Get to Know: Emmy the Great (by Claire)

New friends help you figure out what you actually like. Unlike those longtime companions who you can communicate with through nothing but grunts and glances, new friends have a script. What do you do? What do you like? What do you listen to?

I was surprised by one of my answers a couple weeks ago.

“What kind of music do you like?” asked New Friend X.

“Mary Chapin Carpenter.”

Huh?  I backtracked. “Um, folk. Singer songwriters. Laura Veirs.”

After several months on a hearty K Records fueled kick, interspersed with a handful of decidedly non-folk-songwriter acts, this answer tumbled out of my momentarily possessed mouth and revealed the truth: I missed them. Old favorites like Patty Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter, semi-old discoveries like Laura Veirs and Missy Higgins, I missed the whole songwriting gang. I was a little tired of deep monotone Calvin Johnson, tired of trying to figure out if I like solo David Byrne (I do? But I don’t? But I miss original David Byrne, could he time travel or change his suddenly way-smooth voice, pretty please?). I missed my first amorphous genre love, with its sweet voices and poetic lyrics, and I wanted it back.

Enter Emmy the Great: Genre-jumping, sharp tongued, and until recently, undiscovered by yours truly. I was hooked on the first listen, and I hope you are too.

“We Almost Had a Baby” on We Almost Had a Baby

This was the song that transfixed me. I’d been looking for it, that feeling, that stop-what-you’re-doing-and-play-it-again surge, and I found it in “We Almost Had a Baby.” Crisp, clear storytelling and a tone that reminded me of old country songs,   which are referenced at the end when Emmy lays out a common country bass line— “Do you think of me when you are playing the one and five in four? Is country music all your life is for?”

It’s the saga of the almost baby, the accidental pregnancy that wasn’t, the emotional rollercoaster of imagined parenthood followed by the strange emotional hangover when it doesn’t happen. I love listening to this from a young, female perspective—the only other song I know that covers the travails of almost-babies is “It Was an Accident” by NRBQ, a light-hearted paean to having sex in cars and trying to dodge potential parental responsibilities.

“24” on First Love

Simple lyrics devastate, especially in breakup songs. Nothing knocks the wind out of me like Beck’s mournful chorus on “Lost Cause,” or Bob Dylan’s crackling voice singing “You just wasted my precious time/ Don’t think twice, it’s alright.” “24” belongs in the hall of fame of swift and biting goodbyes with its repeated lines “I’m sorry that you happened to me.”  It’s a heartbreaking song about a snails pace breakup, where the life is slowly sucked out of their relationship until the day her lover watches a 24 hour TV marathon, and she turns 24.  Together they’ve wasted time and promise. The years have passed and she says  “You are still not Charles Bukowski, and I am not Diane Cluck.” Her tone conveys the acute exhaustion of feeling very old when you are very young, and the brisk hope of walking away from the person and the trappings of your life that are holding you down.

“Paper Forest—Afterglow of Rapture” on Virtue 

The album Virtue was inspired by the end of Emmy’s engagement. This song showcases more of her vocal range than the other ones listed here, and has a darker, more tense tone, shown through a rapidly plucked guitar and dramatic shifts between high and low notes. It’s an experience I’ve never heard in a song—the dual realizations in the throes of heartbreak that you’ve survived, and that you need to catalog every moment of it before you forget. It’s not a fresh heartbreak song, or one that appears to be written long after the fact, when hindsight and reflection polishes the jagged lines. It’s right smack in the middle—halfway out, but not quite there yet. This is one of the most engaging parts of Emmy’s music—her ability to tell unique, relatable stories, ones that feel familiar based on experience, but new and unexpected in the context of a song.

“Iris” on  Iris

“Iris” is sunny, retro pop, outfitted with breezy snare rolls and cheerful vocals.  Emmy told Guardian UK that this song was an ode to a hybrid of several girls she knows, including herself, a gang of “Princess Impermanence”s who are dissatisfied with today, but looking forward to a brighter tomorrow. Her music bounces from genre to genre, tone to tone, never quite settling on one solid spot. It makes each album delightful and unexpected—one moment you’re in the midst of a folk song, minutes later there’s something bright and slightly twee streaming through your speakers. Throughout, there’s that sharp, witty songwriting and Emmy’s rich, ever-changing vocals.

“God of Loneliness” on God of Loneliness

Emmy’s voice, especially in the intro, sounds distinctly Natalie Merchant-esque, which gives the whole song a jaunty, 90’s alt radio feel that I love. If you told me this song was circa Lilith Fair, I would believe it wholeheartedly (and I would’ve blasted it on the Lilith Fair sampler I wore down to nothing in middle school). The twinkly, layered guitar and wind-chime-like sounds that shows up about a minute in grounds the song in the retro present—it has that sweet, dated pop sound that’s stayed popular over the past five years. The 90’s singer songwriter and modern retro pop  sounds combine and create the infinitely catchy, shoulda-been-on-the-radio “God of Loneliness” which will spiral through your head all day after two listens.

Get to Know The Walkmen (by Noura Hemady)

Although the Walkmen have been around for 10 years and continue to receive a decent amount of press, their records have never commanded the over zealous accolades that grace (mar?) the websites of tastemakers. Sepia-tinged photographs from their upcoming record “Heaven” highlight the domesticity of the band members, dapper in their three-piece suits, smiling at their wives and children. This is a band of middle-aged family men: their lead singer, Hamilton Leithauser, wails in remembrance of his youth and long-lost loves, while the band provides a mournful, anxious beat to accompany his voice.  They may not have the innovative spirit or impeccable branding of, say, Jack White and his various initiatives, and they don’t get into Twitter battles with their contemporaries or announce rehab stints via Facebook, but they put out impeccable records every two years and slowly but surely sell out shows across the country.

There is a reason why you’ll find a generous selection of songs by the Walkmen throughout my playlists: their songs are infinitely listenable, suitable for the most raucous and joyful dance party to the most solemn and mournful of occasions.  I have seen the Walkmen live four times, and each performance left a unique imprint:

  • Opening for Kings of Leon in April 2009, they play to an empty arena at George Mason University’s Patriot Center.  Undeterred by the lack of audience, the band powers through the set list in what, from our nosebleed seats, felt like a private performance.
  • At 9:30 Club, December 2010, nearly an hour into their set and playing to a jubilant hometown crowd, the pounding drums of “The Rat” roll in and the crowd starts to bounce.  One fan, overjoyed by the performance, leaps on stage and flails in front of the band.  Unamused by the intrusion, singer Hamilton Leithauser shoves the kid from the stage, sending him flying into the crowd.  A collective gasp from the audience momentarily obscures the music.
  • At Williamsburg Waterfront, September 2011, looking out onto the Manhattan skyline on a warm, late summer night. I turned up to the venue a half hour before my friend, who had wandered to the wrong 8th street after exiting the subway, and so I perched on a fence at the edge of the crowd, waiting for her to arrive, unable to chose between watching the show and the brilliant purple and pink sun setting through disintegrating storm clouds.
  • In a spaghetti-restaurant-turned-music hall in Philadelphia, March 2012, for the band’s 10th anniversary show.  They played all the hits, had the entire audience singing and swaying, and left us satisfied that they played every song we could have wanted to hear.

“In the New Year,” on You and Me

New Year’s Day, 2012: I insisted on playing this song and U2’s “New Year’s Day” on repeat.  The song can be uplifting or mournful, depending on your own mood: the lyrics alternate between lamenting continuity and anticipating change.  Hamilton opens the song singing “Oh, I’m still living at the old address.”  But in the next stanza, as the beat continues to build and his voice gets louder, he proclaims, with confidence: “I know that it’s true/ it’s gonna be a good year/ Out of the darkness/And into the fire.”  It’s the perfect song not just for New Year’s Day, but for any transitional period.

“Tenley Town,” on A Hundred Miles Off

The Walkmen are, originally, a DC-based band; they first came together here as students at the St. Albans Prep School.  Tenleytown is a neighborhood in DC best known as a refuge for well-to-do white people and students from American University.  “Tenley Town” comes off A Hundred Miles Off, which critics have determined to be one of the band’s weaker albums.  This might be true, but “Tenley Town” is one of two songs I’ll write about from this album.  The song doesn’t seem to have much to do with its namesake locale, but it has a ferocious, unrelenting tempo that recalls the frustrations and limitations of suburban youth.  I hear Tenley Town and see a basement full of sweaty, anxious teenagers itching to leave the confines of their privileged lives.

“Louisiana,” A Hundred Miles Off

Louisiana also comes of A Hundred Miles Off.  This is a road trip song: you play this with the windows open on a glorious, cloudless day with good friends and loved ones.  Yes, this song fades out with a cacophony of French horn and jangling piano keys.  The premise of “Louisiana” is simple: you’re running away, against your better instincts, with a lover.  The soft drums and reverb in the guitar reflect the luxurious proposition—eluding reality—of the lyrics.  Of all the lines in this song, I have a particular affinity for the phrase: “There’s thunder and there’s lightening/a hundred miles off.”  Even as he’s basking in the splendor of this romance, Hamilton acknowledges and recognizes the storm on the horizon.

“Blue As Your Blood,” on Lisbon

Three notes in minor key, plucked in rapid succession, introduce “Blue As Your Blood.”  Drums build in to the same beat, then the bass.  The tension is palpable until Hamilton starts to sing at :40.  Coming off the 2010 album Lisbon, this song is a stark contrast to “Louisiana.”  This is a song about rejection and the haze of melancholy that accompanies heartbreak.  The unacknowledged simile in the title is of a sky that is “blue as your blood.”  We’ve all had days when we crave a cold, cloudy day to reflect a sour mood since glorious weather just seems to make a mockery out of emotional pain.  But here, Hamilton contemplates love lost while reclining on a brilliant sunny day against a juniper tree.

“Little House of Savages,” on Bows+Arrows

The Walkmen are masters of the suspenseful introduction. “Little House of Savages,” from the 2004 breakout album Bows + Arrows, opens with a lingering wail that quickly reveals the pounding drums and raging guitars that accompany Hamilton’s vocals throughout the rest of the song.  “Somebody’s waiting for me at home” is the primary recurring lyrics here, set into contrast by “and somebody’s got a car outside, let’s take a ride.”  The guitar, the drums, the bass, the vocals: all work together to evince the tension between returning to a safe place or setting out on an unfamiliar adventure.

And since we’ve been on the topic of covers this month, be sure to listen to Asobi Seksu’s cover of the song.

Get To Know: Arcade Fire, by Joshua

I will admit, I’m often behind the times when it comes to indie rock music. When it was gaining popularity as a genre rather than just independently produced music, I was still in my phase of believing nothing made after 1977 was worth listening to. (See the post “Me at 22” for proof.) In fact, I completely (unlike, it seems, most people my age) missed out on the landmark album release that was Funeral. I don’t think I really started listening to it until 2008 or 2009. But, now that I have, I extol the virtues of Arcade Fire to all those who are in earshot and will listen to a crazy person with a bullhorn on a soapbox screaming about how fucking kick-ass Arcade Fire are.

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” on Funeral

I’ve written about this song before as one of my Top 5 Album Openers but it’s good far beyond just opening the album Funeral. It’s a wonderful way to start your introduction to the band: it’s the first track off the first album they made and it’s phenomenal. The song, like most of the album, is about reaching back to the wonders you felt as a child. But it’s not trying to look back fondly on the time; it’s more about putting yourself in the shoes of being a young child, with all of the wonder and fear that go along with it. “Neighborhood #1” tells the tale of getting lost in a snowstorm and how awesome that is, and I use the word awesome in the way the Bible would: Amazing and full of dread. It’s quite a powerful song.

“The Suburbs” on The Suburbs

This opens up the album The Suburbs, my favorite album of 2010 and winner of the Grammy award for best album of that year. It’s described as a love letter not for but from the suburbs, and if you’re like me and grew up in the ‘burbs, it’s instantaneously recognizable as such. It’s an album filled with ennui and unearned world-weariness, and the laidback title does a perfect job of setting that up. Win Butler’s vocals in this song are amazing. They aren’t the normal intense, almost screaming level they normally are, but they evoke far more emotion with his lolling, sprawling moves from head voice to falsetto.

“Keep the Car Running” on Black Fire

I’m not the biggest fan of this album. I don’t think that it truly suffers from the sophomore slump because it’s a good album on its own. It simply just does not stand up to Funeral or The Suburbs quite as well as one would hope. But there are some super standout tracks on it, and this is easily my favorite. The music is so simple, with a very easy mandolin played over a bad-fucking-ass drum beat, but the lyrics are wonderfully complex, telling the tale of a fevered dream sequence that scares the subject half to death. And with an incredibly catchy refrain to boot.

“Rebellion (Lies)” on Funeral

Again, a song in which the simplicity of the music belies just how awesome the song is. It is comprised of three different notes played in simple measure-filling eight notes by the bass, repeating throughout the song; a piano line that is just one chord is repeated through every verse; a drum beat that is simply a hot four-on-the-floor that all build upon themselves to create a hypnotic, driving force that ends the album in my favorite way possible: a huge buildup to the penultimate track, which is sprawling and massive in scope and ends on a high note, then followed by a subtle and reassuring denouement. And it helps that this song is a totally ear-weevil: it was on my So Hot Right Now playlists for three months running last summer.

“Wake Up” on Funeral

This is the quintessential Arcade Fire song. It perfectly captures what they are about: Intense and powerful music, expansive and evocative, with lyrics that stop the listener dead in their tracks. The guitar part is ubiquitous to Arcade Fire: simple moving power chords played with just enough distortion to sound badass. And the lyrics and performance by Win Butler are stunning. They make the listener remember how childhood was insanity personified, terrible and awesome. It’s no small wonder why Spike Jonze chose this track to promote his movie version of Where the Wild Things Are: it’s tough to listen to it without feeling all of the emotion Butler puts into the lyrics and how he sings them. It could easily make you cry. I’ve certainly teared up listening to the song before.

Get To Know: Miles Davis

How many of you listen to jazz? Show of hands. Is it just me? I had an inkling. Maybe a few of the older readers may listen to a small amount, but it’s quite possible many of you out there have never really given it a chance. I’m not going to get on my high horse about why you all should be listening to jazz (and if you recall, one of my dealbreakers is people who refuse to listen to jazz), but I will say that it’s tough to fathom someone who has never listened to Davis. He was one of the most influential musicians of all time, re-inventing himself more times than one can imagine, and re-inventing how jazz as an entire genre more than once. How many single artists can you say that about? Maybe Jimi Hendrix, but he didn’t change the face of music as it was known at the time, just how we thought about the guitar.

It’s tough to know where to start. I’d like to go chronologically, but I don’t think that’s the best way to easily acclimate someone who doesn’t listen to jazz to Davis’ sound. Listening to jazz is an entirely different experience than listening to pop music. The focus in pop music is almost always on the lyrics of the song and the chorus is the most important part: It’s the hook that grabs the listeners attention and keeps them coming back for more, expecting that chorus to be catchy and, most importantly, to repeat. You can’t expect that when you listen to jazz. The hook, or as it’s called in jazz circles, the head (referring to the fact that usually, the hook is the first thing played, before any solos), is certainly important, but it’s not the most important part. It’s a way to establish what the chord changes are (if there are any) and the overall melodic theme for the piece, both tonally and structurally. The most important parts are the solos that follow the head. That is what’s, for the most part, looked as achievement in many jazz songs. Davis, for the most part, follows this scheme. But as you listen to these songs and read my explanations, you may find that’s not always the only achievement. So to get back to my original point, these songs are not listed chronologically, but listed in a way as to bring you into the experience as easy as possible for someone who is very used to pop music.

(Note: I studied jazz a lot growing up. I’m going to try to keep the technical and music theory speak out of this as much as possible, but I fear that at some point I won’t. Good luck, I suppose.)

“Straight, No Chaser,” on Milestones

This is a jazz “standard,” or a piece of music not written by the artist performing it, and one that is played over and over again by many artists. It’s one of my favorite songs, and this is easily my favorite performance of it. The piece opens, of course, with the head, and continues with John Coltrane taking the first solo, in his traditional “wall of sound” style (lots of notes played very fast, overwhelming the listener with talent). Davis then steps in and delivers a pitch perfect solo, much slower and well-paced than Coltrane’s. He also interjects an interpolation of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which is very easy to pick out. I picked this song as good start because it’s easy, straight-ahead jazz, meaning that it’s very solid both rhythmically and tonally. It’s not meant to stretch your sensibilities but meant to ease you into the sound.

“Move,” on Birth of the Cool

This album was Davis’ first foray into having his own band and writing his own music, and the first time he reinvented jazz as was known at the time. Bebop, or simply “bop,” was the prevailing type of music played at the time, characterized by simple chord changes played exceedingly fast, with even faster solos played over it. This album was the first in what could be termed “post-bop.” Its swirling chord changes differentiated it from true bop, and what carried it over was Davis’ unmatched talent. The idea for his nonet (nine-piece band) was to cool bop down but keep the frenetic idea behind it alive, moving the chord changes from simple blue riffs to much more complicated changes with even more complicated arraignments, with slower solos over top. Simply put, he fucking nailed it.

“Footprints,” on Miles Smiles

Here’s where we begin to stretch it out a bit. This is my off my favorite Davis album, one that I began to love when I first started to stop playing jazz, and probably the last jazz album I bought before breaking my wrists (and thus being unable to play bass like I could before). It’s another jazz standard reinvented by Davis, made into my favorite version. This was recorded with The Second Great Quintet, easily my favorite jazz group of all time. Comprised of Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax (who composed the song), Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums, it was arguably the best single set of musicians to ever to grace the earth playing together. The solos in this song are some my favorite ever recorded, with Hancock displaying early on his career the talent that would make him become one of the most venerated pianists of all time.

 “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” on Bitches Brew

I’m skipping ahead here, but for good reason.  I can’t really end with this piece, despite its self-evident musical importance. It’s the second most important piece on this list, though. This style came to define what we understood as modern jazz, and in fact a fair bit of pop music as well. Its sprawling structure belays the fact that the rhythm is what’s important. This sets up what we know as pop music: the rhythm section takes (for the most part) center stage, bringing about the revolution that melody means jack fucking squat. This foreshadows genres like funk and rap and techno, where the beat is the most important part of the piece. I will say, however, that this should take nothing away from the solos in this piece. They are straight-up ridiculous.

“So What,” on Kind of Blue

I wanted to end with this piece because I believe it to be one of the single most significant pieces in the course of human history. It’s right up there with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This song changed music as was known at the time. We had previous understood music to be a set of chord changes played in sequence, with a melody played over top. This broke that rule. It began the idea of modal jazz. (I’m going to really try not to get too technical with the explanation here.) Normal music is played over chord changes, or the idea that basic melody follows the simple harmonic progression of the piece. In essence, there are certain notes that just sound right played over certain harmonic progressions, like the blues scale over the blues progression (the 1-4-5 progression).

Beyond that, there are certain scales played over every chord progression that have a name. Let’s say you are playing in the very simple key of C. In this key, there are no sharp or flat notes. If you’ve ever looked a piano, you’ve seen there are white and black keys. In the key of C, all the black notes are sharp and/or flat, with all the white keys being in key. If you were playing a song in the key of C and want to take a solo, all you have to do is fuck around with the white keys and the white keys alone and it’ll probably sound good.

The idea behind modal jazz is more complicated than that, though. Let’s say you were in the key of C and played nothing but the white keys. If you were to only play the keys from the note “D” up to the next “D,” you’d be playing in what’s called the Dorian mode. Modes are defined as the scales defined off each note based upon the key you’re in. Confused? I’m sure. I don’t really know how to explain this without a keyboard in front of me. The point is, playing this way was revolutionary. Revolutionary to the point that all modern music is based off the ideas set out on this album, and there is absolutely no exaggeration in that statement.

What’s more, the song is fucking awesome. It has the bass play the head, which is rare, to say the least. It’s simply gorgeous, and music writers have been writing about the song since the instant it was released until today. I like to think of it as the turning point in music, where simply taking solos over chord changes ceased to be enough and genius was born. It’s easy to dwell on the importance of the piece and forget just how awe-inspiring listening to it is.


I hope you have been able to see these songs in the way I do. They are some of the most important things any music fan could ever listen to, and I truly hope you have listened to each track and felt something close to the level of awe I feel when I listen to them.

Get to Know: Loudon Wainwright III (by Claire)

When it comes to live music, Loudon Wainwright is one of the greats. He’s funny and charming, able to banter with ease, soothe drunk hecklers with a well timed joke, then launch into his repertoire of songs that will alternately split your sides and break your heart, usually on opposite ends of the same chorus.

I once told Loudon Wainwright III that I loved him, right to his face. I was about 15 years old and I had just seen him in concert for the first time. After the show, he signed autographs in the front lobby of the Birchmere. I lined up with my dad and when we reached the table, Loudon was a slightly sweatier, more subdued version of his stage self: charming, quick to offer a quip and a broad smile. He looked at me and said “I bet your old man dragged you this show, huh?” and I blurted out “What! No! I love you.”

This outburst was… embarassing. Seriously. For both of us, and I’m not talking about my dad (who, to his credit, waited until we got to the car to say something along the lines of “Wow. You be straight crazy.”) Loudon looked at me like I had three heads, or, to be more precise, he looked at me like “Who is this big eyed, frizzy haired teenager and why isn’t she at a Hanson concert?” (I love Loudon, but I’m going to guess his pop music references are a little off)

But that’s what he does—he gets under your skin. He’s honest, incredibly vulnerable, periodically hilarious, and an impeccable songwriter. You feel like you know him, or like he knows you, and though both things are certainly false, his music creates a connection with the listener that is real.

“New Paint” on Album III

Loudon offers a pretty picture of early romance, when walks in the park and dancing are still par for the course, when lips are first kissed and parents first met. It’s a sweet song about early love with a nice girl—and, you know, waning youth and nascent feelings of mortality. In interviews, Loudon talks about how “New Paint” is proof that he has always been obsessed with mortality and age: he makes reference to it repeatedly throughout the song, until it becomes a sort of second chorus, and he wrote this song when he was 25.

When I was 19, there was a guy in my French class who was 30. One day he told a lengthy story about how when he was 25, he figured out that he wasn’t going to age backwards, and he started to rebel. He went out to bars every night, he threw punches, he bought a motorcycle. None of it mattered. He wasn’t old, not by a long shot (not even when he was telling this story, five years later), but he wasn’t going to get younger. I’m 25 now, and I understand how French class guy felt. I imagine Loudon was in a similar place, and based on later songs, I think it took him more than five years to move on to a new place. But that’s another post.

“The Swimming Song” on Attempted Mustache

In “The Swimming Song,” Loudon strikes a perfect balance between cheer and doom. It starts off upbeat with a twangy, bluegrassy feel, and focuses in on a typically pleasurable activity: Swimming. He swam in public and in private, did backstrokes and butterflies, wore a swim suit or went suitless. I think the line “At the latter I was informal/At the former I wore my suit” is a demonstration of his economy when it comes to words, and his intelligence when it comes to sound composition.

In the midst of all of this twang and splash, there is something dark creeping around the edges.  The second line is “This summer I might’ve drowned,” and later he calls himself  “A self-destructive fool” after chlorine gets in his eyes, and salt gets in his wounds. The song closes with him doing a cannonball when no one is looking. You could say it’s another meditation on mortality, but I think it’s something simpler: It’s hard for him to be happy, even when he’s supposed to be. The swimming settings highlight his unhappiness in happy situations.

“The Acid Song” on More Love Songs

Loudon Wainwright is hilarious. Seriously. You might already know this, since he was a consistently funny part of the Apatow crew on “Undeclared,” and made a brief humorous appearance in “Knocked Up.”  Here, Loudon drops acid at a bar with five of his friends after 12 acid-free years. Things almost immediately go wrong: They get kicked out of the bar, the sidewalk starts sweating, they blow the joint to go listen to the Grateful Dead. That’s when the dialogue starts: “Wow, I’m really glad we did this, this feels great. Just like the old days. Yeah I know my hair is on fire” and “Hey you want to hold some fruit? Hold some fruit! It breeds, it really does.” They hit the road again and head to the country, and Loudon gives a laugh out loud funny tutorial on how to drive on acid.

The song features all the classic fun Loudon vocal tics: The wailing stretched out words, the stuccato moments mid song, the scattered bits of dialogue. The whole song is hysterical without being an obvious comedy song or a trying-too-hard novelty song.

“White Winos,” on Last Man on Earth

A haunting song about the end of Loudon’s mother’s life, when he and his mother reflected on their shared past over several glasses of white wine. It manages to contain everything I love about Loudon: family history, heavy themes delivered with a sonic light touch, a bit of sardonic humor. All of this is housed in a song which has a repetitive flow that is reminiscent of a drawn out villanelle.

“Grey in L.A.,” on Strange Weirdos

If there were a Grumpy Old Man Song Hall of Fame, this one would definitely come out on top. It’s too sunny. The weather is too good. Your house is going to smell like a wet dog. Your car is killing the planet. LA is a sad sack cesspool. Everything is just the worst! But because it’s Loudon, the message is delivered in a light, catchy package. I hum it to myself on rainy days in San Francisco, when I want to pretend that a break from the perfect weather is a nice change of pace. (Sorry for the crappy video on this! If you find a better version, send it my way and I’ll swap it in—

Get To Know The Decemberists

If you’re reading this blog and under the age of 30, the smart bet is that you already know this band pretty well. So this post is aimed at our wonderfully older readers (or the younger readers who don’t know shit from shingles) who haven’t heard of or heard The Decemberists.

I will admit, if you’ve never heard them before, Colin Meloy’s voice can be oft-putting. It’s high, at times very nasally, and generally not of the character of say, Al Green or Ron Isley. So listen to the music first. It’s very catchy and pleasing in odd ways: There are a lot more instruments used than should be for a five-piece band. Once the music sucks you in, focus on what Meloy is saying, if not how he’s saying it: It will make you stop and listen again. His storytelling is uncanny, his wordplay unparalleled in modern music. He can turn a phrase so fast you’ll get whiplash. Sometimes they’re breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes shockingly vulgar (but there are little, if any, cuss words on the albums). Once you sink in the message of his words, listen to his voice again. It, simply put, fits. There is no other singer who could sing for this band and make it work so perfectly.

So here’s what I think are some the most accessible and also best songs to familiarize yourself with The Decemberists. I bet at least one of them will be stuck in your head by the end of the day.

“O Valencia!,” on The Crane Wife

This is probably the song that best lends itself to the pop setting, and in fact, did quite well on mainstream radio (though it never cracked into the Top 40 stations). It’s very easy-going and pretty, with a great guitar line and hook. But the best part is that in this happy-go-lucky sounding song is the tragic story of star-crossed lovers, with the woman getting brutally shot in the end. The chorus is, in fact, the narrator of the song swearing revenge by burning the whole city to the ground! Tragic love songs are Meloy’s forte, and he does it here as near to perfect as anyone could hope.

“Red Right Ankle,” on Her Majesty the Decemberists

This is one of my favorite songs to play on guitar for two reasons: One, it’s really cool to play, with odd chord shapes and moving bass lines; and two, every woman who knows this song thinks it’s gorgeous. And truthfully, they aren’t wrong. Its simplicity belies three wonderful little snippets of stories, representing love lost and found. The last verse in particular is gorgeous and my favorite. The first time I saw them live Meloy came out for the second set alone and played this song. Looking around at the women in the audience (including the girl who brought me there), there wasn’t a single dry seat eye in the house.

“Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” on Her Majesty the Decemberists

A love letter (of sorts) to the city of Los Angeles, this song has some of the best wordplay you’ll ever hear in pop music. The line that always gets me is, “How I abhor this place / it’s sweet and bitter taste / has me wretched, retching on all fours / Los Angeles, I’m yours.” Another staple of Meloy’s songwriting comes through here: his absolutely ridiculous vocabulary. When was the last time you heard the words “oligarch,” “languor,” or “dalliant” in any song, let alone all three in one?

“A Cautionary Song,” on Castaways and Cutouts

Here’s where I may lose some of you. This song is written like a sea shanty and relates the tale of a prostitute who is gang-raped by sailors…who is also your mother. Ok, so, I may have forgotten to mention Meloy has a very dark sense of humor. This song can be really funny if you want it to be, and I swear you can hear Meloy smiling when he starts singing the last verse. Also, badass accordion parts by Ms. Jenny Conlee. But it is not for the faint of heart, but then again, The Decemberists are not a band to be taken lightly.

“The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” on Picaresque

The Decemeberists magnum opus, this song is perhaps the toughest to listen to on this list of songs designed to help you understand The Decemberists. I could’ve easily left it for you to find yourself, but I would be doing you a vast disservice. This song is long, yes, and the story told gruesome, but it embodies exactly the sentiment The Decemberists should elicit. A brutal story unfolds in median res, where the narrator sets the scene: Two bloodied and battered sailors sit in the gullet of a vast whale, the narrator being one and the subject of revenge the other. We learn that the narrator has been vastly wronged….Actually, I’m not going to summarize this song. Listen to it all. The story may shock you and sicken you, but you’ll be glad you heard it in the end. And the music is perfect: It rises and falls exactly where it should, with an absolutely enormous swell when the whale…Well, just listen. I promise you will love it when it’s done. And if you’ve at least nominally liked the songs prior to this one, and you’re anything like me, you’ll go running for more of The Decemeberists. You won’t be disappointed.

Get to Know: Aimee Mann (by Claire)

Lets imagine Aimee Mann through the lens of high school: Aimee Mann is that girl who was so cool, she operated outside of the tiered social ecosystem on a higher plane of obscure-show-going, French-cigarette-smoking, leather-jacket-sporting-coolness.  If Elvis Costello is the frenetic young teacher who you keep running into at sweaty clubs in the city, Aimee Mann is snapping her gum in the front row, reeking of cigarettes and writing an essay on Patti Smith. (Joshua, if you’re reading this, we’re doing a series called “Musical High School.” Although it’s going to be hard for Aimee to write that essay when Patti Smith is the guidance counselor)

In bands like Young Snakes and ‘Til Tuesday, Mann dabbled in punk and new wave. As a solo artist, she is a classic singer songwriter. A consistent pleasure to listen to, her lyrics are meticulous, each song a heady combination of story, bite, and clear pop sensibilities delivered in smart, poignant packages.

(Also, remember the girl in “The Big Lebowski” who donates her little toe in the name of the nihilists’ Lebowski-extorting cause? Yeah, that’s Aimee Mann. See what I mean about her level of cool?)

“4th of July,” on Whatever

Aimee Mann captures that moment, long after the embers of your breakup have gone out, when you still take sad pleasure in imagining that, one day, the person who broke your heart will pay for it. Not in some explosive way, no anvils falling on heads followed by spinning cartoon birds (What, that’s not where your head goes post breakup?) It’s a glimpse at what you’ll never see: A person who is mourning the loss of you, even though it’s too late. Mann sets this scene during the 4th of July, rendering festivities and fireworks as nothing but “A waste of gunpowder and sky.”

One summer, I had to wait tables on the 4th of July. I had worked 10 shifts in 6 days, as had the Sous-Chef manning the kitchen, and we both had the grey pallor and sad eyes of people who hadn’t slept, or shaken off a hangover, in several days. One by one the other servers skipped off to a raucous party in the city as we waited on the last two tables. Then, a glimmering moment of hope: We heard fireworks! The restaurant was empty enough that we could race outside to watch them without getting in trouble. Except we were in a courtyard, and the towering circle of apartment building blocked the lights, so we could only hear them. We were like a couple of kids on Christmas who bounded downstairs to find a tree loaded with coal.

After work I drank beer and listened to this song about 20 times. I quit a week later.

“That’s Just What You Are,” on I’m with Stupid

The lyrics to this song read like a form poem: rhymes criss-crossing each line, slant rhymes scattered throughout. Sonically, this song is so light and poppy that it’s easy to miss it’s biting anger, directed at a lover who can’t bother to “be a nicer guy.” I love a seething song delivered with a smile. Mann pulls this task off admirabley.

“Save Me,” on Bachelor No. 2, or, the Last Remains of the Dodo

Have you ever listened to Top 40 radio? Then you’ve heard one of a thousand songs by poptarts du jour on the topic of heartbreak and needing a Prince Charming.

When Aimee Mann takes on these topics, she doesn’t lean on dribbley sadness or damsels in distress. Her damsel is a girl in need of a tourniquet. Her song is dark with a rock and roll edge, yet catchy. Her references are less fairy tale, more hunger strikes and Super Man. She captures loneliness and vulnerability and pairs it with a chorus that will spin through your head for days.

“Little Bombs,” on The Forgotten Arm

“Little Bombs” is laced with rich images, and showcases a few of Aimee Mann’s linguistic gifts: imagery, wordplay, and metaphor. The melody is haunting and complex, yet still carries that trademark accessible, pop-like quality that is Mann’s bread and butter.

My first job out of college was a nightmare, one that I soundtracked with a rediscovered penchant for female singer songwriters. Aimee Mann, Tegan and Sara, Laura Viers, Kate Nash, Patti Smith—they played in the background as I made neat stacks of copies, fielded phone calls, and tumbled towards one long, dark anxiety attack. At the time, I felt like this song described how I felt: explosively sad, but so accustomed to it that the sadness had grown dull and placid, a sentiment best captured in the line “Life just seems to empty out/ Less a deluge than a drought.”

“Phoenix,” on Fucking Smilers

Aimee uses a big, sweeping melody to deliver a big sweeping goodbye to a town and a lover who are both all wrong for her. She conveys exhausted acceptance with her quavering voice, that moves from high to low as she sings “Baby I’ve just had my fill/You love me like a dollar bill/You roll me up  and trade me in.” And she offers some parting wisdom: That love can’t make a bad person better, can’t turn a sour relationship sweet. “Love doesn’t change anything at all,” she sings, a little mournfully, at the end.