Songs of the Week 01/13/2023

I may write like a sadboy, but I refuse to be the saddest boyest out there. “Heart-Shaped Box” was almost on this list, you know. I spared you all from that. Nihilistic ennui is overrated. Like, maybe ennui should all go touch some grass. Ever think about that?

ENEMY DESTRUCT | Thee Oh Sees Suffice to say, Thee Oh Sees, or OCs, or The Ohsees, or The Oh Sees, or Oh Sees, or Osees, have endured a needlessly complex series of metamorph…oses. God, seriously? I get it, reinvention is the name of the game, but I think these unnecessary, tessellating, twisting transformations are especially funny in contrast with songs of theirs like “Enemy Destruct,” which are, like, 50% one F-chord slammed over and over again. To be clear, I’m all for it—I’m always so astonished (in the least condescending way possible) when all it takes is one chord to make my knee start bopping. “Enemy Destruct” scratches a similar itch to The Creation’s “How Does it Feel to Feel” (which features an electric bass with a bow, by the way) in that its deceptively simple melody somehow bottles a fiery spirit, like a gasp from a stove on high. Maybe it’s the bouncing rhythm that rattles your ribs every time a chord lands, or maybe it’s the garage punk crunch and ricocheting vocal fuzz, but there’s a kerosene energy to this song that feels like the first fist up at a riot—one that’s very hard to deny. While we may never live to see Thee Oh Sees’ final form, it’s fascinating to see them slip so effortlessly into beautiful punk simplicity amidst so many genre changes.

ONLY A LAD | Oingo Boingo On the polar opposite of the complexity spectrum—exactly where we love him, exactly where he’s always been—lies Danny Elfman, a Songs of the Week (Songs! Of! The! Week! Max! Todd! Dot! Com!) regular. I think it’s fair to say that I love Danny’s discography wholly, but after this look back at where it all started, I can begin to understand why some fans think his non-film work fell off as he aged (though I’m not sure anyone can argue that in good conscience after 2021’s Big Mess— hell, after just “Sorry” alone). No song is a more deserving title track to Oingo Boingo’s debut album than “Only a Lad,” acting as the clearest display of the group’s influences despite solidifying their inimitable voice form the outset. Perhaps the most cracked-up of their songs to date, “Only a Lad” has it all, and has it all at two-times speed—from Oingo Boingo’s signature horns section, to their spooky circus melodies and biting irreverence to match, to Danny Elfman’s villainous vocals that transcend hamminess into a league of their own. Though their jazz, prog rock, and orchestral influences all clamor for the spotlight, it’s their bold theatricality that brings it all together, distinctly reminiscent of early Kate Bush despite being just as distinctly different. Even like Bush, Elfman’s voice has an especially youthful pizzazz to it—an extra mythical flare that’s no better or worse than his later work, but a style that could only have been achieved at this point in his life. It’s this frenzied enthusiasm, both vocally and instrumentally, that I think some fans miss—though it’s [HOT TAKE] perhaps my favorite Oingo Boingo album, their final release, Boingo, admittedly loses much of this sound without the iconic brass section. Just like Kate Bush’s evolution, however, I’d argue that Boingo’s stripped-down sound, though in some ways more mature and nuanced, is no worse or better than the sinner’s carnival that Only A Lad or Dead Man’s Party brings to the table; rather, it simply demonstrates a degree of musical and emotional refinement that loses none of the spirit or theatricality that originally forged the band’s identity. In any case, with its iconic vocals shrieking satirical lyrics, “Only a Lad” not only lays the foundation for this identity, but creates a sound even Rocky Horror Picture Show wishes it had (and that almost hurts to say, because I LOVE Rocky Horror).

Speaking of said lyrics, they’re still fascinating some forty years later, although they read far darker transposed into our modern political landscape. Though neither juvenile delinquency nor privilege evading the law are anywhere near new issues, if “Only A Lad” had been written post-2000, I would be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was satirizing school shooting discourse. It’s eerie how close the chorus comes to the excuses our culture makes for young mass shooters—”Only A Lad / You really can’t blame him / Only A Lad / Society’s made him / Only A Lad / He’s our responsibility […] He’s underprivileged and abused / Perhaps a little bit confused” could easily have come from an official court transcript if it didn’t rhyme. While I’m not sure this is the time or place to discuss mass murderers without fully developed brains and the culture that enables them to commit such atrocities, I will say that I find Oingo Boingo’s mockery startlingly applicable, and as sharp as it’s ever been. Even if the specifics may become outdated, the bastion of counterculture and callout of institutional hypocrisy that Oingo Boingo represents will always be timeless.

DECOHERENCE | Scott Buckley Where Danny Elfman and his various Oingos and Boingos may be a well-tread road for me, there’s plenty of territory I’ve left largely unexplored, including the domain within the creative commons. The very existence of unlicensed music (and art in general) seems itself a controversial frontier, and though I’m far from an expert on copyright legislation, I’m too uneducated on it to stop talking. Even from my very impressionable standpoint, I can totally sympathize with both camps, if the two are even at odds at all. On one hand, our modern incarnation of copyright law is undeniably a gruesome monstrosity engineered by entertainment monopolies, perhaps exemplified most infamously by Disney’s macabre extension of copyright seventy years beyond an original creator’s death in order to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain. These laws are a byproduct of not artists but capitalists, and their existence bars smaller artists from access to beloved public domain characters and worlds that might otherwise put them on the map. On the other hand, however, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a little brat about getting credit for my creations, and even with a UBI or other system that guarantees survivable income for artists, I’m sure some form of copyright would have to exist to prevent lazy ripoffs motivated not by money, but clout. While the Creative Commons Library is by no means a solution to these issues (which are at this point more economic than artistic), I think it’s a neat solution that allows small creators to collaborate without navigating the legal thicket. Small musicians, paid to contribute to the Creative Commons Library, are able to indirectly score the projects of small videographers, filmmakers, and educators, allowing for some grandiosity and depth that couldn’t before be achieved. That said, these pieces lose a lot of the tightly personal quality that film and documentary scores have, since composers must now cater to the common denominator rather than enhance the themes and emotions behind a specific project they’ve been hired for. In my experience, most Creative Commons music blends into the background at best, and I often find myself projecting some sort of sadness onto the musicians behind it—the limitations on their work must be stifling.

It’s always fascinating, then, when this music stands out—when it catches my ear despite whispering beneath some YouTuber’s script. Scott Buckley’s “Decoherence” was one such song, though I can’t remember exactly where I first found it (not to Wizard of Oz everyone here, but I plan these out pretty far in advance, so this is more like… Songs of the Two to Six Weeks Ago. My plans may be ambitious, but my notes aren’t nearly as comprehensive as they should be, so… here we are). This song is a soundscape that speaks for itself, but, with all due respect to Buckley’s work, I want to talk about it within the context of unlicensed music, as it carries its own genre conventions. Even a glance at its runtime should betray its intended purpose—clocking in at almost eleven minutes, I have a feeling “Decoherence” is meant to be chopped up and spread across multiple chapters or even videos, almost like a bouquet of motifs. This is further supported by the amount of pauses between its overwhelming, unnerving crescendos, which themselves are almost identical across repetitions. Despite this transparent purpose, I think it lends itself to this song’s tone—rather than rip off the voice of a more popular composer or franchise, “Decoherence” takes a more contemporary approach to an unlicensed sound, emphasizing atmosphere far more than melody. As the title might suggest, this song is meant to evoke an almost unreadable, alien uneasiness—its skittering, cello whispers and tectonic, synth sighs encompass both big and small sounds, conjuring images of some vast, cratered planet surveyed cautiously from low orbit. While it’s certainly not a song I’d put on for an evening walk, the scale that it conveys sends the same chill down my spine as thoughts of deep time and space do. Though it lacks the distinct voice and theatricality of the older guard of composers, there’s a cinematic sound to this that any aspiring filmmaker or YouTuber is lucky to have access to.

BLEED | George Clanton So, YouTube, huh? I don’t know if you guys have heard of it, but I really can’t recommend it. To be sure, I’m all for a free (major asterisk) video-sharing platform that allows creators to instantly disseminate their art, and I’ve found some honest-to-God life-changing content there, but the amount of neuron-burning algorithm sludge I’ve had to sift through to find it has made the diamonds almost not worth it. I quit YouTube for good at the start of 2023 (to, um… moderate success), but one thing I already miss about it is discovering new music in the unlikeliest and most embarrassing places. Like, listen, I’m not about to say I’m ashamed I clicked on a title with the words “whimsical little creature” in it—I try to cultivate as many impish woodland wisp vibes as I can—but, you know, other than George Clanton’s “Bleed,” you pretty much get what you pay for with this one.

While my cold, dead heart left “2 minutes of Whimsical little creature” no more whimsical, mischievous, or indeed fabjous than I entered, I certainly did leave bobbing my head to that barking, background synth, which soon lead me directly to George Clanton’s 100% Electronica. In my research, I’ve found YouTube’s consumers are about as good at describing music as its algorithm is at providing fulfillment—I saw “Bleed” compared to Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, New Order, and Tears for Fears, and only those last two seem even a little bit close. Truthfully, there is something unmistakably 80s about this new wave-adjacent song, though I wouldn’t attribute that to its synth alone. For me, Clanton’s vocals—deep but melodic, and at moments riding the line between throaty and goofy—seem slightly reminiscent of Morrissey, or even Robert Smith, in my illuminated opinion. Admittedly, even my comparisons don’t quite hit the mark, and I think it’s because this song’s influences can’t be confined to one era. There’s something almost nostalgic in how cheap the synth sounds, and I mean that without condescension—it simultaneously rasps and resounds like the internet synth-pop of the early 2000s. I’d even call it a contemporary of, you guessed it, YouTube oddities like “Don’t. Trust. Horses.” and Jim Noir’s work in the band Omission Sound. In the end, comparisons may be the easiest way to dissect “Bleed,” but they’re certainly not the best way to enjoy it—maybe it’s just best danced to, from its sparkling opening chords to its triumphant, blaring close.

THE VISIT | Throwing Muses Why haven’t I talked about Kristin Hersh yet? Why hasn’t anyone?! I know the term “criminally underrated” gets thrown around a whole lot these days when everyone has access to everything in the whole world at their fingertips, but if anyone definitively falls under this label besides Jim Noir, it’s Kristin Hersh and the rest of Throwing Muses. “The Visit” is exactly the sort of powerhouse song that defines the best of their work—a windswept, forlorn battle song that gallops defiantly on with guitar like hoofbeats and vocals like an overcast prairie. To me, few voices feel quite a haunting as Hersh’s—though she doesn’t initially strike as overtly supernatural, there’s an honest knowing behind her raspy, belted harmonies that shambles lost between angelic and ragged. The poetry she delivers washes over with just as much of a chill even when it’s uplifting, and “The Visit”‘s lyrics are no exception. While lines like “It’s a game of chance / I whisper in your ear,” “Jesus said in heaven / There’s not that much to do,” and “I have a message from your son / When the ground starts shaking / Watch the gifts inside your home” would all feel notable sans music, when they’re wailed in near-country harmonies, they become beautifully foreboding portents ripped straight from an epic. The fact that these sweeping emotions play out on such a sparse skeleton of instrumentation almost makes me wonder if I’m overhyping it, but it’s rare I find a song that captures the same feelings in me (Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” may admittedly come close, although I think it’s a different flavor of haunting). As good as “The Visit” may be, though, it’s not even the best Kristin Hersh gets, so stay tuned for more. I don’t know, someday.

This week’s image is something a little different for Songs of the Week, though I can assure you it won’t be a mainstay. “Decoherence” and the capitalist problem of paying artists for their work have had me thinking a lot about the software that threatens to replace said artists entirely, and I wanted to share some of my usual uneducated AI thoughts with you all, as an artist and as a consumer of art. As penance for shamelessly rickrolling me (to be fair, I walked right into it), my friend Michael recently generated this image for me by prompting dream.ai with keywords describing a story I recently wrote (one I’m hoping to publish soon, so no spoilers, but the descriptors were something like “cyborg snowman post-apocalyptic dreamscape.” I try to keep things fresh). While the image here may not amount to something totally recognizable, this free AI generated something at least recognizably close to an oil painting, and with further refinement of keywords, style descriptors, and other artists’ names, it may have created something much less abstract. While this appropriately surreal fan art (which I was totally delighted to receive) isn’t the death knell for artists the world over, much more advanced algorithms that generate “art” are already outcompeting legitimate organic artists. AI “art” has already cropped up in concept art, book cover, and character design industries not because it’s better, but because it’s cheaper. Strangely, the same corporate spirit that sought to extend copyright law now salivates over technology that violates it—after all, these programs can only generate art based on the prior work of humans, actively stealing styles down to aimlessly generated signatures at the bottom of said pieces. AI “art,” as it’s unfortunately been deemed, defeats the entire purpose of art, all while stamping out artists due to its convenience.

I’ve never been much of a technophobe, and though I’ve felt some ephemeral dread concerning automation, I never really feared it until it stood in the way of my dreams. Call me dramatic, dogmatic, or even fear-mongering, but when companies blatantly express preference for an algorithm’s stolen work over the craft that I’ve found to be my vocation, it can feel a little demoralizing—as if I was only ever valuable in the wider world for what money I could make. Now that there’s a cheaper alternative, what am I worth at all in capitalist America? I suspect the uproar AI art, music, and even writing has caused over social media stems from a similar threat response in creatives the world over. While I’ve seen this shunned revolution compared to the advent of photography as a sort of challenge to whiny artists to do better, I feel it’s a false equivalency—where movements like the surrealists, the cubists, and the dadaists sought to portray the world subjectively now that photography could portray it objectively, contemporary artists cannot meaningfully rebel against AI “art” because anything human artists create, AI can now create too (such is the nature of machine learning). Though I’m thankful for the overwhelming condemnation of AI art that I’ve seen across multiple platforms, part of me wonders if corporations or governments can ever be convinced to listen. Even if they can, is it possible to put the cat back in the bag? I want to be optimistic—perhaps this cascade of automation will lead to a much-needed revolution in not art, but economics—but the future seems as uncertain as ever. In the meantime, keep supporting original artists, keep making your own art, and keep making art for you, because you’re the only one who knows your true worth. Oh, and what was that about grass-touching? Now seems like a good time. Go take a fiver, scout.

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7 comments

  1. JT · 12 Days Ago

    I really don’t know how she does it, but KH can take the most rudimentary musical elements and make them otherworldly. I agree about The Visit, it hits me as well. Roesetta Stone has similar effect. Thanks for Bleed, I like it.

    • maxtodd · 12 Days Ago

      Glad you like bleed! Yea, I had to choose between this one and Rosetta Stone, she’s kind of in a league of her own.

  2. babe wake up new songs of the week just dropped

  3. emilyclaireynolds · 11 Days Ago

    Epic post. Frabjous, even. I seriously love that you reviewed an unlicensed song and also tore AI to shreds in the next breath 🥰

    • maxtodd · 11 Days Ago

      Epic, frabjous, mischievous, frumious, mimsy. These are other funny words that I know in my smartsense

      • emilyclaireynolds · 11 Days Ago

        Anything but ignoble…

      • maxtodd · 11 Days Ago

        i have two sides: epic 🤓 and ignobal 🦹🏻‍♂️

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