Here’s a digital browsing success story: I was on Hoopla (free with your library card) trolling through the new music releases and selected an album from an artist I knew and liked. Don’t even remember which it was, but I saw that the Similar Artists under the album showed a band called Mountain Man. Had never heard of them, but I figured a group with a name like that couldn’t be bad. Turned out I was correct. It’s a trio of women doing mostly a cappella folk serenades, and I can’t wait to play them as lullabies to my incipient child. Choice song: “Agt”
Since 2010, when I first got my MacBook Pro, I’ve used GarageBand to record song ideas. Some of them remain fragments and half-songs, but many have become full songs. This album is a collection of the songs that became something.
Most of the songs were written and recorded in 2010 when I was in Colombia, or in 2011 after I returned home and had a good amount of spare time. None of them are professionally or even decently recorded; I did them all myself, usually just with the MacBook’s built-in microphone in a bedroom or other non-soundproofed space. (Piano and drums were recorded at Reba Place Church.) Except where noted I did all the singing and played all the instruments. I am not a good singer, but I am proud of how I composed and arranged many of the songs. Some turned out well, some make me cringe, some I’m just happy I finished.
I’m releasing them now for two reasons:
Now in my thirties with a kid on the way, I’d very much like to just get these out into the world and achieve some sense of closure rather than let them languish on a hard drive. They represent a formative time of my life for which I’m very grateful, but it’s time to say goodbye and thanks for the memories.
Without a band or reason to record them professionally, I’d rather release them as demos, lo-tech warts and all, because something is better than nothing.
Keep reading for some short liner notes on each track. Thanks for listening and sharing. And thanks to Richard Polt for the authentic Royal Executive typewriter font for the cover.
1. “The Wonder Of It All”
The most recently written and recorded song on the album, from 2015. Initially had some drums towards the end, but between that, the guitar, and piano, the rhythm got too choppy. Just realized how much the beginning sounds like “Hero” by Family of the Year (a.k.a. the Boyhood song).
2. “It All Comes Back To You”
Originally called “Shouldn’t Have Done,” written by my friend and former bandmate Taylor, I changed the chorus and wrote two more verses for this new version. (Original version is track 14.) The random children shouting in the background were playing in the Colombian church where I was recording.
3. “Minor Lovers (feat. Taylor Martin)”
With a little banjo and stand-up bass help from Taylor.
4. “Be Still Your Fears (Christmastime Is Here)”
Once I started coming back around on Christmas music in general, I figured I should try to write my own. A bit strange putting this together in a warm Colombian winter. Should have added some sleigh bells in the interludes.
5. “Rejoice Evermore”
Proud of the backing vocals on this one. Can you tell I was listening to Mumford & Sons a lot around that time? This and track 13 are the most explicitly worship-songy I think—not a surprise given I was living with a Colombian pastor’s family and heavily involved at church.
My “sad bastard” emo song. Added the harmonica interludes after I got one for my birthday one year.
8. “I Will Find A Way”
Went through several different tempos and feels before landing on this more upbeat version. Regret not adding some foot-stomps to give it some meat and drive.
9. “Long Gone Days”
Also went through several different tempos and feels before landing on this slow rock rendition. Needs some bass or low-end.
10. “Today Starts”
Wrote this all the way back in high school, and even recorded it with Taylor on a 4-track mixer. But couldn’t locate the recording, so I tried it again. The original was better, and not just because Taylor sang it.
11. “I Carry Your Heart”
Chorus lyrics are quoting an e.e. cummings poem, which I first heard in the good movie In Her Shoes. Had fun stacking harmonies throughout.
12. “What Love Looks Like To Me”
Kinda funny that I wrote this before ever actually being in love and having botched two different shotgun relationships. Call it a creative writing experiment.
13. “Awake And Alive”
Another fun vocal one. Not sure what I was thinking with the claps but why not.
14. “It All Comes Back To You (feat. Taylor Martin)”
The original “Shouldn’t Have Done” with me on guitar and Taylor singing.
Truman by David McCullough. I’m not saying some parts aren’t skimmable, but I am saying this 1,000-page book (not including endnotes and index) didn’t feel that long and indeed deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Biography it received. That’s a testament to both McCullough and Truman, a match made in history buff heaven.
The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. When I watched these initially in college, I preferred Part II. This time around I see that the original reigns supreme.
Tag. Goofy fun.
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. A good complement to Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Bounces around more than I wish it did. Love that the only TV shows he watched were The Waltons and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Searching. Cleverly crafted thriller that unfurls exclusively through a computer screen, which means it’ll be dated by this time next year.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari. This is a 12-course meal of a book that touches a mind-boggling range of disciplines. It’s almost too much. But I enjoyed the challenge, the feeling of flying through millennia from a bird’s-eye view.
King of Comedy. This might be DeNiro’s best performance.
Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (highly recommended) has a great Paul McCartney quote on his own solo work:
I hear some of them and think, blimey, you should finish that one someday, son.
I don’t think that applies to his more recent ones, which I really like: 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and 2012’s jazz standards cover album Kisses on the Bottom.
I also like his first two solo records, 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram. But I also think, in the spirit of Better The Beatlesand Paul’s own above quote, that they could be improved. Basically by becoming one album.
Here’s what my version of Ram McCartney would look like:
The Lovely Linda
That Would Be Something
Man We Was Lonely
Maybe I’m Amazed
Too Many People
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
Heart of the Country
Eat at Home
Gone are all the instrumental or noise songs, and the ones that simply annoy me like “Kreen Akrore” and “Monkberry Moon Delight”. The result is a much tighter, cohesive album that shows off McCartney’s renowned talent without the self-indulgent piffle of these early solo works.
“Strange American Dream” by Rayland Baxter, Wide Awake Recently I decided I wanted to find a way to regularly hear new music. If only there were a podcast, I thought, from a renowned media company that featured new music every week. Then I realized that was NPR’s All Songs Considered, a podcast I’ve known about for years but never listened to. The first episode I heard featured this song. I was hooked right away, dove into his back catalog, and then found out he was playing in Chicago exactly when I could make it. It was a great show: he’s like the lovechild of Tom Petty and Steve Miller Band, with a dash of U2.
“Waiting on a Song” by Dan Auerbach, Waiting on a Song I was on a Black Keys-adjacent kick and realized I hadn’t listened to Auerbach’s solo stuff. I didn’t care for Keep It Hid, but Waiting on a Song is a sparkling mix of pop, rock, and soul.
“To the Great Unknown” by Cloud Cult, The Seeker A buddy of mine told me about Cloud Cult in the midst of a deep conversation about the mysteries of the universe. Turns out Cloud Cult is a great guide in that journey. I can’t decide if I actually like Minowa’s voice or not, but the combination of stargazing lyrics and indie rock just does something for me.
“The Last Goodbye” by Uncle Earl, Waterloo, Tennessee Pretty sure I have Abigail Washburn’s Wikipedia page to thank for stumbling upon this band she was in before her solo work. Combining her voice and banjo-fueled folk music can never go wrong.
“Steamboat Whistle Blues” by John Hartford, Aereo-Plain Without realizing it, the first Hartford song I heard was Sara Watkins’ cover of “Long Hot Summer Days” almost a decade ago. It took until recently to look into his stuff, and the banjo-heavy “newgrass” of Aereo-Plain emerged as the favorite. It has several straight-up weird songs, but this one ain’t one of them:
Ready for a hot take? Hamilton: An American Musical was really good.
I assumed I wouldn’t see it for years, as tickets are prohibitively expensive in Chicago. But it was a surprise anniversary gift from my wife (musical theater tickets are the traditional Year 3 gift, right?) along with a special ticket she made to stand in for the digital ones. Best of wives, best of women!
It was a funny thing to finally see before my eyes what for years had only streamed through my ears. Since the cast recording basically is the whole show, I knew the plot and what to expect from song to song. But I also knew the staging would add a whole new layer to the story the music itself tells so well. It definitely did.
Several songs were even better on stage. “It’s Quiet Uptown”, which I usually skip over on the album, was devastating in its simplicity. And “The Reynolds Pamphlet” made kinetic use of the double-turntable floor, the pamphlet props, and the whole cast and chorus.
Special shout-out to Jamila Sabares-Klemm, who played Eliza with stunning range and vocal power, and Colby Lewis, who played LaFayette and Jefferson with a delightful flair.
After seeing the show I checked out Hamilton: The Revolutionfrom the library. It’s essentially book-length liner notes accompanied by essays about the cast and creation of the show. The highlights of the book are the lyrical annotations by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He clearly delights in paying homage to the artists and works he quotes in the show, and adds great insight to his creative process. (“Farmer Refuted” is a short but brilliant burst of layered lyrical ingenuity.)
He also calls attention to certain lines that deserve a deeper reading. I know it’s easy for me to lose the meaning of words I’ve listened to a lot unless I really try to think about them. That was the case for the excerpt from Washington’s actual Farewell Address, featured in “One Last Time”:
I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.
The benign influence of good laws under a free government are, I realize now, an excellent triad of ideals that characterize a healthy republic.
An unhealthy one, conversely, would be an oppressive government that institutes bad laws with malignant influence on its citizens. What exactly constitutes oppression and bad laws and malignant politics is a debate as old as America itself, as Hamilton so brilliantly shows. Particularly in Act II with “The Room Where It Happens” and “Cabinet Battle #1” and “The Election of 1800”.
Ron Chernow rightly calls the show “American history for grownups” because it doesn’t sanitize the people in it, nor their methods for achieving their political goals. I’m so glad I got to see it, and recommend it if you ever have the chance to see it somewhere near you.
I have listened to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the Mean Girls musical (on Hoopla—free with your library card) and have determined, without having seen the show, that the best song is “Stupid With Love.”
This is a great profile of Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, written by musician Max Marshall, whom Miller befriended as a middle schooler and has mentored ever since. In one part Marshall describes the enduring appeal of Miller’s music:
To a lot of Steve Miller Band fans, the seventies hits are like “chocolate cake.” They’re warm and pleasurable comfort food, reminiscent of a Summer of ’76 picnic. They’re rock without the chaos, the blues without the pain, an America with the freedom of an endless road trip.
That’s exactly right. Though I was born long after the Steve Miller Band and his contemporaries were popular, growing up with 94.9 WOLX in Madison helped introduce me to all the good stuff long before I even knew which bands wrote which songs.
More recently I’ve started compiling a list of the songs that—at least for me—fit into that “chocolate cake” vein. Ranging from pop to rock to country, their strong hooks and smooth rhythms are perfect for long summer days and windows-down road trips. (My wife, to my shame, is not a fan, so I usually have to save it for solo driving.)
For a long time I couldn’t figure out a good name for this subgenre, but chocolate cake rock works for me. Suggestions for further additions welcome:
“Take the Money and Run” – Steve Miller Band
“Danny’s Song” – Loggins & Messina
“Dance With Me” – Orleans
“Running On Empty” – Jackson Browne
“Ramblin Man” – Allman Brothers
“Rich Girl” – Hall & Oates
“Come and Get Your Love” – Redbone
“The Weight” – The Band
“Amie” – Pure Prairie League
“Reelin’ in the Years” – Steely Dan
“Lake Shore Drive” – Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah
“I Just Want to Celebrate” – Rare Earth
“Brandy” – Looking Glass
“Time in a Bottle” – Jim Croce
Had the pleasure of seeing The Okee Dokee Brothers in concert at Lincoln Hall. My little niece is a superfan of the folk duo, which is how I got turned onto them. And since they are a kid-centric act, I got to experience the glories of an 11 a.m. concert start time. I’d go to so many more concerts if they happened in the morning.
Though my exposure to children’s music is limited, none of what I have heard is as broadly appealing as The Okee Dokee Brothers. It’s just straight-up good roots, bluegrass, and folk music. Can You Canoe?, Saddle Up, and Through the Woods are all excellent albums for all ages. (They said their next album, out in October, will be all about winter—as if I needed another reason to love them!)
They also solved a problem I’d stumbled into ever since picking up the banjo and exploring bluegrass music. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment but I promise it’s just a plain compliment: the Okee Dokee Brothers don’t seem focused on being impressive.
They very well could be savants on the guitar and banjo, but unlike some artists they don’t waste time trying to prove how amazing instrumentalists they are through a fusillade of notes. A round of applause for those virtuosos—but I’m much more interested in being taken on a good musical storytelling journey.
The Okee Dokee Brothers demonstrated this (inadvertently) during their show, playfully hyping up their soloing abilities only to reveal some fairly pedestrian two-bar or one-note licks. Meanwhile, songs like “Through the Woods” and “Hillbilly Willy” and “Walking With Spring”, seemingly straightforward folk songs “for kids”, boast strong narrative arcs, clever lyrics, and beautiful musical craftsmanship. And all without punching listeners in the ear with a barrage of frailin’ and fingerpickin’.
In other words: Songs over notes. I know what you can do with all those notes, but what about what you can do with only some of them?
There are two works of art I associate with an ex. One is the music of Mayer Hawthorne, specifically A Strange Arrangement, which had come out a few months before our brief relationship and was a primary jam for me that winter. The other is the Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog, which we saw together in the theater on one of our few dates.
I love both dearly. Hawthorne sounds like Motown reanimated (in a white dude no less). And The Princess and the Frog was a beautiful return to classic Disney form, with a jazzy Randy Newman soundtrack to boot.
But I had to stop listening to Mayer Hawthorne. For some unknown reason, I’ve been able to Eternal Sunshine the unwanted associations from the Princess and the Frog soundtrack and have enjoyed it for years.
Not so for Hawthorne. Despite trying mightily to enjoy A Strange Arrangement and his follow-up How Do You Do on their own terms, the associations that stuck to them overpowered any enjoyment they provided, so I had to say goodbye.
How one survived and one didn’t is a mystery. Scarcity isn’t the issue; it’s not like Disney soundtracks and soul music are hard to find. Maybe it’s because Hawthorne’s music is specifically about love and relationships, and that was harder to separate from reality than music sung by animated frogs.
Perhaps I’ll come back to Hawthorne and the patina of the past will have faded. In the meantime, I guess I just wasn’t willing to give up “When We’re Human”: