Last Minute Musical Discoveries of 2005

We're down to the final hours of a pretty tumultuous year. Despite the tragedies and political ugliness we've endured-- despite every bad headline--I'm grateful that I was alive during 2005. Breaths of fresh air were plentiful - especially in music. Though I don't feel I heard a wide enough variety of music this year to compile a 'ten best' list, I must share some of my final musical discoveries of 2005.

First of all... Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah. I missed this one when it was released earlier this year. I bought it on recommendation from a record store employee a few days ago and though it probably wouldn't make a 'ten best' list if I had one, it is certainly one of the most refreshing musical releases of the year. Upon examination of it's packaging you'll realize that the only words on it are the name of the band and the song titles. No copyright information, label logo, or FBI piracy warning. Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah are as independent as independent music can get. This was a completely self-released album. The music is intriguing and refreshing. Lead singer Alec Ounsworth sounds like David Byrne without sounding like he was imitating anyone. Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah is a frenzied, exciting record of genuine indie rock. Music as original as this rarely enters the scene, so don't miss it!

My second belated musical discovery is somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It is pure pop, but it completely mesmerized me. Imogen Heap's song 'Hide and Seek' from her new record. If you've already heard it, listen to it again. That is all voice. Nothing but Imogen Heap's voice (though it is electronically distorted). I don't think I've ever heard such passion contained in a single song. It is extraordinary. The song tugs at your soul - no, it burrows into your soul, injecting it with passion. 'Hide and Seek' is the most beautiful song I've heard all year.

And finally, I must give a shout out to all the music that sustained me throughout the year: Bright Eyes' 'Land Locked Blues', the best song of the year; Spoon's new album; Sufjan Stevens' epic and intimate Illinoise; Sleater-Kinney's hard-hitting The Woods; and other great albums like Bloc Party Silent Alarm, Iron and Wine/Calexico In the Reigns, Willy Mason's Where the Humans Eat, and The Decemberists' Picaresque.

Fear Before the March of Flames - Art Damage

(originally written for the Boise Weekly)

There are two methods with which to judge Fear Before the March of Flames. The first method consists of listening to the band within the context of all music. The second method deals simply with judging the disc next to other hardcore acts. Fear Before fails miserably on one front and achieves no less than mediocrity on the other front. Specifically, Art Damage is a disjointed, incoherent mess of noise when analyzed among all elements of the musical universe. Among hardcore, however, I can imagine that Art Damage will be respected, if not revered. Had Fear Before betrayed their genre through innovation instead of pandering to hardcore kids with imitation, I might have recommended this disc to all lovers of music instead of hardcore kids exclusively.

But alas, Fear Before worked very hard to garner the 'hardcore' label. Jagged guitar riffs with metal-tinged freak-outs are accompanied by a sometimes hard and slowly deliberate, sometimes machine-gun-quick rhythm section. On top of this oftentimes obnoxious chorus of hardcore are the obligatory demonic screeches that will make your throat ache. These are juxtaposed next to more orthodox vocal styling that ends up being simply dull. I wish I could tell you more about the actual music, but it all sounds about the same (the entire album could be condensed into a single song) and there isn't too much to be said about it.

Redemption cannot be found in the lyrics either. They are cryptic and cliché, with lines like “we were meant to eat each other” and “raise your head and say well done before they put you in a casket.” Indeed, redemption for Art Damage will only be found within the hardcore kids nodding their heads at shows. For anyone else, this is truly exhausting.

Ted Led and the Pharmacists - Sharkbite Sessions EP

Ted Leo has proved once again that he ranks among the best when it comes to singer/songwriters in the independent music scene. He isn't your typical singer/songwriter- in fact, he plays a loud electric guitar over driving drum beats in a post-punk outfit called the Pharmacists. At his core, however, Ted Leo is indeed a singer/songwriter. His lyrics are sharp and smart and his rich voice places those lyrics front and center. The Sharkbite Sessions contains three songs - two redone off Ted's solo Tell Balgeary EP from 2003 ('Loyal to My Sorrowful Country' and 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat') and a cover of the Stiff Little Finger's 'Suspect Device'.

'Loyal to My Sorrowful Country' utilizes the band's polished pop sensibility to deliver poignant lyrics about Ted's decision to no longer by loyal to our sorrowful country. Rather than being a depressed account of lost hope, this song is instead a celebratory anthem speaking for change. We get the impression that Ted is excited about progress instead of simply disturbed. So many similar songs these days capture that disappointment without insisting on hope. The final verse goes:

Though I've lived my bygone years
In this land, in this land
I'll uproot it without tears
And I'll change it if I can!

These lyrics are delivered over mellowed music for emphasis and one can't help but rejoice at Ted's optimism in the face of such dismal times. It's difficult to find a similar optimism in today's other 'protest' music.

Though 'Loyal' is the showcase song here, the others certainly do not disappoint. 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat' is solid and serves Ted's ambitious voice well. 'Suspect Device' is urgent and exciting. If you are a Ted Leo fan, you certainly will not want to miss the Sharkbite Sessions.

Revisiting David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries

During the holiday season I have a tendency to be the scrooge at every gathering of kindred spirits. I don’t necessarily celebrate any one of the holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or even Festivus. In fact, I view the entire affair with a sharpened cynicism. I stand ready to dish out harsh rebuttals to every aspect of the season. Gift giving? Just a scheme that preys on the wallets of our consumer culture and creates an abundance of unnecessary pressure and stress. Christmas trees? Came from the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and were once banned (along with the entire holiday) by the Puritans in the 1600s. Mistletoe? It’s actually a somewhat parasitic plant that preys on trees. Some varieties are even poisonous to you and your pets. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that my favorite moment of every holiday season is revisiting David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.

For those who have been fortunate enough to stumble upon this staggering work of comic holiday genius, you’ll know exactly why I love it. Sedaris affirms the Grinch in each of us. The story, first appearing on NPR’s Morning Edition thirteen years ago and later in Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice, chronicles his experience working as one of Santa’s little helpers in Macy’s Santaland in New York City. His dry wit and knack for satire captures the absurdities of Christmas while filtering out almost every ounce of obnoxious and feigned holiday cheer.

There is the New Jersey man who shouts to Santa, “I WANT A BROAD WITH BIG TITS” while his “small-breasted wife” looks on. Or the woman who instructs her son to pee on fake snow. Or the other woman who requests a ‘traditional’ Santa and is sent by Blisters (Sedaris’ elf name) to Jerome, the black Santa. And, of course, the bewildered foreigners (from Santaland Diaries):
Often the single adults are foreigners who just happened to be shopping… a Santa Elf leads the way to a house where the confused and exhausted visitor addresses a bearded man in a red suit, and says, “Yes, OK. Today I am good.” He shakes Santa’s hand and runs, shaken, for the back door.
But perhaps the most raucous and potentially offensive story is Sedaris’ eyebrow-raising comparison between Santa and, you guessed it: Satan.

Santa just happens to be an anagram for Satan. Just move the ‘n’ to the end and you’ve gone from a jolly fat man to the epitome of all evil. When Blisters and his elf friend Puff came to this startling realization, they couldn’t help but substitute Satan for Santa when overhearing Macy’s shoppers (from Santaland Diaries):
“What do you think, Michael? Do you think Macy’s has the real Satan?”
“Don’t forget to thank Satan for the Baby Alive he gave you last year.”
“I love Satan.”
“Who doesn’t? Everyone loves Satan.”

You get the idea.

This year, however, I’ve come to the realization that the similarities between Santa Claus and Satan are actually quite eerie and alarming. This is a man who annually makes a ritual of breaking into millions of homes around the world. We should be concerned.

Firstly, consider Santa's home base. The North Pole is a frigid, frozen wasteland over which Santa reigns. From what I understand of the North Pole, Dante apparently had it just right when describing the ninth circle of his Hell in the Inferno. It's also a frigid, frozen wasteland, albeit holding the damned spirits of Earth's worst sinners. In the center of that final circle resides Lucifer himself. Could the North Pole indeed be this ninth circle? If so, Santa would undoubtedly be Satan.

Then, of course, are the peculiar traits Santa possesses that we naively see as lovable quirks. We set out heaps of cookies on Christmas Eve to appease his gluttony and embrace his propensity to give gifts, which in reality only breeds greed in our world's children. Gluttony and Greed- two of the seven deadly sins so far, but we certainly aren't finished. We must not forget that Santa works but one day out of the year. That would be number three: Sloth. Number four, Pride, is undeniable. You can't turn your head in November and December without seeing Santa's proud, plump face. I'm still working out Lust and Anger, but Envy is an easy one. Santa has obviously got it out out for the Judeo-Christian conception of God. Christmas, after all, is supposed to have a whole lot to do with God. Santa, however, falling prey to his immense jealousy of God's all-powerful and all-knowing status, is quickly rising to immortality and simultaneously shoving the Christ out of Christmas. When did anyone but God figure out how to know when you've been good or bad? I think it's becoming frighteningly clear that Satan has hijacked Christmas.

There are, of course, plenty more clues. Santa's red suit is no doubt a reflection of the evil in his heart. And who else but a devil would bewitch reindeer to fly? This December 25th I strongly suggest locking all doors and windows. If you have a fireplace either build a raging fire (though I'm not sure even that can stop Satan) or install a trap to catch that evil, yet jolly and obese man. Help create a safer holiday season for each of us.

Bright Eyes - Lua

Lua is a beautiful CD single from Bright Eyes' 2005 I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning release. It contains Lua and three songs that do not appear on I'm Wide Awake. The final song, True Blue, also also appears live on the new Motion Sickness disc. I'll review the disc by addressing each song.


Songs like this are the reason I love Bright Eyes. It's just Conor and his guitar, sweetly singing us a story that you won't hear anywhere else in pop music. In just four verses Conor weaves together a story of two people stumbling together through a life of parties, drugs, and drinking on trains. Though these two characters' names and faces are never revealed, every layer of their dangerous and necessary relationship is. Every word that Conor pens and sings is deliberate and contains miles more depth than some entire albums that will sell millions this year.

Well Whiskey

"And just when I got fed up with the gray sky the sun came out of nowhere like a bar fight. And it knocked out the wind and it bruised me with light." This line, buried deep within Well Whiskey, nearly knocked me off my feet. I was half-listening to the song and the line jumped out of my speakers, causing me to drop everything. Who else in music today can pen a line like 'the sun came out of nowhere like a bar fight'? Though Well Whiskey as a whole is my least favorite song on Lua, it is no doubt a well-crafted country rock ballad.

I Woke Up With This Song In My Head This Morning

A Bright Eyes song not written by Conor Oberst! I don't think I've ever seen that before. Alex Mcmanus, who plays guitar and sings in Bright Eyes, wrote this one. And it just happens to be my favorite on Lua. The lyrics are sweet in a pop way, and even though they are more ambigous than Conor's lyrics you can't help but love them. Alex joins Conor in the chorus, which sounds like no other Bright Eyes music. This a simple, genuine pop song that will eat your heart.

True Blue

I've already written about this song when it came out on Motion Sickness. It goes about like this:
I am a blue blood. I will admit that. I dance in blue shoes and wear a blue hat. Live in a blue on a blue street, in a blue town by a blue creek... now I don't know much about you but I like you because you are true blue.
How, you ask, can Conor manage to make that idea last an entire song? I don't know, but he does. Most other artists would fumble, but True Blue is truly a timeless song and fitting end to 16 minutes of Bright Eyes bliss.

The Kingsbury Manx - The Fast Rise and Fall of the South

(originally written for the Boise Weekly)

North Carolina's The Kingsbury Manx caused wide smiles to cover my face from the moment The Fast Rise and Fall of the South began floating delicately from the speakers in my flower delivery van. Though winter doesn't officially begin until December 21st (I'm writing this on the 15th, even though you won't read it until 'winter') temperatures are already cold enough to freeze bones. The Kingsbury Manx's invigorating, folksy Americana flair and smooth as silk delivery did more to ward of that cold than my van's heater and a hearty cup of hot chocolate ever will.

These tunes fill up the air with life, seemingly charging the atmosphere with electricity. Bill Taylor's voice encompasses both a humble nobility that is almost charmingly didactic and a quiet but explosive edge comparable to Iron and Wine's Sam Beam or The Shins' James Mercer. What Taylor's voice misses in originality it makes up for in it's simple addictive powers. You can't get enough and can't help but try and sing along. The dense and layered music behind Taylor's voice utilizes both the reliable acoustic guitar and piano but also a diverse array of non-traditional instruments (wine glasses on "Zero G”) and imaginative and irresistible vocal harmonies. Again, originality isn't the point (I was oft reminded of the latest Sufjan Stevens effort). You can't help but let this music flow through your veins. It runs as thick as blood.

The Fast Rise and Fall of the South presents a Kingsbury Manx that never strums a single misplaced chord or sings even one ill-advised note. Every moment of music is deliberate and the understanding is that the band has captured every essence of their intentions, which are nothing short of pure. Get this now.

Bright Eyes - Vinyl Box Set (Part II)

A few weeks ago I reviewed A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 as part of a three-post series listening to Bright Eyes' Vinyl Box Set. In a week or two I'll listen to Every Day and Every Night and Don't Be Frightened of Turning the Page. Right now Letting off the Happiness is spinning on my turntable. I won't be reviewing Fevers and Mirrors, which is also included in the box set.

Letting of the Happiness presents a Conor Oberst whose songwriting abilities have expanded considerably since he wrote those songs from 1995 to 1997. "Padriac My Prince" tears through the speakers with intense pain. Singing about a brother who drowned in a bathtub, he says "you cried but no one came and the water filled your tiny lungs." Subtly dissonant guitar plucks help his honest, shaky voice deliver the line. A feeling of overbearing, universal loneliness hovers thickly in the air as "Padriac" plays.

Though each song on Happiness attains a power similar to that of "Padriac", each track is freshly original from the rest. "Contrast and Compare" is flavored with a country tinged guitar foreshadowing Bright Eyes' most recent musical direction. "Touch" is littered with electronic noise, hinting at Bright Eyes' other recent musical direction, on Digital Ash. After the youthful and raucous "The City Has Sex" Oberst delivers the opening lines of another country-tinged song, "The Difference in the Shades", and they'll floor you:
now that its june, we'll sleep out in the garden
and if it rains, we'll just sink in to the mud
where it is quiet and much cooler than the house is
and there's no clocks or phones to wake us up
All that I've already described is before side two. Oberst and friends have already crafted enough substance to create a great album. Most groups struggle to pack enough substance into two entire albums, let alone half of their sophomore effort. And then... then side two outdoes side one! It begins with "June on the West Coast", an intimate song featuring only Oberst and his acoustic guitar. These are my favorite Oberst songs, when Bright Eyes is stripped down to their most essential characteristics. Words are caught in my throat as I try to explain the wonder of this song. The best I can do is default on using Oberst's words to explain his music. His words are, really, the only way to understand Bright Eyes. "June on the West Coast" includes such gems as "I spent a week drinking the sunlight of Winnetka, California where they understand the weight of human hearts" and "I felt I was on fire with the things I could have told you. I guess I just assumed that you eventually would ask."

Unlike A Collection of Songs, Happiness sounds like a more complete and coherent album (not to diminish the beauty of Songs). Oberst's lyrical ability is stunning here, and leaves one craving for more of his youthful and unpretentious wisdom. The music that backs him up has also greatly developed from A Collection of Songs. It's difficult to do this album justice in a review. One needs to hear every song, or at least read a description and some lyrical excerpts of every song, to realize how monumental Happiness is for a mere sophomore album.

Happiness also foreshadows the various turns Bright Eyes music has taken since then. As mentioned already, some of the songs have received a subtle country treatment while others are littered with electronic ambiance and noises. Others, like "Padriac" would fit in well on the darker Fevers and Mirrors. Finally, I can't help but throw in a Bob Dylan comparison. If any Bright Eyes album deserves this, it's certainly Happiness. The tracks that showcase simply Oberst and his guitar, like "June on the West Coast" and "Tereza and Thomas", remind me of Bob Dylan, if not in strict style, at least in scope and spirit.

Explanation of This Blog's Name

It just occurred to me that the name of this blog is just a bit odd. I invented the name after seeing Bright Eyes live in Salt Lake City. Conor Oberst's enormous voice erupted out of his small body that wiggled and writhed in passion in front of the mic stand as he delivered his lyrics over his pounding but sweetly jangling guitar. His face twisted into intense expressions of earnestness, his eyes narrowed and mouth widened to allow room for the hugeness of his music to flow through. The music and the stories weaved within consumed every corner of my mind and wrapped up my body in a noisy nirvana. As I witnessed Conor Oberst throwing every ounce of his existence into the music, I realized that he was breathing. I became aware of my own breath as it left my body to float amongst the waves of sound. I understood then that music is breathing. When we make it or listen to it, music is breathing. Music, when we allow it to become as intertwined into our existence as the atoms that make up our bodies, is every bit as life affirming as a breath of atmosphere. It is as essential to our continued existence as the oxygen in the air. There is no doubt- music is breathing.

Oxcart - Sasquatch?

(originally written for the Boise Weekly)

Sasquatch, the freshman effort from Portland's Oxcart, begins with the engaging smooth groove of Esta Illegal, but as soon as the vocals kicked in I had to resist a strong urge to turn it off. The singing on this disc is nearly laughable. Jason Baker's vocal styling is absurd, for lack of a better word. He tries too hard at originality and succeeds only in sounding irrelevant, like an oddity best kept in a basement somewhere or at least buried deep within a local music scene. I don't feel that I should encounter this music anywhere outside of Portland. Even in Portland, I'd rather not cross paths with Oxcart.

The musicians behind Baker's voice scramble to redeem his failures, but only half-succeed. The band's press release describes the music best, as a "psychedelic mixture of explosive rock, funk, and deeply atmospheric melodies." At the top of their game, Oxcart produces noises that expand throughout your mind, pushing out thought to reverberate through a peaceful emptiness. When the band runs out of fresh ideas, however, they default on a bag of generic tricks: funky bass licks that have been played verbatim countless times throughout music history, electric guitar relying on the wah-wah effect to cover up missing skill, and obnoxious synthesizer wails.

Sasquatch is a bizarre, unsettling, and confusing experience. Embarrassingly, I found myself tapping my foot to the music, albeit just at its sharpest moments. Other moments of this disc appalled my better musical instincts. Not once did Oxcart manage to sound relevant or fresh. This is a monumental musical misstep that has sat festering in some musicians' minds for far too long, where it should have stayed.

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