Mixtape Mondays: Walking In A Winter Wasteland

by Julia Skochko

[Editor's note: Cover images of albums previously reviewed on the DV have been linked to the review.]

Winter's got its good qualities.  Viewed in a positive light, it's a cavalcade of sparkly splendor, a months-long dispensation to wear stupid sweaters, light fires indoors and chug eggnog like it is Evian.

But no matter how positive the light, the fact remains that there are a measly four hours of it per day.  The rest of the time, it is Dark.  And it is Cold.  The sky and earth are dirty chalkboards, washed in streaky gray.  Icy winds abrade skin and spirit.  Cars begin doing horrible, suicidal things like sliding into an embankment while simultaneously blowing a head gasket.

Okay, winter sucks.  You wouldn't guess it from listening to Christmas music.  In that warped little universe, it's all singing fa-la-la-la-la while rockin' around the Christmas tree in a one-horse open sleigh filled with peace on earth, goodwill to men and merry maids doing naughty, naughty things with candy canes.

Outside that genre, though, there are plenty of tunes which capture the miserable soul-suck of our yearly trial separation from the sun.  And here are a few of 'em.  You may want to follow them up with a nice juicy orange, an hour under a sunlamp, a fistful of Prozac…a little reminder that this, too, shall pass.

“Thompson Girl” – The Tragically Hip 
Remember… no matter how brutal the winter, it could be worse.  You could be in Canada (in which case, my condolences.  Want to borrow my scarf?).  “Thompson Girl” is a slice of Ontario winter so evocative you can almost taste the Tim Horton's coffee.  It's melodic, hypnotic and achingly melancholy.  It is not, however, depressing.  The acoustic jangliness always rises above the throbbing lull of bass.  And when Gord Downie's quavering falsetto trills “shoots of beauty,” they seem like the only speck of warmth on a dead planet.
“Brick” – Ben Folds Five
There's Ben Folds, piano jester -- he of “Rocking The Suburbs” and “Song For The Dumped.” And then there's Ben Folds, master of misery… simple words, simple piano chords, huge emotional impact.  “Brick” is Folds the Latter at his finest, which is to say, most brutal (“The smell of cold / Car seat is freezing / The world is sleeping / I am numb.”  Between the lyrics and the piano (which rises and falls from heartbreak to defeat), it's immediately clear that our narrator isn't having a holly-jolly Christmas.  “Brick” is the rare work which references abortion without taking a political stance.  Like Folds’ music and words, the story is trimmed to bare, wrenching essentials.

“Make It Hot” – Mirah
This (mostly) acoustic ditty has a drowsy, loose-limbed beauty.  Words and notes are stretched, slid and slowed.  But beneath the melty exterior, there's a shivering heart.  The yearning builds, the temperature drops… until at last, with a final squall of electric dissonance, everything freezes over.



“The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” – Of Montreal
As far as ugly neurological oddities go, you can't beat akathisia.  It's commonly described as “a sense of inner restlessness.” That's a little like saying Ted Bundy suffered from “crabbiness.”  It's more like an overwhelming, unbearable need to crawl out of one's own skin.  Like a nagging, unreachable itch between the shoulder blades, multiplied by a million and embedded in the brain stem.

“The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” is musical akathisia.  It's squirmy, uncomfortable and eleven minutes long.  You endure it because it’s also brilliant.  It's a little like what NIN would sound like if Trent were fueled by neurosis instead of rage.  The layers of discomfort build.  Electronic demon-howls are joined by fast-pulsing bass, then sharp, glassy guitars, then the entirety of Kevin Barnes’ misery.  And boy, what an entirety it is.  “You've lived so brightly / You've altered everything / I find myself searching for old selves / While speeding forward through the plate glass of maturing cells” -- that's more than just pain; it's also nausea, akathisia and heartbreak.  You can't tolerate it for another second, and you can't shake the feeling that it's going to last forever.

“Zodiac Love Team” – Girls Against Boys
The terrific House Of GVSB closed not with a bang but with a sinister murmur.  “Zodiac Love Team” is industrial slowed to a crawl.  Over a low, murmuring bass line, fuzzed-out guitars squawk like sirens and jammed machinery.  And Eli Janney's vocals are both menacing and seductive; you want to jerk your hand away even as you're sliding into his.

“Some Strange Reaction” – Firewater
Tod A. is the king of the weary snarl.  He's had enough of this shit, he's ready to crawl into a bottle and never come out… but not before he gives you a piece of his goddamned mind.  Like a lot of Firewater's music, the song's a genre unto itself -- “infuriated garage klezmer” comes to mind.  The hard, punchy horns and drums are bullet points highlighting a litany of offenses (“And you split me when I started to crack / And you forgot me when I went off the track”).



 See?  Yeah, you're tired of fending off frostbite of the soul (and appendages, if you're one of my aforementioned Canadian buddies).  But you're not alone.  People everywhere are battling emotional agony, existential angst and finicky thermostats.  And some of them are cranking out great tunes while they're at it.  Keep your chin up and your headphones on.  Annoying summer novelty singles will be here before you know it.


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