Wednesday, January 9, 2013

December 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.

The final edition of the 2012 mixtapes.  Writing these has been a really illuminating and fun experience.  I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did writing them.  Maybe there will be more to come in 2013--

1. Tame Impala - "Be Above It."  I don't know what created my aversion to Tame Impala; I guess it's that I can't overlook the glaring similarities between them and the Beatles (specifically John Lennon).  But since when do I only listen to 'original' bands?  Ultimately my reservations faded, and I kept going back to this song: it's a light, floaty, psychedelic trip, which actually combines my favorite aspects of the Beatles' music: their easy-listening pop roots and eventual avant-garde experimentation.  The mixture of the two elements actually avoids the pitfalls of pop and psychedelic music--over-simplification or excessive obfuscation, respectively--of which the Beatles were definitely occasional culprits. 

I've actually had this experience of loving a band I initially hated: I once thought the Blood Brothers' music was pointless, incomprehensible screaming, but something kept bringing me back to "Trash Flavored Trash," the first song I heard from them, which bizarrely combines poppy song structures with hardcore.  Then they became one of my favorite bands for several years.  Moral: I guess I need to start listening to music I initially hate as much as the stuff I initially love.

2. Interpol - "NYC."  I've always been told to listen to Interpol, and when I saw they re-released Turn on the Bright Lights to rave reviews, I figured this was the place to start.  I see why they're acclaimed: for a 2002 album, this still sounds extremely relevant; "Untitled" opens the album with starry, XX-esque guitars, while "NYC" plays like The National meets shoegaze, as haunting vocals float over slow streams of electronic guitars. "NYC," in particular, sounds like a dreary city night; you get the feeling this was written in some desolate subway station, lungs full of warm, carbon monoxide air.  Fittingly, the song is unsettlingly warm: like the XX's best tracks, the pretty, intimate atmosphere of "NYC" is darkened by its uneasy lyrics: "I know you've supported me for a long time / Somehow I'm not impressed. / But New York cares (got to be some more change in my life)."  Still, the climax feels cathartic, as echoey voices build to make a small choir over waves of therapeutic guitars.

3. Sufjan Stevens - "Age of Adz."   A bit of a contrast to Interpol, "Age of Adz" features the always-unpredictable Sufjan Stevens embracing the carnivalesque, playing everything but the kitchen sink (hell, he probably played that, too) during the song's raucous opening.  I'm mad at myself for ignoring this album for so long: it has many of the glitchy, electronic eccentricities I enjoy (Passion Pit, Digital Ash, etc.), but, as this song shows, it's also extremely diverse-- unbound by generic limitations.  Honestly, I haven't devoted much time to the album's lyrics, which is a sin because Stevens is a talented writer, but perusing these reveals a death obsession, a repetition of something 'rotting.'  Something to look into is how the mood and themes of the lyrics fluctuate as the song progresses; despite the images of decay, the song ends with a message of love (and possibly loss): "I still love you deeply / It's all the love I got."  

4. Camera Obscura - "French Navy."  December seems to be the month I explored my "To-Listen" list.  Like the past three examples, I've consistently heard good things about Camera Obscura but never really gave them any substantial attention until a friend recently recommended them to me.  "French Navy" opens CO's most recent album, and it starts the record with a bang.  Literally, those drums jolted me a few times while dozing off during a late-late-late night writing session.  When I hear "French Navy," the first word that comes to mind is ebullient: even though it's a song about heartbreak, it sounds cheerful, energetic, almost visibly bright.  It's also perfectly polished: the vocals, instruments (those strings!), and production are all pristine.  "French Navy," actually much of My Maudlin Career, really came to me at the right time, temporarily making the dreary routine of all-day writing seem less awful.

5. The Smashing Pumpkins - "To Forgive."  I've written about Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness several times here, unsurprisingly since it's one of my all-time favorite albums.  This month I went on a Mellon Collie spree, listening to all 28 songs consecutively, over and over again.  I felt like I couldn't get enough of it (maybe I can't?); everything sounded so fresh, so pertinent, so compelling.  I'm constantly amazed at the range and depth of emotions conveyed on this album, how each song focuses on a different feeling (love, hate, jealousy, loss, etc.) and how the songs play off (even contradict) one another.  Despite my undying love of this album, however, it was only recently that I truly appreciated "To Forgive."  The song is placed after several of the album's singles: "Tonight, Tonight," "Zero," and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings."  It also follows the beautiful piano opener "MCatIS" and some of my personal favorites "Jellybelly" and "Here Is No Why," so it's easy to see why this slow, morbid song may be the ideal time to zone out for three minutes before diving back into Mellon Collie with the biting "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)."  But "To Forgive" definitely merits its own attention for so powerfully describing one of the most universal and elementary human emotions: loss.  Corgan describes the traumatic experience of birth, where he re-imagines the loss of symbiosis with his mother: "Ten times removed / I forget about where it all began. / Bastard son of a bastard son. . . . /  I sensed my loss / Before I even learned to talk."  Corgan's lyrics powerfully resonate images of parental disconnect and, as he travels through time, become devastatingly specific: "And I remember my birthdays - empty party afternoons."  From his birth to his later birthdays, Corgan sees his life shaped by his primary loss (of literal symbiosis): birthdays merely commemorate or reenact the initial separation.  

Corgan repeatedly tries to assuage his loss with nihilism, but he fails, as he mourns that "I forget to forget nothing is important."  Rejection and loss hurt him, and still do, and you can hear the pain in the music.  Curiously, this song is entitled "To Forgive," but it sounds neither forgiving nor condemning.   If anything, Corgan is condemning himself as a "fool," which he interestingly carries on to the next song, where he snarls, "This message is for anyone who dares to hear a fool."

6. Deftones - "Leathers."  The Deftones have described their ambitions to make "pretty" music in the past, and it's evident on their newest album, Koi No Yokan.  "Leathers," for instance, balances a soft/loud dynamic by beginning serenely only to burst into screams and angular guitars.  But its chorus blends those two opposing elements: beneath the heavy strumming and crashing cymbals is a lightness, something like an ambient humming.  As I wrote about the song a week ago, here "the Defontes simultaneously sound loud and soft, heavy and light.  When the guitars grind midway through 'Leathers,' it's a very metal moment, but there's an ethereal quality that underlies all the aggression; its like a silver lining in all the noise, and it's more than welcome from someone who seldom listens to metal."

7. Deftones - "Entombed."  Whereas "Leathers" is metal with ambient subtleties, "Entombed" is more ballady with heavy elements underlying its chorus.  Basically, "Entombed" is "Leathers" turned inside-out, and it demonstrates how Deftones can successfully make "pretty" metal in varied ways. 

8. Kendrick Lamar - "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe."  First, I think it's dangerous how a song like "Vibe" can take the sting off of the epithet "bitch" by repeating it; the fact that, after a few listens, the song's sexist chorus doesn't alarm or offend me indicates the unacceptable acceptability of misogyny in hip-hop.  Hell, the song was originally supposed to feature Lady Gaga as the female vocalist, but her version wasn't ready in time for the album's release.  If you replace the word "bitch" with "fag," the song should be equally offensive, but I doubt Gaga would've been as eager to sing those words.  I don't think Lamar is sexist; he's trying to capture the language of Compton, and he's also demonstrating the language and thoughts of his adolescence, where he once seemed to demean girls.  But regardless of the album's narrative, I think it's problematic when I find myself unmoved by racism/sexism because of a song's, and culture's, repeated use of it.  So Lamar's song, I think, is in an interestingly paradoxical situation: on the one hand it illustrates the sin of misogyny (or hate in general) yet on the other it perpetuates hip-hop's misogyny by making a catchy song that encourages listeners to sing along, to repeat Lamar's epithets.  But that's the way Lamar chooses to tackle Compton's issues: expose them in great detail, using the the tropes of hip-hop and R&B that glorify drugs, drinking, theft, murder, and misogyny, in order to deglamorize such violent and destructive acts.  This is, after all, the advice Lamar's mom offers in the album's closing words: tell the truth to encourage positive change: "Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.  Let 'em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person."  

In terms of the song's music, "Vibe," along with "Poetic Justice," first caught my ear as something special.  "Vibe" starts off so smoothly: warm bass and a summery guitar makes me feel like I'm on some exotic, blissful beach (the musical Corona effect) -- essentially, I feel Lamar's good vibes.  But whether it's girls, inferior rappers, or fake friends, someone's ruining it for our pleasure-seeking narrator, thus the repetition of the title's words.  Because this album is subtitled "A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar," it's important to note that "Vibe" is the album/film's second song; these are Lamar's puerile, hedonistic thoughts and desires, but his maturity will emerge as the album progresses.  Thus, we have to follow Lamar through his "film" not only to discover the album's ultimate morals--which rewrite the meaning of a song like "Vibe"--but also to be redeemed with our storyteller, possibly cleansing us both, singer and listener, of the hateful thoughts which we seemingly can't help but sing and repeat.

9. Kendrick Lamar - "Swimming Pools (Drank)."  My favorite song on good kid, m.A.A.d city  contrasts "Vibe's" immature pursuits with a more experienced and jaded perspective.  Taking a bridge and chorus that could be screamed by LMFAO or some other idiotic group/rapper, Lamar transforms a song about drinking and partying into a morbid examination of peer pressure and alcohol excess.  A party with endless liquor is an adolescent fantasy glorified in music, movies, and other popular media outlets, but here, over an ominous, druggy bass line, Lamar "drowns" in a "swimming pool full of liquor."  Similar to the Weeknd's Trilogy, Lamar offers a conventional chorus--something extremely catchy, laden with synths--to expose the dark underworld of the glorified hip-hop/pop/r&b party: addiction, suffering, vomiting, even death.  In short, this is a party you don't want to attend.  

Lamar has grown up in a world of drinking ("I done grew up round some people living their lives in bottles / Grandaddy had the golden flask, backstroke every day in Chicago") and falls into the same trappings himself: "Some people wanna fit in with the popular / That was my problem."  We see a struggle between peer pressure and the want of acceptance vs. morality and Kendrick's conscience, and Kendrick's voices change as he imitates different influences.  Ultimately, He fails to follow his conscience: the only "vow" Lamar can make is "to get fucked up," and he takes shots until he vomits, knowing that he could "drown in some poison, abusing my limit . . . I probably sleep and never ever wake up."  The emphasis on shots--"why you babysitting only two or three shots"--takes on a second meaning as the song progresses and the drinking leads to violence: "One chopper, one hundred shots bang."  Vices go hand-in-hand in Compton, it appears, and the track tragically, almost inevitably, ends with violence: the assault of Kendrick and the shooting and death of another character.

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