Jolie Holland sometimes sounds like she stepped out of a folk/blues fog that lifted 60 years ago. Her third album, Springtime Can Kill You (Anti-), isn’t merely retro, it’s downright strange. Filled with bohemian piano laments, midnight ramblings and boozy waltzes, it’s the work of an old soul with a deep record collection.
POGUES “The Old Main Drag” (1985)
Always high on the playlist whenever I’m in a town with a drag. The first drag in my life was Shane MacGowan’s drag, then I met Austin’s drag, Guadalupe Street, back when it was less repellent than it mostly is these days. The power of a drag exists in its horror/attraction. It is a public office sometimes: a place to get things done and bump into the people you need to see. It can also be a heartwringing freak show, where you might be one of the freaks.
GEOFF BERNER “We All Gotta Be A Prostitute Sometimes” (2003)
Um, how true. Just a great song for all time. He sings, “You can always pretend it’s performance art.” But you don’t have to pretend Geoff Berner is a great artist. It’s self-evidently, monstrously true.
RANK STRANGERS “Pharmaco” (2004)
Previously unknown as the Rank Stranger, also almost unknown as Stefan Jecusco, also slightly known as the banjo player with the Dickel Brothers or the bass player with Ginggang or one of the Moravian Muleskinners, all Portland-ish entities. It’s a modern-day sea shanty warning the wayward wanderers against the lures of easy money in pharmaceutical research.
MAYBELLES “Right To Love” (2005)
One of my favorite singers, Jan Bell, wrote this beautiful tearjerker about a breakup. “I tried to take good care of you,” she sings. “Here’s where we used to hide the key,” when there’s no longer any need to hide the key ’cause your lover is gone.
FREAKWATER “Loserville” (2005)
It’s another great waltz from the masters themselves, and the lyrics are incredible. The biblical puns kill me: “Ask and the door will be broken” and “Pillars of salt line the side of the road.” This is a song about living in an almost-great town, a subject of much concern for lots of people I know.
TOM WAITS “Coney Island Baby” (2002)
Sweet-as-hell love song, so fine, so devoted. “All the stars make their wishes on her eyes … When I’m with her, I’m the richest man in the town.” The melody reminds me of Blind Willie McTell: straight-ahead but idiosyncratic, not afraid to be pretty, not afraid to show its own character.
MICHAEL HURLEY “You’ll Get Down By The Pool Hall Clickety Clack” (1964)
Weird, biting song, excellently mean and wonderfully constructed, changing keys like mad. In an off way, it’s a beautiful love song for a sister in need of a little big-brotherly intervention, kicking that loser boyfriend out of town. It sounds like Hank Williams on acid.
TOWNES VAN ZANDT “Rex’s Blues” (1977)
I want to cover this song someday as a Chinese jazz tune. Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but it’s gonna be so beautiful you’ll wonder why Townes didn’t have erhu players on the track in the first place.
WILLIE NELSON “Opportunity To Cry” (1961)
This is from the demo sessions for Crazy, which is one of my favorite records of all time. A perfect portrait of a moment: a screwy, heartbroken morning after waiting all night somewhere for someone to show up. Then he goes home to let the nightmares get him. Willie Nelson is a god. He was in my dream the other night looking young and strong in some kind of backstage dream scene. I put my hands on his shoulders and told him, “You’re such a baby!”