Monday, August 03, 2009

Songs for August


August is:
1) The hottest month of the year
2) The longest month of the year
3) A beautiful name
4) A waiting game
5) A breaking point

By my calendar, and my geographic history, August has always been a two-headed beast: a) summer's slow, sweaty finale, and b) an excruciating windup to fall. It's when all your summertime adventures come to a head. It's every road's dead end, every night's goodbye, every situation you've dodged. They've all added up, all summer, and August is their inauspicious math.

But even as you're wrapping up one season, you're looking ahead to the future, and football, and cooler weather, and school, and new people, places--FALL. But not yet. August is the hill you climb at the beginning of every rollercoaster, the sweaty, sticky, overlong, suffocating buildup that makes the rest go. For thirty-one days--and seemingly eighty nights--you've got one foot in the door and one foot out. You can feel it coming, but you can't see it yet. You've got every date marked on your calendar, but they're somehow never closer. You're facing forward, feet stuck.

It's all happening, even when it's not.

So here, now, are thirty-one songs that sound like sweat, that hang thick in air, that either move too slow or come unexpectedly, songs you've been waiting for and songs that sound like waiting, songs that are the prologue and songs that are the epilogue. They're overheated, exhaust-choked, furious and water-logged, a slow poison, a gorgeous bitter end and an interminable wait. They're the playlist for the last great party in purgatory.

Here, now, 31 Songs for August (plus the bonus iTunes random pick!):

(Agree? Disagree? Got a glaring omission? Don't forget to comment below and give me your Songs for August!)

Tom Waits, "Ol' 55"
We pick up August where we likely left off in July: red-eyed, exhausted, and still moving. Of the million songs-about-driving-til-dawn, this remains my favorite.

Led Zeppelin, "Bring It On Home"
The sound of the last kick, the runner who can see the finish line, the adrenaline taking over. The opening blues fall lightly like tires over the seams in the road. Everything speeds up. Again.

North Mississippi All-Stars, "Someday Baby"
Almost the entire NMAS catalog works for August; I could've picked any number of their songs. They all sound like a 200-degree day.

Lucero, "Tonight Ain't Gonna Be Good"
Lyrically, it tells our story: summer's winding down, and tonight it's coming to a head. But the music itself drips with anticipation. It's a clenched fist, but it's not angry. It's resigned, and determined, to end this night/chapter/season one way or another. After tonight, he sings, it'll all be over. Maybe.

Queens of the Stone Age, "I'm Gonna Leave You"
The first of many breakup songs with an impassive slant. It's not that our protagonist is mean-spirited; he's too burnt-out to care. This is the downside of keeping a summertime promise.

Soundgarden, "Pretty Noose"
What is it about Soundgarden that made them a summertime band? Did their singles always come out in warm weather? Did their album art/iconography play up summertime? Am I the only one who associates them with sweaty carrides? Either way, "Pretty Noose" is quintessentially August: it sounds like the desert, it's plodding but high-energy, it's incendiary, it's unrepentent, and then it's done.

Reigning Sound, "Time Bomb High School"
In honor of the first day of school, always a mid-August milieu of sweat, posturing, and frenetic energy.

Jimi Hendrix, "Crosstown Traffic"
Fickle, crazy, short, blurry, and on fire.

Kings of Leon, "Red Morning Light"
For everyone who's every burned it at both ends. From the weird opening wind-down to the nonchalant vocals, this is the sound of a car still running on an empty tank.

Ryan Adams, "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home"
A different take on the "Tonight Ain't Gonna Be Good" conflict. Instead of summertime debauchery coming to an angry, antisocial head, we're alone. Uncomfortably alone. We've reaped what we've sown, and this lonely, barstool anticlimax is the punishment.

Oasis, "Live Forever"
Specific, late-summer memories related to Oasis. Let's move on.

My Morning Jacket, "Run Thru"
Some songs create a breaking point. Some songs build up to one. Some songs linger without any dramatic arc. "Run Thru," somehow, does both. It doesn't fully move (until the bridge), yet it doesn't really stagnate. The conflict in its first seconds is the conflict in its last. Somehow the drama grows, the music more visceral, more frightening, more real, as the time passes. This is the sound of a breaking point that keeps on breaking.

Green Day, "Are We the Waiting"
Perfectly embodies both sides of August: a robust, anthemic call about a slow-moving future.

Pearl Jam, "Parting Ways"
One of those rare songs that sounds at home any time of day, any time of year. I've picked it for August because it sounds sluggish, warm, and waterlogged. It sounds like the last minute of the last sunset. One violet light, and then it's gone.

Smashing Pumpkins, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness"
And....enter the keys. More on this later.

Beatles, "Two of Us"
A Bonnie & Clyde fantasy of the summertime romance that wasn't. This is what the end of the road would look like if we'd made different decisions in June.

Weezer, "Island in the Sun"

Belle & Sebastian, "I Don't Love Anyone"
Like "Island in the Sun," suddenly at home in a mid-tempo pace. The world's spinning less. This is usually a time that thinking gets done, whether you want it to or not. And few bands do "sudden, bittersweet realizations" better than B&S.

Lyle Lovett, "I Loved You Yesterday"
Thirty-one songs for the hottest month of the year, and you thought I wasn't bringing the high Texas heat? Lovett's remarkable for making any kind of pain sound okay.

Beach Boys, "Surfer Girl"
Winning for its fantasy, and its earnestness, and its beauty. But included for that sound. Good Lord, that sound.

Counting Crows, "Miami"
I'll admit it: I missed "Miami." I missed "Miami" on first, second, twentieth listen. For probably four years, I lumped "Miami" in with Hard Candy's misses. I don't know how I missed it. I don't know what I was thinking. It's not great, but it's so effortlessly good, that it makes SNSM even less forgivable. The Crows, at their best, create moments. Because of the production and the lyrics, those moments are typically entrenched in a season, or a time of day. And, at their best, those seasons are inextricable from those musical moments. "Long December" is inescapable at the year's end. And parts of "Miami," to a lesser degree, sound like August to me.

Rolling Stones, "All Down the Line"
There's a moment when you know you should stop. And then the Stones join the party, and you keep on moving.

Wallflowers, "Bleeders"
The tired, ambivalent flip-side to that coin.

The Replacements, "Unsatisfied"
The raw, naked challenge of it is one of the truest statements in pop music. The singer isn't just unsatisfied; he isn't just realizing that he's unsatisfied; he's realizing that nobody around him sees him at all. It's a remarkable turning point, an emotional pivot, without knowing exactly what the next step will be.

Cory Branan, "Green Street Lullabye"
In a way, a sister song to "Tonight Ain't Gonna Be Good." For all its dynamism, and climax, and optimism, it's completely exhausted. You can practically hear Branan take a deep breath after the opening riff stops (he does, in fact, take that breath at the beginning of "Wayward and Down," less a sigh of relief than of resignation). For all its structure, the emotional push and pull of the song is palpable, back and forth between fatigue, fear, recklessness, alienation, hope, and a masochistic joy almost every line. He's at once a part of the crowd and tired of it, moving on and stuck in place. With one couplet, he captures Memphis in August: "kudzu chokes the trees/mosquitos hum like window units/but you gotta move if you want a breeze." It ends with the sad sound it alludes to--a riotous climax--then walks away from the wreckage.

Wilco, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"
A harder goodbye than "I'm Gonna Leave You."

Radiohead, "Like Spinning Plates"
There's a moment, near the end, where it all blurs together. Part of it's pace, part of it's ambivalence, part of it is conflict, and all of it becomes abstraction. It's a weird and dizzy dream. You go to sleep and wake up and wonder if it's fall yet.

Pawtuckets, "Smooth Water"
Welcome back, keys. The piano enacts the water's movement: calm, deceptive, quickening, powerful, then eerily at peace. If you've spent time on a dock at night, you know this sound.

White Stripes, "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)"
There's a moment in August--impossible to date--where you can see the finish line. Fall-related dates on the calendar start popping up. School's about to start, people are coming and going, old favorite things feel fresh again. This moment's often been captured in pop music and, to me, needs a piano. Here, the Stripes' key-steered end-of-summer resolution is typically sad and funny (humor, I remember humor!).

REM, "Nightswimming"
This song gave me the idea for Milam's Monthly Playlist. I can't think of a single song that I more strongly associated with a certain time of year. I've written about this song before, so I won't belabor it here. Suffice it to say, if you can't hear this in late August, moon out, windows down, one last drive, one last drive alone, still young but remembering a different youth, and feel connected to that time, or that place, I don't know what to tell you.

Bob Dylan, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again"
Somehow, the circus is still here. The circus is starting. The circus is ongoing, and will continue to go. It feels like we're moving, but he insists we're staying put. It's the sound of the same old party, simultaneously the one you wanted to leave, and the thing you've been waiting for. It sounds like gold. It's moving toward fall.

iTunes Random Pick for August: Wilco, "Hate It Here"
And, for once, iTunes doesn't completely embarrass me.

So, agree? Disagree? What's August to you? What are your Songs for August? Hit up the comments and let me know!

Side by side in orbit,

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