High school sucks, but it never sucked more than the four years I attended. Because of course something is so sharp and raw and real when it’s your high school, when things suck for you, and that pain stays fresh, some sharp point lodged beneath your ribs. I wondered how I could go through four years bleeding, and what I would possibly do with my life when high school was over.
No one understood me, I thought, and that was sharp, too. I didn’t really understand myself. I retreated into my books and my music, and there was one album I nearly wore away listening to over and over and over again. I love it now, still, more than a decade later. Maybe it’s not the greatest look to be my age and ride or die for Fall Out Boy, but I think about the sixteen year old I was and how much it meant to her, how much it helped someone so lost and scared and hurting. So I have From Under the Cork Tree on my phone, always at my fingertips, and sometimes when I’m sad, when I need a hit of nostalgia, I’ll listen to it over again.
I spent a lot of time as a teenager hiding from people. More than just hiding from people, hiding from the whole world — sitting wedged in a corner in my bedroom, crying in bathrooms, standing alone in a spot right at the edge of the woods where the trees thickened and the ground sloped gently downward. I’d sink down onto the ground in the wet slide of dead leaves, and slip two fingers under the thin blue elastic on my arm and pull it back. There was so much space between that hair tie and the sensitive skin of my wrist. I know this hurts, Patrick Stump sings, sharp and plaintive and strong. I let the band go. And that’s sharp, too, a sting against the narrow bands of my blood right underneath that papery white skin. It was meant to.
As a Madonna fan, I couldn’t enjoy her last comeback, Madame X, more. My icon was finally releasing a world music album. Living in Portugal connected her to great musicians, and she got inspired by these contacts. Then, she just translated everything she learned into her pop language. Done! Magic! 2020 has been a hard year for all of us. The virus came to erase our normal lives and turned them into an apocalyptic Netflix show. Even all the conspiracy theories and ideas about global government control we watched in Black Mirror might be just around us while we keep on living this new way. Madonna already wrote in Dark Ballet: “They are so naive/They think we are not aware of their crimes/We know, but we are just not ready to act/The storm isn’t in the air, it’s inside of us” and in another song of Madame X entitled God Control, she went further: “Everybody knows the damn truth/Everybody knows the damn truth (Wake up)”. However within this dark mood, there is something incredible and bright about 2020 and that’s music. Lido Pimienta is a Colombian-Canadian musician, a queer feminist who has become famous for her traditional indigenous and Afro-Colombian musical style that works with modern touches of sythnpop and electronic. In Nada, the song I’m recommending you today, she mixes her roots with contemporary music, more world music to my ears. The video is also a masterpiece, with the tribute to Frida Kahlo.
Lido became known when she got the Canadian Polaris Music Prize for La Papessa, if you haven’t heard it, I would recommend you to start with the strong and beautiful song Fornicarte es un arte, that means fckin you is an art. If La Papessa meant she was in the map, I think that in her new album Miss Colombia though, there is a deeper approach to her past that can put her under the spotlight definitely. Lido has said Miss Colombia is a “cynical love letter to Colombia”. The beauty she presents in these new songs is extraordinary and music critics have already showed their approval: NME: 8/10, Pitchfork: 8/10, The Needle Drop: 8/10, Rolling Stone: 8/10 and so on. This record is a 10/10 for me. It evokes many emotions.
There is a curious story about the cover of this album that I would like to tell you. She presents herself as the gayest Miss Colombia ever. This image is also part of the concept and storyline of the album. In 2015, Steve Harvey mistankenly announced that Miss Colombia was the New Miss Universe, instead of Miss Philippines who was the real winner. The moment was terrible and it got viral. Her people in Colombia loving this beauty contest protested against the incident, and online racist comments pointed at the presenter and at Miss Philippines too. Lido wasn’t proud of this reaction. And here, I must agree with her. I sometimes feel that the only way we can change this world is through empathy, we often let our own fights to be in a sort of ranking with other people’s ones. It’s just not good. If we stopped for a second, and imagined ourselves in other people’s skin, maybe…just maybe. I know this last stuff sounds a bit naive, but just had to say it. I think empathy is the only way in 2020.
My second fave song in the album is No Pude. It’s so solid and edgy. It reminds me to Rosalía and Björk. I think Lido possesses the same kind of magic these two singers have shown in their music, she also keeps her culture and translates it into the mainstream, she decodes her traditions and makes it sound modern and playlist friendly. Like Daft Punk did with Giorgio Moroder in the song Giorgio, Lido intruduces Rafael Cassiani Cassiani in a spoken interlude telling the story of Palenque’s Sexteto Tabalá. Another way of showing respect to the musicians that have inspired her production and sound.
Before you listen to Lido, I would like you to check my list of the best albums of 2020 so far, just my choices. I’m sure you can find some gems and you will agree with me that 2020 is just fab! If we talk about music.
Ten years ago, I was engaged to be married… for five weeks. My intended was someone I’d known for over a decade and we’d dated off and on in the late 1990s. We reconnected in early 2010, and as soon as he found out I was in the process of ending a marriage, he started pursuing me.
I was thrilled. When we were younger, I had been the one chasing him and he (being a typical 21-year-old dude) hadn’t wanted anything serious. Now the roles were reversed and he was wooing me with everything he had. It felt positively Shakespearean — the delirium of this rediscovered connection had me walking on air.
He put a ring on my finger at Alcatraz (insert “rock on The Rock” joke here) and I couldn’t believe my luck. But soon after, darkness rolled in — he was paranoid, jealous, and controlling. He accused me of infidelity and deliberately trying to harm or humiliate him. While he twisted minor misunderstandings into grave offenses, I held on, naively convinced that our love could withstand anything. Then the email came:
“I can not [sic] do this. Good luck and Goodbye.”
The depth of my grief was shocking. I didn’t think I’d survive it. I was the pebble in a giant emotional slingshot, ricocheting between intractable anguish and a rage so intense I terrified the people closest to me. I don’t actually remember very much between Memorial Day and Independence Day of 2010, so immersive was my despair. The only thing I do remember is not caring whether I lived or died.
Then another email came, this time from my brother:
“Sometimes these things come into our lives to teach us some things, though in the moment it is very hard to know what those lessons are. It is truly my hope that you’ll live into the future open to whatever it holds for you. I’m sorry that you’ve had to go through all of this Jeanne — and I was quite concerned for you to be honest. You have a lot to give someone and whoever that someone is will recognize that and not take it for granted one day, too.”
My brother’s email ended with a link to a Jackson Browne song, and that song became one of the things I turned to for comfort — it doused the fire of my anguish and showed me my true north. It’s no exaggeration to say that “I’m Alive” (along with my older brother’s compassion and sense of timing) is one of the things that led me back to myself.
Hey look at the way I believed in you
And loved you all these years
Now you can fill a swimming pool with all my salty tears
You could have told me what was in your heart
But baby you lied
And I thought that it would kill me
But I’m alive…
Last day of April. 1995. For weeks, you and your friends have been arguing: “What’s the most badass song Tom Petty can play at Shoreline?” It’s your first concert and your group is divided between “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” But you’ve settled on a different song.
It’s “Honey Bee” that catches your attention as you listen to the Wildflowers album on a CD boombox in your bedroom. After Petty’s whispered introduction, the song chugs along in a deep, dank groove. The lyrics are sharp and littered with double-entendres (which you’ll learn about later as an English major) and references to places you never imagine setting foot (“I’m the king of Milwaukee”). It’s a song you can get lost in — “Buzz awhile,” as Petty mumbles on the track.
You pile into a minivan and your group shuttles across the Dumbarton Bridge to the South bay amphitheatre built on an old landfill. Inside, it’s like a carnival with concession stands and people milling about jovially. You stop at the merchandise booth and can’t even afford a t-shirt. Once settled on the green, a live music venue is a seductive new territory. You’re not prepared for an opening act to lure you in (The Jayhawks) or for tuning, broken strings, dancing lights — so many distractions.
When Petty and the Heartbreakers take the stage, the crowd rises and roars. The band moves through sixteen songs — all the hits and some new material. Almost immediately, you’re treated with the two songs your group’s been arguing. But you wait and wait and never hear “Honey Bee.” Maybe you’re wrong about it being a good song.
After a raucous “Running Down a Dream,” the band walks off stage and your group rushes toward the exit to beat the crowd. You’re wired and already beginning to relive the night in conversations with your friends as you pass through a thin crowd.
And then, just past the security guards and event staff — the exits with bold NO RE-ENTRY! signs — the crunchy opening riff of “Honey Bee” rings through every speaker in the pavilion and all the way out to the edges of the parking lot you’re now stuck in. As the band choogles through the tune and your friends stand around in confusion and disappointment that you’ve left too early, you feel justified, and what you understand is that this song, more than many others, is most badass as this thing called an encore.
Life tends to have days where you get that sinking feeling of not being able to go on. People I know tend to either give themselves time to give into the feeling or somehow be able to draw on some limitless spring of optimism.
Me? I put “This Year” by The Mountain Goats on repeat.
When times are bad, my way of embracing it is giving myself a moment to get the bad stuff out of my system. I complain or feel bad for myself for a moment, then I get up and get going. This song is the perfect soundtrack to this. The refrain of “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” is uplifting to me. Belting it out is freeing, acknowledging how difficult a climb it’s going to be, but knowing that you will try anyway.
It is also in a time like this that I turn to this song for comfort. Between all the lockdowns, quarantines, financial worries and all the other things to feel down about, we still have to live. Life has to go on in some form or another.
I choose to be hopeful, even though the days feel like they can stretch on forever. We will make it. We will get through this. Together.
I love this song. Stephen Colbert does too. I hope you’ll find joy listening to it too.
“My broken house behind me, only good things ahead.”
Today, in a massive self-own, I downloaded my archived online diary, est. 2003. It was of course a huge, embarrassing mistake, but I did notice an entry from thirteen years ago: “Fucking Piebald fucking broke fucking up!” Some of the teenage melodrama I was writing about then — even though I can still easily conjure up that raw feeling, that daily heartbreak — was silly and unwarranted. But your favorite band breaking up? Man, it’s like a death.
Piebald grew out of the Massachusetts hardcore/emo scene in the ’90s, but to categorize them now seems impossible and maybe irrelevant. They’re less aligned with a sound and more with a feeling, their live show like a nostalgic party. To see them live is to witness joy, both within yourself, as well as what’s radiating from the band, from dudes playing for the love of playing. Piebald should’ve been bigger, but they’ve retained this heart, this thing that when you’re a fan, makes them feel like they’re yours, makes you feel included, like you’re part of it. They’re the band I’ve seen live the most, the band that defined my high school and college years, and the band that means the most to me.
Choosing a song here was difficult; do I go with something seminal like “Grace Kelly with Wings” or “American Hearts,” or do I pick one of my favorites like “Giddy Like a Schoolgirl” or “Holden Caulfield”? Ultimately, “King of the Road” has everything that makes a great Piebald song (but check out those others, too). It’s got witty lyrics, it rocks incredibly hard, and it gets a big response live. It’s about an ending, too: the death of their tour bus. In the last quarter or so of the song, Travis Shettel sings, “Now, it’s all the same.” And in ’07, when I read on Myspace that they’d ended things, I felt that. I felt like I had to grow up, get a boring job, change in some way. If a band that had warned of the dangers of getting a 9–5 and losing your soul in the process was quitting making meaningful art, what chance did I have of avoiding the drudgery of boring adulthood?
Turns out that you can always turn back to what you love, to the creative outlets that define you. Piebald did — they’re releasing new stuff, touring, back at it again. And I can, too, just by listening.
In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson had Sylvie and Ruthie drift in a boat on the lake harmonizing “Goodnight, Irene” — a song like a lullaby of enduring innocence. The characters were depicted in a time not far from Lead Belly yet worlds away: in pine-filled Idaho and not humid Louisiana; in a surface-water world and not in the deep Bayou. A world more like the one I grew up in, sometimes with my dad and sometimes without.
I guess you’re in my dreams
When I was in high school, my mom and her husband moved the family to Blues-infused Fargo, and, in college, it shook me. I had lost track of my dad for awhile and it was a weighty mystery. Not all songs struck a chord to acknowledge that weight. One night, a local musician sang of Irene as if life really were fragile. Guitar echoes filled the bar, the light tilted blue, and taking morphine was a far-off thing; nothing more than an ugly fiction. Walking among bare trees along the Red River in winter was cold on the skin but warm on the belly — similar to the shiver from hearing the woeful song in a dark bar with vodka coursing through my blood.
Sometimes I live in the country / Sometimes I live in town
All my life, I listened to my dad talk about places he traveled and musicians he liked as he sang out samples of their songs. They were often obscure to me — songs from his coming of age in the 50s and 60s. He’d share his internal monologue that was also part amateur opera or community theater. Musicians like the Everly Brothers I knew; Jim Lowe not at all. He could mimic Elvis like nobody’s business. Blues songs never came up.
Stay there by the fireside bright
His songs should have been comforting to him in hospice care, but the iPad they lent him at the VA was too locked down, too set in its ways. Like him. So it didn’t work. However, he mentioned “Goodnight Irene” on one of my visits, and I pulled out my phone and, fumbling, came across a video of Lead Belly singing. Knowing where the song would go, I still somehow managed to sit with him, calmly, singing along with him in raspy voices of our own.
I love her till the sea runs dry
The song rang true. He was taking morphine. He was dying. He had lost love and gained love. Yet we spoke only of the musician and listened to his early, crinkling recording. We were caught on the edge of a gloomy dusk, knowing the sun would still come up without us. He didn’t have much to say to me as he turned toward his ending, but we shared that song; we shared that time. I know where I can find him. Goodnight, Pops, we’ll meet in our dreams.