Music quite simply amazes me. Its uses can be so contradictory, sometimes riling us up and other times calming us down. In my own experience, one of music’s most important uses is soothing. Hem is a band that definitely serves that purpose. They fall somewhere in the genres of alt-country or folk-rock, which is a place where I feel right at home. In college I relied on soothing playlists to help me feel ready to fall asleep, and the playlists always included one or two Hem songs. I have my friend Jenny to thank for including “Not California” on a mix CD and setting me on the road to becoming a fan.
1. “We’ll Meet Along The Way”
“We’ll Meet Along The Way” opens their album Funnel Cloud, and it has always felt to me like an invocation. The song is simple (and brief), but it has all the Hem ingredients: subtle harmonies, wistful lyrics, and an overall sense of ease. The flow from verse to chorus to verse is utterly smooth. It’s part of what makes Hem the perfect soothing music.
2. “Stupid Mouth Shut”
Hem isn’t all about balladry. Okay, they mostly are, but sometimes they kick the metronome up to midtempo. “Stupid Mouth Shut” is just as smooth and easy, but more playful than many of their songs. I love the earnestness of the lyrics.
3. “Not California”
The song that started it all. “Not California” was written by one of the band members about his girlfriend’s obsession with The O.C., which undercuts the seriousness of the song in a lovely way. Despite its amusing source of inspiration, “Not California” packs an emotional punch. Look no further for epic balladry or lullaby playlist material.
Within the last ten years, TV shows have started making more prominent use of music. Suddenly every prime-time soap and teen drama is putting out a soundtrack. During my last year of high school, one of my favorite sources for new music was Veronica Mars. I was aware of Tegan and Sara’s existence, but hearing their music on the show made me a fan. Another find during the Veronica Mars era was Neko Case.
In my opinion, the most remarkable thing about Neko Case is her voice. You can’t mistake that mix of darkness and vulnerability for anyone else. Her lyrics compliment her vocal qualities with bleak imagery and completely sympathetic emotions. They are the kind of songs that can help you get through some bad times.
1. “Hold On, Hold On”
On the Neko Case Darkness Scale, “Hold On, Hold On” is particularly bleak. It’s a song that despairs and fights back at the same time. “That echo chorus lied to me with its hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on” goes the refrain, with the result of recreating the exact chorus that the singer is rebelling against.
2. “I Wish I Was The Moon”
Perhaps it was a bit ridiculous for a nineteen-year-old to love such a world-weary song, but love it I did. This is a ballad that shows her alt-country leanings. The building momentum of the music belies the hopelessness of the lyrics in classic Neko Case style.
3. “This Tornado Loves You”
Talk about a mixture of light and dark. It’s all right there in the title. This is the closest that Neko Case gets to upbeat, and it’s expressed through the language of destruction. (I apologize for the bizarre video. This song was harder to come by on YouTube.)
Okay, this may have turned into an outline for an English paper. There’s nothing former English majors love more than discussing juxtaposition! Just don’t hold it against Neko. She’s really very good.
The Shins have been one of my favorite bands since I was a freshman in college. My roommate used to play Wincing the Night Away while we were hanging around our room, and I was quickly asking, “Who sings this?” The rest is history. Many people became familiar with The Shins through the movie Garden State, in which Natalie Portman’s character is a fan. Two songs from their first album are featured on the soundtrack. I myself am a loyalist to Chutes Too Narrow, their second album, which is still heavily featured in my car music rotation. So imagine yourself in a dreary dorm room, if you like, and have a taste of The Shins.
1. “New Slang”
If you’ve only heard one Shins song, it’s probably “New Slang.” This is the song that Natalie Portman plays for Zach Braff on her enormous headphones. Not exactly a surprising choice, but really, there’s no better introduction than this. The hypnotic opening, the effortless vocals, the lyrics that don’t quite make sense. Everything about it is addictive.
2. “Kissing The Lipless”
The first track on my beloved Chutes Too Narrow, “Kissing The Lipless” is my favorite example of The Shins just rocking out. They create such beautiful melodies, but they can also make you want to scream along. “Your ailing heart and your criminal eyes”? That line is so good, I want to write a novel for the sole purpose of stealing it as a title.
3. “Phantom Limb”
Wincing the Night Away, the band’s third album, couples the airy mood of their first album with the increased production of the second. “Phantom Limb” exemplifies this fusion nicely. Even though I can’t always understand the literal message of their songs, I feel an emotional connection that can’t be denied. I hope it makes you feel that connection as well, or at least inspires you to do some dorky hippie dancing.
3 Song Sampler has been an all-female affair, but these days my musical life is divided fairly equally between male and female musicians. One of the guys in the mix is Brett Dennen. Although I had a disappointing concert experience with him last spring, I still enjoy listening to his albums. There’s something very appealing about this gawky redhead with over-sized glasses.
1. “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)”
From his latest album Loverboy, “Sydney” is one of the catchiest songs that I’ve come across in years. I defy you not to sing along with the chorus.
2. “Make You Crazy”
While he writes some straight-up catchy tunes, there’s a groovy side to Brett Dennen as well. “Make You Crazy” also has his traditional blend of playful and political lyrics.
3. “Ain’t No Reason”
Things aren’t always so upbeat in Brett Dennen land. When he puts on his folksinger hat, they can get downright tragic. Yet he’s still a hopeless romantic at heart.
Back when I was a mere sophomore in high school, we had to write a research paper for English class. The topic could be anything from the decade of our birth. Being the little feminist music lover that I was, I wanted to research a female musician. Enter Cyndi Lauper. She may have played second fiddle to Madonna in the ’80s, but there’s a lot more to her than “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Here are a few of my favorites that you may not have heard.
1. “Money Changes Everything”
Forget about it! This should be the Cyndi Lauper anthem. As a teen I loved how she took a song originally written and recorded by men and gave it a female voice.
2. “All Through The Night”
“Time After Time” is beautiful. “True Colors” has its charm. But “All Through The Night” completes the trio of Cyndi Lauper balladry.
3. “Change Of Heart”
I hesitate to use a music video for Cyndi because I fear that the kooky ’80s styling will detract from the music. Still, I had to show her in all of her glory. If you want Cyndi to make you dance, this is the ticket.
My friend Hillary once told me that she most strongly associates me with Tegan and Sara. And to that I say, “Fair enough.” After all, I’ve been habitually listening to their music for the last six years. Every time I hear that they’re recording a new album, I think, “Already? Didn’t the last one just come out?” Then I look back, and the latest album is about two years old. What’s the reason for my confusion? I never stop listening to the latest Tegan and Sara album.
1. “Living Room”
If there’s a quintessential early Tegan and Sara song, it has to be “Living Room.” The musical style is somewhat atypical for them, but the lyrics anticipate the playfully obsessive tone that they perfect in their later records.
2. “The Con”
For the angst-ridden teen in all of us, I give you “The Con.” Imagine eighteen-year-old Courtney, homesick and overwhelmed in her first term of college. Then imagine this song as a big fat Band-Aid.
3. “Call It Off”
Yes, even Tegan and Sara have a softer side. And it comes with gorgeous harmonies and casually heartbreaking lyrics.
My blog is nearing its one-year anniversary, and I feel that it still has a lot of room to grow. With that goal in mind, I’m going to be experimenting with some different features in the upcoming months. That is, a type of post that I put out at regular intervals. I’ve been wanting to do a music feature for some time, and I finally landed on the 3 Song Sampler.
The idea of the 3 Song Sampler is to give a taste of a band or musician. Not necessarily their all-time best songs, but three songs that give an overview of what they can do. 3 Song Sampler will appear on Mondays, simply because Music Monday is alliterative. I’m kicking us off with one of my favorite musicians, the incomparable Patty Griffin.
If I had to describe Patty Griffin’s music in two words, they would be beautiful and devastating. She has one of the qualities that I must admire in an artist, which is the ability to transcend pain by turning it into something beautiful. “Rain” embodies this quality perfectly.
2. “No Bad News”
While Patty’s songs are often understated, she can really wail when she feels like it. Truth be told, I enjoy the loud voice just as much as the soft. Imagine her performing this song live, wearing red high heels and pounding on an acoustic guitar.
3. “Useless Desires”
Sometimes her songs can grow to epic proportions. The lyrics slowly unravel, and the music builds toward the final moment of catharsis. “Useless Desires” is bleak in its lyrical content, but somehow I always feel better after listening to it.
Patty Griffin is musical therapy.