“Taro” – alt-J and “Dispatches” – Michael Herr

Jams, OP-ED

1.

I’m pissed off for two separate reasons. One has to do with my friend (and fellow contributor) Seth, and the other not, but I feel like blaming it on him anyway. I’m actually pissed at him because he already wrote about my favorite band, alt-J. I’m not actually pissed but feel like putting the blame on him for my having not listened to their song “Taro” until only recently.

See? Not his fault at all. But it just feels right saying it is.

Seth is also responsible for introducing me to “Dispatches,” a memoir written by a war correspondent that worked in Vietnam. During the war. Not in some “ivory tower” like all of these so-called “intellectuals” and “professors” seem to be doing these days. Turns out, things weren’t exactly like “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” I was in the prologue of my obsession with “Taro” when Seth started bugging me about reading “Dispatches.” Finally, about a month ago, I conceded defeat, bought the book and read it.

2.

I used to have a war book when I was younger. “Scholastic Encyclopedia of the United States at War.” Man, I loved that thing. There were incredible pictures on each page, dating all the way back to the Revolution. (There weren’t actual photos from that time period, just to be clear. They were paintings and drawings. Unless those were actually real, in which case, I’ve lived a lie my whole life.) I still owe the majority of my war knowledge to that book.

What always struck me about it though was the difference between the Korean War section and the Vietnam War section. You’d see photos of soldiers in Korea, bundled up beyond all recognition. Walking blankets with machine guns. Sometimes they’d be covered in ponchos. Actually, now that I think about it, there were only about four or five pages dedicated to the Korean War. Before it was WWII, which is the granddaddy of all American wars. How many movies have they made about it? Miniseries only count as half.

But then I’d turn to the Vietnam section. And there they were: Soldiers in full color, close up, personal, no blankets or ponchos in sight. Their fatigues unbuttoned with sweat beads so pronounced you almost felt the humidity.
When you’re a child, everyone more than four years older than you seems like an impossible age that you’ll never reach, like being 9 and having a 13-year-old babysitter. These soldiers just seemed so grown up. They smoked cigarettes for godssake! But I never really realized how young these boys were. Not even when I turned 18 or 19, when I finished up high school and lounged around in college, did I really understand what it meant. And I doubt that I ever will.

3.

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Taro.” I wish I’d catalogued that memory away, next to all my other valuable brain keepsakes (my friend and editor, also named Seth and coincidentally the same Seth from earlier, suggested I use a different word besides “memories,” so this is what you get) that I keep shoved in a cabinet somewhere in my brain. Actually, if I’m being honest, what has become my favorite song didn’t really strike me as anything other than another cool-sounding alt-J track (which pretty much describes their entire catalog). I heard it again in my girlfriend’s car one day and something about it stuck with me.

I had to find out what it meant. If you’re at all familiar with alt-J, you’ll know that it’s damn near impossible to understand what Joe Newman is saying. Go ahead, give it a shot. I’ve listened to both albums more than I can count and still don’t know 80 percent of the lyrics. It’s the kind of music that makes you mumble along when you sing in the car, and it feels like you’re nailing it even though you know you’re not.

I found this article while doing some research on “Taro,” as one does when they’re living on his own in a studio apartment. DIY Magazine interviewed alt-J and asked them about the meaning of each song on their first album. Here’s the description of “Taro”:

“Taro” is about two war photographers – Robert Capa and Gurda Taro – who met during the second world war. They became lovers and got engaged to one another and were head over heels, then Gurda Taro was killed. I don’t think Robert Capa ever got over it. He died about ten years later in Indochina, when he stepped on a landmine, so the song documents those moments just before, during and after he steps onto it. It’s basically talking about those moments and how he knows that he’s dying, but that he’s going to be seeing Gerda Taro soon.

This is heartbreaking. Even the “happy ending” is horrible. But, like the cover of an Animorphs book, the song changed into something completely different for me once I knew the backstory.

4.

“Dispatches” is a reading experience I’d never encountered before. Each page is a slow trudge toward a depressing anticlimax. It’s engrossing. Michael Herr puts you in Vietnam, where he and his colleagues worked alongside Marine “grunts.” They get to know the Marines. They become friends with them. They see them die.

And Herr and all his colleagues were there voluntarily. The Marines weren’t. Sure, Herr wasn’t holding a gun, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in the war. His stories are more affecting, more truthful than any other portrayal of war I’ve ever read. He wasn’t there because he had to be. He wasn’t there because he had an opinion of the war, though he clearly did. He was just there.

Throughout, he talks about photographers who’ve won the Robert Capa Gold Medal award for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.” The award loses a little of its glimmer though once you know Capa’s backstory, which is befitting of the stories of all the guys who shot and reported on Vietnam.

5.

“Taro” feels like a song from another culture. It immediately teleports the listener to a different time and place. Newman’s enunciation and delivery are equal parts confusing and foreign. The guitar plucks haunt your ears. Reading lyrics is essential to the listening experience. At 1:14, an instrument I’ve never heard bursts through the bush.

I literally can’t stop listening to it. And it’s such a bummer that Seth already wrote about alt-J because he, Chris and I want to share cool tunes and impress people with our music knowledge. It’s hard to do that when we talk about the same band all the time.

Some songs take on new meanings when you discover the artist’s intention. For example, I never knew that “Stoned” by Smash Mouth was about drugs until I learned what “weedajuana” was. “Taro” reshapes the way you view the album, alt-J and what songs can do.

6.

“Dispatches” should be required reading for everyone even remotely alive. What it has to say about war and man can’t be taught with history lessons or by watching documentaries. It will change the way you see conflict.

“Taro” should be required listening for everyone even remotely alive. The way it takes obscure source material and wraps it in song and lyrics is nothing I’ve ever heard or read before. It will change the way you see music and art.

“Yesterdays” – Only Real

Jams

It’s been a while since I last posted on here. A lot’s happened since then. For starters, I became the mayor of Townsville. I also taught myself how to read. Plus, I teamed up with a band of groovy teenagers and their Great Dane and traveled across the country in a copasetic van solving mysteries. On top of all of that, however, I’ve still been listening to music. And because I’m finally at home with nothing better to do (and a full cup of coffee), I’ve decided it’s time to once again satisfy my narcissistic appetite for attention. (But really, thank you for reading.)

If time machines acted like elevators, where each floor is a different decade, then listening to “Yesterdays” by Only Real would be like getting stuck somehow in between the 1960s and the 1990s floors and having the two sounds mix together into a freshly blended music smoothie.

Niall Galvin, the sole proprietor of Only Real (and owner of the most fittingly English name in history), jumps right into “Yesterdays” with a sound so upbeat it forces you to start moving like some sort of musical magician casting the Imperius Curse.

And then he starts singing. If that’s what you can call it? Galvin’s style is most reminiscent of early Beck (think “Loser”), half-rapping through a lazy drawl so tight that it’s impossible it’s ironic.

Galvin says that The Beach Boys influenced him early in his childhood, and that’s apparent here with “Yesterdays’” unique palette of sounds and infectious harmonies. But there’s also a bit of Youth Lagoon thrown in there as well. Maybe it’s just the one-man-band sort of thing, but the sense of atmosphere that Youth Lagoon builds for his listeners can also be heard in Only Real’s much less depressing catalogue.

As for the lyrics? Eh, don’t worry too much about them. I know that’s not necessarily being a “responsible” listener, but you can’t really understand a thing he says and besides, it makes you feel good. It’s always good to have music like that, even if a number of Smash Mouth songs technically have more apparent messages.

What it comes down to is that “Yesterdays” is the perfect song to play just about any time. Sure, maybe it’s not great during a funeral or right after your best friend finds that collection of his Facebook profile photos that you printed out at Target and have been saving underneath your bed since you met. But every other time, it’s perfect.

“Ex’s & Oh’s” – Elle King and my (sort of) apology to 102.3 BXR

Jams, OP-ED

I take no pleasure in admitting that I’ve conducted a 5-year smear campaign against Columbia’s local “alternative” station 102.3 BXR. Any time Columbia radio stations ever came up in conversation, I was quick to dismiss BXR as having gone downhill, down the furthest hill you could possibly find with a camp set up at the bottom.

My parents even talk of a time when BXR was cool. Way back in 1997 when we first moved to Columbia, BXR played the good stuff. They invited new artists into “Studio X” to perform live acoustic versions of their hit songs. Artists like Dave Matthews, Wilco, Sheryl Crow, Los Lonely Boys, etc. all made BXR hip, cool and relevant.

However, as with many radio stations, being hip and relevant doesn’t last long. BXR’s problem over the last few years is that they haven’t really moved on from this era of music. There’s nothing wrong with hearing “Low” by Cracker every once in a while, but this shouldn’t be a mainstay on the only alternative radio station in town. And Cracker is hardly the worst offender.

U2, Sting, Melissa Etheridge, Counting Crows. These are all regulars on BXR. And while it’s okay to like these artists, I think that BXR and Cumulus Radio aren’t giving Columbians enough credit when it comes to new and interesting music.

This is why I was shocked to hear Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s” last night on BXR. I did an actual double take, the exaggerated kind you see in movies and TV shows, just to make sure that my eyes hadn’t deceived me.

I was shocked for several reasons:

  1. I’ve never heard “Ex’s & Oh’s” before
  2. Elle King, as far as I know, isn’t playing a show in Columbia any time soon
  3. It’s actually good

This is coming from the same station that introduces “new” artists months after they’ve been popular two hours away in Kansas City. This is the same station that pretty much ignored Arctic Monkeys (arguably the biggest rock band in the world) until they miraculously PLAYED A SHOW IN COLUMBIA, MISSOURI last winter. Arctic Monkeys have five albums under their belt and BXR plays only three of their songs: two from last year’s release and one from their first album, which came out eight years ago.

“Ex’s & Oh’s” is a great song. Elle King has a raspy, throaty voice that makes you wonder just how many cigarettes she must’ve smoked to acquire it, but you don’t care because she got the combination right. She’s an infectious mix of Gin Wigmore and ZZ Ward, which is the perfect concoction for Columbia.

This might be the beginning of a new time for BXR. It seems as though Cumulus Radio is finally allowing the station to seek out new music that still fits Columbia’s tastes (while still insisting they play The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” five times a day.) Baby steps.

I heard another song just this morning that I’d never encountered before, “Dearly Departed” by Shakey Graves feat. Esmé Patterson. It may not conform exactly to my music tastes, but the beauty of great radio is that it can change what listeners like and what they want to listen to. Plus, if you play upcoming artists often enough, they may actually come to your town and play there. And that’s infinitely cooler.

“Don’t You Find” – Jamie T

Jams

Jamie T’s “Don’t You Find” is dripping with something sticky and leathery and it feels oh so good to put your head underneath its sink and let it drip into your ears.

It’s a haunting lullaby whispered into your ear from beneath someone else’s sheets.

I’ve been struggling to identify what it is about this song that I’m hooked on. The lyrics, if read without music, are simple. The rhyming scheme is even simpler:

Don’t you find, some of the time/There is always someone on your mind/That shouldn’t be at all/In any place or any kind.

But it’s the delivery that makes this song work. Jamie T mumble-sings his way through most of it, conjuring images of a strung out mid-90s Trent Reznor with a little melancholic Alex Turner tossed in for good English measure.

With that in mind, I should admit that I’ve always had an affinity for English musicians and groups. I’m sure that a psychologist could unearth deep-seated emotional feelings for The Beatles that would explain why this is the case. But I can’t afford therapy and don’t really care to exhume those secrets.

It should go without saying that musicians influence each other. Duh. But I like to take this idea one step further and imagine every band and artist shoved into one huge room at the same time, all split up by their specific sound and nearest their most predominant influences. In this imaginary scenario, “Don’t You Find” puts Jamie T into a dark, creepy corner somewhere between Suede and James Blake.

The especially strange thing about “Don’t You Find” is that without music, the song is just a sad, simple ballad about pining away for someone that you can’t be with. Pretty typical fare for the singer/songwriter corner of the fictional band room that exists in my imagination.

What Jamie T has done, and what makes this song so great, is bring aching, sadistic life to a simple poem, forming a complex contrast between lyrics and music that makes it almost irresistible. It makes you feel dirty and sexy and sad all at once.

And I can’t seem to get enough of it.

“From Afar” – Vance Joy

Jams

I’m the weird guy who still likes to purchase physical CDs. There’s something about actually holding the album in my hands that makes it feel like it’s mine. And if you’re like me, then you think that one day Apple will unleash their evil iRepo devices to take back all of the music on people’s iTunes and iPhones. Then I’ll be the one laughing in my self-driving car, filled to the brim with 30-year-old CDs that are useless because they stopped putting CD drives in cars years before.

Another, non-apocalyptic reason I prefer to purchase physical albums is that I can more easily play them in my non-futuristic, present day car. This allows me to listen to an album in its entirety, even if I’d rather listen to just a few songs, because I’m too busy playing Simpsons Tapped Out to fiddle with the dash.

Oftentimes I’ll completely forget that I’ve got music playing. And then, there’s this magical moment where time stands still. The sounds of the outside world disappear and a moment of clarity hits me, reaches my ears and strikes me in the profound way that only hearing a good song can.

“From Afar” by Vance Joy did this to me.

The first minute or so opens with a pretty traditional acoustic guitar. Vance Joy sounds melancholic, but it isn’t until 1:15 that my moment of clarity hit me. “I always knew that I would love you from afar.” The line hits like a punch to the gut, delivered by your 8th grade crush, using Amazon’s convenient and reasonable $3.99 One Day Shipping. It’s just so practical! But it hurts so much.

Vance picks up the volume in his second verse, but at this point it doesn’t matter, because you’re already in as much pain as he is. To anyone who has ever been turned down by someone they loved or thought they loved, this song is especially truthful. And that’s what makes it so beautiful.

“But I’ve been living on the crumbs of your love, and I’m starving now.” Good God, could he make it any worse? It’s like driving a wooden stake through a lovesick werewolf’s heart, except Vance is a sadistic Van Helsing who presses really slowly just to see you squirm.

The song ends with even more heartbreaking lyrics (“It shouldn’t come as a surprise, what I’m feeling, what I’m feeling now”), but by this time you’re already convinced that Vance can time travel. He got into his Delorean, hit 88 mph, found you in your weakest moment, and took diligent notes on everything you said and did.

I’ve always believed that great art is truthful, even in its simplicity. “From Afar” is so truthful that it hurts, but it makes you feel good that someone knows what you went through.

“Coulda Been My Love” – Foxygen

Jams

Foxygen are weird.

Forget the name, all band names are weird. It’s their sound. I just can’t seem to put my finger on it. And the way I’ve always processed new music is by comparing it to something I’ve previously heard. But sometimes I’ll hear a song, enjoy it, and think to myself, “Now why the hell did I like that song?” This is one of those songs.

“Coulda Been My Love” sounds like a studio outtake on the B-side of a later Beatles album. Now hear me out before you poop your Pampers, because there’s enough distance and qualifiers between a proper Beatles album and my previous sentence.

The song begins with a haunting piano playing in an ill-lit basement. Immediately the listener is pulled through the doorway and down the staircase by duet vocals just as tortured as that lonely piano. What I’m getting at is that Foxygen sound like they’ve got a case of the bummers in “Coulda Been My Love.”

The drums come in soon after with a simple rhythm that provides a backbone to the pain. Complementary vocals echo alongside the chorus to add depth and harmony to otherwise-simple lyrics.

So back to The Beatles. “Coulda Been My Love” sounds and feels like a “White Album” outtake. It’s like they invited Paul McCartney to sing their song on Rock Band (and then he decided to stay the night because mom bought a bunch of Totino’s pizzas for everyone). I am a bit biased though, as I spent a lot of last year listening to Foxygen’s “Take The Kids Off Broadway,” a 7-song album that twists and swirls its way through the late 1960s.

The song leaves its impression on the listener right around the 1:30 mark. We get a little wail from the Sam France (the lead vocalist I think?) that leads into a brilliant, satisfying progression that reaches its apex at 2:15 and the song coasts the rest of the way home.

“Coulda Been My Love” is a song that’s grown on me by a group that’s grown on me. Foxygen’s sound is elusive (and often eclectic), which makes it difficult to easily label them. They feel like a group that’s still figuring out their sound, which makes me excited to see where they’re heading.

“Gooey” – Glass Animals

Jams

Glass Animals are a band very much like alt-J in that both are English, both have complex musical arrangements, and both have lyrics that are almost unintelligible, making it nearly impossible for anyone to sing along to. Every one of their songs reminds me of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World” only because I can sing maybe four or five lines of each and the rest just confuses the hell out of me.

This is less a post about a single song and more about a whole album, as it would be a disservice to feature one without its proper context. Glass Animals’ debut album, “Zaba,” was released June 2014 and I’m kinda sorta pissed that it took me this long to listen.

It’s dishonest to say that I’m addicted to this album. Addiction suggests an abnormal appetite that needs to be sustained. Something that has a clear beginning, middle and end. “I was hooked on painkillers for two years before I went to rehab.” “Zaba” is the opposite of this. It’s beginning, middle, and end all at once. It’s the hypnosis wheel of albums, spinning in that never-ending circularity, drawing the listener in deeper so that you’re fixated, stuck in unblinking catatonia.

The fun part about “Zaba” is that you might not like it at first. I was unimpressed myself. But after a few listens, it worked its way into my consciousness. It was all over after that. I’ve logged 8 full listen-thrus and I haven’t wanted to listen to anything else. Much like a Quentin Tarantino movie, there’s plenty to uncover within each song.

Jungle sounds blend with spacey tones to create an otherworldly, out-of-body listening experience. All of this becomes actualized with the first single, “Gooey.” This song demands your full attention. But that doesn’t mean that it’s difficult. It opens with sleepy reverberations that transport you into another dimension. Bubbles of sound pop around you as whispery vocals lull you into a trance.

Each successive verse adds another layer of sound, which creates an immersive listening experience that makes Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound seem like a production style for ants. Instead, “Gooey” brings the listener into a 3-D sphere, a fully realized world of sound that’s hard to leave once you arrive.

Other artists with dense production (like Sufjan Stevens or MGMT) have similar styles, but where they’re overwrought and pretentious, “Zaba” is the opposite.

There’s not much else I can say about “Zaba” or “Gooey” without seeming like I’m being paid to promote the band. Listen to it, embrace it, love it. It’s infectious and brilliant and stop reading this sentence so you can go listen to it.

“Talk Is Cheap” – Chet Faker

Jams

I have the tendency to judge a book by its cover. I mean this both literally and figuratively, as I’m only interested in reading books with sweet covers and, in the broader sense, I prefer things that sound right, look right or feel right. Which is exactly why I didn’t want to listen to Chet Faker, because it’s a stupid stupid name.

Chet Faker is an Australian electronica musician who does have a pretty cool beard and a plethora of headshots on the Internet. When I first heard his name, I assumed he was some kind of Timeflies/Hoodie Allen/Jackass Jones artist who relied solely on a semi-unique, tongue-in-cheek name and rearranged covers of 90s R&B songs to get white college kids to play his music during pregames. His fourth most popular song on Spotify is currently a cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” (It’s very good but you get the idea).

I recently rediscovered Chet Faker on the New Music Tuesday Spotify playlist and was blown away by how stupid my initial gut reaction had been. “Talk Is Cheap” is a single from the 2013 album “Built On Glass” that Chet Faker released earlier this year and it’s the perfect early winter song.

The intro features a saxophone that guides you naked into an icy pool of water somewhere deep in the middle of the woods, so deep that the animals are unbothered by your presence. You wade into the water, expecting tendrils of ice to shoot up your leg, but somehow it’s warm.

The beat fades in, simple and relaxed. There’s a yearning in his voice that warns you of pain but doesn’t push you away. It’s not a sad song, I don’t think. It’s just a song that makes you feel. I imagine that this would be the kind of song I’d listen to sitting by my fireplace, warm drink in hand, toking on a bubble pipe (because I don’t smoke, it’s bad for you silly!) and reading my former roommate’s most recent copy of GQ because he hasn’t changed the address yet.

I was silly to assume that Chet Faker was nothing more than a YouTube artist with a fun name. He’s got a great sound, a cool beard, and he’s got cool album artwork, which makes it even easier to like him, because I still judge books by their cover. Until I’m proven wrong.

“Peace Keeper” – Bear Hands

Jams

           A friend of mine really likes this band, Bear Hands, and hasn’t shut up about them the past few months. I mean that in the nicest way possible, because I can definitely understand bugging people about a band you love until they finally give in and admit you were right.