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learning love songs

est. 2008

8/8/17

One of my favorite things I’ve always remembered about Josh Ritter was that he majored in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music” at Oberlin College. I learned this about him in high school and it stuck with me as one of the coolest things I’d ever heard, smacking of dedication and promise. History! Narratives! Folk Music! I love all these things, and I instantly loved Josh Ritter, who got away from me in recent years as my Americana/folk listening expanded to many other artists.

I rediscovered his catalog this weekend when the hook for “Still Beating” came into my head, a beautiful song about the nature of persistence, and from their his catalog sucked me back in. “Girl in the War” is one of my all-time favorite ballads, a song I’ve cried to and sung to in many capacities, while his later work on So Runs The World Away reminds me of more placid, pensive times. I think he’s one of the best songwriters of his generation, able to encapsulate a feeling and paint a scene with the same phrase, while building really complex, stunning instrumental parts around it.

Today, a day when history seemed to burst at the seams with unbelievable statements that could threaten our safety, it was an odd and beautiful coincidence to have “The Temptation of Adam” queued up on Spotify on my walk to work. It’s a morbid song, a tale of love found in some bunker safe from nuclear fallout, a song that I loved back when and somehow moves me even deeper today. It’s poetic and dark, the way Ritter paints the scene of the lovers in hiding, with crossword puzzles and cots and rations, with names carved into a warhead. And that part always appealed to me, in a literary and lyrical sense, but hearing it today moved something else me. Maybe I understand more about than I did back then, the kind of love where you’d risk everything to freeze the moment. The kind of love that seems to mean more than the very earth itself.

“I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb
She just came along and started to ignore me
But as we waited for the Big One
I started singing her my songs
And I think she started feeling something for me

We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside
What five letters spell ‘apocalypse’ she asked me
I won her over saying “W.W.I.I.I.”
She smiled and we both knew that she’d misjudged me”

~The Temptation of Adam
Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

7/17/17

Lately I’ve been really into this series of YouTube playlists some great soul with great taste dubbed Koala Kontrol put together that are full of delightful, deep and bright electronic-driven acoustic, chill and indie songs. I know that’s a lot of adjectives, but such is the world of YouTube playlists, which I’ve learned through the course of my daily listening are hyperstylized and specific. While I started listening to these particular playlists because I wanted to have something beat-driven to serve as pump-up background music while I was working, I’ve become gripped by how powerful and raw some of these songs are.

Dance beats and laptop-bred beats aren’t what I’d typically go to when I need to be emotionally moved by music (isn’t that what Tori, emo and Jason Isbell are for?) but lo and behold, I’m stricken! A lot of these songs are really specific in their lyrics about love gone wrong or right, the collapse of self-image and what it means to feel free and good for once. A lot of the grooves and harmonies are cool and sexy and fresh. I’ve discovered a bunch of new artists in a genre that I’ve needed to familiarize with myself more, and it’s been a cool little musical awakening to get into groups like Vallis Alps and Oh Wonder (whose new record is very worth checking out.

I don’t know who you are, Koala Kontrol, but thank you for these.

“I thought I saw the devil
This morning
Looking in the mirror, drop of rum on my tongue
With the warning
To help me see myself clearer
I never meant to start a fire
I never meant to make you bleed
I’ll be a better man today

I’ll be good, I’ll be good
And I’ll love the world, like I should
Yeah, I’ll be good, I’ll be good
For all of the time
That I never could”

~I’ll Be Good
Jaymes Young, Feel Something

7/6/17

The summer months always seem to go by faster than the rest. It’s a bit counterintuitive since the days are longer and full of sun, it seems like time should go by slower, but somehow all the events, holidays, vacations and visits pack everything together and somehow it’s almost the midpoint of July. In an attempt to savor all we get, I’m working on slowing my days down. Spending time with the doors and windows open and music playing loud and clear. Sitting out in the sun and hearing new tunes to open my mind. The latest of these listen is the new record Young from Overcoats, one of the most sonically interesting and pleasing new bands I’ve heard this year.

They blend the beautiful harmonies of First Aid Kit with the electro-pop tendencies of Haim or Lorde, filled with grooves and repeated hooks aplenty. They’re definitely a younger band but that doesn’t count against them in terms of depth; all there songs seem to have an element or idea about self-reflection, self-perception and self-reliance. “Leave the Light On” is a danceable anthem for independent life with some banging horn/key tones, “Smaller Than My Mother” is a raw confession of the inner resentments of relationships. “23” is another standout in this way, with its pointed, no-holding-back explanation of the mental toll of predictable love gone sour. My favorite so far is “Nighttime Hunger,” a pulsing track mourning the struggles of the anxious insomniac. l I love the way they drop out the melody and sing in tight, the way they embrace guttural rhythms close harmonies, the way their voices lilt and float over these eye-popping lyrics. They’ve got a definite style that runs through Young — a great example of an album you can just put on and fall into.

“Nighttime hunger and all the fears that it brings tend to fade in the light
In daytime I build a new me but still dread the night
I try to keep moving but I can’t seem to chase my monsters away
When the darkness comes it takes everything from me…”

~Nighttime Hunger
Overcoats, Young

6/23/17

Yesterday I dove deep into Spotify’s Tori Amos catalog, pouring over every favorite song I’ve heard a thousand times and listening to lesser-known tracks with fresh ears. Tori is a timeless staple for me, she offered me so much comfort and inspiration as an adolescent wanna-be artist, and now, as an increasingly aging person aware of her flaws, aware of the holes and wholes in her life, Tori still provides a new lens

I always loved her literary ways, her mysterious metaphors and brilliant, huge sounds, her passionate piano and throaty, grasping voice. One of the best examples of her strengths is Gold Dust, the 2011 collection with new and old tracks in an orchestral setting. Songs like “Winter” and “Cloud On My Tongue” that I’ve heard for more than half of life still hit me in new ways, while I get to take in “Snow Cherries From France” or the title track with slightly older ears than when I first heard them. So many of her songs serve as this chapter markings for my life, I can remember when and where I was when I first glommed onto them, and now they provide this mirror where I can see how much or little me and my feelings and my life has changed.

Despite my devotion, I don’t listen to Tori a ton anymore. Maybe it’s to keep the experience profound, because the times that I do listen to her take on a spiritual, ceremonial quality. I don’t do anything except listen to Tori, maybe I dance and move a little, maybe I cry. I sing and I hear and I fall into the music, I can’t focus on things like email or mindless internet scrolling when Tori is on. She is the artist who inspired me many years ago to be more than just a person, to be a person who wanted to create and live openly, and while I am still in many ways getting there, she can still light that fire.

 
“Sights and sounds
Pull me back down
Another year

I was here
I was here

Whipping past
The reflecting pool
Me and you
Skipping school
And we make it up
As we go along

We make it up we
Go along…”

~Gold Dust
Tori Amos, Gold Dust

6/20/17

Anyone who put out their best songs or albums of the year lists before listening in full to Lorde’s Melodrama is most definitely missing something. She’s created one of the most stunning pieces of art to hit mainstream audiences this year — especially from a female artist. She offers a reclamation for any girl that’s been described as “crazy,” “intense” or “too much,” any girl who was burned for feeling out her own human experience.

Lorde’s songs on this album are equal parts vulnerable and empowering. She’s lamenting love gone away, but she’s not about to feel sorry for herself. At first listen, I jumped around on the tracks, and “Hard Feelings/Loveless” was one of the first song to really stop me in my tracks, with vivid descriptions of conversation and feeling. She nails internal emotional strife with visceral and meaningful metaphors, (“Cause I remember the rush, when forever was us/Before all of the winds of regret and mistrust”) over a mixture of beats and synthy tones that feels very now. “Writer in the Dark,” with its piano backbone, is a vigorous and powerful kiss-off that culminates with a falsetto-driven refrain, and a truly honest ode to the damage left by a broken relationship and the way one rebuilds.

“Liability” might be one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, a sad and strong tale of being cast aside. “You’re a little much for me/you’re a liability,” she sings from the voice of others. But something in her perception has such a confidence, as if he is more cognizant of the others’ own shortcomings instead of whatever of those are perceived in her. It’s the perfect anthem for anyone who has felt like their emotional well was brimming over their edges, so much so that others had to turn away as if the problem was in their feelings and not someone else’s inability to empathize. I can’t help but listen to this song and think of all the times I felt too much feeling, as if I couldn’t keep it inside my own skin….Lorde know this feeling inside and out, and she shares it freely with her listeners, an understanding delivered in sheer poetry.

The hype around this album was a rare instance where it was well-deserved. Every word that is written or spoken about this album ought to give credit where credit is due, for someone to open up a vein like this and pour it all out, leaving a beautiful mess for the rest of us to reflect on and bathe in. It’s inspiring, really, what she has done here and the way she carries herself, the way she moves other, the way she is so true to her identity a writer above all else.

“Baby really hurt me
Crying in the taxi
He don’t wanna know me
Says he made the big mistake of dancing in my storm
Says it was poison
So I guess I’ll go home
Into the arms of the girl that I love
The only love I haven’t screwed up
She’s so hard to please
But she’s a forest fire

I do my best to meet her demands
Play at romance, we slow dance
In the living room, but all that a stranger would see
Is one girl swaying alone
Stroking her cheek
They say, ‘You’re a little much for me
You’re a liability
You’re a little much for me’
So they pull back, make other plans
I understand, I’m a liability
Get you wild, make you leave
I’m a little much for
Everyone…”

~Liability
Lorde, Melodrama

6/12/17

This year I’ve had almost too much music to keep up with, what with lots of new releases from my favorite bands to much buzzed-about records from artists mainstream and emerging. Then, as often happens, through the magic of the Internet I was introduced to Jen Gloeckner, whose new album Vine is dark, sparkly and ambient affair.

Her voice has a raspy-yet-full, deep-yet-delicate quality, akin to Stevie Nicks or Fiona Apple. It’s a tone that demands to be listened to and taken seriously without pretense of what a female vocalist “ought” to sound like. Plus, the backing tracks of songs like “Ginger Ale” and “Counting Sheep” are so dreamy and echoey that her voice becomes the spine of the songs, with lots of brighter, glimmering tones around. Lyrically, Gloeckner can be sassy or thoughtful but ultimately sensual and expressive. She’s got that blend of assertive yet feminine down to a science, and it manifests musically, too — take the song “Breathe,” for example, that feels a little nu wave in its synth use with thoroughly modern drum beats mimicking a dance track.

She doesn’t come across like a singer-songwriting whose dying to fit in with the trends or fill some sort of cultural niche — and I like that about her. I like the way her songs come off as a manifestation of a time, place and scene only imagined by a sole creator to be extrapolated out in sound to listeners at large. It’s mood music through and through, equal parts other worldly, mature and serene.

6/9/17

Oh happy day! Taylor Swift is on Spotify! Of course there’s some dubious reasons on how this came to be, but all I know is I’ve spent the past three hours going through the catalog and it feels like revisiting an old friend. I’m compelled to share my memories of Swift Through the Ages, so here we go, album by album:

Taylor Swift-2006
I remember being in high school sitting in my aunt’s living room when the video for “Teardrops on my Guitar” came on. We stopped our chatter and even my tough-to-impress aunt remarked, “She’s got a nice voice,” or some beign compliment. It was then Swift was special, and from there “Picture to Burn,” “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No” become country indulgences that I was too insecure to admit in open company that I loved — but no doubt got tons of play on my iPod.

Fearless-2008
Swift was back with glitter and gold for Fearless, and from the title track to “Change,” I loved every track. The more country-tinged takes like “Tell Me Why” fit with the Swift I knew, while the popularity of “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” made her OK to embrace among friends. As a college student with college student problems, these songs fit like puzzle pieces into the goings-on of my life, each representing a person, place or feeling that meant something to me as I started to learn what it meant to grow up. There was a juvenile enough sensibility to Swift at this point, so it wasn’t enough to pull me away from listening to my favorite pop-punk and rock bands for meaning and more literary moods, but there was no doubt Taylor could keep me company in good times or bad.

Speak Now-2010
This was where it all clicked. My memories of Speak Now coincide with my fresh-out-of-college lifestyle, working in a small lake town with friends and fun surrounding me. I dove into my work, into new relationships, into new experiences without ever looking back, and this record become a soundtrack to all that when I was alone — from the crushes I had, the friends I missed and the people I’d left behind in college or high school. The country rock vibe fit in well with the Americana catalog I was beginning to dive into with my newfound musician friends, and “Sparks Fly” was blasted with the windows down driving down West Lake Road more times than I’d care to admit. Then “Mine” became the first song I learned on my very first guitar. And it’s true what they say about never forgetting your first — I picked up my third guitar just now and knew it like the back of my hand.

Red-2012
I bought Red on CD a few days after it came out. I wanted to listen to it on a road trip from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, and I remembering playing it as I drove on the turnpike in the dark. Knowing I loved Speak Now, I was prepared to be happy with the release, but I remember being struck by how mature the songwriting was, how developed it seemed, and how much the themes of passion, youth and letting go seemed to mirror my own life. “Treacherous” became a favorite of mine to play guitar to, while “All Too Well” was a too-real recollection (and I think, to this day, one of Swift’s best efforts yet). Red managed to skyrocket Swift’s success, put crimson lip color back into trend and set a precedent for deeply felt, deeply revealing pop songs. We’ll forgive that drop in “I Knew You Were Trouble” as a sign of the times, especially considering that outro coda of “Holy Ground” is so good.

1989-2014
In my life and in Taylor’s, so much happened between these two years. I’d moved yet again, and she’d embraced pop in full form. Separate and apart from my connection to it, this record was a cultural touchstone, so 1989 became a centering point for my friends and I in Pittsburgh, we rung in the New Year with it. Her exuberance for life (“Welcome to New York,” “Shake It Off”) reminded me to embrace my own, while her more vulnerable confessions that came to the fore gave me something to relate to (“Clean,” “This Love”). I loved this album deeply, on drives to work, on nighttime solo dancer parties — and then my fave Ryan Adams came out with his own version, which hasn’t let my saved Spotify songs since. But I’m still coming back to 1989 in all its iterations — her performances at the Grammy Museum are particularly meaningful, and beautiful, and highlight the pureness of what she can do with her voice, her guitar and her message. That was how she first was introduced to the world, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that’s what we’ll get more of — and soon.

5/30/17


I’ve coming back to this Chris Stapleton track a lot lately. It’s the first track from his latest, From A Room: Volume 1, and it’s a wonderful introduction into his stellar, booming voice with a sentiment that’s two parts reflective, one part hopeful.

I love how observant this song is, I’ve had it on in my headphones while walking around town and meandering through crowds, and it serves as a beautiful reminder that everyone has a story, everyone has struggles, everyone has a battle they’re trying to win….and that none of it comes easy. In true country troubadour form, Stapleton offers a little bit of wisdom from the trials experienced by the downtroddern, and as much as I love hearing him sing about whiskey and women, I also love hearing him observe the world in this way and offer a little wisdom.

“Don’t go looking for the reasons
Don’t go asking Jesus why
We’re not meant to know the answers
They belong to the by and by
They belong to the by and by

Seen my share of broken halos
Folded wings that used to fly
They’ve all gone wherever they go
Broken halos that used to shine…”

~Broken Halos
Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Volume 1

5/21/17

Much has been written and said about the pop-tastic masterpiece that is the new Paramore album, After Laughter, and that’s instantly what I liked about it. There’s this clinging to the idea of them as a pop punk band or some notion that they “sold out” when really, their catalog extends beyond any slivered-up genre and just into one big category of modern American pop-rock. And is there anything wrong with that? Not to me. Paramore is a band I’ve always had a place in my heart for.

They’re just ubiquitous — if someone had to soundtrack a movie about a musically-inclined Millennial  in the 2000s or 2010s, you could do worse than plucking a few Paramore songs.

They’ve had so many strong points throughout their discography, even dating back to the albums from the last decade: The soaring throw-down chords of “For a Pessimist I’m Pretty Optimistic”  on Riot! are instantly satisfying — the nostaglia and homesickness of wandering youth on “Franklin” on All We Know Is Falling is identifiable and timeless. I still love these songs even though I’ve been playing them forever.

Then 2009’s brand new eyes broke through with a fresher sound (and coincided with a break-up) that veered more toward pop-rock and showed off Hayley Williams in a better light than ever. From her reaching screech on “Careful” to that stunning high note in “All I Wanted” (you know the one), she had a better command of her voice than on any proceeding records and really leaned into what she could do.

It’s also fun to listen to albums from 10 year ago like Riot! and realize I still know every word — let alone to think what my life was like then, how I identified with these songs, and how those crises and concerns have faded so much with time.

I spent lots of time with After Laughter when traveling through Colorado the weekend it came out, and since then choice tracks have made their way onto my workout/morning playlists. I really dig it, not only for its funky melodies and interesting sounds, but mostly for its attitude, this sort of in-your-face cynical optimism, this “I’m not playing this game or loving this life but I’m going to do me anyway” kind of vibe. “Fake Happy,” for instance, nails this sentiment on the head.

There’s one track in particular I binged on at any moment — “26,” the ballad, where Williams’ soprano and heartfelt emotion really shine through. Come to think of it, I’ve always really loved it when they slow things down and do the power ballad thing — but “26” is not about power, it is more about the quiet strength one finds with age and time. It’s about holding onto what you have and dreaming for something more, even at a time when the world and those around you are holding you down. And it exemplifies, as this band’s music always does, that Paramore is much more than a pop punk band, that Williams’ is much more than a petite chick rocker, and that those who live seemingly glamorous dream lives may be wishing and hoping for something else, something more, in an authentically unifying way.

You got me tied up but I stay close to the window
And I talk to myself about the places that I used to go
And hope that someday maybe I just float away
And I’ll forget every cynical thing you said
When you gonna hear me out
Man, you really bring me down

Hold onto hope if you got it
Don’t let it go for nobody
They say that dreaming is free
I wouldn’t care what it cost me

~26
Paramore, After Laughter

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