Monday, March 9, 2009

Re: Mixtape, Pt. I

In High Fidelity, we get this bit of Hornbian wisdom:
"...Making a tape is like writing a letter. There's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention, and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs and...oh, there are loads of rules."
In an unveiled stab at coverting me to the Church of Our Lord of Loops, Polysyllabicism, & Birds Named Andy, Charlie T. gave me a mixtape. Actually a "mix CD" but that just doesn't sound right. To aged brontosauri like myself, they'll always be mixtapes. You could embed digital media on playable piece of salami and I'd still call it a mixtape.

Making/receiving a mixtape is tricky business. Clearly, the simplest transaction is between two love interests- the goal of which is to either a) help the person fall in love with you, b) create a soundtrack to your relationship, c) introduce them to good music while giving them a little something to read between the lines that you may or may not be ready to come out and say just yet, d) narrow down that ever elusive "Our Song," or e) all of the above. That I'm aware of, Charlie T is not making passes at me, so we can eliminate that right off the bat.

Once you're past the sweet simplicity of a love-based mixtape, your options are endless. Are you just trying to get somebody into the music you like? Do you even know what they like? Does it matter? Is your idea of how to sequence a mixtape anywhere near theirs? Do you believe in mixtape rules? Does it have a theme? Does it have to have a theme? Is artwork necessary? Do you try to maximize the space on the cd? Or are you disciplined enough to believe in the power of "6 Songs That Fit Together Perfectly? This line of questioning could go on for days. But I think my drift is caught. Charlie T made me a (in full disclosure, this is the second and better) mixtape. Like I said earlier, part of it was Andrew Bird Proselytization. Listening was rewarding and an interesting study in what different (but, I think we would both admit, pretty similar) people look for in a mixtape.

It's also a bit of a tricky task reviewing a mixtape because you readers- unless your tastes align perfectly with Charlie T's- don't have all the songs. And we're not yet up to posting zip files and the like. Go find them on iTunes or eMusic. Oh well. Let's dive in. Here's my review/reaction/whatever.

TRACK 1: Knotty Pine- David Byrne & Dirty Projectors

At 1st listen, I wasn't really feeling this song. But 2nd and 3rd and 8th listens have endeared it to me. Byrne + Projectors could not = anything but quirky. The quirk delivers. An interesting choice for the all-crucial, pacesetter of Track 1.
SPIKE RULE: Kick it off with a song that the recipient isn't familiar with but you are almost entirely sure they'll want to come back to.
Ask Hornby: you gotta kick it off with a killer. This song wasn't a no-brainer for me, but then maybe Charlie T is working on a different set of hipster rules that my low indie pay grade doesn't give me access to. If it didn't floor me, it at least intrigued me as to where this mixtape was gonna take/drag/fly me.

TRACK 2: Buenos Aires Beach- War On Drugs
The epiphany, the moment of truth, the beautiful bomb (war reference half-intentional) struck precisely at the 2 Minute Mark. For a song that's 3 1/2 minutes long, that's keeping your virtue longer than most, more insecure (and more radio-ready) pop songs do. But when the band drops "the moment" on you, it's like that scene in all those terrible teen movies where suddenly the protagonist discovers that the best friend has hidden charms and, oh my, SHE'S SMOKING HOT WITHOUT HER GLASSES ON! I knew I was supposed to like War On Drugs; Craig Finn told me so. This particular song is a good lo-fi ramble. I left my Hippie Psychedelic-->English dictionary in the car, so the lyrics aren't sinking in yet. A little like Bob Dylan (stream of consciousness/poetry lyrics and quirky delivery) with 13th Floor Elevators (ramshackle) and whatever indie band I'm supposed to namedrop here.
SPIKE RULE: Track 2 should almost always be better than Track 1 so as to give the listener a sense that this is A-Game, not D-League. I believe you can tell a lot about an album by its Track 2.
(Track 7s are also telling, but we'll save that for another day.) Anyone can stick their Big Gun at #1. But what else have you got?
Apparently, the War On Drugs.

TRACK 3: As Tall As Cliffs- Margot and the Nuclear So-And-Sos
In my judgmental heart and ears, I thought I knew what M&NSS would sound like (indie jamband maybe? emo-disguised-as-power-pop?) . I was wrong, thank goodness. This was the first track that I pushed repeat on. I love it.
SPIKE RULE: If the listener hasn't found a song that they can't WAIT to get back to by Track 5, you have failed.

TRACKS 4 & 5: Fitz & Dizzspells/Tenousness- Andrew Bird
Here we have the crux of the mixtape. Its very reason for existing. Charlie T knows I have some rather potent anti-hipster/anti-hype prejudice against Mr. Bird. He also knows that I am willing to be wrong (as I was when I finally got past the hype and learned to love Arcade Fire, The National, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah....the list is longer) Charlie T shows his hand relatively early and I can respect somebody who gets to the point. They are unfortunately weighted with the expectation of a guy like Darko, who didn't ask to be drafted so high in an otherwise incredible draft and then was saddled with colossal expectations.

I will say these things about these particular Andrew Bird songsand move on, as I don't want to belabor the point of the mixtape and can't possibly give them anything remotely near the pulpit-pounding conversion story that might sell. Thoughts:
:: Hearing him in my headphones is much preferred to trying to like him while dodging a parade of posing (and talky) hipsters.
:: I can't decide if I love or hate the wordiness. Lots of syllables. I can respect a literary bent. I just don't know if I appreciate or resent this one.
:: I also can't decide if the wordiness is art for art's sake or if he's trying to really get something across in traditional poetry form. I do, after consulting with Charlie T, know that his NY Times songwriting blog puts him in a very favorable, creative, thinker light.
:: I do know that I love the line (and its delivery) "Can't stand to stand, can't stand to sit, and who would want to know this?" So maybe the previous bulleted point is moot.
:: The music is very, very good. After taking passes on Armchair Apocrypha and the one about the eggs, maybe I have...finally....(spit it out) come around to Andrew Bird. (Fittingly, on an album that all the hipsters would say is not his best and on and on. I love the hipster backlash.)

TRACK 6: Mobile Parts 1 and 2- Glenn Kotche
SPIKE RULE: Challenge the listener at least once, if it won't disrupt the theme or flow too much. Take them out of their comfort zone.
I'm a huge Wilco fan. Of course I am sold. But the instrumentality of this makes it an outlier, but a smart one (with its melodicism and Wilco connection). The last minute is a little too much for me, though. I suppose a love of my eardrums hurts my ability to appreciate it. But 5 out of 6 minutes ain't bad.

TRACKS 7 & 8: Knuckles/For Boston- The Hold Steady
Also a huge Hold Steady fan, as we've documented with our Stay Positive joint review. Knuckles' narrator is so great- that pathetic Kobe-esque "You can call me Black Mamba" self-proclamation that continually fails is great, great writing. The parallel of the names he's trying to be called versus the names he's getting called is pure storytelling. Maybe Andrew Bird could take a narrative lesson.

WANTS: Freddy Knuckles IS: Right Said Fred
WANTS: Freddy Mercury IS: Right Said Fred
WANTS: Sunny D IS: Five Alive (even better because he professes to have offed 5 people, but people know he's all talk)
WANTS: Johnny Rotten IS: Freddy Fresh

I lived in Boston for about a half year once. So For Boston is nice. "Heaven is a place you can never find your cigarettes." The Hold Steady will have to make an awfully crappy record for me to turn on their playing and Craig's writing. It would require an Isiah Thomas Caliber killer.

TRACKS 9: Salome- Old 97's
I am in the rare (and much maligned) school that prefers solo Rhett Miller (with Jon Brion) to the Old 97's. I catch some heat, but, hey, I think the songs and production are better. I probably like this one because it feels like a song that could be on The Instigator.

TRACK 10: Part- Trent Belnap
You are allowed to have pet artists that you unabashedly push. It's part of being a music fan. You take every chance to spread the gospel of ____ to whoever will listen. Recipients of your mixtapes know that, somewhere in there, they're gonna get a taste of ___.
SPIKE RULE: Keep indulgences to a minimum. It's your mixtape, but you've gotta be considerate of your audience. So, yeah, indulge a little. But be wary as to where and when.
One of Charlie T's pets is Trent Belnap, somewhere below Josh Ritter, Jake Plummer, Built To Spill, and Dawn Wells in the world of Idahoan celebrities. Trent's voice is a powerhouse, evoking old school country in both its delivery and the song itself. Is this my favorite Trent Belnap song? No. But it's good and I can see why Charlie T digs it.

TRACK 11: Backwards Walk (daytrotter piano version) - Frightened Rabbit
SPIKE RULE: There's nothing wrong with including a song that the person already know (and loves). Placement, however, is key. Correct placement can build trust and help bridge the listener to the next less-familiar song.
Charlie T. dropped this song in the perfect spot, with a twist. He knew I love, love, love this song. So its inclusion is smart on its own, but he upped the ante by including a version that might actually be better than the album version AND that I had never heard. Perfect placement, right in the middle to get me back in the groove for the second half.

Part II coming next. Try to contain your enthusiasm.

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