The Serpico Mixes: The Counting Disc

In a joint collaboration with my weekday roommate and Bronx ally Skip Serpico, I’ll be discussing a mix CD a week. He makes them, I listen to them and provide my in the moment commentary. You, hopefully, read said commentary and maybe open up your musical horizons. You can come here every week for the Serpico Mixes. And you should also visit Skip’s site, Fission Spaghetti, for his musings on food and Saturday Night Live (and more!)

 Do you count! I do! Let's count together!

Do you count! I do! Let's count together!

Mix #16

Theme: Counting

 I find this creature's monstrous smile frightening. (image from coloringkids.net)

I find this creature's monstrous smile frightening. (image from coloringkids.net)

One Chance by Modest Mouse- Remember when, for a brief moment, all of America fell in love with Modest Mouse? We were a lot smarter back then. We should get back to that

Exhibit 1 that I’m right? This meditation on the fleeting nature of our lives, goals, and relationships that is such a light touch I doubt any of you realized how bleak it really is.

Two Hearts by Ryan Adams- “I love you” as a double edged sword is a well-hoed trope by now, but I remain a sucker for it. Adams take on it here, which apparently revolves around a fickle significant other who comes and goes as she pleases and brings him up or down with those three words with ease, is light musically but Adams voice always seems about a moment and a half from complete emotional collapse.

Knock Three Times by Dawn- I wonder how many times this guy has tried this move? This has to be his thing, right? He’s just way too rehearsed at it to just have dreamed it up this moment, of this I think we can agree.

The music interlude at 2:04 aside, this is a song that largely lives up to its memory. It is not of my generation and nothing I’d have sought out if it was released on pop radio, but, for some reason, with the knowledge that is of a different era, I like it.

4 Page Letter by Aaliyah- Not enough songs make use of the fact that music is stereo. You know, using both speakers, transitioning between the channels to emphasize one song of the left, on the right, silence here, silence there, the movement of a sound from one side to the other. This song does it with a cabasa, the instrument that gives you that “shuff-a-shuff-a-shuff-a” sound.

That aside, this is a clichéd as R&B gets, musically and vocally. I appreciate the specificity of the letter’s length, an odd choice that wrangles my attention, and the “getting the levels right in the studio” intro will always make me smile, but the rest is a bit inert.

Chanel No. 5 by Calexico- There are certain songs that have a big sound, that sort of expand to fit the space. Often, oddly enough, they are songs like this one that are relatively instrumentally sparse. There aren’t a lot of instruments used here and they aren’t playing a lot of notes, but they just...grow and give the song a kind of depth.

Lyrically/vocally, it also works for me. It is a story of common tragedy, of trying to maintain dignity in the face of personal disappointment and Joey Burns’ voice is understatedly humane, a nice match of content and delivery.

Six Seconds by Cody Chesnutt- Although Chesnutt only started releasing music in wide in 2002, this song would not be out of place in a much earlier era. An era that I’m not a particularly big fan of musically speaking. I like its presence here as it employs the counting theme that this disc revolves around in a single song, but I do not like it as a song. It favors a disco ballad-esque musical feel and the song just never really goes anywhere.

7 Rooms of Gloom by The Four Tops- I kept waiting for this song to break into “It’s the Same Old Song” or “Baby I Need Your Loving” and it wasn’t until 1:12, about halfway through, that I realized that was not this song. Right artists, very much the wrong songs.

Once I got over my expectation, I enjoyed it. That said, I do have to same that it feels a lot more like a sermon to me than a song.

Figure 8 by Elliott Smith- If you were to imagine Smith doing a cover of Schoolhouse Rock song, it would have to be this one, right? It basically couldn’t be a more perfect fit.

9 Crimes by Damien Rice- I’m not sure if this is my favorite Rice song but it is certainly top…3. It shows off everything about him I like. The simple piano part, the pained beautiful lyrics. The pitch perfect collaboration. The building to a climax without sacrificing the understated loveliness of the song.

10 Crack Commandments by The Notorious B.I.G.- Sure, these commandments refer specifically to the business of drug dealing, but a lot of the advice really is applicable across the board. Perhaps, someone should just write these lyrics down in a book and release it as the latest “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”-esque self help guide. Just a thought.

The naked homophobia of it made me a bit sad though. I know it is off the era and something that’s present even now but it always brings me down a bit when I listen to hip hop.

Eleven Miles Out by Doves- Here we have that effect that makes it sound like the singers are singing AT (not into) the mic from several feet away. The music is not overwhelming or distorting them—a la early R.E.M.—and yet they seem distant, lost in it.

It’s too bad because if the the vocal could be a little more upfront, if the mix was a little bit different, I could see myself being a really big fan of this one.

Twelve by Jurassic 5- I forget about Jurassic 5 sometimes. I shouldn’t. Good song, smartly written, the music loop never overstays its welcome.

Thirteen by Garbage- Garbage is really more versatile than I give them credit for. I never really buy Shirley Manson as a 13 year old here but the song is well done enough that I don’t find myself bothered by it. I think of it less as a 13 year old and more as an adult revisiting a diary, perhaps.

14th Street Break by the Beastie Boys – Fine as these things go. It isn’t “The Brazilian” at least, right?

15 by Rilo Kiley- Wow. Love this song. I mean, it is about statutory rap but still…love the song. Great sound, Lewis comports her voice nicely to the sort of southern confessional composition and feel of the song—think “Black Velvet”—and the lyrics are subversively playful.

Conversation 16 by The National- There’s not a lot of linear storytelling going on here, near as I can tell, but The National remain excellent at using music and lyrics to present a sense of the thing without being explicit about said thing. It seems to be a return to an established favorite subgenre of mine, the unworthy of love singing to his (or her, but far more rarely) beloved about said lack of worthiness while still trying to hold on to the relationship. It feels a lot like “Secret Meeting,” their first song that I encountered in terms of vocal presentation and music and that’s a connection I appreciate.

17 Days by Prince- And oddly subdue Prince is neither sexy or funky here. It’s Prince so it ain’t bad but it is not one of my favorites.

I’m still trying to figure out if this is another entry in Prince’s canon of apocalyptic fiction set to music but I’m thinking no. The rain here, and its lasting 17 days, is a more metaphorical description of crying than a literal report of 17 days of rain.

The 18th Letter by Rakim- I’m not sure I am any closer to understanding the significance of the 18th letter—R, by the by— but the song is good. Rakim is neither a spitter or particularly playful with the words but the song works anyway.

Nineteen by Tegan and Sara- First fleeting love and the heartbreak of what might’ve been if you could’ve just made those moments with your source of infatuation last a little longer. You know I’m powerless against this sort of thing. Love it.

20th Century Towers by Death Cab for Cutie-So few lyrics for an over four minute song, but it never feels draggy or as though Gibbard goes away for too long. The song is so well constructed, I didn’t even notice the places where the singer disappears behind the music. It feels balanced, well realized, and not the least bit jam-y or musically noodling.

21st Birthday by The Von Bondies-I have my guesses why this POV character here won’t live to see whoever he’s singing to reach 21 (suicide, right?) but I’m not actually sure what difference it makes one way or another. The song captures the sense of inescapable futility that singer is feeling without feeling crippling grim and the source of the singer’s certainty remaining a bit of a mystery does not derail that at all.

22 Two’s by Jay-Z- What grabbed me about this song had little to do with the lyrics themselves. I love the sort of poetry slam announcer who frames the song, the use of the “Can I kick it?” bit from Tribe (originally and other artists including Robbie Williams later), the poetry slam woman expressing her support for the apparently legally beleaguered Jay, and, best of all, her going off on the anonymous marijuana users in the audience who she fixates on as, essentially, the “the reason we don’t have nice things,” (where “we” equals people of racial minority of the United States.) Z’s lyrics besides that are fine, I guess.