Sunday, April 22, 2012

It's gonna be a long night, it's gonna be alright. . .

I heard “Nightshift” at the Price Chopper this afternoon.

I don't think that I can name any other post-Lionel Ritchie Commodores songs. I like how this song sutures a tribute to these two recently passed (at the time) singers, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson to working class listening practice. The feeling that it tries to evoke—the importance of the radio's company to getting through a long lonely nightshift—is powerful.

The song reinforces the notion that these two artists will live on in those crucial late night listens, which I sweet, but I think there is also a mournfulness in it, a compressed and softened form of blues-moan that assuages grief through its expression, that, in its mechanistic undertones, echoes with worker alienation—ghost voices put to work long after the bodies that produced them are dust.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

One Song I am Feeling - Untitled ("Shut Up") - R. Kelly

People are referring to this song as “Shut Up,” but as far as I know it is as-of-yet untitled. Regardless, I am loving it and listening to it frequently in the couple of weeks I have been aware of its existence. As Pitchfork says, "This may be the very first song ever written to address tonsil surgery-related haters."

It probably bears mentioning that I kind of love R. Kelly. I would say “unabashedly,” except that I am a bit abashed. I was ambivalent until my exposure to “Trapped in the Closet,” which struck me as the work of an idiot savant…but not really. Here’s the thing about R. Kelly, he has perfected a kind of unaware awareness or perhaps I have that reversed. At some level I think he sees himself as a genius—just watch his commentary on “Trapped in the Closet,” if you don’t think so—but at the same time his seeming lack of filter, the straightforward earnestness delivery of his lyrics suggest that there is no depth there, or rather you might say there is depth to that singular surface layer. Someone else used the Italian term “sprezzatura (a kind of artful carelessness that is so effective it obscures even its own artfulness) which seems apt, but personally I think of R.Kelly as post-ironic.

It probably also bears mentioning that some folks are troubled by the idea of R. Kelly as a dope, someone who’s popularity among a certain hipster-set is based on the fact that he is unintentionally hilarious. And I agree. I think these folks conflate earnestness with the unintentiality of the humor, but I think that it is possible to sincerely enjoy R. Kelly both as music and for the campiness that suffuses his work.

This latest song is a perfect example. I find it impossible to believe that R, Kelly does not realize that the bizarre talking/crooning self-reflexive narrative songs can be funny. And yet, that humor—while often reinforced through his absurd metaphors—arises from the natural talk-y way people have of conversing or even speechifying and is not associated with song except as a manifestation of vamping. He makes the song feel like one long ad-lib in the tradition of a kind of testifying/singing in R&B and gospel. R, Kelly, however, brings it to a whole new level, making a traditional part of a song into the whole song itself—restructuring through sampling a fragment of a form repetitively. Exaggeration can be funny. I mean, John Coltrane exaggerated when he played that sax, and some of those violent blarts(!) and breathy broken tones encourage nothing less than laughter, measured in equal parts of joy and discomfort.

The expansiveness of Kelly’s diction—the way he inflates the melody with long words that normally defy musicality—is also funny, but ultimately I hear it as if he is risking being made fun of in order to be earnest. Furthermore, you can’t ignore the role Kelly’s hyper-specificity plays in making his songs work. Perhaps this is how he seems able to completely remove any doubt regarding a unity between the song’s speaker and his own persona, even when he is singing in the roles of others. In other words, R. Kelly’s talent is in his ability to perform an erasure at the moment of singing, sinking invisibly into R. Kelly the character and making us forget that there will always be a difference between the R. Kelly we hear and the R. Kelly who sings.

In this latest song then, when he directly addresses his fans and detractors, he is doing so as R. Kelly would be expected to do it. Listen to how well he does it. Ultimately it comes down to this: Listen to how well R. Kelly does R. Kelly.

The production is perfect and I love the little touches throughout, the finger snaps, the backing gospel-like chorus, the building piano, the pause and crumple of paper right before getting into the list of “serious issues” he has to talk/sing about, the “wooh-hoo-hoo” after singing “crying mad tears,” the subtle emotional breaks in his voice, the call backs as a verse closes on the refrain. R. Kelly’s voice is on point. Listen to how his voice slowly builds in a gospel flavor in the second verse, or the ad-libbed vocal filigree in the final chorus. It really does give me shivers.

And at the same time, he is singing “Tell them, Shut up!,” which seems stupid divorced of the context of his voice and the rest of the song. It is banal without the sincerity that R. Kelly’s performance lends it. Again, I am not saying he is sincere, but that the performance is… There is a subtle difference there. He can make me believe he believes it.

Post-ironic means not that he is devoid of irony, but rather since any potential irony remains in doubt, the form and content must be taken at face value. It is earnestness so well played that I think a lot of other popular music pales in comparison. A lot of popular music fails at obfuscating the fact that the performers are not faking it quite well enough to convince us that they really believe in the generalized platitudes of most popular songs.

Anyway, I am just really feeling this song.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sounding Out! Catching Up. . .

I have not updated this blog in quite a while, but nor because I have stopped listening to music (or in some cases even writing about it).

For example, I am now a regular contributor to Sounding Out!, "a [b]log [that] provides an outlet for ruminations on the role of sound and listening in our contemporary culture." So while I am not always writing about music for this blog, music does come into it.

For example, I wrote the popular, but much-maligned "In Defense of Auto-tune," and a reflection on one of my least favorite songs, entitled "Ain't Got the Same Soul."

I hope to be writing a piece for next Halloween on Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and black sexuality, but before then I have to write to other posts, and probably one will be about music.

In addition, I have been tweeting about my "AlphaiPod" project, in which on my commute I listen to the contents of my iPod in alphabetical order by album title. I noticed that I tended to listen to the same sets of albums depending on my mood, but there was music languishing on my iPod that I hardly (if ever) listen to. So I made myself listen from the beginning and hear what was really on there. Some folks have asked me, "Why alphabetical by album and not artist?" Who wants to have to force themselves to listen to every album by a particular artist? Because of the way I am listening (while driving) that could mean days or even weeks of the same artist with no break. I am not sure I could handle that for most artists.

And yet, my next planned project is just that: I plan to listen to every Prince studio album in the order they were released.

Anyway, if you use Twitter be sure to follow me:!/commutemusic

I hope to add some more posts to this blog over the coming winter break, but at the very least I should be posting links to my music-related posts to Sounding Out!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

5 Songs I'm Feeling

5 Songs I'm Feeling:

"She's a Woman" - I know that I just (well, not just - my last music post was in late June) wrote a whole thing about two Beatles' albums, but having just gotten the re-mastered version of the "Past Masters" double CD (including rarities and singles) there were a few songs I have never owned a personal copy of. "She's a Woman" was the b-side to "I Feel Fine" and is among my favorite Beatles songs because it strikes me as classic and I am amused to no end by the rhythm and rhyme-scheme. And there is something appealingly crunchy about the timbre of the guitar. It is not an overly complex song, but there are some musical aspects that appeal to me, like how the guitars just hit the backbeat staccato the whole time, and how the piano doubles the melody, trailing out after each sung phrase. But there is also earnest playfulness of the lyrics, "My love don't give me presents! I know that she's no peasant!" and Paul McCartney's straining voice, trying hard to emulate Little Richard. Like I said before, the rhyming is pleasing and cute and submerged into the lyrical phrase so it is kind of broken and suggests a jerkiness with the rhythm, "She will never make me jealous / gives me all her time as well as / lovin', don't ask me why." Or, "Turn me on when I get lonely / People tell me that she's only / foolin', I know she isn't." I can listen to this song over and over, and finally let us not forget that few things in this world sound as good as Lennon and McCartney's harmonies - their voices together are greater than the sum of their parts and tickles some aesthetic sense I cannot pinpoint.

"Mountains" - I want to avoid saying this is Prince's best song because it isn't (necessarily), it just sometimes feels that way in the middle of listening to it, and I am listening to it right now. The song has a full sound that comes in after a few reverb-y snare drums and echoing handclaps that punctuate a song built so that it rides a short and simple progression of low-end chords on the piano. Prince sings at the high end of his register (but not the highest), setting up a proposition, that is, the obstacle presented by 17 mountains surrounded by the sea (17 being a number important in Prince's oeuvre) and "the Devil's" suggestion that there will be only more obstacles (mountains) and that "the sea would 1 day overflow with all your tears / And love will always leave u lonely." But then the refrain comes in, full of a chorus of voices (most of them Prince) to bolster the lead vocal and accented by the horn section. It sounds almost like a gospel refrain, but without the traditional gospel harmonic structure. I cannot emphasize how the sound is simultaneously full and muted. . . There is humming synthesized drone deep in the mix and the guitars fill up the mid-section. The fullness of the mid and low ends makes Prince's voice seem to float that much more above it all, and yet never seems distinct from the song, but rather anchored by it. In the second verse, Prince’s voice starts out alone again, but the chorus comes back to back him up on the lyrics "Africa divided, hijack in the air" and never leaves. And then there is the chorus itself (that is, the refrain) which is nothing complex (Prince's songs are rarely lyrically complex), but reaffirms that gospel feel despite its staccato delivery, "It's only mountains and the sea / Love will conquer if you just believe." The first line is then repeated more melodically, and we then hear "There's nothing greater than u and me." As I once mentioned in a post about "instructions" in music, or the meta-aspects of music in songs, I love them, and there is a point in this song when Prince calls to the band, "Guitars and drums on the 1!" and we get just that for a few measures, so we once again get that spacey feels of the drums and the pogo-boing of the bass guitar part. There is a nice little bridge that deconstructs the melody (while keeping that backing drum and builds back to the echoey handclap and the boinging bass and the outro) and there are also lots of little grunts and spoken encouragements that act as a kind of glue. I really can't do it justice. Go out and listen to it and/or check out this live version here:

"I'll Fight" - Off of Wilco's latest album, "Wilco (the album)," this song opens with an acoustic guitar that plays out the main melody which is reinforced (once Jeff Tweedy starts singing) by the repetitiveness of the introductory lyric. "I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go for you, I'll fight, I'll fight, I'll fight for you, I'll kill, I'll kill, I'll kill for you, I will. I will. I will." The repetitiveness underscores a certain sense of plaintive earnestness, or perhaps a better word is resignation to fate and to a role. The second time through the "fighting" turns to "I'll die for you." The rest of the song tells the story of the loss felt by those left behind, but how time goes on, wounds are healed, and ultimately nothing changes - except of course that everything has changed. As Tweedy sings,
And you'll sing to yourself
The rising falling melody
That you could never read
Without the choirs' lead
Still alone and lost in deep
And your soul will not be free.
The song is a painful one and its sense of lament is reinforced by the use of an organ (and the way everything is stripped back down to that acoustic guitar in the interlude). I can't help but think of my nephew when I hear this song and the ideological apparatuses that bolstered not only his enlistment in the army, but the myth of the efficacy of war, the complacency of those of us still here and how it all leads to pain and loss no matter what let ourselves believe about the reasons that it all happens.

"Aquellos Ojos Verdes" - Ibrahim Ferrer. This bolero begins with a dramatic brush of piano that suggests the main melody accompanied by more literal brushes on the ride cymbal. And then Ibrahim's distinctive voice comes in "Aquellos ojos verdes. . ." The reason this song has been on my mind, aside from the obvious. . . (Guess who has green eyes?) is because of the treachery of translation, and the lyrics which are so beautiful in Spanish but seem trite and unoriginal in English - Well, I guess they are not necessarily so original in Spanish either, but the construction itself leads to connotations that I cannot translate and make sense to me as someone immersed in the Spanish language since birth (I like to joke that English is not my first language, but neither is Spanish - they both came second). In particular, I think of the word "tristesas," which very literally can be translated to "sadnesses," but has a suggestion closer to "tragedies." Except of course, that "tragedies" already has a translatable word, "tragedias," and anyway "tragedy" is simultaneously too powerful and too facetious a word to be of use to me. "Sadnesses" doesn't quite work either because it makes the sad feeling into the noun, while "tristestas" suggests an event (thus the suggestion of "tragedy"). Anyway, it is a beautiful song and I recommend listening to it.

"Brooklyn" - In the realm of hip-hop Mos Def's "Black on Both Sides" is already old, having come out in 1999. Then again, in the realm of the culture industry anything 10 years old is considered old, but 10 years hardly seems like any time at all to me. And according to my own naturalized chronometer if I think about 1999 or 2000 I would say it feels like three or four years ago. Weird. Anyway, being here in Binghamton now, I find myself going back to this song to remember Brooklyn in both my romanticized nostalgia vein and also as a means of complicating my relationship to the "broken land". The song opens with an homage to the opening of Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge." "Sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in / Let's hear it for Brooklyn." The song is then broken up into three sections, so it is kind of like a suite. The first section sounds kind of laconic with this great sampled loop in the mix of a handclap and someone calling out "Go Brooklyn!" and the lyrics like most in the song hit a nostalgic note. In fact, my critique of the song comes from the fact that the three sections while sonically representing the plurality of Brooklyn do not thematically (lyrically) cohere among themselves. The second section also has a looped sampled sound of strings and a voice repeating "We live in Brooklyn, baby. . ." that leads to the introduction of a new rhyme scheme (or in the parlance of hip-hop, "style" - something KRS-One often raps about doing and then does it mid-song). This section has one of my favorite lines, "One year as a resident, deeper sentiment / Shout out 'Go Brooklyn!', they representin’ it." Because I am that person that at a concert or other event that calls out when Brooklyn is mentioned. It also has the reference to Brooklyn as "a planet" that one hears in a lot of hip-hop songs from/about the area and a way of refering to the motherland that I personally use often. A couple of weekends ago I was back in Brooklyn and I commented that I feel when returning there the way some of my relatives must feel upon returning to Puerto Rico. I feel an irrational nationalism about Brooklyn, and thus lyrics like, ". . .generals of armies / When it's time to form, just call me / And let this song be, playin’ loud and long, bee / If you love Bucktown STRONGLY!" The third section (which has more of a disjointed rhythm and high-pitched descending scale) is notable for a less idealized view of the borough, "crack babies tryin’ to find where they mama's at / It's off the handle, black / wit big police scandals that / Turn into actions screenplays sold to Miramax," and "The doorstep where the dispossessed posted at / Dope fiends out at Franklin Ave sellin’ zovarax." The song's transitions means that when the next track on the album, "Habitat," it is hard to tell that a new song has begun especially since they are thematically so similar. Check it out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rubber Revolving Soul

I've been listening to a lot of the Beatles lately. I go through cycles and phases with different artists, but the Beatles are one of those groups that come back into heavy rotation every year or so - perhaps I should say heavier rotation - but regardless, it is not uncommon that there be a few weeks where I am likely to listen to one or more Beatles albums a day.

The other day on my way to work I listened to Rubber Soul and really enjoyed it, but put on Revolver immediately after and once again came to the conclusion I have long held: Revolver is just clearly a better album - it is a more impressive set of songs. This is not to say that Rubber Soul is bad. It is still great, but Revolver is better.

In truth, they really work well together - not quite bookends, but more like dividing line, as Rubber Soul despite a few touches that fore-shadow the coming Beatles' sound, has more in common with the older sound, the old rock n'roll sound that came along with covers of Chuck Berry songs and "Twist and Shout." This is not to say that "A Hard Day's Night" and "HELP!" don't have inklings of that later sound and aren't great records in their own right, but it is pretty clear to me that "Revolver" pushes towards what would come in their more psychedelic and experimental phase - stuff on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "The Beatles" (aka "The White Album").

Aside from the sound of the albums (they both sound great and have those classic Lennon/McCartney synergetic harmonies), I think part of the issue is I find the songs on Rubber Soul to be lyrically simpler and more problematic. Sure, a song like "Drive My Car" is cute, what with its simulated car/traffic sounds in the staccato delivery of some of the lyrics ("But I've got a dri-ver and that's a start!") and the sexual innuendo of the hook - and, "Norwegian Wood" is a classic song, certainly inspired by Dylan in ambiguous content (though not quite in sound like Help's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" - more of a folky Birds sound).

But then there are songs like "You Won't See Me," which are not much more than boring in my estimation - though I can't help but think of Lennon's backing "Ooh la la" as kind of sarcastic. "Nowhere Man" is similarly boring, both melodically and in content. This may be a case of it feeling dated in message with its misplaced optimism. The song just seems like a particular product of a 60s mentality of "consciousness" that really doesn't say anything in and of itself and seems to have never changed.

"The Word" may suffer from a similar problem, but I love the way it sounds - the harmonies, the guitars, the shaker.

I will leave aside the banality of "Michelle." Perhaps if they had gotten Ringo to sing it, it might have been salvaged by kitschiness. "What Goes On" works because of that countrified sound that goes along with Ringo's voice. And "I'm Looking Through You" is a classic break-up song. Love it. I love McCartney's lead vocals and the little organ/guitar licks between the verses.

I usually skip over "In My Life" - some people list this as their favorite Beatles' song, but it seems too treacly, what with the sentiment and the fake clavichord. I have never liked it.

But most problematic of all these songs has to be "Run for Your Life." Whoa. I mean, I love the song - The sound of it, that is, but from the very first line "Well, I'd rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man" it is kind of cringe-worthy. What amazes me most, I think, is not just the blatant violence towards women that lyrics suggest, but how acceptable it really is in a mainstream pop song. The title of the song becomes even more ominous when you consider how many women have to do just that, run for their lives, from men who claim to love them. "Baby, I'm determined / And I'd rather see you dead." Of course, the acceptability of violence towards women in music ("Hey Joe," anyone?) and in our culture (many cultures. . . most cultures?) is nothing new and definitely not a thing of the past (Chris Brown, anyone?) - but I have to shake my head when I think about how many years of my youth I heard "Run for your Life" and similar songs without thinking twice about their message.

Revolver, on the other hand, is full of song after great song. Sure, some are better than others, but overall I find them to be more challenging and experimental in content and construction. From the bizarre intro to "Taxman" to the strings of "Eleanor Rigby" to the east Indian sitar intro and drone of "Love You To" and the background tapeloops of "Tomorrow Never Knows," Revolver does things almost none of the songs on Rubber Soul do, and when it does, it does them better.

"I'm Only Sleeping" is a great example, the echoey jangling guitar accented with backward splices of guitar playing (and a "solo" done in similar style) in a song about nothing more than sleeping, not a cliched love song (not that there aren't love song cliches on this albums). It is one of my all time favorite Beatles songs and has a nice taste of Paul McCartney's understated and underrated bass-playing. (oh, and I love the background "oooohs").

Sure, "Here, There and Everywhere" is one of the boring tracks and "Yellow Submarine" is an overplayed kiddie track, but that can be forgiven - few records are perfect (and no Beatles records are, it is just that for the most part even their warts are productive in the broader view) - but then there is another of my all-time faves, "She Said She Said," which opens with one of those classic Beatles sound guitar riffs, has a weird high-pitched whine, and lyrics inspired by tripping on acid with Peter Fonda. I love the weird lurching rhythmic delivery of those lyrics accentuated with awkward repetition of the same words.

"Good Day Sunshine" is sneakily fantastic song - deceptive - but I love the Beach Boys-drenched harmonies/repetition of "good day sunshine" and the pianola strolling piano sound. McCartney, however, supposedly credits The Lovin' Spoonful - but Pet Sounds came out in May of '66 and Revolver was recorded through June of '66 (and released in August, which blows me away) and Pet Sounds is Paul's favorite album - "Good Vibrations" influence can be heard in there.

"For No One" might be a sad love song and the melody may be a bit hackneyed, but the french horn is lovely and the approach to the subject is as sweet and heartfelt as "Dr. Robert" is a bouncy rock n'roll tune with some of the most "classic" sounding Lennon/McCartney harmonies (on "You're a new and better man / He helps you to understand / He does everything he can") - a song about their doctor friend who introduced folks to acid.

I almost didn't mention "I Want to Tell You" (I have not mentioned every single song on these records), but I figured that George deserves more attention, and it includes not only a classic Beatles riff, but the almost dissonant harmonies and the pounding two-feel piano rhythm is that kind of jerky-awkwardness that makes the song come alive and helps to underscore the content, explaining the inability of the song's speaker to quite express what it is they want to say about how he feels about a relationship.

"Got To Get You Into My Life" is brought to life by the horns and one of the best pop song hooks of all time. And yeah, those "Ooohs" at the beginning of the lines that lead to the powerful chorus are fantastic. It is perfect example of why Paul McCartney is one of my favorite songwriters of all time and really (kind of) my favorite Beatle.

Aside: This song will always remind me of a very rainy day in New Paltz in 1996 or '97. I was shopping in town and two guys were ducked under a store awning, one with a walkman, obviously listening to this song and singing along loudly in a nice voice, when suddenly the other guy starts singing a harmony with him and I walked up and spontaneously started a third harmony. We just stood there and sang the song aloud, beaming and having a great time and when we were done, nodded to each other with a smile and went our own way.

"Tomorrow Never Knows" is another of my faves (and I guess that makes Revolver win over Rubber Soul right there, more of my favorite Beatles songs come from that record than probably any other). As I said before, it includes all sorts of tape loops and the voice is amplified through a speaker normally used for an organ - just the perfect example of the kind of successful experimentation that makes Revolver the great record it is. And I love that opening line, "Turn off your mind / Relax and float down stream".

I don't have much to say in conclusion, except to reiterate, listening to these two records back to back, Revolver stands out as the clearly better one - though there is still a quality that resonates in both of them (having been recorded and released so closely) that gives the impression that they are a kind of double-album (and I have seen an interview with George Harrison where he said as much, claiming that he often got confused as to which songs were on which). It may not be fair to try to make the distinction I am making here, but I have made it anyway - and the truth is that while I will likely listen to both these records countless more time in my life, I will probably listen to Revolver a hell of a whole lot more.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Makes Me Weak and Knocks Me Off My Feet. .

"Good morn or evening, friends. . . Here's your friendly announcer. . ."

I skipped March's "album of the month" - I was just too busy to finish my exploration of Lyle Lovett's I Love Everybody, and ultimately was not that happy with it. However, rather than retreat a bit from this project and tackle something a little smaller, I went in the other direction and decided to write about Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life because 1) It is one of the best albums of the 70s, if not all time, and 2) it has been on serious heavy rotation for me lately. It feels like a springtime album to me, and I have been craving some springtime. However, I will only write about the first half of it for now, saving the second half for a latter date, because 1) it is a double album and 2) because I've been listening to the first half more than the second. It is important to keep in mind, that I am discussing the songs here as they are broken up on the CD set. On vinyl, there was an additional EP with 4 songs which were split up and put in pairs at the end of each disc.

The thing about listening to Stevie is that for the most part what you hear is what you get. There are rarely any subtexts or irony in his songs, but everything has that earnestness of soul music - even his metaphors are obvious and his talk of love is unapologetic. But as far as I am concerned that is what I am looking for when I put on Stevie Wonder, and as long you know how to avoid the real cheese (basically most of his stuff from the 80s and beyond), you'll be okay. Songs in the Key of Life may threaten cheese at times, but it is totally mitigated by the earnestness, the funky dynamic grooves and that warm analog production. The album is from 1976 and I think you can tell that by listening. The problem is that sometimes that works in its favor and other times it feels a little dated, both in sound choice and in particular lyrics.

"Love's In Need of Love" opens the double album. Those lovely opening "oohs" are something I find myself singing a lot in the shower, or just walking to the train on a lovely spring day. The opening line "Good morn or evening, friends" speaks to the medium of an album - the listener deciding when to put that vinyl on (Yes, I own this record in both CD and vinyl form) - taking the role of a radio announcer giving a warning over just very soft and solid electric piano and great subtle drumwork with cymbal flourishes and the soft snap of the snare doesn't even come in (along with the backing vocals) until the second time the chorus comes in. There is a real palpable sense of restraint in this song. As Zooey once said when I played him this album, "He sure likes to take his time," and this song is a perfect example, because after those two verses he just plays on a repetition of the chorus over and over, adding little vocal ad-libs while the backing vocals (Stevie overdubs) stretch out the sounds and reinforces that feeling that the song might explode at any moment into some epic paean to love and the need to value it - "Did you ever think that love would be in love?", but it never does. Instead, it tumbles back down to perfect softness, "Just give the world love."

"Have a Talk with God" has a moderate groove that is accentuated with some awesome harmonica work. Hell, if it weren't for the fact that it was the mid-70s I would think it was sampled because of the way it plays with repetition of a phrase. The song is lyrically problematic for me. I mean, I cringe a little every time I hear the lyric, "Well, he's the only free psychiatrist that's known throughout the world / Solving the problems of all men, women, little boys and girls." Which problems is God solving exactly, Stevie? I think of violence, starvation, other forms of suffering and scoff - not to mention how at odds this message is with his more social progressive descriptive songs on the same album (like the following track, "Village Ghetto Land"). However, as someone who finds "talks with God" a helpful exercise, despite my skepticism and belief in a random and absurd universe, I appreciate the message. I can relate to it. The groove helps.

"Village Ghetto Land" has a simple repetitive melody over a bed of synthed out strings sound that is some of what I was talking about when I said that sometimes this record sounds like it is from 1976. It is like Stevie got a new toy when he recorded this song and could not help but use it in a way that is a little overwhelming - baroque even - and the synthed strings gives that impression of the baroque as well. Lyrically, it is a descriptive song that gives us views of life in the ghetto - it particularly gives me feel of the urban deterioration of the 70s. "Broken glass is everywhere / It's a bloody scene / Killing plagues the citizens / Unless they own police." And then there is the conclusion that I feel is at odds with the afore-mentioned, "Have a Talk with God": "Now some folks say that we should be / Glad for what we have / Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?"

"Contusion" is a poorly thought out instrumental fusion piece that I guiltily admit I skip almost every time I listen to this album.

"Sir Duke/I Wish" - These two songs are so well-known and so classic, I feel almost as if I don't need to write about them at all. They also go together in my mind, thus my listing them together. "Sir Duke" is one of those songs about music that I love. It is just so fresh and lively and sincere and speaks of music in a way I can deeply relate to - but more than anything it is the horns on this song that make it work, and the guttural encouragements that Stevie gives them, telling them to "Go!" The flourishes they give at the end of the lines and of course, the repetition of that melody on horn while the high-hat keeps time. . . You can't help but "feel it" just like the song says we do, "They can feel it all over!" - The bassline and plucky guitar of "I Wish" comes right out that last call to the horns to play that line again capped off with two hard staccato notes of ending/transition. (Though interestingly on the vinyl Side A ends here and Side B starts with "I Wish") It is the that electric piano groove that really carries this song. It is subtle, but holds aloft the wordy descriptive lyrics of unrepentant nostalgia - and that is exactly what it is, unrepentant. Singing of childhood, "I wish those days could come back once more / Why did those days ev-er have to go? / Cause I love them so." Again, to me this song is about good feelings and I don't like to undermine that too much by considering the fact that we do ourselves (and those that still suffer from it) an injustice when we sentimentalize poverty. So when Stevie sings of Christmas, "Even though we sometimes would not get a thing / We were happy with the joy the day would bring" I can't help but think that for a child suffering want, it might not be so easy to understand or appreciate that joy. Or on a more personal, less political level, I think that childhood, as wonderful as it can be, can also be a time of deep frustration and lack of choice. I think a lot of adults who express a desire to be young again forget how much of their lives were determined by others and institutions in those years, and how typically your resources are severely limited in terms of changing that. But whatever, it is still a great song, especially if you can forget the travesty that was Will Smith using it as the basis for the "Wild, Wild West" song for that awful movie. . . Stevie even agreed to be in video. . . Did I mention the movie was awful? I mean, giant robots in the old west sounds good until actually happens - I am all for remakes of mostly forgotten mash-ups of genre - but ugh! The highlight of the movie is the flash of Salma Hayek's butt you get in one scene, but not worth the price of admission even when played on cable.

"Knocks Me Off My Feet" - I have been listening to this song obsessively lately, and if you don't already own Songs in the Key of Life then you need to get off your ass and go buy it, or if you are into the whole downloading thing like the kids are these days, keep your ass in the chair, open up a tab on your browser or go to iTunes and get the album! And if not the album then this song. (Or I guess you can just listen to it on You Tube here). I am not going to say much about it except that I feel it lately. It is in some deep rotation for me - and despite its warning that its message may cause boredom, the repetition and earnestness work for me every time, especially when that syncopated high-hat comes in for the chorus near the end, to give it that underlying disco feel despite its soulful ballad origins, with the soft touches and the drum hits that parallel the melody that build to that beautiful chorus. Listen.

"Pastime Paradise" - People recognize this song because Coolio used it as the basis for "Gangsta Paradise" for that awful Michelle Pfieffer movie, whatever, whatever it was called. . . I forget. I don't care. Or, perhaps you prefer Weird Al's "Amish Paradise" (the beef between Coolio and Weird Al is legendary! - the former getting pissed at the latter for parodying his song! Uh, Coolio? Let me play something for you. . .) Anyway, again the lyrics of this song seems at odds with both "I Wish" ("They've been wasting most their time / Glorifying days long gone behind") and "Have a Talk with God" ("They've been spending most their lives / Living in a future paradise / They've been looking in their minds / For the day that sorrow's gone from time / They keep telling of the day / When the savior of love will come to stay"). It is a simple song and the refrain repetition of words that end in "-tion" seems like perhaps it may not really mean anything, "Dissipation / Race relations / Consolation / Segregation / Dispensation / Isolation / Exploitation / Mutilation / Mutations / Miscreation / the evils of the world." But again, the song works. Strong music and earnestness can overcome weak lyrics for me, and in this case the string quartet (is it a synth? - don't think they sounded that good in '76 - it is.) over the moderate latin groove on the conga and a guiro more than make up for it.

"Summer Soft" is another song I have been feeling particularly lately because of April's inconsistent inclemency and unwillingness to get progressively warmer like I remember spring once doing, but maybe it never did that. . . Anyway, the song is the most poetic of the album, and while the metaphor of the unpredictability of the seasons/weather with love is pretty obvious it is still not as transparent as typical for Stevie's lyrics. The verses are as softly sung as what he is singing about, and the piano is quick, sprightly even, but with a strong build of rhythm accentuated by the rimshot snare until the gush of the refrain hits.
Summer soft ....
Wakes you up with a kiss to start the morning off
In the midst of herself playing Santa Claus
She brings gifts through her breeze

Morning rain ....
Gently plays her rhythms on your window pane
Giving you no clue of when she plans to change
To bring rain or sunshine

The second set of verses gives winter a male gender and I love how there is a bit more forcefulness and menace with this seasonal personification: "Winter wind..../ Whispers to you that he wants to be your friend / But not waiting for your answer he begins / Forcing dangers way with his breeze," suggesting that masculine aggression we all know so well.

The refrain is, as I said, a powerful gush, an accepting lament in tune with the inevitability of the changing of the seasons - the inevitability of lost love.

And so you wait to see what he'll do
Is it sun or rain for you?
But it breaks your heart in two
Cause you've been fooled by April

And he's gone
And he's gone
Winter's gone

You find it's October
And she's gone
And she's gone
Summer's gone

The organ work in the is song is amazing, but like many of the songs on this album it is the drums that seem to carry it on - the rhythms are strong and driving with melodic flourishes that accentuate and syncopate. Amazing to think that Stevie played most of the instruments on all of these tracks. Wanna see/hear Stevie jam it out on the drums? Click Here.

"Ordinary Pain" is a wonderful dyad of a song - the first portion being a lament of lost love and the second being a reply by the object of that love that gives the listener new insight, or at least a different point of view, on the situation. The first part of the song is sung by Stevie, sweet and soulful carried by a crisp electric guitar rhythm and vibraphone (or is it a xylophone?) melodic accentuations that parallel every time the oft-repeated phrase "ordinary pain" is sung. The laconic delivery really works for the song, the sense of trying to hold back real anguish with reason - the realization that the feeling of loss from a ended romance is normal, "ordinary," and to think that it is more than ordinary, to privilege your feelings over those any other person might have felt is to appear more than a little foolish. And it is about appearances, because the authenticity of feeling is never in doubt to the person feeling it, to everyone else the authenticity is beside the point, displays of that kind of emotion are slightly distasteful to even the most sympathetic person.

When you by chance
Go knock on her door
Walkin' away
convinced that
it's much more
Than just an ordinary
pain in your heart
It's more than just
An ordinary pain in your heart

Don't fool yourself
But tell no one else
That it's more than just
An ordinary pain
In your heart

The second portion of the song is sung by a woman (Shirley Brewer), and its sentiment is a lot harsher than the sad, slightly pathetic voice of the first part. Shirley's voice has a scolding tone emphasized by a chorus of women repeatedly hitting every syllable with staccato fury "or-DIN-ary pain / or-DIN-ary pain!" It becomes clear that the woman he sings of in the first part might have had reason to treat him so unkindly, "You're cryin' big crocodile tears / Don't match the ones I've cried for years / When I was home waiting for you / You were out somewhere doing the do / You know I'd really like to stay / But like you did I've got to play." The tempo of the music picks up and there is an off-eighths high-hat that gives it kind of pre-disco groove with a spacy guitar further back in the mix accompanied by an alto sax, and Stevie's electric piano keeps it altogether. Back when I used to DJ I used to sometimes play just the second half of this song.

"Saturn" comes in right after "Ordinary Pain" with epic sounding synth sounds over piano chords meant to emulate the strains of royal horns, or perhaps God's heavenly band blowing their brass. I can imagine that it may sound tinny or cheesy to 21st century ears, but there is something about the smallness of the sound juxtaposed with what it is trying to convey that works for me still, as if the hope in the song is beyond the confines of Earth - and rightly so, because here Stevie is so thirsting for a better more just world that he imagines his people coming not from somewhere else on this planet, but from Saturn where things make more sense through compassion and wonder. The longing in this song hits me every time from the very first line, "Packing my bags / going away / to a place where the air is clean / on Saturn." However, the song is as much an accusation as it is a vision of hope, because there is a "you" addressed in its verses that can be interpreted broadly as those in power on Earth, though honestly I tend to think of the "you" as white people and people of color being the people from Saturn - like hey, maybe things are set up the way they are because we are from another planet after all -

We have come here many times before
To find your strategy to peace is war
Killing helpless men, women and children
That don't even know what they are dying for
We can't trust you when you take a stand
With a gun and Bible in your hand,
With a cold expression on your face
Saying give us what we want or we'll destroy

But the chorus is a shout out to the vision of Saturn's wonder, "Going back to Saturn where the rings all glow / Rainbow moonbeams and orange snow / On Saturn / People live to be two hundred and five / Going back to Saturn where the people smile / Don't need cars cause we've learn to fly / On Saturn / Just to live to us is our natural high." Again, Stevie's lyrics are not his strength necessarily, it is the power of his voice, the emotion, the earnestness of soul that elevates his work. I love this song.

"Ebony Eyes" - This song begins with a recording of a group of girls playing double-dutch, singing one of those songs that end with a reciting of the alphabet, with the letter where the jumper messes up indicating who their crush, or true love or whatever might be. The scene ends with the girls screeching at the jumper, "Paul! Oh Paul!" and then the piano that carries the song comes in. It is beautiful and bouncy love song that references the "Black is Beautiful" movement, "She's a Miss Beautiful Supreme / A girl that other wish that they could be / If there's seven wonders of the world / Then I know she's gotta be number one / She's a girl that can't be beat / Born and raised on ghetto streets / She's a devastating beauty / A pretty girl with ebony eyes." It is a positive and uplifting way to end the first part of the album, closing on a soft roll of abrupt drums.

The second part of the record opens with "Isn't She Lovely" and while I said I was only doing the songs on Disc One here, I figured I would mention a little about some of them as who know if and when I'll ever get to a closer overview of it. Anyway, "Isn't She Lovely" is a sweet song to his daughter Aisha, but unfortunately it is made overlong by the addition of a recording of her in the bath. I guess there must be a radio edit, and sometimes I wish I could have the option of that one when I put the record on. I mean, I respect the love and joy that led Stevie to write the song and to include her baby-voice and cooing parental tones to the end of it - but it gets to be a little much. "Black Man" is a song to celebrate 1976, the Bicentennial. There are aspects to this song I really love, despite its problematic use of terms like "yellow man" to speak of Asians, or the fact that despite the little swell of pride I am meant to feel when he sings "I know the birthday of a nation / is a time when a country celebrates / but when your hand touches your heart / Remember we all played a part / in America to help that banner wave" I know that what we were all helping to was steal land from the people already here and that a lot of that building was done on the backs of the enslaved. "If It's Magic" is just voice and harp and a heartbreaking song that speaks to the inevitability of love lost. "If it's pleasing / then why can't it be never-leaving?"

"As" is one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs of all time. The last time I was convinced of the existence of God was when he performed this song at the end of a ceremony in his honor on BET I managed to catch six or seven years ago. There was a halo of divine light emanating from him and I thought I saw God peek his out from behind Stevie and wink at me. Finally, "All-Day Sucker" reminds me of "Ordinary Pain," or at least I used to get them confused. "I'm an all day sucker / Coming to give something to get nothin' / I'm an all day sucker / Coming to give something but to get none of your love." It has great groove and an unlikely wild electric guitar part in the middle of the mix with the repetition of a distorted singing of "all day sucker for your love / all day sucker cup for your love."

Like I said at the beginning "Songs in the Key of Life" feels like a spring/summertime album for me (in a long list of summer/spring albums I love to listen to - like XTC's Skylarking and a lot of hip-hop records) and I am sure I will listen to it in part and in full dozens, if not scores, of more times between now and September. I think you should, too.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Me Upon My Pony On My Boat

Just one song today, though I may be doing a whole album by this artist in March as my "album of the month."

Lyle Lovett is one of my favorite songwriters. It is about his quirky way of expressing the simple and his way of exploring that area where country, blues and gospel intersect and overlap. It the discovery of his music that gave me what I needed to fearlessly explore country for what there was to appeal to me there, and eschew the final shackles of genre that were holding me back from appreciating music in a completely free way.

"If I Had a Boat" (off of Pontiac (1988)) is a song of the bitterness of lost love though it may not seem that way from a superficial examination of its lyrics. Musically it is a simple song, a finger-picked progression high-up on the fretboard with a walking bass-line that does not change really for the refrain or verses - just reinforcing the last line of each that delivers the little punch or point of the song/verse with a pleasing resolution of the progression. There is a dobro in there and some simple drumming as well to develop the ambience of the song.

It opens with the refrain as if the song had already started, had been being sung perpetually.
(and) If I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat
It is silly, and I think it was meant to be - this image of a man riding a horse on a boat. I imagine not too big a boat, actually - though I guess there is nothing in the song to say one way or another. I always imagine a boat just big enough for a horse with a man on it, though I guess for it to be able to "go out on the ocean" we'd hope it'd be a boat of sufficient size to deal with those oceanic swells - but I am being too literal in my imaginings. It is beside the point. The point is the silliness, a man on a pony on a boat. What does this even mean? Perhaps the verses can shed light on it for us.
If I were Roy Rogers
I'd sure enough be single
I couldn't bring myself to marrying old Dale
It'd just be me and Trigger

Here is where we get to understand what this song is about. The lyrics suggest a retreat from a(n even legendary) romantic relationship, preferring instead the steady companionship of a horse. (Note that Roy Rogers had Trigger stuffed when he died). The desire for the boat and the ability to escape across the ocean that it represents and the companionship of the pony is a retreat from more complex adult desires. There is something child-like about wishing for a boat and pony, and in their absurd combination. It sounds like something a kid would say, and the rejecting Dale Evans underscores that infantilism - an urge to return to sexual latency - in other words, "Girls? Yuck!" The cowboy allusions in the song also have the same effect. They are the superheroes of the mythical West.

The cowboy references continue in the second verse where the replacement figure for Dale becomes Tonto. . . Kind of. . . Actually, the allusion gets kind of mixed up and turned around and it is less clear who the singer is meaning to associate himself with. He does not say "The Lone Ranger," but he says that the "Mystery masked-man was smart / He got himself a Tonto." Here it seems that "a Tonto" is like Trigger for Dale in the first verse, a replacement for a woman (which has that homoerotic undertone that I like). Yet, by verse's end, it seems to have switched, because "Tonto he was smarter / And one day said kemo sabe / Kiss my ass I bought a boat / I'm going out to sea." Again, a relationship is dissolved in favor of escape and retreat, out of bitterness for doing "the dirty work for free." The replacement figure in this lyrics becomes the one who needs to escape the relationship. The phrase "dirty work" is also pregnant with meaning, referring literally to whatever violence and violations the Lone Ranger and Tonto committed in their adventures, but I am convinced there is a sexual reference there as well. "Dirty work for free" can totally refer to sex (again with that homoerotic undertone between the Lone Ranger and his sidekick) and the resentment stemming from lack of recognition and being a sideline character - that is, being taken for granted.

The third verse is the hardest to parse, I think. The reference to being "like lightning" is easy enough to figure out, ephemeral, powerful, quick, uncatchable. The reference to not needing sneakers is about how as lightning he could "come and go wherever [he] would please" not having to slip or sneak off, but could be free of the obligations of relationships, coming and going boldly, without worry or regret. Again, the primary desire being expressed here is to escape the potential complexity and loss of adult relationships, preferring the more base emotion of fear ("And I'd scare 'em by the shade tree / And I'd scare 'em by the light pole") as means of establishing control of the situation. "But I would not scare my pony on my boat out on the sea" he sings, reinforcing that control, the safety and separation of being on his pony on his boat - fulfilling a childish desire.

I love this song. Simple and quirky in the way that I love many of Lyle Lovett's songs, but still obfuscating what might be an unhealthy desire, but an understandable one nonetheless - a lament for something simple and pleasurable and reliable, but ultimately unattainable and (for me at least) too isolated and insulated from the pleasures of adult relationships.

As for the video (which is equally simple), I love the disruption of the "video illusion" in certain scenes where Lovett's lip-synching is ruined by his laughing. I also love the reminder of what his hair used to look like. I remember a time when his hair was what people most mentioned about him (well, that and his marriage to Julia Roberts).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nothing But Blue Skies. . .

I love them sweet blues.

I think the blues get a bum rap because they are associated only with sadness, with loss commonly reinforced by a repetitive 12-bar structure and the often equally repetitive call-and-response of the lyrics, or the four-line lyric structure where the first line is repeated three times and then resolved with the rhyming third line and that repetition can seem morose, like a form of wallowing in grief - But it is in that repetition that the subtly and beauty of the form - the joyousness of it - emerges.

There is joy in the blues. The suggestion of it resides deep inside its lament. Sure, sometimes it is more obvious than other, sometimes it can be noted in the humor of the blues, the hyperbole of sadness that bursts grief and blooms in the form of a smile or the spontaneous hiccup of laughter. (And sometimes the blues becomes a joke, which is okay in small doses, I guess - but too often the simplicity of its structure allows for severely unfunny untalented people to drive it into the ground. It is okay to makes the blues into a joke, but you have to respect it, too - whatever respecting it means). But leaving that aside, there is still joy in the blues. Every feeling has within it the suggestion and reminder of its opposite, and everything we grasp has the potential to be lost - so when we express that loss there is an implicit expression of what it was we had or want again. In a way to sing of loss, of grief, of hurt is to celebrate the feelings whose loss gives them meaning - give them a horizon of significance to be measured against.

I cannot listen to the blues without feeling that, and even longing for something you have never had - might never, probably will never have - is something that total lack is not - it is something that allows for song to emerge. Music makes even sadness beautiful.

I love them sweet blues.

The glissando of blues singing drips with that sweetness, and the cadence of the flattened third, or fifth or seventh brings delicious tension that is resolved with the turn-around from that 12th bar back to the first (though don't let me fool you into thinking that all blues are 12-bar blues, it is just the most common, the most familiar to most people - but blues in a minor key, for example, often is built around 16-bar progressions).

And I love that shuffling rhythm of blues, that feeling like you can just keep walking, like the rain doesn't touch you (it ain't called a walking bassline for nothing).

The blues make me hopeful. They make me say, "This is what life is" and enjoy it - and while that joy may be problematic politically (didn't think I could get through a post here without using that phrase, did you?) it is no less joyous, wonderful, beautiful in the feeling it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

5 Songs I'm Feeling

Here are 5 songs I been really feeling lately:

"Darling Nikki" (off of Purple Rain) is just such a great song. There is always a lot of emphasis on Prince's lyrics on this song, and rightly so. I mean, there are countless people of my generation that had whatever they were doing arrested at age 11, 12, 13, 14 by hearing "I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating to a magazine." And his groans and screams, the desperation in his voice and the unintelligible sections ("Nikki's love willakickayourbehind / Oh just show ya no mercy!") all make the song work and conveys everything the lyrics only suggest, but listening to the song lately I am struck by what the Revolution are doing in the background. They are riding this almost mechanistic self-arresting orgiastic groove. The drums are so fragmented throughout the song, just occasionally falling into an almost tic-toc two-feel, before stuttering on the cymbals. Really, it is Wendy and Lisa's guitar and keyboard work that carries the song, especially Wendy's little flair that serve to ornament Prince's singing. Then again, I am attributing this stuff to the band, but according to Purple Rain's liner notes, Prince played all the instruments on the recording.

It is really the stops that make this song work, the sexual tension they emulate, until the keyboards hit that hard coda over and over, like a relieving rush. The backwards singing at the end of the song over the sound rain is the calm of post-orgasm. The backwards recording is a play on the fears of satanic messages recorded backwards on rock records, except true to Prince's occasionally creepy Christianity, played forwards it says: "Hello, how are you? I'm fine, 'cause I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon."

"Love Dog" is off of TV on the Radio's Dear Science which I have been listening to with an obsession I have not had for a record since Radiohead's In Rainbows came out. More than any other song on the record (so far) "Love Dog" seems to hit it right both lyrically and musically, from the perfect "Ooooh ooh ooohs" to open the song, to the tight drum part, perfectly and crisply recorded. And the mellow electric piano sound that buoys the prayer-like delivery of the lyrics. The straining backing harmony that sometimes comes in also helps to convey the plaintive sadness of the song's subject. The whole song has a very subtle build as more and more elements join it, soft horns - filling out the sound, eventually joined by strings and whirring electronic sounds.

At one point they sing:

Nameless you above me
Come lay me low and love me
This lonely little love dog
That no one knows the name of

Curse me out in free verse
Wrap me up and reverse this
Patience is a virtue
Until it's silence burns you

. . . and it speaks to me in a way I cannot quite articulate.

Speaking of In Rainbows, "Nude" is a haunting song that never quite escapes me. "Haunting" is the perfect word, because the "ooohs" here do sound like ghost whispers, and there is a sense of disorientation from what sound like some kind backwards effect on the keyboard, maybe even the snare hits might be brushed with the effect. The bass is so stripped down and bouncing along perfect and dub-like when it comes in to carry Thome York's strained voice. "Don't get any / big ideas / they're not / gonna happen," he sings, holding back the syllables to create tension and build up the anticipation. All there is for that first verse is the bass and voice with some ghostly keyboard way back in the mix until a guitar comes in to echo the bass notes with some soft chords. "Nude" seems to capture the ineffiability of the ephemeral perfectly, "Now that you've found it it's gone / Now that you feel it you don't." All the musical elements come together perfectly with a subtle build similar to that I described in "Love Dog" - and that final accusatory "You'll go to hell / for what your / dirty mind / is thinking" the last syllable drawn out back to the "ooohs" that die down and then rise back up to something almost heavenly - a soul fleeing its mortal vestments and ascending in contrast to the sad pronouncement of the final lyrics.

I think the reason this song started hitting the nail on the head for me was because at the time that I started listening to the record I was going on a lot of first dates that were serving more to disappoint me than to give me hope of meeting someone that could burst my ambivalence.

"For You" is off of Greetings from Asbury Park, a record I have been listening to with some obsession (along with other early Springsteen) since the Super Bowl. I am so easily influenced when it comes to music getting into my heavy rotation - all it takes is one listen to a particular song or artist in a particular setting and something clicks in my mind and I won't be satisfied until I have gone back to plumbing their discography. "For You" is much more of a straight-up rock song, and as such I feel like I have little to say about its instrumentation. It just starts with the snap of drums and the little piano rhythm and the acoustinc strumming that accompanies Bruce's voice. Really, this song is all about Springsteen's crammed lyrics and his delivery. . . I remember the first time I heard this song it was the mid-90s, when I was standing out front of a bodega on Flatbush avenue waiting for the bassist of my band to come out with beer, and Zooey leaned over and began to sing it into my ear.

To me the song speaks of the impossibility of "saving" someone no matter how you might desire it - and how it martyrs the savior as they absorb the abuse of it "like some soldier undaunted." The strongest part of the song is the refrain which is savored by the fact that it is only sung twice, as after the second verse instead of returning to it the song builds out the anticipation as if it were to come and instead has a brief acoustic guitar break and then a bridge with descending chords. Bruce sings then screams, "And your strength is devastating in the face of all these odds / Remember how I kept you waiting when it was my turn to be the god?" But what I was talking about was the refrain that is arrived at by means of the music moving to feel as if the band were trying to put on the brakes but somehow the momentum will not be restrained, until the drums tap and the Boss sings, "I came for you, for you, I came for you, / but you did not need my urgency / I came for you, for you, I came for you, / but your life was one long emergency / and your cloud line urges me, and my electric surges free." I am not even sure what "my electric surges free" is supposed to mean. The "cloud line urges me" makes sense because of that urge to rescue, to cast aside the storm clouds of someone else's life.

There may also be a suggestion here that the "you" in the song doesn't want to be saved, "you did not need my urgency," which makes sense when your life is one long emergency, since the very idea of what an emergency is loses its meaning when stretched out indefinitely as timeliness is part and parcel of its definition. A little bit of organ ends the song. . . Ultimately, it is the very unneeded urgency of how the song is delivered that makes it work and that gives the sense that perhaps the speaker is the one who feeling an urgent desire to be saved. I mean, it is the "you" in the song that is compared to Superman: "Didn't you think I knew that you were born with the power of a locomotive / able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?" I don't know. I just feel it.

"Sometimes I Forget," by Loudon Wainwright III (of off History) is another song that is more about the feeling and lyrics than any particular musical achievement. Written for his father that passed, whenever this song comes on I cannot help but think of both my nephew and mi abuela who died in 2007 and 2008 respectively. The song is just Loudon singing accompanied by nothing but his guitar, and explaining how a person's absence is most strongly felt in those moments when we forget that the person is "gone and not coming back."

It's as if all you've done is go out of town
You'll be back soon, that's just how it looks
But your suitcase is empty, it's right here in the hall
That's not even the strangest thing
Why would you leave your wallet behind?
Your glasses, your wristwatch and ring?
The song is just sparse and sad and raw - and when I hear, "And there was something I wanted to tell you so bad / Something I knew that you'd want to know" I am overwhelmed by the thought of all things I would have liked to tell my nephew and never got a chance to. And when I hear "Momentos, memories, tell me what good are they?" I think of all the things mi abuela left behind and the process of going through to clear out what wasn't needed, what could be donated, what could be thrown away and what we would each keep to remember her by. And while the song ends with a hopeful note, "Sometimes I forget that you've gone / Sometimes it feels like you're right here / Right now it feels like you're right here," ultimately, the feeling the song leaves me with is irrecoverable loss.

Monday, February 9, 2009

what was yours is everyone’s from now on

Welcome to the Future.

I have been writing with some irregularity about music on my personal blog for some years now, and since I am trying to do it more regularly, I figured I would start a blog that was for nothing but these posts about music - mostly "classic" albums I will always love and particular songs I am particularly feeling at particular times. When I say I am "feeling" a song, I just mean something about its sound and/or lyrical content is resonating with my general mood, and since I am obsessed with articulating why I like the things I like (and don't like the things I don't like) usually my writing about music emerges from the strength of this "feeling."

I wanted to date this entry way into the future (my 40th birthday, so I guess not that far - but this explains my opening line here, "Welcome to the future".) so it would always be the first one (at least until that date when maybe I will set it ahead to my 45th birthday), but I cannot figure out how to do that and have it appear before that date. . . So, when I transfer over some of my music posts from my older blog I am going to try to backdate them - so some of the dates are going to range back four or five years - try not to get confused.

Recently, I began a little project where I try to write about one of my favorite albums each month. So far, I have January (Prince's 1999) and February (The Police's Regatta de Blanc) 2009, and I will definitely be transferring those over and the rest of them will go on here from now on. I have not decided if I will cross-post, but it is likely.

The name for this blog comes the Wilco song "What Light" from Sky Blue Sky, in which Jeff Tweedy sings, "And if the whole world’s singing your songs / And all of your paintings have been hung / Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on." This captures my feelings perfectly on all art forms - once it is created and put out there it doesn't belong to the artist anymore and they really have nothing to do with it. I am also a strong believer in music being free, so while I myself have not illegally downloaded music in many years, it is only because the sound quality of those Mp3s do not satisfy me and my obsessive need to collect requires album art (even if it is a lost art) and liner notes. I need to own the physical object. I don't trust computers to hold onto that info indefinitely. It has nothing to do with the dubious (im)morality of doing so.

Comments and questions are welcome.

Just a Castaway. . .

I started writing this month's essay on one of my favorite albums - Ben Folds Five's Whatever and Ever Amen, but the close-listening just confirmed what I had been considering for a while, which is that the record does not do it for me the way it once did. Perhaps I have "outgrown it," or perhaps I am just not in that same bitter recently broken up moving through a weird relationship mode like I was when I first became enamoured of it. And while I wrote more than half of it and at first I was going to just muddle through and finish examining it, this morning I put Regatta de Blanc by The Police on my iPod and it struck me that this is a classic album that my appreciation for has deepened in the 20+ years I have been listening to it. This was the album I should write about.

I started listening to this record at the end of my freshman year in high school, so 1986, seven years after it had been released. My Police obsession had penetrated my bubble of hip-hop, soul and R&B that I lived in then when Synchronicity came out while I was in 7th grade, but it would not be for a couple of years before I began to explore the rest of their records. For a good part of my high school years if you asked me what my favorite bands were I would have replied, "The Police, Prince and Pink Floyd," and true to teen-aged obsession with obscure meaning, I used to try to figure out what it was about the letter 'P' that made me like the bands - or maybe I was just high. . .

When I first started listening to the Police it was probably the lyrics and the reggae feel that drew me in ("Regatta de Blanc" is supposedly some bastardized French for "White Reggae"), but like any good band as time went on different aspects of the music appealed to me. For a long time it was (and to some degree still is) Steward Copeland's phenomenal drumming, but more recently I have come to feel that Andy Summers' guitar-playing is underrated and is just as phenomenal. I mean, it is so understated and perfect as to blend in and be almost forgotten, but when you train your ear to break the parts up and really listen you can hear both the intricacy of the progressions and the deceiving simplicity of the rhythms he plays. He is not a shreddy lead-guitar kind of guitar player (though he can do that), but rather his rhythmic flares keeps things moving over Sting's journeyman basslines and Stewart's expressive drumming.

The opening track is an example of a song that I might have just heard too many times in my life to still have the same effect on me. "Message in a Bottle" may just forever be one of those teenage songs to me, expressing the collective alienation I was beginning to sense at that age and that is so easy to wallow in at 15 or 16. If anything, it is definitely one of the most straightforward of their songs with the pounding snare and the driving descending progression, but Copeland's fills and his ever-excellent cymbal work fills it out nicely. Of course, I shouldn't discount Sting's ability to carry the song vocally. Sometimes I forget what he was once capable because of the intervening years of his mostly stinky solo records (with some exceptional tracks).

While the title track is nothing impressive lyrically with some fake "world music" nonsense words and sounds, the instruments themselves are excellent from Copeland's great rim-taps to Summers' airy slow appregiating of chords to open the song and just showing how much you can do with nothing but rhythm (even if the bass parts are rather simple and repetitive). "It's Alright For You" might be the weakest track on the record (perhaps second weakest depending on how you feel about "On Any Other Day") with its psuedo-punk approach and rapid-fire lyrics. It just has no depth and musically is not all that interesting - I guess the little "turn around" riff between the verse on the guitar is vaguely interesting, but I can't help but wonder what this song is really about. Hmm, take it back about being completely muscially uninteresting, I guess the guitar break a little more than halfway through the song shows some interesting effects on the guitar making it sound like two different instruments.

"Bring On the Night" would be my favorite song on the record if it weren't for the first song on the second side. I just love how it builds with the high-hat hits and the nearly helicopterish guitar that transforms into one of the most interesting chord progressions in any of their songs, almost behind the beat and finger-picked I can spend 4+ minutes of the track doing nothing but listening to that part alone, but when the chorus comes, the bass is that simple boucey feel that carries you through and perfectly expresses the relief of the night's arrival, aided by the reggae strumming that comes on the guitar. Copeland plays the highhat almost throughout and again, Sting's voice is perfect here, perfectly expressing both the desire and relief. According to wikipedia, the song is supposed to be about the execution of Gary Gilmore, but I never knew that until recently, and I don't know the source for that information. Seems irrelevant. "Deathwish" has no chorus. Just three verses sung amid what is mostly an instrumental. In fact, it is easy for me to forget there are lyrics at all. Like a lot of these songs it has a driving rhythm that is accented nicely by Andy Summers' guitar (great mix of struming, arrpegiating and use of echo). I like the lyrics.

Deathwish in the fading light
Headlight pointing through the night
Never thought I’d see the day
Playing with my life this way

Gotta keep my foot right down
If I had wings I’d leave the ground
Buning in the outside lane
People think that I’m insane

The day I take a bend too fast
Judgement that could be my last
I’ll be wiped right off the slate
Don’t wait up ’cause I’ll be late

Side Two begins with what is probably my favorite song by the Police, "Walking on the Moon." From the instantly recognizable bassline to the echoing guitar chords and jaunty reggae feel that imply some loss of gravity, the song's simplicity is its strength. Again, this song displays Stewart Copeland's excellent highhat work, but it is the feeling it more than adequately describes that is the best part of it. Or perhaps it is just me, the silly romantic that I can be - but the sensation: "Walking back from your house / Walking on the moon / Walking back from your house / Walking on the moon / Your feet they hardly touch the ground. . ." I know it so well, and I love it. It is a moment divorced from the future, just like you'd feel divorced from gravity making giant steps across the moonscape. The song ends with more of Copeland's great cymbal-work and the echoing "Keep it up" suggests not only a common call out in ska and reggae, but also the weightlessness itself. The song is just as close to perfect as you can get, if you ask me.

"On Any Other Day" was written by Stewart Copeland and he does most of the singing on it. It starts with him saying "The other ones are complete bullshit. . " which suggests not only that his other offerings are worse, but that they think this track is bullshit as well to some degree - and I cannot disagree. It just has a jokey sophmoric feel that just doesn't sit well with me and doesn't age well. I guess the horrible things listed in the song are happening on the protagonist's birthday. . . But really, I don't care. It isn't even very interesting musically and ultimately not all that funny.

"The Bed's Too Big Without You" on the other hand is another of my favorites off this album. A kind of reggae ballad that puts the guitar, bass and drum pieces together beautifully. The song fades in from the left channel and then comes in stereo (I have heard a mono version), and has the perfect tempo for Sting's languid lyrics.

"Contact" is a weird song with a droning bassline and obscure lyrics, though I like the chorus. "Have we got contact, you and me? Have we got touchtone? Can we be?" It not a very long song, and neither is the song that follows it that at one time I would have probably said was my favorite on the album, "Does Everyone Stare?" This song is unique in that it starts with piano and Stewart Copeland singing a kind of muffled lead that echoes the verses to come until the song really starts up and Sting takes over the lead vocals - just before he does there is a sample(? - can I call it a sample?) of a man's operatic voice further back in the mix, not sure what is up with that, but it works. Again, this is a song that I think my teenaged self related to because of the awkwardness it conveys (reinforced by the purposefully slightly off-time kind of marching drum that goes along with the the trotting piano chords). "I change my clothes ten times before I take you on a date / I get the heebie-jeebies and my panic makes me late / I break into a cold sweat reaching for the phone / I let it ring twice before / I chicken out and decide you're not at home." Of course, the very idea of staring at a woman reinforces the awkward creepiness of it.

The closing track is "The Other Way of Stopping" is a fast-paced frenetic song with some amazing drumming.

Overall, I find Regatta de Blanc to be the Police's best album, though I am leaving aside the problematic aspect of cultural appropriation that come along with the idea of "white reggae," mainstreaming it beyond even the broader popularity that Bob Marley gave it. Reading this over I also find that my enthusiasm for the record is lacking compared to what I wrote about 1999 last month. I think that might because of my recent discovery of TV on the Radio's Dear Science, and right now everything I am feeling about it is what Regatta de Blanc is not. It fills that bottom middle in a way that the sparseness of the Police's tunes do not, and while I love that sparseness, the negative aural space that it creates, right now I am appreciating that fullness contrasted with the falsetto voices and the frequent handclaps. I have also been kind of obsessively listening to some early Springsteen records and they too have a "full" sound laid over with that cramped lyricality with endless eternal rhyme that Bruce was into back then. I may have to write about Greetings from Asbury Park next month, that is, if I am not still so into Dear Science that I just have to write about it.