Song 352: Outkast, “Ms. Jackson” (2001)

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I like thinking about where I was when I first heard a particular song. I don’t remember the exact moment that I first heard “Ms. Jackson,” but I do remember hearing it everywhere I went while I was studying abroad in London. The time that I first listened closely, when I listened to what André 3000 was rapping and singing about, I was in a shoe store near Whitechapel.

I don’t remember what kind of impression the song made, but I do know I noticed just how weird the thing is. Sure, it’s catchy and concise, and there are weirder Outkast songs (the insane “B.O.B.” comes to mind), but there’s something eerie about it. Maybe it’s that keyboard or synth, whatever it is, that sounds like the score from a Vincent Price movie. Or the borderline-operatic piano on top, which makes the song sound like some kind of cinematic melodrama.

What I love most about Outkast, and about “Ms. Jackson” in particular, is the combination of steady beats and synths and staccato, mile-a-minute rapping. That underlying consistency makes the top layer of craziness a little easier to process, and it keeps the whole track from spinning out of control. That foundation frees up André to spit out lines like “I wish I could become a magician to abracadabra all the sadder thoughts of me, thoughts of she, thoughts of he.” It’s all much more interesting than if the song consisted only of speed.

Then again, “speed” is about the only thing going on with the glorious “B.O.B.,” so what do I know? Maybe I should leave these opinions up to the experts and just appreciate that Outkast knows how to choose the right feel for the right song.

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Song 227: Rainer Maria, “Hell and High Water” (2001)

rainermariaI had been to a couple of rock shows before I saw Rainer Maria at the Middle East in February 2003, but they didn’t really register. If memory serves, those previous shows were by Man or Astro-Man? and Clinic, bands that didn’t do much for me (despite the undeniable spectacle of the former).

When Lizzie and I went to the Rainer Maria show with our friend Adam, I suddenly understood why going to watching bands in dirty rooms was a thing people did. It seemed miraculous that the sound was exploding, perfectly formed, in that tiny basement. It felt like we were in a secret downstairs society, and those above-ground suckers, doing whatever mundane, non-rock errands they were doing, were completely missing out. Our community had the distortion and the beer, and theirs didn’t.

The show marked the first time I’d heard either band. Mates of State came out first, and the very idea blew my mind: two people can do this? With a keyboard and a tiny drum? Then came Rainer Maria, and the contrast between the two bands—both powerful but differing in ammunition—made the second act seem massive.

I don’t remember exactly what Rainer Maria played, but I’d like to think this song, the closer to their excellent record A Better Version of Me, was the highlight. I love everything about “Hell and High Water,” from the charging-out-of-the-gate intro to that chorus full of melody and pathos. Then there’s the breakdown that leads to the end, when the sweet harmonies temper the sadness of Caithlin De Marrais singing “I’m not a fool.” The song is full of ranging emotions, with “giving you the finger” sticking out like, er, a sore thumb.   Rainer Maria broke up in 2006, and I desperately want them back, barnstorming clubs with power chords and thunderous basslines. But I suppose it’s someone else’s turn now.


Song 170: Jon Brion, “Her Ghost” (2001)

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For a while there, Jon Brion was everywhere. He probably still is, and I’m just not paying as much attention, but seriously: hit records, obscure records, film scores, a weekly live music show… The man was inescapable, even if you didn’t know you were hearing him.

Add “solo record” to that list. Brion’s album Meaningless is a great record, one that rivals the work he did for Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple in the late nineties and early aughts. The songs are good, the production (in typical Brion fashion) is layered and unpredictable, and the musicianship is (again, typically) fantastic. The songs range in style from quiet acoustic ballad (the lovely “The Same Mistakes”) to frenetic, robotic pop workout (“I Believe She’s Lying,” which Brion co-wrote with Mann). “Her Ghost” is somewhere in between, a kind of a shuffle–a Bacharachesque lounge-pop number whose midtempo pace acts as a statement about a bummer of a status quo.

This dude, he’s always around, even though he isn’t. It’s an interesting metaphor, and I’m surprised nobody’s done it before. We all know people who have been hung up on someone far past the point of their actual presence, and it does seem like the person’s spirit still lingers, annoyingly, in every corner of every room. I like how Brion isn’t scared of the ghost, he’s just irritated.

I tend to gravitate towards songs with one central idea versus songs with many competing ones–mostly because I have a hard time interpreting lyrics, and it’s convenient when there’s only one motif to follow. Brion and Mann are pros at this style, and they both have songs that hinge on one metaphor, idiom or image, scouring its meaning for emotional resonance. In the case of “Her Ghost,” Brion explores this idea from the point of view of a bystander, until he points out that he’s “the one being exorcised.” The fact that the last word in that phrase prompts a wry little trumpet solo is very funny to me. Brion wins again.

Meaningless is a hell of a record, if you can track it down. In one sense, it sounds very much like 2001, and like the L.A. scene that fostered Mann, Eels, Elliott Smith and others of their ilk. In many other ways, it just sounds like pop music, from Tin Pan Alley to Cheap Trick (whose song “Voices” Brion covers for the album’s closer). I don’t know what Brion’s up to now–if he’s working with Kanye West, scoring a Vince Vaughn romantic comedy, or trying that television pilot again, but whatever it is, it’s going to be interesting.

Fun fact about my brain: whenever Brion sings “every” in the first part of the chorus, I subconsciously expect him to follow up with the rest of the Punky Brewster theme song  (“…time I turn around”). My mind is a strange place to be sometimes. Or always.


Song 157: The Strokes, “Someday” (2001)

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Sometimes the hype is true, and sometimes the nostalgia is still vivid for a reason. Like everybody else who paid attention to rock music in the early aughts, the buzz on the Strokes was deafening. I remember reading an interview with Peter Buck in which he proudly declared that he had seen the Strokes, and they were everything they were supposed to be. Think about that: one of the leading forces in indie rock, guitarist for the band that defined the path for a successful (commercially and otherwise) indie band, announced that these guys were the real deal. Peter Buck doesn’t do that very often, and not many others do either.

Because they fully expected that the hype would only lead to widespread disappointment, the Strokes named their first record Is This It. But Peter Buck was, of course, right. They may not have “saved” rock ‘n’ roll, as many had hoped (mainly because it didn’t need saving), but they reinvigorated it. There were excellent rock records coming out throughout the late nineties and early 2000s, but he ones that got the most attention were by big, bloated sludge bands. They sounded like mud.

Out of this mud came Is This It, an electric, frenetic, fun record that felt (and still feels) like a record: a time and a place, a room with five guys playing their very, very best. This may be rock music, but it’s immaculately arranged and performed rock music, with all the parts in place and the rhythm like a metronome. “Someday” is my favorite song on Is This It, because it exemplifies all of these qualities, and a few more: Julian Casablancas’s just-accurate-enough vocals, a melody that won’t go away, and lyrics about aging and nostalgia that hit home for young and old (“Now my fears, they come to me in threes” sounds downright demonic, like something out of a Robert Johnson song).

Is This It is the rare record that reminds me of a very specific time and place (wandering around Bates College in a post-Sepetmber 11 haze) but doesn’t sound dated in the least. It still jumps around like a living, breathing thing, like five guys just trying to get someone to hear them.


Song 92: Ani DiFranco, “Marrow” (2001)

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I get why a lot of people don’t like Ani DiFranco. The warbly voice, the occasionally sanctimonious tone, album covers like this. (Or the fact that she’s, y’know, a woman. Some people don’t like that sometimes.) But I think she’s really underrated as both a writer and a performer. She can write some really pointed, vivid lyrics, and her melodies can rank with the best of them.

“Marrow” is one of my favorite Ani DiFranco songs. Much of the reason is the arrangement: you don’t often hear horns paired with an acoustic guitar, and it lends this song a slight grandiosity that still fits the intimacy of the song.

Whenever I hear this song, I feel the bridge raising the hackles of the Ani DiFranco detractors. There’s the warble on the word “smorgasbord”, and, for that matter, the word “smorgasbord”. But it’s all of a piece, and when the song settles back into its chord progression, the bridge has served its purpose; it’s elevated “Marrow” so that when the verses reappear, the notes are higher, the horns are louder, and DiFranco’s determination is stronger.

The lyrics for this song are an interesting mix of abstract (“my heart’s perforated”) and direct (“I’m not listening to you anymore”, which nicely echoes the earlier “you weren’t listening”). The images in the song (an El Camino, bottles of poison, tobacco-stained fingers) paint a vivid picture of a relationship built on mistrust and momentum. The fact that DiFranco can make you understand this complex relationship over the course of five minutes is pretty impressive.


Song 91: Gorillaz, “Rock the House” (2001)

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When I was in London for a semester in 2001, the music on BBC Radio 1 was unbelievably good. Just emerging was Badly Drawn Boy, still-popular bands included Goldfrapp and Daft Punk, and even the one-hit wonders (Toploader, Spooks) were substantive. Many of the songs were years old and not particular to London, but being new to the city, it felt like the music was London’s music circa 2000. I had an acute awareness of my time and place; for that reason, my six-month stay is very vivid.

The major act that was breaking at the time was Gorillaz. We’ve all become accustomed to seeing an imaginary group of animated creatures perform rock-infused hip-hop, but at the time, the idea was pretty crazy. Even the fact that it involved Blur’s Damon Albarn and had anything to do with hip-hop seemed ludicrous (though we’ve all learned since then that Damon Albarn can do whatever he damn well pleases).

I always forget until I hear this song again that a piano pops up in the second chorus. It’s these kinds of touches that make the Gorillaz records so fascinating. They blend genres and cultures without drawing attention to themselves, without boasting; everything fits together seamlessly. Of course, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien is the glue on this one, uniting the samples, beats and poorly played recorder by rapping about how it’s time for all of us to dance. There may be better lyrics than “trace the globe and shake your pants,” but I’m not sure what they would be.


Song 73: Eels, “Fresh Feeling” (2001)

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We finally got a glimpse of spring yesterday, after a challenging winter. Well, that’s all a lite exaggerated–we had some warm weather a month or two ago, and it was only within the past month that we got snowstorm after snowstorm. New England winters are like that: the nice weather seems fleeting, the lousy weather seems to last an eternity. Or maybe it’s just that New Englanders need something to complain about at all times.

At any rate, the first signs of spring around here are always very welcome, no matter how much you like winter. I happen to love winter, but the grayness and piles of snow were starting to wear on me, and I’m thrilled that I don’t have to wear a giant coat for a while.
When this weather first pops up, I usually listen to “Fresh Feeling,” a song that reminds me of spring. Not many people can get away with singing about a “fresh feeling,” but E has an honesty about him, even in his detachment, that makes it work. And songs like these–songs about contentment and renewal, however temporary, sound especially sincere coming from E, whose songs (and life experiences) can be bleak.
So, here’s to springtime, to Opening Day at Fenway, to open windows. I probably just jinxed us all, but sometimes you just have to take that chance.