January 2019 Playlist

I’m not a thrill-seeker. The notion of jumping out of a plane or rappelling down a mountain is totally absurd to me. My idea of risk usually involves a big board game. 

Earlier this month we travelled to Panama. We were staying in the pristine valley of Hortino, a dormant volcano to the north and lush rainforest to the south. We took a ride to a secluded waterfall—not on any guidebooks, but not by any means secret either. When we arrived, there were no signs, just a weathered trail through the forest. But what a sight! Crystal clear water, thundering down a 30-foot cliff into a lagoon. And, it was all to ourselves. No crowds or tour groups. A young boy who lived on the private property followed us, most likely to ensure the gringos didn’t crack their skulls on the slippery rocks. 

There were no illusions of safety: handrails or guides or emergency phone numbers. If we slipped, that little boy was our only lifeline. After splashing in the water, letting the current propel us around the lagoon and under the waterfall, we perched ourselves on some rocks and readied a picnic. That first foray was pretty timid, every step measured, watching for signs of danger.  

A local family arrived an hour later, they fearlessly hopped and skipped across the rocks like gazelles. The appearance of more people made us feel safer, we rushed into the water. One teenager disappeared up a hill and emerged on a ledge just below the cliff above. Then he jumped. Then he did it again. And again.  

I will say I considered it. But alas, there was to be no cliff jumping for me that day. However, it did inspire me to think about what it means to be taken out of your comfort zone. To assume a little risk, with the hope of gaining an outside perspective I would not have otherwise seen. I’m not certain if that’s even the goal, perhaps the end result doesn’t matter as much as simply doing it. I can tell you, at the moment, I’m still safely in my comfort zone on most fronts. But it’s on my mind. 

If only Weezer could have taken a risk when they recorded their surprise cover album. (Teal Album) should be titled the beige album. I was hoping I could add a track to my 2019 cover playlists, but the record is blander than white bread. I remember I played my mom Eddie Vedder’s version of “Last Kiss” a long time ago and her response was perfect: it sounded like a weather report. There are no stormy skies brewing on Weezer’s version of “No Scrubs,” likewise for “Africa.” If you want to hear unique reinterpretations of old songs, check out Whitehorse’s The Northern South Vol. 2 instead.  

Sharon Van Etten has released the first great album of 2019. Remind Me Tomorrow bursts with so much deep production noise seeping just below the surface of her melodies, but there’s also restraint—a clear mark of confident songwriting. “Seventeen” hums with intensity and punches out a great chorus. “You Shadow” is dark and booms like a thunderclap. 

Deerhunter’s Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is his most accessible release to date, but because of the message of the album that’s probably a good thing. Images of crumbling rust belt towns dot the lyrics, infusing the songs with a steady dose of unease and helplessness in his trademark way. “Element” and “No One’s Sleeping” are great tracks. 

Rock n’ roll can be a joyous thing and Mattiel celebrates that fist-pumping ferocity on Customer Copy. Equal parts Jefferson Airplane and White Stripes, this is an album meant to be heard loud. Crank up “Detroit Riot.” 

Is it a cop out to classify Toro y Moi as “modern music”? Probably. You be the judge. 

I would be remiss to communicate my excitement for Vampire Weekend’s first release in six years. The new record arrives in April and the band are releasing two tracks a month. “Harmony Hall/2021” shimmers and sways, but leaves me wanting more. Both Radiohead and Broken Social Scene have also teased new releases this year, so 2019 is shaping up to be a good one. 

 

 

 

 

 

September 2018 Playlist

It was a historic hangover. So mind-bending that I think it made me cross-eyed. We attended a fish fry the night before and according to reports I skipped and danced my way home. I can neither confirm nor deny such reports as that I have zero memory of getting home or going to sleep that night. I do recall the fish being tasty and the reggae boogie, but that’s about it. Daylight came early, and somehow I was the one in better shape to pick up the rental car for 7am.  

We were vacationing in Eleuthera, a tiny, crescent-shaped island in the Bahamas. We packed the car with all manner of hangover snacks, our swim trunks and hit the road to explore. A single lane highway ran the length of the island—so thin that at points you could see nothing but palm trees and ocean on either side—but once the car hit 50mph it was clear we had rented a lemon.  

The engine would rev loudly like a lawnmower ready to explode, it would buck and shudder trying snap into the next gear. But nothing would happen. We stared at each other, fearing it would burst into flames. But a few seconds later—an eternity, trust me—the gears would catch and we’d be cruising comfortably. 

For some reason we never returned the car (we rented from a local and never got a phone number) so we were stuck with it. The frightening gear change would happen so often that we’d lovingly rub the console or whisper words of encouragement to the engine in hopes of smoothing over the process. “Cmon, cmon baby, you can do it!” When it would finally catch we‘d erupt in cheers. “Way to go baby! We knew you could do it!” It was like winning the World Series. Every time.  

Perhaps it was the hangover coupled with a crippling fear of automotive calamity, that I had an out of body experience on the road. As we drove past a family on a beach, my foot planted on the accelerator, the engine revving its terrifying scream, I pictured myself as one of them. Suddenly I was with them, and like a needle screeching off a record, my head snapped back with all of them and we watched the offending car race by, then finally it bucked, trembled and quieted. Hoots and hollers of sheer joy rang out from the windows. 

No road trip is complete without the right soundtrack. I had just discovered a band called Cayucas from Santa Monica, they had a sunny, Beach Boys vibe and it seemed appropriate at the time. We instantly adored their album Bigfoot and played it all weekend. To this day Cayucas is played on every road trip and now finally they have released two new songs. “Jessica WJ” takes me right back to Eleuthera, endless miles of surf and sunshine. On your next road trip, I encourage you to research their back catalogue but I hope your car is in better shape than our former jalopy. Of course, if it’s not, just gently rub the console and chant a few kind words; works every time. 

Some artists are so personal to you that it’s hard to be objective. Iron & Wine have been producing gentle indie folk for 15 years and for me its irresistible. Sam Beam is one of America’s greatest lyricists, a true poet. He weaves tales of the dusty South, of crumbling graveyards behind pizza parlours in his breathy delivery on Weed Garden. “Waves of Galveston” is Beam at his best.  

Big Red Machine is comprised of members of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. On paper it’s grounds for a great record but it’s a bit hit and miss. Vernon still dabbles with auto-tune a little too much but “Hymnostic” is a song where everything comes together perfectly. 

On their third album, Young Sick Camellia, St. Paul & The Broken Bones are poised to really break out. They have one of the tightest brass sections out there and on this album there’s as much Donna Summer as there is Marvin Gay. Leading the charge with artists like Leon Bridges, The War and Treaty and Nathaniel Rateliff, they are bringing soul back in a big way on tracks like “Apollo” and “LivWithoutU.”  

It’s hard not to compare Night Shop to Kevin Morby or Kurt Vile or Chris Isaak, and that’s not a bad thing. In The Break has all the heartache and late night woes of those contemporaries, but it’s just honest music. I only discovered this album a few days ago and it’s been in heavy rotation since. The title track is lush and textured and I think sometimes you have to let go of how much an artist sounds like another and simply enjoy it.                                                 

Two songs that I’m listening to a lot: “A Perfect Miracle” from Spiritualized’s new album And Nothing Hurt and “Straight Shot” from DeVotchKa’s The Night Falls Forever.  

Thanks for reading and if you like what you hear please follow the playlists. 

August 2018 Playlist

A few days after Aretha Franklin died we rented a car to escape the city on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We drove to Niagara and as endless vineyards looped by, The Queen of Soul’s discography boomed. The power of her voice is undeniable, but for me, it’s the feeling that it creates when you hear it that’s her true strength.  

Uplifting or perhaps transformative are the words that spring to mind. Soul comes from a place where positivity and sadness co-exist; blended together by emotive voices and that classic Motor City sound, it reverberates into something magical. When the music swells and harmonies rise higher and higher, as the tempo gallops faster, as the horns pop and crackle, the feeling it creates just drowns out negativity. It’s as if the vibration of the planet changes, shaking away the gloom, like sunlight streaming through clouds.  

As we returned to the city, traffic snarled, but soul carried us home. We ran the gamut from Otis Redding and Aretha to Bill Withers and somehow the traffic and clamour of the city just melted away.  

Soul is made for a Sunday.  

As I listened to The War And Treaty today, it reaffirmed my theory. Their backstory is sensational, two disparate people coming together by music. Michael Trotter was homeless, joined the US army and was sent to Iraq. When his superiors found him singing on a broken piano in Baghdad he was taken off the front lines and started performing songs for fallen soldiers. It’s probably what kept him alive. When he returned home he met Tanya Trotter at a festival. Her voice channels Aretha: vulnerable, powerful. They soon married and formed The War And Treaty. I’ve been told their live show is not be missed either, a hip swingin’ mess that boarders on cathartic. Listen to them on a Sunday. 

The song of the month is unquestionably “New Birth in New England,” by Phosphorescent. It’s a breezy number that I hope signals more new material from him. I can’t stop listening to it.  

Murder By Death makes very cinematic music. Perhaps it’s because the cello is so prevalent in their songs, making their arrangements sweeping and grandiose, that I can picture it soundtracking a thrilling battle sequence or a nightmarish flashback. You’ll understand after hearing “True Dark.” 

You’ve probably seen the videos of Brass Against floating around the internet. Shot in their studio, the band with the mammoth horn section covers Rage Against The Machine and Tool among others.  Well, now they have finally released a full LP. The real gem here is their reinterpretation of Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” They have inspired me to build a playlist comprised of covers that have been recorded this year. Recommendations are welcome, dear listeners. I will release it in a few months. 

When brothers fight it can get ugly. Rich and Chris Robinson famously never got along during their time in The Black Crowes. When they finally split, Chris kept the name and barred his brother from using it so out of its ashes came Rich’s band The Magpie Salute. They play Crowes songs but also produce new material that’s predictably Southern rock. And it’s pretty good, but imagine how great songs like “Take It All” or “Send Me An Omen” would sound if Chris were singing.  

The hallmark of that nineties alternative rock sound was the abrupt shift from quiet to loud and it’s resurfaced with band like Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail and now Campdogzz. In Rounds hints on that influence (Liz Phair immediately comes to mind), but it’s still an engaging listen with numbers like “Souvenir” and “Dry Heat.” 

As always friends, thank you for reading and if you like what you’re hearing please follow the playlists. 

July 2018 Playlist

I think it was a piano that drew us in. Or it could have been the raised voices, swelling together in harmony. We were wandering the narrow, winding lanes of Bergen when we stumbled across the choir. We stood motionless in the stairway of a nondescript Norwegian row house and just listened. The world melted way as we witnessed a truly beautiful, but intensely private moment. A stained-glass window above us was the only indication that this was a church. We cracked open the door a few inches so we could peer inside. 

The music had a modern tempo, scales rising and falling with the harmonies. It reminded me of Arcade Fire mixed with Sigur Ros somehow. Of course, the lyrics were in indecipherable, but you got the gist easily enough as the group sang their graces. Through the six-inch vista in the doorway we could see clusters of people singing, guitars, drums and big piano. A few singers swayed, their heads raised, arms out in poses of blissful celebration.  

We were clearly intruding, we knew that. But it was such a surprising, powerful moment that we were locked in its orbit, unable to turn away. Eventually, a nice young lady invited us in to watch their performance. A few quick smiles from the parishioners let us know we were welcome.  

That’s a how a great song feels to me: like you’ve stumbled into a secret meeting. It’s just for them—the artist—but they’ve let you in.  

Jim James has tried to capture that immediacy with mixed results. More than a few times you hear him stumble or laugh on Uniform Distortion, as that he was trying to record something raw, loose. It works marvelously on Throwback or the Crazyhorse inspired No Secrets, but other times the songwriting is muddy like you’re trudging through a swamp with heavy boots.  

Sometimes an artist wears their influences on their sleeve. Rowland Baxter blends Paul Simon’s conversational tone with the Kinks to perfection because he has such a great voice. Wide Awake swings from anthemic (Hey Larocco, Casanova) to deeply personal (Amelia Baker) to John Lennon-esque protest songs (79 Shiny Revolvers) with grace and honesty.  

A great EP leaves you wanting more, that’s exactly what Sam Valdez does on Mirage. Her music is sexy, it breathes warmth and tension like she’s whispering to you on your pillow before sleep takes you. 

I’ve become pretty obsessed with Wilder Maker. There’s so much great composition crammed into Zion‘s seven tracks. It’s a dense listen. A times they remind me of Broken Social Scene (Woman Dancing Immortal), other times Fleetwood Mac (Multiplied), but Wilder Maker are distinctly their own band. Impossible Summer is a song that begs to be heard. Their music takes so many unexpected twists and turns, one moment euphoric and revelatory, then quiet, somber, then a sax solo explodes from nowhere. I can play this record all day. 

Some of the best production I’ve heard all year can be found on Almost by The Ophelias. It’s dark and textured, with strings or harmonies vibrating just out of focus, all the while rooted by a strummed guitar or marching drum. Put your headphones on for songs like Night Signs, Lunar Rover and General Electric. 

Thanks for reading and listening. If you like what you’re hearing please follow the playlists. 

Counting Stars, revisited

Music can take you to unexpected places. I curated this playlist as a best-of for 2016. Listening to it again I’m instantly transported back to our trip to Costa Rica. It was our soundtrack.

I remember our little apartment in downtown San Jose fondly. We stayed there a few times, it was a jumping point for adventures in Limon and Drake Bay.

When we first arrived we traded a cheesy maple syrup fridge magnet with our Airbnb host for a fistful of local beer. Somehow we didn’t drink it all before shipping off to the turtle sanctuary in Tortuguero. So I decided to stash the cans in a cupboard. Maybe they’d still be there!

Three days later we’re back in apartment and Jody catches me rummaging through the cupboards. “What are you doing?!” I reach up and pull down a can of beer, triumphantly. It was warm but at least it was ours.

Of all the memories of that country and that spectacular trip: beaches, turtles, monkeys, bullfighting, the list goes on… and the one story this playlist conjures for me is about warm beer.