Thursday, October 06, 2016

O Is For...

26 artists A to Z, for better or worse. 

The Old 97's / "Question"

Alt-country bands are like a hall pass for me: I can love their twangy music without subscribing to the country-music establishment I've irrationally hated since I was a kid force-fed on Hee Haw and Midwestern Hayride.

And these guys from Texas? For sheer musical fun and lyrical invention, they're a slam dunk for me.

From their 2001 album Satellite Rides. 

This was the band's sixth album, and in many ways it was their breakthrough, leaning more toward the power-pop side of their sound (the side that frontman Rhett Miller tends to favor in his solo career). "Question" is track 7 -- which on an LP would be either the end of Side 1 or the opener of Side 2. (Not that that matters, although to some of us it matters.)

You've probably heard this song; it's been on soundtracks for everything from the movie Ed to the TV shows Scrubs and Scorpion. It's just a simple little acoustic number, one singer and a strummed guitar. You'd almost think it was a demo -- but anyone who re-recorded this with bells and whistles and studio effects would end up with so much less.

The story here is one of the oldest stories in the world. It's presented almost like a pantomime, a silent movie, or at any rate a dreamy film montage. The characters' body language tells us all we need to know. The girl wakes up, her boyfriend's looking jumpy (I imagine him pacing, maybe, perspiring, trembling). They walk to a park; close-up of the girl, crossing her arms and demurely looking down. That's verse 1. In verse 2 she looks astonished, bursts into tears -- but happy tears -- and then they stroll home hand in hand.

Now you tell me what just happened.

Yes, the question of "Question" is THE question, as in "popping the question,"  and if we don't get many more specifics about her or him, that just makes it all the more universal. I know the writing teachers all tell you that you need conflict for a story, but there's no conflict here; it's light and joyous and clear as a summer's day. It saunters up and down the scale, tempo skipping along, pivoting gently every so often on a relative minor chord, but mostly in sunny major key territory.

Notice that the words "love" and "marry" and "propose" and "wedding" never appear in this song. It's too intimate for that, too private -- just something between these two people that we're spying from afar. In the chorus, though, Rhett Miller steps back to impart some general wisdom:
Someday somebody's gonna ask you
A question that you should say yes to
Once in your life
Maybe tonight
I've got a question for you 
And yes, there's that hint that he's going to propose to his own true love tonight. (Maybe that was his whole reason for writing this song, or for singing it, at least.) But that'll happen off stage too -- as it should.

The good songwriters know when to leave well enough alone. And the Old 97s? They are good songwriters -- very good songwriters indeed.

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