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Send in the Clowns: An Ode to Circus Music

I started listening to Architecture in Helsinki recently (which Kerry Miller recently and brilliantly reviewed for our site), and they’re one of the most innovative bands I’ve heard in a while. I had a somewhat irrational hatred of Architecture before I had ever heard a single chord, solely because upon hearing their name, my boyfriend said, “More like Architecture in HelSTINKY.” I had just reviewed Say Hi to Your Mom and the Shout Out Louds and was frankly sick of silly, over-the-top band names.

I try to think about why I like the music I like so much. Oftentimes it’s about lyrics. You see, I’m a huge poseur. I’ve been writing about music since I was 19, and I really know very little about MUSIC. I know about words. Chord progressions and baselines, not so much. But the lyrics for Architecture in Helsinki, while pleasant, aren’t anything to write home about.

After listening to “Do the Whirlwind” approximately seventeen times in a row (when I really like a song I end up listening to it ad nauseam like an autistic child), I realized why I like it so much; with its bicycle horns and cow bells, it sounds like circus music. I fucking love circus music. It’s boppy and upbeat and never fails to make me smile. It makes me want to run around the block several times and basically act like a child; there is a certain unfettered exuberance that goes along with the circus vibe. Several of my favorite bands and songs I describe as sounding like circus music, and I mean it as a compliment. I hope one day the designation of “circus music” will be added to the rock pantheon of snobby crit words like “prog rock,” “shoe gazer,” and “quietcore.”

‘Cause I know you people love lists so much, here is my list of top Circus Music Songs:

“If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart,” Beulah When Your Heartstrings Break.
This song from the now-defunct member of the Elephant Six recording collective starts out with a trumpet melody that might as well be announcing a fleet of clowns exiting a tiny, tiny car. After the trumpet intro, Beulah launches into one of the prettiest, sweetest love songs I’ve ever heard.

“A.M. 180,” Grandaddy Under the Western Freeway calls Grandaddy “space pop,” which I suppose is the snooty rock crit way of saying circus music. This song has a wonderful background to Jason Lytle’s soft tenor, that sounds like it was played by an organ grinders’ monkey. Once the hard core guitars break in over the twee synth work, a great example of circus music has come to pass.

“Clap Your Hands!” Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, S/T
Hell, this band even has a circus-y sounding name. The first track off their self-titled debut has lead singer Alec Ounsworth sounding like a creepy, David Byrne-ish ringmaster, announcing the onset of an album that will satisfy all of your dancing elephant needs. When Ounsworth tells the listener to “Clap Your Hands!” you want to oblige like any good circus-goer.

“U.R.A.Q.T,” M.I.A (Diplo Remix) Piracy Funds Terrorism
This is a more dance-y brand of circus bop. The bleating brass background to M.I.A’s ode to text-messaging is only vaguely circus-y, until the end of the first verse, when the exclamation, “YOU BIG DUMMY,” is inserted quickly after M.I.A’s sultry rhyme. What makes this track even better is the line, “Is your dad a dealer ’cause you’re dope to me,” which is perhaps the best pick up line I’ve ever heard.

“Butterscotch,” CocoRosie La Maison de Mon Reve
This song was clearly written by people with a limited grasp of English, which makes it even more adorable. “You remind me of baseball!” Coco (or Rosie?) sing/speaks in her twee chirp. “Butterscotch,” has rooster crows and alarm clock digitized sounds throughout the song. The best is the “La la la la las” that punctuate each chorus. Pure circus goodness.

“Peach Plum Pear,” Joanna Newsom The Milk-Eyed Mender
Joanna Newsom is practically the patron saint of circus music. I mean, have you heard her voice? She sounds like a creepy woman-child and the organ + harp that back up her yelping just serves to make “Peach Plum Pear,” a circus classic.

“Do the Whirlwind,” Architecture in Helsinki In Case We Die
I’m realizing that “Circus Music,” might just be another way to say “twee,” but I’d like to think that this collection of songs is less wussy than twee tends to be, though it’s still excessively girly. The percussion, full of handclaps and chant-like verses, makes this song fit perfectly under the big top.

Honorable Mentions:

“Grizzly Bear,” All Girl Summer Fun Band 2
“Chimbley Sweep,” The Decemberists Her Majesty
“Together Forever in Love,” Go Sailor Go Sailor
Wanna tell me about more circus music? Holla Back Yo.