I recently found a shoebox full of old letters that I had received while at college. I know, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. What’s worse, I spent two hours last Sunday poring over the mostly handwritten notes (typewriters were dying, and personal computers were just coming of age) from family and friends, some still a part of my life, some nearly forgotten, and one I can’t even remember (sorry, “Ann”).
Aside from reminiscing about days gone by, laughing at old dumb jokes, marveling at how cheap postage was in the early 1980s, and getting reacquainted with a younger, clearly less busy, and more affable version of myself, I became nostalgic for the lost art of letter writing — getting an e-mail doesn’t come close to the delight and intimacy I used to feel when opening an often unexpected and, from what some of my former correspondents said, perfectly timed letter. Worse, unless you are organized and print out the e-mails received, you will never find a box of them stuffed in the back of a closet at your parents’ house.
What I also discovered was that I have been doing this — listening to, writing about, and recommending new music to my family and friends — for more than 20 years. In at least half of the 100 or so letters I read through someone mentioned how much he had enjoyed the cassette tape I had sent, or how little she liked the LP I had suggested. (“Cassette tape”? “LP”? What bones are buried here, for sure.) It’s funny, because I don’t really remember making the gesture very frequently (these letters covered a period of less than two years), but clearly I had. And, equally clearly, many of the recipients were outwardly grateful for the gift; some of the envelopes were either shaped like or at least referenced a tape sent in return.
I don’t make, let alone mail out, mixtapes anymore. (Does anyone? Another lost art worth mourning. Any true mixtape masters should read Love Is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, which though a little too whiny-confessional for my taste, and that’s going some, nonetheless serves as a nice homage.) In college, I was a DJ and had unfettered access to all the latest music releases and a huge back catalog to rummage through. I used to hole up in the production studio, long into the night, and record records and make mixes to share. Well, having to maintain a full-time job and raising a family, along with the advent of the CD and the iTunes revolution, eliminated all that from my schedule; these days, I make playlists and burn them onto CDs, but only occasionally do I share them with anyone but my closest friends and loved ones.
These days, I also write this blog, which in a way, is like writing and mailing out letters. The payoff is different, but the pleasure is the same, at least for me. So, in honor of all my past efforts for sharing words and music, and the connections I made along the way (and, in some cases, have maintained for nearly four decades), I am sending you this mixtape’s worth of bands with new songs that would have certainly been included on any TDK that I meticulously crafted late at night.
1. Ra Ra Riot. A new indie band whose latest release, “The Rhumb Line,” contain songs that would sound right at home in between tracks by the likes of Let’s Active, The Cure, or Crowded House. Try “Can You Tell” and “Each Year,” which have a lush, intimate sound akin to Sea Ray (RIP), Arcade Fire (but with a little less baroque gravitas), and chamber-folk pop bands like Bishop Allen and Beirut.
2. The Dutchess and the Duke is another new band I would have played on the air in 1985 and included on a tape. On the new record, “She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke,” Kimberly Morrison and Jason Lortz turn out hip, psych-soul pop music that reverberates from the 60s. Songs like “Back to Me” have a folky, stripped-down sound borrowing lines from the likes of the Zombies, the Byrds, and the Rolling Stones — their biggest hit, “Reservoir Park,” sounds as if “19th Nervous Breakdown” jumped a groove on the platter and kept on going. Its infectious, with plenty of acoustic guitars, tambourines, jingle bells, hand claps, group vocals, and Mommas-like, pleasing girl harmonies accenting a Jaggerish nasally drawl (though more sonorous, like Chris Martin of Coldplay). Dig it.
3. The newest from The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive,” is their fourth, and perhaps strongest. They’ve continued their Springsteenlike, American roots-rock sound and expanded it by adding more instrumentation, like banjo and some strings. I wouldn’t have hesitated to pair their first single, “Sequesteredin Memphis,” with “Candy’s Room” or “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. Although the band still relies on its familiar framework of tight drumming, running riffs, and hooky power chords, it’s singer Craig Finn who has grown, evolving from a frat-boy chanter/ranter to a more confident crooner, as on the Randy Newmanesque ballad, “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”
4. The Whigs are relative newcomers, but their second full-length, “Mission Control,” should help them become regulars on the airwaves. This Athens, Ga.-based trio play with energy and gusto, crafting a garage-band sound reminiscent of the Replacements or Husker Du. Songs “Like a Vibration” and “Right Hand on My Heart,” with their rough, raucous guitars, raspy vocals, punchy pop backbeats, and on-the-verge-of-collapse feel, would have been a mainstay on MTV’s “120 Minutes” late-night show.
5. I have been listening to, and delighted by, the single “45” by the Saturday Knights for more than a year now. Finally, it and 12 other new songs are available on the Seattle group’s debut LP, “Mingle.” I was expecting a one-hit-wonder hip-hop record but discovered something nearly unclassifiable. Mingle indeed: rap, rock, and soul flow together seamlessly in a way that makes me think of Run-DMC and Steven Tyler strutting together on “Walk This Way.” With their intelligent, funny lyrics and wide mix of sounds and rhythms — everything from funk to punk, and cameos by Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, the Dap Kings and Muscle Shoals Horns — there are plenty of wonderful hits to choose from.
So, there it is. And I close this mixtape letter to you, as I imagine I would have 20 years ago: write me and tell me what you think. And feel free to make suggestions of your own. You never know, if I can ever remember to do it, I might print this out, stuff it in a box, and reminisce years from now about what we chose.