Of Montreal is an interesting band, because they have a reputation for weirdness, yet their songs are often as catchy as anything you’ve heard. And sure, Kevin Barnes and co. name their records things like Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, but the songs underneath crackle with pop energy.
“Requiem For O.M.M.2” is an especially interesting one, because even though it’s a 2-and-a-half-minute pop song with a hard-driving, wood-block-fueled beat, the lyrics are wistful and sad. “I never ever stopped wondering,” sings Barnes, “wondering if you still think of us.” He describes the overall tone of the romance as “Vaseline all over the lenses,” an image that I love because it simultaneously recalls hazy, dreamlike scenes from movies and the obscured view he had at the time.
The chords underneath the bridge (“It’s such a burden to carry ’round/The vestiges of dead dreams”) are classic pop song sad chords, but the whole thing chugs along amicably, as if Barnes’ line “I don’t want to make a wake out of my life” inspired him to make this song sound as celebratory as possible. I like to picture him banging that wood block as if his life depended on it.
I love this song, but more importantly, I love that the person I love most loves it. And I mean Lizzie loves it. The moment it starts, with Sonny Rollins puckishly playing a few notes to get the party started, she becomes visibly, noticeably, palpably happy. I don’t know that many songs have that effect on me.
Part of Lizzie’s love for “Global Warming” stems from her adoration for Rollins, an 83-year-old tenor saxophonist who dances around the stage with the energy of a man a fourth his age. I share her adoration, because Rollins is a jazz genius, an undersung musician who, despite years of being known as a saxophone colossus, isn’t a household name like Coltrane or Parker.
When he played a show in Boston four days after September 11, 2001, he was 71. The fact that Rollins can produce a work so vital as “Global Warming” at his advanced age is a testament to his artistic commitment. He almost canceled the previously scheduled show after he watched the Twin Towers fall, from his apartment blocks away. His wife and manager Lucille convinced him that the performance was a good, even necessary, thing to do. So off he went to Boston. He played his ass off, and a recording of the event was released four years later.
All of Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert is great, but “Global Warming” is unquestionably its highlight. Rollins and his band play as if their lives depend on it, making music so celebratory and cathartic that it sounds like they’re exorcising demons. The song perfectly encapsulates what we were all feeling in the days, months, years following September 11, 2001: we needed to vent our frustration, but we needed to commemorate the fact that we were still alive, and that goodness, decency, and joy had to prosper in the darkness. Rollins seems to be personally willing that joy into existence.
There are a few moments on “Global Warming” that always stand out for me. The first comes around 10:30, when he starts playing a melody that sounds weak and dissonant, like he’s losing a battle out of fatigue. He then recovers a couple minutes later, with squawks that sound both triumphant and mad as hell. Finally, around 13:30, he settles into a fierce, jubilant phrase that continues for most of the song’s remaining two minutes. It feels like the good things in life have won, if only for a moment. (I remember once mentioning to Lizzie that I thought the moment at 10:30 was funny—that Rollins was making a jazz joke about purposely playing poorly—and Lizzie rightly and politely pointed out that he was actually playing that way out of feverish anger, which was one of her favorite things about the song.)
I don’t subscribe to any of that High Fidelity bullshit about a person’s tastes defining who they are; I think it works the other way around: often—but not always—a person’s personality can be reflected in the art they appreciate most. It makes me endlessly happy to think of the love of my life, and my best friend, loving a song so passionately devoted to making others, including herself, feel good.
Kanye West had a good 2005. That August saw the release of Late Registration, West’s second record, the one that featured “Gold Digger,” the one that shot him into the stratosphere. A few months earlier, Common’s Be, which West produced, was released to positive reviews.
And rightly so. It’s not the most daring album (especially compared to his incredible Like Water for Chocolate), but it’s great—concise, layered, and subtle. My favorite track from Be is “The Corner,” a song that celebrates the cultural touchstones of blackness, ones that became necessary as, over the years, poor neighborhoods stayed poor. Common raps about “uncles that smoke, and some put blow up they nose” and says he “roll[s] in a Olds, with windows that don’t roll.” He paints a very detailed, vivid picture, providing a tour of a neighborhood ravaged by poverty and hopelessness. When I first heard this song, I was touched by how alive the corner felt, by how the neighborhood was full of energy (helped along by West’s buoyant beat). It’s clear from the lyrics, however, that that energy is the result of hustling from a lack of better options.
I love how Common uses one primary vowel sound for each verse. In the first verse, he uses an “o” sound: “the fo’s and the mo’s,” “cope with the lows,” “nowhere to go, niggas rolling in droves.” In the second verse, it’s an “i” sound: “street lights and deep nights,” “strive to be like,” “sheep-like.” This method lends some structure to the mosaic of images, and it shows off Common’s skills as a writer. I’m no rapper, but I’d imagine it’s hard to maintain that kind of pattern for too long, and he does it for entire verses.
In between those verses we hear from the Last Poets, spoken-word artists who paved the way for hip-hop (and before that, influenced Gil-Scott Heron, who did more than pave the way for hip-hop). They provide the track’s backbone, the past-tense to Common’s present: “The corner was our magic, our music, our politics… our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge/Our Taj Mahal, our monument/Our testimonial to freedom, to peace, and to love/Down on the corner.” The corner, in other words, was everything. For better or worse.
The song’s pivotal line is buried in the penultimate verse: “We write songs about wrong because it’s hard to see right.” The song, itself a feverish vision, provides a bit of clarity to a broken class system.
Many people lament the splintering of popular culture that the internet has caused. This seemed to reach a fever pitch around the time Thriller was rereleased for its 25th anniversary, with lots of handwringing about the current lack of cultural happenings that we can all rally around. The days of monstrously crowd-pleasing blockbusters like Thriller, people said, are over.
I think that’s probably true, and I too think it’s kind of a bummer. But one amazing byproduct of that splintering is watching formerly obscure artists and works get high-profile attention. Since the masses aren’t laser-focused on one or two artists like Jackson and Madonna (even the popularity of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry pale in comparison to those two), a lot of little guys are getting some love.
The early-to-mid-2000s seemed to be a turning point for this shift. It was an amazing time to watch obscure bands bask in national attention. Modest Mouse had “Float On,” the Shins had “New Slang,” and countless bands–had moments in the sun. Among them was Bloc Party, a band with new-wave influences but contemporary touches. My favorite of theirs has always been “This Modern Love,” a song with pulsating momentum but enough of its own identity to sound good in a quiet acoustic rendition. It will always remind me of driving around Minneapolis, amazed at the new world order, and thinking that it probably wouldn’t be that way for very long. Thanks to an ever-changing industry, I was wrong.
Franz Ferdinand’s second album doesn’t get much attention, and I’m not sure why that is. It’s definitely not a bad record — in many ways, I think it’s just as good as its self-titled predecessor. I think the hype machine simply ate it up and spat it out, and the blogs and hipsters were on to the next thing.
It really is a very good record. The single “Do You Want To” was fun (if something of an obvious “Take Me Out” sequel), and there were some songs that developed the Franz Ferdinand sound from dance-punk to a Kinks-like brand of British Invasion songwriting. “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” was one step in that direction, and “Walk Away” was another.
This song sounds like it’s been around forever, which means it’s a little hard to notice at first. But then its uber-catchy chorus gets stuck in your head, and you realize that Alex Kapranos’s voice is perfectly suited for wryly romantic songs like these. There aren’t many people who can sing “la la la la” along with a guitar solo, but he’s apparently one of them.