Songs To Learn & Sing

I wrote the original version of this to share with my freshmen back in January as part of a beginning-of-the-semester writing assignment. I returned to it today.

My Now In Five Songs (as written today, March 23, 2020):

“Turning Into Tiny Particles . . . Floating Through Empty Space” by Hammock (2013):

The title alone describes life in the After, as so much of what we had tethered our lives to is now gone or paused—for better and for worse. Hammock is another of the instrumental bands I’ve listened to often in the past few years. Their album Mysterium is extraordinary, an extended elegy and meditation on grief (Also: do read Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter). How we live now in these inbetween days. 

“Movies” by Hothouse Flowers (1990): 

This abundance of time has me returning to the past: watching the Phillies/Cubs 23-22 epic from 1979, the one nine-year-old me caught the final few innings of after school on WGN; reading a Hardy Boys hardcover I pulled from my storage room; listening to music from inflection points in my life. 1989-90 was one such inflection point, living as a student in Ireland. Hothouse Flowers broke big during this period; I listened to a live concert of theirs the night before I flew back to the United States. “Movies” is from their second album, Home (just now seeing how on-the-nose that album title is). A song about when loneliness was a choice, sometimes a necessary one. “Do the soft things hurt you?” remains a marker line for how, where, and with whom we find solace.

“If I Could Name Any Name” by Roddy Woomble (2006):

I watched Roddy Woomble livestream some poetry from the Scottish wilds a few days ago (he kept losing signal). The lead singer of Idlewild, Woomble released his magisterial Scottish folk album My Secret Is My Silence in the summer of 2006. This is my favorite track on the album, though the competition for that honor is fierce indeed. Woomble himself has described this as an album about escape, and I think we can all relate right now. “And time will stop and start again/You’re leaving my heart again.” Only now, in the stoppage of time, I find my heart filling. And time will start again.

“circle the drain” by Soccer Mommy (2020): 

I have to thank my former student Miles Millard for turning me on to Soccer Mommy (the stage name of Sophia Regina Allison). Despite the negative connotations of the title and the bleakness of most of the lyrics, the melancholy honesty of this song is giving me hope. And that guitar part could be a Cure song, something I thought even before listening to the Song Exploder podcast (highly recommended) episode about this song. We will build on what came before.

“Don’t Be Scared, I Love You”—Yawny Yawn version (2019):

Here I have to thank the Spotify algorithm for pointing me to this song last summer.

Need a bit of an ugly cry before you return to being strong for all those you are being strong for? This song can help with that. The stark piano and the wash of electric backsplash all fades for the words we need: Don’t be scared, I love you.

My Now In Five Songs (as originally written in mid-January):

“It Hurts” by Graveyard Club (2019): Have you watched every season of Stranger Things? Of course you have. Did you binge the latest season the day it was released, July 4th? I did. Graveyard Club has a sound reminiscent of the ‘80s and this song should have been on the soundtrack to the latest season. The young boys in Stranger Things are essentially the same age in the year each season occurs as I was, and I was equally nerdy. So this song connects my “now” to my “then,” just as watching Stranger Things does.

“Be More Kind” by Frank Turner (2019): The world feels like a hard and cruel place lately, both on a personal and a national/global level. Turner’s song, with its quiet strumming and insistent strings, provides an antidote to this feeling. I wish we didn’t need to listen to it; I wish I didn’t need to listen to it.

“21 Days” by Brian Fallon (2020): Talk about “now”: this song was just released on Friday, and I’ve already listened to it enough times  to memorize the lyrics as I worked on school stuff over our frozen long weekend. Brian Fallon was the lead singer of a great band called The Gaslight Anthem and I have been a big fan of his solo work. Winter is a season of sadness and this is a SAD song. Are we sad because we listen to sad songs or do we listen to sad songs because we’re sad?

“The Modern Leper” by Julien Baker (2019): This is a cover of a song by the Scottish group Frightened Rabbit. Frightened Rabbit is the one band who has meant as much to me as an adult as the bands of my youth (music nearly always feels more insistent and meaningful when we are young). After the suicide of their lead singer in 2018, the band put together the tribute album Tiny Changes, with the proceeds going to mental health services. I could have put any number of songs by Frightened Rabbit on either My Now or My Then but I’m not sure I’m up to that in the harsh light of winter.

“Strange Vessels” by Caoimhin O’ Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett (2019): I never used to listen to instrumental music; I always wanted lyrics (I mean, I am an English teacher). But lately, as we become more polluted by noise then ever, I often find myself seeking more instrumental music, especially as I write. Great in front of the fireplace music as well. Caoimhin O’ Raghallaigh is from Ireland and plays a ten-string fiddle; here the pianist Thomas Bartlett joins him.

My Then in Five Songs:

“Here’s Where The Story Ends” by The Sundays (1990): This song is forever twenty-year-old me living in a house in Maynooth, Ireland, with four other Notre Dame students and attending classes at St. Patrick’s College. Listening to a cheap stereo in our always freezing rented house, hearing this song played by Dave Fanning, whose radio show we listened to almost every night. This song is wool sweaters and walking in the constant rain.

“In Between Days” by The Cure (1985): I was always an emo kid at heart (TikTok did not invent e-boys), and my love of The Cure stands as evidence for this. This was a much poppier Cure, though still with that bite of melancholy. I’m fifteen, watching the trippy spinning kaleidoscopic video, wishing I lived somewhere “cooler.” Wishing I was someone “cooler.” Not realizing, because how could you at fifteen, how many of our days are “in between days.”

“White Wedding—Pt. 1” by Billy Idol (1982): That sludgy bass line, that intentional vocal slurring, the ever-present black leather jacket, spiky hair, and sneer—Billy Idol portrayed the gutter punk I never was but sometimes thought I wanted to be. Learning that he chose his name from a school teacher who wrote to his parents complaining that “William is idle” also connected with the would-be English teacher in me.

“Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band (1981): When I was eleven years old, Carroll had a video game arcade downtown. My parents didn’t think I was old enough to go there and play games by myself (even then, video games were considered to be a terrible influence on the youth). But I snuck in there one time, and this song was playing. The lyrics of the song and the presence of so many older teens convinced me my parents were right and I left soon thereafter. 

“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce (1974): My parents didn’t listen to music much but they had a few albums (yes, vinyl). Among them were several by Jim Croce, including his greatest hits album. I knew every word to this song (including “damn,” which seemed so BAD back then). It’s a story song, completely on brand with my lifelong love of stories in every form (written, filmed, sung).

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