Tag Archives: 2000s

Panic! Attack, Part 1: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out

Welcome to my non-consecutive (currently) five-part series taking a look at the discography of Panic! at the Disco (formerly ‘Panic at the Disco’, who was formerly ‘Panic! at the Disco’). At only four studio albums (and one live one), their oeuvre is not particularly daunting, and I’m particularly curious to see how they have evolved their sound. My only memory of them from when they broke out in 2005 is the one line from the chorus “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, but other than that particular vocal I remembered absolutely nothing. At this time, I was heading backwards into music’s history (I have a distinct memory of my friend Nik walking into my dorm room, handing me a huge shoe-box of CDs and saying “this is ‘A.'”), and was really selective about what I put in my ears, with much of my palette consisting of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Since that time, I hadn’t really given them a thought until my lovely girlfriend Chloe told me that they were one of her absolute favourite bands. Not even knowing that they were still producing music, and after a little chin-scratching, I decided the only thing for it was to see what was up with these guys. The prospect of widening my tastes and having more music to listen to is one I find terribly exciting!

The first thing that struck me listening to A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is that singer Brandon Urie is all over this album! He rarely stops to break, but that’s because he’s not just the singer of the band – he’s also the emcee. The album begins, appropriately, with “Introduction”, where someone’s clicking down the dial on a radio and looking for something that speaks to them before hearing “Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present a picturesque score of passing fancy”, everything very much muffled and distant before we delve into the meat of the album a few seconds later as we accept out invitation to this world.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage” begins the album proper as an invocation and a pledge to the audience that they’re going to get a show if they only promise to pay attention (much like Queen’s “Let Me Entertain You” or The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) – “Swear to shake it up/if you swear to listen” rings the chorus. The song is all about establishing that relationship with the audience up front, as Urie and the band will be your guide through this world so you gotta know you can trust them going forward (“Don’t you see/I’m the narrator and this is just the prologue?”). Nowhere is this more evident than in the first few seconds of the song where it’s made clear that you are not just listen, but you are having a conversation – “Sit tight/I’m gonna need you to keep time/Come on just snap snap snap/your fingers for me”. All very well and good, audience participation is encouraged. It’s that the next line is “Good good/now we’re making some progress” that makes you take a step back and go ‘whoa, he’s paying attention’.

Not that it’s difficult to keep your ear on the beat. There’s a lot of straight ahead backbeating and guitar crunching with the amount of swagger appropriate to the theatricality of the show. The energy is so high here and things move at such a swift pace it’s easy to miss things as they go by – a few bars of out-and-out EDM spring fully formed out of the bridge and we whip by a quiet multi-faceted harmony before launching back into the chorus.

That first song is a great example of what makes the album such a joy to listen to – it’s clear that the band’s influences are legion and they’re eager to get as many of them into the proceedings as possible (hence the “passing fancy” of the introduction). They have thrown everything on this record, hung on the skeleton of the tried and true guitar-bass-drums punk rock format. “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” begins with a great overdriven synth riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Metric track; “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written By Machines” features a space reserved for a gain-drenched drum kit to pound around; “Intermission” is part-synthesizer disco track until the interruption and apology by our radio announcer friend before moving into a frilly classical-sounding piano piece.

Each track on the album is a little journey with all the parts with different instruments, tunes and beats that build up to the chorus – the unison section of “But It’s Better If You Do” is casual demonstration of the band’s skill while still keeping things terribly exciting before the refrain comes around again and everyone can relax (comparatively speaking). “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, the album’s and possibly the band’s most popular single begins with a riff on a plucked cello with some bowed bass notes and a xylophone tinkling the rhythm away during the verses – another nod to the influence of classical music on the band – before launching into the straight-ahead thrashing of the chorus while nodding and adding “Seriously!” when Urie asks “haven’t you people ever heard of/closing the goddamned door?”

As an album written with a clear love of music in every corner and an equal love for all things proper and theatrical (“Please leave all overcoats, canes and top hats/with the doorman”, Urie requests in “There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet”), A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is one of those very rare debut albums that quite possibly gets out everything the band wants the public to know about it while maintaining a certain cohesion and boundless energy. 40 minutes from open to close, Panic! makes their statement without wearing out their welcome and having you itching to get back to that world at your earliest possible convenience.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”

“But It’s Better If You Do”

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies”

Happy Anniversary. ūüôā

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Toxic Canadian Rock Syndrome: Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Fashionable People

It’s not all Nickelbacks, Dions and Biebers up here. It’s not even all Loverboys, Triumphs and Troopers (still a lot of Rush, though). We still have the rock, sometimes you just gotta look for it. Sometimes, it wins a Grammy and people are angry because they’ve never heard of the group before. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a band that has the best name based around a bandleader since “Blues Explosion.” Joel Plaskett Emergency’s¬†Ashtray Rock brings the quirk, the rock, the jangly indie bits, the sweater vests and a concept album with a story as old as time: two dudes start a band, fall in love with the same girl and have a falling out. “Fashionable People” sets the scene at a party where the narrator has stars in his eyes and attempts to entice a girl away from all the other wannabes.

Immediately, the words of youth – “I feel foolish/I wanna drink too much”. As the narrator drinks, he attempts to talk up this girl he’s met, decrying all the other people at the party as he tries to make himself out to be the clear the prime candidate for attention: “I bet their parents/Are ridiculously loaded/Let’s get moving/Before I’m loaded.” The narrator uses the opportunity to talk about what’s on his mind, flaunting his newly-formed band, reciting the mantra “Fashionable people/Doing questionable things” to set his partying and recklessness up as a contribution to his future lifestyle instead of just being a drunk teenager. All the while, he attempts to be sly in getting with the girl he’s having the conversation with – “I like your boyfriend too/Do you think he’d understand?” – before the booze gets to his brain and he just says what he’s really thinking: “So ditch him/He’s no good for you…Switch him/Switch him up with me/Leave him in a ditch/And you can take a ride for free”. Plaskett’s relaxed delivery perfectly suits the tale as he delivers it with all the swaggering confidence he can muster.

The thing I will always take away from this song is the absolute insane drum sound when the chorus hits and Plaskett sings “the dancers need a dancefloor!”, very much carrying on from the sound used on David Bowie’s¬†Low, but with much more feedback.¬†The verses are light affairs with a heavily accented rhythm of drums, bass and light synth, with the guitar buried in the middle – none of which have any effects on them . This is what makes the chorus seem that much more boisterous when it comes around. The snare simply explodes with a few carefully-measured hits with a beautiful, overdriven raucous sound, as you bang you head and are ready to petition the government for more dancefloor space when you realize that you’re also hearing the guitar unleash for the first time. Drenched in gain but still crisp enough to whiff the fumes of those high notes on the guitar, the verse/chorus dynamic is done simply but very effectively. What makes it curiouser is the almost anti-chorus that follows the melee, as things tighten right back up and a small falsetto chorus chants “fashionable/fashionable/fashionable people” in the most delicate way possible with a little shaker in the background, which is silly but a great hook in its own right – more often than not, that’s the bit I’m singing after the song’s over!

There’s no getting around a solid song with a great hook, and for that, “Fashionable People” has earned many many relistens for me. It might be that I just like singing in falsetto a lot, too, but that certainly ain’t a strike against it!

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A Tale of Two Johns: They Might Be Giants in 10 Songs

They Might Be Giants have been around for so long now and are so prolific that there’s no way they weren’t going to engrain themselves into popular culture, regardless of whether people knew that they were there or not. From writing and composing the themes of The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, to their songs being featured on Tiny Toons, to their collaboration with the Brothers Chaps at Homestar Runner, not to mention 16 studio albums to date, the two Johns from Brooklyn are seemingly inescapable in one small way or another. ¬†These points are only the tip of the iceberg, however.

Rounding about 30 years making music together, John Flansbergh and John Linnell are seemingly tireless with adapting to new styles, sending up existing ones, oftentimes trying the patience of the audience and always keeping things very silly. It always takes me awhile to parse a They Might Be Giants lyric, because they look at life from the most¬†obtuse¬†angles. “Ana Ng”, a potential love song to the one time Vietnamese smallest woman in the world begins with “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/to the name of this town on a desktop globe/exit wound in a foreign nation/showing the home of the one this was written for”. To stay on the subject, in “Purple Toupee” they describe the Vietnam War as “Chinese people fighting in the park/We tried to help ’em fight – no one appreciated that.” Theoretically, many of the things described in the songs are things we all experience, but you have to tilt your head at a hell of an angle.

Here’s ten songs to act as sort of a broad primer to this quirky band, though there’s so much to uncover, it’s hard to know what to leave out!:

1) Don’t Let’s Start,¬†They Might Be Giants (1986)

Described as being about “not let’s starting” by John Linnell, this was TMBG’s first single – their first cry into pop culture as they started to find their way. And what a cry it was. Ostensibly about a break-up, few songs contain the strange mix of absurdity and melancholy sent to an intermittent jangly guitar rhythm as this one does. The narrator keeps trying to cope with what’s going on, but spends the whole song talking around the subject.”Wake up! Smell the catfood/In your bank account” cries Linnell, after comparing the subject of the song to a cat for about a verse, while a minute later, shoegazing with the line “everybody dies frustrated inside/and that is beautiful”. It’s a peppy, energetic song and the combination of pop hook and sad lyric would serve them well throughout their career. The balls-out commitment and refusal to tone down any of the weirdness gives that “two against the world” feeling of a fresh new band trying to make their indelible and confusing mark (there were no band members other than the two Johns until 1994’s John Henry)¬†The video contains what would remain hallmarks for quite a few of their videos – weird choreography, goofy faces, black and white, and giant cut-outs of the head of newspaper editor William Allen White.

2) They’ll Need A Crane,¬†Lincoln (1988)

From one of my favourite albums of all time, this is the one. The poppiest, heartbreakingist track you’ll ever hear. Second album in and they nailed it. As is often the case, the title belies the true focus of the song – a relationship in just complete dissolution as they cling tighter to the architecture of it: “They’ll need a crane/to take the house he built for her apart”. The song is peppered with clever little stories and observations about our protagonists, Gal and Lad as they come apart – “Lad looks at other gals/Gal thinks Jim Beam is handsomer than Lad/He isn’t bad” – as the wobbly bassline (wobbly as in coming from an 80s synth, not as in dubstep) bops along underneath, displaying the poppiness of the track almost brazenly in the face of the destruction of the couple’s metaphorical home. Never has it been easier to sing along to something so¬†devastating as Linnell and Flansbergh once again prove their knack for earworms.

3) Birdhouse in Your Soul, Flood (1990)

Stepping away from the theme of love, this is one of the Giants’ more popular songs, having been covered on Pushing Daisies by Kristen Chenoweth and steering just shy of psychedelia into silliness. Though the narrator of the song is stated outright at the beginning – “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you” – it’s a little hard to swallow that this is going to be a song from the perspective of a nightlight. The best moment comes when he realizes that if he were to the light in the lighthouse that steers Jason and the argonauts home, that he probably wouldn’t do a very good job, which makes things even stranger. Rather than being in a situation that is relatable, TMBG takes the perspective of something mundane and utterly nonhuman, and shows us its perspective – it just wants to be “the only bee in your bonnet” after all. It’s hard to deny it’s a charming song. The four-note trumpet solo in the middle sort of underlines the absurdity of the whole proceeding, though the song is actually a bit more nuanced than its predecessors, with a few distinct sections and a deft synth guiding us through the whole thing.

4) The Guitar, Apollo 18 (1992)

One of TMBG’s experiment at playing with convention, you leave “The Guitar” both frustrated and amused. After a funky bass intro, the titular instrument shows up and starts to jam only for a couple seconds before it’s found out and the introductory words of “Hey!/Who’s that playin’/Hey!/The guitar” set the tone. “Is it Jim?/I don’t know” serves as a pretty weak interrogation to get to the bottom of the mystery, but a much more interesting one makes itself known soon after. The tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” interrupts the song three times, each progressing a very strange story we get to see so frustratingly little of “In the spaceship/The silver spaceship/The Lion take control”, the first line ominously tells us, soon to be followed by “The Lion’s on the phone” and “The Lion waves goodbye”. What does the Lion want from us? It is unfortunately, never made clear, nor is the identity of the guitar player (though it’s probably John Flansbergh). Despite the guitar being the titular instrument, it’s really the saxophone that takes centre stage here, as it lays down the big riff during the chorus and peels away in the middle of the song, presumably out of frustration at not being able to figure who is playing the guitar.

5) Meet James Ensor, John Henry (1994)

“Meet James Ensor” would definitely go in the category of ¬†one of the Johns’ ‘cute little songs.’ It clocks in at 1:33 and moves along at a rapid pace, providing sad detail about actual Belgian painter James Ensor, who lived “before there were junk stores/before there was junk” and seemed to be quite a tortured genius. Seeming to really be interested in people learning about him, in the chorus, TMBG asks you in a sort of morbid way to “dig him up and shake his hand”. They seem to have good intentions, but it’s difficult when you hear a gobsmackingly well-written and saddening stanza as “He lost all his friends/he didn’t need his friends/he lived with his mother/and repeated himself.” A little space is carved out in the last twenty seconds for a groovy low guitar riff to come in and get harmonized by accordion and bass, which seems like it might launch into another ¬†song, but instead just ends with another appeal to “appreciate the man!”

6) Dr. Worm, Severe Tire Damage (1998)

Another biography here, this time of a fictional character who says he “is not a real doctor/but I am a real worm”. Whether this is metaphorical or literal is anyone’s guess, but it’s seems like he’s getting good at the drums (he’s studious – he’ll “leave the front unlocked ’cause [he] can’t hear the doorbell”), and he’s definitely in a band with bassist Rabbi O. As sort of a posturing move, he tries out his identity by saying “Good morning/how are you?/I’m Doctor Worm/I’m interested in things”, hoping that someone will “call me by my stage name”, so he’ll get the chance to put it into practice. Musically, the song is a front-loaded brass assault, with a few layers of brass introducing the song and giving it a ska feel as it toots into an appropriately energetic rhythm from the drums – this would foreshadow the expanding of the band’s instrumental¬†repertoire¬†as they get further and further out from the standard rock band set-up.

7) Older, Mink Car (2001)

There are few songs by the band that are more frustrating than “Older”. It crawls along at a snail’s pace, and the instruments provide just the bare minimum framework to cover Linnell’s quiet vocals, which are telling us “you’re older than you’ve ever been/and now you’re even older/and now you’re even older”, almost taunting in a fashion while being absolutely right. After a verse of this, John Flansbergh bursts in with a crescendo from the band to comment on the proceedings: “Time is marching on!” he cries, before a another blast from the band with a fairly assured “And time…is still marching on!” Dedicating a song to the maddening repetition displayed in this song is a hallmark of the band – they’re perfectly willing to hand an entire track over to this single concept and just let the people do what they will with it. My favourite? Certainly not. It makes a better story that they have a song like this than it does a song. But classic TMBG? Undoubtedly.

8) Stone Pony, Venue Songs (2004)

“Stone Pony” comes from the quest TMBG set upon in 2003/2004 to write a song for every venue that they played on the tour, on the day of their concert there. The result was¬†Venue Songs, a collection of a short little ditties covering quite a variety of styles about the various clubs and bars dotting the USA (Venue Songs also gave John Hodgman the character he uses to this day – that of the Deranged Millionaire, who would unleash his marauding teams of baseball players on New York York unless the band kept using their magical talisman to keep writing songs). “Stone Pony” was the stop in New Jersey and has a very jazzy feel to it, with the walking bass and heavy ride action. The main beat is used to tell the short story in slightly increasing detail – a word or two added with each telling – about how the guy who stole that other’s guy beer just LOOKED like me. It’s a wonderful, strange little song and the fact that it was invented mere hours before its debut gives it a charm that it might not have had if it were overcooked in the studio.

9) Marty Beller Mask, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (2011)

One of my absolute favourite little-known tracks by the band, “Marty Beller Mask” claims that Whitney Houston grew tired of all the stardom she was receiving put on the mask of TMBG’s drummer, and has been drumming ever since. Just hearing the concept affirmed over and over again has me rapt with attention for its two minute length, especially, when totally flat readings of Whitney Houston lyrics are added as a build up to the chorus as “proof” (“Don’t walk away from me/I will always love you”). The drums are quite low and supple, building the mood while the guitar spends the verses getting into a reggae groove in the offbeat and marking out time in the chorus. The whole thing has a bit of a grunge/lo-fi feel, but without being quite so noisy, with Linnell’s vocals sounding very matter-of-fact, if not outright just talking. Easily one of their most hilarious songs.

10) The Lady and the Tiger, Join Us (2011)

This song absolutely blew me away when I first heard it. 15 albums into their career, I was not expecting They Might Be Giants to pull out a track like this, ever, nor would I have blamed them for it. Their experimentation continues here, as a wandering melodic beat sets the tone for the mumbling, distracted vocal that sets the tale of the captive titular beings. The interlocking saxophones that serve as a bridge between the verses were totally out of left field for me. They’d used the sax to great effect before, but playing two different, but complimentary riffs that each seem to do their own thing, but still in harmony, made me gain a whole new respect for them as songwriters – not to mention, it’s hella catchy in its own way. The incessant, thesaurus-heavy rhyming scheme used is good ol’ TMBG by this point – “felines and dames in flames/will hardly serve my aims/do you surmise it’s wise/to have laser beams emitting from your eyes?” Every seemingly-disparate element clicks here and serves up a completely unique and compelling track.

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Modern Concepts: The Dear Hunter’s Act I: The Lake South, The River North

There’s no way I wasn’t going to like The Dear Hunter from the get-go. Look no further than the title of the first album: “Act 1”. If that doesn’t bode well for a concept album-loving nut like me, I don’t know what will! In fact, the reason that I looked this band up in the first place is that, much like Coheed and Cambria, all of of their output (at the time) was devoted towards following a single narrative over multiple albums. This was all I needed to hear – and I was not disappointed.

“Battesimo del Fuoco” has the honour of being the third-most listened-to song in my iTunes (it has stiff composition), and opens the album, in my opinion, perfectly. A majestic modern Greek chorus announces the protagonist, born into the world amidst serious strife, as we will find out in two songs or so as the story opens. An interlocking chorale with no instruments to be found, each vocal line interlocking with the array of harmony vocals behind it as we are told “the flame is gone/the fire remains.” This, combined with the somewhat gentle instrumental that follows (“The Lake South”), both about two minute introductory pieces, would not nearly prepare me for the onslaught of the rest of the album, as I thought I might be getting some standard orchestral prog flare to this tale, so I sat back with my cocoa and prepared to soak it in. I was not ready for “City Escape.”

A rhythm section barrage starts off the proceedings as a guitar comes needling in, and then sets the rhythm, barely able to keep itself under a breakneck pace, clenching its fists as more harmony vocals come in, masking the assault of the chorus that is about to come. Casey Crescenzo screams the song’s refrain, both aggressive and verbose – “plagued by practical/and a mercenary lust/they tear at her skin” – while the bass rumbles and the drumsticks are finally let loose to wander as they please. The song the weaves back and forth, switching from piano, to electronic effects, to more choral vocals to slow the tempo down before unleashing the chorus once again, showing off an impressive arsenal of instruments for what is essentially a solo project. We even hear some animated trumpet lines in¬†“The Pimp and the Priest”, which has a vague New Orleans feeling about it, with the brass, jaunty piano and shuffling 3/4 time.

As the story is detailed of the protagonist’s mother raising her son in a whorehouse, we move through a number of almost uniformly muscular six-minute songs. Each has its own little facets and tempo changes and a killer hook; out of the chaos of just about every song on here, comes a melodic phrase that’ll lodge itself in your head for days at a time. For me, Crescenzo’s voice was the initial stumbling block. Far from your classic prog singer, his voice has a timbre heard in a lot of punk bands, and “City Escape” had me worried that there was going to be a significant amount out and out screaming vocals on the album, which is one of the few things that will get me to turn an album off immediately. Luckily, he remains just on the edge of it the entire time, which I actually find gives the album a little excitement – he has incredible restraint, but gives the illusion of none.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the scope of the story just yet, for a few reasons: a) only half of the albums in the story cycle are out as of right now b) Acts II and III are Leviathans compared to the scant 40-minute running time of this album (I initially heard it described as an EP, which I goggled at, but made more sense once I saw the length of the other albums) and c) I can’t stop listening to this one. Top to bottom, there’s not a duff track here, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Always one of my go-to albums. Not that Casey Crescenzo is making it easy to pick one.

Since releasing the first three acts, The Dear Hunter has taken a break from the narrative and has produced both a standalone, non-concept studio album (Migrant), and a set of¬†nine EPs based on the colour spectrum called¬†The Color Spectrum, each EP carrying with it its own distinct style of music, but all thoroughly enjoyable. I’m eagerly anticipating his next release, but will be listening to this pretty constantly ¬†until that arrives.

“Battesimo del Fuoco”:

“City Escape”:

“The Pimp and the Priest”:

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Toxic Folk Syndrome: Seth Lakeman’s Kitty Jay

It’s funny – I can’t actually remember how I got turned onto Seth Lakeman in the first place, but I’m so glad that I did. Seth Lakeman was the first folk artist that I got into that wasn’t Simon & Garfunkel or Bob Dylan. The first apart from from the “dash rock” appellation, yes, but also the first taste of English folk music rather than the New York sound of the 60s. It was the first time that I’d heard folk music as possessing the sound of the people of a country rather than “pop songs with acoustic guitars” (as I thought of it then), as the entire album is based on myths and legends based around the Dartmoor area of England. I’m an Anglophile and a history nut, so the ideas of getting deep into the history and fantasy of a specific region though these narrative songs that sounded like they had travelled many a year to reach my ears had me excited beyond measure. The other attraction for me is that the album was mostly based around the fiddle rather than the guitar, and Lakeman’s prowess with the instrument is gobsmacking.

Apart from a few moans from the double bass, this song is all layers of violin on top of each other, zigging and zagging closer and closer but never quite hitting and all going a hundred miles an hour. The frantic violin lines convey the sheer “Terror [that] broke her sleep”, as the narrative unfolds of someone standing at the grave of Kitty Jay, trying to piece together what had happened to her. It’s left unclear, as, indeed, the actual legend is – the only speculation in the song is the couplet “Never guessed it with his bare hands/Call the Devil the mark of man.” The backing of the song, however, gives a profound sense of confusion with the violins racing, harmonizing without any grounding presence; coalescing and then drifting apart again.

The sorrow comes from Lakeman’s vocal, musing “poor Kitty Jay”, eyes shut tight as he contemplates the tragedy he’s witnessing 150 years too late. His haughty voice trills on “prayer” as he hopes that “this silent prayer/it should paint some peace on her grave.” It’s not silent, of course, but that’s because we’re hearing what’s going on inside his head. The vocals/thoughts are the only things that the violins seem to respond to. As he crescendoes, so do they, as they’re brought in line for a moment as he tries to make sense of everything, but fall back into their chaotic pattern as he determines “something broke her sleep”. When he reiterates and replaces “something” with “terror”, that is when the bass begins its sinister moan.

A fantastic, energetic folk song and one where the instrumentals tell as much story as the vocals, “Kitty Jay” is the shining jewel in Lakeman’s impressive folk oeuvre in this blogger’s opinion. In subsequent albums, he would often relegate the violin to a smaller role in favour of the more immediate and expressive acoustic guitar – and creates some damn good tunes doing so – but the magic comes alive for me when he reaches for the smaller instrument.

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