BABY ON THE PLANE | Lisa Germano If Aimee Mann is the saddest of sadgirls, then Lisa Germano is maybe the scariest (though that’s a label I’m applying with extreme trepidation—beyond the fact that Soccer Mommy just went dark, I feel like sad is only a hair away from scary in most cases. Also, it’s just a rude thing to say. I’m sorry, Lisa, I mean my comments about your mental health as a compliment. I mean, wait, no). Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but it’s inarguable that she’s amongst the most experimental with her sound design, and I think it really sets her apart. Maybe I’m just feeling nasty and curmudgeonly and generally disagreeable, but if we’re just rolling out the hot takes, I don’t typically come to sadgirl music for its instrumentation, as there’s not usually much there to speak of. Maybe it’s because “sadgirl” is a totally arbitrary genre somewhere at the crossroads of grunge, folk, and bedroom pop, but even these predecessors are often reliant on their raw lyricism and vocals, which may be why the music itself takes a backseat in many cases. Lisa Germano’s fragile, wavering, rasp falls right in line with this grouping, and her lyrics, though distinctly more imagistic, are plenty wounded, her sound design is worlds away from that of her peers (if this sounds confusing, I promise there’s a sadgirl graph slated for sometime next year, so just bare with me for now). While “Baby on a Plane” isn’t jam band material, it has an incredible build that could genuinely work as an eleven minute performance, which is something I can’t say for much other sadgirl music, aside from Phoebe Bridgers’s swelling ballad “I Know The End.” Even compared with Bridgers’s roaring emotion, “Baby on a Plane” brings a completely different crawl, one not so much declarative as eclectic and scarred. With its melancholic synth, its discordant strings (mandolin? lyre? weird guitar?), and some sampled shrieks like nails on a chalkboard, the accumulating layers of knickknack sounds create something I can only describe as apocalyptic folk. Like an off-putting art installation with baby doll heads and rusty gears, there’s a strange homemade honesty behind it, which I hope doesn’t read as condescending as it sounds. No matter how eclectic the music is, it never loses its humanity, and feels accessible and emotional through its scrapbook sound. Man, I don’t know, this whole thing sounds passive aggressive, but I’m not sure how else to express it. Fortunately, this is almost certainly not the last time we’ll be discussing Lisa Germano, as there are several other tracks from Excerpts of a Love Circus that deserve their own entry.
JUST | Radiohead For all the success they’ve achieved, I still feel a little bad for Radiohead. If I was Thom Yorke, I could hear that OK Computer was the album that redefined rock a million and one times and still feel humiliated to have started my commercial career with “Creep,” which is universally considered, you know, that song. As ubiquitously shunned as Pablo Honey is by fans, I often forget that it was only the first step in Radiohead’s evolution, especially considering the wildly avant-garde niche the band now occupies. As with all evolution, there are transitional forms, and The Bends is one such step between the doldrums of 90s britpop and the cover page of Rolling Stone. Of course, I’m saying all this from the perspective of someone who hasn’t released, let alone made, any music of my own—I only hold Radiohead to such a high standard because they’re so good at what they do. As with many songs, if I made anything half as good as “Just,” I could probably die happy (that’s a lie, but you get the sentiment). And “Just” is that good, by the way, even if I just called it “transitional”—it’s one of those rare songs that could get me unironically headbanging (two words that Big WordPress doesn’t think are real. This is literally 1984). Driven by feverish, ascending tremolos in an off-kilter key, this song has hints of Radiohead’s more experimental, later work already developing, yet the punchy, punk anger of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar is about as accessible as it gets. The usually eerie wavering of Thom Yorke’s voice now has just as much angst, culminating in one of the weirder screams I’ve heard in a song (and I’m HERE for weird screams). It’s the kind of song that Radiohead could have kept on making for five or six successive albums and probably have been fine, but their journey going forward demonstrates some truly inspirational dedication to creativity and exploration and maturation and all that jazz. Still, it’s always nice to see them return to this place, as Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s side project The Smile has shown us with tracks like “You Will Never Work in Television Again.” I’m having to fight concluding with “this one is ‘just’ great haha ;)” or “‘just’ listen to this one and see for yourself aha ;),” but I’m “Just” gonna leave it here. Aw, crap. Sorry.
RUBBERBAND GIRL | Kate Bush There’s a reason I’m on my monthly Kate Bush t-break, and its name is “Rubberband Girl.” I’ve always been a little skeptical of the fact that Kate Bush’s entire catalogue is unanimously labeled pop, especially since so few of her songs feel like just that. From the elaborate key changes of “Wuthering Heights,” to the experimental sound design of “Babooshka,” to the multi-act storytelling of “There Goes a Tenner,” it seems pretty reductive to put it all under one label. That’s not to diss pop as complex music, by any means—like pachyderms, it’s just a bad category that says nothing about its constituents’ roots other than that they conform to arbitrary, popular components (e.g. rough skin and hooves. Hold your pachyderms, it’s all going in the genre video that’s someday maybe getting made. All will be revealed in time). That’s not to say that Kate Bush can’t do straight pop, though—”Rubberband Girl” is proof that she can absolutely rock it. Backed by a single, looping riff, this song captures the bouncing sound suggested by the title right from the top, with every layer adding some stretching or twanging sound. It’s infectiously dancey, but like all Kate Bush music, it goes above and beyond, adding a horns section, a chanting background chorus, and some wildly, um, sproingy synth—and that’s all before she says “here I go.” Literally every time I hear her say that and 3:40 hits, I’m like, wait, this gets better? And oh my god, it totally does, because then she starts singing these low-high, low-high notes, but goes higher every repetition, like a stretching, you know, rubber band??? And it gets more and more distorted, and the guitar just starts absolutely shredding, and it’s like???? This woman just absolutely belted the words “rub-a-dub-a-dub” beautifully enough to make my eyes water??? What is happening??? So, like all of the best pop, Rubberband Girl enslaved my replay button for a good couple weeks there, and I’m not gonna burn myself out with this one the way I did with “Sexx Laws,” (sorry, mister Beck sir), hence the break. Anyways, we’ll be back with more regularly scheduled Kate Bush next week.
YOU… | Julian Cope And speaking of burning out, I am sealing away this song in an ionized uranium bunker in the upper mantle as soon as I finish writing this entry—it has reached a critical amount of listens and is approaching the burnout threshold, but it’s too awesome not to keep listening to. With the caveat that I sometimes get hooked on some very abrasive songs, I’d call this one just as infectious as “Rubberband Girl” despite a vastly different tone, and I think that’s partially due to its criminally short runtime. With three, descending saxophone barks, “You…” launches into a 1:49 jazz tirade that demands to be replayed. I’m neither a magician nor a musician, but I think the magic here comes down to a few contrasting factors that should be pretty easily replicable, but feel like lightning in a bottle nonetheless. Backed by high-tempo, skittering drums, the angry, fuzz guitar is fairly simple—it’s repetitive, it’s hypnotic, and it’s the perfect hook. The wailing saxophone, meanwhile, is exactly the opposite—though I’m sure it’s far from the most complex jazz, it has an improvisational quality that flits in and out of the main melody. As the rest of the song rattles on alongside Cope’s murmured chant of “you think it’s cool,” the saxophone eventually explodes out into this swarming, dissipating cloud of aftershock noise that always leaves a smile on my face, but never feels totally resolved. I’m replaying it for a fourth consecutive time as I’m writing this, actually. Not to pat myself on the back here, but I kind of created the perfect trap this week, because “You…” plays so well after “Just,” and I oftentimes just find myself bouncing back and forth between the two… like… like a… you know, like a ru—
LAST EXIT FOR THE LOST | Fields of the Nephilim The perfect antidote to an earworm ouroboros, of course, is a good ol’ 10-minute metal epic, which is exactly what we’re closing out with today. As I probably detailed (or sketched) in my discussion of Love and Rockets’ “Body and Soul,” once a song exceeds about ten minutes, it’s probably at risk of collapsing under its own mass unless it makes a choice: crescendo or change. I tend to prefer when long songs have distinct acts à la Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or, my favorite, Oingo Boingo’s masterpiece “Change.” However, as in the case of “Body and Soul,” sometimes a build (whether it be meditative or monumental) is better. Fields of the Nephilim are no strangers to long songs, so it’s no wonder “Last Exit for the Lost” does a little bit of both, but it’s primarily dependent of its crescendo. Getting listeners ready for a runtime of ten minutes is a gamble, and no hate, but singer Carl McCoy was not initially convincing to me—I know it’s just part of the deal with metal, but his evil game show host vocals were one goofy foot over the hammer horror line. While we’re throwing out-of-pocket judgments out there, dude looks like a Cowboy Bebop villain, but don’t worry, I promise there’s redemption. Starting as merely a foreboding mantra and rumbling synth, “Last Exit for the Lost” feels almost mythic in the texture it produces, taking an unexpected turn at 2:44 towards a lighter, ethereal sound (despite the distorted wails in the background), almost like sunlight piercing through misty mountain peaks. This motif trades the spotlight with the more ominous, pulsing build of the beginning, slowly deepening without totally progressing until around 6:38, when the tempo begins to chug ahead like a runaway train. There’s an incredibly fun energy to the speed of the song as McCoy’s vocals become impassioned and raw (and really great, which I think is necessary to mention, because I feel bad about what I said earlier. You know, just in case Carl stops by the ol’ Max Todd Dot Com). By the time 8:39 comes along, “this could be my last regress” has transformed from a one-note warning to a harmonized and emotional declaration that absolutely deserves fist pumping and metal horns. While a lot of ten-minute songs can feel self-indulgent, for me, the wait is worth it every time, and I always find myself absorbed in this meandering journey of this song. Also, bonus points for that band name—”Fields of the Nephilim?” Come on. That is a gnarly biblical deep cut and it’s about as metal as it gets.
I’ve waited a long time to use this as a background for Songs of the Week (Songs! Of! The! Week! Max! Todd! Dot! Com!), and after all that, I can’t even find find a good picture of it on the internet! I guess that technically encourages you guys to go see it at… wait for it… The Denver Art Museum on the Indigenous Art of North America floor, but it’s a real shame that there’s not a more detailed look of James Lavadour’s Boom! available, because this picture I took (legally?) does not do it justice. Lavadour’s work generally depicts tectonic activity as a direct metaphor for feelings, but I appreciate that he casts realism out the window in the process. Aside from just how volcanic, muddy, and hellish this color scheme is, I am just in love with the hints of skeletons carved into collapsing rock faces, which in this photo look like a lot more than “hints.” Their scale, alongside their vagueness, is part of what gives them such an ominous feeling—they almost appear like towering reapers, or apocalyptic horsemen, or even some irradiated war god. Certainly brings to mind the best parts of stories like SCP-3456—it’s very evocative stuff. That’s on pattern-seeking brains, I guess. See all your primate brains next week.
As a fellow aficionado of weird screams in songs, there’s a part at about 3:10 in “Five to One” by The Doors with a fantastic weird scream.
I’m so glad I’m not alone. There are dozens of us.