Best tunes of 2011: #7 The Decemberists “This is why we fight”

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Let me get this out of the way right now. The Decemberists are one of my absolute favourite bands to come out of this young century.

I got into the Portland-based indie folk five-piece right around the time that they were prepping to release their third album, the very excellent “Picaresque”, in 2005. Incidentally, that album would ultimately become their final release as a true indie band, given that they signed to Columbia near the end of that same year. Any fears that they would sell out, though, were immediately dispelled when their debut album on the major label was released. Indeed, I’m sure their fans breathed a sigh of relief (as I did) while listening to the three part title track inspired by a Japanese folk tale and the twelve minute prog-folk-rocker that riffed on the themes from a Shakespeare play. They then followed that up with an album that was originally meant to be staged as a musical but was ultimately found impossible to mount.

Two years later, in the first few days of 2011, we saw Colin Meloy and the group release what is possibly their most accessible album to date and two weeks later it incredibly found its way at the top of the U.S. album charts. “The king is dead” is different from the albums that came before it in that it feels more singular in sound, taking for its focus a healthy steeping in Americana and the American folk traditions. Meloy has said that he had the band R.E.M. at the front of mind while writing the material. In fact, Peter Buck makes several appearances on the album, along with singer/songwriter Gillian Welch.

Neither of these appear on our track for today, the album’s penultimate track, “This is why we fight”, but that doesn’t mean their presence isn’t felt. It rocks a little harder than most of the other songs on the album, a driving drum beat pushing the thing forward, holding at arms length the opposing guitars, on the one side dark and foreboding and the other hopeful and jangly, and what sounds like harmonicas, though oddly distorted, pushing its sad, sad agenda. And of course, I can’t speak about The Decemberists without mentioning the lyrics, though here Meloy’s words are less esoteric and doesn’t necessarily have you reaching for the dictionary as often. Instead, he lists the many reasons why it may be necessary to take up arms, leaving lots of room to interpret how literal to take things.

“This is why
Why we fight
Why we lie awake
This is why
This is why we fight
And when we die
We will die
With our arms unbound”

Even in the video, the teens living out a “Lord of the flies” existence in a post-apocalyptic world, we see the build up and the “why” of the fight but it all goes to black before the two sides come blows, leaving the terms of the conflict up to the imagination. Pure awesome.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.

Top five tunes: Blur

Who? Blur

Years active: 1989-2003 and 2008-present

Band members:
Damon Albarn (vocals, keyboards)
Graham Coxon (guitars, vocals)
Alex James (bass)
Dave Rowntree (drums)

Discography:
Leisure (1991)
Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)
Parklife (1994)
The Great Escape (1995)
Blur (1997)
13 (1999)
Think Tank (2003)
The Magic Whip (2015)

Context:
Today marks 25 years to the date exactly that I got to see one of my favourite bands (back then and to this day) live. Yes, on September 28th, 1994, I saw Blur perform at a relatively small club called The Phoenix in Toronto (with Pulp supporting them) for their Parklife tour. The following summer they headlined a show at the newly completed Molson Amphitheatre (in the same city), a stacked lineup that included Elastica and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (also Our Lady Mother Earth, or whatever their name is). I remember wondering in the days leading up to that second show how Blur would follow such a high energy act like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, but they truly did blow all the other bands away. Indeed, those who have never seen Blur live or haven’t seen them in so long (like myself) that they may have forgotten how good they are in the flesh would do well to watch the documentary, “No distance left to run”, especially the bonus footage.

Blur had its beginnings in a band called Circus in the late eighties. There was a little bit of roster shuffling in their early days but they quickly settled into their final lineup of Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree, and once they did, they re-branded themselves as Seymour. The name Blur came about a year later, in 1989, because the label (Food) that was signing them really hated Seymour as a band name.

Blur’s debut album, “Leisure” came out in 1991 and was a mish-mash of the shoegaze and madchester sounds, as if they couldn’t quite decide on what kind of band they wanted to be. Frontman Damon Albarn has since gone on record as hating the album, calling it a mess, but it did generate a number of hit singles and some really quality tracks. Their sophomore release, 1993’s “Modern life is rubbish”, was borne out of their frustrations with touring North America and their inability to crack that market. It was an album that both chided and celebrated British culture and became part of the blueprint of the musical movement known as Britpop. Consequently, their third and fourth albums, released in 1994 and 1995 respectively, enjoyed immense success in England by riding the tidal wave of this movement that they helped create.

In 1997, they released their self-titled record and it was a dramatic shift in aesthetic. They embraced an American lo-fi indie rock sound, something they had previously derided, but more than that, they were starting to experiment more, speaking the rock lingo rather than that of pop, an ethos that would continue on through albums six and seven. When Blur toured in support of that fifth album, a single from it called “Song 2” had garnered them a whole new legion of fans so they were playing much bigger venues. (I believe it was Smash Mouth that supported them on the North American leg of that tour.) I passed on that particular show due to the lack of funding that is usual with starving students but was primed when their next tour was announced in support of “13”.

Unfortunately for me, but keeping in line with their new musical aesthetic, the band decided to scale things back and play smaller venues on this tour so they switched off Varsity stadium for the very tiny Palais Royal. On the morning the tickets went on sale, I was on the phone to Ticketmaster playing the dialling game (they didn’t have online ticket sales quite yet) but by the time I got through, five minutes after ten, it was all sold out. In fact, the agent told me that tickets were sold out within moments of going on sale due to all those pesky pre-sales. I later heard mixed reviews of the show. Mixed because the band chose to play their new album in full and those who loved “13”, loved the show but those hoping to hear “Song 2” were greatly disappointed. I definitely would have fallen into the former category, had I managed a ticket.

When they split up in 2003, no one was all that surprised. Guitarist Graham Coxon had already left the band during the recording of “Think tank” and Damon Albarn was appearing increasingly more interested in his extracurricular projects apart from Blur. Indeed, it was a far greater surprise when the band reunited five years later, even welcoming Coxon back into the fold. They have never officially split since then, performing live infrequently, including high profile gigs at the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics and a headline spot at Coachella in 2013.

Things were just starting to quiet down again with the band when out of nowhere they announced the release of their eighth album, their first in twelve years. “The magic whip” was released on April 28th, 2015, and blew us all away, providing us with a collection of songs that teased a band with plenty more to share, rather than one just riding the coattails of past successes. Nowadays, though Albarn is still a very busy boy with his multiple bands (Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad, & The Queen) and of course, his solo career, he no longer wishes to entirely close the book on Blur. And the rest of group, Coxon with his own solo career, Rowntree as Labour party councillor, and James as famed cheese maker, all seem content in their own lives and happy to revisit the band whenever the mood takes them. I for one would love to see Blur live one more time. My hopes were raised on this score when they first reunited back in 2013 but I think the closest they’ve gotten to my neighbourhood since has been that Coachella festival a bunch of years ago.

All that verbiage to say Blur is a super important band to me, which made the task of narrowing their top tunes down to just five damned near impossible. Here are the results of my efforts.

The top five:

#5: There’s no other way (from “Leisure”, 1991)

Blur’s second ever released single is also, to my mind anyway, still one of their best but then, I was always such a fan of the “baggy” sound. This style’s prevalence in 1991 was probably what boosted the song so deeply into the UK singles charts, peaking at the number eight spot. It has that wicked breaking beat and tambourine shuffle that gets the toes off tapping and an organ backbone that sounds like it was ripped out of The Charlatans’ playbook. Derivative? Perhaps. But executed to near perfection so that though they didn’t hail from Manchester, they could’ve easily been mistaken as such. And then there’s that awesome family dining room music video that just has to be watched to be believed.


#4: Under the westway (from “Under the westway EP”, 2012)

Do you remember where you were when you first heard this song? I do. I was sitting in my kitchen on July 2, 2012, streaming the live performance on my laptop. It was so sad and emotional and utterly brilliant, that I immediately wanted to watch it again. It’s another great ballad by the band, smacking heavily of David Bowie and The Beatles, a plodding and soft intro turns bombastic and quite epic by the climax. Shortly after the performance mentioned above, it was co-released with “The puritan”, another excellent but very different sounding tune. It was these that stoked my excitement for a new album, only to be quashed later that year by members of the band, claiming that no new material was forthcoming… But we now know better.


#3: Chemical world (from “Modern life is rubbish”, 1993)

I remember once calling into CFNY, Toronto’s alternative radio station (now named The Edge), to request this very song for the daily lunchtime show: The all-request nooner. Looking back, I’m not sure why I did such a thing, perhaps it was to hear my own voice on the radio, but these days, I don’t even bother with radio so the idea sounds ludicrous. Nonetheless, “Chemical world” was the only song I ever requested that was actually played on the air during that timeslot. Twenty or so years later, it’s still among my very favourite Blur tracks (though Edge 102 likely wouldn’t play it these days) and a really brilliant pop song. Written specifically to appeal to American audiences, it deals with one of Albarn’s favourite universal themes, that of industrialization, rather than the uniquely British identity tropes prevalent on the rest of the album. Oh yeah, and I love that rippin’ guitar lick.


#2: No distance left to run (from “13”, 1999)

And here at number two we have another ballad. There’s just something about Damon’s voice that lends itself to sad or otherwise emotional numbers and nowhere is it more heart-wrenching than on “No distance left to run”. He has said of the lyrics: “It upsets me, that song. It upset me singing it. Doing that vocal upset me greatly. To sing that lyric I really had to accept that that was the end of something in my life.” Although I don’t think he has ever outright admitted this, many people believe the song is about his split with Elastica vocalist, Justine Frischmann. Whether true or no, it makes for a compelling listen, brutal and brilliant at the same time.


#1: This is a low (from “Parklife”, 1994)

“This is a low” was never released as a single but it is a favourite with both the band and their fans, was picked as a track for their “best of” album, and was frequently part of their set list when they performed live, often using it to close their show with a bang (it was their final song both of the times I saw them live). It is a sad and lonely ode to Britain, with Damon and crew longing for home after weeks and months on the road. Coxon’s guitars come crashing like waves against rocks, Rowntree’s drums tapping and sometimes pounding like hail on the pavement, and you can almost picture James with his bass, hair in his eyes, cigarette dangling from his tightening lips. And Damon, he sounds so forlorn and anguished, magnum of cheap red wine in hand, both his collar and the day undone. Cheers to that!


For other top five lists in this series, click here.

Best tunes of 2011: #8 Cults “Go outside”

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I have a very distinct memory of listening to this very song one early morning late in 2011, in that burred season between late fall and early winter. I was re-listening to a handful of albums released that year, trying to nail down my inaugural best albums list for my old blog, Music Insanity. Cults’ self-titled debut was one of two debut albums that caught me by surprise and snuck its way into the running for 2011.

As track one slid into track two, I was standing at Bayview station awaiting the arrival of my commuter train to take me into work. It was so early it was still dark so I could clearly see the lightly falling snow glinting from the glow of the fluorescent light posts. I was shuffling my doc martens in the thinnest of coatings on the asphalt waiting platform, causing rivulets of feathered snow to amass around my feet. But then “Go outside” burst through my iPod earbuds in earnest and it was like the sun came out, warming me from outside and in, and it was as if summer had made a glorious return.

Okay. Yes. I am exaggerating but I am sure you are getting the point here.

Cults are a two-piece indie band from New York, made up of Madeline Follin on vocals and Brian Oblivion (sounds like a stage name to me) on vocals and everything else. When I first listened to the album, I thought to myself: “These two make no attempt to hide their love for shimmering, sunny 60s pop”. Madeline’s vocals are so light, almost to the point of child-like, that it’s unbelievably shocking when she drops the F-bomb at the end of one of the album’s tracks. And that’s probably the point. The music that backs her is washed and filled with effects, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to tell the different instruments apart.

“Go outside” is still incidentally my favourite track on the album but it is by no means an aberration. It is a seemingly light and fluffy song about going outside to enjoy life outdoors but if you listen a bit closer, you can discern soundbite samples of cult leader Jim Jones. Adding another layer of sinister is the video’s use of archive news footage from Jonestown. Indeed, the song seems to be employing, much like throughout the rest of the album, a theatrical technique I learned in high school drama class when studying Bertolt Brecht: namely, disguising that dark subject matter behind the cheery veneer of the music. If you’ve ever listened to the lyrics of “Mack the Knife” (by Brecht, not Cults), you know what I mean.

But before I start getting highbrow or anything, I’m going to drop the mic right there and allow the song to speak for itself. Enjoy.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.