Thursday, April 27, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Volume 24: Menomena. Who Might Be My Favorite Band


Large intestines, c'mon forward! Shake it!
I first heard Menomena in…well, looks like that happened on August of 2012, but I actually pulled it from PDX Pop Now!’s 2010 compilation. The specific song was “Five Little Rooms.” I have been listening to that same song, often late at night and sufficiently loose (or tight…still struggling with which way to go there), since then, trying to decipher its meaning. I’m no Charlie Manson, some clown sifting the sound and lyrics for instructions on how to bring about Racist Doomsday (true story). Still, everything about that song – the drums pounding as if on the walls of those rooms, and vaguely funereal sound of the piano, the soaring buzz of the guitars toward the end, the mocking chorus – somehow recalls sensations of panic. Or, as one part of the lyrics puts it, “Click your heels and get the hell away.” Look, it sounds much more artful in the song...

We’re all familiar with the record store routine, the act of walking in there with a head full of ideas about what to buy, only to have every last idea leak out one aisle to the next, each successive band’s name taking you further and further from those original thoughts. When music collecting went mostly online, I stopped going to record stores – probably due to the above, too – but the day I finally did go, though, Menomena stayed front and center until I walked it to the register. “Five Little Rooms” had everything to do with that.

The above might reek of obsessive fandom, but, until this week, I’ve never quite pored over Menomena’s albums; and it’s rare that I pull a song apart like I did (and do) with “Five Little Rooms.” It’s not my style, for one (see: this entire goddamn project), but there’s also no world in which Menomena makes for easy listening. It’s not even that they don’t do infectious beats and addictive hooks – though they don’t do them much. Menomena is a study of details, the process of trying to catch and piece out the way they construct each song. They’re a band built not just for volume, but for the era of earbuds; listening to them almost requires sound-blocking, because it’s too easy miss an instrument, or some accent, or fail to note how, in one song, they built one bridge on a choppily pulsing saxophone, and the next bridge by plucking twinkles out of strings (see: “Weird”). That one also has one of my favorite lyrical phrases: “There’s no love lost that I can’t find again.” (Damn it! Typing that in plain text strangles the lyrics. Delivery matters. The way one communicates a thought or a feeling will always change it. Obviously.)

It feels right to tackle Menomena from the angle of approach, because it’s a big part of their sound. It starts with their songwriting process, something covered on the band’s Wikipedia page:

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol. 23: MGMT, Genre and Variety


Yes, of course. You CAN wear it...
Every so often, Spotify uses this feature where it plays notes about a song as it plays – they call it “Beyond the Lyrics” or something. I caught this for the first time (yes, seriously) while listening to MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” Those notes stopped scrolling over the music the last couple times, so I’m stuck referencing something that touches on one corner of that same story - broadly, “Electric Feel” was the first song for which the band wrote lyrics. What I can’t confirm is what I remember as the gist of Spotify’s back-story – i.e., that the lyrics were kind of a goof, just some playful somethings that happened to match the music. For me, that adds up. Everything about MGMT feels light; sometimes I toyed with the idea it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek.

It is, however, worth flagging a quote from/about the band that I can find:

“We tend to be inspired a lot by artists that switch genr├ęs each album. Each song is different. (Anglo-Dutch experimental Rock band) Legendary Pink Dots are like that.”
Read the lyrics for “Electric Feel” for yourself and think whatever you like (I mostly get basic pop song - e.g. it's about fucking). To that statement on inspiration, it comes through on MGMT’s three main LPs, Oracular Spectacular (2007), Congratulations (2010), and MGMT (2013). “Switching genres” overstates things – it’s not like they go country, hip hop, then metal, or anything – but each of those three albums still sound arrestingly distinct from the other two. Whatever I think of the details, they deserve credit for that…

… you can probably see where this is going…

When I tweeted a poll about relating to one’s generation a couple days back, trying to wrap my head around MGMT prompted it. It’s one thing to know what they sound like, but I was fishing for the something deeper, and here’s that: does MGMT sound…normal, I guess? Or at least like people expect? If so, where do they fit musically? (Or can we collectively stop attempting to classify a band as this sub-genre, or that spinoff sound - e.g., “Dutch-American Alternative Pop Rock Electronica”? Is that even ballpark?) When I hear MGMT on the radio (and it’s been a while), they play on 94.7 KNRK, and that’s Portland’s “alternative” radio station, but is that sound alternative? Does that word have meaning anymore, because alternative to what? On the most fundamental level, my real question boiled down to something people sometimes wonder as they get older: is that what The Kids like these days?

Friday, April 14, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol 22: What's Up Matador, aka, The Best Compilation in Human History

Look, I am not exaggerating.
I’m not generally a nostalgic, but there’s exactly one compilation CD on the planet that ties together enough of my adult life to makeme wistful: the 1997 What’s Up Matador compilation. More than just a sweet little piece of marketing from Matador Records, it's a collection of a lot of the best music to come out of the 1990s. Listen to it and I’m back in a jumbled, under-decorated house in downtown Reno, Nevada, waiting to stumble toward the casinos to play Pai Gow till something like dawn; next, I’m in Jamaica Plain, in the middle floor of one of Boston’s famous triple-deckers, sipping a third night-cap with a bunch of guys in the days before we all paired off into full, final adulthood (think How I Met Your Mother, only without the shitty ending).

The whole thing winds up with the guy who owned that place in Reno giving me this glorious compilation four, five years ago. Maybe he noticed it meant more to me somehow – it makes for one of the few links to the friends I have on the West Coast, than the friends from the East Coast who I haven’t seen in years - or maybe he was just sick of it (because I doubt he’s aware of the East Coast/West Coast bridge). Either way, he was kind enough to let me have it and here I am nearly 20 years later and I can still drop Disc 1 into audio player and rarely skip a song.

Disc 2, on the other hand, rarely leaves its case and the folder where it lives on my desktop never gets opened. Songs from Disc 1 show up on the mixed tapes I used to make (actually, mixed CDs) with the regularity of a heartbeat, but only one song from Disc 2 ever made it onto one of those compilations: Railroad Jerk’s “One Step Forward.” I love that freakin’ song (but, no, Youtube freebies, sadly), enough to play it between 1 1/3 and 1 1/2 times every time I hear it, even now (I tell myself it's about a lyric toward the middle I really like, and not infatuation). Disc 1, though, I love. It’s a little clingy, honestly.

With many of the same artists showing up on both discs, and with the same people (presumably) arranging the music (more on that later), I don’t get how that’s possible. How can one disc feel that much better with that many commonalities? In between turning all these pieces over in my head, I tried to figure that out this past week. And I think I got there. I’ll get to why What’s Up Matador is the greatest compilation in human history in the second half, even with only half of it pulling the weight. For now, let’s dig into Disc 2.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins Vol. 21: Modest Mouse, On Having Great Range Within an Octave (or Two)


Sure, there are limits, but...big expanse, yeah?
I moved to the East Coast for a bit, and I lost track of music when I did. Traveling light (10-box maximum, sent by train, and to multiple locations) meant leaving supplies behind here and there. The groups I fell in with back East either weren’t devoting time to digging up new music (most), or they devoted all their time to loving some bands very, very much (e.g., Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic) that I hated with equal, seriously?-I’m-leaving-the-room-now fervor.

Coming back west, circa 2002, also meant getting around at least a couple people who lived music as much as anyone who doesn’t play it regularly can. With them feeding both my music collection and my interest, my “musical libido” returned. And that is how I got my groove back.

Modest Mouse played a role in that, even if I can’t call it a big role. I thought she already had it when I met her, but my wife reminded me tonight that she asked me to buy Good News for People Who Love Bad News when it came out (2004). She found it through the radio, or something, and that brings me something about my wife: yes, she’s one of those people who will play an album – or, God forbid, just one song (see: “Cake by the Ocean”; nope! not kidding) - till every living person around her, and some of the pets (even the goldfish), beg her to stop. The negotiations that saved me from hating Good News for People Who Love Bad News raged loudly for a while – Stop and Pause buttons were pressed mid-song, threats made to “turn the goddamn car around right now, if that doesn’t go off” – but it went toward a good cause, because, goddamn it, I still love that album.

Seeing that Spotify gives the most famous songs from Good News pride of place in their popular queue (slots 1 and 3 of 5), it feels OK to call that album their Big One, the one that launched them to steady musical renown (and, ideally, financial security). “Float On” is still the one I hear most on accident (#1), maybe “World at Large” (#3), but a lot of the rest still feel like “hits” to me, if only by way of the fact that, like, a lot of people seem to know those same songs (e.g., “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “Bukowski,” “Bury Me With It,” and, personal favorite, “Black Cadillac”; just something about the combination of cadence and lyrics on that one; chorus doesn’t hurt either). Also, if the main way you consume an album is to sit down and listen to the whole damn thing (NO SKIPPING! These nice boys worked very, very hard on this!), the whole idea of “hits” kinda goes out the window.