Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"There She Goes"

This is one of those sidetrack songs, the kind you hear without really hearing it -- in the background of a movie, in a commercial, on the muzak in a store. You hum along to it, because you do know it, at least kinda. The words aren't hard -- in this case, it's the same phrase over and over again, which means you also know the title.

But who sang that song? And when was it released, and what's it really about?

Well, it finally itched my brain enough for me to do some song sleuthing. And here's what I came up with.

First: There are three versions of this song, by three different artists. Listen to them and tell me which one you hear most often in your head.

First came The La's, an English band from Liverpool, in 1988:

Then this cover by the Boo Radleys, another English band, also from the Liverpool area, recorded for the 1993 film comedy So I Married an Axe Murderer:


Last but not least, this 1999 cover by the American Christian-pop band Sixpence the Richer:

Well, I'll say straight off that the version I hear in my head is Sixpence the Richer's take -- probably because it's been used in commercials -- with female lead singer Leigh Nash winsomely going on and on about this girl . . . which suddenly struck me as, WHA?  Why did I never notice before that that's a little weird? 

(Maybe because this song isn't really worth me thinking too hard about it...)

Lesbian anthem? Somehow I don't think so; that was never Sixpence the Richer's message, and anyway, it just doesn't feel that sexy, even when the male vocalists in The La's and the Boo Radleys sing it. Sure, she's "racing through my brain" and "pulsing through my veins," but that sounds more like a mental obsession than a physical attraction. And it very quickly devolves into dumb rhymes like "she calls my name / Pulls my train / No one else could heal my pain." By the last verse, when she's "Chasing down my lane," it's clear we've used up all the "ain" rhymes and we don't really care.

On the Interweb, folks keep bringing up an earlier Velvet Underground song called "There She Goes Again" which is pretty clearly about heroin. (Typical VU subject matter.) But even if the song's author, La's frontman Lee Mavers, was a VU fan (which I see no evidence of), I just don't buy this as a drug song. It's too upbeat, too crisp and light.  

So it's time for me to take off my Lyric Girl hat and try just listening to the effervescent pop hook that makes this song such an earworm.

It's a simple triad of related chords -- G D C -- but hear how those notes leapfrog upward, one word per note, in oddball intervals (a fourth, a chromatic, topping the octave). The first phrase sticks to a simple beat, but after that it skips off the grid with syncopation, as if bubbling over with joy that can no longer be contained. The transitions burrow around with downscale notes and darker chords and chromatics, but before long the main melodic phrase bursts out again, refusing to be tied down. There she goes, indeed.

Not the draggy sound of heroin or the anguish of unrequited love; this is just A FUN POP HOOK. And it makes me imagine a crush, a delirious crush on the girl in question, even when Leigh Nash is singing it. (Come on, ladies, who hasn't had a girl crush like that? I know I have, at various times, on Julie Christie or Diane Keaton or Zooey Deschanel -- just sayin'...)

Three bands who weren't really famous, all singing the same song -- and it became the best-known track of each of them. What are the odds? There's got to be something in a song that can make that kind of lightning strike thrice.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Losing You / Randy Newman

"Losing You" / Randy Newman

Flipping around the channels the other night, I chanced upon Austin City Limits. Now, I like this show in theory, but I hardly ever watch it. Still, when I saw Randy Newman's shaggy gray head bent over the keyboard, I stopped flipping.

I've been a Newman fan since 1974 (Northampton, Mass., double bill with Ry Cooder), though not the sort of fan that travels the country and hangs around by the backstage door. (Does Randy Newman even have that kind of fan?) I do love his satiric songs like "Political Science" or "So Long Dad" or "Short People".  (Not so sure that "I Love L.A." was meant as satire, but I love that too.) On vacation in Charleston this year, I kept catching myself singing "Sail Away" -- not just the wistful African slaves' refrain "we will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay," but ironical lines like "Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet." Embarrassed my family no end.

I also love his songs from the Toy Story movies, 1, 2 and 3 -- "When He Loved Me" gets me every time.  Because alongside the satirist Randy Newman there's the sentimentalist Randy Newman, the yang that keeps the yin in place.

Harps and Angels (2008) is a great album; if you don't know it, you should. Randy doesn't put them out so often anymore -- the one before that, Bad Love, was 1999 -- but when he does, they're pretty near perfect. You laugh, you cry. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" is like the companion piece to "Political Science"; "Feels Like Home" is about as sweet a middle-aged love song as you'll ever hear. But the real gem on this album is "Losing You," and watching Randy Newman sing that on ACL the other night, I have to say, I was moved to tears.

Okay, so the lush string intro sounds like movie theme music. Get over it. Randy Newman had three uncles who wrote music for the movies, including the great Alfred Newman (How to Marry a Millionaire, How the West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told); it comes in the DNA to love a good lush string intro. And that gorgeously poignant musical hook -- well, why not tee it up with a full orchestra?
But after that, it's mostly just Randy and the piano. And that's right too, because this is a song about a person struggling to come to grips with his emotions, and naked honesty is what makes it work.
Again, we're in middle-aged territory. (Music for Grown-Ups alert!) In verse one he ruminates philosophically about long-ago financial setbacks ("Was a fool with my money / And I lost every dime"); in verse two, it's clear how far behind him those worries are: "I've been cold / I've been hungry / But not for awhile / I guess most of my dreams have come true."
He's not a whiner, in other words. He's been through stuff; he's a survivor. But that's what gives extra punch to that stubborn refrain: "But I'll never get over losing you." It's clear that the person he loved was too unique to be replaced, and that  his love was too strong to simply fade away. Notice that he never describes the person one bit; all we know about him/her is how much he/she was loved. But that's all we need to know.
And there's a time factor, too, as he develops in the bridge: "When you're young / And there's time / To forget the past / You don't think that you will / But you do." Now, however? "But I know that I don't have time enough / And I'll never get over losing you." That just breaks my heart.
The lyrics are a little ambiguous; it's easy to hear this song as a lament for a old girlfriend. When I first heard it, I thought it was like his earlier "I Miss You," a regretful message to an ex-wife. But Randy himself has explained that "Losing You" was inspired by a story he heard from his brother, an oncologist, about a family losing their 20-something son to brain cancer -- that sense that they were too old, too far down life's highway to recover from such a major loss. Not enough time left.
Wow. I know how that feels.
So even if Randy did jigger the lyrics to make it more widely applicable -- cueing our knee-jerk assumptions that pop songs are about romantic relationships -- the melancholy that animates this song springs from a deeper well.
The yearning sweetness of the melody tells us that love is still there; it hasn't curdled to bitterness or ebbed into acceptance. Yet there's a telling numbness to that repeated phrase "I'll never get over losing you." Sure, I know the formula, it's a refrain; got it. But in this particular case, the dogged repetition of this inalienable fact is one of the greatest things about this song. He doesn't embroider it; he can't embroider it. It just is. It just sits there, a dull lump of pain in his heart that's not going anywhere.
But he'll be okay. He's not jumping off a building, not screaming into the wind. He's just hurting -- and that's life.
Randy Newman? A national treasure, I tell you. A national treasure.

Friday, July 04, 2014

An Independence Day Shuffle

Happy July 4th! 

For this shuffle, I made a special curated playlist of songs about freedom and America, for your listening pleasure.

Note that the links (click on song titles) now go to YouTube rather than Amazon. Three reasons: YouTube gives you the full track, not just a sample; none of you ever buy the Amazon tracks so I'm not getting any revenues anyway; and my Best Food Writing book is now being published by a Hachette subsidiary that potentially may get screwed by Amazon. So until YouTube turns out to be a tool of the corporate machine (any day now...)

Because this is what it means to live in America today -- figuring out whether Facebook, Amazon, Google, or Apple is The Man. (Disclaimer: It's definitely not Google because I love Google....)

1. "Time I Took A Holiday" / Nick Lowe
From Dig My Mood (1998)
Oh, yes, let's start things off slouchy and mellow. (Note: loads of chat before they get to the song, but ohmigod do we not love Daryl Hall too?) "It's time I took a holiday / Before I blow my top / I've got to kick my shoes off / Before I drop..." Nick's vocals make it clear he's not relaxed yet (dig the unresolved chords building up urgency), but he's gonna be very soon. "I gotta get some attention / In my baby's arms...." Volunteering for duty, Mr. Lowe!

2. "America" / Simon & Garfunkel
From Bookends (1968)
A seminal song from my angsty teen years -- as I explain here. And while we're on the subject -- is this the same Kathy's as in "Kathy's Song"? Was she pissed off when Carrie Fisher entered the picture?

3. "Fourth of July" / Dave Alvin
From King of California (1994)
America as most folks know it. "Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July," Dave implores her, adding (a telling detail), "Whatever happened, I apologize." Dammit, it's supposed to be a holiday -- why can't they get in a happy place?  I love how he sets this all-too-real scene: "On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone / Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below." Been there.

4. "The Only Living Boy In New York" / Simon & Garfunkel
From Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
On a day devoted to independence, here's a song about breaking free. "Tom, get your plane right on time.." What a lonely, existential song this is, and yet how full of hope. "I know that you've been eager to shine now." Bio notes: Tom was Art Garfunkel's name in the early S&G iteration Tom and Jerry, and while he was off in Mexico making a movie (Catch-22) Paul Simon was back in NYC, writing wistful songs about their impending break-up. Maybe it's those plush background ah's, all full of spacey cloud-surfing promise, but somehow I get the idea that Tom's gonna make it out okay. Even though quite possibly Jerry had all the talent....

5. "Summertime" / DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince
But hey, July 4th isn't just a holiday -- it's shorthand for THE summer holiday, height of the sizzle and shizzizzle, and let's sample this early rap classic, full of urban heat and real-time celebration. WAY before Will Smith jumped the shark.  Fire hydrants shall be opened -- let the tar roof barbecues begin.

6. "Political Science" / Randy Newman
From Sail Away (1972)
Lest you be feeling patriotic on this most American holiday, here's our national Snarkmaster, laying on us a political treatise with seven delicious layers of irony. Really, when Randy Newman gets in gear, he takes no prisoners. "They all hate us anyhow / Let's drop the big one now." This calls for a roundtable of pundits to discuss amongst themselves.

7. "Livin' in America" / Black 47
From Fire of Freedom (1993)
If America is truly a nation of immigrants -- a piety seldom remembered on July 4th -- then let's have a very ambiguous Irish take on what it feels like to live on the edge of American affluence. "In the cold daylight / I feel like shite" -- telling it like it is. Riding subways, minding other people's children, laboring like a navvy -- "Oh, mammy dear, we're all mad over here / Livin' in America."

8. "Disney's America" / Graham Parker
From 12 Haunted Episodes (1993)
It takes a transplanted Englishman like Graham Parker to see America clearly and whole. I can just imagine GP and his wife taking the kids to Williamsburg and having this brilliant vision of how the whole thing went down. Please, if you listen to nothing else, listen to every word of this brilliant song.

9. "Gotta Be Free" / The Kinks
From Lola V Powerman and the Moneygoround Part 1  (1970)
This Americana-tinged track (a hint of Muswell Hillbillies to come?) from Lola V Powerman, Ray Davies' lament about how the music industry had screwed his band. All quite true, of course, but as a listener this is my take-away: Freedom at any price. It was 1970, after all, and whether or not we were legit hippies, we all wanted to be free. And isn't that what Independence Day is all about?  

10. "Live Free or Die" / Hayes Carll
From Flowers and Liquor (2007)
While we're in a country frame of mind...a little sneaky satire from Hayes Carll, about a prison inmate's view on freedom. Mayhap you have never thought about why being in a New Hampshire prison is especially tough: "Live free or die / Oh Lord tell me why/ Can't they say "Seat belts fastened" or "Oklahoma is OK"? / "Vacationland" sounds mighty great / Wouldn't mind stamping out "The Garden State." Because we can't all be free, even on July 4th.