Courtney Recommends: “Describe” by Perfume Genius

I’m drawn to songs that feel like emotional glimpses into another place, songs that I can envision an entire universe inside of, if even for a couple of minutes. “Describe,” the lead single from Perfume Genius’ upcoming Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is certainly one. From the onset, the song hits the listener in the face with layers of sunny, twanging guitars. As Mike Hadreas’ dream-like crooning enters, the listener is treated to a hazy description of a place out of time. The song ends with two minutes of ethereal, ambient electronic droning as Hadreas whispers beneath. It’s beautiful.

Maybe I can describe it for you.

No bells anymore.

The rental car thermometer registers in the mid-90s as my partner and I drive through the American southwest. We are both native to the humid forests of Ohio, and so the dry desert air, the absence of trees, the way the strange clouds race one another across the saturated sky, the mountains kissing the middle of the troposphere in the distance, the flatness for miles on either side of an endless highway are all so unfamiliar to us as to feel otherworldly.

The lock on the door is barely holding.

The little rental meanders ever closer to the foot of what was once an ancient volcano. The wheels splash red water onto signs warning of mountainous terrain ahead. I cover my eyes with a scarf as my partner maneuvers up steep ascents, around sharp, guardrail-less turns.

An echo in the canyon.

We make it to the cabin at the summit, just as the sun hides behind the edge of the neighboring mesa in front of us. We crack open celebratory cans in the gloaming and observe that the sound booms in this place so quiet, echoes through the canyon below like a stone skipped across the river we grew up on the banks of.

I hold my jacket closed in the sudden chill as my partner and I both turn our heads to the sky — only to see a fireball meteor softly surf the edge of the mesa, hear its flame fizzle out. Mouths agape in awe, we spend the next hour craning our heads to the heavens as meteors dance across the Milky Way.

(Song recommendation by Courtney Skaggs)

Jeanne Recommends: “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld

Only history, non-narrative film, and non-fiction appealed to my sociologist-statistician father. Enticing him to read a novel or watch a movie that wasn’t a documentary was a fool’s errand. Now and then he would oblige, but the dour criticism that followed was always the price of admission.

When I was in high school, I asked my dad about Casablanca over breakfast one morning. I’d never seen it but I’d heard its signature song, “As Time Goes By” on the soundtrack to the 1993 film Sleepless In Seattle. My father surprised me with his response: a broad smile and an offer to watch Casablanca together. Perhaps it was the World War II-driven plot, or maybe my dad just had the hots for Ingrid Bergman — I’ll never know. But we did watch it one evening in our living room, and I’ll never forget the contented smile that appeared on his face at the very end of the movie when Rick says to Captain Renault, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Back then, I gravitated to the love story of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, but the piano player, Sam (played by Arthur “Dooley” Wilson), also delighted me. Hearing the oft-misquoted line, “Play it, Sam,” spoken in context for the first time was exhilarating. And then there was the song itself, the “it” that Sam is admonished to play by Ilsa soon after she arrives at Rick’s Cafe Americain: “As Time Goes By.” Originally composed by Herman Hupfeld for a 1931 Broadway musical called Everybody’s Welcome, it gained new traction in the early 1940s when it was used in Casablanca. Just about every well-known singer has recorded it, but my favorite rendition is still Wilson’s — full of subtle tenderness and warmth.

My father is 91 years old now and his health is failing. Dementia has begun to erase his memories and aphasia has robbed him of the ability to speak coherently, but he is more loving now than he ever was when I was young. For me, the past year has been a wild ride of pain, anger, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I don’t know how much time he has left, but I hope we can watch Casablanca together one more time.

It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by

(Song recommendation by Jeanne Sharp)

Sean Recommends: “Circle the Drain” by Soccer Mommy

The music in Soccer Mommy’s “Circle the Drain” sounds warm and bright while Allison Sophie sings about spiraling down into darkness. The sonic and lyrical tones of this song are conflicting and it creates a very unique feeling that is hard to describe. Imagine driving down the road with the windows down and listening to Sheryl Crow’s “Soak up the Sun” while crying uncontrollably. That may be a bit dramatic, but that’s how I’d describe the vibe of this song.

“Things feel that low sometimes

Even when everything is fine”

The song brings me back to a time a few years ago when I was depressed for an entire summer. It didn’t matter if I was at home in bed or walking on the beach with my family, I had this sinking ache in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away. It felt embarrassing and selfish to be so down when my friends and family were trying to cheer me up.

Allison captures the kind of frustration I felt with these lines:

I’m trying to seem strong for my love

For my family and friends

But I’m so tired of faking

’Cause I’m chained to my bed when they’re gone

Watching TV alone

Until my body starts aching

The contradictory tone of “Circle The Drain” is what makes it a good song to me. It doesn’t make sense that there can be a “happy-sad” feeling but it is something that many of us experience. It is a feeling that is almost impossible to describe with words, but it is one that this song captures perfectly.

(Song recommendation by Sean Sullivan)

Michael Recommends “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I mistook her for my RA when we met. Bri is self-assured, mature, has always known more about the world. She’s the friend you go to when you need to know how to interpret news on global epidemics, presidential impeachments and primaries.

For many of the years we’ve known each other, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” has scored our hangouts. It might’ve started junior year, when half our friend group was studying abroad and we needed extra pep, when we wanted to flaunt dance moves with fancy footwork and swinging hips for snowed-in pregames in Maine. It might’ve started senior year. Over the summer we worked on campus, Bri used extra cash to make her room the hangout spot–a new mini-fridge, on her wall a tapestry of a forest at dawn. We’d play Mario Kart on her bed, that party lasting all night instead of the ones we could’ve gone to elsewhere on campus.

Petty’s jam is suited to tailgates, pregames, and belting on road trips (it surprised us when we heard Catherine Baker belt it behind the wheel in Silence of the Lambs). We lived together in Maine for two years, and Bri would ask me to queue it up during nights in, which led to us listening to Estelle’s “American Boy” more often because I’m dense. We’d pick through YouTube for recordings with high quality sound, ending up on a slideshow of various American girls. It always felt half-fitting because actresses like Mary Pickford and Joan Crawford figure in, and Bri is a film buff.

Now I’m in North Carolina. She visits me, gets sick, and we spend her visit watching Shrill on the couch and air mattress in my apartment. Only one night do we go out to play pool with my new friends. The bar has cracked cement floors, a poster for Sid and Nancy, skee ball, PBR, a photo booth. They don’t have Tom Petty on the jukebox, but the song would be perfect for a place like this.

(Song recommendation by Michael Colbert)

Douglas Recommends “Kiss Them For Me” by Siouxsie and the Banshees

I don’t remember how Jake and I got on the topic of Siouxsie and the Banshees one night hanging out at my digs on the east side of Manhattan in 2017. I knew that he had had some exposure to Siouxsie Sioux through the show Hannibal, which he’d introduced me to, because she composed the song “Love Crime” for the finale. Still, I’m not sure what ultimately prompted me to ask Jake if he’d liked or heard of Siouxsie and the Banshees, but his answer was “no.”

Jake and I have known each other since high school. Our families live literally a block away from each other. We didn’t really become tight friends until reconnecting in our twenties through Ben, a mutual friend from high school. I got into Siouxsie and the Banshees in 2016, when I started getting into The Clash, punk, and new wave. The combination of her gothic style, theatrical performances, and outrageous showmanship did it for me. I was still very much into her by the time I asked Jake about her.

I don’t know why out of all her songs I chose “Kiss Them for Me” for Jake’s introduction to Siouxsie and the Banshees. Though in time, Jake and I would listen to many Siouxsie songs, like “Dazzle,” “Hong Kong Garden,” “Spellbound,” “Dear Prudence,” and “The Passenger,” it was “Kiss Them For Me” that we heard first. To the sound of a tabla banging and Siouxsie singing baroquely, Jake seemed skeptical if not outright confused by the song selection. He looked like he had never heard anything quite like Siouxsie and the Banshees before that moment and wasn’t quite prepared for her sound as a result. “This is how I would imagine people reacted to rock n roll back in the day,” Jake later said.

Soon, his look started to change. His eyes began to light up and he started to smile. He was starting to get behind Siouxsie and the Banshees. Jake said, “I feel like I’m at an Indian wedding on acid.”

That day, I watched as my friend became a believer in Siouxsie. Years later, in 2019, walking around the lower east side, I spotted a totally rad Siouxsie Sioux shirt. I texted Jake a photo of the shirt, and he replied, “kiss it for me.” I did one better than that. I bought it.

(Song recommendation by Douglas Menagh)

Alexandra Recommends “Vagabond” by Steve Gunn 

 The music video for Steve Gunn’s “Vagabond” opens with the sound of a guitar case being opened, a very apt visual and audio cue for the song, a transformative folk psych narrative on wandering, wondering, and wanderers. Gunn took inspiration for“Vagabond” from the great Agnes Varda’s film by the same title. The Unseen In Between, (the record that “Vagabond is taken from) was released in January of last year, a week before my birthday, a month or so after getting married and a few weeks into moving back to Southern California after years of living in Brooklyn. It was an interesting and difficult time. I was just getting my footing, I remember having to send in a piece of paper to the county department that said, “I, Alexandra Martinez, declare under penalty of perjury that I am unemployed and have no source of income,” — a small humiliation to endure to get enough money to feed my husband and I.

During this time, and the months after, “Vagabond” was a constant both in my mind and headphones. Gunn’s songs are so good at coming across as a simple song you’ve probably heard a million times before, but if you pay attention to the in betweens you hear the poeticness of it all. Even now, a little over a year later, and in a much better place than when I first heard “Vagabond” I still find refuge in how it layers simple guitar picking with a more psychedelic guitar while Gunn and Meg Baird’s vocals share space to tell the story of a woman vagabond. I moved back to California mostly out of homesickness but also out of necessity. My mother is ill and needs me. I’m able to live my life, but knowing there is someone depending on me on a daily basis has definitely forced me to change, and to make a lot of future decisions based on this. “Vagabond” is a reminder to make time for myself, and the creative pursuits I was able to do with more ease when I was still more of a vagabond — to “keep a hold on to [my] strangeness” and “move along.”

(Song recommendation by Alexandra Martinez)

Stephanie Recommends “Don’t Change” by INXS for Anosmia Awareness Day

I was sitting on the stone steps of the Boston Public Library, watching a partial eclipse with good friends on a warm day in May 1984. As the sky turned gauzy, “Don’t Change” by INXS blared from someone’s speakers, underscoring the moment, transient and perfect.

The sky above won’t fall down.

The song, two years old by then, was their first breakout. It’s ironic that “Don’t Change” in fact changed everything for the band, and Michael Hutchence’s vocals exude the joy of arrival on the cusp of the greatness that followed.

The song is epic, from the opening keyboard riff as the Prophet 5 calls out, its entreaty fattened by an additional layer of keyboards. The guitar jumps in, heroic, as confident as the drums are insistent in their gallop under Hutchence’s perfectly punctuated vocals.

But time has peeled away the cheerful top note.

In the film Mystify: Michael Hutchence, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, model Helena Christensen tells of how Hutchence was punched by a cab driver, an altercation that caused a traumatic brain injury which resulted in him losing his sense of smell.

“He confessed to me that it changed everything for him,” U2’s Bono said in the film. “He kind of lost his way and forgot who he was.”

Hutchence plummeted into depression. He missed the sensory pleasure of enjoying food and wine, missed the smell of his girlfriend, of his beloved daughter. He committed suicide in 1997.

The lyrics now take on an undertone, the keyboards sound doppler-esque, a warning call of danger.

Two and a half years ago, I lost my sense of smell. The sweetness of the air before rain, the smell of weed wafting out the window of a passing car, the scent of my husband when he hugs me, the popcorn-y smell of my dog’s feet are all now eclipsed from my life. Anosmia has cast my world in perpetual shadow.

Still, the sky above won’t fall down.

“Don’t change,” the song implores. But everything does.

(Song recommendation by Stephanie Feuer)

Sam Recommends: “Let It Happen” by Tame Impala

I’ve written about Tame Impala once before, and this recommendation will be very similar from a thematic standpoint.

I find myself returning to this band, and the Currents album in particular, at major inflection points in my life. Kevin Parker’s lyrics provide the reassurance I need when things are about to change in a major way, and remind me that I only have a certain amount of control over how everything will turn out in the end.

Acknowledging this limited control doesn’t mean I need to give up completely. I don’t know if I’ll ever be someone who can just go with the flow. But I am learning, slowly but surely, over the years, that confronting my anxiety and loosening my grip on life’s reins a bit is the best way to approach and eventually embrace the sea changes that are inevitable in this life.

I’m going through a lot of these changes at the moment:

I just got laid off for the second time in as many years.

And I’ve just dealt, for the first time, with the tragic loss of an important person in my life.

Oh, and I’m 27 weeks pregnant with my first child.

There are actionable steps I can take to address some of these things, to some extent. But, for the most part, getting through it is really just going to take time, continued forward motion, and the belief that I’ll be able to figure it out along the way.

And I really do believe that. It’s already happening.

Let it happen.
Let it happen.
It’s gonna feel so good.

(Song recommendation by Samantha Lamph/Len)

Iris Recommends: “Not So Bad In LA” by Allie X

In a city that lives while its bright stars die
And you start to get old when you turn 25
Where else can you go when you’ve got that drive?

When you move to a big city and end up staying many years, your attitude tends to go from enthusiasm to detachment to the kind of cynicism that drips off every word in Allie X’s “Not So Bad In LA”.

Don’t expect a linear progression: the constant overlapping of these moods will make you dizzy like a wild rollercoaster ride, as you try to reconcile the drag of routine with the joy and beauty you came seeking, or remind yourself there’s still plenty to be excited about in spite of everything you’ve become jaded with. But everything new, unexpected or strange is only new, unexpected or strange the first time; you’ll never look at the place through a newcomer’s eyes again, just like you can’t unsee, unhear or undo your life.

I’ve been in London almost ten years now. That’s most of my adult life. While there was a lot about growing up I didn’t know ten years ago, I was sure I’d learn most things as I went along; now, in true mid-thirties early-burnout fashion, I feel I know much less than I should, and struggle to keep my head above the water more than most (because everyone else has all their shit together, of course).

By the standards of anyone who thinks success and happiness require the brazenness of youth, I’m past my expiry date. By the standards of those who believe it’s never too late (to change career path, to write novels, to pack my bags and go live near the sea), I still have plenty of time. But I feel the city has aged me beyond recognition, and now, instead of convincing myself I’ve got a whole life to enjoy, I can’t help but wonder how close I am to the point where the opportunities I missed outnumber than the ones that lie ahead.

Living in London has made me smarter, more curious, and prouder than ever to be my own person. It has also driven me mad with exhaustion, flung me right into the rat race I swore I’d never run, and taught me lessons in contradiction, inequality and unfairness that could dishearten much stronger souls. This is who I am now. I may contain multitudes, but that doesn’t mean I’ve learnt how to get the best out of them yet.

If I look back ten years, I can’t tell whether I’ve changed for better or worse, and sometimes not knowing what to think or do feels plainly and simply paralysing. I want to stay and prove I can thrive. I want to leave and stop pretending everything’s fine. I have no idea where I’d go, or when, or how — or even whether I’d be able to make a living somewhere else. And let’s face it: there are a million sunk costs, big fears, and small but priceless pleasures that keep me here. That’s what Allie X means by angels all left but we’ll stay, I guess. Or, at least, that’s why this line makes me stop in my tracks every single time.

(Song recommendation by Federica S.)

Seigar recommends “Juro que” by Rosalía

Seigar recommends “Juro que” by Rosalía

Channeling the Andalusian traditions.

There is passion in everything that Rosalía does. She doesn’t miss an opportunity to show the world she is a unique act. Every performance is a must watch video, and even a simple invitation to her new Tik Tok account becomes viral. I can’t help it, passion is what I admire the most in an artist, and the fact she takes advantages of every public appearance makes me feel respect and admiration towards her persona. Her alternative flamenco pop art has shaken the world music scene, and her production has taken the Andalusian traditional folk music to the mainstream I would say for the first time in music history, at least in the Internet period. Critically acclaimed, millions of followers certify her success.

Juro que new single has a very traditional Spanish folk diva design cover artwork. In fact, it reminds to all these folk Spanish and Latin American female divas CD covers: Lola Flores, Isabel Pantoja, Rocío Jurado or Rocío Durcal. It seems she may be trying to connect with the roots again. Rosalía has been accused of cultural appropiation, and if you think she does, you also have to agree with me that she does it pretty well.

Other pop icons have also adopt culture and traditions into their music, Madonna being the expert. Rosalía takes all the Southern Spanish and gypsy traditions and shows the skill to twist them with a modern touch. She is able to know what is going on out there in the mainstream, and finds the correct way to sell the Spanish brand with a cool and global taste. I wonder if Juro que and Apale would be or not included in her next album, probably her two best singles that she has released after her album El Mal Querer, they also match in its mood, sound and lyrics among them.

Juro que is a song about love, the punch of having the subtitles in the video in the English language has been a good direction because though millions of people listen to her music, many of her fans can’t speak Spanish so they miss her lyrics, stories, messages, words and hooks. Rosalía tells the story of a lover put in prison, she can’t stand being far from him in these circumstances, she is also sorry for no saying goodbye before he was taken there.

Now enjoy the video, but before I leave you my fave line in the song: “que si no sales tú entro yo, atraco un banco esta noche y que me lleven pa’ prisión” that means “if you don’t go out, I will get in, I will rob a bank tonight so I will be put in prison”. No need to explain the beauty of those words.

(Song recommendation by Seigar)