Greetings, and a happy belated New Year to all. Here is a short, unanticipated list that captures the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in regards to the music I enjoyed in 2011. You’ll find hastily written descriptions beneath each mp3 or link. Each description was written as a part of an exercise where I challenged myself to chalk out writing on each track while only allowing myself the length of the song to do so. Please excuse grammar and punctuation quirks. It was about as fun as what i’d imagine doing p-90x for the first time would be. Anyways, here are the tracks, and please remember that this is in no way a comprehensive list. My actual list is way longer, but again, the writing exercise was too fun to not approach. Instructions: play song, read, try to enjoy. Or just skim and gawk ❤
Robert Browning once said that a man’s creative reach should always exceed his grasp. In other words, artists should regularly strive to achieve that presentation of artistry that is beyond the limits of what they’re capable of. With that in mind, John Maus is the epitome of this idea because, well, I hate to say it, he does not have a great voice, and to a songwriter that can be crippling for expression – if they aren’t brave enough to challenge themselves to make it work. This is what Maus does; his approach to his vocals here, and on this album in general, are what makes him such an intelligent artist. Because he’s not a smooth crooner, because his voice isn’t remarkable, he must think outside of the conventions of vocal presentation, and it is here where he succeeds. His unique, choir like layering of shouts and borderline monotonic chants don’t just compliment the beautiful, glittering, saturated synths and cool, wobbly rhythm- they make the song.
I really tried to sit down and write a decent description for this, but every time I pressed play I ended up hopping out of my chair and dancing in front of my mirror with my wayfarers on, pretending that I was playing in my imagined version of this band. I just love this song so much. It’s like the Chameleons and the recent Walkmen had a charming love child, complete with a handsome disposition and acute sense of the darker ranges of man’s emotional spectrum. This is glimmering, post-punk splendor you can dance to- which is what a good, no, a great post-punk song should do, isn’t it?
Bill Callahan’s voice is the winner here, how it lazily prods over the deflated, yet assertive stomp of his rhythm section to deliver clear, deep, lyrical nuances- the most resonating being “I never served my country”. He sounds tired, but focused, and despite his vocal demeanor, what fascinates me is how the fuzz guitar solo, which scatters across the track from its midpoint onward, manages to compliment the drabness of Callhan’s voice, balancing the song into a perfect, awkwardly delightful, yet catatonic groove.
Anyone can chuck this into the buzz trash bin as another ‘80s synth rip off’ track, but the thing is, while the song does adorn the atypical 80s pop aesthetics – synth / dainty female vocals – the overall feel of this song is just too weird and ethereal to dismiss. Take for example how the squirmy, arpeggiated synth foundation coagulates beneath Claire Blouchers petite, yet earthly coos- it’s a difficult foundation to work with, and yet she sails over it gracefully. Even better is how the geometric sound-scape evolves at two and half minutes and turns the mood in to a slow motion tight-rope-walk into the outro. The intelligence that went into sculpting this song’s structuring is what sets her apart from the rest: a calm, audible anomaly amidst her less than daring contemporaries.
Amidst the sludge of dubstep jock artists that came out this year, one of the more overlooked, dare I say, ‘traditional’ club artists emerged in the presence of the fresh, electronic disco duo Tiger & Woods. When I first heard this I felt as if I had stumbled upon a Daft Punk who had rebranded their sound and yet, somehow managed to get younger. For one thing, the duo is working with larger numbers – eight minute tracks to be general. In this case, it’s eight minutes of clean, programmed soul claps that carry a minimal, yet alluring vocal chop that, when slightly altered, re-arrange the entire color of it’s fresh, mechanized bounce.
This track basically saved my life this past December. It was on a night drive and the weather was cold and wet and everyone on the highway was driving like madmen and grandmothers. My nerves were shaking and I had to turn down the music so I could hear, so I could concentrate on driving – it was that bad. I suppose the anxiety was absorbing too much, and the faintest of detractors to my other senses were only contributing to the onset of my tunneled focus. When I finally came to an expanse of dry, halogen illuminated highway, I was able to calm and put on some music, so I chose this new Real Estate record. When this track in particular began to play, the blurred headlights and lamps I couldn’t focus on turned into a slow motion carousel with each gentle pluck of those glassy guitar strings. The jangly yet calm, careless yet focused feel of the track got me through the traffic and into the safety of my home, and I’ll never forget that.
The paunch bellied literary critic Harold Bloom published a book called the Anxiety of Influence, in which he argues that many modern poets ultimately create ‘weak’ poetry as a result of their sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious presentation of influence by greater, ‘canonical’ poets who they admire, or at least have been inspired by- ie borrowing rhythms, lines, structures, characters. Ironically enough, this is not a new idea – T.S. Eliot expressed this decades before Bloom articulated his own version, and I’m pretty sure one of those massive Greek thinkers discussed this idea a thousand years prior when discussing the arts in general. It’s a commonality that demoninates the evolution of music, and when an artist displays their influences tastefully, they can create a whole new feel and mood for not only themselves but for the artists they’ve borrowed from (we’ll just call this borrowing). A fine example of what I’m getting at occurs in this track by Cloud Nothings’s lead singer and writer, Dylan Baldi. I wasn’t moved with the cut copy pop punk opening of the track, but then the first several notes of the chorus swung in and I froze. The ascending melody of Baldi’s abrupt, though daringly ‘aim for the heavens’ carol are a direct allusion (or borrowing) to the Beach Boys’ sleepy, angelic chorus in Pet Sounds’s cult favorite, “You Believe in Me”. I was sold, and even though I don’t think this track is groundbreaking in any way, the placement of that harkening Beach Boys melody into the youthful vigor of this track’s lo-fi, pop-punk structure was a bold, brave, move that lifted it out of what would’ve been standard, ‘decent buzz pop’ territory and into a brief wallow in greatness – thanks to alluding to the greats. Intentional or not, it’s gold.
When I was 18 I thought I fell in love with a girl I would never see again. She was moving to Boston, and with an almost stupid, fateful coincidence only a teenager with a boner in his pants would welcome, my parents left me with the house to myself…the weekend before she would leave. So I invited her over. We picked up cheap fast food – Carls Jr I think, and ate on the floor as we watched TV on mute while we talked about shallow, excitable things. It was great, and I didn’t want it to end. Truth. I didn’t want that youthful, slow manifest of a glowing crush to stop. But I knew it would, and that it would end with the initiation of what I had thought I was ready for, but was slowly finding out I didn’t want with her, or for us: sex. Those warm, two and a half hours of infatuation were not going to top those two minutes of confused, awkward pelvic thrusting. Yet, it happened. I never fell in love with the girl, but the memory has been etched in my urn without a proper way to articulate the sentiment. And that’s where this Twin Sister track comes in. When I listened to this loungey, r&b pop track, I knew (or felt / feel) that Eric Cardona was singing about exactly this. Whoever he’s singing to, whoever he wrote this for, he’s making sure he doesn’t, how can we say, ‘screw’ this up as I did, by moving way too fast when he croons “I kept telling myself to stop, to feel, feel if I’d like it”.
I tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow once, and I gave up. I gave up because I tried to understand it, which is something I don’t believe one can do with the good majority of Pynchon’s work. But that’s not why I tried to read it; I didn’t read him to understand him, I read him to feel the moods and prose textures I was told he was a master at creating. And he is. That’s how I felt with this Destroyer single and record. I didn’t necessarily care to examine the lyrical content; rather, I chose to sink into the mood it conveyed; smooth, underwater, smoky, and sultry.
I just really like this song because the synth lead sounds like a robotic cat meowing. Really, listen to it. Kittytron. So good.
This past SXSW, I had the pleasure of accidentally meeting Elizabeth Harper on a warm night in Austin’s eastside. I was talking to Kip, the lead singer of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, when she walked up and introduced herself as a ‘buzz band’. She had long, wavy black hair she would toss behind her ear every so often to reveal her fair skin and small, heart shaped lips. I was convinced she was doing that to flirt with Kip, but I think I was just being hopeful about the prospect of seeing these two ‘buzz humans’ hit it off before my eyes. They didn’t, and although I was initially giddy in their presence, I couldn’t relate to anything the two were talking about and the conversation grew difficult and awkward. When Kip cracked open my beer by accident and took a swig, (it really was a moment of drunkenness, he was a bit juiced) I shook everyone’s hands and walked back to meet my party. Luckily I didn’t walk away feeling cumbersome, because if anything it prompted me to explore Harper’s brand of totally contemporary yet, wearily accessible synth pop. It’s good. The foundations are crafted with articulation and are still totally good enough to be accessible to, I want to say, a mainstream audience. Yet, there’s something there that’s almost conscious, something that indicates that, although she can write a tasteful, catchy pop track, she still chooses to remain left of center within the context of what qualifies for pop-stardom, which is probably why I really, really enjoy what she’s doing.
The Beatles were great deceivers when it came to writing pop songs. What I refer to is how John and Paul mastered the bittersweet sensibility of dressing up their jingles with sunny, ‘feel good’ movements adorned with grim, tainted, caustic lyrics (see “I’m Looking Through You”). It’s an element many seasoned songwriters attempt; yet, only a few actually inveigle such a song demeanor. Annie Clark is no stranger to playing this card- masterfully. Her second single off Strange Mercy, “Cruel”, displays an immediate example. But the moment I feel really twists the knife in a method unique to Clark comes on her track, “Dilettante”. On this track, I imagine Clark delivering vocals with a porcelain smile. She is stringing her gullible subject along with a guise of ornate, compressed guitars in major movements, a sedated, minimalist groove, and a coagulating bass line, only to deliver her final, scathing kill line: “You can’t undress me anyway”.
I’m not sure what the valley’s infatuation with Miniature Tigers is. I’m not trying to doubt the allure of their excellent brand of indie pop, (or my efforts to sale them to everyone), but in a city where the dominant markets are mainly electronic (guido) and tween rock (skinny jean, plugs, neon music), the way this band (indie / pop) grew to be so popular is still largely surprising. Whatever the case, as a promoter who values the quality of the product over the quantity the product moves, I welcome it because it’s rare when such a fine artist experiences the manifestations of an ideal, as with what has happened in McAllen and their popularity growth. That should be every promoter’s dream. But to return, back when they were booked in the valley this past June for the 3rd time within a year, I was worried. They hadn’t released any new material since Fortress, which, although I felt was one of the greatest albums of 2010 – or ever – I didn’t think the market here had absorbed enough of it to stay interested. But that changed when this single was released, and thank the heavens I don’t believe in it happened when it did, because this single was not only free, but enough of a melodic gem to captivate 350+ to come out to their show with a new vigor and interest.
The guitar work on this track is what did it for me. From the choked up opening chords to the staccato flurry that falls into the song’s scratchy, exciting lick, the fret work shoves the moods of this song from anthemic despair: “Where do good dreams go?” to glimmery, spacious guitar breaks that would make Johnny Marr jealous. Pair this guitar work with lead singer Manuela’s vocal muscle and the focused rhythm section and you have something that’s powerful and beautiful, angry and alluring. I want to say that I expect nothing but great things for this band, but they’ve already done that. It’s only a matter of time before they leave their Swede home and destroy the states. You’ve been warned.