Alma Recommends: “Love On The Brain” by Rihanna

On Love, Lust, and Obsession

Photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash

Rihanna sounded quite loud through the speakers near us the last night I saw you. I think she wanted to make sure we heard her since. After all, her experience sounded so much like ours.

The bar was slightly crowded, more so than the prior time we were there. We sat in the same area: small tables yet spacious enough to keep our distance from one another.

Rihanna knows how dark and destructive love can be, and she was trying to warn us. Her presence among us was intimidating, with each shivering chord cutting through our veins and letting us know that ours was, like hers, a damaging-yet-undying love, and that it was time to let go.

I had many unanswered questions for her that night:
– What drives us to those relationships?
– What makes us stay for so long?
– Is it really love? Or is it lust? Or even worse, obsession?
– Do we like the pain of that kind of love?

These questions echo in my head time and time again. It seems like I only know the kind of love that hurts. The impossible kind that takes you up and down the emotional rollercoaster where adrenaline is high, and then tanks to its lowest low.

For the outsider, it is easy to blame it on lust: the passion, the attraction, the indescribable pull towards each other. And lust can quickly turn into an obsession: the need, the desperate wanting to be in with the presence of the other, no matter the consequences. It becomes an addiction, something you can’t live without.

I thought about Rihanna’s words for quite a while after that night. And I still think about it because I sure want the antidote if it is true that I have an addiction to the wrong kind of relationships. But I don’t think so.

I, like Rihanna, would do anything for love. I love with passion and with my whole being. Lust feeds the carnal hunger for the physical blending of the bodies, but I love with my heart and soul. I give chances, I forgive and stay and work hard on my relationships in the name of that love, and in the hopes that one day, it will all be better. But I understand that love can be on the brain for some, and they may not live and share that strength, let alone understand it or accept it as something to treasure.

I love to love with my whole self, but I have come to see that it is the kind of love that should be saved for those willing to accept it with an open heart and excited to take it and embrace it. And that is why my love is now confined within the boundaries of self-care.

Rumor has it that “Love On The Brain” is a response to Chris Brown’s song “Heart Ain’t A Brain” in which he also talks about the addictive kind of love:

A heart ain’t a brain
But I think that I still love you, still love you
A happy ending makes you cry
’Cause it ends when you don’t want to, don’t want to
And it makes perfect sense to end it like the start
How do I explain this nonsense to my heart?
A heart ain’t a brain but I’m thinking that I still love you
Still love you, still love — 

Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” on YouTube

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Phoebe Recommends: Relatively Easy by Jason Isbell

In college I went through my first and worst depressive episode, but I tried not to burden anyone with it because all my friends were even more depressed than I was and had been dealing with it longer. I don’t know why the impulse to weigh two pains and deem only the heavier valid was so ingrained in me, but it was. I was losing the hardship Olympics, so I felt like I had no right to complain.

Maybe if I were fifteen I would have turned to emo, but at twenty I found comfort in country, a genre of achy breaky hearts and rock bottom drunkenness. Stuck in a coal mining town, forever indebted to the company store. Pregnant again and your man done run out on you. Of course, there are also trucks and tractors, front porches and fishing, sunshine and honkytonks and falling in love, but what country music does best is pain. I reveled in it.

I was stuck between two extremes: self-effacing denial as my friends shared their own struggles and myopic wallowing while Patsy Cline played. It took “Relatively Easy” by Jason Isbell, the final track off his 2013 masterpiece Southeastern, to bridge the gap.

“Relatively Easy” is one of those songs that almost means too much to me for me to be able write about it. It’s a song I’m hesitant to tell anyone to listen to because if they don’t like it, I’ll take it as a personal affront. Opening with deceptively cheery acoustic guitar and Isbell casually, sympathetically asking the listener if it’s been “a long day,” it goes on to be a miracle of perspective and contextualization, a reminder that things may be bad, but they could be worse. That things could be worse, but that doesn’t mean they’re not bad.

Here is your fair warning: I have very rarely been able to listen to it without crying.

CW: suicide

(Song recommendation by Phoebe Cramer)

Michael Recommends “Old Strange” by Steve Gunn

The sun crawls through these early winter days like a dog stalking something off in the field, trying to pace each movement to the rhythm of its prey, hunting the horizon, low on its haunches. The moon scrambles through bare locust as an arctic cold front folds down from the northwest. It’s this time of year, when the woods are slowly falling in on themselves and the stars seem to get brighter as the temperature drops, that I inevitably meander off into the world of Steve Gunn’s “Old Strange.”

Much like how the bone-map of the forest in front of my house is laid bare with each wind gust and frost, each listen and performance of “Old Strange” reveals something — a new note or syllable or image. I like to follow this song just to see where it takes me. I track it through the snow, following its licks and riffs until the spring when it inevitably skulks off into the undergrowth. Then, in late summer, when the river’s low and the trees are all dressed up and fox are only seen in those moments when light breaks and crack, I put my hand into the dirt and feel it murmur off in the thicket…

“planted there for us all

in the dirt tall and strong”

I first fell in love with Steve Gunn’s music off a recommendation from Aquarium Drunkard. His album, Time Off, is this incredible piece of acoustic alchemy — beautifully layered mantras of guitar, bass, and drums. Each song is it’s own entity, yet they fall into each other like a ravine ecology where everything makes sense and works its way towards a stream.

“Old strange came by night

bound away outta sight

took the path through the fields

pawned away what was real…”

These fields I walk through find their form in the winter as the wildflowers die and the grass crumbles under the weight of long nights. And this song seems to find a form with each turn in season. That guitar riff is constant, building layers upon layers and then peeling back slowly, methodically until a new strange vision takes hold, old in its ability to honor what was while breaking into a new field of what is and what will be.

(Song recommendation by Michael Garrigan)

Cory Recommends: “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)” by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson knows what he wants.

People told me I was A Dad many years before I ever became a father. That I look and sound a bit like Red Green probably doesn’t hurt. In that mode, I bring you a song recommendation with a little fatherly advice.

Many people out there make their living telling others how to run their lives. I’m not interested in that. I’d rather share the tools I have and if they work for you, take them. If not, no harm no foul I hope. I find that the titular line of this song has been a helpful tool for me over the years.

It’s deceptively simple. OF COURSE, you say (rhetorically since I can’t hear you) a person has to know what you want in order to get it! Yet in my experience a surprisingly high percentage of people haven’t sat down and had an honest conversation with themselves about what they really want. Worse yet, a woeful number of people I’ve met have actively considered if what they think they want is a product of their own desires and hopes or are a fool’s errand sold to them by a system that chews them up for profit.

I sing this song to my coworkers on a regular basis when they come to my desk and ask me vague process questions. It’s a disarming way to start a cooperative conversation about the scope of their ideas and projects and what tools are at their disposal. We’re all in this together.

So do yourself a favor and take a few moments for some self-reflection. You’ll be glad in the long run that you did.

Plus, that tight horn section and bass guitar part are knock outs.

(Song recommendation by Cory Funk)

Iris Recommends: “Rise Up With Fists!!!” by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins

“Rise Up With Fists!!!” finds me one June afternoon, on a train from Heathrow airport back to Hammersmith at the end of a work trip to mainland Europe. It finds me because I’m playing Rabbit Fur Coaton my Spotify app, stuck on shuffle mode, all my skips used up too fast too soon. What took you so long, it seems to say, half glad and half reproachful. Where have you been all these years?

I’ve been gazing out of bedroom windows and cars and buses under the spell of “Melt Your Heart”. I’ve been going through phases of playing “You Are What You Love” on repeat, one relationship failed before its start after another, none really worth a good song. I’ve been waking up with “Happy” stuck in my head at times when I was everything but. That’s where I’ve been since my first encounter with Rabbit Fur Coat, around 2006. And now, “Rise Up With Fists!!!” finds me like a five-pound note fished out of an old coat pocket by pure chance. Well, actually, make it ten. Because that June afternoon happens to be in 2016, not even two weeks after the Brexit vote, and I’ve never been this fucking furious.

Jenny Lewis has a power that I — a woman who can’t sound so much as mildly annoyed without being called shrill — can only dream of: she can tell you the most damning things with the calmest, softest voice, without making them sound any less true. Even her angriest words never descend into the sort of blind rage the year of our Lord 2016 has brought me to the brink of. With “Rise Up With Fists!!!” I feel the punches to the gut a moment too late to steel myself for the ache, and There but for the grace of God go Iis the kind of perfect, neat, encapsulating sentence I could tattoo around my wrist (if I hadn’t heard wrist tattoos hurt like hell, and hadn’t long given up finding a god I believe in to the point of etching its name on my skin).

Don’t let the caustic tone fool you, though: this song has a big heart. It tears down false idols, it exposes the lies we tell ourselves to avoid looking into the future and seeing the abyss gaze back — and, all the while, it reminds us that not all hope is lost. It’s just not in our line of sight half the time we think we’ve got it; just not as big and bright as we expect it, and not where everyone says it’s easy to find.

(Song recommendation by Federica S.)

Sarah recommends “Rose Hip November” by Vashti Bunyan

Just Another Diamond Day, 1970

There is grace in a cold, peaceful morning. When the dome of the sky wears the sunrise as a ring of promise — the promise that hours will pass and joy will be found somewhere in the midst of them. I stand at the bank of windows at the back of my house and count the sparrows at the feeder and try to take inventory of every leaf that changed color over night. November has finally come. There is one song that stands to the beauty of that morning. The words of Rose Hip November fill me to overflowing and I sing. Vashti’s voice, made of the stuff of earth, sings over me.

If you’ve never heard Vashti Bunyan I can’t wait for you to have your first experience of her. Some might describe her tender soprano as ethereal or angelic, but that does not do her justice. Think of the tinkling of an ice cold stream tumbling over smoothed rocks. Think of wind sweeping water droplets off lush green leaves. Think of a hummingbird finally coming to rest on a delicate branch, hunger satiated for a moment. Those things are Vashti’s voice to me.

Her particular brand of folk music is traditional in theme, but unique in performance, using the standard guitar picking and fiddles/strings, but also organ, horns, and glockenspiel. The arrangements are anything but sparse and her voice glides over top of rich instrumentation to create peace-filled music. Her song “Rose Hip November,” from the album Just Another Diamond Day,beautifully exemplifies this magical combination. Vashti’s words paint pastoral landscapes for her hearers and each instrument lays a jewel-tone thread in an expertly woven tapestry. Listening is like pulling layers of soft blankets up to your chin on an icy morning. You will discover something new upon each listen and you will be better for it.

Whether you are mourning the passing of warm weather, or you live the whole year waiting for fall, you will surely appreciate this graceful autumnal anthem. Give “Rose Hip November” a listen, perhaps while you wander a golden forest. Watch for falling leaves, and remember,

“Catch one leaf, and fortune will surround you evermore…”

(Song recommendation by Sarah M. Lillard)

Emily Recommends “Up Against the Wall” by Tom Robinson Band

You might be aware that Britain is in a bit of a pickle; a divided nation careering towards a snap General Election. There’s a lot of talk about a return to the 1970s which capitalises on the somewhat reductive image of a beleaguered post-1960s decade that didn’t know what to do with itself, a bleak and uncertain time of economic hardship and political unrest. The 1970s culminated with the election of the deeply divisive Margaret Thatcher and eighteen long years of Tory rule followed.

Tom Robinson Band encapsulated the mood of 1970s Britain. Their lyrics addressed government incompetence, homophobic violence, police brutality, racism and the salacious hypocrisy of the tabloid press. The anthemic “Glad To Be Gay” highlighted homophobic violence and aggressive policing that followed the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Similarly in “Up Against the Wall” Robinson questions the sympathies of a police force mired in accusations of racism, corruption and homophobia, snarling never trust a copper in a crime car — just whose side are you on?

“Up Against the Wall” is the rousing opener to the band’s debut album, ‘Power In The Darkness’ (1978). Britain’s disaffected teens, the dark-haired dangerous school kids / vicious, suspicious sixteen wearing their jet-black blazers at the bus stop / sullen, unhealthy and mean occupy the first verse. Hinting at a seething underbelly of racism, the white boys kicking in the windows and the fascists marching on the high street further emphasise the rising popularity of neo-Nazi group the National Front in the 1970s, something Tom Robinson protested with reggae band Steel Pulse and others at the Rock Against Racism Carnival in 1978. The reference simultaneously alludes to the hyperbolic fearmongering that surrounded punk, as moral panic had a field day linking anti-establishment music subcultures with the corruption of Britain’s youth.

For music so explicitly of its time, “Up Against the Wall” is more than just historical curiosity. This year guitarist Danny Kustow died, and it seems an apt moment to pay homage to his searing guitar riffs and the potent legacy of this blistering song. Whitehall, a term for the British government, is once again in shambles. The urgency of drawing attention to social and economic inequalities, racism and a rise in LGBT motivated hate crime remain as relevant in today’s Brexit Britain as when the song was first released.

(Song recommendation by Emily E. Roach)

K Recommends: “Walking with a Killer” by The Breeders

The Breeders’ Last Splash was such an exciting release when I was navigating first love and first curiosities about local music in my slice of Ohio in the 90s. Being a teenager in Dayton, with a soundtrack emanating from a landscape shared with bands like Guided By Voices and Brainiac, there was such a wild shine on our city when The Breeders’ “Cannonball” wound up in the spotlight.

I dipped into Pod at the time then followed the band despite lineup changes. Saw them live a few times, enjoyed related projects like The Kelley Deal 6000 and The Amps. Nothing was ever quite as affecting to me as Last Splash, though.

A friend sent me a link to “Walking with a Killer” recently. How I missed the 2018 release by a band from my town featuring the Last Splash personnel for the first time since 1993 is a testament to how I am on a near 11-year delay with new music. Hearing bits from All Nerve, I was instantly transported to that unusual, dream-like quality that only Last Splash-era Breeders possessed.

“Walking with a Killer” sets off many evocative flares; the mysterious lyrics, the woozy daze of the song’s pacing and those moments where the guitar sounds like a delicious throwback to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance send the same chill that I first shivered through during “Mad Lucas” in 1993. Every time the song lyric about East 35 is sung I hold my breath a bit. I have taken East 35 to see someone I really like for the past 7 years. There’s highway hypnosis in this track. There’s chaos. It reminds me of how exciting it was at 16 to get a ride from my parents to my boyfriend’s house where “Driving on 9” or “New Year” inevitably played. The line “I’m a dark star” reminds me of the dusty Dark Star Comics, just outside of Dayton.

This song reminds me of place and love and even fear. It is a sound I will always crave… like place and love and even fear.

(Song recommendation by K Weber)

Nishat Recommends: “Champ” by Gleemer

(Photo from Gleemer’s Facebook Page)

If there were a song to manifest that desperate anxiety the turn of seasons brings, “Champ” is that song. On the second half of Gleemer’s 2015 full-length debut, Moving Away, the Colorado, noise-pop quartet’s twinkly guitars and gutting lyrics spare no sentiment.

“Hot like the afternoons
when you kiss her on the mouth.
Locked on the common ground
you won’t say you love me now.”

If you, too, subscribe to the emo-lifestyle, then you’ll agree that winter is a perfect season for slow songs that demand you wear a blanket to keep warm. Other midwestern natives understand how brutal the cold here can be, how autumn is so short it’s a myth, and how sometimes you’ve just got to double down on the weather with a song that’s there in the pits with you.

Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but lines like “You were right all that time/to feel like nothing you said made a difference” cut so deep that I am shocked back into myself.

Despite the short hours of light and the unforgiving cold, winter is a healthy reminder that all things must shed their old leaves and selves to be ready for new growth in the spring.

“and I lost my phone in that summer water
the night your brother left town,
and I could feel your hands move through that river across
my chest for the last time.”

“Champ” is a hard song to listen to at times; it’s a song about fading summers and memories, but it also serves as a bridge to carry you to whatever the next season might bring.

(Song recommendation by Nishat Ahmed)

Kiley Recommends: “Funeral Singers” by Sylvan Esso

“All my friends are words.” In this digital age, it’s easy to reduce people to their representative presence. After all, I can only see what my acquaintances choose to show of themselves. But how deep is a life, and what spark might be hidden under the covers?

Sylvan Esso and Collections of Colonies of Bees beautifully cover Califone’s “Funeral Singers.” The original song appears on the album “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” which also happens to be the soundtrack for a movie of the same name. Although I haven’t personally seen the film (yet), the trailer is intriguing and absolutely worth the search.

I’m only a little bit obsessed with covers, and this particular one has been on repeat lately. I love the spacey synth, the grounding rhythm of the acoustic guitar, and singer Amelia Meath’s clear tone guiding us through the cryptic lyrics much the same way a lighthouse keeper aides those in turbulent waters.

“Funeral singers wail.” They remind us of life in the midst of inevitable death —  that our friends and loved ones can be remembered through weeds and rain, half-gone birds, and magnets, even if we have been orphaned to this world. One day, everyone returns to the soil, and we all keep time until our push comes.

Covers remind me that understanding is a choice. The ability to see beyond the surface is a vital response to this world’s ache for light, and I am so grateful to these artists for shaping and reshaping that light in the form of this song. They remind me to offer the same courtesy to my friends, family, and even to strangers.

How much kinder would life be with this mindset? When assumptions are broken and viewed in new light, empathy is expanded. Acquaintances may now become familiar, and in the end, we are all funeral singers wailing for what is lost.

(Song recommendation by Kiley Lee)