Saturday, April 27, 2013

Post 9: To be honest, I just want to talk about MGMT

   Hey guys! About a month ago, I briefly mentioned that MGMT is one of my favorite bands, and also said that Congratulations (their second album, the followup to Oracular Spectacular) is by far the best thing they've made. I'm pretty sure I also said that anyone who thinks Oracular Spectacular is wrong and should be ashamed of themselves. In the weeks since, I've been listening to quite a bit of MGMT, and I think I'm going to have to revise that statement. I still think that Congratulations is better, but Oracular Spectacular was way more solid than I've been giving it credit for.

   Here's the thing: Oracular Spectacular came out, and they released three songs as singles; Time To Pretend, Electric Feel, and Kids. Pretty much everyone who knows MGMT got introduced to them by one of those songs, and they were all great songs to provide an intro to their stuff. Time To Pretend had one of my all time favorite synth hooks, along with pretty great lyrics and an indefinable charm that still makes it one of my favorite songs by them. Electric Feel and Kids had... a lot less, frankly. They're both good songs, maybe even great songs, but I suspect I'll always resent Kids for being better known than the much more deserving (in my admittedly biased opinion) time To Pretend, and Electric Feel just didn't do it for me like their other stuff. But anyway, once you'd listened to those three, Oracular Spectacular had a few other really great, attention grabbing songs that made you sit up and pay attention, and then everything else kind of felt like fluff. Not bad fluff, but almost a third of the album felt kind of forgettable.

   Congratulations, on the other hand, is just this rock solid monolith of ear joy, composed entirely of really fantastic songs. I remember when it was first released, people kept talking about how it didn't have any singles, how it was a cohesive listening experience that was best when you just sat down and listened to it from beginning to end (incidentally, after it came out they ended up releasing four of the albums nine songs as singles, but that's neither here nor there). I ended up ignoring that advice and fixating on almost all of the songs one at a time, listening to each one over and over before moving on to the next one, but I have to say that it is actually really satisfying to listen to end-to-end.

   Anyway, this has been one of my favorite albums for almost exactly four years now, so I feel justified in spending some extra time to go over it one song at a time. Haters to the left, Congratulations is worth it.

1. It's Working - I distinctly remember the first time this song made a really deep impression on me, because I'd been falling asleep in an incredibly boring entry-level college class, and after getting out I tried to wake up before going to my next class by listening to It's Working. Then I spent the rest of the day trying to convince my friends to listen to it, because I claimed that it made me feel like there were caffeinated spiders crawling through my bloodstream, and I wanted to share the feeling with the world

--As a quick disclaimer, I did not then, nor have I ever, used recreational pharmaceuticals. It's working just had a really visceral effect on me, that day. Normally I wouldn't feel any particular compulsion to mention this, but MGMT is up with the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd as far as weed music goes, so I wanted to make it clear that their music is really good even when you aren't into the side of it--

2. Song for Dan Treacy - I still don't know Dan Treacy is, nor do I care. I kind of get the impression that this songs about a detective investigating child molesters, but the main takeaway from this song is how great it is. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Song for Dan Treacy is my favorite song off of Congratulations, but it easily fits on my... top seven, at least. That pretty high!

3. Someone's Missing - I didn't really like this song for the longest time, but it grows on you. It's actually kind of an odd song, by which I mean it's only two and a half minutes long, and the first minute forty-five of that feels like an intro instead of a song. However, as weird as that set-up is, it works really well. Also, the crescendo always sounds kind of a like a boozy homage to the Mamas and the Papas to me, which is something I am 100% in favor of.

4. Flash Delirium - This is probably the most standout track on the album, and might be the most well known as well. It deserves it Flash Delirium has all the things a good single needs: flutes, massive wall-of-sound vocals,  a magnificent  finale that includes lines like "Sue the spiders, sink the Welsh"... It's got all things that are good.

5. I Found A Whistle - This song is a sort of tipping point on the album; after the first four very uptempo songs, I Found a Whistle slows down a bit and show a more ballady side of their music, which sets most of the tone for the last half of the album, and is pretty awesome. As a word of warning, it's a pretty terrible idea to listen to this album as driving music for road trips, especially when you start to get tired. It works really well until you hit this song, and after that you'll find your eyes drifting shut with alarming frequency... or so I have heard.

6. Siberian Breaks - This is what happens when you have like seven different song ideas, and decide to just crank your music up to eleven and daisy chain them together. Siberian Breaks feels less like a song , and more like a twelve minute concept album, which is to say it's AWESOME. It divided into a several discrete sections that blend together, and in spite of how chaotic it seems like it ought be, the end result is a very unified, melodious whole. It also has ridiculously compelling lyrics, including one of my all time favorite lines ever: "It's not the life lesson I'd've guessed/ if you're conscious you must be depressed/ or at least cynical". Seriously, it's a great song-thing.

7. Brian Eno - When I said that the last half of album is mostly slower and more ballady, this song was the reason for the "mostly". Brian Eno may be the most aggressively fun songs MGMT has ever made. It's all driving guitar hooks and wailing keyboards, and it's probably my favorite song of of this whole album. Apparently it's an homage to an English musician who pioneered ambient music in the 70's, which is kind of ironic, since the song itself is ambient like political cartooning is subtle.

8. Lady Dada's Nightmare - Ok, this is the one song that I'm not going to gush about on Congratulations. I just don't like it. It's not terrible, it's easy to listen to, but it's also kind of super boring. This is the kind of songs that makes you think "Man, I kind of want to skip this" a minute and a half into it, simply because it completely fails to make an impression up to that point.

9. Congratulations - I'm not going to lie, this is probably my least favorite song on Congratulations after Lady Dada's Nightmare, but it's pretty good in spite of that. Congratulations is one of the most aggressively passive songs I've ever heard, and I can only listen to it so often as a result of that. It's basically MGMT saying "We won music, so everyone can eat it". I am totally OK with that message, and in fact I heartily endorse the sentiment, but overall I'd rather just listen to Brian Eno two or three times in a row, if I'm aiming for sheer audio satisfaction.

And that's Congratulations! It's not as immediately listenable as some albums, but it rewards you for paying attention to it, and it's well worth the time invested. Go listen to it! you won't regret your choice.

PS, here's a little bit of extra music! I have loved Sooner or Later by The Grass Roots for as long as I can remember, but I feel sort of weird when I listen to it now. I can't make up my mind whether it's a delightfully upbeat  song about a guy who got dumped but feels hopeful about the future, or an inappropriately cheerful song about the most determined stalker since Sting. Either way, it's still great.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Post 8: Hey, New Wave is a Surprisingly Hard Genre to Define!

   Hey guys! And probably ladies too, I don't have any real idea of what my audience demographic is like. Anyway, I think I can safely say that from my first post, I have not exactly been secretive about the fact that I really, really like a lot of 80's music, a lot. 80's pop gets a lot of hate, but the fact of the matter is that whether or not you want to admit it, 80's pop is some of the most simply fun, purely enjoyable ear candy ever made. Honestly, if you can listen to Take On Me without having your love of life increased, you have no soul. Forget DeBeers, A-Ha is forever.

   Anyway, I was trying to think of a reasonable theme to use as an excuse to talk about the eighties, and at first it seemed like New Wave was the answer. There are all kinds of great hits that fall under that genre, right? Turns out that that is true, but it's true in a very inconvenient way, because apparently every song and band in the eighties except for glam, heavy metal, and the last vestiges of disco all fell under the category of "New Wave". It is seriously the most catch-all term possible. It's like classifying Nirvana as "90's": Technically accurate, but deeply insufficient as far as actual description goes.

  So, since apparently every song that was made in the 80's was New Wave, let's just talk about songs that are great and have lots of keyboard in them, starting with Blondie. I wouldn't say that I'm huge fan of Blondie, because I'm only really familiar with singles, and I have no idea how good their other stuff is. BUT, that being said, I am a huge fan of their singles. Call Me is pretty much a perfect song, and it isn't nearly as good as Heart of Glass, which in turn is inferior The Tide is High, which I will always love because it has both ridiculously catchy steel drums, and a fantastic trumpet section. The only possible complaint I could have about Blondie is that I can't sing along with the best part of their best song, which is of course the trumpets meshing in with the steel drums in the intro of The Tide is High.

   As long as I'm on topic of kicking trumpet solos, I feel morally obligated to mention Our House by Madness. It doesn't have any keyboard, but it does have roughly one full orchestra's worth of brass, along with a string section and maybe the best noise ever to come out of a bass. Seriously, check out the 14 second mark; you will not be disappointed. And on the topic of one-hit wonder British bands with fantastic string sections, Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners. Bad segues aside, I love Come On Eileen. Fun fact: when I was twelve or so I would regularly hijack CD's from my sister Rachael just so I could listen to this song on repeat. Then when I sixteen, I found out that the music video is a bunch of sketchy homeless lookin' dudes wandering around London wearing nothing but overalls, and I felt comforted knowing that my taste in music has always been impeccable.

   This next one does not have quite as happy an ending. Have any of you ever seen the music video for Soft Cell's version of Tainted Love? I don't think anyone with good taste will argue that it is definitively the best version of Tainted Love ever made, and also that Tainted love is a fantastic Song, but HOLY DANG is the music video creepy. To be fair, I don't exactly have a clear knowledge of the eighties, but after watching that video I'm pretty sure I'm glad I didn't live through them. My mental image of the eighties is basically women in expensive pantsuits with padded shoulders and unreasonably feathered hair staring at each other and wall street executives through  the ugliest glasses any generation has ever managed to produce, but every time I watch Tainted Love that Utopian (???) idyll is covered with a thin veneer of, just, the creepiest sexual tension imaginable. Let's talk about something else.

   Like Erasure, for example! Erasure is amazing. They are not a band that I listen to often, but that does not mean they aren't great. Erasure has the unique privilege of being one of the most joyously campy bands ever to make music that's actually enjoyable to listen to (along with Disco Tex of course [I'm sorry, I have a problem]). Seriously, as stupid as their songs may be, they are also really good. Always is a really good song. A Little Respect is a really good song. And Oh L'amour is just hands down fantastic. Also, they did a cover of Video Killed the Radio Star (originally by the Buggles, of course), and I still can't decide which one is better.

   And yes, I do like Video Killed the Radio Star, mostly because it's awesome.

  I have another couple of dozen songs I really want to talk about on this topic, but I''m running out of clumsy segues, so I'm just going to save them for a later date, and leave you all with one last song: Forever Young by Alphaville. Man, I never realized how many eighties songs that I love had killer brass solos, but it turns out to be a surprisingly large amount! We have been left with a rich history of trumpets, mullets, and neon jumpsuits. Truly we are blessed.

Also, here's a bonus song! I'm a pretty big Beck fan, and I'm also very fond of the film Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. This is actually kind of convenient, because it turns out that Beck wrote like half of the soundtrack for the film, and it's rad. Garbage Truck is my personal favorite, but Scott Pilgrim is one of those rare movies where the soundtrack is actually worth picking up, regardless of the film. It is seriously good.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Post 7: Some Clever Title About Female Singers? I Don't Know What to Call This One You Guys.

   Ok, so before I get into the meat of this post, let me say something up-front: I try to have a relatively narrow theme for every week, because otherwise I tend to get really excited and ramble about songs incoherently, which... does not produce posts as readable as I would like them to be. However, for this weeks post, I have no idea what the theme is. I know exactly what songs I want to talk about, and all of them are pretty tightly linked to each other in my head, but on paper the links look tenuous, at best. However, in general, all of the songs I'll be talking about are from bands headed by female leads, and they could generally be described as having a pop sound. So... yeah, I'm glad I took the time to narrow it down like that.

   Anyway, starting off let's talk about the Marina and the Diamonds, the (really semantically confusing) stage name of Marina Diamindis, a Welsh-Greek pop chimera that produced one of my favorite bubblegum pop ballads of all time: I am Not a Robot. This is the song I would listen to if I felt compelled to release my strong inner woman, who doesn't need a man in her life. At this point in my life I have never felt compelled to use it for that specific purpose, but sometimes I wish that I could. It just feels wasted when I use it for easy listening. Also, as long as I'm talking about her I should my other favorite song by her, Are You Satisfied. Frankly, her singing style can to get very old very quickly, especially on her inferior songs, but when it works, it works really well. Go listen to her yodel, it's fun!

   Next up, Tegan and Sara. They're a pair (or I guess set? I've never great at this terminology, but there's two of them) of twin sisters, who create songs that I really like. Most of their stuff has a relatively minimal  with a focus on guitar and two part harmonies, which I'm a fan of. I think I've mentioned this previously, but I have a huge soft spot for well sung harmonies, and they've got a lot of songs that put harmonies to good use. My personal favorite would probably Call it Off, which is just kind of lovely, but Alligator and Back in Your Head are also definitely worth checking out. Also, Walking with a Ghost doesn't really have any noticeable use of harmony, but it was the first song of theirs that I loved, and it's still pretty rad.

   Moving on, this next band is a bit less straight pop, really more of a classic Motown vibe. The Noisettes are a band that my sister Rachael introduced me to a few years ago, and for that I am eternally in her debt. I guess you could describe them as indie rock with a light Motown twist, which is to say they're awesome. By far the best song they have is Never Forget You, which always reminds me of Martha and the Vandellas, which is a universal positive in my books.

   And lastly, have you guys ever heard of Caro Emerald? According to Wikipedia she's a Dutch jazz singer whose career started in 2009, but my personal pet theory is that she's actually a (presumably Dutch, I have no reason to doubt that part) jazz lounge singer who was somehow transported from the mid 1950's to modern times, and then just kept working on her album. It's a winning effect; her songs have a very old-fashioned sounds that's rather delightful, particularly if you're in the mood for, to pull a name at random, some Martha and the Vandellas. Anyway, my personal favorite Caro song is A Night Like This, followed closely by Back it Up.

And most lastly of all, here's a bonus song! I discovered this song four or five years ago through pandora, and I still feel like smiling stupidly every time I hear it. Key of C is ridiculous, and a little bit retarded, but it's also great. It seems to be composed entirely out of small, ear-catching hooks that loop relentlessly throughout the whole song, and might be the most cheerful song I know, outside of, possibly, Mr. Blue Sky by ELO and Get Dancin' by Disco Tex and his Sex-o-Lettes. Seriously though, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that Get Dancin' may be the apex of all musical achievement.

Post 6 Addendum

   So after posting last weeks piece on Weezer's Blue Album, I started talking about said album with my brother Evan. As I mention in the article, he's pretty much the whole reason I got into Weezer in the first place, so we were talking about it pretty passionately, and he made some points that I wanted to address separately from this weeks post.

   The first and biggest point he made was that I didn't say anything about Say It Ain't So, AKA one of the funnest songs to sing along with. I dropped the ball on that because I was really tired, but that doesn't really make up for the fact that I completely forgot to mention it, which is just a criminal shame. Say It Ain't So is an awesome song, one of my all time favorites by them, and I feel like a chump for failing to make that clear earlier.

   His second point was that I ALSO ignored Surf Wax America and My Name is Jonas, but that was deliberate. They're both good songs, but at that point I'd have pretty much written a point-by-point list of the album, which sounded much more time-intensive than what I felt like writing. So instead, let me just reiterate: The Blue Album is really good, and everyone should listen to it. Maybe memorize every song. It's a worthwhile time investment, I swear!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Post 6: Let's all go listen to Weezer, ok?

   So today I was planning on writing about British swagger rock (think Fratelli's and Arctic Monkeys), but then I remembered that I have poor impulse control when it comes to writing, so instead let's talk about Weezer's Blue Album! I'm kind of assuming/hoping that everyone who reads this post is already fairly familiar with the Blue Album, but I love this album, and I've loved it longer than any other album I can think of, and I spent last week hanging out with my brother Evan and singing the Sweater Song over and over, so it's been stuck in my head of late. I hope everyone reading this will be happy to just sit back and remember what is hands down one of the best albums of the 90's.

   Since this album isn't exactly new or unheard of, I won't really talk much about what songs you should check out, because you should check out all of them. It's got ten songs, and each and every one of them is great. Personally, I feel like Holiday isn't quite as great as the other songs, but even then, being the weakest song on the album only knocks it down to the level of "pretty great". It's just a rock solid album.

   That being said, I do have some personal favorites, which I will of course talk about, because whenever I say "I won't really talk much about what songs you should check out" that's how you know I'm lying. First up, Undone- The Sweater Song. Guys, this song. THIS FREAKING SONG. I challenge you to find anyone who listened to the radio in the mid 90's, anyone at all, who cannot identify that riff as soon as the first three chords drop. I still have all the party conversations at the beginning of the song memorized, let alone the actual lyrics. This is the song that everyone can and should mumble incoherently along with whenever it comes on, because it's the best song.

  This next song I actually didn't care about all that much until I started re-listening to the Blue album a few years ago, after semi-forgetting about it for a few years before that. According to Rivers Cuomo, No One Else is a song about  "the jealous-obsessive asshole in me freaking out on my girlfriend", which didn't really make an impact on me when I was 10, and listening to the album on repeat. However, since then, it's become one of my favorite tracks. For one thing, it's super catchy and has great instruments (of course), but also the message kind of lingers with me more than I'd like to admit; I mean, I don't even have any ladies in my life right now. BUT, when it comes down to it, No One Else is about how easy it is to be a colossal dick, and then look around and wonder where everyone went. Literally about that, since it's followed by The World Has Turned, which is "the same asshole wondering why she's gone". It's a good song to keep in mind when you're having an argument and losing.

   Lastly, In the Garage. This song is special to me, and it kind of needs some context for my love of this song to make sense. Around the time that I turned ten or eleven, my brother Evan moved out of the house. He was seventeen, so it wasn't exactly unexpected, but it was partially precipitated because he was having almost constant arguments with our step mom. Basically, he would either be at school, listening to Metallica and Weezer in our shared room, or getting into shouting matches with her. It wasn't exactly pleasant, and honestly I think that moving out when he did worked out best for everyone involved. However, while that was happening, In the Garage became a way to escape for him, and given how uncomfortable I was with being in the middle of things, I was pretty happy to latch onto any form of escapism available, so In the Garage ended up becoming one of my go-to songs when I needed to hide from life. It's been almost ten years since that was going on, and for the most part everyone involved gets along nicely now, but In the Garage is still one of my brightest memories from the time. It's nice to have a place you can belong to.

So anyway, the Blue Album. It's really good, everyone should listen to it, here's a link to a full playlist if you don't own it. I really don't know what else to say. I love this album, guys. I wanted to remind you all how good it is.

And also, here's a bonus song! I don't listen to a ton of Janis, but I do love Piece of my Heart, and I was thinking about her a bit when I wrote my post of folk music a couple weeks ago. She definitely was more psychedelic than folk, but she was also awesome, and Piece of my Heart is ALSO awesome, so let's go listen to it some more. Music is great!