***3 Albums was a semi-regular music series I wrote for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library between July 2016 and January 2018.
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
Dang y’all, it’s hot out.
Like picnic-on-an-electric-blanket-in-a-volcano-on-the-surface-of-the-sun-whilst-eating-ghost-peppers level hotness. This heat might be making me severely prone to hyperbole…or maybe just sweat induced dehydration.
Either way, I’d better grab a beverage and put tires to blacktop.
Certain albums are at peak performance out on the open road. Song sounds spilling out open windows and colliding with the haze of the heat waves hugging the highway. Summer is an adventure and every adventure requires the perfect soundtrack.
Throw on some shades, cue these three bad boys up and let’s hit the gas. It’s summertime, we’ve got nowhere to be and all the time in the world to get there… GO!
The Shins – Heartworms (2017)
“Then a kid in class passed me a tape
An invitation, not the hand of fate…” – “Mildenhall”
Like 98.6% of the movie-going world, I first experienced The Shins at the exact same moment as Andrew Largeman (AKA: Zach Braff’s character in the [indie] classic film Garden State).
Although the scene is decidedly drippy with cheese, it manages to capture what is all too familiar to anyone who is passionate about spreading beloved sounds. Natalie Portman’s character offers him some oversized headphones and the promise of a life-changing bit of audio. (And it really does change his life!)
It’s probably the biggest “Hey, you’ve got to check out this band” coup in recorded history. Viola! The Shins instantaneously crashed onto the cultural landscape and became standard-bearers for a new golden age of indie rock. No pressure, right?
Flash-forward 13 years (through a couple of solid albums, some long hiatuses and a band shake-up/firing or two) and The Shins are back this year with an album full of indie-pop goodness that’s primed for the summer months. Well, more precisely, James Mercer (the heart/soul/body and [Shin]bones of the group) is back with said goodness.
Heartworms offers a nostalgic look at Mercer’s formative years. In “Rubber Ballz” he describes himself being “In a larval state – Drinking a minimum wage.” That line is a time machine back to summers that were heavy on freedom and low on responsibility. It was those pre-adulting-dayz when a summer could be filled to the brim with so much crucial nothing at all.
“Half a Million” and “Fantasy Island” dive into figuring out which parts of your personality are in fact actually you (and just how much of yourself should be shared with others).
“Cherry Hearts” and “Heartworms” detail those youthful relationships when you were still getting your foothold on romance and a kiss could roll your head right out the door (or leave you with a wiggling metaphorical heartworm that still hasn’t left you after all these years).
In a nod to that life-changing Garden State scene, “Mildenhall” describes formative music moments full of exchanged mixtapes, road-tripping to concerts and starter chords clanged out on his dad’s guitar.
It’s all primo summer nostalgia fodder of the highest caliber.
Plus, since this is a Shins album you will also be treated to plenty of caramel-coated- catchy hooks that will be swimming ’round the pool of your cranium all summer long. Mercer has a gift for crafting sticky wordless melodies. Think about that haunting “Ooo-oo-OOO Oo-oowee-oo-oo” that hit Andrew Largemen upside the head at the start of “New Slang.” Heartworms contains plenty of these and I will now attempt to accurately type two of my faves while simultaneously attempting to pry them from the record player in my mind:
“Painting a Hole” opens with a great monotone drone:
“Rubber Ballz” bounces off the walls with a spastic:
“Bah-da! BAH-da! Bah-da! bah-da!”
I mean, Heartworms! More like Earworms! Amiright?!
Sorry, gang. I’m pretty sure that was the heat talking.
Faves: “Fantasy Island,” “Mildenhall,” “Half A Million” and “Heartworms.”
Dan Auerbach – Waiting On A Song (2017)
“I gotta keep my Ray-Bans on – So my eyes won’t burn
While they shed new light upon – My number one concern” – “Shine On Me”
If the name Dan Auerbach doesn’t immediately clang your noggin’-bell there’s still a good chance your ears are acquainted with him. His day job is being 50% of the rock outfit The Black Keys.
When he’s not busy being a Key he’s playing music-biz-musical-chairs: sitting in as producer (Lana Del Ray, Cage the Elephant, The Pretenders), mixer, sound engineer, composer and studio guitarist. Throw in an occasional side project and it’s surprising he has time to release solo material. (But he does, cause Dan Auerbach is a BOSS).
Don’t be fooled by the bed of autumn leaves on the cover of Waiting on a Song. This new set of tunes definitely wears flip-flops and sips tropical drinks by the side of the pool. It’s a summer album incognito.
This time around, Auerbach gives a pass to the fuzzed-out-grungy-thump-rock that the Black Keys are known for and exchanges it for sparkling clean guitar sounds, heavy reverb and well placed glockenspiel twinkles. There’s a groovy surf rock feel to much of it. It’s an album that feels seamlessly comfortable jumping between modern times and the sunny 1960’s.
Some summery elements from Waiting on a Song:
“Malibu Man” is an ode to the beach city transplant that becomes all beard and bare feet. It may make you glad that we’re not anywhere near the ocean and it’s beach bums…but it may also make you secretly want to drop everything, buy a boogie board and join them.
“Shine On Me” is pure sunshine. Breezy and bright with a chorus that demands to be sung at high volume in a moving vehicle with your hands tapping the steering wheel.
“Never in My Wildest Dreams” has a gently lethargic sway that will put your mind’s eye in a shady hammock staring at shape-shifting clouds.
I’m sure the ever busy Mr. Auerbach is already knee deep into 10-15 new creative ventures, but I secretly hope he takes a quick break to hop behind the wheel and cruise around listening to this album with the breeze in his hair and his elbow hanging out the open window. I don’t know how often legitimate artists do this kind of thing with their own music, but the thought of it makes my summer heart happy.
Faves: “Livin’ In Sin,” “Shine On Me,” “Cherrybomb” and “Show Me.”
Haim – Something To Tell You (2017)
“Some things are long forgotten – Some things were never said
We were on one endless road -But I had a wandering heart…” – “Want You Back”
Summer is tailor-made for radio ready pop. It’s the reigning king/queen/jack and ace of summer music and each year we collectively search for that candy-coated behemoth of a pop song that will dominate our radio airwaves for three months as the official “Song o’ the Summer.”
I clicked off the knob to my radio almost two decades ago, having decided that I could do a better job finding music that I love on my own. This was an easy decision since straight-up modern pop tunes never did much to excite my eardrums, but it does put me at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recommending summer music. I keep my big toe dipped in the ocean of pop but I’m not one to do a running cannonball into it.
Luckily for me, three sisters with the last name of Haim are creating interesting, catchy, dynamic pop music that can bridge the gap between a curmudgeony-ol’-indie-singer-songwriter-lover like myself and folks who don’t mind hearing the same 10 sugar sweet auto-tuned songs once an hour on pop radio.
Haim is one of many bands in the 20-teens (Twenteens? 2-Oh-ones? This decade is almost over and I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to call it) that are successfully pulling inspiration from the 80’s music of their childhoods. 20/20 hindsight has allowed them to distill out the criminally insane bits (like seagull haircuts) and just focus on marrying those synth sounds that dominated that decade with a modern pop aesthetic. It doesn’t take much of a mental leap to imagine Haim tracks like “Little of Your Love” or “Ready for Love” fitting in as a perfect B-side to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
Speaking of ladies having fun, you can really tell these sisters thoroughly enjoyed making this album in the studio. Though their subject matter tends to veer toward the serious aspects of relationships and/or heartbreak, there is a thread of playfulness that runs through the mix. It’s most apparent in the creative use of background vocals and the unusual bit-part instrumental runs that are perfectly sprinkled like seasoning on the backyard grill. I’m particularly in love with the fuzzy slap bass that grooves in behind the final chorus of the opening track “Want You Back.” It’s only there for 30 seconds but it makes the song for me.
Something To Tell You flows like a summer day. The first half of the album is packed with radio-ready-sing-along-singles meant to be sung in the full blaze of the summer rays. As the album plays out the songs become more suited to a late drive at dusk during the dog days. Right before the neon gets turned on when the world is covered in long shadows and the ember orange glow of the setting sun. It’s a perfect mix of the freedom and fun of summer and the creeping-back-of-the-mind-knowledge that summer (like all the seasons) comes and goes much too quickly.
Better soak it up and sing it out while it lasts.
Faves: “Want You Back,” “Little of Your Love,” “Ready For You” and “Right Now.”
PS: I hope you’re able to get out and spill some sound waves out of open windows. Hit me up in the comments below and let me know what music is helping you keep the summer heat bearable!