Happy Saturday! Back again with another mix, and with the holidays coming up, I’ve made sure to pack it full of great songs with which you can impress your loved ones. Volume 69 in The Dylan Samson Mix Series is titled “Must Not Sleep.” It features a great new track from Aesop Rock, as well as songs by Saintseneca, Burial, and Vince Staples. Those interested in finding it should look in Central Park.
1. Saintseneca : Acid Rain
It was my junior year of college when I first learned about Saintseneca. I’ve described my first encounter with the band before, but that year I also got my hands on a copy of their first LP, “Last.” There was something in that record that I connected with on a base, almost gut level. No, they were not describing my life, but those songs felt like they had been written by people who at least understood it. That felt special to me, something I hadn’t really experienced on record too often. Sure there had been plenty of albums I really loved, even ones that I had connected with on a similarly gut level, but I hadn’t found too many records that made me feel a little less alone in the world. And so “Last” became a staple of my last two years of college, a rock I could turn to in times of confusion or pain, a source of pure joy when I was already feeling glad. It not only became one of my favorite records, but it entered that rare echelon of albums that had a real, profound affect on who I was as a person.
So it’s a little startling that this is the first song off of “Last” that I’ve included on a mix. I’ve included plenty of other Saintseneca songs on previousus mixes, but always off of their other two (admittedly fantastic) records. I wonder why that is. Definitely something I’ll be thinking about. For now though, “Acid Rain” is the perfect way to start off this week’s mix.
2. She & Him : I've Got Your Number, Son
Zoey Deschanel and M. Ward have never been afraid to show the world what music has inspired their work as She & Him. From the countless covers they’ve recorded, to their increasingly retro album art, this is a group that is clearly inspired by the heyday of Brill-Building pop. It would be easy to dismiss She & Him as a throwback act, but doing so would not only miss the point of their music, it would seriously disregard just how good their original songs are. Just take “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” as an example. From the female harmonies that introduce it to the world, to the Phil Spector style, wall of sound production, this is a straight up girl-group pop song. But the lyrics themselves are a wildly modern take on female empowerment. No, this isn’t music that will change your life. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a low-key, fun way for Deschanel and Ward to pay tribute to the music they love, to exercise their own impulse to share that music with the world, and to create their own wok that can sit right alongside it.
3. Aesop Rock : My Belly
No, this is not the most high-stakes Aesop Rock song. It’s a kids song, originally recorded for a children’s compilation that never materialized. But only Aesop could write a song for kids that still used words like “abalone.” Plus, it educates the world about how great Otters are, and has a truly fantastic piece of album art care of the great Jeremy Fish! Thanks Aes!
4. Vince Staples : Blue Suede
This song is scary. Maybe it’s the horror-esque synth line, or those earth rattling bass hits. Maybe it’s Vince’s lyrics, part send up, part satire of traditional hip-hop values. Maybe its the death imagery he evokes with lines like “Hope I outlive them red roses,” or “‘till they put you in the Picachu to fry.” It’s a grim portrait of a lifestyle rap has so frequently celebrated, one that forces the listener to evaluate their own role in passively encouraging it.
5. Four Tet : My Angel Rocks Back and Forth
Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, has always been startlingly good at evoking memories from his listeners. But what’s kept him unique is that it never feels like he’s trying to bring up something tangible. His music, a beautiful amalgam of traditional IDM and modernist electronic compositions always seems to bring up some memory, or some idea related to memory in his listeners, but it’s never really that memory. Here on “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth” for example, I’m always reminded of a child’s bedroom. Of a mobile, a crib, light colored walls. But the edges are fuzzy, the shapes unclear. These aren't my memories, they’re an idea of a memory. It’s almost as if Hebden is working as an impressionist painter, his goal is only to concur up something, anything from you. Filling in the details is your job.
6. Burial : Kindred
If his claims are true, and he does not use any kind of sequencer or tracker when creating music, William Bevan must have some kind of creepily organized mind. The songs he’s released as Burial are not just excellent examples of modern rave, garage, and dub music, but are also freakishly well shaped from a compositional standpoint. Elements are introduced and retired exactly when they should be. Drum patterns expand and contract without ever losing the beat, almost as if he has made them into a living breathing entity. The atmosphere he creates is almost always spot on, conjuring up imagery of smoke filled industrial spaces, lit only by laser patterns and projectors, and filled with people using revelry as a way to forget the pains of everyday existence. There’s a reason electronic musicians turn to sequencers, to trackers, to midi programs to create their music. These are tools to help create order out of the chaos that is a creative mind. So if Bevan is able to create these perfectly structured, complex songs without their use, his is a mind to be reckoned with.
7. Tom Waits : Big in Japan
When I first began to fall in love with the music of Tom Waits, when I started to learn about this history and his truly unique persona, it struck me as odd that this man was not from New Orleans. Not necessarily because of his sound (though there has always been some element of the delta in his work, smuggled in through his love of Lead Belly and other delta blues musicians), but because of the way he could take existing sounds, combine and filter them through his own sensibilities, and create from them something totally unique. That ability to create something truly original out of disparate, discarded parts of American musical traditions feels very much in line with the cultural identity of New Orleans. Were he from the city that care forgot, it might offer some kind of insight into just how waits became who he was. But no, Waits grew up in and around California. So we fans are left looking for other clues, assembling our own theories on how in this world of instant information and cultural cross-pollination, Waits was able to create something that was completely completely his own, something that is truly unique.
8. Sparklehorse + Fennesz : Music Box of Snakes
The “In the Fishtank” series is such a wonderfully strange project. Invite one or two musical acts to the studio, give them two days to record, and release whatever they come up with. It’s not something you see encouraged often, the economics of the project are not likely very attractive. But the results can be fascinating. Just listen to “Music Box of Snakes” the opening track from Sparklehorse and Fennesz’s collaborative entry in the series. It is so beautiful, so achingly sad, so haunted by the ghosts of memory. Little toy pianos, lone string instruments, distorted warped guitars. All of them get clouded in a synthetic haze which makes them sound as if they are bubbling up from somewhere long forgotten. No, the results of this kind of artistic freedom are not always this good, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't encourage those who facilitate these kinds of projects. Bad economics or note, it becomes hard to argue against the creation of something this beautiful.
9. Bob Dylan : Oh, Sister
There aren’t a lot of Bob Dylan duets. Not surprising, really. Even those of us who think Dylan doesn’t get his due credit as a singer willfully admit that harmonizing with him is as difficult and thankless a task as any singer has ever faced. But when someone is able to make Dylan stick to his agreed upon melody, when they can find a mix of close and wide harmonies like Emmylou Harris does on “Oh, Sister,” the results can be breathtaking.
10. Fleet Foxes : Grown Ocean
With all signs seem to be pointing towards an imminent release of their next album, I’m curious and excited to see what the future holds for Fleet Foxes. The group grew by leaps and bounds in the four years between their first two records, with Robin Pecknold taking especially large strides forwards as a lyricist on “Helplessness Blues” (and he was no slouch to begin with). Read through the lyrics to a song like “Grown Ocean,” which finds Pecknold relating a dream to his audience. He doesn’t try try to explain the specifics of the dream — as anyone will tell you, that is a pointless endeavor. Rather, through lines like “kept like jewelry kept with devotion” or “still as starlight reflected in fountains,” Pecknold gives us an an impressionist’s idea of it. He understands that, after enough time has passed, the details of a dream become blurry and forgotten. It’s the affect they have on us, the feelings they leave us with, that can render us astonished.