Archive | October 2009

Stars: "Set Yourself on Fire", 2004

It really wasn’t so many years ago that Set Yourself on Fire was left on repeat on my stereo for several months, and even now I don’t feel as though I’ve exhausted its effect on me.  The sentimentality of the record is varied in such a way that it seems to fit any circumstance: it’s great on my iPod, on a road trip, or while I’m at home studying.  Or like this Friday, cranking out the stereo as I prepared brunch for myself and a friend. 
Before I say too much, I should mention that as soon as I put this album on I am automatically in danger of completely contradicting my philosophy of albums and the intention of this blog.  The reason being I could quite easily spend the entire post on the first track, Your Ex-Lover is Dead.  I’ll try to keep it short.  Your Ex-Lover is Dead provides a window through which to view the rest of the songs of the album, and sets the tone for what the album (and the band in general) is best at: break up songs. 
The song showcases Stars’ two lead vocalists Torquille and Amy, by having them play the parts of two departed lovers.  Before we know anything of the intended setting, a string section and a cello line sets a mood that paints a picture in my head.  And even though I’m sure it’s influenced by my foreknowledge of the lyrics, I’m immediately transported to a rainy evening on a cobblestone street, trying to hail a taxi.

It’s also hard not to hear this song without mental pictures of the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I’m positive that’s only because the music video makes pretty clear references to it.  Other great things about this track:  the shift between a lighter 6/8 feel characterized by the orchestral strings and a more punchy every-beat-emphasized feel in 3; along with great bitter-sweet lines like, “I’ll write you a postcard, I’ll send you the news from the house down the road from real love”. 
But moving on to the title track, Set Yourself on Fire.  It’s a fairly smooth transition actually, partially because the intro of the song keeps a meter in 6/8 before snapping back into common time for the verses.  What this song does really well is move us from the beauty of the first track into further exploration of failed relationships through the rest of the album by unifying the world through experience of the “one thing”, which of course is up for interpretation, but not really. 
I begin to pull out ingredients for hash-browns, but about 3 minutes into the song I’m tempted to crawl back into bed to add to my “20 years of sleep”.  Thankfully, by the time I convince myself, Ageless Beauty kicks in and reminds me that Sarah will be at my door in about 20 minutes, and I need to chop some freaking potatoes!  So I do, to a slightly more poetic and hopeful view of love and life (“we will always be a light”). 
Reunion comes next, reminding me that I have one myself to look forward next year: Ten years past high-school.  I’m not so sure that I’ll go, but for now I’ll enjoy this song about nostalgia for old crushes and youthfulness.
Then, once again, Stars play off their duet capabilities in The Big Fight.  These are always my favorite songs of Stars.  This song is relaxed and groovy, and even though I’m spending my time boiling potatoes, I feel suave.  I kind of imagine myself sitting by a fire with a stiff drink in hand.  But then the mood breaks a little when I picture Torque and Amy acting out their disagreements through a dance off during the long instrumental outro…
All I can say about What I’m Trying to Say is that I find it impossible not to sing along with.  It captures an awkwardness of relationships that songs rarely can without sounding awkward themselves.  “I am trying to say… what I want to say… without having to say… I love you”  So great. 
Sarah arrives and I make her help with all the brunch that hasn’t been finished, while I also lose my focus on the music playing in the background.  Instead of ignoring my friend to blog, I wait and put the CD on at work during the evening shift. 
One More Night (Your Ex-Lover Remains Dead) gets even deeper into the complexities of end-of-relationship phenomena: The last night together.  It’s dark, and I love it.  I also love how it’s back to back with Sleep Tonight, the one fairly simple, love song on the album.  Yet even on Sleep Tonight, we’re aware of what we’re ignoring: “with buried heads we both forget all of the past and its regret”.  Still, “all the love’s alive tonight”.  Maybe it is still possible to love after all of the disappointment and pain that we’ve been experiencing. 
Nearing the end of the album, we get a brief picture of a beginning of a relationship: The First Five Times.  I’m not nearly as into it this time, but in the past it’s been one of my favorites to bounce around to. 
He Lied About Death is just plain angry.  I have never loved this song.  Sometimes I yell to it a bit, and it was a little fun listening to at work, but for the most part I don’t see how it fits with the rest. 
Finally the trio completes it all:  Celebration Guns, Soft Revolution, and Calendar Girl.  We have another clear return to the strings and brass that began the album, creating a bit of a nostalgic and reflective tone.  Next Soft Revolution jumps back in to the familiar steady beat to get us ready for the ultimate end-of-album ballad (Calendar Girl) that spends some time repeating that, after all is said and done, I am alive. 
So in the end, Set Yourself on Fire is relatively hopeful and thankful for life, allowing the title to take an ironic tone.  Maybe we can survive our broken hearts and failed attempts at love.  And even when it feels like we won’t, we have a great album to relate to.   


U2: "War", 1983

Yep, I began my little project with U2. Not a huge surprise – they have made a lot of albums to choose from, and I have been listening to them for as long as I can remember. I still have a school assignment that I did in grade 4 that states if I could be anything when I grow up it would be Bono. Interesting.

So War was an easy choice because it has always been one of my favorites for its high energy and ability to stick to one theme without ever boring me.  In 42 minutes, we – along with Bono, The Edge, Larry, and Adam – explore a whole gamut of aspects and effects of the album’s namesake: war.

Setting: one morning getting ready for work. Sunday Bloody Sunday woke me up quickly, rattling off machine-gun-esque snare beats and painting clear pictures of physical and relational pain (“bodies strewn across the dead end street…” “mother’s children, brothers, sisters torn apart…”).

Justifiably angry and loud, SBS gears up our frustration just in time for Seconds, which reflects more particularly of the prospect of nuclear war in a similar fashion. I’m up, making coffee, getting dressed, and sporadically punching the air in time with Larry.

Next comes New Years Day, with the first glimmer of hope on the record (“though torn in two, we can be one”). There is a reason it became the album’s first single and most successful track: It’s full of passion, and begs to be sung along with. I break from all routines at this point, turn up the volume and pull out the liner notes to sing along more confidently.

With such a tough act to follow, Like a Song… falls slightly flat, and I take a bathroom break. I guess album listening takes a bit of patience, or maybe it makes me appreciate the other songs even more. Something’s got to keep the album moving I guess, but this feels forced and moralistic. Some decent lines, but I don’t need any more convincing – I’m ready for something else.

Drowning Man vies once again for my attention, and I sit down to finish my coffee. There’s something eerie and refreshing about Bono singing low in his range, and it creates a dramatic moment when he finally does jump back up to that more familiar octave. I love how the most depressing track title gives way to lyrics that are possibly the deepest expression of love and promise on the album.

I’m going to fast-forward through the next couple, but not because I skipped any tracks. The Refugee, Two Hearts Beat as One, Red Light and Surrender keep a high enough energy for me to get some breakfast and pack my stuff without asking too much of my attention. The one exception is a few minutes in to Red Light during the trumpet solo, and when it continues to scream out as Bono sings out repeatedly, “I give you my love”. Surrender is actually one of my favorites songs on the album, partially because it fits so well without being so directly about a literal war. I haven’t heard this song in a while, since I’m not likely to hear it outside of the album context.

Finally, “40”. U2 demonstrates here that they really know how to tie an album together. Starting with a bang, and ending with space for contemplation, a formula they also use on The Unforgettable Fire book-ending with A Sort of Homecoming and MLK.

But on War the relationship between the first and last song is much more than a shaping of album mood. Sunday Bloody Sunday and “40” both contain the album’s driving question: How long do we have to sing this song? But the difference is that at the start, we can’t see beyond today (“tonight we can be as one” is the most hopeful line in the entire song), and by the time we journey through War, “40” is confident that though we may not know when, we will eventually sing a new song.



Desperately Wanting

An album is coming soon, I promise. And this post is relevant, emerging from my recent album listening. Today I discovered a new pet peeve.

Did you know that iTunes does not let you rate an album separately from song ratings, but gives it an average number of stars based on your rating of its songs. This is a problem. Don’t they realize that an album can be more (or less!) than the sum of its parts?

That was my lame music-snob-moment of the day. Am I the only one that this bothers? Possibly. But one deeply committed, involved iTunes user should be enough.




Change seems to be the theme of this October. And no, I’m not primarily referring to the trees outside my front porch, or anything else weather related. Even without the obvious, I seem to be surrounded by change: At work in last couple of weeks, I have said goodbye to two fantastic co-workers, and today was my boss’s last day. At home this month, two of my three housemates are moving out, and two new yet-unknown people will be taking their places. Along with my two housemates leaving, so has and will several pieces of furniture, which should add to the general feeling of change in my environment. On top of this, I am facing my final year at grad school with a fairly consistent hum of uncertainty about what comes next, reminding me that much more change is yet ahead.

And the change most worth talking about here: I am starting a blog. It terrifies me to think of making random thoughts so public, but maybe I need to own up to the things that come out of my mouth and brain.

I’ll try not to overwhelm you too much, focus my thoughts to a specific topic, namely, records. Not necessarily of the vinyl variety, but collections by artists of songs also known as albums. Since becoming an avid fan and user of iTunes earlier this decade, I have become aware of how my listening of music has dramatically shifted. When I like a band or artist it is no longer an automatic that I would go purchase an album since I could just go online and legally download the singles I like for $0.99 each. While I used to primarily hear songs either on the radio or in the context of their album, I’m now more likely to hear them in a new context of my own created playlists or a “party shuffle”. The mixtape has nearly replaced the original album.

So in short, I’m going to rebel against this shift, and intentionally stick with albums for a while. As much as possible I’ll be listening to whole records and writing about what I notice. I realize that some would say the album is a dying art and that I am living in the past. Could be. But even if the album is on it’s way out, I would like to spend some significant time with it before it’s dying breath.

Welcome to the space where I will write about my experience of record listening in an attempt to think more clearly about how and why we listen to music at all. I’ll do my best to not critique too much, but simply supply a narrative that may or may not persuade you to listen to albums along with me.