Top 5: Songs for Driving

After I’ve depressed the clutch and turned the key, the next thing I do in my car is reach for the power button on the radio. When I’m driving—and I’ve been driving a lot the past two weeks—music must be going. Particularly on long drives where the highway stretches out in front of me, I turn up the volume to keep me awake and focused.

There’s a real art to the ultimate driving playlist. I have made many, but the fact is that each trip demands different music. A few things, though, are constant. This is the time for simple drumbeats that you can play on the steering wheel and bombastic guitars that push your right foot a little more firmly on the accelerator than you’d intended. Here’s five of my favorites right now.

 

1. Panama, Van Halen
I don’t consider myself much of a Van Halen fan, but I’ve always liked this one. Blame Superbad. The best driving songs have a discrete intro and then a drop (for lack of a better term) that shifts you into fifth gear. Van Halen’s guitar grabs you immediately with this cinematic thirty-second-long introduction, until David Lee Roth’s “uuuh” kicks things off properly. And although his vocals are at times shrill enough to appeal only to dogs, he has great timing. The spoken interlude right around 2:35 is the best example—“I reach down between my legs and…ease the seat back.”

2. Radar Love, Golden Earring

If your car stereo doesn’t have good bass, I would prefer it if you skipped this one. The bass line to this song is so legendary that you should be able to pick it out in two notes after hearing it once, and deserves nothing less than speakers that will do it justice. It’s a long song, too, clocking in at about 6:30. While that’s generally not great if you’re just running out to get cigarettes and pop tarts, it’s ideal on longer trips—those six minutes pass quickly. My plan is to one day found a radio station that beams this song to the most desolate, static-ridden stretches of America’s interstate system. You’re welcome.

3. Runnin’ Down a Dream, Tom Petty

Maybe the quintessential driving song. The well-written lyrics are particularly appropriate, and I’ve always like the last verse: “I rolled on as the sky grew dark/I put the pedal down to make some time/there’s something good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.” Funny that the most memorable part of the song for me musically is the palm-muted, percussive strums that come after the first line of the chorus—not so much a musical statement as the absence thereof. An anti-riff, if you will.

4. Losing Days, Frank Turner

This came on during a drive to Massachusetts last week, and I was surprised at how much it energized me. I think it’s the opening crack of the drums and that mandolin intro, along with the interval jumps in the vocal part. It runs a little against the big guitars rule I established above, but it has the drumbeat, and it’s another great one for sing-alongs, particularly if you’re working on your harmonies.

5. Stacy’s Mom, Fountains of Wayne

A road trip is the perfect time for indulging guilty pleasures. You have a lot of time ahead of you, you’re alone, and thanks to modern automotive engineering, no one is going to hear you when you mangle the lyrics at full volume. If, for some reason, you do have a passenger, this is also a great candidate for an impromptu duet. I know it might be wrong, but I love this song, and you’re a liar if you say otherwise.

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Song of the Week: The Hurt, Any Trouble

This post originally appeared on the now-defunct Turntablr, Vintage Voltage’s spirit animal

Click here to listen to “The Hurt,” by Any Trouble

Every now and then a song appears that totally blindsides you: you don’t know how you could have missed it, don’t know where it was hiding, don’t know how you lived without it. “The Hurt” is one of those songs.

It appeared out of the blue one day on my Fratellis station on Pandora, and then promptly danced out of my life. I thumbs-uped it, but when I tried to find it later, I couldn’t remember the name or the artist. For two weeks, I nearly went crazy trying to track the song down. When it finally popped back up on Pandora, I went to iTunes and downloaded it instantly—such is my tale of love lost and found in the age of digital music.

I’ve never heard anyone else talk about Any Trouble. I don’t really know any of their other songs, but I don’t think I need to.  Apparently they’re British, but their influences are unmistakably American. What is it about Great Britain that allows the British to play our music better than we do?

“The Hurt” is just too perfect—it sinks its teeth in from the opening drum hits and then doesn’t let up until the 2:55 mark. The band sounds like Dire Straits on amphetamines, mixed with a pinch of Elvis Costello fetishism. Guitars twang, the bass boogies, and the breakdown—sweet Lord, the breakdown—is probably the best 20 seconds of the song (2:23-2:43).

You shouldn’t have Any Trouble liking it.

Album of the Week: Pontiac, Lyle Lovett

I’m not really sure who decided to call this album “Pontiac,” because the title song is my least favorite on the record. It’s not Lovett’s best song by a long shot, which fortunately, with a songwriter of his caliber, is a bit like saying The Virgin and Child With St. Anne isn’t your favorite Da Vinci. Lovett is such a talented songwriter and such an omnivorous musician that I can certainly forgive him a misstep here and there.

As a songwriter, Lovett is adept at taking on other voices. It’s a tricky thing to do–sometimes listeners don’t pick up on the difference between who wrote the song and the character singing it, and sometimes it can be difficult to believe a singer as a different character. But with Lovett’s songs, this kind of complexity goes down easy.

Perhaps the finest example of that on this album is “L.A. County.” This up-tempo instrumentation can lull you into a false emotional register if you’re not careful, because this song is actually really dark: a man shoots down his ex-girlfriend and his best friend at the altar. It’s sung in the first person, but the audience is obviously not supposed to believe that Lovett himself did this. Instead, he merely assumes the character’s voice, and sketches in the song’s narrative carefully by establishing parallel movement in the song’s first two verses:

“She left Dallas for California/With an old friend at her side/Well he did not say much/But one year later/He’d ask her to be his bride”

The second verse is almost the same:

“One year later I left Houston/With an old friend at my side/Well it did not say much/But it was a beauty/Of a coal black .45”

The content of the second verse is so powerful precisely because it mirrors the first one so closely. It’s both a variation on a verbal leitmotif and a fine example of the writer’s mandate to show and not tell.

I think it’s because his songs are so structured that allows him to manipulate the variations in his verses to such effect. “If I Had A Boat,” for example, thrives on variations on the prompt “If I…” They start the beginning of almost every verse and the chorus, and give structure to what would otherwise be a somewhat rambling, discursive affair.

Consider too the second chorus of “I Loved You Yesterday,” where Lovett sticks in some badly-pronounced Spanish in place of the chorus’ English lyrics: “I loved you yesterday/And I love you just the same” becomes “Yo te quise ayer/And yo te quiero the same.” It’s laughable out of context, but in the midst of the singer’s heartbroken melancholy, the change provides just enough interest to keep the listener focused on the character’s plight.

The record splits nicely between relatively straight ahead country on the first half of the album and a more eclectic Western swing sound starting with track six, “She’s No Lady.” It’s not often that you get an album with steel guitar and saxophone in equal parts, but it’s de rigueur on a Lyle Lovett record. Unlike a lot of similar Texas-based singer-songwriters (cf. Guy Clark’s first album), Lovett doesn’t seem to be afraid to indulge in full and varied arrangements to set off his lyrics, and he allows his players to shine just as much as his lyrics. The cantina-flavored guitar on “I Loved You Yesterday” as well as the pedal steel part on “L.A County” deserve special mention, but so does the fiery saxophone solo on “M-O-N-E-Y,” and the piano on “Black & Blue.”

Like Da Vinci, or any master of their craft, Lovett’s albums demand the listener’s attention. The songs have a surface level of appeal to them, but listening critically, peeling back the top layer and looking at the framework, is where the artist’s technique is most evident.