Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Magic mix

Everyone likes good post. And post doesn't come much better than the CD that arrived for me from Texas last Wednesday. For, in the Shuffleathon expertly organised by Swiss Toni, I drew Mandy of I Have Ordinary Addictions, and this CD bore the twelve tracks she'd assembled for my listening pleasure.

First of all, I ought to apologise to Mandy for keeping her on tenterhooks for so long - but there was good reason behind the gap between receiving the CD and putting up this review. I wanted to give the CD a good few spins - I figured that some tracks were bound to be less immediate than others, and would take time to sink in, and so it's proved. As I recently said elsewhere, it's a compulsion of mine to be tempted into prematurely delivering verdicts on albums, and I was particularly keen for that not to happen here. Secondly I needed time to do a bit of internet research so I knew what I was writing about!

Swiss Toni had told me he thought the luck of the draw had been in my favour, and - as will become clear - he was spot on.

So, without further ado...

'Princess And The Pony' - Sean Na Na

Sean Tillmann is better known as Har Mar Superstar, and Sean Na Na is what he gets up to when he's not prancing around in his undercrackers with his sweaty gut on full display making the seedy white boy funk of Beck's Midnite Vultures sound positively wholesome.

It's indie rock, and it's not bad at all - if you can tolerate Tillmann's heavily accented nasal singing voice (which is reminscent of Placebo's Brian Molko), and I can. The song finds him imagining his own funeral, but it's far from being drearily morbid as he insists: "Shake your ass around my casket / And spin your favourite records". One of the opening lines is: "Someone buy a round before my liver fails". I understand THAT particular sentiment all too well.

Plus there's an invocation to "Clap your hands" which, given what follows, suggests a great deal of thought has gone into the track selection and ordering...

'In This Home On Ice' - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? I was clapping like a seal and shouting "Yeah!" when I saw they appeared on the tracklisting. A band I had read so much about but not yet heard (as you'll see, that was a bit of a recurring theme...), and here was a total stranger somehow knowing I needed enlightening.

The clapping and shouting subsided somewhat when I first heard the song, though, I have to admit. Probably partly because I hadn't been expecting something quite so uptempo or jangly / shoegazery, but mainly because Alec Ounsworth's voice takes a lot of getting used to. It's kind of a high-pitched blur (if that makes any sense), the words not often distinguishable even though the vocals are high in the mix. Ounsworth is often compared to Talking Heads' David Byrne in this respect, but I don't hear it. Anyway, very much an acquired taste - but one I think I've begun to acquire over repeated listens.

Musically, though, it appealed immediately so their self-titled album is now very definitely on the shopping list. Thanks Mandy!

'The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!' - Sufjan Stevens

There were only two tracks on the CD that I recall having heard before, and I own both. This is the first of them, from the Illinois album released last year. It starts slowly with hand-picked guitar and flute, but later it blossoms beautifully with horns, more woodwind instruments and intertwining choral arrangements.

Had I been choosing a song from Illinois to put on a compilation, it would probably have been 'Chicago', 'Casimir Pulaski Day' or 'The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts'. But through hearing this track in isolation, I've come to appreciate its charms even more than I did before.

'Red Right Ankle' - The Decemberists

Another band I wanted to hear - but a bit of a disappointment, truth be told. 'Red Right Ankle' is an undistinguished if pleasant enough acoustic strum, over which vocalist Colin Meloy tells the story of "your red right ankle" and "your gypsy uncle", who had a hideout in the Pyrenees. No, me neither.

Factoid: drummer John Moen is or at least used to be in Stephen Malkmus's backing band The Jicks.

'Red Right Ankle' appeared on The Decemberists' 2003 album Her Majesty, which was produced by Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie. Speaking of whom...

'Scientist Studies' - Death Cab For Cutie

A band for whom the term "indie darlings" was invented, perennial favourites for those who soundtrack the likes of 'The OC', 'Six Feet Under' and assorted low-budget non-mainstream American films.

Back before the albums Plans and Transatlanticism took Death Cab For Cutie overground, a good friend lent me his copy of We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes. A couple of songs - 'Little Fury Bugs' and 'Company Calls' - ended up on mixtapes I still own. How album closer 'Scientist Studies' passed me by I'm not sure - it's significantly better than both of those.

Ben Gibbard's voice is superb, as ever, and the song builds steadily to a satisfyingly explosive conclusion and thirty-odd seconds of feedback. And, as regular readers of this site - and particularly regular readers of the Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music - know, I'm a sucker for feedback. A real high point.

'Find The River' - REM

Yet another spookily telepathic inclusion on Mandy's part, given that my interest in REM - a band I've always quite enjoyed without ever being evangelical about - has recently been reawakened by the acquisition of Reckoning.

Like 'Scientist Studies', 'Find The River' is another album closer, and another track that has somehow escaped my attention - prior to getting Reckoning, I only owned New Adventures In Hi-Fi but thought I knew Automatic For The People well. It seems not.

It'd be good to hear this in the context of the record, but as it follows the superb 'Nightswimming' I'm guessing that it'd probably strike me as something of an anti-climax. As with much of their material, I find it rather unremarkable - though certainly not without its charm, and my experience with Reckoning suggests that giving their albums (in their entirety) time to bed in might prove rewarding.

'Where Does Yer Go Now?' - Gorky's Zygotic Mynci

Not (I was initially a little disappointed to discover) a West Country take on Guns 'N' Roses' 'Sweet Child O' Mine', 'Where Does Yer Go Now?' is perhaps the track on the CD that has most benefitted from repeated listens.

It's a delicately majestic song featuring plucked banjo and careful orchestration, rivalling Sufjan Stevens in the symphonic indie stakes - if not even putting him in the shade.

Not quite sure what I was expecting from Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, but this wasn't it. On this evidence I can even forgive them that name.

'Put The Book Back On The Shelf' - Belle & Sebastian

Ah. The stumbling block.

There's no other way to say it: I dislike Belle & Sebastian intensely.

Mere mention of them has long set my teeth on edge, and I've never quite been able to put my finger on why. After all, some of the bands I listen to admittedly bear more than a passing resemblance to B&S at times - My Latest Novel, The Concretes. I've sometimes wondered whether it's less to do with the band themselves and their music than the sort of people who used to fawn over them at university. My tastes have mellowed further since then, and I resolved to listen to 'Put The Book Back On The Shelf' without prejudice, honestly hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

What the experience confirmed for me is that it very definitely is the music that I was (and am) primarily reacting against. But I'm still having difficulty pinpointing just what it is that irritates me so much. Probably Stuart Murdoch's voice - a feeble tremulous whimper that's even more grating on the self-referential bonus track which Mandy has slipped in sneakily but which only prolongs the agony.

But - and it's a big but - there's a thin line between love and hate, so you never know in the future.

'A Swallow On My Neck' - Morrissey

Back on track with a familiar voice. Moz is alleged to have abandoned his legendary celibacy recently, judging by the lyrics to his latest LP Ringleader Of The Tormentors, but there's plenty of (homo)erotic interest here, particularly the coyness of the chorus: "He drew a swallow on my neck / And more I will not say / He drew a swallow deep and blue / And soon everyone knew".

In musical terms at least, Morrissey's solo stuff has always left me hankering for Johnny Marr's songwriting, but this is pretty decent - especially for a B-side, to the 1995 single 'Lucky'. (My research also led me to discover where Swiss Toni got the name for Reader Meet Author from.)

I lived with a massive Smiths fan for the best part of two years, during which time our malfunctioning boiler was somehow accustomed to sounding like Morrissey. When he got married earlier this year, Matt became very probably the only person ever to have 'Hairdresser On Fire' played during the ceremony...

'Elevator Love Letter' - Stars

Again: read a lot about them, desperate to hear something by them. And 'Elevator Love Letter', from their recent album Set Yourself On Fire, is nothing short of marvellous: jangly C86-type indiepop that's on happy pills but manages never to be hamstrung by tweeness - how could it with lines like: "I'm so hard for the rich girl / Her heels are high and my hope's so low / 'Cause I don't know how to love"?

Stars come from the same Montreal Arts & Crafts stable as Broken Social Scene, and actually include BSS members Amy Millan and Evan Cranley in their number. I haven't heard the latest self-titled BSS record yet but I've got the first - and it's safe to say that 'Elevator Love Letter' really delivers where BSS only promised. Artful joyous pop music of the highest calibre.

So, that'd be another thank you to chalk up, Mandy...

'Waitin' For A Superman' - The Flaming Lips

The other song I already owned. As with the Sufjan Stevens track, I would have been tempted to go for something else from The Soft Bulletin, given the choice - probably 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate', or (to reflect the sheer grandiosity of the album) either 'Race For The Prize' or 'The Gash'. But, again, hearing this song out of context helped to draw out its qualities, which are legion.

For my own CD I reached for Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and chose 'Do You Realize??' as a brilliantly moving song which could stand in its own right. But if Mandy's choice of 'Waitin' For A Superman' is an indication that she rates The Soft Bulletin more highly, then for my money she's spot on. The later album is splendid, but The Soft Bulletin is in a different class altogether.

'Spectacular Views' - Rilo Kiley

And up go the volume levels thanks to Rilo Kiley, a band I've seen live but never before heard on record. A straight-down-the-line indie rock song, 'Spectacular Views' isn't particularly sophisticated compared to the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, but it really hits the spot and brings the CD to a thrillingly raucous conclusion - as one might expect given that it's another album closer (to The Execution Of All Things).

Like Death Cab For Cutie, Rilo Kiley's Jenny Watson is widely considered an "indie darling" - and if the rest of The Execution Of All Things and the more recent More Adventurous is anything like this then she and her band'll be very dear to me too.

So there you have it. I may not have liked it all, but the vast majority of the tracks were enthusiastically received. For the most part it was an education, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. The tracks I already had I appreciated hearing in a new light, and I'm even glad Belle & Sebastian made an appearance just so I could confirm what I already suspected.

I guess I ought to say something about what Mandy's choices say about her - but you can read too much into these things, particularly as the songs have (I think) been chosen purely on the strength of her love for them and their coherence on a compilation. Like my own CD, it's not particularly eclectic and the extremes of a record collection aren't represented, but it marks her out as someone with great taste.

So, all that remains is for me to thank Mandy again for the CD, and Swiss Toni for the concept and organisation and for introducing me to the blog of a like-minded music fan.

The internet: officially bloody marvellous.

(For ByTheSeaShore's review of my CD, click here.)

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