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.)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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Lindsey recommends 2X Tigers by Third Eye Blind

You might be surprised to learn that the Third Eye Blind fan community is in turmoil over one song on the band’s new album. You might actually be surprised to learn there is a new Third Eye Blind album. Or that there is a HUGE, active fan community dedicated to a band you probably only associate with their hits of the late ’90s. Well, catch up. They may have left the major label scene in the early aughts, but they’ve been making music and touring all these years. In the last two years alone, I’ve seen them 15 times.

When a handful of the almost 2,500 fans in one Facebook fan group got ahold of a copy of the album, “Screamer,” a few weeks early, they shared the files with the group. Within hours, there were posts expressing disappointment and even anger over the track “2X Tigers.”

I decided not to download the album early (and by “decided not to” I mean, I didn’t have time to re-learn how to consume music from any source that isn’t a major streaming platform). But I watched the comments and fights in multiple groups. “This is not my band,” many said. “It might grow on me,” was maybe the most generous comment. People were making T-Pain references and calling out Stephan Jenkins for all the times he claimed “we aren’t a DJ band; there are no backing tracks here.”

When the album was released I just played it from the beginning to see if I could identify the offending track. It took me two seconds when track 10 began to know I’d found it: MY NEW FAVORITE SONG! I jumped up from my desk. I was ready to party. It immediately replaced what I thought would be my favorite based on the five new songs we got a taste of during the summer tour. (For the record, “Ways,” was my favorite from the tour and still a close second on this album.)

Yes, “2X Tigers” is so very different than other songs from the band’s catalog and even from the rest of this album. No, there aren’t any guitars. Yes, it’s heavily auto-tuned. But here’s the thing about autotune: I feel like autotune is to musicians what grammar is to writers. When you know the rules of grammar, you can break them. Some of the best writers break grammar rules as a fun and unexpected device in their writing. When someone is actually a talented singer, which Jenkins has proven — over 23 years — that he absolutely is, then what’s wrong with fucking around with some autotune for funsies?

If you haven’t listened to 3EB since their last radio hit, you definitely won’t recognize them from this track. But even if it’s not your cup of tea, still give the rest of the album a spin or listen to anything else they’ve released in the last 20 years. Just don’t try to beat me to the rails when you start going to shows.

(Song recommendation by Lindsay Hileman)
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Jeanne Recommends: “Mesa, Arizona” by Jeffrey Foucault

Tucson in July is not for the weak. Summers here necessitate holing up in reverse — rise as early as possible for exercise, errands, and anything else requiring a trip out of doors, and then retreat until after dark into air conditioning or to a covered patio with misters and fans. (If the latter, make sure there is an outstanding selection of beer to complement the ambiance.) It’s ass-backwards hibernation at its finest.

I was sitting in my living room on just such a July afternoon not too many years ago, just north of 40 years old and beating my now-standard retreat from the aforementioned desert sun. I’d started playing Jeffrey Foucault’s third solo album, Ghost Repeater (already a decade old at the time), earlier in the hour as I did laundry, reconciled my checking account, and tidied up my apartment.

As I paused on my sofa, the penultimate track, “Mesa, Arizona,” started playing, and sent a revelation from my bluetooth speaker straight into my heart. People across generations remember where they were when certain momentous events of national or international significance took place; I will always remember exactly where I was and what song was playing the last time I realized I was in love.

And the sun gone down
In the pale thin pink
There’s no one to talk to
All I can think
Is your eyes are full of train smoke
And your mouth tastes like rain
And I know when I know nothing
I will always know your name

“Mesa, Arizona,” a love song that came about after Foucault got lost in the concrete wilds of the greater Phoenix area, was the truth serum that catapulted me out of deep denial that summer day. I still self-medicate with this tune when I need to remember what it was like to feel such unequivocal certainty, or just to recall the one who has my heart.

You’re the one I want to talk to
The one I know to call
The one who’s going to catch me
When my pride leads to a fall
You’re the sky all full of starlings
And an ax blade shining in the sun
You’re the angel touched a coal
Against my lips
You’re my only one

(Song recommendation by Jeanne Sharp)

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Emery Recommends: “Punk as F*ck” by The American Analog Set


One of the saddest facts I know is that The American Analog Set isn’t making music anymore. “Punk as Fuck,” especially in autumn, reminds me of this devastating fact — though we’re very fortunate to have had them at all.

The song opens AAS’ 2001 album Know by Heart and sounds nothing like the name of the song implies. It’s a beautiful song with dreamy sounds and lyrics.

I like recommending “Punk as Fuck” both because it’s gorgeous and because you can then listen to and enjoy the rest of the album in its entirety. It’s a perfect album for chilly fall days when you just want to curl up in a fuzzy blanket and avoid the rest of the world.

The lyrics, at the surface, seem sweet —  a story of the comfort of love, perhaps. But by the end, the song demands, “Leave me to die / in the comfort of my own home,” hinting at a darker meaning. And perhaps explaining the song’s title. What’s more punk than death, after all?

So, since it’s Scorpio season, and because the days are growing shorter and the nights longer, and because winter is fast approaching, feed your melancholy and intensity with some moody jams from AAS. Start with Know by Heart and “Punk as Fuck,” light some fall candles, grab a blanket, and settle in.

It’s perfect. And worth it.

(Song recommendation by Emery Ross)

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John Recommends: The 5 Best Versions of a-ha’s “Take on Me” (Besides the 1985 Classic)

Image via Your EDM.

Not many songs have acquired the continued cultural prestige and popularity that “Take on Me” has. The a-ha song became a hit when it was re-recorded and released with a unique music video in 1985. The video included some beautifully illustrated frames achieved via the technique of rotoscoping. It is ridiculously catchy.

However, an earlier version of “Take on Me” exists. The ’84 version, though it does not have as high of a tempo as the revamped ’85 one, is still aesthetically pleasing.

Another great take on “Take on Me” that a-ha has recorded is the Kygo Remix, which is highly evocative of playing under the sun, the outdoors, or taking in the beach. This rendition of the song feels nostalgic and classy, yet refreshing and easy-going at the same time.

There have been a number of remixes of the song done in recent years to make it even more upbeat and quicker-paced than the classic 1985 rendition. One such remix has been hailed as “Take on Me — Symphonic Version.” Here it gets an orchestra-style treatment. It really brings the classic song to life, giving it a unique electrified grandeur.

Another superb remix of “Take on Me” is inspired by the version used in the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018). It is the extended Tribute Remix published by YouTuber GtaRemixJose.

Though more heavily instrument-focused, this particular remix does employ the inequitable a-ha vocals. Once again, this version of the song strikes a sense of grandeur into the listener.

Lastly, it is certainly worth mentioning a-ha’s MTV unplugged version of the song. Undoubtedly it is the rendition that has the slowest tempo. It is above all a peaceful listen. “Take on Me” usually has people out on the dance floor pulling out their craziest, shakiest moves.

However, the unplugged version is definitely a piece of music one dances slowly and smoothly to. It’s quite a drastic difference, but it is beautiful all the same.

For a song that has remained as popular as it has over the decades, it is inspiring to see the many variant forms “Take on Me” has taken. And it continues to appeal to music-lovers more than 30 years down the road.

(Song recommendation by John Tuttle)

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