Lonely Singles: Back to Nature

Quarantine is making everyone feel pretty lonely. Hunker down and spend some quality time getting to know some of Ben's favorite new songs.

The big winner of our season of quarantine? Nature. According to Google Trends, searches for terms like “best hiking trails near me” are exploding. We’ve all seen the stories about our environment’s opportunity to take a deep breath for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. It’s not enough to stop the eventual climate apocalypse, but it does make you feel a little better to know the birds are getting some love.

Nature—in its innocence and darkness, accessibility and mystery, its ability to provide and destroy—has inspired artists since the days of the cave painters. Let’s look at the loose natural and rural themes running through a handful of singles to pop up over the past few weeks.

Blitzen Trapper —”Magical Thinking.” Classic Blitzen Trapper from the jump—the country-rock melodies that amble up the necks of Eric Earley, Erik Menteer, and Marty Marquis’s guitars, the locomotive chug of bassist Michael Van Pelt and Brian Adrian Koch’s rhythm section, and Earley’s Western Gothic/small-town mystical lyrics.

This track, the first release from September 2020’s Holy Smokes Future Jokes, would be right at home on the band’s 2010’s commercial breakthrough, Destroyer of the Void.

What’s the thought process behind “Magical Thinking?” According to the band’s artistic statement, it’s part of a broader collection of songs inspired by author George Saunders’s bestseller Lincoln In The Bardo and the Tibertan Book of the Dead.

“Earley’s lyrics take the listener on a wild and dramatic journey through rivers of waist-high water in the aftermath of a tragic car wreck and the hazy morning before a murderous moment, and from getting blitzed to the point of extinction inside a masonic temple to a stop for chips and dip before the apocalypse,” the notes explain. “Along the way, there’s also an occasion to smoke dope with Abe Lincoln and play bones with Brian Jones, slide through the ether in a dream, and confront the Intermediate States while bathed in the glow of the bardo’s light—that transitional state between death and rebirth.”

That’s Blitzen Trapper, folks.

Modern Nature — “Harvest,” featuring Itasca. Modern Nature recorded a mini-album, Annual, at the end of 2019, and “Harvest” is the first of the new tracks to see the light of day.

In fitting form for the Jack Cooper (guitar, vocals) and Jeff Tobias (saxophone) indie-jazz-folk supergroup, it’s a dark soundtrack for the modern world’s catastrophic disassociation from the natural world. The current pandemic is only a coincidence!

The fact that the record art looks like something straight out of Midsommar is no mistake, either. “'Harvest' represents Autumn on the record and centres around rituals and superstitions,” Cooper writes on label Bella Union website. “A lot of the words and ideas that became the bones of the song were written the days after a vivid experience in Lewes for Bonfire Night.”

Bonfire Night, of course, being a 350-year-old tradition in which crosses are burnt on a November night in celebration of the foiled Gunpowder Plot (also an excuse to party to the point of riot). According to the BBC, the East Sussex folks party even harder. A semi-anarchic, paganistic festival that threatens the invisible shackles of power and order? Sounds about right for this band.

Neil Young — “Try.” A short, beautiful song from a legend. "Darlin,’ the door is open / To my heart, and I’ve been hopin’ / That you won’t be the one to struggle with the key / We got lots of time to get together if we try," sings Neil Young in this country-twinged to unrequited love.

Age and experience don’t dampen longing: “I’d like to take a chance / But shit, Mary I can’t dance / So here’s looking up your old address / Paulie, what a mess / We gotta take a rest and try.” The travails of an old guy with a crush, right?

No! “Try” is a single from Homegrown, a lost and near-legendary Young album recorded in 1975. “Try” was written after Young split with Academy Award-nominated actress Carrie Snodgrass, and features backing vocals from Emmylou Harris and percussion from the late Levon Helm of The Band.

“It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it,” Young recently wrote. “I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind… but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful.”

Built To Spill — “Tell Me Now.” Daniel Johnston, the prolific lo-fi singer/songwriter, was a character so unique that people would likely scoff at a fictional equivalent. While bouncing between West Virginia and Texas, Johnston battled mental illness, loneliness, and desperation while building an underground following of dedicated fans, journalists, and musicians that marveled at his ability to write simple and profound tunes.

Much of his recorded work sounds like field recordings from the most earnest point in the soul of the American experience: a desire for love and acceptance so universal, so raw, so laden with hope, despair, and nostalgia, that it not only cuts through the primitive technology but actually can become too much to handle.

Built To Spill accompanied Johnston on his final tour before he died in September 2019, and the band—as founder/stalwart Doug Martsch (guitar, vocals), Jason Albertini (bass), and Steve Gere (drums)—is set to release an album of Johnston’s work following an initial delay.

“Basically, we wanted to get a good documentation of what our rehearsals were like,” Martsch told Rolling Stone’s Angie Martoccio in February. “It was pretty special for us...It was a lot heavier than what I thought it would be.”

The album, Built To Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston, is out now through the Ernest Jenning Record Co.

[posted 6.28.20]


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