Friday, June 21, 2013

May 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. Daft Punk feat. Panda Bear - "Doin' It Right."  After a month of listens, I'm still unsure if Daft Punk's newest album is as great as everyone makes it out to be.  I definitely don't think Random Access Memories matches the brilliance of Discovery; there's no "One More Time" or "Digital Love" on here, not even an "Aerodynamic."  There are, however, some true standouts, especially the sensual "The Game of Love" and the funky, endlessly catchy "Get Lucky," which is rightfully claiming its spot as the 2013's go-to summer anthem.  But the first song I heard after "Get Lucky" was "Doin' It Right," whose gargled, robotic vocals immediately had me hooked--even as I struggled to register the unlikely pairing of Panda Bear and Daft Punk.  The combo does work, though, producing tremendous results, as PB's breezy vocals float over the track's looped noise and tiptoeing keys.  The chorus is brilliant and timeless, and probably speaks to the transcendent experience of DP's live show: "If you lose your way tonight that's how you know the magic's right." Yet the song is also tinged with sadness, as the robot occasionally sputters "You're not doing it right," perhaps critiquing the current state of EDM or, even, lamenting music's inability to consistently conjure the "right" magic for its listeners.

2. James Blake - "I Am Sold." I was so excited for James Blake's new album, and I feel like my expectations were half-met: "Retrograde" is Overgrown's centerpiece and one of JB's best songs to date, "Overgrown" begins the album with a powerful slow-burner, and "I Am Sold" has the most wonderfully sinister bass line Blake's produced yet.  But man, is "Take A Fall for Me" horrible, or what?  I don't know how Blake allowed such a cheesy song on his album, or why the album slumbers on the second half, but it's a shame to see him experiment so successfully and disastrously on the same album.  Talk about risk/reward.  I do keep returning to "I Am Sold" for its fragile vocals, hazy, smokey-room atmosphere, and that amazing bass line, though.  Hopefully Blake will select tracks more wisely on his third album.

3. The Menzingers - "Burn After Writing."  I have this very untested theory about pop-punk and emo: while emo bands often exaggerate drama and exploit their fan's fragile emotions, pop-punk bands are more direct and sincere.  Pop-punk is also not as whiny and narcissistic as emo generally is, even though pop-punk's lead-singers often sound like pre-pubescent boys.  The Menzingers certainly don't sound like that (the vocals are deeper), but everything else (the multiple guitars, speedy drums, bouncy chorus) epitomizes pop-punk.  And you know what?  It's a great genre.  It brings me back to the happy times of my adolescence and still sounds fresh enough that I want to make new memories to it.  Thanks for the recommendation, Nick Parco.

4. Bright Eyes - "Beginner's Mind."  I was  skeptical of any new Conor Oberst material after some very insipid side-projects (Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk) and the alarmingly uneven Cassadaga, so The People's Key came as a wonderful surprise.  I think "Beginner's Mind" is my favorite track from the album because Oberst sounds so damn interested, unlike some of his detached narratives from Cassadaga ([don't] see the god-awful "Classic Cars," whose title should be enough evidence of Oberst's indifference).  It's been awhile since Oberst has sounded this sincere and has sung with such urgency, and the result is a more mature--or less whiny--version of Oberst's Fevers and Mirrors material, when he would gasp through each note as if it would be his last.  Here he pleads to a "beginner's mind" to remain innocent and not conform to "all those tangled hypocrites," which may be Oberst revisiting his past mistakes as he returns to his former singing style.  Maybe.  But anyway, this song is one of Oberst's most contagious (and that's saying something); I hear it once and then need to listen to it for a few weeks until it finally leaves my mind.

5. Vampire Weekend - "Ya Hey."  I did not love Modern Vampires of the City when I first heard it, and I think that's the point: VW's third album challenges its listeners by defamiliarizing conventional pop structures, offering, for instance, squirrelish vocals in place of the chorus on "Ya Hey."  I had no idea what to do with this song when I first heard it; sure, it starts off brilliantly, with Koenig's clear vocals echoing over a lightly foggy backdrop, but that chorus seemed like a buzzkill, interrupting the flow of an otherwise crisp and catchy song.  And the spoken interlude seemed like a deliberate attempt to withhold the song's most gratifying elements: the funky bass, ghostly chants, and Koenig's perfect delivery.  Yet the gratifying elements kept me returning, and eventually the things I didn't like became strangely addicting.  Maybe this is the way to keep ephemeral pop fresh and interesting, as the song ages for the listener with time?  I'm not sure.  I am sure, however, that I'm reluctant to play this song in front of friends because they might 1) not like it and 2) ask questions that I really can't answer: "What the hell is this squirrel doing?"  "Why is the singer talking?"  So I'll enjoy this one by myself, searching for answers while also enjoying the unexpected pleasures of this hunt.

6. The National - "Fireproof."  Woah, this was a treat.  I was first struck by this song during one of my commutes from a rainy Lincoln Center; as I was exiting my subway station, I felt immediately taken in by Matt Berninger's haunting vocals and that heavily ominous bassoon, which drops like an earthquake when Berninger sings "you're fireproof." The finger plucking guitar recalls the pianos from Boxer's "Abel," but the dark mood of this song--heightened by an allusion to Elliott Smith's devastating "Needle in the Hay"--raises comparisons to "Mistaken for Strangers" and "Afraid of Everyone."  Only here the drums are subdued, tempered like the passions of the mysteriously "fireproof" subject.

7. The National - "Sea of Love."  Bryan Devendorf's brilliant drumming is more prominent on "Sea of Love," possibly my favorite song from this excellent album.  (What a great month for music!)  I first heard "Sea" when I watched its charming video, which interestingly captures both the intensity and claustrophobia of the National's music.  Yet "Sea of Love" is, as its title suggests, free-roaming, an expansive anthem that reminds us, especially when juxtaposed with "Fireproof," of the incredible emotional range of this incredibly emotional band.

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