channels kiwi-pop (New Zealand indie rock, I mean) near perfectly, and that even though they're basically no different from any number of garage revivalists, I don't give a damn. This song may sound like 1991, but I love it. I especially dig all the guitar tones and the killer bass line.

3. Cover better than the original:
Sparklehorse & The Flaming Lips - “Go” (The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, 2004)
Elegaic and crammed with noisy psych-junk, this cover of Daniel Johnston's "Go" moves me like a sad ballad should. Let me say that I love Daniel Johnston, but almost always find his music more affecting when played by an artist possessed of more talent. Johnston has the rare ability to write songs where the sophistication is not immediately apparent in his version. This song, for instance, is pretty simple structurally, but the way it turns on the bridge is masterful.

4. No vocals:
Pelican - “Far From Fields” (City of Echoes, 2007)
This track is more post-rock than metal, but Pelican is more closely associated with the indie-metal scene. Who needs vocals when you have guitar interplay this intricate?

5. What instrument is that?:
Animal Collective - “Derek” (Strawberry Jam, 2007)
I went back and forth on this category for a while, but I finally decided on Animal Collective for their bold oddness. The song only has two parts, a guitar-driven part A, and drum loop-driven part B. But the weirdness that provides depth to the song is a mystery. Some of it ws created by a synth, yes, and some is sampling, but most of the sound is just so bizarre that I can't imagine what created it.

6. Duo:
Nina Nastasia & Jim White - “I've Been Out Walking” (You Follow Me, 2007)
Jim White's drumming is so rich that I have to remind myself when listening to this album that there's only two instruments: drums and a finger-picked guitar. Nina Nastasia's songwriting helps by building tension on a bass melody, like Mother Maybelle covering P.J. Harvey.

7. No chorus, no bridge: the song follows the same structure throughout:
Mekons - “Dickie Chalkie and Nobby” (Natural, 2007)
Jon Langford has written countless two-chord songs that sound like more than they are. It's a neat hat trick when it works, although he occasionally falls on his face. Maybe you have to be a socialist to know how to work with that sort of economy.


8. No verse, no chorus, all bridge: the song has unrepeated (or minimally repeated) movements rather than a verse-chorus structure:
Fiery Furnaces - “Automatic Husband” (Widow City, 2007)
The first few times I heard this song, the intro made me think it was going to be a hip-hop track. Anyway, I flubbed this category. The structure goes: A/B/C/A/B/D/E/B. That's a lot of repetition of the B part (which is instrumental), not to mention two instance of the A verse. Oh well, sorry. I think it's cool that the FFs fit so much into a two-minute track.


9. Spooooooooooky:
Bela Lugosi - “Beware” (mp3 download, 1953)
Wait! Pull the string! Pull the string!

10. About space travel and/or aliens:
Deerhunter - “Strange Lights” (Cryptograms, 2007)
Arguably about space travel with the "we walk into the sun" refrain and the lines about "In space all things are slow/the sound of speakers blown/the silence fits the scene". It could be about a particularly spacey acid trip, yes. If this doesn't work for you, substitute Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground" instead, because although it's not about space travel, it's one of the few songs we've deliberately shot through space.

11. Perfect road song:
Laurie Anderson - “Lighting Out For The Territories” (United States Live, 1984)
I'm funning with y'all a little bit on this, the closing track from Laurie Anderson's four-disc epic United States Live, which is not a perfect song for driving on the road, although it is a perfect analogy. Drawing on a repeated metaphor of life as a darkened road and people as lost cars, the radio signals a symbol of the difficulty of communication, this song offers a chilly breath of hope: "You've been on this road before/You can read the signs/You can feel the way/You can do this in your sleep".


12. Voice on loan from god:
The National - “Fake Empire” (Boxer, 2007)
I don't know how this guy's deep moany voice channels the voice of god, but man, it's just right for this message - also from god - "we're half awake in a fake empire." Yeah, we are. I like how well the message works with Laurie Anderson's. I love the competing horns towards the end, after the song quits being a ballad shortly past the halfway mark. I love that the guitars don't appear until 2:31 into the song and then they disappate just as quickly by 2:54. I don't know why I'm such a sucker for this band. I don't like Springsteen or U2, but I can't resist the National's big sweeping rock songs.

13. Song that makes you wish you didn't know the language it's being sung in:
British Sea Power - “Straight Down The Line” (Krankenhaus? EP, 2007)
I blew it with this one, too. The lyrics sound so dumb at first that I didn't try to parse them all the way through until after I'd burnt the discs. Then I realized that later verses indicate it's about a captured POW being tortured for information. Geez. I mean, that's horrible and maybe I wish I didn't know this, but certainly a worthy topic for a song.


14. Killer guitar solo/Should be in Guitar Hero:
Marnie Stern - “This American Life” (In Advance Of The Broken Arm, 2007)
Shredderrific art-rock! This would kick ass in Guitar Hero.

15. Song that makes you laugh (or includes laughter):
16. Song that makes you cry (or includes weeping):
17. Song you'd like to see made into a movie:
Jens Lekman - “A Postcard To Nina” (Night Falls On Kortedala, 2007)
Lekman is a pop songwriter with the left-curve emotional chops of Jonathan Richman and Stephin Merritt. This song's about Lekman pretending to be the boyfriend of a lesbian friend afraid of her intolerant father. Lekman plays it for laughs until suddenly, everything flips around and it's just so beautiful and poignant that it brings me to tears. I should tell y'all that I was originally going to put Chocolate Genius's "My Mom" in the weeping category because it's just wrenching, but I had to cut it for room. Anyway, I'm throwing this in the movie category, too, although I'm not sure I'd want to see that movie. Hollywood would probably read it as a Meet The Parents-type script and cast Ben Stiller, but if handled right, it seems that it could both be funny and quite a bit subversive.

18. Music from Before 1950:
Blind Willie Johnson - “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” (1927-1930)
As I hinted at before (and as most of y'all probably know), this song (among a handful of others) was included on the Voyager spacecraft sent skyward in 1977. No words, just moaning about the lord, but it's as good of an example of what the human race is capable as anything.

19. Song you're sure nobody else in the group has:
Skeletons and The Kings Of All Cities - “Sickness” (LUCAS, 2007)
Someone else may have this, yes. Some of the tracks from this album were free eMusic downloads at some point in the last year. I liked what I heard enough to download the whole thing, but the album altogether is a little long and pushy. This track, though, with the afropop Rhodes and weird rhythms and splashy keyboards and call-and-response, works for me.

20. The greatest song ever made, according to your sixteen-year-old-self:
Pixies - “Broken Face” (Surfer Rosa, 1988)
This one doesn't need an introduction. I loved the Pixies when I was 16. In the interest of full disclosure, I also considered Jane's Addiction's "The Mountain Song," The Cult's "Love Removal Machine," Sonic Youth's "Total Trash," and several other Pixies songs.

21. Song about about wild - or at least, non-domesticated - animals:
Menomena - “Evil Bee” (Friend and Foe, 2007)
OK, this song is not really about an animal so much as it's using the beehive as a metaphor. But the song both rocks and reveals the inner workings of rock. It starts and stops often. Instruments float in and out of the music, as do the drums. Man, what a great song.

22. Title longer than 8 words:
Arthur Russell - “You Did The Right Thing When You Put That Skylight In” (Let's Go Swimming EP, 1986)
Avant-noise disco built around heavily distorted cello. Russell was a goddamn visionary.

23. Title with 3 or fewer letters:
Deerhoof - “+81” (Friend Opportunity, 2007)
One of the more catchy tracks from Deerhoof's overly proggy 2007 album. Typical nonsensical chorus, horn loops, hooks galore, odd time changes: yes, it's Deerhoof.

24. Song recorded before the artist became even remotely popular:
Lou Reed and The Primitives - “The Ostrich” (mp3 download, 1964)
Get down on your face, man! This is Lou's famous first single performed on the ostrich guitar (where every string has been tuned to D and all the frets removed). From hence comes the Velvet Underground.


25. Song about death:
Low - “Death of A Salesman” (The Great Destroyer, 2005)
So I took my guitar and I threw down some chords and some words I could sing without shame. And I soon had a song. I played it around for some friends, but they all said the same. They said, music's for fools. You should go back to school. The future is prisons and math. So I did what they said. Now my children are fed, 'cause they pay me to do what I'm asked. I forgot all my songs. The words now are wrong. And I burned my guitar in a rage. I wish the song stopped right there, but Low went a verse too far, trying to pull back from the darkness. C'mon, Willie Loman didn't have any such assurances. Still, right up to that point, the song's a killer.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Book No. 8: John Dougan - The Who Sell Out (33 1/3)

Dougan's 33 1/3 contribution focuses on the cultural context surrounding The Who's Pop Art masterpiece. It's on the MOJO-journalism side of the 33 1/3 style guide, but well worth reading. Especially if, like me, you consider The Who Sell Out the apex of their career and one of the best albums of all time.

Book No. 7: Denis Johnson - Tree of Smoke

This is a hard novel to describe. I wasn't hooked until about the halfway point, but then I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen. I didn't much care for the main characters until that point, but I became intoxicated by their struggles to define themselves and their place in the pointless war around them. Now that it's all over, I realize that it was an attempt to recast Vietnam and the horror of all that senseless struggle in semi-mystical terms, as a spiritual wound that cannot heal unless souls die and gods are destroyed. But that's glib and reductive, and Tree Of Smoke is neither. I think.

The cast of characters is large, but after awhile, I wished it were larger. There's Skip Sands, a young and idealistic CIA spook in 1965. There's his uncle The Colonel, a near-mythic Kurtzian figure so known despite being unaffiliated with the military since before WWII. There's his sometimes-love object Kathy, a widowed missionary struggling with lack of faith while bringing medicine to Vietnamese peasants. There's a storyline following Bill and James Houston, who are scarred by military bureaucracy and the horrible violence of war (respectively) and then wind up in Phoenix, AZ with no more ability to deal with real life than Stone Age tribemen. There's the Colonel's muscle, Jimmy Storm, who acts as Skip's evil twin for awhile, then becomes obsessed towards the end with the idea that he's been lied to. There's the Vietnamese characters Hao and Trung Than, who grew up together in an orphanage and wind up on opposite sides of the conflict.

My fundamental problem with the book is that I never really understand these men's motives. No, that's not right: I get their motives, but I don't understand their arcs. I get why they are doing the things they are doing up to a point (everything becomes inexplicable once the story jumps into the 80s). Johnson's aiming for some sort of spiritual transcendence with these storylines, but the meaning is ultimately obscure. By this, I mean that everything seems to go nowhere. The Houston brothers' story comes to nothing I can make out. Both Skip and the colonel betray their own idealism. There's moments of beautiful writing and moments where the prose sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. There's scenes that will stick with me, especially Storm's final scene, which seems to cap the point of everything without any resolution. Maybe the point is that resolution is impossible without death, but that certainly doesn't seem like a truth where the reveal is worth the ride.

Do I recommend it? Yes. This is the kind of problem book that I would wish on my friends, mainly because I'm curious about their takes on it. A book containing such baffling multitudes invites conversation. I think there's major parts of the book that are worthwhile, ringing with much more truth than the resolution. But maybe I'm a cynic.

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