Life, One Song at a Time: “New Summer Mix 1999”

The Great Mixtape Project, Volume 4

The summer of 1999 was one of great upheaval. I’d just moved to Harrisburg, PA, from suburban Philadelphia to embark on what eventually became a decade-and-a-half stint as a reporter covering Pennsylvania politics and government.

I was living in a pretty anonymous apartment complex on the outskirts of Harrisburg. And while work was rewarding, I was strapped for cash and having a hard time making new friends. Music, again, became a refuge: I buried myself in my CD collection — this was the pre-download age, after all — and looked for meaning in the sunshiney guitars that populate this mix.

(Although I didn’t know it at the time — respite, in the form of a new love and new challenges — was just around the corner. But that’s a tale for another cassette.)

A few highlights:

1. “Flesh Number One (Beatle-Dennis)” – Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

If there’s a guy who has an easier way of matching a pretty melody against a quirky lyric than the onetime Soft Boy and confirmed cult legend, I’ve yet to find him. This one comes from a greatest hit compilation I acquired after signing up for a subscription CD club. (Anyone remember those?) The chiming guitar figure at the opening will stick in your head for days.

And if you can find it, there’s a hilarious Counting Crows cover where singer Adam Duritz, already gifted with the mother-of-all-nasally-whines, tries to mimic Hitchcock’s very English diction. The band’s guitar players also have a bit of trouble lining up the arpeggio in the intro against a strummed acoustic guitar. It’s a reminder that all good music — whether heard or played — is always earned.

2. “Living with the Dreaming Body” – Poi Dog Pondering

I first became acquainted with the Chicago folk-rock collective with the decidedly Hawaiian name through one of my best friends in college. And after I moved to The Windy City in the late 1990s, they were well nigh inescapable. And while their studio records are really good, the Poi Dogs really shine as a live band. My favorite version of this song comes a live record from 1997 called “Liquid White Light.”

With its pennywhistles and jumpy melody, there’s something just so joyous. And when lead Poi Frank Orall sings “Robin’s in the metaphysical section,” I knew just what he meant. I spent years convinced I’d meet the girl of my dreams in a bookstore.

3. “Sleep the Clock Around” – Belle & Sebastian

Looking over these tracks, I realize I must have been going through a decidedly twee and indie phase. Yeah … I know, there are some among you who would argue that phase never ended.

4. “Thought That I Was Over You” – Jack Frost

Back in the 1990s, two of Australia’s great songwriters, Steve Kilbey of The Church and Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens teamed up to write two albums of catchy, droney, and spacey pop music.

The Church are best known on these shores for their 1988 tune “Under the Milky Way,” which spent about six or seven months as an MTV staple during my 18th year. The Go-Betweens — made up of McLennan and the gaunt Robert Forster — made absolutely gorgeous bittersweet pop for the best part of the 80s before going on hiatus (a Go-Be’s classic, “Lee Remick,” also features on this cassette, I’ve just realized). McLennan, who has a warm and easy voice, then made a series of gorgeous and thoroughly underappreciated solo records. One of them, 1995’s “Horsebreaker Star,” is one of my absolute favorite records of all time.

The Go-Betweens reconvened in 2001 for three fantastic records and enjoyed a second flowering as the songwriting team headed into late middle age. Sadly McLennan died suddenly in 2006 at the age of 48. God knows what kind of music he’d have made if he’d lived on.

The Church continues to record and tour, and I’ve seen them scores of times over the years. Their most recent LP, 2009’s “Untitled 23,” was one of their strongest.

5. “Everyday I Write the Book” – Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

As if this one needs any explaining. Jesus. Just listen to it.

Article © 2013 by John L. Micek