Welcome to Chateau Du Steve. We will be starting your dining adventure off with a group of five tasty bite-size morsels of music for your aural-gustatory pleasure.
We will begin with a song that is sure to wind its way around your eardrums and lodge itself into a safe place near your brain for easy and constant access, as you will want to hear it again and again. Ted Leo (of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ fame) and Aimee Mann met when Aimee invited Ted and his band to open for her on her most recent tour. After hitting it off, they…well, click this link and you can hear them tell their story.
They decided to call their collaboration The Both, which is a pain in the ass name for Googling, but was apt and fitting, especially when they played in San Francisco earlier this year at the world famous Bottom of the Hill (BotH). I love wordplay! All the songs on their self-titled debut album are catchy and fun, but none more-so than “Volunteers of America,” which honors our oft-ignored dedicated citizenry who donate their time and effort to bettering the country. Can you name another song that is an ode to the volunteer? Oh wait, I just remembered this one…
1. The Both – Volunteers of America
For the 2nd amuse bouche course, we go back to the New Wave era of the ’80’s by way of a bunch of young Ameri-Brits (even their debut album’s cover has both the British and American flags intertwined in a circle, and a wistful lass in a leather jacket who seems to scream out 1985). They clearly have studied their Smiths and Simple Minds in grade school, as only a couple of the members of Drowners were even alive during the 80s. But they pull it off with joy and aplomb. The rest of their self-titled debut album is appealing, though nothing reaches the catchy enthusiasm of “Luv Hold Me Down.” As a real child of the 80s, I get sick of the plethora of bands that claim to be reviving the sound of my youth. But when a band does get it right, does capture the innocent, almost naive interplay of keyboard and guitars, the melodic bass-lines and anthemic angsty vocals like Drowners does here, it makes me feel like an awkward, pimply 16 year old all over again.
2. Drowners – Luv Hold Me Down
For the next bite, for the next poppy nugget, you will be needing only one utensil. The musical equivalent of home cooked chicken soup, in 2014, Spoon released perhaps their strongest end to end album in over a decade. They Want My Soul follows their tried and true formula of spare instrumentation, laying back in the pocket and timeless melodies. Someone once described Spoon as “Rolling Stones meets Wire” and that sounds about right to me. Britt Daniel’s recent, more-electronic side project with Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs), Divine Fits, has bled over onto TWMS, adding just the right amount of keys and grooviness to spark up the tunes. I could choose pretty much any song to include here, but I’m gonna go with the one that starts the album, “Rent I Pay” because it perfectly encapsulates the Spoon sound. If you’ve read any of my best of lists over the past 15 years, you have seen the inclusion of Spoon many times before, and I expect I’ll be including them many more times in the future.
3. Spoon – Rent I Pay
The fourth song in this first musical course has a bit of a bigger bite. It’s long and lush and orchestral. It’s got everything. Quietude and loudness, timidity and drama. The song is tied together by a violin-led string section pushed up front in the mix; there are ethereal choral voices, falsetto wailings, tympani and horns. “Beneath the Brine” is as full and textured and big as Spoon’s “Rent I Pay” is stripped down and sparse, yet both of them seem like siblings within the same family. No matter how disparate their personalities, they both put the tune first and have each other’s back. This song represents the kid who can’t seem to avoid drama, has extreme emotions and has difficulty being alone. Spoon writes for the self-sufficient child who needs little parenting and can keep him/herself occupied with a book and a box of wheat-thins.
4. The Family Crest – Beneath the Brine
The last serving of catchy goodness falls somewhere between Spoon and The Family Crest. “Esse Quam Videri” has it all: tight arrangements, multi-harmony vocals, clean production and a hypnotic, almost trance-like rhythmic pulse. I’ve loved The Rosebuds for years, have always been impressed by the interplay between the two main vocalists, Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp. It’s such a wonderful thing, to have both male and female lead vocals. It adds depth, and an emotional heft. I think of bands like X,The Pixies, New Pornographers, Belle and Sebastian. When the voices meld and form a distinct new sound together, it can be magical. There are lots of same gender vocal duos that can do this too of course (I’m thinking of Simon and Garfunkel, Squeeze, The Jayhawks), but nothing in 2014 captured that vocal mesh better for me than The Rosebuds.
I didn’t plan it out this way, but I see now, that the first song of this course, by The Both, is also a male/female singing duo. It’s like I’ve created a duo vocal sandwich, an unconscious coupling, a way of uniting the 5 bites of the course into a tasty harmonious pop-gression.
5. The Rosebuds – Esse Quam Videri