Sunday, March 4, 2012

February Mixtape

Highlighting the songs I've discovered, rediscovered, or repeatedly played each month.  The order reflects an attempt to create a cohesive mixtape, not to rank the songs in any way.

1.  M83 - "We Own the Sky."   So many adjectives pop into my head when listening to this song: spacey, dreamlike, slow, fuzzy, bubbling, nostalgic.  The keyboards that start it are magical, but they're only occasionally foregrounded (which is a shame, I think, but it also makes me want to constantly relisten); instead, all the song's layered elements weave in and out over Anthony Gonzalez's whispery vocals.  The buoyant drum/keyboards on the verses exude what I hear as a confident (even cocky?) swagger--a feeling of invulnerability, that youthful belief that "We Own the Sky."  What a great title.  My biggest, and really only, complaint is that I feel like the vocals at the end sound out of place, or at least do not blend well with the excellent instrumentals, but they don't take too much away from the song. 

2.  Built to Spill - "Randy Described Eternity."  What a powerful way to start an album.  BTS's mammoth guitars pulsate and screech throughout this epic opener, managing to sound absolutely devastating-- the perfect compliment to Doug Martsch's nasally vocals and simultaneously defeated and hopeful lyrics: "I'm gonna be perfect from now on.  I'm gonna be perfect starting now."  I also love the imagery that starts the song--I don't often read lyrics that are this abstract and vivid--even if I can't comprehend its meaning:

Every thousand years
This metal sphere,
Ten times the size of Jupiter,
Floats just a few yards past the earth.
You climb on your roof
And take a swipe at it
With a single feather.
Hit it once every thousand years
`til you've worn it down.

3.  The Microphones - "The Glow, pt. 2."  I've read "glowing" (hah) reviews about this band for awhile but never decided to check them out until reading a review by my old grammar school buddy Dan Hanf, who compared lead singer Phil Elverum's lyrics to JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.  It's a very fair analogy, so be forewarned, all you Catcher haters. This is another instrumentally heart-wrenching song, from its violent, explosive opening to its minimalistic organ drones. The song's climax ironically occurs during its quietest moment as Phil Elverum confesses his struggle to live over a funeral organ: "I could not get through September without a battle / I faced death / I went in with my arms swinging."  During the song's most powerful moment, Elverum's soft, trembling voice suddenly overtakes the song as he proclaims "my blood flows harshly."  It sounds like he realizes his humanity, blocking out all the distractions that plague him (the torturous instrumentals), but his ending conclusion that "there is no end" and the return of the guitars (now quieted, but still obviously present) make me wonder if the song's displaying his will or loss to live.

4.  Neutral Milk Hotel - "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea."  More guitars, weird instrumentals, strange voices, and beautiful lyrics.  I can't get over the brilliance of the final line: "How strange it is to be anything at all."  For some interesting perspective, this album was inspired by Anne Frank's story. 

5. Modest Mouse - "3rd Planet."  See above for this month's apparent, though completely unintentional, theme.  Although Isaac Brock has a notoriously strange vocal delivery, ranging from his slur-shouting to lullaby-whispers, the instruments sound relatively conventional on this album's opening song.  The dynamics to "3rd Planet" are simple--soft to loud guitars--but they work really well, providing both a catchy hook and powerful punch.  And Brock's arcane lyrics, even if I can't grasp much of the meaning of this extremely conceptual album, stand out for their beauty and poignancy: "Well, the universe is shaped exactly like the earth; if you go straight long enough you'll end up where you were....Everything that keeps me together is falling apart, I've got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over."

6. Modest Mouse - "The Stars are Projectors."  More epic guitars and lengthy songs.  I love how this track (from the same album as "3rd Planet") begins with metal guitars and distorted vocals that echo a kind of Big Brother paranoia: "In the last second of life, they're gonna show you how how they run this show, sure, run it into the ground."  The pacing of this album makes it feel like a journey--many of the songs follow the motifs and sounds from previous ones--and you can really hear the difference between the lighter, catchy opener and this, the 9th track.  However, there's a calm in the metal storm, where Brock philosophizes in his clearest voice: "The stars are projectors, yeah, / Projecting our lives down to this planet Earth."  Maybe this is Brock's insight into the way "they run this show (the earth)" as he nears death.  The song then spirals forward, rapidly building momentum, and in a brief respite, Brock asks, "Was there a need for creation? That was hidden in a math equation, and that's this: where do circles begin?"  He can only whisper "where do circles begin?"; it sounds like his time is up, and before he/we get an answer, the song implodes, marking the album's climax.

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