One of my favorite memories from the early years of our marriage is all the places Christine, who was still relatively new to Southern California and seeing it through different eyes than I always had, found for us to explore together. For some reason I seem to romanticize the idea of exploration, of filling in a previously unknown spot on the map that most of the people you know might not know anything about, and sharing that new experience together. Ten years later, I still haven’t lost my excitement about that, but new places like those have become harder to find, so I tend to look back with fond nostalgia at the “innocence” of finding out for the first time that some of these beautiful places were tucked away, far from the typical overcrowded tourist spots.
In with the New:
The Violet Burning
Belle & Sebastian
Out with the Old:
Listen on Spotify:
Christine found a job teaching at the Montessori School in the spring of 2006, so that suddenly freed up all of our Saturdays, and she had no shortage of ideas for places to go. On one particular Saturday in May, we made the long drive down to San Diego and back up in one day, stopping off at the Junipero Serra Mission Trails, and also the La Jolla Cove (pictured here), with its beautiful purple flowers hanging off of the cliffs, and numerous pelicans and seals hanging around. This was a place she had previously visited with her parents, but that I would never been, so I felt like it was a gift that she got to pass this experience along to me, something she had discovered in my own home state before I had.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Dear Mr. Supercomputer”, Sufjan Stevens (The Avalanche, 2006)
A song in 7/8 time that mixes computer bleeps and a mechanical rhythm with Sufjan’s patented baroque parade-pop? Yes, please! Though this B-side is easily one of my favorites by Sufjan, it’s rare that I can hear such a good track and not feel cheated that it didn’t end up on the album. The Avalanche was basically a cornucopia of songs that didn’t make it into Illinois – enough to basically double the size of the album if you put the two together. Yet Illinois is pretty much my favorite album of all time, just as it is, and while it has some songs that I’d consider less great than this and a few of the other B-sides that didn’t make the cut, I really can’t see it working with any of those songs jammed into the track listing. They just didn’t fit the flow. I’m glad we got to hear them – well, most of them, anyway – in some form. “Supercomputer” is especially interesting to me now, in terms of how it foreshadowed the much more electronic sound of The Age of Adz.
2) “Noticed”, MuteMath (MuteMath, 2006)
“I can’t believe I never noticed my heart before.” Such a simple song of gratitude, delivered with such a genuine and relentlessly upbeat performance that only MuteMath could provide. Every now and then, these little moments of epiphany come along where you see some aspect of your life in a new light, and you come to love some aspect of it that you previously hadn’t thought much about or maybe even disliked. I think that’s God very briefly giving us a glimpse of the way God sees us.
3) “Crave”, Shaun Groves (White Flag, 2005)
Another fine rocker from Groves – an artist who didn’t rock out that often, but made sure to do it when it really fit the song he had written – that did its best to dismantle the notion of “peace on Earth” equating to getting a specific candidate into the White House or getting certain laws passed that aligned with our theology. We’ll always crave more. We can’t somehow make the population of the Earth more “holy” when we ourselves aren’t holy – trying to do so often just starts more fights than the ones it resolves. It’s an endless and foolish pursuit. Only God can provide the ultimate peace our souls crave.
4) “I’m Not Alright”, Sanctus Real (The Face of Love, 2006)
“If weakness is a wound that no one wants to speak of, then ‘cool’ is just how far we have to fall.” I’m pretty sure I quoted that opening line several times, because it aptly summed up how tired I was of trying to appear “cool”, or “holy”, or like I had it all pieced together. Saying you’re “broken inside” is one of those clichés that it’s easy to pay lip service to, but hard to truly be real about – admit the true depths of your struggles and you’ll often find friends hovering at a distance, afraid to get too close because they’re not comfortable with their own messed-up-ness yet. I loved how Sanctus Real hit that “power ballad sweet spot” with this one – the message of the song was front and center in a way that came through right away, and yet they didn’t skimp on the music, which had these really meaty guitar riffs and a chorus that hit with the force of an oncoming train.
5) “Be in Your Eyes”, The Listening (The Listening LP, 2006)
Christine and I attended some sort of a Christian rock festival that was being held at a church in San Bernardino that May – The Listening’s set was most definitely a highlight, and given the band’s short-lived trajectory, I’m glad we saw them while we had the chance. I related to the moody, restless nature of this song because I knew what it was like to experience sleepless nights. The lyrics of this song seem to be imagining what God might say to a person in such a restless state, with the thousand things they’ve left undone or are unhappy about in their lives swirling about in their head, and the words are at once comforting and challenging. Just make Me the center of it all, the song seems to say. It doesn’t promise neat resolutions to all of life’s problems, but it does promise a greater sense of order and peace if one is just willing to trust.
6) “Do You Love Me?”, The Violet Burning (Drop-Dead, 2006)
Also present at that festival was The Violet Burning, one of those underground/alternative Christian bands that I’d heard a lot about (Tim had even tried to get me into them at one point), but never really given my full attention to. Their live set definitely helped me to appreciate Michael Pritzl’s versatility as a front-man – he could go from a menacing snarl on an urgent rocker like this one, to a very reverent, calming presence on some of the album’s slower, more meditative tracks. This song was as straightforward and uncomplicated as rock songs about unrequited love could be, but seeing them play it live was SO. MUCH. FUN.
7) “The Chess Hotel”, The Elms (The Chess Hotel, 2006)
After breaking ranks from CCM orthodoxy, The Elms had a heck of alot more swagger, to the point where they could easily pull off songs like this that were all about muscular guitar riffs and urgently shouted lyrics. “We’re down and out, but we’re still gonna raise a ruckus” seems to be the template thought that drove a lot of their material on this record, with the title track being no exception. It got a little repetitive at times, but there was something romantic about the notion escaping those small-town limits on what you could achieve in life, and doing something much better with your life through sheer force of will.
8) “Indestructible”, Matisyahu (Youth, 2006)
Since it was a direct recommendation from The Elms’ guitarist Thom Daugherty, as well as guest spots on a few P.O.D. songs, that first got me into Matisyahu, it seemed right to put the first track of his that I really got into between tracks from those two bands. This one was more hip-hop than reggae, which wasn’t typical of his sound at the time, but I loved the Psalm-like lyrics that bragged on God’s strength, and the fun beatboxing bit near the end of the song.
9) “Sounds Like War”, P.O.D. (Testify, 2006)
Here we go from defense to office, with this incredibly aggressive track that had a strong, melodic chorus. I can’t remember it being a single or ever called out as a highlight, but it’s definitely one of my favorites and it’s an easy track to like for those who first got on board with the Satellite album. The war in this song might be an internal one – good and evil fighting for a man’s soul. Whatever the case, it sounds like a vicious war where no punches are being pulled. The rap/rock sound had pretty much died out at this point in terms of popularity, but I was happy that P.O.D. didn’t care, because they did this a lot better than whatever they called the half-hearted sound they attempted on their self-titled back in 2003.
10) “For Miles”, Thrice (Vheissu, 2005)
The eerie piano outro of “Sounds Like War” led rather nicely into one of Thrice’s more complex tracks, which started out almost as a classical piano piece, before the guitar and the rhythm section came in, making it sound like more of a space-rock opus than what might have been expected given Thrice’s heavier sound from the old days. Then you get to the end of the song, and … oh yeah, there’s the heaviness. Dustin’s voice just came roaring out of the speakers and it was bone-chillingly EPIC.
11) “Vicarious”, Tool (10,000 Days, 2006)
Tool takes for-freakin-ever to put out new albums. This was the lead track from their follow-up to the now five-year-old Lateralus, and it had big shoes to fill because that was my favorite album of 2001 despite not previously having been a Tool fan. 10,000 Days as a whole reminded me that I still really wasn’t a Tool fan – I adored their instrumental skills, but still found a lot of their irreverent lyrics and moodier musical passages to be a bit off-putting. This track, though, easily stood among the best from Lateralus. Rhythmically, it seemed a bit like a retread of “Schism” at first, but lyrically it was entirely different beast, indicting us for our tendency to indulge in “reality TV” as if it were pure fiction and contribute to the degradation and sometimes outright destruction of lives happening for the sake of our entertainment. It’s easy to take cheapshots at Hollywood and the media, but a lot harder to admin we consumers are willing participants in that cruel machine.
12) “Good People”, Jack Johnson (In Between Dreams, 2005)
It takes a perverse mind to put Tool and Jack Johnson back-to-back on the same mix. (I’m really bummed that Tool isn’t on Spotify and I can’t share that jarring transition from pounding math-metal to laid-back coffeehouse folk-pop with everyone.) Thematically, the two songs actually seemed to fit together, with Johnson lamenting “Where’d all the good people go? I’ve been changing channels, I don’t see them on the TV shows.” Not to make the leap to a moral panic or anything – I think very good stories can be told even if they’re about bad people doing bad things (or even just morally ambiguous people/things, and the audience is trusted to be smart enough to make up their own minds about it). But when you’re rooting for people who are not fictional characters to keep doing self-destructive things for everyone’s entertainment, it definitely crosses a line.
13) “Daisy”, Switchfoot (Nothing Is Sound, 2005)
The closing track on Nothing Is Sound was a pleasant surprise on a record that I think overall, Switchfoot fans didn’t give enough of a chance to prove itself. The way it morphed from a delicate, acoustic Jon Foreman solo ballad (with a downright gorgeous chord progression) to a heavy, full-band rocker was pretty awesome, a triumphant moment signalling a letting go of things that had no value and only left a woman’s soul feeling empty. For me this was reminiscent of a lot of the negative thoughts and the image I had of myself when I was depressed throughout much of 2005, just shedding that skin and starting over. I had first heard it back then but came to relate to it more strongly after seeing the sunlight on the other side.
14) “Rich Young Ruler”, Derek Webb (Mockingbird, 2005)
The melody of this song really nagged me because it was something I could have sworn I had heard as supermarket muzak when I was a little kid, but I could never put my finger on the exact song. Beautiful, carefree melody, though. The kind of thing that gives you no warning of the tough challenge posed by the song’s lyrics. Derek Webb was a master at making Christian audiences uncomfortable, in what was ultimately a good way, though he bore his share of criticism from it from a largely conservative segment of the CCM audience. Here Jesus’s words to the rich young ruler, asking him to sell his possessions if he truly wants to enter the kingdom of God, are framed in the context of how easy it us for those of us in the first world to shield ourselves from the reality of poverty and oppression in other parts of the world or even in our own cities. It’s the reality we don’t have any desire to turn into a hit TV show.
15) “Spancil Hill”, The Corrs (Home, 2006)
Now for something completely different (as if there was any musical continuity to this mix in the first place) – a remake of a traditional Irish song that is simply about the joy of returning to your old village and being selebrated by the people who have missed you for so many years. There’s a lovely violin and tin whistle breakdown at the end – something I had definitely missed on The Corrs’ albums for so many years.
16) “Jealous of the Moon”, Nickel Creek (Why Should the Fire Die?, 2005)
“I hate to see a friend of mine laughing out loud when she’s crying inside.” This one seems like it might be a few steps back from where “Daisy” is in the healing process, and it might have worked better leading into that song, but I liked it as a cliffhanger, so I put it here. It remains one of Nickel Creek’s most striking ballads, the perfect blend of the musical experimentation that marked their later albums and the heart-on-sleeve empathy that won me over in some of their earlier songs.
We made an odd discovery in June, on a particularly hot day when we wanted to get outdoors and go for a walk, but wanted to do it somewhere near water – our logic was that it wouldn’t be as hot near a lake, though this didn’t quite work out. We went to Lake Balboa, which is basically a man-made reservoir right smack in the middle of Encino (actually right across the street from the Japanese Gardens we had visited in November 2005). This shot, looking across the lake at an artificial waterfall, feels to me like it’s somewhere else entirely. I have a whole string of lake/ocean-themed songs in the middle of this mix, so the photo fits those pretty well.
Where in the world is this?
1) “I Miss You Here”, downhere (Wide-Eyed and Mystified, 2006)
For me the best songs on Wide Eyed and Mystified were right at the end of the record, culminating in this raucous closing track that, now that I look back, is a good template for the kind of theatrical, cathartic rock music I could later expect from Marc Martel’s solo career. I love it when albums end with that sort of an up-tempo highlight – more often than not I’ll end up using them as opening tracks.
2) “Song of the Redeemed”, Charlie Hall (Flying into Daybreak, 2006)
This was basically one of those repetitive worship songs that won me over in spite of itself, thanks to a thundering rhythm and a fast, furious pace. Charlie Hall seemed like the kind of performer who was typically caught between the decision to make low-key, easy-to-learn praise choruses, to make something more personal and artsy, or to just go for a big pop hook and have a bit of fun with the audience. This song mostly took that third option. I enjoyed it then, and it’s still kind of fun, but not the sort of thing I’d actively seek out today.
3) “We Are the Sleepyheads”, Belle & Sebastian (The Life Pursuit, 2006)
B&S was one of those indie bands that seemed to have been around forever, but I’d never checked them out, so I finally took the plunge with The Life Pursuit, and well, it may have been too soon. A lot of it was rather samey to me, and I didn’t really gel with the band’s overall sound or personality until their next few albums. But right in the middle of the album were a few highly idiosyncratic tracks, probably not what most would consider the typical B&S sound, that really jumped out at me, and this frenetic, jangly, disco-on-caffeine sort of number was one of them. The almost insipid “da-ba-da” vocal hook was so cheesy that I found it sort of charming, and the whole thing seemed to have stumbled straight out of the 70s, right down to the fuzzbox guitar solo at the end. Yet the band didn’t seem to be just goofing around for its own sake – seemingly out of nowhere, along comes the line “Over tea and gin we talked about the things we read/In Luke and John, the things he said.” So a late-night drown-your-sorrows session somehow turned into a Bible study? Huh, interesting. There was some aspect of his faith that Stuart Murdoch was rather cryptically working out, as I’d imagine he is in a lot of his songs. It’s fun to stumble across that sort of thing in a domain far removed from the world of CCM.
4) “Ancient Lullaby”, Matisyahu (Youth, 2006)
Man, this mix is a grab bag of different genres, more so than my usual. I had pretty much given up on anything resembling stylistic continuity at this point, putting a reggae song between a throwback indie rock track and a sorta-rootsy CCM pop track, because hey, why not? While this one hit a lot of the predictable reggae tropes, it was prehaps the most enchanting thing on the entire Youth album, due to how its firm, defiant, “I’m gonna be a strong man of God”-type verses sort of stumbled into its more syncopated, feel-good chorus rhythm, which eventually took over the song in the form of an amazing steel drum solo at the end. Listening to this one was like running carefree down a long stretch of pristine tropical beach.
5) “Deep”, Cindy Morgan (Postcards, 2006)
This edgy (by CCM pop standards, anyway) folk/rock track made quite the impression, as the first thing on what you might consider a “comeback” album from a CCM pop songstress who had previously based most of her music around piano and keyboard, with the occasional floruish of strings. The strings were still there, but in support of something a lot earthier and more urgent – probably the most satisfying musical makeover she’d given herself since 1996’s Listen. I loved the brief reflective pause for the bridge with the siatrs lending an aura of mystery, before diving right back into the driving pair of acoustic and electric guitars that fueled the chorus. Cindy’s voice was actually a little raspy here, which actually worked in favor of the sense of thirst and desperation she was trying to convey.
6) “Bitter Tea”, The Fiery Furnaces (Bitter Tea, 2006)
My interest in The Fiery Furnaces may have been short-lived, as they got too weird after this album for me to know how to keep up. But Bitter Tea hit the sweet spot more than any of their albums did – just the right balance of a fun kaleidoscope of sounds with the weirder, more avant-garde stuff. This track ran the gamut from fast-paced and disorienting, almost like someone was fast-forwading a tape, to serene and kind of exotic, thanks to the vaguely east Asian motif hinted at by the song’s lyrical imagery and some of its instrumental bits. I loved how something that started out so frenetic went back and forth through several different moods before finally ending on a solemn eulogy: “I am a crazy crane, I lost my true love in the rain.”
7) “Greenday Massacre”, Dean Gray (American Edit, 2005)
At the core of this song is a perversely good mash-up of Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and The Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes”. Both groups have been at the dead center of accusations that rock musicians are just selling out, making easygoing music for guaranteed chart success, but there’s something truly tragic about both songs, even if they have squat to do with each other, and the collision between the two worked way better than I would have ever expected. Where it truly becomes a “massacre” is when the snippets of other songs begin to creep in – Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”, The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “A Day in the Life”, Nelly & Tim McGraw’s “Over & Over”… basically anything the remixers could get their hands on that vaguely followed a similar chord progression.
8) “House on the Lake”, Rosanne Cash (Black Cadillac, 2006)
Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash, had several tracks on Black Cadillac that referenced her father’s life and career, with a few even directly sampling home recordings of his voice. This one made a lot more sense to me after having seen Walk the Line and having a visual sense of what the family’s idyllic lake house might have looked like before Rosanne’s parents parted ways and they presumably either sold the house or just stopped going back to visit. It’s a childhood memory of a place that felt peaceful and orderly and that you now can’t go back to – in some ways, it represents a loss of innocence. You get little hints of the pain in her voice as she grapples with these memories – it’s almost like in her travels as an adult, she’s trying to recreate the serenity of that place and it isn’t quite working out for her.
9) “Silent Sea”, KT Tunstall (Eye to the Telescope, 2006)
The shifting rhythms of this gentle acoustic song – 5/8 in the verse, 6/8 in the chorus – do a wonderful job of merging a feeling of disorientation with a feeling of calm. It’s a great example of the understated, but still rhythmic, types of songs I fell in love with so effortlessly on KT’s debut record. One of her most beautiful vocal performances, too.
10) “Lost at Sea”, Eisley (Room Noises, 2005)
I had sort of overlooked this one in the midst of so many other favorites on Room Noises at first. It seemed a little too understated. But after cherry-picking nearly every single track from that album for my various mixes (literally the only one that never made the cut was “My Lovely”), and realizing I was still playing the heck out of the entire thing a year and a half later, I finally got into the relaxed vibe of this piano-driven, beautifully harmonized ballad. It fit in too perfectly alongside “Silent Sea” to not be included.
11) “Sæglópur”, Sigur Rós (Takk…, 2005)
The Icelandic title of this song actually means “Lost at Sea”, so theme-wise, having these two tracks together is a bit redundant, but since the whole thing’s in Icelandic, you can’t really tell. The transition from the closing piano chords of Eisley’s song to the twinkling bells and piano at the beginning of this one was just too perfect to pass up. This one’s classic Sigur Rós all the way through – quiet beginning slowly building up to a grandiose maelstrom of sound (in this case, more pounding and foreboding than pretty and euphoric), with a very long, slow fade-out at the end, and beautifully fragile vocals from Jónsi to help you mourn whatever was lost.
12) “Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung”, The Flaming Lips (At War with the Mystics, 2006)
Since the mood had turned to beautiful tragedy, it seemed like the perfect time to slip in this late-album highlight, which I believe was sung by drummer Steven Drozd instead of the band’s usual lead singer Wayne Coyne, and which alluded to a volcano raining down apocalyptic destruction on a city. Back in those days when we still had a working VCR, Christine liked to find random VHS tapes in the bargain bin and bring them home to see if they were any good, especially during the summer when there was very little on TV worth watching. One of those movies was the 90’s disaster flick Dante’s Peak, which was garish in its portrait of volcanic destruction and how it handled its character deaths, to the point where I wasn’t sure if it was disturbing or unintentionally funny. For some reason this song – which maintains a much more believable balance between beauty and horror – always reminds me of that movie. I was also looking forward to our first trip to the Big Island, which was coming up in July, so I think at the time I was sort of fascinated with volcanoes in general.
13) “Rescue Is Coming”, David Crowder Band (A Collision, 2005)
“Don’t give up now/A break in the clouds/We could be found.” While this song – the “proper” closing track on an overstuffed David Crowder record that perhaps went a bit overboard with its grand finale – promised more of a spiritual form of rescue than a physical one, I liked the image it gave me of being whisked away from some sort of a natural disaster at the last second, so it made sense to me as a peaceful postscript after the literal fire and brimstone of “Pompeii”. A Collision was an album that seemed to grapple with the fear of death and wondering what was beyond that veil, so the “rescue” of this song may well have been our final transition from Earth to heaven in the form of death, rather than rescue from death itself – or to put it another way, physical death leading to spiritual resurrection. I still grapple sometimes with the notion that as a Christian, I’m not supposed to fear death, but it’s still an unpleasant thought, something I always hope will not happen too soon before my “story” has come to a fitting close, and I have to remember that deciding when and how that story ends isn’t fully up to me.
14) “Everything Is Nothing”, The Listening (The Listening LP, 2006)
At the end of The Listening’s epic yet meditative record, and also a highlight near the end of their live set, was this vulnerable love song, awash in synths and ambient guitar but with a well-defined bass rhythm, almost like the kind of thing you’d hear at a post-modern wedding. The love described in this song sounded like it had survived some real tragedy in order to become as deep as it had. Barely a year into our marriage, I had no idea the kind of tests that would lie ahead for us to endure, but hearing a song like this, I was confident that we’d have that kind of love for each other.
15) “Your Beautiful Mind”, Kevin Max (The Imposter, 2005)
A beautiful, sort of Brit-poppy piano ballad in which Kevin Max – possibly still grappling with the evangelical subculture he now stood on the fringes of – ponders the mind of God, how the world will end, and tries to ask some honest but reverent questions about the meaning of it all and his part in the bigger plan. Kevin must have really felt this song was important to him, since he re-recorded it on a few of his later records, but this early version remains my favorite. I haven’t personally wrestled with the whole “End Times” thing since Y2K. I felt like always being on my guard for it wasn’t productive and there still seemed to be so much more good that God was in the middle of doing in the world, despite the doom and gloom from a lot of other Christians who could only see it all going to hell in a handbasket. I just don’t want to look at the world that way, you know? If you think the story’s about to end and you’ve got a free pass to avoid the unpleasant final chapter, you just sort of tune out and stop wanting to help make it a better place.
16) “Picture”, MuteMath (MuteMath, 2006)
Definitely an underrated track that came late on MuteMath’s first album – that album as a whole is beloved by fans probably more than any of their others, yet I don’t recall them ever playing this particular track live. Pity, because its up-tempo mood is infectious, and yet there’s an unspoken tragedy in its backstory that gives it a sense of depth. Whatever caused the loss, a photograph seems to be all that was left behind for a couple to remember their relationship by, and yet by preserving that memory, a man feels like he’s keeping their love alive. I feel a very strong attachment to photographs – I make sure I’ve always got a visual reminder of the amazing places we’ve traveled to and the important events in our lives. The music I was listening to at the time I first had these experiences will often give me powerful visual memories of those places and people. Whatever happens (short of Alzheimer’s, I guess), those memories can’t be stolen away, so even if some of those places and people are now in the past and can’t be revisited, I’ll always be aware of the profound impact they had on my life.