A Playlist for July
Every season has its sound. Here is what summer is sounding like around these parts …
1. Don’t Ask Me Why – Billy Joel:
Okay yeah I know, I may be a bit outre for liking Billy Joel’s music so much, but it’s just so darn good! I defy you to put this song on and to just play it once—no, I guarantee that your finger will be reaching for the repeat button before it’s over. I was introduced to this song recently, when I rented the entire series of a television show called Freaks and Geeks, which was set in 1980s Michigan. One of the many things I appreciated about the show was the music they featured—the soundtrack was peppered with folks like Joel, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Rush and Jackson Browne, just to name a few. I’m sure the show, unmercifully canceled after just one season, didn’t have a huge budget, so I admire the fact that they set aside enough money to keep the music authentic to the time period.
2. Let’s Dance – M. Ward:
Let’s Dance is a David Bowie song—a swinging, mid-80s, totally synthed-out David Bowie pop song. I’m sure you’ve heard it. But then M. Ward came along one day and stripped off the synthisizers, the backup singers, the cheesy percussion, and the vocal echoes. In fact, he stripped everything off, like you’d sand down a table that had a cracked and brittle varnish. Then he added a sparse acoustic guitar and his gritty vocals and a little harmonica and piano action, and suddenly, this all-singing, all-dancing almost ABBA-esque song became much darker, much quieter, much more haunting and tender and romantic and beautiful. It’s amazing really, how Ward manages to dig through all the production to get to the heart of the song. The way his voice breaks over the last lines about ‘trembling like a flower’ will have tingles shooting up your spine.
3. She Cries Your Name – Beth Orton:
Often-times, when I’m out with Molly, a song will come up on her CD player that I’ve never heard before. Half-way through, I’ll ask “hey who is this,” and Molly will usually throw out the name of an artist that I’ve never heard. This was one such song. I’d heard of Beth Orton, but had never heard any of her music, but was quickly captivated by the strings and weird little synthisized boops, the way they melded with her guitar and circling percussion. Sonically, the song is amazing, as the sound builds in a slightly Bolero-esque cresendo. I pulled the “hey who is this,” question twice with Orton’s song—the second time while we were traveling down Sunset Blvd. on the 4th of July, the late afternoon sun casting pink and yellow and purple light all over the houses and hills of Echo Park. After the second time, I went home and bought it off iTunes, so I don’t have to ask anymore.
4. Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers:
I’m not one of those people who thinks that all the good music was made thirty or forty years ago, really. I just think that MOST of the good music was made thirty or forty years ago. I’m not sure how much of a career Bill Withers had, whether he was strictly derivative of Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye or Al Green, but Ain’t No Sunshine is a wonderfully sad and beautiful song that showcases what the best soul music can be, all about heartbreak and angst. If I were Withers, I’d be proud to have left this song as a legacy, to be played forevermore from the jukeboxes of dive bars and on classic rock radio. It’s some of the best stuff.
5. Silver Lining – Rilo Kiley:
Up until recently, Rilo Kiley fell into the same category as Beth Orton for me—artist whose names I’d heard, and that I knew were relatively important to the indie scene, but whose music I had never taken notice of. Then I saw Rilo Kiley live and all that changed. I can’t say I’m their biggest fan, and truthfully, their lead singer, Jenny-something, irritates me a little bit, but still, Silver Lining is one dark-yet-spritely pop tune. It sounds bright and cheerful, all hand claps and tambourines, but the lyrics are surprisingly dark, a tale of a relationship stomped all over, mangled beyond repair. Fun! It’s a song where you catch yourself singing along and think suddenly, “wait, what am I saying??”
6. The Road – Jackson Browne:
Speaking of Jackson Browne, his song The Road is a plaintive, soulful look at life on tour—full of drugs, women, long-distance phone calls and the resignation that while it may be a bleak and lonely existence, it’s just simply life on the road. I don’t know how autobiographical this song is for Browne, but its mournful violin accompaniment and acoustic guitar are beautiful and the tone of his voice suggests that maybe he knows exactly what he’s singing about.