Neon Dream #15: Happy End – Kaze Wo Atsumete


“Kaze Wo Atsumete” by Happy End (はっぴいえんど) appears twice in Lost in Translation: once outside a karaoke room at the end of a long night, and once at the end of the credits. Since that movie was so central to how I remember the late 90s and early 2000s, I thought I might end with it too.

Here are links to the previous entries in my series. They all clearly share :???: in common. (Well, I had fun, anyway):

1. Maserati – Inventions
2. Boris – Intro
3. Tom Waits – Small Change
4. Hong Kong Express – 浪漫的夢想
5. 日本航空株式会社 ✈ Japan Airlines – Airglider
6. 식료품groceries – 슈퍼마켓Yes! We’re Open
7. 古川もとあき – One Night in Neo Kobe City (from Snatcher)
8. Aphex Twin – Flim
9. Air – Alone in Kyoto (from Lost in Translation)
10. The Album Leaf – The Outer Banks
11. Kinski – Semaphore
12. 芸能山城組 – Kaneda (from Akira)
13. 川井憲次 – Making of Cyborg (from Ghost in the Shell)
14. Blut Aus Nord – Epitome XVIII
15. Happy End – Kaze Wo Atsumete (from Lost in Translation)

Review: The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World


I was basking in the golden glow of San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall when I first laid eyes on The Decemberists. It was Summer 2004, and it was a day I still remember well. I arrived alone, but I ended up befriending two girls about my age from Sacramento. It was a pretty thing–three kids too young to buy drinks and too engaged to harbor ulterior motives, thrilled to witness a band that seemed to capture every novelty of a world we were only barely old enough to traverse independently. It wasn’t particularly crowded–we walked right up to the front of the stage–but there wasn’t a stranger in the audience. “Billy Liar” was a hall-wide sing-along. On “Red Right Ankle” you could hear a pin drop. Chris Funk dawned a fake beard and marched through the audience pounding a drum strapped to his chest for “A Cautionary Song”. “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” was a swaying dream that will resonate in me until the day I die. I wanted to marry those girls by the end of it–both of them, and I never bothered asking their names.

Austin Texas, fall 2006, I stumbled into Stubb’s BBQ in a daze. “Indie rock” had become the musical movement of the decade, and I felt like a king in the middle of it all. It was a crazy two-week stretch: The Album Leaf, The Mountain Goats, a trek out to Houston for Built to Spill, a return to my metal roots for Between the Buried and Me, and somewhere in the midst of it all I found my sleepless self in a sea of humanity as Colin belted “Culling of the Fold” outdoors to a sold-out crowd. He was exhausted but elated, grinning from ear to ear the whole set, and so was I. The irony of “I was Meant for the Stage” was not lost on either of us.

Pittsburgh, 2009, I took my seat at the Byham Theater to witness The Decemberists in a traditional performance hall. I had traded in faded proofs of attendance for garb with actual buttons, and the band was decked out in full suit and tie. The Hazards of Love was larger than life–Shara Worden striding across the stage like a spidery temptress to a majestic display of lights and an unprecedented rock opera. The Decemberists rose to their fame as only they could, and the result was in one breath a self-aware mockery of their grandiose ambitions and a brilliant realization of the same.

…I wrote of The King is Dead‘s simple folk rock sound that it seemed like The Decemberists were “coming down off their own high. I imagine it’s difficult to be as… musically intelligent as they are without some fear of becoming pretentious.” The album title might even hint at this, and the band’s subsequent three year hiatus seemed to confirm it. Now it is 2015, more than a decade since that wonderful night in San Francisco, and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is due out in just over a week. I don’t really know what I expected, but I know what I was feeling. It certainly wasn’t the grandeur of The Hazards of Love, nor epic ballads reminiscent of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “The Island”. I was waxing nostalgic on Colin at his sweetest. “Grace Cathedral Hill”, “Shiny”, “Red Right Ankle”, “Of Angels and Angles”… Because The Decemberists were no longer a novel in their own right. That beautiful rise ended with The Hazards of Love, and the hiatus laid it all to rest. Theirs was a tale to look back on fondly; the story had come to an end.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World gives me that sweetness, in a way. Tracks like “Lake Song”, “Make You Better”, and “12/17/12” are absolutely beautiful. All of the songs fall somewhere between these mellow numbers, blues/folk tracks like “Carolina Low” and “Better Not Wake the Baby”, and upbeat pop like “The Wrong Year”, “Cavalry Captain”, and “Philomena”. I could live without the latter three, but suffice to say the album is generally pleasing to listen to, though Jenny Conlee’s accordion has sadly all but left us. “Lake Song”, “Make You Better”, and “12/17/12” definitely steal the show for me, but I won’t soon forget the catchy choruses of “Anti-Summersong” or “Mistral”, nor the lulling blues melancholy of “Till the Water is All Long Gone”.

But this album breaks my heart. Through it all, I can’t escape the feeling that some fell force sucked away Colin’s joie de vivre, substituting mellow content to lead a normal life where once the world had been a playground. The music is still great, but I can’t feel the synergy between it and the lyrics anymore. At least “Lake Song” has been spared this fate. Here is what I can understand of “Mistral”: “So we already wrecked the rental car, and I’ve already lost my way. I feel entombed in this tourist bar, for a day anyway. So lay me out on the cobblestone, and unfurl this aching jib. The streets are built on ancient bones, and the crib of the rib. Won’t a mistral blow it all away? Won’t a mistral blow away? So it’s me and you and the baby boy, and a ? shed away, reeking out a little joy. What a waste. Bad mistakes. Won’t a mistral blow it all away? Won’t a mistral blow away?” I don’t know. It’s just… kind of shallow–a bit of babbling around the surface of a theme–and it’s pervasive through much of the album. “Better Not Wake the Baby” is packed with creative one-liners, all tied by a refrain of “but it better not wake the baby“. What does that mean? Plenty of Decemberists tracks have sent me to Wikipedia in the past, but I’m not going to find an answer here, and for that the song means nothing to me. “12/17/12”, my favorite track, still totally jars me out of my happy daze when Colin appears to rhyme “grieving” with “grieving” and “belly” with “belly”.

Go ahead. Crucify me. Point out the most obvious meanings; remind me that Colin still has a robust vocabulary; explain how it’s none of my business to criticize someone else’s creativity; note that it’s still better than 90% of popular music; tell me to shut my mouth and go listen to something else if I don’t like it. I don’t care, because the sad fact is I will go listen to something else. I spent more time on Castaways and Cutouts than on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World while writing all this. I don’t want that. I want to love this album and hold it dear, but I can’t. I listen to the lyrics and more often than not I just hear Colin going through the motions without any of the magic. From the 5 Songs EP all the way to The Hazards of Love it was a constant indulgence, and now it is gone.

The opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, is the reason I can still listen with a faint smile. It is not one for the album, but for the memory of all that The Decemberists have meant to me over the years. In almost a parting farewell to Colin’s old stage persona, he sings in classic form: “We know, we know we belong to ya. We know you built your lives around us. Would we change? …We had to change some. We know, we know we belong to ya. We know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change… But we had to change some, you know, to belong to you.”

And they still do, and I still love them, and I still look forward to catching them on their upcoming tour, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a bittersweet experience.

Review: Panopticon – Roads to the North


Two years removed, Kentucky has left a unique long-term impression in my mind. For all of the excitement over an authentic and well-crafted mingling of traditional Appalachian folk and black metal–the term “blackgrass” got tossed around a lot–I honestly don’t remember how most of the songs went. This is because Kentucky‘s message managed to trump its sound. I remember the old man talking about organizing strikes against the coal company. I remember Sarah Ogan Gunning’s boldly defiant calls to overthrow capitalism. I think of settlers slaughtering Indians, mountains blown into dust, rivers running black with pollution, grim-faced miners broken in body but never in spirit, a modern generation abandoning everything their ancestors worked so hard to accomplish… That is my memory of Kentucky.

Chase the Grain

I can’t detach myself from Kentucky enough to appreciate Roads to the North as an independent entity. That’s probably fine. I had never heard of Panopticon before Austin Lunn nailed his bloody heart to his sleeve in 2012, and that identity will persist through my perception so long as it remains true. Roads to the North has no explicit message, no lyrics sheet, no spoken tracks or American folk covers. But it has Kentucky, and because of that every song takes on a deeper, more robust meaning than it might have otherwise.

It would be interesting to know what a folk/black metal fan unfamiliar with Panopticon takes from this album. Does the music alone stand far above and beyond the norm? I like to think it does. The album incorporates some entirely unexpected but highly effective melodic death metal moments, especially in the opening track “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong”. This track also gives us perhaps Lunn’s best incorporation of fiddle directly into black metal to date. “The Long Road Part 2: Capricious Miles” transitions out with a long and enthralling jazzy progressive rock chill reminiscent of mid-era Opeth. The whistle in “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” sounds nothing like what we’re used to out of the European scenes, harkening instead to a western indigenous sound I have only heard from some obscure Mexican folk metal bands. “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” is an unconventional six minute acoustic bluegrass piece that feels more like something straight out of Lunn’s imagination than Appalachia.

The intensity hops around so suddenly that Roads to the North may feel disjointed at first, but the stark contrasts are never forced. Because you don’t always see them coming, they are striking rather than cliche. Lunn performs each of the album’s myriad instruments better than a lot of people who specialize in only one, and there aren’t many producers on the black metal market that can compare to Colin Marston. He has a knack for subtlety that is hard to come by in the scene. I absolutely love the way the tremolo emerges around 30 seconds into “Chase the Grain”, for instance. It’s so soft that you feel its effect on the song as a whole long before your brain consciously recognizes it.

Norwegian Nights

But I suppose I don’t really care about the finer musical details of Roads to the North, and that is why I found this album so difficult to review. This music is only a gateway. Like an engaging book, you never notice that it is well written. Roads to the North is not the guided tour we found on Kentucky. It leaves us be to explore where the feelings take us within the context of the world Lunn has already shown us. Those paths can be rocky. It’s not the glorified past of so many European pagan metallers. The should-be eternal is tainted. The land is marred. It’s the introspective melancholy Americana of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and your heart goes out to so many things that you can never hope to save.

Lie beneath a cold blanket and watch the mountains sleep. The train rolls by every hour, as I wake and dream. The woods and the hills–faces so dear to me. Frozen lakes, flatland snow, where I’m called I’ll go. Such still quiet, then the whistle echoes. My fragile sleep torn from me, as many other things will be.

Song of the Day: Oats In The Water (by Ben Howard)


TheBurghIslandEP

The Walking Dead may not be what some critics as great television. Hell, it’s been called boring, pandering and badly-written. It’s popularity has eluded detractors and supporters alike. There’s one thing the show has consistently done well and that’s pick licensed songs to help highlight particular episodes.

Tonight’s episode, “Internment”, is another such episode with a perfectly picked song. This time around the song is “Oats In The Water” by British singer-songwriter Ben Howard.

The song enters the episode as part of the calm which followed one of the most tense and terrifying sequences of the season. Whoever is in charge of licensing songs for this song needs to get a raise because it’s definitely been a highlight of each season.

Oats In The Water

Go your way,
I’ll take the long way ’round,
I’ll find my own way down,
As I should.

And hold your gates
There’s coke in the midas touch
A joke in the way that we rust,
And breathe again.

And you’ll find loss
And you’ll fear what you found
When weather comes
Tear him down

There’ll be oats in the water
There’ll be birds on the ground
There’ll be things you never asked her
Oh how they tear at you now

Go your way,
I’ll take the long way ’round,
I’ll find my own way down,
As I should.

And hold your gates
As coke in the midas touch
A joke in the way that we rust,
And breathe again.

And you’ll find loss
And you’ll fear what you found
When weather comes
Tear him down

There’ll be oats in the water
There’ll be birds on the ground
There’ll be things you never asked her
Oh how they tear at you now

Ten Years #22: Стары Ольса


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
22. Стары Ольса (Stary Olsa, 1,257 plays)
Top track (111 plays): Танцы (Dances), from Келіх кола (Loving Cup, 2000)
Featured track: Дрыгула, from Дрыгула (2009)

I don’t know of too many bands from Belarus, but the one I’m most familiar with is amazing. It’s a bit fitting that Stary Olsa should be my first entry in this on-going series to appear within the fall season, because I actually featured both “Dances” and “Drygula” this time last year. Of course it has nothing to do with horror, but it’s firmly rooted in the traditions from which our Halloween has derived–those of a misty past dominated by perceptions and beliefs not yet subsumed by European Christian standards. I don’t know whether the songs Stary Olsa play are themselves of ancient origin, but their instrumentation certainly is, and the songs they have crafted, whether traditional or original, are convincingly and memorably medieval. You’ll hear none of that western adherence to formula here; playing slightly out of tune or hitting a wrong note is a positive property of the music I like best. It comes to life with an earthiness that strives not for order and rationality, but for a taste of those unpredictable, wild-eyed expressions that highlight the more authentic human experiences of joy and sorrow. A lot of the best folk music abandons modern society’s notions of how these feelings ought to be expressed in exchange for a more direct connection. Stary Olsa certainly aren’t unique in this regard, but they do it better than most any other ensemble I’ve heard.