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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Some Albums Are Bigger Than Others: A Look at "The Queen Is Dead" Thirty Years Later



Rating: 9.8/10

Thirty years ago today, legendary Manchester band The Smiths released The Queen Is Dead, their greatest album and one of the most revered records in music history. The Smiths were already making waves in the British alternative scene of the 1980's with their strong first two LP's - The Smiths and Meat is Murder - and non-album singles like "How Soon Is Now?" and "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want." But on The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths hit another gear: Johnny Marr's riffs were more addictive than they'd ever been, Andy Rourke's bass lines became even more indispensable, and Morrissey delivered the best vocal performances of his career. Never before or since did the group put together a more complete album, and today it stands as one of greatest albums of the decade if not of all time.

The Queen Is Dead begins with its title track, one of the most ferocious pieces of music The Smiths ever recored. A sample from the 1962 movie The L-Shaped Room is cut off by a wail of feedback and a thunderous drum pattern before the band launches into a six-minute psychedelic escapade. Like the best songs by The Smiths, "The Queen Is Dead" features lyrics that veer from bitingly sarcastic to emotionally direct and devastating. Here, he starts with the former, alluding to the title of the album and further demonstrating his disdain for the British Monarchy: "Her very Lowness with her head in a sling / I'm truly sorry but that sounds like a wonderful thing." Here, we get our first glimpse of the macabre theme that permeates so much of The Smiths' music, but The Queen Is Dead in particular. Later, he offers a bit less dark humor and a bit more vulnerability, repeating "Life is very long when you're lonely."


Morrissey's lyrics have always been characterized by a sense of morbidity, and of all of The Smiths' albums, The Queen is Dead best showcases that side of him. On "Cemetry Gates" [sic], he recognizes his own mortality in relation to those already moved on: "All those people, all those lives / Where are they now? / With loves and hates / And passions just like mine / They were born / And then they lived / And then they died," he cries. The chorus to "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" has become one of the most iconic moments in the catalog of one of music's most iconic artists as Morrissey approaches impending doom with a sense of Poe-like romance: "And if a double decker bus crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die." On "Bigmouth Strikes Again," Morrissey further explores the realm of black comedy when he insists, "Sweetness, I was only joking when I said / By rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed."

The Queen Is Dead also features the strongest one-two punch of gloom The Smiths ever recorded, in the form of consecutive tracks "I Know It's Over" and "Never Had No One Ever." The former is one of the most relatable and moving break-up songs ever written. Though Morrissey recognizes via the title that his relationship is no more, he's still unable to detach himself from the other person emotionally: "And I know it's over / I still cling / I don't know where else to go." "Never Had No One Ever" (double negative be damned) explores an even sadder character, as Morrissey fills the shoes not of someone who can't get over an ex, but somebody who's never even had an ex.



Of course, The Smiths are just as good at being light as they are at being heavy. The bouncy "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" remains perhaps the funniest moment of the group's discography, with lines like "Frankly, Mr. Shankly, since you asked / You are a flatulent pain in the arse." (In true Morrissey fashion, the singer then proceeds to almost immediately request, "give us your money!") "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" is laughable, though not in the way Morrissey probably intended; while he probably wanted us to snicker at his lyric on its own merit, the humor comes from the contrast between the song's mesmerizing instrumentals and ridiculous, mediocre lyrics. Even "Vicar In a Tutu," the album's only real step down in quality, offers up chuckle-inducing imagery. Earlier this week, Simon Price wrote a piece for The Quietus in which he suggested that these moments of levity detract from The Queen Is Dead's emotional impact and overall quality. As a counterpoint, I would argue that they offer much-needed breaks from the melancholy, and make the album feel more genuine and more human.

What makes The Queen Is Dead stand apart from other Smiths records and in truth from pretty much all but a handful of other albums in general are the absolutely blissful, brilliantly-worked instrumentals. Rarely will you find a track so effortlessly buoyant as "The Boy With the Thorn In His Side," or guitar-bass interplay as captivating as that on "Bigmouth Strikes Again." The false fade at the beginning of "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" is a unique stroke of genius that will never be replicated to the same effect, and the guitar work that follow is one of Marr's greatest achievements.
"There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" wouldn't feel nearly as magical without those soaring strings.


Three decades later, much of the music from the 1980's sounds incredibly dated, but The Queen Is Dead remains forever timeless. Its themes are universal no matter what generation you belong to, and no period of time will can take away the majesty of Morrissey's melodies and Marr's brilliance. At the same time, however, The Queen Is Dead signifies the decade from which it came. It's the magnum opus a band synonymous with the early days of indie rock, and Morrissey could never really exist successfully in any time or place other than 1980's Britain - just look at his solo work for proof. It's an album that will never go away, and also an album that will never let you forget where it came from. It's one of the most important, beloved, and iconic pieces of alternative music history. But most of all, it's a collection of songs that will blow you away time and time again.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Hierarchy of Identity: On Orlando, America, and the Way We Treat Other People

I would like to start this piece by offering condolences to the victims of this attack as well as their families and loved ones. In the political furor that inevitably surrounds these tragedies, far too often the victims are overlooked, and I would not want to be guilty of the same. You can donate to support them and their families here.

As everyone is well aware of by now, forty-nine innocent people lost their lives last Sunday night and dozens more suffered injuries when a shooter (whose name I will deliberately refrain from using throughout this piece) attacked an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Orlando. This horrific event joined a long, ever-increasing list of mass acts of violence and murder in the United States, a list that has grown at a faster and faster rate over the past few years. The usual reaction patterns from media, public figures, and the general populace began once again, to the point of predictability. There have been so many mass shootings recently that even pointing out the clichés in people's reactions to them has itself become a cliché.

The biggest question people ask in the wake of these types of events is infallibly, "why?" What you'll likely find is a glut of nuance-free, cookie-cutter answers that seem to tie everything in a nice little bow. This is somewhat understandable: violence like this is so terrifying and illogical that it's easier and more comforting to blame the issue on guns, mental health, or religious fundamentalism and call it a day. But if we fail to both thoroughly examine the roots of these events and then do everything in our power to fix the problems, it is a disservice to the victims of past mass killings and as well as the victims of future ones that we will have done nothing to prevent.

In the response to Orlando, the two main motivations suggested by the media and public have been homophobia and jihadist terrorism. Something of a debate between those who align with one view or the other has erupted to the point where the discussion online and in the political realm - as it often does on both fronts - has shifted towards each camp attempting to prove themselves right and away from trying to actually stop this from happening ever again. In addition to prioritizing personal egos over the actual victims of this massacre, this debate sets up a false binary that leaves no room for middle ground (which is where the FBI officially falls) and effectively shuts down any discussion that goes more in-depth beyond how to label this attack. In other words, it does nothing to fix the problem, only to identify it.

What's been largely ignored in the post-Orlando discourse, as it has in so many other cases, is the base of the entire issue. Whether you think the shooter was motivated by religious beliefs or homophobia, the two both emerge from the same idea: that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to exist as a human being in terms of identity, and that you can be "better" than someone else, especially because of your identity. This shooter, for whatever reason, held a grudge against the people inside that nightclub, to the point where he felt justified in shooting over one hundred of them. Clearly, he specifically targeted a place where a large number of LGBTQ+ people would be - meaning he had determined they were in some way more deserving of death. He was full of hatred for LGBTQ+ people, and we as a society are at least somewhat complicit in allowing that hatred to flourish.

We know the shooter had visited the club about a dozen times before and was on gay dating apps, and so it is safe to assume he probably felt some sort of internal conflict about his own sexuality. What I wish to deconstruct here is the very idea that this would be a conflict at all - that is, that there would be any reason for him to feel negative about himself due to his sexual identity. Without homophobia and heteronormativity, when we finally step up and recognize all sexual orientations as equal, there will be no reason for people - including this shooter - to fear their own sexuality. But because we continue to reinforce the idea that being heterosexual is the "right" and "normal" way to be, we also continue insist that anything else is somehow deviant and negative, and place those feelings upon those who identify as non-heterosexual.

This line of thinking pervades our culture in far too many ways, whether it comes to gender or race or religion. In America we explicitly and inherently praise certain demographics while disparaging others for completely arbitrary reasons. It's this hierarchy of identity that lends itself to perversion into acts of violence and discrimination. It's the same disgusting sense of superiority that made Dylann Roof feel justified in killing nine black church-goers; it's the same concept that fueled Elliot Rodger's murderous misogyny; it's the same hatred that told Wade Michael Page he could kill six Sikh people at a temple in Wisconsin. (I feel regret about having to mention their names, but feel it is important to do so as to signify the examples I'm using to demonstrate my point.) We can pin these attacks and others like them on mental health issues, but mental health alone doesn't result in random acts of mass killing; it may heavily distort reality, but there has to be some sort of impetus in the first place, and that impetus is our country's pecking order of identity categories.

We, as a nation, need to change the rhetoric we used when we talk about people. Because that's just what they are: people. As of now, we continue to objectify individuals based on what they are, when we must begin to focus on who they are; otherwise, we rob them of their personhood and reduce the entire population into numbers and categories fixed on a totem pole of supremacy and oppression.

Of course, I am not suggesting this would put an end to all mass shootings, as not all attacks are rooted in these motivations and even those that are can never fully be escaped. But if we work hard at permanently adopting a new philosophy on how we think of people and how we treat and emphasis the various facets of identity, it may help reduce these types of attacks, and will undoubtedly make this nation a better place for everyone in the process.

We cannot allow this attack to slowly fade from memory, as we have allowed so many others to do. We cannot sit back and take no action and then act shocked when it all happens again. We may have a Congress that is unwilling to act, but social discourse is completely within our control. It's up to us to try and do something with it.

RIP

Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Antonio D. Brown, 29
Darryl R. Burt II, 29
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Simon A. Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Luis D. Conde, 39
Cory J. Connell, 21
Tevin E. Crosby, 25
Franky J. Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Deonka D. Drayton, 32
Mercedez M. Flores, 26
Juan R. Guerrero, 22
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Paul T. Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel A. Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason B. Josaphat, 19
Eddie J. Justice, 30
Anthony L. Laureano Disla, 25
Christopher A. Leinonen, 32
Brenda L. Marquez McCool, 49
Jean C. Mendez Perez, 35
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Kimberly Morris, 37
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Luis O. Ocasio-Capo, 20
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25
Eric I. Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
Christopher J. Sanfeliz, 24
Xavier E. Serrano Rosado, 35
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Shane E. Tomlinson, 33
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Luis D. Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald A. Wright, 31

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Top 10 Brand New Songs


This week, Long Island rockers Brand New released "Mene," their first new song since before the turn of the decade, and a song that could very well one day end up on this list. Brand New have had one of the more interesting career trajectories in modern rock, starting as a drop in the ocean of pop-punk bands in the early '00's before blossoming into proficient post-hardcore leaders with 2006's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me and, later, Daisy. The band has always claimed a large group of rabid followers, and recently have been shown a good deal of retrospective critical acclaim across the indie blogosphere. As someone who is a pretty big fan of the band (especially their later work), I'm very excited at the increasingly likely prospect of a new record, and figure now would be a good time to look back at the group's catalogue and attempt to pick out their ten best singles. While this list is dominated by tracks from the band's two latter albums, all of Brand New's music is worth checking out.

10. "Daisy" - Daisy (2009)



Kicking off our countdown is the self-titled track from the band's last full-length LP. Opening with an unsettling male voice leading some sort of choir shortly followed by an eerie soundbite of a small child speaking, "Daisy" is an atmospheric track about failure and inadequacy. Singer Jesse Lacey opens up the first verse by proclaiming, "I'm a mountain that has been moved/I'm a river that is all dried up," going on to compare himself to several other objects that have failed to serve their purpose. The child's dialogue splits the two verses, the second of which takes on a decidedly darker feel thanks to a low bass grumble and death-march drum pattern. "Daisy," like its eponymous album as a whole, is a slow-burner, but that doesn't make the flame any dimmer.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Album of the Week: Kendrick Lamar - "To Pimp a Butterfly"


Rating: 9.6/10

Thanks to a convenient Interscope snafu, Kendrick Lamar's hugely anticipated To Pimp a Butterfly has been released a week early. The hype surrounding this album has been massive, as Kendrick's 2012 debut good kid, m.A.A.d city was adored by everyone from casual hip-hop fans to hardcore indie purists, and all of those who fall somewhere in the middle. To Pimp a Butterfly is a colossal album, both literally and figuratively; it tackles issues of racial inequity bluntly and unapologetically over the course of the sixteen-track, seventy-nine-minute run time. If good kid showed that being a black youth in modern times is incredibly challenging, To Pimp a Butterfly proves that being a black adult, especially an ultra-famous one, isn't easy either.

Kendrick isn't holding back any of his thoughts, no matter how potentially revealing and/or controversial, on TPAB. He tackles everything from divisions within the black community ("Complexion") to classism ("Institutionalized") to his own insecurities about being a public figure ("Mortal Man") with energy and dexterity. The best moments on the record lyrically come on "u" and "The Blacker the Berry." On "u," which serves as a contrast to self-loving lead single "i," Kendrick runs through all of his self-doubts without a shred of guardedness or embarrassment, delivered through tears and the clinking of liquor bottles. "The Blacker the Berry" sees the L.A.-based rapper proudly proclaim himself as "the biggest hypocrite of 2015" for, among other things, "weep[ing] when Trayvon Martin was in the street" but not for the gang-related slayings that occur far too frequently.

In order to provide a background for him to elucidate the immense difficulties facing the black individual in today's society, Lamar fittingly looks to a period of music that provided black Americans one of tragically few opportunities to thrive in pre-civil rights America: jazz. Tracks like "For Free?" and "Institutionalized" use instrumentation that sounds ripped from a Miles Davis record, as opposed to your run-of-the-mill hip-hop digital sampling software. In order to pull off this unique approach, Kendrick employed a bevy of live musicals to perform on the album, achieving an organic and live feel not often found in hip-hop. Thundercat is the album's unsung hero, whose basslines dominate a number of tracks, opener "Wesley's Theory" not the least among them. A handful of guests step up to the microphone as well, most notably Snoop Dogg's verse on "Institutionalized" and Rapsody's spot on "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," and the influences of famed produced Flying Lotus is clear throughout the record.

After the September release of "i" as a single, I was frankly underwhelmed, and my expectations for Lamar's new project were tempered. But To Pimp a Butterfly delivers outstanding quality in just about every regard, from its lyrics to its music. Save one or two weak points ("Alright" is just barely that), Kendrick lived up to the unbelievable hype for this sophomore effort. In a year heavy with high-profile rap releases, including Drake's already-released If You're Reading This... and the (apparently) soon-to-come new Kanye West album, To Pimp a Butterfly will certainly be in the conversation for 2015's best albums.

Key tracks: "King Kunta," "u," "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," "The Blacker the Berry"

Friday, March 13, 2015

Album of the Week: Radiohead - "The Bends"


Rating: 9.6/10

In case it wasn't already clear,  Radiohead are my favorite band. From the overly-maligned Pablo Honey to the band's most recent output The King of Limbs, I love it all. Today marks twenty years since the 1995 release of The Bends, Radiohead's first truly Radiohead-y album, the record that began to display their brilliance and which proved that the band's legacy wouldn't be limited to "Creep." The Bends does this by abandoning the grunge approach of their debut for a more agitated and unusual brand of guitar rock. While I still consider OK Computer to be my favorite Radiohead album, I find myself listening to The Bends more often than any other selection from the group's discography. The more straightforward nature of the songs, which still maintain a pop quality to them despite their weirdness, combined with a generally happier tone ("Street Spirit" notwithstanding) make it the perfect combination of Radiohead's eccentricities and listen-ability



The two best examples of Radiohead's pop side on The Bends are, fittingly, the album's two biggest hits - "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees." Both lean on acoustic guitar riffs before exploding into something greater, and both show off Thom Yorke's impressive singing ability. "High and Dry," later revealed to be unliked by Radiohead themselves, centers around a simple two-phrase chorus that works its way into your brain immediately, and boasts a guitar solo that pops out of your speakers every time. "Fake Plastic Trees" focuses on Yorke's vocals and acoustic guitar and a lonely Hammond organ (played by guitarist Jonny Greenwood) for the first half of the track. Once Yorke snarls "it wears him," the song erupts for a few brief yet soaring moments, before dying back down, leaving Yorke to wish he "could be who you wanted."

But where The Bends thrives where Pablo Honey came up short is that this record is incredibly diverse, and not directly derivative of any one genre or band. It's hard to believe album opener "Planet Telex" and closer "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" were written by the same artist, let alone included on the same album. The former is a distorted mess of guitars and drums, in the best way possible. "Street Spirit" is a beautifully morose labyrinth of "cracked eggs, dead birds" and death's "beady eyes," telling a tale of absolute despair only Thom Yorke knows how to deliver. In between the album's bookends, "My Iron Lung" features two separate beserk guitar freak=outs, "Sulk" is a subtly harrowing song about the Hungerford massacre, and "Just" showcases Radiohead at their most strum-happy.



While not as paranoid as OK Computer or Hail to the Thief, jarring as Kid A or Amnesiac, or jaw-droppingly gorgeous as In Rainbows, The Bends remains probably the greatest guitar-rock record of the period between Kurt Cobain's death (and grunge's along with it) and OK Computer's tech-rock revolution. Each and every song is vintage Radiohead, and the album as a whole serves as the perfect bridge between the quintet's grunge phase and their highly-celebrated era of oddity. It may not be the most complex output of Radiohead's career, but it just may be the easiest to just pick up and listen to.

Key tracks: "The Bends," "Fake Plastic Trees," "Just," "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Album of the Week: Krill - "A Distant Fist Unclenching"


Rating: 8.7/10

2015 has already been front-loaded with early album of the year contenders: Father John Misty, Viet Cong, and Sleater-Kinney have all put out outstanding records in the year's first few weeks. Yet another album has been thrust into the conversation this week with the release of Krill's A Distant Fist Unclenching, the Boston-based group's third full-length output and by far the most well-worked of the bunch. The band has been compared in the past to the likes of Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and Pavement, but in truth Krill are too unique to be pinned down to a like-for-like comparison. The trio's penchants for big guitars, quiet-loud dynamics, and candid lyrics aren't anything revolutionary, but there may not be anybody else in the underground scene making better music right now than Krill.

A Distant Fist Unclenching marks a clear turning point in Krill's discography, as the bite-sized songs of albums past have been replaced by sprawling, restless anthems - all but two of the record's nine tracks approach or surpass five minutes in length. The seven-minute "Tiger" serves as the album's centerpiece, building off of a chirpy guitar riff into the explosion of sound that closes out the track, demonstrating the band's ability to stretch out a song without droning on.

Singer/bassist Jonah Furman's lyrics have matured greatly as well with A Distant Fist Unclenching. The album as a whole serves as a strikingly identifiable depiction of anxiety and other mental health issues, making hard to believe this is the same band that wrote the cheekily hilarious "Turd" just a year ago. Furman's improvements are most noticeable on "Brain Problem," which arrives with what are bound to be some of the year's greatest lyrics. "God grant me the strength/To know what is a brain problem/And what is just me," Furman begs over an . He details his struggles in the song's verses, howling, "The problem comes and goes with the weather/And I know/Just 'cause it's not getting better now/Doesn't mean it won't ever." Furman's ability to explain something as complex as what appears to be depression in such a potent and comprehensible way is unbelievable, and shows his songwriting ability is not one to be underestimated.

Krill seem poised to use A Distant Fist Unclenching as a launching pad into a long, successful career of making remarkable guitar-rock records. The group stated in a recent Vice interview that touring is both "boring" and "terrible," but that doesn't stop them from making big plans for 2015 already: they've booked European tour dates as well as shows across the American east coast and midwest, all culminating in a slot at May's Boston Calling festival. For Krill, the music is worth the stresses of touring and finances, but if they continue writing songs like those found on this record, I suspect those will both become much smaller issues in the future.

Key tracks: "Phantom," "Torturer," "Tiger," "Brain Problem"

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Top 10 Indie Love Songs


It's Valentine's Day and, depending on your relationship status, either your favorite or least favorite day of the year. Today we'll be looking at ten of my favorite love-struck songs from the realm of indie music. In the past, we've counted down the top ten songs with the word "love" in the title, but for originality's sake, no repeats from that list will show up here. Instead, today's post takes a less literal approach and focuses on songs about infatuation with a significant other. This means no break-up songs; that's a list for another day. The rankings were determined by a combination of each track's lyrical content and message, and the actual quality of the music. Lastly, as always, these lists are based on my personal tastes, and are in no way supposed to be taken as gospel.

10. Tegan and Sara - "Closer"



For our first entry, we jump to the poppier end of the indie spectrum, with Tegan and Sara's monster 2012 single "Closer." The twin-sister duo released the song ahead of their 2013 album Heartthrob, announcing their departure from their cutesy indie-folk style with billowing synthesizers and a colossal hook. "Closer" describes the complete relationship - one that's "not just all physical," where the speaker recognizes how special her partner is. The chorus will grab you right away and won't let go for a long time afterwards, just like the characters in this excellent depiction of young, uncomplicated love.