I’m back! And although I haven’t been at this blogging thing for very long, I think it’s safe to say that this is a rather uncommon entry. My reasons for writing on Hejira, (an album that will mark both my first blog on something recorded before my own birth, as well as my first blog on an album I haven’t already become acquainted with) require a bit of back-story:
You see, Mondays are my sabbath. I began practicing sabbath on Mondays when I was on staff at church, making it very impossible to rest on a work day, and I guess I’ve kept it because rest for me means sleeping in, and Sunday morning service doesn’t let me do that. However, this semester I have a class with enough reading to occupy my far more than 7 days a week, and this week in particular I have been asked to finish George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a 621 page novel. Being fiction, I decided I would afford to let it make up a large part of Monday.
All of this to say that I went to my favorite coffee spot with my favorite person to read and caffeinate, but was unable to make it there without stopping at my favorite shop on the Drive: Audiopile. I flipped through the Joni Mitchel section, looking for Blue and picking up Clouds immediately, when Beth suggested we buy Hejira too (“it’s only $5!”).
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never written a blog about an album I haven’t previously listened to. Usually I have to spend a little more time with it, get to know it intimately, take it out on a few dates on my iPod. Not this time. I resolved to blog this album as I realized how cohesive it is. The instruments are nearly limited to soft reverb-ed guitar, a bass, and barely noticeable percussion. The few times that any shift occurs, it stands out and begs to be asked regarding its intentions.
Also, this is no album of extremes. You won’t find anything as emotionally saturated as Both Sides Now or as cheerful as Chelsea Morning. This is not the album on which Joni teaches cold English housewives how to feel (thanks Emma Thompson in Love Actually). Instead it will tell us stories, paint us pictures, and generally allow me to relax (even reading victorian lit) on my sabbath.
Hejira opens with Coyote, the reason Beth decided to purchase the record, which drives us straight into the action of the sound of road-tripping across America. Appropriate, since it’s the setting for Joni’s inspiration for this collection: “Hejira” references an Arabic word meaning journey, and all the songs being written on a solitary drive from Maine to L.A. It’s a theme that we’re introduced to as soon as we pick up the cardboard record sleeve picturing an open highway stretching further than the eye can see (set within Joni’s too thick torso… that’s just weird).
I try to pick up my novel, but instead Beth and I launch into a conversation about the relationship between Joni’s lyrics and chord structures. We decide that comparisons can be made to a recitative section in opera, where the point is really the dialogue and not the melody. Joni often sounds as if she’s half-consciously telling us a story without worry for matching the climax with any kind of “chorus”. And the music seems to wait for her, only moving on when she seems to have finished a thought. I think this has a lot to do with the interaction between her and one of the most influential bassists of all time, but I’ll talk about that soon enough.
Amelia settles into the more continuous tone of the record, which is slowly reflective, and connects her themes of womanhood and journeying with one of the most famous female adventurers: Amelia Earhart. Her life and death inspires Joni to imagine possible destinations and tragedies, both worth the risk of journey: “till you get there yourself you never really know, where some have found their paradise, others just come to harm…” and draws in the inevitable and linked themes of escape and anonymity.
Furry Sings the Blues is apparently a reference to a ultra-popular country blues guitarist, Furry Lewis, of whom I know nothing about. But if you’re talking about the blues, why not feature harmonica? And if you’re going to feature harmonica, why not get Neil Young to make an album cameo? I don’t know what he’s playing, because it certainly doesn’t sound like cross harp. It’s almost as if an entirely different song is playing in the background – probably only Young was confident enough to play something so mis-matched. I think it works, and certainly shows off what a crisp harp soloist he is. Hooray for a collaboration between Canada’s two best folkers. Is that a word? oh well…
Finally the album’s title track, Hejira, the only song I recognize much. I almost want to copy out her entire first verse, but instead I’ll tell you to check it out yourself. Which reminds me. Mitchell is a freaking poet. I mean, I suppose it’s fairly common to say this of a folk singer-songwriter, but really, the same thing that causes me to say things like, “where the heck is the melody?” give me the feeling like it’s story time, and I’m cuddled up in a blanket hanging on every word. Here we also get the one other highly notable instrumental change. With a reference to Benny Goodman, subtle clarinet lines emerge. (Yeah, a clarinet can be subtle. It was news to me too!)
It was also during Hejira that I finally picked up the sleeve wondering who the heck was playing those bass lines. No, “bass line” doesn’t even describe them. “Counter-melodies on the electric bass” is a much better description, although I didn’t seem to notice this beauty except for during Coyote. Soon enough it all makes sense. Jaco Pastorius, who changed bass playing for the world, apparently collaborated with Mitchell a few times, and this is one of them. Each song he’s featured on pops out of the texture of the record like one of those high-def scenes of a flower blossoming on Planet Earth. He shows off the range of the bass, even throwing his famous harmonics into the mix without any virtuoso show-offy-ness. I can’t understand why he’s not used on every track of Hejira. Maybe Mitchell believes in too much of a good thing? Seriously though, where Joni lacks melody, I find myself more likely to sing a long to Jaco in this song and later on Black Crow.
Song for Sharon, I’m sorry to say, has me thinking about George Eliot’s Middlemarch. As Joni reflects on a dichotomy between marriage and independence, I reflect on what a different sort of question that is in the 1830’s setting of the characters of my book. I even pick it up and read a little further, though it’s rather obvious that I am far more interested in listening and writing this by now.
Black Crow might be my favorite track on the album. The song has a destination like the bird of subject, and plans to arrive by grooving out. It retains a certain amount of the blues that shows up everywhere else on Hejira, but like some of my more conscientious lecturers who will let us take stretch breaks, Mitchell recognizes that in order to keep from falling asleep we need to move along with the vehicle. I can’t help it, here is my favorite bit:
In search of love and music my whole life has been, Illumination, corruption, and diving, diving, diving, diving, diving down to pick up on every shiny thing…
And yes, I did count the number of divings.
Blue Room Motel dwells on a lover who is waiting for her back home. Why? I’m done with her feeling sorry for herself. She can reflect all she wants on life, but to be pining away for some guy who isn’t even apart of this grand journey? Really? Nearing the end of the album, I suppose we’re nearing LA with Joni, but I am bored by these whiney blues. Thank the Lord that she ends with another collaboration with Jaco instead of this tripe.
Refuge of the Road doesn’t arrive anywhere, but leaves us in the journey; the hejira. Continually displacing us in the progression and resolving back into the comfortable and familiar, just like the highway clearly is refuge to her. Now I’m going to have to download this album so I can experience it on the open road as it was conceived and probably meant to be heard, though Joni’s voice cuts through cleaner on vinyl than anywhere. Well, probably it’s even better live. But that’s just conjecture.
Back to Middlemarch for me. Please forgive my gaps between albums – I doubt this semester will be very blog friendly.
Better late than never, right? The thing is, I didn’t pre-consider the fact that I might want to spend more significant time on albums that most shaped my personal experience of the Ohsies. So I’m sorry that I didn’t stick with the 12 day plan, but here I am at the number one album as promised, and even before the distraction of the first New Music Tuesday of 2010.
I tried my darndest to keep it to one album per artist, I really did. But once I started compiling my list by considering possible number one albums, it was clear that both Kid A and In Rainbows were not simply contenders for the top 12, but for the number one spot. Just be grateful that I didn’t give in and add Thom Yorke’s Eraser to the list as well!
Luckily for me, the two Radiohead albums listed are not simply two really amazing albums, but they’re also incredibly distinct. Two albums couldn’t have more of an opposite effect on me: While Kid A seems to demand my intellect in full attention, In Rainbows has a more flexible feel, appropriate for nearly any excuse to put music on. The interplay between melody and rhythm plays like a good jazz record, and I rarely stop to listen or look up lyrics (though uncharacteristically, Radiohead does supply lyrics in the liner notes). On top of it, when we do stop to listen to what’s being sung, the lyrics represent the most personal stuff Radiohead has ever released!
The closest track we get to an electronic Kid A sound is the first song, yet it’s instantly clear that we are experiencing Radiohead as a full out rock band. (Perhaps Yorke realized he can play with electronics satisfactorily on his solo projects?) And no, this is not simply an experience of a band returning to an earlier formula, since In Rainbows sounds just as dissimilar from The Bends as any other album. What we have here is a brand new band; one who has continued to grow and is finally ready to play with everything that they have learned and discovered over decades of music-making; a band that is willing to make use of all of its members to their greatest potential. Not only that, but they’re willing to let the public decide what their music is worth, releasing a downloadable version first for your choice of a donated amount. Whatever you paid, it’s worth at least twice as much.
15 Steps feels like a punch in the face, but in a good way. Though the album can be listened to in nearly every context there is one very important consistent: some part of my body will be punching out the beat, which by the way, is the most natural feeling 5/4 since Brubeck and Desmond’s Take Five. This symptom of foot tapping/head nodding continues into Bodysnatchers, creating the greatest pair of momentum builder tunes for doing nearly any productive thing. Bodysnatchers is full of speed and sound and distortion, with clean guitar strings settling in overtop the rhythm and lyrics, but as it prepares to come to a close, it does the opposite of expected and drops a wicked guitar solo.
Then with Nude comes another change of pace, but doesn’t shock the system. Instead it melts my insides thoroughly as the string quartet seems to dialogue with Thom’s passionate vocals on the intertwined topics of desire and disappointment. I think this is the first time I’ve thought of a Radiohead song as sexy. And as Thom’s voice rises to the conclusion that leaves me hanging a little, the mood carries itself through Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. Who would have thought “sexy” could be associated with a song called Weird Fishes? But the guitar riff seems to effortlessly roll over the straight drumbeat that pauses only briefly about 3 minutes in, as if stopping to make sure we’re headed in the right direction. Turns out we are, as the song remains mostly instrumental till the end. So stunningly beautiful.
All I Need introduces Radiohead’s first romantic ballad, not without its dark undertones created by fuzzy droning synthesizer, cello, and lyrics that hint at loneliness and even obsession. As creepy as this groove is, the message seems to be a love that runs deep and unconditionally… then again, that kind of committed love can be pretty terrifying…
Faust Arp and Reckoner have most often been the strongest competition to be my favorite track on the record. Faust Arp feels intensly cyclical though it throws a 9/8 measure in every few bars, giving a sense of loosing control, though we hop right back on the familiar rotation soon enough. Still doing things brutally uncommon in the pop/rock genre, Radiohead does the experimental gently, as though holding your hand through the unexpected.
Reckoner begins with an atmosphere that seems as though I’m approaching the song rather than the other way around. Philip Selway’s snare and cymbals sound echoey and loud as if in a cement tunnel, and the soft electric guitar builds its volume at tiny increments. I feel as though I’ve stumbled across the best-kept secret of the decade, and the only thing there is to do is groove out.
Ever since finally seeing this band live, House of Cards is tied to my memory of their first encore at Thunderbird Stadium. As I sit in the living room, sipping on my rum and coke float, I think to myself that if it were raining right now, I would be moved enough to go out in my headphones and attempt to recreate that outdoor concert experience. Yorke’s voice on the track is even reverb-ed, creating just the stadium effect I need for my nostalgia.
Jigsaw Puzzle Falling Into Place recalls some of the album’s earlier energy, and portrays the story well as two people connect as if puzzle pieces that fit together. I can’t help but think that the way Radiohead is rocking out as an expression of the same chemistry.
In Rainbows closes with the spine-tingling, minimalist Videotape. Three piano chords cycle incessantly as the drum beat is slowly offset, creating a reflective tone as Yorke sings of looking back on a life nearing the end of it. A reference to Mephistopheles not so subtly recalls the Faust theme of the first half of the album, inviting us to examine our own life through the frame the music provides.
At the moment I feel so in love with In Rainbows that I cannot even articulate what it is that sets it apart so. There is an atmosphere to it that goes beyond a soundtrack quality, but settles into my emotional core and finds meaning in whatever happens to be at the center of my attention at the time. Every song finds a certain perfection that allows itself to be played in nearly any circumstance, and yet also welcomes analysis and questions. It’s the most colourful Radiohead we’ve heard yet.
So there you have it. My twelve favorite albums of the Ohsies are now recorded and heard, and I’m ready for a new decade of music. For those curious and disappointed, here is a list of the albums that had reoccurring guest spots in Listmas drafts. Likely I will blog them one day, but at the moment am looking forward to returning to some older music. We shall see. Happy Listmas to you all!
In Chronological Order:
Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000
Jack Johnson: Brushfire Fairytales, 2000
Erykah Badu: Mama’s Gun, 2000
India Arie: Acoustic Soul, 2001
Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It In People, 2002
Damien Rice: O, 2003
Postal Service: Give Up, 2003
Death Cab for Cutie: Transatlanticism, 2003
U2: How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb, 2004
KD Lang: Hymns of the 49th Parallel, 2004
Imogen Heap: Speak for Yourself, 2005
Regina Spektor: Begin to Hope, 2006
Handsome Furs: Plague Park, 2007
Yael Naim: Yael Naim, 2007
Coldplay: Viva La Vida, 2008
Animal Collective: Merry Weather Post Pavillion, 2009
K-Os: Yes, 2009
So, what were your favorite albums of the Ohsies? What’d I miss?
When Arcade Fire’s Funeral is mentioned, I must admit, what comes to mind first is not always the music. I think of the thin cardboard disc jacket that often becomes hidden among my other CDs, and the single sheet bulletin style liner notes which in a short band bio notes, “the irony of their first full length recording bearing a name with such closure.” Ironic indeed. For as the tracks explore mortality and loss, they never gets bogged down with grief, but push ahead full of drive and… well, life!
Leaving my iTunes minimized, I pop Funeral into the ghetto-blaster that acts primarily as an alarm clock on my bedside table as I attempt to clean up my pig sty of a room before my roommate gets home. Christmas presents must find spaces, clothes must be washed, and papers must be sorted: welcome to the new year! I’m finding myself spending a lot more time with the lyrics than with all I need to put away though.
The album begins with 4 tracks with the same name: Neighborhood #1, 2, 3, and 4, with a short intermission between #2 (Laika) and #3 (Power Out), called Une annee sans Lumiere (Sorry, but I have no clue how to add French accents in here). #1 (Tunnels) paints a childhood dream in vivid picture of a town completely snowed in (did I mention these guys are from Montreal?). The two love-struck kids dig tunnels to meet in town alone, and find themselves in their own world, forgetting what life was like before.
The neighborhood tracks beckon us into a coming-of-age story, as we discover what we are to become only in light of reflecting on all that we’ve lost. #2 subtitled Laika refers to the first dog sent into space without intention to bring him back as a metaphor for the black sheep of the family. I love the relational dimensions brought into this song though, sung from the point of view of a sibling, we picture the fights with a parent, and even the way neighbors can revel in a good story to tell, regardless of the pain it causes. It’s sung with a lot of tongue in cheek goodness.
Thus begins the year without light. Une Annee Sans Lumiere breaks from the cycle of neighborhood pictures to find a moment to grieve and reflect, but only a moment. Upon closer investigation (looking up a translation), the song is really a joining of the songs on either side of it. Une Annee combines metaphors of family struggle (the father wears blinders like a horse) with a dark world that’s lost it’s power (“hey! The streetlights all burnt out”). In preparation for Neighborhood #3 (Power Out), Une Annee speeds up with tambourine and shouts of “Hey!” that make me want to start running all the way into the next track. Power Out continues to describe the town searching for light, and extends the metaphor to a final frustrated thought and plea: “and the power’s out in the heart of man, take it from your heart put it in your hand.”
Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles) uses actual kettle whistles above the repeated string patterns in between verses. It drives me a little crazy, but creates a mysterious effect as Butler continues to reflect on the relationship between birth and death in lines like, “Time keeps creepin’ through the neighborhood, killing old folks, wakin’ up babies just like we knew it would,” and “they say a watched pot won’t ever boil… just like a seed down in the soil you gotta give it time.”
Crown of Love seems to be the center of this album, while all the other songs run at full pace this one is a simple apology: “if you still want me, please forgive me, the crown of love is not upon me,” showing of Butler’s ability to embody great passion. In the final minute, the track’s string driven 6/8 feel breaks into 4/4 and I break out dancing for the last minute of the song. My only disappointment on the entire album is that it fades out instead of developing the energy yet again, and expanding the song to 6 minutes.
But I forget all disappointment as soon as Wake Up strikes up and calls everyone to sing along to the syllable of “oh” like a good U2 chorus. In this song we return to the theme of growing older, and although the song begins heavily, they cleverly transition into dance beat that seems to face death without fear, affirmed by Butler shouting, “you better look out below!”
Hanging up clothes as Haiti plays, I can’t help but think the repeated counter melody sounds like a steel drum melody, though it tends to be played be flute and voices. Suspended electronic sounds remain while nothing else does, and the anticipated Rebellion (Lies) beat enters right on top with energy-contagious kick drum and bouncing double bass combo. I don’t want to close my eyes, because it’s simply not safe when you’re jumping around the room.
Finally Funeral comes to a close with female vocalist Regine Chassagne, who sings with a haunting Bjork quality. Until now she’s only headed up “oohs” or accented words or lines sung primarily by Win Butler, and I wonder if she was held back earlier in the album in order to create the surprise that In the Backseat brings. Swinging between two feels of either thin arch-shaped piano lines, and a heavy rock underscored by bowed bass, the instrumentation seems to hint at the song’s theme of moving between childhood and responsibility: “My family tree’s loosing all it’s leaves, crashing towards the driver’s seat”. At the end of Funeral, this is one of the few songs that appropriately fades into silence, and I’m left with nothing to do other than push play again.
I have to at least wonder how my experience of Come on! Feel the Illinoise! would change if I had ever stepped foot into the state of Illinois. As Sufjan’s second installment of albums inspired by/dedicated to each of America’s 50 states (which is a project he’ll doubtfully complete), he references many specific locations, personalities, and events particularly relevant to Illinois, such as Chicago, Decator, Jacksonville, serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., Superman (he’s from Metropolis, duh!), and those are just examples taken from the song titles. Not to mention, those are just ones that I actually recognize.
But I don’t find the album’s American prairie setting excludes me completely as a west coast Canadian, because ultimately the album’s true concept is a collection of short stories of human life meshed with Stevens’ touching personal reflections. Just as a good movie can do, specific setting is used to create a fairly universal story. And story is one of the many things Illinoise does incredibly well; it is folk music at its absolute highest caliber.
Although it is somewhat ambiguous from the first two tracks, Illinoise quickly shows itself to be the happiest sound on my list, and arguably the entire decade! Even tackling heavy subjects of war and murder, there is a lightness in the exquisitely eclectic instrumentation, and a sense of humor that comes with ridiculously long song titles. (For the purpose of time and space, I’ll use abbreviated names unless absolutely necessary).
And so we are introduced to Illinois/Illinoise with reflective piano not constrained by any time signature used in pop music prior (65/16. And no, I don’t want to admit how long I spent on that), preparing us for a collection of songs that refuse to fit into any box. Flutes trill above the texture freely, until they go crazy in The Black Hawk War, a march complete with snare shots doubled by trumpets.
Both tracks to me feel like a slow approach to the listener, before full out inviting us to indeed “Feel the Illinoise” with the title track, which is broken into two parts: The World’s Columbian Exposition, and Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream equally portray some of the most joyful energy, even as both parts question the meaning of progress in light of the world fair and transitioning to a more personal inquisition inspired by the poet Carl Sandburg: “Are you writing from the heart?”
While this album creates an atmosphere easy to play in any background, it can additionally be appreciated musically and lyrically for hours. For months I didn’t pay attention to what John Wayne Gacy Jr. was about, and when a friend pointed out that he was a famous serial killer I was eager to listen to the lyrics more closely. Sufjan has a way of empathizing with both victim and victimizer, turning the final line into an introspection: “and in my best behavior, I am really just like him, look beneath the floorboard for the secrets I have hid”.
Jacksonville through Decatur (the first song I know of positively dedicated to step-mothers!) have a great southern banjo flavor that is only briefly interrupted by A Short Reprise of strings (which tie the entire album together, without sounding too formal) that flow straight into the best-known and loved track on the album, Chicago. Oh how I need to go to Chicago. In the past, I’ve mostly wanted to go so I could have my picture taken with the bronze Michael Jordan outside of the United Center. I still want to do that, but now I just want to duplicate an experience of a van road tripping and sleeping in parking lots like described in this song.
More sensitive story telling with Casmir Pulaski Day, showing what has been consistently true of Illinoise; Sufjan’s beautiful sense of both melody and harmony. Having a brief instrumental break before The Man of Metropolis jars us back into interest with a few beats of an electric guitar that doesn’t find its way back into the track for a full two minutes. The variety in instrumentation is noted yet again, as The Prairie Fires return to a Sufjan-favoured combination of oboes and muted trumpets that finds itself displayed in all of its glory throughout the Predatory Wasp as well. And for the sake of trivia and awe, Sufjan himself plays nearly every instrument in the recording of this album.
As Sufjan continues to sing his simple and deeply honest lyrics, it occurs to me that there is something about his voice that doesn’t quite fit in with the other artists on my top 12. Thus far it has seemed that one of the most consistent themes of Listmas has been men making use of their falsetto range. Think about it: Falsetto is practically a trademark for Justin Timberlake, Thom Yorke, Chris Martin, and Jonsi Birgusson. Yet Sufjan’s voice is under-produced, softly calling us to pay attention to his insights. Not that he never hits a high note, but there really is something quite noteworthy how unremarkable his voice really is. Yet we love him for it, and the way it seems to welcome us all to sing along with him.
This album also plays rather like a movie. It’s certainly long enough to be a feature film, and as we near the end, tracks like Night Zombies and The Seer’s Tower turn dark, seemingly more at home on the earlier album Seven Swans, which is a musical interpretation of the Biblical Revelation. The ghostly part of the album doesn’t last long however, and we return to another 2 part-ed song full of energy and joy as though we really haven’t departed to far from the title track. Even the transitions between the two parts finds itself made up primarily of falling trumpet lines, while Illinoise transitioned by rising ones.
In noticing similarities between Illinoise and The Tallest Man, I begin to wonder if the whole record is set up in a chiastic structure, since they match also as the third and third from last song on the album. This would make The Man of Metropolis Steals our Hearts the most important track through which to hear the rest of the songs. Interesting, but I’ll have to leave that analysis for another day, and instead try to remember whether Sufjan Stevens was in my Orchestration class as we also had to write an exercise of riffs using a single note. Either way, he cheats a bit.
And so beautifully, Out of Egypt concludes the experience in a wonderfully Steve Reich influenced instrumental repetition that fluctuates slowly and covertly. It allows me to put the whole experience down for a while and reflect before I decide to pick this album up again. Sounds take their turns emerging and re-submerging into the texture as all that makes up Illinoise seems to be waving wide-eyed goodbyes.
In a decade of emo and self-pity, Sufjan asks his questions of meaning not with naivety, but with refreshing hopefulness. Easily one of my favorite things created this decade, and absolutely my favorite new creative genius from these past 10 years.