C. Recommends: “The Lotus Eater” by Opeth

You are stuck in a route of confusion
Changing and waiting and seeking the truth of it all

The balance between brutal and beautiful is the element that best defines Opeth. And perhaps, even us humans. Though the journey to find even ground often lies within miserable, unknown valleys. We must claw to climb out of the depths to see the sun.

The Lotus-eaters were written about by Homer as a tribe that lived off the narcotic-laced flowers of the lotus plant. When Odysseus’ men ate of it, they reveled in a rather apathetic state of existence. The same sort of existence in which I found myself, in the early 2000s, regarding music. I was burnt out and hoped to find something new to me, something to set ablaze those wooden rooms in my mind that remained cobwebbed and cold from being unnoticed, unremembered.

I bought Opeth’s record, Deliverance, on a whim thanks to a fantastic little review calling them the best metal band in the world. I put on my headphones, eased back against the foot of my bed, and I listened.

And then promptly freaked the fuck out.

It was at once terrifying and lovely, and at all times glorious. Now, for the uninitiated, Opeth records bounce between growl and clean vocals (though their latter releases focus solely on the clean). The growling style is something I never enjoyed, as it generally lacks any semblance of melody. The closest I ever got to enjoying that type of sound was the aggressive and throaty howls of Max Cavalera of Sepultura. But the music — oh, the music of Opeth!

Weaned on the American 80s thrash bands, I was used to fast playing, double-kick drums, lurching low-end bass. That sort of heavy metal band became very mainstream throughout the 90s, as the style of thrash turned more groove- and melodic-oriented. But I always knew of the underground: those bands that you knew spat blood on their audiences while kicking kittens and literally burning down churches. They were at the fringe of what I wanted to hear. The music, usually yes. The vocals, generally no.

But there was something about Opeth that night. They were heavy, riffing like madmen, with elements of progressive idealism. A song would change on a dime, from frenetic and ferocious to lush and lovely. It was as if Mozart wore a leather jacket and pissed vodka. The instrumental passages were complex, they challenged me. The contrast between the harsh vocals and the ones of elegance made for a philosophical listen. I saw two paths converge into one. I walked and came upon the Bodhi Tree. And it’s there I’ve sat ever since.

“The Lotus Eater” combines the heavy, the growl, the progressive, the gorgeous, the perfection. At times you dont know where you are, as if shot into space, with cosmic moments of jazz, blues, classical, even funk. But always metal. And then there are melodies that hum in those wooden rooms of mine, bursting them open!

I implore the adventurous to journey as I did: headphones, empty room, open mind. It’s a fantastic voyage into a new world.

(Song recommendation by C. Aloysius Mariotti)

Emery Recommends: “Don’t You Evah” by Spoon

What even is this song about? Who gives a shit*!

I have no idea why I love Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah.” I know every word but I have never bothered to wonder what the song is about. I put it on pretty much every playlist I make — it’s great for summer songs, it’s a good song for work playlists, it has to be on a road trip mix… you get the idea.

I found Spoon years ago thanks to The O.C., that early-00s teen drama with the kickass soundtrack, and was immediately hooked. Then the band released the brilliant Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga in 2007 and I haven’t quit listening to this song since.

(As a side note, for a long, long time I misheard the intro as “Jim, record the cockfight.” I still have no idea what talkback is or why the hell Jim won’t record it.)

Usually when I adore a song, there’s some deeper meaning, a lyric that just gets to me, an emotional thing that happened that will forever be remembered when a set of notes play. But “Don’t You Evah,” and actually pretty much every Spoon song I love, has the good fortune of just existing without a bunch of feelings weighing it down. It’s just a damn good song that goes great with any playlist, in any season. But especially in summer.

*Of course because I was writing this I had to do some internet sleuthing and accidentally learned more about the “meaning” of “Don’t You Evah,” namely that “it’s a song about commitment and the inescapable cold feet that linger close behind the concept of monogamy,” according to Consequence of Sound. It’s also a cover, which I did not know. I wish I did not learn the first bit — I preferred this song to be unattached to meaning, dammit — but I am now off to seek out the original.

(Song recommendation by Emery Ross)

Cory Recommends: “Bumble Boogie” by Jo Ann Castle

I have read that as much as 30% of a medium is lost in a format shift. My interest in vinyl records has much less to do with any audiophile illusions than it does with being unhindered by format. There is some interesting stuff out there that never made the digital jump and I want to hear it.

I’ve also got a soft spot for junk shops. Not antiques- junk. Garage sales. Charity shops. Goodwill. If it reminds you of a basement that a relative needs to clean out, that’s for me. If I happen across an album with a cover that tickles me in such retail situations AND the find is less than a fiver, the chance that my own basement will become more dense vastly increases. Anything “in Hi-Fi” especially has my attention. Given enough time and not enough supervision this mix of proclivities leads to a “collection” and is precisely how I came to be in possession of a record that continues to bring a smile to my face each time I look at it; “Accordion in Hi-Fi” by JoAnn Castle.

When I told my folks about this particular treasure they matter-of-factly said “Oh, yeah, she was on Lawrence Welk all the time…” and dear reader, they were right. Turns out she had quite a notable career not only on the squeezebox, but as a pianist too. This album is from roughly 1960 as she was hitting her stride.

As you may have guessed by the song title, this is a take off (Ha! My Dad-ness is showing) on the classic “Flight of the Bumblebee” but jazzed up and on accordion. This is one of those pieces of virtuosity where all you can do is whistle and shake your head while marveling at the technical prowess on display.

There is something wonderfully unironic and catchy about this track. Her incredible ability is undeniable. Even if this doesn’t make into your regular rotation, it’s worth a listen so that you can doff your cap to a forgotten master of the craft.

(Song recommendation by Cory Funk)

Rosie Recommends: “Fear” by Blue October

Fear is one of those songs that sweeps you off your feet the first time you hear it. It plucks at all your heart strings and makes you swell inside with feeling. As someone who suffers from severe depression and anxiety, this song speaks to me in a way that few songs do. It echoes my sadness, distills my anxiety, and uplifts me with hope.

Blue October is a band on the front line of breaking down the stigma of mental health. I could name countless other songs by them that have touched me deeply, and I owe my life to this band, seriously. But I chose “Fear” because it is a song I never tire of hearing. Listen after listen, I close my eyes and sway to the lyrics; I float like helium and come crashing down as I am hit by the reality of the words: “Today, I don’t have to fall apart. I don’t have to be afraid…” I am awash with the reminder that although there may be greater forces conspiring against me, I can conquer them in my own time, with small steps.

There is more passion poured into this one song than you could imagine. And no matter, mental health warrior or not, there are lessons to be heard. There are expressions of pain, despair, empowerment, and hope. The lyrics tell my story: “The beauty is I’m learning how to face my beast. Starting now to find some peace, set myself free.”

This song reminds me, and those struggling, to “get back up.” These three words are powerful remembrances to face your fear and to overcome. If you are down or having a bad day, this song is a reliable friend you can lean on. And if you like this song, please do explore Blue October’s collection of music, as I have found there are a breadth of songs for every emotion.

(Song recommendation by Rosie Carter)

Stef Recommends: “Never Stop” by SafetySuit

The first time I heard this song I was in the middle of falling in love again. It was late spring in Dublin, the days slowly but steadily filling with the heat of summer, and I remember listening to it while walking through St. Stephen’s Green — marveling at all the people who were picnicking and lying shirtless in the grass, soaking up the sun after surviving the long, harsh winter.

The person I was falling for was a friend I’d known for years, even though in the months prior I’d been certain I was never going to feel that way about anyone ever again. My friend was back home in the Philippines, while I was literally half a world away, living off 70-cent hummus and crackers so I could afford poetry books, trying to assemble a dissertation portfolio out of chapters from a novel I didn’t know how to end. My friend was sweet; I was unprepared.

The two of us messaged, occasionally at first, then with increasing frequency — talking about semi-obscure movies we discovered we both liked, trading poem recs and funny selfies and new songs, keeping each other company on days when the world was too much for either of us to face alone. I got into the habit of keeping my phone in my hand when going out by myself, and I’d text my friend with a grin on my face while dodging lampposts on the sidewalk or crossing a busy street. The day I realized what all my warm feelings towards them might mean, I panicked. You can’t, I told myself. Not them; not this.

The very first lines of “Never Stop” are This is my love song to you / let every woman know I’m yours, sung above the clash of guitars and drums in almost a defiant roar — and when I first heard them, I was struck by how bold the statement was right out of the gate. As a writer and as a person, I’m rarely that straightforward in articulating what I mean or want. But this song resonated with me — because, in the deepest recesses of my heart, it was voicing everything I wasn’t allowing myself to admit, even to myself.

It’s a song that is entirely barefaced in its emotionality, and unafraid to be really fucking loud about it. My favorite part is the bridge: the line You still get my heart racing for you, but repeated so the ending of each line rushes right into the beginning of the next. You still get my heart racing, you still get my heart racing for you still get my heart racing. There’s a heady breathlessness to it that to me feels so precisely like tumbling headlong into a crush — a feeling that, these days, I’m trying to let myself embrace or at least be more patient with, instead of automatically trying to push it down and lock it away. Life, I think, is too short to keep being embarrassed by earnest emotion, or to keep denying your heart the space to feel.

I’ve since fallen mostly out of touch with my friend — somewhat ironic maybe, given that I’m back home now and the two of us are on the same side of the world again. I never told them how I felt, but that’s okay; maybe it’s just that we needed each other at that point in time the most. And if anything, it reminded me that it’s still possible for me to feel in this all-consuming, terrifyingly beautiful way — that whether I’m curled up in bed at night with my phone or walking alone through a city suffused with sunlight, I might be right around the corner from feeling dizzy with happiness about someone new. That part of me is standing at a crosswalk somewhere, just waiting for the light to change — earphones in, heart racing, this song blaring loud and clear.

(Song recommendation by Stef Tran)

K Recommends: “Innocence is Kinky” by Jenny Hval

I really like this song so here we go. Much of this is likely NSFW. The video and lyrics have some sexuality elements that may be perceived as inappropriate. But this is also why I absolutely crave this song’s points of view.

Listening to this track makes me feel like I am sitting with my jaw dropped and one shoe dangling from one toe just like my first encounter with it. I was on edge, verging on something beyond music. The video emphasizes certain sensual aspects of the lyrics. It challenges a viewer/listener to experience the human body in raw forms.

Visually we see one person’s body in nature, inside, clean, dirty, unshaven, shaving, intimate, exercising, sexual, needing, alluring, hesitant. We are challenged to discover what is sexy, distasteful, or fascinating about the body in varied contexts. Beauty and ugliness aren’t necessarily what we might typically perceive.

The video and song made me thrilled about freedom of bodily expression and how — as just one example — clothes can be cute, comfortable, but also show off cellulite or smeared makeup. As the actress in the video runs, she runs to OR from something; this is more than exercise. In another scene, she stares at the camera and smacks her bubblegum lips for more than sexual attention. She is all the forms her humanness allows her. She is in a dress in dingy shoes, a bathtub, a creek, touched, grasping earth…

The main phrase for me in this seductive, and adventurous song is: “like sex without the body.” We interact with ourselves and our surroundings in ways that defy obvious, spelled-out roles and connections. We can become intimate without flirtatious glances just as much as with them. We can have fantasies, explore, fall, fail, stand… we find throughout life that we have unique interests and relationships with our bodies as much as we do with others.

It’s an exciting vocal and execution of certain words that fumble strikingly through moments of finding ourselves, of trial and error, of living and learning.

(Song recommendation by K Weber)

C. Recommends: “Care of Cell 44” by The Zombies

Is there a sweeter voice than that of Colin Blunstone of The Zombies? So lovely, so breathy, so inimitably infectious.

Odessey and Oracle will always be one of my favorite records, one I’d pick over two seminal releases of that era: Pet Sounds, and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They all soar with pop majesty; but there’s something special about this collections of songs, about the stories they tell. And Blunstone, of course.

I think the best kind of pop music is the kind that’s sung sincerely. It’s no dishonor to the genre to say it’s generally inoffensive due to its generic and formulaic design. It gives us a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, and it expects us to follow the melody easily enough to sing it loud and proud. With “Care of Cell 44,” The Zombies turned everything on its head: they created a jaunty song, one with big melodies and bigger harmonies, but one with a bizarre lyrical story. The protagonist is writing a letter to his lover, who’s in prison and soon to be released.

Saved you the room you used to stay in every Sunday
The one that is warmed by sunshine every day
And we’ll get to know each other for a second time
And then you can tell me ’bout your prison stay

Feels so good, you’re coming home soon.

Specifically in 1967, this wasn’t the kind of content one might expect shimmering out of the radio. But with the two aforementioned benchmark records from The Beach Boys and The Beatles, pop music started to assemble a certain new maturity. Time passed on songs like “Barbara Ann” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Writers were exploring topics that surpassed love-sick poetic jaunts toward the hearts of teenage girls. They wanted substance.

But at its core, Odessey and Oracle was all about love. Both beautiful and tragic (the latter mostly coming from the songs of bassist Chris White). “Care of Cell 44” is certainly the most upbeat prison-related song ever recorded. The sunniness and warmth in Blunstone’s vocal would melt the ice-heart of even Miss Havisham herself. And it goes back to the sincerity in delivery. You believe him wholly. You want this reunion to happen as soon as it’s able to. And this is why it’s so great: we don’t know why she’s in prison. It could have been for cannibalizing a group of circus performers. Or for pushing old ladies down the stairs while also punching puppies. But, we don’t care! We want these two together! We want it now!

It’s gonna to be good to have you back again with me
Watching the laughter play around your eyes
Come up and fetch you, saved up for the train fare money
Kiss and make up and it will be so nice

Feels so good you’re coming home soon

Get these two a holiday for God’s sake! They have some loving to do, savvy? Of course, Blunstone isn’t the sole genius on the song. Rod Argent wrote it, and his piano is a perfect piece of pop. And Chris White’s bouncing bass is jolly. The harmonies the band achieve are unreal, contagious. But as great as the band is, Blunstone is just that much better. And that’s why this song works so well.

(Song recommendation by C. Aloysius Mariotti)

Maggie Recommends: “Definition” by Black Star

2pacalypse Now was underscoring some impassioned but long-forgotten fight. My then husband yelled for me to “slow down” so I tapped the brakes to take our 2001 Beetle off cruise control. I-95, 80 mph, light rain. Just then, a semi-truck blew by and I lost control to centrifugal force. On a deadly merry-go-round with no help from brakes or steering wheel, I held my breath and waited for the end. He whispered my pet name with a disappointed sigh right before we slammed into the guard rail. Seat snap, car smoke, I looked down to see twisted metal embedded in my calf. Fat and muscle and blood oozed out of the gash. I couldn’t turn my head.

His hands felt the floor for his cell phone and he dashed out the passenger door. His grey sweatshirt disappeared behind the mounting flames and I felt down my own body, hoping for pain that would prove I was not paralyzed. Tupac’s Thug Life reassurances were halted with the car and I sat watching the fire and the pouring rain in silence, forcing myself to breathe.

Then, “1–2–3, Mos Def and Talib Kweli,” floated into my brain. “Definition,” my favorite track on the brilliant Black Star collaboration was there to keep me company. “We’re the lions of hip hop, y-oh.” I tapped a finger to Hi-Tek’s steady beat on the busted central console, closing my eyes to focus on the words. I’d given up on melody months ago, as the marriage to my college sweetheart unraveled into endless hurt. It was me and the stalwart soldiers of hip hop now: 50 for anger, Biggie for heartache and Black Star for the courage to put one foot before the other.

The rain turned flames to smoke and my eyes popped open to a knock on my shattered side window. An off-duty EMT stopped on the Southbound side and jumped the divide to keep me calm until the sirens came. I focused on his smile as Mos counted off, “1–2–3…” Mallet strikes to break the window. Jaws of life. They suspected a severe spinal injury.

Supine and terrified in blinking fluorescence, there was a painful bump down as they wheeled me into surgery. “Eight layers deep, exposed bone, lucky to be alive,” are the only phrases that made it into my sing-along, “They shot Tupac and Biggie, too much violence in hip-hop y-oh.” With each pinch of the needle as bone, nerve, muscle and skin were cinched up by strangers, the Lions of Hip-Hop stayed with me. My lips moved with them, “Stop being a bitch already and be a visionary…”

A mainline of morphine explained my junkie best friend in an instant and a police man’s face pushed in close to pry for accident details. But I couldn’t stop singing. If I dropped a beat, missed a phrase, all would be lost. As consciousness slipped, the beat gave way to a smoking car, insane pain, and the back of my supposed soul mate, running away.

Six weeks later, I slipped the cast and limped out of my old life with an optimistic pair of running shoes, my beat up old teddy bear, and a single CD. “Black Star of the eternal reflection,” indeed. It wasn’t much, but it got me through. And their “Definition” remained on loop, as I began the long road of re-defining myself.

(Song recommendation by Maggie Rawling)

Kimberly Recommends: “Roll the Bones” by Shakey Graves

One of my favorite things to do on a weekend night is to sit in a cozy living room, sip on some wine or a cocktail and listen to music. There’s just something both “grown-up” and “youthful” about that atmosphere that makes me feel like there is nothing else I’d rather be doing.

On one of these nights I was in Chicago staying with my cousin and her husband. And just like we do at my own house, we designate someone’s tablet as the “music producer,” search YouTube for songs we want to hear and add the music video to the queue so that it will project onto a large TV for everyone to enjoy. It was on that night that I was introduced to “Roll the Bones” by Shakey Graves.

I was first impressed with the fact that this artist is playing an electric guitar, a bass drum activated with one foot AND a tambourine with the other foot. That’s just cool. But then when I heard the guitar chords, I fell in love with the song. It’s full of swings between major and minor chords, with bluesy 7th chords and maybe even other, less-often-used chord types in there.

He has an amazing voice, too. It’s gravelly and perfect for blues. And he has phenomenal vocal control, and throws in some cool slides into his singing to match the bluesy thing he’s dong on the guitar. Shakey Graves would be a trip to see perform live.

(And after you check out this song, check out a super-cool duet called, “Dearly Departed.”)

(Song recommendation by Kimberly Wolkens)

Dan Recommends: “Every Little Bit Hurts” by Barton Carroll

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when you were thirteen years old and offered a cigarette for the first time, that the way it made you look tough would last only a moment, while the ache and stain it left upon your lungs would stick with you the rest of your life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when you were twenty and home from the Army, when you dropped to one knee with a ring inside of a snowball, when you bought a house in a town with decent schools, that you’d made only the first handful of big decisions you’d be tasked with the rest of your life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when I was eleven and ran away from home without shoes on, when you feared I’d wandered into the clay pits out in front of the old chemical plant on the phosphorescent green lake and gotten sucked in, that I’d regret making you worry every day for the rest of my life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, ever since I was eighteen and moved away from home, every time I’ve received a phone call past a certain time of night, my heart has sunk into my stomach and I’ve prepared myself to pick up and receive the news that you’d died in your sleep, that whichever mundanity we’d most recently discussed on the phone would be the last conversation we’d have for the rest of my life.

I’ll bet you didn’t know, when I was nineteen and was offered a cigarette for the first time, that I thought of you right away, the way you coughed every morning, the way you could not climb the hills in the town I was then living in, the way you told me every chance you got that, of all the substances I could ingest, the one I should stay away from forever was nicotine, and that, despite the warnings, I’d have an on-and-off relationship with the habit for the rest of my life.

I’ll bet you don’t know now, when you’re fifty-seven, that your youngest child is writing about you on the internet, nor that your youngest child is not a son, nor that they know the easiest way to avoid you or anyone else finding out is to simply not write these things in the first place, but they are nevertheless compelled from within their very bones to write them, and that they’re not sure if they’ll ever be ready to tell you for the rest of their life.

Still, I love you. I love you more than I have the guts to say.

(Song recommendation by D.R. Baker)