Monthly Archives: October 2014

“Farther Up the Road”

VOL
Vigilantes of Love
To the Roof of the Sky, 1998

I’ll always love this band, this album and this song for the words. Veterans of the same Athens, GA scene that birthed R.E.M., Bill Mallonnee and his Vigilantes of Love were a staple of my Christian music diet in the mid-90s, when I’d come home with an armful of new CD’s and my parents would do their best to appear disinterested in the catch. Though VoL albums were sold in Christian bookstores, the dirty secret was that they didn’t have much in common with their peers. Mallonnee was far too literate to survive alongside the younger, goofier, more popular bands being hawked at the time. He was a real artist after all, not prone to easy answers or pat statements of faith. You can imagine how well this went over with the Evangelical gatekeepers of the day. “Farther Up the Road” sounded pretty damn remarkable to a sheltered 17-year-old kid. The ambiguity, the weary resignation, the poetry — these were not attributes typically associated with the faith of my childhood. This was something tougher, altogether more humane, and ultimately more lasting than the dreck that surrounded it. This was the real thing.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/15%20Farther%20Up%20the%20Road.m4a]

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“Night Tracking”

jacques_greene
Jacques Greene
Phantom Vibrate, 2014

I don’t always listen to house music, but when I do, I want it to sound like Jacques Greene. My intro to the Canadian producer/DJ came in the form of his unforgettable 2011 Radiohead “Lotus Flower” remix, a standout in a series of frankly lackluster offerings from more prominent names (Caribou, Jamie xx, et. al) as part of that year’s “TKOL RMX” debacle. Since then I’ve kept tabs on his R&B-leaning, dancefloor-ready singles, which strike me as just interesting enough to appeal equally to production heads and mainstream fans alike. “Night Tracking” closes out the recent Phantom Vibrate EP on a melancholy note, a succession of subconscious melodies fighting for attention under a prototypical house beat. I’d accuse the whole thing of being a little too simple, were it not for the fact it’s been rattling around in my head all week.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20Night%20Tracking.m4a]

iTunes/Amazon

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“Waiting”

rentals
The Rentals
Return of The Rentals, 1995

At this point, I guess I’m something of a Weezer “truther.” Several albums and more than a decade removed from the band’s distinctly underwhelming Green Album return, there’s no logic or benefit to arguing that Rivers Cuomo’s post-Pinkerton output stacks up to past glories, because It. Just. Doesn’t. Cuomo’s written plenty of good songs since, but something was lost in those intervening years that he’ll never get back, and who the fuck am I to complain when I can barely play three chords? One strong theory though: Weezer lost more than a bassist when Matt Sharp left. The Rentals’ debut, released shortly after The Blue Album, was lower-fi and more keyboard-heavy, but otherwise sounded a hell of a lot like the work of a guy who played (and possibly even co-wrote songs) for Weezer. Sharp’s distinct background vocals snuck onto those first two albums, and in live performances, he was the guy who kept the energy up. So maybe he’s the Man Behind the Curtain, maybe he’s not — see yesterday’s Song for proof that Cuomo can still hold his own when he feels like it. More likely though, in some unspeakable sense, Sharp contributed to the band dynamic in such a way that things could never be the same without him. Because they weren’t.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Waiting.mp3]

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“The Angel and the One”

weezer
Weezer
The Red Album, 2008

“The Angel and the One” is a fascinating entry in the post-heyday Weezer discography. In sentiment and execution it’s something of a mid-life rejoinder to Blue Album finale “Only in Dreams,” widely acknowledged by people who used to love Weezer to be, like, maybe the best song Rivers Cuomo ever wrote. What’s interesting about “Angel” is just how closely it contradicts its forebear. Instead of a hapless, unknown, twenty-something dude praying for a shot at getting laid, we’ve got thirty-eight year-old rock icon Cuomo telling a groupie to step off. At the other end of his remarkable career, he’s no longer the nerd begging for attention, he’s the millionaire who’s had enough. And where “Dreams” was lyrically direct, a pure sentiment boiled down to purest form, “Angel” is high-minded, awkwardly phrased and almost comically overblown, ending with an unlikely benediction: “Peace, shalom.” But divorced from the words, the song soars — the music here is as strong as anything on the band’s first two albums, and Cuomo sings with such conviction it doesn’t really matter what he’s saying. No comment on that cover art though.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20The%20Angel%20and%20the%20One.mp3]

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“Articulate Silences Part Two”

lid
Stars of the Lid
And Their Refinement of the Decline, 2007

I don’t think there’s a more fitting title in the Stars of the Lid canon. The song itself embodies the name: a succession of droned chords, occasionally accented by cello, each interrupted by a brief pause. The effect is profound but fleeting, music as still-life, mental flash cards that flicker and recede. Those seeking total immersion are encouraged/dared to take the entire 2-hour journey. This is music for yoga, for people who don’t do yoga.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/1-03%20Articulate%20Silences%20Part%202.mp3]

iTunes/Amazon

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“Moanin’ At Midnight”

wolf3
Howlin’ Wolf
The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection

One of the best blind buys I’ve ever made – and as a high school music nerd on a fast food salary, I made many – was this Chess Records Howlin’ Wolf compilation. And one of my fondest musical memories is hearing the first few seconds of “Moanin’ At Midnight” — which dates to 1959 if my Wikipedia sleuthing is correct — for the first time. The sinister fade-in, the way the mics distort as the band builds energy, the fact that dude is literally howling at you from an era long past. Unbelievable, chills-down-the-spine stuff. Chester Burnett was a force of nature; there’s no blues artist living or dead I’d rather listen to. As Sam Phillips was quoted, “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’” I can do no better.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Moanin’%20At%20Midnight.mp3]

iTunes/Amazon

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“The Jig is Up”

el-p
El-P
Cancer 4 Cure, 2012

I would not wanna spend a day in El-P’s head. The Brooklyn-born underground hip-hop icon has built an impressive career out of oppressive materials. His dense, obsessive, caustic production has been a fixture on the scene for close to two decades, so singular I can honestly say I’ve never even heard an imitator. That goes for the wordplay too: agitated and rife with sci-fi paranoia, he belongs to that rare breed of hip-hop lyricist devoted almost exclusively to world-building. As in all art, it’s hard to tell where the persona ends and the person begins, but I suspect “The Jig is Up” betrays more than a hint of autobiography. “Why don’t you just admit the truth/That you’ve been trained to withstand pain/And that’s the only way my crazy is not killing you,” he pleads with a would-be lover. “I wouldn’t wanna be a part of any club that would have me/You must out of your goddamn mind.” If you think consuming an entire album pitched at this same level of self-loathing is too much to ask, imagine what it feels like to live there permanently.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/08%20The%20Jig%20Is%20Up.m4a]

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“The Tears of Music and Love”

maggie
Deerhoof
Offend Maggie, 2008

Deerhoof is just an insanely consistent band. At this point, despite their experimental tendencies, they’re a known quantity. They’re ready, willing and able to bend their sound any number of ways from album to album, but the core elements — crunchy/catchy guitars, Greg Saunier’s drumming, Satomi Matsuzaki’s high-energy, childlike vocals — remain unchanged. Every album is good and a little different, but there’s so much music to choose from that it’s easy to take them for granted. It was the same way with Sonic Youth: we’re not truly gonna miss these guys until they call it a day. Offend Maggie shares the raw, live sound of the band’s earlier work with the more accessible songwriting of Friend Opportunity. Taken in small doses like this one, I’m hard-pressed to name a better or more original rock band.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20The%20Tears%20Of%20Music%20And%20Love.mp3]

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“Alice”

tom waits - alice
Tom Waits
Alice, 2002

Tom Waits’ songs, as the man himself has identified, typically fall into one of three buckets — they’re either “bawlers,” “brawlers” or “bastards.” This adherence to form, this tacit nod to tradition, a willingness to identify one’s debt to and position in the Great American Songbook, is how we know Tom Waits, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen before him, belongs in the canon. Or something. What I know is that “Alice,” a bawler if ever there was one, is a damn fine song. Ostensibly an outline of Lewis Carroll’s obsession with a certain young woman in Wonderland, the song skates the same thin ice as its narrator: knife-edged jazz ballad, tender pedophillic paen, suicidal mash note. So compelling it makes you feel for a guy who knows he’s being a creep. Just like Gershwin, right? Right? Wait, why are you making that face?

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Alice.m4a]

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“Bright Pavilions”

super
Superdrag
In the Valley of Dying Stars, 2000

Superdrag was one of those bands that just never got the timing down. Early on, when they were firing on all cylinders — the stretch from 1996 major-label debut Regretfully Yours to this album — the band could never quite drum up the attention needed to make a real splash, MTV’s embrace of the “Sucked Out” video aside. By the time they’d been around long enough to be missed they were already gone, and when they did finally come back with 2009’s Industry Giants, well, it was clear more than the industry had changed. I’ll posit that despite the tendency in later years to wear their influences on their sleeves, the band’s early sound was truly original: shoegaze guitars, Zombies-worthy songs, snarl on loan from God-knows-where and the inimitable vocals of John Davis. “Bright Pavilions” is one of the finest examples of the band’s craft, arriving late enough to know exactly what it’s doing and early enough to be truly great.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/07%20Bright%20Pavilions.m4a]

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“The Swimming Song”

loudon
Loudon Wainwright III
Attempted Mustache, 1973

This is cheesy, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’ve never heard “The Swimming Song” before, it is my God’s-honest pleasure to make the introduction for you. Play it today and there’s a good chance you’ll remember it forever. As a cult-favorite folkie in the 1970s, Wainwright’s droll wit and breadth of subject matter got him pegged “the next Dylan,” but the mainstream couldn’t adapt. Today he’s best known as the father of Rufus, Martha and Lucy … and the guy who wrote “The Swimming Song” (by me anyway). So innocent and carefree you could play it for your kid, “Swimming” is a litany of youthful, nostalgic boasts set against an easy summer-banjo backdrop. For 2-3 minutes, wherever you are, no matter the time of year, you’ll swear it’s still summer at the swimming hole.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20The%20Swimming%20Song.m4a]

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“Bite the Thong”

jj doom
JJ DOOM
Keys to the Kuffs, 2012

Some days you cry in the car, some days you “bite the thong.” I’m pretty sure Robert Frost said something similar once. The underthings supplicant in question here is MF DOOM at his MF DOOMiest, spitting slow over a nauseated soundscape from TV on the Radio collaborator Jneiro Jarel. DOOM’s been exiled in England for years thanks to some unidentified immigration drama. In 2012 he funneled his frustration into a full-album collaboration with Jarel, and it’s arguably the strongest thing he’s done since Madvillain. JJ’s synth-heavy, future-fearing production proves to be a worthy match for hip-hop’s weirdest vocab whiz. For maximum impact, see also: “Gov’nor,” “Rhymin’ Slang” and “Winter Blues.”

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/04%20Bite%20The%20Thong.mp3]

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“Lost Verses”

april
Sun Kil Moon
April, 2008

Time for some TBSYHAD #realtalk: I cried the first time I heard “Lost Verses” the whole way through. I was stuck in L.A. traffic on my way to work, nothing but time to kill, and decided to wait out the entire 10 minutes. Something happens near the end of the track — I won’t spoil it here — that flips the entire thing on its head and … God knows what was going on in my life at the time (I don’t remember now), but I broke down and started bawling right there on the freeway. Eventually I made it to work and did my best to act like nothing had happened. When I think about Mark Kozelek in 2014 — the cranky email interviews, the weird diss track aimed at less prominent musicians — I have to remind myself of the reason I ever cared in the first place. One time the guy wrote a song this good.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Lost%20Verses.m4a]

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“Hands”

200px-Four_Tet_-_Rounds
Four Tet
Rounds, 2003

“Hands” is the sound of Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, playing to his strengths as a composer and found-sound stylist. Building up from a child’s heartbeat to blurry, chopped cymbals and simple piano, this quiet song surprises with its capacity to hold our attention. Eventually a direct drumbeat enters, the perfect foil. And while I’m sure the process of locating and shaping these sounds was anything but, the end components are fairly simple and easy to identify. Naturally occurring, organic sounds that have been electronically manipulated; a robot approximation of free jazz, as conceived by someone who’s never actually heard the music before. I can’t say I like everything Hebden puts his name on, but when he’s on he’s on.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Hands.m4a]

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“Stoned Love”

the supremes
The Supremes
Single, 1970

It was never supposed to be “Stoned Love.” Songwriter Kenny Thomas first coined the phrase “stone love” to describe an unshakeable bond; a typo during the production phase added the weird “-d,” obscuring the song’s meaning at first pass. Rather than the drug culture celebration many feared it to be at the time, the song was intended as an open-hearted plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, specifically timed to the Vietnam War. It would still live on as one of only two top-10 Supremes singles recorded without Diana Ross (Jean Terrell had taken over lead vocals by this time). Today, more than anything else, what stands out for me is the undeniable Funk Brothers groove that kicks in after the intro, a joyous musical affirmation of the song’s inspiring message.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20Stoned%20Love.m4a]

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“Jacquard Causeway”

boc

Boards of Canada
Tomorrow’s Harvest, 2013

Unlike many Boards of Canada devotees, I didn’t lose my shit over Tomorrow’s Harvest, last year’s comeback album from the influential, Edinburghian ambient outfit. My interest in the group skews more toward their warmer, earlier work; Harvest ran a little too ‘80s-horror-flick cold for my blood. But BoC are too in command of their form for the entire project to be a wash, and “Jacquard Causeway” still sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. As a failed drummer in a former life, I’m a sucker for weird, fucked-up drum patterns; you could lock me in a room with the “Causeway” beat on repeat for hours and I’d be happy as a clam. BoC know what they’ve got here, taking plenty of time to build and contract repeating synth phrases around that plodding, irregular heartbeat. It’s the album’s longest and most replay-worthy song.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/04%20Jacquard%20Causeway.m4a]

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“Closer at Hand”

field
Field Music
Tones of Town, 2007

Delightfully catchy, determinedly British and deceptively simple, Field Music are a band you don’t hear much about in the States. Whether or not the Northern England pop duo — whose supporting cast has included members of The Futureheads and Maximo Park — are still a going concern, they made a mark in their home country’s indie scene over the last decade. This is sophisticated pop music for listeners who still go for that sort of thing; if the Kinks had sprung up 40 years later they might’ve sounded something similar. “Closer at Hand” is a breezy, instantly memorable tune, simple and shiny enough that it takes a few spins to decode the melancholy hiding underneath. Like the album that surrounds it, repeated listens yield deep rewards.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20Closer%20At%20Hand.m4a]

iTunes/Amazon

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“3000”

droctagonecologyst
Dr. Octagon
Dr. Octagonecologyst, 1996

No measure of backstory can prepare you for the first time you hear Dr. Octagon, the time-traveling surgeon and “lady doctor” from another dimension. The debut album from one of the many outlandish personas of rapper Kool Keith pairs scatological, rapid-fire non-sequiturs with Dan The Automator’s stellar old-school-as-new-school production. Groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Octagonecologyst is credited in part with helping popularize the underground hip-hop movement, paving the way for the MF Dooms and Tylers of today. And even though it’s been nearly 20 years, shit still sounds like the future.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%203000.m4a]

iTunes/Amazon

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