Track Stars with Devendra Banhart, Olafur Arnalds, Savages, and Marnie Stern

“track stars”… songs that stop you in your steps and demand your full attention (or songs that I am obsessed with at the outset)*

* and because I can’t always find a witty title (or at least attempt a witty title)

Old New Ways: Devendra Banhart – “Your Fine Petting Duck

Gifted artists always manage to impress and surprise you. To me, Devendra Banhart has always been a source of pleasure and joy, exploring the curious realm of neo-folk music with a shaman-like mystical ease, characterized by lush, earthy songs and orchestration that draws inspiration from traditions across the globe. His albums are epic explorations into the fantastical and a celebration of the diversity of life yet always tinged with a hint of questioning. In a way, a Devendra Banhart record is almost an invitation to take a trip back in time. So it shouldn’t come as no surprise that his latest full length, Mala, goes back even further than is previous time travels (as if his his music was like Mork, aging in reverse). Well sort of. Mala as a whole is still simmering in my consciousness but this ditty that begins with an almost barbershop girl-group dreary dream quality has totally caught my ear. Two amazing juxtapositions are at work on this track. First the music shifts from the downtempo doo-wop to a pseudo surf rock to an odd French pop dance track, as though Serge Gainsbourg got remixed by late 80s New Order on downers. It’s at once quirky yet totally mesmerizing, at least for those, like myself, who enjoy when the bottom drops out on a song and turn itself inside out. Coupled with the dispassionate, ennui ridden narrator who implores his ex (that is longing for his return) to remember that, no matter how bad her current beau might be, he was just as if not more awful of a partner. Add to this, the almost derisive and mocking “wah wah wah” in the tracks’ mid-point and you have this odd anti-love song. I am not down on love, but there is genius in this romantic nihilism.

In a meditative way: Ólafur Arnalds – Old Skin

… to prove that I’m not totally bleak these days, here is the lead single from Icelander* Olafur Arnalds, “Old Skin” is a gorgeous rumination on what can be and the paths we choose. Like fellow countrymen Sigur Ros, Arnald’s music is delicate, ethereal, transcendental, and totally engrossing. Listen as the song builds from a pensive opening to an ever growing crescendo on the precipice of exploding.  Also, watch the video which captures that moment of total euphoria and bliss one senses when the music truly hits you. Unlike Sigur Ros, Arnalds does not sing in the choir boy falsetto of Jonsi but has a soulful strain in his sound recalling How To Dress Well with the woodsy vocals of Lost in the Trees.

*seriously if there were per capita rankings of genius musicians, I think Iceland would be ranked #1

For a little aggression and shreading: Savages and Marnie Stern

I am totally smitten with these next two tracks and with each spin the crush grows deeper. Words really get in the way of just the joyous adrenaline rush these songs provide both drawing inspiration from different strains of late 70s rock.

On “She Will”, the Savages conjure visions of post-punk heroes Joy Division and Wire but with a vocal performance reminiscent of Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, or Karen O. Yeah, I know those are really bold comparisons, but give this song a listen and see if you really disagree with me.

I am still a bit confused and bemused how no one clued me on to Marnie Stern before I came across here cleverly titled new record (The Chronicles of Marnia) on NPR’s First Listen. For those that love really excellent guitar work with insane finger picking and big hooks, Stern is your gal because she does it without sounding trite or played-out. On the lead single, Year of the Glad“, Stern just sounds like a kid in a musical candy shop having fun making pristine guitar pop for us “kids” to dance around to with willful abandon.  Can’t wait to see her at the Brooklyn Vegan show at the Empty Bottle April 17th!  Join me if you live in Chicago.  (Also if you are a DFW fan, the title of the song some pleasant smirks.  I doubt this is an allusion to Hal Incandenza’s opening emotional break down, but who knows…)

Who needs caffeine to start your day when you can get some serious rocking out?


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