When the Avalanches’ record Since I Left You came out in 2000, I don’t think I realized how special it was. I listened to it all the time, and I loved it, but since I didn’t know much about sample-heavy music, I didn’t know what a wonder it was. It’s a mess of samples (Wikipedia claims there are 3,500 of them) assembled into songs that sound nothing like random things thrown together.
Well, that’s not exactly true. “Frontier Psychiatrist” sounds like bits and pieces, but by design. The song is like a hallucination (and the video, in which people lip-sync the various vocal samples on a stage, is like a fever dream by Ed Sullivan). The track’s hook is a man saying “that boy needs therapy,” and its surrounding lines, from “I promised my girlfriend I could play the violin” to “he was white as a sheet” are like fragments from one fucked-up short story.
When I hear Since I Left You today, I am amazed at how cohesive it sounds. I have no idea how anyone can hear 3,500 samples and know where to put them, to make them sound so natural together. People who say DJs, producers and other electronic musicians aren’t artists need to hear Since I Left You, a record with an astounding amount of artistry even in its first minute. I don’t understand how things like this happen, and I think that’s what I like most about it. It’s like magic.
Back when The Marshall Mathers LP came out, I was pretty opposed to the whole thing. There was no question of Eminem’s abilities, but I couldn’t get past the homophobia, and more importantly, I couldn’t get past his denial that it was a problem.
So why should I feel any differently now? It’s not like homophobia in hip-hop has gotten any less rampant, despite a cultural shift since 1999. Or maybe I’ve just come to accept that it’s part of hip-hop culture, whether Iike it or not. Maybe, as with the even more rampant misogyny, it’s just something I’ll have to accept as part of Eminem’s deal.
Of course, Eminem’s deal has never been easy to ascertain, other than the fact that he’s a brilliant smartass, a rapper as committed to lyrical structure and internal rhymes as Rakim. On top of it all, Marshall Mathers is also capable of some genuinely moving songwriting (as in “Stan,” for one example).
I not only resisted Eminem back in 1999, I resisted “The Real Slim Shady,” that monster of a hit that was impossible to avoid. The jock assholes in the dorm room across from me used to blast it when they pre-partied with their red Solo cups, and in my snobbery I decided it was a jock asshole anthem. Which it kind of was, but it was also everywhere. And back in the heyday of boy bands and Limp Bizkit, I should have recognized it for the breath of fresh air that it was.
And even though its references are ridiculously dated, it’s still an insanely clever song, which is helped by Eminem’s comic timing. My favorite part is when Mathers raps, “And Dr. Dre says…” which is a reference to Eminem’s previous big hit, “My Name Is,” in which Dre calls Eminem a basehead. I love the dumb laugh that follows “Dr. Dre’s dead, he’s locked in my basement!” Nothing’s out of place, even the stupid shit. But it’s the stupid shit that matters.
Nia is such a dense, substantive record that highlighting the relatively silly “A to G” is kind of misleading. But the track, on which Gift of Gab raps in alphabetical order, is just immensely satisfying.
Of all the styles of rapping—lazy, rapid-fire, behind-the-beat, etc.—Gab’s kind of flow is my favorite: he’s fast, but not the fastest, and he’s right on the beat, but he also plays with the rhythm in unexpected ways. Listen for when he stresses odd syllables, such as “con-COCT-tions.” Gab also plays with your attention, like when he starts the “D” verse with a bunch of nonsense sounds, only to follow them up with “domination don’t dignify diction.” He knows exactly what he’s doing, even when (or especially when) it doesn’t sound like it.
My only complaint is that, during the “E” verse, Gab says “Eons of energy, everyone affected.” The wrong use of affected/effected? Have you no shame, Gift of Gab? Have you no shame??
I love the central idea of this song—er, “This Song”: that the chances of any work of art ever getting completed, or released to the world, are so miniscule. The odds, from an artist’s lack of inspiration to an indifferent public, are forever stacked against it. Hate is strong, the darkness thrives. The fact that you’re hearing the song at all is something of a miracle.
I also love that Ron Sexsmith treats the song as a living, breathing thing. “It trembles here, before my eyes/How can this song survive?” And isn’t it a living, breathing thing? A song has its own personality, an image that grows and changes over time, even if its words and melody stays consistent.
As if trying to stack the deck, Sexsmith dresses the song up with saxophones that seem to provide commentary about how great the song is: Check out this song! It’s so jazzy! Take a listen so it can make it! Please! In the background, there’s Sexsmith, gently pleading his case while shrugging his shoulders.
I fell in love with Radiohead’s record The Bends in the summer of 1998, the same summer I got to know Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Elvis Costello‘s Brutal Youth. (Weird trio, I know.) I liked OK Computer, but the songs on The Bends got to me more, and they still do. OK Computer is undeniably brilliant, but its coldness is a little too unnerving for me (which I know was the point). I can only listen to it once in a while without feeling like every machine in my house is about to destroy me.
Kid A is equally unnerving, but sonically, it has a lot more variation. It’s full of the turn-of-the-century anxiety that comprised OK Computer, but the sound is more of a landscape, more of a moody motif, than its predecessor. Maybe the record’s cover art is what brings this image to mind, but it makes me think of a creepy, glitched-out techno-country with pixelated mountains, valleys, and rivers. There are warm synths, jagged guitars, buzzy vocals, and fat basslines; it’s like Radiohead built their own Radiohead theme park.
The song starts with that indelible riff, which Thom Yorke wrote when he was 16 and saved for just the right song. It sets the unsettling tone perfectly: its use of both the major and the minor thirds (F-sharp and F-natural, in the key of D) make the song simultaneously major and minor. Ultimately, all hell breaks loose, but in an organized way. In his Rolling Stone review, David Fricke said the horn section sounds like “a New Orleans brass band walking into a brick wall.” I think that’s exactly right: this isn’t complete chaos, but it’s also not right. Somebody’s leading us somewhere unsafe, like a drum major leading us into an alley.
I remember watching Radiohead play “The National Anthem” on Saturday Night Live and thinking, “This is exactly where they belong.” As Yorke seemed to seize under strobe lights and the horn section blared like multiple car alarms, it seemed like Radiohead had found its niche. A friend who was in the room asked, “Do they always have a horn section?” (He was in a ska band, and I think he had some newfound, if misguided, respect for the band.)
Kid A gets lots of just praise for its avant-garde aesthetic, but every time I listen to it, I’m surprised about its sheer accessibility, and about how seemingly disparate elements cohere as if by magic. It’s a dark, scary record, but it’s also full of light, if you look hard enough. As Fricke wrote, “this is pop, a music of ornery, glistening guile and honest ache, and it will feel good under your skin once you let it get there.” And once you do let it get there, you feel as if you’ve been complicit to something nefarious and unprecedented. In other words, it’s art.
Back in 2000, I picked up Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out at Bull Moose on a whim. I’d heard the band was good, and the cover was awesome. It turned out to not only be a great record, but a perfect introduction to Yo La Tengo, a band that had already, at that point, been around for 16 years. I’d missed out on the glorious I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, but I got to hear this one, a strange, wonderful mix of the band’s disparate strengths, the year it came out.
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out has all the Yo La Tengo elements that have made them such an enduring indie rock band for 30 years: the fuzzy pop they perfected with “Sugarcube” (reincarnated here as “Cherry Chapstick”), the distortion marathon of “Hoboken,” and the hazy, sweet “Our Way to Fall.” The bouncy “We Can Have It All” is the obvious favorite on this record, but “Our Way to Fall,” a paean to the important things people share, is the sleeper hit.
Bands like Yo La Tengo don’t tend to get much attention for their lyrics, and I’m not sure why that is. It may just be the difference between bands and solo artists, the latter of which people assume write autobiographical, memoir-type songs. But Yo La Tengo’s songs usually have interesting lyrics, and “Our Way to Fall” is no exception. I love the simplicity of the memories being described: “I remember sitting next to you/and I remember pretending I wasn’t looking.” That’s such a great description of being in love with someone.
This song always makes me think of the commercial that Errol Morris directed for PBS. It’s similarly based on the images and feelings that come from memories, and I think it’s a perfect use of this song.
I came to Modest Mouse pretty late. I’d heard a few songs here and there (and “Never Ending Math Equation” was a regular song on my college radio show), but for some reason I never investigated further until Good News for People Who Love Bad News came out in 2004. I’m sure diehard Modest Mouse fans think Good News was the time when everybody jumped on the bandwagon, and I suppose they’re right, but it’s a great album.
The Moon and Antarctica is the record that came before Good News, and it’s generally thought of as the best Modest Mouse album, a sentiment that I can’t disagree with. It’s got a handful of great songs, but “Paper Thin Walls” is my favorite. Among other things, the song shows what a talented singer, songwriter and arranged Isaac Brock is. He uses his staccato delivery to great effect on lines like “These walls are paper thin and everyone hears every little sound/Everyone’s a voyeurist, they’re watching me watch them watch me right now.” As in other Modest Mouse songs, his spitfire singing is a perfect match for the choppy guitars and bombastic drums.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what this song is about. I get the paranoia and turn-of-the-century navelgazing of the “voyeurist” verse, but what to make of the “laugh hard, it’s a long ways to the bank” section? Is it a kiss-off? A false sense of security? Is this whole song just an overconfident delusion?
Whatever it is, it’s Modest Mouse’s finest hour. This and “Wild Pack of Family Dogs” were my gateway drug to “Out of Gas,” “Missed the Boat,” and, yes, the glorious and deathless “Float On.” I hope they come out with something else soon.