Thursday, July 26, 2012

Six Song Six-Pack: Wake Up!

I can still remember those early summer mornings. My parents would wake me up around four or five, before it was even light out and I'd grab the bag I'd packed the night before and hurry downstairs and out to the car. August always meant a vacation when I was growing up, which meant a road trip and when you were driving from Chicago to South Carolina, a road trip meant getting up early. Usually a surly and unwilling riser even at much more reasonable hours, I would be actually be a little buzzed on these mornings, excited to leave the house. Inevitably my father would keep my mother and I waiting in the car at least twenty minutes grabbing last-minute items before we could roll onto the road.

Sitting the backseat of the car, happily munching on some McDonald's breakfast (a rare and wonderful treat during my childhood), I remember feeling just how surreal yet satisfying it was to watch the sun actually come up and rouse the world into action. As I would later discover while mowing golf greens before the sun came up, watching the world awake provides an strangely settling and serene feeling, like you know something that everyone else doesn't by the mere fact that you conscious while they slumbered. Today's six-pack gives you six songs to perfectly soundtrack those early-to-rise days (and here's hoping they remain a novelty for all my readers, bless your souls). Next time you have a long road trip, early appointment or good old-fashioned insomnia, this playlist might help you take the heeding of Ben Franklin's annoyingly industrious advice to heart.

1. Watch The Sunrise - Big Star  Buy #1 Record/Radio City
Although it could be argued that this song was probably written more about all-nighters than early risers, it's become a staple on any sort of early morning trip that I take. All hard-strummed six-string acoustics offset by a lovingly twanged twelve-string, "Watch The Sunrise" captures the energy and hopefulness that's supposed to accompany an early start. I've always liked repurposing songs for mixes and starting off with a song originally placed at the end of the mix was always a favorite trick that works well here. The sugary multi-tracked backing "oohs" that move from sighing to straining falsetto let you ease into the song despite its energy providing just enough energy to get you up but not enough to jolt you into anger at being reminded that, actually there are two five o'clocks every day.

2. This Temporary Life - Death Cab For Cutie  Buy Future Soundtrack For America
This song was actually a rarity from the 2004 album Future Soundtrack for America (oh 2004, my heart still aches...) which is a shame because it shows middle period Death Cab at their lyrical and musical best. Ben Gibbard sings to a lonely protagonist who has moved away from his hometown to live by himself in a strange place. He is just waking up and Gibbard perfectly captures the intense loneliness that a clean but empty house can invoke in someone, especially at the beginning of the day. Only Death Cab could make lines as awkward and quotidian as "is there anyone so all alone? / but there's no beep before the dial tone? / when you pick it up to see who called / if there is, it's probably your mom" drip with tender melancholy. Not only that, but the band does it's full indie-arena guitar treatment to give this sad little claustrophobic tale an epic grandeur. A rousing song in the most literal way, if sadness can be rousing.

3. Wake Up [Arcade Fire] [Live] - The Roots & John Legend  Buy Wake Up!
Wasn't this what you were waiting for when you heard that the Roots and John Legend were releasing an album called Wake Up? Turns out they'd recorded a studio version of their cover the song but it was the live one that really shone. Arcade Fire's original was very well done if tasteful, perhaps a bit restrained (in a word, Canadian) but the Roots crew takes it to a whole new level. Starting with Captain Kirk's meaty, bristling guitar riff, the Roots handle the song like a bubbling kettle just waiting to explode at the chorus. Legend gives the vocals a run for their money while ?uestlove hammers away on skins creating a mood of utter joy as opposed to the more sober-minded determination of Butler's original. A song to knock the sleep out of your eyes and get you singing along, no matter how early it is.

4. Sleeper Awake - Kelly Hogan  Buy I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (it's only five bucks!)
Written by John Wesley Harding for Kelly Hogan, "Sleeper Arise" didn't particularly stand out for me in the context of the original album but its bounce works perfectly as an A.M. pick-me-up. All bouncy bass, humming organ (courtesy of none other than Booker T. Jones) and cooing background chorus, it's perhaps the most pleasant way to start your day other than actually going back to sleep. Hogan offers everything one could want in the morning love, fresh coffee, a ride out of town and a fresh start, all in sweet lilting voice and it's positively enchanting. When I was a kid, my father used to like waking me up by barging into my room, singing a Gymboree song called "Time To Get Ready For School" loudly and off-key. It was loud, annoying, jarring, unwelcome and presented the least enticing reason one could think of to leave a warm, comfy bed. This song is the opposite of that.

5. Sunday Morning - The Velvet Underground  Buy The Velvet Underground & Nico
I remember the first time I heard the Velvet Underground, it was this song oozing out of my friend's cheap laptop speakers. It was early on a Sunday morning (fittingly enough) and we were dragging ourselves out of bed after a sleep-deprived weekend of policy debate to be driven home from West Des Moines, Iowa. As a high school freshman, I was years away from coming close to experience the kind of regret and physical toll that Lou Reed was singing about but the gentle, hungover vibe appealed to me nonetheless. After being informed by my friend that this was the Velvet Underground I remember thinking how fitting the name was, given the soft, plush sonics on this song (and creating a misconception about their music that would come to an abrupt end after I received the whole album for Christmas). It's a gorgeous, ease-into-the day kinda song that's also reflective in a way that I often become when I find myself awake at odd hours, a perfect wake up song.

6. New Morning - Bob Dylan  Buy New Morning
Early '70s Dylan is not a period that gets a lot of love, which is a shame, because, while he wasn't hitting the same rock n' roll prophet highs of his 60's work, he put out some damn good records during that time. The title track from New Morning is perhaps the antithesis of what his hipster fans from hist Highway 61 Revisited-era might have wanted but its perhaps the epitome of the positively radiant country/folk/pop that he was playing at the time. Built on a bed of a softly strummed acoustic guitar, the song features some aggressively picked mandolin, soft drumming and an organ whose swells threaten to lift to song up and carry it away. Dylan sings about driving through an idyllic rural landscape that is instantly created in your mind's eye as you listen. The song is best heard while cruising slowly with your hand resting lazily out and open car window. Somewhere with trees is preferable, but a city location is permitted as this is aural escapism, pure and unfiltered.

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