They say Tuesday is the new last Friday, right?
AVANT GARDENER | Courtney Barnett Hey Quinn, I finally finished your playlist! I don’t know much about Courtney Barnett, but her wry-witted hit “Avant Gardener” gets better every time I hear it. There’s something so hypnotically drunken about this song’s arrangement, with sliding, whining guitar and slurred vocals draped over a skeleton of methodical drums and bass. When I try to imagine these cogs turning separately, I always picture the solar system, with the baseline and percussion circling predictably like planets while the nervous guitar and spilling vocals slingshot erratically like asteroids. It’s a perfect fit for this rambling story, told so breathlessly that even the commas don’t relieve.
Despite its title, though, I instantly knew “Avant Gardener”‘s sound the moment it began, and I thought pairings this week would be easy—I’ve heard a million songs like this before, right? As it turns out, I actually had to outsource my pairings this week (ethically, of course, if any lawyers come sniffing)—though I knew there was more like this out there, I was having a lot of trouble pinpointing it. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s British profiling, because this song’s presentation at first reminded me of the droll and disaffected vocals of Wet Leg and Sorry, despite the fact that all three couldn’t be further apart other than their dry, female singers. That’s not to say “Avant Gardener” isn’t hysterically sarcastic—my favorite line, delivered perfectly deadpan, is “the paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying,” but there are a lot of other gems I wouldn’t want to spoil. I should’ve been paying attention to the skittering sounds behind Barnett’s almost atonal voice, which to me sounds far more like the Feelies or Brian Eno, in retrospect. In fact, I’d wager if I wasn’t hung up on the feminine vocal range, I probably would’ve made the connection far quicker. That’s what I say to make myself feel better, at least.
Pairs Well With: “Trans Mantra” (Ezra Furman), “Billy” (Horsegirl), “It’s Only Life” (The Feelies)
WALKEN | Wilco So, cards on the table, Sky Blue Sky was never my least favorite Wilco album, but its reputation sure wasn’t doing much to raise it in the ranks. Influenced by good vibes and jam bands, Sky Blue Sky is the album for which one Pitchfork reviewer coined the term “dad rock”—and hey, to be clear, I love all of the rock my dad sends my way, but by some cruel fallacy of the fickle masses, “dad rock” is not a cool look. Sure, Sky Blue Sky may not have the eclectic and emotional soundscape of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or the declarative spirituality of A Ghost is Born, but it expands far beyond music aimed at lip-biting, middle-aged men drinking warm Budweisers and bumping into their shorter neighbors (but like, all you lip-biting, middle-aged men drinking warm Budweisers and bumping into their shorter neighbors, keep on rockin’. Maybe once your spatial awareness boots back up, though, huh?) Ever the poet, Jeff Tweedy here steered the band away from exploring depression and addiction, aiming to refute the “suffering artist” stereotype by proving groundbreaking art can be drawn from happy and healthy emotions (hence the title)—something the band has since proven album after album again. Pitchfork has since apologized for their snobbish denouncement, and rightfully so—between the ambling wistfulness of “Either Way” and the triumphant optimism of “What Light” and “Side with the Seeds,” it’s safe to say there’s a lot to love about Sky Blue Sky.
Of course, even despite all of that, I’ll always have a little bias against Sky Blue Sky—blame it on the instagram commenter who called Ode to Joy their best album since Sky Blue Sky. Which, like… have you listened to Star Wars? Or Whole Love? Okay, maybe we’re getting a little too Wilcobrained, here, too Wilcopilled, so I’ll reel it in and actually talk for a minute about the actual song I was supposed to talk about. Maybe I’m just delaying admitting that the “Free Bird” solo is probably stuck in my head more frequently than any one Wilco song, but in my defense, I think Ibram X. Kendi said that to be anti-Lynyrd Skynyrd is to first actively work against society’s Lynyrd Skynyrd programming. I’m not gonna dismiss the confederate flag in the room, but I have to admit that it’s kind of a killer solo—one that my brain just loves to remix with the, I would say, equally fantastic solo from “Walken.” Seriously, listen to 5:09-5:22 in Free Bird and tell me it doesn’t stitch right into 2:32 “Walken.” Right? Right. Ever since I noticed this, “Walken” has been my nonstop walking tune, as it was intended. While, like many songs on Sky Blue Sky, I couldn’t ascribe a strong emotion to this song other than general contentedness, that doesn’t mean it’s not a blast to listen to. From its catchy, strolling tempo to the shredding solo it dissolves into, this song stays upbeat and focused no matter where it strays, like a dog on a leash. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned many times, Wilco is masterful at exploding into chaos without ever losing themselves in it, like the best of jam bands—here in particular, it’s Nels Cline who shines the brightest, with a guitar solo that simultaneously drives the song but never ousts Tweedy’s peppy vocals from the spotlight. I never thought I’d call Jeff Tweedy peppy, and I bet he never thought so either, but here we are, folks. In conclusion, “Walken” really rocks, and it’s made me appreciate Sky Blue Sky a lot more. Alright… I guess I’m done. No more Wilco talk, that’s all for this week.
Pairs Well With: “Side With the Seeds” (Wilco) “Dirty Jim” (Richard Swift), “Free Bird” (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
HEY CHICKEN | Loose Fur Anyways, onto this totally different band featuring… vocalist Jeff Tweedy, drummer Glenn Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke, producer of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born? And… also Sonic Youth stuff, too? Haha, psych, wow, I got you guys good there, right? What started as a sort of Wilco audition for drummer Glenn Kotche became the two-album side project Loose Fur, a band too full of gems to be considered backlog material. Still, I often forget how cool songs like “Hey Chicken” are until they come on shuffle when I’m least expecting them. Despite Tweedy’s unmistakable vocals, Loose Fur has quite a distinct sound without the skittering dexterity of Nels Cline’s guitar—”Hey Chicken”‘s guitar has punchier, crunchier riffs than the solos Wilco often spirals into. There’s something harsher about it despite its uptight structure, a combo that reminds me a lot of Brian Eno (this guy again), T. Rex, and Television, the latter being a big influence on Wilco’s work. Not to pat myself on the back, but this also pairs nicely with “Avant Gardener”—save for the last song on this list, they all kind of fit together, more or less (sorry, Fever Ray).
Pairs Well With: “King of You” (Wilco), “Avant Gardener” (Courtney Barnett), “See No Evil” (Television)
DIRTY JIM | Richard Swift Gather ’round, Swifties!
…no, not her, I mean Richard Swifties. I’m sort of embarrassed I hadn’t heard of of this guy until about a week ago, seeing as he’s a cited influence of indie heavy hitters like Cayucas, Fleet Foxes, and The Shins—not to mention being a band member of the latter as well as The Arcs, The Black Keys, and Starflyer 59 on top of his solo career. Dude was prolific, which makes it all the more tragic that we lost him at just forty-one to alcohol-related complications. Even so, he left us with what appears to be an enormous catalogue that I’ve only just gotten into thanks to a recommendation by a friend. “Dirty Jim” is my first (and only, so far) Richard Swift song, and though it’s been doing overtime hours on my last walks to and from campus before graduation, I almost dismissed it from its first notes. I’ve come to love the jangling, awkward piano loop that forms the skeleton of this song, but when I first heard it, I was almost put off by the almost goofy indie sound—if it wasn’t for Swift’s rasping voice (that never sounds like a compliment, but it is) and soulful lyrics like “All my lovers, all my friends / Everybody in the end / Tries to fix the boy inside of you,” I might have written it off entirely. What can I say? I’m a snob, but by the time the chorus shatters into the chattering of analog appliances, I was totally sold—a good clinky-clunky song will do that just fine. Like Wilco’s “Walken,” “Dirty Jim” is a deceptively simple breeze, sauntering past alarm clocks, typewriter keys, and a distinctly bittersweet nostalgia without ever losing pace, all thanks to that earworm piano loop. Thanks for this one, Richard Swift, and rest in peace.
Pairs Well With: “Walken” (Wilco), “High School Lover” (Cayucas), “Hang Me Up to Dry” (Cold War Kids)
KEEP THE STREETS EMPTY FOR ME | Fever Ray When it comes to Dark, I’m actually still streets behind (not a WORD about season 3)—I’m even still hung up on Season 1’s soundtrack. While Dark’s needle drops have rarely blown me away in execution, whoever’s in charge of picking each episode’s closing track consistently nails the show’s bleak and rainy tone, and should really DJ my next birthday party (please?). If it wasn’t apparent from the title, Fever Ray’s “Keep the Streets Empty For Me” is one of the best examples of this, featured only four episodes into the first season. This song’s goth atmosphere absolutely lives up to its name, conjuring clicky and chilly sensations almost reminiscent of Depeche Mode or Portishead. Still, there’s something about the synth sensibilities here that sound almost uniquely windblown and empty compared to the rest of Dark’s soundtrack. I’d attribute that to the vocals of Fever Ray herself, otherwise known as Karin Dreijer, who also featured in the electronic duo The Knife and who is singlehandedly pushing Goth’s fashion into new and terrifying territories. My totally uncultured accent buffoonery has lead me to believe Karin Dreijer sounds a lot like Björk when she says “uncover our heads and reveal our souls,” but she’s actually from Sweden, which is totally different from Iceland, if you didn’t know. Needless to say, though, Dreijer channels Björk’s same eerie, ethereal spirit, like foggy breath on a cold day. Evidently, wherever Dark finds its immaculately-cultivated sound is where I need to be. Netflix, if you’re reading this, have your people connect with my people so I can improve my music taste.
Pairs Well With: “Me and the Devil” (Soap&Skin covering Robert Johnson), “Flies on the Windscreen” (Depeche Mode), “Mysterons” (Portishead)
Alright, I’m cheating again with the art this week, but in my defense, Sky Blue Sky‘s album cover predates the album itself. This photo is actually Manuel Presti’s prize-winning photo “Sky Chase,” which won him Wildlife Photographer of the year in 2005 and was later featured in National Geographic in 2007. It depicts a swarm of starlings flanked by a lone peregrine falcon, waiting for its moment to swoop in and strike. Even despite these ominous implications, there’s something that feels so serene about this photo—the depth suggested with scarcely more than light and shadow is incredible, and the flurry of blurred wings almost looks pencilled. Even the falcon bit feels like more than a lurking predator—rendered in black and white, this bird, indistinguishable from the rest, just looks like an outsider flying separate from the flock.
Sorry for the inconsistent schedule for the past few months—April and May are always choppy waters for me, but I’ve been especially overwhelmed this finals season because I’m graduating in a couple days. As I always say, I love doing these posts, and I especially love the routine they give me, but with the addition of pairings especially, Songs of the Week posts take about four hours to complete these days, and I’m not sure how much time I’ll have coming up, especially starting my job. I may take the next few weeks off, but I hope I won’t have to. In the meantime, though, take care of yourselves. Without me watching over you from far ahead, as I always do, there will be no shame to keep them from pursuing you. Watch out for blind corners and old flour. They will strike when you least expect it. Go now. Remain vigilant.
Thanks for reminding me what a good song Hey Chicken is, nice one. Also, thanks for the Richard S song. I’ve seen him live a couple of times (he opened for WILCO on a two night run at the Filmore) but, I was never able to find a song that I liked as much as his performance.
Dang, that’s a real shame! It’s always sad to me when people are great performers but their music isn’t fun. Like just perform it that way when you record it
PS- I will give Free Bird a listen.
Don’t do the whole thing, I wouldn’t make you do that, just the solo.
PS- The writer who coined the term dad rock in the review of SBS has since publicly apologized and gave it a better review.
I linked it! I hope I didn’t go too hard on that guy…
I’m so sorry that I missed this one!!! wordpress is weird sometimes