Divad’s Soundtrack #68: May-June 2007

In late June 2007, I finally achieved my lifelong dream of taking a trip to Alaska. I had been obsessed with the far-flung corners of our country since first learning about the 50 States as a child, and being with Christine had given me ample opportunity to explore Hawaii, but this far-off northern land eluded me due to the logistical difficulties of getting there. We finally took the plunge and flew into Anchorage (with a few days’ layover in Seattle to hang out with Jennie and her husband Dave), rented a car, and took a road trip throughout the southern and western parts of the state – excluding the Panhandle, most of which you can’t drive to. The trip still dominates my memories of that summer, as one of the absolute most superlative places I’ve ever laid eyes on.

In with the New:
Matt Wertz
Fort Minor

Out with the Old:
The Wreckers

Listen on Spotify:

divads-soundtrack-68aDISC ONE
Astonishing snow-capped mountains dwarfed us at seemingly every turn on this trip, and we saw some beautiful not-quite-sunsets and even a not-quite sunrise, and all would have made great candidates for CD covers, but perhaps the most surprising bit of scenery was Matanuska Glacier, which unexpectedly opened up in a massive valley beneath us as we drove east on the Glenn Highway through the mountains outside of Anchorage. What’s funny is that we noticed a bunch of places – a church, a coffee shop, etc – that had “Glacier” in their names, and we were wondering why that was suddenly popping up a lot in a green, forested area until suddenly the glacier became visible across the valley.
Where in the world is this?

2006_JarsofClay_GoodMonsters1) “Take Me Higher”, Jars of Clay (Good Monsters, 2006)
I had thought this song was honestly kind of dumb for nearly the first year of its existence. Certainly a fun, laid-back rock jam, which featured a solid guitar solo from Steve Mason at the end. But I kept getting hung up on the line “take me higher than the sun”, and thought it was meaningless, since there’s really no “up” in space, unless you consider “up” to be opposite the direction of gravity, in which case everything orbiting the sun is already “higher” than it. But anticipating the trip to Alaska gave the song a meaningful context for me. This was the first time in my life that I’d visited such a high latitude that the sun didn’t completely set. It was “higher than the sun” in the sense that I could always see where it was from my vantage point. This was an awesome thing to behold during the first few nights of the trip, and a recurring annoyance later in the trip when I just wanted to get some sleep already, and the blackout curtains in a few of those hotels weren’t black enough.

2007_LostOcean_LostOcean2) “Just Glide”, Lost Ocean (Lost Ocean, 2007)
SO. MANY. HAPPILY. CASCADING. PIANO. RIFFS. This song was close to being total nonsense – I mean, “What you miss is what you find”? “Make the street and lights will dance”? “Sidewalks are our canvas, so we do what we do”? Pure silliness. But it was silliness that felt damn good – like the soundtrack to getting out there and taking in all the splendor that the world had to offer.

2006_OliviatheBand_BacktoFriendsWhereSummerNeverEndsEP3) “Feelings”, Olivia the Band (Back to Friends Where Summer Never Ends EP, 2006)
I think there was meant to be a message to this happy, rapid-fire pop-punk song about social isolation and trying to reach beyond that and understand how the strangers around you were feeling. But mostly, I think I included this one for its inspiration cry of “Will we were reach the sky!” because it felt like yet another happy traveling song that would seem appropriate here. The less happy memory that comes to mind when I think about this band is that we made the mistake of seeing them at some sort of a summer crusade event that Calvary Chapel had put on down in Huntington Beach. Olivia playing a show at the beach, what’s not to love? For the band’s part, they simply put on their usual fun, good-natured show and I can’t fault them for it. But I became really embarrassed during that event, at how condescendingly the Calvary Chapel folks talked down to the audience – as if the non-Christians curious enough to turn up were only capable of a fifth grade reading level or something. This was not how I wanted the world to see us. I believed that Christians and seekers should be able to engage each other a lot more intelligently.

2006_Hellogoodbye_ZombiesAliensVampiresDinosaurs4) “All of Your Love”, Hellogoodbye (Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!, 2006)
Disguise a highly danceable pop song about a guy needing a girl’s love with enough robotic synths, vocal manipulation effects, and some DIY indie pop production values, and sure, you can pretend it’s not a cheesy boy band song if you like. I don’t remember if HGB ever made a music video for this one. But if they did, I feel like it should have involved some breakdancing.

2006_MegDia_SomethingReal5) “Monster”, Meg & Dia (Something Real, 2006)
…and suddenly we’ve taken a tangent into some dark territory. That’s what happens sometimes when I cram all of these upbeat songs together and some of them have rather subversive messages. Meg & Dia pulled off an interesting balance between catchy, riff-heavy rock and a sympathetic “who’s the real monster” sort of story here. On one level, their voices ring out with sorrow for a woman who’s been kept as a prisoner, beaten, and quite possibly even raped by a cruel man. Yet the lyrics try to get at the origins of this awful person, wondering what factors in his upbringing led to his becoming such a beast with no apparent remorse for the way he violates others and discards their feelings. Can you see such a character as sympathetic without excusing their actions? Meg & Dia seemed to be making an argument that you could.

2007_Anberlin_Cities6) “Godspeed”, Anberlin (Cities, 2007)
The powerhouse first single from Cities was probably the heaviest thing they’d recorded up to that point, kicking in right at the beginning of the record with an unstoppable show of force and a soaring chorus that said in no uncertain terms the sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle wasn’t all it was cracked up to be: “They lied when they said the good die young”. The notion of the “27 Club”, where a number of famous rockers have died tragically at such a young age, sometimes fuels this myth that the best artists are the ones who burn bright and get snuffed out way too soon, before they can drag their careers out ungracefully into old age. And as much as a person’s art lives on long after they’ve passed away, shouldn’t the person’s actual life be more important to us as fans than our perception of their legacy?

2006_Switchfoot_OhGravity7) “American Dream”, Switchfoot (Oh! Gravity, 2006)
I kind of wrote this one off early on as a retread of Switchfoot’s now-classic song “Gone”, which also skewered our tendency to prioritize materialism over more meaningful things. “American Dream” just happened to do it with heavier guitar riffs, I thought. But “Gone” came out when I was unmarried and a heck of a lot more idealistic. “American Dream” came out after I’d faced the struggle of supporting two of us mostly on one income, coming to accept that I’d probably never own property under this arrangement (at least not in Los Angeles!), and having to make do living on that edge of being acceptably stable with the occasional financial emergency, and honestly not as successful in that department as I’d imagined myself being. I suppose I could have scrimped and saved and thus been able to eke out enough to make mortgage payments work, or to more substantially help those around me fighting for worthy charitable causes or who personally fell on hard times. And it’s not like I didn’t have my luxuries. A week-long trip to Alaska – even if you don’t go on a cruise and don’t stay in super-nice hotels or anything – still isn’t cheap. Some people would probably say, “Why do you travel like this every year; you’re throwing your money away when you could be investing it in something.” But honestly? Ten years later, I don’t regret making those memories. I guess I’ve come to see money and material things as something I want only to the point where I’m not constantly worried about stability, and after that point, I have no desire to work my way into the upper echelons of society. I’d rather spend some of it on activities I’ll be glad later in life that I took the time to do when I was young and able-bodied, and put some of it toward helping folks in a less fortunate position than myself.

2007_LinkinPark_MinutestoMidnight8) “What I’ve Done”, Linkin Park (Minutes to Midnight, 2007)
Summer 2007 is when Linkin Park, previously pigeonholed as the most mainstream and radio-friendly of the nu-metal acts that you either loved or hated depending on your overall opinion of the genre, went through their most extreme growing pains as they tried to prove to the public that they were more versatile. The first phase of unveiling that change was this rather straightforward single that re-interepreted their sound as energetic pop/rock, with some haunting piano and electronic bits in the background, but without the screaming and rapping. It was at the center of a dreadful hodgepodge of an album, and due to the song’s inclusion in the first live-action Transformers movie that summer, the song was freakin’ everywhere. I went from being ambivalent towards it to actually realizing that I quite liked it, but holy crap, Minutes to Midnight was a mess. I still can’t listen to that album all the way through without seriously cringing at several points.

2007_CoolhandLuke_TheBalancingAct9) “The Balancing Act”, Cool Hand Luke (The Balancing Act, 2007)
I had heard Cool Hand Luke perform this song at the same festival where I saw Relient K, Mae, etc. the previous year. It was a new track intended for their hodgepodge of a retrospective album named after it. (Seriously, these guys went from screamo to slow, brooding piano rock. The two halves are tough to reconcile.) I thought the meditation on trying to atone for past sins on this song was a nice contrast to “What I’ve Done”, which is pretty clearly about trying to work through past regrets, own up to your failings, and be a better person. This song says you can’t do it entirely on your own, and the effort spent trying to shore up one’s image in the eyes of others as if you could somehow be seen as sinless now is a bit of a slap in the face to Jesus when Christians try this. While Cool Hand Luke’s music was often hit or miss for me, I could always tell that Mark Nicks sang with genuine conviction. And the anguished end of this song (which is the closest the band’s “piano rock” side came to revisiting their “screamo” days, I think) certainly made it clear that this was a personal struggle and a lesson he had to keep reminding himself about.

2006_Skillet_Comatose10) “Whispers in the Dark”, Skillet (Comatose, 2006)
One Saturday in May, Christine and I had driven all the way out to Temecula – with a stop at Chino Hills State Park for a short hike along the way – to see Skillet perform at a free Christian festival, at the same mall where I’d seen Falling Up and Pillar a few years prior. Skillet was fun, loud, and heavy, playing a lot of solid highlights from their last few albums, including “Whispers in the Dark”, which is the last highlight I’ve bothered to pull from any of their albums to put on one of these soundtracks, because I was honestly already growing out of their music at that point and the band took a real nose-dive in terms of quality in the years to come. I remember Christine being surprised at how heavy some of their stuff was, and that they had a female drummer. But I think this festival, combined with the Calvary Chapel incident mentioned above, was what put the final nail in the coffin concerning our willingness to drive out for these free evangelistic events. Not that I’ve got anything against using modern music to share the Gospel. But the whole “rope in a captive audience and then subject them to long impromptu sermons/altar calls that they didn’t sign up for” thing really rubbed me the wrong way. The opening band – who I think was called Seven Places? – somehow managed to turn an altar call into a poor man’s magic show, where their lead singer, during his lengthy spiel on people needing to come down and get saved, was “sensing” that someone in the audience needed to repent of a drug addiction and so forth. I’m not saying God can’t miraculously heal a person from such a thing, but then I think about all the people who struggle with stuff like that for years and who do earnestly pray to God (because being a Christian doesn’t automatically exclude any of us from having vices), and I wonder if Jesus was here, would he be angry at all the showboating? I can’t answer that for certain, but it made me uncomfortable enough that I’ve been a lot less likely to go out to a show with a mega-lineup of Christian rock bands since then, at least when the tickets are anything less than full price.

2007_FutureofForestry_Twilight11) “Sacred Place”, Future of Forestry (Twilight, 2007)
This was the most Something Like Silas-sounding of the new Future of Forestry songs. The slow, moody drums and bass, the mysterious way that it unfolded and invited listeners into a sacred place of quietness and reflection, the straight-up worship song lyrics… at this point, it took careful attention to detail to get me to like a song like this. The female vocals that came up later in the song were so convincingly similar to Malina’s (the keyboardist for SLS, and Eric Owyoung’s ex-wife) that I can only imagine he must have gotten more of the same embarrassing questions about where she was and why she was no longer in the band.

2006_Copeland_EatSleepRepeat12) “Eat, Sleep, Repeat”, Copeland (Eat, Sleep, Repeat, 2006)
As I mentioned before, this Copeland album reminds me of snowy places when I listen to it, and that’s definitely because I was visiting snowy places at non-wintry times of year. The eerie, echoing keyboards and lurking bass in this song combined with an otherwise chipper, light-as-a-feather pop melody, while Aaron Marsh ruminated on love turning out to be way harder than you’d ever been taught it would be, captured that clash of summer and winter that I saw in Alaska’s scenery. Imposing mountains that never unfroze looming over lush, marshy fields of flowers. Random patches of snow on the otherwise green tundra. Freak hailstorms that briefly turned an otherwise sunny day with an endless horizon into a gloomy day of boisterous grey mourning.

2007_RelientK_FiveScoreandSevenYearsAgo13) “Give Until There’s Nothing Left”, Relient K (Five Score and Seven Years Ago, 2007)
Relient K made it pretty clear that they didn’t care about genre on a few of their new album’s tracks that year, especially on this one which was dominated by synth and acoustic guitar at the beginning, until it opened up into more of a traditional pop/rock anthem later on. The sentiment about learning how to give unselfishly, even when you feel you don’t have that much to give and even when nobody’s taught you the right way to love and you just have to figure it out as you go, couldn’t have fit more perfectly with Copeland’s song.

2007_Bjork_Volta14) “Wanderlust”, Björk (Volta, 2007)
I feel like these next three songs are monumental indicators of how my tastes were shifting more and more away from mainstream and Christian rock that year, and I was delving more into indie/experimental stuff. Each of the three are still my favorite by the artist after all these years. First off is Björk, an artist I’d spent a lot of years making fun of before that point because I just could not get into her voice and the weird way she enunciated English words. She’s kind of an easy target due to her eccentricities, but when she showed up on Saturday Night Live to perform this song, with her all-female horn section, her energetic barefoot dancing, and an unapologetic lust for places far from anything familiar to her, I was downright transfixed. This may well be my theme song for the reasons why I travel. Pretty scenery is part of it, but I’m also genuinely curious about how people live in far-flung corners of the country that a younger me would superficially assume are culturally more or less the same as where I live, just because we live under the same overall government and set of rules. Even in what passes for a big city in Alaska, you need some degree of self-sufficiency. It’s just sort of in people’s DNA up there, I think. And I’m a city slicker who probably couldn’t survive it, or at least who wouldn’t be very happy in a place like that year-round. But that makes me admire the people who call it home and who love it there even more.

2007_Wilco_SkyBlueSky15) “Impossible Germany”, Wilco (Sky Blue Sky, 2007)
My first shock upon hearing an early leak of Sky Blue Sky that summer was how, after two albums of really struggling to understand Wilco’s penchant for making weird, experimental sounds, sometimes getting so lost in the white noise that they seemed to forget about the actual song, suddenly all of the weird noise-making was gone and they were making understated soft rock instead. That was a bad taste in a lot of Wilco fans’ mouths, I bet, but as these songs slowly began to grow on me, I found a great beauty in many of them, particularly in this show-stopper with its gorgeous chord progression that developed into a long electric guitar jam at the end that may well be my favorite guitar solo of all time. I’ve never been to Germany or Japan – they’re two countries I would love to visit. But the song isn’t really about those places. It’s about two people separated by a great distance – maybe one of them took a long trip on purpose just to avoid dealing with problems back home – who are trying to work through their communication problems despite that distance. Ultimately, the guy resigns himself to thinking maybe the trip will clear her head and they’ll understand each other better if she ever makes it home. And I feel like traveling – for all if its unexpected costs and logistical hassles – has that sort of head-clearing effect on me. Whatever I was dealing with when I left, I generally come back with more clarity and willingness to face it head-on.

2006_Anathallo_FloatingWorld16) “Dokkoise House (With Face Covered)”, Anathallo (Floating World, 2006)
Anathallo’s first full-length album, was a strange, tangled collection of songs with a loose Japanese aesthetic to some of them (including bits and pieces of the language here and there), and a sprawling array of sounds coming from a seven-piece band full of college kids from Michigan that sometimes reminded me of Sufjan Stevens and sometimes reminded me of a marching band gone horribly awry. I loved the simple poetry in this song, which had one quiet verse lamenting the fading of a beautiful flower, and which then opened up into several different voices singing in a round in Japanese in 7/8 time, complete with off-kilter hand-claps. it was far from conventional pop music, and yet I found it immediately addictive. The refrain of “O hana!” enraptured me so much that at one point, I actually discussed the possibility of naming a daughter “Hana” when Christine and I were fantasizing about having children and what we would name them. (It means “flower” in Japanese, but apparently it also means “nose”. So that was a hard “no” from her perspective.) And of course the word “Ohana” means family in Hawaiian, which was probably unintended on Anathallo’s part. But the song feels like a celebration of Eastern and Western cultures coming together as family in a beautiful place. I couldn’t have thought of a more graceful note to end side one with.

divads-soundtrack-68bDISC TWO
One of the most fascinating places in Alaska is Denali National Park – few tourists visits the state’s interior without visiting the park. Christine and I took an unbelievably long shuttle ride along the lone road that leads into the park, which offered some stunning views of the open tundra and surrounding mountains (we saw occasional caribou and sheep, but unfortunately no bears, and no views of Mt. McKinley due to the clouds). Our tour turned around at Toklat River, which is pictured here – grey, silty, and desolate, but awe-inspiring with the colorful mountains surrounding it. There’s a tiny tour bus crossing the bridge here, just to illustrate how small a place like this can make a person feel in the grand scheme of things.
Where in the world is this?

2007_LostOcean_LostOcean1) “Lights”, Lost Ocean (Lost Ocean, 2007)
This song was the darker, moodier yin to the yang of their earlier song “Just Glide”. Still very briskly paced and beautifully executed, but there was more mystique to this one, like something was calling out to the listener from miles away, across a gloomy sea. My mind gravitates toward beautiful places near the ocean when I think of this one, particularly the town of Seward, Alaska, which we drove down to on a day-long excursion from our stay in Anchorage, to visit the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park and to meet up with Michelle, a friend I had somehow met online through either my Xanga blog or a Jars of Clay fan group – I can no longer remember which. She and her boyfriend (now husband) Caleb had driven all the way out from Homer to meet up with us, and together we explored the local aquarium, and kept warm with coffee on that overcast Alaskan summer day. We’ve kept in touch all these years, and Michelle still wows us on social media with her photography of the seasons changing in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

2006_Incubus_Light Grenades2) “Pendulous Threads”, Incubus (Light Grenades, 2006)
Where “Lights” seemed to be about having a supernatural light inside calling you home, this chaotic eleventh-hour highlight from Light Grenades was more about having a burning fire inside. Something that gave you the desire to unravel the dangling threads in your life and thrive in the upheaval it caused. Looking back on this, I really miss the days when I could geek out over the unusual sounds Mike Einziger made with his guitar, which were never quite the same from one Incubus song to the next, and also how Brandon Boyd’s manic energy gave a different personality to pretty much every song on that record.

2006_Iona_TheCirclingHour3) “Factory of Magnificent Souls”, Iona (The Circling Hour, 2006)
Despite most of Iona’s material in the 2000s being more open-ended and subject to interpretation, this is perhaps the most interesting “Jesus song” they ever wrote, with lyrics that struck me as rather un-Iona-like at first, since they seemed much more concerned with good fighting evil in the present day than with Celtic mythology and whatnot. You would think that a Christian band using boxing as an analogy for spiritual warfare would end up planting themselves firmly in the same territory as Carman (cringe), but what was interesting about Iona’s use of it was that it emphasized non-violence. “I saw a man duck and weave the most evil punches”, Joanne Hogg sang, as if shrewdly and gracefully dodging the blows without returning the violence eye-for-an-eye style was a better way to fight the good fight. The acoustic guitars and tin whistle and so forth weaved about quickly and gracefully, but not aggressively, mirroring that non-violent approach. The bridge later said of Jesus, “You took violent indignation, and you killed it with a political kiss.” Those are bold words, that seek to rise above the usual rhetoric from Christians who attempt to use politics as a sledgehammer to force others to behave as we think they should. These words actually mean a lot more to me now than I realized they would a decade ago.

2006_MattWertz_EverythinginBetween4) “Heartbreaker”, Matt Wertz (Everything in Between, 2006)
There wasn’t really a right way for me to shift gears from the more rocking stuff to the more relationship-oriented stuff, so looking back, suddenly having Matt Wertz come in with this bouncy breakup song is rather jarring, even if I had Iona as a buffer to help with the shift to a set of acoustic-based songs. This had been a highlight the previous fall when Wertz opened for Jars of Clay on their Good Monsters tour, and his keen ability to rope the audience into singing the different parts of his “Something’s goin’ on!” hook really sold me on him as a performer. I guess I didn’t manage to catch up with the album until several months later, which is why this song appears here instead of on the November-December 2006 compilation where it probably should have been.

2006_TheWreckers_StandStillLookPretty5) “Leave the Pieces”, The Wreckers (Stand Still, Look Pretty, 2006)
Thw Wreckers’ lead single, which urges a lover with one foot out the door to just rip off the Band-aid and end the relationship already, was very reminiscent of the Dixie Chicks, which is probably why I liked it so much. The fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar are all ace here, even if they’re in service of a very basic song that mines some of the oldest tropes in the country-pop handbook. Branch and Harp’s vocals were absolutely killer, and this was one of my favorite songs of theirs for me to try to harmonize with rather than just following the lead melody when I would sing along.

2006_MegDia_SomethingReal6) “Cardigan Weather”, Meg & Dia (Something Real, 2006)
“Monster” was musically aggressive, yet lyrically sympathetic. Lyrically, this is the flip-side. Musically, it’s downright adorable with its unplugged, coffeehouse vibe and the sisters’ sweet harmonies. Lyrically… yikes, are they plotting to kill a guy? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, as a persumably fictional character discovers her beau cheating, and plans to do away with him by tampering with his medication and then sewing him up inside a mattress when he’s asleep. Why the hell is it called “Cardigan Weather”? That shows up nowhere in the lyrics, but the chill you get upon realizing what it’s about may well have you reaching for a sweater.

2007_BarenakedLadies_BarenakedLadiesAreMen7) “One and Only”, Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked Ladies Are Men, 2007)
Yet another Ed Robertson-penned highlight from a series of albums that I think really suffered from being released independently and too close together. The lyrics are pretty simple – a man’s been burned before and he’s used to being lonely, and is now asking for a little patience as he tries to come out of his shell in a new relationship. It’s the vocal harmonies and the interesting acoustic guitar work that really make this one work – fans of their earlier song “Light Up My Room” from Stunt would probably best appreciate this one, since it’s in a similar vein. Why can’t Ed Robertson write ’em like this any more, now that he’s helming the band full-time in Steven Page’s absence?

2006_Evanescence_TheOpenDoor8) “Lacrymosa”, Evanescence (The Open Door, 2006)
Here Amy Lee indulged her longtime fandom of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by covering one of his more well-known instrumental passages, and adding melodramatic lyrics and punchy, glammy, goth-metal riffs and a choir and so forth to punch it up. Whether this beloved musical piece needed to be hijacked in service of a rather whiny and bitter lyric about sarcastically hoping a guy who left her high and dry is truly better on his own is a matter of some debate. I figured this fit in well with all the melancholy breakup songs I’d been piling up on this mix, that thankfully had nothing to do with anything I was actually going through at the time.

2005_FortMinor_TheRisingTied9) “The Hard Way”, Fort Minor feat. Kenna (The Rising Tied: Limited Edition, 2006)
Leaks of high-profile new albums had become so common in those days that I think the labels (or someone with unclear intentions) had resorted to posting fakes to various file-sharing services just to stem the tide. It backfired when what I thought was “In Between”, which turned out to be a rather dull Mike Shinoda ballad on the forthcoming Minutes to Midnight, was actually just a mislabeled copy of this song, a bonus track from the special edition of Mike’s solo rap project, Fort Minor. The dark piano chords, exotic percussion, Kenna’s haunting chorus vocal, and Mike’s rapping in 6/8 time were way more fascinating than most of the actual new material heard on Minutes to Midnight, so even after finding out I’d been duped, I was still in love with this track.

2006_Copeland_EatSleepRepeat10) “When You Thought You’d Never Stand Out”, Copeland (Eat, Sleep, Repeat, 2006)
This was the closing track on an album that seemed like it was chock full of dark horse favorites. The off-timed piano, Aaron Marsh’s vulnerable musing about how he didn’t fit in and would get made fun of as a kid, and the somewhat despairing melody didn’t click with me at first. But when the strings and drums came in, and the female vocals showed up as if to offer a calming, motherly counterpoint, it turned into something truly magical. The very last day of our Alaska trip, we had woken up early to make the long push from Denali back to Anchorage in time to catch a flight scheduled to take off at around noon. I had put this album on to get me through the home stretch of that drive, as we said goodbye to the last of the wild scenery on the Parks Highway as we rolled back into Anchorage. My heart wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the Last Frontier yet, but my body was exhausted. It was time to head home.

2007_ModestMouse_WeWereDeadBeforetheShipEvenSank11) “Little Motel”, Modest Mouse (We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, 2007)
There aren’t many Modest Mouse songs I’d describe as “pretty”. This one makes the most out of a quiet, simple chord progression to build into something really gorgeous – just listen to how that reverbed guitar takes flight later in the song, as the vocals turn from almost a calm whisper to something more sinister. You wouldn’t have expected a song like this if all you knew of Modest Mouse was singles like “Float On” and “Dashboard”, or some of their more manic, out-there material. This one was a calm oasis in the middle of a sprawling album, and I’m glad it got the attention it deserved despite how much other new material it had to contend with. As in Wilco’s “Impossible Germany”, it sounds like a couple’s been separated by physical distance after some sort of a conflict. One’s rented a motel room just to get some peace and quiet away from home, and a chance to think things through. For some reason I imagined this motel being out in the middle of nowhere, at some lonesome rural highway intersection, surrounded by fields in all directions.

2006_ViennaTeng_DreamingThrougtheNoise12) “Transcontinental, 1:30 A.M.”, Vienna Teng (Dreaming Through the Noise, 2006)
The theme of a vast distance between two people continues with this late night phone call, where two lovers on opposite coasts are hesitant to hang up and return to the coldness of being alone by themselves in a dark room. I always thought of this as Vienna putting on her “Norah Jones hat” for a song, since it had a strongly jazzy feel to it, completed with muted trumpet and brushed drums that always brought to my mind the image of puddles on the ground after a rainstorm. This song was a perfect fit as I pondered the scenery on that long shuttle ride back out of the depths of Denali National Park. The rainy weather on the tundra made it slower going than it was on the way in, and even though we were going back the same way we came, it felt different due to the clouds and mist covering what had been a wide open, brightly lit expanse of wilderness just a few hours ago.

2007_NorahJones_NotTooLate13) “The Sun Doesn’t Like You”, Norah Jones (Not Too Late, 2007)
Of course I had to put the actual Norah Jones song next as a clever reference to what Vienna was doing. Though this was one of Norah’s more folksy songs, I think, based more around acoustic guitar than piano. I loved the subtle chord progression of this song, which seemed to depict the shifting rays of sun on a colorful landscape throughout the day. The negative effects of too much sun were described in this song, and after a solid week in Alaska, I was definitely starting to feel weary due to the constant sunshine in my eyes as I drove, to the point where a passing storm became a welcome break from the blinding monotony on some of those longer stretches of highway that we spent trapped behind motorhomes going 45 miles per hour. When you don’t even get so much as a full sunset at night, so you can’t even drive at dusk to make it easier on the eyes, the brain starts to go a bit cuckoo.

2006_MichelleTumes_MichelleTumes14) “Let It Rain”, Michelle Tumes (Michelle Tumes, 2006)
Since rain is so often used as a metaphor for gloom and sadness, I appreciate the occasional song that spins it as a good thing. Of course a lot of Christian music plays up the “holy water” angle, as Michelle did in this worshipful song about a much-needed storm healing the land. A landscape like Alaska, which spends much of the year encased in snow but which explodes in vivid colors in the late spring and summer, made me grateful for the changing, even volatile weather, and even the simple astronomical fact that the changing angle of the sun hitting the earth at different times of year and at different latitudes can change so many aspects of its environment.

2007_AndrewBird_ArmchairApocrypha15) “Yawny at the Apocalypse”, Andrew Bird (Armchair Apocrypha, 2007)
This instrumental track came at the tail end of Andrew Bird’s album, just a calm, reflective few minutes of Bird noodling on his violin as two ethereal chords played over and over in the background, fading slowly in at the beginning and slowly out at the end as if to say the quiet splendor would continue on for an eternity even when humans weren’t around any more to take it in. My mind associates it with the strange but beautiful sight I saw the night that we stopped over in Glennallen, a rather lonesome highway intersection town several hours east of Anchorage, and I awoke at 3 in the morning to realize that the still-twilight sky outside was really throwing off my body clock. I decided to make the best of it, and I went outside to take a picture of what wasn’t quite a sunset or a sunrise, just the sun hovering slightly below the horizon to the north of us. It was a bizarre and breathtaking sight that this tranquil piece will always remind me of.

2007_Anberlin_Cities16) “Inevitable”, Anberlin feat. Aaron Marsh (Cities, 2007)
“Yawny” really would have been the perfect ending, but since I’m stubborn, I try to stick to the rule I established long ago that I can’t start these soundtracks with the actual first track from an album, or end with the last track. So this lovey-dovey ballad from Anberlin got crammed in at the end, when really it probably should have been part of the gradual winding down two or three tracks earlier. I love the unabashed sentimentality here, as a man tells his lover, “I want to be your last first kiss”, and it’s like he’s opening up all of his childhood dreams to share with her. This was how I felt having Christine as my companion as I crossed Alaska off of my travel bucket list. I had wanted to do this ever since I was a nerdy kid first learning about the 50 states, and wondering what was in the farthest-flung corners of our country. We had already explored many corners of the 50th state, Hawaii, together. But Alaska was something entirely new to both of us, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed the trip nearly as much without her to marvel at all of it right there with me.

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