Maybe I should drop out of school and make Minecraft lore videos. Will my art finally be accepted by wider society?
GOLDEN RETRIEVER | Super Furry Animals So, here I was, thinking “this post doesn’t have enough white, British men in it, especially ones whose most notable music came from the 90s-2000s,” and I wanted to inject a little diversity into this week’s picks. There was this brief, shining moment where I was like, wow, look at that, how about these Super Furry Animal fellows? Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but their name is actually a lie. Fuck me, I guess. As this archival rockumentary footage details, beneath all of that LYING super fur, they’re just a bunch of white, British LIES whose notable music came from, you guessed it, the 90s-2000s. And look, I know they say to separate the art from the artist, but it’s hard not to be a little miffed after finding out there’s not a sasquatch on the double guitar. Like, the song is still okay, I guess, but it’s like watching the Sorcerer’s Stone again as an adult. Trans rights, by the way. Anyways.
MORNING MR. MAGPIE | Radiohead Well, we might as well keep the British train chugging along, though these sadboys had left their Britpop roots in the dust by the time they’d dropped this song. I mentioned last week that Radiohead’s first album, Pablo Honey, is widely regarded as their worst (as was prophesized in the age-old elementary school adage), and as much as I’d hate to put down a band this creative, I’m gonna have to side with the masses on this one. What I can’t abide by, however, is the widespread ranking of Radiohead’s second worst album, awarded like a rotten tomato to their penultimate record, The King of Limbs. It’s absolutely criminal. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I actually went out of my way to find something to make me angrier about this, and this mild-mannered and verbose Consequence article did the trick: “I’d be willing to bet no Radiohead fan’s favorite song is on TKOL—even Pablo Honey has ‘Creep,'” says Wren Graves. Oh, you wanna bet, do you, huh, Wren? You know what we here at Max Todd Dot Com do to people who… who give… um, vaguely pleasant, lukewarm praise to The King of Limbs? Huh? Oh, wait. Wait, wait, wait. Am I being a Radiohead fan right now? God, sorry, I hate proving the internet right. I need to cool my jets. Let me take a few deep breaths and I’ll come back in a minute.
Sorry. Got a little heated there. And for what? Mr. Graves is actually halfway right, at least in my case—although I’ve got a couple King of Limbs songs in my favorite Radiohead songs rotation, none is ever king for long. That could be on my indecisiveness, or it could be a symptom of Radiohead’s breathtaking pantheon of creative work, with songs that might be masterpieces were they not in the shadow of the classics. Though I wouldn’t call The King of Limbs my favorite album with a gun to my head (it loses some momentum after the first five or so songs, but that’s, like, two thirds of the album, dude!), that’s no excuse to write it off. In fact, I’d argue it contains some of the band’s best work. While “Morning Mr. Magpie” might seem like a strange place to start—it’s something of a deep cut compared to the Blue Planet-inspired “In Bloom” or the frenetic “Feral” (fret not, my dumplings, they will both have their time in the sun, considering how much I love King of Limbs)—I think it encapsulates all of this album’s strengths in one, virulently infectious song. This song absolutely sweeps me off my feet from the outset—it feels so alien and yet undeniably danceable, which gives it a foreign humanity that I’ll never totally understand. Like most everything on the album, its heart is in the percussion, which is gonna be rough for me to describe, because I’m too bad at multitasking to even think about drumming. I’ve never totally understood the word “syncopation,” but I’m gonna use it like I know what it means, because it seems to be the key to the ornate tapestry drummer Phil Selway weaves. There’s this skittering emphasis on the offbeats that happens so fast, I almost feel like the song must be in half-time. In isolation, it might seem impossible to catch, like some erratic rodent, but the whole rest of the band slots right into it—the somehow upbeat but off-kilter base, the guitar that plucks so pointedly it sounds like percussion, and whatever other magical noises made their way into the mix. Thom Yorke’s voice is the only piece that doesn’t scuttle along with the rest of the song—it lilts like a chilly breeze, lending a drifting quality that contrasts perfectly with the pitter-patter of the main body. All of these elements are hard to pinpoint until the drums drop out, and the melody rebuilds itself virtually from the head down, creating this incredible crescendo that gives me chills every time.
A lot of people will tell you that The King of Limbs didn’t bring anything new to the table, but Radiohead clearly pushed their musical soul outside of its corporeal limits here—they had to hire a second drummer, Portishead’s (!!) Clive Deamer, to perform such complex percussion live. I’m not much of a technical music guy—if anything, I think the emotional component is far more important—but it’s sad to see fans not embrace the sort of advances this album makes, especially since its touches of avant-garde seem to have informed the band’s side projects, like The Smile. I actually had the privilege of seeing the Smile in Denver last weekend, and watching the crowd move to some of their strange percussion brought me back to hearing “Morning Mr. Magpie” for the first time. Though their music may sound strange on the outside, it’s far from inaccessible—it has the same, driven soul that rock was always meant to convey, filtered through a kaleidoscope of invention and imagination. Like I said, I feel like there’s so much more to say with this album, and we’ve really only scratched the surface, so stay tuned.
FIRE COMING OUT OF THE MONKEY’S HEAD | Gorillaz Speaking of British, white men and their discordantly danceable music, Gorillaz’s “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” is another song that’s had an insatiable grip on me recently, though it functions very differently from “Morning Mr. Magpie.” Unlike the almost unnamable emotion of the latter, this song is unabashedly ominous and delightfully so, with its harrumphing baseline and foreboding background vocals. Being bold about these emotions was absolutely the right choice, as the last thing a fairy tale like this song needs is subtlety. Narrated by the late Dennis Hopper (of such classics as 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” and “Alpha and Omega”), a spoken parable of environmental exploitation and the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism unfolds in alternating sections with the sung chorus. I’d be down with all of this just from that description—the first time I heard this, I was hooked from note one—but if listeners aren’t onboard from the outset, the higher-pitched, marching synth that enters with the rising tension is about as convincing as it gets. For such simple narration and such intuitive emotions, the story of the full song feels far more nuanced than it has any right to be, juxtaposing not only the “happy folk” and the “strange folk,” but also the spoken story and the sung stanzas alongside it. Part of me thinks that it could make a great soundtrack to a chapter-based episode—sort of like season 1, episode 4 of Legion, each chapter getting a section of the song (and I’m keeping that idea because, um, because finders keepers). Then again, there might just be so much contained in the song itself that it should only stand on its own. It also has the word “castrophony” in it, and you can’t really do better than that, though since everyone was wondering, I do have one note. I don’t normally file complaints here, but I feel like the ending almost doesn’t respect the body of the song itself. Dennis Hopper concludes his story with a grim, resigned declaration:
“There were no screams. There was no time. The mountain called Monkey had spoken. There was only fire. And then… nothing.”
And, like, wow, right? What a cut-the-lights ending that is. It’s perfect. But it doesn’t stop there—Damon Albarn’s voice floats in with desolate, acoustic guitar accompaniment for one final stanza, as if to say, “here’s the lesson, did you get it?” It’s something totally befitting of oral tradition, and it feels in keeping with the style, but I can’t seem to justify why they’d include this las bit, as it comes at the cost of the pregnant silence that the story leaves behind. It’s a nothingness I’d much rather sit with than move on from so fast. I can’t really complain, though—it’s a fantastic song, and though we’ve unfortunately since lost Dennis Hopper, the wonderful (British, white man) Matt Berry has been performing it on the Gorillaz’s most recent tour, and he’s really made it his own with that Laszlo Cravensworth swagger. Combined with the fully animated concert visuals, I’d say it’s worth checking out here:
HOUSE OF FUN | Madness Speaking of British, white men and their discordantly danceable music, Madness’s “House of Fun” is… different! Different than everything I’ve talked about so far, okay? I promise. I promise!! To be clear, I think in comparison to “Morning Mr. Magpie” and even “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” “House of Fun” is far more mainstream an accessible, but don’t mistake my label of “discordant” as, like, some weird hatred of ska (or mainstream things, for that matter). I adore the vibe that this song conjures—it feels like some kind of evil clown ska that you’d hear honking from within a sketchy 20’s circus tent. It’s never quite spooky, but it toes the line in moments where the jangly keyboard gets particularly frenetic, or when the sampled, fairground organ throbs a little too close to an acid flashback. After all that, one might assume that the lyrics might take a turn towards the sinister, but they only tell the story of a kid, freshly sixteen, trying to schmooze his way into buying condoms, which is somehow an even more perfect fit. Maybe I’m so horror movie brainwashed that I’ve forgotten the biggest thing about old-fashioned circuses—they’re a loud, abrasive, and silly hullabaloo oftentimes stirred up over nothing equivalently noteworthy. I could never and would never invalidate the feelings of teenhood in good faith, but when I’m feeling most embarrassed about the cringe compilation that was my 9th grade, it feels just as exaggerated. I guess what I’m saying is that even though it’s not the whole picture, this song captures the, I don’t know, camp of teenage life so well, and even without those thematic trappings, it goes SO hard.
JESUS CHRIST POSE | Soundgarden Speaking of British, white men and th—wait, wait, wait, roll it back. We’re finally free! We’re in Seattle now!! AMERICAN white men musically active in the 90s, bay BEE!! OORAH!! It’s been a while since I’ve listened to Soundgarden, and I think I’d forgotten what a big fan of their music I am. “Jesus Christ Pose” is far from the deep cut I’d need to prove that (giving the finger to so many gen xers right now), but it’s a classic for a reason, and the more I learn about the discourse around it, the more fascinating it gets. Soundgarden’s whole existence within the context of the 90s must have been incredibly frustrating for its members, especially with a song like this, which exists in direct defiance of cultural assumptions made about the band. Like the endlessly baffling punk vs. metal debate, a similar binary was imposed on grunge and metal in the 90s—something that’s not totally unfair given that grunge, like punk, sought to return rock to its roots after the insane commercialization wrought on mainstream metal. So, you know, grunge guys are too cool for school, and metalheads are sellouts, blah blah blah, this should all be sounding very familiar. For a band of long-haired, flannel-wearing rockers based in Seattle, being branded as grunge was a pervasive inevitability, even when, in Soundgarden’s case, they were clearly a metal band. And look, I wouldn’t be caught dead defending the arbitrary delineation between genres, and grunge never feels far from metal, but when your band opens for Guns N’ Roses and is nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 1991… I don’t know, man, sounds pretty metal to me. Already existing within this label limbo, “Jesus Christ Pose” bears the additional cross of undue Christian scrutiny, having been widely misread as a deliberate jab at organized religion. While it’s… well, it’s not exactly an unfair assumption given the less-than-flattering, um, scare-Christ looking thing in the music video, the song was actually an indictment of the self-imposed martyrdom that many celebrities embraced in the 90s; a “poor me, I’m suffering for you” attitude that often grew from the worst of grunge. I think it’s pretty cool that there’s two labels being bucked in one song, and I also think it’s a sobering statement on media literacy that Badmotorfinger albums were boycotted and even burned for this single song only thirty years ago. I don’t know, man, you can talk holiness all you want, but if you’re the ones burning art, it might be time to take a long look in the mirror. There are definitely more sacrilegious Soundgarden songs to be upset about, anyways. Though this one may owe its immortality to the controversy surrounding it, I think its scathing lyrics and incredible instrumentation to match are worth a listen on their own terms—not as grunge, not as metal, not as satirical, not as heretical. Just let Soundgarden do their thing.
This isn’t the first Leonora Carrington piece I’ve highlighted, and it won’t be the last, because as usual, her vibes are immaculate. The creatures that populate “Occult Scene (Jacob’s Ladder)” may be distinctly more devious, but even in the murk of their macabre waltz, they lose none of their surrealist whimsy. I haven’t done much research on this piece, so I’m not even sure what sort of birds we’re looking at here (quail? grouse?) or if they have any sort of symbolic significance, but I suppose it wouldn’t be surrealist if it made total sense on any level other than basal imagination. Still, I love to imagine the shadows of this piece dancing like it’s judgment day, knowing they won’t be chosen to climb the spindly ladder that descends past them without a second thought. I also am a big fan of the giant, blubbery bird that also seems to be a gazebo. Knowing certain ducks, I’m not sure I want to speculate what that corkscrew tendril is supposed to be anatomically. That’s between Leonora Carrington and the good lord. Hope this week finds you and your coven waltzing under a dank, cobblestone bridge in the inky night. Seasonal, right? I know how to read a room.