Song Radios #4: So You Know It’s Got Soul

9 07 2009

And the caravan is on it’s way
I can hear the merry gypsies play
Mama mama look at Emma Rose
She’s a-playin with the radio

And the caravan has all my friends
It will stay with me until the end
Gypsy Robin, Sweet Emma Rose
Tell me everything I need to know

And the caravan is painted red and white
That means ev’rybody’s staying overnight
Barefoot gypsy player round the campfire sing and play
And a woman tells us of her ways
La, la, la, la…

Turn up your radio and let me hear the song
Switch on your electric light
Then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight so I can feel you
Sweet lady of the night I shall reveal you
Turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher, radio
Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul
Radio, radio turn it up, hum
La, la, la, la…

—The Band w/ Van Morrison, “Caravan” from The Last Waltz (Download)″

The Band - The Last WaltzA few weeks back, I called in to one of my favorite radio shows, Chicago music critics Greg Kott and Jim DeRogatis’s Sound Opinions, to talk about one of my favorite albums of all time, the Band’s farewell concert, the Last Waltz, and my quote made it on the air. Here’s what I had to say:″

Hey Jim and Greg, this is Matt from Irvine, California – just got done listening to your show on the best live albums of all time. One of your callers, reviewing the Dylan album, mentioned the band, but I’m wondering how you could make it through the entire show without saying anything about the Last Waltz – the band playing with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, the Staples, and, on my personal favorite track, Van Morrison performing this spastic version of Caravan … really just an epic concert a sort of farewell to classic rock, made into one of the best concert films of all time by Scorsese, capturing that sense really of a performance that’s kind of already nostalgic, already a thing of the past as soon as it’s happened, an essential moment in music history, and a phenomenal album, really just inexcusable to leave this album off the list. Thanks!

“Caravan” captures the spirit of The Last Waltz in a few ways. As a song about friends gathering round a campfire to dance, sing and play, “Caravan” evokes the sense of community that brings all of these great musicians together to consecrate this moment in rock history, the sense of camaraderie that is so apparent when everyone comes on stage together, arm in arm, to sing “I Shall Be Released.” In the same way, it evokes the experience of watching the film together with my high school friends while home from college one summer break and reliving all of those classic rock memories I talked about in Songs About Radios #1.

At the same time, as the usually sedate Van Morrison grunts about getting down “to what is really wrong, really wrong, really wrong,” it’s powerful to see him carried away by the experience into an almost epileptic seizure. This is the soul equivalent of speaking in tongues, testifying in a guttural, non-human language to the sacred power of music coursing through his body. Morrison’s scat improvisation and vocal tics make Caravan one of my favorite picks for karaoke – the opportunity to become possessed by Morrison’s ghost, “so you know you got soul,” is hard to resist.

Some of my friends chuckle at the moderation of that line, “Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul,” but I think they’re missing the point. Sure, this isn’t Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” (“turn it down you say / well all I got to say to you is time again I say, ‘No!'”). When Van Morrison turns up the radio, it’s not about balls-to-the-wall ecstatic excess, it’s so that you can hear the spirit of the music pass through the community. Morrison’s moderation is an instance of the sublime, the almost to big. By limiting the volume, he allows the music to delimit a finite radius around the campfire which creates a sense of intimacy and gathers the community around its light, while simultaneously pushing gently at its bounds.

It Started With A Mix #2: And Another One Goes By – Matt’s Pitchfork Mix, 2009

26 06 2009

Pitchfork Music Festival is the second in the triumvirate of music festivals I attend every year. While this April marked my fifth Coachella, meaning I’ve now attended half of the festivals in Coachella’s 10 year existence, this year’s Pitchfork will be my fourth, meaning I’ve attended every year that the festival has existed. I’m still on the fence about Lollapalooza. I’ve been every year since the festival took up residence in Chicago, but this year, due to a combination of mediocre lineup and a hectic schedule, I may be staying home or only going for one day.

I mentioned in a previous post that over the past five years, I’ve made it a tradition to make a preview mix for every musical festival I attend. One of the keys to a successful mix is, of course, song selection. The centerpiece of a good festival preview mix is a collaboration that brings together two or more of the artists from the lineup, the kind of song that takes on a unique significance in the context of that particular festival. It may be a cover, like TV on the Radio doing the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Modern Romance” for my 2006 Coachella mix; a collaboration, like Kanye & Lupe (plus Pharrell, who wasn’t there) borrowing a sample from Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser” on “Us Placer’s” for my 2008 Lollapalooza mix, the year Radiohead played; or a remix, as is the case on this year’s Pitchfork mix with Final Fantasy’s string-heavy treatment of Grizzly Bear’s “Don’t Ask.” I almost threw in “Hey Dad,” a collaboration between Final Fantasy and Beirut’s Zach Condon, as well, but decided I didn’t like the song all that much.

The mix I ended up with starts off minimalist and mysterious with a piece from Tortoise’s TNT, but quickly builds towards increasingly noisy and spazzy rock tracks, climaxing with the Jesus Lizard’s pornographic classic, “Lady Shoes” and m83’s gorgeous epic “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” before leveling off for an eclectic jaunt through a variety of genres and ending on an emotionally bare but ultimately uplifting note with Frightened Rabbits “Modern Leper,” which goes out to a friend of mine who is deathly afraid of leprosy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I’ll Tell You of Every Dream – The Walkmen [Guest Post by Milo Cantos from Zombie Public Speaking]

23 06 2009

It hardly needs to be said that I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve just moved back to Chicago less than a week ago, and my time’s been pretty well occupied finishing things up in California and getting them started up over here. I’ll have some more free time now, which might mean I go back to blogging, or it might not – I do hope to post a Pitchfork Music Festival preview mix in the next week or so, though. In the mean time, here’s a guest post on the Walkmen from Heaps front man, Milo Cantos of Zombie Public Speaking.

EDIT: In conjunction with his post below, Milo Cantos has just posted a couple of Heaps covers of the Walkmen on Zombie Public Speaking, along with a pretty on the mark review of what this blog is trying to do. Read it here.

For a band that so frequently mentions dreams, The Walkmen ends up saying very little about what happens in them. Rather than providing vivid, surrealistic images, The Walkmen’s songs are dreamlike only insofar as the lyrics are fragmentary understatements which nonetheless guide us to the sort of unfounded certitude we feel in dreams whereby we know that both hitman and target can both be us. The Walkmen tease us with just enough to think we could complete the puzzle even though many of the pieces aren’t there.

Let’s start with “I’m Thinking of a Dream I Had” off of 2004’s Bows + Arrows (their best, and not just because it had “The Rat” on it):″

I’m waiting on a subway line
I’m waiting for a train to arrive
I’m thinking of a dream I had
Maybe you’re right

we’re gonna have a good time tonight
when you’re coming around you’ll be sorry for the plans we made
when you’re coming around, you’ll be sorry for the things you said

Don’t lead me on

And when you’re coming around you’ll be sorry for the things you said
because no one speaks to me that way, I’ll be hanging from the ceiling fan

Like most Walkmen songs, here we have a mixture of diegetic fragments (“I’m waiting for a train to arrive”), vague apostrophes (“maybe you’re right”), and hazy images (“I’ll be hanging from the ceiling fan”). For many years, I thought of the first and second verses as unconnected actions by the speaker–first he thinks backward to a dream (which he does not elaborate) then he thinks forward to the continuation of a previous disagreement with the song’s addressee (the “you” of the chorus). As he imagines renewing the disagreement, he both concedes the weakness of his own position (“maybe you’re right”) and fantasizes about punitive suicide (“no one speaks to me this way / I’ll be hanging from a ceiling fan”). That latter seemed to me a stunning illustration of the limits of overdrawn emotional exhaustion and furious powerlessness. The choice to consider the verses separately seemed supported by the chorus of “maybe you’re right”–which suggests a cognitive move away from memory to evaluation–and the kick-off of the second verse with the placeholder hype of “we’re gonna have a good time tonight.”

When I took on the task of trying to figure out just why The Walkmen weren’t explaining their dreams, it occurred to me that perhaps we should take the “tonight” of “we’re gonna have a good time tonight” literally and assume that the proposed rematch is actually slated for the speaker’s forthcoming dream. By attributing the speaker’s brittle threat of suicide to dream logic, we dampen its cry for help (unless we take the simplistic view of dreams as solely wish-fulfillment, which we do not). It’s also quite possible, given the proximity of the first mention of the “dream I had” with “maybe you’re right” that the addressee’s initial accusation may have occurred in the dream that the speaker considers on the train platform, and thus dreams act as both potential solution to and potential source of psychological distress.

Next, “Brandy Alexander” off of the underrated A Hundred Miles Off:″

Finally close the door
you’d left open wide
locked it for me inside
lay me down
count me out

wash it off, it’s all on you
there’s worse ways to see it baby
set a fire and watch it burnin’
come here sit next to me
I’ll tell you about a dream

i’m looking out on the world
I see it through your eyes
burn you down
bury you

i tried to see it plain
there’s worse ways of getting here
you don’t hear me complainin’
i’ll tell you of every dream
i’m holding for you and me

look out now it’s all on you
those colors are fading
outside the wind is howlin’
stop talkin’, listen to me
I’ll tell you of every dream

The sense of “dream” here may actually be the easiest thing to identify about this song; “i’ll tell you of every dream / i’m holding for you and me” may not disclose the contents of the dream(s) to the listener but perhaps they are whimsical plans meant only for those by the fireside to know. The real problem of the song is how we should reconcile that cozy image against three disconcerting elements: (1) the repeated command for silence, (2) the apparent kiss-off of the first verse, and (3) the burning and burying of the second verse. We may chalk the first concern up to a general gruffness of Leithauser’s speakers, always request people get them a lemon or lime. As for the second, I originally assumed that the phrase “finally closed the door / that you left open wide / locked it from the inside” was the speaker characterizing his previous relationship with the addressee, closing off himself a nagging possibility of their return, but why then do they appear in the rest of the song? Perhaps the closing of the door is a simple diegetic statement instead of something deeper–perhaps the addressee left the literal door carelessly open when they arrived at the cabin. We lose what seemed like a poetic statement about the positive side of burning bridges, but we gain better continuity with the rest of the song (where speaker and addressee huddle by the fire in opposition to the “howling” wind outside).

With the third concern, though, we have to decide if, like in the previous song, we want to relate contiguous elements that are not definitely entwined. Is “seeing [the world] through your eyes” one of the speaker’s dreams? If so, “dream” is being used in a different (or at least ‘additional’) way than I initially assumed. Also, if the speaker dreams of being the addressee, should “burn you down / bury you” be understood as coming from the speaker’s perspective or the addressee’s (as inhabited by the dreaming speaker)? Either way, the threat of burning and burial is defused by being stowed in the innocuous illogic of dreams–hopefully, these images are not the same “dreams” the speaker has for the addressee’s future.

Lastly we come to “If Only It Were True,” the closer of last year’s You & Me:″

If only it was true
I’d go with you
If only it was true
I’d say, “I do”

And all the things that we do
I could face the day
And all the long night too
If only it was true

My head is all full of dreams
It’s nothing new
But maybe dreaming is all a man can do

So don’t come calling for me
Cause, baby, my dream ain’t through
And when, when I’ve had enough
Oh, then I’ll die in dreams of you

In the second verse, “dreaming” seems implicitly opposed to real-world action in a straightforward way–the speaker has unidentified plans that he cannot realize but cannot bear to abandon. By the chorus, though, the opposition of dreams to life seems to have dissolved–the beloved’s temptation of a conjoined stability is also identified as a dream. The first verse had suggested that this “dream of you” is readily realizable–the agency to say “I do” and accept a life together is in the speaker’s hands–but this tempts us to read the speaker’s forecasted death (“die in dreams of you”) through the conventional wisdom that 19th century novels ends with the protagonist’s marriage or death, both of which put an end to social “life”. Opposed to this dim view of his beloved as a second-place finish beside his dreams, we have the possibility of a second, more poignant reading: in the end, the beloved is represented as dream rather than reality because the speaker recognizes that, by refusing the call when it was offered, he has made it into something he cannot realize, even if he ever becomes ready. Thus, rather than the forward-looking “dreams” of “Brandy Alexander”, here “dreams” may point backward as an alternative to memory that allows the dreamer to do what he could not and never will.

Reinventing Spaceland: Monotonix, The Mae Shi, and Anavan, 4/10

5 05 2009

Things have been busy around Songs About Radios these days. In the last few weeks, I’ve been to Boston, L A, Coachella, and Chicago twice. The longest I’ve been in one place at a time since February has been two and a half weeks, and I spent a good portion of that time with a surprise visitor from out of town. Plus my computer recently exploded, and I’ve only just finished setting up my new laptop. Fortunately no data was lost (I think), but all of this amounts to an explanation of why the posts have been a little light over the past month or so. Songs About Radios isn’t going anywhere – we’ve just been experiencing some technical difficulties…

Anyway, with a guest in town earlier this month, what better to do than catch a show? While the week’s concert schedule offered a variety of interesting options, not the least of which was the dear to my heart Marissa Nadler, we decided to choose spectacle over sentiment and check out Monotonix, the Mae Shi, and Anavan at Spaceland. I had seen Monotonix’s at this past summer’s Hideout Block Party, and had a sense of what I was in for, but the indoor dynamics of the Spaceland show was more intense than I could have anticipated. The Mae Shi, who I had been meaning to check out live for a while now, also made use of the venue in interesting ways, and the entirely off my radar Anavan delivered an energetic set with a commanding stage presence.

Monotonix – Body Language (Download) (Buy It)″

The Mae Shi – Power to the Power. Bite 2 (Download) (Buy It)″

Anavan – Boom (Download) (Buy It)″

The key to this show was performance as transformation of space. Anavan’s spastic frontman got things started by running through the crowd and cozying up with individual members of the audience. At one point, I think he grabbed my friend and ordered her, “Talk to someone you don’t know.” The Mae Shi brought a similar level of enthusiasm to their set. They also brought a parachute:

The parachute created an insular little world within the larger venue. Nearly, but not entirely, covering the area in front of the stage, it divided the space underneath from the space outside, delimiting a central mass of fan joined by a shared experience unavailable to the rest of the crowd. Cut off from a view of the stage for two to three songs, all we could see instead was each other, the sea of bewildered faces and arms raised to the air to keep the parachute from collapsing on our heads.

For the Mae Shi’s set, this sort of spectacle enhanced the musical performance, but the music and the stage remained the center of focus. For Monotonix, however, the music and the stage became mere elements of an eccentric performance that moved through the crowd and off into the peripheries of the venue.

The show began on stage, with Monotonix’s frontman slowly walking towards the crowd, spying back and forth as if about to embark upon a journey out into the amorphous and mysterious territory of the venue. Leading his guitarist by the arm, he stepped from the stage, walking forward, lying down, his feet finally emerging, held upside down by whoever was nearby. Drums were passed over the heads of the audience, and the drummer began playing from the middle of the floor. The crowd pack in densely and moved as an unstable mass as the frontman climbed up on the drums to crowd surf. Nothing unites a crowd like trying to keep a hairy, sweaty Israeli man in short shorts afloat while avoiding an accidental handful of ball sweat…

As the show progressed, the crowd surfing got more intense, as audience members got involved and the frontman began hanging from the rafters. The drums were raised up above the crowd and Monotonix began to play drums while crowd surfing. At one point, still tightly packed, we were ordered to sit and then given a complex set of instructions on when to stand up, when to set back down, and when to scream. By the end of the show, the frontman had stripped down to a thong and stuffed it with his shirt. Then without warning the show moved off the main floor, towards the bar, and out the door into the tiny entry hall to the venue. In the end, we returned to the floor and ultimately to the stage, but the stage had been transformed. No longer the sacred space separating artist from audience, the stage had been taken over by the crowd.

Songs About Radios Radio

6 04 2009

Check out the new vodpod “Songs About Radios Radio” in the sidebar, which should launch a playlist shuffling all of the music that has been featured so far on Songs About Radios. If you’re bored and looking to discover new music, it’s an efficient way to catch up on what I’ve been posting. It’s an ugly little widget, but it will have to do until WordPress upgrades it or allows vodpod embed code in the sidebar. Please let me know if it isn’t working. Enjoy!

Aiming at Nothing and Hitting Your Mark – P.O.S.’s “Never Better” [Guest Post by Eric from the Nocturnals]

1 04 2009

I haven’t said a word about my favorite album of 2009 to date yet, but you’re about to hear about it from someone much more qualified than myself. Meet my cousin Eric, aka ‘ziek, master of the obvious at the hilarious new blog, Big Breakthroughs. Eric is one of my main sources for indie hip hop. He’s about as knowledgeable on the subject as anyone I’ve met, and has introduced me to some of my favorite albums in the genre, most notably Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, which I’ll hopefully write on at some point. He’s also, and I’m not just saying this because he’s my cousin, a pretty talented rapper himself, adopting a sort of deadpan spoken word delivery that recalls Sage Francis. Last year he recorded an album called Next Time, It’s Personal under the name The Nocturnals. Here’s a highlight:

The Nocturnals – Slow 2 B Leaving (Download) (Myspace Page)″

Early this year, Eric turned me on to P.O.S.’s latest album Never Better, and I found it stunning. I asked if he would be interested in writing about the album in a guest post, and here’s what he came up with:

Nothing’s better than aiming at nothing and hitting your mark
Everyone’s famous,
Now we can just sit in the dark
and wait.

—P.O.S., “Never Better,” from Never Better (Buy It)

P.O.S. - Never BetterI always thought that “rap-rock” was definitionally bad. A lot of rock groups seems to have rap influence – Beck, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Coughing – and a lot of rap groups have rock influence – Rage Against the Machine, Saul Williams, El-P – but the music media never seems to refer to any of these groups as rap-rockers. Instead “rap-rock” is a term generally reserved for especially bad “rap-rock,” for the Kid Rocks, Limp Bizkits, and Linkin Parks of the world. Even Faith No More is too good to be called rap-rock.

P.O.S. is thus quite an anomaly. Especially after his luke-warmly received second album, Audition, critics, accurately, labeled P.O.S. as a rap-rocker. His recent release “Never Better” may be the first great, or, for that matter, the first even half-decent, rap-rock album.

P.O.S, who started as a punk rocker in Minneapolis, has released his last three albums as part of the tightly knit Twin Cities hip hop collective, Doomtree Records (His latest album was picked up by Indierap giant, Rhymesayers Records, who represents the likes of Atmosphere and Brother Ali). Doomtree is made up of a seemingly indefinite number of MC’s, including P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Dessa Darling, Sims, Mictlan, Mel Gibson & the Pants, and Yoni, to name a few. Doomtree has released a number of albums as a group: while last year’s self-titled album was somewhat disappointing, the False Hopes and False Hopes (Warped Tour) albums are indie rap standouts. Doomtree is no by no means flawless. Their MC’s are not the most talented, but they up there with the most original. From P.O.S.’s punk-rap to Cecil Otter’s melancholy folk-rap (“My name is Cecil Fucking Otter/Not Dylan goes electric”) to Dessa Darling’s spoken word, Doomtree has effectively reinvented the rap-hyphen.

On Never Better, P.O.S. shines as both a rapper and a punk-rocker. He stays away from the rap-rock cliches like screaming rap bravado over heavy metal guitar, mediocrely speaking rock songs over unnecessary scratching, tacking a rock chorus onto a rap verse, doing it all for the nookie, etc. Instead, P.O.S. pulls from his experience as a rapper and a punk-rocker to subtly merge the two genres, and he pull beats and rhymes structures out that don’t quite belong in either camp.

Notice the wordplay, punk rock hook, and purposefully awkward beat culminating in a beautiful round on “Never Better”:

P.O.S. – Never Better (Download)″

Demonstrating the eclecticism of the album, check out the intense drive of “Drumroll”:

P.O.S. – Drumroll (Download)″

What the songs have in common, and how they effectively merge genres, is by blending rap stylings with the raw passion of early punk rock.

I saw P.O.S. play in Champaign, IL not long ago. It was a small venue, with maybe about 25 people in the audience, most of them gathered in a circle around P.O.S., as he, Sims, and Mictlan played from the floor. It was just what you would expect from Doomtree: intimate, non-pretentious; and hard-at-work to keep their few fans coming back.

Songs About Radios #3: Airwaves Pull Your Eyes Towards Heaven

30 03 2009

“I’ve seen you fire up the gas in the engine valves
I’ve seen your hand turn saintly on the radio dial
I’ve seen the airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven
Outside Topeka in the phone lines, her good teeth smile was winding down”

—Soul Coughing, “True Dreams of Witchita” (Download) (Buy Ruby Vroom)″

“This kiss, unfinished, lips to receiver in the parking lot,
a pucker shot through a fiber optic wire
to an answering machine
toward switchboards and stations transmitting
in blips to satellites…”

—Mike Doughty, “From a Gas Station Outside Providence” Slanky (Download)″

Soul Coughing - Ruby VroomI think I’m finally ready to write about this song. “True Dreams of Wichita” is, in some ways, the beginning of my love affair with songs about radios. In the summer of 1999, the summer after I graduated from high school, I fell in love. In April of that year, I had slipped a note saying “will you go to prom with me?” into a copy of Soul Coughing’s then recently released El Oso that I was lending to a friend; she said yes; we didn’t begin to date until a week after graduation. At the end of the summer, I left the midwest for the east coast, and we spent a year falling in love over the phone before she eventually decided to join me out east. Freshman year of college, “True Dreams of Wichita” seemed the perfect embodiment of everything I missed about the midwest.

During that year, we discovered Soul Coughing, a Brooklyn based “deep slacker jazz” outfit, as frontman Mike Doughty once described them, best known for singles “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles.” We worked our way backwards from the drum and bass influenced El Oso to the more eclectic Irresistible Bliss to the almost “Vaudvillian”‘ (again, Doughty’s word) jazz of Soul Coughing’s debut, Ruby Vroom, before eventually hunting down the other odds and ends scattered through Soul Coughing’s catalogue, songs like “Unmarked Helicopters” from the X-files soundtrack. We claimed Soul Coughing as our own. They were the first band I really “got,” the first band I felt I knew better than anyone else I knew.

I remember, at a prospective students weekend for the college I eventually attended, telling a girl who’s wedding I attended this past weekend that I wished I could walk around with someone playing the upright bass behind me to punctuate my sentences. Man, I was a pretentious fuck back then. But something about the phrasing of Soul Coughing’s laid back grooves and Mike Doughty’s precise over-enunciation made me feel powerful.

“True Dreams of Wichita” was different, though. There was a folky sweetness to it that anticipated Mike Doughty’s solo work on Skittish. The combination of nostalgia for an imagined, idyllic midwest, with the powerful imagery of radio waves carrying dreams through the night sky endowed music with a transformative power. Radio brought things together, made Wichita a part of Brooklyn and Brooklyn a part of Wichita, made possible an intimate shared experience between people worlds apart. In Mike Doughty’s prose poem, “From a Gas Station Outside Providence,” this intimacy is literalized as a kiss transmitted over the phone wires. For Doughty, the transmission is always incomplete, interrupted: the signal gets lost in the satellite; the kiss is “a tinny phantom of the smooch like a smack on an aluminum can.” But the static is intoxicating. Radio waves signify, in Doughty’s work, the limits of what can be shared between two people, that which bridges but also defines the gap between subjectivities.

The degree to which I’ve internalized this metaphor explains, to an extent, the fact that I will forever associate music with intimacy, both in terms of close friendship and romance. I rarely feel closer to someone than when I discover that we both love the same song. I’ve kept up conversations with people I’ve only met once based on little more than a shared appreciation for girl groups, or trip hop, or Wolf Parade. That’s why Songs About Radios is a labor of love, and why I deeply appreciate your readership. I almost titled or subtitled the site something involving “airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven,” but couldn’t make it sound right. Still, if you hear something here that pulls your eyes in that or any other direction, I hope you’ll tell me about it.