Sounds Delightful Melodic Mix #9 – February 2018

Lately I’ve been feeling more excited about unearthing gems from the past than finding brand new songs, and this mix reflects that. The ’70s have really risen to the top, and I’ve got a couple ’80s forgotten favorites too. There’s something intoxicating about hearing a song you know well, but haven’t heard for a long time. It’s a perfect mix of familiarity and novelty at once. Maybe you will experience that here.

(Spotify)

1. Plastic Bertrand — “Ça Plane Pour Moi” (1977) I heard this song in two unrelated contexts in the span of a few days earlier this month. How had I never heard it before? It’s pure, inane glee with a super sax riff, a “whoo-ooo-ooo-ooo” vocal hook, and nonsense French lyrics. Reading attempted translations on the internet is pretty fun.

2. They Might Be Giants — “All Time What” (2018) I got to see TMBG live in January, and at this point I consider them a better live band than anything else. They played this track from their new album, and its hooky, power-pop sound was pretty rockin’.

3. Dean Friedman — “Ariel” (1977) Another 1977 lost classic, Dean Friedman’s “Ariel” seems like it has to have been an influence on They Might be Giants, Fountains of Wayne, Ben Folds, and other power-poppers who are able to successfully incorporate quirky humor into their lyrics. Each verse ends with an impeccably delivered punchline. Musically, the soaring chorus and rock ’n’ roll sax solo make this more than just a novelty.

4. John Fogerty — “Rock and Roll Girls” (1985) I’ve been sold on the concept of Fogerty as pop for a while, thanks to this excellent compilation, which kicks off with his lesser-known track “Almost Saturday Night.” “Rock and Roll Girls” might not be quite as good, especially the chorus, which just feels like it needs a little something more. But the melody on the verse, especially yelp/yodel on the high note (“ro-DE-oh,” ra-“DE-oh”), just about makes up for it.

5 .Rick Springfield — “I’ve Done Everything for You” (1981) I saw the name of this song printed somewhere and the whole thing just came flooding back to me in big rush. It’s odd because I have absolutely no recollection of a time in my life when I was listening to it regularly, but apparently I must have been because I know all the words. I think it’s straight up better than “Jessie’s Girl,” but then again it might just be benefiting from not being overplayed for years. Bonus trivia: This song was written and originally performed by Sammy Hagar.

6. Belle and Sebastian — “The Same Star” (2018) “The Same Star” is probably the best track to come from B&S’s recent EP series. I love Sarah Martin songs, and this one has her trademark vocals that are lovely and dreamy, but not slight.

7. P.M. Dawn — “Art Deco Halos” (1998) While I’d say that Spotify has had a net positive effect on my music listening, one of the downsides is that songs and albums not available on the service tend to fall out of my listening rotation. That’s particularly sad in the case of “Art Deco Halos,” which is one of my longest-lived favorite songs, dating back to when I used to listen to a radio show called Idiot’s Delight with Vin Scelsa. While P.M. Dawn is known as a hip-hop act, this track is a perfect mixture of soul and pop, with its T. Rex sample, danceable beat, and catchy chorus. I particularly remember host Vin playing this in a set with The Bongo’s cover of “Mambo Sun” and “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book. Luckily, “Art Deco Halos” is back on Spotify and on a whole playlist of music from this era of my life.

8. ELO — “Rockaria!” (1976) For all I know this could be an abomination to opera lovers everywhere, but I find Jeff Lynn’s ability to combine not only rock and classical, but also country, disco, and just about everything else good about the pop era into a single song exhilarating. I’ve been having a bit of a renaissance for A New World Record in general. It maintains this remarkably high level of quality throughout.

9. The Kinks —“(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” (1979) Low Budget is actually an awesome, under-appreciated Kinks album. Like a lot of rockers in 1978-79, the Kinks found a little disco influence on “Superman,” and it really works for them. The song opens with that great buffeting riff that can also be heard on “Edge of Seventeen” and “Eye of the Tiger.” (Is this the earliest use of that? I’m not sure.) Ray’s dry, everyman humor is a treat as well: “I want to fly, but I can’t even swim.”

10. Sylvan Esso — “The Glow” (2017) I’d venture to say “The Glow” is up there with “Alex Chilton” in terms of songs that capture the feeling of truly loving music. It’s apparently about an album by the band The Microphones, who I’m not familiar with, but the warmth and joy it conveys could equally well describe any formative music listening experience. That huge, low keyboard note is like a sonic hug, and the line “I remember the glow/Not from a phone” give it just the right twist of nostalgia.

11. Marmalade — “Reflections of My Life” (1969) It’s a pretty gutsy move to write a pop song with the lyrics “The world is/A bad place/A bad place/A terrible place to live/Oh, but I don’t want to die.” It suggests that the world is so depressing that wanting to die is kind a given — and thus conveys a default nobility in the act of just staying alive. There’s a depth here that goes beyond an overwrought pop ballad. The minor key vocal harmonies really up the poignancy levels too.

12. Billy Joel — “Rosalinda’s Eyes” (1978) Freaks and Geeks has the best soundtrack of any television show I can think of. The songs chosen are never the ones that I would pick, yet they work perfectly, giving the show and its music a highly personal quality. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is a deep cut from 52nd Street and one of three Billy Joel songs that appear in the episode “Carded and Discarded.” It plays as the geeks spend an enchanted afternoon with Maureen, a fun and pretty new girl they’ve befriended, but who they know is too cool to stay friends with them for long. I’m honestly hard pressed to say exactly why the song fits the scene so well, but it’s got a kind of crisp, open quality the seems to match the blue-skied day, as well as a lurking hint of something unattainable. The whole package is about as close as you can get to feeling what music means to someone else.

Lost Classic: Dean Friedman S/T

A few days ago, a song called “Ariel” popped up on for me some randomized Spotify playlist. It was by an artist I wasn’t familiar with, Dean Friedman. Knowing nothing about this song, my initial assumption was that it was from the ’90s. It had a slightly camp vocal and the kind of specific, narrative humor that I’d associate with groups like Fountains of Wayne or even Nerf Herder. The album cover was no help either. Sure, this guy looks a bit like my dad in certain pictures from the ’70s, but he could just as easily be a hipster parody from anytime in the last 20 or so years. If there was one clue that this song was older, it was the lyrical reference to Channel 2 signing off the air.

It turns out that “Ariel” is from Friedman’s 1977 self-titled debut album. Having continued to enjoy the song after a few more listens, I decided to spin the whole thing. This is something I do a lot: hear a random good song, wonder if it’s just the tip of some amazing pop iceberg, listen to the full album, become very disappointed. But in this case, I wasn’t disappointed! I turns out that Dean Friedman is actually a really good album. Friedman is able to make the kind of direct, memorable connection with the listener that is the mark the of successful singer-songwriter. Even after one listen, musical and lyrical ideas from these songs stuck in my head and made me want to listen again.

“Ariel” is in fact the standout track. It was a minor hit, peaking at #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1977. It’s got a fantastic pop chorus comprised entirely of the name “Ariel” sung repeatedly with layers of soaring harmonies. The verses are where you get the humor, as Friedman tells how he falls in love with a beautiful stoner girl who he meets at the mall in Paramus, New Jersey. The joke that begins “I said hi” is an exemplar of comic delivery in song; he absolutely nails the punchline. There’s also a nice rock’n’ roll-style saxophone solo, not terribly different from something you might hear on a Springsteen record from the same era, but enjoyable and not too dated. All in all, a true lost classic of the type I always hope to discover.

The rest of Dean Friedman is not as overtly funny as “Ariel,” but there’s definitely a sardonic wit that underlies the whole thing. On “Company,” Friedman wonders if “maybe one day I’ll be a famous man with an L.A. tan/A million fans, and a catamaran floating movie stars.” The story of a mother’s suicide on “Song For My Mother” is really sad, but the last line has a dark and surprising humor to it. And “Solitaire” has some great lines too, particularly “If the lies don’t do it, then the honesty will.” The melodic fall of this phrase is great, and the combination of big piano, smart-aleck vocal style, and clever songwriting remind me strongly of Ben Folds.

Another theme running through the album is Friedman’s New Jersey upbringing. But unlike working-class hero Springsteen, Friedman gives us a much more suburban take, prefiguring Fountains of Wayne. There are the references to Paramus in “Ariel,” (the only time the word “Paramus” has occurred in a Top 40 hit, per Wikipedia), as well as callouts to apple cider and donuts, New York radio station WBAI, taking the train into the city, and more. While Friedman’s album predates my teenage years by more than two decades, there’s still a lot about its setting that feels familiar to me as a native of the New York City exurbs.

Friedman is also capable of real feeling, and the album’s other standout track, “The Letter,” shows off his philosophical side. It’s the story of a friend or lover who’s gone off to find herself, leaving those close to her to wonder about this journey of self-discovery. The song has a great arrangement, building from simple piano on the verse to swelling strings and a multi-tracked vocal on the chorus. It’s got a yearning feeling, heightened by lyrics like “Freckles still misses you/She always sleeps on the floor in your room” and a mournful trumpet solo. There’s also narrative complexity, as Friedman both romanticizes the journey and wonders if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

If you need any further convincing to listen to this album, let me just tell you that I wrote this review after hearing most of these songs only two or three times. There are albums that I like well enough, but that I’ve heard a dozen times without being able to single out some of the tracks. Dean Friedman’s immediacy and originality of voice makes it compelling from the first listen, and at 35 minutes it’s tight and filler-free. The possibility of digging up gems like this is why I stay obsessed with pop.

Sounds Delightful #8: 2017 Year in Review

When I first thought about doing a top songs of 2017 post, I was a bit underwhelmed. I felt like my list focused two much on late career albums from artists I already liked, and there was a dearth of full albums that really blew me away. Still I made a list anyway and realized I wasn’t completely right in my assessment. My top ten included tracks by Portugal. The Man, Alvvays, and Ed Sheeran. Plus, some of those late career albums are really good, especially Sparks and Noel Gallagher. In the end, when I listened to the playlist, I really enjoyed it.

I also realized that 2017 was very much a year of pop music discovery for me, even if it wasn’t always new. I read Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, as well as a third of Scott Miller’s Music: What Happened? Both of these unearthed lots of older songs that I hadn’t heard before. 2017 was also my Year of the Bee Gees, and I can’t think of any two albums I enjoyed so much as Mr. Natural and Main Course. So I added a “side 2” to my playlist that includes my top ten new-to-me tracks for the year. With that in place, it felt better, fuller representation of my year.

So here are my top tracks of the year, along with one-sentence mini-reviews for each one. The Spotify links are for expanded playlists that include my top 20 in each category.

Best New Songs of 2017

1. Portugal. The Man “Feel It Still”: Commercial but deserving, “Feel it Still” was instantly identifiable as a hit — and it makes me happy to know that a hit song can still be a good song.

2. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie “Feel About You”: There’s a lot to love, but possibly the best touch is the little two-note guitar build up to the chorus (runner up: marimba solo).

3. Alvvays “Dreams Tonite”: The line “Counting motorbikes/On the turnpike/One of Eisenhower’s” evokes a wistful blend of nostalgia and infrastructure.

4. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “She Taught Me How to Fly”: I’m still obsessed with the melody on the lines “It doesn’t matter what your faith is/I see you praying all the time” — it’s also classic atheist Noel singing about God.

5. Sparks “I Wish You Were Fun”: Super catchy and humorous, but with a hint of darkness that bubbles up in a few minor key piano notes.

6. Wesley Stace “The Wilderness Years”: The line “Open your eyes up to love” achieves a musical opening up that feels like the heart of the song.

7. Josh Ritter “Showboat”: Josh Ritter is simply a pro; witness the hooks, the conceit, and the powerhouse coda on “Showboat” if you have doubts.

8. Circa Waves “Stuck”: This is a great, angry pop vocal, especially the snarl on the line “I fucked it up so much.”

9. Ed Sheeran “Galway Girl”: Cheesy, maybe, but Ed Sheeran has a way of connecting with the listener on each and every song, and that’s probably the key to his success.

10. Morrissey: “Spent the Day in Bed”: “Life ends in death/So there’s nothing wrong with being good to yourself/Be good to yourself for once.” Thanks for the reminder, Morrissey.

Listen on Spotify

Best New-To-Me Songs of 2017

1. The Bee Gees “Mr. Natural” (1974): The Bee Gees have pretty much ruined me for harmonizing by most other groups — just listen to the word “again” in the chorus of this song.

2. The Isley Brothers “Summer Breeze” (1973): I love the Seals and Crofts version, but the Isley Brothers electrify it literally and metaphorically.

3. Danny Wilson “Mary’s Prayer” (1987): The start of the second verse sounds like the clouds parting and the sun streaming in.

4. Steely Dan “My Old School” (1973): Among the many, many achievements Steely Dan should be lauded for is their excellent use of backup singers — the “whoa no” at the start of the chorus is tremendous.

5. Gilbert O’Sullivan “Out of the Question” (1972): O’Sullivan has a way with phrasing that really comes through on lines like “Don’t think that I don’t know/I do” — you can absolutely picture that line accompanied by raised eyebrows and a tilt of the head to one side.

6. Barry Ryan “Eloise” (1969): So emotional that’s it’s embarrassing, but glorious nonetheless.

7. Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson “I Know Him So Well” (1985): This song makes me want to pound my chest like Celine Dion while singing along.

8. The Bee Gees “Come on Over” (1975): I’ve really grown to love a Robin lead vocal: weird, tenuous, beautiful.

9. Prefab Sprout “Appetite” (1985): Super smooth, great backing vocals, and evocative lyrics: “Wishes she could call him heartache/But it’s not a boy’s name.”

10. Kylie Minogue “Step Back in Time” (1990): More than just nostalgia, this song celebrates the fact that our musical past is always there for us; the lines “Remember the old days/Remember the O’Jays” have real warmth and joy to them.

Listen on Spotify

Sounds Delightful Melodic Mix #7 – December 2017

This month’s mix turned out to be a classics sandwich on 2017 bread. I usually like to have more integration between old and new stuff, but this one just seemed to flow best this way.

(Listen on Spotify instead.)

1. Public Access T.V. — “Metrotech” (2017) A catchy, funky new single with a definite BADII vibe, which of course I love.

2. Taylor Swift — “Call It What You Want” (2017) I don’t really have a fully-formed opinion about Taylor Swift’s new album. I didn’t like the first single, and I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet. But I do like at least this one song, which is little more in the vein of 1989. It has a sparse backing track similar to “Wildest Dreams” and a catchy chorus. The line “My baby’s fly like a jet stream” is also very good.

3. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — “She Taught Me How to Fly” (2017) Noel’s new album, Who Built the Moon?, has proven quite a success. “She Taught Me How to Fly” is probably one of my two favorite tracks. The B part is the purest Noel Gallagher melody on the album, particularly the line “I see you praying all the time.” I’m not sure how to describe what’s going on there, but it’s the kind of thing that hits you right in the chest.

4. Teleman — “Bone China Face” (2017) I really like this group, they manage to mix melody and compelling lyrics with a modern electro sound.

5. Eddie Kendricks — “Son of Sagittarius” (1974) This song is a teaser for a larger project I’m working on that involves listening to a lot of songs from 1974. Kendricks was one of the lead singers of the Temptations, and he had a reasonably good solo career in the ‘70s. He’s got an awesome falsetto, and one has to imagine this track sounded a lot more modern and cool than the Temptations concurrent mix of increasingly clunky message songs and bland balladry.

5. The Doobie Brothers — Long Train Runnin’ (1973) I have a theory that music listening goes through three stages: 1) The naive stage where you just hear songs and like them without much reflection; 2) The self-aware stage where you start rejecting songs for being too mainstream or accessible; and 3) The full-circle stage where you begin to really understand that some of the songs you rejected are in fact good, despite the fact that they regularly get played at the grocery store. I’m definitely at Stage 3 when it comes to classic rock, and I have an unexpected new appreciation for the Doobie Brothers. “Long Train Runnin’” rocks pretty hard and it’s got a killer harmonica solo.

6. Fountains of Wayne — “Supercollider” (2003) One of my favorite bands (Fountains of Wayne) doing a straight-up pastiche of one of my other favorite bands (Oasis). It’s a wonder it took me so long to realize it. I wrote a more in-depth discussion of this critical issue earlier this month.

7. Allo Darlin’ — “We Come From the Same Place”(2014) I really miss Allo Darlin’. I recently listened to their final album for the first time in a while and was reminded of how much I love their ability to be open and vulnerable in their music. I was lucky enough to see them perform in Chapel Hill, NC, when they played to a crowd of about 30 people on a Monday night. Singer Elizabeth Morris had a self-possession about her that was very striking — I suppose you need that to write the kind of songs she does.

8. The Seekers — “Georgy Girl” (1966) Do you ever have this experience where there’s a song that’s sort of on the periphery of your listening universe, but you dismiss it until you learn that someone whose taste you respect really likes it. Then it just explodes into your consciousness like, “Oh right, this is good.” That’s what happened to me with “Georgy Girl” after reading about it in Scott Miller’s Music: What Happened?

9. Adam Schmitt — “Can’t Get You On My Mind” (1991) Adam Schmitt is a mainstay of power pop comps for a reason. “Can’t Get You On My Mind” is a classic of the genre both in terms of melody and the way the titles flips a cliche. I came across it on a random thing called “Power Pop Box” that’s on Spotify. It’s got quite a good track list and is also a steal on Amazon ($8.99 for 47 songs) if you’re still the buying type.

10. The Magic Gang — “Alright” (2017) This band can’t lose. They’re continuing proof that basic rock music still works as long as the hooks are there.

11. Sparks — “What the Hell is It This Time?” (2017) “What the Hell is it This Time?” is a great title for a song regardless of what it’s about. But of course Sparks come through in that respect. I love the idea that God is sitting around getting irritated at people’s low-priority prayers: “If Arsenal wins, he really don’t care.”

What’s the Story Interstate Managers?

A few months ago, I was listening to Fountains of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers — a favorite album since its release nearly 15 years ago — and for the first time I realized that it’s hugely influenced by Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. Since then, I can’t stop making this connection. It’s not exactly a revelation, as cursory Googling reveals that many initial reviews of Interstate Managers remarked on the similarity, and various Oasis fan forums have some chatter about the topic as well. Still there’s no definitive analysis of the phenomenon, so I figured why not provide one?

Mashup of What's the Story Morning Glory and Welcome Interstate Managers album coversThe most obvious example of the FoW-Oasis connection is “Supercollider.” This song is such a clear Oasis homage that I can’t believe I listened to it for over a decade without realizing it. (I suppose my excuse is that I wasn’t thinking much about Oasis from about 2003-2013.) The title references “Champagne Supernova” and “Supersonic,” the opening acoustic guitar sounds a lot like the opening to “Wonderwall,” and Chris Collingwood’s vocals are amazingly similar to Liam Gallagher’s when he wants them to be. But what really makes this homage pop is the way that “Supercollider” captures the feel of an Oasis song. It evokes a kind of grand emotional landscape, despite being mostly nonsense.

Most of Interstate Managers’ more rockin’ tracks repeat this trick to varying extents. “Bought for a Song,” “Elevator Up,” and “Little Red Light” all borrow a bit of Noel’s guitar tone and Liam’s snarl — just listen to the line “It may be time to pay up and gee-ohh,” on “Elevator Up.”

Of course the two bands are very different in a lot of ways. Oasis is brasher and more straightforward in their rock sound, and they’re also known for being obnoxious louts. Fountains of Wayne favor a suburban naturalism defined by ironic story-songs and polished arrangements. Still, even in a song like “Fire Island,” which is classic FoW in every respect, a little bit of Oasis influence sneaks in. The middle eight features a guitar solo that owes much to Noel’s playing on “Champagne Supernova” or “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” It has that burbling quality, like beads of oil rising up through a jar of water.

And maybe the connection isn’t that surprising after all. The gorgeous muted trumpet that starts out the middle eight on “Fire Island”’ is certainly influenced by some mid-century, easy-listening Bacharach — a sound that Noel Gallagher has unsubtly embraced on Oasis’s b-sides. And really, Fountains of Wayne and Oasis are both bands whose raison d’être is creating songs that sound good and that people will like. Morning Glory and Interstate Managers are like pop twin stars — one British, opaque, and defiant; the other American, witty, and glossy — united  by a devotion to great melodies above all else. Fountains of Wayne may have been emulating Oasis on Interstate Managers, but both bands likely share many of the same influences and have worn different paths from the same pop truth.

Sounds Delightful Melodic Mix #6 – November 2017

November’s Sounds Delightful mix developed an unplanned theme that might be best expressed by the title of one of its tracks — what is hip? Is it a band created solely for a TV show that became an enduring cultural force? Is it an established rock musician coming out with an upbeat joyfest that’s been compared to Ricky Martin? Is it a very ’90s mix of country and dance? Is it a band that unabashedly embraces gentleness? None of these things might typically called hip, but they all make for wonderful pop music.

(Listen on Spotify)

Sparks — “I Wish You Were Fun” (2017)

The central theme of “I Wish You Were Fun” is pretty much what it says on the tin. What makes it great is the way Sparks cycle through so many rationalizations for why this lack of fun is not a problem: “No one ever changes/Why even bring it up,” “You know she’s from somewhere where/Authority ruled supreme,” “And maybe you’re fun in subtle ways/Too subtle for me.” But in the end it’s no good. To add insult to injury, the song itself, with its jaunty piano and “la la las,” is most definitely fun. The thought of either of the Maels ending up in this un-fun relationship is — to allude to another song on their new album Hippopotamus — a bummer.

The Monkees — “Take a Giant Step” (1966)

A Goffin/King deep cut from the Monkees’ first album. “Take a Giant Step” follows in the footsteps of songs like The Beatles “There’s a Place” and The Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” which take pop music to a more self-aware and reflective place.

Parthenon Huxley — “Bazooka Joe” (1994)

This month I broke out one of the classic Yellow Pills compilations for the first time in a while. Straight up power pop is not a genre that’s generally aged well for me, but when the melodies and lyrics are strong, it’s still pretty great. “Bazooka Joe” scores on both counts. The melody is lovely and plaintive. Similarly, the words are searching and bittersweet, pondering the ways that “We find convenient truth/in whatever we choose” — whether that be a gum wrapper or perhaps, metaphorically speaking, pop music itself.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — “Holy Mountain” (2017)

Noel has been promising that his next album will be a rocker, and the first single delivers. “Holy Mountain” has got a wall of horns, whistling, some “ooh ooh ooh” backing vocals, and it’s all about the glory of love. Apparently some fans are mad that the chorus bears a similarity to the Ricky Martin song “She Bangs.” I have no problem with that.

Tower of Power — “What is Hip?” (1973)

I remember hearing “What is Hip?” during my high school days listening to Vin Scesla’s Idiot’s Delight. I don’t know a lot about Tower of Power, but I like the fact that Wikipedia describes them as “an American R&B-based horn section and band” rather than the other way around. The early ‘70s were clearly a peak time for horns. The title question of this song also resonates with me, as evidenced in the themes of this blog.

Shania Twain — “That Don’t Impress Me Much (Dance Remix)” (1997)

“That Don’t Impress Me Much” hit its peak on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1999, when I was sixteen. That’s an age when even songs you don’t particularly care about lodge themselves permanently in your brain. A couple weeks ago, I listened to a HAIM cover version. I thought it was kind of an inspired choice, so I went and listened to the original. While I could sing along with every word, I was not prepared for the ridiculous ‘90s dance backing track! It’s like Cher’s “Believe” meets something just barely country, yet the abundance of hooks and Shania’s performance make it work. There’s no way that her little trick of letting her vocal slide from singing into talking hasn’t been a huge influence on Taylor Swift. (Edit: This is actually a dance remix, not the original track.)

The Bee Gees — “I Can’t Let You Go” (1974)

I finally reviewed my favorite Bee Gees album, Mr. Natural, earlier this month. “I Can’t Let You Go” has probably the most compelling melody on the a whole album, with a kind of vortex effect that mirrors the nature of this obsessive love affair.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions — “Party Girl” (1979)

This deep cut from the excellent Armed Forces album is an embarrassment of songwriting riches. There are literally only three lines repeated in the whole song, and the rest is bursting with words and wordplay — from the juxtaposition of “party girl” and “party, girl” to the inversion of “grip-like vice.” It’s also totally catchy and wonderfully produced by Nick Lowe.

Belle and Sebastian — “I’ll Be Your Pilot” (2017)

“I’ll Be Your Pilot” is one of the singles from Belle and Sebastian’s forthcoming 3-EP set, the awesomely titled How to Solve our Human Problems. I think it might be advice given by a parent to a child, but in any case, it’s tone of gentle comfort seems to fit in well with Stuart Murdoch’s statements about the project being a statement against anger. I continue to be amazed by the way these guys stay relevant and keep up the high level of quality.

Scott Gagner — “Someone” (2017)

A classic pop sound, totally carried by the quality of the songwriting. Same goes for Gagner’s full album, Pins & Needles. The female backing singer, whose name I couldn’t find, deserves some serious credit for the success of this project as well.

Martin Newell — “Wow! Look at That Old Man” (2007)

I’ve been enjoying Martin’s Newell’s “Oddcast” on Mixcloud. It’s very eclectic, and Newell is as charming as you’d expect him to be. He shares a great story about “Wow! Look at That Old Man” in episode 15, which details how a small child saw him riding his bike and said those words. The song has a bit of a ‘50s doo-wop vibe and a hammy vocal, and it’s a lot of fun.

The Commodores — “Easy” (1977)

I’ve only just realized how much I love this song. Lionel Richie can be forgiven pretty much any ’80s absurdity for giving us the wistful dignity of “Easy.” The middle eight is the high point of the song. It takes it up to another level of emotion and features a great, slightly feedback-y guitar solo. If you normally hear “Easy” on the radio, make sure to stick it out for the full album version. It’s got a little key change on the final chorus that’s missing from the radio edit, and it totally makes the ending.

Pop Masterpiece: Mr. Natural by The Bee Gees

I see the Bee Gees two best albums — Mr. Natural and Main Course — as having a yin and yang relationship. Main Course was The Bee Gee’s first foray into the R&B/disco sound that eventually made them superstars, but it still retained touch of their old vocal harmony roots. Its predecessor, Mr. Natural, is a gentler album that features a touch of soul, but still tips the scale toward the easy-listening vocal pop that had defined The Bee Gees’ career thus far. But Mr. Natural is also an eclectic album that shows the group searching for a new sound, incorporating a wider range of influences, and all the while remaining completely themselves.

The title track is easily the standout, and it’s got the kind of opening I adore. After just a few bars, Robin’s voice comes right in, warm and clear and high in the mix. He’s got that unmistakable Kermit the Frog quality that’s odd and appealing all at once. The lyrics are unique and vivid, especially the lead-in to the second verse: “Rusty rainbows/that’s how the pain goes.” The chorus is a triumph as well, featuring some gorgeous harmonies and a lovely, natural falsetto on the “cry, cry, cry” lyric. “Mr. Natural” also uses that great pop conceit of hiding one’s tears by going out in the rain. It’s one of the great mysteries of pop that a song can take something ridiculous that no real person would ever do, and make it seem so poignant and emotionally true.

“Down the Road” is probably the closest to rocking that The Bee Gees ever came, and there’s a definite Lindsey Buckingham vibe on Barry’s vocals and the guitar. There’s also a swagger to Barry’s vocal performance that really had no precedent in the group’s catalog. I love the lyric “I don’t care/I’d show my feelings anywhere.” That line might be the crux of The Bee Gees whole career for me. They’re a band who’s never shied away from being openly emotional, but suddenly on Mr. Natural, that emotion comes bursting out in new ways.

On “Dogs,” it sounds like Barry’s been listening to a lot of Elton John. This is primarily a piano ballad, and both the verse and chorus feature Barry singing largely without backing harmonies. There’s a little pre-course wedged in, though, that’s pure Bee Gees, full of glorious, intense harmonies. “Dogs” is also one of the group’s last great story-songs, describing the relationship between a son and his derelict, alcoholic father. As songwriters, they’re great that that kind of thing, turning out expressive lines like, “You now he’s lived a thousand years from day to day.”

The award for best tune on Mr. Natural goes to “I Can’t Let you Go.” The minor key melody is like a vortex, especially on the chorus, which kind of swirls around for a bit then builds to a crescendo, before circling back around like it could start all over again, and that would be just fine. It’s the song on this album that I’m most likely to wake up with in my head in the middle of the night. There’s a nice horn arrangement and some rather good guitar playing as well.

Mr. Natural contains plenty of other great tracks: the delicate love balladry of “Charade,” the folky “Voices,” the slight twang of “Lost in Your Love,” and Robin’s gorgeous high harmonies on “Give a Hand, Take a Hand.” The variety of approaches and influences makes the record work as a whole — it’s never too same-y and there’s always something to look forward too. It’s also remarkably consistent in quality. There’s only one bum note on the whole thing, and that’s “Heavy Breathing,” an attempt at the kind of R&B-influenced sound they would embrace more successfully on Main Course. You can tell it’s a bit of a clunker just from the title, and the group is probably better off sticking to singing about the chaste virgin queens of “I Can’t Let You Go” than this panting mess. I will note that I never skip it, though.

Taken as a whole, Mr. Natural is an album that is in some ways is inseparable from Main Course and in some ways its opposite. Both albums represent a group at the peak of its vocal and compositional prowess, and both were flawlessly produced by Arif Mardin. One leans more classic pop with a touch of R&B, and the other swaps the proportions, both to great success. But what makes Mr. Natural unique for me is a  freewheeling pop eclecticism that no other Bee Gees record really has. I’d have to say it’s my favorite.

Past loves (part 2)

A couple weeks ago, I began writing about the bands I’ve previously had intense infatuations with. Here’s the promised part two of that article.

The Format/fun.

Height of infatuation: 2011-2012 (ages 28-29)

Then: I’ve combined these two bands because my infatuation was mainly for two albums that shared certain people and elements. The Format’s final album, Dog Problems, and fun.’s first, Aim + Ignite, both combined the talents of singer Nate Ruess, producer Steven Shane MacDonald, and arranger Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. And both albums amalgamated a wide range of pop influences usually too square for the 2000s: the melodicism of Harry Nilsson, the bombast of Queen, the baroque arrangements of ELO.

These bands also marked a reentry into music fandom for me. The years between the end of college and this period found me stagnating a bit, mostly listening to favorites or new-to-mes like XTC. But 2010 also marked the start of a streaming music service called Rdio that made me care about music again. It came out a bit before Spotify in the US, and it’s social features were still the best I’ve seen in this type of service. I managed to make a bunch of internet friends who shared playlists and chatted about music. I heard fun.’s song “Light a Roman Candle With Me” on one of these playlists and suddenly felt like new music had something to offer me again.

fun. pintrest meme" So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side."
fun. writes the kind of songs that people make into Pintrest memes.

Special soulmate: I’m a borderline Millennial, and Nate Ruess is very close to my age. He’s probably the first Millennial songwriter I’ve loved and the first who has a sensibility and set of experiences that felt more like real life than a fantasy. Nate is almost uncool in the way he sings about things like loving his parents (“Snails” and “The Gambler”) and a kind of earnest need for self discovery (“But between MTV and Mr. O’Reilly/I’ve come to find, that I cant be defined”). Unlike many pop stars, he seems less interested in rebellion or provocation than in being a good person and doing the right thing.

Now: fun.’s Some Nights album was a big change in direction. It was produced by Jeff Bhasker, who has produced for people like Beyonce and Kanye West. As such, it had a much trendier sound, full of autotune and hip-hop influences. Some Nights was still a pretty good album and continued many of Nate Ruess’s favorite lyrical themes, but it definitely marked the end of the old pop sound. It hasn’t helped that fun. have not released anything since. Still, I consider Aim + Ignite and Dog Problems to be two off my all-time favorite albums, and I continue to listen to them regularly. I also haven’t stopped dreaming of a reunion of either band with their production/arranging dream team.

Oasis

Height of infatuation: 2013-2016 (ages 30-33)

Then: Oasis is a strange one, because my infatuation with them developed after nearly two decades of passing acquaintanceship. I bought (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? back in 1995 during the height of Oasis’s U.S. popularity. I saw them as being a bit like the Beatles — a melodic British rock band out the conquer the states. My middle school interest didn’t last long, but I have a crystal clear memory of putting on Morning Glory near the end of high school and being blindsided by the mix of familiarity and freshness upon hearing it again — my first brush with nostalgia. It was such a strong sensation that I immediately bought Definitely Maybe and rekindled a casual interest in the band.

Fastforward to 2013. My husband rented us a copy of a documentary called Live Forever. It’s not about Oasis per se, but about the Britpop phenomenon more generally. It featured extensive interviews with the major players, and it was love at first sight for me and Noel (or at least me). I hadn’t realized that he was so funny and insightful. I started listening to Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory again and expanding into the rest of the Oasis catalog. The next thing I knew, I was buying old CD singles so I could have all their b-sides and reading cheesy-looking (but actually good) books about the Gallaghers’ childhoods.

Cover of the book Brothers: From Childhood to Oasis, by Paul Gallagher
My husband bought me this Oasis book as a joke. I loved it.

Special soulmate: Noel Gallagher is one of the best ever melodic songwriters, and his compositions radiate a kind of pure emotion that makes me feel understood in a non-verbal way. Noel is also a compelling figure to me because of the contrast between his rude, curmudgeonly exterior and the sensitive, wistful nature of his music (and occasionally his comments when he stops being snarky). Oasis as a band is cut from the same pattern. They’re known for being big, dumb, and loud, but actually I think most people who love them do so because of the way Noel lets that soft underbelly peek out.

Now: I’d say my Oasis infatuation ended shortly after I saw Noel Gallagher live in July 2016. I kind of knew it would happen. The infatuation had been too strong for too long to really hold for much longer, and the live show provided a capstone to the whole experience. I still love the band and listen to them a lot more moderately. There’s obviously still a spark there, since the release of Noel’s new single has got me excited for his new album and U.S. tour.

It’s funny that there are certain people in my life (real people who’ve made an impression on me, not just pop idols) who I still dream about, despite not having seen them for years. I think when you have that true connection, it never really leaves you. Silly as it may sound, I seem to have that connection, one-sided though it may be, with Noel Gallagher. (Like seriously, I just had a dream that I told Noel about my favorite restaurant in Raleigh. He seemed really interested and said he’d check it out.)

The Bee Gees

Height of infatuation: 2017-Present (ages 34-?)

Then/Now: The Bee Gees have been my current obsession, and they’re a good one. They have a lot of albums, and they’ve worked in a wide range of styles, so there’s plenty to delve into. I began getting into The Bee Gees mainly because of Noel Gallagher’s endorsement of their early work. Then, I read the excellent Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by Bob Stanely, which contains an entire chapter that’s basically a paean to the band. That really set me off, and I’ve been getting to know their catalog over the past year.

The Bee Gees synthesize a lot of what I love about the other bands listed here: the melodicism of the Beatles, the uncoolness of fun., the obtuse yet emotional lyrics (and brotherly dynamics) of Oasis, and occasionally even the country-pop hybrid of the Old 97’s. There’s a passage in Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! where Stanley contemplates his favorite bands. He lists the The Bee Gees as a contender, but ultimately concludes, “Too much to explain.” I actually kind of like how hard it is to explain the disconnect between the band’s popular image as avatars of disco excess and the real wealth of diversity that actually marks their catalog. Like my initial discovery of The Beatles, I feel once again that I’ve discovered a treasure trove that only the privileged few appreciate.

Barry Gibb at a Grammy Salute to The Bee Gees
Barry is moved by his recent Grammy salute.

Special soulmate: As much as I’d like it to be Robin, who I think is well under appreciated, Barry is the Bee Gee I think about most. It’s a little hard to say that he’s The Bee Gee’s best song writer, as Maurice and especially Robin were such essential contributors to the band’s compositions. It’s more a collection of compelling things about him. He’s certainly got a swagger, as evidenced in the Stayin’ Alive video, as well as a sense of humor. (Read  almost any Wikipedia entry for a Bee Gees song for some great Barry quotes). It makes me happy that he’s been married for 47 years and has a zillion kids and grandkids. He’s also a bit of a tragic figure at this point. I watched a recent Grammy Salute to The Bee Gees, and it was super sad to see Barry stand up and talk about how all three of his brothers are gone, leaving him to accept the honor on his own. But he also seemed genuinely touched at the celebration of his music, and it really made me like him.

Final thoughts

I’ve read that infatuation is a useful tool because it gets you to fall in love with someone and (theoretically) reproduce. But you can’t stay at that level of obsession forever, because you’d never get anything done. Either the relationship ends or it settles into a much more manageable level of enjoyment and commitment — often known as love. Looking over these bands I’ve been infatuated with, I’m pleased to see that most of have settled down into that mature love state.

I remember once a teacher in high school telling our class that a long term relationship has its ebbs and flows. Sometimes things between her and her husband were fine, and other times they felt like teenagers again. That reflection stuck with me. I see these waves reflected in my relationships to my favorite bands as well. Once the initial infatuation has passed, I’ll experience periods of stability and of renewed interest.

That said, I do still enjoy the fact that new infatuations come along from time to time. It’s exciting to get to relive the feeling of falling in love with a band. And as long as it keeps happening to me, I continue to feel alive and young as a music fan. I hope that I always will.

Sounds Delightful Melodic Mix #5 – October 2017

I’m pleased with this month’s mix. I think it has a nice flow, and it brings together many  of the things that I’ve been enjoying — and that have been influencing my music listening — this month: Scott Miller’s book, Music: What Happened?, the return of Pseu’s Thing with a Hook, the great BoJack Horseman on Netflix, and finally some new contenders for favorite album of 2017.

Listen on Mixcloud:

or on Spotify.

Beck — “Up All Night” (2017)

I’m glad that Beck is willing to release a pice of candy like “Up All Night.” It’s hooky with a disco beat and synth strings straight out of “Call Me Maybe.” The middle eight is even reminiscent of the middle eight from Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” I was also amused that a DJ on our local alternative station (I believe seriously) suggested this track as “Song of the Fall.”

Alvvays — “Lollipop (Ode to Jim)” (2017)

Alvvays’s new album, Antisocialites has turned out to be a really good start-to-finish listen. “Lollipop” is a shimmering, frantic piece of power pop. It’s in part an “Alex Chilton”-like ode to Jim Reid of The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the song opens with a little bit of feedback as a fitting tribute. It also seems to describe a chaotic relationship, and it’s got some striking, idiosyncratic lines that really jump out, like “You grabbed my wrist and said you liked my keychain.”

Skeeter Davis — “Let Me Get Close to You” (1964)

I’ve been slowly making my way through Scott Miller’s book, Music: What Happened? (It takes a while when you end up listening to every song.) As I make my way through the ’60s, I’m discovering some gems — a real treat, since I already consider myself pretty well-versed on that era. Miller describes this song as “sweet, charmingly plain,” but with a “mysterious lure.” One of the things I like about his commentary is that he often seems to struggle just as much as me to put his finger on what makes one song sparkle, while another one falls flat. There’s no doubt this one is a winner though.

Old 97’s — “Roller Skate Skinny” (2001)

Writing my post about past musical loves inspired me to listen to some Old 97’s this month. “Roller Skate Skinny” really holds up well. It’s twangy, yet poppy, and is filled with more clever, vivid lyrics than any one song really has a right to. This one deserves a top 5 best lines:

5. I believe in love, but it don’t believe in me
4. You’re gonna wake up with a ghost instead of a guy
3. Love feels good when it sits right down, puts it feet up on a table, and it sends a bowl around
2. Every other day is a kick in the shins/Every other day it’s like the day just wins
1. Do you wanna meet up at the Pickwick Bowl/We can knock nine down and leave one in the hole

The Sneetches — “Over Round Each Other” (1991)

One of the best things that’s happened so far this fall is the return of Pseu’s Thing with a Hook on WFMU! This show really influenced me to do my radio show and to continue with this blog. Power pop is only one component of Pseu’s show, but when she plays it, she always manages to find some gems that transcend the sometimes-boring confines of the genre. This song from ‘80s/‘90s obscurities The Sneetches has a spiraling quality to its lyrics and melody, balanced by not one, but two great middle eights. Jangle perfection.

The Lemon Twigs — “Why Didn’t You Say That?” (2017)

The Lemon Twigs are the most recent torchbearers for the kind of exuberant, baroque arrangements embraced by Jellyfish and early fun. Their melodies can be a little spotty, which prevented me from really loving their debut as a whole. But this track from their forthcoming second album manages to get the hooks right, along with some fanfare and a nice minor-key middle eight.

Morrissey — “Spent the Day in Bed” (2017)

Morissey’s new single is an ode to the mental health day, but it’s got a serious side as well. His advice to “Stop watching the news!/Because the news contrives to frighten you/To make you feel small and alone/To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own” is one of the most piecing and relevant things I’ve heard in a song recently.

Orange Juice — “Rip It Up” (1982)

“Rip It Up” is an amalgamation several great elements that you wouldn’t necessarily think would work together: funky Genus of Love synths, an over-the-top ’80s sax solo, and a slightly gloomy post-punk vocal.

ABC — “When Smokey Sings” (1987)

Sometimes I think it’s easy to call something cheesy as a way of distancing oneself from an expression of emotion that is so personal and unguarded that it’s actually a bit embarrassing. “When Smokey Sings” falls into this category. How can you really describe the feelings you experience when you hear you favorite music? It’s hard, and you might resort to saying something slightly ridiculous like “I hear violins.” I applaud ABC for recoding something so revealing and doing it with such panache.

Jane Krakowski and Colman Domingo — “I Will Always Think of You” (2017)

One of the best things about the current Golden Age of Television is that it gives us shows like BoJack Horseman that can be funny, inappropriate, absurd, existential, and sad — all while remaining completely watchable. Then, just to polish it off, the show’s like, “Let’s just have our writers come up with a little original song and get two broadway stars to sing it perfectly. No problem.” “I Will Always Think of You,” which appears in a Season 4 episode that flashes back to BoJack’s grandparents during World War II, sounds like it could have come right out of that time period, and it’s lovely. The episode it’s part of is exquisite as well.

Hector and the Leaves — “Call You Up” (2017)

I got a chance to interview Tom Hector, the man behind Hector and the Leaves, for my old radio show a couple years ago. One of the things that stuck with me from our conversation  was how much he likes making EPs, because they feel like a better space for playing around with things like little instrumentals and demo-ish bits of songs. Tom’s new EP, Interiors, definitely has this feel. “Call You Up” is probably the most polished track on the EP, which I tend to like, but the whole thing’s got great melodies and an Elliot Smith vibe.

The Go-Betweens — “Quiet Heart” (1988)

I wish I had the vocabulary to explain how a melody can so effectively convey a feeling of longing. No matter how many times I hear the wistful beauty of “Quiet Heart,” — well, for lack of a better explanation — I hear violins. Literally, in this case, as the song has a lovely string section. It’s also got a mournful harmonica solo that rounds out the overall mood.

The Clientele — “Museum of Fog” (2017)

The Clientele’s Music for the Age of Miracles is another new album I’ve been enjoying. “Museum of Fog” is a spoken word piece, and its story has a dreamlike quality that’s kind of like a gentler David Lynch movie. Some of the phrases just sound wonderful spoken in a soft British voice: “I left the towpath as the light began to fade,” “The jukebox still boasted a 45 by Twinkle, thirty years after it dropped out of the charts.” The background music is a dreamy wash of sound, with some chiming, plucked guitar notes coming through. The overall effect is that doesn’t exactly make sense, but still means something.

Past loves (part 1)

Relationships with bands can be a lot like relationships with people. Some are pleasant acquaintances who you like, but only seem to run into once in a while. Beck, for example, is someone I want to get to know better, but I just don’t meet him often enough. Others are more like friends in particular circumstances. Like co-worker who’s always up for a coffee break, Real Estate is a band I only listen to when I need something to make my work day a little more bearable, without completely derailing productivity. And then there are the steady, lifelong friends — the ones I can always reconnect with, no matter how long it’s been since we last hung out. Belle and Sebastian, Fountains of Wayne, John Wesley Harding, The Zombies — they have been some of my constant musical companions.

But I can also fall in love with a band, the way I’d fall in love with a person. These relationships are true infatuations. I start neglecting my other musical interests to listen to the beloved band all the time. I find myself thinking about them during work meetings or before falling asleep at night. I develop a conviction that I would connect with a certain songwriter on a deep, personal level, should we ever meet.

These infatuations usually last a couple years, and they always end at some point. Recently I was chatting with an friend about The Old 97’s, a band that we both loved in college, but who I never listen to anymore. It got me thinking about some of these past loves and the way my relationships with them have evolved over time. While the height of infatuation can never last, the experience of being in love with a band leaves its mark, just as it does with people.

The Beatles

Height of infatuation: 1995-circa 1997 (ages 12-14)

Super '60s John
Super ’60s John

Then: I’ve already covered my Beatles obsession quite extensively in a previous post, so I’ll be brief here. The Beatles Anthology television show, which aired in 1995, kicked off my first real music infatuation, which lasted for at least the rest of my middle school years.

Special soulmate: At the time, I suppose it was John. He was the leader, the clever one, the symbol. And he was dead, which somehow made him seem more romantic. My connection to him was vague and immature, but I remember it had something to do with an idealized vision of the 1960s, a time period I became obsessed with after discovering The Beatles. It was a fantasy world of peace and meditation, Agent 99 dresses, and the best music being the most popular. I liked to imagine I had been born in the wrong time, and this perhaps tied into my general feeling of not always fitting in at school. John let me believe I was different in a good way, and that gave me comfort.

Now: While I still love the Beatles, I only listen to them occasionally. I’ve heard their songs so many times that it’s almost like I can’t hear them anymore. But once in a while, I still catch a particular album just right and enjoy it in a fresh way. And I still think about them. I adopted Paul as my true favorite Beatle a while ago, and recently, for the first time ever, I decided on a favorite Beatles song — “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” It so perfectly encapsulates Paul’s melodicism, coupled with nonsense lyrics that nonetheless seem to convey wistful depths on lines like “She could steal, but she could not rob.” Most certainly an influence on Oasis and my future love for Oasis.

The Old 97’s

Height of infatuation: 2001-2005 (ages 18-22)

Then: The first Old 97’s song I heard was “What We Talk About” from 1999’s Fight Songs album. DJ Vin Scelsa played it on his Idiot’s Delight radio program, one of my early gateways into non-mainstream pop. I liked the song, but didn’t get fully into The Old 97’s until their next album, Satellite Rides, came out in 2001, a few months before I graduated high school.

In contrast to my previous obsession with the Beatles and the ’60s, I now loved a band whose creative peak matched the peak of my infatuation. Between 2002 and 2005, I saw The Old 97’s or Rhett Miller about a dozen times, always accompanied by my friend Tom. I remember he told me that I smiled in a different way during these shows, a way that he didn’t really see during my everyday activities. I take this as an indicator that I was enjoying the band in an unselfconscious way that only true love could inspire.

My signed copy of Rhett's first solo album
My signed copy of Rhett’s first solo album

Special soulmate: It didn’t hurt that the Old 97’s lead singer, Rhett Miller, was exactly the kind of frontman that I could without hesitation or embarrassment describe as a dreamboat. (Which I once did, memorably, at a meeting of my college newspaper staff. I think people were surprised, because I’m not usually emotionally demonstrative.) Rhett looked like a model, but and his music was a perfect melding of pop melodies, sex, and literary references. “Rollerskate Skinny” is probably the apotheosis of this combination, from the title allusion to the line “Let’s knock nine down and leave on in the hole.”

Now: The end of college, along with a couple less than perfect albums, spelled the end of my romance with the Old 97’s. I sill love Fight Songs and Satellite Rides, as well as much of their early catalog, but they haven’t had an album I’ve really gotten into since then. On the whole, I’d have to say that The Old 97’s are the past love that I engage with least these days. That’s a little sad to contemplate, but it doesn’t undo the great times I had with the band and what they gave me. They helped me understand the value of country music, discover the transcendence that can be found in a live show, and begin listening to a greater variety of music.

XTC

Height of infatuation: 2008-2010 (Ages 25-27)

Then: XTC was a band who I never got, until I did. As I began to define my music taste more deliberately, I found that I could identify bands I might like using terms like “power pop” or “melodic pop.” XTC always came up as something I should like. I bought a couple of their albums at some point — I think Oranges & Lemons and Wasp Star — but I never really got into them. They sat on the shelf for quite a while.

My interest in XTC was renewed by two events that would prove to be pretty influential in my life. First, I moved in with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Josh, who owned and liked the album Skylarking. Second, we started DVRing 120 Minutes on VH1 Classic. The second item might seem trivial, but Josh and I still watch these music videos together today, and they have been the source for countless music discoveries over the past decade. I think it was “Mayor of Simpleton” — a shimmering, gleeful romp — that resuscitated my interest in the band. From there, I got really into the albums from the second half of their career: Skylarking through Wasp Star.

Andy Partridge — silly and serious

Special soulmate: I think I needed to be a little bit older to appreciate Andy Partridge’s songwriting style. While he’s certainly capable of crafting the pure pop of “Mayor of Simpleton” or “Stupidly Happy,” he also comes closer to writing intelligently about the meaning of life than any other songwriter I can think of. “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” looks at the power of heroes, but also acknowledges that nobility potentially lies within all people. “Harvest Festival” beautifully conveys the sharpness of first love and the nostalgia of its contemplation. “The Wheel and the Maypole” captures the ever changing nature of existence and the futility of resisting this change. I couldn’t appreciate these sentiments until I had a little more life experience — and it may be a bit laughable to assume I’ve full appreciated them even still. The upside is that there will also be more meaning to find and contemplate in Andy’s songs.

Now: There was no one event that ended my XTC period, it just kind of faded out. The depth and emotional clarity of their songs still resonates for me, and I’d say I now listen to them a normal amount compared with other bands I like. In some ways, they are like an ex-boyfriend who actually manages to become a friend.

Note: This article got very long, so I’m breaking it up into two parts. Part two should be along soon.