Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Matt Sweeney - Superwolf

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Matt Sweeney – Superwolf
Drag City, 2005
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $5

I don’t know why it’s so easy to forget how fucking beautiful this record is, because I listened to this album like near-infinite times when it came out. I revisit it every year or so and am always astounded by Will Oldham’s songwriting and the tone he and Sweeney strike that sounds separate from either Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Chavez. Like a whole new band, born to make one album and why the hell didn’t they just call themselves Superwolf because holy fuck that’s a great name/title. And I can’t remember when I’ve heard guitars this beautiful and epic since this record came out. Like the way they still manage to sound huge despite sounding like all the treble has been sucked out of them in “Goat and Ram.” And that beautiful beautiful picking on “Beast for Thee.” It’s music you’d want playing at your death. Epic and sad and beautiful and ready for the apocalypse. “Only Someone Running” is probably the loveliest song ever. One that defies writing anything about it because well, I just can’t think of any words. I’m speechless! So here’s that song:

Oh yeah, and that video for "I Gave You" with the weird birdy* murdery shit is pretty rad too.

Which Bonny 'Prince' Billy has someone dressed in a bird suit? I forget, I thought it was this one, then I watched this video and was like "Oh yeah, this is the one with the dead body."I still think the world wasn't ready for Will Oldham as an actor, because I swear to god homeboy could take the world by storm.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Punch the Clock

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Punch the Clock
Columbia, 1983
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $2

I really don’t know anything about Elvis Costello’s career. I know Burt Bacharach is in there in these latter days at some point. Maybe? I don’t even know. Maybe some collaborations with some quartets? I really only know this based on CDs I’ve priced at work. It’s weird though, given my compulsion with painstakingly (lie) tracking down information about artists I fall in love with. This was especially true when I was like 16 or 17 and got My Aim is True from the Indian Creek Branch of the Lawrence Public Library and had one of those moments that were coming day after day when I was 16 or 17. And then This Years Model fell into my lap when I was 20 and Armed Forces when I was 23 and then I kind of quit after that (though I own a copy of Armed Forces, I’ve only ever listened to that album like twice, and expressly for the purpose of this blog, which by-the-way I should revisit that one yes). But I saw this one at HPB and suddenly it ended up at home with me. Probably because it has “Shipbuilding” on it, which if I remember correctly was on the High Fidelity soundtrack, which I totally remember I listened to in excess when that movie was my favorite movie of all time.* It’s four albums removed from the Armed Forces, and there’s a whole lot of evolution I’m missing but fortunately, Costello is one of those fine fine artists who can totally maintain the essence of his sound/style no matter how the times (read: cheesy 80s production) change. The gloss on this album is as shiny as a freshly printed mid-80s glamour shot, and though this album is almost 30 years old, it doesn’t look nearly as cheesy as it should if we’re still running with that kind of poor glamour shot metaphor (since in my head, the soft focus of glamour shots would lend it self to matte photo paper but I really have no idea). So Punch the Clock, a glossy album that somehow manages to not be super-cheesy because Costello is a consummate artist who knows what the fuck he is doing at all times and he’s maybe one of the more bulletproof songwriters in the business (though having heard four of his albums, I could be totally missing something, and I feel like maybe there’s a Thrill of Discovery project in here…). “Shipbuilding” is an immediate standout, though I don’t really remember it despite listening to that High Fidelity soundtrack like a million times. Also, speaking of “Shipbuilding,” foregoing the commonplace 80s sax solo for a Chet Baker trumpet solo = a total fucking ace in my book. There’s a whole mood in that song that is like whisky and smoke filled rooms. It’s about the Falklands War, too, apparently, which is a +1 because how many songs can you think of about the Falklands War? Oh yeah, and “Every Day I Write the Book” is on this album, and I forgot to mention how great that song is and how it exemplifies how this album plays with those very dangerous mid-80s cheeseball tropes and how Costello totally makes them work. Sure, there are moments where the 80s grease seeps through the napkin, but it’s nowhere near as bad (not even by a mile) as when Springsteen does it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Club: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Warning: This is lightly spoilery, so if you haven’t read the book or get extremely upset about finding out that characters go places, then skip for now! Spoilers are weird, I tried reading Jenny bits or telling her something like “They go to Amsterdam” and she was all “WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO RUIN THINGS FOR ME?!” and I was like “Dude, John Green was in Amsterdam for two months because the book had something to do with Amsterdam of COURSE they go to Amsterdam, and by the way, if I start writing novels remind me to set it in an exotic locale…” Anyway, this is a great book and this post only makes sense if you’ve read it. Which if you haven’t, you really should. Because it’s great.

The Mountain Goats – “Minnesota”
What with all the Dutch and all the sadness (and Green’s open love for the Mountain Goats*), this one feels kind of perfect for The Fault in Our Stars.

*In addition to using “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” as the epigram for Paper Towns, Green occasionally namedrops the Goats in Vlogbrothers videos and John Darnielle is thanked in the acknowledgments of The Fault In Our Stars.

The Mountain Goats – “There Will Be No Divorce”
“And all the hair stood up on the back of my neck/ We were rising from the grave/ Yeah yeah/ yeah yeah.”

Neutral Milk Hotel – “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”

This video kills me. You see the somberest of somber followed by one o the most jubilant pop songs I can think of.

Again, all the Dutch. And that scene where Augustus and Hazel go to the Anne Frank house which was one of the most magnificent parts of the book. A way of putting tragedy in perspective. So naturally, I kept thinking of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea the whole time I was reading that part of the book. It was hard picking just one song, but I feel like this has to be the one. It’s the most tragic. It’s also the last song on the album. It’s also my favorite song on the album. Or if I was forced to pick a favorite at knifepoint, I would pick this one. Probably because I default to the first or last song on a record when it’s a Record record. “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” is the most tragic of all the tracks on Aeroplane. It’s the conclusion to Jeff Mangum’s audio essay on life and death and the criminal unfairness of the world and the beauty we need to find that world despite its horrors. It’s also the one most specifically about Anne Frank.

The Weakerthans – “Manifest”/ “Hospital Vespers”/ “Past Due”
These three tracks (all Elizabethian sonnets) provide the coasts and geographic center of the Weakerthans third LP, Reconstruction Site. These brief songs chronically a person with a terminal illness. Diagnosis, hospital, and death. These tracks, naturally, provide the thematic core of the album which is one of my favorite albums of all time (Notably, it was my #1 record of the year the first year I started making best of lists, 2003). I’m weird with Weakerthans albums, in that I don’t really understand why I love them til way later. Like this one, I didn’t catch all the thematic stuff until I read something about it on Wikipedia and then everything made sense and made sense hard since I knew the album so well. This album is full of grief but it’s also full of love and excitement and joy. And that’s the same stuff that The Fault in Our Stars is full of. It’s like Romeo & Juliet where you know it’s doomed (there are mentions of star-crossing and hell, the title is straight outta Julius Caesar) but you go along with it anyway because of course, it’s beautiful. I was in a drawing class when this album came out, my junior year of high school. Every week we had to do a drawing. Any kind of drawing, total freedom. So I would draw scenes from songs I liked or scenes from books I was reading (I’d only started reading books like, the year before that class**). One week I drew “Hospital Vespers.” It looked like this. Looking back on it I can see why this album has stuck with me. I’d never really drawn before (or drawn like a serious person who draws and understands perspective and contrast and how to use pencils etc) but I spent so much time on that drawing, listening to that song, trying to capture why it was important to me even though I didn’t really have any touchstone in my life that corresponded with the subject matter. It was just incredibly important and made me feel more full as a person. And it’s perfect that this song corresponds with The Fault in Our Stars because that book made me feel the same way.

**See: That one Fourth of July where I sat in the bed of my dad’s truck reading The Catcher in the Rye, listening to Alkaline Trio’s From Here to Infirmary, and becoming a 16 year old oh my god. There were no fireworks that night. Actually, they were, but there was some crazy malfunction on the ground where they all exploded at once and someone ended up in the hospital. Weird Fourth of July that I remember so well.

The Weakerthans – “The Reasons”
For love so pure and good. On an album laced with grief this is that blinding positivity that knows no limits because damnit, it’s just so pure and good and true. “I know you might roll your eyes at this/ But I’m so glad that you exist,” sings John K Samson. It sounds like the song Augustus would write to Hazel if he could write well (though he sells himself short and while he might not be eloquent, his intent would surely be felt in waves). Or even better, a song he would put on a mixtape for her (after paring it down from nothing but songs by the Hectic Glow).

Christine Fellows – “Vertebrae”

Years back, one of my closest friends told me about how much he loathed Christine Fellows’ music. I don’t know why he ever listened to it, he of dance and house and electronica, but somehow it came across his plate and he spat it out. That’s how I recognized her name when John Darnielle (coming full circle now) listed “Vertebrae” as one of his favorite songs of 2007. I tracked down the song and thought it was one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking tracks I’d ever heard. A week later, Paper Anniversary came into KJHK and I quickly snatched it up at a music staff meeting so I could review it. I spent the next week drowning in that album. But mostly “Vertebrae.” It’s rare to find a song that just hits you in the precise place where you just kind of fall apart. The break in the armor. Achilles heel. Etc. And once I found out that Christine Fellows was married to John K Samson (the circle here gets even fuller!) well, it didn’t help.

The first year I was fortunate enough to have the radio station pay my way into SXSW (Spring 2008) I was scouring the massive schedule to find something to do on Thursday or Friday or Saturday evening, I forget which. But I wandered into some small bar where I THINK Mint Records was having a show case and Ms. Fellows as on the bill and I showed up just in time, got a beer, and sat down on the floor with the rest of the small crowd and watched probably the best show I saw that whole trip (which was made up of probably 5 “Best Shows,” really, they’re all equal). Fellows played keyboard while a hired artist worked an overhead projector and cutouts that went along with every song. It was beautiful. And peaceful. And no one shouted or talked over the music and at the end I kind of freaked out at how great it all was. Even better because I’d seen Fellows play keyboards with the Weakerthans earlier that day in a shitty club that was too small and too hot and Southern Comfort was sponsoring it so I drank way too much Southern Comfort mixed with Coca-Cola on the back patio between sets but that set was still great because Christine Fellows sang the vocal harmony parts on “Benediction” in lieu of Sarah Harmer and I only the other day realized it wasn’t her on the recording while reading the liner notes because I’d never read the liner notes to Reconstruction Site. I don’t even remember if she played this song, but she must have, because it’s incredible. And so sad. And it was running through my head the whole time I was reading this book and I wonder if that’s a spoiler. I kept trying to tell Jenny stuff while I was reading it. I tried to read her these gorgeous bits of prose and she just put her hands over he hears, went “la la la la la” and said “NO SPOILERS” as loud as she could. I understand not wanting to be spoiled, but there are basic plot elements of The Fault in Our Stars that are just kind of known (I.E. The book involves a protagonist with terminal cancer, that’s established from the get go right? And since the world isn’t a wish-granting factory and it isn’t a Hollywood movie, you can assume it stays terminal, right?). If I had a running playlist for The Fault in Our Stars this would be the last song. I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you listen to this song you’ll get the picture.