I considered writing about a deeper cut from Oracular Spectacular, but who am I kidding? “Time to Pretend”—giant, warm, and funny—was massively popular for a reason. Seven years and a bajillion plays after I first heard it, I turn it up every time it comes on the radio. Because it is absolutely delightful.
MGMT has gone to great lengths to distance themselves from their debut, and I can understand why; no band actually wants to play their hits for the next 30 years. But I continue to find the record fascinating, from this song to “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” It sounds like a transmission from another planet, a fun world where pop music is laced with lasers and kooky alien hand gestures. I’ve clearly spent too much time thinking about this.
“Time to Pretend” is impeccably arranged. First of all, how great is that main synth line? It really does sound like some alien transmission, and its high pitch provides such a great counterpoint to those warm, booming notes underneath. Then you’ve got those punchy drums in between, which provide another counterpoint; they’re the treble clicking along in front of the bass.
This song is tongue-in-cheek about the excesses of fame, but the fact that it still works as an aspirational anthem—with its dreams of divorcing models and fatally choking on vomit—says a lot about our ridiculous starstruck culture. The song’s insane irresistibility is itself a comment on all of us.
What’s most remarkable about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings isn’t that they replicate another era so completely. More impressive, in my opinion, is that they do so without sounding stale or like they’re out for novelty. The Dap-Kings are no nostalgia or “retro” band, and Sharon Jones isn’t imitating anybody. They’re their own thing.
Which brings us to “Nobody’s Baby,” in which Jones accurately cackles, “I’m a bona fide habitat.” Frontwomen don’t get any more uniquely likable than Sharon Jones, who croons, roars and snaps with equal parts hubris and humility. She’s an incredible singer, and she’s perfectly matched with the ever-able Dap-Kings, a band as tight and focused as anything out of the Stax studio. The band’s prowess is evident on “Nobody’s Baby,” which, in its two-and-a-half-minute running time, manages to blend thumping, sharp-edged funk with smooth, Sam and Dave-style soul. It’s my favorite Dap-Kings song because it so perfectly embodies what they’re capable of. And it’s catchy to boot.
Jones recently underwent surgery for cancer in her bile duct, and word is that she’s feeling pretty good—good enough to tour with her band. I have no doubt that the formidable Ms. Jones is up to the task, and then some.
This song is interesting for many reasons. First of all, Laura Veirs combines all sorts of sounds—handclaps, violins, electric guitars, unexpectedly cumbersome background vocals—to make one big interesting arrangement. Then there’s the subject matter: who writes about the sea anymore? Veirs tackles the subject like some kind of oceanographer poet, comparing herself to various bits of nature (my favorite is “I’m a falling leaf who keeps her green”) while keeping her “trusty bag” of saltbreakers close.
So what is a saltbreaker? I always assumed it was a technical term for a type of wave, but it appears to be a word that Veirs made up. The song works better this way, because now “saltbreaker” can mean anything that disrupts the natural order of things, anything that propels Veirs around the sea like a prankster fish. Ringing all the underwater, underwater, underwater bells.
Veirs has a voice so plain that it borders on deadpan, which works perfectly for songs like this, where the contrast between matter-of-factness and fantasy makes for a fun combination with the impeccably arranged music underneath.
I’m constantly amazed at how nonsense can convey meaning. Take a song like “+81,” a mess of a song that somehow congeals into something substantial.
What are we supposed to take away from the lyrics of “+81”? “Beach on tops circle tread on my tar,” sings Satomi Matsuzaki. “Shopping shopping shoppers/crash crash town,” she sings in another verse. It’s all like words cut out from magazines and dumped onto a blank piece of paper. And yet it works, largely because the song’s first verse, with its images of cellphone talkers and neon lights, conveys a sense of disorder. The confusion makes sense, and it’s appropriately confusing, as if Matsuzaki is trying to tell us something, but the urban landscape is making it impossible.
And even though the chorus’s lyrics (“Choo choo choo choo, beep beep”) are nonsense, they make sense within the context of this song so concerned with sounds. In short, the words mean everything inside the song and nothing outside. Context is everything, even when that context is chaos.
This song is officially credited to Ratatat, but Memphis Bleek is the driving force, moving the track along with no plans to slow down. Can’t stop, won’t stop, never intend to.
I always think of Ratatat as a sibling to Daft Punk. Both duos don’t make rock music or dance music, but something in between. Daft Punk are a couple of robots, but their music sounds organic in a way that most club jams don’t. Ratatat, meanwhile, make guitar music that sounds like it’s from the future. And with both acts, you listen with a look of befuddlement on your face: how did they do that?
It’s fun to hear Bleek with this kind of backdrop, spitting verses while Ratatat does their own kind of synth-and-piano freestyle. The flow, as Bleek says, is stupid. And let’s talk about that flow. In Decoded (I do read other things, I swear), Jay-Z writes about working with Memphis Bleek for the first time. Jay gave Bleek a piece of paper on which he had written (in microscopic print, so it wouldn’t get stolen) a verse to learn. He asked Bleek to learn it and come back the next day. Bleek showed up on Jay-Z’s doorstep with his verse memorized, ate six burgers, and did a perfect take for “Coming of Age.” And on “Alright,” he certainly sounds like a guy who could rap furiously with a belly full of fast food. In fact, Bleek sounds absolutely indestructible, as if he’s only going to stop if the song stops first.
In closing, I’d like to take this moment to thank Memphis Bleek for doing something I would have considered impossible if I didn’t hear it with my own ears: he referenced Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car, in a hip-hop song. That must be what he’s referring to when he says “They said it can’t be done, no one can do it,” right?
I’ve never been a big Animal Collective fan, and I’m not sure why. They just don’t grab me in the same way they grab others. But I am a big fan of Panda Bear’s record Person Pitch, which blends Animal Collective’s sound with … what, exactly?
Describing what a song sounds like is one of the fun parts of this blog, but I’m having a hard time thinking of a way to describe “Comfy In Nautica.” I definitely hear the influence of Brian Wilson (vocally and melodically), but from there I’m stumped. Maybe it’s a compliment to Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox (who is getting some well-deserved attention from Daft Punk’s new record) that he has created something mesmerizing that’s hard to describe.
In one interview, Lennox describes the record as “sunny,” which I can definitely see: these songs are airy and light, with plenty of space for sunlight to shine through. He says the mood of Person Pitch reflects the climate and feel of Lisbon, where he was living when he wrote and recorded the album. It certainly sounds like it’s from a particular time and place; I wouldn’t have guessed Portugal, but there you go.
In that same interview, Lennox shrugs off Beach Boys comparisons: “I certainly don’t want to sound like anybody else if I can, it’s not like I was like ‘I really wanna do sweet Beach Boys things over this jam.’ But at the same time it’s totally an honor to be compared to that sort of thing cause those are some of the sweetest jams ever. The one thing that bothers me about it is when people are like, ‘he tries to sing just like Brian Wilson.’ I can’t help the way my voice sounds.”
Not a bad problem to have.
Writing a funny song without seeming like a jackass is a hard thing to do. In my opinion, aside from flat-out musical humorists like Weird Al (who I love), only a handful of writers can do it: They Might Be Giants, Aimee Mann, Warren Zevon, a few others. The trick, it seems, is to balance the humor with sadness (or is it the other way around?).
Jens Lekman can be uproariously funny, but his songs are like novellas, with characters (including, usually, some variation of himself in an embarrassing situation) who have distinct points of view. In “Your Arms Around Me,” the story starts sweetly and innocently: Jens and his partner are preparing for a trip to the sea, and Jens is slicing an avocado for their lunch. The first verse ends with the line “For a second my mind starts drifting/You put your arms around me,” and the second verse starts with “Blood spraying on the kitchen sink.” Jens has sliced off the tip of his index finger, all because his loved one has given him a surprise embrace.
Jens passes out and has a dream about being in a kangaroo’s pouch, and he wakes up at the hospital, where he takes his lover’s arm and puts it around himself again, even though that’s what got him in this mess in the first place. The line that closes out the second verse sums up the song very nicely: “What’s broken can always be fixed, what’s fixed will always be broken.” Love and pain work together, always. The thing that slices your finger is also the thing that gets you through the experience of slicing your finger.
OK, so this isn’t as funny as I think of it being. Maybe it’s the way he says “avocado,” or the image of tiny Jens Lekman bouncing around in a kangaroo’s pouch. Or the way he suddenly splatters blood over the song after the first chorus. Or maybe it’s how ingenious the whole thing is.
After you’ve listened to Lekman, check out this mashup (are the kids still calling them “mashups”?) of “Your Arms Around Me” and Jay-Z’s “Encore” (called, of course, “Put Your Arms Around the Encore”). It is sublime.