At number five on this Best tunes of 2001 list is the second single off The Strokes’ debut album “Is this it?”. Arguably, this song, the band, and this album were instrumental in plotting the ultimate direction of indie and alternative rock for the new millennium.
The Strokes formed in New York City in 1998. The five piece led by frontman Julian Casablancas recorded a raw and energetic EP in 2001 that started a bidding war amongst the majors. They ended up landing with RCA, who released the debut LP referred to above, a ten song juggernaut that was recorded with the same producer and same DIY ethos as the EP. To say that “Is this it?” generated a buzz is putting it mildly. There was unanimous acclaim. It appeared on everyone’s best of the year list and the band’s name was on everyone’s lips.
I remember them still being a hot item even a year later. It sticks out to me because I made a special trip to Peterborough in 2002 to visit my friends from university. On the morning-slash-early-afternoon after I arrived, the load of us walked down to The Only Cafe for brunch. This meal was particularly memorable, first of all, because it was a unique experience, given the socialist, trust-based business plan of the establishment and its mixed bag clientele, and second, due to “Is this it?” being played whilst we chewed on egg, toast, and crunchy coffee. Pretty much all of my friends recognized the album, despite the varied tastes, liked it and were effusive in their praise of the sound and the excitement with which it polluted the air all around.
“Last nite” is representative of the raw, driven energy, and the immediacy of the album. The production is purposefully not crisp, giving the impression (which is actually correct) that it was recorded live in one take, a loud broadcast from a shambolic garage. Indeed, it succeeds in presenting the band as from another age, finding itself lost in the present day, a time traveller from the past informing the present of its mistakes. Casablancas is a lounge singing Lou Reed, half-heartedly trying to keep up with the song’s pace, and the band is keeping it simple, like pop music, if said pop music were roughly hewn from a rusty old carving knife.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.
June 2, 2018. My good friends and concert buddies, Tim and Mark, and I were at the first day of Field Trip, a two-day festival put on by Arts & Crafts Records at Fort York Commons every year in Toronto. We had met at Tim’s Place first for a couple of lunch time drinks that turned into more than expected. We missed the first few bands and when we got there, we were more interested in getting food and hitting the beer and bourbon sampling tents than the performers on stage so I feel that Middle Kids might have been one of the first bands we actually sat down to watch.
As I recall, my friend Jean-Pierre was a bit jealous that I was going to get a chance to see them when we were talking about the festival a few days beforehand. But at the time and even when I sat down on the drying grass, I didn’t really connect the band with “Lost friends”, the album I had happened upon a month earlier and really played the hell out of. Thus, I was quite surprised (and possibly my friends were too) when I recognized pretty much all of their songs. And well, to sum up a long story, Middle Kids really blew me away.
They are trio out of Sydney, Australia, two thirds of which are married couple Hannah Joy and Tim Fitz, both of whom were incidentally middle children. Joy, a classically trained pianist, originally met multi-instrumentalist Fitz in 2014 and he started producing her solo work for her, as well as helping her out when performing live. Not long after, they recruited Harry Day, a recent graduate in jazz studies, to play drums and they became a band. “Lost friends” is the band’s debut album, spearheaded by a single called “Edge of town” that had previously been released on their self-titled EP and famously found a fan in Sir Elton John.
“Lost friends” doesn’t sound like a debut album to me. Indeed, I’ve been struggling while writing these words with trying to decide exactly what this album does sound like to me. It feels a bit derivative but not as much as Pitchfork might have you believe. And though I don’t like the term “indie rock” as a descriptor (because it doesn’t really describe anything), it might actually work here. They blend a lot of stuff together, recalling the best of the 2000s and the 1990s. They layer a lot of instrumentation on top of their trio of instruments and yet they still manage to keep focus on the compelling vocals of their frontwoman. And again, it doesn’t sound freshman at all, no, it’s got all the hooks of a best of compilation, everything sounding like a hit single.
Really, I could’ve chosen any of its twelve songs to focus on so I rolled the dice and picked these three for you. What do you all think?
“On my knees”: This is a song that winds itself up with its intro, setting the drummer Harry Day off to go wild on his kit, somewhat restrained during the verses and off his rocker on the choruses. The guitars are 90s crunchy and there’s plenty of noise to muddy the mix and Hannah Joy feels a little Alanis Morisette here, circa Jagged Little Pill. No, I’m not trying to add insult here, just to situate things. It’s a rocker that flails against the wall for its duration, only to dial it right down at the end to deliver that final: “Yeah, there’s something there that I have never seen.”
“Don’t be hiding”: The guitar strum is fine and the beat is jaunty. But it’s the singing I enjoy here, by times bold and others vulnerable, reflecting the ideas espoused in the lyrics. “If you showed me your body, do you think that I’d like it? Would you stand up there proudly? Would you feel like you’re dying? I don’t care if your jeans don’t fit that well.” The comfort or lack thereof with body image and appearances is not something I concern myself with too much at my age but I remember it. I also realize things my even be more heightened these days with our friend the internet. I can totally see this being a stadium singalong in the near future.
“Mistake”: This last pick feels a bit more retro even, like something from the 80s, perhaps a John Hughes soundtrack. There’s definitely melodrama in the lively drum beat and the way Hannah Joy sings “Oh darling”. There’s also heartbreak and wrongdoing and sorrow and regret. Someone’s standing out in the rain, evoking a multitude of soul-searching scenes in cinematic history, and though it’s not a Hughes flick, for some reason, a certain moment in “Say anything” comes to mind. But it’s not just the themes of the lyrics that feel 80s. That bass line kind of feels Hook-esque and Joy sounds a bit like Margo Timmins and someone else that I just can’t put my finger on. Needless to say, like most of their tunes, “Mistake” feels instantly familiar and new at the same time and dammit if I don’t feel like getting up to dance like Molly Ringwald in “The breakfast club”.
Check back next Friday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
If yes, great. If not, you should check it out. Written and directed by and starring Zach Braff, it is a semi-autobiographical, semi-absurd film about an actor returning home after the death of his mother. It was an indie darling at the festivals, garnering positive reviews, and a cult following. I mention it here because music features heavily throughout the film. Braff chose the music for the soundtrack himself, winning a Grammy for it to go along with his directing awards, and as he has explained ad nauseum, he simply used the music he was listening to while writing the film.
There are two songs by The Shins that are featured in the film and soundtrack but the one that changed everything for the band was the placement of “New slang”. The morning after his mother’s funeral (and a particularly debaucherous night out with old friends), our protagonist goes to see a doctor and meets Natalie Portman’s character, a delightfully quirky soul, wearing headphones. He asks her what she is listening to and she responds “The Shins”. When he admits that he has never heard them, she literally gushes (with perhaps an ounce of hyperbole): “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.” He puts on the offered headphones and we all hear the song at number seven on my Best tunes of 2001 list.
Of course, I had already heard of The Shins by the time “Garden State” was released and I got to see it on DVD. The band had already been around for close to a decade, had released its sophomore album just the year before (my own introduction to the group), and all of a sudden, there was all this interest in the debut album, “Oh, inverted world”, especially two of its songs. Natalie Portman’s line definitely worked. After slipping on the headphones with Zach Braff, I, too, had to go back and check out the rest of the debut.
“New slang” was written by frontman James Mercer before The Shins were even a thing. It fades in gently, easing us all in to the acoustic finger picking, light tapping on the tambourine, and Mercer’s falsetto humming. He then sings the song all non committal, like he’s testing out the lyrics for the first time as the song is being recorded. Indeed, the vocals are set very low in the mix, deep beneath this whole pile of gentleness. The whole thing reeks of basement studio, stale cigarette butts and warm beer, and a very late night. Then, the song slips off into the same dark shadowy corner from which it sprang.
I don’t know if it’ll change your life, like it did that of James Mercer and The Shins, but “New slang” is a fine song to immerse yourself in for a while.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.