Friday, July 30, 2010

"Talking Reviews: James and Joshua Talk About...": The Suburbs, by Arcade Fire

Welcome to our newest series, Talking Reviews: James and Joshua Talk About.... This first review grew out of our complete inability to really wrap our heads around The Arcade Fire's enigmatic new album The Suburbs. Without further ado, here are James and Joshua talking about The Suburbs.

James: So, The Suburbs, the latest from The Arcade Fire, is something, isn't it? Thus far, I've found myself vacillating wildly on whether I like it or not. On the one hand, I like the more restrained approach, and less "we're here to change the world" attitude, but some of the production is lacking, the performances can be dull at times, and the album is a bit of a bloated mess. Also, the more I catch snippets of lyrics, I can't help but feel that Win Butler is being a bit too hard on the 'burbs. That being said, the album has me seriously thinking about seriousness and the importance of humor in pop music.

Joshua: That's a really interesting take. Can you elaborate on the lack of humor in this album?

James: More and more I find myself comparing the Arcade Fire to Bruce Springsteen due to the sense of urgency Butler tries to tap into with his delivery. What the Arcade Fire seem to be missing, however, is that such urgency and seriousness is only a part of Springsteen's persona. Even the Boss's darker albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska are shot through with moments of humor. The Arcade Fire don't do that and the results are growing increasingly dour and preachy--even with the new album's more personal songwriting approach (less war and God, more old friends and sad memories), the album's single-minded anger is eating the life from the songs.

Joshua: That makes sense. On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire certainly seem to take themselves seriously, and the concept of this particular concept album does seem to come across as rather single-minded at times. Ok, suburbs are boring, sprawl is bad. This isn't anything groundbreaking. And there are plenty of opportunities for humor here, but they do seem to let those moments pass.

I think this brings up an interesting shift I've noticed in indie music. One of the problems with alternative music of the 90s was that so many bands took themselves so seriously, likely as a reaction against the playfulness of 80s music. Eddie Vedder thought he could save the world, and Chris Cornell never once laughed at himself. But now we're seeing a lot of bands that seem to be perfectly comfortable having a laugh. Look at Sleigh Bells, who are my favorite new band of the year. Treats is an amazing album, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they don't take themselves quite so seriously, even though they have that big, heavy sound. Ariel Pink is another good example, as is Surfer Blood. While these bands aren't going for the "ha ha" idea of humor, there is a playfulness that runs through those records. In this sense, Arcade Fire seem to have more in common with the alternative rock bands of the 90s. Has Arcade Fire missed the opportunity for humor entirely? Or do you think they would lose something if they were to take themselves less seriously?

James: That question is where this conversation can get messy. The problem I run into at this point is that for me to say, "no, the band wouldn't lose anything," would assume a sort of arbitrary necessity of playfulness or humor in music, and that isn't the case. Historically speaking, Radiohead, Joy Division, Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley, to some extent The Cure--were/are all deathly serious, and have secure spots in music history. To a point, the Arcade Fire would lose a lot were they to take themselves less seriously because their legacy, thus far, is built on sincerity and seriousness. That being said, the seriousness is beginning to fail on experiential grounds. Part of living is failing, accepting our failures, accepting the failures of others and soldiering on. The Arcade Fire certainly are not strangers to soldiering on, but on an experience level, isn't one of our most profound ways of coping with failure to laugh about it? To laugh at ourselves and each other and know that what comes next will be better or, if not, we'll at least be better prepared to deal with it? In essence, by continuing to maintain the seriousness of the Arcade Fire throughout The Suburbs, the band is failing to recognize an essential component of lived experience. As a result, the band begins to appear as more of a construct of the sincere, bleeding heart artist as opposed to a living, breathing creative entity attempting to explore real human experiences. The question then, is how does Radiohead get away with their somber image? I'd argue that it is because Radiohead is a band about a central idea--alienation. The Arcade Fire's central idea hinges on sincerity, but they're limiting their sincerity by refusing to acknowledge anything but their serious concerns. The Arcade Fire are so intent on exposing the ills of the world and creating some sort of ideal notion of beauty in their music that they forget that joy is an absolutely crucial component of their paradigm. Of course, the album also falters a bit because some of the songs just aren't very good. This forces me to wonder, then, were The Suburbs as passionate as Funeral or parts of Neon Bible, could the heavy handed navel gazing have worked?

Joshua: I think that, because of the subject matter, had The Suburbs had as much passion as Funeral, it would have come off as absurd, at least in part. You can only get so passionate about your feelings on suburban life without sounding ridiculous. The very concept of suburbia is its restraint, its economy. So, in a large way, the form of this album does match its content.

Which brings me to one of my first thoughts about this album: In order to truly appreciate The Suburbs, I think we need to accept that this isn't an Arcade Fire album. That sounds ridiculous, because of course this is an Arcade Fire album. Their name is right there on the cover, no matter which of the eight variations on the cover you get. But this isn't the same band that put out Funeral. It's not even the same band that put out Neon Bible, and that was a very different Arcade Fire than the one we met on Funeral. The principle players were all there, but it's hard to listen to these albums and see it as the same band. They've evolved. Their sound has changed from one album to the next, much like Radiohead has done with each album, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Perhaps the better comparison would be someone like the Cure. Boys Don't Cry, Pornography, Japanese Whispers, Head on the Door, Disintegration, Wild Mood Swings, all of those albums sound different -- some so different you wonder what Robert Smith was thinking -- but there's still something that makes them easily identifiable as the Cure. Do you think Arcade Fire has a similar something that allows us to see each evolution as the same band? And in what ways do you think, through evolving, their sound has changed for good and bad?

James: The only real thread running through each of the Arcade Fire's albums is one we have discussed at length already--their attitude. Even as the subject matter shifts, the band is still utterly serious about every facet of their image, writing, and performance. Even a potential palette cleanser like "Month of May," from The Suburbs, comes off as a bit of a chore. I'd also slightly disagree with the assertion that were The Suburbs to sound like Funeral, that the album would be absurd. I'd argue that, in a lot of ways, Funeral was already about suburbia, but without any overt soap-boxing. That album was about growing up stifled by social constructs and loss, and the ways that young people fight to forge relationships and identities in the soulless suburbs. While some of those songs directly address neighborhood and the family structure, there is no sense that the suburbs are being judged, but are treated more as a launching point of ecstatic young lives. To that extent, Funeral is about the same spaces as The Suburbs and does a much better job covering that ground.

As for the evolution of the Arcade Fire's sound, I do like some of the melodic restraint running through parts of The Suburbs. I appreciate that not every major song on the album wants to be an anthem. "Suburban War," is a good example of this, and one of my favorite songs on the album. The song's lyrics tell a story about a character grown detached from the place where he used to live, and the people who populated that space. Lyrically, the song draws on some succinct, but specific detail (hair length, for example which, now that I think of it, recalls "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)") to tell this story. Musically, the song keeps itself in check--the performance is one of the album's more exciting, but it never explodes into a full on Arcade Fire anthem. Previous attempts at this approach (the song "Neon Bible," for instance) have come off a bit dull, but here the restrained emotion provides the song with a key tension that propels it to its big (but not anthemic) conclusion. Similarly, "City With No Children," while featuring a huge melodic hook (probably the album's strongest), also manages to exercise restraint and might be the tightest, most simple pop song of the band's career. The band's ability to make big songs like these without a larger-than-life sound or in-your-face, raise-your-lighters and wave-your-flags song structures is a nice change. That being said, some of the new album's lack of energy, and some of the songs' lack of development feel a bit under developed. In a way, this almost feels as if the band was overcompensating for their previous too-muchness. What are your thoughts on the band's evolution on The Suburbs?

Joshua: The first time I heard "The Suburbs," the first track on this album, I thought I had downloaded one of the fake versions that were floating around that day. The music sounded nothing like Arcade Fire. But when Win Butler's distinct voice came over, I realized it was just a very different product than I had expected. On that first listen, I wasn't much for this new sound, with its restraint and polish. With each subsequent listen, I've come to appreciate it more as an album. But still, I can't quite seem to grasp it or evaluate it. I can't tell how it fits in the band's canon. It seems like one of those albums that will take some time to develop for me.

One aspect that I do like about it is that Regine Chassagne seems to be playing a larger role in the band, or at least contributing more vocal leads to this album. In past albums, she seemed to occupy the George Harrison role, contributing one or two songs as variation, but mainly playing a backing role. But here, her songs seem an integral part of the album rather than variations from Butler's songs. And I think her vocals, more than any other aspect of the band's sound, benefit from the more slick production.

James: That's an excellent point on Regine's contribution this time out. While I don't always like the production on her songs (the Blondie-electro-pop sound of "Sprawl II" is a bit tired), I do feel like she brings a fresh energy to the album with each appearance.

All in all, I'm a bit perplexed by this album, but I think, ultimately, The Suburbs is going to end up being an okay album, with some great moments that are diluted by indifference and some outright bad decisions. Songs like "Rococo," "Sprawl (Flatland)," and "We Used to Wait," are a bit embarrassing in how broadly they fail, while others like "Empty Room," "Ready to Start," and "Deep Blue," are so innocuous that, even after a dozen listens through the album, I can never quite remember what they sound like. That being said, "The Suburbs," is nice, as are "Modern Man," "City With No Children," "Suburban War," and the two part "Half Light" suite. Ultimately, though, The Suburbs isn't nearly as major or important as The Arcade Fire wanted it to be, not only because the themes and ideas behind it don't work, but because not enough of the songs click--or rather, in this case, maybe because too many of them don't click. A part of me wonders how this album would sound with five fewer songs--if the bad and boring songs were cut, would this album better serve its themes? Would those big, brooding ideas be easier to swallow if there weren't so many boring moments littering the album's landscape like so many strip malls and SUV's?

Joshua: I agree with your assessment of many of these songs. I seldom ever skip tracks when listening to an album, but "Rococo" tempts me to hit "next" every time it comes up. And you nailed my favorite tracks -- "Modern Man," "City With No Children," "Suburban War," and both parts of "Half Light" are the songs that have resonated most so far.

Ultimately, I think this is a nice record. It's a good summertime album, and good driving music, even if it lacks that anthemic fist-pumping. But for an Arcade Fire album, I'm still left wanting something more. I don't think they'll ever recapture the brilliance that was Funeral; as long as I continue to hope they will, I'll continue to be disappointed and miss what's good about albums like this one. So it's best to take the album on its own merits. While its thematic material will likely turn some people off, the musical aspect of the songs and the production feel a lot safer and more direct than they have before, so I can see this being a more successful album than their past efforts. It certainly has the hype built up. I see this making a lot of year-end lists, especially from mainstream pubs trying to increase their street cred by choosing "hip" bands. But from where I stand right now, The Suburbs doesn't measure up with the best of what's been released this year. A good album, but not a great one.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Islands in the Stream"

Solipsism is a word used by eighteen year-old teenage males to make themselves appear to be more intelligent than they really are. It is a concept wherein one believes that only the self exists, or that knowledge outside of one's self cannot be proved. As a result, when the term solipsist is used as an epithet for an individual, it is usually referring to what the Webster's* Revised New Post-International Dictionary describes as "a totally self-absorbed fucking asshole." Fortunately, for most of humanity, solipsism is not a philosophy with much popular traction, thanks in large part to the British poet John Donne, who reminds us, in "Meditation XVII," from his text Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), that "No man is an iland, intire of it selfe." This without question proves that there is existence beyond the self. In fact, Donne elaborates, "Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." See? I told you so. However, despite Donne's convincing and well-phrased argument, there will always be naysayers. Two such doubters are Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, who communicate their point loudly and clearly on their legendary hit "Islands in the Stream," which was written by The Bee Gees.

Both Rogers and Parton had amassed a stellar backlog of hits by the time they decided to meet up in 1983. Rogers scored hits with "The Gambler" and "The Coward of the Country," while Parton had massive juggernauts with "Jolene," "I Will Always Love You," and "9 to 5." On this single, the lusty duo manage to brilliantly defy both the solipsists and John Donne's "no man is an island" notion of (human) being by asserting that THE BOTH OF THEM are islands, and that "everything is nothing" (actual lyric from the song) outside of them. Though Rogers and Parton had cut their teeth recording Country music, they jump head-first into the pop mainstream with "Islands in the Stream," thanks to Barry Gibb's knob-twiddlin'. Plunky keyboards and silky Stax-Volt horns bolster this exquisite tale of true love. In the process, the song redefines the art of lyricism as we will forever know it.

In the song, Kenny Rogers initially comes across as a stalker who feels "soft inside" after having looked hard "with a fine-tooth comb" for, presumably, a blond, busty, Southern belle. In Dolly Parton he finds this very woman, who manages to complete him. It soon blossoms into love ever-flowing. They confirm their unlikely union, singing, "We got somethin' goin' on." They quickly become sexually involved, as they "ride it together ... uh huh / makin' love with each other ... uh huh." Kinky! During the chorus, the illicit partners sing, "Islands in the stream / That is what we are / No one in between / How can we be wrong?" This chorus is INSANE. First off, an island cannot fit itself in a stream. It is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. Second, they don't come across as selfish, but rather couplish. This is a word I've invented specifically to describe their mindset. And, besides, I have a Ph.D. in English, which gives me the license to just make up words. It's written in the fine print on the degree, in Latin. And here's another one: yuthresh--a verb meaning "to remove ones hands quickly from a blazing hot steering wheel on a sunny Summer day." And here's the word in a sentence: By pulling a yuthresh, the driver avoided suffering traumatic third-degree burns. But I digress. Nothing exists for Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton outside of themselves, save for their steamy love. Their love is so large that, later in the chorus, they sing of traveling "to another world" that can hopefully contain it. Let us keep in mind that they sing this nearly thirty years before the release of James Cameron's 3D sci-fi epic Avatar (2009).

For better or worse, "Islands in the Stream" elevates solipsism to romance and contradicts John Donne by claiming that, indeed, man and woman can be islands, just so long as they are in streams. Do you ever notice new couples who are blissfully in love with each other, unaware of the world outside of their sensual glances? Of course you do. They're all over the place. And it's all because of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's masterpiece that this happens.

*-The Webster here does not refer to Noah Webster**, the man whose dictionaries have made the world easier to define (drumroll please). It refers to an imaginary, gender-neutral, pan-ethnic lexicographer named Kelly Webster who I just made up out of thin air to avoid possible litigation.

**-These wonderful dictionaries would make a wonderful addition to your bookshelf.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #68 The Flaming Lips - Zaireeka

As I begin this review of Mark Richardson's 33 1/3 book on Zaireeka, I feel like I should be up front about a few circumstances and biases that make me particularly susceptible to coming off as a fanboy:

1. I really love The Flaming Lips, and have for quite some time.

2. My wife and I moved to Oklahoma about 2 years ago, heightening my previous enjoyment of The Flaming Lips and their music.

3. Mark Richardson has been my favorite Pitchfork writer ever since his essay discussing LCD Soundsystem's and John Cale's versions of "All My Friends." Since that time, he's one of only a couple of writers across the internet whose music writing I actively seek out.

With that out of the way, then, Richardson's contextual overview and analysis of The Flaming Lips' Zaireeka is one of the better entries in the 33 1/3 series. The reasons for the book's success are simple--Richardson sets out to teach readers about Zaireeka, and his information is shared with an easy prose style. In providing a survey of Zaireeka's creation and reception, Richardson begins with a brief history of The Flaming Lips, up to the point where they began experimenting with sound through the Parking Lot Experiments. Through this context, Richardson deftly weaves the band's personal histories with the development of The Flaming Lips as a musical entity and idea as they hit their stride over a decade into their career. At the same time, Richardson does a fantastic job of exploring the significance of Zaireeka as a musical text, and a work of art. In particular, Richardson's discussion the album's explicit challenge to the ever increasing importance of portability and convenience in music are particularly enlightening, and help position the album, not just in the context of the Lips's career, but in the history of recorded music.

The book loses a bit of momentum in its last quarter, as Richardson attempts to address the album from every uncovered angle in a brief span of time, but thankfully, through the use of personal narrative--a story of his own relationship with the music of The Flaming Lips, 90's culture, and Zaireeka--ends on a compelling note.

On a side note, I've noticed that the 33 1/3 books written on 90's albums tend to be feature some of the series' strongest writing. The books for Bee Thousand, 69 Love Songs, If You're Feeling Sinister, and Zaireeka are all outstanding. Part of me wonders if this is because the authors are writing more out of their own era and experiences, or if its simply a case of fresh ideas growing out of albums that haven't been over-talked by decades of rock criticism.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Jim Lowe's "The Green Door"

Prior to the late 1990s, when mainstream music and television was much less permissive regarding sexuality, very few radio-friendly hits actively made one think of pornography directly. Songs like Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" (1975)--rife with its litany of Summer's orgasmic coos--the Andrew Marvell-like desperation of George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" (1987)--and Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" (1977)--whose lyrical conceit is, of course, loaded with descriptions of borderline-nauseating hardcore kink (and, surprisingly, an ecumenical message of hope for our salvation)--were capable of establishing such a connection. But one song, one much older than the aforementioned hits, actually inspired the title of one of the most notorious pornographic films of the 1970s. Of course, I'm speaking of Jim Lowe's enigmatic 1956 classic "The Green Door," the song that served as inspiration for Marilyn Chambers vehicle Behind the Green Door (in 1972). The Mitchell Brothers, the notorious pornographic filmmakers, thought they had solved the mystery by intellectually exploring the possibility that a whole bunch of hardcore sex was going on behind that door. But as I will soon explain, this is but one of an infinite amount of things that could be going on behind it. What's so especially interesting about Jim Lowe's unlikely hit is that it could just as easily have been the inspiration for a children's film, a Biblical epic, or an undercover cop drama. The answer to the question "What's behind the green door?" is entirely dependent upon the whims of each of the song's listeners. The answer is, therefore, what anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss refers to as a "floating signifier."

The world of art has been blessed with many powerful examples of the floating signifier. Examples include the smile on Mona Lisa's face in Leonardo DaVinci's famous portrait (~1506), Hester Prynne's Scarlet Letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of the same name (1850), the White Whale in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the "Baby" referred to in Justin Bieber's important hit from earlier this year. Into each of these exemplary pieces, a receptive community can project their fears or desires. Yet each of these floating signifiers does contain a certain set of constraints. While generally perceived to mean "Adultery," the "A" on Hester Prynne's Scarlet Letter could mean "Angel" or "Awesome." It could not, however, mean "Armadillo" or "Z" (unless the letter had an asterisk attached explaining "A=Z"), because neither of those really meet the conditions of the text. The White Whale or the monolith, similarly, cannot be said to represent concrete objects, like "a butterknife" or "Old Yeller" (unless the monolith was ACTUALLY made out of concrete, I suppose).

What's so exceptional about Jim Lowe's "The Green Door" is that, despite its apparent setting, it is a floating signifier that can only embody the listener's desires. It can be assumed that "The Green Door" opens to a club, because, behind it, there's a "smoky cloud," and "old piano," lots of "laughs," a fear of outsiders ("[thin] hospitality"), and a judgmental "eyeball peepin'" through a peephole requiring a "password." But, really, anything could be behind it, literally. And that is the supreme achievement of the song. There could be gambling going on behind the green door. Or Johann Sebastian Bach composing a sonata for violin. Or an orgy. Or the Oompa Loompas performing a ritualistic sacrifice (if that's what you're into!). Or Jesus hosting an indoor beach party with the Twelve Apostles and the Founding Fathers as guests. Or greedy carpenters building more green doors. Really, anything could be happening there. Jim Lowe's narrator is not fearful of what is behind the door. Rather, he's disappointed at the exclusivity of the gaze that denies him access to what's behind it. For these reasons, and so many more, 1956 should not be remembered solely as the year Elvis Presley broke through to the mainstream with his "Heartbreak Hotel": it should be remembered as the year we all began to wonder what was happening behind the green door.

What do you think is going on behind it?

Here's a link to the song:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"From the Archives": City Center - City Center

So, the website I used to write for shut down and stopped paying their bills, meaning that hundreds of my old reviews are no longer accessible on the internet. In the meantime, I need a place to make a few old reviews available for a bit, so I thought I'd post them here.

This review was first published at in 2009.

Artist: City Center
Title: City Center
Label: Type
Format: CD/LP
Year: 2009

Let’s get business out of the way up front—City Center is the most recent project with Fred Thomas’s name attached to it. To some this might mean a lot, to others not so much. As with any new project or new album from an established artist, there are going to be similarities and differences with said artist’s previous works. In the case of City Center—the band being entirely composed of Thomas and long time collaborator Ryan Howard (not the behemoth first baseman)—it’s a safe bet to say that the immediate vintage pop/rock sound of Saturday Looks Good to Me, and the pop-folk of Thomas’s solo albums aren’t as immediate as some listeners might be used to. That being said, City Center's self-titled debut LP draws on Thomas’s propensity for strong melodies and engaging, lo-fi atmosphere to create a series of lush soundscapes with strong, pop hooks.

To a point, City Center revolves around the tension created between the two poles of melody and atmosphere. This tension is evident from the album’s opening track, “Killer Whale," through its opening juxtaposition of white noise with Thomas’s plaintive mumbling of a simple, but lovely melody. When, a verse deep into the song, a rich layer of acoustic guitar is dropped on top of the mix, the vocal melody—still a bit hesitant—comes to the fore. Once established, instead of riding out the strength of the melodic guitar and vocal combo, City Center allow the song’s melodic guts to drift just beyond accessibility, making traditional pop-melody the objet a to the fetish object of gauzy production. The result is both inviting and off-putting, but ultimately successful as the tension within the song’s space allows us to enter into the composition more fully, to lose ourselves inside its under-defined, yet meticulously designed boarders. While “Killer Whale” might almost feel like a toss-off table-setter, by establishing the album's primary sonic textures the song works as a thesis statement, of sorts, for an album that is equally obtuse and rewarding. Even on more immediately accessible songs, like the gorgeous and dreamy “Open/House” or the trippy, loop-driven “Bleed Blood,” melody never asserts itself as fully as we expect, or immediately want—it hesitates just beyond our normal expectations as the songs’ layers of sound simultaneously push us away from the melody, while pulling us inside the structure as a whole.

Of course, though “Killer Whale” is an excellent example for contextualizing the album as a whole, the album’s most stunning moment comes in the form of the almost nine minute “Cloud Center.” If “Killer Whale” is a preview of what’s to come, “Cloud Center” is the epic centerpiece, not quite the album's climax—that would be the one-two punch of the wild and textured “Summer School” and “Young Diamond,”—but the album’s heart. This is a bit problematic for vinyl enthusiasts as, due to side limitations, “Cloud Center” has been replaced on vinyl with “Teen” and “Gold Girls.” While both of these tracks fit the album well, and are both excellent in their own right, they don’t quite burn with the quiet, ambient intensity of "Cloud Center."

By the time City Center arrives at its conclusion, the stunningly stripped-down, mostly acoustic “Unfinished Hex,” listeners might very well find themselves overwhelmed. This album is full of ideas, and the choice to end the album with its closest thing to a straight-up folk-pop song will only make the experience that much more unsettling. By the time “Unfinished Hex” shows up, listeners are trained to enter into the songs, to explore their architecture. But here, at album’s end, is a song that almost sounds familiar. Of course, the closer we listen, the more we hear the imperfections and idiosyncrasies that provide the through-thread that keeps "Unfinished Hex" from floating away with the album's final moments, while at the same time allowing the song to resolve that tension between melody and atmosphere that continues through the album's full length. In the estimation of "Unfinished Hex," then, melody is the key to resolving those tensions, and while the album's arrival at the comfortable and accessible might feel a bit like a cop-out, the push-and-pull that brings us to that final moment are well worth the time and energy.

"From the Archives": TV on the Radio - Dear Science,

So, the website I used to write for shut down and stopped paying their bills, meaning that hundreds of my old reviews are no longer accessible on the internet. In the meantime, I need a place to make a few old reviews available for a bit, so I thought I'd post them here.

This review was first published at in 2008.

Artist: TV on the Radio
Title: Dear Science,
Label: DGC/Interscope
Format: CD
Year: 2008

At first, TV on the Radio’s third LP, Dear Science, might seem a little lightweight. It’s not, and it’s foolish to think so, but the mistake is at least an understandable one. After all, when compared to the messy, brooding storm of post-modern gloom that was TV on the Radio’s last album, the appropriately celebrated Return to Cookie Mountain, it’s easy to see how Dear Science, might come across a bit on the breezy side. In fact, it seems as if many of the dense layers of murky fuzz and explosive rhythms have been replaced by an odd combination of funk based pop songs, and cavernous ballads with gorgeous production. That’s not to say that TV on the Radio has completely reinvented themselves—the songs on Dear Science, still mix stormy atmosphere with occasional glimpses of unfettered fun, and unhinged euphoria—only that the songs are more streamlined with more emphasis on melody and rhythm, while the atmosphere is scaled back. To speak of the change in metaphor, if Return to Cookie Mountain was a short story made into a novella with pages of atmospheric description, then Dear Science, is the refined, and concise short-form follow-up, the story is just as big but the final scene ends within 6,000 words of the first sentence.

With that metaphor in mind, maybe the biggest strength on Dear Science, can be found in its production. David Sitek has done a fantastic job in crafting every moment, of every song on the album. Whether it be in the deft touch brought to the Michael Jackson and Prince moves of “Golden Age,” or the restrained quiet of “Family Tree,” Sitek’s production gives each song a memorable identity while maintaining the vague but necessary ‘cohesion’ that critics require of ‘albums,’ a feat that even the masterfully atmospheric Return to Cookie Mountain couldn’t quite manage. On Dear Science, even the tracks built out of funk rhythms sound markedly different—“Golden Age,” is light and ecstatic, while “Red Dress,” is more aggressive, packed with horns, heavy percussion and hints of afro-beat.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Dear Science, is TV on the Radio's overt preoccupation with sex. Of course, sex isn’t new to the band’s repertoire, but in the past it has been fleeting, an afterthought. Most of Dear Science, is dripping with sex, especially the funkier tracks. The melody of “Crying,” slides in and over the vocals, twines itself between the rhythmic guitar line, settling into the song’s bleak imagery—which, incidentally has nothing to do with sex. Elsewhere, while “Crying” laments “the riots/And the races on fire,” the song’s sexy tone makes it a little easier to buy into the promise of building the song’s metaphorical crashed car “back up from the floor.” With this in mind, “Lover’s Day,” is allowed to work as the album’s ecstatic, escapist coda. The song, built on such violent expressions of passionate love like “I want to break your back,” and the more overt, “I’m going to make you cum,” is the final leaving behind of the grim world of culture, in favor of a love that “will get so hot it will melt our faces off.”

With Dear Science, TV on the Radio have managed to build the most focused and impressive album of their career. The album thrives on an economy of sound and words, always building toward exuberant release. After following TV on the Radio through an album’s worth of songs about the overwhelming nature of politics and culture, it’s hard to deny the album’s ecstatic closing call of “I’m gonna take you home” over a light drum roll, and trilling woodwinds that gradually explode into a full horn section, and choral outro. In uncertain political and economic times, its easy to dismiss such a notion as escapist. There’s nothing wrong with that though. It’s only human to dig into personal connections to find relief from the outside world.

"From the Archives": Portishead - Third

So, the website I used to write for shut down and stopped paying their bills, meaning that hundreds of my old reviews are no longer accessible on the internet. In the meantime, I need a place to make a few old reviews available for a bit, so I thought I'd post them here.

This review was first published at in 2008.

Artist: Portishead
Title: Third
Label: Mercury Records
Format: CD
Year: 2008

In college, several of my friends dated women who forged an unnatural bond between sex and Portishead’s second, and most adored, album Dummy. A couple of these friends almost became conditioned to expect sex anytime the album started playing. A female friend conditioned herself to climax on her own at a specific moment, in a specific song through simple association. Needless to say, it was very difficult and uncomfortable anytime someone tried to play the album in the car or at a party. The strange phenomenon that linked Dummy with sex wasn’t particularly surprising. The album pulsated with sexuality, highlighted by its dark, trippy beats and Beth Gibbons sultry vocals. The combination of slippery, gritty compositions with Gibbons’ sexy voice not only came to signify sex, it became a sort of aural sex (zing!) on its own.

With each passing year after its release, Dummy became less mysterious, and more knowable—the spontaneity and sensuality were replaced with a sense of dull expectation. We knew every nook and cranny of the album. The thrill was gone. The album was, and is a classic, but that raw immediacy of discovery and surprise has long vanished. Now, a decade later, Portishead have returned, bringing with them a new album, the delicate and surprising Third.

To extend the sexual metaphor of this review a bit further, Third continues the Portishead experience in much the same way that a tryst between reunited lovers might work at redefining the nature of a decade long absence—there is a sense of the familiar, but the edges are softer, less sexy than comfortable. The biggest surprises are cosmetic—a new scar, a few extra pounds—and maybe everything is a little bit sadder and needier. That’s not to say that Third is tired, sad or needy—rather, it’s songs are more rooted in traditional rock and electronic music than the band’s earlier efforts, and the end result is still sexy, though the overall tone is darker and more somber than might have been expected.

Opening the album at breakneck speeds (by Portishead standards, anyway) “Silence,” sets the album's tone. The song focuses itself on texture and atmosphere, forgoing the trippy beats of Portishead’s past in favor of organic percussion and a smooth pulse that perfectly compliments Gibbons’ gorgeously sung, high-school journal lyrics (ie., “…wounded and afraid/inside my head…”). “Nylon Smile,” provides a hint of the familiar trippiness to the album, looping through elongated phrases and Gibbons’ plaintively delivered, “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you.” One of the album’s more stunning and surprising moments is the minute-and-a-half folk tune, “Deep Water,” which finds Gibbons accompanied by a ukulele, and otherworld interjections from tape-looped back up singers.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Portishead still sound a good deal like sex. Now, however, Portishead’s sexy nature is more rooted in a carefully crafted, dark tone than in slick beats and sultry vocals. In a lot of ways, Third manages to perfectly balance the comeback chore of exploring new musical territory, while maintaining enough familiarity for the band to still ‘sound like’ Portishead. If nothing else, then, Portishead should be congratulated for being a positive exception to the rule of come backs. Let’s hope all the rumored reunions that we’ll hear about in the next decade are taking notes and that they can all be half as graceful as this one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Sisqo's "Thong Song"

Nothing is more important to a culture than its clothing. As Diogenes Teufelsdröckh clearly explains in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1834), "The whole External Universe and what it holds is but Clothing; and the essence of all science lies in the PHILOSOPHY OF CLOTHES." A culture's fashion sensibility says much about how it expresses itself at a certain moment in time. Popular music has paid tribute to many types of clothing over the years, from Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" (1956, further popularized by Elvis Presley that same year) and Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini" (1960) to KC and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes" (1976) and even David Bowie's "Blue Jean" (1984). But none of them really capture the essence of a specific article of clothing, or its psycho-sexual effects on the populace at large, as precisely as Sisqo's brilliant 1999 masterpiece "Thong Song."

According to a long line of fashionistas, the "thong" originally got its start as a sandal more often referred to as a flip-flop. Though practical, nothing is less sexy than flip-flops, even if the sound they make when in use is not too dissimilar from the awkward sounds produced during sex. Thong underwear and bikinis first made their presence known on the beaches of Brazil, and became immensely popular in the United States in the 1990s. Even if thongs are often tacky and give the women (and some men) who wear them intense wedgies, there is no doubt that they are a turn-on for many men and women, providing what Howard Stern* refers to as "a remarkable aesthetic improvement over granny panties." Rapper Sisqo turns observations like these into Shakespearean poetry in his "Thong Song."

In his brief monologue at the beginning of the track, Sisqo properly notes that men do indeed like "the finer things in life." Traditionally, the short list of these items has included Lamborghini Countaches, Mink Jackets, 1000 Thread Count Sheets, Twenty Year Old Malted Scotch Whiskeys, and a mouthful of Skoal. Thanks to Sisqo, we can now correctly add Thongs to that list. It turns out, actually, that prior to "Thong Song," women were relatively unclear about this. Atop a silky-smooth dance beat aiding by subtly synthesized strings, Sisqo dives right into a narrative about a provocative woman who dances at "all the hip hop spots" like she's "da ish."

Though Sisqo's narrator seems outwardly judgmental about her partying ways, it turns out that he is quite impressed by her physical "assets," especially considering she has "dumps like a truck truck truck." These "dumps" motivate Sisqo's sly narrator to request to "see that thong." These verses show Sisqo's remarkable knack for wordplay and popular cultural allusions. Not only does he claim she's "Livin' la vida loca," a reference to the wildly influential Ricky Martin single that was popular earlier in the year, he also transforms a rather unsexy piece of earth-moving equipment, the dump truck, into a simile in which the word "truck" is repeated to establish rhythm and "dumps" into a homonym for "buttocks." Though the word "dump" had long been a synonym for "the human act of depositing a rather healthy amount of excrement," Sisqo transforms it here, using cunning word play, into a complimentary term for a woman's posterior. Well done, Sisqo! As a result, Sisqo established a phrase in the global pop cultural lexicon that was in no way awkward, goofy, or disturbing. For that alone, Sisqo should be app-plau-plau-plauded.

*-I am referring to Howard Stern, a patron of a strip club called The Milk Jug in Mannford, Oklahoma, not to the talk radio personality, who probably has never uttered the phrase "a remarkable aesthetic improvement."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Mark Kozelek’s never been one for brevity. Even the first Red House Painters release, 1992’s Down Colorful Hill, ran over 43 minutes spread across only six tracks. Kozelek has made a career of long songs and lengthy albums, both as a solo artist and as the frontman for Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. The previous SKM record, 2008’s April, clocked in at a sprawling 73:44. Yet in all these epics, Kozelek somehow manages to avoid the trap of the bloated, meandering “long album.”

Admiral Fell Promises, the latest from Sun Kil Moon, is no different. Its ten tracks run just over an hour, with more than half of the songs clocking over six minutes.

But Admiral Fell Promises does differ from prior Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters releases in a few key ways. This is the first album by either band not to feature drummer Anthony Koutsos. In fact, this is the first release by either band to feature no musicians other than Kozelek. This is also the first entirely acoustic record, with the accompaniment provided solely by nylon string guitars.

While Kozelek’s signature voice, atmosphere, and lyrical themes carry over, the music has quite a different feel. Gone are all the crunchy or gritty numbers. Instead, there are many clean guitar flourishes that sound almost classical or even, at times, flamenco. Maybe it’s the nylon strings, or maybe he decided to explore the range of his abilities as a musician. Regardless, stripping the songs down to nothing but Kozelek’s voice and acoustic fingerpicking makes his lyrics all the more haunting.

Perhaps none of these songs is quite as haunting as “The Leaning Tree,” in which Kozelek is visited by an apparition who appears to him in a wintertime dream. He describes her as having the perfect poise of a “statuesque queen” with “ocean blue eyes that bear the depths of your loss.” Eventually, the apparition disappears, thrusting him into an isolation even dreams cannot relieve. He calls for her, saying, “I long for one more day with you in my life,” and begs her to forgive him “once and for all, for all of [his] lies.”

The haunting qualities of dreams and loneliness are deepened by the album’s imagery. For a record released in July, winter imagery tends to dominate, especially in tracks like “Half Moon Bay” and “Leaning Tree.” Throughout “The Leaning Tree,” Kozelek refers to “the cold icy stream,” snow coating the “pines in the Sierra wintertime,” and his “mountain home.” “Australian Winter” describes the season differently, but even here the deserts and oceans represent loneliness and dreams, which seem to be the dominant themes of the album.

Even when “Church of the Pines” announces spring with blossoming flowers, jumping squirrels, and humming birds, Kozelek sounds no less lonely. In fact, all of this life bursting forth from nature seems to deepen the longing for some sort of inner contentment. Here he describes being alone in a room, loosening the strings on a guitar, looking for a specific tone. “And if it don’t come,” he says, “then I’ll put it down.” Overall, this seems to be the concept of the album, the isolated musician attempting to find some escape from loneliness and dreams, but facing frustration and further isolation if he can’t get the notes right.

This record may not appeal to everyone, not even all fans of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. Those looking for the crunch of “Make Like Paper,” the hook of “Carry Me Ohio,” or the grandeur of “Tonight the Sky” will be disappointed. But those to whom intricate guitar work appeals should find plenty to love, as this album, more than any before it, showcases Kozelek’s musicianship. Combining this level of craft with haunting, chilling lyrics of loneliness and dreams makes Admiral, perhaps, the magnum opus in a long career of long albums.

Admiral Fell Promises is available now on CD from Caldo Verde Records, with the vinyl set to be released in August. Those who order the album from Caldo Verde will receive a limited edition EP called “I’ll Be There,” which includes covers of Stereolab, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and The Jackson 5.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Best Coast - Crazy For You

As Best Coast, Bethany Cosentino--with the help of Bobb Bruno--has quickly established a reputation for crafting sunny, infectious lo-fi pop gems like last year's wonderfully playful "When I'm With You." On Best Coast's debut long player, the aptly titled Crazy For You Cosentino pushes the Best Coast conceit--vaguely retro sounding beach pop about relationships--as far as it can go without breaking, while serving up some of the shiniest, most polished songs of the group's still young career. The biggest concern one has with Best Coast is that Cosentino's songs sound a little bland on paper--the album is another hazy summery album in a long line of the same, featuring nothing but lyrics about relationships, mostly failed. To make matters worse, Cosentino isn't just singing about relationships gone wrong, she's singing about relationships in what seems like a very juvenile manner, and that's where listener patience might stretch to its limits. How many ways can a gal really say "I miss you," before it all starts to sound the same?

Despite all these potential missteps, after a handful of listens, something funny happens--overly familiar lines like "I miss you, so much" fade into the background as creepier, more desperate lines like, "I want to go back to/the first time, the first place" bubble up to the surface. The trite surface sentiment, "I wish he was my boyfriend," from album opener "Boyfriend," gives way to the co-dependent creep-fest "Crazy for You," in which Cosentino sings such uncomfortable gems as, "I can't do anything without you/I can't do anything with you," and "I want to hit you but then I kiss you/I want to kill you but then I'd miss you." What begins to emerge from beneath the album's sugary facade is that Cosentino's songs aren't just typical pop songs about heartache, there's something darker and more desperate at work.

The desperation in Cosentino's songs is most apparent through her preoccupation with nostalgia. More than one song on Crazy For You invokes the ever popular age of seventeen: on "Boyfriend," Cosentino sings, "I dropped out when I was seventeen"; on "Each & Everyday," it's "I wish we could go back to when I was seventeen/and I wouldn't, wouldn't, wouldn't, wouldn't, wouldn't have been so mean," both marking that year as a turning point to be revisited. In a way, Cosentino isn't doing anything that hordes of indie pop dudes haven't been doing for years--think The Promise Ring--but rather than obscuring the nostalgia in obtuse turns of phrase, she owns the nostalgia resulting in an uneasier, sadder, but also more entertaining end product. Indeed, not only are the songs written from remarkably honest points of view, but they are also full of quirky humor be it an offhanded reference to how a character "freaks when she gets high," or another's list of complaints ending with a non-sequitor: "I lost my job/I miss my mom/I wish my cat could talk." Cosentino's real achievement with the songwriting on Crazy For You, it turns out, is her ability to make the songs sound simpler and easier than they are. Inside every whispy complaint exists an ocean of neurosis--less "Breaking Up is Hard To Do," than "The One I Love," or "Every Breath You Take".

But of course, the lyrics don't even matter if this album doesn't sound good, and sound good it does. The summery production is spot on, and every song is built on killer melodies and strong hooks. The only thing really holding Crazy For You back, and it's just a little, is that, after a spell, the songs start to sound the same. One wonders what a couple of stripped down songs, or some more outside-the-box production techniques sprinkled throughout might have brought to this album. Maybe some more of those lo-fi textures and and hints of shit-gaze aesthetic from Best Coast's earlier releases might have given the album just the right balance to keep listeners grounded in each song. That being said, while Crazy For You is a bit too easy of an album in which to get lost, it also illustrates that the key to Best Coast's disaffected energy and good-times vibe has more to do with Cosentino's songwriting than some might have expected.

Best Coast' Crazy For You is available 7/27 on Mexican Summer. Also, you can hear a stream of the whole album here...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #47 A Tribe Called Quest - People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

One of the reasons I love the 33 1/3 series so much is because of the diverse points of view that the series embraces. Books in the series have ranged from cultural studies, to historiography, to journalistic reporting, to criticism, to fiction, to the extremely personal. With this in mind, perhaps one of the more consistent ways to judge each 33 1/3 book is to look at how fully it commits to its premise. That is to say, most of the series's strongest books are those which work one specific angle from start to finish. Or, alternately, work from such a broad stance that we're getting a survey of the conversations and themes surrounding an album. Those that either stay broad, or stick to a single approach are, almost unanimously, the strongest books in the series. When books don't commit, what we end up with is a hodge podge of thoughts and ideas: here's thirty pages of band history, forty pages on recording the album, a ten page song-by-song analysis, three pages on the cover art, fifteen pages on critical reception, ten pages on cultural criticism etc... etc... And while good ideas and interesting material can arise from such a layout, the end result often times ends up feeling like the author didn't have as much to say as he or she initially thought, and so is scrambling to fill pages with any old bit of information.

Now, after that lengthy introduction, I need to be direct in saying that Shawn Taylor's entry into the 33 1/3 series, covering A Tribe Called Quest's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm does not stick to a single approach, and is a thoroughly unfocused entry in the 33 1/3 series. That being said, despite these apparent flaws, Taylor's volume is one of the more enjoyable entries into the 33 1/3 series because the warmth of his prose and his obvious passion for ATCQ and their work burns on every single page.

Taylor's book opens in strong fashion, throwing readers into a deftly handled mixture of cultural studies and memoir. In the book's opening chapters, Taylor weaves together elements of his childhood and teen years--including his mother's abusive relationship, his Oscar Wao like nerddom, his run in with a bully, his punk phase, and his introduction to hip hop--with hip hop history lessons, cultural geography lessons, and urban theory. Through these open sections, Taylor's prose is full of sharp ideas and lyrical execution: "Aside from giving us a new version of what a city could be, [Tribe] also gave us a means of locomotion: the rhythm--the engine that ran the psychosomatic megapolis--was our train, bike, cab and bus ride through the body metroplex." The first third, or so, of Taylor's book is driven by the marriage of memoir with these types of insights, and makes for a wholly engaging read.

Then something peculiar happens--Taylor gives the book's lengthy middle section over to walking through his personal 3 step test that he developed for albums when he was a teen. The "Three Trials" as Taylor calls them, involve listening to an album three times, focusing on a different facet of his own reaction with each listen, laid out as such: 1. Body, 2. Mind, 3. Spirit and Emotion. What follows, then, first, Taylor's own teenage writings as he subjected People's Instinctive Travels... to these tests, followed by an updated turn through the trials. Surprisingly, the teen version of the trials is a surprising and fun read. It reminds us that, even though many of us choose to study and write about pop music deep into life, there is something urgent in pop music that speaks to the young in ways that we don't always remember. Taylor's teenage self responds to Tribe's music with an immediacy and rawness that was refreshing, if at times a bit cumbersome to read. What is even more surprising, then, is that the the book finally starts to falter when grown up Shawn Taylor steps in to record an updated version of the trials.

It is here, in Taylor's redux of the trials that his volume gets a bit tired and dull. His insights get bogged down in the banal, and he begins making brief references to remixes that seem unnecessary. By the end of grown up Taylor's second trial, we're exhausted, having run through the album five times already, making pit stops at, often times, the same songs, over, and over again. But then something a little bit magical happens with grown-up Taylor's third trial--he gets on a train and rides into San Francisco, meets up with some young street toughs and introduces them to Tribe's music. While the scene should, realistically, read like an overly sentimental cross between Dangerous Minds and Boyz n the Hood, Taylor's self-deprecating sense of humor, self-critique, and raw enthusiasm give the scene a freshness that the book needs as it draws to a close.

Oh, and then there's a wholly unnecessary interview with Bob Powers--an engineer who worked on People's...--which is surprisingly uninformative and feels utterly tacked on. It would have been a short book, but Taylor would have been better off to let this book end where it wanted to end, with Taylor on his way home after his encounter with the urban teens:

I look at the city as it speeds by below, slowly rocking and swaying to the music, thinking about the first time that I ever heard Tip tell the tales of the city, not any particular city, but the one that the listener finds him or herself in at any given moment. Those stories were a social fact of my life . . . those boys that I hung out with [had] their description for the fools in their neighborhood. Hell, any one of them could be that fool, and thinking about this is like mainlining melancholy. My story is their story, theirs is mine and we are all on a quest.
Nostalgia sucks.

Apparently, books about pop music are a lot like albums--if you know when to end them, they're better off. Still, even with a slow bit in the middle, and a tacked on ending, Taylor's People's Instinctive Travels... is, while not one of the strongest, a very enjoyable entry into the 33 1/3 series.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Over Analysis: Nostalgia for a "Younger Us"

One of the problems facing a band whose first release receives quite a bit of hype is how to keep that buzz buzzing, how to create brand loyalty and keep customers returning for that ninety-first frappuccino. For too many bands, the answer is to release the second album as soon as possible to try to keep the hypemachine hyping. This leads to many obviously rushed follow-ups that kill the band’s or artist’s sales (see: Cross, Christopher; Daddy, Puff; Doctors, Spin) and street cred (see: Ferdinand, Franz; Strokes, the; Yeahs, Yeah Yeah).

This was the problem facing Japandroids, whose 2009 full-length debut, Post-Nothing, received universal acclaim and found a spot on many year-end lists. How to follow this success? Japandroids’ hectic tour schedule—seriously, the only time these guys take a break from the road is when one of them is hospitalized—kept them from the studio, which saved them, for the time being, from the half-assed, rush-job, sophomore slump.

Japandroids instead opted for the buy-ninety-frappuccinos-receive-one-free-valium-prescription punchcard method, keeping their fans’ loyalty whetted by nonstop touring and one-off releases. The first such release, No Singles, a compilation of the band’s first two self-released EPs, dropped in May 2010. The Vancouver duo followed this with a truly brilliant stroke of marketing—a series of (ahem) singles. Throughout 2010, Polyvinyl will release five Japandroids 7” singles, all limited edition, all on clear vinyl. Each single includes an original song written during the Post-Nothing sessions, and a b-side cover of bands like X and Big Black.

The second installment in this series, “Younger Us” b/w “Sex & Dying in High Society,” is set to drop on 16 July, though “Younger Us” has been making the rounds on the Internet and satellite radio for a few weeks. In terms of sound, “Younger Us” represents something of a departure from the successful formula of Post-Nothing. As one reviewer from another little music blog put it, “Younger Us” shows “this band has more to offer than the angular, fuzzed-out frenzy that we already know they do so well.”

That something more Japandroids has to offer is equal parts power pop, garage rock, and—dare I say it—emo. While the guitars and vocals are still heavily fuzzed-out, the song structure seems more straightforward than much of their previous releases, with a melody more clear and catchy, and replete with “whoa-oh” backing harmonies. As my fellow PoMo Jukeboxer James Brubaker so succinctly put it after hearing this song, “Japandroids are emo for grownups who came of age listening to emo.”

This description is all the more apt when we consider the song’s theme, which is feeling nostalgic for “the good ole days” when you’re still too young to feel true nostalgia. In a sense, we have a speaker looking forward in time to a period when he’ll be able to look back on these youthful exploits and reminisce about his younger self. In a similar case of prolepsis, the speaker of Robert Frost’s most famous—and most grossly misunderstood—poem says he “shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence.” So too will the speaker of “Younger Us,” though his sigh, unlike the ambiguous sigh of Frost’s speaker, will most certainly be one of wistful pining.

Structurally, the lyrics of “Younger Us” are divided into two sections. In the first, the speaker asks an unnamed comrade to “remember” the glory days had by their younger selves. “Remember when we had them all on the run,” Brian King sings, “and the night we saw the midnight sun.” These first two events show that giddy energy of youth, the feeling of being indestructible. In this same vein, the speaker then asks his compatriot to remember, “saying things like ‘we’ll sleep when we’re dead.’” In addition to reminiscing for the good times of non-stop partying, this line reveals the naivety that accompanies youthful abandon, which is reinforced when the speaker reminisces for “thinking this feeling was never going to end.” While the “younger us” could be naïve enough to think the good times would never end, the “older us” have realized that they must.

After this first verse repeats, we have the song’s chorus, or the closest thing to a traditional chorus. Here, the speaker asks his friend to “remember that night you were already in bed / said fuck it, got up to drink with me instead.” These lines are central to the song’s thematic meaning, representing the difference between youth and maturity. The speaker’s friend had gone to bed, presumably because of the next morning’s responsibilities, something like work or school for which he would need to wake early enough to disallow drinking the night away. But while maturity would consider the responsibilities and remain in bed, here the youthful friend says, “fuck it” and gets up to drink with the speaker. This devil-may-care attitude toward responsibility is what the speaker asks his friend to recall with him.

This trope of asking the comrade to reminisce makes up the song’s first section. In the second, the speaker now asks not for remembrance, but for those “good ole days” to be given back to him. The speaker asks to be given, in turn: “that naked new skin rush” that comes from youthful merrymaking; “that you & me to the grave trust,” or the ability to trust one’s friends implicitly; his “girls learning love, wild and free”; and “swimming through the streets” with his boys. In each of these lines, the speaker asks to recapture these great times. Each line is followed by the request, “give me younger us,” which suggests it is the compatriot, and not the speaker, who has matured beyond the abandon of the “younger us.”

This movement from requests to remember, to requests for return represents the movement from reminiscence to true nostalgia, which always contains the bittersweet longing to recapture or reenact one’s memories. We see this transition still clearer in the repetition of the chorus, when the speaker asks his comrade not to remember, but instead to give him “that night you were already in bed / said fuck it, got up to drink with me instead.” The speaker is asking his audience to become the person he once was.

In this nostalgia for the good times experienced by a “younger us,” here we have a young adult, likely in his late 20s or early 30s, longing for the freedom and exuberance of youth. If, as Jay-Z, in his infinite wisdom, once said, 30 is the new 20, then here the speaker really has nothing to be nostalgic for, still being “younger” enough to say “fuck it” and get up and drink. However, the difference is that he’s old enough now to realize that the good feeling will end eventually. Nothing, especially thrills, can last. This naïve ignorance is what the speaker misses here, causing this premature sense of nostalgia. While “Younger Us” may differ sonically from earlier Japandroids songs, this prolepsistic nostalgia for the whimsies of youth are something we’ve heard them do so well on other great tracks like “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and “Sovereignty,” which suggests Japandroids are the quintessential quarter-life-crisis band.

Polyvinyl will officially release "Younger Us" on 16 July. You can pre-order the 7" single here. (I received my copy in the mail yesterday, so there are definite advantages to pre-ordering.) The release is limited to 2500 copies, so you better hurry.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Michael Sembello's "Maniac"

Dancing is our greatest form of cultural expression, without a doubt. For, as Neil Young duly notes, "When you dance," you can, indeed, "really love." This is most definitely a fact, because when I think of dancing, Neil Young is the first person that comes to mind. The popularity of musical theater, Dancing With the Stars, the Riverdance, and Michael Jackson's video for "Thriller" quantifiably prove my thesis. If this weren't proof enough, highly-trained biologists, several of whom have respectable college degrees, have noted that dancing is humanity's primary embodiment of the mating rituals of the animal kingdom, and that the way a person dances provides plenty of information to a prospective suitor about how they, ahem, mate. But is it possible to dance too hard? Can one dance so hard that they neglect their duties as a human and become a detriment to society? Well, yes, if we are to believe--and we should--Michael Sembello's legendary new wave dance epic "Maniac."

In 1983, when "Maniac" was released on the soundtrack album to the classic Adrian Lyne film Flashdance, most listeners had fairly preconceived notions about what a maniac was. Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, or that kid down the street who blew his summer savings playing the Tron video game at the nearby gas station for three straight days in a effort to get inside the game like they do in the movie ... these were maniacs. Michael Sembello changed all this with "Maniac." Previously a session guitar genius who made substantial contributions to Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Sembello summoned all of his dynamic powers into the brutal force of nature that is "Maniac," including pulsating synths, decisive beats, and a searing guitar solo that would make Eddie Van Halen jealous, to communicate the tale of the lyric's female protagonist.

"Maniac" tells the tale of a "Steel Town girl on a Saturday night looking for the fight of her life." Clearly she is a maniac, because most people are simply looking for a good time on a Saturday night, not some epic battle with, like, say, the immortal, malfunctioning Mecha monster fueled by raw plutonium and the madcap ideas of competitive spirit practiced by the rogue scientist Dr. Headwound. Part of her charm is that "in the real-time world, no one sees her there." Despite being invisible to mortals, they still sense a priori that "she's crazy." So what's the source of her mania? Doy, it's the Love of the Dance! She dances so hard, in fact, that she enters a "danger zone"--and long before Kenny Loggins traveled on the highway there--where "a dancer becomes the dance." In other words, she has BECOME the dance, LITERALLY. Thank about that for a moment. What is your passion in life? Let's say, hypothetically, that it's fishing. Now imagine that you have fished the fuck out of the watering hole you are at and then you actually became a fish. At that point, not only would you be like Vardaman's mother in William Faulkner's tragicomic novel As I Lay Dying (1930), but you'd also, most definitely, be a maniac. You would also suddenly find yourself completely mesmerized by spinnerbait.

Michael Sembello's hit fundamentally reshaped our societal notions of the maniac. Where once this was the domain of serial killers, genocidal autocrats, and flesh-craving cannibals, now a veritable dance-floor of talented bodies fit comfortably into the category of the maniac. So when we say that Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Lady Gaga, Erin Andrews, and Napoleon Dynamite are maniacs, we don't mean that they are going to make human body suits out of the flesh of our siblings. We mean that they're dancing like they never danced before ...

quite possibly in a moonlighting gig at a strip club.

Here's the saucy video clip to "Maniac":