So. How’s your week been? Kind of crazy, no? Don’t worry, I’m not going to get too political here, this blog isn't for that. Let’s all agree though, we didn’t expect things to go this way. But, we’re still here. We’re still here, and it’s Saturday. So, that means it’s time for a mix. This week I present to you volume 68 of The Dylan Samson Mix Series. It’s called (and I promise, this was not planned) “Go Find Your Hell,” and features music from Frank Ocean, Lucinda Williams, The Lawrence Arms, and Dr. Dre. Those interested in grabbing the physical copy should look on Water street, in Manhattan’s Financial District.
1. El-P feat. Omar Rodríguez-López & Cedric Bixler Zavala : Tasmanian Pain Coaster
In a way that almost no other producers are, El-P always seems very dedicated to the idea of world building. From the moment one of his records begins, Jamie Meline is drawing you into his own paranoid dystopia, a world equally informed by sleepless nights and William S. Burroughs. His warped, fun-house-mirror reality is purposefully jarring, deliberately grating and off-kilter, delivered in such a way to make the listener understand and empathize with Meline’s point of view. This dedication to creating a world for your listener is almost unheard of in hip-hop, a genre so driven by the idea making the best from an already shitty existence. But Meline’s dedication pays off, making each El-P produced record a totally unique and memorable experience. You may not be in any rush to return to El Producto’s haunted, tyrannical reality, but you’ll never be able to shake the time you’ve spent there.
2. The Apples in Stereo : Dance Floor
“Travels in Space and Time” proved to be one of the strangest releases in the already strange career of The Apples in Stereo and frontman Robert Schneider. Largely eschewing the Elephant 6 brand of psych-pop Schneider had helped pioneer in favor of a late-70s-disco infused electro-pop sound, to say the album was something of a left turn for the group would be an understatement. It’s no surprise that fans of the group were quick to dismiss the record. Even yours truly, with my well documented love for musicians who take big, genre defying risks with their sound, found it to be a bit jarring. But even with all of these questionable sonic choices, it would be a mistake to completely disregard “Travels in Space and Time,” because no matter what sonic palate he choses, Schneider is frankly excellent at writing beautiful pop melodies. Listen to the vocals on “Dance Floor,” the way he sings phrases like “but my” as if he were delivering a Buddy Holly “uh-oh.” Listen for those rare, short human harmonies that show up throughout the song and pierce through the more common pitch corrected harmonies, or the melodic counterpoint that comes in on synthesizer towards the end of the chorus. The structure of the song is so well thought out, the melody so catchy, that no matter what you think of the instruments used to deliver it, you can’t help but sing along.
3. The Lawrence Arms : Recovering the Opposable Thumb
There is something so joyous about dual vocals in punk rock. Even when there lyrics sound bleak and defeated — as they so frequently do on The Lawrence Arms’ 2006 opus “Oh! Calcutta!” — when Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan are singing along with one another, it takes a great deal of effort to stop yourself from joining right in. It speaks to the ethos of punk rock, to the “us v. them” mentality that has helped foster such a strong community around this kind of music. Things might suck, but know that someone else is right there beside you, joining in to make you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself, that is beautiful.
4. Sleater-Kinney : All Hands on the Bad One
Like so much of Sleater-Kinney’s music, “All Hands on the Bad One” feels remarkably fierce. I don’t mean that in the way you might describe someone’s shoes, or someone who might be considered a bad-ass (though that description could easily be applied to all three members of this phenomenal rock outfit). No, I mean it in the way you might describe a ferocious beast. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s angry, driving, detuned guitars. Janet Weiss’ pounding war drums. Sleater-Kinney create something something to be feared, to be reckoned with. It bristles at the touch, ready to fight back against any aggression that comes its way. Their music is a battle cry, a rallying force for those who still believe in good to get behind.
5. Lucinda Williams : Passionate Kisses
It kind of amazes me that this song was written when Lucinda Williams was 35 years old. Its themes of want and love feel so youthful, so immediate, that I would honestly expect it to have been written by someone in their early 20s. Lines like “Is it much to demand?” and “‘Give me what I deserve, because it’s my right.’” sound like things I have heard my friends and contemporaries say. That hunger for all the world the world has to offer, and the impatience to get it all seems very associated with youth and young adulthood, yet Williams articulates them in a way that never feels forced or dishonest. She’s in her mid 30s, yet still wants the same things my friends and I want in our 20s. So maybe it shouldn’t amaze me that Williams wrote “Passionate Kisses” when she was 35. Maybe the things she’s writing about are simply universal, ageless desires, the kinds of things everybody wants no matter where they are in their lives. Maybe, regardless of age, there will always be more things in life that unite us than divide us.
6. Frank Ocean feat. Alex G & Jazmine Sullivan : Rushes
Like so much of “Endless,” the core of “Rushes” seems to be more informed by what is not there than what is. For most of the song there are no drums. There’s no bass part, no keyboards, horns, or any other instruments typically associated with R&B. There’s just Frank’s voice, Alex G’s guitar, and Jazmine Sullivan’s occasional soaring harmonies, all echoing as if they were recorded in the warehouse from which Ocean first live-streamed the album. The beautiful thing about Rushes however, is that you don’t notice these elements are missing until the song’s breakdown appears more than half-way through. Then, suddenly, there are drums. The guitar gets so affected that it sounds almost like an electric organ. At the breakdown, “Rushes” finds an totally different life, almost as if it had evolved right in front of us. But by the end, you realize you’re missing one thing; Frank’s voice. It was traded away when the drums came in, almost as if Ocean was determined to only use two instruments at any given point during the song. So you’re left to contemplate which you want more, a beat or Frank’s voice. By not allowing us to have both, we’re instead given a powerful statement on minimalism, to find the beauty within what you have, rather than what you wish you had.
7. POWERLIFTER : Level 3 (_Buffalo_)
I don’t have all that much to say about this song. A dear friend of mine introduced me to it in college, as part of his chip-tune themed radio show. But I can’t claim to have much knowledge about chip-tune, definitely not enough to dissect it in comparison to other songs within the genre. But what draws me to “Level 3 (_Buffalo_)” isn’t anything that’s specific to it’s genre. No, what draws me to this song is its energy, the feeling of insanity and debauchery it evokes so readily. I can’t help but get excited when this song comes on, can’t help but get ready for some alcohol-fueled night that I might scarcely remember, but know I’ll never forget.
8. T.I. : Bring Em Out
“Bring Em Out” might be the epitome of what makes southern hip-hop so exciting. The horns. The bombast. That marching band whistle. This collage of disparate sounds arranged around a simple, bass heavy drum pattern. It gives a feast of pleasures for the listener to enjoy, and a rock solid core for T.I. to guide over and take up position as the leader of this joyous, energetic parade.
9. Big K.R.I.T. : Country Shit
If “Bring Em Out” is the perfect example of what southern hip-hop is, than “Country Shit” is the smarter, younger sibling. No, it never strays too far from the path its relatives have already cut, with Big K.R.I.T. sticking to lyrics about wealth, women, and cars. But “Country Shit” is full of exciting little flourishes, the kind that are easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention. Listen to the way the choir of backing vocals gets chopped up into the beat, or the G-funk synth line that shows up during the hook. These are small touches, none of which are big enough to turn this song into a genre-expanding trailblazer, but they all help define it, all help “Country Shit” stand alongside giants like “Bring Em Out.” But while these differences may be small, they combine with Big K.R.I.T.’s raw confidence and skillful devotion to the form, presenting themselves as small holes in the genre’s fabric. They’re not big enough to let things fall apart, but they’re just big enough for more experimentally minded innovators to drive a truck through.
10. Dr. Dre : Let Me Ride
Coming into this mix, I tried to present “Let me Ride” in a way that showed how the innovations brought about by Dr. Dre’s experiments with G-Funk have influenced other artists. The aforementioned synth line in “Country Shit.” The bounce of “Bring Em Out.” But what surprised me most about listening to “Let me Ride,” in this context wasn’t how much it’s release affected hip-hop. No what surprised me most was that even now, closing in on 25 years after it was released, “Let Me Ride” still sounds startlingly modern. It’s samples, even the Parliament lyric that forms the hook, don’t feel even slightly dated. It’s laid back feel is still found in plenty of wast coast hip-hop. Hell, even the bass line, probably the most iconic, “of a certain time” part of the beat, doesn’t feel all that strange against today’s sonic preferences. True, the sound of a live, funk bass would likely feel somewhat out of place, but give its melody to a soul choir and it would fit perfectly in a song by Kanye or Chance. It’s not just a testament to the influence of G-Funk, but also to Dre’s skill and snd standing as a writer and producer. He’s reached the point where his music has, directly or indirectly, influenced everyone within the genre. His work has become part of hip-hop’s DNA, becoming such a part of the genre’s core that it will be able to stand alongside work delivered years from
11. Jungle : Platoon
With its hazy production, swirling, jangly guitars, and ornamental percussion backing a rock solid beat, “Platoon” is clearly more interested in mood than in anything else. Its lyrics are largely disposable, there largely to help evoke the feelings Jungle are trying to create. Listen to this one with headphones, and just try and get your bearings. The only things to reach for and take hold of are that simple, solid drum beat, and the perfectly complimenting bass line. So, through the confusion, you’ll feel yourself starting to move, starting to dance along, as everything else just keeps swirling around you.
12. Erykah Badu feat. André 3000 : Hello
Yet another example of how big of a hole André 3000’s retreat from recording has left. Yes, “Hello” may be an Erykah Badu song — her gorgeous, soulful, and even sort of silly vocals give the song some real buoyancy — but it serves as a fantastic showcase for André 3000’s skills as both a rapper and a singer. The way he moves around the beat, sliding all over it and frequently landing either just before or just after the pulse, it all keeps the listener engaged. His rapid-fire delivery that gives way to smooth, open singing. The world needs more André 3000, and it’s a real shame that he seems so hesitant to give us anything more than a taste of what makes us love him so much.
13. CHVRCHΞS : Bow Down
It took me about 6 months before I learned that “Bow Down” was not actually the final track off of CHVRCHΞS’ fantastic sophomore record, “Every Open Eye.” No, it turns out the official closing song is “Afterglow,” and that “Bow Down” was only included on the album’s deluxe edition (which I had unknowingly gotten my hands on). It was strange to think that I had been listening to the album incorrectly for almost 6 months. But when I tried to listen to the album without “Bow Down” and the 2 other bonus tracks, I found myself missing their inclusion. Don’t get me wrong, “Afterglow” is an absolutely beautiful song, one that ends the album on an innocent, hopeful note. But “Bow Down” makes the album feel like a celebration of personal strength, of triumphing over the adversity that has inspired many of the albums greatest songs. It’s a rare example of a bonus track or an alternate track-list that really changes an album’s trajectory, that truly alters it’s emotional arc. But if I prefer this “altered” version of “Every Open Eye,” what questions does that raise about the band’s goals for the album as a cohesive work?