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Best tunes of 2012: #9 Spiritualized “Hey Jane”

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The first time I saw Spiritualized perform live was on the Toronto stop for their tour in support of “Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space”, way back at the end of November 1997. My friend Terry had picked me up a ticket to the show and he still (amazingly) had an extra ticket on the day of the concert. On the way to the bus stop to head down to the show, we ran into another friend of ours, named Mark, and convinced him to come with.

That night will live on in infamy for the three of us. We made more than a few stops for drinks on the way down to the now shut-down Guvernment Night Club, where Jason Pierce and his band were slated to play. Indeed, by the time the headlining act hit the stage, we were all very deep in the bag. For me, it was incredible, akin to a religious experience, but I can still very clearly remember Mark touching my shoulder at the end of the first song, his eyeballs as huge as cannonballs, telling me he had to leave. For him, it was all just too intense.

Fast forward fifteen years or so. I hadn’t seen Terry for a long time. However, I was still quite close to Mark, though we hadn’t lived in the same city – for some periods, the same country – for more than a decade. I was now living in Ottawa with my wife and Mark was living back in his hometown of Sault Ste Marie. I believe it was April 2012 that my wife and I put Mark up for a week so that he could take a course and write a test to qualify for a job fighting wildfires in Northern Ontario. We were working during the days while he was on his course and he was super exhausted in the evenings so we didn’t see him a lot.

When the week finished out, we had one proper night to catch up and share some laughs before he was due to catch the long bus back home. That night, the two of us killed five bottles of wine, a half bottle of scotch, and a handful of beers and we were up real late. At some point, we started watching YouTube videos on my laptop, each sharing new tunes with the other and on one of my turns, I slipped on the video for Spiritualized’s latest tune, “Hey Jane”, having heard the song but not having seen the video. We got just over half way through it when my friend asked gently if we could switch to something lighter. So still too intense for my friend, but this time, for a different reason (if you’ve seen the video you know what I mean).

Spiritualized’s seventh record, “Sweet heart, sweet light”, came four years after “Songs in A & E”, the album widely seen as Jason Pierce’s comeback, for many reasons, but most significantly because of his near death experience, and it also came after he spent the previous year performing the aforementioned landmark album, “Ladies and gentlemen”, in full, at various shows. At the time, Pierce talked about how his new album embraced a poppier bent but I just thought it rocked like hell. And only in the way that Spiritualized can, blending gospel and droning psychedelia, love, drugs, and religion.

“You broke my heart then you ran away
Some say you got a rotten soul
But I say Janey loves rock and roll”

“Hey Jane” is a prime example of what makes Spiritualized and their work on this album so great. Intense music video aside, this is a track that does not let up for its entirety, nearly nine minutes in all. It’s a rousing, incessant beating heart, pounding and pounding the pavement, both a sprint and a marathon. The guitars keep pace and swirl and roar around the drums, a choir of demons taunt and laugh, and the bass just hums. It threatens disintegration throughout and right in the middle, it does indeed devolve into madness and implodes into an echoing silence. And just when you think it’s over, that maddening rhythm starts back up again. But as opposed to in its first movement, where Pierce seems angry and threatening and mean, the finale sees him uplifting and glorious, even as he’s asking the Jane of the title where she’s gonna go, knowing full well the answer is nowhere. And it all builds to the choir of angels joining him singing the album’s title over and over as an outro.

“Sweet heart, sweet light. Sweet heart, sweet light. Sweet heart, sweet light.”

Yessssss.

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

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Best tunes of 2012: #10 Father John Misty “I’m writing a novel”

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Back when I was in university, I managed to weasel my way into the Creative Writing program. I had always fancied myself a writer and managed to put together a serviceable portfolio that apparently impressed someone.  Nonetheless, I often felt like a fraud in those workshops, even though I sometimes managed to create something by chance that I felt was new and real. Notwithstanding, I met some great people back then, likeminded writers-in-training, and we waxed pretension and separately dreamed of writing the next great novel or poem.

So yeah, I always laugh a little bit when Josh Tillman sings the line: “And I’m writing a novel because it’s never been done before.”

I honestly had never before thought about the word in that way: a bunch of pages bound in a sheaf, crammed with words that, strung together, weave tales of grandeur, angst, sadness, and glory. But it’s true. The whole idea of it was all very new at one point and each piece that has been published since is new its own way. And here is this singer, spouting this brilliant line of verse in a stream of conscious song, getting me thinking about the gall of all writers (or just us wannabes), thinking that we have something new to say to change the world.

Yep. This is how I fell for the music of Father John Misty.

I first perused the songs off “Fear fun”, the debut album under this moniker*, when I read that Tillman had previous performed with Fleet Foxes as their drummer. I started out by watching a few of his videos, which in themselves were a bit bizarre, and I must say that I was quickly hooked. The sound struck me as retro sounding but in a whacked out kind of way and the words were hilarious, especially the closer I listened and the deeper I crawled into the woven stories.

I then caught Father John Misty perform live at two separate festivals in 2012 and 2013, both appearances in support of this debut and found his onstage persona compelling and ridiculous. Tillman has since released three more albums since “Fear fun” and I have seen two more live performances and in that interim, he has honed his sound into something all his own, still keeping his storytelling lyrics intact.

Still, I feel closer to his debut than any of his later work, with “I’m writing a novel” being a tune that I always keep close. It’s jump jivin’ guitar and juke joint piano, old school folk rock and psychedelics and Josh Tillman spouting a nonsensical narrative that oddly makes sense and reads like a pretentious cautionary tale. It’s rock and roll for which to take drugs and imagine new worlds.

“Heidegger and Sartre, drinking poppy tea
I could’ve sworn last night I passed out in my van and now these guys are pouring one for me
I’ll never leave the canyon ’cause I’m surrounded on all sides
By people writing novels and living on amusement rides”

*Josh Tillman had previously recorded under the name J. Tillman but put an end to all that in 2009.

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

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Best tunes of 2002: #2 The Flaming Lips “Do you realize??”

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Have you ever been so completely turned off by one song that you very nearly missed out on the experience of an excellent band?

This is how it was for me and The Flaming Lips for many years. It was their biggest commercial hit, 1993’s “She don’t use jelly”, that really did me in from the first. Not that it was a particularly bad song, it was just that ultra push foisted upon us by their major label. It was overplayed to the point where they warranted an appearance on an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 and gained Steve Sanders’ seal of approval. “You know, I’ve never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!” Ugh.

Interestingly, it was television that brought me back to the psych-rockers from Oklahoma City. More to the point, it was a television commercial. For many years, I have misremembered the ad being for Volkswagen, probably because it fell in line with the other songs that had been used for their ad campaigns, but when I googled it, discovered that it was actually for Hewlett-Packard (and also featured famed magicians, Penn and Teller). More on that in a minute.

The Flaming Lips actually formed as early as 1983 and they released four full-length studio albums before they caught the attention of Warner Brothers. And then, they released four more albums on that major before they finally found their feet and released 1999’s “The soft bulletin”, an album many critics see as the best album in a decade that included “Nevermind”, “Loveless”, and “OK computer”. And the band didn’t stop there. Indeed, eight albums later and they still show no signs of slowing or falling into ruts or making anything that vaguely resembles pedestrian tunes.

My ears pricked up with the first notes of “Do you realize??” that I heard at the end of that Hewlett Packard commercial. I was at my desktop computer with the TV on behind me and I heard spaceships and angels and beauty. I turned around, made notes, did some google searches, and eventually found the full song. I played it and replayed it and replayed it. Then, I listened to the rest of the album on which it appeared, “Yoshimi battles the pink robots”, and declared myself in love.

These days, I wouldn’t consider myself a diehard of the band. Yet I do very much love “Yoshimi”, along with the two albums that bookend it in their chronological discography, and totally respect everything they do, even if I don’t like it all. I saw them perform live at Ottawa Bluesfest in 2011 and would jump at the chance to witness their live extravaganza again… But I’m once again getting away from our song today.

“Do you realize??” is possibly their most recognizable song. It was honoured by their home state as its official song for a period of time in 2000s and is considered by the band as the best thing they have ever done. It was inspired by multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd’s struggles with drug withdrawal and by the death of frontman Wayne Coyne’s father. It is about the precariousness of life, the planet, and everything else.

“Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?
Do you realize we’re floating in space?
Do you realize that happiness makes you cry?
Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?”

It all starts with a robotic count in and the falls up the rabbit hole in the clouds and the ether where everything is in stasis and sparkly. The strumming of the guitar holds everything together and roots you in reality while everything flies around you – memories, feelings, life, death – and everyone is singing along. It is gentle and beautiful and sad and perfect. Just wow.

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