Friday, July 29, 2011

Reason #68763930 why John Flansburgh is one of my heroes

He perfectly describes the contradictory nature of pop music. From this interview from the AV Club:

AVC: We had a brief email exchange yesterday about the hugely positive reaction to your A.V. Undercover performance. You said, “It seems like a little bit of joy directly expressed can be quite resonant in this grey world.” In spite of all the songs you do about death and disaster and misery, that sounds like a TMBG mission statement.

JF: Yeah, that’s what art is, right? If you think about it, life is a one-way ticket. [Laughs.] But while we’re here, you got to make the most of it. Now I sound like the guy at the end of the bar. The “Tubthumping” thing is especially weird, because it’s a song you almost can’t like with your conscious mind. It’s all those things about a popular song that are kind of manipulative—or, not manipulative, they overwhelm you. It’s such a hooky song, it goes from hook to hook to hook. It’s such an earworm kind of a song. It’s like the Steven Spielberg of songs. You just feel like you’ve been lassoed and dragged into its presence. It’s overwhelming.

AVC: Is anything wrong with that?

JF: Well, if you like being lassoed. No, I don’t know. Did you walk out of E.T. feeling like, “That was normal”? Or did you feel like you were kind of… I feel like I have a love-hate relationship with the hooky, the impossible catchy song. I feel like the world has a love-hate relationship with that kind of thing. Because it’s relentless. I’ve been singing the song “The Longest Time” by Billy Joel for 20 years. And I don’t even particularly care for Billy Joel’s music. A good friend of mine is a huge Billy Joel fan. I love Elton John, but as far as those classic popmeisters go, I find Billy Joel very hard. I want my mind back from that. [Starts singing melody to “The Longest Time.”] I cannot tell you. Three times a day, I think about that song. It drives me crazy.

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Beyond excited to see They Might Be Giants tonight.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

You'd Be Surprised Vol. 2

"You'd Be Surprised" is a blog series where i write about songs (and maybe other things in the future) that i think would surprise many people that i truly love.

Volume 1: "Make Your Own Kind of Music" by Mama Cass Elliot

Like everyone, there are gaping holes in my musical knowledge. When i first heard Ornette Coleman, for instance, playing free jazz without a chordal instrument, i felt like i was hearing something entirely new and couldn't believe i've never heard it before. Other times, it is hearing a side-project or a one-off single by a band you thought you knew everything about. Or, like in the case of this song, you just flat out don't know a song that was a minor hit 15 or so years before you were born.

Sure, i know the Mamas and the Papas - "California Dreamin'," "Monday Monday," whatever the name of that "and everyone's getting fat 'cept Mama Cass" song is called, but i knew very little of the solo careers (if there were any) by any of the M&Ps. The most i knew was that lead Papa John Phillips had a weird and, supposedly, great solo album called John, The Wolf King of L.A. which i still want to hear for the name alone.

Then, I started to watch LOST.

And, for those of you who still haven't watched LOST, don't watch this scene. Really. It is one of the greatest scenes of the whole show, and if you haven't seen the series from the beginning, you don't want to see this scene. That being said, what the fuck is wrong with you for not watching LOST? Let the haters hate - the show is top notch (not perfect, but top notch).

This scene introduced me to this song:

Now, even without the song, that is an amazing scene. However, there is something so heartbreaking and sad about Desmond listening to a song about individuality when you learn that he has been doing the same task for YEARS, unable to live his own life at all, but just PUSH. THE. DAMN. BUTTON.

Now, Elliot didn't write the song (husband and wife songwriting team Mann/Weil did), but her strong, powerful voice really sells the words, as does the understated-as-much-as-a-pop-single-in-1969-could be. The Mamas and the Papas were still recording and playing live at this point, and the record wasn't a huge hit, peaking at only #36 on the Billboard Singles Chart.

For reasons altogether unknown to me, this song fuckin' moves me. The other day i was created a chord chart for it (i'm playing in a band for a party in September, and this is one of the songs our female vocalist chose), and i had to stop charting because of the tears falling down my face. Why? I have no idea. It just moves me.

Much like "Human," this song just shakes me to my core and makes me feel vulnerable, inspired and joyous all at once. It can't be the lyrics which, although are a great message, are a little hokey. It can't be the instrumentation, which is a little too Lawrence Welk for my taste. It is good despite itself.

And if it moves me, why do i have to investigate exactly why? Why can't i just let it be something i love and move on?

Because i'm stupid.

Which must also be the case for most musicians, as this song has no great cover versions. Get on it, Neko Case!

'Til next time,

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ten Years Ago, This Was It

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Strokes' debut album, Is This It. Stereogum has marked this by putting together a tribute record, which you can hear here. Reading some of the quotes by the artists in the liner notes got me thinking about my relationship to the album which was, at the time, vitriolic and is now much, much more pleasant.

Why did i initially hate the Strokes?

When the album was released, i was 19 years old and entering my sophomore year of college. This was the apex of me thinking that i knew better than anyone else what made good music, and felt it was my duty to be the local bullshit detector for any record released. I hated the fact that many of my friends listened to, heavens forbid, pop music, and let them know how much i disapproved at every possible moment. I equally hated the rap/rock hybrids that seemed to be absolutely everywhere. As my good friend Matt Popovich said about some long-forgotten shitty aggro-band, "This music is only good for pro-wrestling montages."

And so when i started reading all the pre-release hype for Is This It, i was very excited for the album. "The most exciting album in 20 years" is a quote that particularly stands out for me. People i trusted, like David Fricke and Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, or the pre-total-influence-on-the-entirety-of-the-internet Pitchfork staff, were on board with the record, and so i was eagerly anticipating its release.

In fact, i convinced a friend with only a passing interest in decent music (sorry, Ryan Schwoeble) to come with me to pick up the album the day it was released, and i remember very excitedly peeling off the shrink wrap and obnoxious sticker holding back the most exciting record i'd ever hear from my grasp and shoving it into Ryan's car's CD player and waiting to be blown away.

And what i got sounded, to me, like the worst Velvet Underground impression i had ever heard.

This was exciting? A record with zero dynamics was exciting?

To me, exciting was "Tame" by the Pixies, a song that fluctuated from whispers to blood-curling-shit-your-pants-scary screams in a matter of seconds. Exciting was an epic like Weezer's "Only in Dreams" that ran the gamut from solo bass to dueling guitar solo devastation. Exciting was an album where every song had a distinct sound that built something new together.

This is exciting music.

This was not that - this was like the Ramones if you took everything great about the Ramones and tossed it out the window. This sucked.

As the only sane person in a world of insanity, i tried to tell everyone i could about how lame the Strokes were. "The vocals are buried in the mix and distorted!" "The drums are too precise and rarely swing!" "The basslines are the only good part!" (Plus, their drummer was dating Drew Barrymore, so fuck that guy, right?)

Every few months, i would pull the record out and listen to it again, to make sure that i didn't miss something important that i had missed. If i could only find the decoder ring in my Ovaltine, i could crack the case of the overhyped buzz band...

Eventually, i forgot that the Strokes ever mattered (as did the rest of the world), and i moved on with my vitriol to more apparent topics (Creed, blink-182, boy bands). Occasionally, i'd hear "Last Night" or "Someday" on the radio and i wouldn't hate it as much as i remembered, eventually reasoning that the Strokes were a singles band that should never make an album. It was easy to love the songs one at a time, but a record was a mistake, like eating too many Twizzlers in a row.

And, as i got older, my tastes expanded. I heard things like Neu!, and their classic "Hallogallo," which features drums so sturdy and non-swingy that they appear to be played by a robot. I began to listen to more classical music, where melodies weren't as overtly out-front as i was used to. I also calmed down a lot, and saved my anger at things like Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph's mismanagement of the Mets or people who didn't recycle (which, i think we can all agree, are a little more important than whether you prefer the Olivia Tremor Control to Neutral Milk Hotel*).

Now, when my iTunes plucks out "Hard to Explain," i enjoy it and smile. I rarely, if ever, put Is This It on for a complete listen, but i respect and enjoy it much more than i did a decade ago. What is funny is that i'm pretty sure that most people have a converse relationship with this album - it was their jam for 4 months, and then they put it away and never really thought about it again and when they hear it now, they forget what all the fuss was about. Everyone, that is, except for Rolling Stone, which recently listed this as the second best album of the decade, which is the fucking craziest thing i've heard in a long time. Is This It is a good record with a couple of great songs (the title track, "Last Night"), but it was hardly the starting gun for the rock and roll revolution it was supposed to be.

The foreign, sexier cover

*Everyone picks NMH, but i'm an OTC man.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I know what the Senator wants - do you?

The new single from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks is pretty great (listen to it below). However, because of a particular word, it will get zero air play. What can you do to fix this? Go to and help them find a suitable replacement.

I suggested botox.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

5 Song Shuffle, Vol. 18: New Haircut Edition

My iTunes library, as of July 13,2011 , has 25, 540 songs in it. Some are novelty downloads, some i have because i'm a completionist, some i rarely (if have ever) listened to. So, in this new blog segment, i will let shuffle pick out random songs (without personal editing to hide embarrasing and/or lame songs), and i will write about what i think of them, plus any details i an give about how it was procured. At current rate (and if my iTunes never repeats a song...) this will be the seventeenth in at least a 4,000 part series.

Song #1 - "Dog Eat Dog" - Bill Frisell

I first encountered Bill Frisell's music after hearing a piece of it used interstitially on This American Life. I have since become a pretty big fan. What i especially love is that he is the rare guitar player who uses and arranges horns cleverly and who treats his guitar simply as another piece in the band - so many guitarists think of themselves as the meat and the band as the dressing. Bill doesn't do that. This is from This Land, which i had never heard until i read about it in a book of "100 Essential Jazz Albums" that is in my dad's bathroom. This piece is moody and languid and builds to a bit of a purposefully fumbling conclusion.

Song #2 - "China Pig" - Captain Beefheart

Perhaps the most straightforward and simple blues song on Trout Mask Replica, this shows what Beefheart might have sounded like in 1940. The simplicity of the song speaks for itself - i have very little to add - except for the fact that every person alive should seek out some Beefheart music and expand your ears a little. It may not go down easy at first, but medicine doesn't always taste good.

Song #3 - "Celebrity Death Match" - Peeping Tom (featuring Kid Koala)

A perfect example of a lazy Brian acquisition - this album was purchased from eMusic in 2006 because i dig Mike Patton, and i have never listened to it. I'm embarrassed by that, but i'm also rarely sitting around thinking, "What can i listen to that will be batshit insane, incorporate electronic elements, hip hop, Norah Jones and the daughter of a bossa nova legend under the direction of the lead singer of Mr. Bungle?" This is about what i would expect from this record (goofy, creepy, immaculately performed), and i hope to give it a proper listen soon.

Song #4 - "By the People" - Van Dyke Parks

Most famous for being a SMiLE-era Brian Wilson collaborator, this album (Song Cycle) is regarded as a really brilliant/odd collection of songs about a road trip. It is a fascinating listen, full of great arrangements (what VDP is most known for nowadays, most famously arranging Ys for Joanna Newsom [another album i own that i've never heard]) and oddball lyrics (his contribution to Beach Boys records) and the songs all go places you could never expect. That being said, it is a record you can't really put on at work, or exercising, or doing anything other than just listening to it, so it doesn't get a ton of listens in my life. But i can imagine few records better suited to a nap in a hammock*.

Song #5 - "Now That I Tell People I'm in College, My Social Status Has Nearly Tripled" - Kept Blue

My friend Steve Miller (aka Unsung, see my last post) gave me this record by a touring mate of his. I haven't listened to it in a long time, but i really enjoyed it when i last did. It is called Confessions of a Sexual Masterpiece, and this particular track is a short little glue-piece connecting two songs. It starts out orchestral in nature, and then morphs into a bouncing little pop piece with backwards vocals and then ends.

Boy, are you guys unlucky - the next song that shuffled is "Believe" by Cher - that would've made for an interesting pick, for sure.

'Til next time,

Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17

*This weekend i proclaimed that when i have a fire pit and a hammock i will be set. I stand by that statement.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New Album from Unsung

I know that i may seem like i'm simply pimping work by a friend, but even if i didn't know Steve Miller, i would still be pimping this record. It's called The Paint, and it is a complex, beautiful piece of work. Steve is offering it on his Bandcamp page for whatever you choose to pay for it, from zero dollars on up. I proudly paid ten bucks for it, and i suggest you sample it below and then click here and do the same.