Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part I

To read the introduction to the Accidental Mix Tape project, click here.

I'll now delve into each of the tracks that made it onto the CD, giving possibly-relevant facts like album and date of release. I also aim to give a one-paragraph synopsis of the band—it might stretch into two—and a quick chat about why I chose the particular song that I did. I'll finish off with a few "honorable mention" tracks that also could have been good choices for the CD, and might well make it onto Mix Tape Part 2.

Track 1: "Close Call" by Rilo Kiley, track 2 from Under the Blacklight, August 2007

Rilo Kiley is one in a proud line of bands that I was first exposed to thanks to my friend Nick. For a while back in high school, it seemed that every time I saw Nick, he had a new CD packed to the brim with his latest favorite bands. Some of these bands I just couldn't get into, and sort of let fall by the wayside; some of them, I keep coming back to even now. Rilo Kiley is definitely in the second group, I want to say introduced to me in June 2005. Their lyrics are creative and clever, lead singer Jenny Lewis has a gorgeous voice, and the instrumentation takes cues not only from rock and pop, but also from folk and country.

I would put Under the Blacklight in my personal top five albums of 2007, ranking behind Wincing the Night Away (which is also represented on the CD), but maybe not much else. We’ve seen incredible development since the days of Take-Offs and Landings. The band's sound has progressed from lo-fi and indie to refined and produced, and Lewis's voice has transformed from girly and almost coquettish to mature and approaching sultry in places. The thing that's striking, though, is that both CDs are remarkably good. In the end, I went with the recency of Under the Blacklight over the primacy of Take-Offs and Landings. "Close Call" is one of three or four excellent tracks on the album; in the end, I thought it had a little more energy than "Silver Lining", and I wanted to give something besides the title track a try after it had been my ringtone for several months.

Honorable mentions: "Plane Crash in C" from Take-Offs and Landings, "Paint's Peeling" from The Execution of All Things, "Silver Lining" and "Under the Blacklight" from Under the Blacklight

Track 2: "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" by the Decemberists, track 2 from Castaways and Cutouts, May 2002

The Decemberists, even after their dreaded Migration to a Major Label, remain as indie-workhorse as ever. A massive vocabulary, songs about Japanese geishas and crooked French-Canadian bootleggers, and immensely entertaining live shows have given them a well-deserved place near the top of the indie heap. It's tough to remember the exact first time I heard of the Decemberists, but the references just kept piling up in April and May of 2005. By the time I finally broke down and listened to one of their songs, I had just eaten dinner at Dante's Down the Hatch, a wonderful Buckhead fondue place with an 18th century naval theme. And I had just finished reading Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, the final volume in the Baroque Cycle, a delightfully epic historical fiction trilogy. The first Decemberists song I heard was "The Infanta", which tied into both of those cultural experiences and made me instantly appreciate the band.

I first heard Picaresque in its entirety, then Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty at the same time, later acquiring The Crane Wife when it was released. I think I made a mistake in not "cleansing my palette" in between listening to the two earlier albums, because they're not immensely stylistically distinct, and even now I have a hard time telling them apart. Both albums have about half mediocre filler and half sheer brilliance, such that if you combined the best half from each, you'd probably have one of the greatest collections of music ever. Alas, even the Decemberists can't pull together utter genius every waking moment. But the thing that distinguishes the Decemberists despite a handful of less-than-exciting songs (not bad, per se, just uninteresting) per album is that the "good half" is incredible. I said "sheer brilliance" and I don’t think that's an overstatement. "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" is in this half.

I liked the song already, but I began to truly appreciate it last summer in Europe. There's something indescribably wonderful about seeing the Mediterranean coast for the first time ever, passing over the Spanish border at sunrise, and hearing the lyric "and here in Spain I am a Spaniard" not half an hour later. The song features three evocative, imagistic vignettes about attempts at getting love to work out in fantastic circumstances. And it showcases the Decemberists' lyrical brilliance possibly better than any of their songs.

Honorable mentions: "July, July!" and "California One" from Castaways and Cutouts, "Billy Liar" and "Song for Myla Goldberg" from Her Majesty, "The Infanta" from Picaresque, "The Island" from The Crane Wife (though its scope and length might not make it quite right for the "mix tape" environment)

Track 3: "I Want to Save You" by Something Corporate, track 1 from Leaving Through the Window, May 2002

Unlike Castaways and Cutouts, which I first heard three years after its release, I've been listening to Leaving Through the Window since the day it came out. That's more than six years now, which is nigh unfathomable. The album became a soundtrack to my sophomore year in high school, a time that turned out to be huge in terms of maturation, all that wonderful "coming out of puberty" business. Appropriately, Something Corporate belongs to that genre that I've talked about before as having defined my high school musical experience, sometimes called "pop-punk" or "post-punk" or a label that I've taken a liking to, "prep rock". You know the sorts of band. New Found Glory, Good Charlotte, number bands like Blink-182 and Sum 41.

I didn't realize it at the time, but for a type of music to dominate the high school popular scene, that wasn't necessarily a bad trend. It came on the heels of insipid pop along the lines of Christina Aguilera, N'Sync, and Ricky Martin. And it was followed by the ascendancy of mainstream hip-hop: Kanye West, Usher, Nelly, Jeezy, and all the rest. Something Corporate wasn't the best-known exemplar of that trend in music, but I think they're among the most distinctive. They knew when to cool off and play at slower than 180 beats per minute. And they also made the most of unconventional orchestration, adding strings and piano to enhance their sound nicely. "I Want to Save You" doesn’t have any particular significance over the rest of the album, but I like its pacing and tempo.

Honorable mentions: "I Woke Up in a Car" from Leaving Through the Window, "Bleed American" and "Splash, Turn, Twist" by Jimmy Eat World from Bleed American. Usually I'll try to preserve the same artist in an "honorable mention"... this is more of a "relational" connection.

Track 4: "Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service, track 2 from Give Up, February 2003

The Postal Service is another one of those bands that's tricky to nail down an exact time I first heard them, or heard of them. I'm pretty sure Nick had something to do with it, but whether that "something" was introducing me, or merely burning the music for me, I don't remember. The band is relatively well known by this point as a collaborative project between Death Cab for Cutie's lead singer Ben Gibbard and some dude who does electronica that nobody can really remember. It's emo, sure, but intelligent emo, and a darn catchy beat in the background. This band is one of the most universally accepted among my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Nearly everyone who's heard of the Postal Service likes them, views them favorably, and reacts well to their music being played in a long car ride. Of course, there are people who don’t know anything about them at all, and whose personal spheres of music appreciation probably don't come close to including indie pop. But you don't have to be a green amoeba shirt-wearing Shins fan to think good things about the Postal Service.

They have but one full album, sadly, and I've gone with what's undoubtedly the most well known song from it. You can hear "Such Great Heights" in UPS commercials, Target commercials, and M&Ms commercials. It was even covered by another indie staple, Iron & Wine, prompting a huge and still-raging debate over which version is the superior one. (Of course, by its inclusion on this CD, I come down on the side of the Postal Service). Apparently it's "the only positive song" Ben Gibbard has ever written about love, and positive it is, and happy too, which is why I've chosen it for the CD.

Honorable mention: "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "Brand New Colony" from Give Up

Track 5: "Turn on Me" by the Shins, track 7 from Wincing the Night Away, January 2007

This is a direct Nick contribution, in the form of an actual CD, and it's his single greatest act of genius and philanthropy. What a fantastic collection of music. Perfectly paced and balanced, dramatically introductioned, gracefully concluded. No filler, except for the 54 seconds of "Pam Berry", which is just as easily overlooked—you want to listen to every song. Interesting instrumentation and outreaches to various genres. Witty and unconventional throughout, but nowhere near the point of becoming novelty—these guys are making music meant to be taken seriously but manage to have a lot a fun doing it. I got Wincing the Night Away for my birthday, February 2007, and almost instantly, it became one of my favorites. I was actually hesitant to listen to the band's earlier albums, because there wasn't any way they could be as good as Wincing the Night Away. Eventually I caved in. I was right, they weren't quite as good, but still excellent.

If I said that Rilo Kiley's sound has matured since their first album, then the Shins have accomplished a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid or Kafka. Oh, Inverted World, a darling of the indie community, was so lo-fi and poorly produced by comparison that lead singer James Mercer's vocals seem muffled and unintelligible. And Wincing the Night Away is so much more varied and original that after listening to it, all the songs on Oh, Inverted World sound the same—to a synesthete, it's almost like they take on the same weirdly drab blue of the album's cover. This isn't an indictment of Oh, Inverted World at all; merely an observation that next to Wincing the Night Away, even an earlier success pales in comparison. I don't know if I'm alone in the belief that Wincing the Night Away completely eclipsed Oh, Inverted World as the Shins' masterwork, but I'll stick by that belief as fervently as I need to. Picking a song was tougher, but "Turn on Me" has everything you'd want from the Shins: catchiness, imaginative similes, and the good old apathy that's become their trademark.

Honorable mentions: "So Says I" and "Saint Simon" from Chutes Too Narrow, "Australia" and "Phantom Limb" from Wincing the Night Away

Check back tomorrow for part II!

Currently listening: "Turkish March", Mozart

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