The Divine Comedy: “The Complete Banker” (Band Goes the Knighthood, 2010)

WARNING: Politics ahead. 

This song was written during the financial collapse, but I’ve had a hard time keeping it out of my head the last week. If you need me to spell out why, we’re probably on opposite ends of the political spectrum (or you’re not American and your news this week hasn’t been dominated by a certain political convention).

Anyway, in an era with a relative dearth of protest songs, this witty and vicious take-down of Wall Street culture is valuable and delicious. Let’s not mince words here: our modern economy, dominated by the financial sector, is engineered to make a small number of people very wealthy at the expense of virtually everyone else.

Industrialists of the past may well have been terrible people. They may well have felt genuine contempt for their workers. But they ran businesses that employed people, and as their wealth grew, they brought people along with them. that those people were far behind them is beside the point. The economy of making stuff benefited almost everyone.

The economy of extracting every last penny from a given entity and saddling it with debt you’re not responsible for benefits almost no one, and often directly harms people by killing their jobs. Making money from money is the new big business, and I’m sad to live in a world where this is the case. 

 The man at the center of the action this week, Mitt Romney, could be the guy in this song. He made his fortune in that second economy. And now he’s running for president. I think it’s imperative that we not enshrine money culture in the White House. I don’t want to live in a world that heaps more rewards and power onto people who’ve made a life out of rewarding themselves.

Frisk Frugt: “Biodynamisk Æblejuice Bringer Solen Indenfor Om Vinteren” (Dansktoppen møder Burkina Faso i det himmelblå rum hvor solen bor, suite, 2010)

I don’t know a whole lot about this band. I know they’re from Denmark, though, and they confirm my suspicion that prog rock never died—it just holed up in Northern Europe to bide its time for a comeback. Their name means Fresh Fruit.

"Biodynamisk…" is a little bit Kraftwerk, a little bit Zappa (minus the condescension), with maybe a little bit of Neu! or Cluster and a dash of indie rock. The band is the project of Anders Meldgaard, and the album title translates roughly to The Dane Meets Burkina Faso In The Sky Room Where The Sun Lives, a reference to Meldgaard’s recent trip to West Africa. Some of the rhythms that can be heard mingling with free jazz, motorik and prog on the album do sound a bit similar to some of the balafon and kora music of western Saharan Africa—think Mali and (obviously) Burkina Faso.

There is one previous Frisk Frugt record, a 2006 Lp called Guldtrompeten (I think that means Golden Trumpet?Some things aren’t too difficult to translate from Danish to English).

I’ve learned a couple key phrases in Danish (the first thing I learn to say in the language of any country I’m about to visit is “sorry,” which in this case is “undskyld”), and I’m off for the rest of the week. This blog will resume regularly scheduled programming on July 5th, or, if I’m in the mood and have the opportunity, sooner.

Black Mountain: “Let Spirits Ride” (Wilderness Heart, 2010)

When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision to stay focused on the songs and the thoughts they brought to mind. If I’m doing this correctly, some (probably small) percentage of people who see it read all or most of the post, and it’s sort of a break from everything else they have going on in their day. A song and some thoughts you can choose to read or disregard.

So that’s why I’m not addressing the horrendous, possibly political shooting beyond this little explanation. Maybe I’ll devote something to it once I know more (I couldn’t breathe much authority into a reaction at the moment). Right now, I just hope  she and the rest of the wounded survive. Maybe I didn’t need to explain that, but doing so makes posting a rock song feel a little less incongruous if nothing else.

So anyway, I guess this could be viewed as a leftover from all my year-end 2010 posts, because it was one of my favorite songs of the year that just ended. “Let Spirits Ride” dovetails better than anything else I’ve heard in the last five or so years with all the 70s hard rock I’ve been listening to lately. It just flat-out rocks, and it’s good enough to slot right in alongside Zep and Sabbath and all the other classics. There are a whole lot of bands these days taking this sound all the way; these guys are committed. They not only sing the line, “The rudimentary force of life is shining in your eyes,” they repeat it.

Awesome song for a day of bad news.

Vijay Iyer: “Fleurette Africaine” (Solo, 2010)

This will be my final Year-End 2010 post. It was a good year, and I thought I’d wrap up with something reflective and peaceful, if maybe a little dark.

"Fleurette Africaine" is a Duke Ellington composition, originally performed on the 1960 Ellington/Mingus/Roach album Money Jungle, which is one of my favorite albums ever. On that record, it’s three and a half minutes long and has some of the floating, eerie quality you hear on Iyer’s version, but Iyer really takes it to his own place.

Solo is an excellent record in its own right, and “Fleurette” functions as something of a late-album rest after a frenetic middle. Iyer lets it breathe, working his way in slowly with a set of variations on the main theme, then spends eight minutes exploring every little nook and space within the song. Turns out there are a lot of them waiting to be found—the piece is deceptively simple. Iyer’s exploration is rewarding and very worth eight minutes of your day.

Max Richter: “Journey 4” (Infra, 2010)

Coming to the end of the 2010 wrap-up, I want to check in on a record that got very little attention but turned out to be one of my favorite things in 2010.

Max Richter works in a style close to minimalism that’s not quite minimalism. A better word for it than minimal might just be simple—this is music where not much happens, but it feels as though a lot has transpired when it’s over.

It’s a particular match to the frigid cold we’ve had the last few weeks in Southeast Michigan. The trudging string quartet of “Journey 4” seems to soundtrack the coating of snow and the gray, ragged tops of the bare, wind-blasted trees out my window. It also oddly works to musically describe the peculiar warmth of this time of year, when you’re inside, buffered from the cold by walls and heavy clothing, and a lot of people have lights out.

I’m not much for Christmas or religion or shopping or any of that, but I do love the lights this time of year. The way strings of small lights illuminate a room or a lawn from so many points at once, without clear shadows and a soft evenness is very pleasing. It looks warm even when the temperature is hanging out in the teens (Fahrenheit, anyway).

Is it odd that I hear in this music some sort of insulating quality? Something that keeps out the cold even as it plays as a perfect soundtrack to the sights of a cold time of year?

Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabate: “Fantasy” (Ali & Toumani, 2010)

I spent less time this year with “world” music than I usually get to, for a whole boring variety of reasons. It hurt a bit, really, to process so little of it, because I feel like music, more than anything else, is what keeps me connected to people around the globe, and not just in the mundane way the Internet literally connects me, but a real emotional connection, to people with whom I share little else in common.

I don’t know if the fact that it was one of the few non-Western albums I had a chance to spend a lot of time with had anything to do with it, but this wound up atop my albums list. There’s no science to putting those lists together. It just seemed right to have it there.

Ali and Toumani are two of Mali’s greatest modern artists. This is Ali Farka Touré’s very last recording. He was sick when he made it, and I think he knew. He pours himself into his guitar on every second of this album, and he’s not showy—he mainly provides a hypnotic, rock-solid bed for Diabate’s kora explorations. This is what Ali Farka Touré was: solid, a man people could count on and lean on.

He much of the end of his life as mayor of his hometown, Niafunké, where he spent his own money, earned from a successful performing and recording career, to improve services. It saddens me greatly that we’ll never hear new music from him again.

"Fantasy" is Ali and Toumani improvising on the spot. It’s beautiful in very uncomplicated way—I’m not sure how many Western musicians are even capable of achieving this kind of beauty. We have our own kinds of beauty for a reason, I suppose.

All my year-end lists in one place

Now that 2010 really is almost over, here are my favorite albums, tracks and videos, listed out for your viewing pleasure/potential brickbats. Follow the jump.

Albums

  1. Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate - Ali & Toumani
  2. Vampire Weekend - Contra
  3. Laura Veirs - July Flame
  4. Surfer Blood - Astro Coast
  5. Janelle Monae - The Archandroid
  6. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  7. Max Richter - Infra
  8. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM
  9. Hot Chip - One Life Stand
  10. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
  11. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way
  12. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
  13. Mulatu Astatke - Steps Ahead
  14. Shearwater - The Golden Archipelago
  15. Black Keys - Brothers
  16. Field Music - Measure
  17. These New Puritans - Hidden
  18. Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman - Dual Identity
  19. Viernes - Sinister Devices
  20. Seven That Spells - Future Retro Spasm
  21. Gil Scott-Heron - I’m New Here
  22. Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone
  23. Society of Rockets - Future Factory
  24. Big Boi - Lucious Left Foot: the Son of Chico Dusty
  25. Glasser - Ring
  26. Malakai - The Ugly Side of Love
  27. Grinderman - 2
  28. Tamaryn - The Waves
  29. Scissor Sisters - Night Work
  30. Portico Quartet – Isla
  31. Kings Go Forth - The Outsiders Are Back
  32. Johann Johannsson - And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees
  33. William Parker - I Plan To Stay A Believer
  34. Various Artists - Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers
  35. Sam Amidon - I See the Sign
  36. Vijay Iyer - Solo
  37. Highlife - Best Bless EP
  38. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
  39. Jack Rose - Luck In the Valley
  40. Twin Shadow – Forget
  41. Menomena - Mines
  42. Holy Fuck - Latin
  43. Chatham County Line - Wildwood
  44. Brooklyn Rider - The Dominant Curve
  45. Brian McBride - The Effective Disconnect
  46. Brett Anderson - Slow Attack
  47. Rachid Taha - Bonjour
  48. Nightlands - Forget The Mantra
  49. Manic Street Preachers - Postcards From A Young Man
  50. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

Tracks

  1. Yeasayer - ONE
  2. LCD Soundsystem - I Can Change
  3. Twista - The Heat ft. Raekwon
  4. Seven That Spells - Terminus Est
  5. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - The Game Gets Old
  6. Field Music - Them That Do Nothing
  7. Vampire Weekend - Giving Up the Gun
  8. Scissor Sisters - Invisible Light
  9. Title Tracks - Steady Love
  10. Tame Impala - Runway, Houses, City, Clouds
  11. Big Boi - Shutterbug (ft. Cutty)
  12. New Pornographers - The Crash Years
  13. Slow Club - Giving Up On Love
  14. Love Language - Heart To Tell
  15. Jonathan Boulet - A Community Service Announcement
  16. Retribution Gospel Choir - Hide It Away
  17. Nas & Damian Marley - As We Enter
  18. Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone
  19. Cults - Go Outside
  20. Kanye West - Power
  21. LCD Soundsystem - Pow Pow
  22. Sade - Soldier of Love
  23. Society of Rockets - We
  24. Laura Veirs - July Flame
  25. Familjen - Nar Planeterna Stannat
  26. Belle & Sebastian - I Want The World To Stop
  27. Malakai - Shitkicker
  28. Highlife - Tuareg Dancehall
  29. Captain Ahab - Acting Hard
  30. Keepaway - Yellow Wings
  31. Black Keys - Next Girl
  32. Charlotte Gainsbourg - Trick Pony
  33. Vampire Weekend - White Sky
  34. Holy Fuck - Latin America
  35. Surfer Blood - Floating Vibes
  36. Hot Chip - One Life Stand
  37. Cee-Lo - Fuck You
  38. Wolf Parade - Yulia
  39. Kings Go Forth - Don’t Take My Shadow
  40. Janelle Monae - Tighrope (ft. Big Boi)
  41. Shearwater - Corridors
  42. Sage Francis - The Best of Times
  43. Mia X - Verbal Assault
  44. These New Puritans - We Want War
  45. Wolf People - October Fires
  46. Beck & Bat For Lashes - Let’s Get Lost
  47. Jacka & Laroo - Don’t Be Scared (ft. Matt Blaque)
  48. Vijay Iyer - Fleurette Africaine
  49. Japandroids - Art Czars
  50. Glasser - Mirrorage

Videos (no order)

Wolf Parade: “Yulia” (Expo 86, 2010)

Wolf band #2. And this song is maybe a throwback in its own way, too. The late-70s Springsteen/Landis aesthetic has been used a lot in indie rock over the last half-decade, but I think it’s often used in a somewhat empty way, like bands piling on the glockenspiel ripping off the “Thunder Road” guitar tone in an attempt to make their songs sound bigger than they are.

But Springsteen’s songs earned their bigness, which is why it usually sounds so hollow when bands try to sound like that. This song, I think, does a good job of earning its bigness. The video (one of my favorites this year) actually reflects its content—the story of a Soviet cosmonaut whose mission went badly, stranding him in space.

There is a lot of heavy content here. For one thing, the Soviet space program really did lose people. There’s a whole school of thought, based on some radio transmissions intercepted by a pair of Italian brothers in 1960, that Yuri Gagarin wasn’t actually the first man in space—he was only the first to come back. The transmissions those brothers intercepted sounded like a man getting further and further away. This song seems based on that story.

Can you imagine that? You’re in this tiny capsule, the first man in space, thinking about the hero’s welcome and the accidents of time and place that put your name in history, and then there’s bad news. Your telemetry is off. You’re not settling into orbit. You’re not ever coming back. What do you think about?

In Wolf Parade’s world, you think of the woman you love. You call her name over and over. And you know that it won’t be your name going in the books:

So when they turn the cameras on you
Baby please don’t speak of me
Point up to the dark above you
As they edit me from history
I’m 20 million miles from a comfortable home
And space is very cold
Yulia

This song has all the weight of a great short story, plus the added weight of a surging arrangement and great melody. It’s really pretty haunting when you focus on the lyrics.

Wolf People: “October Fires” (Tidings, 2010)

It’s wolf day on Every Great Song Ever. Two songs I loved this year by bands with wolf in their names. Sorry the theme doesn’t go any deeper than that. First up, Wolf People, a UK quartet that sounds like it came out of the London scene in 1965 alongside John Mayall, the Yardbirds and the Graham Bond Organization.

Actually, maybe 1968 is the better year to reference here. That’s the year British blues-rock and psych really starting tilting en masse toward what would become progressive rock, and there are shades of that transition in this song, even though it post-dates it by decades. They’re releasing albums at a 1968 clip, too: in addition to Tidings, they also put out an album called Steeple this year.

Basically, I have one rule about faithful throwbacks: if they’re as good as the original stuff they’re recalling, I’ll hold them in the same esteem as said original stuff. That’s why I put Sharon Jones in or near my top ten every year she releases an album. On their best songs, Wolf People easily meet that standard. Throw this song in a mix with “Beck’s Bolero,” “White Room” and “Shapes Of Things” and you’ll see what I mean.

Big Boi: “Fo Yo Sorrows” (ft. Too $hort, George Clinton & Sam Chris) (Sir Lucious Left Foot: the Son of Chico Dusty, 2010)

I love looking at George Clinton. He’s almost his own species, like a bird of paradise that somehow grew into a big-boned man whose clothes make it appear that his body has no actual contours. I love listening to the guy, too. I think he’s an overlooked singer—it’s actually easy to overlook his singing, because he’s spent most of his career emphasizing his role as a ringleader more than his roll as a vocalist. But he’s good, and at this late date, listening to him talk is probably even more fun than listening to him sing.

My brother-in-law actually knows Clinton and has recorded an album featuring the man’s speaking voice (as yet unreleased). It’s through this connection that I’ve come to be familiar with Clinton’s visual art and develop an appreciation of the man as the star in the center of his old solar system.

Which is maybe one of the reasons that, as much as I love “Shutterbugg” and dug pretty much the whole rest of Big Boi’s album this year, “Fo Yo Sorrows” stood out to me as the one to love. There’s a student/master thing going on here that I just love, and I think Big Boi and of course Outkast’s overall approach owes quite a bit to the Clinton P-Funk world’s expansive creative vision.

I think the “I’ll roll one tonight fo yo sorrows” refrain is one of the best kiss-offs I’ve heard in a while. It’s kind of like telling someone you’re playing the world’s tiniest invisible violin for them.