Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Wooden Finger Five - November 2013

Australians miss out on a number of ‘cool things’ by not having a college system like the US (we miss out on a number of ‘lame things’ too), and one of those is ‘college rock’. To be sure, we’ve listened to the first five REM albums and the Pixies, but we’re removed – we couldn’t be (even those Aussies who are twenty years older than I) part of the groundswell of support that broke those bands. We can read the album and gig reviews of those coffee-sipping, Foster Wallace-reading, Pabst-drinking indie lovers, but we can only get a reflection of what it feels like to grow up amidst the American underground music scene. Which suits some people just fine … my lovely wife was decidedly unenthused about the prospect that I might slide further into auditory elitism.

But these bands have to be revered by the American indie cognoscenti for a reason, right? For the past month, I’ve tried to discover the albums they may have played at house parties in San Francisco, during the time I was in my 20s and stuck in the Melbourne suburbs. The albums that may have changed my life like the Shins changed the lives of Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in ‘Garden State’. So what have I missed by repeatedly playing Oasis and Coldplay? Am I a shadow of a white male?

For years I thought Guided By Voices were some sort of Christian band, but I gradually realised that they were instead worshipped by sensitive young beardos. Their most ‘well-known’ albums, ‘Bee Thousand’ and ‘Alien Lanes’ are somewhat amateurish and ramshackle, with tracks seemingly ending when someone knocks out the guitar plug, which has probably contributed to them being so beloved. But they are good songwriters, and ‘I Am A Scientist’, from ‘Bee Thousand’, is a nice tune, even if I have no clue what it is on about. I don’t think I missed out on any big keg parties where was this playing, but I might have missed out on hearing it played while hanging out in the dorm room.    

Opacity rating: 8.5/10

2.    What Do You Want Me To Say? – The Dismemberment Plan

The Pitchfork review for the vinyl reissue of ‘Emergency & I’ claims that ‘[e]veryone I've talked to mentions that they can't imagine getting through their twenties without it.’ But I got through my entire twenties without it. Was my third decade only half-lived because of this? Anyway, this is quite poppy and relatively easy to understand – it seems to simply be about relationship problems. I imagine it’s the type of track that would gone down pretty well at Coachella.   

Opacity rating: 6.3/10

Can you have a more American indie rock name than ‘Built To Spill’? I listened through their mid-90s albums ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’ and ‘Perfect From Now On’ and I quite liked both of them – they sound like reasonably accomplished musicians, and even though their tracks regularly stretch to six or seven minutes, they never really sound self-indulgent. ‘Car’ was not a track I heard when it was first released in 1994, but it sounds unmistakably from that era. ‘You get the car/I’ll get the night off/You’ll get the chance to take the world apart and figure out how it works’ makes me think of a bunch of ‘90s road movies (most of which I’ve never seen).

Opacity rating: 6.7/10

Pavement sound like they are actually trying on this track, and while I certainly like listening to their ‘slacker’ aesthetic on some of their other tunes (‘Summer Babe (Winter Version)’ for example), this track really soars because of it. I’m curious why IKEA is in the title – the lyrics don’t seem to relate to the store, but who knows? Maybe it’s the name of a Swedish backpacker Stephen Malkmus met?

Opacity rating: 8.9/10

Surely I’ve listened to ‘Reckoning’ before, right? Well, not really … certainly ‘Murmur’ got a lot of spins when I was at Uni, but I never progressed to REM’s second album, concentrating instead on their Warner Bros. records. Early REM songs are famous for their obscurity, but this one confused me even more after I tried to do some research about it. Michael Stipe sings about ‘Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean’, however the children’s book about Chinese brothers that this seems to be based on had five brothers and only one of them could swallow the ocean. And that book was itself based on a folk tale with ten brothers and it doesn’t look like any of them had sea-swallowing powers. Presumably dozens of REM scholars have speculated about the change in number of brothers, if indeed it is a change. By the way, love the guitar on this one.  
Opacity rating: 10/10


AFL FootyMaths said...

7 Chinese Bros. is indeed an odd track... have you heard the back story to "Life And How To Live It"?

Troy Wheatley said...

No I haven't heard the back story. Actually I find most of the early REM tracks somewhat obscure, though musically they're great.