Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Jagged" / The Old 97s

A fellow Kinks fan sent me a compilation CD of this alt-country band's music, and I've been digging it ever so much, thank you. What's really amazing, my teenagers actually don't scream and make me take it out of the CD player when we're in the car.

This is what the record companies can't seem to figure out: music sharing is good business for them. Sure, my friend ripped off 16 tracks and gave them away to me for free. How is that worse than the old days when people lent their vinyl albums to each other? That's how you learn about new artists, especially now when radio sucks and the independent record store is dead. (Even the chains are dying -- I just heard that the Virgin Records Mega-Stores are vacating Times Square, the only place my son has ever had that quintessential bin-browsing experience.)

Now that I've listened to this sampler, I'm sure I will buy Old 97s CDs -- and I certainly wouldn't have if she hadn't sent me this. All those Nick Lowe samplers I sent to friends a couple years ago? Every one of those people bought Nick's new CD last year. (Note to self: Send out some Ron Sexsmith samplers to whip up the audience for his new CD, due out July 8.)

But back to the Old 97s. This song, from their 1999 album Fight Songs, is the first track on the sampler, so it's the one that hit me first. And what a great first impression it made. On this one, the alt side outweighs the country -- just listen to the buzzing guitar work and skipping drumbeat, or the indie whine and mumble in Rhett Miller's vocals, perfectly appropriate for the subject matter. "I would give anything," he frets over and over in the chorus, "Not to feel so jagged." It's an odd word to use -- it's anything but a cliche -- and as soon as I heard it, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

It's not love that doing this to him -- or is it? "What remains of the day remains to be seen / By the TV that we never turn on / Each other's enough / I never had it so rough / Ever since I been gone." You tell me what's going on with these people. But I like the opacity of this situation; I really feel his misery, when he can't even put into words what's going on. "White noise swells in my head," he says in verse two; "It's the summertime / But it's the dead of the fall / It's the dead of the night / Hell yes I mind." Whoa, there's some existential angst for you. That never goes down well in Nashville (but Austin might get it). "I couldn't drink enough to make this make sense," he adds, "But I think I'm gonna give it a try."

What I like about this song is that it doesn't have to get all moany and mopey to express depression. They've found another grammar -- a restless guitar line, jerky rhythms, fretful octave jumps in the melody, obssessively repeated lyrics, a pained wail at the end of every chorus. It's about depression, but it's not one bit depressing to listen to. Now there's a feat for you.
Jagged sample

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Going Mobile" / The Who

I'll admit that I have a love-hate thing going with the Who. I remember watching them on some groovy 60s TV show -- Shindig or Hullabaloo or, sheesh, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour -- and seeing Pete Townshend trash his guitar, and being totally perplexed. Tommy? Let's face it, album or movie, it was a great big pretentious sloppy mess. I completely missed the point of toothy Roger Daltrey being a sex symbol -- just because he had blond curls and wore his shirts unbuttoned? Puh-leeze. So obvious.

And yet I always got a kick out of Keith Moon -- when he exploded his drum set, it looked like a particularly delicious mad lark. And an awful lot of Who songs remain deeply imprinted on my song memory. The weird thing is, I can't always listen to those songs all the way through. Take "Baba O'Reilly," for example -- it starts off with that iconic synth riff and then a fantastic bass line, but when you get to the song itself it's not really distinctive at all. "The Song Is Over" starts with such a lovely wistful melodic line, but then they drive it into something pompous and anthemic that makes me yawn.

But I'm just going to have to get over it. I may not like the Who as much as the Kinks or the Beatles, or even -- oh, how it pains me to admit this -- the Rolling Stones, but they were a damn fine band. In a world where Coldplay and Jay-Z are considered major artists, I have to stop resenting that the Who made it bigger than the Kinks (or that the remaining half-Who can still book arenas when Ray Davies is playing mid-sized venues).

And so, even though the opening guitar riff of "Going Mobile" is CLEARLY ripped off from the Kinks' "Victoria," I have to confess I dig this song. What's it about? Uh, not much -- it's about liking to drive around in a car (apparently Pete Townshend was into driving aimlessly around). Somehow Townshend manages to give this an anti-establishment twist ("I'm going home / And when I say home / I'm going mobile"), although it's a little trite ("I can stop in any street / And talk with people that we meet"). But that rhythm section -- and the Who had hands-down the best rhythm section of any band ever -- just keeps that motor gunning, rollicking on and on until you don't really care where the ride takes you.

Is this Daltrey singing? The hard yelp of Daltrey's voice doesn't always work for me, but here he adds a good-humored swoop that sounds just fine. I can't help but picture a big-ass RV when he sings "Play the tape machine / Make the toast and tea / When I'm mobile / Well, I can lay in bed with only highway ahead" (but mind your usage, Pete -- it should be "lie" in bed). He may describe himself as a hippie gypsy" but he kinda blows it when he adds in a later verse "I don't care about pollution / I'm an air-conditioned gypsy." I have no idea whether he's being ironic -- but like I said, that propulsive rhythm line keeps us shifting gears too fast to care. It's about driving, for chrissake. I can't get hung up on whether he's making a social statement. It's a flippin' rock song, that's all.

Has anybody picked this up for a cellphone commercial yet? It's so perfect, someone must have. Even though it was written in 1971, way before cellphones, it sounds as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. Well, I'm cranking it up to eleven and enjoying it, anyhoo. Might as well give into it and get in touch with my inner Who fan.

Going Mobile sample

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Shangri-La" / The Kinks

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RAY DAVIES

I wish I'd been at Hampton Court the other night when Ray Davies performed this song in concert, with the Crouch End Chorus joining in on the la's and ooh's. Ray hardly ever has performed it live. "Shangri-la" is one of those sleepers in the Kinks catalog; like the entire Arthur album, it's often overlooked even by Kinks fans, let alone people who barely know who the Kinks are. But the more I've listened to it over the years, the more I realize what a superb and profound song it is.

In the late 1960s, Ray Davies evolved from writing pop songs about love/sex to writing wonderful little three-minute satires of English life. He started out with barbed comedy in "Well-Respected Man" (September 1965) and "A House in the Country" (April 1966), but two years later, a tender note of sympathy has crept into a song like "Autumn Almanac" (October 1967), despite its snarky list of knee-jerk middle-class pleasures ("I like my football on a Saturday / Roast beef on Sunday / All right"). Even though its music-hall arrangement telegraphs parody, when the protagonist of "Autumn Almanac" declares "This is my street / And I'm never gonna leave it / And I'm always gonna stay here / If I live to be ninety-nine" -- well, I don't know about you, but I sense that part of Ray (the same claustrophobe who won't leave his room in "Waterloo Sunset") feels absolutely the same way. Why shouldn't we want to stay in a place where we feel we belong?

By the time Ray got to "Shangri-la" (September 1969), he had an even more complex attitude toward the middle-class Englishman whose home is his castle. The melancholy minor-key melody is your first clue, as well as the pensive ballad tempo -- this is a song that should be taken seriously. Now, the whole Arthur album was originally intended as the soundtrack for a TV film; these songs are sung by characters in the play, not in Ray's own persona. I've never seen the film (mostly because it was never made), but I have always assumed that "Shangri-la" is sung by an omniscient narrator to the main character (loosely based on Ray's brother-in-law), who has left England and family to relocate in a planned community in Australia.

That first verse is unbearably poignant: "Now that you've found your paradise / This is your Kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la." This isn't just some snide put-down of middle-class complacency -- though there's surely a strain of that in there -- it's also an epiphany about the moment when one's dreams ring hollow. "Here is your reward for working so hard / Gone are the lavatories in the back yard / Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car / You just want to sit in your Shangri-la." I love that detail about the lavatories in the yard -- talk about fixing a cultural reference in one sharp stroke.

Oh, the satire comes stealing in in the later verses, as Ray describes the "little man" catching his commuter train and fretting over his mortgage; it's a pathetic tradeoff, on a time-installment plan: "Got a TV set and a radio / For seven shillings a week." Then Ray pans out, almost cinematically, for the wide-angle view -- "And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same / Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes" -- that's such a resonant little observation, about the English penchant for giving their houses cutesy names, even in a cookie-cutter development. It's details like that that make Ray Davies one of our greatest living songwriters.

Eventually Ray does dismiss the character as "Too scared to think about how insecure you are / Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-la." But I don't know -- I still think he's identifying with him, and more than a little bit.

There's always been this tension in Ray Davies, between the restless misfit genius and the champion of the common man. Eventually he wrote a whole rock musical about it, Soap Opera, where he played both the Starmaker and the bland suburbanite Norman -- who turn out to be one and the same. That tension may make it hard to be Ray Davies, god knows, but it also happens to be the wellspring of some of his very greatest music.

Shangri-la sample

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Junk" / Paul McCartney

I can't remember my own phone number some days, but I'll always remember Paul McCartney's birthday -- the Beatlemaniac pre-teen in me still holds that faithful torch. Today Sir Paul turns 66; here's a birthday blog in his honor.

Actually, not one DJ I heard on the radio today mentioned his birthday, and the three Beatle songs I happened to hear played were all John songs -- what a disappointment. The intellectual snobs definitely favor John (and even George) over Paul, and I'm tired of it. You know the drill: "Oooh, John's lyrics are so much better, all Paul had was melodies" -- well, it's supposed to be MUSIC, folks, melodies matter.

Take this song, from Paul's solo debut album, McCartney. At first glance, the lyrics are just a free-associated list of visual images: "Motor cars / handlebars / bicycles for two," "Parachutes / army boots / sleeping bags for two," and "Candlesticks / building bricks." He could have -- and probably did -- doodled these rhymes while smoking grass. But it doesn't take much imagination to see them as the flotsam and jetsam of a life, and with just a couple more phrases -- "broken-hearted jubilee," "sentimental jamboree," "something old and new" -- Paul defines that nostalgic, romantic connection. (In 1970, when this album was released, mining thrift shops for their poignant glamor was standard operating procedure, as I recall.)

Which leads us to the plaintive chorus: "Buy / buy / Says the sign in the shop window / Why / Why / Says the junk in the yard." Sure, he's harking back to "Eleanor Rigby" here, summoning up a melancholy vision of life's castaways -- but he pulls it off with such economy, it's like a pointillist painting.

And what makes it work, of course, is the melody. It's a gently lilting waltz, the most romantic of time signatures, with just a dash of backbeat syncopation (nobody plays with rhythm better than Paul McCartney; it's second nature to him), and the arrangement is perfect simplicity -- just Paul on an acoustic guitar, later adding brushed drums, one verse of vibraphone counterpoint, and a few soft harmonies from his wife Linda. But artless as that sounds, the melody is much trickier than it seems. Each line in the verse flutters gaily around its opening note, but the opening notes steadily progress down the scale, with a sort of mournful inevitability.

Then, to counterpoint that downward progression, each verse starts with a minor chord, then a tentative 7th, and finally drops gratefully into major chords -- except for that last line of the chorus, which hangs troubled on a minor chord. It sets up a dynamic tension between scale and key, a complex interplay that perfectly mirrors the bittersweet lyrics. I'm not saying Paul thought this all out; my guess is he just instinctively knew what sounds would convey the wistful mood he wanted to evoke. He threw in a scatting verse or two of la-de-da's, and it was done.

It's worth noting that Paul recorded this whole album in his home studio, playing all the instruments himself. As a post-Beatles declaration of independence, it's utter simplicity is a stroke of genius -- most artists would strain to make their first solo LP a Big Statement Album. Paul's belief in his own material often leads him astray; John Lennon was always his best editor, and Paul's needed an editor ever since they split. But when he gets it right -- and he gets it right more often than the snobs are willing to admit -- there's no greater songwriter on earth.

Happy birthday, Paul.

Junk sample

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"West Coast" / Coconut Records

Sheepishly, I gotta own up -- I dig this single. I even sing along, and loudly, whenever it comes up on the radio (I don't listen to mainstream radio at all, but Sirius's Alt Nation pushes this song big-time). The last commercial single I fell for like this was "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White Ts. Yeah, I know that the kids today don't have great singles the way we did back in the day, but catchy numbers like these give me faith that pop music is not dead.

I had no idea who Coconut Records was, of course. Then after seeing Phantom Planet (one of the opening acts for Panic at the Disco last month) I googled Phantom Planet and discovered that the force behind Coconut Records is their former drummer, Jason Schwartzman. Yes, THAT Jason Schwartzman, the actor who was so endearing in Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited -- and who I now learn is the son of Talia Shire, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, and cousin of Nicolas Cage. Sure is a tiny world.

Actually, I like the Coconut Records songs I've heard more than Phantom Planet's, especially since PP has headed in a harder rock direction. (But then Coconut Records, which is really just Schwartzman, only has released one album, 2007's Nighttiming) "West Coast" has the same sort of endearing slacker quality as Schwartzman's movie roles. His slightly nasal, whiny warble sounds like a real guy, feeling just a tad sorry for himself because he misses his girlfriend.

There's just the right amount of weary petulance in that chorus: "I miss you, I'm going back home to the West Coast / I wish you would put yourself in my suitcase / I love you, standing all alone in a black coat / I miss you, I'm going back home to the West Coast." It's so artless and naive -- no rhymes, each line repeating the same melodic fragment, a twiddly synth riff following each reiteration. By the time he gets to the fourth line, he can't think of anything new so he just repeats the first line again. And yet it's so plaintive -- the black coat, the standing alone -- that it works. I feel lonesome too, just listening to him.

The weather's miserable and rainy, and he admits he's been talking to himself -- or rather, "I talk out loud like you're still around." The girl's sleeping as he packs his bags (another classic pop set-up.) And instead of building to a grandiose ending, he flips back and forth behind clamorous intervals of choral ahhs and the simple stripped-down verses/chorus. For some reason this doesn't sound overproduced, despite all the strings and pounding electric piano and chiming vocalists -- it's just unruly, like life.

He's not trying to change the situation, he just thinks it sucks. Remember Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate, floating aimlessly around his parents' swimming pool, waiting for life to solve itself? That sort of existential anomie felt radical in 1967; nowadays it's the common mindset of everybody under 30. That passive sense of hopelessness runs through "West Coast" -- he thinks it's just because he's missing his girlfriend, but it's really his whole life that needs saving.

Is this a great song? Probably not -- not in the league of the Boxtops' "The Letter" or the Turtles' "Happy Together" or even "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. (Talk about dating myself...) But it makes me happy every time it comes on the radio -- which is as good a criterion as any for a pop song.

West Coast sample

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Love Goes On!" /
The Go-Betweens


I suspect that, like a lot of artists I love, the Go-Betweens may require repeated listenings for their music to grab hold. I've always felt that, oh for example, the Kinks would be more famous if people heard their songs multiple times before having to decide whether they liked them. I know that "Autumn Almanac" or "Dead End Street" or "Shangri-La" -- three of my favorite Kinks tracks ever -- grew on me gradually. In the modern world of CDs and 30-second digital samples, it's way too easy for listeners to skip tracks they don't like the first time around, and never hear them again.

But my friend Dave promises me that the Go-Betweens are right up my alley. I'll admit I never heard of this Australian band ("Australia's greatest pop group ever," the iStore swears, which would be news to the BeeGees) either in their 80s heyday or when they reunited in the late 90s ( sadly, one of the group's two creative forces, Grant McLennan, died in 2006). But I trust Dave, so I'm working on it -- and this track is starting to haunt me.

"Love Goes On!" has a brisk pop energy, with a machine-gun acoustic guitar riff and percussive lyrics -- their sound is not quite New Wave, not quite power pop. But there's a darkness to the chords; the rhythm's edgy and agitated, and the melody skips around restlessly. So I put my ear to the speakers and focus on the lyrics, and what do I discover but a deep pool of ambivalence and ambiguity.

"There’s a cat in the alleyway / Dreaming of birds that are blue," he starts off poetically; "Sometimes girl when I’m lonely / This is how I think about you." So far, straightforward enough. But then he starts to veer sideways: "There are times that I want you / I want you so much I could bust" -- and that one word "bust" punctures the romantic illusion. "I know a thing about lovers," McLennan assures us; "lovers lie down in trust." The falling line of the melody makes me suspect that trust is in short supply in this relationship.

After defiantly proclaiming (twice) "Love goes on anyway!" in the chorus, McLennan warily adds in verse two "I know a thing about lovers / Lovers don’t feel any shame" and "I know a thing about darkness / Darkness ain’t my friend." This love affair sure seems out of whack, doesn't it? The strings, muted up to now, come out with a minor-key flourish in the bridge, overlaid with flamenco guitar, as he fiercely insists: "I’m gonna make you happy / I’m gonna spin you round / I’m gonna cut your strings." Talk about hostility.

In verse three, he goes all Terence Stamp on us: "Late at night when I want you / I lock you in my room / 'Cause I know a thing about darkness." You sure do, my friend. I love how he frames this all in the abstract -- this is the way "lovers" act, it has nothing to do with his own desperation, insecurity, and out-of-kilter appetite. "I know a thing about lovers," he notes at the end, "Lovers want the moon." Well, that's true; we do want the moon when we're in in love. Of course we almost never get it.

The more I listen, the more I notice how that perky guitar sounds like an obsessive tic; the repeated refrain gets neurotic; and the haze of backing strings and echoing harmonies perfectly evoke his anxiety. Man, if every Go-Betweens song is this smart and dark, I do have to make myself better acquainted with them.

Thanks, Dave.

Love Goes On! sample

Monday, June 09, 2008

"All Through Throwing Good Love After Bad" / Guy Clark

Apparently Jerry Jeff Walker did the "big" recording of this song, a version that's all twanged up and countrified. I hope it made him a ton of money, I honestly do. But the version I know and love is Guy Clark's (you'll find it on his 1988 album Old Friends) -- he's the one who wrote it, after all -- and I just hope he got a decent chunk of those royalties as well. Clark's the kind of songwriter that Nashville feeds on like a vampire; Jerry Jeff alone got two other hits out of Clark songs, "L.A. Freeway" and "Desperadoes Waiting For A Train," and Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill , and George Strait all did well with Clark songs, while Guy's own albums languished in obscurity. It just doesn't seem fair.

But then, I don't listen to much country music -- what do I know? Guy Clark's albums could just as easily be labeled "folk"; it's no surprise to me that he used to hang out with Townes Van Zandt, another artist whose work got lost between labels. Although Guy Clark's down-to-earth outlook is totally West Texas, the songs themselves are perfectly chiseled gems, every word shrewdly weighed, each verse dovetailed into the next, so that the end effect seems effortlessly simple and honest. That's one of the hardest tricks for a songwriter to pull off -- and yet when you do it, nobody notices.

The light acoustic touch Guy gives this track is so much fitting than Jerry Jeff's. It's about the relief of finally being happy in love; it should simply flow. "There was a time I was feeling so hopeless, " he starts out, reflectively, "it's a wonder I didn't cave in / Kept throwing love at all the wrong people / Never to see it again." We've all been there, haven't we? Or at least it feels like it. But the rhythm taps along happily enough; he's not tangled up in angst anymore -- because things have changed: "Oh, Lord, won't you look what I've found? / Staring me right in the face / Yeah I'm through being lonely, I'm through being sad / I'm all through throwing good love after bad." He's stumbled upon the real thing at last, and he's still amazed at his own good luck.

It's a very specific little slice of emotional reality Clark carves out here; he never even describes the woman he's fallen for, or gushes about his happiness. No, he's just marveling at the difference it makes in his life: "Now I think of all the time I have wasted / Wearing my heart on my sleeve / Trusting my love to the kindness of strangers, / Oh, I was so naive." Those wounds are still too fresh to be forgotten completely.

Sure, cliched phrases dance in and out -- that's inevitable, if you're trying to write in the language real people speak -- but the big cliches, the trite emotions and hoary concepts, are nowhere to be seen. I don't think I've ever heard another song that about this very specific aspect of falling in love -- but now that Guy's sketched it out, I get it completely.

This isn't the way a teenager views love; teenagers think the whole world is new and love is eternal. Most of your classic pop music clings to that adolescent perspective. But here's Guy Clark, singing with his weathered, slightly creaky voice, strumming his guitar and scratching his head at how simple genuine love can be. He's a guy who's been through some stuff; he knows the exquisite value of Not Hurting Anymore. Music for grown-ups. If that's country, then count me in as a country fan.

All Through Throwing Good Love After Bad sample

Friday, June 06, 2008

"The Story of Bo Diddley" / The Animals

Like way too many Americans, I only discovered Bo Diddley through the music of British white guys in shaggy haircuts and drainpipe jeans-- that bomp bomp-bomp da-bomp beat still makes me think more of Newcastle than Chicago. Sad but true. And apparently I'm not the only one: Links to the youtube clip of the Animals doing this song have popped up everywhere since Bo Diddley died last Monday.

I suppose I knew the Yardbirds' cranked-up version of "I'm a Man" first -- this song was hard to miss in 1965, though in my musical memory it tends to morph into the Spencer Davis Group song of the same name. (Oh, young Stevie Winwood...) A snappy little number, but it completely missed the laidback sexy confidence of Bo's original. Then there was the Kinks' cover of "Cadillac," but it wasn't until much later that I heard that -- in the early Kinks days I was strictly a singles customer -- and let's be honest, like most of the blues covers on their debut album, it's not all that good. You all know how I love Ray Davies, but a blues singer he wasn't.

The Animals, though, were a different story. Eric Burdon's obsession with American blues leaked into every release the early Animals did, and this song is a crazy fan-worshipping take-off on Bo's first hit, "Bo Diddley," as well as his later song "Hey, Bo Diddley." (The songwriting credit goes to Burdon and Ellis McDaniel, which was Diddley's real name.) That trademark Bo Diddley beat runs through the whole song, pounded out relentlessly by Alan Price on the organ, while Eric -- using his best fake Delta accent, in a sort of talking blues that's damn close to rap -- delineates "the story of Bo Diddley / and the rock 'n roll scene in general." He gives a mini-bio of Diddley; discusses how the payola scandal caused the "death of the rock 'n roll scene" in America; describes the rise of the Beatles, the Stones, the Merseybeats et cetera. It's the best six-minute recap any cultural historian could want.

Then he describes the night he and the band finally met their hero at their home base, the Club a Go Go in Newcastle. I have to believe the evening happened just as Eric tells it: "And the doors opened one night and to our surprise / Walked in the man himself, Bo Diddley / Along with him was Jerome Green, his maraca man, / And the Duchess, his gorgeous sister." The Animals start performing their Bo Diddley material, and Eric says "I overheard Bo Diddley talkin' / He turned around to Jerome Green / And he said, 'Hey, Jerome? What do you think of these guys doin' our material?" [dig Eric's drawling impression of Bo] . . .

"Jerome said, Uh, where's the bar, man? Please show me to the bar...' / He turned around to the Duchess and said, / 'Hey Duch...what do you think of these young guys doin' our material?" / She said, [this time a silly high-pitched voice] 'I don't know. I only came across here / To see the changin' of the guards and all that jazz.'" Priceless.

So now we're holding our breath for the denouement -- and here it comes: "Well, Bo Diddley looked up at me and he said, / With half closed eyes and a smile, / He said "Man," / Took off his glasses," -- it's a gas how Eric draws it out, relishing the suspense -- "He said, "Man, / That sure is . . . the biggest load of rubbish I ever heard in my life!" Only I'm guessing "rubbish" wasn't the word Bo Diddley used.

This song makes me love Bo Diddley, a man with a gift for telling it like it is. It makes me love Eric Burdon, too, with all that genuine enthusiasm just gushing out of him. These Geordies loved Bo Diddley as he deserved to be loved.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

"The World'll Be Okay" /
Teenage Fanclub


Finally I get it.

I've had these guys on my iTunes for a couple years, but somehow I never really listened to them. They never come up in my shuffle, which I guess isn't surprising -- I only have 10 of their songs on there, compared to the complete works of Nick Lowe (if someone made a bootleg of Nick gargling in the morning I'd probably put it on my iTunes); it's no contest who surfaces more often on the shuffle. If they do cycle up, I probably think it's Big Star and pay no attention. I was mystified, to tell you the truth. How could Nick Hornby have steered me wrong?

So I made a concerted effort to listen to Teenage Fanclub, on the advice of a couple fansters whose taste I totally trust, but I couldn't get past the power-pop surface (at least The Romantics and the Knack have irresistible hooks to pull you in). It might have helped if I'd listened to Teenage Fanclub when I was in college -- there's something indelible about the music you loved in college. (No other explanation for my ABBA fanship.) But they weren't around when I was in college; this album, Songs From Northern Britain, came out in 1997, though it feels a lot more vintage than that.

But I recently organized my iPod into loads of fresh playlists (new dog, lots of walking in the park -- the iPod is my new best friend) and I put "The World'll Be Okay" on a playlist of songs with the words "all right" or "okay" in the titles. I know, it sounds hokey, but it happens to work as a playlist. And now every time that song comes up I'm grooving totally.

What I've finally figured out is that Teenage Fanclub isn't about hooks (except for "What You Do To Me" -- now that one is pure homage to Big Star). They're about texture, and that's a whole 'nuther thing. The guitar line weaves a psychedelic spell that gradually mesmerizes you, but ONLY if you're not "listening." Do I imagine a trace of the Byrds in there, like "Eight Miles High"?

This song is drenched with angst over a long-distance relationship -- "I talk to you by satellite / I hope before they reach you, space will make the words sound right" -- and that's a song topic that always hits home for me. It's more wistful than Franz Ferdinand's "Eleanor Get Your Boots On" but more disoriented than Simon and Garfunkel's "Kathy's Song" . . . hmmm, I feel a new playlist coming on.

But the perspective definitely gets trippy, like when the singer (Raymond McGinness on this one) says, "I don't know where to draw the line / The flat horizon stretches out between your world and mine / And where I go will follow no design." That insistently repeated refrain, "you know the world'll be okay," has a melancholy ring that deepens the more he repeats it. Because this guy doesn't believe the world will be okay; he's lonely, and he needs that girl -- he needs her to be with him right now.

Eventually the lyrics get pretentious: "I waste my time with magazines / The pages live life for you when your needs don't match your means / But your cares will suppress my selfish genes." Sorry guys, but after Robyn Hitchcock my standards for vague nonsense are set pretty darn high, and that softly earnest vocal leaves no room for irony. But I'll forgive them, just because of those lush harmonies, like a big pillow you can sink into.

Well, I'm relieved, that's all I can say. And now I have hope -- maybe someday I'll even figure out what the big deal is about Joy Division.

The World'll Be Okay sample

Monday, June 02, 2008

"When the Day Met The Night" /
Panic at the Disco


The band formerly known as Panic! at the Disco may have dropped the exclamation point from their name, but they couldn't resist thrusting a period into the title of their new album, Pretty. Odd. Orthographic eccentricities aside, PATD's been growing on me lately (they get played a lot at my home, though not necessarily by me). Their first album, A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, was very much in the neurotic-indie mold, with a look-at-me cleverness that got a little wearing. But that was three years ago, and these guys are much older and wiser now. They can even drink legally now, in all 50 states. (Well, everyone except drummer Spencer Smith.)

Now that success has freed the boys to follow their muse, that muse turns out -- surprise! -- to have a mile-wide streak of retro British Mod charm. I finally figured out why Brendon Urie's voice always sounded so familiar to me -- it's got that same breathy choirboy sweetness as Colin Blunstone of the Zombies. This comes off especially strongly on "When the Day Met The Night," an archaic bit of psychedelic-folk trumpery dolled up with a horn section and strings a la Revolver or Odessey and Oracle (it even ends with a big orchestral crash like "A Day in the Life"). It would be irritating if they hadn't pulled it off -- but they do pull it off.

"When The Day" is a faux-naive nature fable about the golden day when the moon and the sun fell in love with each other. (Yeah, I know it's Donovan-style twee.) She's drinking tea in the garden, even. But in the second verse, the sun and the moon act just like awkward teenagers: "When the moon found the sun / He looked like he was barely hanging on / But her eyes saved his life / In the middle of summer." (That refrain, 'in the middle of summer," has a Beach-Boysish lushness, with rafts of back-up vocals.)

Then their romantic negotiations turn comical: "So he said, 'Would it be alright / If we just sat and talked for a little while / If in exchange for your time / I give you this smile?'" Her answer is loaded with 21st century angst: "So she said, 'That's okay / As long as you can make a promise / Not to break my little heart / Or leave me all alone / In the summer.'" That perky skipping melody, the robust horns, can't completely disguise the neurotic edge songwriter Ryan Ross has to throw in. (This is the same guy whose earlier songs had titles like "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage.")

I smell something autobiographical in that last verse: "Well he was just hanging around / Then he fell in love / He didn't know how / But he couldn't get out." There's the trademark panic part of Panic at the Disco. (They are from Las Vegas, after all.) Donovan would never have let the moon and the sun get freaked out by their budding romance. And as the ending builds to a layered frenzy of strings and sitar-like guitars, that summery refrain dissolves into a psychedelic blur. (Fading to bird calls, of course -- these guys have listened to the white album, they know the drill.)

But the melody is perky, and those horns are straight out of "Penny Lane" or "Got To Get You Into My Life" -- and I can't stop singing this quirky little confection. I love seeing Panic at the Disco going all Mod on us, even if it is a schitzy modern Modness.

When the Day Met The Night sample