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.


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) https://songsaboutradios.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/04-slow-2-b-leaving.mp3″

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) https://songsaboutradios.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/14-never-better.mp3″

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

P.O.S. – Drumroll (Download) https://songsaboutradios.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/02-drumroll-were-all-thirsty.mp3″

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.

Parallel Lines #2: A Saviour In These Streets [Guest Post by Erin from Uncomplicatedly]

28 01 2009

Dear readers,

It’s my privilege to present to you a guest post from my friend, colleague, and fellow Heaps-member, Erin, aka Uncomplicatedly. Erin contacted me a couple of weeks ago to say that she had an idea for a post in the Parallel Lines series I started with this post on Modest Mouse and the Talking Heads. She asked if she could make a couple of guest posts. I liked the idea so much that I’ve decided to open this blog up to other contributors. Songs About Radios is now soliciting requests for guest posts. If you’re someone I know in person in some capacity, and you have something you want to say about music in a public forum, send me an email with your idea!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s Erin’s Parallel Lines post:

You can hide ‘neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I’m no hero
That’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood

—Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road” (Download) (Buy It) https://songsaboutradios.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/01-thunder-road.mp3″

Bruce Springsteen - Born to RunLike many of Bruce’s songs, this one offers a glimpse of a renegade heaven. Bruce promises Mary that they can “trade in these wings on some wheels” and ride out tonight to “case the promised land,” as though salvation is something that can be stolen or negotiated for. In these lines, he’s disdainful of Mary’s equation of love with traditional piety; the mistake of “praying in vain / for a savior” is the mistake of “hiding,” of refusing to take responsibility for your own happiness. Bruce claims initially to not be a hero, but he is, ultimately, offering redemption– it’s just a different kind of redemption, one you go out and take rather than wait patiently for.

I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets
Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets
I’ve been raising up my hands– drive another nail in
Got enough guilt to start my own religion

Why do we crucify ourselves
Everyday I crucify myself
Nothing I do is good enough for you
Crucify myself
Everyday I crucify myself
And my heart is sick of being in chains

—Tori Amos, “Crucify” (Download) (Buy It) https://songsaboutradios.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/crucify.mp3″

Tori Amos - Little EarthquakesThe first two lines of this excerpt are so similar to Bruce’s song as to suggest direct influence– Mary “hides ‘neath her covers,” prays “for a savior to rise from these streets,” and is offered redemption that comes from “beneath this dirty hood.” In this song, Tori plays Mary’s part, perhaps in an effort to show us that it’s not as easy as Bruce says to just hop into some dude’s car and ride off to the promised land. Tori says elsewhere in the song that she’s got “a kick for a dog begging for love;” she rebuffs Bruce because “I’ve gotta have my suffering so that I can have my cross.” These lines are certainly ironized; she would love to be able to liberate her heart from its chains, but she can’t. In the context of Bruce’s song, her assertion that “nothing I do is good enough for you” becomes a revealing accusation. The way Bruce frames the problem, all Mary has to do is decide to be happy and decide to come with him– but Tori feels judged by him, judged because she can’t do those things.

The only crack in Bruce’s polished bad-boy seduction persona comes in these lines: “I know you been waitin’ for words that I ain’t spoken / But tonight we’ll be free; all the promises’ll be broken.” Here, he seems to acknowledge that he’s not offering Mary love, at least not with a capital L and a fairy-tale ending. A lot of seducers don’t hesitate to promise love falsely, but Bruce is nothing if not sincere. Tori may be right to be offended, but Bruce has correctly observed that the L-word has a dangerous power over Mary, who “makes crosses from her lovers”– she crucifies herself, and this is what Bruce wants to save her from.