Saturday, May 13, 2006

Maestropolis Ultimis. For Now.

And now for the final two discs, the compilation of which begat this very blog. About time, too.

Disc Six:

1. Neko Case “Things That Scare Me”
This song is four years old by now; but it’s always just missed being on these discs until now, when I decided that it was really too good to lose. An atmospheric, broody alt-country song, with a banjo line that owes as much to Krautrock as to bluegrass, and which has fascinated me since I first heard the words “blackbirds frying on a wire.” From the Bloodshot LP Blacklisted, 2002.

02. The Knife “Heartbeats”
Six years ago, I learned about new music by reading the record reviews on VH1’s website. (No, really.) Today I have lot of sources, but the main one is probably Pitchfork’s daily singles review: the best source of brilliant pop from around the world I know of. This nü-romantic gem from Germany (equal parts Kraftwerk and Cyndi Lauper) has gotten a second lease on life thanks to José Gonzalez’ mellow guitar remake. But it’s those synth trills that get me. From the V2 International LP Deep Cuts, 2005.

03. Jamie Lidell “New Me”
Techno guy does a soul record, was the way this album was explained to me. And there is sequencing, and sampling, and even old-school scratching. But mostly it sounds like Stevie Wonder fronting Funkadelic on acid, with charts by Dizzy Gillespie. Which is really impressive as all hell for an English guy in a studio. From the Warp LP Multiply, 2005.

04. Buck 65 “Rough House Blues”
They thing everyone says is that Buck 65 wants to sound like Tom Waits. From here, it sounds like he wants to sound like Johnny Cash. With, sure, Tom Waits producing. This is good old self-mythologizing hip-hop (or Delta blues), with great line after great line. But the best part is the instrumental break: DJ scratching over honky-tonk piano. That’s the kind of outlandish, perfect-fit combination I can’t get enough of. Thanks, Buck. From the WEA International LP Secret House Against the World, 2005.

05. The Decemberists “Sixteen Military Wives”
In the context of the record, it’s a little like coming across “Young Americans” on, say, Low: it totally doesn’t fit into the album, it’s a big shiny pop single in the middle of all these much more fiercely intelligent, literary epics. (Although because of the lit-rock surrounding it, I’ll always associate the Flashman books with this song.) It’s indie-pop huge, of course, just a Garden State away from being on every teenager’s iPod. But it still feels like a private discovery, especially when the anchorperson on TV goes “la di da di da di da da da da da.” From the Kill Rock Stars LP Picaresque, 2005.

06. The Ordinary Boys “Talk Talk Talk”
There is a paucity of ordinary guys-with-guitars pop on these discs. This band, a more stripped-down version of Oasis, is a rare exception. The song makes me think of all the mod revivalists who wanted to be the Jam but couldn’t quite make it; it’s got the same witty analysis of a quotidian subject that British new wave specialized in. And a great working-class hook. Stiff Records: The Next Generation? From the WEA International LP Over the Counter Culture, 2004.

07. TV on the Radio “New Health Rock”
I’d heard of TV on the Radio for a while before I listened to them, and I’d listened to them a while before I liked them, and I hadn’t thought about them in a long time before I played this forgotten download and sat with my mouth hanging open. Prince fronts Interpol, was the best description I could come up with, but this is really of a piece with the entire post-OutKast pop scene. Wonderful. From the Touch & Go EP New Health Rock, 2004.

08. Cat Power “Could We”
The lazy lope of the song, the muted horns, the sultry singing: suddenly it’s a hot, wet day in the Deep South. Chan in Memphis was the near-constant alternate name for this album in reviews, and here she almost justifies the Dusty Springfield comparison. Especially when she double-tracks an octave up, without losing any of the slow, sexy sizzle. From the Matador LP The Greatest, 2006.

09. The Donnas “The Gold Medal”
Yeah. The Donnas. Playing like, I don’t know, Carole King was their new idol instead of the Ramones. Growth? Maybe. Record-label pressure? Possibly. Great, fun stuff that satisfies the Todd Rundgren itch we didn’t realize needed scratching? Old news; tell it to the electric-piano break. From the Atlantic LP The Gold Medal, 2004.

10. The Cloud Room “Hey Now Now”
The first few seconds I always go, hey didn’t I just hear this like three songs ago? Then the indie jangle starts instead of the indie pounding, and it’s a fragile pop song from a band that can’t catch a break. They could be Postal Service-huge someday, but for now this’ll have to be the soundtrack to our own private movies. From the Gigantic LP The Cloud Room, 2004.

11. !!! “Take Ecstasy With Me”
Coming on like a twelve-inch New Order remix hot from Phil Spector’s mixing boards, this is the epic dance track for people who are afraid of epic dance tracks. No two !!! songs sound the same, so the My Bloody Frankie Goes to Valentinisms of this are both a surreal surprise and a perfect gift. You don’t even need E to like it. From the Touch & Go single Take Ecstasy with Me/Get Up, 2005.

12. The Raveonettes feat. Ronnie Spector “Ode to
They’re back. But wait; where did the barbed-wire kisses go? These kisses are plain old Sunset Boulevard cherry-red lipstick! So the Raveonettes escape the Jesus & Mary Chain fetish, but plow half a mile deep into the Ronettes fetish; so much so that the original Veronica Bennett herself descends from on high to show these Scandinavian knob-twiddlers just how a proper “woah-oh-oh” is “woah-oh-oh”ed. The past is so bright, you gotta wear shades. From the Columbia LP Pretty in Black, 2005.

13. Ladytron “Destroy Everything You Touch”
Electroclash is dead; long live the computerized ABBA. The vulnerable, arch vocals are still there; the cocksureness of the electronic fizz isn’t. This is a swirling, gorgeous explosion, all post-ominous echo and radioactive cotton candy. And the clipped German (or is it French?) accent still sounds like a lost android searching for her Kraftwerk mate. From the Rykodisc LP Witching Hour, 2005.

14. Einstürzende Neubauten “Dead Friends (Around the Corner)”
When you’ve been making punishing industrial music for twenty years, you eventually earn the right to make music you don’t need earplugs to hear. This is a song with a lot of space in it; the rabble call it silence, but we know better. Like a cold Kraut stepson of Japan’s “Ghosts,” it gives no more than it takes, and clatters its way to the ultimate existential space: that brief pause between songs that constitutes the world. Verses in German. From the Mute LP Perpetuum Mobile, 2004.

15. The Delays “Wanderlust”
No, it’s not Elizabeth Fraser back from singing in Elvish on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. (When wasn’t she singing in Elvish, anyway?) In fact, it’s a dude. Yeah, I know. Weird. It’s also a thing of fragile Liverpudlian/global beauty, with steel drums and soaring choruses and great chunky guitars in just the right places. How often does the Cocteau Twins get pegged as an influence on a male band, anyway? From the Rough Trade LP Faded Seaside Glamour, 2004.

16. Foo Fighters featuring Norah Jones “Virginia Moon”
Yes, Foo Fighters are often alt-by-numbers hard rock. Yes, Norah Jones is often jazz-by-numbers dull. No, that does not mean that this little slice of Nashville-balladry-by-way-of-Jobim is anything less than quietly spectacular. Grohl’s always had a prettier singing voice than a screamer should; here he lends Jones class while she gives him indie cred. Yeah, indie’s weird these days. From the RCA LP In Your Honor, 2005.

17. The Kaiser Chiefs “I Predict a Riot”
Whoops, get back on the energy horse, because Hot NME Band #241,678 (started counting in 1999) is ready to bam kick it up a notch. I have no good reason for liking this except I just do, and sometimes a little faux-headbanging is what you need. I could say that there’s Kinksian eye for detail married to an Undertonesish energy, but what’s the point? Pogo like you mean it. From the Universal LP Employment, 2005.

18. Nellie McKay “The Big One”
Is it? It is! Yes yes y’all, it’s cabaret-funk. Shake your moneymaker, but don’t forget the jazz hands at the end. Okay, so it’s kind of stiff white-girl funk, but hey, we’ll take what we can get in this direly funkless era. The lyrics are embarrassing if you know how so not working-class Nellie McKay is, but Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer and Jimmie Rodgers all faked it, so why not let the off-Broadway child of privilege flex her class warfare muscles? Anything for that multitracked bridge. From the unreleased LP Pretty Little Head, 2006.

19. Ray Davies “Thanksgiving Day”
Now this is just weird. Only an Englishman could wax this sentimental about Thanksgiving; to an American, it’s like admitting your mom is hot. Well, maybe she is, but dude, she’s still your mom. But it’s so good to have the storyteller who gave us Something Else and Arthur back that we’ll even forgive him his deeply unfunky attempt at good-times
New Orleans music. “And kisses/all over her American face” is the lyric we didn’t know we needed until we had it. From the V2 EP Thanksgiving Day, 2005.

20. Kirsty MacColl “Sun on the Water”
She was one of the great pop singers, ignored and insulted by an industry that didn’t understand her or her music. She died doing what she loved: swimming in sunny waters. She would also have loved the black humor of this being her last recorded work. What would the finished track have been like, if this is a mere demo? But that’s what it says on the tin. From the Virgin boxset From Croydon To Cuba… An Anthology, 2005.

Disc Seven:

Alabama 3 “Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds?”
That opening sound is a thousand PBS specials on Our Historical Railroads rolled into one. Apparently, these guys are a trip-hop group that mostly does soundtrack work. Okay, whatever: this is the best British rehabilitation of forgotten American history since Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The long outro gets better every time I hear it, too. From the One Little Indian LP Outlaw, 2005.

02. Belle & Sebastian “Funny Little Frog”
Amazingly, this isn’t even the best song on their album. Ultra-amazingly, it might even be the worst. For any other group, this would be a career high: Todd Rundgren goes Bacharach, with a summery Motown swing. For B&S (the most and least-apt abbreviation ever), it’s just another song about God. Or a girl. Or both. But not really at all about frogs, funny or otherwise. From the Matador LP The Life Pursuit, 2006.

03. Shakira “Hey You”
She’s still weird, thank God. What is making that riff, a kazoo? Am I hearing things, or is it going all Louis Armstrong on the fanfare that introduces the King of the
Land of Make-Believe? Why does she want to be someone’s favorite underwear? What kind of creep even has favorite underwear? And yet there are still white people who insist on racking her with the J. Lo’s and B. Sp’s and the C. Ag’s. From the Sony LP Oral Fixation, Vol. 2, 2005.

04. Chris Connelly “Nicola 6”
Okay, first: yes. He sounds exactly like David Bowie. Even more then David Bowie does these days, actually. Okay, second: how cool is it that the riff is whistled in chorus? Connelly is a veteran of the British industrial scene, which strangely enough tends to produce people interested in very specific sounds, extreme or not. (The American industrial scene is only interested in extreme sounds. That is why America is losing the war on terror.) The perfect pop advocates, in other words. From the Underground Inc LP Night of Your Life, 2004.

05. James Luther Dickinson “Bound to Lose”
This is only his second record. His first was in 1972. The song sounds like it could be from 1972, or 1952, or 1902, or 1862. It’s as American as moonshine, red-light districts, and poker games, and it’s got a great whomp of a chorus, and when he starts screaming “it’s not real,” every loser (Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Jim Morrison) who ever died humming rock & roll joins in. From the Artemis LP Free Beer Tomorrow, 2002.

06. Mavis Staples “Hard Time Come Again No More”

Now here’s a song that actually is from 1862, or thereabouts. Probably originally sung in public by some white asshole who smeared gunk on his face to pretend he was black. And the whole sorry history of minstrelsy — and slavery, and poverty, and the sheer fucknuckled despair of race in America — is addressed, acknowledged, and absolved in the magnificent voice of a woman who has stood at the intersection of gospel and soul and refused to see a difference for fifty years. From the various-artists Emergent LP Beautiful Dreamer: the Songs of Stephen Foster, 2004.

07. Nancy Sinatra “Burning Down the Spark”

She doesn’t need Lee Hazlewood anymore to provide an unsettling gravitas; she can do it herself now. A guitar line straight out of Ennio Morricone, and a mariachi band straight out of Ring of Fire; you can almost picture her cresting the ridge on a white palomino, eyes squinty under a black sombrero. God, I love a good comeback. From the Sanctuary LP Nancy Sinatra, 2004.

08. Sage Francis feat. Will Oldham “Sea Lion”
The sequencing was unintentional, but now I’m convinced that the drama queen played by Nancy Sinatra is the same person as the inattentive, harsh mother addressed by the Sage here. Poet Oldham’s chorus hook is poetic nothingness; it’s the hard-rapped verses that make the biggest impression. That, and the grainy 8mm film unspooling at the end: “Mom, can you do this?” From the Epitaph LP A Healthy Distrust, 2005.

09. Deerhoof “Spiral Golden Town”
This is always happening, I know, but the next time someone tells you it would be impossible to condense the soundtrack to the first Star Wars movie into a three-minute pop single (yes, including the Mos Eisley cantina scene, and let’s throw in some of the laser-gun sound effects too), you can play them this and watch all their foundationless arguments fade to nothing. Isn’t that a relief? In Japanese or something. From the Menlo Park EP Green Cosmos, 2005.

10. Otis Taylor “Feel Like Lightning”
This song has such tremendous forward momentum that it’s astonishing to reorient yourself mid-song and realise that the electric guitar is the backup instrument: a banjo is the lead. Otis Taylor is not your average bluesman; he manages to make a glorious Roxy Music/Velvet Underground chaos out of the oldest form in American music. Which he would probably say is bullshit. Awesome. From the Telarc LP Below the Fold, 2005.

11. The Pipettes “I Like a Boy in Uniform (School Uniform)”

You know what all those great old songs from all those great old girl groups — the Angels, the Chiffons, the Dixie Cups, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las, the Supremes, the Toys — were missing? That’s right: teenage bisexuality. Okay, it’s a gimmick, and a shallow one, but those final glorious harmonies make everything worthwhile. From the Unpopular single I Like a Boy in Uniform (School Uniform), 2005.

12. Paul McCartney “English Tea”
He ain’t kidding, even if he thinks he is, when he says “very twee/very me.” But the string quartet isn’t playing Eleanor Rigby anymore; it sounds seriously Edwardian. And the best part of the Edwardian age was the children’s literature. This song recalls the restful meal scenes in The Wind in the Willows — with guests E. Nesbit, Mary Norton, and P. L. Travers. From the Capitol LP Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005.

13. John Cale “Satisfied”

I don’t know if anyone who doesn’t know and love John Cale’s literary, sometimes-abrasive, sometimes-gorgeous, 70s work can really enjoy this song; but for me, it’s like seeing a retired heavyweight champion come out and box an exhibition round: it’s not like it used to be, but damn, man, he’s still got it. From the Astralwerks LP Black Acetate, 2005.

14. Puffy AmiYumi “Your Love Is a Drug”

Hey, English! The lyrics are obvious, goofy parallels between love and junkiedom, but the appeal lies in the way the girls seem to have no idea that “as I’m jonesing for those eyes” is a funny line. The music is kicky pop, about as loud as it can be without being threatening to thirteen-year-old girls. So what’s wrong with music for thirteen-year-old girls, especially when it’s got a ton of drug references? From the Bar/None LP Nice, 2004.

15. The Divine Comedy “Charmed Life”

If it wasn’t so good, it would be too tasteful to bear. But that’s Neil Hannon for you: first bring in the gorgeous orchestral arrangements and Noël Coward melodies, then slip in the Wildean line “but I knew I’d find the one/and sure enough she came along/and not long after that along came you,” but then undercut the humor with a visionary leap of a chord change, making the funniest line also the most transcendent. Walter Pater would love it. From the Parlophone LP Absent Friends, 2004.

16. Razorlight “Kirby’s House”

Another boring guys-with-guitars band from
Britain. Except, okay, some nice Celtic elements here. Huh. You don’t hear that drum sound too often anymore. You know, this song isn’t half bad. Kind of anthemic, in an unpretentious way. Oh, wait, it’s over. Oh, wait. No it’s not. Wait wait wait. Is that Doris Troy from “Gimme Shelter”? Nice. From the various-artists charity Independiente UK LP Help: A Day in the Life, 2005.

17. Hal Cazalet & Sylvia McNair “Oh, Gee! Oh, Joy!”
You like pop music? I’ll give you some pop music; 1913 vintage, to be precise. Jerome Kern’s music, P. G. Wodehouse’s lyrics. Stone cold revolutionary. The people singing it are kind of operetta about it, but if that’s what you gotta do to get some real classic pop around here, that’s what you gotta do. (And sure, the pianist knows from Art Tatum and Bud Powell. Good stuff.) From the Harbinger LP The Land Where the Good Songs Go: the Lyrics of P. G. Wodehouse, 2001.

18. Heavy Trash “Dark Hair’d Rider”
Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray are
New York underground art-punk mainstays. They also love the hell out of rockabilly, blues and classic country. This song sounds like it was cut for Sun Records in 1957, until the guitar gives out with a weird, timebending Dinosaur Jr. solo. Children of the grimy city streets, learn thee to rock. From the Yep Roc LP Heavy Trash, 2005.

19. Lila Downs “La Bamba”

This has nothing to do with Ritchie Valens. This is an old Mexican folk song. This is also a stunning reconsideration of what exactly Mexican music is. Where you’d expect a guitar solo, you get a harp (the kind you sit down to play) solo. Where you’d expect mariachi strings, you get electronic burbling. Where you’d expect tejano emoting, you get mystical, oddly weightless vocals. Lila Downs seems to have as many voices as she has words to sing. In Spanish. From the Narada LP Una Sangre (One Blood), 2004.

20. Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez “Once Again, One Day... Will You Be Mine”

I’m not sure it’s physically possibly for music to be slower than this without putting an overcaffeinated six-year-old to sleep. But it means that Rodriguez (one of the great unheard country vocalists — and violinists — today) yanks each word like she’s pulling it out of quicksand. Meanwhile, Taylor (writer of “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”) has a thin, undernourished voice that makes an unlikely but perfectly paced match. From the Back Porch/Train Wreck LP Red Dog Tracks, 2005.

21. Saint Etienne “Milk Bottle Symphony”
After all that roots-music jive, we need some palette-cleansing jetset sophisti-dance. Except that Saint Etienne has gone homebody on us, and are applying their standard shimmery chamber-pop (with sequencer bass lines; and is that the Beach Boys popping up about two-thirds in?) to a pastoral narrative about the denizens of a set of flats. Okay, we can deal. They’re still as British as eel pie and quiet reserve. From the Sanctuary LP Tales from Turnpike House, 2005.

22. Johnny Boy “You Are the Generation that Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve”
Phil Spector meets Trevor Horn; or How to Create the Perfect Pop Single by Using Pieces of Every Possible Pop Form Ever, But Especially the Opening Drum Line from “Be My Baby.” Johnny Boy are the latest one-guy one-girl band, this time from Britain. This is a burning sugar buzz of a song, too perfect to last, like butterflies and bubbles. Or first love. Or youth. From the Vertigo single You Are the Generation that Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve, 2004.

The above notes (and the ones on previous discs) are being compiled into a lavish box set that I’m making for — well, for just me right now. But we’ll see.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

American Music.

I have a brother in Afghanistan. Don’t worry; I said I wouldn’t get personal, and I won’t. But my brother bought an iPod online and asked me and my other brother to fill it up before we sent it out to him. I thought he might want to hear some American music (the Blasters’ “American Music” is the main reference point), and spent a week ripping, downloading, and researching songs, compositions, and sounds before deciding that I could probably spend the rest of my life trying to make the Last Word on Twentieth-Century American Music; and my brother needed his iPod. But I copied the folder, and have been listening to it on my own mp3 player for a week.

I’ve been adding songs here and there since I sent the iPod out, and I’m closing in on 3,000: and every one a stone-cold classic. Early minstrelsy, ragtime, vaudeville, marches, and parlor music give way to early jazz, Broadway tunes, and hillbilly, which give way to blues, swing, vocal standards, and country, which give way to bop, r&b, big-band, and boogie, which give way to rock & roll and pop radio, which give way to folk-rock, surf, and the messiness of the Sixties which spills over into the Seventies. After that it tapers off sharply, though I have a handful (say a couple hundred) of major hip-hop and indie-rock tracks from the late 70s to the 90s. And there’s so, so much more. A selection of stand-up comedians, historical speeches, TV themes, classical works, and “party records” helps to break the all-pop-music monotony.

I’ve been listening to it on random, of course, and it can be thrilling to jump from Billie Holiday’s chilling “Strange Fruit” to the splendorous release of one of Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies, or to come down from the plastic funk of Prince’s “1999” to Dock Boggs’ flintlike voice and banjo that sounds like it was made from the gut of the first cat in America.

And there’s so much of it; I’ve been listening to it in nine-hour hauls every weekday, and haven’t heard more than a quarter of the songs I know are there (which makes it really frustrating when the same songs keep coming up).

So I’ve been making connections, learning a lot, and jamming to some kickass tunes. What have you done with your life lately?