Tuesday, July 16, 2013

June 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. Wavves - "Post-Acid." I really like Wavves' second album, but there are some moments where he needed to drop the Animal Collective impression and embrace a punkier aesthetic.  He does that brilliantly on "Post-Acid," a raucous anthem that demands headbanging, steering-wheel-drumming, and sing/shoutalongs. (I'm guilty of all three.)  Unlike the vulnerable "Beat Me Up" (see song #2), Williams sounds cold and even cruelly calloused here, as he confesses, "I'm just having fun with you."  But while Williams doesn't sound like the ideal friend (see here for evidence) or lover, he also refuses to sugarcoat or wallow in his flaws.  I find that commendable.  When evaluating Wavves, and also Kanye (see below), moral and aesthetic judgments do not necessarily hold equal weight, and I think it's a testament to the power of art when we, as listeners, suspend or reconsider our values.

2. Wavves -  "Beat Me Up."  Woah, the chorus on this.  It's like grunge visits the beach -- Seattle meets SoCal.  The handclaps recall early Beach Boys but the drawling, echoey vocals and fuzzy guitars are much more rooted in 90s alternative rocks.  Surprisingly, Wavves blends these seemingly disparate genres in one up-tempo, self-deprecating summer jam.  Lyrically, it's simplistic, sincere, and morbidly funny: "Do you really think I easily bruise? / Or do you have a smoke that I could borrow? / I just wanna spend some time with you... / Or you could beat me up." For such a short song, "Beat Me Up" surprisingly hasn't lost it's staying power after a month of nonstop listens.  I feel confident labeling it one of the best songs of 2013.

3. Wavves - "Green Eyes."  The summer of Wavves continues!  I have distinct memories with each of these songs: I played "Post-Acid" while driving to and from Topps' diner, screaming "I'm juuuust having fun... with you-ou-ou-ooouuu"; "Beat Me Up" repeatedly on a vomit-filled NJ transit bus, eagerly awaiting my arrival to Corey/Ryan/James/Tori's house; and "Green Eyes" while driving to Annie's, navigating through traffic on 95 (what a surprise).  On "Green Eyes," Williams layers on the self-deprecation: "I try running away / I'm just not fast enough"; "My own friends hate me"; "I try staying awake / I'm just not man enough"; and "I would try and understand / That I'm to blame / 'Cause I'm so lame."  Despite all this, though, he never lets his miseries detract from the summery instrumentals.  With layers of guitars, catchy percussion, and xylophones, I guess it's hard to wallow -- much easier to sing along, shouting your own failures with Williams, or just being happy knowing you're in a much better place.

4. The Menzingers - "Mexican Guitars."  I gotta say, when I started listening to the Menzingers, I did not expect heartbreaking, beautiful, nostalgic poetry.  I was happy just to find a band that could pull off a more mature version of pop-punk than the stuff I listened to 8-9 years ago.  But wow, this song is stunning.  The singer (I'm unsure of his name) recollects his memories with an "old friend," from their drinking on porch steps to learning songs on Mexican guitars.  We never learn what ruined this relationship, but even as the singer describes leaving town "to wander around the world for a little bit," he cannot escape "the memory in the back of [his] head": "I'm on cruise control and the radio was on / Yeah, they were playing that song / That we both learned on our Mexican guitars . . . / You were my old friend." The song devastatingly ends the way it begins, only changing the indefinite article "you were an old friend" to the more intimate possessive pronoun "you were my old friend."  As the song comes full-circle lyrically, we're reminded that there is no transcendence here, only a heightened feeling of despair and loss punctuated by mournful guitars and throat-shredding vocals.

5. Deafheaven - "Dream House."  I don't ever really listen to metal, but I was lucky enough to find this on Spin's top 40 songs of 2013.  I used the playlist as jogging music, but found it mostly filled with sucky rap and hip-hop.  Just when I was about to write it off for good, a surge of shoegazey guitars flooded my headphones; finally, I thought, something to run to!  But I was quickly in awe when the curdling black metal vocals and relentlessly heavy drums emerged.  I've never heard anything so colorful and textured yet also so incredibly heavy and frigid.  And the song kept going and going: sunny guitars glimmering and rising to explosive levels while icy vocals angrily crackle.   Six minutes in, the song finally seemed to come to a close, but it was only the band manipulating loud/soft dynamics -- insisting that metal does not need to be incessantly heavy to be effective.  The song re-emerged with a blistering crescendo, as winding guitars seared through fuzzy feedback and drums escalated in a slow but commanding breakdown.  I'm still completely fascinated and inspired by this unbelievable hybrid of a song, and I'm glad to see it's getting the hype it deserves.

6. The Drums - "Days."  Sorry to the Drums, but they're totally the outlier on this mix.  Their Real Estate-sque brand of chimey guitars and breezy vocals were a nice addition to my summer commutes/workouts, but they don't gel with the rest of these songs.  Oh well.  I think that the band sounds like a sunnier version of the XX's nocturnal melodies, though their lyrics are actually much bleaker: "Days go by, and I never needed you."

7. Kanye West - "Hold My Liquor."  In stark contrast to the visceral, minimalistic diatribes that open Kanye's Yeezus, "Hold My Liquor" begins subdued and introspectively, with an auto-tuned Bon Iver somberly gurgling "I can hold my liquor."  This just gets things started on what proves to be a volatile and ornately crafted song.  Keys begin to tap quietly over cloudy ambient noise, as an autotuned Chief Keef admits, after inhaling what sounds like weed, "I can't handle no liquor."  Then Kanye emerges, rapping with conviction over two beats: one brake-screeching and the other effervescent electronics.  Despite his seriousness, he still finds room for comedy--"Slightly scratched your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla"-- though overall the subject matter is digressive [the lyrics overall on this album are often more provocative than profound].  The architecture of this song, however, is absolutely stunning, totally unlike anything I've ever heard before on a rap album (though that genre now seems too restrictive for what Kanye's creating here). For instance, after Kanye's long verse, he interpolates some robotic vocal on the bridge, which blends with Justin Vernon's auto-tuned falsetto and baritone.  This incredibly moody moment lasts only for a few seconds, as we're brought to Chief Keef's heavier hook again, which seems to direct us towards the climax -- only instead the volume completely fades.  Next on this musical rollercoaster, Bon Iver again delivers an emotionally potent mix of auto-tuned falsetto and baritone with nearly no instrumental accompaniment.  This finally leads to the song's purely instrumental climax, featuring layers of synths and guitars that sound more fitting on Pink Floyd's Animals or Wish You Were Here than on a rap album, no matter how experimental.  And exhale!  "Hold My Liquor" is such a genre-bender of a song, and Kanye makes it seem so effortless. [Note to Kanye: you need to create an LP with Bon Iver. Every song you've released with him thus far has been phenomenal ("Monster," "Lost in the World," "Hold My Liquor," "I'm In It").]

8. Kanye West - "Blood on the Leaves."  When I saw Yeezus was streaming, I decided to give it my undivided attention.  So I went in my room, put on headphones, and laid on my bed listening. [Note to self: please do this more often; this is how you learned to love music; why'd you stop?]  I was a little afraid of the album after opener "On Sight," which basks in its hideousness, but became more and more enamored as I soared through songs like "New Slaves" and "Hold My Liquor."  But "Blood on the Leaves" left me completely stunned.  When that massive, brassy beat finally drops, a smile ran across my face.  I couldn't take it off.  In fact, I'm still in awe of this.  Kanye sounds absolutely incensed, tearing through the fourth verse with furious conviction.  And the sample of Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" is stunning.  I don't think Kanye for a second equates his relationship issues with the lynchings of slaves, but I do think  Kanye feels like a "new slave" to materialism ("single black female / addicted to retail," he sung years ago on "All Falls Down"), women, drugs, and corporate execs.  He also certainly enjoys the provocation of the sample.  There's so much more to say about this, but I'll save it for another time.  I think it easily cracks the top 3 songs of the year.

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