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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: January 30-February 20, 2006

Saturday, February 11, 2006:

You know, there are plenty of reasons for thinking that life is shit and the world is shit. Particularly if you're listening to the song "Life is Shit" by The Dead Milkmen, which contains the couplet "Life is shit, life is shit/The world is shit, the world is shit." Even moreso if you happen to be asleep at the time, and you're merely dreaming that you're listening to the song "Life is Shit" by The Dead Milkmen, on the new remastered version of Beelzebubba with bonus tracks, and after that song's conclusion, you get to hear seven or eight previously unreleased tracks by one of your favorite bands in the world, and then you wake up and realize that, in fact, the remastered version of Beelzebubba does not exist and your entire music collection seems wholly inadequate for the rest of the day.

But I digress. No matter what your personal theology/ideology may be, and no matter how many lovely antidepressants you may be on at any given moment (say, 30 mg of Lexapro a day), if you're a sentient human being who pays attention to the world on any level, there are going to be lengthy stretches where you'll feel that life is a particularly cruel practical joke. Even if you believe that this planet houses more "good" people than "bad" people (sidestepping my personal notion that you can't apply either label to anyone), we live in a world where numerous people are killed over the content of editorial cartoons, and where unfeeling assholes like, oh, Bill Frist can rise to a position of power. In short, plenty of atrocities flit into the public eye each day, and not only are they distressing in their own right, but their effects are easily amplified by noticing the American public generally blinking them out of sight like so many vitreous floaters.

In an acknowledgement of not fooling anyone, I must admit here that by "you" above, I mean "me" or whichever first-person pronoun fits. All of life's Big Important Things have seemed awful bleak to me lately. Although things are going fine in Maine- Bev and I have a neat little domestic life, we're birdsitting for her parents' adorable cockatiel, I've made a great new friend named Janna, Bull Moose Records is keeping me heavy with musical male jelly- the ol' big picture continually seems worse to me than ever.

However, I've only recently (yesterday) come around to the conscious realization that life is too absurd to get irretrievably down about. I mean, I still think it's impossible not to be enraged by the way the world is working, and by the fact that more Americans are interested in Brangelina and Bennifer than are even aware that our nation's Attorney General defended the Bush administration's illegal wiretapping practices simply by declaring existing laws "cumbersome." (Reminds me of Steve Martin's old joke that you can get away with not paying your taxes by using two simple words: I. Forgot.) I still think it's impossible not to think that, all things considered, procreation is a wholly irresponsible act. Life sucks, humans suck, and the world sucks in a lot of ways. And also, we're all going to die- some of us in an extremely painful and prolonged fashion.

Where was I going with this?

Oh yeah: But! There's nothing any of us can do about being here now that we're here! You can check out early if you so choose, but why? There's so much to see and to do and to have done to you! Why hasten your arrival at death when you're going to get there anyway, if there's the slightest sliver of a chance that things will get better? There are lots of opportunities to get screwed over in this world, and of course my heart goes out to anyone who is treated cruelly in any way, but unless you or your loved ones are in truly dire situations, just try to focus on the ridiculousness of everything. Everything! Because as painful as life is, it's also flat-out silly in a way that no imaginable afterlife could ever be, unless you imagine your soul's destination will be Wackyland from Tiny Toons.

I recently went to the grocery and purchased a Betty Crocker brand three-cheese rotini microwavable noodle bowl, since my laziness has reached a level where even cooking Kraft mac-'n'-cheese seems daunting. Anyway. The packaging of said Betty Crocker brand three-cheese rotini microwavable noodle bowl bore a seal reading, "Great for LUNCH!" As soon as I saw it, I leaned against my cart in awe, wondering what could possibly have prompted this particular slogan. Obviously, serving suggestions appear on any number of products- bananas pictured in Rice Krispies, celery stalks hanging out of Campbell's tomato soup, huge glasses of booze in TGI Friday's commercials so at least some portion of the meal will be consumable- but "Great for LUNCH!"? To imply that consumers of a one-dollar bowl of microwave pasta hadn't considered eating it before 5 PM (or possibly after 8 AM)? It goes so far beyond simple condescension that it gave me a jolt, and I was suddenly aware that everyone else in the grocery store was leading a life as singularly strange as my own. Sounds like I'm pretentiously trying to be Douglas Coupland when I say that, I know, but it's true.

Ordinarily, I think we all sort of ignore strangers as extras in our own life. Extras who occasionally penetrate a little too far into our consciousness with their loathsome screeching children or maddeningly gruesome parodies of "driving a car" and "treating the waitstaff as human beings," but extras nonetheless. But they're not, and I want to try not to treat them as such any longer. I wound up lingering in the shopping aisles longer than I needed to, frankly, because I suddenly wanted to pay attention to every polite maneuver someone made around someone else's shopping cart, every affectionate squeeze that pregnant chick gave that bemulleted dude in the liquor section, every impatient eye-roll the elderly couple directed at the poor deli worker who was trying to meet their demand of precisely one pound of salmon. Because they all have some sort of reasoning behind their actions, and that's what makes human interaction beautiful, even if we can't possibly understand one another: we have to meet in the middle anyway. When you observe such things, in my opinion, it doesn't matter whether all the gears of humanity fit exactly into each other for maximum efficiency; it's enough that they keep turning. That itself is a marvel to behold.

Again, I personally have the luxury of saying these things because I am in a particularly happy and comfortable situation. I have tons of great friends, a wonderful extended family, the love of an amazing woman who tolerates me, the means to afford- among other things- an Internet connection on which to publish these sophomoric thoughts, a body that functions without any major problems, a home that's festively decorated with ceramic animals and hand-shaped chairs, the (admittedly increasingly jeopardized) freedom to say and do what I please, and any number of other blessings. I don't deserve these things, and at times feel extremely guilty that I have so much, but I do feel very lucky and thankful. My point is that it's easy for me to say, "Be happy," not only because I'm so fortunate but also because I'm frequently such a sour, bitter bastard that every lip within ten yards of me visibly puckers, and for me to do so is awfully douchey. If you are in a truly unpleasant, hurtful situation and can't see a way out, my heart goes out to you (but that doesn't mean you should e-mail me, as I likely won't ever get back to you; my average turnaround for correspondence can now be measured by phases of the moon). I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of legitimate reasons to be sad, nor am I saying that it's your own fault if you feel that way. I'm just saying that life itself is ludicrous, and even if you can't seem to find anything that qualifies as hope for humanity, as long as you have the luxury of sitting back and laughing at human nature, you should. It feels better that way, and you'll be more productive if you can, which means everyone benefits.

Salvation can be found in the tiniest of crannies.

Oh, and one last thing: Bev and I managed to get the best "bingo" in Scrabble history. HINT: It's in the leftmost column:

CURRENT MUSIC: Quicksand Cradlesnakes by Califone and Barbara Manning Sings with the Original Artists.
CURRENT MOOD:
Mourning Arrested Development's demise. My thunder is no longer effectively hidden.
CURRENT RETRACTION:
Um, it turns out I enjoy Alias. Dammit.
TIME:
7:05 PM.

Doot? | |

Monday, January 30, 2006:

A month has gone by since the ball dropped. (Now I have two of them! Geez, 26 years to descend...) I haven't written anything for awhile. I'd best get crackin' on that annual best-of-the-year mix I do. Let's slap one together, shall we?

As always, I don't claim that I've heard everything this past year had to offer. Perhaps even less this year than most, since my relocation and subsequent unemployment ate up a lot of my CD monies. Regardless, there was still enough great music in 2005 for me to collect more than enough songs for a best-of-the-year compilation- notable exclusions include Mike Doughty's "Looking At the World From the Bottom of a Well" and Sigur Ros's "Saeglopur," though my mix is still probably fairly predictable if you know me at all.

This collection shall be entitled Out-Tech Barium Martini: The Best I've Heard of 2005. I'd love it if you'd submit your own, and I'll post them on the 2005 mix page!

1. Pernice Brothers- "There Goes the Sun" (3:36) Ever since Joe Pernice covered a New Order song on Chappaquiddick Skyline's self-titled album (and wrote a smart novella loosely based on The Smiths' Meat is Murder), his pessimistic folk-rock songs have been getting new-wave comparisons. Regardless of whether you think the bass-driven "There Goes the Sun" owes a tiny debt to The Smiths, New Order, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, or any other early-'80s bummerbands, though, its biggest draw is simply the disaffected whisper of a hook that Joe draws his literate lyrics through. Frankly, after you listen to him hand over intellectual custody of the Beatles, Chet Baker, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to an ex-lover, seemingly the only thing the narrator can claim as his own is the tune itself and Peyton Pinkerton's reverb-laden guitar work. Sears didn't have the balls to include the line "Kick the life from me till one better comes" when they licensed this song for a commercial; what a great, disturbing surprise that must've been for anyone who bought this album after hearing it there! From Discover a Lovelier You.

2. Ladytron- "Destroy Everything You Touch" (4:36) Now, as for bands who can convincingly take up New Order's torch, Ladytron is a wonderful caretaker of their predecessors' grandiose robot-pop, visibly drowning their emotions in antiquated keyboards like loathsome redneck women drowning sacks of their dog's puppies. Nearly as unsettling, too. It'd be positively masochistic, in fact, if it weren't for the mocking vocals of Helen Marnie, catcalling from beneath the arrangement like an acquaintance who's amused by how ridiculous you're acting while drunk but who doesn't want you to pass out either. That's where the song's heart lies, even if it's attached to lots of nasty electrodes. And if you, like me, secretly wish you were born a cyborg, you'll totally melt into it. From The Witching Hour.

3. M.I.A.- "Pull Up the People" (3:45) Given the hype Sri Lankan electronic mad scientist M.I.A. got this year, it just fascinates me that Mouse on Mars never got this level of mainstream acceptance. This head-spinningly skittery tune is an absolutely brilliant combination of programmed IDM polyrhythms, clubby Dawali beats that Sean Paul wishes he could conjure, and M.I.A. herself boasting, "I've got the bombs to make you blow/ I've got the beats to make you bang bang bang!" from amid an abattoir of chopped-up basslines, drum snippets, and bloopy, bleepy synth samples. Robots are sexy, people! I'm telling you! From Arular.

4. Twink- "Pussy Cat" (2:02) I've said before that this song can stand next to the jazzy soundtracks from Warner Bros.' old Three Little Bops cartoon, but the more I listen to it, the more I think that if the Three Little Bops had a soundtrack as interesting as this, I wouldn't have groaned obnoxiously every time it appeared on Nickelodeon's Looney Tunes hour when I was a little brat. It's a mishmash of children's songs about cats, which Mike Langlie has pasted together in such a fashion that your ska-loving hipster friends will love it as much as your big-band-loving grandparents do. If Twink and The Other Leading Brand ever get together... no one could top that conflagration of samples. From The Broken Record.

5. New Pornographers- "The Bleeding Heart Show" (4:27) Anyone who heard the New Pornos' first two albums won't be surprised to hear that they came up with an animorphic, multi-part power-pop song that contains more hooks than Hellraiser after going through a car wash, but... who expected something so melodically affecting? Midway through, when "The Bleeding Heart Show" bursts into a wordless refrain, it's like the entire concentrated power of a hundred years of gospel music hitting you at once. It's enough joy that just about everyone should be able to feel God smiling down upon them at that point. (Athiests may lie on their backs on the bedroom floor and contemplate the simple joy of life, alternatively.) The lyrics don't matter- they're as random as ever. What matters is Neko Case and her commanding voice taking things over and swingin' you around as she previously threatened to do. From Twin Cinema.

6. Sufjan Stevens- "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." (3:19) I fully expect to include a Sufjan Stevens song in this list every year until the day I die. (2009.) Though this song isn't as intricately arranged as most of his other songs are, Sufjan uses biographical details from the life of a mass murderer to play the sympathy card and plead for forgiveness. Already, the line "On my best behavior, I am really just like him" has become an indie-pop classic, though as chilling as it is, Sufjan's acoustic guitar betrays a hopefulness that goes well beyond arguments for clemency: ultimately, the tune is an open-hearted, spiritual offering in the hopes of everyone being forgiven for the blotches on their souls, from John Wayne on down. From Illinois.

7. Ween- "Did You See Me?" (5:11) I'm such a sucker for Ween fucking with Pink Floyd's legacy. I know that two years ago, I included "The Argus" in my list and that's nearly the same song, but it's a good song! This one is a bit more aggressive, injecting Wish You Were Here-style epics with angry barre chords and carnivorous keyboards, but buffering the humor with a truly desolate melody that demands to be taken seriously anyway. I have no idea why this was left off their previous albums, but this year's rarities compilation is all the better for it, because it's a slice of trippy genius. From Shinola, Vol. 1.

8. The Konks- "King Kong" (2:14) Unlucky break for garage band The Konks to release this song in a year that also saw the release of an unappealing film by the same name; people are just gonna think they're a tie-in. Shame, that, since this tune is honestly about as punk as it's gotten since the Ramones' debut, with its single-mic distorted-guitar arrangement and two-vocalist call-and-response growling about how some girl makes the narrator go completely apeshit. Hooky, brash, and wonderful. From The Konks.

9. Clem Snide- "The Sound of German Hip-Hop" (5:11) As far as I'm concerned, this is the best song of the entire year. The arrangement is pure early R.E.M.- think "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville"- but Eef Barzelay's scratchy twang emits apocalyptic lyrics that are so striking in both their chilling realism and black humor that the first time I heard this song, I had to listen to it no fewer than 20 times in a row. Politics, riots, religion, sex, and entertainment are all dragged through the End of Times wringer here, and Eef is equally critical and affectionate about all of the above without stealing any of the mortifying power of his subject matter. I don't want to spoil even one line for you; it's a must-hear. From End of Love.

10. Sage Francis- "Sea Lion" (3:01) Will Oldham (better known as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) contributes the haunting guitar line and chorus to this otherwise in-your-face exhibition of hip-hop exhibitionism. It's a great, sour pairing, too, given Oldham's proclivity toward antisocial murmuring and rapper Francis's tendency to mutilate himself with verbal razors. The rapid-fire lyrics are some sort of hair-raising post-Oedipal blame-slinging, but as awful as they are, there's no denying the phonetic pleasures of lines like "City to city, I'm already lost/Tell the boss who is new in town/I'm-a ride this horse till it bucks me off and I'm forced to shoot it down." Yes, blah blah you don't like rap- you'll like this. Trust me, Mikey. From A Healthy Distrust.

11. Stars- "Ageless Beauty" (4:05) Seemingly moments after amazing Scottish pop stars the Delgados called it quits, savvy Canadian indie-pop duo Stars swooped in to claim their fussily orchestrated throne with Set Yourself on Fire, perhaps this year's best album. However, given all the great-yet-derivative breakup music the album contains, its most gripping track is a simple dreampop number breathed by Amy Millan for maximum My Bloody Valentine wispiness. The lyrics are great, but they don't matter. What matters is the simple, gasp-inducing structure here, even if it's just droney guitars and keyboards a la Yo La Tengo's "Sugarcube." From Set Yourself on Fire.

12. Nouvelle Vague- "Too Drunk to Fuck" (2:16) Man oh man, I hope this pisses Jello Biafra off to no end, the douchebag. It's a great French lounge-pop cover of the Dead Kennedys' hardcore standard. Far from being a novelty one-off, though, the chanteuse given vocal duties does a great job re-creating the hair-shaking, saliva-sucking lack of inhibitions of a woman who's had way more than she can handle: handily subverting an already subversive parody of straight-edge abstinence. It's fascinating, a little sexy and a little sad. Even catchier than the original, too, with the acoustic hook bouncing behind her. From Nouvelle Vague.

13. Of Montreal- "So Begins Our Alabee" (4:15) Kevin Barnes's latest album in his band's discography of kind-hearted twee-pop self-loathing doesn't have much new to offer to those of us who were addicted to 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic, but this ode to his newborn kid is an energetic disco-videogame treasure. Recorded all by himself, Kevin's harmonies, melodically high-pitched basslines, and vocal "Oh-ohh"s are the most fun a kid-at-heart could have, even as they capture the nervousness of a new father in lines like, "I never want to be your little friend, the abject failure." Much as I dislike children, I love this song to pieces. From The Sunlandic Twins.

14. Decemberists- "The Mariner's Revenge Song" (8:45) What's cooler than pirates? Nothing. In fact, they're the subject of my favorite joke: "A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel sticking out the front of his pants. The bartender says, 'What's the steering wheel for? Doesn't that hurt?' The pirate replies, 'Yarrr- it's drivin' me nuts!'" Ta-daaa. Well, maybe robots are cooler, but since Grandaddy just broke up, don't expect any great new robot songs for awhile. At any rate, this tune is an epic tale of a pirate getting revenge on a lech who took advantage of his mom, told from inside a whale in a sophisticated balalaika style that borrows as much from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lorenzo Carcaterra as it does from Camper Van Beethoven and the tale of Jonah. Revealing any more would be to spoil Colin Meloy's literary surprises, but trust me when I say that it justifies its nine-minute running time. Unless you don't like accordions, in which case you don't deserve this song anyhow. From Picaresque.

15. Books- "Be Good to Them Always" (4:51) The Books have always stuffed their recordings with samples, often in a seemingly haphazard fashion, but this track finally gets the balance right. With a bing-bong keyboard arrangement that resembles a giant novelty cuckoo clock, vocal slices appear amid the laid-back programmed drums, doubled by precise singing from one of the duo. It's insubstantial, I'll grant, but it's also pleasantly catchy, and the non-sequitur samples themselves offer some interesting juxtapositions ("You do not have to stand on one foot"). Slight but memorable. From Lost and Safe.

16. Kraftwerk- "Radioactivity" (live) (7:41) Twenty years after the studio version of this song appeared, a live version comes to attack it with "death and skin cancer" (to quote an anti-radiation disclaimer from the song's intro), conflating geiger counter keyboards and lyrical references to Madame Curie with vocoderized lists of nuclear disaster areas and, halfway through the track, modern Tour de France rhythm effects. If you're into dances of doom, there's no song you'll rather go out of the world with. From Minimum-Maximum.

17. The Go-Betweens- "Finding You" (4:02) In a year full of interesting reunions from the decade between 1975 and 1985 (the dB's, Gang of Four, Mission of Burma, et al), the Go-Betweens' new album arrived with nothing more than a worshipful hush, and that's as it should be. Never a band to stand out so much as to let their emotional down-under guitar-pop speak for itself, their best new song should've been a worldwide prom theme, but is instead just a heart-wrenching anthem for any lucky-yet-broken soul who might stumble across it. Grant McLennan's vocals carry as much whip-smart emotion as a lost Crowded House track, and the chorus carries as much flag-waving memorability as a lost Midnight Oil track, but the combination could only come from this band's jangly intelligence, which seems to have simultaneously influenced and been influenced by R.E.M., circa Lifes Rich Pageant. From Oceans Apart.

18. Gruff Rhys- "Gwn Mi Wn" (2:33) Though we all love the Super Furry Animals for their idiosyncratic arrangements and weirdo electronic effects, the best any of them came up with this year was a simple singing-in-the-round number from frontman Gruff Rhys's solo album. Backed only by a drum loop, ol' Gruff and several of his overdubbed doppelgangers sing the praises of something or other that I can't understand as it's in Welsh. Catchy as all hell, though. Like a particularly spirited round of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." From Yr Atal Genhedlaeth.

19. Sun Kil Moon- "Dramamine" (2:44) On a semi-inexplicable album of Modest Mouse covers, this is the best song, reinterpreting one of the better songs from MM's unremarkable This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. Unless you're as into scratchy indie-rock guitars as I was in college, you'll far prefer Mark Kozelek's gentle acoustic picking, and unless you're as into lispy indie-rock shout-singing as... some idiot who likes that better than vocal ability, you'll far prefer Mark Kozelek's gentle multi-tracked whispering. As with all Modest Mouse songs, the lyrics are nothing special, but Kozelek affectionately shakes the beauty out of Isaac Brock's seemingly nonexistent melody. It's not as impressive as Mark's take on AC/DC, What's Next to the Moon, but it'll do, pig. It'll do. From Tiny Cities.

CURRENT MUSIC: The Drop by Brian Eno.
CURRENT MOOD:
Jubilant, as my asshole of an insurance company finally agreed to reimburse me the $760 they owe me for psychiatric visits for the spring of 2005!
CURRENT MISSING OBJECT: A firewire cable that connects my digital camera to my lappy. If anyone has an extra cable, please send it thisaway.
TIME:
5:14 PM.

Doot? | |

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