For my birthday, Mark gave me the gift of songs to criticize

As arbiter of good taste in our group of friends, Mark has been introducing me to worthwhile music throughout our friendship. Now, four thousand kilometres away from each other, and in the midst of intense social isolation (even by my standards), Mark has once again come to my rescue with a new batch of songs & artists for me to hear.

Here’s Mark’s description of the collection: “this is a sample of a kind of random pile of songs that I have listened to repeatedly within the last year, but no repeated artists.” Taking a cursory look, I only recognize three of the twelve artists listed, which is exciting. I also noticed a band (artist?) called Ass Life, which sounds like a philosophy as much as a name.

[Note that I hadn’t seen any of these videos until I was about to publish this. I bet the videos might have soured me on some of the bands I liked! I am the worst.]

Let’s dig in.

“José tries to leave” by BAMBARA

I haven’t even heard the song yet but I’m not much of a fan of all-caps names. Hah. I am repugnant. OK, let’s listen… Ah, one of them talky singer people. This is like the National before their frontman had kids? I like the bass, can’t decide on whether the drums are too relentless or cool. Some OK guitar stuff in the choruses. I feel like the singer is dragging down a decent band vibe, though. There’s also no sense of dynamics to the song, just kind of one level throughout because of the drums and the mix. The vocals felt like they were trying to create a crescendo but it didn’t really do it for me.

Verdict: It’s OK. I’ll probably never actively seek out listening to this band.

“Own zone” by Guerilla Toss

Good band name. Wow, great start. I mean, it’s like the music I hated in the 80s but it is confident, bright, and I’m willing to go along with it. Great songwriting chops. I’m not sure I can get beyond the aesthetics of it, but I really dig the chorus a lot. The deliberate goofiness takes a backseat at the bridge, and that’s an improvement for me. Then they add vocoder, hah. This music makes me smile but I’m not sure how much I like it, sort of like the sound of a Rototom.

Verdict: It’s good! Fun. I’ll probably never actively seek out listening to this band.

“Read my mind” by J Fernandez

First thoughts: is the title in present tense or past tense? Listening now… I like the production style, I think. Nice chord progression and the music matches the voice well. Wish the synth thing wasn’t so loud. Ah, it’s in present tense. Some nice touches with the bass in verse 2. I like this. It also feels small stakes, like he’s sad but not really sad? Bridge continues to have good bass & drums, and the “ahs” were good.

Verdict: It’s good! Taken as a single song it doesn’t do much for me, but I imagine an album of this would have a cumulative effect.

“Boyish” by Japanese Breakfast

A very promising start. Great laidback feel to the music, great reverb, great vocals (though a little mumbly for me off the top). What a killer couplet in the chorus: “I can’t get you off my mind. I can’t get you off in general.” This is great. I just sat and listened to the rest of the song without doing anything else. It sounds how I feel. This is really great.

Verdict: Really good. I might actively seek out listening to this band (artist?).

“Clay pigeons” by John Prine

Starts with that super clean, super well-recorded country sound that I’m not really a fan of, although I can respect the craftsmanship. Sounds like John brought his own vocal mic and wouldn’t let them use anything else, hah. I think I might enjoy this better if it were just one acoustic guitar and vocals; the vocals have an intimacy that the arrangement lacks (for me). The lyrics are interesting but the vocal delivery seems too breezy and fun. Maybe I’m just an overwrought idiot.

Verdict: Excellently crafted. I’ll probably never actively seek out listening to this artist. I am the worst.

“The barrel” by Aldous Harding

Now that’s an acoustic guitar I can get behind. Great drum sound. Very dry and beautiful recording of the instruments. Great vocals, although I’m undecided on whether I’d prefer them more in the room with the rest of the band. Love the woodwind (clarinet? sax?). Piano sounds lovely. Boy I love how this sounds. The longer it goes on, the more I wish the vocals were a little more settled into the mix instead of sitting on top. This is a relatively small quibble, though.

Verdict: Fantastic recording and performance, OK song. I might actively seek out listening to this artist (band?).

“No more bakeries in Highland Park” by Ass Life

From the band name to the “E” for explicit content, I’m hopeful for this one! Let’s listen. … Hahahahaha. Love it. I should have been a mechanic, too! I’m not sure if I like this, but I’m really enjoying it. Nice turn from rock beat to punk beat in the middle. This sounds like a bunch of guys my age (which is to say middle age) making the slightly smarter version of the music they grew up on.

Verdict: I’d be happy if my friends put this on when we were hanging out, but I probably won’t actively seek out listening to this band.

“And breeding” by Priests

Solid start with bass and drums, and then some nice contributions with guitar. Feels a little like pastiche so far, trying to recapture a previous era, but it gets loose and weird in the “chorus”. Considering my friend, who’s a dad, sent me, another dad, a song that I think is criticizing having children, I’m amused. Talk of Y2K confused me, as I thought the band was probably younger. Solid shouting in the second chorus.

Verdict: Some cool ideas, but not for me. I probably won’t actively seek out listening to this band.

“But does it work?” by Drug Church

Oooh, this is a promising start. Lots of 90s in that bass, and I love that super stereo distorted guitar. Enough of the Toadies in the band’s sound that I’d be happy to listen to this anytime. Spoken lyrics were great, but I like the louder vocals a lot less. I’m getting the sense that this singer is a supreme cynic and thinks the world is absolute irredeemable shit. I don’t necessarily disagree with him, but I’m not sure that’s what I want to be singing along with at the moment. Hah. Such a great sound.

Verdict: I might actively seek out listening to more from this band.

“Anonymous” by Elvis Perkins

Another super dry recording. That spring reverb on the vocals is hilariously out of control, but it’s kind of doing it for me. I really dig the guitar sound, the chord progression, and the overall feel of the arrangement. But I’m mixed on the vocals: they’re really great, demonstrate super control by the singer, but they’re also really performative, quite precious, which isn’t as much for me. Fantastic string sound. There’s a lot to like here. Boy howdy this is well crafted. Those string arpeggios at the end of the bridge! That brass!

Verdict: A lot to like here. I probably won’t actively seek out listening to this artist, but if I heard another track of this calibre, or something just a little more sincere sounding, I might give them a shot.

“Think about us” by Healing Potpourri

That’s a killer band name. And yet another acoustic start! And then into a sort of 70s thing? Really great chord progression, but this is not a song for me. Some great lyrical moments. The vocals really aren’t my thing, though. I think I might like this song better if it the arrangement was more a scrappy rock song; as it stands, the flutes aren’t for me.

Verdict: I probably won’t actively seek out listening to this band. Unless I’m getting quietly drunk in the sun for twelve hours.

“Wasted days” by Cloud Nothings

Awesome start. Love hearing the guitar through the amp and also the pick scratches coming through another mic somewhere in the room (drum mics?). Wow, now this is totally up my alley. Love the guitar, bass, and drums. Vocals are OK on first impression. Love those drums on the chorus. This has the high-energy anxiety and sadness that I need right now. Love that bridge/interlude after the chorus. Oh this is really good. Wish there was a little more going on with the vocals but otherwise this rules. Great extended section that’s bass-forward and has some awesome weirdness. It has to have been produced by Steve Albini, right? … Just looked it up. It was produced by Albini! This breakdown section rules. This song is awesome. I want to go see this band play this song live and I want to jump up and down until I feel slightly better about myself. Holy hell what a crescendo.

Verdict: I will seek out listening to this band. This is kind of what I was hoping for from this list.

Final thoughts

It is no great surprise that my friend Mark has a good and varied taste in music. There is not a single song in here that was anything less than well-crafted and constructed, especially on the songwriting front. There was also a nice variety in how some songs were quite loose and raw, while others were much more precise and ornate in their production. I tend to lean toward messy over meticulous, but I respect both approaches. Ultimately, I’m walking away with at least a few new bands/artists to look into, so I’d call that a success!

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