“courtship dating” – crystal castles (2008)

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Love is a great theme in music. For such a universal and idyllic quality, the theme has a lot of depth. Or at least, I think so. It is the most common subject for music, and every other artistic medium. Sure, it is easy to think about countless pop songs that sing about the joy, the loss, and the pain of love and get disillusioned by the idea. It does certainly seem to be a manufactured emotion the record executives sell us, but I refuse to be cynical about the subject. I believe we can still go to new places, and even skew known territory.

Despite the theme’s saturation within every known outlet of humanity, love can still appear in surprising forms. In 2008, when I first heard “Courtship Dating,” I was immediately transfixed by the song. The production and danceable aesthetics were catchy. I initially was drawn in by the musical arrangement of the song. I’m not the biggest fan of synth-pop, but I know what I like when I hear it. “Courtship Dating” is full of dark, smoky energy that exudes mystery. The static energy of the drum machine and low synth rhythm paints the dance floor black. Over the backing track, Alice Glass’ vocals add another layer of intensity to the track. Screams are muted and words are muffled. The lyrics are nearly indiscernible and it feels that Glass is lost in a pitch black nightmarish dreamscape.

I listened to this song for years without looking up the lyrics. I could make out about half and that was enough for me. “Courtship Dating” is almost as terrifying as it is sexy and alluring. Diving deeper into the abyss of the track would make me more susceptible to the traps within.

After hearing a relatively recent Crystal Castle track, I revisited “Courtship Dating” and decided to research the song. In an interview with The Independent, Glass said the song “”is about human taxidermy, the idea of preserving the beauty of a lover the way you would an animal.” And the lyrics certainly reflect that. Reading through them adds new elements to the track and certainly shaped my perception of what I was listening to.

Glass effectively reduces the concept of love to its purest animalistic state and puts it on a perverse display. With her partner with a smile that brings disease, Glass conveys human interaction as a bestial act with strong allusions towards animal lust and the natural physicality of sex. Glass reduces human sexual interaction to its basic instincts in such a poetic and deep way. Since its release seven years ago, I had just now fully realized the environment I was immersed in and it made me appreciate the song and its inherent themes even more.

Consider what Glass said about the song. She states that the song is primarily about preservation. There are millions of songs about holding onto love and staying in the here and now. Nothing new about that, but there is a bigger picture here Glass is painting. Can you remember the last time you really looked at a taxidermy animal? I mean, actually look at it closely? They are horrifying. You are looking at a ghost; a skewed and perverted representation of a living being. Animals don’t look like that. There is something otherworldly and alien about a taxidermy. So, applied to the act of animalistic carnal relations present in the song, the concept of love is criticized.

“Courtship Dating” is a revealing and disturbing critique of love. Most songs about love take a particular moment, relationship, or feeling and imposes an everlasting, eternal quality. To them, something so beautiful should and will last forever; a love for the ages. However, that is not the case. This taxidermy love is a ghostly, synthetic representation. It has no life. There is no spirit there because it left a long time ago. Considering that, the screams layered throughout the song take on a whole new meaning representing either an orgasmic release, pain, or death.

“Courtship Dating” is an underappreciated single from an even more underappreciated band. Crystal Castles does an excellent job at masking the true meaning of the song and thus luring the listener into a false reality. The dark overtones are heavy, but eagerly welcomed in a world that worships nostalgia.

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“the stand” – the alarm (1983)

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On Saturday night, I made my way to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago to volunteer for a concert tabling gig on behalf of a local community radio station. All of these tabling assignments are virtually the same. Supplies get picked up at the station, displayed at the venue, and then distributed to patrons as they hear about the station promoting the event. One big perk is that you can catch the show as a guest. Sometimes, it’ll be someone I’m remotely aware of enough to want to see them. Most of the time, however, I don’t know anything about the artist.

This event was one of the latter. Performing was Mike Peters, the leader singer of The Alarm. The Alarm. Where have I heard that before? Why does that name ring a tiny little bell within the deep recesses of my mind? My tabling partner was the emcee introducing the artist, so she was doing some Wikipedia research on Peters and his band. She is going over details like years the band was active, singles, and what bands Peters would play with over his career (such as Big Country since 2011). A few items were striking me as abstractly familiar, but nothing concrete.

After she introduced Peters, we made our way towards the back of the 200+ seat theater with our bags and Three Floyds. Peters had just finished a song before we arrived and was in the middle of telling a story. He was introducing his next song. I missed the first half of the story since I was settling down into my seat. He was saying that the band was forced to busk outside of a church, and that was when they played this song. He joked that not only did they look like a punk band protesting, but they looked like a Christian punk band protesting. It was then that he launched into an acoustic version of “The Stand.”

As he is powering through the harmonica intro, the little bell at the back of my head was ringing louder. I squinted at Peters and concentrated on the song. When he came to the thunderous chorus and belted out “come on down and meet your maker,” I experienced my aha moment. I leaned over to my partner saying “I know this one!” I had just spent an hour with her before the show saying I didn’t know anything about this band other than managing to spill out the title of a single (“The Spirit of ‘76” and more on that later).

I kept thinking whether or not “The Stand” was one of the Alarm’s bigger songs. I kept thinking about Peters’ decision to play it as the second song. I’ve since read it is one of their more iconic tracks, but why so early in the set? Regardless of the answer, I was pumped that I knew a song that early. I felt energized and incredibly focused during the rest of his 2+ hour set. Every single song after that was unknown to me, but I loved his energy and his amazing stories such as embarrassing himself in front of Johnny Rotten, using a urinal troth with the Clash, and opening for U2 during their career-defining Red Rocks show. For being a man who came of age in the-1970s, he displayed a youthful lust for life. It was contagious. I would’ve stood up to dance if it didn’t mean I would annoy everyone else in the small theater (everyone was seated).

So, back to “The Spirit of ’76.” When my partner was researching Peters, I managed to spit out that track. I don’t know where I knew it, but it was something I had locked away. She asked me what it meant. I had no idea what the reference to 1976 meant in the context of the song. Being the goofy American that I am, it has been programmed in me that 1976 was the United States’ bicentennial. Or ‘76 could’ve meant another century. Though, I’m sure the Welsh-born Peters didn’t have America’s year of independence in mind when he wrote the song. She asked if it referred to some kind of historical plane. As it turns out, the song was about Peters hearing punk music for the first time. It was 1976 when he first experienced punk when he saw the Sex Pistols live. From then, Peters had a dream to be Wales’ first punk artist. Now, that made a lot more sense and I felt really silly grabbing at thin air trying to ascertain what the song meant. I try not to look stupid in front of strong, beautiful women but it happens to all of us sometimes.

“The Stand” is a perfect song for me. Politically charged and forcefully driven, it conjures a strong sense of rebellion. I’ve listened to it dozens of times since Saturday. I cannot get enough. I’m not one for nostalgia, but the song makes me wish I was living in the UK during the big punk explosion. The passion! The filth! The fury! It was all there. The track is large with soaring backing vocals and a call to arms. This kind of music inspires something deep inside of me. It is simple and succinct in its musical arrangement and message. That was a magical show for me. It blended the unknown and familiar in a way that was invigorating. Perfect music at the perfect moment in time.

“total eclipse” – klaus nomi (1981)

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When I started this blog a few months ago, my main focus was to shine a light on songs I felt did not get enough attention. These could be songs that were once popular and have since fell from the public consciousness, or were never commercially successful al all. With each song, my posts tend to gravitate between an analysis of the track itself to feelings from listening to it. Lately, it seems my selections have been lesser known tracks from relatively well-known artists. I don’t think I’ve spent much time discussing obscure artists that have had significant impacts on modern music.

Klaus Nomi, a German born countertenor, was an early discover for me in college. I remember the first time I saw his likeness. He was parodied as one of David Bowie’s bodyguards in the [adult swim] cartoon show The Venture Brothers. I felt the show was extremely layered with offbeat references and I am the type of person who will investigate when I am unfamiliar with a reference. From there, I was an instant fan.

The brief cameo in The Venture Brothers was a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of Bowie’s performances on Saturday Night Live. Bowie performed “The Man Who Sold the World” and “TVC 15” with Nomi serving as one of his backup singers. Standing behind this monolith of popular music was a strange-looking man with striking white makeup and pointy black hair. During that performance, Bowie was sporting an oversized, broad-shouldered vinyl tuxedo that would become part of Nomi’s iconic image. Unfortunately, that performance on Saturday Night Live would be Nomi’s only exposure to a widespread American audience.

For me, Nomi’s signature track is “Total Eclipse.” After witnessing an electric performance on the 1981 post-punk concert film Urgh! A Music War, Nomi was a significant standout performance among an already impressive roster of performers including the Police, the Cramps, Gary Numan, and the Go-Gos. With what sounds like deep synthesized thunder, “Total Eclipse” immediately starts with a fiery intensity. The tracks features a deeply dark melodic synthesizer with a punky rhythm guitar that evokes an impending moody darkness. The pulsating rhythms and driving energy of the musical arrangement evokes a sense of danger as we feel the world turn cold as the sun is being eclipsed.

Though the music is interesting and very danceable, it sounds generic and tame compared to the operatic bravado behind Nomi’s vocals. Nomi’s voice is an instrument in itself and immediately elevates any song from mediocrity to a stunning example of the breadth of post-punk and genre blending. Nomi expresses considerable range in the track. With each verse, his German heritage becomes quite obvious as he casually sings with pep. It sounds quite similar to the vocal phrasing on much of Kraftwerk’s discography. However, it is during the chorus that Nomi perfectly shows off his vocal talent. His voice projects several octaves higher as he belts out that it is a total eclipse that you can’t come to grips with. Even pushing his range further, he closes each chorus with oscillating pitch changes that prove the seemingly easy command he has over his voice. Blending his operatic training with the underground alternative music of the era, Nomi beautifully crafts his own niche in contemporary music. His is a style that is not easily imitated.

Nomi’s career didn’t last long. Only releasing two albums during his lifetime, Nomi was one of the first musicians to die from complications related to AIDs. “Total Eclipse” from his first album was only released two years before his death. Since then, Nomi has become an icon for both his physical and musical styles. Popular musicians such as Morrissey have cited him as inspirations for their careers.

Despite his popularity among post-punk fans and musicians, I feel Nomi will never get his due beyond being known as the odd-looking gentleman standing behind David Bowie. I feel a lot of musicians are afraid to take risks these days, so they don’t bring themselves to the sound. They let the sound define them. Klaus perfectly applied his own unique talents to his music and I respect him for that. He did exactly what he wanted before there was a total eclipse on his life.

“do you really want to hurt me?” – violent femmes (1991)

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After nearly 28 years of living on this planet, I started taking music classes last week. Besides a few music classes in elementary school that I never retained, this is my first serious attempt to learn an instrument. I debated for months which instrument I wanted to start with. I kept thinking about which instrument would be the most fun for me. Throughout, I kept thinking drums were probably the most fun. I have a good sense of rhythm and I have always heard pounding the skins was a great physical, mental, and emotional release. I also entertained the idea of learning something unique like accordion.

However, considering that I am at the tail end of my 20s, I tend to think more practically now. I settled with guitar. Guitar was the one instrument I tried avoiding because it is the cliché go to instrument for all new musicians. I tried to find an alternative, but it ultimately made sense to me to start with the guitar. Despite the tropes of an amateur guitar musician, there has to be a reason guitar is the most common first instrument. Right?

I have always loved music. I enjoy a wide variety of music from simple pop staples to complex musical arrangements. My interest and fascination allowed me to develop a deep social and historical understanding of contemporary music. Why this album matters or how this artist influenced this region, and other things like that. But not being a trained a musician kept me from understanding the fundamental building blocks of popular music. I could not adequately discuss chord changes or things like that with any semblance of intellectual understanding.

Despite my lack of knowledge on how notes formed to make a song, I always became annoyed by overly analytical people who simplified the process. There’s a famous YouTube video where a few guys explain how a simple chord structure exists in almost every pop classic of the last 30+ years. They then play various songs using this chord structure and seamlessly segue from song to song. Sure, there are only a finite number of notes and chords, but I have never heard “With or Without You” come on the radio and thought I love “Don’t Stop Believing!” People who are overly analytical and suggest that all pop music is the same tend to take the magic out of music making and listening.

For me, what makes the arrangement of three chords special is the personality behind those chords. An artist who can make something theirs by influencing the sound with their personality makes it unique as if it was a different song altogether. I do enjoy a good cover song. It gets boring when cover songs copy the original in every respect (i.e. Roxy Music doing the improvised whistle Lennon does for “Jealous Guy”). However, what I want from a cover song is ownership. There is a reason why Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is so much different than Dylan’s original. It is because he owns it. Hendrix wasn’t trying to do Dylan.

The Violent Femmes’ rendition of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” is a great tribute to the concept of cover ownership. It isn’t a great tribute because it is superior to the original (in many ways, it is not), but rather because it takes an existing work and rebrands it. By changing lyrics, altering arrangements, and emphasizing different words, the Violent Femmes almost seem like they are doing an entirely new song. Their rendition is fun and full of humor. The Femmes knew exactly that they were doing; taking a song they enjoy and reforming it in a way that is musically interesting to them. Listening to their cover, there is no doubt that you are listening to the Violent Femmes and not the Violent Femmes emulating Culture Club. This is the right way to cover a song. When covering a song, pay tribute instead of being a tribute band.

Music is another way of telling a story. As humans have done for thousands of years, we pass down stories from generation to generation. Along the way, the stories slightly change in this transgenerational game of telephone. Things might sound similar if they exist within close proximity to each other of a timeline, but there’s more to music than chords and notes. Music is a reflection of ourselves and how we perceive society, and that is always evolving. We take constructs and alter them to our liking. The Violent Femmes were having fun when making this song. You can hear the humor resonating from the track. Don’t take that humor and enjoyment away by being cynical. Do you really want to hurt music? I don’t.

“world peace is none of your business” – morrissey (2014)

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I read the news today, oh boy. Those words uttered nearly 50 years ago by a man who imagined for a living seem to summarize the collective feelings of modern Western civilization. Though the context has changed, the song remains the change. Widespread gun violence, Middle Eastern extremists, and body snatchers campaigning for “Lunatic in Chief” dominate the 24/7 news cycle. The fear and vitriol spewed from print, television, and the World Wide Web hold hostage many of those who just want to get by during their day to day lives. If you think too much about it, it can be incredibly daunting and exhausting.

However, worry not! There is a man who has the answer; a helpful guide to living a life of happiness and independence. A mystic born out of the gloomy grey storybook setting of Manchester with a brazen spirit as old as time itself. Behold! Lend your ears as the one and only Wizard of Moz declares “world peace is none your business.”

Take it in for a moment. See? Isn’t that better?

No? Well, maybe you’re just not being cynical enough.

Morrissey, the leader singer of the Smiths, has a reputation that precedes him as a solo artist. Simply put in Morrissey’s homeland nomenclature, he can be quite a wanker. With musings that border on self-righteous and a face that exudes indignation, Morrissey carries himself above the rest of us. And why shouldn’t he when you have that much confidence in yourself?

Despite coming off as a cartoon character at times, Morrissey can be quite clever in his prose more often than not. Released last year as the lead single to the album of the same, “World Peace Is None of Your Business” is one of the finest pieces of satire found in Morrissey’s later entries in his discography. The songwriting is coy and supremely subversive in its message and delivery.

Morrissey is slyly telling the listener that their role is to just lay dormant. There is no need to be riled up by injustice and violence because you are powerless. Since you lack the money, power, and influence to enact any real change, the listener must observe on the sidelines and hope they are not caught in the crossfire next. Police and their stun guns. Government profiting on the wealth disparity of others. Protestors silenced. These are all standard because, as Morrissey sees it, that is what government is for.

Morrissey belts out the words like a civics professor, but wavy and lilting in the style he perfected and maintained for over 30 years. One cannot help but feel like they are being spoken down to, and not just because of the authoritarian lyrics. Morrissey repeats that every time you vote, you support the process. The Pope of Mope is sitting you down like a misbehaved school boy and is making sure you retain every bit of the state-sanctioned rhetoric he suffered through as a child.

Despite the heavy themes present in the song, Morrissey is having fun with the irony inherent in his message. He has seen it all and did everything his way. He’s made a career of going against the grain of society and continues to live on the fringes of popular music. He’s done more than you ever will, so what makes you think you can enact any kind of real change? His musically stylized form of negative reinforcement is so thick and sappy that he may have well written the song with a fountain pen dipped in blood and molasses.

I find this song refreshing in some ways. In recent months, social media has been inundated with slacktivists; people who, at the moment the tragedy of the day drops, arm themselves at their keyboards and play lounge chair politics. There are a lot of people out there who are doing amazing work and I find them to be completely admirable. I think we should all look up to them. However, there are swarms of people who take credit for movements and actions because they wrote some tweets about it. I understand that it is okay sometimes to share in a victory because its effects are so far-reaching, but victories like that don’t come often. Whenever I see a new mass shooting, I’m no longer surprised. The same thing happens every time: a shooting takes place and people go online to share footage of the carnage and type that something has to be done about it. Someone somewhere has to do something about it. So, Morrissey’s branded cynicism allows me to divulge in some dark humor. In these cases, he’s telling these slacktivists to keep their noses out of the work being done by people who actually make things happen. While I hardly ever find myself aligning with Morrissey’s personal politics, I adore his unabashed and unapologetic approach to world crises in this song.