Take Five: High School Days
I don't know about you, but new years always leave me a little nostalgic. So we're turning back the clock, looking at some old favourites, and seeing how they measure up.
So, high school. Through no fault of my school specifically (or, I guess, exclusively), I was really going through it in my early-mid teens. I was pretty isolated up until twelfth grade, and my home life was absolute garbage, so of course I took refuge in music. Originally, this was in the form of one of those chrome-brushed Sony discman players and an attendant sleeve of CDs I carried with me in my backpack (remember those days?), but in late 2005 I got my first mp3 player and that really changed the game, though I remained a primarily album-based listener.
Anyway, I graduated in 2007 which, I have recently been reminded, was fifteen entire years ago. Discounting my brief, abortive flirtation with postsecondary (a story for another time), I’ve been out of school substantially longer than I was ever in it. It’s got me feeling reminiscent, and since I write about music, of course that’s the lens through which I reminisce. Here are five albums that kept me going through that strange and difficult time — whether on disc or via my wee 2G iPod.
My first Poozies song was “Dheannain Sugradh”, which I came across on a compilation CD in middle school. I nearly wore out that disc by playing it, and when I found Changed Days, Same Roots in a CD store, I knew I had to buy it. The Poozies had previously had a lineup change, but this album marks the first time the band’s composition shifted, losing a guitarist and gaining a fiddler. It undeniably changes their sound; where previously the guitar worked with the harps to undergird the rhythm of each set, now the latter do it on their own. It makes the whole album feel freer and wilder than the band’s other work, both before and after. All that in mind, all their regular hallmarks are intact; beautiful vocal harmonies, rollicking and unpredictable instrumental sets, and melodies constantly being handed from instrument to instrument. There’s some incredibly well chosen tunes too, ranging from the Swedish folk of opening set “Tam” all the way to the heartbreak of Colum Sands’ “The Last House in Our Street” (here titled “Throw the Ball”). Just a top-tier offering from, for my money, one of the best trad Celtic bands out there.
There’s something about firsts, right? Your first album by a given artist is always something special, even if you later come to greatly appreciate the rest of their catalogue. The Beauty of the Rain was not my first brush with Williams — the treble choir at my high school did an arrangement of “You’re Aging Well”, which is what intrigued me enough to find out more about her in the first place. Lo and behold, my ex-stepmom was already a fan, and with this album being Williams’ most recent at the time, it’s where I was pointed to start.
It’s not a bad starting place, on the whole! Williams has always done well at straddling that pop-folk line, and “The Mercy of the Fallen”, which opens, sets a strong tone right from the top with its pairing of acoustic guitars and rippling synth. The album as a whole gets a lot of mileage from the acoustic guitar/electric keys combo (some great Hammond organ recurs throughout), and of course she’s always had an incredible grasp of melody and of lyrical storytelling. At least a third of the songs on TBotR are what I’d consider classics in the Dar Williams canon, with the aforementioned “Mercy of the Fallen” and “Your Fire, Your Soul” as standouts — the latter in particular being one of those tracks I suspect contributes to her improbable status as an icon for a very specific subset of gay people.
Rasputina - A Radical Recital (2004)
A Radical Recital is a bit of an outlier on this list, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a live album, which I typically avoid. But beyond that, every other artist on this list is one I’ve generally kept up with, and every other album is one I revisit with some regularity. But this post is the first time I’ve listened to Rasputina in I don’t know how many years; they are profoundly an artifact of my time in high school. But at the time they were a major part of my listening diet, and I knew they had to be here.
So, do they hold up? Yes and no but mostly no. A lot of their songs, and most of their banter, lean heavily on this sort of knowing ironic stance that feels very mid-2000s (and in a few cases results in lines that are frankly inexcusable). They’re a collection of mannered eccentricity and shock-factor posturing that feels very studied and has not aged terribly well. The band’s at their best when they manage to step away from all that a bit: songs like “Hunter’s Kiss” retain a distinctive viewpoint and show off the flexibility of the cello as a rock instrument, while avoiding the cheap shock value of a lot of their other material. Unfortunately, those highlights are few enough that I’m comfortable shelving them as a relic of a very particular time and place in my life; not everything you listen to in high school is gonna be a winner in the long run!
I hate to say it, but Yuki Kajiura has been coasting for a while now. She’s always had her favourite tools as a composer, but since the end of Kalafina (and even in their late work), it feels like she’s adopted a decidedly by-the-numbers approach to songwriting and production.
Back in the early 2000s though, she was fresh off her first major collaborative partnership (her and Chiaki Ishikawa’s group See-Saw), and in her work with Yuuka Nanri you can see a real desire to experiment and redefine her sound. Not all of these experiments pay off (“Seiya” sucks, even beyond my general antipathy toward modern Christmas music), but the album as a whole holds up really well, especially the rubbery groove of the title track and the propulsive clatter in “Nowhere” (a shocking amount of which I still know by memory).
Destination was the first non-English pop album — in fact really the first pop album at all — that I fell in love with, and if not for it laying the groundwork I don’t know if I’d ever have come to embrace pop music as I did.
Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)
My ex-stepmother introduced me to Joanna Newsom through a copy of The Milk-Eyed Mender she’d burnt herself. I remember seeing early news about Ys, its follow-up, and excitedly sharing it with her — and then, on release day, fighting with Limewire to try and get its five tracks to download, because I wouldn’t be able to get to the CD shop where I’d preordered until the following weekend. It took ten hours to download those tracks, and when I called her over to the family computer for our first listen, the anticipation level was very high. I don’t know if I can explain what it felt like, hearing Ys for the first time when it was newly out. We had very little idea what to expect, and it’s so unlike what she’d done previously — the slow, patient build of “Emily”, the string orchestra gradually layering in…when you first hear it crest a minute and a half in, it feels like a revelation. The album is full of moments like that; there’s a reason many people argue it’s Newsom’s best, and while I don’t necessarily agree, it’s a tremendously ambitious work. I really do feel it was a sea change in her career, marking a shift from her place in the early ‘00s freak-folk scene to somewhere closer to contemporary art song. It’s transformative, both in its lyrical preoccupations and its literal impact.
So there you have it — a snapshot of teenage me. Overall, I think I did alright; four of these five albums remain very important to me, and are ones I’d recommend without hesitation. The fifth…well, as I said in its blurb, they can’t all be winners. It would be a little unfortunate if my tastes hadn’t evolved at all since high school, though!
There’s one genre I listened to a ton of in eleventh and twelfth grade that I’ve completely left out of this post, but that’s because it’s deserving of a more in-depth examination at a latter date. That’s right: next time I do a Take Five post, it’s Broadway, Baby!