October 21, 2016

Five Song Fridays: The Memory Palace

If there's one podcast most responsible for inspiring Song Exploder, it's The Memory Palace. Nate DiMeo's brief, poetic episodes showed me that with podcasts, as with songs, sometimes the best ones are also the shortest. Since then, I've been lucky enough to become friends with Nate, and we both brought our shows to the podcast network Radiotopia last June.

This month, Radiotopia is holding a fundraiser, where we ask our listeners if they want to be a part of the beautiful greenhouse where Song Exploder and The Memory Palace (and all the other Radiotopia shows) get to grow and flourish. If you do, please visit radiotopia.fm to see all of the great rewards that are available for donors, including a custom mixtape that I'll make just for you, and a VIP trip to Toronto to a live Song Exploder taping in November.

For this week's playlist, I asked Nate DiMeo to pick five songs that were related, in some way, to The Memory Palace. He chose five short songs, and he sent his choices along with this (short) essay. Listen to the playlist on Spotify or YouTube, and read Nate's words, below.

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Not long ago I clicked on some link. It might have been Stereogum? I think? Something I idly follow on Twitter and usually ignore. But on this day, the other day, I didn’t. I think it said something like “Katie Dey’s music sounds like the future.” And, I mean, I want to know what music in the future sounds like so I clicked the link and listened to her E.P.. It came out last year. And, if we’re being honest, it didn’t sound like the future. It sounded good. I liked it. But it sounded like an updated—technologically, aesthetically, whatever—Coco Rosie, which sounded a tiny bit like the future when I first heard Coco Rosie years ago. So here’s Katie Dey, sweet, obscure/obscured vocals run through some plug-in over some chords and beats that were smarter than those programmed by your average bear and things sound good, if not like the future per se, and then I hit the third track and am hurtled into the past.

The song is called “Unkillable.” It’s one minute and twenty-ish seconds of chiming clatter. All kinetic yearning, an exuberant scrambling for for some barely unattainable bliss. I’ve listened to it a gajillion times. I have nearly no idea what she’s saying—I spent weeks marveling at the line “through the tree-colored trees” only to realize it was something about “teen poetry” which is still good— but I know exactly what she’s singing. Been there, Katie. Been awhile, maybe. But been there, Katie.

And I say back to the past because it, in its concentrated, propulsive indie rock burst, it reminded me of a whole micro-genre of songs They Just Don’t Write [‘em] Like that Anymore: the super short, exhilarating rock song. Songs that aren’t fragments. Songs that get in and out, say everything they need to say—say things they can only say fast and sharp and short—in a couple of minutes.  

The true Madelaine here with Unkillable is a song by The Boo Radleys called “Lazy Day” from ‘92.

A near-couple of minutes of British, indie joy. The rare gleeful shoegaze song. A sudden break in the shooting blades of sunlight onto some rainswept moor.

The late 90’s were the heyday of this (ridiculous, tiny, non-genre) genre (only I care about). I could’ve pulled like a half-dozen Boyracer songs or Henry’s Dress songs that do the same thing.  And, some of this list here is just a momentary nostalgia wallow to which your sundry forty two-year-olds are prone, sure. But, listening to Unkillable then going down that particular Spotify/YouTube rabbit hole, (sending me careening, delightfully, to the forgotten-even-at-the-time “Collection” by Young People) has reminded me that I’m not sure I would do what I do for a living without these songs.

I am that most 2016 of things: a professional podcaster.  My show, The Memory Palace, are short history stories put to music. They’re sometimes ridiculously short. Lazy Day short. Unkillable short. And this impulse, this artistic drive to distill a story down to its emotional essence, to try to move people as much as possible in as short a time as possible, comes explicitly from my love for and enduring fascination with the short pop song and the way they can take transport you so far, so fast.

I once saw a punk rock show. It was at a UFCW hall in Goleta, California in 1994 or so. The bands played on the floor. It was the mode of the day. This band from Santa Cruz, kids my age, came out and played. They were called Portraits of Past. They were one of a dozen or so bands that played this screaming, emotionally vulnerable, super fucking fast and heavy version of hardcore that meant a lot to a tiny group of people.  They played a 12 minute set that may be the best show I’ve ever seen. And, even then, I knew that a lot of why this was the best thing ever was that it was short. They played songs that put the hair up on your arms and stopped before it had time to go down. Before your body had time to regulate itself and tamp down whatever biological process was involuntarily giving you chills. I still chase that with my stories all the time.

And I still pour over songs to figure out how they pull off this magic act. How they make you feel so much more than ought to be possible in so short of a time. I have whole seven minute stories about whole historical incidents whose primary inspiration is me chasing some feeling evoked by a half-minute bridge in some dance song. Nearly my entire m.o. when it comes to starting a story comes from studying the way certain songs draw you deeper faster in by opening with an off-kilter lyric that hits an emotion from a oblique angle. Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices does this over and over again. Buzzards and Dreadful Crows crams some meandering Crosby Stills and Nash album cut’s worth of motifs and feelings into a minute forty-three and still has time for a possibly unnecessary reprise.

There was a night in 2000, maybe it was ’99.  I had just done my first story for NPR. It was a 45 second news cast update on a corruption trial in Providence, Rhode Island. We had gotten a call from the main office in DC asking for the story. A co-worker and I flipped a coin for the honor. We made a deal that the winner would take the other out to dinner with the $85 he or she would make for doing the story.  This worked out great because I had a crazy-making crush on my co-worker.  A month or so later, check comes, we go out to dinner, walked back to her apartment on crisp, sweater-weather New England night, shuffling through fallen leaves on cracked sidewalks.  Listened to the second side of Abbey Road. Told her that I had this dream for making a radio show that would work exactly the same as the suite at the end. That I wanted to go from tiny story to tiny story. Have each story take you to different places, strike different emotional chords in the same way the songs do. Have them add up to something more than themselves through juxtaposition. Cohere not in themes, but in feelings. Make a show that chases beauty, reaches for unreachable things, scrambles for some barely unobtainable bliss. That was the idea then. It still is, in a way.

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Go subscribe to The Memory Palace, if you don't already. Seriously. It's amazing.

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Song Exploder live events:

Oct 27: Google Design conference SPAN LA [ info ]
Nov 18: Chicago Podcast Festival [ tickets ]
Nov 19: Toronto, Hot Docs Festival, with Reply All [ tickets ]

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Here's the most recent episode of Song Exploder:
James Vincent McMorrow - Get Low

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