When I first heard LeBron James announce his “decision” to “take his talents to South Beach”, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was devastated, not only for the poor fans of Cleveland, but also for the NBA as a whole. The pillars of what made the league successful (team work, cohesion, and loyalty) all evaporated in the moment LeBron made his heel turn, creating the NBA equivalent of the New York Yankees in the form of the Miami Cheats. The best name I found for the big three in Miami was a blog that called them The Nazgûl (characters in “Lord of the Rings” that were former kings who lost their humanity due to their search for the all-consuming ring).
Stan Van Gundy would be Samwise.
Despite all the selfishness surrounding the big move, I couldn’t help but smirk a bit at the thought of someone dethroning the misanth-rapist himself, Kobe Bryant. Plus, as a fan of basketball, I secretly look forward to seeing what a team comprised of three superstars will accomplish (oh, and adding Mike Miller and his Godly 3-point shooting won’t hurt).
The question is, does a super group ever work? In music there have been many super groups over the years with established musicians joining forces, whether it be CSNY, The Traveling Wilburys, or The Highwaymen. While these groups produced some memorable songs, they all seemed a bit unauthentic, while CSNY were never quite as good without Young carrying the load. In recent years, bands like Velvet Revolver, Audioslave, and Chickenfoot have brought shame to the notion of the super group.
With two of indie rocks biggest super groups recently releasing albums (Wolf Parade and The New Pornographers) I decided to take a look at their latest offerings to help evaluate how The Nazgûl in Miami may work out.
Wolf Parade“Expo 86”[Sub Pop]
In my humble opinion, Wolf Parade are a super group. Comprised of Sunset Rubdown’s Spencer Krug, Dan Boeckner from the Handsome Furs, and the former guitarist of Hot Hot Heat Dante DeCaro, this trio along with drummer Arlen Thompson have been creating music together on as a side-project for the past seven years to critical acclaim. On their past albums, Dan and Spencer are in the forefront with every other song jumping back and forth between their two distinct styles. “Apologies to the Queen Mary” and “At Mount Zoomer” somehow remain focused, despite the band’s multiple personalities. While Spencer’s artistic fortitude makes you think, Dan’s penchant for melodies will have you up on your feet dancing. This combination of kinesthetic and intellect resulted in two puzzling albums that remind me of a Coen Brother’s film; with each listen you find something new and thought provoking.
“Expo 86” lacks this variance in sound. It seems Dan has conceded his musical efforts and let Krug take charge. Of the eleven songs there is not one that sounds distinctly Boeckner. As a result, the album just kind of sits there. Krug remains a wonder, but “Expo 86” is basically a Sunset Rubdown album without a heart (plus the whole damn thing is really loud – what happened to your peaks and valleys Mr. Krug?). After his disappointing Handsome Fur’s album “Face Control”, has Boeckner lost his confidence and let Krug take full control? Which leads me to the first and second possible outcome of the Evil Empire in South Beach:
1. With all three of these guys accostumed to being the top dog on their former teams, will one or two of them lose confidence when their usually high stats plummet? Will one of the three step back to the extent Boeckner did on the latest Wolf Parade album, resulting in a team that is no longer the big three, or even the big two?
2. Or will the unholy trinity be more like the Wolf Parade of the past, with all the members offering up their strengths and somehow merging them into a balanced, unending attack?
Here’s a little “Cave-O-Sapien” off of “Expo 86” while you ponder these questions:
New Pornographers“Together”[Matador Records]
I would venture to say The New Pornographers are one of the most successful super groups, second to maybe only CSNY. Over the years the band has accumulated one great album after another, and shown that the members of the band are at their best when working together – well almost. Neko Case and A.C. Newman, artists who first found success on their own, have shown from one album to the next they are able to blend their voices and styles into a new sound that trumps their solo work. Instead of trying to stand out as individuals, the two have shaped a sound that is patently New Pornographers.
Then, of course, there is Dan Bejar. Being the brains behind Destroyer, Bejar has never fully committed to The New Pornographers. On each album he offers up a couple songs, but he rarely performs live with the rest of the band and is noticeably absent from any song that isn’t written by him. A quick Google image search of New Pornographers yields a page of images all devoid of Bejar. This is all fine and dandy if Bejar would like to be the mysterious contributor, but it is all the more frustrating when you realize that the best songs on each album are invariably written by him.
The band’s 2010 release “Together” is as good as anything they’ve released in the past and is a big step up from their 2007 snore-fest “Challengers”, but the distinct New Pornographer sound is becoming a bit stale. A comparison of “Together” and the band’s first album “Mass Romantic” shows little evolution over the past 10 years. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Mr. Bejar dedicated all of his energy into a New Pornographer’s album, working alongside Newman and Case, bringing his brilliance into the mix and creating an album that is refreshing and original. The thought of Neko and Newman singing about the “Trembling Peacock” and “admiring the admirals” is the stuff of dreams – the stuff of a dream team. Which leads me to the final possible outcome of the Miami take-over:
3. Will one of the big three take the role of Bejar, unwilling to fully commit to the team? Will they try to egotistically get their big numbers, putting themselves ahead the others? Or will one of them be inspired by their new Cuban neighbors and write an album called “Bay of Pigs” that consists of two ambient-disco songs? Okay, maybe I’m taking my analogies too far.
In the 90s, Big Bad VooDoo Daddy scored a hit with “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three”, a title Marilyn Manson jump off from with “You and Me and the Devil Makes Three”. I prefer Akron/Family’s approach in “River” singing “You and me and the fire makes three”, warm imagery of what it’s like to be out in nature with your two companions being a river and a campfire. Oh, but I know there is much more going on here. Could the fire be symbolic of the feelings felt between two lovers, with the female being hard to get a grasp of much like a river? Or maybe I’m just an English teacher in search of symbolism…
Yes, I know Nathan Williams, the genius behind Wavves, is a dick, but I’m sure John Lennon could be an asshole at times too.
“You Never Know”
Speaking of the Beatles, is it just me or does this song sound like the spawn of George Harrison? Don’t hear it? Get two minutes and 55 seconds in and maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about – the answers hidden within the sliding guitar solo. Even if you don’t hear the ghost of George, at least take joy in Jeff Tweedy dropping all his worries and singing a happy song for a change.
22. Alela Diane
“White as Diamonds”
There is nothing quite as hypnotic as the sound of Alela’s voice jumping into falsetto throughout this song. Just when you are falling in a dreamlike sleep, the notes shoot out at you, surprising you and casting an irresistable spell like Cupid’s arrow.
21. Bill Callahan
“All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast”
If you saw “The Hangover”, you may recall the moment where Mike Tyson is enthralled by the pounding drum fill of Phil Collin’s “In the Air Tonight”. “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast” has the same rumbling drums, although they don’t attack you like Tyson in the boxing ring. Instead, like a musical Lennox Lewis, the drums slowly overtake you, building and building and building throughout the six-minute opus. This song is larger than life with lyrics to match (I included them all; they’re that damn good):
The leafless tree looked like a brain
The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me
Hoppin’ around from branch to branch, or snug in their nests listenin’ in
An eagle came over the horizon and shook the branches with its sight
The softer thoughts: starlings, finches, and wrens
The softer thoughts, they all took flight
The eagle looked clear through the brain tree, emptying thoughts saved for me
Maybe I’ll make this one my home, consolidate the nests of the tiny
Raise a family of might like me
Then something struck him, wings of bone
Sweet desires and soft thoughts were all gone
The eagle shrieked, “I’m alone”
Well it was time to flee the tree
The eagle snuck up on the wind one talon at a time
Being sky king of the sky, what did he have to fear
All thoughts are prey to some beast
All thoughts are prey to some beast
Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me
Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me
This song was featured as the intro-music to E!’s “Live From the Red Carpet” show for the Oscars (don’t make fun of me; my girlfriend was watching it). The choice seems fitting for a night where actors and actresses dress to impress. Mirah usually records music that is bare-bones and personal, but her song “Generosity” shows her dressing up her music with an elegant string section and a verbose presentation that fit perfectly amidst Hollywood’s self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance.
“(I Hate) My Job”
It’s too bad this song wasn’t released back in 1999. It would have worked great alongside “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” on the “Office Space” soundtrack. Actually, 2009 might have been the worst year to release this song. How can you complain about your job when a large portion of our country is jobless? Despite this fact, I still feel this song is an instant classic due to the fact that most people, at some point, hate their job. I love my profession, but at times, the people in power make it very difficult to enjoy what I do. On days filled with frustration at work, there is no better tune to help release the stress on your commute home.
18. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
There are many facets to Karen O. She can be bratty, loud, sexy, and even at times, psychotic. She is at her best though when she lets down her guard, exposing her vulnerability. “Skeletons” may not be the most upbeat song on “It’s Blitz”, nor is it the catchiest track, but in my humble opinion, it is the album’s high-point. Karen is no longer hiding behind a drum machine or slashing synth riff. Her heart is exposed for all to see, hidden only by the uncoiling back-bone of orchestra and clicking drum sticks, always on the verge of breaking yet somehow staying steady throughout.
17. Future of the Left
Fuck Rick. Who ever he is, he must be quite the douche to get such an angry tirade from Future of the Left’s Andy Falkous. We’ve heard Falco get pissed about many things with his influential band Mclusky, but never have I heard him pinpoint one mother fucker this directly. Sure, the title suggests the song has deeper meaning, but I like to believe that the song is primarily about that shit-dick Rick.
Speaking of Mclusky,Dananananaykroyd has obviously listened to “Do Dallas” a few times. Although they do a nice job of trying to fill the classic band’s void, their best song is actually a simple pop song that doesn’t follow the Mclusky formula. “Black Wax” shows the band being able to level out their cheeky behavior with just a dash of charm. Cheers to melodies!
15. Eat Skull
“Stick to the Formula”
While on the subject of formulas (damn, I’m getting good at this whole transition thing), Eat Skull want you to “do to the formula!”. Somehow, with all the clang and clamor they create, Eat Skull found a plum of a chorus. Unlike geometry formulas, the chorus of this song will stick in your head for infinity. If I were a math teacher I would use this song in my class daily. Unfortunately, we don’t do formulas in English (I do teach transitions though!).
14. Built to Spill
“Good Ol’ Boredom”
It’s kind of ironic that the best song on Built to Spill’s ho-hum 2009 release “There is No Enemy” is a song with the word “boredom” in the title. There is too much going on in this song to make it boring. The guitars are piled on top of each other cautiously like a seven layer dip, each part adding its own zest to the final product. There is one guitar line that stands out above all the rest, swooping and momentous like a 21st Century “Free Bird”.
13. BLK JKS
This song is a lot like “Weekend at Bernie’s” (in a good way). It opens up sounding dreadful, with spooky harmonizing and a menacing guitar line (there is nothing spookier than dragging a dead guy around a beach). Then of course, the band breaks into the chorus, an upbeat, African-ska-energy infused celebration that would even get life-less Bernie to join in on a conga line.
12. Volcano Choir
“Unmap” is a strange album. It is made up of “songs” where awkward instruments squawk clumsily, never really taking shape. It is definitely miles away from the melodic folk music we’ve grown accustomed to with Justin Vernon. “Island, IS” plays as the saviour to the album. It’s almost as if Vernon wanted to throw us off with one master work that delves into environs he’s never visited, to remind us there is still more to come from Bon Iver (plus, any song that mentions “the old tits on your hard drive” is a winner in my book).
“Needle in the Hay”
Who would have thought an Elliot Smith song could be made more depressing? Nadja does just that, injecting the once intimate song with an eery dose of ambient-doom. The voice is buried beneath the bedlam, a ghostly whisper of “needle in the hay” that will send chills up your spine if you ever grew to know Elliot personally through his music.
10. Mountain Goats
What happened to the Mountain Goats of old? They were lo-fi before lo-fi was cool. Using his trusty four-track recorder, John Darnielle used to write hilarious songs with titles like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” and “I Love You. Let’s Light Ourselves on Fire”. A lot has changed. In 2009, the Mountain Goats released “The Life of the World to Come”, a highly polished album of 12 songs about 12 verses from the bible. I may be mistaken, but I don’t remember the bible having any punch lines (unless you count the burning bush). Fortunately, Merge Records released “Score! 20 Years of Merge Records”, a compilation of indie artists covering classic songs by Merge bands from the past. Darnielle is matched up with “Drug Life” by East River Pipe (a band I definitely need to check out after hearing this song and the Okkervil River cover of “All You Little Suckers”). It ended up being a perfect match due to its hilarious lyrics, something Darnielle abandoned years ago. And just to make us nostalgic, Darnielle records it in his familiar lo-fi style. What a tease.
9. Neko Case
“People Got A Lotta Nerve”
You mean to tell me Neko Case wrote a song with the chorus “I’m a man-eater” and it’s better than Hall & Oates classic? I’ll leave that up for to debate, but her “man-eater” is a killer whale while Hall & Oates are afraid of some chick. What pussies.
8. Passion Pit
Can you believe this band is on Frenchkiss Records, home of Les Savy Fav, Plastic Constellations, and the Fatal Flying Guilloteens? It seems like a strange fit, but I can’t blame label head Syd Butler for signing them. Their songs are scrumptious treats, frosted in sugary synths and Michael Angelako’s sacchariferous falsetto. Of all their tasty tunes, “Moth’s Wings” would be the cheese cake, with its complex, creamy textures and its rich, fulfilling melody.
Industrial music died with the 90s, right? Not according to HEALTH. On “Die Slow”, the band explores new territories in the genre, combining metalic synths with BJ Miller’s insane drumming and the hellacious scream of guitars, all of which seems to be traveling through some type of black-hole-vortex. Taking a nod from Nine Inch Nail’s underrated “The Fragile”, the band sees how live and digital instruments can live together in perfect harmony (or in this case, perfect dissonance).
6. Mos Def
While most rappers gave up on sampling years ago, Mos Def realizes there is still some magic hidden on the shelves of the local record store. On “Supermagic”, Mos Def pulled an LP out the Turkish Folk section, sampling “Ince Ince”, a song by the 1970s protest singer Selda. To make an already tight song tighter, he rewords Mary Poppin’s classic “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” with his cooler, darker version “Super magic black origin freshly out of dopeness”. Selda meets Mary Poppins? Now that would be one magic woman.
5. Cymbals Eat Guitars
“And the Hazy Sea”
Cymbals Eat Guitars set their listeners up for a major disappointment by putting “And the Hazy Sea” at the start of their 2009 release “Why There Are Mountains”. Nothing can stand up to the climatic nature of this song, yet you listen to the remainder of the album hoping those feelings will return. Like a 12 hour sex romp with Sting, “And the Hazy Sea” jams orgasm after orgasm into six minutes, leaving you sweaty and incapacitated.
4. Matt and Kim
Matt and Kim are “the little band that could”. I’ve been enjoying their music for a couple years now, thinking of them as my little pop-secret. Never did I expect to hear their boisterous ditty “Daylight” on TV shows (“Community”), advertisements (an ad for “Bacardi”), and video games (“NBA Live 2010, FIFA 2010”, and “Sims 3”). “Daylight’s” success proves that with a great melody, any band can break through that glass ceiling (although, I suspect that Matt blackmailed EA Games at some point in the past year).
3. Animal Collective
There is something childlike to “Girls”, yet the lyrics speak of what it means to grow up and be a father. Commonly, the music of artists begins to wane with age and the added stress of wife, kids, etc. As usual, Animal Collective break the mold, managing to sound better than ever, even making parenthood sound fun…sleep loss, screaming babies, and poopy diapers –fun? Why must you fuck with my head A.C.?
2. The Very Best
“Warm Heart of Africa (featuring Ezra Koenig”
Last year The Very Best took Vampire Weekend’s song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and put the Columbia alums back in their place, bringing authenticity to the African inspired song. In 2009, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend decided to join forces with his tormentors to lend his vocals to “Warm Heart of Africa”. With their powers combined – The Very Best’s African beats and Ezra’s s tender voice -these musical Avengers berate you until you are up on your feet dancing and singing along to African words that you don’t understand.
“Love Like a Sunset Part I and II”
Phoenix is a simple pop band that creates great hooks, right? Yes, and no. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me present to you evidence: “Love is a Sunset pt. I & II”, a sprawling, atmospheric journey of astronomical proportions. Like a ride through “It’s a Small World After All”, the song takes you through all of the regions music can provide your brain – it baffles and broadens, it pacifies and presses, it’s simple yet cinematic, it penetrates and motivates- simply put, this song will change your life, if you can only lend it a moment of your time.