Thursday, September 21, 2017

New to Me No. 12: Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Style:

Just acknowledging a difference, bro.
Tonight, the band/dude who restored my faith in the idea of ambitious pop.

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Style (just noting it, the whole “Teens of _____” is new)

The Gateway Drug
“Times To Die”, crucially, the Spotify Sessions version. This matters. (Also, no video.)

The Backstory
Credit the unmasked boredom of the opening stanza for drawing me in, but I still had to overcome the singer’s voice (I don’t know his name at this point in the story; wait for it). As with a lot of songs I fall for hardest, this one sucked me in with successive listens. Before long, I’d cut out halfway through to give the first half another listen, and would go through to the end from there.

Clearly, I’m kicking around a familiar line – e.g., the gift-that-keeps-on-giving kind of song, one that mixes up the high-fives with each successive listen (e.g., “up high, down low, side to side,” etc.). Once you listen to the singer’s lyrics, you stop caring about his voice; or, better, you start to believe that flat, hang-dog effect plays to the lyrics like harmony. To pick up the lede, “Time To Die” passes through a couple phases on its march toward its end, vacillating between reaching for the heavens (literally, the bit about “…invited into the Divine Council”), then surrendering to the failure of all that.

It’s your basic quest for meaning, really. Then again, I just read today (in one of those “Genius Lyric” that Spotify runs over songs at random) that Will Toledo (aka, Will Barnes) feels like people read too much into his lyrics. And, his heavy use of image/metaphor/simile aside, I think I get his point: Toledo/Barnes’ lyrics feel straightforward; he’s just trying to make them more vivid.

Anyway, great song, totally grew on me over the months since September last year. Then I heard the studio version…

The Album
Teens of Style’s version of “Times to Die” shares everything with the Spotify Sessions version (again, sorry; posting via Spotify to twitter...soon), except every single recording/production decision made on the album. The layering upon layers audio effect starts with the opening track, “Sunburned Shirts,” and, just checked, it carries through to the end. I have no objective objection to that, never mind a subjective one, it’s just that that Spotify Sessions version reeks a bit of false advertising.

Then again, Car Seat Headrest’s Wikipedia page mentioned that Toledo recorded Teens of Style using “traditional studio processes,” and I’m ignorant of everything else he/they have done, so God only knows where real and fake ends and begins in all that.

Still, what to make of Teens of Style?

Monday, September 18, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 40: Crackerbash, Barons(?) of Portland, OR

Because I can’t stand repeating myself (seriously; makes me feel dumb, which is dumb), I put some amount of energy into coming up with new and better ways to present these posts. With Portland local legends, Crackerbash, I had this idea about looking into how members of the band recalled the hey-day…which I guess is something like what I wound up doing with The Fastbacks (who, it bears noting, both lasted longer as a band and reached higher). Crap…

In the best possible way. The lovers, the dreamers, and me...
At any rate, I did look into it and actually found something from Crackerbash’s front man, Sean Croghan. I…just can’t find it again, which feels weird because I just typed “crackerbash” into a web browser and, lo, it appeared….only now it doesn’t? How the hell that thing get so unpopular that quick?

Back to it, speaking after a reunion show a while back (wanna say, 2011), Croghan covered the necessary ground in the span of one sentence: he was happy for the band’s run, felt blessed to be part, but his bandmates, Scott Fox and Teddy Miller, settled down (e.g., square jobs and/or kids) between the early 90s and that reunion show, and that’s why a reunion concert didn’t become a reunion tour. They did a thing, though, and it was remembered and admired by a decent number of people. And that describes a limited number of lives.

Crackerbash came out around the time I lost interest in grunge…whatever the hell “grunge” was (in all honesty, the more I dig into this material, the slipperier that genre gets; in my head, though, it always sounds like this song). Crackerbash actually amounted to a reversion to normal, in that they sound more like bands I listened to on both sides of grunge – e.g. anyone else hear echoes of Fugazi’s guitar sound in Crackerbash’s “4 Ltrs”?

That note bridges nicely to a general comment on Crackerbash: they sounded quite a bit like their times and didn’t change the world or anything; even so, I dimly remember claiming them as my favorite band for at least a month or two and I don’t think I was alone in that (these guys liked ‘em plenty), and, again, that describes only so many lives. Maybe their live shows had something to do with that, because that keeps coming up (then again again, I recalled The Gits putting on great live shows in an earlier volume, something that didn’t…quite come through in the live footage I found when I went searching).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

New to Me No. 11: Angel Olsen, My Woman, Assertive Vulnerability

I flash to this every time. Cant' help it.
Back to appreciating the ladies’ fantastic contribution to rock…

Angel Olsen, My Woman

The Gateway Drug
Shut Up Kiss Me,” a pop-rock wail at unrequited love. (And one fucking adorable official video.)

The Backstory
First, true confession: I first heard the chorus as “Shut up kiss me, you retard.” The transgression thrilled me a bit too…won’t lie. I missed that word, and so many others.

Once the actual lyrics came through, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” has an early 60s girl-group (only, just one girl present). They come from something like, for lack of a better phrase, “assertive vulnerability,” the ever-bold act of laying all your cards on the table when the other person won’t give even the slightest gambler’s tell.

For the first time, I had a chance to run a song through Song Exploder. That’s a (short) podcast that features a musician/composer (Hrishikesh Hirway), who invites artists on to break down one of their songs; Olsen did “Shut Up Kiss Me.” She said she started with 1950s-inflected guitar, but I stand by my early-60s low-fi rock shout above for the song overall, if after the evolution (keep in mind that distinction quibbles over less than a decade’s time; “Rock Around the Clock” was recorded in 1955). I was always going to like this song – total sucker for that pop era – but, if you have the 15 minutes to hear how Olsen & Co. recorded this song (she’s very generous with her bandmates’ contributions, less so with their surnames), she’ll clarify what she had in mind better than I ever could. Long story short, it involved lots of layered guitar riffs, an honest, uncomplicated approach to rhythm (even the piano, which I never picked out till she mentioned it; endearing back-story on that, btw), and some damn good songwriting.

Of all the notes Olsen shared over Song Exploder, my favorite was explanation of the wail at the end: “defeated,” and “that’s just me yelling.” As she notes elsewhere, it’s sort of a parody of melodrama. Still, when you take a damn big chance only to have your stab at glory go “pfft.” Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 11: The Most Popular Songs in America, 1840-1849

Yes, it's blue! But is it borrowed?!
When I opened the primary source material for this series and saw a huge dogpile of songs at 1840, I felt a destiny of more songs for each successive year and/or decade looming. And not just in this post, but in an ever-expanding line into the future, one that would end with me compiling Top 40 lists for each year within each decade, producing literally monomaniacal, 1,200-link posts. I knew I would go mad, you see, so, with that in mind, I’ll be cutting this off…somewhere, probably in the early 20th century (thinking 1920 – 1929, for now).

As much as it pained me in the last chapter (so, so racist), I thought I’d do a little historical framing for the 1840s musical experience (think I, uh, used multiple sources; sorry for lack of links). How slow was transportation? The first wagon train to Independence, Missouri to reach California took 188 days to make the trip; on a related note, the inaugural voyage of the regular steam service from New York to San Francisco took nearly as long (four months, 21 days, thus explaining the Panama Canal). One seed of the ultimate transportation turn-around came with Alexander Graham Bell making the first phone call (“What God hath wrought”; I mean, what the hell, Graham Bell?). America got a helluva lot bigger, by both war (the Mexican-American), declaration (President James Polk holding up Manifest Destiny in a speech to accelerate Westward expansion), and migration (yes, even the Mormons, who arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 24, 1847). In a nice local touch, in just the third year (1842…see, 1840, 1841, you get it), the second organized train to slog the Oregon Trail basically crashed Fort Vancouver, and demanded food/lodging/probably entertainment (#protohippies). Oh, and baseball got public notice for the first time, even uniforms.

On the dark comedy side of the ledger (there’s always a dark side), William Henry Harrison clocked the shortest tenure for any American president when he died of (arguably preventable) pneumonia after one month in office (perhaps the saddest google search ever, "Who is William Henry Harrison and What Did He Do?"), the United States pulled the Great State of Texas into a bro-slapping hug in 1845, and that shit still doesn’t quite fit, the Mexican-American War kicked off - both before and after, in some ways – which…look, love it or hate it, that’s how things were done back then; the main thing is that we stop doing this shit now and, on the modest upside, at least we paid Mexico some scratch for the land ($422,400,000; yeah, yeah, we stiffed ‘em, but it beats glass beads and smallpox blankets (we were such, such assholes). If there’s a weird thing about the Mexican-American War it’s that George Pickett (of the (in)famous(ly stupid) charge) fought in the same division as Ulysses S. Grant. Just a pleasant reminder that history never stops, or starts making sense.

OK, onto the 1840s Hit Parade! I’ll be doing two songs for every year except the ragingly crowded 1840 (well, mostly), and, as with every decade so far, the source material hopped over on year in silence, 1842, in this case. Here goes…

Sunday, September 10, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Volume 39: MF Doom, El Hombre

How I visualize MF Doom. Roughly.
I want to start this with a confession (and please let me off the hook if this is a regular thing), but this one’s defensive (wait…aren’t most of them?). I think people of a certain age struggle with the idea of remixes, and/or multiple versions of the same song. I mean, there’s just the song, maybe people cover it or something, but the song’s the song. Maybe it’s a personal problem…

Last week’s “Persona Rap Battle” review trod on firmer ground, mostly because the whole thing framed as comparing one MF DOOM (also, “ALL CAPS” throughout, and for a reason) collaboration against the rest of them. This week, I had to sort out how to approach MF DOOM, a massive man/artist in terms of both conceptual originality and output, a challenge from the deeper wilds of the Paradox of Choice. Getting out of that Slough of Despond required a semi-lizard-brain decision to just…immediately make choices and live with them. Thus, did this project entirely eschew anything that included the word Metal Fingers on the album-level (because MF DOOM sneaks in ample references to his associated acts).

Between last week and this week, I formed a theory or two. First, MF DOOM falls in and out of his considerable stride he achieves on every album; over all the albums I’ve heard, DOOM tends to put his best tracks (or just the ones I consistently like best) a couple past the openers. It carries you through the album in some ways, while simultaneously underlining his capacity for real variety. (Also, that’s a more a rule of thumb than a hard, fast rule.) Second, MF DOOM scales all the way up when collaborating with equally visionary DJs – e.g. Madlib and Danger Mouse. I won’t even pretend I put the time in toward figuring out who did what across the albums I listened to this past week, but a lot of the stuff under the strictly MF DOOM/DOOM banner couldn’t clear the high, high bar set by DOOM’s best collaborative work.

To get back to that first paragraph, there comes an age when someone or something introduces a level of complexity that makes you, the aging person, just yell “STOP!” and block access to all information/alternatives, no matter how reasonable, smart or wise. (It’ll come for you; don’t kid yourself.) Because it was the only album I ever actually bought (or acquired), and because this entire project turns on that, pre-Spotify, I had to include DOOM’s Born Like This. After that, I put about the same amount of structured thought into the other stuff I chose that anyone does when rolling a six-sided dice (DOOM probably operates at 12-sided dice level at least).

So, I chose Operation Doomsday because it was his first – and, frankly, I’m neither clear nor interested in which version was original - and I chose MM..Food because I never saw the word “remix” anywhere around it. (keeping with scientific method in the Trump era.) Moving on…

Thursday, September 7, 2017

New to Me No. 10: Kyle Craft, Dolls of Highland

Shit's serious, man...
Looking at a unique artist for this one – and a new local (e.g. lives in Portland, Oregon, by way of Louisiana). Going to see him a couple Tuesdays from now, just to let people know he’ll be around…then again, Portland, Oregon, so he’s sort of always around.

Kyle Craft, Dolls of Highland

The Gateway Drug
Eye of the Hurricane,” an epic song about “bug-zapper” girls (also, solid party).

The Backstory
Craft grabbed my attention with that ragtime piano opening (hello, Louisiana roots!), but the way his voice crashes on the “sometimes” that leads into the line, “she wakes up in the middle of the night crying acid rain,” announces where he sets the emotional stakes in the song. Passions are high, people...

With its references to six-headed hounds and catacombs, “Eye of the Hurricane” rises to a quasi-mythic plane before song’s end and that’s why I reached for the word “epic” in the thumbnail description. It’s a crashing, grandiose tune, a song set in a key of  lust of the fiery variety. It possesses a dramatic narrative of castle-in-the-keep obstacles, and secret assignations equal parts consuming and ill-advised. Craft plays less with pitch/range in his vocals than he does with power and volume, and smartly tangles the music with the lyrics into something – nice touch with the wolf howls, kid – yes, as he keeps saying, “wild.”

Even if I can respect anyone who takes a pass, I think it’s a great song, coherent in conception and execution in a way that anyone who listens is lucky to get.

The Album
I’ll be honest: Dolls of Highland improved after I read a couple reviews. Those made sense of the whiff of repetition in the album’s persistent theme of heartbreak from falling in love with women who are perfect in every way except falling in love with him. The autobiographical elements of the source material both explain how cleanly it should resonate with anyone who knows the emotion, while also excusing the repetition. I mean, obsession and heartbreak go together like partners in a tango.

…also, guys, sometimes she just doesn’t feel it. Romantic comedies are lies, whose suggestions on “winning her back” have a better shot at a restraining order than her hand. But I digress…

Saturday, September 2, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 38: MF Doom Persona Rap Battle

Like MLS, back when. (Anschutz years...deep cut.)
Over the past couple months, a cluster of names/acts kept popping up in the sparse feedings of hip hop that Discover Weekly doles out for me (think what mice get for successfully navigating a maze (of which, not a bad metaphor for Spotify)). King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn and Madvillain: every song I heard by all three clicked pretty quickly (Vaughn, though, a little tougher). I figured I’d stumbled onto some kind of subgenre, a certain style that I responded to. And Madvillain, in particular, I recognized, by way of some knowledge of Madlib.

Clearly, I miss more than a few things.

To insert a little housekeeping/editorial note, a need to cap the weekly album count at four albums per artist, at least for the Bins Project, if only to manage my personal issues with monomania (thus the Four-Album Limit became The First Rule of The Bins Project). The week I put up the post onThe Didjits was actually supposed to tackle MF DOOM, but it took only weighing my ignorance about Doom (sorry…all caps always reads like yelling and I don’t like yelling; looks wrong too) against the impressive size of his oeuvre for me to embrace punting on fourth down. It worked out better in the end too, allowing me to loosely tie this post to the appreciation of Open Mike Eagle’s Hella Personal Film Festival (because, he’s a big Doom fan).

The dogpile of happy accidents only grew when I picked up on the fact that King Geedorah, Madvillain, and Viktor Vaughn (sneaky, sneaky name) were all MF Doom projects. (And, no, between the Vox video (see above; “big Doom fan”), the album cover, the voice, the flow, my only excuse it that I read Madlib’s Madvillainy 2 (which I’d heard) as his separate tribute/remix of Madvillainy…even though MF Doom shows up on the second goddamn track.) Clearly, then, Spotify didn’t introduce me to a new sub-genre, but to Daniel Dumile’s (or MF DOOM’S, hereinafter, "Doom," now guess where I work) sprawling, sliding-door personal universe.

Still had that problem with The First Rule of the Bins Project, something I resolved in two ways. First, I opted to tackle Doom’s music over two posts – one on Doom’s personal stuff (next week), and another that focused on his collaborations/different personas (this post). Second, I broke The First Rule of the Bins Project (now stripped of its underline), and did five albums (“hello, monomania, my old friend/let’s chill together once again”), And with apologies to NehruvianDoom (which I think I liked better than one of the other five, dammit).

Here are the five albums/collaborations that played out of my earbuds on heavy rotation this past week: