Summer — oh, summer. I am gripped in your sweaty, sordid embrace and seek escape in travels and tunes. This playlist is born of hazy treks under desert sun and misty climbs to mountaintops. Hope you enjoy.
Lord Huron ✦ Horse Feathers ✦ Joe Pug ✦ Elephant Revival ✦ River Whyless
The Mynabirds ✦ Belle and Sebastian ✦ Glass Animals ✦ Hannah Peel
Vetiver ✦ The Airborne Toxic Event ✦ Jay Troop ✦ Jesse Terry ✦ Ben Howard
1. Lord Huron — World Ender
I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lord Huron’s second album, Strange Trails. The band is alternately labeled folk and rock. It’s both, and more — with reverb-laden vocals and swingy, hard-charging rhythms, we alternately meander and ride at an urgent canter through moonlit landscapes filled with ghosts, lovers, and fellow travelers.
Frontman Ben Schneider’s time in Indonesia lends an eastern vibe to some of the songs (though it’s more apparent in debut album Lonesome Dreams, with its gamelan-esque chimes). Lord Huron’s live shows are cinematic, with moody lights and transitions narrated via a voice that seems to emerge through an old wireless that sits on stage. The band’s show attire seems to be an extension of the “movie trailer” teasers for the album (a sort of Tarantino aesthetic, with pulp-novel-jagged typeface and Japanese subtitles) — tastes of spaghetti western in bolo ties, of ’50s greasers in leather jackets and slicked-back hair.
The lyrics here feel tailor-made for the adventuring spirit (I borrowed a phrase for the title of this mix): Lord knows I should be pushing daisies / I was 6 feet down, but something raised me up / Sent back for to lift my curse / Gonna get me a taste of some chaos first.
Lord Huron started as a solo visual and musical project inspired by the adventure novels of George Ranger Johnson (b. 1946). The thing is, George Ranger Johnson doesn’t exist, except in the imaginings of Ben Schneider — and what a richly and meticulously imagined world it is.
In the video for “Fool for Love,” our protagonist convinces a motorcycle gang to take on a musclehead who is his rival in love. In the ensuing bar brawl and chase scene, the characters run past a billboard that reads: “Feeling Lost? 1-800-774-1372.” Dial that number and you’ll enter a choose-your-own-adventure story.
The alternate reality created by Lord Huron is alluring because of the sense of disorientation that it fosters. If we take apart the word “sublime” and look at the root, limens — lintel, threshold — it becomes so very appropriate here. Lord Huron evokes the in-between territory of dreams and memories, dislocation and discovery. It’s a strange trail that you should follow.
2. Horse Feathers — Violently Wild
It’s easy to fall in love with Justin Ringle’s voice — that beautifully muted tenderness — at first listen.
The addition of drums to Horse Feathers‘ assemblage of guitars, mandolin, and violin lends a livelier, percussive edge to the band’s sound in the latest album, So It Is With Us.
What really hits home for me about this band is that their songs eschew truisms. We’ve been around the block and we know love and faith don’t conquer all. Why’s my mind, twisting up and leaving thoughts behind? I was gone before I’d go — the dirtiest deeds justified merely by the need to seldom lay down alone.
Instead of settling for easy half-truths, Horse Feathers’ storytelling embraces life with all its messy possibilities. This is music as meditation, as eloquent as it is mellifluous.
3. Joe Pug — O My Chesapeake
Joe Pug‘s wordcraft may as well be witchcraft, the way it steals my breath and transfigures my heart. He perceives both the pedestrian and the profound with an unflinching gaze and translates it all in an unaffected vocabulary.
Windfall is a gorgeous album, and “O My Chesapeake” is saturated with such longing for an idea of home that it makes me ache for a place I’ve never known. Rose Guerin (of Vandaveer) lends Eden-sweet vocals, and J. Tom Hnatow (of Vandaveer, Mynabirds, These United States), provides piano and beautifully pensive pedal steel. Can an instrument weep? The notes here swell, quaver, and seek out that ephemeral something to call our own.
You can call that man History, who lives in the past / Can you blame him for askin’ for somethin’ to last? / O my Chesapeake, o my Chesapeake / Forget all the things my soul does seek / Another Sunday dead, another needless week / I’ll sleep tonight upon the Chesapeake.
4. Elephant Revival — Jet Lag Blues
An Elephant Revival gig fills the stage with a menagerie of instruments — there’s washboard, guitars, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, double bass, and singing saw (I’ve probably missed one or four).
This isn’t a new song, but it’s a longtime traveling companion that I feel compelled to share. That’s probably because, like the narrator in the song, my malaria meds and I have rattled along dusty unpaved roads in search of the next sunrise: On a rooftop down in Senegal / these malaria pills they don’t work at all / Been up now for seven days / All my dreams in a purple haze.
5. River Whyless — Miles of Skyline
One for the polyrhythmic instrumentation; two for lyrics evocative of the variegated landscapes of home; three for wistfulness and sorrow all wrapped up in a baroque-folk package; four for Halli Anderson’s songbird-pure voice and vibrant violin-playing… This band is just all-around talented. Exhibit A: Not only is Alex McWalters a most excellent percussionist, he writes beautifully about life on the road.
Halli and guitarist Ryan O’Keefe alternate lead on most of the songs, but in “Miles of Skyline,” bassist Daniel Shearin takes over in an earnest, bright falsetto. This song never fails to lift my spirits.
6. The Mynabirds — Wildfire
This is a song made for and by those whose hunger is slaked by adventure and by new truths to piece together with old questions. I can’t say it better than singer-pianist Laura Burhenn herself:
“Wildfire” is about staying alive, staying wild, living and loving to the fullest, despite death nipping at our heels.
It’s an ode to that Jack Kerouac quote from On the Road, and everyone in this world who embodies that and inspires the hell out of me: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
I put together a photo diary of The Mynabirds‘ D.C. shows earlier this year, when they previewed songs off the new album, Lovers Know. It’s full of shimmer and pop and verve and gives you the conviction to dance, dance, dance — to keep your feet moving, even when you’re tired, tired and scared. It happens to everyone. Just don’t let your feet stop.
7. Belle and Sebastian — The Everlasting Muse
The mixtapes my posse and I passed around in high school invariably included Belle and Sebastian.
“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” was perfectly paradoxically sunny, “Piazza, New York Catcher” charmed me long before I moved to the city of the subway series, and “We Rule the School” had me pining for a someone whose initials I would feel compelled to carve on a beech tree.
All this is to say: my summer playlist must include one of B&S’s new offerings. And “The Everlasting Muse” makes me so, so very happy.
The song hovers between dance club and bookish daydream, swaying its way whimsically, polka-esque, into glorious handclaps and harmonies — a subtle gift to modern rock that wins your love.
If you ever have a chance to go to a Belle and Sebastian show, you really must. I was unsure of how their whispery, wistful songs would translate at D.C.’s biggest dedicated concert venue, which often hosts hip-hop and EDM artists. But B&S knows how to work sound in large spaces to create satisfying textures without sounding murky, to build a sturdy backbone with synths and drums. At the end of that night at Echostage, Stuart Murdoch invited people onto the stage — a dance party for the Sylvia-Plath-reading brokenhearted.
8. Glass Animals — Hazey
It wouldn’t be summer without a slinky, sexy night cocooned in the trip-hop/psychedlic tapestry of Glass Animals.
9. Hannah Peel — Chloe
I just discovered Hannah Peel‘s music by way of my Mynabirds pals (Hannah opened for the Mynas at their London show). “Chloe” is a dusky and subdued number, the lilting vocals wending their way ’round a clockwork pattern of synths. This music fits alongside cuts of James Blake, alt-J, Glass Animals, and the like. Hypnotic stuff.
10. Vetiver — Current Carry
It’s not a caipirinha on a beach, but this tropicalia-inflected tune is the next best thing. The gentle syncopation tickles our ears while warm waves nip at bare toes. But listen again. The sunshine melody is just a half-step away from melancholy, the lyrics hinting at how tenuous and fleeting this all is. Maybe freedom means not having anything to call us back to port.
11. The Airborne Toxic Event — California
I imagine Los Angeles as the younger, glitzier cousin of New York City — both cities feasting on souls, with LA prowling under Hollywood Freeway lights while NYC slinks in the shadows of skyscrapers. These cities seem fueled by dreams and desperation, alternately beautiful and terrifying, where the utopian and the dystopian exist side by side. I really like this song by The Airborne Toxic Event, and I like the thoughts that frontman Mikel Jollet shared about it. It captures the yearning and the despairing, the duty of playing pretend. Someday they’re gonna forget about us and we’ll wonder if we were ever good enough. / It hit me last night, in this song I heard, I remember the feeling but forget all the words.
Every TATE fan (and there’s a strong community of them) has a story of the song that carried them through darkness. I’ve mused over some of this before (you can read it here). For now, I’ll just leave you with my favorite TATE song, All I Ever Wanted.
12. Jay Troop — Wandering Soul
Jay Troop‘s got this lithe, silvery voice that will dissolve you. Simple, small / Simple’s what I know / Tiny kingdom down below — but for all the humble frankness of the lyrics, there’s plenty of contemplation undergirding each song in Hotel Sessions. The arrangements here — electric and steel guitars, organ, and all — form a sonic honeycomb, a little home for weary travelers seeking shelter for a moment.
13. Jesse Terry — Never Heard the Storm
There’s a gentle warmth in Jesse Terry‘s voice that makes each song feel like a welcome home. I saw Jesse perform at my pal David Holiday’s house show series earlier this year, and that show has lingered in my memory. It’s not that often that you feel such authenticity from a performer — that genuine desire to make connections through shared stories. In this song, the slide guitar takes on a dark, ominous tone, and the Hammond B3, an ostinato evoking driving rain. It’s my favorite track from Jesse’s latest album (free on Noistrade, though, as always, please do what you can to support the artists who soundtrack your days).
14. Ben Howard — I Forget Where We Were
I went continent-hopping a few months ago, a stretch of time that felt like a lucid dream — chasing the sun on a jumbo jetliner, whisked along in westerly winds, fading out, coming to — bouncing along in a Land Rover, kicking up dust until the tire blows. Sheltering from glaring sun under an acacia tree, sharing shade and water with a team of donkeys. Red dust everywhere, the new and the wondrous everywhere, and the stories, everywhere.
That’s how Ben Howard’s music makes me feel — both lost and found. The songs are an embrace of swirls of cello and plunks of double bass and Ben’s voice, a dark quiet meditation with an animal fierceness within, coiling and at times pouncing in a percussive outburst:
Oh, hey, I wasn’t listening, I was stung by all of us, the blind leading out the bored / And as per usual, you were skipping and laughing eyes at the bedroom door / Don’t take it so seriously, no / Only time is ours, the rest we’ll just wait and see … And that’s how summer passed…
And that’s how summer passed.