Ann Powers

Road Trip Shuffle: Reflections On A Summer Of Driving And Listening

Holiday road: It's a quest for fun. And memorable tunes.

hide captionHoliday road: It's a quest for fun. And memorable tunes.

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Some people might like to sit on a beach, but for me, summer means motion. The slacker summer mood that takes over the pop scene, caused by the sunstroke mood of the summer festival circuit and the relative slowdown in major music releases, makes more room for getaways on a given afternoon or weekend.

My family has been traveling since May, first in the Pacific Northwest and now in upstate New York. Our peripatetic lifestyle (really auto-motorik, as tailgaters push us down the winding roads connecting the Catskill hamlets where our friends have woodsy homes) offers plenty of time to catch up on tunes.

I love the seeming randomness of radio, but reception is spotty in the country and, as NPR Music scribe Jacob Ganz discovered last year in Maine, the commercial stations are ruled with an iron hand by Katy Perry. So we simulate the roulette game of hitting presets on the dash by filling a messenger bag with CDs and pulling them out like goodies in a grab bag as we drive.

Long drives allow for a particular kind of listening. The isolated space of a car, especially after you and your companions are tired of chatting or playing License Plate Alphabet, creates a contemplative mood, and the moving scene outside encourages a softer focus. The songs that define road trips aren't necessarily that catchy; they're not destined to be singles or even fan favorites. They're the ones that contain a lyric that inspires a quick joke, or a melody that reminds you of something else, or a riff that pulls you away for a moment from your 42nd round of Fruit Ninja. They're small pleasures — not Disney World, but a dilapidated barn. They might stick with you, or only matter in the moment.

What follows is a list of ten songs that took over my brain while we were driving this month. (Okay, one was from May, when I took the gorgeous road from Ellensburg, Wash. to the Gorge to attend the Sasquatch festival.) It's compiled mostly of songs from albums that I'd count among the best recent and upcoming releases of the season, but I hope it inspires something other than another round of top ten lists. Take it as a challenge to notice the minutiae that fills life's negative space, and to honor the little moments that pull you in as you roll on.

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Joseph Arthur - "Midwest" (from The Graduation Ceremony)
I was in the Northwest, in my home state of Washington, crossing the Columbia River into what felt like a highway made of cumulous clouds. I decided to check out the latest from rock troubadour Joseph Arthur – who for me and many in his cult of fans is like our own personal lost Beatle – and late in the disc, this song lifted me up. The bassline like a handclap, the lyrics about growing up in Nowhere U.S.A. and chasing a reality that hasn't formed yet; the song offered just the right mix of yearning and regret for a lonely Sunday morning. Most of all, Joe's multi-tracked Mamas & Papas style vocals turned Route 821 into heaven for a minute.

Laura Marling - "I Was Just a Card" (from A Creature I Don't Know)
I think this new Laura Marling album, to be released in early September, might be great. But I'm not sure yet. It's a bit of a puzzle box, grounded in the Electric Eden-style folk rock that the 21-year-old mined on her first two albums, but with song structures and arrangements that ramble beyond traditional boundaries. One thing I do know, though: when Marling's alto leaps toward the horizon in the bridge of this break-up song, catching the breeze of what sounds like a French Horn line, she channels Joni and Phoebe and Carole and Sandy all at once and still remains wholly herself. Pretty amazing to hear when you're speeding up the New York Thruway. "Who am I?" Marling coos and then wails, and as the note gets bigger, she makes it clear that she's got the answer to that one.

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Fountains of Wayne - "A Road Song" (from Sky Full of Holes)
Every new Fountains of Wayne album brings a new round of perfectly detailed, unbeatably witty portraits of modern American life; and then somewhere in there around track eight, a mash note from one of the guys to his wife cuts through all the snark and gives your heart a paper cut. This one is about being exhausted while on tour, and includes the immortal couplet, "I bought you a light blue t-shirt last night/From some band I couldn't stand but their logo's all right." He's trying, really! But love is, you know, hard. Sinking into the croon of the chorus as we wound past an orchard at sunset, I remembered all the other times this band's perfectly morose tenderness had made me sigh.

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds - "Strange Fruit" (from A Tribute To Billie Holiday)
We barely got through this collection of overly smooth, insufficiently jazzy renditions of songs made famous by the great Lady Day. It's fairly unbearable though I hate to say it, since the project was a labor of love for its executive producer, the actor Peter Stormare. Performances by the likes of Esperanza Spalding and Rickie Lee Jones left us feeling flat. But this exceptionally spooky yet also defiantly pretty reading of the most famous song ever written about lynching, delivered by one of the pioneers of contemporary R&B's "quiet storm," was surprising enough to have an impact – especially as we were crawling over the Manhattan Bridge away from Brooklyn on the weekend before 4th of July.

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The Bottle Rockets - "Kerosene" (from Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening With the Bottle Rockets)
This represents an ideal confluence of soundtrack and setting. We were motoring deep into the Catskills toward Delaware County when we chose this live recording by the criminally underrated Bottle Rockets, a St. Louis-based band that's long outlived the cute story of its origins as part of Uncle Tupelo's road crew. Brian Henneman and Scott Taylor write workingman's confessions that stack up next to the work of Steve Earle and even Bruce Springsteen. This one is particularly brutal – the life and death story of a family on the edge, like many families who spend their days just out of sight of the winter skiers and summer skinny-dippers whose privilege allows them to pass through the Catskills without contributing much. People like my family, in fact.

Frank Ocean - "Novacane" (from the Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape)
Some music can only be played in the car when the kid in the back is asleep. Most everything by Frank Ocean fits in that category – one of the breakout stars on the Internet-driven edge of R&B, he writes fantasias packed with perverse scenes and NSFW language. I cringe a bit when my husband takes a risk on playing music like this, turning around frequently to make sure our daughter's snoozing. But when I can relax enough to let a lyric or a synth line catch me, I admit that I get caught up. This song got me with the line, "She said she wanted to be a dentist really bad." That's Prince-level weirdness. We were on a very dark road somewhere past Phoenicia. Warning: very dirty, and probably best on headphones.

Poly Styrene, "I Luv Ur Sneakers," from Generation Indigo
A squabble had just erupted in the Honda when this track from the late, magnificent British punk queen Poly Styrene kicked in. The song solved everything. Maybe it was the driving keyboards, so redolent of the way turn-of-the-1980s music (including the classic Germ Free Adolescents by Styrene's band X-Ray Spex) sprayed neon paint all over pop clichés. Maybe it was Poly's voice, one of the warmest to ever let forth a yelp. The lyric, about how much joy a pair of stylish, ecologically sound pair of kicks can bring, helped too. But for me, the calming effect of this song came from remembering that life is too precious for bulls—t – a truisim that the all-too-sudden loss of Styrene earlier this year made vivid and inescapable.

Let's Wrestle, "For My Mother," from Nursing Home
These young English punks are pretty adorable in that snotty, fist-pumping, guitar-smashing way. I did a double take when this song came on, though. On an earlier track, "In the Suburbs," bandleader Wesley Patrick Gonzalez sneered mightily while intoning his desire to "have dinner with my mother" – pretty funny in just past teen-age way. But this two minute-plus ballad tells of more than a free meal. I'm still not sure what's happening in the lyric – a caretaker or maybe a lesbian partner has passed on, and the young narrator needs to step in and be a man for his siblings and bereft mom – but whatever the details, it's a coming-of-age moment rendered in ragged guitar lines and broad London vowels. Driving out of the Stop & Shop parking lot in New Paltz, I put it on repeat.

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Hercules and Love Affair, "Blue Song," from Blue Songs
"Where's the beat?" My husband and I looked at each other, baffled, as this track poured out of the car speakers. It's always disconcerting when an artist you love goes in a different direction. We'd fallen for producer Andy Butler's multi-member project back when it was fundamentally a tribute to the origins of disco. Here, on the outfit's second album, was a track that sounded like afternoon tea with Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. The transformation was startling, and trying to absorb it while fighting through afternoon traffic north of Poughkeepsie didn't exactly help. Still, I instantly appreciated the fact that Blair wasn't just repeating himself, and filed the record in my mental pile marked "listen again."

Paul McCartney, "Every Night," from McCartney
Reissues are a big part of summer, too, and of road tripping. It's fun to devote hours to trying out new stuff, but it's healthy to break up the flow with something familiar now and then. A well-loved song can be a palate cleanser, the sonic equivalent of a farm-stand lemonade. I've been a Macca fan since I was twelve, and heading out of Beacon one hot afternoon, I avidly revisited the lovely photographs of him and Linda and the kids included in this deluxe reissue of his first solo album as its quirky, sunnily experimental songs bubbled forth. When this song came on, it took me back to adolescence, my most passionate period of Paul scholarship. Without meaning to, I found myself singing the harmony line on the chorus: "oo-oo-oo-oo-ooh." My daughter laughed in the backseat: "Mommy, you're so silly!" That's what music, and summer, is all about.

FRANK OCEAN [Novacane] from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.

This song contains some swearing and references to drug use.
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