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8 Tracks: Music for movies of the mind

Kamasi Washington's "Prologue" will give you chills of the body and thrills of the mind.
Courtesy of the artist
Kamasi Washington's "Prologue" will give you chills of the body and thrills of the mind.

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

Did I watch the Oscars? No. But did I watch Ryan Gosling's outrageous, "We Are the World"-worthy performance of "I'm Just Ken" on YouTube the day after? Of course! I'm not made of plastic. Like my colleague Ann Powers, I often think about "how songs can shape conversations, actions and memories" in movies, as she wrote in the NPR Music newsletter.

Music can shift, uplift or even subvert a scene, challenging or changing our perception of the movie, the music or even ourselves. And, because every music nerd with a Discogs account or popular playlists thinks they could be a music supervisor on a movie, let's do just that. This week on 8 Tracks, let's make movies in your mind. Take any one of these newly released songs and imagine what they could soundtrack. For instance, when I hear the propulsive "Prologue" by Kamasi Washington, I can see a car chase down hill-y, sidewinding streets, intercut with scenes from the driver's past... and just when Washington's screaming saxophone hits its apex, the vehicle careens across the screen in vivid slow-mo.

What do you see when you hear these songs?

Kamasi Washington, "Prologue"

Kamasi Washington's music — in particular, 2015's The Epic and 2018's Heaven and Earth — has largely been a cosmic jazz affair. "Prologue," however, hits the asphalt like a classic Dodge Charger and does not stop for eight minutes and 25 seconds. What begins with a Philip Glass-ian piano flourish over a drum-and-bass-inspired breakbeat turns into a Blaxploitation rave-up. There are two masterful solos here: In the first third, Dontae Winslow's trumpet is a buzzing bee. Polyrhythmic percussion and an energetic eight-bar piano figure carry the composition, but also break apart its ascendent melody in subtle ways, especially once Washington takes his solo; his saxophone darts across an increasingly frenetic pace, resulting in a climax that takes me back to the trilling scream heard around the 10-minute mark of Pharoah Sanders' "Hum Allah Hum Allah Hum Allah." Absolute chills. —Lars Gotrich

Will Liverman, "You Showed Me the Way"

If you know Ella Fitzgerald's "You Showed Me the Way," recorded in 1937 with the Chick Webb Orchestra, you may not recognize Will Liverman's new version. The protean, Grammy-winning baritone, who starred in the Metropolitan Opera production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, has transformed the swinging little love song into something far more profound. Think German lieder meets jazz. His satiny, burgundy-colored voice evokes the elegance of Billy Eckstine andJohnny Hartman. Ella's original is cute, but when Liverman slows the tempo in a minor key, the song nearly becomes a sacred declaration. —Tom Huizenga

Shane Parish, "Lonely Woman"

Shane Parish is a relentless interpreter. The guitarist's catalog is full of folk songs, sea shanties and the Chet Baker Sings album thoughtfully and playfully mangled. (Parish also notated and arranged Bill Orcutt's Music for Four Guitars for, well, four guitars — their Tiny Desk is raucously joyful.) His latest album, Repertoire, takes on Aphex Twin, Minutemen and Alice Coltrane songs, but I keep coming back to Parish's version of "Lonely Woman." The original was perhaps the closest we ever got to a "pop" song by free jazz iconoclast Ornette Coleman — the way his saxophone slides the melody with pocket trumpeter Don Cherry has such as slinky je ne sais quoi. Curiously, on acoustic guitar, Parish doesn't use a slide to recreate that effect; rather, he reconstructs the melody around bluesy bends, hammer-ons and overtones — the "Lonely Woman" becomes a phantom. —Lars Gotrich

Bully, "Atom Bomb"

Singer-songwriter Alicia Bognanno, aka Bully, is known for her snappy, fuzzy, highly energetic indie-rock anthems. They were all over her 2023 album, Lucky for You, which was arguably one of her best. But her excellent new single, "Atom Bomb," doesn't carry her signature production flourishes or frenetic sound. Here, Bognanno ditches the guitar and reverb for a piano and strings for a gloriously powerful song about getting older. —Hazel Cills

Restorations, "Film Maudit"

Restorations is a Philly rock band that has made its name on big riffs and bigger hearts, girded by its punk roots and a self-deprecatory streak. "Film Maudit," a title which I imagine is in reference to Jean Cocteau's festival of overlooked or "cursed film," does not give into despair with a whimper but a big boom. Where past songs might have made main songwriter Jon Loudon an observer, here his dukes are up, fighting for freedom, but at the same time, asking us to let go of anger: "Putting your weapons down / Taking your armor off." —Lars Gotrich

Machinedrum (feat. Tinashe), "ZOOM"

In September, the avant-pop singer-songwriter Tinashe completed a transformation from major-label hopeful to independent futurist with BB/Angel in a process that included enlisting electronic musicians like Machinedrum to furnish a zipping, weightless alt-R&B sound. Fittingly, "ZOOM," the lead single from the producer's upcoming album, 3FOR82, extends the quietly enlightened mission of their collaborative efforts. It blends translucent Tinashe vocals with DDR-core breakbeats fit for a Sonic Riders compilation. —Sheldon Pearce

Sly5thAve (feat. Daniel Wytanis), "Big Brother"

I felt compelled to switch on main character mode and stroll the streets of Brooklyn the second the opening Go-Go beat drops. Known for his orchestral hip-hop jazz arrangements, Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II (aka Sly5thAve) features and pays tribute to mentors Robert "Sput" Searight and Nate Werth, bandleaders of Ghost-Note, on "Big Brother." Their bopping percussion gives way to dreamy Studio Ghibli-esque strings before coming back with a tight horn section, an homage to the late Roy Hargrove. Killin' solos by Sly5thAve and his own mentee, trombonist Daniel Wytanis, close out the track. —Nikki Birch

Carin León & Kane Brown, "The One (Pero No Como Yo)"

If you haven't been paying attention to Regional Mexican's glow-up, then, first, I need to point y'all to Alt.Latino's three-part series on the rise of Peso Pluma, how some Mexican American kids found themselves in an identity storm and the birthplace of banda. I asked Alt.Latino host Anamaria Sayre why "The One (Pero No Como Yo)" is such a big deal. "The regional/country collab concept has been bubbling up for so long," she tells me, referring to their shared musical roots. "Carin has always been the unofficial guy, but he never actually had put anything out there." So here's Carin León — a Johnny Cash-loving, Mexican singer-songwriter — with Kane Brown, a biracial country singer with R&B leanings, both giving into and upending expectations by flipping the classic banda sound (that's the tuba) with a reggae upstroke... all the while honoring both traditions. —Lars Gotrich

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Cills was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.
Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]