19 November 2006

new in my top 25

Most played songs in my iPod, that is.

mid-november : johnathan rice
click here or on the image below to listen

A fitting post given that we have just crossed that part of the month. There seems to be so much Johnathan Rice is trying to say in this song, but I can't get through the lyrics. What's the story behind it? While it speaks of war, I can't make out if it's literal. The mention of death and coins on the eyes – a reference to the ancient practice of placing copper coins on the eyes of soldiers who died at war, according to the movie Troy – made me think it is. I have an outrageous theory. The narrator is the spirit of a soldier in a war, wounded and fighting for his life. He visits his loved one, finds her restless in her bed, and wonders if she somehow knows of his condition. This is probably nowhere near what Rice had in mind, but nonetheless I find Mid-November gravely sentimental, especially with that voice that seems to have just been squeezed out of clinical depression. Feel free to share your ideas.

please don't send me away : matthew jay
click here or on the image below to listen

Here's another song that breathes with trouble and secrecy. Following the lyrics, one might immediately look at it as a paternal discourse. But Matthew Jay was not even 24 when he wrote the song – that was his age when he died from falling from the seventh floor of a building – so it might be that it was his conscience, personified by his father, speaking to him. Torment, after all, comes in many voices. I'm not familiar with Jay's life story, but it looks like suicide was never ruled out as a cause of his fall, and I think his family even volunteered the information that he left no note. It's probably just me, but the words, especially the last three lines of the song, read like a self-addressed farewell from someone who expected way too much from himself and failed to meet his own expectations. Ah, but I think I'm being too morbid.

way of the sun : archer prewitt
click here or on the image below to listen

I don't normally like the sound of everyday objects or even nature being used in a song, and the chime or music box effect at the intro of Way Of The Sun is no exception. But the rest of this clever and striking post-apocalyptic song makes it a worthwhile listen. Think of a massive disaster that cost lives and property and imagine people huddled on rooftops waiting for evacuation. That's the image I get from the third and fourth verses of this song. And as if the lyrics aren't enough to hint at salvation, "Ave Maria" is invoked. I thought it was an unnecessary turn, but here I am talking about it, which means it did its job of calling attention to itself. But what follows after that – a series of claps – is a charming melodic transition to the gradual, restrained ending of the song.

Anyway. I'll try to post newer songs next. I'm off to get Teitur's latest album. I can't wait.

15 November 2006

grumpy old men

click on either title to listen

Off to Singapore for a business trip; I will be back this weekend. Here are a couple of old anti-war records, which are as much as I can say about the war in Iraq right now. The Democratic Party's midterm election victory pleases me; I would love to see a reduction of troops there, along with a decisive strategy as far as the government of the country is concerned – one that takes into consideration the differences of the domestic political forces there, and that will preserve lives and prevent Iraq from spiralling further down the hell hole the Bush administration has buried it in. I am now especially eager to find out what happens about Iran. As far as I know, an attack on the Islamic Republic had been a done deal even before the midterms. I count on the Democrat-led Congress to change that. Iran and more importantly the Iranian people do not deserve any form of military hostility regardless of the government's claim that its nuclear program would be completed by March. To be sure, Iran does seem to want to annihilate Israel – I've seen the propaganda posters all over Tehran myself, having visited Iran last July. But my feeling is, the intent is nothing more than that: a propaganda perpetrated by the mullahs for whatever purpose they are trying to achieve. To preempt this empty threat by attacking Iran on the back of the failure in Iraq is neither morally nor politically astute.

12 November 2006

introducing alternative tales

Alright, as some of you may know, I write for a living, and that what I write in my daily grind is nowhere near what I want to be writing about. I used to write a lot fiction and poetry, but I've stopped. I plan to change that, and just to make it more fun to do, since music is also my foremost interest, I've decided to combine both music and fiction.

And so I'm going to try to run this series: alternative tales : stories from my ipod. Essentially, this is my self-imposed mental exercise, and it will only work with your help.

Here's what you do: Give me a song, pick a line from that song, and then give me a name, place, or object.

And here's what I'll do: I'll write a flash fiction – a very short story of 250 to 1,000 words – about or inspired by that song, throwing in the line and name, place, or object you picked. Anything but rap, metal, country and bubblegum pop.

To start, I give you Rudie Can't Fail – from the song of the same title by The Clash. A member of a forum I often visit suggested it, and he chose the line "How you get a rude and a reckless, don't you be so crude and a feckless, you been drinking brew for breakfast, Rudie can't fail." His person is Mother Teresa.

And so it is. Let me know what you think, and don't forget to make your own suggestions.

rudie can't fail : the clash
click here or on the image below to listen

Rudie took one final drag of his cigarette as he walked from the side of his car to the green-gray gate of the old house. "Today's the day," he said to himself. He rang the bell and craned his neck to look through the glass window that let the orange mid-afternoon sun wash over the musty living room inside. He could hear muffled voices and the clacking of shoes against the creaking wooden floor on his approach.

It had only been two weeks since his last visit, yet his father seemed to have aged a decade. Whatever it was that was eating his brain was also doing a good job at tearing his body apart. Rudie felt a tinge of pity for the man, whose once-proud military build now lay slouched on a tattered couch, head bowed down, left hand limply resting on the handle of his cane, right hand gripping a rolled-up newspaper – the same newspaper he had been holding for five years now, the one that had a picture of the crash that killed his wife. He had been driving and had fallen asleep, and in his guilt, Rudie believed, almost willfully drove himself to senility.

Rudie hunkered down to greet his father, yet again failed to look straight into his eyes for even a second. The dark spots that ringed his neck had formed a map, while the surface of his skin, nearly transparent in its whiteness, seemed to peel away from the flesh of his face. Rudie was taken aback when his father turned his eyes to grab his – a brief, fiery look of recognition that quickly melted into an empty, hopeless gaze. "How are you, Papa?" he asked, and when there was no answer, Rudie wrapped his hand over his father’s papery wrist, surprised both by its warmth and strong pulse. He eased down to his fist and tried to gently pry the newspaper from his fingers so he could hold his hand, but it only provoked a blow to the side of his head.

"How you get a-rude and a-reckless? Don't you be so crude and a-feckless!" his father howled, his voice mechanical, his eyes unmoved. From the vault of phrases he had uttered in the past that now sprung randomly from his mouth, that was a new yet familiar rebuke. Rudie's V-shaped scar at the tip of his eyebrow reminded him when his father had said it. He was fifteen, stumbling into the kitchen one morning, sneaking from the back door after a night of drunken disappearance. Rudie didn’t expect to find his father waiting. He grabbed Rudie by the collar, smelled his breath, and demanded in a guttural hush, "You been drinking brew for breakfast?" Before Rudie could say a word, he found himself thrown to the floor, his temple hitting the sharp corner of a chair. "Oh, so you care about me all of a sudden?" he shouted back as he wiped the stream of blood from his cheek. That was when his father said the line – humorous in its unintentional rhyme, callous in its unequivocal threat.

"Rudie can’t fail," came a crumpled voice from a woman sitting next to his father. "Did you bring me those vegetables from the market, Rudie?" She called herself Mother Teresa, although she looked nowhere near the late saint of the gutter. Tall and overbuilt, she one day mysteriously appeared at the doorstep of the house with blood running down her legs, carrying a single bag of clothes and a stack of post-dated checks that went on to the next seven years. No more aware, she had been his father’s companion since. Rudie squeezed her hand, stood up, and brought his father to his feet. Mother Teresa stiffened, turned to face Rudie, and asked weakly, "It’s time, isn’t it, Rudie?" He smiled and nodded. "Goodbye, George," she said.

Rudie guided his father to his room and gave him a glass of water before laying him down in his bed. There were pictures of his mother on the bedside table, on the wall next to the crucifix, on the mirror in the cabinet. "Happy birthday, Papa," he said, remembering the last time his father had been in his senses. He had gone to see Rudie in his house, but refused to come inside in spite of the rain. "I don’t have much to say, son," he had said. "Just take this and don’t fail me." And that was it – an envelope in his hand, an obligation to fulfill. Rudie took the will out of his pocket. He knew he needed to read the last line when this moment came, even though he'd had it memorized for five years. He whispered a prayer and wiped the tear that fell from his eye. He kissed his father on his forehead, and pressed a needle in his arm. George brought the newspaper to his chest, and pulled his final breath.

05 November 2006

holiday pics anyone?

I'm taking care of a backlog project here. Apart from the songs, below are links to picture galleries from my last two summer holidays. The first is from the Cyclades Islands in Greece where the significant other and I spent about a couple of weeks this July; the second is from Oaxaca, part of my three-week Mexico trip in July last year. Oaxaca isn't actually in good shape right now, and I sure hope they sort things out pronto.

Listen to the songs I'm posting while you, it is my hope, enjoy the pictures. The songs and the pictures don't exactly go together, but these are the bands I've been listening to lately, having just bought their latest Best Of compilations. The Tragically Hip and Gomez are underrated bands I like. TTH live up to the tragic in their name. These talented Canadians, who pre-date the recent wave of bands north of the US border such as The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and even The New Pornographers, should be bigger than they are. In fact, they've been around since 1983. Gomez, likewise, came before the Brit wave that we are still seeing. And even though they have a Mercury Prize to prove their worth, admittedly, I think they were never as exciting as the fresher lot are. They're finding new popularity, however, after Grey's Anatomy used one of their new songs, a boost they could certainly use.

So. Click on the titles to listen to the songs, which will pop up in a new window as usual, then click on the pictures to go to the galleries. They will open in this same page, but there's a link back if you want to return.

click on the title to listen
click on the picture to see greece

click on the title to listen
click on the picture to see oaxaca

28 October 2006

sometimes i am such a wuss

auto rock : mogwai
click here or on the image below to listen

Has a song ever made you cry, and not in a contemptuous smart-ass kind of way? In the wide range of human emotions, nothing is as confusing and unreal as shedding a tear over a song that has no sentimental meaning to you. I was standing at a bus stop the other day, staring at nothing, listening to my iPod as usual. The morning had been perfectly ordinary: a slice of bread, a swig of orange juice, fumbling for my keys, waiting for the elevator, a foggy distance, an old man walking his dog, a breath of autumn, missing the 8:40. I could have called for a cab but instead I decided to wait for the next bus. Alone at the shed, I crossed my arms by force of habit, and rested my back against the billboard. There was nothing in particular to occupy the mind. I focused on the music. What was this quiet intro? An 18-second soundtrack to the birth of the universe? And then came the piano, calling, heaving, a stirring succession of notes pulling me out of my early morning indifference. And before I knew it, an invisible lump had built up in my chest, pounding with every beat of the drums, growing larger as the volume rose, and finally forcing a tear from the corner of my eye. I looked down and pressed my lips against my fist. Another tear fell. I turned my back to wipe my cheek. The pounding only grew louder. Was this a never-ending crescendo? All I could do was wait for the song to end, and it did with little warning, a sudden break after a rush, like a rug pulled from under my feet, throwing me into a wall of questions that spelled the same: What the fuck just happened?

alone in kyoto : air
click here or on the image below to listen

I will never know, and I don't care enough to find out. All I know is that Auto Rock continues to haunt me, minus the tears. I can't connect the song to anything in my memory – unlike Alone In Kyoto, which comes from the soundtrack to the film Lost in Translation. I saw it shortly after it came out and really liked the score, especially the intro where Bill Murray was being driven from the airport to his hotel. I remember the part of the film where this song was used. Three scenes, in fact: a couple in kimono marching to their wedding holding hands, Scarlett Johansson tying a strip of white paper on a branch of a wishing tree, and again her character half-bouncing on a trail paved with round stones. The film succeeded in resonating the isolation and alientation of travelers. This song brings to me that kind of sentiment; it doesn't make me weep, but it sure isn't happy. Even without the memory of the film, the song actually stands on its own as a mild blow to the heart. If the trilling vocals don't release butterflies in your stomach, then congratulations for not being the wuss that I am.

12 October 2006

the most common song title ever

I have a point, I promise.

Okay. Having unpacked the last box in our new flat, I thought that now was the perfect time to post this. I've long been curious about what's the most frequently used song title ever – not the most frequently used word in a song title (in which case, it would probably be the pronoun "I"), but the most frequently used song title, period. And they have to be unique songs, not covers (in which case, Help! by The Beatles would be the hands-down winner). Unfortunately, I don't know of any authoritative source that keeps track of these things. The closest I could find is allmusic, which has a massive song database; you just have to know what you're looking for. One Googly afternoon, I found a web forum that discusses this very subject, and the list gathered by members looks like the following. (I've added their allmusic count for reference. I doubt that allmusic only counts unique songs, but what, pray tell, is the alternative?)
  • Hold On - 963
  • You - 885
  • Freedom - 742
  • Stay - 703
  • I Want You - 658
Not a bad sample. We can all think of songs with those titles. Hold On was actually the first thing that came to my mind; I first noticed how popular it is as a song title after Sarah McLachlan released her album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I compared the forum members' list with my iTunes library (at 15,646 songs as of today, this is larger than the average, but still small by collectors' standards), and then I ran the most frequently used song title in my library by the allmusic database. The result: Home, with 11 unique songs in my iTunes, and 971 mentions in allmusic. Here is one of them:

home : cary pierce
click here or on the image below to listen. 3m 46s

I was surprised by the result. How many Home songs do you know? How many Home hits have there been? Not much, I would wager. And yet, a lot of major artists have one, from Louis Armstrong to Alan Jackson to Depeche Mode to Sheryl Crow. But my point is that home is something we always think about, but not something we choose to bring out in the open. Who wants to broadcast every little dysfunctional thing about their family? Which brings me to my next point: that the concept of home is quite distinct from the family unit. Many of the Home songs you will hear are not about family relationships but the nostalgia of growing up, the comfort of the familiar, the return to proverbial innocence. Home as your personal world, as you choose to see it, as you want it to be. In this song, Cary Pierce calls home "the way things were," "a place where no one ever lets me down," and a place that he can come back to to keep his life on track. (Can you guess who the female back-up is? The answer at the bottom.)

this world is not my home : his name is alive
click here or on the image below to listen. 2m 40s

Not that I'm saying Home is the most common song title ever. To be sure, love is still the overriding theme in music, and at 1,150 songs, I Love You has more allmusic listings than Home. But I guess you can make a case that after love in all its dimensions, songwriting is ultimately drawn to the idea of home and all its permutations. Apart from what Pierce describes above, home is also a represenation of – cue orchestral music – our place in the larger world, including the spiritual. Here, Michigan indie group His Name Is Alive borrows two lines from the gospel staple written in 1936 by Albert Brumley: This world is not my home, I'm just passing through, And I can't live at home in this world anymore. (Am I the only one to think this is a bit suicidal?) HNIA sings this version with clinical numbness, unlike the acoustic version on their myspace page, which is quietly unsettling.

broken homes : tricky feat. pj harvey
click here or on the image below to listen. 3m 35s

For the most part, of course, love is what makes a home, and its absence or betrayal destroys it. In fact, this theme often brings about some of the best songs in pop music. My favorite? Burt Friggin' Bacharach's A House Is Not A Home. I'm not meant to live alone, Turn this house into a home. I get all weepy just playing Brooke Benton's version of it in my head. An absolute classic, in spite of Luther Vandross's beautiful but overproduced rendition. This song I'm posting is not exactly about broken homes in the clichéd tradition of most ballad songwriters, but being Tricky, this one is freaking tremendous. Enjoy.

Oh, and the answer is Lisa Loeb.

29 September 2006

where is my blog?

I can't blog. We moved house two weeks ago, and my iMac, which has the program that allows me to stream songs, is still in the box. In the meantime, here is one of my favorite songs of all time, by one of my favorite bands of all time. I uploaded this a while back, but for a different reason. This song was best used in the ending scene of the film Fight Club, another personal favorite.

where is my mind : pixies
click here or on the old image of the band below to listen

12 September 2006

hot girl-on-girl action!

Douse your fantasies, perverts. These are songs by female singer-songwriters, each with a female name for a title.

irene : rose melberg
click here or on the image below to listen. 2m 41s

Is it possible not to like Rose Melberg after hearing this song? Just like the way she looks, the voice of this former Californian has an endearing and innocent character that makes you want to find your inner knight and come to her protection. She is the quiet girl from high school whose very coyness made her naturally intriguing. Two things about Irene caught my attention. First, it reminded me of the song Fascination by Everything But The Girl, especially its piano intro. Basically, it's a peppy, higher-key take on the lethargic plucked-guitar opener of the much-older song by the British duo. It's only a slight similarity, but it would be hard to listen to Irene without wondering if Melberg had just heard of Fascination and been subconsciously inspired by it. The second is its lyrical wit which manifests itself even in the first four lines of the song: So tired waking up uninspired; Too bored; you could change – but what for? I would be lying if I said I haven't felt that way before. That said, the song doesn't speak to my demographic, but to the same self-absorbed adolescent that Melberg's voice made me imagine. So dumb, what you wait for will come; Oh Irene, no one's strong at sixteen. The highlight of the song? The backing vocals, which circle her voice like a halo. And yes, they are her own – the album where this song comes from, Cast Away The Clouds, is after all almost entirely a one-person affair, with Melberg playing the guitars, piano, flute, ukulele, and drums.

eleanor : shannon worrell
click here or on the image below to listen. 5m 39s

Let me get one thing out of the way: Dave Matthews sings back-up in this song, and he does it extremely well as his voice seems to be the equivalent of a soul mate with that of Worrell. My knowledge of Worrell, however, is limited to this song, which comes from an old compilation CD from the Aware record label, but is also enough for me to admire her both as a singer and songwriter. I love the quality of her voice. It is vulnerable but disarming, especially when she seemingy breathes in the sharp notes at the start of some lines of the song – intermittent fragments that tug at the heart. The melody and imagery are beautiful, at turns heartwarming (especially when she sings the lines You're no empty shell and Plucked from the sky like spring's new leaf) and saddening. That part about approaching her indifferent father while he read a book – Why even bother? she asks herself – almost gave me a few goosebumps. It also made me wonder what the song is about. At first I thought it was about a young woman so full of passion, so willing to throw her love around, but who in reality was in search of purpose or self-discovery. But then she talks about her father – He thinks he knows me well; He thinks he knows this heart – and it made me wonder why she would need affirmation from him. And why is she almost an angel? I want a sequel to the song, dammit!

lydia : kathryn williams
click here or on the image below to listen. 2m 45s

I get instantly wary when critics say that an artist resonates Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell. Often I wouldn't see the similarity until someone pointed it out to me, and that's the case with Kathryn Williams. I like her unembellished songs. Not a lot of female solo artists today are confident enough to have such spare arrangements. Here, it's just Williams and her guitar, with minimal instrumentations in the background. Her voice is not really unique. It has that sleepy, wispy tone that you hear more often in anonymous chill-out or samba music. At best, her music is quietly arresting, which is probably how she won those favorable comparisons with Drake (less so with Mitchell, who has a strong, piercing voice). But this is the most credit I can give Williams, because her music lacks intensity, and when her songs are sunny, like Lydia is, she becomes, well, just cute. Like she is in that picture above.

01 September 2006

25 planes this year and it's only july

one place : everything but the girl
click here or on the image below to listen. 5m 01s

When I first heard that line from the second verse of this song (lyrics below), I wondered if I would ever be able to achieve the same. Well, pop the champagne because I've just realized that I have! I even exceeded it by one: 26 flights from January to July, taking me to Australia, Vietnam, Dubai, Iran, Greece, and twice each to the Philippines, China and India. I'm tempted to count the UK, but I flew there on August 1st. Bummer. Anyway, I thought this was the perfect occasion to share this song by Everything But The Girl, a sappy pop duo from London who I happen to like very much. One Place is one of my favorite travel-themed songs (as opposed to songs for traveling – I have separate playlists for that one) and it comes from their mid-90s concept album Worldwide. Love the words, which demonstrate what good songwriters the couple of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn are – or were, before EBTG went techno. Thorn's voice here is gold. Well, it always is.

One Place

A summer evening, I walk past the window
A baby crying, someone's cooking dinner
There's laughter on the TV
And someone's learning the violin
And how that home appeals
At times like this I feel that
I would like to live like anybody else
In one place
And I could be happy and fulfilled
In one place

So I get the map out
And draw a line of where we've been
It goes thru sea and sky
Twenty-five planes this year
And it's only July
This is not some bible like On The Road
It's just a song about coming home
And whether
I could live like anybody else
In one place
And I could be happy and fulfilled
In one place

And you know that I have found
I'm happiest weaving from town to town
And you know Bruce said
We should keep moving around
Or maybe we'll all get too tied down
I don't know

In the end if you take care
You can be happy or unhappy anywhere

25 August 2006

is it the end of the line?

all i ever wanted : train
click here or on the image below to listen
mississippi : train
click here or on the image below to listen

Pat Monahan is one of my favorite male voices in rock. I think his voice has a rare combination of passion, power and distinctiveness, with a sharpness that cuts through jaded ears – as rousing, brooding or numb as he wants it to be. And edgy as it is, his voice is best suited for materials of a similar nature, which is why I find it difficult to like Train's latest album, For Me, It's You. The band has been accused of being faceless and middle of the road, and I can understand that given the lack of consistency in every album they've released so far. Monahan seems comfortable straddling the border between radio-friendly rock and rock that just doesn't give a damn. He's better at the latter when he writes songs so personal, even cryptic, that they're almost mystifying, not just in words (songwriting is not actually Monahan's best suit) but also in melody. Mississippi, from Train's second album Drops of Jupiter, is a midnight musing over an unattainable relationship, aptly laid with an aching opening bass line and slow, rippling guitar. In All I Ever Wanted – and, in fact, the entire new album – Monahan sides with the universal as opposed to the intimate, resulting in some of the most mediocre lyrics he has ever written. Take this from Cab, the album's first single: New York snow this time of year/There’s nothing more beautiful to me/Except for you. Wow. Deep. That said, I like the arrangement of All I Ever Wanted, especially the diversity of its melody and how Monahan flirts with the falsetto which he hardly uses. This song must kick ass live.

12 August 2006

folk everybody

As you may have guessed from the post prior to this, the week since I came back from my holiday has been very stressful. Yes, there's the lost luggage which remains unfound, but there's also the jetlag, the persistent coughing, the catching-up with everyone and everything else, not to mention work, which brings me once again to India where I am right now. So I have been making a conscious effort to calm my nerves, partly by listening to folk music or the many rock varieties of it anyway. Here are three from a playlist I call Folk Everybody!

thin blue flame : josh ritter
click here or on the image below to listen. a whopping 9m 38s

This is the most impressive track from The Animal Years, the latest album by Idaho native Josh Ritter. It becomes a commendable work if you take it for what it is and look past the obvious influences from the more familiar names in the genre. In short, it lacks originality, but is worth a listen anyway. Ritter has been compared to Dylan and Springsteen, not just for the way he sounds but also for the maturity of his perspective on the themes he explores. The Animal Years is a politically charged album, a sharp (thanks to a weathered voice that also sounds like he would knock your teeth out at a slight provocation) and highly literate jab at things that make you throw your hands up and wonder how the world fucked up. "I just felt so angry; I felt like something was on my back," he told an early interview with Billboard, when asked why his new album differed from his prior autobiographical work. "These are a collection of songs about confusion and about where this country is going. It's not as much a political record, but just a diary of things I observe, how divisive everyone is, no matter whose side you're on." I just have to say, however, that there are tracks where, musically and vocally, he channels Grant McLennan more than anyone else. The intro to Girl in The War is practically torn from the same chord sheet as McLennan's One By One. Where Ritter excels is in his songwriting, and you can get a load of how much he has to say in Thin Blue Flame, a surreal vision of what becomes of the universe when its inhabitants and creator stop giving a damn. My favorite line: Now the wolves are howling at our door/Singing 'bout vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord/Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round. At nearly 10 minutes, you can call the song overstretched and contrived, but it intrigued me on first listen and it interests me up to now. Try to see how much of it you can handle.

i got nobody waiting for me : m. craft
click here or on the image below to listen. 3m 48s

The problem with the one-act-one-guitar route is that there is very little room for innovation. Here's a theory with no scientific backing whatsoever, because to have one would require reading a good sampling of album and artist reviews since Mr Zimmerman became the benchmark of the genre since, oh, 1963? The theory is: Music critics make more artist comparisons when they review works by acoustic singer-songwriters than by full-on rock bands or even pop newcomers. Count the number of comparisons in this review of Silver and Fire by M. Craft (it stands for Martin). I counted six. Six! Now count the same in this review of St Elsewhere by the breakthrough duo Gnarls Barkley. How many? Just three. What accounts for the difference is rather obvious: How many ways can a solo act express the same thought or emotion with the same minimal instruments? Not a lot, I suppose, but then again, does it really matter? In this song, Craft, a London-residing Australian, pays homage to the late Elliott Smith, with his guitar as crisp and his vocals as wispy as Smith's in Between The Bars. In the end, what matters is whether the song, album or artist speaks to you or not, and in this case – in my case – Craft is a good companion indeed.

duet for guitars #1 : m. ward
click here or on the image below to listen. 2m 15s

Now here's a brave take on folk innovation. M. Ward (it's Matt this time) describes his own work as "guitar music," and in this song, guitar is what it's all about. It's a short instrumental piece that's equal parts embracing, paranoid, acerbic and spooky. The parallel playing of notes high and low from the middle toward the end of the song is almost grating to the ears, but it also plays with your senses and conjures up a dream populated by bad characters. And no, I'm not taking anything. I don't have an M. Ward album – this song comes from the excellent compilation Matador At Fifteen, referring to the 15th anniversary of the venerable indie label – but the three songs of his that I have are enough for me to put him in the genre-busting category. Sweethearts on Parade starts off like an intro to an electronica track, until the strums of an acoustic guitar come in and his near-falsetto voice croons old-school style. Four Hours in Washington starts grunge-like, until a flamenco-inspired guitar breaks in, followed by successive infusions of deep percussion, trumpets, cymbals and piano. It's confusing. It's weird. It's an acid-and-base solution that stirs you up and can either rip your guts or blow your brains out. In other words, it's good for you.

08 August 2006

a not-so-little luggage saga

great car dealer war : drive-by truckers
click here or on my backpack below to listen

I hate to start my first post-vacation blog on a negative note, but I feel that I have to publicly vent my frustration with Emirates Airlines just to get some form of revenge. I am by nature a very patient person – to a fault, my best friend would say – but the Dubai-based carrier rattled my nerves for a good part of the last two weeks. For reasons you will learn in a bit, I am still unsettled, but to a much lesser degree now. Hence this song that rings of understated rage by Drive-By Truckers, who have been dubbed by All Music Guide as "the greatest hard-rock band in America today." Even for someone who doesn't listen to hard rock very much, I think that's a bit of a stretch. Anyhow, Great Car Dealer War is a previously unreleased outtake from their excellent 2004 album The Dirty South. I got it from a free CD that came with Comes With A Smile, a small British magazine that seems to focus on American indie acts – a good but very niche idea.

First, a little bit of background. As I said in a previous post, my significant other and I went to Greece for our summer holiday, flying Emirates Airlines with stops in Dubai both ways. At the end of our holiday together, R and I separated in Dubai, with her going home and me proceeding to a solo trek in Iran and then a visit with friends to the UK. I flew with Iran Air to Tehran, and with British Airways to London, using Dubai as my hub. Why? It was a cheaper proposition than using Emirates for my entire itinerary. The BA flight, for one, was free, because I used some of the frequent-flier miles I have accumulated. First class, no less!

Now count with me from 1 to 10 and exhale ... bloody mother@#&^%# Emirates! I checked my backpack in Athens on the way to Dubai on July 22nd. They were supposed to transfer it to my Iran Air flight to Tehran the next day. Lo and behold, there was no luggage on my arrival in Tehran. This was a major hassle for me, as I was scheduled to go straight from the airport to the foot of Mount Damavand on the same day and start my climb on the next. Given my limited time, I had no choice but to file a report with Iran Air, go to the mountain without my luggage, and rent my clothing and gear from my guide, a $50 damage to my wallet.

I called Iran Air as soon as I came back from Mount Damavand on the 27th. After about 15 minutes of listening to the phone ring, being put on hold, and hearing a long-winded explanation, I was told that I would be better off just picking up my luggage in Dubai when I came back. That would be four days later, which meant I had to shop for new shirts, underwear and socks, because I had been wearing the same clothes I arrived in five days ago. (That was the longest stretch of time I wore the same items of clothing straight without taking them off.)

Flying back to Dubai on the evening of the 31st, I had five hours to nag Emirates about my luggage before heading to London. Apparently, one of their ground crew had put in the computer system that my luggage had been transferred to Iran Air, but they failed to physically do so. They offered an awful lot of excuses, the most outrageous being they didn't have enough time to transfer my backpack between the two aircraft. I was on a 12-hour layover! They had half a day to move one bag from one plane to another plane! In the same airport! I nearly blew my top upon hearing this, but in my typical character, I simply took a deep breath and said it calmly but firmly. Other excuses were given, and I ended up feeling sorry for the person I was dealing with because he was miserably covering for his incompetent colleagues. He suggested that to speed things up, I could look for my luggage in their storage myself – and then he realized it wasn't feasible because it meant I would have to get out of passport control and I didn't have a proper visa. With that, he promised that their luggage crew would look for my backpack and transfer it to my British Airways flight.

Needless to say, that didn't happen either. Without really thinking, I asked British Airways if they could message Emirates to send my bag to London. The staff seemed to be accommodating of my request, and asked for my file reference number. Looking it up in their system, the BA staff saw that the file case had been closed – it said the bag was transferred to Iran Air and that if it was really missing, then my only recourse was to chase Iran Air. For a while, I thought he even gave me a look as though I was making up a lost-luggage story to make a fake claim. Wanker! My other option was to go to the Emirates counter, but it was in another terminal. At that point, I had lost my patience to narrate the snafu perpetrated by the stupid bumbling Emirates ground crew in Dubai, and so I said to myself, Fine, I will just deal with it when I get back there – again – for my final trip home.

Back in Dubai on the morning of August 6th, Emirates told me the same story: that the luggage was in Dubai, that perhaps the claim tag had been accidentally removed so it never got to London, that they were going to look for it, and that they were going to load it in my Emirates flight home. As expected, it didn't turn up. So I went to the luggage-services desk at my home airport and asked them to deal with it with Emirates.

Just hours ago, I called the airport people and received promising news: Emirates found a "definite match" of my lost luggage, but offered no word of when they would send it to me. The airline flies here once a day – if all goes well, the soonest my bag would get here is Thursday morning. To be honest, I am ready to charge everything to experience, after claiming with insurance, of course. Perhaps I wouldn't be having this problem had I taken the costlier Emirates flight to Tehran instead of the cheap Iran Air. You live, you learn. But R is getting positive vibes, and I sure hope she's right.

Watch this space.

11 July 2006

my nine songs for july

Hi, everyone. I am currently in the lovely town of Hora (or Chora) in Naxos, Greece, at the start of the second week of my summer holiday. Got here yesterday after four days in Santorini where R, my significant other, and I stayed in the sleepy but postcard-perfect town of Oia, and a three-day stopover in Dubai. That city by the Persian Gulf is just booming. Cranes and buildings and malls everywhere, right smack in the middle of the desert. There are no limits to the things you can do with oil money, especially these days, I suppose. Anyway, this is one of our strike-off-the-list trips. We will be here for three more days, and then on to Athens where I will be spending my birthday. I will then move on to Iran by myself, and finally, to London. It's safe to say that I will be out of touch until the 7th of August. Thank you for visiting, and I hope you enjoy these nine songs I uploaded before I left. I meant to write about them decently, but I ran out of time, and so here they are, without the blah.

three sounds of summer

three sounds of sexy

three ways to chill

30 June 2006

whatever happened to rock duets?

good morning baby : dan wilson and bic runga
click here or on the cool guy in glasses below to listen
someone new : eskobar and heather nova
click here or on the jean gray lookalike below to listen

I uploaded the first song for a specific person to hear, but I thought you might enjoy it here as well. This is a duet – more like a collaboration, really – between the vocalist of Semisonic who had the hit Closing Time in the mid-90s (gosh, that was a decade ago – a decade!) and the pretty New Zealander who made it big with her beautiful pop ballad Sway. Good Morning Baby comes from the soundtrack to the 1999 goofball high-school comedy American Pie. Listening to this sweet song got me thinking, How come there are very few rock duets happening these days? A lot of what's out there are, as I said, collaborations where a guest artist sings back-up in the chorus. There have been very few he-said-she-said duets (and probably even less same-gender combinations) lately, and I hate it that the first song that came to my mind when I had to think of one was the sappy Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough (by former Eagle Don Henley and Patty Smyth). Even Someone New – by Daniel Bellqvist, lead singer of the Swedish band Eskobar, and Heather Nova of London Rain fame – is four yeas old. Anyway, I really like this one, which is a break-up song with lyrics so humanly worded they could have come straight from the journal entry of either lover. The only thing I don't like here is the voice of Bellqvist, which I think is rather effeminate. If you know of any good rock duets, please let me know and I'll find the time to post it up here.

24 June 2006

hot off the charts

into the ocean : blue october
click here or on the image below to listen

This song is well on its way to becoming one of the Top 25 most played songs in my iPod. Blue October is a Texas band that has been around for a few years, signing with, being dropped by, and then signing again with a major record label. They finally found commercial success with the release of their latest album, Foiled. The first single, Hate Me, is currently #6 after peaking at #2 in the Billboard Hot Modern Rock Tracks. This is not usually the genre I listen to, but after sampling the CD at a record store, I was immediately hooked. Blue October certainly knows the power of the chorus, making it quite distinct from and more infectious than any other part of the song. Into The Ocean, a song about failing, is a great example. The emotive cry of the chorus is introduced by scratches of electric guitar and a bit of a pause at the tail of the refrain. The tone of voice used is different; the chorus is strong yet desperate, but the rest is near falsetto, effectively effecting weakness without being effete. The best part of the song, however, is the lyrics. The words are very visual – drowning as a metaphor for being left behind – which makes it easy to empathize with vocalist Justin Furstenfeld. I can imagine myself in distress when he sings: I keep looking each direction for a spotlight, give me something, I need something for protection, Maybe flotsam junk will do just fine. These guys are sharp – almost smart. Congratulations is another pop masterpiece in the album. Featuring the breezy backing vocals of Imogen Heap, it is a passive take on the old story of a best friend's betrayal. There is no bitter anger or sarcasm, just a sad surrender to something he no longer has the strength to pursue. I can't change this, I can never take it back, But now I can't change your mind. Furstenfeld easily gets you on his side.

17 June 2006

let's make a list : narrated songs

Let's make a list of songs whose lyrics are entirely narrated instead of sung. So this excludes songs like Belong by R.E.M. where Not Michael Stipe – or maybe it is him, I can't tell – speaks the words and then Stipe goes all "Oooohhh" in the chorus. Here are three from my collection, and guess what? They're all Scots. (A note on the playback: the second song plays softer than the first and third. I don't know why that is, I encoded them at the same bit rate.)

the ghosts : money can't buy music
click here or on the image below to listen

This blog has been in a lull for a while, but this song made me want to write again and share it with you. What struck me most about The Ghosts is its powerful use of simple language to describe complex but universal feelings that perturb. In less than four minutes, Gordon McIntyre parades before us a lifetime of ghosts that live quietly at the back of our minds, memories that somehow nag us with the very regrets that we try to deny or conceal. I transcribed the lyrics the best I could; I could not find them on the web, not even his website. Which ghosts inhabit your lives? Mine are the ghosts of people I took for granted.

The Ghosts
Money Can't Buy Music

We all have our ghosts, and they're with us all the time, everywhere we go, enduring everything that we do. Some of them are people. Some of them are feelings or memories of past things, and some of them are just things. Some of them are the people that we were born instead of the ones who've missed out because of chance meetings at random times, between the parents and the grandparents that we know. The ones who had lives before us that we forget to ask about. They're the ones who were left behind by last-minute decisions, missed trains or one-more drinks or one-last drinks. They're the ones who are so close that we can feel them even now, everywhere we go.

But there are other ghosts too. The people that we loved but we didn't really know, or we knew them too late. The people that we loved that didn't love us back, or who loved us back too late. And then there's the other ones. The ones who loved us even beyond the point where we failed them. Even beyond the point where we gave them no reason to love us.

And the other loves. The secret ones. The ones that never took hold because of wrong places or wrong times, or just wrong somethings. They spawn a whole new generation of ghosts. And they are ghosts too. They’re never quite alive and they’re never quite dead. But they are real. They last and they endure. They live in the tiny moments. Accidental touches and the joys of looking, the joys of being close.

And they live in our eyes, and the hoping and the wishing. And they die in our hearts with the knowing and the hurting. But they're real loves. They last and they endure. And who's to say that secret loves are not the deepest loves of all? And though they live in our eyes and they die in our hearts, who's to say that secret loves are not the deepest loves of all?

a space boy dream : belle & sebastian
click here or on the image below to listen

This song is more fun to me than anything else. You just cannot make up a dream like this. I envy the level of detail in it – not just the visual ones, but the feelings associated with them. I'm always kidding on about going to Mars for the day, but faced with the reality of it, in a dream, I was terrified. If there's one thing I wish I had, it would be the ability to remember my dreams. Put simply, I just don't. I would wake up from a dream, often all bothered, but in literally a span of five seconds, I would lose all recollection of what it was about. My dreams are as transient as waves. They build up in slow motion, freeze for a split second the moment they come to their farthest reach, and then swifty pull back. Do you remember your dreams?

A Space Boy Dream
Belle & Sebastian

I dreamt I had to go to Mars. I'm always kidding on about going to Mars for the day, but faced with the reality of it, in a dream, I was terrified. And it wasn't going to be like a moon trip - there was three of us going, but we couldn't all go on the same ship; we had to go one at a time with a day between us. I had to go first, and it was the thought of passing through all that black space, all the darkness with nothing in it, and then being the first one to land there, all alone... I knew it was supposed to be all dark around, with just a red surface, but what if I got there and it was light, all civilised and populated and stuff? So I made a plan.

The other astronauts were gonna be my dad and my sister, and my dad would come first after me, so I decided when I landed I would just stay in my seat until he got there, and then we could get out together and have a look around and see what sort of things were there.

And when I woke up and I was lying in the darkness, I thought I had landed. And I just lay still for a while, waiting for my dad to get there too.

love detective : arab strap
click here or on the image below to listen

The Belle & Sebastian album where the previous song comes from is called The Boy With The Arab Strap. Interestingly, it bears the name of the band that did this song. I didn't think much of Love Detective at first. With its masked vocals and Scottish accent, good luck trying to understand it. Only after Googling its lyrics did I realize what a fascinating conversational narrative it is, about a man in the room of a one-night stand, discovering her sexual adventures in her diary, and realizing she's too much for his liking. That's something I have trouble understanding in a relationship. Why dig up the past knowlingly? It's like asking for trouble.
Love Detective
Arab Strap

We slept in this morning and she had to get ready in a hurry - no time for her usual attention to detail - and she ran out the door, slamming it behind her, leaving her keys swinging and jangling. I stayed in bed until I heard the downstairs door shut, then peeked through the blinds and as soon as she was out of sight, I went for the keys. She never tried to make a secret of the box or the fact it was locked or even where she kept it. But as I said at the time - "If you've nothing to hide, why hide it?"

It's one of those wee red cashbox things and she keeps it in a drawer by the bed, under some pictures and books. Every key she has is on the same keyring - it took me a while to find the right one. I don't know, I suppose I've had my doubts for a while. There's been hushed phone-calls virtually every night, her friends stop talking when I come in the room and they look at each other, and I don't know, it's just a feeling. Anyway, I eventually found the right key and it fitted perfectly in. I put the box on top of the bed and opened it up...

There were these pictures of friends and ex's, letters, postcards, doodles, nothing bad - and then I found some sort of sex diary and I went to the latest entry. It explicity detailed a recent adventure up the park with a boy she said she had forgotten about...

And it got worse as it went on. The dates never made sense, there were people I had never even heard of. Eventually I had to stop reading it because I started to feel sick. So I put everything back the way I found it, shut the drawer and phoned you. See, I don't know what to do. I keep having fantasies about leaving her dictaphone under the pillow or following her when she goes to work. I've been lying about where I'm going, just in case I can bump into her.

06 June 2006

filler post #87458956

I am around. Just been busy and distracted. Thanks for dropping by. Here are three heart-tugging songs from movies I saw not-so-recently but have been stuck with me. All three films are great too, especially Transamerica.

orange sky : alexi murdoch
click here or on the image below to listen

From the movie Paradise Now. Incidentally, Alexi Murdoch releases his full-length album, Time Without Consequence, today. It follows the success of his 2003 EP, Four Songs, where this song comes from.

kothbiro : ayub ogada
click here or on the image below to listen

From the movie The Constant Gardener

travelin' thru : dolly parton
click here or on the image below to listen

From the movie Transamerica

26 May 2006

three rockin' beats

I'm trying out an update of my Flash music player. You can now slide that thing under those jumping yellow bars to fast-forward or rewind the song, and control the volume. Don't mind those symbols on the left as they only work when there are multiple songs in the file.

have a good time : morning runner
click here or on the image below to listen

Although Morning Runner released their debut album Wilderness Is Paradise Now just a couple of months ago, Amazon UK says their early work inspired the creation of the album X&Y by Coldplay. Never forceful, Morning Runner switches comfortably between the urgent electric guitar of Be What You Want Me To Be and the piano balladry of Broken Benches and Hold Your Breath. What the band suffers from, however, is the comparison with other acts – Elbow, Keane, Coldplay, Athlete – which essentially questions their originality. I think Britons are split in the middle whether they actually like Morning Runner or not. Well, I do, and I don't mind the comparisons, which are accurate, although Morning Runner has a stronger blow and a sharper bite. Have A Good Time is easily my favorite track. I never expected it to take a drastic turn to lacerated guitars and vocals right after the frantic and funky drum into. I was hooked, goosebumps and all. These kids will have a great future if they can get past the pigeonholing and people take them for their versatility. Wilderness certainly covers greater emotional range than Hopes & Fears by Keane. Gone Up In Flames is a vigorous track that can find itselt at home in any bar today or any 80s dancefloor, with smart songwriting to boot: Going to the race track to try and get your money back/You got caught trying to break in, but you just laughed and said 'It couldn’t have been me.' The Great Escape, despite its unnecessary intro (they will probably edit it out if they release it as a single), gives you an expectation of standard-issue schmaltz until it fires up with umbrage at the chorus. In fact, the fast-slow switch seems to be the common denominator of the songs in the album, but it's not too premeditated to sound pretentious (like the word "umbrage," I know).

brilliant sky : saybia
click here or on the image below to listen

Saybia are a good reminder that diversifying your sources of rock music to countries outside of the English-speaking world can be rewarding. Coming from Denmark, the band has been around since 1993 as an independent act, going through the familiar struggle of striking a record deal. From their roots in a seaside village 130 kilometers from Copenhagen, the band toured the country until recording their own six-track EP in 2000. Their record-label aspirations were realized the following year, releasing their debut album The Second You Sleep in 2002, and Saybia have been breaking Danish charts since. The bio in the band's website has an interesting confession: "Success extracted a price and the five musicians were drained of energy. They forgot what it was like to be friends and none of them could spell the word communication, or for that matter, even remember what it meant." But instead of tearing apart, the band bought a house outside Copenhagen, renewed their bond, and wrote some songs together about the experience, resulting in lyrics that are either honest or affected. I get visions of the five of them forming a circle with their arms locked together, chanting oms, and then sitting down in the living room to write cringe-worthy words like, Do you remember the exact time we went dry on gasoline/Just the five of us against the rest of the world? (Guardian Angel) and Stayed together through stormy weather/Still divided but soul united (Soul United). Poor lyrics aside, Saybia's second album, These Are The Days, has the sound of seasoned musicians, from the timid yet self-assured vocals of Bend The Rules to the fetching bass line of Flags to the sweet-tempered acoustic guitar of The Haunted House On The Hill. The band managed to make every song in the album catchy and radio-friendly, although the promise of exuberant rock in the opener Brilliant Sky is not sustained. The rest is a mellow affair, as the band has apparently made These Are The Days a personal, emotional undertaking.

wimp soufflé : phantom buffalo
click here or on the image below to listen

Forgive me as I use the word "funnest" to describe this band. Even though the word gets 1.5 million Google results, I can never get myself to use it. But here I go: Phantom Buffalo is the funnest unknown band I've heard in a while. Apparently from Portland and formerly called The Ponys, they released Shishimumu, the album where Wimp Soufflé comes from, in 2002. They have managed to stay undetected since, in spite of sounding like many of the stateside indie bands of late. Although they're starting to break out – check out their busy gig schedule on their myspace page – it's still hard to find any information about the band, or even images of them in Flickr. I guess they're living up to the phantom image. But what the hey. Listening to Wimp Soufflé or Killing's Not OK (a single downloadable from their site – wait for the mad drumming in the middle) is great fun. The band is amateurish; it feels like they just learned to play their instruments from boarding school, decided to form a band after graduation, and somehow struck gold while goofing off. Songs like Domestic Pet Growing Seeds and Ask Your Grandmother are as clever as the titles are witty. Heck, the songs are funny, paying homage to bugs and ghosts. From Wilamena: Wilamena, you're a bug crawling on my knee/It's not a metaphor, I mean it quite literally. I'm happily sharing their record label's description of the album here, because it's quite accurate: "The sounds of the past and present meeting to create a unique and uplifting timelessness. Merging rock instrumentation, acoustic guitar, electric slide, moog, wurlitzer, and gorgeous vocals into a cluster of irresistible, catchy, and haunting songs. Flowing through droning psychedelia, velvety instrumentals, quirky indiepop, country twang, and distortion fueled rock." Sounds like a mouthful of balderdash, but have a listen and you'll agree.