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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 the letter “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.

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100 best covers: #99 The Rural Alberta Advantage “Eye of the tiger”

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I’d be rather surprised if any one of you was to tell me they’d never heard the original version of “Eye of the tiger” by Survivor. It was the theme song for the third installment of the “Rocky” series (the one in which Stallone does battle with Mr. T!) and was released as a single the day after the film hit theatres. It is the American hard rock band’s biggest hit, attaining certified double platinum status and sitting atop the Billboard 100 charts for six weeks in 1982.

To say that this cover by Toronto-based indie rock trio, The Rural Alberta Advantage, is a bit less well-known is tongue-in-cheek hyperbole on my part. I first heard this performed live on a Spring evening back in 2011. I dragged my wife out to the now-defunct Ritual nightclub in downtown Ottawa to see this band I discovered at Bluesfest the previous summer. We were treated to a highly energetic and entertaining set, during which frontman Nils Edenloff was left alone on stage a couple times to perform a pair of covers, all acoustic like. The first of these was “Maybe tomorrow”, the “Littlest hobo” theme song (for Canadian fans of this classic TV show, you can check that one out here), and the other was this awesome cover of Survivor’s massive hit.

I think Victoria recognized it as “Eye of the tiger” before I did during the show but she definitely wasn’t as impressed as I was by the cover. She’s not really a fan of covers and she’s of the opinion that certain songs should just be left alone, this song being one of them. You see, she’s actually quite the fan of Survivor’s original version of “Eye of the tiger”. She describes it as one of those songs that always makes her want to move and has been a favourite of hers to put on mixes designed for working out. I can’t really argue with any of that but I think this cover is also special, mostly because it completely changes the mood of the original. Edenloff slows down the pace a tad and replaces the uppercut and left right hook combination on the muscular hard rock guitars with a quiet and lonely pluck on the acoustic. His voice is pained, almost wistful and tired, where the original Survivor vocalist, Dave Bickler, was triumphant and full of adrenaline.

I’m not saying The Rural Alberta Advantage’s “Eye of the tiger” is better than the original but it feels to me like it actually has a bit more edge, kind of like it’s after the fight and the reality of all those rounds have set in. Have a spin of both and let me know what you think.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2010: #26 The Drums “Best friend”

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The Drums are an indie pop band out of New York City that were formed by childhood friends Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham. In 2008, Pierce relocated to where Graham was living in Florida to start collaborating on material and they later moved to Brooklyn where they fleshed out the band to a four-piece with Connor Hanwick (drums) and Adam Kessler (guitar). They were tapped as the next big thing by everyone from Pitchfork to the NME, even before they released their debut, self-titled LP (on which this song appears) in 2010. They have since released two more albums but internal friction and disagreements have meant that the band gradually lost members along the way. These days The Drums consists only of Jonathan Pierce and he has album number four coming out on Friday.

“Best friend” will always remind me of a trip my wife and I took out to British Columbia in 2011, over a full year after this single’s release. We spent three days in Vancouver before visiting Victoria and Whistler, and all of this during the Canucks’ crazy run at the Stanley Cup that year. (As you recall, they didn’t win and there were riots.) On our final full day in Vancouver, we were visiting the shops in Kitsilano after eating a fine vegetarian lunch at The Naam and happened into Zulu Records.

My wife always urges me into record shops in cities that we’re visiting and feigns interest herself while I take my time browsing. This was almost a full year before I started collecting vinyl but that was the section I found myself gravitating towards anyway. At some point, I recognized the song playing in the store but couldn’t place it right away. It sounded retro but I knew it was new and hip and at that moment, was really digging it. I even caught my wife subconsciously swaying to it at the other end of the store. But the band’s name was escaping me. It finally came to me well after we had left Zulu Records and we had made our way to Kitsilano beach.

Was it the beach that reminded me that the song we had heard was “Best friend” by The Drums? Perhaps. The song certainly is summery and bright, and calls to mind friendships of days gone by, that could very well have found their roots in the loose and warm grains of a sandy beach. It is jangle and reverb and peppy drumming, the sun glinting off the rim of a pair of sunglasses worn by a beautiful girl. Perhaps your teenage crush, perhaps the girl that never noticed your affections but instead, she dated the most popular guy in high school and considered you her best friend. Cheers to that!

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