February 3, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Jan Alfaro
This week’s column is brought to you by a couple of my friends. Over this past break, the physical absence of such people, in tandem with a cliché New Year’s resolution (to love more openly) made me think a lot about what I really cherish in those around me. Without going too much into that — as this is a music column and not a self-help book — I often take those around me for granted, not being aware of how they constantly influence and shape my life, whether this be over the phone or in person.
To transition this narrative around – I texted 10 friends and asked each what they’d been listening to recently. I believe the vulnerability and love attached to sharing music have been common themes in earjam, so I wanted to take a step back and analyze music that hasn’t been personally handpicked, but instead drawing inspiration from those I spend time with. So, without further ado, here are some songs from some people I love.
Starting strong, Japanese Breakfast’s “Road Head” is a groovy tune that uses whirling synth sounds, expressive bass, and smooth guitar riffs. The dreamy instrumentals fit the song lyrically as Michelle Zauner sings about car adventures, like head “on a turnpike exit” and driving miles on a “corkscrew highway.” In many ways, it represents longing for a past love, however reckless it might’ve been.
Then we have “Havana Burning” by Dan Reeder. When listening to this song, I imagine sitting on a porch with Reeder as he plays his guitar and sings about fighting in the Cuban revolution. Reeder talks about joining a revolution, possibly dreaming about the feeling of fighting for a cause. It’s a simple tune, but still, even just Reeder’s vocals and guitar comfort the soul.
On the note of the guitar, Sufjan Stevens gives an emotional story in folk “Casimir Pulaski Day” of a friend who died of leukemia on a Midwestern holiday. With the gentle strum of guitar and horns throughout accompanied by serene backing vocals in the outro, Stevens sings of an adolescent love that ended prematurely. Through this, the song ponders the fragility of youth and life as well as the wonders of a God who both gives and takes.
Stepping into the world of hip hop, “Johnny P’s Caddy” by Benny the Butcher featuring J. Cole is a piece of introspective flow with a hypotonic and catchy beat composed of drum kit pads and a bassline. The rappers reflect on their success and the hardships they overcame along the way. It’s a hard song to digest with a strong narrative that makes you feel empowered in some second-hand way.
“Bull Believer” by Wednesday is an eight-and-a-half-minute monster of a track. The first few minutes of the song switch between intense “metal-esque” sounds and dragging vocals. Then, lead singer Karly Hartzman says, “God, make me good but not quite yet,” preceding the last two-and-a-half minutes of the song that are filled with guttural vocals screaming “finish him,” chaotic guitar, heavy drums, and distorted lap steel. Take it from no other than Hartzman herself when she says the song is “an offering to myself of a brief moment of release from being tolerant of the cruelty of life.” This track is absolute mayhem.
Next, the angst continues, but in a more sentimental, feathery way with “Ellen” by Protomartyr. Joe Casey, front man of the band, sings this love song about his mother from his father’s perspective. The love his father had for his mother is seen through the lens of his love he observed and sung beautifully over a galloping drum rhythm and spacious guitar.
Imagining one of my best friends using Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You – (I Love You Baby)” as their karaoke song perfectly sets the stage for this feel-good song. This neo-soul cover of Frankie Valli’s original hit is filled with chimes, a groovy beat, and Hill’s smooth vocals. Rumor has it Hill was eight months pregnant and lying on the floor when she recorded this track in one take.
Then, returning to a simple guitar tune, but sticking with covers this time, “Polly Vaughn” by Tia Blake is a cover of an Irish folk song about a hunter who accidentally kills his love, mistaking her for a swan. The vocals are soft, and the guitars are forgiving, making this a tragic retelling of Polly Vaughn.
“(R.I.P) Tide” by Satanicpornocultshop is perfectly summarized by Spotify telling me “Hm. We don’t know the lyrics for this one.” This fun tune is a soft, glitchy Japanese-sounding cover of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” with random bells, horns, animal sounds, and baby cries throughout. Truly, this is a song meant for bugs dancing in the dirt.
To wrap it up, Vulfpeck’s “What Did You Mean by Love?” featuring vocals by Antwaun Stanley is a soulful ballad with organ vamps, an in-and-out-of-focus guitar solo, and soft percussion. As a fitting ending on the topic of love for this column, Stanley sings, “Love, what did you mean by love?” in the second chorus and questions love throughout the lovely song.
In wrapping up this week’s chaotic yet gratifying assortment of tunes, tell the ones you love that you love them. Draw inspiration from those around you and find gratefulness in it. Lastly, listen to the playlist with all mentioned songs. Thank you to all the friends who shared and continue to share.