Songs of the Week 12/30/2022

Buckle up, kids, I’m airing out all of my flammable takes while we’re still in holiday limbo so I can start this new year pure and angelic. The puffy, white, cartoon gloves are off, and honestly, they’re not going back on, because that character design harkens back to blackface performances. Did you know that? Yea. I just shotgun sprayed your childhood, and I’m not even sorry for it. That’s right, yea, and this is just the beginning. Twelve-thirty, no mercy.

HIDDEN PLACE | Björk So, Björk is kind of the coolest ever, right? Apparently that’s a controversial take, because nothing is right on this God-forsaken void rock, but I stand by it. If anyone else besides Björk were to make the case for Björk’s artistic genius, it would extend far beyond the confines of this post, but of course, when Björk speaks for herself… well, she speaks for herself, and songs like “Hidden Place” are concise proof that she’s some kind of musical faelien deity. Somehow, I actually forgot “Hidden Place” existed, and I was delighted to rediscover it on a speaker good enough to reveal all of this song’s skittering intricacies. While it feels wrong to confine Björk to any genre, the trip-hop influence on Vespertine is difficult to deny, what with its purring percussion, hazy atmosphere, and slithering, almost sultry delivery. Even still, “Hidden Place” feels less trip-hop and more “Björk-doing-trip-hop,” in the same way Earthling was less electronica and more “Bowie-doing-electronica,” if that makes sense; both are alchemical creative geniuses with a knack for distilling, immolating, and extrapolating a style, redefining it on the other side of the chrysalis. Alright, there’s no way for a sentence to use the word “alchemical” and not sound hyperbolic, but I think it’s fair to say Björk weaves an atmosphere on par with the best dedicated trip-hop artists. I really can’t sing enough praise for Vespertine‘s percussion, as it’s the basis for the foggy closeness that this entire album conveys. “Clicky” is the best non-word I have for it—the delicate, insectoid skittering of each phrase, almost like marching ants, sounds too minuscule to not be close, lending a certain intimacy to even the most grandiose songs. And speaking of grandiosity, Björk flexes her musical knowledge by sampling Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, op. 4-1 (you can hear the sample, faster in the original, at 1:11 in the video), using the piece’s swelling strings to evoke a blossoming, expansive feeling that washes listeners into another world—the hidden place that Björk describes. See what I mean about the fairy thing?

Anyway, I hope all of this purple prose doesn’t seem unwarranted—it always makes me sad when people aren’t swept off their feet by such masterful music the same way I am, but I never mean it in a gatekeep-y way. Music like this connects with my soul with some secret language I’ve only just begun to understand, and when someone else doesn’t speak that same language, I almost feel a little lost, the same way I feel when a joke doesn’t land in front of a crowd or when a friendship isn’t reciprocated in one or both directions. I don’t know, it’s never the end of the world, and there are more important ways of connecting with people, but I hope unpacking this piece a little can give the skeptics out there a little insight into what touches me in Björk’s music, and I hope I’ll be able to understand some well-loved music the way others do someday, too.

MONEY | Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek A song I certainly would not have appreciated as much had my girlfriend not shared it with me is Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek’s “Money,” off of the a-side of their duo double album. There’s a certain kind of Fleetwood Mac ick that I get from couples hashing out their issues in album form, and that uncomfortable twinge will never leave Big Thief’s music for me, since vocalist Adrianne Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek’s engagement, marriage, and divorce was chronicled within the band’s discography. I recently read a New Yorker article called “Adrianne Lenker’s Radical Honesty” wherein drummer James Krivchenia said of the in-band divorce, “Adrianne is always writing about whatever’s going on in her life, and so when they were getting divorced, she was writing about it. Buck was processing that in real time, onstage. Some nights I’d look over and be, like, ‘Oof, that’s a rough one to hear, man.’ But he was really supportive of it.” And like… oof, man indeed. I don’t know, I don’t mean to make any wild judgments about anybody no matter how much of their personal life they put into widely consumed music, but man, that seems like kind of maybe the worst way to hurt someone? I don’t know, shattering glass on your crotch is probably worse, but there’s no way that’s not deeply humiliating, violating, or generally wounding. Still, I also totally get the almost instinctual need to process grief and strife through creativity no matter how many loved ones are involved, not to mention the way that deeply personal process can be misconstrued after multiple levels of removal from the source. Again, I can’t judge. Still, though. “Radical” is definitely one word for it.

Okay, sorry, I went into that as like a “minor inconvenience aside, this song is good” statement, and I lost control. I really do enjoy this song and the rest of Adrianne Lenker’s work, and as the New Yorker article details, I am always surprised by the inspiringly off-kilter way she approaches even the barest of songs. While the chorus of “Money” definitely suggests a traditional folk setup (I love Lenker and Meek’s harmonies here either way), the body of the song has these strange, descending intervals that lend a certain uncertainty that leaves me unable to place the tone of this song. This is enhanced by the fact that two tempos appear to be existing within one guitar melody: that of the pensive intervals, and that of the guitar filling the space in between, which flutters by much faster. I always feel adrift hearing this song, but it really kicks into gear when Lenker’s vocals, which at first fall in line with the more spacious intervals, suddenly shift to the faster tempo at 3:18. As is often the case with my complaints, I almost wish this song was longer—the rhythm that this song falls into builds so incredibly, and while I know restraint is important and yaddah yaddah, I think slowly layering harmonies and background vocals here would probably send me into outer space. Then again, perhaps a chaotic jam would distract from the raw simplicity of what Lenker and Meek hope to convey here, and the magic lies in the minimalism. In the end, that might be the job of a good cover—processing other’s feelings in one’s own unique way.

THERE GOES A TENNER | The J Davis Trio Boom! Segue! Drop it like it’s hot! Unfortunately, I’m using my powers for evil, because the next thing I’m dropping is an immature absolute, like I call people “snowflakes” on the internet or something. To me, there are some musicians even good covers can’t touch, and though many attempts exist, I think covering Kate Bush is downright blasphemous. I think prior to my Kate Bush awakening, I liked the Car Seat Headrest cover of “Running Up That Hill,” but as I’ve come to love Kate Bush’s work, I realize part of why I connect with it so strongly is that she throws herself wholly into all of her work, so much so that it becomes something inimitable. The bombastic theatricality that every song brings, I think, must be off-putting to some listeners because it’s so intimate—each one feels like a sculpted chunk of her soul—and to say that even the hollow Placebo cover that everyone loves for some reason can come close to emulating that soul feels like such a fundamental misunderstanding of Kate Bush’s music (one commenter on the Placebo video was like, “wow, I’m so smart, this cover really shows that you don’t need to project your voice to show emotions,” and it had me ready to straight man punch a wall. Like, look me in the eye and tell me that dude’s Weezer-ass voice swept you off your feet into a whirlwind of gothic capital-R Romance and rich emotional texture. LOOK ME IN THE EYE!). Okay, so maybe that’s a little harsh—if it’s not clear from the rest of these posts, I enjoy a lot of whiny man vocals, and I especially enjoy slow builds and subtlety, so I have nothing against the Placebo cover when it comes down to it. Personally, I just don’t think it could ever trump such a raw outpouring of emotionality and creativity.

Okay, third two-paragraph entry here. I’m really letting all of this pent-up rage rip, huh? Once again, all that to essentially say I need to reexamine my biases, because my dad found a Kate Bush cover that does its own thing and does so fantastically. As I mentioned the first time I talked about “There Goes A Tenner,” I’m always blown away by how captivating and immersive such a short and simple story is. It’s why I don’t think songs like this could work as a needle drops—with a narrative sung in a cockney accent, horns I can only describe as Churchill-esque, and wavering, vibrato background voices, “There Goes A Tenner” creates a world inextricably tied to a specific time and place. That’s why I was so shocked to see such a successful cover based on “There Goes A Tenner,” of all Kate Bush songs, which is not only so niche but just so difficult to replicate. Clearly, the J Davis Group knew this, because rather than tread the same path, they took the song in such a radically different direction that it’s almost its own original piece. Translating this working-class, British, period robbery into AAVE, the J Davis Group retells this story of paranoia through a black American lens. Though the language is shifted significantly to accommodate a rapped format, I’m astonished how many specifics of the original make it into this reimagining beyond the broad beats of the story—still here are the mantras of “okay, remember” and “we’re waiting,” the gelignite, the crew acting like Bogart, the mention of Edward G, and so much more. Though it takes on an entirely new sound, the instrumentation, too, follows the original quite closely—a hazy jazz baseline and muted trumpet mirrors the piano of the first one, and even the soprano “uh-ohs” of the chorus are mirrored here, which is really funny to hear in a rap context (and it still works!). Still, it’s undeniable that the songs feel radically different, with the creeping baseline imbuing this Chaplin-esque story with a tired, almost grim raggedness, though that might be the fact that it comes shockingly close to John Murphy’s “In the House – In a Heartbeat,” the theme to 28 Days Later. It’s nowhere near as plodding or bleak, though, and this jazzy loop combined with the disaffected (yet extremely clever) vocals reminds me a bit of early Tribe Called Quest, or maybe later De La Soul and other hip-hop in that same vein. All in all, I’m glad my dad played this one for me, because I don’t think I could’ve worked up the courage to listen on my own. This actually comes from a tribute album named “I Wanna Be Kate” (I hope after the Ben Folds Five lyrics from their delightful song “Kate“), but as good as this cover was, I’m still too scared to check out any others. If you hear about this topic from me again, it’s because I’ve been exposed to another cover against my will, or I’m rabidly raving about it on the streets. That’s right, I haven’t learned anything. I’m just as closed-minded as when we started.

NO SELF CONTROL | Peter Gabriel Alright, no more negativity for today. Here’s another awesome Peter Gabriel song, straight up, no complicated feelings here. Coming off the heels of his exceedingly creepy album opener “Intruder,” this one isn’t exactly a feel-good song, but it’s not exactly a feel-bad song, either. I don’t say this to glorify the mental illness that both songs speak on, but I do think there’s a really artful spookiness here that I hope I can appreciate and enjoy without romanticizing the plights that many face daily. While a title like this might suggest that this song sounds like a runaway train, it actually follows a very controlled crescendo, slowly adding eerily discordant background voices and rasping instrumentation. While I wouldn’t say it’s quite as sonically creative as “Intruder,” I’m a big fan of the marimbas here, which isn’t something I often say. I don’t know, no marimba hate, they just sound so stereotypically tropical to me, and it’s a feat that Peter Gabriel is able to transform them into something foreboding here. It’s the marimbas in particular that make this song so reminiscent of Oingo Boingo’s fantastically halloween-y “Insanity,” though “No Self Control” actually came first. It appears that this entire album (the third one called Peter Gabriel) is chock full of little innovations like these, and I can’t wait to dig into the whole thing sometime soon.

HEADS WE’RE DANCING | Kate Bush Okay, as much as I liked that cover, I had to sanitize myself with some of the source afterwards. I’ve said a lot about Kate Bush here, and I’d hate to be redundant, but I really can’t emphasize enough how frequently I’m moved by her passion, creativity, and storytelling. Like, okay, check this out: this one is about flipping a coin to decide whether or not to dance with a man, only to see his picture in the newspaper the next morning and realize he was Hitler (that Hitler). Once I’d had some distance from the song, I almost laughed at the concept—it sounds so much like a Gen Z shock humor twist, but the song plays it straight, and I, for one, am totally enthralled by it. It’s a song not so much about regret but about denial, in my eyes, with our protagonist rationalizing and at times flat-out denying that they’d been charmed by someone who, even in the time of the song, was evil personified perhaps even more than Satan himself. The music reflects this duality, following a dancey, driven, synth beat interwoven with these weeping violins and cellos and this menacing twist that slowly overtakes one of the synth motifs. While the first half feels fully at home in a club setting (albeit a more modern one), the build blossoms into this flurry of emotions that always leaves me feeling unsteady on my feet. This kind of musical experimentation is nothing new for Kate Bush, being one of the first musicians to use sampling, but the prominent electronic elements here and throughout The Sensual World mark a more “modern” sound for Kate Bush, one which is perfectly fitting for a transition into the ’90s and which I think sounds remarkably similar to Björk, as stylistically different as the two are. I hesitate to call The Sensual World (and the prior two albums, The Dreaming and Hounds of Love) more mature than her earlier work, as there’s nothing immature about explosive and flowery imagination, but there’s something very focused, refined, and almost monochrome about the album that goes beyond the cover photo. If nothing else, it strikes an impossible balance between bombastic and subtle, and provides both a lot of feelings and a lot of space to feel them, which might be why “Heads We’re Dancing” feels so vivid.

I was recently in Seattle with my girlfriend, who was amazing enough to find the Frye Museum, which was evidently well-funded enough to allow free admission (a steal). One of my favorite artist discoveries there was Cindy Ji Hye Kim, whose charcoal and graphite art follows a symbolic continuity across pieces. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, and it was super fun to figure out about the shared characters between a set of pieces before even reading the signs. I’m putting Pascal’s Wager here, but to be honest, her work needs to be viewed in a shared space—oftentimes, the canvas frame itself and the shadows it creates in certain lighting adds a really stunning element. Maybe it’s a weird painting to finish the year with, but this isn’t our final sendoff—I’ve got one last 2022 post to look back at what songs we’ve seen this year. In the meantime, thank you all as always for sticking with me!

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6 comments

  1. I had no idea that part of hidden place was from a sample, that’s so cool!!! man I need to listen to verspertine soon

    • maxtodd · 27 Days Ago

      you and me both, it all seems great

  2. JT · 27 Days Ago

    The Frye sounds amazing!

    • maxtodd · 27 Days Ago

      Some of the art on display there right now is not really to my taste, but I’m not gonna complain about free admission. I’m glad it exists.

  3. Pingback: Songs of the Week Annual Review 2022 (Because Someone Needs To Keep Spotify Honest) | Max Todd.
  4. Pingback: Songs of the Week 01/20/2023 | Max Todd.

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