Certain Songs: 75-71

December 24, 2009 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment


The Mendoza Line

Full of Light and Full of Fire

(Bar/None; 2005)


In baseball, “the Mendoza line” refers to the calamitous lifetime batting average set in the 1970’s by Mario Mendoza. It’s a razor-thin wire against which success & failure is measured; anyone hitting below that lowly benchmark, no matter how valuable they might otherwise be the team, carries with them the stench of failure.

In commercial terms, this Brooklyn act spent more than a decade batting well below the Mendoza Line. They came from an era where indie only attracted a minor-league cult following, and never reaped the rewards when it slipped – via cyberspace – out of the bedrooms and into concert halls.

Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t because they weren’t good enough. Full of Light isn’t even the best record the band released this decade, but it’s still a tremendous collection of spiky, ramshackle rock & end-of-their-tether country. It’s the brooding, delicate voice of Shannon McArdle which steals the show here, as she oozes empathy in her songs of other people’s lives. Meanwhile, Tim Bracy remains a compelling disaster zone, slurring memorable misanthropic barbs and quips as he staggers from one disappointment to the next.

There were lots of bands which deserved more from the decade than they got, but it’s a shame that The Mendoza Line became such a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Key Track: Catch a Collapsing Star


The Delgados

The Great Eastern

(Chemikal; 2000)

600px-The Delgados - The Great Eastern

By their own admission, The Delgados’ third album was in an absolute mess when producer Dave Friddman got his hands on it. The challenge of surpassing expectations for the follow-up to Peloton was proving an impossible task, as the band had opted for ambition and grandeur but seemingly lacked the discipline to pull it off. Arrangements were a dauntingly complex mix of brass, strings & woodwind, parts of songs kept getting rewritten and they had the added pressure of running a record label which, at the time, was home to some of the best bands in the country.

We’ll never know how different the finished product was from the original masters, but there’s no denying that Friddman did a tremendous job here. For all the elaborate, layered instrumentals and effects, the songs on The Great Eastern retain a focus which amplifies their power; building glorious walls of sound where thrashing guitars were balanced with the tuneful whispers of wind & strings. Alun Woodward & Emma Pollack’s noirish nursery rhymes were married with shifting time signatures, expansive sound effects, discord & melody. They could be summon as much fiercely power as labelmates Mogwai or sound delicate, ruminative & tender – sometimes in the space of the same song. Whilst they never enjoyed the same attention as some of Friddman’s better-known collaborators, The Great Eastern deserves to be held in equally high regard.

Key track: American Trilogy


The Mountain Goats

The Sunset Tree

(4AD; 2005)


I am young and I am good.
It’s a hot southern California day.
If I wake you up, there will be hell to pay.

Nobody really buys a Mountain Goats record for the music. Sure, John Darnielle’s songwriting has developed exponentially over the years and he’s even managed to get more out of his brittle voice, but it’s the compelling lyricism & storytelling in Mountains Goats’ output which has always been the main draw for his steadily-growing number of fans.

On The Sunset Tree, Darnielle decides to turn the pen against himself and give us a portrait of the artist as a teenage boy. Dedicated to the step-father who blighted his adolescence, the record’s full of details about the drunk, heavy-handed disciplinarian who turned his home into a hostile place. He fills his writing with small details: watching the Watergate hearings or playing dance music to drown out his parents’ rows; the spittle bubbling on his drunk step-dad’s sleeping lips; guarding his face from a raging fist and hoping he doesn’t smash the stereo.

Sure, it’s bleak and often heartbreaking, but there’s too much exorcism & catharsis here for it to sound depressing. Darnielle sounds like he’s casting loose a lifetime’s worth of bad memories and setting it in the context of the successful, observant & astoundingly talented songwriter he’s become.

Key track: Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod


The Shins

Chutes Too Narrow

(Sub Pop; 2003)

Chutes Too Narrow

I’ve not really got much more to say about this record than I said at the time. Just bear in mind that my prose was a little more… errm.. flowery… when I wrote this review.


Brother Ali


(Rhymesayers; 2009)

Brother Ali - Us

“I started rhyming just to be somebody, to make people notice me at the party, and not just be some new kid who’s albino; make ’em say “yeah, I know, but have you heard him rhyme though?'”

In a year where a few critics loudly declared the death of hip hop, it’s ironic that one of the best records of 2009 was by a man whose faith in the social, emotional and political power of rap was as belligerently devout as ever. On US, Ali Newman moved away from his own personal tales of race, fatherhood and relationship traumas, and started rapping through the eyes of others: the gay teenager who’s frightened to come out to his evangelical father; the Somali refugees who found themselves isolated in this strange, bewildering America; kids caught between two warring parents; the slaves who were snatched from Africa to build the American Dream.

In between, Newman tries to reach people caught up in the drug game, chides ‘gangsta’ rappers for their fake tales & gaudy bling, and wishes his wife could understand the beauty he sees in her. His rhymes are preachy, romantic, funny, humane, outraged and delivered with a style which could obliterate many of the drab gruntsmiths who clog the arteries of the rap scene. Unlike his previous (and equally strong) records, Ali no longer has explain who he is, where he’s coming from or make apologies for his beliefs, and that allows him the time to extend his fierce empathy to a cast of acquaintances and strangers. In a genre so often dulled by vanity & self-obsession, that’s quite a thrilling, revolutionary act.

Key track: Tightrope


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