Wednesday, August 8, 2012

July 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.

July seemed like an extraordinary long month; even though the time appeared to pass by in an instant, I feel like it's been ages since I drove my brothers to Fordham while blasting Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret.  That July does not feel like the same month that I was jamming to Frank Ocean in Vegas or discovering Passion Pit's newest album on my couch after work.  Because of my newfound time this summer, much of which I devoted to exploring new music, I belive this is the most diverse mixtape yet, from DIIV's shoegazey dream-pop to The War on Drugs's folksy Americana to Chromatics's drugged-out electronics.  It's been a fun month for listening; I felt like I was discovering all these new great things, and everything sounded great.  Here's some of that now:

1. DIIV - "(Druun)."  [not included on above playlist because 8 tracks does not allow more than 2 songs per band per mixtape.]

2. DIIV - "Past Lives."

3. DIIV - "Human." Dream-pop often garners praise for being atmospheric, brooding, summery, and other mood-evoking adjectives, yet it sometimes is all mood and little substance: short songs merge to create a cohesive album, but the songs themselves float gently by, rarely jarring the listener off-course. Listening to DIIV's ear-pleasing debut, Oshin, I feel that only "How Long Have You Known?" stands out as individually memorable; the rest of the songs blend to make a smartly-sequenced and beautifully-orchestrated collection of euphonies. This initially appealed to me, but, after several listens, I have not been compelled to return to Oshin. I think I will eventually, so this is very much a to-be-continued.

4. Built to Spill - "Carry the Zero."  I've listened to BTS so much this summer that I fear I am running the risk of forever overplaying them (which I've done before...I listened to Cursive's Happy Hollow so much during the Summer of 2006 that I have no desire to ever play it again).  The beginning of "Carry the Zero" just tears at my heart; I don't know why the guitars have such a powerful emotional effect on me, but they seem to be gushing out some terrible feeling of desperation.  Doug Martsch's brooding, nasally vocals compliment all these evocative noises, especially during his half-singing, half-shouting climax where he bitterly criticizes, "you're so occupied with what other persons are occupied with and vice versa." I've listened to this song so many times, and it's yet to lose its effect on me. That's pretty awesome.

5. Built to Spill - "Time Trap." The opening to this song, all two minutes of it, is absolutely perfect. A slow-burning guitar jam that rises and falls with force and elegance, it could be a song on its own.  But then the guitars suddenly become staccato and the singing starts; then the chorus kicks in and its a mix of the verse's hard strumming and the opening's dreamy guitars; then the chorus holds its intensity for a long minute and a half; then when the music could not possibly peak any higher, a chiseling guitar winds the song down.  Phew.  What a listen!  As I said before, it amazes me how each song on this album flows so effortlessly; these guys display their technical mastery without beating listeners over the heads with it and, maybe even more importantly, without sacrificing emotion for technique.

6. The War on Drugs - "There Is No Urgency."  You maybe wouldn't guess it while listening to "There Is No Urgency," the climax of The War on Drugs's Wagonwheel Blues, but this album relies heavily on ambient noises; it's much less anthemic as a whole than this song makes it seem.  On second thought, though, after re-listening to this song, I do hear a lot of the ambient noise in the background; it's a kind of numbing haze that underscores the troubling lyric that "there is no urgency."  I have had this CD in my "to listen to" box forever, and I finally gave it some spins and couldn't be happier; this song in particular sounds like a combination of Arcade Fire's anxiety-filled cuts from The Suburbs (the non-shit ones) and  LCD Soundsystem's cold, electronic miseries from Sound of Silver, with maybe, as much as it kills me to say it, a little bit of Tom Petty's "capture and melodize the American ethos" singing/songwriting style.

7. The National - "Lemonworld."  Maybe it's because that I was reading all the debauchery in The Great Gatsby that this song instantly reminded of Nick Carraway, a feeble, deeply perceptive, and loveable character who throughout the book uses alcohol to numb uncomfortable and violent situations. This line especially--one of my favorites because of the way it's delivered--reminds me of Nick: "This pricey stuff makes me dizzy / You know I've always been a delicate man."

The National's lead singer says this song is "basically a dirty song about my wife," but I'm not buying it; it's too dark to be as light-hearted as he claims. First, there's the background of war:
"Livin' or dyin' in New York it means nothing to me.
I gave my heart to the Army,
The only sentimental thing I could think of,
With cousins and colors somewhere overseas,
But it'll take a better war to kill a college man like me."
Then just listen to the chorus, "You and your sister live in a Lemonworld / I want to sit in and die." I read this great analysis on, which I think summarizes the title brilliantly: "Lemonworld stands for a world that is bright on the outside but sour at its core. . . . The Lemonworld can be a common perception of the world post war. Many people became aware that life may seem bright and cheery (life in high society or an easy life in general), but can also be sour (the war and violence.)"

One of my favorite parts of the song--which is also the most disturbing part--is when Matt Berninger sings during the chorus, "Losing my breath, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo." This line is sung so innocuously that it's hard to envision the panic attack or imminent death it implies, especially with the waterboarding imagery in the last verse: "Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth / And we can say that we invented a summer lovin' torture party."  These last lines disturbingly juxtapose the sisters' "bathing suits" in the "Lemonworld," adding to the critique of the homeland's complacency and blindness.  And the lullaby-ish "doo doo doo doo doo"s work to drown out the violence while simultaneously describing the gasps heard when one "loses [his] breath."  What a major bummer, but it still sounds so nice!

8. Chromatics - "Kill for Love."  I really enjoy hushed, ethereal female vox, especially in the druggy electronica scene, so it's no surprise "Kill for Love" stood out to me as soon as I heard it.  I'm not sure what to make of the lyrics; the song tells the story of what I imagine to be an ex-junkie admitting something about her past:

"I took a pill almost every night;
In my mind I was waiting for change,
While the world just stayed the same.
Everybody's got a secret to hide;
Everyone is slipping backwards.
I can't remember if I like what I said;
I can't remember it went straight to my head.
I kept a bottle by the foot of the bed.
I put a pillow right on top of my head.
But I killed for love."

What could this mean?  Literally killing to protect someone the speaker loves? Killing for drugs? Or does the speaker mean that she changed for love? It's brilliant how the song could be either a haunting confessional or a testimonial about the power of love. Besides the lyrical depth, the music itself is staggering, from the bright bleeps of the opener to the gorgeous guitar work (reminds me of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) that burns after the chorus. "Kill for Love" is just an all-around excellent song; I'd say Chromatics really killed it ;) ;) ;)

9. Passion Pit - "I'll Be Alright." Passion Pit can make miseries contagious -- sonically, that is. You hear (but maybe do not listen to) some of the bleakest lyrics that will ever make it to national television commercials, yet it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the jittery, gleeful noises that introduce and maintain the song's frantic pace. I'm suddenly very ambivalent about this album--I'm not sure if it is nearly as good as its predecessor--but this song, which was also a grower, really sticks with me; I wanted to hear it over and over again, and I keep returning to it. I can't imagine turning my nightmares (or, for Michael Angelakos, his real life manic depression) into something so triumphant, so I have to commend him for doing so -- even if it's the most deranged praise one could possibly offer.

10. Frank Ocean - "Pyramids."  I listened to this song in Las Vegas over a dozen times, which is a lot for a song that just clocks in under the 10 minute mark.  When I heard the epicness of "Pyramids," I couldn't help think of Kanye West, whose last album had its share of lengthy tracks, including the nine-minute single "Runaway."  But it's not the length of the songs that make the comparison between the two apt; there's much more: the interludes between songs on Frank Ocean's Channel Orange recall Kanye's earliest albums; Ocean's "Crack Rock" plays like a sequel to Kanye's "Crack Music"; and, of course, Ocean's debut flaunts the pristine production that Kanye fans have come to expect with each album.  Also, the way songs flowed on Kanye's Beautiful Dark Fantasy--such as "Devil in a New Dress," which breaks into a guitar solo at what seems to be the end of the song only to introduce Rick Ross, or "Lost in the World," which turns Bon Iver's gurgling auto-tune into a dance-worthy jam--blend as elegantly on Ocean's debut LP.  "Pyramids" is the best example of this; it's also the best song on the album and one of my favorite songs from the year.

Frank Ocean is a devastating lyricist, and "Pyramids" is no exception.  The song begins in ancient Egypt with its King describing the theft of his queen Cleopatra: "set the cheetahs on the loose / there's a thief out on the move."  There are some percussive swipes that evoke the pilfering being described and some swanky, middle-eastern guitars, then synths emerge and the pace dramatically increases to introduce a fleeing scene: "'We'll run to the future, / shining like diamonds / In a rocky world, rocky-rocky world,'" Samson says to Cleopatra before they are caught by the King, who says: "The jewel of Africa.  What good is a jewel that isn't precious? . . . I found you laying down with Samson and his full head of hair. Found my black queen Cleopatra, bad dreams, Cleopatra."  The narrative describes Cleopatra committing suicide, and the synths then pick up again, only to halt suddenly in a dramatically different world, where Ocean sings, his spacey vocals echoing over twinkling keys, "Big sun coming strong through the motel blinds / Wake up to your girl for now, let's call her Cleopatra / I watch you fix your hair / Then put your panties on in the mirror, Cleopatra . . . She's headed to the pyramid."  (The almost inconceivable irony of discovering this song on the day I visited the Luxor hotel for the first time in Vegas blows my mind.)  So here we are now in the modern world with this new Cleopatra "working at the pyramid [and] hit[ting] the strip."  The synths from the earlier portion of the song suddenly transform "Pyramids" into a (dingy) club banger, and Ocean brings us into the prostitution world through the perspective of this new Cleopatra's materialistic pimp.  In his rapped/sung monologue as the pimp, Ocean plays on earlier imagery of diamonds when he says he has the cheap "rubies in my damn chain," a diminished product from the jewels of Africa.  Ocean also adds black comedy as the deranged pimp's attempts to embellish his squalid surroundings: "top floor motel suite, twisting my cigars / floor model TV with the VCR."  It all sounds pathetic, and it's supposed to.  The synths march on to the final scene, where Ocean details a sexual encounter between the prostitute and client: "'The way you say my name makes me feel like I'm that nigga / But I'm still unemployed / You say it's big but you take it / Ride cowgirl / But your love ain't free no more.'"  Once the act is consummated, "Pyramids" unwinds untriumphantly with desolate guitars.

There is so much to say about this song: the fetishization and commodification of women, complete lack of a female voice, emphasis on black-female and white-male relations, and materialist critiques of modern (and ancient) society, but I don't have the energy at the moment to delve further into this.  I'm just going to sit in awe and marvel at the depth of such a great song--and songwriter.

11. Frank Ocean - "Super Rich Kids."  I love how this song bounces with swagger; it reminds me of the chorus of Billy Joel's bitterly sarcastic "Big Shot."  Ocean indifferently yawns through the refrain as he describes the life of "super rich kids," then sings for the verse, which includes the awesome double entendre, "She wash my back three times a dayThis shower head feels so amazing," and Mary J. Blige-sampled chorus.  In his cameo, Earl Sweatshirt absolutely kills it; his lethargic flow evokes the ennui of the 1%'s kids, as he enumerates the many drugs that help pass the time/create meaning.  Yet Earl doesn't just demonize the "bratty-ass" kids he describes; he empathizes with them.  Their parents are absent, and the kids consequently spend their time either alone or with maids who don't care about them.  Towards the end of Earl's verse, he admits, "Brash as fuck, breaching all these aqueducts / Don't believe us / Treat us like we can't erupt." This metaphor for an emotional outburst, of tears or rage or both, connects the "super rich kids" with the kids living in poverty.  These diametric existences suffer from the same hardships: the pain of neglect.  This message really reverberates, especially since Frank Ocean's R&B is often derided as R&PBR because of its white, affluent, hipster fanbase; a song like "Super Rich Kids" tries to demolish these barriers, creating the "real love" of empathy rather than the futility of bitterness.  

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