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.
Ever since I heard Santana’s “Supernatural” I’ve held a deep hatred for the collaboration album. You know, the album where an artist features a different guest on each track, creating an album that resembles a soda-pop-suicide? I just can’t fathom the true creativity involved when an artist pops into the studio for an afternoon and is gone the next. After seeing “The Promise”, a documentary on the year long toil and turmoil that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band endured while recording “Darkness On the Edge of Town”, I can’t imagine the same commitment in the buffet style approach to the art form we hold dear to our hearts here at BDWPS: the album.
These guest appearance albums are common in hip-hop, where I guess they are more likely to work since the rap tradition has always grown out of family tradition of helping up-and-coming lyricists and supporting those that have your back. But even this can be a downfall at times. For example, Big Boi’s 2010 release is 70% incredible and 30% mediocre due simply to the likes of Jamie Foxx, Sleepy Brown, and Janelle Monae breaking up the high-energy romp that General Patton has frolicking through most of the tracks. Two other recent albums from 2010 show the collaboration album at both its best and its worst.
Maximum Balloon“S/T”[DGC, 2010]
Last year TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone released a solo album under the moniker Rain Machine and the results were sometimes intriguing, but more commonly hum-drum and lacking. As discussed in my review of the album, it’s difficult to match up to the magnitude found in the works of TV On the Radio.
Despite this, fellow bandmate Dave Sitek tried his hand at a solo album a month ago using the name Maximum Balloon. The project allowed Sitek to expand the layers within his sound and let loose, creating a synth-pop jog that lends its self to the sounds of 80s artists like Prince and Talking Heads. You can tell that Sitek is having fun, free from the pressure that goes with being in a world power band like TVOTR and having to follow-up classics like “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that Sitek may have felt TOO liberated with his music. Instead of holding his own, each track features a new vocalist ranging from Karen O to David Byrne, and even inviting his band mates Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe in to sing on a few tracks. The result is a wide range of sound without a real focus guiding it forward. Sitek’s backing tracks aren’t signature enough to make this sound like one single artist known as Maximum Balloon; it resembles a movie soundtrack more than anything. Sitek is the DJ at a high school dance, standing to the side providing the background music to a sea of prepubescent make-out sessions, none of which who are taking note of the “killer mix” on the speakers.
When his bandmates step in to sing, it sounds like a TV On the Radio song. When Karen O steps up to the mic it sounds like a Yeah Yeah Yeah’s song. But even these songs aren’t strong enough to stand-alone and would likely be consider b-sides for a TVOTR or YYY album.
Kyp Malone on “Shakedown”, a real crowd pleaser…..:
There are a couple high-points on the album, including the Aku assisted opening-track “Tiger”, and “Apartment Wrestling” – the best song due to David Byrne putting Sitek’s music in a full-nelson and making it his bitch. While other artists on the album seem tentative and bored, Byrne does what he does best and dominates the final track. If only he’d gone all 10 rounds and saved Sitek from a less than stellar showing.
Does anybody else wish Byrne would join TVOTR in the same way legend Johnny Marr joined Modest Mouse?:
The Roots “How I Got Over”[Def Jam, 2010]
I worried that Jimmy Fallon had ruined The Roots like he’s done over the years to so many SNL skits and movies. When I first heard they would be the house band for a show that features more awkward interviews than Magic Johnson’s talk show, I was confused. How did this help The Roots? What did they get out of being on late, late night? Even playing at ten o’clock for Conan would be a stretch simply because I don’t see how any steady gig like this would help their music or their cred in the rap community.
Then I heard their 2010 release “How I Got Over” and it all made sense. By playing nightly within the confines of a show that no one watches, the band was able to continue honing their craft through a medium that also provided them with the chance to meet a variety of artists (somehow Fallon’s show has had an absurd list of artists coming through the studio including a performance by Bruce Springsteen AND Neil Young together).
These two elements are evident on “How I Got Over”, where track after track features another guest appearance to go alongside the bands compelling jams. The difference with The Roots approach to the collective-style album is that there is never a question who’s album this is: the band firmly has its fingerprints deeply pressed into every nook and cranny of “How I Got Over”. When The Monsters of Folk softly sing an opening prayer on “Dear God 2.0”, ?uest Love’s pin-point drumming responds like a voice from beyond; when John Legend soulfully croons on “The Fire”, Kamal Gray’s constant pulse on the piano is the fuel that keeps the flame burning; when the sample of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right On” appears on “Right On”, Black Thought plays the perfect anti-thesis to her distinctive voice, punctuating his point right on cue.
Instead of letting their guests over-stay their welcome, they seem more like accents to The Roots live sound, now featuring much less of the sampling seen in past works. The band’s nightly practice sessions on live television have obviously assisted within track after track of tight instrumentation.
Beyond the fact that this is an album of guest appearances, it’s also a pretty extraordinary work as a whole. While many of the band’s past albums have focused on the ills of the world, this is an album of triumph and optimism. “How I Got Over” is exactly what the title says: a narrative of getting over the set-backs and adversity that one will face in a lifetime. Instead of wallowing on the negative, the album continues with a constant from song to song: keep your head up and move forward. This many seem like a corn-ball, inspirational poster in music form, but The Roots handle it like true craftsmen, building the story from the bottom up. Each song leads into the next with the narrator rising up throughout, starting at the bottom where it delves into the hardships of growing up to the ghetto, and eventually elevating from one song to the next toward an adulation that arrives near the end with songs like “The Fire” and “Tunnel Vision”. Now if only the band could rise up from the evil clutches of Jimmy Fallon.
This is what happens when you hang around Jimmy Fallon too long:
Being one of the biggest bands in the world, TV On the Radio have little room for error. If they release an inaccessible album they can quickly drop from the mainstream spotlight. This might explain why singer/guitarist Kyp Malone decided to explore his earthier sounds with his side project Rain Machine, rather than forcing them upon his super group. At first glimpse, Rain Machine sounds no different than TVOTR, but as the self-titled album unravels, it becomes quickly apparent that Kyp is the band’s George Harrison, willing to experiment with Middle-Eastern instrumentation and move toward more tribal horizons.
Stripped down – this musical term, often over-used by music critics, fits perfectly in this case (call me a hack if you must). The drum machine has been stashed away in favor for tambourines, hand claps, and jingle bells. The lack of a pulsing beat in the music helps make Kyp more down to earth, but at the same time, makes the music seem less significant and quaint. It still features the signature TVOTR “double guitar lead” falsetto vocals, but the music is atmospheres away from Thin Lizzy’s stadium sound. The album sounds like it could have been performed in your living room, although its trippy vibe may require a quick trip to Target for throw pillows and bean bags.
Even the guitars, although often drenched in overdrive, seem to meander in a jumbled faze, fingers sliding up and down the fret board in search of a melody. “Driftwood Heart” is the best example of the album as a whole, being a five minute mess of banjos, mandolins, and the soft “oohing” and “ahhing” of a ghostly choir.
On the first half of the album, Rain Machine balance the jangley with the more modern stylings beautifully, presenting a basic, soilly sound that works wonderfully. Unfortunately, songs like “Winter Song”, “Desperate Bitch”, and “Love Won’t Save You” take the sound too far. Each of them is over eight minutes of the band trying to find a melody that never takes shape. By the time you reach the end of the album, you are tapping out. It’s just too much – too lost, too droning, too whiney. While you’ve got to respect the band for following its muse, you wish that the album had more songs like “New Last Name” and “Give Blood” from start to finish.
Despite all its flaws and extravagant rambling, Rain Machine has a simple charm to it. It isn’t going to change the world. The songs aren’t on worldly topics that TVOTR tackle. No, Kyp doesn’t use Rain Machine to send any big messages. Instead, he sings borderline filthy lyrics like “I tried to change my name to Big Fag” or “You could have the fattest cock or the sweetest pussy.” But in the end, maybe Kyp is making a bigger statement than I give him credit because amidst a recession, there is no better endowment to invest in than the one in your pants.
Two and a half weeks. That’s all that remains until the South by Southwest Music Festival overtakes Austin, Texas once again. This yearly highlight has created some lasting memories and led to my discovery of some amazing musicians. As a countdown to the festival, I decided I would be posting some old SXSW blogs over the next few weeks (plus, this page still needs a little archiving of my old blogs on a website that will remain nameless).
2004 would be my first venture into the magical, musical world of SXSW. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. We didn’t know about the free day shows, resulting in us hanging out at the campground everyday and only heading into Austin for the night shows. Over the years we’ve fine-tuned our approaching, maximizing our time in Austin, spending every waking moment either listening to great music, running through the streets of Austin to get to the next show, or getting our drink on with the endless supply of free booze.
I didn’t start blogging until 2005, but I do have a little memento of that first year experience and how it changed me forever. After attending the festival, I emailed Paul a rambling diatribe about all that I learned while Austin that first year. Here is an excerpt of that email from 2004:
I’ve learned so much this past week that I can barely congeal it into one cohesive experience. The reason I’m writing is because this past week has taught me many lessons, that either I never knew, or had forgotten with age. The shows taught me things about songwriting and just appreciating music, basic, simple things that I had let slip my mind. In recent years I’ve lost my fire for music; this week rekindled it. In no specific order, here are the things I was able to take from the shows.
1. The Radar Brothers and Court and Spark reminded me that all bands or musicians should strive for their own sound; yet at the same time, it also showed why it’s so important to try to push the limits of that sound. They both just stuck to their formula, and it grew more boring as the minutes passed.
2. The Rosebuds not only surprised the shit out of me, but they taught me the opposite side of the spectrum; they have a distinct sound, yet every song was different and fresh. Not many artists can pull this off.
3. The keyboardist of the Rosebuds, CoCo Rosie, and the girls that flocked to the front of each show proved to me that there are hot women out there that are into good music. Now we just need to find them.
4. Portastatic reminded me the importance of lyrics. Sometimes I find my song’s lyrics to be simple and hokie; but Portastatic had some of the most vivid and gripping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time. I must look outside my simple lyrics to find a level of lyricism that is both poetic and primal. Destroyer made me realize I shouldn’t take lyrics so seriously. He just seems to have fun with wordplay and rhyme scheme, a truly Dylan technique.
5. Portastatic also taught me that MORE doesn’t always mean better. One guitar and one bass pulled off a way better show then The New Year with 4 guitars, one bass, and a drummer. Sometimes I think I need to add drums and loops to my songs, but good songwriting floats by itself: no whistles or flashing lights.
6. Destroyer, Frog Eyes, and The Wrens reminded me how great it is to WATCH live music. They may have had fuck-ups, they may have had technical difficulties, but they’re damn fun to watch. Up to this week I had lost the urge to attend live music, but now I’m revived with the yearning to see people performing with their souls and vitality out on the stage for everyone to see.
7. The Dead Science and CoCo Rosie taught me not to judge a band by first listen. Often I don’t give music a chance to grow on me. CoCo Rosie has grown on me like gonorrhea on a scrotum.
8. +/- and Calexico reminded me what a great band should do: not only perform an entertaining show, but play their music flawlessly and better than their recordings.
9. The Wrens let me see what being in a band is about. Guys who care about each other and their music, not what other people think, not record deals. Awesome stuff.
10.TV on the Radio and Destroyer also presented an aspect of live music that I had forgotten: how great it is to see bands play their songs in a different style that you will never hear on a recording.
All of this together has filled my heart with musical lust, and I feel the need to play my guitar, go catch a live show, or just lay back and listen to great music. Just because I’m growing up, doesn’t mean my passion needs to die like so many people let happen.
Hey hey, my my
Rock and Roll will never die
There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.
Hey hey, my my.