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List ‘Em Carefully: A 16-Song Musical Tour of the USA

on April 07, 2010, 5:44pm

Next week, thousands of folks across the nation (and the globe) will trek out to Indio, CA for what promises to be one hell of a music festival: Coachella. For some, it’s a short afternoon ride. But for others, it’s one far out trip — metaphorically and literally. However, getting there is half the battle and if you’re smart, it’s less a battle and more an experience. That is, if you’re open to some creativity and an assortment of artists.

We love our country, and we love our music. Naturally, music about our great nation goes down quite smoothly. If it’s not Tom Waits’ throaty narrative, it’s Randy Newman’s sunny, cynical cadence. On the whole, it seems that every artist has something to say about the United States of America. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to find some perspective in the chaos. But lucky you, we’ve gathered our favorite tunes on the subject and provided a rough mixtape, if you will. If you’re coming from the East coast next week, you’ll have plenty of time to listen.

So climb aboard, for this trip will take you through the historic northeastern cities down to the Deep South, after which you’ll visit the quiet prairie states, make a brief stop in the southwest, and then end the tour in the nation’s biggest state, California.

Just where anyone would want to be come next week.

1. Sonic Youth – “Providence”

Founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, Providence is Rhode Island’s biggest city and a frequent stop by bands touring the east coast. In this track, from Sonic Youth’s aptly titled Daydream Nation, former Minuteman (the band, not the militia group) Mike Watt leaves Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore a phone message about something that might have been left behind in a previous city. Deeper metaphor maybe?

2. The Sex Pistols – “New York”

The Sex Pistols’ tribute to the “capital of the world” (and once capital of the U.S.A.) is surprisingly opaque. It makes the obligatory city-landmark references in the form of a brief nod to now non-existent club Max’s Kansas City, but overall the track has a hard time keeping its eye on the ball, instead exploding in generalized (dare I say generic) punk aggression. And the lyric “I think it’s swell playing in Japan/When everybody knows Japan is a dishpan”—huh?

3. Bruce Springsteen – “Atlantic City”

map1 List ‘Em Carefully: A 16 Song Musical Tour of the USA

Uncertainty in all aspects of life, except for the certainty of death, is the prevailing theme in Bruce Springsteen’s musical homage to the southern New Jersey city that inspired the board game Monopoly. In the tune he discusses the impact the introduction of gambling had on the city, and extends it as a metaphor for the implications of socioeconomic class disparity: “I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find/down here it’s just winners and losers/don’t get caught on the wrong side of the line.”

4. Randy Newman – “Baltimore”

Historically Baltimore, the largest city in my home state of Maryland, has had absurd crime rates, which have in turn taken an immeasurable but no doubt huge emotional toll on its residents (an interesting side note is that now former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who, along with the Baltimore Police Department, was able to reduce the homicide rate 17% in 2007-2008, was recently convicted of a misdemeanor stemming from taking gift cards intended for the city’s poor, although she escaped the felony charge). Newman does a fine job summoning this desperation in the lyrics of his song, which was famously covered by Nina Simone.

5. Chuck Berry – “Memphis”

The lyrics of Chuck Berry’s classic, oft-covered tune “Memphis” are as sad as those of Newman’s “Baltimore”, but in a much more personal sense: it begins with the narrator trying to return an important call placed to him from Memphis, and as the song unfolds it is revealed that trying to reach him is a young girl named Marie, his daughter. The narrator and Marie once lived in a “happy home,” but that has changed since they “were pulled apart because her mother did not agree.” Whether or not the track is based on a personal experience of Berry’s is an interesting question.

6. Attica Blues – “Atlanta”

map2oo List ‘Em Carefully: A 16 Song Musical Tour of the USA

This track, from DJ Shadow’s Mo’Wax label mate Attica Blues, finds the duo doing an intriguing job combining the metaphysical and the sociopolitical in their lyrics. It starts with a bit of pondering (“an idyllic island/calm and serene/untouched by civilizations uncivilized”) and then throws in imagery of urban plight (“homeboys closest to the foundations when lying in a box”). All this seems to suggest a back-to-back comparison of the lost island of Atlantis and the current city of Atlanta that doesn’t find the latter in good standing: “Morals rusting and decaying/Where is, where is Atlanta?”

You’ll have to scour the net for this one, folks.

7. Randy Newman – “Birmingham”

Finally, a cheerful account of life in an American city! Then again, knowing Newman it’s probably all mired in sarcasm (and its last line, when his narrator instructs a pet dog—the “meanest dog in Alabam’”—to “get ‘em” we have to wonder if he’s making a reference the city’s deplorable racial history). Let’s assume it isn’t, however: life in Birmingham is happy and simple for the song’s narrator. He’s got a wife, a family, a house with a pepper tree in the yard, and a factory job; just good old salt of the earth Americana.

8. Johnny Cash – “Jackson”

Besting even the Pogues’ lump-of-coal-in-the-stocking “Fairytale of New York” for the funniest, most vitriolic male-female duet is the classic Johnny Cash tune, “Jackson,” apparently written by popular songwriter Jerry Lieber after a viewing of Edward Albee’s domestic strife tale “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In the song, the couple “married in a fever,” but now that the flame has dwindled are trying their luck (and taking out their anger for one another) in the capital city of Mississippi, also its most populous. The husband tells the wife he’s going to mess around, she counters with “go comb your hair…see if I care,” he says “all them women gonna make me teach ‘em what they don’t know how,” she responds that he’ll surely end up embarrassing himself and come crying home. Brilliant.

9. Sex Mob – “New Orleans”

Sex Mob, one of the very best groups in the New York downtown jazz scene, lends their unique touch to this Hoagy Carmichael tune, a cut off their debut album Din of Inequity. New Orleans, the largest city in Louisiana, inspires the raw grooves, which do a good job of summoning the lyrics of the tune (among them is the wonderful line “it will remind you of old fashioned lace/a glass of wine will greet your smiling face). On a related note, Werner Herzog’s new film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is awesome and totally worth seeing.

10. Okkervil River – “Kansas City”

map435 List ‘Em Carefully: A 16 Song Musical Tour of the USA

Kansas City, which is actually the largest city in Missouri and lies across the border from the state of Kansas, is the setting for this tune that appeared on Okkervil River’s debut full-length. The song might be the bluesiest Okkervil River’s ever been, with their typically dark, romantic, emotional lyrics like this one: “With a day full of promises dead on her lips, Mark 15:34 tucked next to her hip, she wants to move to Kansas City”.

11. Tom Waits – “Johnsburg, Illinois”

This tune, which Waits named for a small Illinois town near the border of Wisconsin (population of only 5,391 at the 2000 census) and wrote for his wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan, is a love song, pure and simple. In it a boy pines for a girl, one whose picture can be found in his wallet and whose name is scrawled on his arm. Not much else to it.

12. Bon Iver – “Brackett, WI”

map3 List ‘Em Carefully: A 16 Song Musical Tour of the USA

A Google search of “Brackett Wisconsin” yields little information about the town, which is an unincorporated community in Wisconsin’s Eau Claire County, so we’re going to have to rely on the song Bon Iver wrote for this year’s Dark Was the Night compilation to shed a little light on the exploits of this small village in the western part of the state. My guess: Brackett is a cold, gray place where the change of the seasons has a tremendous effect on the emotional wellbeing of the inhabitants—take the lyric “…every autumn singes with the business of sadness,” for example.

13. The Golden Palominos – “Omaha”

Birthplace of such luminaries as Warren Buffett, Malcolm X, Gerald Ford and Marlon Brando, Omaha, Nebraska’s biggest city, is a place known for rain and comparatively low crime rates. What does this have to do with the tune by The Golden Palominos? It’s not entirely clear, but that may be because it’s difficult to tell what “Omaha” has to do with Omaha. The band, which at various times featured Feelies drummer Anton Fier, no wave genius Arto Lindsay, and MacArthur Fellow John Zorn (a personal hero), chants about friends over a synth-y groove. So I have no idea, but at least it’s fun.

14. Neil Young – “Albuquerque”

map4l List ‘Em Carefully: A 16 Song Musical Tour of the USA

In Dave Marsh’s 1975 review of the album on which “Albuquerque” appears, Tonight’s the Night, he makes an interesting remark that certainly applies to the track in question: “The stargazer of ‘Helpless’ finds no solace here. The music has a feeling of offhand, first-take crudity matched recently only by Blood on the Tracks, almost as though Young wanted us to miss its ultimate majesty in order to emphasize its ragged edge of desolation.” Look at the lyrics of the song and it’s clear that Young views Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, as an isolated solace from a tense existence; it’s “shelter from the storm,” if you will. Sings Young in that powerful voice of his, “I’ve been starving to be alone, and independent from the scene that I’ve known,” later delighting in the town’s anonymous simplicity: “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am/Oh, Albuquerque, Albuquerque.”

15. Tim Buckley – “Monterey”

My dad isn’t one for hyperbole, which makes his declaration that the best meal he ever had was at a restaurant in Monterey carry tremendous weight. Apparently that was the highest point in a trip full of them (one taken more than 20 years ago); he still raves about the northern California city and its food. That’s not Tim Buckley’s Monterey, however. Buckley’s Monterey is a city where a “dead airport lay…under a loop of stars in the vulgar cold” and he “run[s] with the damned…they have taught me to laugh.” Well, geez, Tim.

16. X – “Los Angeles”

map5 List ‘Em Carefully: A 16 Song Musical Tour of the USA

We’ve reached the end of our long journey, and in hindsight it’s clear: a pleasurable connection to a city rarely inspires a songwriter. It’s conflict, it’s pain, it’s a bitter taste on the tongue that drives one to express themselves through an artistic medium. This makes X’s classic tribute to the City of Angels, “Los Angeles”, the title track on their 1980 debut, a perfect send off. In the song, a girl decides to leave Los Angeles after being dismayed by the people living there—the “Mexican[s] that gave her lotta shit” and the “idle rich.” It’s the last bit of the lyrics that throws everything off, however, as it suggests that the city itself is hardly an enemy: “She found it hard to say goodbye to her own best friend/She bought a clock on Hollywood Boulevard the day she left/It felt sad/She had to get out.”