Category Archives: The Great Outdoors

5 Songs for Shoveling Out The Driveway

#Snowdaze...
#Snowdaze… (photo by hcmz)

Remember snow days when you were a kid? The anticipation of a day without school, the awe and wonder of a world covered in fresh powder, and the possibility of catching some awesome air as you flew down those pristinely blanketed white hills on your favorite sled of choice. Those were good times, y’all. Good times.

These days when considering the implications of an impending winter storm, I immediately start thinking about the amount of time I’ll need to spend shoveling off the driveway and walkways in front of our apartment. Sledding– and fun, moreover– doesn’t usually figure into the equation. Just the necessity of the task at hand and the summoning up of the will to #gitterdone.

It’s not all bad, of course. It’s good exercise and it gives me a reason to get out of the house on a day when I’d otherwise be stuck inside all day. And I hate being stuck inside all day. So really it suits me just fine.

And there’s some fun to be had in it. Snow storms have a wonderful way of getting entire neighborhoods outside and talking with one another, creating space for conversation and camaraderie. And sometimes, when it’s 7:00am on a Sunday morning, you’ve got a 1/2 inch of snow and ice on the driveway, you’ve got work in an hour’s time, and the rest of the world’s still fast asleep, the best thing to do is to plug in the headphones, crank up the jams, and get to work.

I recently read an article about the 16 personality types of snow shovelers, and definitely felt a kinship with a number of them (I think I tend more towards the incrementalist mindset, with a hint of perfectionist / snow angel mixed in).

Regardless of what kind of snow shoveler you are, the tunes below are perfect for mixing the raw, unadulterated enthusiasm of childhood excitement with the slightly more refined– if not slightly more weathered– perspective of responsible adulthood. Like your preferred post-shoveling beverage of choice, they’re meant to be enjoyed responsibly.

1. Good Charlotte – Anthem

I remember purchasing this record at Tower Records during sophomore year of high school and thinking this was the best $9.00 I ever spent. Though that sentiment may not have stood the test of time, this song still has the right amount of energy to get you into the mindset of getting stuff done. Particularly the sort of prolonged heavy lifting required for snow removal. Maybe… maybe it was meant as an anthem for the perennial underdogs of the world, but somehow it’s still the sort of jam that every human person can enjoy (imagine that…). By the time Joel Madden gets to the first chorus, you’ll find yourself plowing through snow with the sort of intensity usually reserved for someone working out their long repressed anger and resentment at the memories a schoolyard bully– even if you’ve never had one. “Y’all got to feel me, sing if you’re with me.” Oh we’re with you, Mr. Madden, we’re all with you.

2. Weezer – My Name is Jonas

Let’s keep the angsty, distortion-rich energy flowing, shall we? High school was a fun time for music discovery, though an inordinate amount of it was consumed by my love for this band. Their Flying W Weezer Rock Music baseball tee was definitely one of my favorite shirts (and incidentally also one of my other “best $9.00 I ever spent”), and this album also seemed to be on near constant rotation for a good two and a half years. Does it matter what the lyrics mean? No. Especially not when you’re faced with a white matted landscape of 3-foot snowdrifts that need clearing before you can so much as even dream of reliving your days on the sledding hills as the fastest thing on a hard plastic toboggan.

3. Citizen Cope – Son’s Gonna Rise

A song for when you’ve hit your stride. Your stance is good, you’re remembering to breathe well, and the snow slinging’s coming as natural as a bird flies. Yeah, so maybe that never actually happens, but the song nonetheless has the power to carry you through. Let Mr. Greenwood’s mantra be your guide:

Well a son’s gonna rise in a mile
In a mile you’ll be feeling fine
In a mile you will see, after me,
You’ll be out of the dark, yeah
You’ll get your shot.

Whether it’s a shot of espresso, cocoa, or the simple satisfaction of a job well done, you’ll get it. Just keep at it.

4. Frank Sinatra – Come Fly With Me

At first I scoffed when my friend Glenn told me that Old Blue Eyes was on his personal winter shoveling mix. But then I thought about it again, and it made total sense. It’s not necessarily going to get you hyped up or keep you in the groove. That’s not the point. It’s fun, plain and simple, the way a snow day is supposed to feel. This little ditty goes a step further by transporting you to the fanciful, wonderful– and warm– far flung destinations of the world on the wings of his don’t-skimp-on-the-sugar-y sweet croon. And here we find another reason to listen: for those times when you want to get away, but can’t.

5. Taylor Swift – 1989 (album)

All of it? Yes, all of it. All of it in its super rich 80s synth pop wonderment. That Sunday morning solo snow slinging campaign I mentioned? I’m not ashamed to say that this album got me all the way through it. It just made so much sense. From the devilishly pointed wordplay of “Blank Space,” to the pulsing backbeat of “Bad Blood,” right through the breathless coda of final two tracks. “Think I’m finally clean,” she sang as I scraped up the last of the gray icy sludge from the asphalt, and somehow I knew she was right.. at least until the next storm came around.

What’re your top five tunes (or albums) for powering through your own obligatory bouts of seasonal snow slinging? I’d love to hear’em.

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#MondayMixtape – Songs to Get You Out-of-Doors

take on the worldThis past weekend was glorious. Saturday was particularly so. A few of us headed up to Stage Fort Park in Gloucester for a midday barbecue and the conditions were perfect. Not too warm,  not too cold, with blue skies all around and nary a cloud in the sky.

After a nice leisurely lunch, we headed down to the beach and took a walk along the rocky shoreline. It was incredibly therapeutic to see everything in such vibrant, brilliant color and so full of life after all those months of cold. The leaves on the trees looked fuller and greener, the water in the bay looked even fresher and even bluer, and the whitewashed seaside chapels further off in the distance seemed to give off a warm, radiant glow. And to think all this lay just one hour from Boston. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Excellent.

It got me thinking about songs that sing lovingly of the great outdoors. Songs whose verses could compel even the laziest of Johns to get outside and smell the roses. Songs that speak fondly of good times had out in nature and of the promise of more good times ahead.

These are a few such songs, summarized in five lines or less (because hey, this list isn’t about you sinking in more to your seat– it’s about getting you outside to enjoy everything the great outdoors has to offer!).

1. John Denver – Rocky Mountain High

Ask anyone– if you’re making a list of songs made for exploring and extolling the wonders of the natural world, this song is going to be on it. It’s one of John Denver’s greatest hits, and for good reason: feel that leisurely, zen-like tempo, dig that lightly twangy, tangy flatpicking– that gentle, buttery voice!– it’s no wonder this song recently became one of Colorado’s official state songs. And with its underlying message of man’s responsibility to be good, mindful stewards of the earth’s natural treasures, it’s not just an ode to the Rockies– it’s a song of love and appreciate of the great outdoors everywhere.

2. James Taylor – Copperline

From a song that looks with immense fondness and love at all natural palaces and sanctuaries to song that focuses on a fondness and love of one place in particular: the strange, wonderful parkland just a short distance from the narrator’s boyhood home. It was the sort of place that would have always captured his imagination even if he hadn’t spied his father dancing in a drunken display of bliss and inhibition or got the  “first kiss I ever took” there. But ah, so it was, and so it is, and so it shall ever be. “Day breaks and the boy wakes up and the / Dog barks and the bird sings / And the sap rises– and the angel sighs..” Such powerful, lasting memories can be made out there, even just a few miles from home.

3. Jakob Dylan – Something Good This Way Comes

As it happens, four of the five songs selected this week are written in the key of E. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, on the guitar, an open E chord is one of the lucky few that uses all six strings. It gives the chord a particularly fresh and open tone, a quality that each song really embodies. And this one, from the Wallflowers frontman, is no different. A talented, prolific songwriter in his own right, the younger Dylan also knows how to take it easy and play a simple, breezy tune, and this is a great example of that. A good tune to accompany you on any adventure  you so choose.

4. Nickel Creek – Ode to a Butterfly

Continuing on our secondary theme of Songs in the Key of E, here’s one to really get you up and at’em. The title lends itself beautifully to the sort of imagery that it conjures up: a butterfly flitting and floating about a wide open field with corn and buckwheat swaying in the breeze. But it’s just as suitable for getting you up the side of a mountain, exploring the hidden spaces of a forest, or simply sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows. It’s a reminder that even the smallest things are full of some of the coolest, most intricate and wondrous stuff in the world.

5. Special Consensus – Carolina in the Pines

Our little tour of song and nature now complete, we return east to the land of green Appalachian hills (and whaddayaknow– there’s a key change too!). It’s the perfect mix of sweeping instrumental breakdowns and simple but deeply affectionate lines about the comfort that comes from just being out there among the mountains, the forests, and all of nature’s splendor. “There’s no guesswork in the clockwork / On the world’s part or mine / There are nights I only feel right / With Carolina in the pines.” With all the uncertainty in life, it’s nice to know that whatever happens, we can always find time to get back to basics, with earth, wind, and sky.

#MondayMixtape – Spring Colors in Bloom

springing to life..
springing to life..

Ah, May. Springtime at its best. In New England the season’s only just gotten started. After a few early wisps of warmth in the first weeks of the season followed by a few of erratic, unapologetic chill and general gloominess, we seem to be on the right track.

As if caught off guard by this mellowing and subsequent gradual swell of warmer weather, trees, plants, and the rest of the natural world appeared to sprout, bud, and bloom all at once last week. On Saturday things appeared to be pretty calm, with all things holding steady in a chipper, seasonably appropriate green color. By Sunday, however, everything was awash in reds, pinks, and whites, and by Monday my allergies had reached their fullest expression as well.

All the watery, itchy sinuses aside, this past week has been gleaming and gorgeous. So good on yehs, New England. Let’s keep it going on this nice, gradual pace. No need to jump into July all at once. Cool? Cool.

As the flora and fauna blossom so too do the people and places about town. It’s marvelous to walk along the Common in downtown and see all the folks out and about. They’ve shed their dark, heavy winter layers in favor of lighter, sunnier fabrics in all colors of the rainbow. Aside from the occasional achy, sneezy allergies, this season is excellent for the senses.

It’s with the sights, sounds, smells, and general colorful character of the season that these five songs were chosen (you might say handpicked). Songs that remind us to be present and to appreciate the people, places, feelings, and things around us.

1. The Temptations – My Girl

An instant classic when it first came on the scene in 1965, and it still does the trick today. Maybe I’m just a sentimental fool (I am), but this song hits all the right spots, making you lean and sway like a tree in a warm breeze. From that faithful heartbeat of bass and snare to the cool, syrupy harmonic vocals o’er top of guitar and sweeping, skipping violin fills… perfection in music confection. It’s the sort of tune that melts your worries like the sun on an ice cream sundae but does it in kinder, gentler, and more pleasing, aww-shucks way than any of the more contemporary pop trifles can. A classic then, now, and forever.

2. Wild Belle – Shine

And now for something grittier and flashier but just as fun and well meaning. I first heard of these guys a few months ago from my friend Cynthia “Dancing in the Seats” Almansi but forgot about them completely until I was doing some spring cleaning the other day and heard this track  while listening to Spotify’s delightful “The Happy Hipster” playlist.

It tickles your ear with those first bouncy, head-bobbing beats, piques your interest with those playful first verses, hooks you with a killer chorus line, and finally seals the deal with that delicious saxophone solo (easily making the case for its inclusion on my nascent Saxy Perfection in Modern Pop playlist).

This one’ll get you through anything you’re up to: chores, traffic, studying… whatever. Just don’t be surprised if you start grooving along with it where you sit/stand. You’ve been warned.

3. Dogs Die In Hot Cars – Apples & Oranges

This band’s debut album spent a good deal of the 2004 – 2005 on my iPod and in my ears, and I’m glad to know that it still holds up today (even if it appears the band itself has been in a constant state of transition since then). This song in particular, with its energetic pacing and softened New Wave sensibilities, continues to please. The lyrics are simple and sweet, most of the things that give us happiness and fulfillment in life can also be boiled down into just a few words, and that’s really what this song’s about.

Here is the apples and the oranges and plums
The dandelions in the sun
The salt and sugar and the raisin and the rum
And still there’s room for everyone

There’s so much out there to be experienced and enjoyed out there. The important thing is just to get out there and do it.

4. Amos Lee – Flower

Keeping the theme of gratitude and appreciation going… this song sounds like a Saturday afternoon picnic near a picturesque lake. Spread out the blanket, put the cooler at one end, your shoes and a few books at the other, lay back and just take it all in. Catch some rays, maybe a few z’s, and just enjoy it. Sometimes it’s hard to take a break from the rush of the maddening week, but this song reminds us that we all deserve some time once in a while– a moment at least– to do just that. Put on this song and let it guide you to that moment.

5. Drew Holcomb – Can’t Take It With You

This song takes an admittedly different approach but gets at the point all the same. Sure we’ve all got a lot to do everyday, things aren’t usually easy or plainly laid out for us, but as long as we keep track of what’s really important and do all we can to make the best of every opportunity, we’ll be all right. But we only have the time we have here to do so.

It’s a heavy idea, a difficult proposition, but spring is a good time to think about it:

Is it possible to be happy and be human?
Certainly but not without the pain

Life’s not black and white and spring proves it with its fantastic display of color and warmth. And we’re here, we’re alive, and there’s a fantastically cool world out there. So we may as well enjoy it.

What songs are springing you into action these days? Hope all’s well.

 

#MondayMixtape: Making a Break for It

pressing on. making a break and getting out on the road
photo by Nigeno

This weekend I listened to Gregory Alan Isakov’s latest album The Weatherman about five or six times. It’s a stellar piece of low-fi, melodic folk-americana that can fit just about any occasion, and I highly recommend it.

Each time the first track “Amsterdam” came on I found myself thinking of the sorts of trips I’d taken, and it occurred to me how much of the folk-rock contemporary musical canon centers not just on the basic idea of traveling and the locations at either end of the journey, but also the complex, often conflicted reasons for wanting to go in the first place.

Then I started putting together a playlist of all the songs I could think of that had travel or escape as a central motif, and I noticed that many of the songs that I’d been listening to most often lately also centered on these themes. Breaking the list down by sub themes, I noticed that these were the three most oft discussed:

  1. Making a break and craving escape.
  2. Heartbreak as a catalyst for change.
  3. Nostalgia. Pure and simple.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at some of the other themes that songs of this sort evoke, what places and cities in particular seem to be most popular with different generations of songwriters, and how different people connect to these songs differently (another question to ponder: why are so many wistful, dreamy songs of travel and escape told in 3/4 time? Three of the tunes selected below do and it was all I could do not to use the word “waltzy” to describe each of them).

For now, we start with travel as a means of escape. As a way to make a new start. The most basic tales of being out on the road sound like this.

1. Leif Vollebekk – Southern United States

This is the other song that got me thinking about how travel and songcraft go hand in hand. Its breezy, dreamy tempo and freewheeling guitars and drums have that sound that’s reminiscent of revving engines and the joyful first miles on the highway while also hinting at certain nostalgic sadness and longing for what’s been left behind. And it has a rambling storyline that’s ripe with beautiful contradictions that portray the inherent complexities of life. Being on the road affords an escape from prior worry and freedom from previous troubles, but you’re only as free as you allow yourself to be. “I was following my heart / Like I hadn’t for years…”Just make sure to keep alive, awake, and alert wherever your travels may lead.

2. The Doobie Brothers – Black Water

Maybe you’re looking less for an escape from the complex contradictions of life and more for just a good reason to play hooky one day. That’s what this one’s all about. This one says life’s fine, but a trip on a lazy river would make it that much finer. There’s no harsh realities to be found here. Leave your negativity at the door– er, at the banks of the river– and hop on board. Nothing can touch you. Not poor weather, mosquitos, or the possibility of rising floodwaters. None of it. This song invites you to get back on the bare necessities boat for an afternoon and remember that life can be genuinely good.

3. Cake – Mexico

There is no stronger inspiration for hitting the open road than fresh heartbreak and heartache, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this deceivingly simple little tune. It’s part mariachi waltz and part achingly forlorn cowboy ballad and the lyrics are as corny and as clichéd as they come, but perhaps that’s the most honest way to tell the tale. When once fond relations turn weathered and gray from years of human error, it’s time to go out, put your hands on the wheel, and leave the destination up to fate. And O what dazzling, gleaming potential that crossing that southern most border brings… Just over yonder where the air is lighter, the spaces are wider, and the adventure is fresh and limitless.

4. Sufjan Stevens – Chicago

This one strikes a similar story to the song preceding it with one striking difference: this is the song of a man in control of his destiny. Certainly this narrator feels regret and remorse for past misdeeds and misconduct, but now “all things go, all things go.” Time to get back to living and get back to life. Also, do yourself a favor and reacquaint yourself with this song. The album on which it appears, Come On Feel the Illinoise, is itself an excellent testament to all sorts of travel-related themes, and it’ll remind you of all the times you yourself ever wanted to get up and go and do the same.

5. Gregory Alan Isakov – Amsterdam

The song that started it all. A haunting, affectionate remembrance of time spent in a distant town. Not just any town either. A town that treated him well, that felt like a knowing friend. A town that gave him the sort of warm, familiar feeling he knew he’d forever be hoping to return to if only he could figure out how. It’s hard to trust the historical authenticity of fond memories, or any sort of memories for that matter, since they’re so often accompanied by the disarming scent of rosy nostalgia. Of course nostalgia offers its own sort of escape, retreat, and release from the pressures of life, and it’s easier to take a trip down memory lane than it is a flight on an airplane.

Still, as the singer declares over the swell of voices and soft melodic distortion, “Churches and trains / They all look the same to me now / They shoot you someplace / While we ache to come home somehow.” Escape in any form, whether through spiritual elevation or mechanical locomotion, can only provide temporary relief. At some point we have to face those less than ideal circumstances head on. Pressing on with strength derived from the fond remembrance of theses times instead of as the shelter with which we shield ourselves.

Throwback Thursday: Campfire Songs and Evening Rituals

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These last two weeks have been hard. Really, really hard.

I know they say that the hard days and weeks are the ones that build character, but how can you build anything when it gets so bad you can hardly think straight?

It’s moments like these that get me thinking about simpler times. Maybe they weren’t necessarily happier times, but they were definitely times of greater stamina. More optimism. A greater inclination to get right back up when I was down and to push through the tough and the difficult. Moments when I felt like– when I knew– I was in control.

Moments like those evenings at camp where after a long day of activities, meals, and other moments of mostly-organized chaos, we would get our bunk ready for bed. Once they’d all showered, brushed their teeth, and used the leftover time for some of the loudest most rambunctious games of go fish I’ve ever witnessed, we’d somehow get all 12 of our overactive 9 and 10 year old boys quieting down in their own beds.

I’d pull out my guitar, we’d turn out the lights, and, regardless of how long the day felt or however many fire drills big or small we had to take care of, my co-counselor would have the kids go around and share one thing that went well that day and one thing they’d like to do better tomorrow while I started to strum a soft tune. The day’s hardships and difficulties would begin to melt away as kids talked sleepily but excitedly about ice cream pops at lunch and extra pool time during elective hour or their want to have more time at the archery range and a chance at waterskiing. Simple though these items may have seemed, there was infinite depth to these happy thoughts shared so earnestly and honestly.

Then I’d let the music build and swell and play a nice song or two to end the evening. One song would always be some pop song or old favorite that I’d reimagined in its softest, most lullaby-appropriate state, but the other would always be James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. Here was a song that was meant to be played at day’s end to calm the wild beasts of our racing, leaping imaginations and to keep the scarier more menacing things at bay for at least another evening or two.

No matter how weary, weather worn, drooped, or down we felt,  somehow these songs always made us feel more at ease.

These days may be hard as may be the ones after that, but it won’t be like this forever. There’s good and bad in everything. I just have to look for it– both parts– and then think on it, smile at it– and then let it go. Then I’ll sit down in a comfy spot, turn the lights down a bit, and play a soft song, and get ready for my chance at tomorrow.