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Category Archives: Music
There’s a winnowing that comes from distance and absence, in a way that reduces our connections with a person, place, or thing to a series of images, portents, and memories. Those remainders linger with us as touchstones of something lost and departed. Stranger in the Alps, the new release from Artist of the Month Phoebe Bridgers, captures the sense of that winnowing, the longing for something missing but still inescapably present, in beautiful melodies and heartrending lyrics.
It’s a feeling given form by Bridgers’ stirring voice. With shades of Gillian Welch and Jenny Lewis, the young singer’s captivating vocal performance provides the backbone for the record. Sometimes her voice is clear and arresting, standing out starkly amid the pleasing arrangements underneath. At others, it’s double-tracked and full of echoes, creating an ethereal, otherworldly vibe that helps conjure the spooks and specters that populate almost every corner of the album.
“Wish You Were Here” opens with a riff that sounds as though it’s from an old recording, crackling out of a weathered car radio. Then the cleaner tones of an acoustic guitar emerge on the track, playing along with that A.M. sound. The interplay between the two conjures the image of a man listening to those sounds from long ago and trying to complement them in the present day. From the very beginning of the track, before a single lyric is uttered, “Wish You Were Here” evokes a sense of reflection, of lingering on something lost that the musician’s trying to recreate, recall, and summon once more back into the here and now.
That is the crux of Pink Floyd’s arguably most famous song — the combination of what was and what is and the contemplation of where you are in relation to where you used to be. The title track off the band’s seminal 1975 release, “Wish You Were Here” is rooted in a specific event and specific figure in the group’s past, one who seems to symbolize the turning point from when the band was young and hungry to when its members became part of the rock and roll machine, wondering how they had arrived at that point and how much it had changed them.
One of the best things about the Mountain Goats’ voluminous back catalog is that it offers a plethora of entry points to the band and its music, with no two records quite the same. There’s frontman John Darnielle’s lo-fi, Panasonic boom box beginnings. There are the polished but no less earnest tracks from The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee. And there are the band’s recent releases, like Transcendental Youth and Beat the Champ, that take chances on unique concepts and different instrumentation, but don’t lack in lyrical punch or poignancy. There are any number of places to start with the Mountain Goats, and each is worthwhile and approachable on its own terms.
Goths continues in that untraditional tradition. The group’s Bandcamp page boasts that the album has “NO COMPED VOCALS, NO PITCH CORRECTION, NO GUITARS,” and it shows. Musically, Goths is driven by slick bass lines, strong percussion, and a bevy of what sounds like the sort of classroom instruments borrowed from the lesser lights of late night. Goths also leans hard on the horn section the band embraced in earnest on Transcendental Youth. It features heavy doses of synth, different shades of jazz, and even the occasional disco beat that immediately mark it as unique among Mountain Goats records. The band often comes up short in this novel approach, and the new direction can be off-putting for longtime listeners, but it certainly gives Goths a distinct flavor.
Salutations is a surprise. After Ruminations (the 10-track album written and recorded by Conor Oberst in the cold confines of Omaha, Nebraska) came out last year, the news that a second album, with full-band arrangements of those same 10 songs plus seven more, would be released this year was an unexpected bonus. Featuring the contributions of The Felice Brothers and Jim Keltner, it promised a new treatment of some of Oberst’s most raw compositions. The result is a fulsome new release, markedly different from its 2016 cousin.
If nothing else, Salutations is a fascinating look at the changes that come from collaboration and evolution in a studio setting versus the isolation in which these songs were born. Instead of relying solely on piano, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, Oberst and company employ accordions, organs, strings (of both the orchestral and fiddle varieties), and ethereal sound collage elements to build up these tracks and give them a unique character.
I first learned about The Mountain Goats’ latest album, Beat The Champ, when a friend of mine messaged me saying, “I’m pretty sure John Darnielle is releasing an album for you and you alone.” My friend was obviously joking, but she’s right that Beat The Champ, a concept album where each track is about some facet of professional wrestling, is tailored to a rather unusual venn diagram of fans. Despite the fact that Darnielle, the main creative voice behind The Mountain Goats, resides in a traditional hotbed for wrestling, there are probably few other folks in the world who have both sung Darnielle’s praises and also waxed philosophical about the main event at Wrestlemania.
And yet, there’s something very natural about Darnielle directing his humanizing gaze toward the squared circle. In the past, Darnielle’s shown a particular aptitude for writing poignant, heart-wrenching songs about vagabonds, broken men, and other self-destructive characters. Sadly, none of these individuals are in short supply in the wrestling business.
“It felt like a religious experience.” That’s how I described the last time I saw Conor Oberst perform live. In the summer of 2007, Oberst, fronting his usual band Bright Eyes and welcoming a slew of special guests, did a week of shows at Town Hall in New York City. I found myself sitting in the front row, captivated. That description feels hyperbolic now, but it was truly and sincerely felt at the time. For a certain strain of twenty-somethings who entered adolescence at the turn of the millennium, Oberst did more than just provide the soundtrack to our heartaches. He gave verse and form to our struggle to find meaning and come of age in a world that seemed to be both rapidly shrinking and receding away from us.
And yet beyond those starry-eyed acolytes, Oberst became a polarizing figure for both music diehards and casual fans. Equal parts lionized and dismissed, the pallid, dark-eyed singer has been championed as the next Dylan for his trenchant insights and folky style, and also slammed as a hack who scribbles feeble mawkish laments.
But for those few pitiable individuals who seemed to be untangling the same messy thoughts Oberst tried to unravel in his music, the Bright Eyes frontman sang something approaching beautiful, heart-rending truth, or, at least, truth to that experience. When he bellowed out to the crowd at Town Hall that his next song, “was about the rapture–maybe you’re waiting for it” before breaking into “Four Winds”, it felt like the heavens themselves would shatter as the band broke into the first violin-soaked beat.
Recently, Cracked’s Robert Brockway wrote an article discussing cover songs that stole the show from the original. He concedes at the get-go that it’s a mission where the “rules are subjective and everybody hates each other by the time it’s over,” but the exercise is still a worthwhile one. As he describes it:
“The point is to think of a cover song that just completely stole the show from the original artist, not necessarily because of its quality, or arrangement, or performance, but because the cover has an intangible something that more fully embodies what the song should have been.”
There’s something I have always appreciated about cover songs. I grew up in a time where remixes were slowly becoming the well-populated domain of DIY DJ’s, and the internet featured a wealth of music and lyric repositories that made it easier than ever for people to put their own spin on a favorite song. The spirit of the aughts was to not only take the old and make it new again, but to make it personal.
When we started this tradition last year, I mentioned that as New Years Eve starts to roll around, you’re apt to see a number of “Best of 2011” music lists. I have no issue with these lists, and I think it’s great to look back at the best new music of the past twelve months. But this sort of thing doesn’t capture experience that most people have with music in a given year. In the past year, I discovered plenty of great music, some of it from 2011, some of it from decades ago, and everywhere in between. In that spirit, I present to you, in no particular order, the Top Ten Songs I Was Stuck on in 2011.
Around this time of year, everyone puts out their “Best of 2010” lists. There’s nothing wrong with this practice exactly. It’s a good way of looking back at the past year of excitement, entertainment, and events, but I always feel like it misses something, particularly with respect to music. If you’re anything like me, the newest and best additions to your music collection did not all come from 2010. There’s something so great about discovering a brilliant song written anywhere from a few years ago to a few decades ago that is equal to the novelty of any new release. With that spirit in mind, here is a list of the top ten songs I discovered this past year, regardless of when they came out.