Thursday, August 8, 2013

July 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 Summer of Yeezus continues.
Well, this is embarrassing.  Between vacation and catching up on all the things I haven't been able to do during the fall, spring, and summer semesters, I've apparently stopped documenting my music listening habits.  So this is the shortest mix I've offered yet, but I've been listening to a lot more than two artists this month: for instance, I discovered and immensely enjoyed Yo La Tengo's Painful, which makes the closing of Maxwell's sting even more (YLT regularly played there).  I also finally got my hands on the new My Bloody Valentine, which I'm not hating, and I revisited some of the excellent music of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead before seeing them.  Trail of Dead marked my final show at Maxwell's, and I'm still reeling from the loss of the best venue North Jersey -- or all of New Jersey, even New York for that matter! -- will likely ever see again.  Sigh.  Anyway, here are some brief and scattered thoughts on the two songs that really caught my ear this month.

1. The Wonder Years - "Came Out Swinging."  I've confessed my penchant for pop-punk several times here, and I'm not going to defend it anymore.  It's definitely a take-it-or-leave-it genre, and I understand why people are turned off by the heart-on-sleeve vocals (which often dangerously verge on melodrama) and conventional instrumentals. But I can't deny a song as catchy and well-executed as The Wonder Years's "Came Out Swinging."  Sure, I've heard the fuzzy guitars, punky chants, and fast-paced drums time and time again, but the sheer energy of the song -- kicking off by announcing "Moved all my shit into my parent's basement!" -- outshines tracks with similar components.  And it isn't all just full-throttle noise, either; "Swinging" rises and falls tactfully, not to exploit dynamics for a big payoff but instead to capture the unstable emotions of the narrative: the band collectively takes a breather when Dan Campbell admits, "I'm running on empty / The late nights and the long drives start to get to me / I'm just so tired."  The song then speeds through a chorus that's both catchy and poignant (the best qualities of pop-punk, for sure), capped off by the poignant confession, "I'm not sure where home is anymore."  It's a relatable feeling for any mid-20er, not just for a guy perpetually on the road, and it makes the lyrics all the more endearing.  After the second chorus, the song reaches its climax with a glorious bridge that sounds like a heavier version of the Ataris's most gripping music: "I came out swinging from a South Philly basement, / Caked in stale beer and sweat under half-lit flourescents. / I spent the winter writing songs about getting better, / And, if I'm being honest, I'm getting there."  After taking listeners through the volatile instrumentals and pessimistic narrative of "Came Out Swinging," the hopeful, triumphant-sounding conclusion really just feels good.  Maybe it's not the most profound stuff I've ever listened to, but "Swinging" tells a compelling story and leaves me feeling happy, even refreshed by its end.  Who would ask for more?

2. Kanye West - "I'm in It."  Let's get this out of the way first: lyrically, this is Kanye's shoddiest solo album to date.  One can argue that that's the point: this album is supposed to be provocative and thus needs to sound, act, and feel unrefined.  I get that, and I appreciate it, but naysayers can rightfully point out that West wrote and recorded the vocals to the majority of these songs only days before the album was scheduled to be released.  This may have resulted in some serious clunkers appearing on the album that normally would've been eliminated by the smart and articulate rapper.  So I'm ambivalent towards a stupid and racist line like "Eating Asian pussy all I need is sweet and sour sauce."  It's unnecessary, especially from someone who bemoans white privilege in what he views as an inherently racist America.  I understand that Kanye may be willingly contradicting himself, and that makes this album both frustrating and intriguing lyrically.  But I can't say it doesn't diminish the quality of the songs (particularly when juxtaposed with diatribes like "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves") and conflict the album's overall message.  I'm very much on the fence about these lyrics, as you can tell, but that's also part of the appeal of Yeezus: I want to keep listening to formulate an opinion.

Now, to the unbelievable architecture of this song.  It begins with a trance-like beat and various moaning voices, as Kanye half-talks and half-raps while the instrumentals swell behind him.  Finally, the drums burst, introducing Jamaican rapper Assassin's absolutely rabid rap, which steals the show.  Then, naturally, Justin Vernon and Kanye West weave in and out of the hook, with Vernon's high falsetto contrasting with Kanye's more monotone rap.  It's shocking to hear these disparate elements blend so seamlessly.  And the song carries on like this for nearly four minutes, capriciously switching personalities and genres.  Sandwiched between "Hold My Liquor" and "Blood on the Leaves," "I'm in It" stands at the center of some of Kanye's most experimental, genre-bending music to date, affirming Yeezus as the album to beat in 2013.  So far, nobody's even come close.

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