Jesca Hoop’s ‘Pegasi’

I’ve seen singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop twice in concert, and both times she’s brought me to tears. Some sorcerous combination of her lyricism and voice—a dusky alto—knocks a chink into the walls I’ve scaffolded around my heart, letting the light of a larger truth shine through.

The first time it happened, Hoop and Sam Beam were touring their collaborative 2016 album Love Letter for Fire. I caught them at New Orleans’ Civic Theater, where they traded between performing together and playing songs from their respective solo albums.

During one such moment, Hoop debuted a new song—something she hadn’t recorded yet. She plucked it, title then-unknown, on her electric guitar, setting a soft, slow rhythm against which she spun the myth of a relationship and the reality of its end.

The song worked heavily in metaphor, detailing a Pegasus and the rider who tames her—at first. “When we’re in love, we’re alive/ You’re the envy of the sky/ Every ember wants to ride the supernova,” Hoop sang that night, drawing out round, warm vowel sound leading off the syllable “ova.”

The beauty of that initial imagery, its sparkling ascendency, turned in the latter half of the chorus: “But I fear you’ll see the day/ When I’ve endured all I can take/ I won’t bend but I will break/ Under the weight.”

Try and control anything “built to soar” and watch what happens. Hoop’s song portrays love’s ecstatic start and the inevitable downfall that occurs when you ask anyone to change their very essence. I knew it well.

Writing is my version of soaring, and it requires a certain kind of time and commitment and effort and energy. I’ve yet to find a romantic partner who isn’t threatened in some way by those elements—and the fact of my giving each one to something other than them.

But so far the tradeoff hasn’t been worth it. As fulfilling as companionship can be, writing and the freedom to do it well has been the better choice. If I sound overly precious about the craft, it’s only because I’m so deeply in love with it. Peter Schjeldahl put it best when he wrote:

No wonder guys get jealous.

When Hoop released her fourth album Memories Are Now one year after that show in New Orleans, I found the track. On the studio version of “Pegasi,” she quickens the tempo and adds in gorgeous pedal steel that domes the night sky as though it were a shooting star tracing the arc of the heavens.

Able to hear the nuance of the verses, the relationship portrayed in the song grew clearer. It begins as one of care. “You’ve found a map to my heart/ It lead you to the well/ You combed at my mane/ I’ll wear your saddle and reigns,” Hoop sings. Those initial days are heady ones, and Pegasi feels the rush to “take to the sky like poetry” because her rider makes her better.

But ultimately their differences become their downfall. The rider wants control—a fact that might have seemed fair given the care that first attended it—but Pegasi wants to fly. It’s not a problem of compromise but restriction.

To this day, I feel the unbridled beauty of Pegasi’s choice. Of course you cast your rider aside when they threaten to cage you. Rare is the rider who can accept a wild nature without breaking it, warping it into something other than what attracted them in the first place.

Tiny Ruins’ “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round”

New Zealand singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook, who performs under the name Tiny Ruins, writes deliciously hushed songs. If you pushed me to sketch a more synoptic descriptor, I might go so far as to say it’s shy music for shy listeners. It’s still and spare and soft, standing in the corner waiting for you to pay attention to its textured arrangements and sensitive lyricism.

I’ve previously written about Tiny Ruins’ song “Carriages,” spotlighting it for a P4K staffers list in 2018, but my absolute favorite remains “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round.” Both appear on her standout album, 2014’s Brightly Painted One.

“She’ll Be Coming ‘Round” begins as though it were climbing the mountain nestled at the song’s center; Fullbrook steadily plucks her guitar strings, unhurried. Her first verse hints at a sense of sudden freedom, gained unexpectedly. “Like a brightly painted one/ Freed from the turning of the wheel,” she sings, prolonging her vocal sustain so that it works alongside and around the guitar’s ponderous rhythm.

But a hint of what’s to come flashes shortly before the two-minute mark, when an electric guitar ripples frenetically in the background, leading into a climatic release. It’s as though the song exhales, and a larger determination emerges. Freedom acquired is not freedom kept without some kind of backbone.

It takes some time for the song to reach that wild and hardy spirit. The pace shifts around the 3:30 mark, picking up the tempo when a bass drum takes over and beats a kind of strength into the honest declarations Fullbrook has been sharing. “No more relying on,” she repeats, backed by a swell of voices.

In the song’s final moments, atmospheric organ surrounds her voice, as she comes ’round the mountain, so to speak, and delivers a lyrical line of purpose: “That old freewill might be a myth, but I’m gonna try and get me some.”

Shy doesn’t have to mean slight. Although Fullbrook’s vocal delivery never moves beyond quiet to capture the brash confidence the song’s final assertion might warrant, the mere fact of its echo lends it shape and substance. Charge forth, she seems to say, and carve your path on the mountain.

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.

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.


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.

Weyes Blood’s “Andromeda”

I’ve hinted at, but haven’t talked enough about, timing in music. No, not rhythm. I mean the providence of finding a song (or a song finding you) at the exact right moment. I’ve long thought that, like any worthwhile art form, some songs are windows while others are mirrors. Whether gazing out or in, you’ll only be ready for a song’s perspective if the timing is right.

I mention all of this because it’s timing that reconnected me with Weyes Blood’s song “Andromeda.” The track appears on the California singer-songwriter’s 2019 album Titanic Rising, but its message didn’t reverberate until I heard it in the opening sequence of the 2020 apocalyptic comedy Save Yourselves! The film’s slo-mo dance sequence uses the entire song—a luxurious five minutes—rather than slicing it up to underscore a brief scene. Hearing it in that moment, the lyrics felt crisp and consequential.

Weyes Blood
Weyes Blood, photo by Eliot Lee Hazel.

On “Andromeda,” Weyes Blood (Natalie Mering) depicts the emotional hesitancy that sometimes occurs before the start of a new relationship. Instead of making grand proclamations about starting over, it wavers. It’s an unsteady song, and all the more significant for that vacillation. After all, past a certain age and a certain number of exes, can you really trust that your next relationship won’t follow the same course?

Mering doesn’t reach a definitive answer. “Andromeda” is less about a conclusive “happily ever after” than it is the beauty of willingness—and the resiliency it takes to get there.

The song begins with hazy synths, as though it were a message recorded long ago and only now reaching earth. “Running from my own life now/ I’m really turning some time/ Looking up to the sky for something I may never find,” Mering sings about trying to understand the choices she’s made and where they’ve left her. Having tried things her way, she relinquishes her life to the fates, challenging them, “If you think you can save me/ I dare you to try.” In other words, if the stars have something in mind, she’s listening.

The timing I experienced connecting with the song over a year after its release reminded me of another kind of timing. I never used to pay much attention to whether or not I was ready for certain things. I tended to dive in and figure it out along the way. But being ready is critical. Without that positioning, it doesn’t matter how amazing a connection—or opportunity—you might find.

“Ready” felt like a vague concept for me last year. After ending things with my long-term boyfriend, I certainly didn’t feel ready to date again, especially in the middle of a pandemic. After I moved to Durham last summer, I downloaded Bumble against my better judgment, thinking I’d see what the dating scene was like. But I lasted all of three days before I deleted my account. I tried again in November, striking up a handful of conversations but none that held my interest. That time, I made it a week before I again deleted the app. I wasn’t there yet. Some people can jump into new relationships quickly, but I tend to move slow, as I’ve detailed previously, and have sometimes felt all the more awkward for that pace.

Yet, hearing “Andromeda” that December night I watched Save Yourselves!, I recognized a difference. “Ready” no longer felt nebulous, cast far into the future. Rather, the weight of the past felt less heavy. The thought of a connection with someone new felt more exciting. A certain degree of hope started bubbling beneath the surface.

It was a small comfort to know I’d gotten there on my own, without burrowing down into the distraction of something unhealthy, without moving on too quickly and contorting myself in ways that would only come back to haunt me. On some level, I had trusted that I would get there. And I had. Now, as Mering sings, “More than anything I can think of/ I’m ready to try.” What a beautiful phrase.

Joy Kills Sorrow’s “Books”

Everything gets quieter at winter, stilling to a murmur. As obvious a statement as that sounds, I spent much of my young adulthood in the south, where the closest we got to winter was a chilly day. It wasn’t until I moved to Champaign for a year that I experienced true winter once again—the winter of my childhood in Toronto, Winnipeg, and later Cleveland and St. Louis. Winter that had a weight to it. All of those layers, all of that insularity. It was hard not to retreat, to move slower in pace with the season.

Around that time in Champaign, I found myself retreating into Joy Kills Sorrow‘s reflective track “Books.” I first heard about the band in 2010, when their tour included a stop at Baton Rouge’s famed—and now sadly defunct—venue Chelsea’s. I loved their sound so much I later caught them play in New York while I was there for a brief summer internship. (In fact, that show is famously how I came across Leif Vollebekk, who was one of two artists on the bill ahead of JKS that night.)

My life in Champaign was extraordinarily solitary at times because I didn’t yet know many people outside work—the reason I’d moved there in the first place—so I often passed my free time with lengthy walks between my apartment and the few square blocks that marked “downtown,” withdrawing into the music that coursed through my headphones. During winter, “Books” became the soundtrack for all of those publicly private strolls. 

“Books” appears on JKS’ 2010 album Darkness Sure Becomes This City, and it requires a certain kind of quiet to hear properly. It wasn’t until I moved to Champaign that I got it. The song begins with a hushed mandolin before banjo brightens the melody line and lead vocalist Emma Beacon softly sings the first verse, “I got lots of books/ And my house stays warm in winter/ So I don’t go out too much these days.”

I love when your life grows to meet a song, as mine did that winter. “Yes,” I thought, hearing a scene I knew well.

Now, in the early days of 2021, I find myself returning to “Books” once again. Durham doesn’t experience a traditional winter (aka snow), but it’s been cold enough and pandemic-y enough for that first line to resonate loudly. In a year marked by so much isolation and solitude, “Books” feels fitting once again, though it’s less about the season itself, and more about the care the current moment requires: Move slowly, take your time—things will unfurl in due course.

I feel particularly hungry for that message right now. My life last year would’ve been messy without the added chaos of a pandemic. A breakup and subsequent move to a new city left me cautious, questioning my course and the steps I’d taken to walk it. The song painted a new picture, one I again saw myself in. It wasn’t just about the cozy care of winter, but about the beauty of stillness and consideration. “I move so carefully slow/ Cuz I don’t know where I should go/ And I’m holding on tight to my soul,” Beacon sings, luxuriating over the phrase and expanding its meaning with her delivery.

Choice can be overwhelming and making two big ones, especially back-to-back, requires a certain pause in order to know what comes next. A year ago, that attitude wouldn’t have fit in the larger scheme of things because, cliched as it may be, life moves fast. But not in a pandemic. It’s ok to move slow, to hold tight to your soul for a while and see what comes next rather than force action. For now, I hold tight to this song, which speaks volumes.

Dan Deacon’s “Become a Mountain”

I highly recommend listening to Dan Deacon‘s ebullient song “Become a Mountain” while driving up an actual mountain. If you don’t have one nearby to summit, by all means find a small hill or an inclined street and get going. It’s a song that benefits from elevation, from reaching your arms wide and feeling the power of perspective in real time.

I love when songs accidentally soundtrack my life, which is what happened on this particular December afternoon as I drove Elk Mountain Scenic Highway to hike the Rattlesnake Lodge trail in Asheville, NC. The road wound higher and higher, with absolutely nothing separating my not-so-mountain-friendly car from tumbling over the side should I hit a patch of ice. And it was cold enough for that to happen. So I drove slowly, the knot in my stomach winding ever tighter. And then Deacon’s song came on.

“Become a Mountain” appears on the Baltimore-based musician’s latest album, Mystic Familiar. In the five years it took between solo albums, Deacon turned his attention to composing, a choice well-suited to his work, which has always contained visual kernels ripe for scaffolding other artistic projects. (NYCB’s resident choreographer Justin Peck used Deacon’s song suite “USA I-IV” from America for his 2017 ballet The Times Are Racing. And if you ever get the chance to see it, GO. I saw it performed last year, and it’s easily among my top five ballet memories. And yes, I have enough ballet memories to rank them. I digress.)

The album’s an attempt to replace the often negative voices that loop in our heads with voices from nature, using the ‘familiar’ as a motif to achieve that switch. The elements in the album—mountains, trees, oceans—offer their perspective.

On “Become a Mountain,” the song serves as a reminder to stay present. The narrator’s ambition, always future-focused, distracts him, but the mountain’s point of view grounds him in the present moment. “Close your eyes/ And become a mountain/ Become all around you/ Become the skies, become the seas/ Open your eyes/ And remain the mountain/ Breathing in deeply/ Feeling the day change with the breeze.” The song’s piano, a sound Deacon carries off with a player piano he controls via computer, creates a shimmering, cascading sound that elevates the central message.

Climbing ever higher that day in my car, I felt the exuberance of inhabiting the present—of following the winding road even if some primitive part of you is convinced it’s too scary. For one of those rare, glorious moments when a song soundtracks your life, you aren’t just watching things happen—you’re in it. The lyric “And remain a mountain” cogently summarizes the point: don’t just focus on becoming. Inhabit your life. Be.

Perfume Genius’ “Otherside” and “Slip Away”

Perfume Genius performs at Eaux Claires.
Perfume Genius performs at Eaux Claires 2017. Photo by Amanda Wicks.

If someone asked me to qualify joy, to outline its shape and radiance, I’d point them to Perfume Genius‘ opening track “Otherside” from his 2017 album No Shape. At the outset, “Otherside” might seem like an odd choice. It starts quietly, almost hesitantly, with only a piano and singer Mike Hadreas’ constrained voice offering something close to a supplication: “Even your going / Let it find you,” he sings. “Even in hiding /Find it knows you.”

But the payoff comes at the 1:10-minute mark. Just when it sounds as though the song’s sparse nature will prevail, a glitter bomb detonates.

Hadreas has shape-shifted over the course of his five albums as Perfume Genius, arriving at an atmospheric baroque-pop that allows him to build scenes equal parts muscular and fragile. That central tension might seem overwhelming after a few tracks (the kind of feverish energy that makes it hard to watch Uncut Gems), but Hadreas never lets it run rampant. Rather than undoing his albums, the tension propels them.

Tension is something Hadreas knows well. Growing up, he was bullied for being gay, an external loathing that infiltrated the newly forming walls teenagers erect to construct their sense of self.

But it didn’t stop in high school. “There are all kinds of different things people do, from tiny little wound marks to straight up getting punched in the face,” Hadreas told Pitchfork‘s Jamie Fullerton in 2016.  “Something like that hasn’t happened in a long time, though. It’s more getting called a faggot on the street. Or people laughing. The laughing really bugs me.” 

Add to that, his longterm struggle with Chron’s disease, and it feels as though life has been an ongoing war, both internally and externally, with his body.

I suspect, though I don’t know for certain, that when the world restricts you in such pernicious ways, the celebratory moments become all the bigger. Something like that sentiment about the sweet not being as sweet without the sour, but less trite.

“Otherside” is the long-awaited explosion, the first of a one-two punch, which sets up the album’s second, exuberant track “Slip Away” in which Hadreas doesn’t just encourage but outright claims the visibility he and others have long been denied. “If we only got a moment / Give it to me now,” he sings before industrial, nearly-metallic drums rocket launch the song into a new orbit.

In a year filled with so much heaviness, feel for a moment the joy that exists beyond language—that is only sound and feeling and thrum. I’ll see you on the other side.

Leif Vollebekk’s “Long Blue Light”

Photo by Allister Ann. Courtesy of Sonic PR.

Canadian singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk has regularly captured the solitude that arises in between the coming and the going. Where his past music took a more meditative position about that kind of uncertainty, his latest song “Long Blue Light” captures a greater sense of impatience. “Don’t know where I’m heading/ Don’t know where I’m from/ I’m here just waiting/ For my day to come,” he sings. It’s hard to keep anxiety at bay when the outcome feels so out of reach.

Awaiting clarity—a decision, a call—he pleads his case. “I’m on your side, on your side / Long blue light,” he sings almost matter-of-factly, avoiding drawing his voice out into a sustain. The quick clip of his pacing betrays a growing restlessness.

“Long Blue Light” shifts Vollebekk’s sound. Across his repertoire, he’s traded heavily in piano, brass, and drums, building a jazz influence that fit his sparse lyricism. Those instincts—spare in both word and note—build an indulgent amount of space into his music, and it’s easy to bask in the atmosphere he creates.

But Vollebekk hems in “Long Blue Light.” The song was originally recorded as part of his 2019 album New Ways. Returning to it now, he eschews the space that influenced that project. Instead, he places drums front and center, overdubbing the track with dobro courtesy of guitarist Cindy Cashdollar. Her instrument and meandering style lend “Long Blue Light” a rustic feel that attempts to counter the underlying anxiety at its center.

That dichotomy doesn’t reach an easy resolution, but then nothing is truly easy when you’re waiting for an answer, when you’re waiting for the long blue light. Don’t we know as much in this wild year called 2020?