Saturday, December 30, 2006

"Still Fighting It" / Ben Folds
Over the holidays, when so many of us troop home to visit our old stomping grounds, the entire Rockin' the Suburbs album by Ben Folds hits home for me. As he declares in pseudo hip-hop style in the title track, "Let me tell y'all what it's like / Being male, middle-class, and white / It's a bitch; if you don't believe / Listen up to my new CD." We have to laugh at his "white-boy pain," but to tell the truth, that's what most of us know best, and Folds mines the territory with sympathy, insight, and not a trace of condescension.

"Still Fighting It" begins tenderly, just Folds singing a swooping melody breathily over his soft piano part, and I see it as an early-morning scene, with the dew still beaded on windshields and mailboxes: "Good morning son, I am a bird / Wearing a brown polyester shirt." With that polyester detail, I'm immediately sucked into the scenario, which appears to take place at a fast-food drive-in window: "You want a Coke, maybe some fries? / The roast-beef combo's only $9.95." Here we are, at the heart of the suburban cultural experience, and these two guys are having a stilted sort of conversation, just like fathers and sons have been doing for time immemorial.

Drums, guitar, backing vocals, strings -- the works -- are laid on for the chorus: "Everybody knows, it sucks to grow up / And everybody does . . . so weird to be back here / And let me tell you what: The years go on and / We're still fighting it." That "we're still fighting it" line is the heart of the song, and it repeats several times, building up to anthem level with big crashing Elton John-like chords. After all, that fight is the universal story, that inevitable clash between generations -- maybe 20 years from now they'll be able to laugh about it over a beer, but right now there's a lot of pain.

Has anybody out there ever watched a father and son tear each other apart? -- let me see a show of hands. Somehow it seems that getting together for the holidays always brings it to a head. The young guy is only doing what a young guy has to do; the dad is only reacting as he must. But what gets me is how Ben Folds -- who was probably 35 when he wrote this song -- sees both sides, and makes both guys sympathetic. It even more amazing when you learn that Ben wrote this to celebrate the birth of his own son; he's imagining their future together, with all the ying-yangs of emotion ahead of them. He has only been in the shoes of the father for about, let's say, three days, and already he GETS IT.

There's a break-free moment toward the end, referring back to that "bird" in the first line: "You'll try and try / And one day you'll fly away . . . from me." (That line completely chokes me up. ) Then it hushes down at the end again, as he sings simply, in a rather lost-sounding voice, "You're so much like me -- / I'm sorry . . . " Does that come from the dad or the son? Does it matter by this point? It's understated, awkward, completely schmaltz-free -- and so heart-wrenching I can hardly stand it. You have nailed this thing, Ben -- way to go.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The White Album, Side 2 / The Beatles

I've been thinking a lot about the white album lately. Christmastime will always make me long for this record, ever since Christmas 1968 when I found it under the tree, tore off the cellophane wrapper, and promptly disappeared into my girlhood bedroom for a week. I gazed at those four enclosed color head shots of John, Paul, George, and Ringo and pored over the lyrics booklet and committed the entire LP to memory as I have never before, or since, absorbed any record album. I consider it such a complete, coherent work of art that I can't even hear these songs out of order -- the instant "Bungalow Bill" is over, I MUST hear "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and nothing else will do. Et cetera, et cetera.

I saw the superb Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux perform the white album in its entirety two nights ago; I was in heaven, standing amidst a thicket of other vintage-1968 music fans who likewise knew every word, every drumbeat, every syncopation and stutter and odd sound effect. Luckily, the Fab Faux are obsessive Beatle geeks too and reproduced the whole thing exactly -- except that they stopped to change guitars between songs, totally disconcerting those of us who needed the sweet acoustic downbeat of "Mother Nature's Son" to fall immediately, a split second and no more, after the crashing last electric chord of "Yer Blues."

My favorite side was always Side 2 (I still think of it in vinyl terms, you see). My favorite song? "I Will," because Paul McCartney wrote it for me -- we hadn't yet met (still haven't, I'll admit), but somehow he knew I was out there and was waiting for me (still is, I'm sure).

But to get there, I absolutely had to go through the rest of the side in order: first the catchy music-hall tune "Martha, My Dear" (remember the photo of Paul with his sheepdog Martha in the album booklet?), then the deliciously draggy "I'm So Tired", which is in a dead heat with the Beatles' "I'm Only Sleeping" and the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting" for the most perfect expressions of exhaustion ever; you've gotta love that line "And curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get," the inevitable rhyme for "cigarette". (By the way, I lied a couple weeks ago when I said Paul Simon's "America" was the song that started me smoking; this song had every bit as much to do with it.)

Then the stunning Paul acoustic number "Blackbird," then George's snotty satire "Piggies" (that killer last line: "clutching forks and knives to eat the bacon" -- forget his gauzy Eastern spirituality, in my opinion George Harrison should have let his sharp, snide wit show more often). And then comes Paul's Bob Dylan parody "Rocky Raccoon", which -- come on, admit it -- is better than ninety percent of all Bob Dylan songs. Admit it. I'll never check into a hotel room without looking for the Gideon's Bible in the bedside table and thinking of this song.

It's followed by the obligatory Ringo track, "Don't Pass Me By," a country-twangin' number wonderfully suited to Ringo's limited vocal skills; that whole "you were in a car crash and you lost your hair" verse was, of course, central to the whole "Paul is dead" hoax. (Apologies to those who are too young to know about go look it up; I'm on a roll and can't stop to explain.)

Then came "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?", which faintly discomfited the adolescent me, already getting antsy to hear "I Will" by this point. But god, how it's grown on me over the years. Sure, it's ludicrous and was meant as a joke, and yet . . . man, how awesome is it to hear McCartney ripping into this number. That slightly discordant electric piano banging away, just a touch of sneaky slide guitar, and a thumping drum way forward in the mix; it's down-and-nasty, just to prove that there's a darker edge to Paul, balancing the sweetness of "Martha" and "Blackbird" and "I Will." At age 15 I didn't want to know that other side existed; but oh, now I do.

And then comes "Julia." Because Paul isn't the only sensitive, aching soul around here, and John's poignant acoustic ode to his dead mother brings down the house. So you're getting the full range of Paul, and the full range of John, and Ringo at his best, and George at his sharpest -- what more could you ask for? The best side on the best album by the best band that ever lived. Admit it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Mardy Bum" / Arctic MonkeysUsually when a guy in a song complains about his girlfriend I see it from her side -- of course he's been a jerk. But in this track by the Arctic Monkeys -- 2006's hot new band out of England, with an astonishingly successful first album -- I do sympathize with him for a change. After all, some women are nagging harpies, we all know that. Forget the war of the sexes: This song reminds me of every relationship where I've had to do all the heavy lifting, and what it feels like in the middle of the hard slog. Eric Burdon (see yesterday's rant) complained how misunderstood he was, but this guy really is.

I give this couple six months, max.

The guys in this band are all incredibly young, 20 or 21 or so, and they make it work for them; Alex Turner's lead vocals sound raw and unpolished, and the lyrics have a certain inarticulate quality that's totally believable. All the more reason for me to buy his version of events.

Leading off with a dogged-yet-hopeful clanging guitar riff, the singer draws a deep breath and faces his wrathful girlfriend: "Well now then Mardy Bum / I've seen your frown and it's like looking down the barrel of a gun /And it goes off and out come all these words." He dreads what's going to happen next, but he knows the scenario by now, "when you're so all argumentative" and "pulling that silent disappointment face." He may be young but he's shrewd enough not to fire back; with native canniness, he lets her rant on. For a while, at least.

The mood changes for the chorus -- suddenly there's melody, and syncopation, and much lighter, almost folky guitarwork -- and now he paints the other side of her, the side that still makes hanging around worth it -- "Remember cuddles in the kitchen / Yeah, to get things off the ground / And it was up, up and away." It's a wistful little snapshot, and his voice goes playful and husky, recalling those good times; that thick Sheffield accent comes out at the right moment, making him sound extra-sincere. Calling her a "mardy bum" (northern slang for a feisty, sulky girl) may be a put-down, but the dialect somehow makes it endearing, too.

As the guitar gets harsher in the bridge, he rolls out the excuses: "And yeah I'm sorry I was late but I missed the train / And then the traffic was a state," but she's clearly not buying it; you can feel his exasperation as he defends himself: "Oh when you say I don't care but of course I do, yeah I clearly do!" I don't necessarily want to take this guy on, myself, but I sure want to give her a good shake -- doesn't she know what a good thing she's got?

I wonder if the Arctic Monkeys have staying power; they can only sell the raw provincial youth image for so long. But if this song is any indication of their ability to nail down how real people really feel, then they just may have what it takes. And if not...well, we'll always have "Mardy Bum," and I'll think twice the next time I feel myself getting my silent disappointment face on.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" / The Animals
When I first heard this Animals track in 1965 I had no idea who Nina Simone was, or where the Animals had found this tune. Not that it would've mattered; I was too young, and too white, to figure out why Nina Simone was so woeful and angry. I didn't really know what the Animals were singing about, either, despite all the uneasy chord shifts and the ominous nagging sigh of that organ -- I figured it was just a boy telling his girlfriend she didn't understand him. But it became so familiar to me that when I finally heard Nina's version, it seemed too torchy and histrionic. It's a perfect example of a cover version completely stealing the original's thunder -- something the Animals did on a regular basis.

Of course, the darkness of the Animals' version completely escaped me, until I started listening to their music again in college -- at which point the threatening edge to Eric Burdon's street-tough voice registered loud and clear.

"Baby, do you understand me now?" he starts off, as if shaking a warning finger under her nose (or more likely a fist). When Nina sings "Sometimes I feel a little mad," you feel sorry for her; when Eric sings it you get ready to run for cover, because it's clear he's a ticking time bomb. "Don't you know that no one alive can always be an angel?" he declares, with a sarcastic trill on the "always." I would NOT want to be that woman who's accusing him of misbehaving.

When Eric (with his mates right behind him, backing him up) declares in the chorus, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good," notice how he flings his voice nastily into the final "good." "Oh lord!" -- a single hard drum slap slams the exclamation point in place -- "please don't let me be misunderstood," Eric protests, biting off his syllables, his voice shivering with self-pity and barely suppressed rage. And yeah, that rage may have less to do with his girlfriend than with living in a slum and working at the docks (I always think here of that raw desperation of another Animals track, "We Gotta Get Get Out Of This Place"), but it's real rage all the same.

He goes on, "If I seem edgy, I want you to know / That I never mean to take it out on you," and my heart sinks, realizing he probably slaps this girl around. But then his voice turns hoarse and earnest, cracking a little as he tells her he loves her, and he's only human; I can't help it, I begin to forgive him as he pouts and pleads, "Sometimes I find myself alone regretting / Some foolish things, some little sinful thing I've done." Awww, gee -- until just in time I notice how he rushes over that word "sinful." He has been cheating on her, hasn't he? He may blame it on everything else -- the stresses of his life, the inherent weakness of human nature -- but he's admitted it.

Now it's up to her to forgive him, though he's a Geordie and too proud to beg; instead he'll gruffly accuse her of not understanding him. And the weird thing is, I already know she's going to forgive him. Just because the timbre of Eric Burdon's voice is so rich and rough and goddam sexy -- he's going to get away with it. I feel my own knees buckle as I listen to him. Okay, Eric, just this one more time. Only...don't hit me, please?

Here's a video link: Don't be fooled by the suits.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Father Christmas" / The Kinks

The Kinks have never been big on sugary sentiment, so of course if they were going to do a Christmas song it would have to be something with a thrashing beat and a scathing shot of social commentary. Their one Yuletide song, "Father Christmas" -- a 1977 single that's now included as a bonus track on the reissue of their 1978 album Misfits -- has all that, but it also features a characteristic Ray Davies sorrow for a world's that gone downhill.

The basic scenario: The narrator wistfully remembers childhood Christmases when he believed in Santa Claus, even though he knew it was his dad behind it all; but now, a grownup, he's working as a department store Santa and geting mugged by a cynical pack of street urchins. That's the chorus, the sneering Cockney chant of those little punks: "Father Christmas, give us some money / Don't mess around with those silly toys / We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over / We want your bread so don't make us annoyed / Give all the toys to the rich little boys."

Just for good measure, Ray throws in a note of class conflict, too. And while he's at it, he'll take a swipe at the crass marketing of childhood: "Don't give my brother a Steve Austin outfit / Don't give my sister a cuddly toy / Don't want no jigsaw or monopoly money / All we want is the real McCoy." The kids go on to explain to Father Christmas what they really want -- a job for their dads . . . and maybe a machine gun so they can terrorize their neighborhoods. Sure, Ray sympathizes with their tight economic fix, but he's also repelled by the street violence poverty breeds. Talk about Dickensian Christmases -- this is the real spirit of Charles Dickens.

It could be a downer, but it's such an exuberant rocker you can't help but sing along, and pound your fist while you're at it. I heard this over the PA in a crowded Urban Outfitters store a few days ago, and besides my delight (and astonishment) at hearing a relatively obscure Kinks song broadcast, I felt immediately zapped by the goofy energy of it. The sweet angel-chime tinkling of a glockenspiel is swept aside by Dave Davies's shrewdly snarling guitar riffs, slicing aggressively through the mix; there's a great snappy drumbeat, and Ray's voice punches out that chorus with gusto.

When he gets to the last verse, his God-bless-us-every-one send-off is surprisingly heartfelt: "Have yourself a merry merry Christmas / Have yourself a good time / But remember the kids who got nothin' / While you're drinking down your wine." Not exactly a feel-good ending. But who expected that from the Kinks?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

"Get Behind Me, Santa" / Sufjan Stevens

Considering that every Christmas album on the market seems to involve tired rehashes of the same old standards, I must say I've warmed up to Sufjan Stevens's new Christmas album. It's packed with 42 songs, a collection of six EPs that Stevens released privately every Christmas for the past few years; now he's whacked them together in a box set. Many of the tracks are relatively faithful renditions of standard carols, which Sufjan delivers with simple acoustic arrangements and without irony -- now there's a startling concept -- and the earnest breathiness of his voice makes this go down surprisingly well.

I don't know exactly what to make of Sufjan Stevens. His music seems unclassifiable to me -- it sure isn't rock 'n' roll, or jazz, or blues of any kind; just call it alternative, I guess, and hope that folks'll be open-minded enough to appreciate the odd soundtrack-lush instrumentation and the quirky slice-of-life lyrics. But what really interests me about Sufjan's take on Christmas songs is that he seems to know he's swimming against the current, that our skeptical world prefers "bummer" Christmas songs and politically correct generic "holiday" music. And something about that bothers Sufjan.

"Get Behind Me, Santa" is a bouncy, ska-flavored number that skips around the culture clash Christmas has become. It's almost like a typo for "Get Behind Me Satan", so right away you know Santa is not coming down anybody's chimney unchallenged. He starts off with a jaundiced description of a trumped-up version of Santa Claus -- "I know what you're doing to me, boy / You move so fast, like a psychopathic color TV / With your Christmas bag and your jolly face/ And the reindeer stomping all over the place" -- but a second voice, a wobbly but sincere voice, pops up to protest "You make it sound like Christmas is a four-letter word." The first voice scoffs at the idea that Christmas is all about family or shopping or carols, but the other voice protests, "You've got it wrong because I'm just another regular guy / Simply 'cos I've affection for the Yuletide."

The song gets tangled up in its own arrangement, which builds up to backing vocals spelling out the word C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S; Sufjan's not going to peach to us about the meaning of Christmas. We've got to figure out for ourselves which side we want to come down on. But the light-heartedness of this track, that catchy horn section, the goofy organ vibrating through the bridge, makes me want to come down on the side of just being happy.

This is a fun song and you can dance to it; it isn't dripping with fake sentimentality or hipster scorn. The main thing is that Santa Claus is coming to town, and hey, it's the holiday season -- let's cut each other some slack, for once.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Television" / Dave Edmunds

I promised myself when I started this blog that I wouldn't write about Nick Lowe all the time. This post has absolutely nothing to do with Nick Lowe...except that he, uh, wrote this song for his mate Dave Edmunds [see correction in comments below], and played bass on it (on the 1978 album Tracks on Wax 4), along with the rest of the touring band known as Rockpile. (For contractual reasons, Rockpile only released one LP, 1980's Seconds of Pleasure, but every Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe album for a few years there was really a Rockpile record.) And also, I first fell in love with this song from Marshall Crenshaw's delicious cover on a 2001 Nick Lowe tribute album, Labour of Love. But really, this entry is not about Nick Lowe. At all.

Dave E, of course, gives this song more of a rockabilly twang than Marshall did -- that is, after all, Dave's special thing (how a singer from Cardiff, Wales, ever ended up sounding like he was from Texarkana confounds me). That trailer-park inflection works very well for a song that just may be the earliest recorded anthem for a couch potato. The singer's hurrying home from work to see his best friend -- his TV set -- and it's all upbeat and catchy; Dave's mellow, warm voice practically quivers with excitement about being able to "crack out a can of something" and tune out in front of the tube: "I don't care what's on, if it's happy or sad / I don't even care if it's good or bad / Just as long as it's on I'm glad."

In the boppy chorus, the lead singer trades off a series of phrases with the cheery back-up vocalists -- "I'm plugging in my...television!...switching on...television!...tuning in...television.." (I do hear Nick's voice in there, don't I?).
But of course there's a subtext. The guy just happens to mention that this TV addiction

has been his feeble way of coping since his girl left him. Aha! There's the Nick Lowe touch; I'm thinking now of Nick tunes like the comically woeful "I'm A Mess" and the brilliant "Lately I've Let Things Slide," which are also about jilted men falling apart. (I also have to mention one of my favorite John Hiatt songs, "I Don't Even Try," from his 1983 album Riding With the King...which was partly produced by Nick Lowe, as it happens.) I get such a clear mental picture from this, of a lost-looking slob in a stained T-shirt, a half-eaten burrito on a paper plate and a can of Bud on the arm of his La-Z-Boy recliner; the house is lit only by the flickering light from the set, and he's got the remote clutched in his hand, though he isn't even clicking the buttons much anymore. "My best friend is living in / Ever since you've been gone / All I've got to do is activate that tube / And I don't have to miss you no more," he declares, and it's so endearingly pathetic.

This is so much more affecting to me than all those angry you-left-me songs, and self-pitying you-left-me songs. This is how real guys face being dumped by their girlfriends, and I'm delighted that Nick Lowe -- I mean, Dave Edmunds -- understands this. No doubt the woman who just left had every reason in the world for being fed up with him, but he's so darn sweet and lonely -- it seems to me that a little consolation is called for. Maybe I'll drop by and watch that television with him.

[check out this performance on YouTube: http:// ]

Thursday, December 21, 2006

" Layla" / Eric Clapton

To plug or not to plug -- that is the question. On one hand you've got the blistering 1970 recording of this song by Clapton's band Derek and the Dominos; on the other hand there's the laid-back acoustic version from his 1992 Unplugged album. Instinctively I always go for the acoustic version of any song, especially when the original runs 7:07 minutes long with endless guitar solos. Instinctively, the very first time I heard "Layla" unplugged, I preferred it.

But then on the other hand...

The original version reminds me of freshman year in college, when my friend Kathy and I cranked it up loud enough to make our next-door neighbor -- named Leila -- pound on the walls. At the time, though, (get this) I didn't even know Eric Clapton was in Derek and the Dominos. I didn't get the point of Eric Clapton until senior year, when I knew a lot more about both drugs and sex and suddenly his music made sense.

It was the Cream stuff that won me over, "White Room" and "Badge" in particular. Once I figured out that the lyrics were not important (a real leap of faith for an English major like me), I appreciated Eric Clapton in a whole new light. I happily lost myself in the dense tangle of that music, loving the bluesy syncopation, the passionate abandon of his guitar playing. As time passed and Eric dabbled in reggae ("I Shot the Sheriff," "Lay Down Sally"), or rootsy blues ("After Midnight," "Cocaine"), the groove worked so well, I didn't notice Slowhand was Slowing Down. "Wonderful Tonight"? "Tears in Heaven"? I was just impressed to hear Eric come into his own as a crooner. By the time Clapton unplugged for the MTV show, he and I were both comfortable with narcoleptic acoustic versions of his old hits, versions that sound more strung-out on heroin than the music he made when he himself was on heroin.

My brother eventually told me that "Layla" was about Pattie Boyd Harrison, Eric's best friend George's wife, but by then Pattie had married Eric so it was a moot point -- I never revisited "Layla" to check it out. Why? I never listened to Clapton lyrics. And now here I am finally listening to the lyrics of "Layla," and it's ripping my heart out. I mean, listen to this: "I tried to give you consolation / When your old man had let you down / Like a fool, I fell in love with you / Turned my whole world upside down." I'm not saying it's great poetry, but the story he's telling requires -- no, DEMANDS -- a howl of anguish.

Eric's voice was never suited for howling, but his guitar sure was. That peeling riff at the outset pierces through everything, a miserable wail that won't go away. Even when he strains his voice hoarsely, it's perfect for this song -- he's a lost soul, and she's got him on his knees, begging darling please . . . and when, in the last verse, he moans "Let's make the best of the situation / Before I finally go insane," it sounds like he's insane already.

That magisterial keyboard solo by Jim Gordon (who co-wrote the song with Clapton) no longer seems to me to go on too long; it's like a man staggering around, unable to give up this wrenching passion, and the obsessive pent-up frenzy of the song is just right. No wonder Pattie finally gave in. If anyone ever recorded a song like this about me, I'd be his in a nanosecond.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Eleanor Put Your Boots On" / Franz Ferdinand

I was driving around one night and my son stuck this CD into the player -- Franz Ferdinand's second album, You Could Have It So Much Better -- and two or three tracks into the thing I suddenly knew that these guys were brought up on the Kinks. Alex Kapranos' lead vocals have that same soft campy flutter that Ray Davies trademarked in the mid-1960s; their lyrics are similarly compact little short stories; and they pack their songs with addictive riffs and tuneful hooks that are nearly impossible to get out of your head. And sure enough, in interviews they've said they were influenced by the Kinks -- though their original goal was simply to write music for girls to dance to. Well, I for one am sure ready to dance.

"Eleanor Put Your Boots On" is one of my favorites. I think of it as a long-distance romance song, only not a moaning mushy I'm-missing-you song. Knowing that these guys are from Scotland, I was surprised to realize they were singing about New York -- the Brooklyn dirt, the Coney Island roller coaster, Greenpoint, and the Statue of Liberty (which they describe as "the statue with the dictionary"). But that's where Eleanor is, apparently, and the narrator of this song is urging her to put on some sort of fairy-tale seven-league boots that will let her take a giant leap over the ocean back to him.

It's a sweet, wistful fantasy, with an electric piano dithering around; the volume builds and then fades, the melody sighs up and down, and you can almost feel the gusts of the jetstream that'll carry her home. It shifts despairingly into a minor key in the instrumental bridges, with some harder-edged guitar and drums layered on, but then the narrator straightens himself out and sweetly woos Eleanor again. At one point, as he's advising her to leap off the Statue of Liberty's fingernails, he throws in a yearning "yeah!" that is simply adorable.

"I could be there when you land," he keeps offering, shyly -- "I could be there when you land." Well, if she doesn't take him up on it, she's a fool. I'm tempted to go buy me a pair of those boots myself.

Monday, December 18, 2006

"Jackie Wilson Said" / Van Morrison

Van Morrison is a law unto himself; some days you're getting a wild-eyed Irish mystic, some days you're getting a jazz-flavored folksinger; but on his best days, I think, you're getting one of the great R&B singers of all time. I'm not talking about the gritty, mournful blues that channeled through his British contemporaries like the two Erics, Burdon and Clapton; I'm talking that irrepressible offshoot called rhythm & blues, as sung by Ray Charles or Sam Cooke . . . or Jackie Wilson. How a doughy-faced redhead from Northern Ireland came out with this voice is a marvel indeed; I think it proves the existence of God.

Here Van pays homage to the underrated Jackie Wilson (the song's on his 1972 album St. Dominic's Preview), with 2:58 minutes of pure fun from start to finish. It's not about Jackie Wilson, but it's the essence of Jackie Wilson, distilled in one finger-snapping, upbeat love song. Van scats his way through half this number with nonsense syllables, right from the opening "Doo-doo-dih-dihs" and the goofy "ding-a-ling-a-lings"; when you get to the refrain it isn't a whole lot deeper -- "I'm in hea-EH-von when you smile," he repeats over and over.

It's a sunny, syncopated exclamation from the heart of a guy who, well, just adores his girlfriend. The way she walks, the way she smiles, turns him on, and that's all there is to it: "The kind of love you got knocks me off my feet," he declares, and he urges her again and again to "let it all hang out." Love has got him high, but in a good way -- "You know, I'm so wired up / Don't need no coffee in my cup," he says gleefully. Yeah, love can do that sometimes, and my heart is completely won over by his effervescent joy.

I dig the tight horn section on this, something that Van, as a saxophonist himself, instinctively understood how to use; as I listen to this track, it strikes me that his horn playing probably also taught him a lot about how to sing. The way he punches the syncopated beats ("you make my heart go boom boom boom") or shimmers with a deft trill on the word "smile," the giddy little wails he throws in from time to time -- his vocal instrument is pretty damn close to a sax in terms of supple power and tunefulness.

I saw Van once in concert and he was so weirded out that he left the stage after a few numbers, never to return. I could have been pissed off -- except that I've always factored a little strangeness into the Van equation. Like I said, a law unto himself. But remember how he came onstage for a guest spot in The Last Waltz, The Band's farewell concert, and completely blew everybody away with his performance on "Caravan"? It made me just sit back and grin. Van the Man. When he's on he is on.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

"Till My Head Falls Off" / They Might Be Giants

They might be giants...but then again, they might only be a quirky couple guys named John who write incredibly catchy songs and live in Brooklyn. Did I say catchy songs? Catchy but extremely off-kilter is more like it. Not a conventional love song in the bunch; they're almost like Dadaist paintings, or found-object paintings, each one a refracted image of a reality that wasn't all that significant in the first place. This band is an acquired taste, maybe, but well worth acquiring in my opinion.

What makes They Might Be Giants albums so addictive is their irresistible melodies, an uncanny ability to imitate any genre (including a strange fondness for sea chanties), and a fascination with turning figures of speech inside out. Though they have a certain cult following, the Johns have never really made it onto the record charts, if you don't count the minor hit "Birdhouse In My Soul"; they did write the theme song to Malcolm in the Middle, though ("You're not the boss of me now"), and lately they've had a couple of successful children's albums, No and Here Come The ABCs. Their kid music is way better than most of the stuff in that market niche, but I hope they don't get pigeon-holed; it would be a crying shame if They Might Be Giants lost the dark, snide edge lurking beneath their deadpan daffiness.

Look at some of these song titles: "Exquisite Dead Guy," "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," "I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die," "Dig My Grave," "My Evil Twin," "The Statue Got Me High" -- and the thing I love is that these aren't cool, disaffected hipster tracks, but tight, upbeat pop songs (TMBG songs never overstay their welcome) that are blessedly free of metaphor or irony.

"Till My Head Falls Off" is as good an example as any. A track from their 1996 Factory Showroom album, this extremely peppy John Linnell song (he's the one on accordion, the skinny John who looks kinda like a dorky 14-year-old) has an exaggerated cartoonish refrain -- "I'm not done / And I won't be till my head falls off" -- but it makes me remember every headache I've ever suffered, how I wished my head WOULD fall off if the pain would only go away. The lyrics riffle along neurotically fast, crescendoing up a scale: "There were 87 Advil in the bottle / Now there's 30 left /I ate 47 so what happened to the other 10?"

But before we can ponder the mystery of the missing analgesics, Linnell's flat, nasal voice snaps, "Why do you suspiciously change the subject and break my concentration / As I dump the bottle out and I count the Advil up again." Whoa, sorry, dude. (In that one line we see most of the typical emotions in They Might Be Giants songs -- testiness, paranoia, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsion, and whiny resentment -- feelings we are all more familiar with than we'd like to admit.)

As the song goes on, the narrator practices a speech in front of the bathroom mirror, stares dazedly through the frosted glass of the shower stall . . . and well, that's about it. I didn't say it was an important song; it's just what I've got playing on my mental mix-tape today. And I know the pattern by now -- there'll be another They Might Be Giants song coming up after this, and then another, and then another, because once you enter this geeky, goofy world you'd better grab a cream soda and some Cheetos because you'll be here for while.

Friday, December 15, 2006

"Killer Queen" / Queen

Guilty pleasure time. Plenty of people whose music opinions I respect can't stand Queen; I'd even agree with them about those dumb overblown arena-rock anthems like "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions." But just like Garth and Wayne in Wayne's World singing along to every word of "Bohemian Rhapsody," I get a kick out of the campy side of Queen. Freddie Mercury was the greatest drama queen in rock music, and sometimes it's fun to hang out with a drama queen.

Though I think of Queen as an 80s band -- glam-rock on steroids -- this song is from 1974, the Sheer Heart Attack album, and Mercury was already in possession of his full bag of tricks. While the Kinks and the Beatles shoplifted discreetly from old music-hall tunes, Queen cleaned out the whole store; "Killer Queen" -- which really should be the band's signature track -- is music-hall to the max, right down to the soft-shoe tempo.

Usually I prefer my music stripped-down and authentic, and yet I adore this dense, wildly overproduced track: those artificially tight overdubbed harmonies set off Mercury's high, fey voice like a giant wink-wink nudge-nudge. I don't know which I think are funnier, the splendiferous mock-operatic flourishes or the brazen heavy metal guitar licks. Taking it seriously is sooo beside the point.

I never saw Queen live, but I've heard Freddie Mercury was an irresistible showman. You get a pretty good taste of this on the record, the way he exaggerates his diction and vocally fondles certain phrases. While on the surface this is a song about an evil seductress straight out of James Bond, there's a gay subtext you really can't miss -- "But then again, incidentally, if you're that way inclined," Freddy points out (I can just picture him fluttering his mascaraed eyelashes), and he will not let words like "fastidious" and "insatiable" slip by without a significant emphasis. And was he having fun with his rhymes or what? "cabinet . . . Marie Antoinette," "remedy . . . Krushchev and Kennedy," "caviar and cigarettes . . . etiquette," "Paris . . . couldn't care less," "drop of a hat . . . pussy cat."

I realize I can stop worrying about the "story" of the song; it doesn't matter, it's all style over substance. Outrageous style over incredibly silly substance. Feel free to sing along, but you must sing every line exactly as Freddie sings it, preferably with a giddy group of friends. Find your inner drama queen and let her go to town.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

"Hold On" / Tom Waits

God bless your crooked little heart, Tom Waits. I first fell under his spell years ago, when Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night were all he had to show for himself; a friend from California played those LPs for me (late at night, of course, the best time for listening to Tom Waits) in a unheated student flat in England, as we sipped Scotch and listened to lorries rumble past, rattling the windowpanes. We homed in on those albums like a beacon, too young ourselves to realize how young Waits was too, despite the vintage porkpie hat and soul patch and world-weary shrug. Over the years since then, he's grown into his beat persona like a big-shouldered overcoat, his voice ever more gravelly, his lyrics more evocative; he wears his spastic, spacey weirdness like a badge of honor.

I know Tom Waits isn't for everyone. That voice, for one thing -- it's a raspy growl, really, like the guy hunched over the end of the bar, tapping his cigarette and sharing hard-won secrets about life. It's not music you can dance to, either, given the odd syncopations and draggy tempos he gravitates to. You have to listen to the words too much, and they are NOT the kind of words that call for singalongs. If you like your rock straight up, you'll get impatient with Tom Waits' reflex for jazz riffs, mournful blues licks, and honky-tonk struts. You can practically see the neon signs flickering over the boozy horn sections, fumbling piano, and bongo drums.

But when I sit down with Tom Waits I feel like I'm with a friend -- a friend with a deadpan sense of humor, a taste for back alleys and cheap whiskey, and a wounded romanticism straight outta Raymond Chandler. Over the years, Tom has become incredibly soulful, as if picking up a new radio frequency that reveals the tears at the heart of things. His 1999 album Mule Variations is so goddam melancholy and wise, I have to ration my listenings.

A number of songs on there slay me -- "Get Behind The Mule", "Chocolate Jesus," "The House Where Nobody Lives"-- but the most haunting of all is this (sorta) love song, "Hold On." It skips along lackadaisically, like the cockeyed grifters and misfits it describes, with acoustic guitar strums like rain trickling down a gutter. Tom's gruff, yearning voice wrings poetry out of the situation, and what poetry -- who else could turn out lines like "With charcoal eyes and Monroe hips /She went and took that California trip"; "I miss your broken-china voice"; "He gave her a dime-store watch / And a ring made from a spoon"; or my favorite, "Well go ahead and call the cops / You don't meet nice girls in coffee shops."

Tom Waits knows those coffee shops, he knows those not-nice girls -- and he knows that their affections are just as true as anyone's. He makes me want to hitch up my dangling bra strap and stub out my lipstick-filtered cigarette and try love one more time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Complicated Life" / The Kinks

It isn't easy being a Kinks kultist -- you can never find their records in stores, their songs never pop up on the radio, and most people know only a handful of their songs if they've heard of them at all. My "This-Is-Who-the-Kinks-Were" speech is a ragged tape loop I've had to play way too many times. But sometimes you've just got to accept your fate -- I am a Kinks fan, and a Kinks fan for life. It's no longer an option to be anything else.

But come on, you've got to love a band that can do a song like "Complicated Life," from their brilliant 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies. The wheezy old-time country sound cracks me up -- where do a bunch of North Londoners come from, doing this bluegrass routine? And they know it's funny; Ray Davies is trilling in his most campy voice, like testifying at a Salvation Army mission (a role perfected on the previous track, the wickedly funny "Alcohol"), while brother Dave clanks and slides around on a steel guitar, Mick Avory bashes his cymbals, and John Gosling leans on the creakiest stops of his organ. The tempo shuffles and stumbles good-naturedly along; backing vocals kick in on the cheery "la-di-dah-di-dah-dahs" like a gospel choir. It's exaggerated just enough to be parody, but it had to be -- the Kinks never played anything straight. They never took themselves too seriously; that's one of the most endearing things about this band.

And yet, here is the sleight-of-hand genius at the heart of the Kinks: this song may be funny but it is also so true it hurts; you have to laugh to keep from crying. The theme is one that Ray frets over in song after song -- how to escape the hassles of the modern world. (Track 1, "20th Century Man," kicks off the album with a savage anthem rejecting the "technological nightmare" of the modern age; the narrator of track 2, "Acute Paranoia Schizophrenia Blues," is in the throes of a full-scale breakdown.)

The narrator of "Complicated Life" seems simply baffled by his existence, but even he suffers all sorts of psychosomatic pains, and he earnestly takes his doctor's advice to slow down. He begins sensibly enough: "Well, I cut down women, I cut out booze" -- but as he plods on through his dutiful regimen, it gets more and more absurd: "I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes / I stopped going to work, reading the news" and eventually this dropout is completely unfit to compete: "I can't go to work 'cos I can't get a job / Bills are rising sky-high" and life becomes even more complicated than ever. The poor bloke just can't win.

Frankly, most days I feel the same way. Life is a bitch -- but what's our alternative? And when I start to feel overwhelmed and miserable, it is extremely comforting for me to hear Ray's voice in my head, saying with a puzzled shrug -- "Gotta stand and face it / Life is soooo complicated." It's not an answer; it's not a solution. It's just...well, at least Ray knows how I feel. I don't feel quite so lost, knowing that. And that is why this is my band for life.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"I Want You" / Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Elvis Costello

A pretty obvious song title, eh? Aren't approximately eighty percent of all rock songs about this same topic? (The other twenty percent, of course, being the "I Don't Want You" songs.) Still, here are three very different takes on the same idea, and today I played them back to back. Guess who won?

Dylan's "I Want You" is the earliest, from Blonde on Blonde (1966), and compared to the others it's downright chipper. It's a delightful song, but not particularly seductive. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics describe a bewildering cast of characters flitting in and out -- the guilty undertaker, the drunken politician, the dancing child with his Chinese suit -- Dylan could do this kind of talking-blues thing in his sleep by then, and his tone of voice is mischievous. (Between that and the busy harmonica, I really do get the sense that he's "doing Dylan"). But yeah, when he finally gets around to singing about the woman he desires, there is something appealing about his whiny moan, obsessively repeating "I want you / I want you / Honey, I want you / So bad." Well okay, Bob, if it'll shut you up. . . .

Three years later, here comes John Lennon, doing his "I Want You" (or, excuse me, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)") on Abbey Road. I see this as the rival song to Paul McCartney's lust-drenched "Oh! Darling", and despite my known weakness for Paul McCartney, John actually gives Paul a run for his money this time. He has taken the inarticulate desire of Bob's chorus and applied it to a whole song, the lyrics of which are -- and I quote them in their entirety -- "I want you / You know I want you so bad / I want you / You know I want you so bad / It's driving me mad / It's driving me mad / She's so heavy." For seven minutes and forty-seven seconds. But hell, who bothers with lyrics when you're swamped by lust? To call this a "song" is to miss the point; it's all about the sensuous textures of that dense orchestration -- the hypnotic licks and thrusts of George Harrison's guitar line, the relentless pulsebeat of McCartney's bass, and electric organ fills by Billy Preston buzzing at the edges like synapses firing. You surrender to it, get lost in it, unmoored in time, brain and body disconnected -- and then, abruptly, it stops. Just. Like. That. You practically need a cigarette once it's over.

I have read that Elvis Costello had Lennon's song in mind when he wrote "I Want You" for his 1986 album Blood & Chocolate, that he was consciously trying for that same obsessive quality. Of course, being Elvis, he puts lyrics back into the equation -- lots of lyrics. Snarky lyrics. Nasty lyrics. Because it's not just desire, it's unrequited desire, and the folksongy platitudes of the intro degenerate soon into Elvis's hoarse jealous rage against his lover.

It is more than a little sick how much voyeuristic energy he puts into imagining her with another man: "It's the stupid details that my heart is breaking for / It's the way your shoulders shake and what they're shaking for . . . It's the thought of him undressing you, or you undressing. . ." and you can't help but picture these scenes too, peeping through the window right beside him. But as he goes on, repeatedly moaning "I want you," the time scheme gets fuzzy -- it appears he is still sleeping with this bitch, and his lust positively feeds on his jealousy: "I want to know the things you did that we do too . . . I want to hear he pleases you more than I do . . Did you call his name out as he held you down. . . . "

The arrangement is spare, just a discordant guitar, a monotonous shushing drum beat, a softly ominous bassline, and a few haunting organ accents. All you really focus on is Elvis' hollowed-out voice, a miserable and spiteful lament that quivers and rasps with hate and desire and -- well, this goes well beyond seduction in my book. It's absolutely terrifying. And yet . . . all I know is I want Elvis when he sings this. I don't want Bob, I don't want John, I don't even want Paul -- I want Elvis.

So I guess the song works.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"America" / Simon and Garfunkel

This is the song that started me smoking. The two characters in this song are always trading cigarettes, or fumbling for them in their pockets, and it's so melancholy and cool. "Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat / We smoked the last one an hour ago". . .whatever this movie was, I wanted to be in it, and if that meant smoking -- well, then I was in.

This album, Bookends, happened along right when I was entering my intellectual-wannabe phase of adolescence, and though I cringe to think of it now, I have to admit that girl is still inside me somewhere. Bookends had everything -- it was political, it was poetic, it even had a black-and-white photo cover, an artsy gesture in an era of florid four-color album art. Simon & Garfunkel were among the first folkies to dare to add rock instrumentation: Notice how the whispery vocals and acoustic guitar of the first verse -- "Let us be lovers / We'll marry our fortunes together" -- soon get layered over with drums, organ, synthesizer, and a backing chorus, though it strips back down to the acoustic for the middle verse (all the better to hit a crashing finale). What's even more daring -- It Doesn't Rhyme. Blank verse in a rock song? Earth-shaking.

And yet very few songs have ever caught the disconnected inertia of a road trip as beautifully as this. It's basically a jump-cut series of snapshots, two people on a cross-country highway trip (and if you've never driven from the Midwest to New York, you have no idea how LONG this ride could be). At first the lovers joke around -- "I've got some real estate here in my bag" --and make fun of the other passengers ("She said the man in the garbardine suit was a spy"). But as they settle into the trip, the journey itself becomes the experience, the existential process of rolling over America, staring out the bus window at the endless spool of scenery.

The drumbeat pounds as we hit the last verse, and despite myself my heart catches, because it's unbearably poignant: "'Kathy I'm lost' I said / though I knew she was sleeping" -- as if the only time he can confess such emotions is precisely when his girlfriend isn't listening, and suddenly I feel as lost and alone as he does. "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why," he adds, those last three syllables drawn out into an almost cataclysmic wail of yearning, Garfunkel's sweet falsetto soaring over Simon's teddy-bear tenor.

To me, the futility of human existence can be summed up in this song's last line: "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They've all come to look for America..." What are they looking for? What are we all looking for? Heavy stuff, man.

It was probably easy to strike this pose in 1968, and no doubt there were thousands of hipsters back then who sneered at Paul Simon's cheap philosophizing. But I don't know...I still want a cigarette every time I listen to this song, even though I haven't had one in 20-some years. It still makes me long to hit the open road and hunt for the meaning of life there. And there's nothing more American than that.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"She's Not There" / The Zombies

This was the first single I ever owned, and yeah, okay, the mere fact that I remember owning a vinyl 45 dates me more than I'd like to admit. Still, I played this one over and over incessantly before I saved up enough allowance to buy my second 45 (which I believe was the Honeycombs' "Have I The Right?"). What I can't figure out is: Why this song? In a universe of bright, glossy, upbeat pop product (like "Have I the Right?," not to mention anything by the Dave Clark Five or the Searchers or dreamy Chad & Jeremy), why was a child like me drawn to this haunting minor-key song, with its hypnotic electric piano and breathy lead vocals? I haven't a clue -- but I'm pretty proud of myself for spotting quality at such a precocious age.

Being so young, of course, I didn't "follow" pop groups; I didn't know that the Zombies were nice suburban kids from St. Albans, with a choirboy named Colin Blunstone as lead singer and a keyboard prodigy named Rod Argent writing their songs. If I had ever seen a photo of angelic dark-haired Colin Blunstone I might have become a Zombies groupie, but it was 1964 and my heart was devoted to the Beatles (specifically, Paul McCartney). No, I liked this song because I liked this song. I liked its air of mystery, and the interlapping harmonies -- Colin's innocent high voice begins softly, "Well, no one told me about her" and the others chime in "The way she lied"; "Well, no one told me about her," Colin protests again, raising his voice in anguish, and his bandmates add, "How many people cried." The melody snakes around as the singers point out "But it's too late to say you're sorry," and solo Colin notes ruefully, "How would I know? / Why should I care?" (yeah, right); "Please don't bother tryin' to find her" the band declares, before punching out a dissonant crescendo on the climactic "She's not there."

The chorus builds in volume, chords keep modulating tensely upward, and the vocals get even more anxious and percussive -- "Well, let me tell you 'bout the way she looked / The way she acted and the color of her hair." Colin sucks in his breath desperately and goes on, "Her voice was soft and cool / Her eyes were clear and bright / But -- she's not there!" That quicksilver keyboard solo in the middle is slippery, too, dancing all over the scale and refusing to stay put. The sound seems to be bouncing off of empty city streets and blank walls and underpasses, the drum work tapping like bootheels on pavement, and the melody circles around relentlessly, as if the whole song is one obsessive late-night wild goose chase.

Even as a kid, I could tell this song was emotionally conflicted. The guy's disgusted with this girl, and disgusted with himself for being such a chump ("Well, no one told me about her / Though they all knew," he gripes in the second verse); but he can't stop thinking about her, either. He doesn't want to go after her, but he's miserable without her, too. Nothing gets resolved in the course of its two minutes and 24 seconds, but in terms of capturing a sliver of angst, it can't be beat.

This was the Zombies' first record, and perhaps their biggest hit ever (rivaled only by the equally haunting "Time of the Season" three years later, just as the group was disbanding). I listen to it now and it's still mesmerizing. When you start out with a gem like this, it's hard not to end up a true believer in rock and roll.

Friday, December 08, 2006

"Rock the Casbah" / The Clash

There's an ad on TV right now for...well, I can't even remember what product the commercial's selling (the mark of a failed commercial), but the premise is that two guys are singing along to a rock song and they both get the refrain totally wrong. One guy says it's "Stop the cat box" and the other one insists it's "Lock the cash box," and the doofuses are both wrong -- as any music fan would know, because it's "Rock the Casbah", that irresistible 1982 single by the Clash. As soon as I hear it, I can't get that song out of my head for the rest of the day. No wonder I tuned out the product message.

I don't entirely blame the guys in the commercial (although, come on, it is the title of the song they mangle, which is sheer ignorance). I myself have listened to this song countless times and I still can't catch all the words. But the ones that count -- boogie men, desert, muezzin, Cadillac, prophet, Bedouin, temple, jet fighters, minarets -- are jabbed and hissed quite clearly; you get the point, if not the whole story . . .which, frankly, is kinda fuzzy. Basically, some oil-rich Mideast tyrant is censoring rock music and other personal freedoms, and the fact that it was inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini is interesting but, 25 years later, not essential.

What matters is those threatening, guttural vocals, punctuated with an occasional hysterical yelp: Somebody is mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more. And the real addictive hook is that chorus: the Middle Eastern shimmying wail "Shareef don't like it" counterpointed by the spat-out reply "Rock! the casbah / Rock! the casbah." The way they sing that line, I'm never one-hundred-percent sure they're not saying "F**k the casbah." It's probably the most significantly mis-heard lyric since the Kingsmen fumbled the line "Each night at ten I SEE her again" (wink, wink) on "Louie, Louie".

I'm sure that there are still devoted Clash fans around; me, I don't even know the names of the guys in the band. I once owned London Calling but I couldn't put my hands on it today. Still, the Clash's songs have stuck with me more than most of their punk-era contemporaries. I loved this particular song's video, its samizdat look a total slap in the face to MTV's creeping glossiness, with grainy amateur camerawork and the band members cavorting around goofily in home-made sheikh and rabbi costumes.

Sure, it's yet another trademark Clash groin-kick against authority, but it's also a celebration of the crazy joy of rock music; you hear the twiddling piano intro and the spunky drumbeat and immediately you can't help it -- you just WANT TO DANCE. The point being, of course, that dancing to a percussive rock song can be a subversive act in itself.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Over Time" / Lucinda Williams

Now here's a real woman singing. It's not just because her voice isn't perfect (though it sure is distinctive, sliding into the pitch, carelessly enunciated, with a little strident quaver as she hits certain notes) . No, what Lucinda's got going for her is better than vocal perfection: It's that worse-for-wear weariness, that veteran shrug of resignation. Men don't fool her anymore, but she's learned to take the bad with the good -- 'cuz, really, what are your other options?

Amen, sister.

"Over Time" may be a "getting over you" song, but it's a version strictly for realists. For some reason I think of a back-porch screen door banging shut, and a woman flopping down in a hammock with a Mason jar of icetea to nurse her bruised-but-not-broken heart. Her guy's hit the road already, and this is how she exorcises the memory of his cute butt in those faded blue jeans.

The vibe here definitely defers to Lucinda's country roots, though this 2003 album World Without Tears embraces many other styles as well. The shuffling tempo isn't mournful or frantic, just a half-listless two-step; the western-style electric guitar twangs with a funny distorted shimmy; the drums slap along aimlessly. Williams' voice sounds flat and a little numb; the wound's still fresh, but she already knows that this too shall pass.

The chorus is a nugget of common beauty-parlor wisdom -- "Over time / That's what they all tell me / That's what they say to me / Over time" -- and maybe it's a cliche, but aren't cliches what real people cling to? She repeats this hope over and over, almost under her breath, while she studies her chipped toenail polish and waits for the medicine to kick in.

And then, as if stretching and shifting her weight in the hammock, in the verse she thinks wistfully back on her defected lover. She doesn't fool herself with any you-were-the-best-thing-I-ever-had stuff; her memory of him is totally down-to-earth, and so specific it doesn't even bother to rhyme: "Your pale skin / Your sexy crooked teeth / The trouble you'd get in / In your clumsy way." I love that little affectionate note that creeps in, almost against her will. Aw, hell, he was kinda hot, wasn't he? And I am so there, like a sympathetic neighbor stopping by with a casserole and a carton of cigarettes to show female solidarity.

Lucinda Williams may not hit every vocal note perfectly, but she hits the emotional notes just right. This is something guys don't always realize: Women know that all men are assholes -- and we love 'em anyway. Sometimes we love them because they are assholes. And hey, if we didn't, the human race would've died off a long time ago.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Love At First Light" / Joe Jackson

The first time I ever heard this Joe Jackson song was live in concert last summer (it's from his 2003 album Volume 4, which I went out and bought the very next day). Sitting there in the dark listening to it, I felt absolutely mesmerized. From that first snide inverted cliche -- "It's the crack of noon" -- I knew I was in Joe Jackson Land, which is a pretty damn treacherous landscape -- the shifting sands of bruised feelings and sexual ambivalence and warped romantic reflexes. Throughout this halting waltz, Joe's trademark crashing piano chords uneasily morph and modulate, and his yearning tenor vacillates between earnest passion and biting sarcasm. It completely wrung my heart -- this is the most honest morning-after song I've ever heard.

The narrator is waking up in bed with a stranger (a woman or a man? even that is unspecified) -- "I can't even remember your name / I know that it's written on a matchbook somewhere / So maybe I'll find it -- and maybe I'll care. " (I love the way Joe Jackson sets up the first half of a line and then whacks it in the knees in the second half.) Okay, now I've got it; this is a one-night stand, right? But then the key shifts and Joe spins the situation differently: "So when you awake, I admit I'm relieved / As you flash me a smile like a diamond / And just for a moment I almost believe / In love at first light." (Another killer play on words.) Sure, he qualifies it with those words "just" and "almost," but the hunger for love is there, and it can't -- won't -- be quelled.

He sketches the brief encounter with cinematic details -- the hungover breakfast of coffee and aspirin and raw eggs, the faint morning chill that makes his lover tenderly drape a robe round his shoulders, the casual curiosity as the lover discovers a favorite book on his shelf. But a flashback to last night's passion sets off a frisson of desire: his voice curls lasciviously around the lyrics -- "But oh, was it ever so good being bad /Like a couple of vampires, deliciously mad / Saying 'This is the best blood that we've ever had' / So we drank it all night." There's sexual appetite there, oh yes. But there's also a playful companionship -- and this morning, that's significant enough to make the forgotten name a minor detail.

This is the moment when it could go either way. No matter how many strangers you've slept with in your no-longer-young life, this transition is tricky. You can't be vampires in the daylight, but if "we do something human, like walk in the park / The spark could ignite..." (Love that internal 'park/spark' rhyme.) Maybe, he worries, he's being moonstruck or naive, but the yin and the yang of the universe have to be sorted out: "I know there's a god / And a devil / So maybe I'm crazy enough to believe / In love at first light."

And sitting there in the dark, I let out a sigh of relief. I can tell he's already talked himself into it. Maybe it's not your traditional happy ending -- but in Joe Jackson Land, this is as happy as an ending gets.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" / Bob Dylan

I guess I am at heart more of a country-music lover than I'd like to admit: My favorite Bob Dylan album has always been Nashville Skyline. Go figure. I guess Dylan purists were outraged when this album came out in 1969, but I didn't discover it until 1976, when I was living in England and missed the USA. What better cure for those homesick blues than a country-rock album with honky-tonk piano and pedal steel guitar? Up till then, I just didn't get Bob Dylan; more important, I never found Bob Dylan sexy. And then I heard Nashville Skyline and I perked right up. Mr. Dylan -- my, my!

I acknowledge that Bob Dylan's a great songwriter, but only a handful of his songs have ever wormed into my heart. Brilliant as his lyrics are, I'm put off by his persona most of the time, whether it's a fervent evangeliser, a hectoring preacher, a snarky social critic, or a tormented existentialist. I just don't want to spend extra time with any of those guys, and that prevents me from delving into his other albums. Feel free to tell me about the great songs I'm missing -- but life is too short, and I'm happy enough with Nashville Skyline.

Maybe it was that near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966 that mellowed Dylan in time for Nashville Skyline (if so, the effect must have worn off later). Whatever happened, here he seems humanized and open-hearted and, oh, I don't know, even loveable.
Bob actually tried to sing on this album, and lo and behold, he found more melody in his nasal twang than ever before (or since). His crooning on "I Threw It All Away" is downright wistful; "Lay, Lady, Lay" has a delicate, husky sincerity that makes me shiver every time. (Am I not right, ladies?).

But I have a special place in my heart for "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You." With that easygoing loping tempo, the tossed-off piano trills, the upsliding guitar, it's got a certain self-effacing charm I'm always a sucker for. It begins with a helpless shrug of abandon: "Throw my ticket out the window / Throw my suitcase out there too / Throw my troubles out the door / I don't need them anymore / 'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you." These lyrics aren't all that different from the folksongs Dylan started out with, and yet the syncopated arrangement, the lilting melody, the singing style puts an entirely different spin on it -- the way Bob tenderly flutters on "you" at the end of the line makes my heart skip a beat.

This is a song about carnal desire, make no mistake about it. And as the song's narrator sweetly wheedles his way into the woman's good graces -- "And my love comes on so strong / And I've waited all day long / For tonight, when I'll be staying here with you" -- I feel my own resistance just melting. Who can ever resist that sort of shambling charmer? He's no sleazeball; in fact in the bridge he seems downright polite: "Is it really any wonder / The love that a stranger may receive / You cast your spell and I went under / That's why it's so difficult to leave." Shoot, he's just trying to be gracious about accepting her hospitality. (Kinda like the guy in "Lay, Lady, Lay" -- "his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean / And you're the best thing that he's ever seen.")

But there's no mistaking what's gonna happen tonight, and the final verse is almost giddy with abandon. "If there's a poor boy on the street / Then let him have my seat / 'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you." You sure will, honey. Only, just let me hit the replay button again, okay?

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Found a Job" / Talking Heads

When More Songs About Buildings and Food hit the scene in 1978, this song seemed like it came from another planet. The herky-jerky rhythms, the automaton-like backing tracks, the tuneless melodies, the deadpan lyrics -- and yet for me and my friends, these songs were more relevant to our disaffected middle-class lives than any angry punk song or heavy-metal angst.

"So think about this little scene / Apply it to your life / If your work isn't what you love / Then something isn't right" -- whether or not the song's message was ironic was completely beside the point. We weren't sure whether we wanted to buy into our parents' work ethic, anyway; but at least we felt In On The Joke, and part of an exclusive club -- the cult of the hipster geek. Devo was geeky too, but no one I knew wanted to be Mark Mothersbaugh the way they wanted to be David Byrne, with his nerdy plaid shirts and ill-at-ease frozen stare.

It starts out abruptly with a random scrap of dialogue, a couple arguing over what to watch on TV -- "Damn that television!" David Byrne barks out, over a scrabbling guitar riff. My favorite line comes next, a tense staccato squawk that has become my personal mantra for dealing with daily crises: "Don't get upset! / It's not a major disaster." Then Byrne steps in like a sociologist narrating a cheesy infomercial, "We've heard this little scene before / We've heard it many times / They're fighting over little things / And wasting precious time." You can almost see his wooden hand gestures, the tightly-knotted skinny tie, the plastic pen protecter in his pocket.

And his solution? No I'm-okay-you're-okay psychotherapy crap; just create your own TV show! Everything will be all right! (Decades before webcasts and Youtube made every amateur a do-it-yourself auteur -- the Talking Heads were way ahead of the curve on this one. ) The chorus sketches their new-and-improved life: "Judy's in the bedroom / Inventing situations / Bob is on the street today /Scouting out locations" -- and if there's something knee-jerk and joyless about it, well, what did you expect?

A couple years later, in "Once In A Lifetime," David Byrne would be looking around him and yelping in disbelief, "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!" Speaks to me, all right: I too still find it hard to take adult life seriously.

As the Talking Heads developed, they actually turned into a great dance band, but when I re-listened to all those early Talking Head albums recently on a long car drive, I was amazed to notice what a polyrhythmic groove already lay beneath the choppy arrangements. While these songs are playing, it's almost impossible not to jerk around a little (I wouldn't necessarily call it dancing). They still sound punchy and fresh. And they still play with my head, in a good way.

"Don't get upset, it's not a major disaster" -- words to live by.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"I'll Be You" / The Replacements

"If it's a temporary lull / Why'm I bored right out of my skull ..." Good question. I remember being disaffected and nineteen and whipping around Indianapolis looking for action; it's one thing to be stuck in the suburbs where nothing seems to be going on; but when nothing is going on in a hundred-fifty-mile radius, then you're in trouble.

The Replacements, for all their spiky urban punkiness, are from Minneapolis, and I've gotta think their songwriter Paul Westerberg had itchy evenings just like I did. His description of that mindset totally hits home -- "left a rebel without a clue / And I'm searching for something to do."

The thing is, I still feel like this some days. That edginess, that longing to break out -- some of us never grow out of it. Otherwise why would this song speak to me the way it does? I've only discovered the Replacements fairly recently (ironic, considering that they broke up 15 years ago, despite a recent sorta reunion), but there's something urgent and immediate about their best songs that makes me feel like I've known them all my life.

That bashing drumbeat, the snaggy buzz of the guitar, the jerky, slightly strangled vocals -- it sounds late-night, it sounds like static on the radio as you drive aimlessly, cutting rudely in and out of traffic, restlessly scanning the chain-store strips for anything new. You're no longer a kid, and your peers are already settling down, but somehow you just can't yet --"Hurry up, we're running in our last race...." And Westerberg's lyrics are so smart -- "I'm dressing sharp and feeling dull"; "We're bleeding but we're not cut" -- that you realize this guy isn't just another stoner slacker. Being in his world is still more interesting than the alternative.

It's cool to think of a couple who're so much on the same wavelength that they blend into each other -- "You be me for a while / and I'll be you" -- and they even hold hands at one point. But this is hardly a love song; I think of the two characters in this song as kindred souls more than lovers, washed up on each other's shore for want of anything better. This isn't your typical romantic song; and yet Westerberg's persona is damn romantic, a lost soul seeking dreams and freedom.

This song gets my pulse going in more ways than one. I can't say it makes me feel happy -- but it sure as hell makes me feel alive.
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Friday, December 01, 2006

"Living Without You" / The Alan Price Set

Every fan girl needs a melancholy break-up song to moon over, and this is mine. It's from the 1967 album A Price On His Head, and if you look at the vinyl LP you can see how often I knelt on my dorm room floor beside my pack-n-play stereo to set the needle down on this particular track and no other. (Ah, you youngsters with your CDs and iPods will never know the sweet joy of finding that hiss and groove.) For about a year, it was the first song I played every morning upon waking up; I'd sigh deeply, swipe away a few tears, swallow the lump in my throat, and then drag myself off to another morose day of being a college student.

I can't remember what boyfriend I was longing for at the time; most likely it was Alan Price himself. After I saw him in the 1973 film O Lucky Man! -- he not only wrote and performed the brilliant soundtrack, he had a sizeable role in the film -- I was a Fan Obsessed: I spent the next two years tracking down every album I could find to fill in the gap since he was the original Animals' organist. Every record store I went into required two ritual stops -- one at the K bin for the Kinks, then one at the P bin for Alan Price, hoping I'd find him somewhere in between Alan Parsons and John Prine. Ah, life had a purpose in those days.

Randy Newman wrote this song; Alan covered several early Newman songs -- often the definitive versions, if you ask me. I've heard Randy sing this one: nice try but no cigar. Though the Alan Price Set had a killer horn section, this track is just piano and vocals, and Alan's piano playing is as deft as Randy's -- but it's his vocals that really knock this one out of the park. Like his old bandmate Eric Burdon, Alan Price has a searing voice, velvety and warm as Scotch whiskey, with a rough edge like fog hanging over the Newcastle docks; the fact that Eric got all the lead vocals in the Animals was a crying shame.

The first lines paint you into the scene: "The milk truck pulls the sun up / And the paper hits the door / And the subway shakes my floor / And I think about you," and the way his voice falls miserably on that last line is just perfect; here's another day, and you wake up happy for a moment -- until you remember, and it's all downhill from there. A little snarl of self-pity and resentment creeps in after that: "Everyone's got something / They're out trying to get some more / They got something to get up for-- / Well, I ain't about to."

Then you get to the chorus, where the lyrics numbly rehearse over and over "It's soo hard / It's so-o-o hard / Yes, it's so hard / Living without you," and every repeated "hard" quavers with a little more anger and pain and loss and hurt. By the time Alan's voice rasps on the final "you" -- jeez, Alan, stop moping; I'm right here, and you can have me.

I still have the odd day when I want to wallow in melancholy. Today is one of those days. And, hey, this song still works like a charm -- I heartily recommend it.