Wednesday, April 24, 2013

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. The Velvet Underground - "I'm Sticking with You." I've been on a Velvet Underground kick lately, and though I've heard this song before from Juno, it caught my ear this month.  In retrospect, it's the perfect track for that film, not only because it sounds super indie but also because Moe Tucker's off-kilter and unadorned vocals recall the film's eccentric and forthright heroine.  Moreover, as unconventional as "Sticking" begins, with Tucker's voice flatlining over circus-y pianos, it transforms itself into both a nostalgic and modern sounding love song: the stacatto guitar and "oh ohs" recall the hooks of the Beatles at the tail end of their career, while the fluid, chimey guitar plays like contemporary alt/indie-rock.  Yet there's one disturbing ambiguity that darkens an ostensibly straightforward song: after a few innocuous lines, Tucker sings, "Saw you hanging from a tree / And I made believe it was me."  As childlike as the language seems ("I made believe"), this potentially violent imagery--hanging by his feet or neck?--disturbs the simplicity of "Sticking" and calls larger issues into question:  is this a song about love or loss?  A lover's unconditional affection or a stalker's unwavering obsession?

2. Vampire Weekend - "Diane Young."  When I first heard "Diane Young," I didn't know what to think.  I was confused and consequently disappointed; the song sounded convoluted and frenetic, like the tape to "California English" was chopped and haphazardly reassembled.  But then I listened again, and again, using it first as jogging music, then as homework music, and then as everywhere and nowhere music.  I played it and started dancing around the house like a madman, demanding that my mom dance with me during one of its many breakdowns.  (She did, sort of).  Lyrically, Diane Young (the person) represents a voice of reason to an obstinate and reckless Saab burner who's living life "too fast." Naturally, then, "Diane Young" shouldn't sound composed, neatly structured, or even immediately coherent; we're moving headlong with whoever's risking "dying young," speeding past flickering synths only to break abruptly and then start back up again.  The song's frantic pace feels like a drag race, and while that's fun to experience vicariously, we're admonished not to live so carelessly.

3. Vampire Weekend - "Step."  Wow.  This song is dazzling.  Its icy synths recall the best moments of Contra, playing like the gentler cousin of the flawless "Giving Up the Gun."  Only whereas Ezra Koenig sung over the drums on "Gun," here his voice bounces with the song's hip-hoppy beat, his delivery paced to stress "Step"'s obscure, witty, and often comical lyrics.  "I just ignored all the tales of a past life / Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife," Koenig deadpans.  Between the thumping verses is a gorgeous chorus, featuring twinkling keys and echoing vocals, the highlight of the song and, frankly, 2013 thus far. For such a magical musical moment, though, the chorus offers unexpectedly, if not disappointingly, quotidian lyrics, "The gloves are off / The wisdom teeth are out / What you on about?"  But any disappointment fades in the chorus' last line, when Koenig repeats in an almost childlike plea, "I can't do it alone."  This universal statement imbues the song's minutia with charm and mystique, providing a subtle payoff where the listener feels him/herself reshaping and enriching the meaning of the obscure words.  This is key for a song that sonically doesn't build up so much as it does gracefully wind down, and it keeps me returning for another listen.

4. Phosphorescent - "Song for Zula."  Combine Kurt Vile-esque vocals with drum beats and strings and you have a recipe for success -- or complete disaster.  Here it works really, really well. The shaky, fragile vocals are gradually propped up by swelling synths, culminating with the speaker's indignant proclamation:
All that I know is love as a caging thing,
Just a killer come to call from some awful dream.
And all you folks, you come to see;
You just to stand there in the glass looking at me.
But my heart is wild, and my bones are steel,
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free.
5. The Cure - "Pictures of You." In mixing Robert Smith's emotive vocals over dreamlike soundscapes and shimmering chimes, "Pictures" fixes itself between the material and supernatural and worlds, inviting its listener on a 7+ minute escapist journey.  This thrilling, even transcendent, listen momentarily pauses midway through, but the drums reawaken the guitars and vocals with a one-two strike.  It's a brief moment in a long song, yet it's my favorite, something I eagerly await each time.  I find myself begging for bigger reverb--the cheesiest, Phil Collins-y kind of stuff possible (I hate myself for wishing this, let alone admitting it)--and often pretend that I'm hearing it as I jam on my steering wheel.  "Pictures" is such an engrossing listen that it makes this bizarre, maybe uncharacteristic transformation possible; it's so easy to get lost in its undulating guitars and Smith's commanding vocals that no one should be allowed to drive while listening to this album.  Example #1: I knew I had to take the exit for Rt 17 because the Turnpike was closed one Friday afternoon, but, because of "Pictures," I happily drove right past it while screaming some of the song's wonderful lyrics:
I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they're real.
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel.
6. Built to Spill - "Reasons."  I love listening to the early works of great bands, hearing their inchoate (often juvenile) style and paying close attention for glimpses of brilliance.  I think that's why I like Brand New's Your Favorite Weapon so much-- though "The No Seatbelt Song" is a whole lot more than a glimpse of brilliance.  BTS's "Reasons" is from the group's second album There's Nothing Wrong with Love, which is excellent in its own right, but a very different record than the more experimental Perfect from Now On and Keep It Like a Secret.  Midway through, the group's masterful guitar skills shine, as the guitars wind down into near silence until gentle pluckings delicately build them back up.  It reminds me of early Smashing Pumpkins, actually, which wouldn't be a stretch since the Pumpkins had come out with Gish only three years earlier.  It's an epic yet somehow still subtle moment that embodies the style of the group's two masterworks: technical and swift guitarwork without any showmanship.  I also really like the way "Reasons" starts; it's endearing how the vocals sound a little flat and out of place.  This isn't overly refined sugar pop, but something, for all its catchiness, that sounds sincere and deeply important.  By the end of the song, Martsch's throaty vocals are jagged and raw, but this just adds to the charm for me: "Reasons" is perfected by its imperfections.

7. Grouper - "We've All Gone to Sleep."  There are some nights of late-night writing where I only want to listen to this song, which washes away external noises (listen as the police sirens fade in the opening seconds) for ghostlike whispers and Liz Harris's prominent guitar strums.  As its title and calming description suggests, "Sleep" can prepare its listeners for rest, but the song also has an unsettling heaviness to it that can fill listeners with dread.  As such, "Sleep" elicits powerful feelings that prove difficult to reconcile; on the one hand, it's a soothing lullaby, yet on the other it's an acceptance, even a welcoming, of death.  As a listener, you're dangling uneasily between rest and relaxation and a heavy sense of foreboding, but ultimately the song teeters more towards the latter, as the album ends with a cassette reel spinning erratically.  If "Sleep" begins to console listeners about death and the end of all things (including its own album), it ultimately finds a limit in its consolation as it confronts its own mortality.

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