Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
What’s your musical comfort food? What do you find yourself coming back to when you feel like hearing something deeply familiar, soothing, easy to work to, etc? —Steve
I first learned about Ivy via the opening credits to The 4400, and I loved the group’s cool, shimmery, summery sound. Listening to In The Clear and Long Distance, I realized two things: All the songs sounded pretty similar, and I was fine with that. I eventually picked up Apartment Life and Guestroom as well. Which left me with a pretty large collection of Ivy songs, only a few of which really stand out when I’m listening to all four on shuffle. I’ve found that they’re perfect work music, because they’re so mellow and unassuming, but the laid-back, sleepy tone also makes them good calm-down music for when I’m stressed. If things are loud, busy, or out of control at work, I almost always just put Ivy on shuffle in order to tune out and chill out simultaneously.
For me, it’s Aimee Mann. Typically, I turn to her when I’m on a plane and want to sleep, or in an unfamiliar place and need to drift off. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a compliment to her, but I do love her work. She just happens to have written a lot of music that has just the right amount of wistfulness to put me in a wabi-sabi state of mind that leaves me reflecting on my life in a nice, uncomplicated way that I find conducive to rest. The Forgotten Arm and Lost in Space tend to come up the most when I’m looking for those types of songs to put me in a comforting place.
When I got my first iPod, one of my first projects was to construct three playlists: one devoted to David Crosby (including his work with The Byrds), one for Stephen Stills (including Buffalo Springfield) and one for Graham Nash (including The Hollies). I’ve had two more iPods since then, and have created thousands of playlists, which I’ve tinkered with and deleted and re-created countless times. But the three playlists that have a permanent place on every MP3 player I own—including my car’s GPS, which has an option to load music—are those Crosby, Stills, and Nash playlists, in precisely the same running order in which I originally created them. I love each of them for different reasons: the Crosby set for its dreamy, mystical qualities; the Stills for its rock ’n’ roll heart and spectacular guitar; and the Nash for its impeccably constructed pop songs. And before you ask, yes, I have a Neil Young playlist too, though it’s constantly in flux, and doesn’t fit well alongside the CSN songs. Just like in real life.
My jazz listening doesn’t run especially deep or even beyond the pedestrian, but the jazz I do know reminds me of just about everything I admire in music. Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um are not only suave antidotes to the worst burnout and stress, they just force me to slow down and consider. Davis’ trumpet and Bill Evans’ piano on “Blue In Green” converse like perfection at ease. Mingus’ “Better Get It In Your Soul” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” form an amazing little sequence on their own, from unabashed joy to down-and-out longing. I’m totally not above listening to jazz for a loungey, mellow vibe. It’s just more relaxing—no, restorative—when the playing is this monumentally good.
To me, comfort food has to be something I grew up eating—not just a dish I find comforting now, but one I was fed regularly as a kid, that brings back all those feelings of home, safety, and warmth, such as they were. At the same time, so-called comfort food—Kraft Macaroni And Cheese? Totino’s Party Pizza?—can be totally, craptastically bad for you. Based on these criteria, my musical comfort food has to be the output of Jimmy Buffett. What can I say? When you grow up white trash in Florida in the ’70s, you can’t escape the man or his sand-caked, beach-baked anthems. Songs like “Come Monday,” “Son Of A Son Of A Sailor,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” and “Margaritaville”—having an alcoholic family gave me an appreciation of booze-based humor at an early age—were in perpetual rotation in my house, and they always evoked mythologized visions of palm trees, Gulf breezes, and the coconut smell of Coppertone. And they still do. Buffett even wrote the ultimate comfort-food anthem, literally, in the form of “Cheeseburger In Paradise,” a song I used to play on 45 on a Fisher Price turntable and hop around to when I was 6. Surprisingly, I can still listen to it without wanting to puke too much.
I don’t have a specific band I go to in terms of musical comfort food, but I do have a particular genre. Call it FM. Call it blooze, or hard rock lite, or unheavy metal. Call it butt-rock. But whatever you call it, it boils down to album rock from the ’70s, and when I want to crank up something predictable, enjoyable, and not particularly complex or good for me, that’s the stuff I go to. I’m not sure exactly what I find so comforting about these bands; maybe it’s because they were among the first examples of rock music I ever heard. They were the soundtrack for my early adolescence, when I’d get out of my house (which was musically limited to my dad’s classic country and my mom’s classical and easy-listening records) and hang out with my stoner neighbor across the street. He’d fire up a joint and we’d talk about books, music, and other stuff none of the other kids at the parochial school I attended seemed interested in, while on his kluged-together stereo, he’d crank bands like Three Dog Night, Bad Company, Foreigner, Boston, Nazareth, Thin Lizzy, Cheap Trick, and Molly Hatchet. It’s nothing I’d want to stake my reputation as a music critic on, but this stuff did serve as a gateway drug to the likes of AC/DC, Zep, and Van Halen, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
I’ve been a pretty hardcore Jimmy Eat World fan for nigh on 14 years, during which time the Arizona quartet has provided comfort through my anxiety-ridden college years, similarly anxious post-college transition, rough break-ups, losing a family member, and everything else, good and bad. To quote The Bobs, I celebrate their entire catalogue, from the first record they’d like everyone to forget about (“Chachi” and “Reason 346” are still good, guys), to Chase This Light, their latest, which I gave a middling review but still enjoyed quite a bit. In a way, we’ve all kind of grown up together, going from pop-punk (1994’s Jimmy Eat World) to second-wave emo (1996’s Static Prevails and 1999’s Clarity) to more mature rock of their later records. Even though I think they’ve veered into generic-pop territory at times, I still love Jimmy Eat World’s talent for writing hooky, cathartic songs. I never tire of them.
In the midst of this hellacious week—deadlines, negotiations, tech week for a show I’m in—I’m finding myself coming back to countryish, folkish singer/songwriter Josh Rouse. I saw him many years ago at the first concert I ever attended without my parents (opening for, well, Guster), and have been following him ever since. His songs are overwhelmingly mellow, even the more upbeat ones; I’ve often said to friends that he sounds like he’s perpetually on the verge of rocking out, but never does. It’s really easy background work music, because the music isn’t super-complicated and there aren’t even that many chord changes. And though I dig some of his songs a lot, particularly “Late Night Conversation” and “Laughter,” he isn’t my favorite musician by any means, nor do his songs find their way into my regular rotation. But I think I come back to his music in these overwhelming times because it reminds me of that late-high-school/early-college period of my life, when I was fine thinking about one thing at a time. Step by step, deep breaths, it’ll all be all right.
Oh boy. Part of me hoped the day would never come that I’d have to admit this. But considering how many years of enjoyment this album has given me, I feel compelled to give credit where credit’s due. When I’m looking for that quick fix, for something to transport me back to simpler times, for something that succeeds in—ahem—holding back the years, I look no further than Picture Book, the 1985 debut LP from that notorious ginger-fronted British blue-eyed soul band, Simply Red. Why? Well, I could whip up some sort of highfalutin excuse about the group’s art-school origins, or about how Mick Hucknall, inspired by the Sex Pistols, formed a strange punk outfit called The Frantic Elevators, then totally flipped the script by couching social commentary inside a sound that would one day sound A-okay emanating from tinny dental office speakers everywhere. I could try to explain all that, but I’ve already tried it on my wife, and she still heads for the back of the house when throw this one on the turntable. The truth is, Picture Book is the record my dad and I returned to every summer as we sat out under the stars at my grandparents’ house in Galveston, Texas, fishing and slapping at mosquitoes while the rest of the family slept. As comforting as a heaping bowl of mac ’n’ cheese accompanied by a frosty Ommegang pale ale, and yet incredibly light!
There are dozens for me, but one in particular, for about five years now, is the John Kirby Sextet, a jazz combo whose music is as antic as Raymond Scott’s. I’d read about Kirby and had looked out for his music, but only committed when I found Night Whispers: 1938-1946 (Jazz Legends) for about $6 new while CD shopping in Minneapolis. I know some jazz aficionados regard him as ordinary; some of them don’t care much for Scott, either. But I find the arrangements snazzy and sharp-tongued; there’s a razziness in there that I like. It’s diverting and light, but in this case, those aren’t negative qualities; Kirby and his men seem to be enjoying themselves, and I respond in kind.
I’m going to latch onto the “soothing, easy to work to” part of this question, and provide two answers—one hip, one not. The not-hip is Frou Frou’s Details, the deceptively simple electro-pop album made by Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth. Perhaps you’ll recognize the single “Let Go” from the Garden State soundtrack! It’s a catchy, pretty record that glides by like the best pop, but doesn’t leave any guilty aftertaste. When I’m looking for something soothing to work to, though, it’s almost always Boards Of Canada, either Music Has The Right To Children or The Campfire Headphase.
This might just have come to mind because I happened into a coffee shop that was playing it, but I very much enjoy returning to Paul Simon’s Graceland. Yes, it raises all kinds of questions of cultural appropriation, but putting all that aside, it’s both a beautiful, infectious album and one that, when I found it in junior high, helped me realize the world was much bigger musically and geographically than I’d ever imagined.
Man, this is way too general, but I’m going to say that when I need to calm down or just generally veg out, I can pretty much get there via any form of piano pop. I’ve spoken of my love of Ben Folds and his erstwhile Five in this space before, but my love of songs dominated by piano extends far and wide, encompassing everything from Suddenly Tammy! to the more piano-heavy tunes of Coldplay. I wouldn’t say that any of these songs are my favorites of all time or anything, but I do really enjoy the sound of the instrument. The other day, I was having a bad time of it when it was only 9 a.m.—this after having to get up at 6, the horror—and I was almost instantly lifted out of it when KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic (which is a kind of musical comfort food in and of itself) played Aqualung’s “Reel Me In.” I realize, intellectually, it isn’t exactly challenging, but I like the mellow sounds so, so much.
During my college newspaper days, I likened Chris Walla’s production on Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism to a big down comforter, a comparison drawn from the warm layers of sound Walla wrapped around tracks like “Expo ’86” or “Lack Of Color” as well as the fact that in pre-iPod days, my CD copy of Transatlanticism was one of my go-to forms of sonic insulation for long winter walks. In the face of rising stress and increasing responsibilities, I reach for Transatlanticism and other favorites from that period (The Execution Of All Things by Rilo Kiley, Ben Folds Five’s The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner) because they’re an easy connection to a time when the hardest thing I had to do all day was trudge a quarter-mile through the snow to get to Intro To Mass Media.