Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seven songs of summer

None of these was released this summer, but they all got stuck in my head, kept popping up on KEXP, or otherwise made an impression.

"Black Sheep" (written by Metric, performed by Brie Larson)
When movies feature fictional bands that are supposed to rock, they usually suck. In fact, they tend to suck so much that their (equally fictional) fans' devotion is hard, if not impossible, to believe. The made-up bands in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, on the other hand, have a secret weapon: They're either real bands performing under false names (e.g., Crash And The Boys = Broken Social Scene), or their music was written by honest-to-God musicians with tons of actual fans. Beck wrote the songs played by Scott Pilgrim's band, Sex Bob-Omb, including the endearing Iggy Pop rip-off "Garbage Truck"; and Canadian pop powerhouse Metric wrote "Black Sheep," an unreleased track that Brie Larson -- as Envy Adams, the singer for fictional band The Clash At Demonhead -- nails to the wall. Whether or not you're a Metric fan, it's hard to deny the craftsmanship and outright catchiness of the song, and suddenly the throngs of worshipful fans make sense.

"Gimme Sympathy" (Metric)
This is Metric performing as themselves, from their 2009 album Fantasies, which got the band plenty of U.S. airplay. "Help, I'm Alive" was the lead single, but this infectious follow-up stands up better to repeated listening. The lyrics playfully name-check the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the band's irresistibly polished sound, not unlike that of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, makes this a perfect summer driving song.

"My Love" (The Bird And The Bee)
Foot stomps, hand claps, and then singer Inara George's deceptively sweet voice, which usually has a sardonic hidden agenda. But not this time: "Hey, boy, won't you take me out tonight / I'm not afraid of all the reasons why we shouldn't try." Right there, in the first two lines of the light, punchy chorus, you've got all the necessary ingredients for a fine romance: a date and some odds to overcome.

I didn't think much of the Shins' third album when it was released back in 2007, starting with that damn title. Wincing the Night Away? Really? As it turns out, it's got much of the charm of the band's much-praised debut and sophomore records. This song, in particular, includes nearly all of the Shins' best tricks: unpredictable melody, busy lyrics, and a subtle but persistent sense of humor that mocks songwriting clich├ęs: "Faced with a dodo's conundrum / Ah, I felt like I could just fly / But nothing happened every time I tried." Especially great to run to!

The hype surrounding Arcade Fire's third album made it extremely unlikely that both fans and newcomers would be satisfied. While The Suburbs isn't as marvelously cohesive as Funeral or as striking, musically or lyrically, as Neon Bible, it's no slouch. "Suburban War," the record's centerpiece, powerfully conveys the nostalgia, sadness, and beauty evoked by American suburban life. Yet "Rococo," which creeps up on you, is at least as effective. Fans have identified this as Arcade Fire's grand statement against fickle music hipsters, but I'm more interested in the song's big, rolling sound, which finds yet another way to do what the band does so well: take the ordinary and build momentum until it feels apocalyptic.

Imogen Heap's 2009 album Ellipse is nowhere near as strong as her previous effort, Speak For Yourself, which includes the peerless "Hide and Seek." That said, "Aha!" is Heap at her best: fast, sly, and terrific in the chorus. The song mixes her trademark electronic sound with a slinky melodic line and an unidentifiable but massively catchy element (Middle Eastern? Eastern European?) that puts it over the top. It's a short track that doesn't waste a moment; you'll want to hit replay the second it's over.

Yes, the album's cover girl is suing the band, but what's more important is that Vampire Weekend pulled off what the Shins achieved with their second album: enough of the same to please fans, enough that's different to satisfy critics. Most of Contra sounds like pure summer fun; the band's signature wit is tucked into nooks and crannies along the way. "I Think Ur A Contra" takes a different tack, slowing things down and serving a few piercing critiques to the so-called revolutionary of the title: "You wanted good schools / And friends with pools / You're not a contra." Vampire Weekend is still playing with class and the cultural and political assumptions that accompany it; by varying their musical attack with this album closer, they've demonstrated a promising kind of growth. Plus, few songs are better to cool down with after a run.

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