It finally feels like spring in Milwaukee. Take this mixtape. Play it on your phone and take a walk after work. Skateboard down the street. Drive with the windows down for the first time in months. Enjoy it. Let it be your soundtrack to melted ice and budding blossoms.
Hear all 5 Songs We Can’t Stop Listening To:
Diet Cig – “Scene Sick” – 0:00
Ezra Furman – “Restless Year” – 2:47
Piet Levy picks DeVotchKa – “How It Ends” – 6:23
Son Little – “O Mother” – 13:03
Lead Belly – “Midnight Special” – 17:21
1. Diet Cig – “Scene Sick”
This song is called “Scene Sick.” It’s about a girl who has been cornered at a bar, or some kind of venue, by an insufferable band member who is forcing her to listen as he goes on about “the scene” in that city. She’s trapped. We’ve all been there. If it hasn’t been a band member, it’s been someone else. She’s giving that thousand-yard stare as she nods, waiting for it to be over. In her head she is screaming, “I don’t care! I don’t care! I just want to dance!” But she does the polite thing. She smiles, nods, and listens. And then goes home and writes a song about it.
- Listen if you like: Alvvays, dream pop, being snarky about boring conversations
2. Ezra Furman – “Restless Year”
When I was in high school my primary way of discovering new music was what I called ‘the blind pick.’ After school, I would roll on down to the The Exclusive Company in Greenfield, and the rule was, I had to buy an album from an artist I had never heard of. But I had to love the album artwork. I figured that if the artist and I shared an aesthetic taste, that we probably shared a musical taste. It wasn’t a perfect system, I admit that. It’s literally judging a book by its cover, but it worked for me. I bought hundreds of albums that way, and it led to many long-lasting relationships between me and that artist.
One of those picks was an album by Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. The cover featured hand-drawn instruments on a stage. And I’ve been a fan of Ezra Furman since. He’s got a lot to say. He says it like he’s in a worked-up frenzy. There’s a lot of passion there. And I feel his music is genuine. He’s got a new single, and I love it. It’s so good. And through the years, I’m glad I took a blind chance on Ezra Furman.
- Listen if you like: beach sound meets synth solo jam, Dostoyevsky references, frantic vocal deliveries
3. Piet Levy picks DeVotchKa – “How it Ends”
Each week features a guest who picks one of the five songs for the week. Often it’s an artist, but I love inviting music critics, to hear what they’re listening to. This week we have Piet Levy, head music writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
I read a lot of Piet’s articles. Most are topical, often covering music that’s in the news. I wanted to know what Piet listens to when he goes home at the end of the day. I wanted to know what’s sticking with him. In our conversation, he explained that he recently had twins and this song by DeVotchKa is a perfect lullaby for them. Hear his explanation in the podcast at the top of this post.
- Listen if you like: Beirut, the soundtrack to babies’ dreams, Piet Levy’s articles.
4. Son Little – “O Mother”
Son Little was recently on tour in Europe. While there, he closed himself off from the world. He turned off his cell phone, disconnected, and just concentrated on playing his music in little European countries in front of foreign crowds that enjoyed what he was doing.
And then he was ripped back to reality. A French journalist told him what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. After he had taken in the news, he was asked to comment on the incidents and race relations in America. He said, “Imagine you’re chained to a wall, and you fall asleep and have a beautiful dream, and then you wake up and slowly you remember that you’re still chained to that wall.”
“O Mother” is a reflection on that realization. It’s weary and a little defeated, but with plenty of soul. Similar to Marvin Gaye in the early 70’s. In the song he asks, “Is there anyone whose got my back for real?” We got your back, Son Little.
- Listen if you like: early 70’s Marvin Gaye, call and response, gospel
5. Lead Belly – “Midnight Special”
They say Lead Belly sang his way out of prison. The story is that Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary for stabbing a man during a fight in 1930. Three years into his sentence, John and Alan Lomax, traveling the South with a huge portable recording machine — one of the first — stopped at Angola and recorded Lead Belly’s songs onto aluminum discs while he was behind bars. The Lomaxes took those recordings to the Governor of Louisiana, Oscar Allen, who listened to them and released Lead Belly from prison.
After his release, he recorded more than 100 songs. His work went on to directly influence what we identify as “American music.” Recently, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released a comprehensive boxed set of Lead Belly’s historical work.
This song, “Midnight Special,” is my favorite. It’s an old prison song. He sometimes sings way down low, and then swings it up to a big wail. He makes his 12 string guitar sound like a piano. You can hear why Governor Allen would forgive his sins.
- Listen if you like: Blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson, our musical heritage