What’s in a playlist? Everyone has that mix that hits the spot at the right time. I know I have a few. In fact, the existence of this column depends on them. MP3 players and digital music have made playlists easier to make and obtain than ever before, but they’ve existed for as long as recordable audio has been available to consumers in the form of mix tapes and CDs.
The right playlist can do a lot for a person. The significance tends to be relatively personal, but some songs just fit together with universal expressions. That is what I’d like to bring to the table. Above all, the purpose of this column is to put together some loosely themed songs in a mix to create an atmosphere in emotion, feeling and imagery, as well as lyrics. And hopefully I can introduce you to some new favorite artists along the way.
For the first installation, since we hardly know each other, I’ll start with some small talk. In the words of Bing Crosby, “baby it’s cold outside.” For the majority of people content to stay inside and avoid sub-freezing temperatures, these songs should provide a smooth flow of comfortable warmth to supplement the indoor living.
“Islands” – The xx
Don’t be fooled by the song’s title. If The xx brings to mind any islands, they are of the ice-locked nature. Much can be said about the newly formed London quartet, and “Islands” highlights its strengths.
A frigid atmosphere is created by singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft, who contributes breathy vocals and plucky riffs to the mix. Saving the track from utter depression, a second set of vocals from bassist Oliver Sim balances the mood and drives the rhythm with a heavy staccato bass line. All parts considered, they set a comfortably numb tone akin to the cold side of the pillow.
“Henehene Kou ‘Aka” – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
A winter list outlier? Yes. A welcome distraction from the temperature? Absolutely. Sometimes the only way to ditch the winter blues is to block them out completely. When a tropical vacation is out of the question, the next best thing is to bring the island to your ears. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, the poster boy for Hawaiian contemporary music, does the job.
Most of Iz’s mainstream buzz has come from his soundtrack-ready covers of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.” Where he shines, however, is when he sings in his native tongue, as in “Henehene Kou ‘Aka.” Something about the novelty of unrecognizable lyrics adds authenticity to his ukulele and makes his covers sound like a Taco Bell in Mexico City ? a commercial imitation in the presence of the real thing.
“Lovesong of the Buzzard” – Iron and Wine
No stranger to sleep-inducing swoons, bearded mellow man Samuel Beam knows his comfortable sound, and his fans know what to expect. Without straying far from a finger picked acoustic backbone, he continually manages to craft downtempo tracks that often slow listener heart rates to a crawl. “Lovesong of the Buzzard” is actually a step into fairly new territory for Sam.
A beefed up sound pays off once in a while. Beat setting bongos and a slide guitar create a palpable summer dream setting that is as relaxed as his earlier work, and exceedingly cheerful. The only stumbling block is that he might have put too much into this song ? the accordions and organs are a little much.
“Smoke Like Ribbons” – Ugly Casanova
The winter sun sets as you drive along a country back road to a cottage in the woods. After double-checking that the windows are all closed, you twist the heat knob all the way up. Surrounded by shadowy trees and snow covered ground, you squint through the frosty windshield toward an unseen howl in the distance. Wolf or wind, it sends chills down your spine.
Darkness surrounds you as you pull into the driveway. The backcountry wind grows as you make the frigid walk to the front door. On the porch you can hear a radio playing slow, sweet country as the fireplace emits glowing warmth, and you’re home, comfortable.
That is basically what happens when you listen to “Smoke Like Ribbons.” Try not to get the chills.
“Sun Giant” – Fleet Foxes
Before listening to this song, turn off the lights or shut your eyes, so as not to lessen the effect. “Sun Giant” introduces Fleet Foxes as the initial song on the first official release in a musical purist fashion. There are no instruments for most of the two-minute track, just a choir of four men in perfect vocal harmony. A simple echo is the only sort of accompaniment, giving the acoustic sound of an empty cathedral. It is a sound so convincing that it may fool you with the lights off.
If your newfound audible location isn’t enough to comfortably induce pleasant reflections, just listen to the words. “What a life I lead in the summer/ What a life I lead in the spring…” is not especially complex, but the presentation pushes it through the roof on the chill meter.
“The Ocean” – Ambulance LTD
Not everyone can cover a Velvet Underground song and do it justice. This is largely because Velvet Underground’s appeal stems from a certain dissonance wrought with technical imperfections ? and that’s hard to recreate without ripping them off. Ambulance LTD would not be a likely candidate to remake a classic, but this rendition of “Ocean” is a pleasant surprise.
The dream pop sound to which the group lays claim is actually an effective medium for the shoreline imagery in the original. The structure seems a little uptight, especially at the bridge, but harmonics and wave effects build the song back up to epic proportions, sealing this playlist with intrigue and hope for the approaching spring.
Joe Nistler ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in Italian and journalism.