Well, everyone in Madison’s a bit bothered this weekend, because winter’s decided it’s not quite done. It decided to show up for a few more days after a week of fabulously spring-like weather that took care of all the snow accumulated over the past four months. And so we got a little more snow.
But checking any good calendar will reassure Madisonites and other people throughout the world that spring is indeed upon us, and well, I guess that means it’s time for the blog’s annual spring mix. Good for spring drives, walks, or yes, even soundtracking spring cleaning.
Bonus points to anyone who appreciates the reference on the cover art.
Spring Chicken, Vol. 3
The “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen…” Spring Mix
Download Part 1 (Tracks 1 – 10 in a .zip file)
Download Part 2 (Tracks 11 – 20 in a .zip file)
01. The La’s – Son of a Gun
The opening to the La’s one and only self-titled album is also the perfect opening for a spring mix. It’s the sound of running full throttle into a promising day, with a beat that’s as simple as it is complicated. It still astounds me that Lee Mavers despised this album so much. I mean, this song isn’t even the best thing on it, but it’s still better than what most bands spend their whole careers trying to achieve. I mean if this is the sound of fantastic songs being submarined by modern production techniques, then the album Mavers was hearing in his head must have been f*cking incredible. Without an earpiece to plug into his skull however, I’m quite happy to listen to this.
02. Blur – Coffee & TV
I remember when 13 was released and the big deal about it being Damon Albarn’s diary about breaking up with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. So people listened to “Tender” and “No Distance Left to Run” and thought “Oh wow…” as if no one in the history of popular music had written a breakup song before, let alone about somebody popular. So Graham Coxon’s spritely contribution to the album — even if it is a bit of a lyrical drag — is a nice change of pace. Coxon always kind of hated the fact that Albarn wrote the fantastically catchy chorus, so he tried to rewrite the song entirely on his own in 2004 with “Bittersweet Bundle of Misery,” which was pretty great, but this still seems to be where it’s at. And how great of a spring message is the ending coda of “Oh, we can start over again”? Seriously. Oh, by the way — still one of my all time favorite music videos.
03. Lily Frost – Lover Come Back To Me
Lily’s version of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” landed on last year’s Christmas mix, and this cut is also pulled from her Billie Holliday tribute LP, Lily Swings. This track opens the record and is what immediately endeared it to my heart. Lily’s in wonderful voice, the Dukes sound great and the production sounds straight out of 1948 instead of 2008 (not only a good thing, but exceedingly appropriate for the record’s spirit). Surely I’m not the only one who smiles when this one starts.
04. Dr. Robert – The Coming of Grace
My only knowledge of Dr. Robert (the artist, not the Beatles song) was that the dude showed up a bit on Paul Weller’s 1995 album Stanley Road. Weller returned the favor, showing up on the doctor’s 1996 album, Realms of Gold. Weller’s involvement is what led me to this track, although I’m not sure I can detect the man’s presence. Ah well, the song’s still a laid-back, sunny 3:46 of general goodness. It’s not made me investigate the dude’s career any further, be it the Blow Monkeys or solo work, but maybe in time. For right now, this song is pretty great on its own and a fabulous addition to a spring mix.
05. Michael Penn – Bunker Hill
Michael showed up on last year’s spring mix too, and he should show up on a lot more mixes and critical “Best of” lists, but I have a feeling he’s just never going to get the kind of notoriety his brother Sean will, so he can just keep writing awesome little tunes and playing to those in tune enough to pay any notice. This track is from 1992’s Free-for-All, which wasn’t too famous because it didn’t have “No Myth.” But with “Bunker Hill” and “Look What the Cat’s Drug In,” it’s hard to say it wasn’t worth a listen. There’s something rudimentarily charming about this song — maybe it’s the simple piano runs or the lyrics (I’ve always loved the line “The only points of light are fires on Vermont” — I’m not sure what it means, but it sounds great) — I can’t put my finger on it, but something about this song just demands listens again and again. It’s not the best thing you’ll ever hear in your life. But it’s far from the worst. And it has a funny way of burrowing into your brain.
06. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Secondary Modern
This song is an absolute obsession of mine at the moment. Severely. Like, Top 10 greatest things about life… right up there with girls and the feeling Cubs fans have during spring training. The fact that the song doesn’t last two minutes and covers the former subject only makes it more incredible. Costello’s 1980 album Get Happy!! had a distinct R&B tinge and A LOT of songs on it, but none better than this. I believe it’s about the trials and tribulations of the crushes experienced during middle school years, but that’s just my interpretation. Doesn’t really matter what age you are — girls will destroy your psyche, but it’d be a real problem if they weren’t around at all. Listen to that drum fill after the middle section and the way Costello sings “Nobody makes me sad like you, now my whole world goes from blue to blue.” Incredible. And yeah, it’s a bit of a downer, but spring has its crappy days. And the beat is brisk enough to keep you moving along.
07. Nicholas Tremulis – Perchance to Dream
Tremulis, one of Chicago’s best-kept musical secrets, is known to bust out the banjo during solo slots and play this song, and since I first heard it in that form way back in 2005, the song’s just captivated me. And it takes a hell of a song to captivate me if all that’s pushing it is your voice and a banjo. It works fine in that form, but a bit of left-field accompaniment for the 2008 album Little Big Songs. I don’t know if my own predilection to pore over travel books and dream of visiting places makes this song hit closer to home, but I’m actually pretty sure it’s the way he repeats “She said that it would be a miracle if we could rest for just one day” that is the real zinger. This song is really like nothing else I’ve heard from Nick, and I love it for that very reason.
08. Sam Cooke – Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)
The best moment on 1964’s Ain’t That Good News, and (in my opinion) the best moment in Cooke’s catalogue. Nevermind the fact that Sam could sing a song like nobody else — it’s the way he delivers this song, a bit of advice for anyone considering giving up on another person or even pursuing a person, that just knocks it out of the park. I always have this song somewhere in my mind if I’m working up the gumption to get a first date, but when my offer is rebuked, the song usually leaves my mind and my mental jukebox pulls up something like “Secondary Modern.” Still need to process the message here, you see, but there’s time, dammit. There’s always time.
09. Rhett Miller – Sunny
Stuart Ransom Miller just recorded this song for a one-off single issued on iTunes earlier this year, and while pretty much everybody has done a version of Bobby Hebb’s classic, this version has a lot going for it that others don’t. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a Rhett fan and have a bit of bias anyway, but I just love the delivery here. Rhett’s vocal grows a bit more impassioned with every key change and the urgency just builds as the song progresses. It’s the way Bobby did the song back in the sixties and as much as I love alternate versions that reinvented the song in jazz or easy listening formats, the style changes always seem to abandon the urgency. This song is a guy standing up and thanking the sun for being fantastic. But it’s not just a thank you. It’s a “No, seriously. Thank you. I really mean it.” Which is the best kind of thank you anyone (or any celestial body) can get.
10. The Robbie McIntosh Band – Oh Judy
A lot of people know Robbie as a former member of the Pretenders. I’ll always remember him first as the lead guitarist in the greatest of any of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles groups (the glory years from 1989 to 1993). But Robbie’s a decent enough songwriter in his own right and has put out a couple fantastic solo albums. This cut, from 2000’s Emotional Bends, is by no means a knock-out, but it’s effective. I don’t know if it’s that cajun accordian or the middle bit — “I’ve been towing the line, I’ll be better in time” — but something about this song screams “throwaway,” and yet when you actually listen to it, it holds your attention magnificently. Cheers, Robbie.
11. Nat King Cole – Just For the Fun of It
I’m a big fan of Nat’s 1957 LP Just One of Those Things (And More), it’s a good breakup album, but it has a nice swing to it as opposed to the suicidal tendencies of some of his contemporaries (I’m looking your way, Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, but I still love you). I don’t know what it is about this song, depressing as it should be, it just puts a smile on my face. I don’t think listening to Nat can be depressing. It can be tedious at times to be sure, but it can never be depressing.
12. The Supremes – Come See About Me
My mother was a big Diana Ross fan when I was growing up and whenever Supremes songs came on oldies radio in the family car, the volume would inch a few clicks higher. I never really got it. I know every word to “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go” and a bunch of others, but they never really got to me. I always preferred Martha & the Vandellas. Ah, but “Come See About Me” is different. I don’t know what it was, but at some point during my teenage years, I actually HEARD that bassline. And the beat. My God, the beat. To me, this beat is the preeminent example of the Motown pocket. It doesn’t get any tighter. And as bleak as this song could be, it’s just all kinds of hopeful. You’ve got to love it.
13. The Beatles – Mother Nature’s Son
I’ve always thought of this as one of the most underrated bits on the White Album. Yes, I actually called a Beatles song underrated. I know. But calling a Beatles song underrated within the context of 29 other Beatles songs is different. Anyway, this is far from one of the popular cuts on the album, and even when you think of that album’s best acoustic, folky moments, the mind seems to veer quickly to “Rocky Raccoon” or “I Will” or “Julia.” Maybe it’s this song’s position on the album. Tucking it between Lennon’s monstrous “Yer Blues” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” is a nice breather, but it also obviously slows the roll Macca himself had started with “Birthday.” At any rate, this song is gorgeous. Just listen to it. The arrangement. The melody. That guitar line. Oh right, it’s the Beatles…
14. Edgar ‘Jones’ Jones – Freedom
This guy releases music under different plays on his name – sometimes it’s Edgar Jones, sometimes it’s Edgar Summertyme Jones, sometimes it’s Edgar Jones Jones, sometimes it’s Edgar Jones & Friends… but this Edgar cat, who apparently hails from Liverpool and is well-revered by pretty much any British musician or music fan who matters, tends to put out solid stuff no matter what moniker he’s working under. It’s all retro fabulous, and this cut, from 2004’s typically solid Soothing Music for Stray Cats is pretty much a microcosm of his best traits. I’m not sure I understand this song, but I do know I like it. And I do know it revs me up.
15. Frank Sinatra – S’posin
This song comes right out of the Sinatra era I love most — right at the end of his Capitol tenure and on the brink of running his own Reprise label. From about 1958 to 1963, Sinatra just had an audible cockiness in his voice. He sounded great, don’t get me wrong, but his delivery just seemed to imply, “I’m Frank F*cking Sinatra, and don’t you forget it.” Despite that, everyone talks up Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!! (And More) as his last great triumph for Capitol and I listen to it and am left underwhelmed. It’s a good album, but it doesn’t really have the oomph that Swing Along With Me does. Nevertheless, “S’posin” is a fabulous little under 2-minute party and is one of Swingin’ Session‘s truly remarkable bright spots. And the perfect kind of song to add a kick to a spring day.
16. Nick Drake – Northern Sky
For everything everyone says about Nick Drake, I’ll just say this: I’ve made three summer mixes, three autumn mixes, two winter mixes and three spring mixes to date. Nick Drake has only shown up on two of those mixes — both spring ones. Sure, he’s more of a winter artist and one deep cut off Pink Moon could add an even colder chill to such a mix, but for as tragic and depressing as the guy’s supposed to be, 1970’s Bryter Layter is just through and through gorgeous and uplifting. And as cynical as I am about romantic comedies, I freely admit I applauded the use of this song at the romantic climax of “Serendipity.” It was a perfect choice. This is a stunning tune and the sound of life blooming.
17. God Help the Girl – Funny Little Frog
I was talking to a friend a few years ago, after Belle & Sebastian’s The Life Pursuit was released. I was staunchly defending the album and citing specific lyrics and musical bits to make the point as to why it was underrated and categorically fantastic, when the friend just said, “Yeah I know. It’s a great album. It’s just so … happy.” It’s not the word I would’ve used, but it was the right word. There’s nothing wrong with happy music. Happy music done right can wind you up to the point where you’re over-defending an album to someone who agreed with you all along. And “Funny Little Frog” was probably the happiest track on that album. When Stuart Murdoch recycled it last year for the God Help the Girl project, he put contest winner Brittany Stallings in front of the band and souled up the arrangement to devastatingly fantastic effect. It’s not as happy as its predecessor, but thankfully, that’s not at the cost of brilliance.
18. The Libertines – What Katie Did
It’d be a lot easier for me to dismiss the Libertines — all the hype surrounding them, all the unnecessary romanticizing of Pete Doherty, all the “this is the band of our generation” crap — if they didn’t have songs like this. Part of it annoys me, because I really want to be able to not like them with good reason, but I can’t. The very reasons I want to dislike them — they sound shambolic and incoherent over chords that a lot of other artists have and will continue to use more effectively — are the very reasons this song is so wonderful. It’s just too bad these gems are in the minority of the band’s oeuvre (fire away in the comments section, Libs fans, I’m waiting).
19. Travis – Follow the Light
I sat on the fence for a long time as to whether or not to include this. This is one of the few cuts on The Invisible Band that I genuinely like, yet it irritates me to pieces because it sounds at best like a children’s song and at worst like Christian pop. And don’t tell me there’s not anything wrong with Christian pop. But somehow, the music just makes everything OK. I mean I actually like the rhythm guitar in this song. It’s hard to usually identify a good rhythm guitar bit. This isn’t even a GOOD rhythm guitar bit. It’s just a nice piece of the whole. And this sounds absolutely blinding in a car on a nice sunny day. So I jumped off the fence and stuck it on.
20. Paul Weller – It’s a New Day, Baby
Unless you’re a Weller completist, chances are you haven’t heard this track, which first debuted as a tucked-away B-side on “The Changingman” single in 1995. But the Fly on the Wall compilation and Stanley Road reissue gave it new airings (ironically, to the people who would probably have sought out the single in 1995 anyway). But this has always been one of my favorite Weller cuts. Dave Liddle’s slide playing is not to be underestimated, but the charm of this song is really the Modfather’s gruff delivery of sunny lyrics over one of the sunniest, simplest backing tracks he ever concocted. It’s spring encapsulated in song.
So yeah, roll on spring! Enjoy the mix.