Some recent music I’ve been listening to.
Spoon Transference. I’ve never entirely fallen for Spoon, one of those bands whose albums always struck me as at least pretty good but none of which wowed me. The singer always seemed slightly charisma-challenged. Or maybe for me they started to seem like a band you were supposed to be rooting for. They were nice guys, good guys, and/thus (perhaps?) a little dull? Anyway, I like this newest one more. It feels very unspontaneous, a studio construction, altogether controlled and worked-over, with several really stand-out tracks. My favorite is “Out Go the Lights,” their “All My Friends” maybe, a gorgeous, drawn-out ballad filled with spooky/beautiful studio effects. “I Saw the Light” also very good, and “Who Makes Your Money,” a piece of thin, stuttering Chic white funk. Somehow made me think of Steely Dan (the song title is a Steely Dan kind of question to ask).
Surfer Blood Astro Coast. I ignored this for a while — missed them when they played in town — maybe because their name seemed so rote. But the album’s actually excellent, a great summer album. They do feel like a bit of a pieced-together Frankenstein apparatus of influences and resemblances. A rougher Weezer, definitely, in the super-catchy surfy tunes; some Vampire Weekend (the vague afropop feeling in the lightness and lilt of the guitars); the Shins; the Pixies in the background. But less obviously, I sense parallels with another young band I like a lot, No Age; in “Floating Vibes” or “Fast Jabroni” or “Anchorage,” for example, the way they ride a simple riff in a way that makes me think of 1980s SST (like early-mid Sonic Youth): punk forms (the Ramones) filtered through a more knowing, art-informed perspective (although they’re not really conceptualists like No Age or the Dirty Projectors, as far as I can tell). Pretty much every song is really good with instantly memorable hooks you could pound your dashboard to. Wish I’d seen them.
Finally came around to the National. I’m not sure if the new one High Violet is as good as Boxer or not but I like it despite the vague concern that it’s all getting too close to U2 or Coldplay. My favorites are “Lemonworld”, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” [I like that they’re from Cincinnati, btw] and “Conversation 16,” the latter which goes a bit over the top with the climactic zombie-movie confession, “I was afraid… I’d eat your brains — ’cause I’m evil….” My reading of “Lemonworld:” it’s about being a poorly-paid over-educated wage slave in NYC spending the weekend in your girlfriend’s parents’ swank Hamptons or Long Island weekend home. “So happy I was invited/ Gave me an excuse to get out of the city.” Mixed feelings and depressive affect ensue. Part of what works about this song is the ironic relation between the song’s form and content: it’s a song about ambivalence about wealth and luxury that is itself luxuriously lush (and likely a bit guilty about it).
I’ve probably listened to those four songs at least a dozen times each. You can sink into this album’s lush textures– a good headphones album.
Titus Andronicus A More Perfect Union. This album sounds so silly. A New Jersey punk rocker obsessed with Springsteen, who named his band after a violent Shakespeare play, makes a concept album about the Civil War inspired by the Ken Burns documentary, featuring readings of Lincoln speeches??? But surprise, it’s great. By the time he’s ripped off/payed homage to the Boss and Billy Bragg in the same line a couple minutes in (“I never wanted to change the world, I’m looking for a new New Jersey/ ’cause tramps like us, we were born to die”), I was sold. It’s in another universe from the cool studio perfectionism of the National and Spoon — makes you think of various famously drunken bands (early Replacements, the Pogues), obviously very much a live band spilling over with Celtic reels, bagpipe, saxophone, singalongs. I suspect a big Pogues influence, and likely the Civil War thing is an attempt for this New Jersey punk band to find their own comparable folkloric/ historical frame — adding gravitas and depth to what might otherwise just be hungover pissing and moaning. E.g. when he sings “I’m worthless and I’m weak, I’m sick and and I’m scared,” it sounds like a 22 year old kid on a Sunday morning scared he may be becoming an alcoholic, but the next line, “the enemy is everywhere” lifts what could be a merely personal drama into a national-historical register.
Ultimately I think its reach exceeds its grasp a little bit — it’s not quite Rum Sodomy and the Lash, but this guy Patrick Stickles (who does sound uncannily like Conor Oberst, btw) is seriously talented. “Gimme a Guinness, gimme a Keystone Light, gimme a kegger on a Friday night, gimme anything but another year in exile.”
This one’s a bit older, but another fave has been Tegan and Sara’s Sainthood. Of course I love the Canadian twin-sister angle. A few songs here I’ve listened to over and over. “Arrow” is a great elaborated Cupid’s arrow metaphor: “I feel the breeze, feathers of an arrow; I take my aim, you feel me coming close.” “Sentimental Song” is really smart on what it means to reject sentimentality, or sentimental art. “You hate the tenderhearted torch song,” she sings to her lover. “Hard-hearted — don’t worry, I’m ready for a fight;” that is, I may like corny love songs but it doesn’t mean I’m not tough. And “Someday” is fantastic, super-catchy, needs to run over the credits of an inspiring teen movie: “I might write something I might want to say to you someday,/ Might do something I’d be proud of someday/ Mark my words, I might be something someday.” I think it’s a coming-out song. “The Cure” another favorite: “I know the world’s not fair to you, I’ve got a cure for its crimes.” Surely this could’ve been a big hit on MTV in 1990. Very new wave (minus the frills), taut/tense songs that stick in your head.
Love the thought of Celie and Iris as a band — in theory if not probably in practice. “Hi dad, yeah we just finished the show in Pensacola, we’re driving to Texas tonight.” Never mind, not a good idea at all!!!
OK, one token non-indie rock album, A. B. Crentsil & The Osookoo Stars. I presume I downloaded this from Awesome Tapes from Africa (“Free mp3s of obscure African music”). Really great notwithstanding the scratchy audio. “When I was going to the cinema I saw a girl who resembled my sister…She turned in a soft voice and said ‘I am Juliana.'” I learn from Wikipedia that A. B. Crentsil “is one of the big three of contempoary Ghanaian vocalists….Crentsil’s music has always been considered controversial but always makes the highest sales once it hits the market. Crentsil resorts to various themes and antics to convey his message with appropriate proverbs where necessary and that always strikes a listener to appreciate his music.” Sounds right to me.