Summertime And The Music's Fine

Chris Martin of Coldplay performs during the 45th Annual Grammy Awards at New York's Madison Square Garden, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003.
I don't know why music seems more important in the summer than in the rest of the year, but it does. Maybe because it's the one time when the whole family is together for extended periods of time. This is when we make memories.

This is also when we get to enforce our musical taste on our children in a situation where they can't escape.

The best selling album this summer is Coldplay's X&Y, and it deserves to be. Coldplay writes majestic songs with great melodies and lyrics that lift you up and invite you into a community. All the great rock bands, from the Beatles to U2, wrote from the heart and wanted to speak to everyone. Since the 90s, a lot of rock has gotten exclusive and elitist and small. Coldplay are brave enough to be big. That's why millions of people love them, and that's why you probably don't even need to buy X&Y to hear Coldplay all summer long. Just roll down the window and listen.

There is a lovely version of Coldplay's first hit, Yellow, on a new album by Petra Haden and Bill Frisell. It might be a little tough to find, but I promise it's worth the trouble. Bill Frisell is a master jazz guitarist, and Petra Haden, aside from being a wonderful singer, is the daughter of Charlie Haden, one of the greatest musicians alive. She and Frisell blend together beautifully, finding the subtlety , elegance and delicacy in songs from Disney and Gershwin to Stevie Wonder and Tom Waits. They do a version of Moon River that makes that corny old chestnut sound like the prettiest song in the world. Petra Haden and Bill Frisell--perfect for summer nights under the stars.

Summer also makes us think of festivals and country fairs and cookouts, and the group that is already the soundtrack to that kind of fun in the sun is the Dave Matthews Band. They have a new album called Stand Up. It is--I'll say it--the best record they've ever made. I can defend that claim. DMB has always been a wildly popular live act because they are five great musicians who know how to stretch out and drive a crowd crazy in concert. But some DMB records feel like an attempt to fit five racehorses into a single stall. Not this time. The group worked with a new producer who honed their sound down while not losing their musical personality. The result is a Dave Matthews Band album as tight and focused--and as eccentric--as an old record by the Police or Bob Marley.

Which brings us to the subject of grooves.

When evening falls and the barbecue is over, you want some soul music to cruise to, whether you're heading to the drive-in or the amusement park or getting dressed up and driving into town. Here's where you want some old school R&B. And before you say, "Well, they don't make real R&B any more, it's all rap and samples and electronics," I say, better check out Leela James, a young woman working in the classic styles of Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye, with just enough modern touches to tell you she knows what year it is. (Here's a nice innovation. Leela James does not sing all over and around the melody. She actually sings the song.)

The album is called A Change Is Gonna Come. Sometimes the old school is the good school.

Now I hear some of you saying, "yes, that's all fine for when I want to cruise in my convertible, but what have you got for those contemplative evenings in the cabin by the lake?" I got a good one. Fair and Square, the first album of new material in almost ten years by the great singer/songwriter John Prine.

Prine is one of those guys who started out good and just gets better as he gets older. He had a cancer scare a few years ago, and it seems to me that since then the wit and insight and empathy that always lit up his songs has been joined by a gravitas, a weight of wisdom, that you might associate with Johnny Cash.

It's like a songwriter who you thought couldn't get any better went down to the end of the world, took a look over the edge, and came back even stronger.

Prine has one song here that takes him out to Hollywood, down to Nashville, up to New York, and ends with him up in a shack in the north woods looking up at the moon rising over the Canadian pine trees. That's how this record feels--like the peaceful reward at the end of a long stretch of crazy activity.

And that is exactly what summer is all about. Let's get out of town, turn up the music, and try not to scare all the fish.