Best tunes of 2010: #21 School Of Seven Bells “I L U”

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True story: In 2004, two bands embarked on a US-wide tour as opening acts for Interpol. Three years after the tour, a new band was formed from members of these two bands. Secret Machines would attempt to carry on without their lead guitarist, Benjamin Curtis, releasing one final album in 2008 but On!Air!Library! could not survive without twin vocalists, Claudia and Alejandra Dehaza.

School of Seven Bells was the name of said resulting band, a title they took from a legendary and perhaps fictional training school for pickpockets and thieves in a South America. They released two full-length albums, 2008’s “Alpinisms” and 2010’s “Disconnect from desire”, before Claudia quit the band, leaving behind a duo. There was another album released and they were working on a fourth when Benjamin Curtis was diagnosed with lymphoma and died suddenly in 2013. Alejandra finished his work and released the final album last year. But that’s a story for another day.

I got into School of Seven Bells because I was rather enamoured with Secret Machines’ first two albums and wanted to see what it was that could drag Benjamin Curtis away from such a good thing. As it turned out, I really liked his second band as well, though they were quite different. Where his first band was all about the big and epic prog-influenced, guitar rock, Curtis’s direction with School of Seven Bells takes his listeners on a dreamy, electronic voyage through mysticism of many different stripes.

“I L U” is, in my mind, the undisputed standout track on “Disconnect from desire”, the band’s second album. It a song of longing and regret and immobilizing sadness set to an incredible beat and irresistible waves of synths and guitars. The Dehaza sisters’ vocals are there, clear and strong, floating above the ether and threatening to delve deep into your soul. It hints at left of the dial eighties but there is something so very fresh about it at the same time.

And something otherworldly too. Indeed, “I L U” could be a dance floor filler at a dance club for ghosts. Lovely stuff.

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

Best tunes of 2000: #7 Teenage Fanclub “I need direction”

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Creeping ever closer to the number one song on my Best tunes of 2000 list, we have, at number seven, Teenage Fanclub”s “I need direction”.

Teenage Fanclub is a criminally overlooked, alternative rock band that formed in Scotland in 1989. They were for many years a guitar heavy quartet, made up of Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond McGinley, and a revolving door of drummers (finally settling on Francis MacDonald), but in recent years, have added a fifth member, Dave McGowan, on keys. Over the course of ten albums, their sound has evolved from its basis in loud, anarchic, and distorted guitars to the jangly beauty it is today, deeply rooted in their love for Big Star and the sweet sounds of harmonizing vocals. Songwriting duties are shared evenly between the band’s three principal guitarists and each take lead vocals on the songs they wrote, with all of the members adding their backing vocals to the mix.

I got into Teenage Fanclub originally in 1991 with that year’s excellent long player, “Bandwagonesque”, and have been following them closely ever since. In fact, “Howdy!”, the 2000 album on which “I need direction” appears, is their first album since “Bandwagonesque” that I didn’t purchase immediately on compact disc. Not because I stopped loving the group, mind you. It just so happened that around this time there was a little thing called Napster and the explosion and proliferation of file sharing. I admit to being pulled in. Mostly every crazed music fan salivated at the thought of limitless “free” music. Online file sharing and the MP3 changed everything for music, the music industry, and music fans (perhaps more on that another time). In 2000, however, my internet came courtesy of a dialup connection so though it was “free”, the downloads were slow. One had to be more choosy than we were in later years when high speeds became the norm. I had a copy of the single, “I need direction”, and grew to love it long before I ever purchased and listened to the rest of “Howdy!”.

And maybe it’s for this reason that I still see this song as the standout track on the album. The Gerard Love penned and helmed number is boppy with jangly guitars and sweet, almost to the point of cheese, “ba ba ba ba” harmonies that flit in and about the chorus. If you’re not with me so far, have a taste of that zippy organ Doors-esque bridge around the 2:43 mark that leads to some lovely dark guitar lickage. Sold, no?

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2010: #22 The National “Conversation 16”

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Have you ever been sitting alone in a crowded cafe or pub and purposefully listened to people talk, catching snippets of conversations from the tables all around you? Of course, you have. We all have. In fact, one of my writing professors in university assigned this very task to us in my second year prose workshop as homework. We were to fill a page with real dialogue and bring it to class to discuss, not as a means to reveal the darkest secrets of strangers, but to get a feeling for how people really talk. As we all discovered (perhaps unsurprisingly), we don’t talk how we write. Phrases are rarely in complete sentences, plenty of “ums” and “ers”, and certain words used way too frequently, like “like” and a particular four letter word that starts with “f”. Many of these pages of dialogue that we read out in class were hilarious and disjointed, especially since they were, in many cases, culled from multiple conversations occurring simultaneously.

Now, it could be the song’s title, but it’s this very exercise I think of whenever I listen to The National’s “Conversation 16” with its scratching, reverberating guitars and ominous drumming. I’ve heard that Matt Berninger has said that he just lets the lyrics come to him as he listens to the instrumentation that the Dessner brothers create. In this way, the words are more for the imagery and the sounds, rather than any deep meaning. However, his conversational tone and the banal yet very disjointed phrasing on this track has me hearing it as snippets of conversations from all around me, cutting through the ethereal and dream-like haze of the music.

And speaking of disjointed, have you ever watched the video for this tune? It features Kristen Schaal (“The flight of the conchords”) as the US president and John Slattery (“Mad men”) as a secret service man that fantasizes about more than just guarding her body. She seems to be quite bored with her post as the most powerful person in the world until she receives a flirtatious invite to Russia by that country’s president. The video is a bit bizarre on the whole and not a little bit funny but it nicely puts a light spin on a song that features the lyrics “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, ’cause I’m evil”.

All of this adds up to the brilliance that has won The National a sizeable following. And if you’re not one of them yet, give this tune a spin and you might find yourself on the path to joining the club.

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