Saturday, April 29, 2006

"I Didn't Understand"

Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith - "I Didn't Understand"
XO/Msc. Tracks, Dreamworks, 1998

Elliott Smith is my favorite songwriter, and, as much as I tend to be harsh on XO (despite loving it), it has one of the best album closings I have ever heard. But this post is not entirely dedicated to gushing over this straightforward, haunting, song.

I've been delving into the vast annals of Elliott Smith B-Sides/Demos/Leaks/Bootlegs available to the public, and have taken specific attention to two alternate versions of this song.

The first, a demo recorded between Either/Or and XO, is (predictably) more traditional than the a capella album cut. Based on a simple voice and piano skeleton, this version retains the sadness of the final version, but is almost striking in its simplicity in contrast to the more familiar version. This version also showcases an earlier version of the lyrics, that (among other things) eschews the crass and direct "I always feel like shit" for more standard (but less affecting) fare.

The second, an alternate piano version of the final version, falls between the early demo and the final version. Higher production quality and finished lyrics seem to imply that this song might have been intended as an alternate album version (or favored B-side) that simply lost out.

Ultimately, both songs pale to the lush multitrack choirs of the album cut, but show that the song's craft and power remain intact, even stripped down and more (for lack of a better word) generic.

Listen: Elliott Smith - I Didn't Understand (Demo)
Elliott Smith - I Didn't Understand (Piano Version)
Elliott Smith - I Didn't Understand (Album Version)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Stay Afraid

Parts and Labor - Stay Afraid

Parts and Labor
Jagjaguar/Brah, 2006.

Sounds Like: DFA 1979 meets Neutral Milk Hotel meets...Alkaline Trio?
For: Fans of poppy punk looking for another way of not feeling guilty about it.
Listen: Parts and Labor - New Buildings

I really hate to admit it, but I used to be pretty in to pop-punk when I was younger. I loved NOFX and Pennywise (and, hell, a good portion of the Epitaph roster), cut my teeth on The Offspring, and still own a few Alkaline Trio albums. What's even harder to admit is that I still have a bit of a soft spot for it, even as I have come to really loathe it. I mean, I don't really listen to it anymore, nor do I have much desire, but on the occasions when it happens to be playing, I don't hate it as much as I really ought.

Maybe the three guys in Parts and Labor feel the same way. The bulk of this album feels like an attempt to take that pop-punk base and song structure and transform it into something great, or artistic. Unfortunately, this sort of alchemy doesn't work.

I do give them credit, though: replacing harmony with dissonance, bringing in the laser synths, and focusing on the 'pop' half of the equation (rather than insipidly attach itself to anything 'punk') gives the album much more mileage than it would have had otherwise. In fact, at times, it is downright powerful: the fantastic opening and closing tracks ("A Great Divide" and "Changing of the Guard," respectively) deliver on all the promise that this band has, and help elevate the rest of the album to a respectable level. Interestingly enough, those are also the two songs that deviate most from Parts and Labor's typical sound. Tracks like "New Buildings," "Timeline," and "Stay Afraid," are par for the course, and manage to have a few infectious touches to them, but are plagued by "where have I heard this before, but cleaner?" progressions and melodies.

The chugging guitars, synthy counter-melodies and constantly mashing snare drum may form a good backdrop for summer, and allow for a bit of guilty indulgence being less guilty. However, at its core, Stay Afraid fails to rise above its component pieces, taken from a genre beyond repair.


Friday, April 14, 2006

Greatest Song Ever - "Asleep"

The Smiths

The Smiths - "Asleep"
Louder Than Bombs, Sire, 1985/1987

It might be cliché to love this song. Even too cliché to warrant idolizing it further. But I'll be damned if it isn't fucking worth it.

The song that got me to give the Smiths another chance (which I am grateful for), and possibly the best thing Morrissey and Marr ever wrote, "Asleep" is a song worth obsessing over. I would argue I have never stopped doing just that -- merely just forgot that I had been doing it for periods of time.

Originally a mere B-side to The Queen Is Dead's "The Boy With A Thorn In His Side," this song has only been released twice since, both on odds-and-sods compilations. And each album pretty much covered the same ground as the other, aimed at different sides of the ocean. This is a crime. Granted, the actual content of the song -- simple, repetitive piano chords set against simply stated, repetitive lyrics, sells the final product short. It works like only simple, direct songs can work, and, unlike many of the bands other great cuts, this one can be attributed almost entirely to the Mozzer himself. His delivery is perfect, the vibrato tasteful and haunting.

What puts this song on the level of idolatry, however, rests with the subtle production tricks during the last third of the song. The echo chamber vocals starting during the bridge/outro, giving way to the gentle breeze that had been carrying the entire song, before dropping it onto a broken box of chimes is simply fantastic. I try not to make sweeping statements like this too often, but his song is a piece of mournful, yearning perfection.

Listen: The Smiths - Asleep

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Return to the Sea

Islands - Return to the Sea
Equator, 2006

Sounds Like:
Mid-fi off-kilter pop
For: Fans of The Unicorns who are not looking for another Unicorns album.
Islands - Rough Gem

Alright, so I'll admit I was disappointed with this on first listen. The Unicorn's sole [proper] album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? is a modern classic, and contains some of the most brilliant lo-fi pop I've ever heard. And that's not even the hyperboleous description. Needless to say, I've been looking forward to any and all post-Unicorns projects since they broke up, and this album in specific for nearly a year.

And, it is not a Unicorns album. I mean, sure, it had the creative song structures, some similar lyrical and instrumental motifs, and Nicholas Diamond's unmistakable voice. But it was a different beast all together (a chimera, perhaps?). Not that I initially thought it was a bad album, or otherwise an unworthy follow-up in terms of quality, but it seemed like I bought an album by a different band. At which point I had to remember that I did.

After that mental hurdle was cleared, there is a lot about this album to love. Jumping through several genres expertly, Islands effortlessly drops some truly great pop gems. "Volcanoes" starts with an apocalyptic spoken word sample over a thumping country intro, before inexplicably exploding into an anthemic second half. "Rough Gem" is a keyboard and string driven jaunt that would make Papa Stephen Merritt proud. But the album's real centerpiece is the dark, synthy "Where There's A Will There's A Whalebone," which not only serves as a tribute to the not-long-for-this-world Mad Corn Gangg, but is also one of this year's greatest songs.

But some things didn't change between bands. The "islands" theme plays a strong part in the album, ranging from the lyrical content (including the winking line in the great intro track, "Swans (Life After Death)," "I woke up thirsty/the day I died" on an island. In the sea.), to the surprising calypso influence on tracks like "Don't Call My Whitney, Bobby," and "Jogging Gorgeous Summer." Sense of humor, while more subtle, remains intact, along with a lyrical interest in the cute and the dead.

The only real mistake on this album is the unfortunate decision to tack on a hidden track, "Renaud." Pet peeves aside (and Christ, do I ever hate the "hey guys lets put 5 minutes of near-static ocean noises between the last two tracks!" mentality), it just disrupts the flow of the album. The song itself is quite good, and is an apt closing track. And so is the listed final song, "Ones." But, together, they merely extend the album beyond its natural conclusion. To play armchair producer, "Renaud" should have been placed between the fourth and fifth songs, or been delegated to B-side/one-off status.

Minor quibble aside, this is one of the best albums to come out this year, even if does not succeed in repopulating the world's unicorn population, and may be the pop album of this summer.