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Internets, I spent a considerable portion of Saturday morning listening to French avant-pop, and did so without even donning a cravat. Let me explain.
You see, approximately 14,000 years ago, I subscribed to a magazine called CMJ (College Media Journal), which was printed on paper and delivered through the actual postal service and everything. Those are the times we lived in. Each month, CMJ published interviews, reviews, and special features, and every issue included a CD. The tracks were from well-known bands, less-established bands…even unsigned acts. Through these samplers, I discovered the Reverend Horton Heat, Dubstar, Liz Phair, Super Deluxe, the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Nerf Herder, Garrison Starr, and many others.
One of the CDs had a song by Stereolab, and I liked it so much that I’ve been placing it on various playlists for the past 20 years. I’ve always meant to check out their other songs, but I’m infamously slow at that sort of thing.** A few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Sean, who’s a big Stereolab fan and knows the band’s entire catalogue. I decided to take a full day and go through every album. What several-year-old-but-new-to-ME music would I discover?
***Although if we’re being honest, I’d need a separate post for Escaflowne too.
“Miss Modular” – Stereolab
“Miss Modular” is from Dots and Loops, which remained my favorite album throughout Stereolab Saturday. It’s difficult to discern the intended meaning–’cause, you know, it’s sung IN FRENCH–but as best I can tell, it might be about albums as commercial products that enable listeners to lose themselves in emotion and thus experience illusions (“trompe l’oeil,” or literally, “trick the eye”).
For me, the combination of the deftly-moving bassline, the 60s-era keys, the snappy drumbeat, the crisp horn section, and Laetitia Sadier’s soothing voice makes this the essential Stereolab track.
“Hotel California” – Gipsy Kings
If you’ve enjoyed The Big Lebowski, two things are likely true: You’re not Cassidy, and you remember the scene where we’re introduced to Jesus.
“Hotel California” was never supposed to work as a single–it’s too long (Asylum Records pressured The Eagles to shorten it, and they refused), it’s in a weird key, and almost half the track is entirely instrumental. It went on, of course, to be arguably the most popular song of the band’s career, and if you’re over 30, there’s a good chance you’ve heard it hundreds of times. The Gipsy Kings sped up the tempo, changed the beat, translated the lyrics into Spanish, and gave us a fresh remix.
“Um a Um” – Tribalistas
Tribalistas is a Brazilian supergroup comprised of three very popular solo musicians. They released one album in 2002 or 2003, depending on where you live, and it’s been a favorite of mine for well over a decade. In hobbiting around to find YouTube links and images for this post, I learned that they very recently reunited and recorded a new album earlier this year.
I could’ve selected any track off their eponymous debut, but I ultimately chose “Um a Um” because the vocal blend has got me like:
“Blister in the Sun” – Nouvelle Vague
As a teenager in the mid-90s, I heard “Blister in the Sun” played on my local alternative radio station quite frequently, although the track is from the early 80s. Nouvelle Vague’s version is technically in English, but it’s the sort of result you’d get if you ran the lyrics through Google Translate and then didn’t reverse-check them. There’s a playful, French nightclub feel here that I find charming.
“I Ka Barra” – Habib Koité and Kélétigui Diabaté
That guitar work in combination with the drums is just so damn stirring.
“Para Donde Vas” – The Iguanas
I loved Tremé, David Simon’s series about New Orleanians (and specifically musicians) trying to rebuild their lives and their culture after Hurricane Katrina. Davis McAlary, played by Steve Zahn, was a part-time DJ and musician…and not particularly adept at cleaning. I don’t know why “Para Donde Vas” seems to fit this scene so well.
“Evenstar” – Howard Shore ft. Isabel Bayrakdarian
I’ve watched this scene from The Two Towers far more times than I can count. As powerful as Hugo Weaving’s performance is, it’s always Isabel Bayrakdarian’s voice combined with the image of Arwen clad in mourner’s robes, grieving in front of Aragorn’s tomb, that gets to me. The track is sung in Sindarin, the most commonly-spoken Elvish language in the Third Age of Middle Earth.
Translated (roughly), the lyrics are:
This is not the end
It is the beginning
You cannot falter
If you trust, trust
nothing else is necessary
Trust this, trust this, trust
Trust this, trust love
It’s a beautiful sentiment turned heartbreaking when juxtaposed with what we’re watching on screen, especially as it echoes Arwen’s words to Aragorn earlier in the film (“If you trust nothing else, trust this…trust us.”)
“Je Suis Rick Springfield” – Jonathan Coulton
I was telling @snarke about my blog post plans, and she mentioned “Je Suis Rick Springfield,” which had completely slipped my mind. The lyrics, spoken by a man trying to convince women in an overseas bar that he’s THAT Rick Springfield, are in intentionally-bad French. In live performances, Coulton has allowed for the possibility that the narrator actually is Springfield, but the patrons’ reactions in the bridge (essentially “I don’t understand this idiot”) make that scenario unlikely. It’s a look at what happens when a badly-conceived plan does not come together.
Are there non-English-language songs that you return to again and again, Internets? Let me know what they are!