Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Love's Got A Lot To Answer For" / Nick Lowe


Come on, you really didn't believe I could get through a whole month -- let alone a whole month devoted to love -- without Nick Lowe? Honestly, I could have done the entire month on just Nick Lowe songs, he's got so many with "love" in the title. What else would you expect?

I know this is a minority opinion, but I love the fact that smart-ass rock jester Nick Lowe has turned into this rumpled country-soul balladeer. (Imagine Willie Nelson covering this song, or Waylon Jennings.) It makes me wonder what Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller might have got up to if they'd been lucky enough to age gracefully. Nick's been chronicling love and loss for so many years, he's got it down to a fine art. He may have started out his career 40 years ago parsing unrequited lust and spectacular bust-ups, but by now he's tightened his focus, devoting each song to a different tiny vector of emotion, smack in the middle of the mess we humans generally make of love.

How gently this song starts out, with a rueful arpeggio of horns, then Nick's restrained vocal, jumping to the high note of the first line, "That little white lie" (hear how he plays down the "leetle" -- aw, hon, it was just a little fib), then dropping an octave to land huskily on "you’ve been caught in." There's nothing like starting off on a diminished chord to signal heartbreak ahead. He may be using a second-person pronoun, but the ache in his voice makes it clear that "you" is "I." Gravely he notes, "Seems to be the last straw / Now there’s going to be an eruption." Everything's tilting off course between them, and apparently it's not just this one incident -- in verse two, he 'fesses up further ("That crack you made / Only half-joking / Has poured salt on a sore.") Raise your hand if you've ever smarted at a "half-joking" remark from someone who's supposed to love you. I love how this drops us right into the middle of their mess. The details don't even matter; fill in the blanks with whatever's on your own conscience.

Rhyme and meter are so muted, they've practically vanished; what he gives us instead is grinding chord shifts, a sidling tempo, and minimalist instrumentation -- an acoustic strum here, a wary bass line, gradually layering on a whisper of drums, punctuated by those heart-melting horns. He slides into that title phrase with a tremble of regret in his voice: "Love's got a lot to answer for," jumping up a fifth for the internal rhyme of "got a lot," then plummeting an octave to growl "to answer for." He's grown-up enough to stand there and face up to it -- he's not lashing back with blame or self-pity or revenge. He knows the score, but that doesn't make this hurt any less.

And then in the bridge, Nick -- god love 'im -- plunges deeper. After all, it's love that he's talking about, and these cracks in the surface matter. "It’s not the same as infatuation/It comes from deeper down / It won’t be played about with /It won’t be pushed around" -- note how he keeps pushing the key changes upward, tapping insistently on a single note for each line, swelling the volume intently. He wants to make it work, goddammit.

But it all breaks down with the downward arpeggio of the last line, "
I could have told you what’s in store," before sadly winding it up with (again) "Love’s got a lot to answer for." And it hurts all the more because it IS love. Nick's raising the stakes here, keeping love right where it should be -- at the center of our all-too-human quest for happiness. And who ever said love should come easy?

Love's Got A Lot To Answer For sample

Friday, February 27, 2009

“Love Gets You Twisted” / Graham Parker


My blog buddy Betty over at And So Forth got me started recently, thinking again about Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks. I’m not sure I’d call it a perfect album, but for sure it’s one of the most solid LPs ever, with nearly every track a winner. When this baby came out in 1979, as I recall, punk and New Wave were still duking it out, with power pop waiting in the wings. Graham Parker pulled off a hat trick here, combining all three, mixing anti-romantic sentiments and clever word play with irresistible hooks.

Even though this is one of the slower songs on the album, you could hardly call it a ballad – there’s no crooning, no storytelling, just a moan of frustration. Between the emphatic drum track and those clangy guitar riffs, there’s not a trace of softness or sweetness, and Parker’s gritty vocals attack the lyrics with outright hostility. (Those micro-lags behind the beat, the sarcastic little quavers on key words -- genius.)

The title tells you straight off that his outlook is jaundiced, and Parker works that title phrase relentlessly, repeating it thirteen times and matching it with such rhyming phrases as “the hearts are enlisted” and “I knew that it existed.” We get hardly any details -- no who, what, where, or when – it’s just like he’s visiting the Love Doctor and describing his symptoms, probing every wound. Graham means “twisted” not as in “sick” (“that is just so twisted”), but literally, physically twisted, with your guts in a knot and your spine hunched and your neck kinked up from too many anxious glances over your shoulder. “I try to straighten out, but I’m too wrapped up to see” he complains, and “When she’s in my arms I get tangled up, it’s true.” He's not blaming her -- why should he? It's the inevitable consequence of this thing called love.

So does Graham Parker have any solution? In the bridge, he prescribes his own medicine: “Screw yourself up / Screw yourself up / Screw yourself, screw yourself up.” The way he slides into that “scrrreeew” makes the double meaning painfully clear – screwing up your courage is one thing, but in the process you just get screwed up even further. It’s a losing battle.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately -- about how the music you listen to at certain ages can scuttle your love life. My generation was spoon-fed the true love dreams of Ricky Nelson and Stevie Wonder, and even (god love him) Paul McCartney -- but then some of us in our twenties veered off and developed a taste for the bitterer brew of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson and Graham Parker. (The Kinks addiction should have been a warning sign, I see in retrospect.) It satisfied some inner craving, I'm sure, but I'm still hung up, oscillating between that and my stubborn longing for happily-ever-after. Which is gonna win out? I still have no idea.

Love Gets You Twisted sample

Thursday, February 26, 2009

“Love” / Paul Simon


Paul Simon keeps on surprising me. It’s been a long time since, as half of Simon & Garfunkel, he defined an era -- I’ll never forget being riveted by the trailer to The Graduate, with that delicately finger-picked opening of “Sounds of Silence” playing over Dustin Hoffman’s blank face. Simon’s chiseled portraits of alienation and despair (“I Am A Rock,” “The Boxer,” “Homeward Bound,” “A Hazy Shade of Winter”) were just what my disaffected teenage soul needed. I drank up every album thirstily; so did all of my disaffected friends.

Simon stayed in the game even after he went solo, but only just, and after Graceland he fell off my radar. I can’t even remember how this song filtered onto my iTunes -- it’s from his 2000 album You’re the One, which must have come after the spectacular failure of his musical Capeman, but despite the fact that it went gold and won a Grammy nomination, it never reached my ears. Yet this sneaky little track has been burrowing into my brain lately. The jazz-tinged guitar work, the supple Brazilian percussion, draw you in, tease you along – and then those devastating lyrics punch you in the gut.

If Joe Tex was playing a street preacher, Simon is our Professor Emeritus of Love, lecturing wisely on human need. He begins with a first-person example: “Cool my fever high / Hold me when I cry” – yes, love does have its purpose, his empirical research will support that. But then the melody plunges into monotone as he confesses, “I need it so much.” Oh, yes, he knows this feeling, and he doesn’t like it. He drops into a spoken-word rant as he describes love’s general effect: “Makes you want to get down and crawl like a beggar / For its touch / And all the while it's free as air / Like plants, the medicine is everywhere.” Free? Everywhere? Why is that not reassuring?

Then, out of it all, the chorus rises like a phoenix – just the clearly sustained word “love,” repeated three times, over a cresting scale of guitar work that’s suddenly shifted into major key. Yes, yes, love is the answer, you want to call out – until Simon knocks our legs out from under us, going back into minor key as he dourly reminds us, “We crave it so badly / Makes you want to laugh out loud when you receive it / And gobble it like candy.” That’s oddly pictorial; I see him laughing, I see him gobbling – and it’s weirdly arousing.

Simon’s not going to let us off the hook, is he? He switches back into major key and adopts a simpler pop rhythm in the bridge, but only to toy with us again: “We think it's easy / Sometimes it's easy / But it's not easy.” (Now there’s some shrewd, subtle songwriting for you, the less-is-more mark of a master). “You're going to break down and cry,” he wags a warning finger at us, and then throws in another smack upside the head for good measure: “We're not important / We should be grateful.” Talk about putting things in perspective.

In the last verse, he goes global on us, talking about evil walking the planet, about “the master races, the chosen peoples / The burning temples, the weeping cathedrals” – makes you feel like a schmuck for fretting over your own pitiful little love life, doesn’t it? And yet Professor Simon has already wearily signed our pass/fail slip – all right, there’s no grade, just show up for class so you can earn the credit, okay?

We can’t help craving love, that’s the way we’re built -- he knows that, and now we know it too. Yup, Paul Simon is still way ahead of me on the disillusionment spectrum. It's like coming home to find that out.

Love sample

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” / Dusty Springfield


A month of love songs and nothing from Dusty Springfield? I don’t think so. If it’s thwarted passion and extravagant emotion you want, Dusty’s your go-to gal. I won’t say that her damaged take on love is the last word on it, but let’s get real here, ladies – we all know what it feels like to be a victim, and Dusty fearlessly plumbs the very depths of that for us.

Released in early 1966, this single was Dusty’s biggest hit ever – her only UK #1, and a smashing #4 success in the US. Throughout the rest of her career, this was her big concert showstopper, though its vocal demands made her dread singing it -- just when you think she can't go any higher, the key shifts upward yet again for that last verse -- ouch! While Dusty started her career with gutsy interpretations of American soul numbers, this song taps another vein, once that's not so familiar to me: diva-like Italian pop. An English translation of an Italian number called "Io che non vivo (senza te)" (or "I, who can't live without you"), it’s so operatic, it should carry a warning label.

Dig that melodramatic scribble of strings that underlines her vocal entrance: “When I said I needed you /You said you would always stay.” We know what’s coming – let’s just wait for that other shoe to drop. “It wasn’t me who changed, but you / And now you’ve gone away.” What we have here is a Grievance, girls. And so it follows, as the night the day, she’s going to have to abase herself for love, traipse right after him and track him down, “and beg you / To come home.” (The way Dusty throws her voice into that “beg” is heart-wrenching.)

Pride? That’s for those who don’t really love. Stripping away every last vestige of dignity, Dusty reins in her voice to supplicate, “You don’t have to say you love me / Just be close at hand.” The chord shifts upward, raising the stakes (and the volume): “You don’t have to stay forever / I will understand.” Another shift, and she clenches down, all her passion bursting through: “Believe me, / Believe me, / I can’t help but love you” (her vocal shiver on “can’t” is simply heart-breaking) “But believe me / I’ll never tie you down.” That “tie you down” sounds so frail and tentative, it simply kills me.

There’s a shivering breakdown after that chorus, returning to the second verse: “Left alone with just a memory,” Dusty describes herself, dropping behind the beat as if she’s crippled. “Life seems dead and so unreal,” and her nauseated curl on “dead” cuts to the bone. “All that’s left is loneliness / There’s nothing left to feel.” But somehow we know that there’s a lot more to feel, and Dusty is just about to lay it on us.

“You don’t have to stay forever,” Dusty assures him in the second half of the chorus. Jesus, what are you doing, girl? How can you say that? You’re laying yourself on the road in front of his car for just a few more nights? This is the absolute limit, the furthest love can go without being masochism. (Or maybe it IS masochism.)

You thought you were in love? Hell, no, Dusty is going to show you what love is, even if her vocal cords rupture. It isn’t pretty, but goddamit it’s extraordinary. I’m humbled by her no-holds-barred passion, every time I listen to this track. All you modern soul singers, the Amy Winehouses and Lily Allens and even the Adeles and Duffys of this world – behold the master at the top of her game, and know how far you still have to go.

You Don't Have To Say You Love Me video

You Don't Have To Say You Love Me sample

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

“Is This Love” / Bob Marley & the Wailers


Time for a palate cleanser, courtesy of that founding father of reggae, Bob Marley. By the time this came out, on the Wailers' 1978 album Kaya, reggae had gone a bit mainstream, and there's no question that this love song is as smooth as toffee. As it lopes along at a rocksteady pace, it makes love seem like the most untroubled, simple thing in the world. But then, maybe it should be -- maybe it is.

"I wanna love you / And treat you right," Marley announces in the very first line -- now there's a novel idea. "I wanna love you / Every day and every night," he reiterates, just in case you were wondering. The melodic pattern is dead simple, a hopeful upward phrase followed by a circling line that practically snuggles up into a cozy resting place. This guy has no ulterior motives, no crippling doubts, and the loose-limbed groove of that relaxed beat beckons you in -- hey! the water's fine!

I love how he puts love right up there with food and shelter as one of the necessities of life: "We'll be together / With a roof right over our heads; / We'll share the shelter / Of my single bed." (There's an inexplicably sexy line, isn't it, girls?). "We'll share the same room / For Jah provides the bread." Now we all know that Jah doesn't always provide the bread, but I'm swept away by his faith in things working out. Even if they're living in one cramped room and spooning together on a narrow cot, they'll be happy, and that's what counts.

That's just about it for lyrics -- except for the next verse's memorable "I-eeh-I-eeh-I-eeh-I-eeh-I /I'm willing and able, / So I throw my cards on your table." Mmmm, I do love a confident man. Not that the relationship's a done deal, not yet; the chorus consists of Marley singing over and over, in pulsing surges of melody, "Is this love - is this love - is this love - / Is this love that I'm feelin'?" and "I wanna know." But I don't get that he's anxious or uncertain about it -- it's more like he's observing his own momentous emotion with wonderment and awe. He's on the threshold of something BIG, the thing that will make his whole life click into place, and who can blame him for marveling at it? You can surf along on that steady rhythm base (or riddim, as they say in Jamaica), but his excitement keep bursting out in those spangly little blurts on the organ, the taps of cowbell, and the wind-soughs from the backing vocals.

It's mysterious, really, how a song like this works. Part of it is just the warm texture of Marley's vocals, plus his incredibly deft phrasing, playing against the beat and then playing against his against-the-beat beat -- it's the soul of reggae, that off-beat shift and thrust. There's just enough production to sound lush, and not too much to overwhelm our sense of these very real lovers (in that delicious single bed). However they pull it off, all I know is that I want to sink into this song, and wrap it around me.

Is this love? You betcha.

Is This Love sample

“The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)” / Joe Tex

So many of these love songs I've been writing about are sung by the lovers themselves, who're out to woo or wheedle or settle some score -- they're saturated with Vested Interest. But now here for a change is this neglected treasure from 1966. Warning: This has NOTHING to do with the Jackson Five's thrilled-up joyride of a song with the same title, despite the vaguely similar "Stop!" of the Jacksons' opening. No, this is a slow number, a cautionary tale for those who have loved and lost -- a classic example of The R&B Advice Song. Most advice songs involve the singer counseling a friend (think of “Tell Her You Love Her” or “She Loves You”); vested interests still creep in. Not so Joe Tex. He's acting purely in the public interest, accepting the mantle of street preacher, delivering a sermon on the nature of love to whatever congregation he can find.

Apparently, throughout the 1960s Joe Tex and James Brown were locked in a notorious rivalry, ignited (naturally) over a woman. James Brown prevailed -- as a kid I heard plenty of his stuff and hardly any Joe Tex, except for the late novelty "Ain't Gonna Bump No More With No Fat Woman." (Tex quit show biz after his conversion to Islam and died young, of a heart attack, in 1982.) Thanks however to Elvis Costello, who featured this on his 2005 Starbucks Artist's Choice compilation -- a landmark album in my life, for very personal reasons -- I finally came to the Joe Tex party, and now I'm making up for lost time. This guy was amazing, with a slyness and subtlety and vulnerability you never got from the Godfather of Soul.

I love how he turns the ballad tempo into a world-weary tromp, with heavy-hearted percussion and admonishing trombones. Oh, yes, brothers and sisters, gather round, for I know whereof I speak. He's the Voice of Experience, as he establishes in the first two verses—“People, I've been misled / And I've been afraid / I've been hit in the head / And left for dead” (he also says he’s been “abused,” “accused,” “pushed around,” “brutalized,” “given til sundown to get out of town” -- man oh man). With all that suffering, worn into every tremor and creak of his expressive sweet tenor, he's a certified expert on the pain of love.

It all leads up to the chorus: “But I ain't never / In my life before / Seen so many love affairs / Go wrong as I do today.” Check out his masterful phrasing, how he lags dolefully over the words as if shaking his head. Then he puts his foot down: “I want you to STOP,” an abrupt caesura underlined by a twiddle of horns and vibes; “And find out what's wrong / Get it right / Or just leave love alone.” Those are your choices, folks, and he sounds faintly disgusted by all these screw-ups. With finger-wagging vibrato, he warns, plunging darkly into his lowest voice, “Because the love you save today / May very well-l-l-l be your own.” People, you’ve been schooled.

The Love You Save video

Monday, February 23, 2009

“The One I Love” / R.E.M.

"Modern Love" / David Bowie

"Addicted to Love" / Robert Palmer


Oy, sorry I'm posting this late -- got distracted by the Oscars. (Yay, Slumdog!) So it's appropriate that today's post, which was supposed to be yesterday's post, is all about videos -- specifically, a trio of 80s vids from the Golden Age of MTV, representing three songs that were absolutely inescapeable in their day -- and virtually impossible for me to get out of my head once they're in.

If MTV hadn't already existed, they'd have had to invent it so that David Bowie could re-charge his career, with perplexing visuals further mystifying his already mystifying songs (kinda like Bertolt Brecht goes disco). When I first heard Modern Love, on his 1983 album Let's Dance, I couldn't believe that he was actually singing "I catch the paper boy / But things don't really change / I'm standing in the wind / But I never wave bye-bye" -- but there is the Thin White Duke himself on screen, gaily waving bye-bye. This video is teasingly non-literal -- instead of acting out the song (too boring), it's a (staged) stage performance, shot in super-saturated colors. I keep trying to extract his "message" about the travails of modern love, from that plummy spoken word opening ("I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / Get things done") through the slightly anguished yelping of the verses ("There's no sign of life / There's just the power to charm"). Then I give up; whatever modern love is, it's too discombobulated to pin down. The second half of the song collapses into a call-and-response villanelle, Bowie free-associating against his back-up singers, "modern love" morphs into "church on time" into "god and man," going from Dionne Warwick to My Fair Lady to Milton to Sartre and back again. (My favorite line: "Church on time / Makes me par-ty"). The real purpose of this piece? To watch David Bowie jiving around in his beautifully cut suit, darting mascared glances, his cheekbones as divine as ever.

Then in 1985 Robert Palmer out-Bowied Bowie with this iconic video for Addicted To Love. Funny to think that now sex addiction is an acknowledged psychological condition (hello, David Duchovny!); when this came out in 1985 it just seemed like a joke. “Your lights are on, but you’re not home / Your mind is not your own / Your heart sweats, your body shakes / Another kiss is what it takes” – and there’s Robert Palmer in a suit and slick long hair, surrounded by a phalanx of the sexiest possible French models, with glossy scarlet lips and lithe hips, jiggling seductively behind their electric guitars. At first you think he’s singing about his own addiction, but no, he’s singing about how he’ll get this woman hooked on him – “Your heart beats in double time / Another kiss and you’ll be mine.” It’s all about the groove, of course, that prowling syncopation and the harsh, relentless electronic pulse of this song. “Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah / It’s closer to the truth to say you cant get enough, / You know you’re gonna have to face it, / You’re addicted to love.” It’s a pitiless piece of magic.

As far as MTV went, it was all downhill from there -- directors started using music videos as career springboard and songwriters paid more attention to their storyboards than on making a tight radio-ready track. R.E.M. may have started out as a Southern jam band, but then Michael Stipe got delusions of being a Serious Artist and Social Critic -- witness the surreal montage of this bloated rock anthem (cue up The One I Love, from 1987's album Document). How Stipe wrings so much passion from such weird, off-kilter material, I don’t know. If you just listen to it, it seems a haunting middle-of-the-night highway driving song, with that opening line – “This one goes out to the one I love”--evoking every disembodied song dedication you’ve ever heard on late-night radio. That minor-key melody is so melancholy, I’m aching already for these separated lovers, as he repeats, “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind.” But when you get past the apocalyptic grandeur of those guitar riffs, what’s the scenario here? A musician on the road? A trucker? A college student on a road trip? A soldier’s lament (that would explain the chorus, where Stipe bellows “Fire” over and over, though for ages I was convinced he was singing the name “Diane”). One thing for sure; this doesn’t work as a love song – except that it does. If you’ve ever been separated from someone you’re involved with, Stipe's tortured wail captures exactly what it feels like. Who cares what the lyrics say, when you can confound your audience with an arty video?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” / Carole King


Regrets? I’ve had a few. And since lust is on the agenda, let’s talk a little about that morning-after feeling – or even more particularly, the evening-before-the-morning-after feeling. We girls can’t help it; we are biologically programmed to be cautious about copulation, and it kicks in even before we do the deed. Can you even imagine a man singing a song like this?

Of course, Carole King first wrote this song in 1961, to be recorded in a perky sort of cha-cha-cha by the Shirelles, so it’s totally coy about what’s going on. “Tonight you're mine completely,” she begins, contentedly, adding “You give your love so sweetly.” (“give your love” – that’s suitably vague, isn’t it?) I love how the song zooms upward on “sweetly,” with a shiver of desire. But then her alarms start to go off, and the melody circles uneasily around: “Tonight / the light / of love is in your eyes.” Those slurred notes on “li-ee-ight” flicker in and out of a minor key as she scrutinizes that light of love – and you know she doesn’t trust it. All the gliding syncopation of the first three lines drops wearily into straight time for the clinching line: “But will you love me tomorrow?

What a great songwriting team Carole King and Gerry Goffin were; they pull this craft off in every verse of this song. Verse two modulates from “a lasting treasure” into the appetite of “a moment's pleasure,” frets over “the magic of your sighs,” then stubbornly repeats the title question. In the bridge, as the melody crests upward, I completely feel the tension between her longing to believe in him – “Tonight with words unspoken / You say that I'm the only one” – and her self-protective instincts, anticipating “But will my heart be broken / When the night meets the morning sun?”

For 1961, that was pretty bold, taking about being together all night (wink-wink). Even in 1964, Ed Sullivan wouldn’t let the Rolling Stones on prime-time TV sing about spending the night together. Of course, the version I know best is Carole’s own recording, on her 1971 masterpiece Tapestry, the soundtrack of my freshman year in college. Considerably slowed down from the Shirelles’ version, with Carole’s magisterial piano for accompaniment, it gives this decision so much more weight. The Shirelles were just wheedling for reassurance; Carole is really pinning this guy down, making him confront his responsibility. Listen to how the back-up vocals (oh, there go James Taylor’s unmistakable harmonies) trip over each other on “when the night,” like this whole scene has just gotten way complicated.

So she steels herself for the last verse, posed on the threshold of this decisive moment. I can just picture this girl clenching her fists by her side, pushing him away, making him look her in the eyes. “I'd like to know that your love / Is love I can be sure of” -- that “your love/sure of” rhyme is pure Tin Pan Alley, but it’s a very telling juxtaposition. “So tell me now,” she demands levelly, with that uneasy slur again on “now.” “And I won't ask again” she promises, and I believe her. This is her do-or-die moment, because there’s no going back: “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

What do we think, ladies – will he?

Will You Love Me Tomorrow sample

Friday, February 20, 2009

“(I Wanna) Make Love To You” / Dr. Feelgood


There’s a fine line between love and lust – well, sometimes, at least. Our last few numbers were all about guys on the make, randy and ready for action; in this Dr. Feelgood number, the singer has a specific target for his affection. But is he seeking respect and understanding, like Ricky Nelson was? Nope. He’s got one thing on his mind, and one thing only: “I wanna make love to you.”

On all levels, this is a seduction song – but man, it works. Dr. Feelgood’s lead singer Lee Brilleaux had one of the dirtiest voices in rock and roll, no question, and despite the slicker sound of this mid-80 Stiff-era track, nothing can take off that raunchy edge. He’s set front and center against a lasciviously slow tempo, with whacking drums, a sighing organ, and whiplashes of guitar. The key is faintly minor, and touches of echo effects lend a lonesome nighttime quality. This isn’t the plea of a confident ladies’ man -- he sounds slightly hoarse with desperation, but hey, I think that makes it more seductive, not less. Naked hunger is so much more arousing than an arrogant command. After all, it’s so lovely to be wanted.

There’s not much melody to this song, really – it’s almost like a talking blues. You can hardly distinguish the verse from the bridge, except that the latter shoots off a few higher notes, like uncontrollable squirms of desire. The lyrics, what few lyrics there are, follow your basic romantic pop conventions, with stuff like “How could I explain / This feeling that's true” or “When the stars fall from the heavens / And the rivers have stopped to flow.” Apparently they’re not a couple, at least not yet, so he plays the old self-pity card in verse three: “I ain't gonna try and tell ya / How it's made me so blue / Sitting alone and wondering.” But whatever he says, it always leads back to his obsessive mantra: “I wanna make love to you.”

That’s the main hook, the soul and substance of this song in a nutshell, and they sure do get their money’s worth out of it. It starts low, with a tender raspy growl on “I wanna”, surges hopefully upward on “make,” then gradually slip-slides downward on “love to you.” I count eighteen times he sings this phrase; by the end he’s just repeating it over and over. You know he’s not gonna shut up until you give in, girl. And really, the more you’re sucked into the vortex of Brilleaux’s wheedling, sensual vocals, abstinence begins to seem absurdly overrated.

(I Wanna) Make Love To You sample

Thursday, February 19, 2009

“Read About Love” / Richard Thompson


So where has Richard Thompson been all my life? If you believe his musical persona, he’s been kicking cans around in some grubby back alley of love, being utterly clueless.

That’s the conceit of this gem, a wonderfully crafted little number that’s like a Venus flytrap of dramatic irony. In verse one, the singer remembers being 13 and quizzing his parents and teachers about what love really means. The lines hammer away on the same note, a rush of words over a background of propulsive electric guitar and almost tribal drum whacks; Thompson's slightly harsh ordinary-guy voice make this goofus kid sound even more hamfisted. Of course, being proper British folks, they blush and stammer and refuse to answer. Somehow they know right away he’s asking about sex, not love.

Did they get him wrong? Oh, no; it IS sex he’s intent on, and when he gets no answers from them he resorts to his own research: “So I read about love, read it in a magazine / Read about love, Cosmo and Seventeen / Read about love, in the back of a Hustler, Hustler, Hustler.” I love how the backing singers chime that repeated phrase so intently, while Thompson throws in further details in spasmodic jerks of melody (and don’t we all know what a 13-year-old boy does with a copy of Hustler?) Convinced that he now knows it all, he boasts, “So don't tell me I don't understand / What makes a woman and what makes a man / I've never been to heaven but at least / I've read about love.” His faith in the printed word is touching, isn’t it? But the poor schmuck, you gotta pity him – a little learning is such a dangerous thing.

In verse two, his older brother comes to the rescue with a book, and not just any book: “He gave me a book, the cover was plain / Written by a doctor with a German name,” no doubt one of Kraftt-Ebbing’s scientific works on sexual perversity, books so serious they were written partly in Latin. Scientific they might be, but the practices they describe are anything but normal love. And he, of course, reads it seven times until he’s got it by heart.

By the time he swings into the second chorus, things get a little scary: “(Read about love) Now I've got you / (Read about love) where I want you / (Read about love) got you on the test-bed, test-bed, test-bed” – he sounds downright predatory. (Does that “test-bed” have straps?) This is the opposite of love, it’s just cruel and unusual lust.

And it still doesn’t work for him. He whines in frustration, “So why / Don't you moan and sigh / Why / Do you sit there and cry?” It’s comical, yeah, but I’m feeling for this girl. “I do everything I'm supposed to do,” he insists bitterly, then sneers, “If something's wrong, then it must be you.” Wow. Ladies, raise your hand if you’ve ever been behind closed doors with somebody dysfunctional like this. Extra points if you’re married to somebody dysfunctional like this.

And then, in the last verse, you have to feel sorry for this loser again, lost in a tangle of buzzy guitar and those punishing drums: “When I touch you there, it's supposed to feel nice / That's what it said in reader's advice” – he honestly wants to give her some pleasure. Is it his fault he’s so out to lunch? “I've never been to heaven but at least / I've read about love.” If only he didn’t hang quite so wolfishly on that last “love”….

Read About Love sample

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

“Big Love” / Little Village


Talk about a dude on the prowl – this whole song is just saturated with horniness. The singer of this song hasn’t got any particular woman in mind, although -- as he mentions in verse two -- he needs a fifty-foot woman to wrap his love around; that’s how big his “love” is. I’m laughing, but oh, I’m feeling the love, too.

This was the Super Group that never really made it—John Hiatt and Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe playing bass, and Jim Keltner on the drums, with everyone trading off on vocals and sharing songwriting duties. (You who know my proclivities can see already where this is going.) They should have been EPIC, but somehow it never quite gelled and they all went back to their solo careers. Their one record, though, is a classic early-90s roots-rock gem, shot through with witty double-entendres. (Have there ever been more car/sex metaphors crammed into one song than in “She Runs Hot”?) So when I hear “Big Love,” I can’t help but picture just how big the singer’s, erm, love really is. “I’m a full-grown man / Looking for a real love,” John Hiatt declares, in his most urgent soulful groan, in the refrain. Look out, ladies.

Take that deliciously retarded tempo, the whomping drums and thrusting bass line, and Cooder’s plangent Dobro whining like power lines vibrating in the wind—well, it’s a pretty sexy track indeed. It’s all about superlatives – “I need love as big as an ocean / I need love that can't be crossed / A love in perpetual motion / I need a love that won't get lost” – he’s just bursting with it, isn’t he?

The line that really gets me is this: “I need a love gonna lift me up to that drinking fountain / Just like my Daddy did in my younger days.” There’s something surprisingly tender there, which somehow I ascribe to John Hiatt. (Me and Hiatt and Hiatt’s daddy – oh, we go way back.) Suddenly this guy is interesting.

“Now is this love / Gonna get up off the ground / Is this love gonna get up off the ground,” Hiatt wails and moans. Really, ladies, we ought to help this poor schmuck with his burden of desire. After all, he’s, well, big, and girls, isn’t that what we want?

And dig how he humanizes himself in the third verse: “I never did just a little drinking / I could drink the Milky Way.” This line plunges deep for me -- knowing as I do that both Hiatt and Lowe are reformed alcoholics who bonded in the making of Hiatt’s Bring the Family (dig the cover image of John drinking coffee, the AA beverage of choice). “Think small and your heart starts shrinking,” Hiatt bravely declaims, and with one fell swoop, I am seduced. Who cares how “big” this guy is; his heart is big, and for a woman, that’s what really matters.

Big Love sample

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

“I Wanna Be Loved” / Ricky Nelson


At least the Troggs had someone specific in mind to seduce – in this 1959 rockabilly number, Ricky Nelson’s on the prowl for anybody, just another restless teenager hot with desire. It’s hard to imagine that Ricky Nelson would ever need to hunt for a girl; thousands of dewy teens in poodle skirts would have been eager to help him out. But while Ricky most often fluttered their hearts with syrupy ballads like “Lonesome Town” and “Fools Rush In” (that’s what his butterscotch-sweet voice did best), this slouchy rockbilly stuff is what he really wanted to sing. Just listen to him rock out on this number (is that James Burton on the twangy guitar?). Elvis may have been King at the time, but Prince Ricky could easily have taken over the throne.

With his TV-star status, Ricky Nelson couldn’t go for Chuck Berry raunchiness – only a wholesome girl would do. The first verse is bare echo-chambered vocals, with just finger snaps and jangly high hats punctuating his heartfelt declaration: “Well I know somewhere there's bound to be / A girl who'd really care for me / Somebody that-a really loves me” -- though he does get to specify “somebody that'll kiss and hug me.” (Even after the guitar comes in in verse two, there’s more upright stuff about her loving him faithfully and understanding him.) And Ricky, being the perfect clean-cut Boy Next Door, offers upright affection in return in the bridge: “I'm gonna treat her just as good as I can / I’m gonna give her anything her heart desires.”

But I’m sorry, if you ever watched The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet like I did, you know that a girl could sink into Ricky’s langorous blue eyes and soft lips -- there was sex all around, just not explicit sex. The lyrics may have sounded innocent, but Ricky knew how to curl his voice sensually around a phrase, or give a sly thrust to a certain word. “The girl I am dreamin' of,” he sings lazily, then throws a surprise punch: “Is gonna love me” – beat – “like I wanna be loved.” And then the guitar swoops in, telling us wordlessly what kind of lovin’ Ricky’s really got in mind.

After all, even a squeaky-clean teen idol has needs. “Say now, don't you understand,” he pleads, earnestly, “That I need somebody to call my own / I'm so tired of being alone,” with just a shadow of a groan. (Dig that urgent female back-up, whoo-hooing high and lonely like a train whistle.) By the next time he sings, “I'm gonna treat her just as good as I can,” you may be inspired to plug in a different verb for “treat.” “I wanna give her anything her heart desires,” he insists – and of course, if she’s the kind of girl he hopes she is, her heart might very well desire….

“The girl I'd like to find, “he concludes, “Is gonna let me know that she's really mine.” And how is she going to let him know that? The same way that the girl in the Troggs’ song was going to let her love show, I’ll bet. Oh, this doesn’t mean that Ricky wouldn’t marry her and love her forever. Such a nice young man, after all. But if you’re thinking that that soda-shoppe romance would be entirely chaste, you haven’t really been listening to Ricky Nelson.

I Wanna Be Loved sample

Monday, February 16, 2009

“Love Is All Around” / The Troggs


Love, indeed, is all around us this time of year. But in 1967– the hippy-dippy flower-child aura of groovy love must have been impossible to escape. Hence this hit single, written by Reg Presley (great rock & roll name, eh?), lead singer of the Troggs – yes, the same Troggs who did “Wild Thing.” Hearing this song out of context – like for example, with Bill Nighy’s Christmas-ized parody in Love Actually -- I’d never have said it was the same band. “Love Is All Around” goes for a much more conventional pop sound, right down to a schmaltzy overlay of strings; to me it sounds much more West Coast (think the Association) than BritBeat.

But when all is said and done, it’s basically a seduction song, just like “Wild Thing.” Maybe it’s a different sort of girl he’s seducing this time, but hey, whatever works. He starts off all dreamy-- “I feel it in my fingers / I feel it in my toes” – and then drifts off on the trendy love vibes of the era (“love is all around me / And so the feeling grows / It is written on the wind / That’s everywhere I go”). But pretty soon he gets down to the bottom line: “So if you really love me / Come on and let it show.” In other words, put out or get out.

Smooth operator that he is, he slips his challenge in, oh so casually, and then deftly adds a layer of goo: “You know I love you, I always will / My mind's made up by the way that I feel / There's no beginning, there’ll be no end / ‘Cause on my love you can depend.” Right down to the rhyme-chasing inverted word order, this is complete poetic cliché. He’s regurgitating last week’s stale Valentine candy -- and he’s got an ulterior motive for sure.

Listen to the deliberate pace, those sidling chord shifts, that tick-tock percussion – it’s full of underlying tension, a.k.a. sexual frustration. It’s like he’s circling around her; in verse three he edges closer: “I see your face before me / As I lay on my bed” (Clue #1: He’s in bed). Look at how coy the next lines are: “I kinda get to thinkin’ / Of all the things we said.” (Clue #2: Promises were made.) He waves the contract in her face -- “You gave your promise to me / And I gave mine to you” – before making his demand: “I need someone beside me / In everything I do.” Sure, it’s not totally explicit (“everything” could be innocent), but those hip-shifting chord changes are totally suggestive. Especially in the song’s long fade, as he doggedly repeats “Come on and let it show” over and over-- this isn’t a plea, it’s a command.

I’m sure love was all around in 1967. It was the dawn of the era of free love; the air in London must have reeked of sex, and this guy wants his piece of it. He’s willing to shovel on whatever romantic platitudes she requires—but he won’t be put off for long. Ah, Valentine’s Day – ain’t love grand?

Love Is All Around sample

Sunday, February 15, 2009

“Love Gets Dangerous” / Billy Bragg


Now here’s one for all the adulterers in the audience (you know who you are). This is from Billy Bragg’s Back to Basics album, a stripped-down DIY effort that’s most just him and a frantically strummed electric guitar. Once upon a time, when Billy was just a busker around London, this was his sound; the Essex accent, the slightly mumbled vocals, all make him sound like the guy next door -- and apparently the guy next door is screwing his neighbor's wife.

The lyrics come in nervous monotonic spurts: “The love of a woman / A fear of the phone / A secret message to a happy home” – he’s looking furtively over his shoulder the whole time. Melody? there's no more than about four notes in this tune, jerking spasmodically back and forth. “I’ve never been so scared / I never knew you cared”—that sums up the warring impulses that rage in this claustrophobic, anxious, adrenaline burst of a song.

He doubles his vocals for the chorus, which hammers away repeatedly at the overriding theme: "Love gets dangerous, dangerous." As the voices split into harmonies, it's like a yelp of fear, over that jittery guitar. I picture this guy jiggling his foot, unable to sit down, craving the thrill and about ready to pee in his pants for fear he'll get caught. Caught up in the danger, he can't reflect on the nature of love; he doesn't even have breathing room to tell us the story of how they met or where they meet. (Okay, later he says, "When we meet in the street / My terror is complete" -- oh yes, that really illuminates things.)

"There’s a fear that comes from being in danger," he muses in verse two, "Being in love with a total stranger." Well, you don't have to be cheating on somebody to dread pinning your fate on someone you don't really know. But when the fabric of your life is also at stake -- when you're "Putting our futures in jeopardy" -- then that stranger is even more risky. "When love is a secret, fear is the key," he adds, and I wonder -- isn't that at least half the attraction for him?

After all, in verse three he doesn't have much good to say about love -- it's a "drug that threatens to take my life" ; also, "Lust is a cancer, love is a vice." (Don't you go getting all mushy on us here, Billy.) "When she holds me I understand / Respect and fear go hand in hand" -- nothing about passion, about the way she looks or how she kisses, about dreams of happiness ever after. Nope, all those pop-song cliches are irrelevant to what Billy's about here.

Does this song make me want to have an affair? Hardly -- at least not on any rational level. It's just that...well, there's something so juicy about that vibrating guitar, the insistent offbeat rhythms, the vulnerable offkey vocals. At least these people are doing something exciting. It makes contentment and happy-ever-after seem distinctly second-rate.

Love Gets Dangerous sample

Saturday, February 14, 2009

“When A Man Loves a Woman” / Percy Sledge


Now here it is, the big day, Valentine’s Day itself – so let’s pull out all the stops, with this headlong flight of passion, courtesy of Mr. Percy Sledge. You have to go back to the early 60s to find a song that believes in love like this song does. Sure, it’s not pure and noble love he’s talking about – more like sexual obsession – but the sweeping melody, not to mention Percy Sledge’s soulful delivery, elevates lust to epic heights.

You know you’re in for monumental emotion from the very first notes, with their blaring horns, resonant organ, and ponderous bass. This is the ultimate slow dance, slouching and grinding from beat to beat, each chord shift groaning toward resolution. I remember this song coming on during school dances – one round of dancing this song, and you practically felt knocked up. (Usually I’d wimp out and flee the dance floor.)

“When a ma-an loves a woman,” Sledge trumpets grandly at the outset, flinging his voice into those high notes, pitched just over the key’s octave note. It’s pretty ballsy, how he claims to have the definitive word on love between a woman and a man, on a universal basis, but he’s sure got my ear.

That commanding opener is evanescent, though; right away things start to disintegrate, slip-sliding down the scale, as he stuffs in the details – “Can't keep his mind on nothing else / He'll trade the world / For the good thing he's found.” The rest of that stuff – the crap that besets this man – is inevitable (in other verses he turns his back on his best friend, spends his very last dime, sleeps out in the rain); but somehow all of it means nothing next to the fact that he’s loving with his whole heart. The stately, almost lazy tempo takes this all in stride; it’s the way of the world, and eternal as the pyramids.

For the first three verses it’s all theoretical; in verse four he confesses that he’s singing from his own experience: “Well, this man loves a woman / I gave you everything I had / Tryin' to hold on to your precious love / Baby, please don't treat me bad.” He’s not accusing her, not exactly, but he does have a sickening sense that he’s going to get the shaft.

From then on, even though he reverts to the third person, it’s pretty clear he’s laying out his own situation: “She can bring him such misery / If she plays him for a fool / He's the last one to know / Lovin' eyes can't ever see.” Is she cheating on him? Or, in the final verse, is he the one cheating: “When a man loves a woman / He can do no wrong / He can never own some other girl.” We don’t know; probably even he doesn’t know – that’s how muddled up you get when you’re in love.

Whatever’s going on, there’s pain and heartache here, that’s for sure. But as Percy Sledge sings it, there’s not one minute of blame or regret. He knew coming in that the path of true love wouldn’t be smooth – but it’s still the most glorious thing in the world. And if you can’t get that, then you don’t deserve to be in love.

When a Man Loves a Woman sample

Friday, February 13, 2009

“Love Has No Pride” / Bonnie Raitt


Ages ago, long about 1974, I went to hear Linda Ronstadt perform in – get this – a bowling alley in western Massachusetts. This was one of the songs she sang that night, a cover of a 1972 Bonnie Raitt track. Now that I know Bonnie’s version, I have no time for Linda’s yelpy straining cover (go here for why I love Bonnie to death). Sorry, Linda, but thanks for all the artists I learned about through your covers.

This song was written, the liner notes tell me, by Eric Justin Kaz and Libby Titus. Now, I’m intrigued by the Wikipedia stub about Libby Titus – currently married to Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, she also had a child with Levon Helm, a double-whammy romantic pedigree for sure. I mean, this chick has been in the right circles. (How she linked up with ex-Blues Magoos-man Eric Justin Kaz to write this song is probably another story worth telling.) Libby, if you’re reading this, anytime you want a ghost writer for your memoirs you only have to call me.

This seems important because – well, I want a woman’s perspective on love. All these men we’ve been listening to claim to be tormented by their mean controlling girlfriends; it’s time we look at heartache from the other side of the gender divide.

Without even a beat of intro, Bonnie launches right into that rueful opening line: “I’ve had bad dreams / Too many nights / To think that they don't mean much any more.” The way this melody soars upward, cresting on “too many,” it could get shrill, but Bonnie keeps it simple – it’s just her and a finger-picked acoustic guitar, like she’s singing on her lonesome front porch in jeans and a T-shirt.

Sure, there’s a defiant edge to her voice in the chorus, as she declares, “Love has no pride / When I call out your name.” It’s such a mystery, why we sometimes love people who don’t love us; it doesn’t make psychological sense, and yet it happens every day. Love is supposed to be selfless, unconditional, all that crap, but carrying it to this extreme is – well, it’s human. “Love has no pride,” she adds, “when there's no one left to blame” – when he’s gone, she can’t blame him anymore, can she? But after flinging her voice so plangently into the fray, I love how she softens it, humbly, for that final line of the chorus: “I'd give anything to see you again.”

As she tells us in the second verse, it might be already too late – “I've been alone / Too many nights / To think that you could come back again.” The next line is the most painful thing in this song: “I've heard you talk / ‘She's crazy to stay’” – isn’t that a lover’s worst nightmare? – but she’s too stubborn to give up: “But this love hurts me so, I don't care what you say.”

She’s grasping at straws in the bridge: “If I could buy your love, / I'd truly, try my friend. / And if I could pray, / My prayer would never end.” You almost want to flinch when she sings, “But if you want me to beg, / I'll fall down on my knees,” twirling sweetly on the highest notes, then doggedly adding. “Asking for you to come back / I'd be pleading for you to come back / Beggin’ for you to come back / To me.” This girl just does not give up. Devotion and forgiveness are what she brought to this relationship – and that may be all she has left, but she’s not letting them go.

This song could easily come off as a crazy person’s ravings, or an emotional extortion note, as if she’s one step away from slitting her wrists. Bonnie, though, sells it with weary acceptance – she knows he’s gone, she knows he’s not coming back, it’s just that . . . it still hurts. Her clear shimmering voice never overdoes the pain; instead of building to an emotional head, it gets softer and more wistful as the track goes on.

Is this a great song? Probably not, and it’s certainly not the last word on how a woman looks at love. But I love how it distills loneliness and loss and regret, with that heart-breaking melody. The guy’s already gone, so who’s she singing it to? She’s just pouring out her soul for the sake of it – sometimes, that’s all you can do.

Love Has No Pride sample

Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Standing in the Shadows of Love” / The Four Tops


Even if you’re happy in love, listening to this Holland-Dozier-Holland anthem to a love gone wrong could pitch you right into doubt and despair. It’s been covered by everybody, but the definitive version is, and always will be, the Four Tops’ 1966 original, with Levi Stubbs pouring out his soul on lead vocals and maestro James Jamerson administering a good spanking on bass guitar.

Along the time continuum of a love affair, this song sets its quivering needle on a very specific moment – after the first few setbacks, and just before the real shit hits the fan. He’s poised right on the brink, trembling apprehensively--it would be easier if he were blissfully unaware, but no, he knows what’s coming. The way that melody plods manfully up the minor scale, doggedly on the beat, you can guess he’s been through this sort of grief before; he’s sick at heart already.

“Standing in the shadows of love / I‘m getting ready for the heartaches to come” – there’s the where, who, and what of the story laid out; all we need to figure out now is the why. As the chorus proceeds, Levi struggles against the inevitable, erupting in spontaneous phrases like “Can’t you see me?” and “Now wait a minute!” In the verse, he trips wildly all over the beat, desperately testifying: “I wanna run / But there’s no place to go / For heartaches will find me, I know. / Without your love, a love I need / It’s the beginning of the end of me.” Levi’s heaves of emotion on “be-gin-ning of the end” are just priceless.

Thanks to superb Motown production, this song sounds like a traffic jam of warring noises--the commiserating oohs of the back-up vocals, the inexorable tick-tock of drums, the warning hiss of tambourine and shakers, the jittery scramble of electric guitars. (I'm surprised to discover that there are no horns in here.) There's nothing clean or crisp about it at all -- since when was love crisp or clean?

Forever and always, though, the best thing about this song – and one of the great moments ever in soul music – is this bridge: “Didn’t I always treat you right, now baby didn’t I? / Didn’t I do the best I could now didn’t I?” The rest of the instruments suddenly drop off, leaving just those wild congas going at it like a vein throbbing in his temple. It’s the same melodic line as the chorus, but jiggered up with frantic syncopation, like a Morse code of anxiety. Confusion, anger, and accusation swim together; he’s wagging a warning finger, and wringing his hands all at the same time. He repeats this three times in the song, each time with slightly different words, but the effect is always the same: a long slow boil of righteous indignation.

Sure, other times in the song he wails about being left alone “with misery my only company” and “I’ve got nothing but sorrow” and “I’m trying not to cry out loud” – but the mood of this song is not self-pity. If he’s standing in the shadows, he’s not moping there – he’s lurking, fists clenched, getting ready to make his move. At the beginning of the song, I feel like they still have a shot at making things up, but by the end? Not a chance in hell.

Standing in the Shadows of Love sample

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"You Don't Love Me" / The Kooks


Okay, so I'm writing about the Kooks again--wanna make something of it? I like this young band, with their cheeky retro BritBeat sensibility. They may have released this song in 2006, but it isn't all bogged down by irony and bogus postmodern lassitude. It's about a guy who's in love, and it's not working out for him, and he's upset about it -- what a refreshing throwback.

I love songs that start in mid-argument: “But you don’t love me the way that / I love you,” he sings, in a mournful mumbly tone (though the jaunty syncopation and thrusting guitar strums save it from sounding mopey or bitter). It's like he's been listening to her go on and on, blah-blah blah, and now finally he's getting a word in edgewise. He already knows that the relationship's doomed, and he's even willing to blame her: “Cause if you did, girl, you would not / Do those things you do.” (I love the two-beat pause between lines, the way it makes you wait for the other shoe to drop.) Going even further, he claims that she does this stuff on purpose, just to toy with his affections: "You kill my heart just to see if /I will rise / Above your anger and / Above your lies." It's like she's the sorority sister of that girl in the Buzzcocks song the other day -- a real bitch on wheels.

And furthermore -- since they're talking about it -- he has another bone to pick, in the bridge: "And all I see of you / Is when you're 'not so busy.'" As the line soars up into his falsetto range, the doubled vocals put this "not so busy" line in quotation marks -- that's what she calls it; but he's not buying it. He comes back in a short punchy line, "Oh, you're not so busy!", his vocals curdling angrily. Do we think she's seeing somebody else behind his back? I bet he does, and I bet she is.

Up to now, this has sounded like a doormat boyfriend finally speaking up for himself. If she's really this mean, why is he still with her? In verse two, though, he adds a little depth, with a poignant line: "You turned my life around / For that I am glad." For just a minute, I wonder if he's going to back down, but then, with a few more fierce grating strums, he girds his loins: "However much I love you / This love is getting bad." (Weak glad/bad rhyme, but it's the closest he's come yet to breaking things off.

I don't think he's totally made up his mind to leave her, though. In the second bridge he switches back and forth, complaining about "the words that only you could use" and then swearing "But you know you'll always be my girl, girl." And the fadeout (the track I'm listening to is the acoustic Live at Abbey Road version) is him fretting over and over, "But you don't love me, you don't care!" He hits that word "love" with such intense frustration, and peters off in a lonely wail on "care" -- poor guy. He's a hopeless romantic, isn't he? He wishes she'd change, and he knows she won't, but he wishes she's the essence of being Unhappy In Love.

You Don't Love Me sample

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Love's Not a Competition (But I'm Winning)" / The Kaiser Chiefs


Modern indie bands seem to avoid love like poison. I bet if you did a database search through the titles of songs written in the last 10 years (if you had nothing better to do with your time), you'd find an incredible drop-off in the use of the word "love." Even when they mention it, they seem all freaked out about it. Take this 2007 track by the Kaiser Chiefs, that industrious bunch of lads from Leeds. They’re paying lip service to the old ideas of romance, but what they’re dealing with is anything but.

“I won’t be the one to disappoint you / Anymore,” singer Ricky Wilson starts off, in his earnest and sincere register, set against some spacy synth riffs. The rhythm’s edgy, all off the beat, and the line jumps around in anxious diminished fourths and minor thirds. I usually think of Kaiser Chiefs as hard-punching rockers (“Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby RUBY”), but this is sinuous run-on stuff--I can almost hear Morrissey singing this, or Style-Council-era Paul Weller. “I know, I’ve said all this and that you’ve heard it / All before,” he concedes, but he’s focused on gamesmanship: “The trick is getting you to think that all this was / Your idea.” Earnest and sincere he may sound-- but he's scheming too, planning his getaway.

The way he alternates long lines with short lines, it’s like we’re only hearing his side of the dialogue. I reckon she’s the one who's come up with this self-help platitude, something out of an advice column in Woman's Own, telling him “Love’s not a competition.” He obediently parrots that back to her, but he just has to add, “but I’m winning.” Which makes the whole thing moot.

“I’m not sure what’s truly altruistic / Anymore,” he says wearily in verse two; he'd like to be good-hearted and selfless, honest. But all her score-keeping and balance-weighing overshadows every move he makes. I’ve seen so many people – men as well as women – load this onto relationships; god, do I know how he feels. (That thing you said, or did, or didn't do, three days ago -- and you're still paying for it.) “Love’s not a competition but I’m winning,” he says again, but then he admits, “At least I thought I was, but there’s no way of knowing.” This couple has so much baggage, they can’t help but disappoint each other. Nothing’s holding them together but this fierce spirit of one-upsmanship.

Now, it's true that the rock singer gets the last word; he gets to tell his angle, and the woman is hung high and dry. I bet she has her side of the story too -- he could very well be an insensitive pain in the ass. But that's beside the point; the bottom line is, they're making each other miserable. So why are they still together? How can they call this "love"?

These guys have got human psychology down all right, but it's not exactly heart-warming information. I doubt this song is gonna get played a lot at wedding receptions.

Love's Not A Competition sample

Monday, February 09, 2009

"Ever Fallen in Love?" /
The Buzzcocks


You gotta know we're into the Unhappy in Love songs if we doing the Buzzcocks; not just the Buzzcocks, but Love Bites-era Buzzcocks. I was never a huge fan, but among the punk hordes, they struck me as having more songcraft than most. (Not that I'm any expert on punk -- not after that Stranglers concert at the Roundhouse in 1977...)

This track in particular puts its grubby finger right on the pain of a neurotic relationship. This guy knows without question that he's being shabbily treated: "You spurn my natural emotions /You make me feel like dirt, / And I'm hurt." But she's got him on tenterhooks ("And if I start a commotion /I run the risk of losing you /And that's worse"). Now, I find that kinda sweet, especially the way that unrhymed line breaks off, like he's hitting a wall with that thought. Pete Shelley's singing sounds surprisingly young, and the tinniness of the recording (is this mono?) adds to the vulnerable air -- you'd expect anger and threats, but no, he's more like a wounded puppy. He really doesn't want to lose her -- maybe just because he's afraid to be alone, but still.

In the next verse, he declares "I can't see much of a future" -- and that's where the song starts to unravel for me. I mean, this is a punk song, with all the appropriate buzzed-up tempo, frantic drumming, and harshly grating guitar -- so where's the nihilism? Punks aren't supposed to count on a future, are they? "And we won't be together much longer," he complains, "Unless we realize that we're the same." I have no idea what that means. Well, running out of new ideas by verse two does lie in the punk tradition; it's what separates this from the power pop gem it might have been.

Still, it's not philosophy you want from the Buzzcocks. You want energy, and raucous sound, and a chip on the shoulder attitude, and indeed you get it in the chorus. The lines could almost sound romantic -- "Ever fallen in love with someone /Ever fallen in love /In love with someone/ Ever fallen in love /In love with someone ''-- if it weren't for the way it jerks anxiously from note to note, all minor thirds. It's like he's stuck on that hanging question, stuttered in incomplete phrases (think Roger Daltry in "My Generation") . And when he finally completes the sentence, it means just the opposite: "Ever fallen in love with someone /You shouldn't've fallen in love with." He knows it's a losing proposition -- the trouble is, he's already in love with her and can't stop.

In love? Well, at least that's what he calls it....

Ever Fallen in love? sample

Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Love and Happiness" / Al Green


The Grammy awards were on TV tonight, and much as I'd planned to switch them off (with a special note to tune back in for Paul McCartney's performance), I had to keep watching when Justin Timberlake started singing a duet with Al Green. Grinning ear to ear, the Reverend Green still can turn on an R&B wail like nobody's business; he just left li'l Justin in the dust.

Well, what better track to segue into Unhappy In Love songs than Green's "Love and Happiness"? Despite the title, happiness is in short supply in the romantic world Al Green's singing about. There's just something so baffled and careworn about his voice as he starts out musing, "Love and happiness...something that can make you do wrong, make you do right..." Well, which will it be? As that funky organ and drums kick in, I don't hear much about happiness -- only "Something's going wrong / Someone's on the phone / Three o'clock in the morning / Talkin' about how she can make it right" -- do we believe her, folks? We do not, and neither does he. Nobody makes a phone call at 3 in the morning unless it's a love emergency -- they're in dire straits already.

"Happiness is when you really feel good with somebody," he goes on; "Nothing wrong with being in one with someone." I agree. But the tension of those stabbing organ chords, that downward swooping guitar riff, the scolding horns, undermine the whole deal.

And a deal it is, an uneasy quid pro quo negotiation: "You be good to me /I'll be good to you /We'll be together / We'll see each other /Walk away with victory." And while they've struck a truce, it could go south at any minute, as he knows all too well. "Make you do right / Love'll make you do wrong / Make you come home early /Make you stay out all night long / The power of love." Love is just as likely to pull apart a happy home as it is to make one.

They say that Harold Pinter's plays are all about the silences between speeches; it's the same thing with those pregnant pauses in the middle of these lines. He goes on preachin' and testifyin', tossing out these vague disconnected phrases -- no storytelling, no carefully constructed argument, he just tosses and jerks around in a rich stew of funky emotion. That inexorable rhythm track slaps on, while the horns percolate and the back-up singers bear witness. Meanwhile Al is moaning, yelping, humming, free-forming over the whole exquisite untameable mess. Answers? He's got no answers to the secret of love and happiness. You were a fool to think he would.

Love and Happiness sample

Saturday, February 07, 2009

“Love Like Blood” / John Hiatt


Less than a week into this gig, and I’m already running out of Happy in Love songs. But before we probe the darker depths of passion, here’s John Hiatt’s slightly steamy take on happy love. Happy, yes…and horny, too. He’s not singing about innocent teenage romance or even fumbling twenty-something involvement – no, he clearly is singing about healthy grown-up sex, and pulling out his best soulful delivery to seal the deal.

Even before he gets into the lyrics, John lets off a couple lascivious moans, over darting guitar licks and a great Memphis-funk bass line (FYI this track is from the Nick Lowe-produced half of his 1983 album Riding With the King, so you know who that is on the bass). The rhythm is just slightly slower than you think it should be -- no frantic sexual frenzy, just a confident stroll that makes you wait for your pleasure. “Take it easy, baby,” John begins, teasing out that long e on “easy”; “But take as much as you can,” and the way he hits those consonants, I’m already detecting double-entendres. In true soul-man fashion, he sells his studly prowess – “I got all the sweet loving / You could possibly stand” – but here’s the Hiatt touch: he also wants to take care of her. “I'll take your tears for drinking water / Make your pain sweet company / You can lay all your burdens on my shoulder / Girl you mean that much to me.” Now there’s a man who knows what women want.

In verse two, he sounds even more transported by desire, grunting through lines like “Like a river baby / Your love is running thru me / And with ev'ry beat of our hearts / We're defying gravity.” That’s wonderful metaphor; it ties into the song's blood imagery, but it’s also physically immediate, without being one bit salacious. I'm always amazed at Hiatt’s songwriting discipline, how many ways he finds to develop his imagery. (Later on he scats about "the girl is just my type," “love contusions,” and “transfusions” -- and he warns an interloper “Well he just better stop / ‘Cause I can't spare a drop” -- you just have to grin).

It all keeps circling around to that title phrase – “Cause your love / Is like blood,” with the bass riffing like a heartbeat between the phrases. John goes deep on the guttural vowels of “love” and “blood,” blending them together, almost caressing them. And in the lead-up to the second chorus, listen how he curls his voice around the line “Now I could do a million things / Just to prove that I'm a man” – well, I can’t help pondering some of those million things, and as soon as I dredge up the mental pictures, I'm there with him. It’s dead sexy, without being obvious and explicit and bor-ing. It's intoxicating.

Happy in love? Sure he is -- and he's happy making love, too. Unh-hunh.

Love Like Blood sample

Friday, February 06, 2009

“I See Love” / Keb’ Mo’


Happy-in-love songs are one thing when the singer’s a teenager (or a pop star pretending to be a teenager). At that age you’re so primed to fall in love, it’s easy to gush and swoon and think this is your once-in-a-lifetime soul mate. But when somebody who’s clearly been around the block claims to be in love for the first time—well, then I sit up and listen.

Keb’ Mo’s weathered blues voice sounds like the Voice of Experience. But he isn’t singing the blues in this song, which you'll find on his 2006 CD Suitcase; no, it’s a softshoe shuffle, dolled up with some bluegrassy riffs. There are not one but two instrumental breaks, the first one all whistling and deftly-picked banjo, the second a Dixieland-style clarinet solo—it’s so light-hearted and joyous, you can’t help but tap your toe and hum along.

Right from the start he gives us his sadder-but-wiser credentials: ““I been high, I been low /I been everywhere I wanted to go / But I never been here before.” That paradox – the world-weary virgin – is the string along which this whole song vibrates, and the stuttering, staggering rhythms of these verses suggests how out-of-sync all his worldly experience has been. It’s like the song’s running away from him, as he hastily crams in extra lyrics – “I was so damn close, if it was a snake it coulda bit me / Crawling right under my nose / Baby I must admit it, / That I really didn’t git it.” One thing I love about Keb’ Mo’ is how he takes retro blues conventions and interjects totally modern details, in lines like “I been all around the world, even outer space” and “I’ve had money, cars, and some good champagne / But your love’s much better than all them things.” Beneath that sophisticated pose, he’s a lovable loser, someone we can all identify with.

The heart of this song when it relaxes into its gloriously mellow, tuneful chorus, where words become irrelevant: “La la-ba-di dah / La la-ba-di dah / How could I have been so blind?” Unfurling exuberantly up the scale, the “la-di-dahs” come off like a Dixieland brass riff, especially with the reediness of Keb’ voice. He’s exulting in his own happiness, and he just has to give it to us one more time: “Cos now you got me singing / La la-ba-di dah / La la-ba-di dah / For the first time in my life / I see love.” If you don’t know what he’s talking about, that’s because you’re still on the other side of things – you haven’t yet seen love.

There may be chatter and patter in the verses—where he’s dealing out all the near-misses of his life history--but once he swings into this chorus, everything is clear, upbeat, and straightforward. That’s how love solves, simplifies, and changes your life. And now that he’s got it, it’s blissfully clear that he’ll never go back.

I See Love sample

Thursday, February 05, 2009

“Oh, It Is Love” / Hellogoodbye


Mining the Fifties and Sixties is one thing, but what about 21st-century love songs? Well, they’re a little harder to find, but here’s one I rooted up in my daughter’s CD collection. She made me promise not to call it “emo” – apparently that’s the kiss of death for any self-respecting alt band these days – so I won’t call it that.*

These guys in Hellogoodbye look about 12 years old and they’re really cute—in fact their lead singer, Forrest Klein, kind of has a Buddy Holly look going (and you know I’ve always been a sucker for rockers who wear glasses). Though they seem infatuated with electronica, beneath the tech effects lies a pretty catchy ska-flected sound. Most of this perky syncopated track is just Forrest and a trippy ukulele (or is it mandolin?), and it’s totally sweet.

This isn’t exactly a Happy In Love song—the love is still new and insecure, and it seems to be a long-distance relationship, always a shaky proposition. (“Oh, your heart may long for love that is more near / So, when I'm gone these words will be here / To ease every fear / And dry up every tear / And make it very clear” – it cracks me up, how he uses those multiple rhymes like nails to tack down this love.) Reading Hellogoodbye’s history, I see that members keep quitting to go back to college, so I’m guessing they’re in that demographic where long-distance romance is common. And as we all know, the biggest threat to long-distance love is close-at-hand hook-ups.

These guys still believe in love at first sight – there’s plenty of conviction in lines like “Oh, it is love / From the first time I set my eyes upon yours thinking / "Oh, is it love?" (Inverting the “is” and “it” is pretty nifty word play, isn’t it?) Frankly, I don’t know many guys who ask themselves if a relationship is love, not until they’re hopelessly backed into it – but hey, whatever. I’m sure this line of reasoning sells more records to the female teen listener.

They do get a lot more physical than Buddy Holly ever did, constantly talking about holding her tight and longing to feel her embrace and pressing his lips against hers. “There is still a bit of your skin / That I've yet to have kissed” he remarks – yowza.

And to sew up the girl market, Forrest slows the song down to add, wistfully, “Oh say, wouldn't you like to be older and married with me? / Oh say, wouldn't it be nice to know right now that we'll be / Someday holding hands in the end.” I know how I felt when I heard the Beach Boys pursue this same logic years ago in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” – I was ready to sign up. (Hoping, of course, that it would be Dennis Wilson and not weird Brian who’d appear on my doorstep). The Beach Boys, though -- they never had a singer with glasses.

* But it sure sounds like emo to me.

Oh, It Is Love sample

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

My True Love” / Bobby Fuller


Buddy Holly yesterday, today Bobby Fuller--another rock-and-rolling Texan who died tragically young (age 23, found mysteriously dead in his car in 1964). Thanks to my friend Rob Keith of the Baskervilles for first turning me on to the Bobby Fuller Four, who clung to their Holly-inspired classic sound, even while America was being invaded by the Beatles and their compatriots. Like Holly, Fuller didn’t deal in irony or oblique storytelling—which makes his love songs (and most of his songs are about love) perfect for this month’s project.

Hallmarks of Fuller’s style include clangy surf guitars, splashes of Mexicali percussion, and echo chambers whenever he could get ‘em. Whereas yesterday’s song, “Words of Love,” goes for a lover’s intimacy, “My True Love” is a Statement Song: He isn’t talking to his girl, trying to seduce her, but formally declaring to the world how wonderful she is. How refreshing is that?

The song announces itself with a trumpet-like flourish of guitar, followed by a rat-tat-tat shimmer of triangle – a call to attention. Then it shifts into a legato melodic line as she spiels off her virtues. “Dearer she than you would dream to find / Is my own true love / Sweeter she than the sweetest wine / Is my true love” – the word order’s stilted and self-conscious, but why not? He’s not describing kisses or her sexy way of walking, he’s praising her character: “Gentle and shy with a sunny smile / Like the sky above.” Fuller’s earnest vocals make you believe it, too, as he finishes off that verse with “Never will I roam another mile [I love that vocal twiddle on “mile”]/ For my true love.” Irony would have killed this song.

He does develop his ideas a bit in the middle eight, shifting the focus from her to his own feelings. He sounds grateful and relieved -- “No more other loves to taunt me / No more winding trails to haunt me / I have found my place in the sun / With my true one.” (That line about finding his place in the sun sounds to me like it’s straight out of some John Ford Western.) What a nice change from the usual rockabilly image of the Ramblin’ Man. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who wrote (his one big hit) “I Fought the Law.”

Bobby Fuller could also do the Complaint Song (“Love’s Made a Fool of You”), the Warning Song (“Baby My Heart”), and even the Under Your Spell Song (“The Magic Touch,” which has some surprisingly psychedelic touches for 1964). It’s all pretty darn good stuff. But right now, while the Valentine’s spirit is on me – I’ll take “My True Love.”

My True Love sample

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Words of Love" / Buddy Holly


I don't agree with Don McLean -- 50 years ago today was not the day the music died. The plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens was tragic indeed, but music this exuberant just doesn't die.

The kid was only 20 years when he wrote this song -- don't expect tons of emotional complexity. Besides, this was the dawn of rock & roll; emotional complexity belonged to Frank Sinatra, not to a scrawny rockabilly contender from West Texas. All the same, this blissfully simple three-chord song packs a nice bit of romantic punch. Even within this primitive song structure, he finds a way to build a surge of desire into each verse. I love how the verses keep curling inward, opening with a long run-together line of invitation ("Hold me close and tell me how you feel"), followed by a shortened, more urgent plea ("Tell me love is real") and then a husky, intimate hum, like the cuddle at the end of this musical hug.

In each line he hops by intervals down the scale ("Words of love you whisper soft and true / Oh darlin' I love you"), pushing to the lower limits of his boyish voice, then he soars upward on that yearning hum -- whatever she's whispering to him, it really sends him into ecstasy. He starts out with calm confident quarter notes ("Let me hear you say"), then gets carried away with a burst of eighth notes ("the words I want to hear"); he steadies himself with a half-measure of rest, then eagerly adds, "Darling when you're near" before releasing it all in that hum/groan of desire.

That hum is just pure genius, isn't it? That's the best part of this song -- that and the guitar riff. Listen to how he echoes the melody's broken chord on plucked quarter notes (just like he doubles his own voice in the harmonies), then trips into an joyous eighth-note arpeggio, as if he just can't contain the happiness of being with her.

I first got to know this song through the Beatles' cover of it on Beatles VI; of course I love their version, but the home-demo quality of this 1957 single has a raw, earnest appeal that even Paul and John couldn't quite catch. Maybe it's the guttural earthiness of Lennon's vocals, maybe it's the echo effect or the busyness of Ringo's drumming (those handclaps are awfully distracting), but somehow I'm aware of there being a crowd in the room. Buddy Holly's version? It really feels intimate, like it's just him and his girl alone in a room. And who knows where those words of love could lead next?

Words of Love sample