the rhythm section: great drum beats – a mix by california wives

When I first heard California Wives, I thought I was in love. Then I went to see them live, and I knew it. After their excellent set I hit up singer Jayson Kramer and guitarist Graham Masell and chatted about touring, communicable disease, and the excellence of hair metal. Since we got on so well I thought I’d invite them to make a mix, and with the help of their lovely manager Tom got this love letter from the band to the rhythm section in return. Ranging from sleek new wave to shimmying soul, this mix has wide appeal. If you get the chance to see California Wives on tour, do, but until then check out their SoundCloud page to see how their musical tastes influence their own work.

The Rhythm Section: Great Drum Beats
01| Human by Human League
02| Race: In by Battles
03| Rosanna by Toto
04| Jazz (We’ve Got) by A Tribe Called Quest
05| He Would Have Laughed by Deerhunter
06| Solitude is Bliss by Tame Impala
07| Peg by Steely Dan
08| Myxomatosis by Radiohead
09| Pictures of You by The Cure
10| I Will Possess Your Heart (Album Version) by Death Cab For Cutie
11| I Wanna Be Adored by Stone Roses
12| The Payback by James Brown

storm clouds break

I’ve been putting off listening to Codes and Keys, Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth LP. A bulk of the commentary surrounding the album was along the lines of “it’s too happy” – and no one listens to DCFC to put a smile on their face. Even the singable, upbeat “Sound of Settling” is really about anxiety and regret. In a recent interview, Death Cab’s (formerly) cheer(less) captain Ben Gibbard confirmed a seachange: “If the only reason you listen to Death Cab for Cutie is that you like maudlin, sometimes depressing lyrics, there’s no shortage of that kind of music for you to enjoy. Also, we have an entire back catalog of that shit.” We love that shit, Ben. But I see your point. I braced myself for the barrage of pop and newfound happiness, and was pleasantly surprised not to find the purported sunshine and rainbows everyone was so worked up about.

Now, this isn’t to say that Codes and Keys falls in the same sad-bastard category of some of the band’s previous releases; you will not find anything close to the emotional one-two punch of Transatlanticism and Plans. Nor will you find the sepia-toned romanticism the band was putting out ten years ago. Death Cab for Cutie is looking decidedly forward, but the future isn’t exactly bright.

There are a few cringe-inducing sentiments (let’s stay young forever! the leaves change color just for us!), but at heart DCFC is still a glass-is-half-empty kind of band. The most obvious example is “St. Peter’s Cathedral” with its atheist declaration “that when our hearts stop ticking / this is the end”. “Home Is a Fire” and “Codes and Keys” give the feeling of being trapped, with the former far out-pacing the latter in execution with piano and strings. Overall, the album gets more optimistic as it progresses, but words like happy, joy, and mirth aren’t rising to the top of the list of descriptors.

Codes and Keys also moves in a new direction musically, but keeps its roots firmly in indie territory. In general, the songs have more in common with the band’s earlier releases than their more recent output, but it’s augmented with a nice wash of grit and 90s-alt nostalgia. “You Are a Tourist” has a great melodic guitar line, and “Doors Unlocked and Open” surrounds you in the “ocean of sound”. The six-minute “Unobstructed Views” is solely instrumental for its first half, and while pretty the vocal effects and new-agey lyrics are off-putting (“there’s no eye in the sky / just our love”).

The stand-out track on Codes and Keys is “Underneath the Sycamore”. It jumps out as the front-runner partially because it has some sonic ties to Transatlanticism/Plans, but mostly because of the excellent instrumental break from 2:09-2:45. Angular guitars come slashing through, opening the way for slurring, bleating horns. At 2:24 comes a gut-punch of bass that makes you to stop as your breath catches and your heart sinks, only to be caught by the soar of fun-house strings. Then the bottom falls out and bells ascend to the chorus that pulls you back to the surface. It’s truly one of my favorite bits in the Death Cab oeuvre.

Most people probably aren’t going to have the same emotional connection to Codes and Keys as they did with the Death Cab for Cutie’s mid-career output. It’s not because Codes and Keys isn’t good, but because the album isn’t striving for that effect. It’s a rock album, not a diary entry. While heart-wrenching confessionals have been the band’s strong suit, trying to put out that kind of album when there’s no real-life inspiration to draw from would reek of inauthenticity. Do I not-so-secretly hope that Gibbard & Co. get bummed out again? Yes. Misery loves company and DCFC has been my emotional flat-mate for a decade now. Am I going to write off this album just because I don’t need to take to bed after listening? Absolutely not.

Codes and Keys dropped 05.31.11.
You can visit Death Cab for Cutie’s website here.


they take away the lonely days, for now

Seattle six-piece The Head and The Heart have started the year off right by teaming up with Sub Pop Records to release their self-titled debut. Filled with beautiful vocal harmonies, lush piano, and a rich sense of Americana, The Head and The Heart is the perfect album to sink into.

The pervading feeling on The Head and The Heart is one of moving on, both physically and emotionally. Snappy percussion and piano lay the groundwork on the first track which proclaims, “my roots have grown, but I don’t know where they are.” The meandering piano and bass on “Lost In My Mind” echo the sentiment, as do the lyrics of “Ghosts”. Talking about wanting to escape from one’s hometown but seeing no one do very much to actually make the dream a reality, the song is a hearty, piano-driven jam that is a bit old-timey but doesn’t fall into the trap of caricature or parody.

While “Heaven Go Easy On Me” employs some Beatles-esque chords to build and break into serenity, “Couer d’Alene” takes the same idea of transformation but executes it a bit differently. What starts as a concession to ending a relationship finishes as a jaunty resolution to keep things going.

The Head and The Heart really strike gold, though, on the song “Down In the Valley”. Acoustic guitar and a violin that sounds like a disappearing train lead the song in, cradling the world-weary vocals. Our singer asks, “Lord, have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways,” and succinctly reveals a bit of truth with “call it one drink too many / call it pride of a man / but it don’t make no difference if you sit or you stand / ’cause they both end in trouble and start with a grin.” Then things kick in, and there’s a feeling of transcendence. We let go, and there’s clarity – an understanding so beautiful it could break your heart. Lovely vocals, a propulsive forward beat, and a piano line that calls to mind “Marching Bands of Manhattan” by fellow Washingtonians Death Cab for Cutie make for a truly excellent piece of music.

Earnest without naivety and sentimental without sappiness, let The Head and The Heart soundtrack your journeys in the upcoming year.

The Head and The Heart dropped 01.11.11.
Check out their website to get a free download of “Down In the Valley”.

warm house, cold hands

Warm throughout with a cold finish.

Warm House, Cold Hands
01| Telekinesis – Coast of Carolina
02| The Wombats – Let’s Dance to Joy Division
03| Les Savy Fav – Patty Lee
04| Rooney – When Did Your Heart Go Missing?
05| Friendly Fires – Skeleton Boy (Single Version)
06| LCD Soundsystem – Someone Great
07| Matt and Kim – Daylight
08| Death Cab for Cutie – Grapvine Fires
09| Little Dragon – Twice
10| Mogwai – Scotland’s Shame

(If paused, track will hold its place as long as you don’t navigate away from the page.)

under the covers

A radio station in my area is calling for listeners’ favorite cover songs for a theme over Valentine’s Day weekend – Under the Covers. Here’s what I’d play:

Between the Buried and Me – Colorblind (Counting Crows)
Ted Leo – Since U Been Gone/Maps (Kelly Clarkson/Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
Colin Meloy – Cupid (Sam Cooke)
Death Cab for Cutie – This Charming Man (The Smiths)
Magnetic Fields – The Book of Love (Peter Gabriel)
Peter Gabriel – Flume (Bon Iver)
She & Him  – You Really Got a Hold On Me (The Miracles)

Ready to let me be a guest DJ, Triple M?

we speak and spell and make each other’s children

Telekinesis! by Seattle’s Telekinesis (aka Michael Benjamin Lerner) is essentially a collection of audio Polaroids – captured and created in a short time. Together, Lerner and Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla set out to track and mix each song in a single day, putting it on analog tape. The lack of digital gloss gives Telekinesis! a warmer, accessible feeling befitting of the album’s character.

Opener “Rust” immediately endears the listener, as Lerner sings of a broken heart in a way that’s not sappy or conducive to eye-rolling. “Tokyo” and it’s fuzz nods to the earlier sound of the Pacific Northwest,  “Great Lakes” captures some of the Midwest’s gloom, and the keys and choir-esque backing on “Look to the East” round out Telekinesis’s sound. “Coast of Carolina” is blissful, evoking summer and all it has to offer.

Unfortunately, the end of the album is not as engaging as the beginning – “Imaginary Friend” and “All of a Sudden” are just standard indie fare, while a certain progression in “Calling All Doctors” confoundingly calls to mind “Shine” by Collective Soul (the brain works in mysterious ways).

Lucky for all of us, Lerner ends the album on the redeeming acoustic track “I Saw Lightning”. He suggests ‘let’s be in love’ – my rusty heart happily obliges.

Telekinesis! dropped 04/07/09.
Click to download “Coast of Carolina“.