Song 363: The Postal Service, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” (2003)

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When The Postal Service’s Give Up came out ten years ago, it sounded like a revelation. Beats, keyboards and synths blended with string samples and voices to make something that sounded both new and familiar. It sounded like the future, and in a way, it was (for better or worse).

At the time, I only vaguely knew about Death Cab For Cutie. The big draw for me was Jenny Lewis, then a member of Rilo Kiley, a band who I was obsessed with. Lewis sings some beautiful backup and duet vocals on the record, but Give Up, of course, belongs entirely to Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard. It continues to amaze me how cannily these two guys brought their exact skill sets to the project; Tamborello’s work as Dntel draws genuine emotion from clicks and clacks, and Gibbard, whether armed with an electric or acoustic guitar, can write a song that is guaranteed to break your heart.

“The District Sleeps Tonight” is the first song from Give Up, and it starts in a way that seems to say that it’s just the beginning of something big. Those low notes make the song creak to life, and Tamborello’s beats—which are somehow full of humanity, despite being totally synthetic—feel like fingers or toes moving, helping the song awake from a deep sleep. As opening lines go, “Smeared black ink/Your palms are sweaty/And I’m barely listening to last demands” is a great one. It’s like the opening to a noir novel—mysterious, intriguing, and dark, dark, dark.

Like the rest of Give Up, the chorus of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is pop at its most direct. The combination of that directness with the often chaotic digital mess underneath is, in my opinion, what makes this record so great. There’s a tension between those two sounds, and it reflects the tension in each song, even when the song is seemingly full of joy. In Gibbard’s hands, to his great credit, nothing is entirely happy.


Song 300: R. Kelly, “Ignition (Remix)” (2003)

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I’ve planned to write about “Ignition (Remix)” as my 300th song for a long time, and when I started looking up the song online, I found some internet rumors that R. Kelly died this morning. I first came across this rumor on YouTube comments for the “Ignition” video, and since YouTube comments are officially The Worst Thing On The Internet, I assumed it was false. Thankfully, the internet proved it was a hoax.

If R. Kelly did die today, how would he be remembered? I’d like to think we’d remember him as a crazy genius, because what the hell? How does he come up with any of this stuff? “Ignition (Remix)” isn’t cuckoo-bananas like Trapped In The Closet, but it’s still out of left field. First of all, it’s insanely, grandly, ingeniously fun—it’s about fun, and singing it is fun—and you can’t resist that beat. So simple, but so … fun.

The song’s Spinal Tap-worthy metaphors are also part of its likability. It’s stupid, but there’s no way R. Kelly didn’t know that. It’s the freakin’ weekend, so let’s compare sex to driving, and let’s say “beep beep” and “toot toot” while getting it on. And the line “I’m like so what I’m drunk” may just be the most accurate lyric ever about alcohol consumption.

Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle loves “Ignition,” so much so that he wrote a list of 100 reasons testifying to its greatness. Included on the list are “The rhythm is insistent without being hard” and “‘freakin’? Who says ‘freakin’?” His list is better than anything I could come up with, so we’ll just leave it at that.

Actually, we’ll leave it at this: if you need any more convincing, here’s M.J.


Song 270: Philip Glass, “100,000 People” (2003)

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Detractors of Philip Glass often complain that his music is too repetitive. I see where they’re coming from, but that’s one of the things I like most about it. (Glass does too: He reportedly calls himself a composer of “music with repetitive structures,” preferring that phrase over the term “minimalist.”) Like the music of his colleague Steve Reich, Glass’s work achieves something of a meditative state in its repetition; the patterns eventually lead to revelations and idiosyncrasies.

Glass wrote the score for Errol Morris’s film The Fog of War, a movie about one of the Vietnam War’s main architects, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. It’s both a damning (but also admiringly ambiguous) look at the horrors of war and a portrait of a man who isn’t exactly sure of—or isn’t ready to face—his role in the conflict.

The Vietnam War—especially as it is portrayed in The Fog of War—is a mess of confusing decisions, vague moral questions, and seemingly unending darkness. For those reasons alone, Philip Glass’s style is a perfect fit: his gloomily circular themes are an appropriate backdrop for a quagmire whose patterns of dishonesty and destruction defined an era.

“100,000 People” actually refers to the number of casualties in a McNamara-assisted mission in Tokyo during World War II. That part of the film provides some crucial backstory for McNamara: in his descriptions of the bombing (especially in using terms like “mechanism”), his experience as president of the Ford Motor Company starts to shed light on his purely analytical view of war. Numbers are numbers, whether they represent car sales or casualties. Glass’s cold, precise score underlines this business-oriented logic, the musical complement to McNamara’s dark math.


Song 266: Beth Orton, “Carmella” (Four Tet remix) (2003)

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This song never seems to last 11 minutes. I don’t know what that means—maybe it lulls me into a state in which I lose track of time, or that it’s just so interesting that time seems to pass faster. Or maybe it has to do with its structure.

I generally like Beth Orton a lot, but the original “Carmella” isn’t much to write home about. I don’t say that to needlessly put down Orton, but to praise Four Tet (the musical moniker for DJ Kieran Hebden) for adding that awesome beat and changing the song’s pacing so that each part—intro, climax, and comedown—are longer than in your typical pop song. That’s what I like so much about Four Tet: this is dance music, but it also follows a pop structure, which makes for interesting listening.

But more than anything else, I just love that beat, which seems to incorporate the best parts of Bollywood and “Be My Baby,” and adds a weighty counterpoint to Beth Orton’s feather-light voice. It certainly sounds like the early aughts, when anybody who was anybody was mixing acoustic guitars with synthetic percussion. But the Four Tet remix of “Carmella,” in all its delicate bombast, is still awesome.


Song 221: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Bridges, Squares” (2003)

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There’s something exciting about a place you know intimately being portrayed in art. The not-bad comedy Housesitter was partially filmed in my hometown, and whenever I see any local landmarks show up on screen, including a few that are half a mile from the house where I grew up, I get a tinge of excitement. (It’s the little things.)

“Bridges, Squares” prominently features Kendall Square, the neighborhood where I work and frequently wander. As Ted Leo thinks about his place in history and nature, he’s standing (I assume) on the Longfellow Bridge, with the skylines of Cambridge and Boston within his view. From the Longfellow, you can see the Museum of Science, the Hatch Shell, the Citgo sign, the Prudential, and the Hancock. It’s a beautiful spot, and I can see it would inspire Leo to write a song about not ossifying.

I love Ted Leo because his music is almost always exhilarating, yet I can’t classify it; it’s some odd combination of punk, new wave, and Jam-like mod rock. This song contains all the things I love about Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, from the breakneck pace of the electric guitars to the surprising breakdown at about 2:35. He’s capable of consistency and surprise in equal measure, just like Boston.


Song 199: Explosions in the Sky, “First Breath After Coma” (2003)

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It’s interesting that, given how prevalent instrumental music is in other genres—jazz and, of course, classical—that there aren’t more instrumental rock bands. After all, rock is capable of all sorts of interesting things that don’t require vocals: dramatic changes in volume, key changes, solos… And yet Explosions in the Sky seems to be one of the few bands doing this. (A more obscure example is the band El Ten Eleven.) Maybe the audience just isn’t there, who knows.

In any case, Explosions in the Sky are great at what they do, and they do have a sizable audience. The band received a big jump in popularity after their music was featured in the movie Friday Night Lights (and lovingly duplicated by W.G. Snuffy Walden for the excellent television show). I wonder who thought to use their music to score football games, because it’s a perfect fit. The drums often sound militaristic, which mirrors not only the battle-like feel of football games, but also the snare drums of marching bands, whose members, as we all know, are just as important to the games as the players (Acton-Boxborough Regional High School Marching Band, 1994-1998, suckas!).

I love this song, especially when it suddenly coalesces at around 2:27. This band has a knack for drama without going over-the-top, which I think is a pretty impressive feat. They also write melodies with no lyrics that get stuck in your head, which, in the realm of indie rock, is more impressive still.


Song 184: DeVotchKa, “Queen of the Surface Streets” (2003)

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A few years ago, in honor of Valentine’s Day, the Minneapolis weekly newspaper Southwest Journal asked a handful of singer-songwriters, including me, to name their favorite romantic song. I chose the DeVotchKa song “Queen of the Surface Streets,” which Lizzie has never let me forget, as she finds that distinction very strange. And yes, fair enough: this is not even close to the most romantic song ever. I was pretty into this song at the time, and I definitely overstated the case. (Luckily for all of us, the article is no longer online.)

I do think it’s pretty romantic, though: the guy working his ass off in the subway tunnel every day, only so he can catch a glimpse of a beautiful commuter. And I like how the difference between the two people is expressed in many ways, and how the contrast between the woman’s beautiful “surface streets” and the filthy underworld of the subway tunnels reflects a kind of beauty-and-the-beast divide between the two people.

And the lyrics play up this unrequited love with a sense of epic drama: “I’ll move these rocks for you, my love/I will tear them up out of the Earth.” And there are some nice parallels between the pair, like the lines “I will bend my spine ‘til it’s quitting time” and “I would live on the street/In a cardboard shack/Just to worship the feet/And the curve of your back.” His spine bends like it’s about to break, but her back curves. Everything about her is effortless, and everything about him is sweat, toil and work. And it’s all for her.