Within seconds, your ear and brain start ticking off the influences in “The Wire”: Fleetwood Mac, “Heartache Tonight”-era Eagles, Wings. That slapback reverb, those soaring guitars, the light strings—it the late seventies and early eighties seeping out its edges. These influences are very trendy right now, and it’s made me wonder if this song will sound as great in five or ten years.
And I think it will, because at its heart, “The Wire” is just plain awesome. The production may sound dated in a few years, but it’s so impeccably put-together, so particular about its sound, that you have to at the very least admire HAIM’s commitment to their aesthetic. Plus, there’s that melody, at once so original and so reminiscent of pop hits from years past. Underneath the of-the-moment (and fantastic) production, this is just a great song.
The HAIM buzz has been building for a while now, and I always get nervous for bands in these circumstances. The hype machine is enthusiastic but often ruthless, devoting an equal amount of energy to spitting out as it does to devouring. I hope HAIM can weather the attention without experiencing too much of a backlash, because “The Wire” and the band’s other singles make me wonder what else they’ve got in them.
This late ’80s/early ’90s revival isn’t built to last—no trend is—but I’m loving it. There was a lot of great stuff happening at the time, but it was buried in production that made it sound like it was happening in a room far away from the microphones.
What would that music sound like if it wasn’t suffocated by those production trends? Records like Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob try to answer that question, and they don’t always work out this well. This is a great album, full of synth-pop heartbreak and the best power ballads this side of a Heart best-of. And as much as the record references past hits, its songs just happen to be great, which all adds up to one awesome listen.
“Closer” was the big single from Heartthrob, and though I love that song, it’s “I Was a Fool” that works its way into my head so far that I can’t shake it for days. When the piano starts, I always expect the song to be straightforward piano rock, even though my brain knows it’s about to erupt in synths and palm-muted guitars.
It’s always interesting to see what happens when a band goes to a major label. Though it’s hard to know exactly what “major label” means anymore, it’s also hard to imagine Tegan and Sara putting out a song (and video) like this on an indie. And I think that’s not only OK, but admirable. They stepped out of their comfort zone, and it paid off big.
“No Below” is the hurricane eye of Speedy Ortiz’s excellently hectic debut Major Arcana. I love the rest of the record’s breakneck-speed-indie rock, but this slow burner is my favorite. Just listen to that melody in the chorus: it’s so sad, but so catchy, and it pops up repeatedly as a sung line and a guitar phrase, spinning itself around until it explodes the song at the end.
There’s no denying this band’s love of nineties indie like Pavement and Liz Phair, but I like that Speedy Ortiz uses the sound to make something new. These songs are songs, and they’re damn good ones. Most of Sadie Dupuis’s verses—“No Below” is one of the exceptions—don’t rhyme, and the blank verse format makes them sound unique and, for some reason, particularly personal. Not enough bands pay attention to the lyrics, and Dupuis (who is currently studying at Amherst for an MFA in poetry) is already an expert. I can’t wait to see what this band does next.
“Keep Your Children in a Coma” nails parenthood in many ways, especially in encapsulating the mania that results from keeping a human alive. Stephin Merritt’s list of potential dangers is exaggerated, but not really; these are actual concerns: “you can’t let them go to school for fear of bullying little beasts/and you can’t take them to church for fear of priests.” Radiation, Big Oil, political unrest, melanoma, “good girls gone bad.” Nobody is safe, so why not consider Meritt’s modest proposal? Keep them alive, just asleep. It’s harmless!
Merritt is something of a satirist of human behavior, and his focus has never been sharper than in this song. Being a parent, especially a new one, is a terrifying idea. I have to keep this thing alive? How? What if something happens? How much of my awful behavior will they remember? The pressure is enormous, which is why you keep telling yourself crazy things. Eating dirt builds immunity! The f-bomb I just dropped will help her develop language! It’s okay to give them chocolate cake for breakfast!
The other thing I love about this song is how Merritt adopts an “Old Man Merritt” persona (or so I call it in my A.V. Club review of this record—shameless plugs!). “Life is hard for kids today, they have to program everything/Dude, they have to use computers just to sing,” sings Merritt (surrounded, of course, computer-made production). I also love that, as in other Merritt songs, the rhymes become something of a songwriting game: melanoma; Soma; know, ma. As a far inferior songwriter, I’ve struggled with many rhymes in many songs, and I love hearing what Merritt comes up with.
Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City is getting crazy hype, and all of it is deserved. It’s inventive, insanely catchy, and complex. I loved (and still love) their Graceland-meets-indie-pop self-titled debut, but they’ve steadily moved away from that sound in the past five years. Modern Vampires has some of the baroque arrangements of the band’s first record, but plenty of the informality that made its follow-up so much fun. Frontman Ezra Koenig says Modern Vampires finishes what the band thinks of as a trilogy, which makes sense: the album sounds like a summing up, the end credits to a coming-of-age film.
I’ve listened to this album many times over the past couple of days, and to lead single “Ya Hey” even more times than that. It’s an astounding song, sonically dense and lyrically packed. “Ya Hey” is nothing less than a conversation with God, a song questioning the faith we put into something that gives us little tangible faith in return. “Through the fire and through the flames,” sings Koenig, “you won’t even say your name. Only ‘I am that I am.'” References abound (the “Yahweh”/”Hey Ya” sort-of-pun; a quick nod to “Israelites”), but it doesn’t feel like showing off. As Pitchfork points out, Koenig was on track to be a teacher before his band went big, and his lyrics make clear that he would have had a lot to talk about.
My favorite moment in “Ya Hey” is when, after a couple minutes of the song pulsing in your face, you start to hear chants in the distance. That moment startled me when I first heard it, and after dozens of listens, it still takes me by surprise. We need more bands like Vampire Weekend, more musicians who visualize songs with forefronts and backgrounds.