It goes without saying that action and suspense are key elements to the popularity of Breaking Bad. However, the show’s complexities propel the show beyond the simple confines of a Friday night nail biter . Whether it be the symbolism found in the ricin kept in the White household, the parallelism of both Gus Frain and Walter’s downfall, or the show’s constant reliance on foreshadowing, the minds behind Breaking Bad ensure that you’re getting more than just a cheap thrill. One of the elements that is often overlooked is the show’s use of music. While Dave Porter’s intense background symphonies punctuate the drama, I often find the pop songs used to be even more revealing. As a result, I decided to create a list of my top ten songs of the show.
This isn’t a list of my favorite musical moments, so you won’t be hearing about Gale’s karaoke video nor Jesse’s old band, Twauthammer (although “Falacies” was a bad ass song). This also isn’t a list of the songs I enjoy the most from the show, so you won’t be seeing any mention of The Walkmen, John Coltraine, or Thee Oh Sees. This is a list of the tunes that had the most impact on the series, the songs that both set the mood for key scenes and also added depth and complexity to the story through their lyrics. Rather than rank them in some type of top 10 list, I opted to reveal them chronologically to show how they helped shape the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg.
Ten years ago Beck could do no wrong, moving effortlessly from one genre to the next, whether it be his sexual-funk fest “Midnight Vultures” or his somber, sad symphony on “Sea Change”. The latter part of the decade he had a few bumps in the road with “Guero” and “The Information” (SongSucks has always asserted that if you take half the songs off both albums and combined them, you’d have another Beck masterpiece). I think the only real problem with these two albums was a lack of focus. After exploring every nook and cranny of pop music, Beck seemed to be jumping around from sound to sound without any real guidance.
In need of a reset button, Beck turned to Danger Mouse for counsel, letting the Dark Lord of Production pull the heart out of Beck’s music, leaving the same monotonous, jerky stylings that have plagued anything that the Dark Lord touches. Although the album somehow got nominated for a Grammy (since when have Grammys mattered?), the album didn’t get as favorable of a reception from critics. PopMatters wrote:
“Whereas his preceding body of work surprised, soothed and flowed with resounding consistency, his latest unassertively lingers in redundancy…Part of the problem is that Danger Mouse’s strategy—his signature go-go rhythm (oom pah pa oom pa) over a simple but prominent bass line—is beaten to a pulp in its overuse here, and in pop generally.”
You mean to say Danger Mouse is a one trick pony? How dare they! The Guardian was not very friendly either:
“So richly scented is producer Danger Mouse’s take on late 1960s/early 70s psychedelic rock – a genre done to death, if not beyond – that you begin to wonder if Beck is flagging up the end of music itself…perhaps this is a good time to say goodbye.”
Good bye to Beck? How can we let go of this quirky genius so easily? There is still hope, isn’t there? Or did Danger Mouse ruin him for good? Well, I think Beck took the hint. After a couple of years in hiding, Beck realized he couldn’t return re-hashing what he’d done before. He had to re-invent himself. And that’s exactly what he did.
Like the smoke monster in “Lost”, Beck had to find himself a dead John Locke, a vehicle to move his music forward, another voice to convey his art, a new point of view: he had to become a woman. French songstress Charlotte Gainsbourg to be exact. She seemed the perfect choice; afterall, Beck basically plagiarized his “Sea Change” sound from Charlotte’s dad, Serge Gainsbourg (believe me, I love “Sea Change”, but try listening to it right after Serge’s ode to pedophilia “Histoire de Melody Nelson” and you can’t deny the influence).
"Danger Mouse; don't tell me what I can't do!"
The premise of “IRM” is Charlotte singing Beck’s songs and it works incredibly well. Beck is free from the constraints of what his fans may expect of him and is allowed to experiment in new, refreshing ways. Unlike “Modern Guilt’s” stale drum tracks, Beck returns to the world of live percussion, embellishing his music with massive, building drum fills that rumble with attitude. The acoustic guitars natural reverberations return to the forefront, giving the album that raw, natural echo that got completely sucked out by that vacuum of chaos, Danger Mouse. On songs like “Me and Jane Doe”, this organic approach works beautifully alongside Beck’s sparing use of production, using only a dash of his ghostly voice oohing-and-ahhing in the back-drop.
This is probably my favorite song on the album. It’s just so happy and the lyrics are solid:
Beck doesn’t completely re-invent himself here. The Serge Gainsbourg orchestration returns to Beck’s repertoire, giving songs like “Vanaties” and “Voyage” a dramatic effect. Instead of creating an album that jumps from one genre to the next, Beck realizes he can combine all that he’s learned over the years, melding “Sea Changes” with “Mutations”, “Odelay”, and “Mellow Gold” in one fell swoop. The most Serge-ian track though would have to be the darkly haunting “Le Chat Du Cafe Des Artistes”, a song entirely sung in French. When translated, the lyrics are disturbing and, in a strange way, romantic:
Put me in a trashcan
Let me rot for a month
And from there throw me to the cat
May he decline my spleen and my liver
But choose the right time so that he eats my heart
Okay, my idea of romance may be a little misguided. Regardless, check out this incredible song:
This album’s success is a result of Gainsbourg’s voice, providing a focus that Beck had lost and giving him a chance to have fun again. Only on the Mutations-esque sounding “Heaven Can Wait” does Beck step out of the shadows, providing back-up vocals to the upbeat melody. It is the most fitting choice for Beck’s reincarnation with lyrics that re-assure us that there is life after Danger Mouse:
Heaven can wait
and hell’s too far ago
what you need and what you know
I thought James Mercer could do no wrong. I thought he was a musical Jedi, untouchable, infallible. With his serene tenor voice and wry, imagery laced lyrics, he seemed to be unstoppable. Yes, the last Shin’s album “Wincing the Night Away” was their weakest to date, yet it still holds up and is filled with classic Mercer gems. Then he met the Senator Palpatine of the music industry, the villainous Danger Mouse, sucking the soul out of artists, one song at a time. And somehow, the indestructible Mercer gave in to the darkness, allowing the Mouse into his realm, tweaking and blurring anything that resembled Mercer’s music, slowly transforming them into a mangled mess of melodies.
If you haven’t figured out yet, the union of Mercer and Mouse via their musical project Broken Bells has left me angered and frustrated (“Bob Dylan Hates Danger Mouse Week” was created as a reaction to seeing another of my favorite artists allow this pest into their world). First Beck. Then Damon Albarn. Now Mercer? Enough is enough! This is like allowing a street artist to add some touch-ups to a Van Gogh! As a result, these artists are now all left as shells of their former selves, an army of musical zombies, marching to Danger Mouse’s choppy, repetitive drum loops.
The first track on Broken Bell’s debut album (let’s hope it’s their last) gives hope that maybe the Mouse didn’t hold Mercer’s sound up for ransom. Yes, it features the tinny drums and Mouse’s self-serving embellishments in the form of an annoying synth line, but Mercer’s voice is up front and center, belting out a catchy melody. On first listen, I began to wonder if Mercer’s incredible vocals were too powerful to succumb to the Mouse. Track two continues the vibe that all may still be well for James Then 30 seconds into the song Danger Mouse shoots his load right in your earhole, letting you know who’s boss. The sixties vibe that has become the producer’s staple bursts onto the scene, and that plodding bassline returns. I HATE Danger Mouse’s basslines. HATE. They are always mechanical, choppy, and simply sterile. This is the bassline that made Gnarl’s Barkley’s “Crazy” so unique at the time. Instead of being the soulful bass common in R&B, Danger Mouse switched the flip, making the backbone of the song sound nerdy. But you know what? It worked once. Stop going to the well of irritating basslines! This is also the same bassline that destroyed Beck’s “Modern Guilt”. And on Broken Bells, it once again resurfaces, and resurfaces…and resurfaces. Damn it!
From track two on you are taken on a disastrous journey that would make any Griswold cower in fear. With most of his other debacles, Danger Mouse at least finds a focus with his production. Not this time. Every song jumps from one style to the next, awkwardly moving from 80s dance to 60 psychedelia without any transition. It almost feels like the Mouse is trying to upstage Mercer, to battle him, to take him completely out of the mix. Often, Mercer is buried in reverb and filtered through distortion.
This is the biggest sin Danger Mouse has committed to date. Mercer’s best asset is his voice, yet you choose to mask it with so many effects that all that makes Mercer unique is completely erased. This is like having David Lee on your Fantasy Basketball team and opting to start Eddy Curry instead. You just don’t do it. You just don’t.
If you're reading this Mr. Mouse, this is an open invitation to join my NBA Fantasy League next year.
Bunion“The Beach Boys vs. J Dilla- Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee”
When it first came out, Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” was pretty innovative. I can’t deny that the idea of taking Jay-Z’s raps and mixing them over the Beatle’s “White Album” was pretty ingenious. But as The Wolf would say, “Let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet.” Let’s be frank: “The Grey Album” was a cute concept; not the earth-shattering work of art that it was portrayed as by music critics (“Entertainment Weekly” named it the album of the year and “Rolling Stone” proclaimed it “the ultimate remix album”). The “ultimate remix album”? Really?
In hindsight, the album consists primarily of Jay-Z’s raps while The Beatles play second fiddle. Often, you can’t even make-out what Beatle’s song is being used, and more commonly, the background music is a garbled distraction with bleeps and squeaks popping out of the speakers sporadically. When you get down to it, Danger Mouse’s mash-up creation didn’t take much talent at all (a lot of patience I suppose). My friend Tim always joked that he could do the same thing using his basic audio mixing program Acid, although his idea was to mix Jay-Z over Journey (he wanted to call it “Journ-Z”).
You can't deny the possibilities of "H-to the Iz-Open Arms".
Maybe “The Grey Album was the best remix album in the early days of the mash-up, but looking back, Danger Mouse’s opus sounds amateurish. Since then we’ve seen other DJs take DM’s concept into more interesting horizons. For example, this past year, Bullion released “The Beach Boys vs. J. Dilla”. Instead of just tossing some rapper vocals over remixed audio, British DJ/Producer Bullion has taken two of the best producers of the past 50 years (hip-hop producer J Dilla and the Beach Boy’s mastermind Brian Wilson) and intertwined their sounds in a way that is intricate and refreshing. I should point out now that this actually isn’t even a mash-up. Rather, Bullion took “Pet Sounds” and ran it through his interpretation of J Dilla’s sound; his legacy. It’s more of a re-imagining, answering the question that I’m sure no one has ever asked: “What would it sound like if J Dilla produced ‘Pet Sounds’?”
J Dilla, possibly the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, died back in 2006. Over the past two decades he was involved with albums for some of the biggest names in the rap community: Tribe Called Quest, Redman, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, etc. Within Bullion’s tweaking of the Beach Boys you hear echos of J Dilla’s classic sound, although it’s impossible to fully capture what J. Dilla did within his production.
Speaking of production, The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” is looked at as a benchmark in the field. This is due to Brian Wilson’s orchestration, complex arrangements, and his vast use of track-layering. It is impossible to overestimate the expansive influence this one album had on music as we know it. “Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” would not exist, and if “Sgt Peppers” was never made…well…there may not be any Nickelback. Paul McCartney went so far as to call it “…the classic of the century”. Of course, he also said that he’s “…often played Pet Sounds and cried.” Then again, we always knew Paul was a little mary.
Bullion has taken these two classic sounds and created something that tastes refreshing. In recent years we’ve seen the re-emergence of a focus on vocal harmonies in bands like Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective, and on this album we are reminded that The Beach Boys were mastering this approach decades ago. While there is the classic B-Boys vocals, there are no rap vocals here. At times it feels like without a rapper spitting rhymes that the songs may be missing something, but then again, the lyrics would only hide the brilliance going on in the background.
Each track runs 2-3 minutes, and this is more than enough. Actually, the album seems to run a bit long. You can only listen to garbled Brian Wilson for so long. Of course, you can always just listen to the album in pieces, or even better, as background music. If you’re one of those headphone wearing folk who sit and dissect ever nuance of a song, you may be disappointed.
On the album, Bullion doesn’t rely solely on the two producers at hand. On “God Only Knows” he brings in audio of soul singing sisters, taken from some cover version of the tune, giving the track a GZA vibe.
At times interview audio of Brian Wilson emerge, talking about the spiritual power of music and on “Let’s Go Away for a While” he even pops in to make some producing requests. If you don’t smile when he calls for the drums, you simply have no soul.
No, I’m not going to name this the “greatest mix-tape ever” (that honor goes to the mix-tape I made in 9th grade entitled “Master Scab” featuring Dinosaur Jr AND Fugazi), but I do believe what Bunion has accomplished here is much more complex and intriguing than the pseudo classic “The Grey Album”.
Back in 2004 Danger Mouse was award “Man of the Year” by GQ for his mash-up of The Beatles “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “Black Album”. But any quick YouTube search shows that it’s not too difficult to take Jay-Z’s a capella audio tracks and throw them into a song (there are mixes involving Dave Matthews Band, The Verve, Guns N’ Roses, and Blink 182, just to name a few). I even found a few mash-ups of Jay-Z and Bob Dylan, which is sacrilege considering the fact that Bob Dylan hates Danger Mouse (and mash-ups for that matter):