Sunday, July 19, 2015

Tenderhearted Nightshade I

"You Bleed Just to Know You're Alive"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

As I said back when I talked about Rose-Coloured Brainpan, one of the first mixes I ever made was Depression.  I was your typical angst-ridden teenager,1 not cool enough to be goth and emo hadn’t been invented yet, but I could still put on some decent wrist-slitting music when I felt down.  And the centerpiece of every depression-related mix I ever did back in those days was “Somebody,” by Depeche Mode.2  This is a beautiful song, full of heart-wrenching longing, and it can make me cry nearly every time.  It’s an awesome track, no doubt, if a bit heavy.  Still, in many ways it’s completely fair to give the honor of “mix starter” to this song.

But this mix didn’t really exist until I heard “I Will Follow You into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie.  That’s another beautiful song, but very different from the Depeche Mode track.  This one is very touching as well, but not really in a sad way.  It’s a song about death, sure, but it’s still in some fundamental way ... hopeful.  The singer (Ben Gibbard) is saying, there may be no heaven, there may even be no hell, but no matter where you go when you die, I’ll be coming with you.  A little thing like death is not going to keep us apart.

This got me started thinking about songs that have a certain poignancy to them.  They might be sad, or hopeful, or touching, or some combination of all three, but what they have in common is they all have a certain emotional impact that affects the listener, if they’re paying attention to the words (and sometimes even if they’re not).  Once I framed the parameters like that, all sorts of songs began suggesting themselves, and this mix was truly born.

Probably the first two tracks to come along after I decided to compile this mix were “Troy” by Sinéad O’Connor, which became the volume opener, and “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls, which became its centerpiece.  The former, also from an album I absolutely love,3 I always thought was just vaguely nifty, until I listened to it with a (female) friend of mine, for whom it apparently struck far closer to home.4  Ever since then, I’ve only been able to hear real pain in Sinéad’s amazing voice.  The dynamics in this song—the way it goes from breathy whisper to anguished scream—is especially electric.

As for “Iris” ... I don’t know if I can express how this song affects me.  The classic line from this track is of course the volume title, and it’s one of those lines from a song that feels like it’s speaking directly to me, like it was written especially for me and no one else can really get it.  I tried to explain what it meant to The Mother once, but I fell short.  The song is ostensibly a love song, containing lines such as “I’d give up forever to touch you” and “you’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be,” but to me it says nothing about love at all.  It’s something about growing up, and something about the pain of just being alive, and something about coping in the face of despair.  It’s not exactly sad, but it’s not really hopeful either.  The couplet in question is of course:

When everything feels like the movies
Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive

And I think this means something about how life feels fake sometimes, like you’re just going through the motions and reading somebody else’s script, and pain is the thing that lets you know it’s actually real.  Or maybe that’s not quite it.  It’s very difficult for me to describe.  But I know I love the song, even though it makes me a bit sad, and I know it belongs firmly in this mix.

There aren’t really any artists that epitomize this mix, but there are two that got repeated in this volume nonetheless.  The first are my old pals emmet swimming, a local band from the DC suburb where I lived for about 15 years, and to whom I have a few personal connections.5  So of course I have all their albums.  Todd can write a rollicking good song with the best of them, but he can also write quiet, tender songs, and I chose two of them for this volume, off two different albums, “You’re So Pretty”6 and “Boston,” which is the closing track on what was probably their closest album to a hit, Arlington to Boston.7  The second repeated artist is Ben Folds, whose haunting classic “Brick” shows up first, to be followed by the quiet gem “Gracie” near the end of this volume.  “Gracie” is one of the two compositions written by a father to his daughter that instantly makes me feel a very visceral love for my own girl.8

But those two artists aren’t repeated because they specialize in this sort of fare.  I don’t think anyone does, really: it would be too heavy to make this your entire output.  A lot of the songs here are more introspective turns from generally upbeat bands.  Like “Hackensack” by Fountains of Wayne, off the insanely good Welcome Interstate Managers.  There’s plenty of FoW’s trademark tongue-in-cheek lyrics here, but the song is surprisingly touching too.  Similarly, Kirsty MacColl is noted for gentle alt-pop, à la the Smiths,9 and Chris Isaak is most often considered alt-country, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put out a song with a little depth to it.  “Wicked Game,” which you’ve probably heard, is a gently chiding love song (“what a wicked thing to do, to make me dream of you”), and “You and Me Baby,” which you probably haven’t, seems more to be a song about a friendship that evolves from a love that never happened (“I’ll be your sister if you’ll be my brother”).

And then there’s my vaguely country-tinged 3-song spree in the second half, coming off the Cranberries’ “I Still Do,” which is a pretty song in its own right, and a nice segue coming off of “Iris.”  I actually despise proper country music, but I can enjoy things with country influences: R.E.M., or Camper Van Beethoven, or the three bands showcased here: Timbuk 3, the Weepies, and Sister Hazel.  Timbuk 3 is an old favorite of mine; most people think of them as one-hit-wonders for “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” but they’re so much more than that one song.10  Their first album, Greetings from Timbuk 3, displays a surprising depth, which would only be developed further in their follow-up, Eden Alley.11  “I Love You in the Strangest Way” is the closer of the former album, and is a sweet little 3-minute slice of perfection which flows beautifully into “Somebody Loved.”  The Weepies are a band that I discovered due to The Mother.  She asked me to pick up two of their albums,12 and of course I decided to burn copies for myself.  They share a lot of Timbuk 3’s sensibilities, although they’re a bit sunnier overall.  “Somebody Loved” is not a sad song at all, but it is very tender.  Closing out this foray into folk rock and its immediate environs is “All for You” by Sister Hazel.  This is the non-acoustic version, off their second album, which I think has a fuller sound that better suits this declaration of devotion.  Although I knew of Sister Hazel (and this song in particular) before I met The Mother, I’ll admit that this version comes from an album I stole from her.

Of course, some artists are really well-suited to this type of song.  Certainly Counting Crows does it well, and “Raining in Baltimore” just drips a longing and maybe even regret that is almost palpable.  Tori Amos too is no stranger to songs that really touch the listener, and “Silent All These Years” is one my favorites: I can feel a certain amount of pain in those words, even if I don’t really know what all of them mean.  Ed’s Redeeming Qualities can do silly—and they often do—but even their more amusing tunes often have a surprising emotional depth, and when Carrie Bradley takes over the vocals, they often come out quite serious and touching, such as with “The Letter,” another song whose feeling is clear even if the lyrics are somewhat opaque.

Tenderhearted Nightshade I
    [You Bleed Just to Know You're Alive]

        “Troy” by Sinéad O'Connor, off The Lion and the Cobra
        “A Strange Kind of Love” by Peter Murphy, off Deep
        “Pearls” by Sade, off Love Deluxe
        “I Will Follow You into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie, off Plans
        “Hackensack” by Fountains of Wayne, off Welcome Interstate Managers
        “Somebody” by Depeche Mode, off Some Great Reward
        “Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos, off Little Earthquakes
        “Raining in Baltimore” by Counting Crows, off August and Everything After
        “You're So Pretty” by emmet swimming, off Wake
        “Brick” by Ben Folds Five, off Whatever and Ever Amen
        “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls, off Dizzy Up the Girl
        “I Still Do” by The Cranberries, off Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
        “I Love You in the Strangest Way” by Timbuk 3, off Greetings from Timbuk 3
        “Somebody Loved” by The Weepies, off Happiness
        “All for You” by Sister Hazel, off ... Somewhere More Familiar
        “You and Me Baby” by Kirsty MacColl, off Kite
        “Boston” by emmet swimming, off Arlington to Boston
        “The Letter” by Ed's Redeeming Qualities, off It's All Good News
        “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak, off Heart Shaped World
        “Gracie” by Ben Folds, off Songs for Silverman
        “Circle” by Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, off Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars
Total:  21 tracks,  79:55

The remaining tracks are from artists which are neither surprising nor inevitable.  Peter Murphy’s “A Strange Kind of Love” is another tune whose lyrics are hard to parse but whose depth is undeniable.  Contrasting with that, “Pearls” by Sade is a perfectly coherent portrait of a struggling mother that should melt the stoniest of hearts.  Finally, we close with “Circle,” by Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.  It wasn’t the hit that “What I Am” was, but it got some radio play, and I always found it a clean, simple depiction of the loss associated with gradual isolation.

Next time, to counter the borderline bleakness of this mix, we’ll go in a completely different direction and look at one of my very first party mixes.


1 Weren’t we all, once?

2 Off Some Great Reward, which is one of my all-time favorite albums.

3 In this case The Lion and the Cobra.

4 For the record, this had nothing to do with me.  Honest.

5 As I mentioned briefly the first time we encountered them in this series, back in Salsatic Vibrato.

6 Which I’ve always been convinced is about an actual person who I probably know, but I can’t quite figure out who.

7 And it also contains some amazing backing vocals from my friend Erik, who was the first employee of my old company.

8 The other being Blueberry Girl, by Neil Gaiman.

9 For whom she sung backup on several songs, probably most notably on “Golden Lights.”

10 Although that one song is pretty hip too.

11 We’ll hear more from both albums on other mixes.

12 Specifically, Happiness, their first, and Be My Thrill, their latest at the time (although they have a newer one at the time I’m writing this).

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