in my lowercase indie girl era, bopping to Fiona Apple Feist boygenius at the King Soopers self checkout
CRIMINAL | Fiona Apple This might be surprising to hear, but I’m actually humbled quite often by the power a song’s mainstream status has over me. I try very hard not to identify with being a quirky indie boy who doesn’t listen to NORMIE music—while there’s a good reason wisdom of the masses is a textbook logical fallacy, there’s usually a good reason why something captures said masses, especially when that something is the hypnotic power of an incredible performance. Classic songs like these remain classics far past most other expiration dates, outliving their own over-saturation, and when that happens, it’s sometimes possible to find a classic out of context and see it for what it truly is. Well, that’s my excuse for not knowing ’90s hits, anyway. This is the humbling part, because, like, 90% of my music is ’90s, but, you know, we’re all beginners, I guess, right? This has nothing to do with living under a rock.
While I wasn’t entirely unaware of Fiona Apple, I’m not exactly a fan that could name three songs, either. Blissfully ignorant of its hit status, I found “Criminal” searching for Feist’s influences for her pairing section almost exactly a month ago. These things don’t usually necessitate research, but I was outside my comfort zone, and I’m glad I explored far enough to find “Criminal,” a rock piano powerhouse despite its ’90s nihilism. With an overtly seedy atmosphere, even this song’s instrumentation is eerie, from piano chords that feel like they’re rattling against the percussion’s chains to flutes reminiscent of stereotypical snake charmers that I’m trying so hard not to make racist (but if I was the one to make the assumption, I guess that makes… ah, shit). Like Andrew Bird’s “Why” or Radiohead’s “Just,” (the latter of which makes for a fantastic transition, you’re welcome), this is the sort of song that lurks in the triangular darkness somewhere between angry, eerie, and sultry, though for me, the music doesn’t suggest either one more than the other. It’s the fun sort of darkness that inhabits the spirit of rock, I think—the kind of groove that (maybe oddly) gives me a childlike excitement, or captures a live crowd. By its major key shift and slithering breakdown at 3:55, “Criminal” is exactly that sort of song—one I’m glad I never heard overplayed enough to wash away my enjoyment of it.
All this said, it’s probably worth addressing the overt sexuality in this song that I, rockheadedly, just am not receiving from the music. From its first lyrics “I’ve been a bad, bad girl,” “Criminal” isn’t exactly being prudish, but after many subsequent listens, this song’s sexuality still reads as tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it’s the fact that Apple wrote this song at 18 (no shade, I could never), or maybe it’s her, um, heroin-chic disaffectedness, y’know, in the parlance of our times, but there’s a deep detachment to her delivery that almost sounds sarcastic. Perhaps it’s a piece of what Apple was intending, though maybe not to the extent that I’d assumed. According to her, the song is about feeling guilty for gaining things only by virtue of one’s sex appeal, a message that, as a decidedly unsexy (and more importantly) man, I think I’m bound to misconstrue as satirical, especially considering the numerous other systemic injustices that women face in the music industry, which would appear to be the root of this symptom. This message comes through strong in “Criminal’s” award-winning music video, from director of Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” and likely creepshow Mark Romanek. Allegedly, this video features 18-year-old Apple wading through a seedy sea of bodies and stripping down to her underwear, all while wearing her trademark, distant expression. I’m gonna be honest, given her age and her apparent discomfort discussing the video’s production, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to watch, but it’s worth noting given the song’s themes and the controversy surrounding them. To me, there’s something thoroughly icky here that the music alone doesn’t quite convey, but that’s just one man’s opinion. According to youtube commenter and likely creepshow Happy Bird Seeds, “Hooked every guy aged 12-52 immediately with that outstanding first lyric. Genius.” But sure, it’s the Drag Queens that are sexualizing kids, not this guy, right?
Pairs Well With: “God” (Tori Amos), “Pressure Times” (Transvision Vamp) “Just” (Radiohead),
A COMMOTION | Feist After February’s Feist-fest where I talked about seemingly everything but Feist, I figured it was time to dedicate a paragraph to Feist exclusively. That’s why I found my second Feist song through… oh wait, sorry… another a Mastodon cover. In their odd couple collaboration under the fantastic name Feistodon, these unlikely musicians traded covers back and forth, leading to Feist’s spine-tingling cover of “Black Tongue,” and Mastodon’s rumbling rendition of this week’s pick, “A Commotion.” Though their version is, to no one’s surprise, far more unabashedly metal, I was surprised how little they’d deviated from the original song’s driven intensity. Without wasting a single second, “A Commotion” bursts in with militant urgency, staccatto strings and piano marching nervously towards an explosive chorus only tempered by Feist’s breezy vocals. While this song is undeniably intimidating, I’m not sure its title totally matches—it feels contained and precise rather than cacophonous, only coming close to chaos when what sounds like a bass saxophone briefly yodels in. That’s not to say “A Commotion” doesn’t earn its fantastic intensity, however—it’s only overwhelming in a new and surprising way. As far as I know, “A Commotion” hasn’t been used on the big or small screen, which, unfortunately, I’m going to say is “Criminal.” Look, I’m sorry, I don’t have an editor. All I’m saying is, I’m definitely calling it for some future needle-drop.
Pairs Well With: “Criminal” (Fiona Apple), “Black Mirror” (Arcade Fire), “Rhiannon” (Fleetwood Mac)
$20 | boygenius While I’m far from the biggest fan of indie supergroup boygenius, between my sister and my girlfriend, I’ve heard enough from Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus to admit when they hit it. Each contributing artist headlines a single on The Record, their newest surprise release that I’m over a month behind on, and the opener, “$20” is clearly Julien Baker’s baby. Incidentally, of the trio, I’ve heard the least from Baker by far, and though she’s my lovely girlfriend’s least favorite (and she’s never wrong about anything), “$20” is far and away my favorite of the bunch. I might be influenced by The Record‘s promotional color scheme, but this song sounds like hard rock at sunset—a cocktail of melancholia I’ve never quite experienced, and which I’m having an even harder time dissecting. It’s no doubt due in part to the song’s predictably indie lyrics of midwestern ennui, symptomatic of all three artists involved—a trademark I’m perhaps too harsh on, considering how evocative lines like “how long’s the chevy been on cinderblocks?” can be. In my listening experience, though, the true soul of “$20” comes from its gasoline guitars, starting in deliberate footsteps and then erupting into nebulous solos at the song’s climax. Though Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus sound strikingly different as singers, their disparate voices take on a genuinely interesting quality, like an organic and clamoring crowd. And in the end, if Bridger’s fantastic scream doesn’t put a smile on your face, I’m not sure what else to tell you, man. It’s good stuff, and that’s that.
Footnote—whoever did the graphics for The Record, I’ve really gotta hand it to—aw, for Christ’s sake, I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to keep doing this. Seriously, though, when I first saw the hand of each boygenius uncurling from an orange, ember light into dark, dusky blue, I completely understood the hype. If I was a bigger fan, that image would make me go nuts, and it honestly gave me a little chill when first seeing it, even outside that perspective.
Pairs Well With: “Kissing Lessons” (Lucy Dacus), “Cherry Picking” (Girlpool), “In the Street” (Big Star)
THE COURT | Peter Gabriel More new music for me, more old news for the rest of you! Another February release, Peter Gabriel’s newest single “The Court” is yet another miracle I thank god for wearing my little nightcap and milk mustache in bed every night. Part of a series of songs released every full moon in preparation for his new album I/O, “The Court” proves perhaps even better than his last release, “Panopticom,” that Peter Gabriel’s still got it. Despite Gabriel’s immortal voice and ever-sharp lyricism, I felt pretty lukewarm about “Panopticom” musically, and he must still be a regular reader, because “The Court” brings it as both an instantly-recognizable pop song and simultaneously a layered composition. If there were traces of early Peter Gabriel in “Panopticom,” “The Court” proves they’ve never gone away with its eerie and robotic percussion that seamlessly intermingles with New Blood-reminiscent strings. Gabriel’s voice, which cannot be sung enough praise, also demonstrates quite a bit of range, bringing back the contrast of growling background sighs and intense whispering with solid singing, all the while cooperating with the almost rapped cadence of later albums like Us (it sounds better than I’m describing it, I promise). Granted, I don’t love everything “The Court” has to offer—though I understand what it’s going for, the sudden, snuffing instrumental silence of the chorus can bring the song’s usual tension to a screeching halt, and its usage of “mobile phone” and “chocolate milk” feel somewhat incongruous in the same way Danny Elfman’s references to Snapchat and Minecraft in “Happy” do, though I can’t tell if that’s ageism on my part (the allegations are mounting against me this week). Either way, I’m fascinated by I/O‘s complex direction, and hold none of these creative choices against it—ultimately, the album is reexamining a familiar path under an altered lens, and thus far, it has not disappointed. Thanks for sticking with us, Pete.
Pairs Well With: “Digging in the Dirt” (Peter Gabriel), “ISN’T EVERYONE” (HEALTH and Nine Inch Nails), “Supermarine” (Hans Zimmer)
WILD MAN | Kate Bush Finally, from another aging, ageless musician I’ve never actually mentioned before on this blog, we have a selection from the twilight of Kate Bush’s discography, over a decade old at this point. It makes me sad to say I’m still working through 2011’s 50 Words for Snow, a soft and contemplative meditation on snow based on the titular misconception about the Inuit language. After this, I’ll only have an album I missed from her early career, Lionheart, alongside a handful of B-sides, before I’ll have heard Kate Bush’s entire discography. As bratty as my Aerial and Red Shoes tantrums have been, I’ve really enjoyed this journey—it’s exceedingly rare that I love and trust a musician enough to listen to everything they’ve released, since I’m so stingy about preserving the songs I do love and not diluting them with material I’m not as fond of. Case in point, 50 Words for Snow is a mixed bag—as my girlfriend said best, “once you’ve done a duet with Elton John, your career is over”—but even as her musical stylings have somewhat settled, the literary soul of Kate Bush shines through to the end, as songs like “Wild Man” prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. When considering just how many tangential, crystalline facets of snow a concept album like this could explore, I’d never have considered the numerous bizarre angles 50 Words takes, my favorite of which is an ode to the abominable snowman itself: the Yeti. Opening with whispers of sharp, crumbly snow like peppermint bark, “Wild Man” immediately evokes the gently harsh edge that winter’s mysteries hold—not always as immediately hostile as the Himalayas, but still watching warily. As always, I’m touched by the compassion and reverence this song holds for these mysteries, regarding the Yeti with a certain Cernunos-like reverence. In the end, the song’s protagonists discover hard evidence for its existence, sung as “footprints in the snow,” and opt to bury them to keep the endangered creature’s secret safe from the prying eyes of mankind. As is to be expected, it’s a moving story sung with moving vocals, though not conventional for Bush’s music. Here, she mostly speaks the song’s story in verse, only bursting into song in the chorus, backed by Andy Fairweather Low of Amen Corner and the Eric Clapton Band. Like boygenius, it’s an odd pairing of voices, with Fairweather Low’s sounding like a straining David Byrne in comparison to Bush’s rich and melodic signature style. Again like boygenius, though, it’s a pairing I’m surprised works really well, even if I’m not sure I could explain why. While this was tragically Bush’s last album, this certainly isn’t her last outing on Max Todd Dot Com (Songs! Of! The! Week!)—I have many more thoughts on 50 Words for Snow, and I’m certain I’ll say the same about Lionheart.
Pairs Well With: “Pi” (Kate Bush), “Who” (David Byrne and St. Vincent), “Lazarus” (David Bowie)
Fittingly, we’re ending with a photo of an antlered, cryptid woman of sorts, though this one inhabits a much drier season. Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick’s wonderful 2013 photo “Melora” is meant to evoke a stag staring a woman in the face, calling into question their relationship. From here, though, I just see a woman with antlers, sue me. It’s a striking image either way, particularly as a metaphor for a feminine figure in touch with her animus. I also feel like the red belt must mean something, but as much as I hate to say it, this could just be a blue curtains situation.
I wasn’t sure where exactly to organically say this other than implying it with the pairing sections, but as a bonus, I find four out of five of these songs work more or less in conjunction, though I haven’t quite ironed out the order. My best stab at this little playlist would be “$20,” “Criminal,” “A Commotion,” and finally, “The Court,” but those middle two are such great transitional songs that it could probably be reconfigured. Mess around with it, if you’d like. And don’t exclude “Wild Man” either, okay? He’ll feel bad. I better not hear about that next week.
Yay new post!!!! But also… do my eyes deceive me or did you recommend a Fleetwood Mac song??? I’m shocked
Sh I’m trying to increase viewership engagement profit margin networks, Adele was almost a pairing too
Might as well throw Elton John in there for good measure
Hey no that’d be like inviting in the grim reaper and we both know that
I like Melora, thanks for posting it. Like you, I saw more of a hybrid. In fact, my first thought when I saw it was, Wild Twin.
Yea, or even courting the wild twin
I laughed out loud several times during this reading. Good stuff. But also, how are you just now discovering Fiona Apple since we’ve played her music forever? Was this one of those times you were staring out the window thinking about Limon?
Yea, realistically, yea. I don’t know if I’d ever heard Criminal before but I know I’ve heard Fiona Apple, just not enough for anything to stick…? I’m being redeemed for the songs I sinned against
YOU BEAT ME TO CRIMINAL NOOOOOOOO it’s so good though, and I’m glad you liked that boygenius song, who doesn’t love a good ol’ phoebe scream
Finder’s keepers hahaha also thanks it’s a good scream