BlackBook Tracks #27: Is 2012 Over Yet?

The holiday season isn’t over yet, but maybe your winter ennui has already kicked in. That’s okay, it was going to happen eventually. Stay warm with these songs.

Coeur De Pirate – “Comme Des Enfants”

Even non-French speakers can understand the nostalgia that this Montreal chanteuse taps into. I associate this song with sunnier days, but sweet folk-pop fits every season.

Blur – “For Tomorrow”

Santa didn’t bring me the deluxe box set of Parklive, Blur’s triumphant Hyde Park show commemorating the Olympics closing ceremony, but I guess I kind of forgot to ask him for it. Well, Portlandia’s coming back soon to remind us that the dream of the ’90s is still alive.

The Decemberists – “The Engine Driver”

Speaking of Portland…

Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)”

When Arcade Fire release new material next year, it will undoubtedly spark a cycle of both over-the-top fawning and overeager backlash that will dominate my internet life for several weeks. But there’s a reason we started liking them in the first place, and here it is.

Belle & Sebastian – “If She Wants Me”

Is there anything more comforting than listening to truckloads of Belle & Sebastian? I thought not.

The Walkmen – “New Year’s Eve”

It’s that time of year, and though this charming piano ditty is far from a party anthem, it’s perfect for taking a minute to look back.

M. Ward – “Radio Campaign”

You may have had She & Him’s Christmas record on heavy rotation lately, but here’s a reminder that M. Ward’s Transistor Radio hits the singer-songwriter sweet spot.

Badly Drawn Boy – “Something To Talk About”

Nicholas Hoult is all grown up and eating brains now, but we’ll never forget his beginnings in About A Boy. It’s a movie that’s held up over time, as has its theme song.

Camera Obscura – “The World Is Full Of Strangers”

The world may be full of strangers, but there are still friendly faces to be found when sailing the melancholic pop seas with Camera Obscura.

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An Interview with She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward

We are in the backseat of a rented car, driving down a congested New York City street, when Zooey Deschanel takes the voice recorder from my hand and speaks into it with the intensity of Burt Lancaster’s commanding journalist in Sweet Smell of Success. “Hello? Hello?” she says, and then aims it squarely at singer-songwriter M. Ward.

But there isn’t much that these two don’t already know about each other. Four years and two albums into their musical collaboration as She & Him—their second folksy offering, Volume Two, is out this month- Deschanel, 30, and Ward, 36, come off like childhood friends. They swap high-fives when one of them enters the room. They finish each other’s sentences.

Deschanel refers to acting as her “day job.” When she isn’t writing, recording and performing with Ward, she has established herself as an indie pinup, bringing to life idiosyncratic women in All the Real Girls, The Good Girl, Elf and (500) Days of Summer.

Next, she’ll tackle two very different roles: a distressed damsel in David Gordon Green’s medieval stoner epic Your Highness, and Pamela Des Barres, a rock journalist, in the HBO series I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. (Coincidence led her here: Deschanel landed her first major film role in Almost Famous, as the main character’s flight attendant sister, after losing the part of “band- aide” Penny Lane, which was inspired by Des Barres, to Kate Hudson.) Meanwhile, Ward continues to record solo material in addition to tracks with Monsters of Folk, a supergroup that also consists of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis.

Our car arrives outside of the Bowery Hotel. There are a handful of paparazzi on the sidewalk. Ward doesn’t notice but Deschanel bolts for the entrance with her head down and coat collar up. Inside, over cups of tea, she says of the photographers, “They’re not here for me, but they’ll take my picture if they see me. I need to remember my big hat the next time I go out. It usually does the trick. They think they’re pretty smart, but I’m smarter.” Deschanel then puts the recorder on the table between she and him, and turns it on.

Teenage angst often results in bad poetry and confessional journal entries. Did you pour all of your angst into songwriting instead? Zooey Deschanel: We traveled a lot when I was really young. I had no friends, but I had a tiny keyboard. M. Ward: Your friend was the keyboard. I learned how to play guitar by going through the Beatles’ anthologies. Once I learned all those chords, I basically had the ammunition to destroy the competition. [Laughs.] Those are the building blocks of every great song. Whether it’s old music or new music, I hear the Beatles. Maybe I’m crazy. ZD: I don’t think you’re crazy! I couldn’t play more than one note at a time, so that was frustrating. I later learned about chords in school, and when I got home, I started teaching myself how to play piano. Before that, I had no way of writing down the music or recording the ideas.

Does either of you recall a moment when you first felt proud enough of your music to share it? ZD: I got a karaoke machine in high school. I used it to experiment, in a very primitive way, with multi-track recording. I remember playing those songs for my parents. MW: You should definitely try to dig those tapes out. ZD: I used to have so many things that have since disappeared. It was about six years ago that I started feeling comfortable enough to play my songs for a friend. I felt super-shy when I first started, but I got comfortable fast. The music is so organic, and such a true representation of myself, that it didn’t take long for me to feel really at ease.

Have your songs been inspired by things outside of music? MW: I was really into David Lynch. Even when I was in elementary school, my favorite movie was The Elephant Man. In my eighth-grade yearbook, all the kids listed their favorite movie as Superman or Star Trek. Mine was The Elephant Man. I was such a weird kid. ZD: Would it be bad—because it’s sort of music—if I said old musicals? I love Gigi, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. I love the colors and the way those movies have always made me feel. That’s kind of how I like to make people feel with music. It’s the way the Beach Boys make you feel. They share sweet optimism that makes me excited to be alive.

There’s something over-the-top about most musicals, intimations of which I’ve noticed in your music videos. ZD: I happen to think The Sound of Music is a really good movie—with a lot of singing. I’m not at all into over-the-top theatricality. That’s actually the opposite of how I like to feel. I’m very low-key. Subtle is good. I like things that will make me happy, things that are optimistic and sunny. I’m into sincerity in music and sincerity in art. If it doesn’t feel true, I don’t want to do it. Things that are too dramatic scare me. I think that’s why I don’t always fit into the world of performing arts. MW: Part of the genius of The Sound of Music is its storyline, which takes us from laughter to tears. You can be 5 years old or 95 years old and still be crazy about it. It’s pretty special when someone can figure out how to do that to humans. ZD: Plus, Julie Andrews kills it. She’s the bomb.

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Zooey, I found out this morning that you will be starring in HBO’s I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Have either of you had any experience with overzealous fans? MW: There are overzealous fans… ZD: But we definitely don’t have groupies. MW: No one is like, “Call the cops!” ZD: We’re not exactly a party band. We drink tea. The HBO series is of a totally different time. Pamela [Des Barres, who wrote the 1987 memoir on which the series is based] is extremely innocent. These people were real music enthusiasts during a time when attitudes toward a lot of different things were changing. It’s not about groupies the way we know them today.

If not groupies, what is the biggest perk of being in a successful band? ZD: I always find it fun to plan what I’m going to wear on stage. It’s totally different stuff from what I would wear in real life. I like matching my outfits to the backup singers. MW: I love being able to sleep whenever I want and wake up whenever I want. If I want to spend a few days with family or friends, it’s okay, because I don’t have a 9-to-5 schedule.

How does each of you feel about touring? Zooey has always been so positive about the experience, but Matt… ZD: That one interview! We need to clear the record. MW: I’m glad you brought this up. I did an interview, maybe a year ago, and somebody at Vanity Fair asked me if I like touring. I had just gotten through a four- or five-week tour, which is too long. I was tired. If you’re away from home for too long, you start to forget things that really matter. You’re not able to nurture anything but music when you’re on the road. In my opinion, that’s a pretty one-dimensional state of being. ZD: Three weeks is a nice amount. On any given day, we’re only on stage for an hour and a half. During my day job, I have to stay energized for, like, 16 hours. Now, that’s insane. With music, I have time to sleep and exercise and go to restaurants. MW: And go to museums. ZD: And go to movies. MW: Did we already say food? ZD: Food, we said. We like food.

Can you recall one performance in particular when you felt a real connection with your audience? MW: Oyster Fest comes to mind. ZD: I’m still not quite sure what that was. MW: It was the coldest day in San Francisco’s history. Everyone was out on the lawn, eating oysters. We went on right before an Irish ska band.

Hair: Rolando Beauchamp for Bumble and Bumble Makeup: Christopher Ardoff usIng M.A.C Cosmetics for Art Department Location: SandBox studio, NYC On her: vintage top, stylist’s own, jean shorts by Current/Elliott, tights by Wolford, shoes by Christian Louboutin. On Him: Shirt by Spurr, jeans by William Rast, boots by Fiorentini + Baker, Fashion Assistant Amber Stolec.

M. Ward Live at the Apollo

M. Ward is the kind of musician that lives and breathes his work, inspiring those around him to squeeze their best juice out. Case in point: She and Him, Ward’s project with Zooey Deschanel, whose first album last year was nostalgic, sweet and highly listenable (much to the chagrin of cynics). He’s old-school, shunning digital mediums for working with 4-tracks, and his collaborations read like a laundry-list of the indie community: Cat Power, Beth Orton, Jenny Lewis, and most notably Conor Oberst, who publicly pronounced “M. Ward for President” during a Bright Eyes performance on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn in 2004. Ward’s 7th album, Hold Time, was released earlier this week and he played the Apollo Theater in Harlem last night with openers the Vivian Girls, bringing hipsters to an area they seldom roam.

But they trekked for good reason. The Portland-based musician can easily captivate an audience solo, with his raspy voice that fills a room the size of the Apollo. But his charm came out in the covers–a rollicking John Fahey diddy (with the intro: “This is pretty much how every song sounds when it comes from Oregon”) and the Daniel Johnston tune, “To Go Home.” He even sang Deschanel’s part on the She and Him song “Change is Hard,” and though the song is a wistful tribute, he couldn’t keep a smile off his face. There were a few hecklers — maybe thinking that’s what they needed to do at the Apollo — and the sound system cracked a few times, ringing the ears of the unsuspecting, but it was a tight set, with Ward intensely hunched into his guitar and his backing band channeling enthusiasm as though it was their first time on stage. M. (Matt) Ward is currently on tour for Hold Time, but there’s also another She and Him album in the works, Volume Two, and an indie supergroup album, Monsters of Folk, with Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) coming out in 2010.

Music Reviews: From Andrew Bird to Lily Allen

Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (Fat Possum) – On his eighth long-player, this acclaimed Chicago-based eccentric virtuoso fully transforms into the glorious anachronism he’s always verged upon, balancing astonishing performance with consummately literary singer-songwriter craft. In his new material, Bird restrains his violin mastery and one-man-band sleight of hand to concentrate on making the complex architecture of his songs seem effortless. Bird’s chamber-pop comes off as intelligently manicured, to a fault at times. When preciousness threatens to overcome the proceedings, however, he introduces an artful new musical gambit, jolting listeners back to square one with witty, unexpected dissonance. —Matt Diehl

Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (Epic) – As Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov observed in The Possessed, “If you shoot yourself, you’ll become God.” Of course, it’s hanging around and remaining cool that’s the hard part. Just ask the members of Franz Ferdinand, who plummeted from the highest of hipster pedestals to the creative skids in a blinding flash. But cagey gents they are, and on their third studio album they’ve decisively relocated their mojo. Balancing moments that are suavely literate with charming rants about how much boys and girls don’t understand each other (they really don’t), the Glaswegian quartet whip up some of the wickedest, most artfully angular grooves this side of a Gang of Four convention, peppered with dub and Teutonic synths. Heaven can wait, then. — Ken Scrudato

Lily Allen, It’s Not Me, It’s You (Capitol) – Unlike her doppelgänger who likes kissing girls, Lily Allen comes off as thoughtful and free from the tedium of irony on her sophomore effort. It all begins quite morosely with “Everyone’s At It,” a bleak overview of a society strung out to the rafters on meds; and it’s followed by the aching, existential despair of “The Fear.” (Been hanging about with Jarvis, have we?) The oft-piercing lyrics don’t get much cheerier from there, but in one distinctly amusing moment, chirpy piano play becomes a sneering anti-bigotry rant (titled, brilliantly, “Fuck You”). It’s Not Me… distinctly recalls Britpop-era Blur, effortlessly shifting styles while holding on to the melancholy synonymous with Englishness. — Ken Scrudato

Matt & Kim, Grand (Fader) – In 2006, Chicago-based deejays Flosstradamus remixed “Yea Yeah,” the infectious single by Brooklyn synth-pop duo Matt & Kim, giving birth to the best blog banger ever. So good was the remix, in fact, that the original track was rendered blah. So, with their second album, Grand, some advice for the best musical couple since Sonny and Cher: Don’t let Floss touch this! Your tracks are bouncy and synth-ridden enough as is! Matt, your cowabunga vocals begin to grate around track five, but the two of you seem so damn happy and fun-filled that it can’t help but rub off. And don’t ever break up, okay? — Ben Barna

M. Ward, Hold Time (Merge) – In our digital age, Ward remains an analog talent. On his latest album — the follow-up to his 2006 breakthrough masterwork Post-War — this iconic indie bard steadfastly maintains a human pulse, always anchored by his grizzled, otherworldly moan. Resonating with the sound of plucked strings and wide-open spaces, Ward’s latest effort evokes olde-tyme country radio broadcasting hazily from a distant universe. But just when his penchant for expressive Americana borders on Dust Bowl classicism, he throws in a Krautrock texture, say, or some other sonic eccentricity that signals he belongs to no age but his own. — Matt Diehl

Obi Best, Capades (Social Science Recordings) – On her debut solo album as Obi Best, Alex Lilly stumbles into the spotlight as the Miranda July of postmodern quirk-pop. Best known for her soaring and stinging back-up vocals with The Bird and the Bee, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter forgos irony in favor of painfully earnest saccharine fare that recalls influences as diverse as Metric’s Emily Haines and ’70s helium addict Melanie. Clinking piano chords echo like silver spears tapping champagne glasses on “Nothing Can Come between Us,” while towering falsettos create walls of sound as whimsical as they are melodic on “What It’s Not” and the relatively dark “It’s Because of People Like You.” — Nick Haramis

Mr. Oizo, Lambs Anger (Ed Banger) – On Lambs Anger, he of the Banging Eds peppers his third full-length with references to Flat Eric, the puppet character that Mssr. Oizo bestowed upon the world via a series of offbeat Levi’s commercials back in the 1990s. But this latest collection of songs is a dance-track galaxy away from his early pop beginnings. The French electronica wunderkind — née Quentin Dupieux — ebbs and flows through heavy techno-laden tracks (“Hun”), trance-like funk (“Cut Dick”) and bubbly female vocals (“Steroids,” featuring Uffie) to produce a stocked bar of fist-pumpers with heart. Plus, how could anyone deprive himself the jouissance of a song called “Bruce Willis is Dead”? — Eiseley Tauginas
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