A Playlist of New Tunes for Quiet Moods (with a Touch of Attitude)

I’ve always liked the word quietude. I like the way it sounds. I like the way it feels when you say it, the way your mouth makes a series of quick shapes, from a pucker to a smile and back again.

I like the way the word sounds like it means — it’s a grander, more elegant way of saying “be quiet.” I also like quiescence for the same reasons (you gotta love those ancient, timeless Latinas), but quietude is a little stronger, a little more emphatic. It’s like quiet, but with a ‘tude (which is really attitude with a ‘tude).

Mainly I like quietude because it describes my normal state of being when I write “Scribbleskiff.” I don’t know what time of day you regularly read this (that’s the naive optimist in me, peeking out, believing you do read this gibberish and regularly, at a specific hour — you do, don’t you?), so I have no notion of your habitude: with a coffee cup in the early morning, on a rattling commuter train, over a salad plate at lunch, at your computer late at night, etc. But when I gibber it’s usually in the wee small hours (either morning or night) or during a lull in my day. At that time, my world is characterized by the mouth-shaping, antediluvian, presumptuous “state or condition of being calm or quiet.” Full of it, in fact, saturated with it, overwhelmed by it.

That is, except for the music. As I have written before (here, for instance), having some tunes playing while I work helps me focus and stay on task. And much of the new music I’ve lately been drawn to, picked up, and played has a grandiloquent air of tranquility about it. In other words, it too is ruled by quietude.

Have I mellowed in my middle age? I don’t think so; just the other day my tweenage son and nephew asked if I had heard “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” which is the theme song for “Whale Wars,” one of their favorite TV shows. Not only had I heard it, I could produce it on my iPhone, and we three proceeded to head-bang our way to soccer practice. Nonetheless, I can’t do my best work with pumpkins smashing and crashing loudly in my ears. I need something, well, mellower to accompany me.

So I recently pulled together a playlist of new songs that scream “calmness,” songs that are perfect for the time of day when you are seeking a little repose, some serenity or heartsease for the soul, etc. However, these songs are not intended to quieten or tranquilize anyone (that would be my “Songs of Somnolence” mix, a playlist for another state of mind). Some of the cuts for this week, in fact, border on being a little raucous — but that’s my subtle way of reminding you that, no matter how mellow the music may get, it’s still rock and roll to me.

Be sure to click on each of the links below to sample the songs (open each as a new tab or window), and then follow the threads to find out where you can download them. Or you can listen to the playlist in its entirety, though in a randomized order, at the Scribbleskiff page on the 8tracks Web site. Just click here, open as a new tab or window, and let the music play as you read along. Enjoy!

“Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song for New Orleans),” Alec Ounsworth, Mo Beauty. As the frontman for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Ounsworth’s singing style is an acquired taste for some (think bad Dylan impersonation). But this song, from his new solo release, is a good illustration of why I really like Ounsworth’s work. Beneath the edgy, flaky surface — just a softly fingered nylon-string guitar and piano duet — lies a deeply felt, sublime requiem for a post-Katrina Big Easy.

“The Field,” Mason Jennings, Blood of Man. This song is a fairly straightforward, lo-fi, guitar-based ballad about a lost loved one (a la Nebraska). But what makes it stand out from its predecessors, and what gives it its punch, is the way Jennings slowly builds tension by switching from a muffled, flattened strum to full-on ringing chords — yet never really lets it go. It’s an old trick, but it’s a hauntingly beautiful one, too.

“Infinity,” The XX, xx. It’s rare to hear song sampling used outside of rap or hip-hop. It’s even rarer when it’s handled with such sophistication. The sultry, reverb-laden guitar hook that forms this song’s backbone, and is what first caught my attention, comes straight out of Chris Isaak’s catalog. And yet it’s somehow catchier here, turning one man’s longing into a hypnotic-erotic, wicked game for the male-female vocalists.

“Everything Is Moving So Fast,” Great Lake Swimmers. Lost Channels. This song, by a young Canadian five-piece, has all the right folk-pop ingredients — breezy harmonies, smooth acoustic guitar-picking, brushed snare drums, and a slightly jazzy rhythm — to make you think (and hope) that a Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young and Joni Mitchell reunion/revival tour is not just a thing of the past.

“Hands,” The Dutchess & The Duke, Sunset/Sunrise. The psych-pop “royal couple” is back with a follow-up to their infectious self-titled release, a favorite of mine from 2008. They’ve retained their stripped-down, Beggars Banquet-era mood and mannerism, but filled out their sound a bit, with the addition of a few more instruments (such as an organ and a searing electric guitar lick on this track) and a knack for ending (or not ending) a song properly.

“Know Better Learn Faster,” Thao with The Get Down Stay Down, Know Better Learn Faster. Another one of my favorites from 2008, these guys make upbeat music with meaning but not a heavy hand. Returning with more learned, more intricate melodics — including Andrew Bird-supplied violins and whistling — they still manage to maintain the light touch that made songs like “Bag of Hammers” so instantly likable.

“Leap,” The Cave Singers,” Welcome Joy. I love the old-timey locomotion of this song, the way the circular guitar-picking seems to pick up speed when the snare drum snaps in, the bass begins to bounce, and the harmonica starts chugging. It’s like a countrified, cotton-eyed, foot-stomping sonic ride back to another time.

“Relator,” Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson, Break Up. This year’s indie-music “it” couple seems to relate surprisingly well together. This swinging, bluesy duet, which nimbly marries Johansson’s throaty vocals with Yorn’s urgent, slightly distorted guitar flare-ups, creates one of the happiest-sounding kiss-off songs I’ve heard in awhile. It (almost) makes me think I’m over last year’s movie-music power couple, She & Him. Almost.

“Pariah,” Natureboy, Natureboy. At the beginning, this song by Natureboy (the alias of Brooklyn-based artist Sara Kermanshahi) sounds like a clash between Chrissie Hynde and Neutral Milk Hotel. But eventually the wavering, plaintive vocals sync up with the rhythms of the strumming guitar, tambourines, hand-claps, and swelling keyboards, turning this from frazzled solipsism to folk-pop parity.

“Fake Blues,” Real Estate, Real Estate. Sometimes it’s hard to say why I like a song. Sometimes, I just like it. Like this one by a new-to-me N.J.-based foursome. Maybe it’s the simple construction — guitar, bass, drums — and solid harmonies. Or the way the repetitive guitar riff sounds like a cartoonish Japanese folk song. Or the fact that a tune this charming could be considered the blues, real or otherwise. Please, take a listen and tell me why I like it.

“Horchata,” Vampire Weekend, Contra. The indie-rock heroes (or heretics, depending on your perspective) are back with a new, free teaser (the new LP won’t be out till 2010). Although they’ve expanded their sound and instrumentation (for instance, eschewing guitars here in favor of kalimbas, marimbas, and the like), they’re still serving up the same frothy, world-pop-influenced concoctions that made them an Internet buzzword last year.

“Here to Fall,” Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs. I fell for this song almost at first listen, though I thought that, with its trilling violins, rat-a-tat snares, funky fuzz guitar lines, and spacey grooves (with waves of wah-wah pedal and synthesizers), it might be the theme for a kitschy 1970s-era cop show. But, not to worry, it’s just a love song. One that, once you listen to several times, you’ll be falling for, too — “what else is there for us to do?”

“Silver Amongst the Gold,” Grand Archives, Keep in Mind Frankenstein. Here’s a band whose name aptly describes its musicality: an oversized, opulent sound that feels like an old standby. Think a fizzy, dream-pop version of The Beach Boys, or a mash-up of ELO and Ride. Whatever you call it, the only thing more appealing than this buoyant, wispy song is the name the Seattle-based musicians gave to its album.

“Tin Man,” Animal Kingdom, Signs and Wonders. As power-pop bands go, these London-based newbies don’t stray too far from the familiar pathway cut by the likes of Coldplay or Snow Patrol. But what sets them apart here, aside from the wistful Steve Perry-like vocalist, is the way they wizardly spin heavy, reverb-laden guitar lines into an enchanting, heartfelt rock ballad.

“Fables,” The Dodos, Time to Die. Few bands could place the drummer in the foreground (in this case, a propulsive percussionist) to match the syncopated strumming of the guitar and still sound as loose and ebullient as, say, The Shins or Fleet Foxes. But this San Francisco-based trio keeps things simple (with the added exception of a vibraphone) and that’s the key to the creation of this bouncy, roomy romper.

“Rosalyn,” Thad Cockrell, To Be Loved. I’d never heard of Thad Cockrell before, but as soon as I’d played this song I felt like I’d heard his sound before. “Rosalyn” skirts along the country side of American roots-rock, with enough acoustic guitars, power chords, plucky banjo, and vocal twang to please fans of Ryan Adams or Caitlin Cary (with whom he has apparently shared the mic).

“I and Love and You,” The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You. I don’t normally care for piano-based rock and roll (blame it on Elton John or that guy from Long Island), but this slow-moving waltz is one of the loveliest songs (regardless of its base) that I’ve ever heard, and I couldn’t resist it. These N.C.-based siblings may sound a little old-school here (like The Band, but with more warmth and better harmonies), but sometimes that’s exactly the love that you and I need.

“For You,” Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers. OK, I’m being totally self-indulgent here (in a crucible of self-indulgence) but this is an old song I’ve enjoyed for decades that has finally become available on iTunes (as part of the omnibus collection Keep an Eye on the Sky). Big Star was an essential influence on many bands I admire. Now, with the aid of an iPod, I can follow Paul Westerberg’s advice and never travel far without a little Big Star. And, if you’ve gotten to this point, faithful reader, then I dedicate this song to you.

As always, tell us what you think. Is there a new band that you’d like others to know more about? What’s your favorite song of quietude? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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