College Radio During Quarantine

There five college radio stations within range of where I live in Boston (six on a clear night).

For a while at the beginning a few stopped allowing people into the studios and just shut down. I’d tune to 88.1 or 91.5 and there’d be nothing there. It wasn’t my first inkling of a new normal (that was probably a visit to Trader Joe’s on a Friday afternoon in early March, empty shelves and people who seemed terrified of me brushing by them in an aisle) but it did hit home. I listen to the radio a lot.

Now they all are back, most with prerecorded segments by the d.j’s played in the usual timeslots. I’m grateful especially for 88 Rewound, which plays a pop chart from the past in order, and which I’ve woken up to on Saturday mornings for at least a decade. A taste of the old normal…

The station that intrigues me the most though has dispensed with their d.j.’s entirely. Instead it plays an obscure playlist that must be based on some sort of randomizing algorithm. None of the songs necessarily go together, and all of the artists are unfamiliar. It’s humbled me to hear so much music I’ve never heard of, much in the rock/folk/blues genre I thought I was pretty on top of. The Evil Streaks, the Speedways, Lisa Bastoni, Tiger Bomb, Adam Sherman, Andrea Gillis: who are these people?

When I look on Spotify I do find them there, most with less than a thousand plays and “This artist does not have images or a bio yet” on the About tab. But someone at this radio station must have known about them, or how would they have gotten on the playlist in the first place?

Music hasn’t been much of a comfort to me over the last few months. In fact I’ve barely listened to new music (I’ve had the new Jason Isbell for two weeks and played it once) and except for a few curation bursts (yacht rock Sunday! Texas singer-songwriter exercise bike session!) haven’t even been playing much old stuff. Who can listen with attention when there’s so much static? (Don’t worry, I have been doing a lot of reading.)

Listening to this station every weekday morning from 7:30 to 8:30 as I’m starting my workday has been my most consistent musical engagement. And an interesting thing has happened: repeated exposure has created a kind of alternate universe where these songs are hits. I hear many of the same ones every morning, sometimes twice in the same morning (stupid randomizing algorithm!). It reminds me of listening to a top forty station when I was a kid.

When everything feels like an alternate universe, when the news sounds like a Michael Crichton novel, a musical alternate universe fits right in. Maybe I’ll never hear these songs again once this is over (it will be over). Most are okay but not good enough to seek out. But for as long as this quarantine lasts and the d.j.’s can’t get into the radio station studio, they are all number one with a bullet.

Quarantine Songs

In grad school I wrote a few papers the point of which boiled down to, yes, the message of “Moby Dick” is bleak, but the fact we live in a world where art as great as “Moby Dick” exists is affirming. In this spirit I offer a few songs that have been on my playlist the last month, with an informing idea that sad plus beautiful equals more than sad.

  1. “Hold On,” John Lennon. For the middle of the night: a prayer for yourself, to yourself. Also like the emphasis on getting things done. Small accomplishments in dire times are important.
    *
  2. “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear,” Blondie. “Keep Your Distance” by Richard Thompson or “Don’t Stand So Close” are the more obvious choices but I’ve spoken before about how ambivalent I am about good advice. If we can’t hang out in person, like Debbie we’ll just have to be content with navigating the psychic frequencies together for a while. Social distancing is not required in the stratosphere.
    *
  3. “Don’t Worry About the Government,” Talking Heads. For the verse about taking a break from work when friends come to visit–even in apocalypic circumstances friends and work are both still very important! Also for the nod to civil servants, to which I’ll add medical workers and governors and everyone else working hard for the greater good. They do feel just like our loved ones.
    *
  4. “It Never Was You,” Bobby Short. My favorite version of this is from German singer Helen Schneider, who sings it as if surprised by her own emotions, but that one seems to be out of print so we’ll go with Bobby’s matter-of-fact ruefulness. For everyone separated by distance or mortality. One of the saddest songs I know. But he clearly loves her so much–and how can that be all bad?
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  5. “Dreaming My Dreams with You,” John Prine featuring Kathy Mattea. Another sad one. Nothing can touch Waylon’s original but this is wonderful in its own modest way. Loss, responsibility, resilience, resolve. And of course R.I.P. to John.

P.S. Props to Bruce Springsteen for showing his sense of humor hasn’t deserted him entirely by playing “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu” during his otherwise ponderous guest dj stint on E Street Radio this week (free Sirius XM for all until May, folks!)

Recent Songs #11

Two love songs, two recovery songs, and one heartbreaker.

  1. “When My Fever Breaks,” John Moreland.
    A straightforward love song without ambiguity or an escape hatch! A rare thing in my listening world. “The strongest will, the softest touch/I never thought I’d have so much,” but surprisingly my gag reflex is not engaged, perhaps because of the understatement of Moreland’s delivery. “Homespun” comes to mind, but then there’s that drum machine buzzing in the background. Most everything else I’ve heard by Moreland seems pretentious and doom-laden but this one works for me.
    ***
  2. “Run With You,” Kinley.
    Also straightforward love song, but to a band or performer rather than a…person? You know what I mean. “Your dark energy it captivates,” the singer says, and “You are the coolest girl I’ve ever seen.” So, an out and out fan letter, but a really catchy one! The singer just wants to “run with” the performer, just wants to let themselves be carried away. See “Nirvana” by Julianna Hatfield for another excellent expression of the same impulse.
    ***
  3. “Everything Has Changed,” Best Coast.
    Best Liz Phair song since forever, courtesy of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno. The singer recounts her addiction-freighted past and but then tells us everything has changed. The physical manifestations of that change seem small: she’s sipping coffee, walking her dog, taking nature hikes, cooking for two. But the joy in her voice, and in the music, is evident. These are big deals!
    ***
  4. “Arizona,” Lady Lamb.
    Another song that seems to celebrate a journey back from a dark place, though more quietly and ambiguously. Again it’s the everyday details the singer proudly recounts that indicate the distance she’s come: here, buying too many plums, eating one, saving the pit. There are memories of how much easier everything seemed in childhood, and of how much more complicated life is now, everything connected by a string but the string taut and tangling the singer in. “Still time is kindly turning over/I feel her drying my eyes,” she concludes, one of those lovely sentiments you find yourself repeating in your head awake at 3 am.
    ***
  5. “I’ll Be the Sad Song,” Brandy Clark.
    This is the heartbreaker, a classic country where half the song is seeing how the songwriter will tug the metaphor just a little further while still managing to make it sound inevitable. The singer is speaking to an old lover. If life is record, she says, and the people and the places are songs, then “I’ll be the sad song/Your good love gone bad song.” Perfect! “That last verse, you’ll wanna change it/Some night when it’s raining.” More perfect! The melody in the chorus reminds me of something else I can’t quite put my finger on, but even that familiarity supports the song’s message of something lost but not gone.

“Getaway (February),” Jen Trynin

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February is hands-down the worst month of the year no-contest-don’t-even-try-to-argue-with-me, and for this good reason there are very few songs about it. Who would want to write a song about such a bleak, unendurable stretch of time? Better to just go ahead and slash your wrists and save the notes for something better like, say, July. Or October, that’s a good one too.

But this year is a Leap Year, meaning February has an extra day to maintain its grubby little grip on us, and since today is indeed February 29th I will relent to the lesson I learned from Bruce and Bono that sometimes the most obvious thing to do is also the right thing and write about my favorite February song. Though as I said, there ain’t much competition.

The singer here is stuck, stuck, stuck. She is in a dead-end relationship that she can’t find a way out of and the thrust of the song is her trying to goad her lover to leave first, predominately by taunting him (or her) they won’t be able to do it. That’ll work!

February is the metaphor, the cold, dark month that though short still manages, like the relationship, to seem like it’s never going to end. “28 stacks of day,” the singer says (29 this year), and also compares the month to burying a dog. Harsh but appropriate!

Why doesn’t she leave herself? This is unremarked on. Maybe she hopes circumstances will change. Maybe she hopes her partner will change. Maybe she loves the jerk. But even in a year like this one, where here in the Northeast there’s been little snow and only a handful of days below freezing, February is still going to suck and someone is going to have to leave eventually.

This is from 1997 and the music is dreamy and swirly and catchy. It shoulda been a hit and the album from which it comes, “Gun Shy Trigger Happy,” shoulda been a hit as well. Instead it effectively ended Jen Trynin’s career, which she writes about in her worth-seeking-out memoir “Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be.” I enjoyed the book but it also made me impatient the way I often am with memoirs/interviews from that grunge and slightly-after period. All this complaining about the music industry! Did you not think you were going to have to work with record companies? All this complaining about stardom! If you didn’t want to be a rock star you probably shouldn’t have worked so hard to be a rock star. Did you learn nothing from Bruce and Bono?

Tomorrow will be March. Some people I know hate March with the virulence I hate February. To them I say, good luck. I’m home-free for 2020.

“Two Hearts,” A Girl Called Eddy

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January is usually a time for renewing friendships, getting together with the people you lost track of during the craziness of the holidays. I was leaning toward Willie Nelson and his superb “Across the Borderline” album from 1993. But then this comes along, a singalong-ready piece of chamber-/brit-pop that would sound amazing on the radio if the radio played this kind of stuff anymore.

What kind of stuff is that? Jesus, the influences! Bacharach, Dusty Springfield, Carole King, Chrissie Hynde, Jackie DeShannon, Aimee Mann…there is syncopated guitar, there are horns, there is the sort of great chorus so many indie pop songs build up to but then can’t fulfill. Fulfilled here! It picks up where Yola’s “Faraway Look” leaves off, which is good thing, because as much as I liked “Walk Through Fire” I wish she’d explored that Dusty sound a bit more before veering off into the country-rock.

Lyrically it’s a song about two people searching for each other, just missing, searching some more. The vocal shifts between A Girl Name Eddy (real name: Erin Moran, but not the “Joanie Loves Chachi” Erin Moran, which would have been awesome but she unfortunately is no longer with us) singing by herself and then as part of an everyone-the-studio wall of background vocals, that chorus fading away and circling back like the on-again, off-again romance she’s singing about.

Eddy/Erin lives in England now but is originally from New Jersey (hey, just like Nicole Atkins, another influence!) She made an album fifteen or so years ago with English retro crooner weirdo Richard Hawley (I’m actually a fan). Still assimilating the rest of the record but other equally good tracks include “Been Around,” “Charity Shop Window,” and the Lou Reed-ish “Finest Actor.” “Charity Shop Window” was co-written with the I’m-still-here Paul Williams of “We’ve Only Just Begun” fame.

Did I make her up? Or am I living in some NPR-radio version of “Inception”? Only time and 2020 best-of lists will tell. In the meantime, I intend to listen a lot just in case it I wake up and find it doesn’t exist anymore.

2019 Favorites

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Another year, another 30 great songs! As I’ve mentioned before, a sort of annual everyday miracle.

Specific songs listed below, but first the year in review:

Vampire Weekend and Lana del Rey channeled the zeitgeist (or my version of it: Trump, climate change, relationships, Trump) and made me believe in physical media again, as I played these two CDs start to finish over and over. (“You know you can play a whole album straight through on Spotify,” a friend said. Not the same!) Bruce passed the squint test (squint hard enough at the new stuff and you can recognize what made you a fan in the first place). Someone from England named Gabi Garbutt came out of nowhere with a ragged, out of breath vocal over what sounded like the circa-1980 Rumour and provided my favorite lyric fragment of the year (“singing songs of salvaged innocence,” what a great phrase!)

Mattiel and King Princess made me believe it’s possible for a young woman to get by on attitude alone. Jenny Lewis proved a somewhat older woman can as well. Charley Bliss and Dude York updated girl group to the 21st century, and along with Weyes Blood, illuminati hotties, and Chris Farren gave me a a glimpse of what dating in this century is like.

Marissa Mulder/Nate Buccieri and Chris Staples reminded me of the excited melancholy of being young lovers contemplating the prospect of a life together. Little Steven and Guy Clark reminded me of the compromises and rewards involved with making that love last, shredding some guitar along the way.

Christian Lee Hutson and Lori McKenna ripped my heart out. Mark Erelli made me smile at someone else’s heart being ripped out. Frankie Lee and Joan Shelley comforted me with grown-up lullabies. Dori Freeman made me appreciate the wonderful bubble of a good friendship. Chris Stamey/Caitlin Cary offered an inscrutable momento mori.

Who have I missed? Yola doing Dusty. Jade Jackson asserting she doesn’t need any man to help her open the jar. Better Oblivion Society with the best set of lyrics of the year. I hear Trump in there too, the way some critics say they see Manson in any piece of art produced in 1969.

And I still don’t know what a “jinx light” is. Tullycraft, get in touch!

Side 1

Faraway Look, Yola
This Higher Place, Gabi Garbutt
Bottle It Up, Jade Jackson
Dylan Thomas, Better Oblivion Community Center
This Life, Vampire Weekend
Keep the Change, Mattiel
I Wanna Keep Yr Dog, illuminati hotties
Beginners at Best, Tullycraft
Falling, Dude York
Hard to Believe, Charly Bliss
Search 4 Me, Chris Farren
Everyday, Weyes Blood
1950, King Princess
Red Bull and Hennessey, Jenny Lewis
Mariners Apartment Complex, Lana Del Rey

Side 2

Old Fashioned Hat, Marissa Mulder with Nate Buccieri
Married in a Gold Rush, Vampire Weekend featuring Danielle Haim
Northsiders, Christian Lee Hutson
Everybody Said, Chris Staples
Pearl Cadillac, Gary Clark Jr.
A World of Our Own, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul
Tucson Train, Bruce Springsteen
Her Town Now, Mark Erelli
Downtown Lights, Frankie Lee
Another Time, Dori Freeman
Bible Song, Lori McKenna
Hello Sunshine, Bruce Springsteen
Your Last Forever After, Chris Stamey featuring Caitlin Cary
The Fading, Joan Shelley
The greatest, Lana Del Rey