Thursday, December 6, 2012

November 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. 

I've written ten of these this year, so I'm not going to falter this late in the game.  Hopefully writing this will distract me from checking my email neurotically/growing increasingly hateful.  So, with one month to go(!), here are the sounds to my November:

1. Bright Eyes - "Time Code."  I went jogging one night to clear my head and escape my research paper, and listening to Digital Ash in a Digital Urn--Bright Eyes's audacious, experimental electronica album--really helped me escape myself for a little bit.  I always appreciated the album's opener, "Time Code," but I was especially struck this time by Oberst's sung/whispered line: "sh-- don't talk, don't talk." I think it's interesting how the song becomes instrumental after that, as Oberst silently hovers over the world his album will subsequently explore: we hear the screaming baby from "Ship in a Bottle," murmurs from the crowds from which Oberst withdraws, and the bells from "Gold Mine Gutted."  While the intro could be foreshadowing or previewing the album's songs, I think it's more about picking up transmissions of "noise."  (Note: thinking about Don DeLillo's White Noise completely changed my interpretation of this song).

DeLillo shows how our consumerist, media-saturated society worships commodities and replaces religion with shopping.  Compare, for instance, the everyday activities of people living in a Puritan versus a postmodern culture: the former observed God everywhere and in everything, while the latter observes the hyper-saturation of advertisements and media.  Because we are incessantly bombarded with TV, ads, radio, media, etc., we begin to speak unconsciously its language of consumerism: the media has altered our consciousness.  I think Oberst sees this, and his opening song is a fantasy about escaping the world's noise (ironically on his noisiest album to date).  Thus, on "Time Code," we can only hear bells, screams, or murmurs, not the tainted language of postmodern culture.  This retreat from spoken language is intriguing since Oberst is so renowned for his songwriting -- maybe he's trying to escape himself, too.  But then the alarm clock rings and it's back to reality; he must speak.  And probably not coincidentally, his next words are: "It was Don DeLillo."

2. Bon Iver - "I Can't Make You Love Me / Nick of Time."  This song reminds me of my favorite Bon Iver track, "Blood Bank," because it somehow exudes warmth while conveying a wintry atmosphere.  Like "Blood," "Love/Nick" offers a landscape and lets you fill in the scenery, and its deeply evocative sounds make conjuring memories all-too-easy.

3.  El Ten Eleven - "My Only Swerving."  Another track I discovered during a Spotify jogging session, though I'm trying to like it less because I read an interview where these guys (they're just a duo) trash Explosions in the Sky.  That's sacrilege to me, but I can't deny how "Swerving" manages to sound simultaneously upbeat and poignant without saying a word.  I also think its rare to play melodic instrumentals without them becoming tiresome.

4. Passion Pit - "Cry Like a Ghost."  I've suddenly gotten really into this album again.  "Ghost" is so bitter and sad, even though, like all of PP's music, its chorus seems joyous.  But you don't even half to listen closely here to recognize the despair: "Sylvia, no one's gonna tell you when enough's enough / enough is enough."  "Cry" is equally about the narrator's dependency problems as it is about Sylvia's co-dependency; enough is enough, but they're both too helpless to do anything about it.  I wonder where PP is going to go next; while their first, and probably superior, album covers its lyrics' misery with sugary pop, Gossamer is often blunt, even confrontational, turning its poppy electronica into something decadent.

5. Girls - "Alex."  I never understood why people praised Girls so much, but, on a whim, I checked out their 2011 album Father, Son, Holy Ghost and I suddenly got it.  I listened to this nonstop during the last two weeks of November, and I especially enjoyed the breezy vocals of "Alex."  This is a whirlwind of an album, and it definitely would've cracked my top 10 if I had given it enough time last year.  But, the only person that cares about that is me, so.... moving on.

6. Youth Lagoon - "Posters." This also slipped under my radar last year, despite its near-unanimous acclaim, but I finally caught up after a classmate recommended it to me.  The album begins quietly but subtly builds as the vocals become more lucid and the undulating synths?guitars? pick up momentum.  Then after a pause a solitary guitar and crunching percussion triumphantly emerge, calmly yet still forcefully carrying the sound forward.  I like how tactful YL's music is; the payoffs are large even though the music doesn't explode.  Like DIIV, YL's relaxing lo-fi belies its complexities.

7. Youth Lagoon - "Cannons."  I like how YL can quietly squeak a swagged-out line like, "I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams."  It's corny but lovable, especially since it comes from someone who seems reluctant to sing too close to the mic or have his vocals overshadow his instrumentals, even though this is his solely his project.  The melody of "Cannons" is contagious, and the beats sound influenced by hip-hop, reminding me of Death Cab's recent percussion experiments on "St. Peter's Cathedral."  This whole album is extremely enjoyable and has been a welcome soundtrack to paper writing season.

8. mewithoutYou - "Julian the Onion."  To me, Aaron Weiss is the best lyricist ever.  It speaks to the excellence of his songwriting that this brilliant allegorical tale of an anthropomorphic onion didn't make the cut on mwY's new album.  The song fits into the album's conceptual plot, as the Circus Host (or Barker) tries to attract passerbys to see Julian, his new attraction.  The Barker's language is derisive yet comical, full of puns and hyperbole: 
'[Julian] was battered by his classmates and sauteed like bantam corn
"Red Vidalias!" "Valley Sweets!" for twelve long, rotten years;
if he so much as skinned his knee, the entire schoolhouse moved to tears.
We found him where he'd sprouted, plotting a garden coup d'etat
in a carrot stick and celery stalk manage-a-mirepoix.'
Yet the lowly Julian, sitting silently, accepting the Barker's reproach, delivers the moral message to the audience:
'I am not this misshaped body, and I'm not long for this world.
Wooden dimes and quiet fears, come curl your lips at me,
but all perceptions are as mirrors, it's your own reflections that you see.
So hide behind your laughs awhile, look handsome though you may,
oh, do enjoy that saccharine smile, as there comes for you a day.'

 9. mewithoutYou - "Four Fires." Julian's speech is a powerful, though not unexpected, moral to Aaron's allegory.  "Four Fires," the better of the two B-Sides, does not offer similar closure.  The song tracks one of the rabbits that escapes the circus and returns to his home, and the jaunty guitars and hiccuping drums capture the animal's movement. When the rabbit reaches its destination, it finds only its mother and asks, "But mama, why four fires burning? Why so quiet Father’s room? Has he not heard his son returning? Or has he gone to gather food? Or is he off stomping in the forest? Or has he wandered into town?" The father has died, and it never ceases to amaze me how Aaron can elicit such powerful personal responses from his animal and vegetable fables. The mother insists that her husband's "faith in love was still devout," but there is an evident struggle. Following the traumatic journey and devastating loss, the near-defeated rabbit requests a hymn, and Aaron shouts the rabbit's pleas over the Shabbat song, "Ein Kelohenu":
Mama sing my favorite hymn where we make ploughshares from our swords.
And the mason's barber trims our Christmas tree in the Oneness of our Lord.
What grace surrounds? What strange perfection! Mama sing my favorite hymn.
Remind me: everyone is Him.
The contrast is striking; I am growing to love Aaron's hoarse shouts over lighter instrumentals/vocals, though I'll always pine for the post-grunge days of Catch for Us the Foxes.  Yet when I heard the end of "Fires," I was paralyzed in Fordham's library.  I played it over and over again, and I felt my eyes well up with tears.  It's such a climactic moment -- a story of loss and agony and someone's steadfast (or want of steadfast) belief.  Ah, this music affects me like none other.  I love this band so much.

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