K Recommends: “Drummer Boy” by Scout Niblett

Listen to this song and you can hear a metamorphosis stirring. Scout Niblett goes from quasi-Cat Power to Iron Butterfly in this unusual transformation of a song in 3 or 4 parts.

There are definitely glimpses of early Matador Records indie artists like Mary Timony in Niblett’s music but Scout was never meant for the brooding-turned-jangle of many indie solo artists and bands. Secretly Canadian and Drag City proved perfect labels in which she could systematically destroy her own lovely songs; turn them into bitter, ugly noise sometimes. On stage she seemed nervous until the heavier instrumentation went wild and it was like seeing Bruce Banner become The Hulk. This petite Englishwoman turned gargoyle, worst friend, best enemy, something feared, yet something full of fear and riding the wave of it until the storm of her own music passed.

“Drummer Boy” starts feeling like she’s dropping hints from 1995 and Thurston Moore’s “Cherry’s Blues” but can she convince herself that this is just another alternative song? Nope. Guitars fall out of tune and the song takes on a second form and drums get cardiovascular quickly; act as absolutely no one’s wallflower even when the a cappella appears and Scout sings to declaration then the song goes marching on.

By the end the vocal is shouting in every direction, head spinning and words frothing I CAN’T WAIT… I GOTTA GO NOW! The drums echo this anger. Frenzy of bass pedal working overtime ensues while presumably this tasked drummer boy of song has had his fill of pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming. At the end of the day he is still a child that just wants to be a child or sit in the sandbox. Or I misunderstood the lyrics. Regardless, the changing energy from start to finish in “Drummer Boy” reveals both a driving power and a need for something stripped down and new.

There’s something in this music that makes me not care about smiling wide to reveal all my missing teeth.

(Song recommendation by K Weber)

Emery Recommends: “Darkening of the Light” by Concrete Blonde

Who among us hasn’t emerged from a terrible relationship with nothing but some wounds and some songs you’ll love forever?

I have a terrible relationship from many years ago to thank for some of the songs and artists I still love, including Concrete Blonde. I vividly remember the day I sat on a shitty couch in some shitty house with that shitty guy and someone put on Bloodletting and the titular opening song came pouring out. I didn’t talk to anyone during the length of the album. I simply sat in wonder.

I stole the CD from said boyfriend and listened to it incessantly for weeks. It was an album I could play the whole way through without skipping a song.

As you’ve probably guessed, that relationship ended. Badly. But I kept the CD.

Over the past several years, I’d kind of forgotten about this album. For a long time after that relationship’s demise, Bloodletting — as much as I loved it — served as a reminder of the sad, timid, lonely girl I was for those few years. It also served as a reminder of who I was in the aftermath: distrustful, ashamed, lost. So, after randomly hearing one of my favorite songs by Concrete Blonde from Bloodletting, the agonizing final track, “Tomorrow, Wendy,” and revisiting the full album for the first time in perhaps a decade, I was grateful to take stock of who I am now.

“Darkening of the Light,” the fourth track on the album, is the one that solidified my love during my first listen all those years ago. I played it constantly on that old CD. It’s gorgeous and witchy and mysterious. And it still holds up, all these years later. (I still anticipate the place that the CD would skip on this song.)

I’m listening to it repeatedly today as a reminder that beautiful things grow in shit places. In celebration of a bad relationship that ultimately gave me the courage and insight to become who I am. And that gifted me a gorgeous, emotive album that kicks a lot of ass.

(Song recommendation by Emery Ross)


Emily Recommends: “We’re the Same” by Matthew Sweet

I used to hate writing about love. I remember a high school assignment where we had to, and the sentimentality made me sick. And I was in love at the time, too –the same love I’m in now.

Maybe I hated writing about it because for all my personal and familial struggles, I’ve been relatively happy in love, and it feels strange to write about happiness, about comfort. Sixteen years later, I realize how rare it is for a high school sweetheart relationship to survive. It’s a rough path, for sure –I mean, your brains aren’t even fully developed. But it also means you grow up together.

Recently, I went to see the musical Girlfriend, which uses Matthew Sweet’s music to enhance an already poignant story of love and discovery between two gay teenagers. I sat in the front row with my sister and friend, who’d both already seen the show. It was closing night, and that specific type of knowing-it’s-ending sad electricity zapped us hard. When the lights came on, I couldn’t hide my tears. But I wasn’t crying because I was completely crushed (it’s more of a bittersweet, ambiguous ending), and I wasn’t crying because of my more recent struggles with coming out as bisexual (although, okay, yeah I was totally crying because of that, too); I was mainly crying because I saw myself, saw echoes of my relationship in these boys, who were bonding over music in such a joyous, particular way, a way I recognized and felt deeply.

Because that joy was like when we both recalled feeling fundamentally changed after seeing the music video for “Last Night.” It was like when he asked me to download Aquemini off of Kazaa for him. It was like when I bought a record player for his seventeenth birthday and he whispered in my ear that it was the best present he’d ever gotten. It was like listening to mix CDs at night while driving on winding Connecticut roads. It was like when we saw Piebald in high school, or at their break-up show in college, or at their reunion show, when my son had just started growing inside me. It was like walking down the aisle to “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.”

When the characters in Girlfriend do perfect harmonies during “We’re the Same,” they’re realizing how special, how rare it is to find someone who you know for sure has felt and experienced much of what you have. They’re marveling at that, holding onto it, and I realize I need to do that, too.

(Song recommendation by Emily Costa)

Iris Recommends: “The Beigeness” by Kate Tempest

Despite all the years I’ve spent in London, I still approach every book that tells tales of its modern-day life with a certain wonder: the effect of growing up in a small town so devoid of charm, no one ever even thought of putting it on a postcard.

This sense of marvel led me to pick up Kate Tempest’s debut novel The Bricks That Built The Houses at my local library three years ago; it proved, not for the first or last time, an instinct worth trusting. It was only after finishing the book that I learnt Kate Tempest has a track record as musician, spoken word artist and prize-winning poet — and, most impressive of all, that The Bricks That Built The Houses is a companion piece to her 2014 rap album Everybody Down. The characters are lifted from the songs and given paragraphs’ worth of room to grow; their world unfolds through scenes that read like dazzling lyrics. This is the kind of fiction only a poet could write, and if you give Everybody Down a listen, you’ll find yourself wondering where the musician ends and the skillful prose writer begins to manifest.

Given how far out of my music comfort zone rap lies, I’m thankful to The Bricks That Built The Houses for bringing me to Everybody Down, and therefore to “The Beigeness”: a song I wouldn’t have found otherwise, that seems made for me to love regardless. Among the hundreds of tunes I have at my fingertips on the days I need to rise above London’s frenzy, this is the one I turn to when I want to feel the city run through my veins. London  — or at least one of its many facets — is precisely what Everybody Down is born from, and you don’t need to have been around as long as I have to know that the word “beigeness” hints at more than the hue of the Thames at high tide.

Tempest fires off words at high speed to the sound of an implacable beat; voice and music seem to go their own way, playing to their own agenda — and yet, a sort of harmony emerges. Stick with the song long enough to follow the narrative, and you’ll begin to see vivid pictures that break the beigeness of modern life: people with stories that reveal themselves in the clothes they wear, the sights and sounds they react to, the poses they strike; hands stretching out to make a connection in a place where it’s far easier to find elbows shoving you out of the way; love and empathy that are often spoken too quickly, or not at all. And behind all this, sparks of hope: the crooked, perhaps ill-advised kind, but hope nonetheless.

(Song recommendation by Iris)

Stephanie Recommends: “The Widow” by The Mars Volta

You were not my favorite.

Not initially, at least.

I knew of you. There — tucked away, the singular listing under “the Mars Volta” in the Hastings CD section — primary colors cover a mystery man.
His face is shrouded but the eyes are presumably looking ahead. Behind, in a similar vehicle, sits a doppelganger. They, too, are covered. A mourning veil? An executioner’s hood?

I did know that it was the only option: that is, Frances the Mute.

Years were spent looking over the cover of that CD and deciding not to listen to it.

It was too clunky; too harsh in some parts and too subdued in others. Minutes of audio-clippings that sound vaguely threatening. Screaming, synthesizers… Spanish? Is that Spanish?

Frances the Mute found me again years later.

I spent the hours that I stole from dreaming reading the lore that inspired the story, which then led to me reading about a silent motif of the album: opiates. In fact, the first single off the album, “The Widow,” laments addiction.

True: the song points more to Vismund Cygnus — our anti-hero — and his predilection towards prostitution. But the fable applies terribly well to the plight of opioid addicts: “Look at how they flock to him/ from an isle of open sores/he knows that the taste is such/such to die for”. The streets in Cygnus’ world have always been dealt within the shadows; he is a product of rape to a mother named Frances. He is an HIV-positive, IV-drug addicted prostitute, and a mirror to his upbringing.

The story itself is heartbreaking and tells of a hollow victory.

Still, this is not an album I loved from the beginning. Yet every time I start “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus”, my mind wanders to the family tree that I feel as though I know so well. He does not want pity, in the end.

The tragedy bestowed on Vismund Cygnus only begets more misery, as he knowingly spreads his infection among his clientele. The listener can only hope that the senselessness of the deeds committed end with Vismund.

(Song recommendation by Stephanie Aguilar)

Josh Recommends: “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens

Part of getting old is realising that at least, to begin with, you are not old at all.

I am only twenty-one (and a few months). My teenage days are just behind me, retreating in rear view mirror. In their place, something nebulous has emerged.

Adulthood. At least I think it’s adulthood.

It’s hard to tell.

When I was seventeen, eleven months, and thirty days old I was a minor. A day passed and suddenly I was “adult”. It was scary and intimidating and no one has any useful advice about what I should do. I decided to go to university. My parents said they were proud. Once there I got drunk a lot. I skipped lectures even more. Made lots of mistakes. Generally, I did not behave like an adult and I certainly did not feel like one.

Then I became an adult again when I turned twenty-one. My family gave me a few nice gifts, told me they were proud. But nothing changed a much. Sure, I got drunk less, went to lectures more. Got a job that pays enough to necessitate doing taxes. Despite all that, I kept making mistakes. Some days it felt like they were making themselves. I never ever felt like an adult.

Then one day my adolescence was over. Gone. Poof. It’s hard to say when it started going. But I knew it was gone when I understood that my parents have been saying they are proud all this time because while I’m making mistakes, they not the same ones they made, that they are still making. Because adults make mistakes, and they never feel like adults. Not really.

That’s adulthood, I think.

I am old enough now to know that I am not old, and I have a lifetime of mistakes ahead of me. It makes me want to laugh and vomit and dance and scream. No matter what I choose I am almost certain it will be a mistake.

So, for now, I’ll listen to ‘Chicago’.

(Song recommendation by Joshua Sorensen)

Seigar Recommends: “Bury a Friend” by Billie Eilish

Young and beautiful.

Seigar, the photographer, is back.

A few weeks ago my sister recommended me to listen to Billie Eilish. Just after that, I found and saw her name everywhere. She’s got 15 million K followers in her Instagram account. When I told my friend Fran Plasencia about her, he said “yes, I know her, I think she is the only one I like among the new acts”. I don’t know why but it took me sometime to listen to her and to check what was her about. Once I did it, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, she wasn’t that impressive for me. I clicked on the Spotify list: “This is Billie Eilish” to discover her music, and I listened to her on repeat for days.

My impressions were she is not doing something new and that I have heard all that before. I was dissapointed with her ballads and acoustic songs, and sort of “OK, it’s not bad” with her dark emo dance tracks. Her image is quite strong, her videos and all that imagery speak loud, but again, it was the same sensation, a sort of dissapointment.

But now, I can say her music is a grower*.

I have been listening and enjoying her music, her videos, her performances, and doing some research on her lyrics too. Most critics say she is too young and that fact makes it hard for an adult to feel identified or to connect with her music. As an adult, I can affirm I don’t agree, I’m really enjoying her music and all her stuff and I think we need more pop acts like her. It is true that she is not completely original or innovative. But she is quite interesting and complex. She can sing nice acoustic ballads with a beautiful voice and also these dark trashy songs that could perfectly sound on a horror movie soundtrack. These emo songs are like a millenial version of Tricky, Chemical Brothers or Portishead.

Today I’m bringing you Bury a Friend that I think it’s the perfect start to get to know her. The lyrics are quite eerie and dark. She has said “it’s about the monster under the bed;” that is also her. Others think this song is about death, afterlife or suicide. Try to guess what all her profound questions are about:

What do you want from me?

Why don’t you run from me?
What are you wondering?

What do you know?
Why aren’t you scared of me?

Why do you care for me?
When we all fall asleep, where do we go?

Let’s watch Bury a Friend, my fave song in her album.

  • a grower: a piece of music that is initially unimpressive but becomes more enjoyable after further hearings.

(Song recommendation by Seigar)

René Recommends “Birthday” by White Mystery

White Mystery, photo by Diane Alexander White

Big cities call for big voices to cut through all the noise, and birthdays call for big songs to celebrate being alive. Chicago birthday boys and girls are lucky then. Not only do they have a homegrown band with a powerhouse singer and sound, the band even has the perfect birthday song for rocking up another lap around the sun.

White Mystery is a double-ginger, brother-sister garage band born and bred on the north side of Chicago. They still live there, God and Lemmy bless ’em, despite having played all over the world, everywhere from roller rinks to Riot Fest, from church carnivals to Carson Daly, and even modeled for a Levi’s ad campaign. The brother half, Francis Scott Key White, plays drums like the love child of Keith Moon and Animal from the Muppets. On the sister side, Miss Alex White plays guitar and sings lead vocals with a voice that carries from a mountaintop. Or, since this is Chicago, from the top of the Sears (you heard me, Sears) Tower. Alex and Francis played in bands separately before coming together to form White Mystery on April 20, 2008. Since then, they’ve played over 1,000 shows and self-released eight albums with memorable titles like Fuck Your Mouth Shut and That Was Awesome.

What I love about White Mystery, apart from their music, is their dedicated DIY style and community spirit. As if writing and releasing all their music isn’t enough, they also do all their booking, branding, and licensing. I follow their page on Facebook, which is just as likely to feature posts of Alex and Francis selling pastries or handmade jewelry or their own coffee blend at some local cultural event like a Greek fest or a craft show as well as photos and videos of their latest gigs. Their Bandcamp site includes an “audiobook” of Alex reading the entirety of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air to Francis in what sounds like a moving vehicle, and Alex even published a terrific series of how-to-DIY articles for the Riot Fest blog. The range of creativity is inspiring, to say the least.

This is a band that doesn’t know the meaning of half-measures. Which is what I also love about their song “Birthday” from their 2011 album Blood & Venom. More than just a birthday anthem, it’s a life anthem. Loud and pounding and powerful and monumental, “Birthday” sounds like what all life celebrations should be. It sounds like Chicago and it sounds like rock ’n’ roll and it sounds like the creative energy that keeps this brother-sister duo going from year to year and the life force that got us all here on Earth in the first place. When Miss Alex sings “I dig all the things you create,” it’s a life affirmation. And I want to say to Alex and Francis, I dig all the things you create too.

(Song recommendation by René Ostberg)

Jessie Recommends: “Whiskey in the Jar” by Thin Lizzy

Fifteen years ago, I lived two blocks from one of the coolest bars in Chicago. By day, Seanchai’s was an Irish pub, whose clientele was mainly old men. By night, it was a punk bar — specifically on Punk Rock Wednesdays. St. Patrick’s Day that year fell on a Wednesday, and was the first time I ever went there. I drank rounds of Guinness and Jameson, and sang along with the tunes spun by the DJ — the usual punk rock fare, plus a lot of Pogues and Dropkick Murphy’s. At one point, a drunk kid started wobbling his way around the barroom. He said he was taking a poll, the only question being: “Cheap Trick or Thin Lizzy?” To a man, everyone answered: “T(h)in Lizzy.” “I thought at least a few people would choose Cheap Trick,” he said. “I mean, they are from Illinois.” “You’re in an Irish/punk bar on St. Paddy’s Day,” I said. “Did you really not know Thin Lizzy would win?”

No offense to Cheap Trick, they were alright. But Thin Lizzy rocked harder and had more soul, not to mention Phil Lynott’s gorgeously ragged voice.

Nearly four years later, I was in an Irish pub in Milwaukee. The bartender was a cute Irishman and I was high-key swooning over him. He’d selected the playlist that evening, and noticed me singing along. When the Thin Lizzy version of “Whiskey in the Jar” came on, he got excited. “Listen to that beautiful hi-hat,” he said, referencing the refrain, where it goes: “Musha ring dumb a do dumb a da,” tcchh-tcchh-tcchh-h. “I’m a drummer,” he said, “and I’ve never quite been able to achieve that sound.” I agreed it was a perfect beat, but said that what got me about the song was the guitar solo at the beginning, before the full band blasts in — how it is both clarion and electrifying.

It’s St. Paddy’s Day, 2019, as I write this. I’m listening to Tin Lizzy and drinking a toast to Phil Lynott. There’s whiskey in the jar-o.

(Song recommendation by Jessie Lynn McMains)

K Recommends: “Or” by Rose Polenzani

A friend got us tickets to see Indigo Girls for my birthday one year. I wasn’t a fan but the gesture was appreciated, and it meant getting to spend time together. My town isn’t a frequent stop on musicians’ tours, so why not?

The opening act for this show was Rose Polenzani, a singer-songwriter. I was fully prepared to yawn awkwardly throughout her performance. I was assuming this concert wouldn’t hold my interest. Not long before I immersed myself in music appreciation, I was last seen in waders, so deep in the entrancing ripples of indie rock or stuck in its overblown mud puddle. I was due for a reality mic check.

Rose’s performance was gentle but her lyrics often told dark stories with unusual word choices. I was chilled, warmed, and infatuated by her clever, nuanced folk tales.

While the Indigo Girls were on stage, they invited Rose back to perform with them. “Or” is an earlier song by Polenzani on her “Dragersville” album (a version with the Indigo Girls was released on the wonderful “Anybody.”). Amy Ray and Emily Saliers played alongside Rose and the three sang in crisp, heartbreaking harmonies that gave me pause.

Again, the lyrics were full-on beauty and pain. Everything was sung to a level of fulfilling poetry. The three belted out “Or” with an effect as near as the goosebumps on the arms of the venue’s patrons and as far as Orion’s Belt. I felt more appreciation towards the Indigo Girl’s hit, “Galileo,” after the trio’s performance.

After the show I purchased the “Anybody” CD which I still own and find so satisfying. The songs are forever wrapped in my gasps of wonderment at some of the difficult material. I always feel like I have found something soft and delicate but also startling on that record.

This version of “Or” is the original with just Rose’s pure voice and all the unknown blessings the line “I’m ready to leave all this wreckage behind me” can afford a listener.

(Song recommendation by K Weber)