Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"I Still Believe" / Frank Turner

Thanks to Margot for the recommend. Because that's how we do it, old school -- face to face, hand to hand --- I heard this guy and I think you'd like it -- and we value those hand-offs above all.

My first-time listen to Frank Turner's 2011 album England Keep My Bones, I knew this track was the one to blog about. Because really, isn't that what we're about in this neck of the woods? The transformative power of a rock and roll song?

Frank Turner is English -- check. A folk/punk singer/songwriter -- check. I know that sounds like another iteration of the divine Robyn  Hitchcock, but Turner is a lot more earnest and feisty. He may have gone to Eton with Prince William (congrats to the royal dad) but he's a lot  more like Billy Bragg, and Margot, I hope you're taking notes, because I'd really love to turn you on to Billy Bragg and there's only so many hours in a day.

England Keep My Bones is a deeply English album, with place names and turns of phrase that might baffle some American listeners. (But hey, I'm a Kinks fan -- the Englisher the better.) An essential part of that Englishness is the old-school folk sound on several tracks, which is apparently a departure for Turner, who started out in a post-hardcore band called Million Dead. So there was some strategic value in this lead-off single, "I Still Believe," which reassured Turner fans that he has not turned his back on rocking out. Quite the contrary. As he exuberantly declaims in the refrain, "Now who'd have thought that after all, that something as simple as rock and roll could save us all?"

What more do we need?

Screw the ironic po-mo -- Turner's not afraid to forge a bond with his listeners, not afraid to tell you straight out where he stands. He's practically grabbing you by the lapels, addressing bystanders from his soapbox: "Friends, Romans, and countrymen!" (I like a man who's not afraid of a Shakespearean reference.) He's the town crier, over and over again calling out "Hear ye, hear ye!" "Come ye, come ye!"

Yet it's hard to believe this guy comes from the loud, fast, bass-heavy world of hardcore; dig the playful skipping tempo, and the yearning quality of his chord changes. 

He name-checks  all the usual suspects -- Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny (Cash? Ray?), and "all the saints"  -- but he's no Don McLean; he insists that "anybody could take the stage."  (I particularly enjoy verse two's list of the various places a working musician fetches up -- "soulless corporate circus tops . . . the toilet circuit . . bars and bunker squats . . . ") It's the base elements -- "Guitars and drums and desperate poetry" -- that really matter.

And why does it matter?  Because rock and roll "has the power to raise a temple and tear it down." There's a 60s flashback for you, and it's invigorating to hear it.

I saw FT on one of the latenight talk shows -- oh please don't ask me which one -- and I loved his raw energy, his conviction. And yet he's dialing it back to another era, to the time when rock and roll was still controversial and fresh and new. What's not to love about that?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"The Winner Takes It All" / ABBA

What -- she's gone for six weeks and then she comes back to write about ABBA?

But you see, while I was gone I went to Sweden, and what was the first thing I heard as I entered baggage claim at the Stockholm airport?  Agnetha's and Frida's voices, blending in their inimitable way, belting out "Take a Chance on Me." Was that perfect or what?

After all, ABBA is Sweden's greatest gift to the world, right up there with Volvo, Ikea, and Pippi Longstocking. So why not pipe it into the concourse just so you know you're really in Sweden?  Okay, so it was being played for a specific purpose: to promote the new ABBA Museum that just opened on Djurgarden. But hey, it worked -- I dragged my family to see the exhibit as soon as possible.

The museum was slick and entertaining, just like ABBA, and I suspect that my kids didn't come away as converts to the ABBA sound. They grew up in the post-punk indie era; how could they possibly hear how fresh ABBA's sound was when they first hit the scene? But it struck me anew, and seeing it in Stockholm really brought home what an achievement it was for a foursome from Sweden to take the world by storm back in 1974, winning the Eurovision Song Contest with their breakout hit "Waterloo."

Don't you dig those costumes?  In 1974, Eurovision contestants were still appearing in dirndls and lederhosen; the sequins and fringes and tight satin pants blew all that away. One of the coolest things about the ABBA museum was the room full of their stage costumes.  And it wasn't just the girls, either; Benny and Bjorn styled around in jumpsuits and capes that would put Liberace to shame. Frida in particular was hugely interested in how they looked on stage. They didn't dance much, and they didn't have the kind of pyrotechnics that today's headliners are expected to have. But for 1974, they were cutting-edge.

It's not like I haven't written about ABBA before -- you may remember my fondness for "Dancing Queen" and "Knowing Me Knowing You." Both of those tracks came from the only ABBA album I actually owned, Arrival, which also included the somewhat darker "Money Money Money" -- a song that was as close to social commentary as these Swedes ever went. (It also featured Frida's throaty contralto instead of Agnetha on lead vocal, if you're keeping score.)  Considering that Frida later married a German prince and is now living with a British viscount, I'd say she knows something about the topic of marrying money. 

But over the years, the ABBA song I keep coming back to is "The Winner Takes It All."  A later track, it appeared on 1980's Super Trouper, which was released after half of the group -- Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog -- had filed for divorce. (Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson were still hanging in there, but they would divorce in 1981.) Bjorn was the band's lyricist, and though he denies that this song was written about their divorce, I'm not buying it. The pain of splitting from a life partner runs through every bar of this song. And you can't tell me that Agnetha's delivery doesn't reflect some genuine heartbreak.

Wistful resignation runs through this song -- "I don't want to talk / About the things we've gone through / Though it's hurting me / Now it's history." Later on, she sings fatalistically, "The gods may throw the dice / Their minds as cold as ice." The pain hasn't gone away yet, but they've both accepted the reality of the end.

Or have they?  Gone are the bright bouncy syncopation, the cheerful pop hooks; this song swells with movie-music arpeggios and yearning chord shifts. Looking back on the past, she feels blindsided: "I was in your arms / Thinking I belonged there / I figured it made sense / Building me a fence." And just for good measure -- a twist of the knife -- she carries this on in the next couplet, "Building me a home / Thinking I'd be strong there." I trusted you, buddy, and look where it's left me.

In the third verse, the Other Woman enters the picture. (Ah, betrayal and jealousy rear their ugly heads.) "But tell me does she kiss / The way I used to kiss you? / Does it feel the same / When she calls your name?"  I love how Agnetha softens her voice for this verse, drops into that intimate register to summon a memory of pillow talk. That's got to evoke a twinge of regret.

And in the last verse, she makes sure he knows how selfless she's being -- "I don't want to talk / If it makes you feel sad . . . I apologize / If it makes you feel bad." Wait -- he left you for another woman, and you're apologizing to him?  I've always been torn by this verse, wanting her to stand up for herself, and yet totally getting how wrecked she is -- "Seeing me so tense / No self-confidence." I love how she lags behind the beat, singing those lyrics almost woodenly, numbly.

The refrain reiterates that the man is the winner, walking away with everything, and the woman is the loser. (Bjorn and Agnetha insist that neither of them was the loser in their divorce; this is just a song, people.) Still, I have to wonder. If Bjorn was the winner, how did he write a song with such insight into Agnetha's pain?  I can only imagine how it felt to hear her sing it over and over again, at concert after concert. So who's the winner in the end?