favorite songs (this week).

•December 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Dresden Dolls, “Sing”

I was recently digging through a Care Bears trashcan full of cd’s hastily removed from my poor Chevy Cavalier (a.k.a., “The Yellow Submarine”) after it was totaled in an accident back in December 2007. I had, apparently, purchased a copy of The Dresden Dolls’ “Yes, Virgina” somewhere along the line. I hadn’t even removed the shrinkwrap. I figured, well, at some point I decided to buy this cd and it probably cost me a good $18 so I might as well listen to it. I also have a friend who is a devout Amanda Palmer disciple, and I do actually like a few Dresden Dolls’ songs here and there (“Girl Anachronism,” “Good Day,” etc.), so I decided I might as well give it a listen.

I put it on while zipping around doing other things, and consequently, didn’t have the time to really listen. Until “Sing,” the final track on the album, came on. I stopped what I was doing and listened. I even teared up a little. In general, I turn my nose up at most lay-my-heart-and-soul-on-my-piano chanteuses. Not really my style. And Amanda Palmer’s brand of musical exhibitionism was definitely not my style, I determined. I also just didn’t like her voice; she sings like she is trying to squeeze her stomach out of her nose and I find it off-putting. But when she sang, “Sing for the teachers who told you that you couldn’t sing,” well,  I got it. I understood. Her voice is kind of, well, strange and off-putting but she’s singing ’cause it’s obvious, singing for the teachers who told her that she couldn’t sing, singing for all the people who are silenced and all the people who have tried to silence her. That’s kind of beautiful. It doesn’t really apply when she’s singing about ex-boyfriends who say mean things about her in music magazines or the pratfalls of fame and being stuck in a hotel room while on tour, but in “Sing,” she gets it right.

Metric, “Satellite Mind”

“Fantasies” is a great album with a lot of tight, clever songs on it and “Satellite Mind,” apparently the tale of Emily Haines (whom I kind of consider to be an indie rock pop star, sort of like Kelly Clarkson with hipster cred) getting off to listening to some guy fuck through the wall. It’s very sexy, very catchy, and it totally rocks. I listen to “Fantasies” a lot while driving (try it; it’s a good road album!) but “Satellite Mind” is the one song I usually end up skipping back to.

Mischief Brew, “Nomad’s Revolt”

In the winter, I always crave some good folk-punk. I don’t know why, really. Usually when it’s cold out, you can find me listening to Mischief Brew or Defiance Ohio. Erik Petersen is my favorite folk-punker — he’s not only a crust punk with a message, he’s a great storyteller and songwriter. “Nomad’s Revolt,” from “Smash the Windows,” is one of my favorite songs of his. It’s a lot more polished than you would expect and paints a spot-on picture of punks growing out of being punks with funny hair and facial piercings and clothes with dental-floss patches and studs (“Can you believe who’s a mother, and that so-and-so’s cut off their dreads?”). It’s something I’ve experienced a lot lately; I was never what you would consider punk (though I did go through a rather embarrassing goth phase in high school) but more and more I find myself assimilating to the “mainstream” and adopting the role of an adult and laying to rest the protest-sign-yielding, slogan-spouting, soapbox-standing radical potboiler ways of my younger years. “Nomad’s Revolt” is a perfect testament to getting old and changing your priorities; as he rasps, “There is power in unions of ramblers who’ve got nothing to own, but there’s more in one fist-swinging mother, swearing ‘my children will never be sold.'” It’s a reassurance that it’s possible to be a grown-up while still being castaways & cutouts at heart.

Arcade Fire, “Antichrist Television Blues”

“Neon Bible” is actually my favorite Arcade Fire album, much moreso than “Funeral,” and possibly one of my favorite albums of all-time. I keep finding new songs to love on “Neon Bible” and, recently, I find myself humming “Antichrist Television Blues.” It is, from what I can tell, about 9/11. (“I don’t want to work in a building downtown, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, ’cause the planes keep crashing always two by two.”) Songs About 9/11 is not really my favorite genre of music, in fact, it’s right up there with Movies About 9/11 on my list of Things I Generally Do Not Enjoy, but this song actually does it in such an understated way that I didn’t even initially realize what it was about. It’s got an unbelievably catchy alt-country stomp to it and I think it shows off how great Win Butler’s voice actually is; it tends to blend into the grand majesty of the Arcade Fire’s sound, but it is a wondrous thing to behold on its own, with just an acoustic guitar and some drums. It definitely one of the more understated tracks on the album but, for that reason, it’s one of my favorites.

The Decemberists, “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)”

In winter 2006, I worked as a barista in a Barnes & Noble Cafe. This is around the time “The Crane Wife” was released. In Barnes & Noble, the people who are working in the music section get to choose the music from a selection of albums that Barnes & Noble is trying to promote. During that season, we had a person working the music floor who really really liked The Decemberists. When the Christmas shopping season hit, there were two songs that were played over and over again: “Christmastime” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and strangely, “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then).” As a result, this song always makes me wistful for that period of my life. It is forever related to the holidays, and the few months near the end of 2006 when I spent my days making white chocolate mochas to a soundtrack of Peanuts and Civil War ghost stories.

But aside from my own personal associations with this song, it’s just a gorgeous song. It’s an awfully sad one, the tale of a fallen soldier and the girl he left behind, “blankets barren and my own belt big with child.” It’s sung by Colin Meloy and Laura Viers, from across the divide. The soldier sings, “When you make a grave, I will be home then.” When the music swells, and Meloy & Viers sing together, “Stems and stones and stone walls too could keep me from you, skein of skin is all too few to keep me from you,” it’s only of my favorite moments in any Decemberists song.

Neko Case, “Maybe Sparrow”

Neko Case has pretty much my favorite voice ever. While the songs on “Blacklisted” feel like a musky, steamy summer in the South to me, the songs on “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” feel a little bit more like winter. “Maybe Sparrow” is my favorite track on the album, and the song I’d point someone to if they wanted to know what the big deal about Neko Case is. One of the verses aptly describes the experience of listening to the song itself: “Notes are hung so effortless, with the rise and fall of sparrow’s breast, it’s a drowning dive and back to the chorus…”

oh, the hazards of love.

•December 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I picked up a copy of The Decemberists new album, “The Hazards of Love,” before making a 3+ hour trip to New Jersey. As soon as the chorus to the second track, “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”, I knew I was in for an interesting ride.

In a lot of ways, this is Colin Meloy’s magnum opus; it is not an album, with singles and songs that stand on their own, so much as a musical suite with movements and recurring strands of melody that link the entire piece together. It is heartfelt and strange and packed with more drama than your average Broadway musical. It is the tale of Margaret, her shapeshifting lover William, his forboding forest queen mother, children who meet a terrible fate at the hands of a ferocious rake, and finally, a creepy chorus of vengeful ghost children. The title of the album comes from an EP released by obscure British folksinger Anne Briggs. If this sounds horribly pretentious, well, it is and makes no apologies for it. But Colin Meloy is one of the few songwriters around who could pull off such a highly conceptual musical feat, with lyrics that are gently poetic and can both tell a story & provide an emotional core to the narrative, and he pulls it off beautifully.

Despite not having any real singles, since all of the songs flow together, nearly all of the songs stand on their own. The first instance of the title track, “Won’t Want for Love,” “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All),” and “The Rake’s Song” are all fantastic tracks that work as self-contained pieces. The Decemberists even manage to get a little, well, metal on songs such as “The Queen’s Approach” and “The Abduction of Margaret.” In a lot of ways, the album is more prog-rock than folk, and has more in common with Rush than their beloved Anne Briggs. The acoustic guitar-and-accordian-heavy sound that help make The Decemberists was more intimate and twee, while this is downright anthemic. Considering the subject matter and Meloy’s ambition, it fits, even if it might be a little jarring for the audience who came to love The Decemberists as folk-rock revivalists who sang sea chanties while dressed in olde tyme garb.

I tend to have a little bit of musical ADD and rarely have the patience to listen to an album start-to-finish, but I find myself listening to “The Hazards of Love” as an entire piece and haven’t once skipped from song to song. While the song on it are fantastic, the album is greater than the sum of its parts. And the more I listen to it, the more nuances pop out and the more the melodies sink into my brain. At times, even though the album is full of original material, it feels strangely familiar, tickling some part of the collective unconscious. It’s definitely one of those most interesting pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time and serves as proof the Colin Meloy and his Decemberists are one of the most original acts in music today.

8 Musical Crushes

•June 23, 2009 • 2 Comments

1. Andrew Bird

andrew_bird

He’s my musical hero. He’s a wiry, rumple-haired, dark-eyed virtuoso with long, spidery fingers that fly over his violin’s fingerboard with effortless grace. He sways and sashays when he plays like a man possessed, his brow furrowed in concentration. He sings with his eyes shut tight, perhaps trying to block out the ever-increasing crowd in front of him. He’s an odd mix of confidence and shyness: He’s fearless when he plays, a man who knows his craft, and is sure of his songwriting prowess. But sometimes something goes awry, the looping machine he keeps at his feet and controls with his stockinged toes malfunctions or misbehaves, and he looks at the crowd, mildly embarrassed, and jokes in a quiet, self-conscious semi-mumble.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform twice, several years apart. The first I saw him, I dragged a few friends to the 8×10 in downtown Baltimore to see him. My friends were skeptical, but left converts. He performed by himself, just him and his various instruments and his looping machine at his feet, with occasional accompaniment from Bowl of Fire drummer Kevin O’Donnell. It was a small crowd, 30 people would be a generous estimate. He had just released “The Mysterious Production of Eggs.” And the second time I saw him was in Philidelphia, on South Street. The show was sold out weeks in advance. People were trying to buy tickets off passersby outside the venue. There must have been 400 people there, packed in tight. And everyone knew his songs. It was sort of jarring to see all of those people there, since for years,  it felt like I was his only fan. It was clear that he’d finally made it big. But, as I watched him perform, I realized that something amazing had happened. His songs were getting increasingly more complex, lyrically and musically, and he hadn’t compromised one bit of himself or his craft to sell out venues and get radio airplay. He made it big on talent and vision alone. You gotta tip your hat to that.

2. Colin Meloy (frontman of The Decemberists)

colin_meloy_writes_a_song I gotta tell ya: The first time I listened to The Decemberists, I hated them. “OH MY GOD,” I thought, “WHY DOES THAT DUDE SING LIKE THAT.” But one song made me a fan, “The Engine Driver.” The way his voice lilts over those gorgeous, gorgeous words (“I am a writer, a writer of fictions, I am the heart that you call home, and I’ve written pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones”) and collides with that soft female voice and the accordion, oh, I was hooked. He sold me. And as I listened to them more and more, I realized, no other voice would make sense with these songs. And so I grew to love Colin Meloy’s voice as much as his words.

But nasal Cockney singing and wordsmithing aside, he’s just plain old adorable. And how can you resist a Morrissey covers album? Simple answer: YOU CAN’T.

3. Eugene Hutz (frontman of Gogol Bordello)

eugenecuteEugene Hutz wants you to start wearing purple. He also wants you to think locally and fuck globally. All I can say is, sure thing, Mr. Gypsy Punk. I can has moustache ride? Plz?

4. Nick Cave

nickcaveNick Cave is pure, raw, unadulterated sex and violence. Oh, sure, he has a contemplative side. He can spin a ballad like nobody’s business. But from his first wails on the Birthday Party’s brutal fury to “Murder Ballads,” he’s all about sex and violence. Even when he’s not, even when he’s singing sensitive long songs (a la “The Boatman’s Call”), it’s there in that deep, booming, sinister voice of his. And his absolutely berserk cry of “OH GOD PLEASE LET ME DIE BENEATH HER FISTS” on “Zoo Music Girl” (from “Prayers on Fire”) has got to be the single most *UNF*-worthy moment in any song ever.

5. Erik Petersen (of Mischief Brew)

erikI saw Erik Petersen perform live before I ever heard anything recorded. It is a magical thing to behold. If you ever get the chance to see him perform, whether it’s a dark smoky dive bar or some crust kid’s living room, jump on it. It is one of the most amazing spectacles you will ever witness. Erik Petersen plays his guitar like a percussion instrument, beating out the chords, and you he doesn’t sing so much as he leads the crowd in protest chants. He’s just an anarchist kid, armed with a guitar and an awesome set of pipes, and he manages to instantly bring everyone in the room together with his singalong melodies and raspy voice. Personally, I don’t identify as an anarchist. But if anyone could ever sell me on it, it’s him. And although his rabid crust punk fans won’t admit it, his music and message harken back to the 60’s, when poets and big thinkers attempted to incite revolution with their acoustic guitars and a song. He’s a punk rock Cat Stevens. And nothing is sexier than a man with a conscience and a message. Especially when he’s sweaty and grungy and unwaveringly earnest and singing the praises of empowered women who “just might build your house but just might tear it down.”

6. John Darnielle (of The Mountain Goats)

mountainzt9 I’m a sucker for a hyperliterate man and John Darnielle might be the most hyperliterate songwriter of them all. From his “Going to…” song cycles to the self-destructive couple chronicled on “Tallahasse,” there’s a desperate romanticism to his songwriting that’s endlessly surprising and always beautiful. He’s penned some of my favorite songs ever (“Have to Explode,” “Going to Georgia,” “Game Shows Touch Our Lives,” and on and on…) and he’s lanky and bespectacled to boot. DOUBLE WIN.

7. E (from the Eels)

everettMark Oliver Everett, the brain behind the Eels, is not your typical dreamboat. In fact, he’s sort of funny looking. Sometimes he will grow a positively feral beard and dress up like Unibomber, as he did during his “Souljacker” phase. And his voice is what I imagine it’d sound like if Beck and Tom Waits melded their respective vocal chords together. But, over the years, I’ve come to find E positively charming. He’s a hopeless romantic, always in search of someone to love. He’s authored some of my favorite love songs of all time (“Fresh Feeling,” “World of Shit,” “Tremendous Dynamite”) and he’s turning into an endlessly evolving, innovative, modern-day Captain Beefheart. And I really just want to pinch his cheeks and give him a big kiss.

8. Harry and the Potters

jurassicpottersOkay, this is probably the nerdiest and most self-indulgent entry on an already nerdy and self-indulgent list. But I can’t help it. I love the Potters somethin’ fierce. I spent most of my early 20’s following these guys up and down the East Coast. Yes, they sing about Harry Potter. And, yes, the humor is likely to be lost on you if you aren’t a fan of the books. But these guys are also just top-notch performers — their shows are veritable nerdgasms, full of energy, and community, and just plain old rocking. The Brothers DeGeorge (Paul is Older Harry, Joe is Younger Harry,  the premise of band is that Older Harry got hold of a Time Turner and went back in time to start a band with himself, pure genius) have also grown considerably since they first dressed up in their Hogwarts uniform. They’re nice guys to boot. I’ve been to at least 12 of their shows and, even as the crowds got bigger, they always took the time to interact with their fans and made themselves available for conversation after the show. And that, to me, is that mark of an awesome band.

“Anonanimal” by Andrew Bird.

•June 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I want to crawl inside this song and live there.

I spent the majority of February and March in Albuquerque, NM for work. I got to stay in a swank hotel, was showered with per diems, and had several weekends just to explore The Land of Enchantment. I hadn’t brought any music with me and the radio stations out there are as follows: Country, Top 40, Spanish music. Not even a good solid talk radio station. I was driving around in my little white Jetta rental quite a bit, all over Albuquerque, to Santa Fe, to Pojoaque, to Taos. Out of frustration, I stopped in a little independent record shop on Route 66, by the University of New Mexico, and bought a copy of Andrew Bird’s “Noble Beast.”

I had been listening to it (and loving it) before going to New Mexico, and had even gone to Philidelphia to see him perform, but it wasn’t until I listened to “Noble Beast” on a loop out there in New Mexico that the album really sunk in. Somehow, listening to “Noble Beast” among the neverending mountains and desert and crystal clear blue skies, the album made more sense than it did in my hometown of Baltimore. Baltimore is all grit and irony and poverty and perversity. But New Mexico, well, it’s as close to paradise as I’ve ever seen. And being surrounded by the omnipresent mountains, and the neverending blue sky, the album clicked for me. And I listened to it on a loop while I was out there, as it was the only album I had. With each listen, “Noble Beast” sunk its claws in deeper.

And now it’s my New Mexico Album.

All the songs remind me of my time there, driving around and exploring, looking out of my car window and seeing mountains on all sides of me, like some large, silent traveling partner.

This song in particular, “Anonanimal,” with its repeated lines of “hold on just a second, I know this one, I know this song,” resonated deeply for me when I was by myself in a place so different from my home, thousands of miles away from anyone I know. And when the violin gets drowned out by the guitar after those lyrics, oh my, it’s so beautiful and warm that the song itself feels like home. And, driving around, that song was immensely comforting to me. It still is. And it reminds me of the time I spent out there, exploring, excited, and homesick.