Saturday, February 04, 2006

More songs to listen to (Part II of II)

6) “The Infanta” by the Decemberists

I promise, this is my last foray into the realm of “indie rock.” But the Decemberists clearly deserve a mention here, mostly because they’re able to make good music about things other than love gone wrong. They have their share of those songs (which, by the way, are far more sincere than most), but a band’s musical greatness can truly shine when one of their best songs is about… an African child-queen? Calling an album Picaresque invites that sort of thing, but the Decemberists actually go through with it, and they do it spectacularly. This song has a colossal vocabulary, which is immediately attractive, and the Decemberists weave that vocabulary into a masterpiece. Don’t listen to this song once, because you’re almost certain to miss some of the remarkable uses of words the first three runs through. The result is something straight out of a Neal Stephenson novel, something more suited to a traveling minstrel or bard than a modern rock band. And that is by no means a bad thing.

7) “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers soundtrack

Broadway shows can be called “daring,” “shocking,” and a variety of other adjectives that only the Village Voice could think up, but a show with a song called “Springtime for Hitler” as its huge show-stopping number can only be called “gutsy.” If you don’t know the play’s story, this is parody—no, I’m not advising anyone to go and listen to a song that praises the Fuhrer. Try this: think of comedic rhyming phrases that could possibly be used to describe the Third Reich. Difficult? Not for the comedic genius Mel Brooks and the rest of the writers and actors behind this theatrical tour de force. Nazi Germany used to be one of those “untouchable” entities that nobody dared parody, but The Producers destroyed that taboo. When listening to this song, keep in mind that the flamingly gay Roger De Bris is portraying Hitler (rumored to be gay himself), a role originally cast for the actual Nazi Franz Liebkind, all within the play in a play that’s central to The Producers. Then, lines like “Deutschland is happy and gay” are all the more hilarious.

8) “25 Or 6 To 4” by Chicago

Chicago’s reputation has changed a lot over the years. What started out as a Midwest rock band with a unique sound started down the power ballad route, eventually becoming political. And today? Chicago fits into the Rolling Stones “old guys who still give a great concert” archetype. A lot of fans consider the earliest music (actually written and played in the Windy City) to be its best, and “25 Or 6 To 4” is a distinguished example of that. “25 Or 6 To 4” is on Chicago’s second album, which is called Chicago, but then about twenty of the band’s albums are called Chicago. As a matter of convention, the name Chicago II has been bestowed upon this album, and it contains three of Chicago’s best known songs. As I’ve stated before, songs about love (e.g. “Color My World” and “Make Me Smile”, both also on Chicago II) are fine and good, but when a song is about something else entirely yet still manages to be great music, the listening public can truly know the band that wrote the song is great. “25 Or 6 To 4” is certainly not a song about love; much more creatively, it is a song about someone who can’t figure out what to write a song about. It is probably Chicago’s hardest rock of any of their songs, features some of its best brass work, and remains popular even thirty-five years after its release.

9) “Longing” from the Hero soundtrack

Contemporary classical music on a whole doesn’t do it for me. Minimalism, atonality, and lack of a tonal structure do not make your music bold and original; they do not make it complex and intricate; they simply make it bad. One review of this type of music I read described it as “throwing a musical brick at the audience.” Tan Dun, however, has distinguished himself from the brick-throwers of the modern orchestral era by integrating Chinese folk themes into his compositions. This lends itself particularly well to movie soundtracks like Hero’s. Now, maybe you’ve seen Hero. Hopefully you liked it as much as I did. Maybe you even noticed that its soundtrack was pretty good. But even if you saw the movie and thought its music added something to it, you probably don’t know “Longing” in particular. I have to say that this is probably the most obscure song on this list. I didn’t even know of the song until an English teacher had us listen to pieces of music and write our reactions to them as short prose or poetry pieces. “Longing” was one of the selections, and the remarkable thing (about not only this piece, but Tan’s music in general) is that everyone can have a wildly different reaction to the piece, but somehow it’s still right. In one piece, using no words and about four instruments, Tan manages to convey more emotion, more imagery, and more significance than any songwriter could ever hope for.

10) “Bamboleo” by the Gipsy Kings

Chances are good that you’ve heard the song “Bamboleo.” You may not know it by name; heck, you might not even know who the heck the Gipsy Kings are. But “Bamboleo” is practically ubiquitous. And it represents the reason I like the Gipsy Kings: you can become a well-known and well-liked band without being able to sing. Of course, the Gipsy Kings have good musicianship. Their lyrics could be amazing (Mae-quality) or atrocious (Eminem-quality) and I’d have no idea either way because they’re all in Spanish. And the best part is, they can’t sing to save their lives. “Bamboleo” is featured on both a self-titled Gipsy Kings album as well as no less than three “Greatest Hits” compilations, and deservedly so. Despite the fact that their singing is certainly nothing to write home about and the lyrics are incomprehensible to a non-Spanish speaker, “Bamboleo” (like the rest of the Gipsy Kings’ songs) comes out passionate, musical, and incredibly fun to listen to.


Andrew said...

An excellent review. Don't forget "Heil Myself" and "Springtime for Hitler part II"

Matt Pavlovich said...

"Heil myself, Heil me. I'm the kraut who's out to change our history."