Music Monday: Such Great Heights

March 31, 2008

The Postal Service

Cleveland doesn’t have an indie or alternative-that-isn’t-Smashing Pumpkins stations, so this song filtered down to me in commercial form. It was released in 2003 by The Postal Service, but I first heard it on the Garden State soundtrack and then (as a cover) on that infamous kaleidescope M&Ms commercial. I didn’t really think much of it at the time.

Then Andrew sent me a YouTube link for the above vid a couple of months ago, and I instantly recognized the song. But what I recognized wasn’t — again — The Postal Service. What tugged at my mind was a jangling ditty I’d heard by piano virtuoso Ben Folds.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in the past few hours trying to decide which version I like better. The original is more clipped and polished with an electric edge.

I think the video is worth mentioning. Remember when Mr. Rogers used to take us to the peanut butter factory of the cotton mill to show us how those things were made? Well, I’m not sure if the PS vid was filmed in a real microchip lab or if some set design engineer deserves a raise, but The Postal Service uses some very nice shots to give us a new spin on the old Earth-as-dirt-under-a-giant’s-fingernail chestnut (think the big pull-back shot at the end of Men In Black).


Ben Folds

He’s a genius. I’ve always had a man-crush on Ben Folds, and here we get so many things to praise: Starting with his awesome glasses, hitting his frenetic piano-key-jamming performance, and wrapping up with the improvised percussion.

After a lot of reflection, this is my favorite version of the song (to date). It’s by far the most dynamic in it’s highs and lows (see what I did there?) and I really think the piano is an underused tool. With so much being done by synthesizers, you can sometimes forget how great that deep, rolling concert piano timbre is. Plus, he adds the word “shit” where it should be.


Iron and Wine

This cover was released right on the Postal Service single in 2003, and it’s my least favorite of the three (I know, Wiki-heads, there are some other covers but I haven’t tracked them down). Iron and Wine blatantly try to yank my emotions around with that angsty whisper-over-acoustics tactic I hate. That’s led to a legion of 14-year-old amateur guitarists posting their YouTube odes. Ugh.

Sadly, it works so well as a soundtrack mood piece that I can’t just blow it off entirely. Oh well.

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Music Monday: Nada Surf and The Statler Brothers

March 17, 2008

1. Nada Surf — Popular

These were the days of flannel and backward baseball caps. I remember how huge Popular was in 1996 in New York state — mostly because the band had a huge teen following downstate. When the video hit MTV, Nada Surf suddenly became the ironic icon of misplaced teen priorities, showing how delusional most pop culture depictions of high school were.

The first few times I actually listened to the lyrics, I was stumped. Was Matt Caws being serious? It didn’t take long to catch on to the vitriol as his spoken rant escalated into full, hateful ablution. I was dating my first real girlfriend at the time and I remember that this song triggered my first doubts that high school love was real.

Also, that slutty cheerleader was really hot by 1996 standards.
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2. The Statler Brothers — Flowers on the Wall


I spent some of my earliest years hanging around my grandparents’ farm in the hills of western Pennsylvania, a state where Flowers on the Wall might as well be the official anthem of depressed cultural solitude. That was the 1980s, but even today that part of the state seems to be permanently stuck in a sepia-toned shadow of the 1960s, when The Statler Brothers’ tune hit the radio waves.

There’s that famous refrain: “Playin’ Solitaire ’till dawn with a deck of 51/Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo/Now don’t tell me I’ve got nothin’ better to do.” It’s ostensibly about a man who’s left direction-less after a break-up. But I think it perfectly describes the tired mindset of the backwoods Pennsylvania coal miners who watched industry and progress fall away in the 1970s.

That kind of disenchantment was lost on me at age 4 when the song would play on my grandfather’s pick-up truck radio. But it really hit home in the context of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1995 — especially next to other 60s and 70s slacker songs. Quentin Tarantino’s track list was brilliant and I think my dream job would be choosing songs for his films.


Music Monday: Smashing Pumpkins and Of Montreal

February 4, 2008

1. Smashing Pumpkins — Eye

Eye was on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which had a very short theatrical run but managed some alt-rock air time on Canadian radio, which beamed over the border to me in New York.

If you know Lynch — The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive — then you can guess Lost Highway was dark and mysterious, and Billy Corgan’s achy whispering, backed by electronica and a howling chorus, match Lynch’s pulp perfectly.

The video’s a little psychadelic, and far more reminiscent of Siamese Dream than Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

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2. Of Montreal — Requiem for O.M.M.2

If Monty Python, Roald Dahl, and Salvador Dali did a student art project together at Berkeley, the result would be an Of Montreal video.

Let’s back up, because I think it’s important to point out the band isn’t from Canada at all — it’s from Georgia, which should tell you a little about its sense of humor. Legend has it that frontman Kevin Barnes pulled the band together after a break-up with a girl from Montreal, but that story’s changed a dozen times in interviews.

Don’t be fooled by the Beatles-ish acoustic pop sound here. Sure, the tunes might be color-coated, but listen a little more and they’re mostly sad, poetic musings that gracefully avoid pretention.

The videos all have the same stop-motion 2D over high-res photography feel, and are more non-sequiter, pastel dreams than commentary or reflection of the lyrics. Oh, and they all look like they’re made in Flash. I strongly recommend checking out Tim I Wish You Were Born a Girl, Rapture Rapes the Muses, I Was Watching Your Eyes, I Was Never Young, and Wraith Pinned to the Mist.