Semi-New Song Sunday: Arlo Parks

Poet and musician shows that “calming & relaxing” can have some amount of substance

I’ve had good luck with the algorithm this week: just five minutes ago, I checked Apple Music to see if there were any interesting recommendations, and it offered up Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks. “Hope” is a standout song because it’s the mission statement of the album: uplifting music about a topic with substance.

It first reminds me of Morcheeba, probably because that’s the only frame of reference I have for a British woman singing over a lofi electronic track. Parks’s music isn’t as musically complex or unusual as even Morcheeba’s (which deliberately is about “chill”1In quotes because using chill as an adjective is a huge pet peeve for me more than challenge) but the lyrics are much more complex.

I also like “Portra 400” from the same album.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Ana Tijoux

French-Chilean rapper and singer Ana Tijoux makes politically-conscious music (even for those of us who can’t understand it)

This week’s new-to-me music comes courtesy of Neko Case’s Instagram account. Ana Tijoux is a Chilean singer and rapper, born in France, where her parents had fled after Pinochet’s coup d’etat.

Even though my Spanish is limited to counting and identifying pencils, I could tell that “Antipatriarca” is a political song. (I used context clues). What the video makes clear is that the idea of separating art from politics isn’t “conservative;” it’s absurd. It’s only because people have spent decades encouraging an insulated and uninformed middle class — which, to be clear, absolutely includes me — that we’ve even got the notion that political decisions don’t have much of an impact on “normal people.”

And this is a great example of the old idea that music is universal. I know even less about Chilean politics than I do about Spanish vocabulary, but pairing the images and the messages with music means that more people like me are going to be seeing it and hearing it for the first time.

The most recent performance by Tijoux that I can find is this video from KEXP, in which she performs 5 songs. It’s kind of a tough sell for me to listen to 20 minutes’ worth of songs in a language I don’t understand, but this is really a showcase for what a fantastic singer she is, as well as being a talented rapper. And she not only seems to effortlessly slide between singing and rapping, but she combines the two at key moments. It’s completely captivating.

My favorite track so far is the title track from her album 1977. Based on the title and the video, I’m guessing it’s her life story. The focus is on her rapping, but I love the samples just as much. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever heard before.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Jon Batiste

Jon Batiste’s new dance-filled video is a lot of fun… I think?

Jon Batiste seems to be in the middle of a promotional blitz lately; I’m assuming it’s because of his work on Pixar’s Soul? Part of that is the video for “I Need You,” which is a lot of fun.

I mean… I think it is? There’s something about it that makes me think it’s as authentic as one of the old Gap commercials. Which, to be clear, I loved at the time, but then felt bad about it afterwards. As if I’d let my guard down and let myself be charmed by something completely insincere.

I suspect the reason I haven’t heard of Batiste before is because I don’t watch the Stephen Colbert show, for similar reasons. It seems to come from the same place as a lot of the stuff I want to like — D&D, Lord of the Rings, David Byrne, unconventional music-video presentations — but somehow makes them feel completely inauthentic. It’s this weird dissonance; I don’t doubt that Colbert was genuinely into D&D, or that Batiste genuinely loves jazz. But when I see one doing a play-through, or the other doing a dance video, it comes across as forced sincerity.

I’m a lot less conflicted about the video for “Don’t Stop” from 2018. It’s just a pared-down song and a similarly sparse dance performance on a New York rooftop, and it feels a lot more genuine was a result.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Foster the People

Re-discovering Foster the People with a recent EP I like almost as much as their first album

Foster the People isn’t “new to me” music — although I did only get into Torches after it seemed like everyone else in the world had gotten tired of it — but I kind of lost interest for a while. I’d been pretty eagerly waiting for their second album, but it didn’t do much for me. And I was so uninterested in their third album that until just now, I didn’t even realize it existed.

But last year they released a new EP, In The Darkest of Nights, Let the Birds Sing, and it somehow re-captures the stuff I liked about Torches. Specifically: that album was so all over the place that I’d been hearing the most well-known tracks for at least a year before I realized that they were all by the same artist. But at the same time, there’s a consistent sound that ties the whole thing together.

My favorite track on the new EP is the first, “Walk With a Big Stick,” because it sounds like it was designed to be my favorite: it’s like they took an alternate take of “Pumped Up Kicks” from Torches and duct-taped The Beach Boys on top of it. And it works brilliantly. I’ll always associate this band with Los Angeles, because Torches came on while I was driving alone through the city on a road trip to Disneyland, and it felt at that moment like it was the official soundtrack to early-21st-century LA. Adding a surf guitar chorus just amps that up even more. Maybe it’s a gimmick, but I don’t really care.

Also feeling like an odd mash-up of styles is “Under the Moon.” It has a mid-80s sound I can’t quite place — Echo & the Bunnymen? Psychedelic Furs? — but is tied to the rest of the EP by Ben Foster’s unique voice.

From what little I know about the band, I get the impression that the first album was so heavily influenced by having a “viral hit” and licensing deals for games and TV commercials, that it has an inescapable connotation of being a purely commercial record. Which is unfair, since it’s a really good album overall. Something about this EP feels like they’re going back to embracing the hooks and the gimmickry, and I think it’s much better for it!

Semi-New Song Sunday: Eerie Gaits

Changing up the mood with some calming and uplifting instrumentals

The other night, I started listening to Holopaw by Eerie Gaits because Apple Music told me to. I was really enjoying the opening track, “What’s Eating You,” and kept waiting for the verse to start, but the words never came.

I can’t say I’m all that mad about it, though. It’s really good at setting a mood, which for me is the sense of being at the end of Act 2 or a late 90s or early 2000s romantic comedy, when the protagonist comes out of a crisis with a heightened sense of resolve, and — either packing up boxes while leaving the office, or turning around to look at the front door of the house for the last time and nod sagely — thinks, Maybe I’ll get through this after all.

That’s even more intense in “The Rainbow Trout and the Wicker Creel,” which adds the feeling of music you’d hear laid on top of a montage of stock footage. Like many of the tracks on Holopaw, it feels like music that’s supposed to supplement something else, either lyrics or images, instead of standing on its own. But I still can’t help but enjoy it.

“Saw You Through the Trees” is my favorite track, because it’s the one that works best as a standalone composition. It doesn’t sound like anything’s missing, but it could also work great as part of the soundtrack for a movie that’s heartwarming and uplifting AF.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Juanita Stein

New to me: highlights of Juanita Stein’s album “Snapshot,” which feels like a bunch of honest, acoustic songs, plussed up.

“Snapshot” by Juanita Stein is the first of her songs that I heard, and as far as I can tell, it’s a great introduction. The hook of her repeated vocal call/whistle keeps it feeling other-worldly, along with the echoing guitars. But at the same time, it feels honest and not-at-all overproduced; the ethereal flourishes just keep it in your attention and make it feel more substantial than “just” a singer with a guitar.

I can’t think of anything specific in my library that sounds quite like it, and yet it somehow reminds me of an act that I totally would have seen in Athens in the mid-1990s. The closest comparison I could make is possibly a less soporific version of The Sundays, who’d been more influenced by 1970s country-influenced rock?

I’ve listened to more of the album Snapshot, and it feels to me very much like a “slow burn” type of record. Nothing apart from the hoots in the title song stood out as distinctive at first. But then as time went on, I found myself catching bits and pieces of the songs running through my head, and coming back for another listen.

“Hey Mama” is an even stronger example of the just-enough aesthetic: Like the video, it’s spare, simple, and straightforward, but mixes in a bit of mystery to make it stand out in your mind afterward. I especially like the coda in this video, in which she makes it explicit how this is a complex song with an acoustic base.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Royal Blood

You really can’t go wrong with straightforward rock music from someone who knows how to write a good hook.

“Trouble’s Coming” by Royal Blood was another good choice by the YouTube algorithm, since it was exactly the kind of song I was in the mood to hear. Solid, straightforward, slickly-produced, rock music. It’s just a good song, kind of reminding me of the first time I heard the White Stripes, but without even their level of gimmickry and pretense.1Which some would call “showmanship,” and fair enough.

The thing I keep reading about Royal Blood is that they were making demos before their first album, and they surprised themselves by how big a sound they could achieve with just a bass and a drum set. Is that true, or the kind of thing record labels push in interviews to give a band a memorable hook? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s just good to see bands led by good-looking young men making catchy music finally able to get a break.

I need a hook to get me invested, though, and with Royal Blood it’s their video to “How Did We Get So Dark?” from 2017, which I love more than I can effectively describe. In case there were any doubt, it makes it clear that they’re having a ton of fun with all of this.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Kasabian

My awareness of the rock band Kasabian has been brief but meaningful.

Definitely not new, but new to me, is UK band Kasabian. I’d never heard of them until seeing the video for their song “Vlad the Impaler” starring Noel Fielding.

Looking around online, it seems weird that I haven’t heard of them, since they seem like the’d be big enough that even someone as out of it as I am would’ve caught on by now. It’s solid, interesting, and pretty varied rock and roll. They’ve got a pretty big following in the UK, and they’ve had songs on FIFA video games. Which tracks, because it sounds very much like the music EA Sports finds interesting.

Just hearing about them now feels a little unsettling, as if I’d just stumbled into some kind of alternate universe where Oasis never existed. I’m curious how popular Kasabian is in the US.

Anyway, it sounds like I shouldn’t get too attached, because the lead singer was fired from the band this summer, after being convicted of domestic assault. My roughly-30-minute journey with this band has had some highs and lows, though, and at least we’ll always have “eez-eh”.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Haim on Rhye feat. Mustard

I’ve been thinking of the “Semi-New Song Sunday” experiment as a failure, because it hasn’t been turning up a non-stop stream of My New Favorite Bands. But really, it’s been an unexpected success. Pushing myself to find new (to me) music every week has meant I’m seeing more of what’s out there, and I’m learning more about what exactly I like.

For instance: I’d much rather watch a good video for a middling song, than listen to a good song with no video.

I like the band HAIM just fine, but I rarely go out of my way to listen to them, and I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize any of their songs apart from “The Wire.” But this performance of their song “3AM” from Late Night With Seth Meyers has a video call from Robert Pattinson driving them to become a pop band made up of vampire brides, which is just objectively cool and memorable.

When it became clear that COVID lockdowns were going to make it impossible for shows to have live audiences, I expected everything to go the telecommuting route, like NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts or those episodes of SNL. It’s been neat to see more people taking advantage of it, with stuff like the Apple presentations that are so much slicker and more interesting than their old keynotes, and these concerts that give musicians (or more likely, their labels) more freedom to be creative than a simple live setup on a talk show stage. I hope it’s one of those things that they keep doing going forward, realizing that the only reason they’ve been doing the exact same thing since the Ed Sullivan show is that they were never forced to come up with an alternative.

“Black Rain” by Rhye is an even stronger example, though, because this “80s version of disco” is so forgettable on its own that it passes right through me like bran flakes. But put a preternaturally ripped actor out there dancing like nobody but his wife who directed the video is watching, and you’ve got my attention.

This video has more 2020 energy behind it, if you can ignore the fact that people who aren’t in super-hero movies don’t have bodies like that. It feels like that One Guy who’s there early at every single concert, alone on the dance floor just losing his shit to the opening act. And because all the concerts have been shut down, he’s got no recourse but to go out to his deck every night, take his shirt and shoes off, and rock his body to music that only he can hear.

The other reason I’d call this experiment a success is because learning what I like also means learning what I don’t like. For instance: “Pure Water” by Mustard and Migos. I watched every video by Mustard that I could find, because I was desperate to make a Dad Joke in the title of this post, and none of it is for me at all. I just think it’s all repetitive, auto-tuned to hell, and astoundingly dull. This collaboration with Migos was the most tolerable one I could find, and I’m still not a fan.

I always knew that by the time I hit 50, I’d hate all the music that was popular. Even when I was a teenager, there was only a window of a couple of months in the early 80s that I did like popular music. But I imagined I’d be like the middle-aged, white, TV writers at Hanna-Barbera, trying to skewer The Beatles with “Bug Music” in The Flintstones. I thought I’d find the music-the-youths-listen-to-these-days to be too loud, too violent, too dumb, or too harsh for me. I never expected that I’d find it so god-awful boring.

I’m not interested in wasting time talking about stuff I don’t like, because taste is subjective, and it’s time better spent amplifying the things I love. But this was a great example for the “Semi-New Song” experiment. I went in assuming that there was all this great music out there that I just wasn’t cool enough to be aware of. It’s nice to be reminded that my verifiable lack of coolness doesn’t have much of anything to do with what music I like.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Aunty Donna

Aunty Donna is an Australian comedy group that has been aggressively promoting their new Netflix series. I heard about them via an Australian video/podcast channel I watch regularly called “Mr. Sunday Movies,” so now YouTube believes I’m the world’s biggest fan, and is recommending them constantly. “Everything’s a Drum” is from a two-year-old live benefit performance and has been running in a near-constant loop in my head since I first saw it.

I mean, it’s absurdist improv-oriented sketch comedy, so it’s hit or miss. But they’re always 10,000% committed to the bit, which keeps it moving. And when they do hit, it’s fantastic. If you’ve got Netflix, check out at least Episode 6, which has a silly sketch about the boys buying a jukebox, with Paul F Tompkins as a guest. It’s got what might be my favorite gag of anything in the past five years.

Maybe my “new-to-me music on Sundays” pledge has already gone off the rails, but I assure you it’s not for a lack of trying. I keep looking for stuff, but so little of it interests me. (Apologies to YouTube, Apple Music, and several of her fans on Twitter, but I just can’t get into Phoebe Bridgers no matter how many times I listen to her songs). I guess my tastes are a lot more narrow than I ever suspected.

Whatever the case, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the last week looking for new artists I might like. And instead, I keep just singing the line “I got a synonym book and it makes me pleased” from “Chuffed (Dad Song)”. I guess the heart wants what it wants.