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The Powell’s Playlist: J. Robert Lennon

The Powell's PlaylistPlaylist? You want a playlist, you say? Don't you understand that I'm busy? Look, when you're a D-list literary celebrity like me, you don't have time for silly pursuits like making lists of songs for people. Beard grooming alone takes up enough of my time, and this week I'm supervising the modification of my waterfall-bubinga standing desk, specifically the embossing of my very favorite of my own lines of prose, in Edwardian script, onto the Russian reindeer-leather elbow rest. Hell, I don't even have time to listen to songs, let alone list them, which is why I limit myself to songs that last fewer than thirty seconds.

Note: Happyland is
currently only available
as an eBook.

What, you're still here? Are you serious? Don't you know how valuable my time is? Don't you see the line of prostrate undergraduates arrayed down the hall? My students are required to purchase those ceremonial robes and hand-stitched sandals, custom-dyed in my university's colors, to wear during my office hours, whether I'm meeting with them or not, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., every Tuesday, wherever they happen to be. Of course they're always here.

Shove over. My coffee boy isn't accustomed to sharing the settee.

Okay, fine. I'll give you a playlist — five minutes, that's all I've got. Thirty seconds max per song. Ten songs. Hand me my laptop. No, not the one with the Swarovski crystals spelling out the word dream on it, the other one. Yeah, that. You know this slipcase is made out of a genuine Steve Jobs turtleneck? Never mind. Let's get this thing done.

1. "Breakfast" by The Voluntary Butler Scheme (0:24)
This seems a nice place to start — it consists of a woman describing her breakfast ("scrambled tofu, a piece of fruit, some toast or somethin'") over a cheerful mélange of piano, bells, and woodwinds. The VBR is the brainchild of Rob Jones, a British multi-instrumentalist.

2. "Breakfast in a Shallow Grave" by Pete Weiss and the Rock Band (0:26)
No reason to leave the breakfast theme just yet, unless the idea of a jangly, disjointed chromatic jazz/rock fusion song — by a Boston-based instrumental band — about eating it next to a corpse sounds unappealing to you. It does? Fine, let's move on.

3. "The Son of Noah's Brother" (LP Version) by The Incredible String Band (0:17)
This is from the ISB's classic 1968 double album Wee Tam and the Big Huge. It's got everything you need: twee singing, plucked acoustic guitar, a descending melodic line, apparent biblical references. If you're not aware of this Scottish psychedelic folk band and its influence on the British pop music of the '70s, school thyself.If you're not aware of this Scottish psychedelic folk band and its influence on the British pop music of the '70s, school thyself.

Note: In order to listen to the playlist, you will need to log in
to Spotify. You can sign up for a free account here.

4. "Shard" by Game Theory (0:22)
The great Scott Miller died earlier this year, leaving behind a collection of ethereal, catchy indie-pop records and a lot of miserable fans. This track is from Lolita Nation, the best album by his '80s band Game Theory. It consists of the lyrics "Close out sound and sight / those I know are / on their own tonight" sung over the kind of smooth synth pad that now sounds horribly dated on everything except Game Theory records.

5. "Explanation Mark" by The Books (0:20)
Cut-and-paste pop samplists The Books are perhaps at their best on their 2003 album The Lemon of Pink, which employs spoken vocal samples as elements of composition. This one employs two sets of wordless vocalizations — a man's and a woman's — and braids them into a funky little art piece that feels greater than the sum of its parts. Put it on repeat for a while.

6. "Hit" by Guided by Voices (0:24)
One great thing about Guided by Voices is, when they give you a thirty-second song, they aren't just throwing you a scrap. It's a whole song, fully expressed and resolved. This infectious indie-rock ditty brings us on tour with a band, and the band plays a hit. "That's a hit! That's a hit!"

7. "Field Day for the Sundays" by Wire (0:28)
Actually, you could say the same thing about Wire, the London post-punk outfit whose irreverence and experimental élan doubtless influenced, and continues to influence, GbV's Robert Pollard. This catchy rocker is a nice sample of Wire's deadpan late-'70s social consciousness: "I wanna be a field day for the Sundays so they can / fuck up my life / embarrass my wife / and leave a bad taste." There's even a bridge!

8. "Mysterious Whisper" by They Might Be Giants (0:28)
Leave it to Brooklyn's most accomplished novelty rockers to execute a fully articulated cigarette-lighter-waving power ballad in only 28 seconds. Four anguished utterances of the song's title over a sappy piano figure, this tune is part of the "Fingertips" suite from their 1992 album Apollo 18.

9. "...And We're Back" by Alpha Consumer (0:12)
Are these songs starting to seem a little too long to you? Here's the antidote — a bit of post-commercial TV-show transition music from a nonexistent sitcom, off of Alpha Consumer's 2011 album Kick Drugs Out of America. The record is an ironic (or maybe not, come to think of it) pop-cultural rock-and-roll fruit salad that will make you dance and laugh simultaneously, which is to say, make you look like an idiot.

10. "K2r" by Raymond Scott (0:20)
Let's clean up with K2r, a midcentury cleaning product that, miraculously, still exists, and for which synthesizer pioneer, jazz innovator, and all-around mad genius Raymond Scott wrote and recorded this brief jingle. This is from the lovely book/CD package Manhattan Research, Inc., which collects Scott's influential advertising work and gives a nice gloss on his early forays into electronic music.

There. Three minutes, forty-one seconds. That gives you one minute and nineteen seconds to get the hell out of my office. Vamoose! I've got work to do!

*cracks knuckles*

*falls asleep*

÷ ÷ ÷

J. Robert Lennon is the author of a story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand, and seven novels, including Mailman, Familiar, and Happyland. He teaches writing at Cornell University.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Mailman Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Familiar
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98

One Response to "The Powell’s Playlist: J. Robert Lennon"

    Diane Calvi October 20th, 2013 at 8:21 am

    I like your web site book store. You have very interesting articles about great stories, essays and documentaries. I enjoy getting on your website because it is always challenging. When ordering products I always receive them in a timely manner. Thanks for all you do.

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