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Listen Up: Musicians get out the vote

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Win Butler of Arcade Fire performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival on June 27, 2014. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Win Butler of Arcade Fire performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival on June 27, 2014. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Musicians have long played roles in presidential elections, with many performing concerts or releasing songs in support of one candidate or against another, or simply encouraging voter turnout. Last week, Jay Z and Beyonce stumped for Hillary Clinton, while Ted Nugent appeared with Donald Trump — appropriate surrogates for the respective candidates, in terms of quality.

So while a new music column might seem like a place to escape election coverage, there is no such luck.

“Born in the USA” covered by Win Butler

Win Butler of Arcade Fire participated in a Jam the Vote event this past weekend in Port Chester, New York, where artists performed with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The show also featured Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Questlove from the Roots.

The event was nonpartisan, and livestream viewing was granted by the web site only if the viewer made a pledge to vote. But Butler has always been explicitly liberal. After an all-star basketball game in which he participated on ESPN in February of this year, he was cut off by an interviewer when he tried to bring up the election and health care.

During the introduction of his live cover of “Born in the USA,” Butler made some statements that might seem like simple decency, but that in 2016 are decidedly partisan.

“I want to thank all the immigrants. We need more of you,” Butler said. “I want to thank everyone who came to America to make it the country that it is, thank you.”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is an often misunderstood protest song with its bombastic chorus. But the verses are a dark recollection of the Vietnam war era; “Got in a little hometown jam/ So they put a rifle in my hand/ Sent me off to a foreign land/ To go and kill the yellow man.”

Butler started his rendition somber, sitting solo at a piano. The band and backup singers made their entrance on the first chorus, before leading the crowd on a raucous singalong. Usually, when hundreds of people sing this song together, the mood is overtly nationalistic. With pride in this country hard to retain after the presidential campaigns I witnessed, this version offers a welcome glimpse of optimism that has seemed so far away. The Earth will keep spinning after Tuesday, and listening to this song may have been the first time I realized that. The dreadfulness of the past year’s campaigning is a stain, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Just so long as Butler has anything to say about it.

“Dog Years” by Maggie Rogers

Maggie Rogers’ song “Alaska” started gaining attention after Pharrell praised it during an NYU masterclass he was teaching. It was an auspicious start to her career, and a difficult accomplishment to follow up.

“Dog Years” is only the second song Rogers has released, and it sees her sticking with the same ethereal, rhythm-driven style of her first. She sounds like Norah Jones with reverb and layers of electronic instrumentals. The piano keeps the beat along with the drums, but it becomes so trance-like that the guitar breakdown after the second chorus comes as a surprise.

Rogers also shows off her vocal chops on the chorus, when her voice artfully breaks and rides the beat perfectly. It offers a positive yet grim conclusion that “We will be alright in the afterlife.”

Her songs sound simple at first, but close listens reveal how intricate they are. They must be finely tuned, considering she only has two songs out so far. It goes to show that whenever a full-length album comes from her, it will be one of the most anticipated releases of whatever year it is.

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