To reitorate, number one on this list does not necessarily indicate that I view that album as superior to number ten. I’m listing them by release date, one being the newest, ten being the oldest.
#4 Death Cab for Cutie Plans August 30, 2005
Yes, it’s the same vocalist as The Postal Service. To continue from the blurb on Give Up, my mind wanders when listening to Ben Gibbard, as he plods along at the same serene pace. I had to go back and listen to portions of the album to think about what to say. Generally I’m more interested in the band behind him than trying to piece together what the words add.
I managed to see DCFC at the Providence Performing Arts Center for this tour. The seats were a bit far back, and I was concerned heading in that it may be a less than exciting time, since I had seen them falter on Saturday Night Live previously, and on snippets on YouTube. They were competent live, but they really are a studio act.
What the show did add was that the common denominator, at least among three songs on the album, dealt with love and loss- not in the sense of rejection, but in the sense of one person dying. The songs are tracks two, (“When Soul Meets Body”), five (“I Will Follow You Into the Dark”), and nine (“What Sarah Said”), played roughly in that order at the show, and the band remarked something similar to “here’s a lovely trio of death, enjoy”.
There are multiple ways to approach writing an album. One is to start with a guiding theme or concept, and each song progresses the narrative. Another is to create the songs independent of each other, and maybe it is more by chance that they’ll bear some similarity or a sense of continuity to one another.
My favorite Smashing Pumpkins album is Adore, and each song seems to further develop a loose storyline of a boy and girl who become involved, the relationship turns abusive, the girl is killed in a car accident, and the boy is left to regret how he treated her. She returns to haunt him, he experiences growth, longs to meet her in the afterlife, and the whole thing comes to a close with the boy driving aimlessly, missing her and unsure with where to go from here.
When listening to Plans, I invariably think of Adore. Both albums death with love and love lost, but with Adore that loss is sudden, whereas Plans can see the end coming but is powerless to stop it.
I find Plans to be somewhat confusing. The first song, “Marching Bands of Manhattan”, conjures imagery of Manhattan vanishing, “Making a lake of the East river and Hudson”. It then goes on to caution “But while you debate half-empty and half-full/ it slowly rises/ your love is gonna drown”. It would contextually refer to the water level, or elsewhere in song, “Sorrow drops into your heart through a pinhole/ like a faucet that leaks but there is comfort in the sound”. Rising sea levels to me are a veiled reference to global warming, and the debate over whether or not it is real. The film The Day After Tomorrow shows New York flooded, and the later Smashing Pumpkins album Zeitgeist keeps the image going with the Statue of Liberty being underwater.
Perhaps they’re trying to dually acknowledge the problems of society and the individual. Maybe they are just recording what they see around them. That would make sense, I suppose.
Things get murkier for me the further the album goes. The second track, “Where Soul Meets Body”, is titled after a place that is probably more vague to me after I read Roach’s Stiff. The concept of soul is tied to the afterlife, or deep, primal emotion. So the popular concept of where the soul and body intersect is the heart. “I want to live where soul meets body” makes sense as an alternate way of saying “I want to live in your heart”, versus the Descartes notion of the soul residing in the hippocampus, or earlier suppositions by anatomists that the soul resides in the liver.
I generally associate the song with Transcendentalism, a literary genre popular among New England writers of the late nineteenth century. Why? Those writers basically said that to escape the trappings of nineteenth century life (which was a nasty time to be alive- no refrigeration, electricity, and tapeworms were openly sold as weight-loss supplements), one should reconnect with nature and realize you are part of a much larger order of things. Appreciate the sunshine on your shoulders. The lines “And let the sun wrap its arms around me/ and bathe my skin in waters cool and cleansing/ and feel what it’s like to be new” seem to fall in step.
The album plods along, hitting “Follow You Into the Dark”, a sweet little song about how when the speaker’s love dies, as she someday will, they should not be afraid of death, and the speaker will not be too far behind, and they will be reunited.
The ninth song, “What Sarah Said”, details the speaker’s love dying at the hospital. Probably the most poignant moment of the album: “I’m thinking of what Sarah said- ‘Love is watching someone die…’ “, and a brief instrumental break. The break could be the sendoff of the lover into the afterlife, while the speaker asks “So who’s going to watch you die?”.
The second to last song, “Brothers On a Hotel Bed”, is a melancholy sepia-toned portrait of lovers who have begun to drift apart-
“You may tire of me
as our December sun is setting
’cause I’m not who I used to be
no longer easy on the eyes
these wrinkles masterfully disguise the youthful boy below
who turned your way and saw something he was not looking for,
both a beginning and an end
but now he lives inside someone he does not recognize
when he catches his reflection on accident
on the back of a motorbike
with your arms outstretched trying to take flight
leaving everything behind
but even at our swiftest speed
you couldn’t break from the concrete of the city where we still reside
and I have learned
that even landlocked lovers yearn for the sea like Navymen
cause now we say goodnight
from our own separate sides
like brothers on a hotel bed”
I hardly listen to the last song, “Stable Song”. Once the album reaches the end of “Brothers On a Hotel Bed”, I consider it a fine place to leave off.
#3 Sigur Ros Takk… September 12, 2005
Sigur Ros is an Icelandic act. The name, from what I have read, translates to “Victory Rose”, which is either the name of the singer’s little sister, or her name is a letter or so off.
They gained attention by opening up for Radiohead a few years ago. They have an incredible documentary, called “Heima”, that documents the band returning to their native Iceland after a world tour and giving a series of free shows.
I learned about Sigur Ros from a friend of mine, who suggested if I like the more ambient, instrumental side of Radiohead, then I might also like this.
The only way I can truly describe this is to relay part of The Shawshank Redemption, where Tim Robbin’s character, Andy Dufresne, plays an opera record over the loudspeakers to offer the condemned men a glimmer of something beautiful. Morgan Freeman’s character remarked that he had no idea what the two Italian singers were saying, and “Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.”
I’ve read that most of the time, the singer isn’t even singing Icelandic, but something dubbed “Hopelandic”, a scat or “ooohs” and “aaaahs”. I could care less. The music itself is awe-inspiring and ethereal.
#2 Thrice The Alchemy Index Vol. I & II October 16, 2007
The Alchemy Index Vol. III & IV April 15, 2008
Yes, you would be holding two packages in your hands in line if you were buying the physical album at a retail store. But, they were written in the same session, are structured the same way, and it was busted into two parts by the record company.
The premise behind this undertaking is to write an EP (six songs) that are thematically connected to one of the four ancient elements: fire, water, air, and earth. The first six are centered around fire, the next six water, etc.
Every sixth song, or the final song of each EP, is written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet (iambic pentameter, fourteen lines, three quatrains, and the last two lines, called a couplet, rhyme- ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme), but for content does not adulate a woman, but focuses rather on man’s relation to each of the elements. I had to look this up, as I thought I was initially crazy and seeing things. No, in the spirit of art rock, someone actually decided to go back and use the sonnet form inflicted on high school children throughout the nation.
The internet (Wikipedia) tells me that the four couplets share chord progressions and vocal melodies, but are in different keys. Being a drummer I have no idea of such things.
This is a wonderful album to pick apart, and even better that someone cared enough to invest so much effort into its creation.
#1 This Will Destroy You This Will Destroy You January 29, 2008
Another post-rock band, much like Explosions In the Sky, mentioned last time. Both bands are from Texas, both are instrumental, and both are referred to as “post rock”. I enjoy both. This Will Destroy You incorporates more electronics into their music, while Explosions In the Sky do not tinker with as many pops and buzzes. Come to think of it, I can’t really remember an EITS sky off the top of my head that doesn’t sound fully natural and divorced from a computer. EITS was also around first.
They blend elements of most of my favorite music. We shall end with my favorite track of theirs.