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30 songs in 30 days: Day 19

June 11, 2011

day 19 – a song from your favorite album: Fleet Foxes: Tiger Mountain Peasant Song

This is another tough one. I have many favorite albums. But in making my list of them, I realized most of them are pretty old and many were by artists I’ve already talked about during the course of this meme. Carole King’s Tapestry is an album I come back to again and again. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme> is easily my favorite jazz album, and, since the main theme uses voices to emphasize the rhythm (which is derived from text), it even qualifies for the “song” designation by my definition. R.E.M. has several albums I used to listen to over and over – Reckoning, which I discovered in high school, and Green, which I bought shortly after I graduated from college, Reveal which we listened to a lot when AJ was a baby because he loved “All the way to Reno.”

And then there’s Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, which was a childhood favorite. Paul Simon’s Graceland, which I listened to a lot in college and may have pointed me toward ethnomusicology. The Velvet Underground’s eponymous album. Several Joni Mitchell albums would qualify, but I’ve already talked about her. The Pixies Surfer Rosa is another one I come back to often.

But I want to get out of my nostalgic rut and talk about something a little more recent, in part because these days, bands that make albums, rather than songs, are increasingly rare. Most people don’t listen that way anymore. So when a band comes out with a cohesive album, they deserve some credit.

Mr. Spy bought me the Fleet Foxes eponymous album for my birthday, shortly after it came out in 2008. I had already downloaded the track that was playing on the radio at the time, “White Winter Hymnal.”

I loved the sound world of this song – the close vocal harmonies that sounded like they were out of another era, the easy-going guitars, backing vocals that sound like they escaped from a bossa nova, that insistent bass drum. And the lyrics – poetic, weird and a little creepy.

I listened to the CD Mr. Spy gave me with more attention that I often do with rock, which is generally on in the background when I’m working or driving. Quickly, I found myself gravitating toward another song on the album, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” the fourth track:

I had some kind of crazy mental block about the name of the song. For a long while, I referred to it as “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Song” or “Rock Paper Scissors Song.” Something about the list of three nouns stymied my memory. It’s actually my second favorite Fleet Foxes song. First place goes to “Mykonos,” which is not on this album.

But back to “Tiger Mountain.” I love the guitar parts (2 guitars, I think) in a simple waltz-like chordal arrangement. And I’m always an easy mark for a song that wanders in and out of major and minor modes. Even Pandora has figured this out about me. The lyrics are haunting.

Wanderers this morning came by
Where did they go
Graceful in the morning light
To banner fair
To follow you softly
In the cold mountain air

Through the forest
Down to your grave
Where the birds wait
And the tall grasses wave
They do not
know you anymore

Dear shadow alive and well
How can the body die
You tell me everything
Anything true

In the town one morning I went
Staggering through premonitions of my death
I don’t see anybody that dear to me

Dear shadow alive and well
How can the body die
You tell me everything
Anything true

I don’t know what I have done
I’m turning myself to a demon
I don’t know what I have done
I’m turning myself to a demon

The Fleet Foxes seem a little obsessed with death. This album, at least, is a little obsessed with death. One of the things I like about its songs, though, and also about the album as a whole, is that they communicate emotional journeying. The narrator of this song starts in one place and ends in another. The album does that too. The first song, “Sun it Rises,” begins with a ragged a cappella Appalachianesque, “Red Squirrel,” before turning into something else entirely, with a Celtic-influenced tune, lush vocal harmonies and active guitars and mandolin that build from acoustic to electric, sounding like a train leaving the station, or a car pointed west to the prairies. Then all drop out for another a cappella section. Only one instrument returns, a single line picked on electric guitar in a new meter:

In three minutes, I feel like I’ve come halfway across the country.

The album leaves you hanging, in a good way. The last song, “Oliver James,” with it’s chorus that reminds me of the children’s poems of A. A. Milne, is sparsely accompanied with a single acoustic guitar – no bass, no drums, nothing. And by the end, even the guitar is gone, leaving only a single voice, emotionally naked:

The play of chorus and solo voice, the thoughtful arrangements of instruments, the controlled use of metric an modal change, all contribute to the emotionality of the album. This is dramatic music, an expression of the text. Text and sound are very much intertwined.

The Fleet Foxes have a new album out, Helplessness Blues. I haven’t, unfortunately, had the chance to listen to it too carefully yet, but from what I’ve heard, I have every reason to expect I’m going to like it just as well.

What is your favorite album?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    June 11, 2011 11:48 am

    In the rock ‘n roll category: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

  2. June 11, 2011 12:38 pm

    Oh man, good call on this one. I really like the Fleet Foxes, and that’s a great album. I haven’t heard their new one at all yet but I’ll have to pick it up.

  3. June 11, 2011 4:02 pm

    freshhell, although I like Bowie, he’s never quite made favorite status, but I can certainly see that album is a good choice. DJ, I actually downloaded it a while back, but I haven’t had a chance to sit and listen to it as an album, which, if their first album is any indication, is worth doing.

  4. June 13, 2011 1:23 pm

    The first thing I thought of was Brian Eno’s album “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)”.

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