May Mix by Benjamin Hale

[audio:|titles=EL May Mix by Benjamin Hale]

This is a mix of songs that mean a great deal to me and songs that I just happen to have been listening to lately. I tried to arrange them in an order that kind of makes sense. Enjoy.

1. I Put a Spell on You — Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

As sexy and terrifying as a werewolf. There’s something chilling about the dark sparseness of this song: behind the understated rhythm and horns, the background is black and empty as the void, framing and isolating Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ absolutely psychotic voice. This song was banned from radio when it was released in 1956 — for no clear reason other than that it sounds like he wants to eat you alive: “I don’t care if you don’t want me — I’m yours.”

2. Baby, I Go For You — The Blue Rondos

There are a lot of interesting things to say about Joe Meek. One could mention his paranoia, his depression, the fact that he was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in England, or that he went out in an iniquitous blaze, killing his landlady and then himself with a shotgun. But what I think is one of the most interesting facts about Joe Meek is that technically, he knew nothing about music. He couldn’t play any instrument or read musical notation, and was clinically tone-deaf. And yet, he produced some of the most electric and alive tracks of the mod era. You can almost hear his tone-deafness in the odd mismatched-ness of his production choices, the way the sounds slightly grind and grate against each other. I love it.

3. Evil Son — The Coachwhips

If Joanna Newsom were a dainty hand-embroidered purse you could buy on Etsy from a cute girl with bangs, the Coachwhips would be a flapping bloody trash bag stuck on a metal fence. John Dwyer, genius, now spearheads Thee Oh Sees, also magnificent, but the Coachwhips was my favorite of his several bands that roll around in the filth-spattered genre of cacophonic apocalyptic garage noise punk whatever you want to call it. Someone once said the Coachwhips “make the White Stripes sound like they were produced by Phil Spector.” This song is from their album, Bangers Versus Fuckers, which is a phrase I like better than Rhythm of the Saints.

4. Good Woman Blues — Leroy Carr

Okay, so most of these ancient blues songs pretty much sound alike. The joy is mostly in the lyrics. Leroy Carr had an almost gentlemanly image: a soft, smooth voice and a relaxed, swaggering style of playing piano. This song includes my favorite alpha-male bragging I’ve ever heard in a blues song: “I got so many women / that I don’t care when one dies.”

5. Divorce Song — Liz Phair

“Just to prove I was right / that it’s harder to be friends than lovers / and you shouldn’t try to mix the two / ’cause if you do and you’re still unhappy / then you know that the problem is you.” That’s how I’ll take my truth about relationships: depressing and hilarious.

6. The Well — Bill Callahan

“I guess everybody has their thing / that they yell into a well. / I gave it a couple ’a hoots, a hello, and a fuck all y’all.” This song forever changed what I will yell into old abandoned wells from now on.

7. A Minha Menina — Os Mutantes
Please turn this up as loud as you can and dance to it.

8. Motherless Children — Lucinda Williams

There’s nothing I can say about this that’s not already there.

9. Israelites — Desmond Dekker

This song is deeply important to me for reasons that are too personal to explore in this forum. Still, here it is.

10. Dead — They Might Be Giants

“Either I’m dead I’ve already done all the things that I want / or I’m still alive and there’s just nothing I want to do.” They Might Be Giants’ Flood was the first album ever owned by many, many nerds of my generation.

11. Full Grown — The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

If I were the provost of a university, I would award Jon Spencer an honorary doctorate in Kick-fucking-assology. Or some sort of lifetime achievement award. From Shithaus to Pussy Galore to Boss Hog to the Blues Explosion to Heavy Trash, he’s been not taking himself at all seriously for, incredibly, about twenty-five years.

12. Boss Lady — The Detroit Cobras

The best blurb in history is the one Dylan Thomas gave for Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds: “This is just the book to give your sister, if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” That’s how I imagine The Detroit Cobras’ Rachel Nagy. I don’t know if I’d rather have sex with this woman’s voice or stay up all night drinking with it.

13. # 1 Hit Jam — The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Anton Newcombe is a deeply flawed genius. The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s music is a trippy, heady swirl of psychedelia, folk and 60s revivalism with a mean, unsettling darkness beneath it. They don’t need any more lyrics than “Hey, you,” repeated over and over to revel in pathos.

14. Easy Rider — Odetta

The recently-deceased Odetta had a powerhouse voice that she used to breathe fire into all the old folk and blues songs she recorded.

15. You Can Tell the Truth, Now — The Dutchess and the Duke — 3:39

This album — She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke — I started listening to obsessively about a year ago. I seem to be genetically programmed to love songs featuring rough, scratchy male lead vocals offset by achingly sweet female backup vocals. It reminds me of gypsy-cowboy-era Bob Dylan dueting with Emmylou Harris on Desire, which is defensively my favorite Dylan album. I also love this band’s awesomely, moronically misspelled name (it’s “duchess”), and the almost Yogi Berra-like redundancy of this song’s opening line: “I see that girl you finally made the papers / your obituary said you died.” It … would, wouldn’t it? But seriously, something about this song nearly makes me cry.

16. Black Girls — The Violent Femmes

The character I imagine voicing most of the Violent Femmes’ songs — who may or may not overlap in reality with Gordon Gano — is a sniveling, lecherous, cowardly, spiteful, childish, greedy, pansexual pervert with an id like a bathtub full of snakes and broken toys. A self-tortured, sickly, dauphin-like weakling whose misogyny and misanthropy come from a bitter and probably unfounded sense of world-woundedness. He’s somewhere in the same area of my consciousness as R. Crumb, Richard III, the Marquis de Sade and Gollum. I love this hilarious wretch.

17. Animals — Talking Heads

My summary of Talking Heads: Paranoia you can dance to. “I know the animals are laughing at us…” Is this song about man’s relationship to nature?

18. 1970 — Iggy and the Stooges

Listen for the moment when the sax kicks in well past the half-way mark. This is music to destroy the world to.

19. Moanin’ — Lead Belly

Fall to your knees, sinner. Sometimes words just get in the way. This inarticulate minute is one of the most emotional pieces of music I know.

20. T.B. Sheets — Van Morrison

I have seriously entertained the thought that if I ever have a son, I might name him “Van,” after Van Morrison. This would make his name “Van Hale,” which would be kind of hilarious. Astral Weeks means more to me than any other piece of recorded music, but this is a mix, and any song on that album would suffer somewhat out of context. T.B. Sheets was recorded after the end of Morrison’s first band, Them, and before Astral Weeks. It wound up as one of a mismatched jumble of songs cobbled into an album to fulfill a recording contract, given the embarrassing title, Van Morrison: Blowin’ Your Mind. Against a shuffling, ditch-deep groove, a finger-snapping backbeat and a Hammond organ that all together sound like a lounge act for end times, the song’s speaker half-sings and half-speaks a rambling, quasi-improvised monologue about a man visiting the sickbed of a young girl dying of tuberculosis. He is by turns falsely optimistic, ineffectual, guilty, disgusted, and disgusted with himself for his disgust. In my mind, the speaker is the girl’s former lover, though that’s an exegetical reading. This is a song that looks into the void. Supposedly, after recording it, Morrison dissolved into tears and was unable to finish the session. Whether or not that’s true, I find it easy to believe — the harrowing emotional intensity in his voice is as naked and unapologetically genuine as death.

–Benjamin Hale is the author of the novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. He grew up in Colorado and now lives in New York.

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Need more?

April Mix by Fiona Maazel

March Mix by J. Robert Lennon

February Mix by EL Staff

Image: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

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