Song of the Day: 6.28.11

Today’s song of the day is from Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which not-at-all coincidentally is where I’m at in my iPod listening. Overall I think that the album overstays its welcome a little bit, but it has its high points, and “The Parting of the Sensory” is definitely one of them. I’ve said before that I like a song with a sense of build to it, and here is a song that slowly builds from a mopey tale of drudgery into an existential dance party.


Listen: Modest Mouse - The Parting of the Sensory

Notes from The Great iPod Experiment H-L

At this point, I’ve listened to more than half of the music on my iPod. I should finish this stupid experiment and go back to listening to what I want in the car in October. I’ve had a hard time getting into new music for the past few months because I do so much of my music-listening in the car, so it’ll be nice to be unshackled from my own craziness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Once again, I’m going to talk about a few specific bands:

The Hold Steady: Compared to a lot of the bands on my iPod, I haven’t been listening to these guys for all that long. Around the time that Boys and Girls in America came out, I downloaded (and shortly thereafter bought) the album because it was getting really amazing reviews, and although Craig Finn’s “singing” style takes some acclimating, I soon came to appreciate the interesting (if wholly unrelatable) stories, the anthemic choruses (especially when gang vocals are involved, like on “Chips Ahoy”) and the booze-soaked mayhem that serves as the glue holding it all together. By the time live album A Positive Rage dropped a couple of years later, it made perfect sense that Finn was ridiculously drunk throughout their set at the Metro in Chicago. I regret having not seen them live yet, but they’re on my short list of bands to make it a priority to see one of these days.

Almost Killed Me tends to be a fan-favorite album, a debut so good that it seems like the best the band could ever have to offer. I have a certain amount of perspective having arrived to the party a few years late, but I think that it’s also impossible for me to realize what the album was at the time, and can only see it in context of the band’s later (stellar) work.  Regardless, it’s interesting when a band opens their debut album with something like “A Positive Jam,” a simultaneously cynical and hopeful (no, really) song about starting a band. Actually, it’s a lot like Art Brut’s “Formed A Band,” right down to the semi-spoken singing. I really, really regret not seeing those two bands together a few years ago.

Listen: The Hold Steady - The Swish

Separation Sunday refines the storytelling, eschewing the wide-angle pastiche for a more focused narrative. Whereas Almost Killed Me drew some of its connections by simply repeating lyrics, here Finn threads his stories together in more subtle, thematic kinds of ways. Characters established in Almost Killed Me show up for more boozy/druggy nights which occasionally go sideways and up in hospitalization or even death. This is what I meant before by urelatable–these characters have experiences that I can empathize with only on the most basic level; I think the fact that it’s a glimpse inside a world I’ll never know is part of the appeal.

Listen: The Hold Steady - Stevie Nix

By the time we get to Boys and Girls in America, everyone is firing on all cylinders. The songs are catchier, the lyrics are more poignant than ever and the production is significantly better. Granted, sometimes having more money for production results in an album that’s all flash and sheen and no substance, but in this case I think it simply allows Finn and the rest of the band to take their time to record everything in a way that allows the music to interplay and intertwine the same way the lyrics and the songs as a whole do.

Listen: The Hold Steady - Chips Ahoy

Stay Positive is even better. My friend Peter once told me that The Bouncing Souls’ The Gold Record sounds like summer pressed on a disc, and while I basically agree with that sentiment, I think Stay Positive is an even better sonic embodiment of that season. There are a few ups and downs, but overall the message of the album is evident from its title, and it spends 11 tracks convincing you why you should. By the time the album closes with “Slapped Actress,” you feel inspired to go out and do something interesting with your life, knowing that even if things don’t go as planned, the end result is going to be totally awesome.

Listen: The Hold Steady - Slapped Actress

A Positive Rage was released next, but was actually recorded at the end of the band’s touring in support of Boys and Girls. It’s not the best live album ever, but it’s commendable that the band simply recorded one night and released the result, rather than recording for a few nights and taking the best takes of their songs.

Listen: The Hold Steady - Ask Her For Adderall

Heaven is Whenever has the unfortunate distinction of being the band’s first album without longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay. His loss kind of flattened the band’s sound a bit, and the result is less dynamic and therefore less appealing to me. It doesn’t help that Finn also decided that this would be a good album to stop singing about the characters that had come to define the band’s progression. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a letdown after two truly incredible albums and a generally stellar discography.

Listen: The Hold Steady - The Sweet Part of the City

The Killers: I bought into the hype of Hot Fuss in 2004 thanks to my friend Ben. In retrospect, I’m not sure what about it appealed to me exactly, but somehow the mix of bombastic production and the swagger of Brandon Flowers and his cohort knowingly sticking the landing of their debut grabbed me and refused to let go. It remains by far their best album.

Listen: The Killers - All These Things That I've Done

I was really excited for Sam’s Town, and at first, I liked it a lot. Lead single “When You Were Young” seemed to have all of the same elements that made Hot Fuss so great, but it turned out to be an aberration on that album rather than the harbinger of another stellar collection of songs. When I listened to it recently, I could tell why I ultimately took it out of rotation prematurely–it was just kind of boring for the most part.

Listen: The Killers - When You Were Young

Day & Age remedied the monotony of Sam’s Town somewhat, returning more often to bombast in songs like Spaceman and Neon Tiger, but by this time it came out in 2008, I just didn’t really care that much anymore. I had already outgrown whatever irrational impulse had made me like Hot Fuss so much, so while I listened to it a few times out of curiosity, I was never all that stoked for it in the first place, so it quickly faded out of regular rotation just like Sam’s Town before it.

Listen: The Killers - Neon Tiger

The Loved Ones: I first heard of The Loved Ones when Peter told me to listen to Build and Burn. It was good advice, even if I didn’t realize it at first. The album failed to grab me initially, making a mediocre first impression, but it grew on me quite a bit, to the point where I ended up picking up their earlier album Keep Your Heart and eventually their follow-up EP, Distractions.

Keep Your Heart is melodic punk through-and-through. Kind of like Craig Finn, lead singer Dave Hause evokes the idea of the heart and how to keep it over and over again, going so far as to close the album with a short reprise of the first song’s chorus as the last track fades out. Hause has the kind of gravelly voice that’s perfect for fast music with an earnest, emotional core. It sounds a bit like an overcaffeinated Hot Water Music album, but in the best possible way.

Listen: The Loved Ones - Suture Self

In context, Build and Burn is kind of odd. After the album described above, the band mellowed out a bit for the follow-up, which is part of why I didn’t like it at first. A lot of Build and Burn is pretty mid-tempo, which initially bored me, but the more I listened, the more I found that I really liked the lyrics, and the music was more dynamic than I initially gave it credit for. The emotionality comes out more strongly as a result of slowing things down and kind of cleaning them up, especially in the we-must-rebuild-it Katrina-themed “Louisiana” and album closer “I Swear”.

Listen: The Loved Ones - I Swear

Distractions tries to mix the more punkish sound of Keep Your Heart with the more emotionally-driven Build and Burn and mostly fails to capture what made either album so good. Then again, it’s a six-songed EP that is exactly what its title implies–a few light diversions to keep the band’s audience sated while they work on something meatier. Granted, Distractions came out more than two years ago, but despite being fairly mediocre in comparison to the work that came before it, I’m still pretty stoked for new material.

Listen: The Loved Ones - Distracted

In the next couple of days, I’m planning to write about Less Than Jake’s discography in its own post. Being my favorite band throughout high school and beyond, it only seems right that I put a little more time and effort into dissecting their lengthy oeuvre and why their music holds a special place in my heart.

Song of the Day 6.1.11

Holy crap, it’s June already!

Today’s song of the day is for my aunt Tracey, who poked fun at me yesterday for not liking bands unless they were sufficiently “unknown.” Granted, there’s an element of truth to that statement, being that I primarily listen to relatively indie bands that not that many people have heard of, but I also like some pretty ginormous bands.

Case in point: Muse. “Knights of Cydonia” is originally found on Black Holes and Revelations, but the version I’m posting is from their live album HAARP: Live from Wembley Stadium. Wembley is one of the largest venues in the world.

I think I’ve made my point.

Listen: Muse - Knights of Cydonia

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.


Song of the Day 4.30.11

I’m knee-deep in a 6-day-long stretch at work (which will be followed by a 4 day weekend, so it’s totally worth it) so today’s song choice is something to get me (and hopefully you) moving. Hot Water Music’s A Flight and a Crash took a long time to truly grow on me, but the title track is so awesome that I’d put the album on just to listen to it, and then slog my way through the rest.

What I appreciate in particular about HWM’s last few albums is the fact that they’ve clearly played together for a long time and have a great rapport that comes through in every song.


Hot Water Music - A Flight and a Crash

Song of the Day 04.19.11

A Wilhelm Scream’s Career Suicide is one of my favorite albums, and “The Horse” is one of my favorite songs on the album. The lyrics don’t make a ton of sense to me, but in this case that’s not the point, and they do tell a story, it’s just… esoteric.

What I like about “The Horse” is that while it comes on strong initially, it pulls back for an awesome build and continues in waves of build release throughout its nearly 5 minute run time until by the end the final climax is a culmination of all of that building. Note to Coldplay: this is how you craft a song that goes somewhere rather than building to a nonexistent climax and boring the crap out of your listener.

A Wilhelm Scream - The Horse