"Set Shit on Fire"
[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.
Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguou
This is one of my longest idea-to-realization mixes. I originally had the idea for this mix back in 2003, when the guy who had been hanging out with a cartoon dog and entertaining my kids put out an album, and the first song on it sucked me in with a serene opening and then just exploded into existence about a minute in. It reminded me rather forcefully of driving back and forth from where I went to college in Northern Virginia to my parents’ house in southern Virginia and belting out ”‘cos it already is!” at the top of my lungs, and I knew I had to pair those two somehow. But I didn’t finalize this first volume (or at least get it as close to “final” as any of my mixes ever get) until just this year.
Part of the problem is that mix has a very specific mood. Musically, the hook is that these are songs which lure you into a false sense of security, then just burst into being. It’s a little more than just dropping the beat; many of these transform fully from ballads to full-on rockers, if not heavy metal bangers, somewhere between verse and chorus, or even between one verse to the next. But, emotionally, that’s a very specific mood to capture. Some of these songs are about loss, or about violent discovery, or about reflecting on one’s own faults and the inevitable frustration that comes when you know you need to be better but somehow just can’t manage to achieve it. I’m just not in the mood for that very specific energy all that often. But, when I am, these are the songs I reach for.
To give you an idea of the vibe you might get from this mix, I’ve assembled you a little cento, cobbled together from lines of the songs in this first volume. When it comes to naming a mix volume, there’s two camps that most of them fall into: either there’s a perfect line from one of the songs that instantly suggests itself as perfect, or there’s nothing that really jumps out at me and I have to go scouring. But this volume is a bit of an outlier: there’s an embarrassment of riches here, and I ended up with so many great candidates that I started piecing them together in my head. Here’s what I ended up with (attributions given at the end of the post):
the sun makes me sick.
One, ’cause you left me.
You hate the things that I lik
that fascist faith will kill you.
I think I’m just paranoid;
I’m fucking lazy ...
there’s just too much pressure to take:
I’m just another soul for sale.
It’s not my time to wonder why ...
You monkey, you left me.
Set shit on fire.
So that should give you a rough idea of what you’re in for.
For the most part, these tracks fulfill the original pattern: they start out slow, or mellow, or understated, then burst into a sudden sonic explosion (though we’ll see a few songs which subvert expectations in one way or another). The mix title ... well, the imagery is a bit unusual, but overall this is one of my most intelligible mix names. The volume title is the last line of the little cento above, of course.
So, the first two tracks of this mix were pretty much always going to be Steve Burns’ epic opener “Mighty Little Man,” from his Steven-Drozd-of-the-Flaming-Lips-produced debut album, closely followed by “For Nancy,” the midpoint banger from Pete Yorn’s debut. Both songs play with quiet/loud dynamics in a way that’s quite different from the standard grunge pattern. In grunge, the contrasting dynamics are just a part of the structure of the songs; bands like Nirvana and the Pixies have refined the pattern to an art form, but you can’t really claim to be surprised when they do it.1 These tunes hit with more emotional impact when they explode: they lull you into a false sense of calm, then burst into emotional being. There’s really nothing like that feeling.
“Shutterbug” was the next most obvious choice: it’s a magnificent dichotomy of almost-whispered vocals punctuated by raw guitar chords that are almost metal in their ferocity. It was easily the most standout track from Veruca Salt’s excellent Eight Arms to Hold You. It was perhaps a bit unimaginative of me to just tack it on as the third track in the mix, but, honestly, these three really combine to form an opening triptych that firmly establishes the mood. After that, there were a few other obvious choices: Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory is basically composed of nothing but tracks that fit this pattern (from which I thought “Crawling” was the best exemplar), and the amazing “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence was still fresh and darkly glittering at the time I was putting together the mix. It opens with a simple piano melody and Amy Lee’s sweet, understated vocals, then Beny Moody’s grinding guitar licks kick in, and there’s that beautiful single beat of absolute silence before each chorus bursts forth ... it’s quite transportative. Likewise, PJ Harvey was a no-brainer: I was pretty blown away by Rid of Me when I first heard it, and in particular the way that the title track starts very softly and makes you lean in, only to rock you on your heels with PJ’s aggressive guitar and Rob Ellis’ thundering drums. There was never a world where this tune didn’t appear on the first volume of this mix.
After that, I looked a bit to the industrial scene. Stabbing Westward’s “What Do I Have to Do?,” with its sparkly synth-noodling intro, was a pretty obvious choice. Meanwhile, Machines of Loving Grace’s biggest hit “Butterfly Wings” inverts the pattern by starting out with standard industrial intensity, then dropping down to quiet moments between verses. “Kiss Off” by Violent Femmes was another obvious choice: it starts with Gordon Gano’s acoustic guitar and quiet vocals, giving it almost a folk song vibe, and this time it’s Brian Ritchie’s bass that provides the burst of feeling; the song quickly turns and becomes a bit of a rant, which makes it fit perfectly here. In the exact opposite department, it’s the slinky toms and bass of Green Day’s “Longview” that provides the calm before the storm of the guitars and snare. Obviously Dookie was going to have to feature here, and I thought “Longview” was a great choice (plus it leads into “Kiss Off” quite nicely).
This mix was also started at the height of my fascination with Magnatune,2 so it’s not surprising that several of its artists ended up here. Perhaps most obviously, spineCar’s “Waste Away” follows a similar pattern to “Longview”: the rhythmic bassline is joined by a studied, pulsing drumbeat, then muddy guitars and quiet vocals join in, building to the crescendo where the lead singer breaks into a scream on the third syllable of the song’s title. It’s a piece of undeservedly little-known nu-metal from the late 90s. Then there’s “Dirtbag”: the original version of this tune, by Brad Sucks, is a perfectly lovely piece of alt-po
After that, two later additions were Metric’s “Black Sheep” from the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World soundtrack, and “The Pretender” by the Foo Fighters. The former is just a solid post-punk offering that actually punctuates its quiet verses with strong guitar/bass/drum licks between the lines in a way that I found irresistible. The latter ... well, I’m not one to think that Dave Grohl learned his craft from his time in Nirvana, because I think he was always pretty damned talented. But I can’t help but wonder if his unerring talent for knowing when to crank up the vocals into a a full-on scream and when to back off is at least a little influenced by Kurt Cobain, who was undoubtedly the master of that technique. When I first heard “The Pretender,” I knew unquestioningly that it had to be on this mix.
I follow that track with another one that manages to simmer without exploding and yet never feels unsatisfying: “Glycerine,” by Bush. The only proper grunge song on this frist volume, the contrast here is provided by Nigel Pulsford’s crunchy guitars and strings, of all things. Sixteen Stone is a revelatory album, and I’m kind of surprised it’s taken me this long to feature a track from it. And I close with Smash Mouth, who, along with Nickelback, it seems to be fashionable to hate on these days. But Fush Yu Mang is a pretty important album itself, and “Let’s Rock” is a great tune that hits a lazy, almost ska vibe for its verses, then bursts into a beautiful metal-inspired crescendo of emotion. “Fuck it, let’s rock” indeed.
[ Set Shit on Fire ]
“For Nancy” by Pete Yorn, off musicforthemorningafter
“Shutterbug” by Veruca Salt, off Eight Arms to Hold You
“Part 2 [Dirtbag Remix]” by Four Stones, off Ridin' the Faders [Remixes]4
“What Do I Have to Do?” by Stabbing Westward, off Wither Blister Burn + Peel
“Vinegar & Salt” by Hooverphonic, off The Magnificent Tree
“Big Mistake” by Natalie Imbruglia, off Left of the Middle
“Butterfly Wings” by Machines of Loving Grace, off Concentration
“Charming Gun” by Artemis, off Undone
“Meaner than Winter” by Jade Leary, off The Lost Art of Human Kindness
“Waste away” by Spinecar, off Up from the mud
“Black Sheep” by Metric, off Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [Soundtrack]
“Longview” by Green Day, off Dookie
“Kiss Off” by Violent Femmes, off Violent Femmes
“Crawling” by Linkin Park, off Hybrid Theory
“The Pretender” by Foo Fighters, off Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace
“Glycerine” by Bush, off Sixteen Stone
“Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey, off Rid of Me
“Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence, off Fallen
“Let's Rock” by Smash Mouth, off Fush Yu Mang
Which only leaves us with the two tracks that break up my two industrial picks. I’ve talked before about my discovery of Natalie Imbruglia’s amazing Left of the Middle, so I won’t belabor the point, but it’s a testament to her versatility that, in addition to all the other places we’ve seen her in these mixes,5 here she is again. “Big Mistake” starts out sweet and synthy, then right at the one minute mark it turns on you and tells you what a big mistake you’ve made trying to pigeonhole the song based on its opening. Then there’s the truly stunning “Vinegar & Salt” from trip-hop impresarios Hooverphonic (who we’ve also seen on a pretty wide variety of mixes6). This track is barely more than three minutes long, but it packs so much emotion into its short span that it fairly makes your head spin. The verses are an almost matter-of-fact enumeration of the problems in a relationship, then the bridges crank up the tensio
Next time, I think we’ll dip our toes into the darker side of synthwave.
[As promised, here’s my pseudo-poem along with which songs they derive from:
the sun makes me sick. [“Shutterbug,” Veruca Salt]
One, ’cause you left me. [“Kiss Off,” Violent Femmes]
You hate the things that I lik
that fascist faith will kill you. [“Butterfly Wings,” Machines of Loving Grace]
I think I’m just paranoid; [“Let’s Rock,” Smash Mouth]
I’m fucking lazy ... [“Longview,” Green Day]
there’s just too much pressure to take: [“Crawling,” Linkin Park]
I’m just another soul for sale. [“The Pretender,” Foo Fighters]
It’s not my time to wonder why ... [“Glycerine,” Bush]
You monkey, you left me. [“Shutterbug,” Veruca Salt (again)]
Set shit on fire. [“Dirtbag,” Brad Sucks, remixed by Four Stones]
Yes, I used “Shutterbug” twice; it really worked for this cento. Those lines, of course, are back to back in the Veruca Salt rendition, whereas I separated them by almost the length of the entire piece. I don’t think this is as good as either of my two previous centos, but it has a certain charm. At least I think so.]
1 I’ve mostly avoided using grunge tunes here, but you can expect to see at least a few in future volumes.