Thursday, August 25, 2011

Most Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational, Muppetational

Tuesday marked the release of The Green Album. Let's be honest, this review is just a formality. I love the Muppets. I have always loved the Muppets. I am most definitely going to tell you to go out and buy a Muppet tribute/revival album. But when you put some of my favorite artists on the album, like OK Go or Andrew Bird or Rachel Yamagata, I am even more enthusiastically going to tell you to buy it. And yes, I did pre-order the album. And I'm proud of it.
Robin Hilton also writes a lovely review of the album on the NPR First Listen blog; with which I happen to agree a great deal.
But here is my not-even-pretending-to-be-objective view on this collaboration: Love it!
The album kicks off, and I mean really kicks, with OK Go playing The Muppet Show theme. I think the Electric Mayhem would be proud of their loud and distorted take on tune. And when I think about it, OK Go just might be the real world's Electric Mayhem. Almost. Next up is Weezer + Hayley Williams (Paramore) doing Rainbow Connection. This one is a little tricky for me. That song is a classic and much beloved to me, Kermit the Frog being my dream, er, frog and all. They do it fair justice, though. There's not much playing with the arrangement, I'm not a fan of the vocal colors, but it's still a great song. Maybe the most surprising track is The Fray singing "Mahna Mahna." I had no idea who was singing when I first heard it, and when I checked in with my iPod I was so surprised! It's hard for me to hear The Fray singing this ridiculously catchy song (over and over in my head) and then try to also hear them singing "How to Save a Life." There's an extended instrumental part in the song which doesn't make much sense if you don't also picture the sketch from the show in your head at the same time, but I have repeated this track more than once. The Alkaline Trio does a fantastic version of "Movin' Right Along" which ought to be on any mixed tape you give a friend who moves away or for any road trip. It's on this track that I start to try to picture these bands seriously entering a recording studio, which is no cheap ordeal, to record tracks from The Muppet Show. Did they start to question their legitimacy as artists? Did they have a great time? Is it a dream they've finally been given permission to live out loud and proud? American rockers My Morning Jacket perform "Our World" with which I was completely unfamiliar, but is reminiscent of John Lennon to me, actually. He's not a muppet, but he'd be proud of this one I think. Would probably have sung it with them, too. And how about the nod to the Beatles "White Album" with the Muppets "Green Album." Too much? Nay, just right. Amy Lee (from Evanescence) sings "Halfway Down the Stairs," which was originally sung by Robin, Kermit's adorable nephew (and an excellent second choice for my husband I think) if I remember correctly. Her unique ethereal voice almost keeps the innocence of Robin's, but the electronic/techno background is a little too much for me. It's daring and almost commendable, except it becomes repetetive and almost trite as the song continues. Nevertheless, this song has gotten most stuck in my head. Sondre Lerche absolutely kills "Mr. Bassman" (in a good way) and sounds a bit like Ben Sollee, whom I also love. Andrew Bird does an absolutely beautiful arrangement of "Bein' Green." The entire album is worth this track, I think. Seriously. Kermit, himself, might even try to cheer Bird up. Matt Nathanson performs "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along" with a sincerity and slight sultry flavor that makes it sound like it came from one of his own albums, not a Muppet tribute. Rachel Yamagata closes the album with "I'm Going to go Back There Someday" with background vocals that sound like Glee, but it's a sweet end to a sweet trip down memory lane as an adult.
And that's the thing. This album is almost like what it would sound like if the Muppets actually did grow up, like all the rest of us did, and if maybe life taught them the same lessons it taught all of us. And if they "got the band back together" to revisit the old days. (Which apparently they do in the new movie coming out in November. Did you catch that? NEW MUPPET MOVIE!) The Green Album is sweet and sincere - like we all used to be. It's a fun refreshment from a world which is oftentimes mean and sarcastic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sufjan: love him, hate him, fight him, admire him

Some days I feel like the worst hipster ever, not that I am really trying to be a hipster, but having just looked up the definition of "hipster" in the Urban Dictionary, I pretty much am one. There is one core reason for my sense of detachment from the hipster movement at large, and that would be my relationship with Indie/Hipster darling Sufjan Stevens.
I have no idea how/when Stevens came on the scene. I can't remember who introduced me to him, either; which is most unusual. The first association I have with his music, however, are his two state albums Illinois and Michigan. My first response was "I can't believe he used midi oboe. This sounds terrible!" Then whoever it was that introduced me to this new soundscape informed me that he plays all his own instruments. For just a moment, that made me feel better, because I guess oboe is hard to play and sound good. Then I thought "This still sounds terrible!" His song "Chicago" from Illinois is referenced in a Snow Patrol song that I love. And people I know and love and who generally have impeccable taste love his music, but I just couldn't understand.
For a long time I would pretend to like Sufjan whenever he was being discussed, and I would coo and giggle over the state albums and be excited when there was talk of a new album, but when it was released, I would never do anything to procure a copy. I was surprised to eventually learn that one of my favorite David Crowder songs (for it's authentic approach to God's seeming absence) was originally a Sufjan tune off Michigan ("Oh God Where are you now? ...) and this seemed to give a little bit more legitimacy to his efforts, but I was still undecided. Then I heard part of his Christmas box-set and our relationship, Sufjan's music and mine, changed. First, I heard some new friends playing some of these new arrangements of Christmas classics and I was instantly charmed. They were inventive and innocent and difficult to sing along with because they were nothing like the originals but above all they were ... beautiful. I was so pleased when I learned they were actually Stevens' arrangements because now I actually did have an affection to back up my words with my friends. There's something about the new eyes with which Stevens sees these classics that I can understand. Music that comes straight from his brain, I cannot seem to grasp - we have no common ground in the functioning of our minds/understanding of music. But if the music comes from someone else's brain and Stevens reinterprets or reinvents it, I love it - we now have common ground.
The more investigation I have done into his music, the more messy my relationship with Stevens' has become. For the most part I think I can say I admire him. I don't think everything he does is gold or even a diamond in the rough. I feel okay saying this. I feel right and honest, and not the least bit dirty about it.
Even as I have been writing this post and thinking about this complicated relationship, I have been streaming his albums on Spotify and find this love/hate/admire relationship to be consistent. I seem to like his more recent work better, perhaps he has been practicing his oboe, or abandoned it completely and stuck with some different instrumentation choices. I have been impressed with the Shostakovich-like string part in the eleventh minute (that's right, the eleventh minute) of the original version of "All Delighted People" from his 2010 All Delighted People EP and I've heard references to classic Simon & Garfunkel in some of his lyrics. The man knows quality, clearly. Regardless of how I feel about his music-making, I have to respect his taste and his independence. His style is definitive and unique. You always know a Sufjan Stevens record and even his record label Asthmatic Kitty has a certain vibe to all its artists.
Here's the bottom line: I do not love the music of Sufjan Stevens, but I don't hate it either. That sounds like it could be the worst thing you could say to an artist. But it's certainly not a lack of reaction in this case either. I am not apathetic by any means. I merely relate to him as an artist in a deeply complicated and individual way. I have been in a continual struggle with my true response to Stevens until this point and I think the struggle ends here: I respect and admire him and what he does. I will probably break down and buy all of his albums at one point or another because they should be on every self-respecting hipster's iPod, but I will probably frequently skip over them and rarely be in the mood for them. Every now and again, though, they will hit the spot.
Except the Christmas albums, those will become a Christmas tradition in my house.
Speaking of Christmas, I am so ready for it to be here! Anyone else? Think it's too early to go caroling? Next July, I am going to get a group together to go Christmas-in-July caroling. Who's in?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Golder Discoveries

The week Haley Bonar released her new LP Golder was a fairly bleak music-release week. I had rather despaired of finding anything new that week when I happened upon her name way down at the bottom of the iTunes new releases list. (It's true, there's really no magic about where or how I find new music. Just lifting up a few rocks, scrolling down a few lists and happening upon some pots of gold ... and every now and again a pot of coal.) Her name seemed fairly promising and her music has followed suit.
Described as alternative/country, her style is difficult to classify. It's got electric guitars and drums, tambourines and wuzzley sounds (I made that word up), some acoustic guitars and a pleasant voice which sounds like an amalgam of a lot of female singers - the most striking being her resemblance to Patty Griffin in the rocking "Raggedy Man." Reading her bio, she's approachable and down-to-earth, living her own story and making music by her own rules, as encouraged by her artistically-friendly upbringing.
You can tell a lot about a person by the music they make most of the time, and Bonar's is unique, friendly, light-hearted and free-spirited, but appropriately structured.
When I first sat down on my porch and gave this album a listen through, every song seemed to bring a bigger and bigger smile to my face, not in the same way as say Freelance Whales, but in the way that it was exactly what I had needed to hear after a frustrating day at "the office." The album elicited an audible laugh when I reached the bubbly penultimate track "Bad For You." With the whole female singer-songwriter thing she has going on, despite her genre-denying style, I was expecting "Bad For You" to be a poignant reflection on a past failed relationship. Instead it's a tongue-in-cheek look at the way you can't live with this world, and you can't live without it. I played it for my roommate, but she didn't love it the same way I did. Bonar's not guaranteed to be everyone's cup of tea, but she's worth a listen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Optimistic Reality

Every now and again I stumble, serendipitously, upon some music that lights up my life. Recently Amazon was running a great deal featuring 100 digital albums at $5. There is a part of me that hates to support Amazon because of what's become of Borders and all that Amazon seems to stand for. But I have to give them props; they've found a market and made it theirs. And $5 albums! What a steal. It took some of the risk out of exploring new bands or adding those albums to my collection that I knew as a music geek I should have and just hadn't managed to make it happen yet. As I was checking out the deals, I clicked on the samples for a band called The Submarines. The album cover was simple and slightly quirky, meaning either 1. super awesome or 2. trying too hard. In the first two seconds of the first sample "Shoelaces", my heart had found a new home. It was peppy, upbeat, strange in the most charming way with synths and bells and boops and pops. So great! I bought it. Right away. Since then, the whole album (their most recent release: Love Notes/Letter Bombs) has followed through on the promise of those first two seconds and has been lighting up my face constantly.

A few days after buying the album, I had a little bit of a heartbreaking encounter with a boy and while I did give myself the room to cry and grieve, instead of spiraling into a pit of despair, The Submarines came through and lifted my spirits. Every song is about a relationship - either the glories of one gone right or the sweet sadness of one gone wrong. The song "Tigers" goes in the latter category. But it's not the typical "You broke my heart, you stinking piece of filth, I hope you grow disgusting sores in all the wrong places" break-up song. Neither is it the "I want you back, oh baby, oh baby" kind either. Instead it describes the kind of picture we all wish we could have with failed or doomed relationships. The chorus says "You know I've loved you from the start/But this house can't make you stay/Sometimes these things just fall apart." All hope is not yet lost, but rational thought has set into the relationship and things simply aren't looking good. But the tempo, drums, synth and samples keep the world from crashing in. The whole album has that same optimistic reality to it - even the happy love songs are still rational and don't make you want to throw up.

I don't know anything about the band, except it's a guy named John and a girl named Blake apparently. But their blogs on their website are adorable ... just like their music.

If you've liked The Dodos, GIVERS or Freelance Whales posts, you're probably going to love The Submarines, too. I just can't seem to get enough of this happy groove.

Photo credit: Promo image from the interwebs.