Notes from The Great iPod Experiment D-G

I was going to write this after I finished F, but I procrastinated so long that I made it all the way through G, too. Whoops.

First of all, I was kind of amazed how long it took me to get through F. Look at this list of bands:

Face to Face
Facing New York
Fake Problems
Fall Out Boy
Fenix TX
The Flaming Lips
The Flatliners
Fleet Foxes
Flight of the Conchords
Flogging Molly
The Forces of Evil
Franz Ferdinand
The Fratellis

I expect a lot of bands out of letters like A, M and S, but so many F bands felt a little odd to me.

Instead of talking about specific albums this time around, I’m going to talk about a few bands whose career trajectories made for particularly interesting listening:

The Decemberists: Here is a band that has consistently defied being pigeonholed into a single genre since Castaways and Cutouts was released in 2002 (well, more properly, since the 5 Songs EP in 2001, but I don’t have that). Originally their music was a particularly story-driven, broody style of folk rock, but starting with Picaresque, their music became more expansive, a trend that ballooned over the next few albums until they released The Hazards of Love in 2009, a full-on concept album about a faun and the girl who loves him. As is par for the course for The Decemberists, the whole thing ends in death.

But I guess Colin Meloy and co. don’t like to rest on their laurels. Even in the midst of recording Hazards, they must have felt the need to ocassionally indulge in a fit of whimsy, because they put out Always the Bridesmaid in late 2008, a collection of singles that came out of the Hazards sessions. Then this year, they put out The King Is Dead, which has a decidedly more country influence than any of their previous music. A lot of people praised it as a return to form, but I find that the stories are not as interesting, nor the music quite as engaging as their older stuff.

Listen: The Decemberists - Record Year

Facing New York: I’ve written about FNY and the dramatic difference between their self-titled album and its follow-up, Get Hot, but I thought I’d expand on it a little here. Facing New York was a slightly proggy, slightly depressing, but mostly listenable album released in 2005. I’d seen them live and heard their Full Turn EP beforehand, and while the album didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it spent a lot of time in my CD player that summer/fall. “Apple Sugar Cider” is one of maybe 3 songs I skip every single time I hear it (actually listening to it for the purposes of this experiment was excruciating) but other than that, songs range from good to great. My only real issue with the album is that the drums are mixed too far forward for their relative… serviceability.

By 2008, I’d kind of wondered what happened to the band, but then Get Hot surfaced. The prog was gone, replaced by a jammier, more downbeat sound. As I’ve written before, I was initially disappointed by this approach, but it’s grown on me a lot. “Me N My Friendz” in particular is a ridiculous stream of consciousness (sample lyrics: “…I’m stuck dead center between my teens and my thirties/envisioning how my children would look if I had ’em with the woman in the checkout line in front of me/maybe they would look like my last girlfriend/19, English major, Diet Coke head…”) set to one of the album’s more driving, uptempo beats. It’s a great way to close the album.

Listen: Facing New York - Me N My Friendz

Gatsbys American Dream: This was an interesting one for me, because I love Volcano and Gatsbys American Dream, but have never really given Ribbons and Sugar the time and attention it deserves and I think I’ve only listened to Why We Fight in its entirety a few times. So I was actually pretty stoked to get the chance to listen to all of their albums in chronological order and to give them my semi-undivided attention.

Listening to Why We Fight and Ribbons and Sugar made me want to listen to both more. Gatsbys has always written layered, multidimensional songs that beg to be listened to multiple times to draw connections and tease out meaning that may not otherwise be evident. In partiicular, Sugar was informed by the fact that I recently saw them live and know how it would sound if it were recorded today. “Snicker at the Swine,” for example, transformed from a slightly technical, angry diatribe on the record into a raucous rager live, so caustic and powerful it gave me goosebumps.

In The Land of Lost Monsters is still kind of hard for me to appreciate, because it’s so downbeat compared to the rest of Gatsbys’ material. I understand that this is part of the point, to make an EP of songs that are not poppy or accessible in order to make a statement about the greed and corruption of record companies, but let’s put it this way–I vastly prefer the uptempo version of “Badlands” found on Volcano to the slower, more ponderous version found on Monsters.

Volcano remains my favorite Gatsbys album, partly because it was the album that introduced me to the band, but also because it represents the strongest coalescence of what makes them great: intelligent, layered lyrics, coupled with music, especially drums, that not only keep things moving, but also often add to the emotion and meaning of any given song. I can never decide on one favorite album of all time, but Volcano is certainly one of a few on my shortlist.

Gatsbys American Dream (s/t) is also pretty great, but is just a little too bitter for its own good. I understand why the band felt the need to write and record it, and I enjoy it a lot, but by making it so personal rather than keeping things allegorical it becomes a little harder to identify themes and empathize with them. All an outsider really gets is, “Music labels really, really suck.” This is a worthy point, made forcefully, but ultimately it’s a less profound and universal theme than “human emotions are like a volcano”.

That said, their upcoming album is my most anticipated of the year, and I have every intention of seeing them every time they’re in Seattle from here on out, because the fact that they’ve reunited at all after breaking up in 2006 is against-all-odds awesome.

Listen: Gatsbys American Dream - Snicker at the Swine

Here are a few other general notes about the experiment:

  • Since February 20, I’ve listened to 177 albums, or 4.8 days of music (really slightly more now, since I’m already knee-deep in H). This means I’ve spent that much time in my car in just over 3 months. This is kind of shocking.
  • I’ve occasionally considered buying a larger iPod to accommodate more of my music, but having just 30 gigs to work with has its advantages. Some albums have been harder to get through than others, but only one album has truly felt like it didn’t really belong on my iPod anymore: Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled album. I’ve tried, but I’ve just never really been into the band, and while I got rid of You Could Have it So Much Better and Tonight to make space, I clung to the idea that Franz Ferdinand was somehow worth keeping. I was wrong.
  • This post is way, way longer than I expected it to be. Maybe talking about bands instead of albums wasn’t a good idea.


Stone Smoked Porter

Not that smoky, really. Maybe my already limited palette has been deadened by the last two beers, but I’m not getting much out of this. Stone usually makes strong, bold beers, so this is a surprise. Granted, it’s still pleasant and eminently drinkable, just not typical Stone.


Iron Horse Irish Death Stout

Iron Horse has had a few different variants of its Quilter’s Irish Death, named in honor of Iron Horse founder Jim Quilter. This one is a little on the disappointing side considering that the original is excellent and Mocha Death even better, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just doesn’t quite live up to the name. Pretty sweet and light for a stout, I definitely taste vanilla, and maybe even bananas (which the bartender mentioned beforehand, so it’s possible that I wouldn’t have noticed that otherwise).


Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard

This isn’t the first time I’ve had Oaked Arrogant Bastard, but it seems particularly smooth tonight. It’s got kind of a caramel-y finish, but not like an amber, more like a barleywine. In other words, it’s excellent.