Archive for the ‘Song-o-scope’ Category
When you hear The Shins breakout tune “New Slang” back to back with this track, it’s almost a joke that “New Slang” hasn’t been completely eclipsed by now, considering the increasingly insane songwriting skills James Mercer has flaunted in each album since then. Wincing the Night Away, partially recorded in Elliott Smith’s Portland home, has an inexplicable Smiths-like feel to it. The album Port of Morrow, named for a thought-provoking road sign in Oregon, brings up all kinds of new ideas. The melody and lyrics to “It’s Only Life” can bring a knot to your throat, and the chorus of “40 Mark Strasse” opens up like an ocean of sweet pancake syrup. But by far the most interesting direction the Shins have taken yet is the album’s title track, which sticks out like a purple tree growing in the Redwood Forest. Weird, watery opening. Strange, alien instrumental shrieks and moans. Heroin-esque Velvet Underground bass. Not an acoustic guitar in sight.
Mercer starts the verse sounding kind of like a female blues singer from the ‘20s. Then as he moves into the pre-chorus, he sounds damn near like John Lennon. Still no traditional New Mexico Shins-y-ness, just a haunting aura of superstition that might frighten children and the elderly. The subtle low-end doubling on parts of the vocals do a lot to seriously build up the track’s freakiness. Lyrics like “I saw a photograph, Cologne in ’27 / And then a postcard after the bombs in ’45 / Must have been a world of evil clowns that let it happen / And then I recognized … you were there and so was I” add an air of ominous terror, like this particular song foreshadows the end of the world. Is it a coincidence that Mercer wrote it while pondering death, inevitability, and doorways into the netherworld? “Life is death is life” … I think not.
Now imagine this song live, when its languid, staring menace is replaced by louder, even more menacing guitar sounds and a chorus that jumps out at you like a huge, black cat. If most Shins songs make you feel better, this one is here to make you terrified.
A few years ago I worked at an Internet company next to a tall, lanky English guy (I’ll call him “Fred”) who seemed to know a lot more about music than your average corporate Web hack. He had well-developed opinions on bands I’d heard of and ones I hadn’t, and introduced me to a couple of very interesting groups.
Come to find out after several months that he was actually part of a little-known cult band back in the ’80s, a jangle-pop band from London called the Siddeleys. Though they were short lived (seeming mostly to be active from 1986 to 1988), they managed to catch the eye of BBC broadcaster John Peel, who was impressed by front woman Johnny Johnson’s almost Morrissey-like delivery. Peel invited the band to record one of his famous Peel Sessions, which yielded, among others, the track “My Favourite Wet Wednesday Afternoon” — one of the best-sounding indie tracks I’ve heard in a while.
Though the song is a little redundant (it could use an instrumental bridge somewhere after the third chorus), lyrically it contains imagery very evocative of a wet, nostalgic London afternoon. Lines like “Love that moves the sun, heaven and all the stars / This is just a fraction of what is rightfully ours” and “I’ll take my dream to the grave with me if you don’t say something soon” are perfect for such a velvety-smooth Britpop track. The harmonies will echo in your memory for days. Thanks, Fred.
(Album available on Amazon)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say the last track on Think Tank, Blur’s almost unknown, oddball final album, is possibly one of the band’s most amazing songs. Hear me out.
First, Think Tank itself is a crazy album. Compared to the lush, mega-produced pop fuzz you normally associate with Blur (Song 2, Beetlebum, Death of a Party), Think Tank is a rickety, rattletrap CD that sounds like it was recorded in a barn. (It was.) Combine the clanky, rusty sound with the African vibe injected into a few tracks, and you already have the planet Pluto of rock albums. Then, factor in that this was the album that split the band, since Graham Coxon, the Grand Baron of Awesome Guitarists and one half of Blur’s songwriting factory, left the band in the middle of everything.
Because of this, only one track on the entire album contains any guitar work from Coxon. So take all of the frustration felt by a guitarist at the twilight of his partnership with a band, and shove it all into one guitar track. That guitar track is on “Battery in Your Leg,” the only song Damon Albarn admits to writing about the band itself. To describe the track: the piano, mostly normal. The lyrics, a little bummed out, but normal. The guitar, like a haunting, boiling, infectious disease. The reason I believe this song to be of Blur’s best is simply because it says the most. And half of what it says is completely independent of the lyrics.
P.S. The band’s reunion was recently reported in the news, and apparently there might be plans for US show dates. I’ll definitely keep an eye on that.
Reprinted from my Cinema Blend article.
I don’t get goose bumps very often. Occasionally I’ll be sitting alone some cool, quiet night with headphones on, and I will feel a chill, mixed with the tingle of awe that occasionally comes with a really good song. If I had more time to sit still, it might happen more often.
But sometimes it doesn’t have to wait for the right time.
It happened to me the other day, in fact – on a hot day, maneuvering through traffic on the way home from work. And it makes sense, considering the song. It was The Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children,” possibly the creepiest pop song ever written.
This song doesn’t endeavor to be morose like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” or Halloweeny like Type O Negative’s “Black no. 1” (or any other Type O Negative song…). This one is unassuming, quiet, beautiful and innocent – and entirely haunting. Part of the reason has to do with what it is about.
The last track on The Smiths’ first album is about a series of murders. Specifically the Moors Murders, a string of extremely violent child killings that took place around Manchester in the ‘60s.
Between 1963 and 1965, Scottish stock clerk Ian Brady and his girlfriend, Myra Hindley, persuaded five children between the ages of 10 and 17 to follow them to various places, where Brady mercilessly tortured and then killed them. Hindley watched while Brady raped, hacked and strangled his victims with string or cord, nearly decapitating one of them. The couple then buried the corpses on a dreary field north of the A635 road, west of Oldham, called Saddleworth Moor. Four of the bodies were found over the next twenty years, one never was.
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I hate the power of suggestion, and I hate being marketed to. Thus, I’ve made a point never to buy albums based on the latest hyped song. This also entails never purchasing anything solely because it was handed to me in a movie soundtrack.
But however stubborn my mission is, there’s one problem. Dammit, it can always be overridden by a good song. A good song has the ability to plunge straight to the center of my brain, put a gun to my brain’s head, and force my brain to drop all of its principles with regard to “resisting the will of the man.” That’s why when Uma Thurman, aka Beatrix Kiddo, got into her VW Carmengia and ruefully cruised the backroads of Ciudad Acuña, Mexico while the background swelled with Malcom McLaren’s “About Her” — a plushy collage of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” and Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues,” — I had no choice.
The sorrowful piano melody! The hypnotic textures! Did I mention the piano melody? Even the light R&B beat, something I almost never approve of, seemed to coax me in with its mournful innocence. Bessie Smith’s wretched croon echoed hauntingly, conjuring the image of a wasted soul trudging through existence in a self-pitying stupor. And when the chorus opened to reveal my old friend, Colin Blunstone’s tender voice from “She’s Not There,” wrapped in gentle orchestration and slowed to a melancholy drift, it was the slap across my brain’s face that forced me to take action.
So I went out and bought a Zombies compilation. Of course, I still listen to McLaren’s creation whenever I want, free on YouTube. Damn the Man.