POTW #9: I Did Not Promise Anyone Jetpacks
Once again, it’s time to unveil my not-exactly-weekly Picks of the Week! And it’s an extra-special edition this time because today is February 29th, and how often do you get to post things on February 29th? (The answer: Every four years. Duh.) Yeah, I know, that’s the lamest reason anyone has ever given for calling anything a special edition (George Lucas, all is forgiven). This entire introductory paragraph is making me sound like that stupid Batman villain who is driven mad by his obsession with the days of the week. And no, I did not make that up. His name is Calendar Man and he is excruciatingly lame.
You’re probably wondering what’s up with the bizarre title of this post. I usually title my Picks of the Week posts after a lyric from one of the featured songs, but the best I could come up with was something involving promising people jetpacks. That will make sense shortly. But first, allow me to treat you to not one, but two brand-spanking-new songs from Radiohead.
“Cut A Hole”
The picks of the week are coming up after the jump – but not after any messages from my sponsors, because I don’t have any.
Surfer Blood, “Miranda”
Do you like Weezer? No, not the Weezer that collaborated with Lil Wayne and wrote songs about how the words “sex” and “socks” kind of sort of sound alike. I mean ‘90s Weezer. Everyone likes ‘90s Weezer. So why hasn’t this song blown up all over the airwaves? It sounds like something ‘90s Weezer would have written if they used less distortion on their guitars and had a very convincing Morrissey impersonator on lead vocals. Come on, this has “signature hit single” written all over it. Radio stations need to get on this.
Surfer Blood’s ode to their favorite romance option in Mass Effect 2 (because that’s totally what this song is about) is irresistibly catchy in just about every possible way. The riffs, the guitar solo, the vocal melody… from top to bottom, start to finish, it’s just a very well-composed piece of pop-rock. This lead single from their Tarot Classics EP is less reverb-heavy than anything you’d find on their full-length debut Astro Coast, but when the results of your sonic shift are this good, does it really matter? Once “Miranda” gets stuck in your head – and it will – it simply will not leave. And that’s fine by me.
The Weeknd, “Wicked Games”
Let’s just answer the obvious question right off the bat: No, this is not a Chris Isaak cover. The Weeknd (is that pronounced “weekend” or “weakened”?), whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, is a solo R&B artist hailing from Toronto. He first caught the attention of the music press with a free mixtape called House of Balloons, on which “Wicked Games” can be found. The distinctively downbeat and dramatic yet relaxing mood of his sound has earned him all kinds of praise. The craziest part of all this? He’s 20 years old, his voice is already this powerful, and he’s already found a unique sound that creates a compelling atmosphere. Can you imagine what this guy’s going to be doing after he gets a few more years of seasoning under his belt?
Oh, and not only is House of Balloons still free of charge, but so are Thursday and Echoes of Silence, his two subsequent releases. And if you don’t have the patience to wait for your computer to finish downloading, that’s no problem either because he’s uploaded all of his music to YouTube. Go check it out. I’ll still be here when you get back.
Battles, “My Machines (feat. Gary Numan)”
I feel like Beavis and Butt-Head already summed it up quite nicely: “I could watch this video forever.” Not only because there’s something strangely watchable about a guy falling down the up escalator over and over again, but also because “My Machines” is a killer track. The experimental math-rockers lost vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton in 2010, but haven’t missed a beat. Their sophomore effort Gloss Drop features a handful of guest vocalists while still delivering the same crazy sounds and infectious grooves that made their debut Mirrored work so well.
“My Machines” features easily the most recognizable name among that cast of guest stars. The vocals here are handled by electro-rocker Gary Numan, who’s best known for his 1979 hit “Cars” (sing along, everyone: “Here in my car/I feel safest of all/I can lock all my doors/It’s the only way to live/In cars!”). Most Battles songs treat the human voice more as an instrument rather than a means of delivering intelligible lyrics, so this is probably as close as they’ve ever come to writing a “conventional” rock song. And it still kicks all kinds of ass while providing a good entry point for newcomers to their work. Maybe they should keep Gary Numan on speed dial.
The Joy Formidable, “Whirring”
The Joy Formidable’s debut full-length album is called The Big Roar, and it’s hard to think of a more fitting title for an album by a band as loud as they are. There are only three people in this band, but they make a hell of a lot of noise. “Whirring” is the album’s centerpiece (at least in the sense that it’s right in the middle of the running order) and has become the band’s traditional set closer thanks to the three-minute shoegaze freakout that ends the song. It’s hard to believe this song started life as a more conventional three-and-a-half-minute alt-rocker.
When they play it live they draw that section out even longer and somehow go even crazier, and it’s awesome. I know this because I saw them play it on Letterman and couldn’t remember the last time I saw a band tear up a late-night show like that. Then I saw them opening for the Foo Fighters in November (Dave Grohl himself called “Whirring” the “song of the year” last April) and experienced it for myself. I think my ears are still ringing.
We Were Promised Jetpacks, “Human Error”
Wow. And I thought the Joy Formidable were loud. At least you can hear their singer’s voice – the singer from We Were Promised Jetpacks sounds like he’s in danger of being drowned out by the guitars in “Human Error.” Not that this is a problem, because this is a pretty damn good song. We Were Promised Jetpacks (yes, that is actually their name) are Scottish post-punk revivalists – they’re similar to bands like Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys, and the like. I’m not sure what’s in the water over in the UK, but they just keep churning out bands like this and a lot of them are good.
I first heard “Human Error” about a week ago and haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since. The lyrics and guitar parts are pretty simple but the song is performed with so much power and vigor, thanks in no small part to the machine-gun drum fills straight out of the Bloc Party playbook, that it becomes infectious.
The Twilight Sad, “Sick”
To close out this list, we go from one Scottish post-punk band with an unusual name signed to Fat Cat Records to another Scottish post-punk band with an unusual name signed to Fat Cat Records. I mean, talk about catering to a niche market.
The Twilight Sad just dropped their third album No One Can Ever Know earlier this month; on this album they’ve tinkered with their sound to emphasize electronics and synths over guitars. Its release was preceded by the lead single “Sick,” a moody piece of alt-rock filled with finger-picked guitars and synths and powered by James Graham’s emotional delivery (and strong Scottish accent). The thing that jumped out at me the most about this track is just how much it reminds me of Radiohead circa Hail To The Thief. Go back and listen to tracks like “2+2 = 5” or “Scatterbrain” and then listen to this. I think this song would be right at home on that album.
I listened to “Sick” for the first time a couple days ago and immediately knew I had to include it on this list. This is a damn good song, one of my favorites of the year so far. That isn’t saying much since it’s only February 29th, but it still sets the bar pretty high.
And hey, look at that – I’m talking about Radiohead and the leap year again. It looks to me like we’ve come full circle, so that should be a good place to wrap things up. I promise I’ll be back with another Picks of the Week post before the next February 29th.