August 21, 2013
The Albums of The Mountain Goats, Ranked

I’ve been in a mood where all I want to listen to is The Mountain Goats, so I figured I’d listen to them all in chronological order and rank them. Why not. I’m skipping the cassette-only releases because while they contain some great albums, this project would just get unruly if I included those. Also, not a one of these records are bad. Not a single dud in the whole bunch. That’s quite the winning streak, JD.

Note: A full appreciation of The Mountain Goats requires seeing them in concert. The records are great, but I was never a huge fan until I saw them live. They put on an incredible show that really brings a whole new and different life to these songs.

1. Get Lonely - Anyone who knows me should know why I adore this album. An album about loneliness and reflection… anyone who’s stared out a window and longed to have someone back, or someone at all, should know exactly where this record is coming from (and should know why those feelings are beautiful). Exquisite melancholy is the most poetic of feelings and John Darnielle distills this to a perfect record of pain and rebirth. Tracks to try: “Half Dead”, “Get Lonely”, “Moon Over Goldsboro”, “Woke Up New”, “Cobra Tattoo”, “In Corolla”.

2. Tallahassee - Released the same year as All Hail West Texas, it marked the transition of The Mountain Goats as a studio band. And so it also marks the end of another Mountain Goats tradition, the Alpha Couple. The entire album is focused on this couple as they drink themselves to oblivion down in Florida. It’s the most cohesive concept album that the Mountain Goats have and he devotes plenty of new tricks to tell the story. And what a story it is. An album length warning that love can be as destructive as it is restorative. Tracks to try: “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”, “No Children”, “See America Right”, “International Small Arms Traffic Blues”.

3. The Life of the World to Come - The Mountain Goats’ career long obsession with faith, death, God, and the Bible gets its very own record and John Darnielle writes songs from all along the spectrum of people tackling their relationship with God. In his own way, it’s his way to tackle his relationship with God, as varied and complicated as it is. It helps that this is a excellent set of tracks, sound-wise. Probably the most fully realized instrumentation and production until Transcendental Youth. Tracks to try: “Psalms 40:2”, “Hebrews 11:40”, “Matthew 25:21”, “Isaiah 45:23”.

4. The Sunset Tree - Probably the widest loved Mountain Goats’ album, this is another autobiographical record, this time about John Darnielle growing up with his abusive stepfather. It’s a painful record but one tinged with the hope that the perspective of being older brings. One could argue that he goes a bit far with his descriptive lyrics, but what it does here is construct the mundane environment for which all this takes places. It’s both highly specific and highly generic. It happened to him in California. It happens to so many more people everywhere. Tracks to try: “Broom People”, “This Year”, “Up the Wolves”, “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod”, “Love Love Love”.

5. Transcendental Youth: Definitely the best sounding Mountain Goats record. The horn arrangements are wonderful, the band has never been tighter, and there are some pantheon level songs on here. Many tracks on this album feel like cast offs from earlier Mountain Goats records: “Lakeside View Apartment Suite” from We Shall All Be Healed, “Until I Am Whole” from Get Lonely, “White Cedar” from The Life of the World to Come. This isn’t a bad thing, but it lends the record a feeling of being a summary rather than a thesis. Tracks to try: “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Cry for Judas”, “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”.

6. We Shall All Be Healed - The Mountain Goats’ first autobiographical record, documenting John Darnielle’s teenage days hanging out with some drug addicts. Again, the focus provides a forceful impact, building a very distinctive and fully fleshed atmosphere, telling stories and creating characters in the space of a song. We weren’t there but he does a damn good job of making us feel like we were. Tracks to try: “Palmcorder Yajna”, “Home Again Garden Grove”, “Against Pollution”.

7. All Hail West Texas - And here it is, The Mountain Goats’ first great album, and would kick off a run of five great albums. There are so many classic songs on this record, yet another loosely defined concept album that I think let JD concentrate his focus a bit, making his songs and songwriting more direct and more powerful. Hail Satan, indeed. Tracks to try: “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”, “Color in Your Cheeks”, “Fault Lines”, “Riches and Wonders”, “Mess Inside”.

8. Heretic Pride - Welcome Jon Wurster to the band. And while this record includes some of the best instrumentation The Mountain Goats has put together, the songs are all over the place. Heretic Pride may be a lesson that there’s only so far John Darnielle can go before he’s writing stuff that only he understands. He’s great at making the personal feel universal, but there are parts here that feel like moments that belong to just one person. Not that this is a bad thing, but it makes for a messy experience at times. Tracks to try: “Sax Rohmer #1”, “So Desperate”.

9. All Eternals Deck - This record seems less an album than a compilation of songs compiled from different sessions and periods of creativity. But the songs are really strong, even if the album as whole lacks a certain thematic heft. But, unlike his best records, the songs here can fade into the background behind the pleasant work of the band instead of calling focus to the lyrics. This leads to an album with only a few memorable moments, but an overall pleasurable experience when listening from front to back. Tracks to try: “Estate Sale Sign”, “Never Quite Free”.

10. The Coroner’s Gambit - The band comes back after a 3 year hiatus with a reinvigorated sense of a purpose. These are deeper songs that seem to have even more urgency, as if it John Darnielle tried to keep them buried for 3 years but they just burst out, threatening to blow out the mic on his boombox. Tracks to try: “Jaipur”, “Family Happiness”.

11. Sweden - A bunch of songs, none of which are about Sweden, but are full of longing and heartache. And covers! Sweden is the first conceptually cohesive album of the catalog. I hesitate to use the term “concept album” because these albums don’t really tell a story, but are just songs tied together by mood, place, or character. While I don’t think Sweden has a song that is as good as Zopilote Machine’s best song, it’s a better overall album, carefully sustaining a mood that builds with each successive song. Tracks to try: “Going to Queens”, “Neon Orange Glimmer Song”, “Cold Milk Bottle”

12. Zopilote Machine - And so begins a great career of making records with the rollicking “Alpha Incipiens”, the first in the Alpha Couple saga which would continue on to Tallahassee, a story of married alcoholic couple who’s love is only matched by their loathing of one another. It’s quite a rallying cry for the band and announces many of the trademark characteristics of Mountain Goats songs: fascinating imagery, detailed settings, rich characters, and conflicting passions. Again, this is all summed up in “Going To Georgia”, a song that anyone who dreamed of doing something drastic for love could get behind. This is not a great record, but it definitely shows that John knew fully what he wanted to do with his music making career. He would only get better. Tracks to try: “Alpha Incipiens”, “Going to Georgia”.

13. Full Force Galesburg - Exit Rachel Ware, enter Peter Hughes. I will never discount The Mountain Goats for being so prolific, but this record is where I think it gets to them. With a few exceptions, there’s very little to set this record apart from what came before… and well, I think that’s how it is supposed to be. Even the text on the cover seems to be a self-conscious shrug. But this record still feels like the work of a young man putting his raw poetry to music. His talent makes this worthwhile, but he will soon reach deeper. Tracks to try: “Twin Human Highway Flares”, “Weekend in Western Illinois”, “It’s All Here In Brownsville”.

14. Nothing For Juice - The actual songcraft makes a marked improvement on this record, with a lot more bass from Rachel Ware, but the songwriting stagnates a bit. Most of the songs are first person, and while they stay evocative and emotional, it really feels like these songs are a bit too vague and allusory to make a real impact. This is an album of a songwriter who can transport with his music but deciding instead to stay home. Tracks to try: “Full Flower”, “Going to Kansas”, “Going to Reykjavik”.

April 23, 2013
Zoetropia’s Best Music of 2012

This has been a weird year in music for me. I listened to a lot of records. 117, to be exact. But I don’t think there was a single one that was an immediate lock for my top 10. The great, challenging, boundary pushing album just didn’t exist for me. Don’t get me wrong, it was a solid year of music in my mind, a lot of great bands put out really solid releases. All of this is to say… this top 10 list took way too much work. But here it is.

10. Lower Dens - Nootropics: I love bands that can build a mood in an album and maintain it carefully so that the atmosphere builds without becoming too dull. Lower Dens does exactly that with Nootropics, a rich and hazy bit of drone pop that sounds like a long walk down an empty city street at night. The addition of synths to their instrumentation is sheer genius, too, allowing for the band to build more melody into their songs.

9. Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory: A love letter/screed to being a loser and having no direction in life played loud and fast with all the required rage and introspection. Dylan Baldi still knows his way around a hook and songs like Fall In and Stay Useless are great pieces of catchy guitar rock. He also lets himself breathe a little bit, not letting the full band and a big ol’ studio with Steve Albini behind the glass get to his head. Instead, he uses them to build a sound that he seems to have always wanted.

8. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel…: Well, she’s back, and she’s the songwriting genius/weirdo she’s always been, but with more freedom now that the memory of her one hit prodigy has faded and she’s no longer beholden to putting out more of said hits. The spare production brings her lyrics to the forefront, and her songs are all the more strong for that. This lady feels a lot of things, and has a lot of things to say about them, and this record is her distilling it into song form. Powerful stuff.

7. Metz - Metz: As great as all the Ty Segall albums were this year, this was the piece of garage anarchy that made the biggest impact on me. And I do mean impact. This band is like a sledgehammer being taken to your eardrums, and the effect is exhilarating. 

6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!: They’re back to show us what we’ve all been missing in a wild gale-force wind of pummeling, swirling instrumentals like an apocalyptic storm of fire sweeping across the plain. And how I’ve been missing it, indeed. This is Godspeed at the top of their game, doing what they do best, and excelling massively. May it not be another 10 years before their next one. 

5. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light: This one really blindsided me because I thought Jason Pierce had pretty much said everything he had to say from the brink of death on his last album, “Songs in A&E”. But it seems it has only extended his appreciation for life, and this record balances uplifting pieces about love and living with the knowledge that it’s all going to end one day. It’s a bittersweet ode to joy with gorgeously lush instrumentation, and it finds Jason Pierce finding a true high without the help of certain mood-altering substances.

4. Hot Chip - In Our Heads: Easily the best production of any album I listened to this year. The bass thumps, the snare pops, the electronics sizzle, and the vocals are crisp. This is dance music with heart, and these are music snobs who take their sounds seriously. They don’t want you to miss a single layer. It’s a rewarding listen, and it really sounds great from beginning to end.

3. Fang Island - Major: Guitars, and more guitars, and awesomeness, and anthemic vocals, and sweet solos, and more awesomeness. This is the perfect TGIF album, a record that makes you want to go out and high five everyone you see. Just listen to this and have all your cynicism blasted away by sheer positive energy (and lots of guitars). Their live show is face-meltingly awesome, too.

2. Beach House - Bloom: So if you listened to Teen Dream and were like, “Gee, I wish they made an entire album that was like “10 Mile Stereo”,” you were super in luck because that’s pretty much exactly what they did. The basic drum machine loops and simple slide guitar in there, but they layer so much reverb, organ, live drums and more onto it until every song becomes a gigantic swirling crescendo. This is dream pop for the arena.

1. Faded Paper Figures - The Matter: I’m not doing this purely to be contrarian. Only partially. But this is in fact the record I listened to most this year. Faded Paper Figures has turned their lowkey electro-pop into something just as hooky, but even more epic, boosting their instrumentation and production. These guys know how to write a pop hook, their boy-girl vocals are sweet without being too cloying, their lyrics are reference heavy and unapologetically intellectual, and they do just enough to make us forget that The Postal Service is probably not coming back (edit: I guess The Postal Service has decided to do something this year!). They also deserve much bigger recognition (I don’t think they’ve even toured outside of the west coast), so I’m happy to do my part to spread the word to all 5 of you.

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June 13, 2012
Quotefest, Album Edition: The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely

Wild Sage

And when somebody asks if I’m ok
I don’t know what to say
And along the highway 
From cast-off innumerable seeds
Wild sage growing in the weeds.

New Monster Avenue

Fresh coffee at sunrise
Warm my lips against the cup
Been waiting such a long time now
My number’s finally coming up

Half Dead

Stole out to the back yard late last night
Pine trees frozen in the silvery moonlight
Rising like giants from the cold earth
What are the years we gave each other
Ever gonna be worth?

Can’t get you
Out of my head
Lost without you
Half dead

Get Lonely

And I will get lonely
And gasp for air
And send your name off from my lips
Like a signal flare

Maybe Sprout Wings

I thought of old friends 
the one’s who’d gone missing
Said all their names three times
Phantoms in the early dark
Canaries in the mines

Moon Over Goldsboro

And a guy with any kind of courage
would maybe stop to think the matter through
Maybe hold you still and raise the question
Instead of blindly holding onto you

In The Hidden Places

And when I got home I thought about you
Like a desperate policeman searching for clues
And I almost passed out just then
And I shut my eyes again
Headed for the dark hillsides
In the hidden places

Song For Lonely Giants

Face in the leaves 
Song in my throat
Fall through the air
Hoping to float

Woke Up New

And the wind began to blow and the trees began to pant
And the world in its cold way started coming alive
And I stood there like a buisness man waiting for the train
And I got ready for the future to arrive

And I sang
Oh, What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?
What do I do without you?

If You See Light

And no one knows how to keep secrets ‘round here 
They tell everyone everything soon as they know
And then where is there left for poor sinners to go?

Cobra Tattoo

Higher than the stars I will set my throne
God does not need Abraham, God can raise children from stones

In Corolla

And no one was gonna come and get me
There wasn’t anybody gonna know
Even though I leave a trail of burned things in my wake
Every single place I go

April 19, 2012
2012 1st Quarter Round-up: What I’ve Been Digging

Forgive me for not updating my blog in so long, but I’m busy and stuff, but I have been watching and listening to and (kind of) reading a lot, so maybe I’d share what I’ve been doing for the first 3 months or so of this year.

MOVIES

I’ve seen 33 movies so far this year, which is way less than I was planning. There are a few rewatches in there, but the vast majority of them were movies that were new to me. There really hasn’t been anything from 2012 that has really put itself in contention for my year-end list (that’s assuming this year picks up in quality films, which it usually does), but the two movies that have entertained me the most are The Cabin in the Woods, the meta-horror deconstruction from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon that is both a think piece on the state of horror and a hilarious takedown of the entire genre, and The Raid: Redemption, an awesomely brutal martial-arts/action extravaganza from Indonesia that’s pretty much all impressive action choreography from start to finish. So yeah, two genre films topping my first part of the year, which is pretty typical. 

I was disappointed by The Hunger Games adaptation, which I thought dropped the ball on a lot of opportunities to deepen and illuminate the universe, but instead just served as an all-too-faithful illustration of the book. Like the Watchmen film, it shows us the perils of fidelity. Movies have to be their own things.

Other 2012 movies I saw were Haywire, which is, of course, well shot by Soderbergh, but mostly by the numbers, even if those numbers had been stripped down to their core essence; Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, which is about what you would expect from a Tim and Eric movie, but a lot more coherent than I expected (to its detriment, I feel); Chronicle, a quite good low budget superhero movie that doesn’t outstay its welcome; John Carter, which entertained me greatly, despite the doom and gloom the entertainment industry spat at you; 21 Jump Street, which was surprisingly funny and fresh, but mostly gets by on being way better than anyone expected it to be; and The Secret World of Arriety, which is a gorgeously animated Studio Ghibli film that I greatly enjoyed, in both its simple story and luxurious pacing.

MUSIC

I’ve listened to a bunch of new records so far this year (I’m nearing 50), and there have been a few that have impressed me. Early in the year Cloud Nothings put out a record called Attack on Memory that took a while to grow on me, but between giving it a few spins, and seeing them live, I’ve warmed up to greatly.

Then it was kind of a dark time, but then Lower Dens came out with Nootropics, and Lotus Plaza released Spooky Action At A Distance, which are both extremely accomplished pieces of guitar rock (of different styles) from acts whose leaders are constantly striving to achieve a particular sound, with remarkable results from both of them.

And then, just this past week, Spiritualized dropped Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which is just incredible. For some reason, I thought Spiritualized went as far as it could go with Songs in A&E, their last album, so this was a pleasant surprise for me. And then it became much more than that. This is a ridiculously good record.

And in the weakspot pleasures department, Allo Darlin’ came out with a record, Europe, which is perfect for you lovers of summertime twee/jangle pop that makes you feel like a lovesick teenager again.

BOOKS

I’ve been kind of stuck on the same book this year (Albert Camus’ The Plague) so I can’t recommend much from a literature standpoint. But at least there’s comics! Brian K. Vaughn, writer of Y: The Last Man and many other properties, has debuted a new ongoing series called Saga which I’ve read the first issue of and I loved it. Please pick it up if you get the chance. It has a lot of promise.

VIDEO GAMES

I’ve been playing and enjoy Mass Effect 3 greatly. You can tell that the game is going through the painstaking process of wrapping up all the threads, but that doesn’t really bother me. The story is high stakes, the characters are nice, and the enemy is gripping. I haven’t beaten it yet, so I don’t know what’s the big deal about the ending everyone has complained about, but I doubt I’ll have such a strong negative reaction. I guess we’ll see though. 

Besides that, I’ve been most wowed by thatgamecompany’s latest release, Journey, which is a gorgeous, magnificent, awe inspiring piece of artistic work that does so much with so little, and is possibly the most affecting multiplayer game/component ever created. Yeah, this is not hyperbole. It’s fantastic. If you have a PS3, you must get this game.

TELEVISION

Ah, TV, the thing that sucks up most my time. Game of Thrones is back and it’s great. Eastbound & Down and Justified have both finished up their seasons (Eastbound & Down, for good), but I’m a few episodes behind so I have nothing to say. Mad Men is compelling as ever this season. But these are all old shows.

As for new shows, there’s only been one that I’ve kept up with and enjoyed, and that is Awake on NBC, the parallel reality detective drama from Kyle Killen, of the late and could have been great Lone Star. I like Awake a lot, it feels like it trusts its audience, it’s shot in a unique style, and parallel reality construct is interesting without being the entire focus of the show. The construct is much more interesting as a way to study a character than as a mystery. Which has been missing from all those BIG MYSTERY genre shows since Lost. Check it out.

And that’s my 2012 so far. How was yours?

January 31, 2012
Music: Revisiting My Favorites of 2009

The first time I took my end of the year list making seriously was for the year 2009. And I went back and looked at my top ten to see what held up. What albums do I still listen to regularly? I thought it would be a neat look back to my tastes then and tastes now. So let’s do this.

10. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Why There Are Mountains

Would this still be in my top ten? No.

Do I still listen to this record? Not really. This one barely snuck into my top ten as it is, but besides “…And the Hazy Sea”, I’d be hard pressed to remember another song off of it. I respect their sound, and the sheer emotional energy of the band, but I just don’t come around to this one.

9. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

Would this still be in my top ten? Yes.

Do I still listen to this record? Not as much as I should. I think this is Andrew Bird’s most tuneful record, and I remember when putting together my 2009 list originally, this thing was at the top for a good long while. But as tuneful as Mr. Bird is, his tendency for obscurity can be a turn off. Still, this is a great record.

8. The xx - xx

Would this still be in my top ten? Yes, and it would be much higher.

Do I still listen to this record? All the time. What a fully realized mood, what spare, haunting melodies and vocals. A perfect nighttime record.

7. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - The Pains of Being Pure At Heart

Would this still be in my top ten? Maybe. (Is that a cop out?)

Do I still listen to this record? Sometimes. When it first came out, it was on constant replay. Same thing with their follow up. But as much as their sound hits my sweet spot, it doesn’t really stick with me. They can write a good tune, and their “hits” are just as catchy as ever, but I don’t listen to the whole record much anymore.

6. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Would this still be in my top ten? No.

Do I still listen to this record? Not really. Don’t get me wrong, I love Grizzly Bear. But I respect this record more than anything else. I’ll take Yellow House or the Friend EP over this one anyday, as great as “Two Weeks” is. 

5. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

Would this still be in my top ten? Maybe. (Yeah, this is a cop out.)

Do I still listen to this record? Rarely. This one took me a long, long time to come around to, and it  had me for a long time, and then it took me a long, long time to leave. Once again, the obscurity of the Dirty Projectors is a turn off for me for long term, repeat listening. But this one is just a great, great album. I’m kind of sorry I don’t listen to it anymore. Maybe I’ll put it on right now.

4. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Would this still be in my top ten? Absolutely.

Do I still listen to this record? Yep, this is a great one, the best one that Phoenix has ever done, and while “Lisztomania” is a bit overplayed (whatever that means), the deep cuts are just as good as the hits. I don’t think this one has a weak point in it.

3. Animal Collective - Merriwether Post Pavilion

Would this still be in my top ten? Yes, but lower.

Do I still listen to this record? Yeah, but not as much as Strawberry Jam, which is still my favorite Animal Collective record. But I love “In the Flowers” so much, and if I play that, I might as well play the rest.

2. The Antlers - Hospice

Would this still be in my top ten? Yes. And is a serious contender for top ten EVER. Yeah.

Do I still listen to this record? You better believe it. You should already know I love well done concept albums, and this one has a heartbreaking story, beautiful lyrics, beautiful songs… this is just a great, great record and one of my favorites ever.

1. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career

Would this still be in my top ten? Yup.

Do I still listen to this record? You’re must be kidding. I love Camera Obscura. I love this record. Tracyanne Campbell could sing to me all day every day and take me away in her wistful, romantic melancholy and I wouldn’t give a damn about anything. “French Navy”, “The Sweetest Thing”, “James”, “Honey in the Sun”… ugh, just listen to this thing and try not to fall in love (and somehow, be sad about it at the same time).

What did I exclude then that I would include now?

There’s only one record from 2009 that I listen to a lot these days and it didn’t make my top ten back then, and that would be Post Nothing by Japandroids. What a great, energetic, exuberant record. Also in consideration from 2009 would be Phantogram’s Eyelid Movies, Passion Pit’s Manners, and The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love (which I’m appreciating more and more every time I listen to The King Is Dead and am disappointed).

So there it is. Everything considered, I didn’t do such a bad job. And a big purpose of my listmaking is to be a recommendation engine for others, really, and now you can see what I still recommend from way back when.

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April 6, 2011
The Best Songs I’ve Seen Performed Live

I go to quite a few shows.  Not as many as some, and I certainly can’t measure up to sheer quantity of acts seen by regular festival-goers, but I go to quite a few. And I’ve seen some great live performances of songs. Here are just a few (in no particular order):

Sufjan Stevens - “Seven Swans” (The Tabernacle, Atlanta): I always liked this song. I’m a sucker for epic crescendos, and the way the album version goes from solo banjo and voice to cascading drums always gets me. But, man, it doesn’t even compare to when he performed it as the explosive opener for his set while touring The Age of Adz. The crescendo is absolutely massive, bordering on overpowering, and the Apocalyptic, downright frightening imagery is pumped all the way up with his use of lights and visuals. It was an incredible start to a great set.

The Polyphonic Spree - “Hold Me Now” (The Roxy, Atlanta): The Polyphonic Spree can quickly become cloying and precious on album, but their live show is just sheer joy and energy. “Hold Me Now” is probably the best song The Polyphonic Spree has, it’s joyful power is hard to deny even recorded, but the live version, complete with showers of confetti, had the whole building jumping around and shouting along. Beautiful.

The Magnetic Fields - “100,000 Fireflies” (Harris Theater, Chicago): The Magnetic Fields desperately need to put out a live album. The live versions of the songs are so much more scaled back and bring Stephin Merritt’s fantastic songwriting to the forefront. But more than that, we’re so used to Merritt being the voice for most of their songs that we forget the first two albums didn’t feature his voice entirely. “100,000 Fireflies” is one of those songs from the first two albums, and while it’s already a fantastic song, it’s even more beautifully heartbreaking song by Merritt’s laconic baritone.

Coldplay - “Fix You” (Philips Arena, Atlanta): I had shitty seats in an arena with terrible acoustics, but this song was built to bring down an arena, and it delivered. It’s huge and not at all subtle, but remember how much I love massive crescendos. “Fix You” is Coldplay knowing exactly what they’re going for and unashamedly going for it.

Tally Hall - “Freebird” (Legends, Notre Dame): Probably tired of snotty college students yelling for Freebird, Tally Hall opened their set with an absolutely perfect cover of “Freebird”, complete with piano and all three guitar parts. It was completely unexpected, and it floored me. They nailed it and it was amazing.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” (Le Batofar, Paris): The Paris music crowd is very polite and very quiet, but when TPOBPAH broke out their anthem, the combination of simple lyrics and loudness got everyone into it, and got this literal boat (i’m not kidding, look it up) rocking on the Seine.

Black Moth Super Rainbow - “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” (The Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta) Black Moth Super Rainbow is a live band with a problem. They play very dancey, psychedelic music aided by trippy projected video and crazy costumes (besides their keyboardist, The Seven Fields of Aphelion, who is just a short girl in jeans and a t-shirt). That problem? They play all their instruments live, even voice manipulation, and if you know the band, the heavy vocoder work of Tobacco makes the band. So lead singer Tobacco has to stay in one place to work the vocoder (he’s usually sitting on the ground somewhere in the back of the stage) instead of being up front and working the crowd. So what do they do? They dress someone up in a bigfoot costume and a asian caricature mask, give him the microphone, and let him do whatever the heck he wants while he pretends to be the lead singer. It sounds odd, but as soon as set opener “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” gets started, the dude in the costume leapt into the sold out crowd and it was on.

Wilco - “A Shot in the Arm” (UIC Pavilion, Chicago) Wilco brought down the house with his one with huge catharsis after a mostly subdued show. But this is the song that made my friend and I turn to each other and nod, “Oh yeah, this is what we came for.” The band turned up the sound, Tweedy turned on the yelling, and the live version won’t ever match the energy that the band gave the live version.

Deerhunter - “Helicopter” (The Variety Playhouse, Atlanta) Deerhunter is a very different band live. On their albums, they’re able to play with their sound and turn up the ambience and drone with carefully manipulated effects. Live? They just go for noise, and never more forcefully than the ear-shattering version of “Helicopter” they put on for us. I love the album version of “Helicopter” but the live version is so much more raw, even painful. And it is very, very loud.

Yo La Tengo - “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” (Vic Theatre, Chicago) Yo La Tengo is a great live band. All three members are consummate professionals, and Ira Kaplan can absolutely shred. But their combined power is never more apparent on stage than when they combine their sound to create one of their mostly instrumental epics. I have a soft spot for “I Heard You Looking”, but I haven’t seen them play that one live yet. But “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” is similarly gorgeous and expansive. It has a few words, but most of this song is devote to the slow evolution of the sounds they are building. And the fact that this otherwordly noise is coming from just three very unassuming people up on stage is amazing.

LCD Soundsystem - “All My Friends” (The Tabernacle, Atlanta): If you’ve had the chance to see this performed live, you know what I’m talking about. I’m really, really sad that those of you who haven’t won’t get a chance to (for at least a while), but words just won’t do this justice.

Arcade Fire - “Wake Up” (Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, Atlanta): Yeah, I don’t really have to explain this one.

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March 29, 2011
Record Review: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart make music that aims squarely at what I like in music more than any other band right now. They combine the deeply heartfelt, literate songwriting of Belle & Sebastian with the noise of bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. I love both of these things, so two great tastes taste great together, right?

For the most part, yes. The people shouting down TPOBPAH for being derivative are missing the point. They are very derivative, and pretty much every sound they make comes from a clear influence. But when songs are written this well, when songs are this catchy… well, all that is much harder than it seems. Sure the songs may mostly be about starting romance, ending romance, and teenage restlessness, but they are written and sung with such earnestness that the power of these words can’t be denied. This music sounds like it could be spinning on vinyl in the room of a very introspective teenager in the 80s. Is that a bad thing when the image and feelings of that moment are so powerful?

As for the sound, TPOBPAH have never been better. Their guitar lines are cleaner and sharper, the keys are better integrated, and lead singer Kip Berman’s breathy vocals are increasingly more suited to the material as it fills up space in some of the more atmospheric songs on this album. 'Heart in Your Heartbreak' is a masterclass in pop songwriting with simple, yet smart, lyrics structured around an indelible pop hook. 'Anne with an E' expands the dreamy potential of their sound into a woozy serenade. It’s a pleasure to hear a band with so much confidence and consistency in their sound, and it makes listening to the album that much better. Sure, it’s not so original, but originality can definitely be overrated. This is the sound of a band that knows exactly the kind of music they want to make, and they succeed at it. It’s not as easy at is seems.

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March 2, 2011
Birthday Songs

Yup, it’s my birthday. Time to list all the songs that are my favorite birthday songs, for personal and general reasons.

Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime

One of the last unvarnished memories I had with my former best friend was singing this song on karaoke with him two years ago. We were at that stage of drunk where we really felt like this was one of the most important things we would do that night and we sung like it was all that mattered, even though the whole bar was confused, except for around two people who were REALLY pumped for some Talking Heads. Besides that memory, it’s just a perfect getting older song. Time isn’t holding us, Time isn’t after us, Time is a pony ride.

Steely Dan - Reelin’ in the Years

This one is pretty much self explanatory. It doesn’t really have any personal meaning besides being a great song in general. The lyrics are sentimental AND sarcastic, so if you know me at all, that’s pretty much perfect.

Camera Obscura - James

Camera Obscura is a band that can be summed up with :-( but damn it do I love them so much. This song is about things fading and life going on and how people can have a profound, sometimes damaging, effect on you. “I’d like to celebrate you, dear / all in all, it’s been a pretty good year.”

Nico - These Days

It’s about getting older and slowing down, and it’s not really where I want to be right now, but I feel it. This is such an emotional song, and I just feel like I’m moving in slow motion and the rest of the world is moving right past me whenever I listen to it.

The Polyphonic Spree - Section 14: Two Thousand Places

And finally, a song that’s not about being sad that you are getting old. But I need a song that tells me that I have the time to get where I want to be and the world may seem big and it may seem like too much, but “time will show the way, and love will shine today, and time will go away, so love can grow.” Completely uncynical, and way too happy, but it’s my birthday.

You guys have any favorite birthday songs? (Please no Birthday by The Beatles)

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January 17, 2011
Record Review: The Decemberists - The King is Dead

It’s impossible to read about this album without seeing words like “stripped down” and “back to basics”, but don’t fooled, this is not Colin Meloy with a guitar. This is a definitely a full band effort, even adding R.E.M. vet Peter Buck on guitar and singer-songwriter Gillian Welch to fill out the vocal harmonies. The King is Dead was, instead, supposed to be a scaling back from the prog-rock concept epic The Hazards of Love, which was admittedly a little too overblown and overlong, despite having some excellent songs.

But, I think here, in The King is Dead, The Decemberists scaled back too much. There’s nothing wrong with the songs at face. They’re pleasantly listenable, nicely melodic, and performed deftly. Yet, they’re missing the unique something, the storytelling, and yes, even the multi-part epics that somehow tiptoe around absurdity that made The Decemberists who they are.

It’s too bad, I miss the blistering organ, the fleshed out characters, and the wide range of stories Colin Meloy told with his lyrics. This album has a few too many ballads and a too few memorable moments for me to fully recommend this album, but still, it’s an easy and pleasant listen, which I can’t really complain about it. I just hope next time, The Decemberists start reaching out a little further. Again.