It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, as soon as I get up in the morning, I like to put on music. It’s not always doable, with a house full of family, everyone scrambling to get dressed, eat, and get out the door in time for school, work, athletic events, etc. At these moments, music only contributes to the chaos, especially when there are young children within earshot, and that is not what I need. What I need then is earplugs and a megaphone.
Nonetheless, on most weekdays, when all are finally off and it’s time for me to settle in to work, I turn on my favorite DJ, “John in the Morning” (aka, John Richards), on the air at KEXP in Seattle, and let the music flow. (Luckily, through the magic of the Interweb, I hear John’s show starting at 9 a.m., though he greets his “morning faithful” at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. each weekday.) John always starts the morning off with something interesting, and often new, and I look forward to hearing his show.
The music helps me get started, keeps me company, and allows me to focus. It’s always been that way for me, ever since I was given a music player to control. Music certainly kept me going through long, lonely nights of study and term-paper writing in high school and college, and it has sustained me for more than two decades as a working stiff — whether serving as a channel marker to guide me through the din of a crowded newsroom or as comfort in a cloistered copyediting booth. It’s better than Starbucks, and cheaper than a therapist. And, as it turns out, I am not the only one who is affected in this way. Research shows that music engages the areas of the human brain that are used for focusing and paying attention. Rock on!
So, for this week, I am going to play DJ and offer for your listening pleasure (and concentrating acuity) about 60 minutes’ worth of morning music, comprised exclusively of songs released in 2008 that I like to hear playing when I start the day.
“Sun It Rises“: Fleet Foxes – The perfect song to start the day. I have written previously about these guys and their gorgeous debut record, so I will say no more. But I just didn’t think I could discuss morning tunes and not include this beautiful, haunting, hymn-like folk tune in the mix.
“St Modesto“: Chris Walla – The Death Cab For Cutie guitarist debuted his solo recording, Field Manual, in January, just a few short months before his band released their latest, and not surprising, it got overshadowed. I think it’s nonetheless a tremendously eclectic and stand-out collection of songs, and this is my favorite cut. There’s a nice locomotive “chug-a-chug” pace to the drums, carrying an REMish jangly guitar line, that keeps me moving around the room. And I like the softspokenness of his singing voice here, as well. It’s like coffee talk.
“Clockwise Witness“: Devotchka – For someone who spends a good deal of each day watching the clock and keeping tabs on the time, I feel as if this song was written for me (I love the line, “if you win the rat race, you come in first place, and a rat you will always be”). I have been a Devotchka devotee for a long time, enjoying their out-of-time sound, but most people will know them best by their recent work on the much-acclaimed movie, “Little Miss Sunshine.” The tick-tock toy piano notes and pizzicato strings make it sound as if you are inside a clock.
“Morning Cup“: Joseph Arthur – This has been a fruitful year for fans of Joseph Arthur, who has so far delivered four EPs full of music and has a full-length imminent. This is my favorite song from the extant outpouring and, with its stripped down sound (just acoustic guitar, a smattering of percussion instruments, and a gentle, faint hint of fuzz guitar), it has started my morning many times. It is also one of the most hopeful anti-war songs I’ve heard in a long time.
“Med sud i eyrum“: Sigur Ros – The new LP from this creative Icelandic group is a departure away from the spacier, more ethereal music (which I love) of their last four records and toward a more mainstream sound (which I love, too). This track (don’t ask me how to pronounce it, since the band sings in a made-up language) sounds a little like what I imagine the Elves from “The Lord of the Rings” would sound like, if they formed a rock band. The appropriately named “Gobbledigook” is a worthy a.m. stand-in.
“Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is in Another Castle“: Mountain Goats – John Darnielle has a gift for great song-storytelling (matched only by his delightful knack for writing great song titles). Opting to share the mic this time, Darnielle, aka the “Mountain Goats,” recently recorded a 6-song EP with singer and multi-instrumentalist Kaki King, called Black Pear Tree. This quirky, twee song, with its one-note-at-a-time piano melody and swishy brushed-snare sound, reminds me of the skating scene from a “Peanuts” cartoon — so much so, I reach for my blanket.
“Sky“: Joshua Radin – This is a wake-up-and-make-up-in-the-morning-with-your-lovey song if ever one was written. Radin invites pop phenom Ingrid Michaelson to chime in about a third of the way through this breathy dreamer to put flesh on the premise of a twosome at the heart of the lyrics. And it’s at about that point that the tap-tap heartbeat of the drumming starts, the guitar picks up the pace, and the song really wakes up. It’s a clever conceit and one that delights me every time I hear it.
“Only as the Day Is Long“: Sera Cahoone – This Seattlite has a voice that’s hard to pin down, part this, part that: smooth and sultry, like a jazz singer; slow and twangy, like a country crooner; or rough and edgy, like a woman with the blues. On this, the title track from her new record, there’s a little bit of everything: chorus harmonies reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, bluesy harmonica, soft tambourine slaps, and a rolling plunka-plunka banjo. No matter what you hear in it, though, this song sounds nothing if not hopeful early in the morning.
“The Ghost Inside Our House“: Cloud Cult – There are ghosts literal and figurative in this brief song, my favorite from this Minnesota-based folk-psych-rock band’s new record, Feel Good Ghosts. Along with the spirit hopefully spotted and followed by the singer in the opening lines, the shades of Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and other fey singer-songwriters long gone fade in and out, dreamily. And when you work at home alone all day, in a century-old house, you can easily believe such things.
“Red Balloons“: Carter Tanton – The lead singer for Tulsa, a band I played continuously last year, Tanton made a solo recording of this song live in the studio at KEXP (and it was included on the new “Live at KEXP Vol. 4” compilation, which you can order on CD or as a download from here, and I highly recommend you do.) By far my favorite morning song so far this year, it may be my favorite song period this year. The combination of Joni Mitchell-like open-tuning guitar strumming, Tanton’s quivering-scratchy voice, and the evocative lyrics (“the deep deep blue of the morning / it gets to me every time”) get to me every time.
“Get Better“: Mates of State – Who doesn’t like hopefulness and optimism early in the morning? Especially when accompanied by a string section, Jason Hammel’s pounding drums, and Kori Gardner’s cheery high, Karen Carpenter-esque voice. This talented duo consistently produce great pop songs, and this one, from the new LP, Rearrange Us, provides an apt rallying cry for this year’s political season: “Everything’s going to get louder, even if it never gets better.”
“5 Years Time“: Noah and the Whale – Every time I hear the whistling at the beginning of this song it grabs my attention and pulls me in, like the opening of “The Andy Griffith Show.” It sounds inviting, infectious, and upbeat, and I imagine the members of this British neo-folk group waving me over to stroll around with them, strumming ukes, fiddling on fiddles, and plinking mandolins. Oh, what “fun, fun, fun” it would be, indeed.
“Abandon“: French Kicks – The New York-based quartet came out with a new album, Swimming, this spring that met with much (deserved) acclaim. They have an elegant, layered pop sound that I enjoy, exemplified on this cut, from the echoy, chiming opening guitar riffs, to the U2-like ratatat drumming, to Josh Wise’s soaring vocal harmonies. It’s lush, laid-back, and daydreamy — the perfect way to start a Friday morning, with “abandon.”
“I’m Amazed“: My Morning Jacket – Right from the get-go, when I first heard this song, with the catchy, swirling guitar lead-in and uplifting group harmonies, I knew I needed to hear it again and again. Although I wasn’t won over as easily by everything on the new record, Evil Urges, this one is gorgeous. A little on the raucous side for a morning tune, admittedly, but sometimes it takes more than a brisk walk and coffee to crank up the motor.
And that’s the point, I suppose. So, give a listen to these songs, which I hope will keep you entertained, engaged, and productive, for at least the first hour of your day.
Let me know what you think of my choices. Anyone else have any songs they like to hear first thing in the morning?