Sunday, June 10, 2018

Slithy Toves II

"Magicians Never Tell"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Last time, we talked about how each volume of a mix has its own distinct character, despite the fact that they all share a common theme.  Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than this second volume of slinky, sinuous fare.  Usually my volume IIs are just “volume I continued,” as my initial songlist is almost always plenty for two volumes, or close enough with a few additions.  But Slithy Toves is a much more specific mood than usual, and I’ve always struggled to find tracks for it.  Volume I took me forever to fill out, so I often wondered if I was ever going to be able to complete a volume II.  Unless perhaps I found a “hook” for it ... and then I did.  See, last volume, “slinky” was most often provided by brass: Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Cat Empire, Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, and the Swing soundtrack.  But there were a few deviations even so ... Jon Astley and the Primitives gave us a bit of synth, and Santana did the serptentine via guitar.  As did Mazzy Star, but the combination of Dave Roback and Hope Sandoval also provides something extra: the buzz.  Now, most often buzzing guitars are associated with punk, and metal, and grunge, and that sort of thing.1  But the buzz can be slinky and sinuous too, and this volume has quite a bit of it.  There were three songs that really cemented this concept for me, and they’re all here in this volume.

And perhaps the buzziest of all the tracks here is the Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know?”  While the choruses are almost thrashy (albeit in slow motion), the verses are something quite different.  The (Sheffield) England band is doing something unique with the lyrics in the verses here; the end of the lyrical line is typically in the middle of the sentence, making each line run into each other, looking at it one way, or having the rhymes fall in the middles of the lines, looking at it the other way.  Either way, this structure causes the song to roll along, twisting around like a sidewinder.  It’s a really great song, and it’s the opener here.

Secondly we have Phantogram.  Now, I’m pretty sure I discovered this band because some source tried to convince me they were witchhouse, and I was then engaged in trying to understand just what that style was.  Now that I have a (slighly) better grasp on it, I’m not sure I fully agree—witchhouse seems more firmly rooted in electronica than Phantogram exhibits.2  But it is true that Phantogram shows some of that darkness that witchhouse is famous for, while still retaining the high-energy pop.  Now, like a lot of semi-obscure alternative bands, Phantogram has a lot of good songs, a few great songs, and one ultimate shining moment that epitomizes all that they are and all that they can be in one sparkling pop gem that worms its way into your head and will not let go.  In the case of Phantogram, that moment is “You Don’t Get Me High Any More.”  It’s an absolutely perfect song that is practically impossible not to sing along with, and its just chock full of slink and buzz.

In the case of MS MR, that shining moment is “Salty Sweet,” in which the New York-based duo assure us that they fear rejection, prize attention, crave affection, and dream, dream, dream of perfection.  It’s another perfect pop gem3 that also sways back and forth and sneaks in a little buzz in the underbeat.  I fell in love with it the minute I heard it.4

And of course you can’t do buzzy slink without talking about Muse.  When I first heard Muse, I decided that they sounded a bit like U2—late U2, where Bono’s bombast has reached nearly operatic proportions.  The second time I heard them, I decided they sounded more like Queen, who of course is also famous for their operatic tendencies.  Muse has a quiet musical brilliance that’s difficult to overlook, even when their songs aren’t quite as reach-out-and-grab-you as some of their peers’.  “Undisclosed Desires” is almost a quiet tune for them, but it definitely works well here.

As I was putting the final touches on the selection for this volume, I got a wild hair up my ass to throw in “Halo” by Depeche Mode, off yet another of their truly great albums: in this case, Violator.  It has a touch of buzz, and a touch of slinky, but not too much of either, and I’m not entirely sure I can tell you why it’s here, except that once I had it in there I couldn’t conceive of taking it out.  You’ll have to judge whether or not you think I made the right choice.

Now, just because we’re all about the buzz this time out doesn’t mean we’re neglecting our old favorites.  We do have some returning bands, including Shriekback, who I noted last time might be the only band that has an actual propensity for this mix.  “Underwaterboys” is a quieter track, almost dreamy as it flows snakily along.  And Iron & Wine are back as well; “Peace Beneath the City” is a weird, surreal little tune (as most of his are), where Sam Beam demands we give him a juggernaut heart and a Japanese car.  But it has no problem delivering on the sinuous, and it even throws in a little buzz too.

You know what else can deliver on some slinky goodness?  Remember our discussion of dreampop last time?  And remember how I said it can be quite versatile?  Yeah, that.  For this volume, I couldn’t resist throwing in some Twin Peaks, because “Dance of the Dream Man” is about as slinky as it gets.  And Goldfrapp is ostensibly dreampop too, although they range pretty far and wide.  They can even do buzz sometimes, and their buzziest album of all is Black Cherry, which is also my least favorite Goldfrapp outing, to be honest, but it does has its moments.  “Tiptoe” is definitely one of them.

Less dreampop and more downtempo, with perhaps a bit of electro-world thrown in, we have volume closer Banco de Gaia, with “B2,” and its semi-goth-industrial lead-in from Jade Leary, “Infantry.”  Leary definitely brings the buzz, as usual for him,5 but there’s also the requisite sinuousness we need for this mix.  As for Banco de Gaia, this project by South Londoner Toby Marks is sometimes labeled “ambient dub,” and that works pretty well for our closing track here.  There’s some indistinct, vaguely Middle Eastern female vocals, quite a lot of ambient-ish synth work, and it’s all held together by a serpentine synth throughline that makes it the perfect closer this time around.

And perhaps not really dreampop at all, we have Morphine—although I don’t really know what to call it.  It’s all bass, and deep-voiced vocals: singer Mark Sandman is exactly as hypnotic as his name implies, with that talk-singing, sing-songy style reminiscent of Lou Reed.  I discovered Morphine when I decided to rewatch Wild Things after many years, and was fascinated by closing song “Murder for the Money.”  I then tracked down the album and discovered that several tracks would fit here.  “Swing It Low” is a quiet track, but it works well in the dreamier portion of the volume, leading in to the Twin Peaks selection and thence to Shriekback.

Slithy Toves II
    [Magicians Never Tell]

        “Do I Wanna Know?” by Arctic Monkeys, off AM
        “You Don't Get Me High Anymore” by Phantogram, off Three
        “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse, off The Resistance
        “Peace Beneath the City” by Iron & Wine, off The Shepherd's Dog
        “Salty Sweet” by MS MR, off Secondhand Rapture
        “Tiptoe” by Goldfrapp, off Black Cherry
        “Shanty Pig” by Mary's Danish, off There Goes the Wondertruck ...
        “The Twister” by The Lucy Show, off ... undone
        “Let's Go to Bed” by The Cure [Single]
        “Swing It Low” by Morphine, off Like Swimming
        “Dance of the Dream Man” by Angelo Badalamenti, off Twin Peaks [Soundtrack]
        “Underwaterboys” by Shriekback, off Big Night Music
        “Rev It Up” by Jerry Harrison: Casual Gods, off Casual Gods
        “Beg, Steal or Borrow” by Berlin, off Love Life
        “Halo” by Depeche Mode, off Violator
        “Fancy Things” by The Weepies, off Sirens
        “Thieves in the Temple” by Renée Geyer [Single]
        “Infantry” by Jade Leary, off The Lost Art of Human Kindness
        “B2” by Banco de Gaia, off Igizeh
Total:  19 tracks,  75:13

I also went back to the 80s for a bit, because I really love it there.  No-brainers were “Shanty Pig,” by the vastly underrated Mary’s Danish,6 and “Twister” by the equally undeservedly unheard of Lucy Show.  The obscure American band provides the serpentine via the bassline, while the obscure English band uses synth.  Also hailing from the 80s are Berlin, synthpop gods, and Jerry Harrison, late of Talking Heads, surely one of the game-changers of the decade.  From the latter, his big hit “Rev It Up,” which has the proper serpentine bassline for this mix; from the former, non-hit (but still great song) “Beg, Steal or Borrow,” which gives us more of that sweet, snaky synth.  And of course we can’t leave the 80s without hearing from the Cure, who grace us with “Let’s Go to Bed.”  I think the slink in this one is both bass and synth.  Also, it’s just a really great tune.

And, getting completely away from the buzz, perhaps the two absolutely most sinuous tunes on this volume are “Fancy Things” by the Weepies, and Renée Geyer’s remake of Prince’s “Thieves in the Temple.”  For the Weepies, this is entirely out-of-character; “Fancy Things” is an absolute revelation from the normally country-tinged duo.  It’s got a slinky backbeat, some great, slinky lyrics, and it also gives us our volume title.  As for Renée Geyer, who may very well be the Australian version of Adele (except for the part where she’d already been singing professionally for over a decade by the time Adele got around to being born), this excellent version steps up Prince’s (honestly, less than stellar) original by adding a truly slinky bassline and, of course, Geyer’s sultry, smoky vocals.  I’m not a huge fan of Geyer overall, but this track is just amazing.

Next time, we’ll take our deepest dive yet into the world of dreams.

Slithy Toves III


1 And we’ve already heard that mix.

2 Or maybe I still don’t understand what witchhouse really means.

3 Or, I suppose, it’s more of a pop confession, by their own admission.

4 Weirdly, I think I also found MS MR while researching witchhouse.  I think they’re even less so than Phantogram, really.

5 We first met Leary last time, but we’ll probably have to wait for another mix to really see him shine.  In the fullness of time, of course.

6 The Danish deserves a much more full discussion, but I fear that will have to wait for another mix, which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

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