Thursday, February 20, 2014


Two Janes

If you've tuned in looking for "Janie's Got A Gun" by Aerosmith . . . .really?  On what planet?

 "Jane" / Golden Smog

Technically this is a Golden Smog track, from that alt-country supergroup that has at various times included everyone from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy to the Replacements' Chris Mars to Big Star dummer Jody Stephens. But I prefer to think of it as a lost Jayhawks song. Though it appears on the 1998 Smog album Weird Tales, it was written by Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, with a Louris lead vocal. And like the best of the Jayhawks' stuff, it's a well-crafted short story with a yearning heart.

In a way, Jane is Eleanor Rigby with a twist -- she escapes from the mouldering mansion. "She came from a wealthy family," he sets the scene, and then draws an almost cinematic picture of her trapped in their house, with "walls inside the walls" and a widow's walk where she paces restlessly. "She watched from every window / Darkened every door / Saw her reflection / In every wave that hit the shore" -- it's like a montage from Rebecca, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, or maybe Dark Shadows. A mellotron sighing underneath the folky acoustic guitar jingle adds just the right melancholy touch.

In verse two we learn that she has "wandered off into the night / One eye closed, the other blind / Reading the silver side of signs." That last image is striking; I picture her walking in the wrong lane, against the traffic. Up to now, I've imagined her as a rebellious young daughter -- but then the line "everything you had, you lost before" turns things around, as I realize that Jane is haunted by her past, not longing for a future.

Shifting into a higher key, that plangent chorus is nothing but unanswered questions: "Jane, why don't you give a damn? / Jane, why don't you stay?" I wonder indeed, and can't help thinking about Elvis Costello's "Veronica." Could Jane be wandering off because she's got dementia?

In verse three, she seems to be back home: "And when her scattered thoughts had died / The sand upon her feet had dried / Among chandeliers and sweet perfume." So much for running away. I should be glad to know she's safe and sound -- then why does this ending feel so sad?

"Jane" / Ben Folds Five

Only a year later, this "Jane" is much more of an indie heroine. It's from the Ben Folds Five's ironically titled 1999 album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. (Inside joke: That was the name on drummer Darren Jessee's fake ID in high school -- the guys didn't know there was a real Reinhold Messner, a world-famous Italian mountain climber, until the album was nearly finished. Reportedly instead of suing he just sent them a note saying he enjoyed their record.)

Not your typical love song, I guess; you could call it an Advice Song. But unlike 1960s girl-group advice songs, this one is the opposite of finger-wagging sass.

It starts with a lonesome whistling wind (Reinhold Messner standing atop a peak?) before abruptly plunging us into a lounge of cool piano trio jazz. The textures and syncopation remind me of Steely Dan, but this is something else entirely, with a rueful tempo and tender vocals. The chords shift uncertainly, and the lines are short, as if he's hesitating, so anxious to be tactful. "Jane, be Jane," he counsels her (I like the tautology of that line, more personal than a boring old "be yourself " mantra). "You're better that way," he adds, "Not when you're trying / Imitating something / You think you saw." The lines don't even rhyme; he's groping for the right words.

It's no time for an "I am woman hear me roar" anthem -- Jane (as in plain Jane) is so anxious and insecure, she clearly needs a nudge. What if the boys won't like me? you can almost hear her wail. But verse two has an answer for her: "Jane, be Jane / And if sometimes that might / Drive them away / Let them stay there / You don't need them anyway." You're too good for those guys, Jane.

The key shifts higher and the volume swells in the bridge; brushed cymbals and a riot of piano glissandos add starry hope, as he dives deeper into her insecurities. "You're worried there might not be anything at all inside / If that's your worry / I should tell you that's not right." I love how his voice lifts, with such a touch of exasperation, on "tell you that's not right." Fact is, we're all vulnerable to that worry in the dark nights of our soul.

In verse three, he shifts from chiding to cheerleading: "It's your life / And you can decorate it / As you like." I love this next line: "Beneath the pain and armor / In your eyes  / The truth still shines." Will the real Jane please stand up? 

Okay, so I've said it's not a love song -- but who is this singing? A brother? A shrink? An old boyfriend? A friend with a secret crush on her? Whoever he is, he clearly loves Jane and sees how special she is. Who knows what might happen if she'd take his advice . . .

38 DOWN, 14 TO GO


NickS said...

I picked up Tomorrow The Green Grass a couple years ago, inspired partially by your mention of them in a Victoria Williams song that you posted. They're great, and I had it in heavy rotation for a while.

That does sound like the Jayhawks. It is funny, though, it also reminds me of the fact that I never fall in love with their lyrics. I think they're good songwriters, but I've felt their use of language is particular inspired. They do write about interesting stories and gosh does their voices and style of harmony sound good. It's easy to listen to them sing.

I have to admit, I'm still a little bit on the fence with Ben Folds. I appreciate your championing him, because he does write good songs. "Jane" is clever, well composed, and thoughtful. I can't say why I resist.

Perhaps it is similar to whatever has soured me (slightly) on Elvis Costello (I was happily listening to him yesterday). A certain lack of generosity, perhaps. I don't know if I can describe it any more clearly than that.

One other thought, you mention the "Jane be Jane" phrasing, and I wonder if that comes from sports. I know that the phrase "that just [so-and-so] being [so-and-so]" is used about athletes, and I know that Ben Folds is a sports fan.

Two other "Jane" songs come to mind, neither particularly important. "Jane" by the Barenaked Ladies and "Janie Jones" by the Clash which my brother was just talking to me about. He said that it's one of those songs that I've heard dozens of times, but may not have paid attention to they lyrics (which was true).

You might say it is the ultimate two minute rock song -- there's nothing more than the basic framework, but that structure has all the rock and roll elements, girls, cars, music, and rebellion. A fun little song, really.

NickS said...

Finally, one other thought that I'll tack on here.

40 DOWN, 12 TO GO

Congratulations! Almost 80% done!

An observation, and I'll see if I can say this without being obnoxious. Of the 40 songs you've written about so far, only one of them is sung by a woman (Jill Sobule) and one by a person of color (Brian Diaz from Edna's Goldfish). That isn't a criticism, just a comment. I do realize that's the nature of the project that you're doing -- there are more men than women writing songs about women, and it does seem like you're using this as a chance to explore certain veins of pop music which primarily come out of British pop music from the 60s and 70s and that also colors the project.

I will say this, from my own experience, to explain why I bring it up. When I was blogging (which was never consistently), the question, "should I be writing about somebody else" never felt like a useful one. As I'm sure you know, the effort isn't in finding songs that at are worth writing about, there's lots of them, it's actually writing something. So second guessing just gets in the way of writing.

But, having not been writing much (or anything) for the last couple of years, the primary way in which I engage creatively / critically with music is doing my end of year CD compilations. And doing that I have found it useful to just stop and ask myself, "what does this group that I'm putting together look like?" In that case where the creative engagement is asking, "how do these songs relate to each other, and do they change or reveal different things when they're taken out of their original context and placed next to each other?" It improves the process to think about as many characteristics of the music as possible. Being conscious of gender in particular (my music collection is fairly white), feels easy to do and not distracting.

So, the point of that is that I wanted to mention it but you should feel free to ignore the comment if it isn't useful. Hopefully it isn't too pushy for me to say that.

Holly A Hughes said...

To be honest, I just went through my existing iTunes and found songs I already know and love that had girls' names in the title. Luck of the draw, although I suppose it is true that women are less likely to sing about other women. You'll notice that there are very few country artists either, although my iTunes are full of country stuff. It just worked out this way.

Writing 52 blog posts in a steady stream was going to be hard enough; the last thing I needed was to research more songs so that I could fairly represent all genres and all types of artists.

So yes, second guessing does get in the way of writing. If I were being paid to do this, I might feel differently, but as it is, I just write about what speaks to me.

NickS said...

Oh, absolutely.

I thought twice about saying anything (because I knew it was slightly obnoxious). But part of why I decided to do was that I felt like I'm on record as a supporter.

I wasn't just dropping in to complain, I hoped it would be in the context of my praise the entire series (and the ambitious schedule).

And I do think one advantage of your approach is that it does end up including a variety of minor songs (relatively speaking) that aren't there to make any point, but just because you like them, and those often turn out to be nice surprises.

I can say I've listened to every song you've posted so far, and it's been fun.