Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"This is the story of the kids called the Crabs": Top 100 songs of the '00s, Part 16! (of 16): #3 - #1

(Edited to conceal bizarre misplaced sentences peppered throughout 1st draft)
I'm satisfied with my top 3. I'm happy with my whole list actually. Sure, there may have been too much critically acclaimed indie pop and a few genres were drastically underrepresented (American hip hop, Scandinavian metal, jazz). I still favor clever over heavy, words over beats, quiet over croon, sadness over despair... everything over chillout. But I confounded expectations with my engineered absence of Radiohead, The Arcade Fire, and Outkast's Hey Ya. The latter is inexplicably beloved (it's a nice song but it should not have changed your life.) Radiohead and Arcade Fire (and The Album Leaf and The Duke Spirit and all bands with names like that) are more album bands than song bands, Or that's just a polite way to say that they just weren't top 100 material.

I've been hemming. I've been hawing. I've been comparing the three songs mentally and aurally. I have to make the cruelest cut with my writer's knife (aka, my pen, which is actually letters on a keyboard.) I have to just come out and admit that as much as I want to put the #3 song at #1, it is not a better song than the other two. Sorry, Facebook friend (and American Music Club lead singer) Mark Eitzel, your song is only the third best of the decade.

3. Long Long Walk - American Music Club (2008)
This song is nowhere to be found. Out of print. No mp3/YouTube/bittorrent presence. I suppose I could figure out how to upload an mp3 from my rare CD and then post the mp3 file right below these words but I think this song's aura should be presided over by the lure of the unattainable.

When I saw AMC at the Echo in Los Angeles in 2008, they were selling a limited edition CD of outtakes, live songs, and other songs called Atwater Afternoon. I've spent a few afternoons in Atwater (the one in Los Angeles.)  It's nice. It's lonely.

Atwater Afternoon is currently "sold out" on the official pages of AMC and Mark Eitzel. Its fifth song, Long Long Walk, is about a friendship between two young men - Mark (the reliable narrator) and his friend Larry. Though only in high school (I think), the pair see themselves as the "secret conscience of men" as they walk the streets of a city to which they've been given "the keys."

Yes, that's not just one key to the city; he said "keys." They got them all. They tried all the doors to see which ones would open. I don't know why but I picture this key-testing to be happening, well past midnight... Cool and not cold outside... Alleys and streets are haunted... Nobody sees Mark and Larry so they see each other.

Suddenly, in verse 2, "some hillbilly fuck" sporting nunchuks confronts Mark and Larry in front of a supermarket. It's not explicitly stated why the two men (boys) trigger such a reaction but, judging from the slow simmer in Eitzel's voice as he tells the story and Larry's status as a beautiful "high school champion" who always stood tall, it's probably because at least one of them and probably both of them are gay. Larry, likely more outward in his presentation of self, is the one the hillbilly is after. This is made clear by the tone in Mark's voice.

A decision needs to be made. Soon. Yes, it's 2 good guys vs. 1 bad guy but the 1 has a weapon and all the 2 are holding are a bunch of keys, the great majority of them unable to open doors.

Larry, in addition to his superhero credentials, has much wisdom for a teenager. As Mark relates the story (and I'm guessing this story is 98% true and based on a real friend)... Larry is the one that decides to meet this nunchukker head-on, right here right now. Larry says "I know what this is. I'm not butter for any man's knife."  This sentence sends chills up and down me: "I KNOW WHAT THIS IS." Larry has been victimized before. It's clear that he's gained strength, perhaps not from the initial physical/psychological victimization but from not choosing to run away in quiet resignation as his default first defense. Nope - Larry fights back. And he knows what THIS is and doesn't need to name it. THIS is someone taking away Larry's life force and Larry fights back to protect that life force.

We don't know what happens in the fight. We jump to Mark the narrator's defiant exuberant pride in his friend's strength and in the fact that the two of them didn't go anywhere, they didn't run and hide from the bad man. They dealt with the hillbilly fuck and then they walked and walked some more.

There could have been blood and bruises, or just some circling around with fists and sharp fingers at the ready. The fight or the lack of it disappears from the song which ends with the chorus. "We were on a long walk. We were on a long long walk."

Larry and Mark will get to their destination but it will not be without some work, some fight. That's what the song is trying to say I think. They will spend a lifetime walking a long walk.

I hope they're still friends. Long Long Walk only saw the light of day on that purchased-by-few Atwater Afternoon album. Supposedly, it was considered to be one of the tracks on American Music Club's album The Golden Age released that same year. Now, the songs on The Golden Age are quite good and Long Long Walk may not fit thematically with most of them but I think the band should have found room for this song on their "legitimate" '08 release. If not, it should find a home on the next real AMC album or the next Mark Eitzel solo project. Larry deserves at least that.

2. Take Me Out - Franz Ferdinand (2004) 
As someone who has spent 16 of the past 20 years as either an undergraduate college student, a graduate student, or an employee working in a college, I am familiar with the notion of "extra credit." I think it's overused in higher education but it doesn't seem to cause pain so I'll stick with it here.

If I were assigning extra credit points, Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out would garner bonus points so huge and vast and heavy that a song which normally would get relegated to the midpoint of the chart would leapfrog to #2.

But you see I've already taken into account degree of difficulty or past performance or rehearsal styles. My extra credit is just regular credit.

What did Franz Ferdinand do to deserve such esteem? If you know this song, you likely guessed where FF went the extra kilometer. It comes at the 52 second mark when they CHANGE THE SONG COMPLETELY and go from "I won't be leaving here" to "take me out." The thrusts that signal the changeover should always - ALWAYS - be accompanied by jumping in place with mad happiness. Like them over on the left.

You see, they didn't have to change the song completely. They could have started the song at the 52 second mark with the hard beats that signal the changeover. They didn't need to write an entirely different song. They could have coasted on their crisp suits and Scottish charm and still had a hit with a reduced-size Take Me Out.

Back in 2004, I got a phone call on a Friday night. My friends Monica and Hallie were going to see this new Scottish band called Franz Ferdinand the following night at the Palace in Hollywood. They had an extra ticket. Did I want to go? Of course! Monica's husband (yo Jason!) had something else to do, Hallie was inexplicably single at the time, and my then-wife was on a spiritual retreat in the Arizona wilderness. So, three young unfettered people found themselves in a spacious dark club to see a band that I knew little about, save for this very song.

I tried not to make assumptions or create expectations but I thought Franz Ferdinand were another cleverly packaged UK band of handsome lads in sharp suits who would coast on the charm of their hit single. Not even close. They were simply the tightest, most professional, rockingest live band I had seen in years. Again, they didn't have to be this good. But they were this good. Extra credit is just regular credit.  And yeah I jumped up and down like a little boy when they did that thing at 52 seconds. I always do.

Finally, how did it take me 5 years to find out that Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos is dating Fiery Furnaces lead singer Eleanor Friedberger? FF + FF! I'm happy they found each other. If they have a child, he/she will be so musically talented and so skilled at performing live in a spontaneous charismatic fashion that you just might see him/her appear in the upper reaches of my top 200 songs of the 2020s list in a couple of decades

The second best song of the century so far. Enjoy:

1. Math is Money - Lifter Puller (2001)
In the end, I went with my original choice. I gave you clues a while back. Remember?

I told you that the song "was not released in a traditional manner. More precisely, it was not first released as a song on an album of songs by the particular artist or band."

The amazing Math is Money first appeared on the Hangin' on the Devil's Tree compilation put out by punk magazine Your Flesh in 2001. Later, it would appear on two Lifter Puller compilations.

I also gave you the clues that the song was released in the first half of the decade (3/27/01) and that I first heard it in the second half of the decade (7/19/09).

And then I said that it is "a song performed in a particular genre by a band or artist not known for performing in this particular genre." Some may squabble with this assessment but this is a punk song. Lifter Puller was not really a punk band and if they were, it's more along the lines of "art punk" or "post-punk art-rock." Otherwise, put them in the rock or indie rock or bombastic beats categories. Nowhere on their discography do LP get this punk. Nowhere do they even get close. Sure, Roaming the Foam marries Iggy Pop and Soft Cell which seems like a punk move but gives you back something uncategorizable (and awesome) but not punk.

My final clue mentioned that the song's lyrics "include the following words":
  • and
  • a
  • smart
  • me
  • you
  • toilet
Yes I was trying to be funny with some of the words on the list. In fact, there are several top 100 songs that contain all the words here save toilet (can you name them?) For Math is Money, you can verify my clue here.

But WHY do I rank this song as the best of the decade? Me... Ali... a decidedly non-punk guy (with a healthy respect for punks in general) loving above all other music a manifesto of a group of teenaged thugs/drug dealers/rogues - the Crabs (see the title quote for this post;  the line opens the song.) Am I not the sensitive poet who likes gentle witty love songs of poignant regret? Those can be nice but sometimes I attend the very same events you imagine me running from.

This song just has so many amazing exhilarating moments. It contains weird funny prescient lyrics. And, for the hell of it, LP gives you TWO choruses and then positions them in an unexpected way (putting chorus #2 immediately after the second instance of chorus #1). The second chorus happens to be the best chorus in the history of music. 

What else do I like? The guitar that punctuates the second chorus. Slug from Atmosphere showing up for exactly 7 words - "MiM and MiM."  The way Craig Finn says "handbags" in verse 1. And at the end of the song, what about the manner in which the singer asks for amnesty once again, this time in New Bedford. He needs to be granted amnesty in a new strange place and he can't even ask politely. Misdirected frustration and anger.

After we meet the Crabs and learn their mantra ("you only get what you grab") and their big dreams ("grand to a gram if they could decimate these other gangs"), we listen to the narrator offer his very own sloganeering life philosophy, the narrator having been Peter-Panned here from all the way out in Springfield, Mass and who is not a member of the Crabs (I think). According to the narrator: "math is money and money is math." Well, I agree... if A = B, then B = A. But what if A = B is not really true and there are people more in-the-know about this than me? What then? Let's change the subject:
(pause for regroup)

"Leather vests and assless chaps" is the next line in chorus #1. Huh? That imagery was unexpected. It seems the narrator has a more complicated life than we initially thought. How the Crabs fit in, I'm not sure. Perhaps the narrator just wants to tell a story about some dudes he knows.

Then, in the next verse, the moment of truth comes. Some rich kid gets stabbed. He's lost in his eyelids. Something goes down the toilet. Someone mentions that the product is short by an ounce. And they pounce, the kids called the Crabs pounce:
This ain't smart dude, this ain't art dude
This is sonic economics and I'll put it on a graph for you to prove

The narrator (Who is he? A Crab? The rich kid? The ounce counter?), he repeats his narrator slogans. Not much has changed with the first rule: One is still money, the other math.

Okay so the deal broke down and there was pouncing. What is the narrator going to do? In verse 3, he speaks of getting Peter Panned BACK INTO Springfield, Mass. So now it's clear: when the Crabs pounced, they pounced on the narrator, at the very least. He's got to get the hell out of Minneapolis (where the Puller dudes were based back then). 

Up in Northeast Mpls., you will find the previously cited Jefferson Ave. though I gotta ask: Could they have been singing about another city? Jefferson does not seem to be the kind of street where Crabs pounce on an ounce counter with lost eyelids. But that's what my research seems to indicate. Wherever we are, everyone goes a separate way, though a couple of quiet observers note the eerie silence and make sure each man hidden in the Sunday bushes knows that he was noticed.

(Note: I have no idea what I was getting at with that last sentence. But it sounds good; I'm leaving it in.)

(I've ignored your question long enough. I will now answer you. You ask "What the hell does it mean when someone is "Peter Panned"? I thought I knew. It turns out that there are many many interpretations, the most interesting ones being the most sexual. Go ahead - read all 29 definitions at Urban Dictionary. I vote for #4 or #23, either one splashed with a bit of #15.)

All of that going on into one song, that should be enough. But we get a lot more, just like with Take Me Out. We get a second chorus. All hail the second chorus! Note: This is not a bridge; the instrumental bridge actually follows the second chorus, which goes:
Twin Cities! They're gangin' up on me

Twin Cities! They're double-teamin' me
Yeah, narrator Craig needs to get the hell out of Minneapolis (and St. Paul) and go to the relative safety of the Northeastern United States. The Crabs may be young and a certain level of stupid but they scare people. They scared me and I'm fully aware this is a song, filled with fictional events and caricatures of characters.

When "Twin Cities" is yelled out, I pump my fist. As long as no one is watching. I don't fist-pump too often. This is significant.

More of what makes this song #1: We still await word on the long and tortured mystery of why assless chaps were required or at least desired. Any LP members out there? Email me (see upper right corner of screen) and explain it, okay? 

One day I'd like to hear this song live On chorus #2, I would jump higher than I did that night I heard Take Me Out live. (Because LP is #1 and FF is #2, that's why I'd jump higher.)

Thus, one of the final songs Lifter Puller ever recorded and released is my #1 favorite song of the whole past 10 years. 

And to you math-phobes: It's true. Math IS money. Money IS math. But sometimes math and the accompanying knowledge of risks and rewards lead one to actions where math is most certainly not money; it is the absence of money. The vests and the chaps just come with the territory.

Now, my lunch break is over and I will go back to my mathematical operations consistent with statistical analyses. Which will earn me money.

If you read all 16 entries and all 100 songs, you're a saint. If you read at least half, you're on your way to being exalted.

Here's the link again for the song. Don't be afraid. Listen. It's right there / Look down. I don't want you to hurt yourself scrolling up. In a few days, once we've all had time ro reflect and rejoice, I will create a new gigantic post of all 100 songs, substituting links for actual embeds (I think) so it doesn't take 20 minutes to load for those of us with iPhones.

Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your time.

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