A few things I’ve been listening to…
Modest Mouse, “3rd Planet.” This is from Modest Mouse’s major-label debut The Moon and Antarctica (2000), their third album, which didn’t really make too big of a splash at the time — their commercial breakthrough came with the next album and the big Pixies-ish hit “Float On.” One thing I like about Modest Mouse and this album is the sense of largeness, ambition, attempt to evoke the oceanic/cosmic. Indie rock by definition tends towards the minor, petty, internal — and yes, the modest… But notwithstanding their iconically indie name, on this album anyway they go for something kind of immodestly huge; it’s their Dark Side of the Moon or Ok Computer. “3rd Planet” is one of my many favorite Modest Mouse songs — kind of about, maybe, what it feels like to lie with someone else on a blanket, naked, staring up at the stars: “The universe is shaped exactly like the earth/ If you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were/ Your heart felt good, it was dripping pitch and made of wood/ And your hands and knees felt cold and wet on the grass to me.”
Franco, Francophonic – Vol. 1: 1953-1980. Franco, “the Duke Ellington of Congolese music.” Some of it sounds like calypso, some of it like American soul or R&B, like Jamaican reggae, Cuban son. Beautiful, funky, catchy, sinuous… Probably the album I’ve gotten most pleasure out of in the last year or so.
Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca. I missed the chance to see him/them when they played here after they released Rise Above, the retelling of Black’s Flag’s punk classic Damaged. That seemed too arch and contrived, along the lines of Pussy Galore’s version of Exile on Main Street. But they/he turns out to have some serious musical/conceptual chops — when Bjork invites you to collaborate with her, you probably do have something going on. Anyway this album is really interesting and very listenable/engaging — part of that whole choirboy/orchestral-Afropop tendency in contemp. indie rock. I’ve never heard an American indie album before that seemed clearly influenced by Zap Mama (polyphonic Belgian female a cappella group). My favorite Dirty Projectors song isn’t on the album, though: “Knotty Pine” with David Byrne on the excellent Dark is the Night soundtrack.
K’naan The Dusty Foot Philosopher. This guy has a really great gimmick — it’s gangsta rap by a guy from a part of the world where little kids actually wander around with machine guns. Yes, a gangsta rapper from Mogidishu, Somalia — take that, 50 Cent! Who seems to be heavily influenced by Eminem of all people! Although I haven’t checked out his second album yet, I expect K’naan to get really big eventually: he really does seem like some kind of weird Afro-Canadian combination of Bob Marley (or to be less grandiose, maybe Wyclef Jean) and Eminem with some super-catchy tunes (e.g. “In the Beginning,” “If Rap gets Jealous”).
Cocorosie, “Rainbowwarriors,” “Werewolf,” “K-Hole,” “Terrible Angels,” from La maison de mon rêve, Noah’s Ark, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn. I came to Cocorosie (twin sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady) a bit late, and the hip kids have probably moved on since Cocorosie have placed songs in perfume commercials and the like. I noticed that Pitchfork condemns them as globe-trotting trust-fund poseurs, but hey, so was Henry James… What do they sound like? Kind of mumbly-warbly experimental home recording pseudo-hip-hop poetry? Sung by squeaky-voiced twin sisters performing on children’s instruments. It’s sometimes a bit much, but often I find it enchanting and magical, e.g. the Rilke-inspired “Terrible Angels:” “If every angel’s terrible/ Then why do you welcome them/ You provide the bird bath/ I provide the skin/ And bathing in the moonlight/ I’m to tremble like a kitten.”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. On my first quick listen this struck me as a tad generic, but I ended up loving it. The NYC band is apparently named after (get this) an unpublished children’s book written by the singer Kip Berman, and heavily rips off a range of British indie pop — Belle and Sebastian, Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Wedding Present — so it doesn’t come much more twee than this. On the other hand it also can get pretty guitar-squally (“Hey Paul”). If you liked early Belle & Sebastian, here’s more songs about libraries and crushes: “between the stacks in the library/ not like anyone stopped to see/ we came they went, our bodies spent/ among the dust and the microfiche.”
Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall. I just got this one and haven’t really absorbed it, but I wanted to mention Mr. Reatard. Not that he hasn’t gotten quite a lot of press, but I do think that he’d be a lot bigger in the crucial expendable-income young-adult yuppie market if he had a less tasteless moniker. Nee Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr., he became “Jay Reatard” as a 16 year old highschool drop-out with a chip on his shoulder in Memphis doing his best Iggy Pop imitation, and since then has released about 20 (!) home-recorded albums. I also have the last couple of singles collections (Singles 06-07 and Matador Singles ’08). Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices) would be a good analogy: JR is a kind of human jukebox apparently able to produce irresistibly catchy singles at will. They sound alternately like the Buzzcocks, Go-Betweens (he’s recorded a Go-Bes cover), Stiff Little Fingers, etc., all sung in a retro fake British accent with occasional amusing Britishisms (“Is this real or is this future?”), and filled with eruptions of aggressive/sarcastic put-downs. (I.e. he kind of sounds like he was invented in the basement of WHRB’s Record Hospital circa 1988). To my ears he’s recorded at least a handful of songs that I’d include in my list of the top ten Guided By Voices tracks ever. The new one is a little poppier and layered than the earlier stuff — try “Before I Was Caught” or “Wounded” for ex. The line is that he’s been influenced lately by New Zealand Flying Nun indie pop, but I’m not sure I hear that especially, I think that may just be a way to explain the frequency of Farfisa-style organ which imparts more of a 60s garage vibe.
Orchestra Baobab, Made in Dakar. I listen to jazz and “world music” (primarily African pop) more than anything else these days, partly because it works as background music when I’m working, in the living room when we’re making dinner, etc. a lot better than, say, Jay Reatard. I’m not very good at analyzing/discussing this music; I guess part of what I love about some of it is the way I fall into it as an unknown, somewhat disorienting sonic world. Orchestra Baobab were founded in Dakar, Senegal in 1970, broke up in the late 1980s, and reformed in 2001. The group “played an Afro-Cuban-Caribbean music fused with distinctly West African traditions. Unlike other Senegalese bands, they added Casamance harmonies and drumming (from southern Senegal), melodies from Togo and Morocco to the more common Wolof (from northern Senegal) influences” (wiki). Since reuniting they’ve become well-known in the U.S. partly due, I regret to report, to a documentary filmed by/with Dave Matthews and the guy from Phish. (It’s a bit of a Buena Vista Social Club kind of phenomenon — Afro-Latin world-music classic revived for the NPR market.) Anyway, everything I’ve heard by them is fantastic with a special mellow, funky elegance. Christgau puts it well: “Jazz, r&b, soul, disco, reggae–no African band has ever emulated a New World music as gracefully as this Cuban-style unit.”