A First Impressions Mixtape

I’m resisting the temptation to simply throw together a list of songs I think are totally sweet at this very moment.  Instead, in the spirit of old-school mixtapery, I’m going thematic with this thang. Since this is our first entry into the world of mixtapes, I thought it would be apt to look at artists in my current rotation and figure out how I came to appreciate them in the first place. There are a dozen tracks, and the order is roughly chronological (starting in autumn 2007).  Some were “love at first sight” stories, while others took emotional arcs worthy of the romantic comedy tradition: enmity at the outset, begrudging mutual acceptance leading to friendship, distancing to avoid confrontation of evolving romance, eventual tears of joy.

You can stream this mixtape legally in its entirety at excellent new website 8tracks.  They encourage you to have a holistic mixtape experience by only allowing 3 track skips per hour.  Also keep in mind that for legal reasons, the second time a given IP address visits the mix it will play in random order.

Ahem, so here they are!

1. Spoon– “The Beast and Dragon Adored”   (Gimme Fiction)

I acquired this snarly little tune on a mixtape from my college housemate Thomas, but it didn’t hit home until a couple years later.  I’ve since come to love their consistently sharp catalogue.  I go to Spoon for their unique swagger and taut rhythmic arrangements.  Okay, and the occasional spastic guitar that enters late to stir things up just a bit at the periphery.
Further listening: “The Mystery Zone” from Transference.

2. Joanna Newsom– “Bridges and Balloons”   (The Milk-Eyed Mender)

I could not deal with the voice at first listen.  Watching this live video brought me around: the otherworldly attack on certain lyrics actually helps sell the archaic vocabulary  (“catenaries and dirigibles”).  The polyrhythmic harp has always been a winner for me, and the vocals have vastly improved as of Ys and Have One On Me.  She writes the epic art-folk songs nobody else is even trying to write.

3. Loudon Wainwright III– “Motel Blues”  (Album II)

The first LWIII songs I heard landed like novelty tricks.  This was the performance that unlocked the world of tragicomic songwriting for me.  I usually find the pat rhymes in this folk style to be unimaginative, but this guy can turn that liability into a huge asset by getting you laughing and then turning the knife.
Further listening: “White Winos” from Last Man on Earth

4. The National– “Lemonworld”   (High Violet)

I read that the band had a demo for this track and ended up unable to reproduce the magic of the initial recording during their album sessions.  So they just threw it in there anyway.  I’m very happy they did, because it was the immediacy and honesty in this track that opened up a whole bunch of their material for me that I’d been unable to get attached to previously (pretty much all of Boxer, for instance).

5. The Tallest Man On Earth– “Love is All”   (The Wild Hunt)

Honestly, I was into this music from the get-go, and I haven’t let go yet.  There is no individual track I can point to as my portal, so I’ll go with this one since it embodies a lot of what characterizes the artist: spry guitar picking and an unafraid vocalist who pushes to the fore the honest emotions that often get lost when using a surreal lyrical palette.

6. Janelle Monae– “Cold War”   (The ArchAndroid)

The one-take breakdown she has in this song’s music video did it.  Her eclectic songs and poise counterbalance the larger-than-life swagger and dancing.  She’s pure energy, no matter the exact genre.

7. Local Natives– “Airplanes”   (Gorilla Manor)

I was superficially struck by how this band was employing folksy group vocals and a mandolin (just like us)! This song is easy to get into, and I love that the drumsticks ticking away on the tom rim are just as important to the hook as the “I want you back” vocal.  Neat debut album from a young band we’d like to take some career cues from.

8. How To Dress Well– “Decisions feat. Yuksel Arslan”   (Love Remains)

I don’t normally go for R&B, but I’m taken by the way HTDW uses necessarily lo-fi recording techniques to mirror the mind’s degradation of remembered musical fragments.  I grew up with K-Ci and Jojo followed by R. Kelly.  Clearly, this guy did too, and he has taken me with him down the ambient rabbithole on Love Remains.

9. The White Stripes– “Conquest”   (Icky Thump)

I still don’t like The White Stripes as much as some bands on this list.  But this song’s theatricality won me over, and I’ve since been enjoying the bombast that is Jack White.  He goes wherever he wants to go and makes it work, and while I normally have fairly high standards for in-tune singing, I love that he just completely loses the plot by the end of this track.  The official music video only adds to the joy.

10. Grizzly Bear– “He Hit Me”   (Friend EP)

This is the band currently at the top of my list.  Oddly enough, it took this cover song (originally performed by The Crystals) to turn me on to their aesthetic in the first place.  The EP on which it appears shows the band in transition from their origins (a solo bedroom-recorded project) to their current rock band lineup.  The production on “He Hit Me” deftly mirrors the early 60’s pop sounds that Phil Spector had applied to the original.  But it also foretells a lot of what’s to come on 2009’s Veckatimest (which I now can’t stop playing, despite an initially apathetic reaction).

11. Twin Shadow– “I Can’t Wait”   (Forget)

The artful transition at 0:35–0:42 was what tipped me over the edge on first listen.  It could have been a straight-up 80’s b-side up to then, but that slightly ambiguous segue into the chorus pushes things into the“chill-wave” space that’s so big in the indie world now.  Sometimes those trends are just annoying until a particular artist sells it for you.  That’s Twin Shadow for me (the appeal was only heightened when I realized this album, along with the Morning Benders’ Big Echo that I just downloaded, is produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor).

12. Deerhunter– “Helicopter”   (Halcyon Digest)

Here’s another artist that didn’t do it for me the first go-around but later wormed its way in.  The surfy harmonies and echo-ey spaces on this song caught me at the right time, and though the concept of stream-of-consciousness lyrics would normally be off-putting to me, a lot of this album’s appeal for me lies in its mixture of craft with spontaneity.  Even their longer songs feel tight in structure, and when the lyrics go off the deep end, there’s usually some formal or textural element there to to bring things back into focus quickly enough.


Encore! (because musicians simply can’t help themselves)

13. David Vertesi– “Cardiography”   (Cardiography)

Being in a band that hopes for the attention of blogs, I get to surf for new music on taste-making blogs and in the name of “research.”  One of my recent favorites is called Music vs. Misery (the title referencing mixtaping’s touchstone film, High Fidelity).  Thanks to this blogger whose tastes tend to align with my own, I’m just beginning to get into this song and this artist. I thought it was worthy of “encore” inclusion, since there are always new first impressions out there waiting to be made and whatnot.  Maybe you guys have been following music blogs all along, but I’d been missing out until recently.

We do hope you enjoyed the first MixTape– stop back in on Mondays for further installments from the band.
It could be music, or it could be a different mixture altogether!

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  1. Posted January 27, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    This is so rich. I feel like I just ate a pan of brownies. I’ll line these up for my next Amtrak. Thanks!

  2. Carrie
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I like this section! My itunes constantly needs new material as I tend to listen to all my favorite songs on repeat. Speaking of blow the house down, any developments on a non-live version?