Pay Attention Now

The last few months have felt pretty bland for me musically speaking. I’ve listened to a lot and acquired several albums that, while each good in their own ways, all failed to live up to the high expectations that I placed upon them. Each was purchased on the strength of a single song that hinted at the possibility of a wider, more innovative album. And each has left me feeling unsatisfied. Nothing has moved me. Nothing has… wowed me. And unlike the teenager I used to be, these days I really want to be wowed.

But I am excited to report that I have recently found two new artists who have not only wowed me, they have literally blown me away. Both are fairly new artists–one of them literally just released his first album last week–who employ layered/altered vocals; beats that change unexpectedly and often during the course of a single song; some rather inspired drumming; electronic influences; and well… Let’s just say that these two are kinda hard to define. They genre-bend like mad and the result in each case is something truly intriguing. Despite their similarities, their sounds are worlds away, yet both fall under what is currently called indie music–whatever that means these days. And most importantly, each of them literally had me itching to visit every record store in town until I could get my grimy little hands on their albums. You have no idea how wonderful it feels for me to be this excited about a new artist after this awful dry spell. There honestly are no words. But who, you may ask, has inspired me to such a frenzy with such a long introduction? Once again, dear readers, you ask a great question. So let’s get to it.

Artist you should absolutely know about #1: Tune-Yards.

This New England project is led by the crazy-talented Merrill Garbus, who literally records and loops vocals and drum tracks on the fly during live performances!!! (Yes, she totally earns those 3 exclamation marks.) Pulling in electronica, Afro-beat, R&B, and something affectionately called “wonky pop”, Garbus and her small band of experimentalists create some really interesting soundscapes. And her voice? Holy crap! Don’t even get me started. I literally had to hunt down a live performance for you because you will not believe that this voice can come out of one little white girl otherwise. I highly encourage you to check out some of their other songs, but for now here’s an in-studio version of Gangsta from their 2011 album Whokill. (Pro tip: Stick around at the end for a short interview. Highly informative.)

Artist you should absolutely know about #2: Robert DeLong.

This guy is so new that, despite having already started to gather acclaim, he doesn’t even have his own article on Wikipedia yet, but I’m sure that will change soon. There is something really fascinating about his sound, which is created through the use of a whole host of different drums and electronic devices, not the least of which is a Wii-remote. Aside from sporting a smooth voice, some major lyrical chops, and an obvious talent at drumming, DeLong manages to fill his songs with a sense of youthfulness that is invigorating and a philosophical world view that feels ageless.  His first single, Global Concepts, is a great example of this. Listen to him wax existential as he wanders through a variety of electronic flourishes, pounding drum beats, and changing time signatures. Suitable for black light raves, massive arena shows, and maybe even a mosh pit (do people even do that anymore?), this is one not to be missed. The video pays tribute to both his talent and his creativity by showcasing his many instruments, along with an impressive use of light tubes and some frenzied dancers. Expect to hear a lot about this guy in the coming months, both from me and from the wider music industry. I predict that Robert DeLong will be a name everyone will know soon. And if you didn’t already know about him, brace yourself and hit play. You can thank me later.

Whatever gets you through the night

Holy smokes! My life currently resembles a working case study in insanity. It feels like I am swimming upstream these days with a whole laundry list of stuff to tackle trailing behind me, which somehow never seems to get any shorter. Between taking on a load of extra responsibilities at work, prepping for 2 plane trips and 1 road trip, staring down the barrel of another birthday, valiantly (read: vainly) trying to get/keep my house clean, and desperately trying to find time to write, I am beat. And with the changing of the seasons literally happening as I type, I know that if I am not careful, I could have a really bad Fall… and don’t even get me started on the upcoming holiday season. It doesn’t even bear contemplating. *sigh*

What can I do but keep moving? For now at least, it is full steam ahead around here and in light of this I would like to present to you a little playlist. I think I’m going to call it my Holy Crap! Mix. If it has a frenetic beat and some unstoppable energy–mixed liberally with a sense of desperation–then it belongs here. Please enjoy!

Whatever Gets You Through the Night, John Lennon

(Probably the closest thing to disco he ever did, but don’t be discouraged!)

Excuse Me Mr., No Doubt

(My very favorite. Gwen Stefani will mess you up!)

I Hear Noises, Tegan and Sara

(From my favorite Canadian twins. When I am frustrated and tired, I literally can’t play this song loud enough. )

Forever Yellow Skies, The Cranberries (Live in Detroit, 1996)

(Blistering guitars and drums not withstanding, just watch lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s blur of an arm as she plays rhythm guitar.)

Paper Romance, Groove Armada

(Rather awkward video, but amazing song.)

Out of My Head, The Black Eyed Peas

(The moment I hear that base line, I literally breathe a sign of relief. Best sonic release valve I know.)

This is a list destined to grow. If you have any suggestions for additions, please drop me a comment and let me know.

I watched, I let it burn

Music has always been a cathartic experience for me. When something is bothering me, exciting me, or depressing me, 9 times out of 10 I will reach for my headphones to deal with it. And considering the myriad of addictive choices out there that I could reach for (food, alcohol, sex, shopping, etc), I think this is a pretty healthy choice. Sometimes I roam through my music library in search of that one song that just hits the right nerve. I compulsively hit the skip button on shuffle mode, pausing only long enough for the opening bars to register before moving on, until that song that feels right right now hits my ears. As you might imagine, this is often times a frustrating and occasionally an unsuccessful way to go about things, being dependent on both the level of my agitation and the caprice of the shuffle algorithm. But other times I get lucky and the song finds me.

This is what happened to me last week when several large pieces of news (some good, some… questionable) were rather unceremoniously dropped in my lap. An agitated coughing mess with a lot of folders to label, I decided to indulge a little and listen to All Songs Considered while I worked. And right there in the middle of the podcast, a song that I had already heard once in passing without taking much notice pulled out a sledgehammer and said, “This is your song. Right. Now.” And all I could do was listen.

I’ve talked before about the art of the cheerful fuck-off song. There really is nothing quite so endearing (and sometimes profane) as a song which tells the world where to stick it in a bright and upbeat manner. The juxtaposition of a vicious dressing down with a rocking beat is one that I consistently find intriguing and amusing. These songs are extremely useful for burning through a store of nervous energy. Sometimes they even provide a sense of closure. Surprisingly, there appears to be a statute of limitations on taking someone to task and a chipper song that flips the bird at your regret of choice can really work wonders for your peace of mind.

During the last year or so I’ve been slowly compiling a list of songs like this and the latest edition has got to be I Love It by Icona Pop. Hailing from the Swedish club scene, this female electropop duo is spearheaded by DJs Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt, and their latest single is positively infectious. Hands down, it is one of the most energetic songs in my catalog. Featuring pulsating industrial tones and a throbbing beat sure to please even the most discerning of club crowds, Jawo and Hjelt paint the picture of someone who has reached such a height of frustration that they no longer care about the consequences. The result is impossible to listen to without rocking out and some of the lyrics will leave you chuckling.

The only problem with the song is the abrupt–and I mean abrupt–ending. There is no climax or even a winding down period. It screams along at an insane pace and then just stops. The effect is more than a little jolting and means that the song is highly sticky. You’ll find that you are still humming along hours or even days later. And if you are anything like me, you’ll spend a good chunk of a night lying in bed and staring at the ceiling while it blares in your head on repeat. Given this unfortunate side effect, do you dare to risk listening to it?

Oh, come on! Trust me, this is such a satisfying song that it is worth losing a little sleep over it. Go on and listen. You know you wanna!

I Love It by Icona Pop

To a sister

I was raised the eldest of three girls, my two sisters about 6 and 10 years younger than me respectively. My relationship with both of my sisters has always been… complicated. This was mostly because I was always old enough to be the babysitter. Later when the two of them decided they couldn’t stand each other, I also became the  family diplomat–a role both of my parents were more than happy to let me fill. When we went out for dinner as a family, I always had to sit between them to help keep the peace. It was a pain at times, but somehow we all managed to grow up without any visible scars.

My youngest sister and I have a wonderful relationship that has flourished in the years since she decided to stop being a brat (I love you, kid, but you know you kinda were one for a while there). The only problem we’ve really had to deal with has been making that transition from babysitter and babysat to adults on equal footing.

But my middle sister… well, as I said before, it’s complicated. We’ve both grown up, gotten through school, found our chosen mates, settled down on (almost) opposite ends of the country, and walked away from the religion we were both raised in (albeit, in very different directions). We’ve both made some unique choices, but we are happy where we are and both of us should be content with that. We had some tough years there. To be frank, I think we all had some tough years with her for a while, not all of which she can or should be blamed for. I don’t want to get into details in a public forum that she doesn’t even know about. But a lot of water has gone under the bridge, some things have been let go of, and all is mended these days… mostly. I see her roughly once a year–which makes perfect sense given the cost of plane tickets these days–and communicate with her… eh… maybe once or twice a year more than that? Maybe?

When I think about my sister, the first thing that usually pops in my head is the jumble of dramatic movie scenes that are all that is left from those years where we weren’t talking ( and I mean really not talking). Or I am just  filled with this sense of weighted silence and a stifling feeling of wistfulness. But when I get past all that…

I see a little girl who loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

You heard me.

Picture a short, skinny little girl about the age of 7. Now picture her with bright red hair–that shade I was always so jealous of–cut in to a boy’s bowl cut, which made my mother a little uncertain–but to her credit she went with it. And now add in a Ninja Turtles t-shirt and stick her in the middle of a rowdy pack of small boys. This was my sister.  At this age, she was obsessed with only two things: looking and acting as much like a boy as possible and the Ninja Turtles. She loved the tv show, she watched all the movies, and she had all the action figures. For Halloween one year, she even got me and two of our family friends to dress as the Ninja Turtles and go trick or treating. If I remember correctly, she was Leonardo (the blue one) and I was Raphael (the red one).  And before you ask, no, there are no surviving pictures and if there were you couldn’t see them! I also remember one evening where  a friend of mine met her (possibly for the first time) and asked my sister her name. Being young and obtusely obstinate (as we all were at that age), the only reply she received was a growled “PizzaFace!”

Of course she had the soundtracks to the movies, which were played often in my house, let me tell you. But there was one song in particular that I came to strongly associate with the image of my 7-year-old sister: Tarzan Boy by Baltimora, released in 1986. Having little to do with turtles, ninjas, or even pizza, why the song made the soundtrack for the third movie in 1993 I may never know. But it is a catchy song and the only one from this Italian New Wave band that ever made a dent in the U.S. charts. And after all these years (and the drama and trauma and crap associated with some of them), it still makes me smile and think of my middle sister as that bratty little tomboy who sometimes called a truce with me.

Do you have a song that you associate with someone (or a version of someone) that you once knew?