Monday, October 30, 2006

"You Should've Been There" / Marshall Crenshaw

What ever happened to Marshall Crenshaw? When I was at my first publishing job in New York City, all of us junior editors were mad for his first (self-titled) 1982 album; we played the grooves off that thing, and "Rockin' Around in NYC" became our unofficial anthem. His echo-chamber vocals, chugging guitar work, and irresistible hooks owed at least as much to the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly as they did to the Beatles and the Stones. And then there was his adorably geeky look; I've always been a sucker for a singer in glasses, ever since Peter Asher and Chad Stewart and John B. Sebastian (and, admit it, Elvis Costello.) I bought Marshall Crenshaw's second album too; I loved it. And then...

Now we're getting down to the central mystery of my life as a rock fan: What happened in the second half of the 1980s? How did I begin to lose ABSOLUTELY ALL INTEREST in new music? Was it because I didn't drive anymore and had no access to the car radio? Was it because I was moving up the career ladder and more focused on work? Or was it -- shudder -- because I got married and had children and completely stopped being a fun person? Oh, no, it couldn't be that; it had to be because MUSIC IN THE LATE 1980s SUCKED.

Think about it. Disco had a stranglehold on the music industry, and MTV only promoted artists who were interested in the music video as an art form. Whatever my excuse, music gradually fell out of my life for a while. Now I'm crazily making up for lost time.

I didn't run across this 1989 song until this past year when I discovered This Is Easy, a compilation of tracks that are Marshall Crenshaw's finest work (it would be stretching things to call them "greatest hits"). Okay, so the set-up has been done before: a guy waiting for his girlfriend to show up, with no luck. But what he does with it is ten times better than old chestnuts like "Silhouettes on the Shade."

He describes a night of escalating insecurity -- he runs into a pack of mutual friends; he follows another girl and grabs her arm, but it's not her. Jealousy and resentment boil beneath the surface, as the tune modulates into minor keys. He's running around town getting frantic; the scene feels surreal. Oh, yeah, love hurts.

Pop music, just like I like it.

I'm sorry for abandoning you, Marshall. How can I ever make it up to you?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

"I Will Follow You Into the Dark" / Death Cab for Cutie

Sometimes I do listen to music recorded in the 21 century -- these guys' stuff, for example. Their frontman/songwriter Ben Gibbard has a real ear for melody, consistently churning out tunes that you have by heart as soon as you've heard them; but it's his gift for lyrics that most grabs my attention (once an English major, always an English major).

Take this song. Here's this plaintive tenor voice softly crooning with his acoustic guitar in a folkie mode (just listening to him, you know he must have floppy brown hair and high cheekbones), and you don't notice at first how dark it is, right from the outset: "Love of mine, someday you will die..." My jaw dropped when I finally realized what he was singing. I mean, emo is emo, but this edges toward Goth. . . here he is talking about the white light shining at the end of a tunnel, and saying "the time for sleep is now" . . . Is this song about incurable illness, or about suicide longings, or what? Either way, here's the ultimate proof of love: "If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied/ Illuminate the No's on their vacancy sign/ If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks / Then I'll follow you into the dark." Whoa.

Then I saw the video, which is deadpan funny, with Gibbard looking wide-eyed into the camera while a little hole in the floor of his bedroom keeps getting bigger and bigger and sucking him into it, and he's flailing wildly to escape it . . . well, it's a hoot, and I'm relieved that Gibbard doesn't take this melancholy posing seriously. But he sounds so damn sincere; lilting as the tune is, there's a depressive quaver to his voice. I can imagine legions of college girls dressed in black dying to sleep with Gibbard on the basis of just this song alone. (I could be projecting here, but I remember that 18-year-old mindset and it definitely came with a morbid streak.)

Anyway, this song would be worth listening to if only for this verse: "In Catholic school /As vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised / By a lady in black..." Smack dab in the middle of this wistfully morose song, a lyric like that just cracks me up.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Just About Glad" / Elvis Costello

Oh, Elvis, forgive me for I have sinned. I spent about 15 years of my life as an apostate from the Church of Elvis. Granted, some bad things happened in my life from 1989 through 2005 (trust me, you don't want to know) and listening to your angry snarl just didn't make me feel any better. But hallelujah, I have seen the light, and now I'm back in the fold -- in fact more passionate than ever.

It's been expensive, replacing my vinyl on CD (those Rhino reissues are so freaking fine) and then buying all the CDs I missed during the Wilderness Years. But I knew it was all worthwhile the afternoon I finally listened for the first time to Brutal Youth -- or to be even more specific, the moment when I heard "Just About Glad."

There's no intro: Elvis' raspy yelp launches into the first line before the initial drumbeat falls, and then a simple guitar riff skips in; a few bars further a straightforward bass line begins, and eventually you hear the nimble accents of Steve Nieve's organ. It's stripped down, punchy, upbeat -- the perfect setting for Elvis's snarky lyrics.

I don't recall ever hearing another song with exactly this take on things: he's singing to a girl he once almost slept with, saying how lucky it was things turned out that way. Oh, yes, in hindsight he's glad things never went that far -- well, just about glad, and right there in that little prevarication lies the real story. Because as he blithely lists all the things that didn't happen -- "I'm the greatest lover that you never had" -- an edge of resentment creeps in and it's obvious that this unconsummated affair still tantalizes both of them.

His voice curdles and his syntax gets downright devious as he protests too much: "I'm just about glad that we never did that thing we were going to do..." My favorite line: "Although the passion still flutters and flickers/ It never got into our knickers." Yeah, right. Tell me another.

There's nobody like Elvis for parsing the neurotic twists and turn of modern love. I never feel that these tormented vignettes are autobiographical; he's always playing a character, but a guy too tangled up in vanity and hostility and hurt to give you the whole picture. It's your job to piece together the story and figure out whether he's a bastard or a victim. (Or both.)

Maybe it's perverse, but I find these nasty little short stories comforting; they console me for the fact that my own life doesn't always work out right. (Does anybody's?) At the end of a hard day, playing Elvis Costello loud is sometimes the best medicine. It's like going to confession; a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers and your conscience is clean again. Why did I forget that for all those years?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

"Learning How To Love You" / John Hiatt
"I'm thirty-four years old now, and I've come to you..."
I can't fully explain why this opening line always hooks its sinewy fingers around my heart, but it does.

Maybe it's the specific detail of the age, sung in John's shrewd, wary Hoosier twang -- so we know we're in confessional mode here, and the man standing before us maybe has a couple crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes, the hairline's retreating a bit, perhaps his plaid shirt is a little faded from washing. Thirty-four years old: Not over the hill yet, but face it, he don't get carded no more.

All his romantic illusions were shot down a long time ago, and as he picks deftly on his acoustic guitar, his shoulder is hitched high, fending off more hurt. He squints long and hard at the new woman who has wormed into his life, and as he runs over a catalog of all his lousy love affairs -- "From that first kiss in the schoolyard / To the last heart broke in two" -- he realizes that, against all odds, just when he had abandoned all hope, This Is The Big One.

Not exactly the sort of song that's gonna fly on Top 40 radio. But you see, that's what I love about John Hiatt's music: This is Music For Grownups. I'm sure I wouldn't have thought this was a sexy song when I was 14 years old, pining away for Paul McCartney or Davy Jones or whoever the pop flavor of the month was back then. I did NOT want to be told that love is hard work. I still believed in love at first sight, and love forever and ever, and preferably I'd like to find it in time to have a date to the junior prom.

But now . . . well, I find this song devastatingly sexy. I feel like this is a real man, who'd still be around the morning after a fight. Someone you can cry in front of without minding that your eyes are puffing up and your nose streaming snot. Someone who'd forgive the hurtful things you screamed at him during labor pains; someone who'd adopt your half-grown kids and call them his own. And that's the sort of stuff I find sexy now.

Okay, John Hiatt's voice is pretty damn sexy in its own right: soulful, with just a slight raspy edge that can turn into a snarl or a caress at any moment. It sends shivers up my spine anyway. But still, it's Hiatt the songwriter that speaks to me, not just Hiatt the performer; and "Learning How to Love You" -- that one gets me every time.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

"Starstruck" / The Kinks

This Ray Davies gem from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is not one of the half-dozen Kinks songs that EVERYBODY KNOWS ("You Really Got Me" or "All Day and All of the Night" or "Lola"), just a winsome, tuneful pop confection. And yet, and yet....

As usual, it finds Ray Davies chiseling a perfect little cameo of someone else rather than going for self-confession -- and as usual, his own neuroses percolate up into the song anyway. While he waggles a finger at this girl who's "starstruck on me," at the same time he eyes sardonically all the trappings of celebrity (has anybody ever felt more conflicted about being a star than Ray Davies?). And as Ray bops along, in his breathy, slightly mincing delivery, he's dissing himself too -- "'cos once you're addicted to wine and champagne, it's gonna drive you insane..." Yes indeedy -- Ray makes fun of Ray for feeling sorry for Ray. Mirrors within mirrors.

One thing I hadn't noticed until today is that the whole first chorus has nothing on the backing track but Mick Avory's punchy drumming and a few bass-like electric piano chords, with the "ba-ba-da-duh"s" of Dave Davies and the other Kinks chiming in on the chorus. After that, a few strings come in...but I hear no guitars. What's this, no guitars in a ROCK SONG? (Okay, they come in later, but just barely.)

But then, very little on this Village Green album is traditional rock music; it's astonishing to realize that it was made in 1968. Those were the years when the Kinks had been banned from the US and had given up on out-Stoning the Stones and the Who in favor of exploring their own Englishness. I for one completely lost the Kinks from my radar in 1968. What a pleasure to discover this LP years later. It wasn't of its time even then; that's why it hasn't dated. It's in my head today, and I like it.