Songs of the Week 12/23/2022

This color scheme was entirely coincidental, by the way. Christmas finds a way. Incidentally, have a merry one.

THE MAINLINE SONG | Spiritualized Let me get something straight right off the bat: I’d love to love Spiritualized. Their pharmaceutical branding is super creative, their instrumental freak-outs are pretty much unmatched, and I’ve heard that seeing them live is almost religious. Still, I feel like I can’t come within 500 feet of J. Spaceman’s music without getting emotionally pancaked beneath its atmosphere of suffocating despair and hazy heartbreak. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I’m inclined to believe it’s everyone else’s problem for not being sensitive enough. While it’s true that Spaceman’s time addicted to heroin certainly imbued a sense of unfathomable loneliness and cosmic purposelessness into his life and art (don’t do drugs or you’ll end up a symphonic genius, kids), I feel like that’s a flimsy excuse for avoiding all of Spiritualized’s catalogue. In fact, after the release of their newest and by far happiest album, Everything Was Beautiful, I’m beginning to realize it’s not Spiritualized’s sadness I’m afraid of—it’s their emotional depth as a whole, profoundly raw on all sides of the spectrum. In conjuction with their last album And Nothing Hurt, Everything Was Beautiful reverse-completes an epitaph from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five—no doubt one of my favorite books of all time, but for the uninitiated, this should be a pretty clear signal that this album isn’t the butterflies-and-rainbows kind of happy. Even without lyrics, the extended instrumental intro to the song to me conveys a trembling happiness that can only come after a great deal of pain, almost like embracing both optimism and nihilism at once. The bombastic build of train cars and clarinets, though grand and choral, evokes a far more delicate light—the flickering hope in the muteness of snowing ash. As the chant of “Hush, keep your voices down / Everyone is asleep uptown / And I wanted to know if / you wanted to go to the city tonight” begins, it still sounds to me less like contextless revelry and more like someone trying to rekindle the good times with a loved one through grand gestures and spontaneity. In the end, I get the feeling that I might be putting too much on this song, but to be clear, I’m just following how it makes me feel. I don’t like to stir things up, but I go out of my way to antagonize people who think the only happiness worth artistic attention is the kind of happiness that hurts. There’s a place for every nuanced emotional subspecies, and joy without consequences has just as much of a place alongside this breed of existential joy, like the aftershocks of a good cry. No matter what lies at the source of this happiness, I’m glad it’s there, and it really does warm my heart to see this side of Spiritualized. Like Nine Inch Nails, Will Wood, and so many others, I can see some weirdo fans feeling as though Spiritualized was better at their lowest point, but I think Everything Was Beautiful really spits in the face of that sentiment, with some of the coolest instrumental builds and breakdowns I’ve heard from the band. As for my relationship with their music, it’s still as emotionally taxing as ever, and I’ll still be spacing out my Spiritualized consumption. Even so, I hope J. Spaceman & co. are proud of themselves for articulating their whole range of emotions with such potency and frequency that it’s become synonymous with their musical voice, at least in my eyes.

JACKIE, DRESSED IN COBRAS | The New Pornographers On the other side of the spectrum, I find The New Pornographers to be a shockingly pure, poppy, and fun source of the aforementioned joy without consequences. That’s not to say they don’t have their depth—I’d argue their voice is even more defined than that of Spiritualized, seamlessly working lush harmonies into a rock cadence so uptight, I’m shocked it’s not British. A. C. Newman’s raspy but strong vocals alongside Neko Case’s higher, blossoming voice consistently create such a unique contrast that always impresses me, though that consistency borders on predictable at times, and doesn’t fit as easily into every song structure. Much as I’m ashamed to admit it, some New Pornographers songs even verge on annoying me at the wrong time, though in the case of “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” I’ve thankfully come to my senses. Though I’d hate to condemn experimentation, part of what I didn’t (initially) like about this song might come down to the difference in Newman’s vocals, which take on this weird, daintier, and generally more high-pitched quality (once again suspiciously British) that doesn’t contrast quite as well with Case’s vocals. Similarly, the song is somewhat looser (at least by New Pornographers standards), with its piano chorus easing into this grinding, almost pulsing tempo that I’ve really come around to. In fact, if it wasn’t so peppy, the same cadence would really work in a metal setting. This song really does rock—there’s almost an anger to Newman’s voice when he spits “there’s something in the way she moves that shouldn’t be allowed.” Speaking of the “she” in question, “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” is such an evocative title, right? No notes there. Overall, I’m really glad I’ve come around to this song—though it couldn’t be written by anyone but the New Pornographers, I think it’s stronger because of its differences.

PAPER WHEELS | Trey Anastasio Alright, so I had myself another Gwen Stefani moment, sue me. Frankly, this song is a wakeup call for me to reexamine my snobbish biases, because if I’d known Trey Anastasio was the guitarist and lead singer for Phish going into “Paper Wheels,” I would’ve turned my nose up at it, which is absolutely a mistake. I owe this one entirely to a friend of mine with one of the most delightfully eclectic music tastes I’ve encountered—I have him to thank for introducing me to That Handsome Devil’s “Elephant Bones,” which I think singlehandedly earned my music trust. Though I was a little more resistant to this song from the start, it’s the build that won me over. Major keys and keyboard cheese be damned, this song is infectious, and I’d go so far as to say it’s like… eight minutes too short. Seriously, I don’t know what it is about the ascending piano chords of the chorus, but when they start to fracture around 2:56 and the guitar breakdown begins, I really can’t help but be caught up in it. I suppose that’s exactly what should be expected from a Jam band, but by the time the french tirade tumbles out, the chords that hold this piece together have reached a point of contained chaos that I am all about. If that wasn’t enough, the lyrics have a real intuitive rhythm that keep things moving before the breakdown picks up, not to mention they’re packed with great lines—”the sun has legs today,” “this concrete time,” “beach after beach of sleeping seals,” “tryin’a drive home on paper wheels,” are my favorites, but they’re far from the only ones. I’d end here with “thanks, Michael,” but I’m not done thanking him yet this week…

BEFORE THE WATER GETS TOO HIGH | Parquet Courts …because in the same set of recommendations, he brought me back to a band I haven’t listened to enough but that absolutely deserves my attention. I don’t know what the hell “post-punk” is supposed to be, but it’s the label often slapped on Parquet Courts, despite the fact that they consistently go beyond one style. Even within their album WIDE AWAAAAAKE! (that’s the only way you’re allowed to say it), songs like “Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out of Patience” bring down the house with roaring and disgustingly catchy rock (which should be added to my ever-growing list of songs with weird little screams), while this week’s pick, “Before the Water Gets Too High” has a much slower, synthy dirge that’s somehow just as good. While Andrew Savage’s half-spoken but still powerful vocals have a roughness that feels right at home in Parquet Courts’s harder songs, they fit just as well into this march, singing a story of eerily familiar climate disaster. Though the two are very thematically different, I can’t help but wonder if this song is an homage to War’s “The Cisco Kid,” both playing at the same tempo with similarly fuzzy synth. It’s not so similar that the song can’t stand on its own, but they make great playlist companions, if you’re into that sort of thing. For as enthusiastic about Parquet Courts as I am, I have listened to embarrassingly little of WIDE AWAAAAAKE!, and I will be doing so as soon as I have the time to sit down an experience a full album. Okay, maybe this month’s Kate Bush album first, but after that.

JESUS RABBIT | Guerilla Toss In the same vein as “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” “Jesus Rabbit” is just pure fun, bringing an uptight, electronic danceyness (that’s a word, I have made it so) and a voice that’s unmistakably Guerilla Toss. Off of their nearly no-skip album Twisted Crystal, this short and sweet song is a perfect pop gem, though I’d struggle to call it pop given how weird it sounds. From the outset, the synth has this bouncy, vibrato twang that feels immediately rabbity, later infusing a theremin-esque quality into the chorus of this song. With its cowbell, sampled laugh tracks, and unstructured, spoken-word urgency, this song is undeniably off-kilter in a perfectly satirical sort of way. This is pretty clearly cemented with the rambled lyrics “I’m going to die, we’re all gonna die, but there’s not really much you can do when you have two weeks left to live. Goodbye to you my friends. Goodbye to all of you. ‘Is that some kind of joke,’ you say?” (and then the laugh track happens, because, you know, jokes). It’s honestly a concept that could come out of the oven a lot darker, but rather than being as apocalyptic as “Before the Water Gets Too High,” this song about the rapture seems more deeply sarcastic, which I am most definitely onboard with.

Another totally coincidental feature of this week’s songs seems to be a theme of second chances, which is so sickeningly festive of me. It’s only right, then, that our art follows this pattern, though why I didn’t like it in the first place is beyond me. Taken from We Are Robin #4, guest artist James Harvey brings a grainy collage of explosive color that I totally lose myself in every time I revisit the issue. Set during DC’s brief and too-maligned DC YOU soft reboot, We Are Robin tells the tale of a youth movement to take up masked vigilantism when Batman is dead (oh boy, I wonder if that will stick). No matter who’s taken up the mantle, Robin has always been unironically one of my favorite superheroes (video someday, I’m sure…), so this series was naturally right up my alley. For as much as I talk about diversity and counterculture, though, I’m secretly a really big fan of, um, conformity within a series. One of my toxic traits is actually writing off variant covers and guest artists from the outset. If that wasn’t hostile enough for you, in this particular case, I was totally driven up the wall by the way each character’s look significantly departed from their main series depictions, almost to a point where they could be mistaken for completely different people. Since this issue follows one Robin in particular, Riko Sheridan, the difference is pretty obvious: though she’s often seen in a cobbled-together cosplayer costume, in this issue, she’s inexplicably wearing a costume based on her school band uniform (seen in the issue 3 variant cover also by Harvey), which doesn’t seem even slightly practical for keeping a secret identity. Who needs practicality when your art is this goddamn spectacular though, right? I’m not even being ironic here, either—I genuinely believe that, especially now that I’ve given Harvey’s art a second chance. Though a full two-page spread of this much kaleidoscopic detail is overwhelming at first, I’m always enchanted by how immersive and colorful every panel becomes, given life by the clutter that could, well, clutter things in lesser hands. Like, just look at the amount of references here! The vintage Black Lightning book, the trombone on the wall, the Batgirl of Burnside statue, whatever “Bizarro Inc.” is… I especially love Riko’s perspective-defying Batman: The Animated Series tights, which stay upright no matter what position she’s in. I’ve even come around to the Marching Band uniform—it feels so homemade and heartfelt, not to mention completely different than most other costumes DC has made. I’ve 180’d so hard on James Harvey’s art, in fact, that I almost wish he’d done the art for the main series (sorry, Jorge Corona, that feels hard to say). For as much as I love We Are Robin, I can’t honestly give it my highest praise—the story sort of fizzles out about halfway through its fifteen-issue run, right after the Robin War crossover event (which itself was a little contrived. It certainly did The Court of Owls dirty). No series is perfect, though, and it’s redeemed by some wonderful worldbuilding and characters that I always enjoy revisiting. Duke, Riko, and Izzy especially deserve more time in the spotlight, even if they aren’t mainstays in the very overcrowded Bat-family. That’s enough non-music nerd frothing from me, though—this feels about as felonious as a variant cover. Keep the comic talk to comic posts, Max. Goodbye to you, my friends. Goodbye to all of you.

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6 comments

  1. emilyclaireynolds · December 24

    In this household, we say goodnight, not goodbye… good post though 🙂

    • maxtodd · December 24

      you’re right I’ll tell Guerilla Toss ltd. sorry for the mixup

  2. Michael Bos · 29 Days Ago

    I was jamming to Phish for three years before I had the realization that “Phish” is just “Fish” combined with the chemical symbol that measures acidity – “pH” and that display of intelligence should serve to show you the average intelligence of the typical jam band fan. This love for science is why half of the real Phish experience is in the parking lot before and after the show, where you can meet entrepreneurial amateur chemists, take dirty dabs out of someone’s dirty science equipment for $2, and huff disturbing amounts of dental anesthetic out of rubber balloons with all your new friends. No one does long songs like a jam band, and if that’s your jelly you should listen to “Reba” off the album Phish: Star Lake ’98 because it’s 17 minutes and 28 seconds long and if you drop acid as you press play, it’s guaranteed to kick in by the time the whistling starts. One reason I love jam bands is because you can drift off in the middle of a song and go chasing your own mind loops for awhile, you know, really follow a thought down through the rabbit holes and when you pop back to the present and you’re still listening to the same song dude!
    Anyways, for some reason, Trey Anastasio occasionally wants to distance himself from that demographic and do his own thing. Like, you don’t even really have to get high to enjoy his music. You should check him out in the supergroup Oysterhead, where he plays with Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland.

    • maxtodd · 29 Days Ago

      No amount of dental anesthetic is so disturbing that l’ll go out and make new friends for it, which I consider a personal flaw, but I guess Trey agrees? Kind of rude to go solo but him and Les Claypool seem kind of perfect together, where should I start with Oysterhead?

      • Michael Bos · 29 Days Ago

        Pretty sure Oysterhead only ever did the one album (The Grand Pecking Order) and the occasional live show, but I like the songs “Mr. Oysterhead” “Shadow of a Man” “Army’s on Ecstacy” and “Rubberneck Lions.”

  3. Pingback: Songs of the Week Annual Review 2022 (Because Someone Needs To Keep Spotify Honest) | Max Todd.

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