Sunday, January 03, 2010

"And the headstones climbed up the hills": Top 100 Songs of the '00s, Part 14: #10 - #9

The decade is over but the list is not.

10. Stay Loose - Belle & Sebastian  (2003)

I first heard Belle & Sebastian in the hopeful early summer of 1997. The If You're Feeling Sinister CD played forlornly in my car as I settled in comfortably to an existence of graduate study, milky coffee drinks, and midday trysts with squirrely women with romantic notions and unspoken regrets. Yeah I just wrote that.

My B&S kinship continued as I bought everything they released and fought off the cynics who didn't believe in the quiet cuddly-yet-dark Scottish wonderland that Stuart and the others were selling. I put the unfairly maligned pop gem Seymour Stein on mix CDs sent to six people in three time zones. I spread the myth that was actually reality as best as I could. I loved that band.

I loved their quiet simplicity, their never changing chords and ever changing moods (from pensive to polite to ruminant to rueful). By the time the Minnesota Years ended for me (7/15/02), they were a consistent part of my life, as ever-present as soft pretzels, sleep-for-7-hours, and remote controls.

As the earth continued to stand still and change kept itself from rearing its unnecessary head, something happened to Belle & Sebastian. To say it was unexpected is an understatement on a par with 'sun makes light.' This is what happened: they learned how to play their instruments. Really well.

This transformation of B&S - from lyric-centric mopemongers to musical geniuses who can perform skillfully in any genre at a moment's notice - was a swift, yet permanent, one. A casual or not-so-casual listener might be led to believe that it was Trevor Horn's production that made all the difference in the world on 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress (the best album of a the decade by a band not fronted by Craig Finn). But those same listeners, upon  hearing the follow-up The Life Pursuit in 2006 and (especially) seeing the subsequent tour, should have realized that these guys and girls, after years of playing/scheming together got really really good.

(It should be noted that many people, myself included, didn't necessarily think that the B&S's evolution to Steely Dan-level instrumental capabilities made them a better band. Many people, myself sometimes included, liked that early stuff better. Still, if you think of them as a completely new band from 2003 on, you'd have to put them in the top 5 of artists/musicians/bands working today.)

The final song on Waitress was a shocker. After hearing what a mid-80s mix tape of mine once described (when describing something else) as Different Songs of Varying Musical Styles, anyone listening to songs 1-11 could have walked away impressed and gone outside to do whatever one did back in 2003. But song #12 was still there waiting. How many of you saw it coming - the note-perfect tone-savvy tribute to 1979 post-punk-new-wave-pure-pop, with a sardonic twist? How many of you figured that Belle and Sebastian would lay down the most badass tribute to Sniff and the Tears' Drivers Seat? Nobody, that's who.

9. Palmcorder Yajna - Mountain Goats (2003)
If I were to rank the top sentences written by music reviewers this past decade, the #1 spot would belong to David Antrobus of Pop Matters for this sentence about the Mountain Goats song Palmcorder Yajna, written in his review of the Mountain Goats' album We Shall All Be Healed:
There are so many dimensions to this song that you’re no longer sure whether it’s your head that’s racing or your heart that’s spinning ... in short, with its headstones climbing up hills, unknowable cryptic symbols, carpenter ants in dressers and reflective tape on sweatpants, it’s the arcane Rosetta Stone of the entire album.
Does an album need a Rosetta Stone, an arcane one at that? This album, an impossibly sad set of songs about the bizarre banal life of a group of teenage meth addicts, needs it. The album title is a lie; not all are healed. But a story needed to be told, its precise language of dualities needed to be taught (hence, the stone).

This song leaves me with two images: its opening line gives us the geography: "Holt Boulevard, between Garey and White." Lead Goat John Darnielle places us in Pomona. There has never been a song before or since that has placed us in Pomona and there's a reason for that. The second, brutal image was referenced above. It should have stuck with you; it'll never leave my sight: "reflective tape on our sweatpants." Jesus, why would anyone do that? The studio version (lala) is amazing but the live version (youtube) is a revelation.

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