63 is an important number to me. It was my childhood address, the place that, to this day, I most regularly associate with the concept of home. So it feels kind of special to reach the 63rd volume of The Dylan Samson Mix Series, and is why I couldn't think of a more appropriate title for this week's mix than "Home." Volume 63 includes music from Portishead, Radiohead, and David Bowie, and can be found on Crosby St. in Manhattan.
1. Caribou : Can't Do Without You
When I last included a Caribou song on one of the mixes, I confessed that I'd never really been grabbed by Dan Snaith's music. Well, in the year since, I can report that that has changed. Yes, I came to "Our Love" late, but I've really come to love this record. Snaith never gives too much with his songs — they're never devastatingly complicated. But the simplicity is what draws you in, and allows for universally understood messages like the repeated mantra of "I can't do without you," to hit hard. I still can't claim to be a diehard fan, but I've found myself drawn to this record over and over again in times of loneliness and hardship, and it's helped me through them immensely. Sometimes, a change of heart can be a good thing.
2. Three Loco : Neato
I have a weird affection for this strange, semi-comedy-rap song. Maybe it’s that dirty, horn driven beat. Maybe it’s the ridiculously stupid lines like “beat up the block like Steven Segal,” or “shittin' on the track like Waka Flocka Seagulls.” No, I can't really place what it is about “Neato,” but I absolutely love it.
3. CSS : Knife
It always impresses me when a cover feels less like a band simply playing someone else’s song, and more like they’re re-interpreting it. CSS’ cover of Grizzly Bear’s “Knife” definitely fits that bill, forgoing the meditative, surrealist tones of the original for a simple, upbeat electro-pop number. It’s a low-stakes cover, one that by no means overshadows the original, but rather speaks to its strengths. It’s very easy for a cover to fall apart. More often than not this is the fault of the band attempting to cover a song that is much more than they can handle, but some songs simply don’t work in any form other than the way they are written. But songs that have a strong foundation, one that maintains the original feeling and intent no matter how the band shapes it, those can be played however you like and will still work to some degree. CSS’ cover proves that “Knife” has that foundation (as does Atlas Sound’s version of the song, which seems to actively try to tear itself apart), that it will still work no matter what someone does to it.
4. Portishead : SOS
Like CSS’ version of “Knife,” here we have another drastic re-interpretation of a song. This one feels different though, it feels more important. It feels like one of those moments when a group takes someone else's song and makes it entirely their own. Portishead's version of "SOS" bears little to no resemblance to ABBA’s original (not a bad thing for those of us who can't stand those endlessly cheery, often nonsensical europop songs), taking the underlying darkness of the lyrics and putting them in a sonic landscape that actually feels appropriate. Beth Gibbons — a singer who always manages to convey outsized emotions in an extremely subdued tone — delivers the lyrics with the weight of someone who has experienced the pain of which she's singing. You don't see this kind of thing all that often, when a cover turns out to be even better than the original. Aretha took "Respect," from Otis Redding. Johnny Cash took "Hurt" from Nine Inch Nails. Now it seems Portishead have taken "SOS" from ABBA. I for one, am thrilled.
5. Radiohead : Ful Stop
I did not feel like this song got nearly the attention it deserved when “A Moon Shaped Pool” was released this past May. Don't get me wrong, the songs that did seem to get most of the attention —your “Daydreaming”s, your “True Love Waits”s — are absolutely deserving of it. But “Ful Stop” feels like such a shock to “A Moon Shaped Pool”’s system, a driving bolt of electronic-ey, krautrock-ey lightning that yanks you out of the acoustic comforts of “Desert Island Disk,” and leaves you just as dizzy and confused as the circling pianos and orchestration of “Glass Eyes”’ feels. It’s a big moment on the record, made even bigger by the fact that the song feels so intense despite being so sonically subdued. Every sound here wants to be twice as large as it is, to dominate the song and muddy up it's sonic landscape. A lesser band would allow that to happen, but Radiohead keeps “Ful Stop”’s sounds all bubbling right under the surface, never letting one get so large as to eclipse the others. Their power comes from control, and they know just how to wield it.
6. LCD Soundsystem : Yeah (Crass Version)
When I was in college, I served as the Music Director of the student radio station, WIUX, for three years. I was given a huge amount of music to listen to on a regular basis, and was put in charge of a group of students tasked with reviewing it. Their reviews would help influence what DJs would play every day, to make sure the station not only played new and interesting music, to help maintain the identity WIUX had developed as a place people could go to find songs they weren't going to hear elsewhere. In a lot of ways, it was my dream job, and I have nothing but positive memories of my time working there. But three years of listening to everything that came across my desk (or, as much of it as I possibly could) took a toll, and by the end of my tenure I began to feel more than a little jaded. I found myself having less and less patience for music that felt too much like something I’d heard before. In retrospect, most of these songs and bands I dismissed at the time were completely fine in their own right, some of them were even great, but unless there was something in their music that really grabbed me, I’d often dismiss it as being just another version of some pre-existing band. I understood what industry veterans meant when they told me they could always tell when they met someone who didn’t work in the music world — those people still actually loved what they listened to. It’s was a sobering realization, and the jaded habits I developed back then are some I’m still trying to break myself of to this day.
More than any song I’ve ever heard, LCD Soundsystem’s “Yeah (Crass Version)” seems to capture the feelings I had back in those days. The repeated chorus of disinterested “yeah”s feel like they’re coming from someone who’s tired, really tired. They’ve spent their life listening to music, and have simply burnt out on it. They’ve heard it all before, so when someone comes to them with some new band, describing it as “kind of like X but with a little bit of Y in there,” all they muster is a nod of the head and give a false promise to check this group out. They know that you need to do something to grab the audience’s attention, and so James Murphy and his cohorts do just that for almost 10 minutes. They give you a driving beat to move too, and steadily build the intensity of their synthesizers until it feels like the song might just explode (a skill that would be mastered by Gavin Russom, who makes his first appearance as a member of LCD on this track). It feels completely essential, something that will make the most jaded ears perk up, even though (or maybe in part because of) over 50% of what they’re saying is simply the word “yeah.” If appearing disinterested is cool, than Murphy and his fellow musicians were clearly the coolest around.
7. CHVRCHΞS : Now is Not the Time
This was actually the first CHVRCHΞS song I ever heard, and the funny thing was, at the time, I expected that I would hate it. You see, “Now is Not the Time” was released just before I graduated from college, right at the height of my music-industry-burn-out (see above). I came across the song in the form of a Pitchfork produced music video, in which the band performs the song in the middle of a DIY roller-rink. On the surface, it seemed like a wildly pretentious idea, and I relished the idea of hate-watching it, if only to confirm my preconceived notion that it would be just another indietronica electro-pop song that I could immediately dismiss as being just like all the other indietronica electro-pop songs that were being released at the time.
But then I watched the video, and I listened to the song, and it wasn’t just another indietronica electro-pop song. No, this was a beautifully crafted little pop song, the kind that felt like it could work no matter what style it was performed in. It had a beautiful melody, and felt very powerful when it reached the pre-chorus and opened up into these blissful major chords. It’s lyrics felt personal and specific, but it’s themes remained universal. And it was clearly being performed live, full of little imperfections that seemed to go against so much of the hyper-produced electronic songs I’d been hearing at the time. It felt bold for a band to be alright with this, to acknowledge the difference between a studio and live performance, particularly when that band that was still three months away from releasing their first record. It started my love affair with CHVRCHΞS, one that still exists to this day. Did they do anything that I felt was really unique? Not really. No, what grabbed my attention with CHVRCHΞS was their devotion to the basics, their clear feeling that the medium doesn’t really matter, as long as the songs themselves are strong.
8. David Bowie : Lazarus
It’s still hard to listen to “Lazarus” without tearing up. Hell, it’s hard to listen to just about any cut off “★” without doing so. Just remember, when the album was announced (and even when it was released), we had no idea what a short amount of time we had left with David Bowie. We assumed he’d be around for a a while. He’d already beaten cancer once, we learned that after the release of “The Next Day,” an album that saw death as an entity always eating away at the edges. So when “★” was released, we focused on how cool it was to see Bowie exercising his experimental impulses again. As great as “The Next Day” was, sonically it didn’t tread a whole lot of new ground for Bowie, so to hear him performing these long, complicated songs, backed an extremely talented experimental jazz band was more than exciting for fans. No, he did not look particularly healthy in the videos for “Blackstar” or “Lazarus,” but for all we knew, that was just Bowies’ new look — a preview of how all of our favorite fashion-conscious-musicians would all be dressing five years from now. And since Death was such a major character on “The Next Day,” it was hardly surprising to find it lurking once again in the shadows of “★,” particularly as Bowie had turned 69 the day of the album’s release.
But then came the following Monday, and we woke up to the most astonishing news. I remember not thinking it was true at first. “How the hell could Bowie be dead?” Aliens didn’t die, at least the friendly ones didn’t. They just returned to whatever distant planet they’d come from. Though I’d spent the entire weekend listening to “★” on repeat, I didn’t put on the album again for another couple weeks. No, I retreated to safer, more familiar Bowie albums. “Young Americans” “‘Heroes’” and “Hunky Dory” all got quite the workout. But when I eventually came back to “★,” it had taken on a whole new character. Like the greatest albums in Bowie’s catalogue, it was something that evolved with you, almost as if it was a living, breathing entity. It became so much clearer that the album was truly intended as his farewell, that he was the black star, doomed to collapse in upon itself, leaving an un-fillable void in it’s place. I’m still not convinced Bowie’s dead. Death seems to plain for such a singular entity. But he is gone. Where? Well, I’m not sure. But I’m sure that 5 or 10 or 15 years from now, it will be the place everyone wants to go to once they’re done with this world.
9. Grimes : Realiti
Yet another song I really didn’t expect to like until I’d heard it. This time though, I wasn’t just going on some uninformed opinion. No, I’d tried to like Grimes before. I’d tried very hard to like Grimes. But I couldn’t, it felt to pretentious, like Claire Boucher’s music was always trying to say “I’m not JUST this.” But then I heard “Realiti” (again, during what I expected to be a hate-watch of the music video), and something about it just stuck with me. When “Art Angels” was released a couple months later I’d find that it was Boucher’s goal to make more accessible, pop-oriented songs, but at the time I just kind of felt confused. I even tried re-listening to some of her old stuff to see if I’d just been mentally closed off to her work this whole time (I wasn’t, I still don’t really enjoy most of it). But “Realiti” was clearly a great song, one that took complicated sonic ideas, and presented them in a way that was accessible and easy to dance to. Easy to sing along to as well. It was the beginning of a major shift for Boucher, one I really hope she continues with going forward.
10. Tame Impala : Let it Happen [Soulwax Remix]
There’s a reason the Dewaele brothers (a.k.a. Soulwax, a.k.a. 2manydjs) are so associated with the remix movement that began in the late 90s and early 2000s. They’re simply the best at doing it, at taking a song, and giving it a completely new feel, but still maintaining what made it great in the first place.