Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Seasonal Favorites

It's Christmastime! I am very selective about my holiday music, but the tunes I endorse I love to the core. Here are my staples to enjoy and to avoid.


"Songs for Christmas" by Sufjan Stevens
Classic quirky and folksy Sufjan, heavy on the banjo. I'll hit the highlights:

Noel, 2001, Volume I
  • "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" I strongly dislike when versions of this song add two beats between the lyrics "Emmanuel" and "shall come to thee..." because it breaks the thought in half. This version does that, but it breaks between every half-thought so I don't mind it. When I sing along I am allowed time to meditate between every phrase instead of just that one. Plus, there's a lot of banjo :)
  • "We're Going to the Country!" It's true that the singing gets annoying, but the banjo is just too beautiful to resist.
Hark, 2002, Volume II
  • "Only at Christmas Time" Melancholy melody, but worshipful words. Short and lovely.
Ding! Dong!, 2003, Volume III
  • "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever" This song is beautiful and sad. Although there's no proof, I think it's related to "The Mistress Witch from McClure," where Sufjan and his siblings discover their father is having an affair. This lyric lingers: "Silent night, nothing feels right..."
  • "All the King's Horns" A song about the purpose of Christ's coming, which gives us reason to celebrate and worship. It takes us from his birth to his resurrection.
  • "The Friendly Beasts" A grown-up version of a song that seems best suited for children.
Joy!, 2004, Volume IV
  • "Away in a Manger" I love the pleas with Jesus to stay and love us.
  • "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!)" A song about a complicated relationship...
  • "Joy to the World" I love the lyrics to this hymn, and this is a great arrangement with beautiful harmony.
Peace!, 2005, Volume V
  • "Christmas in July" Fun in 5/4 time.
  • "Holy, Holy, Holy" Such a beautiful and theologically rich hymn, with the added bonus of major 7 chords and the iii chord.

"A Ceremony of Carols" by Benjamin Britten, as performed by the Robert Shaw Chorale
It's like a choral dream come true! The gorgeous genius of Britten directed by arguably the best living choral director in the world. I get butterflies when I press play because I'm so excited about what I'm about to hear. The Procession, the Interlude (oh the harp!), and the Recession are particularly engaging. The soloist on "Balulalow" floats on the last title lyric better than I could ever hope to hear. "This Little Babe" is so exciting and full of energy; I picture an infant with a hand-grenade.
The rest of "A Robert Shaw Christmas" is excellent as well.

"One More Drifter in the Snow" by Aimee Mann
I love Aimee Mann for her songwriting, not her singing. So listening to her nasal alto voice on run-of-the-mill arrangements of cheesy holiday tunes is even more disappointing than it sounds. "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is particularly unbearable. The only redeeming factor is "Calling on Mary," the one song she actually wrote on the album.

"Room for Squares" by John Mayer
This will always be a Christmas album to me, with "St. Patrick's Day" as its shining star. I especially love the line "we should take a ride tonight around the town and look around at all the beautiful houses" despite its redundancy because driving around looking at Christmas lights is one of my favorite traditions.

"Last Christmas" by George Michael, and all its respective covers
Absolutely atrocious.

I heard an Aimee Mann b-side, "Backfire," today at Discount Tire. It was puzzling but awesome.

I am sick of people asking me if I've heard of the Swell Season. There's a now two-year-old movie, two albums, Starbucks endorsement, PBS live recording, Daytrotter there anyone left who hasn't heard the Swell Season? But I do think I've finally figured out why I don't like them. Of course, I dislike all the hype. But more importantly, I really liked the movie and I feel like the real-life duo undid everything I liked about the movie. The man and the woman in the movie are complete musical nobodies, struggling buskers, who make a really, surprisingly, awesome album together. There is romantic tension between the characters but they never act on it. Those are the two best things about the movie. But in real life they aren't nobodies. Glen Hansard was an Irish-rock god for ten years with the Frames, and Marketa Irglova auditioned for her role in the movie. And, of course, in real life Hansard and Irglova don't exercise cautious refrain in their friendship; they develop a romantic relationship. And because it's a naturalist movie, I feel betrayed that the real story is so different from the fiction.

Check out some really lovely posters!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Irish and Canadian folk

"Sea Sew" by Lisa Hannigan

"Volcano" and "I Remember" are probably the two tracks on Damien Rice's "O" that showcase Lisa Hannigan best. It's her voice that make the the melodies lilt and linger. "O," and those two songs in particular, is mostly about the dark and painful sides of love, suggesting love brings loneliness instead of togetherness. "Sea Sew" is thematically just the opposite. The songs walk the delicate border between endearing and cloying. "Ocean and a Rock" is about love's power to overcome distance; "Venn Diagram" is about waking up next to someone you love (when I'm singing along I imagine these two people are married); "I Don't Know" is about the exciting beginning stages of a relationship; even the breakup song, "Lillie," is less bitter than sweet (much like Hannigan's character in "I Remember," in contrast's to Rice's character). To add icing to the already decadent lyrical cake, Hannigan and mother knitted the album art, and the music videos feature both braided pigtails and pop-up books. The whole album is smile-inducing. It's surprising the same voice that sings "I kissed your mouth, is that all you need?" with such defeated and regretful pain now sings "thoughts of you warm my bones" with such delightful and heartfelt sincerity. I've found the lyrics to be clever when explored, but it takes investment to memorize all the words to be able to sing along to an entire album, and so far, even after months of listening to "Sea Sew," I've only invested enough to enjoy Side A thoroughly, and I find myself setting the needle back to the beginning for another half-ride instead of turning the record over. Overall, while I enjoyed the pessimistic Hannigan on "O," I look forward to more of the optimistic one in the future.

"Your Rocky Spine" by Great Lake Swimmers

What are the ingredients for a perfect band in my book? It would definitely be in the genre of indie folk, be heavy on the banjo, and have lyrical themes of nature, hiking, mountains, ice-cold lakes, trees, birds, etc. Given those criteria, you can understand my excitement about Great Lake Swimmers and their song "Your Rocky Spine." A banjo-based band sings about hiking??? Count me in. At first listen, I thought the song was a granola version of John Mayer's "Your Body is a Wonderland," using nature as a metaphor for exploring a lover's body. This made me sad because I thought I'd have to shelf the song to remain mentally pure, but then I realized that it's actually just the opposite: the song uses the human body as a metaphor for exploring our beautiful earth. This song reminds me of Colorado and it's gorgeous mountains and lakes. I remember running in the valleys this summer and seeing mountains in front of me and behind me, bringing to mind the verse "you hem me in, behind and before" (Psalm 139:5) because I thought the mountains looked like stitches. To Great Lake Swimmers, the mountains look like a spine. How beautiful. The only tragedy in this song is it's use of parallel perfect intervals in the harmony (when singing the title lyric and its corresponding parts). It bothers me to no end, and both its easy harmonic remedy and the song's otherwise near-perfection makes it that much more infuriating. But in the context of the song, that compositional blunder is immediately followed by harmony that really calls attention to the V/V chord, which I like, so my rage is soon pacified. All of that to say, Great Lake Swimmers miss the mark only by millimeters. I suppose my perfect band will exist only if I create it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Taken by Trees breaks some rules, but I'll let it slide


“My Boys” by Taken by Trees

There are certain rules music has to follow in order for me even to consider it. The biggest four are:

  1. instruments and voices must be in tune
  2. no parallel perfect intervals
  3. when people are singing together (homophonically), they must cut-off together
  4. correct grammar

#1 is the downfall of a certain friends’ EP I shan’t name. #2 is why I find Snow Patrol insufferable, even though I desperately want to be in favor of the Northern Irish band (I can think of a thousand better harmony lines for “Chasing Cars,” don’t even get me started). #3 is Maria Taylor’s demise, and #4 is a stumbling block to countless. However, every once in a while an artist comes along who breaks some or all of the rules, but does so in a clever and knowing way, and I can’t get enough. Sufjan Stevens is the best example. I remember thinking, when I first heard Stevens, “He’s breaking all the rules; you should choose to hate this music; compromise is self-betrayal,” but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I didn’t hate the music: I actually enjoyed it so much that I craved more. It kept me guessing. And now, after detailed study of some of Stevens’ songs, I can just tell (…or foolishly hope?) that he knows the rules and is breaking them on purpose.

I’m not sure if Taken by Trees’ Victoria Bergsman knows she’s breaking my rules or not, but somehow I find the missteps in “My Boys” (a cover of Animal Collective’s “My Girls”) endlessly charming. The instruments are out of tune, she calls social status a “material thing” (although I suppose that’s [sic] from Panda Bear), and the whole song is about wanting a modest home not for her children but for her nonexistent husband and, get this, cat. Despite all the red flags, I keep pressing the “play” button. And despite the absurdity of a Swedish singer turning an American experimental song into a south-Asian folk song, it reeks of authenticity. The video of Bergsman walking a tightrope is, similarly, surprisingly winsome. The rest of the album is convivial as well, but this track stands out to me, probably because it’s a cover that succeeded in a way that Sun Kil Moon’s “Tiny Cities” didn’t, and I thought Mark Kozelek’s idea of transforming decidedly non-folk music to my favorite genre was, though poorly executed, promising.

Also, I love the name “Taken by Trees.” In a world where the best musicians are actually choosing to call themselves atrocities like “Horse Feathers” or “St. Vincent” or “Death Cab for Cutie,” Bergsman’s moniker choice is refreshing.

Friday, October 2, 2009

a casual return

I started this blog with high hopes which soon fell flat. I think my problem was that I turned every potential post into a big deal mentally. My new resolve is just to write whatever because no one reads it anyway. So here’s what’s been going on in my musical world lately.


“Hospice” by the Antlers

This borderline ambient album took a lot of work, but it was well worth it. It’s a concept album about a man who works at a hospital, falls in love with a bone cancer patient, marries her, and then watches her die. The brilliantly tragic lyrics make the album. Instead of the narrator looking back on his wife with fondness, love, and happy memories, he refrains from retrospective romanticizing and realistically remembers her angry abuse. He recounts her screaming, cursing, telephone-throwing, and daily threats to leave him. Her disease makes her so angry and desperate she even attempts a Sylvia Plath suicide. The thing I love the most about the album is its complete lack of redemption. (Since I believe there’s no meaningful redemption outside of Christ, I was so happy this cancer story didn’t come with some pithy moral like “carpe diem because life is short.”) The story is so compelling that I’ve sat and silently read the liner notes, which have all the lyrics and minimal explanation, two or three times. It’s definitely an album to listen to from start to finish, but if you only have the time or emotional appetite for a song or two, choose “Bear” or “Two.” I was pleased to be able to add “Epilogue” to my mental catalogue of songs about fever dreams since about every six weeks I get the itch to listen to one. (If anyone knows of other fever dream songs please let me know because the only other song in my “catalogue” is Aimee Mann’s “Nightmare Girl…”)


“11th Dimension” by Julian Casablancas

Despite its noticeable lack of banjo, I dig it. The opening sound is endearingly hokey, like a much-improved version of a demo track on my first miniature electronic keyboard. It reminds me of high school when I first heard Phoenix (and, of course, the Strokes). I’m looking forward to the album.

“Lost Coastlines” by Okkervil River

“Unless it’s Kicks” by Okkervil River

After listening to these two tracks intermittently for several months, I have finally jumped on the Okkervil River train, albeit late. At first I couldn’t get past the similarities between the “Lost Coastlines” bass line and the main theme in the Decemberist’s “the Sporting Life,” but the former track has finally carved out its very own mental space in my head. These two Okkervil River tracks (along with “the Sporting Life” and pretty much the entire Belle and Sebastian oeuvre) motivate me to keep running, literally.

“Complicated” by Keegan DeWitt

I fell in love with DeWitt’s music after hearing his Daytrotter session a couple of weeks ago. “Complicated” is lyrically a simple love song, but musically it has underpinnings of regret and sadness, even nostalgia. This song took me to an emotional space I last visited around age ten when I sat on the floor of my family’s living room listening to Sting’s “Fields of Gold” on repeat. It’s rare to catch such power in a three-minute ditty.

Unrelated…I just caught the newer, hipper Snuggie commercial complete with slap-bass and lame out-of-touch middle-aged parents “dancing.” Snuggies now come in animal print.