Tag Archives: indie rock

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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#21: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

(Interscope Records, 2013)

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(Image from wikipedia.org)

I’ve got to keep my eye (or, rather, ear) on Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The last I checked in with them was, admittedly, 2006’s Show Your Bones, where they had simmered the wildfire that was their debut album (2003’s Fever To Tell) down to a more precise blaze, eschewing the wilder parts of their sound for focused riffs and stronger melodies. They still, however, kept their guitar-drums-vocals punk instrumentation intact. A mere seven years later, I stumble onto Mosquito and find codas jammed with choral vocals (“Sacrilege”), a simmering slow-burner set to the beat of the clack of a subway train (“Subway”) and electronic beats all the while? You can’t go home again.

That’s not to say the urgency of the early albums is lost – the title track, under layers of guitars and, of all things, bass moves along at quite a clip, with Karen O as the master of ceremonies, as always. Gone are the shrieks and the orgasmics of the band’s early days, but certainly not her energy dynamics – she’ll still place a whisper where you expect bombast or twist a phrase up into her nasal sneer when she sees fit. But as the sound of the band introduces more and more instruments and techniques, and overlap further and further with some of the other electronic/synth acts of the day (Metric in particular comes to mind), her vocals as a focal point become increasingly important to hang onto. “Slave” opens with a loop of what sounds like horns honking, followed by a smooth, kinetic bassline and drum machine smacks going off every which way (the instrumentation of the band turned inside-out), but it serves to underpin the vocals just as deftly.

That’s not to say that Nick Zinner can’t come up with a good riff or three any longer. On “These Paths”, an incessant, ghostly synth line sets the tone and haunts the rest of the song as the other elements slowly build, causing a hiccup in the percussion in the beginning every time it occurs (to which the beats eventually become immune). The line is not the pinhole path that would take you through the song in the band’s early days on a jagged riff, but a noted presence nonetheless, around which the whole feel and energy of the song emanates – the race to the end has been cancelled and the participants all sit in a circle trying to come to terms with their feelings.

It would seem that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have, as one does with age, become more thoughtful in their approach, and gone from freewheeling 2-minute raucous rides to a more atmospheric feeling –  not that there’s anything wrong with that. Each distant echo, strange beat and synth patch plants their stake further in the ground; their sound infinitely more personalized than a straight drum beat and power chords with the occasional riff. They’ve moved, in the interim during which I wasn’t listening, from a small excursion into punk for me and plunked themselves down again amid the formidable indie electronic/synth acts of today that I find on my rotation quite regularly. This a great document of a band moving and progressing with the times while keeping the flavour that got them noticed in the first place.

8/10

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