Thursday, February 16, 2012

Changed the Locks / Lucinda Williams

Come on. From the very first mention of Hell Hath No Fury Week, you should've known Lucinda would be on the roster.

Unlike most of my favorite chick singers, Lucinda Williams isn't exactly someone I'd invite over to nosh Doritos and giggle over the Golden Globes telecast. She's more like the hard-bitten divorcee down the hall who bums cigarettes off you and asks you to lie to her biker boyfriend if he shows up unexpected. Still, if a man were doing you wrong, who would you ask for advice?  Not sympathy, mind you, but all-men-are-bastards advice?  You betcha.  

For all its world-weary slouch, this song isn't late Lucinda Williams; this tough-girl attitude is where she started out. From her third album, 1988's Lucinda Williams, this is her first track that got some airplay -- not much, granted, but some. In the 1980s, this gutsy hybrid of rock and country-blues wasn't necessarily mainstream taste. Even after Mary Chapin Carpenter's sweetened-up cover of "Passionate Kisses" won Lucinda some songwriting recognition, it would still be another 10 years (with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) before the world was really ready to listen to Lucinda Williams.

From that opening snarl of guitar, you know she's pissed off and ready to do battle. The drums smack relentlessly, the guitarwork is dirty and a little raunchy sounding. She's way beyond pretty tunes, too -- each "verse" is simply a dogged chant, describing one radical change she's making to scour this man out of her life for good. Her voice is gruff, sarcastic, edged with a bitter yelp. Changing the locks is obvious, and so is switching her phone number.  But the more she goes on -- she's bought a new car, a new wardrobe -- you start to wonder: What did he do to make her so furious?

Normally people change the locks when someone's trying to hurt or harass them.  But is this guy threatening her physically? If she didn't change the locks, she declares, he'd come in and -- whoa, lie down on her couch.  If he could phone her up, he'd "say those things to me / That make me fall down on my knees."  Following her on the street, he might "knock me off my feet" or "call my name out loud." It's hardly what I'd call abuse. The real story, in fact, is that he's trying to woo her back. Romantic, right? Like Ryan Gosling trying to win back Rachel McAdam in The Notebook.  Yet that romantic movie ending is exactly what she doesn't want.

By the time she gets to the last two changes, she's hitting surreal extremes -- "I changed the tracks underneath the train / So you can't find me again," then "I changed the name of this town / So you can't follow me down." So what is she so afraid of?  So "you can't touch me like before, and you can't make me want you more." It isn't him she's afraid of; it's herself, and the self-destructive passion she feels for him.

That's a great twist, a sure sign of smart songwriting. But stop thinking this guy is Ryan Gosling, or Channing Tatum, or even (think 1988) Rob Lowe. He may turn her knees to jelly, but I'm betting he's still bad news, and now she knows it. Quivers of passion animate her vocals -- listen to that trembling uplift at the end of every lne -- but there's also a ragged edge of scorn to her voice.    

And if she can't resist his powerful charm -- well, then, she'd better change the locks, or the town name, or whatever.   

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I'm Running Out Of Love /
Dolly Parton

In all the hoopla over the tragic death of Whitney Houston last weekend, I must've heard "I Will Always Love You" twenty-five times.  Whitney's version was stellar, but I prefer Dolly Parton's version -- after all, she wrote it.  That fact seems to surprise a lot of people, judging from internet chatter over the past couple of days.  Why should they be surprised?  Everybody knows Dolly for her pneumatic hourglass figure, overdone blonde hair, and sugary little-girl twang, but behind that Barbie doll facade is a serious songwriter and a force to be reckoned with.  I'm sorry to hear that her recent movie with Queen Latifah, Joyful Noise, was supposedly dreadful -- those are two women I'd really love to hang out with.

So here's Dolly in prime Hell Hath No Fury mode...

It's an early track, from Dolly's second album, released in 1968; still working to establish herself as more than just Porter Waggoner's "girl singer," she sticks to a tried-and-true Nashville sound, with nimble guitar picking, tick-tock percussion, and hoedown fiddle. Like many of her early songs, she wrote it with her uncle, Bill Owens, who was her earliest mentor, teaching her to play the guitar and taking her to Nashville when she was still a teenager. (Uncle Bill is still a Dollywood regular.)

That subject matter is classic country too -- I'll guess that at least fifty percent of all country songs in this era dealt with infidelity. Growing up in the Midwest, I was convinced that all country music fans were wife-swapping cheaters and whorers. But perky, sassy Dolly didn't come across as a victim -- if her man was going to cheat on her, he'd be sorry.

A barely veiled threat runs through this song. "Better learn to resist temptation / Or someday you'll wake up and I'll be far away." "I ain't gonna let you take my heart and break it." "How long did you think I'd stay quiet and take it?" "Someday you'll pay for the wild seeds you're sowing." She's not moaning, she's not feeling sorry for herself -- she's got her fists planted firmly on those curvy hips and her big blue eyes are shooting sparks of fire. I love the confident swings of her voice on those upward climbing phrases, how she curls her twang around certain words with just a hint of spite.  She's got a vibrato, but it's quivering with rage, not with sorrow. (Listen to the menacing shiver on "running out of patience.") This isn't a woman who'll take anything lying down.

Okay, so he seems to "get worse every day" and keeps on "doing me wrong" -- is he really cheating on her?  The most we know is in verse three: "You come and go just any time you want to / And you never bother to tell me where you're going." That's enough to plant suspicion in her mind -- "I wonder if there's anything you don't do" -- but actual proof is almost irrelevant.  He's not there for her, he's not being honest with her, he's not really sharing their life together.  And Dolly's put her finger right on a big truth:  How careless behavior can eat away at love, until there's none left. Men, take note.

The fictional world of country music may be full of unfaithful wives and husbands, but that runs hand-in-hand with a sense that marriage is sacred.  Dolly's character in this song isn't getting back at him by fooling around herself (though there's plenty of "revenge cheating" in other country songs -- listen to Loretta Lynn's "The Shoe Is On the Other Foot Tonight" or Dolly's own "I Wish I Felt This Way At Home").  She believes in marriage, which makes his straying all the worse.  Dolly herself has been married for over 40 years to the same man, who almost never appears in public with her and has absolutely no celebrity profile of his own.   Maybe she knows something about how marriage is supposed to work -- something that the rest of us could learn from.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Your Thing Is A Drag / Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings


But why wait until Break-Up Day?   Modern-day soul queen Sharon Jones isn't letting any grass grow under her strappy stilettoes.  Her man has the nerve to whine about how she's "stepping out of line" -- and she's more than ready to put him in his place:

Hard to believe this record was released in 2005 -- the way it channels classic funk-soul, you'd think it was a vintage track from 1972. And that's no accident. Sharon Jones grew up in  the height of the Motown era, and has been slowly working her way towards stardom ever since.  You've gotta admire her persistence; she's the poster child for late-career break-throughs.  It wasn't until 1996, when she was 40 years old, that she finally got a recording contract with the indie funk label Desco Records. (Some of those early Desco singles, I've heard, were bought up by collectors convinced that they were underdiscovered gems from the 60s/70s -- that's how authentic her sound is.)  Until her big break, Jones held such illustrious jobs as Rikers Island prison matron and Wells Fargo armored car guard, both of which seem oddly appropriate. Listen to those fiery, rambunctious vocals -- this is not a woman you'd want to mess with.

The scenario couldn't be simpler:  One half of the relationship likes to sit home and be cozy, while the other half likes to go out and raise hell.  The only twist is, this time it's the woman who's got the itch to party. There's no question this is a party girl's song, with a relentless speedy groove and whiplash instrumental hooks.  "Ain't no need to ask me, baby, / About what time I'm coming home," she declares. I can just see the raised eyebrows, the sideways disdainful glare, hand coolly primping her hairdo. She insists she's not betraying him - "You know I'll never do you wrong, baby," -- but she has got to be who she is.  And that's clearly something magnificent -- why should he put a damper on that?

Honey, if you're going to get judgmental, well then, the lady can do that too.  "I know you think you got your own thing," she launches into the chorus. "I know you think you got your own bag." (Calling James Brown!) "But believe me, baby, when I tell you: [beat] / Your thing is a drag."  I love how that song zips up tight at the moment, horns and scampering bassline and scritchy guitar riffs all stopping as she spits out that scornful punchline a capella. 

Of course both partners should have their own independent selves; that's the 21st-century element to this song. (I can't think of any 60s soul song where the social roles are supposed to be equal like this. Can you?)  She's fully prepared to live and let live. But now he's riding her case, and turnabout is only fair play.  He started this conversation, but now she's going to end it -- and on her terms.

Examples?  You want examples?  She'll tick them off on her manicured fingers. In verse two they're at a party, and he pouts to go home early; she's singing at a club and he doesn't even come to watch her.   In verse three, they're at a club, and "When the rest of us are drinkin' and smokin' / You're sittin' at the bar and you're ordering juice." She can barely veil her contempt, and by this time we share it too.  Why on earth would a spitfire like this ever be with such a wet blanket?

And here's the kicker: "When I try to make it good to you, babe, / It seems the time that your head start achin'."  He's so hung up in his resentment, he can't even enjoy the moments they do have together. He deserves to lose her.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Stupid Thing / Aimee Mann


Don't know about you, but about this time of year I've had it up to here with Valentine's Day marketing.  All that pink-and-red, hearts and cupids crap -- who needs it?  No doubt there are a few dutiful couples who really do buy each other lavish gifts for this holiday and have a special night out -- but for the rest of us, Valentine's Day is just another day to feel guilty and unloved and lonely.  So here's my Valentine overload antidote:  Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned Week.

You gotta love the chicks that kick back. I've already blogged about some of my favorites -- Jill Sobule's whimsical "Guy Who Doesn't Get It," Amy Rigby's feisty "20 Questions," or Thea Gilmore's savage "Things We Never Said."  Get me in a bad mood and I could play just those three tunes on a continual loop.

So here's another for your Valentine Eve's listening pleasure:

I really should listen more to Aimee Mann -- every song of hers that's drifted into my personal jukebox is fantastic.  I like her spiky intelligence, her don't-mess-with-me spirit, and the snarky  insinuations of her throaty vocals.  This one's from her 1993 album Whatever, her first solo album after leaving the band 'Til Tuesday (remember "Voices Carry"?) which gave her her start. It's a fearless declaration of independence indeed.

We're definitely in post-break-up mode here -- the withering scorn tells you there's no going back for this girl.  "Nothing was saving our day / There was nothing to say / But you said something anyway."  And what does this clown say?  He claims she "stepped out of line" (hunh? since when was there a line?) "Which forced you to leave me / As if that idea were mine." Ah, the weaselly logic of love. 

In verse two, the guy's even more passive-aggressive: "That's just like you, to sit back and just play it dumb / One word of warning would help / But that sacrifice was made trying to save yourself." Yep, he'd rather let her go on on her merry way than communicate with her. While she's assuming everything's a-okay, he's critiquing her from inside his self-protective shell.  By the time she knows, he's already written her off.  Case closed.

Yeah, sure, they're finito.  But our girl Aimee gets the final word.  "Oh you stupid thing," she scoffs wearily in the chorus. She has so little respect for him left, he's not a person anymore, just a thing.  "It wasn't me that you outsmarted / Oh,you stupid thing / Stopping it all before it started." Because the guy would rather feel justified, secure in his timid unimaginative armor, than take a risk and give love a chance.  Isn't that just like men?

Aimee's no victim here.  She's not wailing her fate or anguishing over the guy she's lost.  Self-doubt? Regret?  Not in her feminist vocabulary. She likes herself just as she is, and she's not about to let a man mess with that. 

She knows she's better off without him; she wouldn't take him back even if he did change (like that would happen). She's got nothing to lose -- might as well fire off this parting salvo.  The wrung-out tempo, the scolding slap of the drums, even the wry exhale of that semi-cheesy organ intro -- the message is clear:  this chick is DONE.