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Tuesday, Jul 23, 2013
by Mike Noren
The 2002 release All Hail West Texas marked a turning point for the Mountain Goats, as John Darnielle went from underground home recording cult hero to wider acclaim. With this week's reissue of All Hail West Texas, we review essential tracks from the Mountain Goats' back catalog.

In a broad overview of John Darnielle’s 20-plus years heading the Mountain Goats, you might look at 2002’s All Hail West Texas as a pivotal halfway point. Darnielle began recording as the Mountain Goats in the early 1990s, putting poems to tape over a battered acoustic guitar. He had collaborators—from early bandmate Rachel Ware to the mysterious Bright Mountain Choir—but the Mountain Goats’ early work centered on Darnielle and his words. He sang about troubled characters and unhealthy relationships in settings across the globe and throughout history. He would belt out his stories, sometimes bitterly humorous, and linger on moments and details until it all overwhelmed him. The sparse instrumentation and rough home recording only added to the urgency. It’s difficult to imagine early Mountain Goats albums like Zopilote Machine (1994) and Sweden (1995) without the static and tape grind.

All Hail West Texas—reissued this week in expanded form by Merge—was one of the best albums of Darnielle’s “homemade” era, and also the last. Just months later in 2002, the Mountain Goats released the follow-up Tallahassee, on which they displayed a newly cleaned-up sound and a wider array of instruments. The band’s lineup expanded to include Peter Hughes on bass and, later, Jon Wurster (of Superchunk) on drums. Additional musicians chipped in frequently over the albums that followed. The shift from the homemade racket to a more conventional studio presentation may have caught longtime fans off guard, but it helped take Darnielle’s songs to different place and to a broader audience. Albums like The Sunset Tree (2005), The Life of the World to Come (2009), and Transcendental Youth (2012) have pianos, strings, and horn sections that would’ve been hard to imagine in 1994—but they also feature some of Darnielle’s finest songwriting.

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Friday, Jul 12, 2013
Ten years have passed since the death of Warren Zevon, undoubtedly the most underrated of the great American songwriters. With his acerbic, graceful, and macabre wit still lingering long after his death, PopMatters looks back on his most lasting lyrical contributions.

From as early as his teenage years, it was plain that Warren Zevon was never going to be an ordinary person, or at the very least an ordinary writer. In the oral biography compiled by his first wife Crystal, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, it is written that upon hearing the death of John F. Kennedy being announced over the loudspeakers at his high school, Zevon turned to his friend Danny McFarland, who recalls his macabre candor:

…Warren took his right hand and stretched it behind his back; at the same time he looked over his right shoulder and said in his best JFK accent, “Jackie, I’ve got this real bad pain in my head.”

His tumultuously productive career as a songwriter only further demonstrates his unmitigated interest in the dark side of life, whether it be the Hyatt House S&M of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” or the Uzi atop the ballerina shoes on the back of the sleeve art to his third LP, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. At the end of his career—both before and following being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a terminal form of lung cancer—he put out albums with titles including Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here. It wasn’t just that Zevon was spitting in Death’s face—he pulled up a barstool next to the hooded reaper, ordered whiskeys for the both of them, and challenged him to a conversation. If Zevon’s lyrics are any indication, he greeted Death as an old friend, one who knew all of his stories long before the scythe bore down.

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Tuesday, Jul 2, 2013
As Hov readies the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail, it's time to take a look at the 20 best songs his career has offered so far.

To try and nail down a list of the best Jay-Z songs is kind of like trying to nail down a list of Michael Jordan’s best moments on a basketball court. Moments—not dunks, not passes, not shots, not highlights—moments. Because much like his roundball peer, the man born Shawn Carter has built his empire not by merely showcasing his exceptional rhyming skills; rather he has set himself apart by making forward-looking, awe-inspiring, never-been-done-before revelatory choices (lest we be remembered who was the first artist to pen Auto-tune’s obituary with any amount of success) that has helped lead a personalized sense of transcendence throughout all of hip-hop.

He’s been the first rapper to age gracefully, the one who embraced a preconceived ageism within a subculture by confronting it head on, proclaiming “30 was the new 20” without anyone even remotely challenging as much. He took one of the most electrifying beefs the medium has ever seen (with Nas) and turned it into a lucrative business proposition, proving first-hand that it can be wise to swallow our pride every now and then. And now, to top it all off, he’s developed a sports agency, signing some of the most celebrated athletes American sport currently offers at breakneck speed, reminding us all that his mind wanders far beyond the realm of simple beats and complicated words.

Tagged as: hip-hop, jay-z, list this
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Wednesday, Jun 19, 2013
In anticipation and celebration of Exile in Guyville’s 20th anniversary, Sound Affects shares its picks for the top five Girly Sound tracks, the record that formed the blueprint for Exile and later portions of Liz Phair's output.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Liz Phair’s landmark debut Exile in Guyville, a record that kicked ass, took names, and set the alternative rock scene ablaze. Critics unanimously adored it, sales (for an indie release in a YouTube-less age) were considerable, and legions of listeners (male and female alike), found themselves dumbfounded and touched at the blistering precision of Phair’s observations and insights into the peaks and valleys of sex, love, success (or lack thereof), and growing up. Like a clairvoyant’s crystal ball, Phair saw all, knew all, and was always transparent—sometimes painfully so.

Guyville also holds the distinction of being one of the most expertly subversive albums of all time, Phair cleverly skewering those emotionally fickle music men who would later join the chorus in singing her praises. On some of the LP’s more cherished tunes, she crassly lamented her desire to be some beautiful, longhaired hipster boy’s “blowjob queen” (“Flower”); masterfully captured the awkwardness of the one-night stand (“Fuck and Run”); and brilliantly revised old-hat domestic mundanity by dropping lines such as “It’s true that I stole your lighter / And it’s also true that I lost the map / But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to / I had to take your word on that” (“Divorce Song”) or “Take out the garbage on Tuesday nights / Seems like the small things are the only things I’ll fight” (“Gunshy”).

Tagged as: list this, liz phair
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Wednesday, Jun 12, 2013
You're so vain but this song is about you.

It’s an awkward feeling when you overhear your friends talking about you. Sometimes it’s a deliberate barb, a calculated sentence dropped by an ex-lover into the ears of your mutual friends. You might hear someone ranting about you when they think that you’re out of earshot. Or, as in Courtney Love’s case, you receive a notice that your enemy Dave Grohl has asked a court to evaluate your mental condition.

Imagine if that song is a number one hit single—and you’re the famous who inspired that single.

Here are eight songs that are veiled dedications to another famous person. The Beatles air their grievances. Amy Winehouse pines after Nas. Joan Baez reflects on her unsuccessful fling with “the unwashed phenomenon”. And Carrie Fisher advises that if you can have Paul Simon write a song about you, go for it.

As always, we encourage you to add to this list in the comments section.

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