Top 5: Songs for Leaving

In the spirit of High Fidelity, I like to compile top 5 lists every now and again. Since I’ll be a college graduate in 48 hours, I figured now might be the time to put a top 5 list up on here. Leaving a place filled with people I’ve come to know and love over the past four years has provoked a slurry of emotions that I can’t separate out into neat categories. So these songs embrace the complexity and the contradictions of leaving a place and the people in it.

 

1. Langhorne Slim and the Law, Salvation

One of the very best concerts I’ve been to in my time at college was Langhorne Slim and the Law—an incredible amount of energy, spirit, and great music. This is one of their quieter tracks, and hits all the harder because of it. The quiet, subdued instrumentation, including a gentle banjo line, lets the lyrics breathe. The lyrics are plain but not inelegant, and Langhorne Slim’s voice emotes beautifully. Halfway between a bleat and a scream, it sounds raw and unguarded. When he sings “I hate to leave but I know/it’s time to go,” he manages to encompass both resignation and regret.

 

2. Tom Petty, Into the Great Wide Open

Ok, granted, Eddie’s just finishing high school in this song, but on the cusp of finishing college, I can certainly identify with “Into the Great Wide Open.” I think this song captures the really knotty feeling of moving on to something else—so much possibility, but also a real fear of getting swallowed up. Musically, this is Tom at his most Byrds-influenced—big, clean Rickenbacker guitars with plenty of shimmer. This man has got songwriting down, and I’m consistently amazed at this ability to work the same six chords as everyone else in new ways. I’ve linked to the actual music video, because it’s kind of 90s kitschy (featuring Tom doing his best Dickens impersonation) but actually has a pretty sophisticated narrative—and a very young Johnny Depp.

 

3. Frank Turner, Polaroid Picture

If I got to design a graduation ceremony, I’d play this song. Like Langhorne Slim, Frank Turner has a voice where you believe everything he says. Here, he sings about the importance of trying to keep a moment, to remove it from the flow of time in order to save it. The lyrics are simultaneously about being very present (“let go of the little distractions/hold close to the ones that you love”) and very forward looking (“cause we won’t be here this time next year/so while you can take a picture of us”), the strange paradox that leaving a place always provokes.

 

4. Nickel Creek, Rest of My Life

“The battle is over/Here we all lie/In a dry sea of Solo cups/With the sun in our eyes.” I love this whole album, of course, but the first verse of the first track, with lyrics by Chris Thile, cuts right to the heart of the moment. The lyrics start sardonic—definitely a glass-half-empty perspective on starting anew, but during the bridge at 2:00, with some orchestral chops that build tension, things begin to shift. As Thile stretches out the lines “I’m coming to, I’m turning myself into something a little less promising/A little more useful,” the harmonies move under him and resolve into a major tonality at 2:38, as Sean and Sara Watkins’ beautiful backing vocals kick in. Cynicism interspersed with brief moments of clarity and light.

 

5. The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light

This song, hidden in the depths of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, was written about deceased band member Brian Jones, who died in 1969. Musically, it has a lot in common with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—slow piano intro that kicks into a gospel strut after about 3 seconds of reggae organ (00:58-1:01). It’s an almost uncharacteristically layered sound for the Stones, and the choir backing at 2:00 right before Mick Taylor’s guitar solo gives the whole thing a luxurious sonic feel. Lyrically, it contains what I think is the best blessing you can give someone. I use it for anyone who I don’t think I’ll see for a while, no matter what the circumstance. “May the good Lord shine a light on you/make every song your favorite tune.”

 

Album of the Week: A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek

It’s no secret that I like mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile. Until recently, though, I had only experienced him in a few limited contexts—like the excellent trad bluegrass album Sleep With One Eye Open. Some of his more experimental stuff, though, like Goat Rodeo Sessions or even the Punch Brothers, is a little too avant-garde for me.

I knew that Thile first got his start in a band called Nickel Creek, but it wasn’t until their new album A Dotted Line came out a few days ago that I really bothered to dig in.

The first thing you’ll learn about this album if you read anything about it is that it’s the band’s first record in nine years. This isn’t surprising given that as far as I can tell, Nickel Creek was (pardon this pun) disbanded in 2007 while the three members—Thile, along with fiddle player Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins—played in other projects and groups.

Critics generally lump Nickel Creek into the bluegrass genre, but in comparison to Sleep With One Eye Open, there’s very few of the genre’s touchstones present here. The songs are harmonically complex, played at moderate tempos, and lack the piercing vocalizations that spring to mind when the word “bluegrass” gets bandied about. Yet there’s something in the album’s acoustic instrumentation, the rich multi-part harmonies, and Eric Valentine’s clean and unobtrusive production that makes the album’s heritage apparent. You can tell what type of music they were raised on.

This tension between old and new is apparent in the first half minute of “Rest of My Life.” The opening guitar riff owes as much to American roots music reinterpreted through the Rolling Stones (cf. “Sweet Virginia” or “Sweet Black Angel”) as it does to Scruggs and Flatt. The harmonies appreciably flesh out the sound, but the cello chops during the bridge at 1:58 are more Goat Rodeo Sessions/Punch Brothers than trad bluegrass—although they evokes the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” as well.

Sean Watkins sings the two strongest songs on the album: the exquisite “Christmas Eve” and the joyful “21st of May.” “Christmas Eve”’s interval jumps in the melody probably make it a demanding song to sing, but Watkins handles them effortlessly enough that the listener can focus on his mournful longing rather than his technique. The chord progression is also consistently surprising, and moves in directions far beyond typically simple bluegrass patterns. It’s a well-crafted song that feels much longer—in a good way—than its 4:23 run time.

“21st of May” is just about as traditional as it gets on this album, with a undulating mandolin/guitar riff, and quaintly Evangelical lyrics. “They laughed when Noah built his boat/then cried when came the rain/and they mock me now but I will float/on the 21st of May” is hands-down my favorite chorus, again because of Watkin’s sincere delivery. He’s an empathetic vocalist and a clean guitar picker too—just listen to that riff.

Thile rivals Watkin’s for heartbreaking vocals on “Love of Mine,” but his most important contributions seem to be compositional rather than performed. He’s not slacking, but neither is he stealing the spotlight, as he tends to—consciously or not—with his other projects. This is actually really refreshing, particularly in light of Thile’s significantly higher profile than the Watkins siblings. Here, he’s the mandolin player in Nickel Creek, and not Chris Thile, MacArthur award winner and savior of mankind. His musical fingerprints are all over the songs, though, and I can’t help but think the tense reading of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” was Thile’s idea.

Sara Watkins’ fiddle provides a strong voice on the album’s two instrumentals, “Elsie” and “Elephant in the Corn.” She has a warm, rounded tone, and favors gilding lines over choppy ones. She’s equally adept at playing counterpoint when the other instruments have the melody, an essential skill for any violinist to learn, as the instrument doesn’t lend itself particularly well to rhythm playing. Her singing sounds like an extension of her violin playing, though on this album her brother is the stronger vocalist.

I think A Dotted Line’s strength lies in its accessibility. A listener can jump into the album at any point and immediately have a sense of what’s going on, while more experienced ears will marvel at the songs’ complexity and depth. I have to confess that I bought this album on a bit of a whim, and was pleasantly surprised by it. Although really, I shouldn’t have been. After more than 20 years working together, one Grammy and multiple nominations, I should have know (to paraphrase the oddly prescient Smucker’s corporation), “with a name like Nickel Creek, it has to be good.”

Album of the Week: Sleep With One Eye Open, Chris Thile and Michael Daves

I might as well just come right out and say it: I don’t really consider myself a bluegrass fan. Although I have a lot of respect for the musical traditions it comes out of, I’ve just never much cared for the banjo-heavy, high & lonesome sound that characterizes most bluegrass I’ve heard.

By this logic, I certainly shouldn’t like Sleep With One Eye Open, which is a resolutely traditional bluegrass record.

But I do. I love it at an illogical, unsafe level.

Why? The snarky answer is that there’s no banjo anywhere on the album, but that’s only a part of it. I think what really sells it for me is the energy that Thile and Daves bring to the music. They’re not making a record for anthropological purposes, and neither of them are over 30—ever notice that most bluegrass players seem to be old?—so they attack their songs with what James Christopher Monger identified as an almost rock & roll ethos: play it fast, play it loud, play it with passion. Those are three principles I can get behind.

“Rabbit in the Log” checks all three boxes: it is fast, loud, and passionate. The fact that is also a stupefying display of technical mastery and is (to my ears, at least) done in one take, makes for an immediately engaging opener. You can’t help but be intrigued by what these two musicians are offering.

And while the piercing vocal harmonies of “Cry, Cry Darling” might make you question delving further into the album’s 16 tracks (none of which are longer than 3:48), the accessible arrangement of “Loneliness and Desperation,” which integrates some really great note choices in Thile’s jazzy solo with Daves’ rock-solid galloping rhythms, will draw you in deeper. It’s got some mainstream country and rock & roll shadings to it, and there’s a lot of—dare I say it?—crossover appeal.

I think this is probably one of the smartest things about this album: each song balances its predecessor in some way. “Loneliness and Desperation” is followed by an instrumental, “Tennessee Blues,” which is then balanced by the evocative and bluesy “20/20 Vision” before the duo slows it down with “You’re Running Wild.” Each song presents the listener with new facets of the musicians and of the music, managing to convince you that a favorite song could be right around the corner.

How about the sweet “My Little Girl in Tennessee,” with that infuriatingly catchy vocal melody and the sing-a-long chorus? Maybe you’d prefer the swaggeringly vindictive “Sleep With One Eye Open,” which, thanks to Michael Dave’s bleeding-heart vocal delivery, provides not only a lyrical but also a musical counterpoint to “Little Girl?” And who couldn’t identify with the heartbreaking and sensitive rendition of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow?” The emotion that’s so evident in Thile’s voice and Daves’ instrumental backing reinvigorates what can be a curiously flat song in the hands of other musicians.

“Billy in the Lowground” is probably my favorite instrumental on the disc, with a vaguely Celtic feel to it and a loping, hummable melody. On this track, both Thile and Daves reaffirm their musicianship by making their solos serve the song, rather than the occasionally flashy (though satisfying) displays elsewhere on the album.

Chris Thile has won plenty of accolades for his mandolin playing, including a MacArthur grant, so rather than speaking about his well-documented technical wizardry and musicianship, I’d like to give Michael Daves his due. Throughout the album, Daves’ guitar drives the songs, simultaneously filling in the low end with walking bass patterns, the middle register with chordal strumming, and a percussive element as well. It’s an impressively integrated style of guitar playing, and Daves pulls off this complexity with no audible effort.

There is something magic about Sleep With One Eye Open. Like many great albums, when taken cohesively, it becomes more than just two men and two instruments. Their energy, their interpretations, and their talent combine to create a mood that permeates the album. Thile and Daves make traditional bluegrass come to life in a way that I didn’t think could be done, disabusing listeners of any preconceived notions they may have about the music while remaining fiercely true to the genre’s soul.