learning love songs

est. 2008


November 2015


I don’t like Adele. I don’t! Never have. Found her annoying from the start. But, she’s apparently the newest record-setter for album sales, I don’t really care for her voice, or her sap, but goddammit if I wasn’t hypnotized by this performance (which I only found because I was reading about a producer on The Fader during my lunch break).

I gotta give it up for this. And I have to watch it again. Her vocal ability is spot-on as she nails every high note and run-on melody. The song is less annoying lyrically than some others, and the setting of simple gutiar parts and back-up signers in the studio is exactly the way ballads should be recorded live. I also love the little two-note guitar part that starts before the pre-chorus, the way it builds into something more. Her change-up of lyrics it the final chorus has a peel-back-the-curtain effect. And, in full disclosure, earlier today I saw a recording of her performing that too-ubiquitous “Hello” single w/Jimmy Fallon and The Roots as one of their rather clever classroom instrument renditions, and it was pretty impossible to not enjoy it, if only for noticing the great instincts and reactions of the band around her song and performance.

Ugh, so, am I changing my tune on Adele? Meh. I am not going to purchase “25.” I’m not!! But maybe I won’t mind as much when she comes up in random playlists, knowing that her performance skills are so incredibly strong, and her sense of romance in her lyrics maybe isn’t all radio cliches after all.

“Let me photograph you in this light
In case it is the last time,
That we might be exactly like we were
Before we realized
We were sad of getting old
It made us restless
I’m so mad I’m getting old
It makes me reckless

It was just like a movie
It was just like a song
When we were young.”

~When We Were Young,
Adele, 25


“Let’s put a little more in your glass
Walk around and spend all our cash
Just let me grab my poncho, I don’t care where we go
If we speak the language you know we don’t even have to come back

We can’t do it over
They say it’s now or never and all we’re ever gettin’ is older
Before we get to heaven, baby let’s give ’em hell
We might as well
Cause we don’t know when we’re done
So let’s love hard, live fast, die fun.

~Die Fun,
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material 

In what appears to be a few short years Kacey Musgraves has gone from a fresh-on-the-scene country star to one of the most interesting, promising female songwriters of this era — in my estimation, at least. Her latest album “Pageant Material” is one that has steadily grown on me over the past few months – from a few cursory listens to singles that caught my ear, to listening through the album a few times through headphones. What I hear is not the standard country-girl songwriter that Musgraves, at firsts glance, appears to be, but rather a storyteller sharing her perspective of her upbringing, her opportunities, her growth, with as much honesty and wit as one can muster.

She’s legitimately funny, which is something that is so hard to do in lyrics. But in her blunt, quiet way, Musgraves shares a perspective that is patient as much as it is eyes-wide-open, and with that comes a sense of humor. Musically, these aren’t exactly country radio primetime, in the way Maddie and Tae or Kelsey Ballerini have secured for the time being, but I think they’re more elevated than that – there’s quintessential lap steel, more than a few whistling and handclaps for a honky-tonk vibe, and some really beautiful falsetto moments. “Pageant Material” is a collection of songs that are all well-composed individually, but ones that stand together stronger. A chorus as tongue-in-cheek as “Biscuits” rings a little more true and honest followed by the serious wondering about self-doubt and self-love in “Somebody to Love.”

The thoughtfulness behind a call to a life-well-lived “Die Fun” is dualy noted, as is the occasional unfortunate truths that we feel about our loved ones outlined in “Family is Family.” But what strikes me as most unusual, and unique, and worth celebrating about “Pageant Material” is how Musgraves chooses to focus on so many other topics beyond the standard fare romance of a country song. Not that she can’t write a love song – “Late to the Party” was instantly one of my favorite tracks – but she tackles so many other realms of thought and feeling, ones that speak to finding her place in the world as an adult and a woman and a person of many persuasians, rather than as simply a woman who is looking to love and be loved.

Once during a music class in my junior year of high school, a teacher asked us what most music was about. The answer, written on the white board in blue marker, was “Love.” That’s what sells records, Mrs.Hamilton told us. And she wasn’t wrong, that’s what pulls at our soul the most, those are the feelings with struggle with the most….but there is so much more to us than that, and so much there for artists to explore. With “Good Ol’ Boys Club” and the title track, Musgraves stakes her claim as an intelligent writer, an observant citizen of our modern age, and a damn wry lyricist.  But throughout the record, she doesn’t run from matters of love and companionship. Rather, she puts them in context of a life as colorful, adventurous and open-minded as she frames herself to be.

“Been missing my roots
I’m getting rid of the flash
Nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit just to take out the trash
Ain’t gotta be alone to feel lonely
I’m gonna turn off my phone, start catching up with the old me

It’s high time
To slow my roll
Let the grass just grow and lean way back
It’s a fine time
To let it it all go
I’ve been too low, so it’s high time.”

~High Time
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material


There’s a post going around IG that says “Toss your hair in a bun, drink some coffee, put on some gangsta rap, and handle it.” I feel that way sometimes but about Tool.

“Angels on the sideline,
Puzzled and amused.
Why did Father give these humans free will?
Now they’re all confused.

Don’t these talking monkeys know that
Eden has enough to go around?
Plenty in this holy garden, silly monkeys,
Where there’s one you’re bound to divide it.
Right in two.”

~Right in Two
Tool, 10,000 Days


“I saw this woman with tears in her eyes
Driving beside me yesterday.
She turned her head then I turned mine
And I watched her drive away.

I thought ‘If I could tell her something I would tell her this
There’s only two mistakes that I have made.
It’s running from the people who could love me best
And trying to fix a world that I can’t change.’

All our lives
I watch you search beneath the falling skies
This was no path to glory
You always walk before me

But you came back to warn me
All our lives.”

~All Our Lives,
Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness, Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness

I’m more than a little late on the album from former Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin frontman Andrew McMahon, a record where he proves he is so much more than those bands and names that he has built his reputation on. For the sake of nostalgia, I don’t think I’ll love his newer work as much as I did his past records, but this is its own little shiny gem. It proves McMahon is the rare musician (in this age, anyway) who pursues his art regardless of expected structure, and worked his way onto the pop airwaves from the indie label on up.

I listened to it after hearing the “Cecelia and the Satellite ” single enough times on the radio. Almost every song has just as satisfying of a chorus, tons of piano and bells and little catchy melodies, and some very open-hearted lyrics, true to his form.It’s very clear-eyed and bright, even when in the midst of soul-searching in a less than perfect world. It’s not too happy, as introspection and mortality lurk around the edges, but sonically its sunny as hell without betraying his emo roots. I like how effortlessly it blends dance-pop, fist-bump beats with silky, soaring piano parts, like on “Black and White Movies,” there’s something both current and elegant about it.

I hope there’s critics who are smarter and savvier than me to parce through McMahon’s latest releases, his earliest recordings and channel what has happened in his not-easy life in parallel with what he has produced.  No doubt his illness, his relationships made him grow and change, thus thrusting his work in a new direction. But while many artists find the trials of life pull them away from their art and damage their potential reach and success (cause life is hard, even when it’s easy), McMahon did this wonderful thing where he *found* greater success through the journey. What an incredible story to tell, or to hear. 

“Are you home tonight?
Are you laying in bed watching black and white movies?
All alone tonight
Do you ever rewind to the summer you knew me?”

~Black and White Movies,  
Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness, Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness


So now you show up when you’re alone again
But we haven’t changed, but now you’re interested
And maybe you’re here because you wanna come home
But what if you’re just afraid to be alone

I guess I don’t know how
You’d want it back now
I thought you got yourself a way out
How do I prove it to myself you’re ready now
God I want to

Now you want me
But what if your heart’s a liar

Cause if you change your mind again
I’ll burn like a wildfire
Like a wildfire.”

Marianas Trench, Astoria 

Goddammit, Marianas Trench did it again. These guys are insane!!!

Once again they created a symphonic pop epic, one that is in sync with their than their past releases. When I first heard it I wasn’t sure what to think it felt a little too busy, a little too overambitious, but then I find myself unable to listen to anything else. I am helpless, but to succumb to their beautiful, unique brand of emo-colored power pop.

I can’t get these songs out of my head. So, I guess they win.

Initially, I didn’t like the 6-minute title track opener (not as much as much as I adore “Ever After,” anyway, which might be one of my top 10 favorite songs of the decade). This one felt a little more all over the place, and it gets dark and stark and incrementally deeper as it tries for hook after hook within each perfectly measured verse. But when I returned to the album for the second time I felt more attached and invested to this sprawling sound. I realized this is their scene setter – and all that busyness and highs and lows and climatic moments are a precursor of what’s to come.

The entire record is smoothed over and tied together with the incredible performance of Josh Ramsay. His high notes in “Wildfire” during the chorus are the pinnacle of this, as his the piano performance on “Forget Me Not.” The instrumental outro on that, dubbed “And Straight on til Morning” in what I hope is a beautiful reference to Peter Pan, is as perfect a cinematic display as you could hope to find. “One Love” deserves to be played on all the radio stations. The whole thing shines with beautiful pop production that seems to sample from all decades and genres. Remember, Ramsay is the guy who helped write “Call Me Maybe,” as he not-so-subtley references in the single I wished was on this album.

This band is consistently fun to listen to, and I think that’s why I love them so much. You instantly know an M.Trench song, and then you relish the toe-tapping that comes after. Pretty much everyone I have suggested them to winds up hooked on their sing-a-along choruses, tongue-in-cheek humor and goth-pop attire. They’re sort of an anti-hero, in some ways — not quite radio friendly, not quite DIY or stripped down enough for the pop punk scene, but they’re definitely rock and roll, even under the handclaps and woodblocks and harmonized bridges.

Lyrically, “Astoria” is blunt and brash and hopeful.  The wordplay on this album is so interesting and invented (“From fable to fumble, from stable to stumble, nevermore/I’ll say goodbye to my demons and all my break-evens, ever yours”) and I find myself wondering what the hell he’s talking about while still knowing exactly where he’s coming from. Marianas Trench has this really cliche, awkward feel to them sometimes (See the impossible-to-ignore hook of “Burning Up” and the strange, self-deprecating Michael Jackson reference of “Shut Up and Kiss Me“) but that’s part of the charm. They embrace it, own it, this kind of dirty-under-the-surface style. Even when the word choices feel sampled or clumsy, they at least fit the rhyme scheme perfectly, creating this off-kilter, less-than-perfect pop anthem, and it becomes a real strength. What they lack in trendiness they make up for in edge. As with “Ever After,” this record strives for concept album territory, but it’s a little fuzzy around the edges. I’m still not clear what “Astoria” is or what it stands for – a town? An enclave? A spaceship full of synthesizers and Pro Tools? Whatever it is, it sounds very romantic. There’s a lot of romance on this album, come to think of it, a lot of relived regrets and aspiring in the face of the defeated unknown, and hope for the future.

Listening to this album would feel like a guilty pleasure if 1) I didn’t believe in such a thing, 2) It wasn’t so damn good to listen to in the first place.

“I’ll see whatever doesn’t make me stronger kills me
But it’s going to be a long year till the hospital might find hope in me

Let the melody save me, Astoria
The quid pro quos that we’ll compose from esoteric to common prose….

Marianas Trench, Astoria 


“Lover you may cause me tears
Drag me through the best of years
But I love you so.

Any of the songs I wrote
Older than a year or two
But I love you so.”

Must absolutely get this out there: I love The Staves so so much. If there was ever an incentive to clear your throat to sing, it’s their perfectly close  harmonies layered over gently plucked strings. I came across them a couple years ago, but rediscovered their work this year via a documentary about touring in VW vans called “austin to boston” and remembered how beautiful they are, and also that they are British. 
The past few days, they’re all I want to listen to, paying close attention to how they divide their parts and soar effortlessly between ranges. For all the talented singer-songwriters out there, for all the talented trios, I think it’s rare to find a sound this instantly mature and realized. Haunting refrains in “Make it Holy” on their 2013 release “If I Was” have me captivated, like play-it-on-the-hour kind of listening, but their debut LP “Dead & Born & Grown” suits this time of year so well, the kind of americana folk blend that feels pure and timeless and heartfelt and warm. Songs are equal parts romantic and independent, walking that line between emotional release and reverent realistic self-awareness, which is also good for fall. There’s some solid auxiliary and accompaniment, but the harmonies steal the spotlight every time. The acoustics are uncluttered and crisp, I love how it is recorded. But even more worth a listen is their live recordings, with harmonies floating through the air. Just beautiful, and not just for its own sake.         
Carry me home on your shoulders
Lower me onto my bed
Show me the night that I dreamed about before.”
The Staves, Dead and Born and Grown

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