Monday, September 28, 2009

The 6 Best Quirky Chick Singers (And How To Tell Them Apart)

"I've heard this song about 50 times today already," Sweetie exclaimed Saturday night when I was cleaning up after dinner and put on the song "You and I" by Ingrid Michaelson:

But she hadn't. She'd only just heard that song for the first time that day, and ever, because I'd only just downloaded that song.

I don't blame Sweetie for being a little confused, though, because I had been listening, most of the day, to my "Quirky Chicks" playlist on my iPod.

I don't, as a general rule, go in for playlists. I prefer to think that any of the 10,197 songs on my iPod could come up next, and limiting myself to a playlist takes away the surprise of an unusual or seldom-heard song coming up. That, and I don't like to ever be more than a click or two away from Rock Lobster, Rock Lobster being the song that made me go from an iPod mini to a full-size iPod: I had to make the jump up, because back when I had just an iPod mini, I could only get about 1,000 songs on it, and eventually I had more than 1,500, which meant that I didn't have every song available every moment that I was listening to it. That dilemma sprung into a full-fledged crisis when I was jogging one day at the health club and decided I needed Rock Lobster to spur me on to go that extra mile, literally, as I was trying to stretch a 3-mile jog into a 4-mile jog. But I couldn't find Rock Lobster, and eventually realized that I didn't have it on my iPod. Depressed, and looking for an excuse to stop running anyway, I stopped and went home and cursed the Fates.

I almost lost faith in America and humanity that day, but I forged bravely ahead, got a bigger iPod, and now have Rock Lobster constantly available. Like now:

I don't, then, tend to segregate my songs into playlists, but I do have a few that I use for specific purposes. I have one for each of the stories I'm writing, a playlist for Lesbian Zombies and a playlist for Up So Down, and so on. I have my "Upbeat" playlist of songs that make me want to dance and sing along with them. I have my "Running" playlist of songs that are good to run to, a playlist that features this song:

I don't know why that song is good to run to, but it is. So is this one:

And recently, I created my "Quirky Chicks" playlist, after I realized that about 1/3 of my iPod is taken up with songs by Quirky Chicks, Chicks who sing songs about weird things, or who swear sweetly in feminine voices, or who play unusual instruments, or who seem just too shy to sing but there they are singing, or who use dolphin imitations as part of the chorus of a song.

Quirky Chicks, in fact, are a whole genre of music now, as legitimate a genre as "Rock" or "Hip Hop" or "Songs Written, Sung, Performed, Produced By, Or Somehow Or Other Associated With Jack White," that latter category itself accounting for 97% of everything you hear on the radio or Internet. The theme music to Parks & Recreation? Written by Jack White.

Well, I don't know if it was or not, but it could have been, and "could have been" is as good as a fact in the Virtual Age.

Sweetie's comment, though, concerned me that society, as a whole, may not appreciate the differences that make each of the top Quirky Chicks unique. It's easy to lump them all together as peasant-blouse wearing, piano-playing, high-voiced chirping chicks, but to really get the most out of their music, and the genre as a whole, it's necessary to dive in a little more deeply.

As usual, I am here to guide you in that effort, and so I will walk you through The Six Best Quirky Chick Singers (And How To Tell Them Apart.)

UPDATE! Because Alli Millstein reads this blog and got in touch with me, I have upgraded her to the UNDISPUTED QUEEN OF QUIRKY CHICK SINGERS! and have moved her up to number one from her original spot of number four:

1. Alli Millstein. "Mend My Heart" is the song that had played before Ingrid Michaelson's You and I, and is the song that Sweetie thought was the same song, even though the two songs are not very much similar. You have to forgive Sweetie; her last three musical purchases were "Live Through This" by Hole, because she thought it played over the credits of the horrible movie Jennifer's Body, then Doll Parts, by Hole, because she thought that was the actual song that played over the credits, and then Cruel To Be Kind, by Nik Kershaw. Sweetie does not have good taste in music.

(Whereas my last three purchases included What Would Brian Boitano Do? From South Park, so clearly I do have good taste in music.)

Alli Millstein is on my Quirky Chicks playlist by virtue of that mix-up. Listening to her music (which you can do on her MySpace page, since she doesn't have any videos on Youtube yet), you'll note the absolute lack of weird sound effects, unusual instruments, stories about people who are enraged with love, or anything else that would mark her as quirky.

But she has quirk potential, as she has a song called Skeletons (as does Kate Nash, making skeletons a de riguer stopping point on the Road to Quirksville) and she describes her music as "

The moments between sleep and awake.

On her Myspace page, and also she's from Brooklyn. Brooklyn is quirky, isn't it? Or it was. Or should be. Wasn't Brooklyn the home of Welcome Back, Kotter?

You know what borough is underrepresented in pop culture? Staten Island. There's the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn... and Staten Island. All the others have their pop culture moments and signifiers: The King of Queens, the Bronx Bombers, Alli Millstein & the Sweathogs and the Tree that Grows in Brooklyn. But Staten Island... has there ever been any significant piece of music, film, art, literature, or cookery that celebrated, or was set in, Staten Island?

I can't think of any, and if I don't know about something, it doesn't exist. So you writers, singers, painters, and cooks: Get going with your Staten Island stuff.

Representative Song: As I said, you can't get an Alli Millstein video on Youtube, making her sort of the Staten Island of Quirky Chicks. But I'll pick out her song Skeletons, as the quirkiest of the bunch. It features a cello and a moog, and that's pretty out-there for music. Plus, again, it's about skeletons. Hear it here.

Where You Might Have Heard Her Music: Connecticut. She's playing open mic gigs in Connecticut, which is the Staten Island of states.

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done? She's friends on MySpace with some guy who goes by the name of "Meepy Meep."

We'll begin with the undisputed Queen Of Quirky Chicks, Regina Spektor:

1B. Regina Spektor:

Representative Song: On The Radio.

Why That Song Is Representative Of Her Work: Regina specializes in strange images, pop-culture collages strung together in impossible-to-sing-along with lyrics, the impossibility coming from the quirky way she sings, all pauses at the wrong time and stretched-out words that carry through 2, 3, or seemingly seventeen verses. I expect the time signature for Regina's sheet music involves both pi and imaginary numbers.

On The Radio hits all the Spektorisms: Pop culture reference (On the radio, you'll hear 'November Rain,"), strange imagery (worms? Styrofoam? Driving a limo through a crowd?), oddly-syncopated music that kind of hypnotizes you: all there and accounted for.

Where You Might Have Heard Her Music: Since almost none of these singers makes it onto the radio -- radio doesn't reward originality or brilliance or quirkiness or even unsualality, remember, especially not since they invented a machine to tell what songs will be a pop hit...

... they really did, you know. There really is a machine that can tell, with phenomenal accuracy, whether a song will be a hit. Using what the inventors call "spectral deconvolution software" the Machine predicts whether or not a song will be a hit. It works, too: It was tested on a then-unknown singer's album, and the Machine predicted that the album would be a phenomenal smash; the album, by a then-unknown singer named "Norah Jones" sold 28 million copies. (I learned about the Machine from Malcolm Gladwell; read more about it here.)...

Since machines now tell radio stations what will be a hit, and since studies have shown that radio listeners instinctively turn off music they haven't heard before, it's unlikely you'll hear a Quirky Chick on the radio sometime soon. But you have heard them, and you maybe heard Regina Spektor if you went to see (500) Days Of Summer. Her song "Us" was featured in the movie and in previews for it. I can't play you that song -- Regina won't let it be embedded -- but here's an even quirkier version of it than I could have imagined existed:

Marimba! Plus, it's kind of like that guy traveled in time, like he got the time machine they used in Primer and used it exclusively to play along with Regina Spektor on that song. I wouldn't necessarily have used a time machine for those purposes myself, but I can admire that he did.

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done, Musically? With Regina, that's hard to narrow down. Virtually every song features something that would make the general population say "Well, I don't get that. I'm just going to go watch According to Jim instead of listening to this song any further."

(That, I imagine, is the only way According to Jim ever got any viewers: People who were confronted by something weird in the culture, who retreated into the most banal point of human existence as a way of comforting their souls. That's also the only reason, I imagine, that people read Jacquelyn Mitchard books.)

But if I had to choose one really weird moment that makes me think Oh, that's too far, and then think wait, no, it's not far enough, but then go back to just trying to learn the lyrics, it would be the chorus in Folding Chair:

Yep. She went Full Dolphin on you.

2. Kate Nash: I just went and Googled the number Two Quirky Chick, Kate Nash, and I have this to say: When I saw her photo on her MySpace page, I first thought "Oh, that's what she looks like?" and then I thought "Yes, that's exactly what she should look like." And how many people can you say that about, that they look exactly the way they should.

Here is Kate Nash's MySpace photo:

And here is a Kate Nash song that shows you why she should look like that:

There is a certain type of British girl who probably exists only in movies and Nick Hornsby books and Kate Nash songs -- the kind of girl who won't give a shit when she fights with her friends and who, in fact, would write a song called This Shit Song, with lyrics like

i'm sittin with my friends gettin drunk again
on wine and i think about you
i'm sittin with my friends gettin drunk again
on wine and i think about you
darling don't give me shit

And the type of girl who exists in those realms should look exactly like Kate Nash looks in her MySpace photo, so bravo to you, Kate Nash: You've nailed it.

Representative Song: There's certainly nothing wrong with Foundations and the way it's jubilant piano background is underscored by the grim lyrics and under-underscored by the rising, threatening, monotonous tone in the background (if you missed that, go back and re-listen and turn the sound up), but while that song is good, the true essence of Kate Nash seems to me to be found in Mariella:

Note: I know nothing about Kate Nash, so when I say the "true essence of Kate Nash," I'm speaking about the "Kate Nash" that exists in those Nick Hornsby books.

Where you might have heard her music: Because I'm 40, I'm constitutionally prohibited from watching this channel, but apparently MTV featured Kate Nash all over the place, from baguette competitions to a commercial for Run's House. I wouldn't have imagined that you could use a British Quirky Chick to advertise a reality show about a rapper-turned-preacher raising his kids, but then, that's why I'm going to be excluded from the future postapocalyptic society (or at best used as monster bait.)

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done? Aside from the Baguettes & Run? I'm going to go with Birds. I'm already a fan of love songs that don't seem as though they're love songs but are actually phenomenally good love songs, and Birds is one of those:

You have to listen carefully to it, but if you do, you'll realize that amidst the swearing, Kate Nash comes up with a fantastic metaphor for love and puts it in the hands of two people trying to stretch themselves above this mortal life and into the poetic life -- that being another metaphor. These two people, who really want to express themselves in a lyrical manner (but can't) manage to come up with the image of love as a bird that flies up high, poops on you, scares you... but is beautiful.

I know; it'll never replace Never Tear Us Apart as the wedding song of choice, but it should.

3. Lisa Hannigan: Lisa Hannigan is one of the reasons I give why it's sometimes better to stay up a little late and be tired the next day than to get a good night's sleep. With twin 3-year-old Babies! that never sleep, I don't need excuses to be awake all night, but it's nice when being awake pays off with something like Lisa Hannigan, who I saw when I happened to blearily watch The Colbert Report as it aired one night at 10:30. Lisa came out and took out a weird instrument and played a song that I liked within the first three notes, and it only got better from there.

Representative Song: "I Don't Know."

She's got the unusual accent, and she's gunning for Regina's throne as Queen of Quirk: She was covered in chocolate to promote fair trade, her blog includes cake recipes, she knitted the cover of her album herself, and "prepared" her album in a barn, something I hadn't heard of a band doing since Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Sessions.

But it works, giving her the "plinky plonk rock" (her words, coined by a friend) sound and image she's trying for.

Where You Might Have Heard Her Music: Being a male, I'm constitutionally prohibited from watching this show, but I understand that she's featured about every 30 seconds on Grey's Anatomy. She also appeared on The Colbert Report, and she's the background music to a same-sex marriage support video that apparently is an Internet smash:

"Sinead's Hand,":

You learn something every day. I didn't know that the debate over whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry -- a debate that shouldn't even exist-- existed overseas, too. I guess people are stupid and shallow and narrow-minded in other countries, too. But maybe Lisa Hannigan can help end that.

What's The Weirdest Thing She's Done? I think she found the instrument she played on The Colbert Report in the trash. But I may have dreamed that.

5. Garfunkel & Oates: I only know about Garfunkel & Oates because I read Dan Savage every week, and one week he mentioned them in passing. I don't know anything else about them beyond (a) Dan Savage listened to them, (b) now I listen to them, and (c) they're both hilarious and quirky and good musicians.

I always secretly suspect that albums are concept albums. Or, to put it more clearly, I always secretly suspect that albums which are not reputed to be concept albums are, in fact, concept albums (like Get Behind Me, Satan, by the White Stripes) while also deciding that albums which claim to be concept albums aren't, like American Idiot by Green Day. So when I first heard most of Garfunkel & Oates' songs, I immediately decided that they told a story about two girls who fall in love and then fall out of love. If you listen to their songs, you'll see why; they seem to follow that pattern. (You can listen to a lot of them here.)

But I hate researching, and like most Americans I'd rather believe something than know something, so I've never checked that out.

Representative Song: I Would Never (Have Sex With You): Probably NSFW. Or NSF-sharing-with-the-kids, and it's also TKOSTWSHI,SWS"WDTJS?" (which stands for The Kind Of Song That When Sweetie Hears It, She Will Say "What Did They Just Say?")(I don't foresee that acronym catching on.)

Where You Might Have Heard Them: This song:

Called "F*ck You" (safe by an asterisk!) was reworked as "Screw You" and sung on Scrubs. Meanwhile, this song:

"Sex With Ducks," has been all over the airwaves, they say, only it's on shows I don't watch because I am stupidity-intolerant and have trouble watching "The O'Reilly Factor." What is that supposed to mean, anyway? The X-Factor was the gene that gave mutants their powers. Is O'Reilly saying he's a factor in something? And if so, can someone please tell me what effect Bill O'Reilly has ever had on the world, besides making me shoot milk out my nose everytime someone says Play us out?

Weirdest Thing They've Done: They played a show with "The legendary" John Oates.

6. Imogen Heap. Here's why it's a good idea to keep kids around: Sometimes, they introduce you to new music that doesn't suck, as happened to me when The Boy introduced me to Imogen Heap.

He didn't know he was introducing me to Imogen Heap; he thought he was introducing me to a Saturday Night Live skit making fun of an obscure The O.C. episode in which one kid kills another or something; that led to the skit, Dear, Sister, in which a bunch of people kill each other to the repeatedly-restarted song Hide And Seek by Imogen Heap.

Here's the OC part:

And here's the parody, which is pulled off of Youtube all the time, so don't be surprised if it doesn't work. If this is out of order, go to Youtube and look for "Dear Sister."

The song in the background of the short is "Hide and Seek" by Imogen Heap, and apparently is not at all representative of her work, even though it's a really great song.

What is representative of her work, then, you might ask? Having asked it, let me have Imogen Heap answer you. According to her Youtube channel, her work sounds like:

Starlings @ sunset, food, brain ache books. Coming out the cinema after an amazing film feeling, log fires. Folk I know + like who make music + also spend lots of time alone, noodling : back ted n ted, Milosh, Zoe Keating, David Sugar, Pixelh8, Leo Abrahams, Jon Hopkins. Family, Men or the lack of them, people i violently disagree with. A calm beautiful day. Bustling London. Driving my car, jogging, RJDJ. Basically pretty much anything! yay o yay bring forth the wonderfully random jolts of life.

Representative Song: I've listened to a bunch of her music, and I tried to pick out the song that best captured the "starlings @ sunset... back ted n ted...RJDJ" feel. That's not, as you'd gather, an easy feeling to encapsulate. It's even harder when most of what Imogen Heap has on Youtube is a video blog:

No, I didn't watch the whole thing. I don't want to watch singers talk, any more than I want to watch writers sing, or actors run for political office or Brad Pitt do anything. Instead, I clicked around and found "Headlock," which seemed pretty good:

Where You Might Have Heard Her: You didn't watch The OC, did you? Because if you did, you and my dad have something in common, and I still can't believe anyone, let alone my dad watched that show. Or you might have heard her in the SNL parody. And her song "Can't Take It In" was used at the end of the movie The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe:

What's the Weirdest Thing She's Done? I'm just going to go ahead and quote from Ms. Heap's blog:
The thing about flamingos which I learnt pretty quickly is that they're not that into us getting too close to them. They like to keep a good wide berth! So In order to combat this situation I went down the local fancy dress shop and bought myself a 6 foot flamingo suit. I was very convincing!

She goes on to note that she was just kidding about that. She then played a B-side of her song "Headlock" for a Maasai warrior. She seems like she'd be pretty cool to know, come to think of it.

1 comment:

Buzen Media said...

They are such a notorious pair! Garfunkel and Oates that is. If you guys want to see them soon in NYC, they'll be up at the Gotham Comedy Club Oct 14, 6:30 PM.