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Thursday, October 2, 2014

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In Spite of Time: A Few Immortal Songs

By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 27, 2014

It’s become a habit of mine, whenever I have a bit of travelling to do, to sift through the backlogs of my music library and search for old material. I’ve been travelling a lot this summer, and I’ve spent a good amount of time scrolling through songs and albums that I bought years ago. Among the white and black colors of the songs lists, and the various colors of album covers, little stages of my music interests rest like fragmented shells on a riverbed. I can scroll through playlists, artists, albums and songs, and see them floating ethereally within. To put it simply: while traveling to new places, I enjoy rediscovering old music favorites. Somewhere in that big digital mix of everything, the old and the new don’t seem very different at all.

A timeless song is one that retains its feel, emotion, power, originality and gravity in spite of time. Musical changes to environment, taste, technique and style over time do not influence or inspire change in a timeless song; rather, it operates independently of circumstance. Its sound and its nature are perfect because – very literally – they require no change. Nothing could be added that would enhance the act of experiencing them.

Since these songs create and inhabit their own soundscapes, to call any one of them ‘perfect’ would be completely arbitrary. There is no formula, measuring system or calculation that can quantify a song as flawless, and these songs are no exception. However, in light of my frequent travel this summer, I’ve been able to revisit this dilemma numerous times. I will be the first to admit that no song can be truly perfect. But I do believe that some songs can weather the seasons of time without losing the same spark that blazed them into being. Some songs put the same smile on your face after a decade of devoted listening, others can inflect forgotten moods and abandoned promises and still others can capture a moment’s murmur with effortless triumph.

Here are five songs that sound as great today, after countless listens, as they did when I first heard them.

“Let’s Go” – The Feelies

The Feelies are, essentially, a punk rock band. Only a handful of chord variations infilitrate their music. The rest is comprised of bar chords, power chords and the steady chugging of drums. In the tradition of punk, their lyrics are simple and conform to a broad, open-ended chorus. But when you listen to “Let’s Go” you don’t hear the electric chainsaw-guitar shred, you don’t imagine Glenn Mercer’s neck veins looking like licorice while he sings and you certainly don’t tinker with the idea that the band might be powered by lightning. What you hear instead is an interwoven acoustic section with accompanying drum patter. You hear words occasionally leak from behind the veil of strings. The beauty of “Let’s Go” is the way it condenses the spacious gusto of punk into a seamless, airtight barrel rolling of garage instrumentation – without the garage amplifiers.

“Roygbiv” – Boards of Canada

Ghost hunting on the rim of a supernova. Leaving Earth to negotiate with the guardian of Neptune. Moonwalking through a jungle in the Jurassic period. Recovering nature tones from the birth of man. Free falling through a constellation of burning meteors.

“Roygbiv” is one of the strangest, most sublime combinations of sounds, rhythms, frequencies, distortions, repetitions and samples I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison forge worlds with their debut Music Has the Right to Children and the world of “Roygbiv” is lush with endless wonder. Play this song during a midnight drive or walk home. I guarantee that you start to imagine other planets. Go ahead and let the music take you there.

“Walkabout” – Atlas Sound ft. Panda Bear

It’s hard to imagine what indie rock would sound like if Bradford Cox had never picked up a mixing board. Cox took what DJ Shadow and Burial were doing with Hip-Hop and he mapped it onto the indie sound. Rock songs could still be rock songs, but what if the hooks were inlaid with merry-go-round music? What if a song about fighting with parents actually sounded like a fight with parents? Without Cox’s production work in the Aughts, especially his 2009 album Logos, we wouldn’t have an answer. We were gifted with songs like “Walkabout” – a shining, sprawling gem with a jangly and spellbinding hook sampled from The Doves. “Walkabout” sounds like a festival: brightly lit, freewheeling, mystical. Listening to the bells and chimes and looping melody shuffle feels like taking a cursory walk through the carnival halls of your childhood, as you cartwheel past unresolved fights with friends, dinner table meals with family and hilarious first dates. Perfectly cheery, perfectly bittersweet, the song captures youthful spirit with remarkable innovation.

“Whenever You’re on My Mind” – Marshall Crenshaw

The first two notes of the song evoke the sound of a train preparing to depart from the station, about to sew a stitch across the country. A drum suddenly announces that the train is in motion and in no time at all, the ground is sliding away beneath us. Crenshaw opens the song with a confession: “I think about you/And forget what I’ve tried to be”. Always tuneful, always concise, always after the ladies, Crenshaw could craft one ingenious pop track after another. “Whenever You’re on My Mind” emerges from his anthology because, like Crenshaw’s romantic strategy, it’s persistent: like a locomotive thundering its way to your heart, year after year after year.

“Age of Consent” – New Order

If you watch the live BBC version of “Age of Consent” you can see just how physical a song it is. Drummer Stephen Morris’ arms are constantly tensed and blurred, sweat glistens on their foreheads and they collectively shake to the towering relentlessness of the beat. Draped with 80s synth, “Age of Consent” doesn’t always sound pleasant but, then again, neither is coming into adult consciousness. It isn’t sex, love or romance they’re talking about. It’s knowledge. It’s knowing what each of these things mean and how they shape our lives. And after five minutes of astonishingly up-tempo argumentation, the only thing we can do in response is play it again and hope for the same emotional clarity.