Monday, August 09, 2010

Sorry -- I've been distracted for a few days trying to find a cover version of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" -- yes, the Nicely Nicely Johnson showstopper from Guys and Dolls -- by, of all people, Elvis Costello. I could swear I'd heard that somewhere. Now, even worse than getting a song stuck in your head is getting a song stuck in your head that doesn't exist. This was driving me CRAZY.

Well, the mystery's finally solved. There is no such recording -- at least not publicly available -- because I heard it at a dress rehearsal for Prairie Home Companion, when Elvis was the guest star, and apparently they decided against including that number on the final aired show. I'd've voted for keeping it in, personally, because Elvis's rendition was just smokin'. Think about it for a minute -- Elvis hoarsely declaiming "For the devil will pull you under / By the wide lapels of your pinstriped coat . . . " Trust me, it was stunning.

But now that I've got that off my mind, we can move on to other things . . . like

"Librarian" / My Morning Jacket

My middle son is starting to look at colleges. And so we begin that great American ritual of the Campus Visit -- a whirlwind couple of hours in which, like greedy wasps, parents and their teenage children try to suck out the essence of a school. (In between, of course, are hours of studiedly casual highway driving and/or plane rides, in which you do everything you can NOT to act like this is a big deal. Because it is.)

Personally I love college campuses. I was a total grind when I was in school, of course -- are you surprised? -- and so my favorite part is always the library. Let me loose in those stacks and I'd never come out. (Forget that most kids today do their research on line.) So when I first ran across this song, it almost felt as if it had been written for me.

I love how it starts with a long panning shot: "Walk across the courtyard / To the library / I can hear the insects buzz / And the leaves 'neath my feet." That perfectly captures the hushed tone, the rural picturesqueness, of the campus. Idyllic, eh? I can just picture it, like a scene from The Sterile Cuckoo. And the gentle acoustic guitar picking goes right along with that, harking back to MMJ's earlier alt-country twanginess. (A sound that's not so common by the time of this album, 2008's Evil Urges.) Even that trademark reverb makes sense, as if Jim James' voice is echoing off the marble walls.

Combing his hair in the bathroom, he muses, "When God gave us mirrors / He had no idea." (Must be a philosophy student.) It seems a random observation -- but wait. The songwriting is just about to blossom.

He wanders into the periodical room (my favorite line: "Since we got the Interweb these hardly get used") and spies a librarian "listening to the AM radio." It's such a private glimpse -- I love that she's disturbing the Shhh library silence; I love that it's shallow Top-40 AM.

He notes, almost unthinkingly, the song she's listening to -- "Karen of the Carpenters" -- which reminds him of the mirror again ("Another lovely victim of the mirror's evil way . . ."). Of course you have to know that Karen Carpenter died of anorexia to get that connection, but if you do, it's a shimmering transition, and then a deft leap of logic from Karen Carpenter to the beautiful librarian herself. "It's not like you're not trying / With that pencil in your hair / To defy the beauty the good Lord put there."

A few more instrumental sounds are gently layered in -- some echoey synths and a soft, nearly undetectable drumbeat -- as the student/singer beholds her in all her glory: "Simple little bookworm / Buried underneath / Is the sexiest librarian." Up to now, the melody has been little more than one repeated phrase, in a tentative, wistful key -- but now it relaxes into the sunshine of a major chord as he murmurs longingly, "Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me." Yeah, yeah, it's an old movie cliche, older even than Marian the Librarian in The Music Man: The prim and proper library lady, who only needs to whip off her glasses and uncoil her bun to morph into a stunner. But Jim James keeps it light and subtle; he's tracing a cameo, not painting an oil portrait.

And in fact, it's all in his mind. He's peeping through a gap in the bookshelves, fantasizing about them at dinner, then in bed having pillow talk. (Note that it's an ordinary life he dreams up, not a hot sex scene.) As far as we can tell, he hasn't spoken a word to her. Sure, the song's billowed in volume and richness, but it's the power of his imagination that's doing that.

Which leads up to the riddling last verse, sung with just the right touch of bombast: "What is it inside our heads / That makes us do the opposite / Makes us do the opposite of what's right for us? / 'Cause everything'd be great / And everything'd be good / If everybody gave like everybody could." He's onto something, he really is -- and then he leaves it there, drifting off in repeats of that chorus.

There's just the faintest touch of creepiness about this song -- he could be a stalker, I suppose, could even be her ex-husband, tiptoeing into the library to watch her unbeknownst. I almost imagine him dreamily whacking off, there in the stacks. But the main point is that he's not taking this any farther, is he? He's doing the opposite of what's right himself -- backing off from his impulses, hesitating to reach out and make contact.

So who's the lonely figure -- the spinster librarian, listening to her tinny little radio, or the guy watching her from behind the bookcase? Both, I suppose. What really matters is the distance between them, that chasm of shyness and doubt -- it's such a poignant statement of human isolation. Who knew this unassuming little song would pack such a wallop?


Uncle E said...

What a lovely song, eh? I still think "Z" is the masterpiece, but "Evil Urges", which was pretty much slammed by the critics, has some pretty damn fine tunes, including this one.

wwolfe said...

It's a subtle touch to use mirrors and opposites in the lyric, since mirrors shows us the opposite - or at least the reverse - of what's really there. I also like how "Karen of the Carpenters" sounds like a character in an old 1950s Biblical movie epic.

Holly A Hughes said...

That's a good one -- "Karen of the Carpenters," like Judah of the Maccabees or something. I just read a review of a new Karen Carpenter biography, so I've had her on my mind. Her story is just so poignant, even if you weren't particularly a fan. I wasn't -- their music was way too squeaky-clean for me -- but man, did she have a voice.