Thursday, June 25, 2009

12. The Dismemberment Plan vs. Rage Against the Machine vs. Fastball

vs. vs.
"The City"
by The Dismemberment Plan
from Emergency & I
  "Wake Up"
by Rage Against the Machine
from Rage Against the Machine
  "Fire Escape"
by Fastball
from All the Pain Money Can Buy

"The City" (8 plays at, tied for #395): It's hard to overstate the tragedy of the Dismemberment Plan over the past decade. Since making one of the best indie rock records ever -- this tremendous song is one of four in the tournament, out of just 12 on the album -- they produced a middling follow-up, a forgettable remix album, broke up and gave birth to Travis Morrison's embarrassing solo career. This tune is maybe the most disappointing of it all, though, in that it should have been a radio smash. I suppose 1999 was not the right time for it, but the guitar chime opening just begs to heard with "This is the Dismemberment Plan on Z104" over it. The rest of the song is structured impeccably, with verses flowing smoothly into a little chorus descent, and matching the tone of the lyrics -- despair, loss and understanding -- exactly. The one and only time I got to see them live, on their farewell tour, that last line, "All... I... ever... say... now... is... good... bye!" was a tough one.

"Wake Up" (2 plays, unranked): There are a handful of songs in this tournament almost entirely because of their use in film, and this is one of them. For a lot of reasons, this was the perfect track for the coda and credits of The Matrix. That said, it's also by far the best encapsulation of the Rage sound -- I think it says something for it that I originally assumed it was new when I first heard it, rather than seven years old at the time. You've got explicit politics, historical metaphor, calls to action, solid rapping, Tom Morello's wakka-wakka funk, some excellent youthful screaming from Zach de la Rocha. Even the six-minute length works well -- the bridge allows for some nice metal moves to be thrown into the mix and connects and makes the whole song really feel epic. The second half does a lot of things you don't often get from Rage, and certainly not from the later, more singles-oriented work.

"Fire Escape" (3 plays, unranked): 1998 brought an odd flood of power-pop hits that I liked but whose follow-ups I loved, and no one else did. This is one (Barenaked Ladies and Semisonic had the others). I've always thought this song was much better than "The Way," which always seemed a little gimmicky to me for some reason. This tune told me there was really something there with this band, and the record wound up becoming one of my favorites of the late 90s. It's still quite good, but it hasn't aged as well as it could've. While the genre as a whole has taken a commercial nosedive in the U.S., this decade has brought about a lot of great power-pop records from the likes of Starling, the Long Winters, Fountains of Wayne, the New Pornographers, etc. I'm still able to appreciate the well-founded melody here, the harmony and jangle, but it doesn't have the same kick it used to.

VERDICT: Later rounds of this tournament may be dominated by the Dismemberment Plan, quite frankly. "The City" barely has to nod in the direction of the other songs to advance, and it's going to be tough to beat until it's up against another one from Emergency & I.

Friday, June 5, 2009

11. Mates of State vs. The Anniversary vs. nine inch nails

vs. vs.
by Mates of State
from My Solo Project
  "All Things Ordinary"
by The Anniversary
from Designing a Nervous Breakdown
  "Dead Souls"
by nine inch nails
from The Crow

"Proofs" (1 play at, unranked): I don't know if any debut album has had a more style-encapsulating first song than this one. You can hear where Mates of State will go over their first three albums in this song, and yet even now it feels much more unique than derivative. The recording is still a bit lo-fi and the basic song structure is wonderfully natal -- plain organ and drums, vocal back-and-forth with occasional harmony. And it's so happy! Kori Gardner's "Yea-eah!" near the end is just blissful, coming on the heels of two and a half minutes of "It doesn't matter what might come true/It's simple enough to try." It's a triumph of the boy-girl indie pop genre and a testament to track sequencing; I don't think anyone could listen to this song and not want to hear more, more, more.

"All Things Ordinary" (6 plays, unranked): Between My Solo Project and the album this song comes from, 2000 seemed to herald a new age of poppy, keyboard-driven harmonies. This one, too, is a bit of archetype for the band, and it's one that was followed-up on much more by other bands (like the Hush Sound and 1997) than the Anniversary, who produced one more, quite different album, then broke up. What I like about these guys more than the rest, though, is that they're not ashamed to let the synth lines be out in front. That bouncy line along with the yearning vocals -- nicely split between male and female parts -- creates a danceable setting that's still recognizably within the late 90s/early 00s emo landscape. It's too bad that there's nobody really putting all those elements together anymore.

"Dead Souls" (1 play, unranked): In the middle of 1994, a crazy year musically and the first summer of my college years, The Crow was released with what's turned out to be a relatively seminal soundtrack. What I remember most from the movie and from the ads are Stone Temple Pilots' "Big Empty" and this superb Joy Division cover by NIN. I had no idea it was a cover at the time, I was just getting into the band and thought, hey, awesome new song that's not on my copy of the downward spiral for some reason. Now I know it's heresy in some circles to admit this, but I don't care for Joy Division at all, and as a result I find this cover vastly superior to the original. Trent Reznor pulls back some of the explosive energy he had on broken and combines it with the atmospherics of some of the remixes that were being made from the downward spiral at the time. The result is both a great soundtrack tune and a terrifically listenable song that fits flush within the NIN canon, even presaging the thick drums of 1997's "the perfect drug" a little bit.

VERDICT: All these songs are pretty evenly matched and it's tough to say one is any greater than the others. But, "All Things Ordinary" is the one that I get the itch to listen to the most, so that gets the win.