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Five for Friday: Haunting Songs

"Monster Mash." "Thriller." "Season of the Witch." "A Nightmare on My Street." There's no shortage of tunes to get you in the Halloween spirit or to relax the crowd at the costume party. But here, we'll avoid the Frankensteins, zombies, and other trappings of the holiday. Instead, our list focuses on downright scary songs – tunes that creep us out because of the stories they tell. The lesson? Tales centered on the real world are often the most frightening. Here are five songs that can haunt you long after they've stopped playing.

Lefty Frizzell, "Long Black Veil"
Now a country standard – see versions by everyone from Johnny Cash to Nick Cave – "Long Black Veil" remains one of the most heartbreaking and haunting tunes in the American songbook. Yet this tale of lust, death, and longing proves most discomforting in its portrayal of the human spirit. Frizzell's 1959 original, as written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, unfolds as a slow, calm lament with a polished yet gentle acoustic guitar. The story: A man gets executed for a crime he didn't commit, and his only alibi would reveal he was having an affair with his best friend's wife. While the mistress knows the truth, she lets her lover die rather than face the consequences of following her heart. And thus, she spends her evenings alone in the graveyard, shedding tears in her long black veil for what was – and what never could be. In her head, a life forever troubled with guilt and riddled with pain makes for a better fate than committing a selfless act.

Wilco, "Bull Black Nova"
American roots-rockers Wilco aren't exactly known for their evil side. While the Jeff Tweedy-led group has its share of experimental tendencies, and some songs ("Via Chicago") explore dark thoughts, 2009's "Bull Black Nova" remains an outlier. This track is menacing, both in its imagery and sounds. Harshly tapped but sparsely spaced piano notes create a horror-soundtrack feel, and the vicious, reverb-drenched guitars go off on chaotic tangents while occasionally capturing the sound of an ambulance. "Blood on the sofa, blood in the sink, blood in the trunk," Tweedy sings, after noting the substance is in his hair and on his clothes. Throw in the vintage car, and the evocative crime scene appears lifted from a Coen Brothers movie. Even spookier? The sense of mystery, as the song ends with Tweedy shouting at an unknown – or perhaps long-dead caller – to pick up the phone.

Sugar, "A Good Idea"
"Temptation." Bob Mould says the word early in "A Good Idea," separating it from the rest of the verse. His voice gets deeper when he sings it, ominously bolding the term so it foreshadows something sinister. As "A Good Idea" unfolds, the rocker gradually swells from creepy to full-on alarming. Driven by a thick, gummy bassline, the rhythm propels the song as guitars amp up the energy. Consider it an uptick in passion, until desire becomes something that careens out of control. The tune utilizes the setting of an innocent date – a secluded swim in a river – and then leaves the listener wondering if a murder just occurred. There's a seduction, and then a submersion. "He held her down deep in the stream," Mould sings, his voice now cool and detached, as if he had warned us this would happen. "He saw the bubbles and matted hair," he adds. Then he tells us of the screaming, and then the song gets louder until it's suddenly quiet.

Handsome Family, "Song of a Hundred Toads"
Over the course of its two-plus-decade career, the husband-and-wife duo of the Handsome Family has perfected the art of the murder ballad – as well as the creepy ballad, the anxious ballad, the worrying ballad, and the simply unsettling ballad. No wonder, then, the band's "Far from Any Road" scored the opening credits of "True Detective," as its dusty, lonely vibe possesses a road-weariness accentuated by mentions of deadly rattlesnakes and mountain cats. Tapping a similar tone, but doing so more directly, , is "Song of a Hundred Toads." Here, the wide-open country strumming possesses a relatively upbeat pace. Don't be fooled. Brett Sparks' booming baritone commands attention. So do the lyrics, which spin a yarn about a man alone in the wilderness who just has no luck with his animal pals. It's a nightmare of a fairy tale – a Disney story in reverse. First, a horse succumbs to rabies. Then, his dog, Clyde, deserts him, growling with anger as coyotes howl in the distance. Death, then, isn't long in coming. As life drifts from our narrator, the spookiness that is the sound of a hundred toads bids him farewell. Close your eyes, imagine that sound, and see if you get a good night's rest.

Geto Boys, "Mind Playing Tricks on Me"
This year has been difficult for many, as each week seems to bring news of a fresh natural disaster or national crisis. Thus, Halloween staples such as goblins and ghouls may just seem a little too quaint. The Geto Boys' hip-hop classic "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" functions as an October 31 staple that deals with more existentially internalized nightmares. This is a five-minute anthem to paranoia, and it's all the more scary for how relaxed it all sounds. The Southern rap pioneers don't over-dramatize; they simply tell it like it is, as if this personal hell is one they'll never escape. It almost has a back-porch feel. Scarface and Willie D trade verses about what keeps them up at night. But Bushwick Bill's finale isn't easy to forget, as the track ends with him pounding his fist into the pavement and killing an imaginary adversary. Consider it a twist on the old spooky campfire tale. The phone call is not coming from inside the house, but inside your head.

Photo credit: Jesse Littlebird

October 20, 2017

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