I’m not here to preach, but I am here to try to be a human being, however lost a mere human being has become in the chaotic sea of systems, policies, memes, propaganda, and brutality that characterizes life in 2020. First and foremost, at this consequential moment in time, I recognize, in my own humanity, many flaws and failings. (By the way, name one honorable and effective person in the history of civilization who claimed always to be the best, who could confront detractors only with insults. I’ll save you time: you can’t.) I recognize that for all my liberal ideals and progressive tendencies, I have lived a long adult life without deeply considering the lived experiences of people of color in America. I mean, I knew about it, and was in pain about it at some abstract level—but at another level, I can see that I simply went about my (privileged) day, unable and/or unwilling to let the uncomfortable reality sink in. Of course I’ll never know, experientially, what it’s like and what it’s been like to live as a person of color in this pseudo-democratic and deeply hypocritical country of ours. But here’s what I can do: I can put myself in the position of needing to learn, needing to have new conversations, needing to have new responses to this world we’re in, this congenitally damaged country that looks much better on paper than it does on the streets where we live.
But: there’s no doing this with a playlist. I won’t even pretend. The best I can do is offer a mix of songs this month, similar to my usual efforts, some of which you may find thoughtful and relevant to the present moment, others of which have no particular connection besides being intangibly part of the flow I put together as someone striving to observe and feel into this fateful hour. As I said, I’m not here to preach. I am simply here to say that we can and must do this together. I’ll let the musical current of this latest mix pull us eventually towards Rickie Lee Jones’ world-weary grace, in the elegiac “Running From Mercy”:
Oh sacred patience with my soul abide
There’s a rainbow above me that the storm clouds hide
Keep hope alive, through the darkness. It’s what humans do.
Full playlist and extra notes below the widget:
“Keep On Keeping On” – Curtis Mayfield (Roots, 1971)
“Praise Song For a New Day” – Suzzy & Maggie Roche (Zero Church, 2001)
“Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” – The Korgis (Dumb Waiters, 1980)
“Cara de espejo” – Juana Molina (Halo, 2017)
“Love You To” – The Beatles (Revolver, 1966)
“Actor Out Of Work” – St. Vincent (Actor, 2009)
“Can’t Fight” – Lianne La Havas (single, 2020)
“Spinning Away” – Brian Eno & John Cale (Wrong Way Up, 1990)
“Smile” – Cristina (Sleep It Off, 1984)
“Try to Remember – The Fantasticks (featuring Jerry Orbach) (Original cast album, 1960)
“Baedeker” – Gabriel Kahane (Book of Travelers, 2013)
“Freedom Rider” – Traffic (John Barleycorn Must Die, 1970)
“Maiden Voyage” – Herbie Hancock (Maiden Voyage, 1965)
“The Charade” – D’Angelo and the Vanguard (Black Messiah, 2014)
“Held Down” – Laura Marling (Songs For Our Daughter, 2020)
“No Mermaid” – Sinéad Lohan (No Mermaid, 1998)
“Zero Hour” – Attention (single, 1983)
“Solace” – Scott Joplin/ Richard Zimmerman (Scott Joplin: His Greatest Hits, 1974 [1909 composition])
“Albert” – Ed Laurie (Meanwhile in the Park, 2006)
“Running From Mercy” – Rickie Lee Jones (Traffic From Paradise, 1993)
* This is the second song I’ve featured here from Gabriel Kahane’s ongoingly impressive Book of Travelers. It was released in the aftermath of one tragedy—the election of an historically ill-prepared and unprincipled man to the U.S. presidency (these are facts, not political statements)—and continues to fit the mood of the country, in its effort to find dignity in our individual stories, despite where we find ourselves collectively.
* From its origins in an unadorned Off-Broadway show, “Try To Remember” became a drippy standard covered by several zillion crooners and divas and wedding singers over the years. There’s a part of my ear that overlooks all that to remain charmed by the song’s plaintive melody and semi-miraculous chord changes. I keep hearing something elusive and profound in the simple progression in the verse—the movement from “When life was slow” to “and oh so mellow.” Extra points here for a chance to recall that the late great Jerry Orbach was far more than a network procedural fixture.
* “Zero Hour” from the NYC band Attention is a song with next to no internet trail. I discovered it via a Spanish blog offering a thrillingly exhaustive overview of semi-forgotten and entirely forgotten new wave songs, El ABC de la New Wave. I was mostly scanning the offerings for songs I used to know but have lost track of, but along the way I’ve unearthed a few gems I’d never heard before, including this one. According to Discogs, there was the “Zero Hour” single in 1983, a five-song “mini-album” in 1985, and that’s that. Given the generic nature of the band’s name, even if there’s some biographical information buried somewhere online, it’s not going to be easy to find; to make matters worse, another band named Attention has come along in the 21st century, so the earlier band is effectively a ghost.
* And then we have Zero Church, the album released by two of the three Roche sisters, originally slated for a 9/11/01 release, but delayed four months in the aftermath. It’s an unusual album; the origin story is too complicated to explain in a brief note, but the album’s exploration of complex social issues via prayers set to music seems as timely as ever.
* Laura Marling gets deeper and more astonishing with each album. And she’s only now 30. That she has been in a master’s program studying psychoanalysis for the last couple of years endears her to me all the more. Too many of today’s musicians seem so relentlessly one-dimensional, and all too ensnared in our culture of shallow digitalia. I’ll take a singer/songwriter working on her master’s degree over a YouTube sensation singing about his girlfriend every time.
* The trailblazing singer and writer Cristina Monet Zilkha, who performed simply as Cristina, died at the end of March of complications related to COVID-19; she was 64. A pioneer in a new musical realm combining punk attitude with pop sensibilities, Cristina has been retroactively credited with laying the groundwork for the mainstream success of a series of acclaimed pop stars, from Madonna through Lady Gaga. She was associated with the legendary “no wave” record label ZE Records, recording the label’s first-ever release. The song “Smile” was recorded for her second album, 1984’s Sleep It Off, but didn’t appear until a 2004 re-release, as a bonus track. Its sure-handed chops—you might almost call this power pop, with an edge—are due as much to Cristina’s vocal presence as to songwriters Don and David Was, whose band Was (Not Was) was originally signed to ZE Records.
* Lastly, I’m going to let D’Angelo speak for himself. That song came out six years ago.