Music

Fave Five: Justin Courtney Pierre

Evan Sawdey
Photo: DanMonick

The former Motion City Soundtrack frontman has finally released his first-ever solo record, and now Justin Courtney Pierre counts down his Five Favorite Records of All Time for PopMatters.

In the Drink
Justin Courtney Pierre

Epitaph

12 October 2018

The fact that Justin Courtney Pierre has a solo album at all is kind of unbelievable.

After all, Pierre has gained a lot of notoriety for fronting the alternative rock group Motion City Soundtrack. Never mainstream stalwarts, Pierre's quirky, self-deprecating worldview worked perfectly in a giddy pop song context, and while their peers relied on old clichés, Pierre was telling his life story in fascinating new metaphors on virtually every album. The band's critical apex came in the form of 2010's end-to-end burner My Dinosaur Life.

However, as time went on, Pierre was looking for different expressions of his creativity. In 2011, he had a hand in the group Farewell Continental, of which he was only revealed to be a member quite late into the disc's promotional cycle. MCS' sound took an increasingly heavier turns with each subsequent album, and before long, Pierre could be found doing any side-project that came to mind, ranging from his video-gamed themed duo the Rapture Twins (with Game Informer's Andrew Reiner) to a short-lived podcast he did with his wife talking about books and interviewing guests about their love of books.

In short, a solo album seemed like the last thing Pierre would do, but 2018 proved to be a surprising year for a variety of reasons, and 'lo, In the Drink has been born into existence. Unsurprisingly, Pierre's solo outing will feel very familiar to anyone who's been listening to his songs over the past decade, but despite all his experiments with all of his side-projects, Drink feels very much tied to the "classic" Motion City Soundtrack era of sonics, albeit a bit more muted and confessional.

It's a fascinating record, so to help celebrate the occasion, we challenged Pierre to hit us with his Fave Five. While it can be a Fave Five of any category, Pierre decided to take the bull by the horns and list his five favorite albums of all time. "First, let me state that this is an impossible task," he tells PopMatters. "That being said, I'm feeling incredibly nostalgic about moments of great tumult in my life, so I've chosen a few albums that I can no longer listen to without instantly going back to that point in time. However, with the benefit of distance, I can now remember the moments of joy I felt, in spite of the swirling chaos of trying to maneuver through life as a human on planet earth."

So without further ado, please Drink up Justin Courtney Pierre's five favorite albums of all time.

Alien Lanes by Guided By Voices (1995)

I discovered this record in the midst of an addiction to over the counter speed that lasted the better part of a year. I didn't sleep much in 1995. Maybe once every three or four days. I had quit my job and proceeded to spend my entire life savings in pursuit of art. Three months later I was broke and heading to treatment for the first time. "Motor Away" was the first song I heard on REV105 while driving around one lonely evening imagining scenarios by which I could meet other people and engage in general human interaction. I instantly fell in love with every aspect of this record, from the lo-fi production to the incredible brevity of song length. Every song was a hit (in my opinion); the vocal melodies being the main attraction (that coupled with Robert Pollard's choice of wordage).

I'm fairly certain I don't know what any of these songs are actually about, but it doesn't matter when you have lines like, "I'll climb up on the house / Weep to water the trees / And when you come calling me down / I'll put on my disease" or "You can be anyone they told you to / You can belittle every little voice that told you so / And the time will come when you add up the numbers / And the time will come when you motor away" or "Everything I think about I think about / Everything I talk about I talk about." Lyrically, Pollard and company opened my mind to the possibilities of it all more than I imagine any ayahuasca ceremony ever could. They also showed me that beauty can be found in imperfection if you have the patience to look for it. This band was on a whole other level. Standout tracks: "Game of Pricks", "Closer You Are", "Motor Away", "My Valuable Hunting Knife", "My Son Cool".

Clouds Taste Metallic by the Flaming Lips (1995)

I'd been a fan of the Flaming Lips since In a Priest Driven Ambulance, but this record fucked me up the minute I heard it. In the fall/winter of 1995, I was living in a sub-level basement apartment where I could barely make out the feet of people walking to and from their cars through the slim parking lot view my windows allowed me. Still on the no sleep train, and without a television, I spent most of my time listening to records and VHS movies through headphones (yes, I listened to movies because I had no television). The record I got for Clouds Taste Metallic was this translucent alien green color, which worked so well with the headache-inducing orange color of the album artwork. I was in love with the whole aesthetic before I'd even heard a note.

"The Abandoned Hospital Ship" starts with the vocal, guitars, and piano all panned to one side of the mix and the sound of a film projector projecting on the other headphones. This is as close as I could imagine kids probably felt when they heard those first experimental Beatles records in the '60s. Fuck it, the Flaming Lips are my Beatles. Hell, when the drums kicked in at 1:59, I think I may have stopped breathing. This song is the perfect album opener. Sets you up for the experience without giving it all away. Dave Fridmann is pretty much a household name these days, but I think of him as the unsung fifth member of the band. His mixes are bonkers and he doesn't seem to be afraid to hurt the listener every now and again.

Sonically, every instrument has a place where it fits and can be heard. This is something I've struggled with my whole life. I tend to turn everything all the way up all the time. I think this record can be studied for how to create the perfect jigsaw puzzle of sound, where everything gets heard and nothing is swallowed up. The lyrics on this record don't bug me at all, but they probably should. I can't tell if Wayne Coyne is a deliberate mastermind or a happy-go-lucky kid at heart. He's probably both. It's almost like they write musicals to fucked up kids television shows from different dimensions. There is an incredible amount of childish charismatic wonder and excitement needed (and latitude given) to pull off singing the line "this here giraffe" repeatedly.

But the stories are beautiful. "When You Smile" is probably the greatest love song ever written. "Evil Will Prevail" is definitely the most uplifting song about the bad guys winning I've ever heard. And the idea of animals deciding they'd rather live in a zoo than accept human help because they preferred to free themselves is next level storytelling. They showed me that not everything has to be full on cerebral, that you can wing it in the word department here and there if the sentiment is right. Also, it is important to make guitars as gross as you can and push them in the mix. Standout tracks: "The Abandoned Hospital Ship", "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles", "When You Smile", "Christmas at the Zoo", "Evil Will Prevail".

Indoor Living by Superchunk (1997)

I'd been a fan of Superchunk since Foolish (working my way forwards and backwards), but this record hit me at just the right time. I was attempting to go back to college for filmmaking after having hung up my music career for good a few months earlier. For the longest time, I couldn't get beyond the first track. I kept seeing a music video or a story unfolding about twin kids growing up over time. Eventually, it turned into the prologue of a feature-length film script. There's something so somber about this record. Maybe I'm projecting, but it's so descriptive in its lackadaisical, and nonchalance attitude toward sadness. Yeah, I'm probably projecting.

I had been sober and not sober for a while and sort of meandering through life, unsure of what to do. Things weren't great, but they weren't bad either. When I was sober it felt like I had cut off a part of myself I missed and longed for. When I was drunk, it felt like I had taken on someone else's baggage and so desperately wanted to get rid of it. Maybe that's where the twins came in ...

As for the sound of the record, I feel like the guitars got way less distorted on this go around. I always reference this record when I want a "crunchy clean" guitar tone in the studio. It's like that perfect halfway point between clean and distorted. Maybe that's it, this record feels like it's in limbo, it's connected to something on the horizon, yet feels like an island unto itself when you're walking around inside of it. Or maybe I was in limbo. I don't know. It's hard to remember the past when you weren't really there to experience its, and even harder to put into words how much I love this record, so I'll just use a snippet from "European Medicine" to illustrate my point (or not): "I think we can squeeze you in / I care about the dumbest things." Somehow that makes sense to me. Standout tracks: "Unbelievable Things", "Nu Bruises", "The Popular Music", "European Medicine".

Left and Leaving by the Weakerthans (2000)

I think we played with the Weakerthans before I had ever heard them. And hearing them made me pay attention. I don't think I'd ever been blown away that hard by a band I'd had the fortune of opening up for that early in my career. Or did we run across town and see them out of boredom after our show got canceled? It's hard to be certain. Suffice to say I picked this album up form the show, studied it, and have been stealing from it for nearly 20 years.

Holy shit, where do I begin? First and foremost it's all about the lyrics. John K Samson is a master storyteller. He has a way of making you feel instantly nostalgic for the thing you just heard. His words either seem so familiar, like you just overheard someone saying that or thought it that day, or they piece together a vague idea you may have had but could never quite put together so succinctly. I'll let his words do the explaining: "And I'm leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense / and I'm losing all those stupid games that I swore I'd never play" or "All straight lines circle sometime" or "Memory will rust and erode into lists of all that you gave me / A blanket, some matches, this pain in my chest; the best parts of lonely / Duct tape and soldered wires, new words for old desires, and every birthday card I threw away."

Honestly, there are too many great to mention, so I won't. Yeah, JKS can tell a story. But the music is equally important. The band is able to find little moments or flourishes of nuance throughout each song. You really have to listen carefully or you'll miss a little something here and there. They really know how to build up to a moment or tear it all away until it's barely even there. If you really want to treat yourself, go find some footage of them playing live. It will fucking ruin you. They are definitely one of the greatest live bands I've ever seen and had the pleasure to share a stage with. Standout tracks: "Aside", "This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open", "Left and Leaving", "Exiles Among You".

The Great Destroyer by Low (2005)

My reintroduction to Low came a few years earlier with Trust. I'd listened to them in the '90s, but never fully understood what they were doing. Trust got me sorted out on all that. I happened upon this album while browsing/loitering in the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis. I loved Trust, so I figured this would pick up where that left off. Boy, was I wrong. This album instantly shot forth light years beyond anything anyone was doing at the time and has become one of my favorite albums. From the songwriting, to the lyrics, to the vocal performance, to the production, everything box on my "things I dig" checklist was checked.

And then I come to find Dave Fridmann produced this record as well? No wonder. Low is so incredibly good at bringing the darkness. They are so completely sinister, and I say that with [the] utmost respect. Even their uplifting songs are weighed down by crushing waves of sadness. Maybe it's the fucked up church choir feel of their haunting melodies and harmonies, or perhaps it's my fucked up associations with "uplifting" church choirs that I'm associating with the band. Regardless, this band haunts my dreams and pushes me to be creative in much the same way Tom Waits does: I will never be this good. I can accept that now and move on doing what I can. I mean, "Just Stand Back "is so fucking cheerful and it's literally about murder. -- "Here comes the knife / You'd better just stand back / I could turn on you so fast".

"When I Go Deaf" is the saddest most beautiful song about the inevitable. And when the guitars come in at 2:43 [and] forget about it! I used to drive around and crank this one all the way up, tears streaming down my face thinking about the pointlessness of it all. This song helped me learn to celebrate the here and now, which is all that really matters. -- "And I'll stop writing songs / Stop scratching out lies / I won't have to think / And it won't have to rhyme / When I go deaf"

And "Walk Into the Sea" is perhaps my favorite song of all time. I'm not sure I have it figured out, but it seems like someone is contemplating suicide in the first verse, and then changes his mind because Time is an asshole and eventually takes us all. He decides "fuck Time" and chooses to stick it out because he can. Then it turns into a sweet story of souls traveling through space and time for eternity. like some Dr. Who type shit. "Yeah, time's the great destroyer / Leaves every child a bastard / When it finally takes us over / I hope we float away together". The point is, this is some of the most uplifting stuff I've ever heard and it's all just super depressing. And that's what makes Low so special. Standout tracks: "California", "Just Stand Back", "When I Go Deaf", "Broadway (So Many People)", "Walk Into The Sea".

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