My best friend, Ashley Weingard (left), treated me to a pilgrimage to Barry Gordy’s Detroit home, aka Hitsville USA, this summer. (Picture taken by a kind stranger)

WOUB Summer ’18 Playlists: WOUB’s Arts and Culture Reporter Emily Votaw

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It’s feeling hotter than July here at WOUB, so several of your favorite voices from your regional public media outlet are clueing you in on their favorite tracks of summer 2018. Check out this one from WOUB arts and culture reporter Emily Votaw, and watch for new installments in the series every Tuesday for the next several weeks. 

For the record (and not the kind I am paranoid about leaving in my car this time of year — heh heh), I have been lucky enough to have been exposed to cleverly themed playlists for a little longer than some. My father, Mike Votaw, created a mixed tape to send out in lieu of birth announcements when I was born (among the featured musicians being The Roches, The Residents, Captain Beefheart, XTC, Laurie Anderson, Wild Man Fisher, and many others) and the man has also consistently cranked out an annual CD every holiday season to send to friends and family in lieu of Christmas cards for over 30 years.

However, the rarest Mike Votaw mixes are the summer, spring, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween editions — he doesn’t make these every year, but boy, when he does — they’re great.

I can only hope that the playlist that follows is even a quarter as satisfying and mystifying as the best Mike Votaw summer mixes are. Know that I have multiple Spotify playlists in various stages of construction at all times, and I picked the cream of the crop so far as the best tracks from my May, June, and July playlists for you all.

Jorge Ben – “Os Alquimistas Estão Chegando”

Album: A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974)

The first time I heard this song, I knew I’d be in love with it all season long. It starts with a vague clamor, and from that emerges a confident, undulating strumming rhythm and then perhaps one of the most beautiful, artful introductions of vocals I’ve ever heard. I heard it first the same place I hear so many of my favorite songs: late at night at O’Betty’s Red Hot, hanging out with my wayward, hot dog slinging younger brother — who, truly, has always had the truly better taste in music between the two of us, even if I have more general knowledge about popular genres of music.

“Os Alquimistas Estão Chegando” opens up A Tábua de Esmeralda, an album that is largely considered to be Ben’s finest work, and outside of being a sonically gorgeous record, is also steeped in Ben’s interests in alchemy, esoteric religion, and mysticism. Not that I can understand Portuguese enough to pick up on those themes, because I don’t, I just trust the music writers — like NPR’s Tom Moon, who listed the album as one of his 1,000 to hear before you die.

Steely Dan – “Hey Nineteen” 

Album: Gaucho (1980)

This summer I had the distinct privilege of seeing Steely Dan with my parents and brother at Blossom Music Center on the eve of my brother’s 24th birthday. If you’ve never been to Blossom — and I hadn’t been before this show — it’s quite the place. It’s essentially an enormous wooden shell that serves as a beautiful outdoor amphitheater in Cuyahoga Falls, OH, just 45 minutes or so outside of Akron. Needless to say, it was a perfect setting for a night that already sends spurs of nostalgia down my spine thinking about it only a few weeks after the fact.

I’ve been a lifelong Steely Dan fan, indoctrinated at a young age by infectious tunes like “Dirty Work,” “Peg,” and perhaps most notably “Gaslighting Abby,” a song from the group’s 2000 album Two Against Nature that my father did slip on a summer mix at some point during my childhood. Every Steely Dan song is such a finely honed object — there’s a reason the band isn’t known for elaborate outtakes, what Fagen and Becker serve up to you is intended to be consumed exactly as it is presented.

I had the pleasure of driving up to Blossom with my parents, at which point I hooked my phone up to their aux chord, and took requests for various Steely Dan songs — this was one my father suggested, and it’s been stuck with me ever since. Later that night my father and I managed to navigate our way into the front seats — we’re talking $300 seats here — somehow spiting the overly bureaucratic security at Blossom. It was exhilarating, even if I did get turned away from the orchestra pit during the encore of “Reelin’ In the Years.”

Laraaji – “Laws of Manifestation”  

Album: Vision Songs Vo. 1 (2018)

I first heard this song while playing through a particularly dramatic game of Risk with my boyfriend, brother, and his girlfriend, very late at night, as games of Risk tend to go. My brother, as mentioned before, has naturally better taste in music than I — even if I may have more encyclopedic knowledge about ’70s soft rock hits and Beatles trivia.

First, let’s talk about the tune itself — it’s rounding, lulling, calliope-like structure. It sounds like something you’ve heard before, right? Or at least kind of? Or how did someone not make that particular arrangement of notes before 2018? Those were my thoughts upon my first listen. The song is firmly in pop territory, structurally, even if it is rough-hewn and low-fi in exactly the kind of way that I’m incredibly weak for. Lyrically, the song is potent in life affirmations — some of them kind of hilarious, which makes sense given that Laraaji was a stand-up comedian for a time in his youth. As I grow older, the cynicism that I admittedly based much of my identity on as a younger person becomes tragically unattractive, and I think my gravitation to and deep love of this song and it’s message is a testament to that facet of my personal growth.

It should be noted that Laraaji (born Edward Larry Gordon) is an interesting fellow — he was “discovered” by my boy Brian Eno in the ’70s while performing in Washington Square Park, which led to the release of Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, perhaps Laraaji’s most widely recognized release. Although I went through a phase in undergrad where I was binging on all Eno’s ambient releases, I must admit that “Laws of Manifestation” might speak to me more now, at least at the ripe old age of 26. Remember, my friends, the laws of manifestation are on your side today.

George Harrison – “Awaiting On You All” 

Album: All Things Must Pass (1970)

George Harrison: the Beatle I understand and love more as I get older and am presented with problems that can’t be navigated simply by adapting Lennon’s snotty realism or McCartney’s delectable ignorance. This is an aside, but when I was in undergrad, one of my friends and I were discussing which Beatle we would marry, if we could (because what else do you talk about with your female music geek friends when you’re 19?) and my friend assured me that Harrison was the one for me. “He’d be so good to you,” she said. It should be noted that while it took me a while, I’m finally dating someone who is firmly more Harrison than Lennon or McCartney. It’s a relief and a gosh darn good fit.

All Things Must Pass is Harrison’s third solo album, his first released after the April 1970 breakup of The Beatles, and it’s a whopper — a triple LP produced by none other than Phil Spector. Throughout the record Harrison clearly demonstrates who he is pulling from the most — Bob Dylan (covering “If Not For You,” on side two of this album,), Billy Preston, The Band, and the enormous list of backing musicians on All Things Must Pass, including Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Klaus Voorman, and a million other notables. This makes for an album that is sprawling, booming, and chock-full of the new agey-ness that you’re likely to either love or revile in Harrison’s work.

This tune in particular is big, largely thanks to Spector’s liberal application of his famous “Wall of Sound” reverberation effects, as well Harrison’s lyrical subject, which is, literally, God. My newfound respect and love of this album, and this song in particular, probably stems from the same place my respect for Laraaji does; it’s this weird appreciation, instead of outright rejection, of spirituality in the media I consume.

After all, lyrics like “And while the Pope owns 51 percent of General Motors/And the stock exchange is the only thing he’s qualified to quote us/The Lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see/By chanting the names of the Lord and you’ll be free,” is kind of punk rock, right?

Prince – “Starfish and Coffee” 

Album: Sign ‘O’ the Times (1987)

Prince’s discography is like a treasure trove. Although The Purple One was tragically taken from us back in 2016, and even though I have all of his main releases on vinyl, I still find that no matter how many times I listen to these recordings — there is always something left for me to discover and delightfully obsess over. “Starfish and Coffee” is one of those gems.

Originally intended for a children’s album that never came to fruition, this song is smack-dab in the middle of an album that is heavy with songwriting excellence (side three being my personal favorite featuring the likes of “U Got the Look,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “Strange Relationship,” and “If I Were Your Girlfriend,”) and yet it still shines.

The song is about a girl, Cynthia Rose, who is seemingly autistic — or, as Prince said in a 1998 interview when asked about the track “mentally alternative, or gifted.” There’s something beautiful about that, and that’s the reason I’ve been jamming to it so hard recently.

Roupa Nova – “Clarear (Ao Vivo)” 

Album: Roupa Nova (1982), also Too Slow to Disco Brasil Compiled by Ed Motta (2018)

I found this track on Ed Motta’s brilliant Too Slow to Disco Brasil compilation shortly after the album’s release, and I’ve been enraptured by it ever since. Talk about some beautiful music. Although this tune seems striking to me, and not at all corny, Roupa Nova is actually a soft rock band within the context of Brazilian musical pop culture, and they’re often compared to Toto.

Like, Toto that is famous for “Africa.” I’m not kidding.

Perhaps that was part of Motta’s mission with the compilation, though, to beguile judgmental music nerds who would never purposefully pull soft rock out of a record bin and call it “cool,” into listening to the gorgeous music they’re depriving themselves of. I’ve been cranking this song so much, in fact, that YouTube always recommends year another video featuring the song after I’ve listened to it through once. I included a live version of the song on my Spotify playlist below, although I highly recommend the highly produced gem in the YouTube video above.

Haroumi Hosono – “Shimendoka”  

Album: Paraiso (1978)

So, you’re not going to find this track on Spotify. But it’s been a very important part of my summer, so I feel I must include it. Over the past couple of months, I’ve become just totally in awe of clinically under-discussed Japanese electric pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra. I have a theory that if The Beatles had existed past 1970, that Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison might have started to sound a lot more like Sakamoto, Takahashi, and Honoso, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Hosono is just one part of YMO, but boy is he an important one. I am just obsessed with his 1978 album Paraiso, which is technically by Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band, which, thanks to Light in the Attic, will be re-issued for the first time outside of Japan August 10.

Do I know what this song is about? No. Have I listened to it countless times this summer? Yes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Mike Heron – “Call Me Diamond” 

Album: Smiling Men With Bad Reputations (1971)

Another record you’re just not going to find on Spotify! This gem is one that my father gave me for my birthday, and boy, has it ever received some heavy rotation on my Saturday morning AM radio show. Mike Heron, of the Incredible String Band, is one of the unsung heroes of progressive rock, in my opinion.

This raucous tune from Heron’s first solo record (which ended up in so many cut out bins that there is anecdote about that in the 1991 CD reissue,) might be unappealing to some ISB fans, who probably weren’t ready to hear so many horns and relatively pop-centric song structure on Heron’s first solo effort. But for Emily Votaw, in 2018, who has musical tastes that were built entirely on The Beatles, Motown, and Mississippi Delta Blues, it just makes the whole package more enticing. It’s worth noting that Heron had quite the backup band on this record, including Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces, Jimmy Page, and Elton John all making appearances throughout the recording.