1) “Counting Down the Hours,” from Shake the Sheets, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
What it is: Ted Leo’s writing some of the most intelligent indie pop-rock of the new millennium. He’s got the brash, aggressive attitude of punk and the peppy, guitar-driven melodies of pure rock and roll. His lyrics are sophisticated and allusive; plus, he comes up with better hooks than just about anyone in the business.
Why Mormons should care: This is the musical version of Richard Dutcher’s Brigham City. The song wrestles with issues of innocence and experience, and, more, the problem of struggling for the former despite our human propensity toward the latter. Leo acknowledges that, “Innocence, it don’t come easy, and in a sense, it never will” – but, at the same time, he longs for it, and believes in the moral integrity of our choices. Our actions are therefore endowed with cosmic meaning; we are responsible for what we do. Leo asks rock god Joe Strummer “how one gets to where one’s going,” and “he points me down the road, as I go on, wondering if I’ve got a soul.” We keep on wandering toward grace, trusting that perhaps, someday, our fears and doubts might someday be resolved, but for now forging on in doubt or faith. And there is something beautiful in the mysteries of the journey. Similarly, we seek guidance and direction from those further down the road than ourselves, like Joe Strummer, or God. The song also might be about Abu Ghraib.
2) “Southwood Plantation Road,” from Tallahassee, Mountain Goats
What it is: Tallahassee is a concept album, chronicling the strange energies of a turbulent marriage metastasizing in the sticky humidity of Florida. The Mountain Goats (composed of John Darnielle and various collaborators) are lo-fi’s leading artists, writing old-fashioned integrated albums and performing them in a stripped down style, eschewing post-production in favor of sharp, vivid lyrics, acoustic instruments, and Darnielle’s raw, thin voice.
Why Mormons should care: The song takes marriage seriously. The relationship whose fragmentary history Tallahassee chronicles is troubled at best (as Darnielle writes, “like a Louisiana graveyard” where “nothing stays buried”), but at the same time there is in these two verses – less than a hundred words – a powerful complexity: this is a doomed relationship that the couple nonetheless, despite their consciousness of their pains, is determined to save. They have “conversations like minefields,” but they come to Tallahassee believing they can “raise up a little roof against the cold” together. There is something deeply Southern, gently rotting here, but despite it all Darnielle asserts bluntly, “We are going to stay married.” Is this effort justified? For Darnielle, the question is perhaps beside the point – the profound bonds of the relationship itself.
3) “New York, New York” from Gold, Ryan Adams
What it is: Ryan Adams, despite from all reports being something of a boor, does what he does better than just about anybody. What he does is personify that strange beast known as ‘alt-country;’ he knows the melancholy of love and life that the best country music is about, but transplants it into a indie rock sensibility. And in this version he does it Hawaiian style. Versatility.
Why Mormons should care: For two lines: “I remember Christmas in the blistering cold, in a church on the Upper West Side. Babe, I stood there singing, I was holding your hand, and you were holding my trust like a child.” When I think about attending church, these lyrics always, always come back to me. The grace of a cold chapel on Christmas morning; the occasional biting pain of communal worship that can nonetheless be bracing, like the chill of winter; the visceral investment into transcendence that singing demands; and learning the faith and love that allows you lay your soul in the hands of strangers without fear.
4) Hollocaine, from Dance the Devil, The Frames
What it is: The Frames are Ireland’s leading alternative band (U2 has chosen to belong to the world). The band is lead by vocalist Glen Hansard, who fills every line with torrential emotion and intensity, and backs him up with strong, heavy guitar and a very Irish violin. The Frames invest the standard catchy alternative formula of loud – quiet – loud with weight and depth of conviction; it’s clear they believe they’re writing rock with meaning. Most recently, Hansard collaborated with the Czech pianist/singer Marketa Irglova to make the quietly brilliant film Once; they wrote some achingly beautiful music for the soundtrack.
Why Mormons should care: This is perhaps the most overtly religious song of all those I’ve mentioned. For example, it actually mentions religion. “Got no need for the Bible,” Hansard tells us, “It’s all in here.” Hansard sees a woman who seems to be fleeing south, because “the world goes/Burning to the ground,” but he does not follow, for “there’s a light that shines for me.” He’s achieved a degree of serenity amidst chaos, beyond the hope offered in the Bible, or perhaps, in traditional faith entirely. What’s Mormon about this? Of course, Mormons don’t reject the Bible, but we place hope in a faith that envelopes and supplants it – a faith based, as Hansard claims, “in here” – in our expansive notions of human potential and the possibilities of personal revelation, outside institution and tradition. And Joseph Smith, of course, took up Christ’s challenge to make all things new.