Tuesday, October 8, 2013

August 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. Guided By Voices - "Gold Star for Robot Boy."  Until this month, I had never listened to Guided By Voices, which seems like heresy given their huge reputation in lo-fi and indie circles.  After giving Bee Thousand a Spotify spin, I quickly saw why these guys are so hyped.  "Gold Star" especially stood out, a song that epitomizes lo-fi with its staticky guitars and barely audible bass. The track's poor quality brings an earnest urgency to the song -- the feeling that the music could cut out at any second and all the fun will be over.  Fittingly, "Gold Star" doesn't waste any time, though it doesn't linger either, clocking in at a mere minute and 39 seconds.  This seems surprisingly quick for a song that seems so full, but therein lies the band's brilliance: like their descendants The Strokes and Tokyo Police Club, GBV know how to pack big hooks into short pieces, making songs feel complete despite their brief run-time.

2. Kendrick Lamar - "m.A.A.d city."  This might be the most shockingly evocative rap song I've ever heard. Right away, Lamar warns his listeners "Brace yourself, I'll take you on a trip down memory lane" and then describes the horrors of living in one of America's most violent cities: "Seen a light-skinned nigga with his brains blown out / At the same burger stand where Crips hang out. / Now this is not a tape recorded saying that [his friend] did it, / But ever since that day, I was looking at him different."  Lamar continues with his brutal anecdotes until the violence seems too much to compute for the listener; the first verse is an emotional assault, heightened by the swelling, chaotic synths and jabbing drums, which evoke the "madness" he's describing.  For Lamar, Compton is like "Pakistan on every porch": there's "a wall of bullets coming from AK's, AR's"; gangs "pack[ing] a van with four guns at a time"; and kids as young as nine "packing nines."  Like his unrelenting city, Lamar offers no respite from the violence; once he concludes the first verse, he imagines, in a woeful combination of futility and fatalism, that "if Pirus [Bloods] and Crips all got along / They'd probably gun me down by the end of this song. / Seems like the whole city go against me: / Every time I'm in the street I hear *imitation of gun noises*."

For a second, Lamar creates the hope that this first verse was just a horrible nightmare, as static cuts off the violent hook and a new speaker commands Kendrick to "Wake yo punk ass up!"  But as the hook declares, there's no escaping Compton's horrors, so Lamar--now, incredibly, sounding like a different rapper--then tells a new story over an even more hellish beat (sampling Ice Cube's "A Bird in the Hand").  Here Lamar discusses smoking laced marijuana and staging a robbery at his job.  Later he asks, "If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?"  After this verse, I'm at a loss for answers.

The song culminates with Lamar poignantly describing the youths who've shared, and share, his plight:
[Kids] with dreams of being a lawyer or doctor
Instead of boy with a chopper that hold the cul-de-sac hostage
Kill them all if they gossip, the Children of the Corn
They vandalizing, the option of living a lie, drown their body with toxins
Constantly drinking and drive, hit the powder then watch this flame
That arrive in his eye; this a coward, the concept is aim and
They bang it and slide out that bitch with deposits
And the price on his head, the tithes probably go to the projects
I live inside the belly of the rough
Compton, U.S.A. made Me an Angel on Angel Dust.
Thank God this album ends with a message of hope because this song is absolutely crushing.

3. Beach Fossils (feat. Wild Nothing) - "Out in the Way."  Just a bit of a 180 from Kendrick: shoegazey gauze combined with twangy guitar plucking and ethereal vocals.  Sounds right up my alley.  Can it get better?  Yes, when you have a line as beautifully wistful as "In the darkness passing through / Tell me is it really you? / You don't look the same as when I was dreaming." Beach Fossils do shoegaze so well on this EP that they're almost their own worst enemies, as the pretty and ambient noises lull me into some blissful, semi-conscious state where I'm unable to concentrate on the song itself.  The music is a means towards an altered state, not exactly an end in itself.  That's why such powerful lyrics are so essential: they keep the listener grounded--focused on unpacking the singer's brooding thoughts and discovering the emotional impetus behind the track's lush soundscapes.


4. Built to Spill - "Out of Site."  When it comes to structuring a multidimensional rock song, I really believe that few bands could ever outdo what Built to Spill did on Perfect from Now On and Keep It Like a Secret.  I've written about this several times before, but I'm constantly amazed and inspired by the technical skill of these guys.  And they strike such an incredible balance between craftsmanship and raw emotion.  Just listen to the buildup of this song, how it climaxes to Martsch's nasally outburst: "Who gave you the right?  Who took mine away?"  This song might mark the climax of an aurally incredible album, though the gorgeous "Velvet Waltz" could also take that title.  Regardless, this is an intense listen, replete with billowing strings and various guitar noises (wails, watery echoes, screeches).  And Martsch's final vocals, where he repeats "on and on," sound like Nirvana gone orchestral, which sounds horrible--I know--but seriously, it works.  Just listen.

Pet Sounds-era Wilson
5. The Beach Boys - "Surf's Up."  I got a chance to read Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson this summer, and it offered fascinating insights into Brian Wilson's troubled life and, especially, his infamous Smile! project.  Who knows what the album would've been like if he finished it in the late 60's (Wilson eventually returned to and produced the album in 2004), but if it were released with songs anywhere near "Good Vibrations" and "Surf's Up," then, man, I don't know if the Beatles would still be the conventional pick as the gods of 60's rock-n-roll.  "Surf's Up" is such a stunningly complex song, where Wilson somehow blends disparate movements into a cohesive, transcendent whole.  It begins with pianos, which are eventually embellished with strings, twangy guitars, and other studio eccentricities. Then there's a pause at about 2:15, after which Brian begins his next piano movement featuring, amongst Van Dyke Parks notoriously esoteric lyrics, the revealing lines: "A choke of grief heart hardened, I, / Beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry."  From a man who's had to cope with the bitter pangs of rejection (from his father, brothers, cousins, record companies, and so on), this is an incredibly poignant admission. Even more powerful,  though, are the earthshattering lyrics that follow: "Surf's up, / Aboard a tidal wave," Wilson declares. In this revolutionary line, Wilson marks the end of the Beach Boys's extremely popular (and lucrative) odes to surfing and the California beach life, announcing a more complex approach.  Unfortunately Wilson cracked under the pressure of reinventing the Beach Boys's sound.  But whereas Wilson could never complete Smile!, he did finish "Surf's Up," which carries on after this bold proclamation.  We get to hear what Brian calls "a children's song," which sounds like a euphonic mini-choir of angelic voices.  On a song where Brian hits almost inconceivable high notes, this gorgeous melody is the appropriate conclusion to an incredible song.

6. Joni Mitchell - "My Old Man." I've been obsessed with Joni Mitchell's Blue: its devastating, heart-on-sleeve emotionalism, frigid album cover, diverse arrangements, beautiful and historically illuminating poetry... I could go on.  But I don't have the time.  So I'll leave a lyric for each; hopefully they'll stun someone else like they have me: "But when he's gone, me and them lonesome blues collide. / The bed's too big, the frying pan's too wide."

7. Joni Mitchell - "Little Green."  "Just a little green, like the nights when the Northern lights perform. /
There'll be icicles and birthday clothes, and sometimes there'll be sorrow."

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