I first encountered Slothrust’s “Horseshoe Crab” from their album, Everyone Else (Dangerbird Records, 2016), while firmly in the eight-tentacled grasp of Major Depression. I was at the point where I desperately needed some sort of life raft — some understanding that someone, somewhere understood what I was going through and had, perhaps, felt the tentacles slide off their exhausted ankles. That is certainly what I found in this song.
Whether or not Slothrust’s Leah Wellbaum is actually singing about depression, when I heard her declare, “When I get better/I’ll treat you like I used to/ I’ll do the things you want me to” and “I don’t have anything in common/ With myself, except that I came from the sea/Just like everyone else did/ But it is so unfamiliar now/ Everything is so unfamiliar now,” I felt like I had finally burst into flames. Someone else got it — that feeling that this illness had taken me out of myself and turned me into something else. But not everything. I thought to myself over and over, “when I get better.” Not “if,” but when. The song was precisely the extra medicine I needed in that moment and, had it been a record, I would have listened to it until the needle broke through the vinyl.
Slothrust is currently on tour with their amazing album, The Pact (Dangerbird Records, 2018), which is equally worth the listen. To those who need it, as Wellbaum sings, sometimes “underwater it gets better” and its okay to not feel like yourself for a while. When you get better, you’ll do the things they want you to. Take care of yourself and listen to “Horshoe Crab.”
Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather” is a song about idyllic summer-end love, but I feel spring whenever I hear it. Maybe it’s because I associate spring with hope, and hope with love — new or past, fleeting or undying, idyllic or otherwise.
It could also be some quality in Van’s voice, maybe the playful jazziness he brings to the song, a Scottish/Irish folk standard usually recorded under the title “Wild Mountain Thyme” or “Will Ye Go Lassie Go.” Joan Baez, Ed Sheeran, The Corries, Marianne Faithfull, and Rod Stewart are just a few other artists who’ve recorded it. But their versions tend to approach it with melancholic yearning or straight-take sincerity. And most of them stick to the song’s original spring setting (“Oh the summertime is coming” versus Van’s “Well the summertime has gone”).
Typical Van had to go and be contrary. Idiosyncratic. Along with changing up the song’s season, he sings almost every line with a different emotion. This phrase sounds plaintive, the next hesitant, the next direct and strong. And yet as a whole, the song distills the spirit of enchantment, the experience of perfect, first love. That’s the magic of Van Morrison.
I knew the traditional version, “Will Ye Go Lassie Go,” before any other. I grew up in a home where we listened to Irish folk music, to the records and tapes of local bands that played in the Irish pubs around Chicago. One of those bands played at the wedding reception of my middle brother, when I was about 11, and this was where I first heard the song. I thought it was beautiful, but like something trapped in another time — “precious” is how I’d describe it. Not really expressive of a living, breathing, passionate love, despite the lyric’s best efforts.
It would be 30 years before I’d finally hear the version that put it all together.
I was in Ireland in a car being driven by a friend. It was September and night and we were on a dark, narrow, winding road with a mountain on one side and the Atlantic cliffs on the other. My friend was angry about something, but quiet — taking out her feelings through the steering wheel, driving a little too fast for my comfort. I was afraid and amused and annoyed all at the same time. Then Van’s song came on the radio and somehow managed to get through the charge of emotions in the car to my attention. That too is the magic of Van Morrison.
A couple weeks prior, I’d met up with a former sweetheart elsewhere in the country, someone with whom I had an emotional history even more tangled than the energy in the car that night, when my meeting with him was still on my mind. I knew him when I was young, in my early 20s, when everything in life seems so urgent, especially what you’re lacking, especially any love less than idyllic all the time, which of course is most all human love. I think if I’d heard “Purple Heather” back in those days, it would’ve wrecked me — or saved me. The song captures the spirit of perfect love so well, anything that fell short in real life would’ve been too painful to endure. I might have given up the effort to match it earlier on, before the pain of shortcoming did its damage.
But then I would’ve missed out entirely. I would’ve had not even a moment’s memory of idyll to carry with me for years to come — nothing to regret but nothing to savor. Nothing to bring to the emotions and idiosyncrasies of the best love songs, to piece together the mercurial phrasings of one of music’s great troubadours. Van’s song in the car that night would’ve been just distraction, just background music for a reckless drive, instead of testimony for a passionate and reckless youth, for my imperfect swing at perfect love.
I recently binge watched an amazing new show on Hulu called “Pen15.” The show follows two best friends, Maya and Anna, as they start 7th grade. The best part? It’s set in 2000 — the same year I started 7th grade.
Aside from being absolutely hilarious (and often times heartbreaking),the show absolutely nails everything about this time period, from the butterfly bedsheets, the translucent landline telephones, the seedy AIM messages we all had with strangers at that time behind the veil of a made up a/s/l. If someone offered me a million dollars to read the transcripts of those conversations I’m not sure I’d take the deal. Self-respect and dignity don’t come cheap in this life, and I was a fuckin’ pervy little shit.
Watching the show brought back so many of my memories from that time period. The good, the bad, the ugly, and, of course, the cringey. The show’s soundtrack was pretty on point, as well — with one huge exception.
That’s right; they didn’t include a track from every middle schooler’s favorite band: Blink-182. WTF?!
In those two weird years of my life as a middle schooler, I primarily listened to three albums on a loop. Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, Alien Ant Farm’s Anthology, and Blink-182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. This song in particular got a lot of play because I felt it perfectly conveyed my feelings for the crush I had at the time.
In the first semester of 8th grade, I sat next to or behind him in 3 of my 6 classes! It was heaven, and he was nice to me even though I was definitely not the most attractive girl with an obvious crush on him. Bless his heart.
But then, in the second semester, tragedy struck. Our seating charts got changed! My heart was broken. Life no longer had meaning. What was the point of living if my one true love wouldn’t be forced to interact with me on a daily basis anymore? Luckily for me, with help and commiseration from Blink-182’s “Roller Coaster,” I made it through the rest of my 8th grade year and then made my way into high school, where a new major and largely unrequited crush would take Christian’s place in my heart.
I was sitting on the floor, floored, listening to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s music via someone else’s record collection maybe 14 summers ago. I collected myself enough to grasp what I was hearing. This artist could play multiple wind instruments at the same time using a technique called “circular breathing.”
Kirk was blind. His execution and presentation — whether heard on LP or watched in a YouTube video — revealed his mastery of the senses despite sightlessness. In his music I saw futures take flight and people moving through time. His instrumental covers of classic soul tracks like “Ain’t No Sunshine” seemed to add birdsong, a flutter of nerves, and ways of howling out loss that were comparable to (yet vastly dissimilar from) Bill Withers’ original.
I enjoy his early albums as much as his later ones; his impressive style including traditional jazz foundations and avant-garde concept albums further down the line. I never tire of his ability to play a saxophone, a flute and a euphonium in the same phrase. He might add a touch of harmonica, too.
“You Did It, You Did It” is a fun example of his multi-talented capabilities. Instruments are played by mouth and nose. Guttural sounds emanate from Kirk himself. Sometimes it’s a faint whisper of lyrics on-the-spot. Other times a macaw cries out or the ecstatic warble of music’s hold. It is a wild, often humorous showcase of how a person can have one foot in jazz’s origins while using the rest of their body and brain to break into a whole new element.
It was astounding for me, someone who writes poetry and nonfiction, to grasp how one can find their “voice” musically but also instrumentally. His talent was so far beyond what we ever deserved. I like to pass his music along when I can. I hope this post will be a gateway for someone who grows more interested in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s work and dizzying approach!
Music never stops being interesting. Just keep listening.
Maybe I’ll Die Young Like Heroes Die by E. Kristin Anderson
To read this piece, click on one of the album covers below.
About the author: E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. She is the editor of Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture (Anomalous Press), and Hysteria: Writing the female body (Sable Books, forthcoming). Kristin is the author of nine chapbooks of poetry including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), 17 seventeen XVII(Grey Book Press), and Behind, All You’ve Got (Semiperfect Press, forthcoming). Kristin is an assistant poetry editor at The Boiler and an editorial assistant at Sugared Water. Once upon a time she worked nights at The New Yorker. Find her online at EKristinAnderson.com and on twitter at @ek_anderson.
I can think of no better example from my personal history of the skewed way in which adolescents perceive time than the six months that passed between System of a Down’s Mezmerieze and Hypnotize. The former was one of those albums for me: a complete shift in not only my musical taste, but in my worldview. The time I spent awaiting part two was an absolute eternity.
When I finally listened on Christmas Day, I was not disappointed. Complete with blistering riffs, gut-punching percussion, and the menagerie of screams, growls, and sudden harmonies of Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian, the first three tracks of Hypnotize, the album, sated every expectation I’d built up during that interminable waiting.
But then came track four — “Hypnotize.” Beginning with a slight, almost docile riff, the song lingers in a gentle state before letting loose with a lyric that still grabs me by the throat: “Why don’t you ask the kids at Tiananmen Square, was fashion the reason why they were there?”
I was twelve. I had no idea what that meant. But Tankian’s voice commanded me, almost challenged me, to accept the weight of what he sang. The song’s refrain (“I’m just sitting in my car and waiting for my girl”) was a revelatory moment for me: here’s a fella waiting for his girlfriend while the horrors of the world occur around him. The horrors do, in fact, affect everyday people.
I can’t say hearing “Hypnotize,” or even listening to System of a Down at an impressionable time — a childhood in the shadows of September 11th, the invasion of Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay — are solely to blame for the bleeding heart politics that define my adult life. But of all the artistic influences, I can think of no other that still affect me like this.
It’s been almost fourteen years since Hypnotize, and System of a Down has not released any new music since. Compared to the six months between albums, I look now on the fourteen years — more than half my life — and wonder how the time passed so quickly. I can’t help but yearn for these familiar voices to come back and share how they’re feeling about the horrors of the world now.
I started listening to Marina — then Marina and The Diamonds — when my best friend Ian introduced me to her music in high school. We were completely enchanted by her first two albums. They were jaded but tinged with the same glamour and fantasy that they poked holes in, Hollywood and beauty and gender expectations. In her second album Electra Heart, she tries on new identities and breathes nostalgia in the music, while tearing it apart in the lyrics. It was the perfect soundtrack for us at sixteen, the kind of cynically optimistic kids who were constantly trying to craft ourselves into teen movie characters.
Fast forward to now, Marina about to release her first album in three years; we are finishing up college and trying to craft the start of our adult lives. The first single off the album, “Handmade Heaven,” beautifully showcases a new chapter.
The biggest difference in “Handmade Heaven” from Marina’s earlier work is a deep sense of earnestness and vulnerability. Gone is the ironic bite and the trying on of archetypes. It’s still undeniably a pop single, which it takes full advantage of with the grand thumping percussion and dreamy, polished melody. And yet, it feels deeply intimate. This is due largely to the heavy focus on natural imagery in the lyrics. Lines like “ But in this handmade heaven, it’s paradise / Bluebirds forever colour the sky / In this handmade heaven, we forget the time,” evoke the kind of peaceful introspection that comes from repose away from civilization. It’s not missing discontent, but there is an honesty and hope towards change. “ I carry along a feel of unease / I want to belong like the birds in the trees.”
When we talk about the ways we change and evolve as artists and as people, it sometimes seems to imply that the earlier version was incomplete or inadequate. But really, it’s all one part of a continued, ongoing story. The honesty and natural simplicity of Handmade Heaven build on the aversion to the shallow materialism of earlier albums. In turn, I owe so much of who I am, the friendships that mean the world to me, and the things I love to the person I was as a teenager.
Bill Withers is a consummate songwriter who has written several hits since the 1970s, including his number one single, “Lean on Me.” Saying that “Lean on Me” is a popular song would be an understatement. When the first few notes come on the radio you recognize it and most people (I want to believe) at the very least, can sing the chorus. But let me share the song that for me beats it.
I discovered on the album, Lean on Me, The Best of Bill Withers a song titled, “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” It is a love song that gets my shoulders bopping while pitting my heart. And it has that same effect on me every time I hear it. It starts off smooth and mellow, “Your love is like a chunk of gold…” then mimics the “hmm-hmm” you hear in another one of his hits, “Grandma’s Hands,” concluding with, “Hard to gain and hard to hold.” He also compares this love to a rose that is “soft to touch.”
The chorus is almost like a wail (I had to improvise the first time I heard it) as he implores, “Well and why must the same love that made me laugh, make me cry?” And though we all know that love is a complicated state to exist in, the simplicity of this line and the way it is delivered is the string that pulls you through the labyrinth. Just under four minutes, this is one song that I can play a few times on repeat as it manages to crush but also carries this odd lift that releases you.
Sometimes it is hard for me to recommend songs for Memoir Mixtapes because I love so many songs! Like a lot of people, I love music and enjoy having music around me. While I drive, while I work, while I cook (I mean, try to cook) and while I write, I usually have music playing in the background.
Today I sat down and thought to myself, “What is the first song that comes to mind when you try to conjure up one that has seen you through several walks of life?”
And one popped into my head immediately — “Terrible Lie” by Nine Inch Nails.
I like a lot of NIN albums, but I’ve probably listened to Pretty Hate Machine a million and a half times. I sometimes skip the first song, “Head Like a Hole,” because I don’t care all that much for it (gasp, probably say many other NIN fans). Track 2 is Terrible Lie, and I fell in love with it the first time I heard it. It has weird industrial sounds in the beginning, plenty of Trent’s heartfelt yelling, and some cool synth work reminiscent of the 80’s. It’s dark, moody and oscillates between a simple drum beat behind lyrics in the verses and a smart combination synth sounds and vocals in the chorus. I just listened to it again to help me write this, and I felt the warm blanket of familiarity wrap around me as I relaxed into this song. A song I may have heard more times than any song in my life.
I first heard it in middle school, then confiscated my parent’s NIN CD so I could listen to it in my first car with a CD player. I listened to it throughout college and after college when I started the move toward adulthood with careers and stuff.
And I still listen to the CD today — and when the first measures of Terrible Lie come on (whether I skip Track 1 or not), I settle in for one of the best CD’s I’ve ever owned.
If you haven’t already listened, Weyes Blood (pronounced Wise Blood, after Flannery O’Connor’s novel of the same name) is the singer/songwriter who will ruin all other singer/songwriters for you. Her haunting voice and canny lyrics supply the best music has to offer: levity & heartbreak, ecstasy & pain, groove & syncopation. Her songs are so rich that it’s hard to listen to other music after feasting on one of her albums; there just aren’t many musicians who are able to capture such complexity with as sweet a sound.
Weyes Blood is scheduled to release her fourth studio album on April 5th, 2019. Titanic Rising will be her follow-up to Front Row Seat to Earth, released in 2016 to indie acclaim. She has already released two singles from her new album — “Andromeda” and “Everyday” — which deliver on the promise she codified in Front Row Seat to Earth. Weyes Blood is as talented a multi-instrumental musician and absurdist song writer as we’ve ever heard.
As with all singles, though, their thrill is quickly diminished after listening on loop for hours — let’s be honest, days — on end. So, after you’ve listened to her new singles so many times that you can’t stand to listen anymore (but also can’t stand to listen to anything else) dip back into her 2014 album, The Innocents, with the track “Hang On.” This highlight captures the best of Weyes Blood: her stirring voice, deeply emotional lyrics, and instrumental complexity that crescendos and breaks along with your heart. Despite being five years senior her new singles, this deep cut is equally as engaging as her newer material, while maintaining an identity unique to The Innocents.
April 5th can’t come soon enough. Until then, “Hang On.”