WHEN THE SONGS DON'T SOUND THE SAME
Does music have the same meaning as you get older?
We were on the road in my car a couple of weeks ago, when Deanna got curious and started to dig around in my glove compartment. She fished out a few burned CD’s, and held one up labeled Ear Food.
“What’s on here?” she asked.
It had been years since I used my car’s CD player, relying on cassette adapters in more recent years. I hadn’t burnt a CD since the decade began. I haven’t owned a computer capable of burning CDs in nearly as long.
“Well… here we go.”
Deanna slid in the CD and I was a bit surprised to find that the 6-disc CD player in my car still worked with no glitches. The CD opened with mostly moody indie rock songs from circa 2008. The Dodos. Of Montréal. Air France. Then it got really, really good. The songs led me to date the album to around 2009, and I decided I could be proud of what I was listening to back then.
· Brian Eno & David Byrne – Strange Overtones
· M83 – Kim & Jessie
· Noah and the Whale – 5 Years Time
· Elbow – Mirrorball
· Santigold, Pharrell, & Julian Casablancas – My Drive Thru
· The Streets – Everything Is Borrowed
· Blitzen Trapper – Black River Killer
Just to name a few.
Hearing all those songs again reminded me of the role music has played in my life for years. There are so many memories that get attached to a certain song… Ra Ra Riot has me road tripping through New England while The Mountain Goats put me in the apartment I lived during my sophomore year of college. Certain artists suddenly become the soundtracks to different seasons of life. It’s one of the great reasons I get attached to music, and why I continue to seek to discover new artists and albums.
And then there’s always that moment when you listen to a song for the first time or so, and have to stop, and hit repeat, this time with your eyes closed. It was as if a lyricist new how to take some big huge ideas and thoughts you’ve been having and condense it into one or two lines of a chorus. Or like some guitarist managed to find a rift that captures an emotion that words can’t convey the way a melody could.
I remember my early twenties, being a bit of a music snob, and feeling this over and over and over again. And I loved it.
Back in 2010, it felt like every few months I was discovering one new artist after another who knew how to translate the most complex ideas and emotions into lyrics and melodies. It was the British band Elbow that most strongly gave me the idea of what I wanted my response to life to look like when I got old. It was Sufjan Stevens who helped me see the glory of having all comforts stripped away to be made new.
As life progressed, there were some songs I knew would always be hugely significant in my life. Our bridal party walked down the aisle to Ben Howard, because Old Pine sums up the adventure of knowing Deanna and all things we love with vivid imagery of tickled guitar strings around a campfire.
But it also occurred to me that these days, I don’t latch on to artists as easily as I used to.
When I thought of music from last year that I really enjoyed, there was Sufjan, sure, but by now there’s some sort of timeless quality to his music. Other than that, perhaps Lord Huron and Dawes and Alabama Shakes, but I didn’t get quite as attached to their music emotionally, even though I recognized how good they were.
It started to occur to me that more and more of the bands I loved for a while were breaking up, and there weren’t many new artists putting out things in the present that I attached to in the same way.
Part of me hoped that this was just a temporary trend. After all, general tastes in music are shifting away from the Folk and Americana craze at the beginning of the decade to minimalist EDM. That’s cool, but the folk music often ended itself to a different sort of emotional processing. I hoped that it was this little artistic trend that was behind my general numbness towards new music.
There was also another theory, though, and it was one I wasn’t as fond of. What if I was getting older? After all, isn’t there a certain age in life where most people stop keeping up with “new” music? I hoped I hadn’t unwittingly stumbled into it.
I tried racking my brain for bands who are currently in their prime that I love with a similar enthusiasm that I felt towards Sufjan or the National late in high school. I came up with two bold counter-examples.
There was Johnnyswim, whose songs appeared all over our engagement and wedding day.
Then there was Run River North.
Deanna and I drove up to Run River North on a Wednesday evening… it was a bit of an inconvenient time for us, and this is in fact one of the things that sucks about living in Eugene as opposed to Portland. Lots of promising bands might visit in the middle of the week, forcing us to make the round trip journey on a weeknight. The day had already been a tiring one. I got up before 3:00 AM to begin the process of adopting our dog, and Deanna had a full day of work. There wouldn’t be that many things motivating enough for us to make this journey so often, but Run River North is one of them.
I discovered Run River North back when I interned for Liberty in North Korea. It was 2012, and the band was still known as Monsters Calling Home at the time. They were big supporters of the organization, and somebody described them to me as a Korean Mumford and Sons. That wasn’t actually the most accurate description in the world, but it was enough to raise curiosity. Two of my friends learned to cover their song Growing Up for a talent show, and it was an absolutely beautiful song. I was hooked.
A few months later, Run River North played at a launch party for a Liberty in North Korea tour, but I would be in South Africa while that happened. This kicked off a little stretch of time where I would continually miss opportunities to see them play. In San Diego. In Los Angeles. Meanwhile, they had gained quite a following in different circles of friends I had, particularly among my college friends at UCSB. Some of them apparently knew members of the band, and with their music being as good as it is, word traveled quickly.
Their album that released in 2014 would be one of my favorites, and I loved them for so many reasons. Their lyrics were clever and creative, their instrumentation would be very distinct and original, and they used strings and harsh guitar strikes, break drums and smooth vocals in such a way that blended two contrasting timbres extremely well.
They were that rare band that in the present continued to tug at my heartstrings. They put out another album last month and hit the road to go on tour, one stop being Portland, Oregon.
Deanna and I sat in the Alberta Rose Theatre and ordered a savory pie and kombucha to enjoy while watching them play. It was fun and intimate. Their nationwide following isn’t quite as big as my social circles would indicate, but they’re good enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was eventually.
They opened with a newer song, 29, and it was a strong opening. You could tell that the band felt a bit awkward about this pit that kept them at a small distance from the crowd.
During the applause, someone in the audience shouted, “can we dance?”
“Hell yeah,” permitted the lead singer.
Thankfully that audience member spoke up, because people began to leave their seats and make their way towards the front of the venue. And that’s when the show got really good. The band was electric, playing to the energy of the room really well while connecting at a personal level.
At one point, the lead singer stopped to share a bit of the writing process behind one of the band’s most vulnerable songs, one written at a point where they almost broke up. It was a reminder that relationships within a band are extremely complex and close. I’m really, really glad they didn’t break up.
Our vantage point right behind the drummer gave us an excellent view and a bit of room for dancing. I was particularly impressed by John the drummer, and when you can stand out as a drummer in a band like Run River North, you know you’re good. The band members had a chemistry that translated extremely well for a live show and they played off each other fluidly and with high energy.
Finally, the band closed their encore with The Wild Reeds, their opening act. For their last song, they played Growing Up. Every time I listen to it, I can always feel the lyrics; the way the vocals rise in harmony during the world “child” resonates in the veins of my forearms.
Growing up is a thing. And I worry that the further away I get from my years of early adulthood I have a bit of concern that music won’t be what it once was. I don’t like the idea of a future where discoveries and moments and memories aren’t tied to chord progressions that get forever seared in my mind.
I know that the vinyl records I’ve allowed to live in my living room have an importance that goes beyond their chord progressions and lyrics. And I hope that musical discoveries still happen. I hope I continue to attach the good days ahead to new tracks and playlists.
It still happens. It doesn’t happen as often, but it still happens. And I’m glad it does, because when it does, life gets an unforgettable soundtrack.