Have you been outside? The plants are freaking out. In front of a tree covered in exploding pink things the other day, a friend screamed, "It's covered in penises and vaginas! It's saying, 'Come here, come rub me, take my seeds and spread them around!'" It was a tree across the street from a Safeway, a tree you'd never notice any other time of year—nothing-to-see-here shape, boring leaves, branches—but now, in the wind and light of spring, seized by a paroxysm of whatever-the-fuck (desire? Panic? Showing off?), it's messily, beautifully losing its shit. "My Girls," the second track on Merriweather Post Pavilion, by Baltimore band Animal Collective, begins in a swirl of wind and synthy beeps, a kind of winter-becomes-spring mess of concurrent elements, and whenever I hear it—the album is on constant repeat—I think of that exploding tree. The vocal track: plangent, echoey, a man's desire to shelter his wife and daughter. His refrain is a house of contradictions: "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status. I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls." The contradictions: He doesn't care about material things, but his example of a material thing is an abstraction; the one thing he cares about is a material thing. Spring, more than any other season, with all of its jittery, nascent, buzzing, exploding optimism, is a blurring of the concrete and the abstract. This album is about the distance between the two, and the difference between what you want and what you ask for, and is a reminder that beautiful things can burst out of unlikely places. Even Baltimore.
And then, aside from plants, there are human beings showing their penises and vaginas to one another, many of them in high school and doing so for the first or second time, simultaneously overthinking it and shrugging it off, at a loss to say anything intelligent about it, goofy with excitement. Natalie Portman's Shaved Head have been making overripe, high-energy, not-as-good-as-their-band-name-but-still-cute pop songs about fruit snacks and testicles since 2005, when they were all teenagers at Seattle's Center School. Stranger music editor Eric Grandy once wrote that NPSH have "a glossy but ultimately preset electro-pop style that sounds like every crap track on Hype Machine." That could be. All I know is that whenever I'm jogging and my iPod calls up this song, or "Bedroom Costume" or "Staying Cool" or "Sophisticated Sideways Ponytail," I start grinning madly and running faster.
Outside my living room window, an entire city block—an apartment building, a parking lot, four houses, a dozen stores, a Jack in the Box with drive-through—is being chewed up by orange and purple backhoes. Every time I look at the dirt piles and wreckage (or open my window, the air thick with particulates), I think about the Pica Beats, in part because they live in Seattle and are also seeing all this tearing down and building, and in part because "pica" refers to a biological condition that leads you to crave eating dirt and nails, and in part because their songs are built out of sounds and instruments that first belonged to distant, torn-down civilizations (sitar, oboe). "Poor Old Ra" is a wry, catchy, cryptic song that begins: "Poor old Ra, you were much better off as a sun god, weren't ya. No one gives a shit about your falcon head anymore." I have no idea what that means. (Embarrassing: The first thing I think of is an episode of MacGyver involving the Temple of Ra.) One of these days, I'm going to walk into a coffee shop that cares about glorious local music and hear the Pica Beats playing and strike up a conversation with someone who knows more about ancient Egypt than I do and figure out what the hell this song is about. But since the album came out last fall, I have yet to walk into one coffee shop that was playing the Pica Beats. Dear coffee shops: Could you please?
It comes on suuuper gradually, then crashes into drums, big whoa whoas, shouted vocals submerged in an ambient din—a fog of sound like a stadium crowded with people—and ends with a full verse of "You Are My Sunshine" sung over raw guitar feedback, which is totally cheesy and wonderful and extends the length of this song to a full seven minutes. Turns out, according to lead singer James Allan's Wikipedia page, "His songs deal with important social issues, like absentee fathers ('Daddy's Gone'), murder ('Flowers and Football Tops'), and the challenges of social work ('Geraldine')." Does it make me a dick that I like this song better not as a social-justice song about murder but as a reverb-thick, outer-spacey stadium rock cheese dip? It was on my mind the other night at the Sounders game, in part because Allan is an ex-professional Scottish soccer player, and in part because Glasvegas's glittery bigness would be at home in a glittery visual expanse like Qwest Field, where there was actual glitter suspended midair for much of the game.
What are they called? "Hooks"? This song is one long, yummy hook, or series of hooks, that's snared my brain. The only way to make it feel better is to listen to it again.
Now that Stevie Wonder, courtesy of the president, is the Greatest Musician America Has, friends who know I don't know a lot about Stevie Wonder are making me mixes, or recommending Talking Book or Innervisions or Fulfillingness' First Finale or Songs in the Key of Life, and all of them are marvelous. But every time I listen to Stevie Wonder, I cannot help then listening to Hot Chip's "Stevie Wonder song," as a guy at a Hot Chip concert in Portland called it ("Play the Stevie Wonder song!"), from 2005's Coming On Strong. It's on every playlist I make, and has yet to get old or less funny or disappoint anyone. It has gotten better with time, like lucky songs do. "Nothing's new forever. Can't you see I'm just a sucker? I'm like Stevie Wonder, but I can see things," is the first line. Then, after a few verses, comes, "Don't you know that even Stevie Wonder sees things?" Then, later, "Don't you ever wonder how the hell does Stevie Wonder see things?" It'd be a reach to make an argument that it's a spring song—but what the hell, let's try: (1) Nothing's new forever is the theme of all flowers; (2) the song is about how things repeat but, like the seasons, in the course of repeating, change slightly, and is itself made up of repeating elements; (3) it has, like most Hot Chip songs, all kinds of beautiful stuff growing out of its joints.
The question isn't whether Mad Rad is the future of Seattle hiphop, but whether Mad Rad is hiphop at all. Is Hot Chip hiphop? Is Santigold hiphop? "My Product" is a catchy, relentless, adrenalized beat covered in spiky metallic notes, a spiritual cousin of Santogold's "L.E.S. Artistes," and the female voice wailing into the sky in "My Product" is in fact a guy's very impressive falsetto. There are a couple seconds of spoken-word business about consumerism that I used to roll my eyes at—"My product is your product, your product is my product, their product is our product, our product is not theirs"—but the more I learn about the banking industry (fuckers, all), the more I think of it as a perfectly timed fall-of-capitalism dance hit. Mad Rad haters—the band has been banned from every major venue in town—are going to have to deal. These guys are special.
The album this song is on, Noble Beast, released a couple months ago, is perfect music for humans, great at any time of the day, peaceful, pastoral, and a kind of particleboard of recognizable sounds—Nick Drake instrumentation, the psychodynamic serenity of Radiohead, the operatic vocal surfing that Rufus Wainwright does (minus Wainwright's I'm-dour-and-gay-and-the-son-of-someone-famous thing), hand claps, whistling. This song is all optimism and wonder at the cycles of nature, at the things we know but don't speak about, or think we know but can't say. And its refrain, "Soldier on, soldier on," is satisfying after soldiering through the coldest winter anyone remembers. (And also just because the word "soldier" makes me think of my brother Mike, who'd like this song 'cause he's a sucker for pretty, inspiring stuff, and who's bound for Iraq this spring.)
Sorry to drop that Iraq bomb on you like that, but this is a shitty season too, a season in free fall, a season of comeuppance, a season of murder-suicides, and not many people are making dark, interesting music about it yet—except Justin Bond, who's best known for performing maudlin drag covers of hipster pop in the morbid punk cabaret spectacle Kiki & Herb and who just put out an EP of his own material. "It's called Pink Slip, which is like a quadruple entendre, which I'm quite proud of," he said a few weeks ago at the Triple Door, standing center stage in heels and a dress made out of laminated tranny porn, next to a transsexual piano player. The first song of the night was this low-register piano dirge about sexual/ religious/economic spite, a vindicated cynic thrilling at how horrible things suddenly are: "They say it's the New Depression. So why am I filled with glee? Everyone's coming down quickly. Now they can all join me." Afterward, I asked Bond if Kiki is done, if she's dead, and he nodded. "Murder-suicide," he said.