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Dieterich & Barnes – Out and About (2016)

Out and About is a subdivided racket, an orderly commotion. There’s something mathy about the way Deerhoof’s John Dieterich and A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s Jeremy Barnes manage their crazed sounds – something mathy and also something brazen, as if a conference for mathematicians and a festival of brass bands got booked into the same hotel. Imagine the lobby, overflowing with fanfares and calculations. Imagine the hotel bar, bandleaders and Nobel Prize-winners clinking glasses. It’s a screwed pop that seems inherited from old folk combos, sixties funk and psych, a late-nineties love of impetuous electric guitars. Pat your head, rub your belly; put on some Sly Stone at the same time as Vivaldi; force disparate forces to play together until they begin, oh-so-strangely, to sync up.

Julien Baker – Something (2015)

Why do we love sad songs? This “we” is particular – it is not everyone who does. You and I who love sad songs stand apart from the winners, idiots and bullies who have no time for the stuff. We wander around, sad songs in our ears, and the ones who don’t get it wonder, “Why do you do that to yourself? Why not listen to something happier? Why not listen to Bill Withers’s Lovely Day?”

There is a time and a place for Lovely Day. Other times, other places – even happy times, happy places – I reach for a song like Something, released last year, by a 21-year-old singer from Memphis, Tenn. Baker is an artist in the tradition of early Cat Power and Julie Doiron, Elliott Smith and Sharon Van Etten; if you love these artists, here is another. Baker murmurs and shouts. She plays an electric guitar, quietly. She sounds heartbroken. She sounds like her heart is broken and her whole life is spilling out. “I should have said something, something, something / I couldn’t find something / to say,” she begins. “So I just said nothing, nothing, nothing / Sat and watched you drive away.”

A sad song can be a salve or a reassurance. It can be a kind of kiss on the lips. Other times it is an anchor, sinking you. Be careful in those moments. Sometimes you don’t need an anchor but a sail.

Bill Withers – Lovely Day (1977)

When the day’s gone wrong, you’re allowed to turn it around. You’re permitted to pretend. You’re permitted to BS. You’re permitted to act as if the disaster’s a success story, the downpour’s all sunshine. You don’t have to: You can mourn, curse or wallow. But you’re allowed. Turn on Bill Withers, all loping bass and blooming horns. Turn on Lovely Day, all silken ease and strut. Turn a corner, turn a leaf. Or don’t. I don’t mind. It’s springtime at last, almost, and Bill’s here singing.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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