Thursday, April 30, 2009

"The Wanting Comes in Waves" / The Decemberists

Way too trendy, I know. The Decemberists are everybody's indie darlings -- heck, they live in totally-PC Portland, Oregon, and their mock sparring with Stephen Colbert on TV's The Colbert Report is the last word in wink-wink knowingness. (They're supposed to be on again tonight, singing this very song, a blurb about which appearance triggered today's aural tic.) And, talk about indie creds, they even lined up Robyn Hitchcock for their latest album, The Hazards of Love, a concept album-cum-rock-opera that's practically Colin Meloy's PhD thesis on archaic English folk ballads. All they let Robyn do was play guitar on one track, but still, they got to name-check him in the liner notes.

Still, their last album The Crane Wife worked its way under my skin, and Hazards of Love shows every promise of doing the same. I ended up giving this album a thumbs-up in my review for Blogcritics and I got tickets to see them at Radio City in June (I found out later that Robyn and the Venus 3 are the opening act, so really, there must be a God).

The fact that I get hooked on their music still baffles me, though. Usually I look for classic song structure, neatly turned lyrics, and catchy melodic lines, and Colin Meloy's compositions don't do very well on any of those scores -- his stuff is more symphonic, with recurring leitmotifs, lushly textured arrangements, and words that are little too Poetry-With-A-Capital-P for my tastes. I don't know what the guy is like personally, but there's a distinct lack of humor in this album, and that is usually the kiss of death for me. And yet.
I should point out that this track on the album isn't just "The Wanting Comes in Waves" -- it's medlied up with another song, "Repaid," sung by the opera's villainess, The Queen. That half of the track is delivered with shivering blues-rock intensity by guest singer Shara Worden, who apparently is in a band called My Brightest Diamond (no, I'd never heard of them either). The way she swaggers through "Repaid" is impressive, but that's not the song that's stuck in my head.

No, I'm stuck only on "The Wanting Comes in Waves" half, which is sung by Colin in his earnest folky vocals. It starts off at a solemn, tentative pace, accompanied by harpsichord (yes, they do get away with it), a doleful minor-key recitatif in which our hero William -- who is, get this, a sort of silkie foundling (yes, they get away with that too) -- recounts how his mother rescued his cradle from the reeds when he was just a wee babe. Honest.

But then the song blossoms and swells, picking up pace, adding drums and electric guitar; as it shifts into a major key, back-up singers pitch in with ooohs, until it reaches almost cinematic grandeur. "But the wanting comes in waves," William wails over and over, and you've got to feel sorry for the guy, sorta like I felt sorry for that cute little David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London, totally at the mercy of his animal impulses. I hate to put it so crudely -- this is such a twee project, after all -- but William is getting the musical equivalent of a hard-on. Within the story line, that is actually exactly the point. And as it morphs into the the Queen's hot-mama rendition of "Repaid," this story plumbs its own Freudian depths. "And I want this night," William begs, passionately, in the first movement; when he takes over the stage again, after the first go-round of "Repaid," his plea has changed to "And you owe me life!" The Queen gives in, no doubt with a testy swish of her black skirt -- but you just know this is not going to end well for poor William. Fade out and dissolve.

You know, it's taken me years to work past my old English major pretensions, and now here's Colin Meloy pulling me right back in. Still, I gotta admire him for even trying this kind of sophomoric artsy crap. The fact that it's actually listenable -- no, make that compelling -- is pretty amazing. If he can get past the defenses of a skeptic like me, he must be doing something right.

The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"This Diamond Ring" / Gary Lewis & the Playboys

Well, I've already come clean with you guys about my Herman's Hermits phase, so I may as well 'fess up to this one too: somewhere in Indiana there's a well-worn Gary Lewis LP somebody bought at a garage sale (along with my original Barbie doll), and everyone once in a while I wish I had it back. Did I know that Gary Lewis was the son of Jerry Lewis, the old Nutty Professor himself? (Surely one the most disturbing films ever, which I first saw at a way too impressionable age.) Yes, I did know that, and even that didn't stop me. Hey, I liked Dino, Desi, and Billy too.

True, I was too naive to fully appreciate that the ONLY reason anybody ever gave Gary Lewis a recording contract was because of who his daddy was. And only a couple days ago did I learn that, thanks to those Hollywood connections, he had Snuff Garrett to produce the thing, Leon Russell to arrange it, had Jim Keltner sitting in on the drums, and was handed a song written by Al Kooper. Talk about pop pedigrees.

Still, when you listen to this song -- and oh, I listened to it A LOT -- it could not have failed to be a hit. In a mere two minutes and eight seconds, it distills heartbreak into a single image of one rejected engagement ring. "Who wants to buy-ee-eye / [dramatic strum] / This diamond ri-ii-ii-ing," Gary wails, in a totally believable adolescent nasal twang. "She took it off her finger now / It doesn't mean a thing." If you've ever studied T.S. Eliot (and I humbly submit that I have), you'll know that the term for this is "objective correlative," the physical thing that represents a whole complex of emotions. And good ol' Al Kooper, that immensely underrated genius, explores absolutely every facet (excuse the pun) of this aptly-chosen image.

"This diamond ring doesn't shine for me anymore," Gary bitterly declares; "And this diamond ring doesn't mean what it did before." He switches into Friend Advice Song mode to add, "So if you've got / Someone whose love / Is true-ooo-ooo-oo / Let it shine for you-ooo-oo-ooo."

Did Al Kooper have a relative in the gem trade? Because that next line is classic: "This stone is genuine / Like love should be-ee-ee-eee." The petulance in Gary's whine is so appropriate, as he adds, "So if your baby's truer than / My baby was to me-eee-ee-eee." (Dig those modulated chords at the end of the verses.)

That's about it, save for one last iteration of the chorus: "This diamond ring can mean something beautiful / And this diamond can be dreams that are coming true" (heh-heh, let's watch Al Kooper run out of inspiration at the close of the song). "And then your heart / Won't have to break / Like mi-ine did / If there's love behind it." And here's Leon Russell, stuffing in the guitar riffs that echo melodic phrases and highlighting dramatic drum fills (Gary was ostensibly a drummer, after all) in the breaks between phrases.

Slick? You betcha. But it was radio-ready, and I ate it up. And I make no apologies, because the rest of that album was damn fine too, if all you're looking for is spot-on mid-century pop music. On song after song -- "Save Your Heart for Me," "Just My Style," "Everybody Loves a Clown," "Count Me In," "Sure Gonna Miss Her" -- Gary Lewis cranked it out in expertly chiseled commercial style.

Believe it or not, I didn't even have a fangirl crush on Gary Lewis. Hey, who could have a crush on Gary Lewis? He looked like the ultimate nebbish. I'm not making a case for him being some overlooked artiste, but I suspect that if he hadn't been suddenly drafted in December 1966, he might have had a chance at developing into a real musician.

But what do I know? I loved the Monkees too. But then, I did have a fangirl crush on Davy Jones...

This Diamond Ring sample

Monday, April 20, 2009

"New Amsterdam" / Elvis Costello and the Attractions

I saw Elvis last Friday night, at a dress rehearsal for Prairie Home Companion (c'mon, you didn't think Elvis could resist, once he discovered that his pal Nick Lowe had charmed Prairie Home's listeners not once but twice in the past year or so?) Elvis was at his cuddly teddy-bear best, agreeably mugging along with Garrison Keillor and the gang in various skits and flogging several songs off of a new album (due in early June), Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, which he cranked out one afternoon in Nashville recently. Really, has the man no Off button?

On my way to the show, I wondered what Elvis would sing. The one song I guessed was the only older number he performed -- "Indoor Fireworks," from King of America, which has been in my Top Ten Elvis Songs for just about forever. I even heard him sing it in duet with Nick about a year ago, which as you can imagine was a moment of sheer fangirl transcendence for me.

But ever since, oddly enough, I've been humming this song, which Elvis didn't sing at all on Friday. True, it's a natural default for me to dial into Get Happy!, probably my favoritest EC LP ever. But why this one, and not, say, "Motel Matches" or "Riot Act" or "Five Gears in Reverse" or "B Movie"? I suspect it was triggered by an interview I read recently, in which Elvis scoffed about his youthful addiction to puns and word play. I thought to myself, "Yes, you're right, Declan" (in my head I'm always on a real-name basis with EC), "you really were a fool for the word play back then." But who am I kidding? The word play is what I LOVE about this track.

He simply can't resist. "You're sending me tulips mistaken for lilies," he begins with that knee-jerk Dutch tulip image, then twists it into "You give me your lip after punching me silly." This makes no sense at all, outside of the pun, does it? And he follows it up with another grotesque physical image: "You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain / If I had any sense now I wouldn't want it back again." It's awful, isn't it? And yet he's speeding through it all with such reckless abandon, I can't help but love it.

The deal is, this song is a waltz -- I don't just mean it's in 3/4 time, it actually whirls and dips like a waltz, with a funny sort of coked-up musicbox quality. Steve Nieve's calliope-like organ doesn't surface until the end, but it's pattering away underneath the whole time, and no matter how many words Elvis stuffs into this carnival tune, all you really hear is the stressed first beat of nearly every measure, which generally is also the highest note, cascading downward after that. It's like a horror film fun house, like a merry-go-round Elvis can't jump off of. And somehow that makes all those grotesque images fit right in.

New Amsterdam is code, I guess, for New York, or so the chorus suggests: "New Amsterdam it's become much too much / Till I have the possession of everything she touches." Yeah, that sense of excess is 1980 NYC all right. And he follows it up with a real groaner of a couplet: "Till I step on the brakes to get out of her clutches / Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess." Beyond the car puns and the snarky play on "double" (morphing innocent double-dutch ghetto jump-ropers with Eurotrash hypocrisy), there's an absolutely vertiginous sense of danger and distrust, which with 1980s Elvis was pretty much par for the course. (Check out the end of verse two, where he fires off one of his more jaundiced insults, "Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written" -- ouch!)

But then the bridge is oddly poignant: "Back in London they'll take you to heart after a little while / Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile." Wait, is it London or New York where he feels like an exile? I'm betting both, actually. Funny that he lives here in New York now, but then again, today he's a hobnobber par excellence, no longer an angry young man. It doesn't matter where he actually lives, he's always inside that celebrity bubble now.

He carries on in that lonely, winsome vein in the last verse: "Somehow I found myself down at the dockside / Thinking of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe / The transparent people who live on the other side / Living a life that is almost like suicide." I'm not sure whether the "other" side is the past he's left behind, or the new fake plastic people he's forced to hang out with. Either way, he hates 'em. Ahh, vintage Elvis.

New Amsterdam video

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"O Lucky Man!" / Alan Price
HAPPY BIRTHDAY ALAN PRICE!!

When I went to this movie's premiere run in the summer of 1973 in London -- the Leicester Square Cinema, I remember it well -- I was all hepped up about seeing Malcolm McDowell, who'd mesmerized me so in his previous film, A Clockwork Orange. But about four minutes into the film, Anderson cuts from a close-up of McDowell's face -- oh, those huge, sinister blue eyes -- to an image of hands crashing onto a electric piano keyboard. Commanding chords ring out, and the camera pans up to the finely-planed face of Alan Price, who begins to sing, in his smoky tenor voice, "If you have a friend / On whom you think you can rely / You are a lucky man." He rolls his eyes, grins, and goes on, "If you've found a reason /To live on and not to die / You are a lucky man."

Honestly, my heart leaped in my chest. It's one of the few moments in my life when I was aware of a life-changing event, of planets abruptly slewing around and re-aligning themselves. I walked out of that movie two-and-a-half hours later trembling, truly trembling. Yes, the story and the acting and the cinematography were fantastic -- I mean,
it is Lindsay Anderson's masterpiece, a sweeping indictment of pre-Thatcherite England, and besides McDowell it stars brilliant actors like Helen Mirren and Ralph Richardson and Rachel Roberts. But to be honest, the only thing on my mind as I left the cinema was I must find out who this Alan Price is.

You think my current Nick Lowe obssesion consumes me? That's nothing compared to how I was obsessed by Alan Price throughout the late 1970s. And
I still feel attached to him, like you might to your college boyfriend who never really dumped you, just eventually drifted out of your life. Even though he rarely records anymore, and hasn't toured the States in decades (I've only been able to see him live twice), Alan Price still is, and always will be, an immutable part of the soundtrack of my life.

The brilliant thing about the songs Alan Price wrote for this film (get this soundtrack album NOW) is how he marries jaunty pop music -- jazz, a samba, a cha-cha-cha, music-hall soft shoe, even a recycled hymn thrown in for good measure -- with bleak, disillusioned lyrics about the vanity of human endeavor. I'm talking lyrics like "Sell, sell, sell, sell everything you stand for" and "We all want justice but you've got to have the money to buy it" and

Hope springs eternal in a young man's breast
And he dreams of a better life ahead
Without that dream you are nothing, nothing, nothing
You've got to find out for yourself that dream is dead.

I don't think of myself as a cynical person -- though, okay, my lifelong Kinks fanship suggests a certain jaundiced outlook -- but I sure bought into the deliciously dark world view of this movie. And this title track raises it to the level of an anthem, with unspooling arpeggios, spiraling melodic phrases, and mounting chord changes, as he declares the snarky truth: "Takers and fakers and talkers won't tell you / Teachers and preachers will just buy and sell you /When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell / You'll be a lucky man!"

Perhaps my favorite line in this whole song, the one that became my de facto motto, is "If knowledge hangs around your neck / Like pearls instead of chains / You are a lucky man." I wore a strand of fake pearls every day, my junior year of college -- fashionably pairing it with blue denim overalls -- as my trademark look, just because of this song. People who knew me in college still ask about the pearls.

I've seen O Lucky Man! at least a dozen times since then, and I still get all jangled by it. I'm sure I could attribute my love of the film to the cynical temper of the mid-70s, or about the fact that I was still in college, when you're supposed to question the values of society. But in my heart I know it has more to do with Alan Price's cheekbones, the brooding gaze in his gray eyes, the thick Geordie rasp in his voice. (Later he bursts into the movie as a character as well -- imagine how that rattled my popcorn -- and though I could barely understand a word he said, I knew I was a goner.) I laugh now, but really, it was glorious to be overwhelmed by this, purely out of the blue. Ah, we should all be so lucky.

O Lucky Man sample
O Lucky Man clip

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Wichita Lineman" / Glen Campbell

I won't even tell you how this song got stuck in my head -- suffice it to say it had something to do with a fantasy conversation I was having with Nick Lowe. (Come on, can't you just hear Nick covering this song?)

At first, I'll admit, its melody was all tangled up in my memory with "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," that stirring 1969 ballad by the Hollies (although -- fun facts from Wikipedia -- Neil Diamond actually recorded it first, and I'll wager it's Neil's rendition that drilled it most relentlessly into my brain). "He Ain't Heavy" is beautiful but, come on, admit it, just a tad self-righteous and histrionic.

"Wichita Lineman," on the other hand, is spare and heartfelt. Once you get past the syrupy strings and Glen's trademark yodel, it's a breathtaking ballad about love and loneliness and the American west. In fact, it's so spare and subtle that you need to load on the the syrupy strings and Glen's yodel to load all the sentiment into it.

Glen put this song out in 1968, when the barriers between rock and country music were mile-high stockades. Glen had short hair and wore string ties and suits and cowboy boots -- there was no way we rock fans were going to buy this record. I remember a friend of my mother's giving my older brother the Wichita Lineman album for his birthday; I can still see the grimace on his face as he tried to thank her politely. Chances are he never listened once to that LP.

Now I'm embarrassed that music snobbery blinded me to this song. Written by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Galveston" for Glen, it has a wonderful high-country loneliness to it. In fact, it's downright existential. Nothing much happens here; the singer is stringing telephone wire in some vast western landscape ("I am a lineman for the county," he humbly introduces himself, "and I drive the main road / Searching in the sun for another overload.") Later he admits, "I know I need a small vacation, / But it don't look like rain" -- this is the kind of ordinary Joe who only gets a rest when the weather's bad. He's just an American working man, way back before Bruce Springsteen made that kind of guy glamorous.

With nothing to distract him out here, he can't get his mind off his girlfriend/wife (could even be his boyfriend, for that matter). There's no back story provided -- it's not like they're in the middle of a break-up, or he's just found out she's cheating on him, or she's been sick, or anything. He just . . . well, he just misses her.

In fact, she's such a part of him that she seems to be everywhere. "I hear you singin' in the wire / I can hear you through the whine" -- is that not the most poignant thing you've ever heard? (Meanwhile, the strings whine like the wind in the wires.) And then he tops that in the next verse, when the same heart-breaking melodic phrase gets these words: "And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time." That's as splendid as the biggest horizon, a sweeping majestic statement of love.

In both cases, he's jerked back to reality with a dull jolt: "And the Wichita lineman / Is still on the line." He jumps an octave to that last dissonant note on "line," underlaid with a throbbing riff like a Morse code signal. He's still out there, for all we know, still searching in the sun for that overload. Iconic.

Wichita Lineman clip

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March" / The Box Tops

Forever and always, my favorite Boxtops song is "The Letter" -- one of my top candidates for Most Perfect Single Ever -- but when I entered the digital age and acquired a Box Tops greatest hits CD, just to have "The Letter" on my iTunes, I discovered all these tasty Box Tops tunes that I had completely forgotten about. In fact, I may never have known they were by the Box Tops; they were just familiar sounds from the vast sonic stew of the late 60s. "Cry Like A Baby"? That could have been by Tommy James and the Shondells, for all I knew. "Sweet Cream Ladies"? With its campy marching band arrangement, it couldn't have sounded less like the urgent bluesy wail of "The Letter."

Salvation Army-style horns, ploppy organ chords, a tramping bass drum -- the sound of this song telegraphs "good-time music," or at any rate the post-Sgt. Pepper's interpretation of that. For some reason I can't hear this song without thinking of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, with all its subversive smirk. It's possible that the Box Tops performed it on the show -- it was released in early 1969, before CBS abruptly cancelled the show in April.

Now of course I see that the "sweet cream ladies" of the title are prostitutes -- DUH! That went right over my head in 1969. (Give me a break; I was a sheltered Midwestern kid.) I guess I just thought they were generous hippie damsels who gave away wonderful pastries for free. After all, the song does say "Think of what you're giving /To the lost and lonely people of the night" -- late-night giveaways at the Haight-Asbury bakery shoppe?

Okay, I should have figured it out from the lines "They will love you in the darkness, /Take advantage of your starkness, /And refuse to recognize you in the light," not to mention phrases like "It's instinctive stimulation you convey," "Puritans ignore them," and "Let them satisfy the ego of the male." But then I must have gotten thrown off by the lines, "It's a necessary function / Meant for those without compunction, /Who get tired of vanilla every day." See there, vanilla -- I rest my case.

Still, it's a toe-tapping gem, a snappy artifact of its pre-AIDS time, when it was possible to wax romantic about hookers. The barriers of society were toppling on all sides -- why not see whores as standard-bearers of the sexual revolution, and victims of an unfair class system? And yet somehow, for me the coy wink of this song doesn't quite cancel out its lecherous undertone. Or is that just an inevitable consequence of Alex Chilton's shivering vocals? He's preaching tolerance, but you just know he plans to avail himself of their services, and sooner rather than later.

Well, I liked the song better when I thought it was about pastries. But then, I really liked the song when I thought it was about pastries. It's still a great little example of late 60s pop. You gotta love the Box Tops.

Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March clip



Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Holiday Romance" / The Kinks

Might as well give in to it.

The thing is, when I say I've been regressing into non-stop Kinks and Beatles, I'm not talking about "You Really Got Me" and "Waterloo Sunset" and "A Day in the Life" -- I'm talking oddities like "Holiday Romance." This is Ray Davies at his music hall best, with corny strings and tap dance rhythms and campy voices and all. It's a novelty song from their Soap Opera album, right smack in the middle of Ray's theatrical period; the song's even a bit of a sidebar for Soap Opera's high-concept story about an ordinary man who is transformed into a star (or is the other way around? Doo-doo doo-doo, doo-doo doo-doo...).

Within that story, "Holiday Romance" is a quirky interlude, one of Ray's many escapist fantasies -- a tale of a flirtation at a dowdy seaside resort, with its own weird sort of Edwardian naughty-postcards charm. It's all about trying on other lives, and in true Village Green fashion we find Ray lapsing fondly into clever Noel Coward-esque patter. He begins with a histrionic upbeat: "I -- had -- a -- brrreak for a week / So I booked my seat / And confirmed my reservation." You can almost imagine his arched eyebrows as he sets the scene "at a quiet little seaside / ho-tel." He arrives at the place "just in time for the dinner gong / Ding-dong!" If this were a movie, it'd be in black-and-white, but stylishly lit; the staginess of it all almost fits better into a silent movie, or one of those herky-jerky little films you'd watch on a scope at an old-timey amusement arcade.

The shot zooms in on his love interest: "Then I saw Lavinia / Standing at the bottom of the stairs / And I fell for Lavinia / The moment that I saw her standing there." Echo of the early Beatles song? Maybe, but even closer is this song's affinity with Magical Mystery Tour's deliberately nostalgic "Your Mother Should Know." ("Let's all get up and dance to a song / That was a hit before your mother was born..."). The difference is that Ray doesn't bother with the ironic parentheses -- he just projects himself right into that other era and goes for it.

There's something deliciously fey about the mincing way Ray sings, "Lavinia looked so divine / As she walked up to the table to dine / And then Lavinia's eyes met /Mine!" Ah, that falsetto trill at the end is just priceless; Tiny Tim couldn't have done better. With all due histrionics, he wonders, with a suitable flutter in his voice, "Can this be love / Can this be lovey-dove / Or just a holiday romance?" He jumps up to another register to reiterate, "Can this be long-lost love at last / Or is it just a flash in the pan?"

His excitement is so endearingly innocent, an innocence he carries on as they dance ("after cheese and liqueurs) to the hotel band ("We did the foxtrot, samba, and danced through the night"). In later verses, they stroll on the beach and drink lemonade, and he says to himself, with a frisson of delight, "I thought, 'I must be on a winner'." That's probably my favorite line, followed closely by "And my holiday treat was / Com-plete." How he manages to make all this sound so lascivious and yet so quaint is beyond genius.

It's a hazy out-of-time idyll, even for our hero, who knows perfectly well that this will only last for the week. He ties it all up with a lovely comic bow at the end, when, in a Monty-Pythonish female warble, Lavinia pushes him away and trills, "Better stop, / My husband's coming to collect me today." Breaking his rhyme scheme, his syncopation, completely puncturing his balloon, she appears in her own skin for the first time, and Ray lets the mask slip just enough for us to wonder if she's actually a silly cow. But who cares? It's such a tidy ending! With a cascading embroidery of strings, he pans away, waving a handkerchief in farewell. Nothing will ever spoil the perfection of this little romance. No ties, no regrets -- ah, that's what we all need, isn't it?

Okay, it's not the first song I'd play to try to convert somebody to being a Kinks fan. But this is the sort of stuff that made a Kinks fan of me, for better or worse. What a hopeless case I am.

Holiday Romance

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Kids" / MGMT

I've been in a dreadful musical funk lately; somehow all I feel like doing is curling up in a fetal position and listening to the same few Kinks and Beatles songs over and over. (That and Al Kooper's I Stand Alone album -- go figure.)

But today, while on a long car trip in the rain, this number broke through all the dreck on Sirius/XM's Alt Nation channel. Or, at any rate, its mesmerizing electronic dance hook did -- I love how it marches up the scale, tripping into the tiniest bit of syncopation at the end; it's a total ear worm.

Though it's only been around for few months, this song already has a complicated history. NME named it the best single of 2008, and the band is suing the president of France for ripping it off for some campaign appearances. I gather there are several covers of it already, though, jeez, I can't imagine it without this exact same arrangement.

Naturally, the meaning of the song is foggy -- clarity and storytelling are verboten in the indie world. It does flirt with developmental psychology, addressing a growing child "Crawling on your knees toward it / Making momma so proud." Wikipedia tells me the song was written about Mother Love Bone's late front man, Andrew Wood -- hello, WHO? I have no idea who that is, so that really doesn't help me much.

Still, the loose-limbed groove of this song can't be denied. It's perky, and at the same time stiff and robotic; it's also strangely melancholy, as those repeated musical phrases strain toward the same high notes again and again. "Control yourself," the chorus warns; "Take only what you need from it / A family of trees wanted / To be haunted" (nice internal rhyme there, and nice play on the family tree image).

So who are MGMT? They're a duo from Brooklyn, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, with all the right indie connections (opening for Of Montreal and Radiohead, appearances at SXSW, Bonnaroo, and Glastonbury festivals, etc). I've listened to the rest of this album, Oracular Spectacular, and there's plenty of other diggable songs there as well.

And yet, and yet...my interest is already fading fast. The idea of discovering a new band, let alone one this young and trendy, wears me out totally. (Blame it on the funk.) Will this process of discovering new bands never end? Can't I just, you know, listen for the millionth time to Muswell Hillbillies and Revolver?

Help!

Kids video

Sunday, April 05, 2009

"Got To Get You Into My Life" / Paul McCartney

Technically it's a Beatles song, of course, but I'm grooving on this song today because last night I finally got to see Paul McCartney perform live, this fulfilling a lifelong dream. Despite my longstanding McCartney infatuation, somehow I've never been able to catch him in concert before (believe me, I'm still harboring grudges against everyone who's frustrated that ambition over the years).

Did he live up to 45 years of high expectations? You'd better believe he did.

Just to be in the same room with Paul was all I asked. (Okay, Radio City Music Hall is a very big room, but I'm sure I breathed in at least some of the air he'd exhaled.) I didn't even bother to wonder ahead of time which songs he'd sing; I'd have been happy with "Silly Love Songs" and "Uncle Albert," I swear. It didn't matter; as he began each song in his set, I'd scream, "I love this song!!" What a pushover fangirl I am.

Of course I've heard all these songs hundreds and thousands of times. But that's the thing about a live performance; it intensifies everything, it makes you hear new dimensions in even the most familiar song. It's not just because Paul is such a great live performer -- though he is; I couldn't believe how strong his voice still is -- it's just the phenomenon of live performance, something flesh and blood happening right in front of you in real, unfiltered time.

It's so easy to pick apart the Beatles catalog and label some songs as "commercial" and others "artistic," or to parse which ones Paul wrote and which ones John wrote. In the long run, though, with songs this wonderful, it's all irrelevant. True, I've always thought of this song as a Paul song, not just because he sang it on Revolver but also because its breezy syncopation, internal rhymes, and all-over-the-scale melody are McCartney hallmarks. It's infectiously joyful, and not just because of those perky horn flourishes we know so well. (There wasn't a horn player on stage last night -- it was all handled with synthesizers -- and yet the flourishes are an indelible part of the song.)

Listen to how Paul tapdances through the verse: "I was alone / I took a ride / I didn't know what I would find there / Another road / Where maybe I / Could see another kind of mind there." I love that feeling of a new world opening up. If this had been a George song, it might have been about expanding consciousness and finding God, but no, this is Paul -- it's about romantic love, the thing his universe is built around. "You didn't run / You didn't lie / You knew I wanted just to hold you / And had you gone / You knew in time / We'd meet again for I had told you." Paul's irrepressible faith in love-ever-after is so touching.

That's the secret of sincere pop; you have to believe in it. Nobody has ever believed in romantic pop the way Paul McCartney does. But just to make sure it doesn't get too goopy, he pushes into a wilder rock-and-roll voice in the bridge -- "Got to get you into my life!" -- and the repeats of the fade-out. His joy just overtakes him, and he can't hold it in any more.

Watching Paul last night, it never occurred to me to wonder how many times he has sung this particular song. All I knew was that he launched into it with all the bubbling, buoyant energy of a brand-new song. For that moment in time, it was a brand-new song.

Is it my favorite Beatles song ever? No way. But that's holding it to a crazy standard: In this great world, most Beatles songs are wildly superior to most other songs. I already knew that, but last night's show convinced me all over again. My 45 years of loving Paul McCartney have NOT been wasted.

Friday, April 03, 2009

"Walcott" / Vampire Weekend

Officially, the reason I haven't posted in a week and a half is because I have been snowed under with work and I've been dealing with some medical issues. The real reason? It's just been so damn hard to slot back into life after a week in London. It wasn't just any week in London, either; it was a week of special insider Beatles tours and Kinks experiences that completely turned my head around. Not to mention the media blitz for the new film The Boat That Rocked about 1966 and the phenomenon of Radio Caroline -- a film immersed in all the music I love best -- which opened in the UK five days after I left, but who knows when it'll finally be released in the US? (August 28th, according to the film's website. Bloody hell. In what universe do they imagine that American fans aren't dying to see this movie?) My head was filled with music, all right, but it was all the music I've already written about here. Think of it as a musical cul-de-sac.

Nevertheless, I knew that eventually a song would break through my mental logjam -- and it was this track by Vampire Weekend. I'm pretty sure it got inserted into my brain by the film I Love You, Man --a delight from start to finish, which I highly recommend-- which I know had at least one Vampire Weekend song on the soundtrack, if not this one. (It was "Oxford Comma" and "Campus", if you need to know.) Doesn't matter; once the Vampire Weekend thing gets let out of the gate, it has a way of taking over with me.

Truth to tell, the thing that's stuck in my brain is the hammering keyboard riff that runs through this song; that, and the insinuating refrain "Walcott, / Don't you know that it's insane /Don't you wanna get outta Cape Cod / Outta Cape Cod tonight." The rest of the song is liberally sprinkled with Cape Codian name checks, like "Hyannisport is a ghetto" and "fuck the women from Wellfleet" and "Mystic Seaport is this way." Having spent five glorious summers on Cape Cod (in Osterville, but we drove around everywhere while we were there), this triggers all sorts of knee-jerk responses in me.

The tune -- if you can call it that -- repeats incessantly from one verse to the next, and in the end it's the syncopation more than the melodic line that gives it the hook. (Okay, maybe it's the way the lyrics mesh with the syncopation.) Irrelevant. It's just a fantastic earworm, when you put together that keyboard riff (why does this sound to me like nighttime driving in the rain?) and the coaxing desperation of Ezra Koenig's vocals. Then they throw in a string quartet, and some bashing drums, and I'm sucked in. Sure, it seems dislocated and a bit alienated. What else is indie music about?

Are these guys really this smart, or was the brilliance of this first album just dumb luck?

Walcott video