Tom Recommends: “Black Cab” by Jens Lekman

“This guy is crazy,” my friend declared as he turned up the volume on the first Jens Lekman song I ever heard. The song was Black Cab and I was too embarrassed to admit it at the time, but it was one of the most sane things I’d ever heard in my life: a hilarious but heartrending anthem for anyone who leaves the party full of self-recrimination, mentally replaying countless social exchanges and analyzing them to death. It was equal parts pop and ballad, humor and melancholy, absurdity and poetry. But most of all, it was just so gobsmackingly human. Listening to this song was like making an adult friend with a sweet, sensitive, smart person whose punch lines are so organic he doesn’t even watch for the laughter to follow.

The canon of Lekman’s work includes songs about such things as:

  • the exquisite beauty of being held by a loved one after slicing his fingertip off, passing out, and winding up in the emergency room
  •  trying to meet Kirsten Dunst when she was shooting Melancholia in Gothenburg, Sweden
  • hoping that he’ll be wearing cowboy boots in his next dream, shoes he hopes will give him the swagger he needs to move on from a long since failed relationship
  • acting as a friend’s boyfriend to help her hide the fact that she’s gay from her family

I mean, who wouldn’t want to be adult friends with this guy?

And what more could you ask of an artist? Jens Lekman has built his own poetics. And Black Cab is that first tale he tells you when you’re both checking your respective mailboxes just long enough to strike up your first conversation.

(Song recommendation by Tom Stern)

Kevin Recommends: “Santeria” by Sublime

When I was growing up, more often than not the people you went to school with only listened to one genre of music. The kids my age had very specific tastes, and they were passionate about them; so passionate that it was rare for people to cross over into other genres. The kids stuck to their music, and defined themselves by social group according to genre.

In defiance of this siloed approach to social structure, however, there was one band whose sound served as a great unifier throughout not only my schools, but throughout all of southern California:

Sublime.

It didn’t matter who you were, or what crews you rolled with — chances were pretty god damn good you liked Sublime. If you found yourself sitting next to someone you’d never talk to otherwise, you could at least talk about how good Sublime was, and it would always go something a little like, “Duuuude you like Sublime? Man, ‘Santeria’ is my shit!!”

One of my favorite personal examples of this phenomenon happened when I was 18, delivering a pizza. I was taking a shortcut through the golf course in Indian Hills. It was a swelteringly hot day, probably around 105 F/40 C, so I had all my windows down (because running AC made my shitty Hyundai Elantra run even shittier). The radio had just rolled up “Santeria,” and I was pumping it almost as loud as my busted speakers could take.

As I was driving along through the golf course, I saw three dudes sitting on the green, all with tallboys. These dudes looked mean — each ripped as fuck with shaved heads, tank tops, and huge baggy Dickies, and two of them were sporting cuts and bruises on their faces. These were the type of dudes I’d generally steer clear of, after years of bullying and abuse at the hands of guys just like these. I subconsciously tensed up as I approached.

They were minding their business when, as if struck by some hidden signal, they stopped what they were doing and began bobbing their heads in unison; bobbing in unison to the bass of the song blasting out my windows.

As I got closer, the three dudes all raised their tallboys to me in a salute. I slowed down as I approached, threw up a peace sign, and cranked the music even louder.

They cheered and took huge swigs of their beers.

And I drove off to finish my delivery, leaving them bobbing in my wake.

***

For today’s recommendation, I invite you to put aside whatever your preferred genre is in the name of harmony and unison. Let’s take a trip to southern California.

Bob with me.

(Song recommendation by Kevin D. Woodall)

Nicole Recommends: “The Underdog” by Spoon

When I hear this song, I picture billboards and palm trees.

If you’ve never seen the Paul Rudd/Jason Segel film I Love You, Man—to which I say: what’s wrong with you?!—then that might seem odd. I mean, the billboards part would definitely seem odd. Who hears a song and thinks about billboards?

Palm trees could be reasonable on its own. Even though there’s not one mention of them in the lyrics, there’s an upbeat, almost beachy quality to this indie rock tune that would inspire anyone to conjure up images of sunshine and green things and smiles.

But for me, this song is irrevocably tied to Paul Rudd, driving down the street in (what I believe to be) Los Angeles at the beginning of the movie and watching groups of men bonding. Then, of course, later in the movie, he drives down that same street, astonished to find that Jason Segel has launched an insane(ly hilarious) billboard series to help promote Rudd’s character’s realty skills. An entirely different song is playing in this scene, but “The Underdog” overrides it in my mind.

It’s THE I Love You, Man song to me.

(Imagine how jarring it was for me to hear this song when it appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming last year! The song fits, though—young Peter is, in fact, an underdog because he wants so desperately to be an Avenger and he feels he’s not being taken seriously. Excellent song choice, movie people.)

(Song recommendation by N. Alysha Lewis)

Seigar Recommends: “In My View” by Young Fathers

Seigar, the photographer, is back.

Some years ago, I enjoyed a concert by Young Fathers at the FIB Festival, in Benicassim, Spain. They were great. It was on a Thursday, but probably today they would sing on a Saturday. They are getting bigger. Their tribal sounds are known now by a wider audience. “In My View” is an irresistible tune, both catchy and tense. The lyrics — half-sung and half-spoken — keep the same quirk touch as the percussion and electronic sounds behind.

This Mercury Prize winning rap trio from Edinburgh does not produce mainstream music, but this track I’m bringing you today is probably their catchiest track so far, even more than “Lord,” their first single. “In My View” holds their sharp essence, but adds some inspired dance hall beats. Anthony Fantano defined the track as “easily one of the most haunting ballads the group has ever drawn up, with some pretty intriguing lyrics about what feels like, I dunno, love, attraction, sex, money….”, words which only help my invitation for you to listen.

Enjoy one of the best songs of 2018 so far…

(Song recommendation by Seigar)

Sam Recommends: “My Life” by Best Coast

I’ve always felt like Bethany from Best Coast is a kindred spirit. Her lyrics are usually pretty simple, and often repetitive, but they’ve resonated with me at various points in my life.

This song is probably the best example of this.

Like many people who have called this planet home, I can pinpoint an exact moment in my life when things changed — and when I changed — forever, irrevocably, sometimes I think for the worse.

Sometimes I don’t like myself very much. I’ve thought, said, and done things that I’m ashamed of. I’ve let myself and others down. There have been moments when I felt like maybe I didn’t want to live this life anymore.

But there are other times when I’m reminded that there is plenty of beauty still to be enjoyed, lovely, interesting people to meet, goals to accomplish. Even if I can’t go back in time and make what’s wrong feel right, and I’ll never be who I was before, I can work on becoming someone I respect.

Luckily, so far, just as often as I’ve found myself in that self-loathing funk, something else has pulled me out of it, reminding me that I don’t want to die; I want to live my life.

(Song recommendation by Samantha Lamph/Len)

Jon Recommends: “Tilted” by Christine and the Queens

Naturally, I feel out of place in most situations, but I still…enjoy them?

Iunno, this motherfuckin’ jam hits it on the head though.

Sometimes it’s easy. Find the dog/cat at the party and sit with them.

But like…other people? Ooof. Shit like small talk or gossip is lost on me.

“So James told me Darla said this, can you believe that?”

“Wow, crazy. Did you ask Darla?”

“What? No.”

“Oh, okay, well what are you going to do about it then?”

“What? Nothing I’m going to avoid that binch until the day I die and talk behind her back and hold this grudge until it turns into a malignant tumor in my throat, why would I need to do something about it, she’s the idiot.”

“Yea no, you are totally right, sounds like a foolproof plan.”

“Anyways, let me complain about it to you some more…”

“What? No.”

“Gah you are kinda an asshole Jon.”

“Right.”

I am cursed with a fuckin’ Bob-the-Builder-Mister-Fixit-solve-the-problem mentality. It’s great in my personal life — I have a problem, mull it over, find solutions, take action (Insert reductive comment about bootstraps).

But with you? If I see the “proper” course of action, it’s simple, you can do it, I help explain how you could go about it, and you just… refuse to? Thanks bye, I have better things to waste my life on. Crazy, I know.

Sooo I’m teaching myself to shut up and listen.

Not for you. I still think you are a bit off, but I’m listening. What are you not saying? There has to be a reason you decided to be like this. And maybe if I listen I’ll get something.

As “Christine” puts it, I’m crazier than you. I just cover my shadows up in public, smile, and dance to this happy, wavy beat of life and then go home and address them, hoping I come out the other side.

I’ve got full faith you’ll get over this stage of your life. That, or you’ll sink into a madness of your own creation.

Either way, commit.

I’ll listen.*

(Song recommendation by Jon Johnson)

Christopher Recommends: “Meu Nome É Gal” by Gal Costa

For me, the heaviest and most experimental album produced during the Tropicália movement in Brazil was not recorded by Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, or Gilberto Gil. It was Gal Costa’s second solo album, Gal, from 1969.

Working with producer Rogério Duprat, Costa gave us an album drenched in psychedelia, but with soulful and exotic rhythms as well. As far as her singing, she could go from crooning to screaming — usually in the same song.

No track better highlights this contradiction than “Meu Nome É Gal” (My Name is Gal). The beginning of the side is dominated by horns and strings, although the band anchors the song with a laid-back groove. In the middle of the song, there’s brief spoken word section where the then 24 year-old gives us a brief autobiography and declares if she ever finds love, she doesn’t need a surname.

After that, she and the band really let loose. The brass section blows a hard-driving vamp, while the guitarist throws down some awesome licks. Then Costa returns. She’s singing the same verses but differently this time, punctuating the words with moans, shouts, and even a very deep growl. Regardless of whether you know Portuguese, you get what Costa is trying to say: the sweet, first part of the song was me, but so is the wilder second part. She didn’t write this song, but she certainly made it her own.

Over the years, she has continued to experiment with the arrangements of the song while removing it from its psychedelic roots. In one recent concert, she sang it with only a guitar accompaniment. Maybe I’m biased, but while Costa still has the chops, these later performances of this song lack the power and energy of the original.

Regardless, the 1969 version is not only essential Gal Costa, but a great introduction to the fearless artists that made up the all-too-short-lived Tropicália movement.

(Song recommendation by Christopher Iacono)

Kevin Recommends: “SOS” performed by Portishead

So like, we all know that the original ABBA version of “SOS” is great. Its upbeat tune, contrasted with the desperate lyrics — it’s a classic for a reason.

However.

Sometimes you need gloom.

And today, I think we need a little gloom.

A couple years back, in the midst of all the build-up to the Brexit vote, things went fucking insane in the UK, and an MP named Jo Cox was killed — shot and stabbed multiple times — by some fucking extreme right-wing asshole who I won’t name (may he rot painfully in prison). The event stuck to me, haunted me. It reminded me so sharply of Gabby Giffords in Arizona. “Surely,” I thought, “the fine folk of the UK saw that event and will do better. They will see how out of hand this Brexit madness has grown, and will choose a spirit of community over populist-sensationalism. I’m sure of it.”

When the Brexit vote eventually passed, I was floored.

How could people still go ahead with the “yes” vote, knowing that they were standing alongside people like the murderous piece of shit who’d kill someone to push their own political agenda?

It shook me.

It’s still shaking me.

Every time people can willingly look the other way in regard to any politician’s overtly evil actions to justify their own selfish worldview, it shakes my faith in humanity even more.

These are truly trying days as an American, let me tell you.

When I get shaken too badly, I turn to this version of the song for resolve. Originally recorded for the movie High Rise, the video below was released by Portishead in response to the murder of Jo Cox — a call to action and an appeal to common decency that went unheeded.

I think it will haunt you, as it haunts me.

(Song recommendation by Kevin D. Woodall)

Sarah Recommends: “The Things You Said” by Depeche Mode

I’ve been listening to Depeche Mode for thirty-one years. I didn’t plan on that. There is still a moody adolescent in me, swooning over dark romantic lyrics, a yearning for the thing I could never articulate as an eighth grader, when Music for the Masses was released. But if I couldn’t speak about the romanticism or the sex, I could speak about the lying and the betrayal found in this song. I remember I got the cassette for my birthday, and not soon afterwards going on a class field trip to Sturbridge Village. It was bitterly cold, and I don’t think I cared at all about what colonial life was like. What held my attention on the way home was Martin Gore’s voice in this song; so much that I rewound the tape three or four times.

I knew about being lied to, and about being vulnerable, only to regret it later. It was never a lesson I completely learned.

“They know my weaknesses (I never tried to hide them)”

A friend of mine on Facebook has been posting Depeche Mode videos lately; working up to when they play again. Today or yesterday she shared “Policy of Truth,” from Violator, and I said that an entire playlist could be compiled of their songs that speak to lying or betrayal. I don’t want this song to be so gorgeous. So haunting. So many 80s artifacts are flimsy or dated, and you want to pretend that they never touched you. This song is not that artifact.

(Song recommendation by Sarah Nichols)

Nicole Recommends: “Swan Song” by Juliana Hatfield

I have to imagine most girls and their mothers don’t sing along to songs about threatening suicide to get back at a shitty ex-boyfriends. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

My parents introduced me to a lot of the music I love today. Whether by blasting Prince albums or tuning into what was hot in pop radio, I was exposed to so many different styles and themes—probably way earlier than I should have. I mean, we all know “Raspberry Beret” is about the clitoris, so why my father, who was opposed to me wearing makeup and seeing “age-inappropriate” movies like She’s All That, felt it was no big deal to have that song accompany family car rides is beyond me.

After my parents divorced, my mom really became the main influencer of my musical tastes. Far more into contemporary pop and rock than my dad, she’s the one who fostered my love of Incubus while encouraging me to belt along to Christina Aguilera. The car became the place for me, my younger sister, and Mom to groove together.

A frequently queued album was Bed by Juliana Hatfield, who wrote fast and dirty, or ambling and lamenting, indie pop. “Swan Song” got the most play, so it took a few years for me to venture into the complete work myself and know all its sordid love themes—being the other woman, self-destructively wanting someone bad for you, and how attraction can turn you into someone you don’t want to be. These were all themes that likely would’ve gone over my head as a teenager who hadn’t even been felt up yet, which makes it even crazier that “Swan Song” was one of my favorite songs.

I imagined forming a band of ladies and learning this song, performing it in front of the school at a talent show. This didn’t come to pass—something that’s for the best, considering I don’t think lyrics like “Foaming at the mouth / with a needle in my arm” and “You shit / You stabbed me in the back” would have flown with the administrators.

It’s a dark song with a catchy chorus that’s all about the anger and blame and hurt you feel when the person you’re dating isn’t who you thought they were. While some might worry that such an upbeat tune could undermine or even encourage the behaviors mentioned in the song, I think it’s more to play up the fact that a lot of people go through an exaggerated period of self-destruction after a breakup. Whether it’s setting fire to your ex’s belongings a la Waiting to Exhale or just writing furiously in a journal about all the ways you wish you could watch them hurt, many feel that wanton rage and need to show just how fucked up everything is when they’ve been left behind.

And it’s a lot healthier to just sing those thoughts than act them out.

(Song recommendation by N. Alysha Lewis)