Musical Foliage: 10 Songs for Autumns Past and Present

Photo credit: Denis Collette

Photo credit: Denis Collette

Editor’s note: Toward the end of the summer, I asked music gurus Rob Masiello and Mike Nelson to compile a list of fall music. It turned into a weepy email exchange that lingered for weeks. There are some great tunes on this list, but brace your heart for whatever palpitations, longings, or stirrings that may result.—Daniel Ford

Rob Masiello: I should preface by saying that I'm at my moodiest during the fall, and my playlist selections will shamelessly reflect that.

Mike Nelson: The things I associate most with the fall are apples, foliage, and getting sick for an uncontrollable amount of time. My criteria for music that fits the bill here is going to be super weird.

Rob: I'm going to take your apple reference and run with it, even if that makes this selection a bit too on-the-nose. Fiona Apple's "Parting Gift" is the perfect soundtrack for regretting your summer fling. "Oh you silly, stupid pasttime of mine" she scoffs, full of scorn where other songwriters would be tempted to imbue such a line with wistfulness. Apple's trademark sardonic wit ("you looked as sincere as a dog does when it's the food on your lips with which it's in love") pairs exquisitely with that crisp autumn air.

Mike: We're only one song in, and you've already introduced me to a beautiful song I had never heard before. Without even glancing at the lyrics, you know it's a song about heartbreak (or at least a break-up) from the style and from her changes in cadence and volume. Like Fiona, I, too, associate the fall with breaking up. I don't know why; I can't recall any major breakup in my life happening at this time of year. At least not after like, eighth grade, and if I'm going to sit down and figure out who of the many out-of-my-league ladies dumped me during the fall in middle school, we're going to be stuck on this email for months.

So if we're talking breakups, heavy emotions, and not wanting to let things go, I have to make my top pick "Bell Bottom Blues" by Derek & The Dominos. There's no better musical manifestation of hopeless, forbidden love than D&TD's “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” And if you don't know the story behind that, I highly recommend you look back on it.

But like, if we want to keep things light, let's just pretend "Bell Bottom Blues" is about summer going away and how sad Eric Clapton was that summer was leaving. Yeah. Summer.

Rob: I'm glad we've wasted no time delving into the depressing aspects of the season (I certainly played no part in steering it that way). For me, fall has always been about leaving, about endings. My inability to process summer's passing is no doubt somewhat juvenile, but I am who I am.

Anyway, "Bell Bottom Blues" aches. And it's a more fleshed out rock song than anything I'll likely offer up over the course of this conversation, so anyone reading this who doesn't feel like falling asleep would be wise to check it out.

I'll also dig back into the ‘70s and submit Nick Drake's "Place to Be." Anything in his catalog would be suitably autumnal for these purposes, but when Drake sings, "I was strong, strong in the sun" on this track, that glimmer of hope amplifies the tragedy of a talent gone too soon.

Mike: Yes. The acoustic bouncing around the room and the soft voice with a little hint of "raspy" at the start makes you feel like Drake just woke up and started singing this as he rolled out of bed in the morning. I, personally, have never slept with a guitar, but I imagine if you do it enough times you figure out how to snap right into a tune.

I want to dive down this rabbit hole with you and just scream Ray Lamontagne's "Like Rock & Roll and Radio," but these first few songs have me down, and I'm sure they have the seven readers of this post down as well. Fall isn't just coming down from the summer, there's a certain excitement to fall. Sure, nature is dying all around you, and winter is com…winter is close. But going back to school was as fun as it was dreadful. For me, I liked only the whitest of music when I was in school. Classic rock. Grunge. Dave Matthews Band. But over time being a DMB fan exposed me to a bunch of great other musicians they had on as guests or as opening acts.

Which brings me to Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. I could spin a wheel and pull out any song of theirs, but I'll roll with "The Sinister Minister," which was their first song I had ever heard a clip of. I once heard this band described as the Harlem Globetrotters, and I have a tough time disagreeing with that except "Futureman," which is a pirate that plays a "drumitar."

I'd love to take a deep dive into the lyrics for you, Rob, but...well...there aren't any.

Rob: I'm glad you think we'll get seven readers. I'm thinking maybe five (including me and you) and then Daniel can read it two more times and get us to seven. Not to try and one-up you on bad taste, but my favorite band in high school was Evanescence, so...

I won't pontificate anymore about why fall is the worst season, but I'll never forgive you for calling it exciting. I'll have to give a listen to the Fleckstones when I'm not at work. I'd try to roll with something sonically similar for the sake of ~flow~ but since I've never heard them, I'll just have to wing it. (Side note: somewhere in the course of this week, I remembered that Fiona Apple has a song called "Pale September," and I'll never forgive myself for not using it.)

I'll evade the singer-songwriter fare for a moment for something a little more lush (but still hushed and lovely). Mutual Benefit's songs always let the light peek through, even though the passage of time never seems far from the band's thoughts. "Advanced Falconry" is probably the closest thing to a straight-up love song I'd ever put on a playlist, but it makes me swoon even in these chilly months.

Mike: My third pick is going to be extremely literal and come with a great deal of recency bias. Last night I saw one of the great live acts around: Future Islands. Their album, “The Far Field,” is easily my top album of 2017 so far, but I have to roll with their biggest hit: undeniable all-time jam, "Seasons (Waiting On You)." Not just because it's an awesome song, but also because the lyrics sync up pretty perfectly with this weird little "what is fall?" discussion we've had. This is what fall is: just whatever comes between summer and winter. We're being tugged between these two rascals:

"As it breaks, the summer will warm/but the winter will crave what is gone/will crave what has all...gone away"

As for your Mutual Benefit tune, it's funny, I had never heard them (him?) before, and I had the new Andrew Bird album queued up right behind it. And from the first 20 seconds or so, I thought it had skipped "Advanced Falconry" and jumped right into the Andrew Bird album. Beautiful tune. I'm saving that one to the archives. Thanks for the listen.

Rob: I just have never been able to get on board with Future Islands. Probably simply because some horrible guy I knew in grad school always told me how great they are. It's not fair, but it is what it is. But "Seasons" is a jam, and the band's performance of that song on Letterman a few years ago is a must-see for anyone who hasn't yet.

The ‘80s/new-wave-y sound of Future Islands is inspiring me to get straight up corny with this next song. I can't listen to Rod Stewart's "Forever Young" without crying (fight me), so it'll be the only track I skip when listening to our completed playlist. But summer is over, the kids are going back to school, youth is fleeting, etc. It's maudlin and maybe even tasteless, but so am I, so whatever.

I've now sat with this email open for about 30 minutes, debating if I really want to hit send and include Rod Stewart on our playlist. Here goes nothing.

Mike: Somebody hurt you real bad once, didn't they?

I don't mind having Rod on the list one bit, though my song choice would have been a little different, and here's why! I've been binging on “The Office” for a little while now, since I never watched the show in its entirety, and I can only assume Netflix will pull the plug on it before the year is through. The British version—aka the original, aka I can hold it over every basic chump that I watched that before the American adaptation—has a phenomenal theme song, pulled from Rod's "Handbags & Gladrags."

And so now I come to a theme we have totally flown past here: the fall means television is back! Or, at least, it meant that when most TV shows were watched on a weekly basis and not just dumped into an app for us gluttons to ravage without any consideration to the elements of pacing and time in art. There are some shows I still watch on a weekly basis—most notably “Survivor,” which I will likely never stop watching—but it feels like forever since the last time I gathered around the TV to watch a show's premiere besides “'vivor,” and that brings me to college when I would gather in my friend's dorm every Thursday night to watch “The O.C.” I never had a fake ID, so I wasn't old enough to get out to the bars yet on Thursday. Get over it.

Anyway, the show's theme song, Phantom Planet's "California," is one that not only stands out as a real song that could hold its own without the "theme song" tag, but it puts you directly in a place and time in life. And for most of the show's viewers, I think it also means you're being suffocated by enough drama to make you cry.

Rob: Wow, with TV premieres you've uncovered a whole new dimension of the season I hadn't even thought of. That Phantom Planet song is perfect because it's pure nostalgia, both for the memories it unearths in anyone aged 25-40, as well as the general wistfulness of the song itself. My dream job would be deciding which songs to put in TV/movie credits. How do I land that? Anyone know a guy? Actually, it's probably better for the world that I don't have that job. No one would want to hear "Forever Young" as the theme song for “Rugrats.”

So I guess this will be my fifth and last song. I believe Daniel's original request was for five each, and any more than that would probably be self-indulgent anyway. I could throw a curve ball here, finish with something buoyant and optimistic. But instead I'll stay planted in this weepy niche I've carved for myself.

“Songs About Leaving” by Carissa’s Wierd (intentionally misspelled) is perhaps my favorite album of all time, and contains the most autumnal music you will ever hear. It is one of those albums that just feels special, and you want to hold it as close to your heart as possible. The track called “Low Budget Slow Motion Soundtrack Song for the Leaving Scene” feels like the most appropriate way for me to end this piece.

The cascading melody and piano flourishes are as delicate as one last leaf clinging to a bare November tree. Singers Mat Brooke and Jenn Champion blend their voices, but sound like they’re each singing the same words from seedy hotel rooms on opposite sides of the country. The whole album is exquisite, and in all seriousness, I hope it touches at least one person reading this the way it touched me.

Mike: Okay, ya know what, Rob? I tried. I tried to bring you up and make you happy, and now I'm giving up. Yes, that song was beautiful, but come on man, all is not lost. It's perfect weather outside, basketball season just started...you're not going to drag me down with you into the winter music pit. Not yet, at least.

I had so many options to consider with my last pick. Do I pick a song where I can tell a great story to go along with it? Do I pick something ironic? Do I pick something I discovered in the fall, making this selection unnecessarily literal? No. I do none of these things.

The fall, for most of my life...hold on, let me do the math on that real quick...okay, yeah, for most of my life has meant going back to school. And when I think of the music I listened to in school, I think of ‘90s rock. Grunge, alternative, washed up classic rockers trying to get one last paycheck, it was all there. And despite the many, many contenders for this slot, I have to go with "Interstate Love Song" by Stone Temple Pilots. No song embodies the music I grew up with quite like it. If I even just hear someone say "the '90s," that song comes in my head. It's probably some kind of disease, but it's not one I'd ever want cured. On the scale of 0 to Perfect, this song comes as close to Perfect as possible for me.

Follow Writer’s Bone’s fall playlist on Spotify!

Album Review: Laurel Halo’s "Dust"

By Robert Masiello

One of the most beautiful, strange, and harrowing scenes in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” occurs at Club Silencio. It’s a dark, seedy theatre where the film’s protagonists witness a series of surreal performances. The evening’s host warns the crowd, “It is all an illusion,” adding mystique to the already feverish production. The finale is a thunderous rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” sung in Spanish by Rebekah Del Rio, which leaves the audience visibly shaken. In Club Silencio, nothing is what it seems, and nothing is without meaning.

In some ways, Laurel Halo’s new album “Dust” sounds like it could be an appropriate soundtrack to Club Silencio. It’s all moving parts, shifting shapes, and elusive voices that create a sound as sophisticated as it is unfathomable. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, as even the bright bounciness of a track like “Moontalk” is offset by a disconcerting queasiness. It’s fun, but not careless.

This sense of atmosphere isn’t necessarily new for Halo, and yet “Dust” still feels like a rebirth of sorts for the artist. Her voice makes an appearance for the first time since “Quarantine,” and she’s joined by collaborators such as Lafawndah and Michael Salu. It’s warmer than the icy throb of “Chance of Rain,” and perhaps more organic sounding than anything she’s released to date.

But the earthiness is somewhat of a front. By confronting a listener with familiar sounding instruments, Halo manipulates our perception of familiarity. With lyrics such as, “My eyes, back there in the mirror where I left them,” the human voice often disorients more than it comforts in these songs.

Back in Club Silencio, in one of the most famous lines of “Mulholland Drive,” the performing magician informs viewers, “No hay banda. There is no band.” He’s admitting that the cinematic music playing is synthetic, a pre-recording. But more importantly, he’s alluding to the illusion of our own universe, and perhaps hinting at dimensions yet undiscovered by humans.

By turns inscrutable and transcendent, “Dust” raises similar questions about the nature of our existence. Voices decorate the collages of sound, but not always Halo’s own. Everyday noises (such as a dropped call tone) appear in alien contexts, forcing a listener to re-examine what we accept as normal. The album’s penultimate track asks, “Did this ever happen?/Do you ever happen?”

Halo clearly had fun creating this music; it’s chaotic, energetic, and collaborative. But like a funhouse mirror, it just may distort your reality a bit.

The Writer’s Guide To Music Archives

9 Situational Songs for Summer 2017

By Mike Nelson

What’s your song of the summer? It’s a question everyone always wants to know right before Bieber drops new tracks that give us a direct answer.

I consider myself “very qualified” to recommend good music. I consider myself “barely qualified” to predict what will be a hit song, as my music judgment typically ignores commercial success and radio airtime.

So instead of giving you a list of contenders for “Song of the Summer” and just re-hashing the work Rob did (okay, we do overlap on one song...come at me, Rob), I’m giving you something a little different.

Summer presents many different situations and emotions. Being outdoors more and interacting with humans will do that. So to prepare you for those interactionswith me, for yourself, for you to encounter, whatever they may be—I give you my Situational Songs of Summer 2017.

If this comes on at a wedding, I’m going absolutely bananas, and my gin and tonic is inadvertently spilling all over your nephew please get him off the dance floor right now I promise this will be quick.

I'm throwing a hipster dance party, which is really just an '80s dance party with stupider hair and less attention to hygiene for whatever reason.

I don’t care if it came out last year, this is the first summer this song has been around, and I’m going to embrace it because it is universally enjoyable and fits summer perfectly.

I’m an aged hipster and I want in on this '80s-style dance party, but I kinda fell out of touch and shower every day. These guys are still cool, right?

I can’t stand “stadium country,” but I like a little twang, and this is a good compromise for me and my country-loving friends while we take a long drive.

My friends visited from overseas two weeks ago, and they introduced me to this song...soooooo good!

Sitting on a porch, staring out at a lake with a bottle of moonshine, and I have no idea how I got here.

I need something on my summer playlist that says I’m cooler and more culturally aware than I actually am.

My son and his friends want to drive around and play “mailbox baseball,” but they only have their learner’s permits, so guess who gets to drive and has no say in what we listen to.

The Definitive Summer 2017 Playlist

By Robert Masiello

There’s a lot to worry about these days. This summer hardly seems to be rolling in with the joyous optimism we’d typically associate with the season. There’s much to be said about our country’s political and social climate, but it’s all been said elsewhere and better. At the risk of triteness, we ask our readers and friends to please remember to please take care of yourselves in these times. You can worry, you can be angry, but dance when you want to dance. On that note, Writer’s Bone presents to you the definitive Summer 2017 Playlist.

Carly Rae Jepsen: “Cut to the Feeling”

If you haven’t given Carly Rae Jepsen much thought since her ubiquitous single “Call Me Maybe,” now is your chance to fix that. This recently-released track is essentially an outtake from her impeccable sophomore album “Emotion,” and it’s euphoric in a way that that much modern pop music has abandoned. In contrast to the cool indifference that has yet to unleash it’s grip on pop stars, Jepsen’s unabashed excitement is infectious. “I wanna play where you play with the angels,” she begs in the chorus, but she’s already there.

Drake: “Passionfruit”

Drake’s “Passionfruit” is the musical equivalent of Valium. It’s so smooth, so hypnotic, that’s it’s barely there. And yet, miraculously, it somehow dodges slightness and becomes almost transcendent. It would sound equally appropriate in the club, on the beach, or in the bedroom. That seductive beat seems inspired by dancehall as much as Chicago house, and it’s a testament to Drake’s skill that he turned these influences into a track that feels so effortless.

Lorde: “Green Light”

Did “Green Light” flop? The first taste of Lorde’s upcoming album lit up the Internet blogosphere upon release back in March, but never really made an impact on the radio charts. Even though “Green Light” lacks the dub-influenced production qualities, which made her debut album so compelling, it's an intoxicating banger that captures a night out in all its messy glory. Despite teetering close to cliché with lines like “I hear sounds in my mind” mumbled over a jangly piano, Lorde’s grasp on the arrangement keeps this song dazzling until the last note.

Mary J. Blige: “Find the Love”

If anyone can pull a song like this off, it’s the queen herself, Mary J Blige. Nothing groundbreaking here, just MJ doing her best to keep hateration and holleration out of the dancery. This cut off her latest release is rhythmic, groovy, and unerringly optimistic. The words might be a little on-the-nose, but her relentless pursuit of unity is perhaps just what the world needs most.

Francis and the Lights: “May I Have This Dance (Remix) [feat. Chance the Rapper]”

Francis and the Lights’ neon-bright production has attracted the attention of big-name stars like Kanye and Bon Iver. Here, he teams up with Chance for a remix of album highlight “May I Have This Dance.” It’s almost shamelessly un-hip, proudly recalling Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel. But the booming chorus, tropical beats, and subtly apocalyptic undertones (“we are bound to inherit the sins of our parents”) keep it grounded firmly in the present.

Danny L. Harle: “1UL”

The PC Music label has been nothing if not divisive since it’s inception in 2013. But it would be unfair for even the label’s most devout naysayers to argue with Danny L. Harle’s infectious club anthems. “1UL” might be his best song yet, with a drop so monstrous that you just may miss the achingly lovesick lyrics. No one said you can’t cry at the club.

Ian William Craig: “Contain (Cedar Version)”

Here’s one for after the guests have left. Ian William Craig typically drapes his classically-trained tenor over atmospheric drone and tape-hiss. On this version of “Contain,” however, a gentle guitar strum is the only thing accompanying him. Existing somewhere in the overlap of love song, lullaby, and lament, “Contain (Cedar Version)” sounds best when paired with the glowing embers of a fading bonfire.

The Writer’s Guide To Music Archives

A Letter to Charles Bradley

By Mike Nelson

22 December 2016
Mr. Charles Bradley
PO Box 296
Brooklyn, NY 11216

Mr. Bradley,

I have a story to tell you. It’s not the greatest story, and if you want to take a cynical look at it, it’s of little consequence in the grand scheme of life. That’s how stories tend to be most times anyway, seemingly inconsequential but for the entertainment they provide. This paragraph and the one that follows aren’t really part of the story, they’re just me framing the story in a way that I can both send it to you and have you understand what it is, and also publish it online and have the other “you” (the online reader) understand it just as well.

Maybe you’ll read this yourself, or maybe someone else will open this and share it with you wherever, and however, you may be. And maybe it’ll bring a smile to his or her face just as I hope it will yours. And that’s, in short, the whole reason I’m sharing it. I want it to make your day better. When I saw someone post your address and ask for hope to be sent your way, I took that as a call to arms, but I didn’t quite know what to say. And then it came to me.

I have to tell him about Ricky.

Ricky got to the festival late. It was the last weekend of May, so there was plenty of sunlight and warmth left in the day regardless of what time he arrived, but he was late nonetheless. Why was he late? Ask Ricky. My memory’s not good enough for that, and I didn’t bring my steno to City Hall Plaza that day. Ricky and his wife had a pair of tickets to Boston Calling, and she unfortunately fell ill and couldn’t make it. But Ricky came anyway, even though it was too late to see the best acts of the day. He had tickets. Why not?

Ricky and I were just acquaintances. I’d say after that day we were closer to friends, but leading up to it the only way we were connected was through Instagram. We didn’t even have each other’s phone numbers. When Ricky saw I was at the festival—the moment when I published of a picture of you, Mr. Bradley, on my account—it sparked a conversation on Instagram, and a phone number exchange, and that’s the glamor-less story of how Ricky and I met up at Boston Calling earlier this year.

Because of the low quality of my iPhone, my data, along with all my text messages, has been wiped out multiple times since the festival, otherwise I would go back and see the exact details of what time Ricky arrived, what I said about you, and a slew of other things that have little or nothing to do with this story. If I had to estimate, I’d say Ricky got to the festival either right before or right after Janelle Monae’s performance, which was obviously a spectacle, as it always is (this was my third time seeing her). All I really know about when Ricky arrived was that he was definitely there for the start of the closing act, Disclosure, who came on stage around 9:30 p.m.

Disclosure is a duo of DJs that apparently likes to get on stage and pretend like they’re playing instruments that contribute to the quality of the sounds the audience is hearing (they don’t). They’re DJs. They could just stand on stage and eat pistachios for 90 minutes, and it would sound exactly the same. But instead they sporadically thumped bass guitar strings and a miniature drum kit to give the audience the impression that they did not waste their money to see them (we did). I already had my money’s worth though because I saw Janelle, I saw Vince Staples, I saw you, Mr. Bradley, and I saw Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That was well worth the price of admission for me.

But Ricky couldn’t say that. Ricky missed the best stuff. I told him what it was like to see The Screaming Eagle of Soul—a man in his late 60s who was just now breaking through as a solo act and put every act around him to shame. A man who carries the essence of what it means to put on a performance in the core of his being, so you can never walk away disappointed. The voice, the energy, the moves, the passion—he lays it all out there, I told Ricky. And then, once Ricky was done kicking himself for missing your set, Mr. Bradley, I let him in on a little secret.

A bit later in the night—later than a normal concert time, but not so late that you could get there after the festival—Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires would be putting on another show. It was at The Sinclair, just across the Charles River in Cambridge, no more miles than you could count on your hand. I told Ricky this, and a twinkle in his eye suggested his mind was doing a bit more than just processing that information. He was trying to figure out what to do with it.

And so about two songs into the Disclosure performance, Ricky tapped me and told me he was leaving. He was coming to see you, Mr. Bradley. I not only understood why he was leaving, but I was jealous of Ricky in that moment. Now I was the one figuring out what experience I’d be missing. But I stood pat. Twice in one day was a bit much, I thought at the time. But of course today, knowing the show I stayed to see and imagining the show I missed, I regret that. Because a few hours later Ricky texted me, now that we had each other’s numbers, to say that you put on the greatest concert he had ever seen.

A few weeks back, maybe even a month ago now, I saw someone post through your Facebook account that you were accepting letters from fans while you fight stomach cancer. I don’t need to tell you or anyone else about the loss the music business has suffered this year, and I don’t need to tell you or anyone else how that has affected me, but I can tell you this, Mr. Bradley. In the brief moments when our paths have crossed, you have given me not just entertainment but an experience.

Everyone who has seen you perform knows what I mean, and I’m sure you know as well. You’re different. You’re the best kind of different. You are who you want to be on that stage, and you love it, and everyone can feel that you love it. And that makes you contagious. For a moment, for an hour, for however long the crowd is in your presence we are not just enjoying the show but jealous of the man we watch. And I can’t wait to see that again, on a stage somewhere, anywhere, in 2017. Neither can Ricky.

All my best,

Mike Nelson

Check out more from Mike Nelson on his blog Mostly America. Follow him on Twitter @MostlyAmerica

The Writer’s Guide to Music Archives

Feel-Good Friday: 6 Joshua Radin Songs To Soothe Your Soul

Photo credit: Stephanie Schaefer

Photo credit: Stephanie Schaefer

By Daniel Ford

I wanted to pay forward some advice that singer-songwriting Joshua Radin shared during his appearance at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre this past Wednesday. He said he was really nervous and unsure of himself when he first started touring, and someone told him that he needed to ditch his envy and his fear.

Naturally, he wrote a song about it, fittingly titled, “No Envy No Fear.” The opening lyrics are perfect advice for any troubled creative type.

Some are reaching, few are there/Want to reign from a hero's chair/Some are scared to fly so high/Well this is how we have to try/Have no envy and no fear

Here are nine more songs to help soothe your soul

“Underwater”

Key lyrics for writers: They keep talking at me/I can't hear what they're saying/I need somewhere I can go/Underwater is where I'll go

“Brand New Day”

Key lyrics for writers: Most kind of stories/Save the best part for last/And most stories have a hero who finds/You make your past your past

“Belong”

Key lyrics for writers: The rain falls over your face/Drowned in this place too long/Well I know that the sun shines and fights for your day/You hear it say be strong, and let it go....

“My My Love”

Key lyrics for writers: So many moons have come and gone all alone/I heard this song inside me to wait/I was told but now I found a different sound/I hear when you're around me/It's something new because of you/I hope I hear it forever

“Tomorrow Is Gonna Be Better”

Key lyrics for writers: Sometimes it's easier to hit the road/When the world is givin' you a heavy load/But if you stay and face it, I know.../Tomorrow is gonna be better

The Writer’s Guide to Music Archives

Sweet Soul: 10 Amos Lee Songs You Should Add To Your Writing Playlist

Amos Lee at the Boston Opera House on Sept. 9. Photo courtesy of Amos Lee's Facebook page

Amos Lee at the Boston Opera House on Sept. 9. Photo courtesy of Amos Lee's Facebook page

By Daniel Ford

I wrote large swaths of my novel listening to singer-songwriter Amos Lee, so I was thrilled I got to see him perform live this past weekend at the Boston Opera House. Never before in my concert-going experience has the venue and performer been such a perfect match. Lee’s soulful, distinctive voice boomed throughout the performance, adding even more weight to his deep lyrics and vocals.

He also gave a shout out to all the teacher’s in the crowd (and there were a considerable number). He said he started out as a teacher, playing live mic nights in town while trying to keep his dream of becoming a recording artist alive.

“Teachers should have an appreciation month,” Lee said, to wild applause. “Have the parents teach for a day and they'd say pay those teachers whatever they want.”

For my money, there is no better artist to write to, particularly if you are breaking your main character's heart repeatedly. Here are 10 songs you should add to your writing playlist ASAP.

“Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight”

Key lyrics: But the people on the street/Out on buses or on feet/We all got the same blood flow/Oh, in society/Every dollar got a deed/We all need a place so we can go/And feel over the rainbow.

The song that started it all. My brothers first saw Amos Lee open for Bob Dylan some time in the mid-2000s, and they got me hooked with this tune. Lee points out in the above video that he wrote the song about his hometown of Philadelphia, but I’ll always think of the first love of my life, New York City, when I hear it. “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight “ was on repeat while I was writing many of the New York scenes in my novel, and I hope some of Lee’s brilliant songwriting and world building seeped into my prose and dialogue.

“Seen It All Before”

Key lyrics: I've seen your tricks/and seen your trade-offs/I've seen your evil ways/I've seen everything/your twisted smile conveys.

Thanks in large part to this song, my main character did see it all, and then some!

“Arms of A Woman”

Key lyrics: I am at ease in the arms of a woman/Although now, most of my days I spend alone/A thousand miles, place I was born/When she wakes me, she takes me back home.

Yes, I’m aware these first three songs are also the first three songs off of Lee’s self-titled 2005 debut album. That’s quite the “Hello!” from a new artist, huh?!

I’m also willing to bet that if my main character Sid Sanford was an actual person, he’d choose this song to define his life.

“Night Train”

Key lyrics: And I'm living in the city/Where the noise, it never stops/Hammers pounding on the pavement/Whistles from traffic cops.

I once ran into a guy I knew in high school on a trip back to New York City via Metro North. He was happy to see me, less because we hadn’t talked to each other in years and more because he had someone to drink with. We took turns taking pulls from a bottle of Jack Daniels as the train lurched its way to the city.

Whenever I hear this song, I think about that night, and all the others I spent riding the rails between my actual home and my adopted one.

“Chill in the Air”

Key lyrics: Well, the morning came like a freight train.

I couldn’t get the above lyric out of my head for a long time. It definitely influenced my revamped prologue and some of the more harrowing moments of my novel. There’s also a hint of optimism in this tune that fights against the darkness.

“Violin”

Key lyrics: I can't even close my eyes now/Between the big fish and ambition, and the lovers/Using words as ammunition/Between the warped planks I've been pacing endless/Impossible dream that I've been chasing

Those lyrics kind of say it all, don’t they? Writing is a motherfucker, and “Violin” perfectly describes the worry, angst, heartache, and desperate hopefulness that fuel the creative process. We’re all just waiting for someone to pull us through.

“What’s Been Going On”

Key lyrics: Those are some of my favorite memories/All of those carefree melodies/While I'm out of here on this raging sea/About to capsize

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed torturing Sid. If we were to have an actual conversation, I’m sure that he’d ask me, “What’s going on?”

“Windows Rolled Down”

Key lyrics: Corn rows have companion feel /This rocky road and this steering wheel/Who do you call to ease your pain/I hope for you to get through this rain

I didn’t realize how many traveling songs Lee pumped out! There’s something about travel and writing that go together. No wonder Amtrak runs that promotion for free rides across the country for aspiring authors.

Anyway, this song reminds me of my brothers. I can imagine us with the windows rolled down headed to our next concert. I hope I did their spirits justice on the page (I also hope that one day they will get to read said pages!).

“Vaporize”

Key lyrics: Oh I've been waiting up so long/I've been sleeping out so long in the rain/Rain been pouring down/I've been stressing all the time/I can't seem to find/A little piece of mind

Like any good live show, Lee’s Boston Opera performance made me run out and download his new album "Spirit." I haven’t had much time to develop favorites yet, but this one is at the top of the list so far.

“The Man Who Wants You”

Key lyrics: Misty mouth lady, won’t you borrow me tonight/I ain’t having the same one/He did not treat you right/I don’t want you to be untrue/I don’t want you to be untrue/But the truth is, I’m the man who wants you

Always good to end on an upbeat, hoppin’, booty-shaking note on a Monday! Plus, how many music videos feature vinyl being pressed?! 

The Writer’s Guide to Music Archives

Album Review: Frank Ocean's 'Blonde'

By Robert Masiello

Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow-up to "Channel Orange" is marred by distractions. Its long gestation is a distraction. The visual “teaser” album Endless (which dropped days before the proper album) is a distraction. His tumultuous relationship with record label Def Jam is a distraction. 

And while these distractions do generate well-deserved hype, they also, in a way, detract from the 28-year-old songwriter’s own humanity. Ocean himself acknowledges this on the final track: “Sometimes I feel like I’m a god, but I’m not a god, if I was I don’t know which heaven would have me.” The hype surrounding "Blonde" essentially morphed into a sense of entitlement. Fans didn’t want a new Frank Ocean album, they deserved one. 

Delay after delay, one speculated release date after another, and many cryptic hints later, "Blonde" finally came to fruition. It’s a long, shapeshifting beast that showcases its creator’s many talents. Unlike "Channel Orange," which consisted of songs seemingly written from the perspective of distinct characters, "Blonde" delves deep into Ocean’s own psyche as a songwriter and human being. 

The first track on "Blonde." and a single, “Nikes” is somewhat of a red herring, but still no less than a classic. Ocean’s voice is mechanically altered, as if a vocoder is gripping his lungs. It also contains the album’s most obvious social commentary, while the rest is more confessional in nature. Ocean effortlessly denounces materialism, but the real-gut punch comes when he addresses even darker corners of our country’s political and social climate. “RIP Trayvon, that kid looked just like me,” he eulogizes, his voice warped yet somehow still resigned. It’s the first show-stopping moment on an album littered with them. 

Elsewhere, "Blonde" blossoms with expert song craft, the kind that forces you to pause and rewind 30 seconds to hear certain segments again. “White Ferrari” begins innocuously, until about the two-minute mark, when Ocean’s multi-tracked vocals swell up over a light guitar strum. It builds like a storm as Ocean, in possibly his most moving vocal performance to date, wails “Mind over matter is magic/I do magic,” and the instrumentation becomes chaotic. He could have chosen to ride this wave of distortion and vocal prowess for at least another minute, but instead everything quickly simmers, segueing into a hallucinatory poem recited by Justin Vernon. It’s an interesting trick on Ocean’s part, not quite giving a listener the full climax they expect. But like a true artist, he leaves the listener begging for more.

The 17 tracks here flourish with guest appearances, none of which overshadow Ocean himself. Even Beyonce’s contribution is limited to a few hushed vocal runs on the sublime, dreamy “Pink and White.” Andre 3000 is given the most prominent appearance, and he rips through a verse that’s equal parts yearning and resilient. Sonically, the album features elements of classic rock and psychedelia in ways that recall Miguel’s "Wildheart," although "Blonde" is far more stripped-down and intimate. 

"Blonde" pauses for a few unconventional interludes. The first is “Be Yourself,” which is actually an authentic voicemail from the mother of Ocean’s childhood friend. The speaker advices “Be yourself and know that that’s good enough… Do not consume alcohol, do not smoke marijuana… This is Mom, call me, bye.” A cursory glimpse of the full transcript may lead someone to assume Ocean is mocking this woman, but the reality seems to be that he is expressing a profound respect for her. Her words and guidance are immortalized by including them on this record. Later in the album, French producer SebastiAn reflects upon technology’s influence on modern relationships. 

Even when "Blonde" deals with longing and unrequited love, the lyrics never veer into jealousy or retribution. “Keep a place for me,” goes the chorus of “Self Control,” “I’ll sleep between ya’ll, it’s nothing.” On “Godspeed” he promises another, “You’ll have this place to call home, always.” He could be addressing a lover, an ex, or a family member, and the song’s ambiguity only adds to the overwhelming power of his words. Gospel singer Kim Burrell hovers over the track’s final minute like a ghost, pledging love “until the time we die.” The whole thing could easily come off as hackneyed, but it’s unflinching sincerity elevates it to something more like a prayer than a song.

Upon first listen, "Blonde" hardly feels like a radical album. It’s too aurally pleasant, and too introverted. It is at times political, though hardly radical in that sense. Even Ocean’s much-publicized bisexuality hardly feels radical anymore. But "Blonde" is radical in its commitment to love. Throughout the course of the album, Ocean expands upon his love of music, romantic love, love for himself, love for his mother, love for a black child whose life was taken too soon.

Uncertainty and doubt are explored with a certain gracefulness utterly lacking in most modern pop. He is warm and empathetic at a time when icy detachment is more fashionable. And in a world that constantly feels like it’s breaking apart at the seams, it’s hard to imagine an album more important than this one.

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