The songs of summer

Warm-weather music beyond Beyonce -- from dios, Walker Kong and David Mead. Plus: Some non-season-specific genius from Ryan Adams.

By Thomas Bartlett

Published May 12, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

I'm amazed by the music industry's ability to milk a hit album for all it's worth, carefully timing the release of singles to get the maximum impact from each song: Eleven months after the release of Beyoncé's "Dangerously in Love," "Naughty Girl" is near the top of the charts, and still climbing. And, along with Maroon 5's "This Love," it's probably my favorite big summer pop song so far this year --quite an achievement, considering that "Crazy in Love," taken from the same album, was practically the official song of summer 2003.

But since all of you have heard those songs far too many times, I've got some other good summer songs for you, ones that probably won't chart anytime soon -- from dios, Walker Kong and David Mead -- as well as a laid-back rock song from Ambulance LTD and some non-season-specific genius from Ryan Adams.

"Shadowlands" and "I See Monsters," Ryan Adams, from "Love Is Hell"
The usual line on Ryan Adams is that he's never come close to equaling the brilliance of his 2000 solo debut, "Heartbreaker." He's gotten a lot of negative press in the last few years, and while his sometimes bratty public persona can be irritating, I think the reputation is largely undeserved. Critics routinely accuse Adams of insincerity as a writer and performer, seemingly because he writes so effectively in so many different styles. But I think he's probably the best young songwriter around, and his unparalleled ability to synthesize the influences of those two giants of popular music, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, makes him an important artist. Versatile, prolific, able to churn out memorable melodies, charismatic and always just a little cheesy -- he's the Paul McCartney of his generation. And the largely ignored "Love Is Hell," released last year as two EPs and rereleased last week as an LP, might be his best album yet. These dark, lonely songs are his most complex and polished compositions, and the album sounds like is was obsessively worked and reworked into its current bejeweled state. I love this record so much that it was nearly impossible for me to pick just two tracks, let alone one. I've settled on the Beatles-y "I See Monsters," and the haunting piano ballad "Shadowlands," but I also recommend "Love Is Hell," "My Blue Mountain," "Wonderwall," "Hotel Chelsea Nights" ... Oh, just download the whole album. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Primitive (The Way I Treat You)," Ambulance Ltd., from "LP"
Young Brooklyn band Ambulance Ltd. is most often compared to shoegaze-y groups like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, but on this song they sound most like the Velvet Underground, whose droning walls of sound, whether created with a viola or with guitar feedback, might be the true root of shoegaze anyway. Singer Marcus Congleton recalls Lou Reed's drugged ennui, especially in the flat, bored, nonchalantly cruel delivery of the refrain, "Relax, don't think about the way I treat you." But it's that insistent, one-note piano part, over on the right side of the mix, that really makes the song for me. If you want more Ambulance Ltd., head to their Web page and grab another free download, "Stay Where You Are." Free download: "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)"

"Nashville," David Mead, from "Indiana"
Like his Nettwerk label mate Ron Sexsmith (and let me preface any criticism of Sexsmith by saying that I own every record he's released), David Mead sometimes flirts with brilliance, but more often than not ends up sounding dull. Both he and Sexsmith have beautiful, striking voices, but their songwriting (oddly, what Sexsmith is most renowned for) can be lifeless, hookless, generic singer-songwriter material. They both make records that drift by in an inconspicuous, pleasant haze. But when they're good, they're very good indeed. Sexsmith's recent "Retriever" just treads water, and Mead's new "Indiana" largely follows suit, but the opening track, "Nashville," is an exception. The arrangement and instrumentation (guitar, cello, piano and pedal steel, all swathed in entirely unnecessary reverb) are kind of cheesy, but with a melody like this, sung in Mead's breathtaking, Alex Chilton-esque voice, it doesn't matter. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Battleship of Thieves," Walker Kong, from "Transparent Life"
Summer is the time for power pop, and last summer brought brilliant offerings from the Pernice Brothers and the New Pornographers, among others. After a week of warm, sunny weather here in New York I felt the need for a summer driving song, and happily came across Walker Kong's "Battleship of Thieves," complete with "ooh-ooh-oohs" and horns on the chorus. Another excellent song from their recent "Transparent Things," "Halo Coming Down," is available for free on Walker Kong's Web site. It's not as catchy or summery as "Battleship of Thieves," but it's more unusual, with a heavy, hollow drum part, some Curtis Mayfield bass and string arrangements, and almost Bowie-esque vocals. I'm surprised I've never encountered the band before, because to judge by these two songs, they deserve wider attention -- but I'd probably be a sucker for any band from Minneapolis who tries this hard to sound British. Free download: "Battleship of Thieves"

"Starting Five," dios, from "dios"
The Beach Boys created the archetypal sound of summer, and the band dios, hailing from the Beach Boys' hometown of Hawthorne, Calif., has a full-fledged obsession with Brian Wilson and his crew. This track starts with the sound of kids playing outdoors, and includes an ingenious loop of twittering bird sounds, with a little whistled melody in the middle of it. There's a lovely, lazy shaker and tambourine rhythm, and, naturally, an "ooh-ooh-ooh" chorus. But like their idols, dios slyly inject some melancholy into the song, with the unexpected but welcome wistful minor harmonies in the chorus. Also, check out the lovely, folky "You Make Me Feel." Free download: "Starting Five"

Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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