Mother Nature doesn't know where she is or what she's doing these days and, bed-ridden and cough-exhausted, I guess I don't either. The Weatherbug tells me it's February, then May, then December, then May, and just from the look of things out my back window, it's somewhere between winter and spring. Meantime I'm drinking hot liquids and putting another record on because, really, what else can you do in February but wait for warmer weather or better basketball?
So, now's as good a time as any to bring back "In My Stereo." Here's what I'm hearing these days...
Atherton - "California"
This links you to the Myspace page, but "California" is not there. Go to ITunes and get it. Trust me. If there's a better song for the winter-weary and restless-hearted individual, I haven't heard it lately. While so many songs about California (or westward migration in general) are ambivalent or bittersweet, this is one man's true love song about coming home. The production is perfect, the vocals are inspiring, and the song sets me moving.
Phantom Planet "The Guest"
From one sunny Californian anthem to a sunny Californian band, "The Guest" is the title track to PP's debut album back in 2002. On a record full of cheerful pop tunes, this harmonics-laden melody is anything but joyful. The quiet verses contrast with the upward-spiral of the chorus, juxtaposing subdued frustration and helpless abandon. The two guitars create a gorgeous counter-melody, and the cryptic lyric of the refrain ("would you please put out your cigarette?") is somehow the perfect sentiment. This is the sound of one tiny straw breaking the camel's back.
The Thrills "Say It Ain't So"
And now an Irish band writing sunny songs about California (noticing a trend, are we?). This track, off So Much for the City, is typical of The Thrills: jangly percussion, glistening pop songwriting, electric guitar melodies swirling around. There's a girl in the song, and there's a guy, and someone's leaving, and someone doesn't want someone to, but really it's a celebration of the present as much as a epitaph for the future. The lead guitar work is as good as any in their catalogue, and it's great to drive to.
Magpies "Cobblestone Road"
I saw the Magpies at East Nashville's 3 Crow Bar, opening for Cory Branan a few months back. The tracks on Myspace don't capture the raw power and urgency of their live sound (especially their frenetic and outstanding keyboardist), but "Cobblestone Road" stayed with me enough to warrant a download. The song starts at the outset of a night, when anything is possible ("Here comes the night and I'm feeling like a pistol-whipped criminal"). By the end, with the singer's climactic wail that "those nights are gone," we realize it wasn't so much a portrait of the present but a cry out for a wild and desperate past. The chorus, especially live, is something to behold.
MGMT "Time to Pretend"
Two Memphis transplants in Brooklyn, armed with three coats of irony and a heavy synthesizer, got a Columbia contract and are making noise with the absurd and awesome single, "Time to Pretend." Their album is called Oracular Spectacular. Their genres are listed as "surf/jungle/country." The song is a bombastic, over-synthed, ridiculous pseudo-statement about living the rock and roll lifestyle from kids that like to hang out in zoos. It's also well-written, genuinely funny, and remarkably catchy. Everything about this band screams "don't take us seriously"; if they keep "screwing around" this well, it'll be hard not to.
North Mississippi All-Stars "Make Me Down a Pallet"
I can't speak (yet) about Hernando, the new release by the All-Stars. Nor can I speak (yet) about their current tour, as they haven't made it (yet) to Nashville. I can say that the "Songs of the South" tracks on their Myspace--evidently a new collection of Mississippi-folk tunes--are ridiculously good. "Make Me Down a Pallet" is the All-Stars at their surprising best...within the structured and simplistic confines of a simple melody, a blues guitar, and a true sentiment. Sure, they can do electric-wailing-in-the-night-blues-groove as well as anyone, but this is an interesting change of pace for them, and one that makes them a better band.
My Morning Jacket "Nashville to Kentucky"
This song isn't on their Myspace, but track it down. As someone who has made this trip countless times, this song is the sound of that rough and desolate stretch of road. Hop on 65N in a bad mood, drive until sunset, hit play, and wait for the harmony. It won't fix what ails you, but at least you'll know you're not alone.
Cory Branan "Freefall"
Go to Cory's Myspace and play "Freefall" in his music player. Better yet, download it for free. This is a live bootleg of an unreleased song and, a few audio skips aside, it's among his best work. Actually, for my money, this could very well be his best song. Not coincidentally, it's one of his darkest...painting the stark and unforgiving portrait of a man in a single scene, and relationship, that he can't seem to shake. Like Tom Waits, his funniest lines are never far from his darkest moments ("And I was fucked up/as my haircut/you were wasting good perfume..."). The guitar part is absolutely perfect--ominous, beautiful, building to an explosion that never comes--and the penultimate lyric is one of his greatest lines, "I've been drinking with those three-chord girls/everybody knows exactly how they go." When his voice sails, hangs (for 13 seconds!), and finally settles on the word "go," it's a moment of universal truth, and remarkable beauty.
Heard any of these? What are you listening to? Give it to me...I've got nothing but good headphones and time.