Mix: Cold Comfort

In an effort to live up to this blog’s name, I plan on posting a new mix/playlist at least once a month going forward. Some will have a theme of sorts, others will be centered around one artist (or perhaps a related group of them) and a few will have no connecting thread at all and consist of new and old songs that I’m into at the present moment.

I’m kicking off this series with a thematic mix mostly culled from an ongoing playlist I keep of songs I want to listen to when it’s cold outside—scratch that, when the temperature dips below freezing, the sun occasionally peeks out through the terminal gray skies and all feels blustery and raw, an invitation to sit by the fireplace with a mug of hot tea (or perhaps a glass of cognac.) When linked together, the words “cold” and “comfort” bring to mind a stark contrast between the outside world and refuge taken from it indoors.

To find solace in this bleak midwinter, I often turn to (mostly) acoustic folk-pop. The first three tracks here come from late ‘60s/early ‘70s UK-based artists in reverse order of renown—I’d likely be unfamiliar Scot Bert Jansch if not for his inclusion on The Squid and The Whale soundtrack nearly two decades ago. I could’ve made an entire playlist of such likeminded folk (in both senses), but although they did this sort of stuff very well (Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny had an exquisite, peerless voice), that doesn’t mean Americans weren’t up to the task decades later. Sufjan Stevens, for instance, has sustained a career by defying expectations from album to album but he’s arguably never matched the stripped-down intimacy of Seven Swans (2004) and its guitar-and-vocal instant standard “To Be Alone With You”.

Most of these songs are defined by their sparse instrumentation, calm sense of wonder and general quietude. After a while, amidst an excess of acoustic guitar, other elements emerge and gain power they wouldn’t necessarily retain in isolation: the dwindling piano riff on Kings of Convenience’s “Riot On An Empty Street”, the disarming fiddle laced throughout Grant McLennan’s “Hot Water”, the harmonica adding texture to Saint Etienne’s “Former Lover”. Even when things briefly turn electric, as on Nicole Atkins’ “If I Could”, its restraint and tone is enough to sit alongside purer, acoustic-guitar-and-voice selections such as Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins’ fable-like “Rabbit Fur Coat”, Rufus Wainwright’s campfire sing-along cover of his father Loudon Wainwright III’s “One Man Guy” and Concrete Blonde’s plaintive but effective “Make Me Cry”.

I also can’t help but place a classic hit everyone knows like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” or even the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” (note that vaguely sinister guitar hook) next to a relatively more obscure and recent number like Belle and Sebastian’s “Piazza, New York Catcher”; together, they show how, through the decades, music (and folk music, in particular) may evolve but also evoke an ongoing tradition that, no matter what adjustments or mutations occur is as recognizable and heartening as a sliver of sun during a cold snap.

Haunted Jukebox Mix #1: Cold Comfort