Saturday, January 01, 2011

"Together Let's Ring in the New Year" / Motion City Soundtrack

I believe in recycling -- so much so that I'm recycling all of last year's New Year's resolutions, namely:  1. Cut out junk food. 2. Exercise more.  3. Blog more often. 

In that spirit, here's a quick New Year's post.  There aren't a whole lot of New Year's themed songs on my playlist -- mostly it's just two songs from Motion City Soundtrack's 2006 album Commit This To Memory.  The other one, "Resolution," is way too depressing, so I'm opting for "Together We'll Ring in the New Year."  (And once you listen to this one, you'll say, "The other one was more depressing?")

I dunno, though, I don't find this track a downer.  Maybe that's because I feel the same way about the forced hilarity of New Year's parties. Motion City Soundtrack does slacker alienation better than almost anybody I can think of, and our protagonist starts off in medias res, sitting in a corner bummed out.  "This must be it, welcome to the new year / The drinks are consumed, the plants are destroyed / And the hors d'oeuvres dismantled." Talk about setting a scene -- haven't you been to that party, a hundred times over?  I love how the monotonous guitar strum simulates the drone of party chatter, how the melodic line rambles aimlessly, the lyrics not even bothering to rhyme.

"I'm not smiling / Behind this fake veneer," he sings, his voice soaring upward in a wistful yelp. Granted, our guy is not the life of the party -- he can barely hold his own in the conversation ("I am often interrupted or completely ignored"), and it's beginning to wear on him.  He feels so distanced, it's like he's a different species -- "These humans all suck," he mutters (dig the vernacular) -- and he bitterly declares, "I'd rather be home feeling violent and lonely."  That to me is just a great line, the way it encapsulates this guy's misery. Later on when he realizes, way late, that the woman he's been chatting up is wearing a wedding ring, it's an apt ending to another rotten holiday.

Another band -- They Might Be Giants, for instance, or Bare Naked Ladies -- might play this all for comedy.  But the intriguing thing about MCS is that they truly respect alienation and social dislocation.  (It helps that lead singer Justin Pierre has one of the most angsty voices in indie rock.)  There's genuine poignancy in that chorus, "I'm trying to find out if my words have any meaning / Lackluster and full of contempt / And it always ends the same."  All he wants is a little human contact.  Is that so wrong?  (And yes, ladies -- we know we'd be different, we'd be the cute girl who finally pays attention to that scruffy-but-sensitive loser.)

All this is apropos of nothing, I suppose -- I successfully avoided this sort of New Year's celebration this year, and I hope you did too.  But still, there's something about that momentous and yet artificial flip of the calendar page that always makes me feel . . . well, violent and lonely.  Basically all it means is that I have to remember to date my checks with a different number (what a pain).  Beyond that, what has really changed?

Okay, I guess it is cool that today's date is 1/1/11.  That'll be good for a few more hours, and then what?

Hmmm --- maybe I need some junk food after all... 


NickS said...

If you'll excuse me for going completely off topic, I've just listening to Squeeze and thought, again, that it's absurd that you've never listened to them (beyond, "Tempted", if I recall correctly), and I wanted to try to make the case.

Full disclosure, first, part of my affection for squeeze comes from the fact that their greatest hits compilation is so good. I've never actually owned a Squeeze album, but I got Singles early on when I was starting to build a music collection and it might be the only CD that I got at that point in the development of my tastes that I still listen to -- so it's survived through a lot of changes in the music that I listen to.

One other introductory note: you might be interested that, Nick Hornby has said that his goal was to write books like Squeeze's songwriting.

So, given that recommendation, what can I say about their songwriting.

They started out very young (21 and 24 respectively at that point) with obvious pop talent, and clearly still learning the craft.

Then, after the debut, the heart of their career was four albums over four years.

Within that time they got much, much better as songwriters without ever radically changing their style. I think part of what makes their Singles collection so good is that it's musically coherent. They never wrote anything other than pop music*, but within that they managed to be brilliant in a variety of ways.

You have the wordplay of, "Cool For Cats." (1979)

Then you have a song like "Another Nail In My Heart" (1980) which is a sympathetic and very literary depiction of a failing relationship. Who else would write a line like, "She made a call to a sympathetic friend and made arrangements" That's so unmistakably Squeeze in that it uses the language of real life, rather than pop music. You would never write that line if you started by wanting to write a pop hit. The meter is a little awkward, and it fails so utterly in putting the stress of the sung line on the most emotionally resonant word or phrase ("sympathetic friend"). But it feels so true to life. It gives the sense that to have described the action in any other way wouldn't have been a true description.

"Is That Love" (1981) is similar to "Another Nail In My Heart" in subject but broader in its emotional scope.

And then you get a song like "Annie Get Your Gun" about which all I can say is that it's perfect without making sense as a narrative.

"She's gone electric
(annie wipe them out)
That's unexpected
(strum that thing and shout)
Don't pull that trigger
(annie get your gun)
Don't shoot that singer
(you're shooting number one)"

So good.

* Was it Hugh Grant who described his acting range as, "sinisterly narrow"? Squeeze has a wider range than that but part of their charm and their limitations is that they have no instinct do anything epic. All of their songs are a little understated and tend to the close observation of small emotional details.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for this, Nick! Though I don't know how you got the idea that I don't listen to Squeeze -- true, "Tempted" was the only single that really crossed the ocean in a big way, but I've made up for lost time since then, and even saw them live a couple years ago. They are wonderful songwriters indeed! Perhaps my favorite of all is "Is That Love," but I also love "Pulling Mussels From a Shell" and that early novel-in-song "Up the Junction." Thanks for reminding me that a Squeeze post is long overdue.

NickS said...

I could have sworn that I had an exchange with you, in comments -- maybe a year ago, in which you said that "Tempted" was the only Squeeze song that you knew well.

I can't find it now so maybe I'm making that up. But I have a distinct memory of being surprised and thinking that you would really like Squeeze whenever you got around to them.

NickS said...

Re-reading your post on "Tempted" it's clear that you are familiar with Squeeze, so I'm really not sure where I got the impression that you weren't and I apologize again.

It will be worth it if it encourages you to write another post about them. As may be obvious, I've been thinking about writing a Squeeze post myself, and I'm still trying to figure out how to describe both what is so good about their songwriting and how much it improves over that four year span.

I would also pick "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" as one of my favorites, but it seems less likely to be convincing to somebody who doesn't already like Squeeze, though I'm not sure why I say that.

Also, I just have to say, that first video that I linked, for "Take Me I'm Yours" is really funny. I don't think I'd seen pictures of them at that age before. Chris Difford, in particular, looks like he was pulled from central casting to fit the role of "fresh faced youth".

Holly A Hughes said...

Looks to me like you've already written that Squeeze post, Nick! And I'm glad you did.