Some great songs that make me think of great books

Scene: You’re sitting on the bus, watching the city go by as you travel to some mundane destination. You put your headphones on and crank the volume up. For twenty minutes (or an hour, or two), you’re going to stare out the window and pretend you’re in some trendy indie movie. You can’t read a book–you have motion sickness (er, if you’re me, at least)–so you settle for just thinking about books instead. After all, you’re a well-read heroine or hero, and you’ve got to be ready for your take.

Just me? Oh well. Get your faraway expressions ready anyway, because I’m about to share some of my favorite songs of the moment that put me in mind of some really great books. Headphones on. Buckle in!


#1: “Phone” by Lizzo

Book Pairing: This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

My Review |Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780544786769“Phone” is a clever, silly song about heading home drunk after a night out. Even “feet all sore” in overpriced Louboutins and a lost phone can’t ruin Lizzo’s infectious self-confidence, just like a difficult home life and climb to fame can’t ruin Gabourey Sidibe’s charm and optimism in This Is Just My Face, her 2017 memoir.

If you’re thinking This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare is just another celebrity cash-grab memoir, you’d be wrong: Sidibe is genuinely fascinating. She grew up the daughter of a green card marriage between her tough-as-nails American mom and polygamous Senegalese dad. She went from a 20-something phone sex operator to overnight superstar when she starred in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, and her determination to not be a one-hit wonder is palpable throughout This is Not My Face. Luckily, there’s no chance of that. Sidibe continues to be a success on TV and on Twitter. She’s funny, sweet, down-to-earth, and completely fabulous–just like Lizzo. Let’s just hope Sidibe doesn’t lose her phone.

#2: “River” by Ibeyi

 

Book Pairing: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My Review | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781101947135Ibeyi is a twin-sister act whose music is ethereal and lovely, but whose lyrics pack a punch. They’re French-Afro-Cuban-Venezuelan and they’re constantly reckoning with the diasporic, colonial history that entails. (“Ibeyi” means “twins” in Yoruba.) “River” is a trance-like song about sins and redemption.

How fitting, then, that Homegoing also centers on the devastating legacies of colonialism through the lens of two sisters from modern-day Ghana. The novel follows their bloodline for 400 years through tragedies and successes, betrayals and loves alike. One sister remains in Ghana while the other is sold into slavery in the U.S. It’s rare that a novel feels as ambitious and politically relevant as this one while still remaining a damn good story, to boot.

#3: “Waiting Game” by Banks

Book Pairing: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

My Review |Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sweetbitter CoverBanks slots neatly into the “weird girls getting it on” niche, right alongside FKA Twigs, Peaches, Robyn, and many more. “Waiting Game” is an intoxicating song about an off-balance relationship. “What if the way we started made it something cursed from the start?” Banks croons, and sure, it’s a little melodramatic…but so is love.

I reviewed Sweetbitter so recently that it seems almost redundant to include it here, but “Waiting Game” captures the essence of the novel so well that I just couldn’t leave it out. Throughout Sweetbitter, Tess always seems to be waiting: for love, for life, for the next magical flavor. She knows she can’t compete with the claustrophobic duo of Simone and Jake, but she tries anyway. Headstrong, young, dramatic, and kind of foolish: it’s a typical 20-something cocktail that Banks is the perfect soundtrack for. I love it.


Have any favorite book/music pairings of your own? Would you like to see this become a regular-(ish) feature on the blog? Let me know in the comments!

Dessa announced a new album, and everything is a little less awful now.

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A huge blow has been struck to Net Neutrality and everything is on fire, but Minneapolis rapper/writer/singer/general-kick-ass-human Dessa just announced her newest album, and that means everything is a little less terrible today. Chime will be her fourth full-length studio album, and drops on February 23rd. You’d better believe I’ll be first in line to buy it.

Like St. Vincent (whose work I wrote about back in October), Dessa’s music is deeply literary–hence why I feel qualified to freak out about her album on a book blog. A writer friend introduced me to Dessa’s second album, Castor, the Twin, circa 2012…and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Her songs are raw one-two punches of narrative; they demand to be taken on their own terms, defying genre and easy description. Her knack for off-beat (but dead-on) imagery has been an enormous influence on me as a writer, and a great deal of my fiction literally would not exist without her work as a guide.

If you’re new to Dessa’s work, I recommend listening to Castor, the Twin first. It’s atmospheric and wry and a little sad, and it’s her most self-consistent album–I love the others just as much, but I think their experiments with genre and form are a little less accessible if you’re unfamiliar with her style.

Dessa has been moving closer and closer to pop in recent years, starting with a few tracks on her 2013 album Parts of Speech, and continuing with her 2016 single “Quinine.”

The two singles from Chime that have already been released are already my favorites of hers, ever. “Good Grief” is a melancholy reflection on, well, grief, while “Fire Drills” is an angry anthem for a sexist world. Both are exactly what I needed in my life right now. I hope they’re what you need in yours.

You can pre-order Chime at all the places (or follow it on Spotify) here.

MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent: A musical short story collection

MASSEDUCTION cover

Amazon | iTunes | Spotify

label: Loma Vista Recordings

release date: October 13, 2017

This is not a music blog since I am not cool enough to have a music blog I lack the vocabulary to write coherently about music: I still don’t get the difference between a chorus and a bridge, and I’m fuzzy on what distinguishes a guitar from bass.

That’s why I’m delighted when I can describe an album I love in words instead of vague handwaving, and MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent is that kind of album.

St. Vincent’s previous work has often been described as “literate,” which strikes me as a code word for an artist who’s too smart and uncompromising to be appreciated by the teeming masses. As an ardent defender of the teeming masses, however, I’d much rather describe her as “literary”: someone who turns each song into an opportunity to tell a story and play with language.

Interestingly enough, St. Vincent–whose real name is Annie Clark–did a song for the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack back in 2009, which must have been my first introduction to her music, though the track doesn’t stand out in my memory. For all people love to hate on Twilight, I always appreciated the forum it provided for the freaks and fangirls of the world (myself included) to talk about power, kink, and beautiful people.

So, it seems fitting that MASSEDUCTION is similarly freaky, kinky, and beautiful, and thankfully, Annie Clark is a lot better at words than Stephenie Meyer.

MASSEDUCTION rockets from a breathy song about a drunk-dial (“Hang On Me”) to manic odes–or laments–to fame like “Los Ageless.” A throbbing sadness creeps in at the midpoint–“Happy Birthday, Johnny” recounts the pain of a friend’s addiction–that is jolted but never fully banished by erotic, frantic romps like “Savior” and “Young Lover.” The closing track, “Smoking Section,” captures the experience of mental illness as perfectly as I’ve ever heard, especially as Clark repeats depression’s favorite taunt over and over: “let it happen, let it happen.”

Clark’s narrative control is striking. Each song is a self-contained capsule of emotion–most often, manic anxiety or dreamy melancholy–while still forwarding an overarching story. A lot has been made of the fact that Clark wrote this album on the heels of her break-up with supermodel Cara Delevingne, and pangs of lost love are definitely present here alongside the glitz and terror of superstardom. But to reduce this album to autobiography or tell-all would be a mistake.

The story collection is a fraught format. No matter how good your stories are on their own, juxtaposing them threatens to expose your weak points, your repetitions, your idiosyncrasies, your weird and boring obsessions. Clark sidesteps these pitfalls admirably by excelling at several things: one, by choosing interesting obsessions–fame, sex, and love are rabbit holes we’re eager to fall down–and two, by maintaining a tone that is both edgy and vulnerable.

It takes a certain amount of guts to pose for your album cover in a leopard-print onesie, and it takes even more to shriek “I can’t turn off what turns me on” (“MASSEDUCTION”) for an audience of millions. Most of us have felt it; Clark is brave enough to say it. It also takes a certain self-awareness to conclude your album by singing “it’s not the end” over and over through a lump in your throat (“Smoking Section”), and it’s exactly what Clark does.

MASSEDUCTION taunted me with an honesty truer than truth. I don’t care whether the events Clark describes really happened or not; I do care that this web of music and stories have captured me for weeks.  If we were ever to see a St. Vincent-penned book, I’d be first in line to buy it. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening.

I first heard this album on Spotify and was in no way compensated for this review.