Sunday, December 28, 2008

Desert Island Pick #2

I've spent the entire day lying in bed, clutching my stomach in pain, with occasional trips to the bathroom next door to slurp down pepto-bismol and down ibuprofen. Some sort of GI virus no doubt, contracted while at my aunt and uncle's in Rochester celebrating Christmas. On occasions such as this, only one song comes to mind, really the only one I've found that I can relate to during bouts of serious nausea. This would be Cam'ron's 'I.B.S.' off of the Killa Season LP. Actually, this song is so good that I can enjoy it any time of year, even when I'm feeling fit as a fiddle.

The subject matter concerns an uncharacteristically honest account from Cam detailing his struggles with the condition known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He explains the onset of the malady in graphic detail: "The pain was no comparison, stomach started cherishin'/ Throwin' up in public, yo fuck it, it was embarrasin'!"  His problems eventually land him in the ER, and under the watch of a skeptical doctor: "In their, no salvage, treated like a cold savage/ They said pimpin symptoms, huh, a dope addict/ So there you have it, but they ain't find no heroin/ Crack, coke, or dope, just weed, but that's my medicine." The second verse center on Cam's day-to-day struggles with his problems, and also the misconceptions they cause: "I'm thinkin' suicide, do-or-die, sit and cry/ What hurt, my baby mom asked me if I'm gettin' high/ She gon' play me a thug, I told the lady I love/ If it ain't hustlin' ma, please don't relate me to drugs!" The end of the second verse finds Killa still unable to diagnose his problem, and in the third verse he narrates a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Cam'ron's remarkable wordplay is on display throughout the song, and is full at evidence in the following lines: "Like a lab rat, them test dishonor Cam/ x-ray, MIR, catscan, sonogram/ Larynoscopy, Inoscopy, I be stressed/ The prognosis, diagnosed, I.B.S."

As you can probably tell, I can quote this song endlessly, and its not unusual to be able to dig up lots of diamonds from a Cam'ron song. However, what really sets this apart from the rest of Cam's past work is 2-fold: First, this is one of the only Cam'ron songs I know to develop a straight-forward, cohesive narrative. After hearing this song, it's hard to criticize any aspect of Cam's rapping ability. His personality however ... This is the second feature of 'I.B.S.' that earns it a place in the stratosphere. Cam'ron tends to come off as an insufferable shithead, one who is all bluster and full of insecurities. Hence his multiple, pointless beefs. However, this song paints an entirely novel picture of Cam, as a man deserving of compassion and understanding. Anyone in my current condition can sympathize with Cam'ron's struggle, and the fact that he tells his story so candidly and with such vulnerability really is refreshing. Thank you, Cam, for giving me something to listen to and identify with on days like this.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Another dumb list

Just putting it out there:

Top 5 Producer-Rappers (i.e. primarily known for their production work) of all time:

5. Pete Rock - Not a very good rapper, but he doesn't embarrass himself too often.

4. Kanye West - Would have put him higher, but his lyricism and technique have been declining steadily since College Dropout.

3. Dr. Dre - This guy might be number one if he actually wrote any of his lyrics.

2. The RZA - Tends to put out a lot of really shitty stuff, but when he's on, he's on (see anything he's done with Ghostface).

1. El-P - Very consistent, always has something interesting to say, and I agree with his overall worldview that everything's going to shit, and there's nothing we can do to save it.

Keep yourself warm ...

Sooner or later it was going to happen, and I figure that now is as good a time as any to talk about my favorite album from the past year. I heard a lot of stuff that I liked, but The Midnight Organ Fight from Glasgow's Frightened Rabbit was the only album from 2008 that I fell in love with. I picked it up after seeing a couple of very good shows, and listened to it a lot for a few weeks before setting it aside. I picked it up again in mid-Fall, and have been listening to it compulsively ever since. I think that qualifies as a test of a great album. Or, how about the fact that I've come to classify certain encounters in my life as "Frightened Rabbit-esque." Or the fact that I've been trying hard to cultivate a scottish brogue? If these expressions of praise are too nebulous, I'll try to get a little more specific in the following paragraphs.

The album kicks off with a near perfect trio of songs. 'The Modern Leper' sets the tone for the rest of the album: thundering, bass-free drumming, dueling acoustic and electric guitars, and the tortured vocals and gruesome metaphors of singer Scott Hutchinson. "A cripple walks amongst you all you tired human beings/ He's got all the things a cripple's got, not working arms and legs/ And vital parts fall from his system and dissolve in scottish rain/ But vitally he doesn't miss'em, he's too fucked up to care," Hutchinson wails. Lyrically, this is the most emo- thing I've listened to in a long time, but Hutchinson works his ass off to keep it interesting, and he consistently succeeds through the use of transparent metaphor and stark imagery. 

As good as the first track is, the next two are even better. 'I Feel Better' ups the tempo, throws on a hooky, buzz-saw guitar line, and even brings in horns on the chorus to create a blissful cacophany of sound. Once again, though, it's the lyrics that make the song. Emotional repression is the theme this time around, summed up perfectly by the chorus: "I throw away my greys in a pad-locked cage and in a pad-locked room/ Only to be released, when I see you walking round with someone new/ This is the last song I'll write about you." Somehow, Frightened Rabbit's lyrics are able to take tired, cliched pop music fodder and consistently revitalize it into something poignant and electrifying.

'Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms,' the third track, slows things down and introduces a slide guitar. On the chorus, Scott Hutchinson's singing is accompanied by bluegrassy oo's and oh's from his bandmates. Musically, it's one of the album's most laid-back, folk-rock leaning songs. Lyrically, however, Frightened Rabbit continues to twist the knife, and the words here evoke drunkenly violent threats to a former-lover's new partner: "I am armed with the past and the will and a brick/ Might not want you back, but I want to kill him," and "Just roll over boy, don't make me do this," and finally "I am still in love with you, can't admit it yet." Scott Hutchinson's wounded vocal performance, here and on the rest of the album, is one of FR's most powerful weapons. Instead of coming off as whiny, these songs are given the emotional resonance of classic soul music.

The songs that make up the album's mid-section fall along a continuum of good to great. "Old Old Fashioned" uses a jangly, folksy melody and cute refrain to mask a tale of relationship stagnation. "The Twist," a definite album highlight, is driven by a repetitive piano line and background "oh-oho"s, before breaking out into a danceable New Order-style rythm and several more layers of keyboards. It also contains some of Scott Hutchinson's most riveting imagery, "Lift your dress enough to show me those shins/ Let your hair stick your forehead/ Did you blush when our lips touched?/ I can't tell, we are already red," in addition to some of his most self-effacing lyrics: "Let's pretend I'm attractive and then/ It's alright, we can twist for a while/ It's the night, I can be who you like/ And I'll quietly leave before it gets light." The next track, 'Heads Roll Off' provides some respite from the emotional turmoil; with church organs and religious imagery, it delivers a startlingly sincere affirmation of faith. The midsection closes out with 'My Backwards Walk,' a fantastic dirge garnished with harmonica and carried by Scott Hutchinson's desperate vocals and over-the-top metaphors. The song is a powerful rumination on the painful ending of a relationship.  

If 'The Midnight Organ Fight' has one major flaw, it is sequencing, and this comes out in the final one-third of the album. The songs that follow 'Backwards Walk' are all solid, well-crafted, and lyrically engaging. However, the thundering, driving rythms that characterized the first 2/3's of the album are left behind in favor of slower, more introspective ones, and the album loses much of its momentum. That's not to say that the last group of songs don't have strong moments: The pain in Scott Hutchinson's voice when he sings "but I hate when I feel like this, and I never hated you!" on 'Poke' is so acute that it almost stings to listen to. 'Floating in the Forth,' is a beautifully melancholy song that suggests the possibility of emotional healing. The power of these songs would have been easier to recognize had they been sequenced amidst the more uptempo moments earlier in the album. "Who'd You Kill Now?" closes out the album in a fitting fashion: one minute long, with a grainy two-part harmony accompanied by acoustic guitar. "Who'd you push down the stairs last night?" the singers ask, an appropriately direct metaphor, considering the sentiments of the last 45 minutes.

I hope that next year yields an album that I can love as much as this one. I have a hard time finding music that hits me on every level, but I'm confident. There are still a few intriguing things from 2008 that I plan to explore before I can turn the page.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Prince Tribute #1

I was listening to 'Little Red Corvette' today, and it just struck me that the climatic segment of the song is maybe the best moment in any pop song ever. At about 3:15 into the song, the music dies down a bit, but builds back up 30 seconds later, and Prince starts singing the chorus again. He sings the line "You're gonna ride your body right to the ground!" and then this female voice comes in. Right then, at 4:30, the music builds, and Prince's voice rises into a falsetto which he sustains on one perfect note.  That, my friends, is the greatest moment in the history of pop music. As the song fades out, he holds the note, occasionally pausing and inflecting it slightly here and there. It's one of those rare cases where I actually wish the song would go on for another minute or so. I guess I feel the same way about the end of 'Wordless Chorus,' a song heavily indebted to Prince.

Of course, I need to mention the close runner-up to greatest moment in pop music history: the part in Otis Redding's 'Try A Little Tenderness,' where he goes "You won't regret it, no no, young girls they don't forget it," to the accompaniment of a few perfectly placed piano notes. It gets me every time. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cold days from the birdhouse ...

Just got home, and it's freakin' cold here! Moving on, I haven't posted in a few days, and although I haven't been hit with any recent waves of inspiration, I thought I'd dash off something related to the holiday season. Also, I watched 'High Fidelity' again last week, which put me in the mood for top 5 lists. So, without further ado:

Top 5 Christmas Songs:

1. Run Run Rudolph - Chuck Berry

Shit, I'll listen to this anytime of year. Not much explanation needed, just the inventor of rock doing his thing. "All I want for Chistmas is a rock and roll electric guitar" ... Classic.

2. Players Ball - Outkast

I guess my first sentance from the last song description fits this one too ... and all the other songs on this list for that matter. This one's a stealth Christmas song, but the clues are there. Big Boi: "Ain't no chimineys in the ghetto so I won't be hangin' my socks on no chimneys!" Andre: "I made through another year, can't ask for nothin' much more."

3. Fairytale of New York - Pogues

Shane MacGowan singing a christmas song, how can you go wrong? And of course the lyrical content still includes getting smashed and getting dumped on christmas eve.

4. Put the Lights on the Tree - Sufjan Stevens

A fantastic pop song. Nobody but Sufjan could make it sound so achingly sincere. Easily the best of his 4 disc christmas extravaganza. Deserves to be canonized as one of the great xmas pop tunes. Check the video.

5. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire - Nat King Cole

This one's on just because it reminds me of my favorite movie, 2046. Plus, check the video.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best rock shows I went to last year

I'm gonna give my top 5, but first, a few comments. First, many of the best shows I saw last year were by groups who were acts on the bill of other groups that I'd gone to see. Moral of the story, don't show up late, make sure you catch the opening act! Second, the true measure of great show is not how much you enjoy it at the time, but how it sticks in your mind afterwards. An finally, I love stage banter. Fuck the music, I want to hear the performers make awkward jokes in between songs.

5. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at the Metro (Chicago):

The act immediately before Ted was a local group called the Immortals. They were doing this kind of weird, really dubbed out, Fugazi sort of thing. The audience wasn't exactly appreciative, and eventually a "Ted Leo" chant broke out, and the Immortals left the stage kind of downcast. When Ted and the Pharmacists rolled out to perform, Ted was visibly pissed, and said into the mic, "This is for all the shitheads who were chanting "Ted Leo" during the Immortals set!" The band immediately launched into a roaring rendition of 'Sons of Cain,' and the rest of the show maintained the spirit of violent, angry punk.

4. Titus Andronicus at Webster Hall (NYC):

I'd gone to see Man Man (see later), but was thoroughly blown away by the openers. It was a joyous, high-energy set, in spite of the audience's general apathy. The group fed off this indifference to its performance, with the singer saying, at one point, with a wide grin on his face, "I look forward to reading about how much we sucked in the Brooklyn Vegan tomorrow!" I'd never heard these guys before, but when they tore into their eponymous song with a searing harmonica solo, my heart was stolen.

3. Frightened Rabbit at the Do-Division Street Festival (Chicago):

On a tip from my brother, I showed up to the festival at 3 pm to check these guys out. When they came out onto stage under the midsummers day sun, they were all drinking PBR's, and clearly drunk. They also brought out about a dozen stuffed animals (which they'd won from crane games while touring) which they spent the rest of the show tossing into the audience. Their inebriation actually enhanced the emotional poignancy and sincerity of their tunes, especially on "The Twist," which Scott Hutchinson performed solo (after which he slurred "Whae naeds emotional attachment when yae got foockin' crane game taes?") The show ended with group members filing off stage as drummer Grant Hutchinson finished off a powerful solo, which concluded with him hurling his drum sticks into the audience. One of them hit the young woman next to me in the ches, but she immediately snatched up the stick when it fell to her feet. Some people get all the luck.

2. Man Man at the Logan Square Auditorium (Chicago)

So, I went to see the opening act Yeasayer, with little inkling of this "Man Man" band save their Philly origins. I was tired, and nearly left before their set, but decided to stick it out for 15 minutes. What I saw changed my life. War paint, multiple drummers, instrument swapping, costume changes, key jingling, pouring water into a mixing a bowl, a 30+ minute encore. This show had everything. After it was over, I was thoroughly convinced it was the best show I'd ever seen. I saw them again in September, and the whole show was nearly identical the second time around, which unfortunately diminished the magic of the first one in my mind. No denying though that, on paper at least, these guys are the best live act out there.

1. Fleet Foxes at Schubas (Chicago)

I know, the big band of '08, what an original pick. However, I have the feeling that my experience at this show was kind of unique. I had come to the show directly from a funeral, and had not had time to go home and change, so was dressed in somberly formal attire. The venue, Schubas Tavern, is quite small, and the Foxes weren't even headlining (this was before their album dropped). The setting, however, was perfect. The foxes, it turned out, had been on the road for a while, and lead singer Robin Pecknold was suffering from the flu. Nonetheless they put on a soulful, emotional performance, interrupted every so often by feverish musings from Pecknold (at one point he began trying to explain the NPR show 'Radiolab' by calling it "like This American Life, but better." He immediately recognized his faux pas by insulting the Chicago based show, and spent the rest of the night intermitently apologizing profusely). The most memorable part of the show was probably Pecknold's solo performance of of 'Innocent Son,' which was occasionally interrupted by him stopping to cough up his lung. 

After the show I stuck around for about half of Blitzen Trapper's set, but left because I was feeling worn out. As I was walking along Belmont towards the 'L' stop, I noticed Robin Pecknold coming towards me from the other direction alone with a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in his hands. As we crossed paths I stopped and sort of mumbled at him, "Hey man, great show." He looked at me with an expression of genuine gratitude and replied "Hey, thanks a lot."

Honorable Mentions:
Jeffrey Lewis and the Jitters at The Empty Bottle
Phosphorescent at Schubas

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Good music journalism

Not much to say today, but I love this imagery from Tim Finney's review of "Fascination" by Alphabeat:

"Danish group Alphabeat know you want to hit them, but they don't flinch: They're confident that by the time they reach the end of their interminable but brilliant "The word is on your lips/ say the word!" call and response, the hand that was raised to smack will have turned itself into a fist pump."

I like picturing myself raising my hand to hit someone, but instead deciding to start fist-pumping. Try it, it will make you feel better. Maybe I just like fist-pumping.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

P-fork 2k8 singles list breakdown

So, the complete Pitchfork best songs of 2008 list is out, and I have listened to all frickin' 100 of them (well except for the 2 or 3 not available for free download), even the damn electronica ones that last 12+ minutes. My inclination is to go negative in my list deconstruction, but I'm gonna try and keep things constructive. But first, I've gotta ask, wtf Pitchfork, bringing back 'Time to Pretend' and 'Flashing Lights' for encore appearances? Why not 'Paper Planes,' or 'Crazy' 2 years ago? Is there some wacky rule I'm missing here? I guess I'm cool with the return of 'Time to Pretend,' because its a kickass jam (my #2 favorite song from last year). However, 'Flashing Lights' isn't good enough to deserve a second go-round, let alone a top 20 showing. I mean, the beat is cool, but Kanye's raps are less then compelling.

Alright, with that off my chest, I'll narrate my personal tour from 100 to number 1. The first 15 or so don't do much for me, although many of them are electronic stuff that I've never listened to but kind of enjoy ('Paris' remix, Empire of the Sun song are highlights). At 83 we get to a song I've heard, the Titus Andronicus one with the long silly name, which I like a lot, and is my 2nd favorite from that album. Good pick. I'm a bit disappointed with the Love is All choice at 81, because I have other favorites that didn't make the list. I love the Ida Maria song at #79, which I'm hearing for the first time. I'll have to check her out (good video too). Nice Frightened Rabbit pick at #78, they should have had more songs on the list. 'Blue Ridge Mountains' was a good choice at 72, but as my favorite Foxes tune, I would have put it higher. I like the Max Tundra song at 65 (at this point i should say that if I don't mention the song, I dislike it or find it uninteresting). The Dodos bring it with 'Fools' (59), and I'm pleased to see Young Jeezy make a 2nd appearance on the list thanks to his sick verse on 'Love in this Club' (55). The first half ends on a high note with selection of TVotR banger 'Golden Age,' a song I plan to spend more time with in the future.

I have high hopes going into the second half. However, I'm mostly let down by the selections for 50-25. Of course I've got to give a shout out Nick Cave for 'Dig Lazarus' (42), and I must admit a growing apprectiation for Mr. West's work on 'Love Lockdown' (39). Nonetheless, 2 mediocre TI songs (neither of which contains the words 'You Can Have Whatever You Like' in its title), and the highest charting Vampire Weekend song is 'M79'. Whatabout 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa' or 'A-Punk'? The list probably hits its nadir with the lyrically retarded (but sonically awesome) 'Constructive Summer' at 25. I'm getting really depressed, but them I'm hit with 1-2 punch of Beyonce and Santogold at 23 and 22, and all of a sudden I've got reason to believe. I'm even digging on the Hercules Love Affair track at 21. Top 20, here we go.

Unfortunately, 20-10 prove somewhat disappointing. Not that these are bad songs, but they're not rocking my world. The Wiley and Mae Shi songs are pretty solid. I've got mixed emotions about 'A Milli' at 14, basically because I think it's slammin', but I think it should be top 5. The top 10 proves to be hit and miss. I've got a crush on Estelle, I actually really like the Deerhunter song, and Santogold once again comes up huge (little known fact, Santi White is a Wes-tech alum like yours truly. Along with MGMT, a good year for the Tech. We also had Obama do our graduation speech). However, I find myself more or less indifferent to the rest of 3-10. A little to disappointed to see 'White Winter Hymnal' at #2, but only because I'd called it at #1 (otherwise I was stoked). As usual, I was a little underwhelmed by the number one pick. Hercules Love Affair, you follow in the fine tradition of Justin Timberlake, Antony and the Johnsons, Annie, etc.

All in all, I must conclude that it was kind of a weak year for singles. I'll give Pitchfork a hand for not doing a terrible job. I don't think there were any egregious oversites this year (as in last year's 'Throw Some D's' debacle). But who knows, maybe these really are great songs, I just need to live with them a little. We shall see.


I never slip, I never fall
A lot of hoes give me they numbers but I never call

- Polow da Don

No, Mr. Don, you do not. So, I'll be posting later in the day with my personal breakdown of the pitchfork singles list, but I had to give an extra-special shout out to Polow da Don, who just found out produced one of the year's premier bangers, 'Love in this Club.' Is this guy ever not on? He had already entered the stratosphere when he laid down the beat for 'Throw Some D's' (and spit the line "Every freak should have a picture of my dick on they walls"). But look at his track record: Ciara's 'Promise,' Pussycat Dolls 'Buttons,' 'London Bridge,' Luda's 'Pimpin' All Over the World,' and now this? I mean, he's literally turning shit in to diamonds (with all due respect to Ciara). Its hard for me to get excited about anything in mainstream rap these days, but I'm certainly looking forward to the next big Polow da Don hit (and hopefully we'll get to hear him rap and display his sharp lyrical wit again). 

Desert Island Pick #1

Can murder be done with grace and style?

-Travis Morrison

So, having spent the better part of an hour trying to concoct a post about my 'Most Underrated Album of All Time,' I threw in the towel after realizing the enormity of the task. Maybe someday I'll make another attempt, but for the time being, I'll content myself by talking about the album's best track. That album, namely ! by the Dismemberment Plan, is mostly characterized by adrenaline-infused post-punk anthems about relationships absurdities, emotional payback, and getting your ass-kicked. However, the final track, 'Rusty,' departs from the formula both sonically and lyrically, revealing the young Travis Morrison as a songwriter and performer who has already attained a pinnacle reached by few over their entire careers.

The song opens with a squall of fuzzy guitar noise that fades out into a simple drum beat accompanied by a tortured bass line. A solo guitar enters the mix, and a beautifully melancholy solo carries on for about 2 minutes, a sort of post-punk version of 'Maggot Brain.' At the 2:45 mark, Travis Morrison's voice wafts in, delivering some of the most opaque, but provocative lyrics of his career. "I pulled my collar down low, to show my sucking-chest wound," he states flatly, then goes on to describe a diving board that "springs into place," a child screaming in mid-dair, dirt-encrusted fingernails, and a rusty old swing set. What does it all mean? Who knows, but the line "Can murder be done with grace and style?" at the end of the first verse provides a telling clue. This is a revenge fantasy of sorts, but not a satisfying one. "My big experiment failed," Morrison sings in the second verse, suggesting that no act of vengeance will ease his internal suffering. As the song reaches its climax, Morrison's controlled vocals break-down into a banshee-wail of tortured agony to closes out the song. Morrison developed a way of converting his pain into infectious pop songs on later D-Plan albums, but he never topped the emotional poignancy expressed by this vocal in 'Rusty,' and that's saying something.  

Monday, December 15, 2008

The genesis ...

My headphones, they saved my life.
Your tape, it lulled me to sleep.
Nothing will be the same.


A few words on why this blog came into being. When I listen to music, particularly music I like, my mind tends to drift off into an inner monologue. Sometimes I get lost in my own internal commentary on the joy, or perhaps less positive emotions, provoked by what I am hearing. Usually, these emotions are closely tied to other events occurring in my life. Hence, what I am listening to will occasionally afford a window into what I am feeling. This blog will serve as the outlet for my inner monologue. That's all.