Songs of the Week 03/24/2023

Yea, so, screw conciseness, right? I thought last week’s one-sentence style would be a fun little break from the absolute cinderblocks of song reviews that I usually collapse everyone’s roofs with, but apparently, I must have just bottled up all of my words, because I’m serving up the cinderblock of cinderblocks this week. Get comfy.

WONDERFUL | Jim Noir Well, folks, we are now 10 EPs into our 9 EP Jim Noir expedition—more or less on schedule—with the promise of not one, but three full albums on the horizon. I say “the promise” because, for future readers’ sake (I can dream), I’m not sure if that’s exactly what we’ll get. The plan has changed multiple times, but I can’t and won’t complain about new music, especially of this caliber. Eagle-eyed Max Todd Dot Com (Max! Todd! Dot! Com!) groupies may notice I haven’t spoken much on the last few Patreon-exclusive EPs, and beyond being a slave to weekly color palettes, there’s another reason for that. If I’m being completely frank, I’ve been avoidant of listening to some of the new Noir content because it often feels unfinished. No shame on the dude—he’s a prolific genius, no matter his output—but this schedule is clearly wiping him out, and I’m honestly astonished we’ve gotten as many good tracks as we have at this rate. Again, here I go making parasocial assumptions, but this level of output is a great way to burn out, and I pray for Jim’s sanity every night in my little Family Circus jammies. As he has alluded to, though, I doubt this will be the final form of many of these songs, and in that way, these EPs have been an in-depth look into his songwriting process, which is a privilege in its own right.

“WONDERFUL,” off of the most recent Montreal EP, is no exception. To be clear, this song is fanTAStic—it’s our monthly reminder that Mr. Noir is a frabjous elf that can’t help but poop out magical music, and truly, it puts a smile on my face to know he’s still got it, even under this stress. With its perfectly cheesy synths and drum machines, “WONDERFUL” has a ballad quality, but the second Jim’s vocals kick in, it’s clear there’s nothing disingenuous about it. Its lyrics and sounds alike emit a healing warmth that feels almost like traction, like morning meditation. Even as its harmonies blossom delightfully in the background while the synth crumbles into R2-D2 gibberish, the warmth persists, and is perhaps even enhanced by the surrounding chaos. It’s this sort of whimsy that many new songs are missing—though they’re undoubtedly each nuggets of britpop gold, compared to the intricate instrumentation, intros, and outros of earlier songs like “Tired Hairy Man With Parts,” they often sound unrefined. Not to sound all zen here, but to me, this calls for patience, not disappointment—after all, this has happened before. Jim Noir’s Patreon campaign to crowdfund the album Jimmy’s Show featured a plethora of rough draft EPs, and lest we forget, the first version of “Ping Pong Time Tennis” on the EP Special Features of a Camel was entirely missing its text-to-speech outro saying “Jim Noir is a very sexy man,” a now classic line (at least in my headcannon). I, for one, can’t wait to see what revisions can be wrought from these already-fantastic songs.

I know this entry is already bloated (and it won’t be the last), but unfortunately, “WONDERFUL” pairs well with a lot of Noir’s discography that, at present, is very much unavailable, which is a huge shame. “We are the Numbers” from his Jim Noir Club Collection EP In Hell and “Alphabetic Man” from the similarly exclusive Early Learnings Vol. 1 are my ideal pairings, but until I can link to a youtube video of those, I’m gonna have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for others. By “scrape the bottom of the barrel,” I mean more Jim Noir, because the dude has so much music and none of it is even slightly bad, so I should probably just find another analogy.

Pairs Well With:Don’t You Worry,” (Jim Noir), “Beautiful Love” (Julian Cope), “Made Up in Blue” (The Bats)

O DEATH | Shakey Graves covering an Appalachian Folk Song Where to even begin with this cover? Though there’s so many things I’d love to touch on, I suppose maybe the place I found it is as good a point as any to start as any. Proceed with caution, though—MAJOR spoilers for Fargo Season Two ahead, and spoilers that aren’t nearly as nuts out of context as they are in context, so I wouldn’t mess around with them if you haven’t seen the show. Disappointment awaits.

[Okay. The link is here because just the title of the youtube video is the spoiler, which is great. Sorry. Pretend there are visuals here so you’re more engaged.]

Got it? Okay. In a show full of perfect needle drops, I don’t think I could’ve picked a better backdrop for Mike Milligan’s quiet contemplation of his impending execution—an understated magic that few other than Shakey Graves could ever conjure. In a way, this scene is a distillation of everything I love about both Fargo and Shakey; their shared reverence and irreverence for the spontaneity of life, their ability to find meaning in sudden and convoluted chains of events, their respect for and inspiration from small-town wisdom, their affinity for unpredictable cameos. That last one might be a stretch, but there’s textual evidence that these two are a match made in heaven. Shakey’s rendition of “O Death,” for me, is proof of this success, and the definitive version of this song.

As usual, I was surprised to find that “O Death,” #4933 on the Roud Folk Song Index, predates my earliest estimations and has fittingly lost its original composer to time. In a similarly timeless tale, though “O Death” is often attributed to Baptist preacher Lloyd Chandler in 1920, it can actually be traced back to black folk music in North Carolina transcribed in The Journal of American Folklore almost ten years before Chandler’s version was first performed. Like Death itself, I suspect a song as universal as this can’t be traced to a single origin—even its lyrics tell a muddled story, swapping Death and the victim’s first person perspectives with a nonsensicality that can only emerge from organic mutation. Needless to say, this is very much in line with Shakey Graves’s folk mystique, a possessed performer like the archetypal guitarist who sold his soul to the Devil. I’m certain this is why showrunner Noah Hawley commissioned Graves and PHOX vocalist Monica Martin to put their spin on this timeless piece—that, and the fact that, like Blitzen Trapper’s cover of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and Hawley’s own cover of “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” “O Death” appeared on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ oft-referenced O Brother, Where Art Thou?

As with the soundscape of any desolate Coen Brothers project, O Brother‘s “O Death,” performed by Ralph Stanley, is at once gruffly stark and comically southern. With its warbling, cowboy vibrato without so much as strings to back it, Stanley’s version is undoubtedly stirring. In some sense, this should be “O Death”‘s purest form—bare, humbling, and callously funereal—yet somehow, I find Shakey’s version captures other angles of this piece. To me, it comes down to a difference between bleak and chilling atmospheres. Where Stanley’s version is (justifiably) depressing in its mournful acceptance Death, Shakey’s version maintains its raw pleas on gusts of low and bluesy guitars that add emotional texture. To me, this instrumentation makes for an almost ethereal quality—the sensation of Death’s icy hand, a brush that could only come from the supernatural. Stanley’s, if anything, evokes a scene I’d rather not dwell on: a small congregation of straw hats, balloon-sleeved dresses, and dusty priests weeping over some fresh, cornfield grave, nameless and reclaimed by the endless prairie. Maybe that’s the gritty discomfort Death’s inevitability should evoke, but I don’t think Shakey’s take loses any of that bleakness—it simply folds in whispers of characterization and spirituality in its strings. To be honest, those strings might be the reason it stands out from the others—without Shakey Graves’s signature tuning, “O Death” immediately withers from spooky to mournful. It’s weird to put these two interpretations in competition when they’re both equally moving, but the inconsistency in keys means that I won’t be putting Ralph Stanley’s takes with the pairings today—just in terms of sound, some of these songs feel like a better match. That, and I wanted to throw in the curveball of All Them Witches’s “When God Comes Back,” which is about as bluesy as it gets beneath that blasting metal. Not the craziest pairing I’ve found for this one, but I wouldn’t want to lead anyone too astray (try Big Data’s “Dangerous” after “O Death” if you’re really tone deaf, though).

Pairs Well With:Not Everything Grows” (Shakey Graves) “What Is a Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?” (Zeal & Ardor), “When God Comes Back” (All Them Witches)

NEW GOLD | Gorillaz feat. Bootie Brown and Tame Impala Despite the lukewarm reception I’d heard towards Gorillaz’s February release Cracker Island, after their incredible live show at the Ball Arena, I’d be hard pressed not to hear a few songs out—especially with the likes of Tame Impala in tow. From its desolate, synth-y start like some bubbling, cyberpunk birth, “New Gold” had me hooked. Though I’m not totally certain how I’d describe this style of song, it feels in line with something like Run The Jewels’s “Thursday in the Danger Room (feat. Kamasi Washington),” evoking a sci-fi sadness that’s dazzling enough to balance the background melancholy. You know, like those “literally me” Blade Runner edits, but like, good? Where “Thursday in the Danger Room” is obviously grieving, however, “New Gold” embraces a bouncier spirit, something which can’t help but follow Tame Impala wherever he goes. In fact, despite its ominous key, “New Gold” is just as good for clubbing as it is for sit-down listening, with Bootie Brown’s infectious rap settling into a half-spoken song at 1:39 that never fails to make me smile. Between Bootie Brown and Tame Impala, though, this song—this album—is something of a cameo-stravaganza, and between all of this fun, I’m sad to say that any intermittent primatez activity can be difficult to parse out. In fact, it’s not until 1:56—more than halfway through the song—that we get our first hints of Damon Albarn’s voice. My lovely girlfriend may think that the Gorillaz characters would “catcall her” and “smell like the inside of a hot, unfamiliar car,” but there’s a reason we all fell in love with those apez in the first place, and their immortal personas shouldn’t take a backseat to featured big names. Then again, perhaps their immortality stems from these personaz as masks to be worn by any number of musiscians—ever-more-relevant artists responsible for keeping Gorillaz music refreshing and popular. Even so, I can’t help but miss Damon Albarn and company on songs like these, no matter how good they are.

Pairs Well With:Thursday in the Danger Room (feat. Kamasi Washington)” (Run the Jewels), “Elephant” (Tame Impala), “Caffeinated Consciousness” (TV on the Radio)

BICYCLE | St. Vincent It feels a little crazy that this is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a St. Vincent song on the old Max Todd Dot Com (Max! Todd! Dot! Com!), especially given how many times she’s shown up in pairings. It feels only fitting, then, that our first St. Vincent piece is a B-side so obscure that even I’d never heard of it. Now, listen, I’m a big St. Vincent fan—she is an incredible artist and performer, and I’ll follow her almost anywhere—but my sister will probably hit the floor the very instant St. Vincent’s soul leaves us, so, being the bigger fan, kudos to her for excavating this deep cut. Straight-up, “Bicycle” has had me in a relentless stranglehold for a month now. That feels a bit insane to say about a song with this much dainty, Parisian sophistication, but that doesn’t change the fact that it won’t let go. I don’t know what it is about my monkey brain, but I am instantly hypnotized by songs with this imbedded circularity, simulated by undulating chords backed by percussion moving half the speed. Where the grandiosity of similar songs like Masters of Reality’s “100 Years (Of Tears in the Wind)” (one of my favorite songs) evokes roiling waves, “Bicycle”‘s soft, indie fuzz and languid piano sounds almost more akin to spinning wheels, like… like a… you know. In other contexts, I think I’d be put off by this fuzz, so often used as an atmospheric crutch in indie circles, but between the accordion and aforementioned piano, there’s a more unique soundscape created here, one of rainy whimsy; of stripes, berets, and baguettes. Though “Bicycle” came as the B-side to “Actor Out of Work” (one of my favorite St. Vincent songs), this delicate soundscape feels far closer to her first album, Marry Me. Where most of 2009’s Actor hints towards the curt, crunchier sounds in her future, “Bicycle” feels right at home next to chiming tracks like “Now, Now” (another of my favorite St. Vincent songs), which might hint that it was an unpolished Marry Me leftover. Whatever its origins, though, “Bicycle” stands catlike on its own, and if my current listens are anything to go by, you’ll be hearing about it again come New Year’s.

Pairs Well With:Now, Now” (St. Vincent) “Mrs. Magic” (Strawberry Guy) “100 Years (Of Tears in the Wind)” (Masters of Reality)

HEPTAPOD B | Jóhann Jóhannsson You all know I’m bad at favorites, but Arrival will never not be one of my top five movies of all time. My girlfriend and I were both ugly crying last time we watched it, no hyperbole. For those that haven’t seen it, Arrival tells the story of a linguist hired to decode an alien language in a truly unearthly first contact scenario, and it’s one of the most indelibly human pieces of science fiction that has ever been put to screen. There are so many wonderful things to say even just about Jóhann Jóhannsson’s cosmic score, but I doubt any of my commentary will be as insightful as that of the man himself (rest in peace). Researching for this week’s post, I found a wonderful Song Exploder episode where Jóhannsson breaks down his process for composing today’s track, “Heptapod B,” layer by layer. I’d urge anyone interested to listen to that after checking out the song itself—it’s very thorough. Essentially, Jóhannsson’s aim was to defamiliarize human sounds—presumably such that the immensity of unscrambling an alien language could be understood by highlighting the subjective strangeness of our own sounds. While Jóhannsson evoked cosmic scale by looping high sounds on low speeds (and vise versa) to create “subsonic rumbles,” the monkey-like choir chirps are meant to evoke nonsense sounds, “almost like baby talk—like a language being developed.” What’s perhaps so magical about “Heptapod B” comes from its ability to hint towards a rhythm that emerges through perceived nonsense, suggested by the random background strings that coalesce into an understanding of sorts despite playing scattered notes. This alone is an incredibly insightful composition, and it may be what makes the montage it’s featured in so transcendent. A lot of people like to say that soundtracks do the legwork for emotional scenes, but to me, this is an example of everything going right—the writing, the direction, the performances, the animation, the composition, on and on. There’s so much to love even in these two minutes, but perhaps my favorite shot is of physicist Ian walking alongside a shrouded Heptapod. It makes me choke up a little every time—it moves me the way Jeremy Renner can’t help but stride like all primates do, opposable fingers curled, spine sloped, still evolutionarily learning to stand, while he finds commonality with a seven-legged alien in a gesture we deem human. Do me a favor and watch Arrival, and then rewatch it. Like “WONDERFUL,” in a way, it’s healing to us all.

Pairs Well With:Aria Math” (C418), “Mycelia” (Björk), “Waves” (Carolina Eyck & Eversines)

Credit to The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art

This week’s color scheme was pretty tough to contain. In order to keep these songs up to date, sometimes I have to sacrifice pairing similar album covers together and just say what I’m listening to this week with no beautification, like a normal person. If you look back through my graphics, there’s been some uggos for this exact reason, and I was expecting another for this week until I rediscovered Vance Kirkland’s “Fantasy,” a piece he painted with synthesizing these album covers in mind (just for me, of course—thanks, Vance). While often overshadowed by its next-door neighbor The Denver Art Museum (DAM!), The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art has quite a few gems of its own—namely, the full collection of its namesake, artist Vance Kirkland. I have a soft spot for the Kirkland, especially since I actually met the members of indie darlings Yankee Escape System on the bus ride there (true story). Given the diversity of Kirkland’s career and my plethora of photos from the experience, this probably won’t be the last time his art will feature, but don’t worry—if there’s one thing Kirkland wasn’t, it was consistent. Okay, no, that sounds mean! Aaaah! Go! Leave! Leave! This is embarrassing!



  1. emilyclaireynolds · March 24

    I was scanning your Bicycle entry for “TikTok”… funny how that never came up… anyways I love this post and I love you and I know you’d protect me from the Gorillaz 🥰

    • maxtodd · March 24

      Yea so i checked and it isn’t a tiktok song, but you saw it in a reel… made by my sister 😎😎😎😎 my taste is secure and obscure once again

      Also trust me I’ll make sure 2D keeps his D 2 himself

      • emilyclaireynolds · March 24

        Arrrgghhh foiled again!!! Rotten kids!!! I swear I saw it in other places too but I’ll whimper in a corner just for fun. At least you’re the funniest person alive

      • maxtodd · March 24

        No that’s actually you but if you’re trying to avoid catcallingz I understand

  2. “the gorillaz characters look like they would catcall [me]” mmm yeah not gonna deny the absolutely satanically rancid vibes of murdoc niccals

  3. JT · March 25

    “smells like the inside of a hot unfamiliar car” hands down, quote of the week.

  4. Pingback: Songs of the Week 03/31/2023 | Max Todd.
  5. Pingback: Songs of the Week 04/14/2023 (Coming to You From 04/21/2023) | Max Todd.

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