Carissa/Casimir Pulaski Day

SONGS about the death of a little-known cousin in a fire and losing a loved one to cancer, while wrestling with the strain it puts on your faith, are hardly customary soundtracks to life on an overland journey.

A fairly constant diet of rap, chart fodder, power ballads, cheesy singalongs  and the bloody Lion King has dominated the music cranked up in the back of the truck.

But my contribution of indie guitars and, to quote Matt, “melancholic Americana” has managed to find a certain amount of airtime with at least one cook group regularly borrowing my iPod (usually to play Bright Eyes – the band, not the song about rabbits) for its turn to control the music as they prepare dinner.

And there have been requests for Jason Isbell and John Grant after they appeared to a wider audience, as well as for any number of indie favourites which people assume lurk somewhere in my collection – leading to less than favourable reactions to queries about Coldplay and Stereophonics.

There’s even been a request to borrow my iPod to listen to Relationship of Command by At The Drive-In, which may well get an outing (possibly brief) when our cook group next controls the music, while Matt’s shared fondness for Stornoway and First Aid Kit soundtracked a couple of evenings sitting on the dock of Lome, watching the ships rolling in.

Most of the music on this trip, however, is served up as we plug ourselves into whatever music player most of us have brought with us and while away the hours as the truck clocks up the miles.

My choice for the first few months has been dominated by an eclectic 40-strong playlist compiled before the off which has seen the two current journeys on this blog – the challenge to listen to all 12,000-ish songs on my iPod in alphabetical order and the Trans-Africa adventure – converge, dominated as it is by songs which have crept into (or back into) my consciousness after featuring through the first 2,000 songs (which has almost taken us to the end of C).

Familiarity has not exactly bred contempt, but a certain weariness with several tracks. They were dropped onto the playlist due to a desire to hear them more often or to really get to know them, but now there is a fair amount of skipping.

But two songs have escaped the skip button pretty much every time and have sent me off to discover or rediscover the artists who have served up such memorably “melancholic Americana”.

Both emerged from my journey through C on my iPod and while neither is likely to supplant Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing as truck song (although could well get a few votes from those of us strongly opposed to that choice), each will remind me of this trip for years to come.

Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens has been on my radar for some time, popping up as it does on his Come On Feel The Illinoise! album after Chicago, which provided a key part of the soundtrack (along with the title track) to my London to New York overland adventure five years ago.

But somehow, it sort of passed me by until resurfacing on the A-Z and was given a fresh impetus into my consciousness when a trip around Savannah, Georgia, took in a statue of Casimir Pulaski – a Polish-born soldier who fought with the Americans against the British.

He is honoured by a holiday during March in parts of the US – also the subject of a song by Big Black – and it is on this day the subject of Stevens’ achingly beautiful, heart-rending tale finally succumbs to the cancer of the bone which forms the narrative of the song.

“In the morning, in the window shade, on the first of March, on the holiday, I thought I saw you breathing. Oh the glory that the Lord has made and the complications when I see his face, in the morning in the window.”

As somebody of no great faith, despite being brought up in a, largely, Christian household in a church-dominated village, that feeling of “complications” with any higher being is one which is all too familiar, having spent far too much time burying loved ones and asking any number of unanswerable questions about religion.

Stevens has made no secret of his faith – “The glory that the Lord has made…” is a repeated refrain throughout the track – and his attempts to balance that with watching somebody he clearly loves slip away (“and he takes and he takes and he takes…”) from a disease so lacking in glory or explicable reason provides a real emotional punch to a simple, yet highly-effective, song.

It ranks with Billy Bragg’s Tank Park Salute in the pantheon of great songs about loss (and anybody who knows me well will know what high praise that is).

If it has been a case of rediscovering Stevens’ work, the second unskippable star of the playlist has provoked long overdue exploration of his back catalogue, a lot of it gathered in raids on my ex-housemate’s CD collection after returning from my previous travels and never really investigated in any great depth.

Much of Mark Kozelek’s work on my iPod comes from his time in the Red House Painters, as well as under his own name, but it is under the Sun Kil Moon moniker that he has caught my attention.

Never more so than with Carissa, the tale of his second cousin – a one-time teenage mother he has not seen for 20 years – her death in a fire, the affect it has on him and his need to find out more about her and the circumstances.

“I’m flying out there tomorrow cos I need to give and get some hugs… to give her life poetry and make sure her name is known across every sea.”

Carissa has sparked repeated listens to Benji, the album which now tops my list as the best of last year.

It comes with a body count as Kozelek recalls people and events long gone throughout his life, as well as musing on the future and his relationships with his parents.

“Melancholic” it certainly is. Some would call it depressing, an accusation levelled at the contents of my iPod more than once in the past few weeks. But it is, again, so beautifully done and so full of warmth and affection, it is as likely to raise a smile as a tear.

Roughly the same age as me, Kozelek hits on topics which occupy the minds of our generation, particularly with regard to parents. While the string of relatives and friends dying in unusual ways is not quite so recognisable, the reactions are.

Don’t think either track has featured when my iPod has been plugged into the speakers in the back of the truck. That job has mainly fallen to the truck playlist compiled somewhere in Morocco and featuring some of the more accessible parts of my collection – a sort of Now That’s What I Call Indie if you like – with a few wildcard tracks thrown in (including the definitive answer as to which version of Hallelujah is the correct one to play).

And some time soon, a new personal playlist needs to be drawn up (although this one returned with a certain freshness yesterday after playing second fiddle to a few old albums in the last week or so).

Fairly good chance Casimir Pulaski and Carissa will be appearing on that one too.

The Playlist

City With No Children – Arcade Fire
Dry The Rain – The Beta Band
Javelin Unlanding – Bill Callahan
California Stars – Billy Bragg & Wilco
Another Travellin’ Song – Bright Eyes
Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl – Broken Social Scene
After The Watershed – Carter USM
Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
History Eraser – Courtney Barnett
Calamity Song – The Decemberists
Heaven Up Here – Echo & The Bunnymen
Winona – Drop Nineteens
Lippy Kids – Elbow
Positive Jam – The Hold Steady
Hot Soft Light – The Hold Steady
Kemosabe – Everything Everything
Endless Art – A House
The Body Electric – Hooray For The Riff Raff
Blue Ridge Mountain – Hooray For The Riff Raff
Songs That She Sang In The Shower – Jason Isbell
Glacier – John Grant
Queen of Denmark – John Grant
The Ballad of the Pyjama Kid – John Murry
California – John Murry
Cloudbusting – Kate Bush
Army Dreamers – Kate Bush
Clementine – Neil Young & Crazy Horse
By The Time I Get To Phoenix – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Bodies – Pale Seas
Brothers – Mark Kozelek & Desertlshore
Best of Friends – Palma Violets
Coming Home – Richard Hawley
Love Is To Die – Warpaint
Carissa – Sun Kil Moon
Casimir Pulaski Day – Sufjan Stevens
Almost Prayed – The Weather Prophets
Behind The Wall of Sleep – The Smithereens
At Night In Dreams – White Denim
Hash Pipe – Weezer
Mannequin – Wire

NB: It has proved just too complicated to keep the A-Z iPod blog going while on the Trans Africa trip. It will return after the journey is over.


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