Jan 042008

Well, 2007 has come and gone and it left a lot of music in its wake. For me 2007 was a great musical year, in which I acquired a lot of great new albums, got turned on to some awesome bands (new and established), and yes, finally got around to starting my own music blog. To celebrate the passing of the old year, I’ve decided to go back through and point out what were, for me, some of the highlights of the past year in music. In this installment, my top five singles for 2007.

Honorable Mentions:
“Grace Kelly”, by Mika (Life in Cartoon Motion)
“Intervention”, by Arcade Fire (Neon Bible)

5. “Empty Walls” by Serj Tankian (Elect the Dead)

Serj Tankian’s manic melodic style, intriguing vocals, and sense-optional lyrics turned what would have been just yet another war protest song and turned it a great first solo singer for this Armenian genius. It’s one of the first tunes in a long time that manages to be both catchy and mosh-inducing, which totally counts as a win in my book.

4. “Survivalism” by Nine Inch Nails (Year Zero)

When I heard Trent Reznor was doing a dystopian theme-album, I was cautiously optimistic. When I heard “Survivalism”, my attitude got immediately upgraded to “OMG NEED ALBUM NOW”. It’s Reznor at his dark, industrial best. Between insulting mother nature and taking solid, full-fisted swipes at a self-serving society, he still finds time to pack in tons of grungy feedback and pounding drum loops. Hell, even Reznor manages to even make his asthmatic gasps between lines sound badass. This song kicks enough ass all on its own to make me hope Reznor makes good on his promises of two more albums in the Year Zero universe.

3. “Radio Nowhere” by Bruce Springsteen (Magic)

So after all these years the Boss can still rock. What’s more he can still craft songs that will make everyone within earshot get up and dance, regardless of generation, musical taste, or level of disaffection. From the opening guitar hook to the triumphant fade out, this song will have you dancing and singing along at the top of your lungs. Simply a brilliant, well-crafted rock tune from one of the best in the business.

2. “Four Winds” by Bright Eyes (Cassadaga)

Conor Oberst and the crew have drifted towards the country end of things lately, and “Four Winds” proves conclusively that Oberst can still pack the same punch as a songwriter, even with a western twang. Engaging lyrics, rich song writing, and social commentary that’s clear without being ham-handed. So not only is it a great song, but it’s actually got some depth to it. Once again, Oberst shows us how good modern songwriting can get.

1. “3’s and 7’s” by Queens of the Stone Age (Era Vulgaris)

Okay, I have to admit, this song could really just be a 3 minute loop of the opening guitar solo and it would have stolen my number one spot. Guitar hooks like that just do it for me. In fact this is one of those songs that makes me go pick up my own guitar just about every time I hear it because it hits some very powerful “god DAMN do I want to be able to do that” trigger in my brain. But beyond having the best guitar lines of the year (the whole of Era Vulgaris is a veritable treasure trove of badass guitar work), it’s got some great lyrics and vocals and awesome thudding bass lines. Easily one of the best tracks of the year, and if you’re a fan of rock and/or good guitar playing, it’s a fair shoe-in for single of the year.

Apr 012007

Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Four Winds EP
Label: Saddle Creek
Score: 9/10

For some reason, whenever I hear that Conor Oberst is releasing another Bright Eyes album, I’m always vaguely worried. Part of me is always worried that I’ll pick it up only to hear that Mr. Oberst has finally gone one album too far and catapulted himself off into the kind of melodramatic musical pretension that his music always seems to threaten, but (thankfully) usually manages to avoid. So it was when I heard that his new album Cassadaga would be coming out in April.

I was quite pleased, then, when I first heard the album single, the lyrical, country-tinged “Four Winds” and saw the top-talent line up for the album. I was also extremely pleased to see that they were releasing an EP to accompany the single. So, I dug a few virtual dollars out of my virtual wallet and ordered the Four Winds EP off Amazon, and ever since it’s arrived it’s been in fairly heavy rotation.

The EP has a little something for every kind of Bright Eyes fan. Were you a Lifted… fan? There’s the dark, rambling “Cartoon Blues”. More of a I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning kid? Try the Conor Oberst/M. Ward duet “Smoke Without Fire”. Did you did the more modern sound of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn? Check out “Reinvent the Wheel”. Whatever it is you’ve liked about Conor Oberst and his variety of musical friends, there’s at least one track on the EP that will give you your particular Bright Eyes fix.

What’s more, though, you’ll also get something a little new. “Tourist Trap”, for example, has the fuzzy, plodding, Folk-Blues sound one usually attributes more to M. Ward or Sam Beam. More telling, however, is the focus of the single EP: “Four Winds”.

[soapbox]I will say, “Four Winds” is one of those songs that is going to inspire a lot of irritation for me. Not because of the song itself, but because of how a lot of people are going to want to read into it. It has the epic sound and heavily referential style that always seems to bring out the pop exegete in listeners. And while there are many people whose opinions on the song I’m actually quite eager to hear, there’s going to be a lot more interpretations of it that are going to make me want to bash the speaker in the head with the nearest blunt object. In support for this theory: a link to the SongMeanings.com entry for the song. Of course, SongMeanings.com fosters this kind of lame-brained hyper-intepretive effect all its own, but with a song as rich and referential as this, some people definitely go nuts with it. I particularly like the “This song is calling for an end to civilization, YEAH REVOLUTION” meme that one of the commenters reads into it.[/soapbox]

The song is, though, kind of Eliot-esque in the way it uses references. That is to say, it’s not simply the seamless integration of allusions in the music, but rather the use of such allusions in a creative and productive way. The few references to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” are particular nice, with such unique appropriations as “hold us at the center while the spiral unwinds”. Similarly the biblical references, especially to the book of Revelations, the religious community of Cassadaga, and others. Of course the sheer concentration of allusion doesn’t reach Eliot strength, but it’s at least a few hundred milli-Eliots.

What makes song notably new, however, is not simply its allusion-heavy lyrical style, but its heavy country influence, its explicitly religious overtones, and a sense of social commentary which Oberst has, historically, avoided (at least until his two 2005 releases, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, in which socio-political commentary was a more evident theme.)

It’s always a toss-up whether or not a single will be qualitatively or stylistically representative of album from which it’s drawn, but in the case of “Four Winds”, I would certainly be happy to hear an album full of the kind of quality musicianship and songwriting evident on “Four Winds” and on the EP as a whole. And while it would be quite easy to overdo the swaying, plaintive Country sound and thick allusions heard in “Four Winds”, there seems to be no indication of that happening, if single really is an example of what we should expect from Cassadaga when it drops on April 10th (meaning, incidently, that you’ll have a chance to vote for a review it next week, if you’re so inclined).

So I think it’s pretty safe to say that my pre-Bright-Eyes-release worries have been well-assuaged by a proper single EP chock full of a variety of a variety of kinds of Bright Eyes goodness.

Mar 262007

I’d totally missed the fact that the new Bright Eyes single was released a couple of weeks ago. It’s gratifying to see that it’s a real, proper single, with a healthy chunk of B-Side material to make buying it a good idea. In addition to “Four Winds,” the single off of the forth-coming Cassadaga album, it’s got 5 other tracks not found on the album, making it more of a single EP than a conventional American single.

This is something I’ve complained about elsewhere and to many people, but most American record labels and/or bands either don’t know how to craft a good single or simply refuse to do so. I’ll pay 8 bucks for the radio single plus a few other songs that won’t be on the album. I won’t, however, pay that much for the radio single and two shitty remixes thereof.

So props to Conor Oberst and his Saddle Creek Records label for putting out a single record worth buying.

Info here on Cassadaga and the Four Winds single, as well as a few .mp3 dowloads. I highly recommend “Four Winds” and the brilliantly-named “No One Would Riot for Less.”

In other news: The lineup credited on the new album is impressively all-star. Ben Kweller, M. Ward, Janet Weiss, and Jason Boesel, amongst others.