Saturday, December 12, 2009

Favorite Albums of 2009

15. Ramona Falls - Intuit

14. Anni Rossi - Rockwell

13. Bowerbirds - Upper Air

12. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career

11. Atlas Sound - Logos

10. Beirut: March of the Zapotec & Realpeople: Holland

9. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca

8. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

7. Throw Me The Statue: Creaturesque

6. Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

5. The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World To Come

4. Cass McCombs: Catacombs

3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz!

2. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

1. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavillion

Friday, December 04, 2009

Lyricist #1 - Will Sheff

I follow the blog of the poet Ada Limón, and she posted recently about an assignment given to her by Indigest Magazine to interview an artist who works in a different genre. She chose Will Sheff of Okkervil River. And I'm so glad she did. He is a truly brilliant lyricist. He rhymes without sounding compromised or cheesy, he uses repetition without it turning to filler, he can use tricks without sounding forced or contrived. He chooses his words so carefully. The lyrics read brilliantly on their own, but are understood more deeply when coupled with the music (not always the case with good lyrics). There might be a danger to approaching songwriting in too literary a manner, lest the words overshadow the song and melody itself. But whether his songs are whispy or loud he always maintains a balance. Will Sheff, a lyricist himself adored by poets.

Here are two examples:

"A Stone" is sad & superb. The narrator doesn't give any reasons why this girl should love him instead of this stone. He doesn't vow to lay her down in a bed of roses, so to speak, or raise her up so she can stand on mountains, as it were. He just flays her with this indictment of misdirected love. The end just kills.

"Unless it Kicks" is a tour de force. How many songs have we heard over the years about the trappings of rock and roll, and life on the road, etc.? None is more forthright about "living the lie" as Sheff is here, but through shared experience Sheff is able to find some jubliance, some wonder, some meaning despite the doomed nature of the whole affair.

A Stone (mp3)
Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy (2005)

Hot breath, rough skin, warm laughs and smiling, the loveliest words whispered and meant - you like all these things. But, though you like all these things, you love a stone. You love a stone, because it's smooth and it's cold. And you'd love most to be told that it's all your own. You love white veins, you love hard grey, the heaviest weight, the clumsiest shape, the earthiest smell, the hollowest tone - you love a stone. And I'm found too fast, called too fond of flames, and then I'm phoning my friends, and then I'm shouldering the blame, while you're picking pebbles out of the drain, miles ago. You're out singing songs, and I'm down shouting names at the flickerless screen, going f*&%ing insane. Am I losing my cool, overstating my case? Well, baby, what can I say? You know I never claimed that I was a stone. And you love a stone. You love white veins, you love hard grey, the heaviest weight, the clumsiest shape, the earthiest smell, the hollowest tone - you love a stone. You love a stone, because it's dark, and it's old, and if it could start being alive you'd stop living alone.

And I think I believe that if stones could dream, they'd dream of being laid side-by-side, piece-by-piece, and turned into a castle for some towering queen they're unable to know. And when that queen's daughter came of age, I think she'd be lovely and stubborn and brave, and suitors would journey from kingdoms away to make themselves known. And I think that I know the bitter dismay of a lover who brought fresh bouquets every day when she turned him away to remember some knave who once gave just one rose, one day, years ago

Unless It Kicks (mp3)
Okkervil River - The Stage Names (2007)

What gives this mess some grace unless it's kicks, man - unless it is fictions, unless it's sweat or it's songs? What hits against this chest unless it's a sick man's hand, from some midlevel band? He's been driving too long on a dark windless night, with the stereo on, with the towns flying by and the ground getting soft.

And a sound in the sky, coming down from above, it surrounds you and sighs and is whispering of what pulls your body down, and that is quicksand. So climb out quick, hand over hand, before your mouth's all filled up. What picks you up from down unless it's tricks, man? When I've been fixed I am convinced that I will not get so broke up again.

And on a seven day high, that heavenly song punches right through my mind and just hums through my blood. And I know it's a lie, but I'll still give my love. Hey, my heart's on the line for your hands to pluck off.

What gives this mess some grace unless it's fiction - unless it's licks, man, unless it's lies or it's love? What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan, floating up from the stands with her heart opened up. And I want to tell her, "Your love isn't lost," and say "my heart is still crossed!" I want to scream, "hey, you're so wonderful! What a dream in the dark - about working so hard, about glowing, so stoned, trying not to turn off, trying not to believe in that lie all on your own."

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Lyricist #2 - John Darnielle

For almost 20 years John Darnielle has crafted intense, uncompromising, original music. Whenever you hear the Mountain Goats you know it is them and not another. As far as vocals go I've never been his greatest fan, but I've come around the long way to that nasal deadpan delivery. And when it comes to lyrics there aren't many musicians out there that can even come close to John Darnielle. He is also staggeringly prolific. The first thing I ever heard from the Mountain Goats was "The Sunset Tree" in 2005, which by that time was already pretty far along in the discography. It marked a departure from his earlier material in that it was the most confessional collection of songs he'd ever released (and I am a true sucker for the honesty that accompanies that sort of thing). A large part of the album's subject matter deals autobiographically with Darnielle's relationship with his abusive stepfather. At one point he sings about a fantasized confrontation with the man, "I'm going to get myself in fighting trim, scope out every angle of unfair advantage. I'm going to bribe the officials. I'm going to kill all the judges. It's going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage." (!). By the album's end, however he seems to be coming to a sort of reconcilliation with the stepfather, and closes it out with this little beauty:

Pale Green Things (mp3)
The Mountain Goats - The Sunset Tree (2005)

Got up before dawn. Went down to the racetrack, riding with the windows down, shortly after your first heart attack. You parked behind the paddock. Cracking asphalt underfoot. Coming up through the cracks. Pale green things. Pale green things.

You watched the horses run their workouts. You held your stopwatch in your left hand, and a racing form beneath your arm. Casting your gaze way out to no man's land. Sometimes I'll meet you out there, lonely and frightened. Flicking my tongue out at the wet leaves. Pale green things. Pale green things.

My sister called at 3 AM, just last December. She told you how you'd died at last. At last, that morning at the racetrack was one thing that I remembered. I turned it over in my mind like a living Chinese finger trap. Seaweed in Indiana sawgrass. Pale green things. Pale green things.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lyricist #3 - James Mercer

A friend of mine once commented on how unfortunate it was that The Shins came about at a time when "The" bands were so ubiquitous. It would have been easy to lump them into the mix of wannabe throwback hipsters. For every gift like The Walkmen or The Decemberists there were outfits like The Vines, The Killers, The Ravonettes, or The Strokes (not a fan). And although the exposure they got from Garden State almost became a cruel joke ("You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear." ::vomit::), James Mercer's endlessly creative melodies and equally creative lyrics speak for themselves. The Shins have something to say, and say it poetically.

One of the greatest break-up songs of all time, in my opinion, is Past and Pending. The song opens up in the Fall, the year is dying along with the relationship. Betrayal and infidelity burn in one set of eyes, and the narrator is caught in that painful moment between an idyllic past and lonely future. Anyone suffering from a broken heart knows what its like to "loiter the whole day through and lose yourself in lines disecting love." The risk the lyrics run throughout is in the complexity of metaphor. Mercer takes the figurative "lines" disecting his relationship and doubles their meaning, sadness, beauty through the lyrical lines he's writing, disecting his love in song.

Past and Pending (mp3)
The Shins - Oh, Inverted World (2001)

As someone sets light to the first fire of autumn, we settle down to cut ourselves apart. Cough and twitch from the news on your face and some foreign candle burning in your eyes. Held to the past too aware of the pending, chill as the dawn breaks and finds us up for sale. Enter the fog another low road descending away from the cold lust, your house and summertime. Blind to the last cursed affair, pistols and countless eyes, a trail of white blood betrays the reckless route your craft is running. Feed till the sun turns into wood dousing an ancient torch. Loiter the whole day through and lose yourself in lines dissecting love. Your name on my cast and my notes on your stay offer me little but doting on a crime. We've turned every stone and for all our inventions in matters of love loss, we've no recourse at all. Blind to the last cursed affair, pistols and countless eyes, a trail of white blood betrays the reckless route your craft is running feed till the sun turns into wood dousing an ancient torch. Loiter the whole day through and lose yourself in lines dissecting love.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Lyricist #4 - Sufjan Stevens

I've never regretted the day I went to the record store and slapped down $14.99 (plus tax) for a brand new album called "Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State." (Record stores? What are those?) I'd been perusing various internet music sites and found the song "Romulus", which blew me away. Sufjan Stevens has been one of my favorite musical artists ever since. He graduated from The New School with an MFA in creative writing, where he also won the Chapbook award for fiction. (You can read some of his peices online. I recommend "All The Nonsense of Suffering" and "We Are Sheilded By the Holy Ghost".) Though it may not seem like it, based on the quantity of output, he is a feirce self-editor, which is essential in any writing (lyrical or otherwise).

One of my favorite Sufjan tracks is Vito's Ordination Song. Christy and I have two sons. When I hear this song, I can't help but think of taking each one into my arms, annointing their heads, and wanting for them every good thing, no matter what.

Vito's Ordination Song (mp3)
Sufjan Stevens - Greetings From Michigan - The Great Lake State (2003)

I always knew you in your mother’s arms. I have called your name. I have an idea placed in your mind: to be a better man. I've made a crown for you. Put it in your room. And when the bridegroom comes there will be noise. There will be glad. And a perfect bed. And when you write a poem I know the words. I know the sounds before you write it down. When you wear your clothes, I wear them too. I wear your shoes and your jacket too. I always knew you in your mother’s arms. I have called you son. I've made amends between father and son. Or, if you haven't one, rest in my arms. Sleep in my bed. There is a design to what I did and said.

linked images = paintings by Brian Kershisnik