Friday, July 29, 2005

Six Feet Under Vol. 2 - Everything Ends

There's a scene in a recent episode of Family Guy where Brian, the dog, is afflicted with tapeworms. The camera switches to an internal view of his stomach where two worms are sitting around a table apparently waiting for dinner. One of the worms says to the other, "You know, I've only been alive for a few hours and all I know about the world is the inside of this dog's stomach but even I think Six Feet Under is pretenious."

I haven't seen an episode of Six Feet Under since the end of the second season and that's why I'm not going to talk about the show, but, rather the second compliation put out by the music producers of the show. Still, it's worth noting that not many TV shows put out CD's "Inspired" by their show.

The first comp was perfect mood music for a rainy day, mostly electronic work delving into the darker side of relationships. Lamb's gorgeous "Heaven", Zero 7's "Distractions" and The Devlin's "Waiting" were highlights. It was as if the producers picked the most promising songs of the time (about three years ago), laminated them, put them on display, and said, "Here is good music."

Well, they've done it again, this time responding to the mainstream's embrace of indie rock and finding in it the perfect tools for examining reality at the moment. And they won't be confined to any single genre, either! The CD starts with a short intro track entitled, "Feelin' Good" by Jazz great Nina Simone. It's an uplifting eruption to start off a storm.

Continuing the theme is Jem's "Amazing Life," which sounds a little like Dido as seen through the eyes of Theievery Corporation, which as you can imagine, is a winning combination and Phoenix's "Everything is Everything," an addicting little song by a band that should just release singles every couple years and put them on out-of-the-way-soundtracks (see: "Too Young" from the OST to Lost in Translation) and they'll continue to have a perfectly viable - and proftiable! - career.

Finally, after what seems like the beginning of a album devoted to some bright, happy, show like, say, Arrested Development, a darker mood clouds over the horizon, ushered in by Coldplay's hypnotic and brilliant "A Rush of Blood to the Head." Now, I should say, I object - on a purely rational level - to the existence of Coldplay. They are Radiohead-lite, with similiar-looking band members and sound, and yet, damn it to hell!, they come up with some damn good songs every once in a while. I wanted to shoot myself everytime the radio played "Yellow" every five minutes a few years ago, but then I heard the extremely affecting "The Scientist" and thought, "Wow. Well, everyone deserves one good song." Now, there's this one (which is, in fact, old, but new to me) and it's damn good. It fits the tambre of the show, themetically and musically, and is a defining track for the album as a whole.

Next up is a double-punch of the previously-unknown-to-me Sia's "Breathe Me," a wonderful song that has just the right amount of subtlety and bombast and Radiohead's OK Computer-era classic, "Lucky," a song that is so huge and big and destructive, it feels slightly out of place here. I think other Radiohead possibilites may have "fit in" better, like the classic "Exit Music For a Film" or the somber "Scatterbrain" from Hail To The Thief. Still, these two songs plus the aided weight of Coldplay's contribution makes this the heavy emotional center of this tootsie-roll. But it's not all tears. The joy of listening to this CD is the experts' ears of the guys who put it together. You know they're life-long music fans who understand that music has no limitations and great ambition is worh celebrating.

The album gets a little muddy at this point. A couple tracks not worth mentioning - a fun but unnessecary cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper" and then a few songs that gained a little of attention for this comp. New, exclusive, songs from two of the biggest names in indie rock, Interpol and The Arcade Fire. Unfortanetly, their songs - while solid - are definitely in the B-side category and don't stroke the fires of expectation for next releases from either artist. Interpol's "Direction" is mostly instrumental, with a classic-but-done-to-death-already Interpol bassline, syncopated guitars, and whispered lyrics. In another life, tt would be a transitional song at the backend of an Interpol EP. As for The Arcade Fire's "Cold Wind," it's the better of the two. Mainly because my ears have heard too little Arcade Fire after my year of daily Funeral visits and so the hushed vocals of Win Butler and the airy guitar maneuvers sound fresh and exciting. Still, it's a song that underachieves and doesn't have the staying power of anything from Funeral or the self-titled EP.

Finally, the album ends with a magnificant song called "Tranatlanticism" by Death Cab for Cutie. I remember the first time I heard this song, months before relase on the album of the same name. My friend and I listened with rapt attention to this epic masterpiece for seven full minutes. When it was over, we looked each other, perplexed. "That," we thought, in unision, "is NOT the Death Cab we know." And it's not. But it fit in perfectly with the ambitious rest of the album. I didn't like the song oo much at first, thinking it too long, too big, too exhausting. But then I really paid attention to the lyrics, the affecting story of a long distance relationship metaphored with the creation of the Atlantic ocean and I started to love this song. It is a bit of strecth for this charming little band from Seattle, but it compliments the rest of this ambitious compliation.

Overall, an effective collection of music that works on many different levels. Like a short story collection, it contains different facets, different voices, and has much to offer the listener. I liked the consistency of the first disc a little bit better, but this works as well for it's way-outside-of-the-box approach. I'd listen to another one.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Mountain Goats Are Cool.

*Updated with snazzy links and images.

This is a post months in the making. The Mountain Goats have a long and diverse career. At the moment, I've only listened to the last few albums and have had trouble publicly expressing an opinion about any of it, feeling uninformed and newbieish to the whole thing.

Back in April, while listening to KEXP at work (which I can't do anymore: sad), I stumbled across a rare, unpretentious, slice of charming indie rock. It was the song "Dance Music" off The Mountain Goat's latest, The Sunset Tree. An upbeat chord progression and the high, bright, voice of John Darnelle underscored a sad tale of abuse and solitude. It had something most music lacks: layers. It had pathos and glee, fun and darkness. It was so, so, literary.

My experience with The Decemberists had prepared me for so-called "hyper-literary" music, those artists who take words seriously and balk at cliched choruses. Guys like Ted Leo and Thom Yorke like to use a huge volucabulry to tell stories in the abstract. This is different. This is music with a focus on telling real stories with real characters. The Decemberists' Colin Meloy likes the third person, but occasionally, like on the brilliant "The Mariner's Revenge Song" off Picaresque he uses the first person to wondrous results. Me, I like first person. In my literature, and, apparently, in my music.

So, after hearing a seemingly slight song, I set out on the journey that is The Sunset Tree. I wasn't prepared for it. It was a full story, a portrait of a 17-year-old living in a ratty and broken home under the drunk eyes of an abusive stepfather. Songs early in the album are alive with images that set the stage, songs in the middle are passionate tales about escape, remorse, alcoholism (both the narrator and the stepfather), and finally, at the end of the album, songs about death and love, like a suicide preparing his mind for that final jump. It was a moving story, stark and true. Then, when I found out the album was actually autobiographical, I was floored. It was inspiring, how open and honest this guy could be. There was no cloak of fiction that most writers disguise their emotions in, this was so raw, it sometimes hurt to listen too.

Emotionally, most of the power is conveyed through Darnelle's lyrics and his deceptive voice. It sounds too high, too youthful, but that's the beauty. It's the voice of the sad clown. It's a beautiful girl singing sad songs about heartbreak. It's the bejeweled King lamenting loneliness. Musically, Darnelle is equipped, always, like a shield, with his acoustic guitar. And sometimes those songs that are just him and his short chords are the strongest, but the band (a loose parade of friends that differs from album to album, apparently) show up very strongly here. Violins underline songs about violence, pensive piano lines heighten tension. Songs are surprisingly short for their weight and with a lesser lyricist, this music would probably be defined as "indie pop."

I've listened to a few more recent albums from The Mountain Goats, all strong, with older work solely fiction and non-fiction showing up in the more recent work. The most effective album I've heard so far is Tallahassee, a fictional story-in-songs about a married couple who move to Florida and proceed to drink themselves to death. It is told in the first person and contains some of the most dark tales I've ever heard in music (and I use to listen to heavy metal!) The main trick, though, that Darnelle pulls is that this music is not depressing. It's heavy and thick like a great emotional novel, but it doesn't descend to the murky, kill-yourself-later darkness of such sad poets as that guy from Songs: Ohia or the manic-depressive vocal stylings of Conor Oberest from Bright Eyes. It's a subtle, almost impossible, trick that Darnelle has mastered here and, in turn, it forms a powerful, persuasive, and effective masterpiece.

One of the most powerful songs from Tallahesse, (provided for your listening pleasure through the band's label site), is "No Children" another upbeat but devastingly dark song. It's central location in the album conveys a crossroads of sorts, a realization of how far they've come in their trouble marriage and one last chance to step out of the path of an incoming train. There seems to be a future for them, here, but later in the album, as it gets surpisingly bouncier, there doesn't seem to be much hope at all. Some of the most interesting lyrics on an album of great lyrics are here, from "And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here / Someday burns down / And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away /
And I never come back to this town," to "I am drowning / There is no sign of land / You are coming down with me / Hand in unlovable hand."

To summarize, The Mountain Goats are cool. I've loved listening to them. I think you will too.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Live 8 And A Half?

Someone explain to me the logic of Live 8. Please.

I'm not so smart, so I can't say I understand everything, but what is the reason behind a huge, multi-city concert to spread awareness of Hunger in Africa by spending millions in stages, artists, and sound equipment and hiring the best, most popular, most loved artists in the world to perform and then NOT charge the audience?

Charge 'em, I say! Charge 'em twenty bucks each and take that money and use it for Africa. Is the general public so obsessed with themselves that they aren't aware of the problems in Africa? I think they are. What Africa needs is money. Money, food, volunteers. That's what should have been going on. Bring canned food, old clothes, donate blood, and then listen to some bands.

It just makes no sense to me. And the hypocrisy of it all saddens me.