The first time I saw Robert Ellis, I’d never heard of him– he was opening for the Old 97′s in Nashville on the Grand Theatre tour. I remember when he took the stage, my husband and I were both skeptical: he looked like a kid. And more than just a kid, with hair down to his waist, he looked like a kid in the wrong century. We knew we were two sets from the Old 97′s– I just wasn’t prepared or ready for another act. And then he opened his mouth.
Something about Robert Ellis’s voice is more striking to me than almost any contemporary vocalist: sure, it’s full of the ghosts of all the country singers who’ve come before, but there’s something so unique and gorgeous in his delivery. It’s at once mournful and thoughtful; not maudlin, but reflective. And I remember that night, being a little nervous to approach the merch table even though I knew I couldn’t leave without his record, because he actually intimidated me from the stage. That’s kind of difficult to do. But watching Ellis is like watching a master– it’s hard to know how to react when you’re not ready for it. (Also, I eventually got over that nervousness and had the good fortune of doing a great interview with Robert here.)
The Lights from the Chemical Plant is an amazing follow up to Photographs, but more than that, it is the promise that Ellis is going to be one of the strongest songwriting voices to come out of this next generation. It’s one thing to put out one great record– but to immediately follow that up by making an even more striking and musically innovative record is a loud statement that confirms everything I thought I heard the first time I heard a note come out of his guitar. Every song is tightly crafted and exact, spinning narratives with rich characters and nuanced emotional responses. The title track, especially, is chilling–
A love song that spans a lifetime, Ellis uses the permanence of the lights from the chemical plant as a backdrop to discuss mortality against. Not just mortality, though– about what it means when a love is permanent and how, even that miracle is fleeting. The rhythm of the chorus is just slightly off what I would expect, and between that and the tone– the crest and fall, the constant swell and ache that feels like a lighthouse– this song is emotionally gutwrenching, but it’s also hopeful and lovely. It’s rare there is a chorus that is both this specific and musical:
As if to keep each other safe
They spent the night locked in embrace
And the lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
When all else seemed unstable
I could watch how they were there
The lights from the chemical plant
But I’m ahead of myself. This is the part of the song that is on permanent loop in my head, but to not discuss the way he’s structured the song generally would be an oversight. Perhaps part of what is so effective about this track is that it’s set up perfectly: first the setting, aided by the foggy feel of the music; then the characters and the love story; then the reflection. It’s at once incredibly personal and the story of every true love. By starting it, “In a small town/ Down the highway to the coast/ Factories and churches laid on dusty gravel roads/ This is where they first met, such a long time ago,” Ellis creates everyone’s childhood home. (My husband and I had a strange conversation about this– he said he wished there weren’t coastal images because he could see the lights from the chemical plant in Ohio, where he grew up. I said I loved it, because I saw Corpus. We both cracked up– why is it so important that every town is “ours” (And I’m not from Corpus, but as a Texan, the whole state is mine)? But Ellis does such a good job weaving the story in that the listener desperately wants to connect and be part of the narrative.)
What is it about Ellis that makes me want to be a part of the story? I wonder if it’s his voice, which is full of pathos, certainly; maybe it’s the accent, which is soothing and “home” to me. Maybe it’s just that the things he talks about are familiar to me.
As we talked about in the last interview, Ellis grew up with a religious background that he’s now conflicted about. Sin and hell aren’t ever too far from his lyrics, but neither is redemption or joy– Ellis manages to bring both aspects into his music and has been able to all along. You rarely get to see this kind of critical thought in action in lyrics: it’s hard to find a story in the reflection. Ellis manages to raise the flames of hell with an electric guitar and a banjo, all while exploring what that kind of old-time religion does to a young mind:
Nobody talks too loud in my hometown
Nobody stands too tall for fear of getting knocked down
Just follow straight lines and teach your children how
Well, you just do your job, and conceal your doubts
The flames of hell seem so high
When I can barely see over the pew
I was just a boy when they told me that lie
But Lord, it felt so true…
And that’s a hell of a thing to do to a kid
Just to teach him right from wrong
You can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can learn to sing along…
Honestly, I could have printed every lyric to this song and it would have been more effective than my editorializing because the ruthless honesty and directness is refreshing. I think between the unflinching look at what indoctrination does to a young mind (“A child believes whatever they’re told/ A pillar of flames/ A street of gold”) and the fast-paced bluegrass sound, Ellis has taken an interesting risk with this track and it pays off. If there was a train in hell, I feel like it would be going about this speed and feel about this hot. I love the balance between knowing there is a difference between right and wrong and being overwhelmed by what that is and how you know. (Any one who has read my fiction, I suppose, has seen that this is the dichotomy that I’m most interested in writing about, haha.) Another fun surprise on the record was his cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”–
“Still Crazy After All These Years” is an important song to me for a lot of reasons– first, I’m a huge Paul Simon fan and he was one of the first people I ever got to see live. Second, this is my mother’s favorite song of all time (except sometimes when she says “In My Life” by the Beatles) and so it’s one that I only think about fondly. Some of my all-time favorite lyrics and vocal lines. You don’t listen to Ellis’s voice and naturally think he should be covering folk artists from the 70s, but it is such a natural, warm thing to hear these words come out of his mouth. (I also recommend listening to his insane version of “Hearts and Bones” which I’m going to include at the bottom of the page– I’ve spent more than one morning crying in my office to his wailed, “You take two bodies/And you turn them to one”– good God.)
All of that said, I haven’t even talked about what I think the standout on the record is. The whole thing is beautiful– the almost-calliope-esque opening to “TV Song” that opens the record with a deceptive simplicity and leads into one of the most complicated, lovely reflections on TV and isolation culture I’ve ever heard– the final song, “Tour Song,” which is so dark and hard to listen to I almost can’t, and I tense up in that weird, instinctual fear and sadness every time he says, “Soon she’ll start to wonder/ What it is I provide” and the blunt pain of, “And I need her now”– the genuine sweetness in “Steady As the Rising Sun.” There is not only not a bad track on here, this is a nearly perfect record– one you can listen to without skipping anything.
But the best song, in my mind, is “Houston,” which has a lyrical depth and maturity that seems surprising for a second record.
“Houston” is, at once, a love letter and a breakup letter– not to a woman, but to the city that helped the narrator become who he is.Through his youth and his young relationships, the city is a constant, and it’s shaped him:
When I was afraid, your lights did not fade
No they shone through the night
We shared an apartment on the verge of downtown
Two kids so in love but in vain I had found
Well, when our love turned to rust
Then all I could trust was the cover of the blanket of the night
I owe it to you, I would have come unglued
Had it not been for the city and her light
But the line that crushes me is his goodbye: “You remind me of too many things.” How often do we have to leave a person or a place for that reason? “I’ve got to pick up and wipe the slate clean”– but leaving is going to be as bittersweet as staying. This song, perfectly underscored by the occasional whine of the pedal steel, seems to be the most nuanced look at how we deal with place in our lives. We are always “from” our home, whether we stay or not– but the identity and longing in the song seems to really sum up what it feels like to miss home, for me. This song isn’t so much nostalgia for me as it is a calculated, thoughtful move: but one that the narrator understands will be painful, like every other choice in life. It is so rare that in life any person can make a painless decision, one with nothing but good outcomes. Ellis explores this divide time and time again in his music, which adds layers, depths, and the most satisfying pain.
The Lights from the Chemical Plant is one of my favorite records I’ve bought in a long, long time, and it is gorgeous. I can’t recommend highly enough that if you like folk/country or any mix of the two that you explore Ellis’s work and catch on. I predict this guy is the next Jason Isbell– he’s got that level of talent and he’s young. He’s an incredibly writer, a gifted guitarist, and he’s put out one of the best records of 2014.
Oh, and here’s “Hearts and Bones.” Tell me that’s not the best Paul Simon cover you’ve ever heard.
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Sons of God, Felipe Molina. Paper size is 20″ x 15″; Image size 13″ x 8.5″
This website has opened up so many opportunities that I would have never otherwise had. One of the most exciting to me has been all of the different kinds of artists and creators I’ve been able to meet. This summer when I saw the Counting Crows in Cincinnati, I had the pleasure of meeting Felipe Molina, whom many will recognize as the artist and designer behind the Counting Crows’ most recent album artwork. He had one of the paintings he’d done for the record there with him, and when we walked into the green room, we got to see him unwrap it and share it with the band. It was stunning. It was almost like all the oxygen in the room was in the frame, and when he unwrapped it, breathing was better, more vivid. So when he recently announced he was making a new etching available for the public in late October, my first reaction was to ask my husband, “What do we pawn?” And that was BEFORE I saw it. I have never really written much about art, partially because I don’t have the vocabulary. That’s why, when Felipe asked if I’d be interested in reviewing his work, I was both stunned and honored. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing (so there was full disclosure!) but he insisted that was fine with him, probably because Felipe is a really nice man and he could see how excited I was about his work. That’s one thing I can bring to this review– absolute excitement. In fact, over the last few weeks, I’ve started writing this several times, but I always stop– I wanted this review to be the best it could be, because I feel like Felipe’s art warrants that.
So first, I want to talk a little about Felipe’s art in general, and then I’d like to talk about his forthcoming etching, “Sons of God,” which was the most instantly stirring piece of art I have seen in a long time. Counting Crows fans have been familiar with his work for a long time (the live album from Heinekin Music Center is also his), but what is most impressive about Felipe’s work to me is how it speaks for itself. After watching him tell a story in New York last month, I was stunned to realize that the reason I react to his artwork the way I do is because his work, while technically brilliant and compelling, is also a very visceral form of storytelling, which is another art at which he excels. Felipe knows how to weave humor into serious passages, how to balance dark and light, in a way that is reflected in every piece of his I’ve seen.
What jumps out to me immediately in his paintings is the way he uses color: generally, the paintings feel warm and earthy in a way that envelopes the viewer. When I look at the “Scarecrow” artwork or the “Earthquake Driver” painting, I escape into the world he’s created as effortlessly as I do when I’m listening to the song. This is pretty incredible for me: Felipe’s artwork actually feels to me like the music does. In the prints from the record, I see longing for connection and fulfillment; the desire to find a place to call home; what it means to run out of reasons to be hopeful; and also the strong, concrete reasons that people keep surviving. If you look again at “Scarecrow,” you can see the main figure has details on the arms– what looks like a ghost town on one arm and cacti on the other. This in no way resembles a tattoo sleeve: it’s so imagistic and symbolic that it almost feels like the figure has been turned inside out, the places and moments that made him who and what he is reflected externally. That makes the guitar in the center even more stunning: the idea that music is the connection, the thing that grounds this person in the sparse, harshness of the real world– it’s almost overwhelming.
The really stunning thing about Felipe’s paintings for Somewhere Under Wonderland, though, is that as well as they fit together, they are each perfect for the songs the suit. Again, “Scarecrow” winds up with what feels like sharp, angular pieces sticking out, almost like hay in a flannel shirt– it is at once shaggy and exact. However, the painting for “Palisades Park” uses more greens and blues, some beautiful moments of red and orange, and perhaps most stunningly, makes use of circular shapes that guide the viewer through the action of the painting. It’s much more meandering in the same way the song is: it tells a longer story, one that loops around and comes back on itself. There’s more enjoyment and engagement with the journey of this picture: instead of a knee-jerk intense reaction like I have to the “Scarecrow” painting, I feel like I could spend hours traveling these hills and remembering the story of the song. In fact, I almost can’t see it without hearing in the back of my head, “On a crosswalk in Reno, Nevada/ Wearing nothing but air/ And grey paper wings/ Andy says, “Man, I got nothing to wear.” This is incredible to me because, obviously, that’s not literally what Felipe painted.
That’s why Felipe’s art is so meaningful to me: he’s able to show something with shapes, colors, and symbols that tells a complete story. I’m not sure how to do that– that’s why it takes me thousands of words to review an album or a painting or to write a short story. But Felipe’s art is a gut-punch: it is completely engrossing. And I’m not going to lie, as someone who hasn’t been around a lot of art, I was shocked by the absolute layers and textures of his paintings: perhaps one of the reasons I can’t get enough of the paintings is because they have so many stories, moments, and paint colors layered on top of each other that I feel the same way I do about a good song: I could listen a hundred times and it never get old.
So now that I’ve talked generally, I want to show you a larger picture of the first image, “Sons of God”–
Every time I see this lithograph, I am stunned. I felt like, when I saw this for the first time, it was an external portrayal of my heart on long days. The first thing I saw was the moon: I am always looking for the moon, anyway, and the way he highlights it by circling it with darkness and then fading into a sunset or an orange sky in the background is stunning. All of its light is exemplified by the way it is, almost exactly, a hole in the sky. But my eyes move vertically down the painting, and the next image I am struck by is the men, constantly walking away from each other down the hill, home. The way they are set out from the background, too, puts them on the same level as the moon for me: these are things that do not blend into the background. These are things that cannot blend in or be forgotten. They are similar looking, which makes it even more telling: they can’t just be individuals, obviously, this is representative of something much more universal.
But maybe my favorite part of the print is what happens in the lower third of the painting. The black and white lines of the land and the stark dark shapes of the homes feel both nostalgic in terms of coloring and shapes– they are so intentionally not poker-straight lines and movements, but blurry like a memory and comfortable like a song or a picture of something you can only sort of remember. This is the destination not just of the people, for me, but for the moon. This is the redemption in the piece. I know I’m out on a limb (and there’s a fifty percent chance Felipe will read this and think I’m nuts), but this piece is a reflection of the constant work and yearning that seems to coincide with what it means to go or create a home, and the moon and the universe looks on it all with cool, calm indifference. And it’s stunning. I love this image more every time I see it. It’s been the background on my phone for a month and every time I see it, I think of one of my favorite James Wright poems, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” which has the lines:
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
But in the same way I’ve always seen the last line of Wright’s poem as a triumph, not a giving up or a giving in, I see this print as a triumph: the continual motion, the destination of home, the destiny of the moon and the world we live in. Plus, the title “Sons of God” makes it feel even more like the people are halfway in between their two homes, one of the world that gave birth to them and one of the society they are a part of. I get capital-R Romantic every time I see it.
It winds up, I really like talking about art, haha, and it’s easy when you have friends as talented as Felipe Molina and Frank Germano of manonfire design. My life is consistently made better by the beautiful visual art that I’m exposed to, and I’m grateful to be part of a world that not just accepts it, but honors and elevates their contribution.
You can actually buy the “Sons of God” print on Felipe’s website, and you can find him on Facebook and Twitter, too. (And seriously– you probably should follow him. When he tells stories and shares pictures, they’re always excellent.)
My friend Tim Slusher is an innovative music lover in San Antonio, TX. He’s worked on showcases like the Nekkid Armadilla at SXSW and he is also involved with the non-profit M.U.S.I.C. Project. Overall, he’s just a cool guy (who happens to have once shared the best donut I’ve ever eaten with me, so he’s also got that going for him).
Which is a big part of why, when he told me he was starting a monthly subscription box for music lovers called JukeBox, I knew it would be a success. One of the coolest surprises I’ve had in a long time was getting this in the mail. The boxes feature tons of music, but they also have fun products like trading cards, Legos, and other music-themed stuff (that all lives in my office, now). Tim has great taste, so of course the music is all top-notch (and in fact, this box had a Golden Bloom CD), but really, the whole thing feels like Christmas morning.
Along with hard copies, there are download codes and plenty of suggestions for things to listen to. In this box, there was a link to an Ali Holder record– between that and the CDs, you’ve already saved money on the box, which will run you from 19$ a month (one month commitment + shipping and handling) to 17$ a month (six month commitment + shipping and handling.)
Trading cards– note Soundgarden, Clapton, and Kravitz in the front.
I think the thing I had the most fun with was going through the trading cards. I didn’t know there were music trading cards, and wouldn’t have known to seek them out, but boy, it’s been fun having them in my office. I especially like the old school Soundgarden card, as I’m currently immersed in all things grunge.
I recommend signing up for the boxes because (a) you’re going to get good music delivered to your door once a month– you don’t even have to try! and (b) the other products Tim has found are a lot of fun, and will delight any music fanatic. I have enjoyed my JukeBox Box a lot.
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I’m a long-time Cameron McGill fan, and in the last couple of years, he’s released nothing but brilliant material. About a week ago, he released outtakes from the Gallows Etiquette sessions, and they are both instantly memorable, provocative tracks.
The first few seconds of “Canyonlands” is so arresting that before the vocals even start, my husband said, “Oh, I really like this.” Like always, McGill’s lyrics are impressive– individual images are stunning, like “Daddy’s a tornado man, he chases dreams.” Even the repeated lines, “This is honest work/ Oh, and I’m a good liar” are interesting.
However good the writing is, though, it’s impossible not to tap along with this song, even on the first listen. After one listen, by the next day, I was singing the chorus in my head. The music is stunning: the piano part is dynamic and the rhythm is in places, steady, and in places, jarring. It’s the perfect balance– but then, oh God, the brass comes in, and the whole thing becomes fireworks. So many of his songs feel that way to me– like they were already perfect, and then the brass comes in and lights the whole thing on fire. McGill has an ear for arrangement, and this song is a perfect showcase.
So it’s weird to me that this song was my instant favorite on the single. It’s much darker, and the lyrics span too much time to work in such a short song– but somehow, it does more than work. It’s incredibly thoughtful, but it’s also almost mournful due to a droning piano part.
In the beginning, there was blood and guts, then there came the mind.
When Lucifer had a change of heart they put the heart inside.
Man crawled out the pond
and ate the garden green. On the seventh day he took a love when
God was fast asleep
When a sacrifice was needed
On top of the mount
They grabbed the nearest knife and boy and asked for mercy now
I’ll do what you please
said a man under a spell
Just give me some of that
Outside of the obvious Biblical imagery, he has some of the most visceral pictures I’ve seen painted in soft piano ballads– “When we moved outside the mountains/ And our red teeth they turned white/ And they dulled with every meal/ Sharpened with every lie.” This song feels magnificent and authoritative, which is furthered by the steady percussion– it feels like a march towards the inevitable.
But what did I tell you? Then the brass comes in, providing almost a hopeful sound. The vocal moderation on the bridge is impressive too– it gives it an underwater feel.
I recommend you immediately buy this single, and really, chip in more than the 2$ he’s asking for. This is a great single, and ten years ago, we would have all been lining up to pay at least 4$ for it. He’s one of the best songwriters out there right now and this is a good representation of why. And if you haven’t bought Gallows Etiquette yet (which is the best title I’ve heard in a long time) you can do that while at his Bandcamp, too.
And just in case anyone here hasn’t heard my rant about “Athena, fate isn’t very fair” being one of the best songs I’ve ever known, I’m including it, too. You should also buy it.
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Aimee Mann and Ted Leo’s project The Both seemed like a strange coupling at first: Leo is known for more punk-tinged rock ‘n roll with lyrics born from passion and indignation (I always think of my favorite of his, “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb“) and Aimee Mann is the consummate singer-songwriter, known for melodies that underscore her very metrical, very precise writing style. (I’ve even read interviews where Leo admitted that trying to shove his words into her meter was difficult at first– though he thinks the experiment paid off.) I knew about one verse in to the first track, “The Gambler,” that this record was going to be something special and unique.
Ted Leo’s vocals come in strong, but when Aimee Mann’s harmonies pick up with his voice on, “I don’t want you to have/ My keys anymore,” the darkness and awareness in the song becomes round and full. This is an incredibly strong album opener. There are so many tiny haunting lines in this song– (“I’m aware of the stakes/ I can’t afford anymore”) that underscore the unpredictably dark chorus, which is a pretty apt description for the whole record: it sounds so good and is, in some parts, so downright pleasant, that it’s easy for songs to sneak up on you and be better than you initially thought. Though both artists are certainly capable of this kind of brilliance on their own, there is something magical about the chemistry here: when working alone, you don’t ever have to compromise. These songs represent both Mann and Leo’s best selves, and the success of that collaboration is evident from the very first track.
Perhaps the most instantly memorable song on the record, for me, was “Milwaukee,” which also happens to have a great video. (What is this, the ’90s? I haven’t gotten to use that phrase in a while.) The guitar part is a little more blistering than anything you’d normally hear on a Mann record and a little more restrained than what you’d hear from Leo– which is sort of the theme of this review. But it is incredibly fun to listen to. The song is so catchy it’s almost impossible not to tap your foot or nod along. The writing is also exceptional on “Milwaukee”–
We walked over the bridge in Milwaukee
Past the statues of Fonz and the duck
With the wind kicking in
and the sparrows all running amok
And that woman, your friend
who was pregnant
Put your hand on her belly for luck
And I laughed ’cause it’s you and I
knew that you knew you were stuck
You can tell
By the laugh in the dark
at the sound of the bell
You can tell
It’s the nucleus burning
inside of the cell
It’s the nucleus burning
inside of the cell
The lyrics manage to be both specific and vague: they create a character by allowing the listener to hear just a little bit about the person, and then having the narrator pull back and gloss over who the character is. (“I laughed cos it’s you and I knew that you were stuck”– because the narrator knows this, so do we.) It’s such an insightful way to invite a listener into the song, and between that and the incredibly catchy nature of the song, it’s a very inviting track. I think that’s what The Both does best: the listener seems to be a welcome guest at a fun party. Leo and Mann bounce not just concepts and lyrics but energy and talent off of each other, creating one of the most genuine collaborative records I’ve ever heard. (I’ve also heard that they’re even better live: that their conversation and reactions to each other and the music are almost as good as the music itself.) These are musicians who enjoy each other’s company and enjoy what they are doing, and that is reflected in every piece of music. It feels good to be a part of these songs.
“Pay For It”
After repeated listens, my favorite song is the upbeat, “Pay For It.” Though it opens on the chorus where they both sing, it’s Aimee Mann’s vocals that come in on the verse that set me on edge. They trade vocals constantly throughout this song, which makes it feel even more conversational. And with a chorus like, “You’re gonna make me pay for it/ You’re gonna make me wait for it/ You’re gonna make me pay for it now,” it’s a tension-filled conversation. My favorite lines–
And in the end, when you’d had enough
I said “Call your friend,”
So you called my bluff and more
Down at the package store
Do you think it’s tough?
Do you think it’s bad?
Have you had it rough?
Well I’ve been had before
And baby, I know the score
– are equal parts good writing and good “feeling” words. They feel good to sing out loud, and that’s again, partially at least, due to Mann’s notorious attention to meter. The result is a song that both feels and sounds incredibly well put-together. Mann’s and Leo’s vocals are perfect compliments, too: they switch on who sings the lead, who sings the melody, who sings the harmony– really, everything. And they do it with such ease that it almost seems like it’s impossible to tell where one musician ends and the other begins: they pick up each other’s threads and, at the end of each song, the process is complete and smooth.
“You Can’t Help Me Now”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how ridiculously good the writing on “You Can’t Help Me Now” is. This was apparently the first song they wrote, which actually surprises me a little: this seems like a pretty good indication they had things that needed to be said. This is Andy’s favorite song on the record, and we’re constantly listening to it and going over and over the middle verse:
Any time you establish a need to atone,
Down the tracks you can map on the
seams of your own broken bones
I wanted you to know
I’m not here to indict
And everything you’ve seen
is like a second sight
We’re inheriting the balance
of a poor birthright
Leo’s voice is more vulnerable and plaintive here than I am used to hearing it, but it is full of longing and understanding that seems otherworldly. When filled out with Mann’s strong harmony lines, it seems almost bolstered by itself: a song that is self-sustaining. Also, it’s rare to see “indict” used as a rhyming word, and hats off. That’s incredible. The song rises and falls against the sad chorus, “And even you can’t help me now,” which is built by a driving pre-chorus and their beautiful joined vocals. This song is indicative of the beauty of the whole collaboration. Mann and Leo are both so skilled in their own right that it is actually surprising how incredible they are together. This record is so good that it almost instantly becomes a part of both of their oeuvres.
Because I’ve already taken so much space, I won’t go song by song, but suffice it to say, I think ” The Inevitable Shove” is one of the best album closers I’ve heard in a long time. It’s constantly in my head, and again, because of the perfect blend of styles. This record seems like it was a lot of fun to make, and that’s reflected in the joy I get from listening to it. I look forward to whatever both artists do next, together or separate, but I hope this isn’t the last we hear of The Both.
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October 4 Boston, MA The Sound of Our Town Festival
Last October, I had the privilege to go to CMJ in New York City. I’ve written pretty extensively about how amazing the trip was, but the biggest takeaway musically, for me, was the song “Scarecrow.” I got to listen to Adam work the song out with a few members of the band before playing it that night at the Bowery Electric, and it was chill-inducing. I looked at Scott Thompson (Tallahassee) and recognized the same glazed over look of glee in his eyes: This was it. This was the new Counting Crows music– and it was even better than we’d ever even hope it could be.
The best thing about releasing records so far apart is that you can do a lot of quality control. Bands like the Counting Crows don’t release filler. But the thing that makes that unbearable for the fans is, when you know a band won’t put out crap, you always wish they’d put out more music– because you know how great it’ll be. Despite my rabid love of their music, though, the second I heard Somewhere Under Wonderland, I knew that not only was the record worth the wait, but it was important to have waited for it.
When I first heard the record, I leaned over to my husband and said, “I think this might be their best record.” Months later, that feeling hasn’t worn off. Somewhere Under Wonderland is a different record than their others– there are so many different sounds, the writing is even more imagistic, the band takes risks that pay off. It’s got the gravity and the pace of August and Everything After while being as catchy and memorable as Recovering the Satellites. There’s the experimentation and winding narrative of This Desert Life coupled with the epic guitar riffs of Hard Candy. The best songs on Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings point towards this record– “Washington Square,” “Hanging Tree,” “Anything But You,” “I Dream of Michaelangelo”– without making it predictable. It builds on the creative momentum of Underwater Sunshine. In short, this is the perfect next record in the Counting Crows catalog.
Since I first heard it, the chirpy “Scarecrow” chorus has lived in a part of my lizard brain: like with all good music, it’s become incorporated into me in a way that makes it feel like I always knew it. The music is catchy, but it’s also got teeth. Some of the most joy I’ve ever taken in wordplay follows the bridge on this song:
She was married alive in a Moscow surgery
Hoping to die in a cold war nursery
All of the kids back home believe in much more than we do
It’s a memory play where the memory fades
Into pictures you took
Into records we played
Spy vs. Spy
Scarecrow and I
Out across the darkness where the bomber jets fly
I hate to immediately jump into my metrical brain, but this song has a cadence that is undeniable. It just feels good to sing. There are constant turns-of-phrase that keep it just a little “off”– everything about the song is a little off-kilter, which gives it even more of an edge. The electric guitar riff that plays through the verses is incredible, too: it adds a certain edginess that keeps a listener involved.
Part of what stands out about this record to me is how different it sounds from song to song. Though it’s a cohesive record, the band takes risks in places. The first track, “Palisades Park,” is an eight-minute epic that fades in on a fuzzy trumpet solo before a moment of razor sharp clarity– “Somebody screamed/ And Jim Jeffries dream/ Explodes into a black fist.” The piano keeps the music taut throughout and explodes with tension at the chorus. It is almost impossible to write something so long that is riveting throughout, but this song does– in fact, this summer, the band put this song at the top of the encore. Though Duritz acknowledged that it’s a risk to play an unknown 8-minute song in that slot, it did really well– because it is dynamic and captivating.
Part of the reason people love to see the Counting Crows play is because their songs always take on a new life on the road: “Round Here” went from a radio single to a beautiful stream-of-conciousness epic. Some of these lyrics will probably seem familiar if you’ve seen “Round Here” in the last several years. The bridge, “Come to your window,” has been used in bits and pieces. Perhaps that’s why I feel like this song is a counterpart to that one on some level. In some ways, this whole record feels like an answer to the questions and problems in August and Everything After. I wish I could explain why I feel that way better, but I’ve listened to them back to back a few times, and it feels really good.
The lyrics in this song are exceptional (and really, that’s true for the whole disk). Some of my favorites are towards the end–
Hey man, have you seen Andy
I don’t know where he’s gone
Real love outlives teenage lust
We could get wet and it keeps us warm
Love is like angel dust
Lovely sometimes changes us…sometimes not
Have you been aching to trust or just…?
Have you been waking yourself with lust…?
Have you been making us up or just taking us home?
It’s a long wait at a long light
Cars frozen in flight
All the traffic stops to stare
At a crosswalk in Reno, Nevada
Wearing nothing but air
And a pair of grey paper wings
Andy thinks “I got nothing to wear”
I tried to cut that section down, but I just love it so much. I love the whole song, but once you get going on that section, you have to finish it. And as good as it sounds on the record, like the rest of their music, you have to see this live. I was completely breathless in Cincinnati, blown away by how the transition from the “come outside” section fades into this one. It’s incredible.
Probably the most surprising song on the record, for me, was “Dislocation.” There are so many clever lines buried throughout, but it was all secondary to the driving guitar and percussion for me. Dan’s blistering opening riff is one of the most rock ‘n roll things they’ve ever released. I’m blown away every time the song blares out of the speakers. I also think the focus on the word “Dislocation” is pretty phenomenal– what it means to be dis- located, or in the wrong place. There are also some uncharacteristically funny lines for a song like this. Of course, it does begin: “I was an alien in utero/ Somehow missed New Mexico/ Fell to earth in Baltimore, I know”. (The “I know”‘s become an important percussive tick, by the way.)
Every song on the disk has been a favorite for one reason or another: “A Prayer for Johnny Appleseed” is almost like a key to their other songs, and even allows Adam to address himself as narrator– “Come on Adam, tell me what the hell is wrong with you/ Come on Adam, what the hell am I supposed to do?/ I could love you, I could leave you, but I can’t live with what you put me through” make this feel like his most confessional track, which is really saying something. It also has one of my favorite lines of all time because the imagery has never been this good on anything else–
“I cigarette the winter air/ And then I Fred Astaire my way down Seventh Street”
It’s got references to walking out the front door and to Maria, so the familiar Counting Crows cast of characters is all there– but they look a little different in the morning light. It’s a delightful song all the way through.
But the song I come back to over and over again is the album closer, “Possibility Days.” When I first heard it, I was blown away. Duritz’s voice is more vulnerable here than it usually seems: not in a thin way, but in a way that makes the song feel incredibly personal. (Of course, this trait is why so many people are die-hard fans.)
We were waiting for winter this year
But you came and it never appeared
Me and you, we know too many reasons
For people and seasons that pass like they weren’t even here
Now “Living in smiles is better,” you say
But we carry the burdens of all of our days
So I’m scared that you’ll leave and you’re scared that I’ll stay
It’s an impossibility day
And we only saw half the ballet
The song explores the gulf between what’s possible and what’s impossible, and while it seems like maybe this relationship is the latter, it always leads back to more possibility days. I think it sums up better than anything else ever has the anxiety I feel on days that should have been more important. I think it better explains why new relationships are full of such unspeakable magic. “Possibility Days” is a song that obviously came from the man who wrote “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam” and even, in some ways, acknowledges the same pain of separation, but it’s different.
That’s what has made this record so difficult to talk about. It is both completely a Counting Crows record, no question– and also completely different. Songs like the upbeat “Earthquake Driver” find Duritz crooning, “I want to be an earthquake driver/ I want to be an aquarium diver/ I just don’t want to go home,” and later, reverse to, “I do not want to be… / I still don’t want to go home.” I’m looking forward, in the coming months, to listening to people ask him exactly what it means, because, first, he’s got a funny answer, and second, these songs don’t have to be perfectly defined to make perfect emotional sense. Because these songs function as a piece of surrealist art, or a collage– put together, they are greater than their whole.
Damn, this is a good record. I’ve been dying for everyone else to hear it so we could talk about it. You’ve still got a chance to pre-order and get all the cool art that comes with that, courtesy of brilliant artist and incredibly nice guy Felipe Molina, who created the beautiful paintings for the record.
It’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time listening to/preaching the gospel of Harvey Danger. When the vinyl reissue of Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? was announced, I was on the No Sleep website ordering a copy and a T-shirt as quickly as I could. There’s a tiny little part of me that feels like Harvey Danger is “my” band, that if I don’t act immediately, things will disappear. I don’t know how to explain that except to say that my interest and attitude reflects the urgency of the music, the tightrope walk of knowledge and hope. But then I began to realize that this record has been out for seventeen years– SEVENTEEN YEARS– and my relationship with this record is now old enough to drive a car. I’ve had this record since it came out, and now, getting to hear it on vinyl, it’s like I get to go back in time and hear it for the first time over again.
So why should you buy the reissue? I have six reasons. (I almost did “ten reasons” and just listed the songs.) You can skip down the list to whichever one applies to you (like a choose your own adventure review!) This should save you from some of my rambling awe. Or hell, if you like that kind of blind enthusiasm, read the whole article and then drop me an email and we can talk about how magical it is that we live in a world where things like Harvey Danger exist at all, much less re-exist.
(1) You should buy this record because you are already a Harvey Danger fan and you know how good this record is.
“But I have the CD,” I hear you complaining. NOT THE SAME. I’m the first to shrug off hipster accoutrements in favor of whatever is easiest or most enjoyable. It just so happens that this time, the best choice for everyone is vinyl. (I always think that, but I have specific reasons this time!) Merrymakers is not a record that exists in the background: it is passionate, almost aggressively so, and it is layered and beautiful. I had a writing professor tell me that the key to every good piece of art is that someone worried over every line and detail: this is a record that has been meticulously worried over.
I’ve known every word to this record since I was twelve. I don’t usually talk about how young I am on this blog because I know that makes me seem less “credible,” but I think it’s incredibly important to say: I have known this record since I was a child. And as a child, it meant something to me that has morphed and grown into something more important as I got older. All of the ghosts of my former selves live in this record. I cannot imagine a better way to honor that than to sit down and listen to it, very intentionally. To raise the needle and lower it, to hear the sacred hush before “Carlotta Valdes” and to take that final deep breath as “Radio Silence” winds down. And I swear, Nelson’s voice has never sounded better than it does on this record. Huff’s bass has never been so bombastic. The drums have never been so visceral.
You already like it on CD, though? And you don’t care about whatever near-religious ritual I’ve told you about?
Then you should buy it because Sean Nelson has written a beautiful retrospective essay in the front that actually helped add a new dimension to the record. I actually underlined things in the essay. I’m not kidding. Reading about how Aaron Huff’s bassline is what defines “Flagpole Sitta” made “Flagpole Sitta” shiny and new for me. And he’s right– it is damned impressive. It’s insanely good. All of the bass on the record is. And hearing how Nelson hears the record will add a new experience for any fan. No Sleep posted an excerpt, and because I think the essay is one of the best gifts the record has to offer, I’ll only reprint what they posted here, and not share each of my favorite parts:
That’s what this record is for me. I get to hear the person I was when I wasn’t yet me, and what an incredible gift. If you’re already a fan, I can’t tell you how powerful this experience is.
(2) You don’t know Harvey Danger at all.
This is a hell of a place to start. The writing is top-notch. I’ve already written about how brilliant Nelson’s lyrics are… here and here. (One of those places is a legitimate literary magazine that let me talk about HD, so… I guess you should know that my thoughts and feelings here are legitimate.) But I think Merrymakers does something very few records accomplish: though the writing is tight and specific, the songs grow and change as the listener grows and changes. There is room for life in these songs. They aren’t prescriptive: in fact, some of the songs were written specifically not to be prescriptive (Nelson talks about “Jack the Lion” in the liner notes). The weird tenderness of “Private Helicopter” seems to strike this truth the most bluntly for me. The set-up is interesting: “I’m in a private helicopter/ With my favorite ex-girlfriend.” When I was young, it always seemed like the love letter that could have been, the idea that isolation and being alone could make things work. Sort of the dream of the introvert. “If only it could be just us…”
Today when I listen to “Private Helicopter,” it strikes me that I don’t know many other tender break-up songs. This is a song about a relationship that didn’t work– but the people still miss each other, still respect each other. And that seems so true and real to me. (For full disclosure’s sake, just earlier today, I was singing Ben Folds’s “Song for the Dumped,” which seems in perfect contrast to what I’m talking about here…). I guess what I’m saying is that because of the depth of the lyrics (and music– the music is incredibly rich and layered, as well), these are songs that can be every bit as thoughtful and remarkable as you want them to be. And even if you don’t think that deeply about them, well, you’ve always got the fact that this record sounds so damned good. I was moved near tears today by a song I have known for seventeen years. (It was “Problems and Bigger Ones,” and the line, “The man was very helpful, but we knew he couldn’t stay/ There used to be a baby, but the baby went away,” destroys me.) I can’t think of many records that do that for me. One is August and Everything After, which, if you have read my thoughts on the Counting Crows, lets you know what I think of Merrymakers.
(3) You’re smarter now than you were in 1997.
Seriously. This is a chance to right that wrong. Go back in time. Buy the record. Jump on the bandwagon.
(4) The bridge on “Wooly Muffler.”
The sweetness in the delivery: “Belabored ex-pat fantasy/ Quit your job, and move away with me/ Oh, what bliss it would be/ To pretend we never–” and then the band breaks in in a cavalcade of organized noise and dischord. I’m not sure there’s a moment on the record I enjoy more than the transition between the previous lyrics and the fade-out, “I’m elated now, I’m elated now.”
I almost called this section several different things because there are so many magical moments on this record. The drums on the intro of “Carlotta Valdes.” The incredible smoldering close of “Radio Silence.” The anger and frustration in “Terminal Annex.” The thumping intensity of “Private Helicopter.” I could go on. What I’m saying here is if you are someone who ferrets out the moments in a record that matter, Merrymakers is a smorgasbord and you will not be disappointed.
(5) You’re someone who complains that songs aren’t original, or worse, that they’re all re-hashed versions of themselves.
I hear this complaint a lot: “All pop/country/rap/etc. sounds the same,” or “all those stories seem familiar.” Though I disagree and I think plenty of people are telling new and compelling stories with their music, I think this record is one of the best at disproving that disappointing thesis. “Jack the Lion” is about visiting a dying family member, and after seeing my grandfather in an assisted living home and then a nursing home, I can’t think of a song that so accurately captures that feeling. Worse, I’ve heard myself echoing the line about “strong hands” as a way of convincing myself that maybe things weren’t so dire before– this song is the living embodiment of the things we tell ourselves when we’re afraid and when we’re trying to say goodbye. It’s an upbeat. I’m not sure how to explain that except to say you should probably listen to “Jack the Lion.”
Every song on this record is unique in some way: the new, bumbling, excited love of “Old Hat” is invigorating to me, and by the time the female vocals come in at the soaring bridge, it seems like the most genuine love song I know. I am always lifted up by the lyrics, “I forget/ What my friends look like/ And they forget why they like me/ But that’s old hat, I’m so happy/ How do you write about that?”
(6) You have some kind of knee-jerk reaction to “Flagpole Sitta.”
If you loved “Flagpole Sitta,” you’ll find the same fun wordplay throughout this record. If you hate “Flagpole Sitta,” you’ll be shocked at how the rest of the record borrows the greatest things about the song (intense bassline, sense of humor, high octane rock) and manages to somehow escape the traits you’re too snobby to admit you like (I honestly don’t think anyone hates this song, I just think some people like to pretend they do.)
On a personal note: part of the reason I love writing about Harvey Danger is I am energized by this music. Believe it or not, I’m not trying to convince you. There are bands out there that I love– the Counting Crows, the Old 97′s– that I genuinely think are “everybody” bands. I am blinded by my love for Harvey Danger enough that when I listen to them, I don’t understand why they aren’t being talked about everywhere, by everyone. But I’m also protective of them in a way that I’m not of most bands I love. Often, I’ll have someone say, “I don’t get Harvey Danger,” and even though I’ll say, “I understand,” what I mean is, “I can’t talk about this with you.” Maybe I take it too personally: this was one of the first records that I ever listened to that made me think, “I am not alone in my enthusiasm. I am not alone in my passion.” Harvey Danger breaks my heart and rebuilds me. Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? was probably the first record to give me the vocabulary I would later come to rely on in my own writing and my own relationships.
Which goes back to what Nelson said in the essay: he says that this record is a picture of himself when he was not yet who he was. I get that. This record for me is a guide to how I became the person I am. It is a stunning piece of music and art, but on a personal level, it is much, much more than that. And seventeen years in, I am grateful this is one of the records that found its way into my hands and helped me learn how to become the person I wanted to be.
BUY WHERE HAVE ALL THE MERRYMAKERS ON VINYL:
The only other artist I feel this kind of protective about? Is Elliott Smith. If you’ve heard me talk about Elliott Smith before, that should be its own kind of recommendation for this record. (Also, know what a dream come true it was to hear The Long Winters perform “Pictures of Me” last October. It was one of the most fully realized moments I’ve ever had of listening to live music:Nelson taking the high harmony on “seen nothing wrong” was basically transcendent.) This is the only video I’ve found of the show, so here’s The Long Winters playing “Scared Straight”:
I talk pretty frequently about my dad’s influence on my love of music– and the way I talk about, think about, and listen to music. So it’s no surprise that, on this Father’s Day, I can’t stop singing Beatles songs. There was a time when I could name each Beatles track in the (American) track listing order, first record to last– including Hey Jude. (I’m old and can’t do it now.) Some of my greatest treasures from a young age were the tapes he recorded for me, especially this one– to this day, the best Beatles mix I’ve ever heard. (It’s got all the early treasures, which, if you’re any kind of a pop fan at all, are essential– “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” their version of “Til There Was You,” etc.)
When I think of my father’s voice, I often hear it singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” He sang it in the car, in the house, playing in the backyard, and tucking us in at night. It’s always been a song that was loaded with sweetness and home for me, because it was always around. The other song that is inextricably linked to my father in my memory is “I’ll Follow the Sun,” which, of course, sounds like a song about going away, but always resonated more as a song about coming home and the distance between the two acts. My dad had to travel a lot when I was a kid, but this was a song he sang all the time– and one that I still smile and think of him when I hear. Of course, now I’m the one far from home. That’s how things go. But, as the song goes, tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.
I’m not sure that this is a digression, because my memories of my dad all bleed together with my memories of how music works, but this is a story I’ve always loved. It’s one of my few early-early memories that is still as visceral as it was the day it happened. I played softball for years (and still pride myself on how tough I was: I was a catcher, and could even switch-hit on occasion. Young me was formidable). When I started, my dad signed on to coach– and he was great at it. We were in a coach-pitch league, which means the coach stands out on the mound and lobs the ball to the kids– it must have been a 6U or 8U league. The way I remember it– which of course, is faulty, partially because it was so long ago, and partially because all memories of one’s parents are tinged either with the sepia-hue of admiration or the black-and-white disappointment of adulthood– but the way I remember it, it was hot and sticky, and Dad had been out there pitching for some time. We were losing– probably. My dad was ten feet tall. (This is how memory is tricky. I really remember thinking he was the tallest man on earth.) And somewhere in the bleachers, a mom was screaming at her six-year-old kid about what a crappy baseball player they were.
What I know happened: my dad walked off the mound. He said he wasn’t going to be a party to that kind of ridiculousness and that he wasn’t going to encourage meanness over something that was supposed to be fun, supposed to be a children’s game. This is a man who knows the incredible power of winning sports: I saw him with a tear in his eye when the Longhorns won the Rose Bowl. But the day he walked off the mound, he taught me something even more powerful than the uniting force of team– the importance of having principles and for standing up for them. The importance of standing up for people with no voice. And the importance of kindness. These are traits my dad exemplifies in everyday life, but I’ll always remember that small act– him walking away from something he enjoyed and loved– because he wanted to do the right thing.
I also think of my dad every time I hear Hard Candy, a record I listen to all the time– he flew me out to Sacramento to see the Counting Crows open up for the Who on July 4th when I was 16. It would have been memorable no matter what, but it was the second show the Who played after John Entwistle died, and I’ll never forget the incredible bittersweetness of that empty spotlight. It was the first time I’d ever heard “Richard Manuel is Dead” and I’ll never forget when, after announcing loudly that Adam had pointed at me (I was sure of it… haha), my dad buckled down and told people for weeks, “It was incredible. He pointed at her.” Haha. Thanks Dad for taking me to places I would have never gone, for playing along with me, for sharing your interests with me and for always listening to my music, too.
I could list a hundred songs that make me think of my dad, but I just couldn’t imagine letting today go without acknowledging how important he is to me. I rarely put on the turntable without smiling, remembering that he taught me how to do this, and thinking of him. (In fact– if I’m not mistaken– he taught me how to flip the records so I could hear all the songs I liked on the White Album.)
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.
I’ve been absent around here for a while: in January, I started teaching a 4/4 load at my dream school, the University of Evansville. (Fancy that– dream school as a student and a professor.) As I was learning the ropes, though, I was finishing my thesis and preparing for my final MFA residency at Spalding. Hopefully now that I’m an MFA graduate, I’ll be back to writing about music and listening to music. I’ve collected so many amazing records and songs I want to talk about– I have Most Messed Up by the Old 97′s to talk about, the Cake box set that I scored on Record Store Day from Joe’s Records in Corydon, IN– so, so much. Plus, new Counting Crows record at the end of the summer. I’ve got a lot to talk about.
That said. I’ve found that most of what I’m listening to right now are random songs that pop into my head while I’m writing or working that I pull up on YouTube, and a lot of it is what I consider “summer pop.” I’ve actually got a separate Chrome window for my “collection” of songs. So after looking through them tonight (and determining that they are worthy of discussion) I thought I’d share the songs that got me through finals week, both as a professor and a student in a terminal degree seeking program. I’d love to hear whatever random songs are in your mind, too– please leave comments or tweet @kwdarby. (If you tweet, though! Use the hashtags #tonymemmel #mabf– Tony’s in the running for a gig on VH1.)
All right. For starters–
The Clientele, “Since K Got Over Me”
I’ve loved this song since college. I remember sitting in the hard, wooden dorm chair, looking at my laptop, watching the song loop itself over and over. It’s the kind of song that somehow both extends and alleviates perpetual misery. It is soft and beautiful, it is mournful, it is stunning. I don’t know why this is a song that comes back to me in seasons, but it also seems perfect for the languid hot days of summer. No matter what’s going on in my life, this song grounds me, puts me in a pensive place, and stops me in my tracks on that last percussive intro to the chorus:
I don’t think I’ll be happy anymore
I think I closed that door
But every night, a strange geometry–
Since K got over me, since K got over me
Hanson, “Never Been to Spain”
Guys. I know we all got together at the meeting years ago and decided Hanson was cool again, but their covers blow my mind. There’s a great version of Zac singing “Oh! Darling” out there somewhere. And hell, I’ll throw my hat in the ring to say I love their last few records, especially the song, “This Time Around,” which is a stellar pop song. But this. THIS is the Hanson Grail. I absolutely adore the wild vocals, the complete devotion to even the nonsensical lyrics. What a fun cover. I can’t think of one I enjoy more. This song has been a blessing in terms of something to sing along with.
Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”
I love early Liz Phair (much like literally everyone else on earth). I’m not sure if this song is my favorite or not, but it’s definitely the one I listen to the most. It’s crushing. The lyrics to this song are so bitter and so dark that they can only be sung by a completely broken narrator. I love the way the song sounds, I love how raw it is, but I’d be lying if I said I was into Phair for anything but the incredible dead-pan writing–
It’s harder to be friends than lovers
And you shouldn’t try to mix the two
‘Cos if you do it and you’re still unhappy
Then you’ll know that the problem is you
Though her philosophical observations like that one are phenomenal, what’s really amazing is Phair’s ability to weave a dramatic narrative throughout. The song is compelling as a story, as well. Which is what makes the resolution so incredibly brutal–
And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead
But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am.
Ouch. Hard not to want to listen to no-pulled-punches writing like that when you’re trying to generate your own fiction.
Guster, “Barrel of a Gun”
Does everyone know Guster? I feel like I’m talking to people who know Guster. This is the best Guster song. I say that because, though I like almost all of their music, nothing excites me quite like this one does. I know that it’s biological: the drums compel me to move and shout along. I dare you to listen to this song without singing along with the chorus. I dare you. That said, the lyrics are fun and playful, too. This is one of those songs that, if you haven’t heard it, you should give a shot. I feel like there are only a small group of people that wouldn’t dig this song, and they probably aren’t reading this blog.
The Polyphonic Spree, “You’re Golden”
I’m sort of surprised to see that this song has stuck around. I heard it, no joke, over the loudspeaker at a Starbucks, and immediately sought it out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, I guess– I feel like we’ve come to expect something like that from the Polyphonic Spree– but it’s such a lovely, peaceful song. I’m as shocked as you are that I like a song that talks about “Facebook likes”– but it’s got these bells and this great driving chorus… you’ll understand. Plus, the wonky musical bridge. Maybe there’s that famous experimental edge I was looking for.
Fountains of Wayne, “Hey Julie”
I have a love/hate relationship with Fountains of Wayne. I love the way everything they’ve ever written sounds and feels. (Want a good story, corner me sometime and ask me about the summer “Stacey’s Mom” came out. That’s where the “hate” comes in.) This song does what Fountains of Wayne does best: a catchy, light-hearted pop song. It decries all of the minutia of a life as it conflicts with the narrator’s love for Julie. I love that the song physically spends more space in the narrator’s workspace than it does with Julie: it echoes his complaints. It’s a fun little song and I find it in my head constantly.
Aimee Mann, “Real Bad News”
And now to bring the mood down! I’ve talked about this song before: it’s one that I initially skipped over when I was listening through the record. But it’s slowly become my favorite track. I love the spacey intro– the authority in the vocals and in the lyrics. “You don’t know, so don’t say you do/ You don’t,” may be the most intriguing first few lines of a song. I am blown away by it. Of course, that isn’t my favorite line– that goes to the much darker,
Baby, let me tell you, you can get some things confused
Like whose secrets are whose
And that’s real bad news.
Katie Herzig, “Hologram”
This is a song I first found on a Paste sampler many, many years ago. It’s a catchy upbeat, but what keeps me coming back to the song is Herzig’s vocal delivery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to go from her slow, torchy verse to the bouncy, coy pre-chorus and found it nearly impossible to do. There’s such character in this song and I adore it.
Mother Love Bone, “Crown of Thorns”
I’m currently working on a novel set in the grunge era. I feel like I have to know this song so well that I’ve internalized it, that it’s become a part of me. I first fell in love and had my heart broken by Andrew Wood when I was watching Pearl Jam 20– I knew the story, but my God, seeing it told that way– it seriously changed my life. Not just as a music lover, but as a writer. Crowe was able to take a real story and make it more meaningful to me than fiction– without changing any details– just by humanizing every person in it. It was incredible. This song still gives me chills, and I actually have a hard time watching the Eddie Vedder tribute version– doesn’t matter how good it sounds, it always brings a tear to my eye. Man. “Crown of Thorns.” (And listen to “Chloe Dancer,” too. What are we, animals? Of course, listen to “Chloe Dancer,” too.)
Gram Parsons, “$1000 Wedding”
I always have something Gram on, and lately I’ve been obsessed with the turn in this one: it seems to go from one song to another so easily. I love that the lyrics could be melodramatic, but Gram’s vocals are so empathetic and mournful that it seems like the only way a story could be told. Plus, Gram’s songs always make me think of my dad, so it’s a bonus.
Josh Ritter, “Good Man” and “Lawrence, KS”
The thing about finishing my MFA– it required several 10-day stays in Louisville for coursework. I feel like that’s supposed to be a perk, but I’m a homebody, and someone who craves coming home and being with my husband at the end of the day. So when he’s not around, this song always makes me think of him. I’ve been listening to Josh since long before I met my husband, and it doesn’t seem surprising to me that when I seek comfort, I still find it in his lyrics. This song is off his brilliant The Animal Years, but everything he’s ever released is brilliant– you can pick up any record and find comfort and joy there. This song reminds me of Andy because he is, as cheesy as this is, the consummate good man. I love that you can hear the smile in Josh’s voice as he sings:
You’re not a good shot, but I’m worse
And there’s so much where we ain’t been, yet
So swing up on this little horse
The only thing we’ll hit is sunset
Babe, we’ve both had dry spells
Hard times in bad lands
But I’m a good man for you
I’m a good man
I’ve also been listening to some older Josh, which is a pretty normal phase for me to go through in the beginning of summer. This song has some of my favorite imagery and discusses what those “hard times” in “Good Man” may have looked like. The characters in Josh’s songs are strong, good people who are caught up in bad times or confusion, or sometimes just in love, and they are always looking for a chance to rise above circumstance. I feel like I love every person I’ve met in his music, and I wish I could write like that. This is one of the songs I listen to when I want to remember that you can write about trouble without writing about people who can’t find redemption. The last image–
Preacher says that when the Master calls us
He’ll give us wings so we can fly
But my wings are made of hay and cornhusks
So I can’t leave this world behind
Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
I don’t know if “Atlantic City” is the best song of all time. I don’t even know if it’s the best Bruce song. But it’s the one I can’t get out of my head, the one I can’t stop playing, the one I can’t quit accidentally writing in to other places, despite the fact that, usually by this time of year, I’m hooked on “Girls in their Summer Clothes.” I love this song. I don’t feel like this is one that I can make better by talking about it.
All right, guys. That’s what I’m listening to. I have a lot of new music to talk about soon (has anyone else heard the new Natalie Merchant? The Both record? The new Old 97′s? I am behind on all of these conversations!) Thanks for sticking with me through the craziest semester I’ve lived through in a long time.
I fell in love with The Luxury about a year ago when I first heard “The Malcontent.” Since that time, I’ ve realized that their music has done nothing but get better and better with time. They’re currently working on releasing their first full-length record since 2009, and if the teaser above is any indication, it should be a stellar pop record. Again– that would be par for the course. Dunn’s ear for melodies always makes their records tend towards catchy soundscapes– full, lush songs that are instantly stuck in your head. I’m really looking forward to Bones and Beaten Heart.
I’m looking forward to it so much that I myself have donated (and as always, wish I could give more) at the IndieGoGo campaign (which you can access here)– it’s open for another four or five days, and I think this is one of those records you want to get a jump on. For 15$, you can preorder the record and help them fund the promotion and recording. It’s a win-win situation. Still not sold? Check out the video and tell me that those songs don’t already sound like some of the better Oasis recordings… They’ve got the psychpop sound down.
I can’t wait to see what The Luxury has in store on this new record. Hopefully they’ll meet their goal and we’ll all be talking about how phenomenal the recording is come September.
FIND THE LUXURY ONLINE: