Best tunes of 2002: #4 The Decemberists “The legionnaire’s lament”

<< #5    |    #3 >>

“I’m a legionnaire, camel in disrepair, hoping for a Frigidaire to come passing by.”

And so begins yet another great track off The Decemberists’ debut album, “Castaways and cutouts”*. I got into this album and the following year’s sophomore album simultaneously, perhaps sometime in 2004, after reading about them in my favourite indie music magazine ‘Under the radar’.

I remember being immediately blown away by the songwriting of Colin Meloy. Being a word geek myself, I loved the wordplay and use of archaic terms and thought it hilarious that I found myself reaching for the dictionary when listening to the lyrics of a pop song, indie or not. But it was not just the choice of words that won me over. It was how Meloy employed them, creating worlds and weaving tales, vivid and imaginative and just so much fun. And then there was the music, indie rock with a folk rock flavour, sampling music from around the world, and not just evoking that of today, but from different points in time throughout history.

The Decemberists have gone on to make eight studio albums in total and a handful of EPs, and successfully navigated the jump from indie to the majors without losing an ounce of what made them great. Every one of their songs is an adventure and you would be hard-pressed to tell me that they are one of those bands whose songs all sound the same.

“The legionnaire’s lament”, despite its title, is an upbeat number. It was the song that first hooked my wife Victoria to the group and is one to which we both love to sing along. And though the words can be esoteric and the specific experience unfamiliar – that of a French Foreign Legion soldier stranded in the desert, his plane shot down in battle in a war over a hundred years ago – the sentiment of missing his love and his home is universal and instantly recognizable.

“If only some rain would fall on the houses and the boulevards and the sidewalk bagatelles (it’s like a dream). With the roar of cars and the lolling of the cafe bars and the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine. Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again.”

Our protagonist is faithfully represented by an angry and forceful strum on the acoustic, the mirage of a jaunty drum beat and playful electric guitar lick, but what really places you in the tune and perfects the feeling of homesickness for Paris is the frolicking accordion. So good.

*”July July” from this same album appeared earlier, at number nineteen, on this list.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.


Best tunes of 2012: #16 Amos the Transparent “Sure as the weather”

<< #17    |    #15 >>

I first came across local band, Ottawa’s own Amos the Transparent, in 2010, when I saw them perform on an early Sunday evening set in only my second year attending Ottawa Bluesfest. I had only briefly sampled a couple of their tracks in advance but their big band energy had me visiting the merch tent afterwards to pick up a CD copy of their debut album, “Everything I’ve forgotten to forget”. I listened to that album quite a bit in the months that followed and couldn’t help being drawn in by the fine songwriting by band architect, Jonathan Chandler. Just as impressive was such excellent production and ambitious scope for a indie band that I just couldn’t get my head around was local.

Just over a year later in December 2011, I somehow caught wind that Amos the Transparent had recorded a video for a new song off an upcoming new record. I watched the fun, all-in-one-take video that you yourself can watch below and then, I watched it again. And then, the next day, I forced my wife Victoria to watch it with me. The video did its job. I was hooked.

A couple of months later, the group held an album release party for “Goodnight, my dear… I’m falling apart” at the now defunct Ritual night club. It was a great night where I was also introduced to the music of big-voiced Haligonian, Ben Caplan, and that was topped by the seven members of Amos the Transparent squeezing their big presence on to the tiny stage and blowing the roof off the place. I took home a CD copy of the album from that performance too because I was still a couple of months removed from starting my vinyl collection, though I remedied that at another Amos show a few years ago. For those of you too far afield to have heard this group, “Goodnight, my dear…” is an excellent, big, Canadian indie rock record in the vein of “Funeral” or “Set yourself on fire”, but in addition to the orchestral elements those two albums sport, Amos throws in some traditional folk instrumentation for fun.

Take today’s song, “Sure as the weather”, for an example. If you watch the song’s video without sound and note the varied instruments that the band pulls out – pedal steel, banjo, accordion, and cello – you could be forgiven for expecting a rollicking indie folk track. The sound on, you check off the “rollicking” box but also observe how much the tune rocks and how these varied instruments lend their distinctive sounds to the blended whole. Indeed, Amos the Transparent is built around the songwriting of Jonathan Chandler but they really are a collaborative beast, both in the way they build the songs up and tear them down and the way they harmonize and gang up on the listener with their collective voices, and in this case, singing with optimism for better days.

“I don’t want to hear about your bad weekend
And I don’t want to hear about not trusting your friends
And I don’t really care if no one’s left to blame
It’s going to be okay”

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.


Best albums of 2020: #3 Phoebe Bridgers “Punisher”

In 2017, the debut album by a young singer/songwriter I had never heard of just eked itself into the final position on the list of my top ten albums for the year. Yes, that singer/songwriter was named Phoebe Bridgers and yes, I fully admit that “Stranger in the alps” might place higher on said list if I had to do a recount someday.

Since that year, the young Ms. Bridgers has become much more well known and with good reason. She’s talented, intelligent, and because of this, others want to work with her. She’s collaborated with the who’s who of the indie rock world, including a one-off self-titled EP in a supergroup (of sorts) called boygenius, that she concocted with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. She also put together a group with Mr. Indie rock 2000 himself, Conor Oberst, called Better Oblivion Community Center, and released an eponymously named long player, which found itself at number one on my Best Albums list for last year.

So to say her sophomore album was eagerly anticipated (and not just by me) is an understatement to say the least. Nevertheless, “Punisher” is that rare animal that doesn’t underwhelm under the heft of expectations heaped upon it, rather it leaps out from under the huge shadow manufactured by its predecessor and surpasses it. Recorded in multiple sessions over a year and a half period and with the help of a number of her, by now, many musician friends, the album’s eleven tracks appear exactly in the same order as they were completed, which just once more proves the honesty in her approach.

Indeed, “Punisher” is just as open and personal as “Stranger in the Alps”. Listening to her words, you get the feeling that you know Phoebe Bridgers. There’s no hiding or subterfuge here. It’s quiet but it’s also loud and full, our storyteller letting everything that influences her to find its way into the mix. Yet her voice never gets lost. In fact, there’s no escaping her soft touch, her frail yet confident delivery, her learning and learned experiences informing everything. It makes you wonder at the expansiveness of what her 10th or 12th album will sound like a couple of decades from now.

The whole of “Punisher” is definitely worth your time if you have it but if not, at least give your attention to my three picks for you as preview.

“Garden song“: Track two is the first proper song on “Punisher” and the first taste of it that we received back in February. It is fingers brushing and dancing over acoustic strings, distorted and blurred by haunting synth washes and just the hint of a drum beat. Bridgers sings frailty and strength, emboldened by rumbling shadow vocals provided by her tour manager, Jeroen Vrijhoef. It’s a song that riffs on memories but in typical Bridgers fashion, it is not quite as simple as that. It is memories looking forward to the future looking back at the memories. “Someday, I’m gonna live in your house up on the hill.” And that house will have a garden that will remind her of her unhappy family home, her hometown, jumping fences as a teen, her favourite movie, romantic encounters, and how they all add up to her hoping she’ll grow up right.

“Chinese satellite”: “Took a tour to see the stars but they weren’t out tonight, so I wished hard on a Chinese Satellite.” This chorus line of track six reminds me of the line from the iconic Billy Bragg track, “A new england”, where he also wishes on a satellite instead of a falling star and wonders if it is wrong to wish upon “space hardware”. And if I continue to draw comparisons, both songs are about loss, but Billy seems to be a bit more upbeat about it and Phoebe, though she hasn’t lost her sense of humour, is heartbreakingly dark. Finally, Bridgers soups up her solo guitar work with a load of effects for a fuller and oddly, more claustrophobic and haunting sound. It’s hard to tell whether the loss in her case was death but it certainly feels that way.

“Kyoto”: This last track, the second single to be released from the album, is definitely my favourite and it’s likely because it’s also the most upbeat. It sets a completely different tone, almost rocking with a bashing beat and horn flourishes, underneath Bridgers’ still maudlin and sad and pained vocals. “Kyoto” feels a little like “Lost in translation” to me. It’s like a world apart, not real life, a vacation, like being pulled outside one’s consciousness and looking down at oneself and the recognition not being there. “Day off in Kyoto. I got bored at the temple, looked around at the 7-11.” Lyrically and at its most platonic level, the song feels like jotted notes to try to remember the trip, but the music feels like a journey, a fish out of water for Bridgers and shows that she’s got this in her. So exciting to hear what comes next.

Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Strokes “The new abnormal”
9. Venus Furs “Venus Furs”
8. Bright Eyes “Down in the weeds, where the world once was”
7. The Beths “Jump rope gazers”
6. The Rentals “Q36”
5. Secret Machines “Awake in the brain chamber”
4. No Joy “Motherhood”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.