November 19, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
I have John Darnielle to thank for introducing me to my favorite magazine. I picked up a copy of Esopus 5 solely for the accompanying CD, which included an unreleased Mountain Goats song, "Porcile." The CD alone was impressive, with new music from Alina Simone, Josephine Foster, Britta Phillips, Jim White and many more talented musicians. I would have subscribed to Esopus right away for the music alone, but the writing and especially the artwork in every issue make the semiannual magazine the one periodical I hope to find in my mailbox at the end of every day.
Every issue of Esopus features a compilation CD, for which I ask musicians to create new songs inspired by a particular theme. Past subjects for these comps have included Craig’s List “Missed Connections” personals (#2), spam emails (#8), Ouija boards (#7), the dreams of Esopus readers (#9), and most recently, “good news” (#10). These CDs are enormously fun to put together—when the finished songs start coming in toward the end of the production period I always feel like a kid in a candy shop.
For the current issue, a friend of mine, the artist Scott Menchin, proposed that I ask people to use advice columns as the starting point for songs. It was a terrific idea, and the musicians who agreed to participate really went to town, culling material from sources as diverse as “Savage Love” to a guide about surviving a shipwreck. A bit of background info about each of the tracks follows; clips from all of them (and links to each song’s inspiration) can be found on our website.
1. The Muslims , “Inside Job”
This stripped-down garage-rock gem is inspired by one of Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” columns for The New York Times. In it, the advice-seeker asks, “My husband inherited a painting, almost definitely stolen, from an elderly relative who brought it back from Germany, where he served in World War II….My husband wants to keep it: he likes it and thinks we could never find the original owners. I agree but feel guilty. May we keep it?” Not surprisingly, Cohen, who begins his response with “So few people ask me if it’s OK for them to hold onto stolen goods…,” strongly suggests they take it to an expert who can try to establish its provenance. The Muslims, a quartet based in LA, whose fantastic debut album just came out earlier this year, had a terrific idea: They decided to take the point of view of the original owner of the painting, reflecting his outrage in both the tautness of the music and the lyrics themselves:
Just wait, someday, you'll get what's yours
It's not too far away
I got you on my list
Don't you forget I will get it back
I will get what's mine…
One thing I love about this track is how it works on multiple levels – while it’s a song about a very specific kind of betrayal, it could just as easily be interpreted as a rant about an unfaithful lover or an untrustworthy friend.
2. Shearwater, “Helix”
A haunting, truly gorgeous ballad by the Austin, TX–based band co-founded by part-time ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg, and based on an exchange between the Rev. Billy Graham and a young man who seeks his advice on how to get rid of impure thoughts he is certain would “appall” God. Graham responds, “Have you ever asked yourself what God wants you to think about?...The answer is that God wants to fill your mind with Himself—with thoughts and emotions that are good and pure, and reflect him instead of the evils of this world.” This directive serves as Meiburg’s point of departure for the song:
If you love me, come and see me.
If you despise me, come and strike me.
But I want you to know
that for the helix,
there’s always new blood
when an old line is ending.
I want you to know
that in the calm center of your eye,
in the blind violence of life,
in the rays burning through the ice,
I am hidden there.
I am anywhere...
3. Wye Oak, “In Defense of Fetish”
I was secretly hoping that one of the bands would use an exchange from the rich psychosexual treasure trove that is Dan Savage’s syndicated “Savage Love” column. As it turns out, Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner of Baltimore-based duo Wye Oak (whose debut album, If Children, was released earlier this year on Merge) picked a real doozy:
Q. I am a young, straight male, but I have this obsession with male-on-male dino-dragon porn. I don't get it. I'M SUPPOSED TO BE STRAIGHT! Am I psychotic or what? —Dinos Really Are Gonna Overtake Now
A: “You’re not psychotic, DRAGON, just pathetic….You’re one of those poor unfortunate souls saddled with an unrealizable sexual fantasy.”
The resulting folk-waltz—an insanely catchy song that makes me smile and tap my feet every time I listen to it—feels like the Carter Family working blue.
4. Brazos, “Passenger”
This devastating track was inspired by a long query to Cary Tennis’s “Since You Asked” Salon.com column, written by a woman who has just been left by her long-term boyfriend. As it turned out, this wasn’t the first time she had been in this situation, and she was beginning to question her judgment about relationships—which was leading her to begin to question everything else. “How can I learn to trust my own instincts again? I feel like my guard—which I find naturally difficult to let down but which was once again finally coming down—has gone back up. I feel extremely jaded as maybe I am destined to be alone….” Martin Crane, front man for the Austin, TX, band Brazos, went to the heart of these existential queries to create an extraordinary (and extraordinarily sad) song whose simplicity of means belies the complexity, and universality, of its subject matter:
Your ride is made of sand
Those rolling walls
They don’t exist
This lonely life
It is a curse, you know
I don’t have a true love
I don’t believe it’s there
I don’t know who I am
I doubt I ever will
They call our plane to leave
5. Faca, “Two Tango”
Faca are Facundo Delgado and Valeria Leyva, who hail from Bariloche, Argentina, and Tijuana, Mexico, respectively. They met online in 2002 and produce their music almost entirely via email and instant messaging. (Last year, Nuevos Ricos released their debut album, Mi Deporte Favorito.) I sent an invitation to Valeria, who said they were eager to participate but had one question: “Does the material have to be from one source or can we make a collage of different advice columns/radio broadcasts?” I was thrilled with the collage idea, and their song—a delicious piece of synth-laden bubblegum pop—was peppered with samples from broadcasts from a number of Mexican radio deejays offering counsel to their listeners.
6. Nina Katchadourian, “Castaway”
Katchadourian is best-known for her conceptually driven artwork (it’s been exhibited at PS1/MoMA, Serpentine Gallery in London, and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, among many other venues). She described her choice of material in an email to me: “I have had a very longstanding obsession with shipwrecks, read countless #s of books on the subject, have done so ever since I was a kid, etc. I wrote a song called ‘Castaway’ based on advice from a manual for shipwreck survivors. The author, Dougal Robertson, is someone I am particularly fixated on, and his survival manual is the book based on his own experience being a castaway with five of his family members in the Pacific Ocean for nearly 40 days. I find his particular tone extremely moving and adapted his words to be the lyrics of the song.”
Here’s the song’s first verse:
I have no words to offer the castaway
Except to say that rescue may come at any time.
Not necessarily when you expect it
And even if you give up hope, you must not give up trying.
Like its source material, this track is infused with pathos. In a brilliant move on Katchadourian’s part, both verses are followed by a harmony-laden, siren-like chorus in which she seductively sings “Give up trying…Give up trying…Give up….”
7. Lucky Dragons, “To Lilly at Age 15 20 25”
A contribution on the wonderful “Learningtoloveyoumore” website that answered the challenge “Give Advice to Yourself in the Past” served as the basis for this engaging foray into experimental pop by two masters of the genre, Luke Fishbeck and Sarah Rara of LA-based musical collective Lucky Dragons. Their alternating vocals run the listener through passages from the original entry like the one below:
To Lilly at Age 15
Alright Miss Cynic, stop it right there. You think you’re just so much smarter and cooler than everyone else, don’t you? Well, you’re not. The Smiths are not some underground sensation. In fact they are quite popular and have been for about a decade now. You’re not the only one who shops at thrift stores. And ironic t-shirts are really not that ironic. They’re just silly.
8. Jenny Owen Youngs, “Thanks, Mesopotamia!”
Salon.com’s “Since You Asked” serves as inspiration for second track on the CD, this one by Jersey-born singer-songwriter Youngs, whose her first album, Batten the Hatches (2007), was released by Nettwerk Records (and whose single “f*ck Was I” graced an episode of Showtime series Weeds last season). The track is a charming banjo-driven ditty that channels “My Wife Is Seeing Someone and it Hurts More than I Expected,” a query written by a man who is starting to realize that a trial separation with his spouse is going to be permanent. Here is a sampling of Youngs’ lyrical take on his wistful tale:
The dishes pile up in the sink as you’d expect
I haven’t left this couch for a week, like you’d guess
but all that nothing pales next to the nothing that I’ll do
If I keep watching you walk away.
Oh baby, maybe I wasn’t the best husband.
Why do you want to go and get a new one?
Didn’t think I was that bad….
9. Wingdale Community Singers, “Never Ever Fall”
As a child, Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Purple America) read the New York Daily News every day (as it so happens, his grandfather was the publisher): “There were certain parts of the paper that I concentrated on, because they were always around: the comics pages, especially on Sunday, the baseball coverage, and the advice columns. My mom liked to quote the Ann Landers in a kind of ironic way.” Turns out the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Working with his folksy musical group The Wingdale Community Singers (which includes his Brooklyn neighbors Hannah Marcus, David Grubbs, and, on background vocals, the aforementioned Nina Katchadourian), Moody wrily treats the whole notion of advice as an organizing principle for the song rather than focusing on one particular column. “Love songs are always little advice columns,” he wrote to me. “They purport to have advice to bring you on the subject of relationships. This song has some good worldly advice (‘Don’t golf in lighting storms’) as well as good love advice: ‘Never Ever Fall in Love.’”
10. Come Rad Comrade, “Spinning Us Around”
An exchange that appeared on the web-based “Transterrific” advice column caught the eye of architect Peter Zuspan and artist T.M. Davy, who collaborate on the musical project Come Rad Comrade in New York City. “Loving Parent” asked: “My daughter is 9 1/2 years old and has always identified as a male. As she grew older, my husband and I thought she just wanted to be like a boy, but she has made it very clear over and over again that she wants to be a boy. She tells me that in her heart and in her head she is a boy but she was born into a girl’s body. All strangers just assume she is my son. My husband and I have stop correcting people and our daughter now goes by the gender-neutral nickname, TJ. Is my child too young to really know she is transgendered? Will my husband and I be making a mistake in allowing our child to make a transition at such a young age? Is there any way she'll wake up one day and say ‘I hate my parents for letting me turn into a boy?’” The founder of the website, “Miss Laura,” responded, “Believe it or not you are doing what every transsexual person wishes his parents had done for them….” The track is a layered, atmospheric take on our culture’s rapidly evolving views on gender identity disorder, which served as the topic of a recent Atlantic Monthly piece.
11. Stuart Dahlquist, “New World Order Rising”
Dahlquist, founder of Seattle drone-rock collective Asva, emailed me with the following disclaimer after receiving my invitation: “I never read advice columns. I don’t understand why anyone looking for advice would ask a stranger a deeply personal question, often out of complete desperation. Like astrology or religion, these columns seem to propose answers that in the long run only excuse people of personal responsibility.” He eventually found a way into the assignment by searching for an example of this particular kind of disconnect. It didn’t take him long to run across a series of webposts, reproduced in Harper’s “Readings” section, by a young man named Matthew Murray “who was looking to the very people who helped to create his mental state for answers they not only refused to provide but most likely couldn't.” All of the posts were about the Bible, in which he only seemed to find contradictions when asking questions like, “How do I get saved? How do I stay saved? Will God curse me and make me poor and sick if I watch the ‘wrong’ TV show? How can I be certain that I'm not following ‘free will’ when I should be following ‘predestination,’ and vice versa?” As his posts grew increasingly erratic, several other users on the website tried to comfort him, and a psychologist even offered her services. He rebuffed her, saying, “I've already been working with counselors. I have a point to make with all this talk about psychologists and counselors 'helping people with their pain.'"
Not long after, he indeed made his “point”: Murray shot four people at a Colorado church then turned the gun on himself. After I’d received this mesmerizing track from Stuart, I wrote him to tell him how affecting it was, and how disturbing I found its source material to be. He sent me back an email, saying, “My mother gave it a listen and I told her the story behind it; she sometimes has trouble understanding how a fellow so happy can write such down music and frankly I'm not sure where it comes from. It is sad, but the whole thing is f*cking sad, you know?”
Tod Lippy and Esopus links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
online "Best Books of 2008" lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)