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.

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    Which some would call “showmanship,” and fair enough.

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.

Semi-New Song Sunday: First Aid Kit

Hearing First Aid Kit for the first time makes me wish I’d grown up in their version of the 1970s, instead of the real one

In a rare victory for the YouTube algorithm, it recommended out of the blue the beautiful “Come Give Me Love” by First Aid Kit. The song is a cover of a Swedish pop song from 1973 by Ted Gärdestad. I’d never heard of the song or the artist, or First Aid Kit, for that matter, but they’re quoted describing why the song is significant to them in a post from Clash magazine1(Which I also have never heard of):

Ted Gärdestad is a Swedish national treasure. Just like us he started his music career when he was only a teenager and wrote songs with his older brother Kenneth. […] The original track was produced by none other than Björn and Benny from ABBA, with ABBA on backing vocals. We are huge fans of the original production and wanted to stay close to that 70s folky sound. This is an homage to that time period and recording style.

When I first saw their other videos, I got a heavy Heart vibe, but as I watch more, I realize it’s more like “What if Ann and Nancy Wilson had grown up in Sweden instead of Seattle, and instead of Led Zeppelin they’d really gotten into Simon & Garfunkel and Emmylou Harris?” At which point I’m probably stretching the comparison too far, but I still like it.

I often feel like my generation and the one immediately after are responsible for so much pointless disdain and negativity, getting all worked up about “authenticity” and “appropriation,” which is really nothing but self-righteous ignorance about how culture actually works. It makes me extremely happy to see examples of artists who don’t waste any time worrying about that nonsense, and just celebrate the stuff they love.

First Aid Kit’s songs and videos — hell, even their typography — are homages to the 1970s, and 1970s America in particular, that aren’t tainted by the self-awareness of nostalgia. So they’re allowed to be purely enthusiastic celebrations of the aesthetic itself. Too often when people try to make an homage to the 70s or 80s (or now, I guess, 90s and 2000s), they include all the artifacts like scan lines, film grain, and record hiss: implicit acknowledgements that they’re calling back to something that’s now quaint and dated. But when you present it in high resolution and high fidelity, it’s an admission that “No, I just genuinely love this stuff. And I want to present it the same way they would have, if they’d had easy access to the technology we’ve got.”

Another really nice video is “It’s a Shame”, which has a similar feel to Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” but its gimmick is the much simpler “one of these sisters is having a much better night than the other.” It’s also just a really great song.

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    (Which I also have never heard of)

Semi-New Song Sundays: Nada Surf

Nada Surf is new to me but is still making me nostalgic for my college years.

I’ve heard of Nada Surf before, but to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never actually heard any of their songs. “Song for Congress” is from their 2020 album Never Not Together, and even though it’s not at all subtle, it’s pretty nice. Vocals that vaguely remind me of 60s British pop, jangly guitars, and some nice string arrangements: I’ll allow it.

Probably appropriate for a band that formed in the 1990s, this sounds like exactly the kind of music that was ubiquitous in my college years. Or probably more accurately, during my first job immediately after college, listening to Atlanta “alternative” radio on my commute to work. It would’ve played in between Luscious Jackson, Veruca Salt, and the Crash Test Dummies.

I don’t think I’m going to rush out to get one of their records. If I’m being honest, the reason their music sounds so familiar could very well be because I’ve heard them before and found it completely forgettable. But right now, there’s something comforting seeing a guy who’s grayed almost as much as I have, still making music that immediately takes me back to a better time. The biggest difference is back then, a lot of us were fooled into thinking the Clinton Administration had our best interests at heart, so there were fewer somber pop songs about the leadership vacuum.

Another track from their new album is “Something I Should Do”, which is even more the kind of song that seemed to playing constantly somewhere in Athens, sometimes following you from store to store. Based on the older songs I’ve heard, I’m guessing that the spoken-word-verse — which for “alternative rock” seems to date it to the 1990s as much as if they were making Martin references — is a recurring thing with the band. This time it’s about finding unity in a year with so much deep division. It makes me miss the days when bands could be unapologetically earnest, back before a D-list TV host could demand to see a President’s birth certificate and the people who voted him into office would act aghast that you’d insinuate that they’re racist.

Semi-new Song Sunday: Run the Jewels

New-to-me: Run the Jewels make revolution look like a fun street party

Edited to add: Re-reading this, I noticed I’d carelessly used an idiom without thinking of the implications of it. Instead of silently correcting it, I’d rather draw attention to it as a reminder to be conscious of the connotations of what we write. Below, I wrote that Mike’s speech was about “how far black people have come,” which not only sounds condescending, but also makes it sound as if they were overcoming some internal limitation, or somehow “catching up.” What I should have written was “how much black people have accomplished, even in a system designed to keep them down.”

I’ve tried to get into Run the Jewels a few times, but it never “took” until “Ooh LA LA,” released earlier this year but super-appropriate for watching on repeat over the past week.

The image of dozens (hundreds?) of people dancing in the streets as the excesses of capitalism burn around them may be a little on-the-nose, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome to see.

Speaking of capitalism, that’s been the thing keeping me from getting into Run the Jewels for a while. They just seem like they’re trying way too hard to sell me something. I mean, I know that self-promotion is a huge part of hip hop, but they keep banging the same notes over and over again — the fist and the gun, and yeah we get it, you smoke — so often that it feels more like a commercial than a music video.

The reason I gave them another look is because I respect the hell out of Killer Mike for his heartfelt and reasoned call for peace in response to the protests of the George Floyd murder, at a press conference with his school friend, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. It was inspiring as hell. Not conciliatory, not compromising, vividly angry and disgusted, but reminding us how far black people have come — especially in Atlanta — and reminding everyone to respect the work of generations of people fighting against injustice and to stop tearing down the things that their work had built. After seeing so many white people tsk-tsking and saying “well I don’t see what looting could possibly accomplish,” it was amazing seeing someone calling for peace while still screaming at a system that callously crushes people with no recourse for justice.

I don’t agree with Killer Mike on a lot of political issues, gun control in particular, but those are the kind of political issues about which reasonable adults can disagree. Regardless, I’ve got to respect anybody using his voice and his platform to promote political activism and progressivism. It probably would be a lot easier just to make a fortune making songs about self-promotion.

Like, say, “Call Ticketron” from 2017. There’s not much to it, as far as I can tell, but it’s catchy and it gives Killer Mike a chance to go nuts with the rhymes. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Parekh & Singh

A duo from India reminds me to let pop music be pop, and not to dwell on how quickly the early 2000s are receding from the present.

This week’s entry in music that’s new, to me at least: “I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll” by Indian pop duo Parekh & Singh.

If I’m being honest, it’s really hard for me to turn off the hypercritical part of my brain, the part that says “Wow, these guys were hardcore into Rushmore,” and dismiss it as twee. Because that’s pretty asinine, when a perfectly charming pop song can nail a sound and a feeling, and come across as being a loving tribute to a style instead of simply a crass reproduction of it.

After all, I was really hardcore into Rushmore for a while, too, and I remember how it seemed like such a revelation to hear songs like “Concrete and Clay” for the first time. And since 2020 has been depressing enough, I’ll just conveniently ignore the alarming fact that Rushmore is now over 20 years old (!), meaning that the present is almost as far removed from that movie as that movie was from the songs on its soundtrack. At this point, the style isn’t even so much aping Wes Anderson as it is something that’s become fully integrated into popular culture.

The thing I especially like about the “I Love You Baby” video is how the scenes and details of India are incorporated. I was definitely not a fan of Anderson’s own attempt to do that — The Darjeeling Limited — but I feel like these guys’ videos do a better job of capturing what that movie was going for. There’s a sense of “You know, we don’t really need you to come over here to show India to western audiences; we’ve had TVs and cameras and musical instruments for quite a while, actually.”

I like the music well enough, but the videos are what really makes it feel like 21st century cross-cultural celebration.

Another favorite of mine is “Summer Skin,” which is dreamy and seems to drift between the late 60s and the early 2000s. The un-forced vocals over spacey, jangly guitars somehow conjure an image for me of Cass Elliott collaborating with Stone Roses.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Rina Sawayama

Have you been to that Japanese place, Wagamamas? The one in Heathrow is amazing.

(Warning in case you’ve got profanity-sensitive kids around: the video for “STFU” doesn’t actually say “STFU.” But honestly the f-bomb isn’t anywhere near as offensive as the stuff the boorish guy keeps saying in the first couple of minutes of this video).

Anyway, Rina Sawayama is awesome AF. I heard about her from a “Records in My Life” interview with, unsurprisingly, a few members of Dirty Projectors, in which Felicia Douglas picked Sawayama as an artist she’d recently gotten into via social media. I’m grateful for the reference, because I admit I probably would’ve skipped over Sawayama’s music, because I didn’t understand what she was doing with it.

In short, she’s treating genre as irrelevant, and glamour as irrelevant, combining hooks from pop, dance music, and R&B with heavy metal and whatever the hell else she wants. The result is that it feels like she’s tearing down preconceptions from the inside. She knows that people are going to make assumptions and “read” her as Japanese even though she grew up in England, and dismiss her as “just” a beautiful model instead of as an artist.

Even though I think the song itself is nice but kind of unremarkable, the video for “Bad Friend” is brilliant. It mimics a Japanese TV broadcast of a drama from the late 50s or 60s, with Sawayama in drag as a middle-aged man who’s his own worst enemy. From the sound of the song, you’d never expect it to be a beginning-to-end faithful homage to Tokyo Story-style dramas, much less that the singer would portray herself as a man getting in a bar fight until his hands are bloodied.

But I get the feeling that Sawayama is treating all of it as drag. The video for “XS” first comes across as an R&B-inspired dance pop song, but it’s immediately apparent that that’s just the hook that skims along the surface, in between a metal riff and what sounds like taiko drums and a little bit of flute that seems to mock the idea (or at least lean into the idea) that Japanese culture is alien and exotic. Sawayama’s in drag for this one, too: in the double role of a hyper-excited QVC host and the hyper-sexualized alien creature whose essential juices are being harvested for the product she’s selling.

So again: Rina Sawayama is fantastic, doing pop music with a sensibility that’s somewhere between glam and punk. I think the thing I like best about her work is that she probably doesn’t give a damn what I think of it.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Dirty Projectors

Even before I found myself aged out of the most desirable demographics, I was never somebody who was up to date with new music. That’s partly why I’m so excited to have discovered and fallen in love with a song that was actually released this year! It’s “Overlord” by Dirty Projectors.

On the surface, it just seems like a really pretty, perfectly produced, but straightforward song. And the video (filmed in New York at the beginning of the year, pre-COVID) seems like a combination of New York City as dystopian sci-fi futurescape, and the hazy late 70s-early 80s Childrens Television Workshop film style that The Go! Team gets so right in their videos.

But the more I listen and watch and pay attention to the lyrics, the more sinister and meaningful it becomes. I read it as an indictment of all of us who lose our obligation to the rest of humanity, and see other people as abstracts, while we work towards our own comfort. The only time anyone makes eye contact with the audience is when the singer (Maia Friedman) faces us to say “Help me.”

I first heard the song last night via an NPR Tiny Desk Concert the band performed remotely. As much as like the studio version — from Windows Open, one of the EPs that Dirty Projectors is releasing this year — the version for Tiny Desk is my favorite. I realized after the fact that the format reminds me of Thru-You by Kutiman: although it’s an actual band separated by the pandemic, it has the feeling of a bunch of talented musicians being brought together to make something new.

Unsurprisingly, I’m in love with Dirty Projectors now, especially in its current lineup. My entry point was just last night “discovering” this song from 2018, “Break-Thru”:

It seems like it shouldn’t work, like it’s just on the verge of falling apart, with nothing but a hook, some odd synth sounds, and a falsetto chorus the only thing holding it all together. But it feels not just catchy but absolutely joyful. The effect of the video reminds me of a surreal version Snow White or Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, singing about falling in love to the friendly birds flying in through the window.1I’m only just now catching that I’d typed “birds flying into the window,” which is a much different image than “birds flying in through the window.” We regret the error.

Speaking of falling in love, I’m enjoying being able to discover a brand new band and having 15 years’ worth of their music available to explore. So much that I’m going to try to make it a weekly thing. Giving myself the goal of a weekly blog post will encourage me to look for new music even if I’m not in an exploring mood. I can almost guarantee that most of it won’t be “current,” just that it’s new to me, and I think it’s worth everyone else checking out.

Finally, here’s the embedded version of that wonderful Tiny Desk (Home) concert with Dirty Projectors:

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    I’m only just now catching that I’d typed “birds flying into the window,” which is a much different image than “birds flying in through the window.” We regret the error.