Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Something About Airplanes

Band: Death Cab For Cutie
Album: Something About Airplanes
Best song: This is going to sound a little weird, considering "Line of Best Fit," "Pictures in an Exhibition," and "President of What" are classics, but I find "Your Bruise" to be one of Death Cab's five best songs.
Worst song: "The Face That Launched 1000 Shits" isn't great.

As I've written about before, one of the fun things about giving another listen to old(ish) records is to take oneself back to the time when the record was released.

I was first introduced to Death Cab through the band's second effort, the brilliant We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. I did not know of Something About Airplanes when it came out in August of 1998. Even if I wasn't deplugged from the music scene (I was), Something About Airplanes didn't make a huge splash outside of the band's home region of the Pacific Northwest. So, I didn't really know anything about it until the 2000.

Which is too bad.

Something About Airplanes is a wonderful, wonderful record. It has a pleasant rawness that the band later shed -- sadly -- for a more polished lyrical sound. The record -- made in a crappy studio space -- was rushed a bit and it sounds it. There is some tape hiss and some missed notes. Ben Gibbard is more nasal than pleasant. There are some production flourishes -- cello on "Bend to Squares" and "The Face That Launched 1000 Shits," a female duet from Abi Hall and some delay repeats on "Line of Best Fit," etc. -- but, the record is generally pretty stripped down.

A 17-year-old me was almost exclusively listening to wonky mainstream progressive rock -- mostly Genesis, Rush and Jethro Tull -- and melody-heavy indie rock. He made a ton of mixtapes for his then-girlfriend (hi, Alison!) with multiple Elliott Smith tracks. While Something About Airplanes doesn't fit in the first category, it absolutely satisfies the second. As I've written about the band many times, early Death Cab is mostly an extension of Elliott Smith's style (with the caveat that Death Cab is far more teenager-oriented and emo). The 17-year-old me would've adored Something About Airplanes.


Mountains have been written about Something About Airplanes, including the entirety of a liner note essay from the 10th anniversary reissue of the record. My recounting of the record is certainly overkill, so I want to simply repeat myself in a slightly modified way, as though I'm Rush Limbaugh.

Indeed, writing about "selling out" is like writing about the benefits of coffee enemas, margarine or the Atkins diet. No one believes it anymore and, ultimately, no one really cares. After all, the Arcarde Fire has had not one, but two (!) songs in trailers recently. Sam Beam sells his stuff for just about everything.

And, look, "selling out" is a concept that only indie rock snobs have ever cared about. It's mostly the Indie Rock Petes of the world ("Nothing is any good if other people like it.") who care about this crap. It's often tied to the notion of a band's lesser-known work being better than its earlier work.

So, the notion that Death Cab's first two records are better than the rest of their catalog isn't the worst notion in the history of the world. Some bands mature weirdly; Death Cab's third record is just as crappy as the band's major label debut. And the band's second recording for (2008's Narrow Stairs)Atlantic is just as good as some of the band's best work. Not everyone makes their best records last, like the Beatles basically did. But, not everyone made their best albums first, like Black Sabbath basically did. Some bands are scattered.


Something About Airplanes is somewhat immature. "Line of Best Fit" is a drawn-out long song. "Pictures in an Exhibition" has wonderful harmonies on the "I'm definitely shaking" chorus line. "President of What?" is an angry tell off of a song, with a wonderful sarcastic lyric. The "Amputations"/"Fake Frowns" dichotomy works in a near-perfect way. "Amputations" has a walking guitar line -- coupled with that ridiculous old newsreel sample -- while "Fake Frowns" is one of the Death Cab's hardest records.

"Your Bruise" is the highlight of the record, though. A melancholy guitar line revolves around a whispery lyric as Gibbard intones "It’s a backwards attraction to your forward eyes" to start the song. Gibbard name-checks Mary Timony and Plymouth Rock in the song, as the start-and-stop of the song slowly moves into a wonderful metaphor in a chorus:

I think your bruise was understated
Because you can’t feel this anymore
It’s getting bluer and you can’t keep faking
That you can’t feel this anymore
Broken hearts and self-denial are easy fodder for emotional lyrics. But, Gibbard's use of this metaphor is lovely and works perfectly with the wonderful Chris Walla guitar line.


I'm 28 right now and I love this album. But, I think this record would've really spoke to me as a 17-year-old. I love that nonsense and the tail end of my high school years were particularly emo (my home life was a little wacky). It's a striking record and one to behold. It really does paint the picture of the band's future very early.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't Feed Da Animals

Band: Gorilla Zoe
Album: Don't Feed Da Animals
Best song: "Lost" is really introspective and interesting. "Echo" is decent.
Worst song: "Talk Back" isn't great.

This really has nothing to do with anything music-related, but it's time to talk about Twitter. With the news that the service is figuring out how to monetize itself, I imagine I should write about it.

Not surprisingly, I'm of two minds on Twitter. On one hand, Twitter is another way that our communication is becoming more self-centered and shorter. It started out as micro-blogging, letting the entire world know what you had for breakfast. Like Facebook status updates, it's ridiculous, but somehow people use it. Twitter is another way the Internet is making each one of us into a brand, a mini-celebrity and gives us a way to funnel more nonsense into the ether. One hundred and something characters isn't enough to actually form a cohesive thought, forget trying to be insightful. Similarly, like MySpace or Facebook, it's a way for morons to all correspond with one another and find comfort in their moron-ness.

On the other hand, Twitter is popular for a reason. It is a technological solution to a problem that I didn't know existed, but clearly did. Twitter allows people have broadcast communications in a way that comments on Facebook feeds do, but Twitter makes it easier to do via different ways (texting, the Web, phones, etc.). It's a really smart business model and I'm kind of impressed with the popularity of it.

Again, most of my complaint from Twitter was about the question of monetization. Even with this week's announcement, I am curious if Twitter -- it does only employ 27 people -- can actually make decent money.

Here's a confession: I have a Twitter account. I subscribe/follow/whatever a few people's accounts, mostly on my iPhone. I follow Le Batard's Radio show, my magazine and friend of the site Brad. I also follow three joke Twitters: Abe Vigoda, Chewbacca and Admiral Ackbar. The joke accounts just reinforce the meta-ness of the Internet. The Internet makes even the smallest idea into something funny -- oftentimes into overkill mode -- and an entire Twitter account of a guy writing Star Wars jokes from Admiral Ackbar's voice delights me.

With all of that said, I have sent out exactly zero tweets. For some reason, people follow my non-tweets. I assume there's a "see if your friends use Twitter" thing on the site somewhere and my name is in some people's address books. I have no idea.

Which brings me to how I could possibly use Twitter. The reporter that runs my magazine's Twitter basically uses it to post links to stories from our magazine. It's a nice marketing thing. I imagine I could do that with this site; I could send people to new posts.

On the other hand, those 140 characters could be used to broadcast the very insightful thoughts I have during the day, that no one else cares about. They would not be lost to time!

So, here is my fake Twitter page (click on it to enlarge), in an exercise that probably only entertains me.


I really like this Gorilla Zoe record. I came at it via "Lost" because I want to make tender love to Lil Wayne's talent, but the rest of the record is pretty good.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hot Rail

Band: Calexico
Album: Hot Rail
Best song: "Ballad of Cable Hogue" is fun. "Service and Repair" is nice and accessible. "Sonic Wind" is, like, one of the 20 best songs ever written.
Worst song: I like every song on this album.

I'm pretty tired of the word "soundscape." I probably use it too often in these pieces, but nevertheless, it's annoying. I was thinking about this in reading the generally decent review of Hot Rail on AllMusic. Maybe it's just the music I enjoy. I like soundscape-y music, I guess.


During summers when I was a wee lad, our family would trek up to this flea market thing on the grounds of an old drive-in theater. The place was out by the private Palwaukee Airport (now called Chicago Executive Airport) and it was a haul up there. When I was very young, our whole family went. But, my sister aged (and became too cool for it) and eventually went to college in Boston. My mom stopped coming with, as well. It eventually was just my father and I. We'd walk up and down the dusty, desert-like rows while dirt kicked up in the hot Chicago wind.

In looking at the things that have shaped me, those trips to that flea market -- and later, the one in the parking lot of Rosemont Horizon -- loom very large. The tables were full of hobbying crap, stolen electronics, misdone counterfeit stuff and clean-out-the-garage material. Next to a home-screened Bart Simpson t-shirt (wherein Bart has blue skin or something) there would be car stereos a plenty next to a fruit stand selling papayas, rotting in the hot Chicago summer sun. There were guys with carts, selling one of two things: Crazy metallic balloons or ice cream.

There were the men selling old tools, all laid out on a throw rug in front of their conversion vans. There were plenty of women with the Church Lady haircut and t-shirts bearing cats, selling Beanie Babies in display cases. There were stringy-haired musicians selling old gear and sad widows selling their husband's vast record collection, the albums boxed in milk crates.

(Those final two were my favorites, of course, because that's how I bought a PA system, several guitars and about 90% of my vinyl collection.)

The only constant, though, was the Latin music sellers. I do not remember a time without them. Tucked somewhere in a middle row was a man in the shadow of a wall adorned with CD covers, standing next to a table full of CDs. He would always have 100+ watt speakers playing something like this:

I'm not Mexican. I don't love Ranchero music. But anytime I hear "La Puerta Negra" or "Poco a Poco," it reminds me of those trips to the flea market. And I smile.


Ranchero sounds are rampant through Hot Rail, but it's not just the accordion and trumpet calls that make the album wonderful. Calexico is a border town band, from scenic Tucson. Joey Burns and John Calvertino honed their skills in Giant Sand and Friends of Dean Martinez, but Hot Rail sounds little like those bands. Certainly, the Western (not C&W) influences are there. Hot Rail is sparse, like photos of the desert.

The album falls somewhere in the cinematic category. Few of the songs are tight and the dynamism of the tracks are amazing. The record's easy emotion resides not only in its lyrics -- "Service and Repair" is melancholy tale of business, "Fade" is desperate and beautiful -- but songs like "Sonic Wind" and "Untitled III" speed up and slow down like a heartbeat.

Calexico is a gorgeous band, creating painted pictures of the West through song. Soundscapes? Probably.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mr. Beast

Band: Mogwai
Album: Mr. Beast
Best song: "Auto Rock" and "Friend of the Night."
Worst song: "Acid Food" is just OK.

I'm slowly realizing that I don't have the time I want to do all the things I want and often my hobbies suffer. I have other obligations -- social, work, school, etc. -- that have made it so my album writing has mostly fallen by the side of my life. I had a nice month in January, but, overall, I haven't been writing as much as I'd like.

So, as such, you, dear reader, get a less-than-stellar piece about one of my favorite bands.


I've written in a few places about my favorite albums. I did a tremendously poor job of writing up Tortoise's first record. I was slightly more articulate in writing about Blood Mountain. My piece on You Are Free is nothing to sneeze at, though not the epic work I had imagined when I started writing it. I am proud of my pieces on Either/Or and Death Cab's second record.

But, the overall theme is that writing passionately about a loved record is not super easy. Sometimes, it makes for interesting tangents -- why the record affects me, where I'd first heard it, etc. -- and I want to continue doing that. I am nothing if not someone who enjoys dim-witted intellectual masturbation.

As seen in the Tortoise piece, though, but it simply makes for a pain-in-the-ass read. I can't easily describe the first Tortoise record. It's mostly instrumental. My memories of first discovery of the record are pretty foggy.

Similarly, my interest in Mogwai -- a band I consider a favorite -- was more of a piece-by-piece situation that would hardly make for interesting reading (well, maybe in the hands of a skilled writer). I was vaguely familiar with the band in high school and bought Young Team, but did not fully appreciate it. I got a copy of CODY in college and sorta enjoyed it. This is basically the story of my relationship with Mogwai.

That is, until, I got eMusic after moving here five and a half years ago. I'd fallen out of the music touch and was only listening to funk and soul from the early-mid 70s (Mayfield, P-Funk, Bill Withers, etc.). A friend introduced me to eMusic when downloads were still unlimited, legal and cheap. So, I took this opportunity to download everything Matador had to offer, essentially, picking up scores of Cat Power and Mogwai records along the way.

This is how I came to Mr. Beast, one of the most beautiful records I've ever encountered. It's Mogwai's most accessible records. There are exactly zero songs over six minutes long. The raucous guitar army sounds often favored by the band make way for Barry Burns' gorgeous piano and the band's heavy riffing. As with the best instrumental rock, the album sounds like it could score a key scene in a moving film.

Indeed, the album opener was used in a movie trailer. "Auto Rock" is a building, melodic thing, built on a sparse piano piece and thumping, driving drums. "Friend of the Night" is a similar song, though carried out through a Dirty Three-esque filter, melodic and beautiful.

The band also uses vocals more. "Travel is Dangerous" keeps the singing in house with Burns taking on the task and "Acid Food" similarly has band leader Stuart Braithwaite reprising the vocal role he assumed in "CODY." Envy's Tetsuya Fukagawa and Scottish composer Craig Armstrong share spoken-word duties in "I Chose Horses," as well.

Being Mogwai, the heavy riffs do remains. "We're No Here" is a hard-rock "Auto Rock" - fitting that they are the album bookends -- with a feedback-drenched final three minutes and a punishing Martin Bulloch drum line. The heavy riff is reminiscent of "Like Herod," though in an easy-to-digest five and a half minutes.

"Glasgow Mega-Snake" shows more that the band was the type that covered Black Sabbath and grew up in the 1990s. Fast-paced and intense, the song is built on a serious riff. The song dips and changes while the three-guitar attack harmonize.


Mogwai is a favorite band of mine, but I don't have a fantastic explanation of why Mr. Beast is such a brilliant record. I simply suggest listening to it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Human After All

Band: Daft Punk
Album: Human After All
Best song: "Robot Rock" is strong. The title track is nice. "Steam Machine" works.
Worst song: "Emotion" is decent, but not great.

Daft Punk's popularity is largely built on the band's imagery and live show. It's fitting for a duo whose fanbase mostly traffics in X and glow sticks -- am I dating myself with those references? Probably, right? -- to fill its live show and imagery with striking robotics, light shows and costumery.

Indeed, the band's videos are pretty amazing, as well. Enlisting directors like fellow Frenchman Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, the band uses strange costumes, odd imagery, representative actors -- in the "Around the World" video, each costume represents an instrument -- and sometimes animation, the look of the band is defined while remaining dynamic. Daft Punk, while ostensibly a band or a musical outfit, are true multimedia artists.

With that said, there's something decidedly boring about Daft Punk. The music is wildly repetitive -- in their defense, almost all dance music is repetitive -- and the samples the band takes are sometimes cut from whole cloth. Certainly, the large hits from Discovery and Human After All ("Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" sounds far too much like "Cola Bottle Baby" and "Robot Rock" has a lead line stolen straight from Breakwater's "Release the Beast") aren't far from Puff Daddy material.

No question, I adore this album, largely because Daft Punk makes accessible the theme that I tend to love. The question of technology as a vehicle to humanity. As a electronic band, Daft Punk must reconcile this more than a rock band, and on Human After All, the French duo clearly struggles with this.

"Robot Rock," clearly because of its source material, is a strong riff and a bombastic drum song. While not a dancer, it's a quality track without delving into the question of hard rock as barrier to humanity. "Technologic" builds off the "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" formula of modified vocals over a building backdrop. Rushing through the claims, the song's vocal track works as a pacing metaphor for modern life and commerce.

"The Prime Time of Your Life" -- complete with banned video -- is more of a slowburn, building into "Robot Rock." The video's abrasive skeleton imagery as a word against body image is troubling and overt. Indeed, that is often Daft Punk's problem on Human After All. "Television Rules the Nation" and the title track, specifically, bludgeon one with the humanity/technology divide. Like Zappa's Joe's Garage, the record uses a sledgehammer when it could easily use a fly swatter.

Indeed, this was the the duo's purpose. Daft Punk made the album to bring the feeling of alienation and paranoia to listeners and succeeded. As Thomas Bangalter told a magazine, "[The record is] not something intended to make you feel good." It doesn't, but that doesn't make it bad. Just interesting.