Wednesday, April 4, 2012

March 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. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Maps." I don't know what brought me back to this song, but I discovered it anew this month and fell in love with Nick Zinner's sleek, chime-y guitars.  Karen O really lets it all go, especially when her voice crackles during the song's heartfelt moments: "wait--they don't love you like I love you."  The YYYs debut really is fantastic; I remember buying it at Best Buy many, many years ago and finding it immensely disappointing. Funny how things work out sometimes.

2. Japandroids - "The House that Heaven Built." - Besides mewithoutYou's excellent new album, there isn't a record I'm more excited for this year than Japandroids's Celebration Rock.  "Younger Us," which actually was released in 2010 but will appear on the new record, is one of my college anthems, a song that I hope to look back on and reminisce about the "night[s] you were already in bed, said 'fuck it,' got up to drink with me instead."  And don't even get me started on "Young Hearts Spark Fire"; not many songs have more heart, more sincerity, than that.  "The House that Heaven Built" picks up where these other great Japandroids songs leave off: massive electronic, fuzzy guitars; big drums; anthemic choruses; and sing-songy but emotionally-tinged lyrics.  The song is energetic, full of enthusiasm, and just really fun; I love this band and am so excited to hear whatever is next.

3. Cloud Nothings - "Stay Useless." This song reminds me of The Replacements' "Unsatisfied," one of those rare, inexhaustible songs that hits home from the first note.  Cloud Nothings's throaty, nasally vocals may be off-putting at first, but the skill of the guitar work--just listen to how the chorus explodes--and the sheer catchiness of the song demand that listeners return to the vox and learn to love them.  I couldn't have been sent this during a more apt period in my life; buried under the burdens of my graduate school existence, words like "I need time to stop moving / I need time to stay useless" resonated all too clearly.  I take the message as this: life moves too fast--and, for me, sometimes too slow, somehow, simultaneously--and we occasionally need to pause to be useless for a moment, even when every second seems to be weighted with importance.  Part of the awesome irony of the song is that "Stay Useless" is relentless, along with its heavy instrumental follow-up, "Separation."  I think that adds an extra dose of charm, and certainly pathos, to a song that will absolutely remain one of the best I've heard in 2012.

4. Thom Yorke - "The Clock." Ever since I discovered Bright Eyes' "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, I fell in love with morbid, electronic-based alt-rock.  I guess that's the best way to describe this.  The schizophrenic drums, gurgling guitars, and ghoulish vocals sound like the soundtrack to
1984 (not surprising from a man who's written songs with Radiohead titled "2+2=5").  Sometimes Radiohead's music doesn't connect with me, but this dystopic nightmare instantly stuck.  I recognized quickly the depth of its metaphors: is this about a failing relationship or death? ("time is running out for us / but you just move the hands of the clock") or more literally about oppression/the loss of autonomy ("You make believe that you are still in charge")?  More specifically, on an auditory level, I really enjoy the first moment Yorke sings, "You throw coins down the wishing well"; the descending echoes of his voice mimic the coins' plummet.  It's a smart move, capturing a sense of decline, precipitating some form of violent crash--fitting imagery on this bleak track.  Just on a purely personal level, though, I'm always excited for that brief moment in the song.  For me, at least, songs are at their greatest when the smallest details trigger/offer the biggest reactions/payoffs.

5. Thom Yorke - "Atoms for Peace." Whereas "The Clock" assaults its listener with haunting vocals and relentless drums, "Atoms for Peace" begins tranquilly with hushed guitars and Yorke's soberest voice. The lyrics are beautiful, though extremely poignant:
No more talk about the old days;
It's time for something great.
I want you to get out
And make it work.
So many lies,
So feel the love come off of them
And take me in your arms.
It's funny, whenever I read people's reactions to songs, I always scoff at the tired interpretation that "This song represents X's struggling/failing/failed relationship with Y," yet I view so many songs as describing addiction.  I hear Yorke imploring someone to abandon his/her embellished memories of the past and to thrive in the present; Yorke cannot keep saving the person from "going to the dark side with your flying saucer eyes / No more falling down a wormhole that I have to pull you out."  The flying saucer eyes is a powerful way of describing someone's transfixion; Yorke has to gently nudge in his consolatory, lullabyish voice, along with an assuaging guitar solo, to have the person "get out / and make it work."  It all sounds therapeutic, especially on an album filled with harsh electronic noise.

6. Thom Yorke - "Harrowdown Hill." In terms of songwriting, this is one of Yorke's standouts.  Not many songs can be intense and infectious simultaneously, but "Harrowdown" achieves that during its dramatic chorus where Yorke wails the melancholic lines: "But I'm coming home / To make it all right / So dry your eyes. / We think the same things at the same time -- / We just can't do anything about it."  These wonderfully vague lines could be interpreted in various ways, although it's hard for me to remove them from some context of violence: the stream of consciousness ramblings ("Did I fall or was I pushed / Then where's the blood?") and imagery that I cannot 
detach from the Holocaust ("There are so many of us / Oh you can't count").  "Harrowdown Hill" falls somewhere in between the morbid nightmare of "The Clock" and the tranquility of "Atoms"; as Yorke says, here he's "slipping in and out of consciousness," suggesting a sort of liminality, a mix of the solipsistic nightmares of "Clock" ("Can you see me when I'm running?") and the troubling sentimentality of "Atoms" ("We think the same things at the same time / We just can't do anything about it").  The song flows seamlessly through this web-like narrative, sonically weaving from the opener's prickly guitars to the chorus's emotive outburst to the conclusion's hypnotic guitars.  I don't know why this album was received lukewarmly; I think it's better than most of Radiohead's work.

7. mewithoutYou - "Seven Sisters."  Okay, so why is mwY my favorite band?   Well, first there's Aaron Weiss's impassioned vocals; even if his shouty screams are off-putting, there's something to be appreciated in his unique delivery. Unlike so many horrible post-punk/hardcore bands, each time Weiss raises his voice, it is a deliberate gesture to emphasize a powerful lyrical moment.  Listen to how he speaks/shouts these concluding lines: "I threw a small stone down at the reflection of my image in the water / and it altogether disappeared / I burst as it shattered through me / like a bullet through a bottle / And I'm expected to believe that any of this is real?"  The way he narrates the beginning,  builds up the image of himself, emphasizes the bursting of that image (and thus the illusion of the self), and then quietly admits his doubts adds to the intensity of the listening experience.  The music somehow makes the awe-inspiring lyrics even more powerful.  Almost every song on this album builds up to a huge climax,  although this is one of the more subtle examples.  Still, the instrumentals here are very visceral; it captures an intense brooding, which is fitting for an album rife with major philosophical questions about religion, self-identity, and the human experience.


8. mewithoutYou - "The Soviet." Sometime this month I discovered newfound brilliance in this song, but I can't for the life of me remember what I realized!  But I can say that I love the imagery in this song about temptation: the foxes, who "only come out when its quiet," come with their tails "of delicate orange and cinnamon red" to tempt the spiritually "dead" to continue to ignore true Love (God).  The singer's own struggles are captured as he admits, "How else can I confess? When I looked down as if to pray...well, I was looking down her dress!," yet he ultimately renounces them during the song's emotional and instrumental climax, "Ah! I don't need this! Stay out! I don't need this." It's a brief, whirlwind of a song, but I find it perfectly compact, probably the climax of what continues to remain my favorite album of all time.

9. M83 - "I Guess I'm Floating." Is it a somber reflection on the past?  A spirit hovering over the present? It's both haunting and comforting, shocking and soothing -- all in all, unsurprising ambient excellence from M83.

10. M83 - "Teen Angst."  The way this song builds off of the hushed electronics of "I Guess I'm Floating" is magnificent; it reminds listeners of the beauty of listening to albums all the way through.  Despite the title, the lyrics have more 
emotional depth than angsty doggerel: "How fast we burn / How fast we cry / The more we learn / The more we die. / I hear the planet crying now."  I don't want to read the last line as some form of bitter jab at the teenage world; I see it instead as a somber understanding of our collective fate.

11. The Good Life - "October Leaves."  Oh God, such a sad song.  Synths really can do everything; compare the triumph of "Teen Angst" to the anguish of "October Leaves."  This is anything but a good life; the keys sound like they're crying out to the listener, somehow sounding both rich and barren.  I rediscovered this song during my introspective listening-streak, where I suddenly realized the play on the word "leaves."  Besides the pretty imagery of autumn's leaves falling from trees, there's the idea that October's end (its leaving) leads into winter's frigid months, which portend the end of the speaker's sexual/emotional relationship.  "The season's changing, it's for the worse," Kasher painfully realizes.  I totally empathize with that sense of desperation when fall bleeds into winter.  But I'm glad I've never empathized with Kasher's paranoia and infidelity: "As the groundskeeper rakes up the October leaves / It occurs to me, trees can't hide anything."

12. The Good Life - "Needy." I absolutely love the lines "you never fell for me / you fell for how it felt / you fell for being held." How better can one describe neediness?  The double meaning of "fell" especially adds to the song's bitterness.  Then there's the weird solo in the middle, followed by Kasher's proclamation that he's "better off alone," a bizarrely catchy lyric during this fleeting moment of clarity.

13. Elliott Smith - "Easy Way Out." I don't know how I overlooked this song for so long, but it's another one of Elliott's devastatingly prophetic songs about his death/suicide.  It's beautiful, but I have to be in the right mood to tolerate it.  Apparently in March I was.  I don't know if I appreciate or admire how Elliott obviously chastises himself in this song--"I heard you found another audience to bore / A creative thinker who imagined you were more / A new body for you to push around and pose / It's all about taking the easy way out for you I suppose"--but it's definitely noteworthy how aware he was of his flaws, and he was right: he sadly took the easy way out.

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