C. Recommends: “Care of Cell 44” by The Zombies

Is there a sweeter voice than that of Colin Blunstone of The Zombies? So lovely, so breathy, so inimitably infectious.

Odessey and Oracle will always be one of my favorite records, one I’d pick over two seminal releases of that era: Pet Sounds, and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They all soar with pop majesty; but there’s something special about this collections of songs, about the stories they tell. And Blunstone, of course.

I think the best kind of pop music is the kind that’s sung sincerely. It’s no dishonor to the genre to say it’s generally inoffensive due to its generic and formulaic design. It gives us a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, and it expects us to follow the melody easily enough to sing it loud and proud. With “Care of Cell 44,” The Zombies turned everything on its head: they created a jaunty song, one with big melodies and bigger harmonies, but one with a bizarre lyrical story. The protagonist is writing a letter to his lover, who’s in prison and soon to be released.

Saved you the room you used to stay in every Sunday
The one that is warmed by sunshine every day
And we’ll get to know each other for a second time
And then you can tell me ’bout your prison stay

Feels so good, you’re coming home soon.

Specifically in 1967, this wasn’t the kind of content one might expect shimmering out of the radio. But with the two aforementioned benchmark records from The Beach Boys and The Beatles, pop music started to assemble a certain new maturity. Time passed on songs like “Barbara Ann” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Writers were exploring topics that surpassed love-sick poetic jaunts toward the hearts of teenage girls. They wanted substance.

But at its core, Odessey and Oracle was all about love. Both beautiful and tragic (the latter mostly coming from the songs of bassist Chris White). “Care of Cell 44” is certainly the most upbeat prison-related song ever recorded. The sunniness and warmth in Blunstone’s vocal would melt the ice-heart of even Miss Havisham herself. And it goes back to the sincerity in delivery. You believe him wholly. You want this reunion to happen as soon as it’s able to. And this is why it’s so great: we don’t know why she’s in prison. It could have been for cannibalizing a group of circus performers. Or for pushing old ladies down the stairs while also punching puppies. But, we don’t care! We want these two together! We want it now!

It’s gonna to be good to have you back again with me
Watching the laughter play around your eyes
Come up and fetch you, saved up for the train fare money
Kiss and make up and it will be so nice

Feels so good you’re coming home soon

Get these two a holiday for God’s sake! They have some loving to do, savvy? Of course, Blunstone isn’t the sole genius on the song. Rod Argent wrote it, and his piano is a perfect piece of pop. And Chris White’s bouncing bass is jolly. The harmonies the band achieve are unreal, contagious. But as great as the band is, Blunstone is just that much better. And that’s why this song works so well.

(Song recommendation by C. Aloysius Mariotti)

Maggie Recommends: “Definition” by Black Star

2pacalypse Now was underscoring some impassioned but long-forgotten fight. My then husband yelled for me to “slow down” so I tapped the brakes to take our 2001 Beetle off cruise control. I-95, 80 mph, light rain. Just then, a semi-truck blew by and I lost control to centrifugal force. On a deadly merry-go-round with no help from brakes or steering wheel, I held my breath and waited for the end. He whispered my pet name with a disappointed sigh right before we slammed into the guard rail. Seat snap, car smoke, I looked down to see twisted metal embedded in my calf. Fat and muscle and blood oozed out of the gash. I couldn’t turn my head.

His hands felt the floor for his cell phone and he dashed out the passenger door. His grey sweatshirt disappeared behind the mounting flames and I felt down my own body, hoping for pain that would prove I was not paralyzed. Tupac’s Thug Life reassurances were halted with the car and I sat watching the fire and the pouring rain in silence, forcing myself to breathe.

Then, “1–2–3, Mos Def and Talib Kweli,” floated into my brain. “Definition,” my favorite track on the brilliant Black Star collaboration was there to keep me company. “We’re the lions of hip hop, y-oh.” I tapped a finger to Hi-Tek’s steady beat on the busted central console, closing my eyes to focus on the words. I’d given up on melody months ago, as the marriage to my college sweetheart unraveled into endless hurt. It was me and the stalwart soldiers of hip hop now: 50 for anger, Biggie for heartache and Black Star for the courage to put one foot before the other.

The rain turned flames to smoke and my eyes popped open to a knock on my shattered side window. An off-duty EMT stopped on the Southbound side and jumped the divide to keep me calm until the sirens came. I focused on his smile as Mos counted off, “1–2–3…” Mallet strikes to break the window. Jaws of life. They suspected a severe spinal injury.

Supine and terrified in blinking fluorescence, there was a painful bump down as they wheeled me into surgery. “Eight layers deep, exposed bone, lucky to be alive,” are the only phrases that made it into my sing-along, “They shot Tupac and Biggie, too much violence in hip-hop y-oh.” With each pinch of the needle as bone, nerve, muscle and skin were cinched up by strangers, the Lions of Hip-Hop stayed with me. My lips moved with them, “Stop being a bitch already and be a visionary…”

A mainline of morphine explained my junkie best friend in an instant and a police man’s face pushed in close to pry for accident details. But I couldn’t stop singing. If I dropped a beat, missed a phrase, all would be lost. As consciousness slipped, the beat gave way to a smoking car, insane pain, and the back of my supposed soul mate, running away.

Six weeks later, I slipped the cast and limped out of my old life with an optimistic pair of running shoes, my beat up old teddy bear, and a single CD. “Black Star of the eternal reflection,” indeed. It wasn’t much, but it got me through. And their “Definition” remained on loop, as I began the long road of re-defining myself.

(Song recommendation by Maggie Rawling)

Kimberly Recommends: “Roll the Bones” by Shakey Graves

One of my favorite things to do on a weekend night is to sit in a cozy living room, sip on some wine or a cocktail and listen to music. There’s just something both “grown-up” and “youthful” about that atmosphere that makes me feel like there is nothing else I’d rather be doing.

On one of these nights I was in Chicago staying with my cousin and her husband. And just like we do at my own house, we designate someone’s tablet as the “music producer,” search YouTube for songs we want to hear and add the music video to the queue so that it will project onto a large TV for everyone to enjoy. It was on that night that I was introduced to “Roll the Bones” by Shakey Graves.

I was first impressed with the fact that this artist is playing an electric guitar, a bass drum activated with one foot AND a tambourine with the other foot. That’s just cool. But then when I heard the guitar chords, I fell in love with the song. It’s full of swings between major and minor chords, with bluesy 7th chords and maybe even other, less-often-used chord types in there.

He has an amazing voice, too. It’s gravelly and perfect for blues. And he has phenomenal vocal control, and throws in some cool slides into his singing to match the bluesy thing he’s dong on the guitar. Shakey Graves would be a trip to see perform live.

(And after you check out this song, check out a super-cool duet called, “Dearly Departed.”)

(Song recommendation by Kimberly Wolkens)

Dan Recommends: “Every Little Bit Hurts” by Barton Carroll

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when you were thirteen years old and offered a cigarette for the first time, that the way it made you look tough would last only a moment, while the ache and stain it left upon your lungs would stick with you the rest of your life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when you were twenty and home from the Army, when you dropped to one knee with a ring inside of a snowball, when you bought a house in a town with decent schools, that you’d made only the first handful of big decisions you’d be tasked with the rest of your life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when I was eleven and ran away from home without shoes on, when you feared I’d wandered into the clay pits out in front of the old chemical plant on the phosphorescent green lake and gotten sucked in, that I’d regret making you worry every day for the rest of my life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, ever since I was eighteen and moved away from home, every time I’ve received a phone call past a certain time of night, my heart has sunk into my stomach and I’ve prepared myself to pick up and receive the news that you’d died in your sleep, that whichever mundanity we’d most recently discussed on the phone would be the last conversation we’d have for the rest of my life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when I was nineteen and was offered a cigarette for the first time, that I thought of you right away, the way you coughed every morning, the way you could not climb the hills in the town I was then living in, the way you told me every chance you got that, of all the substances I could ingest, the one I should stay away from forever was nicotine, and that, despite the warnings, I’d have an on-and-off relationship with the habit for the rest of my life.

I’ll bet you don’t know now, when you’re fifty-seven, that your youngest child is writing about you on the internet, nor that your youngest child is not a son, nor that they know the easiest way to avoid you or anyone else finding out is to simply not write these things in the first place, but they are nevertheless compelled from within their very bones to write them, and that they’re not sure if they’ll ever be ready to tell you for the rest of their life.

Still, I love you. I love you more than I have the guts to say.

(Song recommendation by D.R. Baker)