Saturday, January 9, 2010

I've got a trumpet, I know where to dump it

Song of the Week: 'Freeway in Mind' by Kurt Vile

Way behind the curve on this as usual, but I've been playing this song so much lately that I had to give it a shout-out. Kurt Vile has written a great melody, and dresses it up nicely by mixing 'Like A Rolling Stone' era Dylan with modern day lo-fi sound collaging to lend this song a genuinely timeless feel. On paper the lyrics are free-associative stoner babble, but Vile's vocal performance really takes this song to the next level. This guy is from Philly, so I have a hard time believing his thick drawl is authentic, but he inhabits it beautifully. It sounds like he must have spent several years as a hobo living in boxcars to create something as seemingly 'real' as this track. The callused tossed-off lines like 'walk down my line, better be sure you'll be dead', and 'it ain't gonna do me in, they just go to heaven', reinforce this notion. Vile's carefree delivery sells it all beautifully. A gorgeous pop song.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Is Juelz Santana the worst rapper of all time?

Favorite albums of 2009 coming soon, I swear! In the meantime, I was on the stationary bike today, and to pass the time I was listening to a Lil' Wayne mix my brother Rob put together for me for Christmas a year ago. One of the tracks is a Lil' Wayne/ Juelz Santana remix of 'Black Republican', from a supposedly upcoming mixtape collaboration to be called 'I Can't Feel My Face'. The gimmick of the mixtape, outside of it's ridiculous/incredible title, is that it's a 'norther' rapper (Juelz) and southern rapper (Wayne) working together, in spite of the animosity shared by rappers from these 2 regions. Traditionally, NYC mcs dis southern mcs for for having no rapping skills and being lyrically inept, while the southerners dis the NYC'ers for being boring and having lost all commercial viability. While these stereotypes generally hold, at least Wayne's body of work has consistently exploded the notion that all southern rappers suck. Likewise, on the 'Black Republican' remix, Juelz proves that a New York rapper can be just as bad, or worse than his southern peers. Just check out the following Juelz Santana quotes, all taken from 1 verse of the track in question. I'm not making these up:

I protect my land like a farmer

Y'all washed up like money that's laundered

Rock star, flyer than an ostrich

Chicks, I get'em high, higher than turbulences

(maybe my favorite):

You dudes gotta stare in a mirror backwards cuz you can't face yourselves!

These analogies would make sense if a) Juelz owned land that he needed to protect, b) farmers were associated with militancy, c) money laundering actually entailed washing money, d) ostriches were accomplished flyers, and e) 'turbulences' was an actual word. Unfortunately, none of the above is true. I'd like to give Juelz props for the last line as representing the old, lovable dip-set wackiness, except that I get the sense he actually thinks he's saying something clever. With verses this entertaining, I can't wait for 'I Can't Feel My Face' to drop!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Favorite Songs of 2009

Last year I trouble putting together a year-end top 10 favorite songs list, although much of that difficulty was the fault of my own ignorance. Nonetheless, 2009 was a dynamite year for singles, and I had to cut a lot to pare my list down to 25 picks. Sadly, hip-hop has another bad year, although I haven’t spent much time with the Pitchfork championed ‘Shineblockas’ yet. Enough rambling though, here’s my list, my favorite 25 songs of 2009:


  1. ‘Young Hearts Spark Fire’ – Japandroids from Post-Nothing

Japandroids have crafted their musical masterpiece out of the barest rock elements imaginable: one ridiculously fuzzed out electric guitar, one drum part alternating between tribal pounding and cymbal crashes, two dudes who can’t sing, and about 4 bars worth of lyrics. Now even the punks should be jealous of that accomplishment.

  1. ‘Wind Phoenix (Proper Name)’ – Cymbals Eat Guitars from Why There Are Mountains

In an album defined by massively ambitious sprawl, Cymbals Eat Guitars were able to pull it all together for one shining moment of warped song structure, obtuse lyrical imagery, trumpet accompaniment, larynx-shredding screams, and glorious, glorious hooks.

  1. ‘My Girls’ – Animal Collective from Merriweather Post Pavilion

So obviously brilliant, I can’t even give Pitchfork props for finally getting it right and putting a truly deserving song at the top of their list.

  1. ‘People Got A Lotta Nerve’ – Neko Case from ‘Sound Opinions’ session

Am I the only one who thinks elephants are inherently depressing? I mean, even if the famine and drought of their decaying ecosystems doesn’t get them, the poachers surely will. The essential melancholy of this song is highlighted in this stripped-down version. Please download it from immediately.

  1. ‘Lisztomania’ – Phoenix from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

This song earns number 4 on my list by virtue of its first 25 seconds alone. The next three and a half minutes aren’t too bad either.

  1. ‘House of Flying Daggers’ – Raekwon from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II

Second best line: “Rae’s job is to make sure the coke is fluffy, while I politic his birthday bash with Puffy” - Ghostface

Best line: “Bury me in Africa with whips and spears and rough diamonds out of Syria” – Raekwon

  1. ‘I’m Confused’ – Handsome Furs from Face Control

God made Dan Boeckner to bring us ferocious power chords and to sing every proletarian lyric like a guy with a knife in his chest.

  1. ‘Deadbeat Summer’ – Neon Indian from Neon Indian

Amazing, this song is just as good on December 26 as it was when I listened to it in             early August.

  1. ‘No Hope Kids’ – Wavves from Wavvves

Best punk song of the year.

  1. ‘I Hate My Job’ – Cam’ron from Crime Pays

Out of the blue, Cam’ron decides to switch from professional asshole to working-class hero, and sets his transformation to one of the best beats he’s ever rapped over.

  1. ‘When I’m Gone’ – Vivian Girls from Everything Goes Wrong

The chorus of this song crystallizes pretty much everything the Vivian Girls do well.

  1. ‘That’s That’ – DOOM from Born Like This

Hearing DOOM sing the refrain of “I Wanna Be Where You Are” at the end of this track was a far more emotional moment for me than when I first learned about Michael Jackson’s death.

  1. Knotty Pine’ – Dirty Projectors from Dark Was the Night

Something tells me that David Byrne’s vocals are the glue that holds this whole song together.

  1. ‘Sovereignty’ – Japandroids from Post-Nothing

The boys take a break from whining about their girl problems to give us a genuine love song.

  1. ‘Suffering Season’ – Woods from ‘Daytrotter’ session

This song is so achingly beautiful. Not what I expect from spooky, atmospheric folk rockers. Please check it out at 

  1. ‘Too Sick to Pray’ – Phosphorescent from To Willie

90% of the credit goes to Willie for writing such an incredible lyrical gem, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else nailing it as well as Matt Houck does here.

  1. ‘Call and Response’ – Time New Viking from Stay Awake EP

I have a very soft spot for cheesy keyboards in garage rock, which is probably why Beth Murphy consistently makes me swoon.

  1. ‘When We Were Alive’ – The Thermals from Now We Can See

Second best punk song of the year. Musical eco-terrorism.

  1. ‘Wasted’ – Gucci Mane from The State Vs. Radric Davis

The best mainstream rap hit of the year is actually about racial unification under the banner of partying.

  1. ‘Walkabout’ – Atlas Sound from Atlas Sound

Noah Lennox strikes again. I’ll admit that I haven’t been the biggest fan of Bradford or Noah’s past work, so I consider the depth of my love for this song to be vindication of it greatness.

  1. ‘The Reeling’ – Passion Pit from Manners 

I can’t believe I actually like a pop song that uses a children’s choir.

  1. ‘Dominos’ – Big Pink from A Brief History of Love

This song is fun to sing-along to, not that I can identify with anything that these guys are talking about.

  1. ‘Raindrops’ – Basement Jaxx from Scars

I’ve only listened to this song a few times, but something tells me that a few more plays could propel it to the number one spot. 

  1. ‘The Pharoahs’ – Neko Case from Middle Cyclone 

Hard to choose Neko’s best ballad from 2009, but I’ll go with the one that brought me to the verge of tears during her performance at the State Theater in Ithaca.

  1. ‘Hold the Line’ – Major Lazer from Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Kill People

Since I didn’t start listening to Santigold until this year, I’m going to give this Diplo and Switch collaboration a nod on my 2009 list.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why I worship Ted Leo: reason #23

This guy writes songs about stuff that other punks wouldn't touch with a 10 foot stick. Item A is the glorious 'Me and Mia', a fiercly infectious slice of power pop that sounds ready for the whole family to enjoy. Except that it's about Ted's compassion for victims of eating disorders. Yet he brings the same utterly sincere fervor to his performance as he does in his angriest agitprop rants. Or how about 'Hearts of Oak', about how difficult it is for women to break through in the rock music scene? 'St. John the Divine', about the pitfalls of anti-depression medication? Ted Leo's lyrics are fearlessly emotional. He's never been afraid of sacrificing punk credibility to show a more sensitive side, which paradoxically endows his more political pieces with even greater power. Perhaps my favorite 'emo' Ted Leo moment is 'Sons of Cain', the first song on his last album, Living With The Living. I got so swept up in the roaring guitars, ferocious vocals, and break-neck rhythm of the song that it wasn't until months after first hearing the song that I realized it's about Ted mourning the loss of a partner, with the most tenderly melancholy lyrics imaginable. Yet the performance remains punk to the core, no power ballads for Leo. And the result is incredibly moving.

And I know I'm not to sing of fights I've missed
But alone I've got to sing just to exist!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

How the world began

I don't think I've devoted enough blog-space to Modest Mouse, easily one of my favorite bands of all time. Maybe it's because they haven't done anything since 'Float On' that's been really worth talking about. That aside, going into their back catalogue is infinitely rewarding: their early material is so rich with emotions and ideas, and their sound is so original and distinctive. My most recent fix has been the opening track off The Moon and Antarctica, entitled '3rd Planet.' Isaac Brock is one of pop music great song writers, but he outdoes himself here by shunning his traditionally graphic philosophical musings for something, dare I say, poetic? My favorite lyric in the song (and possibly my favorite Brock lyric of all time, which is saying a hell of a lot) occurs in the first verse, and goes as follows:

The third planet is certain they're being watched
By an eye in the sky that can't be stopped
When you get to the promised land
You're gonna shake that eyes hand

Your heart felt good
It was dripping pitch and made of wood
And your hands, and knees
Felt cold and wet on the grass to me
While outside naked, shivering looking blue
From the cold sunlight that's reflected off the moon
And baby cum angels fly around you
Reminding me we used to be three and not just two
And that's how the world began
And that's how the world will end

In between the fourth and fifth lines above a lazy acoustic strum is interrupted by a cymbal crash and five successive beats led by ringing electric guitar notes that repeat, then change chord. It's a remarkable moment, and Brock's accompanying lyrics are beautifully evocative of something: a naked couple lying on the ground outside on a cold night staring at the moon? Contemplating love, sex, creation, and existence perhaps? It's grand, but Brock is always swinging for the fences when it comes to making sense of the ball of confusion that is earth, or even more grandly, the universe. Enormous and minute problems are all of equal magnitude to Brock, which might be why is able to imbue simple expression with intense emotional weight. Take the track 'Broke', another of my recent kicks off of the fantastic Building Nothing Out of Something compilation, in which Brock plays with the titular word to find deeper meanings in everyday events:

Broken glasses but it broke the ice
You said that I was an asshole and I'd pay the price

Broken hearts want broken necks
I've done some things that I sort of regret but I can't

Backed by the trailer trash emo sound of early Mouse, and sung in Brock's cracked lisp, these words take on a compelling resonance. They're the sort of simple but endlessly sad and profound ideas one might expect from a white trash high school dropout. That Brock does so in such an authentic, unconcious matter adds a lot; Modest Mouse songs work because the guys in the band are genuine fuck-ups. If they weren't, there's know way there music would sound so real. I'll close this fawning post with some more of my favorite Brock lyrics, from another Building Nothing cut, this one entitled 'Medication'. As you read these lyrics, imagine a glorious Hammond B3 organ accompaniment, and Brock's lonely caterwaul:

And I don't know
Well I could go away and you could wish that I had stayed
Or just stayed gone
And I don't know, at all
So out of the context
Then into what you meant
You don't know your reason
You don't know who you are, but you know who you want to be

Friday, November 20, 2009

The song that's shaking me

Can I take a minute to talk about 'Letter From An Occupant' by the New Pornographers, and how it's one of the best pop songs ever made? The loud crunching guitar lines and hammering drums that open the song in rapid fire, then cut back when Neko Case's godly voice enters? The British Invasion riffs that drive the song forward? The nonsensical yet relentlessly invigorating lyrics ("I cried 5 rivers on the way here/ Which one will skate away on?")? The divine chorus with Neko's stunning lead vocal, followed by wordless vocals and the thundering question "Where have all sensations gone!?" Who is the star of the show? Neko's singing? A. C. Newman's remarkable song craft? The way the whole band pulls together to turn simple power pop into an bull-dozing, exhausting, and ultimately uplifting anthem with seemingly every bell and whistle in the book? The answer: every individual piece of this song, from start to finish, is perfection. It could not have been pulled off any better. Kudos.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bound by these choices

Listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the first time in a very long time today, and while every song on the album is good (literally), my surprise favorite is probably the last track, 'Reservations.' Many of Jeff Tweedy's songs give off an air cocky self-assurance that gets under my skin sometimes, but when he deigns to show us his vulnerabilities, it can be pretty disarming. Now, I'm not one for rock ballads, in fact I dislike almost all of them, but when I hear a good one, I fall for it hard. And 'Reservations' is very good. "How can I convince you that it's me I don't like?" is the opening line, and somehow Tweedy spends the rest of the song selling us a bunch of uber-emo lyrics without making us cringe. My favorite line is the chorus: "Oh I've got reservations/ About so many things/ But not about you." Airing personal insecurities can be a songwriter's deathtrap, but when it's pulled off right, it can earn a quick route to the listener's heart. Capping off such an ambitious album with a moment of real sincerity certainly does it for me.

Speaking of great rock ballads, my song of the week is 'Lord I'm Discouraged' by the Hold Steady. Probably my favorite Hold Steady song, in spite of the Manfred Mann-esque guitar theatrics midway through. I go back and forth on Craig Finn's lyrics, but this song is certainly his finest moment as a song-writer, at least of what I've heard. It would be a waste of time for me to attempt to do them justice by discussing them here, so just go out and listen to the song. I will say, however, that the closing line always gives me chills, so I've got to quote it here, just for good measure: "I know it's unlikely she'll ever be mine/ So mostly I just pray she don't die."