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learning love songs

est. 2008

4/13/17

I didn’t hear of Wild Pink until this week, but their new self-titled debut is taking me by storm. It’s reflective from a generational perspective, using the details of one’s singular surroundings and relationships to opine on our greater struggles and cultural traumas. And they are a great fit at Tiny Engines, a label I have loved for their work with The Hotelier, Look Mexico and Restorations.

The lyrics in their songs are what grabbed me first, they write the the kind of songs that are jam-packed with words. The stories aren’t so much flushed out from start to finish, but snapshots of scenes interspersed with observations. There’s references to  “a vigil for a kid that died too young,” a repeated call to “put your phone down,” and the cryptic message to “I wonder if the next mass shooting will be here.” But none of these words and messages really feel melodramatic or like overkill; there things any millennial one who grew up with bomb threats at their high school could understand. There are references aplenty — one of my favorite tracks, “Great Apes,” manages to reference both the World Trade and Tim Robbins — and long, thoughtful phrases that dive into the depths of being introverted, anxious and relatively exhausted at the life one is living in the face of all the world has to show for itself.

Musically, they have a mellow emo/emo-revival thing going on, with guitar tones that remind me of American Football and Pinegrove and muted, mellow, harmonic-style vocals that could appear in a variety of indie rock bands. Wild Pink have a style that sounds like something I’ve heard before and yet their approach, their ability to purge emotional demons and ferret out the ugly parts of living in today’s world, are something new. It’s a fluid feel, and a garage-band vibe that come together to make their particular brand of indie . Though the record as a whole is pretty serious — I wouldn’t recommend it for moments when you want to hear something uplifting — it is full of movement, like sudden changes in time and lots of steady, sharp snare drum.

“Good times sneak and fleet
Your friends wanna spend some time with you tonight

Read about a poem that someone knows about your sign
They say when you were born the stars soared

Calm
Calm down
Put your phone down…”
~Wizard of Loneliness
Wild Pink, Wild Pink

4/2/17

I remember when Jack Antonoff released “I Wanna Get Better,” and it was this explosive thing, this beautiful, fun and upbeat song about being at your worst and losing your mind and that moment you decide you can lift yourself up. At the time I couldn’t quite get into it. While I could tell it was a great song (with a sweet guitar solo!) it was too happy even in spite of its dark messaging because it indicated hope and light after you hit rock bottom and I wasn’t really keen on any recovery messaging at the time. I was still in a free fall.

But two days ago, I played the new Bleachers track “Don’t Take the Money” while paging through the new Spotify releases and it was like being hit by lightening. What a passionate, powerful pop-rock tune, entirely retro-cool and now, while lyrically diving into deep waters about the anguish of relationships and the inner yearnings we have to be more, to break free, to be true to ourselves. The release totally caught me off-guard, and now has me shuffling through the Bleachers back catalog with fervor. It’s such good stuff! It’s poppy and hooky, but deep and introspective, it’s lucid and vibrant but grounded in its authentic reflection.

While 2014’s Strange Desires is a cohesive introduction to Antonoff’s style and sound, his latest thoughts about his newest single make me think the next record will be even more realized. I loved what he wrote on his Instagram about the song, specifically —

“you know that feeling? when you’ve tried your best to destroy yourself and someone else but it’s too strong to be destroyed? when you’ve tried to fling you a your partner out of an emotional window but you keep landing in heaven? that’s when it’s all clear.”

“Fling your partner out of an emotional window” is probably not a scientific psychiatric term, but I would humbly suggest it ought to be. And speaking to his comments overall, I appreciate Antonoff’s unfiltered attitude toward mental health and the expressive, free way he talks about it. This kind of frankness, this kind of real talk, can go a long way toward reducing stigma and toward making those of us who are feeling less-than-whole and less-than-worthy feel less alone in our struggles.

Because it’s normal to have feelings, even bad ones. And they don’t have to be swept under the carpet, or on the flip side, romanticized into something exotic and taboo. They can just happen, and we are left to deal with them however we can at the time. Antonoff’s own thoughts on being vulnerable while songwriting are worth visiting here in a recent Pitchfork interview; he explains how you don’t have to write about the necessarily be writing about the hard stuff to make cool music, but it’s the hard stuff that he wants to focus on in his songs and with the artists he collaborates with. Though I don’t subscribe to the belief that one *has* to be depressed or suffering in order to make good art, I think creativity is a terrific way to deal with those feelings or work through them — to write about them, to sing about them, to capture them in a photograph. With a little determination and effort, our worst experiences and lower moments might prove to be the breeding grounds for our next best inspiration.

“When you’re looking at your shadow
Standing on the edge of yourself
Preying on the darkness
Just don’t take the money
Dreaming of an easy
Waking up without weight now
And you’re looking at the heartless
Just don’t take the money

You steal the air out of my lungs, you make me feel it
I pray for everything we lost, buy back the secrets
Your hand forever’s all I want
Don’t take the money.”
~Don’t Take the Money

Bleachers

 

3/29/17

I’ve stumbled across Sarah Jaffe in playlists around the Internet many times over the years, and today I was heartened to hear her gorgeous words and soothing voice on a playlist from Ambient Light Music. The song is called “Clementine,” and while it’s a few years old, it’s brand new to me — all that matters in that fresh attachment one finds with music.

She sort of hits the nail on the head of what it’s like to worry about your worrying, to watch your life speed by at the end of something while holding your breath for what’s next. The peripatetic motion of the string section (pizzicato, no?), and her repetitive vocals add a sense of urgency to a steady tempo and warm tone. She’s not too nervous, not too unsure, but still questioning, still wishing, still hoping.

“All that time wasted
I wish I was a little more delicate
I wish my…
I wish my name was Clementine.”

~Clementine
Sarah Jaffe, Suburban Nature

3/13/17


A little YouTube browsing through the Anti Records channel last week led to me the excellent catalog of Sean Rowe, an Anti singer-songwriter with a little bit of twang and a whole lot of heart.

His voice is like a smooth whiskey, warm and filling and soothing. It’s also quite lovely to hear such a booming bass sing thoughts and phrases so poetic and romantic. His songs have a lot of detail and all seem to be about heartbreak, moving on or getting lost, with rhyming verses and simple structure. He’s often accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and spare bass, or joined by thumping drums, handclaps, horns and soulful-style backup vocals.

Rowe has a questioning nature to his songs, as if each is exploring a feeling and a moment. The title track of his 2014 Madman is an excellent ode to self-awareness and motivation, while my favorite for now, a new track off his forthcoming record New Lore called “Gas Station Rose,” looks at the hope in a relationship.

I’ve struggled lately in discovering new artists, mostly digging into back catalogs or new releases from old favorites.But the random selecction of Rowe’s playlist seems to have restarted my discovery lock.

Rowe has an album coming out in April — definitely one I’ll be adding to my list.

“Another year gone by like the signs on the street
Highway seventy-five, Nebraska flat as a sheet
Living out of the trunk, we bounce around like a dream
Another major drawback, another sweet in between
At least we’re both confused together…

But maybe the mountain in our eyes
Looks like a molehill from the other side

We are the elders of our minds
We’re on our own.”

~Gas Station Rose
Sean Roew, New Lore

3/7/17

One of the best things about getting older? You start caring less and less about what people think of you and your tastes. So it is without a shred of shame I admit I have almost exclusively listened to Ed Sheeran since his billion-views busting Divide album came out Friday (OK, with some Japandroids, The Menzingers and Laura Marling thrown in there, too) and I still think he’s one of the best pop songwriters of his generation.

Sheeran’s spoken word delivery can be construed as annoying to some, but I dig the rhythms and phrases he finds. His guitar playing is distinct and often innovative. And lord, those ballads — he can break hearts and mend them with a refrain with the best of them. “Photograph” and “Tenerife Sea” held the place as my favorite love songs of his last record while “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and “Dive” are the ones I’m most into this time around.

My favorite song on the record, though, the one that I go back to play before skipping among the others, is “Castle On The Hill,” a dedication to the friends Ed grew up with and the times they shared. It’s a familiar story for anyone who spent their teenage years with a tight knit group who inevitably broke away from each other as they grew up and life pulled them in separate directions.

Not only is the musicality of the song gorgeous and moving and triumphant, but the topic is one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s living across the country from those who know me best, maybe it’s wishing we were better able to share the activities and interests of our lives together again. Maybe it’s wishing I had more reunions to look forward to. All I know is when I hear Ed Sheeran sing about driving down country roads, singing to “Tiny Dancer” with his friends and watching sunsets, I think about wandering the city long past our bedtimes, meeting up on a grassy hillside and watching the stars preside over our dreams as we wished upon each and every one of them we’d never have to grow up.

“I’m on my way
Driving at ninety down those country lanes
Singing to “Tiny Dancer”
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill…”

~Castle On The Hill
Ed Sheeran, Divide

 

3/2/17

One of the albums that’s really snuck up on me this year is Eisley’s I’m Only Dreaming, a record shepherded by Sherri DuPree Bemis. The band once featured three DuPree sisters, but Sherri’s stuck with it alongside other family members and new players, bringing their ambient-pop quality into a new era. I was never a huge fan though I never heard anything I disliked — and Currents had some really beautiful parts — but this one has stuck out to me for having some moments that just seem strikingly honest, raw and realized.

It’s dark, but just dark enough, it’s sweet, but just sweet enough, it’s confident and edgy. Sherri’s lyrics live in that space of just-vague-enough, bringing plenty of imagery and feeling without laying it on too thick. It’s a pleasant listen, if a rather monochromatic one, with every song striking this unique balance of strength, yearning and sensitivity. “Louder Than A Lion” has been my favorite, with “You Are Mine” and “Defeatist” as close seconds.

I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Sherri’ voice (one of the main reasons I dug the Perma record she did with husband Max Bemis). She has such a lovely soprano quality and can hit some insane notes in insane ways with a ton of power behind them, while somehow still sounding angelic. That brightness and lightness carries through the entire album, but I like how she lets herself get into more deeper and softer tones here and there, too. Listening to her, I just get lost in the sound and the way she enunciates what she’s saying, as if every phrase is a little missive from her truest soul (Bonus: listen to her on a recent episode of the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast for the story behind how Eisley came to be, and her utterly cool attitude about her sisters leaving the band and understanding how everyone’s path is different. Not to mention her life touring with small children. She’s totally inspiring!)

I’ve seen Eisley criticized by music writers for being too one-note, for not having enough of an edge to them, but I love the way Sherri’s voice carries the songs, the way the lyrics are sparse, and the way the guitars always seem to have just enough distortion to sound a little off-kilter. No matter how much it feels like it wants to rock harder, Eisley songs have always had such a beautiful, dreamlike quality to them — a reminder that’s OK to sit still, it’s OK to hang back, it’s OK to get lost in the moment, even if the world thinks you should do something greater.

“We fall backwards faster than the speed of sound
If you want to fly we’re able
If you want to flee I’m stable
I’ll stand and fight when you’re out…”
~Louder than a Lion
Eisley, I’m Only Dreaming

2/26/17

Life is busy, almost too busy sometimes, ratcheting up in responsibilities and squeezing out the spare time usually used to sit, reflect, read or just veg out. Fortunately, if you’re as much of a music fan as I am, the soundtrack to your goings-on can offer just enough of an emotional balm to keep you going until you catch your next breath (heck, sometimes it’s better than that and propels you even further).

Lately I’ve been into the newest Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness record, Zombies on Broadway, a buoyant and revealing pop-rock record that dropped a few weeks ago. I was a big Something Corporate I don’t think there was a mix CD in my possession without “Konstantine,” “I Kissed A Drunk Girl” or “I Woke Up In A Car” on it. The debut of Jack’s Mannequin thrilled me as much as anyone and I do think that record will hold up as a seminal classic for the early aughts.

But much of the post-JM solo work has come to me in fits and starts, I don’t think there was a release that I dove into from start to finish the way I have Zombies. The self-titled from 2014 has some great moments and I love love love “Cecelia and the Satellite” and “Maps for the Getaway” has become a theme song of sorts, but I came to it late, probably in 2015 or 2016.

Listening to Zombies, I hear a little bit of all that came before, from the stream-of-conscious spoken delivery in “Brooklyn You’re Killing Me” that feel very Leaving Through the Window, the dance beats of “Don’t Speak For Me (True)” from The Pop Underground era, the romantic anthem of “Love and Great Buildings” that has always been a strength of his. Thematically, Zombies wrestles with the hardships of balancing love, relationships, responsibilities and mental health, always with a hint of hope and optimism. McMahon appears to be able to offer a clinic on how to age and stay young at the same time.

It’s an incredibly tight and cohesive 11 tracks, full of McMahon’s sharp if mildly depressed observations. “Dead Man’s Dollar” darkly struggles with balancing responsibilities and personal strength,”Island Radio” is a stylistic take on a last ditch effort of sorts, and slow burn closer “Birthday Song” is call to one’s owns arms. So much of this album speaks to the strength and maturation one goes through in a life with myriad challenges, multiple mistakes and a massive emotional core. It’s one of the more honest, and catchy, records I’ve heard this year, and one I plan on revisiting time and time again.

“Pocket change and subway cars
Our big ideas filled empty bars
You might be from the moon or mars
Either way, I’m never going home

So, let’s hang an anchor from the sun
There’s a million city lights but
You’re number one
You’re the reason I’m still
Up at dawn
Just to see your face

We’ll be going strong
With the vampires, baby
We belong, we belong awake
Swinging from the fire escape”

~Fire Escape
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway

2/12/17

How good is the new Japandroids album? So good it might be the best rock album we’ve seen since their last effort? I’m inclined to say yes — I’ve been glued to it and its hooks, pounding rhythms, expert production…there’s a lot to love here even before you unpack the meaning. At the moment, one song in particular has me totally hooked — “True Love and A Free Life of Free Will.”

When I first heard the album this song stood out but not in a major way; the album is pretty short so it was easy to remember what song was which and feel the entire flow at the same time. But over the past week or so, “True Love…” is my jam. It’s got a slow march feel that reminds me of “Continuous Thunder,” and brilliantly simple little scenes of cafes and catinas. Japandroids songs have a way of being deeply poetic and emotional without being too purple, too snobby, or too high-minded, which is why I think they have so much pull with critics and people who listen to music for a living. “True Love..” is a slow jam, the closet thing to a ballad on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, but it’s got a pounding rhythm and fuzzy aplenty to give it rock and roll heart.

It doesn’t take too long to decode the meaning behind a Japandroids song, another reason they’re so fun to listen to and write about to boot. “Spill your secrets and paint my days,” Brian King sings in a desperate plea. Then, later, he ends a verbose verse with “a little money and whatever’s on the radio,” , as if it is a throwaway line but it is anything but, instead it sets a tangible scene. The final chorus — which gets me every time — kicks in with a delicate guitar line before building to an outro, a really simple setting but a satisfying one nonetheless, as Japandroids are wont to do.

With only eight of them, every track on “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” shows the scenes of a life that all connect back to the same themes — ambition, risk and reward, mortality. All are powerful, but it’s the love songs that make the heart ache and cry and sing — “No Known Drink or Drug” is one of the band’s best songs yet and it’s a total sing-it-from-the-rafters anthem to love. “True Love,” with its romantic notions and realistic landscape, is absolutely stunning to me — it’s a perfect summation of the dare-to-dream, dare-to-love attitude the album is all about.

“Plans to settle down
Plans to up and split
Plans loose as the morals we are planning with
Baby be the beast, but free what burdens be
And I’ll love you if you love me.”

~True Love and A Free Life of Free Will
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life

2/6/17

Eight days ago, I had one of the finest concert experiences in recent memory at The Wiltern. I went to see John K. Sampson, one of my all-time favorite songwriters and frontman of the late greats The Weakerthans. He was opening for Frank Turner, an artist I knew but didn’t really know — not until I saw him on stage, anyway.

Sampson rocketed through favorites like “Aside” and “Sun in an Empty Room” along with tracks from his beautiful new solo LP Winter Wheat. I highly recommend it pensive listening sessions, when you need something to sink into that isn’t too aggressive but is still deep and smart. He introduced his group as “a soft rock band from Canada” and I think that’s a fine way to say it. I sang along with every word I knew from a seat up in the mezzanine, head tucked on my boyfriend’s shoulder. I felt warm and safe, comforted by the familiar voice that has accompanied so many highs and lows over the years.

Frank Turner, on the other hand, I didn’t know much about except for strolls through his discography in the week leading up to a song. When his set started with the unveiling of two big positive-negative light-up displays on either side of the stage, and his band entered in coordinating black and white suits, I knew this was going to be a show. Not just a concert but a performance, with engagement and attitude and stagecraft aplenty. And it was! Turner is an undeniable band leader, he’s got that charisma and energy to bounce him all over the stage without losing the audience’s eye once. His band played their own respective hearts out, and backed him up well during the almost-rockabilly punk tunes as much as the poppier side. I loved the keys and drums set up on risers in the back, creating a stage that looked like something out of a 1960s variety show. We’re so used to seeing bands set up in the same formation, and I like it when artists go out of their way to make a setup that feels like their own.

Frank’s songs have an emotional vulnerability to them that spoke to me instantly, and something about a crowd of thousands singing and jumping along to these introspective thoughts was quite moving. A word about the crowd: audiences LOVE Frank. It was clear people had seen him before, and first-timers like us were the minority of the group. But I’d instantly go back and see him again. The songs were that good, the performance was that sharp and the experience was that fun, a kind of suspended reality and coming together that felt light and strong and necessary. Three cheers to Frank and his stellar team, fans included, for giving me a night at The Wiltern I’ll never forget.

“Some days I wake up dazed my dear,
And don’t know where I am.
I’ve been running now so long I’m scared
I’ve forgotten how to stand.
I stand alone in airport bars
And gather thoughts to think:
That if all I had was one long road
It could drive a man to drink.

But then I remember you,
And the way you shine like truth in all you do.
And if you remembered me,
You could save me from the way I tend to be.”

~The Way I Tend To Be
Frank Turner, Tape Deck Heart

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