The Sidewalk Soundtrack: Summertime, in Quintessence

The summer album revered.

It’s the end of June and summer weeps with heat, with promise. I sense its lachrymal brook coursing through my veins and corpuscles, settling in those final minute vessels that have yet to be named. It feels like joy. Joy to be out of school. Joy to have time to read and write and make iced tea and breathe.

I used to hate summer because it stood for all my fears. Too many bug-eyed bugs and razor-beaked birds. I was afraid of travel, the prospect of long roadtrips on winding black highways that practically slithered in bad juju. For me, summer had its own evil eyes and claws. It was hard and coppery, portentous of death and disease.

Now that I have escaped old anxieties, much has changed. The harsh dividing lines between seasons have blurred — winter no longer serves as a stretch of frozen comfort and summer is no longer a time of dread. I have learned to cherish this sultry season, in fact, with its buzzing beetles, dragging blossoms, and musk of chlorine and honeycomb.

Even before this significant personal triumph, however, I was familiar with the concept of the summer album. It didn’t originate with me, I am sure, but I felt it in my bones just the same. The idea falls in with the art of creating memories.

A memory is a sensory snapshot, so we’ve been told. Many people remember their holidays by smell — pumpkin pulp and burning leaves for Halloween, roasting turkey for Thanksgiving, the pungence of pine needles for Christmas. Some sort their history of lovers by touch, a private filing system for hair texture, body warmth, the firmness of a kiss. In other instances, sound is key. My summer memories, for example, come with music notes attached.

I recall the summer I spent in bed heartsick over a boy with soft, ginger-colored hair and a penchant for spreading misery. Naturally, this was before I overcame my aestival aversion. All that summer, I listened to Liz Phair‘s Girlysound collection, a set of underground material that she recorded in her own bedroom on a 4-track. As Liz strummed and warbled confessional campfire songs about love and rejection (often with dirty words thrown in), I memorized the patterns of light on the ceiling. And all the lyrics. I rose only to flip the tapes.

While the pain of that episode is no longer applicable, putting Girlysound into the deck is enough to transport me back to that particular time, that particular place. This is what makes a summer album — when music and the moment become inextricable in a way that enhances them both and gives them value. There are a few floating principles that govern the establishment of such an album, but only one is hard and true: a summer album changes you.

It’s difficult to pinpoint distinguishing features. I have experienced many different types of summer albums, works that range from dense and heady to popaliciously delightful, from intense and personal to bright and festive. In recent years, Belle and Sebastian, Wyclef Jean, Modest Mouse, and The Microphones have made my summer with certain releases. I’ve listened to each alone, with friends, at parties, in cars, on my way to sleep …

They shape those many warm seasons past into lovely ornamental blocks of memory. Each is distinct and precious. Some were stumbled upon, some were hand-selected. Release date was and is nonessential. The important thing is that the albums defined who I was for a summer: I can remember and therefore the time wasn’t wasted. There will be no gaps in my archives.

Lately, I’ve been auditioning new summer albums, ones to match my blithesome mood now that I’ve been freed from the fetters of public education, albeit temporarily. The Mountain Goats seem to be filling the role handsomely with All Hail West Texas, though any of their albums would do at the present. John Darnielle, lead Goat and frequent contributor to Magnet (a music magazine that actually doesn’t make me wanna punch someone), is one of the most consistently interesting songwriters I have come across in a while.

I discovered the Mountain Goats a couple years ago when I picked up Nine Black Poppies on a whim. The first track, “Cubs in Five,” knocked my socks off with its cleverness. Accompanied by someone strumming the hell out of a guitar (perhaps himself), Darnielle makes nasally affirmations like “The stars are gonna spell out the answer to tomorrow’s crossword/And the Philips corporation will admit that they’ve made an awful mistake/And Bill Gates will singlehandedly spearhead the Heaven 17 revival.” In a time when reviewers get their jollies by dashing out buzz modifiers and layering on the prefixes, one might whisper “folk-punk.” But that would be too limiting.

Now with their more recent offering All Hail West Texas in rotation, I perceive the contours of June becoming better defined, the colors intensifying. I was reaching for a low-key adventure, a party of paper flowers and lanterns strung between deck beams, of flashing smiles and bare feet. I get this sense as I listen to songs like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” “Color in Your Cheeks,” and “Pink and Blue.”

The charm of the album centers on its stripped-down nature. The crackle and fuzz of antiquated recording equipment accompanies each of the 14 songs in a manner that compliments rather than detracts from their energy. It’s as if Darnielle is performing just for you and a handful of friends in his basement. It’s as if the songs are about you.

The rustic quality of the production pairs well with the down-home imagery presented throughout the album. Lyrically, All Hail West Texas welds winsome narratives with flourishes of local color. “Fault Lines,” my favorite example, tells the story of a romance between irredeemable spendthrifts. Darnielle, as plaintive male counterpart, cites their weaknesses — a “cracked engine block” and “termites in the framework” — as the root of decay in the relationship.

“Riches and Wonders” could be a different tack on the same affair. It illustrates the affectionate moments of a couple (“We write letters to each other/Invent secrets to confess to”), punctuating them with reference to their long history: “We show great loyalty to the hard times we have been through.” Such notions of love, history, and home permeate the album.

Aside from the intimacy and the skillful yarn-spinning, what really draws me to this effort from the Mountain Goats is that it functions on many levels. I listen to it as I write, the delicate but driving acoustic silhouettes serving as perfect background music. It also obviously holds up under greater scrutiny; the detailed vignettes provided on each track could be bedtime stories, conversation pieces, mix material. There are possibilities inherent in this album.

My decision — my choice of summer record 2002 — is tentative. Perhaps All Hail West Texas won’t last through July, August, the measureless ticks of my memory timeline. Perhaps it will be a fraction of something greater — a span of albums for all seasons. Whatever the case, I carry on willfully filling in the details of my life, giving it substance.

And for the moment, things are just swell. The stars are out, the fireflies aglow, the heat is almost bearable. I think I’ll go pour myself a glass of lemonade.

Article © 2002 by Sarah David