Archive for July, 2012


For the week of 7/23/2012…

“We Can Get Down” by A Tribe Called Quest

Does this qualify as a deep cut?  It’s on Midnight Marauders, one of ATCQ’s three platinum albums, but since it was never released as a single, it remains a lesser-known gem.  Both lyrically and musically, this song is pleasantly upbeat and begs to be listened to on repeat.  The production here may very well be my favorite among all of the hip-hop tracks in my music collection; ATCQ draws upon Bill Cosby’s 1971 jazz composition, “Martin’s Funeral,” and a soulfully reflective four-chord electric-piano vamp in particular, weaving it into an upbeat soundtrack for their hip-hop positivity.

A little background on the song being sampled:  “Martin’s Funeral” is a 15-minute composition by Bill Cosby — yes, that Bill Cosby — which translates the experience of Martin Luther King’s 1968 funeral into the language of jazz music.  Cosby plays electric piano on the track, which appeared on Badfoot Brown and the Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching Band, one of his few non-stand-up-comedy albums; his liner notes for the album included a lengthy essay on the civil rights leader’s death.  For more on this interesting piece of African-American cultural history, read this.  And to listen to “Martin’s Funeral,” click here, or just scroll down to the bottom of this post; it really is worth listening despite its length.

At least in my case, listening to the original source music sampled by ATCQ, De La Soul, and other hip-hop groups of their era gives me an increased appreciation of sampling as an artistic exercise.  Weaving together a collage of samples can result in a sound dramatically different from the songs being sampled, and the transformation of the downbeat jazz of “Martin’s Funeral” into the upbeat (if relaxed) jazz-rap of “We Can Get Down” is instructive as an example.

“We Can Get Down”

“Martin’s Funeral”

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“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel

I don’t want to seem as though I’m beating the drum too hard for Neutral Milk Hotel; while I like their music plenty well, it’s not as though I think their second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is one of the great masterpieces of our times, as some people apparently do.  It’s a top-notch album, yes, but it’s not perfect.

Having said that, I’m posting a Neutral Milk Hotel selection for the second time this month because I’m a sucker for songs with weird instrumentation.  The title track from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea features, among other things, a three-part harmony on the musical saw, which in my view is enough to merit a post on this blog.  And it’s a good song besides that, too — I promise!  The lyrics are beautiful.

Your extremely late post for the week of 7/16/2012…

“Alice Said” by the Screaming Trees

I think I’m going to make a best-of mix for the Screaming Trees to serve as an introduction for friends and acquaintances who are unfamiliar with the band.  Like CAKE (the other band for whom I created such a mix), the Screaming Trees are not exactly all that well-known among people my age; in fact, the latter are probably less well-known than the former.  Also like CAKE, the Trees are one of my favorite bands and released several albums’ worth of great music during their career, so there’s definitely enough material there for a high-quality mix.

Unlike CAKE, however, the Trees’ are a defunct band which already has an official greatest hits compilation, Ocean of Confusion.  I’m not saying that I could improve on frontman Mark Lanegan’s song selection, necessarily; I’m just saying that my taste would differ a bit from his, and therefore I would omit a few of the tracks he included, and include a few tracks he omitted.  For instance, he included only three tracks from the Trees’ major-label debut, Uncle Anesthesia, leaving out some of the band’s coolest songs (notably “Bed of Roses,” “Story of Her Fate,” and “Caught Between“).

Fortunately, Ocean of Confusion includes what I believe is the best track on Uncle Anesthesia, “Alice Said.”  This is one of the faster-paced songs on the album, and it’s also an excellent example of grunge as a fuzzed-up fusion of a band’s punk and metal tendencies.  (I dig Mark Pickerel’s drumming here.)  Moreover, it strays a bit from the typical sounds of the Trees’ ’90s output and falls somewhere nearer to the garage-psychedelia of their Seattle contemporaries in Love Battery.  There’s an important distinction to note, however:  While most singers in the grunge and punk genres (including Love Battery’s Ron Nine), when taken together with their lyrics, frequently come across as angsty, it’s hard to say the same about Lanegan in this or any other song.  His full, deep voice comes across not as angsty but as actually world-weary.

For the week of 7/9/2012…

“Campus” by Vampire Weekend

This is the sixth track on Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album, which I currently have in my car.  The band’s sound on this album — African-influenced Baroque pop-rock, or whatever you want to call it — makes for wonderful summertime listening.  “Campus” is my favorite song on the album; it’s probably no coincidence that musically it’s also the most Strokes-esque of the bunch (while still sticking to Vampire Weekend’s unique sound, of course).

I really love the repeated couplet at the end:  “In the afternoon, you’re out on the stone and grass/and I’m sleeping on the balcony after class.”  Very evocative.

For the week of 7/2/2012…

“The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 1, 2 & 3″ by Neutral Milk Hotel

This three-part indie-rock suite, which opens Neutral Milk Hotel’s acclaimed 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is actually presented on the album as two tracks rather than one (or three!).  Nevertheless, I’m presenting them here as a single song (courtesy of a YouTube user who uploaded them that way), since the whole thing flows together anyway and is best heard all together.

The first part, which is about two minutes in length, starts out simply, with frontman Jeff Mangum singing over a strummed guitar.  At the end of the second verse, an accordion arrives to fill out the sound, adding to the emotional punch of the third and fourth verses with a series of powerful chords.  The climax of the section is the last line of the fourth and final verse, accentuated with a pretty trumpet line.  The lyrics of this section are interesting in that while the gist of the story is easily understood — this is a coming-of-age song set against the backdrop of a lover’s dysfunctional family — several nonsensical or simply opaque lines are interspersed within.  I really like the imagery here, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.  Nasal and untrained though Magnum’s voice may be, he sings his heart out and consequently the song is rather affecting.  I think “Part 1” is a great song in and of itself, and, when I first heard it, it was enough to convince me to listen to the rest of the album right then and there.

“Part 2” is an interlude which finds Mangum warbling — over the droning accordion and a carefully plunking guitar — “I love you Jesus Christ,” of all things.  Whether he’s being serious or ironic is up for debate.  Eventually, heavily distorted guitars and drums join him, like a slowly awakening beast, building up gradually during a trumpet solo which serves as a segue into “Part 3.”  This last section is fast-paced punk, with the band’s extremely fuzzed-up guitars crashing along as Mangum sings three more verses of somewhat obscure lyrics to a very catchy melody.

If you like this, then perhaps you should listen to the whole album, which someone has posted as a single YouTube video here.  It really is a great listen, and despite the presence of dark subject matter in the lyrics, the frequently lush music makes it a solid choice for summertime listening.

Apparently this song was in The Hangover 2, but I don’t remember it at all, mostly because that movie was a steaming turd. Anyway, this song is awesome.

Your extremely late post for the week of 6/25/2012…

“A Man/Me/Then Jim” by Rilo Kiley

I tend to be enamored of songs that tell a story, whether they’re segments of a rock opera, hip-hop fables dispensed by KRS-One, or ballads of the country, western, or folk varieties.  This song, which is the penultimate track on Rilo Kiley’s wonderful 2004 album, More Adventurous, has a particularly interesting conceit:  Each of the song’s three verses is sung from a different point of view, and it’s up to the listener to decide how they fit together and form a complete story.  In the first verse, Jenny Lewis sings from the perspective of an unnamed man; the second verse is from a female point of view (“me”); and she sings the third from the perspective of a man named Jim, whose funeral is the setting of the first verse — hence the title of the song.

This week I’ve enjoyed reading through the lyrics and then poring through some comments on SongMeanings.net to try to figure out the best interpretation of the song, and I encourage you to do the same.  The most compelling interpretation of the bunch was a comment by someone with the handle “heeeyyyjude,” who posited that the woman who speaks on the phone with the “me” in the second verse is Jim’s wife:

“The woman on the phone is married to Jim, we know this because she says to ‘me’ on the phone, ‘I’m sorry I’m hard to live with, LIVING IS THE PROBLEM FOR ME.’  And then in the first verse at Jim’s funeral, it says, ‘His note said, ‘IF LIVING IS THE PROBLEM, well that’s just baffling.’  This referring to his wife claiming ‘living was the problem,’ so Jim is being sort of sarcastic towards her by putting that in the suicide note.  Kind of like, ‘well if living is the problem, why continue living… thanks for the advice.’   And then I think the whole going to Diana’s old house was just sort of confirming his unhappiness, knowing how much love really does fade, pushing him farther toward his suicide.  Or maybe it was his way to sort of say goodbye to things he once loved, even though she did not live there anymore.”  [edited a bit for clarity]

Musically, I think that “A Man/Me/Then Jim” is beautiful throughout, and ideal for nighttime listening.  The acoustic guitar is a good match for this song, particularly given the subject matter and slower tempo, but this is far from a spare arrangement.  An organ shimmers in the background; wistful steel guitar lines lend the song a country tinge; plaintive trumpet and horn parts pop up when appropriate; and the drummer, Jason Boesel, provides a not-too-busy beat on the bongos.  All things considered, the instrumentation creates a perfect atmosphere for a song about coming to terms with “the slow fade of love.”  And that’s why this is probably my favorite cut on More Adventurous.