You guys remember my New Year’s resolutions, right? You don’t? Wow, that’s crazy, me neither!
Honestly, I don’t know why I try to stick to a regulated regimen of change when it comes to this stuff—maybe it’s worth practicing professionally, but nobody’s holding me to announcing the most minute shifts in my format like it’s some kind of White House press release. All this to say, I’m trying something new with this one, so save it for the history books. While wine tasting analogies aren’t typically made in situations where reviewers are being more accommodating, I thought it might be fun to introduce a “Pairs Well With” section to each song. If you’re on the fence about trying a new song but don’t know if it fits your vibe, making playlists with these songs and need a good transition, or just want to feel like someone who says “mouthfeel” un-ironically, this section should hopefully be a useful and fun addition. Let me know in the comments if you’re liking it or not, though—I’d love to have some feedback. I can foresee this being an overwhelming feature given that it triples the amount of songs per post, and if there’s one thing these almost 10-page weekly ramblings need, it’s extra fat. My sentences are already well insulated enough.
LABYRINTHINE | Lena Raine & Samuel Åberg Between last week’s excessive hemming and hawing concerning Björk’s Fossora, D.D Dumbo’s “Satan” making my top 5 songs of 2022, and pretty much the entirety of Danny Elfman’s The Nightmare Before Christmas score, I think I’m just going to have to admit my love for woodwinds. Obliviousness is nothing new for me, but in my defense, I feel they’re something of an acquired taste—as I mentioned last week, clarinets just sound goofy to me. Like honking geese next to glittering peacocks, they’re not nearly as elegant or bold as their orchestral neighbors, and I have a lot of trouble placing their emotional niche in music. Jury’s still out on that one, but as this eclectic collection of songs and their tones should demonstrate, I think this undefined sound makes clarinets and bassoons ripe for experimentation. While they can certainly add an October or even gothic eeriness to a song (as with “Satan,” Nightmare, or Dewey Martino’s serene wasteland in “Pipopapipo“), like a flute gone rotten, I think this deepening of a usually delicate sounds adds an honest or even earthy quality to a noise that normally sounds so vague and atmospheric.
Here, it adds to the humble quality of Lena Raine and Samuel Åberg’s “Labyrinthine,” composed for the soundtrack of Minecraft’s 2022 Wild Update, which was intended to highlight atmosphere, exploration, and adventure. I’m not going to vomit an entire paragraph of niche Minecraft music history on you two weeks in a row, especially since I play with music off (he plays with music off), but I do think this piece is quite interesting in context. Minecraft’s original composer, C418, created an inimitable soundtrack that evokes both nostalgic simplicity and the disquieting loneliness that emerges when you think too hard about a singleplayer world—a tone which was befitting of a newborn indie game with vast tracts of identical forest and a grainy, yawning horizon still waiting for new content. However, as Minecraft has been both populated by new features and branded in a somewhat friendlier (and eco-friendlier) manner, the eeriness has softened, much to some players’ chagrin (if that’s the kind of thing you have time to be angry about). Personally, while I’m a fan of that almost-too-quiet sense of unspeakable emptiness that only exists if it’s investigated, I also think the lushness of modern Minecraft reflects the creativity it seeks to instill, and its most prominent new composer, Lena Raine, leans into both of these aspects. While some of her newer songs feel too straightforwardly upbeat for my liking (this kids game should be encouraging rumination on the nature of existence in relation to the presence of other sentience and what it truly means to be alone, solipsistically alone; a small spark of ambition too insignificant against the tracts of vast, empty, and unfeeling universe that will ultimately be unmarred by the culmination of one’s entire life’s work), I think “Labyrinthine” strikes a delicate balance between vastness and adventurousness—all thanks to the humble sound of the clarinet. Certainly, there’s a wealth of other instrumentation worth appreciating here, such as the purring synth, the distant, sampled birdsong that seems to dabble down from some tropical canopy, and the dissonant clicking reminiscent of a Geiger counter or a broken twig. When the clarinet (and bassoon?) hits at 2:17, though, the song undeniably finds its groove, shifting from untouched, silvan stillness to the small yet steady footsteps of a wide-eyed explorer. It’s such a soft build, but its upbeat, almost funky tempo makes it listenable as both a soundtrack and a song in isolation, reminding me of Lena Raine’s more danceable work, à la “Pigstep,” our first pairing for today. And though I’m not sure I’d file it with today’s recommended pairings, “Labyrinthine” does segue oddly well into our next pick…
Pairs Well With: “Pigstep” [Lena Raine], “Fungal City (feat. serpentwithfeet)” [Björk]
CATCH THAT TRAIN! | Dan Zanes I said my piece about (and made my peace with) kids’ musician Laurie Berkner last week, and I stand by everything I said there—I was, and continue to be, sound of mind. With all due respect to Laurie, though… Dan Zanes is the realest motherfucker, no question. Of anyone out there making dedicated kids’ albums, Dan Zanes will always be the cream of the crop. While I understand the value of simple and repetitive lyricism in these sort of songs—there’s a reason nursery rhymes persist as long as they do—I’d argue this more complex songwriting not only has just as much staying power, but also enriches kids’ media literacy and even emotional intelligence very early on. Like Blitzen Trapper or They Might Be Giants’s forays into children’s music, Del Fuego frontman Dan Zanes doesn’t talk down to his audience—in fact, I have a hunch Dan Zanes is better at talking to kids than even most kids’ entertainers. He’s not raising his voice or simplifying his language—he’s just singing a folk song, and one with clear enough imagery and drive that any age can hop on for the ride. As with all folk, I feel like there’s a lot of emotions lurking in the background, and I think that remains true for Zanes—much of his music, such as his cover of the sea shanty “Loch Lomond,” has a wistfulness behind it, even if it’s toned down significantly. Though I’m not saying you should hit your kids with fun flavors like longing, regret, or the sense that something has forever changed, I do think the texture of Zanes’s music gave me something emotionally complex to chew on as a toddler. Even the smiley “Catch That Train!” feels like a layered memory—its happiness is authentic, compounded with childhood discomforts such as waking up early, traveling to an unknown place, and feeling the sticky, summer heat. Good stuff, through and through—and it only makes me happier as I get older.
Speaking of memories, “Catch That Train!” is the first new music release I can remember anticipating. When this video dropped on Noggin, you have to understand… the hype was real. I still love the aesthetic of this video—both authentic and whimsical, with that scratchy, Maurice Sendak animation style I’ll always adore. I also love the goofy little dance he does, sliding across the floor in his socks and swaying his arms—I always look like this whenever I start feeling a little too whimsical making breakfast in the morning. Don’t crack an egg like that, though. No one ever told me it was movie magic… I had to find out the hard way.
Pairs Well With: “New Shoes” [Blitzen Trapper], “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” (cover) [David Grisman, Jerry Garcia]
SOMEONE LIKE ME | Julian Cope Hey, it’s been a while since I picked up a cold, steel folding chair with Julian Cope’s name taped to it and spanked the sunken cheeks of the uninitiated. I can’t help it, really—the man doesn’t miss! While I wouldn’t say “Someone Like Me” breaks any norms for Cope’s harder rock, it’s the best of its kind, combining many of his most delightful musical signatures (and, to be sure, rocking hard). “Someone Like Me” prepares for liftoff with a pair of ascending and descending harmonies backed by crescendoing drums that have me alert and excited in the first eight seconds, and when the song finally rips forth, it doesn’t stop. On this runaway train, we’re treated to Cope’s powerful vocals at their best, riding the line between put-together pop and frenetic punk, backed by bold and triumphant brass. There’s a specific brand of brash on display here—some mix of the celebratory “World Shut Your Mouth” and the spitting, sneering anger in “You…“—that gives “Someone Like Me” an unconquerable drive. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
Pairs Well With: “I’d Like To Know” [Supergrass], “Stand and Deliver” [Adam & The Ants]
I’D LIKE TO KNOW | Supergrass As blasphemous as it sounds, I actually debated whether or not to put Supergrass on this list. If we’re being honest about my listening experience this week, I’ve had Eagles of Death Metal’s “Miss Alissa” on repeat in its place, especially since it fits so well next to another irresistibly danceable rock song, Queens of the Stone Age’s “Quick and to the Pointless.” While both songs have mastered the enchanting allure of a high tempo, a crunchy guitar, and an almost spoken enthusiasm, I think Gaz Coombes and his merry crew bring this style to another level. Also, both non-Supergrass songs have those off-putting “girl groupie” brand of lyrics—I’m willing to give Jesse Hughes the benefit of the doubt for that mustache alone, but Josh Homme seems like the kind of sleazebag that could and would conceivably mean those lyrics without an ounce of irony. Oh boy, sorry, we’re off track again.
So, Supergrass, right? I was genuinely shocked they didn’t make any of my Songs of the Week last year, because they could record themselves waiting for the double-decker bus and it would be a britpop sensation. While I’ve definitely heard everything on their hit album I Should Coco out of context, I don’t think I’ve given it the full listen it deserves—”I’d Like to Know,” its kick-the-doors-down opener, should be proof enough of the heights their British whimsy reaches. Something I’m always amazed by is how many (seemingly) different keys Supergrass can turn into an upbeat, bouncy headbanger—while songs like the unbeatable “Mansize Rooster” (sort of) stick to a standard c-major sound, “I’d Like to Know” has this almost hyper-happiness that veers into weirder territory. It certainly matches the motif of the “strange ones” that crops up multiple times across I Should Coco, if memory serves. Memory might not serve, though. Really, I should listen to I Should Coco before I start acting all analytical.
Pairs Well With: “Miss Alissa” [Eagles of Death Metal], “Quick and to the Pointless” [Queens of the Stone Age], “Someone Like Me” [Julian Cope]
HERE BE MONSTERS | Ed Harcourt It’s been an upbeat week, so I’d hate to wind down with something decidedly more melancholy, but there’s a reason I keep returning to Ed Harcourt’s “Here Be Monsters” and I would like to investigate that today. I think it should be clear by now that, when it comes to misty-eyed acoustic performed by a raspy singer-songwriter, I’m often either too sensitive or skeptical to enjoy it. Equally as often, though, just a sprinkle of weirdness is enough to keep me interested. This is the case for me with Ed Harcourt’s “Here Be Monsters,” a scratchy, somber indictment of organized religion with the aesthetic of a spooky kids’ book. I know it’s generally unwise to judge albums by their covers, but if I’d seen this one in a record store, I’d be instantly interested—in crumbling pastel blues and browns, Elephant’s Graveyard not only has an evocative title, but a charmingly creepy cover featuring dubious forest creatures equally likely to be impish or sincere. Combined with this song’s title, there’s clearly an atmosphere Harcourt aims to cultivate, and thankfully, the music doesn’t disappoint. Though I’m not sure it qualifies as praise, this track absolutely peaks in its opening, accenting the melancholic guitar melody with off-beat harmonies like the quavering, childlike backup vocals and the frail saxophone. It reminds me of a certain, autumnal, Tim Burton whimsy—like Karen O’s Frankenweenie single “Strange Love,” the opening, shuddering hums of Wes Reeve’s “Honey, I,” or just the entire vibe of early Blonde Redhead. However, I wouldn’t say any of these songs pair well, necessarily, because they lean much farther into halloween, where “Here Be Monsters” leans more into remorse, in line with its lyrics depicting pious believers still falling to Hell. Personally, I wish it had leaned further into its delightfully creepy opening, but I still found this one to be worth discussing.
Pairs Well With: “Darkness is Cheap” [Wilco]
I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I featured Bruno Redondo’s jaw-dropping artwork on his and Tom Taylor’s Nightwing, running since 2021. I know I’m not alone in saying so, but Dick Grayson means a lot to me, as both the first Robin and Nightwing as an adult. Growing up with a dad who’s been a lifelong fan of Batman, a timeless character who helped him overcome his own trauma and learn to help others, I’ve always identified with Dick as the “next step” in both of their journeys, and in their healing mission as a whole. For so long, it’s been hard to see writers unfamiliar with the character grapple with Nightwing’s path as an adult—once out from under Batman’s wing as Robin, many writers seem to have no idea where to take the character, and so often, Nightwing exists in this youthful stasis that inevitably leads to toxic relationships and a careless flightiness that almost make me dislike the character. Recently, however—and especially in Tom Taylor’s class-A run on the character—DC editorial appears to have had a change of heart, allowing Nightwing finally come into his own, be it financially, heroically, or domestically. As a fan still unsteady in their early twenties, this couldn’t have been better timed, and it’s been an absolute treat to read.
This cover of issue #93 highlights a lot of my favorite things about this run all in one, breathtaking scene. For one, as much as I would’ve hated to admit it as a kid, it makes me sappy happy to see Dick and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle finally get together in a serious way. Though I’d never expect Dick to be a 1:1 character with myself or any fan, I’ve always been bugged by how spastic, spontaneous, and fleeting his relationships are—he seems too heartfelt or even romantic to be a sleazy lady’s man, though perhaps that’s exactly why he’s portrayed that way. In any case, since narrative progression is meaningless in a serialized medium, writers seem to have this petty succession of their Dick Grayson OTPs that snaps back and forth between Barbara and Starfire, because, like, imagine having a healthy relationship with an ex, right? Not that everyone has to settle down with someone to live happily, but it’s a luxury these characters are so rarely afforded because writers are afraid to try something new. All this to say, it’s been so nice to see Dick and Barbara sharing an apartment and taking care of a puppy and all of this domesticity that coexists with their superhero lives—it feels like a much more mature progression of the story that, alongside this run’s flagrantly anti-cop, anti-billionaire messages, is so fresh for the mainstream comic book landscape.
Even when the dialogue gets a little hammy (as any good comic book is bound to), the art always has me giddy to read more. I don’t know whether or not to thank Redondo or bold colorist Adriano Lucas, but whoever is responsible for how eye-popping this art is time and time again, god bless you. Redondo clearly has an affinity for excruciatingly detailed cityscapes that can even humble a superhero, and like… the way the orange sunset contrasts with Nightwing and Batgirl’s bluer colors? The way the light dapples on Nightwing’s costume as Ben-Day dots, which mirror the flickering lights of city windows? It’s just perfect, right? With so many comics being pumped out at a time, it’s a wonder to see an artist flourish like this, and I hope Redondo is getting his beauty sleep between cranking out these regular stunners.
Hopefully, this won’t be the last time I gush about Nightwing—with the Titans finally replacing the Justice League (for now) as DC’s headliner heroes under Tom Taylor’s new run, my hope is that Nightwing continues to experience this steady maturation. Starfire’s on the lineup, which, like, love her and all that, but this better not break up Nightwing and Batgirl… again. Please? Is stability too much to ask for? News flash: happy relationships have stories to tell, as do ex-partners uninterested in rekindling a relationship. Anyways, sorry, getting off track. Please pick up Nightwing issue by issue or in collected trades at your local comic store. See you all next week.
I adore your new pairings and also I crack my eggs exclusively as shown in “Catch That Train,” so do with that what you will
I adore you and also you must have honed your whimsical cooking precision, please teach me your ways so I don’t shatter my own illusion
“like a flute gone rotten ….”
DZ redemption week! I was just cursing you earlier as I caught myself internally humming that stupid hat song as I cleaned litter boxes.
Also, I love the new “pairs with” addition. You clearly inherited an ear for transitions from your dad. I would never have thought Super Grass and Josh Homme.
Don’t worry, I’ll always be a Dan Zaniac in the end. I’m glad you like the pairings–I learned from the best!
DAN ZANES IS A REAL ONE FR
also I love that ed harcourt song, thanks for putting that on my radar!
Hope you like his little critters!
Dan Zanes! I love that song, It actually brought a tear to my eye as I remember watching that video with little Max. Also, thumbs up on the pairings!
Me too! It’s a classic, and I’ll always remember that.