Thursday, July 03, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part III

Continued from part II...

Track 11: "Many Funerals" by Eisley, track 1 from Combinations, August 2007

If KT Tunstall was the radio's greatest success, then Eisley is certainly's. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, here's a quick rundown. As you listen to music, a small and non-intrusive program collects data on what you're listening to. It sends this data ("scrobbles" it) to a server. Then, based on that information, you can get recommendations of what else you might like. Conveniently, there's even a recommendation radio station, where you can sit and listen to exactly what the server thinks you might be interested in.

Some of these recommendations are so obvious as to be frustrating: just because I'm listening to Miles Davis doesn't necessarily mean I want every jazz musician ever to show up in my recommendations. Some of them are so prescient as to be useless: after listening to Hot Fuss by the Killers, got really excited in encouraging me to check out Franz Ferdinand. I already know of Franz Ferdinand and already have some of their music, but I hadn't listened to it in a while, so naturally assumed that I had no idea who they were. And some are based more on common listenership than any stylistic similarity: I fail to see the resemblance between Bright Eyes and the Decemberists, no matter how much insists they're connected.

But happily, some of the recommendations work beautifully. After listening to a bit of Rilo Kiley and some Beatles, I noticed this "Eisley" pop up more than once, both in the list and the radio station. So I listened to what the radio station had to offer (namely "Memories" and "Telescope Eyes" if I remember correctly), and I was pretty much blown away. Turns out Rilo Kiley and the Beatles described a perfect Venn diagram to generate Eisley, too. Eisley lists the Beatles as one of their influences (as should every band dating from 1970 or later, as far as I'm concerned). And Eisley and Rilo Kiley sound a lot alike, at least superficially. Both bands feature girl singers with incredible voices, both have an indie-ish sound despite being signed to Warner Brothers, and both are unafraid to take a page from unconventional genres like blues or country.

The similarity stops there, mostly. Rilo Kiley prefers to sing about any manner of situation gone horribly askew, from bitter rejoinders against ex-lovers in their earlier music to the more recent tales about dangerous sexual practices. Eisley has this tendency to sing about happy things, like love that actually does work out, and people that genuinely miss each other. Some critic might complain that this "isn't addressing the entire range of human emotion" or something similar, but Eisley departs from that when they feel the need. "Invasion", the first single off Combinations, is about aliens. And "Many Funerals" is about someone's parents who died at sea. The subject matter isn't as uplifting as in most of the rest of the songs I've put on the CD, but the music more than makes up for that: energetic, spirited, and lively. Plus, lead singer Sherri DuPree's incredible soprano is contrasted with sister and backup singer Stacy's alto to create the best form-fits-function for a sea tale since Vaughan Williams.

Honorable mentions: "Memories" and "Marvelous Things" from Room Noises; "Invasion", "Taking Control", and "Combinations" from Combinations

Track 12: "Someone Else's Arms" by Mae, track 3 from The Everglow, March 2005

This one comes as no surprise. I came to Mae through Nick, when he burned their first CD (Destination: Beautiful) for me. "This music is really happy," he told me. "It puts you in a good mood." And so it did, and still does. Independently, we purchased The Everglow, and agreed that it's one hell of an album. I'm not sure where it ranks on Nick's top ever, but I'd guess that it's at least somewhere. It sits at the top of mine, no questions about it. I even hold the possibly slightly presumptuous opinion that if you don't like The Everglow, you probably don't have a soul. Of course I don't mean that literally, but this is one of those albums that really should mean something when you listen to it.

Mae takes a cue from some of the later prep rock bands, like Motion City Soundtrack, but that doesn't define their sound. They definitely elicit an emotional response, but they're by no means an emo band. And the music is deeply spiritual in many places, but they don't resort to preachiness or becoming overtly a "Christian" band. A big criticism of Mae, and especially The Everglow, is that they use too perfect structure—I forget the exact quote, but it had something to do with resenting their inability to go beyond what a music theory class would tell them to do. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: all that music theory makes their music sound really, really good. It's not modern, it's not edgy—and it doesn't need to be, and they're not trying to be. It's sincere and genuine.

The Everglow is, on a high level, about a young man's journey to find out what's actually out there, and what it means to love. That sounds incredibly cheesy unless you've heard the music. But the progress of the story is almost Shakespearean, from the first act of "love makes you feel happy" through the climax of "love is needing someone" and finally to the resolution of "love overwhelms any selfish thought." And there's a story, and a reflection, and a good chance at finding something very personal at every turn. "Someone Else's Arms" is from the very beginning of the story, when out hero is still in the "I want to feel good" mode. It's very straightforward, about feeling sort of desperate and wanting to wake up lying next to someone. And by the end of the album, the definition of love has progressed far beyond that notion. But it remains one of the most fun songs to listen to, with the youthful exuberance appropriate to such subject matter.

Honorable mentions: "Embers and Envelopes", "All Deliberate Speed", and "Sun" from Destination: Beautiful, and literally any other song from The Everglow

Track 13: "Barrel of a Gun" by Guster, track 2 from Lost and Gone Forever, September 1999

One afternoon, back in late high school, a friend and I faced a long drive. So she grabbed a CD, telling me that it was "really good" and that I'd like it. It was something by Guster—I don't remember what album exactly, but it did turn out to be really good. And it provided quite the pleasant soundtrack to a trek out to Stone Mountain Village and Norcross, for various acquisitions. I'm thankful for that, because I don't know that I would have come across Guster any other way. Possibly may have thrown a heroic effort my way, but it's doubtful, once it figured out that I like the Shins and Death Cab.

This band is less indie and more college band/garage band that just sort of took off. The sound is very acoustic and features lots of creative uses of percussion, including the trademark bongos. Vocally, Guster uses lots of harmonies; not just conventional harmonies, but interesting counterpoint too. Instead of just singing the same words at a specified interval apart, Guster is known for changing up those intervals on the fly, and even singing completely different lyrics from each other. The entire repertoire over Guster's almost fifteen years as a band is remarkably consistent, with excellent quality taking hold on the second release, Goldfly, and not letting go since. Choosing "Barrel of a Gun" was more or less random, except that it was probably influenced by its presence at the legendary Wasch Studios the same way "Jacksonville" was. It tracks a fanboy's obsession with a movie star whose love for him is so perfect, it's as if "she already knows me." That sort of tongue-in-cheek pastiche is yet another reason to love the band.

Honorable mention: "Red Oyster Cult" from Keep it Together; "Satellite" from Ganging Up on the Sun

Track 14: "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" by Stars, track 1 from Set Yourself on Fire, March 2005

Recall for a moment the legendary Graduation Night iTunes Gift Card Debacle, in which I managed to lose two graduation cards handed to me, containing $30 worth of iTunes gift cards. These gifts were generously replaced, leading me to purchase some Decemberists, plus Your Ex-Lover is Dead on Jenny's advice. She promised me they were sort of like the Postal Service, which is reasonably accurate, though I've refined my personal description of the band since then. Stars are generally lumped into what might be referred to as "indie pop", though where exactly the line is between that and indie rock is beyond me to try and pinpoint.

What I can say for sure is that they have a pleasantly peppy sound in most of their music, whether the subject of the song is indeed peppy or something far more sinister. Frontman Torquil Campbell is a talented multi-instrumentalist, and any doubts I may have had about the band (brought on mostly by their over-expressed political leanings) were more or less mollified when Campbell busted out a trumpet and played all the solos at the band's concert.

I went with Set Yourself on Fire because it's on a whole a better CD than its successor In Our Bedroom After the War. Now, I have my opinions on In Our Bedroom After the War, and succinctly, that opinion is it's not by any means a bad album. It just suffers from too much filler that can swing from "excellent" to "awful" depending on your perception of the rest of the album. And its songs aren't structured correctly to provide enough support to the less strong tracks. Set Yourself on Fire doesn't have that problem; it's solid throughout despite a bad song here and there. Like In Our Bedroom After the War, though, it starts off with one of its best; in this case, that's "Your Ex-Lover is Dead", filled with winds and strings and nostalgia.

Honorable mentions: "What I'm Trying to Say" from Set Yourself on Fire, "The Night Starts Here" and "Take Me to the Riot" from In Our Bedroom After the War

Track 15: "Feuer Frei!" by Rammstein, track 5 from Mutter, April 2001

Just as Leaving Through the Window became a soundtrack to sophomore year of high school, Mutter was every bit as much to freshman year. It was marching band camp in August 2001 when I was first acquainted with Rammstein, thanks entirely to my man Andrew van Devender. He played this curious CD for me called Live Aus Berlin, which featured German men singing angrily in baritone registers and the hardest rock music that I'd ever actually enjoyed. I went out and bought Live Aus Berlin myself, and Mutter not long after that.

To put it in a genre, Rammstein is most generally "industrial", though I sort of like the German appellation "tanz-metall" ("dance-metal") better. And what an odd dance party it would be, featuring songs about air base tragedies and hermaphrodites and gasoline. Mutter is maybe a little softer than the rest of their music—it's not the "music to invade Poland to" that I've heard the first album described as. But it's distinctly Rammstein, no doubt about it.

I decided to go with "Feuer Frei!" out of sentimentality as much as anything. It recalls the good old days of spending countless afternoons and evenings and weekends at Andrew's place, playing Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64. (All you thirteen year old kids out there that think your precious Halo 3 is revolutionary? You'd have nothing if it weren't for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark.) Of course we needed music for our matches. More often than not, that was Rammstein; when it was Rammstein, it was usually Mutter; and every time we played Mutter, we were always sure to hit "Feuer Frei!". It's a perfect fit to a shooter, of course, translating as "fire freely!" or "fire at will!", and having the angry industrial metal to back it up.

Honorable mentions: "Links 2 3 4" from Mutter, "Moskau" from Reise, Reise

Tomorrow, the last five tracks, and the analysis and conclusion comes over the weekend.

Currently listening: "The Final Countdown", Europe

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