5.Right Back To The Start – Merchandise
Merchandise are a trio from Tampa, Florida (who have actually topped a WF5 post here before) but they sound more like gloomy British post-punk, and on this track, like British new wave. The synth-hook makes it; it’s certainly not singer Carson Cox murmuring the lyrics. I looked the lyrics up: they’re a bit of a downer actually (‘I came back to my home, it was slashed and torn’ … ‘I spent 39 years collecting the seeds / But they all died …’). They seem to me like they’re about being at the end of a relationship and feeling like your efforts are all now for nothing. Almost they suggest the narrator has jumped realities – ‘went looking for a lover but she was never born’ – but at the least that he feels like a stranger in the place he finds himself in.
The band even dresses in dark tones – I have trouble reconciling all of this with the Florida sun. If I just think of Merchandise and their music as being from northern England they make much more sense. But then so too did dark-jacketed San Franciscans Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; sometimes dirt and dinginess are just a state of mind.
Scottish alt-rock stalwarts Teenage Fanclub recently released their tenth album: a stage of their careers that ‘The Ringer’ called ‘too old to be ascendant, too young to come back into style or resign themselves to the nostalgia circuit’. (The article put Wilco into the same category.) It’s worth a listen, even if like me you haven’t heard that much of their past work.
The opening track, ‘I’m In Love’, is a real winner. Like the #1 song on this month’s list I didn’t know beforehand this was the single off the album, but it immediately stood out to me. The title, lyrics, simple guitar chords, and harmonies give it a mid-to-late ‘60s pop-rock feel. As has been noted elsewhere the chorus – ‘I’m in love, with your love’ – is a bit ambiguous about the singer’s feelings: is he in love with another person, or just the feeling of love itself? Regardless it’s a bright, catchy tune that makes the band sound twenty years younger, as if this style of music was just beginning rather than having come from the now-distant past.
Some months ago I was watching the ABC Kids Channel with my daughter and in between shows there was this somewhat baffling, somewhat charming two-minute animated segment. It featured two blocks with funny faces sitting on a bench singing a pretty good song actually about how different they were. ‘We are different / we are different,’ went the chorus, ‘as you can clearly see / A most unlikely pair we are / A most unlikely pair are we’. One of the blocks was a weird-looking fellow that sang in a high voice, while the other was more of a ‘hipster’ block in a hat and glasses who delivered his lines in a rap-like, conversationalist tone. This allowed the song to carry forward through snippets of exchange such as these:
BLOCK 1: ‘In my spare time I play hide-and-seek’
BLOCK 2: ‘While I like to teach rubber ducks how to squeak’
BLOCK 1: ‘You teach them to squeak?’
BLOCK 2: ‘Yep’
BLOCK 1: ‘That’s unique’
BLOCK 2: ‘Yeah, I try to give them tips on their squeaking technique’
Big Block SingSong is largely the creation of two Canadians, animator Warren Brown and composer Adam Goddard. Each episode features a unique character and tune, although the voices of the characters are similar across episodes. Over the past several weeks my daughter and I have had a few binge-watching sessions through the ABC’s iview site: ‘More! More!’ my daughter says, pointing at the screen, and then I click on another episode. I can’t tell you what her favourites are, but I personally like ‘Wilderness’ (about a block who lives in the forest), ‘Technology’ (Kraftwerk or Devo if fronted by singing blocks), ‘Brave’ (Queen if backed by singing blocks), and the rock ‘n’ roll ‘Princess’ (one of the few episodes with a female protagonist). But they’re all great – if you have a young one I highly recommend getting him or her hooked on them.
When U.S. indie folk band Bon Iver premiered their new album at bandleader Justin Vernon’s festival back in August they announced the song titles by sending them to the festival app. With strange track names like ‘22 (OVER S¥¥N)’, ‘___45___’, and ’29 #Strafford APTS’ that may have been the only way to announce them, although Vernon claims that they are not as hard to say as they look. For a band that started off as earnest – the famous three months Vernon stayed in a log cabin writing their first album such an essential part of their origin story – it could be viewed as an over-the-top attempt to shake off that past, and post-Kanye West friendship and endorsement, to now be seen as brave and experimental.
What does ’33 GOD’ mean? The song goes for 3:33 (3 minutes and 33 seconds), but that meaning could have been added at the end rather than part of its core. Each line seems barely related to the one before it, apart from the last verse which seems to be about the singer staying over at someone’s apartment for the night. Vernon auto-tunes the shit out of his voice, adding to the sense that he is being intentionally oblique.
But it works. As the website Pretty Much Amazing put it there’s ‘an air of cross-pollination to it … instruments clash with unprecedented force. On the other hand, you can imagine a stripped down version with untouched vocals working on the strength of the melodies.’ Indeed, the sounds do work together. And Vernon’s voice, distorted as it is, still sounds like distinctly his own. It’s enough to keep it spiralling into pretentiousness, despite the hipster cassette-listening parties that marked the album’s release.
The third track from Cymbals Eat Guitars’ latest album, ‘Wish’ makes the band sound like the lounge act evoked by the album cover, only way better. In making the album they looked to musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and The Cure for inspiration. But I didn’t think of either of those when I first heard this, I actually thought of this early-‘80s band my Dad used to play, called Mink Deville. Mink Deville’s ‘hits’ included songs called ‘Italian Shoes’ and ‘Spanish Stroll’: they were a bit bluesy, a bit cabaret, a bit punk, and this track is all of those things in some degree.
The saxophone may give it a lounge sound, but singer Joseph D’Agostino’s hoarse delivery gives the song an urgent edge. It seems to be basically about longing – ‘I wish that I told you’ – but the lyrics are more complicated than that: ‘An inch ahead of the event horizon …’ goes the opening line for example. And there’s a line ‘Can we shut the lights please?’ which may be part of the track, or just studio chatter. It’s a fun little stomp and a great introduction for me to this band.