52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Monday, March 23, 2009

and I get nervous every time you speak....

Shuffleathon 2008/9

It's been a long time coming, but after several weeks of listening, I'm finally ready to get my review of the CD that Mandy sent to me at the back end of January. The thing is, this isn't just a mixtape, it's the soundtrack (of sorts) to Mandy's NaNoWriMo novel from November last year. The novel itself is called "The Sea Between Us", and -- in Mandy's own words -- "The novel is geared towards young adults and is probably hilariously bad.... I've enclosed some excerpts so that you can see how each song fits into the story....It's obviously not my best mixtape (I would have better transitions, and really "Fix You" on a mix??), but I had to let the novel dictate my choices".

Fair enough.

Initially, I just listened to the CD in the car as I travelled to and from the office. In that context, it works just fine, but it really comes to life when you read the songs with each of the little extracts from the book. It's the story of a 16 year old girl called Emma and her new neighbour, an Irish boy called Eoghan who has just moved to Arkansas with his family. As Mandy says in the brief synopsis:

"They become friends, but she wants more. Frustrated, she starts a band to help let out the teenage angst. It does the trick, and they end up together. But the fates have more in store, and soon their happiness is challenged... READ THE BOOK!"

As the story is such an important part of why the songs were picked, I'm going to approach my review by including a snippet from the extracts to try and put the song into the context of the book, and then I'll say what I think of the song. Make sense? Well, anyway.

1. "Cemetry Gates" - The Smiths

I reached under my seat for a CD wallet and handed it to Eoghan. "You get to be DJ for the trip," I told him. He started flipping through the CDs and selected a Smiths CD.
"We're going old school today," he said

Emma has met her new neighbour and is starting to get to know him (which basically seems to equate to making small talk while she fully absorbs what he's wearing (jeans, grey t-shirt, battered Puma Gazelles) and even how he smells (like soap plus something else she can quite place). Ah, young love.

I know this compilation isn't about me, but for future reference, you can never, ever go wrong by opening up a mixtape for me with a song by The Smiths. This is a good choice, too. It's from their most famous album ("The Queen is Dead"), but it's not one of their more famous tracks. As well as being a good song, it's also a really good example of the things that make Morrissey great as a lyricist: it's witty, playful and intelligent (well, apart from the misspelling in the title of the song, obviously). We're off to an excellent start.

2. "The Prettiest Star" - David Bowie

I knew I had heard the song before, but not this version. It was heavenly. "What version is this? It's not the same as the one I have."
"Do you like it?" I nodded, and he continued. "It's actually the original recording, which he made three years before rerecording it for Aladdin Sane. I prefer this version, actually." I closed my eyes again and listened more closely.

Anyone else getting the impression that these two are starting to bond over a love of music?

I own Aladdin Sane, but I'm afraid I don't know my Bowie well enough to have noticed the distinction in the versions, or even to especially recognise the track at all. It's instantly recognisable as Bowie, obviously... there's no one who sounds quite like him, after all..... The roughness of the guitar and of the recording probably marks this out as early Bowie. Hold on, this is no good: I'm going to have to listen to the later version. Oh, I'm totally with Eoghan here. Bowie's voice maybe sounds better (at least better recorded) on the Aladdin Sane version, but the backing track has definitely lost something by being glam-rocked up and given the full 1970s sheen. The earlier version is rawer, slower and far superior. This Irish kid has got good taste, you know! (Marc Bolan on guitar on this version, incidentally).

3. "Something Vague" - Bright Eyes
4. "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)" - My Chemical Romance

"Bright Eyes, Emma? And early Bright Eyes, where Conor Oberst still sounds like a little boy crying into a fan. If you're going to insist on listening to sad bastard music, at least listen to something worthwhile," she said. "Let me get you something from my car." Claire and I share a lot of the same musical taste, but she strays into harder stuff sometimes, and I was apprehensive about what she'd bring back.
Entering the room again, she tossed a My Chemical Romance album onto the bed.
"Here, try this." I put it on, and Claire's enjoyment of the music lifted my spirits. We spent the evening dancing and shouting along with New Jersey's finest example of teenage angst.

Emma's not been able to snare Eoghan, and so her best friend is doing what best friends have been doing for time immemorial....

This is quite a good Bright Eyes song, actually. Yes, it's a slow burner, and yes Claire, Conor Oberst does sound like a little boy crying into a fan, but I quite like the way it builds up from a whisper to a shout and then back down again. Perhaps he's overdoing it a little and is a touch over-wrought, but it's not a bad little number. If you're feeling miserable, I can really see this doing the job. My Chemical Romance I'm not so sure. Yes, it's a great song, and yes, I did crank up the volume in my car every time it came on, but it's a bit too comedy for me to be music I can really wallow in. You want to make me cry? Sufjan Stevens every time. My Chemical Romance? Nah. Silly, shouty, comedy rock, innit? So: moping music, no. Dancing and shouting music, yes.

5. "Cold Days From the Birdhouse" - The Twilight Sad

The pain felt good. I could feel the cool piano keys pressing into my chest, and the sharp edge of the music stand cut into my forehead, but I didn't care. Tears of frustration seeped out of the corners of my eyes. I tried breathing slowly to calm myself down. I looked down at the keys, blurry through my tears, and I started hitting one key over and over.

At her moment of despair, Emma starts writing a song, almost by accident.... and forming a band becomes a real possibility and she suddenly has a new outlet for her feelings.

Mandy modestly admits that the song itself was the inspiration here for what Emma writes, with it's nagging, repeated single piano note. I think it's a masterstroke that ties the song and the text together, and as I read the excerpt whilst listening to the song, it pulled the music seamlessly together with the story. The song goes somewhere else, becoming much heavier in places than that single piano note might initially indicate, but it comes back towards the end of the song. Although I though the song was okay before reading the text, I didn't think it was anything special. Reading the little extract though, it all makes sense. Perfect! Great Scottish accent on the vocals here too.

6. "Can You Tell" - Ra Ra Riot

"First of all, how was the rehearsal?" Claire asked. "Did everyone get along?"
"Yeah, I think so. Rachel is pretty headstrong, you know, but she's a really good violinist. Her instincts are usually right. She told me about a new band out of New York, and they use a lot of violin and cello. She's going to let me borrow the CD. As for the rest of them, they all just tried to do their best."

When I think of violins in a band, I always think of the Velvet Underground. When I think of cellos in a band, I always think of the Auteurs. But then, neither am I sixteen years old. Whilst this is clearly nothing like as good as either of those two bands (not many are), this is actually a really good song. The singer has a good voice, for starters, and the music rattles along nicely. It's tuneful, foot-tappable (it's best if I don't dance, for all concerned) and it's singable. I'm not sure if this not annoy me on repeated listens, but at the moment it feels fresh and it sounds good and I want to hear more by this lot. And it's upbeat, for God's sake. I never like upbeat music.....

7. "Australia" - The Shins

"I'm going to get an MP3 jack put in as soon as I can," he said. "But at least it has a CD player now." He put a Shins CD into the stereo.
I buckled the seat belt. "Can I trust your driving skills?"
"Why shouldn't you? I was only raised in two countries where we drive on the other side of the road, and I've only been driving for the last couple of months, and this is the first time I've ever been out on the road without a parent or instructor," he grinned. "So it's completely safe." He started the car.

Another upbeat song, presumably charting this optimistic stage in the life and love-life of a sixteen year old girl who thinks she's falling in love for the first time. Not quite as good as the song by Ra-Ra Riot, in my opinion, but I do quite like the way this saunters along with a spring in its step. Good music to drive to on a sunny day, in fact. This really is a very evocative soundtrack, you know.

8. "Talk About The Passion" - R.E.M.

I flipped on the lights in the office and turned to hand him his present. "Here, you go first."
He opened the card, in which I'd simply written "Merry Christmas" and signed my name. He then unwrapped the record.
"Murmur on vinyl? Deadly! I've been lookin for this for ages now. Thanks a million Emma." He gave me a tight hug....

Ah, old school R.E.M. Are there really sixteen year old kids anywhere in the world who fall in love over ancient albums by R.E.M. On vinyl? I really, really hope so. In fact, this is probably how everyone should fall in love. Why the hell should I be stuck with Huey Lewis and the News? Proper old school Michael Stipe lyric here too, making little attempt to make sense and, at one point, bursting into French. Combien du temps? Quite so, Michael, quite so.

9. "Like Dylan in the Movies" - Belle and Sebastian

Eoghan met me at the door. He looked tired, and his hair was damp from a recent shower. He was barefoot, and just had on jeans and a t-shirt. He gave me a long hug and invited me in. The house was cold and quiet.
"Where are your parents?" I asked.
"Sleeping, or trying to anyway. They don't do well with jet lag. Let's go into my room," he said. When we walked in, he shut the door. The stereo was playing Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister album. He turned it down a bit.

This is one of my very favourite songs by B&S, a band that I hated for many years before actually listening to them. Oh come on... the whole idea of them is so twee, isn't it? And then I heard If You're Feeling Sinister, still my favourite album of theirs, and I was forced to accept that I could hardly hate a band that, it turned out, I actually really, really liked. Damn them. I don't really have any really idea what this song is about, and I've never studied the lyrics closely enough to find out. I'm not even quite sure what Stuart Murdoch is saying in those muffled vocals, I just love the emotion and gentle urgency that he conjures up as he sings, with that lovely bass line driving on behind him. Great song. Along with "Piazza, New York Catcher", for me, the very best that they have done. Good choice, Mandy! This is a really big tick for me.

10. "Your Arms Around Me" - Jens Lekman

Eoghan sat down on the floor in front of the stereo and turned it on. I wasn't familiar with the song that was playing.
"What's this?" I said, sitting down next to him.
He handed me the CD case. "Jens Lekman. He's Swedish. My cousin turned me onto him over Christmas."
I listened for a moment. "Sounds like the Magnetic Fields meets Rufus Wainwright," I said.
"Only more Scandinavian," he grinned.

This song is absolutely worth the price of admission just for the lyric, "I was slicing up an avocado when you came up behind me / with your silent brand new sneakers". It sounds almost as though he's not being entirely serious, and that this might even be a joke song, but on reflection I think that's perhaps down to his Scandinavian-ness. This is sort of like the Divine Comedy, only good.

11. "The Sweetness Lies Within" - Hefner
12. "Counter Spark" - Sondre Lerche
13. "Everybody Knows (Except You)" - The Divine Comedy
14. "Fire In My Heart" - Super Furry Animals
15. "Red Right Ankle" - The Decemberists

Okay, I thought, and I put the headphones on. The first song was somewhat familiar. It sounded like Hefner, a British band I'd heard a couple of times before. Yes, no mistaking that singer's voice. I laughed out loud at the line "Wear clother that look good on you and boys will flock from all of Europe."
The next song was familiar to me, Sondre Lerche's "Counter Spark", a song I already loved. I lay back and listened to the words. He certainly got the details right, I though, as the lyrics referenced Sondre's gray eyes, the same color as Eoghan's.
He followed with a song I didn't know. The singer's voice was deep, and he was singing that "everybody knows that I love you, except you." I smiled when he sang about telling his mom and dad, wondering if Eoghan had ever mentioned his feelings for me to his parents.
The next song was a bit strange. It started out normally enough, a guy singing along with an acoustic guitar about having "a fire in my heart for you." The song built nicely, with more instruments and voices in harmony. The ending though, was a little out of control, with lots of falsetto harmonizing. I kind of liked it though, and I made a mental note to find out who it was.
A tear slid from beneath my closed eyelids at the next song, "Right Right Ankle" by the Decemberists. "This is the story of the boys who loved you, who love you now and loved you then." It was one of my favourite songs of all time. It was sweet, and quirky, and so beautiful. I couldn't even remember talking about it with Eoghan, and it made my heart beat wildly thinking that he had thought of me while listening to it.

I saw Hefner backing Billy Bragg somewhere in Bristol several years ago. Billy was superb, of course, but Hefner were good enough that I went out and bought the album containing this song. Like Emma, it took me a moment to place why I recognised this song, but it didn't take me long to recognise that voice, and also to recognise what an excellent song it is. Yes, his voice is mannered, and no, they're not the most original act in the world, but that is a good song. This Sondre Lerche song reminds me of something on the "High Fidelity" soundtrack (although not, I don't think, on the OST... and I can't see anything here either). Hmm. I definitely recognise this song from somewhere though. Nice enough, with a touch of the Wanndies about it..... Hold on, what's this? I think I recognise that sub-Scott Walker baritone and those stupid lyrical stylings....Ah, it's the Divine Comedy, of course. Truth be told, I don't really mind Neil Hannon, but I do find that he tries too hard to wear his intellect on his sleeve, and his homage to Scott Walker is there for all to see in his voice (even if I can't find fault in his choice of role model). This song is pleasant enough, I suppose, but it's too jokey for me to take it seriously. He can deliver it with as much gravitas as he can muster, but that simply isn't enough to carry this off. Annoying. Sorry. The Super Furries? Well now you're talking. I love the way that this starts out as a real, heart on sleeve ballad, goes a bit wonky along the way, and yet it still somehow manages to be a tender expression of emotion. That the SFA all over, really, isn't it? Wonky but brilliant. An object lesson to Neil Hannon in how to get your message across with humour and without needing to shove your tongue into your cheek. Needles and pins and the seven deadly sins? Superb lyric. The Decemberists are a band that I have heard of, but not actually heard... if you follow me. It's not a song that immediately grabs me, and I'm a little distracted by the lyrical similarity to Nick Cave's very, very different "Red Right Hand". It's a touch generically folky, for me, and although it seems to be delivered with genuine feeling, it's not something that I'm quite connecting with. It's a nice, quirky, wistful song though, and it's growing on me with every listen.

16. "Fix You" - Coldplay

Eoghan and I hadn't spent the night together, and even when we were alone in each other's bedrooms, there was usually a parent somewhere nearby. So we'd never really done much more than kissing. I was pretty sure I wanted more though.
Eoghan pulled me bac on the floor to dance to a Coldplay song. He smiled down at me as we danced, and I felt the fear leave me. I knew he would never hurt me, and besides, we had established boundaries in our physical relationship. I had nothing to worry about.

Ah, Coldplay. Not fashionable, and I can well understand why you might want to back away from actually putting this onto a mixtape.... but Coldplay are actually okay with me. This is a long way from being my favourite Coldplay song, mind you. I thought "The Scientist" was a bit too much, and this is just a step on from there, with added church organ. I am in the video though, so perhaps I should revise my opinion. Nah. I'm sure it's delivered with real feeling (isn't it about trying to console his wife after the death of her father?), but the emotion is expressed in such woolly terms, presumably in an attempt to ring true for everyone, that it somehow feels hollow to me. I know Chris Martin always deals in vague generalisations, but I can't help but feel that the power of songs like this is often delivered in the details; the things that make a song intensely personal to the songwriter can often connect with a wider audience ("Hurt" being a good example, especially when done by Cash). This is a bit, well, meh. Still, I do like Coldplay, so it's not as though it's a song I can't listen to, and it probably is the kind of song that a sixteen year old could lose her virginity to, eh? Tears stream down your face / when you lose something you cannot replace? Maybe that's what he's singing about? Eh? Move on.....

17. "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)" - Arcade Fire

"I know the the two of you are overjoyed and all, and you want nothing more than to make out all night long, but you did invite all your friends to a party, Emma. And I happen to know you can't not dance to this song. So you both have until the count of three to get your asses on the dance floor. 1... 2...."
"Okay, okay!" I interrupted. Claire grabbed us both by the hand and pulled us into the living room. And she was right, I couldn't resist dancing. I was just too happy. We danced with abandon, knowing that everything was finally all right.

I love this song. Arcade Fire can be a little hit and miss with me, but they have done a number of absolutely wonderful songs, and this is certainly one of them. I don't think this song would sound the same, or as powerful, if it was performed by any other band. I love the way that the instruments all rattle along together and convey such urgency. Again, it's probably best if I don't dance, but it's definitely one to get me nodding my head along.

Now obviously I'm not a sixteen year old girl, and neither am I really all that interested in reading books targeted at a young adult audience (well, that's obviously a lie, as I read all the Harry Potters, loved the His Dark Materials Books and read comics all the time....). I have to say though, that I actually really enjoyed listening to this CD whilst reading the excerpts from Mandy's book. Who hasn't tried to find a way into someone's heart through a shared love of music and through an exchange of tapes? The CD is good enough to listen to in its own right, Coldplay and all. Of the stuff I haven't heard before, I like the songs by The Twilight Sad, Ra Ra Riot, The Shins, Jens Lekman, Sondre Lerche and the Decemberists... so that's a pretty good strike rate for any mixtape, I would say. What really makes this special though is the accompanying extracts, which breathe life into the whole thing. It's not neccessarily my cup of tea, but I am interested to know about Emma and Eoghan, and I love the way that the music weaves into the story, even in the short excerpts that I've been sent (and hopefully in the short extracts from those that I've copied out above). This works especially well with the song by the Twilight Sad, where that single, insistent piano note jumps right off the page and into the music. It's such a good idea, Mandy, and so well realised.

Hurray! A hit! A palpable hit!

8 reviews still to go:

Joe the Troll
Paul W

As always, any updates on progress should be sent to the email address in my profile.

ShufflerPosted out
1. Me
2. Mandyyes
3. Charlie
4. Planet Me
5. Ian
6. Mike
7. Jerry
8. monogodo
9. Erika
10. Michael
11. Lisa
12. Cody Bones
13. Del
14. RussL
15. Tina
16. Wombat
17. Joe the Troll
18. JamieS
19. Cat
20. Rol
21. Beth
22. asta
23. bedshaped
24. Paul
25. Alan
26. Astronaut
27. Threelight
28. The Great Grape Ape
29. Paul W
30. Ben

Shuffleathon is based upon an original concept by the lovely, charming, delightful and generally wonderful YokoSpungeon.... thanks Yoko.



  • At 7:58 am, Blogger beth said…

    What a fantastic idea!
    Although not sure if that would've made it easier or practically impossible to review.
    Some pretty fab songs too. As for Re Ra Riot - you like Vampire Weekend don't you? Give the album a go! It's on Spotify!

  • At 10:47 am, Blogger Lisa Rullsenberg said…

    Awesome review of what appears to be a very awesome disc... However, with such a great selection and thoughtfulness, it does make me increasingly concerned about my own compilation skills...

  • At 9:03 pm, Blogger Mandy said…

    Thanks for the great review! I'm glad you liked it. I giggled uncontrollably reading my overblown prose on your blog. Your interest in the story made me want to throw myself more wholeheartedly into the rewrite.

    And I'll have my review of the fantastic CD I received posted by Friday, I promise! I've started the review but just haven't finished it yet.

  • At 7:53 pm, Blogger Tina said…

    Charlie has posted a review of my CD now!!



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