Friday, October 30, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #29: Intervention by Arcade Fire

Neon Bible was released in 2007.  This seems insane to me, as it feels like I've owned this album for at least five years or so.  Much like the time between seasons of Friday Night Lights, or the collegiate lifespan of Cherokee Parks, this album apparently ages on a completely different pattern from the rest of civilization. Of course the fact that Arcade Fire haven't released anything since then may have contributed to my flawed perception.  After all No Country For Men came out in 2007 as well and the Coens have already released two more films since.  My point is this:  I would like a new Arcade Fire album soon.  Thank you and good day.

"Intervention" may contain the quickest "zero-to-AWESOME" acceleration in recorded history, or at least since that first chord in "A Hard Day's Night" that nobody's ever quite definitely figured out.  The opening note blaring from the church organ demands immediate attention, and not just because it gives me flashbacks to the time I watched my first grade teacher slap a classmate across the face for talking during the opening song of a school mass.  (Yes that did make a lasting impression, WHY DO YOU ASK?)  It's an instrument that obviously is rarely used in popular music, due in no small part to the fact that rock bands don't often get around to recording in churches.  But it fits perfectly with the storyline of a time when the church's position of power was beyond the challenge of any individuals, especially those sent to die in the name of religion. 

Been working for the church while your life falls apart
Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone”

The lyrics grow crazed and angry, but ultimately the narrator knows he's already defeated whether he lives or dies.  While the words are biting, the power truly lies in the unrelenting pipe organ bearing down throughout.  In some ways it seems bizarre that this band became a festival headliner in the span of two albums, but when you hear songs like this it seems like a natural fit.  The songs themselves are constructed in the aesthetic of a hungry independent band, but they are made to be played in massive stadiums, and it's a tough task to come up with many bands who can pull off that balancing act.  


Thursday, October 29, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #43: While You Wait For the Others by Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear is a band that will not get in your face. Their output is often an exercise in restraint, and one that makes you pay attention to detail. This is simultaneously their greatest strength and weakness. It’s impossible to not appreciate the intricate nuance of harmonies and minimalist instrumentation (even Jay-Z loves them!), but their spatial tempos can also languish, leaving them susceptible to being upstaged by Wayne Coyne literally doing nothing but waving from another stage.

The upside and downside are showcased on “While Your Wait For the Others,” a track that featured an unorthodox packaging decision when it was released as a single, in that the b-side was an exact replica of the single, featuring one small variation. Resident Grizzly Daniel Rossen sings on the single, whereas the b-side vocals are handled by…you guessed it: Michael McDonald.

"Ya Mo B Bear"

Let’s put the two versions up against each other head to head. First, the single (which I believe may have used shit found in my grandparents’ old house as the puzzlingly random prop collection for the video.)

And now the Doobie-fied rendition, complete with a fan-made video mash-up featuring a dancing Beyonce and Solange Knowles.

Considering that the lyrics revolve around the age-old tale of a woman (or man) who has done her (or his) man wrong, one of the main differences is the delivery of the vital lyric “I’ll kindly ask you to make your way.” Rossen truly does ask kindly in his tenor and phrasing, and frankly he sounds like a pansy. Stand up for yourself, Poindexter! McDonald sings the exact same line, but his inflection can barely contains that soul beneath the surface, letting you know that in actuality he’s not asking a damn thing. He’s Michael fucking McDonald for God’s sake! He didn’t spend the mid-70’s plowing Steely Dan groupies just to be made a damn fool of! Those twee hipsters in Williamsburg might put up with crap, but the silver-bearded assassin suffers no guff, you heartless bitch. POINT: McDonald.

Yet toward the end of the song, McDonald’s lack of restraint starts to overshadow the track. The last minute of the song goes to the next level of awesomeness, with harmonies and guitars blowing up left and right. Rossen’s vocals float like a ghost, keeping the instrumentation in the forefront. But McDonald tends to distract with the shouting, going all “Taking it to the Streets” on us. POINT: Rossen.

All in all, I call it a draw, and a victory for America!  I only hope these pairings are a sign of things to come. Kenny Loggins and Animal Collective, you are officially on the clock.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #38: The Way We Get By by Spoon

*Spoiler Alert* There will be at least one (and likely more than one) additional mention of Spoon in the next 40-odd days. So this one is short.

"The Way We Get By" was the first Spoon song I heard, and I remember thinking "These guys REALLY LIKE Elvis Costello."

Between Spoon and Fastball, I wondered if Elvis had somehow infiltrated the water supply of Austin in the late 1990s. Fortunately, Spoon has not only expanded their sound in the years since, but Britt Daniel has even confronted the Elvis comparison head on, as he showcased in his acting "debut" in one of the long lost UPN staples. Who among us doesn't love rock star cameos featuring title character-based karaoke humor?  Especially when Daniel's only two lines of actual dialogue are delivered with such non-actorly smoothness.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #16: This Modern Leper by Frightened Rabbit


Image via Flickr

January 24, 2009 was a Saturday night. As you might expect, it was a bitterly cold evening. Frightened Rabbit were playing two shows at the Empty Bottle, at 7pm and 10pm respectively. I had tickets for the early show and it appeared I would be attending solo, as my designated show-going sidekick had landed a new job the day before, and had to start her training that night. I posted my now extra will-call ticket on craigslist, quickly found a buyer, met her at the door, and prepared for early-show rocking to commence.

It's a particularly inspiring experience to watch a band play a small bar and think to yourself, "These guys are going to blow up HUGE." A concept album revolving around a break-up is nothing new, and actually it's pretty cliché at this point in pop music. Yet every sentiment on The Midnight Organ Fight is disarmingly earnest, and the shocking honesty in depictions of a dysfunctional relationship causes even the most cynical critic to appreciate the fact that these songs are stripped of any filter or calculation. There's a reason this band has been referred to as "Coldplay for people with self respect."

Halfway through the set, my new friend leaned over to me.
"We should stay for the late show."
"It's been sold out for months. I don't think we'll be able to hide until it starts."
"Let's think of a way to make it happen."

The band ripped through nearly every track on the album.  Scott Hutchinson sang "Poke" without any amplification, strumming away on top of a monitor and adding a new layer of intimacy to the most wistful song to wonder aloud "Should we kick its cunt in and watch as it dies from bleeding?"  Scottish people can just say anything, can't they?

The show ended. People slowly filed out, lingering to finish drinks or pull posters off the wall as impromptu souvenirs. Due to the two-show setup, it was barely 9pm. Clearly too early to call it a night, but winters nights in Chicago dictate that next plans be set clearly before heading out into the concrete tundra. With that in mind, we took matters into our own hands and confronted the doorman. There was no song and dance.  She got straight to the point.
"What do we need to do to stay for the next show?"
He looked us over.
“Go stand outside for 20 minutes. When we open the doors back up, give me ten bucks.”
Best bargain ever? Best bargain ever.  We stood outside, our faces burning with each masochistic gust of bitter wind.  Sure enough when the doors opened, we paid our ten bucks, and prepared to re-live our experience from a couple hours before.

We walked back inside and briefly chatted with the singer at the bar. (She complimented his diverse wardrobe of plaid.) The second show was as outstanding as the first, though it seemed the crowd was smaller, so who knows what happened to those tickets that sold out months in advance. It’s slightly surreal to watch two nearly identical performances back-to-back, especially when the later show is viewed through the filter of additional beers. The encore included a Neutral Milk Hotel cover that did not appear in the earlier set, and again we watched the crowd file out afterward.  The wind had died down and Western Avenue felt warmer.

The Midnight Organ Fight is an album you should own.

Monday, October 26, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #45: Me and Mia by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists


photo via Flickr

While watching Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Sunday night, I realized that it might have been the first time I'd ever seen a headlining act treat an encore more or less as it was originally intended.  At this point, the art of the encore is a ridiculous notion.  It's no longer a demand of the audience wanting more, but rather artists tailor setlists as to hold off the signature tracks specifically for the encore.  So it was interesting to see Leo come out for the encore and actually take a few minutes to think about what to play.  (He eventually on solo covers of Eddie and the Hot Rods and The Waterboys before bringing the band back out.)  At this point, encores are automatic.  We all know they're going to happen, so it's nice to see at least some attempt at spontanaity.

But the encore selections weren't the only admirable attempts at ad-libbing last night.  Leo preceded "Bottle of Buckie" with a story that at certain points involved being creeped out by "Greased Lighting" at age 10, and watching "Hoffa" with a girlfriends' parents - a circumstance which allows a heightened awareness of every f-bomb on screen.  While rolling through a mid-set flurry of new songs, a broken bass drum was replaced while Leo did his best impression of a jam band to kill time.  Faulty equipment aside, the band was outstanding.  The new songs have me eagerly anticipating his Matador debut, and Lincoln Hall sounded great for a new venue still working out the kinks in sound mixes.

"Me and Mia" is a track that is so catchy on the surface that it's easy to overlook what the lyrics are actually referring to.  Based on years spent around a diagnosed anorexic, I can attest that Leo's depiction of the details are eerily exact.  Lack of body heat, sunken eyes, spinal prominence on the back.  Not to mention the "me against the world" mentality that tends to develop in those afflicted, when an infinite number of verbal battles with those trying to help usually only cause the victim to further worsen their condition.  The final lines offer a thought-provoking parallel about those using hunger strikes to fight for an actual cause vs. those using a similar method for less valid, more personal reasons.  It would seem that Leo has likely fought the battle himself, and the video at least offers a happy ending that gives some sense of hope in winning the war.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #65: Constructive Summer by The Hold Steady

Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer!  I think he might have been our only decent teacher.

Every time I hear this line, I'm reminded of a documentary I saw on the Sundance Channel a few years ago.  Let's Rock Again followed Joe Strummer in what would surprisingly turn out the be the last year of his life, on the road with his new band The Mescaleros.  

For the most part, Let's Rock Again is a pretty typical tour doc, focusing primarily on Strummer's attempt to get his new band some notoriety after he had spent the previous decade-and-a-half basically out of the public eye.  But there is one scene that blew me away, where Strummer roams up and down the Atlantic City boardwalk begging people to come to his show.  This guy was in The Clash!  And he's passing out handmade flyers!  And usually getting rejected!

Strummer never seems frustrated, which is probably to be expected.  Despite his influence, he's not a guy that would be easily recognized by the masses.  He actually seems to be getting a thrill from embracing the DIY mentality and literally hitting the pavement to drum up business.  (I also wonder if he has some weird side bet in place concerning how many times he can work Captain Beefheart into conversation.)  He seems to be a man fully content and self-aware, refusing to rest on his legacy, while simultaneously embracing its existence.  When reflecting back on guides in the school of rock stardom, does anyone really need any other decent teachers?

Friday, October 23, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #44: All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem

Nobody listens to dance songs for the lyrics.  That constant is well understood by all parties involved at this point.  You're not to find anyone quoting The Rapture for high school yearbook quotes and no couples ever look back on a Daft Punk track as being "their song."  In 1998 Madonna recruited William Orbit to produce an album that would add an emotional component to electronic music, under the misguided notion that people for some reason wanted to hear electronica fused with more feeling.  This of course is a ridiculous concept, and even if it were true, it seems dubious to think that anyone would expect Madonna of all people to bring some type of emotional authenticity.

James Murphy's lyrical output as LCD Soundsystem mostly involves partying.  Tales of clubgoers out on the town or at house parties.  They take drugs.  They listen to music.  They make bad decisions.  Rinse.  Repeat.  It doesn't matter that most of the stories are the same because the lyrics don't matter.  Except when he throws a curve ball.

That's how it starts
We go back to your house
We check the charts
And start to figure it out

The piano is a bit off and continually looped with standard-issue drum and bass.  It's a by-the-numbers offering until Murphy takes the persona of the aging party-goer, wondering what any of it means.  Are these people that he's hanging out with just people at the party, or are they actual friends?  And if they are friends, why is it they're only able to hang at parties?

You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan
And the next five years trying to be with your friends again

This is not an an earth-shattering realization.  It's a pretty universal concept for anyone to wonder as they age, "Am I still actually friends with these people, even when this no longer becomes my scene?  And if this is no longer my scene, am I now living a lie, or was I at the time?"  Still it's disarming to hear these questions laid bare within the framework of a song meant to be played those same events that conjure the question in the first place.

Though when we're running out of the drugs
And the conversation's winding away
I wouldn't trade one stupid decision
For another five years of lies

Murphy doesn't really come up with an answer, but it's interesting that the mood of the song ebbs and flows despite the music itself never changing.  In the one-shot video.  Murphy starts off looking tired and ridiculous.  His painted face was probably a funny story at the time of the action, but seeing him unkempt and in a suit lets you know that things haven't turned out as he planned.  Yet despite the mistake of the past and uncertainty of the future, he stares unflinchingly ahead, prepared for whatever hazards await.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #92: Paralyzed by Bob Mould

There aren't too many musical artists in my lifetime who have been more underrated than Bob Mould.  His output over the last 25 years has been stunningly consistent, yet other bands with nearly identical sounds always seemed to get more pub.

Husker Du of course became cult faves of college radio in the mid-1980's, but never quite achieved the popularity of fellow Minnesotans The Replacements.  While I have no issue with the justified deification of Paul Westerberg, it wasn't really until I was in college that I ever knew Husker Du as anything other than "the band from the '80's with the goofy name."  Honestly, in terms of cultural significance, they could have gone side by side with Scritti Politti for all I knew.

Here's an awesome YouTube discovery.  Husker Du ripping though "I Apologize" from a 1985 concert in Indianapolis.  That shitty "bouncing off the walls" mix could only be coming from the Patio!  Part of me still wishes technology hadn't evolved in the past 10 years, because based solely on VHS audio quality, this sounds eerily close to Guilty Feat at the Emerson.

Once Mould left Husker Du, he went away from the harder edges and embraced his inner pop star with Sugar.  Again, I never heard anything from this band when they were active.  They were one of those bands whose CDs I saw in Karma, and I honestly thought they were a metal band simply due to the fact that they titled an album File Under Easy Listening.  When listening to "If I Can't Change Your Mind," I can't help but wonder how I never heard it at the time, yet the Gin Blossoms would be beaten into my cerebral cortex with an almost identical sound a year after Sugar's first album.

Of course the Gin Blossoms could never touch Mould in the ever important "shred your face off" demographic.

In fact, the first legitimate exposure I had to Bob Mould was when he had already decided to go the solo route.  I remember distinctly hearing "Who Was Around?" on a CMJ sampler in 1998 and being fascinated by someone who up until then, was most famous in my mind for writing the theme for "The Daily Show." 

After an ill-advised foray into dance-rock, Mould returned to the rock path in 2005 with Body of Song.  "Paralyzed" is another standard 4-minute chunk of perfection.  The vocals still show their teeth and you get the feeling that few other musicians can continually crank out song after song with hooks that stay buried in your brain.  Like Bob Pollard, you get the impression that Mould could brush his teeth and have another perfect chorus ready to record by the time he spits.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #37: Jesus Walks by Kanye West

Have you seen this short film that Kanye West and Spike Jonze made?  It's completely bananas.  Kanye channels his inner Tracy Morgan for the first few minutes, then has a secluded encounter, and confetti is used in a manner not seen since the last time Rip Taylor hosted a key party. 

This is the second collaboration so far between Spike and Kanye, and this one clearly takes it to the next level in both awesomeness and acts of seppuku.  As long as they keep cranking out the bizareness to this level, Kanye can interrupt every stupid award show he wishes.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #41: (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan by Dntel

An acquaintance of mine is very fond of telling people about her dreams. Each conversation about this topic makes it more obvious to me that there is little I can do to take an active role in the conversation. When someone is describing events that never actually happened (and thus are bound to no rules of realistic logic or science), follow up questions prove difficult. Chuck Klosterman once wrote that nobody cares about anyone else’s dream, but nobody can come out and simply say, “I don’t care about your dream.” In my case, it’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that I can’t really find any valid ways to advance the conversation.

This is how life works. None of us can really offer any insight into someone else’s dreams, but whenever we have a really fucked up dream ourselves, the first reaction is usually, “Who can I tell about this?” This reaction comes in part because we feel a perverse pride in actually remembering what the dream was about in the first place, as well as trying to make sense out of the illogical aspects we’ve just witnessed in our own minds. (How was it possible that I saw the car crash happening from two different angles? And why did the phone turn into a snake when I called the cops? And why did my teeth keep falling out? DEAR LORD, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?)

The lyrics of “(This is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” supposedly came from a dream that Ben Gibbard had involving Evan Dando and Chan Marshall. Perhaps Gibbard is talking about Dando as the character who “sang every song from 1993,” though it’s hard to imagine Dando doing anything “bashfully”, let alone a curtsy.**

Had Gibbard recorded these lyrics with an acoustic guitar, or even with Death Cab, they would probably seem pretty slight. But riding over top of Jimmy Tamborello’s beats, the lyrics form an emotional counterpoint to the clicks and hisses, the fuzz and swirling wall of sound. This duo became The Postal Service after this song was released, and while Give Up is very good, it’s never quite able to top the brilliance of this track. “Evan and Chan” SOUNDS like a dream, with individual pieces coming out of nowhere, folding back on themselves, and melding together into a narrative that you’re still trying to figure out the meaning of long after it’s passed.

** Completely unrelated, but have you ever heard the prank call where Steve Albini and Nirvana posed as Madonna’s management team, and kept Evan Dando on hold telling him Madonna wanted to talk to him? High comedy. Supposedly this wan an overseas call where they kept him holding forever. Ah, the days of international phone charges and limited sources of prank-based entertainment…

Monday, October 19, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #86: Shine a Light by Wolf Parade

“Shine a Light” was a 2008 concert film Martin Scorsese made about The Rolling Stones.  It’s also the name of an unrelated, yet outstanding song from Wolf Parade from their equally outstanding debut album.  This video was not directed by Martin Scorsese.  Can you tell?

I watched the Scorsese doc for the first time a few weeks ago, and was surprised by its mediocrity.  The musical performance was as cartoonish as I expected, but I’m surprised by the praise the film itself has gotten.  Scorsese commissioned an all-star team of Oscar-nominated cinematographers to shoot two Stones concerts, but the result is pretty much by the numbers as far as concert films go.  There’s no compelling storyline, though Scorsese tries to create some drama early on when Mick Jagger takes issue with settling on a pre-approved setlist.  It’s one thing to artificially create drama over something so ridiculous as a setlist – it’s nother when the drama in question really isn’t even an issue.  (It seems like an issue given that Scorsese wants to plan every “shot” beforehand, but let’s face facts:  There are over a dozen cameras filming the show.  It’s unlikely a shot will be missed with this type of coverage.  Jagger’s dance moves are pretty predictable.)  The archival footage in the film had me rolling my eyes on more than one occasion, particularly when a young Mick Jagger says he can’t imagine the Stones lasting another year (Get it?  Because not only did they last ANOTHER year, but they’ve coasted for decades since then!  Woof.)

Quentin Tarantino recently said that the problem with most movies is that nothing really happens.  The goal of the film is announced within the first 15 or 20 minutes, and the rest of the film is spent trying to achieve that goal, but there are no variations on the storytelling.  That’s the main problem with Scorsese’s film:  nothing happens.  To be fair, it’s a concert movie, and in most concert movies, nothing happens aside from the music.  But I’m much more forgiving of this being the case with younger filmmakers.  Here, I just find myself wondering why they would need an all-star crew to achieve something so conventional.  Then again, I’ve never quite understood the overwhelming praise of "The Last Waltz," a film I like, but one where the mission statement seems to be “There sure was a lot of cocaine around in the ‘70’s,” so maybe I’m just bothered by how Scorsese’s documentaries seem unable to match the quality of his features (though "No Direction Home" was outstanding.)  Or perhaps the overwhelming awesomeness of "Stop Making Sense" has just ruined the curve for all that have followed.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #84: Banquet by Bloc Party

The album is dead.  The internet and iPods have killed the art of the complete album.  This is what I read from no shortage of whiny critics, responding to the evolution of music purchasing and file-sharing.  This of course is a ridiculous claim.  If anything, the evolution of how people listen to music has simply shown the gap between truly great albums, and those that may have been percieved great, but have since proven to have some amount of filler that perhaps was tolerated in past days.  And while I of course can appreciate the artistic achievement of a cohesive and impressive full album, I don't quite understand the derision directed toward bands perceived as being "singles" bands rather than "album" bands. Certain bands write songs that just have more of an impact in short 3-minute bursts.  I never have a desire to listen to a full Franz Ferdinand album in one setting, but when my iPod shuffles to one of their tracks, I always remember how great they are.  This is not a bad thing.  If anything, it's freeing to live in a time where I can quickly skip past the Police songs that weren't written by Sting, instead of the days of vinyl where people would endure the Copleand/Summers songs and pretend like they were good.

Bloc Party is a "singles" band.  And a pretty good one.  Silent Alarm is an album of 12 singles.  There's not much ebb and flow between songs.  No conceptual storytelling built throughout the sequencing.  There are a lot of similarities from one track to the next, to the point where I usually forget which title belongs to which song.  But none of it really matters.  Each song bursts with enthusiasm and precision of a killer rhythm section, creating a British new wave / dance rock hybrid that grabs attention and refuses to let go.  Or at least it refuses for the next 3 minutes. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #82: Untitled #4 (Njósnavélin) by Sigur Ros

In my younger days, I was always curious about the audiences for bands on world tours. Specifically, I remember wondering why people in other countries would want to go see a band who sang songs in English, and how those bands got famous worldwide to begin with. As I grew up and realized that most of the rest of the world speaks English as well, this puzzled me less, but it’s still an interesting situation. If R.E.M. is touring Japan or Springsteen is making a trek across Europe, there have to be at least some natives attending these shows who don’t speak English. Consider the opposite scenario. I’m sure there are Japanese pop stars who are HUGE in their native country, but obviously would never attempt to cross over to an American audience.

But once in a while you realize that language is pretty small barrier for the right band. In 2001, I saw Radiohead in Boston, with a particularly compelling opening band I had never heard before. Were one to make a list of “things I don’t expect to witness when seeing a new band,” the following three components would likely appear on the list in question:
  • A guitar being strummed violently with a bow
  • Lyrics being sung in either Icelandic, or an invented variation of Icelandic
  • Those same unintelligible lyrics being sung in a stunningly high falsetto. (Were it not for visual confirmation, you’d have a tough time determining the sex of the vocals.)
It’s not exactly conventional to say the least. More than maybe any other band, I find myself wondering how the process even works when it comes to Sigur Rós writing a song. The compositions are closer to ethereal symphonic compositions than to actual songs. The stunningly hypnotic nature of their output has made them a  soundtrack favorite of filmmakers the last several years. Tom Cruise ended Vanilla Sky with them blasting in the background. They hovered below the sea when Steve Zissou confronted the jaguar shark. And their presence in movie trailers borders on overkill at this point.  Good Lord.  If Iceland could score any cash from Sigur Rós licensing, maybe they wouldn't be bankrupt.

In 2002, they released an album called ( ). None of the tracks on the album had titles. Again not exactly accessible. I’m not sure how you would ask for the album in a store; would you just call it “parentheses?” (Then again, I suppose asking for one of their albums with an actual title wouldn't be much easier.) They also made their US television debut around that time, a pretty impressive booking for a band you wouldn’t expect getting 5 minutes on late night American television.

There will be another Sigur Rós post down the line where I'll expand on this point, but their documentary Heima, shot in Iceland, is one of the greatest looking films you'll ever see.  Do some YouTube viewings and you'll want to book a trip.

P.S. Where the hell is Craig Kilborn these days? Drop a line and let us know you’re OK, Craiggers!

Friday, October 16, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #24: 3rd Planet by Modest Mouse

Isaac Brock gives the impression that he's pissed off a lot, doesn't he?  Clearly he's not a guy prone to mugging it up on stage, and more often than not his brow is furrowed to max power.  Even when he's not playing the guitar particularly loud, he always seems to be strumming angry.  And of course the voice inflections only add to this perception.  His lower register warbles and lisps are regularly offset by intentional cracks and bends, giving another layer of tension to each song.  Obviously he shouts a lot, but even on songs where not yelling per se, he makes it clear that just because he's spitting out lyrics at a subdued decimal, he's doing it with an exclamation point slapped on the end of every sentence.

The Moon & Antarctica came out halfway through 2000, and with each passing year since, its influence and overall importance seems to have steadily risen into "classic" status.  The mission statement of opening track "3rd Planet" can be boiled down to the opening line.  Everything that keeps me together is falling apart.  "Everything" to Brock is...well...everything.  Mankind.  Animals.  Oceans.  The entire 3rd planet itself.  A reference to death (likely to a child or fetus) causes Brock's pacing to become more urgent, fighting to keep up with the staccato power riffs.  The repeated mantra is uttered with the resignation of events coming full circle.  How it begins is how it ends, right down to the matching opening and closing lines.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #61: It's a Hit by Rilo Kiley

There's a bit of a negative overtone to this song.

But let's not dwell on damning the hypocrites among us. Nor let us jump on the bash wagon and assault the Man, sorority girls, and the recording industry. Let's not tear down, rather let's build up...praise for Jenny Lewis.

There's enough deft songwriting and femme fatality in here to please both sides of the aisle. Much like this picture here: there's a little something for everyone.

For her first salvo of genius, and after the line "Deploy more troops than a salt shaker," J-Lew mouths a"chicka-chicka-chicka" onomatopoeia gem. Who hasn't done this, most likely sitting at a red light? We've all been prone to the idling drum solo on the steering wheel or guitar solo with the only other instrument available: nonsense noises made from tongue and teeth. Green light and normalcy returns. But just try and do it straight faced after a scathing review of unilateral diplomacy. That takes talent.

One must then also appreciate the recurrent theme of shit throwing. Initially it was the image of a "smoking gun holding ape" lashing out at his enemies, but by the 2:23 mark it's underlining the general disgust society has with writers unable to fast as we want. Too often we the consumer just can't be patient enough to have our artists destroy themselves and their lives for our amusement. What better way to embolden this image than with flying feces. That's clever.

Lastly, no matter where one falls on the capital punishment continuum, Jenny Lewis wants to engage your opinions using doo-wop and allusions to The Wizard of Oz. She awakens the inner Ray Bolger and posits the ponderable idea of saying "with fingers pointed both directions, 'He went thatta way.**'" And don't get provoked with the tenuous possibility of placing a life in the hands of individuals or the state, or declaring a "holiday for a hanging." Because not matter where one's conscience lies at the end of this verse, Jenny Lewis has one thing to say, "Shoo-bop, Shoo-bop, my bay-beee."

It's too fun to be pissed off or emboldened. Just sit back and let J-Lew do her thing.

** I know the Scarecrow said, "Some people do go both ways," but come on. Everyone knows tWofOz is just an allegory for a totalitarian dystopia.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #26: Apartment Story by The National

The National are from Cincinnati, but it seems like they shouldn't be.  On the seem to share much more with New York bands such as Interpol or The Walkmen, though they have a far better sense of pure melody than either of those bands.  Granted, the stylistic similarities may have something to do with The National leaving the Queen City for NYC to get their big break, but their sound on the surface could be dismissed as the lazy pretension of another Brooklyn hipster band, when in fact, I think writing killer hooks just comes naturally to them, and they see no need to make it look harder than it is.

The first song of theirs I heard was 2005's instant classic "Mr. November," which piqued my curiosity for 2007's Boxer - an album that probably ranks in my top 10 or 15 of the decade (and prompted this brilliantly-captioned cover photo from Paste Magazine).  It's an album that feel overwhelmingly comfortable.  Matt Berlinger's sullen, sometimes mumbling Leonard Cohen-style vocals should clash with the pulsating vibrancy of Bryan Devendorf's energetic percussion, but that combination is the key to their success.  Tracks like "Start a War" or "Gospel" are ready made for headphones at 2am, while "Mistaken For Strangers" and "Brainy" shimmer like ready-made festival staples, and opener "Fake Empire" starts with a sole piano, burns gradually without percussion until the halfway point, and eventually builds to a climactic collision of horns. 

"Apartment Story" probably does the best job of summarizing the album within a single track.  It's has a slightly unorthodox presentation, progressing verse / pre-chorus / verse / pre-chorus before the chorus finally debuts 2:30 into the track, first stripped back, then building over itself, repeating the melody that stays with you well past the end of the track.  The presence of the guests in the video mirrors the inner reaction of listening to the track.  You spend the first portion of the song getting a handle on the band, the middle portion tapping along with the rhythm, and the final portion realizing that this is this band makes writing a perfect song seem way too easy.  Even the baby on the dance floor agrees.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #79: Saint Simon by The Shins

Good news everyone!  Zach Braff is not dead!  It was all a hoax from someone who realized that if you have rudimentary Photoshop skills, you can convince idiots on Twitter that this is an official story from

Red Flag #1:  The above fake article refers to Braff as a "comedian," which I'm pretty sure he's not, unless I'm oblivious to his days doing stand-up at the Chuckle Hut in Newark.  In fact, they use the word comedian twice in the first two sentences.  Note to future death hoax aficionados:  Acting in a comedy is different from being a comedian.  Details people!  Also, how exactly does one become "long loved?"

Red Flag #2:  Click on the screengrab to enlarge and check out the upper right corner, which informs that in other news, Heath Ledger has apparently split up with Michelle Williams.  Something about that line strikes me as being slighty dated, but I can't quite place why...

So now that the ugliness of COMEDIAN Zach Braff's fake suicide is over, let's turn turn our attention to the band that helped Zach Braff win a Grammy for his mixtape.  He also told everyone who would listen that the band would "change your life" using Natalie Portman's epileptic oddly available pixie character as a conduit for the message.

This particular type of exposure can of course set up a band for massive backlash from hipsters all to eager to point out that in fact their life is not changed at all, aside from becoming slightly more plaid and/or beardy (an evolution for which The Shins can only claim partial credit at best.)  The Shins have deftly avoided any such failures in the arena of blogular opinion. (Yes I did just coin that phrase right here and now!  Jealous?  Feel free to use it at your leisure.)  In fact, The Shins haven't even taken the Death Cab/The OC route of using their name dropping notoriety to segue to a major label deal.  Rather, the sons of Albuquerque have gone the opposite route, moving from Sub Pop to their own label for the upcoming fourth LP.  It's a shrewd move that will give them complete creative and financial freedom. 

Sometimes major labels, much like sidecars, are for bitches.

Monday, October 12, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #35: How a Resurrection Really Feels by The Hold Steady

Do you want me to tell it like boy meets girl and the rest is history? Or do you want it like a murder mystery? I'm gonna tell it like a comeback story.

Growing up Catholic, one is exposed to an inordinate amount of so-called Christian music. And it’s all terrible. When I use the term "Christian music" in this context, I’m not talking about any songs found in church hymnals. I’m referring to music that falls under the commercial category of “Christian Rock.” Often while riding in my high school girlfriend's call, I would zone out while she played DC Talk or Jars of Clay and silently wonder.  Was there something in the communion wine that prohibited these bands from writing lyrics that aren't terrible?  You can usually tell after a few masses with a new priest who can put together a compelling homily and who can't.  And apparently if you're going to front a Christian rock band, then you possess the same storytelling talents of the clueless priest who attempts to connect with younger church-goers with condescending lies about "hanging at the mall with some young skateboarders," or other such nonsense. 

I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake. I heard they were naked when they got busted. I heard things ain't been the same since.

A girl named Hallelujah (the kids call her Holly) serves the protagonist through Separation Sunday. The first line of the album makes she may be an unreliable narrator ("She said, ‘Always remember never to trust me.’") Throughout the next 42 minutes, one witnesses her rise and fall traveling all over the country (skipping over Dallas “cause Jackie Onassis said it ain’t safe for Catholics yet”).  She repeatedly chooses vices over salvation as she struggles to overcome the wrongs done to her in the past. By the time she hits rock bottom, regaining consciousness in a confessional, drug-fueled parties and encounters with skinheads, pimps, and hoodrats have rendered her “a real soft girl who's having real hard times.”

We gather our gospels from gossip and bar talk then declare them the truth. We salvage our sermons from message boards and scene reports. We come on to the youth. We try out new testaments on the guys sitting next to us in the bars with the bars in their windows. Even if you don't get converted tonight, you must admit that the band's pretty tight.

From a musical standpoint, the band is not quite yet clicking on all creative cylinders as they would go on to do with Boys and Girls in America. They’re more or less still serving as a backing band for Craig Finn’s lyrical tour de force, which features little actual singing, but all the enthusiasm of a preacher committed to his cause.  Most critics compare Finn's freewheeling detailed storytelling to Jack Kerouac, but here he seems to have more in common with Flannery O'Connor, sparing few details in depicting the downfall of sinners who continually betray their self-imposed moral codes.

While he gets a little too cute at times ("She got screwed up by religion / She got screwed by soccer players") he usually testifies with a written density that takes several listens to fully dissect, and even after multiple listens maintain ambiguity.  This practice of course has no place is proper Christian rock, where redemption and faith are usually communicated through self-righteous simplicity, ensuring that the listener is spoon-fed the desired message. Even on the album's closing track, Holly's anthemic prodigal homecoming is tempered by a coda where she begs, "Don't turn me on again..."  knowing that temptation and relapse are always around the corner. Her salvation is still a journey, not a destination.  And despite any redemption achieved on a Sunday morning, there is another Saturday night lurking the next weekend.

The Hold Steady - How a Resurrection Really Feels (mp3)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #21: Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs scared the hell out of me.

Oddly enough - and I'm certain this may be the last time this ever happens - I discovered this song through its music video. Seeing the ultra cool trio rollick about in that school auditorium had me fearing for my youth.

At long last, merely 25 years old, my younger days were over, masacred at the hands of a vegan-skinny guitarist with tragically hip hair, a drummer doing that left hand, under hand, drumstick....thing, and Karen O. She's truly the enigma. Am I to take her seriously? Is it an act? Is that what cool looks like? Why is she so reluctant to hold a note?
Oh say-say-say. Owh, say-say-say.....

Seriously, are they The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or just Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

It's official. I was becoming an old man.

* * *

Following the CPA Christmas party, back when the partners used to encourage carpooling en masse to any bar - the Hard Rock Cafe in this case - I was suited up and talking to some transplant from Knightstown about the perils of builiding a home.

On comes the video for "Maps." I stood upon my seat and shushed the entire actuarial crowd. "Quiet. You're about to watch the best song of the year."

My wife quickly retrieved me. She's the CPA.

* * *

There is no magic formula at work. "Maps" is a simple soul baring. But music lovers can't help looking further.

Do you remember that in early 1996 there was a bevy of songs using martial snare drums? (Think "The Freshmen" by the Verve Pipe.) It's hard to imagine a drum part being trendy, but it was. Either marching band alums all formed bands about 1993, or somebody had a bad case of the copy-cats.

The drums in "Maps" were begging to be reproduced across the indie landscape. Of course I know it's kind of hard to fabricate some novelty in 4/4 time, but after this song I could faintly hear a rash of irregular heartbeats on the horizon much like the proliferation of mid-chorus rapping circa 1989. Therein is the power of "Maps." It's one of the best songs of all time, prime for dissection. But it's also begging to be accepted for the heartbreaking love song it is.

For God's sake stop this! "Wait. They don't love you like I love you." Who gives a shit what the drums sound like?

I could see some NYU hipster trying to break up with his girlfriend from Maine only to get lost in his wonkish love for any Dick Dale-esque guitar line.

Dumb sucker, "Your kind's my kind." Quit gizzing over her mesmerizing wanness. Don't analyze, Kreskin. Listen.

* * *

Living in Indiana and feeling old doesn't usually add much weight to a statement like, "You're about to watch the best song of the year." So I suggest you stop worrying about whether Karen O is Asian or Irish. Stop fussing over some imaginary balance of Propecia and hair gel. Stop worrying whether or not (the) Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the vanguard of your new adulthood.

Just sit back and listen for the next 3:40.

If it makes you feel any better, put on your black t-shirt.

Friday, October 09, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #85: Time to Pretend by MGMT

MGMT does not allow their YouTube videos to be embedded on other sites.  This is a strategy I find baffling in every regard.  Why would you not want people to promote your product on other sites?  It still adds to the view counts regardless of where it's embedded, so I don't think it's a financial gain, is it?  I'm relatively sure that the artist doesn't control the decision, but I can't understand why a record label would make such a call either.  Perhaps the call is made by YouTube?  I believe that YouTube now pays royalties fees to the major labels to host videos on their site, so maybe they want people to have to view it directly from their site with their ads in place.  But this seems to go full circle with a complete lack of understanding marketing.  YouTube pays royalties, because if they don't, the record label would pull the video offline.  But doesn't it hurt the record label if viewers can't find their videos aren't on YouTube?  I mean I've been writing a post for down the road about a band who has made a half dozen of the best music videos this decade, but because of a dispute between said band's label and YouTube, I can't find ANY of their videos on the site.  This is ridiculous.

But where was I?  Ah yes, MGMT.  Their set a Lolla '08 amazed me in two respects.  First off, I couldn't believe how many people were at their stage considering it was 1pm Saturday.  The crowd was massive.  The second thing that amazed was how awful their live show was.  Their videos aren't much better.  It may be physically impossible to vomit from one's eyes, but the madness here puts that to the test.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #20: Someday by The Strokes

When I was in college, my outlet for finding about new bands releasing debut albums was CMJ, along with the albums that would get sent to the radio station.  It was obviously a bit of a subjective crapshoot, but for the most part my tastes agreed with the reviews in CMJ.  Also, the benefit of our music directors sustaining phone relationships with the same A&R reps over the course of a year or two meant that when those A&R reps called to hype certain albums, they would usually shoot straight about what new stuff was good, and what was garbage that they had to push regardless.

Since college, the internet and music blogs have obviously jumped into the forefront of exposure of new bands who've yet to release anything.  This volume of saturation can of course be problematic because very few blogs will simply tell you simply that a new band has a debut album being release.  They have to give an opinion along with it.  Before I had ever heard a note of Vampire Weekend last year, I seemingly read a novel's worth of posting and opinions concerning the fact that VW were A) The greatest band since the Beatles, or B) The worst band since Wings.  (Shockingly, the band actually fell into neither classification, but apparently there's no fun in writing "This band is perfectly OK!")

The Strokes are a rarity in my life in that I seemed to know a ridiculous amount about the band before hearing a song, yet it wasn't due to college or the internet.  I can't even remember how I started hearing about them, although I believe there may have been a huge story in Rolling Stone before Is This It was released, and people still read Rolling Stone in 2001.  The influences of Television/The Stooges/Lou Reed were obvious, but this was an album where the musical influences and lyrical content don't demand a whole lot of dissection.  It's just a great 35 minutes.  I listened to this album last night front to back for the first time in years, and when it was done, I simply thought, "That's pretty excellent."  As someone who tends to overanalyze most music I listen to, I don't think I've ever put forth much effort to "read into" The Strokes.  To try and do so seems to be missing out on a large part of the fun.

Also, can we all agree that "Family Feud" would be far more entertaining if each episode ended with a cross-family brawl?  The video does not lie.

BONUS:  While checking out The Strokes wikipedia page, I was shocked to find this Blondie-esque cover of "Last Nite" from graduation fanatic Vitamin C.  How did I never see this before?  It's amazing this was released to the public!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #48: Treehouse by I'm From Barcelona

The most gifted songwriters are masters of symbolism and metaphor. Anyone can pour out pure emotions in a diary-like purge, but it takes a true artist to craft a story that unfolds over multiple listens. One that millions of people can relate to, but each might relate to it for a slightly different reason. Nuance and ambiguity allow for multiple interpretations, enabling the listener to hold their own variation of the spoken truth and life lesson gained through the written word.

I have built a treehouse
I have built a treehouse
Nobody can see us
It's a you and me house

“I’ll give you shelter from the storm,” Bob Dylan wrote in the mid-1970s. Obviously the genius of the song is that the lyrics are about much more than merely a roof over one’s head. When we offer shelter with another human, we in fact offer so much more. We ask them to share in every aspect of the trials and tribulations of day-to-day struggles and successes. We offer a communal privacy when unforgiving storms affect the outside world. In doing so, the closeness in physical proximity translates to an emotional intimacy that might otherwise lie dormant within the walls of one’s individual psyche.

I've been climbing rocks and stones
Been collecting broken bones
I've been swimming across the lakes
Just to find this perfect place
I got lost into the woods
I've been covered up in mud
I've been going through a lot
Just to find this perfect spot

Oftentimes, the most valuable gifts we offer those close to us have been achieved through some of life’s largest obstacles. With those we love, we show the scars that have led us to this point in life. You showcase full vulnerability, saying to a significant other “I have been working toward this point my whole life. Every rise and fall, success and failure, joy and devastation, has brought me to this point. This is our shelter. Our foundation. Our backdrop for the comings and goings that will make up the story that is the rest of our life.”

This song contains no metaphor or symbolism. It’s about building a damn treehouse.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #25: Off the Record by My Morning Jacket

Z was the album that made me a believer in My Morning Jacket. Before 2005, I found them enjoyable, but not raveworthy.  Z, however, was the epic leap of a band swinging for the fences and connecting on every level. Many labeled the album as the “American OK Computer” but that seems like a lazy oversimplification (just as it was when many slapped a similar label on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a few years before.)  At this point, any band that develops a signature sound (southern rock in MMJ’s case) and then goes above and beyond expectations to push the boundaries of their genre is going to get compared to Radiohead by default (especially considering John Leckie, who produced Z, also produced The Bends.) But the construction of Z shows wears additional influence of Elton John and Sunny Day Real Estate.

"Off the Record" was the first single off Z, and its video triggers a vital question.  What is the secret that has everyone in town losing their collective shit?

My prediction:  They're telling each other what the guy says at the end of the "Just" video.  And that's what really hurts.

Monday, October 05, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #33: This Year by The Mountain Goats

Full Details of the BIBJ Millennial Playlist Hullabaloo are available here. Today's entry is #33: This Year by The Mountain Goats (2005)

Today my life seems surrounded with the vibe of The Mountain Goats for several reasons.

Reason #1: For Chicago residents, there is a FREE screening tonight of a film featuring John Darnielle performing the new album The Life of the World to Come in its entirety.

Reason #2: For residents of everywhere, the album of the same name is currently streaming on, and Mr. Darnielle himself will be appearing on The Colbert Report on release day tomorrow night.  I've listened to the stream a couple times this evening, and have yet to fully digest it, but I highly recommend track #3 - Genesis 3:23 - to any curious parties, as it's clearly the most accessible song (or verse?) on the album.  You can also download the mp3 of that song at the TMG site.

Reason #3:  Were I to put together a list of "weeks in my life" ranked by quality, last week would hover toward the bottom of said list.  I'm debating adding "writing pointless cover letters" under the skills portion of my resume, if only to create another discussion topic for the next repeat interview I schedule concerning a job I will ultimately not get.  Nonetheless, my current plan to avoid spiraling into a self-loathing pit of depression involves a heavy dose of repeatedly screaming the chorus of "This Year" as my daily affirmation.  It's working surprisingly well thus far.

This song appears on The Sunset Tree, a concept album that leans heavily on lyrics regarding Darnielle's childhood and the abuse suffered at the hands of his stepfather.  I think it's fair to say domestic violence has never sounded so catchy!  Darnielle's brilliance has always been evident in how he writes about the small details that color the big picture.  Despite the bleakness running rampant through verses, the chorus beams in defiant optimism.

I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me!  If anyone needs me today, I'll be continually muttering this out loud like I'm Stuart Smalley.

I'll also be cranking out cover letters like nobody's business.