Sunday, May 19, 2013

April 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 Decemberists - "Don't Carry It All."  I love The Crane Wife, but I thought The Hazards of Love was kind of blah -- too epic, too bloated.  I love this quote from Colin Meloy about the critical reception of Hazards:
"It's like the girlfriend that you bring to your family and they all say that they really like her, but then when you break up with her, and they're like, "Oh God, I hated her the whole time. You're so much better off.  Even I'm starting to believe it, like, 'I guess The Hazards of Love did kind of suck, didn't it?'
Meloy says Hazards is still his favorite Decemberists' record, but it left me not wanting to check out the group's newest work until recently, when I took up Norah's advice (thanks, Norah!) and finally gave The King Is Dead a spin.  It couldn't have started any better: "Don't Carry It All" is the loosest I've ever heard the Decemberists on record, freed from the conceptual strictures of Hazards. No longer "carrying" that burden, the Decemberists meld their catchy, summery folk with the bouncy percussion, layers of instrumentation, and palpable energy of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up."  The result is one of the group's best songs in years.

2. Phoenix - "Drakkar Noir."  Ah, Phoenix.   I don't know what to do with you.  I've played songs from this album an astounding 128 times (according to my, yet I'm still struggling to formulate an opinion.  My initial responses were lukewarm: I thought, and still think, "Entertainment" is a bombastic and surprisingly safe opener, a louder and less subtle version of the band's catchiest singles; "Bankrupt!" sounds way too similar to Animal Collective's "My Girls" when it meanders for three or four minutes; and "Oblique City" is all noise--huge synths and dissonant drums--but little substance.  Yet many of the other songs are growing on me, like "S.O.S. in Bel Air" and "The Real Thing."  "Drakkar Noir," though, was the first song that really caught my attention, with its bouncing synth, massively catchy chorus, and no-bullshit introduction.  Mars's vocals sound as pristine as always, and he particularly shines on the chorus when he sadly confesses, "I'm just too glad to say 'no.'" The song speaks to a notoriously dissolute person ("Light a cigarette for two / You're too close to get to / How come everyone knows you before they meet you?"), yet Mars's radio-friendly voice and "Drakkar's" dance-worthy tempo mask the song's gloomy lyrics.  But for the careful listener, these contradicting sounds and emotions make the climax so powerful, as the swelling synths, amplified guitars, and splattering drums simultaneously produce happiness and discomfort, since Mars's despair seems to rise with the volume of the euphonic instruments.  The listener ultimately finds solace during the track's final seconds, as piano keys flutter through the climactic noise, ending an unsettling pop song calmly and reassuringly.  These brief notes prove how Phoenix thrives on subtle nuances, not massive noises.  I just wish the band cleaned up more of the clutter before releasing Bankrupt!


3. Phoenix - "Chloroform."  The transition between "Drakkar Noir" and "Chloroform" is the best moment on the album and will probably be some of the best seconds of music this year.  The synths of "Drakkar" sputter and then loop until fuzzy keys abruptly burst, introducing "Chloroform's" slow dubstep beat and brassy keys. Try not to move along to this; go ahead, I dare you.  It's a really beautiful, even sensual, moment that I wish could linger longer, especially when Mars interrupts with a ridiculous line like, "Anyway, you want the truth is / I will marry you on Tuesdays."  Yuck.  Similar to "Drakkar," the lyrics are bleak and unsettling, but here the band wisely chooses not to conceal its anxieties under layers of poppy sounds.

4. Daft Punk - "Digital Love."  Damn, can diplomats play "Digital Love" to warring leaders?  Maybe there'd be hope.  This song injects happiness into a room, and it helped me get through a long month of lonely grading.  Discovery begins with such an unbelievable trio of songs that it's almost unfair to any other techno/EDM group: the incomparable "One More Time" bleeds into the frenetic, otherworldly instrumentals of "Aerodynamic," which then fade into the mesmerizing ambiance of "Digital
Love."  I love the robotic vocals here, and the horns are a perfect touch to an electronic-based album.  And then there's the oh-my-God vocal moment of "why won't you play the gaAaAAAaaame?"  It's a subtle yet addictive climax that could've made the ensuing robotic guitar solo seem superfluous, but the song is so damn fun that I'd welcome anything to keep it going.  As DP themselves sing:
"It looked like everyone was having fun
The kind of feeling I've waited so long
Don't stop, come a little closer
As we jam, the reason gets stronger
There's nothing wrong with just a little, little fun;
We were dancing all night long."
Can they please tour now?

5. Minus the Bear - "Lies and Eyes."  I used to think Minus the Bear was one of the best bands I've ever heard.  I don't think this anymore, but it's encouraging to hear these guys still pulling off a song as catchy, bold, and technical as "Lies and Eyes."  I've always enjoyed Jack Snider's rather monotonous vocals, but there's no doubt they're limiting, especially live.  But here they really work, especially at the end of each verse, where he sings in iambs.  This captures so much of what I love about indie rock: it's pop-oriented and catchy, but there's also an immediately perceptible earnestness to it.  I love a song that can strike me as something serious right away yet still have the loose and infectious qualities that make me want to keep returning to it.

6. The Big Pink - "Velvet."  This might be the sexiest song I've ever heard.  Sensual, passionate, chilling; it'll raise the hairs on your arms if you listen closely enough.  The instruments are beautifully layered to sound rich and all-enveloping, and right from the beginning TBP's offer a diverse combination of atmospheric vocals, fuzzy guitars, and sprawling percussion that almost sounds like a computer gargling.  These disparate elements make for a unique opening where the dissonant percussion struggles to protrude the hazey layers of euphonic guitars.  Then more fuzzy guitars wash over the sounds, building to the second verse, until the song crescendos in a long climax of screeching distortion and warm, enveloping feedback.  When the guitars pause, it's like a long exhale, but then a single trickling guitar initiates more waves of noise.  The song is a totally immersing experience that culls the best effects from its instruments: the reverberating vocals beckon for a sing-along while the shoegazey guitars elicit brooding introspection.  When combined,  listeners feel like they're screaming heartfelt words from their souls, though the lyrics are so wonderfully composed that they might as well be:
"These arms are mine
Don't matter who they hold.
So should I maybe just leave love alone?
You call out my name, for the love you need,
Which you won't find in me."
Ugh, this album is so criminally underrated.  I don't know why TBP embraced hip-hop more on their sophomore album after displaying such skill in creating rich textures.  This is one of my all-time listened to songs, and it shows no signs of losing its effects.

7. Wavves - "Demon to Lean On." Although the guitars vaguely recall Weezer's "Pork and Beans," Wavves's "Demon to Lean On" is catchier, not lazy, and actually sounds like it's motivated by something other than a cheap laugh or quick check.  You can definitely hear the Nirvana influences here, but there's also a serious surfer-y, West Coast feel that adds a new take on the grungy punk aesthetic.  Along with Bankrupt!, Wavves's Afraid of Heights has been on repeat for much of this month, mixing just the right amount of melody with futility.

8. Cloud Nothings - "Understand at All."  Before Cloud Nothings embraced screaming, they made some outstanding pop-punk songs.  "Understand" might be their best: a supremely catchy, fast-paced, loud, and lo-fi jam.  You can hear how this band already gestures towards what will be their greatest song to date, "Stay Useless." But "Understand" can also stand on its own for its complexity, turning a depressing realization--"I don't understand at all"--into a fun and frenetic anthem.  Like Phoenix, CN can masterfully conceal sadness under a poppy veneer.

9. Cloud Nothings - "Forget You All the Time."  Yet Cloud Nothings's self-titled is not all jittery pop-punk; "Forget" is a song worth getting bummed out to, and the melancholy guitar immediately drags the listener into despair.  But the song is more cathartic than wallowing: its music is contagious, not the misery that inspired it.

10. We Were Promised Jetpacks - "Circles and Squares."  I found these guys on Spotify's radio service, and they're loud and fun and great driving music.  "Circles" floods the listener with massive guitars and builds to a dramatic climax, where Adam Thompson's vocals melodically bounce off the walls of electronic noise.  I had the ending's melody stuck in my head for days and couldn't figure out where it came from.  Once I did, I began listening to these guys regularly.

11. We Were Promised Jetpacks - "Quiet Little Voices."  In my attempt to listen to WWPJ more often, I discovered this incredibly catchy rock song.  It's not super complicated--its chorus combines loud/soft dynamics and punky "oh oh oh"s--but it kept me awake and animated during several traffic-ridden drives home from Moshe's seemingly never-ending (but unbelievably amazing) theory course.  That's gotta count for something, right?

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