Best tunes of 1991: #29 Pixies “Alec Eiffel”

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In the last post in this series, I described how I discovered a ton of music while video taping videos off MuchMusic’s “City Limits”. Pixies’ “Alec Eiffel” is another such song, though it had help. My friend Tim told me about the band as well, which is why when I heard the video was coming up, I was able to beat Elliott to the VCR to plug in my tape and press the Record button. I loved the video and how the band playing in a wind tunnel added to the rage of the song. I didn’t know this then, but them simply opening their mouths and letting the wind do the work was part of their refusal to bow down to MTV and lip sync during the filming of their videos.

Yes, I came to the Pixies late, almost too late. This track was the third single off “Trompe Le Monde”, the Boston-based quartet’s final record before dissolving in 1993. My friend Tim would later include the song a mixed tape for me and later, made me a copy of their now classic album “Doolittle”. My love for them grew, the more material by them that I heard. Meanwhile, lead vocalist Frank Black started off a mildly successful solo career, bassist Kim Deal focused on her side project, The Breeders, lead guitarist Joey Santiago did some film and television score work, and drummer Dave Lovering became a magician. The band would later reform in 2004 with the whole lineup and I finally got to see them perform live a couple of times. They’re still a going concern today but Kim Deal has since left the band again to focus on the reunion of The Breeders.

“Alec Eiffel”, of course, refers to the French engineer who designed the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Brief, like much of the Pixies’ work, the song is a mere two and a half minutes but it packs a wallop. Fierce right from the start with a burst of guitars and Lovering so frantic on drums. There’s a hint of the surf rock left over from “Bossanova” but only just a hint, and the synths almost give the normal Pixies clatter a bit of structure.

Really, “Alex Eiffel” is a straight ahead pop song. Well, as pop as Frank Black can write anyway.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best albums of 2007: #4 The National “Boxer”

I’m starting to feel like a broken record now. I’m certainly noticing a trend and thinking that 2007 must’ve been quite the year of musical discovery for me. Because just like “The Besnard Lakes are the dark horse” at #10, Okkervil River’s “The stage names” at #9, and Blonde Redhead’s “23” at #5, “The boxer” at #4 was my introduction to The National, a band finding its feet and releasing a touchstone of an album.

I remember listening to it all the time in 2007. I liked it so much that I went through the trouble to run a cord from my laptop to my old stereo in order to make a copy of the MP3 version of the album on my computer to cassette tape. Yes, I know. The idea seems technologically backwards but my old cavalier didn’t have a CD player or an auxiliary input so the cassette player was the only alternative to commercial radio. It’s an album I listened to all the time in the car in this way and got to know every song intimately. Much later on, it was among the first albums I searched out for my vinyl shelves when I started collecting records again, another step backwards technologically but this step in a cooler set of sneakers.

“The boxer” is the fourth album by the Cincinnati-based five piece and their second on Beggars banquet. Like its predecessor “Alligator” and all the albums that followed, it received near unanimous critical acclaim and appeared on countless year end lists. Their sound appealed to me upon first listen, angular rock that was warm and atmospheric but held a constant threat of danger and darkness. All of their tunes are remarkable for the whiskey smooth baritone of frontman Matt Berninger and for his intelligent use of imagery and a stream of consciousness style of lyrics.

So many great tracks on “Boxer”, it was hard to pick just three tunes for you but here is what I got.

“Ada”: Let me start off by saying that I haven’t done any reading up on and really don’t know for sure what the literal meanings are behind any of these songs but the lyrics are written so that there is so much open for interpretation and it’s fun to conjecture. In the case of “Ada”, I imagine her to be a woman struggling with a psychological disorder, the smattering of keys, seemingly plucked at random reflecting her thought process. Berninger sings to her soothingly, wishing to calm her, willing her to come through on the right side of sanity. “Ada, Ada, Ada, Ada, Ada, I can hear the sound of your laugh through the wall. Ada, Ada, Ada, Ada, Ada, I’ve been hoping you know your way ’round.” The strings right at the end are so uplifting, you think that she just might.

“Fake empire”: “Fake empire” is the opening number and starts off calmly enough with a rumbling on the piano but builds and builds to an ecstatic crescendo complete with massive horns. Berninger is talking smack about how we’re all sleep walking through life, making apple pies and drinking spiked lemonade while there is grime and pain creeping in just around the edges of our idyllic photo. But he does none of this angrily or sermon on the mount like, it is all conversational and matter of fact, like he knows we’re all in on it. So optimistic of him.

“Mistaken for strangers”: “Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over, surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.” Pure awesome. Like the song itself, a paean to the anonymity of life in the big mean world. The idea of being “mistaken for strangers by your own friends” reminds me of the incredible urge I get sometimes to turn away or duck into a doorway when I see someone I know in the street. The drumming is aggressive in your face and the heavy bass is not far behind. This is an example of where The National gets its post-punk tag, on songs like this where the instrumentation is as claustrophobic as Berninger lyrics suggest we all feel. This is probably one of my favourite of all their tunes. So, so, so good.

For the rest of the albums in this list, check out my Best Albums page here.

Best tunes of 2010: #6 The New Pornographers “Crash years”

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Here we are at number six on this Best tunes of 2010 list and we have the second appearance by The New Pornographers, who we saw months ago at the number twenty-eight spot with “Sweet talk, sweet talk”. Both that song and this one, “Crash years”, appeared on the New Pornos fifth studio album, “Together”, which was dedicated to Kathryn Calder’s mother, who had recently died and was, incidentally, Carl Newman’s sister. It’s an interesting story involving adoption and discovering family they didn’t know they had and if you’re curious, it’s easy enough to google. But back to the song.

“Crash years” was the second single released off the album and it’s a real humdinger. The words were written by Newman as are the majority of the songs on their albums but he leaves the lead vocals here to the unflappable Neko Case. The peppy rhythm section is kept honest by just there guitars and breezy staccato keys. And there’s the awesome use of whistling after every chorus that doesn’t sound at all out of place. This is all gorgeous, of course, but what really makes this song for me is the driving and thumping cello, smooth like a well oiled villain’s moustache, and if you’ve turned the volume on your stereo up just so, you can feel it deep within your soul.

“Crash years” could be a nod to the financial woes and economic slowdown at the time, a topic that could hardly be ignored. It’s hinting at the evils of stock markets and clocks and banks… oh my. But Newman doesn’t really point fingers. He just shrugs. The upbeat feel of the song suggests we’re all in the same sinking boat, all ruined, so why get down. Just hum along with the cello and everything will be alright.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.