Monday, December 30, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Billy Bragg -- Tooth & Nail

"Chasing Rainbows"

Here are some things I know about Billy Bragg:
  • His first band, Riff Raff, skidded into the early British punk scene inspired by the Clash.
  • He's such a folkie that Woody Guthrie's daughter invited him to join Wilco on the Guthrie homage album Mermaid Avenue.
  • His politics are to the left of mine -- way to the left -- and he often puts that to music.
  • His broad Essex accent reminds me of Ian Dury. (I love being reminded of Ian Dury.)
  • His 1996 album William Bloke is one of my favorite album titles of all time.
  • His song "Northern Industrial Town" is haunting political commentary. (Listen to it, Nick.)
  • His song "Must I Paint You a Picture?" is one of the tenderest love songs ever written.
  • He cusses in songs almost as much as Ben Folds does.
In other words, you don't know exactly what you're getting with a new Billy Bragg album -- but you do know that it'll be interesting. As I've said before, here and here...

So I ordered up Tooth & Nail without even listening to any of the tracks -- and man, am I pleased.

We find Billy in full lonesome Americana mode here, dubbing himself  "The Sherpa of Heartbreak" (okay, a little irony there), and throwing in slide guitar, mandolins, Dobro (thank the Lord for Greg Leisz), honkytonk piano, even some Ramblin' Jack-style whistling. He was serious enough to hire the estimable producer Joe Henry to get the roots sound right, and to co-write a couple songs. Oh, and throw in a Woody Guthrie cover ("I Ain't Got No Home) while they were at it. Yes, there's a package.

Did I say "Americana"?  How about full-on country?

Like a lot of classic country songs, this song is built around upending a cliché: "If you go chasing rainbows," he warns his woman, "You're bound to end up getting wet." Chasing a rainbow is an exercise in futility; she ought to know better. But what are those rainbows she's chasing?  
"The wheels have come off again," he says with a rumpled shrug, "And the fault is all mine." At least he's honest enough to admit it. Honest...and maybe a little obtuse. "And there was I thinking / We were doing just fine."  But he's committed to the relationship, and begging for a second chance: "Please don't let my complacent mind / Belie my loving heart."  "Complacent" isn't a word you'll often hear in country music; there's the wordsmith Brit glinting through. But in such a matter, these finely graded shades of emotion are necessary. Surely complacency is a minor sin, for which he should be forgiven.
In verse 2, he shifts the ground, but only ever so slightly. "You've shot me down again / From out of the blue" (tiny jab there -- will she notice?)  "Guess there was something / that I was supposed to do." This reminds me of Nick Lowe's "Sensitive Man," the guy pleading ignorance as a way of subtly shifting blame, and Billy spells it out even further: "Well there's just no way that every day / I'll reach your high bench mark." Is that "high benchmark," or the mark of a "high bench," as in a courtroom? Either way, he's undermining her standards.   
It's surprising that  more songs haven't been written about this particular battleground in the eternal war of the sexes. All too often we ladies do expect you guys to be mind-readers, effortlessly intuiting our needs, and some of you -- notice I didn't say "all of you," though I'm tempted to -- are simply retarded in that respect. Thanks for reminding us, Billy.
Because love isn't that easy. "I know you think if I just tried / We would never fight at all," he tells us in the bridge, sketching the perfect storybook version of love that we girls long for.  (Are we wrong?) Billy's more of a realist: "But I know there will still be days / Into which some rain must fall." And after getting wet in the rain, what do you get? Rainbows, as that pay-off refrain reminds us.
Without that easygoing country lope, the plangent Dobro, Billy wouldn't sound quite as earnestly contrite -- the masculine pushback of this song would have more of a bite. But durn it all, he does feel sorry, and woeful about the way she's freezing him out.  The complacent mind may have written the song, but it's the loving heart singing it -- and it's a pretty winning apology. I'd take him back -- what about you, girls? 


Alex said...

It would be impossible not to love Billy Bragg if only for the song "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" (especially "In a perfect world, we'd all sing in tune/But this is reality, so give me some room").

Or for naming an album Talking With the Taxman About Poetry.

Or so much more....

Holly A Hughes said...

Exactly. You'd enjoy his new song "Handyman Blues" in which he explains to his wife why he's useless at fixing stuff around the house...

NickS said...

I'll listen to the song later, but I just wanted to compliment on on this sentence.

"Without that easygoing country lope, the plangent Dobro, Billy wouldn't sound quite as earnestly contrite -- the masculine pushback of this song would have more of a bite."

A lovely bit of writing, I know exactly what you're saying there, even without having heard the song. It accomplishes on of the most difficult things to do when writing about music -- clearly communicate something about the subjective experience of listening to a song, without resorting to music writing cliches.

Holly A Hughes said...

Aw, thanks, Nick!

NickS said...

I've listened to the song a couple of times now and I love the sound -- if that's representative of the album, I think I would enjoy it. But, of course, I'm going to quibble a little bit.

I should note that I often have a mixed reaction to Billy Bragg. He's the sort of musician that I should appreciate. I like politically minded singer-songwriters. I think William Bloke and Talking With the Taxman About Poetry are fantastic album titles. He's recorded a handful of songs that I unequivocally think are great and yet . . .

In this case I like the song, but it hits my head, rather than my heart. It feels clever. I appreciate the choices he's made, I find myself wondering who his influences are, etc.

If I do react emotionally, I have to say I'm not convinced. To take one line that you picked out, "Please don't let my complacent mind / Belie my loving heart."

It's a lovely line, the sound of his voice on the phase "loving heart" is great. But I wonder if that's the sort of line for which the advice, "kill your darlings" is invented.

First of all it's a little too clever to juxtapose "head" (mind) and "heart" in a 10 word sentence. It feels a little bit like a forced rhyme

Secondly, the more I think about it, the more I think, "complacent" is a pretty damning word to use. He's not saying that he forgot, or that something else distracted him, he's essentially saying that he just couldn't be bothered. It makes it sound like the rainbows that he accuses her of chasing isn't something impossible, like never fighting at all, but just a relationship with somebody who demonstrably cares.

Now both of those complaints are overstated. It just bugs me a little bit.

It also gives me a chance to climb on my soapbox and say again some of the very best country songwriting demonstrates the emotional power of simple language. Plenty of country songs are very funny or have clever extended metaphors but there are also very bare heartbreak songs. Consider the lyrics for "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight."

There isn't a single metaphor or abstract phrase in the song. Every line is a description of something that happened or how he feels. Compare that with "Chasing Rainbows" starting with the first verse, Bragg first.

"The wheels have come off again
And the fault is all mine
And there was I thinking
We were doing just fine."

Pretty straightforward. Here's Chris Wall:

"I could live my whole life
Without a phone call
The likes of which I got today.
It was only my wife
Said hello then goodbye
And told me she's goin' away."

Now the second verses,

"You've shot me down again
From out of the blue.
As there was something
That I was supposed to do.
Well there's just no way that every day
I'll reach your high benchmark."


"There's no explanation
Not even a reason
No talk of the good times we had.
Was it me, was it her?
I don't know for sure
That's why I'm feeling so bad."


NickS said...

Wow, that got so long that blogger cut me off. Maybe that's a sign . . .

Apologies if the quoted passages were excessive, but I thought it was worth it. Here's the rest of what I wrote.

I'm stacking the deck here, because "I Feel Like Hank Williams" is a classic, and I'm not saying that's what Bragg should have written.

I am saying, when it comes down to your final assessment, ". . . and it's a pretty winning apology. I'd take him back." Part of my hesitation is that he doesn't seem willing to address what's actually happening -- he's hiding behind his language, "You've shot me down again / From out of the blue."

As you point out, that's not an apology, that's either an accusation or a deflection.

Now, as I say that, I've been listening to a fair amount of country over the past three years, but I haven't been listening to mainstream county music. It's possible that the argument that I'm making about country songwriting is actually specific to a very small niche. Also, I wouldn't spend that much time on it, if I didn't think it was a decent song. For some reason Billy Bragg evokes the reaction, "it could be better" rather than the, "awfully good" that his songs deserve.

On that note, you write, "His song 'Northern Industrial Town' is haunting political commentary. (Listen to it, Nick.)"

I know that on this blog there's only one Nick who is identified by just his first name, and it isn't me. But I'm happy to listen to it. Not surprisingly . . . I like it, I agree that it is a haunting political song, but I will quibble.

Everything was working for me until I got to the verse starting with "And there's only two teams in this town"

I heard the first line, and I thought it was brilliant. Then the second line seemed good but maybe unnecessary, and the third line just felt redundant.

I know that Billy Bragg is a good enough songwriter that he's doing it on purpose. I assume the verse is intended to evoke the sheer tedium and arbitrariness of endless arguments between the followers of the two teams. But I still feel like there could have been a more interesting verse.

Holly A Hughes said...

Interesting. I have to say, I completely disagree. What I like about this song -- and about a lot of Billy Bragg's stuff -- is that he doesn't try to tame the messiness that comes with a real, mature relationship. (My old Music For Grown-Ups criterion.) He's the one who says he's complacent, not her -- he knows it, and he knows it's not one of his better qualities. He's holding back, fudging his arguments, admitting a little guilt, because he doesn't want to win if it means destroying the relationship. Sometimes you have to let the other person win if you want to stay together. And I think the emotional reality of that is incredibly persuasive. I can tell you that a partner who always wants to dominate every argument is not doing his own case any good at all.

Often in poetry, the lapse in meter or the weak, forced rhyme is precisely the point where emotion breaks through. Like a catch in a singer's voice.

I don't think the "two teams in this town" line weakens "Northern Industrial Town" either. The harsh way he hits the word "only" speaks volumes about intolerance. He's not talking about sports teams, as is pretty clear by that point (and certainly on repeat listens). He also punches the "must" on "you must follow one or the other" to underscore how everyone in Belfast is forced to pick sides -- no neutrals allowed. He doesn't let it go with just the line about the teams because extending that metaphor is crucial to his whole argument. Most of the song is about how normal in most respect life in Belfast is, but this verse is a little more freighted -- it's NOT as simply as Manchester supports picking either Man U or City.

But you are right about one thing -- you were the Nick I was addressing. I have (sigh) given up hope that Nick Lowe will ever read this blog...

NickS said...

You make a convincing argument about both songs, particularly about the second verse in "Northern Industrial Town," which I think I was selling short.

As for "Chasing Rainbows" I think you're correct about the way that the song works on it's own terms (and I think the comparison that you made in the post to Nick Lowe is a good one). For the moment, I'm going to stick to my guns that it could be a more interesting song than it is, and that's really what I trying to argue, not that it was broken as a song.

I'm just not convinced (yet) that, "Often in poetry, the lapse in meter or the weak, forced rhyme is precisely the point where emotion breaks through" applies in this case. To me it feels more like a blend of country and pop songwriting idioms.

NickS said...

One more thought, a possible point of comparison for "Chasing Rainbows" would be Lyle Lovett's, "She's No Lady."

I don't remember if I liked that song the first time I heard it, probably not. But at some point it grew on me, and I came to find the emotional content very affecting -- I think it's wonderful love song that makes clear the he and the wife of the song fight but also understand each other and know how to communicate.

So I'd argue for the moment that Lyle Lovett is a better country songwriter than Billy Bragg, but I could feeling like the emotional content of "Chasing Rainbows" is just as effective.

NickS said...

"... he doesn't try to tame the messiness that comes with a real, mature relationship. (My old Music For Grown-Ups criterion.) He's the one who says he's complacent, not her -- he knows it, and he knows it's not one of his better qualities. He's holding back, fudging his arguments, admitting a little guilt, because he doesn't want to win if it means destroying the relationship. Sometimes you have to let the other person win if you want to stay together. And I think the emotional reality of that is incredibly persuasive.

I had a fun time last night over-thinking this. I was starting to think about what scenario lead to the fight and apology, and I'll write up some examples in a little bit. But, first, as I started I was listening to the song again and I realized that I was going off on a tangent and that before I do that, I should say I do hear what you mean about the sincere apology in his voice.

It does have a nice balance between pain and making a real attempt. But let me ask you a couple questions about what context you imagine.

1) Do you think he's talking to her, or do you think he's just wandered off to the back porch and is feeling morose by himself? The chorus is addressed to her, but the sound is so solitary. I sort of think he's just having this conversation in his own head. But I don't know.

2) In the first line he says, "The wheels have come off again." How long do you think they've been having problems for, and how rough a patch is this? Are they both familiar with this feeling of sadness and frustration, or is this moment a new low, in which they're both a little bit surprised at how bad things have gotten?

3) Do you think they have children? She said that she thinks they would be better off apart. That's much more serious if they have children. Has she said that before, or is this the first time?

NickS said...

Okay, here's me over-thinking it.

First, to respond to this again:

"He's holding back, fudging his arguments, admitting a little guilt, because he doesn't want to win if it means destroying the relationship. Sometimes you have to let the other person win if you want to stay together."

I wasn't thinking that he should argue more directly, rather I think the next step in an apology is being able acknowledge what you've done wrong and, hopefully, commit to doing something differently next time. I know the character in the song feels sorry, but I don't know, yet, that he's really taking responsibility for his actions (beyond saying that it's his fault in sweeping terms).

But that's why I mentioned the importance of context. We know that she's said that maybe this relationship is over and he takes that seriously. How did they get to that point?

1) It's just been a rough time for both of them: Let's imagine that they're in a situation that would tax anyone's patience -- maybe they've been renovating the kitchen, and it's dragged on. They're almost done, and then he accidentally breaks a couple of the new cabinet doors and she just loses it. She says he's been unhelpful for the entire project and she's fed up.

This is scenario in which fit your quoted description most accurately. He isn't yelling back about how she wanted to custom order a sink and that added two weeks. He's stopping, expressing how badly he feels, and just sticking to the fact that he loves her and wants it to work. A completely sympathetic reaction.

2) He messed up in some significant way: Maybe he not only forgot their anniversary he also ended up playing poker with his friends that night and didn't get back until two in the morning.

In this case his reaction is still sympathetic for the same reasons it was in scenario (1), but I might argue that he should do more to acknowledge that the significance, rather than grouping it under general complacency.

But this doesn't really fit the lyrics, because it would be hard to argue that fight would be "out of the blue." So that brings us to

2a) Same as above but three days later: She's still upset, she's been hassling him for the last three days, and he does something relatively minor and she lays into him about how undependable he is.

In this case the emotion in the song makes sense; he knows she's really annoyed about the anniversary, but he doesn't want to re-fight that again. So instead he makes a blanket apology about how he knows he's messed up more than once, but that he's really trying.

The one thing that I don't see is why she'd be threatening to walk out on him at that point, three days later. That suggests there are bigger underlying problems.

Remember, also, not only does she say they might be better apart, she's dreaming of finding new and getting a little bit excited about that possibility.


NickS said...

So what about a couple of scenarios in which the relationship is further along the path towards splitting up.

3) She's starting to pull away: Imagine that she's standing at the door with a suitcase saying that she's going to go stay with her sister for a week and he should think about what he's prepared to change before she gets back.

In that case it feels like he's heartbroken, but not quite ready to change. The most devastating version of this story is one in which she says that she thought, after the last big fight, that they were both going to work as hard they could to make things better, "and there [he] was thinking, [they] were doing just fine." That's a real possibility, right? He's been indulging in some wishful thinking and ignoring problems.

or, what about

4) He's in the wrong: She just found out that he had an affair.

I don't think that's what happened, but in that case it would be clearly disingenuous for him to describe that as the a "complacent mind" on his part.

There's also this possibility

5) They haven't been together that long: Maybe they're 8-10 months into the relationship, long enough to know each other, but still figuring out their boundaries.

He's more sympathetic in that case as well -- he knows she's unhappy, and he's engaging her, but not pushing too hard. He's waiting to see if she'll move back towards him.

I think that (1), (4), or (5) don't really fit the mood I get from the song. So I would imagine something between (2) and (3) and so the question of how good an apology he's offering depends on which you lean towards.

Holly A Hughes said...

So now you've written half a novel about this song. Clearly you're intrigued by, and curious about, these people. Any song that can tempt a listener that far down the road is doing its job, I'd say.

I think it's a lovely song. Is it a perfect song? Maybe not. They can't all be. And some songs will invariably speak to one listener more than another. I'm sure that this one hit a chord with me because of relationship woes I've had to slog through myself. (And for the record, I do think he's talking to her, but also to himself -- that is entirely possible, when a conversation goes off track -- and I think they have been together for a long time and still have rough patches.) I think this isn't the first or the last fight they will ever have. This isn't a movie, with fine-tuned dialogue and a definitive happy or sad ending. It's just life. That's what I like about this song.

So go rest your brain -- we'll never "solve" this song. I don't want to over-think it and spoil the spontaneous pleasure it gives me.

NickS said...

Oh, absolutely yes to both the fact that I wouldn't still be writing if the song wasn't somewhat stuck in my head at this point, and that I don't want to pretend that you can "solve" the song.

I almost mentioned earlier, part of what is interesting about trying to describe one's reaction to a song, you very quickly get to a point where the lyrics aren't sufficient, and that you are reacting to the performance (including the arrangement and the production). That is part of why I appreciate the sentence that I complimented you on earlier and, also, your closing comment, "The complacent mind may have written the song, but it's the loving heart singing it." Like any song, the lyrics are not sufficient unto themselves.

It makes me think that I'd be curious to hear a female singer covering this song (Norah Jones might be an interesting choice, she's doing more country-style material and she's so temperamentally cool, the song might come off as much more critical. It would certainly be a very different than Bragg's delivery).

Also, as I said, one of the things that I have specifically come to appreciate about country music is the emotional power of a phrase that feels completely stripped of artifice (however artfully written it may be).

It's funny, writing that now, makes me think a different example -- one of my favorite Billy Bragg songs, "From A Vauxhall Velox" which opens with the lines (presumably set in the titular automobile).

She said "Do these seats fold down"
I said "If you pull that handle"

and also includes one of the best and funniest similes that I've heard in a pop song

But some things have just got to be
So we passed very fast like ships in the night
Or cars in a contraflow system

In that case the mood is rueful humor, rather that heartbreak, but it's an excellent example of the utility of naturalistic or intentionally awkward phrasing. It definitely conveys a sense of the affair being described in the song.

Also, thanks again for the pointers to "Northern Industrial Town."