Monday, September 12, 2011

From Memorial to Labor Day: Summer Music

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First, the serious stuff: I'm not going to do a 9/11 post. I thought about it, but it seems like a cheap way to get hits. I'm also not wild about the media saturation. Don't get me wrong: grieving on the tenth anniversary is perfectly appropriate. It's just not for me. I remember where I was and what I did, it was a sad and scary time, I'm very fortunate I wasn't more directly affected (as in, I didn't know anyone in the towers or on the planes, and my relatives in New York were safe). While I think it's fine to recall and reflect, I don't feel the need to relive that day.

Moving on.

I'm already sad about summer's end. I live in Chicago, where hopefully we'll continue to have nice weather for several weeks before three days of fall and then several months of freezing our asses off. This summer, thanks to research for writing projects, a stellar public library, and the friends I rely on for new tunes, I discovered a lot of excellent listening material and revisited an old favorite. Here are my top five favorite summer musical finds:

1. The Band and Endless Highway: The Music of the Band
Last year, I got into music of the sixties and seventies as research for a novel. Along the way I discovered that Levon Helm, who played Loretta Lynn's father in one of my all-time favorite biopics, Coal Miner's Daughter, was more than an actor. Helm was part of The Band, a groundbreaking folk-rock group. Around Memorial Day weekend I gave them a listen and I wasn't disappointed. The melodies alternate between fun and soulful, with an old-school country twang and a rock 'n roll twist. Now, I'm still not a Band expert and I haven't listened to everything, but some of my faves so far include "Rag Mama Rag," "Up on Cripple Creek" and the utterly heartbreaking "Rockin' Chair." And thanks to my local library, I also found Endless Highway, a 2007 album featuring Band covers by contemporary musicians like Guster and Jack Johnson. My personal favorite is Death Cab for Cutie's wistful take on "Rockin' Chair."

2. Squirrel Nut Zippers
Research for a new fiction project has taken me from the sixties to the nineties. As a wide-eyed teenager, I was hugely into the neo-jazz group Squirrel Nut Zippers. The frontwoman and I even share a last name! Needless to say, I was over the moon when the group played at my college freshman year. After releasing several albums, the group split up in the mid-2000's, but the music's aged so well I'm aching for another swing revival. Also, I wish I could croon like Katherine. If you're an SNZ neophyte, track down "Lover's Lane," "Hell" and "Good Enough for Granddad." Don't forget to dance along.

3. A Tribe Called Quest
"Can I kick it? Yes you can!" I wasn't a fan of this powerhouse hip-hop quartet in their heyday - before I discovered alternative rock, I was mainly into showtunes. (And yet, I still wondered why I wasn't popular in junior high.) However, this summer I reviewed Michael Rapaport's documentary about the group on assignment for The Film Yap. If the stunning creativity and fascinating group dynamics weren't enough to draw me in, the intelligent lyrics and sick beats did the trick. The very next day I put The Anthology on hold at the library, and now I'm so obsessed that I compare myself and my best friend Bob to Phife Dawg (me, the five-footer) and Q-Tip (the abstract), respectively. "Can I Kick It?" is seriously groovy, and I also love "Electric Relaxation," "Luck of Lucien" and "Award Tour."

4. Foster the People
My pals Bob and Stan always know what's up with indie music and more importantly, what their friend Unpro will enjoy. Stan got me into Fun. and The Format, and for that I am forever grateful. And a few weeks ago, Bob was astounded I hadn't yet discovered Foster the People, immediately burning me their CD, Torches. The combination of peppy danceable rhythms and fairly dark lyrics (which Fun. also does very well) are incredibly appealing. If you're a radio listener, you've probably heard "Pumped Up Kicks" (the lyrics are disturbing like whoa when you really listen), but I encourage you to give the whole album a try. I adore "Don't Stop (Color on the Walls)."

5. Muppets: The Green Album
Just . . . yes. This album needed to happen. Jim Henson's ability to create truly human characters out of brightly colored puppets, and to inspire emotion in children and the adults they become, is something the world had never seen before and may never see again. It's important to preserve this legacy, and The Green Album goes a long way to achieve this goal. Bands such as OK Go and Weezer may offer their own spin on classics like "The Muppet Show Theme" and "Rainbow Connection," but the melodies and lyrics remain unchanged and phenomenal. Who didn't enjoy Kermit and Rowlf's duet "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along" as a kid? I sure did. Then I listened to Matt Nathanson's cover and realized how flipping ADULT those lyrics are. Not inappropriate for kids or anything, but wow. There's some real heartbreak going on. On a lighter note, I dare you not to giggle at Sondre Lerche's exuberant "Mr. Bassman." And I triple dog dare you not to cry at Rachael Yamagata's astoundingly wistful "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." Mr. Henson, as I've done many times in my life, I tip my funky hat to you.

(Click here to read about what happened when I revisited The Muppets Take Manhattan.)

Did you discover any cool music over the summer? Leave a comment!


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