Michelle Branch: Hotel Paper – with “‘Til I Get Over You” video cover

Michelle Branch - Hotel PaperPart 12 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

Association with strong memories gets a lot of music stuck in people’s heads. “Favorite song” is not a meritocratic competition, even one judged solely on personal preference. That’s why I was so pleased with the phrasing of this meme a year ago – albums that “stuck with me” rather than “are objectively the best” or “I like the most”.

Take Hotel Paper. Part of its resonance for me is the timing of my discovery of it. “Tuesday Morning” played on my car stereo when I’d just had a very similar experience – shall we say, a significant milestone early in a relationship – on the same day of the week. Thus the stage was set for “Find Your Way Back” to be my personal soundtrack when that same relationship got temporarily rocky and estranged for a few weeks.

The album has quirks that are alternately irritating and immensely endearing. Branch sometimes sings like she’s never heard vowels pronounced before, swapping i for a or e for o like they’re Pokemon cards. A light percussion click on “One of These Days”, almost certainly inserted by a producer, is I swear lifted straight from the default Windows XP sound theme.

If there’s a formula for poppy solo female singer-songwriters, Branch nails it. There’s insecurity and girl power both in these mostly romantically-tinged songs; a quarter of them end by repeating the first line of the first verse, oh so soaked with meaning; one, as specified in all such devil’s pacts, is titled “Breathe”.

Sure, but it's not like Faith Hill, Anna Nalick, or Tay-Tay had seven remixes made too.

Sure, but it’s not like Faith Hill, Anna Nalick, or Tay-Tay had seven remixes made too.

One has to imagine if there was a debate about using the name for track 4, “Empty Handed”, since the word is prominent in that song’s chorus as well. With a more interesting chord progression and more creative lyrics (see: repeating first line), “Empty Handed” was never destined to be the hit that “Breathe” was so it got the more original title too.

None of this is to say that I don’t genuinely love this album. I do. I sometimes refer to Michelle Branch’s work as my “guilty pleasure”, as if she’s the most artificial superstar ever created (she’s not) and the music is blandly catchy with no real craft put into it (it’s totally not) so it doesn’t deserve my precious ears. It’s unfair and I should stop. Hotel Paper has honesty and poise surpassing many records, let alone platinum-selling ones.

It’s that honesty and vulnerability seeping through that keeps me returning. I suspect Hotel Paper is not Branch’s own favorite among her albums, given her turn toward country in later releases. It’s slicker and sparklier than independent singer-songwriters usually get, but it works.

(Note to any and all exes obsessively reading my blog: ending this series of posts on this song is in no way a message about my yearning and aching for you. It’s just the way it worked out. Emergent patterns and all.)


Victoria Arico: Everybody Come to Dinner – with “Mountains on Fire” video cover

Victoria Arico - Everybody Come to DinnerPart 11 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

It’s tough to review someone you know – even if only peripherally.

I’ve exchanged a few words with Gideon Freudmann, both in person and via email, but it’s always been as a fan. Victoria Arico and I met as fellow performers, ran into each other frequently at open mics, and exchanged CDs. At the time, she was part of a duo called Tell Your Daughters, but the disc she gave me was an earlier solo album.

Everybody Come to Dinner starts off pretty challenging to the listener. “Mosquito Controller” features two simultaneous (though related) melodic and lyrical lines, both sung by Arico. It’s a brave choice to place this track first, but it ably showcases her storytelling ability and knack for setting a tone. Her titular crush sounds almost mystical, a product of his quite blue-collar local business T-shirt and “size 13 Etonics sneakers” – a fortuitous brand if it became necessary, for a wider release, to replace it with a generic word like “athletic” à la “cherry cola” in The Kinks’ “Lola”.

Characters and situations are deftly drawn throughout the album, as much with flip omission as with detailed description. A gay drummer is encapsulated in his preference for “pints of Perrier” in “Secret Love”; mention of a bride’s mother’s obliviousness to an approaching hurricane elides right over the rained-out wedding to get to the gymnasium shelter serving as a hotel in “Story of the Odds”.

Fear of omission drives one of the strongest songs, “Pretty Good Secretary” – fear that that phrase would “sum up her life”. It’s written in third person, but lady, it’s about someone who labors to find time for music and painting. We see the signature on your CD’s cover art. You are so busted.

Along with somber folk story “Go to the Well”, hippie lovefest title track “Everybody Come to Dinner”, and MIDI-heavy scientific history pontification “Up Come the Daisies”, the second half of the album offers a trilogy of relationship songs. In the utterly charming “Story of the Odds” she gets the guy; in “Walking Alone” and “Mountains on Fire” they struggle to make it work. Though the natural imagery is of epic scale, the challenges depicted are beautifully ordinary.

Through it all, Arico’s voice is humble, her acoustic guitar temperate. It’s well worth the download.

Voter ID Means You Trade a Poker Chip for a Ballot

black and white poker chip

In 2012, my state passed a voter ID law. As you know, these laws are super effective.

Here in New Hampshire, see, we’re very concerned about people committing voter fraud. That’s when some dastardly individual goes out of his or her way to cast a vote in an election despite being ineligible to do so. Said criminal might be completely ineligible, so that even one vote is illegal, or just completing more than one ballot – say, by sneaking around and impersonating actual registered voters.

By requiring a photo ID to vote, my state and many others have ensured that no dead, imaginary, poor, or no-showing people cast a vote.

As always, of course, the devil’s in the details.

Charlie Daniels: The Devil Went Down to Georgia

It’s only really a problem during his vacations.

At my polling place yesterday, there were two tables set up. One was for folks to get themselves registered if they hadn’t already done so. All registration requires is “proof of identity, age, citizenship, and domicile”, so it’s like pre-checking ID because you’ll still have to prove that you are who you say you are every election.

The second table was divided into five sections: four for ranges of the alphabet, where registered voters with corresponding first letters of their last names waited in lines for their plain, white poker chips; and one for those voters to exchange their poker chips for ballots.

Signing the Declaration - Founders Playing Poker

Just as the founders intended.

A printed boarding pass with one’s name, flight number, and coded airline data is sufficient to get on an airplane because its bearer has already presented ID to security personnel and been searched for contraband before being granted access to the separate waiting area. Similarly, a poker chip handed to you by a poll worker who crosses your name off a list serves as a flawless identification token after milling about in a large room where anyone can leave and re-enter at any time.

Wait, I might have gotten confused there. I meant to say that after already registering with “proof of identity, age, citizenship, and domicile”, needing a photo ID again at the polls is just common sense – especially when showing that ID grants you a cheap, common item that you then give to a completely different person who can’t possibly keep track of everyone being verified in order to receive your single allocated ballot.

In fact, it’s even more fraud-proof than airline security. Instead of just two steps, it has three.

Tom Cochrane: Mad Mad World – with “Friendly Advice” video cover

Tom Cochrane - Mad Mad WorldPart 10 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

If you know Tom Cochrane’s biggest hit, it’s probably as “that Rascal Flatts song from Cars“. Indeed, the original “Life is a Highway” was pretty big for a couple weeks at the end of 1991, but it faded away pretty quickly. As an anthem for a bunch of computer-animated, anthropomorphic automobiles 15 years later, Pixar could’ve picked worse.

The rest of the album is … well, it’s not at the top of  many lists. Maybe “Tom Cochrane solo records” or “least politically challenging post-Gulf War releases”. Were it not for my own nerd rage at country covers of rock songs and a final track I could play acoustically at open mics to a fair amount of praise, the whole disc might’ve faded from my memory too.

I was also about 13 when this thing came out, and thus the perfect audience for its straightforward rock and roll sorta-coolness. While it strays into heavy topics like drug use and poverty occasionally, it’s never subtle. Consider this metric: on average, the title of each song is repeated nearly 12 times in that song. The number would be considerably higher if Cochrane actually sang “Everything comes around” instead of “Everything comes ’round” in track 6.

Tom Cochrane: Mad Mad World spreadsheet

Spreadsheets: the ultimate music appreciation tool.

This tendency to repeat a key phrase likely influenced my own very early songwriting – the stuff that no one ever, ever needs to hear. Reacting against that simplistic technique later on made me into the obscure creator of uncatchy yet brilliantly insightful tunes you all know and love.

Something else stands out about Tom Cochrane: this particular noise he makes. It might be “Awrwrwrwrwrwrwrwr”, his equivalent of an “ooh” or “ah” or rapper’s “yeah”. The sound is the precise midpoint between seeing a pile of sleeping kittens and adjusting your eyepatch with your hook hand.

Hidden between these tropes, though, is a good amount of decent music. The lyrics are sometimes clumsy, but Cochrane knows it, going so far as to pen an entire bridge composed of nothing but clichés in “Washed Away”. The unslick writing does lead to a few choice lines, and several tracks feature not just one but two bridge sections.

Speaking of movies and covers, by the way, the album and second track title has nothing to do with “Mad World”, the 1982 Tears for Fears song covered by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. Also I am not related to Michael Andrews, as far as I know. And also speaking of Tears for Fears, while I did try to grow my hair like Roland Orzabal’s, I never saw the original Canadian cover art for Mad Mad World and didn’t go for that look.

Tom Cochrane: Mad Mad World original cover art

Man, I could’ve been so rad in high school.

Charlie Sexton Sextet: Under the Wishing Tree – with “Home Sweet Home” video cover

Charlie Sexton Sextet - Under the Wishing Tree Part 9 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

I have a distinct memory of finding this album in the record store. It was in the small tourist town down the hill from my college; the fourth track, “Everyone Will Crawl”, had been on the radio the previous year.

As these things tend to go, that moderate hit song paled in comparison to the rest of the album.

I’m normally not overly impressed by music from virtuosos, whether the exceptional talent be singing or an instrument like, in this casae, guitar. It tends to be a platform for showcasing technical skills rather than making songs that sound good. Sexton gets plenty intricate with guitar solos, fills, and pedal gymnastics, but Under the Wishing Tree is so memorable because of the depth of storytelling and intense arrangements.

It’s at its most poignant when Sexton speaks about his childhood. “Sunday Clothes”, track six, is a deceptively jaunty song about how church helped him deal with a broken home life and a father in prison. The earnest religiosity never tips into outright praise or preachiness, even when he proclaims that “God is watching” in the final track, “Broken Dream”. The mood is not self-satisfied or superior, but relieved and thankful. This is Christian rock I can get behind.

The album is also just plain long. At 72 minutes, its twelve songs average six minutes each. In reality there’s four songs exceeding six minutes but among them the 12-minute epic “Plain Bad Luck and Innocent Mistakes”. Only one song, “Railroad”, comes close to a radio-friendly four minutes, and that’s because its first 15 seconds are inexplicably at the end of the previous track.

“Plain Bad Luck and Innocent Mistakes” uses its running time to look back at his parents’ life – a tale of ’60s rebellion that uses sensitive, piercing lyrics and composed but honest rock and roll to paint its characters with sympathy and grandeur. It starts off quietly and builds to more than one climax by its end.

In fact, the peak moment of the whole album occurs in the song after that, “Home Sweet Home”, which I attempt to afford some tiny justice below. It revels triumphantly in small victories.

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