Saturday, November 3, 2012

October 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. 

Sun Airway at Hammerstein Ballroom, Oct. 3.
1. Sun Airway - "Close." These guys absolutely rocked as openers for the all-around awesome M83 show.  I remember thinking that their instrumental jams remind me of the smooth dream pop of DIIV, but the vocals, which resemble Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, are much more pronounced (or audible, you pick).  Now when I hear the pulsating drums and the winding electric guitars that jab against the twinkling keys and spacey atmospherics on "Close," I hesitate to draw comparisons; Sun Airway's music can stand on its own, and the band's impressive performance proved it.

2. The Cure - "Just Like Heaven."  I promised myself to listen to more Robert Smith after falling in "love" (har har har) with his cover of the Crystal Castles song from last month, and luckily for me this sunny pop gem happened to be on the Adventureland soundtrack (which isn't as good as the movie but still has its awesome moments).  On "Just Like Heaven," The Cure offer a gorgeous arrangement of strings, synths, guitars, and pianos, which makes the track so instantly likable.  The vocals find Smith emoting, some might say he borderlines squealing, over a girl, but I think it works: he's broadcasting his vulnerabilities through written and spoken words.

3. James Blake - "The Wilhelm Scream."  I listened to James Blake a lot this month -- over 130 times according to my Last FM.  Blake crafts a unique aesthetic, unlike anything I've ever heard before: highly intimate songs that gradually build-up over, or towards, pulsating, dubsteppy beats.  Blake only delivers a sentence or two of his heavily auto-tuned vocals each song, choosing to repeat or modify his words rather than tell a traditional narrative.  As I said, unique.  "The Wilhelm Scream" takes the devastating admission, "I don't know about my dreams / I don't know about my dreaming anymore / All that I know is I'm falling / Might as well fall in" and repeats it again and again, occasionally replacing the words "dreams" and "dreaming" with "love" and "loving" or "turn" and "turning."  As the instrumentals build, the song picks up intensity, even though Blake's words remain the same; you can hear the words accumulating new meanings as the sounds around them change (interesting signifier/signified stuff).  It takes a patient listener willing to give him/herself emotionally to tracks like "Wilhelm" for it to have its full effect (I think), but even a distanced listener can admire Blake's bare-bones honesty and minimalist lyricism.

4. James Blake - "I Never Learnt to Share." If the previous song wasn't soul-crushing enough, take these lines from "I Never Learnt to Share": "My brother and my sister don't speak to me / But I don't blame them."  That's it; there's your song.  And isn't that enough?  Maybe if you want closure about who is right or wrong in this situation, then the words are unsatisfactory, but Blake appears to relish in open-endedness.  Again, the significance of his words transforms throughout the song: at first, he whispers the confession in an ostensibly contrite manner; then he sings the words rhythmically, seemingly embracing the reality of the situation (he has to sing the chorus of the song--the words are already written, and he has to accept his siblings' decision); and finally Blake inserts multiple voices into the song, emphasizing "blame" as "Share" begins to climax, which appears to signify either sarcasm and bitterness or guilt.  The voices demonstrate multiple perspectives, multiple stories, and multiple interpretations, although, interestingly, Blake is the only one speaking -- is this an internal battle, or do the several auto-tuned voices represent other people?  For speaking so few words, Blake's lyrics lend themselves to wide-ranging interpretations (kind of reminding me of DIIV's excellent "How Long Have You Known?").  Oh, and his words are catchy as hell, too.  After a few (hundred?) listens, you'll find yourself singing these lines over and over, then pausing to realize what devastating sentiments Blake has you mindlessly humming.

5. James Blake - "Limit to Your Love." This is a cover of a Feist song, though I heard Blake's version first (listening to Feist's for the first time as I type this).  This sounds more like a conventional song, so it may be a good place to start, but Blake certainly makes "Limit" his own with its buzzing beats and haunting, repetitious vocals.

6. Modest Mouse - "The Ocean Breathes Salty."  My favorite band from this year, most likely.  This line absolutely drains the life from me:  "For your sake I hope heaven and hell are really there, but I wouldn't hold my breath. / You wasted life, why wouldn't you waste death?"  I don't know if I've ever heard more scathing words in a song; there's so much animosity, disappointment, and bitterness here.  I too frequently think about these words in relation to some of the people I love, so I guess that explains the powerful reactions this song elicits: I often get goosebumps and have admittedly shed tears while listening.  Few songs have similar effects on me.  Besides that amazingly terrible line, though, I really enjoy Brock's unconventional singing style on "Ocean"; he moves from soft whispers to high-pitched falsettos to his patented sing-shout hybrid fluidly, and the song is menacingly catchy because of it.  I also can't get enough of Brock's lyrics, which mix opaque imagery with poignant matter-of-fact statements: "The ocean breathes salty, won't you carry it in? / In your head, in your mouth, in your soul. / And maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both grow old. / Well I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I hope so."  Ouch.  Aside from Brock's feats on "Ocean," I think the echoey guitars and constant swirling noises perfectly capture the feeling of being on a desolate beach.

7. Modest Mouse - "Cowboy Dan."  This happens a lot with me: I start with a band's recent, more polished work and move backwards towards its raw beginnings and end up liking the earlier work better.  Cursive's The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song, mewithoutYou's Catch for Us the Foxes, Death Cab for Cutie's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, and Explosions in the Sky's Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever are some of these bands' earliest, edgiest pursuits, and I would definitely include these records in my top 10 list of all-time favorites.  Lately, I really have enjoyed Modest Mouse's last "indie" album, The Lonesome Crowded West, especially because it touches on the issues of rampant American consumerism/materialism/mall-building (and the isolation it creates) that I am really interested in studying.  (Side note: The Lonesome Crowded West should be a book or dissertation title; it's so clever.)  But "Cowboy Dan" first intrigued me because its brooding Americana really comes out of nowhere on Lonesome, marking one of the album's most climactic moments when the song builds towards its inevitable breakdown: "Can't do it, not even if sober / Can't get that engine turned over."  The image that first caught my attention was of Cowboy Dan firing "his rifle in the sky / and says, 'God, if I have to die, you will have to die.'"  That stunned me.  Modest Mouse know how to sonically capture the images of Brock's already-image-filled lyrics so well that the song suddenly produced a vivid picture of these events in my head. I also love how "Cowboy" progresses so naturally through its various movements; it's an intense tune on an intense album.

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