Sunday, April 26, 2009

10. Foo Fighters vs. Portastatic vs. Mates of State

vs. vs.
"For All the Cows"
by Foo Fighters
from Foo Fighters
  "You Blanks"
by Portastatic
from Be Still Please
  "Whiner's Bio"
by Mates of State
from Team Boo

"For All the Cows" (2 plays at, unranked): The first time I played the debut Foo Fighters album was an unnerving experience. I had heard "I'll Stick Around" a couple times but I was basically going into it deaf and trusting in my love of Dave Grohl as Nirvana's drummer. As good as the whole thing was, this was the song that immediately stuck out for its quiet-LOUD-quiet structure, its shimmery guitars, even its obtuse lyrics to a certain extent. It's the one that sounds most like a Nirvana track, and I kind of felt at the time (and especially when the next Foo record came out) that it was a closure track -- the thing that allowed Grohl to move forward. That was probably a bit of a 16-year-old's overreading, but the way the album is sequenced, you can still get that sense that Grohl needed to make some kind of statement, but that he wanted to build to it over the first 2/3 of the album, and then do it indirectly.

"You Blanks" (22 plays, tied for #13): The most overlooked measure in public opinion polling is the right track/wrong track measure. For the last couple years of George W. Bush's presidency, even before the economy crashed, right track was at about 20%. Now it's in the high 40s, even though little substantive change has actually happened yet, the economy's still in the toilet, we're being besieged by pirates, etc. Atrios, who frequently promoted this song, formulated today that right track/wrong track is all about subconscious feelings about the president, and that everybody basically hated Bush. This song captures that era perfectly: "All my songs used to end the same way/'Everything's gonna be OK'/You fuckers make that impossible to say." The sheer lizard-brain loathing for what the Bush administration did to this country is still not well appreciated by pundits or scholars, but Mac McCaughan expresses it as well as can be -- both at the individual level of his song-writing and at the societal level ("Now every horse I dream about is pulling a hearse").

"Whiner's Bio" (9 plays, tied for #299): The night I met my wife Mates of State played what I assume was one of the earliest live performances of this song; a couple years later we saw them again and they dedicated it to us. It also represents in a lot of ways the end of the first Mates of State era. This song is structurally more similar to their first album than to the one that followed it, but it includes some of the flourishes (e.g., a horn line) that would mark their transition on Bring It Back. That combination really has them at their peak so far -- complicated harmonies, a good mix of keyboard tones and a catchy chorus.

VERDICT: I thought coming into this round that "You Blanks" might have the edge. My stats go back to the start of 2006, and it's the highest-ranked song in the tournament so far by quite a bit. But listening to "For All the Cows" again really brought home how well put-together it is. A part of my music brain is always going to be stuck in the early and mid-90s (earlier today I found myself thinking how underappreciated the Juliana Hatfield Three's Become What You Are is), and this song is one of the important tethers.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

9. Radiohead vs. Nirvana vs. Nirvana

vs. vs.
"Palo Alto"
by Radiohead
from Airbag/How Am I Driving?
  "Heart-Shaped Box"
by Nirvana
from In Utero
by Nirvana
from Incesticide

"Palo Alto" (7 plays at, unranked): I think the listening public has largely come around to my view that The Bends is superior to OK Computer. A big part of why my opinion came out that way is the quality of the b-sides found on the Airbag EP, of which this tune is the last and best. It neatly encapsulates what made the band's 90s output so great, both musically and lyrically -- the little guitar and noise flourishes, the big crunchy chorus, the desolate and soulless future. For me, this was essentially Radiohead's high-water mark. I couldn't say yet whether it's their best song -- "Just" will provide stiff competition if it comes to that -- but it may well be.

"Heart-Shaped Box" (7 plays, unranked): Like so many Nirvana songs, it's hard for me to hear this one for just the song and not for the memory ripples it kicks off. I remember the late summer of 1993, just as I was starting college, being all about this song and its superb video. Those first few times hearing, it was face-smacking: This dry sound, this raucous mess was how they were going to follow up the bright shimmer of Nevermind. It was so much more visceral and narrow; it didn't trade in melody the same way "Teen Spirit" and the other previous singles had. Throughout the promotion and discussion of the album -- and I recall the review in Rolling Stone hitting this pretty hard -- was the awareness of a line being drawn through the band's audience, with this song on one side and about 80% of Nevermind owners on the other. Sales-wise, it didn't quite to that, but this thing that was excised from Kurt Cobain as a middle finger to the grunge industry was revelatory for me both as music and as cultural commentary. I don't think it's a coincidence that I later wound up enjoying artists like Marilyn Manson as media provocateurs as much as musicians.

"Sliver" (4 plays, unranked): The randomizer put these two Nirvana songs together in this round, and I guess it's appropriate that they be from such different eras. And how odd is that this band can be said to have eras at all, let alone these distinct ones three years apart? The sort of play-acted innocence of this song (and the use of Frances Bean Cobain as a prop in the video) is typical of a lot of the band's early recordings ("School," for instance), but this one has such great pop energy that you can't help but be taken by it. Of all the songs that I'll never get to see performed live, this one might be the most disappointing. It's such a perfect two-minute bounce for a small club full of kids looking to dance off a buzz.

VERDICT: I vary from match-up to match-up on how to weigh my historical feelings about older songs, and this time I think my history puts "Heart-Shaped Box" over "Palo Alto" by a nose.