When The Ecstatic came out in 2009, it was rightly regarded as a return to form by Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey), onetime maker of masterpieces whose last few recordings left something to be desired.
But you don’t hear much about The Ecstatic anymore. I don’t know if that’s because Bey’s acting career continues to take up most of his time, or if the consumption speed in pop culture has only increased in the past four years. In any case, it’s worth revisiting.
The Ecstatic is no Black On Both Sides, but what is? Bey doesn’t sound too concerned with matching that album’s dense greatness, and I think that’s what makes it so good. There’s a liberated quality to the album, as if Mos Def freed himself from the pressure of delivering a worthy follow-up. My favorite track from The Ecstatic is “Quiet Dog (Bite Hard),” a fleet-footed but subtle track that showcases Mos Def’s knack not only for rapping and writing but arranging. Sure, the guys over at Preservation helped him with that part, but the way he changes up his flow from the exclamation of “My GOD” to the quiet “simmer down, simmer down, simmer down now” is a great choice.
Hip-hop doesn’t need more “you don’t stop” tracks, but people keep making them anyway. I’m not complaining: as long as songs like “Quiet Dog (Bite Hard)” are the ones continuing the traditions, leaping from rooftop to rooftop like the guy on The Ecstatic‘s cover, it’s a very good thing. And as long as Yasiin Bey maintains the rock, we’ll be in very good hands.
Back in 2009, I saw Mike Mictlan, one of Doomtree’s electrifying MCs, at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis. He was opening for Kill the Vultures, and despite his membership in the Twin Cities’ most popular collective, the crowd was sparse. But the guy leapt around the stage like a hyperactive toddler, spitting rhymes as if he was playing to an arena. I already liked Mictlan, but his performance gave me a newfound respect for him. It was damn impressive, and I feel lucky to have seen it.
I don’t remember tracks he and his DJ, Lazerbeak, did that night, other than “Prizefight,” the song that closes out Mictlan’s excellent LP Hand Over Fist. The song is all about how he beat the odds to become a rapper, which is typical hip-hop fodder, but “Prizefight” is humble—a rare occurrence in rap. The first part of the song is all about the obstacles he overcame, and the second part promises that he “will never give this up.” It took a long time to get here, and he loves everything about it.
Success and happiness are hard to write about without sounding cocky or saccharine, but Mictlan pulls it off here. The humility (“I don’t know what I’m doing,” goes the sampled vocal) sure helps, but I think it’s Mictlan’s undeniable energy, not to mention his ample charm, that saves the day.
When Lizzie and I moved back to Boston after a five-year stay in Minnesota, it wasn’t under the most ideal conditions. The move was due to her grad school internship placement, a result of a “match” process that just decided where you were going to live. At the time, as much as we wanted to move back to Boston, we owned a condo whose value was far below what we paid; we wanted to stick around long enough to sell the place after the market recovered, even slightly. A computer decided otherwise.
Nanny, my Irish grandmother, died a few months before we left Minneapolis, and we moved into her house while we found our footing. This turned out to be an incredible experience. I spent many weekends in that house as a kid, running around the backyard and playing a game with my sister that involved throwing a rubber ball up the basement stairs. It wasn’t a huge or beautiful house, but it was built back when houses were built: it was sturdy. And it sat on a plot of land in Newton Highlands, just outside Newton Centre, and a block away from a T stop. (My grandparents had the incredible foresight to build the house near in-the-works T stop, thus increasing its value over the coming years.)
One of the most amazing things about moving to Nanny’s house was bringing our personal effects into her space, from posters to dishes. Installing cable and internet was especially incredible to consider, as she never had either one. I got to play guitar and sing in her kitchen, which I’d never done. My favorite thing, however, was bringing our music into her house. Blasting Phil Spector Christmas music while the snow fell outside, or Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” while sipping coffee in the morning, was not only fun but novel: this was a bigger space than we’d ever shared, and it was bigger than any we’d likely ever share. Again, it wasn’t a huge house, but it was a house, and who knows if we’ll ever be able to afford one of those, let alone one located so close to a city. We were like the kids in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, if only for a few months.
It was in this frame of mind that I listened to Dirty Projectors’ “No Intention” every day in the fall of 2009, letting its disparate sounds slip around the house like unraveling threads. That’s what I love most about Dirty Projectors: it seems like its pieces will never come together, but they inevitably do, without your noticing. “No Intention” isn’t terribly chaotic, but its first few seconds sound, at first blush, like aimless guitar noodling. Once the chorus rolls around, you hear the pieces come together as a Big Pop Chorus, complete with “ooh” backup vocals and a melody that could stay in your head for days.
That I got to play a song so simultaneously strange and wonderful in a place that meant so much to me for 30 years, loudly and repeatedly, is nothing short of a gift. We moved out in the winter of 2010, and the house was torn down to make room for another bland mini-mansion. But “No Intention” makes me think of the house’s last moment, after years of Thanksgivings, poker games, Sunday dinners, and Saturday morning cartoons. It sounds melodramatic, but that’s how it feels: I was unknowingly giving the house a grownup sendoff to the soundtrack of Dave Longstreth. What a world.
Once in a while, I’ll hear a new song and think, “That is going to be a huge hit!” I don’t think I’ve ever been right, which shows that I would make a terrible label executive (is that still a job?).
One of the songs I had that thought about was “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart,” a Prince homage that also sounds exactly like Alicia Keys. There’s enough of a resemblance that you can spot the influence, but it’s also her own thing, especially the piano flourishes at the end. Put simply, I think this song has a killer chorus. It’s straight out of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, in the sense that it’s an R&B song that really goes for it, like Mariah Carey fronting the Revolution.
As one reviewer pointed out, the fact that this song is all about tonight, and not the rest of the narrator’s life, is something of a twist. This epic struggle, the determination to keep going in the face of tragedy, it’s all happening over a single night. I like that a lot; a song about how it seems impossible to get through a sleepless night is much more interesting than yet another song about living the rest of your life without your loved one. The warm synth bed underneath Keys’s vocals is a nice complement to all the bed imagery in the song’s lyrics: just like the bed in the lyrics, the synths provide comfort and warmth that aren’t doing her any good. It all goes down easy, but not for her.
One final thought: “Nobody ever shut it down like you”? Genius.
The National’s Matt Berninger is one of the best lyricists working today. He perfectly captures a feeling or a mood with a phrase that’s either intimate (“I can tie my tie all by myself”) or epic (“I dreamed about you twenty-nine years before I saw you”; “So lit up I try to untie Manhattan”). The phrase seemingly comes out of nowhere but immediately fits into place, like Berninger has overheard the way you think and written a song around it.
In “So Far Around the Bend,” the phrase is “take a bath and get high through an apple.” It’s surprising because it’s such a weird combination, but it’s also something somebody might do: somebody might take a bath and then get high through an apple. They probably wouldn’t hum forever, but in this case, that’s the epic-scale line that gets paired with the small-scale one (“praying for Pavement to get back together”). The man is good at combinations.
I was putting off this post for a long time because I couldn’t pick one song by The National, but I settled on this song because I think it needs more fans. It was arranged by the composer Nico Muhly, who gave the song those glorious clarinets and strings. Because of that instrumentation, it sounds like nothing else in the National’s catalog, but it’s still definitely the National.
This song makes me homesick for a town where I only lived for five years. Minneapolis is like a universe all its own, with a music community that is vibrant, supportive, and collaborative. Boston, my current home (and hometown) has its many excellent bands, but I miss the collective awareness, the excitement of the Twin Cities music scene. (It’s also possible that having a kid has made me completely oblivious of my musical surroundings; Boston may very well be just as musically alive as Minneapolis. In fact, I hope so.)
Minneapolis has a surprisingly strong hip-hop scene, and P.O.S. stands at its forefront. He’s angry, funny, self-aware, and, most of all, a master songwriter and arranger. If you ever have the chance to catch him live, you must do so. This song exemplifies his arrangement and production skills (and those of his producer, Ant): the way those strobe-like snares in the chorus blend with his calm, melodic voice; how complex phrases like “awkward ligaments” contrast with simple ones like “fuck it.” It’s full of moving parts, all doing their thing.
This video happens to wander around an area very close to where my wife and I lived, and it perfectly illustrates the sense of community that I miss. I even miss all that snow sometimes, but don’t tell anybody I said that.
My 21-month-old is still learning words, so when she wants something, she often points to the desired object and says, “That.”
As a musician, once in a while I hear a song and think, “That.” As in, that’s what I want to do, that’s how I want to sound, that’s how I want to feel. The Thermals make songs like that (or, “that”) all the time. Their songs are sparse but always moving, always being propelled by that glorious, fat distortion. And though singer Hutch Harris shouts many of his vocals, it never feels tossed-off or half-baked. It’s all purpose.
“Reading between the lines like writing on the wall” is always what gets to me. Isn’t clarity what we all want? (On the other hand, do we? It’s telling that the beginning of that line is “Now we can see the warnings and the signs.” Clarity can also provide more confusion, or a clear picture of bad things to come.) Then there’s that guitar solo, which is so simple, and exactly what the song needs. It’s a song about certainty, so the solo is stark and unrelenting, stabbing on the downbeats like nods of the head.
I often listen to this song when I need to be reminded that, under all the usual anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion is a foundation of the people you love and the things you enjoy doing. You know. That.