Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part II

Continued from part I...

Track 6: "Cath..." by Death Cab for Cutie, track 4 from Narrow Stairs, May 2008

Death Cab needs no introduction to many people. They're probably the most successful and well-known exemplar of the contemporary "indie" tradition, even though they, like the Decemberists, have now made the lemming-jump to a major label. Or so the most hardcore fans thought would happen, and a few probably still insist did happen. Death Cab's style is emo first and foremost, but an honest and genuine emo, never turning to whining. Their instrumentation is especially solid, doing well to avoid the screaming and intentional, misplaced dissonance that some of their peers rely on.

Narrow Stairs promised some drastic changes from Death Cab's earlier music, and while it is a lot different, we still have the same band. Death Cab's songs have never been particularly optimistic on a whole. Perhaps they weren't as clearly melancholy as Narrow Stairs turned out to throw at us, maybe they didn't come right out and say there was "No Sunshine", but objectively it was more a refinement than a departure. "Cath...", like the review of the album mentioned is widely agreed to be the best song on it, and I agree with public opinion here. "Cath..." is absolutely classic Death Cab, a pleasant little story of a girl who unwisely ends up with a man who doesn't love her.

Honorable mentions: "The Sound of Settling" and "We Looked Like Giants", Transatlanticism, "Marching Bands of Manhattan" and "Soul Meets Body" from Plans

Track 7: "Get Off" by the Dandy Warhols, track 7 from Thirteen Tales form Urban Bohemia, August 2000

I proclaim myself to be a Dandy Warhols fan on the strength of this album alone--without having heard any of the band's other music. I've been assured that the rest of their music is way different from this one anyway, and honestly, if this album were the band's only one ever, that would be more than enough for me to consider them masters of the craft. I suppose you could call it "psychedelic" rock, if for no other reason than the multitude of drug references and the insistent dreaminess of many of their songs.

The lyrics on this album range from introspective to satirical, from self-satisfying to insightful, from boorish to sublime. And they do some remarkably creative things with structure and instrumentation, ranging from totally conventional 4/4 guitar-driven rock to ethereal, drifting experiments. "Get Off" is about exactly what it sounds like it's about. And it's wonderfully fun to listen to.

Honorable mentions: Practically anything from Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, particularly "Godless", "Bohemian Like You", and "Big Indian"

Track 8: "Make Me Smile" by Chicago, track 2 from side 2 of Chicago II, January 1970

Along with the Beatles, Chicago is one of two bands on the CD that I first came to through my parents. Musical originality is a big thing with me, and Chicago exemplifies that brilliantly. I can't think of another band that so completely integrates a horn section into their music. Cake tries, and puts up a good show. But one trumpet, while it is the cornerstone of any good horn section, just doesn't compare to the Loughnane-Pankow-Parazaider triad that's given Chicago its unique sound for four decades. Perhaps not until Norah Jones did we have an artist that was so completely accepted in the pop scene but also gave jazz bands something interesting to play too.

I'm partial to Chicago's earlier stuff for just that reason: it features the horn section the best and the most creatively. Another reason is that I really like the city Chicago, an influence on the band and particularly the earliest few albums. The reason I like "Make Me Smile" in particular is that I have personal experience with it; a few weeks back in middle school jazz band. Even though it was sort of a hokey arrangement, that was the first song I ever played that I'd heard of before I played it.

"Make Me Smile" is actually the first part of a seven-song cycle, "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon", that also includes the slow-dance staple "Color My World. The version I have actually includes the first three or four parts of the cycle on the same track, which is all the better. But "Make Me Smile", which showcases Chicago's mastery of dynamics and of course has a memorable trumpet solo, steals the show.

Honorable mentions: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" from Chicago Transit Authority, "25 Or 6 To 4" from Chicago II

Track 9: "Suddenly I See" by KT Tunstall, track 9 from Eye to the Telescope, February 2006 (US)

Where most of the artists featured on the CD are either products of direct recommendation or a bit of self-directed musical digging, KT Tunstall comes from the radio. The Atlanta radio station, which is usually pretty decent, provided it's not on a weird 80s kick, or a streak of several overly mellow songs in a row, in the vein of Jack Johnson. In fact, browsing their recent playlist, "Suddenly I See" was played not half an hour ago, along with "Sweet and Low" by Augustana, "Californication" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and "Imagine" by John Lennon, all in the past few hours. (Though they do have a penchant for that irritating "Mercy" song that seems to be in vogue lately.)

I listened to the radio a lot in the summer of 2006, a time of teaching Koreans to speak English and staying at Andrew Hood's old house until the wee hours of the morning at least a few times a week. And whenever I turned on the radio, whether it be leaving for work at 8:30 am, or leaving work at 2 pm, or even coming home at 3 am, I had a better chance than not of hearing "Suddenly I See". And it really grew on me. I like the driving, energetic guitar, and Tunstall has a great voice (if maybe not as good as Jenny Lewis's). The song, of course, is a feminist one, but that doesn't make it any less musically sound. Plus, Tunstall looks really, really cute on the cover for the iTunes version of the single.

Honorable mentions: "Other Side of the World" and "Another Place to Fall" from Eye to the Telescope

Track 10: "Jacksonville" by Sufjan Stevens, track 5 from Illinoise, July 2005

Back in the grand old days of Folk Hall, quite the music community flourished on the local iTunes network. And an enterprising individual could take advantage of this with the OurTunes client to appropriate any sort of shared music onto his own computer, to the tune of possibly several gigabytes. I'd actually read about Illinoise in the Atlanta Fish Wrapper of all places, when it was first released, and thought "hey, that sounds cool." When I did appropriate it, it was more than cool. This album earned laudatory remarks like "best album of 2005" by many critics, and who am I to argue with that?

Those same critics will also probably say that "Chicago" is the album's standout track. It is good, no doubt. But the song that caught me when I first listened to it was "Jacksonville", which is actually quite a moving song about sympathy toward abolitionists. It, like many of Stevens' other songs, features folk melody and vocals against a symphonic background, and crams in allusions to the great Land of Lincoln. And even more than his other songs, there's something fundamentally uplifting, positive about it. Besides, I heard it at the legendary Kate Wasch Studios, which means it has to be of the highest quality.

Honorable mentions: "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!", "Decatur", and "Chicago" from Illinoise

Tune in tomorrow for part III.

Currently listening: "Lost Underworld" from Mother 2 - Giygas' Counterattack

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