[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—
“Dark and vaguely creepy” is a territory my mixes mine quite often. In fact, when I hear such a song, there are easily four or five possible destinations where it could wind up. But sometimes none of them is an exact fit and you just have to start a whole new mix. Such was the case when I stumbled upon Bat for Lashes.
Half Pakistani and half British (and born in the former country and raised in the latter), I most likely found her while exploring “similar to” type links of the anti-folk singers such as Regina Spektor and Feist. And, while she does display some of that sensibility,1 she also has great range.2 Her track “What’s a Girl to Do?” has a vaguely creepy vibe at the beginning, then transitions into a very pretty (if still somewhat dark) love song—
I add notes such as this to songs in a mix all the time. Sometimes all the note says is “group with the above?” and I stick the song underneath a song which has a similar vibe. When enough of those accumulate in a row, I start thinking it might be time to break those tracks out into their own mix. And so it happened with that Bat for Lashes song.
For one thing, it gave me a place to put a couple of bands that I learned about from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, I’ve talked about my fascination with this excellent example of early Whedon before on this blog, but I failed to mention the music. Whedon has a gift for choosing music, much as he has a gift for many other creative inputs to a show, and there are several artists whose existence I am only aware of because they were playing at the Bronze, or just in the background of a crucial scene, and I said, “whoa, what’s that music?” and then I looked it up and then I went out and bought the album. Two such bands, Devics and Trespassers William, both from my current hometown of LA, are represented here—
Then there’s “Carousel” by Melanie Martinez. You may recognize it as the original song from which the theme for American Horror Story: Freakshow5 is derived. Martinez rewrote the original lyrics to make them fit the show even more closely, but the music is the same. Even before its association with what may be the best anthology horror series of our time, it had a pretty creepy vibe to it. But it’s still, at its heart, a song about love ... the more bitter, more frustrating side of love, perhaps, but love nonetheless.
And that’s what these songs have in common: they can be dark, and disturbing, but in the end they’re all songs of the heart. Whether it’s Martinez pointing out that “it’s all fun and games till somebody falls in love,” or Bat for Lashes talking about “when you’ve loved so long that the thrill is gone, and your kisses at night are replaced with tears,” or Devics complaining that “I still wait like a fool” (or their dark take on the Billie Holiday standard “The Man I Love”), or Trespassers William proclaiming simply that “Love Is Blindess,” all these songs touch the heart in some way ... and they’re also all kinda creepy. Thus: Darkling Embrace.
Of course, the dream pop bands are going to be naturals for this. “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May,” for instance, is completely unintelligible in terms of lyrics—
You know, Lykke Li is a big deal in Sweden. She’s won two Swedish Grammys and something called an EBBA. On the other hand, if you’re American, there’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of her at all. Shame. Her style is primarily electro-pop, with touches of trip-hop, neo-soul, and electro-jazz.6 But “Melodies and Desires,” the opening track of her amazing album Youth Novels, is breathy, and metaphorical (“I’ll be the rhythm, and you’ll be the beat, and love, the shoreline, where you and I meet”), and still just a little bit dark and overcast. It’s the perfect opener for this mix.
In the less obvious camp, in some ways the “oldest” song on this mix is “Winter Kills” by Yazoo:7 I don’t mean “oldest” in the sense of “first released” (although it happens to be that as well), or even in the sense of “first written” (which would have to be “The Man I Love,” which was written in 1927 by the Gershwins, for a Broadway show it was never used in). Rather I mean the song which has been in my collection the longest. Upstairs at Eric’s is one of the earliest albums I ever bought, and still one of my absolute favorites. While most of that album is “traditional” synthpop (although pioneer Vince Clarke can be credited with inventing much of that tradition) made unique by the bluesy vocals of Alison Moyet, it has several moments of divergence, including the ultra-bizarre “I Before E Except After C” and the chilling “Winter Kills.” This latter song has always fascinated me: I wrote an early poem based on it,8 and I always knew it would end up on one of my mixes. For many years I had it slotted for Wisty Mysteria,9 but as soon as this mix emerged, I knew it had to land here. It’s the perfect closer for the volume, and also provides the volume title.
Likewise, Donna Lewis, whose “Beauty & Wonder” leads into “Winter Kills,” is primarily considered a pop star. Her albums were among those belonging to The Mother that I burned digitally for her to make sure we’d always have a copy.10 I’d never heard her before, and, honestly, generally speaking I remain unimpressed. But, like many purveyors of pop, every once in a while she manages to produce something beyond simple, interchangeable radio fodder. This is one those few that Lewis achieved.11 It’s not quite as dark as many of the tunes on this mix, but it fits in pretty well, and provides a contrapuntal transition from Devics to Yazoo.
Then we have Fever Ray, who I discovered via her amazing song “If I Had a Heart” which was used as the theme song for the History Channel’s Vikings.12 We’ll see “If I Had a Heart” on a future mix,13 but for this mix I decided to use “Concrete Walls.” It’s difficult to describe Fever Ray, but it’s vaguely akin to anti-folk meets dark electronica. “Concrete Walls” is perhaps the strongest example of this: it’s dark, overprocessed to the point where you can barely recognize that it’s a female vocal, and has enough electronic feedback that it almost sounds industrial. It’s slightly faster (though I wouldn’t say more upbeat) than the other tracks on this mix, and I almost removed it several times. But in the end I decided it was the perfect lead-in to the more measured and ethereal Cocteau Twins offering.
Darkling Embrace I
[Welcome Your Nightfall]
[Welcome Your Nightfall]
“Melodies & Desires” by Lykke Li, off Youth Novels
“Falling” by Julee Cruise, off Floating into the Night
“Past the Beginning of the End” by Trentemøller, off Into the Great Wide Yonder
“Never Tear Us Apart” by Tashaki Miyaki, off Under Cover [Covers]
“Missing Persons” by Go West, off Go West
“Living Behind the Sun” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
“Horse Tears” by Goldfrapp, off Felt Mountain
“What's a Girl to Do?” by Bat for Lashes, off Fur and Gold
“Carousel” by Melanie Martinez, off Dollhouse [EP]
“Concrete Walls” by Fever Ray, off Fever Ray
“Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” by Cocteau Twins, off Victorialand
“Love Is Blindness” by Trespassers William, off Different Stars
“The Carnival Is Over” by Dead Can Dance, off Into the Labyrinth
“Cerises pour un dîner à deux” by Angelo Badalamenti, off The City of Lost Children [Soundtrack]
“The Man I Love” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
“Beauty & Wonder” by Donna Lewis, off Blue Planet
“Winter Kills” by Yazoo, off Upstairs at Eric's
Total: 17 tracks, 76:31
For the rest, we have a track from Goldfrapp,14 the nearly gothic “Horse Tears.” Also Tashaki Miyaki, who I discovered via a video game,15 doing a cover of “Never Tear Us Apart.” The original by INXS was definitely not a candidate for this mix, but Tashaki Miyaki’s take on it adds the darkness to the pretty that Farriss and Hutchence instilled in the original. And while Go West is primarily thought of as a new wave/synthpop 80’s band, they do have a bit of range, and “Missing Persons” is an uncharacteristically darkly pretty tune from their debut album.
Which just leaves us with the two instrumentals. Trentemøller is another band discovered via my favorite video game, a Danish electronica artist who (like fellow Scandinavian Ugress) is equally comfortable with instrumentals or guest vocalists.16 “Past the Beginning of the End” is dark and somewhat trippy, but with an inherent prettiness that’s hard to miss. It’s tougher for an instrumental to embody what Darkling Embrace is all about, but this one does so. And of course Angelo Badalamenti, the composer of those great Julee Cruise tunes from Twin Peaks (one of which we have here, even) is a natural fit as well. In this case I’m using a track from the soundtrack for The City of Lost Children as a quick bridge between the sudden stop of “The Carnival Is Over” and our second Devics contribution. This is one of my favorite movies, and the soundtrack makes some great incidental music. All of it is vaguely creepy, although most of it skews even darker than this mix.
Next time, we’ll explore the path to dreamland.
1 As we’ll discover in the fullness of time.
2 I currently have 6 of her songs slotted for 6 different mixes, which might be some sort of record.
3 Meaning more the music than the show itself, and not referring at all to the Tim Burton remake.
4 In fact, Trespassers William’s album Different Stars, which is the one containing the track used here, was issued on the UK label owned by Simon Raymonde, of dream pop giants the Cocteau Twins—
5 A.k.a. season 4.
6 Meaning she has great range as well: currently slotted for 7 songs in 6 different mixes.
7 Known as “Yaz” in the US, for some reason.
8 Not a very good poem. But I plead youth.
9 Which we shall come to in, you guessed it: the fullness of time.
10 CDs in The Mother’s truck live a hard life.
11 Just two across two albums, in fact. We’ll see the other one on a future volume of Smooth as Whispercats.
12 The show itself is not as good as the song, in my opinion. But it isn’t terrible either.
13 Which we’ll come to ... yeah, you know the drill by now.
14 Who, you may recall, we first heard on Smokelit Flashback III.
15 See Paradoxically Sized World III for full details.
16 Like many darkwave bands, several of the newer electronica artists do about half instrumentals and half vocals using an ever-rotating cast of guest singers.