Song Roundup 5: The Cold Stopgap Version

Winter has struck with its full fury. This means negative temperatures and the fine distraction known as “college.” However, I have not forgotten the existence of this blog. Here are some songs I’ve been listening to in the past few weeks.

“Beautiful Day” by U2

Understandably, U2 doesn’t always find favor in indie critics. Instead of pushing forth on a small label and aiming for personalized songs, Bono and company scale everything to as massive a scale as possible. The sound, the message, the concerts and the personalities are simply enormous. U2 is that rare band that really fits the idea of being the “biggest band in the world.” The first track off All That You Can’t Leave Behind is no different: the pounding drums, the echoing guitars and the soaring vocals are classic U2. But this doesn’t lessen the impact of the song. The lyrics hit hard in a very powerful combination of joy and sorrow. Clearly, the initial reaction is in the jubilant chorus. Bono sounds positively ecstatic, noting that this day is simply “beautiful.” But the lead-up and follow-up shift the scope. The initial sounds are not happy and the text matches the tone: “there’s no room” and “you’re out of luck” in this town. So the resultant cry is suddenly more urgent. It’s not just a beautiful day, “It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.” This plea has a personal appeal, but it manages to touch all who listen. This is a keeper.

“Millstone” by Brand New

My initial reaction to Brand New was from the radio nonsense that had been spread in the early part of this decade. Your Favorite Weapon and Deja Entendu didn’t seem to have any real value. Of course, this judgment was only based on my experience with their singles. Imagine my surprise when I encountered this song – a complete, poignant piece with powerful lyrics and stunning musical composition. Was this really the same band?

The latest release by Brand New (The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me) is one of the most amazing records of the past five years. The whole thing is full of breathtaking sonic structures and touching lyrics, all while maintaining the work ethic exhibited by so many “punk” bands. There are standouts everywhere on the album, but perhaps the best song is “Millstone.” The piece begins with a tight bass line and a light guitar as the singer discusses his joyful past. The chorus then explodes as self-defeat takes over. Fortunately, this outcome does not come across as whiney or pretentious. Instead, we see Brand New working an excellent rock song as their singer laments in a very legitimate way. It’s not emo – it’s excellence in music.

“A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” by The Flaming Lips

The inimitable Flaming Lips have struck musical gold in nearly every facet of their career. However, The Soft Bulletin sticks out as the top Lips album in my mind. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” simultaneously takes off in many directions, offering reflective strings one moment, crashing guitars the next, and a harp somewhere in between. The whole thing is psychotic, but manages to hold together with the constant narrative voice of Wayne Coyne leading the way. It’s a fun song and proof of the brilliance of the Flaming Lips.

“The Bleeding Heart Show” by The New Pornographers

The New Pornos have been fighting for the title of “best pop band” for a few years now. Their resume includes great singing, insanely catchy melodies, and tightly constructed songs. “The Bleeding Heart Show” may stand as a summarizing statement of all that makes this band so great, offering varied dynamics, dueling vocalists, full-out chant-choruses and bright guitars. But there are two elements that make this song so worthy of repeated listens. First, the drumming in the final section is simply divine. Kurt Dahle uses phenomenal fills that are vastly more innovative than any seen in current pop radio. Instead of merely sticking with a consistent repeated statement throughout, Dahle goes everywhere, working each element of his set. Miraculously, he never loses a single joule of energy or a second of the beat. It’s a very refreshing experience.

And then there are the lyrics. While this is a relationship song, the vast sea of love clichés is seemingly avoided. The story explains a love that forms between two former friends instead of two star-crossed lovers. This pairing seems “as if I picked your name out of a hat,” and the idea is strange to observers. Yet the whole thing falls down as the perceptions disappear. In the aftermath of such a strange spark is the epic final phrase: “We have arrived too late to play the bleeding heart show.” It’s a perfect song and represents the hope of those looking for the future of pop.