Wednesday, February 18, 2009

7. Year of the Rabbit vs. The New Kentucky Quarter vs. Finch

vs. vs.
"Say Goodbye"
by Year of the Rabbit
from Year of the Rabbit
  "Carry It Around"
by The New Kentucky Quarter
from Carry It Around
  "Letters to You"
by Finch
from What It Is to Burn

"Say Goodbye" (10 plays at, tied for #218): Year of the Rabbit frontman Ken Andrews is in this tournament as the leader of three different bands (the other two being Failure and On), which is pretty impressive. This band released its only album at a time when the majors briefly tried their hand at angular shimmer rock, and this closing track brought the whole thing to an incredible, if tragically destined, head. The lyrics have a nice back and forth across the verses, and Andrews had really perfected the arena version of his croon when we saw YotR play the comically undersized (and underfilled) Rave Bar in Milwaukee. Of all the bands that fit this subgenre (Failure being one, but also Hum, late-model Cave In, Shiner), I think this one is one of the few that are carried by vocals at least as much as by music, and this song is a great example of it.

"Carry It Around" (13 plays, tied for #101): This might be the most obscure track in the tournament. Madison's the New Kentucky Quarter released a couple of EPs, then broke up a short while after this one came out. This title track from their swan song is a superb piece of pop-rock that I suspect would've burned up the charts if had it found its way into a Zach Braff soundtrack. The boy-girl harmonies in the chorus are terrific, as are the slight changes to the vocal melody each time through. We saw them play at the Terrace without ever having heard them before and fell it love instantly -- if anyone has a line on their earlier releases, please let me know!

"Letters to You" (2 plays, unranked): Come to think of it, all the songs in this match-up are fairly obscure. Finch was part of an early 2000s wave of halfway decent screamo that went light on the screaming, then they put out a forgettable follow-up, split, and reformed to release a forgettable EP last year. These songs are also all really well structured -- with lesser execution that could be a bad thing, but with all three and this one in particular, it feels like the band is taking you on a tour of how the song works, and even though it's not an unprecedented setup, it sounds impeccably put-together. It this case it's things like false stops being just in the right place, like the perfect placement of decorative mouldings or something. This song also has a lot of resonance for personal historical reasons, as it came out in 2002, just as I had was going through a lot of life upheaval. It can still feel and understand it now, but it's less salient than it was then -- I've been known to scream this one out in the car in the past, but it's been a while.

VERDICT: "Letters to You" has lost a bit due to time, and it's a tough choice between the other two. I'm going with "Carry It Around," because upon close review of "Say Goodbye" it seems like it doesn't quite have the energy it once did -- I want it to be a little faster and a little harder.

Monday, February 9, 2009

6. Motion City Soundtrack vs. Fear of Pop vs. Matthew Sweet

vs. vs.
"Capital H"
by Motion City Soundtrack
from Back to the Beat
  "In Love"
by Fear of Pop
from Volume I
  "Sick of Myself"
by Matthew Sweet
from 100% Fun

"Capital H" (9 plays at, tied for #299): This song appeared on an early Motion City Soundtrack EP, and then was rerecorded for the Epitaph re-issue of their debut LP, I Am the Movie; the former is the version on this list. It's the thing in the MCS catalog that best combines their ramshackle beginnings with their synth-driven melody and vocal mania. It's also maybe the most fun live track ever -- the little two-note kick-off and big synth waves get a crowd jumping like nothing else I've ever heard. Maybe more than any other song in this competition, this tune is pure energy. The rerecorded version is not, unfortunately; it's much more subdued and sacrifices a lot of personality for professionalism. If you can find the Back to the Beat version, I highly recommend it.

"In Love" (7 plays, unranked): Ben Folds has got some problems with women. There were a few Ben Folds Five songs that strongly hinted at it ("Song For the Dumped," most notably), but his solo material goes there a lot more directly. When his Fear of Pop record came out, though, very little of that stuff had been produced yet. This tune -- a template for his later production of William Shatner's Has Been -- is by far the standout from that project. Over a soft and quirkly melody, with Folds doing a 60's ballad in the background, Shatner gives an incredible reading of a diss track to an anonymous woman. The last verse is just devastating: "I can't tell you anything, and I... can't.. commit! You're right! I can't commit! To you. I will always treasure our time together. I don't feel enough of anything to harbor the kind of disdain that you'll maintain. You painted me into what you wanted to see -- and that's fine! But you will never know me." On top of that, the music really is terrific, in the vein of then-recent BFF tunes such as "Smoke" and "Selfless, Cold and Composed."

"Sick of Myself" (8 plays, tied for #395): Most cite Girlfriend as Matthew Sweet's breakthrough album, but for me he moved to the next level with the four muted quarter notes that open this tune and his fifth album, 100% Fun. He adds some "power" to his "power pop" here -- the sound neatly foreshadows his Specter-esque In Reverse -- and encapsulates the sound of a fairly broad 90s movement that also included bands like Urge Overkill and the Lemonheads. It's a tune that is immensely hummable, with some great garage guitar work and fun use of false stops at the end.

VERDICT: The other two songs would've won in a lot of other match-ups, but "In Love" is going to go a long way in this competition. On top of all of its awesome qualities, I suspect it's also partly responsible for the cultural resurgence of William Shatner in the last decade, and it's hard to overstate the value of that.