Long Walks with Waxahatchee

At the start of the pandemic, somewhere around mid-March, I started taking long walks after work. With routines not just interrupted but in complete tatters, I set a new one for myself, tracing my own map of Brooklyn with nothing but my stride.

I’d sign off my computer, grab my over ear headphones, and cast off for some direction that felt fitting that day: north to Brooklyn Heights, east to Prospect Park, south(ish) to Windsor Terrace, or west to Red Hook. Those early months were noticeably empty in the evenings, and the city felt heavy with despair. Walking became my way through, a means of treading water until I could escape the rip tide pulling me away from shore.

Eventually my initial compass whittled down from four points to simply north and west—the latter far more than the former. Red Hook became the escape. I didn’t know it at the time, but I sought the water.

Maybe your origins have little to do with your affinity to being by water—after all, it does seem almost primitive to enjoy that part of nature—but I thank my early years on Toronto’s lakeside beaches and extensive time at my grandparents’ cottage on Lake Nipissing with shaping my craving for lakes, rivers, oceans, and all manner of watery expanse. The lap of the water—its soothing, steadying rhythm—satisfies some yearning in me that never fully stills.

It was in the spring pandemic months that Waxahatchee‘s album Saint Cloud arrived. It showed up at the perfect time, which was also somehow the hardest, so I guess Dickens called it after all. Initially, I tried out many different songs for those long walks, but only something brand new would do—a blank canvas on which to paint the experience of an unfolding global crisis, and its devastating impact on the city.

The Statue of Liberty watches over the bay.

The country-influenced, Americana-leaning album marked a departure from singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s previous work as Waxahatchee: her dark, growling rock on 2017’s Out in the Storm; her electrifying Merge debut, 2015’s Ivy Tripp; and her previous two lo-fi LPs. Saint Cloud felt capacious and warm. From the way her protracted vocals take up space on the opening track “Oxbow,” I felt a hesitant flowering that shifted into a steady assurance, as if Crutchfield had crossed her arms, raised her chin, and was staring you down in the parking lot. I needed that grit at the time.

The album dealt largely in her new sobriety, a choice she feared would limit her songwriting potential, but instead maximized it. Without the numbing haze that had followed her around, Crutchfield stumbled into a bright-eyed wonder. The album sounds like golden hour—that magic time of day when the setting sun’s waning light softens everything it touches.

“Lilacs” remains a standout for me—a song about the passage of time, about watching its ebb and flow by way of something’s bloom and decline, and how that circularity plays out on the larger stage of our choices. “If I’m a broken record, write it in the dust, babe/ I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do,” she sings, her voice full of vim and vigor.

Even though Crutchfield wrote and recorded the album before a pandemic crossed anyone’s mind, her culminating song and title track “St. Cloud” is oddly prescient, especially given the context in which I first listened to it. Though a good deal of Saint Cloud situates Crutchfield in her native south, the final two songs return her to Manhattan.

On “St. Cloud,” she sings, with an almost dirge-like piano structuring her vocals, “When you get back on the M train/ Watch the city mutate/ Where do you go when your mind starts/ To lose its perfected shape?/ Virtuosic, idealistic, musing a fall from grace/I guess the dead just go on living/ At the darkest edge of space.” That last line in particular haunted the moment. We’d lost over 30,000 New Yorkers between March and May, yet their deaths felt strangely abstract. Stuck as we were in our tiny boxes, we had only the endless wails of the ambulance sirens to alert us to the growing toll. “St. Cloud” gave voice to the grief—it feels like a memorial written in real time.

Beyond the emergency of the larger moment, everything felt in disarray. I was close to ending the most stable relationship I’d known. Although we’d been looking for an apartment together since November—a serious step forward with light talk of marriage fluttering at the edges—things had taken a strange nosedive in January and our recovery hadn’t come close to stabilizing when the pandemic hit. I asked for time apart and those long walks clarified our approaching end. “Arkadelphia” just handed me the sentiment, the way, if you’re lucky, a song will articulate a hazy feeling: “If you get real close to the ending/ I hope you know I did what I could/ We try to give it all meaning/ Glorify the grain of the wood/ Tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good.”

What’s wild, and entirely my fault, is that as much as I love the album, I have to choose my re-listens carefully because I’m immediately taken back to those late March walks when the world was falling apart—both the larger instance of it and my own personal version. I imagine that will fade with time, though who knows; perhaps the needle in this particular groove goes too deep and Saint Cloud will always be my long-haunted-pandemic-treks-to-Red-Hook album. There are worse appellations, I suppose.

View of Manhattan from Red Hook.

I want to say something profound about that experience one year ago. I even brought my laptop over to Wilmington, where I recently rented a docked sailboat; I thought the meaning would become clearer when I sought out water and listened to the album in full once again. But be careful about drawing parallels, about tracing the line between here and there, once and was. You can walk the maps you create for yourself, but that doesn’t mean they’ll reveal a point. I’ll leave it, instead, to Crutchfield: “If you burn slow, burning slow/ On your own roof, yell what you know/ Burning slow, burning slow.”

Field Report’s “Michelle”

Don’t you love it when you go to see one band and end up finding another? That’s been my luck more than a few times, including one night in late 2014 when I heard Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter Field Report (Chris Porterfield). He was in Champaign opening for fellow Wisconsinites Phox, who I absolutely adored at the time (still do, really), though their musical career was brief.

But that night it was Porterfield who left me stunned.

At the time, he was newly sober and touring his sophomore album Marigolden. The songs trafficked in the detritus of his decisions, and the wary wonder of a new perspective. That evening, he played “Michelle,” and it was one of the few times that a song I’ve never heard before left me absolutely thunderstruck.

The song begins with piano that sounds as though it’s pacing the room, antsy and absorbed, before Porterfield’s voice bursts in, sustaining the opening lyric, “Oh Michelle.” He holds the “Oh” as if it were a scar someone had brushed against, triggering pain that hasn’t yet dulled and resides still beneath the skin. It’s a guttural response, summarizing the anguish of his tryst with a married woman caught in an abusive relationship.

Musically, Porterfield writes tender songs, but it’s his lyricism that’s most striking. I count him among a small cohort of contemporary songwriters who capture scenes with literary specificity, including Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Phoebe Bridgers. In fact, one of the lines from “Michelle”—”I went looking for the river, but I only made it to the railroad bend”—remains a favorite to this day.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The song opens in color, a foreboding of what’s to come. “Tonight is bruise-black swelling golden green,” Porterfield sings before recounting a dream in which the momentum of their relationship, its sheer impossibility, ends in the tragedy of a car crash. “And the car was Shelby blue,” he recounts, holding onto the color as it pangs across other memories. “Blue like the one in the photo of your father and you/Blue like the label on the beer you always choose/Blue like me and you, Michelle.”

A guitar picks up the piano’s earlier agitation, as the song builds out into full frame, the image sharpening with touches of pedal steel. But despite that sonic edge toward hope, the closing verse falls like a punch. Porterfield, having dreamed of a car, pleads with his lover to run away. “If we leave right now we’ll be there by morning/There being anywhere but here,” he sings, his voice weary with resignation. “We can make a new start; we can make up new names/I’ve already picked yours, Michelle.”

Yeah, I’ve been a fan ever since.

NNAMDÏ’s ‘Brat’

As genre slowly dissolves into the ether thanks to people’s increasingly omnivorous listening habits—fueled largely by the cross-current of streaming—music has come to sound a little like this and a lot like that, but never an entirely straightforward thing.

You can’t slot Moses Sumney, Yves Tumor, and serpentwithfeet, to name just a few, into any one category because they take from so many. That all of these artists are Black is important. Historically, Black musicians have been relegated to separate musical genres for little else besides race, as Karl Miller argues in Segregating Sound. Early A&R men operated under the assumption that white audiences wouldn’t want to listen to Black musicians, so they divided artists into blues and country, and later R&B and pop, despite similar foundational tenets informing both groups.

But as more artists borrow sounds from multiple genres to build their own, it opens the door to see their work in a new way—informed by race, sure, but not restricted by it. The Chicago multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, also known by the mononym NNAMDÏ, fit that new effort. He makes ambitious music.

I first met NNAMDÏ in 2015, when I interviewed the Chicago math/prog/electronic outfit Monobody. At the time, he played drums for the band, but had already released two solo albums of his own: 2013’s Bootie Noir, followed closely by 2014’s Feckin Weirdo.

It’s clear how much he enjoys wandering sonically, instincts he refines on his fourth and latest album, 2020’s Brat. Each track shape shifts to some degree, but what might seem disheveled on the surface instead builds into a revelatory statement. It’s been a minute since an entire album, not just a song, grabbed my attention so entirely.

Opening track “Flowers to My Demons” begins in stark fashion, with flamenco-esque guitar and NNAMDÏ’s voice. But stark in this instance does not mean quiet. The flurry of sound erupting between those two instruments fills out the firmament before drums enter halfway through to ground the interplay.

The album—an internal monologue of sorts that lays siege to notions of identity, perception, and even sanity—hinges on segues that happen as fast as the fleeting thoughts each track strives to capture. “Flowers to My Demons” takes one second, quite literally, before it switches into the synth-heavy, trip hop-leaning track “Gimme Gimme.” The shift is sudden and yet seamless. Across both, NNAMDÏ plays with two voices—his natural lower register and an affected falsetto representing a shadow thought that haunts the album, questioning his thoughts, actions, choices, and behavior.

The burst of energy which begins Brat eventually levels off. NNAMDÏ’s inner questions move from a manic state to something more dampened. On the breathtaking “Glass Casket,” he builds a dreamy, synth-laced R&B track that finds him imagining different futures, though every path feels impossible when you want it all. “I wanna be a traveller/I wanna witness everything/And then bring it to my bedside/I dream about it even when I wake up,” he sings so despondently that the confession feels quietly devastating.

Brimming as Brat is with worries, anxieties, and doubts, it ends on a hopeful note. The penultimate “It’s OK” resounds like a mantra, while NNAMDÏ builds the found sound of birds into the meditative final track “Salut.” Despite each song’s calm, meditative lyricism, they build mighty sonic atmospheres to inhabit. In this case, the sentiment doesn’t need to match the sound—it can serve as a contrast, building a picture of complexity that matches what it means to be human, because in the end we’re all a little like this and a lot like that, but never an entirely straightforward thing.

Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”

The pandemic has generated bizarre physiological responses to the stress we’ve all been experiencing, including a rise in clumsiness. It turns out, constant anxiety affects spatial awareness—our ability to be aware of our surroundings—leading to all manner of bumps, drops, and mundane mayhem.

One way to cure clumsiness? Through dance. Apparently, making your body move rhythmically helps reestablish your brain-body connection, anchoring you physically to the spaces you inhabit. If body fogginess is the byproduct of a chaotic year, then rhythmic movement is the antidote.

The brain-body connection has long fascinated me. I tend to live in my head. Add to that the rigorous mental work that grad school primed me to do, which I carry out still, and my brain often overwhelms its side of the partnership. I try to balance that out with physical activity, which itself feeds into a healthy brain: I workout, I walk as much as I can (doing my darnedest to exemplify the “excellent walker” barb Mrs. Hurst hurls at Lizzy in Pride & Prejudice), and I dance.

I love to dance so much that over a decade ago, I went so far as to become a Zumba instructor shortly before it exploded into a craze. By the time I stopped teaching there was a glut of instructors, but when I first moved to Baton Rouge, the local gyms needed more help to meet the growing demand, so I completed the requisite training and began leading my own class.

It started slow—Tuesdays and Thursdays at one of the less-attended YMCAs in the area—but word soon spread, and by the end of my tenure some three years later, I was teaching four classes each week at the number two branch, including leading the downtown Y’s weekly outdoor summer class and co-teaching the Varsity Theater’s nightclub Zumba.

Zumba offered readymade choreography for instructors, but I liked to blend those prepared offerings with some of my own fancy footwork, and one of my favorite “originals” became Rihanna’s 2010 hit “Rude Boy.” I must’ve played it at least once a week over the years I taught at the Y. And no one batted an eye. They shimmied with me, circling their hips, and feeling that magnanimous connection that exists between rhythm and physicality, when a beat practically catches you.

I don’t know why management let me play it. From the song’s outset, the lyrics don’t try to wink at anything—they scream it. “Come on rude boy boy, can you get it up?/Come on rude boy boy is you big enough?” Rihanna sings, as if she’s just kicked down the bedroom door and arched an eyebrow. The steel drum synths add to the song’s island vibe, which updates the dancehall tradition, before dipping down into a distorted bass thump practically designed for grinding.

I blasted it throughout the Y and my class participants loved it. “Take it take it, baby baby, take it take it, love me love me,” Rihanna sang. And they did.

And then all that dance faded into the background. I moved, started a new job, and forgot about the hours and hours I spent creating and learning new routines for salsa and merengue and cumbia and samba. Somewhere in that time, “Rude Boy” also became a thing of the past. Instead, I became smitten with Rihanna’s 2016 sex-on-a-stick album ANTI.

The brain codes rote activities differently than it does facts or autobiographical memory. Once you learn a task, the brain shifts that memory to another part where it’s less consciously executed. “Muscle memory,” therefore, is not about your body storing a memory of how to do a task, but about how once you learn a movement or other kind of repetitive activity, you can perform it almost without thought.

Recently, I was out for a walk when “Rude Boy” popped up on the 2010s playlist I had going. Suddenly, all of those past Zumba classes came rushing back. But, I wondered, could I remember my routine to the song? As it turns out, yes indeed.

My brain searched for the moves, their order. One right step unlocked the entire thing as if it hadn’t been nearly 10 years since I last danced it. From “Rude Boy,” I fell down the rabbit hole: all the salsas and merengues and reggaetons, including my favorite tracks, Celia Cruz’s “La Vida Es Un Carnaval,” T-Pain’s “Booty Wurk,” and my cool down song, “Yo No Se Manana,” which apparently I still know the lyrics to even though I don’t speak Spanish. I must have danced for an hour under the setting sun, feeling a sort of exquisiteness all the more precious for its rarity these days.

The rhythms lived in my body still, though they’d been dormant, buried under the stress of a year that left my brain-body connection heavily weighted toward the former. At a time when the battle we’ve faced has been waged in the body, I celebrated the exuberant movement that resides in mine, side-stepping and twirling outdoors, and feeling for a fleeting moment that animating spark they call joy. “Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, babe.”

Philip Glass’ ‘Glassworks’

One Friday, in the early summer of 2018, I donned my prettiest dress, threw on a cream plum lipstick, and walked to the subway to grab the uptown train. After years away from the cultural nexus of the city, I was headed to Lincoln Center to attend New York City Ballet’s centennial celebration of the late choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Although NYCB is most wildly associated with George Balanchine, who co-founded the company and whose work it most regularly performs, Robbins holds a special place in the repertoire. He choreographed a significant number of ballets for the company, bringing his distinctly Broadway aesthetic to the art form and expanding what it meant to dance modern ballet.

That warm, overcast May evening, I had a ticket to a performance that would begin with Robbins’ beloved Dances at a Gathering and end with his metropolitan Glass Pieces, which is set to the music of Philip Glass—specifically pieces from his 1981 album Glassworks. Sitting in the cheap seats (discounted because you can see most of the stage), I was charmed by the former and wowed by the latter. I knew of Glass, but seeing the dancers embody his music transformed it in a material way. I remember being entranced.

Glassworks is a six-movement chamber work that integrates heavy pop influences—think synths meets classical. It marked Glass’ first album for CBS, which he hoped, he later explained, would reach new audiences. Where some listeners had found his previous music difficult, Glassworks was meant to shed all such barriers.

Robbins selected “Rubric” and “Facades” for the first two movements of Glass Pieces, and they each paint a spirited portrait of city life. On “Rubric,” a central saxophone syncs up with fluttering synths, creating a propulsive energy that mimics a busy sidewalk. On “Facades,” the pace grows more subdued but no less insistent; strings enter the frame and against that backdrop, two soprano saxophones spin a captivating duet.

“Rubric” and “Facades” still wield the power to transport me back to that evening—really to the city itself—and the bright spot of that evening. Less than a year later, in what seemed like kismet, I’d find myself working at New York City Ballet, having taken a managerial role on the company’s editorial team. It seemed—from the outside and even the outset—like a dream job. I thought I’d finally made it.

Part of “making it” in New York means not just what you do, but where you do it. Work and identity are fundamentally intertwined in that city in a way I’ve yet to experience elsewhere. People ask about your job by way of getting to know you, and that becomes your defining trait. Hobbies and interests and other things play a part, of course, but not nearly as much as your title and company, which makes sense: Those who move to New York don’t arrive looking for the status quo—a bland job they could do anywhere with much less overhead. They come to do something big. Your job is your identity in that city, so you better find an interesting one.

By day four at NYCB, I felt the thunder of my mistake—in part because several of my coworkers began regaling me with their horror stories. That fourth day also happened to be NYCB’s annual spring gala, an illustrious and exclusive affair. As I sat eating the most expensive meal of my life (comped because of my employee status) and watching celebrities rub elbows with dancers I’d long admired, the vision tarnished. What should have been the night to top them all—certainly that early Robbins performance—felt gnarled.

(Side note: once I wrapped up my gala duties at 2 a.m., I took a Lyft home, crying on the phone to my then-boyfriend about the alarming mess I seemed to be in. The driver overheard my side of the conversation, despite my attempts to be quiet, and offered a pep talk when he pulled up to my apartment. That exchange remains an equally meaningful and mortifying moment from my time in the city.)

I wouldn’t last long at NYCB; I’d be gone by summer’s end. What should have been a significant step forward for me, after years of struggle, was a significant misstep. But Glass Pieces somehow escaped that particular coloring. While I haven’t seen it performed since 2018, I hear in it not just the thrilling movement I saw explode on stage, but feel for a spell the transcendent energy of the city. It was dazzling, until it wasn’t.

A Tale of Two Covers: “Lilac Wine”

The list of artists who have covered “Lilac Wine” is long—and ongoing—but there are two who stand apart: Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. Their versions, recorded nearly 30 years apart, offer evocative interpretations of a song that is as much about atmosphere as it is epiphany.

Composer James Shelton originally wrote “Lilac Wine” in 1950; it would go on to debut as part of the musical revue Dance Me a Song. Knowing its dramatic origins, it’s hard not to read Shelton’s lyricism as a specifically vivid backdrop, with the song functioning as a monologue more than other pop ballads of the period. The opening lyrics, “I lost myself on a cool damp night/ I gave myself in that misty light,” pull back the curtains on a hazy yet detailed scene.

“Lilac Wine” is a potent song about intoxication—its fog and folly—but especially how that clouded state can sometimes get you closer to the truth, or the bravado to face it: “It makes me see what I want to see/ And be what I want to be.” The narrator awaits their love, drinking up the courage to face that desire head on, but when that possibility grows nearer, grows surer, so too does the troubling supposition that they don’t want what they originally thought: “Lilac wine, I feel unready for my love/ Feel unready for my love.”

Simone’s version appears on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. She plays the piano  scenically, building it as if it were a thunderous backdrop, while the upright bass accompanying her plucks a punctuating note against that flurry.

In her delivery, Simone wields a touch of sorcery. The song’s trawling pace suits her distinctively dusky voice well, curving toward the self-realization that sits at the song’s center. Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal attributed her emotional vocals to the tumultuous relationship she had with her husband turned manager, along with the increasingly violent events of the ’60s, which produced “Mississippi Goddam” and Wild Is the Wind‘s standout “Four Women.”

In her voice, I hear a longing for escape. A lover offers one possibility, but absent that option, she settles on lilac wine, which paints for her the fantasy of a different existence—”It makes me see what I want to see/ And be what I want to be.” There’s a central unspoken pang about Simone’s version that has always felt as intoxicating as the drink she sings about.

Buckley’s version appears on his 1993 album Grace. Rather than Simone’s heavy opening piano chord, the strum of his electric guitar stitches a more delicate approach. His voice makes an emotional leap between the second verse and the song’s central confession—the reason behind the narrator’s drinking in the first place—”I think more than I wanna think/ I do things I never should do.” In his pining call, I hear exasperation bordering on contempt.

Buckley’s sustain draws out the instability lingering around the edges of “Lilac Wine.”  “Listen to me, why is everything so hazy?/ Isn’t that she, or am I just going crazy, dear?” he sings, warbling slightly on “crazy.” Given the song’s theatrical underpinnings, Buckley’s cover feels closer to the monologue I mentioned earlier. The way he delivers that confession (“or am I going crazy, dear?”) serves as the edge, before he pulls himself back for the concluding truth about being unready.

It’s not a matter of playing favorites here. “Lilac Wine” is a fluid song that finds its form in Simone’s and Buckley’s respective approaches. The juxtaposition between their registers—Simone’s lower and Buckley’s higher—and their primary instruments—piano and electric guitar—present two wildly different, yet equally heady, renditions. I find myself returning again and again, asking them to fill my glass once more with their haunting and hanging truth.

 

Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”

Shortly before starting grade six, which Americans wrongly call “sixth grade,” I moved to my grandmother’s house in Toronto. My family shifted around a lot thanks to my dad’s work in TV news, but this year was different. My parents had recently separated, and my mother decided to return home. Having little say in the matter, my brother and I came with.

The relocation meant I needed to start a new school, which marked my third in as many years. It happened to be a Catholic institution because in Toronto there’s a wealth of public Catholic schools, though students have to be baptized in the faith to attend. Try going through that at age 11 when your parents are maybe divorcing and you’re living in your grandmother’s attic and you’re being asked to drink the lord’s blood but not really.

So, yeah, it wasn’t the best of times. And yet, a la Dickens, it was.

The school never held dances, so in some strange fit of rebellion, instead of doing more normal things like hang out and watch movies, my classmates and I—all 15 of us—spent our Saturdays gathering in each other’s basements. We’d play music, enjoy pizza and pop, and dance—sometimes to fast stuff but mostly to slow jams. There was Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose,” and Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” It was mid-90s power ballad heaven, and we slow danced our little non-chaperoned hearts out.

I came to enjoy these weird basement friend dances because they gave me a chance to get close to Mikey, the cute Jamaican-Canadian boy who was by far the most popular kid in grade six. We often chatted in class and played together during recess, but the dances were different. He’d ask me to slow dance, flaming the embers of my glowing crush as his arms encircled my waist. Even without school officials to supervise, boys chose between hands-on-hips (for friendlier partners) or arms-around-waist. It seemed to suggest something when Mikey went with the latter.

At school, certain classmates and especially my best friend Kalina—who’d moved from Poland a few years prior—used to tell me that Mikey liked me. At times, I thought so too. But in the looks department—and let’s not pretend that doesn’t matter at 11 or any age—it felt as though Julie, the bubbly, blue-eyed girl, would be more his speed. I’d recently gotten glasses and braces, and begun what would become a permanent lean into “bookish.”

At the last basement gathering of the school year, Mikey walked over and asked me to dance to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a thunderous, seven-minute ballad about lost love. It’s like he knew I’d one day be a writer and would appreciate its auspiciousness.

That night, I thought Mikey’s ask signaled something more. Rumors had been swirling among our small class that he was going to ask me out before the end of the school year. And that night, I felt the crackle of possibility—of getting something you’ve wanted for a long time. In fact, I specifically remember making myself stare into the fire—I mean, it was a long song—so that I would form a memory of that dance with Mikey. “It’s all coming back to me now,” Celine sings and it’s like she knew what I was trying to do.

But just two days later, as I stood in the girl’s bathroom on the second floor at school, Julie walked in beaming. Mikey had asked her out. Kalina and I rushed downstairs and out to the back field to discuss this hideous turn of events. We didn’t get very far before Mikey found us and asked to talk, sheepishly explaining how he’d been torn between Julie and me for a while, but ultimately chose Julie because she was really fun.

It took an operatic song to match the soap opera of grade six that year, and Celine’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” did the trick, which is funny because it wasn’t even my favorite song of hers at the time. (Yes, all Canadians must swear to a favorite.) That’d be “Because You Loved Me.” Thank goodness we didn’t dance to that. It’s far less poetic. And terribly untrue.

In the end, it’s a good thing Mikey went with Julie. A few months later, my parents newly reunited, we left Toronto for my dad’s new job in south Florida.

What strikes me, even now, is the potency of this particular memory. I remember bits and pieces from my childhood; I often think that moving around so much—all of that change—affected what stuck. But this one, of our weird basement friend dances and especially of Mikey, has always lingered, and I credit that forced fire staring and Celine’s hyperbolic pining: “It was lost long ago/ But it’s all coming back to me now.”

All Hail King Stitt

When I first started collecting vinyl, I was exceptionally—almost stupidly—lucky. I dug up randos, took a chance, and ended up procuring LPs that would go on to become some of my favorites: Ride Me Donkey, Ted Hawkins’ Watch Your Step, and Brazil Forro: Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers (how can you pass on that title?).

Among that collection was Dance Hall ’63, featuring King Stitt. After I put the album on the record store’s test turntable and heard how the woozy sax trigged a warm beat, I was sold. But I had no idea what joy Stitt would bring to my life.

Stitt overtakes the album with his “toasting,” or hype and chatter which would go on to inform early hip-hop. You can still dance and enjoy the music, but Stitt has shit to say and you will listen.

Some gems: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous!” and “This sound is on top! On top of the world!”

He also clearly revels in telling the audience who’s playing and what they’re doing. “[Name inaudible] on the saxophone and King Stitt on the microphone,” he reminds dancers. He is as much a star as the music he’s spinning. He’s the MC, hype man, and liner notes, all rolled into one.

A dancehall DJ working in and around Kingston, Jamaica, Stitt (born Winston Spark) was actually a pioneer in the field, though somehow he thought his given name wasn’t suitable for the profession when really DJ Spark could’ve had an equally luminous career. Instead, he chose “Stitt” because of the stutter he’d had since childhood.

According to Stitt himself, he met Clement Dodd (known as Sir Coxsone), the famed Jamaican DJ, in 1955. Dodd was apparently fond of Stitt’s dancing and thought he could be fun on the mic. He had no idea. Stitt began DJing in 1956, and eventually became so popular, he added the “King” that gave him his full name.

I started this post by calling those early finds “lucky,” but really they far exceed that adjective, especially Dance Hall ’63. From my very first time hearing it all the way through, to subsequent listens—usually in mid-summer, after a beach day that soaks past your skin and down to your very core, offering some hint at what perfectly happy feels like—I think of King Stitt: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous.”

 

 

Kacey Musgraves’ “It Is What It Is”

Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious senses endings before I do and uses lyrics to communicate as much.

Years ago, I wrote about mondegreens, or misheard lyrics, which got me thinking about the equally curious but much more poorly named phenomenon of earworms, or song fragments that churn endlessly—often unbidden—in the brain. On the surface they can be fantastically annoying, especially if you don’t enjoy the song your brain’s manic DJ choices—but underneath all that, could they be a message?

Earworms don’t seem to signify anything more than a recently heard song that’s become “stuck.” For me, these tend to be pop songs, which are repetitive by nature and constructed by masterminds, like Max Martin, who know how to create something not only catchy but catching. One listen to Taylor Swift’s latest single—just one!—and it’ll be with me for a week.

Beyond that, my brain adores language so much that I’ll often link a turn of phrase with a song. Here’s a not-very-interesting example of what I mean: During a scenic drive some years back, a friend said, “This sure is a winding road,” and immediately the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” started playing in my mind. In moments like that, it feels as though my brain is a musical and all the neurons simply waiting to fire and burst into song.

But sometimes the lyrical phrases that affix themselves to my internal monologue (or would it be soundtrack?) feel as though they’re hinting at a bigger picture.

Only a few months into my last long-term relationship, I found myself walking Clinton St. in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill—a path I preferred for its tree-lined escapism—and internally singing the last chorus line of Kacey Musgraves’ song “It Is What It Is.”

The track details a relationship of convenience, one in which neither party is particularly drawn to the other, but they’re both sort of there…so why not? “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored,” Musgraves sings with a kind of resigned indifference. “It is what it is/Till it ain’t/Anymore.”

The song serves as the culminating moment on Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park. It’s a quiet track on an album full of reflective moments that don’t rest in more somber poses because Musgraves slips in winks and wisecracks to soften their respective blows. But “It Is What It Is” is vulnerable, raw.

For the longest time, the chorus would break the surface of my mind, and when it would I was tempted to draw parallels to my relationship at the time. We got along fabulously in ways that seemed to matter but don’t necessarily go the distance. Sometimes it felt like we were a convenience for one another, but that didn’t stop us from trying to force something more.

When that happened—when things started to get more serious—I’d feel something in my gut rear up like a wild stallion who’s caught sight of the bit, which is when the song’s lyrics would float up from the ether of my mind and stick in my head for a spell: “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored.”

Lately I got my record collection back and I added Musgrave’s debut to it, which prompted a more focused kind of listening than I’d previously given the song. Beyond the chorus and its one-two truth punch, the song paints a much larger picture. “We’re so much alike it ain’t a good thing. Too dumb to give up/Too stubborn to change,” Musgraves sings.

The chorus that would often crop up as I walked the sidewalks of New York and ponder the big ol’ “why” of it all was enough to signal a message. But hearing the song in its entirety, it felt as though my brain knew something I didn’t—that it had stored all those previous listens of “It Is What It Is” and kept sending smoke signals via the chorus, obliquely encouraging me to put the picture together.

I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist, but if anyone were to ever study the lyrics that ripple the waves of our minds, especially the why and when of it, I think they’d find that certain songs—at least the ones that tunnel into our being—sometimes act like a message in a bottle. If we’re willing enough to listen.

Flock of Dimes’ “Two”

For anyone who has purposely cultivated their independence, especially in order to create in some way, shape or form, it can feel tenuous to want love. Those two things needn’t be at odds with one another, but oftentimes it can seem as though it’s a choice—either me or we.

Give too much to a partner and you’re left feeling divorced from your creative pursuits; give too much to your creative pursuits and your partner will, understandably, be hard pressed to stick around for very long. In matters of attention, there’s only so much to go around.

The desire for independence and companionship create a tension that’s not easily resolved. In Flock of Dimes‘ new song “Two,” Jenn Wasner questions whether a satisfying outcome exists. “Can I be one/ Can we be two/ Can I be for myself?/ Still be still with you?” Wasner sings on the chorus. I hear in that inquiry a plea of sorts—to keep the parts of herself that feed her creativity and her individualism, while still craving the beauty of companionship, of growing together with someone in a meaningful way.

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

“Two” signals a new direction for the Baltimore-born and Durham-based singer-songwriter, who has her hands in many musical pots these days. Beyond her solo project Flock of Dimes, she forms one-half of the indie rock group Wye Oak and wrapped up a touring stint with Bon Iver before the pandemic upended everyone’s plans. As Flock of Dimes, Wasner’s last full-length album came in 2016, but she released a gorgeous, and slow-burning EP Like So Much Desire last year. “Two” appears on her forthcoming album Head of Roses, out April 2.

Melodically, “Two” stretches Wasner’s craft. The song is richly textured, weaving together upbeat, almost-plucky synths with long, luxurious guitar in ways that mirror the song’s query about wanting two things that don’t fit neatly into the same frame. That everything works so well together instrumentally, in a sort of indie-rock-meets-electro-pop-giddiness, signals to the possibility of something larger. Rather than shrinking into categories of ‘either/or,’ there can be room for ‘and’—or at least, for now, the dream of it.