Saturday, March 09, 2013

Occasional Shivers / Chris Stamey

I was gonna save this for my Rock Waltz week -- but it won't wait.

This is from Chris Stamey's new album, Lovesick Blues. Now, I only recently got up to speed on his band the dBs, so you'll forgive me if I'm even behinder on Stamey's post-dBs solo work. This is like his third or fourth solo album (depends how you count) and I have no idea what they're like. I only bought this one in the middle of a YepRoc spending frenzy -- you know, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, Fountains of Wayne, the usual suspects -- and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart for the hell of it.

To tell the truth, when I first listened to it, on my car's 10-CD changer, I thought I was listening to Michael Penn (another long-overdue post). Only gradually did it strike me that a) the vocals were way too nasal, and b ) the lyrics even more well-crafted than Penn's.  I swear, I pulled the car off the road for moment and said to myself, "Whoever this guy is, he's an honest-to-god POET."  I scrabbled madly around the CD cases scattered all over the seat beside me. When I pulled out Lovesick Blues, it was a real eureka moment.

And this song -- track 9 -- absolutely demanded I hit replay, over and over again.

It's a waltz all right, but a laidback one -- a real slow dance. I imagine it set at a party, a chit-chatty sort of cocktail gathering, the sort we grown-ups find ourselves going to every once in a while. He looks up and sees someone -- "Occasional glances / Across the room" -- and catches his breath.

But this is no "Some Enchanted Evening" love-at-first-sighting. No, no, no. They're ex-lovers, and I'm betting there was a time when strenuous efforts were made NOT to be in the same room, EVER.  But time has passed, and all that has died down. Surely by now they can see each other casually without fireworks.

Or can they?

Clearly it's been a while. "Occasionally casually peck a cheek / to say you could still care / though that was long ago / years or days, I forget . . . " But there's the rub -- if he's vague, it's not because the memory is so distant, but because it still hurts like yesterday. And if the hurt is still there, so is the passion. Maybe they're here with other people -- but if so, you'd never know it, because those other people melt away, like everyone else in the room.

He still has no idea where they stand, and in verse two he desperately tries to read her, to get a clue. "Perhaps you remember the bitter taste," he muses, "Perhaps you recall with a smile." And it's not just her memory he's got to parse, it's her present intentions. "Perhaps you envision the rapt embrace," he dares to hope; but on the other hand, it could be "the tentative kiss of a child."

This is all playing out in real time, and I for one am hooked. That languid tempo is brilliant -- it's so wary, and yet so damn seductive. They're edging toward each other, circling around, testing the waters. The melody is part of the game, too, with its tender little chromatics and plunging octave jumps. It's a tough melody to sing, and Stamey's not a natural crooner. But I don't know -- there's a vulnerability to his nasal, tentative vocal that makes this even more poignant.

A million pop songs have been written about having your heart broken, but only a handful are about having to survive heartbreak for the rest of your life. (Readers, help me out here -- what songs do you know that fit that bill?)  It's about being a grown-up, living with your own past. It takes a true poet like Chris Stamey to help us out with that. 


NickS said...

(Readers, help me out here -- what songs do you know that fit that bill?)

I don't know that I can think of anything in precisely that mood (though I'm sure I'll keep remembering songs over the next couple of days), but here are the first couple of songs that come to mind.

"The Ballad Of Elizabeth Dark" by Michael Smith. A memory of a long-lost romance (and a long-lost era).

Two songs by Ferron, who writes well about heartbreak:

"Ain't Life A Brook" one of a small and select group of my very favorite songs. I can't listen to it without marveling at just how good it is.

"Snowing In Brooklyn" This one isn't from the perspective of the person who is heartbroken; but a friend who is saying, "You left town, and ended up having a painful breakup. I know your life and emotions aren't settled yet, but consider moving back. You have friends here, and we miss you."

And then three songs about the complications of reconciliations with old (or on-and-off again) flames.

A lovely cover of "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes"

"Annie's Going to Sing Her Song" -- so tender, and lovely

"Split The Ticket" by C.J. MacDuffe. If I recall the back-story correctly this was written about someone who had been both a romantic and musical partner; a relationship which became quite difficult but eventually ended up with them as friends who could still enjoy playing music together.

NickS said...

"Soho Square" by Kirsty MacColl? I don't know if you'd say it's a song about heartbreak rather than living with heartbreak but it seems like it could fit.

[As I said, I'm sure I'll think of more songs.]

I should also mention A Little More Blue by Caetano Veloso (a song I've been meaning to write up for a while). In that case the heartbreak in question is having been exiled from Brazil. The song was written and recorded in London and is about a certain emotion of homesickness, "But today, but today, but today, I don't know why / I feel a little more blue than then..." (Footnote: I just looked it up on youtube, and I'm impressed with the video that somebody put together -- the images are very well chosen.]

Squeezing Out Columbus said...

There is a song by Canadian band 'Stars' called "Your ex Lover is Dead" Its the inner dialogue of 2 ex lovers as they independently reminisce about their relationship while sharing a cab. It kills me every time!

wwolfe said...

The only song I know by Chris Stamey is "In Spanish Harlem," but it's a beauty. A lovely tribute to the pop music that came out of that area of manhattan in the 1960s, it has evocative lyrics and a very pretty melody. It also scores points for name-checking Hal Blaine - who, admittedly, was an almost exclusively West Coast guy, but it's still a tribute appreciated by a huge Hal fan like me.

Holly A Hughes said...

Knew I could count on you guys to throw some more beauty tracks into the ring! Still haven't quite nailed the same point of view, though the Stars' track comes closest. This is something that Nick Lowe has made me aware of -- how rare it is for a songwriter to claim a tiny new bit of the geography of heartbreak. Nick does it all the time, of course.

NickS said...

. . . though the Stars' track comes closest.

Hmmph. (though it's just sour grapes on my part, since it did come closest to matching the scenario, and Squeezing Out Columbus didn't take eight tries to get there).

That said, I do recommend spending some time with both of the Ferron songs. I'm unapologetically partisan about, "ain't life a brook" but I think the way it gets from the first verse, "I know pretty soon you're going to leave our home / And of course I mind." To the final chorus, "I sold the furniture, I put away the photographs / Went out to dinner one more time / Skipped the bottle of wine / Had a couple of laughs /
And wasn't it fine.... " while giving emotional weight to all of the different moods in-between is remarkable.

"Snowing in Brooklyn" is farther from the specific mood you were asking about, but I thought of it because of the line, "If you're thinking of coming back /
then come back you will. / If you're afraid of them talking, friend / They're all talking still"

I think the song is really smart about the specific mood of somebody ending up isolated after a breakup for various reasons but partially just out of embarrassment. It is, I think, an example of claiming some, "tiny new bit of the geography of heartbreak."

And, of course, the song that's farthest afield, "A Little More Blue" is the other one which most distinctly captures a distinct bit of emotional geography. . . .

Gary said...

Another one that fits the bill is Christine Lavin's "The Kind of Love You Never Recover From." In addition to the original recording, there's a live version that she introduces by telling you what to say if you ever hear this song while you're with your current lover.

Alex said...

I've got two choices for this... and they're both different approaches to the same thing: "14 Shades of Green" by Chris Stamey from his Travels in the South album (which also has a bizarre multi-layered Kierkegaard pun in its song titles) and Glenn Tilbrook's "This is Where You Ain't" from The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook.

Both songs are about places that seem haunted by events in the past and how being in those places again without someone you love can be such a bittersweet experience.

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, this will be fun, tracking down all these songs. Thanks so much, everyone.

BTW I now realize why Christ Stamey fits into my musical tastes so perfectly -- he's a longtime Nick Lowe acolyte: