Hello and welcome back to Songs of the Every Other Week, where we enjoy biweekly songs between intervals where absolutely no songs or music of any sort is scheduled for discussion! Funny how even the strongest of traditions can have the strangest of schedules, but these are not the sorts of phenomena we here at Max Todd Dot Com (Max! Todd! Dot! Com!) find worth questioning. God’s plans are best left undisturbed, and it is thusly our only prerogative to further the succession of songs on alternate Fridays.
CICADA DAYS | Will Wood Continuing my track record of introducing musicians with songs that are terrible representatives of their musical careers, I’ve picked one of the wonderful Will Wood’s newest songs off of his recent album, “In Case I Make It,” which many have incorrectly labeled his “he’s better now” album— myself included. Just two weeks ago, I actually had the pleasure of seeing Will Wood himself live at Denver’s Meow Wolf (and wisely did so entirely without hallucinogens), where I and many others were called out for this very label. Will’s shows play more like standup comedy, which would be an insult if I was saying that about any other musician, but his self-proclaimed “little bits” were unsurprisingly as clever as his songwriting, and even more hilarious. For context, Will Wood’s previous career was a Jackson Pollock of frenzied piano, sloppy lipstick, and drug-addled interviews on public access television, which many songs from this era unabashedly claim to be the lowest point of his life (see the infamous “Hand Me My Shovel, I’m Going In!“). Unfortunately, the songs from this era also kick unprecedented ass, rocking like a klezmer death battle between Oingo Boingo and They Might Be Giants. For the record, I say none of this to glorify the destruction drugs can wreak on not just their victims, but those around them, and as much as they’re intertwined with this music, I think it’s enjoyable as music that wasn’t caused by substance abuse, but as music that resided in its creator’s soul no matter the circumstances. In any case, though “In Case I Make It” allegedly comes from an equally dark (though distinctly more sober) place, its incredibly raw honesty gives the impression that it’s about recovery, which made me (and apparently many others) feel a little guilty for our disappointment at the shift to a calm and ballad-y sound. At the show, Will responded to all those politely wishing him well despite not liking his new direction by saying “here’s a song off my ‘he’s better now’ album about suicide and dead rats” before launching into “Euthanasia“. I could quote a million other things he said, too, but I’d be robbing anyone of the live Will Wood experience, which delivered an incredibly passionate and energized performance that showed exactly why this album is worthy of his name. With songs like “Cicada Days”, Will’s ever-irreverent lyrics are given a calm to shine through, delivering some of his most honest admissions and fears in classic saying-subversion form. I think it could be called mature (though I don’t think the implications of that in relation to the rest of his discography are entirely correct) in that it’s an exercise in patience: “Cicada Days” is a slow-burn wherein you wait because of the lyricism and are rewarded by an explosive, fanged climax of the screaming vocals and squealing guitars Will Wood has flaunted all along. Since this is already becoming a (not) condensed (enough) album review of “In Case I Make It,” I could go on about how this is reflective of the entire album, and how dismissal of its harsh, emotional nakedness because of its calm veneer would be a mistake. I could go on about how it musically mirrors the lyrics’ own reflection of Will’s career with references to “Hand Me My Shovel,” a fascinating reworking of The Normal Album‘s “Laplace’s Angel (Hurt People? Hurt People!)” in the form of “Vampire Reference in a Minor Key,” or the melody first introduced in the mouse’s lament of “Tomcat Disposables” returning as a motif in “Willard!” (itself a reference to a movie about trained rats). But, honestly, if I went on any more about any of these things, I’m pretty sure it’d be too stuffy for Mr. Wood, so I’ll wrap up this long-winded gushing by saying this: no matter where art comes from in its creator, what it brings out in its consumer is just as important. I can’t speak for Will Wood, but I’m sure he wouldn’t want the well of pain sprung in his struggle for sobriety to be treated with so much polite trepidation— the way his music is performed, I’d like to think he’d want us to feel it with him, and leave with whatever we get from it. Then again, I think Will Wood has had enough projected onto him, and his lyrics say so, so maybe they’re just worth listening to yourself.
VILLAINOUS THING | Shayfer James I’ve actually been lucky enough to see many other shows crammed into this September, and in that time, I have seen a lot of bad openers. Listen, I never want to be a wet blanket, and I also never want to be in an opening band, because, like, performing my heart out for an audience of hundreds who are waiting for you to leave? That takes guts I don’t have, and I never want to front on that. All that said, though… there’s been some yikes this month. But lo, a shining light in the fog of mediocrity— it’s Shayfer James! I’d never actually heard of Shayfer James until I saw him as the second opener to Will Wood, a merciless spot to occupy. Again, I know I’m the asshole here, but just imagining “opener for Will Wood at Meow Wolf” sent a chill down my spine, and somehow, my skepticism was proved completely unfounded. Not only was Shayfer James one of the more funny, grounded, and charismatic musicians I’ve seen this September, his lyrics are indisputably poetry in their own right, and my favorite songs on his set were performed with such a unique theatrical swagger that was equal parts winking-ly hammy and genuinely passionate. Today’s pick, “Villainous Thing,” was my favorite of the bunch, playing into the spooky Hammer Horror vibes that I wait all year for with its organ backdrop that descends into the catchiest ear-worm I’ve heard in weeks. It’s dangerously pop-y for my taste (not beating the wet blanket allegations here), and definitely straying into “theater kid music,” as a good friend of mine lovingly said, but it has such a lovely emotional swell that I can’t help but follow through the whole piece. Maybe it’s Shayfer James’s unique vocals, or the almost celebratory orchestration, or maybe it’s just the bells (the bells?), but this song makes me happy, and I hope it makes you happy too. Good on you, Shayfer James.
VELVET RING | Big Thief Oh, wow, is that— no, it can’t be— is that a Big Thief Song on Max Todd Dot Com? It could never be. I promise, I’ll give them a reluctant rest for a few weeks if I can help it— I’ve spread out the many highlights of my recent Big Thief kick over the last few weeks’ worth of songs, and this might be the last of them for now (but certainly not forever). It’s no surprise that we’re ending on something of a somber note with some classic Big Thief folk, with the happiest descriptor I can find for it being “wistful.” At the risk of sounding fourteen, this song feels a lot like a good cry— I might be off-base, but my read of it is deeply melancholy, though it’s not accompanied by sad slowness. Instead, this song moves in rumbling bursts, a bit like the smallest rollercoaster— it has steady, delicate crescendos that drop suddenly down to drizzling lows, which almost gives it a rocking sensation that’s inherently soothing. This song may be sad, but it certainly didn’t have me ready to drop a toaster in the tub, so that probably means it’s just good rainy day music for everyone else.
MUSIC IN THE ROCKIES | Yankee Escape System Alright, okay, I always swear I’m not that pretentious, but do I get a sick little ego boost recommending underground, patreon-exclusive music? That’s for my therapist to know and you to find out, little lambs. I’ll take any crumb of innovation I can get, though, even if “innovation” means actually introducing a band with a song that perfectly represents them. I’ve stuck with Yankee Escape System through a lot— through the polka and the opera— but it really does warm my heart to see them return to their folk-punk roots, even though they’ve brought a healthy dose of ego death back with them. Unlike Will Wood, the band themselves has referred to this newest album (officially Untitled but dubbed by upper-tier Patrons as Sharknado, Three-Leaved Clover, and Who Farted (And Why Was It You)?, the latter based on the band’s own lyrics) as their recovery album— a sort of para-parasocial “group therapy” session following lead harmonicist Hieronymous Biatch’s time in lean rehab. It’s always a shame to see artists punished for taking risks, but after their previous album New Kids on the Rock stirred up so much controversy that it was accused of being deliberately inflammatory as a desperate ploy for fame, I think it’s undeniable even from a fan’s perspective that a come-to-Jesus was necessary— one less musically dependent on the melodica, and certainly one without lyrics claiming an archetypal link between shamanic tradition and the modern Brony expressionist movement (something that admittedly sounds bad, but if anyone’s gonna pull it off, god damn it, it’s Yankee Escape System). I’ll say right now that Untitled is best experienced as a full album, as it listens like a heavy fireside conversation drawn out long into the night. It acoustically takes its time, reduced back to bare bones and letting the lyrics shine through, which themselves luridly map the roads between blame, escalation, the threat of being sucked into the proverbial post-post-ironic Sharknado of cancel culture— one of the greatest threats to humanity in these unprecedented times (in the Yankee Escape System’s own words: “we don’t mean that, of course. Or we do”). Co-co-lyricist America Singer brings to life these contemporary fears with maturity, grace, and heartbreaking vibrato. The soft strength of her french folk vocals alone make it clear to me that they made the right choice addressing Hieronymous’s nervous breakdown after her gain and loss of three hundred instagram followers following the negative reception of New Kids on the Rock‘s self-branded Nu-Faux-Psychedelic direction. But of course, I’m not recommending an album, I’m recommending a song to start with, and what better way to introduce Y.E.S. with this post-country standout detailing the clandestine relationship between former vice president Mike Pence and his horse? It’s a metaphor, of course, but a great example of real history taking on a new meaning when refracted through the prism of the modern culture war at the heels of every aspiring white artist. You know you want to hear it.
THIS ISN’T THE PLACE | Nine Inch Nails Lastly, of course, is the third band of the list that I had the privilege of seeing live, and one that also touches on an unfortunate (and accidental) theme this week— that of how the audience relates to art borne of the artist’s deep sorrow. It’s something I think a little too much about but don’t have much novel to say about, though I think my experience seeing Nine Inch Nails live sums it up pretty well. If you know anything about Trent Reznor’s history with his music, you know it’s fraught with some of the lowest chemical lows a human can experience, and it’s brimming with an anger and despair I hope to never come close to experiencing. It’s sort of an uncomfortable reality that I often forget given just how truly artful and diverse and just flat-out cool Nine Inch Nails’s music can be— they’re not one of my favorite bands for no reason. At Red Rocks, Trent Reznor made the (honestly humble) decision to bring this to the forefront towards the end of his incredible show. I might be paraphrasing here, but he said something along the lines of “sometimes, when I’m not on tour, I start to feel like I’m okay. Playing this music puts me back into a very strange place, and I just want to thank everyone here for being here tonight and experiencing that with me.” And, like, naturally, the response to this was cheering, which was just so baffling to me. I was talking to a friend about it recently, and he said “how else is a crowd supposed to respond to that,” which is a good point— there’s not a lot of nuance to applause— but this was a distinct, drunken hollering, like revisiting accounts of heroin addiction was just rolling out another one of the hits. I don’t know, it just didn’t sit right with me, and it’s kind of only tangentially related to this song, but I thought it was worth mentioning. I might talk about this more, but in the meantime, am I crazy? Thoughts on this? Let me know.
Anyways, I was supposed to talk about a song, right? “This Isn’t the Place” comes from the middle of Nine Inch Nails’s latest trilogy of EPs, largely controversial because of their less angry (but I think far more nuanced, atmospheric, and here’s this word again, mature) sound, but not without their own deep pain (as if that makes art valuable? Bullshit). I was lucky enough to have seen this song live, and just after I’d recently rediscovered it on shuffle. I always catch myself choking up to this one just because of the implication— I don’t actually think I’ve ever seen this confirmed anywhere, but this song was released only a year after David Bowie’s death in 2016, and given the lyrics here, it seems highly likely that this is Trent’s eulogy. Speaking of heroin, it was David Bowie, one of Trent Reznor’s personal heroes, that reportedly played a role in rescuing him from addiction (something Bowie himself struggled intensely with, which has since marred his own reputation pretty significantly). Even without this context, “This Isn’t the Place” screams “dirge,” and touches on a tenderness not often found in Nine Inch Nails’s discography At four minutes and forty-four seconds, this song takes its time building to a mournful chorus layered with sticky cries and even wails accenting a somehow meditative and calm synth tone. The lyrics are something I’m pretty far from ever achieving, but something I aspire to— they don’t say any more than they need to:
“And if you see my friend
I thought I would again
a single thin, straight, line
I thought we had more time
Carry me, carry me home
I thought we had more time”
I try not to be redundant with my art, but this week I’ve chosen the album cover that belongs with “This Isn’t the Place” because it fit so well— the cover of Nine Inch Nails’s Add Violence. Like any good fantasy machine, it’s one of those pieces you can just lose yourself looking at. Plus, not that everything has to be a cameo-fest, but I’ve heard some people have spotted references to the earlier concept Zero Year amongst the various dials, which implies some sort of prequel-sequel umbilical cord between these two. It’s worth looking into, and it’s one of the many projects I’ve hoped to dive into on my youtube channel, if that’s your thing. In the meantime, it’s worth a look and a listen. And, as always, thanks to everyone who takes the time to read my ever-growing ramblings, I always appreciate your time. See you in the next two weeks, like I always have, because that’s always what happens!