Friday, January 20, 2006

Best Music of 2005 (Part 4)

Death Cab for Cutie - Plans

Often I get asked, "What is Indie Rock?" People challenge me to define it. And I try my best, usually failing. Indie Rock is as much a feeling as it is a genre. But in the future, whenever I get asked that question, I'm going to say, "Listen to Death Cab. That's indie rock, personified." Their recent mainstream success (The OC, SNL, a major label) is definitely far from the "indie" troupes that separate the genres, but their sound has always been what carried Death Cab and that does not change with this album.

Plans is the sound of a fully mature band in a very philosophical place about where they are in their career and their lives (reminds me of Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, minus the pretension). Continuing immediately where Transatlanticismleft off, Plans is subtle and deep, relying as much on Gibbard's sentimental lyrics as on the sound of a guitar. This is an album with a clear lyrical theme (Love + Death) that is confidently portrayed throughout these eleven songs. Gibbard is at the height of songwriting here, throwing images out at such powerful, gritted-teeth, speed and such superior ability, it's almost overwhelming. Like all Death Cab records, this album reveals its subtlety with time.

I've listened to probably every word and chord of Death Cab's career and I've watched their fascinating tour-documentary, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, a couple times, so I can safely say I know Death Cab. I know their emotions, their ups-and-downs. I know where Ben Gibbard stops and Death Cab comes in. And so I know this album is quintessentional Death Cab and yet, it's pensive. That's probably intentional, part of the Endings theme that runs throughout the album. But I know this band, I know they like to rock out to end a song, I know they like to make big, bold statements, and as much power as there is in Plans, I also know they're holding back. For what? Probably their next album. But maybe they were a little afraid to make their big Major debut with a bang. Maybe there's just been too much press.

Regardless, Plans is definitely worth a listen. Just like Radiohead's fifth album, there's shades of every single previous record here. "Marching Bands of Manhattan" reminds me of the first song of the first album, "Bend to Squares." "Soul Meets Body" is a little Postal Service, a little "Title and Registration." "Summer Skin" is any number of love-lorn childhood songs (see: The Photo Album).

"Different Names for the Same Thing" is a breathe of fresh, experimental, air. Its strange structure and curious sound effects sound like a band that's not Death Cab and that's a good thing here. This seems like a good place to shout-out, Chris Walla, Death Cab's second-in-command, their lead guitarist and producer. His talent is everywhere here and his production stylings (i'm hesitating to put the word genius all over this sentence.. I don't want to embarrass him) is so strong, it's really been the backbone of this band and the last two albums.

"I Will Follow You Into The Dark" is a dark song that would fit perfectly on a Decemberists record. Meanwhile, "Your Heart Is An Empty Room" sounds like it should be running over the end credits to The Breakfast Club. I love the guitar lick that runs around the chorus. "Someday You Will Be Loved" is eerily similar to Transatlanticism's "Tiny Vessels", but in a good way.

"Crooked Teeth" is a song with literally dozens of great images and lines. Lesser writers (like myself) read or listen to stuff like this and just sit back in slack-jawed awe. Is this song about an erstwhile relationship or a two-bit suburban town? "What Sarah Said" is the heart of the album, like the title track from the previous record, a powerful statement that cements the themes and direction of each. And a perfect indicator of why Transatlantsicism was so perfect and Plans falls slightly short. Where "Transatlanticism" let itself breathe and flap its wing and challenge itself, "What Sarah Said" gets to the point and then leaves, quietly.

"Brothers in a Hotel Bed" is rather vague, a disappointing choice for a follow-up to the strong lead-in track. This would have been a perfect place to put a song like "We Looked Like Giants," an all-out rock explosion. And coda "Stable Song" is an unnecessary rehash of Transatlanticism's "Lack of Color."

The rather-weak ending to a strong album makes for my lukewarm-to-medium reaction to Plans. Definitely a noteworthy album in any year but in terms of a Death Cab album, I can't shake this feeling that they could have done better.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

What, Me Weird?

The first player of this game starts with the topic "five weird habits" and people who get tagged need to write an entry about their five weird habits as well as state this rule clearly. In the end, you need to choose the next five people to be tagged and link to their web journals. Don't forget to leave a comment in their blog or journal that says "You have been tagged" (assuming they take comments) and tell them to read yours.

1. I can't sit still when music is playing. A lot of people have this not-so-weird habit but for me, it's quite extreme. When I was younger, I would jump around my room while rocking out to the latest Tool record. I've calmed it down a lot. Nowadays, I shake my foot and nod my head while sitting at my desk at home. In the car, I strum my fingers or play the drums on the steering wheel. I really like playing invisible instruments.

2. TV habits: Listening to commercials gives me a headache so if I'm watching regular TV, when a commerical comes on, I immediatly hit the MUTE button. Watching them I don't mind. They're usually colorful and creative. Just listening to those damn jingles and being told what to buy hurts my head. Also, I really like The Guides on digital cable. Especially the one I have now, where I can watch one show in the corner of the screen and scroll through the channels and pick out things to watch next. I usually do it during commercials but years of PC-use has made my brain multi-task friendly. I always need to know what's on next and what I can watch.

3. I'm meticilously obsessed with washing my hands. Not Aviator-crazy, but pretty damn crazy. I've had this tick for awhile - i've been watching my hands everytime i touch money for years - but it seems to be more pronounced nowadays because of my dog and my car. I feel this constant need to watch my hands after touching either. I guess it's good. But Shawn will tell you we go through Softsoap way, way, too fast.

4. I've never been a phone person. I just don't like it. I've always been worried about calling and bothering people so I don't call people. Lately, it's morphed into an aversion to having other people overhear my conversations. Not so much because what I'm saying is private but because I don't want to intrude on someone's personal audible space. This is especially bad at work, in my office, where I have to speak on the phone a lot. When I first started, I waited till everyone went to lunch before I made a phone call. Lately, I've been better, but it still takes me a few tries before I start hitting those buttons.

5. I drink an obscene amount of coffee. I am fascinated by the stuff, buy the best for my morning cup (Starbucks Sumatra. Owww yeah.) and visit the Dunkins Donuts near my job twice a day. I have vast ideas for books about, inspired, and devoted to coffee.

See? Not so weird. Tagging: Shawn, Dave, Sting, Hannah, Zwrk!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Best Music Of The Year (Part 3)

Well, as 2006 picks up speed, my lazy ass still hasn't finished my 2005 Best Of The Year list. In fact, I'm still in internal-debate-mode what my favorite album of the year is. But, I lean heavily towards..

Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary

I'm a fan of rock and roll. Despite my love of all things indie and strange, sometimes the straightforward speaks the most. And when it's done right, it can be extremely powerful. Following in the footsteps of those other awesome Monteralians, Wolf Parade took me by complete surprise this year. I'd long come to suspect any band with the word Wolf in their name as well as my usual Pitchfork apprehension and so I was suspicious. Could this album be all I ever wanted in an album?

Apologies starts off with a drum kick that has a distinct "shot heard 'round the world" vibe. The first couple of songs are a powerful, personal, sentiment and set up's the album lyrical themes. For me, the lyrics on this record - a combination of two lyricists combining forces to form one modern viewpoint - is one of the biggest hooks. The images in the first handful of songs are more vivid and evocative than most bands create in their entire career. Just like The Arcade Fire, when I listen to this record, I get images of cold weather, lonely cities, quiet homes, and long bus-rides staring out the window, watching the world go by.

Musically, Wolf Parade seem to have their roots in the Metal sensibilities that shaped a lot of my favorite music in the 90's. A step above grunge, but without the aggression of real metal music. I'm down with that. Their songs have a tendency to break out into cacophonous riots of emotion. Their rebellious shouts against the prisons of modern society ring true with me. Driving to work this morning, there's nothing I'd rather hear than a cry for revolution against a world that doesn't question why, that just "builds things high."

The highlight of the album for me comes around track eight, "Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts." A brilliant, confident, song that contains some lyrical knock-outs and a frighteningly addictive melody. And it doesn't stop there. The last few tracks contain as much power - if not the immediacy - as the beginning of the album. The central track - "Same Ghost Every Night" - is a little long and slow for my taste but the rest of the album feels as fresh and strong after fifty listens as it did after five and that, alone, is a testament to this album and this band.

The comparisons to the Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse are hard to shake. In a year of stand-outs, is an album similar to last year's unanimous winner worthy of the kind of attention that I give it? I don't know. All I know is this album entered my consciousness and has a left a real mark that I think I'll remember for a long time to come.

Or, in other words, those damn Canadians did it again.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


After the typical New Year's-depression, whereas I think more about what I didn't accomplish than what I did, I'm starting to feel more and more excited about this new year. 2006 sounds like it's going to one helluva ride. First of all, there's a cosmic alignment coming up that seems to spell all kinds of interesting things. Consider: I'll be turning 26 on 2/26/2006. I'm no numerologist, but there's something.. unique, about that. The only downside is I have an event on that day (a Sunday) and I have to work all day. Second, after a year of working, I'll be getting my first tax refund (won't be much) but that plus money I've earned and will earn will all lead to (hopefully) a nice trip sometime during the year.

But mostly I want this year to bring me back to focus on my writing career. And, borrowing from Dave's idea, I'm going to put my resolutions/goals up here and hope the public-ness of it inspires me to actually do it and accomplish it.

Goal/Resolution #1: Finish ten stories. (This sounds hard, considering I finished only one story in all of 2005, but I've got three or four stories that I like that are missing endings, and a bunch of other ideas for short, quick, stories, so this lofty goal seems like it might just be possible.)

Goal/Resolution #2: Sell/publish five stories. (That would be more stories published than I've done so far in the past two years, 4, but I still think it's possible. I need to get stories out as much as possible to lots of magazines and keep them constantly in editor’s hands and not my own. I always submit stories, whether they get picked up or not is up to the editors. So everyone cross your fingers for me.)

Goal/Resolution #3: Read more. Ever since I stopped smoking, I haven't been reading as much. It used to be a casual, ever-present, part of my daily routine. Nowadays I feel like I need to set aside time for reading and that’s increasingly hard what with being a popular guy and all, but I'd like to get back to my book-a-week schedule.

Goal/Resolution #4: Start a novel. This has been coming for awhile. I feel like I haven't been able to achieve as much success with short stories as I'd like to. I know I'm young and I know I have time to achieve that success, but I've got a novel idea that I've been slowly developing for the last five or six months and an itch to write a real, strong, powerful novel since I was teenager. It’s about time I started.