June 30, 2010


Douglas Martin puts on for his city.


The physical climate of the Pacific Northwest is grossly over-dramatized. I mean, sure dark grey clouds waft through the sky approximately 180 days out of the year, and sure we wear flannel year-round and keep umbrellas in our cars like gangbangers keep handguns in theirs. But look outside of your window right now. The sun is probably beaming down on everything in sight. It’s probably 85 degrees in the shade. Kids are probably riding their bikes and wearing shorts. And where the hell are you? Inside. On the internet reading this very post. What’s wrong with you? IT’S SUNNY OUTSIDE. The one thing Northwesterners can say about themselves is that we never take good weather for granted; any temperature higher than 65 is considered t-shirt weather. We eat our granola and organic yogurt and take in the scenic beauty from our porches and patios every chance we get. When we see the blue skies and evergreen trees come together to make a picturesque scene, it’s something that makes our summers worth being mostly dumped on with precipitation. The following is a mix that exclusively consists of Northwest artists, compiled to create the aural equivalent of the summers this lovely region has to offer.

01. Eat Skull- “Oregon Dreaming”
Being a resident of the Seattle area for the past eleven years, my experiences in taking trips to Portland has always involved going southbound via Amtrak, passing through vaguely dumpy cities such as Chehalis and Centrailia. Whenever I listen to “Oregon Dreaming”, with its blurry synths way too high in the mix and completely overpowering the jaunty folk-rock track underneath, it sounds like what I’d imagine driving north to Portland would be like: The full, vivid allure of forestry; trees as tall as the eye can see stretching toward the sky.

02. The Builders and the Butchers- “Find Me in the Air”
Upon arriving in Portland, it would not be uncommon to find The Builders and the Butchers– a band that would sound similar to The Decemberists if Colin Meloy took a sudden, peculiar interest in Gothic Americana and Southern Baptist hyms– playing outside of the venue, sans amplifiers or, um, electricity in general. Just an acoustic guitar, maybe a drum, and a whole bunch of voices floating throughout the streets.

03. The Microphones- “Karl Blau”
If you’re not from the Northwest, it wouldn’t be too surprising if you knew nothing about the namesake of this affecting doo-wop ballad, which has the crispness of a Northwest summer twilight, just as the nighttime breeze sets in. Blau is best-known in the fringes of the underground music scene for his recent solo records and his work with Microphones head Phil Elvrum, but do yourself a favor and seek out D+’s self-titled record (or the equally-excellent Deception Pass) for a more well-rounded course on the severely undervalued Northwest Indie stalwart.

04. Modest Mouse- “Wild Packs of Family Dogs”
If you’re not from the Northwest, or not from underneath a rock, it would completely baffling if you’ve never heard of Modest Mouse. From the band’s classic major-label debut, The Moon and Antarctica, frontman Isaac Brock predates his Ugly Casanova project with this accordion-bolstered folk tune, which evokes the backwoods of the region in blinding light: Wild dogs come into the yard and dad shoots them. The family dog runs away with the wild dogs. Wild dogs take sister and might have eaten her. Mom shows affection to the other siblings over sister’s loss. By the time the credibility of dad leaving his job is questioned, Brock settles in on karma, one of his favorite lyrical themes. They will receive their rewards.

05. Au- “Two Seasons”
The resplendent guitar line and vocal harmonies that open this ballad is the perfect audio equivalent of the quiet hour right before sunrise, right before the orange and pink tones are cast over the sky above the evergreens. Chimes twinkle throughout the first half of the song, which kind of represents the stars still in the sky as the sun’s rising. Sunsets, no matter where you live, are often challenged by the hustle and bustle of cars with their headlights on and people walking around. Hardly anyone’s awake at sunrise, which makes it far easier to take everything in.

06. Sleater-Kinney- “Wilderness”
Lake Chelan, which is namedropped in the first line of “Wilderness”, is the largest natural lake in Washington, and a travel destination for many Northwest residents. “Wilderness” is also a critique of sorts of the region: “Winters are grey, and so are the dreams” is countered by a couplet from the second verse, which directly alludes to the city of Portland and its reputation as a mecca for hipsters: “Move to a place where hippies run wild/Everything’s white, now so are the smiles.”

07. Pedro the Lion- “Progress”
The music of sorely-missed Seattle band Pedro the Lion is perfect for a balmy, depressing late-afternoon in the summer, with its downcast chords and revealing chorus: “Your father drank a little/You’re on liver number two”. Crack that window open, take the six-pack out of the fridge, and drown yourself in your sorrows.

08. Screaming Trees- “Look at You”
“When I look at you, I got a second chance/Really need to have you now”, Mark Lanegan sings in his whiskey-damaged voice, as a reminder of all of those past summer flings, which could have amounted to so much more if you would have let them. “One-by-one, it always breaks me down.”

09. Gun Outfit- “The Valley”
For many folks in the Northwest, the Sasquatch! Music Festival, which takes place every Memorial Day Weekend, is the official start of summer. “The Valley”, an almost-ballad from Olympia band Gun Outfit, is like a lazy drive through Yakima Valley on your way to The Gorge, with its foothills covered in sagebrush and two-lane highways.

10. The Intelligence- “Thank You God for Fixing the Tape Machine”
The third verse of this four-on-the-floor stomper, which sounds like a boozy summer night out on a bar crawl that only consists of complete dives, could either be taken as the endlessly-stereotyped cynicism of Seattle residents or a quite literal account from the point of view of the city’s homeless population: “I don’t mind sifting through trash/Everything is just trash.”

11. Soundgarden- “4th of July”
The summer before my junior year of high school, in the archetypal suburban neighborhood of Northeast Tacoma, I went to my best friend’s house. Native Americans lived in his cul-de-sac, so it was pretty much a given that they’d be shooting fireworks. And shooting off fireworks they were. I’m talking thousands of dollars worth, near-professional-grade shit. Sparks flew throughout the night sky as all of us– including friends, neighbors, and people from other blocks wondering about the noise– watched on in amazement. Then, a firework shot the wrong way. Then another. By the time any of my friends knew what was going on, my best friend’s tree was on fire. People were ducking for cover. I tried to find shelter underneath my best friend’s car, only to find that he was already cowering underneath. The cops came. The mother of another friend got hit in the face with a firework. It was complete chaos, total insanity. And it was unquestionably the most memorable summer moment of my life. If I had to describe the scene using only a song, this would be it. It’s only coincidence that the song’s title is the date of this scene.

12. Elliott Smith- “Alameda”
It’s no secret that quite a few of Elliott Smith’s best songs specifically reference Portland in some way. There’s “Division Day”, there’s “Rose Parade”, and there’s this. Alameda is a neighborhood in Portland, and this song sounds more or less how the neighborhood looks: Pretty and low-key with an underlying air of sadness.

13. Jake One- “Big Homie Style”
Before launching into his verse, Seattle rapper J. Pinder gets a quick feel for the beat and then intones, “Sounds like it’s raining.” And it does; the crackle of dusty vinyl that provides the background for the piano-led beat sounds like you’re walking down MLK with a light summer sprinkle trickling down on everything in sight. It sounds like you’re in the wrong part of town, and you need to get to wherever the hell you’re going in a hurry.

14. J. Tillman- “James Blues”
Whereas “Big Homie Style” is augmented with the aforementioned crackle, “James Blues”, from Seattle singer/songwriter (more recently known as the drummer for Fleet Foxes) J. Tillman is crystal clear melancholy, sounding a lot like a long bus ride through the gorgeous streets of Ballard, with a flask in your pocket, scotch on your breath, and home on your mind.

15. The Decemberists- “Record Year”
Talking about the weather is the thread that brings a lot of Northwesterners together, and if you’re not originally from around here, you’d probably think that every year would be a record year for rainfall.

16. The Mountain Goats- “Against Pollution”
John Darnielle is not a Northwest native. John Darnielle is not currently a Northwest resident. However, We Shall All Be Healed has been explicitly declared by Darnielle as a document of when he lived in Portland and was strung out on methamphetamines. And although he wonders how the metal on his window panel gets rusty because it never rains wherever he is, the title “Against Pollution” could be a comment on the eco-friendly nature of the Northwest, and the way he directly and calmly sings about shooting someone in the face at a liquor store, his lack of theatrics truly represent the Northwest in all its downcast glory.

17. Damien Jurado- “Cloudy Shoes”
There is something triumphant about “Cloudy Shoes”, something that– despite its wall-of-sound haze carrying the resemblance of a day where it’s raining cats and dogs– makes it sound like a homecoming. The redemptive nature reminds me of what it’s like to fly into SeaTac International Airport after spending a fair portion of time out of town. It doesn’t matter if it’s pissing rain outside. It doesn’t matter that the skies are hopelessly grey. It doesn’t matter, because I’m home. I’m home.

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