Friday, February 21, 2014


Two Annies

Another two-fer, which coincidentally (or maybe not) also features Ben Folds.

"Annie Get Your Gun" / Squeeze

"Annie Get Your Gun" -- you mean, like the Ethel Merman musical?  Yes, just like, and Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford says he'd written earlier songs about Annie Oakley as well. But by the time it passed through his hands, this October 1982 single isn't a straight character sketch, more like a jumble of images hung on a great Glenn Tillbrook tune. Recorded just as Squeeze was breaking up (for the first time), "Annie" never made it onto a regular album, nor did they tour to promote it (shades of the Zombies and "Time of the Season."). If they had, maybe we American music fans in Annie's home country would have made it a hit.

With spangly 80s guitar riffs, long melodic arcs, and a chugging beat that's half-ska, half-power pop, this track is full of upbeat energy right from the downbeat. The first verse throws us into the story halfway through: "She goes for her medical / She's passed, it's a miracle / She's up over the moon / She whistles nonsense tunes / She wants drinks for everyone." Anybody else think of Sarah Holcomb in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack, dancing in the moonlight when she discovers she's not pregnant?

"She's found a chord that she can strum," he adds, before launching into this finger-snapping question-and-answer chorus:  "What's that she's playin'? /(Annie get your gun) / What's that she's takin'? / (The song has to be sung) / 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.)." With its near rhymes and mixed metaphors, it has the loose dynamic of improv. I don't see a real gun, but "gun" as slang for "guitar," yes indeedy -- "she's gone electric" (like Dylan at Newport), she's commanded to "Strum that thing and shout" and when she shoots, it's the singer she's shooting.

This Annie is an 80s girl, confident and effervescent, looking for freedom and a good time. In verse two, however, we meet her counterpart and polar opposite: "He's not into miracles / Sees life all too cynical / The cat has got his tongue."  So what does Annie do to stir him up? "Now she bangs on his drum" (translate that metaphor however you please), and it seems to do the trick. Oh, she's found a chord that she can strum all right.

"Annie Waits" / Ben Folds

In a lot of ways, I see Ben Folds as the heir to Randy Newman: a storyteller-social commentator who somehow combines snarky humor with a romantic streak a mile wide. Every song is a character, every song tells a story. And being pianists rather than guitarists (and incredibly gifted pianists to boot), unfettered by chord changes, they can both write gorgeous heart-rending melodies when the occasion requires. Exhibit A, from 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs: As a portrait of the modern lonely single woman, "Annie Waits" nails it.

Striking a strict piano chord tempo, Ben trains the camera's eye on his heroine, "And so / Annie waits, Annie waits, Annie waits / For a call / From a friend." (Cut to a quick close-up shot of the telephone on a nearby table.) That repetition of "Annie waits" amidst the other short lines hammers home the excruciating boredom of waiting. And it's not an unfamiliar situation to her:  "The same / It's the same / Why's it always the same?" We begin to get the idea that this isn't just a friend, and he's let her down before. 
Verse two shows us the merciless clock, and this concise couplet,  "She's growing old / It's getting late" -- her biological clock is ticking too. Maybe that's why she's put up with such a cad. Her anxious mind runs through the possible scenarios: "And so he forgot, he forgot, maybe not / Maybe he's been seriously hurt / And that'd be worse." A little mordant humor there -- she has to remind herself that a car crash would be worse than her being stood up.   

Melodic phrases lengthen, swinging into panoramic action, for the bridge, as we join Annie at the window: "Headlights crest the hill / Shadows pass her by and out of sight . . . "  Sigh; it isn't his car, and Annie suffers a brief and terrifying glimpse of her future as a single old lady: "Friday bingo, pigeons in the park." So she stays at the window, waiting "for the last time." But doesn't she always say that?

And then the song hushes down for Annie to speak -- "You see this is why I'd rather be / Alone." Ah, the lies we tell ourselves. Because despite the agony he puts her through, she still doesn't really prefer to be alone.

But this wouldn't be a Ben Folds song if the plot didn't thicken towards the end. The second time through, the bridge's lyrics change: "Headlights crest the hill / Who will be the one for evermore? / Annie, I could be / If we're both still lonely when we're old." I picture her so busy staring out that window, she doesn't even hear him -- wake up, Annie!!

"Annie waits for the last time," he repeats ruefully in the final chorus, "Just the same as the last time." Chords crash, backing vocals overlap -- it's a tumult of emotion. "Annie waits," he concludes, and then it all abruptly stops as he sighs: "But not for me." All we're left with is a few more bars of relentless drumbeat, overlaid with lonely synthesizer twiddles . . . and then SCENE and out.

40 DOWN, 12 TO GO

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