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Top 20 Songs of 2013

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This list was once a big deal around here at BDWPS. Back in 2010, it was comprised of a top 100 list with an audio clip for each.  Not only was this a lot of work, it also never got nearly the attention that our Top Albums list always receives. I’ve also found that since starting the BDWPS Podcast that majority of the songs listed have been played and discussed at some point during the year.  By the time this list arrives, my discussion of the track seems a bit stale.  Below you’ll find 20 of my favorite songs of 2013.  Although it’s not much in comparison to what it once was, it’s still a solid playlist of memorable hooks that may have went under radar this past year.

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Top 40 Albums of 2013 (1-20)

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(Check out 40-21 HERE)

As I came to my conclusive final ordering of albums, I couldn’t help but feel like my list differed from the norm. You’ll find familiar faces like Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend, but many of the albums that ended up surfacing near the top are absent from all the major lists I’ve perused in the past few weeks.  Does this mean I’m out of touch or that I’ve become such an outsider that I can’t connect with the mainstream? I hope not. Those albums you find on this list that you’ve never seen included on other lists are not my attempt at being different, rather, they are albums that fell through the cracks by the major outlets and deserve a listen from anyone who still appreciates “the album” as a work of art. The BDWPS.com mission statement of “guiding you down the path less traveled” is truer than ever in 2013.

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The Top 20 Albums of 2013 (So Far…)

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I always have difficulty when coming up with these lists because there are often albums I’ve enjoyed that I’m forced to leave out. When I had the current mid-year list down to 25, I thought about bucking my yearly tradition of 20 and upping it to 25. Then, I recollected a long forgotten high school memory. During my junior year, our basketball coach had a decision along the same lines – with 10 returning seniors and a strong incoming Junior class of 10 quality players, he had to make cuts in order to meet the roster limit of 15. Instead of manning up and just cutting some of the old players or telling some Juniors to take a year off, he let the extra five Juniors (one of them being me) stay on the team as kind of a practice team. This would turn out horribly with our group of five often feeling outcast and forgotten, and by seasons end, we’d named ourselves The Bullheads (because in Iowa, a catfish isn’t considered a keeper). I decided that, yes, there are some great albums on the outside looking in this year, but at the same time, including them would water down my already loaded list. 2013 is off to a great start musically, and here are my “Top 20 Favorite Albums” so far (no bullheads included: i.e. Daft Punk).

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Top 40 Albums of 2010 (25-11)

25. Fresh & Onlys

“Play It Strange”

[In the Red; 2010]

Last year I purchased Fresh & Only’s self-titled album and thought they were just another garage band from San Francisco (don’t get me wrong; this is a good thing).  Boy was I wrong. With their 2010 release “Play It Strange”, Tim Cohen and his band of merry-makers have proven that with a little clean up and an emphasis on a 60s vibe, they are a band to be reckoned with.  The songs are still youthful in spirit but they’ve gained a maturity with the addition of production that clears the air surrounding their surfer guitars and Cohen’s mumbling baritone.  While other retro-outfits try to mimic a multitude of classic songs (Black Lips), Fresh & Onlys have made an album of songs that are completely original despite the fact that you swear you’ve heard them before on the local oldies station.

24. Male Bonding

“Nothing Hurts”

[SubPop; 2010]

It’s been a while since Sub-Pop has released an album filled with so many fast, fuzzy, frenetic songs (could it have been the early 90s?).  Whatever the case, the combination of Male Bonding and SubPop is a match made in heaven.  Male Bonding provide the label with that energetic noise that defined SubPop so long ago, and in return the label cleans the band’s grubby little punk songs up a bit.  Don’t worry – the production isn’t heavy handed, but just enough to allow the listener to enjoy the rowdy 2-minute romps without having to strain.   And “Nothing Hurts” isn’t all punk clamor all the time.  After bouncing your head around for 24 minutes like a bobblehead, the band provides a nice cool down with the final track “Worse To Come”.

23.  The Books

“The Way Out”

[Temporary Residence; 2010]

Usually with sampled music, there is a disconnect because humanity isn’t evident. We may take delight in the composition of the audio clips and the beats, but the enjoyment doesn’t go much beyond that.  This is not true with “The Way Out”.  On the album, The Books take samples of characters who either connect with the listener or expose their own weaknesses. Whether it be a little boy expressing his violent tendencies, a lonely man leaving a desperate phone message to a woman, or a creepy old man retelling the story of lil Hip-Hop.  Several tracks use the sounds of a man speaking about the self-help program auto-genics, and even though I think they are used for the purpose of humor, I’ve found myself on several listens actually slipping “deeper and deeper” into a meditative state.  And just when you think everything makes sense and that the music is really speaking to you, the band will throw in a joke like “The average human being only uses 5% of their brain. The other 95% is for…food.”  And in an instant, you feel like a fool for having such a deep connection to their tomfoolery.  There’s nothing quite like an album that mocks you, the listener.

22. The Roots

“How I Got Over”

[Def Jam; 2010]

A month ago I wrote of The Roots: “I worried that Jimmy Fallon had ruined The Roots like he’s done over the years to so many SNL skits and movies.  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. 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 whose 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.”

21. Vampire Weekend

“Contra”

[XL; 2010]

Earlier this year I wrote of this album: “When I first heard the title for Vampire Weekend’s latest release, ‘Contra’, I prepared myself for disappointment.  An album named after the greatest video game ever? No chance of being good (okay, I’m pretty sure the Columbia graduates were referencing the counterrevolutionary guerrilla group, but stay with me here…). Fortunately, I was wrong.  Not only is ‘Contra’ excellent, but it shares the same attributes that made ‘Contra’ a classic NES video game. What made ‘Contra’ such an essential Nintendo hit was how it moved from the side-scrolling levels that take place in exotic locations to a 3-D first person approach, with Bill Rizer and Lance Bean battling aliens and robots while running up a confined, futuristic hallway, laser barriers and all. The balance between these two environments is what makes the game so memorable and replayable. Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” followed the Konami video game’s formula to a T.  The familiar tropical/classical/ska sound is still there, but amidst the bongos and African inspired melodies the band throws in a more futuristic approach. Every song features technological touches (sampling, drum machine, auto-tuner) but these modern sounds are added in sparingly, providing a refreshing new twist to the jumpy Vampire Weekend sound we grew to love a few years ago. Basically, it’s bringing a soundscape from out of this world to the jungle – the premise to ‘Contra’!”

20. Julian Lynch

“Mare”

[Olde English Spelling Bee; 2010]

In a glowing review from earlier this year I wrote: “Déjà vu is such a strange phenomenon. Is it just a series of circumstances that remind us of a past experience? Or is it a result of daily routines where it’s inevitable that events are bound to repeat themselves?  Or could it truly be that memories are timeless, that they float aimlessly through our mind, seeping in from the past, present, and future, creating a psychic horizon where there is no end or beginning? Whatever the case, Julian Lynch’s ‘Mare’ is auditory déjà vu, bringing you back to memories that never existed.  Something about Julian’s ambient psych-jazz resembles music you’ve heard before (maybe as a child, maybe on the ‘Finding Forester soundtrack’, or maybe in a dream).   The songs on ‘Mare’ exist in some way within our psyche, a collection of vivid arrangements that whisk you from one memory to another, then vanish just as you find yourself nuzzling up to the warm feelings that arise. You would swear that ‘Mare’ is a used record store discovery from the 1970s. At the same time, I think you would be hard pressed to find an artist in the 70s accomplishing what Lynch does with this album, an atmosphere from another place, another time.  At the risk of sounding cliche – it’s otherworldly while still being grounded in everything you know (or knew in another life).”

19. The Walkmen

“Lisbon”

[Fat Possom; 2010]

I don’t get how they do it. Essentially, every Walkmen album is based off the same three elements: a reverberating guitar, lyrics of heartbreak, and Hamilton Leithhauser’s incredible vocals (probably my favorite voice out there today).  Yet with each album, they are able to create something distinctive from other releases, although I can’t quite place how they are different. If you were to shuffle all of their songs, it would be difficult to find any major disparity between the songs. But when the songs are separated by album and placed among their peers, they suddenly become something more. “Bows + Arrows” feels like  a night in New York City, “A Hundred Miles Off” resembles Dylan when he first went electric, “You and Me” hearkens back to the 1950s age of courting, and with “Lisbon” the music somehow transports you to a romanticized Portugal where the sun always shines, even when you’ve just been dumped down in the Chiado.

18. Surfer Blood

“Astrocoast”

[Kanine; 2010]

An excerpt from my Summer Albums list: “Don’t let the youth of Surfer Blood fool you; these kids understand the power held within their six-strings.  The guitars of Thomas Fekete and John Paul Pitts complement each other in the same way I imagine it may sound like if Doug Marsh and Dick Dale joined forces.  The band succeeds at blending the surfer guitar licks of old with distorted riffs reminiscent of Pavement.  Back in March, I’d been listening to ‘Astrocoast’ two weeks leading up to SXSW, but when I actually saw them perform, all thoughts of it simply being a happy rock album were erased.  Watching the guitar work of these Florida youths had me in awe.  At first glance, ‘Astrocoast’ is simply fun, but if you delve deeper there is a darker beast brooding beneath the surface; a creature that craves to devour your pop sensibilities and digest them whole.”

17. Sufjan Stevens

“Age of ADZ”

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2010]

From a review this fall: “The songs on ‘Age of ADZ’ remind me of a lot of the literature of Kurt Vonnegut, a strange declaration, I’m sure.  Vonnegut is often referenced as a ‘science fiction’ author, but this label doesn’t sit well with me.  Yes, Vonnegut often wrote of time travel, aliens, and life on other planets, but it’s not done in the same way a Phillip K. Dick or a Ray Bradbury would approach it.  He isn’t writing of these places and events to entertain nor is he trying to convey them with realism. Instead, he’s using them as a vehicle for conveying a larger message about humanity.  The songs on ‘ADZ’ are done in such an over-the-top space-age motif that it’s difficult to take them serious, which in the end is the point. On surface it’s an album of robot take-over and the arrival of Judgment Day, but any able-minded person knows that Sufjan is talking about the demons within his soul, battling it out, not of UFOs and killer volcanoes.”

16. Laura Veirs

“July Flame”

[Bella Union/Raven Marching Band; 2010]

Some would like you to believe that the best album by a female singer/songwriter in 2010 was by Joanna Newsom, but they’d be wrong.  That honor goes to Laura Veirs and her highly underrated “July Flame”. Veirs could easily depend on her more intimate tracks that showcase her and her guitar executing the songstress routine, but she understands that to keep the listener engaged you have to switch things up, and each song takes her unassuming voice from one northwest terrain to the next. “I Can See Your Tracks” resembles a jaunt through Fleet Foxes territories, “Little Deschutes” takes her depressingly down to the water’s edge, and “Summer is Champion” transports us down memory lane to the days when The Decemberists were still entertaining. And she does takes you through all of these fabulous faunas within one 13 track CD. Beat that Joanna.

15. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

“Before Today”

[4AD; 2010]

I can still vividly remember the first time I listened to “Before Today”.  I was alone in Iowa City, driving around aimlessly, trying to find the venue where Lightning Bolt was playing that night. Frustration is usually the emotion associated with the sensation of being lost, but instead Ariel Pink’s drugged out mix had me giggling to myself as I passed one strange street after the next. Was this guy for real? It wasn’t just simply a band trying to sound retro, it was a sound completely pulled from the 70s.  Plus, the lyrics were over-the-top and completely self-aware.    Yet, this isn’t a comedy album. In fact, “Before Today” features 12 of the most memorable pop songs you’ll hear in 2010 (or in 1978). Now, I can’t help but imagine Iowa Hawkeye football players Johnson Koulianos and Nate Robinson sharing a joint while listening to Ariel Pink’s “Before Today”.  Oh, the crazy drug-town that is Iowa City, Iowa.

14. Quest For Fire

“Lights From Paradise”

[Tee Pee; 2010]

Quest For Fire is not a stoner rock band, despite what you may have heard. I struggle to believe that pot-heads can even keep up with this epic shoe-gaze-psych-fuzz.  Stick to your simple Pink Floyd because “Lights From Paradise” may cause flashbacks. The opening track is called “The Greatest Hits By God” but the album might as well share this title because these songs will take you to a higher level of understanding of the world that surround us.  The grungy guitars would suggest that this is an angry rock album, but Chad Ross’s calming voice shrouds you with positive energy, all held within the distant distortion. “Lights From Paradise” is tranquil and heavy, all at the same time. If anything, this music makes you feel stoned without any drug intake required (plus, there are no munchies).

13. Kanye West

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare”

[Def Jam, Rock-A-Fella; 2010]

I almost feel like I have to try explaining why “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare” isn’t in my top ten, or in the number one spot for that matter. It seems like every major music list is naming it the top album of 2010 (SPIN, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, etc).  Let me first say that there are some great songs here: “POWER”, “Dark Fantasy”, “All of the Lights”, “Monster”, “So Apalled”, “Runaway”, “Blame Game”, “Lost in the World”. The fact that I just named seven kick-ass songs out of ten should say something about how solid this album is from start to finish. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself singing “All of the lights!” while shopping for groceries or “This shit’s ridiculous!” while cleaning my room. At times I get annoyed by how much these songs have rubbed their stamp into my brain like a comic strip on silly putty. There is no denying that Kanye has a gift for memorable choruses and rhymes.  BUT, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare” is not the earth-shattering album that some have suggested. It’s not the in-depth psycho-analysis of a crazy man. The only thing insane about Kanye is that he’s insanely rich.  And honestly, if you want an album of a man who is lost and depressed, check out Sufjan Steven’s “Age of ADZ”, but then again, it won’t be nearly as fun or memorable as “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare”.

12. Swans

“My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky”

[Young God; 2010]

At first I was afraid of Swans; I was petrified. I read a few positive reviews of “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” and decided to check it out. After listening to two songs I turned it off. I didn’t get it. Why was this band considered to be legendary?  Then a few weeks later, while talking on the phone with fellow BDWPS contributor SongsSuck, he asked if I’d listened to “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” yet. After getting off the phone, feeling like a fool, I downloaded the album and sat down to give it a good, honest listen. This time I wasn’t bored with the opening track “No Words/No Thoughts”; it literally pained me to listen to the echoing church bells, the ominous organs, and the black metal crackling of the guitars.  I once again turned off the music; his name is SongsSuck for a reason. Then, only a few weeks ago, as I drove across the desolate plains of Kansas, something came over me. In that moment, that chaos that scared me months earlier seemed oddly intriguing.  I quickly found The Swans on my iPod and commenced listening to what goes down as one of the most captivating hours of music I’ve ever experienced.  Once the shroud of noise dissipates, Swans front man Michael Gira emerges with a pummeling series of doom- sludge-dirges, and then they suddenly come to a stop to allow room for the occasional brooding ballad. I guess SongsSucks may like songs after all.

11. The Tallest Man On Earth

“The Wild Hunt”
[Dead Oceans; 2010]

For Christmas my mom gave me Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg Series Vol. 9”, and I’ve been listening to the two disc collection of early recordings a lot the past few weeks.  I’ve always preferred the bootleg releases of Dylan because they are so raw – the guitars squeak, the tape recorder occasionally slips into a muffled state, Bob’s voice cracks and he even forgets words.  It’s as real as Bob as his music get. The Tallest Man On Earth’s “The Wild Hunt” gives me the same feeling of simplicity.  His grisly voice speaks honestly, out in the open without any back-up singers or basslines to interrupt.   The guitar thumps and crackles as Kristian Matsson nimbly fingerpicks and madly strums from one song to the next.  There is no need to polish what Matsson has on “The Wild Hunt”: 10 great folk songs that will have your full attention from start to finish. But while Bob Dylan wrote propaganda songs about the ills of the world, Matsson simply writes great songs about what’s right.

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Top 100 Tracks of 2010 (50-26)

 

50. “Real Love”

Delorean

For a song that is supposed to be about “Real Love”, it sure has a bittersweet sound. The lyric “Will we ever meet again?” doesn’t help things.

 

49. “Bang Pop”

Free Energy

I had a summer love relationship with this song. I couldn’t get it out of my mind; I listened to it any chance I had.  But now, I can’t stand the sound of it. I destroyed my adoration by loving it too much. It should probably be higher on this list, but my current feelings for it have hindered its position.  Like the Delorean song “Real Love” discussed at #50, maybe this song and I will meet again five years from now and our love will be rekindled.

 

48. “I Used to Do”

Clogs

The Clogs 2010 release “The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton” is all over the place. One song features what resembles a choir of whooping birds, another is a simple folk song featuring Sufjan Stevens, and others resemble baroque love serenades. Despite all these textures, my favorite song is the most unassuming. “I Used to Do”, an instrumental swell of sound, catches you when you least expect it and builds off of that emotion. Don’t be surprised if you hear this in an episode of “Friday Night Lights” next year.

 

47. “Heaven’s On Fire”

The Radio Dept

The introductory audio of Thurston Moore raging against “the bogus capitalist process” would lead you to believe you are about to hear either a passion-fueled punk rock song or an ambient build-up a la Mogwai. But neither happens. Instead, out of Thurston’s rant arises a happy-go-lucky love song about Heaven being on fire.  This combination boggles my mind…yet I love it.  Maybe it comes down to the fact that Thurston’s dream won’t happen until Hell freezes over, so we might as well love like Heaven’s on fire.

 

46. Joanna Newsom

“Good Intentions Paving Company”

While Joanna’s 2010 release was a little self-indulgent (3 CDs!), it has its moments with “Good Intentions Paving Company” being Joanna at her best: great lyrics about the journey of a broken relationship, Newsom’s endearing, warbling voice, and a melody that survives the eight minute journey unscathed.

 

45. “Who’s that? Brooown!”

Das Racist

A song dedicated to another song?  It would have to be a pretty damn good tune to deserve such recognition. Well, it is. Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” to be more specific.

44. “It Happened Before Our Time”

Jeremy Jay

“It happened before our time.  They disguised themselves as pirate invaders. They set out to sea and threw their love lockets overboard, as the salty air sweeps their hair.” Now that’s a romance novel I’d read.

 

43. “Fot i hose”

Casiokids

When I was eight I would have liked this song because I would have thought the bass line sounded like a dwarf farting….wait – that’s why I like it now.

 

42. “Let Spirits Ride”

Black Mountain

Somewhere Rob Halford is smiling.

 

41. “F Kenya RIP”

Highlife

What? You think this song is simple and repetitive?

Then why are you still listening to it?

And now you’re singing along to it?!

Hypocrite.

 

40. “Texico Bitches”

Broken Social Scene

This would have been the #1 song in America if they’d only gone with “BP Bitches.”

 

39. “Younger Us”

Japandroids

I like to listen to Japandroids because their energetic punk rock anthems brings me back to my carefree youth.  And now they’re singing about the yearning to be young again? Double whammy.

 

38. “I Walked”

Sufjan Stevens

“I Walked” is an auditory “choose your own adventure” book.  You have two options: be happy or depressed. If you choose to be depressed, listen to the lyrics of a  man walking away from a relationship knowing that without his lover he’ll be lost and won’t get very far.  Or you can choose to be happy by listening to this sugary-sweet pop song and block out the lyrics by shouting, “I’m not listening! I’m not listening!”

 

37. “No Barrier Fun”

Liars

“No Barrier Fun” is about a man (or a beast), trapped (or hiding) in a basement (or a dungeon).  He hears (or imagines) the footsteps of a girl (or a woman), which makes him decide to emerge (or escape) from his dark hell (or heaven) to meet (or murder) her.

 

36. “How I Got Over”

The Roots (featuring Dice Raw)

Over the past few years a lot of bands have been trying to recreate the funk/soul sound of the 70s, utilizing a variety of retro-recording techniques and employing large horn sections.  Then in one full swoop The Roots come out with their own recreation of the classic sound with “How I Got Over”, and in the process they show everyone else up.  If that won’t lead you to not giving a fuck, I don’t know what will.

 

35. “Let’s Go Surfing”

The Drums

Having your song featured in a commercial is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it gives you the opportunity to gain new listeners that you may not have reached otherwise. On the other, you alienate those who love your music by beating your melody over their head and cheapening their affection. For me, the endless loop of “Let’s Go Surfing”s whistling on car commercials has moved me to revulsion, when only months ago I couldn’t get enough of it.

34. “Machines”

Mason Jennings

My favorite documentary of the year was probably “180 Degrees South”, although I’m not sure how many other documentaries I actually saw in 2010. Throughout the film, glimpses of Mason Jenning’s “Machines” emerge, but the big pay-off comes when Doug Tompkins reaches Patagonia only to find that industrialization has scarred the majestic terrain. The lyrics support this message with Mason singing an outro of “The machines are gonna cut us down!”

33. “Butt-House Blondies”

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Of any song this year, “Butt-House Blondies” is the one I sang the most around my apartment. Not a day goes by that I don’t stroll around my humble abode singing, “Butt-house Blondies! She used to care!”  For the first month, my roommate would always ask what song I was singing. Eventually, he figured out it was Ariel Pink and learned to ignore me. But one day he returned to his questioning ways asking, “What is a Butt-House Blondie anyway?”  I hadn’t thought about it.  Then, after reading the lyrics of “She used to be a square at 16; now all she knows is she can breed” I figured it out. This song is about Jodie Foster’s character in “Taxi Driver”!

32. “Excuses”

Morning Benders

“Excuses” has a dreamy, innocent 1950s sound, but I doubt Ricky Nelson ever sang about taping his “tongue to the southern tip of your body.”

31. “White Sky”

Vampire Weekend

What if instead of Africa, Paul Simon recorded “Graceland” in Super Mario World?

30. “Answer To Yourself”

The Soft Pack

I recommended this album to you back in June, and I also included the same video clip below for the best song on the album “Answer To Yourself”. If you still haven’t bought The Soft Pack’s 2010 release, you can answer to yourself why you’re so lame.

29. “Pimpin’ Chipp”

Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon

Me, me, me, me, me. These days, that’s all rap is about…that is except for the members of Wu Tang who still understand the art of the narrative.  In “Pimpin’ Chipp” the three MCs create a comical story of a pimp, his hoes, and a run-in with Ray Charles.

28. “Real Life”

Tanlines

When Michael Vick wins the MVP this year, I’m hoping NFL films has the foresight to play “Real Life” over highlights of him.  Just look at the lyrics and tell me this isn’t Vick’s swan song in 2010:

“For a minute I was lost,
I looked away
Trouble was, I was alone,
Trouble was, I was alone.
You might think I’m still that way.
It’s only natural
It was a past life thing-
It was a past life thing-
It wasn’t anything at all.”

27. “Castles in Snow”

Twin Shadow

“You’re my favorite daydream. I’m your famous nightmare. Everything I see looks like gold. Everything I touch turns cold.” So yeah, not only does it sound like a 1980s song, but its lyrics could have easily been pulled from the journal of “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman.

26. “King of the Beach”

Wavves

I like to sing along to this song, but I change the chorus lyrics to “Bash at the Beach!” and giggle to myself, imagining this as a theme song to an old WCW pay-per-view.

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4. Road Trip 2008, Day 3: Home of the Brave

Somewhere in between this ocean and mountainside
I have this dream I think of it still sometimes
I know it’s just the season
I sense no time or reason
The sky falls down; it’s evening
The feeling goes; it’s leaving

The Dodos “The Season”

We returned to downtown Spearfish around 8 a.m. and headed to Alpine Coffee. As I was ordering up a grande Mocha, the girl behind the counter commented, “I love your shirt. Two Gallants are awesome.” The cute little red head in horn-rimmed glasses smiled and went off to make my drink. While waiting, I decided Spearfish would be a great place to live: a great micro-brew, the limitless possibilities the canyon offered, and beautiful women who appreciate quality beer and good music. My July 4th was off to a great start, and I knew it would only get better with The Dodos playing at the end of our day’s journey.

Once I had my coffee and Paul his bagel, we returned to the road, heading north toward Montana. We thought about backtracking for a couple hours to see Mount Rushmore, but we knew Bozeman sat 500 miles away. With Paul at the wheel, I began perusing our collection of Black Hills brochures. While reading a short article about Mount Rushmore’s construction, it mentioned that many questioned the addition of Theodore Roosevelt. It made sense; Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington are legendary presidents while Roosevelt was just some dude who had a moustache. Teddy is like the Ringo Starr of Rushmore – the untalented guy lucky to be standing awkwardly behind the rest of the other three geniuses.

Mount Fab-Four

With Paul being a history major, I decided to bring this point up to him. He of course disagreed with me. “Roosevelt is probably my favorite president.”

Figuring he had the wrong Roosevelt, I responded, “You mean FDR right?” (My favorite president).

“No! Teddy was the man. He used to have boxing matches in the White House. When McKinley died, a lot of people hated him because he was this uncivilized cowboy. He didn’t give a shit what anybody said.”

“Like Bush…”

Paul went on to explain how Teddy was nothing “like Bush.” He talked about how Teddy was a huge conservationist, setting aside 16 million acres of land for national parks, which also pissed people off. He was in charge of the Panama Canal, was the first president to ride in a submarine, and often took expeditions to Africa to hunt elephant. Paul continued rambling off strange tidbits about Roosevelt, and after 10 minutes, I was questioning whether FDR was even my favorite Roosevelt.

I decided I wasn’t going to give up on my argument just yet. “Okay, okay, Roosevelt sounds like a rebel, but he still doesn’t deserve to be on Rushmore. The other three are legends.” Paul then spent another 10 minutes discrediting the American mythology of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. I tried to defend Lincoln, but my lack of knowledge left me with little to shield the bearded fellow. I had to give it to Paul; I hated history in school, but his unique perspective on these presidents’ legacies had my full attention. I could tell he was fascinated by the subject matter, and for the first time I got a glimpse of the great teacher Paul would be in the classroom.

This oldey time cartoon forgot to include "Bad Ass".

As we rolled into Belle Fourche, South Dakota, we noticed people in lawn chairs lining the sidewalks. We deducted that we had just beat the start of the Belle Fourche 4th of July Parade. Paul slowed the vehicle, rolled the windows down, and commenced waving to the perplexed Belle Fourch-ians. I grabbed our plastic American hats (bought during our shopping spree) and threw them on our heads, giving our float a patriotic flair. The looks we received were a combination of annoyance, disgust, and confusion. They must have been wondering, “Who are these Texans riding in a strange orange box car?” I would have felt like more of an ass if it weren’t for the little kids waving back; they thought we were the start of the parade – the grand marshals.

"Look kids! They let the special kids drive the short bus this year!"

After getting us through Wyoming and into Montana, Paul seceded his driving duty so he could take a nap. Despite my 5 a.m. cow wake up call, I was full of energy from either the excitement of seeing The Dodos or the mocha I slurped down in 15 minutes. With Mission of Burma’s “Vs.” blaring, I flew through the endless green hills of Eastern Montana, crossing multiple Indian reservations. I actually had the opportunity to see Mission of Burma in Denver with Paul – it was one of his many failed attempts at getting me to head west. I don’t regret missing the elderly band, who are pushing 60. They are still releasing great albums 25 years after “Vs.”, but I’ve already had bad experiences with seeing great artists in the twilight of their career. (Paul and I saw Bob Dylan mumble through an hour set at the 2001 Iowa State Fair. The night would have been a complete wash if it weren’t for us spending the majority of the show trying to sneak past the security guards.)

Seeing Mission of  Burma back in 83′ is a different story:

When “Vs.” finally finished, we pulled over for a quick roadside lunch of cold ham sandwiches and Doritos. It was a nice relaxing meal, out in the middle of Montana without a house in sight, just miles and miles of hills and mountains. We cut our lunch short when a swarm of bees decided to join us. Paul took over driving. My two hours of rest in the land of screaming monkeys had finally caught up with me. I instantly fell into a deep sleep, but it lasted about 10 minutes. This was due to Paul’s music choice, Albert Ayler, a guy he claims is jazz music. The honking saxophone over the endless drum roll sounded nothing like the smooth jazz of Charlie Parker that I grew up on. The album contained two 20 minutes songs, both lacking any semblance of a melody. I have no doubt that my four year old niece could sit down with a saxophone and sound better than this garbage. I tried blocking out the music, but the racket continued jolting me from the brink of slumber.

"Hello Mr. Ayler. I challenge you to a saxophone duel!"

Here’s one of Albert’s “short” songs:

Being both grumpy and exhausted, I finally spoke up. “This has to be the worst excuse for jazz I’ve ever heard.” Paul ignored my comment, although he seemed irritated, and continued listening to what resembled a 5th grade marching band. Paul has always preferred noise over harmony. He likes early Animal Collective – I like their newer, more melodic stuff. When he heard the new Deerhoof, which I adore, he commented, “Why’d they have to start writing songs?”

Here’s the era of Animal Collective that I enjoy most:

…and here’s the era of Animal Collective Paul enjoys most:

With Ayler blaring away, I remained sleepless all the way to Billings. We pulled into downtown to check out our first brewery of the day, Billings Brewing Company. The city streets resembled a ghost town, with only an occasional homeless person stumbling down the street. By the time we found the brewery, we already knew it would be closed. We were right. Disappointed by our first failure of the day, and with both of us thirsty for a 4th of July beer, we decided to take a southern detour to Red Lodge so we could visit Red Lodge Ales Brewing Company. The scenic drive lightened my spirits. The curving, hilly path led us along the edge of The Big Slide Mountain. What I thought were mountains earlier in the drive didn’t compare to the peaks surrounding Red Lodge. The contrast of the gray mountains and the bright green hills encapsulated us with the kind of vivid colors that would give a kid epileptic seizures.

Nature's version of the NES game "Monster in My Pocket"

Red Lodge reminded me of any small town you see in Iowa, only that it was surrounded by mountains instead of corn fields. We drove down one of the few paved roads in town, leading us directly to a faded yellow machine shed with a sign reading “Red Lodge Ales”. It didn’t look like much, but we decided to check it out. Inside, we found a bar packed with people of all ages, ranchers in cowboy hats, elderly in their 4th of July best, and young hippies in hemp gear. I couldn’t believe how many people were in this little brewery. Red Lodge is only a town of 2,500. In Billings, population 90,000, not a creature was stirring, but in this little village everyone came out to enjoy a locally brewed beer for the holiday. After waiting in line to get our first brews of the day, we sat on the back patio and enjoyed the view of hazy mountains in the distance, Yellowstone stood right before us.

Machine shed or brewery?

I came to the conclusion that the quality of their beers hadn’t drawn all the business. Not that they tasted horrible, but they also didn’t have anything spectacular on tap (their best beer had to be the 10 year aged bock with a surprisingly sweet finish). I began to think about whether my hometown could support a brewery. Currently, if you want a tap beer in Estherville your choices are Bud Light and Bud Light. Would these Midwesterners break away from their light beer disillusionment and enjoy a lager packed with flavor (and alcohol content)? I doubted it. Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate to be here with these small town folk celebrating the 4th of July in their local brewery.

Walking back to the car, Paul was already feeling a bit tipsy, so I took up the driving once again. When I noticed him trying to sleep, I decided it was time for a little revenge. No, I wasn’t going to find noise to play – he’d enjoy it too much. I scoured my i-POD for an album jam-packed with infectious melodies. And there it was, the perfect poison to piss off Paul: Vampire Weekend.

Paul’s poison:

30 seconds into “Mansford Roof” Paul’s eyes popped open. “What the hell is this?”

I ignored him, singing along to “I see a Mansford roof through the trees, I see a salty message written in the eaves.”

“Damn it, what the hell is this?”

“The ground beneath my feet, The hot garbage and concrete, and now the tops of buildings, I can see them too!” I sang at the top of my lungs.

“This is Vampire Weekend isn’t it?…Isn’t it!?” He grabbed the i-POD and looked in disgust.

I slyly smiled at him and continued singing along to the upbeat music. He laid back down for a bit, but by album’s end, he was sitting up at full attention. I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed the music or not. As “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” came to an end, he gave his final diagnosis. “Tracks two and three were amazing…the rest of the album sounds too much like Paul Simon’s African crap.” I agreed with him, although I’ve never found fault in Simon’s “African crap”.

Next we stopped in Livingston to check out Neptune’s Brewery. When we pulled up, it looked nothing like a brewery but more like a townie bar. The same vibe continued as we walked through the door. Maybe we were at the wrong place?

“Uh, is this the brewery?” I asked the girl behind the bar.

“Well, it’s just a bar first, but we do serve Neptune Beers.” I was confused. Is it a brewery or not? She went on to explain that a brew master rents out the back room to brew his beers. The bar serves his creations on tap, although not exclusively. We ordered a couple burgers and began sampling the drinks they had to offer. We were disappointed to say the least: the Bavarian was unusually dark and strange tasting, the Belgian resembled cheap rum, and the IPA was a mix of Pine Sol and gin. We had one beer left to sample: Toad’s Back Boch.

“This is Neptune’s most popular beer,” she said handing me my pint. I lifted the brown concoction to my nose and quickly pulled away due to the pond water stank wafting from the glass. I held my breath and took a swig. The name was fitting. It tasted exactly like a toad’s back, or at least what I would suspect. The syrupy texture hit my palette like a nuke, overpowering my taste buds with its mixture of rotted corpse and old people’s homes, finishing off with a bitter, dusty dry aftertaste. I couldn’t help but squint my eyes and wrinkle my brow at what, to this day, is the worst beer I’ve ever tasted.

When the bartender saw my sour look, she giggled and said,” I never said it was my favorite beer. I don’t like any of the beers he makes.”

Like licking a toad's back, minus the hallucinations.

We put the horrible Neptune experience behind us and drove the final leg of our day’s drive. Once in Bozeman, we zig-zagged through the streets for 20 minutes searching for both the VFW and a possible camping spot. We didn’t find any place to set up the tent, but we did finally come upon the VFW – a tin red garage, set back 20 feet from the road.

When we entered the bar it was pretty empty, except a girl sitting at the bar and a group of guys playing pool. While I made a bathroom run, Paul asked the bartender if he knew a place we could camp for free. The pony tailed metal band reject told Paul we were more than welcome to set up our tent behind his house. Upon hearing this option I felt uneasy. I didn’t like the idea of sleeping in a serial killer’s backyard. We decided to wait and see what the night would bring, keeping in mind we always had the scary looking bartender’s lawn as an option.

We sat down at the bar next to one of the only other patrons, a middle aged woman dressed like an orphan flower child. Her freckled face smiled at Paul, and she jumped straight into a conversation. She definitely wasn’t shy. I became instantly annoyed. When she found out we were from out of town, she began regaling stories of all her run-ins with the Bozeman police force, with each story ending in the statement, “You don’t mess with a Montana woman.” When I noticed the long-haired bartender glaring at her, I knew I wasn’t alone in my disdain. I couldn’t stand her yapping any longer, so I stood up, hoping Paul would catch my drift to escape from the rambling wreck. But Paul didn’t budge; he actually seemed to be enjoying her company (or he was trying to score some old lady ass).

Paul taking a moment to appreciate our freedom in front of the Bozeman VFW.

With people starting to arrive, I strolled casually around the VFW trying to entertain myself. I’d glance over at the bar occasionally to find the woman’s mouth still chattering endlessly. When th opening act started – some fat sweaty dude playing Elliot Smith covers – I made the conscious decision to get shit-faced in order to enjoy my seclusion/boredom. I chugged one Olympia beer after another, occasionally rejoining Paul and his new friend, the yammering mess. The conversation had moved on from the Bozeman police to the local tourist destinations we should check out. Her new catch-phrase was, “I should know, I’ve lived here for 25 years.” When I heard her say this for the third time, I echoed drunkenly,” How long have you lived here?” Followed by, “So would you describe yourself as a Montana woman?” She didn’t get my sarcasm, nor did she sense how much I loathed her.

I filed outside with the other patrons to check the fireworks being shot off at the local rodeo. I sat down at a picnic table behind the bar and watched the bursting colors in the Montana night sky. I began thinking about how exactly a year ago I watched fireworks in Lake Havasu, Arizona with my buddy Justin LeSieuer. I hadn’t talked to him for a couple months, but he seemed to be doing fine, still living with his girlfriend and her daughter. The year before he dreamed of getting out of the place he referred to as hell, but now it seemed like those aspirations had settled like the firework ashes falling from the sky.

Midway through the fireworks, Paul came out and sat next to me. He joked about the annoying woman as we looked on at the night sky.  When the display came to a close, the crowd began scattering back into the bar to hear another local artist do his best Tom Waits impression. All that remained outside were the three pool playing guys, now sitting in the grass, and Paul and I on the picnic table. While Paul was lighting up a cigar, the three guys stood and began screaming the National Anthem, waving their arms around maniacally at the mountains silhouetted by the moon. When they reached the line “which so proudly we hail” Paul joined in on their mini-drunken choir. Soon the five of us were howling the anthem up toward the starry sky, feeling the cool Montana breeze wash over us. After screaming, “AND THE HOOOOOME OF THAAAAAAA BRAAAAAAVE!” the three guys fell to the grass in laughter.

One of them turned back toward us and yelled,” Nice singing boys!”

It was then that I realized, who our choirmates had been: The Dodos. The same band we’d driven two days straight to see.  Instead of being a fanboy, lauding them with my love of their music, I calmly replied, “Thanks!” and then turned to Paul whispering, “That’s the Dodos.” He nodded his head and smiled as cigar smoke rolled out of his mouth and upward, congealing with the settling firework smoke. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my 4th of July: watching fireworks behind a VFW in Montana, and singing the national anthem with the Dodos. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud.

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