Books Are My New Albums

The perfect song is “Have You Forgotten” by The Red House Painters.

Not the official album version on “Songs for a Blue Guitar”, but the version that only appears on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s 2001 film Vanilla Sky, of which the song only appears for a brief moment during the film: six minutes in, lasting only 20 seconds, and tucked into the background under banter between Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise. Easily missed if you’re not paying attention.

So, how did I find it?

Some time around 2003, I was on a family trip to Oregon. My brother and I were driving through Oregon’s lush mountains, trailing my parents and grandparents who were navigating. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful space. Tired of the CDs we had been spinning, I decided to pop in the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. It was my favorite film at the time.

I came to own the CD after hearing a song at the end of the film that moved me profoundly. The lyrics were foreign and I never heard sonics like it. Certain it must be on the soundtrack, I tracked a copy down and scoured. Not Radiohead. Not Peter Gabriel. Not Afrika Bambaataa. Of those artists I’d never heard of: not two seconds into the Red House Painters track it sounded too structured — skip — but Sigur Rós sounded close. It was not quite right, but I was tracking the right scent.

Fumbling around the early-‘00s internet, Sigur Rós’s website listed a slew of live recordings, one of which was the track used for Vanilla Sky’s finale; what would become known as “Untitled 4” or “Njósnavélin” or “The Nothing Song”.

Needless to say, I had never listened to the full Vanilla Sky soundtrack before. I had only purchased it on the chance of obtaining “The Nothing Song”.

So, a time came during our trek to Oregon that I was sick of the other albums I’d brought, and decided to give the Vanilla Sky soundtrack a spin.

“Have You Forgotten” came on and the world became a painting. After the first listen, I listened again. And again. And again. It was perfect. Lyrically, sonically perfect.

This version is not available via traditional streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify. I could — maybe should — encourage you to purchase the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, but I’ve done the leg work to discover this gem, so I’ll save you the trouble. Just this once:

The perfect song. Full stop.

Music discovery as we knew it is a thing of the past. Radio is still a powerful tool to promote Top 40 and the latest singles. Deep cuts are just a click away. A playlist will introduce you to bands and tracks of particular themes or influence. But the archeological process of obtaining limited releases, a band’s first EP, or a compilation for a single track have been fast removed in the day and age of streaming. Albums can be thrown away after a track or two in instead of considered an investment; not pilfered or appreciated for their concept or the one magic gem hidden before Track 1, tucked away at Track 7, or 10 minutes after the last song. It‘s free to listen and time is money.

That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. Quite the contrary. I would have killed to have all of this music at my disposal as a teenager. Money was tight but my craving for new music was not. $5 would score me a new Punk-O-Rama compilation with 20 tracks. $10 would buy an album at Best Buy — maybe not the one I was looking for, but anything was better than nothing. $20 for something more desirable but a little harder to find at Tower Records. I recall finding The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl: Vols 1 and 2 at two different stores in Berkeley — my crowning music discovery bounty.

For better or worse, those days are long gone. Even a local punk band can release music on Apple Music for $20 and a few clicks. It’s (virtually) all there.

If the music discovery itch has been scratched, what is the next frontier? Truth be told, it’s quite possibly the oldest form of media discovery out there: Books.

Amongst the centuries of tomes, the mountains of paper and ink, books are ripe with treasure. One that speaks to me may not speak to you. Chapter 4 is not Track 4. Jumping to the good part is not an option. Short of a collection, books must be taken in as a whole. And that whole is an investment up front. Choose wisely. And if you’re short on dough, hopefully your choice nets out a sentence or two that you can hang your hat on. Something meaty. A compass. An inspiration. A goal.

It’s all very obvious, but for someone who lived and breathed music and didn’t take up reading until age 29, it feels like rediscovering an old me. I’ve read 16 books this year. 12 in 2017 and 24 in 2016. Some are good. Some are bad. I finish all of them. Even a bad book hones my hunt for something perfect. All wash over you. All are an experience. All cost money and time and patience.

I’m still searching for the perfect book; the perfect passage; the perfect sentence. Hear you me, it will be done. (It won’t.) But until then, discovery is back in my life. The hunt is on. Thankful, I have not forgotten.

Oh, and the perfect album is Elliott’s “Song in the Air”.

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