Songs we want to live inside
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.
Recently, we’ve been talking about what our web producer Sarah calls “song houses”—songs so rich in some enjoyable quality that you wish you could go live inside them. Not necessarily in the world the song describes, but within its mood, or the way it makes you feel. What songs give you that “This would be a good place to stay for life” sensation?
This came up in part because I’ve been listening over and over to that Jimmy Fallon and the Roots sing-along with Carly Rae Jepsen on ”Call Me Maybe.” The original version is a fine earworm, but that cover hit me in a specific place: It’s not that I want to step into the video and go hang out with the actual people making the music, it’s that I want to be inside the world suggested by that cover, that sunny, giggly, bouncy, playful place, probably typified by Black Thought’s infectious grin. I want to live in a world where that would be the most appropriate soundtrack. (Not the only soundtrack—it’d get old—just the typical soundtrack.) Strangely, the last song that gave me that impulse was very, very different in tone and execution—The Decemberists’ “Crane Wife” saga, which suggests a lush, rich, dramatic world I want to roll around myself like a blanket.
I’ve always wanted to be a thirtysomething hippie farmer who lives in the middle of nowhere, grows his own crops, and sits on the porch of an evening with his stringed instrument, his woman, and his dawgs. I have no idea where this fantasy comes from, any more than I know why Larry is my favorite Stooge. I’ve never been a hippie, and would make a terrible one. I’ve done just enough farming to know I don’t enjoy it. And I can only stand about 36 hours of country life before I start thinking about setting fires and taking hostages. But I still like to go there in my head sometimes, and I know of no better ticket than Have Moicy!, the 1976 get-together by Michael Hurley, the Unholy Modal Rounders, and Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones that, in mood and spirit, is the closest thing I know to the soundtrack of a copy of Zap Comics from when Robert Crumb was in his back-to-nature phase. The album itself is remarkably all of a piece, but it would be cheating to just name it, since the question was about songs, so instead, I’ll cheat by citing Frederick’s “Jackknife/The Red Newt,” two different songs that for some reason got joined together as a single track. Taken together, they combine defiant surliness and cheerful resignation in a toe-tapping ditty suitable for singing along to while getting stoned in the gravel parking lot outside the barn dance.
I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve never used heroin. I know, I know—I’m losing a lot of cool-guy credibility by admitting that publicly, but there it is. Still, the descriptions I’ve read of how heroin feels sound pretty amazing, and I guess it must be, since people keep doing it even though there’s irrefutable proof that it’s a bit of a life-killer. Anyway, lying in a dark room and listening to “Let It Flow” by Spiritualized—led by a guy who’s apparently done a lot of heroin—is probably as close to that feeling as I’m likely to get anytime soon, and that’s just fine. It’s a gorgeous, lush, lullingly repetitive place that feels like pillows. Close your eyes if you click on this video, though, because it somehow makes the song worse. Better yet, just close your eyes while you listen.
I was a big proponent of this question, because it happens to me all the time. I can think of about a dozen songs I’d move to off the top of my head, from the bombast of Sleater-Kinney to the film noir of Tom Waits. The songs with the strongest alternate-reality pull, though, are the ones that feel like the best live shows. For that, it’s an even split between The Measure (SA)’s “Hello Bastards” and The Arrivals’ “Simple Pleasures In America,” both bands that mean a whole lot to a tiny group of people. After much internal debate, I have to go with “Simple Pleasures”—or, as my boyfriend calls it, “the best song ever written.” Every single line of the song makes up a little world I’d like to live in. It starts out with the promise of a positive song, and ends with a list of all the things worth celebrating. I can be a bitter, cynical person with a knack for highlighting the negative. But every time I hear that song, I move into a world full of shared “whoa-ohs” and positive vibes. I’ve seen it performed live often enough to know I’m not the only person affected this way. It brings the room together every time, and when it’s over, the crowd keeps singing along, trying to keep it going. It’s also the only song capable of slipping in a shouted “I like to go that extra mile / to turn your frown into a smile” without sounding ridiculous. Or maybe it does, and I just don’t notice because I’m too amped up on this ideal reality. Either way, it’s working.
I have no friggin’ clue what Shudder To Think is singing about in “Kissi Penny.” Crime? Sex? Confusion? Crimesexconfusionsexcrime? I’m stumped. In any case, the murky, magic-realist haze the band conjures in the song—one of the high points of its 1994 masterpiece, Pony Express Record—is absolutely head-spinning. “Get dressed, said the first cop to the major,” frontman Craig Wedren sings in his disjointed, punk-prog falsetto, “Who’s in distress? / Some damsel with a canceled subscription to an ambulance.” As I said, I have no idea what this means. If it means anything. Regardless, “Kissi Penny” haltingly constructs a surreal, otherworldly atmosphere that Wedren and company wind up completely owning by the end of the song. The listener is left to move in and fill in the blanks. Sign me up.
For a good few years, I wanted to live inside the music of Belle And Sebastian. I wanted to exist forever in the delicate, ethereal, perpetually bittersweet universe the band created in song. If I could live within a single album, it would be If You’re Feeling Sinister (or possibly, to go in a slightly different direction, Quasimoto’s The Unseen) but if I had to live inside a single song, it would have to be a “I’m A Cuckoo.” The lyrics are sad, detailing a love affair gone sour, but what I respond to on a visceral emotional level is the feel of the song, its melancholy grace and defiant good humor. It’s funny and wonderfully evocative, even if it is more than a little heartbreaking.
Several years ago, I received a once-in-a-lifetime freelance assignment from a magazine: write up a free stay at a private tropical island. Since this happened to be a bridal magazine, I traveled to a honeymoon destination, by myself, which was simultaneously lovely and a little lonely. I had brought some CDs with me and played them in my room, but the one song I kept hitting “repeat” on was Blur’s “For Tomorrow,” the extended version. For some reason, even though I was staying in a sunny beach resort in the British Virgin Islands, I kept returning to a wistful cold London via the song. The ending especially pulls me in, as it builds moodily to a crescendo where Damon Albarn’s singing is half-buried beneath the chorus. The song’s bittersweet world of upturned coat collars, gray days, making the most of things, and somewhat perverse civic pride pulls me in. It’s depressingly romantic, which is a feeling I don’t care that much for anymore in real life, but I still like to hold on to in my imagination.
Shortly after I discovered used record stores as a teenager, I bought a vinyl copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album, mainly because I’d always liked Stephen Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and Graham Nash’s “Marrakesh Express,” both of which were classic rock staples when I was growing up. But I’d never heard David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” until I put that record on for the first time, and between the vinyl crackle, the whispery harmonies, and the hypnotic, circular weave of electric guitars, I felt like I’d been transported to a place beyond any specific time or place, only loosely tethered to our Earth. (It’s a feeling I’d later learn was common to Crosby’s songs, from his early days in The Byrds to his terrific solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name.) ”Guinnevere” captures the feeling of staying up to 3 a.m., trying to decide whether to go to bed or to keep on going and greet the sunset.
My first thought was “We Can Figure This Out” by the Vulgar Boatmen, a sort of insistence on reason amid a lot of disorder that I’ve turned to more than once. But since I’ve used this space to pimp for the Vulgar Boatmen at least once before, I’ll call out another semi-forgotten band with Midwestern roots: The Shoes. Specifically, “Tomorrow Night,” an amazing example of middle-of-America power pop from power pop’s prime that dreamily captures the possibility and drama of waiting to find out whether the love of a lifetime pans out. It never answers the question. Neither does “We Can Figure This Out,” but at least seems to be headed toward some kind of resolution, enough so that it feels like the opposite of The Shoes’ song. I’d live in either, though. Both make their songs feel like the only place to be.
It seems counterintuitive to offer up a song that makes me claustrophobic while at the same time utterly lost and alone, but Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host”—which appeared as a B-side to the Bends single “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”—is both an undeniably inviting and spooky haunted house I could set up shop in for years. Those who aren’t Radiohead completists have probably heard the Nellee Hooper remix that appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s fever-dream adaptation of Romeo+Juliet. While that version maintains and intensifies the song’s airy mystery, it neuters the strong, driving instrumentation in favor of beefing up Thom Yorke’s vocal track. That’s good and fine, but the B-side version is thunderous by comparison, sneaking up with that sharp guitar intro to draw listeners in like a candy house. Radiohead doesn’t often play the song live, but to my delight, the band gave it a spin when it became the first group to play at night in San Francisco’s historic Golden Gate Park during the first Outside Lands Music Festival in 2008. Every time I hear it, I think of fleeting, alluring moments—the beach house Clementine and Joel break into near the end of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Leonardo DiCaprio wandering Verona Beach. Those short scenes can’t last forever, but “Talk Show Host” still makes me wish it could go on for just a few minutes longer.
Unlike Keith, it took me a while to figure out how to answer this question. Plenty of songs over the years have enveloped me into their worlds, but very few have made me want to stay in that world for an extended period. But a song that definitely fits that description to me is “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. Yes, the song gives off a douchey early-’00s vibe, which isn’t helped by a video that features “American Pie” and “Loser” stars Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari. But when I listen to it, often as part of an old mix CD that’s been retrieved from the floor of my car, I go back to my 1980s youth, envisioning any number of pretty girls in my class wearing that oh-so-sexy combo of “Keds and tube socks” mentioned in the song. Given its reference to the nerd and the girl bonding over Iron Maiden, I’d imagine the guys from Wheatus were also looking back at their ’80s (or at the latest, early-’90s) teenage years, too. The show paints a world that screams more Freaks And Geeks than American Pie, only it’s a world where the geek wins the girl in the end. Given my sexless high-school existence, much of which was spent in the throes of unfulfilled crushes, I would have given anything to live in the world Wheatus described when I was a teenager.
I didn’t have an immediate answer to this one, either, but as with many other AVQ&As, after several days trying to figure out what my response would be, it came to me right about the time I thought I didn’t have a response at all. In college, one of my best friends was a way-too-cool-for-our-school (and I mean that as a huge compliment) girl named Corine, and she was dating a guy—now her husband—named Robby. For the life of me, I could not figure Robby out, because he was a quiet guy who only seemed to open his mouth to offer withering insults. One day, though, he all but ran into my dorm room, handed me a copy of Ride’s Nowhere, and said, “Put on ‘Vapour Trail’ and just sit there and listen.” I put it on, and he flips off the lights. I was taken aback for a second, but I took his instructions to heart… and for the first time in my life, I felt at one with a song. The way it started, built up to almost a wall of noise, and then wound down to nothing but strings, was hypnotic. Lyrically speaking, I don’t know how great it would be to live in, since it’s actually pretty sad, but if I could live in the memory of listening to that song for the first time, I’d do it in a heartbeat. It was one of the most unexpectedly moving experiences of my life. (Thanks, Robby.)
I’m not sure it’s the nicest place—scratch that, I’m certain it’s not a particularly nice place at all—but book my ticket to Calexico’s “The Crystal Frontier,” please. A friend introduced me to the band via this song, and ever since, I’ve been haunted by its incredible sense of place. Listening to this song, it’s all but impossible not to be there—a hot, dry, dirty place full of desperate people, yes, but also an endless frontier where hope still exists among the squalor. It’s like a timeless Western, where hard men eke out a meager existence while dreaming of something better somewhere else, all delivered in convenient pop-song form, complete with mariachi horns. I guess if I had to actually live there, I’d end up regretting it before long, but I certainly can’t think of a song I’d rather spend some quality time in.
This answer feels like a cheat—it’s an all-time favorite and a song that makes explicit references to literal and figurative homes—but if I had to lay down roots in a pop song, I’d do so in Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).” It’s an incredibly warm, inviting number, qualities underlined by the prickly agitation of so many other songs in the Heads’ discography. (In a brilliant bit of sequencing, the track that finds David Byrne giving voice to “an animal looking for a home” ends a record—Speaking In Tongues—that begins with “Burning Down The House.”) I’ve always taken to the song’s synth textures like a favorite sweater, and for a song whose parenthetical subtitle is a joke about the simplicity of its arrangement, there’s an awful lot of room to move in “This Must Be The Place.” But the song really lays out the welcome mat with Byrne’s earnest lyrics, an expression of basic human desires put in the most basic of terms, and the rush of endorphins that comes with realizing you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
I’d love to pretend I’m cool enough to inhabit the sleek futurism of Metric’s “Gold Guns Girls,” or hip enough to hang inside Gilberto Gil’s “Bat Macumba,” but let’s face it: I’d look silly in leather, and I don’t speak Portuguese. Luna’s “Chinatown,” however, describes a world I knew well: wandering around a city in “the tiny, tiny hours between the evening and the day,” stretching out an evening you don’t want to end, avoiding a morning you don’t want to see. The album from which it’s drawn, Penthouse, is one of my favorites, not just for the hypnotic pulse of Stanley Demeski’s drums and the glide of Justin Harwood’s bass or the delicate flurry of Tom Verlaine’s guest guitar solos, but for its sound, its warm, enveloping texture. (The only version on YouTube unfortunately features a later lineup, illustrating the fatal damage Demeski’s departure did to the band.) I love the watery shimmer of the guitars on “Chinatown,” the way singer Dean Wareham lingers for an eternity on the clustered consonants at the end of “fancy drinks and lucky toasts,” as if he’s seeing the world through the fuzzy glow of just the right number of drinks. You can practically see the neon blur in a noodle-shop window. Moments like those aren’t meant to be sustained, especially since doing so would mean transitioning from occasional partier to full-time drunk, but for the space of “Chinatown’s” 4:45, there’s no place I’d rather be.
As a mopey teenager in the late ’80s, I’d often retreat to music that allowed me to luxuriate in my misery like a warm sonic bath. I wore out my cassettes of The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead and Depeche Mode’s Music For The Masses, but for me, the ne plus ultra of what Jack Black called “sad bastard music” in High Fidelity was The Cure’s great 1989 album Disintegration—71 minutes and 47 seconds of music so emotional that it creates its own florid ecosystem. At nine minutes, 22 seconds, “The Same Deep Water As You” is the longest song on Disintegration and the embodiment of its world-creating power, starting with the sounds of thunder and rain before slipping into a wistfully romantic song that never fails to bring me back to the intensity of adolescence. (And failure. Deep, humiliating, life-altering failure.) When Robert Smith repeats “We shall be together” as a kind of mantra—a wish more than a certainty—it still appeals to the sad bastard within.