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The Critic’s Conundrum Part II: Ra Ra Riot’s The Rhumb Line

Guest post by Dave Arey

If there’s one rule in music criticism, it’s that everyone loves a good story. As much as things should be about the music, they rarely are.

Ra Ra Riot has had a good couple weeks following the August 19 release of The Rhumb Line. The album currently has a score of 78 on Metacritic, including a four-star review from Rolling Stone.

Some of this praise is well-deserved; The Rhumb Line is certainly an intriguing effort from an up-and-coming band. However, if you read any of the band’s positive press, it’s hard to ignore the drowning death of drummer/co-songwriter John Pike, and how it has profoundly affected the band’s coverage.

Pike’s story is one that music critics are sure to jump on. For one thing, it’s certainly unique – not every band deals with members who die prematurely. It also provides a specific way for critics to interpret The Rhumb Line.

Consider “Dying Is Fine.”  Even though the album can be seen as a eulogy for Pike, “Dying is Fine” was written far before his death — and as such it looks toward the future, not the past:

No more of this living dying
Just scientific analyzing
Forgive us oh life
The sin of

Death oh baby
You know that dying is fine but maybe
I wouldn’t like death if death were good
Not even if death were good

There are a few different things going on here, and they have very little to do with physical death. On one hand, “Dying is Fine” borrows liberally from an e.e. cummings poem (even the “oh baby” is directly taken). That means that the song is a shout-out to Cummings, and it also comes with some sense of detachment, since the sentiment being expressed came from someone else first.

Also, there is a clear division between “dying” and “death,” the former being physical but the latter being spiritual. Physical death wouldn’t be a big deal, since it’s bound to happen. Spiritual death, on the other hand, is something worth fearing.

In the end, “Dying Is Fine” is really about a common theme — living life to the fullest and doing what you want without fear. Physical death is, as Cummings said in his poem, “perfectly natural.” There’s nothing you can do about it. The only thing you can change is how you live. So do what you want and stop thinking about it.

Given what happened to Pike, any song with the word “dying” in it is going to recall vivid (and obvious) images. However, if you divorce the song’s lyrics from the story behind the album, you could just as easily see it as an expression of someone’s hopes and fears and questions about the future. Pike’s death took a complicated song and gave it a simple explanation.

MP3: Ra Ra Riot – “Dying Is Fine”

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Roger Miller’s “Reincarnation”: Love, Religion, and the Afterlife

Guest post by Dave Arey

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of reincarnation, even though I seriously doubt it’s possible. My curiosity stems from the birth of the idea itself and what it means about humans. If religion is seen as an expression of our hopes and fears, then reincarnation expresses our fear of death. If there was some way to avoid death, we’d take it — even if we didn’t know what was on the other side.

Most people think of reincarnation as a positive idea. However, the Roger Miller song “Reincarnation” presents a completely different picture of it. It starts out as a funny little idea for a love song; what if we weren’t human? Would we still love each other?

If I was a bird and you was a fish
What would we do, I guess we’d wish for
Reincarnation, reincarnation

In this verse reincarnation is a positive thing. In the second verse, Miller calls it a “power” — in this case, a supernatural way to right wrongs. It’s also a somewhat cheesy way of saying you love someone so much that you’re willing to wait a lifetime for them.

Then the third verse completely changes the meaning:

I love you, and don’t you know I always will
You’re a girl, I’m a boy,
But suppose you were a rose
And I was a whip-poor-will

This is a great verse, not just for the use of the word “whip-poor-will” (which surprisingly shows up in a lot of country music; check out “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams or “Deeper Than the Holler” by Randy Travis). The examples Miller chooses are effective because they actually make you think. Could you muster some sort of emotion toward a flower or small bird? It’s a tough question — far tougher than if he had used a dog or cat (or, conversely, a cockroach).

This verse shows that reincarnation is not necessarily a good thing. Sure, we all want to live forever, but is turning into a small animal or inanimate object what we mean? Is living enough, or would we have to hold onto the things that make us human?

Here’s Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy covering the song during a solo show.

MP3: Jeff Tweedy – “Reincarnation” (Roger Miller cover)

Paint It Black: Black Kids and Black Eyed Peas

The Black Kids’ aggressively catchy debut, Partie Traumatic, isn’t shy about finding fun through formula. Its influences are tried, true, and in clear focus: synthy ’80s references (a la the Killers), Springsteenian epicness (Killers again), hypersexed dance rhythms (CSS), and boy-girl shoutalong choruses (Arcade Fire, Tilly and the Wall, and a host of others).

But lyrically, “Listen to Your Body” bears resemblances to some touchstones that are even more mainstream. Look at these couplets, aggrandizing like a puffy-chested tween boy and awkwardly sexy like a 12-year-old trying on her first “sexy” Halloween costume:

Yes you was tryin’a hex me / All tellin’ me I’m sexy

So now you’re in my bedroom / All talking bout some boom boom
But you really shouldn’t assume / ‘Cause my man’s coming home soon
He tryn’a have a rival / Best stick to your survival
Ain’t tryn’a be liable / I swear it on the Bible

Note the pseudo hip-hop phrasing that doesn’t quite fit the syllables (like the emphasis on “AH-summe”) and the sore-thumb word choices of “hex me” and “liable.” Brings to mind another gem — Black Eyed Peas “My Humps.”

I drive these brothers crazy / I do it on the daily
They treat me really nicely / They buy me all these icies

Awkward, right? Plus, both songs use the same “sexy” and “dance next to me” rhyme.

What’s to glean from all this? Maybe nothing. Maybe just that hip-hop’s reach seeps far into popular music. Maybe that it’s only a matter of time before Black Kids show up on Now That’s What I Call Indie Rock! comp.

But if nothing else, it shows that these Kids from Florida just wanna have fun.

MP3: Black Kids – “Listen to Your Body”

Jenny Lewis Gets Older With “Acid Tongue”

To be lonely is a habit
Like smoking or taking drugs
And I’ve quit them both
But man, was it rough

Now I am tired
It just made me tired
Let’s build ourselves a fire
Let’s build ourselves a fire

These lines are from Jenny Lewis’s new song “Acid Tongue,” also the name of her forthcoming record. In this context, the line “let’s build ourselves a fire” signifies weary resignation; unable to summon the effort for love, she decides to sleep through it, asking her partner to do the same.

But the meaning behind line changes elsewhere in the song, when Lewis sings this:

We build ourselves a fire…
But you know I am a liar…
And you don’t know what I’ve done

These lines signify two things: 1) that Lewis is leaving something out of the story, both to her unloved one and to the listener, and 2) that she, not he, is in control of the situation. She might not have a grip on the relationship, but intentionally or not, it’s clear that she was the one who sabotaged it.

By not telling us “what she’s done,” Lewis also builds a barrier between herself and the listener, as well as any potential suitors (such as the cobbler in the first verse, whose advances she turns down).

And so, beneath the mild drug references and initially ambiguous storytelling, Jenny Lewis delivers a resigned ballad in the tradition of the weathered bluesman. She seems old beyond her years, but little details belie her age. An older singer may have loved and lost. Sharing a fireside bed with a numbed boyfriend, Lewis has lost love but has not yet dusted away the ashes.

Jenny Lewis – “Acid Tongue” (Live)

Conor Oberst Is the Next … Conor Oberst

Guest post by Dave Arey

I have absolutely nothing against Conor Oberst. In fact, I think his self-titled solo album shows that he has come a long way as an artist. Lyrically, it’s leagues better than Cassadaga, which collapsed under its own self-important weight. Still, something about Oberst and Bright Eyes has always bugged me: the whole “next Dylan” thing.

My caveats about comparing Oberst with Bob Dylan have nothing to do with their disparity in talent. I think comparing the two in those terms is insulting to Dylan. The more important difference is the perspective each takes.

No singer in modern memory has made more out of the pronoun “I” than Oberst. Through his music, we know almost everything about him. We know that he’s skeptical about Christianity (“Don’t Know When But a Day is Gonna Come”). We know he hates the current administration (many songs, but “When the President Talks to God” sticks out the most). We are even aware of his alcoholism and drug abuse (“Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” “Lua”).

Think about this. How much do we know about Bob Dylan? Sure, he uses the pronoun “I” a lot, but rarely does this reveal anything about him. His most famous songs that contain “I” or “me” (“I Want You,” “I Shall Be Released,” “It Aint Me, Babe”) are not even about him. They’re about the potential lover or the man standing next to him in a crowd. They’re about everyone.

With this new album, Oberst is certainly trying to be more ambiguous. I doubt you’ll ever hear him sing a lyric like “Will my number come up eventually? Like Love is some kind of lottery” (from 2002’s “Waste of Paint”) again. Still, there is far more disclosure on the new record than you would ever find in a Dylan song. For instance, check out “Milk Thistle,” which ends the album on an introspective note:

I was poised for greatness
I was down and out
I keep death at my heels
Like a Bassett hound

If I go to heaven I’ll be bored as hell
Like a crying baby at the bottom of a well

On the surface, one could think that he’s saying nothing here, just throwing words at the wall. And in some ways, he certainly is — the interplay of “heaven” and “hell” seems especially contrived. Still, when you look at it closer, “Milk Thistle” is Oberst revealing who he is, warts and all. His entire career has been about expectations — in a couple years, he went from “The Next Dylan” to a burned-out drug addict to, today, an afterthought. Now, he’s trying to come to grips with the fact that he is all those things and none of them. That he wants you to love him, and he also wants you to leave him alone.

Oberst represents an extreme extension of ‘70s singer-songwriters — artists who were willing to sing about their feelings and give fans entry into their personal lives that would have been unheard of in Dylan’s time. In that way, “The Next James Taylor” is probably more appropriate than “The Next Dylan.”

Still, we don’t really need to call Oberst “the next” anything. He’s 28 now. He can go down whatever road he pleases.

MP3: Conor Oberst – “Milk Thistle”

Bowerbirds: Saving the Earth Through Anthropomorphism

Last week we discussed songs (or the lack thereof) describing the alien landscape that made existentialism so easy in Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World. While Keane’s song “Bedshaped” put into words the intangible feeling of haziness that enables this polar rumination, I had a hard time thinking up songs specifically about setting; that is, songs about place.

Then I saw Bowerbirds, opening for Bon Iver at Black Cat. Hailing from Raleigh, North Carolina, their docile, creaking folk keeps close ties to home, whether it be the North Carolina woods, a vague lakeside memory, or the very house they write in.

One scientist in Encounters says Antarctica feels like a living being, that its constant drifting and shifting — and its push-and-pull relationship with climate change — make him feel like he lives aboard a giant creature. (This quote doesn’t seem to be online; anyone have it?) In the song “My Oldest Memory,” off Bowerbirds’ album Hymns for a Dark Horse, the band sings about a natural haven preserved in memory:

And I dont know whose land we’re on
Is this an island that plots like a villain,
Or an old ghost friend we don’t believe in?

The verses flip like a photo album of a hike along the water: “Out where the waves wrestle with the dirty brine,” the band crosses sand and thicket to rest their heads in the nooks of a cypress. In the memory, recalled through the lens of a child, the land becomes a mystical character, large beyond comprehension. Now, looking back as adults, the picture is foggier: Is nature still an omnipresent spirit as it was during those barefoot and carefree summers? Or is it slowly dying at the hands of amnesia, fading like Tinkerbell as it disappears from our modern, responsible lives?

MP3: Bowerbirds – “My Oldest Memory”

XTC’s Marching “River of Orchids”

For all their herky-jerky new wave, XTC’s flourishes of modern classical music have produced some of their finest work. “River of Orchids” opens Apple Venus, Pt. 1 with the orchestral cinematography of a nature documentary — violin strings pluck like the first droplets of a rainstorm, setting still leaves to bounce. One by one, the landscape fills with counterpoint salvos of trumpets, vocal groans, and sung proclamations, until they build to a rushing river, a fanfare march, a column of soldiers parading into London.

As the music is a sort of round, so are they lyrics. Singer Andy Partridge recorded the vocals in a solitary fit of creativity — locked in his garden shed, shirtless and barefoot. He had the string samples laid down, and flipped through his notebook to find a stray couplet to fit: “I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus.”

This surreal image (dandelions don’t roar; Piccadilly Circus is actually an urban area in London’s West End) grew into “River of Orchids,” a call to arms in the name of England’s flora. Here are the lyrics, with repeated lines removed:

I heard the dandelions roar in Piccadilly Circus
Take a packet of seeds
Take yourself out to play
I want to see river of orchids where we had a motorway

Push your car from the road

Just like a mad dog you’re chasing your tail in a circle
It’s all in your back yard
You’ve the whole world at your feet
I said the grass is always greener when it bursts up through concrete

River of orchids winding our way
Want to walk into London on my hands one day
River of orchids the road overgrows
Want to walk into London smelling like a Peckham Rose

I had a dream where the car is reduced to a fossil…

Note that Partridge sings in commands, lending urgency to the green rebellion. Some of the lines almost border on acts of violence — throwing around cars and upturning concrete — and the “I want” lyrics could be shouted from a dais. All in all the lyrics are snippets, related but nonsequential, letting the spinning melodies braid with the left-field violins and trumpets and dissonant “Hmmm” grunts. A time-lapse scene of sprouting dandelions becomes a Tolkien-like battalion of trees, marching to the sound of buglers and bullhorn slogans, the soundtrack of an unseen revolution.

MP3: XTC – “River of Orchids”