Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The jwalkernet Musical Canon: Part Five (86-83)

[All entries.]

86. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say YeahIt doesn't get a whole lot more indie than this. Clap Your Hands's debut album was originally self-released, and by "self-released," I mean "the bassist personally licked the stamps and mailed discs to people." That independent attitude informs the entire record: this is noisy, jangly weirdo pop, insanely catchy and intensely weird at the same time. Alec Ounsworth's vocals stretch and snap like rubber bands -- sometimes they're on key, sometimes they're not; sometimes he enunciates, sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes the songs are good, sometimes they're not: the opening track is one of the most off-putting pieces of music I've heard, and it's meant to be that way. If you want into this album, you're going to have to earn it.

And that's probably why this is such a great record, and one of my favorites: its utter and complete confidence. They know their songs are good enough to deserve your attention, and if you're not willing to keep up with them through "Clap Your Hands!," well, that's your problem. The album's final track, "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood," features my favorite moment: the band halts in transition from one part of the song to the next, hanging in the bridge as Ounsworth sticks on the phrase "child stars" like a skipping LP, repeating both music and words for what seems like a minute. The tension builds, and builds, and builds, and then releases you back with no warning. If that's too much for you, well, Clap Your Hands doesn't really care. (Which led, of course, to the inevitable hipster backlash, and I'm not sure it's cool to like this album anymore. Because I give a damn.)

85. The Postal Service, Give Up
The Postal Service - Give UpBen Gibbard's been writing delicate sad bastard songs for ages now with his band, Death Cab for Cutie, so I'm not sure why it's such a surprise that he'd turn out a set of similarly beautiful tracks for his side project. But the Postal Service -- a collaboration with electronic musician Jimmy Tamborello -- brings an entirely different feel, and the result is fantastic. Give Up is icy and dark, but pulses with energy -- a sad, mournful energy, but energy nonetheless.

It's the kind of album I wish I'd had in high school. Lonely, heartbroken songs like "Recycled Air" would have spun over and over in my CD player. I would have tried my best at writing pale retreads of "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" in my notebooks, trying as hard as I could to recapture that elusive feeling. I would've tried to name my garage band We Will Become Silhouettes, and my friends would have refused.

But the best song here is, stunningly, the least despairing. "Such Great Heights" is easily the best thing either of the artists here have ever done and one of the best love songs ever written by anyone, four-and-a-half minutes of driving pop that is as close to perfect as one can get. And when someone as insistently depressed as Ben Gibbard says, "They will see us waving from such great heights," the hope in his voice is moving beyond words. If I'd heard it when I was fifteen, I probably would have been a much more pleasant guy to be around.

84. Genesis, Duke
Genesis - DukeHere's the thing with Phil Collins, okay: the guy takes a lot of crap, but he's actually a fairly talented guy. His tendencies toward schmaltz and over-emoting are problematic, but there was a time when he had a band that would rein him in. That band was Genesis, of course, and Duke is the last time they put out an album before the Phil Factor started pushing them over the shark and into bland irrelevance. Even the poppier excursions -- "Misunderstanding," I'm looking at you -- hold up much better than, say, "Sussudio."

Duke is also the last time Genesis really stretched out like the progressive rock pioneers they could be. "Duke's Travels/Duke's End" is as compelling a piece as they ever recorded, almost eleven minutes of rich, layered music; "Turn It on Again" may be pop, but its 13/4 time signature adds a rare element. Those instincts running in opposite directions -- to one side straightforward rock, to the other progressive experimentation -- came into perfect balance on Duke, which stands as their last great album.

83. Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on BroadwayOf course, there was a time when Phil Collins was just a drummer, and a truly demented man stood up front...sometimes dressed as a flower. If Duke was Phil's best Genesis record, then The Lamb is Peter Gabriel's masterpiece, a mammoth two-disc suite that shows all of Gabriel's lunacies in full bloom. A barely intelligible story, laden with symbolism and sexual imagery, coupled with the most intricate, elaborate music Genesis ever recorded together. The creation of this album drove Gabriel from the group completely, but I almost can't blame the band. How could they be expected to keep up with this?

I won't try to summarize the story, because I can't, so I'll stick to the songs, which are uniformly brilliant. "Broadway Melody of 1974" throws pop culture into a blender, dishing out a surrealist treasure ("Lenny Bruce declares a truce and plays his other hand/Marshall Mcluhan, casual viewin', head buried in the sand"). "The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging" starts tiny, but stacks on itself until it reaches titanic size. "The Carpet Crawlers" might be the best song Genesis ever put to tape, hushed and gorgeous, swaying with such power and beauty that it almost tricks you into thinking you understand what Gabriel's talking about. (You won't, though: "Mild mannered supermen are held in Kryptonite/While the wise and foolish virgins giggle, with their bodies glowing bright/Through the door, a harvest feast is lit by candlelight." Yeah, and don't even get me started on the part with the raven who steals the protagonist's penis.)

I love The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway for a lot of the same reasons I love Clap Your Hands, now that I think about it: it's a flat-out shitballs crazy record confident enough to let all its weirdness flow out as far as it can. There are no "safe" songs here, no ready-for-radio singles to give the audience an entrance into the album. There's just The Lamb, all of it, and you're either in or you're out.

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