Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.
3. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
Personal Favorite: “Blue Ridge Mountains”
Summarizing Lyric: “In the whitest water on the bank against the stone/You will lift his body from the shore and bring him home” (“Oliver James”)
I love folk, old and new, so I did not expect to have such a visceral reaction against Fleet Foxes. I stewed in my listening chair the way I stewed at the idea of my parents when I was fourteen and riddled with angst. It’s not that they did anything wrong. It was their age, authority, and indifference to my amplified cynicism that brought the burner knob below me way up to “HI” on those comically cliche teenage nights spent in dark rooms grumbling curses at my parents. I think the same thing happened between me and this record. Fleet Foxes are not old, but sounding like you’re from a mountain puts on at least a decade of experience; they certainly achieved that sound with the spacious production, earth-thumping percussion, and wooden winds found throughout the record. The band has no real authority over me, but the faux wrinkles they tattooed on themselves by choosing the “from the mountain” sound made it feel like they did. And I don’t mind authority, so long as I agree with what they are and are not authorizing. In the case of Fleet Foxes and their debut LP, I did not agree. Instead of soaking in nighttime's dewy sorrow the way I love to do, Fleet Foxes looked at night as a necessary evil to reach the daytime (“Hold me dear into the night/Sun it will rise soon enough”). Instead of accenting their darker lyrics with appropriately gloomy notes, they undercut them with feel good melodies and major chords (“White Winter Hymnal” and its lyric “Michael, you would fall/And turn the white snow/Red as strawberries in the summertime”). I was annoyed. The record explores mortality and broken families, but does so without forgetting the sun’s eventual rise. Too much optimism was being authorized, not enough cynicism. “BLAH!” I thought, but then took a second. I sometimes forget that maturity does not necessarily stem from cynicism. Sure, there should be a healthy dose of cynicism, but there should also be some optimism. An adult is able to say “Yeah, things are pretty shitty. Michael had to get stitches after slipping and cracking his head open, but we’ll get through it,” the way Fleet Foxes did with their pairing of somber lyrics with bright arrangements. I’m not quite at that level of maturity yet. I still think all the answers lie in shadows, but I’m excited to listen to this record with older ears and not only appreciate what the Fleet Foxes did (which I was able to do after the third spin), but also enjoy what they were communicating.
2. The Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy
Personal Favorite: “My Little Underground”
Summarizing Lyric: “Things I see you only disagree/You never understand that's what I want to be” (“Never Understand”)
I don’t think I’ve ever really wanted to fit in. In fact, I’d say that with the rise of weird and wavering attachment to the concept of “normal.” the idea of fitting in has lost some favor among many people because fitting in would mean losing a sense of uniqueness. This might not have been possible without bands like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Joy Division, Radiohead, Talking Heads, Jesus and Mary Chain (it goes on!) slowly showing the world that the sounds of your weirder self are just as good, if not better, than your more polished self. However, I don’t think weird would sound as good as the aforementioned bands made it sound if sounding weird was a choice. I think a band like Jesus and Mary Chain had no choice but to make something like Psychocandy. They, or at least their characters, say it themselves on “My Little Underground” with its tale of an outcast going off to to find solace in obscurity (“I'm gonna run and find/A place where I can hide”) only to find herself trapped in the place where he is seen as an outcast (“And it’s cold outside/Doesn’t work out right”). Jesus and Mary Chain couldn’t go find someplace where they would be accepted immediately, where their music wouldn’t be met with puzzlement. They were stuck in this world where three minute pop songs were the norm and they did their best to adjust to that by tempering their distortion with hooks, but were ultimately left watching how greener the grass is on the other, more “normal” side like the characters in “In A Hole.” It’s the attempt at normal that makes something like Psychocandy work, but that need to be normal is not as prevalent in society anymore. This is a fantastic thing because it shows that self-love is on the rise and it should definitely continue to be promoted, but now that the grass is greener on the weirder side I am curious to see what will happen to the sounds of the outcast. Will artists strive for weirder territory the way Bon Iver did with 22, A Million, or will we continue exploring the gray zone between weird and pop the way Channel Orange did.
1. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground
Personal Favorite: “What Goes On”
Summarizing Lyric: “I’m gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder/I’m gonna watch them pass me by” (“Candy Says”)
Feeling more air than brain in your head, more water than bone in your legs; seeing the sun peeking up over its horizon instead of the expected pitch; tasting damp cotton; dash of smoke in every sniff; grainy mix of relief and guilt for having lived becomes the caffeine that’ll get me through this unexpected new day–I’ve just stumbled out of the hazy party and into sobering contemplation, out of the blazing White Light/White Heat and into the cool blue self-titled VU record. No longer does distortion and experimentation with the concept of music offer itself as a distraction to Candy’s anxiety and need to leave her body, to the bipolar tendencies present in the self-assuring character on “What Goes On” (“One minute born/one minute doomed”), to the acknowledgment of wrongfulness in having slept with someone’s wife, to the comfort felt in seeking Jesus after so much sinning. No, side one of the album forces you to look at the lonely feelings kept inside and erased for a time with drugs and alcohol that are present in party patrons, but its side two that convinces you to go back into the party. Lyrics like “Well, I'm beginning to see the light/Some people work very hard/But still they never get it right” and “I'm set free to find a new illusion” all shine a light on the inevitable failure of life no matter how it’s lived. The lyrics pave the way to the staple “Fuck you, I’ll play whatever however long I want” track found on VU records, “The Murder Mystery.” The Velvet Underground was an attempt at something poppier, but the VU couldn’t help but undercut this goal with “The Murder Mystery.” Why? Perhaps the answer’s on the final track, “All the people are dancing and they're having’ such fun/I wish it could happen to me.” The drugs, alcohol, distortion, and character inhabitation that the VU are critically acclaimed for were ways to make themselves look like they were dancing, but all highs wear off. With the cloud gone, you see people for who they really are. The Velvet Underground is as close as the VU got to blowing away the clouds they surrounded themselves in, as close as they got to showing people the neuroses that spawned the art we now herald as legendary.