Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Urge Overkill via Pulp Fiction - "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"

Release Dates: September 27, 1994

When Did I Download This? Just two nights ago, actually. Over Thanksgiving Weekend, between stuffing my face with stuffing and turkey and hanging with friends and family, I’ve been reading a series of excellent articles at the AV Club covering music from the 1990’s entitled Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? So far it’s done a fantastic job of not only portraying rock’s grunge period and what it meant to us as teenagers growing up, but also how different alternative music was before the internet. Hyden says, “underground music was really underground; you had to venture out and look for it, and only after somebody let you in on the secret that it was actually there.” In a line he succinctly writes what I spent a lot of my time talking about in my Vampire Weekend and Violent Femmes posts. As a teenager, hours were devoted to scouring liner notes and indie magazines (sometimes unavailable in small town stores), talking to friends, catching small-time opening acts, and most importantly watching MTV. Another platform was movie soundtracks; The Crow, Juice, Reality Bites, Trainspotting, and one of the more classic R&B and rock inclined, Pulp Fiction, and they would all act as points to expand our musical boundaries.

Somehow in October of 1994, as a 14-year old kid, a couple of friends and I were able to sneak in to a theater to see the violent, profane, no-doubt-about-it ‘R’-rated Pulp Fiction. While I vaguely remember liking it, probably more for all the f-bombs being thrown around than grasping how great of a movie it truly was, it wouldn’t forever hold a place in my conscious until a friend bought the VHS sometime later. I remember him playing it incessantly, sometimes simply acting as background noise while we took turns playing guitar or Gameboy. I could tell he dug the music just as much as the movie, which, being as he was two years my senior and I looked up to him, made me really dig it as well. There was the surf tune from Dick Dale, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher’s Man, and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” But my favorite was from the scene immediately following the twist contest. There’s something both sexy and hip about the moment when Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) begins that old music reel, strums the opening chord to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” on her air guitar, and breaks in to a frenzied dance when the song crescendos. Though it's very unhip when she ultimately overdoses on Vince’s (John Travolta) heroin.

Every time I came across Pulp Fiction on TV, or the film came up in discussion, I tried to remind myself I needed to grab the soundtrack. But I always forgot. In fact, I didn’t even know the song from my favorite scene is a cover of Neil Young performed by Urge Overkill up until this past Sunday, while I was reading the fourth entry of Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? I like the limited amount of Neil Young’s discography I’ve collected, and I had heard of Urge Overkill, but I didn’t have wiki or youtube as an immediate reference point back then to look up where the song originated. I've never remembered to look at the back of a Pulp Fiction soundtrack in all those years since. Two nights ago, I went over to my computer, clicked the mouse button a few times, and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was loaded in to my music library. I’ve already played it a few times. It’s a good song, but after all these years I think I like it better in the context of an unknown classic from an unforgettable scene in that great 1994 film.

(Note: I know this should have preceded Ugly Casanova, but being as I just downloaded Urge Overkill two nights ago, that would've been impossible. I felt it wouldn’t hurt to go backwards (or forwards) one entry.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ugly Casanova - Sharpen Your Teeth

Release Dates: May 21, 2002

★★★★★ Tracks:


Things I Don’t Remember

It got old. Flipping through this particular girlfriend’s CD travel case and seeing page after page of Modest Mouse. Proper releases, EPs, mixes of best songs, bootlegs, she had it all. Just from simply knowing someone for so long so well, it was one of those insignificant obsessions that became very significant to me. I couldn’t get myself to like Isaac Brock’s strange lisp and even stranger blend of rock and folksy psychedelia, but more than anything, I didn’t like that she had found her new favorite band after she moved out west. Modest Mouse was directly associated with our drifting apart. However on her frequent return visits, she force fed my Plymouth Sundance those countless records. And the more I heard them the more I realized resisting was futile; Modest Mouse, with their eccentric music and powerful lyricism, was in fact much more entertaining than most the crap I was listening to at the time.

Shuffling through said girlfriend’s trapper keeper of music would net you the occasional alternative. Ugly Casanova is one that comes to mind, but being as this particular band was Isaac Brock’s side project, where he got to explore outside the boundaries of his primary group, I’m not sure it counts. Modest Mouse has always skirted the fine line between the elitist indie crowd and the self-loathing emo kids, but Sharpen Your Teeth tilts more towards the latter. Brock is rarely one to write an upbeat pop song you’d put on at a summer pool party, but the tracks contained within are incredibly mellow and often down right depressing. On “Hotcha Girls” he sings, “smells like autumn / smells like leaves / You don’t know that you’ll rust / And not belong so much / And then get left alone.” In “Parasites” Brock says in his usual deadpan voice, “the parasites are excited when you’re dead / Eyes bulging, entering your head / All your thoughts, they rot,” while victorious horns sound in the background.

But Brock has become one of my favorite lyricists, taking thoughts of self-reflection and greater universal questions and turning them in to clever pieces of wordplay. There are a few gems here, none of them any better than on the opening track, “Barnacles,” when he sings, “I don’t know me / And you don’t know you / So we fit so good together because I knew you like I knew myself / We clung on like barnacles on a boat / Even though the ship sinks you know you can’t let go.” Most everything here is backed by subtle acoustic guitars, occasional percussion, and some complimentary instruments; electric guitar, bass, and horns, which all lends itself to an isolated and contemplative batch of songs. There’s a lot to like here for die-hard fans, some of it acts as a bridge to the more mainstream sounds Modest Mouse would develop down the road. But it won’t convert any skeptics. Even for a modest fan like myself, Sharpen Your Teeth is a rare journey I take. It always brings me back to a universal personal experience all of us try to forget, or as Brock says, it “marks the path back to the point of departure.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Vampire Weekend - Contra

Release Dates: January 11, 2010

★★★★★ Tracks:



I always get a kick out of indie rock outfits vying for position on the Billboard charts with mainstay mainstream artists like the Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. It makes me proud of the greater American public for seeking out music other than the hits they’re force fed through...wherever the masses hear new music these days. The second single released, but the first song I heard from the new album was “Cousins.” Sounding similar to “A-Punk” or “Mansard Roof,” it had me thinking a repeat of Vampire Weekend was likely. However the rest of Contra is much more electronic and uses a wider array of instrumentation. The opening track incorporates a harmonium, a Kalimba thumb piano (the steel drum sound), synths, both electronic and classic-style drums and a few other foreign sounds. Strings and horns are much more common, and dominate tracks like “White Sky” and “Run.” Samples are used in “Dimplomat’s Son,” and vocals are used more as tonal compliments this time around. While all of this can be intriguing, I also think it detracts a little from what Vampire Weekend did so well in the first place; the skill at which they played their primary instruments and the knack they had for complex songwriting. Ezra Koenig’s voice is still the focal point, but he is more abrasive here than ever. He rhymes “Horchata” with balaclava, aranciata, and masada, he hoop and hollers on “Cousins,” and nothing released this year tests my patience more than the falsetto squeals of “White Sky.”

As its name could suggest, Contra has two opposing sides. The first half of the record is mellow, more experimental and atmospheric, while the latter songs quicken the pace and refocus on some of the band's original strengths. We get the album’s highlight in “Run,” which breaks down in to a frenzy of horns and percussion, “Cousins” is incredibly fast and quirky with a slick bass line, their most accessible song on the album in “Giving Up the Gun,” and the M.I.A. sampled “Diplomat’s Son” is a great reggae-infused piece. Were they able to repeat the energy of the second half throughout Contra, it would have had a lot more force. Regardless, the departure from their earlier sound has given Vampire Weekend much more room to work with in preparing for a third album. I see why Vampire Weekend would want to expand their sound. Nearly a decade ago indie rock to pop star icons, the Strokes, made a second album that sounded exactly like their first, and although it was fucking great, they ran out of ideas when they moved on to their third. Vampire Weekend might have set themselves up for longevity, but their first two records don’t match the soul or the hooks of their predecessors. In fact Contra isn’t much different than its neighbors atop the charts; good pop with a couple of great moments, but largely forgettable.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Release Dates: January 29, 2008

★★★★★ Tracks:

Oxford Comma

I Stand Corrected

Vampire Weekend is a household name now. Shit, even my mom has heard of them. Ever since we were introduced to their self-titled release in early 2008 the band has been a part of the collective musical conscience. Those who deem music essential in the age of iTunes and torrents, basically Pitchfork and anyone who frequents Brooklyn’s L train, have been touting them since the first single, “Mansard Roof,” hit in 2007. In my opinion, the point in time in which Vampire Weekend was released was also when Pitchfork really broke in to the mainstream, and it was their appraisal that catapulted the band to pop star status. The groupthink and culture Pitchfork has helped to create combined with the exponential popularity of both the website and the band has naturally led to a lot of criticism. Not only were many turned off by Vampire Weekend’s Columbia college degrees and Cape Cod vacation references, they were growing tired of the hipster hype machine championing bands that sing things like “who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?” There are now entire websites dedicated to mocking the Pitchfork culture; a music publication site has its very own Weird Al Yankovic.

While I understand the cynical sentiment towards the whole process, it doesn’t necessarily make Pitchfork any less important to the current music industry, or less knowledgeable than they were when it was still cool to talk about them. As of now, they're probably the most important agent in determining a band’s success. In a piece by Time (little behind to be putting that piece out in 2010, don’t you think, Time?) Big Boi’s manager discusses how huge it was that his new album received a positive review from the website. Just as Rolling Stone was a barometer for music in the 60’s and 70’s, Pitchfork has become the de facto voice during the digital era. And it’s not just because it was deemed cool by the kids in Brooklyn, it has more to do with the fact that, regardless of their sometimes elitist writing and snarky attitudes, they recommend some really good music. So Vampire Weekend and Pitchfork share an intertwining narrative, both piggybacking off of each other to represent the mainstreaming of a new generation of independent music, while acting as contentious pivotal forces on pop culture. It becomes all the more interesting with nearly every entry Pitchfork writes on the band; they continually bring up the divisiveness Vampire Weekend causes without ever really getting down to one of the core elements that fuels the dissension -- themselves.

So getting back down to it, is Vampire Weekend deserving of the appraisal? Sorta. Their first record is an interesting mix of Caribbean pop and indie rock combined with the clever, if sometimes abrasive, vocals of Ezra Koenig. There are a few great songs here; the organ-driven “Oxford Comma” was one of the better singles of 2008, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” has a charming eccentricity to it, but “I Stand Corrected” is my favorite, a beautifully restrained piece that works almost exclusively off of keys and a simple bass line. As for the album as a whole, it’s a pretty damn good, sophisticated pop record actually, but it’s just not something I find myself coming back to often. Now is this more indicative of my personal tastes, or will the rest of the crowd determine this is a disposable piece of pop as well? Your guess is as good as mine. But with fourteen million hits on their biggest youtube single and counting, Radio City Music Hall sell-outs, and two chart-seeking albums, it looks like I’m in the minority.

Part of the digital era I find so depressing is how disposable music has become. The sheer velocity of a band’s rising popularity can blow things out of proportion. The time (and money) invested in the music we consume isn’t anything close to what it used to be when we had to go to record stores to find albums, or read liner notes for band influences, or go to shows and actually catch the opening acts. We had no other option but to familiarize ourselves with a record we purchased because, among other reasons, it might be a while before we got our hands on another. Now that people can simply click a couple of buttons before the next buzz band is uploaded to their iPods, band’s shelf lives are growing incredibly short. Compounded by the mass frenzy to find those buzz bands before everyone else does, Vampire Weekend might still become an afterthought eventually. But chances are diminishing. And while it seems most either love or hate the group, I stand somewhere in the middle. I hear the charm in the music they create; it’s fun, it’s breezy, and although polarizing, they do appeal to a wide array of music lovers. It’s just not something I find essential to my collection. Pitchfork might be over-zealous in declaring the next big thing from time to time, but this record’s popularity is proof they have a firm grip on the music industry. With another Billboard charting record under their belts in Contra released just this year, Vampire Weekend will hold on for at least a little while longer as well.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Velvet Underground - Loaded

Release Dates: September 1970

★★★★★ Tracks:
Nearly All of Them

It’s been well documented that Velvet Underground’s fourth album was pandering to the billboard charts. Lou Reed and Co. had three of the most influential records of the 60’s under their belts and still didn't have a pot to piss in. With them now signed to mega-label Atlantic, the name Loaded was chosen for the title stemming from the notion it should be loaded with hits. And even with commercialism and mainstream success a driving force to the creation of this record, Lou Reed simply couldn’t find a way to fuck it up, Loaded is in fact completely loaded with hit after fantastic hit.

You won’t find a record with three stronger tracks in succession than Loaded's “Sweet Jane,” “Rock & Roll,” and “Cool It Down.” “Sweet Jane” is up there with “I’m Waiting For the Man” as the best Velvet Underground song ever. Scratch that, best song ever. Some might not recognize it by song title alone, but it becomes as familiar as an old Beatles hit once the melody begins. It'll always get some FM airplay, but its familiarity is most likely due to the fact that this song shaped a blueprint so many would eventually build upon. The four-chord progression, to the awesome solos, to the “Sweeeeeeet Jane!” anthems, to the cocky confidence Lou has in his vocals, this is what every guitar-driven indie rock’n’roll band wants to sound like. Just about every other song here is a gem as well; “Rock & Roll” has some slick guitar work, there’s a throwback to Lou’s doo-wop days in “I Found a Reason,” a Beatles-esque jam in “Who Loves the Sun,” and another bluesy New York number in “Train Round the Bend.”

I might go with The Velvet Underground & Nico album as my overall favorite from the group, but Loaded is the one I play the most. A great record is a great record, and I could give two shits if they were considered by some to be selling out, or that this is considered their least essential, or experimental record. The fact is this is the VU at their most listenable and accessible, and there isn’t anything wrong with a great record everyone can get on board with. And while the three previous records might have been more influential to VU followers, Loaded is the record that represents a strong counterpoint to the argument that an attempt at mainstream success voids artistic merit -- the two can exist harmoniously. Although Warhol’s presence had long been absent from the Velvet Underground, this album is a testament to everything Lou Reed learned from the eccentric artist, Loaded is a fully realized artistic masterpiece, but with a keen eye for and the willingness to adapt to the pulse of pop culture.