Get the Band Back Together: A Mixtape for Joshua

Last week Joshua and I wrote posts about our Top 5 songs at 16, and both posts highlighted our early, local show going. Joshua kept it high brow (or at least non-embarassing) with Laughing Colors and Kelly Bell Band shows, I lowered that brow considerably with Voodoo Blue shows, and we both talked about our mid-teens love for The Bridge. But there was one shared show-going experience that we left out: Going to Joshua’s shows.

I saw Joshua play a lot in high school and in college—at art school coffeehouses,  in sweaty ballrooms at synagogues, at open mic nights. I saw him play at big parties and small parties, and one summer I saw him play once a week at these boozy balcony gigs. And he was good; not “Hey! Look at my friend with a guitar!” good, but genuinely good.

There’s a chapter in Nick Hornby’s “Songbook” where he talks about how much he respects Rod Stewart’s early work (a surprising point that I was prepared for based on this blog by Joshua). Nick Hornby says that Elvis Costello has some ideas for bringing Rod Stewart back to the masses, and Hornby himself has some ideas, and the chapter ends with a music geek daydream of reviving Rod Stewart’s career. I guess what I’m saying, Joshua, is that in this scenario you’re Rod Stewart, and Elvis Costello and I routinely talk about your musical future while eating sundaes and playing Trivial Pursuit (…in my dreams.) So here are some songs to listen to, to cover, and to think about as you get the band back together. And if that chapter on Rod Stewart taught me anything, it’s to stay away from straw hats. That’s my only piece of production advice (Elvis Costello will, of course, cover the rest.)

“Stop Talking,” by the 5 Chinese Brothers

I’ve always thought that you would really like the 5 Chinese Brothers, if I could just get it together and give you their albums. And since I haven’t, and am sure that I will forget the next time I see you, they’re at the top of this list. Singer Songwriter Beggerman Thief (the album this song is from) is one of my all time favorite albums and features some themes I think you could get down with—Baltimore love that borders on dislike, distressing father/son relationships, and breakup songs. Really, really good breakup songs that are so quotable they’ll spin through your head indefinitely. “I only wish you loved me/ Half as much as you’re enjoying this” is one of my favorite quotable moments, and it’s in this song (also see “I Always Knew” and “Don’t Regret”).

“Sledge Hammer,” by Peter Gabriel

One of the funnest, rowdiest covers I ever saw was when The Bridge covered “Sledge Hammer” at the Recher, probably 10 years ago. This is a song that was made to be covered at shows. It perks up a too mellow crowd, turns non-dancers into dancers, and gives the energy in the room a swift kick in the right direction. It’s classic Peter Gabriel mind control—though never a big fan, he has a few songs that are powerful tone-changers, that will swing the mood pendulum of your audience where ever you need to swing it. (Also if you found out that Peter Gabriel has scary mind control powers, would you really be surprised? Top 5 Maybe Mind Controllers: Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Sting, Peter Frampton*, that girl who sings “Call Me Maybe”**)

“Rosie,” by The Bridge

You know how neither of us listen to The Bridge any more (other than in throwback, nostalgic ways)? This song made me wonder if we should change that. Also, though I haven’t heard you sing since some long ago karaoke night (did you sing, or did you just make Ashley and I sing “Ebony and Ivory”? Memories.), I think your voice would sound awesome on this.

“Let’s Straighten It Out,” by O.V. Wright

This is, in fact, already a cover, but a very good one, and I found it lodged halfway through “Songbook,” a book that solidifies Nick Hornby’s status as the unwilling godfather of the Charm City Jukebox. I like it because it’s not a break up song, or a love song—it’s a song that sounds and feels sexy, but in reality is about working on difficult issues in a long term relationship. It’s slow too, but not too slow, so if at some point you need to cool down your “Sledge Hammer” fueled audience, this would be an unexpected place to take them. Trust me, after listening to those songs back to back, it does the trick.

“You’ve Got a Friend,” by James Taylor

I’ll be honest: I think James Taylor has all the corny charms of frequent-pun-users and shiny, eager kids who try to convert you outside of college Student Centers (Taylor, to his credit, is not a pun abuser or Christ peddler, but on the scale of minor annoyances, they’re all on the same level)

One of the weirdest reading experience I ever had was with “Girls Like Us,” which tracks the careers of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King. It’s a great book, and there’s nothing particularly odd about it, except for the characterization of James Taylor, who comes across as a troubled drug addict rock star sex god. It’s not a new character; anyone who has ever seen a movie about musicians or read a book or fallen down a Wikipedia rabbit hole knows that’s pretty par for the course. But James Taylor? Really? It was like finding out Randy Newman got his start in porn.

While “Girls Like Us” made me take a new look at James Taylor the man, the Isley Brothers made me take a new look at James Taylor the musician. They turned “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” into soulful bedroom soundtrack fodder, and made me wonder if other Taylor songs could be re-imagined into something raunchy and delightful.

“You’ve Got a Friend” is a sugary song about the joys of friendship that, if delivered with a raised eyebrow and some solid funk, could be downright raunchy. Imagine it as an ode to long-standing booty calls (“You just call out my name/ And you know wherever I am/I’ll come running to see you again”). It’s an interpretation that could be simultaneously sexy and hilarious, since this song was relegated to the world of middle school choirs and youth group campfires long ago. It’s like finding a hidden, dirty double meaning in the Sesame Street theme song. Take a cue from the Isley Brothers and unlace this straightlaced Taylor gem.

* The title of Frampton Comes Alive! was Peter Frampton’s confession that he is a zombie.

**One day Carlie Rae Jepsen will rule us all. Exhibit A.

Joshua at 16: A Mixtape

Picture above: Me at 16! This was taken at Claire’s 16th birthday. More proof we’ve known each other forever. 

We all have musical skeletons in our past, shit we wish we could forget about (I’m looking at you, my 13 year old love for Korn). But I realized while compiling this list that most of the stuff I listened to at 16 I still listen to. I didn’t have terrible taste at 16, just pretty bad. Well, ok; maybe I was super obsessed with Dave Matthews Band, which was….regrettable.

Embarrassing musical story from age 16, to set the tone: 16 was the year I was given my first acoustic guitar. I immediately tried to learn how to play “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band and failed because my fingers just didn’t stretch like that yet. So instead, the first song I learned to play on the guitar was “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. And it gets more embarrassing than that. I had a super crush on this girl at the time who I’m pretty sure hated me. So in order to win her over, I left a note taped to her locker with a rose and the lyrics to “Everlong,” with a note at the end to pay attention to the morning announcement on that Friday (which was, of course, Valentine’s Day). Our morning announcements were televised over close circuit television. At the end of the announcements, I played “Everlong” very, very poorly with my clumsy bass fingers to the entire school. I was, of course, promptly rejected by this girl.

After that story, this list does not seem that embarrassing! Enjoy.

“Pakalolo” by The Bridge

Kenny Liner had a way about him. Maybe it was the off-color jokes and smoking just outside of children’s earshot. Maybe it was the fact that he walked around beat boxing to himself constantly. Either way, in typical 16 year old fashion, I simultaneously  thought that the sun shone out his ass and that he was a complete tool. But that never stopped me from going to see his band, The Bridge, on what seemed like a weekly basis. And this song was what sold me on their first album. It’s tightly crafted instrumental, led by Kenny’s beat boxing and mandolin playing, with some wicked cool sax harmony effects (there was only one sax player in the band when we knew them).

(Side story: Since Baltimore is actually Smalltimore, Kenny Liner was in my aunt’s class in preschool. In fact, she potty trained him. Me and a friend once yelled this fact out at a show.)

(Sorry about the video quality. Couldn’t find the studio version.)

“Crush” by Dave Matthews Band

If I was being honest with myself and this blog, this 16 year old list would consist of four Dave Matthews Band songs and one acoustic Dave Matthews/Tim Reynolds song.  I like to use the excuse that I was white and grew up in the suburbs; I had no choice but to like Dave Matthews Band. They had just the right mix of musical talent and pop-catchiness to make anyone seem cool by liking them. I thought I was so cool! Especially with this song, a young bassist’s wet dream. It wasn’t a particularly hard riff, just over the funk line and half-badass. But to have bass, an instrument consistently relegated to the background shoved to the forefront was appealing to me. Plus, the lyrics are all about unrequited love, something I was totally all about at 16. But looking back now, they are really stupid and bordering on creepy, a running theme for Dave Matthews Band. Also, the video is full of smoking and drinking, which are 2 of the 3 coolest things you can do at age 16.

[Unfortunately, I cannot find a video of this song. Look it up on iTunes or something…It’s really fucking good.]

“Bluesman” by Kelly Bell Band

Kelly Bell Band is so good that they have consistently garnered respect and audiences for at least 20 years and they do it by playing a wildly outdated genre of music: Blues. No one plays the blues anymore. It’s somehow become uncool, which I’ll never understand. To demonstrate this fact: I put this song on at work the other day and my boss, a total music snob, immediately recognized who it was and was singing along. The 18 year old cashier told me to turn off my “old-fogey music.”

I loved going to their shows, especially the triple bills with Laughing Colors and Almighty Senators. I bought every one of their albums they had out, including a live record recorded at a show I was at. They aren’t the best blues musicians, but they have such a fun sound and I still go out of my way to see them whenever they play in town.

“Roll Into The Light” by Laughing Colors

Laughing Colors were my first foray into local music when I was 13 or so, hearing them and playing them waaaaay too loud on my stereo. I then promptly forgot about them when I left middle school until I was 16 and randomly found a mix of their music I had burned to a CD, found behind a dresser. I had until then been listening pretty much exclusively Dave Matthews Band and this was a welcome refresher. This was the first track on that mix.

This song fills me with such wonder every time I hear it. It’s wide open and expansive, and Dave Tieff’s voice is just so perfect for the sound of the band, which has a little edge, but is really just perfect rock for the radio. I’m still shocked that they never got famous. I think they had the unfortunate timing to be playing pretty straight-ahead rock during the awful nu-metal movement.

Their break up devastated me. Theirs was my favorite local live show: ridiculously upbeat and energetic and infectious. When I realized I never would see them play again I’m pretty sure I cried. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.

“Me & My Bass Guitar” by Victor Wooten

Ah, Victor Wooten. You are just so good at the bass. This is painful to listen to as a bassist, realizing I’ll never, ever be able to do what he can do. When I was sixteen, however, I had just enough musical talent and ego to believe that I could not only do what he could do, but I would be better one day. I had this dream that I would be invited to his bass guitar camp and play a line that would just make him stop and proclaim me the next Jaco Pastorious.

He is that good. There are few bassists, if any, who can play this line, much less sing over it, and way less do that fill in the middle. But he has no funk! It’s just, “Hey, look how fast I can slap and pop! That’s cool, right?” It is, Mr. Wooten, but it’s just not enough for me anymore.

Claire at 16: A Mixtape

Picture above: Me at 16! I’m the one in the glasses making the serious face. Rahnia Mersereau is the one rocking the tiara.

I had a writing teacher in high school who once told me “Don’t look down on your former self. Once upon a time, she was everything.” So with that sentiment in mind, this week we’re taking a look back at our music collections at age 16. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, some it’s worse—it’s a cringeworthy good time (don’t worry, just for us—that is the price of having ever listening to DMB). Sit back, enjoy, and as always, leave your musical memories in the comments.

“Rising Sun,” by The Bridge

Junior year of high school, Joshua and I worked at an after school daycare center for kids. It was a solid high school job, one that I’m not sure either of us were any good at, but one of the perks was that our coworkers were awesome. Faye Berman helped teach me how to drive and introduced me to Israeli food. Our boss Bob unintentionally taught me how to dress for work. And Kenny Liner gave me a seemingly endless stream of advice on boys (they’re the worst), school (stay in it), and music (don’t listen to crap). Part of that music lesson involved Joshua and I seeing his band, The Bridge, all the time. Kenny didn’t tell us to follow his band; we liked them, and him, enough that we didn’t need prompting.

After we graduated from high school, The Bridge exploded on the jam band scene. Friends loved them, they were at all the big festivals, they were everywhere, and we were stunned. Everyone has local bands who they follow and think “Man, these guys should be bigger”; it was wild to watch that actually happen. The Bridge has since broken up, and by the time they did, I had stopped listening to jam bands and moved across the country. But still, so many of my memories from being 16 involve standing in a sweaty crowd with Joshua and our high school friends, singing along to “Rising Sun.” It would have been nice to see them one last time.

“Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” by The Ramones

The first time I ever drove by myself, this song came on the radio. My adventure options were limited since I wasn’t allowed to stray too far from my street, so I think I bought a lipgloss and visited my Grandma. But driving for the first time solo, windows rolled down and this song blasting—I had never felt cooler.

“The Scientist,” by Coldplay

I don’t know what to do about Coldplay. I know we’re all supposed to hate them, I know—I got the memo, just like the rest of you. But sometimes they’ll have a song that I genuinely enjoy, like “Green Eyes” or “Lost!”, and I thought Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends was a solid album, and this is all information I feel uncomfortable with because it grates my inner snob (who, between this and another post this week defending Top 40 radio, is not having a good time of it lately).

This song doesn’t currently fall into the category of Coldplay songs that I like, but listening to “The Scientist” now, I know why 16 year old Claire was so into it. At 16, this was the kind of quasi-deep nonsense that I ate up, along with David Grey and Dave Matthews Band. A Rush of Blood to the Head (which this song is from) is the soundtrack of hormonal melancholy and suburban ennui, developed to facilitate clumsy backseat makeout sessions and terrible post-makeout session poetry.

“Nugget Song,” by Voodoo Blue

If you were a teenager in Baltimore County in the early 2000s, you know who I’m talking about. Voodoo Blue was THAT local band—everyone listened to them, everyone went to their shows, everyone knew someone who knew someone who partied with the band, and they were totally going to get invited to an after party, one of these days. I saw them at least a dozen times with my best friend Jamie, usually at Fletchers or the Recher.

I don’t remember the music very well, and I don’t even know if I liked them. What I do know is that this marked the beginning of a solo show going time for me. My dad had taken me to tons of concerts, but this was the first time I was seeing live music with friends. And these weren’t shows he would’ve remotely approved of, full of sketchy guys and cigarettes and songs like the one posted above. It was a solid stab at independence. Nugget Song? It’s terrible. So was everything else by them that I listened to today. Terrible like I blushed furiously at the “Diggity-dank” line, and I’m sitting in a quiet apartment, by myself. But even though I’ll never listen to “Nugget Song” again, they were important to me in a classic teenage way. I’ll always associate Voodoo Blue with hanging out with my best friend, dancing in dirty clubs in the city, and listening to music that my parents would’ve hated.

“Karen by Night,” by Jill Sobule

I liked Jill Sobule because she told stories and because she had a weird, nasally voice, which years of listening to Bob Dylan and Dave Matthews had really primed me to enjoy. Her songs had a totally different narrative flow from anything else I was listening to. I picked up this album at a record store called The Electric Fetus, at a time when I was really into purchasing random albums, taking them home, and devouring them. No context, no recommendations—just a gut feeling and solid cover art. It felt really daring and adventurous, and of all the experiences I could’ve gotten into at 16, I’d like to believe my parents enjoyed the fact that holing up in my room with a random CD was my go-to crazy thing to do.

Top 5 Hometown Songs (claire & joshua)

Hometown songs: What reminds you of home? And what do you listen to when you get there?

Claire’s List

Birdhouse in Your Soul, by They Might be Giants

The first apartment was home to a family of spirited termites, who made quick work of our kitchen and forced the super to rip out the kitchen tiles and replace them with something incongruously spiffy. I picked raspberries with my mom in the summer from the bushes behind the building, and after daycare I watched Gilligans Island and My Two Dads repeats while I built block castles in front of the TV. My parents were young and tired and seemed impossibly glamorous, with their revolving door of friends, piles of records, and the occasional champagne bottle iced in my old sand bucket.  I lived in that apartment until I was six years old. This song (this album really, but we’re not on that list yet, are we?) was part of the soundtrack of those early Baltimore, little kid years. 

You Ain’t Going Nowhere, by the Byrds

Long before the Wire, America’s cultural touchstone for Baltimore, there was Homicide. In one episode, a character mentioned how you never get out of Baltimore, really. No matter where you end up, you come back. My father thought this was hilarious. (Note: He will deny this entire story. Look forward to his rebuttal “Claire’s false memories about conversations she wasn’t in and TV shows she wasn’t allowed to watch as a child.”) When I asked him why, he said “Because it’s true.”  The chorus of this song has always reminded me of that. You laugh at being here. Or you laugh at the well intentioned folks across the country whose eyes go wide when they learn where you’re from. (And how could I ever explain hot crabs caked in Old Bay, Ronnie slinging drinks that you wouldn’t dare call cocktails as regulars heckle the O’s, the Orthodox families meandering down the middle of the road on Friday nights, the cold so bitter and the heat so thick and honey suckle scented? Sure it’s like the Wire, buddy. TV is 100% real. Didn’t you know that?)

Baltimore, by the 5 Chinese Brothers

I was six years old (or some other short, shy sort of age) and the 5 Chinese Brothers were playing at a record shop. My parents and a gaggle of my father’s high school friends sat up front, but when the music started, I ran away to an aisle in the back of the shop and started to dance. I was wearing a twirly, swirly number, and I spun and snapped, my skirt swishing as they sang about fathers, and Baltimore, and girls who swayed to old girl group songs. I was a painfully quiet kid. The world outside my tight circle of stuffed animals and dolls was mostly terrifying. But that night I danced and danced and fell in love with “Singer Songwriter Beggarman Thief” and would over and over again, through every stage of life, a little more each time. This song I loved first. Still do. 

Dance Tonight, by Lucy Pearl

No one remembers Lucy Pearl. But you should. An early 90s hip hop one-album-super group, composed of members of Tony! Toni! Tone!, A Tribe Called Quest, and En Vogue, Lucy Pearl should’ve gotten bigger than their minor hit on the “Save the Last Dance” soundtrack. I loved homecoming dances. At our school, they were nonsense parties, based around sports teams no one paid any attention to (I went to an arts school without a football team. Our pep rallies involved blowing bubbles in a field…and that’s about it). The chaperoning was minimal, the dancing was deeply inappropriate, and the whole thing was one big fun, Top 40 fueled, sweaty mess. The fun really started in the hours before, when I would slip into my dress and flat iron my hair (a rarity, back then) and let my mom do her meticulous makeup handiwork. Lucy Pearl, so upbeat but mellow, a little funky and pop-py in the best way, was the perfect soundtrack for those pre-homecoming rituals.

Uncle John’s Band, by the Grateful Dead

Fellow children of Deadheads, if you didn’t endlessly listen to this song, and like it from the get go (unlike the Dicks Picks and dawdling cassette boot legs, which were alternately brilliant and incoherent), then your parents probably only went to 10 shows or some other lunacy. Stop calling yourself the children of Deadheads. To the rest of you, I’ll see you at the meetings.

Joshua’s List

Light Up My Room, by the Barenaked Ladies

When I was 17 or so, I broke up with a girl who cheated on me. I was devastated. Yet somehow, I was able to meet a new girlfriend within weeks of ending that relationship. I was taken with her and decided I wanted to put my new guitar playing “skills” to work wooing this lady. I decided to learn how to play this song, which is uniquely beautiful. It’s not a love song, per se, but it does paint a breathtaking picture of familiar love, of two people who live with each other and love each other dearly. If you’ve not listened to it, and you like love songs, try it.

Dear Maggie, by the Kelly Bell Band

Maybe this is in bad taste, but this song relates to the same girl from the previous song. A few months into dating (which is, of course, an eternity in high school), I took a road trip with a church choir to play bass for them. On this trip, I was intensely homesick and this was compounded by this girl who was totally up on my shnutz. I’ve never cheated on someone but this was the most tempted I’ve ever been. I stood my ground and refused her advances. The whole time I couldn’t shake this song. Its lyrics seemed to float in reference in my mind between my girlfriend and this temptress. At the same time, the first line in the chorus, “Dear Maggie, can you help me please?” seemed like a reverent supplication to a higher power, asking what I should do. The song is tough to listen to now but it’s still one of my favorites.

Li’l Darlin’, by Count Basie
I was 13 years old when I first played this song. I can remember my middle school jazz band conductor screaming at us to get the staccato notes in the main melody right every time I turn it on. The single notes are particularly tough for a band to get super tight. Every band member has to not only hit them at the precise moment, but they have to be the exact length down to the millisecond and have to fade from loud to soft to loud all with in the span of less than a second. These are the kind of things that it’s tough for adult bands to do and we teenagers were being asked of perfection. And it worked. We won many a band competition based on the strength of this ballad. This song is the reason I say that I’m a sucker for ballads.

When It Rains, by Brad Mehldau
I love to make mix tapes. And Rob Gordon was right, there is a formula one must follow when making one. However, there isn’t a consensus on what one should end the tapes with. Some believe you need to make it end on extremely high note with an up-tempo song that leaves the listener wanting more. I’m of the belief it’s better to build up to that song with a few songs before it, then end with a denouement that leaves a feeling of total satisfaction, usually a ballad or a slower song. This is the song I set as a gold standard for that. It starts and ends slow and has an absolutely stunning solo by Mehldau in the middle section then fades back to slow. But what makes this song hit home so hard is that I have always wanted to make music like this. Before I broke my wrists, I was a pretty decent jazz bassist. I spent nearly 10 years of my life playing jazz and this is the perfect example of music I wanted to be a part of and now I’ll never be.

Mushroom (live, off of eleven/fifteen), by Laughing Colors

I know I said I like to end with a ballad, but I had to save this song for the last. It’s the song. There is no other song that reminds me of home more than this version of this song. And the version is so specific, too. When I was in high school I was in love with this band. I would see them play at the Recher all the time in the best triple bill of all time: Laughing Colors, Kelly Bell Band, then the Almighty Senators. Those of you not from Baltimore may not understand this, but those are the Holy Trinity of Baltimore local bands. And this was the pinnacle of that achievement for me. I only had this live version of the song because I was poor and could only afford to buy this album for a long time. And what it album it was. The best part is that this song isn’t even that good in the scheme of good songs. I just am wildly attached to it. And I really don’t care if you don’t like it or judge me for liking it.

Honorable Mentions:

The Bridge – Rising Sun: A band from Baltimore I got into before they were (slightly) famous. This is their best song. Claire knows what I’m talking about.

Old Crow Medicine Show – Wagon Wheel : This was excluded from the main list because it wasn’t a hometown song, but a song that reminds me of all the people from St. Mary’s. I suppose if I ever moved from Maryland it would be hometown-ish. Everyone I knew at St. Mary’s knew this song, and half of those people could play it.

Pink Martini – Sympathique: Claire and I both took French language classes for many, many years. This song, also introduced to me by the girl half this post was written about, reminds me of a simpler time, struggling through the ridiculous conjugations the French language has. Also, the song is totally French. The lyrics to the chorus, in English, are: “I don’t want to work, I don’t want to eat, I just want to forget, and then I smoke.” Classic.