The archive of the old hardlikealgebra.com

Category: singles

30 Days in April: Day 16 / Perfect: “Sycamore,” Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan’s “Sycamore” exemplifies the kind of song that completely derails your intention to listen to a full album. I swear, I still fully believe that Woke On A Whaleheart is a brilliant album, but when you put “Sycamore” fourth (right after the stellar “Diamond Dancer,” too) on it, you’re basically asking a listener raised on CD’s to listen to the first four songs on the album over and over.

The song starts out with the looping, swirling, complicated-but-not guitar lick that Callahan comes back to again and again, and then straight into the lyrics:

There’s sap in the trees if you tap ’em
There’s blood on the seas–if you map ’em
Christian, if you see your papa–tell ‘im I love ‘im

And he goes from there, short pithy sayings that make you feel so much like he owns his lyrics, like he can pull them off and make them amazing and no one else could. He’s like a one man mythos every time out, and “Sycamore” is no exception.

Other than that, you’ve got the basic drumbeat, understated gospel backing vocals (how often can someone say that?), and lyrics that just continue to somehow be killer and yet not wordy at all. Callahan doing “basic” equals simple that defies you to write something so great. He’s also got the guitar solo that fits somewhere between caffeinated country and the cherry music from Mr. Do!, a man playing guitar that sounds like 8-bit video games…and also, aw hell. Eff the critic-speak.

You know what?  It’s just a damn good song.  A great song.  The one song that I remembered from the time I saw him open for Joanna Newsom to the time the album came out.

Simple, complex, catchy, twangy, clean.

It’s perfect.



I’ve got about 10000 songs in iTunes, and about ten of them have made the “Perfect” playlist. This is one of them.


The Greatest Band That Ever Lived (for tonight at least)

You guys, I am seriously in one of those music-devouring phases again (yes know, hard to believe, but they really are phases, it’s not a constant thing) and the devouring has come from two sources, one of them fairly unlikely.

The real source was a recent Sound Opinions episode, during which they covered their Best of 2008 (so far). This kind of thing always charges me up, and I love listening to Kot and Dero because I typically get turned on to a few things that I want to check out (and also vehemently disagree with them on a few things).

Well, this time around, Dero decided to defend the Red Album.

Yes, that Red Album.

Weezer seemed to have gone from brilliant to totally gone to exciting to bleh, earning themselves one of my favorite music reviews of all time in the process. I had given up on them doing anything worth hearing based on second-hand snobbery from that review (and I will now come clean: I do actually like that “Beverly Hills Song)(though seriously, “We Are All On Drugs?” I am pretty sure that Cuomo singing one of his Harvard papers would have been more interesting), and so it was weird to hear Derogatis gushing about Weezer. Prog-rock and Rush-leanings aside, Dero rarely gushes about stuff that isn’t worth at least checking out.

He started to talk about a song called “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)” and I thought, “oh here we go, pretension disguised as fun, please,” but then he played it and I was like, “who the hell is this?” It starts off sounding like a Modest Mouse song and then goes through about four different versions of the song, including an intro that has about 9 different power chords palm muted in a seemingly random way and a Beach Boys style a capella section and…well, as Dero pointed out, this was a band that used to make complicated songs out of disparate parts, and here they were doing it again.

It’s fucking great.

Another song that he mentioned is called “Heartsongs,” and although that one has one verse too many (the last verse is a bit TOO much), it’s an ode to music that they love that will probably inspire another post ’round these parts. Oh, and did I mention that it sticks in your brain? Seriously, I would have to start another twitter feed called “Weezer earworms” for this one.

Is the whole album great? It seems like maybe not, though actually, I don’t know. It seems like there are some standouts, definitely, but the thing is, those songs are so great that I haven’t really delved into the rest of the album much.

I’m really happy to know that I don’t need to write them off any more though. I always sort of forget about Weezer, but you better believe that nearly every time I spot the Blue Album on a jukebox, I play “In the Garage” or “Surf Wax America.”

Enjoy my first nomination for song of the summer.


“The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn),” Weezer


Perfect: “Dry Your Eyes,” The Streets

I’m not so great with memorizing things, but somehow music makes such an impression on me that I’ve got a nearly savant-like ability to remember the dates when albums were released. It makes sense I suppose: I’m a musical learner after all, and so it checks that I could remember that that STP album was 1993 and that Soul Asylum one was 1992 and that Flaming Lips album was 2002.

This carries over to mean that I have to filter through what music was playing at the time in order to remember personal dates. So, I know that we were living in the house we built in Marengo because of the fact that I can remember listening to “Black Gold” while cleaning the garage. I know that 8th grade was 1991 because, hello Nirvana (plus Nate listening to Nine Inch Nails from the year before).

So, that means that songs get tied to relationships, of course, of course. There are albums or songs that just naturally end up solidly meaning that person at that time in that place, and there’s nothing I can do about that (nor would I want to, even). I remember how appalled I was when a friend said to me, “you can’t do that you know.” I can’t not do that — I can’t fathom memories not filtered in this way. Maybe that’s another reason why music just means so much.

I’m a veteran of a few long-distance relationships, too, and those songs mailed off to each other, postage to other countries or continents? Even more weight.

This also means, as you might imagine, when a relationship goes south, and stays there, whole albums or songs have to get deleted from the hard drive, figuratively and literally. This doesn’t happen often, though it can be pretty significant.

The Streets’ “Dry Your Eyes” loosely fits in this category.


Read the rest of this entry »

It’s rather extr’ordinary

Some songs really do just fix everything, always.

This is one of them.


Spoon, “Lines in the Suit”

Around and about the fall of 2001, I subscribed to CMJ New Music Monthly, based on two things that I knew to be true:

  1. The first issue I ever got, back in December 1994, contained a compilation that I still rank as one of the best, if not the best, compilations ever.
  2. The issue I got before deciding to subscribe also kicked a ton of ass, introducing me to a lot of singles (including a Marilyn Manson song I actually liked, and “Weekend,” by the Black-Eyed Peas, pre-hype) and bands I thought that perhaps I might want to check out further.

I kept my subscription for a while but eventually felt like the samplers–the biggest reason I subscribed at all–were increasingly off the mark for me.

This is a long way of saying that all the way back when, I discovered a great song called “Lines in the Suit,” by a band no one really seemed to know named Spoon. I loved the way the guy sang–almost talky, a bit raspy–and somehow the weird tromp-glomp of the guitar-drums-and-sometimes-piano stuck in my brain. I started including it on mix CDs left and right, and Girls Can Tell was one of those albums that I would watch for whenever I browsed at record shops. Eventually, when the next album came out and everyone was very very Spoon-smitten, finding their albums became easier, but I never bought any of them, for some reason.

Soon my lack of Spoon become comical–almost embarrassing. Here was a band that was seemingly adored by every critic, and even some of my internet pals(still a new thing to have just a few years ago). Their album covers (especially for Gimme Fiction) seemed nearly ubiquitous in all the publications I read, and even most record stores (note to self: figure out who their publicist is if I ever want to “make it big”). My lack of (much) caring about the fact that their intriguing singer (named Britt. Britt!) lived in my new home of Portland was odd, too.

By the time 2007 was coming to a close, it was clear that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was another critical success, and I had, predictably, been intrigued to the point of curiosity but not to the point of purchasing. I also had decided that no, I wanted to be all chronological about it, and get the album I should have gotten years before, start with that awesome song “Lines in the Suit,” and work forward. No, I would not bow down to (Ga)5–I would experience it all in order, diligently, methodically.

And then my girlfriend got way into that song “The Underdog,” I started hearing it on the radio, and it was great, in all its Billy-Joel-but-fresh sounding glory.

So, yesterday, I gave up. I used a bunch of eMusic downloads, downloaded both Cinco Ga’s* and Girls Can Tell, and I plan to enroll in Spoon School. So far Ga was too much for a post nature-walking day, but “Lines in the Suit” was still crispy as just poured cereal wth lyrics like “It could have been good by now–it could have been more than a wage, yeah” and that repeated use of “At such a tender age now.”

Brilliant stuff.

*I know I know, it’s just too much fun.




Video for “The Underdog

Britt Daniel so totally sings “Veronica,” on Veronica Mars

Perfect: “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” by Sugar

How can I explain away
Something that I haven’t done
And if you can’t trust me now
You’ll never trust in anyone

–Sugar, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”

Typical review: witty summary, narrow it down, pick out a few songs, wrap it up in a nice bow.

Not this time. This time, the lyrics first. The above lyrics occur at a point in the song when you’d guess maybe Mould will drop the chorus another time, maybe repeat a verse or some other time-honored/slightly lazy trick, it’ll end, and it’ll be pretty good. But then! A curve ball near-ending–a verse that comes in at a time when you’re like, “man, how could any song be this great?”–and we’re off.

“How can I explain away/Something that I haven’t done?” Chills.

“And if you can’t trust me now/You’ll never trust in anyone.”

Does he have you yet?

There’s a point in every (failed?) relationship when things have been said that you didn’t want to say, or things have been done you’ve moved beyond regretting–things you wish you wouldn’t have had the capacity to do. So often in rock songwriting, we get the perspective of the jilted whatever, or the angry ex, or the “take me back/please come back” plea.

But how often is there complication? How often do we see “With all the crazy doubts you’ve got/I love you even still?” This song is chilling partly because it’s unique. It takes the specificity of “you will find a different person if you change your mind,” throws that awesome 90’s Moüld guitar sound behind it, and builds the perfect three minute pop song.

If I can’t change your mind then no one will.

The Video, on Youtube
Bob Mould
Sugar, on Wikipedia
Sugar – If I Can’t Change Your Mind


I’ve got about 9000 songs in iTunes, and about ten of them have made the “Perfect” playlist.

This is one of them.

Surrender on Both Sides

The new Mountain Goats album, Heretic Pride, drops (as the kids say)(if their slang lags behind) shortly after my thirtieth birthday, and right after that the boys will be playing two shows at the best venue in the world.

If “Sax Rohmer #1,” the leadoff single that the Goats made available for download recently, indicates anything (and let’s face it–of course it does; main Goat Darnielle’s own music fan/thinker status doesn’t make me feel like he’s the kind of guy to decide such a thing lightly), this album will be exactly what I’ve been waiting for.

As albums go, 2006’s Get Lonely was a red wine-buzz of a good one: creeping up, spreading fuzzily, a bit warm and with a little bit of “what did I do to myself?” later on. It wasn’t–and isn’t–an easy listen, quiet where we were used to Darnielle roaring. Perhaps that was the biggest strength of an album made up of things left unsaid.

This new track, though, seems likely to break at any moment into the “hungry for love–ready to drown” chorus from “Linda Blair Was Born Innocent” off of We Shall All Be Healed. It’s similar in cadence, and his “shouty” register has returned. More than that, you can visualize the visceral Darnielle honing in here, stomping around, ranting these lyrics, playing his demons to the crowd (though I imagine he’d bristle at the assumptive narrator/performer conflation I did there), and truly fucking bringing it.

And that’s what we want our music to do, isn’t it? Don’t just amuse me, don’t confuse me, don’t berate me, don’t show off your wizardry or vocabulary–or at least, if you are doing these things, you better be sure you’re fucking bringing it, too. It’s a fine line, and a powerful one, because your audience will love you forever if you succeed–and that’s why this band deserves attention.

What an amazing birthday present this album, and tour, will be.


(audio included because this track is already freely available)


Mountain Goats Tour Dates
4AD’s Heretic Pride page: February 18th release
My Mountain Goats Feature, March 2007, Portland Mercury