Music Monday: Songs for an Elevated Train

If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that I am a huge transit geek. (One reader that knows this especially is my friend Kimberly Young – hey Kim! – who once had to observe David Blanco and I – what’s up David? – talk about the Second Avenue Subway, among other things, for a good 45 minutes.) There’s something nostalgic and simply beautiful in going on a train or a bus from one place to another, to have been walking in one part of town and in a matter of minutes be somewhere completely different. Further, I’m always fascinated and enchanted by elevated trains – be it commuter rail like the Long Island Rail Road or elevated subways like the 7 train – shooting out of the ground and toddling along to its destination. For weeks I’ve been meaning to make a music playlist to accompany a trip on the LIRR to Rosedale or on the 7 to Flushing or on a train to Coney Island, or to allow myself to envision going on the train, and I finally got around to it last week. In lieu of putting YouTube videos up for all 22 songs on the playlist, I’ll just link to the songs via a playlist of the songs on YouTube.

Part 1: Ephemerally Underground

For the part of the ride that is heading through the tunnel on the way to the great outdoors. The underground sections kinda suck, on the one hand, but on the other it’s a way to look forward to what’s to come, and I tried to set that mood with the first three songs.

“Good” – Good Old War, from Good Old War

The short, jaunty little opening to Good Old War’s self-titled album sets the scene well as a happy little prologue.

“Oh No” – Andrew Bird, from Noble Beast

Such a pretty opening to this song, probably my favorite Andrew Bird track – great to whistle and sing along to.

“Island In The Sun” – Weezer, from The Green Album

See here for my discussion on this song.

Part 2: Shooting Out and Tottering Along (The Summerteeth Section)

Frankly, I’m glad I got out of the way with Wilco fairly quickly (and more or less all from the same album, which is a little odd), but this is probably the perfect set of songs for the first part of the outdoor journey. As the train click-clacks along the elevated track and, in my case, Manhattan goes further and further into the background, I love listening to these three.

“She’s a Jar” – Wilco, from Summerteeth

Whenever I hear this song, I think of trains – largely ’cause of the lines, “just climb aboard the tracks of a train’s arm, in my fragile family tree,/and watch me floating inches above the people underneath” – and I imagine myself floating above the ground. The music really meshes well with the ambient noise, too. Discounting the salute to domestic violence in the final line (which was really the result of the rough patch Jeff Tweedy had with his wife when recording this album), it’s the crown jewel of the playlist.

“Pieholden Suite” – Wilco, from Summerteeth

This is kind of three songs in one (when you include that final marching band sequence in the final part – hence “Suite”), but it’s got a similar airy, floating feel to it compared to “She’s a Jar,” which is why I put them together.

“Via Chicago” – Wilco, from Kicking Television

Now, why the live from Chicago version from Kicking Television rather than the album version? This one, for the most part, is more stripped down than the studio version, beginning with just Tweedy on guitar, then with Nels Cline (making his debut on a Wilco recording, along with Pat Sansone of The Autumn Defense) on electric guitar, and then the rest of the band kicking in. The second reason why is that you’ve got that chaos section in the last couple of verses, which replaces the feedback found on the studio version of the song which makes it sounds like a proto-YHF track.

Part 3: Short Lull

Now we get to the more plaintive songs and then pick up again. I’m thinking this is for that space between Woodside and Jamaica on the LIRR where you’re just in motion, not stopping anywhere, just going through Queens.

“Gravity” – John Mayer, from Continuum

Wrote about this song as part of my discussion of Continuum here and here.

“Modern Man” – Arcade Fire, from The Suburbs

Wrote a bit about this song here, but in this case, it’s largely for the opening of the song than the rest of it.

“First Love” – ADELE, from 19

This is less for the lyrics and more for the music-box like melody, which is nice. Adele as usual is remarkable here vocally.

“Souverian” – Andrew Bird, from Noble Beast

It’s a seven-minute song, but it provides a transition from the kind of sad to the happier music to come. Also the best whistling portion of Noble Beast by far.

Part 4: Standard Traveling Music

These songs work well for a bus, or a train, anything really.

“Theme to Monk” – Jeff Beal

I’ve loved this theme song for a while, as noted here. The one I’ve got is the extended version, which is a bit superfluous, but still fun.

“The Library” – from James Horner’s Field of Dreams soundtrack

This is one of my three favorite tracks on the Field of Dreams soundtrack (which is one of my favorite movie soundtracks – but that’s another post entirely), and I’m surprised it’s not used more often as traveling music in movies and whatnot.

“M79” – Vampire Weekend, from Vampire Weekend

Much like “Gravity,” I wrote about “M79” a tiny bit as part of my Top 5 Favorite Albums post, and it continues to impress. While it’s not the standard “standard traveling music,” it does fit, especially considering it is about a bus line.

(By the way, the phrase “Much Like Gravity” sounds like a great band name.)

Part 5: Stretching Further Out

For most trips this would be the end portion of the playlist – hence Part 6 as a sort of appendix, an encore – but this is as you go further and further into suburbia and the City is barely visible from the great heights of the track, if at all.

“Moon Over Goldsboro” – The Mountain Goats, from Get Lonely

The first of the suburban songs on the playlist, it talks about high school football and sounds like a story of traveling – as does a whole lot of songs John Darnielle has written.

“International Small Arms Traffic Blues” – The Mountain Goats, from Tallahassee

It’s a slow, low-key song, much like every song on Tallahassee not named “Oceanographer’s Choice” (though “Alpha Rats Nest” is faster – great album on the whole, by the way). It also has the most hilariously hipsterish line in a song, “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania,” beating out our previous pole-sitter, “spilled kefir on your keffiyah” from Vampire Weekend’s song “Campus”.

“Post-War” – M. Ward, from Post-War

Again, a low-key but not terribly plaintive song, which somewhat oddly provides a prelude on Post-War for the more upbeat songs “Requiem,” “Chinese Translation,” and “Magic Trick,” filled with nostalgia, both melodically and lyrically.

“Brothers on a Hotel Bed” – Death Cab for Cutie, from Plans

Yeah, I put a Death Cab for Cutie song on here, which is lets you know that it’s the kinda sad, kinda whiny portion of the playlist. But the opening piano bit (which Nerdfighters should notice as the opening to Brotherhood 2.0 videos) is fantastic.

“Shangri-La” – M. Ward, from Hold Time

Originally I had the title song from Hold Time in this slot, but I’ve gained newfound appreciation for “Shangri-La,” itself a traveling song but of a much more spiritual variety (honestly, M. Ward is probably the most Christian non-Christian music singer around right now. And yes, that includes Lady Gaga, no matter what she says. In any case, I’ve always had a soft spot for spiritual and gospel music, even though I’m Jewish). This should be as you’re pulling into your destination, get off the train, and head down the stairs to the endpoint – be it your old hometown, your new hometown, or just a general place, whether it has a place in your heart or not).

Part 6: For Longer Trips

This is for when you’re going out to Bellmore or Stony Brook or something (I pick those two stations for reasons obvious to the people it’s obvious to) and need the extra ten minutes worth of music. I basically picked a theme of

“Islands” – The xx, from XX

XX is an album you should listen to. “Islands” is my favorite song from it – really the only one that sticks out. It’s got this smooth sound to it, especially from male vocalist Oliver Sim (who I enjoy as a vocalist a lot more than Romy Croft, though she’s certainly got talent), and while thematically it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb here, I still enjoy its presence.

“The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (Continued)” – Arcade Fire, from The Suburbs

You should’ve known I was going to get to this binary system here eventually. I saved it for near the very end, when the City is an afterthought and the train and cars are the only way to get around. And while the whole album describes it perfectly, it’s kind of crystallized here (though not as well as I hoped, as written here).

“My Yard” – Jamie Cullum, from Catching Tales

This song basically describes home to me. Generally I’m just sitting around enjoying life around the house, much like Cullum in his titular yard.

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