Music for the voracious infovore?
August 22, 2011 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I really like music that inspires me to jump up and...go read Wikipedia (or a dictionary, for that matter)! Bands that have produced the sort of thing I'm talking about here include Rasputina, Phideaux, and (to some extent) They Might Be Giants. Help me find more of this particular brand of awesome in the musical realm! Special bonus points if they can actually play their instruments well.

Now, I realize there are plenty of specially-crafted "educational" songs out there, some of which may on occasion end being musically pleasant as well. But that's not exactly what I'm after here. The sort of music I am seeking tends to be made by artists who do other sorts of things as well, and whose style is more...well, not "sophisticated", exactly, but at the very least it sounds like music someone actually put some effort into, rather than it just being there to hold up a set of wholly didactic lyrics.

In other words, songs and albums that contain references to actual historical events, or scientific ideas, or that make use of unusual/archaic vocabulary just seem to send me into transports of nerdish delight. One band that I adore for this reason is Rasputina -- their Oh Perilous World! album, in addition to being musically lovely, has resulted in my going off and learning a ton of interesting stuff about the real-life inspirations behind some of the songs (e.g., Pitcairn Island, Fallujah), however dramatized/mythologized the realities ended up being for songwriting purposes. And you have to appreciate a band that manages to insert awesomely appropriate words-I've-never-heard-before, e.g., scapegrace, into their songs!

Other examples somewhat along the lines of what I'm after are pieces like The Search For Terrestrial Life and Formaldehyde (both by Phideaux). The former includes a "spoken-over-music" intro bit (unfortunately can't find a transcript online; it occurs before the "regular" lyrics kick in) that refers to, among other things, "stromatolites" and "trilobites", whereas the latter actually has someone singing the formula for formaldehyde (HCHO)!

Oh, and Mammal by They Might Be Giants is another good one (Main-taining the ver-y high me-ta-bol-ism rate they haaave....).

Anyhow, I would LOVE to find more stuff like this. Thus, any suggestions of bands / albums / songs along similar lines would be very very much appreciated. Also, from a "sound" point of view, my taste tends much more toward "melodic prog rock" than rap or heavily-synthed pop or similar.
posted by aecorwin to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I think you want the Decemberists.
posted by chbrooks at 4:01 PM on August 22, 2011

The Hold Steady can be heavily intertextual in a sort of idiosyncratic way, the points of reference being the Bible, the punk/hardcore scene (about which I still know basically nothing despite being a big fan of THS for four years or so), music more generally, and various bits of weird Americana. NPR created some annotated lyrics (linked on the blue recently I think) that call out some of the references. Basically you'll get a lot more name-dropping and free-association than you will, like, songs about mammals or retellings of folk tales, so perhaps somewhat less depth than you were hoping for.

But it might be close enough, and also the Hold Steady are awesome, so.
posted by silby at 4:08 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

They don't sound like it, but Bad Religion does stuff like this. Vocab words for the day from here and here: moiety, incongruous, consternation, trepidation, whimsied, tumult, allegory, automatons, sequestering, antithetic, sagacious, pomp, opulent. It's actually not too surprising when you learn their lead singer has a PhD from Cornell.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:44 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interesting suggestions so far, keep 'em coming! :D

Re. the Decemberists, I'd heard OF them prior to chbrooks' suggestion but never actually sought out any of their stuff. A brief youtube sampler later, I can say that they're very much in the right lyrical neighborhood. The lead singer's voice, however, is REALLY annoying to me (and I like some rather unusual singing voices, e.g., Joanna Newsom). I'm hoping maybe it's an acquired taste, though, as the songs do seem pretty compelling thus far...thanks for the tip!

Re. The Hold Steady, never heard of them before at all! Something new to check out, though the subject matter referenced (bible/Americana/etc.) isn't *quite* as compelling to me as (as you note) stuff like mammals and folktale-retellings.

Re. Bad Religion, heh, I actually do have some of their stuff already -- will have to listen more closely next time it's on!
posted by aecorwin at 5:20 PM on August 22, 2011

To give you an example of how wordy The Hold Steady are, I'm currently reading Nelson Algren's 'The Neon Wilderness' because they mention Nelson Algren in one line. You could compile a whole reading list based on their songs.

Craig Finn from The Hold Steady read a Walt Whitman poem on Titus Andronicus last album, The Monitor. They're a bit 'love them or hate them' (as my FPP proves) but their last album is a concept album based on one of the great naval battles of the Civil War and contains references to everything from Abraham Lincoln to The Dark Knight.

My namesake band, The Mountain Goats, are so wordy you'll go nuts. They write about everything from Lovecraft to obscure historical battles and strange novels.

On a more traditional tack, you'd love ultra-wordy harpist Joanna Newsom, twee pop pioneers Belle & Sebastian, Australia's melancholic Augie March and literate mopers Okkervil River and Bright Eyes.

Since I'm pretty much just listing my favorite bands at this point here's a great punk song about Charles Dickens.

I can't confirm, but I've heard that both Art Brut and World/Inferno Friendship society are literate as hell.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:22 PM on August 22, 2011

You know Neutral Milk Hotel, right? They've got one really really famous album based on Jeff Mangum's lucid dream experiments about Anne Frank (and one less famous album that's still pretty good).

I'd also suggest Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. They've got verses like this one: "And the French foreign legion/You know they did their best/But I never believed in T.E. Lawrence/So how the hell could I believe in Beau Gest?" which is really enriched by knowing what it is they're talking about.

I'm going to think about this one more. I'm tempted to suggest many bands with concept albums (I'm a big lover of concept albums when done right), even going back to David Bowie, because it scratches the same sort of literary itch, but I suspect it's not quite what you want.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:38 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

*Beau Geste. Duh.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:39 PM on August 22, 2011

People kind of forget about them, but The Fiery Furnaces sorta combined indie rock with weird prog leanings. Blueberry Boat is their best, strangest album. I used to be obsessed with them before I stumbled on The Hold Steady.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:44 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you want to increase your vocabulary a little bit, maybe Harvey Danger. (For example: "This Is The Thrilling Conversation You've Been Waiting For" or "Diminishing Returns.)

Ted Leo is a great suggestion. It's how I learned the word "fungible."
posted by Modus Pwnens at 5:58 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try Elvis Costello if you haven't yet.
posted by shrieking violet at 6:05 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try Elvis Costello if you haven't yet.

And Bob Dylan. If you just know the protest songs, go for something like Highway 61 Revisited or Desolation Row.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:07 PM on August 22, 2011

Ooh, Dylan's a good suggestion. But even better might be Phil Ochs, who will, like Rasputina, teach you all about cannibalism! On a similarly folksy note, you might also enjoy Christine Lavin, an indie folk singer who writes all sorts of nerdy songs.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:17 PM on August 22, 2011

Andrew Bird might be worth a listen for you as well.
posted by vers at 6:19 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Because the lyrics don't nearly capture the Lavinness of those lyrics, I figure it can't hurt to share a link to her performing Planet X. Whether or not she's sophisticated, I'm not so sure. But it's at the very least heartfelt.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:34 PM on August 22, 2011

Tons of hiphop would fit the bill. Beastie Boys are a prime example. Many, many, many of their lines go like this:

I [verb] [adjective] [noun] like [obscure reference].

..and then you're all like, "Wait, what? Who?"
posted by Sys Rq at 6:34 PM on August 22, 2011

Aesop Rock too
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:39 PM on August 22, 2011

If you like the Decemberists, check out the Divine Comedy and their (his) alter ego the Duckworth Lewis Method. The latter band is named after a cricket scoring formula.
posted by immlass at 6:41 PM on August 22, 2011

a few more:
if you like classic prog rock, try Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and/or Gabriel's solo albums.

If you like metal, Mastodon's Leviathan is a whole album about Moby Dick. Tool are also prog-ish, and have lots of literary references. Propagandhi are awesome if you like progressive thrash, and have tons of historical and political content; they even include reading assignments.

Moxy Fruvous are sort of a Canadian They Might Be Giants. If you like TMBG's whimsical-but-dark style, also try King Missile.

Legendary Pink Dots might also work for you.

If you like Neutral Milk Hotel, try the other Elephant 6 bands, especially Of Montreal and Olivia Tremor Control.
posted by chbrooks at 7:02 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Propagandhi are awesome if you like progressive thrash, and have tons of historical and political content; they even include reading assignments.

Try their spin-off band, The Weakerthans
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:06 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Therion does lots and lots of ancient mythology, if you're into that. They're prolific, and make some excellent music.

Turisas, especially their second album, The Varangian Way, has some great ancient history. Their vocals can get a bit growly, but they're worth it. Just listen to this spoken track from their first album and tell me you're not captivated.
posted by gueneverey at 8:05 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

OMG so much awesomeness! Not to gushily threadsit but wow. I'm finding myself recognizing some of the band/artist names being suggested (Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.) and being inspired anew to check them out, but what is really excellent is seeing how many artists I've *not* heard of until now. Looking very much forward to trying The Mountain Goats, Art Brut , World/Inferno Friendship society, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, and so many others! Wheeee!

Oh and I really really liked the Andrew Bird video linked to by vers. Gave me bizarre flashbacks of weird clay "worm" sequence things I saw on Nickelodeon as a kid.

Regarding earlier Peter Gabriel / Genesis: actually there is a VERY odd spoken word(?) thing by Gabriel I've been looking for for years. Only heard it once, on public radio as a teenager, and really all I recall with any clarity was something about...a guy getting onto a train and pulling a metal rod out of his skin (or something along those lines). It was the kind of thing that was so weird I could hardly believe it even existed, and I would love to find it again, if only to confirm I didn't dream it or something.

Also, further refining the stylistic/aesthetic angle...while I harbor a certain degree of *respect* for Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, I can't really say I actively enjoy listening to them for very long. The vocal styles of those two just don't do it for me, for whatever reason.

Male vocalists I really like (if this helps at all) include Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Phideaux Xavier of the aforementioned Phideaux, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Maynard James Keenan of Tool, etc. Favorite female vocalists of the moment include Melora Creager of Rasputina, and Joanna Newsom. Obviously those are all very different from each other but at the very least they all seem to be fairly..."melodic" singers who aren't afraid to get really into what they're doing without worrying about sounding "pretentious" or over-dramatic.
posted by aecorwin at 10:15 PM on August 22, 2011

I'm not into metal, but surely that must be fertile ground? Iron Maiden have a few 'literary' songs, like one based on Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I'm sure there must be heaps of more obscure bands inspired by (mostly fantasy) literature.

Its worth noting that Art Brut, World/Inferno, Titus Andronicus, Ted Leo and The Hold Steady are all one or two degrees away from each other. Try plugging them or bands you like into something like Soundcloud, Last.FM, or AllMusic to see what comes up.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:20 PM on August 22, 2011

Oh, glad you mentioned Queen. I kept dithering on recommended them.

Two more to try: Rilo Kiley, and Mirah.

And thanks for asking this question. I've gotten some great recommendations here too. :)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:47 PM on August 22, 2011

ok - based on the vocalists you like I'll add Neko Case, who's really got a mindblowing voice. Also, if you don't know about Patti Smith you should check her out.

Also The National. Might be a reach given what you're looking for, but they're so great that I feel OK recommending them.
posted by chbrooks at 11:09 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

ok - based on the vocalists you like I'll add Neko Case yt , who's really got a mindblowing voice

There's a strain of literate, working class country/rock/folk you might like. There's Springsteen's Nebraska, guys like Willy Vlautin (who fronts Richmond Fontaine), Lucero

The Pogues have some neat literary references, as do mope indie grandfathers The Smiths.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:17 PM on August 22, 2011

The sadly now-defunct Moxy Früvous has a smart, Canadian perspective.
posted by bendy at 11:20 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anaïs Mitchell released a great concept album called Hadestown last year. It's a retelling of Orpheus's mission to rescue Eurydice from the underworld and features a lot of great folk artists: Mitchell voices Eurydice; Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Orpheus; Ani DiFranco, Persephone; Greg Brown, Hades; and so on.

Not all of Josh Ritter's work fits the bill, but he's an insanely literate songwriter, and his points of reference tend towards the literary: Shakespeare, Chekhov, the Bible. He probably breaks some kind of references-per-minute record in To the Dogs or Whoever and Thin Blue Flame (almost ten minutes long and worth every second).

Two lyricists with a bunch of side projects and distinct vocal styles: Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown (tons of folklore/mythology) and Dan Bejar of Destroyer. Bejar tends to favor allusions to pop songs; the song linked here references Otis Redding, The Smiths, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Doors.
posted by Cue the Strings at 11:27 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Vintersorg, aka Andreas Hedlund, is a Swedish prog-black-folk metal musician who makes music about math, science, scientists, history, and, mythology, space, nature. The vast majority of his music is sung in Swedish, but he did release a couple of CDs (Cosmic Genesis, The Focusing Blur, and Visions from the Spiral Generator) in English.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:29 PM on August 22, 2011

Owen Pallett's Heartland (sample track) is similar to Andrew Bird but he has his own ethos.

If you like dramatic male vocalists who aren't afraid to alienate their audience, you might like Mr. Bungle. He's sings about Henry Miller novels and eunuchs and other usually weird things.

Why?'s album is called Alopecia, so there's that. (sample track)

Seconding Sunset Rubdown and of Montreal.
posted by yaymukund at 11:37 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you like dramatic male vocalists who aren't afraid to alienate their audience, you might like Mr. Bungle. He's sings about Henry Miller novels yt and eunuchs yt and other usually weird things.

Sorry to be anal about this, but Mr Bungle is a band. The lead singer most identified with it is Mike Patton (Faith No More), who is in so many bands in so many genres (plus videogame voicework) I can't even begin to describe all of them.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:43 PM on August 22, 2011

The Tragically Hip make a lot of obscure Canadian references.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:06 AM on August 23, 2011

Oh! Sufjan Stevens's "state" albums Michigan and Illinois, which interweave personal stories with each state's history, geography, art, persons, and landmarks. Some examples of things I learned from Illinois:

- Casimir Pulaski Day is a state holiday (that will also make you cry)
- John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was hit in the head with a swingset
- Sangamon River overflowed in Decatur and flooded a nearby cemetery
posted by Cue the Strings at 8:35 AM on August 23, 2011

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