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Track Marks is a regular feature on SportsAlcohol.com where a writer highlights a single a single song. Yes, we’re really calling it that.

Track Marks 2020: “No Body, No Crime” by Taylor Swift

Jeremy Beck runs the website MovieManifesto, where he writes many, many movie reviews that nobody reads.

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

For poptimists of a certain basic sensibility—not that I have anyone in mind—the prospect of Taylor Swift collaborating with Haim was tantalizing. (When I learned the news about Swift’s surprise December album, I was more excited than I’d been for any new music since… well, since Swift released her first quarantine record less than four months earlier. 2020 was an undeniably terrible year, but it had its first-world silver linings.) But “no body, no crime,” the sixth track off of Swift’s evermore, doesn’t just feature Haim as musicians; it features Haim as characters. It’s a murder ballad, starring Este Haim as the scorned woman who confronts her unfaithful husband, who then promptly kills her.

Sorry, did I spoil the ending? Not really, though I can understand the complaint. With its potboiler tone and its canny details—weekly dinners at Olive Garden, fateful life insurance policies—“no body, no crime” is decidedly cinematic, a 1940s noir by way of the Coen Brothers. In just three-and-a-half minutes, Swift tells a three-act story that opens with infidelity, progresses to homicide, and concludes with righteous vengeance. The plot traffics in hairpin twists and grisly violence: First, Este confides her suspicions about her husband (“that ain’t my Merlot on his mouth”) before accusing him of adultery, at which point she suddenly disappears; then Swift, ever the loyal friend, responds by killing the killer, framing his mistress for good measure. (Her alibi comes courtesy of Este’s sister, Danielle Haim, who casually lies to the police: “She was with me, dude.”) The lyrics are so clean and sharp, they compel you to imagine the sordid scenes unfolding in your mind, Swift effortlessly conjuring a squalid world of cheap jewelry, incriminating tire tracks, and corpse-carrying speedboats.
Continue reading Track Marks 2020: “No Body, No Crime” by Taylor Swift

TRACK MARKS 2020: “JU$T” by Run the Jewels

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

I don’t need to go through the whole rigamarole here about what an absolute dumpster fire 2020 was. We all experienced it; we all read the year-end reviews that rehashed it; we all know. Many of us hoped the start of 2021 would bring at least a bit of a respite. How foolish that seems now. January 6th was just the most recent of days where it felt almost dystopian to be still checking in on work email while the world fell apart before our eyes. At a time when so many are unemployed, facing eviction, scraping together a living, anger often feels like the only legitimate reaction. What, exactly, is the point of clocking in right now when it has never been a guarantee that you would be safe or cared for or valued beyond your ability to produce something commodifiable? That’s where a song like Run the Jewels’ “JU$T” comes in, articulating such volatile emotions with the ecstatically blunt verbosity that has become their trademark.

Since they started working together in 2013, Killer Mike and El-P have built up something of a formula for most Run the Jewels songs, the former trading bombastic rhymes with the skittery energy of the latter. But over the course of their four albums they’ve made brilliant use of a wide variety of collaborators, from Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio to Mavis Staples to Blink-182’s Travis Barker. If your only awareness of Pharrell Williams was his “Happy” song being played on countless Democratic nominee stages, you might have been surprised by his appearance on this track. Certainly it’s a bit more unexpected to hear him sardonically deliver “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar” than when Mike and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine take up the refrain. But according to the Song Exploder episode on “JU$T,” the line was Pharrell’s idea. And of course it shouldn’t be a surprise at all. He is a Black man, and no amount of success or wealth shields him from what that means in America.

It all starts with four beats that sounds like a heart revving up before moving with lethal rapidity to verses that mercilessly skewer the capitalistic cycle that forms the backbone of our country and the parasitic ways it works to keep us, especially Black people, at its mercy. “Try to sell a pack of smokes to get food/Get killed and it’s not an anomaly/But hey, it’s just money,” El-P raps, a nod to Eric Garner when it was written but with George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day became a damning indictment of America’s inability to enact any meaningful change. Backed by a choppy chorus of voices both angelic and robotic, like the sort of menacing call waiting tone you’d hear on Judgement Day, it’s an anthem that feels tailor-made for live performance. In any other year, you can imagine a huge crowd at an outdoor concert ironically shouting “Make money!” back at the rappers. In 2020 we had to settle for screaming into the void instead, but at least it was comforting to know that artists were doing it too.

Track Marks 2020: “One Night Standards” by Ashley McBryde

Ben self-identifies as a Slytherin, so it makes sense that he is a business school graduate. He really liked the movie Margin Call, so that makes him SportsAlcohol.com's de facto business correspondent. By business correspondent, we mean the expert in movies and television about business (we don't care about the strength of the dollar or whatever).

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

Country music is about form. It is constrained and traditional. It is so standard that, yes, it all can sound the same.

So what makes interesting country is a song that plays with its subject. A song that plays with rhyme. One that’s clever and smart and self-aware of the constraints that it lives in.
Continue reading Track Marks 2020: “One Night Standards” by Ashley McBryde

TRACK MARKS 2020: “Stain” by Soccer Mommy

Jeremy Beck runs the website MovieManifesto, where he writes many, many movie reviews that nobody reads.

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

It’s barely even a riff. Just four notes, two of them repeated—dun-dun da-doom. And with those quick plucks of her guitar strings, Sophie Allison suddenly drains her typically whimsical songwriting of all color and hope. The penultimate track on Color Theory, Allison’s second album as Soccer Mommy, “stain” is a stark departure; there are no gentle choruses or hummable bridges. But there isn’t angst or despair either; though she’s examining the dying embers of a failed relationship, Allison is too lucid to lapse into self-pity. Instead, the primary sensation of “stain” is absence. It feels like a void, like a sonic representation of the lack of connection. No wonder it hit me so hard in 2020.

Still, for its opening minute, it can fool you; catch it askance, and you’re liable to misinterpret the repetitive guitar and the sighing vocals as the setup for a sweet and vivid love song. After all, while Allison’s music packs a punch, it can also be soothing. (In my favorite track off her prior record, she softly marries the intimate with the interstellar: “I’m just a victim of changing planets / My Scorpio rising and my parents.”) And in the initial moments of “stain”, her metaphors hint at the possibility of true romance, as a former lover insists that they were “pulled off the refrigerator and magnetized at heart”. But then: dun-dun da-doom. The riff that isn’t a riff arrives, and from there, the song becomes an autopsy, a quietly volcanic reconstruction of a moribund partnership. Allison’s lyrics are characteristically evocative—her ex’s words were “like chloroform”, and they’ve befouled her “like the sheets at my parents’ house”—but what’s truly disturbing about the song is that there’s no escape from it. That riff just keeps repeating, like an eerily melodic terminator; it never subsides, but it also never builds to anything, because that would imply progress. Yet there’s no catharsis here, no sense of long-sought closure or even righteous anger. And after three unrelenting minutes, Allison doesn’t fade out the track so much as extinguish it, comparing herself to a burden-out match.

Just before delivering that beautifully terrible image, Allison recognizes that this ugly union has inflicted permanent damage: “I’m always stained, and it’s never coming out.” She sounds ruefully self-aware but not despondent, and I’m weirdly jealous of her composure. Perhaps she’s used her music as an exorcism of sorts, virtually transferring her pain to the listener. And so, while “stain” is magnificent, it should probably come with a warning attached. Once this song scratches its way into your soul, it’s never coming out.

TRACK MARKS 2020: “Animal” by Katie Malco

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

In August 2020, I made a promise to myself: I would stop drinking for at least 90 days. It was one of those tests that people who suspect they might have a problem give themselves in the months, or years, before they decide to quit something for good. I made it, and then some, and while I have had a glass of wine at a holiday dinner here and there since, for the most part I’ve cut alcohol out of my life. The decision was and wasn’t related to the pandemic, which forced many of us to confront habits and tendencies that we otherwise might have been happy to avoid indefinitely. In truth it was a long time coming, longer than many of the people close to me probably realized. It also had some inevitable consequences, some of which I expected and some of which were a surprise. For example, I started noticing in ways I hadn’t before how people imbibed, casually or otherwise, in the pop culture I consumed — how the placement of a bottle in a frame can indicate either a detail or a problem, or how the intentions of a song lyric can be twisted depending on our knowledge of the singer’s life.

A lot of artists were confronting addiction issues in 2020, particularly women. Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud explored the often uncomfortable contours of recovery, as did Best Coast’s Everything Has Changed. While the U.K.-based Katie Malco’s debut solo album Failures has the sort of title that connotes struggles with a substance, it’s not explicitly about that. Alcohol is just one of the many coping mechanisms for modern life that are explored with unflinching honesty here. “Animal” is the bracing opening track; after the first fifteen seconds of plaintively searching piano it drops listeners in media res with Malco heedlessly powering her way through an all-night bender: “Thirteen beers and a bad taste in my mouth” are the first words we hear. It mimics the textures of binge drinking in both its lyrics and composition, with guitars that veer from chugging along like the train the singer has found herself on to the jagged shards of memory in the morning-after. According to Malco, “Animal” is based on nights when she stayed out to avoid being at home with her mother’s abusive partner. She cycles through the same story in both verses, not unlike how someone who’s suffered a blackout tries to piece back together what they might have done. It’s strung together with a chorus both defiant and defenseless, with Malco sounding like she can barely catch her breath, raging one moment for the listener to “take those worried eyes off me” and pleading with childlike vulnerability to be carried home in the next. I wish I didn’t recognize myself in those words, but Malco is not judgmental of her younger self, only of those who might judge her. Like many a drunk, the song relents eventually, tapering off with a churning coda like the singer has finally laid down, head heavy with a case of the bends that might never stop.

Looking back now, Malco’s potential breakout year feels more like a dream deferred. Though she’s been the opening act for artists like Jenny Lewis and Julien Baker, missing out on a headlining tour has to hurt, and it means a lot of music fans were deprived of a potential new favorite. I look forward to when concert venues open up again, and hope Malco has the chance to do some gigs in the U.S.; in the meantime, her album is available on Bandcamp.

TRACK MARKS 2020: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

Ben self-identifies as a Slytherin, so it makes sense that he is a business school graduate. He really liked the movie Margin Call, so that makes him SportsAlcohol.com's de facto business correspondent. By business correspondent, we mean the expert in movies and television about business (we don't care about the strength of the dollar or whatever).

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

1. History and Context

Do you ever listen to an old song and ask, if this song came out today, would it still be a hit? Sure, there are songs that are clearly of their time — a grunge anthem that typifies the ’90s or an early hip-hop song of the ’80s that might not translate well. But then, there are those songs from whenever they came out that make you think, yeah, this is still a banger.

“Blinding Lights” answers a different question: If you created a perfect ’80s synth pop song with post-2000s production technology in the year of a quarantine, would it be popular?

Sure, the ’80s has its gems. Yes, Pitbull can sample Ah-ha’s classic “Take On Me” in “Feel This Moment” to push out a party anthem, but Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) along with Max Martin and Oscar Holter (with a few others) did something remarkable: They created a song for 2020 with its roots clearly in the 1980s (if not a little before), and they made it slamming.
Continue reading TRACK MARKS 2020: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

TRACK MARKS 2020: Coldplay’s “Orphans,” the Unintentional Pandemic Anthem Released in 2019

Gripes
There are contrarians, there are iconoclasts, and then there is SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Marisa. A contraiclast? Her favorite Springsteen album came out this century, so she is basically a controversy machine.

Also, she is totally not a dude!
Marisa
Gripes

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

Coldplay performed “Orphans” on Saturday Night Live on November 2, 2019, when I was more worried about middle age than coronavirus.

“Shit,” I thought. “This is catchy.” As a rock-music fan approaching 40, I’m always worried about showing my decrepitude through the music I like. Ragging on Coldplay is an easy way to keep my bones from turning to dust. It shows I’m still with it enough to discern the difference between corporatized, consciously-coupled-with-the-mainstream dad-rock and truly felt, authentically crafted indie rock. But every once in a while Coldplay manages to slip a song through my defenses and expose my whole view for the lie that it is.

Continue reading TRACK MARKS 2020: Coldplay’s “Orphans,” the Unintentional Pandemic Anthem Released in 2019

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Want You In My Room” by Carly Rae Jepsen

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Back when Carly Rae Jepsen was really blowing up, by which I mean gaining popularity with some of the more idiosyncratic and picky pop-music fans and/or nerdy music critics circa her middling-selling 2015 album Emotion, I, as a picky pop-music fan and nerdy movie-not-music critic, found myself trying to explain why I liked CRJ so much. (I challenged myself not to cite her haircut at any point in this exercise.) I landed on this: She is old.

Not old by normal standards—she’s five years younger than I am, and I’m still young, right? Right?!—but for a pop singer having her big (which is to say medium) 40,000-copies-in-six-months moment, CRJ was kind of on the old side. She was nearly 30 when Emotion came out; even when her actual megahit “Call Me Maybe” took the world by storm in 2012, she was in her late twenties, and a full nine years younger than Justin Bieber, the beloved pop singer who gave her a major commercial boost. Listening to Emotion, I had the distinct sense that this was a person who had lived with herself—her personality, her disappointments, her music tastes—a little longer than the barely-formed kiddos hailed as ingénues and prodigies at 17, 18, 19, the normal (which is to say insane) age for coming of age as a peppy new pop star.

That might seem absurd, because Emotion does include as one of its highlights a song called “I Really Really Really Like You.” By most standards and by her own design, CRJ’s musings are not overly sophisticated. She captures crush-rush and shruggy-emoticon break-ups and fleeting empowerment; she’s not introspective and melancholy and wry, like Jenny Lewis (to cite another singer I’d follow anywhere at this point). But the craft of Jepsen’s songs is often sophisticated, and that’s especially noticeable on “Want You In My Room,” a cut from her hotly anticipated 2019 record Dedicated.

I get the sense that Dedicated received a relatively muted reception from some of the CRJ faithful—though anyone faithful enough to see her in concert could see the new songs greeted with appropriate rapture. It’s not quite as bouncy or immediate as Emotion, and feels a little more, well, yeah, mature. A little more MOR, if we’re feeling unkind. But the album’s many highlights reveal themselves; it just happens a little slower than it did on Emotion. And the great thing about “Want You In My Room” is that it’s not especially tasteful. CRJ kicks it off with kind of an exaggerated seductive-baby voice, giving way to sultrier-toned come-ons in the next verse, and then a robo-voiced chorus stating her desires plainly: “I want you in my room,” the voice I visualize as Robo-CRJ robo-sings. “On the bed, on the floor,” Regular CRJ adds. There’s a falsetto “I wanna do bad things to you!” and an invitation to “slide on through my window.”
Continue reading TRACK MARKS 2019: “Want You In My Room” by Carly Rae Jepsen

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” by Taylor Swift

Jeremy Beck runs the website MovieManifesto, where he writes many, many movie reviews that nobody reads.

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Given that she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, it should be difficult for Taylor Swift to don the cloak of the underdog. But among her many gifts as a songwriter is a knack for immersion, the way she can use a sharp hook or a snappy phrase to instantly pull you into her filigreed worlds. Lover is a massive album (18 tracks!) that was massively successful (double platinum!), but when “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” kicks off, Swift is just another shattered teenage girl again; she effortlessly conjures a familiar high-school dystopia, the modest drums combining with her slightly breathy vocals to yank you back to a time of adolescent heartache. The lyrics are characteristically simple but evocative: She’s ripped up her prom dress, she’s running through rose thorns, she’s fending off whispers from judgmental classmates about how she’s a bad, bad girl. It’s The Scarlet Letter by way of Mean Girls.

Of course, “Miss Americana” is more than just another of Swift’s teen-centric fairy tales, like “White Horse” or “Love Story”; it’s also a cri de coeur in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” she asks rhetorically while staring helplessly at “American glory faded before me,” and her despair is palpable. There’s even a whiff of gerrymandering/voter suppression (“The whole school is rolling fake dice”), but mostly she’s just left helpless and depressed, learning of the election results (via a football scoreboard, naturally) and then running for her life. When the bad guys are exchanging high fives, all that’s left to do is paint the town blue.

Here’s the thing, though: None of that political metaphor is essential to appreciating “Miss Americana” as a kickass song, a finely constructed ballad that builds to a soaring conclusion. Swift is such a phenom, it’s easy to overlook just how skilled she is, how she approaches her work with sincerity and craft. It’s there in the spondaic shouts of “OH-KAY!” that punctuate several lines, and in the light piano that pops up in the chorus, meshing with the throbbing synths. My favorite part of the song is the bridge, where backup singers shout the last word of each line: “And I don’t want you to GO! / I don’t really wanna FIGHT! / ‘Cause nobody’s gonna WIN!” That sounds like surrender, but listen closer; after three crushing repetitions, Swift suddenly inverts the lyrics, promising that she’ll never go, that she’s staying to fight, that she’s determined to win. It’s a lightning-quick flip—from compliance to defiance, from desolation to resolution—and it turns this once-despondent ditty into a roaring battle cry. So sure, maybe it’s tough to accept Taylor Swift as the underdog, but only because—as this intricate, ecstatic song proves—she doesn’t know how to lose.

TRACK MARKS 2019: “Cheerleader” by Sir Babygirl

Jeremy Beck runs the website MovieManifesto, where he writes many, many movie reviews that nobody reads.

Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.

Everyone hates cheerleaders. They’re the popular crowd, the mean girls, the queen bees who date the star quarterback and occupy the prime real estate in the cafeteria. If you’ve ever felt remotely marginalized or uncool, you’ve probably wished them harm or misfortune at some point, if only idly. Of course, this conception of pom-pom-wielders as bimbos, tramps, or both is an ugly and outdated stereotype. But on the power-pop anthem “Cheerleader,” rising artist Kelsie Hogue (aka Sir Babygirl) nevertheless gives voice to those dark and disgruntled thoughts, confessing to scribbling graffiti in the bathroom stall about how “everybody wants to watch the cheerleader fall.” She’s on the outside looking in, and when she asks for your complicity—”I’ll kill my reputation if you promise not to tell / I’ll kill my reputation if you come with me to hell”—it’s as though she’s concocting some sort of dastardly scheme, grist for a made-for-TV movie.

But is Hogue devious, or just envious? As “Cheerleader” progresses, its light notes of electronica gathering a propulsive energy with a heavy bass and thumping drums, it turns into a kind of empowerment ballad, and not just about the extra in the background who inadvertently drops the prom queen. As Hogue imagines climbing to the top of the pyramid—wearing a skirt so tight it makes her bleed, and festooned with friendship bracelets that double as handcuffs—the song transforms from an angsty lament of isolation into a glorious fantasy of belonging. Hogue doesn’t want to kill the cheerleader, she wants to be the cheerleader; the bridge is a plea for your support, exhorting you in a howling crescendo to “Come on, cheer me on.” It’s so noisy and catchy, it’s easy to miss the intricacy of the mix: the snap of the snare, the snaking guitar line, the way the precisely timed rat-a-tat barks of “C’mon-c’mon-c’mon” sit alongside the classic chant, “Be aggressive, B-E aggressive!” (Yo Grimes, you hearing this?) It’s simultaneously shameless and triumphant, and as Hogue’s immaculate shrieks grow higher and higher, you have no choice but to join her cause. After all, everyone loves cheerleaders.