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.

Best tunes of 2010: #23 Jon And Roy “Any day now”

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In July 2010, my wife Victoria and I flew out to Winnipeg to spend a few days with our friends, Sarah and Jorge, and their children. I had been to the ‘Peg a couple of times before with work but this time, it was for pure pleasure and during the summer, rather than in winter when I had previously been there. And our friends were gracious hosts, putting us up in their spare room and playing tourist with us with kids in tow. It was great seeing them and parts of the city I had not seen before but another real bonus for me was getting out to catch a part of the “world famous” Winnipeg folk festival.

Held annually at Birds Hill Provincial Park, it is an extremely well-run festival, right down to loosing the dragonflies the night before it begins to take care of the rampant mosquito problem. One of the features that I found really neat was the daytime “workshops” they held that collected different performers on the same stage to share ideas and songs and perhaps, even collaborate. I caught parts of a couple of these workshops and a full one that was thoroughly entertaining. This last was centred around the theme of hometowns, was led by Winnipeg native, John K. Samson (of The Weakerthans), and also included Works Progress Administration, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (of the film “Once”), and of course, Jon And Roy.

So this sunny Saturday afternoon workshop while lazing around in the grass in a Manitoba Provincial Park, all relaxed and civilized like, was my first introduction to Jon And Roy. And yes, “Any day now” was the song that made me sit up and take notice halfway through the workshop.

Jon Middleton (acoustic guitar) and Roy Vizer (bongo drum) were seated on the stools between John K. Samson and Hansard and Irglová, the two acts I was really there to see. On their third go round (I think it was), Jon And Roy jumped into this head-bopping number that teased both folk and reggae and was so laid back and grooving, it felt perfect in the sun as the dragonflies danced around catching mosquitos above our heads. And man, was it catchy as well. So much so that when they finished, Glen Hansard, upon taking the mike, started right back into that ear worm chorus of “Any day now, any day now, any day now, any day now, any day” and then, dedicated his next song to that one.

And yes, this British Columbia-based group is still a going concern, having released four more albums since 2010’s “Homes”, but don’t let the name fool you, the group is also more than just the duo inferred in their name. Still, acoustic guitar led, laid back folk reggae is their hallmark, and if that’s your thing, you might just want to give them a listen. “Any day now” is a great place to start. And it’s also a perfect song to lead you into the weekend. Enjoy.

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

Best tunes of 2010: #24 OK Go “This too shall pass”

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When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I didn’t have a lot of money to go see shows so I made them count and nothing but death could keep me from them. Things have changed a bit as I’ve aged. Maybe I’m not as hardcore as I was or maybe I’m turning into a bit of a suck but I’ve missed a number shows over the last ten years for which I’ve had tickets because of the weather or because I’ve felt under the weather. I’m thinking that the first of these shows was when OK Go played the Capital Music Hall here in Ottawa back in 2010. My wife and I were supposed to go with my friend Ian and his wife Diana but a few days beforehand, I caught the death of a man cold and really didn’t feel up to it.

Ian later recounted some details of the show for me. Of course, they were great live and had a hell of a lot of energy but he was also quite enthusiastic about their use of multimedia and how they often projected parts of their music videos on the screen behind them for the songs that they were performing. This only poured salt in the raw wound (which I’m sure wasn’t Ian’s intent) but also made a lot of sense in retrospect since the band’s use of the music video is really what made them a household name.

Not since the golden age of MTV and Muchmusic has a group profited more from the creative use of videos for their songs. These guys became YouTube stars: first, with their highly choreographed backyard dance video for “A million ways” and then, to an even greater audience, with their treadmill routine video for “Here it goes again“. With each successive video, OK Go, who had formed 1998 and whose 2002 debut self-titled debut album only saw modest success, upped the creative and intricate ante. In fact, “This too shall pass”, the second single off their third LP, “Of the blue colour of the sky”, and track number twenty four on my best of 2010 list, received two different music videos. The first is a crazy marching band performance of the song, the second features a Rube Goldberg machine, and you can watch both below.

But this LA-based quartet is not all style and no substance. They seem to have gone to the Weezer school of geek rock and added a touch of glam for an A plus average. “This too shall pass” is knee trembling bass, bombastic drums, and a shitload of swagger, giving the impression that OK Go are the coolest kids in the class even though they know they’re not. It is a big song, almost to the point of parody. With no build at all, it is a whole song in climax, even the piano plinking bridge is where the chorus joins in and you get the feeling that everyone and anyone is invited.

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