Okay, aaaaaaah!!! We’re a little late this week!! Sorry about that, folks. As I mentioned in 2022’s Songs of the Year, I try to prioritize quality over quantity with these, and lately, I’ve been tired enough that writing has felt more like smashing words together expecting that they’ll fit. It doesn’t always flow, that’s for sure, but I hope by just getting letters on a document, I’ll make something worthwhile happen, even without the combined forces of nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine other aspirational monkeys typing at my side.
While we’re on the subject, I felt it was worth following up on Movies of the Month, seeing as a whole entire month has indeed already scuttled past like the mouse rummaging through your pantry (I made you check). Much as I’ve wanted to talk Pinocchio (the good one), Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and The Menu, I’ve been pretty strapped for time this semester, and when I have free writing time available, I’d ideally like to spend it chipping away at my bigger projects rather than setting more secondary obligations for myself. That’s not to say movie reviews or videos aren’t coming—trust me, I would love nothing (well, a few things) more than to put both out—but until things calm down a bit, I unfortunately can’t make any promises. Ugh, sorry, okay, I need a distraction! Um… okay, uh… songs!! Five of them!
BLURRED VIEW | Big Thief Lately, I’ve been so absorbed catching up on Adrianne Lenker’s more vocally-focused solo music that I’ve forgotten just how sonically creative the full Big Thief ensemble can be. While, in my experience, they usually stick to the acoustic benchmark of lo-fi folk, my wonderful girlfriend reminded me with this recommendation that their 2022 release, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (you have to say the whole thing), pushed many boundaries in this regard. Recorded in more-or-less equivalent quarters across four studios, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (gasp) has its feet in four cohesive but distinct sounds, and “Blurred View” belongs to perhaps the most experimental of these feet. Though not as delightfully clinky-clunky pots-and-pans as “Time Escaping” (which, as far as my ape brain is concerned, will always be the standard—if you like bonking coconut noises, I have just the song for you), it branches in an entirely different direction for the band. Rather than update their signature lo-fi microphones, Big Thief instead doubles down on their muted sound, enveloping listeners in a blossoming, hotbox haze that even its occasional rays of synth sunlight cannot pierce. Alongside “Blurred View”‘s stuttering beat like a drumstick dropped through a Rube Goldberg machine, I can’t help but feel the resulting atmosphere is trip-hop adjacent, which I’m just as surprised by as you are. While not as funky as Morcheeba or as spooky as Portishead, “Blurred View” is an interesting piece in its own right, and perfect for a drizzling day.
Pairs Well With: “Heavy Bend” (Big Thief), “I’ve Got You Surrounded (With My Love)” (Jack White), “Ponderosa” (Tricky)
1234 | Feist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said—hey, wait, where are you going? Bear with me. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said “if in 100 years, I am only known as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes, then I will have considered my life a failure.” I’ve always sympathized a little with this, despite how pretentiously it might read. To the man’s credit, alongside his numerous other written works of fiction and nonfiction, he was also a renowned physician, and even a vocal critic of early anti-vaxxers, all of which are historic contributions worth remembrance. Still, it’s undeniably snobbish that he turns his ghostly nose up at having created a character that’s still globally recognizable one hundred and twenty-five years later while most of us will statistically be forgotten in three generations. I’m not sure he was lamenting a lack of legacy, however. What I find most resonant in this quote is something deeper: the fear of losing one’s face behind one’s legacy; the fear that, despite agonizingly birthing such a labor of love and soul, your work metamorphoses amongst the collective consciousness far beyond your original intent, leaving you and your aspirations to the sands of time. To be unmoored from one’s own legacy in this careless universe, useless once you’ve reproduced, reduces such soul-bearing sorcery to dust, no more immortalized than one’s own flesh and bones.
All this to say, Feist was on Sesame Street, and that’s all anybody knows her from.
And you thought I’d go a week without talking about children’s music, right? In my defense, I’ve been listening to Feist’s original version for years before I found out it had been far outstripped by the Sesame Street parody, because I’m not like the other girls. In my offense (??), I didn’t know until last week that it was by someone named Feist—I actually first remember seeing her name when she covered Mastodon’s “Black Tongue” for the odd couple’s joint record Feistodon, because, and I must reiterate, I am not like the other girls. It was a hell of a first impression, but one that had me convinced she was a Chelsea Wolfe wannabe, not realizing my listening order was akin to starting Soccer Mommy’s discography with “Unholy Affliction.” Needless to say, my little ape synapses misfired a few times before I could process that the indie anthem “1234” was not just Feist, but its breezy banjo and soothing vocals were Feist’s normal sound. While it’s true many of “1234”‘s original lyrics slide more towards the sadder tone I’d assumed Feist might have, this song, despite its wistfulness, exudes frolicking, bouncing joyousness in bloom. Though the Arthur Conan Doyle in me starts kicking and screaming if I don’t address the artistic nuances “1234” has to offer, I think I enjoy it most swaying and smiling, lifted in the updrafts of its soulful, gospel vocals and its jamming piano.
As for the elephant in the room… well, I would never want to hoard this gem from the generation that it taught to count. And, come on… it’s Sesame Street, dude. Even so, I do feel a twinge of pity for Feist hearing her discuss the experience in this excellent New York Times article. As she often tells tired parents stopping her at the airport for a picture, “[y]ou notice me because you’re a grown-up—the 3-year-olds are really only interested in the puppets. And without fail, the kids are just sort of looking at me like, who is this weird lady[?]” Unlike Doyle, Feist appears to have taken this claim to fame into stride, joking that the Sesame Street parody “will far outshine anything else that [she] will do in the rest of [her] life,” so perhaps I’m projecting my existential sympathy—no matter how much I’d do for a muppet, there’s a part of me that would freak out seeing my work unrecognizably altered. But how selfish would that be? Perhaps it’s worth taking a page out of Feist’s book, and finding honor in the planting of a seed that has uncontrollably branched into the hearts of many. I don’t know, though, maybe it’s not that deep. Go count some monsters or whatever.
Pairs Well With: “Across the Universe” (Fiona Apple covering The Beatles), “Dearly Departed (feat. Esmé Patterson)” (Shakey Graves), “Zero” (Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
COCOON | Björk Alright, I don’t want to be the guy to bring a sex song to a public discussion, but we’re gonna have to have the talk eventually. Björk’s Verspertine has been on my list for many years now, but after rediscovering its masterful opening, “Hidden Place,” convincing myself to like Fossora (update: it worked), and some eager insistence from my sister, I finally decided to stop delaying the inevitable. Though I entered fully expecting to find a new favorite album, after two full listens, I’m not certain my thoughts have fully solidified. While that might sound a lot like disappointment, I have a feeling Vespertine is just still stewing in my unconscious, ready to settle into place in three weeks’ time—like the much less accessible Fossora, I think I just have to have faith that Björk will make sense eventually. In the meantime, though, I’m mostly thankful that Vespertine reminded me of the songs that brought me to its doorstep in the first place, and why I love them so dearly.
“Cocoon” is a song nestled very close to my heart—in fact, I’d tentatively call it my favorite love song, though it’s not like there’s a lot to choose from. The way Björk expresses sex and sexuality feels so far removed from the grandiose, crude, or prudish characterization made cliché by other artists, quite possibly because of the tangible, soulful love baked into it. There’s a uniquely quiet reverence expressed here that details every ornate fingerprint, every raised hair, every shared secret without losing the sublimity in something so indescribable as love. To contain such a cosmic resonance within two people should be impossible, and so often is when expressed in song, but “Coccoon” captures everything in a soft breath—monumentality whispered in the listener’s ear. These complex textures are Vespertine‘s signature thanks to Björk’s inspired sound design, employing the delicate, pinging sounds of celestas, clavichords, and even custom music boxes alongside more traditionally angelic harps and glockenspiels to evoke a deeply intimate atmosphere, like fingertips, eyelashes, and fuzz. Even Björks eggshell vocals crackle millimeters from the microphone, breathy the way someone might whisper when just waking up. I really do mean “inspired” when I describe these creative choices—in my eyes, “Cocoon” captured both a physicality and emotionality I thought impossible to bottle, and even with these techniques, such a masterpiece is likely impossible to recreate.
Of course, in being so personal, there’s an almost uncomfortable aspect to this piece from a listener’s standpoint, and the illusion is at times whisked away when I remember that the subject of this song is public knowledge: Björk’s ex-husband, Matthew Barney. As with Adrianne Lenker’s messy stage divorce, there’s a real, unshakable ick that comes with feeling too close to an artist’s relationship history, especially knowing the same, tender sensitivity of “Cocoon”‘s love lead to… well, we don’t know exactly what, but it appears that Barney cheated, which… no wonder Vulnicura is like that. We’re unpacking the divorce next week, so hold onto your butts. In the meantime, let’s leave Björk to her private life, and continue imaging “Cocoon” as the voice of some incorporeal fairy muse lilting through every human’s love and sincerity. To me, it’s too powerful to be tarnished, and will always bring a tear to my eye.
Pairs Well With: “Amphibian” (Björk), “Pagan Poetry” (Björk), “Sea of Love (Cat Power covering Phil Phillips)
PARTY AT GROUND ZERO | Fishbone Oh, Fishbone, where to even start? Much like “Party at Ground Zero’s” explosive body (and instrumentation, and vocals, and themes, and…), there are so many fiery, flowering facets of this song to explore. Though I’d heard whispers of Fishbone slithering through Fat Albert and the recent Wendell & Wild, I hadn’t afforded them a proper listen until my mom was recently reminiscing about “Party at Ground Zero” and what a kinetic live performance Fishbone gave. Even in the midst of a depressive low, this song sunk its ska claws deep, and I haven’t been able to shake it off. With a six and a half minute runtime, most other songs either outgrow their earworm potential or stretch it too thin, but “Party at Ground Zero” breaks the mold with an epic, 90s swagger that even beats out the likes of their Chili Pepper peers. The main body of the song is a relentless barrage of blasting brass, percussive guitar, and vocals making wild swings between stunning choral harmonies and rabid Mel Blanc snarls. Though it would be a crime to confine fishbone to a single genre, “Party at Ground Zero”‘s very syntax is ska no matter how metal it may get, and it’s partially this versatility that puts it above other contemporaries on the scene—I’m not sure I could pair any other band equally well with Madness, Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Faith No More. Though I’ve only listened to a fraction of their work, I can already safely say Fishbone exists in a league of their own.
Believe it or not, though, “Party at Ground Zero”‘s excellence doesn’t stop there—for such a party-compatible song, its lyrics and music cover an astounding amount of literary ground. Fishbone sets the standard from the outset by quoting Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen in its intro, sewing a soured tail to the irresistibly bouncy “Marche du Toreador” (starting at 1:00 exactly) with descending electric guitar. Meanwhile, vocalist Angelo Moore not only references Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, but retells specific scenes from it in verse, because, that’s right, “Party at Ground Zero” tells the brazenly antiwar story of nuclear annihilation, which… well, let’s just say I wish it was no longer relevant. Its incredible music video, directed by Henry Selick, even reenac—DIRECTED BY HENRY SELICK? OF THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS AND CORALINE FAME? That’s right, if the gymnastic, grinning skeleton patting his four-legged pet A-bomb wasn’t a dead giveaway, “Party at Ground Zero” was one of Henry fuckin’ Selick’s first directorial gigs, which explains the numerous Fishbone easter eggs in Wendell & Wild. Despite its low budget, this mixed-media video goes absolutely bananas with its fittingly off-the-wall imagery. Elaborating on “Party at Ground Zero”‘s literary lyrics, the video reenacts none other than Edgar Alan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, transmuting the story into a neon, cubist apocalypse wherein politicians wall themselves away from the ravages of nuclear war, only for the allegorical red death to infiltrate their stronghold nonetheless. Even outside of its intertextual qualities, Selick’s whimsical character design flowers here in full force, populating the masquerade with Easter Island-esque heads and masked security looking like the progenitors to Jared Leto Joker’s toothy goons in Suicide Squad (I know, I know) or Chainsaw Man (look, I know, I know, these are just observations, I’m being empirical, okay?). From intercontinental ballistic crayons and telephone poles to newspaper cutout Cold War chess ripped off by Franz Ferdinand’s (fantastic) “Take Me Out,” this video is worth all five minutes involved and you should definitely watch it.
Pairs Well With: “One Step Beyond,” (Madness), “Epic” (Faith No More), “7” (Prince)
THE CLOCK | Thom Yorke I’m not sure how exactly this works, but while I can wait to listen to something like Vespertine for months or years on end, sometimes I’ll listen to an album I’ve only just discovered back-to-back on a whim. Such is the case for Radiohead and The Smile vocalist Thom Yorke’s first solo outing, The Eraser. I don’t often look through my apple music “for you” page because I resent suggestions from robots, but when I did so last weekend in search of nothing in particular, I was immediately drawn to The Eraser‘s eerie, cartoon cover, drawn in that scratchy, Radiohead style that I think I’ve been unconsciously emulating in my Dream Story illustrations. Like the empty, monochrome inks of this cover, it’s clear there’s something missing in The Eraser‘s white space, though I don’t mean that as any disrespect towards Yorke—even considering his Radiohead tenure, striking out solo for the first time must have been an entirely different experience, and a lesson on fleshing out one’s own imagination. Recorded back-to-back with Radiohead’s sixth album Hail to the Thief, The Eraser sounds much like a late Radiohead song dissolved down to its skeleton in a vat of acid—a skeleton that, while notably sparser, still features some thrillingly eerie beats and sounds. Though I’m uncertain if “The Clock” is still my favorite track on the album, it has perhaps the clearest dicernable lineage when it comes to mapping Yorke and Radiohead’s evolution. Specifically, I’ve found a number of notable ties between The Eraser and Radiohead’s seventh album, The King of Limbs: “Skip Divided” sounds like a blueprint for “Feral,” and “The Clock,” today’s pick, even has several transitional stages. I’m not sure how many of my crackpot postulations comparing music to phylogeny hold up to scrutiny, but there’s an undeniable family line between “The Clock,” Thom Yorke’s Twilight: New Moon (that Twilight: New Moon) single “Hearing Damage,” and The King of Limbs’s “Morning Mr. Magpie,” which I have already expressed my undying adoration for.
To be clear, “The Clock” stands wonderfully on its own despite not reaching quite the heights of its progeny. With its palpitating baseline, radio-static guitar, and hissing vocal percussion that turns Vespertine‘s whispers spine-tingling, this track is full of sounds you’d be hard-pressed to find combined anywhere else, proving that Thom Yorke’s experimental voice still persists when his collaborators are stripped away.
Pairs Well With: “Hearing Damage” (Thom Yorke), “Morning Mr. Magpie” (Radiohead), “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” (David Bowie)
So, okay, I’ve been on a Barlowe kick, but this one’s different, I swear! While still depicting a grade-A alien, this piece, commissioned for the June 1984 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, illustrates renowned sci-fi author Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” with a stark and surreal gaze. Steven King once said something like “kid, if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write,” but often, my reading to writing ratio is woefully small. I guess that’s my excuse for not having read “Bloodchild” sooner—though I’d heard of it through Barlowe’s work before, I finally sat down and read it for a science fiction literature class last week (I know, right?) and couldn’t get enough of it. I’m not sure we want this to be, like, a tone-setter this week, it certainly isn’t a story you come away from feeling refreshed by… think Alien, but grooming…? Yea. But like… cool art, right? Anyways, have a great week this week, and remember: it’s always better to ask your doctor about parasites than to not say anything at all.
THOMB YORKIE 😍
Also check out “Blood Music” by Greg Bear, another classic Sci-Fi story that piece of art could apply to, and then rue the fact that we live in a world where neither of our parents saw fit to give us the surname “Bear.”
Well, your parents were bosses and mine were foxes, so it’s really a matter of genetics
I feel like that video could be narrated by the MST3K gang! So good! And I love the proto Mayor character design. Thanks for that little past blast.
I feel like the MST3K characters would fit right in within the actual video, though. Too creative to be bad.