On the Essential Carbon Leaf

About six months ago, on Gallifrey Base, I saw a thread in the music forum about creating a “best of” or an introduction for a favorite band. Imagine you were giving someone a single CD, what songs would you want them to hear to give them an overview about what makes this band so great?

I could do this, I said. And I sat down to figure out what songs a person absolutely had to hear for one of my favorite bands.

Surprisingly, no, I did not do this for Elbow.

Instead, I wanted to come up with the perfect intro playlist for Carbon Leaf.

Carbon Leaf is a band I saw a lot in college, as they played the Richmond campus on a semi-regular basis. I first saw them at a frat party, bought their first album Meander there. A few months later, they actually gave me Shadows in the Banquet Hall for free at a gig at The Cellar, Richmond’s on-campus bar. (Five people showed up. I was there to drink, to be honest.) I saw them a couple of times downtown, in bars down in Shockoe Bottom. And I’ve picked up their albums religiously. I even have the super-rare live album, From Godwin to Scotland.

A couple of things stand out in my mind when it comes to Carbon Leaf. Their lyrics are usually poetic and vivid in their imagery. Their musicianship is solid and varied. And they are not Brazilian Polka Metal. They’re folk-rock-ish.

To be honest, I’ve been completely stymied these six months in trying to figure out the ideal eighty minutes to describe Carbon Leaf. I had a playlist on the computer at work, I had a playlist on the computer here at home, and both were… okay. (Interestingly, even though I did them a few weeks apart, they used mostly the same songs, though not in anything approaching the same order.) I’ve recently decided to finish the damn thing and call it done, and here’s what I have.

Allyn’s Intro Playlist for Carbon Leaf

  1. “What About Everything?” – Indian Summer
    Thanks to a popular Doctor Who fanvid, this is probably Carbon Leaf’s most famous song. And it’s a great song.
  2. “Lake of Silver Bells” – Nothing Rhymes with Woman
    I’m not sure why I like this song so much. It doesn’t sound like Carbon Leaf very much; it reminds me a great deal of Coldplay, actually. Maybe it’s the poetic images in the lyric? Maybe?
  3. “Love Loss Hope Repeat” — Love Loss Hope Repeat
    The title track to their sixth studio album, which is largely about falling in love — and then recovering when love goes south. In all honesty, I’m not as taken with this album, but this is one of the two standout tracks.
  4. “The Boxer” – Echo Echo
    The lead-off song on the band’s fourth studio album. Very energetic, lots of guitars, lots of imagery.
  5. “One Prairie Outpost” – Indian Summer
    I’ve loved this song for close to ten years now; the first time I heard it, it was a poorly recorded live bootleg from a concert. It’s a gentle acoustic piece about wandering down the dusty roads of memory. My friend Louise thinks this song describes me, and in a lot of ways it does.
  6. “Blue Ridge Laughing” – Ether-Electrified Porch Music
    I have definitely loved this song for ten years now, since I got the band’s third studio album. Wistful, nostalgic. Makes one think of happy times. Best line? “Space brings back boyish wonder.” If there’s a Carbon Leaf song that described my life as I see it, it would be this song.
  7. “Country Monkee” – Meander
    An example of early Carbon Leaf, when they sounded a lot like R.E.M. Probably the best track on Meander, their first album.
  8. “Mary Mac” – From Godwin to Scotland
    A big part of Carbon Leaf is their stage show. In their early years, they were very much a jam band on stage, and while this live version of “Mary Mac” doesn’t quite capture that, it does give you some insight into what they’re like as a live unit.
  9. “Let Your Troubles Roll By” – Indian Summer
    The title is all you need — it’s great advice for life. It’s also an excellent song.
  10. “American Tale” — Ether-Electrified Porch Music
    I’m not sure why I included this one, except that I love listening to it. It’s a good example of the Carbon Leaf “sound.”
  11. “The War Was In Color” – Carbon Leaf (iTunes Exclusive EP)
    While this song is on Love Loss Hope Repeat, it doesn’t belong there. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, and it sounds over-produced. This is a song about a grandfather telling his grandson about World War II and what war was like. The demo on the iTunes EP has a better “feel.” It’s a little faster as compared to the version of LLHR, yet it’s also more haunting. One of my favorite Carbon Leaf songs.
  12. “Flood” – Shadows in the Banquet Hall
    This is the song the band would go wild on at gigs. I saw one version of “Flood” where they literally jammed away for twenty minutes.
  13. “Tip Toe” – Nothing Rhymes With Woman (Amazon Exclusive Edition)
    The best song on NRWW, and it’s a bonus track on the Amazon edition of the CD. It’s a song about the end of a relationship, one that doesn’t end with a bang but with a whimper. In spite of that, or maybe because of that, it’s lovely to listen to.
  14. “For the Girl” – Shadows in the Banquet Hall
    A song of unrequitted love, of a boy who spends years searching for the key to the heart of the girl he loves, and is given constantly the advice to “cut lose” of his quest. Poetic lyrics, solid musicianship, a long instrumental passage.
  15. “Dear” – Echo Echo
    Their song from the Civil War movie, Wicked Spring. It’s a haunting piece of acoustic guitars and flutes.

That’s my playlist.

It’s not a “greatest hits” collection, obviously. Carbon Leaf doesn’t have “hits.” They have songs they play in concert. They have songs that get some occasional radio play. But they’re an emerging band, even though I’ve been following them for a good twelve years or so.

I like this playlist. Mostly.

Partly, I’m not good at making playlists. I don’t think in terms of single tracks. I’m an album sort of guy. I like albums. Albums have a cohesion to them.

And mainly, it’s that I had to distill what I thought Carbon Leaf was down into eighty minutes. Which meant leaving off songs I love, like “When I’m Alone” or “November (Makebelieve),” because they didn’t fit.

Otherwise, it’s successful. I think someone could sit down with this “album” and get a feel for who Carbon Leaf is and the kind of music they make.

One thought on “On the Essential Carbon Leaf

  1. Wow great picks. You really went deep on the cuts there. I like that you added songs from Shadows in the Banquet Hall and Ether Electrified Porch Music. I tend to not listen to them and listen to the others more often. Saw them last night in Ann Arbor and they tore through quite a few songs on the list.

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