Monday, March 29, 2010

March Mailbag!

I get down on March because the weather's a giant tease, everyone's sick, the music releases are few, and March Madness is the lone sporting event I care about. It can be dreary. But last weekend I walked around lower Manhattan in a t-shirt for two hours. Sure, the next day it was 44, raining, and I now have the plague--but it was good while it lasted.

Glass, I deem you half full.

For all of the month's issues, it sure got you talking. It's time to empty out the Mailbag: recommendations for "mellow" music, baseball, and what Michael McDonald has to do with all of this. Onward!

(As always, these are real questions from real readers. If you'd like to be in a future mailbag, just write me at I promise every email is read, so fire away!)

"I love mellow music, but too often music of the mellow variety coincides with music of the melancholy variety. Do you have any suggestunes for upbeat mellow music? (And if you say Jack Johnson I will gouge my ears out with a dull spork.)" --Melissa, Nashville
Between "suggestunes" and the idea of a "dull spork" (how sharp can a spork get?), we're off to a great start. This question is especially fitting now, since so many of my Songs for March are mellow and melancholy. While those tunes might fit the season best, we frequently need a pick-me-up. How hard is it to find something mellow but happy, musically subdued but thematically upbeat?

I'm glad you asked.

(Quick caveat: everyone has a different definition of "mellow." I'm going with mine, which still includes songs with percussion. For me it's more a tempo/arrangement/mood thing than an instrumentation thing.)

Here are nine songs to suit your mood, some (maybe) new, some (definitely) old:

Teenage Fanclub "Don't Hide"
A simple, generous ode with a lazy backbeat. This song can be ignored as much as you want to ignore it, or enjoyed as much as you want to enjoy it.

Stereophonics "Caravan Holiday"
The first song I thought of when I read the question. "Caravan Holiday" is deliberately mid-tempo, pleasant, and contented; it sounds like a 40-mph drive through the countryside.

Beatles "Here Comes the Sun"
Perhaps the quintessential pick for "mellow but not-melancholy" songs. Cheerful, gorgeous, and unobtrusive.

Veviter "Everyday"
A recent addition to my iTunes (thanks, Steve, for the rec), Veviter's Tight Knit never strays from the mellow, melodic, and generally positive tone of this song. If you like "Everday," you'll like the whole album.

Dylan "Buckets of Rain"
Despite the title, I've always heard the song as whimsical, pleasant, and ultimately upbeat. The melancholy's mixed with enough silliness to keep the song light.

Cory Branan "Crush"
Speaking of acoustic arrangements that balance angst with humor...

Monsters of Folk "Magic Marker"
Jim James waxes poetic on uniqueness, markers, tootsie pops, and other essentially harmless things.

Josh Ritter "Kathleen"
A genuinely positive take on a complicated semi-relationship; in the end, he's too fond of Kathleen to give her a negative song.

R.E.M. "Electrolite"
A gorgeous, quirky, mid-tempo love song by a band that does it as well as anyone.

Bonus Pick:
If I were to make a full-album recommendation, my first thought is Wilco's Sky Blue Sky. The album is remarkable for its aesthetic consistency (i.e. fairly mellow throughout). It develops a happy/sad conflict gracefully, but something intangible about the album still feels hopeful even alongside melancholy lyrics. To my ear, it fits the bill.

Disagree? Unforgivable omissions? Hit up the comments to add to our playlist.

"I heard in passing, from the talking heads inside of my television, that the MLB is considering LENGTHENING its season and doing other things that, frankly, I don't understand. Do you think a longer season will open up an opportunity for schmucks like me to get a shot in the majors? How will lengthening the season help the MLB's master plan to force all other sports off of television?" --Mike, Buffalo
As a child, I wanted to play every sport, all the time, but I never even considered baseball. I never went near a baseball diamond. I went out of my way to not see friends' baseball games. In this way, I displayed a preternatural sense of good and evil. Way to go, little me.

Baseball is many things: evil, corrupt, culturally irrelevant, soul-crushingly dull, sure. But in position to plot television supremacy? I doubt it.

Some issues at play here:

1) Everything on TV comes down to money, and baseball will never make as much money as football. The question isn't whether baseball could take time away from everything that's right in the world...

2) The question is whether baseball will ever go away, period. Sadly, the answer is no. It will remain long after it has served any earthly purpose, long after generations have come to hate it, long after it's released its plagues and locust swarms upon the unsuspecting billions. It will be like cockroaches surviving the apocalpyse, the one contemptible thing that cannot die. Until the end of time, tubby dudes in pajamas will spit on a field as geriatrics in the stands talk about 1945. This will never go away. Which brings me to...

3) Things I'd rather do than follow a baseball team for a 3,000-game season:
--Become a podiatrist.
--Run a marathon. In Greenland. In March.
--Give up meat for Lent every year of my life.
--Write a 300-page thesis on the collected cinematic works of Maggie Gyllenhaal.
--Get a cat.
--Follow a WNBA team for a full season.
--Follow every NHL team through every season.
--A lot of drugs.
--The Macarena, for the rest of my life.
--Learn math.
--Become a professional baby shower planner.
--Exile-era-Keith-Richards-quantities of drugs.

You get the idea.

"Is the reason the Michael McDonald's version of "While You Wait For the Others" by Grizzly Bear so much better than the original because Hipsters find it hard to emote while Michael McDonald oozes feelings?" --Doubles, New York
When I got this email, I was new to the original and Michael McDonald's cover. Questions abounded: why did Michael McDonald cover this song? What advisor introduced him to Grizzly Bear, of all bands? How many uber-hip indie artists did they workshop? Did he also take Animal Collective in the studio? Is he plowing through SubPop's catalog? Is this a Shatner-style display of inspired satire?

Turns out, Michael McDonald just loves this song. There's no intentional comedy at play. He's just singing the way he was born to sing: at 330%, in over-the-top bearded glory.

Because of this question's wording, I expected to like McDonald's version better; I'll take earnest and ridiculous over detached and dull most days. Surprisingly, I greatly preferred the Grizzly Bears original, and here's why: Michael McDonald's cover is (if this is possible) too Michael McDonald. It's so visceral and incontinent that the song's melody and structure dissolve into a loose forum in which McDonaldom happens. He McDonalds all over this thing, to the point that he could be covering any song, or every song, or no song at once.

Meanwhile, the Grizzly Bear original is melodic, subdued, and artfully executed. It's not particularly exciting, but it is a pleasant, smart, and self-contained entity. In other words, it's a song, and a good one.

Still, Doubles' question is valid: Michael McDonald vs Hipster Magoo? Is it better to be earnest/ hyper-emotive to the point of hilarity or ironic/detached/cerebral to the point of dullness? Would you rather have some people love your music or everyone think you're cool? And, as a fan, which would you rather listen to?

On paper, I choose the former. My favorite music has always been honest, sincere, and inclusive first; self-awareness can be a paralyzing thing in the world of art, and (at times) an intellectual cop-out. But Michael McDonald? He's a special case. Maybe it's his role in 40 Year-Old Virgin; maybe it's some indefinable vocal trait; maybe it's the beard. I don't know. But that guy is hilarious.

What about you? Which version do you prefer? Any die-hard McDonald fans out there? Should I be lambasted by the Bearded One himself? Let me hear it.

And thanks again to everyone who wrote in this month--sorry it was a shorter mailbag, but I promise April will be a mega-edition. Fire away to!

Until then...


Michael said...

It's like his hair is trying to outdo his beard.

Chris Milam said...

...And who wins? We do. WE DO.

Joe Muscolino said...

Wilco's Sky Blue Sky was a superb choice, one that was a bit risky, too. My friend will not give him up description of that album as "Dad Rock," implying that it's too simple and easy-going for true music-appreciators. Well, take that, friend. Thank you for the backup. Like a snifter of whiskey, you truly appreciate the feeling of this album just a few sips in.

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