Mix Tape

Singles, Covers and Ephemera -- October 2009

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Conventional wisdom has the album either dead or dying, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus about what will replace it. Are we headed back to singles? Will artists just scale down their ambition and release EPs? Will music be primarily mp3s or will there be a physical recording product? Or will the music be secondary, at least from a commercial standpoint, to some other product, like a t-shirt or a video?

I was combing through my iTunes recently, admiring what a disorganized mess it is. Scattered amongst the albums (yes, there are still full albums) are an increasing number of random singles, covers, remixes and other ephemera, many of which have not yet and probably will never make it onto an official full length. And yet, among this scattered assortment of odds and ends, are some songs that have left an indelible impact on my musical consciousness. Even if, according to sales charts, many of them never existed.
Mix Tape compiled and written by Ben Van Houten.

I went to see Final Fantasy last year at the Independent with relatively low interest, simply because it had been some time since I'd listened to 2006's He Poos Clouds. The show was simply phenomenal (possibly the best thing I saw last year), amplifying the tension that permeates Owen Pallett's songwriting through a performance that was principally just Pallett, a violin, a piano, and a looping machine. The biggest surprise, though, was the unbelievable rendition of this song, originally found on Destroyer's Your Blues. That album is all MIDI symphony, so it's something of an equally natural and unnatural thing for Final Fantasy to perform this track as a raw, organic, stripped-down number. I have collected more crummy live mp3s of this song than I care to admit, but I'm sure even a pristine take wouldn't capture the feeling of screaming along the "Ba da, ba da, ba da, ba da!"s in a live setting.

Okay, so theFREEhoudini isn't a single song, but it's a single mp3 that packed quite a wallop upon its release. Themselves is the duo of Anticon cofounders Doseone and Jel, who have been involved in a number of projects over the years, but hadn't released anything as a duo since 2002. In 2009, they came back, seemingly out of nowhere, with theFREEhoudini, a free half-hour single mp3 mixtape that included pieces of songs from the group's upcoming CrownsDown, collaborations with fellow indie rap elite, and snippets of freestyles from a rapping class Doseone teaches. Although it's a hodgepodge of tracks mixed together, its electronic textures bang something fierce, and it's an incredible reintroduction to the group's formidable skills.

I think SF band Geographer has been playing "Kites" for as long as I've seen them, but it was only recently released as the A-side on a new seven-inch. There's not much I can say about the song, except that it's melodic indie rock-pop at its finest. Layers of bubbling synths and winding guitars and cellos, and Mike Deni's haunting vocals ride above the electro-acoustic fracas wonderfully. Simply stunning.

Jay Reatard released a flurry of singles between the breakthrough Blood Visions and this year's Watch Me Fall, but 2007's "I Know A Place" foretold his shift away from abrasive fuzz and toward letting his pop songwriting skills shine. There's still plenty of nervous energy in the song, but there's also a real beauty in the jangling guitar and catchy falsetto. When the buzz around "lo fi" indie rock collapses, and it eventually will, Reatard will be one of the artists who'll continue to thrive, with an ear for a good hook that transcends the limitations of any specific sound.

I don't want to risk insulting Grizzly Bear fans by calling this remix -- of a track originally off of 2006's Yellow House -- the best thing that the band's ever done. At the very least, it recontextualizes the band's dreamy pop, giving it a danceable beat and, um, guest rappers Slim Thug and the Clipse. It's a credit to Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis' production/remix skills that it works so well, and it makes me hope that he'll do more focused songwork like this in addition to his hyperactive mashup albums. Like many remixes, this one is best on first impact, and the first time "I want you to know" soars in is just euphoric.

Over the past year, it's felt like Oakland's Wallpaper. has released a new free remix every couple of weeks, and all of them have been great. Bandleader Eric Frederic 's remixes don't simply augment the original songs, they reimagine them entirely, transforming Passion Pit's "Sleepyhead" into a thick electro-noir offering and giving "The Reeling" a clattering Afrobeat feel. The mixes herald Frederic's ability to create musically complex, rhythmic tracks that work well with more straightforward melodic vocals, a skill he utilized in in full on his recent album Doodoo Face.

Mixing bubblegum and girl group motifs with punk attitude, SF's Hunx and his Punx have released an unstoppable set of singles over the past year. Gay Singles recently collected them all on a single LP, and while I strongly encourage its purchase, there really ought to be a DVD version to collect some of their great videos. As the video shows, there's a loving reverence for classic motifs here, helped by the facts that the melody is killer and the pink phone is giant.

I'm hoping Ted Leo's upcoming album on Matador establishes his place as one of the smartest and most poignant songwriters around. In addition, he seems like a hell of a nice guy, judging by his regular calls to and in-studio appearances on The Best Show on WFMU, a highly recommended weekly radio program mixing comedy, talk and rock music. This track is a cover of a song written by a character in one of the show's comedy pieces, a failed songwriter who has spent years writing a single composition with an ambitious narrative scope and overwhelming number of characters. Leo's cover underscores his sense of goofy humor and fun, but it also suggests that, if you can follow all of the characters, maybe this isn't such a bad song after all.

If you'd have told me in 2001 that mashups would still be around eight years later, I'd have thought you were nuts and said that there was no way to prevent the genre from descending into dot-com bubble nostalgia or self-referencing insignificance. The Hood Internet continue to advance the ball mashup-wise, and regularly surprise me with enjoyable mixes of rap and rock songs that are clever and innovative. I want to hide my love for this track by calling it a "guilty pleasure," but that's not fair to the mid-90s-nostalgia/of-the-moment-rap-megahit rush it triggers. Best played late at night, when everyone's been drinking a lot and is willing to start singing along.

It was this track, by pioneering 90s emo band Sunny Day Real Estate, that got me thinking about the role of the single in the post-album age. Originally the B-side on the Seattle band's 1993 Thief, Steal Me A Peach seven-inch, the track was recently saved from obscurity by its inclusion on Sub Pop's remastered version of Diary. Diary is such a brooding release that this song's fury is something of a shock at first, but it's as anthemic as the album's best cuts, and hints at another path for Sunny Day, had they decided to inject more electricity into their sound.

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Please Note: Some songs may contain explicit lyrics.